A Vaguely Familiar Holiday

Hēi Māo woke slowly, stretching under the warm blankets and not even bothering to open his eyes. He was warm and comfortable, and though he knew it was well past his usual wake up time, there was no rush. The whole house was calm. His father’s house had been calm on Winter Solstice, too, though perhaps abandoned and bleak would have been better descriptors.

As he breathed in through his nose, the scents of cinnamon, nutmeg, and apple filled him. He groaned a little. Brigitte had said that making the wassail was one of her duties for the celebration of the holiday. As her familiar, he should be there with her, helping, learning the Defresne‑Li ways. While solstices and equinoxes were observed in the Parenteau household, it was always a quiet affair and not much of a celebration. At least not since his maman vanished. He was curious to see what was customary in normal families. He’d been in therapy a month now, but he already recognized that there had been nothing normal, and very little that was okay, about his upbringing in his father’s home.

Pushing away his blankets, he rolled to the side to get out of bed. Scampering on bare feet, he crossed the room and opened the trapdoor his witch must have closed so he could rest. She was so good to him! He’d spent the last month getting accustomed to a new schedule including school and homework. While he liked it very much overall, it had been an exhausting adjustment on top of so many other changes.

Quiet singing met his ears as he descended the stairs, and he peered over the railing to see Brigitte, Mama, and Papa working together in the kitchen. The song was unfamiliar, but something about it touched the very core of his being, and he froze. He felt suffused with the warmth of love and family. Though this was the shortest day, the song gave him hope that the coming light would bring even more good things.

Brigitte looked up and caught Hēi Māo’s eyes peering over the banister. Continuing to sing, she smiled at him, waving with a hand that held a green bit of plant. They had reached the chorus again, and she beamed at each of her parents while she continued her work. This was their traditional blessing of the ingredients for their feast.

By the time they reached the end of the song, Hēi Māo had crept down the stairs and into the kitchen, seating himself at the counter to watch. Though he was nearly seventeen, his face held the bright joy of a young child who has been able to stay awake through the longest night to watch the sunrise for the first time.

“Good morning Kitty,” she said, setting aside the thyme and reaching over to pat his head. “Did you sleep well.”

He closed his eyes and tilted his head to press against her hand, humming happily. “I did. It was very nice to lie in.”

“You’ve been working hard. You deserved it.” It still stunned her that he’d never really had a routine sleep schedule. His father had him up at all sorts of hours for photo shoots, and no one bothered to keep track of how rested he was. As a cat shapeshifter, he had the napping thing down, though, and it had probably been the only thing keeping him from dangerous sleep deprivation.

“What was that? It was beautiful,” he gushed. “What have I missed?”

“It was the blessing of our feast, before it’s prepared,” she explained. “Since it’s such a big deal, we like to help make sure it all turns out well.”

“And we’ll be cooking all day,” Papa said. “There will be ample opportunities for you to help out.”

Hēi Māo smiled and nodded. “Oh yes. Put me to work.”

Mama slid a tray of special winter treats, including her favorite lussekatter, onto the table. “You’ll start by helping us polish off some breakfast.”

“That’s hardly work,” Hēi Māo pointed out, then he closed his eyes and sniffed the aromas drifting off the tray. It was nice to see him so relaxed in human form.

“You can’t make it through the longest night without adequate preparation,” Mama said.

“And it’s not a day of just work,” Papa added. “Time together is the most important thing. We have lots of little rituals and trappings that hold meaning for us, but those aren’t the essential parts of the solstice celebration.”

Hēi Māo smiled, taking a Neufchâtel filled croissant off the plate. “This is all so new for me.” He wiggled his legs a bit to get rid of some excess energy.

“You said your family celebrated Winter Solstice,” Brigitte said, looking puzzled.

“We didn’t really celebrate anything,” he explained. “It was a guaranteed day off, mostly because father couldn’t expect anyone to work on this day. But it wasn’t anything special.” He shrugged. “It was kind of dour, to be honest.”

Mama let out a sound of dismay. “Well that simply won’t do, Hēi Māo. This is supposed to be an occasion of merriment and joy.”

“Our ancestors thought the only way to bring back the sun was to tempt it with song and food,” Papa added. “While we have the actual science behind the astronomical phenomenon, it’s still a time of great magic and very much worth celebrating.” He patted Hēi Māo’s shoulder. “We’ll show you the proper way to do this, son.”

“I’ll be a good student,” Hēi Māo promised.

“You’ll enjoy yourself,” Mama ordered, though she softened it with a smile. “Now you should have some of Brigitte’s wassail. It’s the best way to start your solstice morning.”

“And every morning as long as it lasts,” Papa added.

Non-Binding – Part 6

“Hey, you look really happy today,” Simza said as she paused by Adric’s chair before first hour.

His smiles were coming more readily now, and they didn’t feel so out of place. “Yeah. I worked really hard over the weekend, and I’m finally caught up on everything.” He held out his hands as if to demonstrated their emptiness. “So now I’ll only have regular homework.”

“That’s wonderful!” She bent down to give him a quick hug. “Does this mean you’ll be able to hang out when Zin or I ask, now?”

“Yeah.” He nodded. “I was actually wondering if you guys might want to come over and play video games this afternoon. My cousins have a really nice set up with the biggest TV I’ve ever seen.”

“I’m in,” Zindel said. “But a word to the wise, Cat’s wicked good at first person shooters.”

The bell cut off further conversation.

It wasn’t until lunch that it became clear Laurel hadn’t given up her complaint about having a vampire in her core block. Adric was sitting next to Simza, which had somehow become the default, with the rest of her circle around them. Everyone seemed pretty excited about going home with him after school, and they were discussing what game systems and games they wanted to try.

Adric hadn’t even noticed his friends getting distracted until the lunch room went oddly quiet. It wasn’t silent, by any stretch, but a lot of kids had clearly stopped to stare. A line of students led by Laurel were marching into the lunchroom, carrying posters with anti-vampire messages.

No blood suckers in my school!

Vamps go back to Europe!!

UNdead and UNwelcome

EVERY vamp is a killer!

They want you’re blood!

Kick ’em out!

A wave of garlic-scented air washed over him, and Adric doubled over, gagging. He couldn’t help but recall the last time he’d smelled it. The touch of the carpet under his fingers. His parents’ blood all over the living room.

The cafeteria was suddenly too loud, too crowded, too hot. Someone tugged on his arm, but he pulled away with a moan. Leaping to his feet, he ran blindly out of the room, crashing into several protesters without even slowing down. His vision was distorted, reduced to a sick combination of red and blue. He only stopped when he hit a wall solid enough to knock him down.

Back hunched, he pressed his face to his knees and huddled close to the wall. His whole body shook hard enough to render him useless. Mindless rage pushed at the edge of his consciousness, and it was all he could do to keep it from breaking through and taking over. His hands grasped fistfuls of his hair and pulled, trying to force himself to focus on something physical and isolated.

After what had felt like an eternity, it suddenly became easier. He was abruptly aware of his sharp uneven gasps, and moved his attention to steadying his breathing. It was quieter now, though life had surely continued around him. After all, if it hadn’t stopped for his parents’ death, why would it pause for his meltdown? After another unmeasurable time, he realized there was a voice, soothing and gentle.

“It’s okay, Adric,” Simza whispered. “You’re safe. Nothing’s going to hurt you. And you aren’t going to hurt anyone else. I’m here with you, and you’re safe. We’re both safe.”

He moaned and yanked at his hair.

“Oh!” It was a sound of dismay. “No, don’t hurt yourself,” Simza begged, her fingers ghosting over his head without really touching him. “Let me help you Adric. Please.”

She could force her magic on him. He was sure he was no match for her ability to incapacitate him, but she hadn’t. She’d shielded him in a magic bubble, and when that wasn’t enough she asked for consent. Still curled in on himself, he released his tangled locks with one hand and reached toward her. Even with his senses on overload, he knew where she was.

Her fingers slipped between his, and her magic washed over him like a warm wave. He trembled once, then stopped, relishing for a moment in the stillness. With a nudge of her free hand, he unfolded and allowed himself to be pulled against her, his face pressed to her neck. Her fingertips caressed his cheek a few times.

“Doing a little better?” she asked.

He nodded, not sure he could talk yet. He felt limp and exhausted.

“Can you tell me what happened?” she asked.

He shook his head. “Don’t wanna.”

“Yeah, I’m not surprised,” she murmured. “But I think I need to know what made you react like that. I know you don’t have the benefit of a bond, so I get that you’re more sensitive. But this was more than that. You don’t have to be too specific, if that helps.”

He twisted so he could more fully lean on her, his free arm slipping around her. She was warm and safe and strong. She was so kind. She’d rescued him twice, even though she didn’t know him well. She deserved to know. “It was the garlic,” he finally whispered. “On top of the hate, it was too much.”

Her hand made its way into his hair, soothing his scalp where he’d yanked at it. “I thought garlic was just an annoyance to your people.”

“We have a… history with it,” he explained. “On it’s own, it’s nothing. But people have used it for centuries in misguided attempts to kill vampires. The association is pretty awful at this point.”

“That’s disgusting.” Her hand squeezed his firmly.

He nodded. “Almost two months ago, I came home from school and…” His voice caught. He took a breath. “My parents had been murdered.” He hadn’t spoken to anyone about this once the emergency response team had shown up. He was surprised he managed to get the words out.

“Oh god, Adric,” she whimpered. “I’m so sorry.” She moved so she could press her cheek to his. “You don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to,” she reiterated.

He wanted her to know, it was almost a compulsion. “I’m the one who found them, and it was…” He gulped. “It was horrible. Whoever did it was afraid they’d recover, so they used almost all of the myths about killing us.” The wooden stakes, iron nails, and odd burns in the upholstery and carpet still showed up in his dreams. “There was garlic, and… I guess the smell just… it was like finding them all over again. It was like being alone in the living room with my dead parents, and waiting for a warlock to show up and lock me down.”

She turned toward him so she could hug him with both arms, rather than the odd hug and snuggle hybrid she’d been maintaining. “I’m so sorry Adric. You don’t deserve any of this.”

He clung to her and the sense of peace she gave him.

“I think I understand why you haven’t bonded with anyone else.” Her fingers smoothed his hair away from his face. “I can’t imagine having it ripped away from you like that.” She sighed.

“Yeah, but I’m going to have to do it… probably before I’ll be allowed to come back to school.” Just when he’d gotten all caught up and seemed to be fitting in.

“Hey, it’s going to be all right,” she promised. “You don’t really think you’ll get kicked out for this, do you?”

Adric shrugged, finally opening his eyes. He could see someone outside their bubble, and they were holding an opaque purple curtain of magic around Simza’s translucent bubble.

“That’s Master Lemire,” she explained. “He’s the school nurse and an amazing warlock.”

He groaned. It made sense that he’d been called in, but it felt like another strike against him.

“You’re not going to be suspended for having a panic attack,” she said with a snort. “You didn’t hurt anyone, and you actively removed yourself from a situation before you could lose control. Those are all points in your favor.”

“I feel like a disappointment,” he said. The energy of his freak out had dropped him into a hole of self-loathing.

“I have a suggestion, if you’d be open to it,” she said quietly.

He nodded. She’d helped him, and she knew so much.

“I think you need your new bond to be as different as possible from your old one, then it won’t feel like you’re replacing it.” She hesitated, then loosened her hold enough to lean over and look into his face. “I’d like you to bond with my circle; instead of an individual binding, you’ll be connected to every member of the circle. We’re friends, not family, and none of us are vampires.”

“It would definitely be different,” he agreed. He took a moment to consider it, surprised to find that it didn’t cause the strong revulsion the idea of bonding with his aunt and uncle did.

“Once you’ve settled into the circle, I think you should bond with some of your people again,” she suggested. “Because that’s probably important, too.”

She wasn’t wrong. “Okay.”

“Okay? Like, you agree or like you’ll do it?” A half smile crept onto her face, and he suspected she knew the answer but was just verifying.

“Both.” He snorted and slid one hand down to grasp hers. “You’re right, about what I need to do. And yes, I’ll join your circle.”

Non-Binding – Part 5

The first day of school established a pattern that worked nicely for Adric for the first few weeks. As soon as he arrived, he met up with Zindel before heading to class. Laurel was absent for a couple days, and when she returned, she went out of her way to ignore him. He walked to journalism with Catriona. He had lunch with Simza’s circle, where he felt welcomed and comfortable. As Zindel shared stories of his art class clay-tastrophes, Adric realized he was smiling for the first time since he’d lost his parents.

Somehow he managed to have one member of the circle in his last three classes of the day, so he was never on his own. Sure, the friendships were new, but they were a start. After school, he settled in at the gate-leg desk that had been hastily assembled in his room, with a promise of something more appropriate as soon as there was time. He spent a few hours on the day’s homework before dinner, and a few hours on catch-up work after.

“Adric, I got a call from your guidance counselor today,” Auntie Sage mentioned one evening as they were finishing up dinner. “She’s really impressed with how well you’re fitting in and catching up.”

Adric nodded, a little relieved even though he’d known there couldn’t be any complaints. “It’s going well.” His cousins went quiet, and while they weren’t staring, he could feel them listening intently.

Auntie Sage beamed at him. “I’m so happy to hear that.”

“You’re obviously working hard,” Uncle Patrick said as he plucked the napkin from his lap. “And that’s good to see, but we don’t want you to overdo it. Down time is good, too.”

Adric nodded. “Yeah. I just kind of want to get caught up. I’m getting close, so things should ease up a little soon.”

“Are you making some friends?” Auntie Sage asked, hopefully. “I know you mentioned there were some nice kids in your core block.”

He felt the smile on his face again. “Yeah. They are pretty nice. They’ve helped me out, a lot.”

“How’s your control feel?” Uncle Patrick finally asked the inevitable question.

“It’s okay,” Adric insisted, a little to quickly. “I mean, there’ve been a couple of rough moments, mostly the first day, really. Overall it’s been fine. And I’m being careful not to push it.” The last thing he wanted was for them to think he was irresponsible.

“Do you think you’re up to trying a bonding ceremony?” his uncle wanted to know.

Adric forced himself to take stock and think before answering. There was still a flash of revulsion, but it wasn’t the near panic he’d felt before. “Not… not yet,” he said quietly. “But… I think I’m getting closer.” He stared down at his hands. “Could you ask again in another week?”

“We’re not trying to push you, if you aren’t ready,” his uncle insisted. “We just want to keep you safe.”

Adric nodded, feeling like a huge disappointment. Tricia’s hand unexpectedly reached over from her spot beside him and squeezed his wrist.

“He has a good safety net at school,” his cousin assured her parents. “Simza’s circle is super strong, and they’re like the most positive people on the planet.”

“Simza’s circle?” Auntie Sage asked, her interest definitely piqued.

“My friends,” Adric explained. “There’s seven of them, and they’re all bound to each other to help with their control.”

Nate snorted. “You should let her adopt you.”

Adric’s face heated up, and he wasn’t quite sure why.

“It’s obvious she wants to,” Nate continued. “Sure, she’s as kind-hearted as they come, but I’ve seen the way she looks at you.”

“Ooooh.” Auntie Sage leaned forward in interest. “How does she look at him?”

Adric lurched to his feet. “Oh. Wow. Is that the time? I still have a ton of work to do.” He snatched his dishes off the table and headed for the dishwasher. “Talk to you later.” He bolted for his room.

Non-Binding – Part 4

After his three-hour block of core classes, Adric had a journalism elective before lunch. It turned out that Catriona shared it with him, and she designated herself his guide and mentor. They were wrapping up a feature writing unit, and his western European witch teacher shared a couple of online folders with readings and past assignments as catch up. It was a good thing he didn’t have any after school plans, and wouldn’t for a while. He was going to be spending hours every night on homework, probably for the next month.

Catriona walked him to the cafeteria and pointed out the table Simza’s circle usually occupied before heading to the lunch line that met her needs. As he crossed the room, loud with chatter and clanking cutlery, he hesitated when he heard his name.

“How was your morning?” Tricia asked, catching his elbow under her hand. She was doing her best to sound casual, but he could see her underlying concern.

“It was good,” he insisted, but frowned when he recalled his hostile fae classmate. “Mostly.”

Tricia’s blue eyes narrowed. “What do you mean mostly?”

He shrugged. “I have a first generation fae integrator in my core block, and she’s…”

“A bitch?” Tricia suggested.

He wasn’t able to squelch the smile. “Yeah. That’d be about right. I’m the only vampire in the class, and she was pretty unhappy about it.”

“Did she do anything inappropriate?” Tricia asked quickly, her forehead wrinkling the way it did when she was worried. “If she did, you can and totally should report it.”

“Already done,” said a voice at Adric’s elbow. He twitched, surprised anyone could get that close without him realizing it. Simza stood slightly behind him and off to one side. “We don’t tolerate ethnocentrist bullying, and administration takes it very seriously.”

“Uh…” He felt stupid again. What was it with this girl shutting down his brain? He’d kind of hoped ignoring Laurel would make the problem go away. If he proved himself not a threat, wouldn’t that carry more weight than detention, or whatever they did here? He glanced at Tricia, who was now grinning at him. “Tricia, this is Simza, she’s in my core block. Simza, this is my cousin Tricia, she’s a sophomore.”

“Nice to meet you,” Simza said, happiness radiating off her. “Aren’t you on student council?”

Tricia nodded and grabbed the offered hand. “Are you going to adopt him?”

Adric felt his face heat up as both girls looked at him before turning back to each other. What were they talking about?

“That’s up to him,” Simza replied with a wink. “Do you have any objections?”

“None.” Tricia hopped up and down and clapped her hands in glee. “I’ll let you guys get to your lunch.” She patted Adric’s arm twice. “See you later, cuz.” She jogged back between the tables to the group she’d been sitting with earlier.

Puzzled, Adric turned to Simza. “What was that about?”

“We’ll talk about it later,” she said. “But I promised you’d meet my circle, so let’s do that.” She led him over to the end of a table where Zindel already sat. There were several empty seats between him and the next group of students.

“So what is your circle?” Adric asked, hoping to get some insight to his new classmate. “Is it, like, a nickname for your friend group?”

She gestured for him to take a seat across from the werewolf. “Zin, you want to explain?”

Zindel snorted. “Are you familiar with chovihani?”

Adric shook his head. “I’m sorry,” he apologized. “We didn’t have any Romani in Madison, so I guess it didn’t get covered.”

Simza shrugged. “We’re not a huge ethnic group, and we… we haven’t been the most popular, historically. So there really aren’t a lot of us anywhere anymore. Not even back in Europe.” She pulled a red reusable lunch bag out of her backpack. “Chovihani are essentially the Romani equivalent of a warlock.”

“Magical heavy hitters,” Zindel added. “Their principles of magic reflect other users, but are actually completely different.”

“So, no coven?” Adric asked.

Most work best as solo practitioners,” Simza said, emphasizing that first word.

“But not you?”

Zindel laughed as if it was the most hilarious thing in the world.

“Zindel.” There was a definite note of warning in her voice.

“Come on Simza,” he pleaded. “It’s not often that your reputation is this untarnished. And even you have to admit, it’s pretty funny.”

She rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She waved the back of her hand at him, encouraging him to continue.

“Simza’s probably the strongest chovihani in the history of our people,” Zindel explained. “All that power comes with a really sensitive control system, which means it’s easy for things to go wrong. Young magic users make a lot of mistakes. It’s just part of the package.”

“Oh.” Adric suddenly understood. He glanced down at her, surprised to see pink in her dark cheeks, far more than a hint. “So you had a few accidents, then?” he asked, determined not to tease, because loss of control was a scary thing.

Zindel let out a bark of laughter before slapping his hand over his mouth and ducking his head to hide his expression.

Simza scowled at her friend, but something about it seemed affectionate. “Few is not how I’d describe it.” She let out a sigh and a half-embarrassed smile made its way onto her face. “Constant train-wreck is more accurate.” She shook her head. “I was home-schooled until seventh grade because I was,” she raised her hands to provide air quote assistance, “too dangerous to be integrated with other students.”

Adric gawked at her. He didn’t even know that was possible. “How… how did you get control of it?” She obviously had; her demonstration in the classroom had been finely nuanced.

“With my circle.” She gestured to the students who had settled around them while she and Zindel spoke. “Historically a chovihani would protect an entire caravan, so she was magically tied to those families, that group, and most of them were regular humans. Something about that connection also served as a fuse or surge protector.” She shrugged. “And I knew that western witches worked best in a group, so I thought I’d see if that helped me.”

“I will never forget all the damn magical theory you made me read,” Zindel growled, though his expression was soft.

She pulled a face at him. “I didn’t want to kill you. Or anyone, really.”

Adric felt a sudden kinship to her. Sure, she could joke about it now, but he could see in her eyes that she remembered what it was like to have no control, to be afraid of what she’d done and could do.

“Anyway, the circle is a little like having a coven, in that it gives me a boost, which wasn’t exactly my goal, but it’s part of the package.” She tilted her head. “But it also gives me control, which is not something that other magic users usually get from a binding.”

“And there’s a joint benefit for the rest of us,” Zindel explained. “I needed a pack, something that served that purpose when I was away from my family for so much of the day. While no one else in the circle is a werewolf, it fills that need.”

“Oooh,” Catriona said, taking the last remaining seat next to Zindel. “Are we explaining the circle?”

“Are you part of it?” Adric asked in surprise. At her nod, he added. “I thought fae magic couldn’t work with other types, like they’re opposites and cancel each other out.”

Catriona shook her head. “That’s a carefully propagated myth, started and maintained by the fae who don’t want to work with others.” She pointed the handle of her bamboo spoon at him and waved it about. “I’m a shape changer, but I couldn’t stay balanced enough to keep to a form.”

Simza giggled. “It was cute.”

“It was distracting.” Catriona let out a huff, making her bangs scatter out of her face. “Having your lab partner randomly cycling from human to peregrine does not create an environment of focus and inquiry.” Her affected tone made it clear that these words were used against her in the past.

“Ah,” Adric said in understanding. The scent of fae and feathers made sense now.

“All of us in Simza’s circle have kind of crazy talent, and none of us are the same,” Zindel picked back up. “On our own, we’re each an uncontrolled mess. With our potential connected, we make each other stronger, and we have an anchor that lets us master our power.”

“I like to say we’re like a tapestry,” Simza added. “On our own, we are loose thread that spills off the loom and blows anywhere. Interwoven, we keep our distinctive color, but we’re contained, held fast, cohesively supported.”

Non-Binding – Part 3

Go back to part 2 if you missed it.

The St. Paul Academy for the Mythically Gifted was only five blocks from his aunt and uncle’s house. It wasn’t a private school like his old one, but there were more similarities than differences. His new classmates came from the full range of human subspecies, though the vampire population was a lot smaller in Minnesota. The uniform was less formal, navy bottoms and red polos instead of sport coats and ties. It was nice to have the comfort of a uniform, but the casual nature was a subtle reminder of how out of place he was.

Adric followed the assistant principal to his first class, still marveling over the buffering spells that calmed down his powers the moment he walked through the front door. It wasn’t the same as being bound, but it was the best he’d felt since his parents were murdered.

“We use a European teaching model for our core classes,” Ms. Bierman explained, as she lead him down a hallway lined with lockers. They had waited until after the first bell, to avoid the crowds. “Your morning classes will be held in the same room, with the same students. Teachers will rotate through during the morning, covering your history, English, and math courses.”

“Did my aunt explain the English and math I was taking at my old school?” The last thing he wanted was to repeat material he’d done last year or the year before.

Ms. Bierman nodded. “Yes. All the students in your cohort are taking AP English and college level calculus.” She smiled, seeming pleased with the question. “We find that we have enough students in each grade to assemble your core class by skill level, with very few exceptions.”

Adric was surprised by that. Part of the reason he’d attended private school was that his parents supported tracking, and most public schools were adamantly opposed to it. Of course, a lot of public schools were poorly equipped to handle the needs or deal with the racial issues that came with having subspecies mixed with regular humans on top of differing skill levels and natural aptitudes.

“I have informed your math teacher that you’ve been out of school for a few weeks, so I expect you’ll have more homework in that subject until you’re up to speed. Your aunt was confident you’d be better served by catching up than switching to a lower level math.”

Adric bobbed his head a few times, mentally reminding himself to thank Auntie Sage for that. “Yeah. I’m good at math, so, yeah.” He felt his nerves bubbling up, starting with colder fingers than usual.

“Your electives start fourth hour, and run through the afternoon. You’ll have students from other core classes and other grades in those.” She held out a single white piece of paper. “Here’s a map in case you have trouble finding those rooms. Your teachers will be understanding if you are tardy to classes this first week, as you find your way around.” She stopped and reached out to knock firmly on a closed door. “Please feel free to come to my office if things get to be too much or you need to talk.”

“Come in,” a woman called from the other side of the door.

The room was quiet as Adric followed Ms. Bierman in. He felt the eyes of his new classmates on him as he stood at the front and met his English teacher. She was a faun who wore a brightly patterned dress and an even brighter smile.

“Welcome to class 11-A,” she said. “We’re so glad you could join us, Adric.” She sounded eager but sincere as she glanced out at the students. There were probably twenty-two other students, seated two to a table, with a few empty spaces. “I’m going to have you sit here with Zindel,” she gestured to an empty chair at a table on the side of the room away from the windows. The boy sitting at the table had shaggy brown hair gathered into a ponytail that cascaded down between his shoulders. His eyes were very dark and his skin mid-brown.

Zindel hastily straightened his pile of notebooks so he wasn’t sprawled over more than half the table. He offered a brief wave of greeting as Adric took his seat. “Hey.”

“Hi.” Feeling awkward, Adric rifled through his backpack, quickly pulling out the laptop he’d been issued, as the rest of the class waited on him. He was here to stay, and he knew he needed local friends, but he wasn’t at all confident in his ability to make a good impression right now.

When the teacher flipped on the Smart Board, he was relieved to see they were in the middle of Huck Finn, which his previous class had completed just days before his abrupt move. Because the information was familiar, he didn’t need to dedicate his full attention to the front of the room. He inhaled slowly through his nose, picking up the scents of those around him. His sense of smell was good enough to give him a rough idea of the class makeup, and he was surprised to realize he was the only vampire. He’d already suspected Zindel was a werewolf, likely Romani variant, and his scent confirmed that. There were at least two of the fae folk within twelve feet of him, and a magic user he couldn’t fully identify.

A little more settled by this knowledge, he redirected his focus to his new teacher.

When the end of class bell rang, he caught himself as he moved to shove everything in his backpack and leave. Staying in the same room with the same people for the first three hours of his day was going to take some getting used to. Hopefully it meant he’d get to know a few other kids pretty well. As the teacher gathered up her materials, his classmates started talking to each other.

“So, Adric, right?” Zindel said. “Where are you from?”

“I grew up in Madison,” Adric said, turning sideways to face his table mate. “I’ve been in St. Paul about a month, but I haven’t really gotten out much.” He hoped his new classmate didn’t ask why he’d moved. He’d tried to prepare responses good for deflection, but he wasn’t convinced they’d work.

“Cool. If you have any questions on the homework or need me to e-mail you my notes, just let me know,” Zindel said, turning his laptop to show meticulously organized notes from English. “My family moved around a lot when I was younger, so I know it can be hard to get your bearings.”

Adric felt himself smile. “Tha-” The sound of a hand coming down hard on his desk cut him off. He looked up into the angry blue eyes of a blonde fae teenager.

“I don’t care who you have to suck up to,” she snarled, “but you need to march yourself down to the office and get transferred out of 11-A.”

Adric stared at her in shock. What the hell?

“It’s bad enough that I have to be integrated with filthy werewolves and common witches, but I will not tolerate vampires in my core block.” She crossed her arms over her chest and glared down her nose at him.

There was a moment of silence before the room exploded in an uproar of raised voices and obscenities. It was hard to tell, but Adric thought he had more support than the fae girl, though it was clear she wasn’t entirely alone in her sentiment. With no bond to buffer him, the hostility was nearly overwhelming. Heat filled his face. His breath caught, going uneven. Fabulous. He was going to end up in the nurse’s office before second hour. Such a great first impression.

As quickly as it started, it stopped. Rather, the external trigger was blocked. The girl behind him had launched herself over her own table, then up onto his in a bizarre form of classroom parkour, leaving her crouched between him and the angry fae. Her right hand was open, palm out and fingers stretched wide, and a wave of magic poured off of her, pushing away sound and emotion.

Zindel leaned close enough to Adric to whisper. “Dude, you gonna be okay? You got anxiety or something?”

“Eh,” Adric replied, feeling like an overwhelmed character from Tricia’s favorite manga.

As soon as the rest of the class realized they weren’t going to be heard anyway, and that the powerful magic user was now in control, the shouting stopped. “Laurel, you know you have no right to make such demands,” she chastised. “And that’s just rude, not to mention bigoted.”

The fae scowled, but none of her emotion projected through the magical barrier. “Vampires are disgusting and dangerous. I shouldn’t be forced to interact with one.”

“Well if you’d paid any attention in biology last year, you’d know they’re not really that different from you and me.” She shook her head, making her twin black braids sway and flick down her back. “He’s no more disgusting than you. In fact, odds are that he’s less so.”

Laurel stomped her foot, like a toddler having a tantrum, and pointed at him. “He has no bond! Don’t tell me you can’t feel that. He’s dangerous!”

From the other faces around the room, most of them had no idea what that meant, but some of them were obviously afraid. He hadn’t bonded with his aunt and uncle yet, because he’d thrown up when they tried it two weeks ago. He’d only ever been bonded to his parents, and losing them the way he had made it especially hard for him to rush into a new one. He knew he’d have to do it eventually, but he needed to heal a little more first.

“You don’t know that,” his defender declared, dropping her spell and planting both fists on her hips. “Instead of accusing him, maybe you should talk to him first.” She pushed herself off the table, forcing Laurel to back up a few steps. “And you know as well as I, that administration wouldn’t let him attend if he were any more dangerous than any of the rest of us.”

She turned to Adric with a smile and an extended hand. “Hi. I’m Simza. I’m chovihani. I sit behind you, and I’ve been going to school here since seventh grade. I’m class 11-A’s representative to the student council, and I want to make sure you feel welcome.”

“Trying to pick up another stray?” Laurel sneered, but Simza didn’t acknowledge the comment.

“Uh… thanks.” Adric felt terribly stupid as he enclosed her hand entirely in his for a moment. This adorable tiny Romani girl stood up for him, a complete stranger. She wasn’t working any obvious magic, but he could feel how powerful she was even after he released her hand.

“If you have any questions or need any help catching up, just let me or Zindel know.” She tapped at her bottom lip with several fingers for a moment. “How about you join us for lunch,” she suggested. “I can introduce the rest of my circle to you, and we can see if any of us have overlapping electives, just to make sure you’re covered.”

“Uh, Simza, you might be coming on a bit strong,” Zindel said in a low voice. “Maybe dial it back a bit, yeah?”

“Oh. I’m sorry, Adric.” A hint of pink filled her dark cheeks. “I kind of get a little…”

“Enthusiastic,” suggested the sandy haired fae girl who sat behind Zindel.

“Uh, yeah,” Simza agreed. “That.”

Zindel snorted, before hastily rubbing one hand over his mouth. “That’s one way to describe it.”

“I’m Cartriona,” the fae girl said, waving from her seat. “Most people call me Cat, but I answer to either, and I’d like to assure you that not all of my people are ethnophobic snobs.” Now that he was looking at her, Adric thought she smelled of an odd mix of fae and feathers. “I’m a third generation integrator, so my family abandoned the old conflicts long ago.”

“Pleasure to meet you.” Adric paused to look at Zindel and Simza. “All of you.” He met Simza’s dark eyes. “And I really appreciate what you did for me. Just being here is… it’s kind of a lot for me right now, and… I’m really not able to deflect negativity as well as I normally would.”

Simza beamed, showing off slightly crooked front teeth. “If you need help, just let me know.” The door closed behind a short squat man with a long braided beard. “Oops. Time for history. We can talk more later.”

Non-Binding – Part 2

Go back to part 1 if you missed it.

A hand on Adric’s shoulder shook him awake. “Come on Adric. Time to get up.”

He resisted the urge to hiss at his aunt and burrow back under the covers. It was a close thing. Instead, he groaned and blinked blearily at her. It had been nearly a month, and he still wasn’t used to his new room in his new house. The extended family he previously only saw on vacation and during holidays had become his primary family, and he didn’t quite feel like he belonged.

Auntie Sage smiled down at him. “There’s a good boy.” She ran her fingers into his wavy blond hair, pushing it out of his face. “Hmmm.” She held out a few strands checking for length. “You growing this out for a ponytail?”

He shrugged.

She straightened up, her wide smile displaying her inhumanly sharp teeth. “Breakfast is ready, sweetie. Normally you’ll walk with Tricia and Nate, but for your first day, we’re going to bring you in to make sure you get oriented all right.”

Adric nodded. His aunt and uncle had decided it was doing him no good to mope at home, and maybe it was time to start school. He’d kept in touch with his friends back in Madison through e-mail, text, and Skype, but it wasn’t the same. Nothing was.

“Get dressed and grab your backpack,” Auntie Sage said. “Join us in the dining room as soon as you can.”

During breakfast, his cousin Nate gave him another run down on the teachers on his schedule, many of whom Nate had the year before. As Adric cleaned up his dishes, his cousin Tricia reached out to lightly touch his wrist, her fingers resting over one of his sun protection charms.

“The school nurse is a wickedly powerful warlock,” she said quietly. “He’s really nice, and he’ll help you out if it’s too much.”

Adric smiled. “Thanks, Tricia. That’s a relief to know.”

“He’ll summon us if you need him to,” she added. She shrugged and rolled her eyes, looking a bit embarrassed. “It’s just… I know this is a lot. And I know you’re better than you were when you got here, but…”

Adric caught her brother’s frantic warding off hand gestures out of the corner of his eye. “We’re there if you need us,” Nate interrupted. “We’ll try to check in with you at lunch.” He caught his sister’s arm and dragged her out of the room. “I need your help on something…”

Sighing, Adric brought his dishes to the kitchen. His discomfort had nothing to do with his family. They had done everything they could to make him feel welcome. They were more understanding and loving than he had a right to expect, but he was a damaged puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit.

Check out part 3.

Non-Binding – Part 1

Adric notched his key into the lock, surprised when the light force pushed the door inward. He stared at the widening gap in confusion. It wasn’t like his parents to leave without latching the front door. He stepped over the threshold, his step faltering when the scent of blood hit him.

Normally it would be appealing, maybe even triggering a hint of hunger, but this blood was wrong. It was strong enough that he should have picked it up from the sidewalk. It smelled of family and magic. He gasped, his keys clattering to the wood floor as he clutched at his chest.

He’d been uneasy since second hour, his usually docile powers sloppy and on edge. So much so that he’d decided to skip cuisine club after school rather than risk something going wrong. His safety-conscious parents were staunch supporters of initiatives promoting a peaceful image of their people; messing that up would be unacceptable. He’d hoped his dad could help him trouble-shoot the problem.

He closed his eyes and grasped for the magical bond they shared, the enchantment that ensured he had complete control over his power and his nature despite the volatility of youth. He lurched against the wall when he found nothing of the familiar magic. He knew what waited in the other room and was vaguely aware of his fingertips sinking into the gypsum wall as he gathered strength for what had to be done.

Shaking and queasy, he pushed himself away from the dented wall and took slow steps down the hall to the living room entrance. His breath stuttered as he took in the scene. Papa’s newspaper had fallen to the floor, open to whatever page he’d been reading. Mama’s teacup lay on its side, its contents spilled over the table and mixed with her blood. There was so much blood, seeping into the couch, congealed on the floor, spattered across his parents’ waxen skin.

The next moment, there was a buzzing in his ear. He was crouched just inside the living room, half behind a chair, with no memory of having moved. He shook his head, trying to clear it.

“-dric Herzmeister?”

He stared at his cellphone wondering when he’d pulled it out and who he’d called. “Uh… sorry. What?”

“This number is registered to an Adric Herzmeister. Are you Adric?” the woman asked. Her voice was unfamiliar, but calming.

“Yes. Yes, I’m Adric.” His head felt cobwebby, like waking from a long sleep.

“This is 911 emergency, Adric,” she explained. “Is there a reason you called? Are you all right?”

He moaned, realizing they needed complete information so they came prepared for everything they were going to have to deal with. But he wasn’t sure he could say it out loud. “It’s my parents,” he forced out. He took a steadying breath and realized there was garlic in the room, probably stuffed in his parents’ mouths. His suddenly shaking hands gripped the phone to avoid dropping it.

“Is there something wrong with your parents?” she prompted.

“Uh-huh.” He squeezed his eyes shut. “They’re dead. Uhm. Permanently dead.” He gasped and let himself slide fully to the floor, curled on his side around his phone.

“Permanently… Adric, are your parents a human subspecies?”

“Yeah,” he mumbled, drawing his long limbs in tighter. “Vampire, western European variant.”

“Okay,” she said. “Can you tell me if you’re bound to anyone other than your parents?”

“Not bound,” he whispered, his throat tight. “You need to send someone who can control me if…”

“It’s okay, Adric,” she interrupted, businesslike. “You’re not going to lose control.”


“I’m sure this is scary. But I’m going to send a team out to help you,” she said, her voice optimistic yet firm. “Can you tell me where you are?” When he didn’t respond right away, she prompted again. “Adric, are you at home?”

“Yes,” he whimpered. “I’m in the living room.”

“And your parents, where are they?”

“On the couch.” He was barely audible. “Mostly.”

“Can you tell if there’s anyone else in the house?” she asked. “I want to make sure you’re safe.”

He shook his head, his canine teeth digging in to his bottom lip. “No one’s here.” He hesitated. “It… it smells like it happened hours ago. And my powers got touchy this morning when I was at school, so… it was probably… then.” He felt hot, and wet tears were drizzling across his face.

“It’s okay, Adric,” the 911 operator murmured. “The team is on their way, and they have a warlock to help you. I’m going to stay on the phone with you until they get there. Just try to focus on my voice and remember we’re here to help you.”

Check out part 2.

Tulgey Wood

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe; all mimsey were the borogoves, and the mome raths outgrabe…”

“Is that all she says?”

“Yes. Over and over. Same thing.”

“Beware the Jabberwock, my son! The jaws that bite, the claws that catch! Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch!”

“What sort of rubbish is that? It doesn’t even sound like English.”

“Well it is, and it isn’t. It’s Jabberwocky. You know. The poem by Lewis Carroll?”

“That the guy who wrote about the magical wardrobe?”

“Not even close. What the hell kind of childhood did you have anyway? Didn’t you ever read Through the Looking Glass?”

“Irrelevant. Does she say anything else? Anything at all.”

“Well… not really.”

“You hesitated there. What is it?”

“Sometimes it’s as if she’s gotten stuck. She’ll repeat the same word over and over like she can’t remember the next line.”

“And then?”

“After a while she just kicks back in as if she’d never hit a glitch.”

“And what is this Jabberwocky…”

They think I can’t hear them, they think I don’t see what’s two feet away. Catatonic, they say. But I’m just ignoring them. They don’t know anything, and they’ll leave the room eventually. They always do.

I’m safe inside myself. No one can reach me here and there’s nothing that can hurt me. I don’t have to feel anything this way. I don’t have to fear anything. I’m disconnected from my body, and though I can’t exactly get around, that’s okay. I don’t need a change of scenery. I don’t need a change of pace. I like it just fine here inside myself where it’s safe.

“Beware! Beware! Beware the Jabberwock, my son!”

They think I’m crazy. They think getting lost in the basement during a power outage was too much for me. They claim I freaked out; short-circuited, or something. Deep seated fear of the dark, they say. They’re so full of shit they wouldn’t recognize the truth if it showed up and bit their heads off in the middle of the night.

“The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame…”

There really is a Jabberwock. I’ve seen it. I’ve fought it. I thought my life was as good as over. But if I told them that, they’d still think I was crazy. So it’s better to hide inside myself, where it’s safe. Not even the Jabberwock can get me.

As a child I never had irrational fears of monsters or things that go bump in the night. Now I know better.

It was a stormy summer evening, and I’d tried to keep busy. There wasn’t much to do. The cable had been knocked out and the TV reception was crap without it. I couldn’t risk the computer to a power surge, it was too valuable. So I made myself productive. There was a lot of house to clean. I’d been sick all week and my husband was down with what he’d nursed me through. I let him rest on the couch with a book, occasionally bringing him something to drink.

I admit I’ve never been a fan of the dark. I’m a klutz. The basement’s always been a bit creepy; but in a centipedes’ and spiders’ playhouse sense, not in a monsters’ feeding ground kind of way.

“Twas brillig, and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe…”

I went down to check the laundry. I’ve always been obsessive about getting the clothes out while they were still hot. I avoid a lot of ironing that way. I’m not particularly good at ironing. Never was.

I folded the laundry in the basement, using the chest freezer as a table, and dropping the folded clothes into a basket for my husband to lug up the stairs. I’m also not particularly strong. You might call me a full-grown ninety pound weakling.

“The vorpal blade went snicker-snack! He left it dead, and with its head he went galumphing back…”

I was in the basement when our block lost power. I was more annoyed than scared. I knew my own house well enough to find my way out of it in the dark. And really, what’s to fear of the dark? If I didn’t come up soon enough, my husband would be down with a flashlight.

The basement in the dark is a terrible horrible place. It’s something all children seem to know. Parents dismiss it as a silly fear, but I think it’s an ancient instinct. Parents think they know best. Fools. They don’t like things that defy their neat and tidy logical world. In the dark, a basement becomes another realm; a maze populated with all the horrors of ancient epic, and a host of others never dreamed of. Ishtar’s wild bull can’t touch it. The Minotaur is a plaything. Grendel is nothing on the Jabberwock.

“Came whiffling through the tulgey wood, and burbled as it came…”

I don’t know how long I stumbled around in the dark. My husband didn’t respond to my calls. My shouts. He blames himself for my condition. If I dared come out, for even a moment, I’d tell him it’s not his fault. He didn’t hear me because I wasn’t in our basement anymore. I was in the place where darkness was born. I was in the Tulgey Wood.

I stumbled into a hard wall, slick with the cool dampness of a limestone dungeon. The surface felt rough, nothing like the sheet rock we’d hung last spring. That should have warned me. But I told myself I was too dependent on my sight and didn’t know what I was feeling. I reminded myself of the old Halloween gag where peeled grapes pass for witches’ eyeballs. I tripped over obstacles that shouldn’t have been there. Instead of understanding, I cursed our tendency to let things go for too long before cleaning them up.

“So rested he by the Tumtum tree, and stood awhile in thought…”

I eventually sat down on the damp and lumpy floor to wait. There was no point in continuing to bumble about in the dark, blindly walking into walls.

I felt a tickle as if light hairs were sweeping gently over my arm. I froze, hardly able to breathe. I was sure my heart would stop when the first spider was followed by others, all running across my bare skin. I tried to tell myself it was just my hair dangling down onto my arms, or brushing against my legs where I sat hunched up. But I knew better. It was the centipedes and other multi-legged creatures come to claim their domain. In the dark they have no fear. In the dark they can be as small as a broken pencil lead, or as big as a horse. They live with the Jabberwock. They share the spoils.

“Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun the frumious Bandersnatch…”

It wasn’t until I heard the louder scuffles, the slithering noises and rustlings of larger things, that I realized something was wrong. That’s when I began to feel fear. You don’t really know what fear is until you’ve faced your basement in the dark.

The rough floor trembled slightly and I heard something approaching with great heavy steps. I called for my husband, thinking it was him. I saw the orange glow from around the corner and got up, virtually running to greet him.

No light burns quite like the fire in Jabberwock’s eyes. It’s red. It’s hot. It sears its imprint on your retina as you try to see. Never meet the eyes of a Jabberwock. In an instant you can know its mind, but it’s very like standing on the lip of an erupting volcano.

Jabberwock knows your fears; any and all of them. It’s been around longer than we have. It can’t come into our world except in the dark. It needs a basement, as a demon needs a gate.

“Long time the manxome foe he sought…”

Its mouth makes up a full two-thirds of its head and its eyes are the other third. Its nose seems to have been added as an afterthought, and I don’t think it relies on smell for much. For a beast the size of a hippo, it moves with the speed of a cheetah. Perhaps the laws of our world don’t apply to Jabberwock. Then again, the perfect conditions for it to come into our realm may align so rarely that it has to be fast if it wants time to toy with us. Jabberwock likes to play with its food.

It grabbed me in its two huge claws before my brain could even register surprise. I’ve never been a screamer. But I was that night. I shrieked until my throat was raw. I screamed until all that came out was a forced hoarse exhalation. It roared its triumph. It stomped its four great feet in celebration. I struggled. I kicked and squirmed. The logical part of my mind had been reduced to a quivering mass of incomprehension while I fought for my life.

“The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!”

When it tried to put me in its mouth I must have triggered a long dormant berserker gene. My father hasn’t traced the family back to Norway yet, but I suspect he’ll find that link soon enough. I kicked and bit and scratched and howled in protest all at the same time. I somehow broke loose. The fight itself is still a blur. It grabbed me and I got away, again and again. It knocked me against a hard stone wall, but I refused to pass out. I refused to lay still and die. I ran behind it and grabbed its pathetic string of a tail and sank my teeth into it. Bit it right off.

“He took his vorpal sword, vorpal sword, vorpal sword in hand…”

Jabberwock’s blood is foul beyond the most noxious sewer sludge. It smells of a hundred rotting corpses sitting in the summer sun two weeks after they should have been buried. It burns like acid that peels the skin right off your body. But I had no vorpal sword. No magic blade to chop off its head and be done with it. I had to endure the sickening stench and wretched pain, and even seek it out if I wanted to survive.

Jabberwock howled in rage. It grew less interested in playing and more intent on killing me and eating me. Not necessarily in that order. It grabbed me by the hair. I bit its nose. We fought in a haze of teeth and feet and claws. I poked its fiery eyes. It slapped me across the room. I broke an arm. Jabberwock lost a tooth.

“Beware the Jabberwock…”

When the lights came back on, Jabberwock vanished with a screech of protest. It had not conquered me. It was sent home unwilling, but I knew it would be back, looking for me and the opportunity for revenge.

I collapsed in a daze; the adrenaline crash was phenomenal. There wasn’t a piece of me that didn’t scream out in pain. I hurt so much I wanted to die, but I hadn’t the means or the energy. I couldn’t move. My throat was too raw to cry for help. I lay there until my husband woke from his nap hours later and came looking. By then I’d retreated to the safest possible place. I’d followed that recessive berserker gene to its little hidey hole for safe keeping. Nothing can hurt me here.

“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?”

They think I’m crazy, but I’m not. They don’t know what lives in the dark. And they wouldn’t believe me if I told them. I’m not ready to face the Jabberwock again. Not just yet. So from my place of safety I whisper the charm that keeps the Jabberwock away. But I haven’t been idle. I’ve found the vorpal sword and can claim it as my own. Someday when I’m strong again, I’ll take up that sword and finish the job.

Inspired by my basement, irrational fear of the dark, and the poem Jabberwocky.

The Good Doctor

Dean let out a sigh as he settled himself in front of the old IBM Selectric. Completing death certificates could be tedious, yet there was something rewarding about getting every last detail correct. There were so many places to get hung up, but decades of small-town medical practice had refined his skills. He’d been working on this one for days, although he’d been anticipating it for some time. Some things were inevitable.

The state of Minnesota had moved to electronic death reporting, and many of the fields he’d been able to leave blank in his early days of practice were now required. The Office of Vital Statistics had streamlined and standardized the documentation of death, but the process wasn’t any easier. As county coroner, Dean had done enough of them, and no one was as familiar with the finer nuances as he. Things would not be the same with him leaving. So few physicians understood the importance of accuracy, and that included his well-intentioned successor. Proper death reporting was an under-appreciated art.

He looked up, glancing around the nearly empty room one last time. Everything but the table and chair had been packed away to be moved. He’d borrowed the typewriter from the clinic for this last duty. Content that he’d finally attended to everything else, and on schedule, he turned back to his immediate task.

He nudged the rocker switch, starting the old typewriter rattling. Once it had been on for a while, it gave off an oily electric smell reminiscent of the transformer for his old electric train set. He paused in thought, trying to remember what he’d done with the trains. He’d taken everything into account, carefully assembling piles of boxes for his children in the large living room. It was no easy undertaking to pack up a life’s worth of belongings, sorting and discarding as needed, and he was pleased to have done it all himself. Ah, yes, he recalled it now. Two medium sized cardboard boxes from the attic had been carefully labeled “for Audrey.” His granddaughter had delighted in playing engineer at Christmas the year before last. Since he no longer took them out for himself, it made sense for her to have them. Relieved, he looked down at the legal size piece of paper pulled a third of the way through the rollers.

His chipper administrative assistant usually gave him a photocopy of the death certificate worksheet to scribble on. From that, she typed the death certificates into the computer, sending them on their merry way through the vast complexities of the internet. All he was responsible for was filling out the bottom half of the worksheet by hand. But sometimes his handwriting was difficult to read, and he didn’t want there to be any ambiguities. Unclear answers lead to difficulty for the medical examiner and the clinic, and he didn’t want to cause anyone undue trouble. He knew best what to put in the numerous required fields.

He’d filled in questions one through ten, including 1a to 1e, as well as all the parts of question four, on the first day. Then he’d let form VRV2000 sit in the typewriter as he packed and worked himself up to the rest. He had a mock worksheet on the table next to him to make sure he didn’t leave anything out. The highlighted fields were labeled, “required” and “required up to 50 characters” and “required if #42 is yes.” Every day he’d gotten a little farther, adding place of death (specify one), and county of death (required). He had some trouble with 19a Informant’s name (first, middle, last) and 19b Informant’s relationship (required). A call to the sheriff had helped set that straight. And that reminded him of his schedule. Sheriff Richard Alexander Schmidt would be arriving around nine thirty, and everything needed to be in order by then. Dean couldn’t afford to get side-tracked. Timeliness was crucial. Delays held up insurance payments, cremation, and often burial.

His fingers hunted and found the five digits of his medical license number. He was in the home stretch, the section of the form he was typically responsible for. Very often funeral homes completed the top half, but under special circumstances he’d done that as well. He cautiously depressed the gently vibrating keys, adding his name, nicely spaced above the line physician’s name and title. “Dean Orwala.”

32 “Physician viewed the body after death.” He leaned over the typewriter with his ball point pen to check “No.” He never managed to get the typewriter’s X to land exactly the box, and it looked tacky to have it off center. Boxes could be marked by hand, and it was important that it look right. This one had to be perfect. It was his very last death certificate.

Immediate cause of death a. “blood loss.” Interval between onset and death “Minutes.” b. “laceration to right carotid artery, self inflicted.” He paused and traced his left index and middle fingers over the pulse point on his neck. It was a much faster bleed than a wrist slashing, and the injury ruled out homicide. The angle of the incision, and the location, would prove to even the most suspicious that it had been done by a left handed individual, the decedent himself. That was important. The medical examiner always got involved if the matter of death wasn’t natural, and some examiners tended to go a bit overboard with their theories during the investigation of an accident or suicide. It caused undue heartache to have family or friends blamed or even questioned unnecessarily.

The telephone rang, and it took Dean a moment to recall that he’d been unable to get the old rotary phone off the wall. He’d decided to leave it for the new owners. They might think it quaint. He debated whether or not to answer the call. He was nearly done, but a long conversation could upset his crucial balance of time.

With a sigh, he picked up the receiver. “Hello?” He heard the click of an automated calling system and immediately dropped the phone back on its cradle. A telemarketer. He should have expected it. He returned to his chair and briefly considered putting “harassment by telemarketers” under 34 part II other significant conditions contributing to death, but that would be absurd, rendering the rest of the form suspect. The process would have to be started all over, causing no end of difficulties. He’d had to restart this form twice because of errors and if he made any more at this point, he wouldn’t be ready when the sheriff stopped by. Instead, he typed, “major depression and recent diagnosis of non-small cell lung cancer.”

Time of death. “9:15 PM.” He gently pulled the form free of the typewriter’s grip, then compared it with his template. He completed the check boxes at the bottom just as the clock in the hall belted out the hour, nine chimes that echoed off the bare floors and walls. The clock in the entry was the only thing he hadn’t taken down, because keeping accurate time was more important than his other preparations. Everything else was boxed and labeled for its destination. The hardest had been his wife’s dresses, which she would never wear again. He’d kept them in her half of the closet since she’d died two years ago. He’d never quite let go, and folding them away had been almost more than he could bear.

They couldn’t stay here once he was gone and he wanted to make the move as easy as possible. He didn’t want to cause trouble for anyone. That reminded him of something else, and he tugged the business sized envelope out from under the edge of the typewriter. He opened it and leafed through the twenty dollar bills. Nodding, he sealed the flap and set it to the left of the old Selectric. Face up, the addressee could be seen. Mary’s Cleaning Service.

He unlocked the front door for the sheriff and put the clock in the box he’d set aside for it. He was done and the timepiece was no longer needed. He left form VRV2000, now signed, on the table beside the envelope and typewriter. In his big overcoat, draped over the back of the chair, he found a wooden box, long and thin. It had once held a pen with his name inscribed on the barrel, and it was the perfect size to hold his favorite surgical scalpel, smuggled out of the office this afternoon. The sharp and familiar steel had been his closest companion during innumerable procedures, both simple and complex. Together they had shared fear and relief.

Dean opened the box, and with the scalpel handle nestled comfortably in his left hand, he made his way to the upstairs bathtub where its fiberglass enclosure would not be stained by blood.

For several years one of my jobs involved helping new doctors complete death certificates. I also typed and submitted them for doctors who’d been doing this a while. This story came from some of the conversations we had.


Birth does not always call attention to itself. It is not necessarily a thing of beauty. There is not always screaming, although sometimes that simply comes later.

The stainless-steel kitchen sink was half full of water so cold the bare sides above were fogged and condensing. The shiny silver faucet was dotted with sweat, and droplets slid one by one into the pool of water below. Two recently clipped peonies floated on their petal heavy heads, their stems sticking straight up in the air like some sort of backward bouquet. Small groups of ants gathered in the green cup where the stem joined the blossom. Some had climbed the stem to hang precariously on upside-down leaves. Floating lifeless in the water were the casualties who had not made it from their places deep within the flower before the deadly flood reached them.

One of the flowers bobbed up-and-down a couple of times before tipping onto its side. The ants scattered. There was a rustling of petals at the center of the flower, so hesitant at first it was barely noticeable. Then it picked up a frantic pace. A slender black thing, like the leg of a spider, poked out from between the pale pink petals. It was followed by others, twelve in all, attached to a body that seemed much too small for such long limbs. The whole thing was probably no larger than a quarter, but it was growing. It dipped itself into the cold water and the legs elongated as though the process had been caught on film and speeded up.

Like its limbs, its oval body was black. At one end it had a short pointed tail, not even a tenth as long as its legs. At the other end, its tiny bird’s skull of a head was raised up on a spindly neck. The creature was now heavy enough that the peony could no longer support it, so it set itself free in the water. It sank below the surface for just a few seconds before its growth permitted it to stand with its head above the water.

It looked at the peony from which it had come. Mother, it thought. The petals were thickly crowded together, concealing anything that might be hiding inside. In clumps, small white hairs with pollen yellow tips peeked out from places near the center. The petals were light, almost pastel, although some near the edges bore darker streaks of magenta. It was beautiful; perfect. No flower had ever been so right. The creature leaned closer and inhaled the same heavy perfume that was so familiar. The soothing smell had been a constant throughout its whole existence. Its beaky face nuzzled against the petals, smearing its forehead and the ridges under its solid blue eyes with the comforting scent that spoke of home and safety and love.

It leaned back and admired the blossom one more time, then with great speed darted forward and snapped its maw. It got half the flower in one bite, and the other half in the next. It ducked its head under the water to snatch the stem from the bottom of the sink where it had settled. Delicious. Its legs were now sticking out all over, draped across the counter tops and in front of the cupboards beneath the sink. It owed the other flower no allegiance, and snapped it up without admiring it first. It was terribly hungry. It was growing so rapidly.

It reached up, extending its scrawny neck, and bit off the end of the faucet with a crunch. The metal was a little hard on its teeth, still soft from being so new. The faucet was not good. It swallowed it anyway, because it had to eat something, then it looked around the counters for something better. There were dishes, but they were as bad as the faucet. Some were worse.

It slurped some of the water and wriggled its long legs. They poked out of the sink at odd angles and dangled into free air. It peered down and realized it could reach the floor without a long drop. Ravenous and delighted, it pulled itself clumsily out of the sink, and slipped to the linoleum with a soft clicking of its pointed little feet. It sniffed at the air. There were more flowers nearby. But even better, there was something larger. It was making noise in another part of the house, humming like no bird or insect the creature had heard during its infancy. The flower picker, it thought. Surely it would provide enough of a meal to stop the painful churning of its stomach.

Giddy, it scampered through the house, following the humming.