I know it’s been a long time, but I have some things to share…

First, for those of you reading this, because you’re still checking out my blog even though I haven’t posted in almost 2 years, you are amazing! Thank you for being faithful to this woman who let life get in the way and keep her from posting like she should have. It is beyond appreciated. My hope is that if you’ve stuck around, (or your blog wanderings have newly led you to stumble and land here), that you stay because you love this story as much as I do…and now, for a moment of truth.

If you’ve read the original postings you’ll know that I started And Then There Was One to blog a found story and share it with you guys. Now the truth. It was not a found story, it is my story – actually it’s the very first book I ever wrote. I hope I don’t lose you guys here, my intent was never truly to deceive, it was just after staring at the story for 3 years, after re-writes and revisions, and not knowing if I hated it one day or loved it the next, I was searching for a way to engage with it differently, to approach it as more spectator instead of creator, with the hopes that doing so would make it fun and exciting again, would take away the sort of strain and angst of ‘is it good enough?’ and replace it with the ease and acceptance of ‘Sam (that’s me), just tell the story.’

I hope that you guys as readers can understand that and not hold it against me :), especially since it actually worked. Each of you taking the time to read it, and leave comments with your input and feedback bred life back into something in such an amazing way, that I’m probably more excited about the book now then I was when I first wrote it; even in the face of so many rejection letters all condensed to say the story wasn’t right for them. And that segues to my lead in for the big announcement, (not sure if it’s really big, but when there’s a lead-in I feel like it should always have the word ‘big’ in front of it), I’ve decided to take the leap and attempt to self-publish this book! I’m working through the intricacies of that now, but have also started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the process.

If you’re willing to check it out and lend any level of support it would make my day, especially coming from you guys, who believed in it first. I’m really excited about this! I have no idea what will happen, if I’ll be able to raise the money, if I’m not going to bumbling my way thru this thing from start to finish, but right now all of that seems okay because I’m taking some control back, and I’m believing in myself and my writing again. This is the year that this gets done, and I wouldn’t be anywhere near this place if it wasn’t for you guys reading my little ‘found’ story. So thank you, thank you, thank you.

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Not the End of the Story…

I know I haven’t posted for a while. It can all be summed up in the crazy cumbersomeness that is life; sickness and work and fatigue and that overall lazy-hey-how-bout-you-do-nothing feeling, that doesn’t hit me often but when it does it hits hard and makes room to stay for a while. Which all resulted in me being off my game and not posting or tweeting or staying at all caught up with the blogs I follow and love to read. But all that is changing, and what it means for this blog is that in my absence I did manage to piece together some more text from the pages of my found story. They aren’t exactly linear so I’m trying to go through it and make sure it’s as close to where we left off as possible. I hope absence has made the heart grow fonder and their are still some readers out there excited to see what happens in this magical little tale.

So all this said to say that more is to follow! Thanks for being patient with me. I’ll be posting the next installment by the end of the week…

Maybe the final pages….?

So these might be the last pages. I was rushing to get as much transcribed before I left for vacation tomorrow and suddenly the pages became more of a mash of crumbled paper, smears and illegible scratchings then anything else. I haven’t quite gotten to the point where I’m ready to give up on teasing out the whole of this story but I only thought it fair, (for those of you still reading along), to let you know that the end might be near…

“Thank you.” The words were so lazy escaping me mouth I wasn’t even sure she heard. I contemplated saying them again but exhaustion leached from me the energy to do anything besides find my bed and close my eyes.

I stopped in front of the third door on the right, a shiny brass 6 positioned solidly in the middle. The key slide easily into the lock clicking softly and with a gentle push the thick wood door opened smoothly. The room was a comfortable mix of modern and classic details, almond walls, traditional deep wood furniture, a giant mahogany sleigh bed molded with clean lines, fresh blue hydrangea leaned elegantly inside a milk jar pitcher by the bed. The TV was large and flat framed on the wall like artwork. The bathroom small but crisp; shiny white and ivory tiles, pedestal sink, claw foot tub with a tilted back and thick white towel draped over the edge.

I stepped into the bathroom dropping my nearly empty bag by the door. Splashing cool water on my face I stared at my reflection in the streamlined mirror. I looked worn. My eyes dry and hooded, my skin dull and ashy but for once it felt like something a good night’s sleep might be able to shake off. I smiled watching it travel past my awakened cheekbones and tease the corners of my eyes.

It was almost believable.

I striped out of my clothes leaving a trail from the bathroom to the edge of the massive bed before climbing under the soft covers. Laying down in darkness I smiled one more time wondering if it was believable, hoping by morning it would be.

I slept late. A mid-day day sun fought its way past the dark curtains casting slim rays against the hardwood floor. I picked at my matted hair, rolled over and managed to talk myself beyond the comfort of the firm mattress. The bathroom floor was cold beneath my feet. I looked for my socks, grabbing my jeans and giving them a shake when the note from Susan fluttered out the front pocket landing face up on the shiny floor. Bending I held the piece of paper between my fingers before laying it on the sink and jumping into a quick shower. Drying off I dressed quickly in my standard uniform of jeans and tank top before tucking the slip of paper in my back pocket, grabbing my wallet and car keys and heading towards the main desk.

A man was there. He was casual in a navy blue t-shirt, light khaki pants and running shoes so pristine it was obvious they’d never been used for running. His olive skin was evenly muscled; the top of his slightly large head capped with hair the color of freshly ground coffee beans. An inky black tattoo of a ginkgo leaf  was visible on his collar bone inching halfway up his neck. In just standing there he was old school smooth, Fred Estaire, Maxwell and Marvin Gaye wrapped in a Barry White bow. I imagined him the quarterback on football teams, homecoming king, lucky bastard lottery winner.

Hearing me approach he looked up, a soft smile impossibly bettering his face. “You must be Velma. Sleep well?”

“I did thanks. It’s David right?” I reached into my wallet pulling out almost all the cash I had left frowning to myself at the thinness of the stack. “Is this enough? I’m sorry I should have asked before I stayed for the night.”

He looked at me and taking the money in his hands pulled two twenties from the top before handing back the rest. “Seems like that should cover it.” He walked behind the desk pushing buttons on the computer and then stepped back slightly as the money drawer opened stopping just short of his waistline.

“Are you sure forty dollars is enough uh, uh,” I started, ‘ I could, I mean if there’s any work around here, ya know to uh, to help cover wha…” but he only held up his hand and shook his head. Then placing the money on the desk he straightened each twenty against its edge, three concentrated swipes until the wrinkles bred from crumpling them in my pockets and wallet were almost gone. Satisfied with the progress on the first bill he laid it into the money drawer, beginning to talk as he started on the second.

“Knowing my Liz she did a fair job trying to nose her way around your when-where-and-why last night. If she didn’t she sure soon will be so I’ll save all the question and answer stuff for her. Far as I’m concerned if Sue sent you our way she had good reason to. Everybody here knows everybody else, the blessing and the curse of a small town. You’re welcome to stay as long as you like, any questions just ask. Liz and I can point you in the right direction.” He dropped the second straightened twenty into the drawer and pushed it closed with a manicured hand.

“You guys sure are nice to strangers around here.”

He cocked an eyebrow. “Yes we are nice but we’re not naive. And our Sue isn’t quick to wake us from our sleep in order to let just anybody in. Her instincts are solid. If she says you’re okay, most likely you are. On the off chance you end up being a problem well, we’ll deal with it then. Like I said blessing and curse of a small town. Everyone knows everything. Good or bad we tend to tackle what needs to be handled with a group effort.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t mean to make you think, to insinuate that you don’t know what you’re doing or that you shouldn’t trust me, I’m just – I’m not used to –“

“Don’t work yourself up everything’s fine.” He walked back around the counter standing in front of me, his face easily carrying his sunshine of a smile. “So you planning on breakfast? You already know about the diner but there’s also a coffee shop bout three blocks east. I’d have the sweet potato muffin and their house blend, best coffee you’ll ever have.”

“As good as that sounds I was actually thinking of stopping by the cabinet shop. Uh Sue, I mean Susan said they might be hiring so…”

One side of his mouth tilted mischievously. “So you do plan on staying a while. The cabinet shop is easy to find, only red building on Main Street. You’re good getting back there right?” I nodded before he finished. “I won’t keep you then. Shop should be open. Good luck with your search.”

He turned moving fluidly down the opposite hallway. I thought to call after him. Thank him. But the simple words stayed tangled on my tongue. I was becoming increasingly aware of how I was completely socially awkward. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d dealt with someone who wasn’t an assignment or at Essex. This inability at small talk was making me look like a stumbling idiot. I would work on it. Find a way to get it together in the ten minutes it would take to get to the cabinet shop. Hopefully I’d be able to get a handle on my first impression by then.

Driving towards Main Street it settled on me exactly how new this experience would be. I’d never had a job. Not a legitimate one. Hustling in foster care didn’t really count. When I’d gotten out I’d had money my mom had left me though I’d done a miraculous job burning through it before I was cloaked. Thanks to Sara there was still some left but it certainly wasn’t enough to live without having to worry about paying bills or buying gas and food.

At Essex I’d forgotten the importance of money, financial things were simply handled. Living there, accepting that as my life I never thought to consider the possibility of that security being lost. I was making myself nervous. I was 18 years old and I’d never been employed. I just ran away from a life no one would ever believe. Now I was driving down main street in Fairhope hoping that I’d be hired at a cabinet shop? A cabinet shop! I still had no idea what I would say when walking up to the brick colored building I put my hand on the glass door knob and walked inside.

The shop suited me right away. It was straight forward and unassuming. Rows of unfinished pine bookcases in ascending heights lined the walls. A simple birch desk, also unfinished sat far against the left wall. The remaining interior floor space was spotted with smaller furniture. Bedside tables, TV stands, bars, a twin platform bed, small round tables and narrow lean console tables.

A large board was mounted on the wall neatly divided into 3 inch squares each displaying wood staining options. An old fashioned boom–box, black with a tape deck rested on top of the desk that was otherwise clear. R&B filtered softly through the speakers. The man behind the counter acknowledged me with a nod as I entered, only moving to stand once I stepped in front of the desk. His voice was Russian accented and loud. “Hello can I help you find something today? Our 6ft bookcases are 20% off.”

He was large as if commanding his own centrifugal force. I imagined in hugging him my arms would find themselves lacking just past his second belt loop. His beard was thick and barely beginning to pepper with grey. It was a roving mass of hair, purposefully meandering into curly untamed sideburns in complete contrast to the straight sleekness of his shoulder length hair. His eyes were small and dark centered perfectly on his round face so in spite of obvious years he seemed boyish, innocent. I stared hesitating longer than I meant to. He cleared his throat politely prompting me to find my voice.

“Um no thank you on the bookcase. I was hoping to speak with uh Niko or,” I glanced quickly at the paper wadded in my hand, “Stephanie?”

His smile broadened. “I am Niko”

“I’m sorry, I should have guessed.” I crammed the paper into my pocket rubbing clammy hands against the front of my jeans. “My name is Velma.”

“Velma!” He smiled with teeth tiny, delicate and perfectly white. Flattened lined up tic tacs. He took my hand in both of his shaking it decidedly three times. “Pleasure to meet you. What can I do for you?”

I took a deep breath determined not to insult, offend or instantly seem unsure. “I was hoping to discuss the possibility of employment. Last night I met Susan from the diner, she mentioned you might be hiring?”

He laughed a high melodious sound that was surprising and contagious before speaking. “Ah don’t you love the way women talk! So quickly you share information, it is so efficient! I’m sure my Stephanie let Sue know we’d be looking for help but I haven’t even posted the ad!”

I paused quickly reviewing the words in my head before saying them out loud. “If you’re not quite ready to speak with me I can come back at a later time.”

“Nonsense, you’re here now, we’ll discuss now. Just one second, one second.” He walked to the right of the desk past an open doorway returning with a chair. Pulling it to the desk he motioned for me to take a seat. He sat across from me, legs crossed at the ankles, hands resting on the apex of his stomach. “So,” he said, “it’s a simple job. Very small store. You’ll basically man it yourself. Sell what you can. Keep the furniture clean. Sand out nicks or stains on the floor models and – you can draw, yes?”

I nodded yes though absolutely sure the opposite was true.

“Good. So every now and then you’ll have to draw custom pieces. Take measurements. Set up deliveries. We have many regulars, our neighborhood friends who always want many of the same things and then there are the tourists. They require much patience, they ask questions and touch things and then ask the same questions again, but they do have plenty of money and so we answer their questions and then sand out their fingerprints from our samples once they leave. Okay sounding to you?”

“Yeah,” I cleared my throat measuring my words, “I mean yes. It sounds perfect actually. I would love to be considered.”

He smiled again tic tac teeth flashing as he sat upright resting his elbows on his knees, his face in his hands. “Why don’t we set up a time tomorrow. You can come and work a shift with Stephanie, see what you think. Then we go from there?”

I breathed a sigh of relief. “That sounds great. What time should I be here?”

“10:00 a.m. and be prompt. Stephanie won’t even let you try if you are late.”

“I will. I promise.”

We stood simultaneously walking towards the front door. Niko ran a hand over a nearby bookcase inspecting the surface with his fingers.

“Pleasure to meet you Velma,” I swallowed a smile. He drew my name out when he said it coaxing the letters into three rounded syllables, “you should explore our small town today if you plan on staying for a while. Get the staring over with. People here are fond of anything new and you certainly fit the bill.”

“I will thank you, and thank you for the opportunity Niko.”

He opened the door laughing as I stepped out into the sunshine. “Don’t thank me ValyUsha,” the Russian word flowed pleasantly over his tongue, “ you have yet to go through a shift with my Stephanie.” He was still chuckling as he closed the door behind me leaving me standing on the sidewalk.

I raised a hand shielding my eyes from the sun and looked from one end of the street to the other. Now what? I could do anything and the freedom had me frozen in place. After the longest minute clicked by, I found myself walking in search of the café. I’d have a sweet potato muffin like David suggested and maybe later an ice cream cone, mint chocolate chip like the ones Josh and I used to share.

No.

Strawberry this time because it was my favorite even though Josh hated it, but he wouldn’t be here to make me change my mind. I’d go see a movie, take a nap in the middle of the day for no reason.

The street was full, kids on skateboards, families pushing strollers, couples holding hands and sneaking kisses. I soaked it in, each little bit of normalcy building it up as a reason to believe I could be normal too.

The café like everything else was easy to find and, as I was coming to anticipate in this town, the exact opposite of what I’d expected. It was all shiny black and white. A mix of checkerboard floor and mismatched tables and chairs all painted the same glossy white. Multiple milky ceiling fans turned lazily against the midday heat rustling newspapers and book pages. Almost every table was full, the line at the counter more than ten people deep. I took my place at the end hungrily eying the rows of visible pastries and closed my eyes against the warm smell of freshly brewed coffee.

Opening my eyes I took notice of the whitewashed walls. Each one was decorated with names and quotes written with black Sharpie markers hanging from strings secured with pushpins at varying heights. Without thinking I grabbed a marker finding an open expanse of white wall and wrote in rounded capital letters;  Poetry is the sacred incarnation of spirits. Running my fingers over the words I remembered the first time I’d ever seen them. Then shaking that memory free I capped the marker leaving it to hang from its string and stepped up moving forward in line.

Soon I was sliding my way between the haphazard arrangement of tables to set my sweet potato muffin and black ceramic mug of coffee on a small table next to the window. Taking my first bite I felt eyes watching me. Stares tickling down my back. Window shopper double takes as they passed on the street. I pretended not to notice. Sipping my coffee and chewing another bite of huge muffin I was content to rest chin in hand doing some people watching of my own. I was so preoccupied looking out the window that I didn’t notice Susan until she stopped at my table, pulled out a chair and simultaneously sat down reaching for a small piece of my muffin popping it in her mouth.

“You look well rested.”

“Do you always steal food from other people’s plates?”

She shrugged reaching for another piece. “Not always.”

I acquiesced pushing the plate so it rested between us. She spoke between bites. “Niko said you stopped by about the job.”

“Um hum”

“So that means you plan on staying around for awhile?”

I smiled before responding swallowing a sip of coffee. “I thought you were done with your meddling last night.”

“Was that meddling?” she responded innocently, “I wasn’t aware.”

“I think there is very little of which you are unaware.”

She grinned guiding the last of my muffin to her mouth. “So,” her voice muffled as she chewed, “the rest of my day is free. You should let me be your tour guide. Our little 15 mile stretch can be awfully intimidating.”

“Fifteen miles! Jeez this is a small town!”

“You have no idea.”

“And you want to be my tour guide?”

“Well you could choose from the folks who keep staring while we sit here but I don’t think they’d be as nice as me.”

“And you would know. They’re your people.”

“Not all of them are my people but you’re right, I would know.”

I ran a hand through my hair staring at my empty plate. “Might as well do a bit of walking. Looks like my breakfast is done.”

“A walk sounds like a great idea.” She stood carrying the dirty plates back to the counter. I weaved through the increasingly crowded café waiting for her outside under the black and white awning. I was getting used to the stares of people walking by, their curiosity, my impulse to princess wave as if I were riding a parade float. Susan walked outside to stand beside me pulling sunglasses down from the top of her head pushing them up the center of her nose. “Where to?”

I pulled the sunglasses off her face repositioning them on my own. Her smirk was visible from the corner of my eye. “You tell me,” I said, “it’s your town.”

She rolled her eyes pulling me by the arm onto the sidewalk.

We walked for the better part of the day, taking our time against the steady summer heat to  stop in air conditioned doorways or pause to appreciate a thick full breeze. She introduced me to shop owners and those bold enough to speak on the street. We stopped for an ice cream cone and I was just finishing my strawberry swirl when I realized she was veering towards the stationary store I’d admired the night before. Popping the last of the cone in my mouth I stepped past the threshold to the sound of three chiming bells. It was a jewel box inside, everything presented as if precious and rare. Jeweled card stands, clear acrylic display cases, hanging chandeliers delineating the narrow showroom ending at a small sitting area. Upholstered Louis IV arm chairs, cherry oak display table and organized stacks of leather bound sample books.

The young woman behind the desk recognized Susan immediately and called out as we walked through the door. “Susan,” the woman moved from behind the counter cornering Susan with a bear hug, “we have your samples. They came in today! They are super fantastic so perfectly weddingy!”

Sue delicately but firmly extracted herself from the hug pushing away to create some distance. “Sounds great Kamille can I see them?”

Kamille nudged Sue’s shoulder, an overworked gesture of solidarity. “Of course you can silly, they’re your samples! Go quick to the display table I’ll bring them over.”

I followed as Susan walked to the table trying unsuccessfully to hide the surprise in my voice. “You’re getting married?

She sat motioning me to sit next to her. “Don’t sound so surprised. Many people find me extremely marriable.”

“Marriable?”

“Don’t pick at my words either.”

“Ok marriable but um…how old are you cause my guess is around 18…”

“You’re 18.”

“I’m not getting married.”

“I’m almost 19, will be 20 by the time we get married. It works. I’ve never been good with the patience and he finds me marriable enough to do the whole happily ever after thing right now.”

I laughed. “I think you can retire the word marriable now.”

She poked my rib. “You only wish you were marriable.”

I smirked surprised at the small dig of sadness unfolding in my chest. Blinking quickly I watched Kamille walk towards us, a shiny pink binder nestled in her manicured hands, her Brady Bunch ponytail swinging behind her. Sue watched her too rolling her eyes involuntarily. I elbowed her pushing my voice up two octaves. “Oh yes! I so want to be marriable! It sounds super super fantastic!”

“Shut up,” she said unsuccessfully muffling a laugh, “she’ll hear you.”

“Oh so now you’re scared of Kamille?

Pages 28 – 30

He threw his empty beer can to the ground and I watched it roll, the thin scratch of it against the concrete floor crackling against the still air. We were both silent watching the can finish its roll and then, without ceremony, Doc stood offering me his hand, walked me out of the room and back into the warmth of his color filled house. I noticed the large sweat stains on the back of his shirt as I followed him down the hallway stopping when he stopped in the foyer.

He pulled a small bag from the floor. I looked inside at the clothes from the closet neatly folded and stacked at the bottom. On top of the clothes were the grey chuck taylor sneakers and he let me balance a hand on his shoulder as I slide the shoes on my feet.

Doc opened the front door and the complete darkness outside was disorienting. I focused on the sounds of the night. The steady rumble of people living their life knowing I would try and be one of them.

Before I had a chance to reason why I was hugging him, my arms wrapped tight around his neck. He only chuckled his arms folding around me, his mouth lightly brushing the top of my hair.

“Good luck to you.” He kissed my cheek pulling away. “I do believe this will be the last time we’ll ever see each other.”

I nodded knowing intuitively he was right….(there are a few sentences here that I can’t make out, sorry)…

I walked out into the darkness. The door clicked shut behind me. I never looked back and I never saw him again.

My head was throbbing as I walked through Doc’s stale yard towards my car. I wasn’t sure if it was the aftermath of the cleansing, the effects of guzzling two beers or the combination of both. I rubbed my forehead gently with my fingers and thought how quickly everything can change. How quickly your life can be something so different than anything you could have ever imagined.

I remembered how I used to believe in fantasy things, devour books about vampires, werewolves, shapeshifters, witches, fairies and everything in-between. How I had lullabyed myself with ideas of how much easier life would be if I wasn’t human. It had been romantic, enticing. Now it was aggravating. I would throw all those books away, burn them if I could. I would pass them in bookstores and hide the new releases behind cookbooks or accounting software. I shook my head gently, trying to steady the pulsing there, and wondered if the people writing those books had any idea how very wrong they were.

I rememberd the truth as Sara had told it on the night I’d made my choice. The reality of the balance, like a giant scale controlling everything. The existence of  those fighting to tilt the scale in one direction and the others fighting for the opposite. She’d explained the control of the balance and the work of Persuasion – the art of swaying a soul – as the result of every decision, thought, and choice. Enough activity and a soul is marked. A mark cannot be changed. That will determine the end of everything.

I remembered coming to the frightening realization that the apocalypse will have nothing to do with mythic beings or anything make-believe. It will come down to a counting of regular people. Of marks. Of souls.

My Josh was born a Taram. He was bred to work in Persuasion and to be a cloaked. He always said I must have been too. I don’t know if I believe him or if it even matters. I’d met him on the third day of training. He’d been simultaneously eating an apple and an ice cream cone and I couldn’t help but stare as he orchestrated the two. My eyes had continued to follow him as he’d looked up and without the slightest hesitation walked over and sat beside me. Tossing the apple core so it arched high in the air before landing with a thump into the trash he said he’d never been stared at by such a beautiful girl before. I didn’t believe him. Both the beautiful part and the never been stared at part. He seemed like the type very used to being stared at, midnight and smooth, impossibly tall, hair falling just past his shoulders in thick velvet locs, eyes dark and clear, smile easy and genuine with dimples so deep they’d seemed branded into his face.

He’d become my first true friend. He was gorgeous but the idea of making it more seemed cheap, seemed too easy for what we were meant to be to each other. He became a reflection of the best parts of me. Beyond silly things held together by flowers, love songs, plans of everything just right that crumble when they inevitably aren’t. We were destined. We were forever. We fell into an easy ritual. At lunch he would bring me an ice cream cone to share. At night we stayed up practicing training sequences and talking about everything. His girlfriends. My lack of boyfriends. The lives we had before ending up where we were.

He’d made me laugh imitating Sara during class or the girls who lined up to watch when he walked from the shower. When I first got to Essex and the memories of my past were sneaky and resilient he would sleep near me at night, wrapping his arms around me to keep me from floating away. He would recite Pablo Neruda in my ear or play Outkast through his portable ipod speaker and I would find reason to smile.  I thought he was perfection in every way. That he was truth.

We’d sparred frequently. Some would say too frequently. Training required an equal emphasis on combat and persuasion but we were drawn to fighting. He was impossibly crisp in his movements, inventive and ridiculously fast. He’d been my choice for the Kachina. He was a birthright. His fighting skills rivaled my own and he seemed to know more of the teachings than the elders themselves. It became an inside joke. The two of us best friends doomed to battle for the fate of the world. We’d joked while we sparred teasing that a failed move had just cost the universe. We’d called each other Armageddon laughing between bites of ice cream and apples.

Pages 21 – 27

Sorry for the delay in getting this posted folks, I completely got caught up in the haze of Thanksgiving turkey and stuffing and accompanying naps and all together laziness. Moving forward, I’m going to work to stick to my schedule of posting about twice a week until we work through this thing. Thanks for hanging in there with me!

I thought in the dark and silence I would think – think about what else needed to happen, about the pain that was coming,  about if I was crazy to even be trying to do what I was trying to do. Think about Josh and wonder if he thought about me. Think about Sara and if she was still looking for me, if I would wake up in the morning and she would be here trying to take me back. Instead I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow, feeling surprisingly safe in the strangers house.

Bribed by the smell of strong coffee I peeled one eye open, then the other. A steaming purple mug rested on the nightstand. The room was new-light bright, sunlight refracting off every surface throwing prisms against the smooth walls. I sat up in bed sipping the coffee and nibbling on the buttered toast resting on a saucer beside it. Rubbing crumbs from my hands I swung my legs over the edge of the bed and taking another sip from the mug peaked out the bedroom door. The hallway was empty. I stood still, uncertain like a child just freed from punishment. Doc’s voice resonated down the hall. “How’s the coffee?”

I smiled taking the short hallway easily with my long strides. Turning the corner I found him standing at the stove, eggs fragrantly scrambling, a slice of bacon dangling from his mouth. He nodded towards the cup in my hand. I took a sip then raised it in salute. “Delicious.”

He grinned coaxing the remaining piece of bacon into his mouth. “Come have breakfast. It’s almost ready then we’ll get started. The longer we put it off the worse it will be.”

“Right. Shouldn’t put it off.” I took another sip of coffee, fighting the urge to drop the mug on the floor and run out the door, but running wasn’t going to get me anywhere.  A little procrastination might. “I think I’ll start my day with a shower if that’s okay.” I said.

“Sure, sure,” he grabbed another piece of bacon from a tissue lined plate chewing between words, “I’ll be ready when you are.”

I turned padding softly back down the hallway. Finishing the last of the coffee I opened another brick red door hiding the bathroom. I’d never truly considered silver a color until stepping into the shining room. Silver was everywhere. The fixtures brushed and matte, the porcelain tiles in the shower, lining the walls and floor were polished, reflective and bright. The sinks were impeccably smooth stainless, the mirrors ornate in antiqued silver leaf. The shades covering the light fixtures, the towel hanging from the wall, even the soap resting in the tray – a decadently beautiful silver. The water from the oversized shower managed to soak in the light from the metallic walls transforming into liquid metal as it fell snaking down the perforated drain.

Stepping under the shower head I smiled imagining the color of Doc’s eyes in this room. I stretched my neck letting the hot water pound on my shoulders, along the small of my back, closed my eyes letting it rain over my face. My mind kept trying to walk its way around what was about to happen but I refused, instead held it captive in silver coated strings of water willing myself not to think at all.

Back in the white room I threw on some lotion before pulling on the jeans and one of the white tanks hanging in the closet. Barefoot I stepped back out to the kitchen. Doc sat at the black lacquered table, eggs, bacon and hash browns piled high on green serving plates. He spoke without turning around. “You need to eat, sit down. I’m good at breakfast, you’ll enjoy it.”

Sitting beside him I filled my empty plate with fluffy yellow eggs, potato and crisp strips of bacon. I took my first bite watching him pour orange juice from the container into a powder blue glass. We ate making the most minimal small talk – how lovely the morning was, how well we’d both slept, how nice the weather had been lately, how tasty the eggs were. We ran out of polite things to say at the same time. Catching each other’s glance, our nervous smiles morphed into crazy giggles.

His kaleidoscope eyes were wide and moist. I stood with my empty plate in hand and was halfway to the dishwasher before he spoke again. “I’ve never done this before. Wiped a Taram and of course never a Kachina. Bravado from yesterday aside I might be a little nervous.”

Walking back to the table I stopped to stoop in front of him. “You’re nervous?” I met his eyes with a half smile. “Come on. The longer we put it off the worse it will be.”

In the midst of clearing plates and washing dishes he explained what he thought would happen, how he thought things would go. I listened with one ear, enough to know what I was getting into, not enough to scare me away. Dishes clean and distractions shelved I followed as he walked to the other side of the house, past two closed doors entering through the third.

Stepping through this new threshold was unsettling. The room was sterile. Stale. In such sharp contrast to the rest of the house it was as if we’d leapt through a wormhole to another dimension. Paste grey walls, poured concrete floor, dull white cabinetry plain and unadorned, no handles, no panels just smooth lonely board. No windows, or rather windows covered with single pane shutters so seamless with the walls they read as one piece. In the center of the room like a forgotten shoe was a worn grey dentist chair sagging with the weight of tarnished stainless accents. Utilitarian and alien the chair loomed large and intimidating in the empty space.

Doc stood behind me. I heard the soft click of the door and then his finger was protruding past my shoulder pointing at the chair, his voice soft but stern against the back of my neck.

“Get in.”

I walked to the chair, pulled myself up and swung my legs around to recline fully. Laying in the chair I heard Doc before I saw him. The muffled slap-slap of his flip flops against the hard floor followed by his hands at my wrist securing them in restraints fastened to the sides of the chair. He was all business. The hint of smile I’d grown used to seeing completely gone. His colorful eyes were hidden as he looked down. His brow was creased but his hands stayed focused and steady.

Securing the last restraint he walked behind me, flicked a switch and the oval swivel light above my head was awake and full. My heart knocked softly against my chest. Under my breath I hummed one of my mom’s old lullaby’s attempting to will myself calm. He spoke before I could admit it wasn’t working.

“This will hurt, especially in the beginning.”

It was impossible to see his face through the perfect brightness of the light surrounding him. I stared instead at the outline of his silhouette, tracing the slope of his shoulders, curve of his neck over and over again.

“You said that before, do you really have to keep saying it?” I unconsciously flexed and released my hands against the wrist restraints, breathed in deeply shifting side to side squeaking against the vinyl of the worn chair. He pushed the lamp to the left making half his face visible the other half stayed mute in shadow.

“We’ll go over this one more time so you’re clear on what’s happening. Once I start you won’t really be able to process anything until we’re through.”

“Your bedside manner is great Doc.”

He forced a smile. “Just want to make sure you know what you’re about to get into.”

“Um hum.” I said suddenly and desperately wanting to be anyplace but here.

He cleared his throat. “Okay, your ability to be recognized and called is a soul connection, established simultaneously with your marking. Because it is so intrinsically attached it is impossible to remove but I can reorient it. I can’t promise it will make you 100% clean, not for you. Your frequency,” he raised his hand in front of my face moving it rapidly back and forth, “does this” he stopped, moving his hand slowly straight up and down, “instead of this. The best I can do is promise to make it much more difficult for your signal to be noticed. Your desire to not be detected should also help. Clear?”

“Keep talking Doc so we can get this thing over with.”

“Right,” he continued, “Like I said, your signal’s connected to your soul. To re-direct it I’ll have to expose it, then I’ll basically be squeezing the signal into a different vibration. I’ll have to hold it there long enough for it to take. Then we’ll be done.”

“Great. Then we’ll be done.”

“Exposing your soul will be the worst,” he swallowed, “kind of like being skinned alive.”

I concentrated on my breathing still my exhale caught in my throat. He leaned closer. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Is it this bad for everyone? The folks choosing to be cleansed make it through this?” My head shook against the cracked padded headrest. “I knew some of them. I don’t see how they could make it through this. They couldn’t make it past the first quarantine!”

“It’s not this bad for them. They are so new, their signal so faint it’s over and done in seconds. You are not them.”

I sighed trying to relax into the chair. “No. I guess I’m not, and I don’t have a choice so if we could be done with the talking…”

He nodded and moved the light back to the side. I braced against his silhouette, my hands clutching the seat. He stood behind me and placed a hand over each of my wrists. I felt his breath on my forehead when he spoke. “Don’t speak. Try not to move.”

I expected there to be a build-up. Something to get used to. There was none. The pain was immediate and intense slithering itself around me overtaking every other sense. I saw nothing, lost feel of the chair beneath me, found even my screams locked shocked and stranded in my throat. I felt myself rip open piece by piece, fragments giving way to a gaping hole of a space. I was hot and cold. He was wrong. It was nothing like being skinned alive, it was like being ripped apart into tiny pieces, it was being set on fire, it was ingesting every bad thing only to have it claw out of you again. I waited for it to ebb, for the ‘worse at the beginning’ to give into the ‘not so bad middle’ but it remained constant and pure. I was aware of my crying only by the puddles forming over the tops of my clenched fists. I was aware of the totality of pain and then I was aware of nothing at all.

When I came to I was still strapped down. My clothes soaked through. Doc’s form was slumped over me in the chair with his cheek supported by my shoulder. I searched for my voice, took silent account of my body flexing and stretching each muscle grateful for the sluggish response. Turning my head I rested my cheek against his trying twice before words actually fought their way past my lips.

“Doc – Doc get up, wake up.” No response. His weight was heavy, unanimated.

Dead.

Panic rose inside me like a moon-pulled tide. I spoke again louder, school teacher assertive. “Get up! Wake up! Come on Doc I can’t have this on my conscious. You have to wake up!”

Still nothing. He was resolutely motionless.

I looked around the empty room in vain, tested my wrist restraints cursing under my breath when they held fast. Moaning I searched for reserves of strength within my exhausted body before beginning to rhythmically slap his cheek with my own turning my head left and right, left and right.

“Wake up! Wake up!” I kept time with the sound of each slap, the satisfying contact of my sweat drenched cheek against his own, wake-up wake-up the metronome ticking me back and forth. And he did. Right when my neck was screaming to stop and my voice had dried to a throaty whisper he shifted beneath me, placing a wobbly hand between my face and his mid-swing before pulling himself upright and walking unsteadily to the side of the chair.

The color was drained from his face. His lips dry. His smile cracked. He rubbed his cheek against the bright ruby spot growing in response to my slaps. Moving as if through molasses his hands began working at the wrist restraints, his voice as rough and unsure as my own. “Was it good for you?”

I laughed tension in my body letting loose in one massive flood. He laughed too, softly at first, then loud enough so it mingled with mine filling the room. My wrists freed he helped ease me from the table. Standing, laughing, relieved we took stock of one another.

“Please tell me that worked Doc.”

He walked around to a mini cooler hidden behind the base of the dentist chair tossing a can of beer when I nodded. I sipped the cold liquid watching as he opened a can of his own. The room felt clear and quiet. He threw his empty can into the trash reaching for another before testing his voice. “I’m having a difficult time pinning down your signal with you three feet away. It worked. If I can’t pinpoint you it will be pretty much impossible for anybody else to.”

I dropped my empty can on the floor bringing my hands up in time to catch the second one he threw my way. “How much trouble will you get in for this? I held the unopened can between my hands turning it slowly. “I know it’s a little late to say but it seems unfair to have asked you to do this, knowing there are risks involved, consequences, I’m…” I looked at his collar bone, the top button of his unbuttoned shirt unable to meet his eyes, “I’m sorry to have put you in this position, sorry for what ever comes because of it…”

He sat on the dentist chair rubbing his cheek. “Every turn in life brings trouble or peace. It’s all part of the balance. I weighed the costs to help you. Whatever comes will be my own to manage,” he paused, “besides I promised Sara I would do what I could.”

I sat on the floor my back pressed against the cool wall, my shirt clammy from sweat, goose bumps traveling down my arms. I barely had the energy to register shock. “Sara said to help me? Sara did?”

He chuckled shaking his head against a memory he didn’t share. “She does that. Makes plans for you before you even know you need plans made. She believes in the end no matter how much running you do you end up right where you need to be. Let her run, she’d said. So I’d promised I would.”

I smiled, Sara’s calm face solid in my memory. “And so here we are?”

“No friend.” He said. “So here you are.”

Pages 16 – 20

I’m moving through the story a little faster now after getting used to the handwriting and the flow of the story so hopefully I’ll have more to post in time for a little Thanksgiving reading!

The waitress brought the check laying it briskly on the table no longer eager for Doc’s attention. He dropped neatly folded bills on the shiny red Formica then leaned back, arms stretching over his head extending a yawn, words slightly distorted by his gaping mouth. “So you ready to do this?”

“W-what you mean now?”

“Of course now. Why not now?”

I stared at him with nothing to say. He held out his hand. “Give me the keys, I’ll drive. You should relax as much as you can before we start.”

Speechless I placed the keys in his palm standing to follow as he walked out of the restaurant into the steady heat of the afternoon. Stopping by my car he opened the passenger door waiting until I sat and buckled my seat belt before walking to the other side. Settling behind the wheel he started the engine eying the gauges on the console as he navigated out of the parking lot. “You really shouldn’t drive with less than a quarter of a tank, especially if you don’t know where you’re going. What if you’d gotten stranded?”

I laughed my forehead in my hands. “You are very used to telling people what to do aren’t you?”

He shrugged pulling sunglasses over his constantly changing eyes and continued to drive and drive and drive. Hypnotized by the rhythmic passing of white staccato lane lines and Doc’s bell-like humming of what sounded like Disney movie tunes I reclined my seat, closed my eyes, bunched my jacket for a pillow and welcomed sleep.

My eyes fluttered open a few hours later as he pulled to a stop in front of a small ranch-style house with a tragically landscaped yard. Unassuming and generic it was the epitome of beige, dirty beige siding, beige shutters, light beige door, beige-brown patches of dead grass like abstract polka dots decorating the lawn.

Silently we walked towards the unlit house. Following him I climbed three concrete steps merging into a small porch. There was the soft click of a key and then we passed through the front door into the compact foyer. He flipped a switch and my breath caught in my throat.

I should have known. The exterior of his house was the unassuming book bag catholic school girls use to hide their short skirts and high heels. The inside of his house was undulating with color. The foyer walls electric blue with burnt orange crown moldings. Large scale oil paintings thick with texture hung from them, yellow, red, blue and green swirls of human body parts, arms, legs, curves of backs and lifts of chins memorialized on canvas. Random rainbow stained partitions of parquet, oranges, reds and blues built a patchwork floor. I walked slowly behind as he headed towards the kitchen passing more artwork, electric landscapes, abstract waves and blocks of color, huge life sized canvases, some simply propped against the wall, a large violet shaded breast leaning against an equally intense couch with apple red velvet pillows.

The entire house was wide open. No walls separating the foyer, living room, dining room and kitchen. Each space an analogous homage to the miracle of the rainbow. Dropping my keys on the kitchen counter he walked to his shiny black fridge offering me a neon green soft drink in a slender glass bottle. Grabbing his own bottle he stood across from me leaning against a red oven. His eyes were alive in this space, an excited shimmy of every color he passed, a kaleidoscope regarding me with a palpable air of concern.

“You look tired,” he took a sip of soda, “maybe we should start first thing in the morning when we’re both refreshed.”

I barely heard him preoccupied instead with looking around his candy-land house, at his eyes moving from color to color like Jack’s jumping beans. In theory everything about him and his house should have been jarring, should have just been wrong. Instead the smash and flood of color miraculously found a way to soothe. Nudging off my shoes I sat on the edge of the counter swinging my legs and sipping my drink holding the neck of the bottle easily between two fingers. “Your house is…your house is insanely perfect.”

Reaching into the fridge he grabbed another bottle, draining half in one long swallow. “It’s how I see the world. This is the only place I can surround myself with color without worrying about this.” He tapped the side of his right eye drawing my attention back to their Rorschach menagerie of colors. Their ever changing now seemed the most normal. It was impossible to imagine them any other way. They seemed to promise honesty. The shifting eyes of a man who until twelve hours ago I never knew existed. A man who shouldn’t exist.

Finishing my drink I let loose the question I was afraid of. The one I’d been shuffling around my mouth since the need to have my life erased became the only viable option. “How much will it hurt? A lot? It seems as if it should be one of those things that’ll come with a lot of pain.”

His voice was soft. “It’ll hurt.”

I hoped down from the counter. Walking over to the fridge I reached in for another drink,  grabbed a bottle of sunshine yellow liquid and popped the top. “Maybe tomorrow is a good idea,” I said looking down at the floor, “after bunking in my car last night sleep in a bed sounds amazing.”

He placed his hand on my shoulder knocking me lightly with his knuckle under my chin they way I always imagined a father might do. “Come on, I’ll show you where you’ll sleep.”

I followed him down a short butter yellow hallway then through a shiny brick red door. The bedroom was white with a purity that was stunning. A baroque crystal chandelier hung low from the ceiling, layers and layers of crystals seemingly illuminated from the inside out. The walls were spotless with a barely perceptible sheen, glass bedside tables emerged like ghosts from their smooth surface. The floor was low pile shag fluffy and deliciously soft under my bare feet but the bed, the bed was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen.

It was a four poster masterpiece. Victorian and ornate constructed from what on first glance appeared to be entirely of glass. Amazed I ran my hand over its surface, every detail perfect and smooth. I looked at Doc quizzically.

“It’s a polymer plexiglass,” he said, “Indestructible.”

Transfixed by the chandelier light refracting through the panes of the headboard, I ran my hands over the milky cashmere comforter draped evenly over Egyptian cotton sheets. “It’s amazing, just unbelievable…”

He looked around the room finishing the last of his drink. “It’ll do, it’ll do.”

Chuckling at the incredulous look on my face he stepped back hand resting lightly on the door knob. “There are clothes in the closet. Pajamas if you need them. The bathroom is down the hall first door on the right. I’ll leave you towels and a toothbrush. Get some sleep. We’ll get started in the morning.” He gave one last smile winking at me with eyes full and pale as the moon before closing the door behind him.

I sat quietly listening to the sounds of him moving down the hallway. The subtle rustle of running water as the toilet flushed, the whisper quiet clicks of lights being turned on and off. Standing I walked towards the closet toes curling against the plush carpet. The inside of the closet was as thoroughly white as the rest of the room. Stark and mostly empty save for a pair of jeans folded over a slim bone white hanger, a pale yellow button down shirt, two crisp white tank tops, black Havaianas flip flops, grey chucks and a large white sleep shirt with a giant yellow smiley face in the center. I ran my hands across everything, fingering the clothes, smelling the newness of the shoes. It was all my size and all eerily similar to what hung in my own closet.

Shrugging off my jeans and tank I eased the cotton sleep shirt over my head and down my shoulders feeling it lightly brush the back of my knees. Climbing into bed the sheets were a welcome cool against my skin and it all smelled the color of white, crisp and open. Soft.

A small oval speaker sat demurely on the ghost table. No radio dials. No blinking lights or on/off switch. Examining it I ran my hand over its unmarked surface until my index finger slid over a pebble smooth dimple an inch above the bottom. Trailing my fingers over it again with the slightest increase in pressure I exhaled in surprise as Nina Simone’s throaty voice rolled from the speaker. Turning off the remaining bedside lamp I leaned back against the firm pillows. Snuggling under the soft comforter as Nina’s Cry Me A River coaxed my eyes closed.

10 – 15

These pages took a little longer to re-write than I anticipated but I think I was able to get all of it…oh and there may be mistakes, I’m really just reading, typing and then posting without editing so if you find any I apologize in advance!

I was awake before dawn. With tingling hands half numb from being smooshed between my shoulder and the door handle I fluffed the side of my matted hair and circled my neck slowly, hoping the subtle movement would ease out the stiffness. Yawning deeply I slide into the front seat, pried loose a half-full water bottle caught under the seat and took a long swig rinsing the early morning dryness from my mouth. Still fingering the soreness in my shoulder I gulped another mouthful of water swishing the liquid between my cheeks before starting the car and pulling off.

I drove for about twenty minutes before spotting a towering hotel in the distance. Turning into the parking lot I grabbed toothpaste, a pair of jeans, a wife beater and clean underwear from the duffel bag in my trunk tucking the bundle under my arm. Walking quickly, determined to project the idea I belonged in the hotel’s marble foyer with its large crystal chandeliers and piped in classical music, I squared my shoulders, kept my gaze straight forward and made a bee-line for the women’s restroom pushing my way inside.

The bathroom was blessedly empty. I exhaled brushing my teeth with my finger using the  shirt I’d slept in to wash-up quickly in the sink. Ducking into a stall I changed my clothes waddling out in socked feet. I ran my hands through my disheveled hair and considered throwing on some make-up,  but settled instead for a quick swipe of clear lip gloss. Bending down I slipped on my chucks tying the laces into double knots before standing to stare in the mirror.

I ran over the planes of my face with scrutiny. Rust tinged brown skin, full lips, eyes dark and hooded so I always looked tipsy in pictures. Cheekbones only bothering to be visible when I smiled. I sighed, briskly gathering my dirty clothes spouting a pep talk into the empty bathroom along the way. “Stop thinking it’s impossible. It’s not impossible. Walk out of this bathroom. Get in your car. Find someone to wipe you so clean you…” I chuckled at the absurdity of the idea. Sara was right but I wasn’t ready to accept that. Not yet. Shaking my head clearing it of doubts I met my dark eyes in the mirror. “Find someone to wipe you so clean you can’t be called. So clean you can forget you were ever Taram and live a gloriously normal boring life.” I smiled awakening cheekbones, ran one last hand over my tightly coiled curls and walked out the door.

My steps were brisk, determined so the jolt of running into him was full and instant, my dirty clothes tumbling in one tangled heap to the shining inlaid floor. I fell bracing my empty palms against the slick hard tiles. He was unshaken like he’d been planning to knock me off my feet, and he was staring at me. I pushed up from the floor gathering my things speaking as my hands corralled the last of my dirty clothes. “Sorry. I wasn’t looking.”

“I know you.”

I looked up sharply. He said it with complete authority and I stared at him absolutely certain I’d never seen this man before in my life. His face broke in a smile and instantly I wanted to like him. I told myself not to. Don’t talk to strangers. I took a step back. Addressing my unasked question he took a step forward. “No you don’t know me but I know you.”

I shook my head trying to move around him. “You have me confused.”

“No,” he paused, “No, but I believe I am confusing you.” He took another step extending his hand. On autopilot I shifted my dirty clothes to my left to shake it. He smiled again and I found my lips were traitors, they curved in response. His voice was deeper than it seemed it should be and smooth like melted caramels. “You can call me Doc, and you are Velma.”

Reflexively I pulled my hand away widening the distance between us. “How do you know my name?”

He laughed then. A full unapologetic sound bouncing off the walls wringing moisture from his eyes. It was a satiating laugh reminding me of my mom’s. I tried to build up anger but the memory of her laughter bubbled up from my stomach guiding my words so they were anything but menacing. “I’m not laughing, this is not funny!”

His boom died down to silent waves contracting his belly pushing his breath out in excited gasps. I stared in disbelief at his boyish blue eyes, perfect square jaw, dark black hair, button down lavender shirt hanging loose over well worn jeans. He was surf-boy Superman handsome. Something he seemed aware of but addressed in an after-thought sort of way, and he was claiming to know me. He knew my name.

In light of recent events every red flag should be waving but I couldn’t will my feet to walk away. Without warning he grabbed my hand pulling me behind him, his words coming out quickly one after another.

“I didn’t mean to laugh you were just so shock-and-awe back there. The look on your face! I just couldn’t hold it in, you being cautious of me!” He stopped walking plopping us down on a soft toile upholstered bench in the lobby. An assortment of tall potted fichus shaded us from the main entrance. A fountain in the foyer gurgled rhythmically ending in small concentric splashes.

I dropped my dirty clothes on the floor turning to look into eyes that instead of blue were a striking peridot green. I felt my eyebrows raise even as I tried to stop them. He brought his index finger up to the side of his temple.

“It’s the eyes right?” he shrugged. “It happens. Normally they try to match whatever I’m wearing. Except for purple. I wear a lot of purple.”

I stared at him trying to determine if I should run, knowing my stupid curiosity had me sitting on this small bench serenaded by a fountain and guarded by a tree. I wanted to hear what else he had to say so I let loose the questions bubbling behind my lips. “What are you? How do you know me?”

He smiled again his face brightening. “I am what you planned to look for. Had a dream you would be coming. Thought I would save you a trip.”

Understanding unfolded lazily inside my head. “You’re a cleaner.”

He stretched his arms above his head. “I’m the cleaner. The one the folks at Essex keep hidden behind their bedtime stories.”

He sat openly letting me regard him with suspicious eyes. Could it really be this easy? This morning I had no plan and now the answer was sitting beside me with a half smile and eyes turning cloudy and grey? He broke the silence.

“It won’t be that easy and I hate when they go grey, it’s my least favorite. Makes me look very Dawn of the Dead.” He frowned lightly. I shook my head finding surprise no longer existed, words escaping my mouth only to confirm information.

“You can read minds.”

He shrugged. “Not everybody’s. Actually I’m surprised it works on you, but then again it probably works because it has to.” He bent over scooping my dirty clothes into the crook of his arm. “Let’s go get some food, I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”

Not waiting for a response he stood walking briskly through the lobby between the silently opening glass doors and into the waiting sunshine.

I was hungry. So I followed.

He was tall with strides lyrical and smooth moving him quickly across the blacktop. Turning right he stopped in front of my car leaning casually against the passenger door waiting for me to let him in.  I smirked as he threw my clothes into the trunk before sliding into his seat. There were at least 20 cars in the parking lot.

“Lucky guess?” I said before sliding behind the wheel. He chuckled the sound moving against the air as he fastened his seat belt regarding me with eyes cool and grey. A chill ran through me. He was right they made him appear unanimated, unnatural – like walking death.

Fifteen minutes later we settled into a small orange and brown café bulging with an eclectic mix of people. Neo-soul cats strummed guitars and beat out rhythms on jimbays by the bar. Others escaped into iPods and large hardcover books. Yoga moms with rolled up mats at their feet sipped skinny lattes, split croissants into eights and re-tied perfectly tied ponytails. Couples glossy with hangovers ordered huevos rancheros and potent bloody marys. The smell of eggs and bacon, fresh coffee, maple syrup and buttered bread massaged my stomach adding fire to a hunger I’d been growing since ramen noodles had been my breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Our server loaded our table with gluttonous requests, poached eggs over spicy corned beef hash, banana buckwheat pancakes, house cured sausage and smoked salmon, cantaloupe, fresh brown butter scones and a carafe of dark roast coffee. We ate in silence. Mouthfuls of silky egg and perfectly crisp hash, pillowy pancake and salty savory sausage shoveled in steadily until stomachs appeased we slowed down between sips of coffee and nibbles of melon to regard each other again. He spoke first. “I should start?”

I nodded guiding a petal pink sliver of salmon into my mouth. He nodded in return. “I’ll start. What do you know about cleaners?”

My mouth was full. I shrugged. He sighed pushing his plates away resting his elbows on the exposed table. “Okay. From the beginning then.” He moistened his lips folding his hands under his chin. “If after being marked and completing the initial quarantine it’s discovered a newly cloaked may not have the aptitude for withstanding the riots they are further tested for other attributes. Those chosen to be bleachers are passed on to Saints. It takes five years to master the manipulation of what cannot be seen. Bleachers give up a little part of themselves every time they offer to cleanse someone else. You learn first not to mourn that loss, to not feel it. Regardless of that instilled discipline somehow you almost always miss it.”

He folded a large bite of pancake into his mouth. I was quiet while he chewed waiting for him to continue. He took a sip of coffee, wiped distractedly at a crumb hanging on the side of his mouth before speaking again. “The training is not easy. Many of those working with the Saints request to be cleansed before they’re halfway through, but those who choose to see it to the end do so,” he looked through me with eyes swirling hazel and clear, “well I would say choose to do so for the same reason you choose to do what you do…” he cleared his throat, “did.”

I refilled my coffee emptying the carafe before reaching for the last piece of sausage chewing quietly to not interrupt his story.  He blinked his eyes charcoal before continuing. “They work under the direction of appointed trainers. They work and then they die. That is all the Taram or Eirum need ever know about them unless you find yourself needing the assistance of one like me. Me and the two others like me are the maligned privileged secret of the balance. We are born to do this, able to see the mark, able to do what they train to do as easily as you breathe. Seeing a soul, that indescribable palpableness of someone’s truth is my first memory. It is an amazing burden. We are tasked immediately with perfecting our abilities. Those of us with this birthright are the only ones capable of wiping the Taram and Eirum. We are also expressly forbidden to do so. Our talents are used…”

He paused again smiling at the waitress passing our table. She smiled in return, cheeks cherry red and doubled back to the table she’d overlooked delivering glistening tumblers of juice to the couple sitting there. Looking over her shoulder she confirmed she still held Doc’s attention. He winked. She giggled. He offered his charcoal glance a second longer before turning back to me, face boyish and sincere.

“Our talents are used for other things. It’s remarkable what can be accomplished with access to the soul,” he ran a hand through his shining hair, “and that is where we are mandated to stay. It is a birthright prison. One we are taught to regard as a privilege. For most that is enough. For others it is a catalyst for rebellion. They find new and interesting ways to utilize their skills. It is a constant temptation. There are numerous people willing to offer up more than you can imagine for a taste of what we can do – “

“But what about the balance? Don’t you question your actions? Think of yourself and your fate? Wonder when you’ll be marked?” I hadn’t realized I was going to speak until the questions were completely freed from my lips. He looked amused, reached for the carafe to fill his cup and finding it empty reached for my mug instead adding cream and taking a sip before responding.

“We can’t be marked. We live outside the balance. Some speculate we may be manifestations of the balance itself. Perhaps that is what makes it easier to choose to do horrible things, the feeling of being unaccountable. At least it made it easier for me.”

I felt my eyes widening in surprise. He smiled sadly handing back my coffee running his hand along his throat as if coaxing the remaining words from his mouth.

“There are consequences though as there are for everything. Consequences I still pay for, and will continue to pay for,” his exhale was audible, “since I’ve already decided I will do whatever it is you ask.”

I picked at a small piece of melon. “Why would you do that? Offer to help me, risk any sort of consequence to help someone you don’t even know?”

He leaned forward closing the distance between us through a sea of white plates, remnants of pancake and slices of buttered toast. “I know you better than you know yourself. See you more clearly than you’ll ever see yourself. I feel perhaps in not helping you I could face a far greater consequence than what already awaits me.”

We sat in silence. The blushing waitress cleared our plates searching Doc’s face for flirty glances but his navy blue eyes focused steadily on me. I waited until she walked away before breaking the silence surprised at the steadiness of my voice. “You know that I am the Kachina. You know that I will ask to be bleached.”

He nodded. “I do.”

“I don’t know a lot about cleaners, in fact as time goes on I realize I don’t know a lot about anything but I do know that in choosing to help me. Because of who I am. Who I’m supposed to be. Things could be bad. For you.”

He laughed. “No pretty one, things will be bad for you. You are the one running from your destiny. I suspect without warning it will come back and smack you upside your head.”

He was the second man to call me pretty and I could think of no more profound hint of premonition. The first man to call me beautiful had left me with pieces to mend. It seemed this might end in much the same way. I also knew regardless of any rational arguments to be made on either of our parts we were already resigned to what would be our fate.