Trapped

With a practiced hand, he drew a large circle with chalk and inscribed several runes within it, two for strength, three for protection. It was not sufficient; it never was. But it was all there was time for. Taking his place inside, he mumbled a few syllables under his breath and the lines began to glow.

The door swung open with some force, and a man stepped through. “On your feet, mage!” It seemed obvious he had practiced that.

“No.” Ice allowed himself a tiny smile.

The Terrgat drew his sword. “Get up, or I will run you through right here.”

“You intend to do that anyway. I have no interest in making it easier for you.”

As if that had been the sign he was waiting for, the Terrgat thrust his sword towards Ice. It glanced off of the barrier he had erected.

“I have studied that medallion you wear. It protects against magic cast directly at you, but it does not let you circumvent barriers. You cannot touch me.”

After a few more swings, the Terrgat appeared to accept Ice’s claim. He sheathed his blade and glared at the mage. “So you are protected in there. But for how long? I will wait. You cannot escape.”

Ice said nothing; he simply watched the man pace about the room. The Terrgat had a point about being tramped, but his impatience was evident. How long would he be willing to wait for Ice to lower his barrier?

Only a few minutes went by before he spoke again. “Why delay this? Are you hoping to be rescued? By whom? End this now.”

“I think I will stay right here.” Ice decided to try to force the issue. “But it is rather warm in here. Perhaps you would be willing to open the window?”

“No, I…” He caught himself up short. “That is a good idea.” The Terrgat left the room and returned quickly with a lit log from the fire in the public room. He tossed it on the bed. “Perhaps you are safe from my sword. But if heat still bothers you, you may want to come out now.” He stood smirking, pleased with his own cleverness.

Ice smiled again. “Do you know me?”

“Just another mage that people need to be protected against.”

“Well, I suppose you are correct after a fashion, but I am not just any mage.”

The flames had gotten higher and begun to spread, engulfing the entire bed. The Terggat was beginning to look worried. “If you are not eager to be burned alive, you should come out now.”

“I will be fine. But I think your medallion will offer you little protection.” The room was fully ablaze now. Ice could tell that the heat was nearly unbearable; only his magic kept his small circle safe. Fire magic had always eluded him, but it was a simple matter to protect against mundane heat. “Perhaps you should go now.”

The Terrgat scowled at him, but the fire was already pushing him out of the room. His departure  was timely, for the room itself was beginning to come apart. With his would be captor gone, Ice cast a version of his heat ward that would travel with him.  While the Terrgat was explaining the situation to the owner and trying to clear out the inn, Ice was able to sneak out the window and into the night.

Table For One

The coffee shop was quiet and nearly empty. He could not imagine how they stayed in business.  Besides the barista – a college-aged man who sat on his stool, reading a book – only one other person was in the place, a woman sitting at a table against the far wall.  She was reading something, too. The only sound either of them made was occasionally turning a page.

Unlike a library, where every sound is grating and out of place, the shop felt as if it were on the verge of springing to life. But it never did, and so he was left to his own thoughts and imagination. That is, until someone else came in and sat in the chair next to his.

“Hi. How are you?”

“Oh. It’s you.”

“That’s not very friendly. I saw you sitting alone and thought I’d say hi, but I can leave if you want.”

“No, that’s fine. Just sitting here thinking.”

“About what?”

“You know. The usual.”

“The past. The different ways you’ve messed up your life. The many people you’ve hurt. How you vaguely wish your life would just be over. That stuff, right?”

“Shut up.”

“Again with the attitude.”

“You know all this. You know how it feels. Why are we talking about this again?”

“You brought it up.”

“No. I politely replied to your question.”

“Okay, okay. So are you going to do anything about it? Or just sit and mope?”

“Now who’s being unfriendly?”

“It’s just that all of this gets old.”

“For me, too. It’d be nice if you would quit bringing it up.”

“Passing the blame again. Take some responsibility; don’t put this on other people.”

“You’re not other people.”

“Still, you know what I mean.”

“You think I like sitting around and moping? I don’t. I wish all of this would stop.”

“Then stop it. You make it sound like this is happening to you, instead of coming from you. This is your life; take control of it. And if you can’t do it by yourself, find someone to help you figure it out.”

“I would if I could.”

“What’s stopping you?”

“You know.”

“Say it. Say it so that you know.”

“I’m afraid.”

“Of what?”

“Of changing. Of not knowing who I am. That if I give this up, there will be nothing left. Of being happy. Of finding out that my entire life was a lie, and I’ve wasted it.”

“It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“Prove it.”

“I… I can’t.”

“I know.”

“Excuse me.” He looked up to see a woman standing behind the chair next to him. “I’m sorry for interrupting; you seemed really lost in thought. Would you mind if I take this chair so my friend and I can sit together?”

He looked at the empty chair and sighed. “I don’t mind. Please help yourself.”

“Thanks.”

After she dragged the chair away, he was again alone with his thoughts.

The Spirit

The wind blew so hard that it was impossible not to hear the spirits that traveled along with it. It’s not that the spirit world is more active at the end of the October; people are just more receptive to interactions. Even without Halloween, everywhere there are examples of the world dying. When one’s mind is filled with thoughts of death, it is easier to hear spirits.

And when someone notices the spirits, it becomes easier for them to cross over and enter this world. They are not evil, but they are disruptive, for spirits do not see the world from our perspective. Good and evil are meaningless concepts to them. And their goals cannot make sense to us. So when there is interaction, misunderstandings abound.

So while it took on a human like form, and dressed in a long black coat and black hat, it could not ask for help in its search. As it walked, people instinctively moved out of its way, though they were only barely aware of it. Ignoring the conversation of its peers, it arrived at its destination and stepped through the wall.

The room was dark, with only the light from a television to provide any illumination. A cat noticed it and walked over to talk. She explained that this place was under her protection. The spirit would need to conduct its business quickly, and then leave, preferably without disturbing the other residents.

“Why are you crying?” asked a man who was sitting on the couch. The cat looked back in a failed attempt to placate him. The man jumped a bit when he caught sight of the spirit, but his brain must have immediately rejected the image, and he calmed down. “Please stop crying. For a second I almost thought I saw a ghost.”

The cat gave one last meow, “hurry,” before walking back to the couch. The spirit touched its hat in acknowledgment. As it walked past the man, he shivered but did not see the spirit again.

In the hallway, there was a table with a drawer. Whatever had drawn the spirit, it was inside. It tugged on the drawer. Unaccustomed to such things, it used too much force, and the drawer and all its contents crashed to the floor.

It bent down to pick up a piece of paper, but the cat was already there, yelling. “Begone! You are causing trouble. Out of my house!” The spirit quickly pocketed the paper and moved to exit the house.

The man had come to investigate – a bit slower than the cat – and yelled in fear when he saw the spirit walking. The spirit turned to go through another wall and out of his sight. In doing so, it knocked a photograph off of the wall. Now the cat was screaming at it to leave and adding threats. The spirit quickly passed through more walls, causing more disturbances, before finally reaching the safety of the outside once more.

The paper secure, and safely beyond the cat’s ire, the spirit continued its walk through the late autumn evening.

Winter Always Wins

Leaves at the mercy of the wind clattered down the road.  They were headed north, as the summer winds tried to have one last say before being driven out of this part of the world for the year.  The warmth wouldn’t last long, even the wind knew it; despite its direction, the unmistakable scent of winter was obvious. It was clean and crisp, the smell of quiet and stillness. All the noise of the leaves could not drown it out.

The struggle between summer and winter would last a bit longer, giving rise to a beautiful autumn, but the outcome itself was never in doubt. Winter would arrive once more and bring the world some much needed rest. Until then, the leaves, once vibrant and alive, would play out the struggle, caught by forces they knew but could no longer influence. They would be blown back and forth awhile longer. Eventually, buried by snow, they would return to the earth and help feed the next generation. In the end, winter always wins.

Indeed, already the wind has shifted, and the leaves headed back the way they came. A chill had snuck into the air, and the sun is already long into its descent toward the horizon. It won’t be long now.

The Underground (part four)

A knock at the door interrupted John staring off into space.  Unable to sleep and unwilling to venture out, he was stuck sitting in his living room, doing nothing. It was already well into the evening, and he wasn’t expecting anyone, so he didn’t get up.  Maybe whoever it was would just go away.

The knock came again, a little louder this time. “John?”

Even muffled by the door, the voice sounded familiar. Reluctantly, he left his chair and walked over to look out of the peephole. Sure enough, it was her. How had she found him? Did she go through his wallet after drugging him the other night? Did he even want to talk to her? No, he decided. He had stayed home for a reason.

“John, I know you looked out; I could see the shadow. Please let me in.”

He walked away from the door and began heading to the back of his apartment away from the door.

“John. I dropped the restraining order. It’s okay to talk to me. I wanted to explain.”

Colleen? Why was she here?

“No need to explain,” he shouted through the door. “Thank you for dropping it, but I don’t want to cause you any more trouble. Please just go.”

He turned around to walk away again.

“I had a dream about you.”

Once again, he stopped. “Probably because I kept insisting you were someone you aren’t. I’m sorry about that. It won’t happen again.”

“No. Before. Before that first time.”

A shiver ran up his spine. He walked quickly back to the door. There she was, the perfect copy of Cailín, except for the apparent lack of confidence.

“When?”

“Can I please come in?”

“When did you have a dream about me?”

“The night before you first came up to me.”

He didn’t think she was lying, but he wasn’t sure he could trust his intuitions anymore. Still, he stepped aside and gestured for her to come in. Leading her to an armchair, he sat down on the corner of the couch next to it.

“Go ahead.”

She looked nervous. Would she call the police? Was this a set up? He tried to ignore that possibility. If she could shed any light on this whole mess, he wanted to hear her out.

“Okay, well… The night before we met, I had a dream about you. We had been drinking in a bar. I actually hadn’t remembered the dream until you talked to me. It kinda freaked me out. I don’t usually remember my dreams. And I’ve certainly not dreamed about someone I’ve never met just before meeting them.”

“I can see why that might freak you out.” Realizing he might be making her uncomfortable, he leaned back against the couch to give her some space.

She nodded. “So when I saw you again…”

“And I grabbed you.”

“Yeah. I thought… Well, I don’t know what I thought, exactly. The dream had really unnerved me. And I wanted to get rid of you so I wouldn’t have to think about it anymore.”

“I shouldn’t have grabbed you.”

“No, you shouldn’t have. But the dream bothered me more. I didn’t know what to make of it. And then you thought you recognized me. It was all rather unsettling.”

“So what made you drop the restraining order? Why come here to tell me all of this?”

“I went to that bar. Or I tried to. They wouldn’t let me in. But it really bothered me that I had never noticed it before. And I thought about everything you’d said… And… so I came here. I thought maybe you knew something that would help me make sense of this.”

“It doesn’t really make sense to me, either, I’m afraid.”

Her disappointment was obvious. But what could he offer her? He hadn’t believed anything Cailín had told him. Maybe, though…

“I think there is someone who might be able to help you. Let’s try the bar again.”

“But they already turned me away.”

“I know a guy…”

*     *     *

“I’m sorry, sir. Members only.” The doorman blocked the door.

“What? Since when?” John hadn’t expected this, even after Colleen had told him she hadn’t been able to get in. “You know me. You’ve let me in before.”

“Sorry, sir. If you aren’t a member, I must ask you to leave.”

Desperate, he tried another tack. “Don’t you recognize your boss?” He gestured at Colleen.

“Not the boss. Please leave.”

John was defeated. He had been certain the doorman would let him in.

Colleen tugged at his jacket. “Come on. Let’s go. I’m not feeling well, anyway.”

John hated giving up. The answers were inside. Colleen and Cailín face to face would surely bring some sort of resolution. Maybe that was the way in. He turned back to the man standing between him and the door.

“Look, Matt?” The man nodded. “I need to prove to this woman,” again indicating Colleen, “that she and your boss are twins. It will help clear up some trouble I’m in.”

“But I…” John gave Colleen a quick look to stop her. She appeared to get the message.

“My instructions were clear. No one gets in. I’m sorry.”

“John, I’m really not feeling well.”

He finally noticed she had started looking very pale.  “What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know. I felt this way earlier, but it seemed to go away…” She collapsed before she could finish her sentence.

John tried to catch her but didn’t get there quickly enough, and she landed heavily on the ground. “Dammit.” He picked her up; she was completely unconscious. “I suppose you can’t call anyone?”

The doorman seemed frozen with worry and uncertainty. John pushed past him into the club to get to a phone. By the time the man had recovered his wits, John was already through the door. He took a step toward the bar, and Colleen vanished from his arms.

She hadn’t fallen, nor had she gotten out of his arms herself. She was just gone, as though she had never been there.

John turned around and opened the door without walking out. “Did she leave?”

“Who?”

“The woman I was with.”

“No one came out. But you need to. Right now.”

“Not going to happen. And Cailín told me you won’t come in, so I don’t think you’re going to make me.” John closed the door again.

If she hadn’t left, where was she?

John saw Cailín walking over to him from the direction of her office. A sad smile on her face, she did not seem to be in a hurry to get to him. He walked swiftly to close the distance.

“I’m surprised to see…”

John cut her off. “Where is she?”

“Who?” The question seemed genuine enough, but he had lost his patience.

“You know who. Colleen.  Where is she?”

“You brought her here?”

“Yes. To straighten things out.”

“Oh.” Cailín started chewing her lip.

“Do we need to go somewhere to talk? This is getting old.”

“Well…”

He sighed. “Lead the way.”

Quitting

The captain’s office was smoky.  The man never opened a window, though she had to admit to herself that it wouldn’t have helped much; the outside air wasn’t any clearer.  She took a deep breath before opening the door.

He looked up only briefly from his desk.  “Did you get him?”

“No.”

Now his gaze rose and stayed on her.  “What?”

Her dark coat was still zipped all the way up, the large collar covering the lower half of her face. But she knew he had heard her just fine.

When she didn’t respond, he spoke again.  “How have you still not found this guy? This is the sort of thing you excel at.”

“Oh, I found him.”

“But he’s not dead?”

“No.”

The captain put down his pen, leaned back in his chair. “Why not?”

She tossed the folder containing the file onto the desk. “Because I’m done.”

He looked genuinely surprised. “What? Why?”

Glad her clenched teeth were hidden from view, she took out her freelancer license and threw that on the desk, too. “The gun is mine. I’ll be keeping that.”

Stammering, he tried to find a threat. “You can’t… What did you… If you walk out, I’ll have you… You’re going to be seen as an accomplice.”

She stabbed a finger at him to keep him in his seat. “This case is crap. You probably know it. And I’m not going to be a part of it.” Before he could say anything else, she turned, left his office, and escaped into smoke-filled night.

The Underground (part three)

“Do you understand?” The police officer – or maybe he was a detective, John couldn’t remember – was stern.

“Yes, sir. I am to stay at least 50 feet…”

“Yards. 50 yards,” the man corrected him.

“50 yards from her at all times, and I am not to attempt to communicate with her.” John looked for some confirmation, and the man nodded. “Do I need a lawyer?”

“Not unless you plan on contesting the order. But if it was just a case of mistaken identity, as you claim, why would you do that?”

John knew no one believed his explanations. They thought John was crazy and probably needed to be locked up. But since there was nothing more than grabbing the woman’s arm, they seemed content to settle for the restraining order.  This man just wanted John to know that he’d be watching.

The only thing John wanted was to get out. A bizarre situation had become a nightmare, and he would just be happy if he never saw Colleen again. Whatever connection might exist between her and Cailín no longer interested him. Being arrested was more than his curiosity could take.  His apartment was the only place he wanted to be after a night in jail.

“I will stay away from her.”

“You better.”

And that was it.  He retrieved his belongings and was free.  It was already past noon. Going straight home, he messaged his boss, told him he would explain everything tomorrow. John hoped the news hadn’t gotten to his work; he wanted to be able to put it in context.

As soon as he sat down, exhaustion overwhelmed him. It had been a long night, and no amount of sleepless nights prepared someone for a sleepless night in jail. Deciding his state of tiredness might be severe enough, he moved to his bed and promptly slipped into unconsciousness.

*     *     *

The club never seemed to change. The people did; some different faces every night. But it was as though everyone was a regular, everyone knew how to behave to preserve the atmosphere. It might be kind of comforting, if it didn’t seem so odd.

Sitting at the bar, John wondered why he was back here. In his dreams, he would sometimes realize he was doing something he didn’t want to, and it would shock him. He might smoke a cigarette and then be horrified that he had done it. This felt very much like that, except he was awake.

His anxiety rose when he remembered that Colleen said she lived upstairs. Was he violating the restraining order? He stood to leave. It was silly being here; what had possessed him to come back?

“Hi, there. Missed you last night.”

Once again, Cailín seemed to appear from thin air.

“I was in jail.”

Her surprise looked genuine enough. “Why were you in jail?” Concern permeated her voice.

“We’ve already talked about this. You drugged me.” John surprised himself by saying that, but he immediately realized it was true. “I don’t want to go back to jail, so I’m leaving.”

He turned to walk away. Her voice stopped him.

“I’m sorry.”

He looked back at her. “What?”

“For drugging you. I’m sorry. I thought it was the right thing to do, but it wasn’t. I’m sorry.”

“Well… thank you.”

“Please stay.”

“I have a restraining order on me. From the woman who looks like you. She lives in this building. I have to go.”

“No, you don’t. Let’s go talk. No funny stuff. I swear.”

He should leave, he knew that. This admittedly fascinating woman had brought chaos into his life. Nothing good could come from staying. But her pull over him was undeniable. He could not say what it was about her. Yes, she was attractive, but that wasn’t it, at least not all of it. Whatever drew him to her, he found himself unable to ignore it now.

He motioned for her to lead the way. Rather than taking him back up to her office, she led him to an alcove off the floor. Pushing back the heavy curtain revealed a couch, a couple of chairs, and a low table. She waved him inside and closed the curtain.

“I didn’t know this was here.”

“These little spaces don’t get used much. But sometimes people want privacy.”

“It’s cozy.”

“Yeah. So tell me what happened.”

“Two days ago, after my last visit here, I woke up at home and went about my day. Something reminded me of you, which is when I realized I had forgotten about you. I assume that was whatever you gave me.”

She looked down to avoid his gaze. “Yes.”

“Why? Why did you do that?”

Her sigh was heavy. “I really did think it would help. I wanted you to forget this place.”

“It didn’t work.”

“I know. Please go on.”

He considered pursuing the question, but decided to continue. Maybe she would understand how messed up everything was. Maybe it would make her more willing to answer him.

“After work, I came over here to talk to you. But you weren’t open yet, so I sat and waited. I saw Colleen, your doppelgänger, walk by. Since she had said she’d never heard of this place, I grabbed her arm to stop and question her. Before I could get anywhere, the police showed up, and she said I was stalking her. They threw me in jail overnight and slapped a restraining order on me. That’s what happened.”

“Oh.”

“Oh? That’s all you have to say?”

“I’m sorry, I wasn’t trying to minimize it. I was just thinking about how to make this right.”

“Tell me the truth. Do you have multiple personalities? Are you really Colleen?”

“No. I mean… No. I don’t have multiple personalities. This is rather difficult to explain.”

“Try.”

“Okay. Let me start with… Well, do you remember when I asked you if you remembered me before seeing Colleen?”

“Yes.”

“This place is separate. It’s… different. People come here to get away from their day-to-day grind.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Well, it’s not just a slogan. It’s literally true. Everyone here is someone else outside of this place. No one here remembers their lives out there. And no one out their remembers their time here. It’s the ultimate escape. In other words, you shouldn’t remember events in one while you’re in the other. What you’ve described has never happened before.”

“So you are Colleen?”

“That’s your question?”

“Well, yes. At least in part.”

“No, I’m not Colleen. I know nothing about Colleen. I know nothing about her life. And she knows nothing about mine. Or about you. Except that you seem to think she’s someone else and are stalking her because of it. We are not the same person. It should be impossible for you to even remember both of us.”

“That is unbelievable.”

“I know. That’s why I didn’t want to explain it before.”

“If you don’t know about Colleen, if you only know about things in here, how do you know about any of this?”

“I’m the owner, remember? I set this place up. Nobody else out there knows anything about this. They just come here and enjoy themselves. I know the rules, but I still have to follow them.”

“So nobody can verify this?”

“Well… Now that you ask…”

“Who?”

“Matt.”

“Matt?”

“You’ve met him. The doorman. He’s never been inside. When I hired him, I explained things. Told him not to come in, it would make it hard to do his job. He agreed. You could talk to him.”

“So why do I remember?”

She shrugged. “I don’t know. That’s why I drugged you the other night. Try to put things back to normal. Obviously, as you noted, that failed. So I’m trying to tell you the truth, trying to make things right.”

This was crazy. He should have left. Should never have come back. A place separate from the rest of the world. John stood up and walked out of the alcove. Cailín said something, but he wasn’t listening. He kept going right out the door. The doorman was there, but John didn’t stop. He didn’t want to hear any more. Cailín was at the door calling out to him. But he didn’t stop this time, and she didn’t cross through the doorway.

Once he was up the stairs and a few steps away, her voice faded into the night. How had he even gotten here? It didn’t matter. He was exhausted again. He walked back to his apartment and went straight to bed.