Envelope

There was nothing fancy about the envelope, just a standard white business envelope. The postage was the basic flag forever stamp. Nothing but the address and return label on it. It would have been easy to ignore, toss it out as junk. But I recognized the return address, and it demanded my attention.

She had gone out of her way to type the address rather than write it in her easily recognizable looping script. That seemed heavy with meaning. Yet I couldn’t be sure what that meaning might be.

It would be simple to just open it and remove all the mystery. Instead, I had sat staring at it for over an hour, not even daring to touch it. It merely lay there, a veiled threat, already made, but not yet received.

It was probably the letter where she finally tells me everything I did wrong. How I hurt her. How I destroyed the relationship. Why I was a bad person and would never find happiness. The letter I had been waiting for, that confirmed everything I had been thinking over the last year. I wasn’t ready for that.

On the other hand, it might be mundane, just some unfinished business, fallout from disentangling two lives. Something about a signature on an official piece of paper. Or settling some outstanding financial matter. In any event, that would explain the impersonal envelope. Just business, nothing emotional.

I wasn’t sure which would be worse. Did I want to read someone else confirm all the horrible things I thought about myself? Or did I want to see five years reduced to some meaningless paperwork? I didn’t know. And I still haven’t opened the envelope.

Cut Off

He sat cross-legged in the grass. His knees complained only a little, which, given his age, was remarkable. Briefly closing his eyes, he summoned frost on the grass to encircle him. The flames that most used for such a ritual had always eluded him, but the frost was an adequate substitute, and a more appropriate one at that.

The sun was setting on his left as he drew forth a small bag from the folds of his robe. With a practiced gesture, he cast the runes on the ground in front of him. Closing his eyes so as to better feel them, he passed his hand slowly over the spot they lay.

But they weren’t there. He opened his eyes in surprise, and saw the stones right where he had cast them. He simply couldn’t feel their magic. They were inert. Quickly gathering the stones and placing them back in the bag, he cast them again. Once more, they were invisible to him.

Closing his eyes once more, he summoned a blizzard. When he looked, only a handful of snowflakes fell before giving up entirely. The frost making up the circle had already begun to melt.

The magic was still inside him; he could feel it. But he couldn’t access it, as if it were sealed behind a barrier. A sense of vulnerability began to overwhelm him. Nothing like this had ever happened to him. To any mage, as far as he knew. There must be some solution, but until he found it, he couldn’t count on magic to save him.

Always Turning on the Light Switch

She flipped the switch. It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the light. The bedding was mostly on the floor, and several bottles of champagne had been emptied and left in different positions on the nightstands. It was a familiar scene.

A woman wrapped in a towel stepped out of the bathroom.

“Oh! I’m sorry. I didn’t realize anyone was in here.” She turned to leave, but the other stopped her.

“It’s fine. You probably need to get this room cleaned up. I’m afraid we made a bit of a mess.”

“I can come back later.”

“No, really, I don’t mind. I’m almost done, after all.”

She wasn’t sure what to do. The room needed to be done before check-in, but she wasn’t supposed to rush guests.

“Please stay.”

Reluctantly she turned back into the room. The woman was drying her hair with another towel.

“Thanks, I’ll stay out of your way. It’s just kind of… lonely. You know, the morning after?”

“I can’t say I do.”

“You clean all these rooms, but you’ve never enjoyed a stay in one?”

“No.” She stripped the bed and carried the sheets out to her cart. As she brought in a fresh set, she saw the woman was staring at her from the bathroom doorway.

“What do you do? For fun, I mean?”

“I do this.” She finished smoothing the sheets before returning the comforter to the top of the bed.

“This isn’t fun. This is work. Oh! Come out with me tonight!”

“I am not supposed to socialize with the guests.”

“Well I won’t tell anyone. Come out. Have fun. There’s more to life than cleaning up after other people. Please?”

“I… I’ll come back later to finish up. I’m sorry for intruding.” She left the room quickly before the woman could stop her again.

The Seasons

A single beam of light made it through the thick canopy to strike the forest floor. It was a sign of the end of summer that enough leaves had released their grip on branches to let the light through. A figure moving amongst the trees stepped to avoid the spot on the ground, though it smiled as it did so.

Another figure joined the first. “You would laugh at my end, sister?”

“Don’t be so dramatic. It is merely the passage of time. It happens every year.”

“And every year you seem happy about it.”

“Well, why shouldn’t I be? My time is upon us. Don’t you rejoice at the beginning of your season?”

“It is never enough.”

“Careful, brother. You’re beginning to sound like a human. They, too, jealously guard their time, and envy those they think have more.”

“I do not care. You can delay the change. If you have any affection for me, you will.”

She considered the suggestion. “For how long would you have me delay?”

“A month. Six weeks at the most.”

“Six weeks! You would have me give up half my season? And for what? Merely because you are not satisfied with your allotted time?”

“So you will not grant my request.”

“I should say not. Other things depend on the turning of the wheel. More important than your petty desire for more.”

“You hurt me, dear sister.”

Only then did Autumn perceive the danger. Summer had never called her ‘dear’ in the whole history of the world. By the time she had thought the unthinkable, Summer had taken hold of her and cast her into a deep pit hidden nearby.

“You will release me this instant or you will regret it!” Anger punctuated every syllable.

“I think not. Perhaps, if it were a week or two later, but you are not yet in your full. I, however, still retain most of my strength.”

“Our sisters will never let this stand.”

“Oh dear Autumn,” this time he made no attempt to conceal the sneer, “they will never know. They will simply marvel at your generosity. Or scowl at your negligence. They will not discover you.”

She had no response for his dismissal of the danger the others represented.

“Now enjoy the warmth down there. It will be with us for some time.”

A Little Happiness

The night sky was clear and the nearest city was miles away, so innumerable stars shone overhead.

“What do you want to do with your life?”

“I want to be happy.”

“No, I mean…”

“I know what you mean. And I’m telling you I want to be happy.”

The air was pleasantly chilly without being cold. The ground was hard, but the blanket they sat on provided a little cushion.

“Life is a gift. Don’t you want to do something amazing with it?”

“I do want to do something amazing; I want to be happy. Life is misery and suffering. There is hardship everywhere you turn. To eke out some happiness amidst all of that? That is amazing.”

“But…”

“This is our life. We don’t owe anyone some big accomplishment that’s probably going to be forgotten in a generation. And that’s only if we succeed. Life is hard enough without making ourselves responsible for other people.”

Other than their voices, no sounds intruded on the stark beauty of the fall evening. A single meteor traced a path through the sky.

“Look, a shooting star. Make a wish.”

“I still think…”

“This is a gorgeous – dare I even say romantic – evening. Do you want to keep arguing? Or do you want to kiss me and find just a little happiness in this moment?”

“That’s not even a choice.”

“No, it isn’t.”

Looking Back

In the kitchen, there was a dark spot in the corner of one counter. A pan had been placed there directly from the stove, without a hot pad, and left there too long. It had happened during their first dinner party celebrating the new house.

The carpet in the living room had light and dark patches revealing the layout of furniture. The couch – it had been long and deep enough for two people to easily lose themselves in it – had sat across from the television. Many movies had played on that television and been ignored.

On the door frame of the kids’ bedroom were two sets of marks with dates at each one. One set stopped at about three feet several years ago. The other had a few marks later, but it, too, soon gave out. There was some evidence of someone trying – and failing – to sand the marks off.

Finally, in the master bedroom there were several holes in the wall. Something had been thrown against them hard enough to break the dry wall. No effort had been made to repair the wall; it served as one last memorial to what had gone on in this house.

“Where do you want to go?” the driver asked.

He looked out the window. The house he had spent several years of his life in now stood empty except for memories. “I don’t care. Away from here.”

The driver nodded as though such instructions were not uncommon. The car pulled away from the curb and made its way down the street. Slowly at first, it picked up speed as the house receded. He refused to look back.

The Client

“I want you to kill me.”

The woman who had walked into the office was young, in her twenties. Her dark hair was tied back so as to direct attention to her face. Sharp green eyes contrasted with soft features. There was no hint of jest or irony in her appearance.

CJ pulled her feet off the desk and sat forward to better project her own seriousness to this potential client.

“What?”

“I said, I want you to kill me.” She still seemed to mean it.

CJ shook her head. “That’s not what I do.”

“I’ll pay a lot of money.”

“To kill you.”

“A. Lot. Of money.”

Years after her parents and several therapists tried to break her of the habit, she still chewed the inside of her lip when she was uncomfortable. The pain, even the hint of blood, seemed to calm her down a bit. “Why? Why do you want someone to kill you?”

“Not someone. You.”

“Okay, me.” That raised all sorts of other questions, but CJ decided to stick to this one for now. “Why do you want me to kill you? Why do you want to be killed?”

“That’s not really your concern.”

“The hell it isn’t. If you’re asking me to kill you, I need to know why.”

“So you’ll do it?”

“No! I mean, that’s not the point. Why?” Other than what she was saying, this woman seemed perfectly sane. There was nothing off about her demeanor, her voice, the way she looked at CJ when she talked. But maybe all of that didn’t really tell the story.

The woman sighed. “Very well. I am in a tremendous amount of pain.”

Try as she might, CJ couldn’t hide the skepticism from her face. “I’m not a doctor, but…”

“Not right now. During the day, it recedes. But at night, it becomes intolerable. I can’t take it anymore. So I want you to kill me.”

“Have you seen…”

“Yes. Several doctors. All of them at the top of their fields. None can help me.”

“So why not just kill yourself? Why hire me to do it?”

“I can’t.” The finality of those two words said not to pursue this question, but CJ still wondered.

CJ continued to worry her lip. Throughout the conversation, the woman had maintained a rather stoic exterior. But she had glimpsed something underneath, however briefly. The woman was desperate. None of this made sense to CJ. And she had no intention of going through with the proposal, but there was more to all of this.

“Here.” The woman tossed an envelope on the desk.

“I’m not taking…”

“Consider it payment for your time. If you come to the address on the card inside, you’ll be paid more.” She turned around and walked out the door with the same matter-of-factness with which she had entered.

CJ picked up the envelope. It was thick and filled with hundred dollar bills. There was a card inside with an address on one side and a time and date on the other. 9 p.m. tonight. If she went, the woman might get the wrong idea. But if she didn’t go, who knows what would happen. Maybe she should call the police. Or a hospital. But she wouldn’t do that. It would not do to get a reputation of bringing in authority figures on cases.

9 o’clock. That gave her seven or eight hours to do a little research. Maybe she could find out who she was dealing with. But she wouldn’t kill someone, even if was someone willing to pay her for it.