Goodbye, She Said
Audio Fiction • Listen / Read
When ‘She’ loses her boyfriend and her sister on the same day, ‘She’ indulges in a newfound compulsion for horror. ‘He’ begins to investigate, believing the rumored monster cult is responsible for all their woes.
This story contains scenes of fantasy violence and sensuality.
Written, Produced, and Read by William J. Meyer
Featuring Nicola Branch as the singing voice of ‘She’
Additional Voices by Cary Michael Ayers, Nathan Bonilla-Warford, Duncan Cassidy, Owen McCuen, Jenny Seegers, William Seegers, and Andrew Wardlaw
Music by William Seegers
Goodbye, She Said
by William J. Meyer
“Goodbye,” she said.
It wasn't the first time. It would be the last.
Her first goodbye had been playful, he recalled. A dismissal of that awkward pause that precedes every first kiss.
She hovered in front of him, poised. He lifted up to meet her, crooked— a caricature of an amorous position.
She smiled. He smiled. Their lips parted.
But they did not kiss.
She jerked her head away, giggling.
Their first date was in a graveyard.
He hoped they would be far enough away from the intrusion of the light-posts. Those manufactured suns, numerous and sallow, that buzzed like perturbed hornets. Their dim glow deprived God’s rapturous domain of its precious emptiness. He did not want the meteor shower robbed of its due glory.
He sat by her side, a tombstone against their backs, its name written in a language foreign to them both.
“That’s Cepheus,” she said.
She moved his hand through the sky.
“And that one?” he asked.
“They call it— Cygnus.”
“Cygnus,” he repeated.
Their hands settled in the dew between their thighs.
Together, they waited.
To some, meteor showers were simple ice-dust, small rock
shorn from bigger rock— fragments sent hurtling, not by quarreling angels, but indifferent gravity wells.
He knew better. They were particles from paradise. They didn't risk the fringe of the forbidden prairie to witness a clumsy dance of physics. They were here for the splintering of Heaven.
She hummed a song he did not know. He liked it.
Their hands trembled in the dew.
His pinky edged toward her thumb.
Three weeks later he hung like a reluctant scarecrow with only a few minutes left in his brief, flittering life. He still wasn't ready to remember that first goodbye, the one in the graveyard, so sweet and so—
“No, no, don’t think about it,” he whispered.
Instead, he recalled her second goodbye, one less astringent.
He walked her home at midnight. Their second date ended. She had performed a few songs for a small audience at a kind of bistro. Now they stretched out their farewell, puttering about her father’s garden.
When she danced through the oscillating sprinkler, he stood by, watching, uninvolved. His inhibitions kept him dry.
She laughed without care, utterly soaked, shaking the heavy globules from her strawberry tresses.
A suggestion of glee clogged in his throat.
“Hey!” she called. “Run!”
“But,” he protested. “I'll get wet.”
“That is the general idea.”
He shut his eyes. “One and two and three.”
The sprinkler's staccato shot tsch-tsch-tsch.
Unable to see, he sprinted lengthwise down the sprinkler instead of across, and so prolonged his agony.
“Aahh!” he cried.
With his hair slashed over his eyes, he stood before her, dripping. “What happened?” he asked.
She parted his hair with her finger. To the right. To the left. She robbed him of his isolation, and they stared at one another.
“Should we try it, I wonder?” she asked.
He thought she meant kissing. Smooching. Maybe necking? Honestly, he didn't know if there was a difference.
“Try what?” He swallowed his grin.
She pulled on his wrist and walked backwards towards the pumpkins saying, “I've never dated a boy more than three weeks.” She dragged him along the rutted row. “And I think we should try it. You seem okay.”
“Oh. But how will we know it’s been three weeks?”
She lifted her head. “See her? Up there, watching over us?”
He looked where she looked. The moon rich and mustard over them.
“Hmmm-mmm. They say she has different faces, and each lasts roughly seven days. New, first quarter, full, and third quarter.”
“Which face is this one?” he asked.
“Right now, she’s third quarter. Luna will eat some more and when she’s full again, that’ll be about three weeks. That’s how we’ll know.”
“And then?” He swallowed.
“And then— we’ll be going steady,” she answered.
He shook. “Okay.”
She let go, leaving him shivering next to a commodious squash.
“But what happened to your last boyfriend? I heard—“
“Nothing,” she interrupted. “Nothing happened. He disappeared. Went away. Nothing to do with me.”
He blinked. “Okay.” He held his shoulders. “Why haven't you dated more than three weeks? Is that long?“
“Oh,” she trailed off.
He watched her glistening shoulders rise and fall, not in sync, off-kilter, like a curved creature of the loch.
She caught him watching and exaggerated the rhythm into a silly dance.
She said, “I just get sooo borrrrrr-d.”
He couldn't speak. He couldn't move. He felt boring every day of his life. Should he tell her? His teeth chattered.
“Are you that cold?” she asked. “C’mhere.” She took his hips into her grasp. She drew him close. He stopped breathing.
“You do have to breath, y’know,” she said.
She said, “Now, put your hands where mine are.”
“Okay.” He put his fingers over hers.
She giggled. “No, put them on meeeee. In the same spot.”
“Oh,” he said. He put his hands around her waist, grazing the nubs at the small of her back.
“That tickles,” she said.
“Yours are bigger than mine,” he heard himself say.
She nodded, “Girls develop faster than boys. I wouldn’t worry about it. Hey! We should go swimming. Not tomorrow, the next day.”
“Sounds great,” he answered.
“Unless— you don’t want to get wet?” she grinned.
“That’s different,” he frowned.
“I don’t know,” he admitted.
She pursed her lips off to the side, lost in thought.
“Would there be kissing now?” he wondered.
“You have pretty eyes,” she said.
“Oh,” he answered, startled.
“They’re shiny,” she said.
“Uh, thank you.”
“Yes,” she ran a hand through his hair. “Pretty. Shiny. Eyes.”
She squinted, looking past him. “Look over there.”
“Hmmm?” he asked.
She led him down a row of corn. She knelt and retrieved a silver scarf, torn in two.
“What is it?” he asked.
“My sister’s scarf.”
“And look here, a boot!” He stepped past her and pulled it out of the dirt. “Is this her’s too?”
She scowled. “No.”
“Who would leave a boot in your garden? Maybe your sister knows. I’d like to meet her.”
She turned away. “She’s not here. She went to collect magnolias yesterday and didn’t come home for dinner. I think— Maybe she crossed the lake to stay with our cousins.” She faced him. “It takes a week to cross, she’s probably half-way there.”
“You’re not worried?” he asked.
“I bet you had a fight. If I had a sister we wo—“
“It’s getting late.” She crossed her arms.
“Oh. Uh. Sure thing,” he shivered, handing her the boot. He stretched his lips toward her cheek.
“Goodbye,” she said, tilting her neck away.
“Goodbye,” he answered, leaving her alone in the corn.
“That wasn’t so bad,” he told himself, waiting to die.
The restless streak of his memory hurried on, and he discovered a vision of her bobbing in the river beside him. They held hands under water, where their fingers elongated and bent. Floating in the river, they paddled their legs just enough to mitigate the desultory current.
“Trah-lah-lah!” she sang. “Trah-lah-lah! Did you like my songs the other night? You never said.”
“Yes, I liked them very much,” he nodded. “Can I ask a question?” He asked.
She giggled. “I think you just did. Trah-lah-lah!”
He braced. “What happened to your last boyfriend?”
She lowered her head and watched his reflection rippling between them. “My sister. My sister happened.”
“What a relief.”
She splashed him.
“I meant— I heard a rumor— he was— eaten?”
“Oh. A prairie monster, right? Yeah, I heard that too.”
“Six legs, they say,” he mumbled.
“Eight,” she corrected.
“I thought you said—“
“It would have been eight. That’s what lives across the prairie.”
“Ah,” he nodded.
She looked up. The sun stabbed through the leaves. She continued. “Powerful. Agile. Fierce.” She paused. “Hungry.”
“You— like monsters?”
“I like strength,” she answered. “And sometimes you can only find that in a monster.”
He canted his head. “Is that true?”
She cast off her far-away look. “My sister stole my boyfriend. Didn’t know you could steal people. Now I do.”
“So— you two did have a fight,” he ventured.
“She lied to me, and then denied it! And I found half her scarf on his— and then last night, the other half, and his— Look, I don’t want to talk about it.”
“I mean, how could they do such a thing? Oh, I hate him. I hate her. I hate them both.”
A tree overhead rustled. Half-a-dozen dried midges fell into the river. As the current swept them away, finned beasts surfaced, claiming their meals in an eager staccato.
“Well that’s weird,” she mused.
More dead midges fell, scattering closer to them. And a few more, closer still.
He shouted, “It’s leading right to us!”
More beasts burst from below, swimming and gulping the midges in short leaps like a circus of trained animals.
“The surface waves!” she called. “Go under!”
They dove to the bottom. Reaching black sand, they looked up to see the feeding frenzy converge nearer. They turned upstream to flee, but an abrupt wall of scales blocked their escape. The great blue-green beast glided past— a slow, oblivious slide of sparkling skin. The monstrosity’s thick, scattered black spots passed in a curl. They marveled at its thick red stripe from gill to tail.
They squeezed one another’s hand.
He panicked and struggled to resurface, pulling her with him. She panicked too, but swam in the opposite direction. Each thought the other had been caught. They pulled as hard as they could to free one another, going nowhere.
At last their grip broke and they snapped to the surface, gasping for air.
“Did it get you?” he called.
“No, I thought you—!” She pointed.
The feeding disappeared down river, and they realized what happened. They laughed. She dared to splash him.
“Don’t!” he said, half-joking.
“Wasn’t that amazing!” she called.
“Amazing? We couldabeen—“
“Getoutofthewaterrr!” came an atonal blast.
Her enraged father and his trumpet of a scream frightened them so much, they did the exact opposite. They plunged again into the maple-colored water, submerging quickly beneath its fluid fold.
Their unclasped hands sought each other— and twenty fingers joined, lattice-like.
He wanted to kiss her— kiss her, hold her, remain forever inside their private, liquid limbo.
“Brr sah eh tur!” her father insisted, his trumpet now more like a busted tuba, bleating as it was through the water.
They sloshed out of the river. Her father posed akimbo over them. His eyes, weighted heavily by paternal obligation, narrowed into disapproving slits.
Her father shouted, “You could be eaten alive!”
As they stepped out of the brown wash that lapped the crumbly earth, he tried to help her climb the bank, but her father yanked his daughter out of reach.
He lifted his gaze to meet hers as her father led her away. “Goodbye,” she said.
Hanging now in the void, he could still hear the river.
Two days later she came over for dinner.
They sat across from his mother at the oval dining table, and ate in silence.
He aimed for a bean and missed. His utensil scraped his plate. “Sorry,” he said, cringing.
“What do you kids do for fun, hmmm?” asked his mother.
“Go swimming,” she blurted.
He nudged her under the table.
She changed the subject. “So, who’s that?” She pointed the melon on her utensil at the framed drawing of a fellow on the wall. He wore a furrowed brow over resplendent battle armor.
“My husband,” said his mother.
“Cool helmet. Was he a hunter?”
“More of a sentinel,” his mother replied.
“Ohhh,” she remarked. “Killed a bunch of monsters, did he?”
“That’s right,” said his mother.
“Well y’know,” she said, taking a bite of sweet potato, “We oughta respect them monsters.”
“You think so,” his mother said flatly.
He nudged her again under the table. She kicked him in the ankle.
“They have dignity,” she asserted. “Courage, too. In some ways, they’re our superiors.”
His mother dropped her utensil.
He mumbled, “Ahhh— hah—“
“Where’s your husband now, out slaying monsters?” She swirled saffron in her mouth.
His mother replied, “In my heart, yes. In reality, no.” She stood up. Her chair scrapped the floor. “He was eaten last year. I’ll wrap your dessert. You can take it with you.”
His mother hurried into the kitchen.
Not long after, he and she stood outside.
“I’m— really sorry,” she said.
He nodded. “She’ll be okay.”
She asked, “Did they love each other?” She pulled off a piece of pie and ate it with her fingers.
“Of course they did, what kinda question is that? Look, I didn’t want to say this in front of my mom, but something wasn’t natural about those finned beasts attacking us.”
“They weren’t attacking us. They were hungry.”
“Just forget it. We’re fine.”
“Are we? Earlier today I did some— investigating— about your sister.”
“Turns out, she’s been seen on this side of the lake.”
“Yeah, some kind of weirdo chant thing.”
“The old man I talked to at market said they worship monsters, kinda ridiculous.”
“Ridiculous. I have to go.”
“Go? But we can find your sister!”
“She broke my heart more than any boy could. She can take care of herself.”
“Don’t you love her?” he asked.
“I can’t be late for my meeting. Thanks for dessert.” She smacked her lips.
“What meeting?” he asked.
“Rehearsal. Singing. Why the interrogation?”
He smiled. “I’m— simply— interested. I— like you. I like getting to know you.”
She frowned. “Know me? Know me? How can anyone know anyone? In a few months— you might learn I like to pull wings off flies— and I’ll find out you tip turtles on their backs. Then what? Hmmm?”
“Turtles?” he interjected. “I’m not that strong.”
“Everyone is just a puzzle without a box.” She threw her hands up in the air. “Who knows what the picture really looks like!”
“And pieces are missing.” He suggested.
“And pieces are—” She agreed before realizing it. “Missing. Okay, okay.” She stepped closer. “So you’re not completely square.”
“Obey,” she mumbled. “Obey.”
She said, “Meet me at Make-out Point. Two midnights from now.”
“Yes.” He nodded.
She wiped her fingers across his mouth. “Goodbye,” she said.
The abandoned firetruck known as Make-out Point was half-buried in the sand. Hydrilla grew along the adjacent lakeshore, dancing in green water, tapering into aqua grass, skirting the red truck and its cozy, if not romantic, cab.
He crept out of the surrounding weeds, careful to avoid the clearing between the lake and the village road. He crawled up to the firetruck’s cab and peeked inside.
“Boo!” she shouted.
He jumped. “Shhh!” he said.
“Don’t ‘shhh’ me!” she laughed.
They climbed through the passenger-side window. An old blanket crammed between the seat and the floor. An aspirin bottle wedged between the dash and the windshield.
His nerves amplified his clumsiness, and he bumped his head against the ceiling. She resisted laughing, but could not stop from showing her teeth. She put her legs between him and the plastic seatback. She wriggled backwards, squirming against the driver-side door. He tried to position himself in the center of the cab, but since the truck angled toward its left, he slowly, steadily, slid on top of her.
She waited. Patient.
“C’mhere,” she commanded, no longer patient.
She pulled his face down to hers. She aimed his trembling left hand down her right thigh. He nuzzled her neck and reached under her left hip and caressed her nub, hoping she would reach for his.
And she did.
“Are you sure?” he whispered.
She answered, “It’s why we’re here. We can do anything— we want.”
They pressed their cheeks together.
The aspirin bottle started to shake.
“Slow,” she said. “Slow.”
She guided his other hand up her neck— and spread his fingers wide. They were a strange contortion of interlocked limbs.
He looked out the plastic window behind her, at the twinkle of sand just outside. Had something walked by?
“Let’s pretend,” she said, biting his ear.
“That we’re already— up in the treetops, away from this place. On our way to— life.”
“This is life,” he said.
“No it isn’t.”
“Then where?” he asked. “Beyond the lake? Past the prairie? All those— people?”
She answered. “What people? They don’t exist. Not until I see them.”
He stopped, cramping because of the twist in his shoulders. “You’re beautiful,” he said into her ear.
“Don’t say such things,” she replied. She held him closer. ”Do you feel that?”
“My heart, fluttering— like wings.”
He lifted his head, tried to kiss her. She gently held him off. He saw two tears, one in each eye. Stars reflected there. He reached with a thumb to wipe them away.
“Leave them,” she breathed. She pulled him closer still, wrapped her arms tighter, turned into him. “One’s for her. One’s for him. My sister. And my boy— her boyfriend.”
“What happened to him?” He regretted the question.
She looked at the roof and played with his hair. The stars in her eyes dimmed. “We were fighting— at the big folk’s house.”
“No—“ he gasped.
“I know we shouldn’t have been there, but.” Her eyes welled up. “I was so angry I— So angry I hoped they would catch him and make him a pet or something!” She sobbed.
“Did they? Did they catch him?”
“Oh, do you hate me?”
“Do you hate me?”
“Of course not,” he said.
“But I’m awful— awful!”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” he stroked her hair. “I— don’t hate you. In fact—“
“Don’t say it,” he thought.
“I love you,” he said.
She calmed down. Sniffled. Wiped her eyes. Locked her gaze to his. “What does this have to do with love? Love?” she asked. “Love,” she stated. “Hah! That’s for the big folk. Not us. You don’t love me. How? How can you? You can’t! You don’t know me.” She looked at the old scratches damaging the seat. “I don’t even love me.”
“You don’t mean that,” he offered.
“Don’t tell me what I mean.”
“But— Surely it’s okay— to say— if—“ he dared. “There’s all sorts of love.”
“How would you know?” she asked.
“I read it. I read about it.”
“Oh, you read about it.” She nodded.
He sat up. She put her legs across his lap.
“Sure, there’s a kind of love, between parents and children, they call that storge.”
“Hmmm-mmm. And friendship love, they call philia.”
“That’s right. And there’s agape, divine love for the created, and— uhm— there’s another one called— uh—“ He took a deep breath.
“Well,” he blushed.
“Yes!” she demanded, seeing his cheeks turn red. “Say it.” She sat up beside him and pointed a finger in his face. “Say it!”
“Passion,” he mumbled.
“Passion,” she repeated. She added, “Desire.”
“Desire,” he repeated.
She cupped her hand at the base of his neck and wriggled her fingers like the legs of an insect.
He looked at her lips. She looked at his. He leaned in.
Rain pattered across the truck.
“Can I kiss you?” he asked.
“I think it’s time to leave,” she said, looking out the windshield.
“Oh no,” he mumbled.
“Not so bad,” she suggested. “But without these,” she indicated their nubs, “We’ll have to walk, huh?”
“Not sure I want mine to open, to be honest.”
“It would mean I’m old.”
“Pfft, think of the energy! The strength!” She clenched her fist and bent her arm, growling.
“Whywontyoukissme?” he blurted.
“Isn’t that my right?”
“Of course, absolutely, I—“
She interrupted. “The last boy, after I kissed him, he—“
She angled away and watched the grass bend under the rain drops. She covered her eyes with both hands.
“Obey,” she whispered. “Obey.”
“What?” he asked.
“Because then. It’s real. And we must never be real.” She took her hands down. “Let’s go.”
He hopped out of the truck, but stumbled and fell. He looked under the cab.
“You okay?” she asked, landing beside him.
He stood up, holding half a torn silver scarf in his left hand. And a boot in his right. “They were here,” he said.
She snatched the scarf and shook it in anger.
“Where’s your sister.”
“I don’t know.”
“I think you do. Tell me.”
“I don’t have to tell you anything.” She walked into the clearing.
“Let me help you,” he called through the drizzle.
“I don’t need your help,” she assured him, quickening her pace.
A low hiss wound its way through the rain.
“Shhh,” he cautioned. “Did you hear that?” He hurried to catch up.
“I heard you ‘shhh’ me— that I heard!”
He lifted the loose end of the scarf and waved it at her. “Look,” he said, “something doesn’t add up. You said you found half your sister’s scarf with your boyfriend?”
“I can’t do this.”
“Then you found another half in your father’s garden.”
“Let’s walk home separately,“ she stomped off.
He followed, still holding the scarf. “And I just found another half under Make-out Point.”
She stopped. “Three halves?”
Ssssssss! Squeak! Squeak! Squeak!
“Get down!” he yelled, tackling her into the mud.
“Gahhh!” she screamed.
A field mouse scooted over them. A twig flew after it, smacking its rump. They lifted their faces out of the mud. They looked back over their shoulders.
A noxious reptile coiled out of the hydrilla. Its long, limbless, tapering body slithered past the firetruck.
Lightning struck the lake.
Only the monster’s fangs and eyes were visible as its gleaming terror launched through the air.
They scrambled to rise, fell in the mud, fumbled over each other, fell again, and finally got to their feet. Neither could get above ground more than a jump or two. The rain was too thick.
“Run!” she cried.
They followed the mouse, thinking it knew the best course. They saw it hop over the lip of a hill. They hurried and misjudged the distance. They tumbled over the same crest, scampering down the slope, sliding through the mud. Unable to slow their descent, they skidded in opposite directions and landed apart at the bottom.
A shake of metal drew their attention. The mouse bounded into the back of a cast-iron livestock trailer, its gate stuck up and open on a rusty hinge.
The mouse was trapped.
He and she lifted their heads to see the deadly fangs pop over the slope.
She ran to her right. He to his left. She hid in a cranberry bush. He in boysenberry.
She found a pebble and hurled it at the gate. “Get out of there!”
The mouse clanged around the trailer, digging its forepaws against the iron, pushing its nose through the ventilation.
The flash of fangs leapt into the trailer.
She hurried to the gate. “Get out of there!”
He watched. “I should help her. But. But—!” he thought. “But.”
She jumped and caught the edge of the gate, struggling to pull it down. He heard her yell through the rain, “Jump out! I’ll shut the gate! I have to save you! I must! I must!”
The monster’s tail whipped the air. It knocked her aside and she fell in the mud.
The mouse leapt out of the trailer.
Thunder cracked, and a tree branch splintered. It fell on the gate, slamming it shut. The reptile racked the trailer with wild flips. The iron trap rattled, but the beast could not escape.
He went to her and offered his hand.
“I don’t need your help,” she said. She stood up, massaging her temples.
Minutes later they were back in the clearing at the mouth of the road. He found an overly large frond and held it over them.
Patt patt patt.
They walked home in the rain.
She mumbled, breaking the silence. “You just watched.”
“Well, I’m sure if—“
“Admit it, you were afraid.”
“Of course I was,” he said, affronted. “And I can trust my fear. It keeps me safe.”
“I wasn’t judging you,” she said.
They reached the outskirts of the village and the fork in the road. He gave her the frond. They stood with nothing to say. Exhausted, they listened to the rain.
“So long,” he said.
“Goodbye,” she said.
After two days he paid a surprise visit to her music rehearsal, which he rightly guessed could be found with his ears. He brought two pieces of hard-shelled candy from the market, which the seller had salvaged from the careless big folk.
The creek’s rippling sheen mirrored the indigo moon in the third hour of the evening.
Would she run to him, he wondered? Would the surprise send her mouth into laughter and her body into his arms? Their lips would meet. They would become real. Bliss.
The tinkling of piano keys, roused to dissonance under amateur fingers, led him through the glen. He found a hill covered in clover with a kaleidoscope of tulips at its crest. He climbed the hill in anticipation, eagerly lifting his head over the border of tulips.
He stood aghast. Had he discovered a secret tribute to Bacchus? The seizure-like abandon of the crowd frightened him more than a little. He quickly hid from the absence of decorum and knelt among nearby stalks of fungi. The crowd’s chant flowed ‘round the alcove created by the tulips, like airborne syrup, and despite himself he found his hips moving in time with the alluring cadence.
To his right: a line of thimbles overflowing with punch tended by a tipsy waif, emptying two for every one served.
To his left: rows of beeswax candles, cut in half, hollowed out, and used as troughs for raw honey, refilled from bottlecaps by a guilty attendant dipping fingers into the sweet channel again and again.
His gaze scanned the thrash of limbs and the pounding of percussive stone. Was his lady-love a participant in this coarse display? Perhaps she wasn’t even here.
Yes, yes she was. At the very center.
Dancers paraded with hands high in the air, orange thread tied to fingers, strips of fabric wafting in the wake of gyrations. Others shimmied with crooked, false-arms strapped to their chests. Those with ribbons leapt into the arms of these, and their catcher scrambled off with them. Writhing in their clutches, the dancers feigned fear with mournful moans and sorrowful sighs.
He watched the grotesque pattern with confusion and dread.
The piano player threw his head back. She pranced over to him, swift and lithe. Tossing her arms over those broad shoulders, she started to sing.
Come to me, my little one
Come to me, oh what fun!
My silken thread
Around you weave
Round and round
Come to me, my tasty one
Come to me, and you are done
From my eyes
Round and round
Come to me, my naughty one
Come to me, my web is spun
Your empty life
Shall I thieve
Round and round
Never leave! Never leave!
Never never, Never leave!
He could only gape as she jumped atop the piano and swayed.
The crowd frolicked in fits, drunk on her harmony. They controlled her, or she them. The display was symbiotic.
Then he didn't admit it— but now, suspended with only a moment or two keeping him from eternity— he confessed.
Yes, jealousy had furrowed his brow. Yes, envy had pouted his lips. Who were these crude characters spurning her to flirtatious play?
The music became more frenetic, and the gathered celebrants hissed and sighed, their performance bouncing between discontent and pleasure. They spun into a more aggressive choreography. Eight dancers encircled the piano. In time with the crescendo of rhythmic ecstasy, they each shot a silky ribbon high into the air, up and away from the piano. She threw her arms skyward. The arc of color briefly resembled a web. She chanted, but what he did not know.
He could stand no more. He stepped out from behind the fungi.
The stones fell silent. The piano hit an off key.
An uneasy quiet coursed through the revelers. They turned and glared at him, the invader.
She looked down on him from atop the piano.
“Him!” someone shouted. “It’s him!”
The group lurched as one.
“Stop!” she shouted.
They froze. The group spread out, forming a gutter between him and her. She jumped off the piano, crouched for a moment in silence, then rose up— Her red and black robes trailed behind her, swaying in the air, undulating of their own volition.
She nearly floated to him.
She passed through the murmuring crowd and alighted uneasily at its edge, as if she might be swallowed back inside.
“This is not the one!” She called to the group in a voice he did not recognize. She turned to him and whispered, “What are you doing here?”
His prepared challenge deflated.
“Just— wanted to say hi,” he answered, gobbling the tender meats of his jealousy. He saved his envy for later. “So— hi,” he waved. “And uhm— is this—“ He indicated the collective glare. “Well, who are they?”
“Friends,” she answered.
She looked over her shoulder and back again. “I should really—“ She squared her back to the crowd. “It might be best if you—“
He understood. Aborted sentences would continue to seed— their unsprouted suggestions all the same.
“I should go,” he mumbled, backing away.
She looked at the ground, at two hard-shelled candies. One had her name written on it. The other, his. She looked up again, just as he disappeared back into the tulips.
“Goodbye,” she said.
He went home, thinking he had murdered their dalliance. How long had it been? Two weeks? Two weeks, four days?
Who was counting.
He looked at the makeshift calendar on his bedroom wall, with phases of the moon drawn as faces, and boxes, meaning days, beneath them. He picked up a dandelion from a small pile beside his bed and rubbed it on the calendar.
“So close,” he sighed, and fell backward on his bed.
He thought about their cheeks pressing together. He thought about the strange things she said. He thought about her dancing— surrounded by a mob of masquerade monsters.
He said, “Maybe I should never see her again.”
A tap tap tap chimed on his window. His heart caught in his throat. She was here!
He threw open the window.
“Hey kid,” said a girl’s voice he did not recognize. “Stay away from her. I want her dead. Not you.”
“H—hello?” he asked.
When no one answered, he closed the window, sweating.
A stack of poems sat next to the dandelions. Poems he had written for her. Poems of epic draft and poems of silly sketch. Staid poems and daring poems.
Poems he would never give her.
The next day she leapt out from behind the rhubarb.
He was at the edge of the village, retracing their path to the graveyard, when she startled him with a poor imitation of a monster’s roar. She knocked him down, straddled him, tickled him. She worked her fingers under his armpits and over his belly, giggling.
He remained mute, struck dumb by her affection.
Her mirth dovetailed into a song about snowcapped mountains and gold-dipped apples.
Her brown eyes beckoned. She bopped him on the nose.
“You really surprised me last night,” she scolded. Leaning forward, she propped her elbows on his chest.
“Those people were— weird,” he said, taking a deep breath just to feel her weight.
“Am I weird?” she asked.
“A little. But I still like you.”
“Hah!” She leaned back. “You like this.” She waved her hand over her face. “You like when I laugh. Hah-hah-hah! When I sing. Trah-lah-lah! When I dance. Boop-doop-dee. It’s not the same thing.”
“Someone— is trying— to kill you—“ he stammered.
She tensed. She replied. “Pffft.”
“I’m serious. That stick didn’t throw itself at the furry fur ball!”
“Those dead midges didn’t jump into the river to get a drink!”
“Well nothing dead is thirsty, so.”
“Someone is after you. In fact, they told me so last night!”
“A girl. A woman. Who hates you?”
She leaned forward, but did not touch him. “There are other reasons to kill,” she said.
“What?” he trembled.
She leaned closer. Their noses touched. “You heard me.”
“What if— it’s your sister,” he suggested.
She climbed off and stood back, casually leaning against the rhubarb. “What if,” she mumbled.
He stood up, still in a tremor. “Escaping monsters is one thing. You can’t escape who you love.”
“You better stop using that word!” she yelled.
“Why? It’s not dangerous.”
“Not dangerous? It’s the most dangerous! Haven’t you heard? Love makes us real. That’s what happens to our kind. I don’t want that.”
“Real means obligation. Responsibility.”
“Real means vulnerable,” he countered. “That’s what you’re afraid of.”
“You’re one to talk about being afraid!”
He folded his arms. “Maybe I’m an expert.”
A grub flopped out of the stalks and wriggled at their feet.
“Uh oh,” he said.
A feathered beast swooped out of the air, knocking them over with its sharp wings. The creature scooped up the grub, bounded up on a branch, and gobbled its squirming meal. They glimpsed a spot of red at the back of its head before it hopped and turned around.
The winged menace looked down on them with black, beady eyes.
A smaller creature darted over them, dropping another grub. The writhing larva landed between them, at the edge of the wild grass.
The beast spread its black and white wings— and shrieked.
“Keep low!” she screamed, fleeing into the grass.
“Wait!” He jumped over the grub and chased after her.
They hurried through the undergrowth. Grubs flew at them from above. The beast dove again and again. They tripped on a pumpkin vine and toppled into a tin drum. The drum fell over and rolled down a hill, bouncing over carrots. It smashed into a cabbage, stopped, and threw them against the back wall. They panted, catching their breath.
He sniffed. “Tomatoes?”
She held a finger to her lips, nodding at a small pouch between them. They each took a side, pulling the drawstrings to make a wider opening.
They stood and waited.
Swish, swish. Swish.
“Now!” she screamed.
They jumped forward, pulling the pouch over the blur appearing at the entrance.
“Let me go!” demanded the muffled prisoner.
He yanked the pouch off, sprinkling the three of them with tobacco shavings. The prisoner coughed as her hands were tied with the drawstring.
“Who are you?” she asked the stranger.
“Like I would tell you!”
“This isn’t your sister?” he asked.
“No,” she said, tugging on the prisoner’s silver scarf. It was torn in two.
“That’s mine!” said the stranger.
“But my sister, she—“
The prisoner guffawed. “Do you think your sister owns the only silver scarf? How dumb can you be!”
“But who are you? I’ve never seen you before.”
“How dare you! There’s a whole world beyond the sliver of your narrow perception! I loved him, too, same as you!”
“I don’t love anyone,” she replied.
“Life is too short for that malarkey,” spat the stranger. “We’re not the big folk. We don’t live forever. Our days are not their days. Our weeks, for them, a single cup of tea. Our dreams, our lives, gone by the time the kettle is empty. I loved, and for a time, I was real. I. Was. Real. And you took it all away!”
The stranger struggled.
She squinted. “Wait. Wait. You stole my boyfriend?”
The prisoner frothed. “No! You stole mine! Then you lured him to that— thing! And I knew I had to do the same to you! Not my fault your sister looks like you. When I learned of my mistake, that it wasn’t you I fed to the six-legged beast, I decided any monster would do!”
“Eight,” he corrected. “Eight legs.” He moved closer to her. “Is all this true?” he asked in a hush.
She looked at him. “I didn’t know the monster was there. Please believe me.”
He turned pale, and she got that far-away look that made her seem old and fey.
“I saw it— catch him,” she explained. “And— I was so scared— I froze. He begged for help. His eyes, terror-stricken, not beautiful, not like the eyes of the monster. It crawled down over him— and looked at me! It watched me— watching it, wrap him in silk. So many eyes. So— many— beautiful eyes! I serve them! They command me! And I must obey!” She took him by the shoulders. “It wants me to bring you!”
She broke down, crying.
The feathered beast snatched the prisoner out of the drum.
They turned to the empty opening— and stood in silence.
Within the hour they returned to the outskirts of their village. Twilight descended.
He passed the fork, but soon realized she had stopped behind him. He turned to see her facing the twisting path which lead to the graveyard.
He followed her stare and looked in dread out over the prairie— and beyond its stretch of taboo girth— at the tiny squares of bright light, suspended in the dark.
“We— need to go past— the forbidden prairie,” she declared. “And— we need to do it now.”
“It’s dangerous—“ he contended, standing at her side. “We could die. Would you risk that?”
She hung her head. “For someone I love? Yes.”
She took both his hands and met his gaze. He could not look away. Was this a trick she learned from the monster?
“My sister might still be alive. I know you’re afraid. So am I. But we can do it. Together. The fear wants to wrap you up, round and round, and never let go, but we can fight it, we can break free. You and me. Maybe that’s all love is, facing fear. Together. We survived the river.”
“The current helped us.“
“We survived the big worm—”
“That wasn’t us, that was lightning.“
“The feathered beast—“
“The pumpkin put us in the barrel.”
He sighed, embarrassed for his clammy hands. “Were you and your friends really going to feed me to the monster?”
“Yes. No. Maybe. Look, I changed my mind. It’s different now.”
“But, I’m not even sure— she exists.”
She let go of his hands. “How could you say such a thing?”
“Your dad never mentioned her, when he caught us that time.”
She stepped back.
“This girl, and her attacks, she could be in on it—”
“You just saw her carried off!”
“Did I? I heard a sound, sure, but I was looking at you and—“
“I don’t believe this,” she bit her bottom lip.
“Neither do I. Your dad’s a big guy. He would be better.”
“My parents are visiting my cousins!”
“That’s convenient. Why not ask your weirdo friends?”
“I just spent two and a half weeks convincing them to feed you to the— Okay, Okay. I’ll kiss you. Isn’t that what you want?” She wrapped her arms around his neck. “Then will you help me?”
They grappled. He twisted his face this way and that.
“Let me kiss you. Let me kiss you. Let me kiss you.”
He pulled her hands away. “No.”
“I want us to be real,” he said.
Her eyes burned. The slightest of snarls curled her lips. She backed away. The night enveloped her. She receded into darkness. She receded into memory. She said nothing.
He looked at the moon.
He went home and thought about what he had done. What if it were true? What if her sister’s life hung in the balance?
Careful not to wake his mother, he went to the storage closet and rummaged to the back. He found the box he wanted, but it was empty.
He heard his mother’s voice, “I’ve been cleaning them all day.” He found her in the dining room, polishing his father’s armor.
His mother frowned. “I don’t like that girl. Do you love her?”
“I don’t know,” he answered. “I’m not sure I can trust her.”
“Well, if you love her, you kinda have to.”
“Even if she asks me to do something stupid?”
“Especially then.” His mother tossed him the cleaning cloth. “Here. You can finish.” She got up to leave, but paused under the arc of her bedroom doorway. She stood in shadow. She said to her son, “Tomorrow has nothing for you. Love now. Love today.”
She glanced over at her son’s drawing hanging on the wall, and its rough memorial of her husband’s gentle smile. She turned and went to bed.
He sighed and looked at the armor. He wondered.
Several hours later came a knock on the door.
A splash of light from the foyer separated them. They both stood in the dark.
She said, breathless, “My sister. She’s there. Wrapped. Her life— nearly drained. And beside her—“
She drew a deep breath.
“An empty husk.”
She trembled. The stoop wobbled.
“What’s that for?” he indicated the rod of metal peeking into the light.
She turned it in her hand, showing its sharp end. “Come with me and find out.” She stepped forward, revealing eyes red from tears. Her clothes tattered, her skin bruised.
“Do you think I did this to myself!” she accused him.
He could see an orange thread lassoed at her hip. He stepped into her view, wearing his father’s armor.
“The helmet doesn’t fit me,” he said, handing it to her.
She put it on. “It’s a cool helmet.”
She handed him a flat metal bar. It had a prong on each end.
He held it like a claw.
Now, hanging in the grasp of his despair— did he dare hazard to snatch that first goodbye, immaterial as it was, like a snowflake on the tongue? It was the last goodbye to remember. But the first she had given. He suspected, if summoned, it would cue the end of his life.
So be it.
And so he remembered.
Not the name on the grave, no. But their hands poised so near in the dew, and his forehead spritzed with perspiration.
They surveyed the blue-black infinity, and for their diligence they were rewarded— two stars fell.
He knew one star plummeted symbolizing her heart, and the other cannoned for his.
Then, the meteor shower.
They were the center of it all, this splintering of Heaven, and in the flashing light of the cosmos— they found awe.
He put his twitching fingers on hers. He squeezed, and a titan tear from God swallowed their hands— the dewdrop between them.
Her skin, bluish in the night, quaked.
In answer, goosebumps ran up his arm.
He felt a thief.
She vaulted into the air. He surged to join her. Their bodies silhouetted in the rhapsody of color.
She hovered, poised. He floated, crooked. Their lips, parted.
The awkward pause extended beyond reason.
She retreated, and giggled—
The cascade faded. The meteors vaporized.
“Goodbye,” she said.
He hung in mid-air, alone.
And now he was ready to die. He surrendered to the present. He looked her in the eyes. He wondered if, someday, someone would be brave enough to give her bad poetry.
“I’m sorry,” he told her.
They had flown past the prairie. They had skirted the home of the big folk. They had dared the impossible, the forbidden, and the foolish.
A bulb buzzed. The porch, pitch black and enclosed by fine netting, suggested itself as a foreboding entrance to the underworld.
They paused, hovering low by a rip over the stairs. They watched for the monster inside.
Something far worse stamped about in the house, each step an earth-shattering galumph. The big folk shambled like dunderhead gods, their powers beyond their own ken.
With a desperate scan in the flickering light, he discovered two bundles on the far side of the porch. One of them looked to be breathing.
“C'mon!” she called, zipping through the breach.
He hesitated. He clenched his fists. He clamped his jaw.
She pierced the webbing using the rod. He struck the webbing using the bar. They pried the wrapping apart, but not off. Her sister opened her mouth and lolled her head. She gasped for air.
They poked and sawed, but the web remained resilient.
“We’ll have to pull her out,” she said.
The porch door, only a few feet away, rattled like thunder.
“Hurry!” he shouted.
She tied the thread around her sister’s chest. The two of them strained, pulling— and pulling. The web stretched like a thing alive— possessive, stubborn.
The door clamored.
Like a leaf of a corn husk, they peeled her sister free. Silk clung to her shoulders, loose like a cloak. She collapsed into their arms, her limbs a tangle. They shared her weight together, and flew back toward the rip.
The porch light wavered. It went out.
They glided through the void. It was too dark to see the web.
His left leg caught behind him. He let go. She tumbled headlong through the tear with her sister. He instinctively grabbed for his leg, sticking his left arm to the web. He reached back with his right to use his weapon— and the gossamer trap ensnared him.
A long, segmented leg descended toward his head.
He watched the leg twitch on the periphery of his vision. Beyond it, glistening like tasty gumdrops, a beady batch of arachnid eyes shone crimson in the night.
A humming trill lifted her up. She struggled to fly with her sister in her arms.
“Go!” he insisted.
“No. Not without you!”
The door stopped moving— and that was somehow more ominous.
She carefully navigated the tear and pulled hard on his right hand. It was no use. He was caught. And that was the end of it.
“Goodbye,” he whispered.
Legs overhead crept lower.
Her pulse raced. She set her sister on the top step. Her wings brought her back to him. She raised her lips to meet his. He shook his head no, afraid she would fatally graze the deathtrap.
She denied his caution.
And they kissed.
For the long-lived big folk, there would be nothing to measure, no event to witness, but for the span of their two heartbeats, life passed between them, and they were eternal.
Eight spindly legs lowered.
She backed away, ready to take hurried flight.
“Goodbye,” she said.
Darkness took her.
Then, a delicate crinkling broke the night air.
Her two lumbar nubs opened, four petals each. They unfolded like wrinkling glass. Her new, beautiful— diaphanous— rainbow wings spread out from her hips.
She flew out of the darkness, grasping the slender rod at its hooped end, like a javelin.
The lanky beast lifted its attention. Its eyes flickered and caught the moonlight.
She gazed long at the monster. And it gazed back.
She whispered. “The eyes—! The eyes—!” She watched the monster watch her. She heard a voice.
“I've many curious things to show you.”
“Obey. Obey. Obey!”
Her sister groaned from the top step.
“Go!” he shouted again.
“I—“ she struggled. “Am—“ she wrestled. “Real!” she declared.
She threw the weapon. The rod flew into the cluster of eyes. The monster wailed in agony.
She lifted her sister up, set her over the rip, tied the loose end of the string to his thigh— and dropped her sister out over the porch. She grabbed his upper hand and pulled, her new wings thrashing the air with pent up power.
The web snapped in two.
She caught him— and spun out of control, tumbling after her sister. The monster lunged, but the web contracted, launching it backwards inside the porch. The door flew open— and the monster landed on the nose of a nine-year-old boy.
The child screamed.
She and he turned in mid air and caught her sister before she could hit the ground. The pair carried her off, careening through the yard. They righted themselves, speeding low over the prairie, swift to leave the nightmare behind.
Days passed. He grew worried.
The first night of the new moon he opened his front door. She stood outside the pool of light, but a slash of illumination revealed she carried two hard-shelled candies. One had his name written on it. The other, hers.
“Are those for me?” he asked.
She answered from the dark, “No, they’re for me.” She laughed. “But I can share.”
He laughed too.
She stepped forward and smiled.
“Hello,” she said.
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