They say a parent shouldn’t have favorites among his or her children, but I confess that this may be my favorite of the Christmas stories I’ve written.  There are mistakes in it, but I like it and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  Na na na na na.

So, here is “The Many Santa’s of Shepherd’s Hollow”. This is a rather long one, so feel free to take as l0ng as you need to finish. I’m not going anywhere.

THE MANY SANTAS OF SHEPHERD’S HOLLOW

The snow began December 23rd, flurries sliding in from the west as though they were ordered especially for the holiday. White Christmases were rare in central Kentucky and the gray skies with their white flakes offered the first promise of one in years. Children looked out their windows and smiled, pointing and declaring with the authority granted to them during the holidays that this year, finally, there would be snow on Christmas Day.

Their parents also looked out the windows. They did not smile. They had seen the weather forecasts and knew what was coming.

Becky Garrison had not seen the weather. Waiting tables at the only restaurant in Shepherd’s Hollow, she had overheard vague conversation about the weather, but there was always such talk at the Corner Café. Old farmers and older retired farmers, deep into their sixth refill of free coffee, sat at the small tables all the time and talked about the weather, the tobacco crop, deer hunting, and the occasional Kentucky basketball game. Becky only paid attention to the basketball talk, the rest fading into a dull drone that formed the soundtrack of her working day.

“Jim,” Becky called to the kitchen as she pulled off her apron, “you need anything else before I take off?”

Jim Cantrell, wearing a grease-stained Santa hat instead of his usual grease-stained chef’s hat, looked up at her. He smiled at her, the warmth of it a bittersweet reminder of her father, dead of lung cancer the previous April. Jim had been her employer since high school and the only man she really trusted since Robbie had left her, four months pregnant with his child, to go to college out west.

“No, hun, you go ahead,” Jim said. “You and Beth have a good Christmas and be careful.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Becky tossed her dirty apron into a cloth bag beside the kitchen door, spun on her coat, and made for the front with a casual wave at the last four customers in the restaurant, all regulars she had known since childhood. Thee of them returned her wave, throwing in a “Merry Christmas” along with it, but the fourth, the oldest of the group, stood up and motioned for her to wait.

“Hold on, Becky, before you go,” Mr. Cosley said. A withered-looking man in his mid-eighties, Mr. Cosley looked even smaller in his tan coveralls, zipped halfway down to reveal his customary v-neck tee beneath, and his heavy, insulated boots. He hobbled through the tables and chairs to Becky, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “You can’t leave without your tip.”

Becky stared at the money, but didn’t move to take it. “Mr. Cosley,” she said, her voice low, “that’s a fifty. I think you grabbed the wrong bill in your—“

“Ain’t the wrong bill, either,” the old man said. He reached out and stuffed the bill into Becky’s reluctant fingers. “You take it and have a good Christmas with that little girl of yours.”

Tears stung the corner of Becky’s eyes and she did the only thing she could to keep the sweet old man from seeing them, wrapping her arms around his shrunken shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. She held him there for a moment until she was sure her voice would work properly.

“Thank you,” she said. “And Merry Christmas to you.”

She kissed Mr. Cosley again, smiling as the pasty skin of his ears turned bright red, and waved again at the others before nearly dancing out the door into the parking lot.

Outside, Becky realized for the first time that it was snowing. Her mood higher than it had been in some time, she stood and watched the bits of white drift down, swirling in the yellow lights of the parking lot. Night had fallen, still and quiet in the small town.

Becky found her car, an older model Toyota, covered in a light dusting off snow and brushed off her windshield, not minding the cold bite on the exposed skin of her hand. She worked fast, only clearing off enough to drive safely the few miles to her home, and sat down in the car, flexing her frozen fingers as she dug her keys out of her purse. The car started on the fifth try and as it idled, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. Singing along with a Bon Jovi song on the radio, she smoothed out the bills and laid them into stacks on the passenger seat, organizing them by denomination. Then, she started with the fifty Mr. Cosley had just given her and counted the stacks, her spirits rising as the total rose to and past what she had hoped to save by today.

Yes, she decided, it would be enough.

Tucking the money back into her jeans pocket, Becky put the car in gear and pulled onto the quarter mile of Highway 650 that became Main Street as it passed through Shepherd’s Hollow. The street, like her car, wore a blanket of white marred only by a few sets of tire tracks that were already starting to disappear under the steady accumulation of powder. Becky traveled slow, her headlights soon replacing the street lamps as the only source of illumination on the two-lane road out of town. Her father, a truck driver until the illness took hold, had taught her how to handle slick roads and she felt no fear as she handled the curves and rolling hills, only a cautious confidence that she would make it home to her Beth.

The radio station came out of commercial and the DJ started the weather forecast. Becky reached down, her eyes locked on the road, and switched stations until she found Kenny Chesney and joined him in a mid-song duet.

Reaching her turn, Becky did as her father had instructed and began braking very early, allowing the car to come to a near stop on the icy road before allowing it to coast onto the gravel road. Even with such caution, the Toyota’s back end slid a bit as she turned, causing Becky to stop singing abruptly and grip the wheel tighter, even as her foot automatically let off the gas to allow the vehicle to correct itself. The back tires caught traction again and, reaching the relative safety of the gravel, dug in for a better grip.

Becky lifted her voice again, joining Kenny for the last chorus and singing along with Reba as she sang about a girl named Fancy. “Fancy” was one of Becky’s all-time favorites, the story of a young girl living a life of poverty who rises up, through sacrifice and hard work, to a life of luxury. The song gave Becky hope, something, like money, that a single mother working at a local diner rarely had in surplus.

But as she pulled into her driveway, the lights of her rented trailer winking through the increasing snowfall, she had just over two hundred dollars in her pocket and the kind of hope that only Christmas can bring.

She pulled the Toyota beside the Dodge pickup already in her driveway, the larger vehicle’s features all but vanished beneath the blanket of white. Doing a twirl in the gravel before she went inside, Becky placed a tentative foot on the first of the two steps leading up to the front door and, finding it slippery, grabbed the rail for support. The sound of laughter, unusual coming from her, accompanied Becky as she pulled her way up the steps and turned the door knob.

The trailer was small and old, but thanks to Becky’s knack of decorating on a tight budget, it felt cozy and inviting. She had strategically placed pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures of Beth to cover up the various burns, stains, and holes left by the previous tenants. Instead of the smell of smoke and urine that had greeted her first visit to the place, the trailer now smelled of pumpkin spice and apple pie thanks to the aromatic candles she kept burning in the kitchen. This year, she had even placed a Christmas tree for the first time, a live one she had cut herself in the nearby woods and hauled back as a surprise for her daughter.

“Mommy!”

Beth met her at the door, her footie pajamas sliding on the snow-slick tile. Her hair, still damp from her bath, stuck to Becky’s frozen cheek in warm strands that seemed to radiate the love between them.

“I was starting to worry about you,” Paula said from the kitchen where she was finishing the dishes from dinner. “Roads look like they’re getting bad out there.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Becky said, putting her daughter down. She looked at Beth as she took off her coat. “What was for dinner?”

“Fish sticks,” Beth beamed. They were her favorite, a staple Becky could count on at least three nights a week. “I ate nine.”

“Wow,” Becky beamed back, “that’s a lot.”

Beth held out her flannel-clad belly, leaning back so that it protruded as much as possibly against the snowman designs. “I know. Look.”

Becky reached down and rubbed her daughter’s belly. “Wow,” she repeated. “Now, you go get in bed and I’ll be in a few minutes to tuck you in.”

Beth took off in a sprint for her bedroom down the hall, Becky watching her go.

“She’s pretty excited about the snow,” Paula said, drying off her hands and reaching for her coat. “Can’t say that I second that emotion, but I remember being her age.”

Paula had been Beth’s sitter since Becky had been able to go back to work following childbirth. Her husband, a contractor, made more than enough money to support them, but Paula loved being around children and saw Becky’s situation as a perfect way to get out of the house and feel needed. To Becky, she was a saint who had been more than a blessing to her and her daughter, she had been like a wise older sister, one she could ask for advice and count on for whatever she needed. Paula had been there many nights in the beginning, mopping the tears from her eyes or the morning sickness from her lips, and she was still there, as much a part of their family as either of them.

Becky reached into her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills and thumbed through them as Paula came into the living room.

“You put that away,” Paula said.

“I told you I’d pay you today,” Becky protested.

“And I said put it away,” Paula said. Her tone made it clear that the matter was not open for debate.

“But—“

“You use that money on Beth,” the older woman said. “You can make it up to me later.”

For the second time in less than an hour, Becky was rendered speechless by gratitude. She reached out and hugged Paula hard, kissing her cheek. This time, she did not try to check the tears that flowed down her still-red face. Paula had seen them enough to not be shocked by them.

“Thank you,” Becky told her.

“Merry Christmas, girl.”

They let go of each other and Paula opened the door to let herself out.

“Watch out for those steps,” Becky warned her, “and the roads. I fishtailed a little pulling onto the gravel.”

“I’ll be alright,” Paula said, using to handrail to slid down to the ground. “You shut that door so you don’t let all the heat out.”

Becky laughed and waved at her friend as she climbed into the big Dodge. She mostly shut the door, leaving open a crack while the big V-8 roared to life and the truck backed out into the road. She continued to watch it until the red tail lights were lost in the heavy snowfall and then she shut the door, locking it against the winter cold.

“Mommy!” came Beth’s voice from down the hall.

Becky slid off her wet shoes near the door and peeled off her damp socks as she hopped down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom.

Beth was in bed, her pink comforter piled on top of her like whipped topping on a sundae. Becky smoothed out her covers and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“You two have fun?” Becky asked.

Beth nodded. “We played Uno and watched Wheel of Fortune and I ate nine fish sticks.” To emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers, looked at the result, furrowed her brow, then added one more and held them out again.

Becky laughed again, unable to remember when she had felt more like doing so. After so many years of struggling, so many nights when everything in their lives seemed uncertain except for the constant fear that they would not have enough to survive, Becky finally felt like they were finding some traction, gaining some ground on that paralyzing terror that she was not the mother Beth deserved.

“Does Santa come tonight?” Beth asked, her eyes wide.

“Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow night.”

“And he’s bringing me presents?”

“Have you been good this year?”

Beth narrowed her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, as though she were the parent, “you know I’ve been good this year.”

“I know,” Becky agreed. “And I’m sure Santa knows, too. Now, you go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ll be one day closer to those presents.”

Beth closed her eyes and gave a mock snore.

Becky leaned over and kissed her daughter on the forehead, barely able to contain another outburst of mirth. “I’ll see you in the morning, you faker.”

Leaving her daughter’s room, Becky thought of going into the small living room and seeing what was on television, but her feet screamed at her from the cold and from being on duty all day, so she turned left into her own bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, she was in bed, thinking of all she had to do tomorrow. Even though the Corner Café was closed for the holiday, she had to drop Beth off at Paula’s so she could go to Wal-Mart and pick up the things on Beth’s Christmas list. The girl had not asked for much and, for the first time since they had been together, Becky could afford to get what she wanted.

She watched the snow falling outside as snuggled into her warm bed, thinking of how her daughter’s face would light up on Christmas morning.

“Mommy!”

Becky ignored the familiar little voice that called her name. Clutching her comforter closer to her chin, she rolled over and stayed asleep.

“Mommy,” the voice said again. This time, it was accompanied by a shaking of the bed and an insistent prodding of her left shoulder.

“What, baby?” she muttered, still unwilling to open her eyes.

“Mommy,” Beth said again. She was nearly breathless with enthusiasm. “Come look at the snow!”

“I’ve seen snow before.”

Beth tugged at the comforter. “Prolly not like this. There’s so much!”

Something pinged at Becky’s mind and she opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come take a look. Then I’m getting back in bed.”

Beth jumped down and vanished out the door, her tiny feet thumping against the floor as she ran down the hall.

Becky looked up at the windows above her bed, but could see nothing through the thick glaze of condensation that had settled on them overnight. She rubbed her eyes and stood up, throwing her robe on as she slid her feet into a pair of white bunny slippers Beth had gotten for her, with Paula’s help, as a birthday present. She left her bedroom, passed her daughter’s, and turned into the bathroom. Again, the glass was frosted over, but she could see a lot of diffused white in the tiny dots of moisture clinging to it. She emptied her bladder, flushed, and went out into the living room.

Beth was standing on the couch, her little hands pulling apart the curtains so she could stare out through small space she had wiped clear on the window.

“Look, mommy,” she said. “Look outside.”

Becky yawned and went to the front door. She turned the knob and pulled, expecting to see an inch or two of snow, just enough to cover the ground and excite a five-year old into near hysterics. Instead, what she saw drove her to near hysterics, though not ones caused by excitement.

The flurries from the night before had grown into an impenetrable curtain of white. Snow flew sideways beyond the storm door, so thick that she could not see more than a foot or two beyond the frosting glass. The Toyota, which she knew to be no more than ten feet or so from the bottom of the front steps, was completely concealed by the maelstrom of snow. Now that she was more awake, she could hear the wind howling around the corners of the trailer, a baleful moan that Becky began feeling inside herself.

“Isn’t it great?” Beth asked from the couch. She was bouncing up and down on the cushions. “Can I go out and play in it?”

“No,” Becky said. The word came out sharper than she intended and Beth stopped bouncing.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

Becky looked outside again, her high spirits from the previous night draining out of her. She hit the latch of the storm door and tried to open it, but a drift of snow, nearly rising the two feet or so to the bottom pane of glass, held it back, forcing her to push hard to open it out over the top step. Snow blew in harder than rain and, in just a few seconds, formed a growing drift around her bunny slippers. A gusting wind seized the door and, if she had not been gripping it with such firmness, would have ripped it from her hand and likely off its hinges. She pulled hard, shutting the screen door with extreme difficulty, the aluminum base dragging in another pile of snow onto the small patch of tile at Becky’s feet.

“Why can’t I go out and play?” Beth asked.

Becky forced herself to smooth the edges off the word before she said it again.

“No, baby,” she said, closing her eyes. “Not right now.”

Beth, not a child given to tantrums, sank onto the couch and said nothing.

Becky went to the television and turned it on. A map of the region sat beneath the women of The View, all the counties shaded in white while the crawl beside it listed them alphabetically. Beneath the map were two words Becky never thought she’d see in rural Kentucky.

Blizzard Warning.

“Oh, my God,” Becky said as she stared at the television. She sank onto the couch next to her daughter and watched until the meteorologist broke in during the commercial break, talking about such things as a “state of emergency” and “impassable roads”.

Becky thought of the trip she had planned to Wal-Mart. She had intended to drop Beth off with Paula for an hour or so, head to the store fifteen miles away, and purchase everything she could for her daughter with the money she had saved, all of it to be placed around the tree that night, gifts from Santa for a good girl.

Now, however, there would be no trip to Wal-Mart. The fifteen miles might as well have been the distance to the North Pole. The Toyota could handle the rough roads and various hazards that came with normal driving in Kentucky, but her little car could not plow its way through two feet of snow.

Following her first impulse in a crisis, she went to the phone to call Paula. With her pickup, she might be able to get out and negotiate the roads, even in the deepening snow. When she picked up the handset and hit the “Talk” button, the line was dead. She tried again, and then a third time, all with the same result. Not only was she snowed in, Becky realized, she had no way to contact the outside world.

“Mommy?” Beth called from the couch. “What’s the matter?

“Nothing, baby,” Becky said. “Why don’t you put a movie in?”

Beth padded off to her room and, a moment later, came back with a thin DVD box in hand. The title, Becky saw as her daughter took the disc out, was “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.

Tears rolled down Becky’s cheeks as she watched her daughter insert the movie into the player.

“Not this year, baby.”

For most of the day, Becky stood at the kitchen window, staring out at the snowstorm. The wind continued to howl as the white flakes obliterated the world outside and her hope of providing the wonderful Christmas she wanted for her daughter. Tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks, dripping onto her bathrobe and into her coffee. She made oatmeal for Beth’s breakfast, then more fish sticks for lunch, eating nothing herself. Her stomach, she decided, would have to content itself with the awful feeling of dread that weighed inside her like stones.

Beth, for her part, tried to contain her excitement. Sensing her mother’s distress, she played movie after movie, all of them Christmas themed, and occasionally cast a worried look at her mother.

The wind let up near mid-afternoon and the snow stopped falling completely near dusk. Becky, allowing herself a thin sliver of hope, dressed in three layers, including a pair of coveralls she had received secondhand from Paula’s husband a few years earlier, and opened the door again. Pushing the storm door, she found the snow had drifted higher this time, pressing against the glass like a starving orphan outside a restaurant. She pushed again, inching the door open as she shoved the snow off the top step.

Beth, still in her pajamas, ran to her room and returned with her coat and a pair of snow boots.

“Can I go out, too?”

“No, baby,” Becky said. “Not right now. The snow’s too deep. You might fall in and I wouldn’t find you until spring.”

Beth laughed at the idea, then her mouth opened as she poked her head through the doorway and looked outside.

“Look at all the snow!”

“I know,” Becky said. “Now, go back inside where it’s warm.”

Beth did as she was told while her mother stepped outside. Wearing her boots instead of her work shoes, she found better traction on the covered steps, but the snow when she stepped to the ground was past her knees. She plowed her way one leg at a time to the small mound of snow she knew to be her car and started brushing away what she could. The work was exhausting and after ten minutes, her hands and feet numb, she had barely cleared one side of the vehicle, not even enough to open the door and get in. In frustration, she pounded her hands against the snow-shrouded roof.

Forced to admit defeat, Becky went back inside.

Beth’s coat and boots were still by the door and the girl gave her mother a hopeful look as she came back in, knocking her own boots against the threshold to remove the snow from them.

“I’m sorry,” Becky said to her daughter. And she was sorry, for the snow and for the cold and for every other difficulty the two of them had not asked for, yet faced every day. In those two words, a mother apologized to her daughter for every failing she had ever had.

“It’s okay, Mommy,” Beth said. “I can play in the snow another time.”

Becky smiled, marveling that, despite her questionable parenting and their circumstances, that the little girl could be so good. “Come here.”

Beth did as she was told and Becky swept her into her arms, holding her tight. “Baby,” she said, “with the snow this high, I don’t know if Santa is going to make it tonight.”

The girl backed away. “What do you mean? He lives at the North Pole. They have lots of snow there.”

Becky struggled to argue with her logic, but could not find a way around it.

“I know,” she said. “We’ll see. But if he doesn’t come tonight, I’m sure he’ll come soon.”

“He’ll come tonight,” Beth said, sure of it. “It’s Christmas Eve and he has Rudolph to guide the sleigh.”

Becky hugged her daughter again, as much to hide her sadness as to appreciate the little girl’s faith. “Of course he does.”

The evening passed much as the day had. Beth played her considerable collection of holiday movies and sat cross-legged in the floor. At times, she played with Barbies, building a Christmas tree out of green Legos and using the other colors for the presents around the tree, present that, had they been life-sized, would have filled the trailer. At other times, she played with her plush toys, using shoelaces to harness them like reindeer to a sleigh made from an empty shoebox.

Becky watched her daughter as the evening grew later and later, hating the snow, hating the patch of nowhere where they lived, and hating herself. She marveled at her daughter’s imagination and wished she could use a little bit of it, some of that wonderful childhood ingenuity, to find a way to Wal-Mart to make Christmas happen. She tried the phone several times and hour, finding no change from the dead hum from before, and finally threw it down on the couch in disgust.

Beth looked up at her mother. Concern furrowed her tiny brow as she held Donner the Dog and Blitzen the Zebra, one in each hand.

“Stupid phone,” Becky said, forcing herself to smile. “You ready for a bath?”

Beth lost her worried look, nodded, and ran for the bathroom, stripping off her pajamas on the way. Only while her daughter was in the bath, happily splashing and talking to herself about Santa, did Becky allow herself to sit down at the kitchen table and sob. Twenty minutes later, when Beth called for a towel, Becky forced the sorrow from her features, sticking on a mask that she hoped would fool her five-year old long enough to get her into bed.

“Mommy,” Beth asked as Becky tucked her in, “how does Santa know where everyone lives?”

“Because he’s Santa.”

Beth thought that over. “Okay. Goodnight.”

Ten minutes later, Beth was asleep and Becky, her stomach roiling from worry, went to her own bed, hoping for the first time since she was Beth’s age, that there really was a Santa Claus.

She was awake by the second knock. Sitting upright before she realized what had woken her, Becky was halfway down the hall before her consciousness caught up with her. With every step, more and more of the day before crashed over her in waves of despair until she reached the front door of the trailer and understood what the noise was.

Someone was knocking. Someone outside in the snow was knocking on her front door.

Before she could open the door, Beth appeared at the near end of the hall, rubbing her eyes and looking around.

“Mommy,” she said.

Becky knew she was about to ask where her presents were and, deciding that she was not quite awake enough to kill her daughter’s dreams, she pulled open the door.

Outside, she could see little through the frosted door. The expanse of white she had seen the previous day was now broken by an amorphous patch of red very close to her door. The red patch moved and the knocking sound came again.

Becky opened the storm door and looked outside at Santa Claus.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said in a voice that sounded very much like Jim Cantrell, “Merry Christmas!”

Before Becky could respond, Beth was at the door. “Santa!” the little girl squealed. “Mommy, it’s Santa!”

Santa Jim stomped up the two steps to the trailer door in the thermal hunting boots Becky had seen him wear on several occasions. The grease-stained Santa hat was now joined by a crumpled Santa suit and a frizzy beard that showed the borders of Jim’s own graying stubble at the borders. In his hands, Becky now saw, were two large packages wrapped in plain red paper. These he set down in order to scoop Beth into his arms.

“See, Mommy,” Beth beamed. “I told you he’d come.”

Becky, still staring at her boss in shock, said nothing, her hand still holding the door open. She turned and looked out at the snow, still piled high over everything in sight. Everything, she noticed, except for the large John Deere tractor now parked at the end of her driveway.

“Shut the door, girl,” Jim said to her in his best Santa voice. “Even Santa doesn’t want to freeze his butt off.”

Beth giggled and Becky, almost giggling herself, did as she was told.

“Are these for me?” the girl asked as Santa put her down next to the presents.

“Have you been a good girl this year?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, I guess they are for you.”

Beth started to dive for the presents, but Santa Jim caught her with velvet-covered arm.

“Not yet,” he said. “You have to wait for the rest of them.”

“The rest?” said mother and daughter together.

Santa Jim turned to Becky. “You think we’re going to let a little snow ruin this little girl’s Christmas?”

“We?”

Santa Jim smiled, the gesture pulling at the corners of his fake beard. “Just a few of us who watch the weather more than you do.”

Becky started to say something else, but Santa Jim had already turned his attention to Beth.

“You just hang tight and wait for the rest,” he told her. “When the rest of them get here, then you can open them. Got it?”

“Yes, Santa.” She spoke the words with reverence.

Becky again started to say something to her boss, but a moment later he was gone, slipping down the steps and into the snow on his way to the large green tractor. He climbed in, an odd sight in the red suit, and started the engine.

“Mommy,” Beth said, picking up the smaller of the two boxes and shaking it. “What do you think are in them?”

“I don’t know, baby.”

Just as the sound of the tractor faded into the distance, another sound caught her ear, growing louder as she walked to the door and listened. She opened the door and saw another shape through the fogged glass, a larger one, and when she opened the storm door to look out, she saw the massive dump truck coming down the snow-covered gravel road. Its wheels, nearly as tall as Becky, had no trouble negotiating the deep piles, flinging a cloud of white behind it. When the massive vehicle parked in the middle of the road in front of her trailer, Becky saw the decal on the side.

Carter Construction.

It was Paula.

When the driver’s door opened, however, it was Jerry, Paula’s husband, who got out, his muscular frame bulging against the Santa suit. He skipped down the side of the truck with practiced ease, landing in the snow, and drove his legs through the drifts toward the trailer, a burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He waved at Becky, his cheekbones raised from the invisible grin lurking beneath his fake white beard.

Just as Santa Jim had done, Santa Jerry stomped up the steps and into the trailer. Becky yielded before him, her prior shock fading into amused disbelief.

“Ho, ho, ho,” said Santa Jerry, “and all that mess.” Jerry was normally a man of few words, preferring to let his wife do the talking for both of them. He could speak with authority on a few things—construction, football, deer hunting—but Paula often chided him on his lack of social skills.

Yet, Becky thought, here he was, dressed in a red velvet Santa suit and enjoying every moment of it.

“There’s a little girl here, isn’t there?” Santa Jerry asked, pretending not to see Beth hopping up and down in front of him. “Now, where is she?”

“Hereheredownhere,” Beth squealed.

Santa Jerry turned a full circle and, feigning the same kind of surprise Becky felt, started and bent down to look at Beth.

“There you are,” he said. “I hear you’ve been a good girl this year.”

Beth put her hands on her hips, sure that something was different about this Santa, but not quite able, or willing, to figure it out.

“I already told you I was,” she said.

“Don’t get sassy,” Becky warned her daughter. “You might be on the naughty list next year.”

The idea seemed to scare Beth. “Sorry,” she said.

“No, no,” Santa Jerry said, shaking his head. “This here’s a good girl if I ever saw one. And I think I might have some presents in this bag for her.” He swung the burlap sack around and rummaged inside, pulling out three boxes and handing them to Beth.

Beth looked at her mother, expectant.

“No way,” Becky said in answer to her daughter’s thoughts. “Under the tree.”

Beth looked disappointed only for a second before she shrugged and turned to put the presents under the tree with the earlier ones.

“Thank you,” Becky whispered to Santa Jerry. She flung her arms as far around him as they would go and hugged him. “I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

Santa Jerry blushed. “We know how hard you work for that girl. Paula loves you like you were her own and, well, that goes the same for me.”

Becky hugged him again. “You guys are great.”

“I hope she likes ‘em. Paula picked them out, of course. I’m just the messenger. Well, one of the messengers. The others’ll be along later.”

“Others?” Becky asked. “How many–?”

“Gotta go,” Santa Jerry said, cutting her off. “Merry Christmas.” Before Becky could ask any more questions, he was out the door, retracing his steps through the snow to get back to the massive truck.

As the day went on, more and more Santas came to the trailer. Eddie Waddell, who owned all the farm land around Becky’s home, arrived in his combine shortly after Jerry was gone. Bill Gorman, head of the Shepherd’s Hollow sanitation department, came in another dump truck, this one smaller than Jerry’s, but no less welcome. Sonny Long, his fake Santa beard doing little to hide his full red one, drove a grater from the Highway Department depot. All of them came dressed in Santa suits, from elaborate to hurriedly homemade, and all of them bore gifts for Becky’s daughter.

“One more, I think,” Sonny told her as he headed out the door. The clouds trailing the previous night’s storm had thinned, then given way to brilliant sunlight that set the snow-covered landscape ablaze with light. “And I think he’s coming right now.”

Becky leaned out to look where Sonny was pointing and could see nothing at first in the blinding reflection. Finally, she saw a shimmering shape that solidified into a sleigh—an actual, Santa-like sleigh—that slid and bounced along behind two large horses that plowed through the snow with their strong legs.

Sonny turned his grater around and went back out toward the highway, waving at the sleigh as he passed.

Becky watched, still amazed at the day’s events, as the sleigh stopped in the clear space left by the previous Santas. This time, however, the Santa that got out did not spring to the ground and high step his way through the snow. This Santa, thinner than the rest and walking with a cane, trudged through the snow as if his reaching the steps was far from a certainty. In his free hand, he held one, small package. He walked with a familiar, stunted gate, but only when he reached the bottom step and looked up at her did Becky recognize him.

“Mr. Cosley?”

The old man eyed the steps warily, then tested them with his cane. Satisfied, he stepped up onto the first, then the second, with meticulous care. Finally, he handed the small, wrapped box to Becky and made his way into the trailer.

Beth was at the door again and, this time, she knew something was not right.

“You’re not Santa,” the little girl said.

“Beth,” Becky said, but stopped when Mr. Cosley raised his hand.

“Now, girl,” Cosley said to Beth. “You’re used to seeing the Santa for children. I’m the Santa for grown folks.”

Becky, still holding the small box, looked at him.

“You go on and open that,” Santa Cosley told Becky. “You’re only getting the one, so you shouldn’t have to wait.”

Becky tried and failed to hide her smile. She couldn’t help the childlike enthusiasm as she tore away the paper with as much speed and violence as she could muster from so small a package. Beneath, she found an unmarked box, its hinged lid begging to be lifted.

“Go on,” Santa Cosley urged her. “Open it up.”

Becky did. She stared at the object inside for a long time, not sure at first what it was, then not sure what it meant.

“It’s a key,” she said.

“That’s right,” Santa Cosley said. “It’s the key to my almost-new Chevy pickup . . . well . . . your Chevy pickup now. A year or so old. Eleven thousand miles. Still got that new car smell inside. Would’ve brought it here myself, but it’s parked down at the café whenever you can get to it.”

Becky stared at the old man, still unsure what he meant.

“I’ve decided I’ve had about enough snow to last me the rest of my life,” he explained, “however long that is. I’m moving to Florida and there won’t be any need for a truck while I’m sitting on the beach.”

Becky continued to stare, continued to disbelieve.

“You need something better than that little foreign job you’ve been driving around. It’s time you started driving something with some American horsepower.”

Though she felt the realization coming toward her, threatening to overwhelm her, she could not prepare herself for it. She collapsed to her knees, then to a sitting position, and there, in the floor of her tiny living room, she wept.

Mr. Cosley patted her head. “Little Beth ain’t been the only one that’s been good this year.”

An hour later, Becky sat on her couch, the key still in her hand. Santa Cosley was gone and she could not remember him leaving. Wrapping paper lay in drifts around the perimeter of the living room while Beth sat in the middle like the eye of a hurricane, playing with her assortment of new toys.

“Mommy,” the little girl asked without looking up from her new Barbie playhouse. “Were any of those people the real Santa Claus?”

Becky thought about it for a long time before answering. Her eyes remained locked on the key and, beyond that, the image of the new truck—her new truck—parked down at the Corner Café.

“Yes, baby,” she said at last. “I think they all were. Every single one of them.”

Chapter 7

As night fell, they made camp along the banks of the river as thick fog began to roll in from the Misteld. The surrounding grassy hills and even the river beyond a few yards soon was lost in a gray haze, illuminated only by the full moon that had reached it zenith before the sun had disappeared over the horizon. The fog not only obscured their vision, but sounds as well seemed to only penetrate a short distance into the mist. Even the gentle rushing of the river a few feet away sounded muffled compared to its earlier cacophony.

Wilkey and Heather sat opposite of each other across a small fire. After a dinner of dried meat eaten in relative silence, Marcus had walked up the riverbank to collect his thoughts and decide on what course they should take, leaving the two of them to their own thoughts.

“So, how long have you and Marcus known each other?” Wilkey asked, his high, casual voice grating in Heather’s ears in the gloom of the fog. She was amazed upon listening to the halfling that his voice carried a subtle accent that she most closely associated with native New Yorkers and the effect was almost comic in their current setting.

“I’ve known him for about ten years,” she answered. “We met in college.”

Wilkey smiled and nodded sagely, although Heather doubted whether he knew what college was or even what the concept of a year meant, if time passed differently in this strange land.

“You didn’t know him when he came her as a youth?” he asked, his pronunciation of “youth” recalling to her mind Joe Pesci. The resemblance with Pesci continued with the halfling’s diminutive stature, but ended there. Wilkey possessed a wiry build and a young face, except for tiny lines that had begun to appear around the corners of his eyes. His thin nose ended in an absurdly sharp point that looked as though it would puncture his hand should he sneeze into it.

“No,” she answered. “Or else I might have known about all of this.” Heather waved her hand to indicated the thick wall of fog surrounding them all.

“He never mentioned anything about us?” Wilkey asked, sounding somewhat hurt.

“No, not that I would have believed him,” she said, thinking of the scene in the Toyota on their way to Kentucky.

Wilkey sat silent for a long while, staring into the campfire. Then, he pulled a blanket from his pack, arranged it neatly in the tall grass, and lay back upon it, closing his eyes.

Heather tried to fight the question she had been wondering about since the episode with the centaurs the previous day. “What was he like before? Marcus?” she asked, her voice hurried as though she were pushing out the words. “When he had this power everyone keeps talking about?”

The halfling opened one eye, regarding her for a moment, then opened the other and leaned up onto his elbows. He stared into the fire again and wrinkled his brows. Heather could not tell if he was trying to remember or if he was simply trying to decide how to word his response.

“Marcus first came here as a young boy in your terms,” the halfling began. “He happened upon Yellow Banks and got into a bit of trouble with some men who hoped to sell him down the river.”

Heather had no idea what selling someone down the river meant, but it brought to mind tales of slave trading from before America’s Civil War.

Wilkey continued. “Three of them attacked him and just when they were about to grab him, he waved his hand at them and flames shot out. The three men ran off and never came back to Yellow Banks. Marcus discovered that he could do all sorts of things, amazing things. Anything he wanted to do he could do it—produce fire or lightning or water, control the wind, create things out of the air—anything. All he had to do was think about it.

“Pretty soon he was out travelling here and there, fighting evil and rescuing ladies and whatever other trouble he could get into. He grew up a lot here, but eventually he came less and less and then he stopped coming altogether. Those of us who knew him best guess when he left the last time that we would not see him again. He left me his magical items to watch over, which he never would have done if he had any intention of ever returning. Even Erasmus knew he was not coming back.

“Who was Erasmus,” Heather interrupted, asking the other question she was most curious about. “How did he and Marcus meet and how did he send us a letter on . . . on our side?”

Wilkey shrugged. “I don’t know anything about a message sent to you, but I do know about Erasmus. Marcus met him during a particularly nasty ambush some ogres had set, knowing Marcus was in the area. The ogres pressed him pretty hard and might have killed him except for the intervention of Erasmus. He never told us where he came from and I don’t know that he knew himself. He did have some of the same abilities as Marcus, though, and it was a pretty good thing that day. He distracted the ogres enough to allow Marcus to escape, almost at the cost of his own life. From that day on, Marcus never went anywhere without Erasmus. Like brothers, those two, and Erasmus seemed to always know when Marcus was coming. He’d wait by the cave for him, infuriating the centaurs, but he was always there when Marcus came over.

“Still, as Marcus grew older, they seemed to grow apart. They never fought, they just didn’t seem to enjoy being around each other as much. I think Erasmus became jealous over the power Marcus had, which just seemed to grow the more he was here, and I think Marcus got bored and started to take more interest in other things, pretty girls, for instance.”

The halfling raised his eyebrows and looked meaningfully at Heather.

“So where do you fit in with all of this?” Heather asked, skipping over the innuendo. “How did you and Marcus become acquainted?

“Now, that’s a good story,” Wilkey said. “One fine morning as I was about to be hanged in Yellow Banks over a slight misunderstanding with a wealthy merchant, Marcus and Erasmus walked into town and asked what was going on. The sheriff explained the merchant’s side of things and conveniently forgot to tell Marcus my point of view. I remember Marcus looking up at me standing on the gallows, just a small boy by your standards, and it seemed like he was looking into me, right down into my soul.” He patted his chest for emphasis. “Then he asked that I be released into his charge and offered to pay double restitution to the merchant. The merchant was a greedy bastard who cared more about getting rich than seeing me die, although not by much, and he agreed to the deal. Marcus had just come from a rather fruitful excursion and had just enough gold to pay the man off.

“As you can imagine, I was overjoyed to not have my neck stretched, but I was suspicious about what motives Marcus had for saving me. By that time, he had gained a reputation around here as a sort of savior, crossing the lands looking for wrongs to right. When he took me into his service, he had a lot of doubters, but he said he needed someone with my particular skills to help him and I’ve been faithful to him ever since.”

“What skills?” Heather asked suspiciously.

“You know . . . the regular stuff–picking locks, disarming traps, and the occasional close combat when things get a little chaotic.”

“So, you’re a thief,” she said it as a question, but her tone proclaimed it as more of a statement.

“Why, no, good lady,” Wilkey responded, surprised. “I am merely an opportunist who believes in using the talents he has for a greater good.”

“Like stealing gems from elves?”

Wilkey seemed taken aback and for the first time since she and Marcus had picked him up, Heather found him at a loss for words. Rather than press the matter, she changed the subject.

“Who are these elves we’re going to see anyway? What can they do to help us?” she asked.

Wilkey lay back down on his blanket and stared up into the thick fog drifting over the campsite. “They’re considered the last bastion of knowledge in this land, although even they are drifting into decay along with the rest of us. Glenfold used to be a place of amazing beauty, but time has removed its shine. It is still an enchanted place, to be sure, but even the elven kingdom cannot last forever.”

The halfling, apparently tired or bored with conversation, rolled over and faced away from Heather. Soon, his light, whistling snores could be heard drifting across the fire in a slow rhythm.

Heather looked up the riverbank into the swirling fog rolling in from the river. It swept by like gray curtains, hiding what lay ahead for them. She thought she could just make out the outline of Marcus a few yards away, a form darker than the darkness around him sitting on the edge of the whispering river. She wondered what he was thinking and, for a moment, if it was her.

Lying back on her leather pack, she soon fell into the welcome respite of sleep herself and her light snores joined those of the halfling.

Marcus sat on the bank of the Misteld and stared into his own mind. He could see a small patch of the river beneath the blanket of fog that surrounded him, but paid it no attention. With his knees pulled up to his chest and his arms wrapped tightly around them, his eyes focused on nothing but the swirling fog, allowing his memory to replay back the events of the day. Cold sweat, having nothing to do with the weather, beaded him from head to foot and chilled him, though he would get no closer to the fire until he was ready to rejoin the others. One question rolled around in his head, filling him with fear and dread, all the more because he could find no answer to it.

“What if she had died?” he asked himself again, repeating the question to himself over and over as if doing so would make the answer obvious. His practical side suspected that he would continue on his quest, but his heart told him not to be so sure.

As he had crouched next to Heather in the pub, certain death poised over them both, he found an absolute fear that he had not known existed until that point, not fear for himself, but fear for her. He had cheated death too many times to remember in this magical realm, but never had he been solely responsible for the safety of one he loved as much as he loved Heather. In the wake of the their relationship’s failings, Marcus seemed to forget how much he truly loved the woman he now faintly heard snoring from beside the fire. The thought of the fear, the helplessness, that had crashed down upon him as they faced the halfling boss in the pub brought a wave of nausea that still had not completely passed, and grew stronger when he imagined the blade raised high, prepared to strike.

He looked at the camp briefly, seeing the soft glow of the dying fire as a nebulous glow in the mist. A strong desire came to him, a desire to walk over and sweep Heather into his arms and hold her until time ended, but he resisted. His cheek still stung slightly from her earlier assault, and he had no intention of allowing her to reinforce the pain.

Turning his attention back to the river, he thought of the elves and prayed to any forces that might be listening that they would know why his power had departed. No, not departed, he thought, it’s only hiding.He could still feel the power, like the hum of a generator far below ground, could sense its almost electric charge around him, but it felt as if a wall had been erected to prevent him from reaching it, using it, controlling it. His attention turned back away from his inward thoughts and he found himself actually reaching out, his hand stretching into the fog before him.

He pulled his hand back and sighed. He knew they could reach Glenfold by nightfall the next day if they made good time, but it would require a fierce march along the river over uneven and difficult terrain. He wondered what was going through Heather’s mind as they walked, whether she had decided that he was not worth the effort, especially after dragging her to this world where so many things could mean the end of not only their relationship, but also the end of their lives. He felt hopeless and alone. Despite rejoining with Wilkey, he longed for the company of Erasmus, who always seemed to know the right thing to say or do while Marcus faced the troubling days of his youth.

Marcus tried desperately to express confidence and poise with Heather from the moment they had exited the cave, even when he discovered that his powers had fled, but he questioned how long he could pretend that he was not scared of dying, or worse, of losing her.

His troubled mind offering no rest, Marcus returned to camp and sat next to the fire. He studied Heather closely, her beautiful face relaxed in sleep, and tears streamed down his face unchecked and fell onto his robes. For most of the night, he sat awake, looking at the most important thing to him in the world, in any world, and swore that he would find a way to protect her at any cost.

After waking Wilkey for his turn at watch, Marcus fell asleep just as they sky began to lighten, heralding the sun’s imminent arrival. When he awoke a few hours later, the thick fog still hovered about them dreamlike and filtered the light appearing over the horizon into a shifting curtain of yellow. He was covered with a thin layer of condensation that gave him a deep chill as it seeped through his robes. Wilkey and Heather, their possessions already packed and ready, waited in silence for Marcus to dry off as best he could and set them off again toward Glenfold.

For several hours, they marched in near silence, any conversation dampened by the forbidding mist all about them. Their only source of navigation was the river, burbling and swishing ever to their left as they walked along its bank. Trees appeared at sparse intervals along their path, emerging from the fog like great, lanky beasts ready to snatch them up for a morning meal. Marcus would frequently stop and listen to any noise arising from the grayed-out landscape as their passage caused many animals to stir and flee in their wake.

As the sun rose higher into the clear sky, the fog began to burn off, leaving more and more of the land visible to the travelers. The river was revealed gradually, its waters flowing lazily toward the elven kingdom that lay ahead. When the sun reached its zenith, Marcus called a halt so they could take a light lunch before continuing on. He felt the sense of urgency building again, whispering in his ear that they should move as quickly as possible and not tarry any longer that necessary. Marcus felt a distinct feeling of foreboding as they ate in silence and he guessed the same pall had fallen upon Heather and Wilkey. They had not continued their conversation from the previous night, nor had Heather asked any more questions. He knew there were many other questions revolving slowly in her ever-curious mind, but he also knew that she would ask them when time and context allowed.

They set out again after finished their meal and continued on along the banks of the Misteld for some time before Wilkey, who had been covering rear guard, passed Heather and caught up with Marcus.

“Have you thought about what will happen when we reach Glenfold?” the halfling asked.

Marcus thought he heard a dash of amused expectation in Wilkey’s voice, but convinced himself that he had imagined it.

“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m going to ask the elders if they know what has happened to me. Why I can’t produce more than a tiny flame.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” the halfling said, the amusement definitely there and more pronounced. “I’m talking about her.”

“Heather?” Marcus asked, completely at a loss of what Wilkey was getting at.

“No, your other her.”

“My other . . . “ he began, then realization struck him like a brick. He stopped in mid-stride, nearly tripping over a thick knot of grass. Behind him, Heather stopped and looked around nervously. The fog had lifted completely, but her eyes remained wide and vigilant, looking for anything she thought might be remotely dangerous after their close call of the previous day.

“Yes, her,” Wilkey repeated. “Lorelei.”

Marcus glanced back and saw that Heather still remained thankfully out of earshot, although she regarded the pair with apprehensive curiosity. Marcus walked on, Wilkey at his elbow, waiting for his reply.

“She’s just a child,” Marcus said at last. “She’ll have to understand that childhood crushes . . . that puppy love . . . those things fade over time.”

“First,” Wilkey said, now taking obvious delight in Marcus’s lack of comfort on the subject. “I think you’ll find that she’s no longer the child you remember. Second, I think you may have underestimated her “childhood crush” as you call it.”

Marcus sighed, seeing a new complication to his already complicated return to this land. In his mind he recalled a beautiful elven girl and the promise he made to her and, despite his feelings for Heather, he felt something inside him stir. A feeling of dread crept into his gut, but beneath that something stronger, nervous excitement, at the thought of seeing Lorelei again. Combining with these two emotions, another built up to join them as he looked back at Heather stepping along behind them, careful to avoid the tangles of underbrush that grew along the riverbank. He looked at her, scared but resolute, and beautiful, and felt a flood of guilt over his growing excitement.

Looking down at Wilkey, still at his elbow and staring up at him with a sly grin, he shrugged. “I’ll deal with that when the time comes. In the meantime, we should focus on trying to get to Glenfold before dark. I have a bad feeling about what may happen if we don’t.”

Wilkey let the subject go and fell back behind Heather in their small column. Marcus could hear Heather questioning him about their conversation and the halfling’s refusal to share any information.

“We’re just talking about what we’re going to do when we get to the elven realm,” Wilkey answered her, not quite lying, but obscuring enough of the truth to make Heather suspicious. She certainly was not stupid and knew Marcus well enough to know that their discussion had not been nearly so simple.

“And what is that?” Heather asked.

“Get something to drink,” the halfling answered with a wink.

As they walked on beside the whispering Misteld, the high grass gave way to a gradually thickening forest, tall oaks and ashes reaching for the sun arcing high overhead. A soft breeze blew through the canopy, stirring the leaves and scattering the beams of sun that shone down among them. The underbrush, though, also grew thicker, slowing their progress as they paused now and then to extricate themselves from brambles.

Marcus could almost feel the sun sliding down to its bed over the horizon and as it grew ever closer, his sense of nervousness increased. His feeling of dread grew steadily stronger as the shadows lengthened in the trees. For some reason he could not explain, he wanted to be within the relatively safe confines of the elven kingdom before nightfall, but as he led them ever closer to the borders Heather stopped, sitting down heavily on a fallen tree.

Marcus heard her halt and turned to look at her with wide eyes. Casting a nervous glance at the trees all around, he motioned for her to get up.

“I can’t,” she stated flatly. “I can’t go any more today.”

Marcus looked around again, as if expecting some horrible monster to erupt from the underbrush and devour them whole. “Come on, it’s not much further,” he said.

Heather shook her head and Marcus saw she was weary to the bone. Although they had been hiking several times on the various trails of the Blue Ridge Mountains, those had only been casual occasions, more to find a quiet place to make love than for the actual sport of it. He tried to think of those times, happier days when making love was still very much on their minds.

After a long moment, Wilkey cast the deciding vote. “I think we ought to stop, Marcus. It’s getting too dark to find our way through these woods,” the halfling said.

Marcus stepped and looked away into the darkening wood. He wanted to scream at them, rant and rave until they understood the urgency that he felt, but he dared not raise his voice with the unseen menace he sensed almost looming over them.

“Okay,” he said in a low voice, turning back to them. “But no fire. As little talk as possible. And we keep a watch all night.”

Heather looked up at him, then took a quick look around into the trees. “What’s wrong?”

Wilkey was already unpacking their evening meal. “Yeah,” he said. “What’s bothering you?”

“I . . . I don’t know,” Marcus answered. “Maybe nothing. I just have a bad feeling about tonight, that’s why I want to keep a watch. Just a precaution.”

“Okay,” Wilkey said jovially. “You first then, me second, and milady here will go third.”

Heather nodded her approval, and accepted the dried meat and cup of water the halfling offered her. She said nothing, but slid down the fallen trunk and leaned against it, closing her eyes as she ate.

Within a half hour, both Heather and Wilkey fell fast asleep, leaving Marcus with his stomach clenched with foreboding. The sounds of night closed around them with the darkness and soon he could only see faint outlines of his two companions lying only a few feet away among the grass and dead leaves. Both snored lightly again, but to Marcus the sound seemed magnified, as though they were breathing through bullhorns. He wondered if they would even wake if something attacked them in the night, tired as they were from the day’s march.

Marcus stared down at the dark outline of his hands. He could feel them tremble slightly, his fingers moving of their own volition as they were prone to do when he felt stress, very rare moments considering his reputation among the management of SportsWorld for being cool under the most chaotic conditions. He considered using his time alone to try again to reach his lost powers, but decided not to dare drawing any more attention to their camp than the whistling snores were already.

He waited. For an interminable time he stared into the darkness, listening for any change in the sounds of insects and night birds. He could hear the faint murmur of the Misteld through the trees and once again, though he could only feel it and not see it, the fog rolled in from the river. A few times he thought he heard steps trudging through the underbrush and considered lighting his thumb to investigate. He swallowed the notion with great difficulty, holding the ornate hilt of the knife at his belt all the while.

After several hours, Marcus finally began to feel himself succumbing to the weariness that had already claimed the others. Despite his efforts to remain alert, his eyelids grew leaden and drooped slowly down, imperceptible in the absence of light. He allowed his eyes to close, realizing that he should wake Wilkey soon for his turn at watch, when his eyes popped wide open, a sudden strong feeling of being watched seizing him and shaking him awake.

He opened his eyes, but otherwise did not move, afraid to indicate his presence to whoever or whatever he felt watching him. He could still hear Heather and Wilkey breathing steadily near him. He cast his gaze upward slowly, scanning the darkness stretching away from him, looking for anything, listening for anything that may give away the location of the intruder in their midst.

Some distance away, two points of red light shone faintly among the trees. They did not flicker, momentarily blocked by eyelids. Their illumination remained constant and unwavering, though sometimes gaining a corona as a tendril of fog passed before them. He could see no source of the lights, the darkness surrounding them being absolute.

Marcus stood, his eyes focused on the two red lights as he did so. He tried to judge the distance to them, thinking to rush out and take the initiative before anything could attack them, but in the complete blackness of the woods, he could not determine if the lights were five yards or fifty yards into the trees. His feet edged toward them, quietly shuffling among the dead leaves. He stared desperately into the dark, trying to force his eyes to see what menace stood there, watching with what he knew were two red eyes, but still he only saw the two red dots against the velvety black night.

As he continued to edge closer, Marcus bumped Wilkey with his foot, causing the halfling to snore loudly and stir, crunching the leaves below him.

“My turn for watch already?” the halfling asked sleepily. “I haven’t slept at all.”

Marcus looked down quickly, prying his eyes off the red lights just a moment to whisper a sharp warning to the halfling. He looked back up a second later, and the lights were no longer there.

Marcus felt the hair raise on the back of his neck and gooseflesh race down his entire body. He looked around frantically for the lights, but saw only inky blackness. Drawing his knife, he forced himself to calm down and think, but found no better solution than to wait and try to listen above the sound of his blood rushing through his ears.

For the remainder of the night, Marcus stood and stared into the dark woods around him. Even as the first gray light of dawn filtered through the leaves to show the forest floor, he watched intently for the red lights to return. As soon as the light was sufficient, he walked out in the direction he thought the lights had been.

He searched the underbrush as he walked, slowly scanning each plant for some sign of passage. Finally, about twenty yards out from where Wilkey and Heather still slept, he saw a small patch of thick grass, hardly bigger than the area two feet would occupy standing there, trampled flat. The blades, instead of green, were a dark, dead brown in two elongated shapes that resembled footprints, in sharp contrast to the vibrant green plants all around. The fog had left a coating of condensation on the underbrush, but on the brown patches of grass, the dew had frozen, hanging from the dead blades like white claws.

Marcus searched the ground around the footprints for some time and found no other traces of whatever had caused such a scene. Whatever had stood in that spot staring at them with its red eyes seemed to have simply appeared then disappeared. Worried, but thankful that daylight had come again, he returned to the camp and found Wilkey and Heather both awake.

“Why didn’t you wake me?” the halfling asked, chewing on a piece of dried deer meat. “You didn’t have to stay up the whole night, although I do appreciate the sleep.”

He considered telling them about the mysterious red points of light he had seen and the traces left in the forest by their owner, but the concerned look on Heather’s face stopped him.

“I couldn’t sleep, so I thought I’d let the two of you rest,” he told them, looking away from Heather in case she could see some sign of the lie on his face. “I’ll get enough rest when we are safely within the borders of Glenfold.”

Marcus felt weariness crawling all over his body and with many miles yet to go before reaching the elven lands, he wanted nothing more than to lie down as they had done and sleep long into the day. However, he thought of their voyeur with hellfire for eyes and knew that they must reach Glenfold by dark or the next visit would not be so benign.

They ate quickly in the gathering light of dawn, light dampened by the remnants of the fog stretching out from the river and by the oncoming clouds moving in over the trees, gray and threatening of rain. Within twenty minutes, they began their trek again, picking through the underbrush single file, each consumed in his or her own thoughts.

As they walked, the forest grew denser and the underbrush grew thinner, allowing them to pick up their pace dramatically. To their left, the Misteld sang its watery song, never far from their straining ears among the other sounds of the deep woods. The terrain began a gradual decline after a while, and the sound of the river grew harsher and louder, indicating a section of rapids interrupting the smooth flow of the water. Frogs belted out their invitation to the imminent rain, their croaks blending into the burbling of the turbulent water to produce an almost comical symphony of nature.

They walked easily as they passed further into the valley. Despite the change in weather, their spirits grew lighter as they neared the borders of Glenfold, even allowing for idle conversation in hushed voices. The sides of the valley rose up on either side of them like great waves of multi-colored foliage and Heather beamed in their beauty. Marcus looked back at her at one point and she, forgetting herself for a moment, gave him a dazzling smile, reminding him poignantly of their happier times together. Turning his attention back to the path ahead, he tried to commit to memory that smile so that, if all other causes were lost, he would have that one image to fall back on.

At last, sometime past midday as far as Marcus could tell, they came to a clearing where the river, running parallel to them for their entire journey, forked around a grove of majestic oaks advancing off into the valley. The left branch snaked away from them, disappearing around a bend beyond their line of sight, and the right branch spread before them, flowing swiftly between them and their destination.

“There it is,” Marcus told Heather. “Glenfold, the elven realm.”

Heather looked across the wide river with wide eyes. “I’ve never seen trees so . . . so beautiful,” she whispered so that Marcus barely heard her over the rushing water.

“Now,” Wilkey chimed in. “How do we get across?”

Marcus stared across the water at the distant bank. He still felt unseen eyes observing them, waiting for an opportunity to catch them unawares, and knew they needed to cross before dark. Even in his younger days when he could command the elements, he never crossed the elven border without invitation. He would send a message, usually by charming a song bird, and send it in advance of his arrival at the river. When he came to the river in those earlier days, he would find a path through the water, similar to the biblical story of Moses parting the Red Sea. Now he felt another correlation to that story, knowing that he must lead his companions across or face certain death if night fell around them on the side they now occupied.

Heather walked down the water’s edge and looked appraisingly at it, even dipping the toe of her boot into the water. “It’s cold,” she said. “But I think we could probably swim across.”

“No, we can’t,” Marcus said. He looked down upon the bank of the river and bent to pick up a small, flat stone at the water’s edge. He considered it thoughtfully for a moment, then drew back and slung it skipping along the surface of the river. The stone skimmed across until it reached a point halfway between the two banks, then it stopped suddenly with a musical ping before slipping out of sight.

“Magical protection,” Marcus said in response to Heather’s inquiring look. “We could swim to that point, then we’d have to come back or drown.”

Still, the experiment triggered something in his memory and he struggled with it for only a few moments before he found it. Marcus recalled a day long ago when the elves would not lower their magical shield for anyone, yet he had managed to cross. The elves had prepared a contingency for one of their own travelling who returned to find the path across the river impassable and Marcus had learned it long ago from a beautiful elven girl.

Lorelei.

Marcus scanned the ground again, looking for another stone, but one very particular and very out of place along the bank of a river. Finally, he found what he was looking for, a glassy black piece of obsidian lying half-obscured in the mud at the edge of the water. He pried it loose as it gave a tiny squelching sound as if it was loathe to leave it riverside view. Using an inside corner of his cloak, he wiped the stone clean and found that it was perfectly round, nearly the size of a tea saucer, and remarkable light in his hands.

Heather and Wilkey, who had been staring at Marcus with unveiled curiosity, now stared at the obsidian disk in wonder.

“What’s that?” Wilkey asked.

Marcus held the disk up, feeling the first drops of rain fall as he did. Droplets of water landed on the stone forming tiny black beads on its surface.

“It’s our key,” Marcus told them.

“Okay,” Heather said, her voice taking on a tone of annoyed skepticism as they rain began to fall harder. “Then where’s the keyhole, genius?”

Marcus did not answer, though the barb of her question nearly drew a nasty retort out of him. Instead, he held the disk and looked out over the water, studying the trees on the far side to be sure he was in the right place. He knew he would only have once chance to get across without help from the elves, help that he knew would not come before nightfall.

Pulling the obsidian disk back, he sent it sailing across the water just as he had done with the previous stone. This time, however, the stone did not touch the water, nor did it stop halfway across to fall into the depths below. The disk soared out perfectly straight just above the rippling waves of the river. In its wake, a line of silver light appeared in the water and the river began to part as though being drawn open by an enormous zipper. As the water peeled back, it revealed a walkway, also of obsidian, running along the riverbed.

The disk carried over the entire width of the river, parting the water as it went, and landed on the opposite bank, shattering as it did so.

“Come on,” Marcus said. “We have to get across before the water fills in the gap.” He stared along the obsidian path, finding it dry and easily passable. He moved quickly down the slope toward the center of the riverbed and turned to make sure the others were following him.

Wilkey stepped along lightly a few yards behind him, watching the water warily on either side. Heather, on the other hand, still stood upon the far bank gaping at the divided river. She started to step forward, but drew back her foot, staring at the water on either side with wide eyes.

“Come on,” Marcus repeated, calling out over the rushing water to either side of him. “It’s safe for a few minutes, but we have to hurry.” Turning back, he walked quickly to the other side and emerged from the path onto the stony bank of Glenfold.

Wilkey grew more nervous about the magic around him as he continued along the obsidian path and finished the trick at a run. Sweating, more from fear than the physical exertion of the short sprint, he smiled at Marcus. “Nice trick,” he said.

Marcus paid no attention. Heather stood on the far bank, her arms folded across her chest. Her hands gripped her upper arms tightly and Marcus could see her rocking back and forth slightly. Even at such a distance, he could see tears streaming down her face and he knew that another level of her disbelief had broken allowing a new wave of fear to wash over her. As she had followed him across the grasslands and into the forests, she grew ever more comfortable with the surroundings, forgetting the differences that separated the two worlds. Now, faced with proof of such powerful magic, fresh terror consumed her and rendered her unable to move.

Fearing that she would faint and plunge into the turbulent water, Marcus knew he would have to ask fast to save her. He tore back across the obsidian path, heedless of the jets of water beginning to spray across the magical divide. Reaching the bank where Heather stood, he put his arm around her and nearly picked her up off the ground as he led her down the black walkway, fast becoming wet and slick as more and more of the river broke free of its magical restraints.

As they reached the center of the riverbed and began up the other side, Marcus realized that he had reacted a few seconds too late. Great beams of water battered them from both sides as they fought to clear the river before the divide closed completely. He looked up at the far bank, seemingly miles away as the water closed overhead like great jaws devouring them whole.

In a panic, Marcus pulled Heather closer to him and tried once again to summon the power that he knew lay just beyond his reach. He felt the chill of the water close around them and took a deep breath, closing his eyes and preparing for the river to sweep them away to their deaths. Instead, he exhaled and found that he could breath air still, though pain wracked his body as he inhaled again. Beside him he heard Heather gasp and thought she too was taking her last breath. He opened his eyes after a few seconds in which he grew more and more surprise to still be allowed to breath and looked around in wonder.

The swiftly flowing waters of the Misteld completely surrounded them, but Marcus and Heather themselves stood holding each other inside a small bubble, hardly bigger than the space their bodies occupied. A faint shimmering light could be seen around the perimeter of the air pocket as it moved and swayed with the current of the river. All around them, they could see fish swimming in and out of view in the murky water, detouring around the two humans invading their domain as they did so.

Heather appeared to have shed her fear as she looked on in amazement at the sight of the river flowing around her. She looked back at last at Marcus and a broad smile lit her face, reflecting the luminescence of the bubble. “It’s like the aquarium we went to in Chattanooga,” she said.

Marcus heard her, but as she spoke her voice seemed to fade and grow distant, as though she were speaking from the end of a long tunnel. He felt his strength quickly draining away from him as he supplied the necessary force to protect them from drowning. He did not respond to her reminiscence except to pull her ahead, urgently leading her up along the obsidian path he could still see laid out before them. Fighting to remain conscious, his willpower sifting out of him like grains of sand in an hourglass, he led Heather upward, noticing all the while the pocket of air surrounding them growing smaller and smaller. Both of them bent over as the bubble closed in around them like shrink wrap and breathing became difficult, making it even harder for Marcus to keep going. Beside him, Heather whispered words of encouragement, but the fear had seeped in again as water began to do the same and the words came out hollow and tinged with doubt.

Marcus pressed on, feeling his legs starting to wobble. The soft light emitted by the magical barrier closing in around them began to darken with the rest of his vision. Even Heather, standing as close as possible to him without sharing the same physical space, began to dim as his mind began to shut down from its exertion. He forced his legs to pump up and down, sliding occasionally on the slick stone walkway, but slowly gaining ground. The only thought his overtaxed brain could manage was that he would not allow Heather to die in such a fashion.

The shining force keeping the water at bay wavered finally and the small holes that had been allowing water in for some time broke free, permitting great spouts of river water to pour in, forcing what little air remained for them to the very top. The Misteld closed in around them like water in a jar and they stretched their necks up for one last gulp of air before the cold, dark water enclosed them.

Marcus took what he knew this time to be his last breath of air. With one final effort, he pitched forward, hearing only a dull rushing in his ears as water filled them. The darkness, held back so long by his indomitable will, claimed him at last and he knew no more.

I apologize for the delay in posting this chapter.  I’m a busy guy.  However, this is a particularly long chapter, so for those of you still reading this story (yes, both of you), you have even more of my bad writing to consume.

Chapter 6

The centaurs led Marcus and Heather through a path in the woods for nearly an hour before coming to another clearing, nearly four times the size of the one next to the cave. Several tents were pitched around a large central fire pit where several centaurs could be seen stacking wood for the evening. For the first time, they could see females, similar in their muscular appearance to the males except for the leather wraps around their torsos. Stationed around the perimeter, Marcus could see sentries posted, staring out into the surrounding woods with bows ready in their large hands and full quivers strapped across their broad shoulders.

“We must fight te survive here,” Beorgan said, seeing Marcus eyeing the guards. “Not only again the rival tribes, but now the Dark One sends his forces as well.”

Beorgan surveyed his tribe, noting how each member, down to the smallest centaur, performed some duty, some assigned task that benefitted the whole. Marcus saw the look of pride on his dark face, but also saw a great sadness that tinged its hard lines like a dark lining around a cloud. “We are but half as many as we were two summers ago.” He looked at Marcus and for a moment, Marcus saw deep thoughtfulness breaking through the wild expression of his eyes. “Our time is ending, but we will fight until it does.”

Marcus remembered vaguely meeting the centaur chieftain on a few occasions during his childhood. He had always been impressed by their physical attributes and their sometimes raunchy way of speaking, but he thought now that he had greatly underestimated Beorgan’s intelligence on those previous trips. While the centaur had little knowledge of, or care for, the happenings of the outside world, he was now forced to deal with them as they had invaded his lands. Marcus heard the undertone of resignation in his voice as he spoke of his tribe and knew that much consideration had been given to the tide of evil that now threatened to destroy them, only to decide that resistance would be useless.

“I wish to know more about this Necromancer,” Marcus said. “Who is he and what does he want?”

“I know not who he is,” Beorgan answered, “but I do know what he wants—to rule.”

The fire pit in the center of the camp roared to life as they approached it and Marcus felt heat pour off in waves. A female centaur with a lovely human-like face and voluptuous torso approached Beorgan and offered him a water skin. The black centaur took it without a word of thanks and took a long draught. He then offered it to Marcus who also took a lengthy pull. The water tasted sweet and clear, like the bottled water he and Heather bought in bulk at the wholesale club.

Marcus turned and offered the skin to Heather, who took a step back. She glanced at the centaur with an unmistakable look of disgust on her face. “No thanks, not thirsty,” she said.

He looked around the camp to see if any of the other centaurs noticed the refusal. They would be highly offended, he knew, to see her decline such as precious gift as drinking water, but fortunately, none appeared to have noticed. The tribe still hurried about here and there performing their chores as the last light of day waned.

Some of the females set about preparing dinner over the fire pit. A wild boar hung suspended on a spit and revolved slowly directly over the fire. Soon, the smell of roasting pork filled their nostrils and Marcus heard behind him Heather’s stomach give a loud growl.

“I suppose you’re not hungry, either,” he whispered to her.

Heather curled her upper lip and mimed his words, shaking her head from side to side for emphasis. She sat next to Marcus, her legs crossed in front of her. Beorgan had lowered himself gracefully to a seated position in the dirt on his other side and Marcus marveled at how smoothly the centaurs moved with their conglomeration of bodies and the way their full bodies served to amplify their speech, kicking excitedly in the grass and shuffling a shy hoof in the dust.

“I had a mind that ye’d return,” Beorgan said to him as hot, fragrant pieces of the boar were being served on wooden plates. He stuffed a large chunk of boar meat into his mouth and continued in a nearly inaudible voice. “That’s why we set up here, thinking ye’d be coming back. Been here neigh on two moons.”

“I should have returned sooner,” Marcus said, staring into the fire. “Erasmus is dead.”

Beorgan dropped the meat he had been prying off the bone and looked at Marcus. “The Dark One got him too, eh? Well, he be a good one, powerful, but not so much as ye.”

Marcus said nothing. While they had not said so openly, Marcus knew that the centaurs regarded him as a possible savior, the only one who could possibly oppose the Necromancer and help them regain their lost glory. How would they feel if he told them that he had no power anymore? That all his talents may have left him as he grew older and forgot about them? He looked around the camp and saw several clusters of centaurs talking together. Many of them had smiles on their faces and all of them kept looking back at Marcus with disturbing regularity. Sudden anger rose up in him, anger at their false hope, at their inability to do anything to help themselves, at their ignorance of Erasmus’s fate.

He forced himself to calm down, realizing that could not blame the centaur tribe for what he knew were his own insecurities and grief.

Again, Marcus searched deep within himself, looking for the rush of power he recalled having as a child in this strange land. He remembered feeling like great amounts of electricity flowed up from the ground through him to be conducted in whatever means necessary to follow his bidding, but he could not find that sensation. Doubt and despair settled in his stomach like large stones and he found that his appetite vanished like a snowball in the Amazon.

He looked at Heather, sitting a few feet away, keeping to herself. She had overcome her aversion to the tribe’s hospitality and ate the meat she was offered with obvious relish. One of the female centaurs approached with a wooden cup roughly the size of a half-gallon milk carton and Heather drained half of the water inside with one long gulp. She looked up and saw Marcus watching her. She smiled, embarrassed, and wiped the pork grease off her full lips with the back of her small hand.

Looking at her, Marcus felt something rise within him. A small something, but it excited him, nonetheless, and feeling that tiny amount of energy coursing through him when he saw her, made him suspect why his instinct insisted so hard on her coming in the first place.

She’s the key, he thought, she’s the key to everything.

He smiled back at her, winked, and turned back to Beorgan.

“What can you tell me about the Necromancer?”

Beorgan examined the bone he had been chewing on the smallest missed portion of meat still clinging to it. Finding none, he tossed it absently into the fire. “He first came about two summers after ye traveled here last. Built a great tower of bones out in the Barrens and for neigh on eight year he stay there, never seen by man nor beast. Then, he sent his armies out in all directions, an army of dead.”

The large centaur shivered. His race valued life, but found violation of one’s death a most vile act of treachery.

“The dead poured over the villages and spread outward, swelling their numbers ever more from the killing they did. They would slay and the dead would rise right up where they fell to join them against their own. Now, only a few folk still stand against them. We centaurs have set aside our tribal battles to unite against the Dark One and all have suffered great losses.” Beorgan’s voice dropped. “There still be no trust between the tribes, only death.”

Taking a closer look at the other centaurs gathered in small groups around the fire pit, he saw signs of the onslaught Beorgan talked about. Nearly all of the members of his tribe bore a number of scars, reflecting the firelight in shining stripes among the fur of their lower bodies and the smooth skin of their upper bodies. Many had been mangled in some fashion, missing fingers and hands were common among both the males and females. Others bore more obvious signs of battle, such as large chestnut colored male whose entire face bore the unmistakable blotchy appearance of one who had been badly burned.

Beorgan continued. “The elves still hold the dead at bay, but their power is waning as well. Their forest is no longer the stronghold it once was and they are besieged by the armies of the Dark One. The dwarves are scattered from their hills. Most of the men have fled to the outreaches of the land, into the desert and beyond, those that have not sided with the Dark One, that is.”

The centaur stopped speaking and looked at Marcus, as if expecting him to say what he planned to do to fix the whole nasty business. In such a trying time, the chief looked for some sign, any sign, to bring hope back to his people, to spur them on to a battle he hoped would not prove their destruction.

Marcus returned the gaze for a moment, but found he could not hold eye contact for long. He worried that in some mystical way, the centaur would read his thoughts and see that he had not returned with the power he possessed as a child. He did not know why the power, that feeling of being a conduit for some great energy within the land, was not there, but he felt an almost tangible force blocking his efforts to reach it like a locked door to a vast treasure vault.

He looked once again at Heather and saw, with some surprise, that she had arranged her pack beneath her head and had drifted off to sleep, bathed in the flickering light of the fire. Emotion welled up inside Marcus, a mixture of parental protectiveness and adoring amusement. He rose to his feet, removed his cloak, and covered her with it. She accepted it sleepily, pulling it up close to her face and breathing deeply.

“Smells like you . . . “ she mumbled, not bothering to open her eyes, and drifted back to sleep.

Marcus waited for Heather’s breathing to grow regular, basking in her serene expression as the fire danced behind him, then returned to the centaur chieftain’s, side. Beorgan sat with his legs folded under him and stared at Heather with a thoughtful expression on his dark face.

“She be fair, Marcus,” he said. “You intend to breed with her?”

Marcus found the question remarkably poignant and funny at the same time. They had certainly talked about having children, several times, but their current journey into this strange other world changed the situation entirely. Not only would he have to contend with Heather’s negative feelings toward his as both a potential husband and father, he would also have to fulfill his quest with their relationship, and their lives, intact. For a brief moment, he considered taking Heather and leading her back to the cave at first light, leaving this remnant of his childhood to its own fortunes. Then, the image of a skull lying in grass rose into his mind and his determination reset itself, resolving his temporary inner conflict. He would go on, he told himself, and he would bring Heather with him, doing his best to protect her along the way.

He looked again at her sleeping form, mostly concealed beneath the thick cloak he had given her. What if I can’t protect her, he asked himself, feeling fear for the first time since they had left the cave. What if I’ve only brought her to her death.

Marcus answered the centaur finally, still looking at his cloak draped over Heather’s small body. “Yes, I do want to have children with her.” He turned to look directly into the big centaur’s eyes. “As soon as I have avenged Erasmus and your people and all the others who have been touched by this Necromancer, I want to leave and have as many children as she wants.”

That night, Marcus slept beside Heather on the hard ground. Not as close as they did in the bedroom of their Victorian, but close enough to reach out to her when the nightmares came. He dreamt of facing an army of corpses with only Heather at his side. The encircling mass of bodies shuffled forward slowly as from some George A. Romero film, ever tightening the space between them and their intended victims. Marcus tried to summon the power he knew lay just beyond the locked door, but could not. The dead swarmed in and pried Heather from his grasp just before they overwhelmed him, driving him to the ground beneath a wave of decaying flesh and bone.

He woke suddenly, cold sweat pouring in rivulets down his face and chest. The blood red robes he wore clung to his skin like wet paper and he felt his left hand clutching something soft. His head turned and he found the cloak in his hand, with Heather nowhere to be seen.

He gained his feet in less time than it took his rushing heart to perform a full beat. Turning this way and that, he scanned the clearing, looking for some sign of where she had gone. The fear from his nightmare returned and settled in his lower abdomen like a sharp boulder. He peered at the ground and saw several small footprints moving this way and that, but could determine no direction from them. At the perimeter of the camp, the centaur sentries stood their silent vigil, staring into the predawn light of the woods beyond.

Just as he was about to wake the entire tribe by screaming her name, Heather reappeared, stepping lightly from the woods on the opposite end of camp. She brushed of the nettles that clung to her cotton pants and began to walk back to where Marcus stood glaring at her. Seeing him awake with an expression of mingled relief and fury, she halted.

“What?” she asked. “I had to pee.”

Marcus raised his hand and ran his fingers through his thick hair, sighing in exasperation. He started to berate her, to tell her that she had no idea what sort of evil things could be even now looking for them, demons sent by the Necromancer to make quick work of this perceived threat with no real power. He opened his mouth and shut it several times, looking like a gaping fish, before raising his hands in the air and trembling his frustration into nothingness.

When he turned back to her, she flung his cloak, which he had dropped in his desperate search for her, into his face. She offered no word of thanks, no sign of gratitude whatever, and he knew that the guards had once again been posted on her emotions, regardless of any affection she had shown the previous night. He wondered how one person could go from one extreme to another with such rapidity, then decided not to press his luck. He left her alone to gather her things and set out to find Beorgan.

He found the black centaur partially obscured in the shadows of a large elm tree, staring out into the thick foliage beyond. The pragmatic side of Marcus, the one that operated a multi-million dollar business, was impressed by this show of responsibility from the centaur chief. That he took up the same duties as everyone else in his tribe spoke volumes about his ability to lead his kinsmen through such troubled times.

“Parting with us so soon?” Beorgan asked, eyes still fixed on the woods beyond.

“I wish to speak with the elves.” Marcus had no idea why he had said this, he had thought little of the elves of this land since arriving and had not decided to visit them until Beorgan had asked the question.

“I thought ye might,” Beorgan nodded. “They be wise, though never friends of me and me kin.”

Heather approached from the camp and stood a few feet away from where Marcus stood talking with the centaur. She blinked at them, gave a gigantic yawn, and looked at Marcus expectantly, as if to say “so, what now?” She had tied her long hair back with a piece of leather she had acquired from somewhere and had her pack slung over her shoulder like a college student toting a backpack.

Marcus turned back to Beorgan, still staring into the gloom of the early morning. “I swear to you that I will do everything within my power to stop the Necromancer, Beorgan. I give you my word.”

Finally, the centaur turned and looked at Marcus. An amused cunning danced in his dark eyes. “That which be within your power may be too little, Marcus,” he said.

Marcus realized then that the centaur knew his fears of being powerless upon his return to the land and his mouth fell open. He wondered if Beorgan had known this outside the cave when he had bluffed them into releasing Heather, or at least thought he was bluffing them. Perhaps, he thought, I was the one being bluffed.

“May hap the elves will help ye find that which ye seek. Until then, I bid you fair travels, Marcus, and good fortune on your quest,” Beorgan said.

Marcus thanked Beorgan for his hospitality and set off into the woods under the watchful gaze of the centaur chieftain.

He and Heather walked through the woods as the first rays of dawn appeared over the horizon, casting long shadows in the deep trees. For some time, they journeyed in silence, broken only by the occasional yawn from Heather a few steps behind. Marcus tried hard to stifle the yawns that rose in reaction to hers, but found himself unable to avoid the urge. He did not feel sleepy, despite spending the previous night lying upon the hard ground of the camp, but as he thought of the long, long trip ahead, a weariness settled on him that made him long for the soft bed in the upstairs bedroom, even if she no longer shared it with him. The thought that he could sleep for days vanished, however, when Heather finally spoke.

“So where are we going, anyway?”

“We are going to the North Pole to see Santa and his elves,” Marcus answered. His tone was casual, as straight forward as he could make it, but he still heard a sigh of exasperation from behind him. “But first, we are going to a small village only a few miles from here, a place called Yellow Banks, to look up an old friend of mine.”

“Assuming that friend’s not dead, too,” she answered.

Marcus turned on her, unable to hold his tongue any longer. “Look, I’m sorry I brought you into this. I’m sorry I dragged you all the way here without telling you what was going on but, number one, you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you everything and, number two, I really don’t know why I had to bring you. Something told me I needed you to do what I’m supposed to do. As soon as I know what you’re here for, I’ll be sure to tell you, but in the meantime, a little support or even just a little silence would be a good thing.”

Marcus turned on his heel and started again up the small deer path that was leading them through the forest. He had walked ten paces when he noticed the absence of Heather’s footfalls behind him. He turned again, and saw on her face a strange mixture of shock and, surprisingly to him, comprehension.

“I . . . I’m sorry,” she whispered, not looking at him. She tried to speak again, but her lower jaw trembled and she shut it again.

Marcus felt his heart sink. Never in their relationship had he ever berated her as he had just done. He felt ashamed of making her feel so small, but at the same time, a small voice in his head told him that maybe she needed to feel small this once. She had hurt his feelings and he certainly had enough things to worry about without fearing her barbed comments.

“It’s okay, I’m just worried,” he told her and started along the path again.

They walked again in silence for a long time and eventually the trees around them began to thin and then disappeared. The stopped at the edge of the woods as the sun was beginning its steady climb into the sky and sat down in the shade to rest before continuing on.

“So, what do I need to know about this place?” Heather asked. “If I’m here to help you, what do I need to know to survive?”

Marcus had been lost in his own thoughts, but snapped back to the present with the sound of her voice. He pondered the question for a while, looking off over the hills before them. “When I came here as a child,” he began, “I had this amazing magical power. I could create and destroy things with a thought and a wave of my hand. I gained a reputation as this powerful wizard who traveled the lands fighting evil where I found it and helping the dwellers here as much as I could. We had a lot of good time, Erasmus and me, roving this way and that, battling the darkness and nearly getting killed in the process. Erasmus also could do magic, perhaps not as much as me, but he was resourceful, cunning and he made much more creative use of the power he had than I did.

Marcus smiled, his face looking back upon his childhood. “I don’t even remember half the things we did. Like I said, I had pretty much forgotten all about this place, or chalked it up to some vivid dream I had, but every moment here brings back a flood of memories.”

“I’m glad you remember that part about saving Beorgan,” Heather said.

It was as close to an apology and an expression of gratitude as he was likely to get under the circumstances, but he welcomed it all the same.

“There are a few things you should know before we get to Yellow Banks, though,” he told her. “First, try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Yellow Banks is a pretty rough place, kind of like the towns you see in those movies about the Old West. A lot of traders and mercenaries frequent the place and it can be a dangerous place for a beautiful woman.”

Heather smiled at the compliment, despite herself.

“Second, you should follow my lead, whatever I do and no matter how crazy it seems at the time. The people here probably still know my name, but they won’t believe I’m me until I prove myself, like I had to do with the centaurs.”

“Well, that should be easy,” Heather said. “Just show them a bit of that magical power and they’ll be sure to see who you are.”

“That’s the last thing,” Marcus said, fixing his gaze on her brown eyes. “I don’t think I have that power any more. I haven’t felt it since we’ve been back.”

Heather stared at him, horrorstruck. “You mean you’ve come back her with this great reputation as some kind of wizard or something and you’re telling me that you can’t do any of it anymore. How are you suppose to beat this Necrowhatever and keep us from getting killed?” Realization swept over her, adding to her terrified expression. “You mean that all that stuff you said to the centaurs was a bluff? You really couldn’t have stopped them in they wanted to carry me off?”

She looked at him intently, her eyes pleading for some reassurance that he had the ability to protect her in this strange, dangerous land. She found none. Marcus only looked off into the distance, his face grave.

Marcus decided to test his theory, to see if perhaps he was wrong about the state of his abilities. Holding out his hand, palm up, he concentrated with all his might, hoping to produce a ball of pure light as he had done so many times delving in caves and dungeons with Erasmus at his side. Sweat appeared on his brow and his head began to tremble from the effort. No light came at first, but as he prepared to give up, a small flicker ignited in his hand and an orange tongue of flame sprang from his thumb, as if he had used a Zippo. He stared at it for a moment, delight and disappointment both washing over him, and after a few seconds the flame died.

“Well,” Marcus said, “I guess that’s a start.” The effort had left him exhausted and his breath came in quick rasps. He had never run a marathon, but imagined that if he did so, it would feel much as he did now.

“A start? A start?” Heather’s voice was hysterical. “So if something else attacks us, what are you going to do, ask it if it needs a light?”

She stood and began walking around in small circles, as Marcus knew she was prone to do during times of stress. Her lips moved all the while as she mumbled and gestured emphatically. Marcus knew she was building up steam before exploding on him and thought the time was right to move on again.

Standing, he felt the weariness of his attempt at producing magic gradually leaving him and started off through the tall grass that dominated the hills at the edge of the woods. He did not look back at Heather, even when he heard her yelp in surprise upon finding that he was leaving her behind. Her legs swished through the grass as she hurried to catch up, falling into place behind him again.

They walked through the waist high waves of grass, weaving between the hills that rose up around them like rounded gravestones. In a few places, they could see streaks of grass lying flat marking where some man or beast had passed in the recent past, but otherwise the land showed very little sign of traffic. Off in the distance, Marcus thought he could hear the first whispering of the river, the Misteld he remembered it being called, and soon after saw small plumes of chimney smoke rising in a small copse of trees at the edge of the silver line of the river.

“Okay,” Heather said, unable to keep her silence any longer. Marcus was relieved to hear her voice not coming out in shrill screams and looked at her as she spoke. “Who’s this friend of yours we’re going to find? Someone who can help us figure out how to get your power back?”

“His name is Wilkey, and I doubt he’ll be able to help get my power back,” Marcus answered. “But he is full of information and has a few things of mine that we may need on this trip.”

Marcus continued. “He’s also a swindler and a thief, so be on your guard with him.”

Heather stared at him. “You entrusted some of your possessions to a thief?” she asked.

“Yes,” Marcus replied, as if this were a perfectly natural answer. “He owes me his life several times over, so I have faith in him, regardless of how he’s treated others over the years.”

“You’ve been gone a long time. You really think he will have kept his promise this long?”

“I guess we’ll have to find out,” Marcus said and they started again toward the village of Yellow Banks. As they approached, they came to the River Misteld and walked parallel to it as they approached the buildings which now appeared through the trees. The brown water flowed along at a leisurely pace and now Heather saw how the village had arrived at its name. Yellow flowers she could not identify grew in thick patches upon the riverbank, creeping down into the water and floating in places like strands of blonde hair. The breeze blowing across the river carried their scent and Heather found their perfume far less appealing than their appearance, an odd mixture of honeysuckle and old garbage.

They entered the grove of trees and came to the outer buildings before Heather stopped walking. Looking around her, she stared in amazement as Marcus continued on. “What the hell is this,” she asked, “Munchkinland?”

The buildings of Yellow Banks ran in three concentric circles from a central common area in the middle of which stood a stone fountain. A small man on an equally small pony stood atop the fountain, cast in marble, and rearing to the sky like a great monument of war. Four buildings stood around the common area, each two stories, each roughly half the size of the Victorian Heather and Marcus had shared. The doors she could see stood no higher than her shoulders, roughly four and a half feet from top to bottom. The buildings on the outskirts of the village were confined to one floor each and their roofs barely reached past the top of Marcus’s head. She had a strange feeling of disorientation and clutched the nearest gutter for support as she dealt with the sensation that she had grown to the size of a giraffe.

Marcus studied her for a moment, then said, “Just remember what I said about this being a rough town and be ready for anything.”

“What are they going to do?” she asked. “Drop a house on me?”

“Just remember what I said,” Marcus repeated and turned to walk further into the town.

As they penetrated deeper into the circles of small buildings, they saw the first signs of their residents as eyes appeared from behind curtains just before unseen hands drew them shut again. They could hear voices coming from one of the buildings in the center ring and the pinging of what sounded to be a toy piano like the one they had given Heather’s niece for Christmas the previous year. As they reached the center ring of buildings, Heather could feel dozens of pairs of eyes looking at her and she wondered if their stares were just curiosity at the appearance of strangers, or something more sinister. She stepped closer to Marcus, unconsciously wanting to be near to him in case something went wrong.

Marcus took no notice of the onlookers huddled in their houses. He had expected such a reception and knew that with armies of the dead walking the land, new faces, even old new faces, would be viewed with utmost suspicion. He sought the source of the music and came to the front of one of the two story buildings. This building appeared well-constructed with walls of dried mud bricks, but had fallen into a state of disrepair that gave it a sad, shabby look. Large cracks ran up the walls like varicose veins and the opaque windows were dotted with missing or broken panes. A sign on the door proclaimed the place, The Pub.

“How original, huh?” Marcus asked as he pushed open the door. He was forced to stoop to enter the doorway and remained slightly bent beneath the low ceiling inside. Heather entered right behind him, bending to avoid the door jamb, but found just enough clearance inside to stand upright, although she could feel her hair brushing against the ceiling planks.

Inside, the sound of voices and the toy piano stopped immediately as they entered the room. Around two dozen little men sat around various tables staring at them intently. The tabletops reached just above Heather’s knees and in from of each little man was a tankard of some dark, foamy liquid at some level of consumption. At the far end of the room, a bar ran the length of the back wall and another little man stood behind it, stopping in mid-wipe as he cleaned one of the empty mugs.

Marcus scanned the room, looking at each and failing to find Wilkey. He moved forward through the tables, his steps sounding obscenely loud in the silence of the room, and leaned over the bar. “I’m looking for someone. A man named Wilkey,” he said to the bartender, a portly figure nearly as wide as he was tall.

Upon hearing Marcus speak, the clusters seated around the bar began to whisper and mumble excitedly, sounding much like a hive of bees perceiving a threat nearby. The little men leaned in toward one another and spoke urgently, some laughing and others giving Marcus dark looks.

Marcus kept his attention focused on the bartender and saw a line of sweat appear near the line of his gray hair and trickled down across the expanse of his forehead. He wiped the mug absently with his rag and looked down at the bar.

“Ain’t no Wilkey, here, Master,” he said.

Marcus frowned, but did not look away. “Are you sure? It would be a shame if he was here and no one told him that Marcus had returned to see him.”

At the mention of his name, Marcus heard a renewed buzzing from the tables around him. He heard one particularly loud voice near the door say “I knew it were him. Didn’t I tell ya it were him?” He could not, in the whispered cacophony, tell the overall sentiment the mention of his name caused, but decided he would worry about that later.

“Well, I ain’t much for keepin’ secrets,” the bartender said, “but if I were searching for Wilkey, I’d look upstairs in the second room on the right.”

Marcus thanked him and started up the stairs at the end of the bar before the bartender spoke again.

“But I’m not figurin’ you’ll like him in the state he’s in. He’s in a bad way, he is.”

Marcus hurried up the stairs, leaving Heather to the stares of the little men. She glanced around the room shyly, hoping to not catch their attention, but every pair of eyes seemed to be on her. She never felt comfortable in front of crowds and now could not remember ever feeling more uncomfortable or being in front of a stranger crowd. Taking a seat by the door, her knees bent up into her chest in the low ladder-back, she watched the stairs and waited for Marcus to return.

Marcus took the stairs three at a time, careful not to bump his head upon reaching the upper landing. Four quick steps brought him to the door the bartender had said and he knocked on it three times, listening for any movement inside. He heard none and knocked again, louder this time. Still, no sound came from across the door. He tried the knob, but it would not turn. Finally, out of ideas, he placed his hand flat against the door and concentrated on unlocking the door, a feat he had performed almost without thinking as a child crawling through dungeons with Erasmus by his side.

The lock held. Not even the sound of a tumbler moving rewarded Marcus for his efforts.

Marcus stood back from the door and kicked it, just above the knob and with a splintering pop, it opened. A strong smell of beer assailed Marcus as he entered and saw Wilkey, lying passed out upon the floor next to a pool of drying vomit. The small man’s dark clothes were covered in dust and badly wrinkled as if he had slept in them for days. Marcus felt sure that he had been sleeping in them as the smell of Wilkey’s body combined with the beer and vomit aroma to produce a nauseating stew for the nose. Wilkey’s black hair pointed in all directions except for a small patch near the top that lay flat against an empty bottle, still clutched in his right hand.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Marcus nearly choked on the strong aroma filling the room and stepped forward to where Wilkey lay sprawled upon the floor. He reached down and with strength born of growing anger he lifted Wilkey by his dusty shirt and shook him awake.

“Wake up, you little bastard,” Marcus said through gritted teeth.

Wilkey flopped in Marcus’s hand like a rag doll and mumbled, “Whosit? What the . . . ?” before puking again, spewing thin, whiskey-scented bile and just missing the leather boots Marcus wore.

Marcus smacked him, not very hard, but hard enough to get his attention. Wilkey’s eyes snapped open like window shades and he blinked sleepily at Marcus. As he opened his eyes, he cringed from the light flooding in from the window and winced painfully as he tried to focus on who had lifted him off the floor.

“M-M-Marcus?” he asked, his voice slurred. He raised a dirty sleeve to wipe away a trickled of fluid from the corner of his mouth. “Is that you?”

Marcus stared at him a moment, disgusted, then dropped him unceremoniously onto the bed. Taking a seat across the room, his knees out wide to compensate for the low chair, Marcus shook his head. “Wilkey, what the hell has happened to you?”

Wilkey struggled to roll over and blinked rapidly at Marcus, still trying to flush the disorientation from his mind. He absently wiped at his filthy clothes and looked remarkably put out.

“It’s been rough since you’ve been gone, Marcus, very rough.”

“Looking at you, I can believe that,” Marcus answered.

Wilkey continued to fidget uncomfortably, as though he sat on hot coals and was not allowed to get up. He refused to make eye contact with Marcus and made frequent glances at the door as if he intended to bolt for it any second. “What . . . what brings you back?” he asked.

“You know why I’ve come back,” Marcus answered.

“Ah, the Necromancer.”

“Yeah, and you also know why I came here to find you,” Marcus said.

Wilkey fidgeted more now, giving himself the appearance that he was suffering some sort of seizure. His glances at the half-open door became stares filled with longing. After a long pause, he nodded, without looking at Marcus.

“Where are my things, Wilkey?” Marcus asked, sensing trouble. “What have you done with them?”

“Well . . .” Wilkey began in a trembling voice. “You see . . .”

Marcus groaned in exasperation. “What did you do? Sell them so you could drink yourself into a stupor? Barter them for some cheap whore? Or perhaps you just lost them in a fit of gambling?”

Wilkey looked at Marcus finally, his wide eyes showing plainly the fear that had been rising in him since he recognized his visitor. “No, Marcus, nothing like that,” he said. “They took them.”

“Who’s they?” Marcus asked, leaning forward to look more closely at the little man. He wanted to be sure that he was not being lied to and moved in close enough to smell the stench of liquor that still clung to him.

“The bosses,” Wilkey answered, panicked. “You probably saw them downstairs. They spend almost all their time here, when they’re not out robbing people, or killing them. Three halflings, all dressed in black.”

Marcus scanned his memory of the barroom below and vaguely recalled a table in the corner occupied by three such figures as Wilkey described. They had remained stock still as he entered and made his inquiry to the bar man. Then, a thought struck his mind like a bolt of lightning, wiping all the anger he felt toward Wilkey, and replacing it with cold, sickening fear. As he rose, he heard raised voices from downstairs and an ear-piercing scream.

“Heather . . .” he moaned as he sprinted out the door.

Heather watched Marcus ascend the stairs and felt the all the eyes shift around to her as soon as he was out of sight. She tried to scan the room casually, smiling and trying not to show the fear that made her desperately want to exit the building and wait outside. Looking at the pub’s patrons sitting all around her, she found herself recalling Tolkien’s description of hobbits from her reading of The Lord of the Ringsin college. However, the grim, haunted faces around her looked nothing like the Frodo and Sam she had envisioned. All wore dark clothing, mostly caked in dirt too thick to determine their actual color. Many bore scars or festering sores upon their faces, signs of the harsh lives they endured in this dangerous land. Some continued to stare at her through narrow eyes while leaning over to whisper in conspiratorial tones to their neighbors.

She soon grew tired of their scrutiny and turned her attention instead to the low table in front of her, counting the moments until she heard the sounds of Marcus returning down the stairs. She decided to launch a new verbal assault when they left the pub, berating him for leaving her alone with such unsavory company, when she heard footsteps, but not from the staircase. Heavy boots pounded upon the plank forward from the corner of the pub moving in her direction. She did not look up, but could hears chairs sliding across the wood as the steps moved closer. Only when three shadows fell across the table she was so pointedly staring at did she look.

Heather gasped looking into the faces of the three figures before her. Never could she recall seeing more disturbing expressions. Each glared at her with obvious malice and amusement on their rounded faces. They were short, but stocky, much larger than the rest of the inhabitants of the village she had seen so far. Each wore a long knife strapped to his belt and the blades glinted merrily in the light spilling in from the oil lamps lighting the interior of the pub.

The figure in the center, his pock-marked face crowned by thick black eyebrows that knitted together above his nose, gave her a crooked grin. “What we got here, boys? Looks like the big’un done left us a plaything.”

Heather started to stand and move for the door, but the little man to her left cut off her escape, drawing his knife and motioning her to return to her seat. She did so, then saw the remaining two draw their knives as well.

Her nerves frayed to the breaking point, Heather let out a high-pitched scream which momentarily drove her assailants back from surprise. She tried to duck under the table, but banged her head on the edge, causing brilliant bolts of pain to temporarily haze her vision. The table slid loudly across the wood planks as she struck it, then more loudly as the three knife-wielding thugs pulled it out away from her to allow themselves easier access. As Heather fought to remain conscious, she wondered vaguely how she had gotten herself into such a mess. She tried to scream again, but only a short whisper came out as she watched the three little men moving toward her.

“Marcus . . .”

Marcus tore through the open door, cursing himself for not bringing Heather up with him. He started to run down the stairs, nearly fell, and only managed a controlled stumble to the bottom. Reaching the bar again, he saw three halflings dressed just as Wilkey had described advancing upon Heather with their long knives drawn.

He thought of trying to call upon the power which was either gone or lying dormant to dispatch the threat, but knew if nothing happened that he would not have time to try a Plan B. Instead, he grabbed the first solid object he could get his hands on, a bottle half full of some dark liquor standing just behind the bar, and hurled it at the center attacker. The bottle struck the halfling in the back of the head and shattered, propelling him forward on top of the swooning Heather. Marcus heard his knife clatter to the wooden floor as the remaining two turned to find the source of the bottle.

The one closest too him charged forward with his knife, holding it out in front of him like an Olympic runner carrying the torch to begin the games. Marcus held his ground and, just before the halfling had closed enough ground to slash at him, grabbed an empty chair and flung it forward.

The halfling dodged the chair easily, sidestepping the clumsy attack with remarkable agility, but recovered to find Marcus stepping forward with a clenched fist. The blow landed squarely on the halfling’s forehead and knocked him backward over a nearby table, sweeping off three empty mugs as he collided with the side wall of the pub. Marcus winced as pain shot up from his knuckles to his wrist and forearm. He had never been in a physical altercation in his adult life and now discovered that rarely did the movies get it right.

Marcus felt, rather than saw, the next attack coming. A high-pitched whistle caused him to dive for the floor as the third attacker’s knife sailed less than an inch over his head. The hilt of the weapon struck hard against the wall and clattered to the floor before the stairs.

He looked toward the front of the room and saw the third halfling retrieve his fallen comrade’s weapon from the floor beside him. Thick-soled boots ran nimbly through the tables and chairs as he struggled to a kneeling position. As the halfling sprang to attack, Marcus seized another chair and slid it into the path of his leaping foe, catching his feet as he rose into the air and causing him to fall short of his intended target, crashing to the floor face first.

Marcus heard the halfling he had punched rising to his feet and drew his own knife to be better prepared. He stood, banged his head painfully against a support beam, and fought hard to correct his swimming vision before the other could advance. In an act of desperation, he kicked out for the table the halfling had cleared off and connected just as the small, furious face appeared at its edge. The heavy table lurched forward, wedging the halfling’s head with a loud crack between itself and the wall. The halfling twitched a moment, eyes wide with shock, then remained still.

The other patrons of the pub had discreetly filed out as soon as the three had signaled their intentions with Heather. Now, the only halfling in the room still conscious was the bartender, cowering beneath the bar. Marcus, in the newly wrought silence of the room, could hear the portly body shaking the glass mugs as he trembled out of sight.

A groan came from the direction of the front door and Marcus braced himself for a continuation of the attack. Instead, the groan was definitely female, causing him to rush forward to see if his foolish acts of leaving her alone and coming to such a rescue had doomed her to die in this land. He saw Heather squirm beneath the body of the prone halfling but saw no sign of blood other than a dark patch of matted hair at the back of the halfling’s head. Picking up the drenched figure, he tossed his body aside like a hay bale and looked down at Heather, afraid of what he would see.

As quick as lightning, Heather’s hand rose up and slapped him hard across the face, further stinging the area she had struck the previous day. She lay curled into a ball upon the floor, sobbing wildly with fear and anger. The liquor that had sprayed from the shattered bottle spotted her cotton shirt, but Marcus saw no sign of injury to her and felt an enormous geyser of relief rise up within him. He took her into his arms and, despite her half-hearted protests and half-audible curses, drew her close to him.

He was still holding her when a shadow fell across them and caused him to look up. The halfling he had tripped with the chair had recovered and stood poised over them brandishing his wicked knife and a more wicked smile. Caught by surprise and without his own knife that he had dropped a few feet away, Marcus recoiled, seeking only to protect Heather from the oncoming blow.

The attack never came.

The halfling raised the blade above his head and his expression suddenly changed, shifting from triumphant glee to painful shock instantly. His knife hand lowered slowly, then dropped the blade to the floor. A small gasp, sounding like air escaping from a tire, left his mouth and a drop of blood trickled down from on of his nostrils. Closing his eyes, the halfling dropped in a heap next to Marcus, a small knife hilt jutting from the back of his neck

Wilkey stood at the base of the stairs, leaning upon the rail for support. He trembled visibly, but gave Marcus a wry smile. “Guess I got here just in time, eh?” he asked.

Marcus stood slowly, hauling Heather to her feet as he did so. He looked down at the dead halfling with wide eyes and for the first time he realized how serious their situation would be without his powers. He looked up again at Wilkey and offered a faint smile. “Nice shot,” he said.

Holding his head as though it might fall off, Wilkey waded cautiously through the tables and chairs. “Yeah,” he agreed, “considering I was seeing five of him. Glad I picked the right one to throw at.” He looked up and saw Heather. “Whoa, Marcus, you didn’t tell me you had a lady friend with you. I guess you must be the one they were after. Nice scream, by the way.”

Heather offered no reply. She recoiled from Wilkey as he approached, as a small child might back away from a large dog. Her eyes, still brimming with tears, appeared glazed and unfocused as she surveyed they scene.

Wilkey seemed nonplussed. “Great, Marcus, you brought a mute girl with you. That’ll be helpful.”

The pock-marked halfling Marcus had struck with the bottle gave a loud groan and moved, causing Heather to back against the wall with a tiny yelp. Marcus picked up his own knife and hurried to the walking figure. He slid his boot beneath the halfling’s ample stomach and heaved him over on his back with a loud thump.

Taking one of the ladder-back chairs in hand, he placed it over the halfling’s chest with the bottom support resting just above the windpipe. He straddled the chair, sitting backwards and leaning over its back to look down at the pock-marked face.

“Bring me that bottle,” Marcus told Wilkey, pointing to another decanter of dark brown fluid standing abandoned on the bar. Wilkey did so without question, but with a curious cast of his eyebrows.

Marcus accepted the bottle and stared at it a moment, swirling its contents slowly and watching the light from the lamps in the pub flicker and dance off the tiny waves. He then began pouring the contents onto the upturned face of the halfling. The halfling sputtered and groaned before finally opening his eyes, looking at Marcus with extreme hatred and fear. The support rods of the chair over him immobilized his arms and after a brief struggle, he lay still glaring up at his captor.

Holding out his hand as he had done earlier, Marcus tried to summon the flame he had been able to generate earlier. He was not disappointed as the orange tongue jumped to the end of his thumb and remained there. He looked down and smiled. “You may not be aware of this, but the liquid I just poured over you is nearly all alcohol. Very flammable,” he said. “Now, you’re going to answer a few questions or I’m going to make you extra crispy.”

In response, the halfling spit upward, barely lacking the force necessary to hit Marcus in the face. “I’m not saying anything to you,” he snarled.

Marcus shrugged and leaned the chair forward, pressing it against the halfling’s windpipe. He listened as the little man struggled for breath and then pulled back, allowing him to recover in a fit of coughing and deep pulls of air. “Now, let’s start with what you took from Wilkey over there. Hand it over.”

The halfling narrowed his eyes as he cut them over to look at Wilkey and Marcus thought he would continue to resist. He guessed wrong, however, as the thick-fingered hand reached into his shirt and produced a small silver ornament attached to a silver chain. Marcus reached down and removed the item carefully and tucked into a pocket of his robes, careful not to take his attention off such a potentially dangerous adversary.

“I take the the other two have the other items?” Marcus asked.

The halfling still stared murderously at Marcus, but nodded. Wilkey, who had been off to the side making rude gestures to the pock-marked halfling, performed a quick search of the other two “bosses” as he had called them and produced a silver ring and a worn leather bag, similar to the one he already possessed. This bag, however, glittered slightly, like stars in an oiled leather sky. Wilkey brought these to Marcus who stored them likewise within his robes.

“Now, why did you attack us?” Marcus asked.

The halfling said nothing, only glared back in furious defiance.

Marcus held out his hand again and recalled the small flame. “You’re trying my patience and . . . “ he started, but the halfling interrupted.

“He sent us . . . to stop you.”

Marcus banished the fire, unable to hold it any longer. Sweat trickled down his brow from the exertion of producing it and he felt the same weariness he had felt upon leaving the woods earlier in the day. He hoped the halfling would either be too stupid or too blinded by rage to see his weakened state since he doubted that he could hold the stocky fellow down should he try to lift up suddenly.

“Who sent you?” Marcus asked.

“Him,” the halfling answered, as if the answer was obvious, and Marcus supposed it was. “The Necromancer.”

Marcus leaned back in the chair and considered for a moment. He had surely expected the answer, but it disturbed him that his quest had only just begun and already he was being hounded by the Necromancer’s forces. He decided, though, that before he could plan out his next move, he needed to take care of the small detail lying beneath him.

“I want you to give a message to this Necromancer,” Marcus told the halfling. “Can you do that?”

The halfling nodded again. A look of eagerness appeared on his face as he realized that Marcus did not intend to kill him where he lay. His eyes quickly scanned the room, looking for the closest item he could employ as a weapon when Marcus removed his weight from the chair holding him at bay.

“I want you to tell the Necromancer this,” Marcus said, bringing the thick glass bottled down over the back of the chair. It exploded in a shower of glass upon the halfling’s forehead, cutting a deep gash in his scalp and knocking him unconscious again.

Marcus waited a moment before standing to be sure he had done the job right, then stood up and looked at Wilkey. “Get whatever you need from your room upstairs,” he said. “We’re leaving.”

“Where to?” Wilkey asked.

Marcus did not answer. Instead, he turned to Heather who still stood trembling against the wall next to the pub’s door. Her eyes bulged from their sockets, tears brimming the red edges. She held her arms crossed over her chest, squeezing herself tightly as though hugging herself. Marcus walked to her and started to put his arm around her, hoping to comfort her in the wake of such a close brush with death, but she recoiled from him as she might have from the halfling now lying unconscious and bleeding on the floor before her. Giving Marcus a warning glance, she stepped quickly out the door.

Marcus sighed and surveyed the wreckage around the room. Despite the several chairs he had used, none appeared damaged and other that a few overturned tables, the pub could have been reopened for business almost immediately. He could see the bartender peeking out to assess the situation and his eyes widened with fear as Marcus walked toward him. Fear changed to surprise as Marcus pulled two gold coins from a pocket of his robes and laid them on the bar, sliding them across for emphasis.

“Sorry about the mess,” he said, knowing that the halfling had probably never seen one gold coin in his life, much less two, gold being exceptionally rare in these parts.

Turning, Marcus started toward the front door just as Wilkey returned down the stairs, a leather sack slung over one shoulder. He dashed out in front of Marcus and, in mock chivalry, held the swinging door open with a wide smile.

Marcus stepped out into the sunshine and found Heather standing just outside the door. Exiting the room had apparently lessened the shock of what had transpired there, although the effects of seeing her now ex-fiancé killing another being in defense of her still showed themselves in the slack-jawed surprise evident on her face. She still held her own arms across her chest and looked around nervously as though she expected a horde of halflings to charge at her from all directions in retribution for the deaths of two, maybe three, of their own. As Marcus walked toward her, she backed away.

Feeling more exasperated than he cared to admit, Marcus changed his direction abruptly and began walking away from the pub, back through the circles of buildings and into the grove of trees surrounding Yellow Banks. He did not look back, but could hear Wilkey and, a little further behind, Heather following along behind.

“Where to, oh mighty one?” Wilkey asked, drawing even with Marcus.

Marcus, whose mind was working too furiously to appreciate the halfling’s sense of humor, did not answer at first. He slowed his pace and stared at Wilkey as they filed past the last of the tree and reentered the high grass that continued on aside the Misteld. “First of all, I will tell you that I appreciate you saving us back there,” he said at last. “But I will also tell you that I won’t be able to tolerate your personal problems on this trip. I have enough of my own, thank you. As drunk as you were when I found you, as you still are, you’re lucky that I’m giving you the opportunity to help at all.”

Seeing the pained expression on Wilkey’s face, Marcus softened his tone. “When I was younger, I knew I could rely on you no matter how bad things got over here. That’s why I trusted you with these objects.” He patted his robes. “I need to know that I can rely on you again. Circumstances have changed and we need all the allies, all the sober allies, that we can get.”

Wilkey fell back a pace and remained silent for some time. Marcus looked back occasionally as they walked and saw that the halfling still suffered from a massive hangover, squinting to the point of nearly closing his eyes to the bright sunlight and holding his head as though it might explode. Behind him walked Heather, staring vacantly into the distance, seeing nothing, Marcus suspected, other than her own life flashing before her eyes.

“Oh, in response to your question earlier about where we are going,” Marcus said, turning to Wilkey. “We are going to Glenfold.”

Wilkey’s eyes widened nearly to rival Heather’s. “The elves?” he said, horrified. “We can’t go there.”

“Why not?”

Wilkey stuttered for a moment and Marcus readied himself for the lie he knew would follow. “They . . . they aren’t allowing anyone in their realm. It’s been forbidden to all since the siege began.”

Marcus suspected there actually was some truth to the statement, but also knew Wilkey was concealing some ulterior motive for wanting to avoid the elven kingdom. He decided to take a guess.

“What did you take from them?” he asked sternly, as a parent might speak to a young child who had shoplifted candy from a convenience store.

Wilkey stopped walking and began fidgeting, moving his weight from one foot to the other and back as though he stood on a bed of hot coals. “I don’t know what you mean, Marcus,” he said in a higher pitched voice.

Marcus stopped and turned completely to face the halfling. Placing his hands on his hips, he said nothing. Feeling the penetrating gaze, he reached into his pocket and slowly pulled out a glittering ruby as large as a tennis ball. He gazed at it longingly for a long moment, then handed it out to Marcus.

“There were two,” Wilkey admitted, speaking at the ground. “But I used one to pay for my room at the pub and all the food and drink I could want for the next five years.”

Pocketing the ruby, Marcus gave a look to Heather who had stopped just behind Wilkey. Her face had lost its shocked mask and now only told of extreme weariness from the day’s events.

“We’ll make camp here,” Marcus decided. Looking around the grassy hills surrounding them on three sides and the river on the fourth, he did not like the openness of their position along the trail, but knew he could not drag Heather much further without her collapsing. He, too, felt exhausted, the adrenaline from the pub brawl having long departed. As he thought of how close he had come to getting Heather and himself killed, his hands trembled and he immediately sought to put them to some work by finding a suitable spot to sleep for the night.

Heather sat down at once, unceremoniously plopping down into the tall grass. Wilkey unshouldered his pack and sat down a few feet away.

“So, Marcus being very rude, we’ve not been properly introduced,” he said to Heather. “I’m Wilkes Poppinjay, an old friend of Marcus’s. What brings you to our lovely land.”

Marcus listened to the conversation intently, pretending to scan the area around them for anything of interest and was surprised when Heather answered in a perfectly casual voice.

“I’m Heather,” she said. She did not offer her hand in greeting, but Wilkey took it anyway, planting a kiss on its back.

“A pleasure meeting you, Heather,” he said cordially. “Are you and Marcus united?”

Marcus knew this translated to “Are you married?” and apparently Heather figured it out as well.

“No,” she answered, wiping the hand Wilkey had kissed absently. “We’re just friends.”

The words stung Marcus as though he had fallen on a porcupine.

“Some friend to drag you to this place,” Wilkey said. “This land is dying and soon every one of us will die with it. The Necromancer will see to that.”

“Hey, Marcus,” Wilkey said, twisting around to look at him. “Why didn’t you just blast those guys in the pub with a spell or something? You could have saved both of us a lot of trouble.”

Marcus, already underwhelmed by Wilkey’s faith in his ability to stop the Necromancer, decided to go for broke. “I couldn’t have. My power is gone.”

Wilkey twirled quickly, coming to rest on his knees, and stared open-mouthed at Marcus. “What? How can that be? Where did it go?”

Marcus gave up the pretense of searching the area and sat down across from his two companions. “I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to see the elves.”

“You think they’ll know?”

“I hope so,” Marcus answered. “If not, we might as well go hand ourselves over to the Necromancer now.”

Chapter 5

When nearly an hour of daylight remained, Marcus felt the uncomfortable sense of urgency again and knew it was time to move on toward his appointed task. He took his suitcase into the bedroom he had occupied as a child and began to unpack it carefully, laying each item on the bed as he did so. He sighed as he looked at the bed, an ancient four-poster on which sat the same feather mattress he had slept on for so many years. No pillow top, adjustable, waterbed or any other mattress ever felt as comfortable as that lumpy sack of goose down and a sudden weariness washed over him as he realized that it would be some time before he would be able to rest in it again, if at all.

He continued to unpack, looking over each item as he decided what to bring with him. He knew from experience that certain things would not carry over in any form, but others would, although in a somewhat different shape or material. He dressed for comfort, there would still be a mile trek through the woods to reach the cave and he knew what he wore during that part would matter little once he entered. He strapped a purple Nike fanny pack around his waist, thinking of how much it would make him look like an elderly visitor to Disney World. The only other item he elected to take was a hunting knife sporting a nearly ten inch blade and a leather sheath which he strapped to his belt. The knife handle, made of ivory, showed the signs of extensive use in its yellowed color and worn places, but he smiled as he secured it, patting it like an old friend he had not seen in many years. The blade, left to him by his father, had made the trip many times during his youth and Marcus felt reassured that it was ready to accompany him once again.

The only item remaining in his bag he felt some conflict over was the handgun. He had carried a concealed weapons permit since his twentieth birthday and usually left the gun, a vintage Colt .45 revolver, locked in his desk at home. Heather had never been comfortable about having one in the house, particularly in a room downstairs where a burglar may reach it before they did, but she had relented on the grounds that he disposed of it should they ever decide to have children.

Marcus stared at the weapon, which he only fired once or twice a year during the occasional trip to a firing range near Gatlinburg with some of the other managers from SportsWorld. He had always shown a remarkable proficiency with it, particularly during simulation and quick draw drills, but decided to leave it in the suitcase just as Heather entered the room. She did not knock, causing Marcus to feel a spike of resent as she invaded the only place in the world, this world, at least, that he considered to be just his. Still, he needed to set that aside in order to try to reach her, to convince her to go along on this silly game of his to the cave where all her questions would be answered.

“What are you doing?” she asked as if she had walked in to find him masturbating. “You can’t be going out there now, it’s raining?”

“I’ve been rained on before.” He kept his back turned to her, scanning the items spread across the bed on last time. Satisfied, he turned and looked at her. “You want to know what all this is about?”

“Well, yeah,” she answered.

“Then you need to get whatever you think you’ll need and join me outside.”

He stepped past her and strode out the door without looking back. His grandmother waited for him by the door, her arms crossed and an expression of worry on her face.

“Please be careful, Marcus,” she said.

“I will, Gran,” he assured her. They hugged tightly for a long moment and between the pats on his back he thought he heard Heather frantically rummaging through her things in the back bedroom. He put on a light jacket his grandmother offered and stepped out of the house into the rain.

Walking to the corner of the house, he scanned the edge of the woods, dark and forbidding a few hundred yards in the distance. His vision only penetrated a few feet into the trees, but he knew enough light was left in the day for him to find his way to the cave with relative ease. As he stood staring at his destination, a mixed bag of feelings swept through him, ranging from nostalgia to delighted anticipation to dark dread. He took a deep breath, smelling the clean scent of the rain all around him, and started forward.

“Marcus!” Heather came dashing out the door, carrying a small black bag similar to those he had seen carried by doctors in old movies. She wore a bright pink raincoat, certainly his grandmothers, and he smiled at the sheer vibrancy of it in such bleak weather, and such bleak circumstances. He wondered idly how it would change on the other side.

She turned her head in his direction and hurried to catch up with him, though he had stopped walking, and nearly fell face forward into the wet grass as she slid to a stop. He caught her in his strong arms and for a moment she glanced up at him with an expression he did not at once recognize or expect. Hope. Hope and anticipation. He saw then that regardless of her doubt or suspicion of his motives, she perhaps wanted to believe him because, despite the seemingly terminal problems in their relationship, she still loved him.

Marcus felt himself return the smile involuntarily and watched Heather’s vanish almost immediately. She had been caught with her guard down and the vacant expression that took up residence on her face said that she would not let it happen again.

Marcus wiped his smile off just as quickly, but remaining grinning inside.

“Okay,” he said, letting go of her. “Let’s go.”

Turning on his heel in the wet grass, Marcus walked away from the house toward the dark line of the woods. He heard Heather’s small feet splashing behind him, remaining a few steps behind as though she wanted to keep an eye on him, make sure he had no opportunity to play a joke on her. He walked along faster, his longer strides opening such a lead on her that she had to jog to keep up. She caught up finally just as they reached the trees.

“All right,” she said, trying unsuccessfully to hide a note of apprehension in her voice. “Where are we going?”

Marcus did not look at her. “I’ve already told you where we are going.”

She circled in front of him, standing between him and the dark woods. “Okay, I’ve played along,” her voice rose with impatience. “I’ve walked out here and now I want to know what this is really all about and I don’t want to hear any crap about some imaginary friend.”

Marcus could only look at her, prying his eyes from the dark shadows beneath the trees ahead. A dozen responses came to him, some calm, most not, and he decided the best road would be the silent one. Stepping to his left, he walked past her and entered the woods.

The woods looked as dark and forbidding from inside as they had looked from the outside. Thin, gray light filtered in the through the canopy of leaves providing dappled luminescence by which they could navigate through the thick trunks. As they entered, all sound seemed to be muted and the air took on a heaviness that had nothing to do with the weather. The rain could still be heard falling above before it filtered down through the leaves to settle in dark pools scattered about in the underbrush.

Marcus saw that little had changed since his last visit. Over ten years had passed, but he could see the faint outline of the path he took back and forth during his many trips as a child. He thought the underbrush had grown thicker, probably from a lack of foot traffic and a few trees he remembered standing now lay on their sides, victims of the violent thunderstorms that sometimes ravaged the area or disease.

He kept his hand on the hilt of the knife at his side as he walked. Packs of feral dogs sometimes roamed the woods and, while they usually fled from humans, he had heard of some, driven mad by rabies or hunger, that had attacked humans, although he had never heard of one of these attacks that did not involve a young child.

Heather trailed a few feet behind again, sighing from exasperation. Marcus felt thankful the the path was so narrow, allowing them to pass only in single file and preventing her from circling around him again to slow him down.

Marcus began to feel a strange pulling sensation coming from ahead of him. It was as if someone had wrapped a rope around his chest and was pulling him forward. The sense of urgency nearly overwhelmed him now and he had to fight hard against the urge to run along the path that he knew so well, leaving Heather behind to fend for herself. The thought that he needed her to accompany him grew in proportion to this need to hurry and he could not risk her turning back.

Behind him, Marcus could hear her mumbling to herself. He distinctly heard the words “snipe hunt” and had to stifle a snort of laughter. He wondered if she actually believed he would drive her hundreds of miles and lead her out in the pouring rain to perform such a crude practical joke, then decided, considered the state of their relationship, she probably did.

They walked on for nearly half an hour before Marcus stopped at the edge of a small clearing. Heather stopped behind him and peered around to see what lay ahead.

“What the hell is that?” she asked, glancing up at Marcus.

Marcus took a step forward into the clearing and did not answer. The mouth of the cave, smooth and round, opened up from the side of a small hill like a great yawning maw. Thick strands of moss-covered ivy hung down like dark green tresses of hair and twin oaks, the only ones in this stretch of woods, stood silent duty on either side like guards at Buckingham Palace. The grass in the clearing looked trampled, as though many feet had marched through here not so long ago.

Marcus saw none of these details, however. His attention lay fixed on what he, and Heather, saw in the center of the clearing.

“What the hell is that?” Heather repeated, more insistent now, a note of confused fear in her voice.

Marcus again declined to answer. Instead, he stepped forward into the clearing and knelt down beside the small object, no larger than a child’s ball. He tentatively reached down to pick it up out of the grass and shuddered when he saw his suspicions confirmed.

It was a skull.

Marcus, who had played with the idea of becoming a forensic anthropologist before catching the “retail bug” as he called it, knew from its size that the skull had come from a small human, probably no older than fourteen or fifteen. Staring at the facial features, he saw nothing that indicated trauma, no bone fractures or missing teeth. Then, he rotated the skull forward to examine the cranial bones and his eyes widened with shock and horror.

Etched into the bone, words were written. The tool used to produce the letters had obviously been sharp, but little care was taken to write neatly on such a medium. Marcus read the passage as Heather peered over his shoulder and stepped back again with a strangled scream.

HERE LIES ERASMUS, the words read, MAY HE REST IN PIECES.

Heather continued to walk backwards until she had returned to the edge of the clearing. She placed her back against a tree trunk and struggled for breath.

“What the hell is going on here, Marcus?” she asked.

Marcus placed the skull gently back on the ground, as though it were made of expensive crystal. He caressed its top lightly, his fingers lingering over the indentions of the letters, and stood suddenly, turning to look at Heather.

“He’s dead,” Marcus told her in a mild, unaffected voice. He looked down at the skull at his feet and felt tears, warmer than the rain falling against his face, sliding down his already soaked cheeks.

“I was too late,” he said softly so that Heather barely heard him.

“Marcus, let’s get out of here, I really don’t like this.”

Marcus looked at her as she had looked at him so many time over the past two days, like she had gone mad.

“Don’t worry,” he said, “we’re leaving, but we’re going through there.” He pointed at the cave.

“I don’t want to go anywhere near there.”

“Then I’ll go alone!” Marcus yelled. “How can you stand there and expect me not to do something after they’ve done this,” he pointed at the skull, “to my friend?”

Marcus strode to the mouth of the cave and stopped, turning to see what decision she would make.

“But . . . but . . .” Heather stammered. “He’s not real.” Still holding on desperately to her doubts, she looked at the anguish and determination on Marcus’s face and felt them start to crumble between her fingers.

“He’s not real,” she repeated, pleading to him.

Marcus looked at the skull lying at her feet, then looked back up to her with his red-rimmed eyes. He turned away and walked to the side of the cave. Heather watched as he pulled a metal ammunition box from his pack, the words United States Army printed in black upon the lid. Taking off his watch, he placed it inside and shut the lid, sliding the box into a small natural shelf in the limestone wall.

“He’s real to me,” he said and stepped into the cave, disappearing into the shadows beyond.

Heather stood alone in the clearing waiting for Marcus to reappear. Time passed very slowly as she watched the mouth of the cave and gradually realized that he was not coming back. The sounds of the forests, twittering birds and buzzing cicadas, already muffled by the density of the woods, were drowned out completely by the pounding heartbeat she heard in her ears. A feeling that she was being watched swept over her and she looked down at the grinning skull. She had bumped it with her foot and now its cavernous eyes stared up at her in silent anticipation of what she would do.

“Damn it,” she muttered, sounding more scared than she would admit, even to herself. She ran forward and plunged into the cave, slowing only as the darkness grew around her and she lost all sense of where she was. She could hear water dripping, but with the echo her sense of direction failed to tell her where the sound was coming from. The ground under her feet seemed solid enough, and smooth except for the occasional snapping that she hoped came from a piece of wood rather than the bones her imagination told her lay scattered about the damp earth. She felt eyes on her again, this time many sets, and wondered briefly if bats dwelled in the cave, preparing for their nightly forage for insects.

She paused to look back, but no light could be seen from the clearing she had left only a few yards behind. Finding herself alone now in complete darkness, Heather felt her resolve begin to break. She made a quick, full turn which completely disoriented her in the blackness and as she fell she let out a scream of terror.

Strong arms caught her as she fell and she collapsed into them. A faint wisp of Curve, the cologne she had bought for Marcus their first Christmas together, reached her nose and she sobbed in relief, clutching at his arms to pull herself to him.

“I’ve got you,” he told her, pulling her in and holding her reassuringly. “I’m sorry I left you, but you don’t understand what I have to do and how important it is that I get started immediately.”

“Why?” Heather asked. “If he’s dead, why do you still have to go through with it? What if you die, too? What will I do then?”

Marcus held her close to his chest, feeling the her shake from her crying. Warmth spread in a patch across his shirt as her tears soaked through. In the dark, he allowed himself to smile, aware that she could not see him to put up her guard once again. He had convinced her at last, he knew. Now, at least, that difficult task was completed.

“Come on, let’s go. It’s not much farther now,” he told her, wrapping his arm around her to lead her through the complete darkness.

Heather seemed to recover a bit once they began moving. “How do you know where you’re going?” she asked.

“I can feel it, like that other world is pulling me along toward it.”

They walked forward for several steps, unable to see even each other’s eyes in the lightless cave. The ground remained mercifully flat and smooth and Marcus walked with the confidence of a blind person within the friendly confines of his own home, a sharp memory and repetition allowing him to see the safest path.

A faint light began to grow up ahead. At first, Heather thought it only a phantom spot of light that some people see in areas of complete darkness or, worse, her mind imposing an optical illusion, making her see light because it so desperately needed to see it. Instead, the light grew brighter as they approached and the smell of fresh air began to replace the damp, earthy smell of the cave. Faint bird songs floated in on the breeze and Heather found herself first jogging then sprinting toward the opening. Marcus yelled something to her, a warning by the sound of his voice, but she ignored him, answering only the call of her mind to be out of the darkness and into the light of day.

She burst out of the end of the cave into another small clearing, nearly identical to the one they had entered the cave from on the other side. Only here, bright sunshine fell through the opening in the canopy instead of pelting rain and a stiff breeze blew her hair back in light brown waves.

She stopped at once when she heard the movement around her and realized her error when she caught a smell that brought back memories of her childhood.

“Horses,” she muttered as a large shape emerged from the trees, blocking out the sun. She strained to see what approached her but was momentarily blinded. All around she heard hoof beats as they closed in from all directions, enclosing her in a tight circle.

Heather stared in disbelieving horror as her eyes adjusted. At first, she thought she had stumbled upon a hunting party of men on horseback, but the figures surrounding her were not men, nor were they horses. A sleek horse’s body stood before her, but where the neck should rise up to the majestic animal’s head, the short fur blended seamlessly with the upper torso of muscular man. Dark, turbulent eyes stared down at her from a height of nearly eight feet and a crooked grin made the face look feral and wicked.

“Look what me’s found, cents,” the centaur said to its companions, now blocking every means of escape from the clearing. A rowdy chorus of chuckles sounded from the others.

The centaur reached down, its massive hands looking as they could crush her with the slightest squeeze. Heather fell back, landing hard in the grass, and started crawling backwards to escape the beast. She had managed only a yard of clearance before she ran into something solid and felt herself being lifted off the ground by her waist. Kicking and screaming, she fought desperately as the centaur lifted her high into the air and, with remarkable dexterity, turned her writhing body around to face him.

This centaur was considerably larger than the first that had tried to pick her up and obviously older. Whereas the first had short light brown hair that matched its fur, this one sported a shaggy black mane, striped with gray that also appeared in its salt and pepper fur. A necklace of bones was the only adornment it wore and this was partly concealed by the thick black beard cascading in tight braids down the front of its expansive chest.

The black centaur regarded her for a moment, then spoke to the others. “She be a might pretty worm, the way she wiggle. May hap we should toss her in the river and catch a fish.”

This suggestion was greeted with a gruff cheer from the others, stamping their hooves in their excited amusement.

“If I was you, Beorgan, I’d put her down and apologize,” a voice from outside the circle of centaurs said.

A flurry of hoof beats sounded as the centaurs turned to see the speaker. Arrows were notched onto bow strings and pulled taut, ready to fire at this threat emerging from the cave.

Heather could not see where the voice had come from, but knew that Marcus had spoken and was now trying to rescue her. She nearly sobbed again with relief, but her agitation over his delay in reaching her cut the cry short. She twisted her body, trying to see if the centaurs would shoot him down like a rabbit, but the large centaur held her firmly.

“I’ll put her down when I’ve a mind te,” Beorgan said, his eyes narrowing. He tucked Heather under his arm like a newspaper. “And who be ye te tell me what te do?”

Now Heather could see Marcus and she gasped. He was no longer wearing his hooded raincoat and blue jeans. Blood red robes fell down to nearly his feet which had shed their Columbia hikers for supple, leather boots. A black hooded cloak was fastened about his throat with a silver clasp in the shape of a four-pointed star. His hazel eyes scanned the clearing, seeming to count the centaurs.

“Have you forgotten me so soon, Beorgan, after all I did for you in past days?” Marcus asked.

Another centaur stepped forward, its sandy blonde hair falling into its eyes. “Ye look familiar, but ye can’t be the boy. He has gone for good.”

The other centaurs stared hard at Marcus, as if trying to decide if they knew him or not. Beorgan stepped forward finally and looked down, bending so that Marcus could feel his breath upon his face. “If ye are who ye say ye are, prove it,” the black centaur said, regarding Marcus skeptically. “Show us ye power, boy”

Marcus kept silent for a long while, staring into the wild eyes. Fear leaped up from his stomach and nearly erupted from his mouth in a stream of vomit. This was the one thing he had hoped to avoid until he had ample opportunity to test his power. He wondered if the abilities he possessed as a young boy remained with him as a young man. If he attempted to find out now, and failed to produce, the centaurs would kill him where he stood and carry Heather off to serve as a slave, at best.

He looked at Heather, staring at him with unabashed wonder and hope. After all their arguments and hard feelings, they were now in danger of losing not only their relationships, but their lives. He thought that if he died, how he would never have the opportunity to prove to Heather how much he really cared for her. The last thing he wanted now was to fail her, or himself.

Beorgan continued to stare at Marcus, waiting for some fantastic proof of his identity.

Marcus swallowed his fear, showing it would mean a quick death. “If you value your life, Beorgan, you’ll prefer I not show you anything.” His voice softened, but remained clear and confident. “I have not come back to fight with you, my old friend, but to seek your help.”

The black centaur raised up slightly, continuing to look at Marcus. He seemed to absorb them into his mind and turn them over with all his cunning, deciding whether to believe Marcus or pound him into the ground with a hardened hoof.

Marcus struggled to find something to prove who he was, some convincing piece of evidence that would not require him to display the power he was not sure he still had. His mind raced and finally settled on a memory, one that seemed to be only from a dream.

He took a step forward toward the centaur holding Heather. “You may recall, Beorgan, that I saved your life,” he said.

The centaur recoiled slightly, but recovered quickly, unconsciously drawing Heather a little further away from Marcus.

“As you lay dying from a poisoned arrow from a rival tribe, it was I who found the remedy to save you before you passed on,” Marcus continued. “Your powerful body was writhing in pain, weakened beyond even the youngest of your kind. You waited for, no, begged for death, when I arrived with the antidote and then when you recovered you pledged to return the favor.”

He stepped directly in front of the centaur and, to his own amazement, bent forward allowing the centaur an unobstructed view of his exposed neck, leaving himself fully at the large centaur’s mercy. “Now, I return to this land and I ask you to fulfill the vow you made those years ago.”

For a brief moment, nothing happened. Marcus still doubted the memory that he hoped would save himself and Heather and expected the centaur to laugh just before crushing his skull upon the hard ground. Instead, he heard a much softer footfall as Beorgan lowered Heather to the ground.

Heather rushed forward and engulfed him in her arms. Her head dove in quickly as though she was about to kiss him, then stopped. She looked at him intently, staring deep into his eyes, then smacked him hard across the face.

The centaurs stood stunned, then broke out into raucous laughter. Marcus fell back, more stunned than the centaurs and looked at Heather in pained confusion.

“What the hell was that for?” he asked.

She charged in again and attempted to strike him again, but he caught her hand.

“Why did you bring me here?” she sobbed, collapsing into a heap on the grass. “Why did you bring me here?”

Marcus could only stare at her, muted at the depth of her fear and humiliation. He searched for some answer, some wise reasoning behind his decision to bring her to this world. He found none. He knew that telling her he did not know why he needed her here, only that he did, would only infuriate her further.

The centaurs milled around nervously. Marcus knew that such displays of emotion such as the one Heather now engaged in were considered a deplorable show of weakness and they whispered to each other in their hoarse voices, watching the scene before them all the while. He also knew that they hoped he would do something to further provoke her anger enough to lash out at him again. While they could not comprehend the grief and fear Heather displayed, physical violence and retribution they understood with absolute clarity.

Marcus knelt down beside Heather and took her hands in his own. This created an excited murmur that buzzed through the whispering voices like electricity through a high voltage line. He ignored them and their desire to see the sense smacked out of him again. He lifted Heather’s hands to his chest and squeezed them gently.

She looked up at him again, this time with an expression of questioning anger, still waiting for an answer to her question. Tears streamed down her cheeks creating wet channels in the dust that had settled there over the past few minutes. She started to draw her hands back, but Marcus held them firmly.

“I . . .” he started to give the I-told-you-so speech, but swallowed it back, afraid to push his luck any more than he already had. “ . . . I can’t do this without you. I know it’s a lot to ask, for you to come to this horrible place and all the risk that comes with it, but I need you with me, because I can’t do it alone.”

Marcus kept his voice low and wondered how well centaurs could hear. He felt hot tears lining his own face as he stared into her chocolate eyes, not from any stress of his own, but as a reaction to her stress, a deep feeling of empathy that saw her pain and wanted to do something to acknowledge it.

Heather stared at him for an eternity, then allowed a thin smile to soften her features. Again, Marcus was struck by her simple beauty and felt his heart give a solid thump against his chest as he looked at her.

“I guess I should have believed you, huh?” she asked, allowing him to help her to her feet.

“I wouldn’t have believed me, either.”

She wiped her eyes with her sleeve and for the first time since exiting the cave, she realized that her clothing had changed. A cotton blouse, a pink so light that it appeared to be blushing, had replaced the raincoat and loose cotton pant flapped around her legs in the slight breeze instead of her blue jeans. Her own Timberland hikers had, like Marcus’s, been replaced by supple leather boots of indeterminable make. Even her hiking pack, the first item she had bought for herself at SportsWorld, now appeared as a large leather satchel, hand-stitched and worn. She twirled once like Cinderella after her rags had been changed into a ball gown, and looked again at Marcus, studying the robes and cloak.

“You look ridiculous,” she told him.

“You look pretty damn hot yourself.”

She smiled at him again, this time in amusement. “I don’t know,” she said, turning. “Do these pants make my butt look big?”

Marcus sighed and said nothing. He stepped past her and looked up at Beorgan who had watched the entire scene with detached impatience.

“Will you please lead us?” Marcus asked him. “I wish to know what I can do to help you and your kinsmen.”

Beorgan nodded. He turned and walked to the edge of the clearing and into the trees, muttering to one of the other centaurs. Marcus caught the word “humans” and “weak” in the discussion, but let them form their own opinions. Putting his arms around Heather’s shoulders, he followed the black centaur into the woods.

I read some of this now and some of the writing is painfully bad.  Oh, well.

Chapter 4

It was several hours before Marcus fell back into slumber. By that time, he was questioning whether he had seen the image at all or if he had dreamed the whole thing. To be safe, he slept on the sofa, turned around so the back faced the window. Before doing so, however, he had thoroughly examined the window, running his hand over the perfectly dry panes. Marcus even opened one side of the window and peered upward at the glass ceiling looking for some sign of the rope he knew he would not find

When sleep finally did overtake him, Marcus slept soundly and, surprising to him, dreamlessly. Morning was nearly gone when he rose, stretching to relieve the soreness in his muscles. He took another look at the bay window, still seeing no evidence of moisture or of his own dead body hanging just beyond.

He turned away from the window and saw the bedroom door was open. He walked to it, peered around the corner, and found it empty. Heather’s twin suitcases, already packed, lay on the bed. Heather herself was nowhere to be found.

Marcus checked the bath and found the towel Heather had used in a heap on the floor. He amused himself comparing the immaculate marble vanity before him to the one at home, lost beneath a sea of cosmetics and other beauty supplies. He often complained about the infestation which, he remembered with a pang, was no longer in the house they had shared until recently.

He showered, wondering where Heather had decided to go for breakfast, if that was where she had gone. When he finished, he dressed and repacked his suitcase. He had gathered all the suitcases by the door to the suite when it opened and Heather walked in carrying a bag from one of the shops in the hotel. She did not speak, choosing instead to take up the smaller of her luggage and proceed back out the door into the hall. Marcus, grabbing the other two bags, followed.

He stayed in her wake, not daring to follow too closely. She wore jeans that fit loosely, but accentuated the curvature of her hips and he felt the flame of desire stir within him. Still, the thought of her reaction to his situation, categorical disbelief, bothered him like a pebble in his shoe. Marcus tried to imagine their roles being reversed and what his response to such a revelation would be and decided that it would not included the verbal barbs he had faced the previous day.

Marcus nearly missed the elevator Heather had entered, sliding his hand between the doors just in time to make them reopen. She gave him an innocent look, glazed over with mischief. As they rode down to the ground floor, neither of them dared to look at the other and when at last they stopped and the doors opened, they stepped out in silence and made for the parking lot. He had done their checkout over the phone, so he bypassed the registration desk a few steps behind her, carrying the two larger bags. He noted that her bag seemed heavier and he wondered briefly if she had done some extra shopping or just stuffed it full of valueless objects to add to the weight he would carry.

The sky outside was overcast, not threatening of storms but of long, steady rain that would soak everything and everyone foolish enough to be caught in it. Marcus unlocked the doors and popped the trunk lid with his remote and Heather got in the passenger seat still without speaking, leaving her bag by the back tire. He loaded the bags, tossing hers in unceremoniously, and slammed the lid shut again.

Climbing in behind the wheel, he turned the key in the ignition. Heather sat unmoving and Marcus thought if Rodin had sculpted her pose, he would have named the piece, “The Pouter.” Her arms crossed upon her chest, she stared at nothing through the windshield. He imagined her reaction to what he thought he had seen through the bay window the previous night and smiled as he pictured her scrambling to unlock the door and get into the hall in nothing but her birthday suit. She would probably have run all the way to the front desk, Marcus fantasized, before realized that she was naked.

This thought lightened his mood considerable and, after picking up a late breakfast to go, he found he preferred the silence of the drive over the verbal warfare Heather had engaged in yesterday. He turned on the radio to a country station and bopped his head a little from side to side while he ate, cruising along the interstate north towards Kentucky. Nearly an hour had passed and they were nearing the state line when Heather finally broke her self-imposed gag order.

“So why are we going to Kentucky again?” she asked. Her tone said she had been waiting for the answer to this question for some time, even though Marcus had already given it. He thought briefly of pulling the letter out of the console again, but changed his mind. No amount of reasoning or persuasion would convince her of where they were going, just as no amount of reason could be found in it. To some degree, he understood her disbelief of the circumstances of the letter Marcus had received, but that did not lessen the sting of her words. He wanted it to be untrue as much as she believed it to be, but he knew that the time would come when she would believe because she would have no choice but to believe.

“You’ll find out when we get there,” Marcus said. He realized that his answer seemed to indicate that he was conceding to her point of view, that the letter and its content were a complete fabrication, but that was unimportant. All that mattered to him now was keeping a tentative peace until she was faced with the unbelievable.

He thought of the letter again, running it verbatim through his mind again like a favorite song. Erasmus. The name itself conjured too many images and memories to describe and a strong feeling of unease entered him as they crossed into Kentucky. He felt somehow that time was growing increasingly short in that other place, like an hourglass pouring down to its final grains of sand. He silently cursed himself for not driving straight through, for stopping in a posh hotel while the dark events in the letter moved on with increasing speed. Unconsciously, his foot pressed down a little harder on the accelerator, hoping to make up for the time he now felt was foolishly wasted.

That’s what I saw last night, Marcus thought, a message. He had nearly dismissed his vision from the night before as a dream, but now he suspected another answer—a sign. It had been a sign from the evil Erasmus had written about, the Necromancer, warning him not to get involved. That this Necromancer held enough power to penetrate the real world greatly disturbed Marcus and he wondered how Erasmus thought he would have enough strength to counter such magic.

Checking beside him, he saw that Heather’s silence had slid smoothly into a nap. She lay turned slightly toward him in the seat, which she had reclined to a nearly horizontal position. Her hand rested under her chin in an almost contemplative posture. He stared at her a moment, mindless of the road ahead, and marveled again at how beautiful she was. Her lips pursed out slightly as she slept and he felt a strong inclination to lean over and kiss her, overcome only by a stronger inclination to not have the stuffing smacked out of him. Their lips had met many times before, but a reunion would have to wait until their relationship could be resolved, for better or worse.

He continued to drive north for another seventy miles before turning off the interstate. The gray sky still threatened rain, but none had yet fallen on them as he guided the Toyota through the hills and trees of his childhood home. Soon he began to recognize familiar landmarks, sites that still toggled his memory, but looked different now, smaller and time-worn, stores he had seen built, now boarded up with leasing opportunities available, the local elementary school, complete with a new gymnasium and auditorium, and, of course, the new Wal-Mart Supercenter complete with everything a town of barely three thousand people could need.

Marcus drove slowly through his hometown, recalling episodes from his childhood with every turn of his head, and soon emerged out the other side, back into the wooded hills, spotted here and there with houses and tobacco barns. The roads curved around the terrain like a length of string dropped carelessly on the ground. Sinkholes, so common in cave country, appeared regularly among the fields.

Heather stirred finally, opening her eyes wide and looking at her watch. She leaned up in her seat and looked out at the unfamiliar landscape.

“Are we there yet?” she asked.

Marcus wanted to ask, “Is the car still moving?” but decided a fight so close to their destination should be avoided. Instead, he said, “Almost. Just a couple more miles.”

Turning off the state highway, the Toyota cruised along a narrow country lane, hardly wide enough to accommodate his car, much less two if they encountered any traffic. They did not meet anyone, however, and four miles later Marcus turned onto a long, gravel drive that snaked up a hill to a small brick house.

They reached the house just as the first large drops of rain began to fall. Grabbing the bags from the trunk, Marcus and Heather both raced to the front door, where Marcus knocked three times. After a few moments, the door opened and a small, aged woman looked out at them. She was dressed in a cotton dress that looked more like a nightgown than something to be worn in public. Thick, light gray hair streaked out in all directions from her head like sunbeams in a child’s drawing. Her eyes, though, danced with vitality as she recognized her visitors.

“Marcus, come in,” she said excitedly.

“Hi, Granny,” Marcus said. He opened the door and hugged her, his arms wrapping around her small frame. “How are you?”

“Still livin’,” she answered.

Heather entered behind Marcus and smiled at his grandmother. They had met once before when their relationship had just begun and Heather insisted on seeing where Marcus grew up. He had brought her here, where he had lived with his grandmother since he was two, his parents having been killed in an automobile accident. Marcus had no memories of his parents, but his grandmother had ensured they would not be forgotten. Pictures of his parents adorned every wall and occupied many frames on any flat surface that would hold them. A fair number of pictures of Marcus at nearly every stage of his childhood also were numerous and the resemblance between him and his father was unmistakable. Heather had marveled at their last visit at how many pictures the house held.

“When you get to be my age, sweetie,” his grandmother had explained, “most of the things you have to look forward are in the past.

Marcus knew his grandmother was in her eighties and though she was still quite lively for her age, she looked markedly older than Marcus remembered seeing her two years before. The lines in her face seemed deeper, time eroding them like water in a riverbed. Her back was slightly stooped now, making the proud, upright woman look small and humbled. These things troubled Marcus more than a little. In light of what he felt lay ahead, he counted on his grandmother’s strength more than ever to help him through it.

Heather stood in the doorway and offered a polite, but impersonal, greeting. Sylvia, as everyone but Marcus called her, waved this off and with surprising speed wrapped her bony arms around Heather, who stiffened a moment before relaxing and returning the embrace.

“How are you, sweetie?” Sylvia asked.

“I’m good,” Heather answered.

Marcus had told his grandmother nothing of Heather’s leaving and hoped she would not have the insight to detect that anything was wrong in their relationship. However, when he saw his grandmother turn away from Heather, the look she gave Marcus told him that she suspected trouble.

“So,” Marcus said, “what’s for lunch?” He smiled broadly, trying to change the subject before the questions started.

Sylvia shook her head. “That’s just like you, always thinkin’ with your stomach. It’s a wonder you’re not four hundred pounds.”

“I would be,” Marcus said, “if I ate your cooking all the time.”

Sylvia turned on Heather. “I’m sending my recipe books home with you so you can make him fix you a decent meal.”

Heather laughed a real laugh for the first time since their trip had begun the day before. “You’ve obviously never seen him around a kitchen.”

“Don’t let him fool you. He can cook. Watched me do it for years. You just gotta make him want to do it.” She gave Heather a sly wink, as if she knew exactly how a woman could make a man want to do something.

Sylvia ushered them into the kitchen and the two of them sat down as she bustled around the kitchen. She had obviously known about when to expect them as lunch was nearly ready when they arrived. Potatoes had been peeled and boiled in preparation for mashing and baby carrots sat in their buttery bath giving off sweet, fragrant steam. Soon, Marcus heard the familiar pop and sizzle of chicken being placed in the electric skillet and he grinned. Even if this whole thing goes wrong, he thought, at least I’ll get a good meal out of it. He looked at Heather and, though she tried to hide it, saw that she was also anticipating a good home-cooked meal.

An hour later, stuffed to the point that he thought his insides would pop, expelling the large meal all over the dining room, Marcus sat back and patted his bulging stomach. All that remained of the meal were a few unidentifiable crumbs and a caramel smear from the turtle cake his grandmother had “whipped up just in case someone special stopped by”. For a long while, the only sounds were the metallic pings of silverware on dishes as the combatants called a truce in their war on hunger.

Sylvia finally broke the silence. “You’re going back, aren’t you?” The question shocked Marcus, not only for its directness, but also for its uncanny insight. He had not spoken to her about the other place since he was a child and thought, hoped even, that she had forgotten all about his long trips exploring the woods. He looked at Heather who wore an expression mirroring his own feelings, but mixed with a good dose of confusion.

“You’re going back there, aren’t you?” his grandmother repeated when he still failed to answer. “To that other place?”

Marcus fought to recover his senses. He realized then that he never had any intention of revealing his true reasons for the visit, hoping to pass it off as just a vacation from work, a chance to get away with Heather to spend some quality time and renew, if not save, their relationship. A dozen responses sprang to his mind, but none of them offered safe passage through these troubled waters. If he lied, she would know, she always knew when he lied and repeatedly told him how bad he was at it, just as Heather did. Finally, he decided that the truth, however unprepared he was to share it, was his best option.

He nodded.

“I thought so,” Sylvia said, sitting back in her chair with a satisfied look on her lined face. “Knew you wouldn’t drive all this way just to see the person who raised you.”

“Gran . . . “ Marcus started, and ended. His thoughts still seemed to be stuck, like a car in a deep snow drift, spinning its tires in a futile attempt to extricate itself.

His grandmother leaned forward and patted his arm. “Now don’t go thinkin’ I’m some psychic like that Sylvia Browne lady or whatever. I knew you’d be comin’ weeks ago, but not because of some vision or something.”

“How did you know?” Marcus asked. It was all his mind, otherwise seized up entirely, could spit out.

His grandmother gave a look out the dining room window. The thick clouds outside had blotted out most of the daylight and a steady rain could be heard on the glass. Marcus knew, a mile or so straight out from that window, a cave opened in the woods, mostly hidden by underbrush and moss. Out that window, a whole other world opened up.

“I’ve been hearin’ things,” she started, looking back at her grandson. “Not in that ready-for-the-nuthouse kinda way. Stange things, comin’ from those woods. And lights. Sometimes I’ll be sittin’ outside just ‘fore the news comes on and I’ll see lights shinin’ up through the trees.”

Heather, who had been silent through most of dinner, except for a few polite compliments on the quality of the meal and some rather short answers to Sylvia’s general questions about her well-being, spoke. “Could be some sort of drug lab or something, or maybe a moonshine operation.”

“Girl, you don’t know nothin’,” Sylvia said, waving her hand dismissively at Heather. “No drug lab’s gonna make the noises I’ve heard in those woods. Anyone making anything like that ain’t gonna want to draw attention to themselves by hollerin’ and putting up a bunch of damn lights. And nobody around here’s gonna go to the trouble of makin’ shine when they can go up the road and buy a case of beer for cheap. People are too lazy to work for their booze nowadays.”

Heather eased back into her seat and offered no argument. Marcus saw in her face that, while the logic was sound, she still held onto her suspicion. She looked at Marcus and her eyes narrowed, as if trying to make him reveal the joke he and his grandmother were both playing on her.

Marcus turned his attention back to his grandmother. “How long are we talking about here? How long has this been going on?” he asked.

“Oh, I’d say three weeks or so,” she answered. “Started out makin’ the awfulest racket, then last week the lights started. Like somethin’ was getting ready to bust out of there and start somethin’.”

Marcus stood and walked around the table to the window. He stared out through the glass and could see the dark outline of the woods refracted in the droplets of water. No lights could be seen in the darkening sky and he knew somehow that there would be no more lights. Not tonight or any other night. They had achieved their purpose and would shine no more.

He had come.

Today is the third anniversary of my mother’s death.  Instead of writing about that, as I did here and here, I’m going to recommend anyone who is my Facebook friend to read what my brother wrote about the topic today.  It’s another perspective, well-told, and it makes me just as sad to read his account as it does for me to go back and read my own.

That said, my mom wouldn’t want me to dwell on the sadness when I have so many other things to be happy about.  In that same spirit, here is the third installment of my first completed novel.  As I’ve recounted before, my mother had aspirations of being a writer and I think she would’ve been proud of me just for finishing this story, not to mention the other works I’ve had published.

Chapter 3

Marcus awoke early again the next day, long before the sun made its first appearance over the eastern hills. He loaded his suitcase into the trunk, wondering if he had forgotten anything before deciding that it did not matter. He was careful to leave enough room for Heather’s things.

As the first full rays of dawn found him, he pulled the Toyota out of the driveway and made the ten minute drive to IHOP, arriving there at a quarter until eight. He was only mildly surprised to see the Ford sitting in the parking lot. He had expected her, but not quite so early. He could see through the back glass that Heather was not alone. Tanya, he knew, had come with her for moral support, and to drive the Ford back, of course.

At that moment, Marcus realized the reason for Heather arriving so early. She still was undecided about whether to give him a second chance and he knew that if he failed to convince her, Tanya would be waiting outside to whisk her away from him forever.

His mind flicked back to the letter, now stashed in the console between the front seats and only through great force of will did he wrest control away to the problem at hand. To talk Heather into joining him on this trip, he would need to focus on her every word to the exclusion of all else.

He parked two spaces over from the Ford and got out. Heather stood by the passenger door, arms folded across her chest. To Marcus, she looked as radiant as always and he found that putting the letter out of his thoughts would be much easier seeing her in person. A hundred happy memories of her flashed through his mind as he looked at her and every bit of his concentration trained on her lovely features.

He walked toward her slowly despite his urge to rush in and embrace her. Offering a weak smile, he asked, “Can I buy you breakfast?” He hoped those words would illicit some response. He had asked her the same question the morning after their first night of lovemaking.

If she recognized the question or its significance, she gave no sign. She nodded once, then turned to go inside.

Marcus turned to look at Tanya, in the drivers seat of the Ford and found her expression equally blank. Any empathy he may have gained from their conversation of two nights ago was obviously spent. Still, she had helped him get this far and he offered a mouthed “thank you” for which he received, and expected, no acknowledgement.

Hurrying to catch up with Heather, he found her already seated browsing the menu. Marcus knew that she was not actually deciding on what to order, the two of them ate there frequently and had long ago memorized the menu. Still, she turned the menu over, scanning each line with her dark brown eyes to avoid looking at him.

Marcus sat down across from her. He did not touch his menu except to slide it to the edge of the table for the server to pick up. An uncomfortable silence fell across the table, broken only by the common clanking and scraping sounds found in nearly every restaurant. For what seemed like an eternity, he stared at the menu separating him from Heather.

A server approached, placing a couple of drink napkins on the table, and asked if they would like some coffee and Marcus, seeing that Heather planned to keep her silence, said, “Thank you, no, I’ll have some orange juice.”

“One O.J., ” the server repeated, her upbeat tone reminding Marcus of his conversation with Mike the day before. “And for you, ma’am?”

“Water,” Heather spoke from behind the menu.

“And one H two O,” the server said, marking her order pad. “I’ll get these and be right back out to get your order.”

Marcus thanked her and she scurried off to fill their drink order. Turning to the menu still blocking Heather’s face from view, he said, “Thanks for meeting me.”

There was still no response, which Marcus read as a sign to continue. “I’ve been thinking over the past few days how wrong I’ve been to treat you like I have.” Silence. “I’m more sorry than you can imagine. I never wanted to hurt you.” More silence. “You mean so much more to me than any job I can ever have and I’ve been blind, or maybe just stupid, to take your love for granted.”

At last, Heather folded the menu slapping it shut with an audible smack. She was about to launch her rebuttal as the server returned with their drinks. They gave their orders and Marcus was thankful for the brief respite, hoping it may serve to deprive Heather of some of her bluster.

The server left them again to enter their orders and Heather turned her dark eyes again on Marcus. “You have no idea what I’m even mad about. You’re not sorry how you’ve treated me and, moreover, I don’t think you really give a damn,” she said in a harsh whisper. “You spend so much time at that stupid store. You don’t know what I do in my spare time, what television shows I watch while you’re there selling that crap. For all you know, I could be out screwing every guy within a hundred miles of here.” The volume of her voice rose so that the last sentence could be heard across the restaurant and many heads turned to see the source of the disturbance.

Marcus felt the eyes upon him, but would not acknowledge them. He stared into those brown eyes, staring back into his with a fury he had never known in them before. With a sudden flash of insight, he finally recognized the pain the dedication to his career had caused Heather and for the first time he truly felt the shame he ought to have felt the entire time they had been together. For the first time, he understood her.

He could feel his eyes grow wet and when he opened his mouth to speak, his voice broke. His mouth opened and shut a few times like a fish, searching for words that seemed to be whirling in his brain like clothes during the spin cycle. Finally, he managed a question, the only thought he could articulate.

“What can I do to fix this?” It was a statement he had used several times over the year in his store to diffuse customer complaints and now it sounded cheesy to his own ears. He felt sure that Heather would see through the question, but if she did, she gave no indication.

Instead, her eyes also welled with tears, tears that she refused to let fall. “I don’t think you can.” Her voice was barely a whisper now, but it carried well enough for Marcus to hear it over the blood pounding in his own ears.

The server appeared at their side, seemingly out of nowhere, and offered their two plates. Her pleasant demeanor still in place, she asked them if everything was okay and, without waiting for their response, hurried to fetch refills for another table.

Marcus knew he had to regroup or lose any chance of holding on to Heather, regardless of his intuitions about her place in his journey. He looked for some place in his mind to gain some stable footing, some safe harbor to collect the ship of his thoughts. Finally, as he felt ready to give up and flee out the door, his confident side, the side of him that managed every aspect of a multi-million dollar business, took over and developed a plan.

“Tell you what,” he said, his voice sounding just over the state line from begging, “you spend the next week with me, sleeping separately if you like, just like two friends on a road trip. We’ll talk, God will we talk, and then, after we get home, I support whatever you want to do–stay or leave. I do love you, but if that means letting you go after this week, then so be it.”

Heather, who had been staring intently at her cheese blintz, looked up. Her eyes were dry, Marcus saw, and the rage he had seen in them earlier was gone.

“One week,” she repeated, “I’ll give you that long to prove to me that you can think about something other than that store. I suppose I owe you that much.” Her voice was blank, emotionless, but it was capitulation and for that Marcus was thankful.

“You don’t owe me anything,” Marcus said, feeling a sweet wave of relief wash away the stones he swore had settled in his stomach. “If anything, I owe you for putting up with me.”

He smiled at her, but she did not smile back. They ate their breakfasts, Marcus with particular relish borne of his good fortune. They made some small talk, mostly about mutual friends and the social drama that was occurring in other people’s lives while they pointedly avoided that in their own lives.

At five past nine, they paid their bill, left a sizeable tip for the server, and left the restaurant. Tanya waited outside with the trunk popped on the Ford. Her arms folded, she still glared at Marcus as though she smelled something foul, but she said nothing as she helped Heather with her two suitcases. Marcus took them in at once in a feeble attempt at chivalry and mouthed another silent “thank you” to Tanya who again offered no response.

A few minutes later, Marcus took the ramp onto the interstate and headed west toward the Tennessee line. Heather had said nothing since their departure from the restaurant. She sat staring morosely out the window as might a child right before asking “Are we there yet?” or “How much further?” The rounded, tree-covered hills of Appalachia, awash in fall color, trundled past on either side. For over an hour, Marcus waited for Heather to speak, even to comment about the weather, which was wholly unremarkable even for autumn. He figured that, as a male, he would hold a distinct advantage if he drove in silence, because all the women he had ever known seemed to view silence as a sin against nature. They found it uncomfortable for some reason unfathomable to anyone without the old double-x chromosomes. Men, on the other hand, loved the silence, loved the deer stand and the end bar stool. Only a group of men could sit around for hours at a time, not speaking, and yet enjoy themselves.

Finally, having left the tourist traps of the Great Smokies behind them, Heather spoke. “So why this trip all of a sudden? Won’t that cause an inconvenience to the store?” Sarcasm dripped heavily from the questions like water from a saturated sponge.

“It’s taken care of,” Marcus answered.

He waited for her to speak again, to take another jab at his intentions. He had purposely not answered the first question because, in truth, he did not know how to answer. He could not feed her the same line he had Mike because she would soon enough know the truth of where they had to go. She would know, Marcus thought, but she still would not believe. Silence set in for another fifteen minutes before yielding again, this time to Marcus.

“You ever have an imaginary friend growing up?” he asked her.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Heather turn her head and stare at him. He spared a quick glance and read her expression as a mixture of surprise and confusion, like someone who had just misjudged the number of steps while descending a ladder.

She stared at him for nearly a mile, trying to fathom any possible significance to the question before answering. “I had Analecia,” she said, almost too low for him to hear.

“Excuse me?” He had heard her perfectly, but he had known nothing about this aspect of her life, despite sharing her bed for most of the previous two years. With her pragmatic, conservative demeanor, Heather hardly seemed the type to have even acquaintances generated from her imagination, much less friends.

“Analecia,” she repeated. “When I was four or five, we lived on a little farm outside of Greenville. There weren’t any kids around to play with, so I made do with what I had. Analecia was a fairy, or an angel, or something like that. She was older than me and had beautiful wings that glistened in the sun. We moved into town about a year later and I remember telling my mom that Analecia didn’t want to move. About that time, I learned to read, anyway, and started spending more time with other people’s fantasies than my own” Her words, no longer carrying rich deposits of sarcasm, took on a wistful tone as she described her fictional playmate.

Marcus saw her smile as she looked out the windshield, lost in some pleasant memory of her childhood. He was struck again by how beautiful she was and how empty his life would be without her.

She noticed him looking at her, blushed, and turned to look out the passenger window. “Why don’t you watch the damn road,” she scolded.

Marcus turned his gaze back to the interstate, a slight grin curling the left side of his mouth. Again, they cruised in silence for some time with the hills dropping lower as they passed through the Tennessee Valley. The stopped in Knoxville for a restroom break and lunch at an Arby’s near the interstate before continuing on in relative silence, broken only by the sound of passing traffic and the Toyota’s tires upon the asphalt.

“Why did you want to know if I had any imaginary friends?” Heather asked, nearly an hour after the she had answered the question.

“Just curious,” Marcus answered.

“Yeah, right,” she said, sarcasm appearing again. “That’s not a “just curious” kind of question.”

Marcus shrugged.

Heather stared at him, waiting for a better answer than two raised shoulders and a goofy look. Seeing that none were coming, she turned the tables.

“How about you? You have any make-believe buddies you’d throw the ol’ pigskin to when you were a kid?”

“No, mine don’t know anything about football,” Marcus answered. He laughed slightly at the thought, but stopped when he realized the opening he’d left for the ever-observant Heather.

“Don’t?” She jumped on it immediately like a cat pouncing on a butterfly. “Are they still around? Maybe that’s who you’ve been spending all your time with?” She snorted a humorless laugh. “And here I was thinking it was that damn store keeping you away from home so much, how stupid of me.” She laughed again, a sound that normally put him beyond happiness, but now grated on his nerves. “You’ve been out running around with Harvey the Rabbit.”

Marcus found far less humor in Heather’s wit than she did herself, but he held back the scathing retort that sprang to the tip of his tongue as she laughed. He sat watching the road again, keeping his expression perfectly even until Heather looked at him with an equally blank stare. He realized that trying to explain the situation would be near impossible, but now he saw just how near. In some part of his brain where the sun always shines, he hoped she would be receptive to his tale, regardless of how fantastic it seemed, but those hopes were dashed in her echoing laughter.

“I lived on a farm, too,” Marcus began, forcing his voice to hide the frustration he felt. “All the way up until I left for college.” He paused a moment, trying to decided how to continue. “There weren’t any kids near me, either, not within a few miles anyway, but one thing Kentucky has that North Carolina lacks is caves. Our place was along the northern rim of Mammoth Cave and outside of the park there are all sorts of sink holes and undiscovered entrances to the cave system. We had about fifty acres, so we found a few of them on our property. Most of them had already been mapped, but I found one, just after my eighth birthday, that no one had ever seen previously.”

Heather glanced at him, an odd sort of concern masking her features. “Yeah, I was by myself,” he said in answer to her silent question. “We went camping all the time and those were simpler times.” He thought the statement made him sound much older than he was, but he pressed on. “Anyway, I was out in the woods one day and this cave just seemed to appear out of nowhere. I’d never seen it before and I’d been by where it was hundreds of times.”

At this point, Marcus glanced at Heather, who was listening raptly with the trained ear of one used to hearing legal arguments and dissecting them for weaknesses. He knew the seed of doubt was already beginning to bloom, but he continued anyway.

“My dad was friends with one of the cave guides who had taken us spelunking with him a few times, so I walked in a bit just to see how far back the thing went. The opening was pretty wide and flat, so I managed to walk in quite a ways before I got spooked enough to turn around.”

Here goes, Marcus thought, time to break out the straight jacket.

“I turned and walked out the same way I’d come in. Couldn’t have been more than fifty feet, but when I came out I wasn’t were I had started. The terrain had changed. I was . . . somewhere else.”

He looked again at Heather. Her eyebrows stretched nearly into her hairline, giving her the look of someone working at a nursing home humoring the mumblings of an advanced Alzheimer’s patient. Marcus turned away, unable to continue meet her patronizing stare.

“I explored this new place,” he left out a great many details, but told himself that he would cover them in due course, “and made a friend, probably my best friend growing up. His name was Erasmus.”

Marcus stopped speaking, again unsure how to continue the tale. He thought he might as well go for broke, knowing he had already lost his credibility, but his instinct told him that the time was not right for full disclosure, even if she already thought he was crazy.

“So that was your imaginary friend? Erasmus?” Heather said, trying not to sound like she had serious doubts about his mental health. “I have to say, you have a much better imagination than I do.”

“Yeah, Erasmus was my imaginary friend. I went back to that cave, and through it, hundreds of times over the next few years. I could spend weeks in that other place and only hours would pass in the real world. We had many adventures together, Erasmus and me, but as I grew older and discovered sports and then girls, I stopped going as often. By the time I was fourteen or so, I stopped going at all.”

“Fourteen?” she said, unable to keep the note of amusement out of her voice. “You held on for a long time, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I thought so,” Marcus answered, his eyes pointed at the road ahead but seeing far off places. “I pretty much forgot all about Erasmus and that other place . . . until two days ago when I, when we, received this in the mail.” He pulled open the console and extricated the strange letter, handing it to Heather. She unfolded the message, also noticing the odd material on which it had been sent.

Dear Marcus,

After these many seasons, the time has come at last for me to send to you for aid. Dark times have befallen this land you have forgotten. An evil force, the Necromancer, has begun a campaign to rule us all and murder those who will not bow to his will. Our powers to resist him will soon fail without your support. Only you have the strength to withstand this onslaught and we now beseech you to return to us and fulfill the destiny for which you have been chosen. Time is short, so please be swift before all hope is extinguished and the land you once loved is no more

Erasmus

For a long time after she had finished reading, Heather stared at the letter. Then, she gently folded it and placed it in her lap.

“Is this supposed to be some kind of joke?” she asked angrily. “You must be out of your damn mind if you think I’m gonna fall for this.”

Marcus said nothing. He simply drove, his eyes fixed upon the horizon. For nearly an hour, he drove on in silence while Heather waited for him to break down laughing. He had gained a well-deserved reputation over the years for elaborate practical jokes and people close to him always lived with the fear that his evil genius would one day turn on them. Still, he resented the fact that Heather thought he would try to put one over on her, particularly considering the state of their relationship on this trip. The last thing any person in his position would want to do, he thought, would be to get a few yucks from the one deciding whether or not they ought to stay together.

They arrived in Nashville shortly before eight and Marcus decided, without consulting Heather, to get a room for the night. He glanced over to the passenger seat and spied Heather sulking, growing angry that he had not revealed the joke yet. He knew he had to assure sleeping arrangements would be totally separate, even if it meant finding two rooms, but in her current mood, he figured that she would not be the most pleasant company anyway.

He had worked in Nashville a few times and knew the main roads well enough to get around when and where he needed. SportsWorld had recently opened their third location in the area, the first that he himself had not assisted in selecting and training the staff. Finally, he pulled the Toyota into the parking lot of the Opryland Hotel and parked near the registration entrance.

Heather got out, stretched her lean body, and circled around to the back of the car. Marcus got out, opened the trunk, and pulled out his suitcase along with the larger of Heather’s two. Heather took up the smaller one, shut the trunk, and looked at Marcus.

“You gonna tell me what you’re up to, or do I have to figure it out on my own?” she asked.

“I guess you’ll just have to figure it out,” he said, lugging the two bags toward the entrance.

The two of them walked up to the registration line, waiting behind a harried mother of three small children who all wanted to run off in different directions to explore the wonders of the hotel. After a few minutes, Marcus stepped forward and inquired about a suite, knowing that they offered not only separate beds, but also separate rooms for their sleeping convenience. Receiving directions from the desk clerk, Marcus led Heather to the fifth floor and entered the designated room.

A large bay window overlooked what looked like a tropical canopy. The conservatory stretched into the distance, still within the confines of the hotel, but providing a strong feeling of being outdoors. Directly below the window, a small waterfall burbled its way down to ground level. He could see several people milling around on the various walkways and balconies below and wondered for a moment how many of them had problems remotely close to the ones he now faced.

Not a single one, he told himself.

Hearing Heather behind him, he turned to see her hauling her suitcases into the adjoining room which held two beds and a similar view of the indoor paradise below.

“You hungry?” he called to her.

“No, I’m going to bed,” she answered, shutting the door behind her without another word.

Marcus found that, despite the trials of the day, that he was hungry and left the room in search of one of the restaurants on the other side of the hotel. He settled in a sports bar, ordered a steak dinner and a beer, and watched Sportscenter until he felt sufficiently sleepy to return to the suite.

He took a circuitous route back to the room. The hotel, in its vast maze of corridors, walkways, and wings, often disoriented those without a well-developed sense of direction, but Marcus navigated easily, pausing at a few of the various shops to gaze in the windows. At half past eleven, he reentered the suite and found it just as he left it, his unopened suitcase next to the window where he had gazed out upon the conservatory.

The door Heather had closed earlier remained closed and a thin band of darkness leaked out from beneath it. He knew she would be fast asleep, or at least pretending to be just in case he wanted to try something. He had no desire to enter the room and knew it would be locked even if he did.

Instead, he pulled a plush chair to the bay window and sat down, staring out over the canopy of trees. He could hear the muffled sound of the waterfall outside and that, combined with the meal and beer, drew a heavy blanket of weariness over him. He snuggled back into the soft chair and felt his head gain weight, sinking slowly to rest on his chest.

He had nearly succumbed to sleep when he noticed a flickering of the light dancing upon his eyelids. He opened them slowly as they seemed to have gained a majority of the weight dragging down his head and looked through the window.

Suspended before him, dangling from a long rope tied to the rafters far above, was himself. His eyelids lost their heaviness immediately and slapped open like window shades as he watched his own body swinging and rotating fifteen feet away from the glass. The body’s eyes, his eyes, bulged until Marcus thought they would pop out and be washed away by the waterfall below. The swollen face, his face, had turned an odd blue color, deprived of the oxygen it so desperately needed.

Marcus screamed, though the sound was cut off as he overturned the chair backwards and smacked his skull hard on the cherry table in the middle of the room. He scrambled back into a sitting position, rubbing hard on the knot already forming on the back of his head, He watched himself slowly rotating for a moment, then the image began to grow hazy. Thinking it was his brain reacting to the blow, he rubbed his eyes and looked again through the bay window. The haze continued to grow and Marcus realized that condensation was obscuring his view. A large patch of moisture collected on the glass, blurring the horrible scene just outside, and then words began to appear as if drawn by a child’s finger.

He read the words, feeling a chill he thought would have frozen the medium in which it was written to a thick frost. He stared at them in wonder, and his sense of apprehension blossomed into a case of full-blown fear.

GO BACK MARCUS . . . he read.

GO BACK MARCUS OR DIE.

Marcus dared a glance at the bedroom door and when it did not open, he turned back to the window.

The words, the condensation, his swinging corpse were all gone.

Here is the second chapter of my first completed novel, Terra Incognita.  In posting the first chapter yesterday, I said the story was my first successful attempt at completing a novel length work.  I use the term “successful” very loosely as I never really thought the writing was good enough for publication.  I do like the story idea, though, and I hope my readers will like it enough to overlook the errors I made in putting it down.

Chapter 2

Heather had not told Marcus where she was going. There was no need. He sped along Interstate 40, now doing seventy-five without noticing. The radio still played public radio, but instead of All Things Considered, a melodic strings piece washed over Marcus who heard none of it. What he did hear was a voice in his head reciting the letter in his pocket word for word. The voice, like the handwriting on the letter itself, seemed to rise out of his subconscious like something from a dream. A vague sensation like deja vu rippled up and down his spine, making him squirm constantly in his seat.

He steered the Toyota off the interstate and through a series of side streets until he took a left onto Bloomhill. The question rose in his mind of what he would do if Heather had not gone to Tanya’s after all, if she had some secret location to hide from him, but he pushed the thought away as quickly as it had come. Tanya, divorced over a year from her unfaithful husband, would be the best outlet for Heather to express her feelings. Unfortunately, Marcus knew, she would also shelter Heather from him until hell froze over if asked.

A wave of unexpected relief swept over him when he spotted the Ford in front of the apartment complex. He knew she could not have arrived more than a half hour before, but in his haste to find her, Marcus had failed to devise a plan that would allow him to speak to Heather. Convincing Tanya to let him in the house would be slightly more difficult than breaking into Fort Knox with a hairpin, but his only other option consisted of waiting on the doorstep until Heather decided to show herself.

Marcus parked his car next to Heather’s and got out, absently patting the letter in his pocket to ensure it was still there. He walked up the sidewalk to the breezeway between the two sides of Tanya’s building and, without hesitation, knocked on the door.

His knock was answered at once. The door opened enough for Marcus to see the chain still attached in case he tried to push his way in. Marcus had no intention of doing so and felt slightly insulted that Tanya, who had known him as long as she had know Heather, thought he might use physical force to get past her defenses.

“She doesn’t want to see you,” Tanya said, her tone carrying a dash of warning, “Go home, Marcus.”

“I didn’t expect her to,” Marcus answered. He attempted a conciliatory smile. “I was actually hoping that I could talk to you.”

This response apparently took Tanya off guard. Confusion showed in her face and she ducked her head away from the thin opening in the doorway for a moment, Marcus knew, to confer with Heather who undoubtedly stood near enough to the door to listen to the conversation.

“Please, Tanya, just a few minutes and then I’ll go.”

He heard her whisper something behind the door and a faint, but frantic whispered response. Then, the door shut and a moment of fear knotted his stomach before he heard the chain sliding off the door and rattling as it fell against the jamb. When the door opened again, it still only opened enough to allow Tanya to sidle outside into the breezeway. Wearing a tee shirt on which the word “Squeezeable” was printed in yellow letters above a lemon wedge, faded jeans, and no shoes, Tanya shut the door behind her and turned to glare at Marcus, hands on her hips.

“Mind if we walk?” Marcus asked, glancing at the door for emphasis.

Tanya considered for a moment, then gave a short nod. They walked down the sidewalk and followed it as it wound around the apartment building. Marcus knew she was was expecting him to ask for her help in getting Heather back, to ask her to intervene and convince Heather that he was worth a second chance. Marcus knew what she expected and gave her something else.

“How long have we known each other?” he asked her as they walked.

Tanya slowed her stride then shuffled her bare feet to draw even with him again. She had been caught off guard again, but answered in the same tone she had used to tell him to go home.

“About three years, I guess.”

Marcus followed immediately, pressing his advantage. “And do you consider yourself my friend?” He stopped walking, turning to look into her eyes.

“Yes, yours and Heather’s. And, as your friend, I’m telling you to go home.” She emphasized the “and Heather’s,” making sure Marcus knew exactly on which side her loyalties lay.

“Well, my friend,” Marcus said, adding equal amounts of despair and sarcasm to his voice, “why didn’t you telling me I was screwing up the best thing in my life? Why didn’t you tell me, even if she couldn’t, that I was letting her slip away?”

Tanya stared back at him in stunned silence for a full ten seconds before her voice returned, stronger than before, “I shouldn’t have had to tell you. If you were spending more time with her and less time selling people damn jock straps, you’d have known how she felt.”

He had expected the attack, but it still left him feeling as though he had been hit in the gut. The storm was beginning, he knew, as the loyal friend rose to champion a cause that was not hers.

“She doesn’t care what a hot-shot manager you are, what kind of promise your career has, or any of that bullshit. She just wanted you to be there for her and you weren’t.” She paused, waiting for his rebuttal, but when none came she continued the assault. “I know in some idiotic male way you’ve justified how much time you spend at work, convinced yourself that you had to do it so that you could provide a life for her and any kids that may come later, but all you’ve managed to do is prove that you’re a selfish bastard who doesn’t deserve a girl like her.”

Marcus took the blows, feeling like a boxer paid to throw a fight in the tenth round. He looked long at Tanya, saw her preparing for the counter attack, and instead of screaming at her like she expected, he turned away from her and walked back up the sidewalk.

Tanya hurried to catch up, her bare feet slapping the concrete, and cut him off. “Where the hell you going?” she asked.

“Home,” Marcus answered as he stepped around her. His voice was barely a whisper, but its effect was exactly what he hoped for. He took five steps before Tanya spoke again.

“Marcus, wait.”

Marcus stopped, but did not turn around. He did not want to seem too eager to hear what she had to say. The bare feet took a few steps toward him.

“Give her a few days and think about what I told you. Maybe she’ll be willing to listen. No guarantees, but maybe,” Tanya said.

Marcus turned around slowly. “Tell her I’m sorry. I know it probably won’t mean much, but tell her anyway.”

“I’ll tell her, don’t worry,” she assured him. “Look, I like both of you and I hate to see the two of you break up like this, but . . . “

He cut her off. “I know,” he said, waving his hand dismissively. “I want you to tell her something else, okay?”

“Okay.” She sounded tentative.

“Tell her I’m taking a vacation, maybe a week, maybe a little more. Going back to Kentucky for a few days and I want her to go with me. I need some time off to get my priorities straight and I want her, need her to help me get my head right.” He took a step toward Tanya. “Tell her that if she will agree to go, to meet me the day after tomorrow for breakfast at IHOP on Blue Ridge. Eight o’clock. If she’s not there by nine, I’ll . . . I’ll know.”

Marcus smiled weakly at Tanya, turned, and walked to the Toyota. He did not look up to see whether she was watching him, he knew she was. As he pulled out of the complex onto Bloomhill, he glanced in his rear view in time to see Tanya watching him drive away before turning to go back inside. Behind her, Marcus also saw the blinds flutter. Heather had been watching, too.

Driving home, Marcus wondered if he had handled the situation properly, if his scheme would work. He knew Tanya would not have allowed him to see Heather, or even speak to her, but if he could gain a little of that loyalty for himself, could generate enough sympathy in Tanya, he felt confident that she would seek a resolution that would satisfy the demands of both friendships.

He tried to picture the two of them, Heather and Tanya, sitting on opposite ends of the couch scarfing a pint of Ben and Jerry’s each, watching Jerry Maguire or something similar, and speaking very little, just being there for one another. Tanya would eventually tell her friend what was said outside, but Marcus could not envision that conversation. He tried, but two things kept him from getting a clear script for the dialogue. First, he could not be sure of Heather’s reaction to the message he had sent her. Much would depend on how Tanya delivered it, but he felt she would at least be neutral, if not slightly in his favor.

The second, and more intrusive, factor keeping him from getting a clear image of how Heather would react to his offer was the letter. Marcus tried to push its contents out of his conscious mind, but the words kept repeating over and over, forming a mantra that rose in his thoughts like a Gregorian chant. He knew that at any other time, getting Heather back would consume all his energy, but now the strange note in his breast pocket demanded his attention. He swore he could feel heat, a small amount, but contrasting sharply to the cool October air, radiating from the folded material.

He pulled into the driveway he had left less than an hour before, got out, went back inside. His screwdriver still sat on the table next to the other mail that now seemed as trivial as a windbreaker in a hurricane. For a moment, he considered adding some ice and picking up where he left off, but instead he poured the drink down the sink drain. He would need all his mental function to deal with what he knew lay ahead and did not want to begin the least bit muddled.

After a restless night of sleep, Marcus awoke the next morning and realized that he had only slept alone for three other nights since Heather had moved in with him. Those three days had been nearly eight months before at the annual meeting at the SportsWorld corporate offices in Greenville. He had received two awards at that meeting, one for highest net profit percentage and the second for best inventory results, and both of these sat on the desk in the home office he and Heather shared downstairs. Although sleeping alone felt odd upon waking, he never experienced any of the difficulties falling asleep that Heather complained of upon his return. Sleep always came naturally to Marcus and Heather often marveled at how quickly he could fall asleep as she lay tossing and turning, trying to slow her ever-active brain enough to trick it into unconsciousness.

Heather certainly would have been pleased watching me last night, he thought, sliding out of bed and making his way to the master bath for a shower. Sleep had come, but not until he had turned to see his alarm clock beside the bed read a quarter past four. Marcus knew the letter, more than the circumstances of his sleeping alone, caused his unrest. Memories long forgotten clouded his vision as he stared at the dark ceiling and sank again like bubbles in a pot of boiling water. When exhaustion finally overcame him, his dreams offered little respite from his overactive mind, showing him visions of places he had been and things his had seen, none of which he could name.

He awoke early knowing he still needed to do several tasks before leaving the next day. First, though his schedule had granted him a rare Sunday off, he called Mike Green, his supervisor and, despite the demands of protocol in the business world, his friend.

Calling some people early on a Sunday morning would be inviting a conversation with an answering machine, but he knew that Mike, devoutly religious would already be mustering his kids from their beds to prepare for this week’s dose of “papal bullshit” as Marcus often called it. Years ago, before Mike had ascended to the lofty ranks of multi-unit management, they had decided not to discuss their views on religion with one another, more as a means to preserve their friendship than from any practical obligations, but now Marcus wondered what Mike would say, what passage of scripture he could quote, to put the contents of that letter into a religious perspective.

He would never know, however. He would have to lie.

The phone rang twice before Julie picked up. “Hello, Marcus, you change your mind about joining us for mass this week?” She, as devout as her husband, always practiced with vigor the Christian mandate of trying to convert the nonbelievers. Usually, Marcus would tell her that when she could reconcile all the problems he had with the Bible, he would go with them to mass and drop a good bit of cash into the collection plate, but today he had more pressing uses for his time.

“No, thanks for the offer, though,” he said. “I just need to yell at Mike for a minute.”

“Okay, but you know the offer’s always open,” Julie said, then he heard her call for her husband as she set the receiver down. Marcus waited for a few moments before he heard steps approaching on the hardwood floor he and Mike had installed the previous spring.

“Hey, Marc,” Mike spoke like someone who reveled in rising early and made everyone who did not hate his guts. “Still no religious epiphany, eh?”

“No, not yet.”

“Oh, well, we’ll keep trying. They all come back to God eventually.” He laughed, a bit too loudly for a Sunday morning. “So, what’s up?”

“I need to take a few days off, Mike. Maybe a week,” Marcus tried to sound casual, knowing that it would be easier to lie to his good friend if he sounded natural.

A long pause followed. Mike knew Marcus detested the time he took off from the store, not because he did not enjoy the time with Heather, but he hated leaving for a week and coming back to what seemed like a month’s worth of work. “Everything okay?” he finally asked, a note of concern in his voice.

“Yeah, more or less,” Marcus answered, although he thought to himself that everything was about as far from okay as could be imagined. “My dad’s sick and I need to go home for a few days.”

Marcus felt a tingle of shame shoot down his spine. Everyone he had ever lied to told him he was lousy at it and he waited for a sickening moment for Mike react to his excuse. Replaying every conversation between the two since they had known each other, he looked for any reference he had ever made to his father and could not think of any. Marcus had never been close to his father, even before his parents divorced when he was twelve. A heavy drinker, Percy Briggs never had much affection for anyone not named Jack, Jim, Johnny, or Jose and Marcus had not spoken to him since his fourteenth birthday which his father arrived an hour late, too drunk to remember whose party it was.

“He gonna be okay?” Mike asked finally, allowing Marcus to exhale again.

“Yeah, something with his digestive system or something like that. They’re running some tests this week to figure out what’s going on.”

Marcus thought he sounded convincing enough, at least to his own ears, and apparently Mike agreed. “The store covered while you’re gone?” he asked.

“Ben and Sarah can handle it, but you may want to look in on them this week.” Marcus was glad Mike had shifted his focus to the store, moving the focus away from the lie and allowing him to speak with more confidence.

“Can do,” Mike assured him. “When you leaving?” he asked.

“Tomorrow. Driving up first thing in the morning.” He thought of Heather as he answered and felt a pang of anxiety hoping she would join him for the trip.

In the background, Marcus heard Julie herding their three children to the door and called for Mike to hurry. “All right, man,” he said, “you be careful and if you need anything, give me a call.”

“Thanks, Mike,” Marcus said and then he hung up the phone.

A similar call followed to Sarah at the store. Marcus explained the fictional situation with his father and his plans, feeling slightly less guilt with his subordinate than with his friend and supervisor, but a fair amount regardless. He had absolute faith in Ben’s and her ability to operate the store in his absence; he trained his assistants to do everything he himself did, more for the possibility that he would be promoted rather than the task he now faced.

He then called Ben, got his machine, and left a message briefly explaining the situation with his father and telling him to call Sarah if he had any questions. Ben, like Mike, attended one of the many churches in town, but due to his irregular schedule and, Marcus thought, some deep-seeded reservations about the church, not nearly as frequently as his boss’s boss.

With the store covered in his absence and his leave approved, Marcus set about the task of deciding what to pack. He looked around the house for nearly and hour, deciding there was very little that would help him where he was going, so he packed light. Another hour passed and he had packed one suitcase with a couple changes of clothes, some of his hiking gear, and an audiobook to listen to in the car if Heather failed to shop at IHOP the next morning. He knew once he reached his destination, even these things would matter very little, but he recognized the long drive there and back. If I even make it back, he thought grimly.

For the rest of the day, he tried to occupy himself around the house. He managed to hold his attention on the Carolina Panthers game long enough to see the first quarter end, but his eyes kept roving to the letter, lying back on the kitchen table where he had first discovered it. At first, the looks were only glances, but these came with increasing regularity and soon blossomed into full, timeless stares. He felt no compulsion to retrieve the letter, every word seemed seared into his mind, but he continued to watch it, as if afraid it would disappear if he moved his gaze. Part of him, the logical part, hoped it would disappear, and thought by right that it should, so that he would not have to do what he knew he must.

He tried to think of Heather and imagine again what her reaction had been to his request to join him on his trek. He hoped she would, but found that his distress over their split was only a small part of his wanting her to go. In some subconscious part of his mind, he felt strongly that Heather would join him, not because of her desire for reconciliation, but because she was meant to accompany him where he needed to go.

This knowledge frightened Marcus more than a little. Heather, ever the pragmatist, would have a difficult enough time believing what he would tell her on the way to Kentucky, much less accepting that she had some part to play.

She’s going to think I’ve lost my mind, Marcus thought as he climbed into bed for his second night alone. Again he slept, and again the dreams came.

For those of you who don’t know, I’ve been on hiatus from writing since I decided to go back to school almost a year ago.  Maintaining my 4.0 GPA (yeah, I’m that guy) doesn’t leave much room for composing new fiction.  As such, I haven’t been posting much as this site is mostly dedicated to my pursuit of writing success.  No writing equals no success to report.

However, a few people have commented on my lack of updates (you know who you are), so I am going to take the easy way out and do what I’ve been saying I’m going to do for a while—serialize my first finished novel.  I worked for months on the story, writing nearly every night until it was finished.  The result, while not a very well-written story, was proof to myself that I could finish a novel and confidence to a writer is at least as important as talent.  I never even considered sending it to agents because I knew it wasn’t that good.  It served its purpose, though, in teaching me the kind of commitment necessary to write a full novel.

I called the novel Terra Incognita, although I was never really in love with that title.  I’m putting it out here—warts and all—because I have nothing better to talk about right now.  Updates will come as frequently as I care to post them.  Please enjoy and be kind for the many, many mistakes I left in the story.

Chapter One

Marcus Briggs drove along the expressway at slightly less than sixty miles per hour. Cars and trucks sped around him, doing the speed limit of sixty-five or greater. Some people honked their horns, annoyed they were forced to switch lanes to maintain their high-speed pursuit of a better life.

The radio in Marcus’s old Toyota was on, tuned to public radio, but Marcus did not hear it. The only sound in his ears, hours after hearing it, was Heather’s voice.

“We need to talk,” she had said. “Not now, but when you get home from work.”

That was an hour ago, just long enough for him to make up an excuse about being sick and getting excused from his job at the store. Now, for better or worse, he was nearly home. He was betting on worse.

He knew this talk would not be a pleasant experience, or a quick one. For some time, Heather had been growing more and more distant. Another three weeks would mark their two-year anniversary of cohabitation, and Marcus had hoped to celebrate with a weekend at the Biltmore estate in Asheville, where he had proposed before dozens of tourists in the flower gardens. Now, he simply hoped Heather’s bags were not completely packed when he got home.

As he exited the expressway, he thought of all the things he had done wrong over the previous three years that he and Heather had been together. Nothing major came to mind, no deal breakers. By all accounts, Marcus was a great guy, perhaps a little too career-oriented and not family-oriented enough, but a worthwhile boyfriend nonetheless.

“But . . .,” added Heather’s best friend Tanya, “she thinks you’re boring now.”

Ouch, he had thought when she said it. He felt a bit of helpless indignation at the remark. While his interests certainly did not coincide with those of most people, he hardly considered himself boring. If he was so boring, he wondered, what had attracted Heather to him in the first place? He considered her out of his league when they met in college and his views on this had not changed, although he was not foolish enough to question the good thing he thought they had together.

Marcus pulled off the expressway, hardly paying attention to where he was going. His internal pilot, that unconscious portion of his brain that navigated when he was too tired or stressed to think about the driving process, was leading him faithfully home to this confrontation that he both dreaded and desperately wished to begin.

Turning left onto Wallace Avenue, he thought about his job and how much it, or rather his dedication to it, was to blame for his problems in his relationship with Heather. Having worked retail since his graduation from high school, Marcus felt a certain comfort and competency with the business world he did not feel anywhere else. He had quickly advanced from the lowest rungs of the ladder at SportsWorld through a combination of his remarkable business savvy and his love of sports and last year had become the youngest general manager in the company’s two decades of existence. As the company looked to expand out of the Carolinas into other markets in the South, Marcus’s name frequently arose as a candidate to lead this expansion.

Heather, however, had bristled at the thought of relocation. She loved living in Blue Ridge Mountains, though she cursed the harsh winters with the fluency of a born New Yorker. As a paralegal working in a busy law office, her coworkers had become a second family and, more recently, her support group as she and Marcus grew more distant. He often saw people from the firm in his store, shopping for their camping supplies or softball gloves, scowling at him as he walked past. He sometimes wondered if somewhere within the halls of Parker, Gregg, and Smith if there was a dart board with his often-pierced photograph tack to it.

Frustration rose within Marcus as he turned right onto Baker Street, like acid rising into the throat during a particularly bad case of indigestion. He forced it back down, knowing that only through cool negotiation would he be able to rescue his relationship with Heather. Now was the time to admit to every wrong she accused him of committing, valid or not, and to accept any penance she deemed necessary.

Turning left at last onto Herringbone Court, he felt his heart rate quicken as the Toyota seemed to slow to keep balance. The vehicle crawled down the pavement, Marcus fearing what he would see as he approached the cul de sac. At last, the Victorian came into view and he saw, to his relief, Heather’s silver Ford parked in the driveway. One light, in the kitchen, was on and he knew she was inside waiting to say her goodbyes.

Marcus switched off his lights to attempt some element of surprise, hoping to catch her off guard and verbally disarm her before she could launch her goodbye speech. Pulling his car into the driveway directly behind Heather’s, he hoped to cut off her exit unless she drove through the yard she had worked so hard every weekend of the past summer to maintain. Still, he hoped the situation would not come to that end. He turned off the ignition, got out as quietly as possible, and walked slowly past the Ford. The back seat, he saw, was loaded with Heather’s clothes and an assortment of boxes, all ironically bearing a label from the SportsWorld warehouse. The passenger seat also held a few boxes and a small television, the one from their bedroom. Marcus wondered briefly where she intended to go with so few things, or if perhaps this was just the first haul that preceded her return with the moving van.

Approaching the side door leading directly into the kitchen, Marcus saw the light from within spilling outward through the beveled glass. He stopped, fear welling up inside him. What if he failed to persuade her to stay? What if she had found someone else? These possibilities had not arisen in his mind before. Like the many problems that came with operating a multi-million dollar sporting goods store, his mind saw this issue as just one more needing a quick, decisive resolution. Up to that moment, Marcus held absolute confidence that he could fix whatever the problem was in their relationship and they would go on living a content life together. Now, he found his confidence shaken as tears began to well in his eyes. Fighting them back, he pressed on and opened the door.

Heather sat, hands folded upon the table, waiting for him. Her face was void of expression and she said nothing as Marcus entered the kitchen and sat down tentatively across from her. Trying to think of where to begin his argument, he reached across the table to grasp Heather’s hands, but she pulled them away, laying them in her lap as she continued to stare at him.

A long, uncomfortable silence descended and lasted for what Marcus felt was a lifetime. Finally, he knew he must speak or he would lose the ability to do so.

“Don’t go,” he whispered, then, “please.”

Heather sighed and looked away from him toward the floor. Her red-rimmed eyes glazed over and a single tear fell into her lap. “I . . .” she began. Her voice croaked, telling him that she had been crying for some time. Still not looking at him, she started over, “I finished and put away all your laundry and went to the grocery. You shouldn’t have to go again for a few weeks.”

Marcus half stood and pulled his chair a quarter turn around the table to be closer to her. “Whatever the problem is, we can work it out. Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” He started to reach for her hand again, but thought better of it. “I don’t want to lose you.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry I can’t be what you need.”

“You are what I need. You’re everything I need.”

Heather snorted, then snuffled again to keep her nose from dousing her sweater. “What you need is someone who doesn’t mind to be alone a lot” She managed a weak smile and looked up at him, “and I don’t want to be alone anymore.”

Marcus left his chair now, descending to his knees right in front of her. He was careful not to touch her or come too close to her, less she recoil again. “I’m sorry I made you feel that way. I wish you had told me sooner.” He bit his lip, thinking the last line made it sound like he was giving up. “Tell me what I need to do to fix this and I will,” he repeated.

Heather stood up. “It’s too late for that now.” Leaning over, she kissed him on his forehead. Her lips felt hot against his skin. Stepping around him, he walked to the door and went out into the night.

Marcus’s mind raced, debating on whether he should accept defeat or follow her out to the driveway and beg again for her forgiveness. In his moment of indecision, he heard a car door open and slam, then the engine start up and grow fainter. The engine noise stopped and he heard again a door open and slam shut. Steps came back up the driveway and for a brief moment, Marcus thought his pleas had paid dividends, a thought that shattered when he heard another car door open and shut, this time closer, and another engine crank and fade into silence.

Stumbling out of the kitchen onto the driveway, Marcus looked out and saw his car, parked now against the curb of the cul de sac. She had moved it to allow herself to leave. Without conscious thought, he walked down the driveway and opened the door to the Toyota. Her key, with its yellow plastic head, lay in the seat. He picked it up, inserted it into the ignition as he sat down, and pulled the car back into the driveway to where Heather’s Ford had been moments before.

Marcus felt as though his guts had just been spilled out through a hole in the bottom of his abdomen, but with the confrontation finally over, he found that he could think more clearly. Arguments against Heather leaving now filled his head and he wanted to kick himself for not putting up a better defense for their relationship. Getting out of the car, he walked back to the kitchen door and stopped looking down the street, hoping against hope that she would change her mind and come back. He had no idea how long he stood grasping both the door latch and his last shreds of hope, but finally he turned away from Herringbone Court and entered the kitchen.

His first thought upon reentering the house was to go immediately to bed. Perhaps this was all just a bad dream, he told himself. Perhaps Heather would sleep on it and decide that it was a bad decision. Still, he knew better so instead of walking through the kitchen to the stairway just beyond to go up to the bedroom he now had all to himself, he decided his best option was to drink himself into oblivion and hope for the best.

Marcus rarely drank and never did so to excess. He never understood the appeal of downing a case just for a few hours of mindless euphoria, especially when hangovers seemed to last so much longer. Besides, he had often told friends at college parties, most alcoholic drinks tasted horrible. Why endure such nasty concoctions when an ice cold Coca-cola tasted so much better?

Reaching into the cabinet above the stove, he pulled down the bottle of Absolut, not one of the flavored versions so trendy with his alcoholic friends in retail management, but plain vodka. He tipped the bottle up, allowing the colorless liquid to fill his mouth. He tried to swallow the vile liquid, but gagged from the taste and spit most of it out onto the kitchen counter. As he cleaned the spill with a few paper towels, he pulled a rocks glass from another cabinet and half filled it with Absolut. He tossed the sodden towels and pulled the half gallon of orange juice from the refrigerator, topping off the glass.

He returned to the kitchen table, stirring the drink with his index finger, and flopped into the chair Heather had occupied a short time before. He took a sip and still found the vodka almost too much to handle. Setting the glass down, he stared blankly at the table for a while. Cow print salt and pepper shakers stood sentry in the center flanking an arrangement of artificial daisies blooming over a small vase of the same bovine pattern. These rested on a square red and white table cloth, too big for the small round table they used in the kitchen and marked here and there by tiny punctures from knife tips and fork tongs.

Marcus raised the drink for another sip, this time hardly noticing the vodka. Adjusting rather quickly to alcoholism, he thought as his eyes passed to a small stack of envelopes lying next to the salt shaker. The top envelope, he could see, was the cable bill, unopened and addressed to Heather Bentham. He lifted the stack, hardly believing that there could be such insensitivity among human beings as to send him bills as his world was crumbling around him.

The cable bill. A credit card application. A letter from some supposed psychic who desperately needed to speak to Marcus, but obviously could not find a phone number in her crystal ball. Then he came to the last envelope, bigger than the others and oddly shaped, it was perfectly square and felt less like paper and more like . . .

“Leather . . . “ Marcus said to himself. He was looking at the back of the piece of mail and saw that a wax seal held the fold shut rather than some commercial adhesive. The seal bore an insignia he had never seen, some symbol he could not quite make out. A strong feeling of unease settled in his stomach upon seeing the seal, resting next to his sense of loss like two old buddies sitting at the bar.

He flipped the thing over slowly, noting that the envelope was constructed of a single piece, deftly folded into shape through some art that eluded him. He then looked at his name and address on the front, hand-written in an untidy scrawl that Marcus found disturbingly familiar. Recognition came to the surface of his consciousness and then sank again into the depths of his mind, like a trophy fish that rises to the surface to taunt the angler before disappearing with a ripple into the murk.

Instinct told him he should not open this particular piece of mail. Something deep inside him warned him of something terribly wrong with the letter, but it competed with a strong sense of urgency, compelling him to open it immediately and not waste any more valuable time. He touched the seal, pausing a moment when he noticed his hand shaking. Marcus took a deep breath to steady himself and pulled at the wax, peeling it easily from the leather.

Inside the envelope, the letter, for Marcus felt sure that it was a letter, offered another surprise by its material. Rather than common copy paper or a piece of notebook paper, a nearly transparent sheet of what Marcus guessed must be papyrus or something similar, folded neatly in half, slid out. He handled it gingerly, afraid that the smallest shake of his hand would tear it. At the top he saw no date when the missive was composed, only his name written in the same hand that had addressed the envelope.

He read the letter. When he finished, he continued to stare at the strange note, an expression of troubled confusion settling upon his face. He read the letter again. A third time. A fourth. When he finished his sixth reading, he let the letter fall from his limp hand onto the table. He wanted to read it again, just to be sure that the first six times had not been a hallucination, but he could not force his eyes to look at it again. Instead, he picked it up carefully, as though afraid it would bite his hand, folded it, and stuck it inside his shirt pocket.

Leaving his drink on the table and the kitchen light on, Marcus charged out the kitchen door, even forgetting to lock the door in his haste. He opened the door to the Toyota and got in, turning the key in the ignition before his backside touched the seat. The car backed quickly into the cul de sac and then sped quickly down Herringbone Court, following the Ford that had left just a few minutes before.

I want to wish all my readers (both of you) a very Merry Christmas and I hope you enjoy this last story of the year.

PENNY’S SNOWGLOBE

Penny Wilkes sat on her couch, waiting.  She had taken the initiative to put on her pajamas, mostly out of routine, and she stared at Tinkerbell and her fairy friends until she thought they were dancing across the flannel.   Despite her dress, Penny was not ready for bed, was not even sleepy.  She had waited for this night and had planned accordingly—sleeping through the day, taking naps when she could force her eyes to close, even making and gulping down some of the instant coffee her mother kept in the freezer for guests, as she didn’t drink it herself.

Penny had to be awake when he came.  She knew the rules, knew that Santa only came to the children on his “nice” list when they were asleep, but she didn’t know of any other children who had so urgent a need to speak to Santa as she did.

She got up off the couch, looking up at the clock as she did.  It was just past two in the morning—her mother had taught her how to read a clock not even six months before—and she wondered how much longer it would be.  She paced the floor, a habit she had also learned from her mother, who would follow the same track from wall to wall in the small living room, circling the couch like a racecar on a test drive while she chewed on her fingers and mumbled to herself.  She thought that Penny could not hear her talk about the medical bills, about Penny’s father walking out on them, about her worries for Christmas, but Penny heard it all.

Now, with her own worries, Penny mimicked her mother’s actions precisely, if unconsciously, her tiny feet in their flannel footies scuffling across the floor with barely a sound as she chewed her own tiny fingers.  The only thing she did not copy was the mumbling.  Penny was a very deliberate girl and had thought of nothing in advance to mumble, so her lips remained closed in a tight line.

The house in Queens where Penny lived with her mother was small and, without a fireplace or chimney, she wasn’t quite sure how Santa would get in.  Every trip around the couch she would look at the front door, at the curtained windows, at the stairs that led up to her  mother’s room, at the back door past the kitchen, and then back to the front door, checking with each like a night watchman making rounds.  On every fifth circuit, she rearranged the cookies she had placed on the coffee table and checked the temperature of the milk, sticking her finger in to see if it was still cold enough.  She listened hard for any sign of his approach—sleigh bells, the click-clack of reindeer hooves on the roof, even a distant “Ho, ho, ho”, but she heard nothing other than the whisper of her feet on the carpet and the ticking of the wall clock.

When the fireplace appeared against one wall where none had been before, she almost walked by it without realizing what it was.  She jumped, her feet catching on a half-second later than the rest of her, and she nearly stumbled to the floor.  Strong hands wearing black leather gloves trimmed in gray fur reached out and caught her, helping her back to her feet.

Penny righted herself and looked up at the one who had helped her.  Just as she had hoped, he was there, his suit dotted here and there with ash as though someone had sprinkled pepper on him.  He looked down at her with a kind, but confused, expression on his bearded face.

“Penny,” Santa said, “you’re up awfully late.”

“I had to wait for you, Santa.” She said.  The only reason she could get the words out over her nervousness, was that she had been practicing them every waking moment for three days.  She knew, when the moment came, she would have to plead her case without error, without stumbling over the words.

Only now did she notice the velvet bag slung over his shoulder.  Santa lowered it the floor with an audible sigh.  “Funny thing about this bag,” he said, smiling.  “No matter how much I take out of it, it never feels any lighter.”  He stepped over to the couch, sat down, and browsed the cookies a moment before selecting an oatmeal raisin.  He took a small bite and chewed slowly, closing his eyes to savor the morsel, then washed it down with a swallow of milk.  When he was done, he looked at Penny and smiled.

“Excellent cookie,” he said.  “Now, Penny, you know I’m not supposed to stop until you’re asleep, right?”

“Yes, Santa.”

“So,” Santa asked, taking another bite of the cookie.  “What’s a nice girl like you doing up at an hour like this?”

“It’s my momma,” Penny said.  “Come upstairs and I’ll show you.”

Penny led Santa up the dark, narrow flight of stairs and along a short hallway to a closed door.  She opened the door without knocking and led Santa into the room as she flipped on the light.

“There she is,” Penny said, pointing at the bed.  “I need you to help her.  She won’t wake up.”

Santa moved to the side of the bed and looked down at the figure before him.  To a young girl like Penny, he supposed, she might look like she was sleeping, covered up in bed with her eyes closed.  But Santa saw the pallor of her skin and the way the covers above her chest never moved.  He took off one of his black gloves and felt the woman’s neck, finding no pulse beneath skin as cold as his backyard.  Leaned over the bed, he saw the empty pill bottle still clutched in her hand.

“Make her wake up, Santa,” Penny said.  “That’s all I want for Christmas.  For my momma to wake up.”

Santa stood motionless for some time, tears sliding down over his red cheeks into his beard.  He looked at Penny and saw the same tears running down her cheeks.  Santa knew that, despite her age, she understood that her mother was gone, that he was her only hope of getting her back.

Yet, despite all the powers he possessed as Santa Claus, this was one gift he could not give.

He put his hand on Penny’s shoulder and led her out of the room as the girl burst into loud sobs.  To Santa, it seemed like a dam bursting, all the fear and pain she had hidden behind her hope in him gushing out of her in a great flood of misery.

“No, Santa!” she wailed.  “You have to help her!  You have to make her wake up!”

Santa picked her up and carried her back down the stairs to the couch.  There, he sat with her in his arms, rocking back and forth until her sobs, little by little, tapered off into quiet snuffling.  In some part of his mind, he knew he was falling behind schedule, but nothing in the world—not the cookies or the reindeer or the gifts–mattered more to him in that moment than little Penny Wilkes.

Then, just when he thought he could do nothing for her, Santa had an idea.

“Penny,” he said, his voice gentle and low.  “Penny, are you listening to me?”

She gave a loud snuffle and wiped her dripping nose with the sleeve of her pajamas.  “Yes, Santa.”

He propped her up on his knee so he could look at her.  “Penny, I’m afraid that not even I can wake up your mother.  I’m very sorry.”

Penny looked as though she was about to break down again, but she took a deep, shuddering breath, closed her red-rimmed eyes, and nodded.

“But,” he said.  “I do have another present for you.  It won’t bring your mommy back, but you might like it.  Do you want to see it?”

“I can open it now?” she asked.

“I insist,” Santa said.  He moved her onto the couch and reached for his bag.  Reaching inside, he rummaged around for some time before he found what he was looking for and, when he removed his hand, he held a wrapped present.  He held it out to Penny and she took it, removing the bow and paper with care.  When she opened the box, she saw a small, glittering snowglobe.

“It’s pretty,” Penny said.

“It’s more than pretty,” Santa said.  “It’s magical.”

“What’s it do?”

Santa took the snowglobe from the box and stood it up on the coffee table.  The snow inside shifted and swirled as though a blizzard raged within the glass sphere, revealing nothing of the scene within.

“I can’t tell you that,” Santa said.  “Right now, you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll figure it out.”

“But I’m not sleepy,” Penny said, her wide eyes fixed on the snowglobe.

Santa reached into a pocket of his coat and pulled out a pinch of silver powder.  He reached out and sprinkled it over Penny’s head.  At once, her eyes grew heavy and closed.  She leaned back against the couch and, a moment later, was softly snoring.

“Sleep now, Penny Wilkes,” Santa said as he moved to the fireplace.  “And Merry Christmas.”

In a flash of light, both Santa and the fireplace were gone.

Penny woke on Christmas morning and saw from the light squeezing through the ice-crusted windows that the sun was up.  She sat up on the couch, wiped her eyes, and looked around as she tried to remember what had happened.  Only when she saw the snowglobe where Santa had left it on the coffee table did the pieces come together.

She picked up the snowglobe, surprised at how light it was in her tiny hands.  The snow, still swirling inside, changed at her touch, the white flakes inside slowing until she could see an image begin to take shape within the glass sphere.  As she watched, she saw a tiny figure that looked very much like her, dressed in her coat and boots, hat and gloves, opening a front door that looked very much like the one that stood only a few feet away from her.

Penny set the snowglobe back on the table and stared at it in wonder.  No longer touching it, the snow swirled inside again, a miniature blizzard just inside the glass.  With one tentative finger, she touched it again and gasped as the snow halted to reveal the same scene as before, the tiny version of her going out the door of the house.

She knew what she had to do now.  She just didn’t know if she could.

With slow steps, Penny climbed the stairs, going first to her room.  She dressed, putting on the dress her mother had gotten her for Christmas only a few weeks before.  Then, she brushed her hair and teeth in the bathroom before going to the door to her mother’s room.  She stopped there, afraid that if she went in, saw her mother still lying in the bed, that she would not be able to leave her behind, no matter what her magical snowglobe wanted her to do.

She opened the door and went inside.

The room was different than it had been the previous night.  Instead of the piles of laundry that lay scattered like islands upon the floor, the room was clean.  Light streamed in through the open curtains that had been shut the night before.  Still, Penny saw none of this.  Her eyes rested only on the empty, made bed before her.  A piece of folded paper rested on the pillow where her mother’s cold head should have been and Penny picked it up, opened it, and read the two sentences written in a neat hand:

She will be taken care of.

Be brave, Penny.

At that moment, Penny did not want to be brave.  She fell to her knees at the side of the bed and cried for her mother, now truly lost to her.  She wailed, burying her face into the bed linens that still smelled of her mother’s perfume, and cried until she could summon no more tears.  When she was done, she pulled herself to her feet and, without looking back, left the room, shutting the door behind her.  The click of the door was drowned out by what sounded like a string, pulled taut like a piano wire, breaking in her heart.

Penny walked back downstairs and put on her coat, her boots, her hat and her gloves.  Then, she picked up the snowglobe and, just like the tiny girl inside, opened the front door and stepped out into the snowy morning.

The sunlight reflecting off the snow was blinding, and as her eyes adjusted, she looked around for some sign of what she was supposed to do next.  The street looked just as it always did, save for the new coat of snow upon the ground.  A few people milled about outside the tightly packed buildings, some shoveling the snow, others playing in it.  A few children near the corner gave Penny a quizzical look, wondering if she was coming out to play with them after being shut up inside for so long.  A taxi cab passed by, leaving a slushy trail in the street.

Penny looked again at the snowglobe, pulling it so close that her nose touched the glass.  When it did, the snow cleared again and showed the tiny girl inside entering the subway tunnel two blocks away, the one near the pizzeria her mother always took her to on her birthday.

Adjusting her scarf to keep out the cold, Penny walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the snowglobe cradled against her chest.  The snow was past her ankles, but dry, the kind she would normally kick into the air as she walked just so she could see the sunlight reflecting off the tiny flakes.  Now, though, setting off alone in the world with nothing but a snowglobe for company, she dragged her feet, turning back every few steps as her view of the house grew more narrow.  Finally, at the corner, she could no longer see the house, just the outline of the front steps, and it felt as though another string broke in her heart.

She crossed through the slick intersection without another look back, checking for traffic and waiting for the signal as her mother had taught her.  Traffic in either direction was light in this part of the city and especially so on Christmas morning.  On the next block, she found it the same as her own—a few people working or playing, a passing car—and soon came to the subway entrance.  The pizzeria was closed for the holiday, but the sight of it, the memories that flooded her mind as she gazed inside the darkened windows, nearly made her turn back and return to the house.

But her mother was not there, so Penny walked down the steps to the subway station.  When she reached the bottom, she consulted the snowglobe again, removing one glove with her teeth to touch it with her bare fingers.  Again, the snow parted and showed the girl swiping a card through an electronic reader at the gate, then walking through and getting on a train just as it arrived in the station.

Penny felt a moment of panic.  Her mother had never given her a subway pass, preferring to take taxis whenever she had to travel any distance.  Just as she was about to head back up the steps, she reached into her pocket and found a hard piece of plastic tucked inside.  She pulled it out and, just like the girl in the snowglobe, swiped it through the reader.  The gate opened for her just as she heard the approaching train rumble into the station, its brakes hissing like her mother’s tea kettle.

She moved across the platform and, when the doors to one of the cars opened, she stepped inside and found it empty except for a large black man, huddled in a heavy coat on the opposite end of the car.  He wore dark sunglasses that reminded Penny of a movie she had watched with her mother about a guy who played piano, even though he was blind.  Ray something, she thought.

The door of the car slid shut behind her and, with a jolt that nearly sent Penny tumbling onto the floor, the train started forward.

“Merry Christmas,” the black man said from the front of the car.  He never looked at her, his face tilted toward the ceiling as though he was staring at the sun.

Penny said nothing; her mother had told her not to talk to strangers.  Instead, she sat down on the seat furthest from the man and clutched the snowglobe to her chest.

“Not in the holiday spirit, eh?” the man said.  “Can’t say I blame you.  World’s a hard place.”

Penny did not look up at him, afraid that, even blind, he would continue to talk to her.  To her relief, he said nothing more, only sat back staring at the same spot on the ceiling, rocking with the motion of the train as it sped beneath the New York streets.

The train passed by several stations, but did not stop.  Penny saw them out the window, flashes of light and blurred faces breaking the monotony of the dark tunnels.  In every station they passed, she looked for the blurred face of her mother, knowing she wouldn’t be there but hoping she would.  She imagined herself stepping off the train into her mother’s arms, her mother healthy and happy, ready for them to be a family again.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, hoping the image in her head would appear within its snowy recesses, but instead she saw only herself exiting the train at the other end, near the blind man, and entering another station, a large sign reading Fifth Avenue on one wall.

She felt the train start to slow and stood up.  She was wary of the large man, even blind, and she walked as quietly as she could the length of the car in the hopes that he would not hear her.  If he did, he showed no sign of it and continued to look up at the ceiling, almost as though he was expecting something to happen there.  Penny stayed on the side opposite from him, as close to the seats as possible, and moved into position to exit the car as soon as the doors opened.

The doors slid apart and, at the same time, the train came to a full stop, jolting Penny again.  This time, the snowglobe slipped from her grasp.  She gasped and reached for it, knowing in that moment she would never be able to catch it.  Her eyes closed as she listened for the noise of shattered glass and broken dreams.

There was no smash of the snowglobe hitting the floor of the train.  Even when Penny was sure it should have hit the ground, there was no sound of impact.

Penny opened her eyes and saw the snowglobe was whole and unbroken.  A large hand, gloved fingers spread around the glass sphere, held the object a few inches above the ground.  The blind man, kneeling in the floor beside her, his arm outstretched to its fullest length to catch the snowglobe, smiled and held it out to her.

Penny stood there for several seconds before she realized she wasn’t breathing.  When at last she took a breath, a gasped “Thank You” came out, barely audible.

“You’re welcome,” he said.  “Can’t be too careful.  Now, you go on before the door closes.”

Penny stepped out of the car and looked back at the blind man.

“You have a Merry Christmas, Penny,” he said to her just as the doors slid shut again.  With another lurch, the train moved on to its next stop.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and saw herself walked up the steps to the outside.  It wasn’t until the fourth step that she wondered how the blind man had known her name.

She found herself in a part of the city she didn’t recognize.  Tall buildings stood on one side of her and a snow-covered park stood on the opposite side of the busy street.  Kids played in the park, throwing snowballs and building snowmen and making snow angels.  On her side, a steady stream of people walked in both directions, passing her as though she was an island in the center of a great river.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and this time it showed her entering a building with a green canopy stretching out over the sidewalk.  Looking up, she could see the canopy half a block away and she started walking toward it, falling in line with the flow of people moving in that direction.  The adults jostled her as their long strides carried them past her and the children, some tagging along at the heels of the adults, gave Penny interested looks as they struggled to keep up.  Penny ignored them all, intent only on keeping hold of the snowglobe and reaching the building with the green canopy.

When she reached the correct building, she saw a doorman standing in the snow just outside the door.  His face was lean and red from the cold, but when he saw Penny it broke into a warm smile.

“You must be Penny,” he said, bending down to address her at eye level.  “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Expecting me?” Penny asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Absolutely,” the doorman replied.  “Please go on in.”  He opened the glass door for her and half-pushed her through into a spacious lobby dominated by the biggest Christmas tree Penny had ever seen.  It soared upward like the building itself, almost too tall to be believed, and was covered top to bottom with silvery lights that twinkled like stars.

Penny stared at the tree for sometime before realizing that she had no idea what to do next.  She consulted the snowglobe, which showed her entering the elevator near where she was standing and pressing the topmost button on the panel inside.  Penny did as the image showed, the doors of the elevator sliding open at her approach and closing as she pushed the appropriate button.

The elevator traveled for what seemed like, to Penny, days.  When it finally stopped and the doors opened, she found herself facing a short hallway, at the end of which stood a single door on which hung a large wreath.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, but this time the blizzard inside did not clear to reveal the next step of her journey.  She set it down in the elevator, stepped out, and watched the doors close before she heard the car descend.  This, Penny realized, she would have to do alone.

Taking a deep breath, Penny padded down the hall and knocked on the door.  She could smell the deep pine scent from the wreath.  The smell reminded her of the cleaner her mother had used on their tile floors and it calmed her even as it reminded her of her loss.  Still, wherever she was and whatever she was supposed to do there, the smell of the pine wreath made her sure that her mother approved.

The door opened and Penny saw two people inside, a man and a woman.  They were both still wearing their pajamas, matching red flannel, and both looked as though they had been crying right before she had knocked on the door.  They both stared at her, red-eyed and weary, as if they could not believe what was standing on their doorstep.  Then, they stepped aside, an unspoken invitation.

Penny walked into a large, open apartment.  The rooms she could see were decorated with the type of furniture—dark woods and soft fabrics—her mother always talked about wanting to have.  A television, bigger than her old bed, dominated one wall in the living room above a lit fireplace.  A massive kitchen stood off to one side, spotless and filled with stainless steel.  On the far side of the apartment, large windows offered a spectacular view of Central Park and the city beyond.  In one corner, a Christmas tree stood in the middle of a mountain of presents, more than she had ever seen in one place.

Then, Penny noticed the pictures.  On the walls, on the tables, even on the mantle beneath the billboard-sized television, the young face of a girl, no older than herself, stared out at her.  In some of them, she was alone, but in others, she was with the two people-obviously her parents—who still stood by the open front door staring at Penny.  There she was with them at the Grand Canyon.  There she was again with the Sydney Opera House in the background.  There she was again, standing with her parents, the Eiffel Tower rising up behind them.

Penny picked up one of the pictures from a nearby end table.  The girl wore a school uniform with a backpack slung over her shoulder.  She smiled into the camera with two missing front teeth.

The man and woman shut the door, but continued to stare at Penny.

“Where is she?”  Penny asked, holding out the photograph of the girl.

Instead of answering, the couple exchanged glances.  The woman buried her face in her hands and began to sob quietly.  The man led his wife to the couch and sat her down.

“That’s our daughter,” the man explained.  “Jillian.  She . . . she died last week.”

When he spoke, the woman cried harder and he put his arm around her.

Penny put the picture down, ashamed she had asked.  She turned away from the crying lady and looked at the Christmas tree.  Now that she was closer, she saw the tags on the packages, the name “Jillian” on nearly every one.  Presents for a girl who would never open them.  Penny knelt before the tree and, feeling the sting of her own loss mirrored in the woman behind her, began to cry herself.

Two pairs of strong arms lifted her from the floor.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” the man said.  “She had been sick a long time.”

Penny shook her head.  “No,” she said through her tears, “My mother . . . .”

They all cried for some time, each suffering from his or her own loss, each feeling the others’ pain.  Finally, when they could cry no more, they sat before the Christmas tree and looked at each other.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Penny.”  She thought of giving her last name, but, with her mother gone, her family name didn’t seem to matter.

“I’m Max,” the man said.

“And I’m Susan,” the woman said, still wiping her eyes.

Penny, remembering her manners, shook their hands.  Then she stood up and went back to the window.  She looked out over snow-covered park and at the tiny people and cars milling about.

“Penny,” Max said.  “Would you like to stay with us tonight?  We . . . we would love to have you.”

Penny looked out over the city.  She thought about Santa and her mother and these new people in her life and how she came to be with them.  She thought about the snowglobe.

“Yes,” she said.  “I think I would like that.”

THE COFFEE SHOP

The sole customer at the Crossroads Diner sat at the counter, both hands holding a steaming cup of coffee.  He wore a thin, ragged coat, little protection against the harsh weather of northwestern Minnesota that, even now, was beating with wintry fury at the front windows.  The rest of his clothes, from his worn out workboots to his threadbare jeans to his holey flannel shirt, gave him the appearance of a drifter, someone fallen on hard times.  Beneath the curtain of his long, brown hair, he stared at the black liquid as though he might divine some truth from the tiny ripples created by the slightest touch of his fingers.

The man was not alone at the diner, but he might as well have been.  A young lady stood at the far end of the counter, eyeing him with suspicion.  She had not spoken when he came in, no smiling “Merry Christmas” or chestnut comment about the weather.  She had simply stood there, silently awaiting his order, and seemed relieved when he sat down and said only, “Coffee”.

He was still on his first cup, even though the sign by the front door advertised free refills.

The door of the diner opened, allowing a blast of cold air into the small space.  Snow swirled in to settle on the tables nearest the entrance and napkins blew free of their wire holders in imitation of the flakes.  The woman kept her eyes locked on the man at the counter for another second, then spared a look at the newcomer with anxious eyes.

He was short and round, shorter and rounder even than most of the people who portrayed him in malls and parades around the world.  His hat was not pointed, but was instead squarish, like a hunter’s cap, with flaps that he had tied to cover his ears, and a deep burgandy instead of the common cherry red.  The entire suit, top to bottom, was lined with thick, gray fur that matched the color of his thick beard.

Santa wiped the snow from his eyes and looked around the diner.  He smiled, the beard twitching slightly, and stomped the packed snow from his boots before making his way through the tables to the counter.  He sat down next to the other man, took off his coat, and looked down at the young woman.

“Coffee,” he said, and she complied, pouring him a cup and placing it in front of him.  She started to walk away, but he said, “Leave the pot, if you don’t mind.”

She did, plopping a towel on the counter between the two men and placing the hot decanter atop it.

“That’ll be all for now, I think,” Santa Claus said to the young woman.  “Can you give us a bit?”

She nodded, staring at him in wonder, and backed away into the kitchen.

When they were alone, Santa took a sip of his coffee, then said, “How have you been?”

“Oh,” the man said.  “hanging in there.  And you?”

Santa took another sip of his coffee.  “The same, always the same.  Licensing agreements and merchandise contracts and royalty payments and drama with the elves and the PETA people complaining about my unethical use of reindeer.”  He gave the man a wry grin, his eyes twinkling.  “Every year gets a little tougher.”

The man chuckled.  “Tell me about it.  The polls—if you can believe those things—say I’m fading in the public consciousness, and I can see why.  With the Muslims and the liberals and the scientific community all taking shots at me, it’s a miracle anyone remembers me at all.”

Santa set his coffee mug on the counter.  “And I certainly don’t help matters.  I’m the very symbol of your problem.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the man said.

“No,” Santa replied, “it’s true.  Go into any store in this country right now and what will you find?  Me.  Santa hats, Santa stickers, Santa-shaped chocolates, plush Santas and animatronic Santas playing a saxophone.”  He put one hand on the man’s shoulder and, with the other, pointed at himself.  “I don’t even play the saxophone.  I can barely play the bass guitar the missus bought me ten or twenty years ago.”

The man smiled, despite himself.  “I’m pretty good on drums.  Maybe we should start a band.”

“You’re missing the point,” Santa said.  “Here I am, the very emblem of commercialism, my chubby ass everywhere, and where are you in amidst my sea of merchandise?  I tell you where—nowhere—and I’m a big part of the problem.”

The man looked at Santa.  “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?”

Santa bent down over his coffee cup, looking embarrassed.  “Well, I am Saint Nicholas.  Despite appearances, I do have my priorities straight.”

“I know you do, old friend,” the man said, patting Santa’s back.

They sat again in silence for some time.  When both of them had finished their coffee, the man looked up at the clock above the grill.

“You should probably head out,” he said.  “You still have half the Western Hemisphere to go.”

“I suppose so,” Santa said, sliding down off the stool.  He started for the door, but the man reached out and grabbed his shoulder.

“Look, I don’t blame you, and you shouldn’t blame yourself.  You’re not the cause of this mess, just another product of it.  You think Thomas Aquinas or Mother Theresa want your responsibility?  And, if you really think about it, you really do represent what is right about this season, what it’s all about, even if the message gets a little mixed up these days.  Generosity, kindness, faith—all of these things you bring to the world are what we have in common.  Except I have to do it without the elves and reindeer, of course.”

The man smiled and Santa, pulling on his coat, smiled back.

“I guess you’re right,” Santa said.  “As always.”

“Of course I am.”

The man reached into his coat and pulled out a worn leather wallet, but Santa grabbed him by the forearm.

“No,” Santa said.  “My treat.”

“But—“

“No buts,” Santa argued.  “You can pick it up next year.”

The man put his wallet away.  “If you insist.”

Santa reached into his coat, pulled out a silver money clip, and peeled two twenties from the thick wad of bills it held.

“Business has been good,” Santa said, his cheeks turning a shade of red that had nothing to do with the cold.

Santa made his way to the door and opened it.  Snow swirled in about him and he breathed in deeply, closing his eyes.  A second later, his eyes darted open and he looked back at the man still seated at the counter.

“I almost forgot,” Santa said.  He reached into another pocket of his coat and pulled out a small, wrapped box with a silver bow on top.  He weighed it in his hand for a moment, then tossed it to the man.

“What’s this for?” the man asked.

“It’s for you,” Santa said.  “After all, it is your birthday.”

With a sly smile, Santa went out into the storm, closing the door behind him.