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Life Magic: There exist seven forms of magic. And there exist six races, each given mastery of one of the forms and a basic understanding of the others. Together they built great cities, were ruled by great kings, and raised great wonders. After centuries of peace and good fortune, old forces begin to stir, and the locks on ancient cages begin to loosen. As the world teeters on the edge of chaos, only a precious few, directed by the veiled hands of a mysterious puppeteer, can stop the forces of Death - forces exiled into the darkness, with a ravenous lust for revenge. Join these crusaders as they discover the hidden histories of the land, the magic and, most importantly, the hidden histories within themselves.
Til Death Do Us Part: Frederick Galvanni is the thief of the century, but it’s not his first time claiming the title. For Frederick and the inhabitants of his world, reincarnation is real, but people are always reborn in the country in which they died. Now Frederick seeks to pull off his greatest heist yet—enter a maximum security prison, where souls are trapped through reincarnation, and assemble the greatest criminal team that has ever lived. But for Frederick, the heist is just the beginning of a plan centuries in the making: a plan of revenge for unforgivable crimes committed a millennium before. And in this world, even death cannot keep Frederick from success.
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"Stop!" I shouted, trying to stand. But my legs refused to budge, paralyzed on the sides of the stool, "Stop! You were orphans! You were poor! I created a life for you here, where you were well fed, I mean, supposed to be well fed. And among friends."
"You took our freedom and our lives." Responded the smallest, "And reasoned it was ok because we were only orphans. Marcus here was supposed to become a priest. Jenny would have been a biologist. And I would have been a judge."
"You're already alive though. You're here, before my eyes."
"Not quite, Mr. Don. We live on borrowed time. Actually, we don't truly live at all. We're shadows of what we once were, confined to this island, and we're always hungry. We're ghosts of ourselves."
"There's nothing I can do. I'm not actually a god. The past is the past." I strained again, but his gaze alone held me to the stool. My muscles would tense, but they would not move.
"We're quite aware of that, Mr. Don," He said, folding his arms, "But you took our lives. The only eight years each of us had. And now, we want those years back. There's only one problem."
"That I can't actually give them back, you mean?"
"No, actually, that's not a problem at all. We've been to the *other* side and back, Mr. Don. Not many people are allowed back. Only those who have unfinished business on this earth. But when they *are* sent back, they're given the tools to make things right. The problem is that you simply don't have enough years for us to take. We require eighty, eight for each of us to be restored, and you only have twenty five before you're supposed to become sick and die. With your years, you can only save three of us, and seven of us will never live again." He said, frowning.
"My years? I only have twenty five left? And you want to take them from me?"
"We don't want to take them from you, we *are* going to take them from you. But we'll need another source. And considering your view on orphans, we'll use an orphan that's alive. We've found just the one."
"Just take all of them from the orphan then. Leave mine alone. I have money you can have- how's ten million each?"
"It's funny, Mr. Don, how money loses its value once everything is in perspective. Where you're going, I'm afraid it won't help you at all. Besides, the orphan we want only has fifty five years left. You see, the disease that will kill you is genetic."
"My son." I breathed. My seventeen year old son who was meant to go to college within the year, who I had left at my estate during my trip. "But he's not an orphan."
"Not yet," Grinned the smallest, "But if you remember, you killed his mother, your wife. You already did half the work. And now we only have to take care of the other half."
He walked towards me, hands outstretched, and placed his palms on my chest. He drew a deep breath, and as he did his muted colors became more pronounced, the tatters on his clothes mended themselves, and his palms grew warm.
I gasped, wheezing, as I felt my joints stiffen and my vision blur. Eight years passed in the span of eight seconds, leaving behind a collection of new grey hairs, wrinkles, and developing presbyopia.
"No," I whispered, my voice significantly coarser than it had been as the second orphan approached and repeated the actions of the smallest. Then the third came and left, and I coughed as I felt the frailty of my heart along with a new muffling over my ears.
"And now you are drained, we will proceed to the son." Said the smallest. And the seven other orphans approached, each drawing life from me, life that I had once given to my son but was now being drawn out from the source. I'll never know if they reached him thousands of miles away, but I felt *something* leaving my body, along that paternal connection. And I feared the worst.
"Now we give thanks," Said Marcus when they had finished, "To Mr. Don. For he taketh away, and he giveth life. Blessed be thy name."
He shook the dust from his shoes at my feet, and spat into the dirt. Each of the orphans followed suit except for the smallest, who stayed behind, silent and waiting.
"Are you here to finish me," I croaked, the words taking nearly all of my strength.
"No, Mr. Don. The debt is repaid. The scales are righted. We are satisfied."
In the distance, I heard the helicopter motor come to life, accompanied by a chorus of yells that no longer sounded like distant echoes but rather the whooping of real children. Alive children.
"I can fly you back to shore. Surely none of you can do that."
"We have *means*. And after that, we'll live our lives as they were meant to be."
He turned, and began walking towards the helicopter.
"We left you one year Mr. Don," He said, over his shoulder, "But starvation only takes a month."
"Come on out, Mr. Don," Said the smallest of the orphans, extending his hand, "We have so much to thank you for, our provider of all good things."
"I think I'm good up here, thank you son." I replied, and looked around the cockpit. No weapons within reach, and the helicopter remained unresponsive. The handle of the door was out of my reach.
"Nonsense," He said, and grabbed my arm, his fingers too cold against my skin. "We made you a dinner, to thank you for all of your great kindness. For all the meals you provided for us. If you don't come out then we'll have to eat it in there."
*They're just kids, kids who think you're their god,* I thought, *Go eat their dinner, then sneak out when nightfall hits, fix the helicopter, and get the Hell away from this island.*
"Fine," I answered, and stepped from the helicopter to be surrounded by smiling faces. The girls skipped around me, their skirts fluttering in the wind, their edges seeming to melt into the beach. And the boys raced ahead, their voices seeming much farther away than the fifteen feet lead they had taken, and the colors of their shirts muted. I walked carefully, watching each step, and trying to keep a count of the ten.
They led me into the forest, among their huts, and to a long wooden table that I had ordered constructed in the center of a small clearing. The food delivery mechanisms were designed to provide around that table, and as I approached I saw it was set for eleven. There were cups and plates for each spot, and silverware laid upon napkins, and at the center were several large covered platters.
"Here's your seat, Mr. Don," Said the smallest, gesturing to a small stool at the end of the table. I sat, and the rest of the children filed past, each taking their own seats. These were raised, I noticed, and their eyes were level with mine as each settled into position.
I reached forward to uncover the first platter, and the smallest boy spoke again.
"But Mr. Don! Wait. We must say grace to you first. Marcus here always does it- he went to several years of Sunday school before becoming an orphan, so he knows the most about religion. Said he wanted to be a priest to, back when he thought he'd grow up."
At the other end of the table, another boy smiled, and produced a tattered notebook- one of the few originals I'd left behind on the island ten years before. He opened it up, and I saw the lettering on the front, scribbled in thick sharpie.
The Book Of Don
"What's that?" I asked, tensing. And around the table the children smiled.
"Marcus put this together for you, Mr. Don. We pulled together all the religious sayings we could remember, plus some extra that we could only partially remember, that we felt described you. And we read one before each meal as a blessing."
Marcus cleared his throat, then began.
"Blessed are those who *hunger and thirst* for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied."
"Amen." Chorused the other children, and removed the tops from the platters.
"Here Mr. Don," Said the smallest boy, "Serve yourself first. You deserve it. We'll provide for you just as you provided for us."
The children passed the platters around the table to me, held out serving spoons. I stared into each of the platters, hesitating. Each was empty, completely devoid of food.
"Go on, Mr. Don." They chorused.
And so with a shaking hand I served myself, like at a young girl's tea party, a helping of air. As soon as I finished, they each served themselves, each taking generous portions of nothing. And they began to eat.
They slurped on soup. They crunched on vegetables. And they ripped apart bread. I heard it all, I even smelled it all, but before my eyes there was nothing. But I pretended to eat, pretended to eat the empty air that they so voraciously attacked. And the smallest boy struck up conversation again.
"We owe you so much Mr. Don. It's with your help we were able to come back. Back from the other side."
"Because I'm a god? And what exactly is the other side?"
"If you say so, Mr. Don. And you know, the *other* side." He said, and knocked a fork off the table to punctuate the point, "Really we shouldn't be here. It's only with your help that we are."
"So I... So I could send you back then?"
"I suppose so, if you did the right thing, or willed the right way."
The children ahead continued eating as if they couldn't hear the conversation between me and the smallest boy. And meeting his eyes, I closed my own, and raised a hand.
Go, I thought, and the noise of eating around me stopped.
I smiled, and jolted my eyes open, but the ten were still there. They had stopped eating, stopped breathing, and every eye was upon me.
"Oh Mr. Don," Said the smallest, "You really shouldn't have done that. That wasn't the right thing."
"For there are some transgressions so evil that they cannot be righted by natural means. But the scale must be balanced, by other means if necessary." Read Marcus from his book, "We made that one up. But I think you get the point."
I've always heard that there are things money can't buy. But in all my experience as a billionaire, I have yet to find one.
It certainly can buy love. Both my wives loved me for my money. For the cars, the stature, the elegance. It can buy respect- employees will drop their foreheads to the floor for a hundred dollar tip. And it certainly can buy legal immunity- I discovered that after the death of my first wife, shortly after I discovered money can buy discreet hit men.
But there's another phrase I've always heard, one that has attempted to limit my abilities. One my father said to me over a glass of fine wine in my study, as I told him of a firm that would start growing artificial organs out of his tissue now so that they would be available in ten years when his began to fail. "*You can't play God*, Don."
I assure you, with my wealth, you can.
So I bought an island deep in the Pacific, one accessible by helicopter alone, and transported ten orphans there, all aged seven. And I had them huts built, and tools designed, and jobs designated. Then I would leave them for ten years to their own capabilities, but first I gathered them for a speech.
"Welcome," I said, my polished shoes digging into the sand beach and suit flapping as I spread my arms, "Welcome to your new home. A home I gave to you. A home with resources, with food, with all you need to survive. Given to you by me. Remember me, children. Your benefactor. Your reason for survival. Whisper my name at night when you are scared and I will protect you. Call out to me when hungry and I will provide."
"But what should we do to entertain ourselves?" Asked the smallest of the children, "what about television, and books?"
"If you're good, I shall provide them. I provide all things if you're good."
The child nodded slowly, his eyes scrunched together in half comprehension, and the group watched my helicopter rise from the beach. Then I was gone.
On the island, food and water were programmed to rise out of the ground overnight when my name was spoken. And the forest was programmed to make bear growls, tiger roars, and wolf howls each night until my name was spoken, though there were no natural predators.
The ten years passed quickly- there was much else on my mind. I bought a sports team, American baseball, and it was steadily climbing the rankings under my guidance and, more importantly, my quiet funding. I married again, and there was the funeral of my second wife to attend to. And of course, there was my own son, ready to start leaving for college in a year's time.
But when I flew back to the island, I knew what to expect. Ten children, plus or minus a few from births or deaths, all calling out my name. Ten children that had proved an excellent point, and would make excellent servants.
No crowd gathered on the beach when I arrived. No one stepped forth from their huts with religious fervor.
All was silent as I trudged through the camp. And with a long, slender finger, I pushed one of the huts doors open, and looked inside.
A skeleton. One years dead, with no flesh left on its bones, alone on its cot, and with hollow eyes that stared at the ceiling.
I yelped and stepped back out of the door frame, examining the rest of the huts.
Nine other skeletons. One for each of the children.
"Oh God," I whispered. Ten years had gone to waste. "But how?"
I checked the island controls, and found the solution to the problem. Nine years before, the food delivery mechanism had jammed. And ten children had starved.
I cursed. There was no time for incidents such as this. To prepare another island, to find ten more children, to wait ten more years- it was all too inconvenient.
So I walked back to my helicopter, a frown creasing my lips, and deep in thought.
But on the way, I heard a noise, and realized I must have forgotten to disable the controls speakers. On returning, the volume knobs were down, but as I walked to the helicopter I heard it again. A rustling. A mumbling.
I walked faster, and heard more sounds behind me. But whenever I turned back, the path behind me was empty.
I jumped into the helicopter, slamming the door shut, and started the engine. But it wouldn't start. There was no response from the machine.
"Come on," I shouted, kicking at the pedals, "Come on!"
But nothing happened. Nothing except for a small knock at the door.
And then the door opened, and there were ten children, all staring at me with smiles on their faces. Their clothes were slightly more ragged, their faces slightly more aged, but otherwise no different than how I had left them.
"How?" I whispered, straining away from them, but the seatbelt held me in place, "You all died. How are you here?"
The smallest one laughed then spoke, his eyes on me, "Oh Mr. Don, surely you remember. What sort of God doesn't provide resurrection? We were good, and you provided."
"Come in dear, come in. Take a seat." Said Mrs. Furtum, the portly and elderly owner, opening the door the candle shop. I held a flier in my hand, one that had found stapled to a telephone pole three blocks from the shop, with a red HELP WANTED written by hand on it with large block letters, and a burning candle flame underneath. It'd been four months since I'd been laid off from my position as a flight attendant, and the rapid decline of my bank account made me seek even the most desperate of positions.
"Saw your flier," I said, folding it and placing it into my pocket, "Are you hiring?"
"I'm always in need of help, young man", she said, offering a smile, "But first, I'd like to conduct a casual interview. I'd like to make sure you have the, well, proper experiences for the position. Tell me, what have you done?"
"Flight attendant for ten years with-"
"My dear, my dear- no, that's not what I'm interested in. Tell me of your experiences. Your life. What you hold dear."
I paused, peering around the shop for inspiration, somewhat insulted that she was making me undergo an interview for a mere retail position. Hundreds of candles lined the walls, each one unique, a bottled rainbow that surrounding me in every direction.
What the hell, I thought, frowning, as I read one of the labels, How is Baby's First Words a smell? Or Love's Passionate Kiss.
"We'll I've traveled frequently." I said, meeting her eyes as she nodded, "Been to over a hundred countries, and all of the states. Not just the airports- I make it a point to try to experience them first hand. It's why I wanted to be an attendant in the first place."
"Ah yes," She said, smiling, "I see. And are you a family man?"
"Yes, three children."
"My goodness, three of them? And a wife, I presume? A happy marriage?"
"Yes, never divorced. Under a little bit of financial strain, though, which is what brought me here."
"We'll see what we can do about that." She said. "Ah yes, you'll do just fine. Better than fine. Now tell me, what was the airline paying you? I'll match it."
I stopped peering around when she said that, studying her. There no chance she could afford my previous salary. And there was no chance I'd be able to actually earn it with menial labor.
"I smell doubt on you young man," She cackled, "But I'll manage just fine. This is a specialty shop. We have many special customers, customers over the globe, who pay dearly for the scents I produce."
I told her. And my first paycheck backed up her word.
Mrs. Furtum made each of her candles by hand, and after a few weeks of work she allowed me to begin helping her with each preparation.
"Mix it like this, young man. Give my weary bones a rest." She said, holding a large spoon over a pot of wax. I'd seen her pouring ingredients to infuse the wax just minutes before, and the concoction bubbled up toward my nostrils as I mixed.
"What was that you just mixed in?" I asked, one day as she watched me stir.
"Oh just something special. Only the best of ingredients for my candles. I always inspect them thoroughly."
"And what type of candle will this be?"
"Nuh uh uh." She tuttered, "I never tell until they're finished. Now go on, young man, tell me a story of your travels."
I obliged her, speaking as I mixed, and where I was finished she pulled out a label and plastered it onto the side of an empty jar.
Mist Rising Off Lake Eerie, it read, and she tucked it away onto a shelf, one she'd have me hang just the day before. Before she left that day I took a whiff- I'd never been to lake Eerie, but it smelled just as I would imagine.
Slowly, the candles built up on the shelf in proportion to my bank account. Each day I'd stir the concoctions, telling her of the world beyond the walls of her shop. And each day I'd return home to my wife and two kids, and tell them how much I loved them.
Much to my wife's delight, I'd lost weight since starting at the shop, an effect I attributed to the stress reduction.
"Tell me about Egypt, about the pyramids." Said Mrs. Furtum, inhaling deeply.
"They're massive," I began as I stirred, "So big you can see them from the air. And Cairo nudges right up against them, believe it or not." I continued speaking as she nodded, he eyes wide, he long green nails twirling a strand of silver hair.
"That'll do for today," She said when I had finished. "You'll find a small bonus in your paycheck this week. I truly am getting my money out of you."
"Please, it's no trouble." I laughed, and took the label she handed out to me.
The Sands Of The Pyramids
Funny, I thought, This one smells just like I would imagine the pyramids. One day, I'll have to go see them.
Then, waving goodbye to Mrs. Furtum, I left the shop, and drove home to my wife and my kid.
Weeks passed, and I grew more and more thankful to Mrs. Furtum. I still couldn't believe the salary she offered me, especially since I'd never had a job before.
At home, things were going great with my girlfriend. I think I struck gold with this one- in a few weeks, I should have enough to buy a ring. And I have the strangest feeling she'll say yes.
Plus her cooking is excellent- every day she cooks enormous dinners, and forces me to have two helpings, since I'm apparently too thin. I've always been this thin though, so I figure I can pack on a few extra pounds to see how I look.
"Young man," Said Mrs. Furtum, "It pains me to tell you this, but today is your last day. Trust me, I would have you longer, but I simply must downsize."
"But-" I said, and she cut me off.
"Hush, hush. We'll talk about it after. Now, I have a very special candle for you to make today. Let's get you to mixing. Have I ever told you, young man, what the base is for my candles?"
"Isn't it wax?"
"No, not wax. Only living things can hold ideas, young man, and I try to put a full idea into each of my candles. So my candles are based on diluted animal fat. Fat from a very special animal, indeed. I've thoroughly inspected it."
"Oh, that's nice, Mrs. Furtum." I was busy stirring now, and hadn't paid attention to her words. I checked the candle shelf where she kept all the candles I had made - there were hundreds now, each with a specific scent. And she had already sold a quarter of them to her clientele.
"It is, it is. An old trick I learned, long ago. Now, young man, I want you to tell me about yourself. Everything that you're proud of."
I thought, but there wasn't much left to say. But I gave her what I had.
"Good, that's good young man. Now, there's a chair for you over there. Would you mind sitting in it for a moment while I tidy up?"
I nodded, and walked over, my spindly hands gripping the side, and my bones showing through the skin of my arm. And I closed my eyes, just for a second.
Mrs. Furtum continued sweeping the shop until the young man's breathing stopped, then she leaned over, and pasted a new label onto the candle.
A Young Man's Will To Live
"My favorite scent," She muttered, "And the most expensive. Too precious to sell."
Then she placed it on the highest shelf in the shop, one with twenty candles similar to it, and dragged the body in the chair to the dumpster out back. There was nothing left to it, the hair falling out, the skin patchy, and the cheeks gaunt. In just a few hours, it would have turned to dust on its own accord.
Outside, stuck to a telephone pole, a HELP WANTED sign fluttered in the wind.
I've always been the best.
There are naturals in every field. Science has Einstein, Basketball has Jordan, and Art has Picasso. You've never heard of me, because I'm the best of Assassins, and by merely knowing my name you would earn yourself first hand experience of my skill.
So what exactly makes me the perfect assassin? Well, first off, the government has nothing on me. I've never been caught breaking a law, simply because I've never broken a law.
Allow me to explain.
All my life I've had terrible luck. And I don't mean the "my girl friend broke up with me on valentine's day" type of bad luck. I mean that the longest period of time that I've had without a cast has been six days. I've had salmonella, ebola, ecoli, and once I caught food poisoning from a steak so well done it tasted like a combination of shoe leather and charcoal. I lost my parents when I was eight, and everyone I've ever been close to has died in ways that have never failed to make the front page of the local paper.
But there is one rule to my bad luck- it will never kill me. Actually, I'm convinced it's programmed to never let me die.
When I was eighteen, and held the six shot revolver to the side of my head to end everything, there were six duds in the chamber. When I tried to slit my wrists the knife danced around my veins as if they were made of wet spaghetti. The one time I almost succeeded was when I was twenty two, and jumped off the top of a twelve story building.
I don't remember it being breezy that day, but the wind blew me back through a window on the eighth, the glass shredding my skin to ribbons but leaving me very alive.
The doctor that stitched me up stayed afterward to have a word with me, and I remember the conversation clearly.
"Son, you were very lucky to have that wind. But all rights, the fall should have killed you."
"Lucky, eh?" I said, chewing on the side of my lip.
"Yes, you were. I'm sure you have a bright future ahead of you."
And maybe it was the twinkle in his eye, of his kind face, or his sheer optimism in what he did not know, but I started to like the doctor. He visited my room twice before leaving that day, and I never did see him again.
Neither did his wife or kids, nor anyone else on staff. I've never seen a sinkhole swallow a car whole, but apparently that's a possibility.
It didn't take me too long to notice the trend. Spend too much time around me, fool fate into thinking we're friends, and you were as good as dead.
And now, three years after becoming a professional, I scouted out my fortieth target. He was blond, tall, and downing beers like the hops industry relied solely on him to survive. I carried no gun- there was too much chance that it would go off prematurely, just like all the unlucky sex I had had in my life. The bar was crowded, and as I walked forward to meet him, I stumbled on a bump in the entrance rug, colliding into him and spilling the beer across the countertop.
"What the Hell?" He said, standing up to wipe off his shirt where the dark beer had begun to take root among the white.
"Sorry about that, sorry about that. Let me buy you another. The name's Tye, Tye Floyd-Mary," I said, giving my false name while extending my hand.
"Martin," He said, accepting my hand.
"Well great to meet you Martin. What is it you do?"
"Corporate journalist," He said, "I do a lot of traveling. Try to keep businesses from overstepping their bounds. Yourself?"
"I'm more of a people person," I said, as the first round slid across the bar.
Three beers later, I was starting to think Martin was a real stand up guy.
There's nothing like being paid to make friends.
I was always the black sheep of my family.
My mother graduated Yale with highest honors. My father, Harvard. Both my older brother and sister picked up top university scholarships like discarded sidewalk change.
I barely graduated from high school.
I matched my sibling's 4.0 GPA's with six total A's, and all of them in music. I spent after school in detention while they led sports teams to victory. I guess I've been jealous at times, but really I think it doesn't take as much to make me happy. Maybe I'm more simple than them, or maybe I don't need society's opinion to catalyze my endorphins. I’ve never been stupid, but I’ve never had their motivation either.
I don't think my parents cared much. They had already cashed in on their first two children, so anything that I brought to the table would be gravy on top the main course. So when I opted to forsake college and pursue a life of music, their objections sounded half hearted.
For two years I played guitar in a public park, strumming riffs that both stimulated the ears of passerby's and emptied their pockets. I like to think I was one of the more successful street performers- my hat was always full of change, and my crowds larger than most. And I didn't realize the extent of my success until the first year out of high school, as I played the ever famous chords of *She Talks To Angels*, and I felt the tug of a small hand against the side of my jeans.
The girl looked to be six years old, her hair curling in golden spirals to her shoulders, and wore a confused look that fit her much better than her overalls.
" 'Scuse me, 'scuse me mister." She said, punctuating the statements with a tug.
"Hey there, what's up?" I said while keeping the beat of the song. I don't sing, so my performance did not suffer.
"How did you get them to sing for you?" She asked.
I frowned. If anyone was singing to my guitar, that meant they were taking advantage of my talent, and called for a gerrymandering of musical park boundaries.
"Who is singing for me?"
"Why, the birds, of course."
For a moment I stopped to listen, and realized the birds in the trees above me picked up fragments of the guitar where I left off. I think I knew they always were there, but that was my first conscious awareness of their presence.
"My niece is right, you know." Said a woman, stepping forward to take the child's hand, " I work with animals, and I've never seen birds so well trained."
While the little girl had not disturbed my song, the aunt had done the opposite.
God she was beautiful. I've never seen eyes like hers- each a deep brown iris that seemed to mingle with her pupil into a single point. Freckles dotted her cheeks like accent marks, and her eyebrows raised in a way that seemed both inquisitive and flirtatious.
I guess I owe that little girl for introducing me to my wife, Jessica.
And my future wife was right- Jessica did had a way with animals. I found that out after we bought our first dog and cat, and both slept on her side of the bed every night.
I think I fell in love when I played my guitar for her after our third date, in her backyard, and she began to sing. While I could tempt the birds into notes, she could coax the frogs and crickets to join in harmony to the melody- predator and prey forgotten.
Her voice was like nothing I had ever heard. There was a quality to it, a alien inflection, that made the very notes burn in the air with passion as she rolled between frequencies.
"Where did you learn to sing like that?" I asked afterward, my hand cupping her shoulder and my arm curtained by her hair.
She laughed, "If I told you then you'd never believe me."
"Go for it."
"When I was young," she started, eyes on mine, "My mother was very religious. We went to church three times a week, and sometimes I went alone. And once I fell asleep on the back pew, where no one could see me. When I woke up, I heard the most beautiful singing, and I sat there, just listening to it. After I while, I joined in, mimicking it, and the voice stopped, and a woman came to my pew.
"I don't remember much- I was very young, you know, and it was hard to see her because the church lights framed about her in a way that brightened her face, except I thought those lights were off. And she was very sad, I remember that. 'Dear child,' she said, 'I cannot take back from you what you've learned today, but remember this- you were not made for it.' Then she handed me a toy doll, I felt sleep come over me again, and I could've sworn it was a dream, but I woke up with this."
Jessica pulled a small doll from her pocket, ragged after years of carrying, and placed it on the table. It was a boy, with matted wings attached to it's back, and flopped over in her hand.
"An angel?" I asked, picking it up.
"Not quite, and my mother laughed at me when I claimed the woman was one." She said, turning the doll over, where there was an inscription. *Fly not too high.*
We never had a fancy marriage- court papers were enough. One year after that marriage she quit her job as a nature journalist and we opened a pet shop.
We didn't make much money. We didn't intend to. But we were happy. And we got by.
During slow days I'd strum my guitar, Jessica would sing, and the entire store would listen. After the first verse, the birds would mesh with Jessica's voice, adding trills to embellish her inflections. They'd be followed by the dogs, who would howl at the high pitched parts, and growl at the low. Then the chorus of other animals would join in, each with their own talents, keeping beat with me but following Jessica. On the rare occasion that we had a parrot in the shop, it would mimic her singing voice quality like musical rounds. But we never seemed able to keep our parrots alive- I don’t know if it was the region, the environment, or the food, but they always seemed to die after a few weeks in the sho.
"The animals like you more than they like me." I commented one day, and she gave me a coy smile. I knew, because on the days she left early to prepare dinner and I brought out my guitar, there was no such melody in the room. They would only follow my basic chords.
"Sometimes, they need a woman's touch." She said, putting her smaller hand on top of mine. And for the next hour, I would have my own share of a woman's touch.
Those were happy days. Simple ones, before our finances began to plow themselves deep into the mud of debt. I didn't anticipate that, as we always lived simply, but then again medical bills are no simple matter.
Neither is chemotherapy.
Jessica's hair started shedding faster than the dog's during her treatment, and her tears hit the floor in time with her bangs as I cut it short with a buzzer.
I'm not religious, but I started to frequent the nearby church as she slept longer each day, holding a picture of us and praying as my last resource. I cried those days, and the angels seemed to cry with me, their somber faces staring down from paintings above. Once I knocked a candle over, and it tumbled out onto the picture of us, completely covering Jessica's image in a layer of wax.
After her first appointment, the doctor pulled me into his office, his eyes a cold steel that matched the hospital temperature.
"Mr. Anderson," he started, his voice on the edge of anger, "I would have called the police by now, had it not been for your wife's denial. But as you know, she has throat cancer. And it doesn't look like the natural sort. She's scarred and burned there, like acid caused it, and I won't stand for domestic abuse."
I stood there, my mouth open, "God, I love her. I'd never do that. God no."
"Then you had better be sure she's not doing it herself." He said, fixing his eyes on me, "Neglect is just as bad. If I have any more reason to believe something is going on, I will report you. "
"I'm sure nothing is going on, doctor."
But i still kept close watch on Jessica in the coming months, watching as she wilted away before me. Our songs turned sad, until one day she couldn't even muster the strength to sing anymore.
"Mike," she said on her last day with me, her hand barely able to hold mine, cold and fragile, "Do you know why Icarus fell to the sea?"
"He flew too close to the sun," I said, watching her shallow breaths.
"No, no, plenty of things that were made for it fly too close to the sun. Everyone gets that part of the story wrong. It's because he wings were made of wax."
Then she died, exhaling one last time, and even that sounded like a musical note. In the distance, church bells rang.
Jessica had left me a box, instructing me not to open it until after her death. For a full week the cardboard sat underneath the pet store counter.
I still played guitar, as best as I could with shaking hands. But the animals never joined in like they did when Jessica was there.
Anger and curiosity cracked me after a week, and I opened the box.
Inside, there was a note, and a stoppered bottle.
*Mike, know that I love you with all my heart. With this, my song will always be with you.*
I picked up the bottle, and viewed the Icarus doll inside. I'm not sure how she fit him in there, as the lip was narrow, but he was whole.
With a sigh, I unstoppered the bottle, and caught her scent escaping it. I breathed deeply, then settled down to play a song that I never had before, that had only come onto the radio three days prior.
And though I could not hear her voice, the animals sang alongside it. A parrot sang too, in echoes, and it was not until the song was finished that I realized it somehow knew the words. But like all other parrots we owned, it died two weeks later.
Sometimes, when the wind whispers just right through the shop, when I'm nodded off too far in daydreams, I swear I can hear her too.
In the coming years, Jessica’s niece visited my shop often, and I noticed that her voice changed to sound just like Jessica’s as she matured. When she sang, it was as if Jessica was in the room with me.
I guess I should have kept the doll on a higher shelf, one where her hands could not reach.
I pounded on the door three times, lifting the brass knocker to let it fall of it's own accord against the knotted oak wood, and waited.
Rain pattered down- neither the rain of a thunderstorm, nor the light rain of a summer day, but rather something in between. Something that seemed to emphasize the grey around me, washing away colors and rough corners alike, until all was smooth and uniform. Though I had only been standing on the doorstep for minutes, I knew the rain had not left that spot for years, if ever.
After a moment, footsteps approached from inside, and the door creaked open.
"It is late, and why do you trouble me?" Said the man, his grey beard moving with each syllable, and his eyes squinting up at me.
I stepped backward so he could see me, and I could see the front of the monastery. It was a beautiful thing, in a terrible way, as beautiful things often are. And it was old, older than anything I had ever seen. No roads reached this far into the mountains, and the monastery seemed to prefer it that way.
"I came to see it," I said, bowing low. Even at that reduced height, my eyes only just became level with his. They were grey, like the monastery, and flecks sparkled deep in them like chipped granite.
"You did, now?" He said, tapping his cane, "Well come in then. I havn't had a visitor in the past two hundred years."
He walked backward with surprising agility for the oldest being on earth, and I followed him into the building.
"So tell me, what exactly did you come to see?" He asked, "I keep many things here. Old things, new things, precious things, and common things. Which will it be? Surely you know the tales."
"Oh yes I do." I said, cobwebs striking my face as the man led deeper into the monastery. "But I came to see the thing that isn't a thing."
"You've phrased it wrong boy, perhaps you would like to try again."
I frowned, then said, "I came to see the thing that is more a thing than any other thing."
The granite in his eyes sparked, "Yes, that's right. It's the mother of all things. It's the mother of our world."
"And you'll let me see it, just like that?"
"By all rights it's yours, son. It's all of ours, and not mine to keep."
"So it does exist then. You do have the edge here? The edge of the universe?" My voice shook with the question. Here, in this reclusive monastery, after years of research and continents of travel, I had found the object that could answer so many questions.
"Not exactly, boy. The universe has no edge, not in the way you implied. But rather, it has a knot. Think of the universe as a balloon- it was blown up, and when it was filled with air, the knock was tied off. This is the neck knot. Where it *all* comes from. How it began." He opened a door, and led me into a room the size of a large closet.
And there on the floor, was an apple with a single bite missing.
"Careful," he warned, as I reached toward it, it's gaurded on the other side of the knot. I wouldn't let your fingers slip through."
Gingerly, I held the apple. It was a bright red, and I could still see the bite marks from where a set of teeth had pierced it's skin so long ago.
But instead of fruit flesh in the bite, it was like a window, and light shone forth out of the apple. And I held it up to my eye to look through where the bite should have been.
"Ah, yes." He said as I gasped, "It's a beautiful place. Our world is tarnished in comparison."
"Truly," I managed to say, and turned a circle. Looking through the apple was like looking through a telescope into another world.
He chuckled, "Ah, yes, I remember the first time I looked too. It's quite remarkable, Eden is. I supposed if she had never bit the apple we'd be there now, with no war, no sickness, no tragedy, no evil. But instead our world erupted forth when she did bite it, from the apple's core, and now all we have to show for it is a piece of fruit. I suppose that's why I live so long, because the life still trickles through the knot. Grey life, maybe, but still life." He sighed.
"Thank you." I said, an handed him back the apple, the sole window from our world to Eden, from which our world had sprouted tainted.
"It's not mine to keep," he said, and led me back out of the monastery.
And he was right. The old man had missed something. Between two fingers, I had stolen one of the seeds.
Our world is tainted. Perhaps the next world I grow will be better.
The pint was cold, but his hands were colder, and his eyes were coldest. Or at least I thought they were, until I heard his voice.
"Sit." It was a command, and he thrust a beer across the table at me. Ice chips detached themselves from the rim and floated under the frothy head, brushing my lips as we both took a sip.
There are moments for questions. There are moments for hysterics. But when your grandfather, dead from liver failure for ten years with dirt still in his hair shows up as the sole person in your go-to bar, there are moments for silence. And listening.
"I came here," He said, "To have a beer with you. Something I never got to do."
"And I apologize for that." His voice was still cold, haggard around the edges, but the ice softened in the air with the whisper.
"It's not your fault." I said.
"That's where you're wrong, son. I did a lot of things wrong back in the day. Treated your grandmother wrong. Raised your father to be the low life he is today. And I hated myself for it. Drove me to drinking, and smoking, and a host of other things a man does when he likes to chip away at this life bit by bit because he wants to watch himself bleed. The alcohol wrote the papers of the divorce before it killed me. And it gave you father cauliflower ear on the outside, and a lot worse on the in."
"Dad's doing better," I said, but he cut me off.
"Better my ass. It's a lot easier to do better when you've got the law lookin down your back, and you wife has left you, and you spend your days alone where no one can see the bad. I know you haven't called him in years, or he called you. But listen here, son. I've been watching you. I've seen the way you started to act. Thinkin you can only be what we were."
"It's not that way," I said, but the words faltered. At least, it hadn't always been. But times had been rough. It was hard to find a job. My girlfriend had moved in, and with money problems I'd felt myself getting more and more hostile. I'd started taking it out on her. There was no father to help me, and all I could remember was the way he used to handle situations when times grew tough. Usually with a bottle- drinking till it was dry, and smashing it after, often in my direction.
Then my grandfather spoke again.
"You see, purgetory's a lot like jail, son. You get your one phone call. I'm making mine, and I still don't know if I'm going up or down after. Don't be like me. Or your father. Be better. We could have been, but we weren't. And that's my regret."
He pushed his chair back, and headed for the door.
"Wait! Grandfather, stop, have another beer with me. Tell me more."
He met my eyes with his again. I felt the cold.
"I only drink one nowadays, son."
And the door shut behind him.