Chase and Charlie have always been the freakiest twins on the block: she's allergic to light, he can smell emotions, their mother is a sword loving lesbian, and their grandpa grows his own.
It doesn't get much weirder, until it does. They all get sucked through the garden wishing well and end up on Utrøst, an island sanctuary for all things magic. The last rat of Hamelin and her army of werewolves have declared war and naturally Chase and Charlie are the only ones who can stop her. No pressure.
Going from the bottom of the social ladder to the top of the food chain isn't easy. Puberty is even wilder on Utrøst, along with the usual falling in love and figuring yourself out, there are new magic powers and unexpected body parts-distractions that will prove deadly in the midst of war.
Here are the chapters from my PNWA Finalist Entry!!
Behind her, Annika could hear Dagmar fighting to breathe. The babies were blessedly quiet, hidden in the exposed roots of the tree.
A dozen vourdalaks stepped from the shadows into the clearing. The majority had shifted, walking upright. Others, unable to manage on two legs, added an arm in a grotesque stumbling crawl. Time had been cruel to the wolfmen; fighting and inbreeding had greatly decreased their numbers and health over the years. They advanced in chilling unity, a theatrical display controlled by unseen hands.
Annika shook her short, fox-red hair from her eyes and settled her sword into her pale hand. She could handle two or three, had done so earlier that very night, but now there were too many. She would not win.
It came down to just how many she could take out before she died. If her last gift to Dagmar was a few moments more with their newborn children, then so be it. Annika clenched her jaw highlighting the bone structure that had allowed her troll ancestors to pass for humans of unearthly beauty. She felt far from any beauty now. Her amber eyes filled with tears. She never let emotion enter a fight, but this night was like no other.
The tree at her back was the Døråpning Tree of legend. Shorter and much wider than the surrounding trees, it looked like it had been plucked from some exotic forest and placed here by mistake. The root system was largely above ground, like fingers reaching into the earth of Utrøst, leaving a large, hollow basin in its center where Dagmar and the twins hid in the shadows. The Døråpning Tree was the only remaining gateway between Utrøst and Gammal Värd. No one had been able to open it in years, so they wouldn’t be escaping that way. But it was at the far edge of the clearing and Annika could see everything. She brushed the leaf strewn ground with her white-tipped tail—no creature could approach without her hearing.
Towering trees surrounded them, unmoved by the drama playing out beneath their ageless branches. Only the thinnest moonlight reached the clearing, speckled through the shadow of leaves. Not that Annika or the vourdalaks needed much light to see. Still, untold nooks and portals waited in the dark of the forest. She only needed to give Dagmar the chance to find the right one.
“Run,” she whispered to Dagmar who was stifling another moan. “Take them and run.” It was ridiculous even saying it out loud. There was little chance of Dagmar being able to stand, let alone run—she had just given birth and was still weak from captivity.
The quiet was marred by the rapid advance of the enemy and the hitching of Dagmar’s breath as she whispered a spell over their helpless children. With no time even to offer one last word of love or comfort to her partner, Annika rushed forward, screaming in rage, and hacked off the head of the nearest vourdalak. The tang of blood filled the clearing. Her muscles stretched and gloried in the destruction of her enemy. Annika was born for battle. A second and a third monstrosity fell before she heard a rhythmic click of two stones hit together. The sickly prickle of strange magic crawled across her skin.
Vourdalaks were not practitioners of magic. Their master, Gruvrå Hamelin, had arrived wielding the gem power against her Annika. An unnatural sensation seized her limbs, and the paralysis took everything but her breath.
Annika’s jaw froze open, mid-scream. In a click of two stones she had turned from warrior to statue. She could still see and hear, but nothing she did convinced her body to move. Her sword was held high over her right shoulder, clutched in both hands, unable to deliver the next deadly blow. The blood of her enemy rolled hot down her face, dripping into her mouth and eyes. Gruvrå Hamelin was in control again.
The vourdalaks rushed past in a blur. She focused, fighting down impotent rage as fur and leaves flew in her face. Behind her she heard a frenzy of snarling followed by Dagmar’s scream and Hamelin’s triumphant voice.
“We are not too late. Bring the vessel.”
Not too late? Annika’s heart skipped. Hamelin thought that Dagmar had not yet delivered. The blood of battle was obscuring the scent and signs of birth and the vourdalaks were too stupid or too scared to correct their turbulent leader. That meant the twins were hidden safely, at least for now. Annika could hear no sounds from the children. Dagmar must have been successful in creating a shield. What was happening? Annika was not left to wonder long.
The vourdalaks paraded past, carrying Dagmar’s unconscious form. Riding on the back of the final vourdalak was Gruvrå Hamelin, perched in a leather sling. She was no taller than Annika’s forearm and dressed in a pale blue gown and matching cloak. Her dark fur gleamed with a sheen that made Annika’s stomach clench. Gruvrå Hamelin should have been ridiculous, but she was terrifying, and the vourdalaks were not the only creatures under her command. Annika had made the mistake of underestimating Hamelin once; now she saw the truth. Gruvrå Hamelin signaled the beast to stop and straightened in her sling to study Annika’s face.
“I am so glad it will be you, Captain. The first to mock Gruvrå Hamelin will be the first to spread the word of her triumph.” Her whiskers twitched. “Once I sink my teeth into those tender little hearts, the prophecy will be as dead as Utrøst.”
Annika screamed and thrashed inside the prison of her own body, she could not fight her way out.
“Of course, you will not be left totally unmarked, Captain. I will leave you a little memento of this historic night.” At a signal, the vourdalak turned, moved closer, and Hamelin leapt from the sling onto Annika’s shoulder. The weight of the rat rocked her body back and forth before it steadied. Hamelin removed two yellow gems from the pockets of her cloak. Holding one in each claw, she clicked them together and then spit in Annika’s immobile face. “For the Interland!” Seconds later, she disappeared with her vourdalaks into the trees.
The sudden silence in the clearing was sharp as a slap, quickly replaced by the ragged terror of Annika’s breathing. She could feel the repulsive coat of Hamelin’s magic surrounding her and pushed it away. She willed her body forward and back trying to create momentum.
The heartless moon gave witness to the hour, sliding behind the curtain of trees. She would not give up though exhaustion and grief began to tempt her. Then a sudden wail from the hidden babies reached her ears and Annika jerked with new fervor. She was rewarded by a sudden softening and Hamelin’s magic released her. In the next instant she pitched forward. With nothing to break the fall, she crashed face first into the ground. It was a strange victory.
It had been difficult enough to breathe before, but now her face was buried in the grass and the force of landing had knocked all the air out of her lungs. Annika focused on the crying—the healthy, normal crying—distracted from the panic. Moments later her eyes, dry as paper, blinked, followed by the click of her teeth as her jaw finally shut. Her neck and shoulders were next. She managed to twist her face to the side, coughing out debris and letting air move freely. As feeling came back to her arms, she unclenched the hand still wrapped around her sword. She pushed her body up to see the Døråpning Tree where the babies were hidden.
The edge of Dagmar’s cloak was just visible and wriggling a bit as one impossibly tiny foot kicked angrily into the night air. Her heart soared at the sight. Arm over arm, Annika pulled herself towards the tree, hips and legs dragged behind, crackling over the forest floor. She could not bring herself to leave her sword, making progress even slower. At last Annika reached the tree and placed her hand on the squirming bundle. She could feel the familiar tingle of Dagmar’s magic as it recognized her and released the shield.
Heat radiated in a calming flow from the roots of the magical tree, keeping the newborns warm. No wonder they had remained quiet and calm for so long. Annika leaned into the comforting heat and the delightful living wiggle of their children. Exhausted, she collapsed with her cheek on the rough bark and took a brief second to breathe. Twisting herself into a seated position, back against the roots, she drew her sword up to her chest. Searching the perimeter, she saw nothing. Her legs remained heavy and unresponsive, yet she had fair range of motion from the waist up. Little good that would do her if the vourdalaks returned. And when Hamelin discovered Dagmar had already given birth, they would return. The babies were the prize. She banged the back of her head against the roots in frustration. She felt a tiny foot knock her squarely in the kidney. She smiled knowing that this was the kicking Dagmar had been complaining about for the past three months.
The woods erupted in sound, crashing and howling moving back towards the clearing. There was little time and only one thing left to try. Annika had little hope it would work.
She flipped back onto her stomach, legs still useless. Why were they taking so long to recover? With the dust of Dagmar’s magic still on her skin, Annika took a steadying breath. She let go of everything and tried to let the magic guide her. She had witnessed the ritual often enough, though it had never worked. Centering the twins in the basin of the roots, Annika pricked their heels with the tip of her sword, wincing in sympathy as they screamed protest. Allowing their blood to drip over the metal and into the earth, she didn’t know which words to speak, so she simply whispered, “Please.”
Annika kissed both of the tiny nicks and then drove the sword into the ground. She thought she felt a flare of heat. Gathering the two angry babies her chest, she dragged them deeper under the exposed roots of the tree. Rewrapping them in the cloak, she reached over to pull the sword from the ground. Curling about her children, she gave in and wept along with them.
The ground began to tremble and hum. A blinding light filled the interior of the tree and the twins were suddenly silent. The Døråpning Tree was opening. Annika felt a surge of fear; she hadn’t really expected it to work. With angry howls at their backs, they fell into the light.
VIRGIL—Gammal Värd (Seventeen Years Later)
Virgil took a deep and stinging drag of his joint. Nothing beat the satisfaction of tasting something home grown. The marinara sauce burbling on the back burner echoed the sentiment. Holding his breath, he nestled Mary between the naked breasts of the mermaid ash tray. With a slow exhale, he waited for the smoke to dissipate, helping it along out the screen door with a lazy wave of the hand. Pulling the rubber band free, Virgil shook his dark pewter streaked hair down around his shoulders. Viv had always liked it long, so he kept it that way. Not as much left on top as on the bottom, but he could still manage a respectable ponytail. Heaven forbid that his grandson smell it in his hair. Though he wasn’t entirely sure why he bothered—Charlie was a bloodhound. And Virgil was a grownup, dammit. He picked up his scissors and headed outside.
Dusk settled around the quiet yard with a strange, yellow-tinged heaviness. The huge trees surrounding the back half of his property were dark and watchful. I can feel it coming in the air tonight. Phil Collins began to croon in the back of his head. Weaving expertly through the rows of the garden to the basil, Virgil snipped a handful of the herb. He rubbed a fragrant leaf between his fingers and inhaled deeply. Nice. Life is pretty okay sometimes. It was good to remember that. Straightening, he looked out past the plants and into the woods. He couldn’t shake the feeling of being observed. Must be the time of night. Twilight was traditionally host to the faerie folk.
Absently he tickled the top of his other herbs, straightened a flamingo that was listing dangerously and slid a gnome’s shades a little more securely onto its wee cement nose. He felt a gentle nudge in his heart remembering Viv. She had been gone almost two years now, and he still felt her presence so strongly, though he no longer suffered a hard jab of grief.
This motley collection of garden creatures had her sense of humor all over it and he would never remove them. She had her part of the garden, and he had his.
At the edge of the garden he saw a small hole in the dirt. Kneeling, he continued to rub basil between his finger and thumb. Setting the remaining leaves in the grass, he traced the circumference of the hole. No gopher or mole did that. Weird, very weird. Settling back on his haunches Virgil ran through the various possibilities. He couldn’t stop the headlines from rushing through his head, but managed to talk himself down from the burst of paranoia. Marijuana plants tucked in the center of a retired school teacher’s garden was not the kind of stuff cops bother with. He had grown it for Viv to help with the cancer, and he kept it for himself to help with the aftermath of the cancer. Really, he needed to get control over his imagination. Where was all that when he was sitting in front of a very empty computer screen? He felt the familiar twinge in his stomach that became a violent twisting whenever he thought about his so-called retirement novel.
Movement by the wishing well caught his attention. Chase was dashing across the garden, crouched low. Hiding in the wishing well was a little beneath the dignity of someone turning seventeen tomorrow. The twins were seventeen. Time was one crazy ride. His life had changed in a million ways the day those two cabbagepatchers had suddenly appeared in his garden.
Virgil and Viv were having some Sunday gardening time. Virgil was always quick to point out that while they may both be in the garden at the same time he was the only one doing any actual gardening. Viv would counter that she couldn’t be blamed as she suffered from incurable “black thumb” and had been banned even from the simplest weeding. She could do magical things with flowers and herbs once they were grown, but involving her anytime before harvest was a bad idea. Her self-appointed gardening job was bossing Virgil around and tending to the many members of her Odd Little Garden Things.
While Virgil trimmed and planted, Viv cleaned and rearranged. She made outfits for some of the collection to mark seasonal changes or holidays. She had a plastic bucket with her necessary tools. A toothbrush, one squirt bottle with soapy water and one with plain water, a cloth for buffing and a small collection of paints and brushes for any extreme makeovers. Once all were beautified, she would create a fresh tableau. Hours were spent, never tiring of making “moments” in and amongst the plants.
Set back from the main road and bordered by woodland, it felt like they were miles from civilization. No traffic noises or people, he would often suggest Viv go topless. She had yet to oblige. They were both bent to their individual tasks, the sun warming their backs and the soothing quiet of the plants surrounded them.
Suddenly the peace of the day was broken with a flash of light and an enormous crack. Virgil searched the sky expecting to see falling debris from an airplane. For a moment he could only hear the sound of his own ragged breath. Then the wrenching sob broke through.
When he looked around he saw that Viv had already found the source. It was a woman. She was covered in blood. Viv was kneeling near her, whispering urgently. The woman nodded, whispering something in reply.
Puzzled by the apparent familiarity, he moved slowly towards them. The wretched-looking woman startled at his approach.
“He’s okay. It’s okay,” Viv soothed. “Annika, this is Virgil.”
“Are you hurt?” Virgil asked. Although she was covered in gore, he could see no obvious injuries.
“It is not mine,” Annika smiled with bitter satisfaction. Those cold words seemed to brace her. The tears cleared patterns through the blood on her cheeks. Her eyes were huge, haunted, and dangerous. Virgil was suddenly glad that he hadn’t dropped his shovel. He tightened his grip, walking slowly in a circle around the two women, looking for any sign of unwanted company. As he passed the wishing well, he heard a rustling from the depths.
Having built the ornamental well himself, Virgil knew it ended in a dirt floor. It was the focal point of the garden. He had built it big so Viv could admire it from the kitchen window. It was easily big enough for a person to be concealed in the shadow of the walls. Whatever was in there, it was good and cornered. Virgil raised the shovel over his head, trying to look and sound as intimidating as possible.
“We can hear you in there. No use in hiding any more. Come out slowly—with your hands where I can see them.” Virgil fervently hoped he was about to be embarrassed by nothing scarier than an errant squirrel. His snazzy, cop show dialogue would do him little good in an actual confrontation. He didn’t know who he was kidding with this shovel either. Viv was slowly placing herself between the now silent Annika and the wishing well.
“Come out!” Virgil knocked the side with the shovel. He’d thought he’d already experienced the weirdest part of his day. Then he stepped up and peered into the well, and things got even weirder.
“Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!” Virgil was positive he had actually felt his heart stop and restart. “Viv! There are babies in the well!” Virgil nearly pissed himself when he turned and saw for the first time that Annika was holding a sword. A sword? She lowered it as she sank to the ground, crying silently.
Viv ran forward, leaning over the side of the well. She gasped in delight, which seemed a strange reaction considering the circumstances
“I’ll go call 911.” Virgil began backing towards the house.
“No.” Viv’s voice was sharp, and he looked at her in surprise. “I think we handle this ourselves.”
“Trust me, Virgil.”
He nodded, still eyeing the sword. Finding the babies had stunned Annika into utter stillness. He guessed she wasn’t a threat. Viv was positively glowing as she swung over the short wall into the well. It was becoming clear that she knew more about this crazy situation than she should.
“Go inside please and bring back my bathrobe. While you are in there, fill both sides of the sink. Lukewarm.”
His tasks were easily accomplished, and he returned to the wishing well at a run. Viv was still in the well, now holding the eerily silent infants. She quickly handed him her bundles as she scrambled back out. Virgil felt pretty impressed with himself when he refrained from passing out or screaming. Wrapping the robe around Annika’s shoulders, Viv spoke in a low voice.
“Now Virgil, I need you to take these darlings into the house and get them in that water. We need to clean them up and warm them. Annika and I will be right behind you.”
Afraid to speak lest he reveal a sudden return to puberty, Virgil nodded manfully and turned towards the house. Looking down he saw two sets of eyes observing him, one pair midnight black and the other silver with an oddly shaped pupil. Their hair looked blue. Admittedly he knew nothing about babies, but he’d never heard of them being born with blue hair. Walking towards the house like he was carrying a case of dynamite, Virgil hoped that the thundering of his heart wasn’t scaring the babies. At the back door, he turned to see what progress Viv was making.
They had stopped by the hose to get the worst of the gore off. Now he knew he was going bonkers. He could have sworn there was a fluffy, red tail sprouting from just above the woman’s ass. It was tipped with white on the end just like a fox. Unable to control himself, he glanced again only to see that Viv was holding up the towel like a shield. She met his eyes with an expression he had never seen. A wave of new understanding hit him. Shaken, he entered the house and headed towards the kitchen sink, with his silent riders in tow. Now was time to focus on the stuff he could handle.
This was a good plan until he reached the sink. Bathing one baby was completely outside his realm of experience, two was straight up impossible. He put them on the counter and stared at them. The spooky little things stared right back. Even in the light of the kitchen, he could swear their hair was blue.
“Shouldn’t you be making some kind of noise? Screaming for your mama? Are you two cabbagepatchers ok?” He felt like he was in a Scooby Doo episode where the eyes in the portrait followed the gang’s every move. He heard the shower, and Viv walking down the hall to the kitchen.
She unwrapped one of the bundles, indicating with her head that he should follow suit. Viv clucked and cooed. The wrappings were removed revealing a boy and a girl. Virgil felt his throat tighten; this bit of information somehow made everything seem very real. A quick examination showed that they were unharmed, just dirty. Viv lowered the girl into the warm water and was rewarded with the kind of bellow usually reserved for charging bulls. Almost instantly, her brother joined in the caterwauling. Viv and Virgil looked at each other and laughed.
They continued to chuckle intermittently through bath time as the infants settled down and started to tolerate the process. They were dried and wrapped in fresh towels when their mother appeared in the doorway. Her hair tangled and wet, she looked like a child herself engulfed in the bathrobe. She remained in the relative shadow of the hallway, blinking at the florescent lights of the kitchen.
Hoping to bring her a little comfort, Virgil placed the drowsing boy in her arm, and Viv placed the girl in her other. She stood stiffly.
“There, little mama, I imagine that feels better,” Virgil said stepping back. He was still a little afraid of her, even without the sword.
She looked at the babies, her eyes wild. She made no move to cuddle the infants, just looked at them. Viv ushered the uncomfortable mother towards the guestroom. Virgil couldn’t help but notice what appeared to be a lump in the lower back half of the robe. Of course, it was just the weight of it folded on her small frame. But as they entered the back room, he could have sworn he saw a flash of reddish orange just at the hem of the dark robe.
When the door closed behind the women, he dashed to the cupboard. With admirably steady hands, he pulled down a dusty bottle of Jack and took a mighty swig. Capping it, he set it on the counter for later. It had been that kind of day after all.
Some time later, Viv returned to the kitchen and handed him a list featuring bottles, formula, and diapers. She picked up the whiskey, took a swig and then danced back down the hallway humming.
The store had been a blur. He finally just handed the list to a teenager in a blue vest and paid for whatever was in his cart. When he got home the wails had reached glass shattering proportions. Viv, no longer quite so chipper, dove into the bags and started making up bottles. Virgil, against his better judgment, followed the sounds of the screams. The woman was cross-legged on the bed, the seriously pissed off infants in front of her. The racket was impressive. Virgil had to admire their stamina. Viv sped into the room bottles extended out in front of her like a superhero. After working through some residual rage, the twins settled down and began to eat.
When the much preferable silence fell around them again, Virgil backed out of the room and enjoyed a longer visit with Jack. Viv appeared in the doorway. She had never looked more beautiful.
“Are you ready for this?” Her voice was low and steady. Virgil’s stomach twisted, he had been denying his suspicions all day.
“It’s my vision. They came from Utrøst.”
A mix of fear and happiness crossed her face, and she seemed suddenly at a loss. He offered the bottle, unsure of what to do or say or even think. Viv took it and crossed into the living room. He followed trying to find the right words.
“Instant family,” was what came out.
“Is that alright with you?”
He didn’t even have to think about it. Those pesky cabbagepatchers had worked some kind of magic on him. Maybe it was Utrøst magic, maybe it was just regular old baby magic, it didn’t really matter.
“Grandpa Virgil,” he kind of liked the sound of it. “Talk about accepting a reality I am in no way prepared to handle.”
Viv laughed, wrapping her arms around him. They stood holding each other for a long time after the laughter faded. The house felt different, three new heartbeats filling up the rooms with possibilities. That was pretty good, he should write that down. First, though, he just had to ask.
“So, was that a tail?”
What was that bullshit earlier about “no longer a hard jab of grief?” His buzz and his mood radically damaged, Virgil scooped up his basil greens and stomped to the open back door. He fought the urge to close himself in, leaving the door open to the scents of the garden and the approaching night. Mary was waiting, but he was no longer in the mood. Sighing, he opened the freezer and slid the unfinished joint into a zippered baggie. Slamming the door and resolving to get over himself, Virgil uncorked the merlot, poured a little in the sauce and a lot in his glass. Quickly rinsing the basil, he used the scissors to snip it into the sauce.
Minutes later at the table, Virgil twirled the pasta around his fork and sampled his masterpiece. Delicious. If only writing came as easily as cooking. Somehow, despite any training, he had discovered that adding fresh basil from the garden at the last minute was the secret to an incredible marinara. Yet, despite years of education and educating, words would not fly from his mind to his finger tips like golden unicorns. Golden unicorns? Shit, he couldn’t even come up with a decent metaphor to mock himself. A little voice in the back of his head pointed out that maybe he shouldn’t work so hard to dull his emotions if he wanted the words to flow. Virgil shut that guy up pretty fast. The wine and the Mary were just to help him adjust to life without Viv; he would give it up eventually. Not soon enough for Charlie, president of his personal anti-drug campaign.
Swigging his wine, Virgil shrugged off such unappetizing thoughts and tucked into his fantastic pasta. Might as well enjoy these fruits, he thought. Without warning, the uneasy sensation he had tried to leave in the garden returned. Someone was watching him. Pausing with the next mouthful hovering just above the plate, Virgil moved only his eyes towards the door. The door he had left open in defiance of his own instincts. His gaze drifted down towards the floor and froze. Leaning against the doorframe was a little man. Lilliput little. He wore tight pants, the color of wheat, and a silk tunic with the sleeves rolled up to display proportionately powerful forearms. His tousled hair was blonde, and his bright blue eyes were boring into Virgil with a combination of amusement and irritation. He’d never heard of a hallucination doing that.
Charlie’s mother leaned in the frame of the kitchen door, lost in some kind of memory. It wasn’t a good one. Her eyes were far away, and her jaw clenched. Sometimes Charlie wondered if his mother had any happy memories. She’d never told them anything about her life before he and Chase were born; it was an extremely touchy subject.
The sun slanted through the kitchen window, lighting flames in her red hair. Annika had already pulled and secured the shades in the rest of the house, so it would be ready for his sister when she got home. “Chase will be home soon, don’t forget your shade,” she signed as well as spoke. No one in the family was deaf, but Charlie didn’t speak so they all learned ASL. Annika always liked to keep in practice, she said it made it easier to understand Charlie if her own hands were moving.
Charlie gave his mother a look; they both knew he would keep the shade over the sink open until the last minute. “What are you making?” she asked looking around the kitchen eagerly. Charlie growled and shooed her with shortening-covered hands. “I think you need a new hobby,” she said. “You’re as pleasant as a cave maggot!”
Charlie rolled his eyes. He had long ago given up trying to make sense of his mother’s weird sayings. He stepped closer, wiggling his greasy fingers threateningly. Shaking her head in mock exasperation she quickly left, as if it were her idea. He smiled a little at her exit and turned back to his baking experiment.
The kitchen was his domain. He’d painted the cabinets white, the walls a soft gray, and had Nana Viv make the navy blue curtains. It was pretty masculine for a kitchen, except for all the candles. They were more functional that decorative, the only source of light that didn’t make Chase sick. He cringed as he remembered he was supposed to meet her at the wishing well today. She wouldn’t tell him why she wanted to be there, and all they had done the first two days was sit, so he didn’t feel that bad. Besides, it was too late now; he was right in the middle of a recipe.
The majority of his ingredients were laid out on the butcher-block island, a Goodwill find fixed up by Papa V. He greased one round cake pan, fingers sliding across the bottom and up along the sides. Pinching flour in his dry hand, he sprinkled it evenly onto the surface then turned the faucet on with his elbow. He tried to fight the urge but had to flip the faucet on and off an additional eight times before he could let it go. Today he had been feeling weirdly apprehensive, and he couldn’t figure out why. It was the anxiety that put him into recipe mode. When he was lost in creating something, he usually left behind his tics.
He glanced at the kitchen door to see his mother’s reaction. Normally tics didn’t show up in the kitchen, and he knew she would worry. She was in the living room folded back into her desk chair staring off into space and scratching at the scar on her lower back. He was relieved she hadn’t seen, he hated to stress her out. As it was, the fragrance of her inner turmoil was already messing with his recipe.
Charlie could smell people’s emotions. Like a seasoned wine tester, he could identify many layers. It was kind of like receiving a photograph through his nostrils. Charlie smiled at the idea of a glossy 5x7 floating up his nose. While he was with food, he could put his weird talent to good use. His sniffer had found some truly unusual combinations that he tested out on his family. And, usually, the aromas of baking were a good distraction from the complex scent of emotions that accosted him daily. He was getting better at handling that as he got older; it was the rituals and the pain that kept getting worse.
The water flowing from the tap was finally hot enough to wash the shortening off. Hands dried, he picked up the pan gently tapping flour around in a circle as he reviewed his plan. Brownie cake, espresso cream cheese frosting and one top secret ingredient. Charlie was glad his mother hadn’t seen the small silver bucket on the shelf below the counter. In it was freshly turned earth, from Papa V’s garden.
Papa V was an old school granola, and Charlie knew that only organics had ever touched this dirt. It was rich and velvety with the faintest sparkle, like the coffee grounds his mother emptied into the garbage every morning. Although he was not a dirt eater normally, Charlie trusted his nose, and his nose told him that the earth’s contribution was the thing that would take his cake to the next level.
He’d been planning to filch the dirt on his way home after school with Papa V. He’d found a fancy silver vase half buried by the side of garden where he meant to dig, so it seemed the earth itself agreed. He had quickly abandoned his plastic cup in favor of this new find. Charlie enjoyed a good presentation, even if he was the only witness.
He wasn’t sure if he would reveal the secret ingredient. He weighed the pleasure of seeing his family glow with happiness while they ate his cake, with the equally enjoyable sight of their eyes bugging out in disbelief as he unveiled his bucket of soil. It was a tough call.
CHASE — No Show
The waiting was starting to get to her. Chase leaned up against the curved wooden wall of the old wishing well. Stood up by her own twin—nice, real nice. Her butt was falling asleep so she flopped on to her back, stretching her legs up the inside wall of the wishing well. The old structure was perfectly maintained like everything else in Papa V’s garden. She couldn’t see a single cobweb in the triangle of roof above her, and the decorative bucket looked like it might actually be watertight. The wood of the interior was painted gray and smooth as an icicle, yet Chase had managed to get a ginormous sliver embedded in her palm. The dull throb of the intruding wood was a complement to her mood.
Growing up, the well had been like a playhouse. Back then she and Charlie had been little enough to fit inside together. Chase hadn’t really thought about the wishing well in years—until this week when it suddenly began starring in her dreams, and she woke up with a feeling that she needed to keep a close eye on the wishing well. Dreams were a touchy subject with Chase. This wasn’t the same as a Real Dream she told herself. She hadn’t had one of those in a long time (eleven years ago tomorrow, not that she was obsessed or anything.) She had to admit, she’d been kinda vague about why she suddenly wanted to hang out in the middle of Papa V’s garden, but Charlie seemed game enough for a while.
Chase couldn’t believe he ditched her already. She knew it wasn’t his happenin’ social life that was keeping him. It was pretty safe to say they were each other’s only friend. It was also pretty safe to say that Charlie had found something better to do today. No doubt something in the kitchen or replenishing his ever-present fanny pack in the woods. Every time he passed something even remotely green he had to take a sample. It had gotten especially bad, almost obsessive, since Nana Viv died. Chase could deal with the herb gathering—the fanny pack was seriously embarrassing.
Chase picked at the sliver, but her palm was too sweaty to get a good hold of it. She undid the vintage button that read “Future’s So Bright…” from the strap of her backpack. Papa V always sang that song to her and given the button to her as a gift. It was pretty funny—considering. She flipped over the button and picked at the sliver with the pin on the back.
She could have sworn that it was getting hotter as the sun went down, which made no sense at all. Unzipping her hoodie, Chase stuck her head up over the lip of the wishing well. The air definitely seemed cooler on her face. She lifted her baseball cap and fluffed up her dark spiky hair. The sun was behind the trees, but she didn’t remove her dark glasses.
Light was not her friend. It didn’t matter if it was electric or sun powered, her eyes couldn’t handle it. The briefest exposure brought her to her knees, and it took forever to recover from the migraine that followed. It hadn’t always been that way, she used to be able to play outside and be normal, but it had steadily gotten worse as she grew older.
The shades and hat were a combo that Chase wore at all times, earning her the nickname “paparazzi” at school. This had naturally been shortened to “pap” and then made the perfectly logical jump to “pap smear.” So creative. Not much she could do about it; the hat and glasses were functional, not stylish—keeping out the sun and hiding her freakazoid eyes. If her classmates ever got a good look at her silver irises and hyphen pupils, nicknames would be the least of her worries. She’d made peace with her modern day armor, and she had almost made it to senior year. Charlie was homeschooled by Papa V. Chase could have joined them but was determined to make it to graduation. Although they looked embarrassingly alike, her brother had been spared the alien eyes. He did have panic issues which lead to ritual repetitions; he didn’t talk, and their small school didn’t have the resources for ASL, so homeschooling was obviously the right choice.
It was kinda cheesy, but Chase was determined to graduate from “regular” school for both of them. Plus, she hated the idea of certain name calling losers thinking they had any power over her. Victory would be walking across the stage with the class of 2010, the only one allowed to wear shades. Probably at least half of them would still be wondering if she was male or female. The physical changes of puberty had so far been a no show. Boobless, bug eyed and bitchy, even if she had a phone—it wouldn’t be ringing.
Chase frequently joked about the discount sperm bank their mother must have visited to turn out freaks the likes of them. It always earned her the death glare, and Annika was the master of the death glare. Chase wondered if her mother ever regretted it. There were a lot of things her mother didn’t like to talk about, but the circumstances surrounding their birth were a minefield. Tomorrow was their birthday; she and Charlie would be 17 and very nearly adults. Maybe she could convince her mother to talk about it now. Maybe ninjas would fly out of her ass.
She looked out over the familiar garden filled with cheeseball lawn ornaments from gnomes, to flamingos, to a snoozing fawn. It was just what you would expect in the midst of a garden like this, although none of the girly stuff really fit with Papa V’s image. He was more of an old hippie than a plastic flamingo kind of guy. But he cared for them all as much as his plants because they had belonged to Nana Viv. “Miss you Nana Viv,” Chase whispered. She always felt connected to her in this garden.
The shadows were getting longer as the sun slid behind the tops of the trees, yet Chase could feel sweat trickle down her back. Weird. She sat back down and with the help of the metal pin finally conquered the sliver but not before she stabbed herself pretty good. Blood oozed from the puncture, and she let it drip onto the dirt floor as she rummaged in her backpack for a Kleenex. Pressing the tissue to her hand, an unfamiliar feeling creeped across her skin like a spider. She felt dizzy, and it was suddenly inferno-hot inside the wishing well. Panic clenched her stomach. Chase snagged her backpack and scrambled out into the garden. What was that all about? Blood never bothered her that much before, and panic attacks were more Charlie’s thing.
Hearing footsteps, she crouched down. Papa V was headed out to his herbs. She took care that he didn’t spot her. She didn’t feel like explaining herself and wasn’t exactly sure she could. Chase shivered as a breeze blew across her neck. As soon as Papa V turned his back, she ran the familiar path to home.
Chase and Charlie lived with their mother in an apartment on the top floor of the converted barn that went with Papa V’s old farmhouse. The bottom of the barn served as a training space where Annika held classes. When not working in Nana Viv’s store selling all things herbal, her mother trained people in medieval battle techniques for movies, plays, and renaissance fairs. It wasn’t hard to guess which job suited her better. It was also where she trained Chase and Charlie in the evenings. Knife work and combat skills were strange family hobbies. Chase had been tempted to use her ass kicking skills on the Pap Smear Crowd but refrained. Just knowing she could went a long way.
It was dark and quiet on the first floor; she could smell the organic cleanser Nana Viv had made to disinfect the mats. Chase was a dark blur in the mirrors lining the walls as she ran up the stairs to their apartment and blew through the door with satisfying bang. Her mother spun her chair away from the computer as Charlie shot out of the kitchen growling and waving his hands above his head. It was a like looking in the mirror—though she was pretty sure she looked cooler.
“Oh puleez, Charlie. Don’t even try to act like you are making a soufflé because we both know you aren’t. One slammed door never hurt a chocolate cake. Sometimes you are such a damn diva,” Chase vented.
“Save it.” Her mother stood, switched off her desk lamp, and started lighting candles. “What is with you two?”
Chase rolled her eyes, safely hidden behind her dark lenses.
Their mother walked into the kitchen and secured the blackout shade. She paused on her way back to the computer, taking Chase’s glasses and cap off and rubbing her knuckles a little too hard on top of her head.
“Figure it out, brats, and don’t get blood all over the kitchen.”
“Well, I certainly can’t kill him until after I eat his cake,” Chase crossed towards the kitchen. Charlie snapped her forearm with the dishtowel draped over his shoulder. Chase smacked him upside his genius head.
“You were supposed to meet me after school,” she said closing her eyes and reaching into the fridge for a soda. She could sense Charlie cringe at the reminder.
A pointed look from her, and he allowed access to his head. Another checkmark on Chase’s “yes-I-am-a-freak” list. She and Charlie could communicate directly into each other’s minds. Pretty cool considering Charlie didn’t speak in real life, and it kept their mother out of things, not that it was easy or reliable. It only seemed to work if Chase initiated it. If Charlie would let her practice some more they might actually be able to hold a decent conversation. He had some kind of mental mute button he could use to shut her out, and it was always activated. She knew he hated it when she invaded his mental space. Charlie was barely willing to share his kitchen, letting Chase into his thoughts really creeped him out.
It really burned that he resisted so much. They were freakin’ twins, and he wouldn’t trust her inside his head? There was nothing she wouldn’t trust Charlie with and it stung knowing that it didn’t go both ways. The fact that he was feeling guilty was the only reason he was relenting so easily now. Charlie, sniffing her emotions, looked concerned and apologetic, but he didn’t stop working on his frosting.
Narrowing her eyes she imagined a tube connecting from her brain to his and thought “Way to ditch me, jerk!”
“Sorry,” she heard him think. “I got involved…”
“With a recipe,” she finished. “Shocker. When aren’t you making out with your mental cookbook?”
Charlie glared at her. He never shied away from looking right in her eyes, not that she was giving him any points for that at the moment. “Stick your nose back in the blender if your recipe is so goddamn important.” Oops, that one had been out loud.
“Language!” Her mother called from the other room. Chase never figured out why her mother pretended to care about swearing. Annika could curse like a sailor and had let loose with some pretty inventive stuff during their training sessions.
“I really am sorry,” Charlie mind-whispered. “It’s not like anything happened…”
Chase thought about the strange heat and the creepy crawlies she’d felt, he didn’t need to know about that. “Whatever!” she sent back with too much volume.
He solemnly held out a frosting coated beater and the fight drained out of her. Charlie hardly ever allowed sampling. Anyway, he was right. There wasn’t any point in getting bent out of shape. Dreams were tricky, and it wasn’t like anything had really happened. Maybe the dream meant nothing.
Chase set down her soda and accepted the beater. The frosting was freaking amazing.