Taking Guesswork out of Finding Good Books for 2019

For a reluctant, hold-your-breath-and-swallow type of shopper, the NPR Book Concierge gives me a reason to look forward to the holidays. It’s become my go-to place for every bibliophile on the Santa list.

Satisfied reading experiences bring good cheer well into the new year.

With the ability to filter titles by categories such as; Book Club, History Lovers, Thrillers, and Graphic Novels the site makes finding what you’re looking for easy. Book descriptions are concise, not more than a few sentences…and I enjoy reading them, often saving titles on other wish lists.

I do frequent the giant South American river online retailer, but I use Smile.Amazon.com to send a portion of the sale to a local nonprofit.

May this pointer make your holiday shopping more efficient and laser targeted.

Happy Gifting and Reading!

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Cut Sleeve

Recommended: Read Crossings Cast of Characters

_____

Nian Awakes 1868

Donner Summit:

Donner Mountain trembled when Nian woke. Yawning, her jagged teeth glisten in the light of the round moon as a frigid white wave churns down a steep slope, snapping pine trees like chopsticks. Hunger and the smell of sustenance drove Nian’s movements. In this strange land, she located a field planted with rotting young men. Close to the surface, one paw scrape revealed juicy carcasses she scooped into her mouth. Careful not to shatter bones, she sucks them clean, spitting out neat piles, ready for bundling and overseas transport. Nian senses anxious thoughts of people huddled like mice beneath the deep snow. All of them, save one, missing family gatherings and the safety they provide. As the year of the Rabbit ends, they ready supplies to defend themselves from the Nian.

Inside a rough wooden cabin engulfed by a thirty-foot snowdrift, Gee Lee pitched his bed covers. Delirious, he sought icy air to tame his fire. Once it touched him, he shivered, curling into a ball.

Foshan had been nursing bossy-man for three days, leaving their camp cooking to inexperienced hands. Foshan hadn’t seen Lee sick during the two years they’d worked at Donner Summit. Lee claimed his good health was maintained by a steady diet of Ginseng and mushrooms.

Time spent prepping food with Mr. Gee had been the best and worst of Foshan’s life. Two years older, Lee radiated confidence as he ordered supplies and advocated for spices from home. His management style was firm, yet respectful. The man was devoted to his wife, and their young daughter; he regretted not seeing his son born before he left.

Lee’s shoulders were wide, his grip strong, and his voice felt like velvet brushing over Foshan’s skin. Worst of all, were Lee’s knowing grins while he offered womanly advice. “If your female behaves like warm cheese, she will be receptive when you approach her for clouds and rain; remaining faithful to marriage vows keeps vices from enslaving one while sojourning.”

Laughing with him, Foshan replied, “Do you consider cutting the emperor’s sleeve a vice?”

“Making love to a man?”

“It satisfies the urges,” Foshan replied, his eyes bright.

As if seeing Foshan for the first time, Lee’s smile faded, “I know, but I could not touch a man the same way I touch my wife.”

Foshan’s hope plummeted. He held his breath while turning away so Lee wouldn’t notice his disappointment.

____

Betrayal

Guangzhou:

Across the ocean, Liu was thankful the village had emptied for the Spring Festival. Round and ripe, she needed to escape the confines of the house. Since she’d learned of her pregnancy, Liu stayed hidden while her sister-in-law, Ai, paraded in public with padding over her belly. Mama Gee decided that Liu’s baby would be raised as Yang’s son.

Her mother-in-law’s plan meant that Liu could prevent her husband from knowing her shame.

As tall grass brushed against her calves, Liu couldn’t help worrying about Mama Gee’s assumption. What if the child was a girl? Liu wished Nian would take it.

Going to their secluded warm spring, the place Lee first introduced her to the delights of the flesh, felt like another betrayal of the man she loved. But there was no other place Liu wanted to be, except with him on Donner Mountain.

_______

Sick

Donner Summit:

Bathing Lee’s forehead and giving him tea wasn’t helping. For the first time since Lee had taken ill, Foshan feared that bossy-man might die. Even thinking this thought could attract the Nian!

During the latest storm, the tunnel between Lee’s quarters and the kitchen collapsed, cutting them off. No one had cleared it and Foshan wasn’t about to leave Lee to do the excavation. Their tiny room felt as far away as China, and as silent as a tomb.

____

Smoky Flavors

Guangzhou & Donner Summit:

Mama Gee in Guangzhou and Foshan on the summit worked to guard their space.

Pulling red cloth from storage they hung it on walls and draped it over furniture. They fed paper money to hearth flames while praying to ancestors for protection.

Drawing in a breath, Nian tasted the smoky flavors. Donner Mountain quaked when she growled.

____

Yang

Donner Summit:

Lee’s mind was as untethered and as windblown as paper lanterns released to the night sky. As the ground shuddered, his thoughts settled upon the source of his misery. “Norden?” Lee muttered. “How bad?”

Foshan wrung out another cloth, laying it on Lee’s forehead. “It’s a dream, Mr. Gee,” or a nightmare, he thought.

Following a messenger, Lee struggled up through the snow shaft coming into the midday light. Unaccustomed to the brightness, his eyes streamed like a woman in mourning. Shouts from a distance drew him in their direction.

At the mountain’s peak, Lee saw the opposite hillside swept clean. Stacks of lumber, wagons, mules, wooden tunnel frames and cabins were gone. Silence, where there should have been hubbub, made Lee’s breath hitch. In the valley below, splintered beams poked through the remains of a frozen tsunami like porcupine quills.

Joining men racing to save survivors, Lee saw fingers, shaped liked unmoving claws, and bloody legs separated from torsos. If not for jewel-colored sparkles winking across a sugar-dusted expanse, Lee would have thought the debris field resembled destruction rendered by a Bei River flood.

Like a dog frantically digging for a bone, Lee’s hands gyrated as he screamed, “Yang! Yang!”

Grasping Lee’s forearms, Foshan needed Lee to understand, “It’s not real!”

Sobbing, Lee ranted. “You told me to protect him, to make sure both your sons returned.”

Foshan wiped Lee’s tears, trying to soothe him. His heart fractured a little more with every word.

“I failed you, Mother!”

Gentle hands stroking Lee’s neck and chest calmed him into sleep while his inner vision replayed the next scenes.

Skies cleared and the sun-warmed. Snow warrens cracked open, forming deep channels directing swift flows of spring run-off.

Every day, names of the dead were read after meals. Lee had known them all but the name he dreaded hearing remained absent. Could Yang have run away? Maybe he was lounging in an opium den in San Francisco?

When a messenger came to stand beside his butcher block, Lee placed his knife flat on the work surface, following suit with his hands. Leaning all his weight over his wrists, he bowed his head.

“You must come,” the man said while pulling at stitches on his hat.

For the first time, Lee wished he were on a tunnel crew, blasting holes in impenetrable rock or carrying nitroglycerin from Howden’s mixing station into the widening mountain gap.

Arriving on the scene, Lee saw his brother standing where they’d uncovered him. A hammer, clutched in his right hand, raised above his head while his left supported a beam. His eyes were open. There were concentration lines between his brows, he was biting his lower lip. If his skin were not gray, if his eyes not cloudy, and his clothes not sopping, Lee could believe Yang would continue his next action.

Lee rode in the wagon with Yang, watching his body relax. Holding his hand over his brother’s eyes until they warmed, Lee drew down his lids.

Remaining with him, Lee watched as they stripped his clothes, bundled him in coarse cloth, placed him in a shallow grave, and covered him with mud.

The enormity of being the last Gee left, solely responsible for his parents, their wives and children settled on Lee’s shoulders as heavy as any granite boulder pulled out of the tunnel shaft.

Not, since watching his wife from the boat deck, growing smaller and indistinct, had Lee yearned for her with such power. “Liu, Liu,” He crooned, reaching for her, weeping.

____

A Wife’s Comforting Touch

Something Else:

As if summoned by the water gods, Lee opened his eyes to see Liu floating before him, her hair loose, suspended around her head, her face showing a mixture of confusion and pleasure. Lee ran his thumb along her cheek. Opening his arms, she came to him, pressing herself against his chest, wrapping her legs around his waist.

Burrowing his face against her neck, it didn’t occur to Lee that breathing was unnecessary.

When Liu first dove into the pool, she was startled to find her husband. Believing it was a visitation beyond the grave, she was paralyzed. But when she felt his touch, when she saw his wounded expression, and heard his voice in her mind saying, Yang is dead, she knew it was something else.

Clinging to him, she didn’t notice her stomach was flat.

Do you remember the first time I brought you here? Lee asked.

You said the water’s buoyancy would allow me to control the pain. Blowing bubbles, Liu’s eyes crinkled at the edges with her smile.

Did it?

Liu grinned, reaching down, she took hold of his rigid shaft.

At her wifely greeting, Lee bucked, sending a milky spray into the water. When he was capable of communication, Lee apologized, I dream of pleasuring you with exquisite leisure, my Willow, but I’ve been without you so long I lost control.

And I…. Liu, hesitated, remembering what she had to hide. Leaning in, she pressed her lips to his, Hold me!

They caressed and kissed, muscles tightening and releasing, as fluid as octopi in a coupling ballet. They repeated ravenous acts of love until contentment cocooned them like mists over mountain tops.

Floating with Liu’s back pressed to Lee’s chest. Lee unhurriedly caressed her. Mother will be devastated when she learns she’s lost another son, his thoughts said.

Yes, Liu agreed. YOU must return to me, I wouldn’t want to live without you!

Never say such a thing! Our children need you, I need you. Lee’s strokes moved down her torso.

Liu could feel the change in his body when his hands discovered something unexpected. Stiffening, she realized her encumbrance had reappeared. Ripping herself from his hold, Liu broke the water’s surface, inhaling an anguished lungful of air.

___

Following the Year of the Rabbit

Donner Summit:

Lee also jerked to wakefulness, squinting as his cabin came into focus. Still reaching for his wife, he called groggily, “Liu?”

She was sitting at the end of his bed, rumpled bed sheets draped around her hips. Her long hair cascading over a shoulder, the curve of her back glowed in the firelight.

“Come back to me, Love,” Lee smiled, holding out a hand.

A volley of firecrackers detonating outside heralded in the year of the Yellow Earth Dragon.

When his partner faced him, Lee’s afterglow erupted in a white, hot flash of fury.

Foshan!

Frightened by the noise and explosives, Nian retreated to the shadows. Licking her jowls, she sighed. Frozen, sweet corpse flesh appeased her gnawing hunger. Inhaling a mother’s excruciating grief tasted of fish roe, salty splashes of placental fluid exploding under her tongue. Two new purple feathers appeared in Nian’s mane. Betrayal and forbidden desire tasted of savory dumplings, a satisfying sticky lump, swallowed whole. Fresh yellow feathers appeared, gleaming in the lunar light.

Leaping into the heavens the monster followed the year of the Rabbit around the globe until reaching the South China Sea.

Settling into her underwater cave, Nian let the tropical warmth lull her into a restful year-long sleep.

Author’s Note:

Based on Chinese New Year legends and records from the Donner Summit Historical Society many elements are cultural and nonfictional.

Monster embellishment is an author vide! My additions to Nian include; her hibernation and feathers, her effect on snow slides, and her hunger for death and betrayal.

The title for this piece is a wordplay on “Cut Sleeve” a Chinese narrative about homosexuality written by Pu Songling in the seventeenth century.

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Haylee Period of Change

 

1982

Most of the girls Haylee’s age started getting their periods at thirteen. Haylee was well aware of this because those who were, “on the rag” didn’t have to shower in gym class. It was almost an honor and a sign that a girl had moved into womanhood.

When Haylee turned fourteen and was practically the last girl not to have gotten her period, her schoolmates started talking about it.

At fifteen, still periodless, and showing no signs of physical maturation, the gym teacher called Haylee into her office and started asking embarrassing questions. Mortified, Haylee quietly informed the teacher that the women in her family had always been very late bloomers — she was grasping at straws — and that she was sure that it would happen any day.

The teacher, who was quite fond of the quiet, intelligent girl, looked doubtful. She empathized with Haylee’s discomfort, and she knew that with Haylee’s mother gone, the girl probably had no one to confide in. “Haylee, I’m not trying to embarrass you. It may be true that you are a late bloomer, but it could also be that something’s wrong, like a hormone imbalance. I’ve discussed it with the school nurse and —”

“How could you talk about this with someone else? It’s none of your business!” Haylee shouted. She felt as if she had been kicked in the stomach. Tears welled up in her eyes.

“It is my business, Haylee,” the teacher replied sadly. “Teachers have a responsibility to look after the welfare of their students. If it appears that a parent is neglecting —”

“What? You’re saying my father is doing something wrong because I’m not…” her brow furrowed. Haylee searched for the right words,“…growing up?”

“This is important, Haylee. You are not progressing normally; I have to call your father to make sure you see a doctor.”

“No! Just leave me alone and stay away from my father!” Haylee yelled as she practically jumped for the door. She felt trapped and needed air.

֎ ֎ ֎

Even before her talk with her gym teacher, Haylee had wondered if there was something wrong. At first, she was convinced that she had cancer eating away her insides, keeping her from growing. As she got older, she worried that she had a congenital disorder that stunted her growth.

Not long after what Haylee thought of as “The Big Period Incident,” she ordered herself a bra through a catalog and started stuffing herself. She also became an expert at avoiding gym class.

Despite her worries, Haylee stayed bal­anced. She enjoyed learning and took pleasure in her classes, easily outshining the other students.

When all of her chores on the farm were done for the day and she’d fixed her father dinner, Haylee would go outside and climb up on the old tractor. It sat rusting behind the barn. From there, she’d watch the sunset

The cool, evening air, as it caressed her face, had her smiling. She thought about how much she loved caring for their pigs, chickens and horses. The pictures and thoughts that they shared with her made her feel accepted as part of them. They saw her…really saw her. This was something that Haylee desperately needed.

֎ ֎ ֎

Seventeen-year-old Haylee was sure that she had a migraine, even though she’d never had one before. The excruciating pain started at her temples and radiated out like pinpoint pricks of burning sparks that crackled through her bloodstream. With eyes squinted into slits, Haylee, had to draw in deep breaths to keep her stomach contents where they belonged. Haylee gently managed the half-mile walk from the bus stop to her house.

The cool interior darkness that enveloped her as she crossed the threshold offered a fleeting sense of relief. Within moments, she was clammy and trembling again.

She held onto the walls to make her way to the bathroom. Once there, she let her book bag drop and crawled like a suffering supplicant toward the porcelain deity. After twenty minutes of dry heaves, she thankfully welcomed its cool countenance along the side of her face as she crouched there, embracing it for another ten minutes.

When it appeared that her world had ceased its sickening gyrations, Haylee gingerly moved a few inches to test her theory. I think it’s getting better, she thought. Although the agony persisted, the nausea had lessened.

Stooping carefully to retrieve her bag, Haylee didn’t bother to glance in the mirror as she shuffled toward her bedroom. Returning shortly in her bathrobe, she reached into the shower to turn on the hot water. If she had not been so preoccupied, she would have been shocked by what the mirror revealed. Dark hair hung limply around an ashen face. Her lips were gray. Her straight, angular body had become more rounded.

Shakily, she stepped over the edge of the tub. The cascading water soothed her, but only temporarily. Lost in a dull haze, but not knowing what else to do, Haylee stood there, eyes closed, remaining as still as possible.

At some point, her father started knocking on the bathroom door. Feebly, she responded. She was relieved when he finally left. Long after the water had turned cold and the house had become silent, she stepped out of the shower.

Laboriously, she slipped on her robe. The mirror reflected even more startling changes. Her hands and arms had begun to take on pronounced lines. Her neck, shoulders, hips, and legs had developed a graceful quality. The hurt she experienced blinded her to all else, but somewhere in the back of her mind, it registered that her robe was too small.

Without turning on the lights, Haylee went to her room. Feeling for the electric blanket controls, she cranked the heat up to high. Crawling under the covers, she curled into a ball.

֎ ֎ ֎

Frequently, with only the hum of appliances and the ticking of the clock for company, Haylee wished that her dad would linger for breakfast ─ but not today. She was grateful that he had left at first light. Rushing to put on baggy sweats, she raced to the kitchen driven by fierce cravings. She was ravenous!

Barely able to contain her desires, she opened the refrigerator and grabbed the first thing her hand landed on — milk. After a half dozen lusty swallows, the empty carton landed with a dull thud in the middle of the kitchen floor. Empty cheese wrappers followed by cold cut wrappers, mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup bottles, an empty pickle jar, Tupperware containers that had held Tuna Helper leftovers, a tray from what was left of a pineapple upside-down cake and an empty egg carton were added to the pile.

Haylee paused to survey the bare refrigerator shelves for anything else of interest. A deep burp, that tasted like mustard and tuna, bubbled up her throat. Not a bad combination… Haylee rejected the horseradish and jalapeno condiments. Resting one hand on her stomach while wiping goo from her face with the back of the other, Haylee thought. I don’t feel like puking after eating all of that! Another belch erupted, followed by more hungry gurgles.

Haylee began riffling through the cupboards next. Soon the plinking of empty tin cans sounded as they hit the floor. With a glassy look in her eyes, she licked food remnants from the dirty dishes in the sink. Consciously, she had stopped herself from tossing the Corel plates and bowls into her heap. Although the advertisements claimed that they were unbreakable, Haylee knew this was not true. Everything even remotely edible that could be gleaned from the trashcan was added to the increasing refuse pile in the middle of the room.

Haylee took a deep breath and sighed. She wandered over to the couch. What a relief not to feel starved! Her head barely landed on the cushion before she fell fast asleep.

֎ ֎ ֎

Something roused her from her nap shortly before her dad was due to come in for lunch. Yawning, Haylee sat up, arched her back and stretched. She opened and closed her mouth, testing it’s parched, cottony texture. Cupping a hand over it, she expelled hot breath while taking a whiff to see if it smelled. The scent of fish, sour milk and onions made her frown. Thinking that she needed to brush her teeth, Haylee stood up. It was then that she noticed the state of the kitchen. “Did I do ALL that?”

It looked like a cyclone had gone through and pulled everything out of the shelves except for the plates, glasses, and silverware. A tingling underneath her skin had Haylee absently scratching her extremities. Something else felt funny. Reaching up to her chest, Haylee found sensitive mounds that filled her hands. She pulled the neckline of her sweatshirt away so she could look inside, “Holy!….” Her heart pounded as she explored that rest of her new contours. With a sense of wonder and delight, Haylee let out a sigh. So I was right!

Her eyes darted back to the mess in the kitchen. Dad’s going to be here soon! Leaping into action, she pulled out a roll of garbage bags. Haylee began shoving loose items into them. In under thirty minutes, she’d filled five! After hauling the trash bags outside, she returned to mop and wipe down the counters. At least, it smells fresh, Haylee thought as she surveyed her handy-work.

֎ ֎ ֎

The slam of the screen door announced her father’s arrival. He was greasy from crawling around under the walnut shaker. Not saying ‘hello,’ he paused at her side, took a quick sniff, raised his eyebrows, then continued striding toward the kitchen. Hesitating, he turned back, “Aren’t you supposed to be in school today?”

Knotting her fists in the fabric of her sweatshirt, Haylee hid most of the stains from her recent activity ─ as well as a few other developments ─ “Ahhh….. I wasn’t feeling good, so I stayed home.”

“Huh,” Eugene muttered before turning around to continue. Haylee held her breath as he reached for the refrigerator door.

“Aw, crap!” his voice sounded hollow coming from inside the appliance. “I don’t have time to go shopping today.” He straightened and looked at Haylee. “How can we be completely out of food?”

She smiled sheepishly, “A couple of friends from school stopped by to bring my missed assignments. They were hungry, so I told them that they could raid the kitchen.”

Nodding, he sighed. “They did. Going to have to wait till tonight before I can run into town. Make a shopping list?”

“Sure.” Haylee wondered how he could so easily accept her made-up story.

“I’ve got some beef jerky in the truck. Want me to bring you some?” he asked as he breezed past. The screen door slammed again before she had a chance to reply.

“I’m feeling better, Dad. Thank you so much for asking.”

֎ ֎ ֎

That night, Haylee slept fitfully. A headache had started again. By midnight, she was curled into a ball, feeling nauseous and dizzy. What’s wrong with me? her mind screamed.

After spending more than three hours in agony and terror, Haylee’s body suddenly jerked as a piercing, sharp pain ripped through her abdominal area. With swelling eyes, she opened her mouth to scream and found that she couldn’t breathe. Her heart was pounding so hard and fast, she thought it would burst. She panicked and clawed at her throat, leaving angry red marks. Her eyes rolled back in her head.

Sometime later, she roused. The pain was still with her, but she was able to move. She noticed that her legs felt warm and slippery. She reached over to turn on her bedside lamp. Looking down, she was horrified to find that she was lying in a pool of blood. Inhaling a shaky, ragged breath, her throat constricted. Daddy, …please help me, I’m so scared.

After a struggle, Haylee managed to get herself onto her feet. She could see thick ribbons of dark red snaking their way down her legs. “Daddy,” she croaked, starting to weep. Holding onto the furniture and swaying, Haylee slowly inched her way to the bathroom. Once there, she collapsed unceremoniously into the bathtub. Sinking into a blessed darkness where the pain didn’t follow, Haylee felt sure that she would never wake up.

Usually a heavy sleeper, Eugene woke with a start. A glance at the clock on his nightstand told him the time was 4:00 a.m. Fuzzily, he wondered what roused him. A strong smell of gardenias brought him fully awake. He wondered if it was left over from a dream he’d been having about his late wife, Doris.

He fumbled for the switch on his bedside lamp. Temporarily blinded by the illumination, Gene’s eyes squeezed shut. He scrambled to put on his clothes.

Flipping on the hallway light, he immediately spotted the dark pools of liquid and what looked like dragging footprints on the floor. When it dawned on him what he was seeing, Gene’s heart thudded. “Jesus in Heaven!” he muttered as he ran down the hall. Bursting into Haylee’s bathroom, Gene took in the scene.

His daughter lay in a heap in the tub, looking as white as a corpse. The bottom half of her nightshirt was soaked with blood, and her legs were smeared with it. “Haylee!” he cried. A fresh, steady stream was pooling and dripping down the drain.

Falling to his knees, he grabbed her shoulders. “Haylee! Haylee! Can you hear me?”

She was limp. He felt for a pulse. It was there, but it was fast and weak. Reaching for a towel, he stuffed it tightly between her thighs to stanch the flow. Gently gathering her up in his arms, Eugene ran to his truck, saying all the way, “Dear God, I beg you, please don’t take my girl away from me too!”

Stretching Haylee out on the bench seat, Gene cradled her head in his lap. With unsteady hands, he struggled to put his key in the ignition. He looked at them and saw them covered with blood. It was almost his undoing. Closing his eyes, he told himself that he had to stay calm.

Arriving at the hospital, he raced around the truck to scoop her up. The towel he had used to staunch her bleeding was soaked through. “Argh!” he exclaimed. Hastily, he ripped off his shirt to replace the sodden towel. When they burst through the emergency room door, Gene’s eyes were wild.

Immediately, Haylee was whisked away. Gene made a move to follow, but a nurse blocked his way. He would have fought to get past her but stopped when she told him that if he wanted to help, he would have to stay out of the doctor’s way.

Looking down, he saw a petite, redhead with intense blue eyes regarding him. In a firm but hushed tone, she said, “She’s in good hands.”

He nodded, “She has to be alright.” His voice was strained.

The nurse directed him to a quiet, empty treatment room where she had him sit on a table. Coming back from closing the door, she brought tissues, rubber gloves, and moist towels to clean him up. As she reached out to hand him a tissue, she found herself caught in his grasp. He pulled her close and laid his head on her chest. His large body shook with deep soul-shattering sobs.

Gene realized his tears were more than just fear of the danger that Haylee was in. They were self-loathing for ignoring Haylee after her mother’s death, and dread that he would never have a chance to tell her he was sorry.

֎ ֎ ֎

Feeling euphoric, Haylee noticed a light, floating sensation. Hearing muted voices, she struggled to become fully conscious.

Her dad’s face came into view. She wondered why he looked so tired. There were deep lines on his forehead and around his eyes.

He reached out to brush the hair off of her forehead. Seeing her eyes focus on him, he turned to speak to someone. “I think she’s coming around.”

A woman’s face appeared. A bright light was di­rected in one eye and then the other. The woman spoke to Gene. “She’s stronger.”

Haylee could hear muted voices from a distance. Then her father was back. His hand felt warm and strong when held hers. “Haylee, do you know where you are?”

Frowning, she moved her head slightly. “You’re in the hospital. I brought you in early this morning.”

Closing her eyes, Haylee nodded.

“You are going to be just fine.” He rubbed her hand. “You need to rest. Go back to sleep. I’ll be right here.”

֎ ֎ ֎

Sitting in a chair next to her, Gene watched his daughter. For the first time, he noticed that she was looking a lot like her mother. Now, instead of cringing, that thought brought on a resigned smile.

Gene could tell that the doctor felt uncomfortable informing him that, “The only thing we can determine at this point in time is that she was having an unusually heavy menses.”

Dr. Lester was a tall, dark-haired woman in her fifties. “Her bleeding has stopped on its own. She appears to be out of danger, but I’d like to keep her for observation.”

Gene pushed the doctor for answers. With a few short, icy words, she told him that they would do everything they could.

Feeling unsettled but relieved to have made it through the crisis, Gene returned to Haylee’s bedside.

֎ ֎ ֎

When Haylee woke the next morning, that insatiable hunger had returned. Confined in a situation where she wouldn’t be able to satisfy it, she began to panic. She had to get out of there!

Between nursing shifts, Haylee asked her dad to go buy her a magazine. As soon as he was out the door, Haylee was out of bed and buttoning his jacket up over her hospital gown. Peeking into the corridor, she waited until it was clear. Spotting a laundry cart, she grabbed it and wheeled it away while searching for a sign that would direct her to the staff locker room.

In street clothes, it was easy to exit the building. Once free, Haylee ran, and ran, and ran. She made one stop, in a dumpster behind a grocery store. Hunger satisfied, for now, she burped forcefully. Her hands hurt ─ they ached deep down in the joints and had begun to feel hot. Making the decision not to worry over, yet, more weirdness, Haylee resumed her run.

In her front yard, Haylee stretched, feeling abundantly strong and powerful. There was another sensation there also, something strange and different. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was. Just then, a bug landed on her arm. When she moved to swipe it away, she heard a —thwap. She stared in astonishment. There was web­bing between her fingers! She wiggled them noticing the increased resistance. She flicked the other hand—thwap! Now this hand had the webs too! They glistened and sparkled. When the webs were out, she felt a potent energy humming just below the surface of her skin, as if it were waiting to burst forth.

She flicked both hands at the same time—thwap! The webs were gone! She practiced making them appear and disappear until her fingers grew sore.

֎ ֎ ֎

Her dad had let her wear some of her mother’s clothes since none of her own fit anymore. Wearing a halter dress and sandals instead of jeans, cowboy boots, and snap-up shirts, Haylee’s classmates didn’t recognize her when she returned to school.

Speaking to no one in the corridor, Haylee shyly met many of the eyes trained on her. She saw interest in the boys’ faces and looks of scorn on the girls.

When she answered, “Here,” to roll call in homeroom, silence fell as everyone turned in her direction. Scrunching down as far as she could, Haylee shut her eyes and willed everyone to stop gawking.

Regaining his own composure, the teacher cleared his throat, “Well, Haylee…you are looking well. I mean…did you have one of those glamor make-overs?”

The highlight of Haylee’s day had been Curtis ─ a boy she’d loved since fifth grade. He’d never looked twice at her. Recently broken up with his latest in a long list of girlfriends, he’d sought her out. “I heard that you suddenly turned ‘hot.’ I had to come to see for myself.”

Thirty minutes later, he’d asked Haylee out for her first date.

֎ ֎ ֎

The night was clear and the stars twinkled brightly as Curtis drove his Ford pick-up. Haylee sat close to him on the bench seat. She willed herself to relax. When he turned the truck onto a deserted levee and parked about a quarter mile off of the main road, Haylee’s heart began to beat quickly. She could feel herself starting to perspire.

“This is my ‘getaway’ place. I’ve never brought a girl here before,” he said as he hopped out of his door.

“Oh,” Haylee responded, feeling pleased.

Holding hands, they walked a little way. Turning a corner, they came upon a train track that went out over a trestle with the river flowing below. Helping her onto the railroad ties, they sat down on a rail. Curtis fished a couple of pennies out of his pocket showing her that the two coins had the current year. “I thought we could put them on the tracks to have the train fuse them together so we could remember our first date,” he explained as he put them in place.

Haylee was touched. “How nice!”

He leaned toward her to plant a soft kiss on her lips. It was over before she realized what he had done.

“We’ll have that memento before too long,” he whispered. He returned to kiss her again. This time lingering and gently coaxed a response.

Small rumbles began then, in Haylee’s core and the ones on the tracks.

Haylee was so absorbed, that it was a few moments before she realized that Curtis’s hand was on her breast. Shocked, she moved so she could push him away. Tearing his mouth from hers, Curtis whispered, “Don’t!”

Wedging her arms between them, Haylee complained, “Let go!”

Curtis held her tightly, “Relax. I won’t hurt you.”

Haylee could hear annoyance and frustration in his tone.

“I said stop!” she yelled. On its heels, another wave of quivering radiated through her middle, stronger this time.

“What the….?” Curtis said.

The train lights appeared a few miles out. Curtis jumped to his feet, pulling Haylee with him as he started walking quickly toward the river.

“Where are you going?” Haylee asked. Her voice was several octaves higher than before.

“Kick off your shoes,” he directed as he kept tugging her onward. The ground beneath them dropped away as they started across the trestle.

Bending over to grab a shoe in each hand, Haylee could feel herself trembling. Glints of moonlight undulated on the surface of the water.

Jumping from railroad tie to tie, they jogged between the iron tracks. Curtis urged her to hurry. Looking behind them, she saw the train approaching ─ fast!

“Curtis!” she shrieked.

Run!” He clutched her wrist and squeezed. He smiled with a wicked gleam in his eye.

Haylee’s heart hammered wildly. The tracks shook. She pulled her arm away from him, so she could focus on running.

The sound of the high, plaintive whistle was ear shattering. Curtis laughed, but Haylee couldn’t hear it.

They were about twenty yards from the far edge of the bridge when the train rolled onto the trestle. Running for her life, Haylee screamed. Adrenalin effectively masked the tremors that had her quaking from the inside out. The heavy rumble from the massive amount of iron and steel breathing down their necks had Haylee thinking about how her dad would feel when he found out how she had been killed. Haylee was preparing for the impact when she was roughly yanked at a right angle. She went flying, before tumbling down a grassy embankment.

It took a few moments to realize that she was still alive, that she had stopped moving, and that the engine and its cars were rolling past them. Nothing appeared to be broken. A white-hot anger flared up. Locating Curtis, she crawled toward him. He was laying on his back, laughing and shouting about how great that was!

Cursing, Haylee hit him with balled fists.

While holding her hands, he dragged her over to him and began kissing her. She struggled. He rolled on top of her. Between wet kisses, he kept repeating, “You are so awesome!” Curtis held her in place while grinding his hips into her pelvis. Haylee could feel his excitement.

The vibrations within Haylee intensified. Something shifted in her mind.

She ceased to be afraid. A foreign desire had taken over. It was something that didn’t care about boys with busy hands and dangerous senses of humor. It didn’t care about the physical act of intimacy. It wanted something much deeper than that.

Haylee lay beneath him, unnaturally still.

Curtis noticed that the fight had gone out of her and paused to look. Alarmed at what he saw, he rolled off her.

She sat up abruptly, considering him with a steely gaze.

Unnerved, Curtis scrambled to back away, he looked all around as if searching for an escape route.

Haylee stood up, still holding his eyes with hers. She unfastened her belt, letting it drop. In one simple movement, she removed her dress. Clad only in her underwear, Haylee wasn’t shy or embarrassed. “Is this what you want?” she asked in a slow, sultry tone.

Curtis couldn’t take his eyes off her now. He inhaled deeply, nodding. His breath caught in his throat, he reached out, bringing her to a kneeling position. He began kissing her again. Haylee did not resist. She made encouraging sounds. She did not want to frighten him again.

His hands roamed in places that would have had her fighting against him if she’d still been in her right mind. Greedily, Curtis clawed at her clothing. When Haylee felt the hooks of her bra let loose, she violently flipped him over.

An ‘oof’ escaped him as he slammed against the ground with a thud. With a detached point of view, like she was watching someone else, Haylee observed as her fingers, the webbing, in particular, molded themselves perfectly around the contours of his face.

Struggling furiously, Curtis tried to peel it away. His eyes bulged as he battled using every ounce of strength to save his life. The more he thrashed the tighter the webs adhered.

Witnessing the gruesome process was fascinating. As was the fact that it barely took any effort to hold him down. At the moment that Curtis accepted his fate, Haylee closed her eyes.

A feeling of indescribably sweet euphoria filled her. Infused with a glowing liquid light, all tension dissipated. With sparkling eyes, Haylee raised her weightless gaze to the stars. The webbed hand that had been bonded to Curtis’s mouth and nose released. Slowly and delicately, she lifted it away. She took a deep breath and stood—stretching languidly. In a daze, Haylee stood up and walked around to get used to this new sensation. Her lungs filled and expanded with breaths that drew in more air than she ever thought possible. Her thoughts came as swift as lightning. This is what all the strange things were leading up to!

After a while, Haylee wandered back to where Curtis lay, pale and trembling. Her eyes grew wide as she realized that she now knew a lot of things about him.

A surprise — since he always seemed so cool and confident — were the many nights he’d spent alone and afraid in an empty house when he was too young to fend for himself. His parents drank too much and fought too viciously. A distasteful look crossed her face when she learned that he planned to have sex with her and then describe it in graphic detail to his buddies at school.

Haylee dressed slowly. When she finished, she stood over him, watching. His pink skin glowed against the dark grass. He squirmed weakly reminding her of a maggot removed from its food source. How did I ever think that I loved him? she wondered. Haylee picked up his clothes and threw them in a heap near his feet. “Get dressed!” she demanded. When there was no response, she squatted next to him, shaking his shoulder. “Put your clothes on!”

He turned toward her. Haylee was startled to see the look on his face — or rather, the lack of a look on his face. It was as if he were asleep with his eyes open. In that instant, she understood that he was a shell emptied of its contents. Those…were now inside of her.

Haylee realized that he was not capable of putting his clothes on without help. Muddling through that awkward task, Haylee got him to his feet and tugged on his hand. His mechanical actions smoothed out and began to look almost normal once they got going. She led him back across the trestle.

On the other side, Haylee relived those awful moments running across the bridge and the shock of what she’d done to him.

Reaching the spot where he’d placed the pennies, her eyes scanned the area. Not far away, they lay on the track, blended together into one. Haylee picked up the fused metal. Her first thought was to put it in his pocket, but then she changed her mind.

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Author and Character Talk between Haylee Books

Between Haylee and the Traveler’s Stone and Haylee and the Last Traveler, the author has a conversation with the main character.

Wake up, Haylee.

“Go away Joey, I am trying to sleep.” Haylee flung a warm pillow out from under the covers. With no specific direction in mind, the soft projectile was meant to disrupt the cat’s plan to get her out of bed.

I thought we could talk for a few moments.

“Joey! Come on!” Haylee complained.

This isn’t Joey.

“Huh?” Haylee responded. She cracked her eyes into thin slits and scanned the room. Accustomed to hearing voices in her head, she took a moment to assess the quality of this particular one. It was not totally foreign; she’d heard it before…

Now that she was focusing on it, she understood that it was not Joey or any other animal. Animals didn’t form words and complete sentences. They sent a series of flowing visual images with emotions attached.

It wasn’t a thought from any of her victims either. After being absorbed into her mind during Haylee’s unusual feeding process, they were mere memories. When she was finished with them, they didn’t make new ones.

Re-asserting her tight clamp-down on those, Haylee was suddenly wide awake. She threw back the blankets and scrambled out of bed. Already wearing sweats, she threw on a jacket, slipped into a pair of shoes, and ran a comb quickly through her dark, curly mass of hair.

She was out of the apartment in less than ten minutes. The streets of Berkeley, California were not as busy as they usually were at this time of day, but there were enough people around to make Haylee feel part of something larger. Thinking that the voice was a dream remnant, she let relief trickle down her spine.

You can tell Josh all about this conversation when you see him.

Haylee stopped in mid-stride. A forty-something, dark-skinned man carrying a to-go coffee grumbled, “Watch where you are going, Miss!” He extended his hot cup away from his body while barely avoiding a collision.

“Sorry,” she muttered.

“Who are you?” Haylee asked, looking up and all around. The coffee man, glanced over his shoulder, frowned, and picked up his pace.

I can’t tell you that, but I want you to know that I am someone who cares.

“Are you my mom?”

Not exactly.

“Alright, whoever you are, what do you want and why are you talking to me?”

A pair of female students, seeing the young woman gesturing and speaking out loud, crossed to the other side of the street.

I want you to know that when I kill you, you won’t suffer and that your time here has had a much bigger purpose.

You are going to kill me? I don’t think so. I’m dying because all of the women in my family have some weird inherited thing that happens after they give birth.”

A husky blonde came out of a store with her son. They emerged near where Haylee was standing. The precocious boy pointed. “Mommy, that lady is talking to a ghost.”

The mother shushed him and hurried them toward their car.

That’s right. Why do you think that is?

A suspicious look crossed Haylee’s face. “I don’t know…. Do YOU?”

People are staring Haylee; you should keep walking. Yes, I am the only one who does.

Instead of walking, Haylee began to jog.

“Are you saying that it was your idea that I die at the age of twenty-three?”

You could have lived for a few years more if you hadn’t returned the souls that you stole. But it was the right thing to do.

“Not that I believe you, but did you also have something to do with my time jump to 1849 and…Reece?” her voice broke a little on the last word.

Of course. That is part of the story arc for the women of your lineage and the crystal fragments that you possess.

“Then you know about the Travelers and why they do what they do?”

Yes, and you will too before too much longer.

Haylee who had started running at top speed stopped to rest when she felt the energy of the voice begin to pull away.

“Wait! Are you saying that I’m not real? That my dad, Gori, Josh, and Serena aren’t real either?

You’re real to me and I love you all. You are like my children.

“I don’t accept this.”

I’m sorry.

“If this is true, why do I have to die? I don’t want to die! There’s so much more I want to do!”

I know.

“Josh needs to know about this! He thinks he can help. He’s started a research project.”

That is exactly what he needs to be doing. His work is going to be an important part of what happens next. But you won’t be able to tell him about this conversation because I have to wipe it out of your mind.

“What? Why?”

I need you to go into Haylee and the Last Traveler with no memory of it having taken place.



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Force of Will, An Arranged Marriage Ceremony

In two years, Gee Lee and his brother will travel to California to work on Donner Summit, chiseling granite for railroad tunnels.

1860 – Guangdong (Gwang dong) Provence, Qingyuan (Yengde)

His sixteen-year-old bride arrived in a gold-painted sedan chair. Carried by her brothers, the conveyance bobbed behind honking geese, herded by children dressed in red silk. Breeze-ruffled curtains concealed all but her profile and rigid posture.

Like a boy, Lee wished he could run down the lane, and pull back the cloth to see. But his upbringing would not allow him to dishonor the family. He remained in place, bland-faced, keeping his tumultuous emotions from showing.

As the procession drew near, Lee expected the geese to be shoo’ed inside their animal pen. Instead, the children formed a circle around the birds, using bamboo poles to avoid vicious snaps.

Stepping forward, the bride’s father declared, “ As tradition dictates, a wife must come to her husband with nothing, but my disobedient daughter refused to leave behind one item.” Smiling, Mr. Tie waved his arms at the flock, bowing deeply. “A messenger bird holds this item. You must decide what to do with it, Gee Lee.”
The gander stood at the center, feathers erect, beak open, hissing, tongue at full point. Dark eyes locked onto Lee, the enemy.

Crossing his arms, Lee nodded. Secured around the messenger’s neck was a bright blue ribbon; a yellow purse dangled from it. This was the first test of the marriage ceremony.

The wedding party expected Lee to refuse outright or walk through the flock, subjecting himself to injury. Lee took his time assessing, ignoring the sweat breaking out on his upper lip, as his exhilarating mating fantasies submerged under icy waters of responsibility.

He strode forward, taking two bamboo rods from the children. Lee directed them to move away. Tapping and swinging them, Lee drove the geese into the pen, separating the messenger.

Tossing the rods to the ground, Lee scooped a handful of pebbles while making a cautious advance. The gander raised its wings, lowered its head, and charged.
Lee threw stones in the bird’s face, deflecting the charge, but not before the infuriated fowl clipped the tender flesh above Lee’s knee. It clamped on; its beak like crab pincers, tearing the fabric and skin. Refusing to yell, Lee grabbed the ribbon while kicking at the animal. The purse dropped, landing in the dirt as the gander waddled away, rejoining its gaggle. Lee stared at the scene feeling a vein thumping in his temple.

Biting the inside of his cheek until he tasted blood, Lee willed himself to walk without limping, retrieving the purse. As he considered opening it, pitching it, or handing it over to his mother, a Confucian quote floated to the surface of his thoughts.

When it is obvious that goals cannot be reached, don’t adjust the goals, adjust the action steps.

Taking measured steps, Lee approached the sedan. After a thoughtful pause, he plunged his hand inside, offering the purse.

Nothing happened.

As he waited, anger sparked into a blaze, threatening to incinerate the curtains. It would be within his right to humiliate her, make her kneel before him in the open air.

When cool, trembling hands cupped his, Lee’s violent emotions plummeted. A shiver traveled down his spine.

From inside, a breathless, “thank you,” came as the purse lifted away.

With the return of Lee’s exhilarating fantasies, only the force of his will kept Lee from smiling.

_____

This scene is a writing sample I took to the 2019 Sierra Writers Conference to participate in a Critique Group facilitated by Dimitri Keriotis.

The piece was well-received. My favorite comment was from another group participant who said, “This is how I like learning about history.”

If you’d like to read more Crossings scenes, check out Donner Summit Ghost Story or Sleeve Cut, a Forbidden Chinese Year Story on Wattpad. (*Note* both of these scenes include embellished paranormal elements that will not be included in the novel.)

Observations, comments, and/or feedback is welcome and encouraged.

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Donner Summit Chinese Ghost Story & Contemporary Tunnel Hike Poem

Donner Summit Tunnel Ghost Story

A shrill scream, erupting suddenly in the darkness, sent prickles scuttling up their spines.

Bolin’s panic attack at the tunnel’s mouth made them late for their shift. Now they were alone, stumbling over rubble, feeling their way to the worksite.

According to Bolin, the ceiling was crawling with Jiang Shi (Jang-sure).

“I’ve got you,” Yáng said, gripping his arm above the elbow, squeezing like a vice.

“They’re watching!” Bolin shook his head as if he were trying to loosen clay marbles inside. Lurching forward, he broke Yáng’s hold.

It was Yáng and Foshan’s first day working in tunnel number six. Bolin had been here for a month. He was taller and more muscular than most of his countrymen. Once he started hammering a borehole, Bolin could do it in half the time as anyone else. The problem was getting him into the tunnel.

Upon arrival, a railroad gang leader informed Foshan and Yáng, “We work in teams of three.”

“Foshan is one of the best, but he’s been troubled since his brother’s death.”

“Stick with him, he’ll teach you all you need to know.”

Nitroglycerine was a new construction tool recently brought to the mountain. Blasting holes don’t have to be as deep as those for black powder. After detonation, there is less residual dust. Its downside is volatility. Slight movements or temperature shifts can set it off.

No one makes eye contact with the nitro carrier, bets are placed on how long he’ll last.

All work ceases when the nitro bearer arrives, stepping softly, holding his breath.

Bolin’s brother had been a nitro carrier. An untimely sneeze turned him into red rain.

Chinese dead must be buried with their ancestors. A soul is cursed if there are no remains.

In Chinese tradition, the dead must be buried on home soil. Systems are in place to return sojourner bones to China. When ancestors are gathered, the family grows stronger. Living relatives honor them with celebrations.

Spirits of the dead are cursed if they leave no human remains. Hun and po split. Po, the evil, foolish part lurks in the dark hunting for life force energy (qi), stealing it from the living. Once enough qi is gathered, the po can reanimate a dead body. Stiff and green with mold, they grow claw-like fingernails and fang-like teeth. Hopping, they move slowly, but they never stop. Ever.

Foshan trotted to keep up, patting Bolin’s back. “The power of legend is only as strong as your belief,” he soothed.

Bolin turned to stare with wide, torment-filled eyes. “You haven’t been here long enough to see most your friends die.” He tilted his chin toward Yáng, “or your brother.”

“True,” Foshan admitted, “but we can’t get lost in the bad. The living must inhabit our thoughts. Tell me of your children.”

Nodding, Bolin started, “I have a beautiful little girl.”

“I have a daughter too.” Foshan nudged him to walk while talking, “How old is yours?”

Approaching the rock face, Yáng hoisted a drill bar. Regarding the eight-pound sledgehammer in Foshan’s hand, he warned, “Don’t miss.”

A corner of Bolin’s mouth turned up. “Watch and learn.” Gripping high on the handle, he slid his opposite hand close to his hammer’s head.

Yáng tensed.

Bolin, swung the sledge high. The blow, ringing like a bell, sent shock waves through Yáng’s arms and shoulders.

Foshan, following Bolin’s example, raised his hammer. The heavy tool came down on Yáng’s hand.

“Idiot!” Yáng cried, holding up a broken, bloody finger. Diving at Foshan, Yáng pummeled him with his good fist.

Bolin broke them apart. It didn’t register immediately that he was frantic. “Stop!

“Jiang Shi are attracted by blood.”

It took several work crews and irate supervisors to calm the scuffle. The three were sent back to camp, ashamed.

Four months later, the brothers congratulated themselves for helping Bolin. By talking about their families, he could get in and out of the tunnel without incident. Bolin told them he could still see the Jiang Shi because his brother was one. “There are hundreds of them hanging from the ceiling. Their ears rotate, following sounds made by people below,” he confided.

Crews working at both ends of the tunnel, plus from the inside out, had broken through. The three had finished their most recent borehole. They took a break while waiting for the nitro carrier.

Yáng walked a short distance to stand behind a boulder. He was appreciating the fresh alpine breeze while creating a warm puddle near his feet.

A loud pop, a burst of air, and a wet spray pelted his back.

He knew.

 

___

Bolin was right, Yáng thought, as he entered the tunnel with his new crew. Hordes of menacing ghouls hung from the ceiling. Maniacal, green-tinged faces smiled at him revealing double rows of sharp teeth.

Two of them looked like Foshan and Bolin.

Yáng let loose a demented scream.

___

Tunnel Spirit Crossings Poem

To learn more about Bonnie McKeegan, her poetry, fiction, and therapeutic writing exercises click here.
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End Notes

The origins of mythical creatures, created from fear, to explain the, as yet, unexplainable is always an intriguing subject!

When background research for Crossings EAST revealed the Jiang Shi, I was thrilled. It took a considerable amount of thinking to decide to leave the paranormal element out of that story.

This short story was written to get the ‘paranormal’ out of my system before the work of deep character development begins on Crossings EAST, a historical fiction novel about Chinese railroad workers at Donner Pass.

Click here to read more of Lisa’s short stories.

___

Resources

Links to free video creation tools

Music & Sound Effects
https://www.zapsplat.com
SoundBible.com
YouTube Audio Library & Sound Effects

Photos & Stock Video
https://www.goodfreephotos.com
https://www.maxpixel.net
https://pixabay.com
https://pxhere.com

For additional free video creation tools (fonts, illustrations & clip art), click here.

 

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The Shape of Water Review, Continued Short Story, and Mermaid Book List

Do monsters fall in love? Can a human love a monster?  According to The Shape of Water, the answer to both those questions is, ‘yes.’

The Shape of Water is “an adult fairy tale for troubled times,” says Guillermo del Toro of the story for which he is most proud.

The Shape of Water is a feel-good must-see for monster lovers, lovers of love stories, and sci-fi fans.

The film’s color palette, the 1960’s cold wartime period, and costuming blend beautifully with the superbly crafted monster in a nostalgic tale of beauty and the beast. The shape of Guillermo’s story encompasses lonely, voiceless, disabled outsiders banding together for a greater good—saving an intelligent misunderstood and endangered creature.

In an interview, del Toro commented, “Success and failure are doors that stand side-by-side. You knock and see what happens.”

Happily, for its creator and for audiences everywhere the project turned out to be a resounding success. It is entertainment at its best with important messages…for troubled times.

 

Additional Themes: 

embracing the authentic self

self-acceptance

interspecies understanding and communication

different is valuable

even monsters are worthy of love

love overcomes fear

people with no ‘voice’ can make a difference

 

End Poem: 
Unable to perceive the shape of You, I find You all around me. Your presence fills my eyes with Your love, It humbles my heart, For You are everywhere.

Read More:
Fan fiction continuing The Shape of Water love story.
Picking up where the movie left off, Giles continues his narration as he and Zelda journey to South America in search of their friends.

Short Story – The Shape of Water Continued

Zelda and I stood together on the canal bank watching as they dragged for bodies. We cried when they placed one red shoe into her trembling hands.

We consoled each other after the investigation interviews.

We bonded when we cleaned out Elisa’s apartment. The princess didn’t have many valuable possessions. I kept her egg timer, and Zelda wasn’t parting with that shoe.

Elisa had some money saved. She left a note saying to split it between us.

Our conversations were stilted as we trundled through grief-stricken tasks.

“I think he healed her and took her away with him,” I’d say.

Zelda’s expression was melancholic, “If she were still alive, she would have let us know.”

“How could she? Too many people are still looking for him….for them.”

Our prospects for work dwindled. Zelda was spending nights on the sofa sleeper in my apartment. Though I enjoyed her company and cooking, sharing a bathroom with her was nearly intolerable.

“Yolanda, from work, cleaned Colonel Strickland’s office.” Zelda offered as she turned hash browns one morning. “She overheard him talking about where he found the creature. She knew the place; she has cousins near there.”

“Did Yolanda say if her cousins ever heard of a River God?”

“She didn’t.” Zelda compressed her lips. Those words dropped off into a moment that was as deep and broad as the Monterey Canyon. Zelda’s stern brown eyes bored into mine. My scalp tingled. I ran my fingers through the hair that hadn’t been there before Aqua Man.

A postcard arrived one day. Not in the mailbox but slipped under my door. There were only two things on it. My street address and a stamp from Peru.

Zelda and I became unencumbered adventurers. We headed south making discrete inquiries. We were lucky Zelda speaks Spanish. She started teaching it to me. A year, to the day, after we left, we stumbled on a lead. Iquitos is a hole-in-the-wall-town on the edge of the Amazon Jungle. Zelda found a job almost right away teaching English to school children. She dragged me along sometimes.

One of her students, Jhady, is a disfigured girl, the daughter of a local businessman who owns an ‘art gallery’ in the back of his grocery store. Zelda kept nagging me to show my sketches to her father.

When I did it, he was expressing lukewarm interest until he came across a piece titled, Elisa and her Monster. Raimee’s eyes went buggy; e began talking so fast that I couldn’t track a word. He seemed in danger of stroking out, so I rushed Zelda in to translate.

We learned that Raimee had seen the River God, he called him Iglootoo. The River God receives pilgrims during harvest moons. He pointed to my sketch, speaking two words I understood, “White Queen.”

“We found her!” Zelda screeched, her eyes filling with tears.

Listening to Raimee and nodding, she repeated, “A small group is preparing to leave next week. He says he’ll arrange for us to join them if you will speak to the River God on behalf of his daughter.”

“Why me?”

She pointed to my sketch.

Waving his arm, Raimee encouraged Jhady to come out from behind the curtain where she’d been hiding. She hung her head, letting her long dark hair form a barrier. I could see enough of her face to observe tight, contorted skin around her nose and mouth.

As the date for departure approached, our nerves grew taught.

“What if it’s not them?” Zelda worried.

“It has to be! Raimee recognized Elisa in my sketch.”

“It doesn’t look that much like her! If it is her, what are we going to say after all this time?”

“Hello? I’ve missed you?” I suggested with sarcasm.

“Should we take something as an offering?”

“If we don’t, they might not let us go—” I smiled slowly. I knew what I was going to bring.

It would be a four-day trek into the jungle. We bought burros to haul our gear. Neither one of us believed that the other could hike that distance. I hoped those burros could carry people!

We headed out at dawn with guides at the front wielding long, thick blades, doing battling plant life. Zelda and I were the last stragglers in a group of twelve.

We stood at the edge of a small lake. Thick tropical foliage obscured the opposite shore.

An elaborate calling ceremony began with pounding drums and song. Zelda stood to my left. Raimee to my right. Jhady pressed against her father’s side like melted cheese on beans. Flower petals were cast over the glassy surface.

When bubbles appeared moving in our direction, all grew silent, even the birds and monkeys stopped chattering.

Zelda’s breath caught when a blue-grey, be-gilled head rose from the water like a bioluminescent Atlantean Prince.

Following the locals, we dropped to our knees, sinking into warm, soft mud. Supplicants displayed their offerings before them.

We could tell he recognized us when his purposeful footsteps halted; his head swiveled in our direction.

The party leader stood, calling the creature’s attention.

“He knows you!” Raimee stated clearly in English.

“Where’s Elisa?” Zelda whispered vehemently.

In my peripheral vision, I watched our scaly friend picking his way through the line, accepting gifts and laying webbed hands on heads, feet, and other places the petitioners extended for inspection.

The expressions of those he skipped turned to masks of disappointment. I wondered at his choices, did he not care for their gifts?

As he got closer, he seemed distracted.

Jhady was next in line. The River God dismissed her. Raimee’s face crumbled, “Not again!” he cried.

“Wait!” I called, even though Zelda pounded on my arm.

Standing, I held out my basket. Mewling sounds came from inside.

Aqua Man’s gills flared. I think that’s as close as he gets to smirking.

“I remembered,” I said looking him full in the face. “I was going to ask for more hair, but I’d rather you heal this little girl.”

When he pointed to my basket, signing the word for, ‘funny,’ Zelda and I glanced at each other, grinning.

Aqua Man returned his attention to Raimee’s girl.

Peeling her away, Raimee thrust her forward, admonishing, “Sé quieto!”

Clawed, webbed hands cradled the girl’s face. The River God remained in that position longer than he had with any other pilgrim. The girl’s frightened utterings echoed the kitten cries.  When he pulled away, he dropped to his knees, hanging his head.

‘Leave us,’ Aqua Man signed.

In the awkward moment when no one but Zelda and me knew what he wanted, Zelda took care of business. “He said you should all go now. Va! Va!” she shooed.

Before the pilgrims departed, Raimee approached us. “My Jhady is beautiful again!” Tears coursed down his faces. He grabbed Zelda’s hand kissing it. Thanking me profusely, bowing to the River God, he backed away.

When he could stand, Aqua Man led us to a vine-choked path. The going was slow. He grunted as he pulled at the stalks, making room our burros to pass. I tried helping, but he waved me away.

I had a waking nightmare that the jungle was a many-pointed sea star grasping and suffocating everything in its path.

My friend was breathing hard, stooped, and unsteady by the time we reached a clearing. Zelda was steadying him when we heard a, ‘Whoop!’

And there she was! The White Queen, our own dear Elisa. I stared in shock – her eyes and smile were the same, but the rest of her was drastically changed. She was a combination of a heavily endowed fertility goddess and an Aqua Woman.

Lumbering toward us, tears streamed down her face, “You found me!”

Another jolt – her voice!

Overjoyed, the three of us cried and hugged.

After a moment, Elisa pulled away. “Iggy,” she said, “Thank you. Please go now.”

He nodded, turning away. We watched him walk into the water. At thigh height, he dove.

Returning to one another, we replayed a muted version of our happy reunion.

“Let me look at you,” Zelda said while swiping a hand along her cheeks.

Elisa’s hair was hanging in a thick braid down her back. Across the top of her cheeks, along her collarbones and arms, were glittering, overlapping scales.

“How–?” I began, not knowing what else to say. I reached for her free hand. “I saw you shot.”

“It’s a long story,” Elisa replied, her voice lyrical and butter-soft.

Zelda erupted in tears again. “Your voice—it’s just like I always imagined.”

“Me too,” Elisa smiled, “Though I don’t use it as often as I’d like.” Shaking herself, she continued,” Come inside, out of the heat. You’re staying,” It was a statement rather than a question.

Zelda and I hadn’t talked about it, but we’d packed everything.

I situated our burros before following the women into the house. It was a single room building. Two double beds were pushed up against the walls. A small kitchen counter took up another wall. A table surrounded by four stools stood in the middle.

“Zelda will share with me, and Giles will take the other bed.”

“But what about—?” Zelda asked.

“Iggy?”

“That’s his name?” I wanted to know.

“His name is Iglootoo. He told me that after I taught him how to spell in our language.”

Zelda nodded. “I never thought about him having a name, but I guess you’ve got to call him something.”

“Iggy fits him,” I responded. “Did someone give it to him or did he choose it for himself?”

Chuckling, Elisa patted my shoulder. Leaning in to plant a kiss, she said, “I’ve missed you, Giles. We’ll have plenty of time for stories. Did you bring your art supplies?”

“I never leave home without them.”

“Good.”

Zelda joined Elisa in her small garden picking vegetables for our meal. I sat inside, observing. Sketchpad in hand, I let my pencil capture the scene.

Long shadows, two women wearing large straw hats, their heads together. I couldn’t draw the feminine laughter but wished I could capture it artistically. Their voices carried.

“How long till Iggy comes back?”

Elisa straightened, raising a hand to her brow, looking out over the water. “He’ll be gone for a while. Those ceremonies take a lot out of him. He needs to go down deep to feel restored. He’s worried about the baby and me,” she rubbed the base of her spine, “so he hasn’t gone as far as he should. With you here, he can take as long as he needs.”

“Honey,” Zelda came to stand beside her, “are you worried about—” she nodded at Elisa’s middle.

Elisa faced away from me, but I could see Zelda’s expression. In all honesty, I’m glad it wasn’t me out there voicing the questions that were on our minds.

They moved into the shade, sitting close. Zelda’s arm wrapped protectively around her dearest friend.

“My child— if it lives. If we both live, won’t have any friends,” Elisa cried.

“If it lives?” Of course, it’s going to live, and so are you! As for friends—that baby already has four people who love it.”

“It,” Elisa repeated, letting the word hang in the air.

Elisa leaned into Zelda; they huddled together. “I’m so glad you are here, Zeldy.”

“Me too baby girl!”

Our days became predictable; meals, naps, tending the burros and the garden. For the first time, in possibly decades, I was relaxed and at peace. I noticed, with pleasure, that I’d lost track of the days of the week.

One afternoon, Elisa and I were sitting at the table sipping tea. I’d just finished telling her about the inquiries, the search for bodies, and apologizing for getting rid of all her things. She patted my arm.

“Thank you for taking care of everything. That phase of my life is dead, you did the right thing.”

When Elisa noticed my eyes rapidly blinking, her mouth turned down. She used to read me like a book. I think her skills in that department had deteriorated.

“Take a good look at me, Giles.” She stretched out a leg. Hiking up her skirt, revealing a creamy thigh, and areas covered with translucent scales.

Across the room, Zelda stirred from a siesta, yawning. Swinging her feet to the floor, she hurried over.

Elisa slipped off her shoes spreading her toes. Holding up her hands, she held her fingers wide. Webbing filled all the spaces.

We couldn’t contain our surprise.

Elisa bit her lip; she looked as if she was holding back a smile. Making sure we were looking at her face, she blinked with a set of inner eyelids. They moved vertically from the corners of her eyes toward the bridge of her nose.

“Mary, Mother of Jesus!” Zelda exclaimed, placing a hand over her heart. She puffed up, “I get that gilly thing,” she waved a finger at Elisa’s neck. He had to give you those when he took you in the water and healed your gunshot wound. But he dragged you all the way out here to the middle of the jungle, and he knocked you up,” Zelda’s voice was gaining volume, her gestures taking up more air space. “Then he leaves you all alone when you’re about ready to drop that kid—” Zelda paused when Elisa started repeating her tirade in sign language. Like a statue, Zelda rotated ninety degrees on her toes.

Iglootoo stood in the doorway, dripping, a puddle forming at his feet. ‘I did not change her or heal her,’ he said in the silent language spoken with his flipper hands.

One of the kittens scampered in around his ankles. Lightning fast, he pounced. Zelda and I jumped. Striding across the room, handing the cat to me, he kneeled at my side, bowing his head. I patted him, remembering the first time he’d encountered a house cat.

That evening as the three of us ate our meal; Iggy reclined on one of the beds playing with the kittens.

‘Iggy’ eats while he’s in the water,’ Elisa explained.

“I like that,” Zelda commented, “a man that don’t need no cooking’s alright by me.”

When the dishes were cleared, Iggy stood, coming to the head of the table. ‘Elisa asked me to tell our story,’ he signed.

He waited for her signal to start. She nodded.

‘Elisa is a lost cousin.’ Going to her side, he lifted her hair, touching her chin gently with a claw, he turned her face left and then to the right.

Her gill slits flared, displaying crimson filaments inside.

Zelda shivered, “I could have gone all day without seeing that!”

Iggy looked to me, I rolled my eyes, shaking my head.

He continued, ‘I was sent to find her, to bring her home. Elisa was designed to be my mate.’

I wasn’t sure if the word he’d used was ‘designed’ or ‘destined,’ but I was too engrossed to interrupt.

‘I was setting out on my journey when I was captured. I did not recognize Elisa when I first encountered her. My sense of smell is not good in the open air and my thoughts were muddled. When our kind enters courtship, we remain in constant companionship. I did not understand how Elisa could come and go. Her unusual behavior was a curiosity that I studied. When we traveled back here, in our liquid environment, we completed the bonding rituals.’ He paused, looking down at her, running a knuckle along her jaw.

Elisa covered his hand, smiling up at him.

‘I’m in you,’ he signed solemnly to her.

‘As I am in you,’ she replied, ‘and we are everywhere.’

Their moment of intense communication drew out.

I could see Zelda bursting with questions; she must have decided to keep quiet too.

As if reminding himself that he had an audience, Iggy continued, ‘When we arrived, we expected to be greeted by the family, but they are gone. All my people are gone. While we wait for the offspring, I tend to the city and search for the others.’

“City?” I questioned, glancing around.

Elisa sighed, “It’s underwater, and it’s beautiful, Giles! I wish you could see it—draw it.”

Just as my imagination was taking root, Iggy bent over, placing a hand on Elisa’s belly. ‘It is time,’ he signed. ‘We will return in three days.’ Scooping her up, he marched outside.

“Wait!” Zelda cried chasing after them, her voice on the edge of panic. I followed too watching Elisa’s crooked smile as she kept an eye on us over Iggy’s shoulder. She waved before they submerged.

While Zelda was unsettled with the latest changes in her friend’s life, I was revitalized. I would bear witness to a new, possibly one-of-a-kind, life form. I wished for gills and webs so I could join Elisa and Iggy in the sea.

And then there were three.

They arrived in the night when the temperature was low and the humidity high. Elisa cried a little when she described Gemmalyn’s struggle to take her first breath of air. “If we didn’t make her use her lungs right away, they might never develop,” Elisa’s voice shook. “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”

The nipper is a delight. ‘Darling’ and ‘adorable’ are words Zelda uses when she holds her. ‘Little Monster’ are others she says when she’s sporting a wounded finger that got too close to baby’s sharp teeth.

On a sweltering afternoon when Zelda was in town, and Iggy was away fishing, I sketched Elisa with her baby. It would be another contribution to the baby book Elisa was making. Gemma, still attached to her mother’s breast, had a full belly and was resisting sleep. Elisa rocked, in no hurry to put her daughter down.

“He took me to the city for Gemmalyn’s birth,” Elisa began. “I’ve never had the stamina to make it without help. When we’ve gone in the past, he holds me around the waist; I help kick. This time he carried me, just like when we left. That position creates a lot more drag,” she laughed softly. “It was an effort, but he got us there. It was the first time I felt sad about the place being deserted.”

“He took me to the women’s hall, then, in his language, he gave me the sights and sounds of the city as he’d known it. In that way, I saw his female relatives, and the traditional birthing circle,” Elisa raised glassy eyes gleaming with unshed tears. “It’s indescribable, Giles, understanding how it was and watching Iggy trying to make it right.”

Behind the mother and child scene, I began filling in the background with structures. A bustling, underwater metropolis with lots of Iggies.

“He did the work of the women, helping me bring his daughter into the world. It hurt, there was blood, and sharks circled above, just like buzzards, waiting for a chance.”

“Iggy kept us safe. We stayed in the royal’s suite in the grand palace. While I recovered, Iggy made sure Gemmalyn didn’t swim out of his sight.”

“And then we came home, to you and Zelda,” Elisa sighed, her eyelids growing too heavy to stay open.”

For a moment, I wondered how this mud brick structure compared to a royal suite, what held such attraction to keep them coming back here?

I put the baby in her bassinet, covered Elisa, then went to cool my feet at the river bank. My mind was churning with things only aquatic life can experience.

Iggy emerged with fish on a kelp stringer. Wrapping it securely around a branch, he let our lunch enjoy a reprieve. ‘What is on your mind, Giles?’ he signed as he sat next to me.

“I’m tired of sitting around,” I said, no longer bothering to sign back. Though he could not speak, he understood our language perfectly well. “I want to go with you, to help search.”

We started my endurance swimming and free diving lessons that afternoon.

I enjoyed my new quest, searching with Iggy sometimes, and other times alone.

Nearly a year later, our little clan is still intact. We’ve added rooms onto to Elisa’s house. The Iglootoo family, as I now think of them, is in residence less and less.

Gemmalyn, the most beautiful creature on the face of the Earth, is the best of both her parents. She is graceful in the water and out. She’s as curious as our cats and rambunctious as a monkey.

Though there’s been no sign of Iglootoo’s people, he remains hopeful. He is a devoted mate and father, and he’s a first-rate best friend. He’s accepted us as part of his tribe. Our association with him has elevated us as human beings.

Zelda helps Elisa chase after Gemma when she’s on land. She’s also become my art representative with Raimee, who’s been selling my Iglootoo sketches. (Elisa and Iggy have sworn us to secrecy about Gemmalyn!)

I suspect Raimee’s daughter has been playing matchmaker between Zelda and her father. Zelda nearly glows every time she returns from town.

Elisa has been pushing Zelda into talks with the National Parks system. Her goal is to make sure their home remains protected and safe, that people like Colonel Strickland can never repeat what happened to Iggy.

Iggy restored nearly all my hair and gave me back the body of a forty-year-old.

I’d be remiss in ending our story without mentioning my fresh start with love…

Iggy believes the merfolk are fairytales, he’s wrong.

Mermaid Book Reading List  

[in order as mentioned in the video]

Descending, Holly Kelly

Shearwater, D.S. Murphy

Ingo, Helen Dunmore

Mermaid: A Twist on the Classic Tale, Carolyn Turgeon

The Marked Ones, S.K. Munt

The Mermaid’s Sister, Carrie Anne Noble

Underneath: a merfolk tale, M.N. Arzú

Deep Blue, Jennifer Donnelly

Lost Voices, Sarah Porter

 

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