Lola stared at herself in the mirror and ran her fingers through her long auburn hair. “This is great,” she said. “I mean really great!”
“I know,” Marisse said, coming into view behind her. She spun Lola around and stooped to look into her sister’s eyes. “Nice, nice,” she said. “Green is good on you.” She stood up straight and turned around to show off the short black dress she’d managed to squeeze into. “How’s this look?” she asked.
“You look great,” Lola said, and she actually meant it. Marisse was gorgeous – tall, with deep brown skin and hair that was nearly blue-black, even in the light of their bathroom. She stood like a supermodel, a hand on her hip and made a pouty face like the ones they’d seen in so many magazines. “Seriously,” Lola said. “That is amazing.”
“And thank you,” Marisse said. She ran a finger down the lapel of the jacket Lola was wearing. “You don’t look too bad yourself, my dear.” She picked up Lola’s pale hand and examined her nails. “Brava on your choice here, too.”
Lola smiled and blushed. “It’s the same blue as the suit,” she said. “I can’t believe I actually found it.”
“Well, you did, and you look amazing.” Marisse turned them around to look in the mirror. “We both look amazing. And you know what?” She put her arm around Lola, and Lola could practically feel the confidence welling over from her. “We are going to have an amazing Halloween this year.” Marisse hugged her close. “Mark my words.”
The morning sun was barely a hands-width over the treetops by the time they left their house and began the long walk to the bus stop. They tottered in their high heels and laughed about it as they walked, and they drew stares from everyone else who was waiting by the time they got there. Marisse made sure to stand next to a middle-aged businessman, and she tried flirting with him. She stood in the corner of his eye and smiled at him, and then looked away when he looked at her. A few more times, and he took out his phone and started frantically tapping away so that he didn’t have to look at her. It was all Lola could do not to burst out laughing.
The bus ride into Sylvania City took about half an hour, and they were on the edges of their seats the whole time. Lola pointed out the things that had changed since the year before – a new strip mall, a restaurant that had gone under, a house that had gone somewhat overboard on the holiday decorations. When people got on the bus, they giggled and pointed, and more than once made people stand up and move to other seats. Among the morning commute crowd, they were by far having the most fun, and even on Halloween, that was strange.
They stepped down from the bus in Bemrich Circle, in the most touristy district of Sylvania City, and squinted in the bright sunlight. “Okay,” Marisse said. “What time’s sunset again?”
“5:05,” Lola said. She’d had it up on notes around the house for a week, and made sure she remembered. “We have just a little over eight hours.”
“Well, then, let’s get to it!” Marisse gestured widely and grinned. “Where do you want to start?”
The choices were endless. Sylvania wasn’t the largest of cities – nothing like New York or Boston or Corsair – but it had an eclectic spirit all its own. The downtown was full of people and buses and cars, little bookstores and restaurants and huge national department stores. There were museums along the Hortus and a new walking park that had been built along the Edles River last year. They could spend days here, if they wanted.
But they didn’t have days.
Lola watched the people getting off the bus, tired and hurrying to catch taxis or run to their offices. “How about we get some coffee?” she said, pointing to a small shop on the corner that was doing brisk business with the commuter crowd. Marisse clapped her hands and they dashed across the busy street to join the line.
When they finally got to the counter, an exhausted barista greeted them with, “Welcome to Javaville, what’ll you have?”
Lola and Marisse exchanged glances, and Marisse struggled to keep a straight face as she turned to the young man. “I would like,” she said, over-enunciating each word, “one soy milk latte.” Lola started to giggle and Marisse gave her a slight shove. “And a blueberry muffin.” Lola started to laugh hard enough to attract the attention of the other customers, and the barista arched an eyebrow.
“Anything for your friend?” he asked.
Lola leapt to the counter. “Yes,” she said, her voice taking on the sing-song quality that people use when they talk to children. “I’d like a mocha espresso, please. And one of your delicious scones.” She smiled, showing as many teeth as she could, and the barista had to blink a few times before he rang them up.
They sat in the cafe and planned their day, occasionally glancing around at the crowd and watching the other customers as they came in. They would go to the Finamore Museum of Art first and see the traveling Picasso exhibition they were hosting. From there, they planned to hit some of the nicer boutiques in the heart of downtown and try on clothes. Not to buy, of course, but just for the fun of seeing themselves in something new and different. Marisse tried on the more risque outfits, doing her best to make even the saleslady have to blush and clear her throat and recommend that perhaps she would like to wear something a little more modest. Lola tended towards the more conservative, trying to imagine what she would look like at a fancy dinner party, or perhaps a wedding. She stood in front of the mirror and smoothed down the fabric and let the images form in her mind. No matter that they wouldn’t happen, of course. It was Halloween, and if ever there was a time to play dress-up, it was now.
They had lunch at the top of the Denton department store and ate small pasta dishes while looking out at the city.
“I never get tired of this,” Lola said. “I just wish we could do it more often.”
Marisse took a sip of water. “Me too,” she said. “Me too.”
After lunch they went to a bookstore and browsed for a while, followed by a subway ride to the Hortus, the great park that defined the heart of Sylvania City. The sun was on its descent by now, and they only had a few more hours left to them. The red and gold leaves glimmered in the sunlight as they walked around the Great Pond, enjoying the brisk autumn air. Their spirits were more subdued now, but they still looked at the world around them with glee and astonishment from time to time.
“I think I need to sit down,” Lola said after a while. She sat, took off a shoe and started to rub her foot. “You go ahead. I’ll meet you by the fountain?”
“You sure?” Marisse asked. She glanced across the pond to the fountain and back again. “I can stay here.”
Lola shook her head. “No, you go. I’ll be right behind you.” She smiled and shaded her eyes against the sun. “Don’t worry.” Marisse nodded, but still looked uneasy, glancing back a few more times as she walked away.
Alone, Lola closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and let it out. She liked Marisse – loved her, even. They’d been together for ages and doing their Halloween excursions for as long as she could remember. But Marisse could be a little much sometimes.
Lola’s thoughts were sharply interrupted by the barking of a dog. She opened her eyes to see a golden retriever straining at the end of a leash at her, growling and barking. The young man holding the leash pulled and yelled at his dog. “Rocky! Rocky, knock it off!” He gave the leash a sharp tug, and the dog stopped barking. He bent down to hold it and looked up at Lola. “Sorry,” he said. “He’s usually not like this.” Rocky had gone quiet, but he was still staring at Lola with fear in his eyes.
“That’s all right,” she said. “Dogs don’t usually like me very much.”
The young man scratched Rocky’s ears and smiled. “I can’t imagine that,” he said. He turned to Rocky. “You gonna be good?” he asked. He stood up and Rocky growled quietly. The young man nodded at Lola. “He’ll be good.” He stepped over to her and offered his hand. “I’m Shane,” he said. “But you’ll probably remember me as the guy with the dog.”
Lola took his hand and smiled. “No,” she said. “I’m pretty sure I’ll remember you.” She looked up at him and squinted. “I’m Lola,” she said. The sun was behind him, making it hard to get a good look at his face. “Would you like to sit down?” she said. “It might save me some eyestrain.”
Shane commanded Rocky to stay, and took a seat next to Lola. He looked out over the water with her for a while, and the sun dropped lower to the horizon. “It’s my favorite place in the city,” he said, not turning to her. “It’s one of the biggest reasons I stay here.”
She smiled. “I like it too. I just wish I could come more often.”
“You’re not from around here?” he asked.
Lola shook her head. “I live outside the city with a friend of mine. We… we don’t get out a whole lot.”
He nodded and leaned back against the bench, but didn’t push the topic. Instead he asked about her favorite places to visit, and offered some suggestions of his own for the next time she and her friend managed to get into the city. She, in turn, asked about what he did and how he lived his life, and she found herself resisting the urge to dig into every detail. They talked well together, and she had a conversation unlike any she’d had in a long time. With Marisse, there was nothing new to talk about. They knew everything about each other, but here she was finally in new territory.
And he was good-looking, too. That certainly didn’t hurt.
They talked for a long while, and only stopped when Lola finally heard Marisse calling to her as she ran along the path towards her.
“Lola!” she yelled. Marisse looked panicked, and she’d lost her shoes somewhere along the way. “Lola, the sun!” she flung out a hand across the pond. Lola looked, and to her horror realized that she’d let the sunset slip her mind. It was already dropping behind buildings, and she felt her insides go cold with panic.
“Oh, god,” she said, and stood up quickly. Rocky jumped to his feet and started barking again, and Shane tried to calm him down. “Oh, god,” she said again, “I’m so sorry…” She backed away from Shane and took Marisse’s hand. “I really.. .I really have to go.”
He looked up at her and glanced at Marisse. “Is everything okay?” he asked.
Lola surprised herself by smiling. “No,” she said. “Not really.” Marisse tugged at her, but Lola stood still. “I really wish I could stay, Shane,” she said.
He stood up and put his hands in his jacket pockets. “I don’t understand,” he said. “What’s -”
Lola’s scream cut him off. It was high and keening and terrible, and she doubled over and dropped to the ground, followed quickly by Marisse. Shane tried to go to her, but Rocky positioned himself between them, growling and barking furiously. All Shane could do was watch as the shadows grasped at Lola and Marisse and they started to change.
Marisse shrank and withered, becoming a skeletal version of herself. Her eyes burst into flame and sat in her dessicated face like two hot coals. Her hair whipped up around her head in an unseen wind and waved about, dry and rasping. Her mouth opened, a black and toothless maw, and a howl that chilled Shane’s blood filled the air.
Lola’s back arched and lurched, and two great wings burst forth. They were long and spindly, and webbed with tattered skin that was nearly thin enough to see through. Her skin turned the dull gray of unpolished granite and cracked at the joints. A dull red glow came through the cracks, like molten stone, and when she moved there was a grating and crumbling sound. She stood on thin, insectile legs and turned to Shane, who was on the ground covering his eyes with his arm.
She looked at him, wishing her true face were capable of expressing something other than unholy rage. She wanted to explain, to say that she was sorry, but her mouth couldn’t do that anymore. Her day as a human was done. From tonight, it would be another year of being the monster she’d always been.
Lola growled at Rocky, who whined and cowered behind Shane, who had finally managed to peek out from behind his arm. He was terrified, as he should have been, and Lola felt that strange ache in what used to be her heart. Other years had been fun. Little breaks from who she’d always been. But this was the first time she felt like there could have been more days, more time.
She ground her teeth and turned to pick up Marisse. Her friend was still groaning, and her groans lingered long. She held Marisse close to her and sprung into the air, her tattered wings somehow holding her aloft and giving her the lift to fly back to their house outside the city. It would be another year before she and her sister could venture out in daylight again, and she wasn’t at all sure that was what she wanted anymore.
For the first time in a thousand years, there were tears in her eyes as she flew.
This is done not only for Halloween, but for the Worth1000 Halloween 2 contest. Of course, I’ll have to trim it somewhat – maximum word count is 1,500 and I’m well above that….
Lucille carried Smokey’s food over to his basket and set it down. He jumped up to the table, gave a final, grateful “meow,” and started eating.
“Good boy, Smokey,” she said, scratching between his ears. She went back to the kitchen, rinsed out the can and dropped it in the bag under the sink for the recyclers to take on Friday. The apartment was hot, but she didn’t mind. At her age, she’d take hot over cold any day. At least her back was feeling better, and her hip wasn’t twinging. That meant a couple of good days were in store. Maybe she’d go out to the supermarket.
She went back to her large, overstuffed chair and eased herself into it. In her younger days, she would have leaped in, curled a leg under herself and rested her head on the armrest. But these days, the best she could do was to be more or less comfortable when she sat down. She hit the remote and turned the volume back on.
“…in fourteen states and the District of Columbia. In local news, ten year-old high school freshman Paul Barbeau won the state science championship with his ingenious new printable circuitry. He says it will revolutionize the textile industry, allowing us to integrate our personal electronics into nearly every part of our lives. Barbeau – who is on track to become the youngest-ever graduate of Littleton High School – was unavailable for an interview this evening due to an incident involving a crashed-”
She muted the TV again at an insistent noise from Smokey. All cats are picky, she knew that. And any human who wants to live with one has to be willing to make concessions. In this case, he simply would not tolerate an empty food dish being left around when he was done. “Yes, yes, I know,” she said, lifting herself out of the chair. She ran her fingers down his spine as she passed him, and he started to purr. “Your wish is my command.” She took the bowl to the sink, gave it a quick rinse with soap and water and set it to dry.
Smokey came to sit by her feet, and made a small inquisitive noise. “You know, Smokey,” she said. “If I hadn’t found you all those years ago, you wouldn’t be eating so well. You know that?” He blinked and started licking a paw. “A little gratitude is all I’m asking, you terrible, awful widdle kitty.” She had long ago stopped hating herself for lapsing into baby-talk with the cat. It was another one of those inevitabilities of cat ownership. Besides, he just ate it up.
They said that living with a pet was a good way to live to a happy old age. She didn’t know much about research and gerontology and all that kind of thing, but she knew she was doing better with Smokey than she’d done in those last years before Roy finally keeled over. As insistent as Smokey was, at least he never yelled at her for not cooking his food the way he wanted, never kicked her out of bed when he’d been drinking too much. Never called her a useless old bag…
Lucille’s eyes misted up and this time she did hate herself a little. She had watched his coffin go into the ground with a sense of grim satisfaction that she’d have at least a little time on this planet to herself. But as bad as he was, as awful as he could be, the apartment still felt empty without him. She didn’t believe in ghosts, but if pressed, she might say it was sort of the opposite. A tangible absence that just wouldn’t go away.
She’d found Smokey a few weeks later, a little grey kitten hunting through her garbage. When she came out to drop off her trash, he looked up, meowed once, and ran to her feet. She, and everything she owned, was officially his from that moment on.
She settled back into her chair and Smokey took his place on her lap. He purred, rubbed his head against her hand a couple of times, and curled up to sleep. She petted him gently and turned the volume back on. The news anchor was reading from a piece of paper now and looking confused.
“…and experts are at a loss to explain what we’re seeing here outside the studio.” The anchor looked off-camera. “Jim, do we have someone outside? Yes?” He looked back out of the TV. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re now going live outside our main studio here in Sylvania City. Are we…? Okay.”
The view cut to another camera, this one unsteady and noisy, which was overlooking something in the middle of the city. Lucille had been to Sylvania once, and like most visitors she best remembered its vast central gardens – The Sylvania Hortus. It covered a thousand acres in the middle of the city and was home to every kind of growing thing that would survive there. There were lakes and ponds, rose gardens and wildflower hills and running tracks and vast lawns that were full of people on any halfway decent day. It was called The Green Heart of the City, and everyone who lived there said it was the biggest reason they stayed.
But now, in the center of the gardens, there was a… Lucille didn’t know what to call it. It looked like a crack in the world, bleeding out something that could have been light, but wasn’t. Where the light touched, things turned dark and insubstantial. The trees cast bright shadows that trailed away from them, and the dark blight spread. The cameraman was talking, trying to fill airtime, and the anchor was asking stupid, meaningless questions, like “What is it?”
“I… I don’t know, Leonard,” the cameraman said, then quickly corrected himself. “Mister Reeves. All I know is that it hurts to look at, and that the air feels… it feels wrong. It feels… I don’t know. Sharp.”
The crack in the world pulsed, once, sending out a wave of darkness, and the camera’s feed went dead. They switched back to the anchor, who looked like he wanted to throw up.
Lucille knew how he felt. She had a hand over her mouth, and her stomach tightened. Whatever it was, even over the TV it was horrible, and as the anchor went on, talking without knowing what he was talking about, Lucille could feel that nameless, unreasoning dread rise from the base of her spine.
“Damn,” said a voice from her lap.
She looked down at Smokey. He stood up and stretched, arching his back. Then he looked up at her, and the intelligence in his eyes was vastly different from what she had always imagined she saw. He blinked, slowly. “I can’t stay,” he said, in a voice that had far too much bass in it for such a small, nasal creature. He looked back at the TV. “This is what I was sent here to do.”
Lucille looked down at him. “S.. Smokey?”
He licked her hand once. “I know,” he said. “I never meant for it to be this way. I didn’t think this would go on as long as it did.”
“What… what are you?”
He sat, his back straight and his head high. “I am one of the guardians of this reality, Lucille.” Behind him, the TV let out a squawk of static and went blank. “I’d explain, but there really isn’t time. That city is about to be devoured, and the world will go soon after if it isn’t stopped.”
He jumped down from her lap and sat in the middle of the room. “You should probably cover your eyes, Lucille. Just in case.” His fur stood on end as he began to glow with a radiant blue light. Lucille squinted against the sudden brilliance and held up a hand against it. She could still see him, but he was changing, growing into something bigger. Human, but only in shape. Tall and dangerous, something that still carried the feline with it, but merged into something more.
When the light faded, it did so just enough to get a view of him for a moment. He was wrapped in the light, which spun and danced and spiraled around him, and he stood with that constant potential energy that all cats have. The light was his armor, and it shone in a thousand different shades of blue. “Thank you for all you’ve done, Lucille,” he said. “I truly am grateful.” She thought he smiled, but couldn’t be sure. “I hope I can repay your kindness one day.”
The light flared again, and she cried out. When it faded, he was gone.
“Smokey?” she whispered. She stood up slowly and looked out the window. Dark clouds were moving through the sky, against the wind that was blowing the tops of trees. The clouds were moving west. Towards Sylvania City.
She put her hands on the glass and her eyes filled again. The apartment was empty again, but this time it was so much worse.
The western horizon exploded in blue-white light, and she prayed that he was okay. And that he would come back.
Whatever he was.