No Good Comes: scene nine

 

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No Good Comes is a spin-off of the not*the*same*river series, set five years after the events of the last book. It centres around Cascade, an organisation that, among other things, helps new vampires settle into their new lives.

What follows is the first draft of what is currently scene nine.

Context: The new vampire has chosen a new name. Stephen King is no more. But he is hungry; he just doesn’t recognise the signs yet.

POV: first person, Theo’s POV.

***

“You hungry?” said Erin.

Was I? My stomach didn’t feel empty at all. I should’ve been hungry after lying in a grave for forty nights, but all I really felt like was some Tixylix. I felt like I’d swallowed a candy floss cloud of fibreglass.

“Not really. My throat hurts. Can I have ice cream?”

“Not yet,” said Erin. “No cold food or drink for at least seventy-two hours.”

I made a growly ugh noise, then flopped onto the bed. “My throat is literally closing up.”

“Yeah, I can tell by the way you’re completely incapable of speech,” she said. “I can get you some warm milk.”

“Milk is gross, warm or otherwise,” I said.

She checked her watch, seemingly surprised at the time. She rooted around in the wardrobe, pulled out a pair of snow boots, then threw them at me. They bounced off me like they were ping pong balls.

“Put them on,” she said.

“Is it snowing outside,” I said, pulling them onto my feet.

“We’re not going outside.” She sighed. “And haven’t I just finished telling you that we need to keep you in the warm? Why would I be taking you into the snow?”

She had a point.

I’d tried some things in the bathroom. I unravelled a whole loo roll with one spin, but that was probably just momentum rather than super-strength. I wish I’d tried it in real life to give myself something to compare to. I tried to fly. I don’t know why I believed her when she told me I’d be able to fly. That had always sounded like bullshit, but I was still disappointed. I did manage to crank the heat up in the shower, bit by bit, until it was eight degrees higher than I could usually stand it. And I did almost break the door handle on my way out, but that was just because it was already a bit broken. It must’ve been.

“So where are we going?” I said.

“Just waiting on a text from Callie,” she said. “War’s niece.”

“Is this a family business or something?”

“You could say that.”

“It’s just that … I mean, can you do that? Are you allowed to … make your family vampires so you never have to leave each other?”

“No, we’re not allowed to do that,” she said, her voice cracking a little, making me wonder who she missed, who she wasn’t allowed to make a vampire.

“But what about War?”

“War’s not a vampire,” she said. “He’s an angel.” Her phone pinged. “Come on, Callie’s waiting.”

“An angel? What, so why are we going to see Callie?”

“To deal with your throat.”

“Can’t someone just bring me some cough syrup or something.”

She laughed, pulling me to my feet. “For god’s sake, Teddy. You don’t need cough syrup, you need blood. And a surname.”

It disturbed me that choosing a surname was a bigger problem than the prospect of drinking blood. I followed her to the door, and she pushed me into the hallway, closing the door behind us. It all looked different after a shower and a bit of perspective. The walls had just looked blue earlier, now I saw the subtle stripes and textural details of the Tardis blue wallpaper. The carpet had looked like a squiggly mess, now I saw the pattern was full of lines and junctions, like the tube map, in Bauhaus colours. I felt like Arthur Dent, wandering around in my pyjamas.

“You’re my Ford Prefect,” I said, following her into a lift.

She hit B1, and the doors closed. “You might want to get all the stupid things out of your mouth right now,” she said, leaning against the lift wall with her arms folded. “These people will take literally anything from your mouth and turn it into a nickname to plague you with for the rest of your life.”

“Maybe you should’ve let me get dressed properly then,” I said, staring at my lush beard in the mirrored doors.

“All the guests wear peejays, don’t worry about it.”

“Choudhury,” I said. “I like the way it’s spelt.”

“I’m not sure you can pull that off,” she said, giving me the what’s-the-matter-with-you side-eye.

“I could have a Bangladeshi dad or something. I mean, nobody would know, would they? But yeah, that’s a bit too appropriationy. What about Theo Doppleganger? Because I look like someone else. Someone who I used to be. Yeah, that’s a bit … no. How did you choose yours? What even is it?”

“Nixon,” she said.

“And what was it before?”

B1 was black and glossy with strips of stained glass light. It was like the Catholic wing of the Death Star.

“Johnson,” she said.

I laughed and the shards in my throat revolted. “Really?”

“Yeah, I was really into international politics when I was at uni. Nixon was president the year I was born and he did come after Johnson, so ….”

“As good a reason as any,” I said. “But what comes after a King?”

“A spy? An assassin. The ghost of a king. A better king.” She laughed, wiggled her eyebrows, then said, “A queen?”

“Eidolon,” I said, turning back to Erin. I was about to explain, when she beat me to it.

“A phantom you. A re-realised, idealised you. I like it.”

Erin opened a door by sticking her arm in a hole again. There was a lab on the other side with two people eating Pot Noodles at a table covered in cereal bars and rice cakes.
The woman didn’t look like she could be related to War. I looked more like I could be related to War than she did. I even had his bushy hair. Callie had sleek, black hair and light brown skin. The man had blonde hipster hair and a pink face.

Callie waved us over with a smile. “Sorry, the munchies grabbed me.”

“No worries,” said Erin. “This is Callie Hazard and Tintin Blaine. Guys, this is Theodore Eidolon.”

Tintin stood and reached across the table, “Jim Blaine.”

I shook his hand. “Why do they call you Tintin?”

“Because I had a quiff for ten minutes in 1987.”

“See?” said Erin.

I nodded, then looked back at Jim, then Callie. “You can call me Theo.”

Callie stood and shook my hand. “So, how are you feeling, Theo?”

“Sore throat,” I said. “Still a bit cold, kind of achy all over, but mostly I feel like I slept for six weeks.”

I stared at the snacks on the table, trying to remember if I would like any of them now that I was a vampire. Would my taste buds change? I still wasn’t really hungry. I focused on my stomach, wondering why I wasn’t rampaging for food like a yeti coming out of hibernation.

“You have something against rice cakes?” said Callie.

“They’re not food,” I said automatically. “They’re polystyrene coasters.”

Callie’s mouth fell open.

Erin laughed. “I’m always telling her that.” She held up a cereal bar and looked at me. “What about these?”

“Polystyrene and gravel glued together with sugar,” I said. “Grim.”

“Callie’s a nutritionist,” said Erin, barely stopping herself from laughing, and unable to keep the smirk off her face.

Callie rolled her eyes then got up to rinse out and recycle her pot. “Has Erin told you why you’re down here?”

“Yeah, for blood.”

“Come on then,” she said, leading me to an examination chair and patting the dark vinyl. “We’re not sure what the effects of your bite will be so we need to be cautious at first. No live donors.”

I grimaced. “God, will I need to suck blood out of actual people?”

“Not if you don’t want to, but you’ll need to find somewhere that can accommodate you. Most of the blood clubs are only set up for medical emergencies, not for medical feeding.”

“Is a blood club what it sounds like?”

“It’s exactly what it sounds like,” said Callie.

“Can’t I just come back here when I need blood?”

“Only for the first couple of months,” said Callie. “Jumper off.”

I pulled my jumper over my head, inciting a static riot, and handed it to Erin.

“You want to start with two?” said Jim, holding up a scrubs-blue pouch.

Callie’s fingers were cold on my chest as she undid the buttons of my pyjama top, exposing the least manly chest ever. It was actually concave. Thankfully, the bottoms were a little bit big, so I’d tied them up over my belly, which made me look a bit Simon Cowell but covered my soft belly which was the only part of me with any fat on it.

“Yeah, if we need a third, get a forty-two,” she said, taking the first pouch. “This is a forty?”

“Yeah, I won’t put a third in until we see how the second goes down,” said Jim. “Don’t want to waste any.”

Behind me, something whined.

“Get him some chocolate, Erin,” said Callie.

She and Jim snorted when Erin snapped off a chunk of chocolate and fed me. I laughed and tried not to dribble when it melted twice as quickly on my tongue as it should. Erin blushed when she realised what she’d done.

“Fuck, have you ever seen her blush?” said Jim.

“Fuck off, Tintin.”

“Right, I’m just putting a collar on you. It’ll give you a teeny tiny shock, but it’ll make you feel good. Keep your mouth closed, and try not to grind your teeth or bite your tongue.”

The collar was warm and leathery, with a little patch of thistle-like needles at the back. I gripped the arm rests when the jolt hit me in the neck. I moaned through closed lips, as electricity swept along my skin, raising every hair, and fired through my veins.

Callie slapped something onto my chest and when I looked down at it, I saw a pouch of blood. It deflated as my body sucked on it. I didn’t have time to be grossed out because I was too busy swallowing a vat of my own saliva. I panted and groaned, trying to catch my breath, but none of it was bad. It was exhilarating, like rollercoasters were exhilarating, but only when I went with Margo because she always screamed like she was gonna die. It was like the explosion of feelings you get when you meet the people who really get you. It was, fuck, it was like an orgasm.

“Oh god,” I blurted, gripping the arm rests harder, fighting the rising feeling in my pyjama bottoms. The last thing I needed was an erection.

Erin handed me a cup of warm water with a straw in. “You need to drink it all slowly while you’re absorbing the next pouch.”

The sight of a second pouch replacing the first flooded my brain with images of bloodied grass, of a bloody halo reflecting the clouds, of blank eyes looking straight through the back of my head, my grandad’s hands gripping my shoulders, pulling me away. Come on, Stephen. We need to get to a phone. There’s no signal out here.

The hands on my shoulders shook me. “Teddy? Teddy?”

My eyes found Erin’s. “Huh?”

“Where did you go?”

“2005,” I said. “Amelia Genevieve Martin. She was murdered, dumped on a wildlife reserve. I found her body.”

***

The source image above is from qimono on Pixabay.

Paper Starlings: a vampire in Oxford

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series. The books follow the life of Violet who, after a childhood in care, figures out that her birth family’s heritage is more complicated than she believed possible.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

Context: Violet’s family reluctantly agree to let her meet Sean Morrigan, the vampire who raised her twin sister.

***

We’d arranged to meet Sean in Oxford, in a pub by the river. He and Amethyst were already there, watching the punts and pedaloes drifting beneath the willows. Patches of blue sky were reflected in the murky, green tree water, glittering like gemstones trapped under water. Amethyst and Sean sat at a picnic bench protected from the sun by a garden parasol. Eden sat several tables away on the shady side of the deck and, like she promised, she directed a scowl at Sean that could strip paint.

“Did Amethyst tell you about the mass grave at the river?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Now I know what you’re thinking, what with Mara waffling on about her queen and the resurrection, but she has no interest in any mass grave. And like Amethyst explained to you, we don’t leave skeletons. Besides, Mara hates it here. In fact, she’s left for a while with her … entourage.”

That explained the carefree Sean.

“How long will she be gone?”

“She didn’t say, but at least a week, I should think. She’s had one of her steroid junkies stationed at every exit for the last few weeks. For our protection, she says. Our protection, my arse.”

“Amethyst said she’s not obedient because you didn’t turn her yourself,” I said.

“Aye, now that was a mistake. I should’ve done the deed myself, but OB was adamant that she couldn’t be trusted. He’s never wrong, Old Bones. He said she’d destroy us, but he thought if I didn’t turn her myself, and if I ordered everyone else to leave her alone, she’d lead a normal mortal life.” He sighed. “I should’ve realised that would never be enough for Mara.”

“So how did she …” I looked around. I couldn’t say vampire out loud. Not in Oxford.

“She found her own way. She seduced an old comrade, got him drunk and that was that. The deed was done, and I was furious. The best I could do was put her under my protection, feed her myself, but it’s not the same as being master and servant. She would never obey me, but I could at least keep an eye on her. Now she keeps an eye on me.” His eyebrows arched briefly.

“Did she take Albert with her?”

“No,” he said, biting his lip. “Which is unusual for her.”

“Shame,” I muttered.

“Albert said he spoke to you at the picnic.”

“He didn’t speak to me. He barked at me like a little angry dog.”

He laughed and shook his head. “That’s really not like Albert at all. I won’t make excuses for his behaviour, but he’s been very unsettled by the changes in the coven and he had a row with Old Bones before we left which, again, is not like Albert.”

“Amethyst said some of your people have gone missing.”

“Far too many. And not just from my coven. Some of my old friends are missing too, their houses looted. In fact, one of them was Albert’s sire. They were very close.”

“Disappeared doesn’t necessarily mean dead though, does it?”

“We’d expect to have heard something by now. Either a ransom or a message to say he’s alright. But we’ve heard nothing. Besides, a painting went missing from his house that he’d never have moved voluntarily.”

“What’s the tapestry at your house?” I said.

Sean raised his eyebrows and looked at Amethyst.

“Don’t look at me. I didn’t invite her,” said Amethyst. “They came looking for me after Archer saw us at the fair last year.”

“It’s a horrible bloody thing, that tapestry. It’s called The Calling of the Mother Tree. Mara’s had one half of it for a hundred years, but the other half, she only located recently. She’s obsessed with the damn thing. She thinks it’s a message.”

“You said it reminded you of the cull.”

He leaned forward, arms folded on the table, and lowered his voice. “Years ago, lots of religious artefacts were collected by the churches as a means to torture and kill vampires. Guilds, they called themselves. The walls of these torture chambers were covered with religious tapestries. Family heirlooms were stolen, and the churches amassed a wealth of powerful objects. It’s how I found the jasper mirror.”

“You mean Gabriel’s mirror?” I said. “The green one?”

“I expect it has many names,” he said. “These things usually do.”

“Do you know what it does?”

“No, but if Old Bones says your family needs it more than I do, so be it.”

“Old Bones? So he must’ve seen us using it,” I said. “Did he say what for?”

Sean chuckled. “No, he didn’t say what for and he wouldn’t tell me a thing about it. I guess he must think you’re smart enough to figure it out for yourselves. Let’s hope so, shall we?”

“So this cull then? What happened?”

“Well, I was new to this life then. We were being rounded up and tortured to death. The Austrian army invaded the village where I’d lived the last of my human days. They desecrated every grave, exhumed every last body, except mine. I was a respected doctor and they left me to rest in peace. They staked the bodies they’d exhumed and tossed them back into their graves, leaving them in the open to rot, while the villagers looked on. Those who had seen their loved ones dug up and didn’t support the army’s tactics were accused of being in sympathy with vampires. There were several unlawful hangings and more public brawls than the village had seen in a hundred years. Old Bones put the cemetery back how it should’ve been. Day after day he worked to give the dead the dignity they deserved. When I turned him, he went after those soldiers. If there’s one thing Old Bones insists on, it’s respect for the dead. He’d love to tend cemeteries, even now.”

“Why doesn’t he?”

“He can’t set foot on consecrated ground. Neither can I. It’s why I couldn’t come and see you in your old place, that church you lived in,” he said. “OB paid his respects from outside the church grounds though, as did I.”

“You and Old Bones were at the funeral?”

He nodded. I didn’t really want to talk about that, or think about it, so I dug my nail into a softened crack in the table while I tried to think of something to say, to figure out my next question.

Sean carried on to save me the bother. “OB wasn’t a vampire back then, not at the height of the cull.”

“So it wasn’t just about digging up dead bodies in the hope that some might be vampires?”

“Not quite. That was just a small misguided part of it. A way to keep people in fear. Only bloodborn vampires have graves. The rest don’t die.”

***

The source image above is from SJPrice on Pixabay

No Good Comes: scene four

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What follows is the first draft of what is currently scene four of No Good Comes. Stephen King (totally different guy) is in the painful throes of becoming a bloodborn vampire, a process which takes forty nights. His mentor has been through it herself and is talking him through the pain.

POV: first person, Erin’s POV.

***

“It hurts,” he whispered.

“I know.”

This was the worst part. The days were nothing. Counting and more counting. Beneath the ground, eyes open wide, unseeing but not, galaxies of stars popping and fading, popping and fading. Lying beneath them, there was no pain, there was no before, there was no life. There was calm, there was peace, there was counting.

Coming up at night was like being torn from your own flesh. It was like someone reaching inside you with acid-soaked fingers and pulling out your bones. It was a mirror that reflected the pain of your life back at you in the form of shards of glass. It was claws and flames and razor blades.

It was only the twenty-fourth night.

“I can’t do this,” he said.

“You can. I did it. You can do it.”

I could end it, if he really wanted me to, but I didn’t want him to want me to. I wanted to see him rise. He told me two night ago that his life wasn’t meaningful. That he hadn’t done anything worthwhile. I told him he could be more. I wanted to watch him be more.

“Tell me about the flashes tonight,” I said.

For days he’d been telling me about the flashes of memory that speared through him like knives.

“Why don’t the good memories feel good?” he said. “Why does all of it hurt?”

“Because even the good things you experienced are tinged with loss now, whether it’s because those people are dead, or because you are.”

“I can see the concussion. It’s like a fuzzy black spot, but there is yellow and blue, like it’s fungal, and sometimes red, like blood.”

“Where do you see it?”

I’d grown used to his voice, his unobservable mannerisms, the hitching of metaphoric breath.

I felt his frown when he said, “Behind my eyes, in my brain. Where else would it be?”

“Trauma can manifest anywhere,” I said. “But it’s not unusual for it to be where it should. Have you remembered anything else?”

“About the night … no.”

“You’ll be interviewed when you’re brought up. May as well get used to hearing it, and saying it.”

“The night I died? The night I was murdered? The night I was … I saw something, but I lost it.”

“Just now?”

“Yeah, blue writing.”

I’d seen the blue writing, all down the wall at the crime scene, but I couldn’t tell him that. I couldn’t tell him anything. I couldn’t tell him that a new scene had been staged for the discovery of his body.

“Do you remember where the writing was?”

“No. Can we … can we talk about something else? What about … what about Ophelia, are you still playing scrabble? Maybe I could help.”

“She’s given up on me,” I said. “She thinks I cheat.”

“Well, you do, so she wouldn’t be wrong, would she?”

“How about we decide on your name?” I said.

“How about I-Spy?”

“We exhausted that, remember?”

“Why is the moon almost full every night?”

“When did you first notice?”

“The night I first spoke to you.”

“It’s there for you to notice.”

“It’s a test?”

“Everything’s a test.”

“You, Erin? Are you a test?”

“Maybe.”

“Do you sit here for all the others … there are no others. What is this place? Why are there so many graves?”

“Sometimes there are more of you. But you’re right, there’s nobody else right now. You’d have seen them if there were. You’d have felt them.”

“Are there other places like this? Other graveyards.”

I nodded. “Yes.”

“And others like us?”

“Yes.”

“Can I change my mind about doing this?” he said. “Can I stop whatever this is from happening?”

“What are you asking me?”

“Can I die instead?” he said. “If I want the pain to just stop, can I choose to die?”

I could lie, but … “Yes.”

We didn’t speak for a while. I watched him pace, and fall to his knees, and writhe, and crawl. I watched him roll onto his back and wondered if he felt the pain in the back of his head still, or whether it was overwhelmed with bigger, brighter, sharper pain.

“Cassiopeia is backwards,” he said.

“She speaks so highly of you.”

He laughed, then cried. “I miss them. And it’s not even like I really believed in heaven, you know. It’s not like I thought we’d all be reunited one day or anything, but this … why does this hurt so much?”

“I’m sorry it hurts. I’m sorry there’s nothing I can do about it.”

“You can kill me. You can do that, right?”

“It won’t be me,” I said. “You can be killed, but it won’t be me. Do you want that?”

“I don’t know. Yes. No.”

“Is that why you haven’t chosen a name? Because you don’t want to think of yourself as a new person? You don’t want to think about your new life, if you’re not strong enough to reach for it?”

“Erin … Erin … why did you choose it?”

“Because I started a war but the pretty girl got all the credit,” I said. “Never mind.”

“You’re a pretty girl.”

“Never mind. I mean, thank you. I think you should be called Teddy.”

He laughed. “Teddy? Why?”

“Because it suits you.”

“Is it my fuzzy brown fur? My soft, squidgy body? My glassy eyes?”

“Yeah, all those things.”

What was I supposed to say? Soft, sweet, lovable? Was I supposed to tell him that every night, I’ve felt like a child talking to an imaginary friend, somebody that was only mine? That every night his presence has been comforting, and I’ve wanted to hug him, to comfort him back? I couldn’t tell Stephen the real reasons Teddy suited him so much. He’d think I was soft. He’d think I fancied him, and I didn’t want to touch that pile of awkwardness. And to be clear, I was talking about my aversion to romance and relationships. I wasn’t calling him a pile of awkwardness. That would just be rude.
Every night I’ve been here has been a night I didn’t have to spend alone in my dead parents’ caravan or one of Cascade’s guest rooms. Yeah, that wasn’t an ordinary church over there. I wasn’t going to tell him that either.

Instead, the next time I had to talk him through the pain, I told him something I shouldn’t have. “You’ll be stronger than anyone you’ve ever met.”

***

The source image above is from Mysticsartdesign on Pixabay.

Paper Starlings: a Christmas scene

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series.

Context: Violet gets to know her family better when she spends her first Christmas at the priory.

***

Christmas Eve flew by in a haze of board games, cheesy Christmas films and more food than I’d eaten all week. Adam taught me how to tango, which would’ve been much more fun if Seth hadn’t kept interfering. I was inducted into the family tradition of listening to Charles Aznavour records, while learning the rules of a card game called Up-Two from Magnus, who insisted he didn’t cheat while everyone else insisted he did.

I sat in my room that night, waiting for Christmas, the buzzing in my ears louder than the landscape. The shadows around me dissolved in the dark, and I fell into my dreams. I dreamed about counting seeds and scattered stars. I dreamed about Sean, who watched a blonde woman, who watched a man with silver eyes like she expected him to burst into flames. I dreamed I was a bird, my feet bound in clay, buried in the hardened ground, swaying in the wind like a seahorse in a current, wings aching with their attempts to fly. I dreamed of flowers that bloomed in the dark. Christmas morning was loud and bright, dissolving my dreams. My arms ached like wings.

There was a message waiting on my phone.

Leia: They suit me.

Beneath the message was a photo of the stupid slippers I bought her wedged onto her feet. They were furry, banana yellow boots with smiley turd emojis on.

Me: I knew they would.

Leia: Luke keeps calling me poo feet.

She sent a cascade of turd and footprint emojis after that. I was halfway down the stairs, but I went back up to clean my teeth after my phone showed me a toothpaste advert, like it could smell my Christmas morning breath.

Everyone was in the drawing room, dressed in proper clothes, except Seth, who was still in pyjamas like me.

“Do I need to get changed?” I said.

“Nope,” Magnus boomed, waving me into the room. “Come as you are.”

That was when I realised he was dressed as Father Christmas. “I see you’ve gone with traditional attire,” I said, raising an eyebrow.

“Tried to get me to dress as a poxy elf,” said Adam. “He just wants to see my fabulous legs in tights.”

Everyone was laughing when Glenda brought a trolley filled with tea and cake and Buck’s Fizz.

“Presents first, breakfast after,” she said, holding up a champagne flute. “Want some? It’s mostly orange juice.”

“Yeah, alright then.”

I watched everyone open their presents. I watched the twins get super-excited over a box of tiny electronic things, then deny being anything like their dad. I watched Magnus fix a bracelet round Eden’s wrist, and had to look away because the love between them was so intense, I felt like I was violating it. I watched Seth open each of his presents like he expected explosives, but the twins were paying no attention to him. Then Archer looked up, grinning while Seth cautiously waded through a box of polystyrene peanuts. Finally, a smug grin sprawled across his face and he pulled his hand out of the box. He was holding an egg. Everyone laughed, and Seth rolled his eyes.

“It’s tradition,” said Archer. “Seth thinks the only acceptable use for an egg is a cake.”

“You don’t like eggs?”

Seth made a gagging noise, then threw the egg at Archer. I gasped. The egg bounced.

Eden sighed. “For god’s sake, Seth. Not indoors.”

The package from Magnus’ dad contained exactly what they thought it would: an eight-page letter and a board game with a zillion rules.

Magnus read out the highlights. “He’s got a job.”

“A job?” said Eden.

“Are you really surprised by anything he does?” said Adam.

Eden shook her head. “Not really.”

“He said it was calling him home,” said Magnus.

Eden gave herself whiplash. “He’s in Cornwall?”

“Apparently so. He’s been on the road with a band. And Jem.”

“Who’s Jem?” I said.

“One of his brothers.”

“How many brothers has he got?”

Magnus looked at the ceiling. “I lose track. Many. And he’s sent something for you, Violet.” Magnus handed me a tiny package with my name scribbled on it, and everyone stared when I took it.

“Why would he send me something?” I pressed the top of the packet to pop it open, and tipped its tissue paper contents into my palm.

“It’ll be a stone, I should think,” said Eden. “Let’s see what he chose for you.”

I carefully peeled off the layers of tissue paper to find a small, deep purplish-red stone in a chunky, faceted teardrop shape attached to a small amount of silver chain with a loop at the top. It was pretty, but I didn’t really get what it was. “How do I …” I held it up to show Eden.

“You thread the loop onto your chain. It’ll hang behind your amethyst. It’s a garnet,” she said, holding her hand beneath it so it dragged across her palm. “To go forth in life, open to love and self-healing, shedding all shame, and empowering oneself with clarity and self-worth.”

“You believe that?” I said.

“It doesn’t matter whether I believe it or not,” said Eden. “It’s a thoughtful choice.”

“Mine’s malachite,” said Seth, pulling a chain with a swirly green stone from beneath his top.

“You’ve all got one?” I said.

Archer snorted when the twins held theirs away from their necks. Ben’s was a smooth lump of jade threaded onto leather, Ezra’s looked like a reddish wooden bead.

“It’s jasper,” he said. “Archer doesn’t wear his.”

“It’s ugly, that’s why. I wanted one like Dad’s, all black and shiny, and instead I got one that looks like it’s been carved from one of Grandad’s hideous tables.”

“You’re going to inherit those hideous tables one day, young man,” said Adam. “I’ll make sure of it.”

“As long as Seth gets the lamp,” said Archer, grinning at Adam.

“Can we have Gertie back?” said Ben.

“Can we not talk about Grandad’s will?” said Eden.

“Who’s Gertie?” I said.

Glenda started laughing like a maniac, which set Adam off.

“I have a doll,” he said, swallowing his laughter. “One of those china things that looks like it’s always staring at you, with the flouncy bonnet and what-have-you.” He waved his hands around, indicating frilly clothes. “I thought it must’ve been Eden’s, but she doesn’t remember it at all. Anyway, these two got hold of it a couple of years ago, combined it with some voice boxes from various toys, gave it legs and arms from a robot dinosaur, and flashing red eyes.”

“The one in your study?” I said, waiting for Adam’s nod. “I thought she had chicken feet.”

He shook his head. “She says some choice phrases now, while she struts around the house like a velociraptor.”

Seth put on a 1950s BBC voice, and said, “Calling all cars.”

Glenda deepened her voice and said, “Yo’ ass is mine.”

I laughed. “Oh, god.”

“You should see the scarecrows down at the orchard for more of their handiwork,” said Eden. “They’re perfectly ghastly.”

“And unscientific,” said Seth.

Everybody sighed dramatically.

“Dad’s a bad influence,” said Ben.

“And yet,” said Magnus, dipping some kind of Indian snack into his tea, “the fruit yields are up.” He tossed what looked like a tea-soaked bhaji into his mouth, and I tried not to gag.

When everyone went back to opening presents, I was so caught up in watching, that I forgot I still had some to open. I would be here for Christmas every year from now on. Maybe Leia would be able to stay for some of the holidays. It had only been a couple of months since I met everyone, and already I was home. I quietly took off my necklace and threaded the garnet on. Eden took the necklace from me and put it back around my neck. She gave my hand a squeeze and shot me an emotional look. I smiled and looked away quickly.

Glenda nodded at the pile of presents on my lap and gave me a wink. She’d knitted me a jumper. It was mostly black, but had a multicoloured stripe down the sides and on the inside of the arms which was only visible if I lifted my arms up. I put it on over my PJs because the fire hadn’t quite warmed my bones yet. I got some clothes and sketchbooks. Jess must’ve told Eden how fast I was getting through them. It was Si’s fault. Leia made me a baby Stitch cuddly toy, and I felt myself getting teary-eyed.

“Cute,” said Eden. “From Leia?”

“Yeah, it’s from a film we used to watch together.”

“Lilo and Stitch,” said Eden.

“Ohana means family,” said Ben, his tone serious when he nodded at my doll.

“Yeah,” I said, wishing I’d taken my hair out of its pineapple so I could hide beneath it.

Leia had made me something Stitch related for the last five years for the exact reason Ben said. This was the sixth. I had a cushion, a headband, a coin purse, a pencil case, and a felt badge. Now I had a cuddly toy.

When Ezra picked up one of my framed drawings, turning it in his hands, Ben looked at me quickly and said, “Maybe not yet.”

“It’s okay,” I said. “There’s one each, but you need to open them at the same time.”

Ezra dug into the pile then, passing the presents around. I sat nervously while they tore into the wrapping. All of them were impatient. They all looked up at me at the same time, laughter in their eyes.

“This is the best thing I’ve ever seen,” said Adam. I’d drawn him in his smoking jacket, talking to his ugly lamp with a stack of cups and saucers piled in his hand.

They all laughed some more when they passed them around. Glenda in her wellies with a goat under her arm. Magnus sitting grasshopper style in a small chair with coils and springs in his hair and dead electronics in his hands. Archer juggling vegetables while he cooked. Seth weighed down by all the junk he won at the fair. Eden peering out from behind a pile of books wearing her weird owl glasses. I’d gone for something different for the twins. I drew a Rube Goldberg machine with the twins at either end of it. Ezra had a stack of glasses and a purple pout, and Ben had a stack of bowls. Then I’d cut it in half to make two pictures.

“I think you’ve started a new family tradition, Violet,” said Magnus.

A few days later, back at Pandora’s, I planned next year’s drawings in my head, knowing that by then, I’d never have to leave the priory again.

***

The source photo above is from PhotoMIX-Company on Pixabay

DeMobbed: Raven Tricks

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What follows is the first draft of what is currently scene 31 of DeMobbed.

Context: Raven Albright has been sent by the head of DeMob to find his runaway daughter and the other casino escapees. Raven has his own agenda and a serious loathing of his father.

POV: third person, Raven’s perspective.

***

Raven scanned the terminal building for Maury and his father. Russet maple leaves decorated every storefront, just in case anybody forgot they were in Canada. Raven had been accosted outside Wendy’s by a fan of rock star, Damon Avery. It wasn’t the first time. It didn’t matter how many times he denied it, nobody ever believed he wasn’t Damon until the guy tweeted that he was elsewhere. Apparently, Raven’s frosty demeanour didn’t go over well with the fans. One of these days, he was going to give the fans something to gossip about as payback for Damon stealing his face. Still, it wasn’t as bad in Canada as it was in the US, or in the UK, where Raven had lived until he reached adulthood. Raven had a mishmash of an accent, but it was mostly posh London, unlike Damon Avery’s fake English accent. Everyone knew the guy was from Ohio.

Raven liked Vancouver Airport with its cedar statues, and its glass ocean, and its aquarium. His favourite piece of art was the Raven Transformation Mask, which he’d always thought was a perfect metaphor for his own transformation. Unlike the Raven of legend, he had not brought light to the world, nor cared that humans lived without shadows. There was much to be said for the dark. Nor had his voice been ruined by smoke when he brought fire to humans. Raven hadn’t had a voice at all until his transformation began. Now he sang more beautifully than the man who stole his face, and people listened when he spoke. Raven had always been dark. He was deceitful, selfish, hungry, and he knew how to prey on the fears and failings of others. He knew how to feed greed. Raven always did appreciate a trickster.

Raven’s phone chirped. It was his father. Terrence Albright never much cared for efficiency. He was happy resting on Dom’s dime. What did he care if the search for Sunny Wyatt was delayed? He’d get paid either way. Raven was already annoyed that he had to detour to Canada when he could’ve simply flown directly from McCarran to his final destination.

The cloudy sky was bright with solar flare, hanging above the indifferent, hazy blue mountains. The angular architecture of the hotel, with its white tubes and blue glass, seemed too tall for the sprawling landscape and its squat, maze-like airport.

Raven tucked his sunglasses into his pocket as he entered the building. If his father was playing games, sending him on wild goose chases, Raven would send him home with Maury. The man at the glossy black piano watched Raven pass, his notes faltering. Raven threaded his way through caramel velvet chairs, and skirted around a huge stone block fireplace. He found his father and Maury seated in blocky, white chairs at a square, black table beneath a cobalt chandelier and surrounded by tiger-striped plants. They were sipping coffee on Dom’s dime.

Maury stood as Raven approached, leaning forward to shake his hand.

Terrence sprawled in his chair and scratched his nuts. “Nice of you to show.”

“Nice of you to switch venues when I’d already been waiting at our agreed rendezvous point for forty minutes,” said Raven.

Maury eyed his companions, and looked fitfully around the room. Terrence flicked his head at the empty chair and kicked it towards Raven, causing it to shriek across the floor. Raven wanted to remind his father that he wasn’t a pre-schooler, but unlike his father, he was prone to efficiency. An argument would cause unforgivable delays.

“Father, do you have your luggage with you?”

“Now, why would I need my luggage with me?” said Terrence, leaning back in his chair. “It’s in the car.”

“Well, get it,” said Raven. “You and I are flying to Denver.”

Terrence laughed. “I’m calling in.”

“Do that,” said Raven. “I’m sure he’ll appreciate you wasting his time.” Raven eyed the empty coffee cups littering the table. “Wasting his time even more than usual, I mean.”

“You’re getting mouthy, boy, you know that?” said Terrence.

“I take orders from Dom. If I tell you we’re going somewhere, it means Dom has ordered it. Take my word, don’t take my word, but the flight is in forty minutes. You can explain to the boss why you’re not on it.”

Terrence glared at Raven for too many seconds, then he held his hand out for the car keys. Maury wrestled them from his pocket. Terrence sauntered away, jangling the keys. He was an obnoxious son of a bitch.

“Sorry about him,” said Raven.

Maury shrugged. “He’s different lately. Ever since New York.”

“Since I got promoted,” said Raven, arching an eyebrow.

“You’re a good kid,” said Maury.

Why did he have to say something like that? Raven already felt guilty enough over what he was about to do.

“Aisling MacFarlane will be coming for her spy soon,” said Raven. “Tell me it’s not you.”

“What? Why would you think it was me?”

“I don’t think it,” said Raven. “It’s not me calling you back to Vegas.”

“The boss thinks I’m a spy?”

“You’d have to ask him,” said Raven. “I’d advise you to take a gun, but that would be pointless against him.”

Maury leant forward, lowering his voice to a hiss. “For fuck’s sake, Raven. I’m not going to kill the boss.”

Raven shrugged. “You heard what happened to Red?”

“Yeah, he killed himself.”

Raven shook his head. “I thought the boss would ask him what happened that night, the night everyone fell asleep on his watch. I thought he’d be given a chance to explain himself. He wasn’t.”

“Shit!” said Maury.

“You remember before she went to San Fran, Aisling crashed the magic act, and you talked her down? And you remember when she lost her footing on the stairs, and you helped her to the bar to put some ice on her ankle?”

Maury frowned. “I don’t … ah, fuck, I remember.”

“The boss has had Burgess going through every last scrap of footage,” said Raven. “Those tapes are mounting up, Maury.”

He nodded, his eyes wild. “Fuck it, I’m screwed.”

Raven bit his lip. “I like you, Maury.” He laughed at Maury’s horrified face. “Not like that. I like them young and pretty.”

Maury laughed nervously. “Well, thank fuck for that.”

Raven pulled a silver stake from his pocket, and pushed it across the table to Maury. “This will do it. Just in case. Put it away, my father’s coming back.”

Maury reluctantly pocketed the bullet, and was sweaty and red by the time Terrence threw the keys back on the table.

“Ready?” he said.

Raven stood, and shook Maury’s hand again. It was clammy. “Good luck,” he whispered.

“So why are we going to Denver?” said Terrence, following Raven to the exit.

“Connecting flight,” said Raven. “We’re visiting Dorothy.”

“Huh?”

Uncultured swine. “Kansas. Jesus, we’re going to Kansas.”

***

The source image above is from Alexas_Fotos on Pixabay.

Paper Starlings: a scene

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

This is part of a scene in chapter ten.

Context: After a childhood in care, Violet meets her dead mother’s sister who had been told that Violet was stillborn. Aunt Eden is driving them to her home in Oxfordshire for the first time.

***

When Eden pulled out of my street and onto the main road, it was already dark. Rows of houses flashed by, punctuated by lit windows displaying homely tableaus, like a gallery of yellow paintings. Trying to get out of London on a Friday night was slow. There were so many lights, it was painful to look at: dazzling white headlights like the ethereal glow in paintings of angels, and fiery red taillights like the eyes of demons retreating in the darkness. I closed my eyes and let the music wash over me.

“What is it?” I said, turning my head against the headrest.

Eden grinned. “I thought you’d dozed off.”

“Just listening,” I said.

“One of my students sent it to me.” The music was melodic and ploddy, with pretty highs, like life in the summer. “You like it?”

“Yeah, it’s … mellow. I don’t like tinny music. It irritates my ears. And I don’t like singers that whine or scream or bellow. Or sing in fake accents with fake feelings about inconsequential crap. Or when they sing all the notes just to prove they can. Or worse, when they warble a million notes to a one-syllabled word. There should be penalties for that.”

Eden smirked. “So what do you like?”

I shrugged. “I don’t really go out of my way to listen, you know? I mean, I hear it, I’m exposed to it, but it’s just background. Noisy wallpaper. I think maybe I skipped the music-loving gene when I was born … silent.”

“You were born unable to see too,” Eden said softly. “But that didn’t stop you breaking out the paints, did it?”

“That was years later.”

I’d never been able to describe the way my sight came to me without sounding like I was taking hallucinogenics. I was five when it happened, and my understanding of the visual world was limited. Everything I saw was too much, all of it imagined, rendered with the incomplete knowledge of how colour and form combined. Like a child’s drawing. Things just didn’t look that way anymore.

This is what happened: Colours exploded behind my closed eyelids, swirling like petrol in a puddle, polluting the dark-light reality inside my head. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes was worse colour. Formless and toxic. Its boldness frightened me, and I squeezed my eyes shut against it, hoping it would go away. It never did. Then came form, shapes and patterns. They moved. Some drifted, some sped, some spun. All made me nauseous. If I’d had access to a camera back then, I could’ve slowed down the world one frame at a time. Nothing stayed still long enough for me to catch it, to really see it. It took only moments to realise what my sight had cost me. The shadow girl. Amethyst.

“They said you painted though, even before you could see. That’s amazing.”

When my brain registered her comment, I said, “What? I didn’t.”

Her gaze flicked from the road to my face. “You don’t remember?” I shook my head. “The occupational therapist sent the paintings to a specialist. He said the only explanation was that the staff must’ve coached you after you got your hearing, but before you got your sight, because the pictures were too realistic. That’s professional speak for, I don’t have a clue how to deal with it because my brain is a wasteland consisting only of outdated information and tick boxes.”

I laughed. “Ouch! What do you have against so-called professionals?”

“Trust me, that is not a topic you want to get me started on.”

“So what were the paintings of? Do you know?”

“Birds,” she said. “Well, the same bird over and over.”

“A starling?” I said.

“Yes. You remember?”

“No. Not the paintings. Just the sound. The first sound I heard was a starling. I mean, I do remember painting and drawing starlings, but it was later. When I could see.”

I didn’t remember closing my eyes the second time, but when I opened them again, London was far behind us. The tightly packed houses had given way to tightly packed trees and hedgerows, and the car lights were sparse. The music had been turned down and Eden hummed gently to herself. Every so often, a break in the hedgerow gave us far-reaching views across darkened patchwork fields, where light trails in the distance showed another road carved into the landscape.

“Where are we?” I said, stretching out my back muscles.

“About twenty minutes from home, maybe less.”

“What’s that?” I asked, nodding at a huge cluster of lights ahead in the distance.

“Oxford. We’ll be turning off in a minute, so we won’t go through it, but I can take you in the week if you like.”

“Yeah, alright. I suppose it’s much nicer than where I live.”

“All places have their charms. Besides, being with the right people can make the dullest of places brighter.”

“Leia’s moving to Cornwall. School will suck without her.”

“Oh, Violet, I am sorry.”

“S’alright. We’ll still be able to talk. It won’t be the same but …”

I stared blindly out the side window, shortening my focus to track the droplets of rain that raced down the glass. I listened to the sound of the engine, soft and puttery, with a slurred rumble beneath it. It sounded like a bored fish lounging on the back of a sleep-drunk bear. The backs of my thighs had gone to sleep.

“Listen, we’re nearly home. If there’s anything you need to know, I’d ask now. Seth and Archer have taken the twins camping for the night to give you some breathing space. It’ll just be Dad, Magnus and Glenda, but even so, we might not get to chat later.”

“Who’s Glenda?”

“That depends who you ask.” She shook her head. “She’s my best friend. But if you asked her, she’d say she was the housekeeper.”

“So, she isn’t the housekeeper?”

“Oh, she is. It was the only way she’d agree to stay with us. She’s not happy unless she’s earning her keep.”

“Right. So, there is something I wanted to ask … about my mum.”

“Shoot.”

“Do you know why she ran away from home?”

“Yes, but it’s not a pretty story.”

“My life’s not a pretty story.”

“Alright. But tell me if I get a bit TMI. I’m a very blurt it all out sort of parent. I don’t believe in coddling when it comes to the truth.” I nodded, warming a little at her use of parent, and she continued. “As I said before, Dad didn’t know if Amy was his or not and my mother kept us away for a long time. The purple eyes are a genetic trait from Dad’s family, so the moment I met her, I knew she must be his child. Amy’s step-father, I only met a few times, but he seemed a nice man. He committed suicide when Amy was fifteen. My mother blamed Amy and she ran away.”

“Why did she blame Amy?”

“When I confronted my mother, she told me that her husband was in love with Amy, that he felt guilty about his feelings for her and killed himself. I don’t know how true it is, but I don’t think Amy did anything to encourage it. She was just a kind person, everything my mother wasn’t.”

“And you don’t know what happened after she left? You don’t know where she went?”

“There were rumours. I checked them out myself, but they never led to anything. I even hired someone to look for her, but every lead turned up cold.”

The roads were so quiet and dark now that only the dipped beam of the headlights lit the way. Up ahead, the glow of a fox’s eyes reflected back at us before it dashed out of our way. We turned left into a road full of little cottages, some with B&B signs outside. A post office, a butcher, a corner shop and, at the end of this rare cluster of life, a village pub stood, muffling the voices within its ancient walls.

“This is us,” said Eden, pushing the indicator stick up.

The car swung to the right into a barely noticeable gap between the trees. A statue stood on each side of the narrow road, partially covered by greenery and glowing eerily in the darkness. A long drive stretched out ahead but there were no lights, no house. We drove past several fields, and down an avenue of trees. The road was so bumpy there, that Eden and I bounced in our seats. Eventually we turned onto a small wooden bridge. I looked down into a stream that glittered in the moonlight. The car slowed again when Eden turned onto a gravel parking area surrounded by a high hedgerow on three sides.

A stone building towered above us on the fourth side. Most of it was covered by some kind of plant, but it was too dark to tell what it was. A downstairs window held a faint glow but there was otherwise no sign of life.

When I stepped onto the gravel, the chilly air wrapped around me, but instead of feeling cold, I felt comforted. The rain had sent the ancient pulse of the earth to the surface. I felt it beneath my feet. The air was tangy and charged with the scent of storms and well-fed trees. I felt them stretching towards me, to welcome me home.

***

The source image is from makamuki0 on Pixabay.

Paper Starlings: the prologue

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Paper Starlings is the first of six books in the not*the*same*river series. They follow the life of Violet who, after a childhood in care, figures out that her birth family’s heritage is more complicated than she believed possible.

The series features vampires, angels, demons, werewolves, vaewolves and other vae breeds. It’s set mainly in Oxfordshire, England.

***

Her name is Violet. It was all I could give her.

That’s what it said in the note that severed me from my roots. The note that was carefully tucked beside me in the equally abandoned car seat when I was freshly born.

I had a paper-thin life. It began on a day that was heavier than all others. It began the day I was born. It began at zero. There were no parents to know. No heritage to learn. No clue who the I in the note was. My narrative existed nowhere but in my own head. Shameful and unsharable. Untruths and un-lies. There was nothing to know and it weighed a lot.

At first, there was nothing to see or hear either. I had no experience of sound to help me decipher the noiseless chaos of other people’s feelings, but I felt the frequency of them; I felt their pulse. The darkness that was my normal was made entirely of light and movement. Before I’d ever seen a human face, I was visited by eyes and noses and lips, all of them inside my head, detached and devouring.

Before I’d ever seen a bird, I knew a bird. Then I heard it: the first starling. It was the first real, outside-of-myself noise I ever heard, and its soundwave bent like it had passed through a thousand raindrops. Even starlings didn’t sound like that anymore. It flew away from me like everything else had, in the space of four wingbeats, like the wind had carried it away with my shadow. The shadow girl had been my substantial truth, but even she was stolen by the light. When the colours came, I still had a paper-thin life.
I wasn’t like the starlings I committed to paper. They had nests to build. They had purpose. They could fly. Golden wings, star-speckled bellies and worm-pink legs. They were an unlikely conduit for my envy. I was nestless and restless.

The unbearable truth of my beginning was a tide hitting a distant shore. It was the beat of a bird’s wing. It was a whisper along a wire. Its weight was with me, and its weight was elsewhere. My absence left a hole. That was the truth that would outplay the lies I told myself.

Because truth, as my great-grandfather would one day tell me, has feet. It doesn’t care whether we believe it or not. It can sing at the surface, begging to be heard. It can be patient as death. Sometimes it can be a language we don’t speak. It can give us wings or lock us tight as bones. It can weave itself into layers of possibility, waiting to be unpicked. It can be written into life, scratched into being or dreamed beneath the stars. Sometimes the truth can fall into the palm of our hand. Only lies care whether we believe them or not.

I waited for my truth. I waited for paper-thin to expand into belonging. I waited for the padding of my familial narrative. When it came, I learned all the ways I could know the truth. I could bury it. Speak it. Dream it. Paint it. Fight it. Twist it. Draw it. Carve it into my skin. Scream it. Subvert it. Deny it. Own it. Live it.

The truth of it was this: lies could be easier than truth, paper-thin could be easier than truth, empty narratives could be easier than truth.

If nobody had believed a lie, they might’ve looked for the truth sooner. They might’ve seen it when a woman killed two nurses, and was caught standing over my cot with a dripping knife in her hand.

But nobody looked. It was fifteen years before I began to know the truth, and even that was before all the other things wanted me dead.

***

The source image above is from JCLeroi on Pixabay