Remembering My Brother’s Birth. And Death . . .

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W. K. Tucker:

Very sad…and yet touching.

Originally posted on Healing Beyond Survival:

on stepsI woke in the middle of the night and remembered that my only natural sibling’s birthday is today; I was overcome with gratitude that I’d forgotten. We are two years apart, his birthday five days before mine. For the first time in 32 years I haven’t been consumed with memories as his birthday approached. When I realized I hadn’t been thinking about him at all lately, I felt even more grateful. That won’t make sense if you don’t know our story. The following is a blog post I wrote last December for my first blog Writing Through The Monsters of My Childhood (that got deleted):

December 19—The Day My Brother Died

They say he put the barrel-end of a 30.06 in his mouth and pulled the trigger. There would be no need for an open casket.  “But how can we know for sure it’s him?” I pleaded at the…

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The City By The Sea

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“Gavin, wait, you forgot your mask.” Lissa waddled over to the front door, holding the filter out in front of her as if it were one of the icky, four-inch roaches that prowled their apartment at night. God, how she hated those awful things, but nothing you could do but learn to live with them; they weren’t going anywhere.

“Thanks, babe.” Gavin took the black mask and slipped it on, settling it atop his blond curls instead of over his face. “But I would’ve remembered it as soon as I’d stepped outside and come back after it.” He looked down into her eyes, a gentle smile curving his lips. “You’re supposed to stay off your feet as much as possible, you know.” He laid a gloved hand upon her swollen belly. “Doctor’s orders.”

For all the good it’ll do, Lissa thought. Had staying off her feet saved her sister’s baby? Or Beverly’s? Or anyone else’s she knew? She wanted to walk, to run, to go outside, even if it meant suiting up and breathing through that hideous filter. “I want to…I’m so tired…”

“I know.” Gavin enfolded her cumbersome body in his arms, laid his cheek on top of her head. “But soon the baby’ll be here and you can go back to work—if that’s what you want.”

If that’s what I want? Lissa almost laughed. Go back to the daily struggle with the jungle that was trying to claim the city? Go back to suiting up in protective gear so the sun wouldn’t fry her to a crisp? Go back to wearing that hot, rubbery mask so she could breathe the air without it destroying her lungs and her body? Of course she did. Anything was preferable to staying cooped up all the time in their tiny apartment. And it wasn’t such a bad job as far as jobs went; after all, that’s where she’d met Gavin.

“I’d better go.” Gavin dropped a quick kiss on her cheek, then hit the gray pad on the wall beside the door. “I’ll see you this evening.”

The door slid open, and as he stepped into the metal tube—every apartment had their own—that’d take him to the street below, he pulled the mask down over his face and pulled up the hood of his insulated jumper. The door closed behind him. Lissa heard the faint swoosh of the tube’s descent.

Listlessly, she crossed the small room to the window. At least she had this: an eye to the world outside. Most of the building’s five-hundred apartments didn’t have that luxury. She supposed there was something to be said for being the daughter of the Mayor of Neo Boston.

Lissa placed her fists on the glass. How she’d love to break it, to sail out into the sky, and fly away, fly away over the sea into the pinking dawn. Maybe the air would be clean there, the winds cool and soothing, not hot and humid and blistering.

But no…she knew better. The great Atlantic had changed, just as the land had changed. It was beautiful to look at, its giant, pink-foamed waves crashing onto the thin strip of beach. But it was devoid of life. Dead. iStock_000005603711SmallNothing lived there anymore except the algae that long ago had swiped its ruddy brush over the immense expanse of blue.

And how much longer before the human race died out? Hardly any infants survived past their first year, most born sickly and weak. Some died after taking their first breath. Some died in the womb. Some were born who were not right at all, missing parts, having extra parts. And some babies were just…well… born wrong in some indefinable way. Those died too—eventually.

Lissa often wondered about the why of it. Why did the babies die? Like her, all expectant mothers were locked away inside the air-tight buildings, forbidden to venture outside even with protective gear. Had the poisoned earth somehow poisoned its people?

She looked down at the streets below, to the steady stream of ant-sized people going about their business, some walking, some on bicycles; the relentless sun reflecting off their silver suits. Only big businesses and the very rich owned actual vehicles.

A convoy of huge, green trucks entered her line of vision on the left. Lissa recognized them. Filled with produce and grain from the domed farms of Canada, they came to exchange their goods for the fruits and berries cultivated in the domes just to the south of Neo Boston. It was laughable if you stopped to think about it; everywhere you cared to look within the snarl of trees, vines and creepers that besieged the city, food grew in abundance—but no one could eat it without getting sick. Some poor souls had even died.

Lissa’s gaze drifted to the line of demarcation where concrete met jungle, to the cluster of tiny people hacking away at the invasive greenery. She used to do that, side by side with Gavin and the rest of the crew. Day in and day out. Dawn to dusk. She’d hated it then; now she actually missed it.

The baby kicked. Hard. Lissa sucked in a pained breath. Another blow jabbed a rib. Her baby boy was a fighter. Maybe he’d be one of the survivors…

Maybe.

Mustn’t get her hopes up. Mustn’t even think about it, because if she did, she’d cry, and what good would that do?

She swiped at her eyes. She wished Gavin were here. He’d know what to say, what to do to make everything all right. He’d find a way to make her laugh. That’s why she’d fallen in love with him: his ability to make her laugh in any situation. And his kisses, she’d fallen in love with them too.

A smile touched her lips—then quickly disappeared when pain exploded in her abdomen, bringing her to her knees. She hugged her belly, gasped for air. Under her clutching hands, her abdomen hardened, the pain intensified. And just when she thought she might faint, it let up.

Lissa drew a shaky breath. She reached up and grasped the windowsill, then pulled herself to her feet. She lay her sweaty forehead against the warm glass—warm yes, but cooler than her. “The baby’s coming…” she whispered. “But…but…” It wasn’t time. She had four more weeks to go.

Another pain ripped through her belly. Lissa gritted her teeth and gripped the windowsill. Gray spots danced in front of her eyes, but she didn’t give in, didn’t allow the gray to turn into black. She couldn’t pass out. She had to…tell…Gavin…the baby…

The spots of gray turned into a sea of red.

Oh God, it hurts, it hurts, it hurts! Lissa’s fingernails dug into the windowsill.

At last the contraction passed, allowing her mind to function. And for the first time since she’d found out she was pregnant, Lissa felt fear. Something was wrong; this was no ordinary birth.

She punched two numbers on the telecommunicator circling her wrist. In seconds, Gavin’s masked face appeared on the miniature screen. “Lissa, is—”

Another crash of agonizing pain. “The baby…he’s coming.” Lissa felt a wet gushing, looked down to see blood puddling on the floor around her bare feet. “Now!”

***

“I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” Doctor Littlefield said, moving the palm-held heart monitor over Zackary’s thin chest. “He seemed just fine when he was born—except for the skin color, of course. But that’s beginning to fade, and still…”

The baby was breathing almost normally now, but earlier Lissa had wondered if he was going to pull through this time. The coughing and wheezing and sucking for air, it’d tied her stomach up in knots. Just a week old and she was already madly in love with the tiny life she and Gavin had created. She’d tried to distance herself, knowing from the moment the doctor had placed him in her arms and she’d seen the green tint of his skin that she’d probably lose him. He was one of those who were “not quite right”. But how could she not love him? She’d changed his diapers, sang to him, held him as he’d suckled at her bosom. My God, she’d even named him—against everyone’s advice.

Doctor Littlefield smiled down at the infant she held cradled in her arms. Lissa saw the sadness in the doctor’s eyes. How many babies had she helped into the world? How many babies had she seen depart it?

But not my baby! Lissa held out her arms.

After dropping a kiss on Zackary’s head, the doctor eased him into Lissa’s arms. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him,” she said. “I even searched the archives, anything relating to his symptoms. The closest match I got was asthma, but—”

Gavin stopped pacing back and forth in front of the window. He turned to Doctor Littlefield. “What’s asthma?”

“An ancient disease…a chronic lung disorder,” she answered. “But your son’s lungs are fine. I just don’t know…”

“You’re a doctor, you’re supposed to know.” Gavin stalked across the room, his accusing eyes on the short woman. “You should know what’s wrong with my son.”

Lissa grabbed his arm. “It’s not her fault. No one knows.”

Tears sparkled in Dr. Littlefield’s eyes. “This world we live in, it’s a harsh world. Only the strongest survive.”

“But he was strong,” Gavin said. “When you delivered him, he was kicking and squirming and bawling his head off. He was fine!”

“But…”

Gavin raked his hand through his hair. “But what?”

The doctor sighed. “His skin was…is…green, Gavin. I’ve seen it before and…and…”

“And?” Gavin practically snarled.

“Babies like your son…they don’t…” She swallowed. “Make it.”

A grim silence settled over the room, broken only by Zackary’s labored breathing.

Holding her baby close to her heart, Lissa moved to the window. Behind her, she heard Gavin and Doctor Littlefield talking—softly now—but she tuned them out as she stared out at the eternal ocean, letting its ceaseless movement take her to a place of calm, a place of peace, a place where babies didn’t die in their mother’s arms.

She heard the front door slide open, the whoosh of the tube. Then Gavin was behind her, slipping his arms around her and their baby.

And it started up again.

Zackary started wheezing, then coughing. His little lungs gasped for air as if he were suffocating. Lissa felt helpless; there was nothing she could do to ease her child’s suffering.

She felt tremors running through Gavin’s body, felt the wetness of his tears falling upon her cheek. He saw it too—the bluish tinge spreading outward from Zackary’s lips, leaching the green from his skin, turning it a milky blue. He was dying. His tiny chest rose and fell, rose and felt, each breath an enormous effort.

Lissa wanted to cry, wanted to scream, wanted to die. She wanted to give her life to Zackary and take his death.

Gavin’s arms clutched her tighter. “He’ll be resting in God’s arms soon.”

Resting in God’s arms? It didn’t make sense? Why would God create a life only to snatch it right back? Time after time after time?

There was no God! There couldn’t be a god! All this made no sense! Dead babies, dying babies, green babies.

Lissa’s heart tripped in her chest.

She jerked out of Gavin’s arms. “Suit up. We’re going outside.”

“But—”

“No buts. Just do what I say. We’re taking Zackary outside.” Gavin looked at her as if she were crazy. And maybe I am.

Clutching her limp son in one arm, she rushed into the bedroom and came out with her and Gavin’s suits and face masks. “Hurry!” She slung Gavin’s suit and mask in his general direction, then gently placed Zackary on the sofa and tugged on her suit. On with the face mask, then she picked up her son and ran for the door. She hit the pad, the door slid open and she stepped into the tube. She looked back. Gavin stood in the middle of the room, his mouth hanging open, his silver suit and black mask on the floor near his feet.

Lissa didn’t hesitate. She hit the pad inside the tube, the door slid shut and she and Zackary plummeted downward.

In seconds, the opaque tube glided to a gentle stop. Here was where Lissa hesitated. She looked out upon the city through the cloudy walls of the cylinder, gray concrete surrounded by the green beast of the jungle. Was she doing the right thing, taking her son outside into the poisoned world? What if she were wrong?

She looked down at the still face of her son, his glazed eyes, the almost indiscernible movement of his chest. He was moments away from death.

With a cry of primitive rage, she slammed her fist onto the pad. Better he die free out in the open than inside the confines of the prisons humanity had built for itself. At least she could give her son that.

She stepped out onto the mid-day street. Behind her, the tube slid closed. Clutching Zackary, she moved out of the shade of the building into the ferocious sunshine. She looked up at the fiery orb, its blinding rays muted by her face mask. She smiled. “I give you my son…”

She held out Zackary’s still body.

And the sun took him.

His chest hitched. He gasped. He coughed. And then he breathed. He gulped in air that was death and it brought him life.

As Lissa watched in wonder, the green of his skin grew more pronounced. He waved his arms. His little legs kicked. But the most wondrous thing of all was that he began breathing normally.

She laughed in delight.

“How did you know?” Gavin asked.

Lissa had been so wrapped up in Zackary’s transformation, she hadn’t heard Gavin’s approach. Through the visor on his face mask she saw the wonderment she felt echoed in his eyes as he stared at their son. “It was the green,” she answered.

His gaze moved to her. “The green?”

Lissa cuddled their squirming infant. “Remember in school…photosynthesis?”

Gavin nodded. “Chlorophyll…carbon dioxide…he needs that, not oxygen.”

“Yes.” Lissa looked up from her living breathing child, up to the blazing, scorching sun.

Tomorrow, a new dawn would break over the city by the sea, a new dawn in the history of mankind. And her son would be a part of it.

 

298. The radiation will kill you

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W. K. Tucker:

This story will stay with me for a long time.

Originally posted on 300 stories:

“The radiation will kill you,” I tell her, but she doesn’t listen. She wants out. She’s tired of this life without sun. Without open space. Without joy.

It’s been five hundred and seven days since the event came without warning. Luckily we got underground in time. But we had no time to look back. No final glimpse of Earth as we knew it. That mushroom cloud and the fast approaching nuclear winds would be our last impression of home.

“You really want out, don’t you?”

She nods.

I don’t blame her. The food on the shelves is rapidly diminishing. We face certain death here anyway. Why not speed up the process? Why not enjoy another few minutes of Earth air before we inevitably die? How much more painful than starvation can radiation poisoning be?

I look into her eyes. She’s no longer the sprightly companion she’s always been. She’s weary, hasn’t…

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Sleeper on the Loose

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W. K. Tucker:

Excellent story!

Originally posted on Odyssey of a Novice Writer:

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“What do you mean we’ve got a Sleeper on the loose? Christ, Lowenstein, how the hell did that happen?”

I sighed and ran a hand through my short purple hair. “Look, if I knew the answer to that question, do you think he’d be missing?”

I could see Hrabowski was pissed. His usually placid, pale face was quickly turning red, and his eyes lost their habitual bored-with-the-world look. Right now he looked anything but bored. He looked like he wanted to reach through the monitor and strangle me.

“I knew it was a mistake to send a woman to do a man’s job,” he grunted.

I ignored the remark. “Sir, he’s got to be somewhere on this ‘droid. I’ll find him.”

“Who’s the Sleeper?”

Now I hesitated, knowing this was going to send Hrabowski through the roof.

“It’s Yuri Gorshkov,” I said, waiting for the explosion.

I didn’t have long…

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Sunday Photo Fiction – The Flaming Ball

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W. K. Tucker:

Great flash fiction story. Wish I had written it. :)

Originally posted on fabricating fiction:

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We stare intently at the flaming orange ball, through squinted, watery eyes. ’10 seconds to launch Sir,’ Jim informs me.
I turn to my second in command. ‘What do you think our chances are?’
‘Good,’ he lies. He is sweating as much as the rest of us.

With an almighty roar the ball catapults into space. There is a whooshing in my ears reminiscent of the time Dad taught me to swim. No matter how many times I slipped under the grabbing waves he never let me go. I managed a few strokes with tired arms and emerged triumphant from the ocean, running to our picnic spot to be encircled by a dry towel and my mother’s pride.

We silently watch the ball’s progress on the monitors. The control room feels suffocating, too full of silent prayers and regret. I remove my tie and try to loosen my top button…

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The Panther

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W. K. Tucker:

Love Stephen’s stories. He may be even weirder than I am…and that’s a good thing. 😊

Originally posted on Stephen Thom writing:

This story is not about a panther.

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The Panther

‘Howard,’ she shouted as she stuffed files into her bag and flung a scarf around her neck. ‘Howard, you should check the paper today. Even just a look at the jobs section. You’ll feel better for it.’

Howard nodded, peeling himself off the sofa to walk her to the door. ‘I know it’s up to you and…I want you to be happy; I do, it’s just, I realised this morning it’s been two years. The routine, it could do so much for you…’ She continued rambling whilst checking her face in the hall mirror. He nodded again and kissed her out of obligation. A forced smile flickered over her lips and she was off, her heels clicking down the drive. He waited until she got into the car and waved a final time, receiving the same wan smile in response. He…

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Eye of the Beholder

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I’ve had a busy week with no time to write.  :(  But instead of skipping posting altogether, I decided to share an old story of mine–really old, like around 5 years old. I hope you enjoy.

Cassie drifted up and down aisles stocked with mess kits, ammunition boxes, helmets and such, waiting for the few customers inside Big Mike’s Army Surplus to finish their shopping and leave. Then she’d make her purchase.

Dark head bent, she browsed the racks of clothing that bristled brown and green and black. She pulled out a camo jacket and checked its size, fingered a faded black tee. She examined a row of scuffed boots that lined the back wall, looking for a pair in her size. No luck.

She wandered on.

Finally, the door dinged behind the last customer. Cassie approached the counter and peered down into the glass case. There it was–her salvation.

“What’cha eyeballing, Cassie?”

She glanced up at Big Mike. He grinned around the unlit cigar clamped between his teeth.

“Um…I was just wondering…what does that cost?”

Mike’s gaze followed her pointed finger. His brow furrowed. “That thing?” He gestured at the slim, wooden case that lay open beneath the glass, exposing its sharp, shiny insides.

“Yeah. How much you want for it?”

Mike scratched his ample stomach. “Now what in hell would a pretty, young thing like you want with that?”

Cassie had known Mike for years. He knew things about her no one else in the whole world knew, including her mother–most especially her mother–but this was none of his business.

She pulled a wad of bills from the front pocket of her baggy, black jeans, and plopped the crumpled mess onto the counter. She dipped her head, a fall of shoulder-length, purplish-black hair curtaining her face. “I just want it, that’s all.”

Shaking his shaved head, Mike picked up the cash. “Kids these days, spoiled rotten. Think they gotta have everything they want.” He smiled at Cassie, reached out and ruffled her hair as if she were six, not sixteen. Then he began to count.

Cassie’s hand came up to her mouth. She chewed on a blood-crusted thumbnail.

Mike slid the stack of bills toward Cassie. “Thirty-seven hundred,” he said. “Ain’t enough, cutie.”

Cassie didn’t know how many times she’d told him not to call her that. It was a lie, and only made her feel even uglier. But she wasn’t going to argue the point today. “How much then?”

“That’s a mint-condition Spencer and Croker, circa 1870. Why it’s worth at least–”

Cassie snatched up the bills, than slapped down her debit card. “This cover it?”

Big Mike sighed. “Aw, come on now, what’ll your mama say if you come home packing that old thing?”

Cassie shrugged her thin shoulders. He knew how things stood with her mother. Why rehash ancient history? “I want it, Mike.” Steel fibers wrapped around her soft voice. “You gonna sell it to me or not?”

Mike’s probing, blue eyes sought out hers. Cassie looked down. Another sigh from the big man, then, “Okey-dokey, cutie, whatever you want.”

Later, out on the street, Cassie clutched her brown-bagged purchase to her chest as she stalked the twilight streets. Her long legs ate up the sidewalk, taking her through the familiar neighborhood of pawn shops, liquor stores, tattoo parlors, and decaying hotels.

On the corner of Sixth Street, she slipped inside Bruno’s Barn. The musty smell of old books greeted her like a long-lost friend.

Toward the back, a familiar face peeked around a wall of old paperbacks. Scarlet lips curved up in a smile. “Hello, there.” Smoothing his broomstick skirt, Francis tottered up the aisle. He wrapped his arms around Cassie, package and all, enveloping her in a pungent odor of sweat and old lady perfume.

Cassie endured the embrace. The old transvestite was one of those touchy-feely people who patted, stroked, or hugged almost everyone. Being a regular customer, Cassie had been the recipient of many such hugs.

Francis stepped back. “Looking for something in particular today or just browsing?”

“I’m here to see Bruno. He’s got something for me.”

Francis pursed his lips. “Hummm…I don’t think I care for this…you’re just a baby.”

Cassie ducked her head. “Is he upstairs?”

“Yes, but–”

“I’ll find him.” Cassie slipped around Francis and made her way down the multicolored valley of ceiling-high books, then mounted the steep, narrow stairs set against the back wall. She picked her way through haphazard piles of magazines and books to the makeshift office scrunched into the far corner of the loft.

Bruno looked up from the litter of papers scattered across his desk. “Hey, kid, how’s it going?” A lazy spiral of smoke wafted up from the fat joint resting in the ashtray near his hand. The bluish haze curled lovingly around the Vietnam vet’s whip-thin body.

“Do you have the stuff?” Cassie asked around her thumb.

“Yeah, I’ve it. But I’m not so sure I ought to give it to you.”

Bruno’s bloodshot eyes caught hers. Cassie bowed her head, afraid that he would see inside her, see what she had planned, and try to stop her.

She dug into her jeans pocket, “I’ve got money.” She held out the wrinkled hundred-dollar bills. “Here, take it all.”

Bruno took the cash from her hand. He replaced it with a yellowed envelope. “That there’s premium smack, kid. Go easy on it.”

Eyes on the floor, Cassie mumbled a “Thanks,” stuffed the envelope into her back pocket and hurried back into the papery maze, away from Bruno’s penetrating gaze. She clattered down the stairs and met Francis at the bottom.

Francis grabbed her arm. “What did he give you?”

“Nothing.” Heart thudding in her chest, Cassie pulled away and hurried toward the front of the store. The boards groaned behind Cassie as Francis followed in her wake.

“Cassie, please don’t…please…be careful. You don’t know what–” The door to Bruno’s Barn closed behind Cassie, chopping off anything else Francis might have said.

Cassie knew what she had to do, and she needed the heroin to help her accomplish the task. And after tonight, no one would ever laugh at her again. No, they would point at her when she walked by and say how perfect, how pretty she was.

Smiling the tiniest of smiles, Cassie set off down the crumbling sidewalk. Evening bled into night as she walked, the streets grew cleaner, the air blew fresher. Street lights blazed, taxies sped by, horns honked.

As Cassie strode by Starbucks, the door opened, disgorging tiny, blonde-haired, blue-eyed Marla Gibson. Her crowd of chattering friends swarmed out behind her. Cassie ducked her head and lengthened her stride, but not quickly enough to avoid Marla’s sharp eyes.

Marla said something about Bozo the Goth, and all her friends laughed. Cassie’s stomach twisted into tighter knots. All the slimming black in the world hadn’t made her problem look any smaller; she had to fix it!

Zig-zagging between cars stopped at a red light, Cassie crossed a side street. Halfway down the block, she turned into the entrance of the building where she lived.

“Good evening, Miss Lawson,” the doorman said as he held open the door.

Cassie smiled. “And a good evening to you, Wilson.” She crossed the expansive lobby and boarded the empty elevator. She punched the button for the top floor.

The doors whooshed closed. Cassie raised her eyes and watched the numbers flit by: 2, 3, 4, 5…

And her mind tumbled back through the years.

The elevator was going down. Five-year-old Cassiopeia Lawson watched the red numbers change, fives beside fours, threes next to sixes, then the single numbers that she could read. “Four, three, two, one…”

With a ding, the metal doors slid open.

Mother’s grip on her hand tightened and she marched out of the elevator, pulling Cassie along beside her. Out on the busy sidewalk, Mother flagged down a taxi.

“Aren’t you excited, Cassiopeia!” Mother said as she slid into the back seat beside her. “Your very first party.”

“Uh huh,” Cassie said. Back then, she was an agreeable child; it was later that she rebelled.

They drove out of the city and into a neighborhood where sprawling houses dotted a rolling, green landscape. At one of the houses–a red-brick monstrosity–Mother turned her over to a smiling maid and left, promising to be back soon.

The maid led her to a sunny room filled with chattering children, and she in turn left Cassie. And in that room, Cassie experienced her first humiliation, the finger pointing, the sniggering. For the first time, she realized that she was different.

Now, the elevator doors parted, bringing Cassie back to the present. Clasping her purchase, she stepped out into the small alcove that fronted the door to the only apartment on the floor, the one she shared with her mother. She fitted her key into the lock, then stepped inside.

She heard faint laughter, her mother’s. Deeper rumbling. A man. Mother was entertaining.

Cassie eased the door closed. Hoping she could slip by unnoticed, she trod softly upon the cool, blue tiles of the foyer. A few more steps and she would be past–

“Cassiopeia, come in here, please.”

Cassie cringed inwardly. She hated meeting Mother’s friends, especially the men. She saw pity in their eyes when they looked at her, and that bothered her far worse than the unbearable teasing she had suffered as a child–and suffered still.

She stepped down into the cavernous living room, her boots clomp-clomping upon the gleaming hardwood floor, and paused there.

Flames danced and popped in the fireplace. A half-empty wine bottle and two glasses sat beside the African figurines precisely grouped on the teakwood cocktail table, behind which her mother lounged upon the sofa beside a tanned, muscled man who didn’t look much older than Cassie. Of course, Victoria Lawson didn’t look much older than Cassie either. Not that she should with all the procedures she’d had over the years–implants here, skin pulled up there, fat sucked out everywhere. She hooked a blonde curl behind a diamond-studded ear, then patted the sofa. “Come sit down for a moment.”

Cassie hugged her parcel to her chest. “I’ve got a lot of studying to do. I really should–”

Victoria’s green eyes narrowed. “Just for a minute, Cassiopeia.”

Cassie edged a little deeper into the room, stopping at the edge of the boldly striped rug that underlaid the grouping of furniture hugging the fireplace. Her mother’s boy-toy smiled up at her. His gaze drifted down, beginning a slow perusal of her body. Cassie dropped her eyes. She didn’t want to see his when he reached–

“Charlie, this is my daughter, Cassiopeia. Cassiopeia, Charlie. He’s our newest addition to the firm.”

Still, Cassie didn’t look up. She nodded her head, and sort of mumbled a “How-do-you-do.”

“Your daughter?” Charlie said. “Why, you’re not old enough to be this young lady’s mother.”

He’s a smart one, Cassie thought. Knows just what she wants to hear. “I really need to study, Mother.”

Victoria sighed as if she were disappointed. “If you must, go on then.”

Cassie had done her part, and was now being dismissed. Without a backward glance, she hurried from the room, back out into the foyer and down the long, dark-paneled hallway to the farthermost bedroom: her sanctuary.

She locked the door behind her.

The spacious room was a study in black; the walls, carpet, even the rich walnut furniture, various shades and textures of black. Posters of old rock groups–AC/DC, The Stones, Pink Floyd–sheeted the walls, the only colors sailing the ebony seas.

Cassie went into the bathroom, pulled her purchase out of the bag, and placed it upon the marble-topped vanity. She flipped up the latch and opened the wooden case. Reverently, she lightly ran her fingers over its contents. Her heart began to beat faster. Soon, she would be pretty. Soon, no one would laugh at her. Soon, she would no longer be different, no longer be ugly.

She reached into her back pocket and pulled out the envelope she’d secreted there earlier. She tapped some of the white powder out into her hand, held it underneath her nose and snorted, pulling it in deep. In moments, the warm rush hit her. A sense of wellbeing flooded her mind.

She sank down upon the toilet seat. Her eyes drifted closed.

And it was the first day of kindergarten. A group of girls joined hands and formed a ring around her. They moved in a circle, chanting, “Clown feet, clown feet, Cassiopeia’s got clown feet.”

Marla Gibson lurched toward her. “Where’s your red nose, Bozo?” she asked, her cheeks dimpling as her perfect, pink lips turned up in a nasty smile. Her hand whizzed upward, wielding a tube of red lipstick that she raked across Cassie’s nose. “Here’s your red nose.”

Marla laughed. The other girls joined in.

“Clown feet, clown feet, Cassiopeia’s got clown feet.”

Cassie’s body jerked upright. No more…

She assembled her arsenal: alcohol; needle and strong, nylon thread; fluffy, white towels; and a bottle of ruby-hued nail polish. Next, off came the boots. Cassie kicked the hateful, size-fourteen things away, and tossed damp, black socks into the far corner with them.

And she was seven, sobbing, telling her mother how all the kids at school made fun of her big feet. “Can’t the doctors fix me like they fixed you?”

“You have your father’s big, ugly feet, nothing can be done about it,” Mother had said. “You’ll just have to live with it.” She’d raised the newspaper back up between them.

“Mother, please…”

“Oh for heaven’s sake, Cassiopeia, quit whining, they’re not that bad. Tell you what, we’ll get you a boob job when you’re older, and no one will even notice your feet then.”

Now, Cassie raked the back of her hand across her wet cheeks. “A boob job won’t fix it, Mother…I’ll fix it…”

She turned to the antique amputation set, lifted out the sharp-toothed bone saw and laid it near at hand upon the countertop. Then she took out a thin tourniquet and wrapped it above her ankle. Next came the long, slim knife. Cassie doused both it and her foot with alcohol, then propped her foot on the side of the bathtub. She laid the blade against the top of her foot.

“I’ll fix it.”

And slashed.

That wasn’t so bad, Cassie thought as she watched blood well up out of the deep gash.

She sliced again. And again. The next pass of the knife grated against bone. She dropped the knife into the sink and picked up the bone saw. She splashed alcohol onto its teeth and her bloody foot. “Don’t want an infection,” she mumbled.

Cassie slid the saw into the cut. A river of blood pumped out of the gaping valley of flesh and cascaded down the side of the bathtub, creating a red, ever-widening pool upon the white tiles of the floor. She hadn’t thought there’d be so much blood, not with the tourniquet.

But what was the loss of a little blood? It was small price to pay for normal feet.

The room grew uncomfortably warm. A heavy fog pushed down upon Cassie, clouding her mind, filling her body with lead. For a moment, she forgot where she was, forgot what she was doing. For a moment, she was lost in a red, hot haze. Then gradually, the throbbing in her wounded foot brought her back to herself.

She pulled the bone saw back into position. She took a deep breath and pushed–and had to bite her lip to keep from screaming. A few more passes of the sharp, serrated teeth, and the front half of her foot plopped onto the floor.

Trembling and weak, Cassie slid off the toilet seat onto the floor. She picked up her foot. As soon as she rested for a minute, she’d cut off the toes and sew them onto her new, smaller foot. She’d polish the nails. Oh, they were going to be so pretty!

But first she had to rest.

She cradled her severed foot to her chest. She leaned back against the toilet and closed her eyes. And as the pool of blood grew wider around her, she heard voices:

Just look at those lovely feet.

They’re so tiny, so delicate.

Perfect feet.

Beautiful feet…

Until she heard no more.