Featured Art by Kirsten – Pen Up/SnapSeed
Ehren Nightbell glared at Heike, a twenty-something redheaded tomboy he had chosen from an expanse of sunny blonde nanny applicants. He recalled how her cheeks, rosy and dusted with fine sandy bits, glowed when he first met her, and her joyful, bright brown eyes that vanished every time she laughed. There was no glamour or filters, just a kind, young woman, high on life. He hired her on the spot. Ehren needed a tough nanny to deter the pests attracted to his child, and other nannies couldn’t handle the responsibility.
In time, Ehren realized pests didn’t exist with Heike around, providing him more leisure time with his daughter, and the chance to breathe easier. When leisure turned to idle time, his attention turned to Heike on a behind closed doors level and didn’t waver since. Until now, as he watched Heike twirl the cuff of her cherry cardigan, unable to maintain eye contact, trying to recount what happened to his daughter.
“Elodie fell asleep, I remember I laid her down, it was a little after ten, before me and you—um. Anyway, after we finished, you had left for that board meeting. I went to check on her, and…” she groans aloud. “I’m the worst nanny ever, I’m sorry Ehren!”
“It’ll be alright. Just listen to me, Heike. Calm down, okay?” They sat on a yellow loveseat. His hand slid across her thigh, silencing her shaky leg, “tell me everything.”
“Yesterday, I heard a voice. It told me, when daylight plunges to its end, we begin. After her bath, when warm milk digested within, her soft breaths will end…
“FUCK!” Ehren roared, soaring from the couch; his fist eats the blush nursery wall. Heike shuffled aside, uneasy. Long lists of enemies ran through his head, including Heike, for withholding information. He stalked across the room, rearing her into a corner. “Yesterday. You knew about this yesterday! Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I f-forgot; I didn’t remember hearing the voice!”
“How could you forget? We were together all day yesterday, you could’ve told me! I should’ve been here tonight; I shouldn’t have gone to that stupid emergency board meeting.”
“It’s my fault. I wasn’t strong enough to fight it off. When we’re together, I lose myself with you. My strength drains, everything melts and I’m weak… I could’ve saved her if we didn’t—”
“Yeah, of course,” he snapped, pacing the room with slow, deep breaths. “Just keep going,” he leaned into the chilly wall, banging his head.
“They came out of nowhere when I went to check on her. Their hands were on my shoulders pressing me down—they were so strong, like they were trying to keep me away from Elodie!” Heike wept. Her hands clenched the crib. Left inside was Elodie’s blanket, pacifier, and an empty bottle of milk.
“Do you remember what they looked like?” Ehren asked.
She sniffled, “yeah, I remember this thing—this woman standing beside the crib. She kissed Elodie! I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry…”
“She kissed her—? NO! NO!” Ehren boomed.
“I saw her lean in, I heard the kiss…” Heike wiped her cardigan sleeve across her nose. Streams of gooey snot seeped into the fine-knit viscose blend. Seething with suspicion, Ehren fought the urge to console her.
“I knew I shouldn’t have left you with Elodie. This was a mistake, everything!” he tapped his gold Intelligentsia class ring against the crib, nervous, but kept a level head despite his rising anger. “What did the woman look like?”
“Gray skin, long, smoke like hair, I couldn’t see too much.” Ehren’s eyes narrowed. Heike bit her lip and looked aside. “After they let me go, I looked up again and they were gone, Elodie too!”
The room grew blacker… Heike hid behind Ehren. She pressed her body against his and held his arm watching the closet door open itself. They stopped breathing. A thick slice of gold light poured from inside, swimming towards their feet. Fed-up, Ehren broke from Heike’s grip and opened the door to a squishy whale night light on the floor. Normally operated by hand, they watched the toy change colors on its own, flickering between hues of red, yellow, green, blue.
Red, red, yellow, green, blue.
Red, red, red, yellow, green, blue… black.
Red, black… red, red, red, red, red, red…
Ehren growled. He punted the light aside, “it was her, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t… I’m not sure, maybe…” she shivered, hugging herself. “Please don’t say her name. I’m not strong enough right now!”
Faint babbling sounds called from a distance as the lights powered on again. Ehren ran past Heike, following the sound to the crib. “Elodie!? What the hell? She’s here!” he gripped the crib, clouded in confusion and relief. “Thank goodness! Are you okay?” He held Elodie in front of him, examining her for injuries. There weren’t any. He hugged her, taking in every inch of her soft, powdered scent. He sighed, shaking his head. “You’ve failed to keep the pests away. That was the one thing I hired you to do!”
Ehren turned to Heike, her eyes swell with tears.
“But—But Ehren, I—”
“NOW!” he seethed, Heike fled the nursery.
Ehren swept a gentle hand across Elodie’s wispy black hair and kissed her vulnerable, warm forehead. Her lavender-blue eyes looked to him, glowing. She warmed his soul. Just as he began to smile, the room darkened again…
“You went too far this time,” Ehren whispered into the night. “Show yourself, Victoria.”
“How did you know?” Victoria said quietly, still unseen. “I just came back for her blanket…”
Ehren cringed, and swats at the back of his neck, licked with cold ooze. “Whenever her eyes glow, it’s because you’re around,” he paused, wiping his neck. He struggled to find her in the darkness. “That’s the third nanny I’ve lost; I kinda liked her…” he frowned, gazing out the nursery window. Heike’s truck wasn’t there. “Where did you take Elodie?”
His anger escalated when the blanket floated out of the crib. He ripped it down and threw it back in.
“Here and there. She misses me, I just want to spend time with her, she needs a mother. You can’t deny me of that, not after I kissed her. Besides, without Elodie you’ll have more time for toys.”
“You’re incapable of being a mother, you know it. And Heike isn’t a toy, you don’t know her.”
“I know you. And you wouldn’t have been as successful if I hadn’t taken you years ago. I made you a man. And I made myself a mother. Well, I thought I did, you took that from me.”
“I didn’t take her. You left her here minutes after she was born! You abandoned her! You can’t kiss her now to claim her like some hat in a lost and found.”
Two icy hands wrap around Ehren’s waist from behind. They dive southbound, he yanks himself away.
“You wanted me then. You want me now,” Victoria said.
“I want someone else; it was never you.”
“Liesss…” A juicy, forked tongue flicks his ear. “I’m more to you than that, Ehren Nightbell.”
“You’re a SUCCUBUS, YOU’RE NOTHING!”
Clouds of moonlight haze and dusky gloom fill the room. Within the clouds, a gray woman absent of distinguishing facial features surfaces. Her waist length, fog like hair hung over her nude breasts, and wore a jade colored serpent with illuminated rubies for eyes around her hourglass waist. It hovers in front of Ehren, then curls around the baby, lifting her from his grasp and into Victoria’s embrace.
Ehren grabbed Victoria’s arm. “Don’t do this. You didn’t even want her! My family loves Elodie, I love Elodie, don’t take her away from us.”
“I changed my mind. Human women do that, it’s a thing. I’m half-human myself, so why can’t I?” she shrugs. “I already kissed her Ehren, her fate’s sealed.”
He yanked her lanky, raw arm harder. “I could’ve killed you long ago, but I didn’t. We could’ve worked things out. We still can—”
He was desperate, hopeless. He’d marry the creature to avoid losing his darling little girl.
“It’s too late. I can no longer deny her. I’m sorry Ehren, she must go to sleep in this world, her meaning is elsewhere.”
Ehren watched the serpent retrieve the blanket, draping it over Elodie.
They plunged into a flurry of black shadows and Victoria’s cackling laughter. When the lights came back on, Ehren found Elodie’s pacifier where her mother had stood. He sobbed and held it close, still warm and masked with baby drool.
Two Days Later
The Apothecary smelled like Heike’s school floors after a fresh mopping. The intoxicating scent of pine sizzled her nostrils as she browsed. She sniffed the air with a grateful smile. If the air were edible, she’d take a generous bite; all she did lately was eat in her grief. If this self-loathing behavior continued, she’d return to Intelligentsia five pounds heavier. A mortifying thought. Heike hoped she’d find a special interest or two to distract her, and a third secret option reserved when bored with the others. It didn’t matter. Ehren was the only one meant for her. As much as she tried to forget him, she couldn’t.
Victoria had returned that night like Heike feared, and authorities were on the case as reported on the news, but there were no answers. She was confident she could find Elodie, but Ehren never returned her messages. Not after I fucked up. I froze, I let him down… Heike thought.
“Miss? I’m closing in about fifteen minutes.”
A pleasant employee waved from the back. She mounted a tall ladder stocking boxes on tall shelves. Heike waved and lowered her baseball cap. She wore reading glasses as well, desperate to hide her puffy, heartbroken face as much as possible.
“Yes ma’am, thank you. I won’t be too long.”
Heike came to the store for her favorite eucalyptus spearmint body cream. It always helped settle her nerves. She found it marked on sale, beside a translucent crystal bell jar where a smooth whirlwind of obsidian, gray, and glowing sapphire hues danced together inside, stretching from top to bottom. Heike looked closer, deeper. “No fucking way dude…” she whispered to herself; she’d seen this oddity before when Elodie slept. Her entire crib would turn into a pitch-black sea of shadows where deep down within the abyss, there was always a small, pulsing violet light, like the one in front of her. It was Elodie’s aura, a pleasant little soul locked away. Why would she be here and like this? Heike pondered. Her face darkened when she saw the sign: Not for sale. She looked at her vertical-slit pupils in the mirror beside her with slow, rising intensity. Her hands grip the counter so hard the glass webbed beneath.
The employee approached. Heike dropped her hands, lowered her cap further, and turned.
“See anything you like? We have a lovely array of intriguing succulents and a sale on our love potions.”
“Love makes me weak. I’m not interested. Not now, at least, Miss…?”
“My name is Amy. I’m the owner. Is everything okay?”
“Oh. I see, Miss Amy. Well, no, everything is not okay. I want this item.”
“The bell jar? Apologies, that’s not for sale.”
Heike grabbed Amy’s arm; she recoils, but the grip only tightened.
“You’ll never darken his home again, Victoria.”
The apothecary impostor hissed, revealing a thick, crimson forked tongue. It stabs at Heike but she jumps to the side and grabs Victoria’s neck instead, choking her. She flings the creature over the counter, lunging Victoria into tall shelves against the wall. Tons of boxes collapsed on her, barely missing the bell jar wobbling from the action.
Heike waited. She walked past another mirror and slid a few loose strands of hair behind her ear when a white and black spotted serpent lunged at her from behind. She jerks to the left, but the serpent barreled ahead, smashing into the mirror. It swayed backward, revealing its head dipped in inky blood and glass shards. Heike gagged at the hot sewage stink of Victoria’s open wounds.
“Not for sale. SHE’S MINE!” The serpent slithered in front of Heike’s face, just as her tongue was about to reappear. Heike lunged forward faster, biting into the serpent’s head. She pulled out, revealing black, blood lined fangs. “Thank you for making our transaction so easy,” Heike said, smiling wide as a Cheshire cat. She dove into the flesh again and twists. Victoria fell to the floor like a loose rope.
“I figured out why you and your dark spirits came when you did,” Heike said, wiping her dripping mouth with the back of her hand then licking herself clean. Victoria laid across the white tiled floor, motionless.
“You discovered love makes me weak. That’s why you took Elodie when you did. You knew I could stop you, but waited until I couldn’t. But you can’t chase me away like the other nannies…”
Heike held the limp serpent high. Her black boot presses down on its lower half, s l o w l y stretching the serpent apart until it snapped in half, like an aged rubber band. Heike took a match and threw it on the creature, searing its soul in a quiet blaze.
Heike bagged her body cream and opened the bell jar. The whirlwind inside slowed, molding itself into an infant, back into Elodie.
They made it to Ehren’s home minutes later.
“I found her,” Heike said when Ehren answered, hiding her face behind the babbling baby.
“Heike, h-how did you—?” he took Elodie from her grasp. “Thank you… I—”
“I have my ways. When I’m not enamored with you, it’s why you hired me,” she paused, kicking the ground, unsure if he ended her employment. He never said the words.
Ehren kissed Elodie, still surprised, she’s handed to a family member who covered the child in a warm blanket and brought her inside.
“I killed her,” Heike whispered once they were alone again.
Ehren was quiet for a moment. “I’m not surprised, it’s in your job description. I needed a nanny to handle pests, someone long-term.”
“I don’t want to be a term…” Heike said. She backed away. “I should go.”
“Where are you going?”
“I have Intelligentsia, remember? School starts in three days, I’m moving on campus.”
“I love how I live in the same state as my alma matter.” He smiled.
“Yeah…” Heike locked eyes on the ground. Her heart dug into her chest.
“Hey, I’m not mad at you… I’m sorry Heike. I shouldn’t have reacted that way, it wasn’t your fault.” He takes her hands within his. “… Stay with me forever, it won’t matter how weak I make you now,” Ehren whispered.
Heike bit her lip. She bounced into Ehren’s arms, seized in a tight embrace, pulling each other’s heartstrings with long awaited tongue colliding, deep kisses.