The ash smudged my skin, a black stain across the pale surface. I twisted leg back and forth, thinking of Cinderella as I sat on the edge of the stone fireplace. The smudge looked like a mark of hard work, of honesty and goodness but I’d only opened the grate and put my hand inside.  I thought I heard the summer rains dripping into the fire place and reached in to check, smuding first my hand and then my leg with ash.

“Ellowyn.” At the sound of my name I looked up. Guy Hardy, what a name, cradled a glass of wine like a precious jewel. He leaned back on my couch twisting the glass back and forth. “It was ridiculous, don’t you agree? Madeline, last summer, at the pond.” 

Three other pairs of eyes watched me, waiting to hear what I would say. Madeline I knew. The pond at Gabby’s house, I knew, but what did one have to do with the other?

”Of course,” I said. 

He shook his head ruefully. “She was so serious, so earnest. I wanted to believe her but, come on. Obviously a few marbles shy of a full deck.” 

Mike leaned forward in his chair. “She really thought she saw a monster in the lake?” 

The confusion sat heavy in my chest. I would have remembered Madeline thinking she saw a monster. Why did Guy think I knew? 

Guy lifted his glass high as if toasting and then took a big swallow. “Yes, She said she saw shadow in the water and something brushed past her leg several times. She wouldn’t go back in the water so Wyn said that she would clear the pond of any villany, like Madeline was a child, and dove right in. Ellowyn was underwater such a long time, that is, it seemed like a long time, that Madeline flipped out and went to get her phone to call 911, but of course, I reminded her that Ellowyn is a champion diver and couldn’t haven been under more than a minute or two. Then Wyn came out and declared the pond clear, but Madeline still wouldn’t go in.” 

“Good grief,” Mike laughed. “Someone her age worried about monsters in a pond.” 

Guy and Madeline had a falling out eight months ago but neither one would talk about it and Madeline drifted away from the group. Still, to make-up stories like that, what did he hope to gain? He told the story with such conviction though, and assumed I would play along. And I did. “Who else was there that day? Gabby and…?” 

“No no, ” Guy said. “Remember Gabby had to go off to work for a few hours, and with Danny out of town on business. It was just the three of us.” 

“That’s right,” I agreed, frowning down at the smudge on my leg. I reached down and rubbed at the ash, succeeding only in smearing it. Spring was turning into summer again, the whole year was a blur so fuzzy around the edges. Maybe he was right.

A few more hours of stories and chatter and my friends were ready to go home. As I closed the door softly behind them I turned back toward the living room, dim now as the day faded away. We’d only turned on one lamp and while my friends filled the room it felt cozy and intimate, now the cold shadows stretched out leaving nothing untouched.

***

I woke in the guest room where the windows faced east. The shadows of the curtains were like a dark stain smudged across the carpet matching the ashes still marking my leg. The air conditioning blew frigid blasts directly on me so I had tucked the leg away but I could still see the shape of the stain in my mind. Any minute the AC would shut off again and the air in the house would become heavy and warm in an attempt to smother me. I should get out of bed. 

“Should, should.” Fadrian’s voice came to me from a memory. “We should do whatever we like, eat sweet fruits and lay around and think all day if that’s what we want. The people need us to think.” 

My brother, ever the lazy one, always with an excuse or reason. Was it any wonder… I stopped that thought- no need to think about that right now. No need to go think about that at all, I had other things to do. 

I pushed myself out of the bed, my feet landing in the puddles of dark I’d been admiring moments before and turned to look at the bed, covers mussed, piled here, crinkled there. Always make your bed, start the day in control. One side of my lips curled in something resembling a smile and I turned my back on the mess and made my way to the kitchen. Single serve coffee makers were a marvel. Your morning energy, no effort required and nevermind that the effort of making coffee probably did more to wake me up than the vile liquid the coffee maker spat out. 

The cup warmed my hands, providing a slight comfort, but the bitter liquid made me wince which I deserved. Give me pain.

My laptop sat on the kitchen table, dark cord snaking toward the outlet. The end lay on the ground beside the outlet. I frowned. I only used the computer at the kitchen table when it needed to charge. After all, the sofa was far more comfortable. I must have sat at the kitchen table and plugged it in, why else would it be here?

Mentally shrugging, I set my bitter brew on the table and walked around to the other side to plug the thing in before sitting down. Another day, another fruitless job hunt. 

“Think positive,” I admonished myself out loud and then laughed. Like positive thinking would make a job appear. I’d find a job or I wouldn’t, positive thinking made no difference. People believed whatever they pleased but if I didn’t get up and do what the work I would never find a job. Someone told me that once. I didn’t remember who. 

The lid on my old clunker computer flipped open with a groan. I had been a technology coordinator for a paper supply company, that didn’t mean I coordinated my own old technology. If the thing worked that was good enough, and besides, I’d rather be outside. All the best parts of life didn’t require upgrades or coordinating. My job had been to make sure things are upgraded and changes go through the proper process etc etc. It sounded dumb even to me. Of course, I had probably been the only one paying attention to the way outdated technology posed security risks. IT relied on me and everything was probably out of date now. They’d figure that out when they got hacked or their payment system crashed. Not my problem anymore. 

No, my problem was no one wanted a coordinator who coordinated things that seemed like they would coordinate themselves. Madeline said maybe I should coordinate weddings, A wedding planner! Totally the same thing! I took another sip of coffee delighting at my own grimace. It suited my mood after all. 

Weddings. Useless. 

Useless as me. 

Carol from finance knew everyone. I should give her a call. If anyone knew of someone hiring, she would. She complained constantly, though, every little ailment detailed intricately to anyone who would listen. I disliked listening to her more than I disliked drinking coffee. After two months looking for a job I hadn’t even gotten a phone call though. Time to swallow that pain too. 

I picked up my cell phone and dialed. 

“Haimes Paper, Carol Lennox speaking.” 

Her voice sent an instant shot of irritation straight to my teeth and I deliberately unclenched my jaw. “Hi, Carol, it’s Ellowyn. How are you?” 

There was a pause at the other end. “I’m sorry, who?”

“Ellowyn Parson, I was in tech.” We talked at least once a week, at least, because your computer had almost as many ailments as you and you were sure if I would convince them you needed a new one all your problems would be solved. 

“I….. ummm. What can I do for you?” 

“How’s the eczema? It was bothering you last I remember.” 

Another long pause on the other end of the phone, then a long drawn out sigh. “Look, I’m sorry. I’m not sure who you are, did you go by a different name when you were here?” 

Go by a different name. Why would I go by a different name? Ellowyn wasn’t a common name. Carol probably didn’t want to be associated with someone who was ‘let go,’ and yes, Carol would make air quotes with her fingers when she said the words. 

I didn’t bother to respond to her question, just pressed the off button on the phone and put it back on the table next to my coffee. I gave my computer the stink eye before opening a new tab in the browser and typing ‘how to become a wedding planner.’

***

I woke again, on the couch this time. The late afternoon sun cast the room in a yellow-orange glow. The same day? A different day? I didn’t care at the moment, but maybe when I looked at my bank account I would. I pushed myself up. I was wearing different shorts but the same top and the smudge still blackened my skin. I ran my tongue along my filmy teeth and rubbed my itchy head. 

I needed to get out of this place. I scuttled to the bathroom, relieved that my hair didn’t look as dirty as it felt. I pulled the thick brown locks into a messy bun, and did a quick swish with mouthwash to make my mouth taste fresh enough before sliding on sandals and heading out the front door. A short stair and I would be on the beach. A friend had allowed me to stay at the house while I looked for a new job. A frown marred my forehead for a moment as I couldn’t quite remember what friend. 

The quiet beach suited me just fine. I liked the idea of possibly interacting with people and the low chances I would actually have to. I passed the rocks and various plant life before taking off my sandals one the clear stretch of beach and wiggled my toes in the sand, enjoying the shifting and sliding under my feet. I enjoyed the way the sand, still hot from the sun, squished between my toes, threatening to sear my feet but not quite hot enough. It felt good, real.

The hurt in my soul felt so removed from this place that everything else seemed somewhat disconnected. The sun should be able to ease the ache whose source I didn’t know.

 I walked. 

A few people lay in the sun, a few splashed in the water. A small girl of about five played with a beach ball by herself. She threw the ball, ran to go get it and then threw it back while her mother, presumably her mother, lay sunning herself. This seemed sad to me, the girl wanted to play catch but but no one to play with. As I got closer to the pair I slowed, deciding to put myself in the path of where the ball would land, accidentally, of course. I would throw the ball back and for a moment neither of us would be alone. At least she would have a chance to catch the ball once. 

My timing was good–just as I drew up to them the ball came hurtling toward me. I reached out to stop it, and picked it up. The girl didn’t stop her headlong flight after the ball. She looked down at the sand and didn’t see me.

“Wait,” I said. “I’ll throw it back.” But she didn’t pause. 

Unsure what to do, and not wanting to hit her, I threw the ball past her, back the way she had come. The girl came to stop, looking around in confusion before spying the ball back near her mother. 

“Mommy,” she cried out as she ran toward the ball. “The wind, mommy.”

Her mother looked up, spotted me and waved before turning back to her book.

An extra heaviness, like the heaviness of something missing settled on me, but still my thoughts refused to form. I tried to prod at the black spot in my thoughts but my mind skittered away and  I let it go. 

I continued my trek down the lovely, long expanse of beach as the sky changed from the orange of late afternoon to the deeper shadows of early evening. A beautiful, perfect day, just like all the other days. 

Ahead I could see a rocky outcropping pushing it’s way down the beach and touching the edged of the ocean. A man sat on the outcropping staring toward the sun. My steps slowed as I got close enough to see his strange garb. He wore some sort of black military jacket with epaulets and gold trim. His dove gray pants were tucked into boots that seemed soft and unformed.

He turned to me as I approached. “You can’t stay here much longer.” 

My head turned toward the horizon and the sinking sun. There was no prohibition against walking on the beach at night, and if there were, why did he care? I took a few steps back, not saying anything. The strange garb and the strange words made me uneasy and we were almost alone out here. 

I nodded to him and turned back to the house. 

“Wash off the grime and go home.” He called out as I walked and I picked up my pace. Thankfully, he didn’t try to follow me and I slid back into the small beach house before the rest of the light of the day faded. 

***

“Princess Ellowyn, you have to come home.” 

The voice snapped me out of my haze and I flinched, looking around my empty kitchen for the source but I was alone. The butter had melted in the pan and burned leaving a sticky film while the mushrooms sat beside the stove, untouched. I’d zoned out completely, mind somewhere else. Frowning, I tried to shake off the haze. I was here now, in this house that belonged to someone else. I couldn’t go home because I had no home to go to. I’d left my apartment immediately after I lost my job in to save as much money as possible. My family….the thought wouldn’t complete itself.

I turned the pan off and took it to the sink to scrub, thinking I would start again, but after I had filled it with water I realized I had no appetite. My shoulders sunk with weariness and I placed my hands to the side of the sink, bowed my head and closed my eyes. Where had the voice come from? My father used to call me princess, how long since I’d seen him? I didn’t think I even had his number anymore. 

I should call Guy, or one of the others, invite them over. Anything to break up the monotony, but they’d just been here, and none were such close friends that they’d want to come over again so soon. I could call Madeline, the woman who saw sea monsters in lakes. She would love to hear about the strange man in military uniform. 

***

“The war is over, Wyn.” Madeline stood on my doorstep with half eaten sheet cake in her hands. 

“What?” I immediately regretting inviting her over. I’d forgotten about the perkiness, but maybe I needed some of that. 

She breezed past me into the house. “You said you weren’t eating. I have just the thing. Who can resist cake?” She went straight to the kitchen table, moving my laptop aside with one hand and put the cake down. I closed the front door and wandered over as she went to rummage in my cabinets and drawers, pulling out two plates and two forks. 

I sat and she put a plate and fork in front of me and sat at the other side of the table. “When did you get a castle?” 

“What?” Did she always have to be so confusing?

“Oh, I know.” She cut a big chunk of cake and plopped it on her plate. “It’s a trick of the light, and the sky is hazy today, but I swear I saw a castle on the cliff.” She pointed with her fork. “As I was driving up.” 

The day was growing dim and in that halfway place between light and dark the house on the cliff might look like a castle, I supposed. No, not really. 

“Have some.” She waved her fork at the cake. 

I dutifully took a small piece and put in on the plate, the smell of sugar assaulted my nose. I loved cake but even this didn’t bring my appetite back. “What happened to your diet?” I asked. I didn’t know if she was on a diet but she seemed like the type who dieted to stay tiny, not like someone who would be shoveling cake into her mouth. 

“It’s the weirdest thing. I can eat and eat and eat lately and my weight doesn’t change at all.” She popped another piece in her mouth. “I’m not sure I even taste the food completely anymore.” She’d almost finished the big piece already, as if daring me to contradict her story. 

“Maybe you should see a doctor,” I said.  

She put the fork down and her tongue moved around inside her mouth licking around the edges of her teeth. “Yeah,” she said. “Maybe. I don’t feel unwell though and I don’t start wasting away if I don’t eat. My weight doesn’t change.” 

Perhaps Guy was right and she was mentally unstable. Or maybe she lying. I didn’t know what eating half a cake in front of me proved, anyone could eat half a cake once and not be heavier. 

“It isn’t normal to be able to eat so much though.  Or not eat and stay the same.” I didn’t say that if she saw castles maybe she only imagined eating all that food. She did say it was a trick of the light, and had sounded reasonable about it. Not like a crazy person who thought there were sea monsters. Some of the tension left my shoulders. I hadn’t forgotten, it hadn’t happened. Of course it hadn’t. And all of the other days that I couldn’t seem to remember hadn’t either. 

“Who wouldn’t want to be able to though? I’m not complaining.” Madeline pushed the cake toward me. “Have some.” 

I hadn’t touched the piece on the plate in front of me because I just didn’t want it. I hadn’t wanted anything for a long time.

***

I woke. The bedroom was completely dark except one shaft of moonlight spearing my abdomen. My heart pounded in my head sounding like the rush of waves. I tried to calm the beating long enough that I could hear what else might be going on but all I only heard silence so I threw the cover off, and pushed myself up. As I did my legs fell in the moonbeam–the smudge appeared to have gotten bigger, spreading like a void over my shin. 

I wanted to talk to Fadrian, hear his voice. He always said exactly the wrong thing but even that sounded comforting, knowing some things wouldn’t change and my brother wouldn’t mind me waking him. I fumbled for my phone on the nightstand but my hand couldn’t find it. I slapped at the lamp until I found the switch, but after a few clicks nothing happened. The power was out or something. My heart beat a tiny bit faster. That wouldn’t do, I was safe in this house and, the dark was not dangerous. 

I pulled a breath deep in my lungs and carefully patted every inch of the nightstand, pushing aside books, pens, a notebook. I didn’t find the phone so I got to my knees and patted the floor. Nothing. I always put it on the nightstand but I couldn’t remember going to sleep at all so I might have left it somewhere else. 

I stood and made my way through the house confidently in spite of the darkness. When I reached the kitchen and dining area, I tried the switch for the light, just in case, but of course it didn’t come on. This room had even fewer obstacles than the others and I came to the table with no issue, relieved to see my phone gleaming in the moonlight. 

My irrational fear had subsided with my successful navigation of the darkness but I had already committed myself to calling Fadrian so I picked up the phone and pressed the wake up button. Nothing happened so I pressed it again. Nothing, dead and I had no electricity, my brother had escaped a late night phone call and I smiled at the thought of his reaction when I told him so. 

My smile slid away again leaving a serious expression that I let sit for a moment while I allowed the thought struggling to surface to rise. I should tell Fadrian in person. I needed to to stop pretending I didn’t know what was happening, that I didn’t remember.

It was time.

Time to stop mooning around claiming to wish for a different life while leaving ashes on my leg for.. .how long? 

I didn’t want to shower in the dark, but the moon was bright and the ocean was wet. A feeling of peace slid over me as I stepped into the night and made my way from the house down to the beach. I didn’t hesitate, I was done hesitating.  

I slipped out of the dark house into the less dark night. When I was almost to the water I thought to take off my sandals and realized I hadn’t put them on. I stood for a moment in pajama shorts, turned my face back to the shore for one last look at the peaceful beach houses before continuing. 

The cool water lapped against my toes, my shins, my knees, my torso. I continued until I was fully submerged in the ocean, allowing the water to close around me. My hair billowed behind me. The water embraced me, comforting, but temporary. I emerged, head breaking the water and I stared out at the moon’s reflection on the ocean for a moment before backing up out of the waves far enough to expose my shin. I rubbed at the ash that stood out clearly in the moonlight. 

When the stain was gone I straightened. No tremor remained in my heart or my body but I waited a moment more before turning. The castle sat exactly where Madeline had seen it. Houses still dotted the shore but now they were made of stone, some painted bright colors that shone in the moonlight, and the glow that rose from them came from fire and magic and not electricity. Smoke hung thickly in the air and I down farther inland where I couldn’t see villages smoldered, the fires that had burned them were gone, the enemies vanquished.  Much of what and who I loved was gone forever. Those who were left still needed me.  The war was over but I still had work to do. 

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