Saturday, March 20, 2010

Vi and Duke - January 2009

A short piece that takes place between Daughter of Deception and The Chaos Child

Back, fingers, and head aching from long hours spent finishing up the climax of his latest comic, Duke stands, eyes blinking blindly, in the doorway of a kitchen that isn’t his. Not anymore.

He doesn’t mind the new stain on the kitchen cabinets. As a matter of fact, he has several pleasant memories associated with those cabinets, crawling around on the floor, and chasing beads of sweat down his wife’s spine. Though he won’t admit it out loud, and definitely never in front of Viola, he sort of likes the dark purple floor mat and matching towels.

Though she’s gradually moved into every room of his house and merged her belongings with his, the kitchen is where she’s made the most impact. She’s replaced his inherited, utilitarian metal canisters with clear glass apothecary jars. In the small window above the sink, she’s planted three jars of herbs he can’t identify but has grown to love in marinara sauce.

The cosmetic changes she’s made don’t bother him. She’s made the kitchen feel warmer, more full of love, than it has since he was a very small child. It’s no longer just a place to grab a quick bite to eat. Nights, when they aren’t on rotation or researching or working, are spent laughing and joking around the stove while they prepare dinner. Mornings are for strong, hot cups of coffee and equally strong, hot kisses.

The changes Duke can’t abide are hidden away in the pantry, the refrigerator, and the freezer. The thin, over-processed white bread Duke’s loved since he was a kid has been permanently replaced by thick slices of multi-grain bread. There’s not a speck of white sugar left for his coffee. He still hasn’t decided which is worse: the pink packets of artificial sweetener or the fake sugar that foams up in hot liquids. Sugar, real or fake, should never foam.

He doesn’t completely hate the taste of multigrain pasta and he likes having fresh fruits available for midnight snacks, but he will never get used to drinking one-percent milk. It’s like putting flavored water into his coffee. He misses salt, too. Misses real butter and real soda. And they haven’t had fast food in weeks.

“Oh, hey. You’re done.” Viola, pink, skull-printed apron wrapped around her waist, turns from the stove. She holds out a wooden spoon to him. “Come taste dinner.”

He crosses the room in three long steps, takes a taste of her before dutifully tasting what’s on the spoon. It’s full of spicy, delicious flavors but the meat’s texture is unfamiliar. “’S good, sugar. What is it?”

“Mediterranean tofu with –.”

Duke interrupts Viola with a low, furious growl. He grabs the spoon out of her hand, tosses it in the sink. Reaching past a stunned Viola, he shuts off the stove. With jerky motions, he lifts the pan off the burner and dumps everything into the garbage disposal side of the sink.

“What the hell, Tobias? Do you know how long I spent researching that recipe?”

“I’ve cut you a lot of slack, sweetness. Mostly because I’m completely mad about you, of course.” Duke props his hip against the edge of the island, crosses his arms over his chest. “This is where I draw the line. Tofu? That’s just going too far, Vi.”

Viola’s lips compress into a thin line of displeasure. “You had one bite. That’s not enough to decide you don’t like it.”

“I don’t want to eat tofu.”

Viola blinks twice at Duke before exhaling heavily. “Fine. No tofu.”

“That’s not the point,” Duke, frustrated but glad they’re finally going to have this out, growls again.

“Then sweet mercy, Tobias, what is the flippin’ point?”

“I like whole milk. I like white bread. I like three teaspoons of sugar, real sugar, in my coffee.” Duke tosses his hands in the air. “I like big pats of butter, from cows not from a chemistry set, in my mashed potatoes.”

Viola’s face freezes, her eyes go hard and icy. Her tongue darts out to moisten suddenly dry lips. “You’re going to be thirty soon. You can’t keep eating like you’re fifteen.”

“I know. More fiber, less fat, more fruits and veggies. That doesn’t mean I need to turn into a total health nut.” He runs his hands through his hair. Tentatively reaching out through their link only tells him that Viola’s blocked herself off. There’s more to this than just a desire to be healthier. “Your eating habits used to be as bad as mine, sugar. What’s with the about-face?”

Viola reaches back, clenches the edge of the countertop so tightly her knuckles turn white. Her knees tremble. Her heart thuds loudly in her chest and tears burn her eyes. “I’m just trying to help.”

“Yeah, well, my taste buds don’t appreciate your sort of help.” He waits a beat, two, for her to respond to the barb. When she does nothing more than stare at him with teary, unreadable eyes, he snatches his keys off the counter. “I’m going out for burgers.”

“I have to do something.” Though her voice is weak, thready, it has Duke spinning around to face her. She drops her head, stares at her bare toes. She wraps leaden arms around her churning stomach.

“What’re you talking about, Vi?”

“I can’t protect you from the demons out there. I can’t protect you from Dad or even an ordinary person with a gun and a grudge. I can’t protect you from drunk drivers, and I can’t protect you from myself.” She lifts her head, swipes tears off her cheeks. “I just can’t. But, I can do this. I can control this. I can keep you healthy, safe, this way because I don’t want to lose you. It’d kill me.”

Duke drops his keys back on the counter. He clamps his hands on Viola’s shoulders and drags her to him. She buries her face in the curve of his neck. Hot tears slide down his neck and under the collar of his sweatshirt. He presses a reverent kiss to the top of her dark head. The way she trembles against him has him swallowing a lump in his throat.

“You’re not going to lose me, sweetness. Not to any of those things you mentioned and not to clogged arteries. You’ll be stuck with me for a good, long while.”

Viola hiccups, winds her arms around his waist. “I’m sorry. I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”

“Maybe.” Duke chuckles along with his wife. He rubs the small of her back soothingly. “You should have just said something. We’re supposed to talk about things like this.”

“Like how you stare at me while I’m sleeping? Or how you’re always checking to make sure I’m still breathing?” Viola, arms still around Duke’s waist, leans back to arch an eyebrow challengingly.

“Yeah. Something like that.” Duke swoops down for a quick kiss. “We’ll compromise, okay? We’ll keep the multigrain bread and the produce, but we’ll switch to two-percent milk and I want my sugar back.”

“And I’ll find a butter we can agree on. But you’re not getting your salt back.”

He considers it for a moment. Salt’s a small thing to lose if it means getting butter, milk, and real sugar. “Deal.”

They seal the agreement with a kiss. Duke’s attempt at stealing a fourth kiss is interrupted the by the loud growling of Viola’s stomach. Grinning broadly, he steps back and picks up his keys. “Since dinner’s ruined, how do burgers sound?”

A blinding smile lights up her face. This new diet has been nearly as hard on her as it has been on him. “Oh, sweet mercy, yes. Burger Barn?”

“Would I bring home anything less?”

“Double meat with cheese and two orders of fries?” Viola’s mouth is already watering at the prospect of greasy, salty fries. “Oh! And one of their triple-thick chocolate shakes?”

“Oh no, sweetness. You’re getting their Veggie Meal Deluxe with soy fries. And a Diet Coke.”

Monday, March 15, 2010

Glide Like Ghosts - December 1999

December 1999

Viola perked up as headlights from an approaching car lit the front porch. A bright, anticipatory smile appeared on her pale face. Her dad was late for their traditional birthday dinner, but that was okay. She was sure he'd make up for it with an extra present or two. Or maybe a car. There was a sweet black convertible she'd had her eye on for a few months.

The cherry red minivan, most definitely not her father's black pick-up, sped past the house. Viola slumped back against the front porch swing. She brought her knees to her chest, smoothed down the skirt of her new black dress. The dress was a present from Olivia, bought during a rare sisterly bonding shopping trip earlier that afternoon. Simple and black but with a delicate black lace trim at the hem, it was a compromise between their differing tastes.

For dinner with her father, she'd even broken down and purchased a pair of black, heeled dress shoes. No scuffed boots or broken-in sneakers for this birthday dinner. She was sixteen, practically an adult, and wanted to show her parents that she wasn't a little girl any longer. Hopefully, after seeing that she'd matured, they'd let her get more involved in the Network.

"Come inside, Viola. You'll catch pneumonia sitting out there." Alicia Ashwood hovered in the doorway behind the fine mesh of the outer screen door.

"You can catch pneumonia from dust, from a virus, bacteria, fungus, parasites, and chemicals, but you cannot catch pneumonia from being a little chilly."

"Viola Melinoe!"

Viola exhaled noisily. She didn't want to fight with her mother on her birthday. They did that every other day of the year. "I'm sorry, Mom. It's just... why did Dad have to go after that demon today? He's not even on rotation until next week."

"I don't know, honey." Alicia kept her suspicions to herself. She'd had expectations for Viola's sixteenth birthday, too, but those plans had unexpectedly been scrapped. "Come wait in the living room. I'll make you a cup of peppermint tea."

"No thanks, Mom. I'm good."

Mouth screwed up in disapproval, Alicia let the front door slam shut as she retreated further inside the warm house. If her youngest child wanted to freeze to death, then so be it. She was tired of constantly battling the daughter she saw so little of herself in.

Every headlight that rounded the corner of her block lifted Viola's hopes. Every car that passed the house without slowing dashed them. She didn't dare contemplate the possibility that he wasn't going to show. Ever since she was five, the night of her birthday had been reserved for dinner with her daddy. Just the two of them. He wouldn't miss it; not without calling her first.

Long after the moon had risen, a car pulled into the driveway. Viola swallowed a lump in her throat as the joy gave way to desolation. It wasn't Daddy. Just Olivia. Mom had probably called and asked her to try and convince Viola to give up waiting.

"Hey, birthday girl." Olivia smiled gaily though she couldn't mask the concern in her bright blue eyes. A wrinkle formed between her brows as a strong wave of sadness slammed against her hastily erected shields. For a moment she'd forgotten how vibrant Viola's emotions could be.

"You're wasting your time, Liv. I'm not going inside." Viola wrapped a frozen hand around the swing's icy chain. Didn't her sister understand that she couldn't go inside? If she abandoned her post and Dad showed up, he'd be crushed to learn that she'd lost her faith in him. She wasn't like Olivia or her mother. Dad was coming. It was just a matter of when.

Olivia kept her smile in place. She pulled her heavy wool coat tighter around her shoulders as she settled onto the low, chaise lounge across from the swing. "I know, Vi. I just thought I'd wait with you. It's gotta be boring just sitting here."

"Nah, s'okay. I don't mind it." Viola paused, grinned mischievously. She knew all the best ways to needle her older sister. Grades and schoolwork topped the list of things Olivia took seriously. "I was just going over my trig homework in my head."

"I hate you sometimes." A small chuckle took the sting out of the words. Math and science never came as easily to Olivia as they seemed to come to Viola. "How long are you going to stay out here, kiddo?"

"Just until Dad gets home."

Olivia tried to engage Viola in conversation. All of her questions were answered with monosyllabic responses or biting, sarcastic remarks. Rather than take the bait and lose her temper, Olivia kept up a running monologue on her college classes and her kinesiology-major roommate’s strange personality quirks.

After an hour of sitting in the bitter, cold wind, Olivia pleaded for Viola to go inside one last time. When Viola did nothing more than turn her face back to the street and tighten her grasp on the chain, Olivia rose to her numb feet. She pressed a kiss to the top of Viola's head, trailed a knuckle across her sister's frosty cheek, and slipped inside to find a something warm to drink.

Alone again, Viola leaned her head against the back of the swing. Her aching, dry eyes drifted shut. With one foot planted on the porch, she lazily pushed the swing back and forth. She shouldn't have been so short with Olivia. Her sister was just trying to help. She'd apologize in the morning.

Anxiety gnawed at her stomach. What if he wasn't coming because he couldn't? What if a demon had seriously injured or killed him? What if he was lying broken and bleeding on the side of the road somewhere with no way to call for help?

What if she seriously needed to lay off the grisly horror movies? Her father was one of the best in the region, and he'd gone off with Mike Cahill, an extremely experienced Tracker. Even if her father was hurt, Mike would take care of him or call for help. Dad was just delayed.

When the unmistakable sound of a diesel engine reached her ears, Viola sat straight up. She quickly rearranged the short fringe of her bangs. The wind had absolutely destroyed the hairstyle she’d spent twenty minutes perfecting. It was late and they’d have a hard time finding any nice place to eat, but she didn’t care if they ended up eating pancakes at Denny’s. Dinner with Dad was dinner with Dad no matter where they ate.

The truck that parked behind Olivia’s car wasn’t Gerard Ashwood’s. Viola’s older brother Sebastian and his best friend Toby Duke emerged from Duke’s truck. Sebastian, like Olivia, was all smiles and cheerful greetings. Duke wished her a happy birthday while something that looked a lot like pity shone in his eyes. She didn’t want fake joviality, didn’t want pity.

“There’s a Aamand loose in the Galleria area. Duke pulled some strings and got the assignment. Want to come with?” Sebastian playfully ruffled Viola’s hair. He’d heard all about Viola stubbornly insisting to wait for their no-show Dad from both his mother and sister. Surprisingly, it hadn’t taken much for him to convince Duke to help come up with a plan to help.

She was tempted. So very, very tempted. There were few things she loved more than chasing down demons. It would only take ten minutes to change out of her dress and into more appropriate Tracking clothes. Not to mention more comfortable shoes.

An enthusiastic agreement withered on her tongue. She couldn’t go. She’d waited for so long. She couldn’t just give up now. There were a few hours left of her birthday. Still plenty of time for Dad to show up.

“It’s a great offer, Bas, but I think I’m just going to stay here.”

Sebastian blew out an impatient sigh. He ran his fingers through his shaggy hair. “Vi, he’s not going to magically appear. You need to face facts. Dad’s not coming.”

Viola surged to her feet. Anger warmed her from the inside out. Hot tears burned her tired eyes. “Yes he is! Dad wouldn’t miss this. He would never miss my birthday!”

Sebastian’s heart broke at the sight of two fat tears coursing down her cheek. He hated his father for what he’d done to Viola. Dad had allowed Viola to have such unwavering faith in him and then let her down as cruelly as possible. Couldn’t he have just left a note for Viola rescheduling their dinner? Did he know that she was sitting, waiting for him like a devoted pet?

“Vi, honey – .”

“No!” Viola shoved Sebastian off the porch. “He’s coming, okay? Just go away and leave me alone!”

When Sebastian took a step towards his sister, Duke grabbed him by the shoulder. Duke smiled gently at his friend’s little sister. “Okay, Via-mia. You don’t have to come with us. I bet you haven’t eaten yet, though. Want us to pick you up a burger or something? You know, in honor of your birthday, I bet I could even be persuaded to swing by Burger Barn.”

Viola’s stomach growled at the thought of greasy, hot fries. Mouth pursed, she shook her head slowly. She didn’t want to ruin her appetite and seem ungrateful when Dad showed up for their dinner. “No thanks.”

She waited until Sebastian and Duke disappeared around the corner to drop back onto the swing. Waiting was hard. She was cold, hungry, and tired. A glance down at her watch and a quick mental calculation confirmed that she’d been on the porch for five hours. It didn’t matter. She’d wait another five if she had to. She wasn’t going to let Dad think she’d given up on him.

Viola ignored the churning in her empty belly and the throbbing in her head. She toed off her shoes, curled up on her side on the swing. She kept her eyes fixed on the stars twinkling overhead while the tick-tick of her watch kept time with the tears dripping from her eyes.

The bright pinks and yellows of the sunrise woke Viola from a restless sleep. She stretched stiff knees and massaged the hand that had fallen asleep hours earlier. An unfamiliar heavy warmth covered her from shoulder to knee. Sitting up, she clutched Duke’s jacket to her chest and blinked back a fresh wave of tears. At her feet was a Burger Barn sack.

It was the beginning of a new birthday tradition: disappointment, pain, and Duke.