Friday, March 3, 2017

A Jillian Nightingale short story: "Lonely Hill"

This short story stars Jillian Nightingale, the human nurse who tends to supernatural patients in her job at the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. You're familiar with her if you've frequented my blog in the past; if not, you might want to check out her other adventures. Here they are, in sequentially.

The Best Medicine 
Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched...
Open Enrollment 
In Sheep's Clothing 
Human Women 

"Lonely Hill"

I knew Max wouldn't have asked me to be there unless he genuinely needed me. Which was why I hadn't declined when he'd asked. Max Bartrom was a proud man, and in the time I had known him he had barely shown even a moment of weakness.

He truly didn't want to face this alone.

Then again, I didn't want to face it, either. Hell, I barely liked doing it when I was legally required to, much less willingly walking into it with someone else. But Max was my friend; what choice did I have? Lord knows I'd been in his position many times. 

The child exchange was never an easy process with Jim, my ex. He only kept Hope, our four-year-old daughter, two weekends out of the month, and he was constantly trying to barter those away for weekdays. He always claimed he was trying to do me a favor, so I'd have my weeknights free to catch up on my medical charts. But I knew what he was really up to. When he had her on weekdays he only had to spend minimal time with her. By the time each of us was off work and I'd driven to his apartment (and yes, it was always me who had to drive Hope to him), it was time to put her in bed so he could wake her up early the next morning and whisk her off to daycare. And with his no-obligation weekends he was free to get plastered for three straight nights and bring home whatever little barely-able-to-drink tartlet he happened to pick up at a bar. 

The worst times where when he brought his tart-of-week to the kid exchanges. And I had to smile and say hello while clawing her eyes out in my mind. 

But I didn't hate those girls because I wanted Jim back. Far from it. They could have him, as far as I was concerned. But I hated Jim, for leading me on when I was their age. For taking those years from me. And because I hated Jim, I hated the girls Jim was with. It's the transitive property of bitchy baby mamas. 

Which was one reason why I didn't want to be around when Max Bartom's baby mama showed up for the kid exchange. Max and I were not an item. Far from it. We were work acquaintances first, and friends second. The Agency contracted Max to provide me with whatever magical provisions I needed to see my cryptohumanoid patients, and on the weekends me and my friends would drink at The Scabbard, the bar Max owned. 

Max was a wizard, a crypto himself, and over a hundred years old. When he'd asked me to come with  him to see his son, I'd neglected to ask if his baby mama had razor sharp claws or breathed fire or if she could make me explode with her brain. And if this woman felt about me the way I felt about the women Jim brought to our kid exchanges, I was going to need something to hide behind. 

But we were standing on top of a lonely, barren hill in Apache Park. There was nowhere for me to hide. 

"So... um... what time is she supposed to be here?" I asked, trying to make small talk. 

Jim shoved his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. "Midnight. On the dot." 

I looked at my fancy fitness watch my mother had gotten me as a birthday present. I had yet to figure out how to do anything with it other than tell time. It said 11:51. Of course, Max had told me when his ex was supposed to show up, and of course I hadn't forgotten. "Is she usually punctual?" I asked. 

"If nothing else, Borea is right on time," Max replied. He stared off over the hills of the park, toward the lights of the city in the distance, as if he was trying to watch for her. I watched him carefully, and I noticed something in Max that I wasn't sure I'd seen before. The corners of his mouth were turned down, and his bright blue eyes seemed distant, like he was seeing everything around him but not really taking it in. 

I didn't think I'd even seen anyone so sad. 

I took a few steps closer to him. "How long do you get to spend with your son?" I asked. 

Max smiled, but it was a wry gesture. It did not make him appear happier. "About five minutes." 

My jaw dropped. I wasn't sure how the cryptohumaoid judicial system worked, but if it was anything like their healthcare system, then it should have mimicked its human counterpart to a tee. Jim was required by court order to spend two weekends a month with Hope. Nothing short of a restraining order would have made the judge restrict her visitation to less than that. "Five minutes?" I asked. "But that's absurd. Why so short?" 

"You'll see," Max said. His eyes moved to his watch, an ancient gold relic around his wrist. 

"Hey, um... your ex... Borea... she's not going to be, like, super pissed to see me here, is she?" I asked tentatively. "I just know that, when Jim brings other girls when he picks up Hope, it really doesn't improve my mood." 

"Trust me, you're safe," he said. "In fact, she probably won't even notice you're here." 

Though I did trust Max (I put my trust in his magical devices every day), his vague words didn't instill me with confidence. I was going to ask further, but just as I opened my mouth the wind at the top of the hill suddenly picked up. The late-September breeze was colder than I'd prepared for, although I would have sworn it had suddenly become chiller than it had been mere seconds before. Hunching my shoulders against the wind, I hid my face and rammed my hands int my jacket pockets until the air was calm once more. 

But when I opened my eyes, I found Max and I were no longer alone on the hilltop. In fact, we were not only no longer alone... we were surrounded. 

The air at the top of the hill buzz with activity. Even in the dim light of the moon I could make out a dozen or more figures drifting on the breeze. They glowed faintly, no brighter than the moon itself, but when I tried to stare at any one of them I found them oddly out of focus, like trying to stare at a single star on a clear night. From what I could make out in my peripheral vision, the creatures were humanoid, semi-transparent, and in complete grayscale. I tried looking at each of them in turn, staring slightly to their sides so I could see as much of them as possible. They smiled, drifting here and there without a care as to where they'd go next. But the more I watched, the more 'smiling' seemed too light a word for the expressions the creatures wore: they were elated, as if they didn't have a care in the world and everything in their lives was going right. 

Their expressions were the complete opposite of Max's. 

Of the dozen or so drifting figures drifting aimlessly, one of them suddenly showed some order in its flight. The act alone seemed to go against everything in the creature's nature, as if picking a straight path was completely alien to it. It moved through the air to Max, and stopped in front of him. 

I looked slightly above and to the right of her face so I could see as much of her as possible. She was beautiful, and she smiled at Max as if meeting him was the greatest joy she could imagine. Her hair floated around her head like she was underwater, occasionally obscuring her face. Max lifted his hands and parted her curtain of hair, again revealing her infectious smile. He gently held her face between his and kissed her on the lips. She did not embrace him; rather, she mimicked him and placed her hands on either side of his face and tucked her knees to her chest, like she was learning some new game and couldn't wait to see what would come next.

"I missed you, Borea," Max said, just loud enough for me to hear.

She laughed, and the sound was like the tinkle of wind chimes in a fall breeze. "I've missed you so much, my Max!" She sighed, eyes sparkling. She gazed at Max like the two of them were the only people in the universe.

Max wasted no time. "Is Heliot wish you? I'd love to see him," he asked.

Borea blinked for a moment, as if she didn't understand the question, then it finally seemed to dawn on her that she and Max were, indeed, not alone at the top of the hill. She giggled and darted back into the swirling throng of beings, soon returning with another at her side. This creature was smaller than she, and when I focused on it I found that it resembled a young boy, perhaps eleven or twelve years old. Like his mother, the boy didn't seem to grasp the purpose of being exactly where he was until he laid eyes on Max. Then his eyes flew open and he drifted to the bartender.

It still confused me how Max was able to physically touch Heliot and his mother; each of them looked like a CGI special effect from a big-budget Hollywood movie. But Max seemed to have no trouble, as he wrapped his arms around the boy and swung him around the top of the hill.

I tried to ignore what the three of them were saying. It was none of my business. However, tried as I might, I couldn't help but stare and take in everything that was unfolding. Max talked briefly about what was happening at his bar, and Borea and Heliot looked like they were trying to be interested, even though it was clear they weren't. But Max looked genuinely enthralled when the two semi-transparent creatures spoke, gesturing wildly with their hands as they narrated. What they said made no sense to me. I wasn't sure if they were speaking a different language, or if I was simply so fundamentally different from them that I couldn't comprehend what they were talking about.

Max and Borea and Heliot laughed and talked for what felt like an unfairly short period of time. Then, as suddenly as they had appeared in their chaotic swirled dances, sudden order seemed to take hold of the dozen or so other creatures that haunted the hilltop. They all began circling the hilltop counter-clockwise, their beautiful faces once again filled with the exuberance of whatever was about to happen next.

Heliot and Borea looked over their shoulders at their departing kin. The two of them still looked elated to see Max, but the excitement for wherever the other creatures were going seemed to fill them to the brim. Max, on the other hand, wore an expression like his heart was in the process of being ripped out of his chest. But neither of the radiant beings seemed to grasp this: they each seemed to think that Max was excited for them to partake on this new adventure as they themselves were to undertake it. But, even though his eyes pleaded with them to stay, he warmly accepted their hugs and kisses and good-byes.

Borea and Heliot joined their comrades in the swirling, joyous dance, and with another great gust of chilly wind the entire throng disappeared as quickly as it had arrived.

Max stood with his hands in his jacket pocket and his chin toward the sky. He was still for what felt like several minutes before he spoke. It seemed like he only then remembered that I had been on the hilltop with him the entire time. "Borea is a sylph: an air spirt," he said, without removing his eyes from the stars. "Air spirits almost never take physical form. Most of the time, their essences are free to mix and blend with all other air spirits. They lose almost all sense of self, during this time." He finally lowered his head to the grass and kicked absent-mindedly at a twig. "Except for the changing of the seasons. Four times a year, at the solstices and equinoxes, they each reform into themselves. That's why I get to see Borea, and our son, Heliot, so little."

"Why did they seem so eager to go?" I asked quietly. I took a brave step toward Max, and he didn't move away.

The joyless smile again appeared on Max's face. "That's the nature of air spirits. They don't have much care for the here and now. They're always looking forward to where they're going to be blown next, what's on the horizon." He huffed a breath through his nose. "Fun, if you're an air spirit. Less, if you fall in love and have a child with one."

I couldn't imagine myself in Max's shoes. I could barely go a few hours without wanting to see Hope. I hated leaving her with Jim. If I was only able to see her a few times a year, I would lose my mind. It would feel like my heart had physically left my body, and I was simply a husk, carrying out my meaningless day-to-day tasks until I could see her again.

Then I pictured the utter hopeless I had seen on Max's face earlier, and knew he felt it, too. So I said the only think I could think of.

"That's the most unfair thing I have ever heard of in my entire life."

Max nodded. And, before I blinked and convinced myself it was just a trick of the moonlight, I would have sworn I'd seen a few tears at the corners of Max's eyes. "Yeah. Well. That's life, I guess. A whole bunch of unfair shit happens to you, and then you die."

The longer Max stayed at the top of that hill, the longer he would dwell on the fact that he wouldn't be able to see his love and his child for another three months. So I turned in the direction of the car, and waved for him to follow. He did. "How old is he?" I asked. "Heliot?"

Max laughed. "Older than you'd think. I'm not even sure how old Borea is. Sylphs don't measure time like you and I."

I nodded as we trotted down the hill. "I'm sorry. Sorry that you have to go through this."

It was a few moments before Max replied. We'd already reached the car. "Thanks for being here, Jillian. Making that walk down the hill by myself is depressing."

I climbed into the driver's seat and turned on the car. Max buckled up in the passenger seat. "Not everything is unfair, you know. You occasionally run into a friend who is willing to buy you a cup of coffee at midnight. Even though she's already up way past her bedtime."

Max sniffed, but a smile, one that finally contained a trace of warmth, etched itself onto his face. "Make it a whiskey instead of a coffee, and you're on."

"Oh, come on. You own a bar," I commented as I pulled onto the road. "You spend all day surrounded by booze. Aren't you sick of it?"

"I never drink while working," he replied. "I'm a professional. And I've never needed it while working like I need it right now."

Nodding, I pulled out of the park and onto the road that led to the highway. "One whiskey, coming up." 

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