Don’t take this request!

A few weeks ago, I was contacted by a literary agent who expressed interest in my work. Specifically, they said they were interested in my ‘trunked’ novel, “A Dream Before Dying”. I thought the request odd, but when I mentioned it to a fellow writer, they suggested I follow up on the interest.

So, as the agent requested, I sent off the first three chapters, expecting to hear nothing. A few days later, I received a follow-on message from the agent. They were interested in my novel, and wanted to read the rest of it. At this point, I thought ‘Nothing ventured, nothing gained.’ and sent the bulk of the novel out.

Based on the severe critiques of the story I’d received, I expected, at best, to hear that I had an interesting concept that needed significant work. In less than a week, I received a request from the agent for a conversation via Facebook Messenger regarding my novel. Now, I knew something wasn’t quite ‘kosher’. Why? Because even with the first three chapters not attached, “A Dream Before Dying” is not a light read. My word processor said it totaled 420 pages, and possessed a word count of over 146,000 when I formatted the second section for sending. But expecting a ‘Thanks, but it needs lots more work!’ response, I agreed to take the call.

The appointed time rolled around, my laptop chimed, and I took the call. The voice was friendly, welcoming….and it proceeded to tell me what a great novel “A Dream Before Dying” was. The agent wanted to represent me, his agency was eager to take my novel on, and he predicted that it would draw a great deal of favorable attention from the big publishing houses. There was even mention of a ‘book auction’ to draw several presses into competition for my novel. There would, of course, be an audio book release, e-books too, even possibly a request for movie rights.

Before anyone asks, yeah, I figured out it was a scam about the time the ‘agent’ said he saw no reason to make anything beyond ‘minor spelling changes’. By the time he started blabbing about movie rights, it took a major effort not to start laughing. But to be fair, I did some further research. I had tried, before the call, to find the ‘literary agent’ online, but beyond a web page for the ‘agency’, there were no references. So I dug deeper….and still found nothing.

It wasn’t until I did a search for a review of the literary agency that I found any reference to it…and that reference was far from glowing. (https://accrispin.blogspot.com/2019/02/ams-literary-agency-approach-with.html) The agency had registered its domain name (the Web maintains a list of all the site names connected to it, and to keep a domain, you have to register it) less than a month before, and the reviewer found out the primary (and seemingly only) agent, the person I had been contacted by, had been the prime mover in a vanity press that had bilked numerous authors out of literally millions of dollars.

So if you’re contacted by a guy named Don Phelan, or if a message pops up on your Facebook feed from a literary agency called AMS Literary Agency, just hit “Ignore”.

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Feeling under the weather? Join the club!

I hate colds.

If you get the flu, or pneumonia, or even Ebola, it hits you hard enough that you feel justified in not doing anything.

But a cold?

A cold makes you feel miserable….but it doesn’t really hit you hard enough to make you feel comfortable putting everything off. Complain to your boss that you’ve got a cold, and what do they do? Your nose is acting more like a leaky faucet than a part of your body? Blow it and move on! Sinuses so stuffed your head feels like it’s about to explode? Take something and get on with life! Your cold’s settled in your chest, and you feel like you’ve got Dumbo sitting atop you? Pffffffffttt! Deal with it!

If you’re a writer, you’re your own boss, so you don’t have someone physically telling you to get busy. No, you’ve just got that nagging voice in your head telling you pretty much the same thing a real boss would say to you, and in a way, that’s even harder to ignore than a boss. Right now, I’ve got the ‘big three’ of colds going on: runny nose, stuffed head, and a stuffed chest. A full night’s sleep is a fond memory, so I find myself struggling to keep my mind focused enough to get daily chores done. Worst of all are the pains and discomfort a cold brings with it. Right now, my neck that feels like my car was rear-ended by an Abrams, and every time I get into a coughing fit, my head feels like there’s this little man inside it swinging a mean 16 lb. Maul.

And for all of that, I still feel like I should be writing. So I’ll let the impulse out on this little piece. Maybe tomorrow I’ll feel human enough to dig back into “The Haunted Blade”…or maybe not. Right now, I think I’d be happy just to get a good night’s sleep.

I hope none of you who are reading this are suffering something similar, and if you are, you have my sympathy.

More offerings from “The Occasional Okatu”

I’ve recently found a few more anime I thought I’d recommend. Each one offers something interesting, and I think all of them worth checking out.

The first offering is a movie that caused something of a stir when it wasn’t nominated for Best Animated Film, “Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms” (Japanese: “Sayonara no Asa ni Yakusoku no Hana o Kazarō”). At an one hour, fifty-five minutes, this isn’t some movie you can just sit down and turn your brain off to watch. Maquia, the title character, is a young girl of a nearly immortal race, the Iorph. Her people weave the tale of their years into fabric, the patterns of which they can read as we would a book. As the movie opens, she is alone, with no family, but her loneliness is to become more profound. A group of mortal humans invade, seeking to gain the immortality the Iorph possess by stealing women to breed with. These humans attack with the aid of dragons they hold in captivity, and when one of them goes mad during the invasion, Maquia become entangled in the cloth her people wove and is carried away by it.

When she recovers her senses, she is in the woods, alone, and seeing the flames of her homeland in the distance, is prepared to leap from a cliff to her death. At that moment, she hears a child crying. Maquia follows the sound to a village who’s inhabitants have been slaughtered. In one structure she finds a dead mother still clutching her living child. Maquia saves the mortal child, vowing to protect it and do her best to be a mother to it. She finds humans who takes her in, and despite her young age, helps her as she undertakes the raising of the boy she names Ariel.

I won’t go into the details so as not to spoil the movie. I will say that I enjoyed it because it examines a lot of themes I find interesting. Immortality, and the strains such a life would impose on someone who possessed it. Tolerance, or more precisely, humanity’s unwillingness to tolerate those who aren’t ‘normal’. And most of all, the danger of those who grasp for power without understanding the consequences of their actions. Sadly, it’s out of the theaters now, and not all that easy to find available online. But it is available on DVD/Blu-ray, so if you can’t find it online, I would highly recommend buying it.

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maquia:_When_the_Promised_Flower_Blooms

https://www.amazon.com/Maquia-Promised-Flower-Blooms-Blu-ray/dp/B07JHJFJPH]

The next two anime I’d like to bring to your attention are currently being streamed via Crunchyroll, so if you choose to watch either, they’re not hard to find. The first is “Magic Girl Spec-Ops Asuka” (Japanese: “Mahō Shōjo Tokushusen Asuka”). The ‘magic girl’ concept is something of a sub-genre in anime. It usually involves a young girl, usually not out of her early teens, who is suddenly endowed with magical powers that she uses to fight monsters and other evil. Normally, there is little of the actual horrors of war and fighting, and “Magic Girl Spec-Ops Asuka” steps into that void to ask the question what happens to the little girl who has to face all that? Asuka, the title character, was among a group of eleven young girls from around the world who were given magical powers to fight the Disa, a group of extra-dimensional invaders. While they look like over-sized stuffed toys, the Disa are ruthless killers, and of the original group of 11, only five survive to see the invaders driven off. Asuka leads the group of survivors in the final battle, and with the war over, she tries to go back to a normal life. Unfortunately for her, just as for many warriors coming back from our own wars, the things they saw, the things they were forced to do in combat, are never far from the present day. Dealing with PTSD is the battle she fights at the beginning of the series, but it soon become clear that just like the nuclear ‘secret’, the ability to turn magic to evil purposes has escaped into the world. Asuka is forced to return to her role as a warrior to face the growing threat. This is no laugh-a-minute comedy. Asuka’s made friends, and they are soon dragged into the conflict. One nearly dies in a confrontation with escaped criminals armed with magical abilities. Another is captured and tortured because her father had helped catch those same criminals. It’s dark stuff, but the series deals with it not for the shock value, but because modern warfare is filled with horrors as bad or worse. Well worth checking out.

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magical_Girl_Spec-Ops_Asuka

https://www.crunchyroll.com/magical-girl-spec-ops-asuka]

On a far less serious front, I’d like to offer “Kaguya-sama: Love Is War” (Japanese: “Kaguya-sama wa Kokurasetai – Tensai-tachi no Ren’ai Zunōsen”). Another sub-genre in anime is school romance. Often, these are comedies about the confused emotions of high school students, and this one takes that notion up several notches. Kaguya Shinomiya and Miyuki Shirogane the top students at their high school, and respectively the vice-president and president of the student council. Each one is in love with the other, yet both of them are too proud to speak up for fear that such a confession would be a sign of weakness to the other. What results is a series of attempts by the two protagonists to get the other person to actually confess their feelings. Some of the humor is decidedly low-brow (like when Chika Fujiwara, the student council secretary and generally clueless noob who acts as a comedic foil to the main characters, discovers that Kaguya laughs uncontrollably when the word ‘wiener’ is said), but then again, the entire premise is to strive for a good innocent laugh at the expense of the haughty main characters. Watch it if you’re in need of a good chuckle.

[https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kaguya-sama:_Love_Is_War

https://www.crunchyroll.com/kaguya-sama-love-is-war]

Confessions

“I love you.”

I couldn’t believe I’d said it. How many years had I known Nancy? How many times had I wanted to tell her? All those years, from grade school through high school, I’d known she was the woman I wanted to be with. In high school, other guys had made fun of her, called her ‘washboard’ and ‘carpenter’s delight’.

I didn’t care. She was kind, never laughed at my awkwardness, but always smiled at my lame jokes. Then high school ended, and I never saw her again. I followed my love of the stars into astronomy. College passed in a pleasant haze, surrounded by others who shared my interest and feeling at home at last. A degree, then another, brought me to manage one of the observatories atop Mauna Kea. Discoveries, even a measure of fame followed, but never love.

I don’t know why I started following my high school class on social media. I saw people I’d envied go on to fame, then failure. Others popped up, only to disappear again. The passing years brought something else: death. First one, then more of the people I’d gone to school with passed. Some died in accidents, others from disease. None of those notices bothered me. Then I saw the single line announcement that went through my heart.

“Nancy Phelan ne Coulette, died Feb. 25.”

Getting to her funeral was impossible, the notice appearing a week after her death. But I knew I had to go. So I’d made the flight, rented a car, and drove here. A mound of raw earth stood behind a plain gray granite tombstone. That was all I had to speak to, the only thing that could hear my confession.

But I had said it at last.

‘The Occasional Okatu’ strikes again.

I thought this would be a good time to add to my ”Occasional Okatu” series. Two of these anime are ongoing, and from what I’ve seen so far, well worth watching. There’s also one that was on a while back, and as I recently had the chance to watch it again, I thought I’d pass it along.

First off is the anime that’s already been on, “The Ancient Magus’ Bride” (“Mahoutsukai no Yomein Japanese). This is an outstanding anime on several levels. The artwork is incredible, the characters are more than two-dimensional cut-outs spouting lines, and the world it builds is quite believable. It is set in England, where Chise Hatori, a Japanese girl, goes to be sold at auction. She does this of her own accord, having been shunned her whole life because she can see the spirits that inhabit the world alongside humans. What she doesn’t know is that she has powers far greater than seeing spirits. She has the power to draw magic both from her surroundings, and the magical spirits she can see. There is a price for this gift. Chise, and those like her, rarely live long due to the strain their powers place on their human body. She is bought by Elias Ainsworth, a huge non-human magician who pays a fortune to possess her and her abilities. This seems a dark set-up for a story, but as the characters move forward, both Chise and Elias begin to change. Chise learns that the world is not as dark as her experiences have lead her to believe. Elias, on the other hand, learns what it is to be human, and what it feels like to care about someone else. This is a 24 episode series, so not something you’re going to knock down in an hour or two. That said, it is worth taking the time to watch.

As far as the two currently-airing anime, I’m not really sure which I like better, so I’ll go alphabetically. “Boogiepop and Others” (“Bugīpoppu wa Warawanai” in Japanese) is a story with more sub-plots than I’ve ever seen in an anime. It is based on an earlier anime, “Boogiepop Phantom” from 2000 that I have tried to watch but couldn’t do due to the truly horrible quality of the animation. The story tells of the urban legend of a mysterious figure dressed in a flowing cloak and a tall, odd hat. Some see this figure as Death personified, while others see it as defending humanity from the evil that stalks us in the shadows. The series opens with Boogiepop’s identity being reveals: she is a manifestation of the personality of a high school girl, an entity that emerges when humanity is in danger. If you like dark fantasies where the distinction between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’ aren’t clear-cut, this is your cup of tea. The artwork is quite good, the characters are interesting, and I think the premise will be engaging enough to keep you watching.

The last anime is “The Rising of the Shield Hero” (“Tate no Yūsha no Nariagari” in Japanese) a dark take on a classic story line: the hero summoned into a video game like world. In this case, four young men are summoned from different versions of modern Japan to defend a kingdom from an impending wave of disasters. There’s a twist that happens in the first episode, when the title Shield Hero is falsely accused of a crime. Thrown out and denied help, yet expected to do his part in defending the kingdom, he takes matters into his own hands. With his powers limited to defense, he buys a slave to fight for him and begins the process of learning how to fight and operate in his new world. He’s not a complete anti-hero, he treats his slave less like property than as a valued helper, but not all of his actions are quite ‘above bard’. The characters development is good for the genre, the story keeps you watching, and while I’m not a big fan of the animation, it gets the job done.

Unlike some of my past recommendations, all of these anime are available through popular sources like Crunchyroll. Like usual, here are links if you want to watch:

“The Ancient Magus’ Bride” (https://www.crunchyroll.com/the-ancient-magus-bride)

“Boogiepop and Others” (https://www.crunchyroll.com/boogiepop-and-others)

“The Rising of the Shield Hero” (https://www.crunchyroll.com/the-rising-of-the-shield-hero)

A vision of the future?

Paullus Lucius Decimus reclined on the cheap mattress in his rented room and watched the prostitute undress. Modern America had many things his native Rome had never had, but as an immortal, one thing he missed was brothels. He’d lost his virginity in one, and as a legionnaire, he’d frequented the brothels around Roman frontier forts rather than trust a local woman to not slit his throat as he slept. Now, rather than being able to go somewhere that he knew women were available, he was forced onto the seedier parts of the Internet in hopes of satisfying his sexual needs.

After discovering, in the disastrous aftermath of Teutoburg, that he was immortal, Paullus had refrained from long-term relationships out of self-preservation. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to trust a woman to keep his secret. No, many men he’d known had gone mad with grief after loosing a wife of lover, and Paullus knew his heart was no stronger than theirs. But no matter how many centuries passed, his desire for sexual release did not diminish.

So here he was, marveling at how like all those other prostitutes this one was. Her lips wore a smile that never entered her eyes, she told the same old lie about how ‘big’ his manhood was, and like every other prostitute, promised him she’d ‘show him a good time’. The sex itself was a series of mechanical acts interspersed with more lies about how ‘good’ he was in bed, what an ‘incredible’ lover he was, and when Paullus achieved climax, her theatrical exhibit of pleasure at the same moment was no more convincing than any of the others he’d seen.

Her job done, Tina, as she called herself, peeled the condom off his member and moved to throw it in the wastebasket beside. She stopped in mid-movement, her eyes fixed on Paullus’ diary. He’d left it open on the stand next to his bed, having no reason to suspect a random prostitute could read Latin. This one clearly did.

Latine loqueris?” she asked in a Latin that might have come from a patrician’s mouth and not a whore’s.

Maybe it was the shock of hearing his native tongue in such an unexpected situation that caused Paullus to blurt out “Facio, ita.”, but he collected himself before continuing in English “And how do you come to speak Latin?”

She gave him a smile, a real if wary one. “I studied Roman history in college, and knowing Latin was pretty much a requirement for accessing the original texts. You can only learn so much from someone’s translation. If you can read the original, in the original language, you can almost hear the writer speaking to you. How about you?” She pointed towards the diary. “This Latin’s not quite classic, it’s more like colloquial Latin. Only a few scholars can read that, let alone write as fluently as you do. Where did you pick it up?”

Damn, she would know the difference! Paullus had begun to suspect that Professor Upton knew his knowledge of Latin was far too extensive to put down to parental hectoring. That was one of the reasons he’d been happy to finish translating her cache of letters he himself had written before the final battle of the XIX Legion. How could he explain to this woman, who clearly knew his knowledge was uncommon? Better to change the subject. “You studied Roman history in college? How did you…?”

She finished the question for him. “How did a classic student end up a prostitute, a whore? You don’t have to be polite, I’ve been called worse. I came from a poor family, and scholarships only go so far. So I needed to raise some extra cash, and believe me, working a part-time job for minimum wage isn’t a good way to make ends meet, not and study. A girl I knew told me she ‘dated’ a guy and steered me to one of those sites where rich old guys go to find a ‘sweet young thing’ they can ‘financially assist’.” She even raised her hands to emphasis that she was quoting some standard line. “Well, I learned pretty quickly that the only reason most of those guys were willing to ‘assist’ me was if I’d ‘assist’ them in their desire to get laid.” She shrugged, and gave him a cynical smile he’d seen from far too many prostitutes. “So I could either have sex with some random guy and get paid for it, or I could starve. Not a hard choice. Problem is, once you get started, it’s hard to stop. You get used to having the extra cash, to not worrying whether you’ll have something eat or not. After a while, I started paying more attention to keeping my ‘friends’ happy than to my course work. I went from a GPA of 3.8 to 1.3. When my adviser told me to either get serious about my classes or I’d flunk out, I decided to drop out and go into prostitution full-time.” She smiled again, perhaps the first honest smile he’d seen on her face since she’d walked in the door. “What can I say? It isn’t always easy. I’ve had a couple customers decide they wanted to do the rough stuff with me, which I never do, no matter how much men offer me. The few who tried learned real fast that my cop dad taught his little girl how to defend herself. One idiot thought he’d be my pimp. I left him screaming on the floor with a nice compound fracture of the lower arm. No one’s been dumb enough to try that again.” Her eyes move back to Paullus’ diary. “And none of that explains how you know one of the less common dialects of Latin. So, care to spill, or should I just speculate?”

Time to fall back on the lie he’d told Professor Upton. “My father was a classics professor, my mother was a linguist. Between them, I learned the rudiments of around twenty languages. As for why I use that language, I always liked colloquial Latin because the cuss words are so very inventive.”

Tina laughed at that. “Yes, it is pretty good for insulting people, isn’t it?” Then, she looked at Paullus, at the web of scars that covered his body. “For a guy who’s smart enough to learn twenty languages, you’ve sure been injured a lot.” She tossed the spent condom in the garbage, then sat on the bed. “Modern medicine’s good, but these scars look like they’re from wounds that should have killed you. So either you were special forces, or you’re both the luckiest and unluckiest man alive to suffer these injuries and be close enough to care to keep you from dying. Which is it?”

Several centuries before, Paullus had killed a man who’d witnessed him surviving an attack by a huge brown bear in what was now the Kamchatka Peninsula. He’d seen too much of the attack to believe that Paullus was just lucky, but his fate had been sealed when started talking about how interested the local Koryak chieftain would be in a man who couldn’t be killed by a bear. Would he be forced to send this woman to the afterlife to spare himself the unwanted attention of modern society? Perhaps sensing he wasn’t going to answer, she settled her fate with her next words.

“Well, it’s not like we’re besties or anything like that. You don’t owe me an answer.” She dressed without wasted effort, scooped up the envelope holding the price of her company, and leafed through the bills with the practiced speed of someone who had done the task many times before. Satisfied that he hadn’t shorted her, she walked to the door.

“You’ve got my number, and I’ll be around for the next couple of weeks, so give me a call if you want another date. Di conservent te D. L. Paullus.” and she was gone, leaving Paullus to wonder how she’d managed to extract his name from one brief glance at his diary. He picked up the book and saw his name was nowhere on the pages she could have read. But on the stand, a coin winked at him. It must have been under the book because he was sure he hadn’t seen it when he picked it up. The bronze coin had the familiar weight and shape of a sestertius, and Augustus’ profile could still be made out. So how had a prostitute come to possess a two thousand year old coin that looked as if it had been minted only a few years before? Could she be like him, an immortal hiding in the shadows of modern society? He flipped the coin, caught it on the fall, and looked at the door.

“I think, Tina, you and I need to talk, and soon.”

The face in the mirror

I don’t remember the first time I had the dream. That’s odd, because I have many memories of my early childhood. My first distinct memory is of chaotically tumbling while all around me, people scream. When I described it to my parents, they were shocked. They wondered how I could remember something that had happened to me when I was barely three years old. Father told me that a tire had blown on a slick road, and he had caused the car to roll over while trying to counter the effects.

But for all that, I have no clear memory of the first time I awoke from that same eerie dream. I am standing in front of a mirror, looking at my reflection. What I see is the me of that moment. As a young boy, I saw a young boy. Now, as an adult, I see my adult self in the mirror. But as I stare at the mirror, I see another face appear.

It is ghostly at first, like the beginnings of a sketch. But as the dream progresses, my face disappears, replaced by a face like mine, but different. It was a young girl when I was a young boy. Now, it is a grown woman. Her hair is midnight black like mine. Like me, her nose is long and thin. Her lips are fuller than mine, but it is her eyes that are the most striking. Like mine, they are brown, but they lack any warmth, which I find find disconcerting. And always, always, she looks out of the mirror, smiles…and I know. I know she knows I can see her.

Who she is, I don’t know. I asked my parents about her, even going so far as to accusing them of concealing a twin, for that is how she appears to me. They denied it, denied that I was ever anything but their only child. I could see the truth in their eyes, but my heart still wonders who that strange yet familiar face in my dream was.

The dreams began to come more frequently. From a once-a-month occurrence, they became weekly. Then they visited me every night. And for the first time, the dream changed. The image in the mirror still morphed from my face into that of a woman very much like me. But now, rather than smile knowingly at me, she spoke. And her words were chilling.

“I am here, and I will not be ignored any longer.”

Now, instead of awakening with a start, I bolted awake screaming, her ominous words still echoing in my mind. I began to dread the night, to fear sleep that offered not rest, but terror. I began staying awake, sometimes all night. My work began to suffer, my friends started noticing my listlessness. But I couldn’t tell them what kept me from the sleep I needed. Nor could I tell them that those times I did sleep offered no rest.

Then I got sick.

It started as stomach aches, annoying but something I could ignore. As time passed, my pain grew. From discomfort, it became more and more debilitating. My doctor was baffled, as where the specialists he sent me to. Tests found none of the tell-tale cells that would indicate I had cancer. Finally, an MRI finally found something, what the doctor less than helpfully described as an ‘undefined mass’ in my stomach. He wanted to do a finer scan, but the machine would not be free again for a week. They gave me ‘pain management’ medication, and told me to return.

The medicine, huge pills that looked like something for a horse, did what the doctors said they’d do. Within an hour of taking the first one, the pain was little more than a nagging twinge at the edge of perception. But the pills also brought something else, a very unwelcome guest. They brought sleep, sleep that would not be denied. No matter how I fought, my eyes kept sagging shut. My last memory was sitting in my favorite chair, struggling to stay awake; the next, I was in the dream.

This dream soon turns different. Instead of overlaying my face, the woman’s face slowly materialized next to mine, like she were standing behind me looking over my shoulder. I see a hand rise, descend, and felt a touch on my shoulder. My mind tells me it is impossible. I know nothing can touch me, can harm me, not in a dream.

But it is real. I can feel the pressure of each of those fingers on my shoulder. I feel warmth were they rest upon me. I scream, but I do not wake up. Behind me, the woman waits. She neither smiles nor frowns, her face a blank mask except for her eyes. In them, I see amusement, and the willingness to wait until I stop screaming, to wait as if she has all the time in the world. I master the fear that always strangles me when I saw that face and stop screaming. She nods, once, a motion much like my own. Then, she speaks.

“So, this time you can’t escape? Now, I can finally confront you, murderer.”

“Are you crazy? I’ve never hurt anyone, let alone murdered anyone.”

Her eyes harden. “Liar! You are a murderer, and I will exact revenge from you!”

I want to turn around, to face her instead of arguing with a reflection, but my feet, my whole body, are frozen in place. I can’t even turn my head. Only my eyes and lips are at my command. I feel panic rising and try to force it down. “Fine, if I’m a murderer, who did I kill? When am I supposed to have killed them?”

Her eyes narrow, and her grip on my shoulder tightens. “Don’t play the innocent! You know who you killed, and you know when you killed them too!” Her grip tightens until I feel her fingernails dig into my flesh. Her lips thin, exposing her teeth as they stretch into a fierce smile. “So, you can get away? Only for a while, murderer, only for a short while.” Her presence begins to fade, and in that final moment, I hear the thing I fear the most. “I’ll be waiting for you, and when you come back, I’ll make you pay!”

I wake up on the floor, arms wrapped around my legs, knees pulled as tight as I can pull them to my chest. My throat is raw like I have screamed all night, and my shirt clings to me, soaked in a stinking fear-sweat. I force myself upright and look at the clock. It’s 6:30 in the morning, and the patch of sky visible through the window is growing light. I wonder if this is how the rest of my nights will be? And if it is, will my sanity survive the week?

The pain in my midsection begins to reassert itself. But take another pain pill, and possibly face that angry presence? No. I pull out a favorite book to try to distract myself, but it is no use. Every minute, every second, the pain increases. It increases, becomes like a wild animal trying to claw its way out of my belly, and I give in. Time passes, the pain recedes, and I feel my eyes sagging again. They are starting to close for what I fear will be the last time before sleep claims me when my cell chirps at me. I know the voice on the other end of the call, my internal medicine specialist, but it seems to be coming from a million miles away.

“Mr. Sanchez, it’s Doctor Linden. We’ve had a patient cancel their MRI appointment. If you can get to the clinic in the next hour, we can get your scans done and, hopefully, get a handle on what’s going on.”

I mutter something that doesn’t make sense even to me, and the voice on the other end picks up on my state. “Sir, are you having a reaction to your pain medications? Sir?” I can’t even work up the energy to answer, my body wants to do is sleep. I hear a distant voice shouting. It wants my attention, but I can’t make myself bother to try. “Help is on the way, Mr. Sanchez. Just hang on, sir, help is on the way.” The voice sounds concerned, and I know I should stay awake, but my eyes shut. Sleep takes me.

There is no mirror in my dream this time. Now, I am in a vast space, a dark plain that extends beyond sight. And I am alone. She, who ever she is, is not here. In a way, this complete emptiness is more frightening than she ever was.

“Are you afraid, murderer?”

Her voice is soft, hardly a whisper, but the words are spoken so close to my ear I feel the warm breath that makes them. I jerk away from the unexpected closeness, and unlike every previous dream, I move. Free of my imprisonment, I turn to face her. She is shorter than me, but only slightly, and her rounded body reminds me of my mother. Her face, so like mine, is lined, her features drawn together in an angry scowl.

“Why do you keep calling me a murderer? I don’t remember ever seeing you, and I’ve never hurt anyone in my life. So how can I be a murderer?”

She steps close to me, close enough that I feel uncomfortable. Her voice, when she speaks, is filled with a cold, contained anger. “But you are a murderer. You killed me, in cold blood. You snuffed out my life without a thought.”

Her statement makes no sense. “But if I killed you, why can’t I remember killing you? Are you saying I’ve somehow repressed the memory of murdering you?”

“Oh, you remember killing me…if you didn’t, how could I be talking to you?”

“You could be…I don’t know, a figment of my imagination, or a manifestation of my wish that I hadn’t been an only child.”

“You wanted a sister?”

The anger drops from her face like a curtain falling, replaced by an intent gaze like she’s trying to catch me in a lie.

“It might sound selfish, but a sister, a brother, hell, even a dozen siblings. My parents heaped all their hopes and dreams on me. I hated the expectations, the pressure to succeed. If I’d had brothers and sisters, I’d have been happier, and maybe they’d have been happier too.”

Her face changes. The suspicion, the doubt, the anger, all of it drops away, leaving a stunned stare. Then I see something I had never thought to see on that cold, cynical, face. Tears well in her eyes, run down her face. When she speaks, her voice is a hollow echo of what it has been before. “You wanted me? You didn’t kill me because you hated me?”

I open my mouth to tell her that I didn’t know her, so I couldn’t have hated her, but her scream stops the words in my throat. A broad red slash appears on her left arm, and when her eyes fix on mine, I see the hate, the anger renewed a thousand times over. She charges me, and her hands go to my throat. Her fingers, surprisingly strong, sink into my flesh and I find myself gasping for breath. As she strangles me, she screams in my face.

“Liar! You kept me talking so you could kill me again! I won’t go, not without you!”

I try to free myself, but my body refuses to respond. The blood thunders in my temples, my vision darken, but even knowing death is close at hand, I can do nothing. My sight dims to nothingness, and the last thing I see is not my attacker, but my Mother. She smiles, and as she always did, she looks sad as she does it. I hear voice one final time.

“It’ll be all right, Paulie, it’ll be all right.”

It is my nose that tells me I am not dead. It brings me the smell of a hospital room, so familiar from my vigil over Father. I am surrounded by the harsh chemical scent filled with a background of human filth that I associate with a hospital room. My body comes back to me next. It tells me I am lying on my back with something stuck to both of my arms. There is a steadily beeping, the noise far too loud for my comfort, and my brain tells me it is a heart monitor. My eyes are reluctant to open, but I force them to obey, and I see off-white ceiling tiles set in a white metal framework. It’s a hospital ceiling, if ever I saw one.

Something is pressing against my left hand, and I shift my head to see what it is. A white cord, ending in an oblong box studded with buttons…the same sort of control and communications pendant my Father had at his bedside. I fumble with the box, stabbing the big button with the nurse’s head outlined on it until a young woman comes in.

“It’s good to see you awake, Mr. Sanchez, I hear you gave the doctors quite a scare. Do you need help, maybe something to drink?”

She says drink, and I realize my mouth is dry, so dry my tongue feels like sandpaper. I try to speak, manage a croak, and purse my lips like I’m sucking on a straw. She nods, grabs a foam cup, and places the straw sticking out of it in my mouth. I suck on it and cold water floods my mouth. I keep sucking on the straw until I’m sucking air, open my mouth, and let her put the cup down. I try to speak again, and I’m happy to hear even the rough echo of my voice that comes out.

“What happened? I remember being at home, and the doctor calling…then, I’m here.”

I notice her name tag. “Brandy” shrugs as she answers me. “I don’t know the details, but you’ve only been on the floor for a couple of hours. Before that, you were in ICU for three days. The doctors haven’t made their rounds yet this morning, so you should be able to find out what happens when they come around. Until then, would you like something to eat? Breakfast was served about the time you were being brought in, and lunch won’t be for another two hours, but I can get you something from the ready fridge. Maybe some ice cream?”

Ice cream, even three of the small tubs they serve out, does little more than take the edge off my hunger. Five minutes is all it takes for me to know there is nothing on the TV besides inane daytime programming, so I turn it off and wait.

Some time during that wait, I fall asleep. I know I was asleep because I have memories of the sunlight slanting low through the window, then the light is shining down from a much higher angle. An older woman with skin as dark as mine and a stethoscope is standing by my bed, her finger pressed against the inside of my wrist.

“Good, you’re awake, Mr. Sanchez. I’m Doctor Bajaj, your attending physician. How are you feeling?”

“Honestly, I feel confused. Do you know what happened to me?”

She picks up a tablet I hadn’t noticed on my bedside table and begins tapping the screen. A few swipes, and her eyes begin to scan the screen. “I wasn’t part of the team that operated on you, but according to the admission notes, you were brought in unconscious and rushed into the ER.” A pause as she reads, then her eyes widen, and she flicks the tablet’s surface again. Her hesitation is beginning to worry me. What could she be reading that would cause her to stop so suddenly? Her eyes meet mine, then shift away… and I know what she says isn’t entirely true. “All the details of what was done aren’t here, but it does say you underwent emergency surgery, and that you suffered a cardiac incident caused by acute blood loss. This lead to you being placed in our ICU until your surgical team was satisfied with you condition. Your surgical team should visit you sometime this afternoon, so you can get the details from them. Now, I’d like to listen to your heart and lungs….”

I’d seen what happened next done to my Father and Mother, but being on the receiving end of it helped me understood why they frowned through their examinations. Doctor Bajaj was perfectly civil to me, yet so detached that I felt more like an animated piece of meat than a human being. Finished, she tapped the tablet, I guess making notes, then addressed me.

“Your heart and lungs sound good, but your blood pressure is still low. I’m going to recommend that you remain in the hospital for at least another day, and I’ll be ordering another unit of saline to help build your blood volume. I’ll be back this afternoon…” and that was it. She walks out without giving me any information, leaving me feeling as if I’d ceased to exist the moment she made her decision on my treatment.

I was in a room by myself, and staring at the walls soon got boring. I was spared having to resort to watching TV doctors pretend to treat pretend patients by a cheerful young man who brought me a newspaper, then handed me the day’s menu.

“I’ll be back later to get your order, or you can call the kitchen and they’ll put your lunch order on the cart. The doctors don’t have you on a special diet, so you can order anything you want.”

I hadn’t noticed how close to noon it was. My stomach growled, letting me know it was looking forward to me eating something. “Thanks. If you’ll tell me how to call the kitchen, you won’t have to come back.”

He points to a number printed across the bottom of the page, “Just call that number, sir.” leaving me feeling like an idiot. I thank him and he goes about his business. Lunch, I soon find, is not going to be a five-star affair. I pick what’s described as an ‘open-faced sandwich’ and coffee, call it in, and open the paper to occupy my mind. Ten minutes later, I’ve read everything of interest.

Lunch, when it arrives, could generously be described as ‘inoffensive’. It has no real taste, not even a scent to match its description. The coffee is hot, bitter and completely lacking in stimulation. I eat and drink all of it knowing that ordering something else will not improve the situation. The server returns, clears the dishes away without comment, and I am left with my boredom.

Sleep come to me, but I don’t realize I’ve slept. What woke me up isn’t hard to figure out. The familiar Dr. Bajaj stands beside my bed with an older man and a woman who looks like she should still be in college. They are discussing me in the cold, abstract terms doctors use, but the medical jargon is thick enough that I can’t understand whether I am living or dying. I shift my position and they realize I am awake. The man approaches me, pitching his voice to give the impression he wishes to engage me and failing.

“”Mr Sanchez, I’m Doctor Werten, the doctor who operated on you. How are you feeling? How is the pain you were experiencing?”

Until he asked, I hadn’t noticed the absence of pain. How could I miss something that had so been the focus of my life? “It’s…gone, doctor. Do you know what was causing it?”

His eyes, which had been fixed on me, shift away. “Yes, I do. Your spine was under pressure from a foreign mass. That was triggering your pain episodes. The mass was also partially wrapped around your aorta, and putting pressure on it which lowered the blood flow to your lower body. That is why you became unconscious, the pain medication wasn’t being equally absorbed by your body.” He paused, his eyes fixing on mine for the first time. “I was unable to reawaken you and operated immediately. Unfortunately, the scans didn’t show was that there were several small blood vessels running through the mass that connected to your aorta. I’m sorry to admit it, but I severed one of those, and you nearly bled out before I could close it off. After that, I kept an eye out for more vessels and managed to seal the rest off without further incident. Once your blood volume has returned to normal, you’ll be free leave and go back to your normal routine.”

I heard the words ‘foreign mass’ and the rest of it became minor details. “What do you mean when you say you removed a ‘foreign mass’? Was it cancer?”

Dr. Werten’s eyes begin shifting around, like he’s looking for something, anything, to look at but me. “Mr. Sanchez, do you know what a vanishing twin is?” I shake my head, and he continues. “In about ten percent of pregnancies where more than one embryo is formed, one of the embryos will absorb the other one. It’s not something that causes problems…or I should say it’s not normally something that causes problems. Usually, if there’s anything left of the absorbed twin, it’s fragments. The most common form it exhibits in the surviving twin is stray teeth, hair and other fragments in a benign cyst. But in your case,” He pauses, and a chill sweep over me. What did he find inside me? I don’t have to wonder. “In your case, we found significant development. Teeth, hair, even a partial skeleton. We also found…well, we found what we think were undeveloped brain cells. But the important thing is that the growth has been removed, and you should be free of pain from this point forward.”

Now, the chill I feel is like I’ve been submerged in an ice-covered pond. I don’t want to know, but I ask. “Dr. Werten…could you tell if the twin was female?”

His eyes meet mine, and I see he is shocked by the question. “We’d have to do a DNA test to find out. If you don’t mind he asking, why do you ask?”

She’d said I had killed her. I even heard her screams as they’d removed her. Had she been alive inside me all this time? Was that why I’d always had the dream? How could I explain that to him? I can’t.

“Oh, no reason, no reason at all.”