Who do the Norse gods call on when a necromancer who's been imprisoned for thousands of years is about to break free into downtown Toronto? A descendent of their own, of course. And if that descendent is a single-father who's just buried his parents, that's hardly their problem. The fact that he's never so much as held a weapon of any kind is, though, and he's going to need to be trained first. Not that there's a lot of time. The necromancer's powers are starting to leak through the boundaries of his prison, making weird undead monsters pop up here and there in the city.
Wind tugging at my jacket, I stood over my parents’ graves. It would be weeks yet before grass sprouted over the bare mound, but the air didn’t carry enough heat to bring me the scent of fresh-turned earth, not that I could really say fresh after two weeks.
No tears today. After everything in the past six months, I doubted I had any left, but if I didn’t really want to test that, I had to wonder why I kept coming to the cemetery every few days. The rock in the pit of my stomach had started to feel like an old friend, the only one who hadn’t figured out to leave me alone until I could process enough to start to work through things.
“A year to grieve, isn’t that what everyone says, Dad? A year?” My eyes shifted over a bit without asking, taking in the name on the other half of the oversized headstone. It hadn’t been a year yet since the latest date on that side. Barely half of one. “But I keep having to start over, don’t I, mom?”READ MORE
Alisha Marie Jackson, beloved wife and mother. Arthur William Lindgren, beloved husband and father. Not much to summarize a lifetime, much less two of them, a lifetime of happiness and love, of good times and bad, of hopes and dreams and fears. Of my parents.
Taking a deep breath and holding it, I scrunched my eyes shut just in case there might be a tear or two left, after all. The feeling passed and, when they opened again as I exhaled, my eyes locked on a fingertip-sized symbol carved into the stone on my father’s side. Right in the middle of the gap between his name and ‘beloved husband and father’, a small circle with a barely smaller plus sign inside it sat without drawing attention to itself, and, looking at it, I had to smile.
My father had never, that I remembered, been a religious man, and certainly not of the pagan variety, but he’d always said he had some kind of affinity for ancient symbols. They spoke to him on some deep, pre-language level, so much that he’d plastered them all over the garage and basement workshop. Ankhs and hammers and crosses, bits of a dozen vanished cultures. His favourite, the circle and plus sign combination he called a sun wheel, sometimes adding the word simple in front of that, he’d felt so strongly that he’d had one tattooed on his forearm only a couple of years ago. He’d never been able to tell me exactly what it meant for him, only that he’d felt it was really important.
I reached out and touched the cold stone, landing just my index finger on the small carving. “It always bugged you not being able to put words to it, didn’t it, dad? But words or not, you still had to leave it behind for the rest of us to wonder about.” Maybe the sun wheel had just a little more to it than I’d thought. I’d done a fifteen-second google search and skim at one point, coming up with a lot more than the simple one here, and way too many interpretations of what any or all of them could mean. It was a common symbol in a lot of cultures and could mean a lot of things of varying degrees of importance. Too much information too fast.
And maybe I was trying to read too much into things, or maybe my father had. Either way, I couldn’t stand in one place all day, particularly if that place was one practically designed to make me quiet and depressed, if not by intent. I wouldn’t be able to hide it from Moriko if I didn’t leave soon. Probably, I couldn’t anyway. She was far too observant and showed hints of being far smarter, not just than she gave herself credit for, but than I was.
“All the things you guys aren’t going to get to see.”
Moriko, thirteen and smarter than her father had ever been, reminded me so much of Hiroshi. That was a mental path that wouldn’t lead me to tears, though. I watched our daughter every day, dealing with her grief better than I could, or at least putting on a strong face for me as I tried to for her, and doing a better job of it. The two of us managed to live something that looked like a normal life, and least if you didn’t look too closely, but it was hard some days. Most days.
Crouching in front of the headstone, I wondered again if maybe I should stop coming to the cemetery so often. It probably wasn’t helping me get over things. Until now, I didn’t see that as an issue since I didn’t actually want to get over things. I wanted to remember, and coming to talk to the gravestones helped a little. This trip felt gloomier, though, and not just because of the weather.
Pushing off the stone, I stood, staring down as I stepped back. “Sorry I’m not very talkative today. Maybe it’s the cold.” The dwindling smell of winter on the wind had dropped away for a little while, but even if I’d woken up to frost every morning in the last week, those mornings had all turned into snow-free days. Not that we ever got as much of the white stuff as I remembered as a kid, regardless of the month, but Hiroshi had always been amazed. Moriko ignored it like any girl her age would. “Maybe if I can just get through to spring. Or summer. Or autumn.” I sighed. “Maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about or doing from day to day or moment to moment. I’m just trying to get by.” And was that any different from what life normally was? I was just more aware of how temporary things could be.
I took another step back and a bit of motion caught my eye, a shadowy figure standing beside a small group of pine trees. The man shifted in place, turning just a little, and I realized he was holding a rake or a shovel or something. A groundskeeper, taking a break in the marginal shelter the trees offered, or maybe just not wanting to disturb a visitor. He seemed to be swaying a bit with the breeze. Music probably, if it wasn’t my imagination, from headphones I couldn’t see, but the man’s presence suddenly made me uncomfortable, wary of being watched.
“I should go.” Was I weird talking to dead people? I knew I was really just talking to myself, talking things out, hearing the words to work through the emotions better. Lifeless corpses six feet under the dirt in heavy, wooden boxes probably didn’t hear very well and didn’t respond any better. Every visit was one-sided, but it still helped me, a little. “Hiroshi sends her love.” I thought about my wife, how she would have phrased it in her quiet, stilted English. “Her affection. Or she would.”
I started forward, back to the small parking lot at the cemetery’s edge. As I passed the headstone, I put my hand flat on the rough top surface. It seemed a bit warmer than the mid-March air should make it, a brief bit of heat for chilled fingers. Odd, but not a bad thing by any stretch. “I’ll drop by again in a few days.”
Winter-killed grass crunched under my feet with every step. I kept my eyes fixed on the distant grey smudge of the car while I walked, and tried to remember everything on the grocery list instead of looking around. Maybe Moriko would just think the store had been busy. Or maybe she’d just be thirteen and not even realize how long I’d been gone.
Today, I could live with that.
Balancing the cardboard banana box on one arm, I fumbled with my keys until I managed to insert the right one into the lock. Turning it took a little more fumbling during which I nearly lost the eggs and for just that brief moment regretted that I didn’t keep a couple of reusable bags in the car. Keys dangling from one finger, I kicked off my shoes and didn’t make an effort to slide them to the side before going up the four steps into the kitchen. “I’m home, Mo!”
As usual, I didn’t see enough space on the kitchen table to put a book down, much less a box of groceries. It was long past time to clean up the pile of files and miscellaneous objects, not all of which belonged in the kitchen, and I tried to decide if my energy level would let that happen before dinner. If not, it probably wouldn’t happen today. The stove looked empty. That would let me unload next to the microwave, not too far from the fridge. It would do for now.
“Did you remember the nori?”
By volume and distance, my daughter lay sprawled across her bed, probably facing away from the door and almost certainly having three different texting conversations at once while playing a video game or streaming something, but the question made me smile. I’d be forgiven almost any delay as long as I remembered whatever sushi supplies she’d currently run short of. That didn’t mean I had had to yell back at her, though, feeling like it might be time to pull the dragon out of her cave. “What?”
She kicked the volume up couple of notches. “Nori! Did you remember it?”
Grinning, I shook my head as I began to move groceries from the box to the slim strip of available counter. “Can’t hear you!” And I didn’t hear the heavy sigh, but I absolutely felt its mental echo. A moment later, two thumps marked feet on the floor, and a long sequence of barely softer noises traced her to the top of the stairs. I listened for the indrawn breath as she hesitated there, but the footsteps continued down the stairs, through the hall, and into the kitchen doorway.
I pointed vaguely at the three flat packages of seaweed wrap on the counter, enough for at least five batches of sushi. “Nori’s by the rice cooker.” She stalked across the linoleum to verify I’d gotten the right brand then whirled on me, her scowl turning my grin into a laugh. “If you heard me, why did you make me come downstairs?”
“Would I have gotten my hug if I didn’t?”
Her mouth pressed flat, but I knew she was fighting a smile against the game. “I’m not hugging you.”
I shrugged. “That’s okay.” Before she could step out of the way, I snagged my daughter by one shoulder, gathered her in close and wrapped her in a bear hug she didn’t even try to escape from. After a moment of me rocking her back and forth, pretending she was a lot younger, Moriko’s arms slipped around my ribs, but I chose not to call her on the lie, letting her go after a few more seconds.
She moved quickly for the fridge, retrieving a large bowl of prepared sushi rice, but not without a quick glance at the cupboard beside the microwave before sliding the hidden cutting board out above the cutlery drawer. “You really should learn to take a list, you know. Half of these things weren’t on the list you quoted on the way of the door.”
“You were listening?” So early in the morning on a PD day, that surprised me.
Moriko rolled her eyes. “I’m always listening, but it’s a girl’s privilege to pick when she pays attention.” She started scooping rice onto her freshly-cleaned work surface. “Am I making enough for you?”
A nice offer, but I didn’t like sushi enough to make a meal out of it. The seaweed was the main problem. And the raw fish. And the seaweed wrapped around the rice and raw fish. But definitely the seaweed. And the raw fish. “Don’t worry about me. There’s still some leftover stuff I can turn into a stir fry or something.”
“How about if I do a few rice balls, too?”
I almost hugged her again, wondering if I could get her to do the miso paste and sake thing. There were green onions in the fridge. “As long as there’s no fish in the middle.”
Shaking her head, she reached for the nori. “And you lived in Japan for three years?”
I shrugged and stuffed a head of lettuce and four tomatoes into one of the veggie drawers. “There’s a lot more to Japanese cuisine than sushi, you know.” To be fair, at least to myself, I’d practically lived on ramen, exploring other options almost only when I was forced to socially until I met Hiroshi. She made sure that some of my best memories of the country were from our early dating and all of the bizarre things she made me choke down in the name of cultural exchange. She’d done far better, and been far more adaptable, coming back to Ottawa with me, and better still when we moved to Toronto after Moriko was born, getting closer to mom and dad. Both cities had enough cultural variety for her to find familiar foods when she needed to. Hiroshima had a little bit of North American fast food and not much else when I was there.
With everything pre-prepared, sushi and rice balls didn’t take long for Moriko to put together and arrange artfully on a serving platter. My culinary contribution to the early dinner was to clear and then set the table. Clearing mostly involved moving the pile temporarily, and to a spot even less convenient, if more confined. I’d have to take care of that later. Looking at the beautifully cut California and cucumber rolls, I found my throat getting little rough. Making sushi had been one of Moriko’s favorite things to do with her mother since before she’d been old enough to roll the bamboo. You’d still be proud, Hiroshi. I almost winced at the thought, wishing I could stop. I seemed to wish that a lot.
My daughter didn’t let the expression go on long. “You know, if you’re going to be mopey for the whole meal, I’ll just take a plate of sushi back up to my room.”
I met Mo’s gaze. “I’m sorry, darling, I just–”
“You just miss her, I know.” Tears glistened in her eyes. “So do I, but I’m trying to do stuff to remember her, not just to sit around. Why do you think we have sushi three times a week?”
I swallowed, no idea what to say, how to respond. Still, my daughter needed me to say something. “We’re a lot alike, Mori, but we’re not the same person. To you, she was a constant fixture in your life, but for me she was the person I’d chosen to spend mine with, she was supposed always be there.”
Holding up a hand, I swallowed again. Oh, there were definitely still tears left. “Please let me finish. Together, we made you, and you’re not your mother any more than you’re me, but, in a way, you’re all I have left of her except memories. You’re an incredible young woman and I’ve loved every minute watching you grow up so far, but sometimes I look at you and my heart aches, because we both have to go through life without your mother.” I licked my lips. “And then–”
“And then there’s Grandma and Gramps. I miss them, too.”
I nodded. “Of course you do, but we feel that differently too. For me, it’s closer to how you feel about your mom. They’re, they were, my parents. I’m technically an orphan now, I suppose. They raised me, helped me become the man your mother fell in love with. And they’re gone, too. So I’ve got some idea how you feel and you’ve got some idea how I feel. It’s not the same, because we’re not the same, but I do understand.”
She reached across the table and grabbed my hand. “All so close together. I get it, dad, I really do. It’s just–”
“It’s just I’m supposed to be the strong one, and I’m not right now, not enough. I know.” I wished I was, at the same time I wished I could just let myself go, let myself feel. I wanted to mourn a lot more openly.
A tear escapes her right eye. The left looked like it might follow. “No, that’s not it. Sometimes when you’re expecting mom, or even when you’re looking at me, remembering mom, it’s like you go somewhere else and I’ve lost both of you.”
Pushing my plate back, I hook one foot around the leg of Moriko’s chair and drag her close enough for another hug. “I’m sorry, sweet. But I’m here, even when I’m staring off in the space, remembering something, or nothing. And I’m not going anywhere. I’m not leaving you.”
“Mom didn’t plan to go anywhere either.”
I don’t have any kind of response for that other than to hold her tighter.
If the man holding the quarterstaff out to me looked like anything, he looked like a comic book Viking of some kind. Horned helmet, bright blue tunic covering heavy steel armor, and, of course, a red beard. I squinted at what I thought were bits of gold in the beard, deciding they might hold small braids in place. Yes, definitely Viking, but not all that realistic. Plate mail and horns both seemed out of character for historical accuracy, not that I really knew much about the period. High school history was a long time ago, and there hadn’t been a lot of dark ages involved since my teacher had been too eager to get to the Renaissance.
“Well, are you going to take it or not?”
Of course, who was I to argue with such a vivid dream, especially when it spoke in flawless, unaccented English?
I held out one hand. “I suppose. What do I need it for?” The smooth wood smacked into my palm, feeling warm and firm and as if it belonged there. I dropped my gaze to the point where my other hand reached out with a mind of its own to wrap around the staff, neatly dividing it into three nearly equal sections.
“To stop me from hitting you with mine.” A second staff, which I hadn’t seen in the Viking’s other hand, arced around to attempt an impact with the side of my head. I jerked my own staff to that side to block it, saving the side of my face from the blow, barely. The two lengths of wood clacked together almost gently, but the strength behind the strike pushed me into two stumbling steps. My whole body vibrated and as I caught myself from going farther, I felt the impact of the stone under my feet through the soles of what looked very much like my own running shoes.
“Wow.” I’d read something once, an article about lucid dreaming, but I remembered that being more about how to take control of your actions in the dream, to make it what you want it to be instead of whatever your subconscious happened to throw up for the night’s entertainment. But this felt like something completely different. The strain felt real, the stumbling felt real, the staff and the ground felt real.
I wondered if I’d remember much when I woke in the morning. That would be a nice change.
“You have fair reflexes, but only fair. They will need to improve.” He stepped back a little, placing his hands in the same positions as I’d put mine, but I saw his right hand faced up and his left hand down. “This time, put your opposite foot out and back to brace against the blow. No more than the width of your shoulders. And try to block as close to the middle of the staff as you can.” The Viking swung again and the clack echoed in my head. His left foot slid forward on about a forty-five-degree angle and I followed his instructions as best I could. This time the impact only rocked me a little. I found himself grinning at what a strange dream this was.
“Better. Again. Now, make the contact real. Put some strength behind the block. Every block is also a strike.”
I pushed hard on the next attack, trying to knock the staff from my imaginary opponent’s hands. The impact made both palms sting and I tried to adjust my grip as I congratulated myself at stopping the strike even farther away but the pleasure turned to alarm very quickly as the Viking pulled a step back, swung over his head with both hands, and aimed a strike at my left ear.
I almost made it.
Ears ringing, especially the left, I looked up from the dirty stone floor, or maybe the ground of a cobblestone courtyard. My vision was a little fuzzy at the moment, but it hadn’t occurred to me to wonder if we were inside or out. I blinked a few times and found my opponent standing there, leaning on his staff, waiting. “What the hell kind of dream is this?” I’d never been so alert in a dream or had one so full of sensation. Particularly pain.
And I’d just changed my mind about liking it.
“The kind where you learn both new things you can do and things about yourself you didn’t know.” The Viking held a hand out to help me up and I accepted with a grimace. I used the same one hand to rub the side of my head when he let go. “What did you just learn?”
“That you’re a sneaky prick.”
The man cocked an eyebrow. “Really?” He grinned. “An interesting lesson. I wonder, could it be perhaps the expressed more generally?”
I sighed. Obviously, I wasn’t waking up anytime soon, so decided I might as well play along with my subconscious and give it a few seconds’ thought. “Maybe that my opponent won’t always attack in a way that it’s most convenient for me.”
Nodding, the Viking tapped a finger on his staff. “Say rather ‘usually’ and you’ll be closer to the mark. Your opponent will strike where and when he senses a weakness to be exploited. Your objective is to present weaknesses for him that are not even as you search for his.”
“Easy to say.”
The big man dragged a hand through his beard as he spun the staff several times in front of him with the other. “Very. But everyone must begin at the beginning, and you will learn quickly because you must.” His face turned serious again and before I could question the statement, I found myself blocking another strike from the right, this time at shoulder height, and glad I’d kept the other hand back on the staff.
My opponent–Sparring partner? Teacher?–nodded. “Good. Now, I will strike at you three times in succession to the head or body. Block each. Then, attempt to do the same to me and we will see what to learn next.”
I had no idea what might be learned from swinging stick at someone, especially when I almost never remembered anything from my dreams in the first place, but it wasn’t like I had anything else to do until I woke up, and the dream didn’t show any sign of fading into something else.
Plus, I owed him for the sneak attack.
Keeping my eyes on the Viking’s face, I set my feet and waited for the first strike.
Did I used to hate Mondays so much?
Rocking back and forth in the subway, staring at a spot on the window six inches above someone’s head, a man who looked really young to be that bald, I tried to avoid even potentially interacting with anyone. Recognizing in myself a lack of desire for human contact, I though back to commutes over the past decade or so and eventually had to admit that I had, in fact, always hated Mondays, probably nearly as much as I did now, and for most of the same reasons.
I didn’t hate my job, but it had been at least a year since I’d really liked it, and I absolutely resented how much time per week it took me away from my daughter. These days, I did have things to dislike about work, the odd sideways glances, the awkward conversational pauses as people wondered if they’d just reminded me of something better left forgotten, the knowing looks and expressions of sympathy from coworkers I barely knew but who obviously knew exactly what I was going through because they’d had to bury their pet hamster in a shoebox last year. Much as I liked my boss and enjoyed the work I was doing, well, more or less, I’d already started looking for other positions or new jobs I could do from home.
That idea seemed ideal, at least on paper, assuming I could find something generating an appropriate income. I’d set my own hours and always be available when Moriko needed me. Plus, it would get me away from all of those pesky people, both at the office and between there and home. I supposed could eliminate a big chunk of the second one by driving to work more often, but parking was ridiculous downtown and it would probably add hours to my week.
I felt my lip twitch, threatening a smile. I mostly liked people, I just wanted to be left alone for a while. A couple of years would be nice. The idea occurred to me that I could accomplish the same goals, changing the faces if not getting rid of them, by taking an overseas job again, but doubted Moriko would have any interest in moving outside of her school’s zone. Scaling back my expectations, I wondered if just moving to a new company would do the trick. Keep it up and you’ll talk yourself into a change of cubicle being enough, even though you know it won’t be.
The overhead speaker mangled the conductor’s voice the same way it did every morning, and the peculiar set of syllables it released now had been recognizable as my stop since sometime before Moriko’s tenth birthday. Along with some subset of the faceless herd, I shifted my weight towards the doors, shuffling forward so those outside the train couldn’t start getting in before I managed to get out. A tiny victory, celebrated every morning, probably by millions, with some variation on the silent phrase, no, you have to wait. Not that I felt like celebrating, and that seemed to apply to my whole life these days. Bringing me to the thought of what I could possibly do for Moriko’s next birthday that wouldn’t totally destroy her mood for a week after.
I sighed out loud and several people nearly looked at me, but since I probably seemed despondent rather than aggravated, turned their offset glances away again. Mental processes were very easy to read even given the blank expressions. Not their problem. But it is yours. One day at a time, okay, Jerry?
The crowd from my train merged into the station crowd, bits of it slowly breaking off to the various stairs, escalators, and tunnels leading sooner or later to the surface world. In my case, a few cold raindrops greeted my ascent to the street, bits of cool damp against my cheeks. I had a hard time understanding some people’s aversion to the subway, unless it had to do with the rush-hour crowds. Having a stone roof over your head was comforting, and the crowds never got too oppressive as long as the air circulation kept up, but I could admit I might feel differently in a city prone to earthquakes.
A block and a half and two corners later, I stood in front of the modest ten-story building that partially served as Northern Books’ offices, joined at the basement with a half dozen neighbouring buildings. Its conversion from a century-old garment factory had turned out nicely enough space, I supposed, but I missed the old warehouse out by the airport. Yes, I’d had to drive every day, but avoiding the main arteries it really hadn’t taken a lot longer than my current commute and I’d had a lot more time to myself. But, new owner, new offices. A lot of new things really. Maybe I should hold out for a package, but it didn’t seem likely almost six months after the so-called merger. I didn’t see where the company could make any more cuts in the office staff and still get things done, but I’d been surprised more than once already.
Some days, I followed the thought past that point, but most days were okay. Most days everything ran more or less smoothly in my workgroup. We ran reports, did data analysis on sales numbers, and fielded questions by phone and email from 211 retail outlets. Most days I went home on time and tried not to think too hard about the razor’s edge book retail worked on.
But if one day of the week had a higher chance of keeping me at the office late, it was Monday. Fresh sales data from the weekend let us re-forecast and adjust inventory models based on current trends as well as giving us access another full week of data for the forecasting models. More than any other day of the week, Mondays had extra numbers. I enjoyed those numbers, and all of the reports and summaries they let me create, but tried to remember how that helped convince me to shift into the book industry in the first place. Hadn’t I wanted more than just numbers? It seemed like they were all I had left anymore, professionally. Not exciting, barely interesting, just there to keep me occupied. As if I needed even one extra little thing to push me out the door. Somehow, somewhere along the line, I’d decided I was dissatisfied with my job and the rest of my thoughts had started to reinforce that. It might even be true.
Even through the mounting frustration, I noticed I was the only person walking up the steps, and as I reached the top I stretched out my hand for the handle. My eyes fell on the reflection of someone standing at the bottom of stairs, someone who certainly hadn’t been when I lifted my foot to move up the first one. Something made me not turn around, trying to study the almost-person, the vague, standing figure, through the indistinct and transparent reflection. My eyes kept sliding away as I tried to lock onto his features. Tall, thick, fuzzy, and possibly frowning. I couldn’t do any better.
When I blinked, the impassive figure disappeared. That’s not right.
I was still frowning, still hadn’t turned around, when a figure I hadn’t noticed climbing the stairs cleared her throat next to me. “We going to work this morning, Jerry? Or maybe just preventing anyone else from getting to their desks? Not that I mind, really, but I do like a paycheck and that usually means I have to work at least a little.”
I blushed as I turned to look at the newcomer. “Sorry, Tilly. I saw you coming and just decided to start daydreaming, I guess.” I stepped to one side, opening the door so she could go in first.
The smile she leveled on me stripped away my crusty mood. “Thank you, kind sir.” She took that last step, her warm dark eyes rising just a little above my own and, even in the cold, not quite spring air, I caught a tiny bit of floral perfume, no more than if I’d been sitting next to her in a meeting.
“Anytime at all, my lady.” The best rejoinder I could manage as she swished past, and I turned my head just far enough to see the spot where no one stood. A quick check didn’t pick out anyone on the street the right size and shape. Sure, life wasn’t hard enough right now. Let’s throw some hallucinations into the mix, too.
I caught up with Tilly just before she reached the elevator and rode up to the sixth floor with her.COLLAPSE