Friday, October 25, 2019

A Divine Spark by A. Elizabeth Herting

Gentle giant Zain P Alexander lives for the past in his quiet little antique store, until the past begins to haunt him; by A Elizabeth Herting.

It was the eyes that clinched it. He was totally in love.

Perfectly rounded lids with just a slight flare at the corners, a thick layer of wispy dark lashes on both top and bottom decorating them in a most alluring fashion. Each lash was charmingly turned up at the edges in an effect that Millennials and Instagram stars only achieved with falsies and copious amounts of caked-on mascara. Zain couldn't say that her eyes were exactly symmetrical. The right one drooped ever so slightly below the left, giving her a bemused expression. Captivating, but certainly not beautiful in any modern sense of the word. In a selfie-obsessed culture, she'd be mocked for her shortcomings, but Zain knew better. He, of all people, understood there was a divine spark in imperfection. He'd been living it his entire life.

Of course, that singular imperfection might have been the angle of the shot or a careless turn of the head. There were no "do-overs" back in the day, it was all serious faces and drawn out poses. What one couldn't escape was the deep, all-encompassing color of her eyes. Even captured in soft sepia tones, Zain could see they were of the purest, richest brown, with a generous touch of amber around the edges. Liquid gold.

Intelligent. Playful. Wise. Loving. Sad.

That last thought broke him from his reverie as the store bell chimed. Zain jumped up in alarm, grabbing the feather duster in an attempt to appear busy.

"Hey, Buddy! Do you have any records from the 1970s... oh... shit!"

Zain knew it was too late, it was always too late. He took a deep breath, counted to ten.

"Dude! How tall are you?"

"Just shy of eight and a half feet. How may I help you?"

"I'm... um..."

"Hello, 'Um.' I'm the proprietor of 'Moodscapes, Antique Emporium,' Zain P. Alexander at your service! But don't ask me what the P stands for, that is strictly reserved for paying customers only."

"I... uh..."

"I have a ton of original '70s vinyl right over here..."

Zain expertly steered the stunned man to the back of the store. The guy had to be six-two at least and he only came up to Zain's chest. He knew how jarring his appearance was. The next question would undoubtedly be about what condition made him this way, was he born a giant like that poor schlub in the Guinness Book, or some variation thereof.

"Nope, nothing wrong with me at all except for my clothing bills. Gotta order everything custom made, even T-shirts. How d'ya like that? Parents are both under five-foot-eight, I was just born lucky! Oh, and no basketball. Never was my jam."

"What? Oh, OK..."

"Here they are, sir. '70s on the left and '80s on the right. Rather poetic placement, don't you think?"

Zain didn't wait for an answer, he'd had enough fun with the guy. He couldn't blame anyone for being flummoxed at his appearance. In addition to his fearful height, Zain was blessed with a shock full of unruly, bright red hair and hundreds of obnoxious freckles. He was incredibly lanky, almost skeletal, with impossibly long limbs flailing about every which way like a giant spider. An enormous Adam's Apple completed the ensemble quite nicely. That is, if one had a preference for spotted, ginger giants. If he didn't have a passion for old things, he could've made out quite nicely on the freak show circuit. Right next to the bearded lady, now wouldn't that be a sight! Maybe we'd marry and have freakishly tall, red-bearded Yeti children.

A gentle pat on the customer's back and Zain left him to browse in silence. He crossed the store in three big steps and settled himself back in front of the old portrait. It sat in an easel, mounted on a large, pale green frame decorated with swirling patterns and a few intricately carved birds. Zain guessed it to be from the 1880s or 1890s when unabashed opulence was king.

She wore a shimmering white gown that glowed in the shot, giving her an ethereal appearance. As ridiculous as he knew he was being, Zain could feel his heart accelerating as he reached out to touch her face. A golden locket hung around her slender neck and he found himself fervently wishing he could reach back through time and open it. Maybe get a clue to her identity, for there was no marker. The portrait was one in a large lot of items he'd won in the last trade auction. He had no way of knowing where she even came from or why anyone would want to rid themselves of her stunning visage.

"Ike and Tina. That's my jam. Sorry about before, man. You must get that a lot, I didn't mean to be a jerk. Name's Jack Scola."

"Think nothing of it, Jack! I even freak myself out from time to time."

"That your grandma or something? I love these old-time pictures."

"Alas, no. The lady remains an enigma, I'm afraid. My grandmother lives in Poughkeepsie and sends me pink knitted tissue box covers every Christmas."

"So you going to tell me what the 'P' stands for? I've got my wallet right here..."

"Music to my ears, Jack. Come, walk out with me and I'll tell you as I lock up for the evening."

"You sure you're not into basketball, Zain P? I'm on a rec league with some buddies and they'd really love to meet you. Beer's on me!"

"Ah, Mr. Scola, I like you, I really do, and I like beer, but trust me when I say that you and your esteemed buddies would not want me anywhere near a court."

"Hey, it was worth a shot! I couldn't live with myself if I didn't at least try."

"Know what, Jack? Today's your lucky day. We just happen to be having an Ike and Tina Turner fire sale, buy one get one free."

"Well, like the old movie says, Zain P. Alexander, I think this is going to be the beginning of a beautiful friendship."

"Here's looking at you, Jack. Now about that 'P'..."

And just like that, for the first time in many moons, Zain P Alexander made a friend.



Zain woke up in a cold sweat. He'd been running with the mysterious lady on a foggy cliff overlooking the ocean, a Heathcliff to her Cathy. She glided along gracefully, just out of his reach. Her voice was lower than he'd imagined, earthy and passionate as she playfully ran away from him. A chill ran up his spine as he heard her laugh was a touch too bright, tinged with hysteria. She taunted him with her daring, careening wildly towards the brink.

"Philemon, darling! Over here!"

He threw himself after her, but it was too late. She reached the cliff and hurled herself over in a terrifying swan dive, laughter trickling away into silence. The silence of the grave.

"No!" he screamed in agony, "I don't even know..." the dream disintegrated all around him, "your name..." he whispered into the dark.

Zain climbed down the rickety old stairs from his apartment to the store, ducking as much as possible. He'd been lucky finding a place where he could work and live simultaneously, staying hidden in the past. And you really can't beat the commute! It was just past two am. He might as well begin cataloging the new items from the last estate sale. Ah,who am I kidding? I'm going to see her...

Zain turned the key in the lock and stopped cold, the hair rising on his long forearms. What on earth? He tentatively stepped over the threshold, locking the door behind him, and reached for his old Louisville Slugger behind the counter. He'd had several break-ins in the last couple years. Mainly desperate drug users raiding the till, which is why Zain was careful about how much cash he had. He cared more about the antiques than the fifty-odd dollars he kept for emergencies. Hell, he'd give it to them if they asked. Zain never had much use for money, just wanted to be left alone.

"Alright, come out slowly. I don't want to call the police, you can have the cash but you need to leave right now!"

He walked deeper into the darkness until he came to her portrait. A thin line of red trickled down from her eye down to her chin, pooling onto the floor. Crimson as blood, it turned his imaginary love into a sick, vampiric spectacle. Adrenaline shot through his veins. What kind of monster would deface her in such a way? Zain was not a violent man, always taking great pains to avoid any conflict, but this was a step too far. His hands tightened around the bat, itching to strike. Zain literally shook in bitter rage.

"Come out you son of a bitch! I'm not playing around with you!"

A sudden movement from the back of the store made Zain leap around. He lashed out with the Slugger, screaming in anger. An entire shelf of periodicals he'd spent all day shelving flew through the air as he swung. Every moment of humiliation he'd ever suffered coursed through his arms and into the bat in a violent rush.

Zain was vaguely aware that he was destroying his own store when a loud crash from behind snapped him out of it. Spinning around with the bat held out like a samurai's sword, Zain froze when he saw it. Blood-like smudges covered the background, bright red handprints staining the frame, but she was no longer there. The shot was completely, inexplicably blank.

"Peace, Philemon. There is no need for such theatrics, it is only me."

Her voice was musical, hypnotic. Disembodied, it seemed to go right through him, filling his chest with terrible longing. Weakly, the bat fell from his hand as he dropped to his knees.

"How do you know..." he whispered in fear, "my name?"

"I know everything about you, darling. Don't you remember?"

She floated down from the ceiling, a gossamer vision framed in moonlight. Her eyes really are edged with gold! I knew it! Zain had a sudden memory of an enormous harvest moon, gently swaying with her in his massive arms, light as a feather. She'd never minded his terrifying height even though she was barely over five feet tall with tiny hands and feet. Holding her was the only way they could meet face to face. She'd loosened his cravat, kissing him as her long chestnut hair escaped its pins and tumbled down around her shoulders seductively. They danced and danced, laughing as he joyfully spun her around, her feet never touching the ground.

"Emily Faye. The most beautiful girl in the world."

"Philemon, my own gentle giant. I've found you again. At long last."

Zain held his arms out to her, watching as she floated down. He could see right through her, she was a lovely, heartbreaking shadow. Her face, even with its imperfection, glowed with adoration. A divine spark, indeed. The way she is looking at me is truly divine. She touched him then, an icy blast of wind shooting through his body. As he enveloped her, a feeling of peace settled over him. A homecoming. Once a trickle, Zain could now see rivulets of blood flowing down her face. The entire back of her head was gone, cracked open like a ghastly melon.

"Why did you leave, dearest? I was never good enough for you! They would never approve of me... a freak of nature..."

"Hush, Philemon. I left the only way I saw fit, the only way they couldn't interfere. You were supposed to join me, remember? But you never came. And now I am here, my love, and we can finally be together..."

The cliffs where we would meet in secret, hiding, lest her family should discover us. The jagged rocks down below, my paralyzing fear. And the blood, so much blood...

"Forgive me, love. I am a coward..."

A geyser of crimson poured through the empty frame and onto the floor, it gushed and swirled all around them as she caressed his face, finally moving in for a kiss. The locket swayed gently around her neck, hypnotic, as Zain gave himself up to their long awaited reunion. Her eyes shone brightly through an overwhelming sea of red. Zain held fast to those beloved eyes, riding the crest of forbidden passion until finally spent, he mercifully knew no more.



Jack Scola was getting worried. Zain hadn't answered his calls for nearly a week and every time he went by the store, it was locked with the "Closed" sign in the window. Knocking on his apartment door did no good, the man had apparently vanished. Over the past month they'd become fast friends, Jack inviting him over to the house for dinner. Marcy made a casserole as Zain played tag with the kids in the yard and they tossed back a few cold ones.

He was the most interesting person Jack had ever met, aside from his unusual height. Fascinated by history, Zain charmed them all at dinner, talking about how every item in the store had a story, representing someone's life. For all his size, Zain had an excited, childlike wonder about him when he talked about his livelihood. Jack found that he really enjoyed his company.

Zain invited him back to the store. He'd put aside a pristine "Earth, Wind and Fire" album just for him. Jack was a sucker for '70s music, there really was nothing better. Marcy joked he had an "old soul." It certainly explained the connection with Zain.

Jack banged on the door, rocking it on his hinges hard enough to ring the bell on the other side. Silence. It was three days since he'd heard anything from him at all. Jack smashed his face against the dusty display window. Even in the dark, he could see items strewn everywhere across the floor. He knew Zain would never allow such chaos. "Moodscapes, Antique Emporium" may be cluttered and packed to the brim, but every bit of it was lovingly organized by his friend. Jack decided one way or another, he was getting into the store. Now.

Quickly dialing 911, Jack Scola wrapped his jacket tightly around his arm and smashed it through the ancient display window. Glass and dust assaulted him as he jumped through, and into the darkness beyond.



Philemon and Emily Faye danced and danced, twirling toward the precipice. Philemon knew the end was near, but this time, they would face it as one. The sky bellowed, earth shaking claps of thunder and lightning revealing his path as step by step, they frolicked to their doom.

"Darling, it's time. Take my hand. I will show you the way."

Philemon stretched out his long arm, its span nearly equaling her height. Her hand felt delicate in his own; a sparrow's wing, a whispered prayer. The rain swirled around them, pelting him sideways, but Philemon couldn't feel a thing. Only her. He swallowed hard, watching the sea churn and toss far below. Will I feel it? The water filling my lungs, my body strewn against the rocks, bloodied and broken, just like h...

Stop, Philemon. You must come, darling. Now.

A dark figure stepped out from the rain, hooded against the elements.

"Philo!"

No, my love, you mustn't...

Philemon broke away from her, turning to the phantom. Emily Faye began to shriek and moan, her lamentation rising up into the storm.

"Philo!"

Emily Faye pulled at him, his enormous body teetering on the brink. Her tears were tracks of blood, her eyes hollowed out and black as pitch. Lightning reflected itself in her golden locket as Emily Faye clawed at his neck, the earth finally giving way beneath his feet. His last sight was of the stranger craning over the edge, frantically calling out to him. Emily Faye suddenly vanished in his arms like a wisp of smoke, her maniacal laughter howling in his ears as Philemon closed his eyes and gave himself up to fate.



The pain was intense, a thousand tiny knives stabbing up and down his spine. The world spun violently just out of his vision, his throat was parched and raw. An intense white light assaulted him as he slowly pried one crusted eye open. I must be dead. Surely that is the only explanation?

"Philo?"

The man stood, framed in the doorway, smiling down at him. The beeps and clicks of the modern world surrounded them, nurses and doctors rushing past, snippets of a dozen different conversations.

"Of all the antique stores in all the towns in all the world, he walks into mine."

"Aw shucks, Philo, I bet you say that to all your customers!"

"Paying customer or no, I should never have divulged the secret of my middle name or given you leave to butcher it in such a fashion. And it's Philemon, by the way, as you well know!"

"You were fine when my kids were calling you Philo!"

"I like them better than you..."

"Fair enough. You had me pretty scared there, Zain P Alexander. You were very dehydrated, laid out on the floor, the store was ransacked. What in the hell happened? You were holding a necklace, had a death grip on it. When they pried it out of your hands, it was the only time you responded. If I hadn't found you in time..."

"It's all a little fuzzy to me, my friend. I owe you an enormous debt of gratitude. Tell me, do you have the necklace, perchance?"

Scola walked over to the table next to Zain's makeshift hospital bed. The orderlies had pushed two beds together to accommodate his gigantic frame. It would be comical if things weren't so dire. Jack plucked the locket from the table and dangled it out in front of him. I know this piece, where is it from? He searched his memory, it was there, just out of reach. Somehow, the locket had something to do with his life, an important decision he'd made. What the hell was it? Maddening!

"Wow, that looks like you! Is that your grandfather? Was he as tall as you?"

Zain held the locket open in his hand. The left side held a tiny, old-fashioned sepia portrait of what Zain could only describe as himself, even down to the wild hair and freckles. On the right, was an alluring lady, dark hair piled high with off-kilter, exotic eyes. Liquid Gold? What was her name? He felt a sudden jolt of recognition before it faded away into mild curiosity. Zain gently laid the locket back down onto the table, a puzzling artifact he would examine at a later date.

"I'm sorry, man, whoever it was that broke into the store destroyed your portrait, it was completely ripped apart."

"Portrait? I... well, yes. I'll get it all sorted out, this isn't the first time the store's been hit. I'll manage. I can't even recall which portrait it was?"

"We'll get it all sorted out. That is, if you could use a hand? Marcy's already planning your next week of dinners and I have some personal days to burn. I could help you clean up the store?"

Zain heard a faint note of girlish laughter, a brief flash of longing, followed by a rare glimmer of happiness at his new friend's words. When was the last time anyone wanted to help me out with anything?

"You know what, Jack Scola? Today just happens to be your lucky day. I've discovered I have a hankering to try basketball after all. That is, if you and your buddies will teach me?"

"No way! Are you serious?"

"As serious as the day Tina finally left Ike, Jack. Just as long as you promise never to call me 'Philo' again. 'Phil' will do quite nicely, if we must acknowledge the P. You know, make a fresh start of it and all that rot, once I escape the confines of this medical prison!"

"You've got yourself a deal, Phil, welcome to the team! And the beer will still be on me!"

"Music to my ears. Play it again, Scola, play it again!"

And just like that, for the first time in his life, Zain Philemon Alexander took his first step out of the past and into a blissfully unknown present.

3 comments:

  1. Very original with great characters...the protagonist is quite memorable, as is the mysterious lady from his mysterious past.

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  2. Engrossing tale. Great plot and interesting characters.

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  3. There’s a lot going on in this story, and it’s all deftly handled. Elements of supernatural, romance, friendship ... with an evolving character who ends up in a far better place than where he started. Very nice.

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