The Parting Gift

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I lay face down in the middle of Cobalt Lake, arms and legs splayed in the dead man’s float, waiting for my sister to die.

Annie hadn’t stirred when my father tried to rouse her this morning. My mother had hovered near her bedside, and the hospice nurse had lingered in the doorway, trying to be invisible but accessible. Annie had asked to die at home, near the lake.

Everything is as it should be, my parents had whispered to one another. I’d wanted to steamroll through the house, smash all their precious things, and scream, “How can you say everything’s as it should be? Annie’s dying!”

Rolling onto my back, I spit a plume of water at the sky. The clouds were thin and wispy. I searched for Annie’s face in the swirls. Had it happened? Was she up there? Was she watching me now?

Annie wasn’t afraid to die. Annie wasn’t afraid of anything. She wasn’t putting on a brave face either—I knew her better than anyone. She was positively not afraid. But the thought of her dying terrified me, the idea of being without her unfathomable. (A word she’d taught me.)

“Don’t be afraid,” she once told me. “I’ll mess up your hair when there’s no wind. Cast a shadow when you’re trying to lounge in the sun. Knock things off the counter. You just have to pay attention. You miss so much when you don’t pay attention, Ben.”

This was true; I had trouble focusing. I was the complete opposite of Annie, who was calm and open. She attracted things to her, weird, exotic, and often creepy things.

Cryptids, she called them.

“Look past the water’s reflection, beyond the blue in the sky, between the trees,” she’d say, “that’s where the cool stuff hides, the things that watch without you knowing. Sometimes they’re even right out in the open.”

I recalled our last conversation three nights ago before her health had turned. We sat together on the front porch overlooking the lake, Annie wrapped in a blanket leaning next to me on the porch swing. It was a warm night with a full moon. The mournful voices of coyotes filled the air.

“Werewolves don’t exist, right?” I said, trying to mask the tremor in my voice.

“Not anymore, but bear-wolves do,” she said. “They’re an entirely different creature, though.”

I’d heard this story many times. Annie had spotted a creature three years ago on the southern ridge of Mount Ascension with a thick black coat, bulky, bristled shoulders, and a flattened skull like a hyena. It had lifted its nose to the sky and released a cry—half growl, half scream—that made her drop to her knees, trembling.

The Shunka Warakin, she’d called it, and that night she’d made me repeat the name over and over again until I had it memorized. “Knowing its true name will protect you if you run into it in the wild.”

“Okay. Shun-ka War-a-kin,” I repeated, emphasizing each syllable. I didn’t understand how this would protect me, but I wasn’t taking any chances. We sat in silence for a few minutes, listening to the howls. I recalled a troubling dream from the night before, full of pale, fanged creatures. “Hey, are a vampire and a succubus the same thing?”

She rolled her eyes. “Come on! You know neither one is real.”

“I know. I just like to say succubus. Succubus,” I drawled, and Annie giggled.

“You’re such a weirdo,” she said. “Hey, did you know in Australia they call their version of the Yeti a Yowie?”

“Nope, but those are fake, too, right?” I held back a smile.

“No! Yowies and Yetis are real.” She sighed and rubbed her bald head. In the soft glow of the porch light I saw the skin on the back of her hand was papery thin, the network of blue veins visible. “They’ve just got a different name because they’re from a different country.”

I laughed. “I know. I was just kidding. They’re related to your beloved Sasquatch.”

“Correct!” She smiled at me. “The Sasquatch is an amazing creature.”

Of her stories, my favorite was when she’d seen a Sasquatch hunkered at the edge of the lake eating a fish.

“Are you sure it wasn’t just a moose?” I teased, and she punched me in the arm.

“Of course not. It stood upright, and there was no dewlap!”

The creature had been female, seven feet tall, mammary glands bloated, which grossed me out but excited Annie.

“I wondered where her babies were. How many were there? One? Two? More? That would be something to see!” she said. As if seeing the adult Sasquatch wasn’t enough.

The Sasquatch had regarded her with the cool, disconnected gaze of a mule deer as it munched on the Kokanee salmon it had pulled from the lake. It appeared neither frightened nor intrigued by Annie as she watched from her bright red kayak. The creature’s fur was sable tipped in dark chocolate, eyes round and amber with black flecks, the snout protruding and pale. Its nostrils had flared as it’d lifted its nose to the sky to sample Annie’s scent. It lingered on the shoreline for an hour before it sauntered up the hillside and disappeared into the brush.

“I wanted her to turn and look back at me, but I was a non-issue, an ordinary thing, like a cricket or a chickadee. That’s the trick to attracting the Cryptids, Ben. Act aloof. That puts them at ease. You can’t come off as a threat or be afraid. If you are afraid, the good creatures will steer clear and more sinister ones will find you.”

I had laughed (albeit nervously) at that, but Annie hadn’t cracked a smile.

“Seeing the Sasquatch was cool, but not a big deal,” she continued. “After all, in Montana we see wild animals every day, animals that a regular person won’t see in their whole lifetime: grizzlies, wolverines, and mountain lions. It didn’t surprise me to see a Sasquatch; the wilderness surrounding the lake is the ideal habitat for them.” Her eyes were dreamy at first, but then she stopped and looked at me. “It’s best we keep the Cryptids secret anyway. People will just kill them. Seems like the majority prefers to kill what they don’t understand. Kill first and ask questions later. It’s pathetic.”

I nodded as she spoke. I wanted to believe she had seen these incredible things: the Sasquatch, the Shunka Warakin, and the countless other finned and furry anomalies she had described over the years, but it was hard for me. Annie was a credible source, but I needed proof before I believed in something. She had the ability to trust her instincts without definitive evidence, and displayed a pure confidence in her views that swayed others to believe rather than question the most mysterious ideas. This ability attracted not only the unusual creatures, but humans, as well.

She was special. She made everyone around her feel special.

So why is she dying? I swiped a tear from my cheek and boosted myself up into the kayak, sliding into the seat. I refused to believe it. Just like I didn’t really believe in the Sasquatch and the Shunka Warakin. It was all… bullshit! I slapped the water and my reflection broke into squiggly lines.

From the corner of my eye I saw a dark shape zip past, followed by a loud splash. I whirled around in the kayak. Had someone thrown something at me? I was far from shore and there were no other boats on this part of the lake. A bird may have landed in the water, but the thing I’d seen hadn’t been the gawky shape of a pelican coming in for a landing.

I scanned the rippled surface of the water until I spotted something bobbing about fifty yards away. The sun drifted out from behind the clouds, setting the water ablaze in blinding white diamonds. I slipped on my sunglasses and paddled over to the object.

It was too round to be a bird. I looked up, scanning the sky for raptors; perhaps one had dropped its prey, a rabbit or a squirrel. Stranger things had happened out here. But other than the clouds, the sky was spotless.

The object nodded on the surface of the water, the sun glinting off its pock-marked, metallic surface in brilliant arrays. As I pulled up next to it, I saw a jagged scorch mark on the surface. I reached for it and it sank, slipping through my fingers. I peered into the water, trying to locate it below the surface, but the sun’s reflection was dazzling. The object popped up a second later an arm’s length away.

“Annie?” I said. A combination of sadness and shame washed over me. It was a piece of junk that had fallen from a plane or satellite or something. It wasn’t alive! It certainly wasn’t Annie.

I reached over and pulled it from the water before it could sink again. The weight of it surprised me, and the kayak nearly tipped sideways as I hauled it into my lap. Steam rose from the orb’s rough surface as I inspected it, the exterior warm against my palms.

I eased it into the netted storage hammock slung across the front compartment of the kayak, watching it rock back and forth as I paddled home, praying it wasn’t a parting gift from my sister.

Annie was hanging in there. I could tell because the nurse still lingered and my mother still hovered at the bedside, straightening the covers, plumping the pillows. They didn’t even notice as I passed by her room.

My father sat in the den staring at the television, a zombie. Yet another creature my sister insisted was fiction. But if she could have seen our father sprawled in the recliner, eyes glazed, not really watching the rerun of Cheers on the television, she would have agreed that zombies did exist and lived under our very roof. I didn’t hold the zombie thing against our parents. I didn’t want to process what was happening to my sister, either, but Annie had made me promise not to disappear. I couldn’t turn into the undead, no matter how tempting it was.

“Listen to me, Benjamin. When it happens, I’ll be standing right next to you, even when it doesn’t feel like it,” she had said, squeezing my hand. “If you start to get sad, remember that. I’m right here.”

I placed the orb on my bureau. The surface had dulled as it dried and the scorch mark appeared more pronounced. There was a deep ding in the middle of the burn—a wound—that I hadn’t noticed before, as if it had been struck by something hard.

“Space traffic,” I mumbled. Then I remembered a story Miss Jacobson had told us in English class about the man who had flown too close to the sun. The wax holding his feathers to his manmade wings had melted, causing him to fall from the sky. The story of Icarus.

The orb, my orb, didn’t have wings or wax that would melt, but I wondered if it had tried to take a short cut and had flown off course, ending up in Cobalt Lake.

Feeling suddenly exhausted, I sunk back onto my bed and pulled the purple afghan my grandmother had crocheted for Annie over me. I had taken it last night, wanting something of hers in my room. Maybe that’s why she hadn’t woken up this morning, because I’d stolen her afghan. I pressed it to my face; it smelled faintly medicinal, but I could also detect the sage incense that Annie burned to welcome the friendly spirits.

My head throbbed and a dull pain gnawed at my ribs. It was dinner time, but the pain wasn’t from hunger. I longed to sleep, and I realized then that I was now a we, and we must rest in order to heal.

“Icarus,” I murmured, as I closed my eyes.

I woke in my darkened room, hours later, with an intense urge to collect things. Images clicked through my mind, random objects with no commonalities: a kitchen sponge, a sprig of basil, a candle, copper wires, pine needles, matches, honey, a nickel, toenail clippings, a potato, and a feather.

I rose from bed and peeked out my door, then tiptoed down the hall. I could hear snoring through the open door of my parents’ bedroom. Annie’s door was cracked, and I could see my mother slumped in the chair next to her bed. In the dim glow of the nightlight, I couldn’t tell if she was sleeping. I wondered if the nurse had gone home.

I paused outside Annie’s room for a moment. Please wake up! I thought. I have something to show you. Something amazing! I know you’d want to see it. Don’t you want to see it, Annie?

The silence of her room answered me.

I returned to my room a short time later, cradling the items I had collected. An image popped up in my mind and using this to guide me, I arranged them in a circle around Icarus: the candle next to the feather; the basil leaves torn and fragrant, placed next to a dollop of honey; curls of copper wire next to matches torn from the book; the other items placed in thoughtful juxtaposition. This was how Icarus wanted them. When I stepped back, a voice echoed in my head:

Rest, it said.

I sprawled on the bed and closed my eyes, visualizing the border I had constructed around Icarus, wondering if it would save him.

I dreamed of paddling on Cobalt Lake, but the water had become shallow, polluted with fetid algae. Carp slurped at the foam-slicked surface of the water and bumped the bottom of my kayak, trying to flip it over. An osprey watched me from a nest lodged in a skeletal tree at the water’s edge. The vast wilderness that had once surrounded the lake was gone, replaced by an arid plain.

Terror washed over me. Something bumped the kayak again and I looked into the water. A woman stared at me from below the surface, a swirl of dark hair around her face. She grinned, revealing needle-sharp incisors.

“No!” I said, jumping back. “Annie says you’re not real!” The kayak tipped as my weight shifted, dumping me overboard. The carp swarmed as I entered the water, eager to adhere to my skin, and the succubus grabbed my bare wrist and pulled it toward her jagged, gaping mouth.

I woke with a start, bolting upright, clutching my right wrist to my chest. Beyond my bedroom window, the world was still dark, yet my room was bathed in warm light. I looked at my bureau and gasped.

Icarus was no longer a dull, dead ball. It had cracked into two halves and now sat shrouded in an opulent golden light. The light sparkled in one of its halves, and my skin rippled with gooseflesh, the sensation not entirely unpleasant. Its other half lay face-down on the bureau, scorch mark exposed.

A form took shape from the light—a creature with a single emerald eye. At least, I think it was an eye. A spray of feathery antennae sprouted from the crown of its head and the wedge-shaped torso coursed with hundreds of short, tube-like appendages, like those of a sea anemone. They fluttered and vibrated with a soft hum, as if the creature floated inside the vessel.

Then, as quickly as the form materialized, it dissolved into a quivering weave of shifting jeweled dots—more shadow than substance, more light than body. I rubbed my face with my hands. Was I still caught up in dreams? I smacked my cheeks with my palms, the sound loud in the quiet room. I pinched my forearm and winced. I was definitely awake.

“Annie?” I whispered. It would be so like her to come to me as something like this, to freak out her nervous brother. Yet there had been no commotion by my parents—no zombie awakening—so I assumed she was still alive in the next room. So what was it, then? What had I brought home? I fought back the twinge of fear that cropped up in my chest, the cry that rose in my throat.

Annie’s voice rang out in my head. Don’t be scared, Ben.

“Annie! Where are you? Are you… okay?” I whispered. The halo of light around Icarus’s halves brightened at the sound of my voice, but Annie did not answer.

“I’m not scared, Annie,” I said, crawling to the edge of my bed, closer to Icarus. “I’m not.”

Tendrils of light swirled around the two pieces of its ship, circling the items I had collected. They inspected and sorted my careful arrangements, weaving the copper wire into a thick braid that melted, the liquid absorbed by the kitchen sponge, which tripled in size so it touched the nickel. The nickel softened and mixed with the honey, pine needles, and toenail clippings, creating a brilliant silver balm that tracked around the ring, intertwining with the remaining objects until each one transformed into molten light connected in a seamless border around Icarus. The air above my bureau glowed turquoise, gold, and sapphire as the tendrils smoothed the extracted compounds from the radiant perimeter over the damaged half of the ship, concentrating on the scorched gouge.

I sat at the edge of the bed, transfixed. While Icarus worked, I told it about Annie. I doubt it understood me, but it felt good to talk about her.

“She’s in the room next to us, she’s really sick. I sure wish she could see you!” I said, smiling. “You’re better than Sasquatch and the Shunka Warakin combined. And the coolest part? I found you first!”

It did not acknowledge me as I spoke. Like Annie with the Sasquatch, I was a non-issue. No threat.

Until I tried to touch it.

I hopped off the bed and went to the bureau, reaching for the sparkling edge of the vessel—I couldn’t help it, it was so beautiful!—but as soon as my fingers made contact with the surface, intense pain shot through my hand. I cried out just as tentacles of amber light burst from the center of one of the halves and curled around my fingers. The pain evaporated, and I froze, feeling the creature’s attention upon me.

Don’t touch, it said.

“Sorry,” I croaked, blinking back tears and cradling my hand. I sank back on the bed and watched it work, telling no more stories.

When I woke it was barely light outside. Icarus was a whole orb again, now with no imperfections. Its surface glowed dimly gold and thrumming filled the room. It sounded like it was… purring.

And I knew it was time for it to go.

But Annie hasn’t seen you yet.

It didn’t matter. I would tell her when she woke up. She would believe me.

I reached for Icarus but paused, remembering the pain from the night before. “Is it okay to touch you?”

Its surface brightened, then dimmed, which I hoped was a yes. I lifted it from the bureau and moved to listen at my bedroom door. My father was still sawing logs across the hall; my sister’s room was quiet.

I hugged Icarus to my chest and left the house.

I stood on the dock and watched Icarus float upward into the weak light of early morning. Just like that, its golden glow faded and it was gone. I heard a noise from the house, somewhere between a shriek and a shout. The zombies had awoken.

My sister was dead. Just like Icarus. Gone.

I looked up at the sky, too numb for tears just yet, searching for signs of Icarus. It had tricked me and stolen my sister. I knotted my hands into fists and paced the dock. How could I have been so stupid? Perhaps if I hadn’t helped it heal, it wouldn’t have taken Annie with it. I crouched at the end of the dock and considered hurling myself into the cool water, so I could sink to the bottom like a stone.

I decided at that moment that I would no longer believe in anything.

The screen door banged against the house. My father called to me. “Ben? Hey, buddy.”

“Down here, Dad.”

“Can you come up to the house? It’s important,” he said.

Go away! I wanted to scream. I already know! I already know she’s gone!

But my dad didn’t go away; he walked down the gentle slope of our front lawn and sat next to me on the dock. He pulled off his shoes and socks, slipped his feet into the water, and sighed. Then he put a hand on my shoulder and squeezed.

I refused to look at him. Then I heard a strange noise, a raspy, hitching sound, and I turned toward him. His shoulders were quaking, his other hand pressed to his face. I’d never seen my father cry.

“It’s okay, Dad,” I said. “She’s right here with us. She promised. And you know she never lied.”

“Ben…”

“And I know everything is true about the Sasquatch and the Shunka Warakin, and did you know they call the Yeti a Yowie in Australia?” I took a quick, hitching breath.

“Son… “

“I know it’s all true because I found Icarus in the lake and I helped him heal, then he took Annie into space with him, but that’s okay, because she always wanted to go to the moon. That’s how I know she’s sitting right here with us. You just have to pay attention. Pay attention and you’ll be able to tell too… “

I couldn’t keep my voice down. “And she wasn’t afraid, so we can’t be afraid either. So I’m not. I’m not afraid! Do you hear me, Annie? I’m not afraid!”

I was standing now, crying, stomping my feet on the deck, flailing my arms. “You had no right to take her, Icarus! No right! I fixed you!” I yelled at the sky. “I helped you heal! Why did you take her from me? I hope you fall! I hope you crash again and smash to pieces!”

My dad jumped to his feet and caught me in a bear hug. “Ben, Bennie… stop. Listen to me now.” He stepped back, put his hands on my shoulders, and looked into my eyes, his expression fierce, all traces of zombie evaporated. “Annie’s awake.”

I stared at him.

“Did you hear what I said? Annie’s awake,” he repeated. “She shouldn’t be, but she is.”

“Annie’s awake,” I parroted back.

Yes,” he said, “and as soon as she woke, she asked for you.” When I didn’t respond, he squeezed my shoulder. “Ben? You okay?”

“I thought she had… ” I looked up at the brightening sky, then back at my dad. His brows were knitted together, his lips pressed in a firm line. I nodded. “Yeah, Dad. I’m okay.”

I did not need to throw myself into the lake. I was okay. Icarus had given Annie back to me, the ultimate reward for allowing myself to feel one simple thing.

Belief.

As we walked back to the house, an animal shrieked somewhere in the woods, shredding the quiet air.

I think it was a coyote, but it could have been anything.

end article

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Hall Jameson

About Hall Jameson

Hall Jameson is a writer and artist who lives in Montana with her husband and an assortment of other furry and feathered critters. Her work has appeared in over seventy print and online publications. When she’s not writing stories or taking photographs, Hall spends her time kayaking, hiking, and cat wrangling.