The Receptionist Is A Bitch: In Which I Am White

I had this idea a few years ago after I left healthcare to write a book about my experience working as a receptionist and office manager. Over the course of the almost four years I languished in healthcare, I completely transformed as a person from someone who genuinely loved her fellow human, believed there was kindness and altruism at the core of all souls, and who thought redemption arcs were an inevitability even for the most grumpy Gus, into someone who, well, this about sums it up:

plague

That book was going to be called The Receptionist Is A Bitch, but I never got around to it, so instead I’ll just share those stories here, if you don’t mind. I’m the bitch-ceptionist, by the way, despite being the nicest fucking person to every god damned asshole that walked through those doors (except the one time I did have to call the cops on someone, that’s another story) but I have been called pretty much every name in the book for one reason or another, and was even accused of killing someone. Another story.

But this is a more general intro, and yes, it’s about race because that’s pretty topical right now, and, Dear Reader, ya girl would like the views. Let me preface this by saying I’m very white. It’s an inescapable fact of my existence. There was a single instance when I was thirteen and starting at a brand new school after a summer where I got a little tan when a teacher asked me what “kind of Mexican” I was, but after assuring this man in a position of authority over me that I was simply Italian, and only half at that, I haven’t been confused for anything but Caucasian since.

I’m acutely aware of the privilege that comes with my race, especially since I can hold up this experience against being a woman, but that does lead me to my point here: white people tend to see other white people and assume they can say any completely insane thing that pops into their head about anyone who isn’t white that they think is a universal truth but is actually kinda (see: totally) racist.

It seems to be this weird assumption most have that people who share some characteristic with you must think just like you. If you’re one of those people who doesn’t think this way–if you know you’re bizarre and no one’s ever thought the same fucked up shit you’ve thought–you’re right. Stick with that. You will save a lot of other people a lot of second-hand embarrassment. Not yourself, of course, because when you tell these people who think everyone around them that’s physically like them shares the same thoughts as them that your opinions don’t coincide with theirs, you immediately become the pariah. But at least you won’t inflict pariah-hood on others.

This is the basis for the weirdness I encountered regularly. I was approached by lord knows how many white people who knew only one thing about me besides the color of my skin: I had to agree with them. If you’ve never worked in the service industry, well, congratu-fucking-lations, but if you have you would probably agree that the forced smiles and the “customer is always right” attitude is the worst part of it all. And people way too frequently want you to confirm incredibly racist, sexist, homophobic, awful things.

At Dr. Kapoor’s office, I was, for a while, the only white person. Indian physician, one black and one Puerto Rican medical assistant, and me. I like to believe we all treated every patient with the same amount of kindness and concern to their faces and the same amount of animosity and ridicule behind their backs, but we were only half of each of these relationships, and being the white employee, I too frequently heard the underlying racism of the patients masked as the aforementioned “we agree on this of course” thinking.

A good example is the innumerable times I was asked if Dr. Kapoor could speak English. I’d confirm yes, especially since I’m pretty sure the MCAT is only in English. No, no, they’d say, can she actually speak English? Not like, ya know, enough to ask where the library and the bathroom are when on holiday in the states, but enough to have a real conversation? Well, yeah, I’d tell them, I only speak English, and I have conversations with her every day. I don’t think you get what I mean, they’d tell me (and, Dear Reader, they were right, I didn’t, at least not the first couple times), so they’d clarify: is her accent thick? Am I going to be able to understand her?

I always ended up saying that I, personally, could understand her perfectly well, but sometimes her inner New Yorker would make her sound a bit more aggressive than she meant to be.

It’s not a totally unreasonable question for elderly people who are already hard of hearing and because of the fact you’re going to hear a lot of medical terminology you’re probably unfamiliar with, but having an accent certainly does not equate to not speaking the English language. And it was extra offensive coming from patients who could themselves barely eke out a sentence without two double negatives and a made up word like “tooken” or “irregardless.”

Sometimes the covert racism came from the strangest of places. Once I had a patient who came in for regular infusions in an otherwise empty waiting room. She was very nice and we all liked her a lot. While she was waiting to be taken back, she was chatting with me at the window and started talking about our black medical receptionist (positively, the assistant was legit great), and she says about my coworker that she’s “the nicest black lady I ever met.”

Sigh.

The patient wanted to know if that would be okay to tell said coworker. “So, here’s the thing,” I told her, very carefully, thinking it would be okay to try and have this conversation with the typically very empathetic and patient woman, “If you have to ask if it’s okay to say to her, that probably means it’s not.” I have to give her kudos for having the tiniest realization that that shit was at least potentially racist, and in my position of service provider, I didn’t really want to have that conversation, but then she pushed me. Are you sure? Yeah, I told her, totally sure. But really sure? Because it just seems like a nice thing to say to me! She was challenging me and getting really aggressive.

Where I sat behind the window to the waiting room, I could look to my left and see right into Dr. Kapoor’s office, hidden from the patient’s view, but she could hear everything that went on. I glanced over at her and she had put down her pen, kicked her feet up, and was willing me on with a huge grin that basically said good-fucking-luck. So I tried. “By saying she’s the nicest black lady you’ve ever met, you’re implying that all the other black ladies you’ve met were not or at least less nice, and that you totally separate your experience with black people from that with other people. Does that make sense?”

She was very skeptical of my explanation, and I suspect the conversation only ended because she was called back, but up until then she was super determined to get me to agree with her point of view despite asking for my opinion. It was very odd.

Maybe it doesn’t seem like a huge deal to you, and maybe it’s not, but just letting this stuff go, especially when someone shows at least a little bit of interest by breaching the question of “is this appropriate?” (which is incredibly rare) I think is a disservice to ourselves and each other. Also I didn’t want this patient going back there and saying something even worse right before the medical assistant stuck her with a needle.

I would hang up on anyone who insisted on calling Dr. Kapoor “Mrs. Kapoor” though. That shit don’t fly when you’ve sat across from the woman in her white coat and listened to her rattle off your lab results and diagnose you with a chronic immune disease that no other physician has been able to figure out for the past six years. This is your physician, and it’s doctor or bust, buddy.

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Preparing for Camp NaNoWriMo

Camp NaNoWriMo will be upon us in four short days. Dear Reader, I am psyched! Here’s how I’m getting ready.

Packed My Tent – Since moving, we’ve turned one of our two bedrooms into an office. I’ve got my desk in the back of the room, looking out onto it (so no demons or ghosts can sneak up on me, of course), and I’ve got a table set to my side holding important notebooks, my world’s “bible,” and my big desk calendar. That’s where I’ll be camping out.

Prepared For My Badges – I know I can write 30k words, I’ve done it before, and in the last couple weeks I’ve been ramping up how much writing I can fit into a day. Past success really is the best motivation which is kinda a bummer when you think about it because it’s a circle you almost can’t break into.

Practiced Relay Races – I’ve been working out regularly and intend to continue throughout camp. I find the time on the treadmill to be good for zoning out and letting my mind wander in my character’s world. Plus a healthy body can often keep a mind healthy, and the crazies are all too easy to set in on this journey.

Packed My Bags – And they’re mostly full of snacks. Seriously. I ordered two of those sample boxes from Amazon filled with protein bars and healthy-ish foods. Not that writing is a real physical thing, but if I’m on a roll, I don’t want to stop to make something, I just want to grab 200 calories of whey powder and chocolate and go! Similarly, I’ve been writing down recipes and cataloging my thoughts on them as they’re made and consumed, so I’ll be more decisive about what to cook for dinner. No hour of scouring the web for a recipe, everything will be planned out and set!

Prepared My Letters Home – My NaNo novel will be far from the only thing I’ll be working on in April, but one thing that I don’t want to compromise is Vacancy, so I’m getting every post for April queued up ahead of time. Just a warning, it gets pretty silly in the next couple installments .

But here’s where I’m a little stumped: Do I write out my camp itinerary? That is to say, should I outline? I’ve tried writing outlines in the past but usually I outline as I write so I can go back later and make changes without having to scroll through the whole document and guess at what I did. I typically get certain scenes in my head and have a good idea of where I want things to end up, with all the middle bits to be made up on the spot and heavily edited later. But has that served me well in the past? Or has that just lent itself to procrastinating? I know I succeeded (well, 30k succeeded) with NaNo last November because I had many of the episodes planned out, at least in general, ahead of time.

So my question here: do you outline? And if so, what’s your favorite method?

 

Vacancy – 1.12 – A Different Path

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

You can also listen to this episode here.

v 1.12 photo

“The bank,” Conrad pointed to the most average-looking building on Centaurea Street in Bexley. Squat and with a white brick facade, it stood atop a foundation taller than those around it, four pillars at the top of the marble stairs leading to its entrance. It felt like any bank from her own world, but it leaned slightly to the left.

The line inside also gave her a sense of familiarity, but one that wasn’t necessarily comforting. They took their place at its end, and Conrad turned to her, “So, tell me about your family.”

His voice had been low, but she looked around nervously anyway. The woman ahead of them had in earbuds as well as a tail, though that was inconsequential, and the fairies in front of her were bickering. At the head of the line, a father was trying to distract his three daughters with bubbles from the end of his pipe that didn’t seem to pop no matter how hard the children tried.

“My family?” she repeated.

“Well, you know about mine, the estrangement, death, boo hoo. And you’ve been subjected to Arista and Seamus. It’s only fair.”

Lorelei winced. She was trapped. “Well, uh, yeah, I’ve got my mom, and that’s about it.”

The father at the head of the line was called up to the window, and they all stepped forward.

“No siblings? Cousins?”

“Oh, three cousins, but they live a couple states away. I don’t know them very well. My mom doesn’t get along with her sister. They had a weird childhood,” she shrugged, “That’s all.”

“Oh, so how did you find out?”

She stared at him blankly. “That they don’t like each other? It’s pretty obvious when they’re in the same room together. You should have seen three Christmases ago.”

“No, no,” he shook his head, “How did you find out about you,” he grit his teeth and said under his breath, “The c word.”

“Excuse me?” she took a step back.

“Being a changeling,” he urged her on.

She deflated and laughed a little at herself as the fairies were called up to the next window, “Oh! That! Well, I uh, just, was…informed.”

“By?”

“Letter?” she asked more than told.

“Who sent that in a letter?”

The woman before them pulled out her earbuds as she made her way to the counter, and they stepped up to the front of the line as someone else joined behind them. It moved quickly, but not quick enough for Lorelei’s liking.

“Well, there was also this kinda giant, in a trenchcoat. He had a big bushy beard and, um, it was my birthday.” Conrad was watching her intently as the lies came out of her mouth. Well, they weren’t totally lies; it had happened to someone, and just because it was fiction didn’t mean it wasn’t true. “And it was when we were on vacation at a lake, and, um–”

“Next, please!”

Lorelei turned on her heel at the sharp voice and made her way to the counter with a purpose, chiefly being to put an end to that conversation, but stopped short about a foot from the window. Atop the counter sat a white rabbit up on its haunches with a miniature pair of cat-eyed glasses perched on its snout. Lorelei glanced right and left at the other windows where it appeared humans were working with customers, and she worried she’d misheard.

“Yes, next, come on up,” the rabbit waved a paw at her and thumped its back foot.

“Uh, hi,” Lorelei swallowed hard and fished around in her own pocket, “I have this.” She pulled out the paper and offered it to the creature.

The rabbit looked at it, then at her, then back at the page. With a tiny paw, she took it and carefully unfolded the note, then pushed her glasses up further over her ever-bobbing nose. “Yes,” she said quietly to herself, then with a single hop to the back edge of the counter, leaned over and revealed a red magnifying glass from a drawer. Examining the number at its top carefully, the rabbit made all sorts of chittering noises, then finally put down the glass, “Paw, please.”

She had her own arm outstretched toward the girl, and after a moment, Lorelei extended her hand up onto the counter and gently placed it over the rabbit’s soft paw. The rabbit placed the note back in Lorelei’s hand and examined it again, “Well, it seems to be in order. What would you like to do?”

After Lorelei stared at her dumbly, Conrad leaned over, “Remove the contents, please.”

“Very well.” The rabbit pressed a button on the counter beside her, “I need a  guardsman.”

A moment later, a figure came from the rooms behind where the tellers stood. Sheathed in metal from head to toe, he was like a suit of armour, but walked independently. The guardsman carried a halberd, a flag of lilac and green stripes attached, and wore a green plume that sprouted from the top of his helmet, oddly organic against the rigidity of his suit. The rabbit passed the paper to the guardsman, and he bent over fully to stare at the note, then snapped his attention back to them.

“Robin will escort you,” the rabbit hopped to the counter’s end and swung open a gate for them to pass through.

They followed the walking armour as it announced its way across the marble floors. They were taken down a corridor and ended at a vault. The guardsman picked up his halberd and flipped it horizontal, and they jumped away as it sliced through the air between them. The armour inserted the end into the vault’s lock and twisted, the door giving way.

The inside of the vault’s walls and floor were lined in a deep red velvet, and the room was flooded with light. It was dizzying to barely be able to see where floor and wall met, and they focused on the counter-height table in its center. The guardsman closed them in and secured the door. If he was mechanical, she thought, she hoped he wouldn’t run out of power inside.

There was another door, which the guardsman told them to stay back from, not with words, but with the stiff sweeping motion of his hand. Lorelei and Conrad stood at the far end of the table, and the armour made similar movements, let himself in, and a few agonizingly silent moments later, emerged with a box. He locked the door again, placed the box on the table, and marched to a corner, turning stiff as stone.

Unsure if he was truly alive, Lorelei leaned over to Conrad, “Is it…saying it’s okay to open the box?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

“You think so?” she groaned, “He’s got a really sharp thing in his hands, you know.”

He could only shrug, “I’ve never done this before.”

Lorelei bit her lip and reached out for the box. It was silver and unadorned, and though she tried to remind herself of Ziah’s words it could just be an old mismatched sock she felt a jolt of excitement as she lifted the lid. The box was lined in the same deep red as the room and completely empty save for a bronze circle in its center. She picked it up, much heavier than she expected, and ran a finger over the animal etched into it, round-bodied and big-eyed, holding up what appeared to be a shield. “What is this?” she asked, turning to Conrad, “Is it a chipmunk?”

He had busied himself staring at his shoes but was quick to look when she asked. He gasped and in a swift movement almost grabbed it from her, then stopped. “May I?”

“Of course,” she placed it in his hand and he flipped it over.

On the back, a long, thin metal pin was attached. Conrad held it close to his face, “It can’t be.”

She was afraid to ask, so she only stared at him.

“A brooch,” he flipped it over again, “And this symbol, I recognize it, but I’ve only seen it one place before,” Conrad stared at the brooch another moment, then plunked it back into her hand, “In my father’s casket.”

Lorelei froze. He’d just told her about his family’s passing, but this made it seem much more real.

“No,” she tried to push it back into his hands, “You should keep this if it was your father’s.”

“No, no,” he pulled away, “My father had a ring with that same chipmunk, and I saw it buried with him. And anyway, this is yours. Ms. Pennycress gave it to you. I’m just surprised. I never saw that symbol anywhere else, but,” he stared at it a moment longer then looked away, “I’m certain that’s it.”

After a few more awkward moments of silence, Lorelei let the guardsman know they were finished. They were led out and left the bank, crossing the street to the park.

“You said your father was in a secret society?” Lorelei finally ventured when she could see the arches again.

“Well,” he laughed, “I did, didn’t I?”

“Does this have anything to do with that?” she patted her pocket where she’d placed the brooch.

He shrugged, “No idea. I never wanted to be inducted. I wanted a different path, and I guess I got that.”

When they went back through the portal to the station, Lorelei felt the shiver more intensely than she had before, then when they passed back into the woods, she felt sick to her stomach, “You weren’t kidding about the Warlock General,” she told him, though she wasn’t entirely sure she felt ill because of the arches and their mysterious transportation powers.

He took her arm gently and stopped her before they mounted his bike, “Are you all right?”

“Oh, yeah, I’m fine,” she blushed then stood up straight, reminding herself he was, after all, a doctor, “Just nauseous.”

Back at the manor, Conrad had wished her good night and headed for the basement, and Lorelei found herself alone at the front desk, night having fallen and most parties already in bed. She pulled out the brooch, still wanting to give it to Conrad, but he didn’t seem keen on having it.

An idea struck her, and she slipped into the newly organized office, immediately finding the file she needed with Ms. Pennycress’s name. Unlike the others, she did not have a telephone number or email address, only a mailing address in England. With her travels, Lorelei couldn’t know when she would again be there, but it was her only shot. On Moonlit Shores Manor stationary, she drafted up a quick letter to the woman, thanking her for the gift and inquiring more about it, being sure not to specify anything about Conrad or his family. She slid the sealed letter into the outgoing mail bin between two bills and went to the staircase. Before heading up, she turned back to the office, unsure if Samuel’s presence was there or not. “Don’t mention this to anyone,” she said under her breath for good measure and went to bed.

 

Table of Contents | Next Installment

 

Hey, are you enjoying Vacancy? If so, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!

Here We Go Again: Camp NaNo

Remember NaNo? Well, apparently they do a spring edition (and I think a summer one too), and I guess I’m on board!

I consider last year a success even though I didn’t win. I completed 31,882 words over the course of the 30 days that was November 2017, and it felt pretty damn good, especially now that those words are being put to use in Vacancy. So why not try again, eh?

The difference between November and April is apparently the April “camp” is a bit more laissez faire. You write whatever you want (of course you can do this during November as well) and you set your own goal which is appealing as fuck. I know I can complete 30k words, so I set my goal there. Not really challenging myself, I admit, but if I can succeed, and perhaps succeed again come July (and maybe at 40k?) then by November, 50k words should be easy peasy, right?

I plan to write these words on a new piece, the second in my nameless dragon trilogy (which is all saved under a folder called “Medieval Vampires” in my Google Docs which really gives you a sense of where my head was at years ago when I was brainstorming this stuff), while maintaining Vacancy, my blog, and a couple other side projects, but I think it’s doable. 1000 words a day is a nice number, don’t you think?

As an aside, it’s come to my attention that I’ll have been working on this blog again for six months when we head into April. There have been times when I’ve posted very little, and when I’ve posted every day, but she’s been in the front of my mind for a good half a year now, and that seems pretty solid, because what is a habit or practice without time?

And that, Dear Reader, is partially why NaNo doesn’t necessarily work to make you a better or more prolific (because those are two very different things) writer: you create a habit by doing it every day, but “it” must be sustainable. Vomiting out words to reach a numeric goal isn’t sustainable. But like, it has to work, right? Something has to!

This OnE WeIrD TrIcK Got My Motivation Back

Ew. I am SO SORRY about that title. That’s awful. But it’s true, there is one kinda odd thing I started doing maybe a week and a half ago that got me motivated to write more, and I’m going to share that with you now. But seriously, sorry.

So I have been on a slow but steady recovery from a bout of sorrow and grief, and it was super unfortunate that the place I was at in every word-related project I was working on at the time (my serial, my novel, and the book I was reading (A Casual Vacancy, lol I have a theme)) were all quite death heavy, but I knew I needed to push through on at least one of them, and Vacancy seemed the most pressing (Vacancy, my serial, not Rowling’s book which is, by the way, amazing). I needed motivation and inspiration, but from where?

I’m not proud of this, but I have a Pinterest. Hear me out. I both love and hate Pinterest. A link to a Pin should never come up in a Google search (Pins are the worst, almost never have any helpful info, and sometimes don’t even link to the actual image they’re showing!); however, the search feature on the site itself is pretty damn sweet. If you’re looking for actual how-tos or explanations, it’s a fucking crapshoot, but if you want images to create what the hipsters might call a “mood board,” this is where it’s at.

I don’t know why I didn’t think of it before, but I realized I could use this to my advantage with writing. I even had a “Writing” board already, but didn’t put this together til now. I was stuck on Part 1.10, afraid to push Lorelei into the seance, so I was floundering over the basement description and just wanted to look at photos of caves and lakes. As I mentioned, Pinterest’s search is surprisingly adequate at returning what you’re looking for (the catch is that you need to have an account to really utilize the site correctly), so I searched “lake underground” and I got what I needed.

So you’re wondering how this is different from Google image search, eh? Well, you can “save” Pins to your own “boards” for quick access later. I believe the original intention of this was to save links with eye-catching images, but somewhere along the way the users of Pinterest ruined it by adding and not maintaining links to actual sites, so there are a lot of pictures of cool crafts with no explanation how they’re done. But still you can save as many images as you want to a board serving some greater purpose. And you can modify the description of that image/link to whatever you want. It’s usually already a description of whatever’s there (or supposed to be there), but if I’m brainstorming or looking for inspiration, I replace the description with what the image inspires for me.

Pintrest save

You can do this for specific places, of course, but it would work equally well for characters, atmosphere, and of course writing in general to save non-image based links (there’s functionality to save anything as a Pin, so you could take, say, this post and Pin it, and if you’re a responsible user, you’ll get the link right).

Once you’ve saved some Pins, you can go back to that board for inspiration when needed. Here’s a quick example of something I might throw together for a character:

Kimber Board

Since you’re using this for personal reference, I don’t object to losing the written attributions for images by writing over the descriptions, and if the images actually link out properly, you will still have the sources, which is nice.

Anyway, that’s my quick and dirty one weird trick that’s been quite helpful to me these last few days. Maybe you all already do this? Maybe there’s a better site for it? Pinetrest sure isn’t paying me to do this while simultaneously dragging them, so any suggestions you have, I’d love to hear!

Vacancy – 1.11 – An Inconvenient Number

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

You can also listen to this episode here.


V 1.11
The sound of the motorcycle impeded any conversation, but it was just as well since Lorelei would have had no idea what to say with her arms wrapped around Conrad’s waist as they bumped along the path through the forest anyway. After her first successful week at the manor, threat of death from above resolved, the office neatly sorted, and the dwarves checking out that morning, Lorelei thought to do a load of her own laundry when she found the slip of paper she’d been given by the old woman on her first day crumpled in her pocket. When she inquired what to do with it, Ziah told her it would be good at the bank in Bexley for the contents of a box.

“Whatever correlates to the number on there,” she’d pointed to a long sequence of numbers, letters, and symbols at the top of the note, “Ms. Pennycress is a bit…odd. She may have left tons of gold in there, or an old, mismatched sock.”

Conrad had been passing by when Lorelei told Ziah she’d never been to Bexley before, though she remembered the name from the station in the woods. He offered to take her as he would be headed there that evening to “stock up” on essentials for the apothecary.

And here she was, riding “rear admiral” as he’d called it when he told her to hop on. Only once did she squeeze him what she thought was too tightly when they hit a bump, still she was glad when they dismounted, unsure she could possibly sweat anymore.

She shivered when they entered through the cave opening and came out in the quiet station, that same dizzying sense of nothingness all around her. The archway to Bexley stood ominously above them, and Ziah’s hesitancy to see Lorelei go ate away at her. She glanced at Conrad, calm and confident as he adjusted the bag strapped to his back.

“Ready?” With a nod, they went though the archway, the same weightless feeling and shiver.

Before she saw anything, she heard it. There was chatter, the twittering of birds, laughter, and then light. They stepped out onto grass atop a hill in the center of a park. With the archway behind them, Moonlit Station carved into the bricks at its top, Lorelei could see out across the grassy field and beyond to a wrought iron fence and a densely packed street. When she spun to take it all in, she saw the arch again, but despite having come through from the station, she could now see through it to the rest of the park and a handful of other arches set atop the hill. Curious, she walked around to the arch’s other side. At the top of this side, it read “Blind Cape.”

With a shrug, she stepped through it to meet up with Conrad who still stood on its other side, but instead when her foot hit the ground, the friendly sounds of the park were swallowed into darkness, and she was she standing on a beach in the middle of the night, her stomach feeling as if it had just fallen out of her. An eerie baying sounded somewhere in the distance, and scrub bushes across the dunes rattled ominously as a violent wind whipped down the coast. She stumbled backward and the sunlight blinded her as she nearly tumbled down the hill.

A hand was around her arm, lifting her to her feet. “Yeah, so the Warlock General suggests not passing through an interdimensional portal more than seven and a half times a day, which is admittedly an inconvenient number, but we should try sticking to that.” Lorelei tried to return Conrad’s grin, but she was shaken and her heart was beating a bit too quickly for her liking. Also not to her liking was how it slowed when he released her.

The park looked remarkably ordinary at first glance. Well manicured grass in triangular patches was broken up by wide sidewalks, skinny trees ran along the sidewalks, mulched flower beds at their roots, and larger oaks offered shade in the grass fields. People walked by arm-in-arm with one another or with their leashed dogs. Only on closer examination, they weren’t all dogs, nor were they all strictly what Lorelei would call people. She wanted so badly to spin around and take it all in, but that had proven disastrous a moment prior, and gawking could give her away. She touched her face as if she could feel for the freckles the fairies had given her, trusting they were still there.

Conrad began sure-footedly down a path, and she hurried alongside him, wrapping her arms around herself and staring unblinking in every direction. A couple walked hand in hand toward them, their skins in blotchy shades of red and purple, speaking to one another in a language Lorelei couldn’t even begin to place. When they passed, Lorelei glanced back to see their tails were also entwined.

“The bank is quite close, but since we don’t know what we’re picking up, we may be better off heading to the apothecary first,” he told her, and she agreed because really what else could she say, but she hardly hear him anyway, distracted by a blonde woman sitting on a bench and tossing handfuls of seed toward a bush where a gaggle of geckos, neon pink with bulbous eyes, darted out onto the sidewalk, slingshotting their tongues and collecting her offering before skittering away.

“I need to go to two places,” he hesitated, “and it might not all be as nice as this, I’ve got to warn you.”

As the reached the purple-rose covered trellis that lead them out of the park, a group of teenagers came barreling toward them on skateboards. Lorelei and Conrad flattened themselves against opposite sides of the trellis to make way.

“All right?” Conrad asked, chuckling at the look that must have been on her face.

“Those skateboards didn’t have wheels,” she was pointing after them as they zipped through the park.

“Nope.”

“Those were tiny golden wings?”

“Yup.”

“That’s great!”

Outside the park lay a real city. The streets were narrow and filled with people and people-like beings, though there were bus stops and a double decker meandered its way through the crowd. Buildings lined the roads fitting tightly together with the occasional dark and ominous alley, but their fronts were often colorful with signage that didn’t specify exactly what the buildings contained.

Questions exploded inside her head, every turn replacing an existing one with something new, chiefly among them Where are we? as it had become apparent to her through the weather and daylight they were no longer in the same state, or perhaps even country, as Moonlit Shores Manor–wherever that was–but she resisted asking, feeling as though Bexley might not be anywhere at all. Finally, she pointed to a sign hanging above a door that held no legible letters to her but a triangle, a star, and what looked like a hieroglyph of a cat. “What does that say?”

Conrad stopped, peering up at it, “I have no idea. Wanna go in?”

In the window, an aquarium tank full of eels packed tightly together, slithered all over one another. “No, not really.”

“Maybe next time then,” he continued on, bringing them down a number of streets identified by what seemed like the scientific names of plants.

“So you come here often?” she heard herself asking like an idiot.

“At least once a month for supplies. Sometimes we come out on the weekends for dinner or to a show.” That we included the haughty woman she’d met at the manor, and she frowned a little. “Sometimes I just like to come and walk around, not that I have that much free time. Ah, here we are,” he guided her to a storefront with a spiral carved into a wooden plank jutting out from the door. They entered with the tingle of chimes into a tightly packed shop. The smell was both pleasant and not, clean and healthy, but stinging to her nose, but Lorelei immediately felt relaxed and the urge to buy something hit her all at once. Almost intuitively, the two glanced at one another, and Conrad raised an eyebrow at her, “Get used to that, most of them do it.”

The woman behind the counter at the end of the shop waved to them, and Conrad addressed her by name, letting her know he’d come for his pick up. She told him it was almost ready and encouraged him to have a look around while she double checked it.

A wall ran the length of the shop, filled with clear bulk bins. Their contents varied in color, mostly greens and browns, but a splash of magenta or teal stood out boldly from the rest. The labels were hand-written, and she read a few quietly to herself, Valerian Root, Mugwort, Knight’s Milfoil, noting a few that were marked only with symbols.

Conrad appeared over her shoulder, pointing at one of the bins containing a bright yellow, sand-like substance with a marker that only displayed a square with a line through the middle, “To mend a split. We use it to help broken things like bones, sleeping cycles, hearts.”

Lorelei giggled, but when he didn’t respond in kind she peered up at him; he was already pointing out the next container. “That we call lushberry,” the label was of a few stars in a circle, “Causes instant drunkenness if consumed. And this one is for curing that drunkenness.” That label had a sun on it.

“You sure know your stuff,” she commented, still worried he was joking with her.

“School wasn’t a waste afterall,” he sighed, “Tell my father that.”

Lorelei scoffed, “Your dad’s upset that you became a doctor?”

“Well, he’s dead, so he’s not anything anymore,” he laughed awkwardly, “but it wasn’t his first choice for me. Thankfully, he had my brother to follow in his footsteps already.”

“You have a brother?” she tried to sound hopeful.

“Had,” he scratched the back of his head, “Turns out secret societies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Or maybe they are.”

Lorelei contemplated telling him she was sorry for his loss, but she couldn’t get the words to come. Instead, she stupidly stuttered, “Dude, that sucks.”

To her surprise he burst out laughing. “Yeah it kinda does,” he cocked his head and looked at her earnestly, “but it also kinda doesn’t? I miss them sometimes, but they could be assholes. Now my mom, she was–”

“Almost finished!” the shopkeeper’s voice rang out from the back, breaking Conrad of his thought.

“Why am I telling you this?” he screwed up his face, running a hand over his stubble, “This must be so uncomfortable for you! Come look over here,” with a hand on her back he guided her to another shelf and started telling her excitedly about boils.

Lorelei took a small jar off the shelf as he spoke and inspected it. Through the clear lid, she could see minute, dried purple flowers and she untwisted the top of the jar to sniff. Suddenly she could feel every nerve in her body come to attention, and her eyes went wide as she felt a way she’d never felt in public before.

Conrad’s face changed, and he slowly took the bottle from her. As his hand slid over hers, a chill ran up her arm and into her chest, and yet her face flushed.

“Oh, that was–,” he quickly screwed back on the lid, and took a step back, “How do you feel?”

Her mouth went dry and she licked her lips, the sensation sending another shock through her, more faint, but troubling. She managed a whisper, “I don’t want to say.”

“Well, since you’re not vomiting, looks like you’re part of the 14.7 percent. Congratulations.” He winked, and she felt her face go deep scarlet, relief only coming when the shopkeeper called that she was finished.

When he paid, Lorelei had no idea how they would bring the load back, let alone traverse the city with it, but he put his small satchel on the counter and began filling it with the loot, and the bag never changed shape. When the last piece was slipped in, he lifted it effortlessly and slung it over his shoulder.

“That shouldn’t have surprised me,” Lorelei shook her head, and he chuckled.

Outside, they passed by a sweet shop that made Lorelei literally drool (“They do that too,” he told her), and a pet store with big-toothed puppies in the front window (“Completely herbivorous, I know, unbelievable!”) “The next place we’re headed,” he gestured to the street they were on, “Isn’t exactly like this.”

“This,” she gestured up the street as well, “Isn’t exactly identifiable to me anyway, so…”

“Just stay close and try not to look so–” he looked her over, “so nice.”

She furrowed her brow and frowned.

“Better,” he squinted, “but I guess that’s the best you can probably do.”

“Thanks?”

They took another turn down a winding road, and she began to notice how the streets were more narrow, the building taller, leaning out over them and blotting out the sunlight. Fewer folks were about, but those that were skulked. Lorelei tried to skulk too, but had the instinctive feeling she looked more like she was scurrying.

Finally, they turned into a shop off a narrow alley that Lorelei had mistaken for a private residence from the lack of signage on the door. There was no bell when they entered, but a clerk was upon them almost immediately. “Number 52,” Conrad said to the man who disappeared without a word.

The place was dark, but strategic violet lights illuminated items. There were herbs here too, though she wasn’t close enough to read the labels, and jars filled with things she didn’t want to read the labels for. In the far corner an elderly woman sat in a rocking chair, her eyes locked on a book in her lap as her lips mouthed the words. Lorelei could just hear her whispers in the quiet of the room, punctuated by the rhythmic creak of her chair.

Lorelei took a step toward a shelf, but without a look or a word, Conrad’s hand wrapped around her upper arm and held her to the spot just up against him. When the clerk returned, they exchanged currency for a tiny vial, and only then he released her and they left. Back outside, neither said a word until they had emerged from the darkened parts of the city.

“I want to ask what that was about, but you’re not going to tell me, are you?”

“You’re better off not knowing.”

She knew he was right.

 

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Vacancy – 1.10 – Cross The Veil

Vacancy is an ongoing web serial. Find out more about it and start reading here.

You can also listen to this episode by clicking here!

Vacancy 1.10 photo

Lorelei realized she had not yet been in the basement of Moonlit Shores Manor, and traversing that barrier down a creaking staircase at three in the morning didn’t seem like the most welcoming time to do so. Candles in their holders along the walls cast Hotaru’s and her own long, black shadows ahead of them as if they followed a set of robed figures. The darkness changed as they descended, more complete and quiet, and she could feel the ground rising up around her.

As they came to the narrow landing at the staircase’s end, a soft, violet glow met them, accompanied with a briney, wet scent like that of ocean air. Illuminated by splashes of blue, purple, and green luminescence crawling over rocks and sprouting from the midst of leafy foliage, Lorelei could see that the walls in the space they’d come into were cut from natural stone arching up above them to form a craggy ceiling. From the ceiling, stalactites hung, shimmering like icicles in the luminescence, and some even met the rocky places that grew up out of the ground, though she soon realized it was not an earthen floor, but water.

“Is the manor built over a pool?” Lorelei whispered, though her voice echoed into the cavernous chamber. Taking a step forward, she felt uneven planks below foot.

“I would call it more like a salty lake,” Hotaru told her offhandedly, “But you can swim in it if you’re brave enough.”

Lorelei knelt at the edge of the boardwalk where the water gently lapped at the planks. From the blackness below, she saw a pale orb rising up to the surface. She leaned a bit closer then, and in the darkest depth that she could perceive, noted two eyes staring back at her own. She let out a squeak and jumped back, colliding with Hotaru. Water sprayed up at them, then there was a splash somewhere at the farthest end of the space, followed by deep, feminine laughter echoing off all of the walls.

“This way,” Hotaru giggled, gesturing for her to follow around the lake on the boarded path. Lorelei kept her eyes glued to the black waves, but saw no other movement. They came to an archway in the stone and found themselves traveling down a more traditional basement corridor, with block walls painted a soft grey and more sconces holding candles. Ahead, one of the many doors opened, and a tall shadow staggered into the hall. Lorelei stopped, nerves on edge, but the candles illuminated Conrad’s unshaven face. With sleep in his eyes, he yawned with a wave, “Morning, ladies.”

“Shut the door!” a familiar, annoyed voice shouted from deeper in the room.

He took his time reaching for the handle and gently pulled it to, avoiding both girls’ amused looks then joined them on their trek. Down the corridor and around the corner, they came to yet another set of stairs. Lorelei’s heart pounded a little harder as they descended, and she reached out a hand to steady herself as there was no railing. The wall was rough here and gritty as if the stairwell had been carved out of the earth. Lorelei had never been a fan of tight spaces, but the cool stone on her hands made her feel something different, and when she took a deep breath, she thought she could feel the manor breathe with her.

At the base of the stairs, they reached their destination, a room glowing orange where Ziah waited, tapping her foot. Grier was already sitting at a round table in the room’s center, leering at the door, his eyes locking onto Lorelei when she entered. Seamus and Ren conversed in a corner, the elf nodding solemnly at Seamus’s big, articulate motions with his hands. The space was warm, a few degrees beyond cozy, Lorelei reckoned, and there was a humming coming from the walls.

“That’s all of us,” Ziah turned to the only figure Lorelei didn’t recognize.

Shadowed against the furnace, a massive metal chamber encrusted in orange rust, a fire glowing from behind its mouth-like grate, a woman’s figure stood. She threw her hands into the air, spinning to face them and tilting her head to the ceiling. “I feel it!” her exclamation made each of them jump, “This place,” her accent was thick and southern, and Lorelei took a quick peek at her feet to check for cowboy boots, “it’s brimmin with life!” Point-toe, red-soled, nude pumps. Lorelei cocked her head.

“Yes,” Ziah spoke through grit teeth, “You said. Please, can we get started?”

“Started?” the woman snapped her head to stare at Ziah, “Darlin, there is no start, no beginnin, to eternity. Whether we cross the veil or not, the spirits are here.” She wore a ruby lip and cat-eyed, purple shadow, with hair, bleached blonde, surrounding her head in a perfectly round helmet. Lorelei said a silent prayer for the ozone then realized she’d done that before.

“I know her,” she whispered, sidling up to Ziah, “from TV.”

“Betsy Jo LaReaux,” the woman crossed her arms and popped out a hip, mimicking the pose Lorelei had seen in the opening montage of her show, “Clairvoyant to the Stars. You musta spent some time out there amongst my kind,” she winked at Lorelei, “The Charmed don’t like it, but simple human folk like me gotta earn a livin, and the spirits tell me everythang. Every. Thang.”

Lorelei gulped; at least the spirits hadn’t spoken of her secret yet.

“Betsy Jo can walk and work in both worlds. She’s exceedingly rare: a human with a charmed gift,” Ziah eyed Lorelei as if she were contemplating a new thought, then shook her head, “She’s the best, from what I understand, and she’s visited here before as a guest.”

“And I been itchin to come back,” she rubbed her hands together and glanced around the room, “Let’s all take a seat, shall we?”

Lorelei found herself between Hotaru and Conrad as they filled in around the table, Betsy Jo directly across from her. Their positions faintly resembled what she’d seen of seances on the couple episodes of Clairvoyant to the Stars she’d allowed to play in the background while doing other tasks, but the glitz was missing. Instead of the dark cloth draped over the table, it was bare wood, older and covered in knicks and scratches. There were no candles in varying sizes melting all over one another lining the walls, no purple and gold crystals reflecting the candle light, no massive crystal ball in the table’s center. But Betsy Jo was dramatic enough.

The woman threw her head back and her arms up, addressing the ceiling, “Spirits of Moonlit Shores Manor, hear my request. I beseech you, oh spirits, to assemble here this night, to wrap us in your protective light, and to present to us the truth we seek.”

Lorelei felt her stomach flutter. She always thought Clairvoyant to the Stars was a hoax, and yet Ziah had called her up to solve a very real problem. She glanced at the others around the table. Grier was still glaring at Lorelei from under a heavy, furrowed brow, Ziah and Hotaru beside him, both looking at Betsy Jo with a quiet suspicion. To Betsy Jo’s left sat Seamus, eyes twinkling as he apparently surveyed everyone as well, giving Lorelei a nod when their eyes met. Ren stared straight ahead at nothing in particular. Conrad, beside her, returned her look when she glanced at him, raising an eyebrow and gesturing toward the woman. I can’t believe it either, she told him, but only in her mind.

“By golly!” Betsy Jo exclaimed, slamming her hands against the table. She popped her eyes onto Ziah and huffed, “This place is fuller than a tick on a coonhound!”

“Well, many have lived–and I guess died–here over the last four hundred or so years.”

“And they come back,” she put a finger to her mouth in thought, “Even when they pass far away. This place calls to em. You’ve got to let me shoot here, for my charmed show!”

“Let’s see how this goes first, hm?”

Betsy Jo huffed, then sat back, “Alright, alright. Come on now,” she laid her palms up on the table and wiggled her fingers, “Ya’ll are gonna need to help, as I predicted.” Seamus immediately grabbed her hand, but she had to reach out and take Grier’s. When the rest did not rush to comply, she gestured with the hands she already held, nearly yanking Grier from his seat, “All ya’ll now!”

Lorelei looked to Conrad beside her hesitantly. He gave her half a grin and offered up his hand. She sat hers on top carefully then clasped down when she felt Hotaru picked up her other hand. When Ziah finally made reluctant contact with Grier, a spark flew through the group, zapping each in a wave as it traveled from Betsy Jo and back to her again. They were connected. “Now,” she gazed out over the table, “Do not let go.”

Their guide tipped her head back once more, but this time when she spoke, it was quiet, half in whispers, half inaudible. Gentle hisses filled up the room, riding on the hum of the furnace, until her one voice sounded as if it were many, layered on top of one another and coming from every corner. The others could hear it too, Lorelei confirmed, when they swiveled their heads to peer into the shadows at the edges of the room, but they followed Betsy Jo’s instruction, and she felt both Conrad and Hotaru’s hands tighten on her own.

Words began to form from the whispered sounds, each a fragment of something more, a “kitchen” or “hello” or “statue” rising up out of the sea of whispers each in its own unique voice none of which matched Betsy Jo’s, then fading back in. A chill ran up Lorelei’s spine despite the heat in the room, and a voice sounded just next to her ear, “It wasn’t me!” She jumped, but Conrad was holding fast and they did not break the circle.

As the voices became louder, there was a tinge of anger, blame perhaps, as they answered one another. Pieces of conversations floated around them as if the speakers were passing by. Lorelei thought she caught sight of a figure walking behind Grier, but when she turned to see it fully, it was not there. Another shadow flitted from the corner of her eye near Ren’s shoulder, and when she swiveled to catch it, there was again nothing, but Ren appeared paler, if possible, his eyes locked on the table, wide and searching.

The voices crescendoed suddenly, unmistakable now, loud and shouting. The bodies around the table all leaned forward, closer together, grips tightening, breaths held. Even Grier had lost the ire in his eyes and was panicked. Then Betsy Jo’s head snapped forward, her hair unmoving in its perfect halo, and her eyes fixed on a place just above Lorelei’s head, “There you are.”

The room plunged into silence in an instant, and Lorelei’s ears rung. Despite the orange glow, the room’s temperature had dropped, and if she had breathed, Lorelei thought she might see it.

“It’s okay, honey,” Betsy Jo spoke to no one, “I’ll help you. You can use me to talk to these nice people. Go on now.”

She snapped her head back, then gently dropped it forward again. Sleepy eyed but only for a moment, they popped open and she gasped, “No way!” Eagerly, she looked around the room, blinking, then down at herself, any trace of her accent gone, “This is too cool!” The look she wore disappeared, and her voice changed back to its familiar southern drawl, “Don’t get comfortable, ya hear? I’m only allowin this so you can answer these nice people’s questions.” She gulped and nodded, her voice again dropping its accent and taking on a lilt, responding to herself, “Yes, yes, okay.”

As Betsy Jo looked out on them, they came to the shared conclusion she was no longer herself. Or she was a fabulous actor.

“So,” Ziah drew out the word, biting a lip, “are you our troublemaker?”

Betsy Jo shook her head, violently, eyes wide and unblinking.

“You’re not the one who made the chandelier fall or let the goats out?”

“Or unknotted all my ties?” Seamus piped up and the woman looked at him. “I, uh, have Arista pre-tie them all.” He grinned.

“Nu uh,” she shook her head again, then winced as if she’d been stabbed. Betsy Jo sighed, “Tell the truth,” in a scolding, southern drawl. “Ugh, okay, it was me!” she hung her head.

The alarm draining from her face, Ziah pursed her lips, “Well, why?”

“Cause,” Betsy Jo huffed, “I felt like it.”

The group traded looks, still holding one another’s hands though it felt normal now. Ren appeared composed again, and asked, “What is your name?”

“Samuel,” she ventured carefully.

Something stirred in Lorelei’s brain–a name, a face–but she couldn’t place it.

“And how old are you, Samuel?”

Betsy Jo’s eyes glanced around the table, and Samuel answered: “Forty nine.”

Ziah leaned forward, “How old were you when you…passed on?”

Samuel grumbled in the back of his throat, “Ten.”

“That’s a long time to be hanging around still,” Ziah offered cautiously, “Why are you still here?”

“I’m waiting for my mom and dad.”

A wave fell over the table and the cold felt different then, more empty. Ziah sat back, “Samuel, you could have hurt someone.”

“No!” he shouted using Betsy Jo’s voice, “I made sure nobody was around when I did those things! You didn’t get hurt, did you?” he looked directly at Lorelei.

She paused, then shook her head slowly.

“See, she’s fine.”

“Samuel, does Lorelei have something to do with why you’re…acting out?”

Betsy Jo’s eyes were staring daggers at her.

Grier laughed, “I knew it!”

Ziah glared at him, and he shut up immediately. She was careful how she went on, “Do you want to elaborate?”

“It’s just…that’s my fort, and she’s messing it up.”

“Your fort?”

“The room with the boxes,” he said as if they all should have known, “She moved everything.”

“The office,” Lorelei nodded at him, “I’m organizing the paperwork in there.”

“Typical,” Betsy Jo came back all at once, sitting up straight and arching a perfectly tweezed brow, “Construction and other big changes to living spaces really put a burr in their saddles, even the most casual hauntings. We can send Samuel to the other side, if you’d like. He’s not a particularly strong spirit, used up mosta his energy runnin all over hell’s half acre the last day.”

Though she clearly didn’t want the obstacle to her work, Lorelei felt a pang in her heart at that suggestion.

“That might be for the best,” Ziah offered quietly.

Suddenly panicked, Lorelei shouted, “Wait! What’s Samuel’s last name?”

Betsy Jo was quiet a minute, rolling her eyes back, “Winchester.”

She searched her mind. “Can I talk to him again? Just for a second?”

Closing her eyes, the woman sighed, then when she opened them again they were looking straight at her. There was panic in them, just like how she had felt a second earlier. “Sam, do you want to stay here?”

This time he nodded frantically.

“You know, if I finish organizing the office, there will be a bunch of space in there for you to play.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah,” she couldn’t help but smile at the look Betsy Jo was giving her, even if it was an act, “But you can’t mess up the papers. And you definitely can’t drop heavy things from the ceiling.”

“I know.”

“Promise,” Ziah added, narrowing her brow.

“Yeah, yeah, promise!” Betsy Jo shook her head then blinked, “So what? No cleansin?” It was her again.

“I guess not,” Ziah shrugged and flashed a quick smile at Lorelei.

“Well, I ain’t givin ya a discount.”

Betsy Jo spoke to the manor’s spirits again, bestowing thanks on them and protection on the circle, and ended their communication gracefully. When finished, she released Grier and Seamus’s hands and placed her own flat on the table. She looked tired, if only for a moment, then pushed herself up to stand and began shaking hands.

Ziah touched Lorelei’s shoulder and leaned over in her ear, “Nice catch with the Winchester reservation.”

“Every year,” Lorelei sighed, “It must be sad for them.”

Betsy Jo took Ziah away then to discuss payment, and Lorelei lingered near the door while the others filed out, Grier now avoiding her gaze like the plague. Finally Betsy Jo broke off from Ziah and reached out for Lorelei’s hand. She was reticent to take it, but when she did, felt that same spark that had shot around the table.

“Oh!” Betsy Jo jerked as if she’d heard someone call her name. “Well,” she smiled, “they got a lot to say about you.”

Still trapped in her handhold, Lorelei attempted to lean back, but was only pulled in closer. “She won’t do it,” she whispered, “Trust yer gut, hun.” As if she read the look on Lorelei’s face, Betsy Jo LaReaux flashed her a dazzling red smile, “I’m bout as confused as a hen in a ping pong ball factory bout that too, but that’s what they want ya to know. Consider it a freebie.”

 

Table of Contents  |  Next Installment

 

Hey, are you enjoying Vacancy? If so, and if you want other people to know about it, consider reviewing it over at the Web Fiction Guide or at Muse’s Success, and while you’re there, look around for other serials you might like!