Science fiction, horror, paranormal... they span and jump the genres as they wish. Maybe they will make you laugh, or think, or lock your doors at night. Some are sweet, some are sad, some are silly... but all have an otherworldliness to them that will climb into your head and stay there; hidden in corners, or wrapped around thoughts in your quiet time.
You're never truly alone.
Cosimo stared up at the face in the painting. He leaned left. He leaned right. He leaned back.
"There’s something hiding in there,” the boy said.
“What are you talking about?” Lorenzo didn’t take his eyes from the large flat wooden panel he was sanding.
“Her eyes,” said Cosimo. “They look big. Beautiful, like her face.” He wrinkled his nose at the painted woman. “But, they’re not.”
“Quit blathering, Cosi. Get to work.” Lorenzo was patient. More than the other apprentices, but, still, there were limits.
Cosimo flicked an oily rag against the easel frame. “Underneath the pretty, painted face lies a heartless demon. Just like Il Signora.”
The boy’s arms were thin enough to slide between the wooden panels stacked against the easel’s base without moving them. He made sure there were no pencils, no errant brushes, no missing tools hidden from sight. Once collected, he put the cleaned items in their places.
Lorenzo looked up from sanding. “You’d better be careful…”
“Why? She’s cruel and selfish. Everybody knows it,” Cosimo said.
“Not Maestro Andrea,” Lorenzo muttered. “And if she hears you…” He shook his head at the boy, who was one-third his size, one-third his age. Lorenzo felt protective of the kid, but even he would be helpless in the face of Signora Lucrezia’s wrath.
“Why did he even marry her?”
Lorenzo shrugged. “Maybe you’ll understand when you grow up.”
Cosimo scowled and finished straightening up the pigment jars.
* * *
“Good morning,” he returned with a genuine smile.
The click-click of hard soles on marble called them all to attention, like soldiers in barracks. Cosimo hurried from the entryway before Signora Lucrezia’s arrival. He wasn’t quick enough.
“Boy,” the woman said, slapping Cosimo’s ear. “Get me my pillow.”
“Si, Signora.” Cosimo kept his head bowed as he placed the cushion on the model’s seat. He turned it slightly, mindful of the light coming in through the window and the angles at which Maestro Andrea would want his muse. The child had learned much since his arrival nearly two years ago.
Cosimo was the youngest in the household. He’d been taken in upon the death of his parents, favored merchants of Maestro Andrea. “Best brushes in all of Florence,” Signore Andrea sometimes reminded Cosimo, tousling his hair. While the memories were bittersweet, Cosimo looked forward to the tokens of affection.
Signore Andrea hummed as he uncovered his palette and began to work. Signora Lucrezia sat quietly, watching from the corners of her eyes. The boys stayed out of the way all morning, quietly attending to chores.
“Apprentice!” Signore Andrea’s voice boomed out. “Clean water!”
The boys jostled and prodded one another to the task.
Cosimo, being the smallest, was pushed forward. He walked over to Maestro. His hand shook, dropping the jar of water.
“Watch it, imbecile!” The lady’s voice shrilled. “Andrea, you mustn’t coddle this boy. He’s incompetent!” She hovered over the child, twisting his ear as she yelled. “You will cost us time and money!”
“Lucrezia, take a break. I will get this taken care of,” Signore Andrea stepped over the spill to escort his wife by the elbow to the doorway. “Please, give me five minutes.”
“Cosimo,” Signore Andrea’s voice softened. “You mustn’t let her intimidate you. She means no harm, she’s just– impatient.”
“No, she’s not. She’s a witch! I hate her,” Cosimo’s tears punctuated his protest. He wiped his sleeve across his face and rubbed his sore ear. “Why don’t you tell her to leave? Nobody likes her.”
“I like her,” Signore said. “And you shouldn’t be so insolent. There are rules in this house, whether you like them or not. They must be followed.” The painter knelt placing a hand on the child’s shoulder. “Look at me, Cosimo. You are not the first boy to be orphaned. I have been lenient with you, because you are only six.”
“Seven,” Cosimo corrected.
“Seven? When did this happen? Did I miss your birthday?”
Cosimo was afraid to say ‘yes’ because everyone had missed his birthday, and it made him want to cry. He nodded, instead.
“Two weeks ago.”
“I’ll ask Cook to make you a nice tart, tonight, eh? Will that make up for it?”
“Yes, thank you, Signore.”
Andrea rubbed Cosimo’s head and smiled. “Now, go get the rags. Clean up this mess. She’ll be back any moment.”
* * *
“You’re lucky you’re so little, Cosi,” Lorenzo told him once again. “If one of us did the things you do, made the mistakes you make, we’d be beaten, or exiled from the house.”
“You’re exaggerating,” Cosimo told him. “Besides, you’re grown-up. You get away with different things than me, like drinking too much wine!”
“That’s different,” Lorenzo said.
“I know, that’s what I said. But, you should remember that wine makes you sick.”
“But, Signora watched over you all night, in her own bed. I saw you go with her. She would never mother me like that. She likes you better.”
Lorenzo’s face turned crimson. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Don’t you say anything to Signore Andrea.”
Cosimo tried to see Lorenzo’s eyes, but his thick, dark curls obscured them. “I won’t,” Cosimo said, wondering what he was hiding.
The two walked the rest of way back from the market in silence. Cosimo watched their shadows. He wondered at the difference in their bodies. Would he grow up to have a bronze, muscled back and arms like Lorenzo, or the softer, plumper curves of Signore Andrea? Signore had wide, happy cheeks and lines around his eyes, while the bones in Lorenzo’s face were more chiseled. When Cosimo saw his own reflection, he could not imagine the end result. His eyes were large, his lips were thin, and his forehead was wider than his cheeks. In fact, his whole face was shaped like an inverted triangle, down to his pointy chin, unlike anyone he knew.
“Bring these to the kitchen. I have to go see about a horse.”
Cosimo knew what Lorenzo meant. He delivered the purchases to Cook, and was given something to eat for his trouble.
“There will be more people here, tomorrow, than this house has seen for years,” Cook told the women cutting fruit and vegetables.
“Since before Signora arrived,” one of them said.
“Yes,” Cook agreed. “And can you imagine what they’ve been saying about this house?” she tsked.
“I can’t believe she’s agreed to spend this money!”
“Well, you know why,” said the other prepper. “The patrons coming tomorrow can afford to have all of Florence painted, if they chose to. Signora is hoping to cash in on this dinner party, for sure.”
The gossip continued as Cosimo finished his bread and beans. He thanked Cook with a wave and a smile, then returned to the workshop.
* * *
The next night, Cosimo sat between two of the other apprentices at the long table along the back wall of the dining room. He looked over at Lorenzo, following his example of proper dinner ettiquette. Certain forks, movements of the spoon…it was very complicated. Most of the boys talked quietly, but excitedly. Cosimo was happy to be included, sure the others felt the same way.
The head table was across the large room, where Il Signori and their guests sat. They spoke of Florentine affairs and gossip of the arts. Cosimo heard talk of a marble quarry opened for Maestro Michelangelo, who was to reconstruct the façade of the Basilica of San Lorenzo. Everyone knew who Michelangelo was, even little Cosimo.
After the entertainers and the dessert course, il Signori led the patrons and guests into the grand parlor. Here, the commissioned painting of Madonna and Child sat on a clean easel beneath a drape of blue velvet and silk. Everyone gathered around the large wooden panel, while Signore Andrea stood beside his work, explaining its significance and intention. After his speech, he let fall the fabric and presented Madonna and Child.
Applause was not immediate, but grew within seconds. Sounds of approval and wonder stirred the audience. Signore Andrea rose from his bow and he, too, looked at the painted panel. He took a sharp breath in, and furrowed his brows.
“What is it, dear?” Signora Lucrezia pressed her hand upon his arm.
“I thought– nothing, never mind.”
Lucrezia tilted her head at her husband’s peculiarity. But, soon, the patrons called her attention and she left her husband’s side.
The rest of the evening was spent drinking wine and listening to musicians play the latest musical hits of Tuscany. Throughout the night, the apprentices kept a low profile, but were included in the grand scheme of the party. Cosimo kept his eyes roving between Lorenzo and Signore Andrea.
“Lorenzo,” Cosimo tugged on the sleeve his friend’s blouse. “Something seems to be wrong.”
“What is it, Cosi?”
Cosimo gestured towards Signore Andrea, who was repeatedly drawn back to his creation.
“Come on,” Lorenzo said, leading Cosimo up to the Maestro.
“Is everything all right, Signore?” Lorenzo asked.
“Hm?” Andrea replied, eyes still on the painting. “Oh, yes, yes. It’s just that– I don’t know. Do you notice anything strange about the Madonna’s head?” He kept his voice low, so as not to call attention to his concern.
“No, Maestro. What is it you see?”
“Nothing I can pinpoint,” he said. “You might think me mad.” He chuckled. “But,” he paused, “I could have sworn…” he squeezed the bridge of his nose and squinted.. “When I first unveiled it, I could have sworn I saw a pair of horns upon the Madonna’s head.”
“No, Signore, she is an angel!” Lorenzo protested.
“Yes, of course. And I would never paint such things on my beauty’s image, or the image of the Christ Mother.” Andrea’s eyes kept their heavy uncertainty even as he denied his own hallucination. “But,” he returned to the panel, “For a moment, there was a look of vicious intent on my beloved’s face. You don’t see it, do you?”
“No, Signore. Like I said, you have painted an angel. The entire piece is beyond beautiful. A tribute to the Lord,” Lorenzo assured his master.
“Yes,” Andrea said, unconvinced. “And you, Cosimo? What do you see?”
Cosimo was caught by surprise, to be asked such a bold question above his station. “Me?”
“Yes, you! You have shown the sensitive eye of an artist, and may someday be my protégé. What do you see?”
Cosimo screwed up his face, thinking of the hard-hearted Lucrezia. He tried to look past her likeness, to the Madonna she was meant to portray.
“I see,” said Andrea, before Cosimo had gotten any words out. “You are honest, if misguided, little one. I am grateful.”
“Misguided?” Cosimo asked Lorenzo, as they walked back to rejoin the apprentices.
“You see cruelty in our Signora, while Maestro does not.” Lorenzo clapped a hand on Cosimo’s back before joining a conversation with some of the older apprentices.
“But I cannot see what is not there,” Cosimo said to himself. He looked again to Signore Andrea. With sad recognition, he felt a kinship with his master. He wondered who was right and who was wrong; had Cosimo poisoned Maestro against his own wife? Or had he helped lift the veil from his master’s eyes, to better see her foibles?
“In blindness, we find bliss. With clarity, comes heartbreak. Which would you choose?”
Cosimo jumped at the voice in his ear. It sounded like his mother, but he could not see anyone beside him. He looked around, and saw his master, once again staring lovingly at Signora Lucrezia. Despite her meanness, Signore Andrea was happy, and was filled with love, requited or not.
Cosimo hoped to keep both his eyes and his heart open as he grew up.
* * *
“Really, truly? I don’t have to go to school, today?” Riley bounced on her knees, on the kitchen chair.
“Really, truly,” her mother said, buttering toast. “It’s ‘Bring Your Daughter To Work Day. Think of it as a special assignment, a field trip for your future.”
Riley squished her mouth into a pucker. “What if I don’t want to grow up to be like you?”
Riley’s mother tried not to show her disappointment. “That’s okay, Riley. You can be anything you want to be, when you grow up. Just come see what it’s like at my office.”
* * *
Riley snapped her harness and leaned back in her seat, suspended on the teleporter. The air around her shifted and her vision shook, making her slightly nauseous, like it did every morning. When the vibrations stopped, she opened her eyes and let out her breath.
“Wow…” Riley tried to take in the expanse that surrounded her. The ceilings were a hundred feet high, and glowed with yellow sunlight, created artificially. As her eyes roved down the curved walls, they were met with geometric decorative panels and framed portraits of important people that she didn’t recognize. Closer to eye level, she watched people criss-cross the marble lobby floor.
“Now, remember what I said about staring,” Riley’s mom said.
“Uh-huh,” Riley nodded. She had met other Terran species at school, and even a few hybrids, but most of the galactic species were beyond Riley’s experience.
She stepped out of her harness and off the platform, not paying attention to the approaching suction sounds.
“Woah, watch it, little lady!” said a deep voiced multi-ped, sidestepping Riley and nodding at her mother.
Riley reached up to grab her mother’s hand. “‘Little lady’?” she asked, rolling her eyes.
“Some men are still a few centuries behind in gender relations,” her mother said. “We go this way.”
Riley’s mother led her to a security desk.
“Good morning, Ms. Light. How are you today?” the man behind the round counter looked up from his screen long enough to notice Riley. “And, who have we here?”
“Morning, Neuring. This is my daughter, Riley. Could we please get a day guest pass?”
“Well, that depends. Can you answer a few questions, first?” Neuring stood, and leaned forward to peer over the tall counter at Riley.
Riley nodded, but didn’t take her eyes off the man. He was big; thick-necked, broad-shouldered, barrel-chested, and twice as tall as Riley. His skin was dark, with an indigo sheen at his temples, and what looked like gills. His eyes blinked twice, and Riley noticed his extra inner eyelids.
“State your name?”
“And how old are you?”
“What is your favorite color?”
“What is your favorite animal?”
Riley shrugged. She didn’t know much about animals. She thought real hard, and remembered one from an old story book. “A bear?”
“A bear! Well, that says something about you, doesn’t it?” Neuring smiled, sitting back on his stool. He keyed in some information, then waited for the printer to produce her pass. “Okay, Miss Light, here you go. Wear that so we can see it, and you’ll be safe as houses.” He smiled and handed her the laminated rectangle, clipped to a thick lanyard emblazoned with “MetaForce United” and the company logo. She looked at both sides of the lanyard before putting it over her head.
“It’s aquamarine!” Neuring said.
“No, it’s teal,” Riley said under her mother’s glare. “But, it’s close. Thank you.”
“Have a great day!” Neuring saluted.
“Mom, why was his head so shiny?” she asked on their way across the lobby.
“The blue parts? That’s how he synthesizes oxygen. His species breathes a higher concentrate of nitrogen, so they’ve adapted, through skin mods– modifications.”
“So, he’s not from here?”
“No, honey, he’s not from here.” She hurried inside an elevator as another woman held the door for her. “Thanks,” she said to her. She then held her finger up to her lips.
Riley looked around the elevator. The lady who’d held the door open was tall and lean, with long thin tentacles for hair. Her skin was pinkish-purple and her hands were webbed. She held tightly to a moist messenger bag, from which a soft thrum emitted. Riley could smell something salty and milky. Next to her was a short, round man with thick glasses that pinched onto his nose. He had no ears, no hair, no eyebrows, and four arms. He made a clicking sound at Riley, and she looked away. The couple next to him looked human – an Asian man in a black striped suit and a brown-skinned woman in an orange sari. They were quietly muttering over an open file folder.
The elevator dinged. Riley, her mother, the tentacle lady and the round man all got out. Riley followed her mother to the central desk at the head of the waiting area, which had several chairs, tables laden with tablets, and liquid dispensers. Riley’s mom pulled a chair around to the desk, and took her own seat.
“This is my desk. My computer interfaces with the main company drive and the communications interchange. Behind me, are the offices of the company president, vice president, and CEOs. One floor down is the COO and accounting. Each floor has its purposes, and its own receptionist.” She flicked switches and entered codes as she spoke. “Okay, I’m all powered up. Now, I check for messages or alerts.”
Riley kicked her leg back and forth beneath her chair. She tried to find something of interest in the work that her mother was doing, but it was all just so…boring.
“So, this is what you do all day?”
“Don’t you get bored?”
“No, I have a lot to keep me busy.”
“Is there anything I can do to help?” Riley looked at the clock. It had only been twenty minutes. Another eight hours was unimaginable.
“Why don’t you go down to the lounge? Get something to drink. Take your time.” She handed Riley an elastic wrist band with two keys on it.
Riley wandered the hall. She peered into offices with open doors, but all she saw were boring desks and computers. A lot were still empty. She got to the little stairs that led to the executive lounge. Using one of the keys, she unlocked the door, and stepped inside.
She sighed. Another boring room. “Is all work boring?” she asked aloud.
“That depends on your work.”
Riley jumped. She hadn’t seen anyone else in the room. She looked around, and still didn’t see anyone.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“Ah, you must be terrestrial. See those glasses sitting on the shelf, there, to your left? Put those on.”
Riley looked, found the glasses, and slid them onto her face. The lenses made everything darker. She slowly turned to take in the room, and was surprised to see a dull, glowing figure on the couch in the corner.
“Oh! There you are,” Riley said. She looked at the strange, larval shape. The speaker was five or six feet long, with protrusions from its body that resembled potato eyes. There were dark hairs shooting out from its top end, and above that sat a fedora. “Who are you?”
“Shouldn’t I be the one asking that question? I work here, after all.”
“Oh. Sorry,” Riley tried to be conscious of her manners. “My name is Riley Light. My mother–”
“Your mother is Genevieve! Yes, of course, I can see the resemblance, now. Oh, she is a hard worker, your mother. Very gifted, too. Do you share her talent for tongues, young Light?”
“Excuse me?” Riley had no idea what tongue talent her mother had, but she was pretty sure she didn’t share it.
“Languages, my dear. Your mother could charm the hair off a goat, you know. She is poetic in at least fourteen languages, seven of them not even terrestrial. Aquatic languages are the most difficult, yet without her, we would never have been able to close that contract on the ocean world of Kundala’ghee. What languages has she taught you?”
Riley shook her head. “None. I didn’t know she could– my father is from Tyreghia. I can sing some of their songs,” she suddenly felt very inadequate. “Twinkle, twinkle, little star–”
“That’s nice, dear.” One of his potato eyes reached towards her and gave her a half-hearted pat on the shoulder. Riley pulled away and sucked in her breath.
“Oh, I see. Are you afraid of me? A bit speciesist, aren’t you?”
“No, no, it’s not that. I’ve just never– I’ve never seen anyone like you. I’ve never met anyone like– almost everyone here… There are so many different kinds of– people. Are you still people?”
The larva-man chuffed.
“No! I didn’t mean – it’s just that– maybe there’s another word you like better?”
“My dear, your language is so limited, I doubt you could think up a better word.”
“I’m very sorry. Listen, let’s start over. I don’t even know your name. Would you tell me?”
“I suppose. I’m Fraylinde ch’Dar, Head Accountant.”
“Nice to meet you, Mr. ch’Dar.” Riley pressed her fingers against an eye-limb and feebly shook it. “Am I keeping you from something? Do you need to get back to work?”
Riley was surprised at his less than formal response.
“Today’s my last day, you know. Retirement. I’m supposed to be training my replacement, but I’ve spent the whole week with her and I just can’t stand her. Smug woman. She’ll do fine, she doesn’t need me to tell her her job.”
“So, you’re just hiding out in here?”
“Looks that way, doesn’t it?”
“Why don’t you just go home?”
“Retirement, darling. They’re having a party in my honor today at five. I have to be there.”
“Will there be cake?” Riley loved cake.
Riley thought he sounded tired. He was sitting in the shadows of the room, and Riley had been slowly inching her way closer, to get a better look at him. She could hear him just fine, but she couldn’t see a mouth.
“Mr. Ch’Dar?” Riley asked. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Please. We’re friends, now, aren’t we? Call me Fraylinde.”
“Okay.” Riley nodded, but didn’t yet use the moniker. “Where are you speaking from?”
A sound like bubbling soup came from Fraylinde ch”Dar. “You really have been sheltered, haven’t you?” He leaned forward a bit. “I’m a Lh’mondstrat – from Lh’mondstria? We’re vibrational beings.” His explanation was met with Riley’s blank stare. “What– don’t you go to school?”
“I go to Earth school. Terran studies.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. If you’re going to be anybody in this universe, you really ought to know your basic planetary species.
“Vibrational beings have mass, but our size and shape is dependent on the atmosphere and density we are in. We communicate with vibrational mechanics, which, essentially translates to telepathy, in your understanding. Do you see?”
“You mean, you’re talking in my brain?” Riley’s eyes got big and she reached her hand up to her forehead.
Ch’Dar let loose that bubbly rumble of laughter again and Riley put her hand down. “I better get back to my mom. I’ll see you at your party?”
“Oh, I should hope not. Your mother shouldn’t let you attend, if you ask me. Too depressing.”
“But, there’s cake?”
“Then I’ll see you there.”
* * *
“What have you been up to?”
“Talking.” Riley sat down next to her mother and fiddled with a stack of colored tablets.
“Talking with whom?”
“Fraylinde ch”Dar. He’s retiring, today.”
“He told you that?”
“Uh-huh. Said I could come to his party and have cake.”
“Oh, Riley. I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Retirement parties can be so depressing…”
“That’s what he said! But, Mom, I’m nine. I’m old enough to realize that nothing last forever – fun, school, jobs, summer, even people. Come on, Mom. There’s cake.”
“Yes, but, honey, you don’t need to–”
“CAKE!” Riley gave her mother her most insistent stare.
* * *
The rest of the afternoon was spent in anticipation of sugar. Riley wandered between the lounge, the bathroom, and the front desk, while her mother stayed put, except for the occasional break.
Riley was sitting back in a padded chair perusing a magazine tablet when she heard a speaker chime. “Five o’clock!” Riley sprung up. “Quittin’ time!” She was determined to get to the party early enough to get a good piece of cake.
A man in leather and metal garb came out of the door behind Riley’s mother.
“Is this the famous Riley I keep hearing about?” His voice was deep and heavily accented. “I was beginning to think you were a fiction.”
“Huh?” Riley stared up at the blueish-grey-faced man with the long black hair and mustache.
“Yes, Mr. Hanjir, that’s my daughter, Riley. She’s never been introduced to a non-terran before today. You’ll have to excuse her, she’s a bit out of her element.”
“Hm, I suppose today has been full of surprises, for you, then, hasn’t it?” He tousled her hair and walked on down the hall.
“How come you never told me about all of these aliens at your work, mom?”
“They’re not aliens, Riley. We’re the ones with the work visa.”
“And how come you never told me you could speak so many languages?”
“It’s never come up, Riley.”
“And how come you haven’t taught me anything about them?”
“Riley, your father– he wants you to have a Terran education, all right?”
“No, Mother, it’s not all right.” Riley was petulant, despite feeling very much like an adult. “I want to talk about this again, later. Now, let’s go celebrate Fraylinde ch’Dar’s retirement.”
They walked into the large conference room where company employees were gathered. At the head of the table, President Hanjir was speaking in praise of Fraylinde ch’Dar, who stood to his right. Behind them, stood what must’ve been Fraylinde’s family. The two smaller larva-blobs were standing in front of a larger one, which seemed to be crying. Riley tried to listen to her vibrations, but nothing was becoming clear.
“…outstanding service and loyalty. We are honored to officially retire Fraylinde ch’Dar.”
Mr. Hanjir slapped ch’Dar on the back, shook an eye-limb, and stepped back.
A giant axe swung down from the ceiling and split Fraylinde in two.
Riley gasped, eyes wide, and covered her mouth. She heard Mrs. Ch’Dar crying harder. The little ch’Dars seemed as shocked as Riley.
Two men that looked like Neuring carried Fraylinde’s halves away. The crowd stayed silent, as if in a moment of respect. Once he was gone, Mr. Hanjir stepped forward again, raising a long silver knife.
“Okay, let’s have cake!”
The crowd erupted in cheers, and Riley was handed a pink paper plate of cake. Riley was certain she was in no hurry to grow up.
* * *