Published: July 2021
In the literary, auto fiction about contemporary women, Shifting to Freedom, Tess, a medical doctor, to escape from fear, pain, horrendous manic depressive mood swings, and hallucinations, dissociates, crossing invisible barriers to become ‘alter’nate personalities.
Her life, heartrending in sadness, constantly threatens to become unraveled.
Her tenuous hope for recovery is as fragile as her emotions.
“Shattering” is her constant fear.
We hear her cry from the darkness, tears we cannot stop, but we hold on to what we can—hope.
What people are saying about Shifting to Freedom:
“Marlene writes with great facility. Her writing is intelligent; her prose is poetic. In my practice, I’ve treated patients with Multiple-Personality Disorder. It would be unprofessional of me to give a definitive diagnosis without interviewing Tess and the “alters.” However, there is no doubt that Tess has dissociative episodes. To survive the horrific traumas of childhood, she would have had to develop an escape mechanism, and dissociating was probably, the only way.”— Dr. David Yeung MBBS, FRCPC.
“I can’t help but think, because of the explicit detail, that this story is, at least in part, autofiction. Or else, the author must have known Tess, intimately. Her story is painfully acute, deeply sad, riveting, and all engrossing. It brings awareness to Multiple-Personality Disorder that I could never have imagined. To help rid the stigma that surrounds mental illness, Tess’s story needs to reach a broad audience.”—ML from Vancouver, BC., a beta reader and severe critic during the early throes of Tess’s story becoming a book.
About the Author
Thrust from the infinity of wheat fields into the warp of the Rockies, Selkirk and Purcell mountains, the light that defined a frightful, but interesting, high school life challenged me.
Our neighbours were all Italian—migrants to Canadian mining towns. With his Welsh-born farmers’ busyness, my father found strange their art of dolce far niente—that is, the sweetness of doing nothing. They practised it, “Come in. Come in. Sit down. Taste my homemade vino.” My father adapted. The family adapted.
And the flames of railway trestles burning and women parading nude colored life. Doukhobors (a sect that had fled persecution in Russia) settled in the Kootenays. They protested having to send their children to public schools.
Wearing a babushka and twirling spaghetti, not only did I survive those years, but I thrived.
Vancouver, the big city, where I discovered traffic lights and city buses, claimed me for medical lab training, and I worked the night shift in the blood bank to put myself through university.
I’ve worked in cancer research, taught at tech schools, become a registered massage therapist, taken up energy schooling in NY., married and raised two kids, and, at 73, published A Many Layered Skirt, a biography about a young Chinese girl trying to keep one frightening step ahead of the soldiers, during the Japanese occupation.
My husband, of 56 years, was Chinese. Our mixed marriage was intriguing, and happiness was ours. Interests in people, cultures and places took us around the world. Many of those adventures find their way into my writing. He passed away, throwing my life into chaos. Now, I’ve picked up the pen, again. I wonder what it will write.
Date Published: March 1, 2019
Publisher: Jan-Carol Publishing, Inc.
No matter how long he has yearned to escape his boring life as an ordinary teenager, nothing can prepare James Shannassy for the afternoon when he meets a figment bird called Archit and the two of them set off for the world of Nalgordia to break a centuries-old curse. Being the hero of his own fantasy adventure isn’t exactly what James expected it to be, but when he finds himself caught up in an epic fight against a force of evil, he knows he might be the only one able to stop it. Archit’s fate now rests entirely in his hands…and there’s no turning back now!
What Happened in the Greenhouse
This couldn’t have been happening. But it definitely was.
Still trembling from the shock of the past half-hour, James sighed and leaned up against the glass door of the abandoned greenhouse. It was the only place he could think of to hide. He wiped his sweat-drenched palms on his jeans and looked around. Maybe it was just the fear still coursing through his body, but something about the abandoned greenhouse reminded him of a haunted forest, something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. Tangles of overgrown plants spilled out of moldy garden boxes and twisted upward around moldy trellises. Late afternoon sunlight poured in through the cracks in the grimy glass walls, catching the dust that floated in the air and gleaming against the heavy spiderwebs that hung over everything. It was a place long forgotten, a place that might have once been beautiful and full of life but was now a place of decay and death.
Stop it! This wasn’t the time to let his overactive imagination get the best of him.
There wasn’t anything about the greenhouse that could actually hurt him, was there? Mr. Birken, on the other hand…
“All right, James,” he whispered to himself. “You’re safe now.”
“Yeah, right,” he huffed. “As if you actually believe that.”
He shook his head. And how in the hell are you going to get home now? You’re so stupid, James—God, you’re so freaking dumb!
If he were smarter, or more adept at escaping danger—whichever skill might have benefitted him more—he wouldn’t need to be hiding in an abandoned and possibly haunted greenhouse at all. No, if he were smarter and more adept at escaping danger, he would have run away from the school and straight in the direction of his house.
But he hadn’t done that. He had been so panicked that his only thought had been to get away from the school as fast as his unathletic body could go. It wasn’t until he was on the other side of town that his wits came back to him, and there was no way at that point that he was going back past the school. No way.
But Mr. Birken? Of all people, Mr. Birken?
His chemistry teacher, the kinda-sorta intimidating but otherwise friendly Mr. Birken, with his oversized glasses and his beer belly. Mr. Birken, who, before that afternoon, James thought was only as bad as threatening to fail him for the semester. If only James could have guessed!
His mind flashed back to those awful minutes in the storage room. Mr. Birken’s bellowing voice. That crazed expression on his face.
James shook his head as if that might dislodge the memory from his brain. “Gaaah!”
He surged forward, pacing up and down the rows between the garden boxes. If he didn’t keep moving, his nervous energy was going to make him explode. He swiped a large cobweb out of his way as he went, kicked at a pile of dead leaves, then fell to his knees, gasping for breath. Think, James. Use your head.
A rustling erupted in the overgrowth a few feet away, and James leaped, his heart suddenly hammering in his chest even faster than before.
“Hello?” he called.
Nothing. No sign of anything. Maybe it had just been a rat or a squirrel.
Maybe it’s Mr. Birken.
No, for real though, it was stupid to think that Mr. Birken was in the greenhouse. There was no way he could have gotten so far ahead of James so quickly, no way he could be lurking in there and waiting for him. It wasn’t logical—but then again, so little of what had happened that afternoon had been logical, and there was no telling what to believe or expect anymore.
The rustling came again, this time a few feet from where it had been the first time. The leaves on one of the nearby plants shook violently. Whatever was making that movement in the overgrowth was too big to be any kind of rodent.
“Who’s there?!” he called.
But he wasn’t sticking around to find out. Panic overtaking him, he bolted toward the door.
As he passed a mass of browning flora, something appeared in his periphery. He turned just as a purple something emerged from the leaves.
A pitiful cry escaped him as he tumbled backward into one of the flowerbeds. His shoulders hit the ground hard as he landed, knocking the wind out of him and sending up a cloud of dust and dirt.
Wasting not a second, he hoisted himself back up, just in time to come face to face with the strangest creature he had ever seen in his entire life.
Covered in purple feathers and fur, about three feet tall and stoutly built, it was too outlandish to be considered an animal but too innocent and adorable to be called a monster. The creature stood before him, blinking with pearly eyes over a large golden beak. It excitedly gave a flap of its purple wings as if waving at James to calm himself.
“Please, please,” the thing said. “I won’t hurt you.”
“You can talk!” James pushed himself back a little bit, still startled, still a little breathless.
The creature shook its head, tossing aside the shaggy hairs of its mane that hung in its face. “Yes, yes, I can,” it said. “I can talk.”
James, his fear now replaced by curiosity, climbed to his feet and circled the birdlike creature, looking it up and down. The bird reached up with his wings and straightened the lapels of the shabby blue vest he wore, almost haughty in his demeanor, as if he did not like being made a spectacle. The act was almost comical—the vest, as well as a crudely knotted yellow necktie, hung on the bird like adult dress-ups worn by a toddler, and the vest was patched with fabric of so many colors and patterns that very little of its original blue silk was still visible, the overall effect being that of a miniature homeless person. A hobbit hobo, James might have said at any other time when he wasn’t so overwhelmed.
“I—I know you’re probably amazed right now,” the bird stammered. “But you can’t tell anyone that I’m here.”
“Sorry,” James said. “I just…” He was at a loss for words. “Man, this has been one weird afternoon.”
“Well, that’s the thing,” the bird said. “If you were to tell anyone that you’ve seen me, then it will likely get even more weird. Weird and terrible.”
James paused. Such an ominous warning from such a funny-looking creature. It was like watching one of the Muppets recite Stephen King. But this creature itself didn’t strike him as malevolent. No, in fact, he seemed just as scared as James.
“Are you in some sort of trouble?” James ventured.
The bird became silent, shuffling his talons—which were clad in miniature leather loafers—and avoiding James’s eyes.
James stepped forward and extended his hand. “My name is James.”
“Archit,” the bird replied, putting out his wing. “That’s my name. Archit Birken.”
James’s stomach turned. “Birken?”
The air in the greenhouse suddenly became thick with tension. The two of them stared at each other, neither exactly sure of what to say.
The bird hesitated. “You know my uncle, don’t you?”
“Yeah,” James said. “You could say that. I know a little more about him than I care to, I guess.” He had been so surprised to meet Archit that he had almost started to forget about what had happened in the storage room back at the school. Almost, but not totally.
Archit took a deep breath. “Then you know how dangerous he is—and you know why it’s so important you tell nobody you saw me.”
James wasn’t even sure at this point whether it surprised him that this bizarre animal called Mr. Birken his uncle. “Wait,” James said, the connection now dawning on him. “Uncle? So you’re his nephew?”
James’s stomach twisted as he remembered everything Mr. Birken had said. My nephew has eluded me for far too long! “He’s coming after you,” James said. “You know that, right?”
“Yes,” Archit said. “And I’ve had a few close calls these last couple of months, and I can’t have him find me.”
“At least not until your sixteenth birthday, right?”
Archit stopped. He stared at James with uncomfortable intensity. “What?” he said.
James got the impression he had said something wrong. “Well, that’s why he’s hunting you, isn’t it? Something about your sixteenth birthday?”
Before James could say another word, Archit took him by the arm with his wing and led him over to the nearest flowerbed. “James, what do you know?” Archit sat down beside him on the edge of the garden box. “I need you to tell me everything, James.”
James sighed. He looked at Archit, who was staring up at him with pleading eyes. Only one or two minutes of knowing this creature, and already James couldn’t resist sympathy. He hated himself for being such a softie sometimes. Still, it sounded as if Archit had some context to everything that had happened. Maybe Archit could explain it all.
“All right,” James said, taking a deep breath.
“And don’t leave anything out,” Archit said. “I need to know what happened to you. Everything.”
“All right,” James said. “Well, I guess it started with the fact that this had already been a really awful day…”
And that was the truth—it had been a really awful day up until four o’clock, at least. After that point, the day had started to get weird and frightening.
At four o’clock, James had been in the courtyard, moping and avoiding going home. Dejected didn’t even begin to describe it, though that was the closest word he could think of.
There had been the decision of some friends to make an impromptu after-school trip to downtown Annapolis without him (“Sorry, we totally would have invited you, but we’ve got a full car already!”).
Then there’d been the rebuff he got from the girl for whom he had actually managed to grow enough of a spine to ask to the homecoming dance (“You’re a great guy, but c’mon, don’t you want to go with a girl who’s, y’know, into books and smart stuff like that?”).
And then there had been missing out on a role in the school’s fall play (“Freshmen rarely make the cut, so don’t take it personally”).
After all that, he dreaded the thought of going home and being around the house all afternoon. His mom would be stressing out over the fancy schmancy cocktail party she was throwing that evening, some stupid thing she did every fall to have all her neighbors and extended family over so that she could play Susie Homemaker. If he went straight home, he would just have to deal with her berating him. “I need to you stay out of the way while I’m cleaning, sweet pea,” she would condescend to say. “I’m gonna need you to go upstairs and get cleaned up so you’re ready when everyone gets here. Don’t dawdle, all right? No, you can’t eat anything; I’ve already tidied the kitchen.”
And all night long, there’d be nothing to do except sit around with his sister, Margot, and their cousin Liz—the only other person at the party who would be their age—and be bored, at least when they weren’t being forced to socialize with adults they barely knew.
So no way was he going straight home. Instead, he’d killed time by bumming around the school library, brushing through a few books and surfing the internet on one of the computers before migrating to the school courtyard to sit quietly and stew in his own bad mood.
Yeah, so his time might totally have been better spent going to a remedial study session for chemistry. Just earlier that day, in third period, Mr. Birken had told him he was in danger of failing—just one more reason the day had completely sucked.
“We have a midterm coming up on Monday,” Mr. Birken had said, giving James an intense look over the rims of his glasses. “Maybe a little bit of after-school help today would do you some good.”
Screw that, James had thought. The last thing he wanted to do after the day he’d had was to deal with Mr. Birken. Little could he have known just how much he would be dealing with Mr. Birken, whether he liked it or not.
What James would have given to get away from it all! To escape the mundane world of chemistry midterms and fair-weather friends, to get away from the quiet suburb that worshipped high school lacrosse and music videos. It didn’t help that Margot, who was a senior, was Miss Life of the Party of her class, and his parents couldn’t understand why James, their younger child, spent so much time reading Shakespeare instead of magazines and going to coffeehouses on Friday nights instead of football games. Why couldn’t life be more like the way things were in fantasy novels or games of Dungeons & Dragons, where the opportunity for adventure always waited just around the corner, and even an inconsequential little nobody could still aspire to be a hero?
He hadn’t realized, however, that he had moped the entire afternoon away. Four o’clock. That meant he had only an hour until his mom would start to freak out. Not that she would actually be worried about his well-being. No, she would just be upset that he wasn’t going to be ready for the party by the time guests showed up.
“I guess you better get going, huh?” he said aloud to himself in a sullen tone, flicking his eyes between his watch and the glass doors to the courtyard. From what he could tell, the school was empty—no movement inside, not even a janitor. He looked down at his watch again, eyeing the minute hand as it moved slowly toward the twelve. The frame of the watch was busted. He had dropped it as he was taking it off for gym class. He rubbed his finger along the jagged piece of metal where the frame had split, wondering whether it were salvageable.
Pulling himself to his feet, James shouldered his backpack, resolved that it did him no good to stick around here any longer. At this point, he would be lucky if he weren’t locked up in the school.
He headed inside and turned to make his way toward the lobby.
Then he remembered.
My chemistry textbook! He had left it in his locker.
“Shoot,” he huffed. I’m not gonna give Mr. Birken the satisfaction of failing me, that pompous piece of garbage. Chemistry sucked, but the idea of losing to Mr. Birken sucked even more.
He headed back down the hall the other way. His locker was in a far back corridor, and there was a chance that if the custodians were already locking up certain wings, then he wouldn’t be able to get to it.
As he made his way through the labyrinth of cold concrete walls and linoleum floors, he became aware of how eerily still the whole place was. He had never been in the school this late before. The overhead lights were off, silhouetting the shape of the lockers along the walls, and the squeak of his sneakers on the linoleum floor echoed all around him.
“Hello?” he called out, half-hoping that somebody might respond, that a friendly custodian might peek out from one of the classrooms and say, “Hey-o, I was closing up this place for the weekend, but if you’re still here, I’ll turn on the lights,” or that an administrator might appear and say, “Oh, James, you’re not supposed to be here this late, but if you have to go get your textbook, I suppose I can stand here and make sure nothing bad happens to you.”
But none of that happened, and James’s unease grew a little bit more the farther he went down the hall.
Then he smelled it. He paused, sniffing again. The smell of smoke. Something was burning.
He peeked into one of the nearby classrooms. Nobody in there, he observed, but the smell was stronger. He stepped inside, looking around for an electric socket that might have exploded or a candle that had been left unextinguished.
Nothing. He turned to go, but before he had taken more than two or three steps, there came muffled voices from what sounded like the back of the room—or else the next room over. He stopped, listening to the muted, monotonic intonation.
James sidled back out to the hallway to check what was happening in the next classroom over—but the classroom he had just come from was the last one at the end of the hall. The voices must have been coming from a crawlspace or something behind the wall. Or else he had imagined them.
He returned to the classroom, edging through the shadows toward the back corner. As he neared the corner, the muffled voices grew more distinct. He hadn’t imagined them. They were coming from behind the wall.
Pressing his ear up against the plaster, he listened for a moment. He could hear distinct voices, but what they were saying, he couldn’t make out. There was a man bellowing, and some harsh, rasping voices that he couldn’t determine to be male or female, adult or child, whatever they were.
James stepped back, taking in a long look at the wall from end to end. No door that might lead to another room or a closet. Only a bulletin board, a desk, and a tall nine-shelf bookcase.
It was with apprehension that James approached the bookcase, looking it up and down as if he were trying to gauge its weight in his head. He gripped the side of it and braced his feet against the floor, giving the shelf a tug.
Just as he thought: The bookcase pulled away to reveal what might have once been a closet. The mold-streaked door looked as if it had been forgotten by any staff member for a long time.
James gave the door handle a little wiggle and could tell it was unlocked. His stomach fluttering with nerves, he eased the door open and peered inside. It was one of the storage crawlspaces. He had helped a teacher move some books into a similar one in the English department the week prior.
But this one here in the science wing looked as if it had been forgotten. Or deliberately hidden.
Light came from around a bend in the corridor up ahead, and as did the voices, though still muffled. If this one is like the English storage space, there will be a little room down at the end. There was definitely somebody in there, but James wasn’t sure that he was going to like what he found.
Holding his breath, he crept along the hall, taking soft steps to be sure he didn’t make any noise. As he came to the end of the corridor, he pressed himself up against the wall and peered around the corner.
Whatever he had expected, it definitely wasn’t the scene before him. Never in his wildest dreams could he have expected this.
Mr. Birken stood over a roaring fire built atop a concrete slab, his arms spread wide. He no longer wore his school clothes—the gray trousers, the finely pressed white shirt, the Windsor-knotted tie—and was instead dressed in long black robes and a blood-red cape. He stood tall over the flickering flames, his broad belly thrust forward and his face tilted upward, whispering something in a language James couldn’t recognize.
“Oh,” James heard himself gasp.
But if the gasp were audible, Mr. Birken didn’t hear it. He was too busy conjuring something—probably a malevolent something, judging from the shapes that were forming in the black smoke above the fire. Red sparks flashed here and there, and a trio of serpentine figures took form. Three snakelike creatures with leathery wings began to circle the fire.
They hissed together in a chorus. “Why have you sssssummoned ussss here, Abaddon?”
James’s heart hammered. He swallowed hard, listening intently to how Mr. Birken might respond.
“Welcome, my creatures of darkness.”
“What do you want from usssss? Why do you conjure?”
The creatures swooped high and low, circling the fire, hissing, flipping their tails.
“To boast, of course,” Mr. Birken said. “Why else? Tell me—am I not the most wicked and evil of all the creatures of darkness.”
The creatures hissed wildly and their eyes lit up with red sparks again. “You’re not one of ussss,” they cried. “You are not one of ussss!”
“You lie!” Mr. Birken shouted.
“We do not. Your power issss weak. Your cursssse issss breaking.” At this, the demons began to cackle maniacally. The sound of it sent a chill down James’s spine. Should he make a break for it, get out of there before he was caught? Terror and morbid curiosity had him paralyzed.
Mr. Birken sneered. “What do you mean by this, to say that my curse is breaking?”
“It has already begun,” the demons hissed. “On his next birthday, your nephew shall turn sixteen.”
“No!” Mr. Birken shouted. “It cannot be!”
“You cannot sssstop it. You cannot sssstop it.” The demons hissed and cackled as they swept through the air, circling Mr. Birken tauntingly.
“You have a vissssitor, Abaddon,” they hissed.
A visitor? James realized they meant him, but it was too late. Mr. Birken glanced in his direction, and their eyes made contact for a brief instant. Moved by sheer terror, James turned and ran, bolting toward the outside world as quickly as he could.
Mr. Birken roared angrily. Intense heat erupted on James’s back, and he was thrown forward against the wall, taking a face full of decaying plaster as he toppled to the ground. He felt claws grasping at his arms, the ground scraping across his face—he was being dragged back into the storage room.
Mr. Birken loomed over him, looking down with a strange expression of mixed fury and sick delight. James pushed himself up and scooted backward. Shadows moved in the darkness behind his teacher—two feral teenagers crawling around on the floor like animals. They must have been what had dragged him back into the storage space.
“Well, well, well,” Mr. Birken said. “A surprise guest. James Shannassy.”
James’s heart hammered in his chest so hard he thought he was going to puke. He held his breath, trying to keep down the bile burning at his throat.
Mr. Birken bellowed a deep laugh, tossing his head back with a sick, wide smile on his face. “I think we can find a use for you, Master Shannassy.”
He swiped his arm through the air, summoning two thick black cords that curled around James, digging into his skin and tying him tightly. James gave a wretched little choking sound as the ropes caught tight around his diaphragm.
“That’s better,” Mr. Birken said. “We don’t want you leaving too soon, now, do we?”
James stared around the room, taking in the candles, skulls, and other artifacts and ornaments of sorcery, all of them menacing in the low light of the little room. In the murky shadows behind Mr. Birken, the two feral children had slunk back to crates where they crouched like wolves, chewing on bones and glaring at James with flashes of red fire in their eyes. They looked familiar, as if he might have seen them around school before, but their ragged appearance and animal-like demeanor had rendered them unrecognizable.
Mr. Birken stepped toward James, crouching down. “What brings you in here, Master Shannassy?”
James choked back some of the vomit in his mouth. His whole body was shaking so badly he thought he might pass out. “I…I…”
Mr. Birken sneered, standing again. “Afraid, are you? You needn’t be.”
James trembled, wrenching at the ropes that bound his hands. He looked up into Mr. Birken’s dark eyes. The only way he was going to get out of this was by keeping a clear head and acting fast. For now, he had to keep Mr. Birken talking, to distract him if he could.
“S-so…what are you, some kind of evil wizard or something?” It wasn’t brilliant, and James sure as hell wished he had sounded braver when he said it, but he had read enough fantasy and sci-fi to know that the best way to outsmart a merciless villain was to get him on a bragging rant. If nothing else, it might buy him some time.
Mr. Birken let out another deep laugh. He turned and circled the fire.
James kept his eyes on Mr. Birken, fiddling with the ropes as best he could behind his back. If he were subtle enough, he might be able to use the jagged edge of his broken watch to saw through the binds without Mr. Birken’s realizing what he was doing.
After a few tense seconds, Mr. Birken spoke. “I think I’ll be needing your assistance, Master Shannassy.” He drew out each word in a cold, sinister tone.
James noticed movement along the floor, and his blood ran cold. It was a long, hideous python weaving its way toward Mr. Birken. The large man stooped down to greet the serpent as if it were a puppy, cooing softly, “Yes, we will, precious, won’t we? We’ll be needing Master James’s help.”
James had to keep talking. “What’s this all about? What were those monsters you were talking to?”
Mr. Birken stood, provoked by the question, his eyes flashing with fire. “My nephew has eluded me for far too long!” he shouted. “My curse will be broken, and my eminence among the creatures of darkness will be lost forever!” He raised his arms and shook his fists wildly, making the fire rage up in a sudden burst of green light and black smoke. The feral children behind him whined, frightened.
Mr. Birken approached James and crouched down near his face again. “And you are going to help me hunt him down.” Mr. Birken’s breath was hot and stinking against James’s face, and a sheen of oily sweat gleamed on the big man’s puffy cheeks.
James whimpered, closed his eyes, and tried to find words. Mr. Birken so close to him, the crackle of the fire, the growling of the ferals, the malevolent presence of the evil artifacts around them—it was all too much. “What if I don’t want to?” he protested.
Mr. Birken stood, stepping back to the fire. “Oh, I don’t think that will be a problem.” He waved one of his hands over the flames and whispered again in the foreign language James again didn’t recognize.
It was obvious what was coming next. Mr. Birken had prepared some spell to manipulate him, to force James to do his bidding.
“That’s why you’re a teacher, isn’t it?!” James looked at the two pathetic kids crouched in the shadows. “And they’re…they’re…”
“They’re just here for a little after-school study session, just like the one I encouraged you to come to, Master Shannassy.” Mr. Birken gave James a sick little grin, a thin-lipped slice of malevolence that spread across his face, and he gazed greedily at him with black, soulless eyes. “I told you that you were failing, but I never expected you to drop by in quite this fashion.”
Dizziness set in on James again, stronger this time. If only the cord behind his back would part a little more easily, or if only the jagged metal would have been a bit more efficient! He couldn’t delay Mr. Birken much longer, he could tell.
Mr. Birken continued. “These two behind you, they’re not the academic type, of course. Slackers, you might say. But they know they can come to me as a source of something they might need.”
“Ha! You think a great wizard controls his minions by use of opioids and narcotics? No, my potions are a bit stronger, though every bit as addictive. When it wears off, they’ll remember nothing—except to keep coming to me for it.”
Mr. Birken crossed to a table in the corner where Bunsen burners bubbled and smoked mysterious substances in beakers. “And a chemistry teacher at a public school in an affluent area always has easy access to the best equipment,” he said as he lifted one of the bottles and held it to the firelight. “Combined with teenagers with a bit too much spare time and too little supervision after school—why, it’s every evil overlord’s dream, isn’t it?” He laughed.
This is it, James thought. Mr. Birken was going to possess him, or maybe worse—after all, James knew too much now. What was to stop Mr. Birken from doing away with him entirely?
Mr. Birken lumbered around the fire, his red cape dragging behind him across the filthy floor. “Well, now, Master Shannassy,” he said, holding out the frothing potion. “Open up your mouth.”
James sawed furiously at the rope behind his back. It was slackening. Almost there.
Mr. Birken stooped down in front of him, reaching forward to grab James’s face and force his mouth open. James jerked his head away, resisting, giving the rope two or three more tugs. By some good grace, the ropes gave way at that very momen. James twisted his hands free, lifted his leg, and delivered a swift kick to Mr. Birken’s large belly.
With a deep bellow of surprise, Mr. Birken stumbled backward, his feet twisted in the length of his cape. For a moment, he teetered back and forth, trying to recapture his balance. Then he went down hard, falling backward into the roaring fire.
James sprang to his feet and took off down the passageway. Behind him, Mr. Birken screamed in pain and fury, but James wasn’t stopping to look back. Trembling with terror, he bounded back to the empty classroom, then raced back through the school and out the doors into the open afternoon air. He fled the property, not stopping to catch his breath or his bearings until he found refuge in the abandoned greenhouse.
By the time he’d finished recounting it all to Archit, the bird was restless with excitement. “This can mean only one thing,” Archit said, getting to his feet.
“What can mean only one thing?” James asked.
Archit hesitated for a second. “Look, James,” he said, “I need you to remember carefully. ‘On his next birthday, he’ll turn sixteen.’ You’re sure that’s what his oracle said?”
“You might have been confused. You were in a lot of danger, and you were really scared.”
“I know what I heard,” James insisted. “Trust me, every second of my time in that storage closet is branded on my brain. I’m scarred for life.”
Archit pressed his wings against his head, trying to think. “Oh, what does this mean?”
“What does what mean?” James asked.
“Look, it’s complicated,” Archit said. “And truthfully, the less you know, the better.”
James scoffed. “Well, I’m involved now. Don’t I deserve an explanation?”
“Yes, of course you do. But I need to get you home safely first.”
“Get me home?” It wasn’t exactly the priority that James was expecting. Five minutes ago, he had wanted nothing more than to be home, safe, and out of danger, but since talking to Archit…
“Yes, get you home,” Archit said. “Do you think you can stay out of trouble there?”
“And what? Just hope all this goes back to normal? Do you really expect your uncle to forget that I know all of this?”
Archit shook his head as he moved toward the door to the greenhouse. “No, but you’d be in a lot more danger with me.” He turned back, gesturing with his wing for James to follow. “Come on, there’s no use talking about this in here. We need to act quickly.” He made for the door. “Who knows what my uncle might be up to while we’re sitting here shooting the breeze…”
“Oh, that’s comforting,” James said.
Archit swung the door open and scurried across the lawn to hide behind one of the bushes. James paused for a moment in the doorway and then, still somewhat unsure, followed the bird. It was cool outside the greenhouse, and the shadows of the trees were getting longer. It would be only another hour or so until it was dark.
“So, what exactly is your plan?” James asked as he knelt next to Archit.
Archit peered out between the leaves of the bushes, looking up and down the street. James couldn’t deny that the bird’s lack of explanation was beginning to irritate him a little.
“Hold on,” Archit said, reaching into the pocket of his vest. “I have just what we need in here.”
“What do we need?”
Archit drew out a small pouch. “Here ‘tis.”
James stared. Something inside the bag was glowing. The silk exterior shifted from pink to blue and back again.
“Whoa,” James said. “What is that?”
“Fairy dust, of course.”
James rolled his eyes. “Oh, of course. Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Don’t get sarcastic,” Archit said. “I thought you were getting used to weird things happening.”
James couldn’t argue with that. He looked down at the bag again. “Where’d you get it?” he ventured.
“I stumbled upon a fairy council years ago,” Archit said. “It was a reward for a good deed I did them.”
James couldn’t tell whether that was true or not—but if not, then Archit must have had some good reason for not making full disclosure.
“Now,” Archit continued, “there’s not much left. Just enough for maybe two more spells, as long as they don’t need to last long. And I’m going to need some to open up the doorway between the worlds.”
“Huh?” James said. “The doorway between the worlds?” This afternoon had gone from horror story to fairytale to ancient myth pretty quickly.
“I can’t open it up until tomorrow morning,” Archit said. “It’s a spell that needs to be performed at dawn. But we’ll be able to use a bit of it for getting you home.”
“You mean, like, teleportation?”
“Nothing so elaborate,” Archit said. “But I think the fairies have established a precedent for this one at least. You’re familiar with the story of the little cinder maid?”
“You mean Cinderella?” James said.
“Exactly,” Archit said. “And look! There are a few pumpkins on the front stoop of that house over there.” He turned and pointed at one of the houses across the street.
“How lucky we are that it’s October and I need a coach to get home,” James said, unable to resist sarcasm again.
“We’re not doing a coach,” Archit said. “That’d be too conspicuous.”
“Oh, and you think stealing pumpkins in the middle of the afternoon isn’t going to draw attention?” But James had to admit there wasn’t a car in the driveway of the house Archit had indicated, and all the blinds in the windows were drawn.
“Stop hesitating,” Archit said. “Just go.”
James wasn’t necessarily sure why he was doing as he was told, but he figured he had to trust Archit. He stood and eased his way out from behind the bush, looking all around for witnesses. Considering he was on the run from an evil wizard, he thought that getting caught stealing a pumpkin should have been the least of his concerns. Even so, an extraordinary adventure was one thing, and petty theft was another. He didn’t want to be busted for something so commonplace with everything else going on.
He tried to look as casual as possible as he walked up the driveway to the house across the street, but he was pretty sure anyone who might have been watching would have instantly assumed him guilty of something, just based on how nervous and jittery he was.
As he paused at the bottom step leading up to the front stoop, he looked up at the house just to be sure nobody was watching him through the windows. No sign of anyone.
“What are you waiting for?” Archit hissed from the bushes across the street. “The apocalypse?”
James turned but didn’t shout back. It would draw too much attention. Still, it was easy for Archit to be confident when Archit was hiding in a bush and James was the one who was about to steal something.
“What the worst that can happen?” he said to himself as he reached forward, grabbed the pumpkin, and spun back around toward Archit. Clutching the gourd to his chest as if someone might try to tackle him and take it back, James sprinted back across the street and ducked behind the bush with Archit. “Got it.”
“Good,” Archit said. “Glad to see it wasn’t too great a challenge.” His beak cracked into a smile, and he gave a little laugh. For the first time that afternoon, James wasn’t stressed out or scared.
“All right,” James said. “Let’s see this magic in action.”
“Stand back,” Archit said, crouching over the pumpkin and pouring some of the dust onto the end of his wing. “Here goes nothing.”
He shook his wing and James watched the glittering powder fall over the orange skin of the gourd.
Nothing happened. James blinked. Maybe the dust wasn’t really magic, or maybe Archit had done something wrong. After all, it wasn’t as if there were any reason to believe Archit even knew how to—
But before James could let his doubts get the better of him, the pumpkin began to glow and its skin began to pulse a little bit. James gasped, watching it grow before his very eyes, its shape changing slightly as it did, a glass windshield forming across its front and tires popping out from its bottom. A bright orange car took shape, and the last few flashes of fairy dust fell away to the ground as the transformation completed itself.
“Whoa!” James said.
“Not bad,” Archit said. “But it’s not going to last long. We probably have fifteen minutes at most.”
James chuckled. “What, not until midnight?”
“I’m not that strong a magician,” Archit said, as if he had missed the joke completely.
The two of them hesitated for a moment, neither making a move for the driver’s side.
“Can’t you drive?” James asked, but he already knew the answer.
“Nah, I’m not tall enough to reach the pedal,” Archit said. “I thought you could.”
“No, I don’t have my license yet.”
Archit grumbled and looked around at the yard. “What we need is a squirrel.”
Before James could question how they would even get close enough to a squirrel to enchant it, Archit had started back toward one of the trees beside the greenhouse. “There’s one!”
James followed, but Archit turned and held his wing up, signaling him to stay back. “Not too much movement,” Archit said.
Archit dipped his wingtip into the pouch again and flung a puff of glitter into the air. The effect again came quickly. The squirrel, which had turned and begun to flee upon Archit’s approach, shifted and morphed into the form of a stocky middle-aged man dressed in a gray suit.
“Well, not bad,” Archit said.
The man, who seconds before had been a squirrel, looked around. His mannerisms were still rodent-like. “What’s happened?”
“You’re a chauffeur now,” Archit said, as if this should have been easy to understand. “We need you to drive. Come on, and hurry. We have only fifteen minutes or so before you change back.”
“Change back?” the chauffeur squeaked.
“That’s right, you’ll be a squirrel again soon,” Archit said. “No need to worry.”
James smiled awkwardly at the chauffeur, trying to be friendly. “Hi.”
Archit pointed to the pumpkin car. “Come on, everyone,” he said. “No dawdling. Let’s get in.”
James didn’t have to be told twice. The last thing he wanted after the horror of the afternoon was to be stranded in the middle of town with a pumpkin, a squirrel, and a talking purple bird. There was no way he could explain that to anyone, let alone what he knew about Mr. Birken’s being an evil wizard on top of all of it.
He opened the back passenger-side door and climbed inside. The yellow-orange pleather upholstery was cool and clammy, maybe because it had all been pumpkin guts only moments before. Archit went around to the other side and climbed in next to him.
“Do you know how to get to Fairview?” James asked the chauffeur. “The neighborhood?”
“Fairview?” the chauffeur repeated.
“Yeah,” James said, wondering whether the squirrel knew the area well enough to identify different neighborhoods. James didn’t know what to believe or expect any more. “Across town,” he described. “Waterfront community. Lots of Cape Cod cottages.”
“Ah, yes,” the chauffeur said. “Right. So, then, here we go.”
And they were off. James looked at his watch. It was quarter to five. If Archit’s prediction about their fifteen-minute time constraint were correct, they had until five, at best. In any case, that was far too late for James to be getting home. He doubted his mother would notice he was missing. She would be too busy getting ready for the party—but Margot would be aware. She was probably already wondering where he was, because he didn’t meet her at her car after school. She would have assumed he went downtown with some friends to get pizza or something earlier. By now, she would be irritated that he wasn’t home and that she might be stuck covering for him.
James looked over at Archit, who was staring out the window in pensive silence.
“So…uh…” James hesitated. “Look, I know this is a touchy subject, and I’m sure you’re tired of my asking about it…”
“No, that’s all right,” Archit said, still looking out the window. “You deserve to know.” He turned back to James. “I have to go see somebody. Somebody wise and powerful, who I hope might be able to explain all of this.”
“But I don’t understand. What could be so significant about a sixteenth birthday?”
“Because by all possibility, I shouldn’t have a sixteenth birthday.”
James didn’t even know how to respond to that. “What? How?”
“I’m a figment creature,” Archit said. “Do you know what that means?”
“Like, a figment of the imagination?” James said.
“Exactly. Never born, never aging, never dying. You see, I don’t even think I’m part of this world of reality.”
James wondered whether that were supposed to make sense to him, because it definitely didn’t. Even as an avid mythology buff—or so he liked to consider himself—he was having a little trouble wrapping his mind around this. “Oh.”
Archit struggled to find the next words. “I say ‘I think’ because…well, I remember aging when I was younger. But that was a different time, a happier time, and when my uncle cursed me…” He sighed. “Look, I could explain all this, but it would take a while.”
“Maybe I should come with you,” James suggested.
“I mean, I can’t really just stick around here, can I?” It was only a matter of time before Mr. Birken came for James. He was better off going with Archit and seeing this through to the end. Besides, James thought, we’re in this together now.
“I see what you’re saying,” Archit replied. “But it’ll be dangerous.”
“It can’t be any more dangerous than what I encountered this afternoon,” James said. Talking bravely made him a little less nervous. “And we’re stronger sticking with each other, right?”
“Yes, I suppose we are,” Archit said. “But you don’t have to go for my sake. I’ve been dealing with this for hundreds of years now, so I’m not afraid to go on alone.”
“No, I want to go,” James said. What was he saying? What exactly was he agreeing to? It gave him a rush of excitement to think this was actually happening. “But we have to wait until late tonight,” he added quickly. “If I don’t put in an appearance at this party tonight, my parents will wonder where I am, and they’ll come looking for me before we have a chance to get away.”
“That’s all right. We can’t cross the border between worlds until dawn anyway.”
There was that phrase again—the border between worlds. “Oh, man,” James said. “Is this really happening?”
Archit laughed. “Yeah. But I hope you’re this enthusiastic when the going gets tough.”
“I’ll try to be.”
The car began to slow. James looked out the window, realizing that they had already reached his street. “This is my house coming up at the end of the block.”
“Will you pull over at this last house up ahead?” Archit asked the chauffeur.
The car slowed as it approached the cedar-shingled house at the top of the hill. The place was so familiar and comforting, yet so detached from James all at the same time. It was a funny feeling that he couldn’t quite understand—this might be last time he was going to be home for a long while, but he didn’t mind at all. No, in a way, he was almost excited to be leaving it behind.
When the car stopped, the two of them climbed out of the backseat and stood momentarily on the street, looking up at the house before they headed up the hill.
This was it. James had been waiting his entire life for something like this. Fifteen years of being a pathetic little nobody in a small town where nothing ever happened, and now he was setting off on the adventure of a lifetime!
Am I ready for this?
If he weren’t ready for it, did he really care? He was with Archit, and Archit knew what he was doing.
Sure, he had known the purple bird for all of a half-hour max, but he could already tell that Archit was brave, tough, street-smart, and headstrong. Archit was an adventurer. And maybe James would prove himself to be one too.
Maybe Archit felt the same sense of relief and gratitude that James did. Maybe, just maybe, the bird was happy to have a companion who would help him brave whatever lay ahead.
About the Author
Dylan Roche is a journalist, editor, actor, director, playwright, teacher, and marathon runner based in Annapolis, Maryland. The Purple Bird is his first novel.
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