Episode #4: “Ordinary Souls” by K. M. Szpara

April 23, 2015

ORDINARY SOULS

by K. M. Szpara

“This is a bad idea, Callum.” The sorceress rolled a colorful concoction of dried plants in a thin piece of cigarette paper and balanced it between her lips. “You know that, right?” The end smoldered on its own.

“Probably.” If Ethan didn’t know, would he forgive me?

I picked at a chunk of yellow foam exploding from my chair’s upholstery. She wouldn’t notice. Her whole apartment was crumbling slowly around her altar—chipped paint, smoke glazed walls, mysterious splatter on the floor. Serena was a ‘non-profit’ sorceress, one of the few who didn’t whore over-inflated skills in the private sector.

A full transcript appears under the cut.

[Music Plays]

Hello! Welcome to GlitterShip episode four for April 23rd, 2015. I’m your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

Well, we’ve made it through the first month of GlitterShip. It’s been a bit of a learning curve on my end, but I think we’re off to a good start. As a head’s up, since GlitterShip only publishes four fiction episodes a month, we’re going to have a week off next week, although I may put up a short question and answer session about the podcast if anyone has any questions. I made a short Google form, which I’ll link in the transcript, or you can email me at kehrli at gmail dot com if you have anything you’d like me to talk about next week.

One of the Kickstarter stretch goals that we reached right at the end of the campaign was an original fiction goal. What this means is that I’m going to start putting out one original piece of fiction per month. I thought that I’d be able to start doing that in May, but the first original story will come out in June, since I have to buy some stories first!

If you’re a writer, submissions for original stories will be open starting on May 1st. This is an open call, so no previous publishing experience is necessary, just send me your best work. For more information about GlitterShip submissions, please check out our Submission Guidelines on the website.

This does mean, however, that since we’re starting two months late with original stories, there will be two original episodes in both June and July to catch up.

One last update about GlitterShip in general: I’ve started to send out Kickstarter backer surveys. Right now the $5 and $10 levels have been sent out, and the others will be coming. Thank you so much to everyone who contributed. Without you, I wouldn’t be able to make this podcast.

I’ve mentioned the Vitality Kickstarter before. Vitality is a queer SF/F print and ezine that is funding its second issue. The Kickstarter ends on April 30th, so if you’re interested in more queer SF/F fiction, check it out. And, I will of course have links in the transcript.

Alright! Today’s story is “Ordinary Souls” by K.M. Szpara.

K.M. Szpara lives in Baltimore, MD, with a black cat and miniature poodle. He has a Master of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, which he totally uses at his day job as a legal secretary. On nights and weekends, he advances his queer agenda at the local LGBT Community Center and writes speculative fiction novels. His short fiction appears or is forthcoming in Lightspeed's Queers Destroy Science Fiction! and Shimmer Magazine. You can find him on Twitter @KMSzpara.

A quick note before we get into the story: this is another sad one, sorry! I’m such a goth at heart, everything is sadness and doom with me. More importantly, though, this story does contain a sex scene, so if that’s going to embarrass you, you might want to listen to it with headphones.

 

 

Ordinary Souls

By K.M. Szpara

 

 “This is a bad idea, Callum.” The sorceress rolled a colorful concoction of dried plants in a thin piece of cigarette paper and balanced it between her lips. “You know that, right?” The end smoldered on its own.

“Probably.” If Ethan didn’t know, would he forgive me?

I picked at a chunk of yellow foam exploding from my chair’s upholstery. She wouldn’t notice. Her whole apartment was crumbling slowly around her altar—chipped paint, smoke glazed walls, mysterious splatter on the floor. Serena was a ‘non-profit’ sorceress, one of the few who didn’t whore over-inflated skills in the private sector.

“This won’t be like the little spells I give you for headaches and—”

“I haven’t felt anything for a week.”

“Figured as much,” she said. “I won’t stop you. Just want you to know what you’re getting into.”

“I know.”

I didn’t know, really, but I didn’t care.

 

“Where are we going now?” Ethan said. He clutched a bouquet of asphodel in one hand as I tugged him off the beach. His nose disappeared into the little white flowers; the orange-tipped spires tickled his nose and his lips tightened in a smile.

We were going to be late for our reservation. It was already 8:15.

His hand fit inside mine. It was smaller and hardened from years of operating the same lever at the spice mill. I rubbed a finger over his calluses and he smiled up at me.

“You’re not going to tell,” he said.

“Of course not.” I winked; Ethan hated surprises. He still tried to find his Christmas present every year. I had to remind him he was almost thirty, but he always brushed me off.

I corralled him into my car and threw it into gear before he could fasten his seatbelt.

He struggled with it as I took off. “I know you think speed limits don’t apply to you, Callum, so can you at least wait till I’m buckled in? I’d rather not die tonight.”

At his words, I slowed a sudden twenty miles per hour. “Sorry,” I said.

Ethan lurched and then clicked his belt in place. “It’s fine.” He kissed my cheek. “I’d just rather tomorrow’s headlines not read, Tragic Car Crash Kills—” He paused, picking at the bouquet in his hands. “—Attractive Young Machinist and His Sugar Daddy.

I risked our lives to glare at Ethan. “I hate it when people call me that.”

“Right.” He angled my head back to the road. “Which is why you need to slow down and pay attention.” Ethan smirked at his own wit.

He rolled down the window and a few pink pinstriped petals twirled into the night. The flowers’ light-honey musk filled the car. Ethan stared out the window, entranced by the sight. Then, I took our exit and his gaze turned to the streets.

I pulled into a parking space. “This is our stop,” I said, waiting for him to notice and remember.

Through high windows, candles glowed on black silk tablecloths. Ethan’s jaw unhinged when I opened his door. The familiar scent of hickory-smoked turkey and herbed bread reached us even outside.

“Fernando’s? This is where—”

“We had our first date,” I said, helping him out of the car. “The only time you ever let me treat you to dinner.” I gave his hand a playful squeeze. “Well, you ordered us filet mignon.” Ethan was no good at keeping a straight face. “I couldn’t—”

I curled my arms around him and stopped his stammers with a kiss. He inched onto his toes and laced his fingers behind my neck.

“Happy anniversary,” I said.

 

“Take this while I prepare. Little something for the nerves, free of charge. Open up.” Serena blew rose-colored smoke at my face and I breathed it all in.

“Better?” A green plastic ashtray sat neglected as Serena flicked the ash onto the linoleum.

I nodded as the magic settled into my bloodstream. “Thanks,” I said. “So, what do I owe you for the...”

We’d never talked about the dark side of her business. Some clients just never reemerged from her apartment. Serena assured me the results were worth the price. I’d never believed her until now.

“I don’t want your money, Callum, not for this.” She held another cloud of smoke in her lungs, longer this time, then puffed it out slowly. Her remedy fixed to my heart like a scab. “But I do have a trade in mind.”

 

We spilled into our apartment, half-drunk from dinner. The duck confit had done little to soak up the two bottles of vintage white we’d ordered. Ethan threw his keys; they slid across the counter and clanged to the floor. I couldn’t help but stare as he bent to retrieve them. He laughed and tugged unsuccessfully at my shirt. I humored him, closing the gap between us.

“You look hot in blue,” he said.

“Did you want me to leave my clothes on?” I asked, but he was already fingering the buttons.

“Fuck me,” he whispered. His tongue grazed his lips.

I leaned in and caught the bottom lip between my teeth. A soft moan escaped him as I sucked. How could I not give in to such a demand?

“In bed?” I nudged his chin aside and kissed his throat. My hand brushed his crotch. His pulse throbbed against my cheek. “Or here, against the counter?”

 

I waved at the growing fog of honey-sweet incense. You would have thought my lungs were hard-wired for essence of asphodel. Tears stung my eyes; Serena lit three black candles and I tried to blink away the irritation.

“You’re sure you don’t want the anti-anxiety smokes instead?” she asked. “They’ll go down easier. You know I’ll give you a good—”

“Don’t you think I’m past anxiety?” I said.

She straightened to a formidable height. “Before we start, the contract.” She left the issue behind and held out an empty palm, like I might spit gum into it. “Breathe here.”

A small yellow crystal materialized from my breath. Serena dropped it into a leather pouch, which she reattached to her hip. No turning back, now.

She set a small cage on the altar. A dove poked his head between the bars and watched Serena grind herbs and flowers into crumbs. She picked up the knife and the dove beat his wings against the bars.

“Quiet, little bird. This isn’t for you,” she said and the creature stilled. “Callum, your hand.” She’d never performed a blood-spell on me before. They were high-stakes but felt like a small price now. I flexed my fingers and offered my palm.

Serena slammed it down against the table and sliced the blade across the soft flesh of my wrist. I screamed and the dove fluttered in its cage. Every muscle in my body flexed but she held me still with unnatural strength.

“Gods, Serena!” My heart quickened as blood leaked down my hand and onto the altar cloth. I’d known a sacrifice had to be made, but this much? The room twisted around me, colors wrung out like water from a dirty rag.

I could barely make out her words over the high-pitched buzz in my ears. “These aren’t the gods you’re used to, Callum.”

 

Ethan threw his leather shoes off like they hadn’t cost him a week’s salary. Five days of sorting out magic plants from mundane. Forty hours of the same motion, picking and sniffing seeds, then grinding them to powder.

Guilt turned in my stomach as I ran my manicured hands up Ethan’s sides. It’d taken months to convince him to move in with me. He couldn’t afford half the rent; I didn’t care.

“You coming?” He smiled—somehow Ethan was always smiling.

I pulled at my tie, kicked off my shoes. “Bet your ass I am.”

Ethan ran into our bedroom, shirt unbuttoned, pants twisted around his ankles. He danced around, trying to get them off. “Well if my ass is on the line—” I rushed over as he fell in a fit of giggles. “I hope you win.”

I grabbed the cuffs of his pants and pulled them off. “I haven’t even had a chance to play yet.”

 

Serena held me still until my blood soaked the altar cloth. “Relax, you’re still alive,” she said. “Would you rather I’d pricked your finger and wasted an hour while we waited?”

I dug my fingernails into my palm, shaking my head. I’d have let her slit my throat if it would’ve given me more time with Ethan.

“Don’t move.”

I slouched in my chair as she released me. Her hand disappeared into a wooden box, and returned with coarse brown thread. She steadied my arm while her needle pierced my skin.

"Asphodel root."

My lip burned as I bit down on it. Serena stitched the gash with the root-thread until a jagged brown line remained. I wriggled my fingers as their feeling returned.

She traced its length, whispering.

I grunted and yanked my arm free, examining the stitches. They'd melded into my skin.

Serena spread three pinches of her plant mixture across cigarette paper and rolled it. One end glowed orange as the other touched her lips. “Human blood. Always gives it a metallic tinge. Open up, birdie.”

The dove cooed as the sorceress drew a deep breath and released it. Smoke enveloped the cage.

"You're not going to—"

"Kill it?" When she dosed it again, the bird twitched. "What kind of business do you think I run here?"

And then it keeled over.

 

"Please!" Ethan arched up as I pushed my fingers inside him again.

Our bodies slid against one another, slick with sweat and saliva. I'd held off as long as I could, but the way he panted now, I knew he wouldn't let me wait.

But I relished the remaining moments. "Please what?" My lips grazed his chest as I spoke. He tasted like salt and smelled like cinnamon.

A little growl rumbled in his throat. "You're killing me, Callum."

His words prickled over my skin. "Don't talk like that."

"I wouldn't have to if my boyfriend would get inside me." He squirmed beneath me.

“Right,” I said, loosening my grip on his arms. “Sorry.”

We were lost: words reduced to syllables, the world to this bed, his warmth, my thrusts. He was a writhing, sweaty, beautiful mess of a man. Ethan’s fingers wrapped around his own cock and my eyes screwed shut. Moans and grunts surfaced like bubbles in champagne.

Then—“Callum!”

I held on as his body bucked beneath mine. My orgasm hit as his subsided. It was more of a spasm—a body out of control. My hips jerked and ground against his, stretching the pleasure as long as I could. Ethan’s lips were there as the room focused again. His calm washed over me like one of Serena’s remedies.

“What if we just stayed like this forever?” he said. “Connected.”

But I pulled away, ending his fantasy. Why did he have to say these things now?

“What if we could stop time, drain oceans, fly through space...” I said.

“I was trying to be romantic.”

I nudged him and flopped onto the pillows. “Goodnight, Ethan.”

“Night, Callum.” He curled against me, resting his head in the crook of my neck, and kissed my shoulder. This was where I wanted to stay forever.

 

Serena grabbed a blanket from the cupboard and tossed it at me. "I hope you brought another set of clothes."

"I did." I picked at a piece of dried blood.

"Over the sink. This is my workplace, not your bathroom."

No, my bathroom was much cleaner. But I obeyed. Warm water spewed from her rusting faucet, loosening the mess on my arm.

"Change behind the curtain. Be quick. The night doesn't wait."

I pulled on the black pants and sapphire blue shirt I'd packed—Ethan’s favorite. Serena flung the curtain open as I finished tying my shoes. "You look nice. Going someplace fancy later?"

“Fernando’s. It was our first date.”

“How’d you manage those reservations?” she asked, somewhere between impressed and mocking.

“I know the hostess. What's in the basket?"

A black cloth covered the contents. Sorcerers never disclosed all their ingredients. “Get the bird. Time to go.”

 

My alarm blared like it was on red-alert.

“Ugh, shut up.” Ethan swatted around, missing completely. “Callum, your alarm.”

I reached over him and slapped it right onto the floor.

“I hate that thing,” he said.

“I know, you’ve told me a million times.”

He snuggled up against me, eyes still closed. “Couldn’t you get one that plays light jazz or nature sounds?”

“Nothing says ‘time to wake up’ like light jazz,” I mumbled and tightened the covers around us.

The snooze alarm sounded its revenge.

“Gods, what time is it?” Ethan yanked the plug right from the socket, but I knew:

5:00. My stomach dropped. Morning.

“You know,” he said, voice groggy. “I took off work so that we could sleep in, make penis-shaped pancakes, then maybe lick maple syrup off one another.” Ethan buried his face in my chest, eyes still closed.

“There’s nothing else I’d rather do.” I squeezed him in my arms, trying to memorize exactly how his body felt, how his fingers grazed my back, and toes poked mine. “But we have to go. There’s something I have to show you.”

He rolled onto his stomach and watched me pull on a pair of shorts. Concern showed on his face. “What happened to your arm?”

I quickly covered the stitches with long sleeves. “Nothing.”

“Have you been going to Serena again?”

I reached into his drawer and grabbed a white tee shirt. “Maybe.”

“Do I even want to know why?” His lips tightened while he watched me get dressed.

I didn’t answer—couldn’t answer. He’d know a lie, and the truth? Not yet. I still had time.

Ethan sighed. "Come back to bed.”

I threw the shirt and it landed on his head.

“Get dressed. We’re leaving in five.”

 

The water looked different just after sunset, black almost. Serena sat cross-legged in the middle of a circle. She’d traced intricate patterns in the sand in preparation for the spell. I’d set up my charade, laying out a blanket with bare dishes and a half-empty bottle of wine. Now, I dug my feet into the sand to keep from running.

If the week without Ethan had felt like a lifetime, how was a lifetime going to feel?

I closed my eyes and tried to drown out Serena’s chanting. But I could still smell the incense: asphodel, again. She’d given me a small bouquet of the pink and white flowers. They rested on the blanket, waiting.

Just like me.

 

“I take back everything I said earlier about staying in bed,” Ethan said. “I’ll never get tired of this beach.”

“Me neither,” I whispered. I didn’t trust myself to speak any louder.

“And now I will have seen the sun set and rise here during the same night. Morning—technically, it’s morning, but you know what I mean.”

I nodded and wrapped my arms around him as we stared out at the sea. It seemed to rise with the sun in orange, red, and purple.

“Do you remember the first time we came here?” I said and cleared my throat. My voice had begun to waver.

“Yes. It was barely spring and the water was freezing. You threw me in. I don’t think I returned your calls for a week.” He laughed and leaned his head on my shoulder. “And if you’re thinking about a repeat performance, stop. I know where you sleep.”

Then, in the distance, I saw Serena coming with the unconscious white dove in its little cage. I wanted to run—wanted to scoop Ethan up in my arms and just go. There wasn’t enough time. How could she possibly think I was ready?

“Ethan,” I said. “There’s something I have to tell you.”

 

“He’s coming!” Serena said. I sat up on the picnic blanket and looked around.

“Where?”

She didn’t have time to answer my question. Little flecks of ash rose from the sand and the sea. At first they were too tiny to notice. But then, they joined and grew, forming his familiar shape.

“Remember not to treat him differently. For him, it will be like he was never gone,” the sorceress said. “The dead don’t remember.”

I nodded, only half-paying attention to her instructions.

“Then he’s yours again...until sunrise. Use your time wisely and meet me back here.”

“Or else?”

“I will kill you both.” She showed no hint of a smile.

When the last of the ashes fell into place, they flashed white like the center of a flame. The form was no longer ash; it was flesh. I reached out and ran my fingers over the soft pink skin of his cheek.

“Ethan?”

“What?”

I threw my body against his, knocking us both to the sand. There weren’t enough kisses in the world. How could I possibly fit them all into one night?

“Nothing, I just”—missed you—“love you.”

“Someone’s had too much celebratory wine. Aren’t we supposed to be going somewhere real for dinner? Not that the sunset wasn’t beautiful, but those crackers and cheese won’t hold me over for long.”

“Yes, we are,” I said. “We’re going to have an unforgettable night.”

 

Serena was too close to ignore and the sun poured over the horizon. How could I tell Ethan? How could I even form the words? It was going to crush him. Serena was right. Letting him go a second time already hurt worse.

“Tonight, it—it wasn’t...” I tried to say it.

“Wasn’t what?”

“It wasn’t real. And I’m so sorry for doing this to you.”

“Doing what? Callum, you’re scaring me.” He gripped my shoulders and stared at me with those deep brown eyes.

“Last week there was an accident. At the spice mill.”

“I think I would have known—”

I pushed my lips against his, pressed our foreheads together, squeezed my hands against the sides of his face.

I shook my head.

“No.” His fingers dug into my sides, lips quivered against my neck. “Stop it. Why are you doing this?”

“It’s time.” Serena stopped beside us. The dove stirred in its cage.

“What’s she doing here?” Ethan said, recognizing the sorceress.

“I’ve come to send you back.” She said what I couldn’t. “You can’t stay with the living.”

He stilled when she touched his forehead. Realization hit him like a bomb.

“No!” Ethan screamed and I unleashed the sob I’d been holding in since we’d woken up. “No, Callum. Don’t let her take me, please!” I hugged him until my arms hurt, kissed him until my lips slid through our tears.

“Don’t worry,” Serena said. “You can’t hurt when you don’t exist.”

Slowly, little flecks of his hair and skin turned a dark gray. He started to fade as they blew away in the breeze.

“I love you,” I said. “So much.”

“I love you too,” he whispered.

And then, all I could hear were his gasps and the terrifying cries of a person who’d just realized he wasn’t even dying. He had already died.

The dove cooed and righted itself in the cage. “Can’t we just kill the fucking bird?” I shouted over Ethan’s shoulder. Why did it get to rise again? I’d strangle the thing if its death would give Ethan the rest of his life back.

Ash flew into the morning breeze. I was barely holding him anymore.

“Please don’t let me go,” he whispered, and then to Serena. “I’d rather hurt.”

“Sorry, sweetie,” she said.

It took all my strength to look into Ethan’s translucent eyes.

“Remember me.” His lips continued to move soundlessly.

“Always,” I said.

The last of him swept off into the wind. Ethan was gone.

 

The door to my apartment swung open. I hadn’t answered the knocks; I knew who it was. “You can’t hide forever, Callum.”

Serena pulled up a chair beside the bed, where I huddled under a pile of blankets. It had been ten days. I’d barely moved.

“Time to pay up.”

It’d sounded like a fair trade when she’d suggested it. Better, even, than living with the pain. Ethan didn’t have to, why should I?

But I couldn’t lie in bed forever, staring at the empty space beside me, reliving that night.

“You gathered his belongings?”

I glanced at a black bag on the floor. There was no use trying to keep anything of Ethan’s. Serena would sense it. She promised to hold onto the possessions I couldn’t bear to destroy—photographs, letters, the engraved watch I’d bought him for our one-year anniversary. We couldn’t risk me finding ‘strange’ things around the apartment.

“Just get it over with,” I said.

“You’ll feel better afterwards.” She plucked a cigarette from inside her cloak and put it to her lips. “You don’t really want to think about him all the time anyway. He’s dead. Non-existent. Ash.”

“I get it. What are you going to do with them?”

“Your memories of Ethan are very potent,” she said. “Perfect for love spells and collectors. I already have a prospective client lined up.”

“You’re not taking any other memories. Just him?” Tears flowed down familiar paths on my cheeks. I’d promised I’d always remember him.

“I’m a woman of my word.” She shrugged. “Now, open up. Time for your medicine.”

She breathed the enchanted smoke into my lungs and I breathed Ethan out of my life.

 

“That wasn’t so bad,” Serena said.

I coughed and waved at the cloud of smoke that hung in my bedroom. “What was that?” My head pounded.

“Just a little something for your aches.” She patted my forehead and then stood, gathering her black bag of supplies. The magic must have made me doze off. It’d happened before.

“Thanks, I guess.”

She set a tin on the end table before opening the front door. “Smoke one every night before bed for a week. Start tonight and you’ll be good as new.”

The door banged closed behind her. I flipped the tin open and a soft honey scent wafted out. It smelled strangely familiar, but from where and when? It would come to me in an hour when I least expected it, I was sure.

But it was only 7:30. If I left now, I could still grab a table for one at Fernando’s and be back in time for Serena’s remedy.

 

END

 

 

“Ordinary Souls” was first published in Shimmer issue 16 in January 2013.

This recording is a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license, which means you can share it with anyone you’d like, but please don’t change or sell it. Our theme is “Aurora Borealis” by Bird Creek, available through the  Google Audio Library.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll have another story for you on May 7th!

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