Something Left to Give 1 "Oh, drat." Sophie scowled at the bowl of cake batter, which had definitely been overbeaten. Well, that was what happened when one was prone to daydreaming with the electric whisk on. She sighed and scraped the chocolaty goo into the two cake pansâ€”heart-shaped, and she had pink strawberry icing sitting in the refrigeratorâ€”before sticking them in the oven. She did this last part carefully, keeping her face as far away from the heated contraption as possible; wearing an apron and opening an oven always made her think of 50's housewives who had done themselves in by sticking their heads in the very device which ruled their lives. Sophie simply couldn't shake the urge, on the occasions she did bake, that she should do the same. Not that Sophie was a housewife. At least it was a nice day. A fresh fall breeze blew the curtains about like wedding veils, thin, gauzy, and somehow happy. Sophie leaned on the windowsill and licked batter from the spoon she'd scraped the cake pan with. Chocolate and sunshine. Well, she should go check on the store now. She skipped down the stairs two at a time to the bottom part of the row house she shared with Tim, to whom she was newly betrothed. He had left early this morning to make the commute into D.C. "Sophie! Beau-tiful morning, no?" said Becka from behind the front counter, words undulating with her cheerful Swedish accent. She was not your stereotypical
Swede, a cropped brunette rather than a long blonde and tattoos covering her curvy figure. "You know it! How's things down here?" Sophie asked. There were maybe one or two people in the store, browsing its selection of "hippie wares," as her mother liked to call the herbal teas, vegan "dairy" products, and gluten-free box mixes which Glory's health-conscious citizens could not find anywhere else in town, at least not at these prices. The Whole Foods on Lefton Street sold many of the same products, but for an arm and a leg. "Good, good. Quiet, it is still early, after all." Becka paused and then smiled. "Are you baking? You're covered in chocolate." Sophie looked down at herself and discovered this was true. Not only was her apron (which she had forgotten to take off, whoops) splattered, but her skin and pants as well. It was harder to see on her skin, which was approximately the same color as the batter. "Duh. I'll be back, Becka, just lemme go clean myself up." "No problem! I vill keep Psychic City afloat, as I usually do," Becka called after her with a laugh. Upstairs, Sophie threw her apron across a chair and went to the sink for a washcloth. It took her a minute to notice that something was not how she'd left it. There was a cake on the table. Her cake, beautifully frosted and displayed on the glass cake holder which she hadn't even bothered to get out yet. "Uh." She checked the oven. It was off, but still hot. There were twenty minutes and sixteen seconds left on the timer. Fifteen. Fourteen. Thirteen. Twelve— "Uh, what?" Cautiously, Sophie approached the cake. Now, she'd been practicing her frosting techniques, but this fluffy whip texture was beyond her. She drew a toothpick from the cup on the counter and poked the mysterious confection, fully expecting it to leap up—and what? Do a song and dance? She giggled nervously. The cake neither burst into song nor breakdanced on the table, but the toothpick did come out clean, suggesting it was fully baked. Sophie eyed the timer, the clock on the wall, and her watch, and then all three again. Nineteen minutes and fifty-eight seconds. Fifty-seven. Fifty-six…
There was a card next to the cake holder. Place-card sized, and made from some heavy, snow-white parchment. Watercolor paper, maybe, an expensive brand. She picked it up and found neatly written on the front, in script:
Be Careful. Be careful? Be careful of what? She turned the card over and found, in tiny letters, an address. King Street. That was in Northside, wasn't it? Above the address was what sounded more like a title than a name, someone called the taker. No capitals. A sudden clatter from downstairs, followed by shouting, startled her and broke her mind away from the strange card. She dashed for the stairs, but not before swiping a bit of frosting with her finger and tasting it. Definitely magical. No doubt. Downstairs there was less magic and more mayhem. The fire alarm was going off, the jammed sprinkler system was squeaking, and there was whole wheat flour everywhere, drifting through the store like smoke. In fact, everything was everywhere. A figure was lying prone in the middle of it all, over which Becka was standing and cursing in seven or nine languages. Sophie approached the scene partially stunned and partially trying to hold back cackling laughter. The figure on the floor, which was mysteriously not covered in flour, sat up and began coughing. Sophie waved the wheat-smoke away and found her culprit to be, on first glance, a short and stocky Latino. On second glance, he was short and stocky with four arms. The second pair were situated almost directly below the first and were slightly smaller. He was wearing a curious coat to fit this body of his, dark corduroy with a good number of pockets. He was also wearing a long green scarf, despite the fact that it was warm outside. There were no shoes on his extremely large and hairy feet, but there were warts. The stranger looked up at Sophie and winked. "My bad," he said, and then more to himself: "Gon' be in so much trouble for bein' seenâ€Ś" Sophie said, rather calmly considering the situation, "What happened here?" She paused to place a hand on Becka's shoulder, indicating that she should quiet down. A quick glance around confirmed that they were the only ones in the store, but still, the racket made her head hurt.
"Ran into Silvertongue here," the little man said, standing and dusting himself off despite the lack of flour on his clothes. Sophie had to admit, four arms looked more efficient than two. "Accident, I swear. Promise your stuff'll be gettin' replaced, don't worry about that." "Silvertongue?" said Becka indignantly. The little man bowed in her direction, but there was a slight smirk on his face as he did so. "Yes'm! What I'd give for your tongue, all those words from other worlds, yeah?" When Becka replied only by turning red and clenching her (rather dangerous) fists, he straightened and turned back to Sophie. "In any case, enjoy your cake!" With that he disappeared. The bells on the door clamored faintly, and Sophie was left standing in a cloud of flour and beside an angry Swede. "Ohâ€Śkay," said Sophie, and Becka blew up. Sophie ignored her; the girl would cool down in a few minutes, and in the meantime would probably use her energy to clean up the exploded bags of flour. She looked down at the card in her hand. The taker. Sophie walked out of the store and hopped on her bicycle. 2 She and Tim owned a small hybrid car, that they did, but the vehicle was hardly used. Sophie preferred the feel of the wind on her face and the burn in her calves. She'd been riding her bike around town since before her Mama allowed her out, and was in great shape because of it. Quickly she pedaled up Spice Street, pumping hard against gravity and the increasing steepness of the hill. Northside might have the lowest income bracket in the city but it had the highest elevation in the county. What, she thought as she wove in and out of parked cars and pedestrians, am I doing? An undoubtedly good question, but there was no turning back now. The thought was left behind at the intersection of Spice and Mackey, where there was a minor fender-bender and a four-mile backup. The business card was between her teeth and funny as that might look, she didn't care to lose it. 3627 King Street. She would never remember that. But she did. Obviously. There were no palaces on King Street, just lines of brick rowhouses with little slivers of yard and concrete stoops. Some had been worked on, given lattices and roses and compact gardens which this time of year were filled with tulips and daffodils. Some held only stained glider couches and others nothing at all. Windows came in a variety of
glass, plastic wrap, graffitied plywood, and broken. It was all more than enough in most cases. Sophie slowed down as she hit the 3600 block, counting mailboxes to the tiktiktiktik of her bicycle tires. She'd been expecting a business district, but that 3627 was a residence only made her more curious. She should've been wary, but Sophie had long lost any fear of city crime rates. The page-long police blotter in the Glorious Times was a fact of life, and anyway, more muggings happened in ritzy Downtown than up here. Not that Sophie, tottering on her old Schwinn in jeans and an apron, made much of a target. She dismounted her bicycle, balancing it against 3627's mailbox in lieu of a working kickstand, and walked up the sidewalk unafraid. The yard was charmingly overrun with honeysuckle and English ivy. A thorny locus tree shaded the stoop and left trails of yellow pollen across the roof. Sophie pulled open the ripped screen door and knocked. There was a bowl of milk by her feet. That wasn't so unusual; even she and Tim left food out for stray cats once in a while, but what were the rolls for? They looked good, not stale at all as one might expect of food left to wild animals. She picked one up, tore a piece off, and found it to be several kinds of delicious. And Sophie knew delicious. She ran a grocery store, after all. Food was her passion. "Can I help you?" Sophie looked up from the bread, startled and embarrassed. In the doorway stood a stern-faced young woman, dressed in a white blouse and a slim, high-waisted houndstooth skirt. Her hair was pulled back tall and high above straight-cut bangs, and there were large silver hoops in her ears. Fashionable as well as classy…a rarity these days, as far as Sophie was concerned. Sophie said, "I sure hope you can." She casually tucked the roll into her sweater pocket and drew forth the business card. "I found this on my table earlier today…next to a cake that shouldn't have been ready for another twenty minutes, only it was. And then…well, it's been a weird morning." "I'm sure," replied the woman. She smiled without showing her teeth. "Please come in." Inside the house was brightly and pleasantly lit; there were no curtains on the windows, and so the place was filled to the brim with soft white sunlight. Decoration and furniture were sparse but aesthetically pleasing. Obviously the taker didn't take
things. Sophie followed the woman into the kitchen, where she was surprised to find a porcelain sink, a lack of microwave, and a half-naked man. At least, she thought it was a man. He looked to be in his late twenties, with a scruffy chin and a leanly muscled figure. Like the woman he was startlingly and strangely attractive—too attractive, maybe, even with the long white rabbit ears that stuck out from his messy brown hair. He leaned over to peer into the refrigerator and they brushed against his shoulders, being the floppy sort of rabbit ear rather than upright. He was wearing a pink tutu and smoking a cigarette. "Where's the milk?" "I put the last of it outside for the pixies," said the woman. Sophie fingered the bread in her pocket and noted that the woman had hooves for feet. Clip-clop, clip-clop. "Goddamnit." The woman ignored him and instead started shuffling through cabinets. "Would you like some tea?" "Uh, no, not when there's no milk—" "Not you, our guest," said the woman, nodding in Sophie's direction. She put a copper kettle on the stove and her eyes on Sophie. The rabbit-man looked at her, too, and she suddenly felt uncomfortable. "Yes, please," Sophie said, and the woman turned back to the cabinets. The rabbit-man pulled a carton of yogurt from the fridge and began eating it with his finger. "So what's your name?" he asked, looking her up and down. "Sophie," she replied, "and you?" "You can call me—" he paused thoughtfully and glanced around, gaze settling on the container of Dannon yogurt. "Dan. You can call me Dan. And…you can call her There's No Damn Milk In The Fridge," he said, pointing at the woman. "Loosee will be fine," said the woman, rolling her eyes. She handed Sophie a beautiful china teacup from which the smell of cloves wafted, even though Sophie had never heard the kettle whistle, much less see Loosee pour the tea. It was the cake all over again. She sipped at the tea anyway and found it earthy, rich, and slightly bitter. She sipped some more. Dan leaned on the counter and crossed his hairy man-legs. When he raised his eyebrows, his ears rose too. "So tell me, Sophie, do you like games?" "Like boardgames? Or sports?" "Mm…boardgames."
"I sure do," she replied, clutching her teacup tightly. She and Tim played Scrabble with a group of friends every Thursday night, and they were currently in the middle of a tournament. Jazz Hackney was beating her by three points, which was inexcusable. Sophie really didn't want to lose a whole case of kumquats to The Grace CafĂŠ. John Cook would make citrus tarts too cute to resist, and she would be jealous. Dan grinned, showing off a pair of long, sharp canines. "Good, 'cause you're in one." 3 "Hey babe, nice to see you again." Sophie sat up and looked around what appeared to be a soggy basement. The four-armed man from earlier (yesterday? she had no idea how much time had passed since blacking out in the kitchen on King Street) was sitting next to her in a plastic lawn chair. He reached over and stroked one of her dreadlocks. "Did I mention you have amazing hair?" "Thanks," she said, wanting to draw away but feeling that would be rude. Instead she went back to scrutinizing the room. Sophie was not the type to ask, "Where are we?" before attempting to figure it out herself. There was nothing exciting about this particular basement. Some contained pool tables or home theaters or thirty-year-old unemployed moochers, but this one had only a white plastic table to match the chairs she and the four-armed man were sitting in. The walls were a horrendous shade of turquoise and illumination came from a suspiciously furry lamp on one wall and a small window on another. There was no door that she could see. On the table, though, sat a bowl of the most beautiful fruit she had ever seen. The bowl, made out of paper-thin frosted glass and etched with intricate spirals, was beautiful as well, but Sophie was, as stated, very much a food person. She had never seen such red apples, or such perfectly colored peaches, not even in art galleries. The strawberries were half the size of her fist and there were yet other fruits that she could not recognize. Considering her years at culinary school and the curious catalogue of produce available to Psychic City, this was the most astonishing thing of all. She eyed the clumps of bright yellow berries and speckled white orbs for a second longer before reaching out to take one of each. Four-Arms smacked her hand away with two of his. "I wouldn't do that if I was you," he said. "Them fruits aren't good for humans."
"Why not? What are they?" "Delicious," he replied, and with a toothy grin, "too delicious. Faery food is like that for your folk. You taste one little bit of it, you won't want nothin' else ever again." Sophie glanced at the strange fruit wistfully. "I see. Does that mean you're a faery, then? And Dan and Loosee, too?" Her companion snorted. "Those the names the buggers gave you? You'd think they'd be more creative, like me. You can call me Domicio." "I'll be honest, I'll just end up shortening that to Dom," said Sophie, and he chuckled. "I was gonna ask how come they didn't give me their real names, but then I remembered you said they were faeries. Names are important in fairytale stuff, right?" Dom nodded. He leaned back in his chair and propped his hairy feet up on the table. He watched her with a pair of earth-brown eyes that, despite their dark color, seemed to hold a strange light. He reached inside his jacket and pulled out a cinnamon stick, which he then proceeded to chew on. "You're pretty chill about all this. Don't you realize what you've gotten into?" "I guess not, if you're saying that and all." "You're a smart woman, Sophie," he said, biting off a piece of the cinnamon stick. She wondered how he could stand the woody bitterness but not how he knew her name. Obviously she had fallen into some sort of storybook, so those things were to be expected. A childish sense of excitement bubbled up inside her; she had always wanted to be in a fairytale. That was when the lamp began to move. The paisley-patterned shade came off, revealing a grotesque face like that of a deep-sea fish. It had no lips, just teeth the size of railroad spikes which jutted out beneath two huge black fish-eyes. The scales covering its stubby head were cobalt blue with a fine sheen. Below that its Bigfootesque body was coated in long brown fur. It raised two very human hands and flexed its fingers. Sophie wanted to ask where the light had been coming from, since there was no lightbulb in sight, but before she could Dom had leapt out of his chair and started to drag her towards the window by her dreds. "Ow! Hey, man!" "No time for that, we gotta get out of here," said Dom. His black hair, previously slicked back, was now standing up in comic spikes. He eventually let go of her hair, but only to scrabble up the wall like a spider, all four hands moving frantically to unlock the small window.
Sophie stared longingly at the beautiful bowl of fruit. Despite Dom's warning, she still wanted to try some. The Bigfoot-fish lumbered closer. "Butâ€”" "Do you want to get eaten?" "No!" said Sophie in alarm. Dom had succeeded in opening the window, but now he was having trouble fitting through. Sophie thought it was because he was so plump, but Dom kept grumbling under his breath about his extra set of arms. She attempted to shove him through, which didn't help much at all. Still the creature got closer. And closer. It was slow but obviously intelligent, if those flexing fingers and rolling eyes meant anything. Ah, but she got an idea. Leaving Dom to wriggle on his own, she walked cautiously across the room and picked up a peach from the bowl. The Bigfoot-fish halted across the table from her and began making a curious gurgling noise in its throat. "Peace offering? I promise it's better than raw flesh," she said, "and I'd be happy to cook dinner for you some other time." The creature looked unsure. Its watery gaze kept going back and forth between the peach and Sophie. Partly to plan and partly for her own satisfaction, Sophie picked up one of the strange white globes with the green speckles and bit into it. An intense flood of flavor ripped through her mouth, and while that sounds like an exaggeration, Sophie would say it certainly is not. The strange fruit had the texture of a grape and tasted most like white tea with too much honey in it. "See? It's all right, I haven't poisoned them," she said. The Bigfoot-fish reached out tentatively and took the peach from her hand. Its fingers brushed against hers lightly, leaving a sticky feeling behind. Sophie waited patiently while it tried the peach. After a few small bites (for how huge its teeth were, it had a surprisingly dainty way of eating), it began to make a purring sound. Sophie took this as a good sign and munched on her tea-fruit. After a moment the creature lumbered slowly around the table and towards the wall, where Dom was still struggling. With one strong push, it popped the stocky fey through the window and into freedom. Despite this show of good will, Dom scrambled back immediately and hid in a bush. "Thank you," said Sophie to the creature. She patted its shoulder as it helped heft her up through the window as well. Once she had gotten through, she turned around and added, "I mean it about dinner. I'm on East Governor Street if you want to come by!" The creature purred and rolled its fish eyes in response.
With that she dusted herself off and stood up. Dom was waiting for her a few feet away. "I changed my mind about you," he said, shaking his head slowly. "Smart? You're crazy." "Just a bit," replied Sophie, who in the process of dusting herself off found something strange inside her apron pocket. It was a puzzle piece. 4 Taped to the back of the puzzle piece was a familiar gold ring. In tiny script beneath the ring was written:
The stakes are high. "I confess," said Dom slowly, "the expression on your face right now makes me want to piss myself more than that tooth-monster did." "They took. My. Husband," said Sophie, who felt ready to breathe fire. "This is his wedding ring." "Lucky it's not his whole finger," muttered Dom, wringing one pair of hands and scratching his head with the other. Sophie was no longer quite amused by the idea of a living, interactive game. She pursed her lips and glared around at their surroundings. Tall buildings rose on all sides; the basement they had crawled from belonged to what looked like an abandoned power plant. The smokestacks were silent, the air above them clear, but the place was undeniably grimy. Sophie felt as if there were a film of slime over her eyeballs, even, tainting what might have been a lovely setting for urban decay. She kicked a piece of cinderblock near her foot. They were still in Glory; she could see the clock tower from here. Nearly noon. If her calculations were right, she had left Psychic City at a little after nine. Becka was probably wondering where she was. Thankfully Sophie could trust her not to call the cops and report a missing bossâ€”the anarchic Swede distrusted anyone in a government uniform. On the other side of the puzzle piece there was a train entering a tunnel. Sophie tucked the small clue away and headed south. All she had to do was find a street sign,
and then she would know exactly where they were. This was her city, her turf, and they would not use it to outsmart her. "Whoa, girly, where are you goin'?" said Dom, hurrying after her. He grabbed her apron strings. "To get Tim, duh." "You really don't know how damn dangerous this is." "It's a game." "It's a deadly game." "So?" "So you can't just go waltzing off like it's nothing," argued Dom. "Shit like you pulled in that basement won't always fly." "Why not?" "Why do you think it will?" "Because…" she said, hands on her wide hips, "…because I'm the main character in this story." Dom smacked himself in the forehead. "You don't know that. Everyone thinks they’re the main character! For all you know, fishbreath over there could be it!" He jumped and hid behind Sophie when he realized that the Bigfoot-fish was again among them, now munching on a handful of grapes. Sophie turned to look at it. "You wanna come?" It nodded. "Well then, you're gonna need a name. How about I call you…Hugh. Yeah, I like that. Hugh okay with you?" It—Hugh—nodded again. "Cool," said Sophie. She pried Dom from her legs and began walking south once more. "I assume you two are here for a reason. Come if you want to, I'd appreciate the help." "Might as well," said Dom. "Someone's got to keep you on track." "Funny you should say that, 'cause we're headed for the train tracks." A few years back, expansion of the D.C. Metro’s Red Line had begun in Glory. Then came the economic crisis, the hard times, the recession. As a result the industrial part of the city known creatively as Southside was riddled with unfinished tunnels and silent rails; the men and women who squatted there, and the teenagers who held rebellious congregations, were grittier than those in Northside. They were folk as hard
as the steel and iron they walked on like balance beams. Sophie didn't like coming down here if she could help it. They had Tim, though. The two of them had only been married for three weeks, in a small ceremony in D.C., since Timâ€™s birth certificate still listed him as female and same-sex marriage wasnâ€™t legal yet in Maryland. It was still strange sometimes to think of Tim as her husband rather than her boyfriend, but either way she was incredibly in love with him. She had been the only one at that first potluck who could handle the spiciness of his authentic pad Thai, and he had suddenly burst into a recitation of an Emily Dickinson poem over dessert, one which happened to be her favorite: Much madness is divinest sense To a discerning eye; Much sense the starkest madness. 'Tis the majority In this, as all, prevails. Assent, and you are sane; Demur, -- you're straightway dangerous, And handled with a chain. That was all it took, besides the gleam in his eye which clearly said: This is a challenge, and we are henceforth rivals; I want you. Sophie squared her jaw and sidled through a gap in the chain-link fence that surrounded the abandoned tracks. The noontime sun was intense and revealing, but not so much that it penetrated the darkness of the tunnels. A few feet in was as far as she could see. After that began another world. Here at the entrance was a transition point. On the unfinished train platform there were two young people. One was more dark-skinned than herself, wearing skinny jeans that elongated his already lanky figure and sunglasses that took up most of his face. He was sitting calmly on a concrete wall and reading a magazine. His pale friend had a shocking head of neon-green hair and was tromping restlessly around the platform in his baggy gothic pants and obscene band tee. He had a spraycan in one hand and was talking at a fast pace, though Sophie couldn't hear the words yet.
Finally, some good luck, she thought. She knew these boys—well, boy and genderfluid individual. The green-haired individual, who didn’t quite care what gender pronouns were used in their direction, stopped when Sophie and company approached. A pair of peacock feather earrings flashed in the sun. "Miss Sophie! What’s up? You’re not working today, either?” Neve asked, pocketing the spraycan. The goth pants were ridiculous-looking, especially on someone who had been out of high school for nearly two years, but they obviously had their uses: giant pockets were handy things. “I should be,” she answered her off-duty employee, “but something came up. A sort of emergency.” Martin looked up from his magazine. “Did Orson do something…unwise again? We haven’t seen him since Sunday, if he’s on the run from you or the cops,” he said in his usual deadpan voice. Orson was Sophie’s wayward nephew, who she looked after like a second mother. She therefore knew his two best friends fairly well, or so she supposed. Martin was enormously more respectful and given to common sense than her nephew or Neve, but his habit of always wearing sunglasses unnerved her. She’d never seen his eyes, not once. "No, it’s not about him for once," she said. "Have you seen…anything…weird around here? Going into the tunnels?" The boys looked at one another. "Well," said Neve, "we've seen weird things in the tunnels." "You go in there often?" "Sure, all the time." "There are more pathways down there than you'd think," said Martin. His face was very still, and Sophie couldn't read any emotion off of him at all. She wondered suddenly if he could see Dom or Hugh. Neve certainly couldn't, or he'd have said something. "What do you mean?" "I mean someone else’s been making tunnels than the WMTA. Something else, in some cases," he said, and paused. "You goin' in there? You'll get lost." Sophie crossed her arms. He had a point. She looked back at Neve and said, "What would it take to get one of you to lead me through there? I guarantee you it'll be weird, if that's what you go down there for. I could pay you if you want."
But Neve stood up straight and saluted her. "No need to fear, we'll do it for free. Money's just another tool of the Man, and anyway you’re Orson’s Aunt," he said. "We’re practically family. Neve Calahan at your service." Martin snorted and shook his head. He folded his magazine and tucked it into his back pocket before standing up and taking off the sunglasses, revealing a pair of large dark eyes. He wasn't looking at her now, but at her companions. So he can see them, she thought as his eyebrows rose. "You've got some interesting friends." Neve jumped as if this sudden proclamation rendered him able to see the faeries. "Whoaaaaaa okay, I am totally freaked out now and we're not even in the tunnels yet. Fuck, I’ve seen weird faeries, but that one…." He eyed Hugh with a mixture of awe and dread. "Well then, you better get used to it," said Dom, "because it's only gonna get worse." To be continued next issue!