The sun sets over a rocky desert landscape. I know what this is, and I want it to stop—but I am powerless. This is how I punish myself.
I’m walking home. My steps are quick and deliberate, my brow is furrowed and my jaws are clenched. I could never remember why I felt this way. It doesn't matter.
My kid brother tags along, the wrong place at the wrong time. To him, I rant and rave about my problems. Nostalgia, regret and anguish wash through my mind as I lose control. Turning to the high stone wall behind the neighborhood, I only meant to relieve some pressure. Instead, the instant my fist makes impact, there is a burst of fire. Hot, loud, and forceful, we're blown away. For a moment, everything goes dark.
When I come to, a sharp jet of horrid pain shoots up my arm—it's broken. It’s so vivid, too realistic to bear. Picking myself up, my stomach fills with acid and panic. Fraught with fear and shame, I seek my brother.
There. A small body lays at the bottom of the gorge, an innocent casualty to my wrath. Screaming, I call his name in both past and present. Ignoring my pain, I slide down the side of the canyon to my brother's side. Dread spills into my throat.
Helpless, I can only watch as he takes his last breath.
In its mercy, an alarm clock interrupted Walter’s nightmare. Groaning, he slammed the snooze button and turned over. Eager was he to enjoy the best part of his mornings—snoozing. Yet he couldn’t always have that luxury. Sometimes, the guilt would spoil the moment. Forced to think of that terrible incident, Walter revisited the moments that followed. There was the calling for help, waiting in agony for the ambulance, the investigation, the funeral—
Sounding off once more, the alarm saved Walter from his madness. He hopped out of bed and began his routine. Stepping into the shower, it took him a few minutes to adjust the water. It was futile, as the plumbing in this place was so inconsistent. Steam was a constant nuisance in his life. He figured he should just learn to ignore it.
As he scrubbed, the birth mark on his arm drew his attention. Nowadays, anyone that noticed it assumed it was a tattoo and never gave it another thought. That’s how Walter preferred it. The center of this mark was a round disc, the circumference matching a small coin. All around it were geometric shapes pointing in eight directions: four large flame-like triangles with diamonds nestled between them. Of course these details were too intricate to appear naturally, and yet they had. When he was just a child, it made his life more complicated than he could handle. It was more like the mark of a curse to him than anything else.
Finished with his shower, he hopped out of the stall and opened the window to let out all the steam. Wiping a circle out of the fogged mirror, he watched his yellow eyes in the reflection. He scratched his burnt orange hair, clipped close to his head, then through his black beard. Then he popped a pimple from his big, almost square-shaped nose. Backing away from the mirror once it cleared, he glanced at his pale body. Again, he reminded himself to buy a scale to keep track of his weight; without one, he had no idea. He only knew he was scrawny--it was better than the alternative.
After toweling dry and brushing his teeth, he suited up for work. Black slacks, black shoes, black shirt, black black black. He wasn’t a fan of the dress code. Patting his pockets to make sure he had everything, he grabbed his backpack and headed out.
A woman called his name—Victoria! She had moved into the apartment next door a few weeks ago. It seemed to Walter that she had left her door open on purpose to listen for him. He leaned into her doorway, finding her kneeling over a box of kitchen wares.
“Still unpacking?” he greeted.
“My mom sent me this stuff from home,” she answered. “I have no idea where I’m going to put it all. Heading to work?”
“Shopping,” he smirked, “this is my last clean shirt.”
Victoria scoffed. Getting on to her feet, she grabbed some papers off the arm of her couch and handed them to Walter. “I got your mail again.”
“Oh, thanks,” he said, taking the papers from her. Their mailman was so jaded by this city that he’d become too lazy to sort the mail. Letters lumped together by floor instead of by tenant. Fortunately, they were the only two on this floor.
“No problem,” Victoria chimed as Walter flipped through his letters. Most of it was junk and a few bills, though one item stood out from the rest. Smaller though thicker, it had gold foil on the corners and a wax seal. Stamped on that seal was a picture of a hand with a five pointed star on the palm. In place of the return address was one word in large type: Navei. Even the paper felt glossy and warm.
“This one’s weird,” Walter remarked, holding it up to the light.
“I thought so too,” Victoria agreed, “I was tempted to open it.”
Walter looked at his watch. “I’d better go,” he said, sliding the mail into his backpack. “Thanks again, Vicky.” He went to step away, and then rocked back on his heel like he’d just remembered something. “Hey, listen, um…” His eyes stuck to door frame, hands shaking as he gathered courage. “Do you—would you, uh, like to get dinner sometime?” He winced at how quick the words tumbled out of his mouth.
Vicky smiled, waiting for Walter to look at her before she answered. “I would love to, Walter. Tomorrow night, around seven?”
“Uh—For sure!” Walter beamed. “I’d pick you up, but you know…”
Vicky chuckled, “We’ll take my car.”
“Awesome! Yeah! Definitely! Uh, I’ll, uh…” He caught himself stammering and looked at his watch again. “S-see you tomorrow!” He waved goodbye, backing out of her doorway and down the hall. “Tomorrow night!” He didn’t want her to see his goofy grin, one that stuck with him for the next several hours.
After ages of starting movies, switching lights on, and writing in the log, it was finally time for Walter’s lunch break. With little time to go out to eat, he sat down in one of the projection booths to have what he’d brought from home.
Biting into a sandwich, he remembered the strange letter he’d put in his bag. He pulled it out and opened it, careful not to rip the paper as he broke the seal. Lifting the flap and reaching inside, his fingers felt something thin and scratchy. It seemed to be tissue paper, wrapped around something hard underneath. He pulled out the contents, revealing a black and white parcel tied with silver ribbons. It reminded him of a piece of saltwater taffy he’d once had.
Perplexed, he untied one end and dumped the contents into his other hand. Out of the tissue paper came one brass ring, glossy and smooth. It was about as wide around as his palm, thick around the shank, and cool to the touch. It struck him that, maybe, it was gold. Walter shook away the thought; that would be too good to be true, let alone stupid. Tied to it with more of the silver ribbon was a tag that read, “Please don’t lose me!”
Walter squinted at the tag. “…What?” he asked the air, amazed by the ridiculousness of it all. This had to be some new, elaborate form of scam. With his fingers, he spread the envelope open to see if there was anything else. In doing so, a folded paper slipped out. Walt opened it and began to read:
Dear Walter Helrath,
Greetings from Navei Island! I hope this letter finds you well, and that the delivery is timely.
My name is Dustin Thornwinter, President and CEO of Thornwinter Enterprises after my late father, David Thornwinter. I write to you personally in the fondest hope that you might accept this tremendous opportunity I have to offer.
Yeah, this is definitely a scam, Walter thought to himself.
I understand that you, like me and precious few others, are born with peculiar marks on their persons. I am also as aware as you are (or soon will be) that these marks show the presence of a talent, often of the supernatural variety. It is my humble wish to invite—
Walter swore aloud, crumpling the paper and hurling it across the booth. This is worse, he told himself, crushing the crumpled ball underfoot, this is so much worse. Without thinking, he chucked the bracelet as well, regretting it as soon as it struck the wall, bouncing back with a loud chime before it slid under one of the projection stands. Lowering himself onto his belly, he reached under the stand to grab it—that’s when he noticed the time on his watch. The last show was supposed to start a few minutes ago.
Cursing again, Walter picked himself off the floor and rushed to the next booth.
As the night came to a close, Walter’s excitement came to a peak. Tonight they’d be holding a private screening for the employees. The film was an action thriller he’d been looking forward to all year. First, he double-checked the projector’s systems to ensure the drives had transferred. Then once the clock struck midnight, the digital keys arrived to unlock the contents. After starting the movie, he joined his co-workers in the theater. Despite one grossly out-of-place dancing scene toward the end of the film, it was a decent flick. It almost came to par with Walter’s expectations.
Throughout the experience, though, with every humorous moment came laughter that Walter didn’t recognize. It came from above, sounding high and clear. “Is there someone else up there?” Walter asked his friend sitting beside him.
“I didn’t see anyone,” answered Burgos, eyes glued to the screen.
Walter stood up to look for himself, finding every seat above his row empty. Shaking his head, he ignored it.
“Hey, you need a ride?” Burgos offered as they left the building.
“I’ve got my bike,” Walter answered, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Bright and early!” said his friend as they waved goodbye and parted ways. Walter turned toward the bike rack at the far end of the parking lot. Unlocking the chain to his ten-speed, he swung his leg over the bar and began to pedal. Something didn’t feel right as he rode on. Squeezing the brakes, he looked at his tires: Flat. Both of them.
“Great,” he groaned, scanning the lot for Burgos’ car. If it wasn’t too late, he could maybe flag him down and take him up on his offer. No such luck—his coupe was already blasting through the intersection. He wouldn’t answer his phone for anyone over that roar.
He shook his head, climbing off his bike. Looks like I’m hoofing it.
At three forty-two in the morning, he still wasn’t even halfway home. Walter groaned aloud as he checked his watch and kept onward. He tried not to think about how much sleep he was missing. Crossing the street and turning the corner, he spotted another pedestrian in the night. She stood alone under the pale streetlight. A young woman, it seemed, about his age, clad in jeans and a leather, fur-lined jacket. Her hair was long and chocolate brown, tied into a bun behind her head. She had adorned it with gold and silver jewelry. It twinkled as she scanned the street with bright green eyes. Brow furrowed, she seemed worried. For a second, those eyes locked on to Walter as he passed by her.
“You alright, miss?” He asked out of courtesy, hoping she’d say yes so he could move on.
“Actually,” she smiled, flashing a dazzling set of white teeth. “I, uh, I fell asleep on the bus, s-so I missed my stop—now I’m all turned around.”
Walter nodded, “Where are you going?”
“Caulfield and Rinseburn?”
He blinked. “I’m actually headed the same direction, so…”
“Oh!” She chuckled, “What a coincidence! I’ll walk with you, if that’s okay.”
Walter shrugged, resuming his pace as she stepped in time with him. “That’s fine. I’m Walter.”
“Kriskin,” She replied in kind, extending her nearest hand in greeting. Since it was her left, Walter had to stretch over the handlebars of his bike to shake it. Because of the rings on her fingers, her hand was a strange mix of warm and cool. “You have a very nice mark—er, tattoo,” she stammered.
Walter snatched his hand away, as though he’d touched a snake. She stopped too, avoiding his gaze. “I—I’m sorry,” said Walter, “did…did you say, ‘mark’?”
She shook her head. “N-no, I meant—“
“Shut up,” he growled. “It’s…How? How would you…?” Shaking his head, he hurried past her. She could find her own way home.
“Wait!” she called after him.He never looked back.