About the Author
Copyright © 2016 by Sibylla Nash
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The rain always made her think of Nana. Not the warm, spring kind that left a renewed beauty in its wake by washing a layer of grime off the old city buildings. Hard drops that fell like bullets from an unrelenting dark sky, smelling of inescapable gloom, that was the Nana she remembered. That was the Nana that visited her in dreams.
Her umbrella, a festive sunburst of color, was no match for this rain, which seemed to travel horizontally. The wind whipped it inside out and sent it waving to and fro as Alma kept her head down and hurried into work. Her office was housed in one of the many converted lofts snapped up in the race to transform a desolate downtown into a thriving arts district. Now tech companies threatened to out price the artists as their offices sprouted up and down the street bringing along with them organic cafes, wine bars and sleek co-working spaces.
This weather during this time of year made her uneasy. The shorter days invited longer nights. An invitation for trouble. It reminded Alma of the hot sting of rejection from the side glances they used to get from neighbors as they warned their kids to stay clear of her. The more devout would say Alma’s family had one foot on this earth and the other firmly planted in the devil’s backyard. Nana wouldn’t say a word as she levelled them with a sharp glare, zeroing in on their fears with the intensity of a heat laser from a magnifying glass under the noonday sun.
Growing up in their cramped apartment on hot summer nights, Nana would squint at her, seeing beyond what everyone else noticed. Quiet girl with big round frames that made her eyes look bigger and rounder. The kids at school called her Owlma and made hooting noises whenever she walked by. Nana often told her, after taking a deep drag on a cigarette, she was “more powerful and more dangerous than anyone knew.” Alma doubted that. Unable to find her voice to refute the rumors and innuendo about her family, she found solace in silence. She learned that sometimes invisibility could be an effective antidote.
Stories of family lore were passed down in whispers and hushed tones from generation to generation on her mother’s side, going further back than the days when a noose around the neck was the answer for anything different. Ways of the homeland were not welcome on the sprawling plantations and as far Alma could see, very little acceptance had been gained through the centuries. She knew the passage of time distorted and pulled at the facts, stretching it in ways to suit the teller and the situation. She also knew from events she had witnessed with her own two eyes, there was truth to the stories, and yes, the neighbors should be afraid. Very afraid.
Alma couldn’t wait to escape after high school. She might not be able to change who or what she was, but she could hide as an anonymous face in a big city where no one knew her or her family.
Was it a gift or a curse?
Depended on who you asked, and Alma learned early on, never ask.
“Never interfere with fate,” Nana intoned. “You see but you don’t see, understand?” Even now, Alma could still hear her raspy voice soaked in bitterness and bourbon and she understood.
Michael, the receptionist greeted Alma as she walked through the lobby, each click of her heels leaving a trail of droplets like breadcrumbs in her wake. “They’re in the conference room,” he said as his gaze lingered on her retreating figure before he continued to scroll through listicles on Buzzfeed while updating his Instagram account with memes about everyone in the office.[ Should I make mention of her age/looks?] He hoped one day she would say yes to his many requests for coffee, dinner, Netflix and chill, anything.
Alma dropped her deformed umbrella into the canister and hung up her raincoat on the rack, next to the other wet slickers. She hurried to her desk and thought about how much she hated the new open plan and wished for the days when solid walls extended to the ceiling or at least the comfort of half-walls that a cubicle could provide. Now everyone could see everything, the lack of privacy did not create productivity or creativity. She felt more paranoid and self-conscious. There was no job hunting while on the job and after six months on this job, she was ready for a new one. She pulled her laptop out of her bag as she stashed her purse in her desk drawer and hurried down the hall to the conference room. Like everything else in the office, it was a fishbowl with one wall of gleaming glass; allowing passerby to gaze in and count their lucky stars they weren’t in the meeting.
She spent 75% of her days talking about what they would do, what had been done by other companies and how to get things done better. The little time left over, she was expected to do the impossible. The owner of the company, Victoria, had created an app that had taken the tech industry by storm. She wanted to prove that she was no one-hit wonder and deserved every penny of venture capital funding she had received. She was pushing her staff to build a suite of products to make her a contender in the overcrowded field of personal finance apps.
Alma had held many jobs but found being a developer suited her. There was no mystery to code. Sure, some of her cohorts would compare it to a work of art but as far as Alma was concerned, you could take it at face value. It did what you told it to do, nothing more, nothing less. She wanted to be left alone to work. What she was hired to do. Not this dog and pony show that went on every day three times a day for investors, or more likely, Victoria’s own amusement.
For Alma, as painful as it was, it was progress, for many years, was it decades? She couldn’t even get out of bed after what happened. The hurt never went away, time did not heal all wounds equally if at all. Not surviving wasn’t an option so Alma learned to endure.
Edgar had been better at enduring, he remarried, started a new family. He “moved on with his life.” He moved on with giant leaps while Alma crept along with baby steps. She had all the time in the world. That was her gift. Or her curse. Depending on who you asked.
Alma was determined not to think about that morning today. Not to wonder about the what ifs, if it was her fault or if she could have done anything differently. She would ignore Nana’s warnings about fate. She wouldn’t dwell on how the fabric of her life had been torn apart and crudely sewn back together in a matter of minutes.
Alma flipped open her laptop and was pulling up the presentation when she walked into the conference room. As she sat down, she looked around and stifled a gasp as her laptop tumbled out of her hands and onto the table, slamming shut with a loud clatter.
“Are you ok?” Garrett, a project manager sitting next to her asked.
She couldn’t breathe. She nodded her head, and he went back to talking to Venice, another project manager, sitting next to him.
Alma looked around the room, not believing what she saw. What only she could see. Everyone had the mark.
There were 10 people seated along the oval wooden table. Victoria walked in with her phone pressed against her ear and her assistant trailing behind her with her laptop and another cell phone. Both had the mark.
It was a small black smudge on the forehead, almost like the sign of Ash Wednesday except they were not applied by human hands and few had the ability to see them.
Alma had seen these stains on strangers for as long as she could remember, it wasn’t until she first noticed them on family members she finally understood what they meant.
Garrett looked over at her again, “Are you sure you’re ok?”
Alma nodded her head and tried to control her shaking hands as she fumbled with her laptop.
“Good morning everyone,” Victoria said, taking her place in the center of the room. Her assistant set up the laptop and connected it to the projector.
Alma stood up. “Excuse me, I have to-”
“Just a second Alma, This is important, we have the quarterly numbers.”
Victoria clicked to the first slide of the presentation and launched into her prepared notes.
Alma’s heartbeat thumped in her ears as she looked around the room again. She felt that familiar stirring in the pit of her stomach as it seemed to spread its way outward. She tried to push down the hunger, this time of year it was most acute.
Month after month a hollow pit had been growing inside her, only to be fulfilled by one thing. She closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. She tried to ignore it, but could almost taste it.
Alma doubted the event would be a natural disaster, not everyone in the office had the mark, just those in the conference room. Disgruntled employee was her best guess. But who at the table could do something like that? Looking around the room again, she had seen enough of human nature to know anyone was capable of doing anything and she knew enough of her own nature to reluctantly appreciate the beneficial consequences.
She knew she would live through whatever catastrophe was waiting to happen, but survival would be the problem. How do you explain being able to walk away from a close range massacre with wounds that miraculously healed? Alma knew she either needed to stop it before it happened or just leave. How much time did she have?
It was nature, it was fate, it was out of her hands.
That’s what Nana always told her. Even when she saw the mark on those she knew, she said nothing. Nana told her it wouldn’t change anything and for a long time, she believed her.
Except when she saw it on Maddie, Her only child.
A morning that had started just like any other morning, every other morning. She burned the waffles as she argued with Edgar about whatever they usually argued about. When Maddie bounded into the kitchen wearing her school uniform asking for a special hair style because it was show and tell in her class that’s when Alma saw it.
Biting down the hysteria, she swept Maddie up in her arms, startling Edgar.
“You don’t understand, you can’t see it!” said Alma.
She may have told him about her ability, one night when they were both buzzed, he more than she, because rarely could he hold his liquor. He didn’t believe in any of that stuff, gave him the heebie jeebies he said. He kept his interactions with her side of the family short and their visits during the holidays had dwindled to non-existent. Not that Alma minded. She wanted a clean slate and if they didn’t talk about it, if she saw but didn’t see, then it didn’t exist.
“What’s your progress Alma, is your team still on track with the beta testing?” Victoria asked.
All 12 pairs of eyes zeroed in on Alma. “Alma?”
“Yes, we’re on schedule and slated to start the fixes at the end of the month,” she answered, keeping her eyes down. Twelve ghosts sat in front of her and she felt helpless to change their fate.
The memories felt as close as yesterday. One minute Maddie’s rapid little heartbeat was beating against her own and the next moment she was clutching air as Maddie wiggled out of Alma’s grasp and ran to hide behind Edgar’s legs. He scooped her up and brought her into the bathroom where he hastily pulled Maddie’s hair into one giant puff and headed to the front door. Alma followed clawing at his shirt, trying to make him turn around.
“Don’t you want to stay home with Mommy? We can make cookies and watch cartoons,” she pleaded, trying to coax her, she didn’t want to play tug of war but was ready to grab an arm or leg if she needed.
“No, its show and tell, I hafta go,” Maddie said burying her head in the crook between Edgar’s neck and shoulder.
“Edgar, just wait! Please!”
He turned around and eyed her warily. Hesitating, he walked over to the old couch and perched on the edge with Maddie on his lap.
“Ok, we’ll talk but go wash your face or something.”
She glanced at herself in the mirror. Eyeliner and eyeshadow made a clownish palette as it streaked down her cheeks heading to a finish line near her chin. She went into the bathroom and turned on the faucet. She took a deep breath, it would be ok. Nothing would happen to Maddie if she kept her close, held her in her arms. Fate be damned.
She came back into the living room, calmer until she saw it was empty. She knew the route he took to walk Maddie the few blocks to school and then head to the subway to go to work.
Not bothering to put on shoes, she flew out the door, leaving it wide open. She ignored the cool slap of pavement and crunch of autumn leaves as she ran down the sidewalk. She saw them at the end of the block.
“Maddie!” she screamed.
Maddie looked back and then darted into the street. Alma heard the squeal of tires and a sickening thud. She drew in breaths that felt like knives as she raced toward Maddie. Hands tried to move her out of the way as the paramedics arrived but she swatted them away. In the back of the ambulance, she stroked Maddie’s cheek pleading with her to hold on.
Today’s the day. He checked his appearance in the mirror one last time. Satisfied, he turned his attention to his living room. It was nice, neat and normal. Everything in his apartment, everything of value he squirreled away to a storage locker. He would only leave behind the ramblings of a spurned lover on his computer, in a file that was not too hard to find. That would be all they needed to know about this day.
He loved Victoria. Scrape off the thick veneer of narcism and arrogance and there was a self-drive that was admirable. It didn’t make her warm and fuzzy or even likable, but it was a trait Aston respected. What he didn’t respect, was the way she sometimes treated him. Like he was her lapdog.
Aston, pick up my clothes from the cleaners. Aston did you make the reservations for dinner?
He did them all but underneath he seethed. What was her bobble-headed assistant for? Then when he found the texts and pictures on the rare occasion her phone was unlocked and not glued to her ear, he knew he had found his reason. The motive they would all look for. He still felt a pinch of sadness about what he would do, but it had to be done. The others were just unfortunate casualties of war. And make no mistake, it was war. He was but a foot soldier, but he knew he would go down in the annals of history as the one who took the first shot, the most important shot.
He shoved a clip into his Glock and slipped it into his waistband.
Sitting in the conference room, she realized that surviving one tragedy did not make her immune to another. She flinched anytime someone made a sudden move or coughed, not sure what to expect. No one liked Victoria, she could be abrupt and condescending. Everyone was overworked, stressed over multiple deadlines, ready to snap at any moment. The holidays were approaching and a mandatory “no days off” edict had been enacted. It could be any of them or all of them wanting to take out Victoria and bring the rest along for the ride.
She rolled back her chair. “I’m feeling sick,” she mumbled and hurried out of the room before Victoria could say anything. She rushed into the restroom and splashed cold water on her face. She stared in the mirror. Could she walk away? She held 12 lives in her palm.
It was nature, it was fate, it was out of her hands.
She couldn’t even save her own child.
She exited the bathroom and bumped into Aston’s lanky frame, Victoria’s boyfriend. Tall and skinny, he was like a coiled muscle. He didn’t work there but was around so often, everyone joked, but not really, about how he needed his own office. His mark danced in front of her, contrasting against his pale skin.
“Aston, what are you doing here?”
[_Leave! Run far as far away as you can! _]Alma wanted to scream. She couldn’t help the other 12, but maybe she could save one.
“Oh, I have to take care of some business,” he spoke in measured tones.
Usually a jumble of nerves and limbs in action whenever he was with Victoria, he stood more confident and relaxed than Alma could ever recall seeing him.
“She’s in a meeting and you shouldn’t go in there.” Alma shifted from one foot to the other, acutely aware that the personal space between them was shrinking.
“Why is that?”
“Something bad is going to happen,“ Alma whispered, both relieved to have the words off her conscience and afraid of the consequences.
“How do you know?” he asked, leaning closer until his face was inches from hers. Dark flaming pools of discontent burned in his eyes causing her to inch away.
“We’re going over last quarter’s numbers, never a good time,” Alma answered with a dry chuckle, backing up until she was against the bathroom door.
Aston pushed the door open causing Alma to stumble backwards.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
“Don’t you know?”
Alma took a few steps as though to walk out but Aston blocked her path.
“You don’t want to do this. If something happened between you and Victoria, this is not the answer.”
Aston laughed. A genuine, surprised laugh, deep from the belly. “You don’t know do you? Your dear Nana never told you?”
“Told me what?” Alma’s thoughts tumbled against one another as she tried to piece together the puzzle Aston was scattering around her.[_ How would he know Nana?_]
“Your ignorance is your undoing. You make it almost too easy.”
Her eyes strayed to his mark. He caught her glance and pointed to his forehead.
“This? Don’t worry about this. I have no plans on dying today.” Aston said. He took the sleeve of his jacket and swiped it across his forehead, erasing all traces of the mark. A new one appeared to take its place.
“Who are you?” Alma’s heartbeat slowed to a crawl. She was retreating to that place and this time she didn’t feel bad about it. Not at all.
“Don’t worry about who I am. Just know, I will find your sisters and I will kill them all.”
Alma felt herself falling. Deeper into a pit of nothingness. Sisters?
Little beads of sweat popped out along Aston’s hairline. His back was as slick as a water slide with sweat pooling between his waistband. The temperature in the small bathroom seemed to increase by 10 degrees making it stifling. Aston wasn’t sure why he hadn’t pulled out his gun. He made the bullets especially for her kind, ensuring death. The Glock would do the job in the conference room, but the .45 in his pocket, that was only for Alma.
“I can’t let you do what you’re about to do,” she whispered. Her lips quivered as they turned up in a small curve of anticipation. She caressed a searing path of pain along his jawbone with fingertips that burned like ice.
He stared at her, transfixed. It took a little while before his brain registered that he was going to die. It had been several moments since he had last moved and the realization dawned on him he couldn’t move. Helpless prey, like a fly caught in a web. He watched her transformation into what he knew was her true form. Hideous, yet frighteningly beautiful. He couldn’t open his mouth to scream, he couldn’t close his eyes to un-see the inevitable. He stood there as though offering himself and she gladly accepted.
Her touch was not the worst pain he had ever felt. The worst pain was the melting of flesh off the bone and feeling his bone disintegrating to dust as she drew him into her. He watched his arm, from fingertips to shoulder, just disappear. How did he not know? All along he thought the sisters were equal in their powers and only the three of them together could be a force to be reckoned. Her hands, he couldn’t count how many pulled him closer until she enveloped him in flames and his ashes became a part of her. Who would warn the others was his last thought.
The dull roar of the subway lulled Alma into a half sleep. The ever present hunger that had been gnawing at her was satiated, for now.
Her mind traveled back to the night Maddie died when Alma was alone with Nana. Edgar had refused to stay in the same house with her.
“Why do I see this mark if I can’t help?” Alma cried.
“It is not for you to decide who lives or who dies, if you can see the mark, they are already dead.”
“You know more than you’re telling, why do I see it? What am I supposed to do?” Tears barreled unchecked down Alma’s cheeks and an irrepressible sadness simmered and boiled, threatening to erupt into an uncontrollable rage.
Alma towered over Nana and grabbed her frail shoulders. She shook her, trying to quell the anguish that lived inside waiting to be born. “What do you know? Tell me!”
Nana reared her arm back and swung it. The resounding slap stunned Alma.
“Get a hold of yourself.”
Nana shuffled over to the chair and sank into its worn cushions.
“It’s your fate, because you are fate. Don’t fight it,” she said.
The staccato sound of the rain, punctuated by loud cracks of thunder, was unusual for that time of year as though an angry sky mourned for her daughter too. Alma found herself in front of the window and pressed her forehead against the cool glass. She wanted to greet the sidewalk face first, ten stories below. Not that it would have mattered. She later found that no matter how many pills she took, how many stories she fell, it would never result in her last breath. After outliving everyone she knew, she realized she was truly an anonymous face in a big city. Until now.
[_Aston knew her. _]He had spoken of her Nana and of sisters she knew nothing about.
When she turned to face Nana that night, she saw that the mark had appeared. Nana saw it in her eyes and nodded her head
“What am I?”
“You know what you are. You don’t need me to tell you.”
“Say it.” Without Maddie there to moor her to the world and anchor her in the trappings of everyday life, Alma felt it. For the first time, she felt the stabbings of a hunger so deep and so powerful she could feel nothing else.
Nana sat back in the chair and closed her eyes. “You know what you are and you know what you have to do.”
Alma descended on her in a blind rage and consumed her. Nana called out her name, one of many she would hear throughout the years.
Known by different names in many forgotten tongues, they all seemed to translate to Goddess of Death. A soul collector. Nana was the only soul she that stayed with her. She would visit her on dark nights, sometimes sitting in the corner of her room.
“You know what you are,” she would say in that voice.
But Alma didn’t. Was it a gift or a curse? Was evil born or made?
She glanced around on the subway, and spotted a young man sitting four rows away, earbuds in, bobbing his head to music. His mark bobbed along with him, letting her know soon she would feast again.
I’m an LA girl with Jersey roots. As a child, I could always be found with my head in a book. Once I figured out that people could actually make a living at writing, I beelined it to journalism school at the University of Southern California where I received my BA.
As a freelancer, I’ve covered everything from entertainment to parenting issues to topical matters and I have interviewed some pretty cool people along the way such as Academy Award winning actors Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Academy Award nominee Will Smith; comedians/actors Dave Chappelle, Jamie Foxx, Kim Coles; and so many others!
My work has appeared in newspapers, magazines and websites including Vibe, Essence and The Chicago Tribune. But of course, like many freelancers, what I really wanted to do was pen the next BESTSELLING NOVEL.
I’ve written two novels, “DreamCity,” “Bumped,” and a guide for parents, “Baby Modeling & Beyond: From The Stroller To The Red Carpet,” which is based on my daughter’s experience working in print/tv/film. She started working as a baby and if you watch television, you’ve probably seen some of her commercials. Fun fact: we’ve appeared in a together as well as in TLC’s Ballroom Bootcamp.
I’m still working on my bestseller journey and I’m so glad you stopped by to visit. Hope you continue to check in to see how things are going!
Growing up, Alma's always known she was different. When she's betrayed by her gift, she retreats into a life in the shadows until she's all that stands between a horrific workplace tragedy and survival. A short, snack-sized story (approx. 4000 words) long enough to make hairs on the back of your neck stand at attention but short enough to leave you wanting more.