Heartlands: Snow in the Summer

By Mark Figueroa

As schools prepare for summer, Professor Claudio Pannetti paces around his classroom. He stops at window overlooking the main road to the town. His crestfallen eyes skip over the snow-covered trees and the overcast horizon. He watches the snow drift along the breeze, clinging to the grass, concrete and asphalt, leaving thin sheets on cars lining the road and shivering passersby. “The roofs are white with the coming of death,” Claudio says to himself, reaching for the flask in his breast pocket. His hands quiver as he spins the flask’s metal top. A soft pop provides relief. Holding the cap in his left hand, he continues to stare at the white death, takes a sip and groans. Claudio’s despair turns to silent sorrow several swallows later. Taking a deep breath, he reclines in his chair and kicks his metal desk.

Due to a series of inexplicable events, winter has been arriving in the Heartland earlier and earlier for the past 30 years. What would normally be a few sporadic days of snowfall in late December, became certain days of snow fall in late December. As the years passed, the days of snow grew. Beginning in mid-December, then early December, late November, mid-November, and so on. The early chill and frost only affects the towns of Heartland County, New Jersey.

At first, the oddity drew travelers from around the world. The increased tourism allowed the counties to prosper, and Heartland county became the first county in America to have solar panel roads, sidewalks and county-mandated solar roofing. Beautiful, sustainable lighting would provide just enough heat from below to melt the snow and preventing the typical hazards of snow accumulation. However, when the cold season spread into the summer and blocked out a majority of the annual sunlight, the Heartland had to revert to relying on electricity and natural gas. With life slowly returning back to some semblance of normality, the residents of the Heartland have slid back into their usual habits, unaware and unprepared for the horrors that will soon befall them.

The door to Claudio’s classroom creaks open. “Dad?” his son, Jason, asks, inviting himself in. “We talked about this. Let’s go home,” he says, lamenting the dreary weather. “Come on, Pop. There are still kids outside.”

“Where the hell else they gonna’ go, Jay?” Claudio says, his raspy, whiskey-scented breath betrays his otherwise inconspicuous inebriation. “Winter in the goddamned spring. I’ve officially, seen it all. If your mother didn’t leave me, I probably wouldn’t feel so bad.”

Jason shakes his head and helps his father up. “You know she didn’t leave, Dad,” Jason says, swallowing hard. “It’s been hard for all of us.”

Claudio seals his flask and stands by the door. Jason ensures his dad’s desk drawers are locked, then checks the cabinets. He shuts off the heat and motions to his dad that everything is in order. They exit the building while Jason does a final sweep for students, teachers, janitors and contractors, and then they drive home.

Meanwhile, across town, several kids are throwing snowballs in the park. Josh and Nick watch from the swings, sharing a vape pen. “I hate these things,” Josh says, shivering. He hands the pen to his boyfriend. “Remember when we were kids, Nicky? We wouldn’t dare touch this stuff.” He pulls on his leather gloves, fidgeting with the lining around his wrist.

Nick shrugs. “There’s a ton of things we would never have done as kids. What’s your point?” he asks, taking a small pull and watching the vapor dance as he exhales. He crosses his legs and pats snow off of his expensive slacks.

Josh smiles and stares at the children cackling and rough-housing. “Look at them. Look at how free they are. They don’t need nicotine, booze, sex or anything. They’re just free. I miss the innocence of it all,” Josh admits. He stands up from the bench and stretches.

“They also don’t need money,” Nick responds in usual sassy fashion. He takes another pull of the pen, then puts the it in a leather case. Nick stares at Josh’s figure, but his gaze gets drawn to a couple at the other end of the park. “There’s something you don’t see every day,” Nick says, shocked and confused. “They look like they’re going to a funeral.”

“Erin, I dare say, those two flamboyant gentlemen are studying us,” Marshall remarks, his hand firm over his ebony cane. “Perhaps it is unwise for us to meander about during the day.”

“I know it’s here,” Erin responds, parting the black veil hanging over her pale face. She pokes at the snow. “I can feel it,” she says. “You know what to do, Marshall.”

Marshall nods and taps his cane on the ground. The snow beneath the cane ripples, creating small, but intense waves in the rhythm of a heartbeat. “There’s no mistaking it, Erin. I fear you may be correct. I can feel its pulse. The ground swells with its breath, extracting heat from the air. What will we do once we find it?” Marshall asks. Despite his fragile, ancient appearance, he stands firm.

“Well, we must return it, Marshall. What else? I would not venture from my cozy corner in the Mantle to consort among these naked gorillas. But as a woman of noble birth, I cannot allow the Egg of Sin to exist among mortals. If it hatches, it will not abide by the treaty and its domain will be one of frost, fury and fear.”

Marshall snaps his eyes at Erin and groans. “And, it would not, if-“

“Enough, Marshall, you can cast your silly judgement upon me when this is over. It was my carelessness that made this egregious atrocity of an existence most foul even remotely possible. I accept that. I implore you to help me make this right,” Erin declares. She turns to Marshall and, in her usual fashion, walks past him as if she were gliding over the ground in disgust. “Now that we know, and you proved it, we need to draw it out. I will not have my failure tarnish my reputation.” She waves her bony fingers like she’s playing an invisible piano, her hands moving in a figure eight. One by one, children, mothers, fathers, birds, cats, dogs and other life within a small radius collapse. Their off-sync snoring sounds like a group of pigs breathing slow and steady. Marshall taps his cane to the ground again. Mounds of snow rise under the sleeping citizens.

Nick and Josh watch in horror as playing children, conversing parents and flock of birds hit the snow like baseballs slamming into mitts, unfazed by the impact. The couple exchanges a quick glance and a nod. Josh takes his cellphone out and dials his brother. Nick rushes in the direction of the two strangers clad in black.

“The oldest, the youngest and a mother. Their dreams shall call to the unhatched dragon, resonating with it and guiding our way, Erin. When the egg breathes again in mere moments, undisturbed by the voice of man, it shall materialize,” Marshall announces, tilting his head up to the gray sky. “Ah, yes. I feel it. The egg.”

In an instant, a black egg the size of basketball manifests in the air. Erin sees her pale, ghastly face on its smooth, polished surface. She raises her hands again ready to play an otherworldly lullaby. “I shall lull it back to a slumber so that we can make our way back to the tunnel without rousing suspicion,” Erin says. She takes a deep breath, then plays an invisible piano while humming.

“Holy fuck!” Nick screams when he gets closer and catches a glimpse of the egg.

In slow motion, Marshall’s wide-eyed, terrified face stares at Nick in disbelief. He waves his cane and a torrent of snow knocks Nick on the ground as the egg vanishes. “You there!” Marshall calls out, sprinting to Nick’s side. He pokes him with the butt of his cane. “Young man, are you alright?”

Nick struggles to lift himself up. He blinks hard and shakes his head.

“Easy now. I knocked you a bit rough,” Marshall admits. He waves his cane and a gust gentle helps Nick regain his footing. “We mean you no harm. In fact, we’ve come to end the blight of this most peculiar weather you have been facing.”

Nick quickly looks around, confused. “Um, okay,” he replies, shaky and uncertain. “I have no idea who you are and what’s going on, or what the hell you just did. This is some x-Files level shit and I am not with it,” he admits, dusting the snow from his designer jacket. He pats frost from his gelled hair and waves Josh over. “Um, babe!” He yells.

Josh, without hesitation, runs to Nick’s side, looking around. This is exactly how people die. Creepy old people. Weird powers. Death. “N-Nick, wh-who are your friends?” he asks, anxious and concerned. His eyes darting back and forth between the fragile old man and the emaciated witch next to him. Nick scratches his head. He tries to respond, but says nothing. “Nick?” Josh asks. “Hello?” He waves a hand in front of Nick’s face, then snaps his fingers. “Yooohoo!”

“I heard you, Josh,” Nick says, in shock. “Why don’t you tell my boyfriend what you told me?” he asks Marshall in a low, soft tone.

Marshall looks at Erin. She scoffs. “As you must,” she says, disgusted. She crosses her arms.

“Now, young man, we mean you no harm. We are Mantleans simply looking for an orphan. An egg yet to be hatched. The egg is born of sin and is the reason behind the raging weather. Once we find the egg of sin, the weather will return to normal and we shall be on our way,” Marshall explains, calm and poignant.

Erin grits her teeth and presses her hands to her face, then groans. Her tantrum startles Nick and Josh. They reach out to console her in unison, but flinch and retract their hands simultaneously when Erin rolls her eyes and snorts. She snaps her fingers and the sleeping people and animals wake up, and continue about their business, absent to their unannounced slumber.

“This is Erin. I am Marshall,” Marshall interjects. “She is a muse and I am her retainer, a being of the wind. Some thirty years ago, give or take, Erin brought an egg to the human world for reasons that are beyond my comprehension. The creature in the egg is a dragon.”

Stunned, Josh sits on a nearby curb. He clasps his hands together and presses his eyes shut.

Marshall sits beside him. “As you may or may not know, dragons exist in and outside of the natural flow of time. Contained by a Void Egg. I won’t get into how the dragon was born,” Marshall says, staring at Erin, who pretends to look away at that exact moment. “But, the Void Egg, another mystery, is a living and breathing creature itself. Void Eggs form around dragons in state of perpetual slumber until the dragon is ready to hatch. Its sleep keeps the dragon in a state of meditation. This meditative state is required for a dragon to be born with the infinite wisdom they are known to possess. However, the Void Egg and the dragon require extreme heat to remain in their necessary states. Without this heat, the uniquely cold blood of a dragon causes the Void Egg to wake up and recede from whence they came. An undeveloped dragon occupies multiple realities at once. As such, it loses the ability to control certain functions, including its temperature. Its cold blood eventually freezes them and everything around them to death. But, during that time of slow, frosty death, the dragon is filled with rage; lacking the ability to sleep or digest food due to constant inner cold. If we do not get the egg back to the Mantle and to its rightful place, it will hatch in 5 days and the area affected by this snow will be its home and prison until it dies.”

“Why don’t you grab the Void Egg and just take it with you?” Josh asks.

“Unfortunately, Void Eggs are still a complete enigma, even to the dragons themselves. Void Eggs must be in a slumber so deep that they physically rest on a surface. It is simply not possible without the extreme heat below The Mantle, at least not without the proper incantations and ingredients,” Marshall reveals. “We have mastered the incantation and had all of the ingredients we needed. We were on the precipice of lulling the egg into a deep slumber until the shouts of your beloved awoke it. The egg, as it does, fled to safety in and outside of this reality. We can feel its power, but it is beyond our reach.”

Nick pats his own head, mortified, melancholy and craving an alcoholic beverage. “I really am sorry. I had no idea. I mean, from where we were, you just appeared and all these people just hit the ground. You have to understand why I came running.”

“We both do. Truth be told, despite her callous appearance, Erin and I would do the same,” Marshall says. He pauses and smiles at Nick. “The only thing worse than waking a Void Egg is waking it the wrong environment. Fortunately, that did not occur and we have roughly 5 days to reinitiate the slumber spell.”

Nick and Josh do another double take. Nick releases a deep sigh and Josh shakes his head. Josh opens his mouth to speak, but before he can say anything, his twin brother, Jason, parks at nearby curb and joins the group. He also does a double take when he sees Erin and Marshall. “Jay, I think we know why the snow’s been happening,” Josh mutters, placing a hand on his brother’s shoulder. He explains what Marshall revealed.

“That’s right,” Marshall confirms. “The only thing we need is the essence of love. The deep unwavering love a parent feels for a child, the unrequited love of siblings, or that of true love bound by sacred oath. Once the love is gone, it will never return, so we refrain from taking it without permission and we take it upon ourselves to thoroughly explain the ramifications of such a precious offering. That being said, that love allows a muse to sing The Serenade of Slumber: a dragon song that echoes beyond time, putting all those in small area to sleep while lulling the Void Egg to a state of rest and forcing it to materialize. Then and only then, can the soothing sounds of the whisper winds completely enervate the Void Egg, making it possible to bring it back beneath The Mantle where it belongs.”

“I see,” Jason says, taking it all in. He nods at his brother. “There is such a love. I don’t know if the man will give it willingly, but our mother passed away several years ago, so it seems like the most logical option.”

At home, Claudio sinks into his chair, wandering his memories with a neat single-malt scotch in his hand. The front door opens and he sits up to a whirlwind of voices.

“An egg? Of all things. A real life dragon’s egg!” Jason shouts, almost skipping from the excitement. He tosses his coat on the couch. “Pop, we know what’s causing the snow and we know how to end it!” he exclaims, ignoring Claudio’s obvious intoxication.

“Esh’at right, Jay?” Claudio asks, scratching his beard. “Wehll, go ohn’, son. Tell me.”

“I’ll let them explain it,” he says, directing his hand to Erin and Marshall. Nick takes a seat on the couch and waves at Claudio, while Josh ignores his father and leans against the doorframe.

“Ha-Who?” Claudio asks, squinting. “You’ll leht who ‘esplain eht? That green ball and the young woman?” he questions, incoherent.

“Yes, the muse and the wind spir- You know what, just forget about what they look like, Dad. They know why this is happening and it’s like that story you used to tell us. They live underground in The Mantle. They accidentally brought a dragon egg up to Earth 30 years ago and they’ve been perfecting the spell to put it to sleep so they can bring it back with them,” Jay says, walking off into the kitchen. Josh stares at their father, then at Nick and the two Mantleans.

“Peeesh! The Mahntleans are myth, son. A joke yer mother and I uhsed to say when we were soused on the sauce. They were stories from her Nonna. The Mantle and Mantleans aren’t real. Or at least, ahbout as real as ol’ Saint Nick,” Claudio declares with a hiccup and chuckle. “Now get me another drink, wouhl’ yehs? I’m thirsty and your mother is nowhere to be found.” He pulls the lever on the recliner and sits back until his loafers are off the ground. Claudio sighs, stares at the ceiling and snores.

“He’s never been like this until our mother died some years ago,” Josh declares. He laments the sight of his father pale-faced and rosy-cheeked, reeking of whiskey and sorrow.

“Eh? Yehw say se’methin’, Jay?” Claudio asks, bursting awake for a moment. He looks around the room, his head bobbing and his eyes dropping. “God damn it,” he mutters. “It’s just you,” he says to Josh. “Juhst Gay Jay. Why coul’n’t yehw be more like the reahl Jay. You have four chil’ren and her’ ya are. Prancin’ with your high school boyfriend. Thought we raised yew better ‘en that. You hated that poor girl. You ruined her life to protect ya’r damn image!” Claudia reveals, raising his quivering voice.

Josh shrinks into the couch, clasping his hands and putting his head down.

“Bad enough you couldn’t be yourself, like ya wer’ taught, Joshua. You had to he’rt som’one else in the process. Even though we all knew. For your mother’s sake, I stayed quiet. Her shame and guilt probably made her cancer worse,” Claudio says, repeating indiscernible insults under his breath and cursing his way back to a drunken nap.

Nick looks at Josh. “You know he didn’t mean that,” he asserts. “You had a career and an image to uphold. I don’t agree with what you did, but we’re here now. It’s life. It’s messy. It’s imperfect.”

Erin smirks, observing the scene and nudging Marshall. “Take notes, Marshall,” she declares, framing her hands around Josh, his father and Nick. “This is what drama is. Such depth. These monkeys fight over anything, but generate unlimited entertainment by merely existing.”

Marshall sighs. “The Void Egg, my lady. You’re not much different than the young fellow with his face in hands,” he admonishes. Erin blushes, embarrassed. Her glamour dispels for a moment, revealing her gorgeous, eternally young face, long flowing red locks and proportionate curves. Before she can fix her appearance, Jay comes back into the living holding a tray with snacks and several drinks.

His jaw swivels and his heart palpitates as the tray and its contents slide out of his hand. Josh lunges in an attempt to catch the display, but Marshall points his cane and beats Josh to it. Small gusts of wind catch the finger food and drinks, neatly replacing them on the tray. The breeze carries the tray onto a coffee table in the center of the living. Jay looks at his brother and then at Nick. They stare back and nod.

Erin waves her hand over her face, resetting the disguise she had been wearing. “Obviously, I am a muse, not a wet nurse. As such, I am a woman of high birth, high nobility and beauty unrivalled by that which the loins of an ape can produce,” she says, scoffing disgusted. She crosses her arms as Marshall pretends to look around the room at family photos and generations of knick knacks.

“I brought you all drinks and deserts. Thanks for your help Marshall,” Jay says, smiling. He looks at Erin and leans in. “A beautiful goddess such as yourself shouldn’t need to be in school to have some class, Ms. Erin,” he quips. He brings his hands together in one loud clap. “Alright, so we need this essence of love thing in the next five days,” Jay announces, cutting off Erin before she speaks again. He points at Claudio. “There it is. There is enough love in that man to carry a village. Take it. Do your thing and bring the Void Egg and unhatched dragon where it belongs.”

“You babbling, malformed, goateed gorilla, did the ability to listen skip you in your fathers fecal-scented scrotum? We need express consent! If we could take the essence of love, why we simply would have, you filthy, asinine beast. I dare you to hurl another insult at me again too, because I’ll have you know I am a muse. Not a nymph, not a goddess, but a well-educated, intelligent and beautiful muse of high birth! I will not be sil-“

“Enough, Erin,” Marshall interrupts, scratching his forehead and taking a deep breath. “This mess is your fault to begin with, child. As your family’s retainer, it falls upon me to ensure your messes are cleaned up in a timely manner. Please do not make this more difficult than it needs to be. We’ve already spent thirty years learning a single invocation. That’s 10,950 days that I could have spent perhaps learning a trade or a skill, but instead, I spent it meandering the Mantle and the upper core of the Earth, communing with dragons – who speak slower than snails crawl- and then watching you sip tea, admire your face and take decades practicing the melody in the most leisurely pace possible,” Marshall says, in a scathing, impatient tone. He taps his cane on the hardwood floor to break the awkward pause.

“Damn, Marshall, anything else you need to get off your chest?” Nicks asks, Josh and Jay erupting into uncontrollable laughter at his comment. “Seriously, though, so then what? Do we wait until he wakes up?”

Erin pouts in silence, then speaks. “I suppose so, unless their father is able to talk and listen in his sleep. Surely the veil between dreams and the waking world is not beyond the grasp of one as ancient as he.”

“He’s sixty-four,” Jay admits.

“Even more reason. Sixty-four-thousand years is barely a third of Marshall’s life and he can basically commune with the winds of the cosmos,” Erin responds.

“Your capacity for wisdom has clearly been allocated into your beauty and natural talents,” Marshall says through his teeth. “The young man means sixty-four years old. As in over two-thirds of the human life expectancy. Communing with him through the dream realm is not an option. Waiting is our best option, unless we enlist the aid of friends.”

Erin’s face shifts from confidence to concern. “That will not be necessary at all, Marshall. As you stated this is my mess. I shall clean it up, right and quickly. No one else needs be involved in my affairs. Mayhap we quelle our excitement and let the man sleep it off, then we ask for permission. Surely, such a thing is the best option.”

“Perhaps you should quelle your taste for the exotic, dear child. As I stated, waiting is our best option,” Marshall says. He sits on the other recliner in the large living room. Erin makes a face and sits next to Jay.

“So, uh, the Mantle. That’s something we don’t hear about every day. My mother used to tell me stories when I was kid. Tales her grandmother passed down from generations. I had no idea you guys were real,” Jay says.

“Well, the whispering wind is how he talks with his kind, and my grandmother is the one who taught the Atlanteans music. Then they sunk their city, as you people often do when things don’t go your way. A conspiracy here, violence there, a coup here, ignorance there, war here, coordinated famine there… It’s all so uniquely human, yet you still remember to fight, lie, cheat and steal from those closest to you. And, don’t even get me started on your incessant narcissism.”

“Sounds like you’re more human than you think with your illegitimate dragon baby, Ms. High birth and nobility. You’re, like, so ew,” Josh says, responding to an email on his phone. “Marshall, can you tell us anything interesting, without a passive aggressive insult, please.”

Marshall smiles, but then shakes his head. “Unfortunately, I cannot. There are certain things humans cannot know without being altered significantly in mind and spirit. Even with all my years of life, I know not in the slightest what those things happen to be. I may inadvertently share something that will alter the frequency and pitch of what you can hear, thus making it so you can comprehend the fauna, or worse yet, you might be able to hear daytime television broadcasting throughout the air. Unless you were an immortal, there is not much I can share directly pertaining to the Mantle.”

“Pshaw! Such a gaff, Marshall! If only that were true!” Erin shouts, reaching for a martini. The illusory wrinkles and liver spots on her faux frail hands make Nick cringe. “The truth is, Marshall is as old as the wind, because he is one of the first sons of the physical winds. Namely, the one called Boreas. My father, a man I refuse to speak of, is a man of infinite knowledge, but even what he knows pales in comparison to knowledge and experience Marshall possess. He is one of the few Mantleans who can leave The Mantle and leave this planet. He needs no sleep, no food or water. He merely exists as a pure mixture of temperature and air pressure.”

The twins and Nick shrug.

Marshall breathes heavily. “This wait can be long or short. I’d prefer to sit here and listen to the television.”

“I can just turn on the tv,” Jay says. “It’s probably better than catching frequencies carried by the wind.”

“I am the wind, so I can control the frequency,” Marshall says, plain and unconcerned. “I need very little to be comfortable. So you children need not worry about me. In fact, I believe I am going to join the evening breeze and sweep across the continent for a few hours.” Marshall sits sideways and vanishes, with a cedar-scented gust.

“Ugh. Typical,” Erin says, leaning on the arm of the couch. “So, is it Gay Jay or Joshua? Why Gay Jay?” she asks, Josh trying to make conversation.

Josh squeezes his phone and mutters. Nick pats his back. “She’s not human, babe. Let it go,” he says to Josh, who sighs and rolls his eyes. Jay reaches for a glass and pours himself a beer, avoiding the conversation. “It’s Gay Jay because, well, we’re gay,” Nick says, holding Josh’s hand up. “No real mystery there.”

“But the family you have…” Erin says with genuine interest. “I’d like all the juicy tidbits.”

Jay sits back. “It’s a whole complicated thing, Erin.” He shakes his had and looks at Josh. “You don’t have to talk about this, Bro. I won’t lie and say that I haven’t been curious, but you know, it’s not really my place to ask. I know what kind of relationship you and Lee had. I told you about the time she woke me up with her mouth and I had to smack her away,” Jay says, shuddering. “That girl was a real piece of work. Marrying a gay man to hide the fact that she was a puttana. No way kids that white, no offense, could be from our Italian asses.”

“Just let it go, Jay,” Nick says, while Josh remains silent.

“Fair enough,” Josh responds, waving his hands in defeat. “What about you, Erin. What’s it like having sex with dragons?”

Erin spits her drink, cackling. “Oh god, no. I would not be alive to tell the tell. Dragons are not born through sexual intercourse. They require a melding of hearts and minds. I, being a muse of high birth, have yet to copulate with a man; however, I fell in love with a dragon. His name was Lew’hfgal-duhlsvehn. Unlike the ones who sleep with women by shapeshift magic, Leuff, as I call him, doesn’t posses the ability to shift. Unfortunately, our love could never be so I removed my love essence and used in the invocation after much debate.”

Jay’s lip quivers. “So, you’re a virgin.”

“Wow, Bro! That’s all you got from that?” Josh shouts. He leans over his brother and rubs Erin’s crusty, liver-spotted forearm and shivers in disgust. “Sorry, it’s just kind of gross. I know your skin is like this because of some magic, but it’s so real. Anyway, I’m sorry you lost your love and the love for your sort-of offspring in the process,” Josh says to Erin.

Erin giggles. “Well, dragon romances do not work nearly the same as most other courtships. It’s one built from emotional and intellectual harmony. Dragons live substantially longer than most known creatures who aren’t elementals, at least on this planet. I have never been elsewhere, but I have heard many stories. When dragons hatch, they spend eons in the Earth’s core acclimating. It’s not rare for a parent and child to meet 500 years after the child has been born. Before you ask, yes, we measure time by Earth rotations. Our years are the same. Tonalpohualli, a dragon, came up with the measurement of time after many failed attempts at the establish the correct unit of measurements. Anyway, even if I met my child I would not know it. Also, the lifespan of dragons makes it impossible for them to mate for life with one being. They are the sheer definition of eternal and tend to find comfort where the wind takes them, but I do suppose their romances last several hundred years. A drop in the bucket for such magnificent beings.”

Jay fidgets, glancing at his phone, looking around the room, and examining Erin’s disguised body. “Pretty interesting. Are there many creatures and entities in the Mantle?,” Jay asks, wondering how he can get Erin to remove her glamour. Josh and Nick chatter among themselves, chuckling at photos on Josh’s Facebook page.

Erin nods. “Many. The Mantle is practically 2/3s of the planet. Considering the surface of this planet, where you all reside, and the size of the core, the Mantle is basically twice the area you all inhabit. The Mantle has three layers Upper Mantle, which is a residential area not much different than the cities and towns of Earth. Then there’s the Center, which is basically the government, business and red light district with some major residential areas interspersed through out it. When visitors from other planets arrive, unless they have relatives or friends in the Upper Mantle, they generally stay in the Center since they’re here on business. Then, there’s the Lower Mantle, where I am from. It is a lush paradise with only the highest socialites, politicians and earthen gods. Because of its proximity to the upper core, the Lower Mantle is filled with ancient texts, interplanetary information and a wealth of knowledge. It is truly a marvel,” Erin says in response to Jay’s question. She continues to lean on the arm of the couch, indifferent to Jay’s existence, while Jay an award-winning school principal imagines the wonders of the Mantlean world. “Despite how great I make it sound, life in the Mantle is not a dream unless you can afford it or have the enormous power and magic to build your own living space. Many creatures can do neither and live like rodents in a perpetual maze since the entrances and exits to the Mantle are closely guarded by magic and powerful elementals.”

“I doubt I’ll ever make my way there. I’m just glad to know the place exists. My mom would tuck us in with stories about talking animals, fairies and other things in the Mantle. I always wished it was real, and here I am, talking to a real life magic-using muse. This is incredible. Regarding of how you feel about us, I am glad to have the opportunity to make your acquaintance, Erin,” Jay declares, with a loud yawn. Erin faces him, her face annoyed and indifferent. She forces a smile and fights the urge to roll her eyes. Jay avoids making things more awkward and thumbs through his Facebook feed.

“I apologies for my rudeness,” Erin mutters, with a semblance of self awareness. She adjusts herself and crosses her left leg over her right, then stares at Jay. “Please do tell me about yourself Jay. I could ramble on for centuries about practically anything. I am just mildly curious enough to feign some meaningful intrigue in your short life.”

Jay takes a deep breath and exhales. “Well, that’s a lot to take in. Thanks? I guess?”

Erin shrugs. “Good. Sure. Now, tell me things, well-dressed and well-groomed bronze simian. Tell me of your failed attempts at love, since you still reside with your clearly insufferable father. Your life must be a series of series of romantic tragedies that I can’t wait to turn into a play of some kind. I can see it now ‘The wonderfully pitiful life of the painfully handsome human named Jay‘ or ‘How I never met your mother, or anyone else. At least not successfully‘. Maybe, ‘The Unfortunately Principled Life of Principal Jay‘, a musical about a gold-hearted human whose efforts to be a good person inadvertently cause him to suffer social and emotional tragedies due to the ineptitude and unsympathetic behaviors of the undeserving narcissists whose lives just seem to workout for them. It’s positively stunning!”

Jay bites his lip. A vein bulges from his forehead, just below his perfect hairline. “That’s oddly specific,” he mumbles, gritting his teeth. “I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”

“Splendid!” Erin shouts, clapping her hands in quick succession. “Juicy romances! Do tell the good bits on why they failed! Human loves is so fickle, its as if one need only sneeze incorrectly to be vilified!” she exclaims. Jay rubs his hands to comfort himself. Nick settles in, pretending to get tired, but bracing himself to eavesdrop. He elbows Josh and motions at Jay with his chin. Josh rests head on Nick’s shoulder and pretending to slide through his feed, while also rubbernecking.

“Um, so, as you know, my name is Jay. Short for Jason. I am Josh’s twin. I don’t date. Never been married. Live a quiet life with my father, and that’s pretty much all there is to it,” Jay says, picking at the skin on his hands, refusing to make eye contact with the others in the room. “Nothing exciting or entertaining.”

Erin rolls her eyes, then begins moving her fingers in a slow, rhythmic pattern. She places her hands on her thighs to give the appearance she’s tapping her legs. Jay rocks to the left and right in tandem with Erin’s invisible keys. His movements subtle enough to go unnoticed. “go on,” Erin demands.

“I’ve, uh, always been a straight A student, never been arrested, never left home and attended the university down the road,” Jay responds, relaxing to an inaudible melody. “My hobbies are watching tv, reading and occasionally playing some video games. Most of my time goes to work or to my dad. When we found out Mom had cancer, I moved back in with them and helped tend to her. She was getting by for a few years and the cancer went in remission, then she discovered she had an undetected brain tumor. She died on the operating table some years ago. Dad stepped down as principal of Thatcher Elementary School, and due to a series of convenient situations, some inadvertent people-pleasing, and my tendency to be a workaholic, I was the top choice for principal,” he says, sighing and groaning. “The last woman I ever touched was my mother. I held her hand before her operation. Um, yeah, and I like the endless snow. I think it’s great, but I only want it to end so Dad can stop making excuses for needing me around the house and I can move as far as possible from here. Never call, never write and just escape.”

“Nothing wrong with that, Jay” Josh says under his breath.

“I know there isn’t,” Jay responds, calm and in a subtle trance. “I love Dad and I just can’t bring myself to leave him, but I feel like the parent in our relationship. It’s not like he even needs or appreciates me. He just gets drunk, and not even the good kind of drunk. He gets sad boy drunk and just talks about his bullshit, simmering in his regret and stewing in the pot of injustices he’s been forced to suffer, at least from his eyes. It’s infuriating to see him so weak. I mean, it’s not like he’s ill or in bad shape. He’s just a bitter old prick. I’m at the point where I just enable his drinking so he passes out. All of his bottles have a drop of a homeopathic sleep tincture I bought from Whole Foods. I just want him to sleep and never wake up so I can just go. And, I know how bad that sounds. I love Dad. I really do, but this isn’t how my life was supposed to be. Not that it’s his fault or anything, but caring for Mom also meant caring for him. Attending support groups for grieving spouses, watching reruns of shows with him while Mom slept and taking over the domestic duties, since you know how he is. And -”

Erin stops tapping her fingers and frowns. She hangs her head low. “-I understand the feeling of an overly needy, insufferable parent, Jay. Oh, such a tragic pity to be confined within reach of a someone so incorrigible and maladjusted to the changing tide,” She interrupts, placing the back of her hand on her forehead and mimics fainting. “Such deep, tragic beauty!” Erin shouts. “So human. So visceral!”

Jay blushes. “Sorry for unloading all of this on you guys. I feel like all that just came out of nowhere.”

Josh sits up and puts a hand on Jay’s shoulder. “No, bro. It’s okay. I left home. I went to Princeton. Fell in love many times over during my studies. I needed those experiences and, like, can’t even imagine what you feel or must have gone through essentially trapped here,” he says. “Hey Erin, can we take my brother’s love for my dad away?” Josh asks, curious.

Erin shakes her head. “I do not actually know, Josh,” she replies. Erin glances at Jay and puts a hand on his leg. “I assure you that I Erelin Atheniantha Sameronicus of The House of Musicianeos shall release you from your zoo, handsome, hairless monkey!” Erin shouts. “Also, please do not call me by my name. My stage name is Erin, and you shall refer to me as such, please and thank you.”

Ignoring her outburst, but smiling at her intent, Jay puts his hand over Erina’s. She flinches and pulls it back in disgust. “Sorry, I thought…” Jay stammers.

“When one pets a whimpering mutt, it is not a sign of anything, dear Jay,” Erin clarifies. She stand up from the couch and makes her way to a large window overlooking the front yard. Admiring her reflection, Jay gazes at her symmetrical features and beauty, but his lust fades when he sees her glamoured hand. Erin taps on the window and a draft rushes into the house. A visible vortex of air materializes into an old, gray haired man with a cane. “Ah, Marshall, welcome back. The homosexual simian called Gay Jay produced a rather ingenious inquiry that I, even with all my knowledge, could not answer. Can we instead pull the more handsome brother’s love for his parent for the spell?” Erin asks, oblivious to her casual ignorance and disrespect. “The more beautiful brother is like me. An unfortunate prisoner of circumstances due to his ill-placed and absurdly incomprehensible kindness birthed from a possible pit of self-loathing. He is undoubtedly pitiful and so helpless.”

Marshall places both of his hands over the crook of his cane. “Erin, your flair for the dramatic eclipses any level of common sense and general humility you might otherwise posses. Anyway, I suppose it is possible. Great idea, Josh,” Marshall confirms. His cane stands upright while he forms a ball of purple haze in his hands. “Now, Jay, this will be invasive and uncomfortable, but upon inhalation, this purple haze will seep into your soul and find the love you have for your father. It will bring that love out and into my hands. Mind you, it will not make you hate your father or any such thing. It will only significantly lessen the intensity of your attachment to him,” he says. Jay nods and Marshall blows the spiraling orb in Jay’s direction. The purple vortex fades into a purple mist and wafts into Jay’s nostrils. Jay’s eyes turn blood shot red and he falls sideways on the couch, claiming Erin’s spot. He exhales and the haze leaves his body, forming into a ball of wind surrounding glowing particles. “Those are the seeds of your bond with your father. The wind will grind them in to dust and we will scatter the dust where the Void Egg’s resonance is the strongest. Now, all we must needs do is find the egg of sin.”

“About that, why do you guys call it the egg of sin,” Jay asks, his eyes returning to normal. He stretches and smiles at the immense weight that his been lifted from his shoulders. “Is it like a Christian thing or something?”

Erin and Marshall glance at each other and laugh. “Even this child is older than the oldest religion of man,” Marshall says, pointing his palm at Erin. “There are divine universal laws that apply on all planets, for all life and states of being. Dragons are timeless, boundless entities that can exist in the physical and metaphysical realms. It is against divine law for beings of such high magnitude and knowledge to copulate with lesser creatures. It is akin to a god mating with a human, or a man mating with an animal. In the eyes of a dragon, we are all uncivilized, imperfect creatures, even if their infinite wisdom keeps them from admitting this.” Marshall glares at Erin. “Even so, no creature is free from the desire for company. Especially if that company comes from a one such as a muse, who specifically exists to appear overwhelmingly beautiful to those whose souls lack inspiration. Most muses can control their appearance at will, those who cannot must rely on cheap manipulation of the light and air around them,” Marshall laments. He pinches the bridge of his nose in frustration. “That all said, the egg of sin is called such because it is an child born against the natural law of mating and breeding hierarchy. The problem is amplified when it is due to the carelessness of an inconsiderate child. If for example, you were to mate with Erin here, your offspring would be an egg of sin that would have negative ramifications to the natural flow of the environment. One never knows how such things will manifest. In the case of dragons, it is always extreme cold. At least, dragons born of earthly lineage, anyway. Erin, shall we?” Marshall asks, cutting his explanation short. Erin nods and hands a small, obelisk to Jay. Despite the strange markings and writing, Jay can somehow feel that the inscription reads: In times of doubt, play these note and I shall be about.

In a controlled flurry, Marshall and Erin disappear. A strong gust blows out of the living room in all directions. Josh and Nick snore in silence, joining Claudio in a deep sleep. Jay, on the other hand, paces around the living room, sipping a smooth scotch. For the first time in his life, he saw something so beautiful it distracted him from thoughts of work, household maintenance and his typical duties. Jay groans, searching for the television remote. He sits on the other recliner and turns it toward the large television. Soft rumbling shakes the house and a bright flash illuminates the room. “I guess they took care of it,” he says to himself, raising the volume on the television. He takes another sip of his drink as he flips through channels. A glass scrapes on the metal tray. Jay turns around.

Erin, glamourless, revealing her breathless beauty, says, “Well, that was uneventful. The egg of sin wasn’t the cause of the never-ending snow and cold weather, or at least not over your town. It’s stopped everywhere else though. That said, you apes just truly live in a weird place. Truth be told, I like strange and odd. I’ll take my obelisk back, please and thank you,” she says, in her usual tone. She smirks at Jay. “I think I may stay for a while, my handsome, bronze primate sculpture. I think there may be a sleeping savant within you, and my plays may benefit from your creativity.”



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