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Assimilated

Silent Journey
DeJay

Iz's Story
Doreen Perrine

Communion
Fran Walker

Games With Chance
Andi Marquette

Backup Plan
Jess Sandoval

Bridgework
Darby O'Neil

Who's In Charge?
DeJay

Water Rites
Mary Douglas

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Shawn's eyes flew open, her heart was pounding in the dark. She tried to hold on to the fleeing bits of her dream as they raced for the nether. For once, it had not been a nightmare and she wanted to remember this dream. There was something about a woman, a woman she loved. The rest was gone already. But Shawn remembered that she had been happy in the dream. Awareness set in like an electrical shock, and Shawn's heart ached for the dream she had lost. The dream had changed nothing, she still had to face the reunion in the morning, her dead end job on Monday, and the overdue bills. She pulled a pillow over her face and tried to quiet her sobs. Shawn felt Stinker, her mangy ginger cat jump onto the bed and drape himself over her leg.

She tried to find the happy dream again, but only the old ghosts came to visit.


Shawn looked at her watch and shook her head. She was late. She felt the anger rise hot in her cheeks, unsure if she was angrier about being late, or about being almost at the reunion. She took a deep breath as she pushed her custom motorcycle a little bit faster. She didn't need anymore tickets, but cops were scarce this far out of the city. Her eyes scanned the rolling landscape from behind her tinted visor. Half grown corn stalks stretched away in both directions. In another month, the woods on the right would be all but invisible from the road.

A gas station appeared on the horizon. Shawn checked the gauge and decided to fill up. It would only get more expensive farther down the road.

She pulled up to a pump. She was attempting to retrieve her wallet from the back pocket of her jeans when a truck pulled up to the other side of Shawn's pump. The big black dog in the truck bed stopped pacing circles and locked eyes with Shawn. For a moment, Shawn was a child again, locked in the shed with her brother's German Shepherd while he watched through a window.

Shawn shook her head and felt the sweat starting on her upper lip. The black dog barked aggressively. She kicked the bike to life and left tire marks in front of the pump. Back on the road, she rationalized the price difference at the next station would only be a few cents anyway.

She tried to recall the good memories from her childhood. The bad ones choked them out like weeds. She regretted promising her mother she would make an appearance at the reunion. Shawn never could say no to her mother. She wondered what she would talk about with relatives she had nothing in common with. Church going farmers and lesbian mechanics did not mix well.

On the doorstep of thirty, Shawn had very little to show for the years since she'd left home. It seemed like everything she tried to do turned out badly. She drifted from place to place and went through jobs at the same speed she rode her bike. The list of women she had dated and then lost touch with was nearly as endless as the corn fields. Stinker had even died in his sleep sprawled across Shawn's leg that morning. Her small apartment on the edge of the slums would never feel like home again without him.

Her bike was the one exception to the transience of her life. She built it herself. Every weekend, she washed it and inspected it from front tire to tail pipe. That was her religion.

Four hours should make her mother happy. Some of that time she could spend in the bathroom and in the kitchen. Four hours to discharge a vague sense of obligation to a mother who discussed the weather with her once a month. Then she would be back on the road headed in the opposite direction.

She pulled her gaze away from the hypnotic rows of corn back to the two lane road and immediately slammed on her breaks. She turned the bike sideways to avoid the rusty tractor. Shawn cursed as she bailed and let the bike skid away onto the shoulder. She heard the gravel ripping across the chrome. It would take her weeks to repair the damage. Shawn ignored her own scrapes and bruises. Pain was an old friend of hers. The blood dribbling down her left arm hardly registered in her awareness.

At least she missed the tractor. Shawn dusted herself off and silently thanked the law that made safety classes a requirement for a motorcycle license. When she took the class, she never imagined she would have to use any of the bail outs they practiced. She lifted the black helmet from her head and dropped it near the bike.

Shawn balled her perpetually stained hands into fists ready to unleash her anger at the careless tractor driver. A shirtless boy sat behind the wheel looking completely unruffled by the accident he nearly caused. Shawn judged him too young to legally drive the tractor. His silent knowing stare raised the hair on the back of her neck.

"Hello," she offered levelly as she tried to master her anger.

"Hi," he chirped.

"Look what you did to my bike! What are you doing with that tractor in the middle of the road?"

"Waiting for you." He wiped sweat from his brow with a tanned bony arm.

Shawn shook her head in irritation and considered her next question. She wondered if the boy was malicious or just a little simple. "For me?"

"Yes, you're Shawn."

Shawn shivered in spite of the heat. Something was definitely not right.

"How do you know my name?" she fired back. She noticed that his ribs stood out in his chest and his jeans were starting to tear at the knees.

"She told me."

"Who told you?"

"The lady by the river, I'll take you to her," he offered.

Shawn closed her eyes and rubbed her temples. She was already late, a little bit longer wouldn't matter. She wanted very much to know how this strange child knew her name. If this woman had arranged the accident, perhaps she would pay for the damage to the bike.

"Fine," she agreed.

She retrieved the motorcycle from the corn field and tried not to look at its mangled body or the pieces of corn stalks jammed into various places. The boy started the engine and turned the tractor off the road. It crawled toward the woods on a narrow track between fields. Shawn marveled that the engine even turned over. The ancient tractor should have been sold for scrap years ago. Shawn pushed her bike after it.

"Where are your parents?" she called over the straining of the laboring engine.

"They always go to town on Saturdays." He spoke as if Shawn should have known his family's routines. His calmness was metal splinters under her nails. She noticed the skin on his bare back was unevenly tanned. He had white stripes of scar tissue criss-crossing each other from his neck to below his belted jeans. Some of them looked fresh. Her anger suddenly drained away as she realized what this child's life must be like. She absently gripped her arm just below the wrist. Sometimes she thought she could feel the calcium deposits over the healed fracture.

"Hey, what's your name?" She jogged the bike up along side of him.

"Brandon, I think," he said quietly. "But that's not what they call me."

"Brandon, I'm not going to hurt you. You can tell me." Shawn looked up at him and saw the sadness in his gray eyes.

"They call me Little Shit mostly."

"Have you told anyone at school?" she asked hoping there was some way to make things better for him.

"I don't go to school. I'm home schooled because I need to be punished when I'm bad. Sometimes I don't do my school work right or I take too long with my chores."

Shawn didn't know what to say. She was thinking furiously about how to help Brandon. She couldn't change her own past, but maybe she could make Brandon's future easier somehow.

The abrupt lack of noise from the tractor startled Shawn out of her thoughts. Brandon had parked the rusting beast at the edge of the woods.

"You'll need to leave your motorcycle here. I'm sorry it got all messed up." He hung his head.

Shawn tried the kickstand. It no longer extended all the way. She slowly leaned the motorcycle against a tree. She looked at the bike and then looked back at Brandon. She raised a hand to tousle his thin brown hair. He shied away.

"I'm not going to hit you," she apologized. She felt her cheeks start to burn with embarrassment. When had she lost her own vigilance about other people's hands? "You know what? Don't worry about the bike. I can fix it up good as new."

"Really? You mean you won't tell anyone about it? I knew I'd get in trouble for it, but she said it was the most important thing I'd ever do in my whole life. I figured if she said it was that important then it would be worth my punishment when Papa found out. I'm used to it anyways." He looked up at Shawn with hope shining in his eyes. She was willing to bet that it had been a long time since Brandon had believed in something good happening to him.

"Yeah, just like it never happened. Now tell me about this woman who told you my name." She firmly pushed all thoughts of the damaged bike to the back of her mind. Brandon turned and headed into the trees as he talked. Shawn followed him.

"She lives in the woods, just across the old bridge. I found her one day when I was . . . well, when I was running from Papa. I know he was only doing what's best for me, but I was so scared! Anyway, she's nice. She has this leaf thing that she lets me taste, but it's not like other vegetables. It tastes like bubble gum. She only lets me have a little bit. And then we talk a little and I usually fall asleep. I have the best dreams ever when I'm there! But she can't leave the woods, she can't even go past the bridge. I think she's lonely, so I visit her sometimes, on Saturdays mostly."

Shawn studied Brandon as he spoke. He seemed to have no idea that his story sounded like a child's fantasy. Although, it didn't account for how he knew her name.

"There's the bridge." He took off at a run.

The rotting timbers spanned halfway across a swiftly flowing river. The other end was gone and Brandon was heading straight for it.

"Brandon, wait!"

"You have to run as fast as you can!" he yelled back and ran even faster.

Shawn would never catch him in time. She closed her eyes as he went over the edge. She skidded to a halt near the end and peered over. There was no sign of Brandon. The water was barely high enough to flow over some very nasty looking rocks. Shawn bit down on a finger to keep the tears back. Why was she always too late or not quite good enough?

"No, you have to try it again." It sounded like Brandon was just beyond the end of the bridge. Now she was hearing things as well, could this day get any worse? He's dead she told herself and stumbled back to the path.

Shawn paused as she heard someone coming up the trail.

"Where are you, you Little Shit?" The man slurred his words. Shawn heard dog tags jingling. She was trapped between Brandon's father and the end of the bridge. Shawn knew what the headlines would read if he found her here with Brandon dead somewhere below: "Local Lesbian Trouble Maker Brutally Murders Innocent Boy."

The dogs began barking as they picked up her scent. They came up the trail at a run, two German Shepherds with snarling faces. Maybe she could make it to the other bank. As the dogs closed the distance, Shawn decided to take her chances. She ran.

Birds rose from the trees when she let loose with a scream. She hurtled herself at full speed towards the broken end of the bridge. She shut her eyes tight as her foot stretched out over nothing. Shawn felt suspended in both space and time. Suddenly, she remembered every moment of her life in vivid detail. She even remembered her perfect dream from earlier that morning. In that instant, she saw clearly the path of her life. For once, she felt confident. She knew her purpose.

Her foot touched down on more wooden planks. Surprised, she stumbled and went down hard. Her clarity shattered and skittered away from her like grains of dried corn on a barn floor. She rolled a few times. A tear leaked out of her eye. She was uncertain if it was from the shock of falling or for the losing the dream a second time.

Brandon giggled. Shawn looked up to see him standing unharmed on the bridge. His laughter cut off as she looked up at him.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to laugh. I'm a bad boy." He shoved his hands in his pockets and studied his worn sneakers.

Shawn sat up. She laughed as the tension drained away. "It's ok, just a few bruises," she assured him.

He looked at her uncertainly.

"I guess I probably did look pretty funny back there."

One small laugh escaped his tightly pressed lips. He risked a glance up at her. She leaned back against the railing and smiled warmly at him. He let loose with his laughter. The sound eased the sting of her landing.

Shawn looked past his giggling form. The bridge ended abruptly behind him now.

"We're almost there. Come on." He started off down a path leading into the woods. Shawn sighed as she rose to follow him. It was time to meet this mysterious woman. She had better be able to pay for the repairs to the bike after all the trouble she was going through, she thought.

A breeze stirred Shawn's shaggy dark hair and called her attention to the relative coolness on this side of the bridge. Some of the vegetation around her looked vaguely familiar, but most of it was unlike anything she had ever seen. Instead of greens and browns, this forest was as bright and colorful as a crayon box. Shawn considered a plant with thick green and pink leaves. She could imagine it tasting like bubble gum as Brandon mentioned earlier. Bright colors in nature were supposed to indicate danger, she thought. The path curved back around toward the river and seemed to be heading for its bank. Shawn caught up with Brandon as he was balancing on a log.

"Isn't this place neat? It took me a little while to get used to it at first. It all seemed so strange. But I'm used to it now. And I'm not even bad here!"

"It certainly is unique," she replied dryly. "Now that we're here, show me this woman." Shawn tried to estimate the repair costs for the motorcycle.

"Okay, she's just up here by the water." He led the way to the end of the path.

This was not the same river the bridge spanned. This river flowed at a more moderate pace and with an ambling sound rather than a roar. A mist rose from the surface and swirled in and out of mossy stone walls. The walls suggested a long corridor with small, roofless rooms lining either side, but they only rose about two feet above the water.

"Hello." Shawn heard the voice in her head instead of out loud.

"Here she comes." Brandon must have heard it too. He hurried to the bank and knelt. He reached his hand out and a slim dark hand rose up from the water to take his small tanned one. A woman emerged, her long white hair streaming down her narrow back. She wore a loose yellow tunic and dark green leggings. Shawn watched the water disappear from her clothes as if by magic. The woman was not at all what Shawn had expected. There was nothing ominous about her.

The woman smiled at Brandon. "Thank you." She wasn't much taller than he was.

"You're welcome. She was there, just like you said she'd be and I brought her here for you," he reported happily.

"I see. You've done well. Shawn is very important to us." The woman broke off a small piece of one of the green and pink plants and passed it to Brandon. "Why don't you have some makau leaf and let me speak with her for a moment?"

Brandon accepted the treat with a smile and took himself a few feet away to enjoy it.

The woman turned her attention to Shawn. "You have questions." It was a statement not an inquiry.

"How do you know my name?" Shawn blurted out.

"I know many things about you. I know who you have been and who you are supposed to be. However, I do not yet know who you will be." She had that same knowing look that Brandon wore when he caused the accident. Shawn shivered.

"Why did you set up the accident? I hope you plan on paying for the repairs to my bike!" Shawn's hands planted themselves on her hips.

The woman shook her head. "That is not how you die. Money does not exist here, it is of no consequence to me."

"Well, that's just great. Do you know how long it will take me to save up enough money to buy the parts? And what about Brandon? He could've been hurt if I hit the tractor! Look at him, hasn't he been through enough? If you know everything about me, you must know his life story too. He doesn't need you getting him in more trouble, I can see that much." The woman appeared undisturbed by the accusation in Shawn's voice.

"That's not how he dies. He was in no danger. Since he has succeeded in his task here, he may be able to move on and become who he is supposed to be. But that depends on you. If you had not come, he would have put the tractor back and spent the day here with me, dreaming in other worlds."

"What do you mean it depends on me?" Frustration laced her question. Shawn glanced at her watch and realized she would have some explaining to do when she finally arrived at the reunion. How had so much time slipped by unnoticed? This maddeningly calm woman managed to lure her here just as she lured Brandon and was now wasting her time with fortune telling nonsense.

The woman smiled patiently at Shawn. "That will not help you here. This place is outside of time. We are in a bubble that touches all the worlds, but is not a part of any of them. You entered when you ran off the end of the bridge. The world that you came from is not the one you are supposed to be in. It happens sometimes, mistakes are made and what was supposed to be, is not. You are out of place in that world, it is not where you belong. You know this, you feel it. Nothing is permanent for you there. This bubble allows me to help make things right. The choice will be up to you."

Shawn held her silence for a moment. She broke eye contact with the woman and noticed that Brandon was still savoring the bit of leaf while he played with some sticks by the river bank. It was true, she had never really belonged. The only place she felt completely comfortable was on her motorcycle with the wind whipping her clothes against her skin. The bike would never be the same after the beating it took earlier. She heaved a sigh and conceded to herself that if a place like this existed, with plants in all colors of the rainbow, perhaps there was some truth in the woman's words.

"What do you mean the choice will be up to me?" Shawn stepped closer to the woman and lowered her voice. Brandon may not be watching, but she could feel him listening.

The woman reached out and placed her fingertips on Shawn's cheek. Shawn felt her cheek start to sting. The woman placed her hand over Shawn's heart. Shawn felt it start to race. Then she felt it break, like when she woke up from her dream. Her eyes started to water. The woman moved her hand to the back of Shawn's head. Her fingers touched the small, hairless spot on her scalp where the hair had been pulled out by the roots and never grown back. Shawn ground her teeth against the pain. When the woman reached for Shawn's healed wrist, Shawn yanked her arm back. The woman met Shawn's angry stare with a smile.

"How dare you?" Shawn hissed.

"When you belong to a place, these things do not happen. It is a sign that you are out of place. You are needed where you are supposed to be. So very many things there depend on you." She looked over at Brandon. "He is needed there as well. But without you, he is lost there. So he remains here for now."

Shawn followed the woman's gaze. She couldn't believe she was taking this even a little seriously. Brandon seemed to flicker before her eyes. For a moment, Shawn saw a fragile young woman embraced by light blue robes. The young woman turned to look at Shawn with Brandon's eyes. Shawn shook her head and the young woman became Brandon again.

"What is it like there?"

The mysterious woman waved her fingers in front of Shawn's eyes. Shawn saw in her mind's eye a brief glimpse of the woman from her dream this morning. All the feelings of having lost a perfect moment came back to her as vivid as before.

"It is like your world and it is not like your world. You have seen some of where you are supposed to be when you dream, but you will not remember more than a vague impression of those dreams without eating the makau leaf before the dream."

"That's why you give it to Brandon, so he can remember what he dreams here! You give him fantasies . . ." Shawn trailed off. Her stomach churned uncomfortably as the weight of her decision settled on her.

Shawn walked away from the woman. She crossed the distance to Brandon and squatted on her heels next to him.

"Tell me what you dream about," she requested softly.

"I dream about good things. Like, that I'm an orphan, and that I help people who are sick, and when they get better they fight the bad people." He continued playing with his sticks as he spoke. "The best part is that I grow up to be a woman. Women don't hurt people like men do."

Shawn bit her trembling lower lip. "If you could, would you dream forever?"

She was surprised when he looked her in the eye without any shyness. He nodded.

Shawn stood up and shoved her hands into her pockets. She stared out over the river. Hadn't she always wanted to be the hero? What was there left for her in this world?

She returned to where the small, dark woman waited patiently.

"What would I have to do?" she asked, not yet fully committed to her choice.

"The water will take you both. It will feel like you are dying, but that is not how you die. You will remember the world you came from, but it will forget you. What you choose today, you will not be able to change later."

Shawn squeezed her eyes shut. If she was honest with herself, she really did not want to go to the reunion at all. It had been a long time since she wanted to see any of her family. She enjoyed working on cars and motorcycles, but it paid very little and she had no friends at the shop. All the guys there constantly tried to out do her. The boss kept her because he said it made them all work harder and that was good for business. She had no one to go home to, not even her cat. She thought about her motorcycle. It needed a lot of work. Even so, she would regret having to leave it behind.

When Shawn opened her eyes a few moments later, the woman was still awaiting her decision. She half expected to wake up with a bad hangover on the day after the reunion. She looked back up the path towards the bridge.

"All right," she agreed.

"Very well." The woman offered her hand to Shawn. She accepted it slowly. Brandon joined them as the woman followed the river bank upstream a short way. She stopped by one of the room-like sections of the mossy wall that looked exactly like all the others to Shawn.

"This is where the two of you are supposed to be." She sat down on the wall. Brandon settled himself next to her. "Brandon, I need you to do something that will hurt. But when it is over, you can stay where you dream."

"I won't have to go home anymore?" He studied his feet dangling above the ground. The woman shook her head.

"Shawn's coming too, isn't she?"

"Shawn has agreed to go with you, yes." The woman looked up at Shawn. Shawn nodded, confirming her decision.

"Will I still get to see you?" His voice quavered a little as he studied the woman's face intently, trying to memorize it.

"No, I must stay here. But I will know that you are happy."

"I'll miss you," he whispered. He flung his arms around her awkwardly as if he had never given a hug before. Tears threatened to spill from his watery eyes. He wiped his dirty hands across them.

"I'm ready." He stood up and faced the woman. She grabbed him under the armpits and lifted him over the wall. She lowered him through the swirling mist and into the water. She held him down. Shawn reflexively stepped forward intending to stop the woman from drowning Brandon. She stopped herself when she heard the woman chanting alien words under her breath. Brandon struggled briefly and then disappeared.

"I suppose I'm next," Shawn chattered nervously. She climbed over the wall and let herself into the water. It was not as cold as she had expected.

The woman took Shawn's head in both of her hands and kissed her gently on the forehead.

"Thank you, Shawn," she murmured.

The water closed in over her head and Shawn watched the woman's face grow dark and blurry as the light faded.


Shawn found herself in the woods again. The plants were unfamiliar, but they were at least the normal greens and browns. Shawn looked behind her, expecting to see part of a bridge. The trees were silent and unmoving in the heat. Someone tugged at her shirt. Brandon.

"I know this place, the people are up that path." Brandon pointed.

Shawn felt different. The precise cause eluded her. Fragile roots threaded into the eroded edges of her awareness. The tenuous connections shocked her, she had not known they had been absent until they were suddenly present.

She held out her hand to Brandon. She accepted it. Together, they set off for the town, on the path the white haired woman saw for them.

(c) 2008 Bedazzled Ink Publishing Company