Chapter 0:


Unnervingly Magical, Unforgivingly Real

            Laying as they were made Brennan feel intimidated. Both on one arm’s elbow, head on wrist-end, and looking out at him. He felt intimidated as a performer, as a conductor of story.

            “Dad, we’re getting sleepier.” Sleepier. These daughters of his were feeling sleepy, and certainly not any younger. Their father rubbed his index fingers from the heel to the toes through the palms of their feet. With a giggle, the girls were smiling instead of looking disappointed in him for the moment. They were waiting for him to read a bedtime story at this late hour. Brennan could not find a book around that he or his wife had read less than three times before. 

            Whether or not a performer or conductor, his fatherly instincts pressured him into finding a solution to the scarcity of a new story to tell. There were no books left to open for the first time. Something had to be done.

            He thanked himself internally for remembering then that a bedtime story does not need to be written. Yes, the young father thought to himself, this must be the case. A story-on-the-spot might do the trick tonight. “I got one,” he whispered.

             “A new one?” A groan emanated from one of the two mouths without wrinkles. “Because we read all of ‘em!” The second daughter was acting especially fussy.
            “No, no. Your Mommy and I read them. You just listened.” The pouting did not cease despite this smarmy statement. “I have a story you’ve never heard before. And you will never hear or read it anywhere else.”

            “She keeps reading us one about a girl trapped in a video game,” said one.
            “In, in another one,” said the other, catching their breath in annoyance, “a big nobody becomes a hero and a loverboy!”
            Brennan scoffed at the idea. “A loverboy? People trapped in video games? Your Mommy has a funny way of choosing books. They were popular when her and me were around your age.”

            A tongue was stuck out to make fun of those silly stories. The two daughters were beginning to look ready for the new story. One of the girls collapsed herself until her head slapped the pillow below. The other, the more expressive of the two, held a stuffed animal a little tighter.
            “Will it be scary?”
            “Yes, Mena. It will be, just not the way you expect…”

            Childhood. Adulthood. War. Romance. Endless war. The story winded and weaved past the obstacles to any good story. A father can usually only hope to achieve that when improvising a joke or story. There were no gimmicks too cliche, no story arcs to skip by due to their overall irrelevance to the driving conflicts. 

            But it, the story, had to contend with its own level of darkness. Brennan found it difficult to tell a story without pain; his wife had gotten upset multiple times over giving the girls nightmares from his choice of books. She would choose caterpillars and big red dogs, while he would choose fables with deep, adult lessons. It was while telling the story that he would hesitate to go too far with the details. 

            For the sake of the girls, he told himself, some pains were better left as phantoms before their manifestation in the girls’ own adulthoods.

            But a child catches on. “Slavery?”
            “Yes…You’ve been awake this whole time?”
            “What’s a slave?” Small fingers parted frizzled hair. An eye peeked through, green and veined with gold.

            “Well, they used to be people taken from faraway lands to work for free. Almost always violently. They would be put in chains, be given new names, and no one would know them except their master. They lived a very, very sad life.” He went too far again, but finally gave in to telling the truth.

            “They couldn’t leave?”
            “There would be nowhere to go. A slave has no true home. And, well, people that have no home, they—”
            “Are there slaves right now?”
            “No. Not like they used to be. Sometimes, a person living now can feel like a slave.”

            “…They might feel like the life they live has no real choices. And, that life might be inescapable. Even if slavery doesn’t exist like it used to.”
            He took his sweet time to answer.
            “I don’t know.” Yet he did know.

            Mena crossed her arms in the darkness. “Hmph.”
            “What’s that noise for?”
            She was staring at him through it all, her hair and every word of his.
            “You don’t wanna tell me ‘cus I’m not old enough, huh?” It broke him apart. He turned away from her at the sound of the question. “You killed the slave, too.”

            “No, Mena.” He went too far again.

             “You did. You’re lying to me,” as tears streamed down red cheeks.
            “Hey now,” he said as he faced her, “the slave doesn’t die.”
            “Liar!” The girl turned over abruptly, upsetting her sister.

            The slave does die. After all the fighting, all the loving, the slave dies. Even amidst becoming their own master. But…he had not neared that end by this point.

            “Why do you think the slave dies?”
            It’s when Mena’s tired that the child in her takes over the mature face.
            She took a peek at her father.

            “Because you set them free.” Said a child.

Con McCool