Ashley’s phone vibrated on the nightstand. Immediately she was awake. Rolling over, she grabbed the device and entered the 37 digit-code to unlock the screen. Quickly her eyes scanned the message, and then looked in the bed next to her to Tiko. It would be hard to leave him, but this was the life she had chosen. Tiko had known what he was getting into when he married her.
Carefully, she pulled off the covers and slid noiselessly out of bed. It took less than five minutes to pack because she always had a bag ready. Slipping on her wide-brimmed hat and dark sunglasses, she headed for the door.
She turned. Tiko was awake, though just barely. His tousled hair made him look boyish – though, as he was part Hobbit, he always had a slightly juvenile look to him. “I’m sorry to have woken you.”
He looked her over, his eyes stopping on the bag she carried. “Are you leaving?”
“When were you going to tell me?”
“I would have sent you a text.”
“A text? Really? Don’t you think that’s a bit impersonal.”
Setting her bag down, she nodded.
“That’s the point.”
“I don’t follow you.”
She stepped toward the bed, stopping at the foot. “I don’t want to leave. Sending a text is easier than saying goodbye.”
“You’re coming back, aren’t you?”
She looked down, as though to study her hands. “There’s always a chance. . .”
“Then don’t go.”
“I have to go.”
“Don’t you think you’ve done enough? You’ve lived a full life. Butterfly, the circus, time with the crocs and dinosaurs. Haven’t you had adventure enough?”
It was easy to make light of the situation than to reveal to him how she was actually feeling. “You’re not really worried about my safetly.”
He looked puzzled.
“You just are worried that Debra and Lottie wll come while I’m gone.”
She smiled, hoping he had become sufficiently distracted.
He stood, the bedding falling away and revealing his very masculine green and orange polka dot pajama bottoms. In two strides he was next to her. Taking her hands, he whispered, “Please don’t go.”
In her bag, she heard her phone buzzing. “I’m sorry Tiko. It’s always been this way. It will always be. I could no more deny my need for adventure than the color of my eyes. It has nothing to do with you. I love you more than. . . more than. . .”
It was a low blow and they both knew it. “It’s best not to stir up mud in a settled pond.”
“I’m sorry,” Tiko murmured. “Look, I have something for you. I’ve been saving it for you for just the right time.”
Ashley was speechless. Could it be that he had purchased a diamond? When they had married, he’d only had funds for a simple bad. “Should I be sitting down?”
Tiko didn’t respond, but went to the walk-in closet. He returned moments later with a square case draped in fabric. Ashley’s curiosity was piqued.
Settling the case on the floor, he opened a bag and took out a bottle filled with crimson liquid.
“What is that?” she asked suspiciously.
Tiko cleared his throat. “It is the blood of my enemies. Legend has it that in a moment when all seems lost, in your darkest moment, if you inject it into your arm, it will provide an impenetrable protection util the last drop pumps through the fourth chamber of your heart.”
“Uh. . . thank you.”
Tiko didn’t miss the sarcasm. “I don’t know what I would do if something were to happen to you. Please take it with you.”
Ashley nodded and gestured to the other case.
Tiko lifted the fabric. Beneath was a cage housing a large, colorful bird.
Ashley gasped! “You kept a bird in the closet!?”
“He was by the window.”
“We have a window?”
Tiko stared, open mouthed.
Ashley shrugged. “I guess I’ve never really unpacked.”
Taking her hands in his, he kissed her gently on the forehead. “Where are you going?”
Ashley shook her head, “You know I can’t tell you.”
“Can you tell me what you will be doing?”
Ashley shook her head, “You know I can’t tell you.”
Ashley hesitated. The phone was buzzing again. She should have been gone. Lowering her voice, she whispered, “I’ve been commissioned to locate and ensnare the elusive moosedactyl.”
“The moosedactyl? You mean it’s real?”
“As real as you and me. I’ve got to go, Tiko.”
“Take Larry with you. He’s a homing parrot.”
“A homing parrot?”
“No matter where you go, he can return here to send me messages and I can send him back to you.”
“So I tie the message to his ankle and tell him to come find you?”
Tiko shook his head. “He speaks. Tell him what you want me to know and he will fly back and tell me.”
Ashley shouldered the bird. As she did so, she noted a blue band around its ankle. “SLARRY?”
“The S is silent. It’s pronounced Larry.”
“I’ll send him as often as occasion permits, but for now I must take my leave.”
“No time for Jazz cakes?”
“I should have been gone fifteen minutes ago.” Her voice lowered, “I’ll miss you, and when I return, I’ll unpack my bag and fill my half of the closet.”
“Be safe, but hurry home.” He drew her into his arms and pressed his lips to hers.
Much longer than this and she’d be unable to tell him goodbye. Pulling away, she took the container of enemy blood, grabbed her bag and fled to the street where her taxi was already waiting.
For several hours she drove around the city. Several times she switched cabs checking that she wasn’t being followed.
“You seem anxious,” Slarry squawked.
By noon she was at the docks. Sailboat wasn’t her preferred method of travel, but for where she was going, it was fitting. Her eyes scanned the boardwalk. She was looking for the captain – a woman … dressed as a man … who had dressed as a woman to throw off any suspicion.
In moments she spotted her. She was the only curly-haired blond sporting a goatee.
“Have you taught The Monkey Karate?” Ashley asked.
“Tolerated Maroon Kites,” replied the captain, “but never taught monkeys.”
“Seems reasonable. Are you a believer in the Zombie Apocalypse?”
“If you are referring to The Mad Kadavers, absolutely I am!”
“Yes. However, I’ve heard they prey not only on humans, but on mannequins.”
“The Mannequin Killers?”
“I heard them called The Mannequin Kidnappers, but I suppose once they kidnap, the natural course of things would be to kill.”
“Naturally. Afterall, zombies are The Mysterious Kidnappers.”
“Indeed. They are The Mystical Kiddies – so elusive, so difficult to recognize.”
“Speaking of kiddies, I’ve heard tale that you have The Mischievous Kittens aboard your ship.”
“I do. Would you care to see them?”
“Of course,” Ashley replied.
“I’ll need you to submit to a handwriting sample before you come on board.”
“My homing parrot.”
“What makes him a ‘homing parrot’?”
“I believe it is his parentage.”
The captain eyed Slarry. “It looks dead.”
“He’s nocturnal – part bat – on his mother’s side.”
“That’s Too Much Knowledge,” the captain said. “Let us board.”
Ashley walked the plank onto the awaiting boat. She wasn’t sure this captain could be trusted, but it was where her contact had sent her. The least desirable characteristic in a woman such as she was to have a badittude.
Finding her quarters, she hung Slarry from the rack in her closet and unzipped her bag. Eyeing Tiko’s gift, she pulled rom the bag the bottle of his enemy’s blood. How many enemies could a Hobbit-human have? she wondered. Of course there were the natural enemies of Hobbits – Dragons, Golhams and rings, but the blood wasn’t dark enough to be dragon’s blood and was too dark to be Golham’s blood. Ring’s did not carry blood and even a mixture of Dragon’s blood and Golham’s blood wouldn’t have such a cherry-like coloring. These were questions she would have to ask him when she saw him next.
Unlatching a side pouch, she pulled out a series of vials. Mentally calculating, she determined she had enough vials that a drop at a time, each vial would arm her for a day and protect her for at least six months. What does he think is going to happen to me?
Quickly she filled the vials and loaded them into a series of belts, which she strapped on to her waist, her biceps and her thighs. The last drop she used to fill a tiny vial in a locket she wore around her neck. Looking in the mirror, it seemed superfluous, yet somehow she couldn’t help feeling like it wouldn’t be enough.
Ashley wasn’t tired, but she didn’t know when she’d have the chance to sleep again. Locking her door, fastening the deadbolt and securing the windows and doors with laser tape, she strapped on a sleeping mask and drifted off.
What seemed only moments later, Ashley awoke to complete darkness. Taking off her mask, she found herself duct-taped to a tree. Strange how she hadn’t noticed before that her room was a theme room mimicking a forest glad.
“Larry?” she hissed.
There was no response. Beneath her, she noticed a trail of treasure – gold, jewels, and rare, precious gems. Visually she followed it. It led to a note reading Follow the Trail.
Obviously, she thought.
Seemingly, no one had found her. How could they? She had sealed off the window’s and doors.
“Curses!” she swore, noting the open vent above her. How could she have forgotten the duct-work? She was losing her edge. Tiko had made her soft.
Tiko. Even thinking his name made her heart break.
There was no time for tears. “Larry,” she called again. Stupid bat-instincts. He probably was still sleeping.
She didn’t know how loudly she dared to call out. Perhaps the pirates were still on board. Was the woman-dressed-as-a-man-dressed-as-a-woman-captain tied up similarly? Maybe she was in cahoots with the pirates and she had allowed tem to come on board. She hated to think ill of those she was supposed to trust, but she had been betrayed in the past.
“Larry. Larry, wake up! Larry you fouwl bird! Wake up!”
“Mphm … what?”
“Larry! Get out here and help me get loose.”
Using his large talons and genetically altered beak, Slarry managed to open the closet and fly to her. Steadying himself on an overhead branch, Slarry tore through the tape with his razor-sharp, genetically modified beak.
Freed at last, Ashley grabbed some supplies from her bag before taking down the laser tape and stepping into the hall.
Too late she realized it was a mistake. Within seconds, the notorious band of pirates known only as the Topasian Pirates with the topaz-colored eyes had wrestled her to the ground. Several viles of enemy blood crushed beneath the weight of her body.
“We’ve got a bleeder here,” said Captain Edward, his eyes glazing over thirstily.
“Get him out of here!” shouted Chrysanthemum, the first mate.
Momentarily distracted, Ashley used her signature move wherein she arched her back, balanced on her arms and legs and leaped to her feet before soundly pummeling the two pirates next to her. Unfortunately it wasn’t enough and more vials shatters as she was again thrown to the floor. At this rate, Tiko’s gift would be useless.
Tiko. No, Stop! Don’t lose your focus.
Escaping capture would be easier than fighting off pirates that held and surrounded her. She resisted – just enough to be convincing before allowing herself to be bound and then taken away.
Onboard the ship, her captors led her down into the hold of the ship where she was chained to the wall. In her last moments, before her captors fled the room, she called out in a hushed voice, “Larry. Larry! Go tell Tiko what has happened.”
Slarry took flight and almost made it through the door following the guards. Unfortunately, the door slammed shut before Slarry’s tail feathers mad it through. Ashley heard a squawk and a flapping of wings, then nothing. For several minutes she waited. Then through the narrow cannon port in the wall above her she saw his beautiful, colorful wings spread in flight.
“Fly with the wings of the Mockingjay,” Ashley murmured.
The voice was faint … weak, yet seemed familiar. Even so, Ashley couldn’t quite place it. Friend or foe? She wanted to figure it out before she responded.
“Ashley?” the voice called again. “Oh, my dear, sweet Ashley, is that you?”
The voice was unmistakable. As impossible as her mind told her it was – she knew the voice.
“Ashley? Are you alive?”
Ashely’s voice wavered as she spoke. “Phillip?”
“Phillip?” Ashley couldn’t believe it was true. “PHILLIP?? Is that you?” Though her eye’s beheld him, she couldn’t believe it was true. She had seen the crocs drag him away to their murky depths where they had devoured him. It was impossible that he should be standing here and though the years had not been kind to him, there was no mistaking his full beard, pink hat and pale, pink britches.
“Ashley, what are you doing here?”
“I could ask the same of you!”
“I never thought I’d see you again. It’s been so long.”
“Nearly three years.”
“It seems longer – lifetimes.”
Ashley steeled herself. Perhaps this was merely a mind trick to get her to let down her guard. She would not succumb so easily. “Phillip – if that really is you – come over here and set me free.”
With the agility only a gnome can muster, Phillip soon had picked the locks of the shackles binding her arms and legs. Stepping away from the wall, she rubbed her wrists, then squatted as though to massage her ankles. As she crouched, she worked to collect her thoughts. Phillip was gone; dead for these three years, yet here he was. … And here she was.
“Hush. I need a moment to think.”
“About what?” Phillip wondered.
“About getting us out of here,” Ashley lied.
“Phillip, please. I need some time to figure all of this out.”
“I never thought I would see you again.”
Ashley’s heart broke anew. “We’ve got to get out of here.”
“I’ve been in here for months. I’ve thrown messages in bottles out the cannon port in hopes of being rescued. We are surrounded by steel doors embedded in thick stone walls. I’ve distracted the guards and stolen the keys, but they found me concealed in a lifeboat and brought me back. Even if we are lucky enough to get out of here, we are surrounded by gallons and gallons of ocean.”
“Maybe we could set fire to the ship.”
“So that we are burned alive? Is that really your best plan?”
“I can’t just stay here. Do you think I could morph back into a butterfly? I could carry you up to the cannon port and toss you out.”
“I can’t swim.”
“I could force myself through the hole and fly us to safety.”
“Do you even remember how to build a cocoon?”
Ashley shook her head. “It’s an instinct I’ve certainly lost. I remember sleeping a lot. Perhaps if I close my eyes and drift off, it will come back to me.”
Even in the dim light, Ashley couldn’t mistake Phillip’s expression. “I would like that very much. It’s been too long since I’ve held you in my embrace.”
Unable to meet his eyes, Ashley stared at the floor. “Phillip. There’s something you should know.”
“What is it?” he asked when she hesitated.
“Married?” Phillip gasped. “How long?”
Ashley found a comfortable spot with her back against the wall. “I met him the year the croc’s dragged you away and we were married the following year.”
“So a year?”
For a moment there was nothing but silence between them. “HOW COULD YOU?!” Phillip raged.
“How could I?”
“For two years I’ve been trapped in this darkness, dreaming of and working toward the day I would finally escape and come find you.”
“I thought you were dead.”
“So instead of looking for me and making sure, you went off and married the next creature willing to look your way.”
“It’s not like that.”
“Then what is it like?’
Ashley couldn’t find the words to explain what had happened. “I need to sleep, Phillip. Our only chance of escape is if I can fly and I can’t morph into a butterfly with so many distractions.”
“Ashley, I need to know. Please. If you ever cared about me at all, please help me find closure.”
His voice alone was very persuasive, but as Ashley looked at Phillip she remembered what it was to be loved by him. Pulling one of the vials from her belt, she drove the needle into her forearm and released a single drop. Immediately she felt stronger. “I promise,” she whispered, “we will talk about this, but first we have to get out of here.”
As one may well imagine, it is extremely difficult for a human to morph into a butterfly, so the process took months and a little bit of magic from the truth fairy. Each day as food was brought to their shared cell, Phillip would ladle a bit through a hole left in the chrysalis. Hungrily, Ashley devoured her portion and then injected herself with a single drop of the blood of Tiko’s enemy. Then slowly, ever so slowly, she felt wings beginning to sprout from her shoulder blades.
At last, as the fifth month passed, Ashley was prepared to emerge. It was night when she finally broke free and Phillip had fallen asleep. Ashely listened intently for any sound of movement on the deck overhead. All was silent. It seemed that even the sea had fallen asleep. Considering for a moment, Ashely determined that it would be best to practice a bit with her new wings before taking flight over open water. Stabilizing herself, she spread her wings. It was then she realized the transition hadn’t been complete and although the wings of a butterfly were now part of her anatomy, the wings were the only change.
Balancing with only four limbs rather than six took some practice and even when she had mastered that it was several hours before she felt confident in her ability to take flight. Finally, as the first light of morning shone through the cannon port, Ashley was ready.
Hovering over Phillip, she hesitated. Should she escape alone? It seemed cruel to leave Phillip ensnared in this dark, dank place, but she had already lived her life without him. She had moved forward and moved on. Perhaps if he was locked away it would be easier for everyone involved. Shaking her head, she took out the last vial of blood and released a drop into her veins. Immediately she felt less selfish.
“Phillip,” she whispered shaking him gently.
His eyes slowly opened. “You did it!”
Spreading her wings she smiled. “Sort of.”
Phillips eyes went over her before returning to her face. “You’ve worked with five limbs; I suppose you can manage with four.”
“It will have to do,” she agreed. “I’m going to boost you to the cannon port. Climb through and hang on to the other side. I’ll follow after and then fly us away from here.”
“Where will we go?”
Ashley considered. Though she couldn’t explain how – perhaps it was instinctual – she sensed that land was not far off. Even so, there were many flaws to her plan.
Her primary concern was that she – a human with exceptionally large wings – would be unable to squeeze through the opening. Once out, would she be able to support both her own weight and the added weight of Phillip? She also wondered if the port were high enough above the water to allow her to emerge from the opening, grab Phillip and take flight all before plummeting into the depths of the sea.
Ashley was a strong swimmer, but wet wings would drag her down and make buoyancy difficult for her alone. There was no way to support Phillip. For a fleeting second, she imagined him sinking down into the murky depths, his pink cap the last thing she would ever see of him, but then she recovered. Now was not the time for self-doubt. It would be better to fly carrying him around their cell, but the sky was growing ever lighter. Already they had the chance of being spotted as they made their escape. So much could go wrong and yet … this was their only hope.
“Are you ready?” she asked.
Wrapping her arms around him, she took flight and carried him to the sill of the cannon port. Quickly he climbed through and to the other side, where he dangled from the sill over the open water. Ashley attempted to squeeze through the opening, but – unlike the wings of a bird which tuck nicely against its body – her wings had only to positions – up or extended.
“I can’t get through,” Ashley said, hoping the panic she felt wasn’t conveyed in her tone of voice.
“You’ve got to!” Phillip answered, his voice strained. “Ashley I’m losing my grip and I can’t do this without you.”
“If I break my wings they are of no use to either of us.”
“Help me back in. I have an idea.”
Grasping his wrists, Ashley held on to Phillip as he climbed back up the side of the boat and through the port. Taking off his belt, he tossed one end of it over an overhanging beam and then hung himself by his ankles. Working carefully, he used one of the empty vials and began to drain the blood from Ashley’s wings.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING??” Ashley hissed.
“When you emerged from your cocoon, your wings were wet and uninflated. It was only as they dried that blood began to flow through them to inflate them.”
“Perhaps that is true, but we don’t have time to drain the blood, get me through and allow them to inflate again before taking off. The pirates will be down any moment for morning roll-call.”
“Do you have a better plan.”
Realizing she did not, Ashley remained silent. It took several minutes and multiple vials before Ashley’s wings hung limply at her side. Shimmying through the opening, she sat on the port so that only her legs dangled through. Phillip worked quickly to restore her blood to her and just as quickly her wings spread, ready to take flight. Even so, as she grabbed Phillip and took off over the water, she heard a guard call, “The prisoners have escaped!”
Shots rang out and Ashley managed to dodge most of the bullets. One hit and lodged in her calf while two more tore through her wings. Though damaged, it wasn’t enough to bring her down and as furiously as is possible for a butterfly to flit, Ashley plunged forward. Phillip wasn’t overly large, but Ashley’s wings were not designed to carry the weight of a human-butterfly and a gnome. Several times, she dipped low and Phillip’s toes skimmed the surface of the water. Though she could not see the land ahead, she sensed that she was going in the right direction. Even so, it was several hours before – completely exhausted, she collapsed into the surf of an island.
Night had fallen by the time Ashley came around. She had vague recollections of Phillip calling her name and digging the bullet out of her leg. Now she found herself beneath a canopy of trees with a pink bandage around her leg. Looking around, she found a hatless Phillip slumbering a stone’s throw from her.
“Thank you for bandaging my leg.”
“You’re welcome,” he answered, not turning toward her.
The next morning brought with it the need to search for food, fresh water, and more permanent shelter. Hours turned into days, days into weeks and weeks into months which gave way to years. One night as Ashley stirred the coals beneath the roasting fish, she heard Phillip approaching. He had made camp on one side of a very round, freshwater lake and she on the other.
Without being invited, he seated himself in the sand.
“Do you remember the day we met?”
Already Ashley didn’t like this conversation.
Phillip seemed not to need an answer because he continued even though she continued stirring the coals and not making eye contact. “We were together for a year before you presumed I’d been eaten by crocodiles.”
Still Ashley said nothing.
“We’ve inhabited this island for two years together – foraging for food, growing some things of our own, working together to create a life here.”
“Mmm hmm…” Ashley murmured non-committedly.”
“You and Tiko were only married a year and you’d only known him for two.”
Ashley set down the stick she’d been using. “Get to the point.”
“I should think my point is made.”
“I made a commitment to Tiko. I love him, but equally important, I made a promise to him.”
“You may never see him again.”
Ashley picked up the stick again and began stirring. “Would you really want to be with someone who saw relationships as a matter of convenience?”
Now Phillip fell silent.
“I made a promise to Tiko. It was all-encompassing, not circumstantial. Even if I never see him again and you and I live out the rest of our days trapped on this island, ultimately when I die it will be with a clean conscience and a pure soul. I am indebted to you for saving my leg and for helping maintain my survival, but there will never be anything more between us.”
“Do you not remember what we had together?”
Ashley nodded, “I do. But that was before.”
“And you will throw it all away over a dream of what might have been with your hobbit-man?”
Phillip stood and walked away. Ashley continued to stare into the glowing embers of the fire feeling cruel, but knowing it couldn’t be any other way.
Several months more passed before one day – as she was out digging for clams – she happened to look up and see a ship approaching. Running for the shoreline, she called out, “Phillip! Phillip light the signal. PHILLIP!!”
Within seconds, a huge pile of dry plant-life had gone up in flames sending smoke high into the air. Ashley watched as the ship headed toward them, dropped anchor and several lifeboats were lowered into the water. As one of them got closer, she could just make out the curly, tosouled hair of Tiko. Running into the waves, she swam out to meet him, her wings dragging heavily behind her. Finally seeing her, he jumped overboard and landed in front of her.
It was difficult to throw herself into his arms without drowning, but Ashley put forth every effort. “Tiko,” she gasped.
His easy laughter rang out, spreading itself across the waves. “Let’s swim to the shore. How tragic would it be if after all this time apart we drown only meters from the shore.”
Adeptly, she struck out for the shoreline. In waist deep water, she finally managed to throw her arms around him.
For a long time, he held her close and then took a step back to look at her. “It’s been so long,” he whispered. “Look how you’ve changed. You’re so tan … and … wings?”
Ashely smiled demurely. “It’s how we escaped.”
Ashley looked down. “They had Phillip on the ship. I couldn’t very well leave him there to die.”
As if cued in, Phillip suddenly appeared next to them. “Tiko, I presume,” Phillip said, extending his hand.
“Your wife has been my neighbor all these months. I hope I’m not to forward when I say you have yourself a remarkable woman.”
Tiko stared at Phillip for a second and then looked back to Ashley. Understanding finally dawned on him. “Which is why I went against my hobbit nature and set off on an adventure in hopes of being restored to her at last?”
“But how did you find us?”
“Larry. He had no tail when he arrived at home and it took months for the surgical implants to take, but it seems he has mended. Even so, by then the pirate ship had sailed on and made port several times. It is difficult for a homing parrot to find his target when it has moved so many times.”
Ashley considered. Naturally Slarry would have had a difficult time finding them even if they had stayed on board the ship, but she had changed and it wasn’t as though he could track her scent. “So Larry led you to us.”
“Larry and some very high tech equipment I can’t even begin to understand. Did you find the moosedactyl?”
Ashley shook her head.
“Then your quest failed?”
“No. Just took an unexpected turn. Stepping closer and taking Tiko’s hand, Ashley said, “I’ve found what is most important. Come on. I want to show you around.”
That night, long after Ashley and Tiko had settled in on the upper loft of Ashley’s shelter, they lay awake, gazing at the stars overhead.
“Who is your enemy?”
“The blood of your enemies. You sent me with a bottle of it and for months it has given me the strength to resist temptations sent my way.”
Tiko chuckled in the darkness.
“The blood is your own?”
“My blood?” Ashley sat up. “I AM YOUR ENEMY???”
Pulling himself to a sitting position, he drew her in to his arms. “Hardly. But I can imagine no fate worse than struggling to go on without you. What greater enemy could I have than an existence without you?”
Ashely lay back down and nestled against him, still thinking. Several minutes later, a thought occurred to her. “Tiko?”
“If the blood was mine, how could it have protected me against my foes?”
Kissing the top of her head, he answered quietly, “because you are stronger than you think.”