The Cell of Snares

You received a letter from the state explaining you were chosen in a lottery to come and rescue an animal. The shelter is being closed due to the owner’s untimely death and his will instructed for his estate to be divided up randomly. Being the animal lover you are, you decide to follow up on this mystery and pop on down to look at a potential pet or two. The address typed on the back of the letter is unfamiliar to you, but your Saturday is wide open. You fill up your gas tank and head out. Why not?

Once you reach the destination, a prison complex at the literal end of the road, all outside communication is cut off and the ‘animals’ are not quite what they seem

—–

Despite my rising alarm at the lack of guards, cell phone service, working car, existence of a cassette player, gouge marks, shackled creature that shapeshifts –Okay, okay, that’s enough thinking that way. I focus, instead, on the gently swinging ivy above me. I breathe in and out. “All right, Beth,” I whisper to myself. “Think positively. What can you control?” –Not that my therapist ever suggested I’d literally be trapped like this, with potential death a mere inchesBreathe, Beth, breathe! Maybe Dr. Querk should have had me run through a few practical situations, but it’s too late to consider that now.

*Greetings, traveler and welcome to The Prison for Dangerous…* begins playing for the sixth time since I entered the creepy room. Nothing irritates me more than repetition, even a supernatural being that might be able to tear my head off. I turn to the apparition within the first cell and glare daggers at it.

“KNOCK IT OFF!” I bellow.

The being within blinks a thousand rainbow eyes at me, squawks, and disappears. I stand on my toes to see where it’s gone: into a bottom corner, rodent-like, somehow still shackled. The tape has stopped. I give the mouse thing a stern nod, in case it gets any ideas.

I let my breath out and look around again. Now fully within the room, I can see that Freaky’s box isn’t the only one with damage to the interior. Of the ten cells, only one or two seem undamaged. Box Four, near the end on the left side, has scorch marks. Number Six -or One, depending on how one wished to count- to the right is dark and molding. The last cell in the row to the right is not only scraped and dented, but the cause of the damage is clearly visible in the form of a large, glowering minotaur.

“Well, Beth, are any minotaurs not glowering?” I tease. A chittering laugh just beyond the shapeshifter draws me forward. “It’s fine. They can’t get out,” I say as I walk, though I certainly won’t go tap on #10’s glass to test my theory.

As I near the source of the laughing, I note signs attached to the outside of each cell. The first reads:

SHIFTER

Charles is the perfect companion. He not only fits most occasions, he fits any occasion or any species. Ever wanted a rabbit one day, then a pony the next? Charles is right for you!

I laugh a bit; again, echoed by Cell Two. “Are they serious?” I ask the open room. It reads just like the plaques at the animal shelter in town but, surely, I can’t literally walk out with something as incredible as a shapeshifter?

I glance at the affixed plaque of #2:

SPRITE

Honeyblossom is the light of the party or room. Besides a natural effervescent personality, she has a natural effervescence. A bit flighty, Honeyblossom would do well in an open environment without the temptation of mischief.

A tiny pair of eyes peers over the sign through the glass front. They blink and a tiny nose and grinning mouth appear as well. I smile a bit in return but immediately look away. Sprites and mischief are practically synonymous; sorry, Honeyblossom.

Mostly due to the very large, heavily-breathing presence on the end, I examine the other labels from a safe distance. They outline a Mouther, Phoenix, Satori, Boggart, Imp, Baby Dragon, Unicorn, Tokoloshe, Taniwha, and that Minotaur. I catch names like Chatterbox, Imka, and Bob.

I also see that the door of the unicorn’s cell is slightly ajar; her sign askew. Either I am not the first visitor to this strange place, or Rainbow Sparkles, III figured things out on her own… I look around, twitching this way and that. My eyes meet those of a few remaining creatures and no one else, whether that’s a comforting audience or not.

“Oh-kay,” I exhale. Before Charles stopped the recorded message, it’d said all I had to do was activate a cell with my letter. After that, the creature inside was mine. But, do I want to bring one of these home? A Satori was pretty awesome in theory; in practice, not so much. He’d likely run away or hide, knowing precisely when I meant to throw him in the tub or tell him it was time for bed. And no way would I consider bringing home something larger than my car.

Which left at least three animals I’d dreamed about since childhood. Three mythical creatures I’d pored over in storybooks and often said aloud, “Oh, I wish it was real!” Three that would be really awesome to own.

One of those, if J.K. Rowling were correct, that would make the use of an exit vehicle unnecessary.

“What the heck, Beth? The letter and the recording said to choose one.” I pull the crumpled bunch of papers from my back pocket and smooth them out. Before I can change my mind, I walk toward the smoking glass of Cell #4.

phoenix-500469_1920

—–

This was in response to Peregrine Arc’s story prompt. You can join in, too! Just click here to read her amazing introduction.

 

Photo Credit:
Image by Mystic Art Design from Pixabay

 

© 2019 Chelsea Owens

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Six

“Not that I knew much about being a dad,” Rob continued. He looked at his hands, his wife, his children, his hands. “I was …pretty freaked out about the whole idea but I knew I couldn’t have someone out there…” He paused. Cynthia leaned a little closer to her husband and squeezed his arm.

Rob breathed in deeply, the air sounding ragged at the edges. He released the breath slowly through his nose. “I just… thought I couldn’t let a kid, out there, had made be …well, be killed -or, to think another guy was raising my kid.”

Wil sat back upon her ankles, stunned. “People,” she said in a hoarse whisper, “people kill their babies?”

Jakob responded first. “Duh, Nina. Happens all the time.”

Cynthia cleared her throat carefully. “While I don’t know what you’ve heard or learned, Jakob, I think that’s a bit exaggerated to say it ‘happens all the time.'”

Shrugging again, he settled back to his original position of half-closed eyes and slouched posture. “Seems like it.”

“So Gwen- my moth- the woman who actually had me wanted to get rid of me?!” Wil asked, her voice rising in anxiety and pitch. “Like, permanently?!” Tears pooled in her wide eyes and she felt them run down her cheeks. Of course I won’t respond to Guinevere Greene! she resolved. Who would do that to her own child -to me?!

“Wil,” Cynthia said in a beckoning tone. “Wil; come here, Sweetheart.”

Wil complied; how could she not? Rising and stumbling over Jakob’s feet, she walked to her parents and sat at the available edge of couch to the side of her mother. With a gentle, loving touch, Cynthia brushed Wil’s loose strands of hair away from her tear-streaked face. Wil turned to face the mother she knew and loved. She sniffed dramatically and Cynthia bit back an amused smile.

“Wil… Guinevere, your mother, did want you.” Her mother paused, stroked at Wil’s hair, took Wil’s hand beneath her own. “Your father was only trying to explain his thinking at the time.”

“Then why,” Jakob, the statue, asked, “Didn’t this Guinevere keep Meanie?”

Wil closed her open mouth, surprised that her stepbrother had voiced the question before she had.

Now was Rob’s turn to clear his throat. “Erm, well, you see…. she wasn’t trying to get rid of you, Wil.” He rubbed at the back of his neck. “I think she just was a bit upset at things at the time and felt… well, maybe she felt like she would have to try to take care of you all by herself and just …um, well, maybe didn’t know how to do that.” He faced Wil and gave her a sheepish smile. “I lov- I liked Gwen a lot at the time we …were dating; but, honestly, she was a bit much for me to understand.” He coughed a nervous laugh. “Now that I’m older and can look back, I think she didn’t really understand herself either.”

They all paused to consider this, though Jakob may have been considering someone else of similar temperament.

“Anyway,” Rob said with more confidence, “I was saying that I told Gwen I would take care of you.” He sat up and smiled. “I didn’t quite know how to do that, and that’s when I went to the truck stop, and saw-” pausing, he caught Wil’s eye. His own eyes were twinkling with an unusual humor. She smiled, catching on.

Together, he and Wil chorused, “…The ugliest and scariest person I’d/you’d ever seen.”

 

Continued from Seventy-Five.
Keep reading to Seventy-Seven.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-Five

Breakfast and cleanup passed without incident or smoke alarm, although the whole family kept eyeing Rob as if he might break out into spots.

“I suppose,” Rob began, once they settled in the living room, “I thought I could start by telling you all the truth, Wil. And you, Jakob …but I always told you the truth about your mom -my sister-” He seemed flustered, rubbing at his cheek enough to make it red, and blinking around at his attentive family.

“Not that your mother didn’t love you, of course, Jakob -” Cynthia added.

“S’okay, Mom,” Jakob said. “I’m over it.” He shrugged from his leaning posture against the armchair and looked bored.

Rob cleared his throat. “Hm.” He frowned as he studied his stepson, then turned back to his daughter. “Wil, you like hearing the story of how I met your -I mean, of how I met Cynthia.”

Wil nodded, and then realization flashed in her eyes. “Oh!” She sat up from her kneel upon the floor. “That -that -that’s how you met Mom, I mean- Cynthia, but then you, you…” She faltered; looking up at her father, then back to the woman she’d thought of as mother, then to her father again.

That story is true,” he said slowly. “But I don’t tell you a few things.” He paused. “Like, how I was out of work because I …well, I didn’t plan on needing to work so early in life.”

Jakob laughed, which startled Wil. “Were you f***ing around?”

Jakob Clair!” their mother exclaimed.

Jakob stopped smiling and looked down at his clasped hands. “Sorry, Mom,” he mumbled. After a pause, he added, “Sorry, Wil.”

Their father cleared his throat again. “The point is, I …hmm. Well, Jakob’s point is accurate in a way..”

Cynthia placed a hand on his arm. “Maybe you could just say that you were overwhelmed with some responsibilities you weren’t expecting.”

Rob smiled gratefully and sheepishly up at his wife. “Yes. That sounds good.”

“What do you mean?” Wil asked, her confusion coming across in her tone.

Her father met her gaze and gave her a half-smile. “How about I just tell you the story you know, with a few additions?”

Wil smiled in return; hers a full face-lighting that, unbeknownst to her, unearthed his memories of her birth mother like a sudden slap.

“Wee-e-ell,” he began, and composed himself. “I had just started a new job, at the factory I work at today. Just the day before I went to the truck stop, I had learned that I had …that I was a father.” No one even dared breathe to fill the silence. “But Gwen didn’t want to be a mother and wondered if I wanted to keep you.”

His eyes met Wil’s again. “I told her, ‘yes.'”

 

Continued from Seventy-Four.
Keep reading to Seventy-Six.

Wilhelmina Winters, Seventy-One

Blinking away a world of sunsets and wings, Wil snuggled her arms free from their blanket cocoon. She groped into an outside coat pocket, searched, and removed her thin, black gloves. The other outside pocket produced a few wood chips, and a remembering blush. The inside pocket held lint and a rather bent novel. She frowned, hoping her teacher wouldn’t be too upset at the state of her loaned material.

Wil reached into her last pocket. This held a crinkling wad of official paper folded over a handwritten letter: her goal. Wil spread them out as best as she could and read them over again.

“Mom,” she said. Her fingers traced the looping flourish of Guinevere Greene’s signature. The title of Mother belonged to Cynthia; there had never been any thought or chance or wish for Wil to believe otherwise. She’d read stories, of course, of children with awful parents who wanted more than anything to be cared for by someone else. Wonderful, loving Cynthia, however, had always been so sweet. If they hadn’t had limitations like health and money, the mother she and Jakob had known for most of their lives might have spoiled them.

As such, they were only ever spoiled with affection.

Once when Wil was quite young, she remembered, she got into Cynthia’s makeup. Staring at her tiny, painted self in the mirror, Wil had realized that her mother was standing right behind her. Arms crossed, face frowned, Cynthia had not been pleased. “Now Wil,” she’d said. “This is my makeup and you need to ask permission.” She’d come forward and sat right next to poor, apologetic Wil. “Now,” she’d added, “Let me show you how grown-up women put on their lipstick.”

Wil’s lips pursed forward, remembering the way she and her mother -the mother she’d always known- had made kissing faces at the mirror after painting their lips. Anytime she’d wanted to after that, Wil had joined Cynthia at the mirror to get made up for the day.

Wil stared down at the cursive again, trying to picture its author. Was Guinevere the sort of mother who smiled with love when her daughter blurted out whatever came to mind? Did her laugh or smile light up a room? Would she have asked Wil about her day, every day? Would she have shown Wil how to put on makeup from her own supply?

Maybe.

Maybe not.

Wil had no experience with how a real mom might be. If anything, her reading had taught her to fear a stepmother, but Cynthia was nothing like the cruel stepmothers that stalked the pages of fantasy stories. Given that, was Guinevere the evil one?

She had left Wil behind. She had insisted on Rob’s never telling Wil about her.

And yet…

—–

“Whazzinit?” Syl the pixie paige asked, ever the nosy sprite.

Wyl Winterling cast him an imperious glance, her coils of dark hair shifting across her featherlight wings with the movement. “I believe that is none of your business.”

Syl drawled a disappointed, “Awwrr.”

“Still,” Wyl interuppted. “I may tell you that I’ve learned I’m also daughter of The Great Lady of the Greene.”

The effect of her statement was instantaneous. Syl drew breath in, and was blessedly speechless. The Great Lady existed in forgotten ballads and old stories, and was whispered amongst the branches of the magical elder boughs.

“So,” Queen Wyl’s paige squeaked out, “Will she be comin’ for a wee visit soon?”

 

Continued from Seventy.
Keep reading to Seventy-Two.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-Four

Here we are again, Wil mouthed to her friend. The pale, dark-haired girl in the waiting room window spoke the same words, without sound. Wil shifted on the floor. Crinkling paper noises from her left fist warned her to be careful in her movements; she glanced at them and remembered.

Returning to her friend, she whispered, “I’m adopted.” Her friend frowned and furrowed her brow in confusion.

How is that possible? she replied.

They shrugged.

Wil extracted the birth certificate and read through its official type once more. A few, lingering last-hopes evaporated from her imagination as she found each line filled out with correct name, date, father, location, and features. “I was a small baby,” she said.

They nodded, seriously.

“Of course you were, Minnie Mouse,” Jakob called, from his slouched recline a few feet away. He moved deeper into his chair and adjusted his feet on the table.

Wil and her friend shared a look. What did he know?

“You were a preemie.”

They blinked. Wil turned away from the window wall. “A what?

“Preemie, dummy.” He rubbed his back inside his slouch. “Means you were early. Rob told me.” Closing his eyes, he tilted his head against the chair back. “Said you were lucky to be born and that he didn’t even know.”

She shared a stupefied look with her friend. Thinking over this new information, she asked, “How did he know?”

“‘Bout you?”

Wil nodded. “Yeah.”

Jakob groaned and tried to crouch into a side-lay within the small seat. From a yawn, he answered, “Not sure.”

A few more seconds told Wil her brother -her stepbrother- was unlikely to tell her more. The conversation had already run longer than any of his had in the last five years. She was about to resume the more satisfying exchange at the dark glass before her when Jakob stirred enough to add, “Ask Rob.”

Her friend tilted her head, considering. Not a bad idea, she told Wil.

They were all interrupted by a click, a creak, and a cheery, “Well, here we are!” Nurse Bea entered the waiting room, and then turned to hold the door for Rob. Just behind him came Cynthia.

Jakob stopped pretending to sleep and Wil waved goodbye to the window. Both rose and walked to their favorite mother.

“They’re releasing you?!” Wil asked. Jakob snickered and put his hands in his coat pockets.

Nurse Bea laughed outright. As expected, hers was the sort that came from deep in her stomach and affected her entire body upon its release. A moment of breathlessness later and she wiped her eyes. “That’s right, darlin’.” She smiled, though she already had been, and wagged a stern finger to Wil. “Now, you jus’ make sure you take care o’ your mom. She’s an angel.”

Wil’s pleasant return smile slipped off her face.

“Thanks, Nurse Bea,” Cynthia enthused; her smile radiating as usual. Supported by Rob and trailed by her anxious children, she walked out the waiting room doors.

If Wil had not been so preoccupied, she’d have caught the sparkling tear on the cheek of Nurse Bea.

 

Continued from Sixty-Three.
Keep reading to Sixty-Five.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty-One

“So,” Jakob began. They all turned to look at him; he fumbled a bit as he read their expressions: Rob’s warning, Cynthia’s trust, and Wil’s emptiness. He cleared his throat, in a way that sounded surprisingly like Rob’s. Cynthia smiled slightly. Jakob looked at his hands.

“So,” he said again, “We’re all adopted.” He tried a laugh; glanced at the picture on the wall. He sighed, looked back down, then remembered how to grin his characteristic smirk. “Who knew?” He joked.

“We’re so very sorry this all came out this way,” Cynthia said. “You know that we wouldn’t have sprung it on you. We’ve always told you about Jakob, for example. Wil’s mother was adamant that she never be told -even threatening lawsuits against Rob..!” She faltered a bit and glanced at Rob to be sure she wasn’t saying too much.

Rob’s head jerked up when she brought up the legal issues, but then he shrugged. “It doesn’t seem to matter now,” he admitted. He ran his right hand along his jaw, and glanced nervously at Wil. Wil felt lost.

“I, uh,” he began, and paused at her blank look. He swallowed. “I won’t keep any more secrets from you.” He looked at his work boots, and scuffed the floor with their toes. “There really aren’t any more, anyway.”

“Rob,” his wife said, and held her right hand out to him. He took it, and caressed it carefully around the tube taped to the top. “You did the best you could. You’ve taken care of everything.” He sought her face and she smiled at him.

Wil watched her parents distractedly, from a distant plane devoid of sensations. She read their expressions, and felt a slight stirring inside. Their love touched her distantly, like a comforting fire through thick glass. It began to permeate the fog and speak to her reasoning.

“Wil,” her mother beckoned -the one who had been her mother for as long as she knew. Wil stood and walked to the bed. Kneeling beside it, she lay her head at Cynthia’s side. Slowly and fondly, her mother stroked the dark brown hairs and pale face.

They all seemed to be listening outside the room; to the nearby physiotherapy, perhaps. Their actual thoughts, however, were simultaneously within and beyond the thin, neutral-colored walls.

Wil felt broken apart when she first understood the truth. She was still unsure where life would go from here. Would she meet this woman who not only gave her up, but demanded Wil never learn of her? Who does that to her child?

Wil looked up at Cynthia: sweet, understanding, patient Cynthia who had never had an easy life but almost always looked for the positive in it. They had all worked to keep Cynthia as long as they could, knowing Goodbye stood lurking around the corner.

This was the woman who deserved to be her mother, Wil decided: the one who stuck around and loved her. Wil had never even guessed she was not Cynthia’s, assuming lack of resemblance in looks and behavior to be a random genetic mix. In fact, Wil had always felt Cynthia treated Jakob well also, though his parentage had never been kept from them. Wil turned to Jakob, and caught a similar sentiment in his face.

Jakob, realizing Wil was scrutinizing him, scrunched up his features. She laughed.

“When we get home,” Cynthia declared, “We’re telling you all we know.” She smiled her full, exultant smile. Her family reciprocated. They could never resist.

“It’s a good thing it’s the weekend,” Wil said.

Just then, they heard a knock on the door. “Come in,” Rob gruffed.

A click, a small creak, then the usual clink of the curtain sliding to the side; and a woman in a white overcoat and an air of confidence walked fully into the room. She smiled professionally. “Hello. I am Dr. Sullivan, the respiratory physician on call today. You must be the Winters family.”

 

Continued from Sixty.
Keep reading to Sixty-Two.

Wilhelmina Winters, Sixty

“Let’s all sit down,” Rob suggested, as much as a suggestion was from his direct way of speaking. He coughed a bit before preparing to talk more and guided Wil to a seat on the plasticine couch. He then moved to his usual plastic and metal guest chair. His family turned and looked up at him expectantly.

Rob rubbed his face. “Wil,” he said, “Read your other letter. I need to talk to Jakob.” Jakob looked surprised and glanced up from his arms-on-knees slouch at Wil, Cynthia, and Rob. Wil was about to ask what he needed to say to Jakob, but Rob held up his hand. The same hand bent to gesture at her papers and he gave her a pointed look.

Wil looked down at the second part of her mail that she hadn’t read yet, a note folded haphazardly. It was the same way Wil often put things into envelopes: folding first; then realizing it wouldn’t fit, trying to crease the pages in various ways, and finally stuffing it in. Finding an edge, she opened the letter and spread it out on her lap.

To a background of deep voices occasionally rumbling inaudible words, Wil read the following:

Darling Wilhelmina,

How are you? I hope you are well. I also hope this letter does not shock you terribly. I don’t even know where to begin, so I will just start writing what comes to mind. Hopefully, you will understand.

I didn’t mean to have you. I mean, I was happy thrilled that you were born but I was not intending for that to happen.

I met Rob Winters your father when we were both young, at some party or something. Yes, a party. He was so very serious, but he asked me out on a date. Perhaps you are too young to be told about this sort of thing, but sometimes adults go on dates and end up drinking doing some things and then you find you’ve slept with them at their house even though you didn’t really like them that much. I find this happens a lot with me, but, well, let’s talk about you again, Dear.

That’s it, Wilhelmina: I had you. When you were first growing inside me, I thought about adoption. You know, finding one of those cute smiling couples who really want a child and can’t. But I knew you would be special. I even tried to keep you for a while after you were born but realized I couldn’t.

I gave you to your father -dear old boring dependable Rob, and told him that you were not to be told about me. I didn’t want to stress you out, you see.

The thing is, now I am older and I think I could meet you.

Maybe you don’t want to. -I know! Let’s think about this for a while. I’ll send another letter in a while and maybe you’ll want to talk then.

Please?

Sincerely Love Yours
-Guinevere Greene

P.S.
Just in case, my cell phone number is XXX-XXX-XXXX. -G.G.

Wil stared at her birth mother’s curvy letters, allowing an elephant’s worth of information and emotion to sink into her mind. From a distance she admired the extravagant, looping signature, the fancy words, the tone.

She looked up. Rob and Jakob had finished; Jakob’s expression looking a bit stunned but trying not to. Cynthia lay calmly, looking at her with concern.

For once, Wil felt nothing.

 

Continued from Fifty-Nine.
Keep reading to Sixty-One.

Want to start at the very beginning? It’s a very good place to start.

Wilhelmina Winters, Fifty-Three

Wil instinctively moved forward and took the envelope from her father.  She turned it over, staring at the cursive on its front without comprehension. She looked up at her parents, and felt some alarm at their anxious expressions. She looked back down at her hand, reading her full name and previous address in its black ink.

Glancing one last time at the nervous couch occupants, Wil flipped the envelope over and carefully withdrew the contents: an official-feeling paper in trifold, and a softer group of notebook pages in creative fold.

Wil spread open the stiff page first, and skimmed it. Her brows creased together as she read, then raised in surprise. She sat down on the floor, and was lucky she didn’t miss.

The page was a darkly-copied birth certificate for Wilhelmina Winters. She had Wil’s birthday. She had Wil’s father. She was born in a hospital thirteen years previously. She was delivered by a Doctor Tolman. This Wilhelmina’s mother, however, was listed as Guinevere Greene.

The information seeped slowly into Wil’s brain, passing barriers of familiarity, trust, disbelief, consideration, then realization.

“What?!” Wil shouted. She stood again, and moved a step forward. Surprise and confusion were quickly followed by distrust, and she stopped. Looking up at her father, whose expression tightened, Wil confirmed her initial conclusions.

“Wil, honey,” Cynthia began. Wil turned blankly to her. “Please, come here.” She held out her arms to Wil, the IV tube dragging behind her. The pathetic image pulled at Wil’s heart.

Wil hesitated as her feelings churned. Her insides were an emotional soup, and someone kept raising ladles of different strains every few seconds. But her mother -the woman she thought of as mother- had only ever been loving and kind. The woman she knew as mother looked at her with such tender, searching, tear-bright eyes.

Tears formed in Wil’s own eyes. She rushed forward and accepted Cynthia’s embrace. She immediately burst into tears. Cynthia mother rocked slightly, smoothing Wil’s hair and crying gently.

Loud sniffling and soft crying echoed against a beeping IV machine in the small living room of Unit 2, Building 4. Wil and Cynthia held each other forever, as her father uncomfortably watched. Sighing, he rubbed the side of his face.

And waited.

 

Continued from Fifty-Two.
Keep reading to Fifty-Four.