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The Most Wonderful Sound

Book of Ages

By Cassiopeia Fletcher

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Short Story 1
Hawaii - November 2014

Stepping back to admire her handiwork, Alexa nodded once in satisfaction. The sky-blue paint on her new apartment’s wall was hardly visible behind the masterful collage of black-framed photos that now covered it. She had originally planned to use the silver frames she brought from home, but her balcony window allowed copious amounts of light to bathe the picture wall at nearly every hour of the day. The glass would reflect enough sunlight without adding metallic frames into the mix.

“Well?”

Emrys grunted as he always did when he disapproved. Early in their relationship, Alexa would have fallen into a tirade against his apparent lack of enthusiasm for her family, but their time together had soothed her temper in most ways. If not all ways.

“What’s got your knickers in a twist?” she asked, taking a jab at Emrys’s inexplicable British accent. She pulled her mass of blonde curls away from her sweaty face and neck with a groan. Hair-ties were clearly a must in this awful place.

Must you be so vulgar?
Anyone else would be shocked to hear the sudden echo of a disembodied voice—terrified even. Alexa was amused. Even more so by his choice in language. Apparently, he was feeling Greek today.

“That was hardly vulgar, you old prude.” She spoke using classical Greek rather than modern. If he was going to get huffy and change languages on her, she might as well take the chance to practice; she rarely did anymore.

“Well?” she asked again.

You know what I think,
Emrys returned, his ethereal voice decidedly bitter. It is what I have thought since you first concocted this…ludicrous idea.

“Doth my ears deceive me?” Alexa asked, though she knew full well that she couldn’t physically hear him. “The Neuron Cloud is questioning my sanity?” She pressed the back of her hand to her forehead and feigned a swoon. “Oh, the humanity!”

She felt Emrys bristle at her mocking, and she imagined how he must look, sulking from her tone. Obviously, as an insubstantial (and psychological) being, Emrys couldn’t be seen. But there were moments, like now with the sun streaming in through the large sliding glass door, that Alexa would almost swear she could see him as he might have been. It was a faint image, more of an outline really, of a tall, athletic man with dark skin and shaggy, light-colored hair. He would probably be scowling, maybe have his arms crossed…

Alexa blinked and the image disappeared, replaced by the merciless glare of evening sun. She squeezed her eyes shut and turned away, the waning sunlight still burning her vision red as she blinked. Pulling her phone from the back pocket of her jeans, Alexa jotted down a quick note to pick up some blinds. Maybe she could find something made of rice paper or bamboo. Asian décor seemed popular here.

A bead of sweat ran down her neck and disappeared beneath the back of her pale pink tank top. With a sigh, Alexa again gathered up her heavy curls with one hand and held them against the back of her head. How had she ever thought moving to Hawaii was a good idea? Her only consolation was that neither the heat nor the humidity was quite as bad as North Carolina, or even Maine on occasion, in midsummer. Of course, it wasn’t mid-summer at the moment; they were bordering on mid-winter.

Beginning to reconsider?
Emrys asked, and Alexa turned up her nose at the smirk in his voice.

“The only thing I am considering is a cool shower and a new wardrobe.” Alexa refused to fan herself, clutching her phone tighter to keep her fingers busy.

Being November, Alexa had packed away her remaining summer clothes almost two months ago after sorting through them the way she always did. Nearly half of her shirts, shorts, and sandals had gone to Worlds of Change, a charity her mother had helped found. Of course, that was before Mr. Hanson called with the offer of a job, three months’ rent, and paid relocation if she agreed to start immediately. His law firm’s third partner, Mr. Eli Hale, had apparently quit the day before and had taken most of their staff with him.

While initially torn, Alexa had planned to turn him down. She’d applied for his firm almost six months ago and hadn’t heard anything from him until his frantic, late-night call. Besides, she had a pending offer in Juno that, though not solid, had the added benefit of not being located on a tropical island. But then Emrys had to go and insist—no, order—that she turn the offer down. With such blatant provocation, how could she possibly refuse?

Daniel Hanson Sr. hadn’t been joking when he said she would start immediately. The morning after she accepted his offer, five burly men in coveralls showed up on her doorstep with a plethora of boxes and a lime-green moving van. Flustered, Alexa had directed them in packing her belongings. She did her best to keep the most important and immediately necessary items separate from those she could do without for the three weeks or so it would take to ship them to Honolulu, darting from room to room to oversee as much as she could. Unfortunately, she couldn’t watch all five movers at once.

So here she was, Day One into her relocation, standing in her large two-bedroom apartment with an empty suitcase belching packing paper instead of clothes, wearing only her undershirt and a pair of flannel pajama pants in an apartment with no air conditioning (the electricity wouldn’t be turned on until tomorrow) because the entirety of her pitiful summer wardrobe was unexpectedly secreted away in the hold of some cargo ship waiting for permission to sail.

At least her pictures were safe. And it wasn’t as if she couldn’t buy more clothes, though she currently lacked funds until the offer on her condo was finalized and closed. But maybe, if she worded it just right, Alexa could steer Mr. Hansen into feeling responsible enough to foot the bill for an island appropriate wardrobe.

On the other hand, she had perfectly suitable work attire—two pencil skirts, four pairs of linen slacks, and half a dozen blouses—and she doubted he would care if she had appropriate clothing while off the clock. Which meant Alexa would have to take care of it herself unless she wanted to spend her down time wearing suit trousers and silk shirts. She stifled a groan at the mere thought.

“Where is the nearest ice cream shop?” Alexa asked her phone, striving to ignore her mental companion’s audible sneer. His smug air of ‘I told you so’ set her teeth on edge and she gritted them behind her closed lips to spare him the satisfaction of knowing just how annoyed she was by her own stubborn insistence to relocate to a rock in the middle of the ocean. Did he always have to be so thoroughly insufferable?

Are you certain you can afford that considering your superfluous purchase of display frames?


“I’m quite capable of buying a single scoop of ice-cream,” Alexa said, forcing herself not to snap. If Emrys could speak in a calm, cordial voice, then Alexa could as well. She also added superfluous to her ever-growing list of words to throw back at him when the moment presented itself. He hated it when she did that. She especially enjoyed cataloging those rare instances when he was wrong about something. Rubbing his failed predictions in his insubstantial face was always satisfying.

Great Zeus,
Alexa thought. We’re like an old married couple. Could I possibly be more pathetic?

Straightening out her long curls as best she could, Alexa twisted the thick mass into a knot and searched for something to secure it. She found a pair of unused chopsticks from last night’s dinner and used her teeth to separate them. The first stick snapped in half when she tried to force it through her knot of hair, and she half screamed against the second stick between her teeth. She tossed the useless utensil aside and worked the second one much more carefully.

If you cut it, your hair would give you far fewer difficulties.


“I am not cutting my hair.” It was an argument the two had had on far too many occasions to count, but Alexa knew he was right. Her hair was naturally long and thick, falling in tight, blonde curls down her back. When wet and straightened, it nearly reached her hips.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the mass of curls wasn’t so unbearably heavy. It dragged on her neck, the roots plastered to her scalp due to the weight of the rest, and gave her horrible headaches. And never mind trying to brush it. Alexa lost at least one brush and six combs a month trying to work knots from the blonde bush. But she still wouldn’t cut it. She couldn’t.

Her mother had loved her hair.

“I’ll find an alternative solution,” Alexa told him, her voice unyielding. Emrys sighed but didn’t counter. This was one argument he had long resigned himself to losing.

“Well then.” Alexa held out her phone, directions displayed on the screen. “Would you like to come along? Or would you rather stay here and pout?”

It was, surprisingly, a legitimate question. Most times, Emrys was her constant companion, happy to jump in with a biting remark or a witty comment, but not always. Sometimes, when he felt particularly jilted or simply needed some space, Emrys would just…leave.

Of course, being a figment of her imagination, Alexa knew that he wasn’t really gone, just receded—or something like it. But saying he had left was the only way she could adequately describe it. In those times, not only would Emrys not respond to anything she said, no matter how ‘ludicrous,' he also didn’t feel.

Gone were his ethereal smirks, pouts, and glares that always seemed to accompany his words. There was no sense of his steady, reliable presence, and the spot he usually occupied in the back of her mind felt light. Empty. It was frightening.

Not that she would ever tell him that.

Rather than answer her, Alexa felt his presence swell as he crossed the room to be close to her. She smiled.

“Together it is, then.” She reached back, taking his hand to draw him through the door and down the elevator to the underground parking garage. Emrys grumbled, but it sounded half-hearted at best. Alexa chuckled. Despite his constant attempts to put a damper on her sense of adventure, his need to get out and explore was just as strong. Sometimes stronger.

Alexa squeezed his invisible hand as they stepped out of the elevator and into the oppressive humidity. There was a second’s delay before he squeezed back, accepting her unspoken apology and offering one of his own. Humming contentedly, she dropped his hand as they reached her car so he could move into the passenger seat. Alexa slipped into the driver’s seat of her boss-paid rental car, adjusted the mirrors, and backed out of the packed tenant parking lot. Her phone’s GPS lead the way to a nearby Mom and Pop ice cream shop that was, supposedly, five minutes away. With traffic, it took them almost thirty.

“This had better be the best freaking ice-cream I’ve ever had,” Alexa grumbled as she stood in line with a dozen other customers. They all chatted happily within their individual family groups, and Alexa tried not to let it bother her. It wasn’t their fault she was alone.

Invisible arms wound around her shoulders, holding her tight against a broad chest. Her face warmed as Emrys ducked to press his cheek against hers.

It was not your fault.


Reaching up, Alexa rested her palm against her collar bone where she felt Emrys’s arms rest. There was nothing there. Six years ago, that would have bothered her, but now she found it fascinating. The human brain was a truly amazing thing to be capable of simulating sensations that felt so achingly real.

They stood like that for almost fifteen minutes, only moving in small, shuffling steps when the customers ahead of them collected their ice-cream and moved on. The weight and warmth of his arms—however slight it was—remained steady as they waited, and more than once, Alexa felt the rise and fall of a broad chest as Emrys breathed behind her.

As much as she pretended otherwise, Alexa craved these moments of quiet camaraderie. Emrys was a tactile person by nature, but it usually only entailed the brush of his fingers against her cheek or a hand in hers, and even then, his touches were featherlight and almost hesitant. She wondered if he knew that, as a mental specter, he shouldn’t be able to touch her at all and so tried to hold himself back. It never lasted long—two or three weeks at most—before he was back to brushing against her as they walked, his fingers tangling with her own.

When Alexa took her new position with Hanson and Hanson—formerly Hanson, Hanson, and Hale—she thought for sure it would be a month, maybe two, before he deigned to touch her again, even in passing. This wasn’t the first time he’d been upset by a decision she’d made—most notable was the near tantrum he threw when she sold the family estate to pay for law school halfway through her Ph.D. in Classical Studies—but it was by far the worst. Rather than yell and growl his frustrations then disappear for a week and subsequently ignore her for another two, Emrys had gone terrifyingly silent. Alexa shuddered at the memory before she quickly shunted it aside and basked in the feel of Emrys’s embrace. He hadn’t forgiven her for coming here, she knew, but she would take what she could get.

The last group, a family of four with a pair of dark-haired children, stepped away from the window with cones of swirled ice-cream. The boy was obviously the older of the two as he patiently taught his little sister how to lick the melting cream from the body of her sugar cone. The girl giggled when she ended up with a glob of strawberry fluff on her nose, and her brother laughed so hard he nearly dropped his own vanilla treat. Dad came to the rescue, adjusting the dangerous tilt of Brother’s cone while simultaneously handing Sister a handkerchief.

Her father had always carried a handkerchief. He said it was good to be prepared, and he was right. Mom was a crier and nary a day went by that Daddy didn’t need to drop his used pocket square into the hamper to be washed. It was one of the many ‘proper’ habits Daddy displayed that her brothers had thought ridiculous and yet imitated anyway. Henry, in particular, took to the practice with near rabid fervor once he realized how well a clean handkerchief could be used to pick up girls.

Alexandra.
The hug abruptly ended, and Alexa nearly gasped. The little family had disappeared at some point, and the girl at the parlor counter was giving her a near glare even as she tried to smile.

“Your order, ma’am?” the girl asked, and Alexa blinked. She hadn’t even looked at the menu. Her eyes darted to the plastic letter board in embarrassed panic. She could both feel and hear the irritated customers behind her as she scrambled to make a choice.

A lady never panics,
Mom’s memory said. So if you find you’ve made a mistake, just pretend you haven’t.

“I’ll have strawberry on a sugar cone,” Alexa said, remembering the little girl from before. “Just one scoop, if you please.”

The girl behind the counter looked surprised by the calm, unruffled response. She clearly hadn’t expected Alexa to pull herself together so quickly. Alexa stifled a smile.

Thanks, Mom.


The cone was ready shortly, and Alexa paid the girl with the last of her cash and offered her a polite, dignified smile. It was her Diplomat Smile, the one Mom taught her to use in those tense situations that she would have happily exchanged for a swim in an alligator cage at the zoo. Having worked with her mom from a young age, Alexa’s Diplomat Smile was long perfected.

Charming as always,
Emrys said as they crossed the parking lot. Alexa climbed back into her car while daintily nibbling her frozen treat.

“Don’t be jealous because people like me better than you.”

Cute,
he returned, the sarcasm dripping from his voice.

Alexa gave him a Diplomat Smile, though it lost at least some of its effect by not having a physical target. “I know.”

Emrys started talking the moment Alexa began driving. He ardently listed every conceivable reason why they should pack up and return home to Maine, why she should give up this ridiculous idea of being a lawyer and pursue her original career in archeology, why she should quite the viola and go back to dancing, and why fencing wasn't a suitable pastime for a proper lady. Alexa let him talk with a grateful smile.

They both knew she wouldn’t agree with anything he said, she was too stubborn to be sensible and he was too honest to manipulate her with reverse psychology, but she appreciated the distraction. And given the circuitous and unpersuasive feel of his arguments, distracting her from the pulsing, aching memories of that day - the day she died and got better while her family didn't - was all he wanted to do.

Are you listening? Honestly, Alexandra, you can be quite insufferable.


Alexa took a bite from her cone, the ice cream nearly gone. “Love you too, darling.”

Emrys huffed, but he continued talking. It was another thirty-minute drive back to her new apartment, and there was not one single moment of silence. It was the most wonderful sound in the world.

Genevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

This is one of my favorite things I've read in ages! Is there any more of the story? I understand if it's just this, but I'd love to read more:)

Cassiopeia FletcherGenevieve Ann Atwater Maxwell

Thank you! I very much enjoyed writing it. I do have one other short story with Alexa and Emrys that I plan to post to Verso, but the rest of their story is written in a novella I’m trying to place. Once it’s been published, I’ll link my Verso stories to the main publication :) Thank you again for your support!

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About Cassiopeia Fletcher

I wrote my first book when I was six-years-old about a fat cat named Stephanie who wandered around the city looking for her family, and I never looked back. As a writer, my goal is to continually move forward, learning from my past self, as well as others, in an effort to become the best I can at my chosen craft. I’m blessed with a wonderful, loving family —Mom, Dad, six brothers, one sister, and five sisters-in-law—that has supported me every step of the way, even if they don’t always understand what I’m trying to do. And while I believe life is education, not everyone always agrees, so I’ve made pursuing a formal education a huge priority. Currently, I have an MFA in Creative Writing and am attending grad school for the second time pursuing an MA in Mass Communications. Eventually, I’ll get my Ph. D., but who knows if that will be before or after I settle into a job teaching Creative Writing to undergrads? Life is a mystery, and I’m happy to discover it all, one day at a time.

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