It was four o'clock in the morning, and Alicia decided that she'd had enough. Enough of what, she wasn't sure, but she was going to do something.
"I'm going to move to Mexico," she said aloud. "Or Morocco, or Monaco - one of those kind of places."
"That's a long way from Portland," said a feather, from the bookshelf where it had been sitting quietly for several months.
"What do you know about it?" Alicia didn't normally talk to feathers, but it was four o'clock in the morning.
"Quite a lot, actually," said the feather matter-of-factly. "I'm a feather. I fly places. I float places."
Since it was looking like a long morning, Alicia went to the kitchen and fixed a breakfast of Folger's instant coffee and Wheat Thins. The feather waited patiently until she returned.
"So have you thought about my question?" the feather asked.
"You didn't ask me a question."
"It was implied."
"Paron my obtuseness. What was your question?"
"Why do you feel you've had enough? And what would you do if you went someplace else?"
"That's two questions."
"The second one was implied in the first. But I thought I'd spell it out for you."
"You're welcome. So?"
Alicia munched a Wheat Thin, blew on her coffee, and pondered. "I live alone. Most days nobody knows if I come or go. If I died, they'd only find me after the neighbors complained about the smell."
"And going away would fix that how?"
"Well, it wouldn't. But I'd be someplace different."
"Someplace exotic, like Modesto?"
"It wouldn't have to be exotic. Just a change of scene."
"But you'd get tired of the new scene."
"What I'm really tired of is me. I'm middle-aged, I have stringy hair, I have no figure, and I'm overweight."
"That's not so bad."
"What do you know about being overweight? You're a feather."
Alicia enjoyed this momentary victory, and the silence, and sipped her coffee.
Outside, the darkness was faded by the orange glow of the street lamps, and the silence was muffled by the rain. The sun wouldn't be up for another two or three hours. Alicia figured if she listened close enough, she could probably hear ghosts or evil spirits skulking around outside, but she didn't want to listen that close.
She put down her coffee on the coffee table and sat on the frayed couch with her back to the front window, looking into the dark space of the kitchen and bedroom. For some reason, she didn't jump when she saw the man standing in her kitchen, silhouetted by the reflected light of the street lamps on the walls. He was very tall, and he wore a curved sword, and a beard, and a large round turban.
"Peace be upon you," he said.
"Thanks," Alicia said, "you too. What are you doing in my kitchen?"
He didn't answer, just stood there looking at her with a stare that smelled of burning villages.
"What do you want from me?" she asked.
"I come to offer you peace."
"But I don't want peace," Alicia said, flustered. "And anyway, I already have it."
"You have peace, and you don't want it," the tall man echoed, his voice as deep as despair. "Perhaps that is the problem."
"What do you want from me?" Alicia asked a second time.
"There is something I want you to do." The tall man took a step forward, but Alicia still couldn't see his face. She tried to stand up, but her body would not move.
"Write," the man said.
"Write? About what?" Alicia eyed the spiral-bound notebook on the coffee table.
"Anything you like. The only condition is that you must not write about me."
"What if you don't like what I write? You might cut off my head with your scimitar, or blow up my house with your turban."
Alicia picked up the notebook and a ballpoint pen. "I'll write about the first concert I went to. My favorite band was playing, and it was the first time I smoked a - "
"I'm afraid that won't do," the man in the turban said. "You see, all music and singing belong to me."
I knew there'd be a catch, Alicia thought.
"Okay then, I'll write about the time I went to the beach at Monterey with Denise. It was late at night. We got really drunk on Two Buck Chuck, and lay down and watched the stars, and then she - "
"That's no good either. Joy and pleasure belong to me, two. And we really need to have a talk about forbidden activities. Pick something else."
Alicia felt a sinking sensation in her gut. She felt her voice coming thin and small, as if from far away. "Then I will write about sorrow."
"Oh, really," the man said. "Haven't you ever taken a writing course? 'Write what you know.' You don't know sorrow. You may think you know sorrow, but you don't. Not yet. But if you stay with me, you will."
At least he's finally being honest, Alicia thought.
"You'll see more clearly if you wear this veil." Like a magician pulling a handkerchief from thin air, the man produced a large square of black cloth, which he held before him, and, walking toward Alicia, placed over her head.
The darkness as absolute, and it was accompanied by a smothering sensation, which did not come from the veil itself (though it covered her face entirely) but seemed to close in on her from all sides.
Then she became aware of a loud breathing sound, like a giant bellows, and a rhythmical pressure that tried to force her lungs to breathe in and out, in time with itself. Gradually she realized it was the man's breathing she was hearing. He was trying to breathe her.
"It will be easier for you if you don't fight it," the man's voice said.
She fought it.
Like a sailor drowning, she felt herself carried along by the breath-spell, rocked back and forth by the inexorable waves, but still she fought: breathing in when it wanted her to breathe out, out when it wanted her to breathe in. She felt the numbness creeping up her fingers, her hands, her arms. She felt dizzy and faint. Then she felt her whole body trembling; soon, she knew, it would all be over.
It wasn't her body trembling, though, it was the breath-spell itself. As if the breath was becoming irregular. Alicia wiggled her fingers and discovered she was able to move her hands and arms again - little by little, then with more mobility. It seemed that something had broken the evil wizard's concentration. Alicia flexed her elbows and bent her knees. The breath-spell was weaker now, coming in thin, irregular gasps.
She pulled off the veil, just in time to see the great turbaned head lean back, inhale, and let out an enormous sneeze. In a single instant, a spray of breath and spittle shot across the room carrying with it a tiny, floating object, while the man - turban, scimitar, and all - disappeared in a column of fire.
"Thanks," Alicia said. "You okay?"
"A little singed, but I'll pull through. Had enough of battling evil apparitions for one night?"
"I don't even watch 'Grimm'."
"You should probably get some rest. Say, if you don't mind my saying so, you look quite fetching in that bathrobe, but you really need to do something with your hair."
"I'll take care of it first thing in the morning."
"You could be a bathrobe model, or something."
"It's what I do best," the feather said. "Say, if you wouldn't mind - ?"
Alicia opened the door. A wind blew in and lifted the feather from the shelf. The feather hovered in the doorway for a moment.
"It's been lovely having you," Alicia said, "but you've probably got, um, feather things to do."
The feather bobbed once, as if taking a polite bow, and flew away. Looking around, Alicia saw that the rain had stopped. The sky was that strange, not-dark-not-bright color of the hour before dawn. She squinted at the clock on the shelf but could not read its face.
When she opened her eyes, the clock said 11:00; a half-full cup of cold coffee sat on the coffee table. "Weird dream," she grumbled. "That's what I get for drinking coffee at crazy hours. - Hey, how'd that door get left open?"
Outside, the sky was a beautiful silver-grey and the street still glistened with last night's rain. A breeze blew in and rustled the blank pages of the notebook on the floor. Out of the corner of her eye, she noticed a small pile of something that she first thought was dust. Looking closer, she saw that it was a small pile of grey ash. The next breeze blew in and carried it in a cloud out the door, where it scattered and disappeared into the big wide world.
Alicia picked up the notebook and began to write.