The Sugar Quill
Author: Dancing-pony  Story: A Butterfly's Wings  Chapter: Chapter 1 - A Chosen One
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A Chosen One Thanks to my beta, Emelye, for her continued assistance and encouragement


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April 1997



Late afternoon sunshine filtered through a pair of narrow, dirt-streaked windows set high in adjoining walls. Thousands of dust particles danced in the twin beams of light before drifting downward to the concrete floor. The poorly ventilated storeroom, hardly bigger than a cupboard, had the stifling atmosphere of a sauna, and there was a lingering scent of mildew despite the removal of a dozen damp boxes and the vigorous scrubbing of every square inch of rickety shelving.  


Isabel Landers leaned against the handle of her broom. Sweeping the sweaty hair out of her eyes with one hand, she surveyed the result of a full day's labour. It had been an unpleasant job, but it could have been far worse. Even a pack-rat like her dad couldn't have crammed much more junk into the limited storage area behind her parents' second hand shop. She shuddered to think what might he might have collected in one of the vast storerooms at the city library where she worked.


Shuffling footsteps approached, and her mother's head poked through the doorway. Gray eyes twinkled from behind wire-rimmed spectacles as Dottie Landers surveyed the figurines, pottery and knickknacks crowding the newly cleaned shelves. "I can't thank you enough, sweetie, for taking your entire day to help me out like this." She turned her attention to her daughter, with the concerned perusal that always made Isabel feel like a scrawny five-year-old being coerced into eating a second helping of porridge. "I'll make you a bit of supper if you like."


Isabel glanced ruefully at her grubby hands and dust-coated jumper, neither of which helped to dispel that long-ago image of herself. "Thanks, mum, but I want to go home and clean up. I just have one thing left to pull out." She motioned toward a sturdy cardboard box nestled in the far corner of the storeroom. A trail of dark stains led from the windows to that spot. "Luckily, this one shouldn't be much trouble," she added, remembering the way most of the boxes had disintegrated in her grasp, spilling their jumbled contents into heaps on the floor. "It was at the bottom of the stack, but it looks to be the only one that wasn't soaked through."


Squaring her shoulders, Isabel dropped the broom and approached the last remaining obstacle between her aching muscles and a tub of steaming water and lilac-scented bubbles. Squatting down, she wrapped her fingers around the two far corners and pulled. For a moment, the box refused to budge, as though it were determined to cling to its longtime hiding place, but then it began sliding away from the wall so suddenly that Isabel almost lost her balance. As it moved toward her, she leaned in to read the five faded black letters on its label.


Abruptly releasing her grip, Isabel fell backward, bringing her posterior into painful contact with the concrete.  "Mum," she said, her voice trembling as she tried to catch her breath. "This isn't really full of bones, is it?"


"What . . . ?" Dottie took a few steps into the storeroom, bending to squint at the word which had startled Isabel. "Oh, my . . . how very strange," she said in the vague tone Isabel usually found endearing, but which occasionally could be highly annoying. "I thought your dad threw that out years ago." After this uninformative statement, she lapsed into silence, staring into space as though she had entirely forgotten her daughter's question -- and quite possibly her daughter's presence.


Isabel curled her legs under and pushed herself back onto her feet, brushing her hands on her jeans. Her mum's blank expression hardly fit with the vision of blinding lights and smouldering human remains which had flashed briefly and unexpectedly through her mind. Besides, the thought of her mild-mannered parents committing gruesome murders or hiding dead bodies in their storeroom was ludicrous. "Mum?" she prodded gently, hoping to rouse her parent from the mental fog which was enveloping her.


"Oh, yes . . . I'm sorry, sweetie." Dotty shook her head, blinking a few times as though she, too, had seen the unsettling images. Her eyes had a glassy, faraway look, rather like a sleepwalker coming out of a deep trance and unable to recall where she was or how she had gotten there. "Were we talking about the Bones family?"


 "I don't recall anyone called Bones," said Isabel, thinking back over the names of friends and neighbours who had drifted in and out of her life over the past twenty years.


"It was a long time ago," Dotty said. "The entire family was killed in some sort of accident. Quite tragic . . . a husband and wife and two or three children . . . I don't think we ever heard the details."


Shaking her head again, Dottie massaged her temples as though attempting to draw forth the elusive memory. "You were just a tot when it happened. Back then, your father had a contract with the city, to pick up salvage from accidents and house fires and such. I think there must have been a fire at the Bones' cottage. Dad brought home a few dozen boxes, and they all had a nasty, burnt odor. But the next day, some men from the Ministry came to collect them. They were an odd looking lot . . . the men from the Ministry, I mean . . . strangely dressed . . . They said there was going to be an investigation into the Bones' deaths."


Isabel glanced down at the box again, wondering what secrets it might have held. But she supposed it hadn't held any, since the Ministry people hadn't taken it away. "They didn't need this one, then?"


Dottie fluttered her fingers at her sides, the way she always did when she was flustered or puzzled. "It was sealed up tight," she said, gesturing at the thick tape wrappings, "so I don't think they looked through it. I don't know why they didn't take it, though."


Nudging the box with the toe of her worn trainer, Isabel conjured a mental picture of several  harried investigators, milling around the crowded shop while being bombarded with her parents' absentminded chatter. After years of practice, she'd learned to sort the important details out of her mother's rambling speech, but the ministry officials had likely been desperate to escape after only a few minutes. "I suppose they overlooked it, then."


"I don't see how; all of the boxes were sitting in the little alcove by the back door. We hadn't brought them into the shop yet, because of the smell. Dad called the Ministry after we found this one was still there, but no one knew what he was talking about . . . . Then we thought someone might come back for it, but they never did." Dottie chewed absently on the tip of one fingernail, her brow creased in concentration, but she seemed to have exhausted her scant store of information about the Bones' family. "Dad did take a peek inside eventually. There were just some dusty robes and odd books; he didn't think they were worth cleaning up and putting out for sale. I would have sworn he threw that box away a couple of years ago. "


"Well, you obviously don't need to keep it, then," Isabel said decisively, too worn out to expend any more energy dwelling on a decades old mystery. "If it's been that many years, no one's going to come for it. I'll pitch it into the bin on my way home."


Half expecting her mum to object, Isabel hefted the Bones' box away from the floor and turned toward the back door. The box was surprisingly light, and as she passed into the narrow alleyway behind the shop, she had to suppress an inexplicable urge to add it to the odds-and-ends piled next to her sedan. If she wasn't careful, she'd turn out to be just as much a pack-rat as her dad. No, she decided whimsically, she'd always pictured herself as a prickly little hedgehog, curled up in a ball with her quills fanned out protectively . . . or perhaps tenacious badger, guarding her burrow from larger and fiercer predators . . . or a majestic eagle, soaring high above the turmoil of the world.


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