An excerpt from: RULING EDEN
By Michelle Picard
It was April freakin’ thirtieth of the year when my life took a nose dive into the bizarre, and I pulled my jacket tighter against the chill New England wind. The air smelled of ozone, and I sensed a storm threatening to deluge the area. I trudged the last couple blocks home after the bus dumped me on the corner. Relieved to have made it out of the rush hour push of Boston and onto the streets of Watertown’s family neighborhoods, my commute home always felt like a desperate race toward a safe haven.
“Don’t dwell on the ‘what ifs’, Rachel,” I mumbled, feet slapping the pavement as it bore the brunt of my irritation. “Life’s about the here and now, and you get what you get.” I gave myself roughly the same speech every year on my birthday. Sometimes it even worked.
I tried again to dismiss the unshakable knot in my gut I’d carried around today. I’d rather ignore whatever it was trying to tell me. Got me into less trouble that way. At least most of the time.
I walked faster, a jay walk away from my apartment in a two-family, and cursed the fool part of me that hoped for more from life. Distracted by my whirling thoughts, I never saw the speeding car until my foot left the curb. My body kept moving forward, momentum fighting my brain’s command to stop. Everything went into slow motion, and I watched, as if outside myself, each horrific moment unfold. My step into the street was completed an instant later, and nothing could halt my body from intersecting the vehicle’s path.
I dragged in one long breath before impact.
Then a whirling white blur hit me like a steam shovel to my abdomen and threw me back onto the sidewalk. Briefcase flying, I slammed into the concrete with a painful jarring. Skin scraped the ground, the burn ran down to my bones, and all the air whooshed from my lungs. My eyes closed, and a disturbing tingling coursed through my limbs and chest as I registered the car engine’s hum fading away to nothing. My last coherent thought: everything was about to change.
The fuzziness began to clear and my body settled. Damn, what happened? There’d been a car, speeding. It hit me. Or at least something had. Why no agony? There should be more pain, right? I opened my eyes. What the hell! My back was against the pavement, and I was draped underneath a panting, drooling, cream-colored standard poodle.
“If that isn’t the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen a human do. Were you looking where you were going? If I hadn’t slammed you away from that car you would’ve been killed and what would I say to Morven? Huh? She’d roast me for dinner. I can hear her now. ‘You think I can’t acquire a new familiar, Jack? I should have replaced you with a cat ages ago.”
I figured I’d been knocked into next Sunday because I could hear the dog speaking clear as a bell.
“How could you let the Mother Heir be killed one minute before you brought her home?’ And that’s the highly edited version without the expletives and threats to bodily harm. Are you trying to get me fired? I swear, I think I bruised my front leg shoving you out of the way. Ow, I’m really hurt. I need a doctor. Someone get me a doctor.”
At this point the poodle stopped complaining and panted melodramatically, a pained doggy expression on its face. It coated me with a glob of slobber and sneezed in quick succession.
The last thing I remember was thinking I hated poodles almost as much as birthdays. Then, black.
The problem with fainting is that you generally wake up and still have to deal with whatever disaster sent you into the faint in the first place. The trauma of the accident had caused some sort of temporary hallucinogenic state. Case in point– imagining the furry dog sitting on the sidewalk next to me had spoken. Of course he hadn’t. I shook my head to clear it.
“Thanks for helping me, Jack.” How did I know his name?
The dog was well groomed and shaved around his hindquarters, although he smelled of wet dander. Probably had a great home somewhere.
I shifted my body to test for injury. Nothing screamed ‘call an ambulance,’ so I gritted my teeth and pushed myself to a stand with only the tiniest of groans and awkward lurching. I’d survived worse.
“Maybe you have a tag, and I can phone your owner and tell him you’re a big hero,” I mumbled to the dog, a bitter note in my voice. “It figures my champion would have four legs and drool. Nothing personal, pup. We’ll just limp over to my place to make the call.”
Jack, now blessedly silent, followed me as I picked up my briefcase and crossed the street. No demon cars in sight. The asshole that almost hit me hadn’t even stopped, and the street had been bare of neighbors weeding their modest yards, so no witnesses. My earlier distraction had prevented me from noticing the make of the red sedan, yet alone its license plate.
I fumbled with my keys, and my door opened. Jack wiggled his way inside as I entered. I spread my arms. “Welcome to my humble abode.” Cheeks burning as I imagined someone might catch me talking to this well-groomed mutt, I nudged aside the part of me reflecting how desperate I must feel to be speaking to a poodle.
But despite the bizarre accident leading to his presence, I begrudgingly acknowledged it was just plain nice to have someone to talk to, even if I couldn’t expect a response. It became harder to wake up alone each morning. I didn’t get a lot of company, and I could use some about now, my day already rough before the near miss with the car.
At work I’d been spit on by one kid, “fired” by two others, and shoved into a wall by a fourth. I rubbed at the bruise on my hip, silently cursing the hellion who had body checked me when I refused her request for a pass. Working in a group home for teenagers, I knew better than to let my guard down. It was nuts to work there after the life I’d led, but someone had to watch out for those kids. The list of those willing was short and not so sweet. Now, I’d have new bruises and scrapes from the car incident to keep the one on my hip company.
Dropping my briefcase, I headed for the bathroom and grabbed a couple of aspirin, downing them with water from the sink. The dog followed at my heels, his nails clicking on the hardwood with a lulling patter. I’d strip and have a look at the damage to my body after I made tea. I walked into the kitchen, grabbed a mug from the cabinet, and turned the knob on the stove to start the water boiling.
Jack trotted into the kitchen and sat at my feet, as if to gain my attention. “Do you have an ice pack I can put on my leg?” he said, his voice chiming as clear as Dolby Surround Sound.
I stared, mouth agape, at my still talking furry friend, stumbling backward and smacking into the wall.
“You really should paint the kitchen.” The poodle spoke as he took in the apartment. “The wallpaper is tacky. A nice soothing mint color would compliment the other rooms.”
Maybe the accident had jarred something loose in my head causing this hallucination. My pulse points pounded like jackhammers, but Jack continued, oblivious to my panic.
“And if that’s tea water, I’d love a bowl of Darjeeling. Otherwise, any dark tea will do. I never got into the green or herbal stuff when everyone started babbling about the health benefits.”
Oh, this is not good.
Maybe these hallucinations would stop after I had time to calm down from the accident. But what if this new psychosis was more permanent? My family history was a blank since I was a virtual orphan.
Rachel, you’ve seen worse. Deal. I pushed away from the wall, swaggering toward the canine with fake bravado and trying to talk myself down from the shock. “Dogs do not talk,” I growled. “You are a dog; hence you don’t talk. I’m just having the day from hell and the accident put me over the edge.”
I stabbed the air with my finger to punctuate my words, desperate to force this hallucination to listen up and cut the crap. “I’m going to sit down at my kitchen table and have a hot cup of tea. You’re going to sit next to me and pant, maybe whine or bark a little like a normal, average dog.”
Turning toward my stove, my legs shook. Why was this happening? If I closed my eyes, maybe he’d go away.
I glanced back and Jack shook his doggy head. “Rachel, I’m sure my presence shocks you, but you can certainly guess why I’ve come.”
Enough. I swung around, shouting, “Shut up!”
He whined, took a breath, maybe for courage, and continued. “Surely you have met, or at least learned about, familiars with the ability to speak. Lavinia Garrett is a talented witch, and I know she wouldn’t neglect your education too terribly.”
I wondered when the television crew would appear and show me the microphone secured inside Jack’s collar a la Candid Camera. I strode from the stove and walked into my bedroom to escape. The dog followed me.
Focus, Rachel. You have to figure this out. Lavinia Garrett? Witches? Why was my hallucination talking about my first foster mother? I hadn’t thought about her in years. I was four when she and her family were killed in a car crash after dropping me off at pre-school one morning. Ah-ha! Car crash! A car accident was the connection.
I threw myself down on my bed and shot him an icy glare. “I couldn’t have spoken with Mrs. Garrett about talking familiars or witchcraft,” I said, my voice brittle. “She died when I was four. Did the Garrett’s have a poodle like you? Is that why I’m imagining you?”
If a dog could look shocked, then that was what I saw on this pooch.
“Wha…wha…what do you mean Lavinia died?” he whimpered. “She raised you…was supposed to raise you…to prepare you to rule. Morven said she’d disappeared on a sabbatical a while back, which made sense once we found out she was your foster mother. But dead? Eva chose her specifically to protect you until it was time to embrace your destiny. You do know about your destiny, don’t you?”
Jack gave a doggy squeak, sounding more and more panicked by the moment. It’s nice to know that your hallucination is just as freaked as you when starting the slide into craziness. He deserved it for messing with my head.
I raised my hands to my eyes, blocking out the offensive mirage. “I am but mad north-northwest,” I muttered to myself, “When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.”
“Don’t go all Shakespeare on me, Rachel,” the dog complained, obviously recovering from his reaction. “Your destiny is a serious matter.” He straightened his canine posture and focused his beady eyes in a glare.
“If you insist on talking, the least you could do is make sense,” I accused. “I have no clue about ruling anything. And the only destiny I know about is the one I planned to create for myself with a stick of chocolate chip cookie dough and the TV remote. Of course, that’s looking pretty bleak right now, as the next few days will probably involve a locked ward at a hospital.”
The kettle whistled and I stomped back to the kitchen. Picking up my empty mug, I banged it down again on the counter. It felt good. I calmly– see how stable and together I am?–poured the water for my tea and brought it to the little table in my kitchen. Jack sat and stared.
“What?” The word came out louder than I intended and I winced. The poodle looked so pathetic, I began to feel guilty about yelling at him. “Do you need water or dog food? I mean, I don’t really have dog food, but I could throw something together.”
He lay down on my tile, covered his doggy face with his paws, and started to moan. “My life just got a bazillion times harder. This was supposed to be a straightforward assignment. ‘Just go retrieve the Mother Heir’, Morven had said. ‘Escort Rachel back to the court and you can have the rest of the weekend off to dig up bones.’”
I’d never seen a dog talk to itself before. Of course, I’d never seen a dog talk before at all, but Jack sputtered and mumbled and shook as he seemed to contemplate the situation. My anger ebbed. “Look, I should really be calling the emergency hotline now, but maybe you’d feel better if you start at the beginning.”
I had a bitch of a day, but I was willing to put off committing myself for a bit. Jeez, I was encouraging my hallucination to talk through his issues. My hands shook around my mug. I gripped it tighter, enjoying the slight burn on my palms. At least the pain was commonplace, normal.
Jack finally stood up and gave a shake. He sat back down on his hind legs and sent me a resolute stare. “Okay, if I start from the beginning we’ll probably be here for the next year. I’ll give you a condensed version, and we’ll go from there. By the way, you don’t happen to believe in magic or the supernatural or anything, do you? I mean this would be so much easier if you–”
He stopped when he saw the confusion registering on my face. “No, I wouldn’t be that lucky. Okay, here it goes. You are the heir to…well, you’re like the…queen for all the supernatural, you know, beings like angels, vampires, faeries–all the magical races on this planet.”
I forced myself to listen to his words. Magical races? He believed this? But he shouldn’t believe anything. He was only a dog. A fog settled over my mind, filling the void left by my retreating anger at hearing such a bizarre explanation. I blinked and refocused.
“On your twenty-fifth birthday, midnight tonight, you’re supposed to return to your court in the Garden of Eden, and assume leadership over all magical beings on this planet.”
I kept staring blankly, unable to place what I heard in any coherent context.
“You were supposed to be raised incognito out in the mortal world by a witch family. That way you would be ‘in touch’ with humanity and gain some sort of humility to help counteract your incredible powers and magical strength.” He spoke slowly and enunciated well, as if he lectured a child with a deficient IQ.
My incredible power and strength? Ha! I felt more like limp spaghetti. I listened simply because I was unable to move. The screaming voice in my head quieted, exhausted.
“The Mother Heir is always fostered among mortals. The witch’s job is to instruct you about your heritage and prepare you to rule.” Jack’s brow wrinkled and his words became hesitant. “But I guess something went wrong. I mean, you have no clue what I’m talking about, do you?” The last sounded hopeless, his ears flopping as he dropped his head in defeat.
“Nooo, not really.” I rolled my eyes.
After several minutes of absolute silence, he stood up, shook himself, and lay on the floor. “I better get comfortable. This will take a while. You said something about food before? Any leftover steak bones or hamburger in that fridge?”
Thirty minutes and some snide comments from Jack about the slim pickings in my kitchen later, he and I settled down in my living room. My mind finally kick-started.
Rachel, you can’t even have a normal psychotic breakdown.
I glanced in the mirror over the couch and emerald green eyes, full lips, and straight, butt-length raven black hair stared back. I still looked the same. If I knew Jack was a hallucination, wasn’t I too logical to be hallucinating in the first place?
So what now?
I could call the cops, but I hate them. Too many showdowns when I ran the streets as a teenager. Plus, they’d only lock me up in a hospital nut ward after hearing my story. I shielded my body with a couch pillow. “If I’m some powerful magic being, how come I’ve never done anything magical in my life? I can’t even program my DVR, so magic seems a little far-fetched. No visions of vampires or werewolves haunt my dreams. You’d think cosmic forces would make me feel connected to the supernatural world or something.”
Was I really having this conversation? I squeezed the pillow tighter and stared the dog down. Enough of this, he was only a dog. I threw the pillow to the floor, on the edge of becoming hysterical.
He snorted. “Until you reach your twenty-fifth birthday you’re completely mortal, with no magic at all. It’s one of the reasons the Mother Heir, that’s your official title, is raised incognito among the masses. You can be killed up until your birthday. It’s too enticing for someone among the court to plot an assassination if they know who you are. The odds are better for you out in the mortal world.”
A surge of anger hit me, irrational, but burning in my gut. Nothing to hurt me out here? Only stubborn grit and unholy luck got me through my life to this moment. I shifted in my seat, uncomfortable with hearing such an improbable tale attributed to my origins.
Jack continued, oblivious. “That’s why once you’re sent to a witch family, the identity of whom only your mother knew, you’re completely cut off from Eden until you gain your powers. You haven’t been home since you were an infant.”
My mind took a moment to play catch-up. What did he say? Mother? I have a mother? My heart beat faster. My lungs couldn’t pull in enough air as my mind raced over the possibility I could find my family. My body tensed and I stood and paced the living room, trying to remind myself that none of this was real and squelch my hope before it took root.
“A spell kicks in on the eve of your big birthday and that unveils the identity of your foster mother and allows someone at court to find and retrieve you. That’s how it’s supposed to work, until this screw up. This disaster is a first in all the time since the goddess Lillith created humankind and its magical protector races.”
Who the hell was Lillith? I didn’t care, only wanting to hear about the mother he’d mentioned. Teeth clenched, I responded. “You said something about my mother?”
The dog sighed. “Your mother didn’t know about the problem because she hasn’t been at court since she sent you to the Garrett’s. She chose to fade away after she placed you. Eva, that was her name, left the court in the hands of the council and her seneschal, Morven, my own mistress. It’s been twenty-four years since a Mother Heir ruled and, let me tell you, things are falling apart.”
Pain flared inside my heart and I exhaled. I spoke slowly to keep the waver from my voice. My steps faltered as I approached him where he sat on the overstuffed loveseat. “Fade away? What does fade away mean?”
Jack hesitated. “Oh! Weeeellll…actually, your mother ceased to exist. Virtually the only way a Mother Heir dies after the age of twenty-five is to choose to fade away into nothingness. Eva faded after she knew you were in good hands.” His skin gave one of those nervous doggy ticks and he dipped his head as if to make himself less noticeable.
I felt like I’d gotten my stomach kicked. This was ridiculous. My living room was a cage, and I was some exotic animal trapped inside of it. I was hearing this all from a poodle, for god sake! I shook my head to clear it of confusion and remind myself I was an idiot for starting to believe any of this. “Forget about it. Just finish the story.”
When he finished, after recounting some bizarre tale about a goddess, Lillith, creating the world, along with seven magical races called the Kesayim to protect mortal humanity, I stopped walking and stared at him quietly for a twenty count. “Okay, let’s lay it on the line. How am I supposed to believe all this?”
With no warning, Jack jumped off the couch and nipped me.
“Ow! Why’d you do that?”
“Well,” he replied, “since I have no opposable thumbs, I couldn’t pinch you could I? But now at least you know you’re not dreaming. And all we have to do is wait until midnight when you turn twenty-five and start doing pretty cool magic tricks. Then we’ll go to court, and everything I said will prove to be true. As much as I enjoy the humor in being a hallucination, it’s getting old.”
My anger spouted like a geyser. I wanted out of this warped funhouse nightmare. I towered over the dog. “And what if I get up and go check myself into a hospital? What will you do then?”
“Hey,” Jack protested, “don’t kill the messenger.”
Frenzy built inside my chest; the old familiar sensation of flames licking at my bones, burning blue and wicked. How often I’d wished I could defuse this ticking time bomb of rage I carried around. I glowered at the fuzzy animal. “Apparently that’s Your Highness to you. Why don’t you leave, mutt? Tell your master you didn’t find me and slink off to wherever magical familiars skulk. I’m not sure what you are or what’s happening to me, but I don’t want it.”
As I stared at him, waiting for him to break for several long minutes, something broke inside me instead. Maybe it was the intelligence I saw behind the fear on Jack’s face, so out of place in my sane, everyday world. Suddenly, the fire consumed itself with a great whoosh and I began to giggle. The giggle turned into a laughing fit. After a few moments I collapsed on the carpet, hysterical and gasping for breath. After two or three tries at calming myself, I subdued the hilarity and sat upright while wiping the tears from my eyes. The release felt good, the pressure in my chest gone.
“Okay. I had considered staying up for my birthday anyway. So, what the hell, let’s see what really happens at midnight.”
I got up and straightened my skirt, which had become twisted when I rolled on the floor. I desperately wanted to change into jeans and an oversized sweatshirt and get comfortable. I was casual by nature, and even dressing up for work grated at me.
“I’ll start the popcorn and we’ll see what the TV movie line-up is for the night. Butter or no butter on the popcorn?”
As I walked into the kitchen, the laughter having drained me of most of my tension, I was inspired to face this whole episode as great fodder for adding the missing spice to my life. Yeah, I wanted to keep the safe life I’d painstakingly created since high school. But I admit I daydreamed more and more about making a change, taking a risk.
I opened the cabinet, took down the popcorn, and shoved a bag into the microwave. “Hey, Jack,” I called in my very best sarcastic lilt. “Let’s see if I can come up with a list of everything I would do with magical powers.”
I turned and caught him peering around the corner as if I’d gone loco.
“First thing on my list, spring in New England is going to begin in April, not late May. I’m never going to walk to work in a May hailstorm again. Maybe I could work on world peace. But, no, hail in May definitely comes first. Hey! I can finally set my DVR.”
The evening was looking up. Even if I was crazy, I wasn’t endangering anyone else. Maybe the key to staying sane in my insanity was to have fun. There’d been damn little lately.
REVIEWS AND PRAISE
“Michelle Picard writes very engaging, deep characters and I can’t say enough about how much they captured my attention and left me satisfied throughout the story…Ruling Eden is a great tale of romance, mystery and just a wonderful, beautiful world Michelle Picard has created.” –Smexy Books, Four Star Review
“This was excellent…. I was hooked by the third chapter and I’m not even sure I could tell you why. Ms. Picard writes conversations that grab you and stays true to the characters. You can see where this could build into a multi-story series. But I’m still clueless as to where my critical reading skills went; normally, I highlight errors as I go, try to identify potential red herrings, seek out the bad guy, etc., but I read this nearly straight through, no highlighter, no red herrings, and I figured out who the bad guy was when she wanted me to and not a second before. I feel like I’ve been run over by a Mack Truck, did somebody get the license plate number…?” —Terri, Bitten by Books, Four and half Gravestone Review
“Ruling Eden is the ultimate fantasy adventure. I could not put it down. Michelle Picard has created an amazing world that sucks you in from the very first chapter and keeps you on the edge of your seat for the whole journey.” —Penelope’s Romance Reviews
“Ruling Eden by Michelle Picard will take you away from modern day living into a magical world seemingly running parallel to modern day living. The author’s format compares each world together and it runs thoroughly well throughout Ruling Eden. With a bit of romance and warring going on you will want to continue to read as the magical lessons unfold and are learned. A must read for fantasy readers.” — Mind Fog Reviews, 3.5 Bookmarks
“This book is beautifully written and will hold your attention throughout the book. A must read for all Fantasy book lovers. I enjoyed reading this book so much, and I REALLY hope to read more of Michelle’s books in the near future.” — Book Review Diva, 5 Books out of 5