Lost Years

Thanks again for the opportunity to participate in one of these challenges. I really loved it, and I’m considering using the world that I developed for this story as a setting for a longer work if people like it. So, let me know what you think. 🙂

My prompts were:

  1. Heaven and Hell by Black Sabbath
  2. Skinny Love by Birdy
  3. He Stopped Loving Her Today by George Jones
  4. Surfing with the Alien by Joe Satriani
  5. Fernando by Abba

George Jones grew up in the same part of Texas as me, so I had to use that song somehow. Skinny Love is a song I’d never heard, and Birdy’s rendition of it blew me away. As I listened to Heaven and Hell, I started thinking about how choices we don’t even realize we make affect our lives. I didn’t know which I would pick, but I couldn’t stop listening to Birdy’s cover. I started thinking about the greek archetype of the Siren. And then I thought about George’s song and wondered what if the “her” in that song was an addiction? And then the two came together: someone addicted to a Siren’s song. And everything else flowed from there.

I often craft a playlist to set the mood of a piece that I’m writing. So I added all three of these to a playlist and then threw in Song of the Caged Bird by Lindsey Stirling because it was just too perfect of a fit.


Lost Years

The rancid smell of burning flesh fills my nostrils even after I wake. Skull splitting screech-screams of the Faer rend my eardrums as they die on the singing steel of our blades. Visions of burning hamlets and bleeding children incinerate what little soul I have left. People no longer call me Faer Catcher the hero. I am now called Betrayer, Undoer, Evil Incarnate. But, I am just another captive in this prison without walls. My scars cannot be seen. The curse I bear remains outside the grasp of their minds. I fumble alongside my bedroll for the skin, unstop it, and pour the whiskey down my throat. If only the whiskey could help me unsee what I have seen, help me undo what I have done, help me unlove what I have loved.

I should have never went to her, but against my wife, my king, my generals, and my own judgment, I did. I went to her again and again in search of a way to regain the years I lost battling the Faer. I never imagined that search would land me in this hell. I drink again and remember how this all began with a similar dream on a similar night, years ago. Back then, I was Faer Catcher the fallen hero, the doer of deeds no man could stomach, but every man owed his life to. They all averted their eyes as I wasted years in the she-devil’s embrace. Like so many nights before it, it had begun with a dream of Pyrithian—it was always a dream of that damned battle.

 ###

Somehow, I was standing outside her cell, whiskey bottle in hand. I could not even recall how I had come here, but at least I had the presence of mind to smash the bottle before walking through the wall—it would not do to give her a weapon. They say you can never trust the Faer. She was sleeping in the moonlight, curled along a wide branch of the tree we had planted in the center of the cell beneath the high, barred skylight.

“Faer Catcher, your dreams rise again?” she said.

“Sing.”

“No.” She extended her arms over her head, stretching. The Faer weren’t human. I always admonished recruits to never forget that. But when you see them in the moonlight like this, you can’t tell. The curve of her small breasts, the narrow slenderness of her waist, the subtle swell of hips—it was hard to say she wasn’t. Her wings were hidden by shadow, folded against her back. From this distance, I couldn’t see the long canines of her teeth, and the serene glow of her eyes—an otherworldly, lustrous green—was muted by the bright moonlight. She could be human. Deliciously human.

I stepped toward the tree. “Sing.”

“Release me.”

“You know I cannot.”

She sighed. My tattered dreams fled before that exhalation of breath like chaff before the wind. “You put me here. You alone can enter. You can release me.”

I walked to the tree, laid my hand on the flesh of her leg. Lightning surged through my body. I spoke in Faer, weaving my intention with the words, implanting the images of my dream in her mind. “Dhovia, I can no more release you than I can forget these memories.”

Her back arched, the veins in her neck stood out as she ground her teeth together, and when she spoke, her lips pulled back to reveal the fangs, her eyes burning with a malevolent glower. “Damn you, Faer Catcher. You want me to help you forget your memories of butchering my people? One day, your deeds will find you. The Diamorandhi will come without us to stop them.”

“Dhovia, I know you love me.”

Her fingers curled into fists as she tried to resist. It was theater—no different than my whiskey, no different than the circuitous paths I took to this cell to ensure I wasn’t followed. I couldn’t admit to it any more than she could. Her voice was a poisoned whisper. “I doubt you know what that word means.”

“Then sing to me of it.”

She bared her teeth and screeched the words. Acrid smoke stung my eyes, screams of the dying wrenched my heart. I knew the futility of this war, of all war, and the hopelessness it left in its wake crept up my body like a thick mud. And I saw myself, scarred but younger, and my astonishment as she laid her hands on my shoulders. The scene shifted, and I was stumbling across my veranda, drunk. Schel, my wife, shouted at me through her tears that I was a disgrace for consorting with the Faer Queen. She slammed the door, pushing our young son inside. I heard what she’d said—the words had haunted me ever since: “He’s not worthy to be your father.”

I grimaced, regaining control of my mind. “This is not the song I want.”

“It is the only one you deserve, Faer Catcher.”

I put my hand behind her neck and pressed her mouth to mine—hard. I could feel her teeth cutting my lips, and with each drop of blood I knew years of my life would dwindle away, but I cared not. What was my existence anyway–meaningless circles between the bottle and this cell. Her breath caught as she tasted the blood on her tongue. Her hands were on my shoulders, her body atop mine, and the years fell away from me as we rolled together at the base of the tree. And afterward, wrapped in one another’s arms, she sang.

The song started with mere sound. Her voice was the icy crispness of a late autumn morn. The notes had the piercing quality of metal on crystal, but with the richness of fresh cream. Music reverberated in the room, and she sang over her echoes, letting them masquerade as a second singer. As she began to speak the Faer words, images exploded in my mind. I could feel each blade of grass fold beneath my bare feet like silk. Sweet morning dew of the still-young world was fresh on my tongue. We walked next to a burbling creek, hand in hand. All around us, a song of creation swirled: the melody of the creek blended with the joyful wind through the trees that commingled with trills of extinct birdsong. A newness, a freshness radiated from the world, and evil was a distant storm that would take a thousand generations to form.

We would soon come to the creek crossing, beyond which was an entirely different place, a land obscured by haze. Some unknown force compelled us to cross, but neither of us wished to part from here. We halted, holding close, sharing a feather’s kiss, relishing sunlight on our skin and reifying the bliss of creation. How could we leave? Too soon, we came to the crossing and took that ill-fated step into the stream. The melody eddied around us with a swirling sorrow. As our feet left the water on the opposite bank, the haze rushed upon us.

The cold stone cell enclosed us. The memory of bliss faded as the echoes of her melody diminished into a silence broken only by our shared sobs. Clouded daylight from high above illuminated our bodies. I was old once more. Her unblemished olive skin shone with a subtle greenish glow to match her eyes. Different though we were, the same salty tears hung on both our cheeks. Of all the times she had woven this particular song, I had never had the courage to ask, but this time, I did. “What is across that stream?”

She shook her head, crying harder, burying her face in my neck. I stroked her black hair, caressed the delicate folded wings along her back. “I love you, Dhovia.” Someone approached the doorway—I could feel it in my mind like staring eyes on my nape. “By the king of the gods. Someone comes.”

She stared at the rock wall where the doorway was. We could both see the dim outline of a boy on the other side. “A page,” she said. “Wearing the royal colors.”

I stood. The aches in my old bones had vanished thanks to her song. “I’ll see what they–“

Her fingers clutched at my breeches as I pulled them on. “I beg you, before you go release me. Don’t let me rot in here.”

Her voice held a note of true worry—rare for Dhovia. “What is it? What have you seen?” They say the Faer sometimes see the future.

Her tears refracted light from her eyes. “Please.”

“I’ll return, fear not.” I bent to kiss her.

She wrapped her arms and wings around her body and turned away.

 ###

I shook my head and stepped through the wall. The page jumped backwards, falling on his arse, muttering a curse. Seeing me, he scrambled to his feet and did a passable salute.

“Praetin Faer Catcher, sir. The King requests you.”

“Requests me?” Since Misen stole Schel and Julian from me we had not spoken save in the rare formal epistle. We haunted the castle like light and shadow, never occupying the same place. And that suited me fine.

“Yes sir.”

“In his parlor, I presume?”

“The throne room.”

“The throne room?” What did Misen intend? To parade me before his nobles, courtesans, and priests? That riotous filth would be spreading rumors ere I crossed the threshold, and he had to know that. Had he finally decided to rid himself of me? And then there was Dhovia’s begging—she knew what scheme padded through the shadows of human minds. I turned back to the wall, should I demand that she tell me?

“Praetin, sir. King Misen declared it an urgent matter.”

King of the gods, have mercy. “Let us be off.”

As we walked, the ache returned to my knees—the effects of Dhovia’s songs usually lasted much longer. “What day is it?”

“Second of Edmar.”

I stopped walking and blinked. “You jest.”

“No, Praetin. It is the second.”

It wasn’t the day that astonished me. It was the month. Each song cost me more time. What had just felt like an evening and a morning of ecstasy had been two months. The Faer are not like us. A season to them is hardly a blink. I had to be more careful. I realized I couldn’t recall the route to the throne room, a path I’d walked countless times before Misen had been crowned. I followed the page’s instinctive feet through the populated hallways of the keep. People turned their eyes from mine, some made the sign against evil. When we arrived at the throne room’s antechamber, the lively babble of conversation and song withered. A whisper rippled across the painted lips of the courtesans as I passed. At the far end, feverish priests worked incense around their altar of protection and ceased their chanting to scowl as I opened the ornate oak doors.

Inside, I entered a stark silence. I recognized the rheumy eyes of the men seated about the ancient war table with its raised map. Last time I had seen them so assembled, it was at the festive banquets we held before we understood the price we had paid for our victory over the Faer. We were all so much younger then, and it was less than two decades ago. They say the bite of the Faer bleeds the years from humans; we didn’t understand that then. We do now.

“Praetin on the field,” said the guard at my back. All of the generals creaked to their feet, leaning on chairs and canes to salute. All of them except Misen.

“How good of you to finally join us, Faer Catcher,” King Misen said.

“What is this?”

“We wanted to ask you the same.” The generals shifted uncomfortably, lowering themselves back to their chairs. I could see the tokens spread across the broad map, and it did not look good. “What do you know of the Diamorandhi?”

“The dark Faer-kind. Beyond mischievous, vicious. Much worse than what we had to deal with. The Faer have always claimed that they kept them at bay and warned that they would come without anyone to stand up to them. But—“

“Looks like it is happening,” growled General Renish.

“That’s not possible. There has never been any sign that the Diamorandhi were anything more than illusion. I know the rumors you are talking about—the Faer killings, and sent a garrison out to investigate last week—I mean—“ Damn Dhovia. What day was it again? I couldn’t remember, “a month ago.”

“That was two and a half months ago now, you damned bastard. Six villages have burned. Everyone slaughtered—no—devoured.”

I rubbed my eyes, damning Misen under my breath. “What has this to do with me?”

Misen stood and stabbed his finger at the tokens on the map. “What has it to do with you? You are the Faer Catcher! Unless that one you keep locked up has completely addled your wits, we need you to stop these damn Faer before they advance on the city!”

“And who’s going to do that? Look at us, we are old men.” I just wanted to rest in her songs. “It is not our place to man these garrisons and protect civilians. That is a young man’s job with years to lose, and we should send them out.” The generals averted their eyes from me.

“What do you think we did? Not being able to find you, we sent them into battle,” Misen’s voice was quiet, seething between clenched teeth while he leaned on the knuckles of his fists. “They all died. We don’t even know the first thing about the battle.”

“You are exaggerating. Where is Colonel Trenhak?”

“Dead.”

“And Yashin?”

“Dead.”

My eyes re-focused on the tokens that had been turned upside down on the table—signifying the forces and their last known positions. Seven battalions. My old mind could not do the math, but I could see how many faces that was, how many chins tilted into the sky as they marched the parade ground. I sunk into a chair, my rheumatic knees shaking. “By the king of the gods…”

“Can your songbird help us? Let’s bring her here, question her.”

Heat rose in my face. “You absolutely cannot bring her out of her cell—it is not safe!”

“Then we will go to her.”

“I will go.”

“You disappear into that cell for weeks at a time, Faer Catcher. Why do you think your wife left you?” One of the generals whistled at Misen’s remark.

I wanted to strangle the life out of him, but I was too old and too tired. I couldn’t get out of my seat. “You would do well to remember that you were not always King, Misen. Who carried you off the field at Pyrithian? If this is your gratitude, let the Diamorandhi overrun your arses.” I pushed to my feet.

“They will kill Schel and Julian too”.

Julian: that name rooted me to the stone. I could still see him as a baby, laughing in my arms. He now called me a disgrace. “How is he?”

“As if you care for any of us,” Misen said. “You would let us all be overrun.”

“How is he, you demon!”

“He is well. But he stands to lose his life just like the rest of us if we cannot stop the Diamorandhi.”

“I will ask her. But the Faer are tricky, not to be trusted. You should remember this.”

“This from the man who spends more weeks in her cell than in his own. I will go with you.”

“You will not you ungrateful—“

Misen’s hand moved to the singing blade he wore at his hip. “You do well to remember that I am still King. I will go with you.”

###

No whispers followed us as he and I left the throne room, walking side by side. Even the priests ceased their useless chanting. The only sound in the entire keep was our footfalls against the pavestones. I pulled him through the wall; it was clear his grasp of the Faer arts had faded.

“Dhovia, can we speak to you?” Misen said

She looked up from where she sat at the base of her tree, letting the sunlight bathe her wings. “King Misen, have you come to free me?” she addressed him, looking over my shoulder.

“The Diamorandhi have come,” I said, cutting off whatever Misen was about to say. “We need to know how to stop them.”

She smiled. Her beauty made my breath catch. She shifted into Faer-speak—images paraded through my mind as the words sang in my ears. “Of course they have.” Ghoulish beings with yellow eyes, and a terrible beauty like a well-crafted weapon haunted my mind. Unlike the Faer we had hunted, these had the colors of pale, burnished metal. Their unsettling eyes and longer teeth reminded me of the pictures of ghosts in story books.

“What is going on, what is she saying, Kidden?” I could feel the hint of fear in Misen’s voice; he was always fearful of the Faer. It had nearly been his undoing.

I was stunned to hear my name. No one had called me “Kidden” in years. Before I could translate the images and piece together the sounds into our crude language, Dhovia spoke. “They came because you called them.”

“We did no such thing!”

“Child,” Dhovia said. She stood and moved toward us flexing her wings with each deliberate step, like a lioness about to pounce. “While it is true that we extracted our tax upon your people, we did so because it sustained us. We fought the Diamorandhi on your behalf, keeping them in their place far over the Taraonawy mountains. But, now they have come. You disturbed the balance, and you will pay the price.”

“How can we stop them?”

She directed her softly glowing eyes at me. “At least one of you possesses the Faer Arts. Perhaps the blood of my brethren that you drank will help you, Faer Catcher.”

“How do you know—“

“I have listened to your lies for enough seasons. You say you love me. Love me when you watch your people burn. Love me when you watch your stone towers leveled. Love me when your wife and child have nothing to do with you. Love me when you die, mortal.” She spoke the last sentence in Faer, eyes narrowed, fangs bared, stabbing images through my soul. I resisted the images of death, rot, and decay and countered with moments of our shared tenderness. I sang of how I spared her when everyone demanded she be killed.

In a single wing beat, her body pressed me into the wall. Desire erupted from my soul to my skin; I yearned for her the way a lodestone leaps to metal. Her mouth was on mine in a ferocious kiss, her sharp canines cut into my lip with an ecstatic glimmer of pain. I ran my hands over her body, the soft shoulders, the swell of breast, the curve of hip, the bony protrusion of wings. Her love could roll back the years, erase the ache and agony. I leaned in, melting into her violent embrace. She slammed me into the wall, pinning my shoulders with her hands. She was more radiant than ever—her skin glowed like dappled sunlight through a spring forest canopy, her lithe muscles flexed with each breath. It was hard to stand. I needed to lie down, but she held me there.

“Stop this abomination!” Misen waved his hands, fretting. “The gods will punish you for this, Kidden!” Disgust played over his features. “Dhovia, why would they come now, after all these years?”

 He cowered when her gaze fell on him. “Because I called them.”

My heart exploded, filling my chest with a thousand shards of glass. “How could you? What of the balance? You know the tales, what they will do to the land—”

“It is you who disrupted the balance. I waited for you to understand, for you to see. With every passing year, you tilt the balance farther. You say you love me, but your kind do not understand love. You only understand taking. You take from me. You take my home. You take my children. You take my tribe. And so now, I take from you. Why do you forget time, Faer Catcher? Why have you forgotten your name? Why do you feel ever older, while I grow ever more vital with each encounter we have? I am going to outlive you, outlast you, and these seasons—“ she gestured to the cell—“ will be less than a moment in my lifetime. I will be released, and you will watch your city and your family burn. The Diamorandhi will have you, and their ways are not so pleasant as mine.” she drew her fingernail across my cheek, and I shivered with the cut it left in its wake.

“You cannot leave us to die. The Diamorandhi will kill you as well!” Misen screamed.

“The Diamorandhi are many things, but wise is not one of them. They will never capture me.” She lunged, grabbing Misen’s dagger. I caught her wrist, but I did not stop the strike. I thought her target was Misen. The singing steel smoked as it plunged into my chest, the magic instantly cauterizing the wound. Dhovia bared her canines as she followed my body to the floor. “If you want to live, open the wall.”

“Misen, get Schel and Julian onto a boat. Run to the other side of the world if you must. But…get…them…out.” He stood there, eyes moving between Dhovia and I, paralyzed in his fear. I whispered the words to open the cell. “Misen you oaf! Get wings on your feet and flee you gods-be-damned coward!”

Dhovia watched him run and placed her hand on my chest, withdrawing the knife. Healing fire swept through my body, wracking my chest in pain. I convulsed into coughing fits. When I could breathe, I stared into her eyes, surprised that I wanted her in spite of the betrayal still burning through me. I hated myself for loving her, for being such a fool. Tears pooled at the edges of my eyes. “King of the gods damn you, Dhovia.”

She sang a song of loss and betrayal that layered upon itself like an ocean tide. I resisted the images it spun, but eventually the waves of illusion drowned me. Schel screamed that I was a drunk and an abomination. Men I had served with—men who owed their lives to me—spat in my face. Flowers wilted in my hand. I kept trying to tell myself the Faer were the ones that knew nothing of love. But, I was the fool. Smothered by the echoes of the song, I curled my knees to my chest and let my tears pool on the stone floor.

###

Pain called me back. It surged through my feet as though they had been filled with molten metal. I opened my eyes, gasping for breath. A Diamorandhi stood over me. I had never seen one, but there was no denying what he was. His eyes were a glowering shade of merciless, stale gold; the long fangs jutted out of his lips. His hair was dyed in white streaks and braided into thick ropes of alternating white and black. I was tied to a plank, and all my bones ached. Two more Diamorandhi stood to either side of my legs, one healing them and the other cradling a blood splattered stone maul. Meeting my gaze, the maul-wielder raised his weapon and grinned. I shuddered.

“Where is Dhovia?” asked the Diamorandhi with the black and white hair.

“I don’t know. And if I did, I would tell you. You can have her.”

“Convenient denunciation.” He gestured to the maul-wielder. I screamed as he pulverized my bones with glee. I lost consciousness. I awoke to the hot, searing pain of the bones mending.

“We can do this as often as you like, Faer Catcher.”

“I don’t know where she is.”

“That’s not what I asked. I asked if you are ready to capture her again?”

“Capture her?”

“You did once. Why not again?”

“I’m old. I’m slow. I’ve already lost too many years to you damned devils.”

“We can remedy that.”

I could regain the years?

“As long as you walk our path, you will have the years you lost. But if you fail or betray us, this” he indicated the torturers, “is just the beginning. We will make this feel like lovemaking.” With his words, I could see Julian and Schel in a dungeon somewhere. Was he using my worries against me, or was the vision real? Did it matter?

“I’ll find her.”

“Good.” His face broke into the grin of a starving wolf. I shrunk against the plank. He turned to his healer. “Make him what he once was.”

There was not a shard of mirror glass left unbroken in the smoldering keep, but I needed it not. I could see the surprise and recognition in people’s eyes. It changed to revulsion when they realized that a garrison of Diamorandhi followed me. We passed the rotting corpses, the burning homes, and the wails of the survivors, as we began our hunt.

###

Dawn breaks along the eastern rim of the sky. The whiskey is empty. I don’t know what I will do when I capture Dhovia. No longer loved and unloved, no longer jailor and jailed, we are equals–both captives in a prison we created and cannot escape.

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Fear of the Dark

OK, my turn 🙂

Here are the prompts I was given as inspiration for a story:

1.) Fear of the Dark by Iron Maiden

2.) California by 2Pac featuring Dr. Dre

3.) Hurt covered by Johnny Cash

4.) A Time For Us (Love Theme From Romeo & Juliet)

5.) Poor Wayfaring Stranger 

Going into it, I didn’t expect to be inspired by any heavy metal or hip-hop. That was the music of my youth, high school rebellion/teen angst stuff. These days I’m much more mellow and melodical (yes, I know that’s not a real word, but it sounds right). Johnny’s version of Hurt is one of my favorite songs, but familiarity doesn’t breed inspiration. A Time for Us instantly brought up lots of emotions and vague images, and Poor Wayfaring Stranger did the same. But Fear of the Dark actually had a much more powerful effect.

It starts measured and controlled, before the power and rage come flying out. It instantly reminded me of one of my favorite characters, one who I created early on in my writing career and have visited on several occasions in multiple formats. He’s the unnamed man, and he has a lot of darkness in him. I felt the inspiration and ran with it. Enjoy.


 

112751_8841 Harnas knight armor full sizeFear of the Dark

The fire crackled and threw sparks high into the dark sky, followed in flight by raucous laughter and harsh voices. Tree branches swayed above like sorrowful dancers performing for an uninterested crowd. The men watched the flames, captivated by the flickering light, assured the world held nothing more dangerous than them. It had been a good day for bad men.

“That carriage twas the richest mark we hit in months.” The speaker tossed a bone into the blaze, wiping his mouth on a tattered sleeve. “Nobles have the best eatin’ and finest drink.” A wineskin passed from rough hand to rough hand.

“Those soldiers gave up right quick when they seen us pull up. Castle living makes ‘em soft.”

“Ya see tha welp piss hisself when I pwicked his cheek?”

“His ma was a right plumper.” An ugly man, with a scar across his cheek and halfway through his nose, threw another log onto the bonfire and snarled at those sprawled on the ground. “If we had the time, I woulda pricked her good.” His words held no humor but garnered several hearty cheers.

“I told yas,” a quick reply cut through the mirth, “that be bringing trouble we don’t need.” Firelight reflected orange off the armor of the man who stepped before the fire. Tall and broad-shouldered, steady in his gaze if not his walk, he casually rested a hand on his hilt. “Have your sport with the local dollops or farmers’ wives, but leave the ladies in coaches be. The lords got gold enough to lose some, but they be coming for our heads if’n we ruin their women.”

The men grumbled, but quietly. High in spirits and well supplied with drink, they had no desire to argue with their leader. He had brought them this bounty, after all, and he was an angry bugger when in his wine.

But a voice from the darkness arose in challenge. “You speak your own doom, brigand.”

“Eh?” The man’s hand gripped his hilt tight, and he craned his neck to see the speaker. “Who said that?”

A few of the less inebriated men sat up straighter, tension moving through the pack faster than the wineskin.

“Cole, you out there?” The leader called to his sentries. “Macon, you fall asleep again? You’s supposed to be keepin’ watch.”

The voice replied, drifting through the trees from a new position. “Your men are beyond earshot. They’ll not be answering any but the gods now.”

More men rose to their feet, backs to the fire and eyes straining to see into the shadows they created. Naked blades gleamed in the night.

“‘Tis a ghost!” Said a toothless drunk, quickly silenced by an elbow to his ribs.

“Don’t be no fool, Dillon,” his neighbor answered. “It be just a man playin’ with us.”

“Playing a dicey game,” the leader said loudly. “He may have got past our watch, but he didn’t get the drop on us. You hear that, stranger? You want to mess with Jarl and his boys then come into the light so we’s can see ya.”

“What if I am a ghost?” The answer echoed from everywhere and nowhere, heads pivoting to find the source. “What if I’m spirit more than man? Your fire would not reveal me.”

The shuffle of feet and creak of leather filled the silence, men turning to each other for reassurance. Jarl, a head taller than the rest, would have none of it. “Don’t be such gullible twits. I tells ya, it’s some dolt thinks he can scare us or rob us while we drunk. Lazy Bill, you and Dillon take a torch and see to Cole and Macon. The rest a yas get a brand each and clear the woods.”

“Yes, come to me.” The voice was fainter, farther away but no less powerful. No one moved.

Jarl pulled his sword. “Yas swiven maidens,” he yelled. “Get out there and cut the fool from arse to eyes!”

He slapped the back of the nearest man with the flat of his blade, and everyone jumped into action. A pair lit proper torches of pine tar from the fire and headed into the woods together. The rest either pulled out a smoldering log or grabbed a fresh stick and stuck it into the flames until it lit. One by one they spread amongst the trees.

The mysterious voice was mute, and the men filled the emptiness with bluster and curses. Jarl stayed by the fire, exhorting the laggards too drunk to get their wood to light. A grizzled old man dug a lantern out of the mess wagon, his hands shaking with the flint.

Moments passed. The darkness swallowed the roaming men, pinpricks of light appearing and disappearing behind trees. Silence returned. Then the clash of metal on metal, and a strangled scream of agony that ended too quickly.

“Bill, you out there?” Jarl asked. “Dillon?” No one answered.

Another scream, from the other side, followed by a laugh that rang like a bell.

“You’re making it too easy. I’ll save you for last, Jarl. You’ll hear them all die before I send you to hell.”

“You’ll not frighten me,” Jarl roared back. “Many have wished me to hell but none got their prayer answered.” He raised his sword defiantly. “All you men get back here. He be pickin’ you off piecemeal, you worthless louts. Come back to the fire and we’ll see how brave he be.”

The men were already streaming in, some at a trot and others walking warily, turning with every stride to cover their retreat. More clatter followed the last stragglers, the sound of heavy impacts and bodies hitting the ground. When they had regrouped, once again backs to the fire and circled in safety, their numbers were noticeably smaller.

“Ha!” Jarl paced in front of his men, his words for his own benefit as much as theirs. “Let’s see ya come into the light. Face me. Jarl ain’t afraid of nothin’, man or spirit.”

But he drew back when a shadow stepped between two trees at the edge of the clearing, the shape of a man but no light reflected off any surface, save the blade held pointed down. Several men gasped and drew tighter.

“Keep lookin’ round,” Jarl ordered. “He might not be alone. But if he is, I’ll end him soon enough.”

Jarl took a step forward but waited for the stranger to come clear of the trees. When the shadow approached it revealed itself to be quite human, a man of ordinary size in simple traveler’s garb, a cowell over his head.

Jarl raised his sword but was stopped by a word.

“No!” The stranger kept his own weapon at his side, but the command in his tone made everyone freeze, all heat from the fire sucked out of the air.

“I said you would be last.” He pulled back his hood, revealing a plain face, nothing distinctive except dark eyes, filled not with firelight but with hatred. Hatred strong enough to quail the hardened thieves gathered round. “You will live in fear until then, knowing I’ll come for you when the rest have fallen. It won’t be long, but your last moments deserve to be haunted.”

Jarl hesitated. The man’s words dripped with confidence, and he had already killed several of Jarl’s best men. Jarl was no fool. Nor was he a coward, and he knew he only lead as long as the rest feared him. “You be learnin’ you don’t always get what ya want in this world.” With a swagger he closed the distance and swung a two-handed stroke at the open neck.

But the stranger’s sword was there to block, moving faster than Jarl could follow. Jarl didn’t wait but pressed the attack with blows that had brought larger men to their knees. The stranger danced and parried, flowing like the wind to avoid the sword or striking like a whip to counter. Jarl barely felt the first slice that opened a gash on his arm, and even when the man’s blade pierced his armor and plunged deep in his belly he kept fighting. But he weakened quickly. His swipes now wild and weak. The man sidestepped and let Jarl stumble past, a backhand blow sending him to the ground.

Jarl lay still, struggling to breathe and waiting for the final blow to fall.

“Wait your turn.” The voice once again came from darkness, this time the black inside Jarl’s head.

Their leader defeated, their courage broken, several men turned and ran into the night. Those who remained were united in purpose. The man with a scar waved his arms and they spread to encircle the stranger, their only hope in numbers.

It was a false hope. The stranger became a shadow once more, dancing in and out of their midst, untouched by light or blade. He cut them down one by one, and those who tried to flee made it only a few steps before a sword took them from behind. Some dropped their weapons and begged for mercy. They found none and were culled in turn. At the end it was silent again, except for Jarl’s ragged breath and the whimper of the old man, holding his lantern as if its glow would protect him.

Jarl turned his head, vision clearing, and saw the two men facing each other. Words were exchanged. The old man nodded and lowered the lantern, opened the screen, and blew out the wick. Light left his face. He set the lantern on the ground and knelt beside it. The blow came quick, severing his head from his body, both tumbling to the earth without a sound. Jarl closed his eyes.

“Wake.” The word was accompanied by slap on the cheek. Jarl hadn’t been asleep, merely hiding from his fate, but a firm hand clenched his jaw and shook his head. “You’re not dead yet.”

Jarl blinked, the stranger only inches from him. The hatred still in his eyes.

“Who are you?” Jarl asked.

“I’m one whose women you ruined. One who seeks revenge.”

“But we didn’t. We left those ladies unharmed.” Blood sputtered over his chin. “I even called off ol’ Scratch.”

The stranger shook his head. “Today. What about yesterday? And all the days before? And what about all those village girls, the ones who have no one to avenge them? How much pain and suffering have you caused over the years?”

He grabbed Jarl by the collar of his mail shirt and yanked him upright. He moved around behind to support Jarl, who had no strength of his own, and forced his head back and forth, scanning over the bodies lying still in the grass.

“These were your men, and now you’ve lost them. But your loss is nothing compared to mine. My wife raped and tortured by bandits, my little girl cut open and left on the roadside. I loved them more than my own soul, but you felt nothing for these men who followed you in life and now lead you in death. I can’t bring you the pain I’ve felt, the pain you deserve, so I’ll give you a clean death and let the gods treat you as they will.”

“We never killed no children.” Jarl roused, tried to spin free but was held in a grip tight as iron. “You gots the wrong guy. I didn’t do it.”

The voice whispered in his ear. “It doesn’t matter who held the blade. It doesn’t matter if you were there. You all did it, and you’re all going to pay.”

The stranger plunged a thin knife between the links of Jarl’s shirt, piercing his heart. He held it in as the dying man spasmed, pulling it loose only when all movement stopped. He let the body slump to the ground and cleaned the knife on the dewy grass. Hood over his head, he walked into the trees, shadow swallowing him once more.

Death hung in the clearing, only disturbed by the crackle of fire. Soon it would fade and the carrion eaters would come. The roads would be safe for a little while, and death would find a new pack to hunt.


 

BBB AvatarBlair B. Burke writes Fantasy and Science Fiction, for young adults and those a little older. More of Blair’s short stories and thoughts on writing can be found at A Writer’s Progression.

A Visit to Ireland in March Seemed Appropriate

Thank you to this group!  I very much enjoy being nudged out of my normal routine, and getting my creative writing juices flowing.  I love the idea of being inspired by music.

Here are the prompts that Erika gave me:

1.) Heavy Metal/Hard Rock- Diary of a Madman by Ozzy Osbourne

2.) Pop/Hip-Hop- Summertime Sadness by Lana Del Rey

3.) Country/Singer-Song Writer- A Horse With No Name by America

4.) Instrumental/Soundtrack- The Rainbow Connection from The Muppet Movie (1979)

5.) Wild Card- Sleeping Beauty Waltz Part 2/5 by Tchaikovsky

Diary of a Madman was new to me, so that was great.  America’s  A Horse With No Name is a song that I’ve heard thousands of times, and can’t help sing along with.  It conjured up plenty of images that were fighting for attention.  However, I chose The Rainbow Connection because I’d had a Leprechaun story floating around for awhile, and my son’s birthday is St. Patrick’s day.  So the following is dedicated to him.  I hope you enjoy it.

A visit to Ireland

A visit to Ireland

Bixby

With a tiny pop, Marilee appeared

This first moment was always the most dangerous. She might have popped in right in front of the nose of a human, or worse a cat on the prowl. In a split second she found a hiding place in the leaves, paused to catch her breath and scanned the area. Everything she saw was green, wet, and buzzing with life. A few small birds flitted above her, a wide trail of ants marched under the tree branch behind her, and two fat bunnies chewed contentedly on a patch of vegetation nearby. With a deep release of breath Marilee recognized that there was no danger. Lucky.

Focusing on her true purpose, she allowed herself to drift down closer to the base of the tree. She knew he was here somewhere. The queen wouldn’t have sent her astray. But where? These darned Leprechauns are so difficult! Marilee thought as she closely inspected the trunk and roots. She knew they liked to tuck themselves in and pretend to be just another root, or rock or both. Out of the corner of her eye she detected movement. She looked, and waited for it. There! She watched again, slowly getting closer, holding her breath.

From somewhere above came a single water drop every twenty seconds or so. When the drop hit the bark at the tree’s base, the spot gave the tiniest little twitch. As she got closer, her eyes and mind recognized the parts of a gnarled nose and brow ridge. Drop. Twitch.

Marilee quickly covered her mouth to suppress her giggle, then screamed as the eye receiving the water drop few open, and glared at her as if she were the source of the torture. Startled, Marilee flew backward and slammed hard into the trunk of the tree. With a grunt, all air was knocked out of her lungs and she fell with a tiny plop onto the ground near a root. On her way down, she didn’t fail to notice the satisfied look that came into the eye, and another little twitch below the hook nose that must be the mouth of this hidden little man.

By the time Marilee regained her breath and courage, the eye closed again. Now finding the man in his disguise was a little easier. She saw the other eye, wrinkled and shaded under his nose. Drip. Twitch. Grunt. She looked closer, and could tell that he was using his hat as a pillow of sorts, and that his coat was covered in living moss and grass. His knees were tucked up and disguised as a low dirt mound and long rock. She couldn’t find his feet. Drip. Twitch. Growl.

Emboldened, she crept a bit closer, still attempting to discern his full use of camouflage. This time when the eye popped open, she wasn’t so startled. “So, yer awake then? Our queen thought today might be right. I been sent to fetch ye’.”

Drip. The latest drip caught him with his eye open. With a growl, he slammed it shut. “Ye’ damned pixie! The least ye’ could do is get up there and move the torturous leaf! ‘Tis kill’n me one horrid drop after another!” His voice was rough from disuse, but clear and firm in its demand.

With another giggle Marilee did as he bid, zooming up to the leaf and tucking it behind a small twig. “Better?” she waited, but he didn’t answer. “Now don’ ye’ go back to sleep, Bixby! I tol’ ye’ the queen’s a callin’ ye’ home.”

“There be nothin’ worse than bein awakn’d from a long sleep by a dammed random drip in de eye. A steady drip…. I had that woeful experience abou’ twenty years past. At least then I knew when ‘twas comin’ and could brace meself. But this… ah, ye’ only know another is comin’, and ‘tis always a terrible shock. Worst. WORST way to wake up I tell ye’ true.”

“Gosh, Bixby, why didn’t ye’ just get out o’ the way?” She held her trim little belly, sore from laughing all through his sorry complaint. He glared at her again which only caused her to laugh harder.

“Bah, ye’ don’ know nothin’. I would’ve moved had I the power. When a Lep is in deep cover, ye’ transition slow like, so as not to let anything know yer whereabouts. First, the brain an’ the ears. If all sounds right, the heart and lungs get permission to start slow and steady; pumpin’ warmth out into the extremities. Next come me eyes, but I mostly keep ‘em closed and let me nose wake up a bit. Smellin’ danger is a good skill to develop. Ye’ should think on tha’.”

Marilee got serious for a moment, and took a minute sample of the air. “I don’ smell nothing.” She noticed his eyes still on her, so she tried again. This time she noticed a bit more. “I smell earth, and somethin’ musty. Probably yerself after yer long sleep. Do ye’ bathe?”

“Truly? That’s all yer pip of a nose can find?” She shrugged.   “How you Pixies survive is beyond me.” With blurring speed, his hand came out of hiding and with a flick of his finger he sent a small lizard flying.

The motion caused Marilee to topple over backward. She didn’t realize that she had been sitting on Bixby’s arm the whole time. She caught her fall and zoomed up into the leaves.

“Ye’ can come back now.” Bixby chuckled. “Ye’ll be no lizard’s breakfast today.”

Marilee watched Bixby from her hiding place. How embarrassing! There was no way she was going back down there, at least not until her burning cheeks calmed down.

Bixby stretched and pulled more and more of his hidden body into view. “So, as I was explainin’ to ye’. It’s important to train yer nose to find danger before ye’ reveal yerself. Once yer nose says tis clear, then the muscles start to come back, and yer bones demand to be straightened.” Bixby stood and stretched his compact body. With a deep groan he grew to his full height of about eighteen inches. Marilee heard his tiny bones snap back into alignment.

She watched as he dusted the dirt and moss from his reddish brown coat and pants with his soft hat, and then carefully reformed it and fit it to his head. “Have ye’ no feet?” she called down to him.

He looked up sharply at her, and then down at his legs, which ended with ankles still deep in camouflage. “Ye’ may think me a fool, young Pix, but I’m no goin’ to reveal me most prized possession until I know fer sure da area is clear of thieves. Fer all I know, ye’ aren’t here for the queen, but for yer own greedy purposes.”

“Ha! What would I do with some ol’ set o’ leprechaun feet! An’ the name be Marilee.”

“Ye’ are a dense one, Marilee. It’s no’ me feet that I’m hidin’. It’s me fine shoes!” With a jump, Bixby pulled his feet above ground and displayed a soft rich pair of gold buckled, leather shoes.

“Ohhh, weel, they are nice, but they’ll no’ fit me anyway.” Marilee looked down at her bare feet and wiggled her toes at Bixby.

“Do ye’ not own yer own shoes, Marilee? Or did ye’ dance them away at the last Ceili?” He did a little jig and smiled up at her. She wasn’t smiling back. “What’s the matter? I could make ye’ some fine slippers ye’ know.”

“Oh, ‘tis nothin’ . I have shoes. I don’ seem to be very good at dancin’ though. Not many be askin’ for a twirl. I’ve never worn out any slippers.” She tucked her chin and looked away from him.

“Bahhh! Fools! I’d dance with ye’. I’m no’ afraid o’ a little thing with wings.” Arms akimbo, Bixby called her down to him. “Let me have a closer look at ye’.”

“Na. Ye’ve seen me close.” She peaked at him over her shoulder.

“I’m not movin’ til ye’ get yerself down here. Ye’d better move, girl, or the queen’ll have yer head for not fetchin’ me back.” He crossed his arms over his stout chest and waited.

With a glare, Marilee lit from the branch and floated down in front of him. “Well?” They stared at each other, and she could feel the blood rushing up to her cheeks. Never in her life had she let anyone inspect her like this.

Bixby smiled, and let softness come into his eyes as he appreciated her fine form. Before her eyes, his skin lost the look of tree bark, and the moss in his short beard disappeared.   A deep blush filled his cheeks when he noticed how closely Marilee was inspecting him. “Well, yerself!” He coughed and looked away, suddenly interested in the tree bark, and moss before him. “Awww, young Marilee, ye’must fergive this haggard old Lep. I been alone longer than ye’ve been alive.” He could see that she was appeased. “So, why does the queen want me now, after all these years guardin’ our gold, and and makin’ o’ the best shoes she’s ever seen.” His eyes perked wide. “Is that it? Does the queen need new slippers?”

“Do ye’ really think the queen needs another pair o’ shoes? All I know is that I’m to fetch ye’, and that we’re to take the Rainbow Connection back. I’ve no’ enou’ dust to carry us both.” She hoped he didn’t catch her lies.

“Oh, well, if tis no’ fer me shoes, ‘tis another reason then?” He glanced again at her to find the strangest look come over Marilee’s face. She screamed, disappeared, and for a confused Bixby, the recognition of danger came seconds too late.

In seeming slow motion his body recognized the absence of bird song. He turned and saw the backs of the fleeting rabbits before everything went black. His feet were yanked from beneath him and he tumbled not knowing up from down. Slowly his eyes made out the light coming in through rough seams, and he stopped struggling. He was caught, and caught good.

First time in one hundred and thirty-two years he allowed himself to be distracted. With a sigh, he realized there’d be hell to pay. The bag shook, and he heard a muffled voice. “I’ve been waiting fer a long time, and finally I’ve got what I been lookin’ for. You!” Bixby closed his eyes and wished that he’d stayed asleep today.

Marilee watched a huge thin man sweep Bixby into a dark sack, shake it a few times, and with a satisfied smirk walk away into the woods. From a safe distance, she followed them. Unbidden tears trailed down her cheeks as she realized that it was because of her that he had put down his guard and been captured.

**********************************************

            “Open ye’ eyes! You can’t fool me, Little Man! I know yer in there plottin’ how to escape. Let me tell ye’ now I been thinkin’ on this, and I won’ let ye’ escape or fool me into lettin ye’ go. I’ll have my three wishes this day!” With a nasty cackle, the tall man exposed his brown teeth, and rancid whisky breath. He reached in and grabbed Bixby by the leg and drew him roughly out of the bag.

“Oh aye, sir! Don’ mind me. Twas a peaceful trip, rockin’ along in that warm, dark bag. Felt like I was in me mother’s arms and fell right to sleep.” Bixby yawned, stretched, then made like he’d forgotten his manners. “Excuse me, sir. Oh, wise and tricky human. As that is what you surely must be, since you were able to catch me today.” He snapped to attention, and with a fancy flourish removed his cap and bowed before his captor. “How may I be o’ service to ye’, sirrrr?”

“Now tha’s better, showin’ the proper respect. But don’ go gettin’ tricky. I know not to take me eyes off ye’, and I know no’ to let ye’ distract me from my wishes. So… I know exactly what I want, and ye’ will listen silently to me three wishes, grant me dose wishes, and only then ye’ll be free. Do I make meself understood?”

With a twitch to his mouth, and a twinkle in his eye, Bixby silently bowed, then straightened, ready to do his bidding. “Right. Now as I was sayin, I don’ wanna hear a peep out o’ you. Here are me wishes: Me first wish is to never have to chop wood again. You will magically provide me with a full log pile so every time I need to refuel me fire, I will see that me log pile is no’ diminished for me whole life!” The man glared at Bixby, and Bixby nodded and smiled back. “Me second wish is to have a magical horse that nev’r needs t’ be fed, stall nev’r needs t’ be mucked, and his strength must no diminish!” Feeling quite pleased with himself, and with Bixby who remained perfectly silent so far, the tall man continued. “Finally, I wish that ye’, Mr. Leprechaun, provide me with a pot of solid gold that will nev’r be emptied. I will have that pot remain full, no matter how much I take out!”

The tall man proudly puffed out his chest. He hadn’t taken his eyes off Bixby, but the wildness of anticipation was making it difficult. “Well? Do it then!”

“As you wish, sir, and have a fine and wonderful life enjoying the amazin’ and wonderful benefits of yer wise and well thought out wishes.” With that Bixby jumped up twirled, snapped his fingers three times, and turned his back on the man and began to walk away.

Startled and expectant, the man turned to view the granting of his three wishes. He saw it all in an instant. The wood pile, the horse, and the pot of gold were all there. Falling to his knees the man wailed into his hands. “Nooooo!”

Marilee saw all this and zoomed in to float next to his shoulder. “Are ye’ alright, Bixby? I’m so sorry I made you get caught!”

“Naaa! Me little pixie, that was quite diverting. What a fool!” Bixby allowed himself to laugh, but didn’t turn around to view the scene behind him. “Bixby, why is he so unhappy? Did you not give him what he wished for?”

“Well, he wished fer a magical wood pile that provides him a lifetime supply.   ‘Tis probably not all stacked as yet, but that may take some time.” Marilee looked over her shoulder, and noticed that behind the cabin was a growing pile of chopped wood. In fact what a few moments ago looked like a well stocked bunch of logs was beginning to look like a growing lumber yard, that gave no signs of stopping. It had already taken over the garden and was expanding out into the woods.

She giggled and turned back to Bixby. “Oh, I see. But what abou’ the horse? Could he no’ use it t’ haul the wood an’ sell it?”

“Geez, Marilee, have I no’ taught ye’ a thing? Use yer nose, girl!” She gave a good sniff, and instantly regretted it. A horrible stench filled her nose and she felt like she would retch. “Oh, aye. That was a good wish don’ ye’ think? The only horse that never needs feed’n or muck’n is a dead one! An de only strength dat won’ be diminished would be the smell of its rottin’ flesh! Ewww!” Bixby clutched his belly, laughing heartily and began to walk faster away from the scene still unfolding behind them.

“That was a disgusting trick, Bixby, but that ugly man deserved it. Maybe he will figure a way to solve his problems with his pot o’ gold.” Marilee looked over at Bixby who had fallen down now and was rolling in gales of laughter on the ground. “Bixby! You old trickster! What did you do now?”

Catching his breath, “A pot…o’ gold…solid!” Laughing and choking, eyes watering, Bixby couldn’t continue. Confused but starting to laugh herself, Marilee tried to make sense of his words. “Never empty!…Ever!” Bixby rolled over onto his stomach and laughed into the soft grass.

“What is it, Bixby!” Marilee demanded. “I don’ understand. Isn’t that exactly what he wanted?”

She waited some moments for his shoulders to stop shaking as he gained control over his mirth, rolled over, and looked up at her floating above his chest. “He got what he wished for young Marilee. A pot o’ solid gold that can nev’r be emptied! Get it?”

Slowly understanding washed over her. “Ohhh, so he can no get the gold out o’ the pot? Is that yer trick Bixby?”

“Aye, and that pot is abou’ that size of a Pixie’s purse!” He collapsed again into laughter, proud of his tricks on the stupid human. “He made it so easy!”

“Come along, Bixby. ‘Tis time to catch yer rainbow back to the queen.” She tugged on his coat sleeve.

“Is it possible, Marilee, that she sent ye’ because she has plans fer us?” He looked at her. A solemn, worried look crossed his brow.

“Oh aye, she has her plans.” Marilee blushed, but continued to hold his sleeve. “Well, the Rainbow Connection is very special, young Marilee. Only a select few can use it.” He smiled as he realized that he wasn’t the only one who had quickly fallen in love. “Who?” “Lovers, Dreamers, and now We.” He took her gently into his hand as a rainbow appeared next to them. He smiled into her eyes, and walked them into the light.

Last in Line, One Last Time

Thanks to Erika for asking me along for another round of prompts! This time everything was based on music, with the following to select from:

1.) Heavy Metal/Hard Rock- The Last in Line by Ronnie James Dio
2.) Pop/Hip-Hop- Angel in Blue Jeans by Train
3.) Country/Singer Song Writer- I Hope You Dance by Lee Ann Womack
4.) Instrumental/Soundtrack- The Lonely Shepherd from Kill Bill Vol. 1
5.) Wild Card- The Original Theme from Sesame Street TV Series

I was very tempted by the wild card, but in the end it was ‘The Last in Line’ by Dio that really got to me. Probably because I have an unhealthy obsession with what happens to us after we die, but this story popped into my head and wouldn’t let go until it was written.

Just a warning, things to get a bit dark in the middle (and if you don’t like bombings, please be careful reading) but as always I try and get to the light at that end of the tunnel.


LAST IN LINE, ONE LAST TIME

They say time has no meaning to the dead. This is a lie. Time doesn’t vanish when you cross that line between living and not. It simply becomes less meaningful. There are no clocks to glance at. No ticking beating at your ears. Most of the dead simply ignore the passage of time.

I, however, did not.

I sat on a bench overlooking a sunken plaza. It was either sunset or sunrise, the light dim enough to be either, the air neither hot nor cold. A long line snaked through the plaza. It’s beginning disappeared through a set of double doors at the far end leaving the back end exposed.

The line moved constantly, people arriving singly, in pairs, sometimes even in larger groups, but never seeming to actually make the line longer by their presence. An old man appeared, followed by a woman wearing a pantsuit and one shoe. Over the man’s head bright letters flared declaring his name as John Schmidt and the cause of death ‘heart attack’. The woman’s name was Coleen Chen. She’d been hit by a train.

Both flinched when a smiling man with a clipboard appeared besides them. I couldn’t hear what Aiden told them from my seat, but I saw the man tense while the woman burst into a brief bout of tears that dried before I could do more than blow one bubble of my Very Cherry Bubble Yum.

The gum smacked against my teeth as I sucked it in. Aiden handed Coleen a slip of blue paper and John a slip of red. I fingered my own slip. It was as black as the bench I sat on, nothing to mark it except for the creases my fingers had worried in it over time.

It had said something once. I’d refused to read it. I wasn’t going through that line. Not yet.

From the way John’s face went as red as his slip I knew Aiden had gotten to the part about what the colors meant.

Red for the bad. The ones who’d died with something ugly on their conscious.

Blue for the good. The ones who’d died without doing anything too sinful if not having done anything particularly good.

No one’s slip was meant to be black. I blew another bubble and watched Coleen’s shoulders relax. Guess that made me special. I watched a few more appear. A boy who’d died of cancer. A girl who’d slit her wrists. Four victims of the same car accident. All got blue slips.

Bored, I stood and made my way down the stairs along the outside of the stone wall surrounding the sunken plaza. The stairs lost shape, lost their mindless sameness the further I went, until I had to go down backwards, hands gripping the steps above while my feet groped for the steps below.

No one besides me came this way. Not even Aiden. The sun didn’t brighten, the grey and blue of the sky never changed even though I was well past a count of 5,000 Mississippi by the time I reached the bottom.

Dusting my hands off I looked at the craggy wasteland stretched out in front of me. Aiden said I was insane to come down here. That I would never find who I was looking for.

The bugger could piss off.

I couldn’t exactly die trying. Not now. So why not continue the search?

The way I saw it, he had to be out here somewhere. There had to be a door back to him. I couldn’t find him that day, but I sure as hell would find him now. Hunching my shoulders, I put the earbuds back into my ears, the sounds of Easy Rider making my head bob as I started my trek.

This was my 75th journey down here. Each had ended with me back on that bench, watching Aiden, an unopened pack of Very Cherry Bubble Yum in my pocket and “I’m Gonna Walk 5,000 Miles” blasting from the iPod.

No matter how I tried, the memories of how I’d ended back up there stayed locked up tight, the only sign I’d been anywhere the extra creases in my black slip and the dust on my boots.

I kept plugging at it though. I had no desire to learn whether I’d died good or bad. All I wanted was OUT.

“One Mississippi,” I breathed as I walked. “Two Mississippi.”

Faulty memory of the end of each journey aside, I could say with absolute certainty that I’d been down here ten years, six months, five days, seven hours, and fifteen minutes. Counting kept me sane. Kept the fire burning in my gut.

By 4,000 Mississippi I had reached a giant lake. Various journeys said there was nothing in the lake but water, nothing to the east but forest, and nothing to the west but an endless plain of grass. No birds soared, no fish swam, no crickets creaked. The one sound was the music in my ears and swish of my jeans against the waving stems of grass I trampled.

Pulling my boots off I dove in. The water parted before me, feet and hands sliding as smoothly as tail and fins, propelling me forward. Barely a count of 500 Mississippi passed before I was at the northern most edge of the lake. Here countless pairs of boots (all my black, knee high Maddens) sat in messy lines.

To anyone else they’d have been a sign of futility. To me they were a sign that something in this godforsaken place changed. Even if it did it’s best to convince me otherwise. The sand around the lake faded into shale, then concrete. My breath began to quicken. This was new. I couldn’t remember encountering anything manmade before.

Pulling the last piece of gum clear I used a rock to anchor the packet right on the edge of the concrete lip. There was no other sign I’d been here yet. No human element but me and the concrete lane leading down a gradually steepening hill.

“One Mississippi.”

Count again established I walked. The concrete was warm under my bare feet, a strange contradiction to the temperature-less water and air. I stuck to the center where in the alive world a white or yellow line would break the expanse.

I had no expectation of anything, so the rumble took a long time to process. A nervous feeling, like the quiver against violin strings drawn by new violinists during their first warm up with the Metropolitan Orchestra, started in my belly and traveled upward.

I slowed and pulled an earbud free. Music muted, the rumble became more intense, a counter vibration up my legs to the nervous fluttering in my abdomen. Slowly, emerging around a curve I hadn’t noticed before, came a flame red Mustang. Headlights powered through the gloom and I stopped.

“No fucking way,” I whispered, then yelled it. “No fucking way!”

Nerves turned to joy, a swift BOOM BOOM POW in my heart. I ran, pelting towards the driver side door as the car’s throaty roar cut off and the door began creaking open.

“Jack!” I tripped, nothing catching at my toes. Palms slapped the hood as I tilted forward. I reveled in the pure HEAT pouring through dead skin and rebounded, using the hood to slide around the side.

The door slammed and there he was. Jack Parson. His smile lit up the sky. His figure huge and imposing in a world of gray.

“Hello, darling,” he said and caught me in his crushing embrace. Smells—whiskey and horses and Jack—slid themselves up my nose and I gasped drawing them deeper into my lungs.

Tears rose and I flung them away from me, fingers buried in the softness of his sweatshirt. “I found you. I found you. I found you.” Counts of Mississippi forgotten I repeated those words over and over until with a laugh, Jack tipped me back.

“How do you know I didn’t find you?” he asked.

That made me smile. “Because you’ve always been terrible at finding things. Don’t see why being dead would change that.”

I knew the words were the wrong thing to say when his always relaxed posture stiffened, the hands around my arms tightening. “What?” he asked.

Doesn’t he know? I knew. Even before Aiden told me.

“We’re dead.” I kept breathing in the scent of him; each hit a piece of home.

“Bullshit.”

The word fell between us and I pulled away. Foreboding turned the oxygen to carbon dioxide before it could even reach my lungs. This felt familiar. Terribly familiar.

I stared into those dark eyes that I had always known better than my own and suddenly we weren’t standing on an empty highway, the Mustang besides us, but in the center of a busy city street.

A boom split the air and a building disintegrated, glass like terrible snowflakes caught in a blizzard howling down upon us. People screamed and ran, the smell of burning flesh and scorching metal realer than anything. A piece of glass bigger than my arm speared a girl through the back and she fell. I didn’t move. Couldn’t have. I watched the red seep from her, watched it stain the asphalt.

I’d seen this before. Been here before.

When I’d died.

That was me, lying there. My blood staining the ground. I’d landed on my stomach, earbuds knocked free, hands feebly attempting to roll myself over, eyes wide and frightened even as they dimmed.

“What is this?” I whispered. “Jack, what is this?”

I turned, but he was no longer besides me; the street empty of anything but panic and destruction.

“Jack!” I whirled in a circle doing my best to ignore the panic rising in the back of my own throat like sludge. Ignoring the movements of my old body ceasing. What had I even been doing down here that day? I didn’t work downtown. I never even left the suburbs if I could help it.

But I’d come. I’d been walking across this street for a reason.

Bundling the panic into a ball, I started to walk, then run. Jack. I’d come here because of Jack.

The ‘why’ of his being here remained stubbornly out of my reach as I hurried. Another building exploded. People veered every which way. Their mouths opened, but my ears were deadened to their screams, the only sound I could hear a giant roar. A piece of falling building crushed a car and I stopped. Just stopped.

I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t. Why were they making me see this? “I died good,” I whispered. “I died good!” I tore the slip out of my pocket, scrubbing at the black. It was blue. I knew it had been.

The black came off like soot now, coating my fingers. I stilled. Stared. Because the slip wasn’t blue. It wasn’t red. It was some strange mix of both. The colors seeped into one another without ever becoming purple; red lines and blue lines intermingling and tangling until it was hard to make out any color at all.

It didn’t make any sense. Pushing down a scream I shoved it back into my pocket. Somewhere a child sobbed, a man wailed, an alarm railed against the destruction.

Jack will fix this, I thought. He’ll know what’s happening.

The sound disappeared, everything stilling as those words rattled there way through my head. “Jack,” I spoke slow, testing the words, “will know what’s happening.”

A pause, the rest coming to me like the dawning of a blood-red sun.

“Because he caused this.”

The street disappeared. I stood in a grungy apartment. Our grungy apartment. He stood at the sink, speaking to someone on the phone. “It’s all set, man,” he said softly. “We just have to pull the trigger and those bastards pay. Pay big.”

Numbness spread through me as the words did. Turning, knowing what I would see, I saw myself sprawled on the couch, body stiff even though my eyes were closed in a mockery of sleep.

I’d heard him that day. Heard every word even though he’d been convinced I’d been sleeping. But instead of going to the police I’d followed him. Using the bus because we only had one car. Arriving at the address I’d seen scrawled in his messy handwriting along with a sheave of other notes, plans, pictures, shoved in the bottom of his desk drawer, seconds before it had blown sky-high. He hadn’t even attempted to hide them from me. They’d been there all that time if I’d only looked.

But I hadn’t. Not until it was too late.

“Oh, Jack,” I whispered. “Why did you do this?”

He didn’t answer; just kept talking, voice growing angrier and darker. “They destroyed us,” he said to the person on the other end. “They fucking deserve to die a bloody, bloody mess.”

A laugh left him and I watched my body twitch on the sofa, remembered the chills that laugh sent through me. I didn’t feel them now. Now rage grew, pulsing through my veins. I fingered the edges of the card in my pocket. There had to be a reason I was back here. Was seeing this.

I needed to make a decision. A better one. I walked over to my body, sinking onto the coffee table, making sure my knees didn’t brush my body’s arm.

“Don’t follow him,” I told my body. “Just call the fucking police.”

The sound of the phone slamming down made us both jerk. Footsteps thumped the floorboards and Jack appeared. He crouched down, brushed the hair from my body’s forehead with a gentleness that was at total odds to the explosive anger of the telephone Jack.

“Darling?” he whispered. “I’ve gotta go out.”

My body blinked her eyes, playing down the confused horror as sleepiness. “Go?” My body’s voice cracked. “Go where?”

Jack’s lips pulled into a smile. The bastard, I thought.

“I’ve got something to do. I should be home early though. I was thinking we could go to the lake that you like. Pack a picnic?” He nibbled at my body’s neck, not noticing the revulsion in my eyes.

“Sure,” my body squeaked, eyes darkening. “Sounds wonderful.”

It sounded horrible.

I watched Jack kiss my body, sure I’d have thrown up if I’d been physically capable. But I hadn’t so much as swallowed a piece of gum in over ten years. We both watched Jack leave and I watched, silent, as my body lurched upright and went straight to the second bedroom/closet we used as our office.

I’d known exactly where to find his notes. Known exactly where they’d be.

The knowledge sickened me.

“Call the police,” I instructed from the doorway as my body sank in a heap besides the desk. Tears ran down her face, but there was no pity left in me. “Call them right now, you stupid, stupid, bitch!”

Instead, I watched her pull on the black Madden boots, the denim jacket, iPod in one pocket, Very Cherry Bubble Yum in the other, folded bills and I.D. in the back pocket of my jeans.

“People are going to die,” I told her. “And it will be all your fault.”

Despair closed over me, cold and heavy. It couldn’t end like this. It couldn’t. I couldn’t die with this on me. I knew that as well as I knew that the card in my pocket wouldn’t allow me down either path. I couldn’t follow the reds or the blues.

Aiden’s voice came to me then, his sharp little face so clear it felt like he was in the room with me. “You can wait to be last in line,” he said. “Or you can find a way to make peace with where you are. It’s up to you.” He’d said that to me every time I’d gotten frustrated and bored and approached him. He’d never looked at me, always intent on the red and blue slips he passed out, eyes on every new person to enter the line.

Now his words took on extra meaning. I could wait. Or I could act. I’d been trying to act this entire time, but in the wrong direction. I stared at my back, watching my hands flip my hair out of the way.

And for the first time, I reached for my body. My arms slid around my back, my face burrowing into my hair. I drug the scent of me into my lungs (rose from my shampoo, Cheeto dust from lunch) and sank into my body. For a moment everything doubled: two views of the door from slightly different angles, the sensation of arms both on mine and wrapped within mine. And then I dragged in the first real breath I’d taken since I died. I smelled the mold, the slightly rotten smell of old food and dirty laundry and never cleaned carpets.

I staggered back from the door, heart stuttering in my chest, lungs and limbs shaking. The phone. I wobbled, unsteady, into the kitchen and grabbed the landline. It had been installed decades again, the plastic worn and sweaty. I mashed three buttons. Listened as a voice answered. Took another breath…

…and changed everything.

Domestic Threats

Kimberly here, of http://www.kimberlyemerson.com. I can’t get enough of short stories lately, so when Erika asked me to participate in This One Time…at Writers Group’s new challenge, of course I said yes. I got the following five pieces of music for inspiration:

1.) Heavy Metal/Hard Rock- Breaking the Law by Judas Priest

2.) Pop/Hip-Hop- The Heart Wants What it Wants by Selena Gomez

3.) Country/Singer Songwriter- Oh Very Young by Cat Stevens

4.) Instrumental/Soundtrack- Pirates of the Caribbean (1)- The Curse of the Black Pearl

5.) Wild Card- The Happy Birthday Song (traditional)

I listened to all of them (sans videos, just as requested). First, I discovered that Happy Birthday sounds a little creepy heard out of context. Don’t know why. Beyond that, I toyed with a story based on the Selena Gomez song, but finally ended up drawn to the theme from Pirates of the Caribbean. A pirate story! I decided the swashbuckler in my head was too literal, and thought to myself, who are the modern day pirates? Hmm…instead of the high seas, most of them sit behind a computer somewhere…

IMG_0404

DOMESTIC THREATS

Phillip Rainier banged his cup down on the desk, splashing drops of black coffee on the keyboard.

His administrative assistant poked her head around the partially open door. “Mr. Rainier? Is there a problem?”

“Get me the head of IT. Now.”

Less than a minute later, Tomas Garcia walked into his office. Rainier didn’t look up. “Shut the door.” As soon as he heard the door close, he wheeled his chair back from the desk so Garcia could see his computer screen. “Read this.”

The IT guru stood over his shoulder, keeping a very respectful distance away, which was wise. Rainier  would have loved an excuse to smash something. They both read the 48-point font.

THIS IS YOUR LAST WARNING. A PUBLIC STATEMENT THAT YOU WON’T LAY OFF ANYONE ELSE THIS YEAR, OR YOUR NEW CHEMOTHERAPY FORMULA GOES ON WIKIPEDIA.

P.S. YOUR LATEST BONUS GOES UP TOO.

Rainier rounded on his employee. “Who the hell is sending these? Why haven’t you found them?”

Garcia twitched beneath his white collared shirt. “I don’t know, Mr. Rainier. I’ve had my whole team on it, and we’ve got nothing. They come in on your email, from your email. There’s no trail from other servers.”

“Do you think it’s Anonymous?”

Rainier’s employee shook his head. “Anonymous wouldn’t have made the threat this private. Their ultimatum would have made the rounds on Twitter by now. Are you sure no one else has access to your email account?”

“I’ve changed the password three times in the last week. The last one was fifteen characters including numbers, capitals, an asterisk and two dollar signs.”

Garcia raised his eyebrows. “You have that written down somewhere?”

Rainier tapped his shirt pocket. “I keep it with me all day. It goes in my desk drawer at night. My wife is sick of finding ink marks on my shirt pockets, but I can’t remember them all anymore.”

“And you’re sure your house is secure?”

“I run a multi-billion dollar company, Garcia! I have better security than the President!” It wasn’t an exaggeration. Rainier paid the security bill every month before he paid his health insurance. When he considered threats to his health, heart attacks were a distant second to long range rifles.

Garcia sighed. “Perhaps we’re overstating the threat here, Mr. Rainier. We have patents on our formulas. Even if the formula went public, no reputable company would be able to use it.”

“Not this one.” Rainier tapped his fingers on the oak desk. “I talked to Legal yesterday morning. It won’t be final till next week, at the earliest.” The conversation had ruined his breakfast. Screaming at the phone and pounding on the table had produced no result save spilling orange juice on his daughter Miranda, who’d had to run upstairs and change into something less citrusy.

“Perhaps we need security on the formula.”

Rainier rose to his feet and smacked both hands on the desk. “Where do you think I’ve been keeping it? In a fake rock on my porch?” He walked away to resist the urge to punch Garcia. “It’s under the tightest possible security right now. I have a backup of the formula at home, just in case there’s a huge computer disaster, but that’s the only place it exists outside the lab. The entire lab staff knows it’s worth more than their lives to leak it.”

Garcia looked about a half second from making a run for it. “Well, at least you don’t have to worry about the bonus thing. That’s stated in the company financial reports, isn’t it?”

The stare Phillip Rainier gave his employee caused the man to take two steps back. “Not everything is listed in the financials, Garcia. Not that anything illegal is going on, of course.” That I’ll admit to you, anyway. “There are just things the public doesn’t need to know.”

Garcia coughed. “Of course, sir.” He scooted closer to the door. “I don’t know what else we can do.”

“We were planning a round of layoffs next week. We can’t afford not to.”

“But if we release this new chemo drug, we should make money off it, right?”

“If the research holds up like we think it will, and it causes significantly less nausea than the usual stuff, yes. But I can’t guarantee that right now.”

Garcia’s wrung his hands so fast they looked like a blur in front of his stomach. “Um, Mr. Rainier? Maybe you should call their bluff. You said the formula is secure. Just don’t react to the email.”

It was Rainier’s turn to cough.

Garcia’s eyes bugged out. “They sent proof they have it?”

“An early version of the formula. Not perfect, but close enough.”

Silence reigned for the next two minutes. At last, Garcia swallowed audibly. “I think you might have to give them what they want, sir.”

“What? How do I explain that to the shareholders, Garcia? Sorry, decreased dividends for you folks. They’ll sell before they hit the door.”

“Maybe senior management could give up bonuses this year.”

“Garcia, you’re – “ Rainier almost said he was fired, and then stopped himself. For all he knew, Garcia could be the one sending the emails. He had access to everything. Fire Garcia, and the formula would probably be on Wikipedia by lunchtime. He cleared his throat. “You’re probably right. I’ll find a way. Get back to work.”

Garcia didn’t need to be told twice.

Feeling like an idiot, Rainier called the head of Public Relations. “I want a statement out to the media this morning, out to all major media outlets. No new layoffs for Rainier Industries this year. Yes, I know what that means! Just do it!

A buzz on her phone told Miranda Rainier that CNN had a headline with her father’s company in it. “No New Layoffs for Rainier,” it announced.

She texted the link to her best friend’s phone and added the message, Relax. Your mom’s job is safe.

A text came back immediately. OMG! I have to call mom. All good till next year.

She’ll be fine next year too. Don’t worry.

If her father started keeping all his important stuff in a bank vault instead of his top drawer, she might have a problem, but Miranda didn’t think that would ever happen. Dad didn’t trust strangers.

Me-at-Court-of-Two-SistersKimberly Emerson is currently working on one novel, seeking representation for another, and considering a twelve step group for her short story habit. Okay, that’s not true, she’s entering short story contests, but when you think about it, that’s kind of the same thing. Her cat Zoe wishes Kimberly great literary success, because humans make much better cat servants when they work at home. Make her cat happy and subscribe to her blog, http://www.kimberlyemerson.com.

This One Time…..At Book Club…

A few weeks ago, I found myself in the company of Erika, Wendy, and our wonderful friend and hostess Karen at our book club meeting in beautiful San Diego.  Karen had a social event to attend, and Erika and Wendy were relishing the idea of getting some writing time in.  Not wanting to leave me out, they provided me with the following prompts:
Amy- The red of strawberry jam.
Cam- He said no.
Erika- The owl and the pussycat went to sea.
Jen- Why does someone have to die?
Wendy- This morning I woke up with a superpower.
This is where to torture began….I had prompts, a pen, and a small notebook.  My mind, grappling with these prompts, moved a lot faster than my pen in a tiny notebook.  Wendy and Erika were happily typing away on their computers, and I felt like there was a traffic jam of ideas getting caught in the narrow points of two finger tips on one little pen.  I don’t know how authors of old did it!!!!  I needed my keyboard and all 10 fingers going like crazy.  Frustrated, I gave up, and just let the ideas rumble around until I got home 2 DAYS later.  Finally my computer and I were reunited… my family had to wait – sorry kids – and the following arrived so quickly that I couldn’t stop to add punctuation.  Thank you Jen, your prompt was the pushiest and got out first.
Why?
by Monica Roberts

Ohhh!

Hi Mom.

Hi Sweetie, what a nice hug. Let me put down this last dish, and I’ll give you a proper hug.

Mom…

Ok here I am. Give me a squeeze. hmmmmmmmm.

Mom…

Yeah Babe?

Why does someone have to die?

Whoa – Where did that come from? Grandma again?

No.

Then what brought this on?

I dunno. It’s just everywhere.

Awwww Sweetie. Do you want to go out back and talk about it?

I guess.

Common, I think that bench swing will hold us both.

bench

Ok Charlie, what’s on your mind?

I already told you. I don’t get why someone always has to die?

Well Charlie, it’s not just someone. It’s everyone.

I know…..but I don’t want you to die, I don’t want anyone to die. I don’t want to die, why do we all have to die?!

Come a little closer.. That’s better. I’m going to answer your question, but first I want to talk about something a little less morbid. Tell me about some of your favorite things.

Video games… puppies….ummm… riding my bike.

What about roller coasters? I thought you loved roller coasters.

OH YEAH!

You’re constantly asking to go to Great America.

I love roller coasters!

What is it that you love about roller coasters?

I like going real high and then real fast and then upside down. I feel like I might fly off the tracks or crash. It’s sooooo scary!

Roller coaster

It makes my heart feel like it’s going to jump out of my chest. Does it do that to you?

Yep!

OK, so you like roller coasters, video games, puppies and riding your bike. Anything else?

I like lots of things.

OK name one more thing.

PIZZAAAA!

Mmmmm, I like pizza too. I love most food actually. OK, back to your question. Do you know what immortality is? What it is to be immortal?

Yeah, I think so. There is an Immortal on one of my games. He never dies. I wanna be like that.

Right. To be immortal means that you can never die. So do you want to be immortal or do you want everyone to be immortal?

Everyone – well at least everyone in our family.

Well that’s nice of you. What do you think it would be like to be immortal?

It would be so cool! You would never be afraid of anything.

Could you ever get hurt?

Nope!

Could you ever die of starvation?

Nope!

Would you ever grow old?

Nope!

Would you ever get too cold or too hot?

Nope – nothing could hurt you.

What would happen if all of us immortals kept having babies?

Nothing.

Really? We would just keep having children and no one would die?

Sure why not?

I don’t know. I’d think it would get a little crowded, don’t you?

I guess.

crowd2

So maybe immortal people would stop having children after awhile.

Yeah, if there are too many people, maybe there wouldn’t be enough food or houses and stuff.

Right, but you said we wouldn’t starve to death, so maybe we wouldn’t have to eat anyway. I wouldn’t have to cook anymore.

We could still order pizza!

Well if I don’t have to cook, no one else would have to cook. I wonder if all the restaurants would close.

No more pizza?

No more need for food. Wow. Just think of how many people wouldn’t have to work, if they didn’t have to buy food. Hey, you said that we would never get cold. We wouldn’t need a house. We could camp out every night, and never be uncomfortable.

sleep

Mom…. I like my bed.

Wow Charlie. If you didn’t have to work to pay for food, or to pay rent or buy a house, you wouldn’t have to go to college. You wouldn’t have to go to school at all.

Mom…. I like school. And you’re a teacher, what would you do?

I don’t know. Just have fun I guess. We could go to Great America every day.

Oh. Ok.

Hey, I just thought of something. If we were all immortal, nothing could hurt us.

Yep.

So nothing could scare us, because we wouldn’t be afraid of anything. Right?

Right.

Then I wouldn’t be afraid of The Drop Zone anymore. I could go on it whenever I wanted. Would you still like going on roller coasters?

Sure. I guess so.

Would they still be scary and make your heart beat fast if you knew you couldn’t be hurt or killed even if you did crash?

I think I would still like going fast, but maybe it would get boring after awhile.

Yeah. I guess you’re right. I might get bored too. So what do you think you would want to do?

I don’t know. I could still play video games.

I guess. Well, you said you liked puppies. We could have some animals. Would they be immortal too?

Sure. I don’t want my pets to die either.

Yeah. It’s always hard to say goodbye when they get too old or sick.

Hmmm. Mom? Do you think dogs would stop having puppies too?

Well, it makes sense I guess. If people stopped having babies, animals would probably stop having babies too.

Mom… I’m not sure I want to be immortal anymore.

Really? Why not? I’m just warming to the idea. No more fear, no more hunger, no more danger, no more need to work. We wouldn’t need anything.

heaven

Mom… listen to yourself. No more rollercoasters. No more pizza. No more school. And no more babies or puppies! It would be terrible!

But Charlie, there would be no more death. No one would have to die. That was the original problem. Remember?

Yeah but…What happens when you die?

Well, I don’t really know. Some people believe that we go to Heaven. But in Biblical Heaven, there is only love, there is no more death, hunger, or pain.

It sounds like everyone is immortal there.

Yes it does. Some people believe that we are born again or reincarnated as something or someone else, like a bird or fish or another person.

That’s cool. I’d totally want to be an eagle or something.

Ohh me too, I’d love to be able to fly. Ya know, some people believe there is no Heaven or Hell and death is just the end of life.

Hmmm. What do you believe Mom?

Charlie, I believe that death is the price we pay for the joy of being alive. For me, life on Earth is Heaven. I have the joy of being your mom. I have the pleasure of going to work every day and seeing people learn and be inspired. I can come home and cook delicious meals for all of us, and see you all enjoying what I’ve made. We can have puppies and kittens to play with. We can be scared of roller coasters, and we can get to know new people and travel to new places. We can love our friends and family forever, even after they leave us.

joy

Wait, What? We can have puppies and kittens?

Oh my goodness Charlie! Out of all the things I said, you only hear about the puppies and kittens?

Naa, I heard the other stuff too. Can we have pizza for dinner tomorrow?

Maybe.

When are we getting a puppy?

What? Ok kiddo, that’s enough. Time for your bath. Up you go.

Thanks Mom.

For what?

I dunno. Just stuff. I get it. I know why everyone has to die. I just don’t want anyone to die right now. OK?

Sounds good to me. Love you Sweetie.

Love you too Mom. Oh Mom!

Yes?

Don’t forget you said we could get a puppy.

GO TAKE YOUR BATH!

A Spoonful of Inspiration

Hi all! Kimberly Emerson here, writer at www.kimberlyemerson.com and proud friend of the BBB. This is my second feature on the BBB blog, and I am tickled to be asked back! My five prompts were:

Amy- A thin wisp of gray smoke rising from a cave in a black lagoon.

Cameron- Making words out of numbers on an upside down calculator.

Erika-  There is no spoon.

Jen- Hot air balloon breaks the tether and flies away, your little dog inside.

Wendy- Fruit loops and chocolate milk

I chose to go with Erika’s offering. (She seems to be on a roll lately!) It got me to thinking that even when we are absolutely certain something is so, we’re not always right…

 

A Spoonful of Inspiration

by Kimberly Emerson

Four hours of gardening and I hit the wall. A small retaining wall, to be exact, after I tripped over a tree root, but still a solid indication that I should quit for the day.

I walked through the back door into the house, stripping off my clothing along the way. My daughter, Karys, had left to visit her father a few days ago, so the house stood empty – no one around to mind if I threw my sweat-stained garb into the washing machine and traipsed through the house naked to a much needed shower.

Crash.

My hand froze over the washing machine’s start button. Someone was in the house, in my daughter’s bedroom. Not Karys. The world’s most responsible nineteen-year-old, she would have let me know if she decided to come home early. From the clatter in the next room, someone looking for something, who didn’t realize that I was home.

I grabbed a towel out of the dryer. Thank goodness I’d procrastinated in folding the laundry. I could run, but my compact house sat on a little-traveled two-lane highway, and the nearest neighbors were half a mile down the road. My cell phone sat on my bedroom nightstand, on the other side of the house. Better running down the highway in a towel, or in here with a burglar?

I headed toward the kitchen to grab a butcher knife. That had to be a good accessory in either case.

“Grab the spoon, Bronwyn. We have to go.”

A diminutive woman, no more than five feet and probably less, stood in front of me, a finger to her cupid’s bow lips. She wore a short filmy dress that floated around her, a white that barely seemed to exist outside of the imagination.

I clung to my towel. “Who are you?” I spoke in the barest whisper. “How do you know my name? Where did you come from?”

“Aderyn. Your mother sent me.”

Wrong answer. “My mother died when I was four. How did – “

“Well, yes and no.” She shook her head. “Grab the spoon. We have to go. Crusher in there – “ she nodded toward my daughter’s room – “will kill you. Karys’ father doesn’t think he will, but he will.”

Her voice barely carried to my ears. She couldn’t top four feet, actually, standing there in her – well, now that I looked closely, it was a white linen shift dress, suitable for an garden party or a charity luncheon. She hadn’t been wearing that before, I was sure of it.

In her own way, she might be as scary as the guy throwing things in Karys’ room. “I’ll get a spoon from the kitchen.”

“No. The spoon in this room. The important one.”

“In the laundry room? There is no spoon. Important or otherwise.”

“Close your eyes. Where is the warmth?”

“I don’t know!”

Her voice didn’t carry, but mine did. The noises in the other room abruptly changed. I closed my eyes and realized with a tug in my stomach that I could feel warmth. To my right…not far…

I opened my eyes and looked at the utility table where I’d put the mail for the last couple of days, without bothering to open most of it. A package, addressed to me. I grabbed it. “This?”

“Yes. Let’s go!” My new friend/foe grabbed both my hands and yanked hard, whereupon the room disappeared.

***

Before I could blink, the strange woman and I stood in what looked like a hotel lobby, completely deserted. I clutched for my towel, only to discover I now wore a dress – like Aderyn’s, but in a forest green that flattered my pale, freckled skin. I could no longer feel a drop of sweat on my body, and my fingernails bore no traces of dirt. Even my hair felt clean.

Perhaps I hit my head on that retaining wall in the garden this morning, and just hadn’t realized it.

Aderyn – still in the white linen dress, thank goodness – stood in front of me, her hands on either side of my face. “Don’t shake your head. You’ll mess up your hair, and your mother likes things tidy.”

I remembered that.

I could barely recall anything about her. Just one genuine memory still remained – my mother, in a lemon-colored dress with a full skirt. I asked her to spin in it, so I could see it swirl around her. Usually when I asked that, she said no, it would mess up her hair. That day, though, she did it, and that was the one image of her I could still remember – Mama twirling in her pretty yellow dress.

How could you be dead and not dead, and why did my sort-of-dead mother know I needed rescuing from someone sent by my daughter’s father?

Karys’ father, by contrast, I could picture instantly, in spite of the fact I hadn’t seen him since that fateful night in college. Frat party – he was drunk and I was lonely. Not long after, his garage band got signed to a label and he skyrocketed to fame. He’d never talked to me again, not even after he found out Karys was on the way.

A month ago, however, he contacted Karys and said he wanted to make amends.

“Bronwyn.”

My head snapped up. The woman in front of me wore a yellow linen shift dress. We looked like a rainbow bridesmaid coalition. “Mama.”

“Bronwyn bach.” Little Bronwyn. A Welsh nickname that Dad told me she used for me. She put a hand on my face. “You’re so beautiful. I’ve missed you so much.”

I shrank back from her. “No. You don’t get to show up after thirty-four years and tell me that you missed me.” I jerked a thumb at Aderyn. “This one told me that Karys’ father sent that man to my house. Has he done something Karys? Where is she?”

“Karys.” My mother smiled. “She’s beautiful, too.”

“I know she’s beautiful, damn it. I’ve been there for every one of her nineteen years. Now where is she? This touching reunion will have to wait.”

“My love.” Mama touched my arm. A rush of childish joy ran through me even as I flinched. “Karys is safe. I understand that you’re angry, and you have a right to be, but please believe me – I’ve always watched over you, and I will always watch over Karys.”

“I thought you were dead!” I shook off her hand. “You watching over me from this demented hotel didn’t stop me from getting pregnant at eighteen. I doubt you’ll be any help to Karys, either.”

She sniffed. “You can blame biology for that, not me. You wanted to sleep with Jack. I couldn’t stop something you wanted to happen.”

Great. Now I had the image in my head of my mother watching me have really bad sex with a drunken frat boy. This day just did not get better. “How do you know what I want, then or now?”

“Bronwyn, you know my name.”

“Druantia.” The name came out of my mouth like a reluctant baby tooth, pulled by someone else’s string. “I believe it’s Welsh for ‘woman who abandons her family.’”

“What else does it mean? Your father told you.”

“It’s the name of a Druidic goddess. Protector of trees, or something.”

“And knowledge, passion, sex, fertility, and more to the point in your case, creativity. Bronwyn bach, look at me.”

I didn’t want to, but I did – and noticed she glowed. I didn’t see it till I stared at her for a minute. A faint, glistening outline.

My jaw dropped. “You?”

“Me.” She stepped closer to me, but didn’t touch  me. “I didn’t want to leave you.”

“But you did.”

“The other gods were afraid if I spent too much time on Earth with you, I’d stop being a god. Or even worse, you might become one. I had to leave.”

“You’re a goddess! You didn’t have to do anything!”

“It wasn’t that simple, Bronwyn. Nothing is. You have a child. You know that.” Her mouth quirked up on one side. “Sorry about the extraordinary fertility, by the way.”

I shook my head. “Don’t you dare take credit for that. I decided to have Karys.” I blushed at the memory of my eighteen-year-old self, thinking that having the baby would keep Jack in my life. “That had nothing to do with you.”

Mama nodded. “You’re a wonderful mother. Better than I ever was.”

“Not always.” I wanted to lie, but it would be an insult to Karys. She had it rough as a kid. I blinked the tears out of my eyes and cleared my throat. “So – this is heaven?”

“We dialed down a few things to stay in your comprehension. You’ll see for yourself, someday, but not today.”

I rubbed my temples. “If I’m not dying and Karys isn’t in danger, why did you bring me here? I mean, why now?”

“I had to explain who you are, and why Jack wants that spoon.”

She pointed toward the package Aderyn made me bring along. I ripped open the padded envelope. It contained a carved piece of wood – a Welsh love spoon. My  mother had given it to my father, and when he died in my teens, Dad left it to me. When I found out I was pregnant, I mailed it to Jack.

spoon1I stared at it, not sure which surprised me more: that he’d sent it back, or that he’d kept it all these years in the first place.

“After you slept with Jack, he became a household name.”

My mouth twisted to one side involuntarily. “I’m aware, thanks.”

“Think about it, Brownyn.” Mama gazed at the intricate patterns on the spoon. “Hasn’t been doing so well lately, has he?”

“Not a hit in years.” I watched Mama run a finger over the spoon’s detail and felt something flicker in the back of my brain. No, it couldn’t be. “The spoon didn’t make him famous. I refuse to believe that.”

“Not the spoon. Although that’s what he thought.” She brushed a non-existent piece of lint off her dress. “Not the brightest firefly in the swarm, that one.”

“Oh, hell.” I stared at her. “It was me. I somehow channelled you and made that loser famous. My head hurts. Do goddesses keep aspirin in the house?”

“Don’t blame me. That power’s all yours. Even Jack figured that out, eventually.”

“Is that why he got in touch with Karys, after all these years? He thought maybe she inherited the magic touch?”

Mama sighed. “When he figured out she couldn’t help him, he sent the spoon back to you, to be – reenergized, so to speak.”

“And then he sent that thief to my house, to steal it back?”

Slowly, Mama nodded.

“Damn it! Just when I thought he was finally seeing sense, he turns out to be an even bigger jackass than before!”

“It won’t work. You’re the daughter of the goddess, my love. You’re the muse. Only you.”

My mother had supernatural powers, and now I had some too? “I have to get home,” I said in a hoarse whisper. “I don’t even know how long I’ve been here. I have to pick up Karys at the airport first thing tomorrow.”

“I know. Don’t worry, you’ll be back in plenty of time. I just had to see you – to explain – to protect Karys.”

“Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I would’ve told her what he really wanted. I wouldn’t have let her go.”

Mama gazed at me, sadness in her green eyes. “Exactly. You can withhold inspiration from him, that’s your choice. But if there was even a chance he might want to get know her, I had to let her have it. And she really wanted to go.”

I bit my lip. She was right. Karys wanted to see her father. I hated the thought of her getting hurt, but she was grown now, and deserved to make her own choices. Even ones that hurt.

“I have to go.” My voice barely reached my own ears.

“I know. You just have one decision to make, and then you can go home.”

I batted a tear from my face. “What decision?”

“The spoon. You can take it with you, and inspire someone else. You can leave it here, and not inspire anyone. Or,” she cleared her throat, “Aderyn can take it back to Jack with your blessing, and his career will take off again. It’s up to you.”

The spoon lay heavy in my hand. My broken heart. Months of tears. Years of bitterness. In the end, though, Jack was the one who’d lost. He’d missed out on knowing Karys.

I ran my hand over the soon. I clasped it, breathed on it, did everything but lick it. (Who knew where it had been in the last twenty years?) Then, I held it out to Aderyn. “He can have it…on one condition.”

Mama held a hand out, stopping Aderyn from taking it. “What’s that?”

“He never comes near Karys again – I meant it, never – unless he really wants to get to know her. You stop him from even saying he wants to see her if he doesn’t mean it. I don’t care if you have to make a tree fall on him.”

Mama nodded. “You have my word.”

“Good.” I looked around the luxurious lobby. “How do I get home?”

“Click your heels three times.”

“Seriously?”

“No. Aderyn will see you home.” She touched my face again, and this time I let her. “Take care, my dear.”

“You, too.” I turned to go. Could goddesses take care? I’d have to think about it later when my brain didn’t hurt so much.

“I love you, Bronwyn bach.”

I turned around and hugged her, tears dripping down my cheeks on to her crisp yellow dress. She didn’t seem to mind. “I love you, too, Mama.”

At last I let go and walked to Aderyn.

“It’s all a beginning, Bronwyn.” Mama’s voice floated after me. “You’ve looked at everything as an ending, your whole life, but all of it – me, your father, Karys, even Jack – it’s all just the beginning.”

I blinked at her, and then nodded.

***

The magic transport didn’t get any easier then second time. In what felt like half a second, I stood in my kitchen, feeling like my eyeballs were floating in a bubbling stew. I focused on the digital clock – five-twenty – until my head stopped spinning.

I still had the green dress on, though. Thanks for the new outfit, Mama.

After changing into sweats, I lay on my bed just to get my equilibrium back, but ended up sleeping until my phone woke me up, early the next morning. Karys’ ring. “Hi, sweetheart. Did you catch an earlier flight?”

“No. That’s why I’m calling. Jack wants me to stay another week.  When I first got here, he acted like a real jackass, and I almost left. Yesterday, though, I felt like we had a breakthrough, so now I want to stay.…Mom, are you there?”

Five-twenty. I’d gotten back at five-twenty. “What time did he ask, Karys? Exactly?”

“About ten o’clock last night.” She paused. “That was a weird question, Mom. Are you sure you’re okay? Do you need me to come home?”

“I’m fine. It’s fine.” After Mama’s promise. She wouldn’t have let him say it if he didn’t mean it.

“Do you think I’m making the right decision?” All of a sudden, Karys sounded much younger than her nineteen years. “Or am I setting myself up for a fall?”

“You’re being loving, honey.” I smiled for the first time in days. “And that’s a good beginning.”

Me-at-Court-of-Two-Sisters

For more of Kimberly Emerson’s work, visit her at her blog, on her Facebook page, or on Twitter. She’s not the photographer of the Welsh love spoon (that came from http://www.lsirish.com) but she is the author of two books – almost three – and more short stories than she currently remembers. Zoe, her cat, could probably tell you the exact number, since she got dislodged from the computer keyboard for each one. Not that she’s bitter or anything. 

The spicier the better

I was so flattered to be asked by Erika of the BBBGals to write a guest post. Thank you!
My five prompts were:
Amy – Sunflowers on steroids
Cameron – The clothing line’s success was built on their attention to details – and total transparency with their employees
Erika – The spicier the better
Jen – I don’t want to wait
Wendy – Look out Wonder Woman, Super Girl, and Catwoman. I am the next super heroine

Erika’s prompt immediately struck a chord, as I LOVE spicy food, but also, it led to an idea involving a supernatural being that I’m writing about at the moment…
Here’s the flash fiction I came up with.

**********

She watched him as dexterous hands chopped the vegetables. He hummed under his breath, one of the rock songs they both favoured. Onion, peppers…then he was reaching for the chillies. Her breathing quickened.

‘Hope you like it spicy,’ he said, slicing off stalks and removing seeds. If only he knew.

She stood behind him; slid her arms round his waist. ‘How lucky I am’, she teased, ‘To find a man who can cook.’

He turned in her embrace and kissed her. She tasted Corona, and the nachos they’d munched earlier. She tasted desire, and struggled for control. No, no…there would be plenty of time for that later.

They pulled away from each other, panting.

She broke the silence. ‘Get chopping, you.’ She poked him playfully in the ribs. ‘We’ll both need the energy for…afterwards.’

His eyes widened. ‘Couldn’t we just..?’ His voice was husky.

‘Nope. Food first.’ Well, one kind of food, for her.

He groaned, but resumed his action with the knife. She stepped back and studied him. He was pretty perfect: young, healthy, well-muscled but not too pumped up. Every so often a lock of hair fell forward into his eyes, and he pushed it away with an impatient gesture of those long, slender fingers.

‘So, don’t you like cooking?’ he asked over his shoulder, as he threw ingredients into a pot.

She shrugged. ‘Not really. I’ve never got good at it.’

‘I thought you said earlier that you were on some special diet? Don’t you have to make stuff for that?’ A thought occurred to him. ‘Oh…are you sure you’ll be all right to eat this? It’s my speciality, but it’s pretty hot…’

She worked to keep the smirk from her face. ‘It’ll be fine. It’s more like I need…supplements…rather than a special diet.’

‘Oh, right. So there’s something you can take for it?’

She eyed him greedily. ‘Oh yes.’

He had chopped five chillies by now, and was holding up a sixth, questioningly.

‘Go for it.’ She licked her lips. ‘In fact, use another two.’

‘You sure?’ At her emphatic nod, he chuckled. ‘A girl after my own heart!’

Oh yes, she thought, your heart, you soul…everything you’ve got to offer.

He tipped the vegetables into the pot and stirred. Her mouth watered, at the scent of the chilli con carne, and the scent of him. A sheen of sweat glowed on his skin as steam rose from the hob. As he put the knife in the sink, he winced and dropped it, raising his hand to his mouth.

She couldn’t help herself. ‘Let me see!’

He sucked his finger and held it out for her inspection. ‘It’s just a nick; it’s fine.’

She chewed her lip to stop herself from jumping on him. She kissed the bloody spot on his hand, licking a tiny bit as she did so. Mmm…delicious. Even better with some seasoning.

‘So,’ she said, letting go of him. ‘How are we doing?’

He stared at her for a moment, then ‘Oh!’ He faced the hob. Tasting the chilli, he looked pleased. ‘About five minutes, I reckon. Only…it could be a bit hotter, if you’re up for it?’ He held out the spoon.

She tasted. Yes, it was good – very good. She imagined his blood laced with all that spice, that hotness. Putting the spoon aside, she wrapped her arms round him and kissed his neck. His pulse throbbed just below the skin, inviting her fangs to descend and taste. No – not yet. Not until after the main course. Even with the chilli in his system, his blood would be sweet. A fitting dessert.

‘Go on then,’ she agreed, letting go of her dazed chef/ lover/dinner.

‘The spicier, the better.’

**********

If you enjoyed this little story, please visit me at my blog to read more of my fiction and other ramblings! You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook and Google+.

Those Were The Days, My Friend

Hi, All!  I am posting this on behalf of our guest blogger, Irene Peterson.  Thank you, Irene!!!

The prompts I had to choose from were these:

Amy- The man with the shovel kept appearing in the same spot.

Cameron- The dog told me to do it.

Erika-  Those were the days, my friend, we thought they’d never end.
Jen- I double dog dare you.

Wendy- All I really need to know I learned from a gypsy.

At first, I thought of doing all of them and seeing what kind of sense I could make of each one individually. My husband was working in the garden, shoveling manure, the dog one made me think of the serial killer Son of Sam, I saw that kid in The Christmas Story being double dog dared to stick his tongue on the flagpole and the only gypsies I ever saw were the ones who get married in those huge gowns and fight each other on the street.

You can see why I chose what I did. It made me feel good, too.

 

Those Were the Days, My Friend

Let’s go back a little further.

1965

I was sixteen years old.

But that was yesterday, and yesterday’s gone. Line from one of my all-time favorite songs by either Chad and Jeremy or Peter and Gordon. That wonderful summer I had both these albums, an old stereo record player—the songs rang through the house constantly when I was awake. It was the Most Wonderful Summer of my life, full of sunshine, seashores and boys.

There. I had to start off sounding nearly sane, and as old as I am now, and the way I look now, you’d never believe the rest of my story until you were sure I was all right in the head. Well, I’ve forgotten a great deal, and lots of things have happened, good and bad, since that wonderful summer, but so much of it is written on my brain forever, tattooed in loving ink. I would want everyone to have a summer like that one.

It was the summer between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I had a terrible summer job in a discount department store where most of the people were stealing the place blind. John the pretzel maker gave me free pretzels for lunch. Ted named his ’57 Chevy after me. Gene wanted to date me badly. But I had already met three great guys on the boardwalk of Seaside Heights (the place that got wrecked in the hurricane, built back up only to have half of it burn down last year) including the man who would become my husband. They had just graduated from high school the night before, but they knew my best friend, and we were always together, especially on the boardwalk.

We’d play a game we dubbed 52 Pick-Up. Like the card game, where a nasty older brother drops a deck of cards and says, “there they are, all 52 of ‘em, now pick ‘em up”. We did that with guys who tried to get our attention and walk the boards with us, possibly make out on the beach later with them. The object was to meet them, test them out for potential boyfriends, then go on to the next group. Yes, that sounds cruel, but we were young, we didn’t just make out with anybody, and it was fun. Possibly cruel, but we didn’t think that way. We were barely sixteen!

As I think back on this, it was pretty mean of us. But we were virgins. Barely dated anyone yet. And if the guys were good looking, we didn’t mind. Creepy guys didn’t stand a chance. Yes, that really does sound cruel, but a cruel sixteen year old girl is nothing compared to an eighteen year old guy who wanted to make out and more on the beach in the dark.

There were other guys, too, met on another boardwalk that summer…one drove a sports car. I went out with him for over six years, on and off, because even though Jersey is a small state, distances could be daunting if one had to borrow the family car. And I didn’t drive yet. It sort of makes me sad to remember. This boy was the one my mother thought I’d marry. I would have wanted this except that, well, he wanted to play golf.

Back to the guys on the boardwalk. My future husband dated my best friend for the year he was away in New Hampshire at college. I dated his friend for the rest of the summer, but when he went to Missouri to college, he hooked up with his old girlfriend and had to get married. People used to marry if they had made a baby back then. That was okay with me because I dated the third guy for the following year, and he had a sports car and was at a Jersey college, so I saw him frequently.

I never stayed home in the evening…I had plenty of things to do. Weekends, I had to juggle who was around and who was on vacation. And we’d go down the shore—in New Jersey, we go down the shore, not to the beach or to the shore, but DOWN the shore—and walk the boards and get suntans. We’d go to the movies or drive-ins, go to listen to local bands, ride around with guys and just talk and talk and have fun.

You can’t do this anymore. Somehow, sex is expected. You go to get a burger, he pays, he expects some kind of reward. Not back then. Oh, a guy could hope for a reward, but nice girls didn’t do that kind of stuff and, above all, I was a nice girl.

I don’t want to preach or make myself out to be an angel, but it was easier to be a good girl. There were plenty of boys to date, plenty of places to go…if they pressed for something more, there were always other guys waiting in line.

But the shore was the place to be. The emerald green of the Atlantic Ocean, the soft grey of the sand, the squeak of the surfboards, the smell of Coppertone, the finest pizza in America and the delicious frozen custard…oh, wow. I used to slather Coppertone all over myself when I was home, just to feel good, like I wasn’t stuck home but was still down the shore.

And the music played in the cars we rode in, the radios on the beach or in the house, through those little transistor radios everybody carried. Hang On Sloopy, Beach Boys, The Byrds, The Beatles and Stones…you couldn’t get any better. I still know all the words, I still can’t hit high C without cracking, but the tunes and words bring back so many memories.

And we had it all in nine weeks. Come Labor Day, everything about the shore ended, even if the romances lingered on. My friend dropped the guy I eventually married, I went from the one who went to Missouri to the guy who went to the college I would later attend. Those other guys, particularly the one I thought I might marry, well, he lives around D.C. now, occasionally writes to me on Facebook. Old boyfriends, fond memories, sand and surf and sunshine…that was my golden summer of ’65.

I hope you have one stored away in your memory, too.

It keeps me young, at least in my head.

 

I have written two books that take place down the Jersey Shore. Both are available on Amazon for Kindle now along with three others and two ready to go up there. I still spend some time at the shore, with my husband now that the kids are grown up. The water is just as emerald green, the surf isn’t all that great, but it’s surf, the guys might be tattooed and creepy, but the pizza is still perfect and the frozen custard—well, everybody ought to have some of that. My girls have never had the absolute joy of going down the shore to do what we did because life is so different now, but those were the days, those were the days, my friends!

You can Like Irene on her FB Page or visit her blog.

Author- Irene Peterson

Author- Irene Peterson

 

“My Credit is Good”

Hey, thanks for inviting me back! It’s so nice to be among so much talent!

My prompts were:

  • Amy- The sign read, “You can’t beat Vera’s meat.” But, can you?
  • Cameron- The clothing line’s success was built on their attention to the details- and total transparency with their employees.
  • Erika- My credit is good.
    Jen- Opening line:  In the end it was the spiders that got her.
  • Wendy- Trapped in a vat of _______ changed my life.

I’ve been unable, or unwilling, to leave the world of my current novel lately, so I was looking over these prompts through that lens. I picked Erika’s because it gave me an idea for some scenes where I could explore some side-story stuff with a couple of my minor characters.

I hope it’s at least entertaining!

***

I.

Lucius stopped outside Walters’ Arcanist shop. He stomped the dust from his boots and brushed at his pants, then ran his fingers through his hair and beard, trying to tease out the tangles.

The doorposts were lined with Enochian script that said nothing so much as, Look. Strange symbols. We sell magic here.

Discerning eyes knew them to be decoration and nothing more. Not to say that Walters didn’t know her magic. Her shop was filled with baubles and trinkets, bundles of herbs and carefully labeled potions. They were mostly harmless. A way for a woman to make a living in a world that wasn’t kind to her sex.

But she had skill, he knew. Had spent years studying under Grauman at Cambridge. This before the Rending. Lucius had been at this for decades before she’d even graduated from university, but the things she knew never ceased to amaze, and baffle, him. So, in the West where Arcanists were a dime a dozen, outnumbering even the gold-seekers from the previous decades, she was a true Talent.

He opened the door. A little bell chimed and he stepped inside. The store was lit by large windows at the back. Walters had hung dream-catchers from the sills and there were glass bottles and jars filled with many-colored liquids. The light shone through them and cast odd, shadowed rainbows on the walls and the floor. Again, all for appearance.

The townspeople liked to be a bit unnerved when they came to her. It made them feel that whatever they bought would actually work. That it was mystical in some way, but in reality most of Walters’ work was simple first-year alchemy; potions and tonics that any decent pharmacist could make.

“Be right out!” Walters called from the back.

Lucius didn’t answer. He took the extra time to frown at the grime under his nails, checked his breath against his palm, resisting the urge to smooth his hair again.

He’d been out trapping for too long.

Walters emerged from the back, followed by the smell of burnt herbs. He scratched his beard and sniffed.

“Lucius!” the Arcanist exclaimed, coming around the counter to embrace him. He put his arms around her shoulders, conscious of his smell, but she didn’t seem to mind.

“You look well, Sarah,” he said, taking off his pack and setting it gently to the floor. “Is that Sage and Clove I smell? Are you summoning something back there?”

Sarah stared at him for a moment, her face frozen. Then she gave a laugh. “Yes. The Devil himself and I were having a conversation and you interrupted us. I hope you brought me something good.”

“You and me both,” Lucius replied. He began to untie his baskets. The spirits within shook and rattled against the reed. “Feisty today,” he said. “Wonder what’s settin’ them off.”

Sarah’s eyes flicked to the room in the back. When she saw that Lucius had noticed, she gave him a grin and picked up one of the baskets, weighing it in her hand.

“Good catch this week,”

He shrugged. “Not as good as some. Things are getting scarce out there. Not sure these will cover my resupply, so I hope my credit is good.”

“Please, Lucius. We’ve known each other, what, ten years? More? Of course your credit is good.”

“Well, I might have to go further east, and I don’t know when I’ll be back through here….”

Sarah hefted the three remaining baskets. The last, biggest, shook so hard she almost dropped it. Again, her eyes flicked to the back room.

Lucius opened his mouth to ask if something was wrong, but she took up her pen and scribbled something in her ledger, then slid it across for him to look over.

She had paid him almost twice what his catch was worth. “Sarah, this is too much…”

“Not at all. I’m making more on the back end. Besides, if you think I’m overpaying you, you’ll just have to owe me a favor or two.”

She beamed at him, and he smiled back. “Sounds like a deal.”

“Good. Now I hate to rush you out of here, but I have some things brewing in the back, and I’d hate to ruin the batch.”

Before he knew it she was ushering him out to the street. He turned to thank her again, but she’d already closed the door behind him.

II.

Sarah opened the panel behind the sofa, and followed the stairs down into the darkness.  At the bottom, she lit the oil lamp sitting on the small table, just within reach where she knows she will find it.

The room filled with a warm, flickering light. The walls were earthen and the smell was of loam and moist air. No light would reach the street above.

There was a dark wood table in the center of the room with a simple wood chair. Sarah carried the lamp and set it next to a leather-bound book, then took her seat.

The book’s cover was supple and dark. Strange stains lined the edges and the spine. She fingered it softly, wondering -not for the first time- what the leather held.

Whose skin it was.

She thought she would be revolted when she made the purchase, in secret under a tavern in Baltimore. But instead she had found herself reaching into her bag during the carriage ride home, sliding her fingers against the soft grain. Was there sweat soaked into the binding? Blood? Surely blood, else it would have no power.

But whose?

She would admit to feeling guilt at her curiosity from time to time, but it had faded over the years. If she were caught with the book she would be hanged from the neck at best. Most likely burned. The Pinkertons had a standing bounty of $1,000 for any person brought in alive who was suspected of necromancy.

Suspected. That’s funny, she thought. The accusation alone was enough to assure a guilty verdict. After Beauregard raised his shambling horde during Shiloh, nobody wanted to take any chances.

But it was Beauregard’s actions that led to her curiosity. So many dead at the hands of his ghouls. Ghouls who would not fall, would not die, but just kept marching with their bayonets outstretched. Absurdly quick for newly risen dead.

She knew that Lucius had fought at Shiloh, and had once considered asking him about it, but even mentioning necromancy made her nervous. Made eyes automatically narrow. Why do you ask? Why are you so interested?

She wanted to shake them and say, Don’t you see? If we do not know our enemy, how can we possibly fight them?

But of course the ghoul brigade was thought to be the last of them, so they weren’t our enemy any more than the British. Even the Confederate warlocks had been horrified by what they had done.

No. No one would be raising the dead, except in secret.

In a controlled environment, after thorough research and thorough preparation. Safeguards. Fire, if need be. She would burn her whole shop to the ground to prevent such a thing from escaping.

Or maybe to prevent its discovery? She wasn’t so sure of her motivations anymore, but she rarely allowed herself to wonder. She liked to believe it was a scientific pursuit. The study of death, so that we could fully understand what the Rending has wrought.

If she was ever caught she would say that her dead brother first sparked her curiosity. Not a desire to raise him. No, that would be too horrifying. Too devastating. But a desire to understand what he became after death? Where his soul or his essence traveled?

That, yes, but mostly simple curiosity. She was a scientist. An intellectual. An Arcanist.

So many discoveries had been made in secret, against the wishes of higher powers. All of the most important.

So maybe she would learn her secrets. Maybe she would share them. Maybe one day she might even be remembered for them.

But, for now, she would sit in that earthen cellar, and she would work.

She opened the book and imagined the cover to be the skin of two palms, spreading for her, beckoning her closer so that the voice within might whisper its lessons.

III.

Lucius sat in his room, smoking by the window. Outside, across the dark street he could see the doorway to Sarah’s shop. It was late. Even the music from the saloon below had stopped as the last of the hard drinkers had either stumbled up to their rooms or home.

He’d been thinking about Sarah the whole evening. Something in her manners earlier had been nagging at him. Something about the way her eyes kept being drawn to the back room.

She’d been as warm and friendly as ever, but rushed. And the burning herbs; cloves and sage. The heavy smell of them that had soaked into her clothing and her hair. Those were protection herbs, not the kind you burned while mixing tonics, or to try and loosen your customers’ purses.

And then the spirits, trapped in their baskets. Their urgent, frantic shaking. His rituals usually left them subdued for days. So what had they been sensing?

Before he even considered what he was doing, he’d walked across the room and dug into his pack, bringing out the leather case that held his rods. He clenched his cigar in the corner of his mouth, squinting against the smoke, then slipped his knife out of his boot.

He opened the case and brought out two iron rods, each about two feet long. He tapped them together and listened to the chime, then ran his blade down their length a few times, testing the notes until both rods began to hum.

He held them out at arm’s length and felt them begin to pull. He turned slowly, letting the rods guide his arms until their two ends met with a little tap, then looked to where they were pointing and squinted out the window.

Sarah’s shop. So what was she up to?

He stowed the rods and brought out his rune bag. He cleared the table by the window, setting the ashtray on the floor, and upended the bag. The runes spilled out across the table with a hollow clatter.

He read them. Four times, frowning, and with each reading his heart sank further.

He stood and shrugged into his coat, then took his battered Remington out from under his pillow and slipped it into his belt.

IV.

She stood in the moonlight with the lantern at her feet, the shutter closed except for the tiniest sliver. Just enough light to be sure she stood above the correct grave. Not that any of them were marked in the outlaw field. Just wooden planks with a line or two of description and a date.

This one read: White Throat Gang. Shot dead by Dep. Groves. April, 1872.

She rummaged in her bag and brought out her tools: a salt jar, a paper funnel, a bundle of desert sage, a jar of goat tallow, three dogwood sticks, and one of Lucius’ fresh spirits, the basket trap wrapped in a velvet bag. The spirit was struggling against the weave’s charm. She could hear it scraping at the walls of its cage. She knew Lucius was careful with his traps, but it made her nervous all the same.

She briefly considered the idea that maybe the book itself had put a spell on her. Why else would she risk her life, out here in the graveyard, just for an experiment that wouldn’t even work?

Care will kill a cat… and the crazy lady who sells the love tonics to the amorous saloon girls.

But it was curiosity, at its heart. She had always been this way. Even as a child, with her constant yammering, questioning, pouring through her father’s books. Her father, never irritated, always urging her on. Yes, that is true, but what about this? Yes, Sarah, that is a very good point, but have you considered this?

If he were alive to see her here tonight though….

She didn’t want to think about that. She pulled the book from her pack. Its cover was pale, almost porous in the moonlight. She opened it to the marked page and skimmed over the ritual.

Then she began to work.

It took an hour to draw the circle. She melted the tallow and dripped it over the pentacle’s points, then took the bundle of sage and lit it with the lantern flame and set it smoldering in a dish at her side. The breeze blew the smoke across her face and she breathed it in deep.

She was peeling the dogwood with her Athame when she heard the footsteps behind her.

A faint click. A gun being cocked. She froze, the back of her neck suddenly chill, picturing Deputy Groves drawing a bead on the back of her skull, a pile of rope at his feet.

“Stop,” a familiar voice called out in a low voice. “Stand up and turn around.”

She almost cried out, suddenly feeling the weight of her lunacy. The guilt and shame of what she was preparing to do. She stood and turned, dropping the Athame to the ground.

She didn’t want to meet Lucius’ gaze, but she raised her face and looked at him. His eyes was drawn with sorrow, but there was a hardness in them.

“What are you doing? Why?” His eyes set on the book lying at her feet and his jaw clenched. He knew what it was, she could see. Of course he knew.

“I…” she began, then shook her head. She took a deep breath and let it out. “I don’t know.”

“Whose grave is that?”

“Nobody. An outlaw. A criminal. I didn’t know him.” She was stammering.

He lowered the gun slightly.

“If you’d seen what I’ve seen, Sarah, you wouldn’t even think of doing this.”

“You don’t understand,” she replied, trying to summon some resolve. But what argument could she make that would convince a man who had seen his friends die because someone with an army had read a book like hers?

“You’ve been good to me over the years, Sarah. And I suppose I owe you a great deal more than just a favor. But, hear me, we will have no more business together. I will not stay my hand again, so you would do well to think twice about what sort of person you are. What sort of things you are willing to do for the sake of curiosity.”

She looked up at him again, feeling the flush in her face. He turned before she could reply and walked across the graveyard and back toward town. She was left in the dark with the sage smoke and the dust, the whispering book and the shivering spirit.

# # #

I’m currently working on my third novel. It’s a Weird Western (which you may have gathered). I’ve had a couple small things published, and I do have a blog, but I would rather none of you see it, since I can’t remember the last time I posted something there.

I live in Sacramento with my wonderful daughter and, like most writers, a cat. I graduated from Clarion (UCSD) with the 2013 class and I desperately want to write fiction full-time.

I tweet (sometimes) @pieterlars.