Weekly writing check-in: Done!

Well, I am happy to report that all the stories for the 2020 Project are done! Finished! Complete!

I need to do some editing and proofing (I mean, we’re not barbarians around here).

And then there’s the post formatting and scheduling. So that’s what I hope to accomplish today.

As a result, I’m keeping this check-in extra short.

See you next week.

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Free Fiction Friday: Heart Whisper

It’s not all bad, a whispering heart. If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.

Isabelle Sterling pulled the pickup truck off the gravel road and bumped her way to the windbreak thirty feet in. With the engine off and the windows rolled all the way down, it was quiet—at last. A soft breeze whispered in the tall grasses and rattled cornstalks.

Isabelle jumped from the cab. The tallest stalks reached well beyond her waist. She peered down row after endless row, all black earth and rich green. The scent of soil was thick in the air, warm from the July sun.

Farming wasn’t one of her skills. Marilyn wouldn’t let her near the enclave’s gardens—not even the potted herbs—for fear she might wilt them. Still, even Isabelle knew this was a good omen.

She headed for the passenger door and the precious cargo belted in the front seat—like a toddler. Her truck still wore the dust of Georgia, the black paint flecked with red, the deep rust the color of blood. She wore it too. Every time she licked her lips, she could taste the red clay earth.

Isabelle eased the wooden crate from the cooler in the front seat, kicked the door closed, and headed for the road.

The rest of the trip would be on foot. She wiggled her toes inside her combat boots. Since being discharged, she tugged them on once a year for this trek up the bluff.

They’d carried her through Afghanistan; they could carry her here as well.

At the crossroads, she inched forward, just enough to stand in the shade cast by the stop sign. Her truck waited patiently behind her.

Anyone traveling this road would disregard it, maybe figure a farmer was checking her crops. Or more likely, a farmer had abandoned it there in the windbreak, keys in the ignition, and left it and everything behind—a relic to relentless toil and debt. She’d seen three such pickups on her way to the bluffs.

Isabelle sighed. It wasn’t the truck she was worried about.

This was her fifth year up the riverside bluff.

This was the year she wouldn’t come back down.

She felt the rumble first through the soles of her boots. All the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. She spun, jumped back, heart pounding a cadence she couldn’t control.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

In the distance, a white pickup truck barreled forward, a cloud of dust blooming behind it—just a farmer, and nothing more.

Just a farmer.

She was, in the words of Marilyn, overreacting. Or hyper-reacting. After five years back on the soil of Black Earth, Minnesota, she knew better.

Or at least everyone thought she should.

The dust cloud grew larger, billowing like a sandstorm. Instead of slowing for the stop sign, the driver was gunning the engine and planning to run straight through.

She backed up, stumbled over the edge of the ditch.

It wasn’t far enough.

The damn truck was coming straight for her.

Deliberately.

What. The. Hell.

The truck swerved, and she pitched backward into the ditch. A spray of pebbles pelted her bare arms. She lost her grip on the wooden crate. It fell to the ground with a crack, the sound like a gunshot. Its contents spilled among the rocks and weeds.

The truck flew through the stop sign. Then the driver jammed on the brakes, backed up, and came to a halt on the road right above her.

Isabelle blinked and braced her feet against the earth. The rumble of the engine competed with the roar of her pulse. Dust floated on the air, filled her mouth, scratched her eyes.

From inside the cab came the relentless hammering of death metal. The driver lowered the volume and then hung himself out the window, fingers drumming the flame decal on the side of the door.

“Sorry about that, honey. I didn’t see you there.”

Like hell he didn’t. Isabelle gave him a stare, the one she’d perfected in boot camp, the one without a trace of emotion except for silent contempt.

“Need a ride?”

“Oh, I’m good.” Her palms stung. Her tailbone ached. But what hurt the most were the remains of her cargo scattered all around her.

There was no salvaging that.

“You sure you don’t need a hand?” The driver drummed the side of his truck even harder, a strange, staccato beat that made her heart pound a warning.

“Positive.”

“A pretty girl like you, out here all alone? Someone might get the wrong idea.”

“Someone might, but not you,” she said, weaving magic into her voice. “You’re smarter than that.”

She could see the spell weave around the guy’s head, tangling with sweaty strands of blond hair, clouding his blue eyes. And she saw the moment he shook it off, too.

Sadly, he wasn’t smarter than that.

“Those peaches wouldn’t be for me, would they, sweetheart?” His gaze went not to the scattered fruit but to her chest.

“No.” This time, Isabelle dispensed with magic. Instead, she infused her words with all the Georgia sugar she could muster. “But these are.”

With that, she raised both her middle fingers.

It was a dumb move, but after all the searching, the bartering, and thirty-six hours of driving, she didn’t need to deal with some dude-bro joyriding around the area, scaring livestock and running over cats.

He wasn’t local. Local boys (and girls) knew better than to get stupid around the river bluffs. They’d head into Mankato or even drive up to the Twin Cities.

This guy? If he didn’t leave now, he might not leave at all. Not today of all days.

His fingers stopped their drumming. The knuckles of his hand went tight.

She needed to end this—quick.

Isabelle bared her teeth. The glamour was simple, barely a spell at all. She preferred fox or coyote. Today she wasn’t taking chances.

She went with mountain lion.

During her first year in college, after her roommate’s disastrous encounter at a frat party, Isabelle had taught her the trick—along with some hand-to-hand combat moves. Despite evidence to the contrary, the enclave insisted that there were those who could weave magic—and then everybody else.

Isabelle didn’t believe it. Everyone had magic. Of some kind.

Except for maybe dude-bro here.

He blanched, blinked, and gaped, his mouth open like a fish left to flop around on the dock. Without taking his eyes off her, he put the truck in gear and inched respectfully up the road. At the stop sign, he took a right, the way leading to the interstate.

“There’s a good boy,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “And don’t come back.”

* * *

Isabelle used all but one bottle of water to give the peaches a bath. She cradled each one in her palm, the way a mother might hold an infant’s head. She washed away the dirt, used a fingernail to pry pebbles from the tender flesh, and placed each one back into the crate as if tucking it in for a nap.

And she still had the three-mile walk ahead of her.

“Uphill, both ways,” she said—ostensibly to the peaches—and laughed. Then she placed her palm against her heart and waited.

She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was waiting for. But the gesture calmed her, reassured her that her heart was still where it should be, that it still beat, that neither it nor she was completely broken.

A breeze chased strands of hair from her cheeks. The crossroads were quiet once again.

It was time.

She tucked the last bottle of water into a knapsack, hefted the crate to her hip, and started her trek up the river bluff.

* * *

The barter had come through at the last minute, as barters tended to do. Isabelle needed twelve perfect peaches. And no, she couldn’t dash into a grocery store and toss a handful into a shopping basket.

Peaches, plucked by hand. And not just any hand, but that of enclave matriarch. And not just any peaches, but ones from Georgia.

Peaches were plentiful. What Isabelle lacked was something to offer in return. Then, she connected with an enclave courier in as desperate of straights as she was.

After that, it was nothing but the whisper of wheels against the interstate and some truly terrible talk radio. At last, she reached the red clay of Georgia, where her counterpart, a woman named Denisha, met her at the southern enclave’s peach orchard.

“Oh, snowdrop,” Denisha said when Isabelle hopped out of her truck. “Let’s get you out of this heat.”

Isabelle laughed. She’d been to Georgia before—three weeks of airborne school in August, no less. But that had been a lifetime ago, and her blood was sluggish and thick from Minnesota winters.

She grabbed the cooler from the seat. The thing was icy, even after all that driving. A trace of its contents filtered into the thick Georgia air, at odds with her surroundings. A harsh, cold, fishy odor that—judging by Denisha’s wrinkled nose—was overwhelming the sultry, sweet scent of peaches.

Inside the orchard’s office, they headed for the kitchen area. Denisha poured them both some sweet tea. She was about Isabelle’s age—late twenties or so, and she wore her hair in a coil of braids on top of her head. She looked like a queen capable of ruling her own enclave.

With the first sip, the sugar flowed through Isabelle’s veins. Enclave brewed. It had to be. There was enough magic mixed with the sugar and caffeine to not only revive her but fuel her drive back home.

“So this is really a thing,” Denisha said while Isabelle unpacked the cooler.

“It’s a thing.” Isabelle held up one of the packages. “Straight from the lutefisk capitol of the world.”

The dried cod, soaked in water, then lye, and then water again—because who the hell eats lye—was a gelatinous, smelly, and baffling delicacy. She’d grown up in Minnesota and didn’t understand it. She had no hope of explaining it to someone out of state.

“I thought she was joking with this request.” Denisha shook her head. “I’m really hoping she doesn’t ask me to share this year.”

Isabelle’s hand stilled on the package, the cold burning her fingertips. “She shares?”

“Sometimes. Depends on the request. Honestly, I think it’s partly a test, you know—will you do my bidding and all that. But it’s worth it, right? I wouldn’t give up being a courier for anything.”

Oh, how Isabelle wanted to ask. She wanted to ask so badly. Did Denisha see their enclave’s patron? Speak with her? Share the yearly offering? What was that like? The thought of it made her heart drum against her ribcage and her palms sweat.

“Yeah,” Isabelle said, heat prickling her cheeks, betraying her. “I wouldn’t give it up either.”

Denisha collected the packages of lutefisk. “So, I cook this … how?”

“You can boil it, but it’s probably better if you bake it. And if you have any bacon or pork drippings, you can serve that on the side.”

“Everything’s better with bacon.”

“In this case, it might just save you.”

Denisha laughed. “This is going to be an adventure.” She packed the lutefisk into the refrigerator and then filled a thermos with sweet tea. “For your drive back.”

“You don’t—”

“Oh, yes, I do. You saved my ass. Those.” Denisha pointed to where a crate of peaches sat, twelve perfect ones in a bed a straw. “Are for your patron. But these?” She hefted the thermos. “And those.” Denisha gestured to a canvas sack overflowing with even more peaches. “Are for your drive back. Trust me, those things are magical. You’ll eat the entire bag before you get home.”

Denisha walked Isabelle to her truck and then gave her a hug so heartfelt it chased the air from her lungs.

“Text me if you need any help with the lutefisk.”

“Count on it.”

Isabelle drove off, opting for back roads rather than fight Atlanta’s rush hour traffic. She felt as if she were leaving behind a friend, although really, she’d only known Denisha through messages on the courier group chat.

What did couriers do before the internet? In the Black Earth town hall, there was a photograph of a woman—a Sterling woman, one of Isabelle’s ancestors—carrying a basket of something dear cradled in her arms.

The woman’s feet were bare, her dress faded and frayed. The entire town looked as though it’d been coated in dust. In the background, an ancient Model T sat, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both.

Isabelle thought about that woman on her drive back to Minnesota, wishing she could ask whether being a courier had been worth it.

* * *

Halfway up the bluff, the urge to pluck a peach from the crate and take a giant bite nearly overwhelmed Isabelle.

Denisha had been right. If not for her own bag of peaches, Isabelle would’ve eaten the offering. After that, driving past Black Earth and heading straight for the boundary waters—and paddling into Canada—would’ve been her only option.

It was one thing to scramble for an offering at the last minute, quite another to deliberately sabotage yourself.

Oh, but the peaches were tempting. They honeyed the air. The phantom sensation of juice running down her chin, sticky and tart, had her swiping at her skin. She’d eaten the entire bag within hours, amazed they hadn’t sent her racing for a rest stop bathroom.

But these were enclave peaches, picked by a matriarch. Overindulging wasn’t a danger; it was mandatory.

From this point on the river bluff path, she spied the cave opening, but only because she knew where to look. It was the darkness between pine needles and leaves. It was the cool that chased away some of the day’s heat, sending a wash of goose bumps across her bare arms and legs.

She reached the spot where the mosquitoes stopped nattering in her ears and biting the back of her neck. The spot where most people turned around, their legs suddenly and oddly tired, their sunburn fierce despite thick layers of sunscreen, their water bottles mysteriously empty.

Isabelle kept going.

The path turned rocky. During her first run as a courier, she’d pulled on the combat boots on a whim, more from nostalgia rather than practicality.

Turned out to be a wise decision.

Her heart pounded again. Isabelle paused, shifted the crate on her hip so she could hold it with one hand, and pressed her free palm against her chest, waiting once again.

Her heart thrummed with a steady thump, thump, thump. During her last Army physical—one for yet another deployment requiring yet another round of shots—the doctor had paused, stethoscope pressed against Isabelle’s chest.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have a heart murmur?”

Isabelle’s breath caught in her throat. She gave her head one slow shake.

The doctor listened, the crease between her eyebrows deepening. “Strange no one has ever … huh, this is weird. I’m going to order some tests.”

The words froze Isabelle in place. She knew, even without the tests. It was the enclave.

She was being called home.

Even now, when her heart pounded or skipped a beat, when the air felt odd in her lungs, she’d hold herself still, listen with all her might, as if somehow she could hear the defects of her own heart.

She continued the trek, the climb registering in her thighs now. This last stretch always made her doubt. Was she on the right path? Would she walk in circles, searching for the cave and never finding it?

Then the entrance loomed, dark and foreboding, a place for bears or wolves or definitely something that might swallow you in a single gulp.

And well, yes, their patron could do that. But she—like all patrons—had a particular palate. Human flesh wasn’t on the menu. Isabelle adjusted the crate in her grip.

Apparently peaches were.

She stepped across the boundary where the path ended and the flat, smooth surface of the cave entrance began. Cool air washed over her, chasing the sweat from her skin. A burst of color filled her eyes. Gemstones glinted in the sun—blood reds to dazzle, blues the color of midnight, and greens that made her think of those endless fields of corn.

The gems looked ripe, like they were their own kind of fruit. You could reach out and pluck one from the wall—if you were foolish enough to try, that is.

In the center of the entrance stood a small altar made of marble, its surface only a few inches larger than the crate she carried. The first time Isabelle had placed an offering there, relief filled the breathlessness in her lungs. Certainly she’d never be asked for something she couldn’t carry.

In all five years, she hadn’t. Perhaps that was enough of a reward.

She crouched and brushed the marble surface and then exhaled to chase away any errant grit or dust. The altar was clean; it always was. But it felt right to do this, to make this final gesture before she left.

Assuming she would leave this year.

As always, if her patron lingered inside the cave, Isabelle couldn’t detect her. No sigh filled with smoke. No tail scraping the cave floor. Nothing but the gemstones glinting playfully and the altar waiting for her offering.

She eased the crate onto the surface and stood—one step back and then another.

Nothing.

Perhaps she’d been wrong about the five years. But no, when she’d returned from the Army, Marilyn had specifically said the previous courier—Isabelle’s second cousin—had “finished” with her duties.

Her matriarch hadn’t elaborated on what “finished” meant, exactly, only that the woman was nowhere to be found. And that it was Isabelle’s turn.

And ten years ago, before she’d enlisted in the Army, there’d been another such turnover. Indeed, it was one of the reasons she did enlist. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, here she was. Another Sterling woman after five years of service to a patron she’d never seen, never mind spoken to.

She’d tried, of course, that first year. She called out, peered into the cave, even dared to take a few steps inside. The hollow space swallowed her voice. The light from the gemstones faded a few feet inside the void. No scent of brimstone or smoke, only that of clean, dry earth. If her patron lingered somewhere beyond, shrouded by the dark, Isabelle couldn’t tell.

If not for the vanishing offering—last year’s had been Mozart Kugeln from Vienna—she’d say nothing inhabited the cave at all.

So that was it: five years and nothing. Perhaps Marilyn would meet her at the crossroads where she’d left her truck and relieve her of her duties. Maybe this was like the Army. She’d done her time, served as best she could, but lacked the … heart for anything else.

But it had been a good five years. She’d gotten her degree and traveled the world—this time to places where people weren’t shooting at her.

That was worth something.

“Thank you,” she said into the stillness. “It’s been an honor to be your courier.”

Isabelle was at the boundary, toes of her combat boots flirting with the edge, when a sonorous voice sounded behind her.

“Oh, my child, that sounds like a goodbye.”

* * *

It was only after her discharge from the Army that Isabelle found herself freezing at the oddest provocations. She couldn’t account for it.

After all, she’d stood in the open door of a C-130, the pines of Georgia thick beneath her as the plane banked for another run at the drop zone. She was out the door the second the light turned green, no hesitation. She could work in the sand, the mud, the rain. She knew when to be still and when to move.

But here in the civilian world? Here with her patron?

She froze.

“It’s all right, my dear.” The words were low, infused with brimstone and heat, mist and flowers.

It was such a strange, enticing combination that Isabelle found herself turning around. She froze once again, this time in awe. Her patron was a shimmering green that changed with the light—from one angle, the icy green of new growth, from another, the deep somber skin of a ripe avocado. Flecks of red raced along the surface of the scales. The forked tongue was red as well.

But the eyes were a glowing amber. And it was those serious eyes that surveyed her now.

“Are you really a dragon?” It was an impertinent sort of question, and Isabelle almost wished she could bite it back.

“Some people call me that. I prefer to think of myself as myself.”

“Me, too.”

“Indeed. It’s a Sterling trait, one I’ve always admired.”

Isabelle glanced about the cave. She knew that she wasn’t some sort of damsel-in-distress sacrifice. Why now and what next both hovered on the tip of her tongue. At last, she went with:

“I don’t understand.”

“The enclave still needs you, my dear, they have always needed you and the Sterlings before you.”

“To do what?”

“The hard work of making ends meet, I’m afraid.”

“But, the gardens, and the farm, and the—”

“Etsy shop?” The dragon’s voice rose, more amused than sardonic. “Not enough to survive on, never mind thrive. We have always sent the Sterlings into the world. They’ve always been the most capable of handling the vagaries of life.”

Like making a thirty-six-hour roundtrip for a crate of peaches or dealing with dude-bros in their pickup trucks.

“Yes, exactly that.” The dragon grinned.

At least, Isabelle assumed that’s what all those teeth meant. She recalled the glamour she’d used on dude-bro. Forget fox, coyote, or even mountain lion.

Maybe she’d been a dragon all along.

“Indeed,” her patron said. “You’ve also been a soldier and a scholar. For five years, you have catered to my … whims. You’re ready to strike out on your own.”

“I’m to leave the enclave?”

“Not permanently, but for the time being, yes.”

“Will the enclave call me home again?”

Wisps of smoke rose from the dragon’s nostrils. She shook her head as if startled by Isabelle’s question.

“My child, didn’t you know? That was me.”

Isabelle touched fingers to the left side of her chest. “But—”

“I had to break one small part of you so that you could come home to us.” The dragon paused, and it was as if she spoke the next word with great reluctance. “Intact.”

The meaning of that word—intact—sank in immediately. Isabelle had kept herself from watching the news, from keeping up with her old unit, searching the internet for details. Somehow, she knew. She knew exactly how that last deployment had ended.

The dragon blew out a smoke ring. It broke against Isabelle’s chest, soothing but not healing her heart.

“It’s not all bad, a whispering heart,” her patron said. “If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.”

“I’m afraid I can’t hear it.”

“You will. With time.” The dragon inclined her head toward the peaches, still on the altar. “Now, will you stay and join me for this repast?”

Isabelle took two steps forward and knelt at the altar. “I will.”

* * *

A full moon helped Isabelle navigate the path down the river bluff. Once in her truck, she rested her arms on the steering wheel and gazed through the windshield. Above her, through the fringe of cottonwood leaves, a field of stars littered the night sky.

She was going to miss this view.

Her phone, which she’d locked in the glove compartment, buzzed. She fumbled with the latch and pulled it out in time to see a text message flash across the screen.

Denisha: I never did ask. Were you on your fifth year too?

Isabelle: Get your walking papers?

Denisha: Sure did. I could use a brainstorming buddy if you’re available.

Isabelle: I’ll start driving south.

Denisha: I’ll head north.

Isabelle: Meet you in the middle?

Denisha: Meet you in the middle.

When Isabelle returned to Black Earth, she found Marilyn on the town hall steps, haloed by lamplight. Two duffle bags, a suitcase, and three boxes—all of Isabelle’s worldly possessions—surrounded her. In her hands, Marilyn held a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.

Without a word, she handed it to Isabelle. Inside was the picture of the barefoot woman, cradling the basket, chin tilted resolutely for that journey up the river bluff. Now, when Isabelle studied the photograph, she noticed something new.

The woman wore the barest trace of a smile as well.

“Her fifth year,” Isabelle said.

“Yes, indeed.” Marilyn hugged her then, arms thin but capable. “We will miss you, but you are ready.”

“And when it’s time to come home?”

Marilyn raised her gaze to the river bluff. “You’ll know, one way or the other.”

On her way out of Black Earth, Isabelle passed a truck pulled over on the side of the road, a white pickup with flame decals. It sat there, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both. A relic to something, although she wasn’t quite sure what.

She drove into the night, listening to the whisper of wheels against the interstate and for the quiet murmur of her own heart.

Heart Whisper is (yet another!) dragon story written for The (Love) Stories for 2020 Project.

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Weekly writing check-in: Impressive job!

So, this may be my favorite sp@m comment yet:

Keep functioning, impressive job!

In fact, I think a variation sums up 2020 fairly well.

Still functioning? Impressive job!

In actual writing news, I’m working on that very last story for the 2020 project. I finally figured out that it’s a Diamonds and Toads retelling, which is one of those fairy tales I keep coming back to. I find it unfair. I believe it’s more of a curse to have diamonds and gems fall from your mouth than toads and vipers. (Really, vipers could come in handy, especially in 2020.)

But it’s a modern retelling, so no actual toads or diamonds are making an appearance (so far). If you want actual diamonds (and some toads), there’s always An Army of Toads in my fairy tale compilation, Straying from the Path.

Next week, I hope to report that this story and the 2020 project are complete.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Maze

How can you escape if there’s no way out?

Eppie

On the twelfth day, Cadet Eppie Langtry found the cracks in the wall.

She’d stopped her trek through the maze and leaned against its smooth surface. Exhaustion from the first six hours washed through her, the force of it pushing her into the unforgiving wall. After a few quick breaths, she wiped a hand across her eyes and rolled her shoulder. It was nothing more than a simple push to get going. But beneath her, something shifted.

Eppie sprang back, gulping cold air. She inched closer and probed the crevice with her fingers. The unrelenting and unchanging wall of the past twelve days slid against her skin. She nudged the wall with her shoulder, the way you might a best friend, as if she and this impenetrable white slab had anything in common. The crevice deepened.

Eppie glanced upward. The walls and ceiling were bare, but so bright that some days, she wanted to crouch into a ball, bury her head in her arms, and simply rock the twelve-hour shift away.

She never did. The stories of those who had halted for too long kept her trudging forward through the maze. With her shoulder molding new shapes in the wall, Eppie latched onto the first glimmer of … something. Like everyone else in her class, she’d spent hours pounding the surface, scratching the walls, kicking as hard as she could. Not even blood from torn fingernails was a match for the bright, white glare. Worse, after that first day, everyone’s boots went missing from their lockers, and they now navigated the icy maze in bare feet.

Her toes ached with the cold. Eppie sandwiched one foot on top of the other and inspected the dip in the wall her shoulder had made. She poked at the wall with her fingertips, and the pliant give became unrelenting again. It was as if the maze resented her earlier attempts of kicking and scratching.

Eppie blew out a breath. “I’d be resentful too,” she said, her words barely reaching her ears. It was as if the walls absorbed both the sound of her voice and what she had to say.

She tried her shoulder again, rolling it around, gentle, persistent, but giving it a bit of rhythm, like a dance routine. If the cadre were filming this—and no doubt they were—she must look ridiculous. A giggle escaped her lips, and Eppie slapped a hand across her mouth. She hadn’t laughed in how many days? Certainly not the last twelve.

Beneath her shoulder, the crevice grew into a valley. Since the wall seemed to like her shoulder, what about a hip? Now she was dancing. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder…

Something solid and warm blocked her progress. Eppie halted, drinking in the first hint of heat in more than six hours. Was this the key, then? Movement? Friction? The wall beneath her still glowed white. It looked deceptively cold, but its warmth was delicious. She turned her face toward the wall, tongue flicking across her lips. What if she leaned forward? What if she let her mouth graze the surface? What then?

She was a mere breath away when the wall beneath her skin coughed.

Hank

Cadet Hank Su stomped through the corridor. No matter how hard he tried, the bright white swallowed the sound of his footfalls until all that remained were small, pathetic steps against the frigid floor. No matter how hard he screamed, the walls absorbed it. By dinner, his throat was so raw, even water scraped on the way down. He crashed from side to side. He kicked until they took away his boots. He gathered up all his strength and bolted down the corridor.

Gentle curves morphed into straight, hard surfaces—almost on a whim—and he slammed into the wall, this time not on purpose. Hank experimented with speed, sprints and slow jogs, but always moving forward. After that first day, when his best friend Ryan didn’t come back, Hank had known this was no ordinary training exercise. Every night, he confronted that empty bunk next to his. To stop seeing the image of the stripped mattress and empty footlocker, Hank bent his head forward and ran with all his strength, grateful for the crash at the end.

But today, day twelve, he walked the corridors, keeping his pace steady. When he stood still, the walls closed in. If he extended his arms, certainly he’d be able to touch both sides at once. Every time he tried? The walls exhaled. There was no other word for it. And they left him standing in the center of the hall, fingertips straining for the cold surface on either side of him.

An illusion. A trick. Something someone was recording. Would the cadre play it back, at the end of the exercise, so everyone could laugh at him? He shook his head, banishing that notion—and the thought that there was no end to this. That was why they punched the walls. That was why they kicked. Didn’t the cadre understand that? Or maybe they did, and that was the point.

Hank inched closer to one wall, letting his fingers trail along its surface. So smooth. So cold. An ache bloomed beneath his fingertips. He moved closer still, resting his forehead against the wall. The shock of cold almost made him jerk back. But as unrelenting as the wall was, it soothed his brow, made his throat feel less parched. Hank inhaled, held the recycled air in his lungs, then blew out a long breath and pitched forward.

There, on the wall—like the indentation on a pillow—was the impression of his forehead. With hands and fingers, he probed the dent. Nothing. In frustration, he leaned his head in the same spot, and the wall gave way again.

This time, Hank stood still. The corridor remained quiet. The lights blared down, like they always had. A dry, stale taste had invaded his mouth a few hours back. But this? This was new. This held hope. He rolled his head from side to side, the motion so gentle, his eyelids grew heavy. It was like an icy lullaby, and after six hours of running the maze, a relief.

The going was slow, but the wall yielded beneath his head. He forgot about running, about screaming, about kicking. He forgot about feeling foolish. Who cared? At last he was getting somewhere.

The giggle stopped all his progress. Hank felt his eyes grow wide. Certainly his mouth hung open. A giggle. A girl’s giggle. He stepped back and surveyed the wall.

“Hello?” His voice sounded rough, so he coughed to clear it.

Nothing. Right. Walls didn’t giggle. That didn’t stop him from trying again. “Hello?”

“Is someone there?” The voice sounded light, but steady, and even better, real. Not some computer-simulated thing—and Hank knew all about those. This was a real girl.

Or, at least, Hank hoped she was. Instead of jumping back, he surged forward and cracked his head against the wall.

“Ow.” His voice sank into the walls around him, and it was almost like he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Are you okay?”

“I head-butted the wall.”

“You can’t do that,” the girl said. “You’ve got to go slow.”

“I know that.”

“And use body parts that haven’t hit the wall, either.”

“I know that too.” Or, at least, he did now.

“Does your head still work?”

What kind of question was that? Hank stared at the wall so hard, the surface blurred red.

“I mean,” she said, “since you hit the wall with it.”

Oh. Of course. He was an idiot. “Let me try.” He eased forward, resting his head against the wall. From one side to the other, he rolled his head, the cold dulling the pain from the bruise.

His feet remained in the same spot, but the wall felt pliant under his forehead. He brought up a hand, testing the surface not with fingertips that had scratched, but with the heel of his hand. The sensation didn’t register at first, but a small circle beneath his palm radiated warmth.

“Do you feel that?” he asked. “The heat?”

“I do.”

“What do you think it is?”

A moment passed, a single heartbeat of hesitation. “Us?”

Was it? The reflex to jerk away nearly had him on the opposite side of the corridor. Instead, he stretched his fingers and pressed them against the wall. Warmth ran along his skin, pooled in his palm. The girl. It had to be, standing like he was, her hand against his.

“What’s your—?” he began.

The claxon alarm rang. The walls faded. The floor vanished beneath his feet. The plummet stole his breath, felt endless until the jolt of hitting the ground. He found himself in the assembly yard, like he had after every twelve-hour shift, along with all the others in his class. Lines formed for the dining hall. By rote, Hank joined one.

“Hey, Hank!” someone called.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he traced patterns across his palm. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her warmth. When he opened them, Hank realized one thing:

He didn’t even know her name.

Eppie

Eppie scanned the dining facility, gaze darting, hopeful and quick. Too many times, she’d spotted someone, someone like her, someone with a secret. Her heart would speed up. She’d open her mouth to call out, raise a hand to wave, only to have that someone turn away.

Could she find the boy? If so, what then? How would that help them tomorrow, when they both went back inside the maze? She took her seat and pushed her dinner around her plate. Eat, she told herself. Build up your strength. Tonight’s stew was smooth, at least. And hot. The center of the spoonful burnt her tongue, and the heat of it seared the back of her throat.

Eppie clutched her water cup, brought the rim to her lips, and drowned the heat. When she set the cup down, the sharp gaze of a matron fell on her.

“What did you do?” her friend Chara asked.

Eppie shook her head. “I didn’t do anything.” Except make the maze move. Except talk to a boy, who was somewhere beyond the yellow dividing line that ran the entire length of the dining facility.

But what if the cadre had seen Eppie and the boy, heard them talk? Well, what of it? Eppie folded her arms across her chest. She raised her chin and stared back at the matron.

The woman glanced away.

“Eppie …?” Chara said.

Eppie put a finger to her lips. “Not here.”

She was scraping her plate clean when the bell sounded. Normally, they’d be released into the yard for a precious hour of social interaction, but not at this point in their training, not while they were all navigating the maze. Instead, they walked the lines to their separate dormitories, were pushed through showers, and watched the lights flicker above their bunks.

“Wakeup at zero four hundred, ladies,” the matron said. “That comes awfully early.”

“Actually, it comes at the same time every day,” Chara whispered.

Eppie giggled. The feel of it in her throat made her think of dancing with the maze. The boy. His warmth.

“There’s more to the maze,” she whispered to Chara.

The matron’s footfalls sounded in the aisle between the two rows of beds.

“I’m not sure it’s a maze at all,” she added.

The footsteps grew louder, then slowed, then stopped—right beside Eppie’s bunk.

“Cadet Langtry?”

“Yes, Matron?”

“If I were you, I’d conserve my energy by not speaking.”

Eppie stilled her breath even as her thoughts raced. “Yes, Matron.”

So they knew? They must. If the cadre couldn’t use the maze to observe them, then they had planted something in their uniforms, a tracking device, perhaps. A sudden, delicious thought of flinging off her uniform filled her head. Flinging it off and running through the maze naked. Flinging it off and finding that boy. He’d keep her warm.

Now that would be a dance worth doing.

Hank

Hank stood at the entry point to the maze. He was alone in his own little corridor. They all were. If he held still, he could hear the others, their breathing, an occasional shoulder slam against the wall. No one liked going in, but the sooner they did, the sooner the day would end.

Day thirteen.

When his door whooshed open, Hank took soft steps. He let his fingertips skim the wall, the gentlest of touches. He could hold a baby bird and not injure it. Still, the cold against the soles of his feet, and the idea of the girl, urged him forward, faster and faster.

Soft and fast, he chanted to himself. Soft and fast.

Could he find her? He’d thought of her—dreamed of her—all night. Was she thinking of him? Dreaming of him? Did she even want to find him?

In nearly two weeks, what they’d both discovered yesterday was the first thing that hadn’t hurt. He wanted more of that, so after half an hour (by his guess), he decided to cozy up to the wall.

He veered right, simply because he was right-handed. Hank hesitated. Was that predictable? Or maybe no second-guessing? The maze probably hated that. After all, he did.

Hank froze, his palm against the wall’s surface. When, exactly, had the maze started having opinions?

“But you do,” he whispered. Was it sentient? Would it eat them? It hadn’t bothered to in the past twelve days, so he didn’t see why it should start now.

“Do you have a name?” he asked, his face close now to the bright white of the wall. “I was stupid,” he added. “I didn’t ask the girl what her name was. I’m worried I won’t be able to find her.”

He stood now, both hands against the wall, his face inches away, legs spread. “Can you help me?”

Beneath his palms, something shifted, as if a wave deep within the wall itself had rolled past.

“I’m sorry,” he added, “I didn’t know I could hurt you. I only thought they were trying to hurt us.”

The wave surged past again, stronger this time, carrying him with it.

“Got it,” he said, feet scurrying to catch up. “You want me to go that way.”

Hank ran, faster than he could on his own. With that wave beneath his palm, he nearly flew. Cold air blasted him in the face. His eyes watered, and his mouth went dry. But he didn’t care.

He was flying. He was going to find the girl.

Eppie

Eppie kept her uniform on. Tempted as she was to chuck the whole thing, the air was too frigid. Plus, at the end of the shift, did she really want to end up in the assembly yard completely naked? No. No, she did not.

Today, when her fingertips met the wall, the surface gave, just a bit, beneath the pressure. Nothing too hard, nothing violent, but yet, when she pressed her whole hand—not just the palm—against the wall, she felt herself sink into it.

“Do you forgive me?” she asked. “We didn’t know. They never said.” And here she was, talking to the wall as if it were a real living thing. Was it? She pressed deeper into the surface and the wall swallowed her hand, up to her wrist.

“Oh!” It didn’t hurt. In fact, it made her think of what it might be like to push your way into a marshmallow. During her first year at the Academy, they’d had those, complete with a campfire that threw sparks into the air, the sweet smell of burnt sugar filling her nose. Back when things had felt hopeful, the Academy a lucky break.

Eppie eased her other hand into the wall. “What went wrong? Was it always supposed to end this way?”

The surface moved under her touch, like it was melting, except it was still far too cold for that. “You are so cold,” she said. “That doesn’t seem right.”

Could a living thing be so cold, even one from another planet or dimension, or wherever this thing was from? She let herself fall forward, arms spread wide as if for a giant hug. If the maze didn’t catch her, she’d break her nose, maybe some bones. But she closed her eyes, let gravity take her, and fell head first into the marshmallow wall.

Three inches from the floor, the maze caught her.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I knew you would.”

At that moment, something rolled over her. This was less of a marshmallow and more of a thick wave of frosting. With it came a whoop and a flash of heat. Heat. Warmth.

The boy.

“Hello!” Eppie clambered to her hands and knees. She was fully inside the wall now. She slogged forward. It felt like pushing through a meadow of velvet grass with stalks that grew taller than her head.

“Hello!” she called again, louder now. “Are you there?”

“Is that you?”

Of course it’s me, Eppie wanted to say. But she knew what he meant. “From yesterday, right?”

“It is you!” he said. “And the maze, it somehow—”

“Brought us together.” Even the ice cold interior couldn’t cool the blush that flashed across her face. She didn’t know what this boy looked like, didn’t know his name. All she knew was that he liked to head-butt his way into things, that he was loud, that he was trying to find her.

And that made him oh so interesting.

“I’m over here,” she said when he didn’t respond.

“Yeah, that’s just it. I don’t know where ‘here’ is.”

He laughed, and the maze around her shook. Gentle waves made the velvet insides quiver and sent her this way and that.

“The maze likes that,” she said. “It likes to hear you laugh.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m inside it, inside the walls.”

“How on earth—?”

Eppie laughed. “Probably not.”

“You’re right about that,” he said. “But how?”

“Remember the trust falls from first year?”

“I hated those.”

“Same idea.”

“Will you help me?”

“I don’t know where you are.” Eppie held her arms out, fingers investigating the velvet that surrounded her. His heat. She should search for his heat. But all that met her fingertips was more frigid air.

“Hey.” His voice was soft. “Before I forget. What’s your name?”

“Eppie Langtry.”

“I’m Henry, Henry Su. But everyone calls me Hank.”

“Can I call you Henry?”

“Uh, I guess. Sure.”

“I don’t want to be like everyone else.”

Hank

He’d found her! He’d found the girl. Hank didn’t even care that she wanted to call him Henry. No one ever did. In fact, Hank liked that he could be Henry, if just for this girl.

“I’m over here,” he called.

“It’s like you’re everywhere.” She laughed, and the sound flowed through the space, seemed to fill it.

“I think it likes it when you laugh,” he said.

“So you think it’s … something, too.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know what.”

“I almost want to say it’s not here.”

“Oh, it’s here.”

“I mean …” She sighed, and that too, traveled through the walls. “It’s from somewhere else, or another dimension, one that was rolled up small, but now is stretched thin.” She paused, then added, “That’s why it’s cold. That’s why it hurts.”

“Who did the stretching?”

This time, Eppie’s exhale filled his ears. They both knew the answer to his question. Whoever did the stretching also shoved them inside every morning.

“Why did it pick us?” Hank asked, his voice quiet. “I mean, you’re special.” Hank knew she was. The trust fall proved that. “But I’m nobody. Average grades, average test scores, average everything.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I can prove it. On the outside, at least.”

“Maybe it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.”

“So what do we do?” he asked. “How do we help it?”

“I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that I want to feel your hand again.”

Hank swallowed, hard. For a full ten seconds, he quite possibly forgot how to breathe. “Maybe.” He coughed. “Maybe I should hold still, and you try to find me.” He cleared his throat again and added, “It might be easier that way, since you’re on the inside.”

He let himself melt into the wall. The surface grew softer beneath him, more pliant. From somewhere deep inside the wall came a whooshing noise, a sloshing that sounded like someone pushing through knee-deep water.

“Have you ever seen a wheat field?” Eppie asked.

“Only in vids.”

“This must be what it’s like, walking through one, only the stalks are so soft.”

A spot of heat brushed against his palms.

“Oh, I found you!” Eppie cried out before he could utter a word.

They stood like that, palm to palm. A circle of heat bloomed beneath their hands, spread into the wall itself.

“Do you feel that?” she asked.

Hank coughed again. “Yeah.”

“I think it wants us closer together. You know, more points of contact.”

“You okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” she said. “It’s like dancing.”

Well, he wasn’t going to use that word, but yes, like dancing. They eased closer together. Was that her cheek against his lips?

“Why do you think it needs us?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s … I don’t know, using us? Not in a bad way. I mean, I barely know you, but I couldn’t stop thinking of you last night. You know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“It feels … right, and yet, nothing makes sense.”

“Nothing about this last year makes sense. Weren’t you excited to get into the Academy?”

He had been, just like his older brothers.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be easy,” Eppie continued. “But even the training that seemed stupid at the time had a point, and you kind of knew what that was, even if you didn’t exactly.”

Hank snorted. That was the Academy, all right. “Both my brothers graduated from here. Frederick never talks about the maze, and all Jon says is don’t stop moving.”

But they had stopped. And now?

“All that training,” she said, “and then they put us in here, and it feels like … it feels like—”

“A mistake,” he finished. “Someone’s made a mistake, and they don’t know how to fix it.”

“Then why are they sending class after class through the maze?”

“Maybe they were hoping for the right combination?”

“Maybe they were hoping for us. Look.”

Shadows played against the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor of the maze. Dark figures ran, punched walls, scratched and kicked. Hank wanted to scream. Stop! You’re not helping.

“More than one dimension, then?” Eppie asked.

“I wasn’t paying attention that day in class.”

“I think this goes beyond anything they teach in class.”

“That’s probably part of the problem.”

The claxon bell blared, echoing through the maze with enough force to rupture an eardrum. Hank felt it shake the walls. The surface beneath his hands trembled, like a wild creature racked with fear and pain. Before the bottom fell out—before the walls melted and his feet slid through nothing—he lunged forward.

Forget trust falls. This was a trust dive. He grabbed Eppie around the waist the same moment she clutched his shoulders. He wasn’t losing her this time.

The second before they hit bottom, Eppie said:

“Don’t let go.”

Eppie

Something about the assembly yard was different, and it wasn’t simply because she was clutching the boy, Henry. They held onto each other, and Eppie took in the grass beneath her, the sky above, a twilight blue with a nearly full moon. And yet, when she stared hard, she saw the maze, or the outline of it, floating above their heads.

Others saw it too. Faces turned skyward. Necks, some long and slender, others thick and sturdy, were all she could see of her classmates. Another dimension? A being? Whatever it was, things were different.

Matrons and wardens converged on the yard, corralling boys and girls, not even caring that they mixed the groups.

“Find them!” someone shouted.

“Eppie!” Chara dashed up, breathless, hair streaming from its regulation bun. “They mean you.”

For the first time, Eppie’s gaze met Henry’s. His soulful dark eyes looked worried. “Us?” he said.

He sprang to his feet and reached for her. Eppie grabbed on with one hand, pushing herself up with the other. Then, still clutching Henry, she ran. Their classmates parted for them, then filled the gap behind, forcing the wardens and matrons to shove, to pull out the tazons. Zaps, sizzles, and the cries of their classmates echoed behind them.

“What are they doing?” Eppie forced out between breaths.

“Something bad.”

“What did we do?”

Henry glanced at her before sprinting harder. “Something bad?”

They raced past their classmates, intent on those last few steps to freedom. The protected forest around the Academy would shelter them. She knew enough, Eppie was sure, to survive for days in there, despite the lack of supplies. The two of them together? They’d make do.

At the very edge, where the scent of pine filled the air, and branches reached out as if to greet them, they slammed into a wall. Not like one from the maze. This wall was thick, electrified. It sent Eppie backward, through the air, her grip torn from Henry’s.

Her hip crunched against the earth first, a sickening sound that made her think of broken bones. She rolled, hoping that would absorb the shock. She rolled and rolled, right into a pair of white, gleaming boots. She stared up into the glowing end of a tazon.

Eppie never raised her hands. Her mouth stayed closed. She held on, held her breath, and braced for what would happen next.

The jolt shot through her entire body, and then her world went black.

Hank

Hank had ended his day surrounded by black. Now, waking, it was all he saw. He reached out a hand, waved it, blinked, and waved it again. Nothing. Either the cell was lightproof, or the tazon had blinded him.

Or both. He’d heard about the cells. They all had. The cadre sent you there when you acted out. You were meant to reconsider your choices in this space, contemplate whether the rules were really that bad, whether the wardens and the matrons truly mistreated you.

Life choices. We all make them, the superintendent had intoned during first-year orientation.

Yeah. What a choice. All he’d done was what? Figure out the maze? Where was the reward for that? The accolades? He pushed himself up, tucked his legs beneath him, then reached a tentative hand above his head.

A meter, maybe a meter and a half. Not enough room to stand and barely enough to turn around. He inched his fingers along the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. The surface snagged callouses on his hands, the texture rough-hewn and unmoving. He scraped a knuckle and warm blood oozed between his fingers.

His head swam, an ache spreading across his skull. A panel slid back. Light flooded the space. He squinted, trying to peer out his cell, the panel, the door—or what he thought was the door—anything to give him more information.

“The prisoner is awake,” someone said.

Prisoner?

“Ah, very good.” A shadow crossed the open panel. “Comfortable, Cadet Su?” a smooth voice said. “I imagine fraternizing with female cadets is a great deal more fun than this.”

What? He never … well, sure, he thought about Eppie, but they’d just met—sort of. Plus, they’d been inside the maze. All rules were off.

Weren’t they?

“Hungry?” the voice asked.

In response, Hank’s stomach rumbled. Stupid, stupid. It made him look weak. Of course, getting thrown into a pitch-black cell didn’t make him appear all that strong, or smart, either.

“Well then,” the voice said, the solicitous tone chilling Hank’s thoughts. “Why don’t we have a little chat?”

Eppie

The straight-back chair was unremarkable except for one thing: Eppie couldn’t move. Her bare feet were flush against the floor. The surface flashed hot, then cold. She jerked against invisible bonds, unable to break contact. Sweat bathed her forehead, trickled down her spine.

“You’re making it too hard on yourself,” the matron said. “Simply tell us what happened. Then you can go back to the dorm, have a nice dinner, see your friends.”

A false promise. She’d been trained—they all had—in resisting interrogation. Why did this matron think such simple offers would work now? The floor flashed again, a searing heat that forced a yelp from her throat.

That. It was one thing to read about torture, quite another for someone to cook the soles of your feet.

“You know,” the matron said. “Cadet Su told us some interesting things.”

The matron was all sly words and looks, playing mostly good cop. Eppie had braced for the inevitable switch—a new matron, or a warden, even. Pretending that Henry had said something might be standard procedure. In this case, it wasn’t logical.

“He told us what you did.”

What she did? Or what they’d done together? Neither of which amounted to much. Or perhaps, it amounted to so much that no one could understand what had happened. Eppie pictured the maze floating above the yard. The cadre wanted to control something they couldn’t comprehend. And good luck with that.

“You can’t hide anything from us,” the woman said. “We have it all on vid, for playback, any time we like.”

Then why bother asking? Eppie clamped her mouth shut. She’d stuck with the canned response, the one the cadre themselves taught. Name. Rank. Serial Number. You open your mouth, you give them an opening. Speak and you’ll eventually say something you don’t mean to—or can’t take back.

“So, you don’t mind that Cadet Su, that Hank, betrayed you?”

Perhaps someone named Cadet Su would betray her. And Hank? Well, how could you trust a Hank? Eppie shut her eyes and pictured Henry, his dark silky hair, his warm hands against her, around her waist, palm against palm as they ran. Maybe the Academy did have vids. But clearly their knowledge didn’t add up to much if they didn’t know the difference between Hank and Henry.

Eppie stared straight at the matron and laughed.

Hank

He knew the beating would come the moment laughter burst from his mouth. Cadet Langtry had betrayed him? Eppie? The few glimpses of the girl he’d had over the past two days told him how rock steady she was—much more than he was, that was for sure. How smart she was. After four years of training at the Academy, couldn’t the cadre see that?

Maybe they did and figured he was the idiot in the equation. Well, that was partly true, because he had just laughed, loud and long, at their ludicrous suggestion. Another round with the tazon? Sure, why not? Tossed, bruised and battered, back into his pitch-black cell? Not surprising.

What surprised him were the questions—not the ones about Eppie, but the others. What was the maze made out of? How did they get inside the walls? (And really, only Eppie had, so why ask him?) The cadre controlled the entrance and exit, herded them through the maze day after day. Yet, they knew so little. Which made him, and Eppie, and their classmates what? Lab rats?

He pressed gentle fingers against his eyes. They were swelling shut, both of them, not that it mattered inside the cell. Still, it was so dark, he was afraid he’d forget whether his eyes were open or closed. He wondered if Eppie were doing the same, testing her own bruised eyes. He hated to think of her that way, hated that maybe it was all his fault. He pressed a hand against the wall, wishing for one intense moment that it was the maze again, that he’d detect her warmth, find her again.

“Henry?”

The soft voice made him bolt upright. He should have smacked the hell out of his forehead and given himself a second concussion. Instead, the rough stone gave way—like in the maze.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

Eppie

Eppie couldn’t say when the floor beneath her bruised limbs cushioned rather than punished. Her hip stopped aching, then her ribs. She dozed, possibly, before her eyes went wide with amazement.

She was inside the maze again, but it was more than that now. Actually, when she considered it, the maze had always been more than that. It was something unto itself. And it wasn’t tethered to this world any longer. It had broken free. They’d seen that in the yard. But it hadn’t left. It had come back.

For her?

Yes, and not just for her.

“Let’s find Henry,” she told it.

And so they traveled. High above the Academy, Eppie breathed in the panic below. Hovercrafts for on-planet use, space transport, footlockers and bags scattered in the yard, and parents streaming through the halls in search of their children. Her stomach tightened. Her own parents? Had they been notified? Or was she not part of that world anymore?

The maze carried her through the long corridors of the Academy. She eavesdropped on hurried meetings, press conferences cut short. A scandal, with two cadets dead due to unauthorized experiments.

Dead?

“Please,” she told the maze. “Where’s Henry? Is he all right?”

So they floated lower, and lower, beneath the first floor, the basement, into the catacombs that fueled so many rumors among the cadets.

“All true?” she wondered out loud.

They passed her own cell. Her uniform, ghostly white, flat and listless, was crumpled on the floor. Perhaps the urge to lose her uniform had been right all along. She certainly didn’t need it now.

A sob echoed through the dark hall and wrenched her heart, but she was powerless to console the mourner. The maze continued down the hall, down another level. Eppie held up her hand, like she had the first time she’d met Henry inside the maze.

“I’ll know him,” she said. “Just go slowly.”

And so it did.

“There. There he is.” That telltale warmth, the palm that fit against her own. Henry. “He’s never been inside,” she added. Not like she had. She knew the maze, and it knew her, but Henry? They hadn’t gotten to that point.

“I think he’ll trust you now. Will you try?”

And so the maze did.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

He coughed, and his whole body shook with it. The maze trembled as if it too were in pain.

“Let go,” she told Henry. “Just let go.”

“How?”

“Take my hands.”

Palm to palm, then laced fingers. She pulled him up, the now useless uniform empty and deflated on the floor.

“Where are we?” Henry asked.

“I’m not completely sure, but I think we’re inside a baby universe,” she said. “It was an experiment, here at the Academy, for years and years, and no one knew.”

“Except for the cadets they ran through it.”

“Exactly.”

“So what is it now?”

“Now I think it’s evolving.” Her voice was hushed. “And I think it’s evolving because of us, because we tried to find each other, because—”

“We knew there was something more.”

They floated up, up, up, out of the catacombs, through the Academy, and hovered over the chaos of the yard. Then they went higher, into the stars.

“It’ll need room to expand,” Eppie said.

“Babies can’t stay little forever.”

Eppie laughed and shot forward, her form ethereal now. Henry caught her, and they twirled.

“Someday, we’ll have to settle down,” he said. “All three of us.”

But for now they were simply a boy and a girl, with an entire universe between them.

I first published The Maze as part of a small compilation. It was also this small compilation that ended up getting me an invitation to submit a story to The Future Chronicles. This is my way of say: put your work out there–you never know what might come of it.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Weekly writing check-in: Good luck, always

I’m pleased to report that I did go on that final walk of 2020 last Sunday. On that walk, I discovered this token in the spot where I’ve found so many other of my rock “friends” this year.

It made me doubly glad I opted for that walk.

This week, I’ve been working on the last two stories for the 2020 project. Did you know that the last Friday in 2020 falls on Christmas day? This is something I’ve known from before the start of the year, and my mind has been churning, trying to conjure up a Christmas story.

I think I have one, albeit one with pirates. (Because nothing rings in the Holidays quite like a band of pirates.)

That leaves me with one story left to write. I actually have a start on it. I just don’t know how it ends.

And I really wish it were nice enough so I could go walking and ponder that.

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Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing

Free Fiction Friday: Valentina

A story for Veterans’/Remembrance/Armistice Day.

Valentina pressed her back against the trench wall and waited. Eight hundred feet away, the Germans waited in another set of trenches. Earlier, she’d peered over the top, watched men move up and down the front line.

She wondered if any of them peered back, detected something different in the Russian soldiers along this part of the line. Could they tell? Would they know? Would their lips curl in disgust at her shorn hair? An equal number of cheers and jeers still rang in her ears—from the parade through Petrograd, at the train station when they disembarked.

But now, as she waited, chest tight with anticipation, Valentina never thought the world could be so quiet, that a war could be so quiet. She waited for the whistle, lips pursed as if she were the one who would give the command.

Up and over the top. Across churned up earth and muck and barbed wire to the other side, to the Germans.

The Germans.

Her mother had taken a German lover once, years ago. He’d been not a beer-soaked lout, but prim, proper, face defined by round spectacles and a neat beard. Every time he encountered Valentina, he’d inclined his head like she were already a person worthy of respect, not a small child, not the illegitimate spawn of an opera singer.

Were there men like that waiting for her on the other side? She clutched her rifle and hoped not.

At dawn, the signal came. It rippled up and down the line. The first rays of sun touched the trench, and Valentina crawled to its top, pulled herself up and over.

No man’s land. Certainly. No woman’s land. That too. The sun warmed the back of her neck. Odd that, out of everything, she noticed its touch. Whizzing filled the air, the sound reverberating in her ears. Her vision tunneled, so if there was anything to her left or her right, she couldn’t see it.

Maybe it was better that way.

A few yards from the trench, something grabbed her foot, threatened to pull the boot clean off. She pitched forward, her body smacking the mud. A moment later, something crumpled on top of her.

Something warm and heavy that forced the air from her lungs. Hot liquid soaked through the back of her uniform. Earth filled her mouth, metallic and rank. If war had a taste, then perhaps it was this. Valentina struggled to suck in a full breath, arms straining against her own weight and that of someone else.

With a heave, she pushed her comrade up and off and into the dirt.

Masha. A neat bullet wound through the center of her chest. The girl—her friend—stared blankly at the sky, unblinking. Valentina crawled forward, yanking her foot from the barbed wire that had caught it. She placed her hand on Masha’s chest. She prayed, although, in truth, she hadn’t been to Mass in years.

She wanted to shut her eyes; she wanted to cross herself. Instead, she inched forward through the dirt and eased Masha’s eyes closed.

Ahead of her, members of her unit were already clearing the way, nearing that first trench. She scrambled to her feet and, crouching low, ran to catch up.

A cry went up when they took the first trench. And then the second. They were doing it! They were soldiers, true soldiers, not props, not propaganda, not objects to shame men into fighting. Who needed men when the women of Russia could fight?

Valentina plowed forward, intent on that third trench. They had the Germans on the run! She leaped. She jumped. When that third line of trenches came into view, she thought nothing of plunging into one.

The trench held two men. With the shooting and the shouting, the occasional rounds of artillery, neither noticed the rattled and crash of her entrance. They were locked in their own dance. An officer, tall, lithe, Russian. A German soldier, rifle pointed at the officer’s chest.

Valentina didn’t think. She plunged again, bayonet at the ready. For a moment, she hovered, her entire weight balancing on the tip of her blade. Only then did the German notice her, his eyes wide with shock. She saw the moment her gender registered. Surprise. Shame.

Then she fell forward, the sharp edge of her bayonet sinking all the way through.

Her head buzzed. He mouthed a few words, a prayer, perhaps, and she watched the German die. She owed him that.

A hand on her shoulder jerked her from what felt like a trance. She spun, faced the man she’d saved.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “I think for now we’re—” He broke off, his eyes widening almost as much as the German’s had. “God in heaven, you’re a woman! Not even. A mere girl.”

Valentina brought her heels together and raised her chin. “I’m a sergeant in the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death.”

The officer sank against the trench wall. His features were indistinct, but she’d viewed enough men from up on stage, from behind a curtain that she could discern their type, no matter how dimly lit they were.

This one? Part of the aristocracy, the sort that secured box seats, the sort that could pass through the throng backstage, knock on a dressing room door, be granted entrance.

What the hell was he doing in this trench?

“We are doomed.” He directed these words not to her but toward the sky above. “Clearly, we’re doomed if they mean for us to fight the Germans with schoolgirls at our side.”

And although the words weren’t meant for her and weren’t even in Russian, Valentina responded.

Je parle français.”

“Of course you do,” he said. “German as well? That might prove useful.”

“And Italian.” They’d spent a glorious year in Italy—well, glorious up until the end. Her mother’s voice had never rung so clear than it did in Milan.

“English?” the officer ventured.

She shook her head. Her mother had never taken a British lover, although she always told Valentina that the best way to learn another language was across the expanse of a pillow and between soft bed linens.

Or sequestered in a cocoon of blankets at the foot of the bed, which was where Valentina had spent so many of her nights.

The officer’s gaze shifted. He scanned the sky above them again, placed a hand on the trench wall as if he could intuit the battle from the vibrations that shook the earth.

When his gaze returned to her, something had shifted. “First, thank you,” he said. “And again, are you all right?”

She nodded.

“Have you … I mean, I’m not certain how to…” He gestured toward the German crumpled at their feet. “Have you killed in battle before?”

“Not in battle.”

Her answer widened his eyes again. “I see,” he said, although there was no way he possibly could.

“My mother,” she began.

He held up a hand. “Speak no more. I understand.”

She doubted that but remained silent. Oh, the blood. So much blood. They had to flee Italy, of course, and Paris held only temporary safety. On their return to Russia, her mother adopted a new stage name, sang once again.

But her voice never rang as clear as it had before.

“He would’ve killed her,” Valentina added, although whether she was speaking to him—or herself—she couldn’t say.

“Of course.” The officer raised his rifle. “It’s what men do. And now the women are here, trying to clean up our mess. I’m afraid you’re too late. This war is already lost.”

She shook her head. “I don’t believe that.”

“I wish with all my heart I didn’t either.”

“Are you going to fight?” Would he flee? He didn’t seem the type, but then she imagined that, once upon a time, the men who now wandered Petrograd in tattered uniforms hadn’t been the type either.

But this man could run anywhere. The world was open to him. He’d be safe in Paris, Italy too.

“The war may be lost,” he said, “but I’m still fool enough to fight in it.”

He surveyed her, from the top of her head down to her boots, his gaze critical. On its own accord, her spine stiffened. The trench wall shielded her completely even though she was standing at attention.

“Fight at my side, Sergeant?”

She nodded, once.

For the third time that day, Valentina crawled up and over a line of trenches. This time, she was not alone.

They moved forward quickly, coming up behind lines that Russian soldiers had already secured, past groups of captured Germans, past some of her own comrades. They ran hard into the setting sun. Her eyes watered beneath its glare. Her limbs ached from a day spent clawing up and down trench walls, sprinting and jumping, throwing herself onto the earth.

Where had the hours gone? Certainly, she’d only just speared that German through with her bayonet. And yet, here they stood, on the edge of a forest, the sun dipping below the horizon.

He’d held up his hand to stop her advance, but her own feet had halted along with his.

Her ear caught not the sounds of battle, but clinking glass, raucous cries. Something sharp stung her nose. Panic flooded her, and she reached for her gas mask.

The officer stayed her hand.

“That won’t be necessary.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I think I do.” He nodded toward the copse of birches. “Come with me.”

At the sound of shattering glass, they sped up. At the bunker, they froze again.

Women, armed and uniformed much as she was, used the stocks of their rifles to smash bottle after bottle. Men roared. Some shoved, grabbed at the rifles, only to be pushed back. Some men gave up the fight, fell to their knees, and rescued what vodka they could before it soaked into the earth.

The officer swore. “It won’t be the communists, or the anarchists, or even the Provisional Government that will lose the war for us. It will be this.” He pointed at the men desperately slurping at the ground. “And the Germans know that.”

“They left it here then, for the men to find?” she ventured.

“Indeed they did.”

The sound of a gunshot silenced everyone. A keening rose into the air, followed by shouts.

“She shot them! She shot them!”

Again, they ran, found the crowd gathered around a bunker.

At the entrance, Valentina’s commander stood, tall and proud. She was fierce, had fought with the Cossacks before the government put her in charge of the Women’s Battalion.

“Yes, I shot them both! Dereliction of duty. Does anyone here question that?”

There, on the ground, in a soup of blood and vodka, were a man and woman, both partially dressed, a bare leg here, an expanse of belly there, the embrace mangled but clear.

“Did you know her?” the officer whispered.

Valentina nodded. “Sophia. Her name is … was Sophia.”

“I believe our association may put you in harm’s way.” He stepped away from her and approached the commander from the opposite side of where they’d been standing.

He didn’t outrank her commander, although Valentina wondered if that mattered. He was a man, an officer, and he’d been fighting in this war much longer than they had. But he offered up a salute and merely inclined his head when listening to the commander’s response.

It was such a simple thing. Something told her that he’d see to it no one else was shot for any reason. Certainly, Sophia and this soldier were only making love. It looked … mutual, at least. With all that blood, it was hard to tell.

So much blood.

No one expected the counterattack. No, that wasn’t true, Valentina realized when the officer appeared at her side once again, grabbed her hand, and pulled her from the main thrust of the assault.

They ran deep into the forest, dodging tree limbs and branches. Pine needles raked her face, and their scent was thick in her mouth. They raced until the sounds of the battle faded, and the earth no longer shook beneath their feet. They ran until he stumbled, and they came to rest beneath a tree.

There they sat, his ragged breathing filling the night. In the quiet, Valentina heard the scampering of tiny feet, the rustle of leaves. She peered through the canopy above and spied the stars.

“Dmitri Sergeevich,” he said. “My name,” he added when she didn’t respond. “I never introduced myself.”

It was such a simple thing, this offering up of his name.

“Valentina Andreovna.”

“Hm.” Something in his tone suggested he approved—of what, she wasn’t sure.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

“What all lost children do. We head into the forest.”

“Will you fight again?”

“Will you?” He lumbered to his feet, bracing a hand against the trunk. “Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it, Valentina Andreovna.”

He offered his hand, the one not clutching the bark. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it. He craned his neck skyward and studied the stars.

“North, I think.” He released her hand and pulled a flask from the inside of his uniform tunic. He took a long draw before passing it to her. “To fortify yourself for the walk.”

She brought the flask to her mouth, the metal cold against her lips. The sharpness returned, vodka flooding her tongue, washing away the grit, the trace of pine, the residue of gunpowder. When she finished, nothing remained except for the taste of blood.

They walked north, their steps unhurried, unhindered as if they truly had left the war behind. Valentina tested her voice. The vodka had cleared the cobwebs from her throat. After a few bars, when Dmitri Sergeevich didn’t shush her, she launched into song.

It was a lullaby her mother used to sing, one meant to soothe both her current lover and illegitimate child. And if Valentina didn’t possess half the voice her mother did, she knew this.

That night, under the Russian sky, it had never rung so clear.

Valentina was inspired by the events surrounding the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death’s participation in the Kerensky Offensive of July 1917.

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Weekly writing check-in: this week was the longest month

On Friday, I went to fill out my timecard for work, and I stared at the date: November 2 for a good thirty seconds, confused.

Wasn’t the 2nd weeks ago, at the very least?

Apparently not.

Anyway, the week started with this gorgeous sunset on Monday evening.

And since the week ended on such a grand note, and we only have one more day left of pretend September, I’m going to skip the writing update and go take one last walk for 2020.

See you next week.

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Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing

Free Fiction Friday: Aleag the Great

For November, it’s stories of saying goodbye, letting things go, and endings that bring about new beginnings.

The hue and cry of the villagers woke Aleag from a sound sleep. Dreams of ice and granite shattered, leaving him with the scent of spring in his nostrils—the elusive and tantalizing hint of violet, the heavy perfume of lily of the valley. He stretched, dug his claws into the earth, and peered down the mountain.

The villagers clambered up the mountainside, pitchforks and handcrafted spears clutched in their fists—as if such things could pierce his scales.

Did they need to do this every spring? At best, it was tedious. At worst?

At worse, something—or more likely someone—would knock the delicate balance between human and dragon off-kilter. Aleag was growing weary of the whole charade. He wouldn’t be responsible for the resulting destruction.

At the center of the crowd, a young woman stumbled. Her wrists were bound, her feet bare and oddly pink. Her gown fluttered around her ankles like sea foam. Every few steps, she glanced over her shoulder as if the threat was behind her instead of straight ahead.

Curious, Aleag emerged from his cave, tail casting a graceful arc once free of its confines. Sun glinted off his scales, its heat warming his blood and clearing the last of the icy dreams from his head.

He could taste his next meal in the air.

The villagers approached, scrambling over the last rocks and boulders to reach the outcropping that held his cave. The lord mayor took the lead. The man’s blood trembled in his veins. Aleag could feel it from where he waited.

Interesting how some men conquered fear with the threat of shame.

Then again, when you were offering up such a tasty morsel, courage had little to do with it.

Aleag deigned to meet them at the stake, the location where—year after year—they secured their sacrificial lamb, where—year after year—they would barter.

Aleag always bartered.

After all, he saw no reason to make this easy for them.

* * *

Someone yanked the rope. Lily stumbled forward, more a dog on a leash than a human being. That someone jerked again. Not Peter. No, never Peter, not in his new role as village lord mayor. Peter wouldn’t soil his hands in all this.

The rope passed from villager to villager—her friends, her neighbors, her patients—until, at last, it was Jack who had the unlucky chore of tying her to the stake.

“I’m sorry, Lily,” he whispered, an anxious glance in Peter’s direction.

“No more than I am.”

She’d known from the start that if it ever came to something like this, Jack would choose Peter over her. He always had, always did, and always with an apology.

At least tethered to the stake, she could see her little cottage in the valley below. Still intact. Still safe. Someday, it might prove useful again, if not to her, then someone very much like her.

The dragon approached, footfalls shaking the ground, pebbles scattering down the slope. A few bounced and came to rest against her bare feet, the feeling of them cool against her skin, like a balm. For the first time in a week, her feet stopped their ceaseless ache.

The dragon snuffled and sniffed, the force of his exhales ruffling her hair.

“And you are?” His voice was impossibly low, a quiet murmur meant for her ears only.

“Lily.” She managed that single word with her own quiet power, surprising herself, if not him.

“Of the valley?”

“If that’s what you wish.”

He snuffled again. “I thought I’d detected spring in the air, but I doubt my wishes have anything to do with this proceeding.”

“Then we have that in common.”

He surveyed her with his large yellow eyes, her startled reflection staring back at her from the dark pupil. It was an astonishing thing to be seen so completely. At that moment, Lily felt her entire being exposed—the secrets she kept in the cottage, the ones buried deep in her heart.

“And you are?” She knew his name; all the villagers did. Every spring, they scaled the mountain. Or rather, most of them did. Lily always remained in her cottage out of protest.

Until this spring, anyway.

Still, it only seemed polite to ask.

The dragon inclined his head. “Aleag.”

Peter stepped onto a nearby boulder, out of grasping range, Lily noted. He wore a sky blue sash of silk about his waist, indicating his rank as lord mayor. He puffed up his chest and began to speak.

“Aleag the Great! As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”

“Are you really?” Lily asked under her breath.

A hint of steam rose from the dragon’s nostrils, almost in question. “Am I what?”

“Great.”

The dragon snorted a stream of fire that sent the villagers scampering down the incline. Even Peter tripped and fell backward, Jack’s outstretched arms breaking his fall.

“It would seem,” Aleag said, humor and heat in his words, “that I’m at least adequate.”

When one was staring down certain death, one generally didn’t laugh. And yet. Lily found herself biting back the smile. “What would you need to do to be great?”

“Oh, the usual, I suppose. Crush a few villages beneath my claws, lay waste to the harvest, incinerate a couple of forests.” A sigh rumbled in his chest, the sensation shaking the earth beneath her feet. “I find I lack the enthusiasm for such things.”

Below, the villagers scrabbled back up the mountain, slower this time, their footfalls wary. Peter glared at Lily as if she were the one responsible for his undignified tumble.

Perhaps he had a point.

Lily turned to Aleag. Oh, but he was a fine creature. If not for her untimely end, she could admire him. Indeed, a creature such as this should be worshiped.

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

Aleag swiveled his head and stared at her with the force of both eyes. Even without the stake and rope, Lily would’ve been trapped by his gaze alone—prey to his predator.

“My child,” he said. “Have you no idea?”

* * *

Peter clawed his way up the boulder a second time. Sweat had sprouted along his spine the moment they’d left the village. Now it coursed, a river overflowing its banks. The back of his tunic was drenched, the stain spreading into the sash’s heavy silk.

Leave it to Lily to make the creature laugh. Laugh! Of all things.

He brushed his hands against his thighs. His wrists ached from the fall, and the tender flesh of his palms—it had been several seasons since he’d worked the harvest—stung. He pulled himself up straight. He was the lord mayor, after all. As such, he was due a certain amount of respect.

“Aleag the Great!” Peter tried for the second time. “As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”

The dragon scrutinized him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his leather-clad feet. The gaze was unrelenting. Tingling erupted along Peter’s skin, a shower of needles, the sensation both sharp and tantalizing.

This is what these creatures did, of course. They made you crave the pain and welcome your own demise. Peter shook his head, blew out a breath, and cleared his thoughts.

Or tried to.

“An offering.” The words rumbled as if the dragon were bored. “What if I don’t find it … adequate?”

Before Peter could answer, Lily and this … this … this creature exchanged glances. It was as if they both found the situation humorous.

Heat rose in his cheeks. “She is our most treasured asset, our village healer. We do this to honor you.”

“Your healer?” The dragon swiveled his head, that remorseless gaze sweeping over Peter before the creature set its sights on Lily. “Pray tell, why would you sacrifice your healer?”

“To honor you.” Peter puffed out his chest again. He knew, of course, how dragons were, how they wouldn’t accept a sacrifice without some bartering, without knowing what it cost the village. The last lord mayor had told him such. That the most difficult part of the job was selecting a maiden each spring.

Truth be told? This year, it hadn’t been that hard.

“So, when the blacksmith blisters his hand,” Aleag intoned, “the carpenter tumbles from a cottage roof, countless women labor to birth children, are you telling me your healer won’t be missed?”

“There are other healers in this land.”

“Perhaps there are, and perhaps seeing how cavalierly you treat your own, they will decide not to make your village their home.”

“Perhaps, but our village is filled with a number of wise women. We will do without.”

His words sounded tinny, their echo doubling back on him. Behind him, the disgruntled murmur of a dozen of those wise women made his ears burn. Doubt churned in his stomach. He pressed a hand against his belly to steady himself.

Truly, Lily wasn’t that skilled. Truly! Any old fool could coax women through labor and set a broken bone. Yes, Lily had the touch. The mere brush of her fingertips could cool a fever or soothe a colicky infant.

She had brought him back from the brink, certainly. Peter exhaled as if the thickness in his lungs remained. Yes, she’d brought him back; for that, he’d always be grateful. But he could not abide—

“I refused his offer.”

Lily’s words rang clear, loud enough—he swore—to be heard in the valley below.

“Hm?” Aleag’s murmur emerged with a puff of smoke. “What was that, my dear?”

“He proposed,” Lily said. “I refused. Then he threatened me, and I refused again.”

“And now, you’re here.” Aleag swung his head around, that penetrating gaze finding Peter once again. “How interesting.”

* * *

And here Aleag thought this proceeding was going to be a bore. He peered into the crowd. The lord mayor looked, in turns, a putrid, sickly green and flushed to the point of violence. Yes, shame made a man do many things he might later regret.

“We were friends, always had been, since we were children.” Lily twisted, her gaze going from the lord mayor and then to Aleag. “But I had no wish to marry him. I have no wish to marry at all.”

Aleag snorted another stream of smoke. “You are wise beyond your years, my dear.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd. Women near the back bent their heads together, their whispers low and conspiratorial.

“Perhaps,” Aleag began, and now he addressed those beyond the lord mayor and the few men who remained at his side with pitchforks and spears. “Perhaps you should rethink your sacrifice. It seems to me that a man who could be so vindictive is perhaps not the man you want as lord mayor.”

Oh, and now the lord mayor turned a delightful shade of gray. He wobbled in his stance. Shame. Ambition. These things were never good for the soul.

“Stop it.”

Aleag blinked. Lily’s voice halted the soliloquy he’d been brewing in the back of his mind. Indeed, there was so much to work with. The defiant damsel, the spurned lover, the innocuous and yet sly third who hovered in the background. A fierce column of women who looked on the verge of toppling the lord mayor. The men, slowly but certainly slinking down the slope.

“Excuse me, my dear?”

“I said, stop it. Stop toying with us. It’s deliberately cruel, and you know it.”

He stared at her, his gaze unflinching. To her credit, she withstood it. “What is it, then, do you suggest I do?”

She tilted her chin in his direction and held up her bound wrists. “Take your sacrifice.”

* * *

Silence settled on the crowd before a ghastly cry went up. The sound was filled with despair and remorse, and so much shame that it shook Lily to her core.

Peter leaped forward, hands scrambling on the smooth surface of the incline. He pawed his way forward, boots skidding against the rock.

“No!” he cried. “No!”

Lily spun away from him, her whole being intent on the dragon. “Do it. Do it now.”

Aleag gave her a slow blink as if he didn’t need to move, as if time wasn’t of the essence.

“Because it will serve him right?” he asked.

“Because every other outcome is worse.”

Worse for Jack, for Peter, certainly for the village. Even if they couldn’t see it.

“Let me be the last sacrifice this village needs to make.”

Something sparked in Aleag’s expression, a glint in those yellow eyes. His lip curled, revealing the teeth that would soon be the end of her.

And yet, Lily felt … nothing.

No, that was hardly true. Her heartbeat thrummed in her throat, the roar of blood in her ears. She stole one last glance at her little cottage below. It had been a good home. Certainly, until a week ago, it had been a good life as well.

“This is what you want?” the dragon asked.

“It is.”

“Very well, then. I’m more than happy to oblige. You are the smaller morsel, but dare I say, bound to be the tastier one.”

“He with the most teeth gets to say what he wants.”

Aleag snorted yet another stream of smoke. “You have a sharp wit, my dear. Pity I have to eat you.”

“I don’t think you’re capable of pity.”

Those were Lily’s last words. For a moment, she saw the world around her in all its colors—the glorious blue sky, the sun painting clouds on the horizon pink, the green and red-roofed cottages in the village below.

And then everything was black.

* * *

Peter fell to his knees. He was late, much too late. The sweat that coursed down his spine washed across his entire body, his skin flashing cold, then hot, and cold yet again. He mouthed words, senseless things, the only coherent syllable that of an ending chant.

“No, no, no, no.”

The men holding pitchforks let them clatter to the ground. They crept away with barely a glance backward.

The women of the village cast him looks so caustic that certainly his skin would erupt in blisters. They, too, departed down the mountainside, in groups of twos and threes, their murmurs rising upward, taunting him.

Murderer … coward.

Fool.

It was this last that rankled most, although Peter couldn’t say why.

Then, only the three of them remained on the mountaintop: Peter, Jack, and of course, the dragon.

“Was … was she really the last?” Where he found the courage to ask, Peter couldn’t say. His words came out thick and phlegmy. He sounded like a child with a cold, not the lord mayor of a thriving village.

“Indeed. In all the years I have bargained with your village, it’s a wonder no one else ever thought to ask.”

Peter pushed to his feet. He wobbled, only to have Jack steady him by the elbows. He shook off his friend and stumbled forward.

“Are you telling me that all we had to do was ask?”

“Why not? It seems like a reasonable request, does it not? Please stop eating our maidens, if you would, dragon, sir.” Aleag said this last in a singsong, the taunt grating at Peter’s insides.

Peter glanced around, wondering if he might pick up a pitchfork and run this damnable creature through the heart.

“I wouldn’t try if I were you,” Aleag said as if reading his thoughts. “The request would still have required a sacrifice. The previous lord mayor knew as much.”

Peter’s mouth fell open. The air in his lungs grew thin, and his breath came in gasps like he’d never inhale fully and completely again.

“Go,” the dragon ordered. “Leave now. Take this knowledge and become a better leader of your village than he was.”

The creature retreated to his cave. A mist covered the cavern’s opening and settled on Peter’s face like morning dew.

He continued to stand there for a very long time.

At last, Jack plucked his elbow. “She’s gone.”

Peter nodded, his gaze fixed on the cave. He took one long, last shuddering breath and let Jack lead him down the mountainside.

* * *

The aftermath was Aleag’s favorite part. On this side of the mountain, nothing impeded his view—no village, no smoke, no pitchforks—nothing but the endless valley and the river below. He’d take a season—spend time counting the wildflowers in all the nooks and crannies—before deciding where to settle next.

He let his chin rest on his crossed forepaws and waited.

It would be a while before the damsel in distress woke from her slumber.

* * *

What Lily noticed first, she couldn’t say. The sun warming her limbs? The cool stone beneath her back? Or was it the elusive, tantalizing scent of violets washed with fresh pine?

When she opened her eyes, nothing but the dragon filled her view. Sunlight glinted off his scales, and she squinted, raised a hand to her brow until her eyes adjusted.

She was … alive?

“How did you sleep, my dear?” Aleag lifted his head just enough to look at her full on and then settled back down, almost like a hound at the hearth.

She raised herself on one elbow. “What did you do?”

“How did you sleep?” he asked again, not impatient, but certainly implacable.

Lily pushed strands of hair from her cheeks. She sat up and considered how she felt. Refreshed. Renewed. “Very well, actually.”

“I thought as much. A good sign, that.”

“Is it?”

“Indeed. The maidens who sleep the best find the most success on the other side.”

Lily glanced about. Yes, she recognized this side of the mountain. Often she’d trek here, searching out herbs and rare mushrooms, gathering up the profusion of wildflowers that grew in the valleys. “Wait … other maidens?”

“My dear, you don’t think I actually eat any of you, do you?” A shudder ran through his form, scales rippling like water. “Credit me with a bit of taste.”

“Then what do you do with them?”

“Chat for a bit and then send them on their way.”

“On their way … then the sacrifice?”

“Is never returning to the village, never letting anyone know they’re alive. Most agree that’s a small price, considering the alternative.”

“So each spring, they simply walk away?”

“As you will do, as well.”

Lily wrapped her arms around her legs and let her chin rest on her knees. “You agreed never to take another.”

“The time had come. I was growing bored with the whole charade.”

“What will you do?”

“Find a new spot to settle, another mountain. I assure you, the world is filled with mountains, with any number of well-appointed caves.”

Lily stood, stretched. Excitement thrummed in her veins. No, she couldn’t return to her cottage—that was clear—but perhaps she could begin a new life elsewhere. She glanced down at her feet, the skin still aglow with pink from their scalding. Before she went anywhere, she’d need to find some shoes.

“My dear, are you willing to make another exchange?” Aleag nodded at her feet.

“I might be,” she said.

“In that case, do you see that clump of violets over there, in the outcropping?”

They were a lovely bunch, lavender and cream-colored, their scent subtle and sweet. Lily nodded.

“Bring them to me?” The dragon kneaded the ground with his claws. “I don’t possess the dexterity for such matters.”

She gathered the bunch and then continued from there until her arms overflowed with blossoms. She returned to the outcropping and placed them gently in front of Aleag.

He plucked one and then another with tongue and lips, movements precise and dainty. He shut his eyes, and a sigh escaped him, the sound of it pure contentment.

“Thank you, my dear.” He caught her in his gaze and nodded at her feet. “How did you come by such a burn?”

“When I … refused Peter—”

“The lord mayor?”

“Yes, when I refused him, he got upset, knocked my cauldron from the hearth. The stew soaked my shoes.” Lily stepped close and raised the hem of her dress. “I’m lucky it was only a bad scalding.”

Aleag blew a stream of smoke across her skin. It was cool like spring, and fresh. It stole the last of the heat from the burn, the pink fading, the scars healing. Now she shut her eyes in pure contentment.

“Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure. I don’t often partake in such a feast.” Aleag flexed his claws. “I can’t pick them myself, after all.”

The sound of scrabbling caught Lily up short. The noise came from behind her. She spun in time to see Jack scale the lip of the outcropping.

Jack took a few stumbling steps forward and halted. He unslung a knapsack from his shoulders and placed it at Lily’s feet.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but there’s some clothes, good boots, and a few of your books. I hope I chose the right ones, and, of course, your stash of coins from beneath the loose floorboard.”

Lily shook her head. “I … don’t understand.”

“Usually, my grandmother is the one who does this.” Jack peered around her to address Aleag. “I hope you don’t mind, sir.”

“Under the circumstances? Quite understandable.”

“The women in the village? They know?” Really? Then why hadn’t she known?

“Only a few, and I only found out … after everything with Peter.”

Lily took the knapsack and ducked behind a boulder. She emerged dressed and ready for travel.

“Will you come with me?” she asked Jack.

“As far as the crossroads.”

So like Jack, choosing Peter over her. He always had, always did, always would.

“He needs me,” Jack said. “You don’t.”

Yes, perhaps that had always been true.

Lily approached Aleag and placed a kiss against his scaly snout. “You’re a bastard, you know that?”

“Most dragons are, my dear.”

“But thank you.”

“Again, the pleasure was all mine.”

Jack walked with Lily as far as the crossroads. She memorized the feel of his sturdiness next to her, his calloused palm next to her own. She’d miss him.

Even after everything.

* * *

The village prospered under Peter’s reign. The harvest never failed. The forests provided a never-ending supply of game. Every spring, violets covered the mountainside in a blanket of lavender and cream.

The sight always made him think of Lily.

As the years passed into decades, Peter became known as Dragon’s Bane. He never confirmed the rumors—that he had singlehandedly dispatched a dragon from their village.

He never denied them either.

After his third wife died, Peter relinquished his role as lord mayor. He and Jack found a cottage on the outskirts of the village where they tended a few acres of land and spent long evenings in front of the hearth.

It was only then that Jack told Peter the rest of the story.

Aleag the Great is another dragon story written for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.

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Weekly writing check-in: Happy (belated) Halloween

I spent this week working on the last two stories for the 2020 project (and so far, I’m really enjoying myself). I woke up early this morning (thanks to the time change) and spent some hours at my writing desk while the moon was setting. It was lovely.

I managed to not waste a lot of time with either sky replacement or neural filters in Photoshop. I am quite proud of my restraint.

Otherwise, I’m looking forward to this week’s weather (70 degrees on Friday!) but not the following week (more snow!).

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Free Fiction Friday: The Mad Scientist Next Door

Wrapping up October with a story about fences, neighbors, and (of course) Halloween.

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That infernal racket

Madam,

I don’t know what possesses you to conduct your experiments at three o’clock in the morning, but on behalf of all our neighbors, I’m begging you to stop immediately.

The solar panels, unsightly as they are, at least provide a function. I concede that the Rube Goldberg machine is educational.

This latest contraption of yours? What, pray tell, is its purpose? Other than to shake my house to its very foundation, I see no reason for its existence. I can’t begin to fathom what you’re doing or what your electricity bill must be.

For the sake of the neighborhood, I implore you to cease at once.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Sir,

What possesses you to be skulking around after dark? I nearly dialed 911 the other night, thinking a prowler was about.

If you must know, I conduct my experiments in the wee hours as a courtesy to the neighborhood, as to not cause a brownout during the summer months. Besides, the Rileys have never complained.

Doctor Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. My electricity bill is none of your business.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Wanda Waverly will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Although a new resident, as owner/manager of the Pick-n-Quick chain of convenience stores, Wanda brings her business acumen to the position of president. We are pleased she has decided to not only call our little community home but has stepped up to serve as well.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Doctor Brandenburg,

The Rileys are far too polite to lodge any sort of complaint. I shall take this to the board and the new president. See if I don’t.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That ghastly eyesore

Really, Doctor? A fence?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That ghastly eyesore

Sir,

My cedar fence is lovely, board-approved, and offers adequate privacy for both parties. Of course, this assumes that one party does not skulk about during the witching hour with his ear pressed against the slats.

Speaking of eyesores, tell me, please, how long that cauldron has been moldering on your front lawn. A few flakes found their way into my yard, and I conducted several tests. My estimate is at least fifty years.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Bylaws

To clarify some points brought up in last night’s association meeting:

  • All structures, temporary or permanent, must not exceed the dimensions outlined in appendix D of the H.H.A. bylaws.
  • Lawn ornaments are limited to three, must be no taller than two feet, and considered generally tasteful.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: You win

Sir,

I cannot believe you are so petty as to lodge a complaint against my fence. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you of some sort of witchcraft. I measured the boards myself, and I know they were in compliance with the bylaws.

But down it goes until next spring.

E. Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Good riddance

Dear Doctor,

It is hardly my fault if you cannot competently wield a ruler.

A.P.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Good fences

Sir,

I always thought Frost was being ironic when he wrote good fences make good neighbors.

Now I know better.

E. Brandenburg

P.S. Your animosity toward me is one thing, but the Riley’s play structure as well? Shame, sir. Shame on you.

P.P.S. Don’t bother to respond. I’ve blocked your email, and any additional missives from you will go straight to spam.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Halloween

To clarify some additional points from the previous association meeting:

  • Due to safety concerns, the annual Halloween parade has been suspended indefinitely.
  • Any structure erected for a holiday event needs approval, in writing, from the H.H.A. board ninety days in advance.
  • All items handed out for trick-or-treat must be wrapped and sealed. The Pick-n-Quick outside the main gate is offering H.H.A. members a 5% discount on all candy.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Wrapped treats

Mr. Payne,

I left some cellophane wrappers on your front porch. I constructed them based on the treats you distributed after last year’s Halloween parade. I think you will find that they will provide adequate coverage and pass muster with the board.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. The eldest Riley child, Alyssa, works as my apprentice, as you may already know. She’s informed me that contrary to my earlier accusation, you have toiled to … modify the Riley’s play structure so it conforms to the bylaws.

I’m not sure how you accomplished this. My own tools are finely calibrated, and certainly, the inspector for the H.H.A. possesses adequate ones. No need to tell me. The squeals and laughter from the Riley’s backyard are all I need to hear.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Wrapped treats

Doctor Brandenburg,

Let me extend my gratitude for the wrappers. While they caused a few raised eyebrows (I thought our esteemed president’s would vanish into her hairline), my treats were—undeniably—wrapped and sealed.

And thus, Halloween—along with the Riley’s play structure—was salvaged, at least somewhat.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. I could explain how the glamour on the play structure works, but that would defeat its purpose.

P.S.S I sorely missed your yearly light show.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Halloween

Mr. Payne,

Well, yes, everyone loves a Tesla coil—or nearly everyone. I find myself nostalgic for previous Halloweens—the parade, the costumes, the children’s cries of delight when you unveil the gingerbread house. I don’t see the point in denying them all that.

I must confess that this year simply didn’t feel like Halloween.

True, my sugar skeletons always pale in comparison to your gingerbread people. I suspect the adults only take my treatises out of pity (and no one thinks “trick or treatise” as amusing as I do). Of course, everyone leaves before the anatomy lecture.

And yet, I’ve come to rely on Halloween, along with the Hemlock block party, as a way to interact with my neighbors. This year’s curtailed celebration has hit me harder than I care to admit.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Halloween

My dear Doctor,

I wish to assuage your melancholy. Trust that I have lived enough years to see more than my fair share of petty tyrants. I predict this Wanda Waverly will move on in due course to terrorize yet another homeowners association.

In the meantime, I will spend the winter working with the beautification committee and planning next spring’s gardens. They will be spectacular.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. Trick or treatise is beyond charming. If I promise no tricks, may I read one of your treatises?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: the gardens

Dear Mr. Payne,

Botany has never been my forte, but I eagerly await the coming spring’s glory that is your garden. How you outdo yourself every year, I simply cannot fathom. The Hemlock Community entryway is the envy of all.

I do, however, have some thoughts on streamlining the irrigation system. Please refer to the schematics in the attached PDF.

Yours truly,

Emilia

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Spring has sprung!

Can you believe winter is finally over? Whew! That was a long one.

In anticipation of spring and all it brings, I would like to announce the following changes, effective immediately:

The beautification committee has been disbanded. Instead, H.H.A. has hired a landscaping company that will take over the planting and care of the foliage around the community’s entryway and main gate.

Regarding the main gate, H.H.A. has contracted with a security company for the front entrance. The gate will be locked at midnight every evening and unlocked at six in the morning.

Happy spring, everyone!

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: The Main Gate

It has come to the board’s attention that locking the main gate between the hours of midnight and six a.m. has put undue hardship on some residents of Hemlock Community.

Rest assured, we only had your safety in mind when we implemented these rules. Our aim was to keep out any undesirables that might threaten the residents.

That being said, this is no excuse for deliberate sabotage! When the perpetrator is found, justice will be swift.

The board can (and will!) revoke membership in the H.H.A. Without membership, the perpetrator can no longer live in Hemlock Community. Further, the board can (and will!) foreclose on the perpetrator’s house and subsequently evict him or her. See paragraph four, sub-paragraph three in the bylaws.

In the meantime, to pay for a security upgrade to the main gate, including keycards for all residents, we will use the funds earmarked for the annual block party.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: last night’s meeting

Alistair,

I thought my heart would burst from my chest during last night’s meeting.

Would they have poor Mrs. Riley wait outside the gate for hours on end? I simply let her inside the development. That’s hardly a crime. And yet, I’m certain this Waverly woman suspects it was me.

Granted, everyone who’s about during the later hours knows that Mrs. Riley and I often share conversation over a cup of tea when she returns from her shift.

Although, really, even with the upgrade, this new security system is laughable. It’s not keeping anyone out, although I suspect it’s keeping many of us in.

Of course, with a little rewiring … nothing a child of five couldn’t do … except for rigging the system to play The Imperial March whenever Wanda Waverly drives through the main gate.

Now, in the light of day, I concede that may have been taking things too far.

And yet, I find that I can’t regret it, either.

Yours,

Em

P.S. The Imperial March is from a movie called Star Wars. I’ve included a link to an article about it on Wikipedia.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: last night’s meeting

Emilia,

Taking things too far? Not nearly far enough. I’ve been offering the landscaping company my expertise, gratis of course. Not that they’ve taken any of my advice. The poor hydrangeas; they may never recover.

Ah, but they’re a loquacious crew, and I’ve unearthed an interesting fact. The owner of this company is Wanda Waverly’s daughter.

What a strange, petty nepotism this is.

Alistair

P.S. You have me pegged. My ignorance of current cultural phenomena provides the Riley children with endless hours of amusement. I no doubt will provide this same service to their grandchildren.

I do, however, have a passing familiarity with Star Wars. The franchise appears to have a number of vocal and passionate devotees.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That hideous sign in your front yard

Emilia,

I could not believe the sight that greeted my eyes upon waking this morning.

A For Sale sign? I’m not certain what’s worse—the garish design or how the support appears to impale your front yard.

Tell me all that’s the matter. Certainly, things aren’t so dire as this?

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That hideous sign in your front yard

Alistair,

Indeed things are that dire. Every time I step off my front porch, there she is, that Waverly woman, clipboard in hand.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received five citations. One more, and I forfeit my home. If I can’t find a buyer, the association can (and will!) foreclose on my house.

Beyond that, I suspect she, or the board, or someone is throttling the power supply into my house. I was conducting a delicate experiment in my third-floor laboratory the other day, one that needed a constant stream of electricity.

Suffice to say that I did not achieve that constant stream of electricity. Suffice to say I no longer have a functional third-floor laboratory—or eyebrows.

Worst of all? I was accosted last night. As you know, it’s my habit to stroll through the development in between experiments. It clears my head and refreshes me. But last night, a security guard curtailed my walk. He said I wasn’t allowed to stroll after midnight.

When did the development start employing roving security guards? Did I miss that announcement? Although he was, to use your own term, rather loquacious. Did you know that the owner of the security company is Wanda Waverly’s nephew?

In distress,

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The gloves come off

My dearest Emilia,

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve weathered my fair share of petty tyrants. Remind me to tell you how I thrice defeated eminent domain claims on this particular plot of land. The Payne residence remains, as it has for … let’s say, decades.

I cannot abide by this treatment of my friends and neighbors. I’m uncertain of what I shall do, but trust me, dear Doctor, I will do something.

Alistair

P.S. Your estimate about the cauldron is correct, or nearly so. It’s been there for a good sixty years. It’s a stubborn thing, and I cannot convince it to move. That it just barely meets the prescribed dimensions for lawn ornamentation no doubt vexes Wanda Waverly greatly.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

My dear Alistair,

So which am I? A friend or merely a neighbor?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

You, my dear Doctor, have the rare distinction of being both.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Worried

My dear Alistair,

I do not like the look of that strange mist that surrounds your house. It feels malevolent to me. As unscientific as that sounds, I stand by that assessment.

I do not pretend to understand your craft. However, I know that any work created in the throes of anger will not have the desired outcome.

Yes, I know you witnessed this morning’s sixth citation. The entire neighborhood was privileged to witness that event. If you truly want to help, perhaps you could make my third-floor laboratory vanish. I’ll never find a buyer at this rate.

Please, my dear friend, I beg of you. Don’t do anything you may regret.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

Have you read that fairy tale? I wouldn’t say our current association president is wandering around naked (certainly there’s a stipulation against that in the bylaws, but I digress). She does, however, have a few transparency issues.

I have an idea, one that does not involve my craft or your discipline. Are you willing to hear me out? I’ll meet you at our adjoining property line at the witching hour.

Yours,

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Alistair,

I am still completely flabbergasted, even after sleeping on the idea.

Do you really think it will work? I cannot possibly be the best choice. After all, you’ve lived here longer than I have. You would hold more sway, would you not?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

I have lived everywhere longer than you have. I am set in my ways, set in my craft. If you were to flip open one of those illustrated dictionaries, you would find my portrait next to the entry for curmudgeon. Were I not to get my way, I’d be tempted to conjure a few special apples or perhaps an unsightly pox.

You, on the other hand? With your keen mind and willingness to take in data, experiment, adjust your hypothesis based on new information? How you eagerly gather input and listen to those around you?

Why, yes, you are obviously the best choice for this endeavor.

I have every confidence in you.

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Curmudgeon

This, from the man who handcrafts a life-size gingerbread house for the neighborhood children each Halloween? And then sends them home with pocketsful of treats?

Oh, yes, you are quite the curmudgeon.

Em

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Last night

Oh, my dearest Alistair, please tell me you did not employ your craft to sway last night’s outcome.

I can hardly believe it’s true. But if it is, I want it to be an honest prize.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Last Night

My dear Doctor, you wound me. Do you think I would employ enchantment to obtain what I want?

Yes, yes, I might. Certainly, in the past, I have. In this case? Other than canvassing on your behalf and ensuring there was no subterfuge from any quarter, I performed no other tasks.

Alistair

P.S. Besides, I can hardly cook up an enchantment with my cauldron on my front lawn, can I now.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Dr. Emilia Brandenburg will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Emilia has made Hemlock her home for the past five years and has—quite literally—brightened the entire development. We look forward to her fresh ideas and vast experience in her new role as president.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Bylaws and Halloween

Effective immediately:

  • The annual Halloween parade will take place starting at 6:30 p.m. on the 31st. Everyone is invited to participate.
  • The beautification committee will reform under the auspices of Mr. Alistair Payne in time to decorate the entryway and parade route. All volunteers are welcome.
  • A belated block party and impromptu association meeting will take place in front of the gingerbread house at the end of the Halloween parade.

Emilia Brandenburg
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Halloween

My dearest Em,

To assuage any doubt you might be feeling this morning: You were simply splendid in your new role, as I knew you would be.

You will make a fine president.

With all my admiration,

Alistair

P.S. Your Tesla coil was magnificent.

This is the second outing for my curmudgeon witch Alistair Payne. He first appeared in Letters of Smoke and Ash.

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