Weekly writing check-in: still stormy out

So, you might be wondering how that “eliminate distractions” thing went last week.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.

Okay. Whew. Done with that.

Yeah, I took a deep dive into the news and decided to do a deeper dive with some relevant nonfiction as well. As I said last week:

I won’t miss the big things. I can do without all the little things.

It’s not every day that you watch history unfold right in front of your eyes. I needed more context, and I needed to pay attention. Last week qualifies as a very big thing.

However, I did keep up with Storystorm. I’m up to 16 ideas for the month. Even if you’re not participating, I encourage you to check out the daily posts. They have been inspiring and informative.

Coffee and Ghosts progress? Eh, not so much. So with that in mind, I’m going to see if I can open the manuscript and use this lull in the storm to get some revision done.

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Weekly writing check-in: peering into 2021

Three days into 2021, and I’m keeping up with the Story Storm challenge. I have three ideas, and I’m inordinately proud of that.

I noticed that last year, I really didn’t do a “year in review” or post about goals (well, other than the (Love) Stories for 2020 project–that was the goal for 2020).

And I’m not going to post goals for this year. I’m really not all that prescient, and I can’t peer that far into the future. If 2020 taught me anything, it’s that.

However, there are a couple of things I do plan to work on:

  1. Lean into my strengths. My writing process actually involves a lot of thinking. You know that saying: Don’t think, write!
    Well, mine should be: Go think, then write! This is contrary to a lot of popular writing advice. Then again, a lot of popular writing advice can be wrong (as least on an individual level).
    For instance, way back in January of 2020, I mentioned in the comments that I had an idea for a pirate adventure. The story didn’t come together until late in the year, and not until I decided Heart of a Pirate King was a Christmas story.
    I need to give myself more time to think. To that end I also plan to:
  2. Eliminate distractions. I like to stay informed. During 2020, it felt crucial to stay informed for so many reasons. But it’s one thing to stay informed; it’s another to drink from the firehose.
    I’ve been drinking from the firehose. Intellectually, I know I don’t need to. I have trusted go-to sources for news, politics, and the publishing industry. I won’t miss the big things. I can do without all the little things.

And that’s as far as I’m peering into 2021. Here’s to a year full of writing and stories and joy.

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2020 Recommended Reading

As we wind our way toward the waning days of 2020, I thought I’d scroll through the 98 books I’ve read (so far) this year to see what I could see.

What did I see? A handful that really stood out. Mind you, if I finish a book, that means it was entertaining and did everything a book should do. But there were definitely some four and five-star reads this year.

That being said, these are my four and five-star reads. There’s a very good chance they are someone else’s one-star reads. That’s the way entertainment works.

Without further ado, here are the  books:

Fiction

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel by Martha Wells

You’re sensing a trend, aren’t you, right up until that last title. My pleasure reading definitely skews historical/fantastical, plus I have a thing for spies.

I absolutely love the Murderbot series of books, and I highly recommend them (and reading them in order). In fact, I reread the first four in preparation for Network Effect (and I’ll reread all of them next year when book six is out).

One of the points of view in The Secrets We Kept is in first person plural, that of the typists. Really, it made the book (well, for me, at least). I absolutely plan on writing a story in first person plural one of these days and inflicting it on unsuspecting slush readers everywhere.

Nonfiction

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Come for the bears, stay for what really must become a Coen Brothers movie.

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy L. Otis

Young adult nonfiction, but really all that means is the prose is lively and accessible (rather than dull and serious and self-important). For middle school on up, especially for adults who forgot that they learned about yellow journalism in high school.

For Writers

The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger

From the description:

This is an excellent reference guide for genre fiction authors seeking to improve their craft or for readers and pop culture enthusiasts interested in understanding their own taste. It is the perfect counterpoint to The Hero with a Thousand Faces not to mention Save the Cat, Women Who Run With The Wolves, and The Breakout Novelist.

If you’ve been stymied by all the usual suspects when it comes to writing advice, seriously give this book a try. I can’t tell you how many oh, so that’s why moments I had while reading this.

QuitBooks for Writers series by Becca Syme

I read Dear Writer, Are You In Writer’s Block? this year but I recommend all of Becca’s books in the series. Granted, they are probably more useful if you have a passing familiarity with CliftonStrengths, but I still think you can get a lot out of them even if you don’t.

Standout short story (that you can read for free)

Little Free Library (over at Tor.com)

A wonderful little story. You can also buy a copy for your e-reader (links at the bottom of the story post).

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Weekly writing check-in: winter and story storms

We have storms. Many storms. All the storms. After our October surprise snow, we’ve had nothing here until the 23rd.

Then it was Mother Nature playing catch-up with a blizzard.

Now we have lots of snow.

This week, I did a little work on Coffee & Ghosts. Mostly I focused on the holiday and musings for 2021.

I also officially released Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020, which is the ebook and print version of all the (Love) Stories for 2020 (which you can absolutely still read for free).

I also signed up for Tara Lazar’s StoryStorm. 30 story ideas in 31 days. I’m pondering what sort of ideas I’ll (hopefully) be generating. Fiction? Nonfiction? Blog posts? Really, you can use it for any type of writing.

Want to join me? Click the image or the link to visit Tara’s site.

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New Release: Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020

One year. Four dozen stories.

115,000 words.

Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020

When I first conceived of this project, way back in late 2019 (around November, I think), I had no idea what 2020 would bring.

Then again, none of us did.

All I knew was that I had any number of previously published stories that weren’t doing anything and several on my hard drive that had never found a home.

With a little creative scheduling, I figured it would be fairly easy to write enough new stories to fill in any blanks.

Then 2020 actually happened.

I wondered what I’d gotten myself into and feared that somewhere along the way, I’d get derailed. So I took it one story and one week at a time.

It was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. In some ways, it became my anchor for 2020. I could always edit a post, create images in Photoshop, or excavate stories from my hard drive.

(Note: if you’re fairly new to writing, it may seem strange that you can forget about writing stories. I’m here to tell you: it really does happen.)

A couple of times, I came this close to not having any stories scheduled. At others, I had so many in the queue, there wasn’t enough room on the WordPress dashboard to display them all.

Once, I became exceedingly confused and published a story on Thursday, realized my mistake, and unpublished it until the next day. This was post-COVID, so we can simply blame lingering coronavirus brain fog for that.

I learned a number of practical lessons, things like it’s good to have several posts in reserve in case you sprain your ankle or that scheduling each story/post will take much longer than you think it will.

The project–and 2020–gave me the chance to reflect on my writing in a way I’m not sure I would have otherwise. As the saying goes:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.

Or, in this case, fifteen. That’s the breadth of the stories in this collection. It’s not the sum total of my entire writing career, but it’s a significant portion of it. I chose not to include some earlier stories (and, actually, some later ones too). They’re not necessarily bad. They were published, after all–one even nominated for a Pushcart Prize. They simply didn’t fit the collection.

So now I’ll turn my attention not only to 2021 but beyond. Sure, there are many things I’d like to accomplish this coming year, but I’m going to keep my eye on the next decade as well.

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Free Fiction Friday: Heart of a Pirate King

It’s the last story of the (Love) Stories for 2020 project, so it’s a tale about pirates and Christmas, spies and animal helpers.

Thank you to everyone who has been reading along with me this year!

The first shot across the bow landed well beyond Sebastian’s ship. Deliberately, it was true.  Even so, in its aftermath, a mist of seawater washed his face and kissed his lips.

That was Estella, through and through, her way of fluttering her eyelashes, of casting a sultry, come-hither glance.

Sebastian wasn’t falling for it. Indeed, he steeled himself against the onslaught of both cannon fire and feelings. The tiny part of his heart—the piece she hadn’t splintered beyond repair—had leaped at the sight of the Siren and her captain coming into view.

Right up until Estella ran the Jolly Roger up the mast.

A pink Jolly Roger.

With hearts for eye sockets.

“Your wife, Captain.”

His first mate had the uncanny ability of voicing the obvious without it sounding … obvious.

“My estranged wife,” Sebastian corrected.

He clutched the rail, grip tightening on wood worn smooth from years at sea, and licked the salt from his lips.

“She mocks me,” he said, ostensibly to his first mate.

“Aye, Captain,” Hadim replied. “She mocks us all.”

Sebastian cast the man a look, the sort that would wilt a weaker man’s soul.

“But mainly you,” his first mate amended.

Again, obviously. On the other hand …

“No.” His sigh was heavy, a waterlogged thing in his chest. “She mocks us all.”

When had it gone so wrong? When had Estella turned traitor? Or perhaps she’d always been one, and he’d simply failed to see the cracks in the façade, the clues to her deception.

“Captain!”

The shout came from the lookout. The boy in the crow’s nest was leaning so far forward that Sebastian feared the lad might tumble to the deck below. The boy’s arm was outstretched, his face a mask of fear.

Sebastian followed the trajectory and saw reason enough to put fear in his own splintered heart.

The royal navy, in battle formation, bearing down on him.

A second shot whooshed across the bow, this one closer and filled with intent.

Ah, yes. Estella as bait for this trap—a deliberate distraction, something to keep his gaze pinned in one direction while neglecting all the rest.

Still … the entire royal navy? Well, he had ridiculed the pretender to the throne more than once, called out the king’s corruption. Sebastian let his gaze survey the sea, count the frigates, and calculated the odds—and then immediately dismissed them.

Was he not Sebastian Black, Pirate King? Did he not captain the Tyrant’s Bane?

“Come about!” he called, his crew snapping into action almost before the cry left his mouth.

He would take the fight to them—to Estella and the royal navy.

Or die trying.

* * *

What woke him, Sebastian couldn’t say. The gentle bob and sway of the plank beneath his chest and head? The insistent, if gentle, nudge against the small of his back every time his fingers lost their grip on the sea-soaked wood?

Or the chattering that sounded, in turns, like laughter, admonishment, and mockery.

Yes, it was the mockery that woke him.

The sun blazed hot in the sky above. Waves licked the burnt skin along his arms and back, bringing both agony and relief. His mouth was parched, his throat a dry husk.

The sight of fins circling in ever tighter loops sent his heart soaring. He strained to find purchase on the plank, its shattered and soggy edges crumbling beneath his fingers.

Then one of the creatures poked its head from the sea and filled his ears with more of that mocking chatter. A dolphin. An entire pod of them. They surrounded him, keeping him afloat, prodding the plank this way and that, like an expert navigator making minute but crucial course corrections.

“What happened?” His voice was little more than a croak. He asked the question rhetorically, certainly not to his constant companions.

Even so, a dolphin poked its head from beneath the surface. It was a tiny thing, no more than a pup. It regaled him with a stream of chatter that—if Sebastian didn’t know better—was a narrative of what had happened from the time he spotted the Siren until he fully woke, stranded at sea.

Yes, it had been a rout from the start—the entire fleet against the Tyrant’s Bane. Without warning, without support from any other quarter. In the past, they’d always counted on advance notice, a whisper network of fishermen and dockworkers, disgruntled guards, the townsfolk who observed comings and goings.

But for weeks now, nothing.

Other than betrayal and surprise, obviously.

Worst of all? He hadn’t crossed sabers with Estella. Oh, he’d been looking forward to that. Not their first dual, naturally, but Sebastian had vowed to make it their last. He would’ve gladly gone down with the Tyrant’s Bane if only he could have taken her treacherous heart with him.

But if the Tyrant’s Bane had sunk, he possessed no memory of it. A concussion, perhaps? His head felt clear. When he probed his skull with careful fingertips, nothing ached, and his skin came away free from blood.

“So, where are we headed, little one?”

The dolphin chattered away in between leaping up and over waves. They were undoubtedly headed somewhere. Away from the trade routes, it seemed. Although, from his vantage point, here in the heart of this vast, cerulean sea, he had no true way of knowing.

Call it instinct, born from years traversing the seas. The water around him tasted wilder, salt sharp on his lips. They were heading toward the edge of the known territories and into the uncharted seas.

Which would make the odds of rescue infinitesimally slight.

Sunset brought relief to his eyes and skin, if not his worries. Even when he spotted the bump on the horizon, Sebastian shut his thoughts against the onslaught of hope. Weary, dehydrated, weak from hunger. His mind was primed to welcome a mirage.

And yet, the bump grew larger, the landscape more defined. Cliffs jutted from the sea, palm trees swayed in the breeze, and in a wide, sweeping bay, water lapped against the shore.

The dolphins’ chatter increased, as did their insistent nudging against the plank.  His toes touched sand the same moment the sun kissed the horizon behind him.

Before he released his grip on the wood, before he clambered to shore, the dolphin pup swooped by him one last time and bussed his cheek.

Sebastian staggered the few feet to dry land and sank gratefully into sand toasted warm by the day’s sun.

* * *

A breeze stole over his skin, one cool enough to wake him but with a scent that promised heat. Sebastian rolled, sat up, and took in the quiet of the island around him.

It was time to take stock of his new home.

On his person, he possessed breeches—and nothing more. No shirt, never mind scabbard and saber. Oh, how he mourned the loss of the latter. Where was it now? At the bottom of the ocean, most likely. Or perhaps clutched in Estella’s tiny—but surprisingly strong—grip.

No matter. Sebastian had battles to fight here. He doubted the immediate ones required a saber.

Fresh water. Shelter. Food. In that order. He plowed his way through the sand until he reached the tall grasses and lush vegetation beyond the shore. Once there, he discovered a path.

Overgrown, to be sure, clogged with snaking vines and underbrush that threatened to obliterate it from existence. But a path, nevertheless.  Sebastian followed it into the thick, leafy interior.

Large fronds shielded him from the sun’s unrelenting glare. Cool mist bathed his skin, and he licked his lips, sucked in deep breaths as if that alone might sustain him. Above the birdsong and the buzz of insects, something else babbled.

He was nearly upon it before realizing what that sound was. Water, tumbling over rocks. A waterfall, and beyond that, a wide, clear pool that looked perfect for bathing.

Sebastian knelt at the water’s edge and scooped a handful, touched his tongue tentatively to the liquid already slipping through his fingers, ready to recoil at the taste of salt.

Fresh.

It was fresh.

He fought the urge to gulp, to greedily slurp all that he could. Control. Tiny sips. Fresh did not mean pure, necessarily. In any event, he had no wish to inhale a gallon’s worth, only to regurgitate it across the jungle floor.

He ventured farther along the water’s edge and inspected the pool. Was there anything lying in wait, something with teeth as sharp as sabers? He eased one foot in, and then another, and then because he was Sebastian Black, Pirate King, threw himself into the pool.

It didn’t do to be overly cautious, after all.

Free of salt and sand and sweat, he continued his exploration. There were coconuts, of course, more than he had hope of consuming. All manner of tropical fruit. With each step, hope kindled in his chest. With each discovery, he moved with speed and purpose.

If he could survive, then he could be rescued. If he could be rescued?

Well, then. He could wreak revenge, for his crew, the Tyrant’s Bane—and his heart.

The path led around the pool and back toward the sea. Before he reached the shore, Sebastian stumbled upon a shelter. In need of repair, but its bones were strong, a sleeping pallet already fashioned. And did his eyes deceive him, or was that an actual tinderbox?

The shelter was several yards up the coast from where he washed ashore, tucked in a cove that would protect him from the worst of the tropical storms. At the ocean’s edge, the rocky outcroppings provided numerous tide pools filled with shellfish and crabs. The latter waved their claws as if daring him to pluck them from the sea for the day’s first meal.

Sebastian shielded his eyes and surveyed his domain. He had fresh water and a means to sup whenever he liked. Here on this island, a banquet was spread before him, every last item a delicacy on the mainland. Yes, he would feast like a true pirate king.

And last, but certainly not least, he possessed a ready place to lay his weary head. Things, he mused, could be much, much worse.

It was then that he turned his attention toward the shelter and spotted the skeleton.

* * *

“Have I ever told you about my wife?”

The skeleton, beneath the shade of a palm tree, didn’t respond. But then, it never did.

Sebastian considered his word choice and amended, “My estranged wife. No? Oh, my friend, I suspect you’re lying to me.”

He sat in front of his shelter, that evening’s meal bubbling on the cook fire. In addition to the tinderbox, he’d uncovered a pot and few makeshift utensils. The rich aroma of shellfish and wood smoke laced the air. A breeze brought the scent of salt that lingered on his tongue.

He was never without salt or the slight but constant grit of sand between his molars. Such was the price of living in paradise.

“You can’t possibly want to hear the story again,” he said, ostensibly to the skeleton. “What? You do? Oh now, my friend, I believe you’re humoring me.”

At first, Sebastian thought to give this poor soul a proper burial. That meant digging without a shovel, which he was more than willing to do. It meant carrying the bones bleached white from wind and sand and sun.

This, too, didn’t disturb him. As a pirate king, he’d seen—and dispensed—his share of death.

No, the simple fact was the skeleton seemed at peace where it was. As if this sailor had settled beneath a favorite palm one evening, closed their eyes, and never opened them again.

The skeleton itself was a tiny thing, and Sebastian suspected it may be a she rather than a he. With no way of knowing, he referred to his constant companion simply as my friend.

In any event, he felt only slightly less foolish speaking aloud. His captive audience had no way of protesting. Sebastian had no reason not to voice his woes about his current state, his shattered heart, Estella’s treachery, and his … confusion.

“It started off quite well, my friend. The way a pirate love story should.”

Oh, but it had. Their courtship had been as fierce as their rivalry. Estella’s Siren was faster, more nimble than the Tyrant’s Bane. Sebastian commanded far more power. The sight of the Jolly Roger running up the mast of his ship struck terror in the hearts of the so-called sovereign’s tax collectors, greedy merchants, and navy frigates alike.

Truth be told, the king’s men were far more cutthroat than Sebastian’s crew had ever been. He liked to think of it as righting wrongs, restoring what belonged to those who could not defend themselves.

And, well, yes, Sebastian and his crew certainly helped themselves to the surplus. Under King Thaddeus’s reign, there was more than enough surplus to be had.

Estella had a way of getting there first, swooping in on the Siren and collecting that surplus. Her crew was small and ferocious, not a man among them. She commanded them not with an iron grip but with skill and intuition. She matched tasks to sailors, and even the unlikeliest crewmember flourished aboard her ship.

The first time Sebastian had spotted her on the bow of the Siren, his heart had seized. Her hair was the color of black silk and flowed like the Jolly Roger above her head. Her skin glowed in the sunshine, the exact color of damp sand.

The first time they crossed sabers, he had—to her surprise and his own—stolen an ill-advised kiss. He left that encounter with a gash along his cheekbone—and without his heart.

The first time he intercepted one of the king’s frigates bearing down on the Siren, Estella had sent over chests of coin and barrels of wine—enough to keep his crew happy and well in their cups.

As for Sebastian himself? An invitation to sup in her cabin aboard the Siren.

In short order, they joined forces, joined hearts, joined in marriage.

“The rest should have been history, don’t you agree?” Sebastian stirred the stew with a stick, testing the bits of meat for tenderness. “I thought we were of one mind, one heart.”

Ridding the realm of King Thaddeus? Restoring order and fairness to the seven lands and their many seas? With their share of the cut, they could lower the Jolly Roger and sail into the sunset, eventually landing on an island much like this one.

“Perhaps with a few more amenities.” Sebastian rubbed his chin. The beard was thick and truly magnificent. Although, in truth? He longed for a shave, for a shirt, and for a clean pair of trousers.

“And then, as you know, she betrayed me.”

Possibly it was a trick of the setting sun, the light glinting just so off his silent companion. The skull took on a skeptical expression as if it doubted this part of the tale.

“Perhaps I am wrong.”

But he couldn’t be. With his own eyes, he witnessed Estella on the palace balcony, her arm linked with the king’s. Although Sebastian stood far back in the crowd—and in disguise as well—he’d detected the possessive glint in Thaddeus’s eye, the lift of the chin that spoke of triumph.

Estella herself was nearly lost in a profusion of pink silk and satin with enough lace that it was a wonder she could walk.

“If not betrayal, then what?”

He longed to know. Estella cared nothing for fancy gowns and the niceties of court life. The sea was her home, the Siren and its crew her heart.

If the skeleton had an opinion, certainly Sebastian would have found relief rather than fear in its words. But his companion merely stared out to sea as if the answers were there, lost among the waves.

“If not betrayal, then what?” He spoke the refrain softly, a thin sliver of smoke rising from the fire as if to capture the words. Perhaps there was no answer, at least not one he would ever know.

Sebastian knelt next to the fire and eased the stew from the flame. Yes, he would sup like a king tonight, but he would sup alone, as he had for the past month.

Without his pirate queen.

* * *

The ship on the horizon dipped in and out of view. Behind Sebastian, at the jungle’s edge, sat a stockpile of firewood. He held a fistful of kindling in one hand, the tinderbox in the other, his grip so tight, he risked slicing his palms with both.

And yet, he couldn’t bring himself to start the fire.

Not yet.

Was this rescue or arrest? The sun glinted off the water, the glare stinging his eyes.  He had no hope of knowing which until it was too late.

His crew wouldn’t rest until they found him—dead or alive.

But then, neither would the royal navy.

And so he stood, the kindling biting into what little tender flesh remained in the center of his palm.

When he noticed the gentle gliding of the albatross, Sebastian couldn’t say. It soared high above the sea unperturbed by the ship behind it or the island before it. From its beak, something swung.

He shielded his eyes against the day’s brilliance and tracked the bird’s progress as it drew ever closer.

The albatross released its payload with the precision of an expert artilleryman. The item tumbled from the sky, landing within feet of Sebastian. As for the bird, it looked enormously relieved to be free of its burden—and a bit cheeky, as if it knew something Sebastian didn’t.

Since he’d been stranded nearly two months now, the entire realm no doubt knew things he didn’t.

He dropped the kindling and pocketed the tinderbox. Armed with a slender piece of driftwood, he approached.

A satchel lay on the damp sand, close enough to the sea that the tide might steal it if he didn’t move fast enough. He looped the driftwood through the strap just as a wave licked the edge of the bag.

For a long moment, Sebastian surveyed the satchel. Then he poked at it, prodded it with his bit of driftwood. The bag remained still. Besides, it was far too slender to hold much of consequence. He didn’t discount poison, but then the albatross had appeared hale and healthy.

Then curiosity overrode vigilance. Sebastian drew the satchel toward him and undid the flap.

It didn’t do to be overly cautious, after all.

The first item to greet him was his own image under the phrase:

Wanted: Dead or Alive.

The likeness was passable, although it lacked the magnificent beard he now sported. Beneath his name was an outlandish reward, enough coin that Sebastian might consider turning himself in—and worry about keeping his head later.

Next was a second wanted poster, this one for the captain of the Siren. The artist had drawn Estella with an exaggerated hand, turning her into little more than a sea hag. The entire realm knew of Estella’s beauty, and such an illustration would do little to deter treasure hunters.

His fingers shuffled the remaining contents—letters with the royal seal, battle plans for the navy, all manner of correspondence. All of it pointed to one objective. The concerted and concentrated effort to capture one man:

Sebastian Black, Pirate King.

Chatter drew his attention from the papers in his hand to the sea beyond. There, the ship on the horizon still bobbed, no closer, no farther away. Except now, a rowboat headed toward the island.

A single occupant leaned forward in the bow as if will alone could propel the boat. But no, it was the chattering pod of dolphins that took up the task, nudging and pushing the rowboat closer and closer to shore.

His gaze tracked the boat until Sebastian could make out the black hair that flowed like silk, skin the very color of damp sand, dark eyes that lit with delight at the sight of him.

Oh, yes. Quite the sea hag.

“Sebastian! My love!” Estella leaped from the boat before it fully came to rest on a sandbar.

The dolphin pup bussed her cheek as she waded to shore through waist-deep water. She held a bottle of wine aloft in one hand and pushed through the sea with the other.

“My love!” she called again. “Merry Christmas!”

Was it? Mentally, he counted the days since becoming shipwrecked, and well, yes, he was missing a day or two. But indeed, it could be Christmas.

This could also be a hallucination, brought on by a bad bit of shellfish, perhaps.

Estella halted three feet from him, soaked to the skin. She offered up the bottle of wine. When he refused it, she shrugged and set it on the sand. She unlaced her sleeves from her bodice, pulled off her boots, and placed both on the beach to dry.

“How do you like the island?” she asked.

Sebastian remained silent.

“It was my grandmother’s,” she continued as if he’d responded. “It’s where she came to rest, in the end.”

His gaze traveled up the shore, toward the shelter and his silent companion.

“Yes, exactly,” Estella said.

He didn’t demand. He didn’t rage. He didn’t kick sand or fling the wine bottle out to sea (really, the latter would be a terrible waste). Sebastian merely stood there, stony. True, after a long moment, he folded his arms across his chest. He may have tapped his foot.

Estella sighed, the light in her eyes fading to sorrow. “Oh, my love, I cannot apologize. I can only explain.”

When he continued his silence, Estella grimaced.

“I suppose I deserve this.” She gnawed her lip, a sign she was searching for the right words, not false ones. “Several months back, my spies brought word to me that the crown planned on marshaling their forces to capture you, convict you, and see you hanged from the neck.”

She gestured toward the satchel, and he nodded. That much, he had ascertained.

“And my spies?” he said, finding his voice at last. “They brought me no word of this.”

“Your spies had been infiltrated, my love. Indeed, so had members of your crew.”

This? This was news. News he wanted to deny; news he felt the truth of deep in his bones. Had not his whisper network gone silent? Had not he detected a false glint or concealed fear in the eyes of the townsfolk and even his crew?

“And yours had not?” he countered.

“Indeed, not.”

“And why is that?”

“My spies are invisible.”

He barked a laugh. Yes, this was his Estella, through and through, outrageous and audacious.

“Really?” He raised an eyebrow. “How so?”

“Forgive me, my love, but how often do men notice the woman scrubbing the palace floors, or the ones sweeping the hearth and laying the fire? Do they notice the serving wench except to slap her bottom? Or think nothing of babbling to those who work in the royal pleasure houses?”

Oh, she had him there. Her network had always produced better intelligence than his own ever did.

“What are you telling me, then?” he said. “That you arranged all this?”

Some of that delight returned to her expression, those dark, soulful eyes glowing with it. “With a little help.”

“Why not simply tell me?”

“Again, forgive me, my love, but your temperament is—” She paused again, a hint of teeth against her lip. “Legendary.”

Well, perhaps.

“Could you have playacted the role?” She didn’t let him answer. “For the plan to work, you, your crew, including the various spies, had to be convinced that I had turned traitor. There was no other way.”

“And if I don’t forgive you? If I strike you down here, right now?”

“I would gladly do it all again. I would lose your love and my life if only I could save yours.”

It struck him then, hard and fast, like a blow to the gut. Not betrayal—at least, not the sort that mattered. But a crafty, well-executed plan that her clever mind and courageous heart put into action.

“And you fooled Thaddeus as well?” Another counterpoint, weak as it was.

Estella laughed and rolled her eyes in disdain. “You’ve seen my wanted poster, have you not?”

Yes, the act of a petulant child. And yet, Sebastian was still at a loss. How did they proceed? As if nothing had happened? As if his heart hadn’t been splintered beyond repair?

“What is it we do now?” His words were more musing than question.

“Oh, my love.” She spread her arms wide, and her smile was brighter than the midday sun. “We celebrate Christmas!”

She headed for the rowboat, turning every few steps to urge him to follow. “Come, come see what I brought.”

Without recourse, Sebastian followed.

* * *

A tiny fir tree sat well back from the cook fire. Red and gold ribbons bedecked its boughs, and all manner of gifts surrounded its trunk—lumpy parcels wrapped in brocade and tied with even more ribbons. One was definitely the size and shape of Sebastian’s saber.

Estella knelt next to the fire, stirring something she claimed was fudge, although it was far too soupy for that. When he dared mention the fact, she merely eyed him.

“And when was the last time you ate chocolate?”

She had a point. He’d gladly toast the holiday with the dark sludge rather than the wine that sat cooling in the tropical shade.

“Who waits for us,” he asked with a nod toward the horizon. Yes, he had also dared utter the word us, dared to hope, dared to believe in the schemes of this pirate queen. “Is it the Siren?”

“It is, with Miriam at the helm in my absence.” She gave him a sly smile. “And Hadim as her first mate.”

“Indeed?”

“In fact, they’d like you to marry them once you’re restored to the Tyrant’s Bane.”

“Marry … them?”

“As captain, can you not perform the ceremony?”

“I … well, yes. Of course. But Miriam and Hadim?”

Estella glanced away. He had the distinct impression she—once again—rolled her eyes. Then another thought struck him.

“The Tyrant’s Bane?”

“Being repaired by your crew.” She removed the fudge from the fire and set it to the side to cool.

“Then it didn’t sink.”

“The Tyrant’s Bane? I doubt it could.”

Sebastian sat back, the onslaught of both thoughts and feelings threatening to overwhelm him.

“Estella.” Her name emerged from his throat rougher than he intended. “What do we do now?” This time, his words were more question than musing.

She turned toward him, and oh, her eyes were so tender. She inched across the sand, drawing nearer to him.

“First, we celebrate Christmas. Don’t you see the gifts beneath the tree?”

“I’m afraid I have nothing for you.”

“Oh, I’ve accounted for that.”

Of course, she had. “And then?”

“Then, I thought we could get reacquainted.” She drew a finger along his cheekbone, the one where she’d left a scar so many months ago. “Although perhaps you could shave first.”

“And perhaps I won’t. Besides.” He nodded toward the skeleton. “I’m not sure we should in front of your grandmother.”

Estella laughed, the sound light and airy and like bells at Christmas. “And then we’ll spend the week immersed in plans and strategies and tactics. On New Year’s Day, we shall row out to the Siren prepared.”

Sebastian took her chin between forefinger and thumb. It was the prelude to a kiss, and he wanted to savor the moment. “And then what, my love?”

“We take the fight to them.”

He kissed her then, and it was both gentle and rough and fierce as both their rivalry and their courtship. In his chest, he felt the splinters of his shattered heart mend. They entwined together until not a single fracture remained. His heart, now whole once again, nestled securely beside that of his pirate queen.

Heart of a Pirate King was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Weekly writing check-in: that’s fairly rough

I’m not really sure why I’m so surprised that my rough draft is so … rough.

But it is, and I am.

Okay, not too surprised. I do need to pull out an entire section (trust me, it doesn’t work) and delete an entire character (he’ll just have to wait for another book/series). I was hoping that the structure, at least, was solid, if not the prose.

Alas.

But I slept on it. In the morning, things looked brighter (as things tend to do). I have a sense of what the story and the revision need and how that will cascade into the other two novellas in Coffee & Ghosts Season Four.

Again, I’m writing at the speed of tortoise, but I’m nevertheless pleased with my progress this week.

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Free Fiction Friday: Flowers and Stones

A contemporary retelling of Diamonds and Toads, one filled with coleslaw, tattoos, and forget-me-nots.

I’m standing at the self-checkout when the first pinpricks race up and down my back. I freeze, an entire cabbage clutched in my grip. For a moment, with the icy sensation against my spine, my mind blanks.

I stare at my hands. Why cabbage?

Oh, yes. Coleslaw. Homemade. It’s been a long week, and I’m in the mood to shred something. Coleslaw is good for that.

I roll the cabbage between my palms like it’s a basketball. With a little finesse, I could give it a spin, land a three-pointer in the open grocery sack at the checkout station across the way.

Another wash of pinpricks reminds me that I’m not the one in the family who does those sorts of things. No pickup games with vegetables or ill-advised tattoos for me. So instead, I scan the cabbage and drop it in my canvas sack—only to have the screen flash at me:

Unexpected item in bagging area.

The light above my station blinks in time with my heart. I stare at the cabbage, in the sack, with dismay. In this case, I’m that unexpected item.

A cashier and then a manager try to scan the cabbage. They struggle to add it manually, fingers jabbing at the screen. Then the manager sends the cashier for a price check. Even then, she can’t add the amount to my bill.

I keep my lips pressed together, not daring to say a word. I know if I speak, I’ll simper like some old-school Disney princess.

And that won’t help.

“You know what?” the manager says, at last, her tone conveying that this is all my fault, although she can’t really explain why. “It’s on us.”

My remaining groceries are waiting, some patiently, like the carrots. Others not so much, like the mint chocolate chip ice cream that’s starting to sweat.

A third wash of pinpricks chases across my skin before the pain centers between my shoulder blades. An urge—to rush to the restroom, rush off and leave everything behind—overwhelms me. I want—need—to find a mirror.

At that moment, I don’t care about anything else. Not my groceries, or even my purse. I’d leave everything behind all so I can yank up my shirt and glimpse the image emerging on my skin.

That urge thrums in my blood until it emerges as a compulsion. I remember to grab my purse, but I leave everything behind in my search for a restroom.

This is a high-end grocery store, with carpet and chandeliers, and enough samples on Fridays to make a meal (which is why I shop here on Fridays). The restroom is well-appointed, with a beveled mirror and infinity sinks.

I crash through the door. I don’t do a stall check. I don’t care if anyone else is here. I plant myself in front of the mirror and yank my shirt up and over my shoulder.

Then I spin, a slow rotation, like a dog trying to catch her own tail. The second I spot the intricate design, it slips from view. At last, I pull out my phone for a selfie.

Just as I snap a photo, a woman walks into the restroom. She halts, dark eyes panicked. Well, yes, she’s just stumbled onto a bit of crazy. I wouldn’t blame her if she backed out slowly, hands raised in a pacifying gesture, and then ran for the manager.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Then her expression softens. Curiosity rather than fear lights her eyes.

“Oh, hey.” Her voice is low and melodic and full of appreciation. “Did you just get some ink?”

Not exactly.

But I nod. “Yeah. Sort of.” As if there’s sort of when it comes to tattoos.

“Let’s see.”

Again, her expression is bright and friendly. So I hold still and let a complete stranger examine the tattoo between my shoulders.

“That’s wicked good,” she says. “Where’d you get it done?”

I have no idea.

I swallow. “A place out in San Francisco. They’re fantastic.”

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s San Francisco. I clamp my mouth shut before I can rhapsodize about a place I’ve never been.

The woman pushes up a sleeve. “Great minds, huh?”

I don’t know what she means, but I nod and admire the triple moon goddess tattoo on her forearm. It’s really well done, and certainly there by choice rather than a surprise, like the one currently stinging my back.

The woman takes another look at my ink, her eyes squinting as if she’s having trouble focusing.

“Is it … fading?” She shakes her head. “No, now it’s …”

I slip my arm back into my shirt before this gets truly awkward. “The lighting.”

Again, I press my lips shut before I can enthuse about the ambiance. Instead, I point to the chandelier above our heads (yes, fancy, even in the restrooms).

She accepts this with a nod. Because, really, what’s her other option? Declare that my tattoo is changing before her eyes?

She heads for a stall. I take that as my cue to leave.

When I reach the self-checkout station, I discover my groceries are bagged and paid for. There’s a note—a kind one, to be sure—suggesting that I find another place to do my Friday grocery shopping.

The manager won’t meet my eyes. Because, yes, this has happened before.

I wait until I’m three storefronts away and tuck myself into a corner by the kiddie haircut place that’s closed for the evening. It’s dark and safe, and I concentrate on the brick rather than the fire against my back.

I tug my phone from my jeans pocket. The picture I took earlier is slightly unfocused. But I’ve done this so many times, it hardly matters. I tap and zoom, crop and enhance.

At last, an image emerges.

A triple moon goddess.

The scrollwork is intricate, and the woman in the restroom was right; it really is wicked good.

And this can’t be a coincidence. Something is brewing. That much, I know. Still, as I study the tattoo, I don’t know what it means.

Or what it is my twin, Alyssa, is trying to tell me.

* * *

Finding a tattoo artist in a city the size of San Francisco isn’t hard. Alyssa’s found any number of excellent tattooists in any number of cities.

It’s finding one who won’t remember working their magic on her skin that’s the issue. Another? Finding one the crone doesn’t know about.

Alyssa doesn’t know if an actual crone is shadowing her steps. It’s simply the name she’s given the thing that’s haunted her and Emma since they turned eighteen. The crone knows things she shouldn’t, knows things she can’t.

Every time Alyssa thinks she’s outsmarted this being, something else disrupts her life—or worse, Emma’s.

Moon and Stars Tattoos is surprisingly empty for this time of day. One artist bends over the extended arm of her customer, her brow etched with pure concentration. The others appear on the verge of napping. Through the open door, Alyssa catches strains of something ancient—Fleetwood Mac, she thinks. She’s never been much for music, but it sounds like something her mother would listen to.

Alyssa decides to risk it. Her card is ready, printed fresh this morning. The words: Can’t speak, acute laryngitis should get her into a chair and inked without any issues.

As for the tattoo itself? Alyssa will let her gaze wander the artwork displayed on the walls. The right image will announce itself. If she’s meant to get ink today, meant to warn Emma, that image will lead her to the right artist.

A hush falls on the space as she steps through the door. One of the male artists smirks. Another day, another time, she’d open her mouth and let him have what for. After all, what for is her primary skill. But not today. Today is too important.

One of the women raises an eyebrow. Yes, Alyssa knows. She looks impossibly young. They’ll probably ID her, too.

“Can I help you?” the woman asks. If her eyebrow is skeptical, her voice, at least, is kind.

Alyssa doesn’t mean to be rude (really, it simply happens all on its own), but her gaze is still tracking the images on the wall, searching out the one she needs, and so she barely gives a nod.

It’s the scrollwork she notices first, intricate and refined. It reminds her of the very first tattoo she ever got, the one that was an apology, a love letter to her twin. With a shaky hand, she points.

“That’s one of mine,” the woman says.

Alyssa digs the card from her pocket, praying that the words haven’t transformed into something obscene between this morning and now. Her heart thumps in her chest. Everything feels right, from the music to the tattoo to the woman waiting patiently.

She knows better than to wish too hard. It’s like a beacon, sending her hopes and fears into the world where anyone might pluck them from the sky.

Like the crone.

Even so, her entire being is focused on the card and, at the same time, not. She fills her senses with everything else. Rainbows and unicorns decorating the wall, the music playing low enough the words are a mere suggestion, the scent of anticipation and blood.

The door is three steps away. Depending on what’s now printed on the card, she can make a run for it. A quick break to the left, and it’s all downhill. Not that anyone will chase her. At least, no one ever has. But this could be a first.

Alyssa pulls out the card and hands it to the woman and waits.

And waits.

“Oh, no problem,” the woman says at last. She grins at Alyssa, and her eyes sparkle with delight. “Really, the less you say, the better my work. I’m Samantha, by the way.”

Alyssa digs out her ID and hands it over.

Samantha glances at it. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I was going to have to card you. You barely look eighteen.”

Alyssa shrugs. The male tattoo artist—the one with the smirk—snorts.

And because Alyssa is feeling triumphant, she sends him a smirk of her own. When he averts his gaze, her triumph doubles.

She follows Samantha to her station. While she waits, Alyssa lets her gaze wander the art on the walls once again until it lands on the triple moon goddess.

This time, her smile is nothing but pure.

* * *

Everyone in the call center knows to route the worse customer calls to me. They’re not supposed to. It’s not an official policy. If anything, our manager would wring his hands, sweat gathering on his forehead, and insist it isn’t fair.

No one ever listens to him. Since our center has the highest customer satisfaction rating in corporate, he never insists too hard.

At the end of each year, I get a holiday bonus and a plaque.

At the end of each year, I try not to think about the full-ride scholarship I gave up.

Sometimes I pretend I’m Snow White and each caller a dwarf, albeit ones who never made it into the fairy tale (Irate, Belligerent, Passive-Aggressive, Confused, Outraged, Lost, and Arrogant).

Repeat complainers sometimes ask for me by name. A few send me holiday cards.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to them.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to anyone.

To compensate, I take out my frustration on inanimate objects. Cabbage, carrots, and a fierce grater all wait for me in my kitchenette. I’m going to shred the heck out of some vegetables.

I’m going to forget about the customer who called me every foul name in the (urban) dictionary before breaking down and admitting that his wife had died. All he wanted was a pair of pants that fit, but since she did all the shopping, he had no idea what to order.

I’m going to forget about the lonely old woman who didn’t want to complain so much as to talk to someone.

I’m going to forget I can still feel the residual burn of the triple moon goddess between my shoulder blades.

At this point, all that remains is a ghost of a tattoo. I’ve watched at least two dozen come and go over the years. Sometimes they’re sophisticated—works of art in their own right. Sometimes Alyssa sends me nothing more than a heart, the red so vibrant you might mistake it for fresh blood.

And sometimes she sends a message.

I’m shredding and wondering what on earth I’ll do with all this coleslaw. I’ll never be able to eat it all on my own, and it’s not like you can freeze coleslaw. My mother, perhaps. Maybe she’s having a luncheon this weekend or some sort of charitable event.

A knock comes on the door of my tiny cottage. Yes, just like an old-school Disney princess, I live in an actual cottage. Although hardly anyone ever knocks on the door.

When I answer, I find my mother backlit by the big house up on the hill. Fairy lights adorn the patio, its slate gleaming as if by magic. In the yard, it’s as if a celestial hand has sprinkled tiny stars along the branches of all the trees that surround what is, in truth, a mansion.

This is not the modest split-level Alyssa and I grew up in. Henry, the man who owns this mansion, is not our father. He is like a prince at the end of a fairy tale, but one with a salt and pepper goatee and round, rimless spectacles. Instead of sweeping away the maiden, Henry fell hard for the matron.

He still can’t fix all that is wrong.

It’s as if my thoughts have brought my mother to the cottage doorstep. In truth, they may have. Above her head, above the house on the hill, a moon rises. Not quite full, but only a few days off.

I look at my mother and blink. For a moment, the young woman from the restroom appears before my eyes. I blink again, and my mother replaces her.

Maiden. Mother.

I’m afraid to blink a third time. So instead, I say, “It’s lovely to see you.”

It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. It’s the only thing I can say to her. We don’t talk, haven’t since Alyssa and I turned eighteen. I don’t mean that in a Lifetime movie sort of way, although the results are nevertheless the same.

My mother stares at me, clutches her throat as if the words she wishes to speak burn.

Perhaps they do.

“I’m making coleslaw,” I say, brightly, as if there aren’t any number of things we should be talking about. “Could you use some? I’m always happy to share.”

Something sparks in my mother’s expression, something that tells me I’m on the right track.

“Are you having guests?” I venture.

“Yes.” The word is no more than a whisper, but it is a word. “Guest.” Relief floods her eyes. She turns, and I follow her gaze to the swollen moon rising above the house.

Guest. Singular.

A full moon.

And then I know.

* * *

Once upon a time, a young woman cradled two daughters inside her, her belly as round as the brilliant full moon.

When the time came, there would be three of them, three to make a family.

But the daughters were too eager, not content to stay put until the time was right. So the young woman sent her hopes, her fears, into the world.

Someone plucked them from the sky.

There would be three of them, three to make a family.

But only until the debt came due.

* * *

On the flight home, Alyssa pretends to sleep. Even with headphones and a book propped in front of her, the guy (and it’s always a guy) next to her will want to talk.

She can’t risk the altercation, the escalation, the plane making an unscheduled landing in the middle of the country, and security escorting her—and the guy—off the plane.

It’s happened before.

She feels the stirrings of that impulse—to lean across the middle seat and ask the guy next to her about those three restraining orders. Oh, and some outstanding child support payments as well. It would be gratifying, absolutely, to watch this guy’s complexion go from ruddy to bright red, to have half the passengers cheering him on, half applauding her.

This is how the crone tempts her. Alyssa can’t know these things about this guy. But in every altercation (and there have been several), she’s always been right.

Instead, she channels everything she knows and loves about her sister.

It was Emma, of course, who saved them that first day, who held fast even when Alyssa started spewing hateful words.

She hadn’t meant to say them, of course. But in the last seven years, she never has. She can hear what she says warped, transformed in the air until these mutations reach the ears of the other person. A simple I love you becomes I hate you—and always have.

But the crone never counted on Emma, her sister who should’ve gone on to some Ivy League school, been a doctor or a scientist, or something more.

They say twins have their own language. If so, Alyssa and Emma had long forgotten theirs. But that didn’t stop Emma from picking up on the false notes in Alyssa’s tone. It didn’t stop her brilliant twin from grabbing a pencil and scribbling a message across her calculus homework.

What’s going on?

They spent a blissful Saturday exchanging notes until the crone caught on. It took three days before text messages were ruined, and another five for emojis.

By then, they had a plan. Alyssa would leave. Emma would stay, take care of their mother and explain the situation as best she could.

That was when Alyssa went in for her first tattoo. The intertwined E and A were so beautiful, the letters surrounded by fancy scrollwork and leaves. At the time, Alyssa didn’t think to question why that bit of artwork was on the wall, at eye level, as if waiting for her.

She only knew she had to get it. Alyssa held her breath, worried that there was something too magical about the artwork. It would change before her eyes, and she’d be left with something nasty or obscene on her skin. When it remained—perfect and oh, so beautiful—she hurried home, excited to show Emma.

Alyssa found her twin clutching her ankle, pain and fear flashing in her eyes. Together they sat on the lower bunk and watched as the tattoo faded from Alyssa’s ankle, bloomed on Emma’s, only to vanish entirely after a few minutes.

But during all that, the image remained pure.

And Alyssa knew that no matter where in the world she was, she’d have a way to send Emma a message.

Their mother wasn’t surprised to find Emma burning the goodbye note Alyssa tried to pen before she left—one filled with so many invectives it was hardly a note at all. (It was a silly attempt, but Alyssa had to try.)

Over the years, they’ve peeled back the layers of their story—of crones who might grant wishes but always demand their due in the end.

And, at last, they’ve reached the end.

Now, on this final flight home, Alyssa knows there’s only so much she can channel of Emma. Her sister speaks in flowers, Alyssa in stones. Emma’s words perfume the air, Alyssa’s sting the ears and bite the flesh.

If Emma is often too pure for this world, then Alyssa is well suited for it. Because sometimes the guy sitting in seat 1F deserves what for.

Alyssa knows this, too. This fight, this final confrontation that’s waiting for them, it won’t be the two of them against the crone.

It’s Alyssa versus Emma.

And Alyssa plans to win.

* * *

I’m clutching a gigantic bowl of coleslaw, my arms aching with the effort. With careful steps, I navigate the path to the main house. One distraction and slaw will coat everything—me, the decorative stones Henry has placed by hand, the flowers and shrubs he pampers.

Dusk shrouds the patio. My mother stands on the slate, haloed by those thousand fairy lights. On the table sits slender-stemmed glassware, an elaborate floral arrangement, with sweet, summer wine chilling in silver buckets. It’s the trappings of an evening garden party, and an expensive one, too.

It will all go to waste.

My mother’s hands are clutched beneath her chin, her dress billowing about her. She is as picturesque as any fairy tale princess, except her eyes are huge and wary.

Above the house, a full moon rises. There, in the twilight, the first evening star glimmers.

The night holds its breath. It’s waiting, as we all are, for the crone.

I’ve known all along what Alyssa plans to do. How could I not? Her intent is indelible, present in each and every tattoo she sends me. Now that I’ve received the final one, it’s as if all the pieces have fallen into place.

I know, without consciously knowing. I’m ready because she’s made me that way.

I won’t let her do what she plans on doing.

A ride-share pulls into the circular drive, blaring death metal and spewing exhaust. Alyssa steps out, throws a handful of bills at the driver, and then gives him the finger for good measure. Hands on hips, she surveys the backyard. Her feet are clad in steel-toe boots. Her jeans are worn through at the knees, and the collar of her gray T-shirt hangs loose.

She looks like she did the day she left, and not a minute older.

At the sight of her, my chest constricts; my heart is tender and raw.

If the past seven years don’t show on my face, I feel them in my bones. Like Sleeping Beauty, I long for a hundred-year nap. I’m tired of this relentless niceness. It is false and draining, and I can’t imagine another seven minutes living this way, never mind years.

That’s why I plan to stop Alyssa. I will step into the void, offer myself as a sacrifice to the crone. She wants more. She wants blood.

She can have mine.

My gaze meets Alyssa’s. Her tough-girl stance shifts. I wonder if she can read my intent in the same way, if it’s in the blood and always has been.

The crone materializes equal distance between us.

I don’t drop the bowl of coleslaw, but I let it slip through my grip. My fingers guide it to the ground, where the soil swallows it up. A cackle rings in my ears, unsettling and scornful. The slaw, of course, was a mere pretense.

I have not fooled the crone.

To my surprise, she is not the hideously-bent creature from any number of tales. She is not any one creature.

I blink and see my manager from work. I blink again, and the sales clerk from the grocery store appears before my eyes. A third time, my guidance counselor from high school, the one who urged me to apply to Harvard.

Is the crone everyone and no one at the same time? I dart a look toward Alyssa. Her eyes are narrowed, brow furrowed in confusion. I wonder what it is she sees. Missed opportunities? A truncated life, or one denied?

And because I am looking at Alyssa, I see the moment she decides. It’s there in the way the soles of her boots churn the earth, the tightening of her fists. I start my run a split second before she does.

I will win.

I think this as I gain ground. I think this as I pull ever closer. What will happen when my body meets the crone’s? I’m not sure. I only know I need to reach her first.

The full moon shines down on the backyard, revealing a pathway to the crone. She is everyone and everything I cannot have. She is everyone and everything Alyssa’s been denied.

I’m so close, hands extended, fingertips yearning, when something white and billowing brushes past me, the figure lithe and quick.

Our mother.

She reaches the crone before I can, before Alyssa can. When the two collide, the night explodes into a million stars. A wave washes through me. There’s a loosening—in my heart, my throat. I feel words, real words, in my mouth.

I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to reach out and bring my mother back.

When those million stars fade and only the moon illuminates our backyard, nothing remains of my mother or the crone. In their wake, we discover a patch of rich earth surrounded by quartz and agates.

We stand there, me, Alyssa, and Henry, and marvel as seedlings push through the soil, sprout, and bloom as if moonlight alone sustains them. Daisies and roses, slender lilies, and flowers I don’t know the names of, but certainly, Henry does.

At last, around the border, a flock of forget-me-nots blossom. Henry kneels, gathers a handful, and says:

“As if I could, my love. As if I could.”

* * *

Henry is like a prince in a fairy tale.

He smooths the way for Emma to start college. When she balks, Alyssa prods and cajoles, poking her sister relentlessly until—at last—she enrolls in the honors program.

Whenever Emma falters, Alyssa says, “Don’t you dare waste that brilliant brain of yours.”

Henry smooths the way for Alyssa, too. She agrees—reluctantly—to take classes of her own at the community college. One each semester. She navigates the strange language of profit and loss statements, of double-entry accounting. Until she’s fluent, Henry will keep the books for her, make sure the taxes are paid on time.

The first artist (other than herself) to step through the doors of Flowers & Stones Tattoos is Samantha from San Francisco. The first customer (other than herself) is a woman who wears a triple moon goddess on her forearm.

Her storefront is a cozy, safe place in this world. She handles the rude customers by channeling Emma. The ones who are lost, who stare at the walls until their gaze lands on the artwork they need? Those customers she tends to with care. Alyssa sends them into the world again, armed, she hopes, to fight their own battles.

When the E and A tattoo doesn’t bloom on Emma’s ankle, Alyssa drags her to Flowers & Stones. While Samantha works on Emma, Alyssa swears she feels the residual burn against her skin.

On weekends, she, Emma, and Henry gather. The garden overflows with blossoms and fragrances. The quartz and agates gleam in the sunshine. A sapling takes root, flourishes in less than a season to shade the chair where Henry rests each evening.

They are three, Alyssa thinks.

Three to make a family.

Flowers and Stones was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Weekly writing check-in: brewing up some Kona blend

Just like the editing and scheduling last week, it took me a while to get everything formatted, submitted, re-submitted, and so on.

But it’s (nearly) done!

It’s weird having only two scheduled posts on my dashboard.

I’m pondering what I might do with my blog in 2021. I know I can’t maintain the one-story-per-week pace. I don’t have enough stories in reserve, either on my hard drive or in my head.

Also? I want to get back to writing longer fiction. I’m itching to dive back into Coffee & Ghosts Season 4, and I’m brewing up some Kona blend to do just that.

I have two (maybe three) spin-off series in the Coffee & Ghosts world I’d like to write.

Then there’s that fairy tale series.

A possible epic fantasy duology.

That time travel.

That cold war spy series.

You get the idea.

You can’t do it all, at least, not all at once. (I can’t anyway. No doubt there’s a writer out there who can. We’ll pretend she doesn’t exist.)

So I’m looking at picking a small number of things to focus on for 2021:

  • Definitely Coffee & Ghosts
  • A follow-on series
  • Back to blogging more (because I like blogging more than I like social media–actually, I like blogging and loathe social media. I’m terrible at social media anyway, so I might as well do something I like)

I’m leaving the list at that before I’m tempted to add even more to it.

Now for some coffee.

And some ghosts.

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Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing

Free Fiction Friday: Inside Out

When Lexia befriends a girl from outside a luxury spa facility, she starts seeing the cracks in her mother’s disastrous fifth marriage, the world in which she lives, and her own future.

The day Lexia discovered the glass wasn’t fogged was the day she decided to see the outside for herself. Something swirled beneath her hand whenever she tried to wipe the condensation from the window. A few bursts of light would shine through, then the clouds reformed, opaque as ever. Behind her, hot mineral baths churned up steam. The heated pool sent out waves of moist air. Sweat bloomed all over her skin until she glowed.

But beneath her fingers, the window was cool. Light shined behind the glass, the effect like winter on Earth—a glare to make you shield your eyes and glance away. Why? The question pinged in the back of her mind. Why would someone hide the outside?

Lexia wore her flimsy spa wrap, but didn’t care. She’d see the outside, if not through the glass, then some other way. In the last year, she’d learned that there was always some other way. She cast her gaze about the spa. A group of women, her mother among them, sat at the far end, each encased to her shoulders in diamond-speckled mud. A year ago, Lexia would have sat nearby, let the women pet her, buy her trinkets from the gift shop, listen to her mother’s mock protests.

“Oh, but you’ll spoil her,” her mother had always said, followed by a secret smile that told Lexia no amount of spoiling was ever enough.

That was before her mother embarked on another marriage—her fifth; she was a professional decorative—before their fights. Now, relaxing felt like work, pampering a chore. So Lexia turned her back on the women and went in search of something more substantial.

Like a vent. All this moist air needed to go somewhere. And somewhere had to be better than here.

With all the steam, and chatter, and strains of soothing music, no one noticed when she rounded a corner. Or almost no one. An old lady, her gnarled fingers curled around an old-fashioned book, glanced up and gave her a smile, the sort that said she knew what Lexia was up to—and highly approved. Heart thumping, Lexia dipped out of sight and confronted the nearest vent. She pried her fingers beneath its rim. To her surprise, it slipped right off. For easy cleaning, she imagined. Not that Lexia had cleaned all that much in her sixteen years.

She eased inside, replacing the cover as best she could. Lexia crawled, hiked up her wrap, and crawled some more. The change in pressure clogged her ears as she moved from one air lock to the next, through invisible filters. The air cooled, took on a metallic flavor. Churning and clanking filled her head. It was like moving through a huge metal beast, and she was somewhere deep within its innards.

One dark turn led to another until she confronted an actual door. She punched in the code she’d seen Paulo use on the gift shop register. The door slid open, revealing a grate, and beyond that, the outside.

“Oh! That worked.” She laughed, the soft sound bouncing around the enclosed space.

Tiny streams of sunlight lit the backs of her hands. There was only one thing to do. She flattened her palms against the hatchwork and shoved.

The sun’s glare hit her full in the face. Lexia blinked. Tears burned her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. When a shadow blocked the light, Lexia squinted, ready to bolt back inside the spa.

But wait! It was a girl. Like her! Or almost. This girl was thin, with enormous eyes. No hair. Not a single strand marred the smooth surface of the girl’s head. No eyebrows, either, Lexia realized. Still, this girl looked so pretty, and so nice.

“Hi,” Lexia breathed. “Do you want to come in?” She’d read that the local population was transplanted from Earth. Certainly this girl understood her.

The girl backed up, pebbles scattering in her wake, and turned from the vent’s opening. Lexia threw herself forward, latched onto an ankle, her own chest scraping rocks and metal.

“Please don’t go! I won’t hurt you!”

The ankle in her hands stilled. Lexia unfurled her fingers bit by bit, convinced the girl would bolt. Instead, the girl turned around and crept forward until they were face to face, Lexia leaning over the vent’s edge, the girl just below her.

“I’m Lexia.”

The girl took Lexia’s hand, turned her palm skyward, and traced lines with a finger. Puzzled, Lexia shook her head. The lines continued, up and down, over her skin, like a child learning the alphabet. Oh, the alphabet.

“You’re Amie!” Lexia exclaimed, unsure if she should feel clever or not.

The girl, Amie, nodded.

“Well,” Lexia said. “Come on inside.”

Together, they crawled through the vent. At the entrance to the pool area, Lexia pressed a finger against her lips. She slipped from the opening and casually strolled around the pool area, collecting items as she went—a robe, a head wrap, someone’s oversized frothy drink. Back in the vent, Aimie gulped the drink, the foam coating her upper lip in strawberry red. Lexia draped Amie in terrycloth from ankle to head, a nearly perfect camouflage for a girl from the outside.

Outside. It was almost too much.

“Come on,” Lexia said when Amie set down the drink. “My room has everything we need.” She took Amie’s hand, and together they left the spa.

No one noticed. Or almost no one. Lexia swore that same old lady stared at them. The smile was still there, only now it was tinged with worry.

* * *

In the hallway, Lexia’s stomach jumped each time a guard strolled by. They were all tall, all handsome, all with sharp eyes no amount of solicitude could hide. She led Amie through the corridors, not too fast, but not so slow someone might notice a girl who didn’t belong. Only when they had reached her quarters, and the door had whooshed closed behind them, did Lexia let out a breath.

“We did it!” She grinned at Amie. “And you need a bath.”

Lexia filled the tub and drained it twice, and still gray scum floated to the top of the water. But at least Amie looked clean and—more importantly—now smelled like lavender and vanilla. Even better, the girl’s dark eyes glowed and although she was silent, her smile filled Lexia’s heart.

It was after the bath, and a tray full of chocolates, that Amie pointed at the model on Lexia’s desk.

“I get to do one every month,” Lexia said, her hand lighting on the structure. It was her best one yet, a scale replica of the first station on Mars. “Since it’s a hobby, I can’t do more than that. I always tell myself to go slow, make it last, but I can’t stop myself.”

Amie cocked her head, brow furrowing.

“I wanted construction, you see. I have the test scores for it, all the spatial ability. And I love geometry.” Lexia shrugged. “They keep telling me I’m too pretty, that it makes more sense to be a decorative, like my mother, and her mother. It’s a better career choice—a safer one.”

She leaned closer, and Amie did the same, so their noses almost met over the top of the Mars structure. “Some girls even cut themselves.” Lexia drew an imaginary blade along her cheekbone. Amie jumped back and shook her head, her eyes wide and scared.

“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t. Besides, do you see anything sharp in here?” Lexia laughed, but it was the bitter sound she sometimes heard from her mother. She clamped her mouth shut. “Do you know how hard it is to build anything without something sharp?”

Amie’s gaze went to the Mars station, then lighted on Lexia’s face. Her hand moved again, first in the air, then on the table surface, like when she’d taught Lexia her name, but different.

“Oh, plans,” Lexia said at last. “You’re wondering if I draw plans. I can, but—” Why hadn’t she considered this before? No, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling as building a model, but it beat waiting for her nail polish to dry or dozing through yet another facial.

She pulled up two chairs to her in-room console. She scrolled past all the social chatter, the notices for Slam Tonight! and the spa offering a “me” day, and dug into the educational programs. Yes! Design and Drafting, architecture, everything to teach her how to build virtual houses, cities, even stations that could be used anywhere in the galaxy, from research centers, like on Mars, to ones like they sat in now—a spa facility meant for rest and relaxation.

Lexia tore her gaze from all the potential plans and speared Amie with a look. “Did you know about this?”

Amie grinned and gave her a shrug.

“Do you need help with something, on the outside? Is that why you’re here?”

Amie leaned forward and pressed the keypad. On the screen, images of makeshift dwellings appeared. Amie pointed to one and then to herself.

“You live … there?” Lexia shook her head in disbelief. The wooden structure was little more than a lean-to. Sure, Lexia had done her time in Adventure Girls. Once, she had even slept outside, with nothing but canvas stretched over her. But at the end of the trip, the entire group had returned to a spa facility, where every pore was sucked clean, hair and nails made to shine.

Amie tapped Lexia’s wrist. The girl pointed to the screen, and then to Lexia. With her hands, she mimicked building.

“Do you want my help? Want me to show you how to make it better?”

Amie gave an emphatic nod.

“Okay.” Lexia pulled her hair into a loose bun at the base of her neck. “Let’s see what I can do.”

* * *

It took a week of designing, of visualizing, not just on the screen, but in her head, and when she could, in real time. Lexia took to collecting odd bits the spa guests left lying around. Old-fashioned books, empty containers from box lunches. These she fashioned into a small village. She learned, by watching Amie move stick figures around the structures, about life on the outside.

She knew that—somewhere—her console time was being logged. Keeping up appearances meant venturing from her quarters. She’d loved school, but a girl destined to be a third-generation decorative spent most of her time experimenting with foundations rather than building them.

But leaving her room meant leaving Amie behind. Unless … Her fingertips lighted on Amie’s bald head. Even when the look was in fashion (and it currently wasn’t), it attracted too much attention.

“Want to go somewhere?” she asked, feeling sly.

Amie’s eyes went wide, but her lips curled into a smile.

“I’ll get you a wig,” Lexia said. “And then we can really have some fun.”

* * *

In the gift shop, Lexia ran her fingers through the strands of a pink wig, one with spring-green highlights. A presence shadowed her steps, tall and broad. Paulo stood behind her. Paulo, who keyed in codes on the register so sloppily, Lexia often wondered if it were on purpose.

“You going to wear that to the slam tonight?” he asked.

“I might.”

“Haven’t seen you at one.”

“My mother’s been giving me fits.” Actually, she hadn’t seen her mother in nearly two weeks, at least not up close, but it was a handy excuse.

“Sneak out tonight.” With the suggestion, Paulo winked.

“I might,” she said again. Always keep them guessing. This was her mother’s advice when it came to men. When Paulo grinned, Lexia saw that it did, indeed, work. But it was an empty sort of victory. Why build castles in the air when she could construct real places to live? Who needed boys when she had a friend—a sister—waiting for her, one who needed her help?

* * *

From her vantage point in the hallway, Lexia could see the wide-open door of her quarters. When her mother’s voice barked commands, Lexia almost ran away. One thought kept her locked in place.

Amie.

Lexia swiped the sweat from her upper lip and considered the wig, tissue-wrapped and snug in a spa bag. Another command echoed from the room and a guard stepped out. He blinked, surprise washing across his features before he schooled them into a bland expression.

“Ah, Mrs. Mortarri? I think I’ve found her.”

He nodded at Lexia, and she had no choice but to enter her room.

“You’re not in that much trouble,” he whispered as she passed.

If he thought that, then he didn’t know her mother.

“There you are!” Her mother whirled, hands on hips. “Where have you been?”

“Nowhere. A walk.” Her voice sounded strained, shaky. She clutched the ribbon handles of the bag and willed herself not to search for Amie. Don’t move. Don’t glance around. Don’t breathe.

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Shopping?”

Lexia cringed. Of course. No one cared if she spent hours in the educational modules on her console, but the second the charge at the gift shop went through, the system must have alerted her mother.

Her mother held out a hand. Lexia pulled the wig from the bag and dropped it into her mother’s waiting palm. A year ago, she could have purchased three new wigs, and her mother would have laughed—and tried them all on herself.

“Really, Lexia? You shouldn’t cheapen yourself with such trash, not to wear and not to associate with.”

The words felt like a blow to the throat. No, she really didn’t like Paulo—at least, not in the way he wanted her to—but the boy wasn’t trash. He simply had to work and wanted to dance and drink when he wasn’t. And the wig that was oh, so pretty? And would look so nice on Amie? Well, that wasn’t trash either.

“And what is that?” Her mother pointed at the Mars station and the replica of Amie’s village she’d built around it.

“A model,” Lexia said, and how the words found their way from her throat, she didn’t know. “I like building them.”

“I’m not sure it’s the best use of your time.”

“It’s just a hobby.” Casual, not plaintive. Don’t let her see how much it means.

Her mother shook her head. “You’re just so … just so … well, I simply don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

In earlier times—better times—her mother might have tried to understand. She’d sit on the floor with Lexia, both of them surrounded by building blocks, and laugh when her own constructions inevitably collapsed while Lexia’s remained standing.

“You must get it from your father,” she’d say, “because clearly you didn’t get it from me.”

Soft words no longer came from her mouth. Not since last year, since her last, awful marriage. She never spoke of Lexia’s father. It was as if she wished both of them would simply fade away. They no longer shared quarters. Lexia was never invited to her mother’s dinner parties; not that she wanted to eat with a bunch of adults. But eating alone, in her quarters, made everything taste the same, like salt, even the desserts. Especially the desserts.

As if she had no more words for Lexia, her mother left, without a goodbye, a kiss, a hug. Lexia stared at the shut door. Oh, that she could burn a hole into it with just her eyes.

“I’m what, Mother? Just because you don’t care about the things I do, doesn’t mean I’m—”

A pair of thin arms wrapped around her, a soft sigh bathing her neck. Lexia spun, mouth wide open in wonder.

“Where did you—?”

Amie pointed to the bed, or rather, the platform it sat on. Lexia knelt, rapped her knuckles against the side, and listened to the hollow sound. She eased back the panel and peered inside. Beneath the bed, there was just enough room for an Amie-sized girl.

“You’re smarter than I am,” she said. “I don’t even have your wig, and now we can’t—”

Amie pressed a finger against Lexia’s lips.

“I talk too much, don’t I?”

Amie simply drew her to the console. There, she scrolled through the fashion channels until the display landed on turbans.

“Oh, but those are for old ladies.” Lexia wrinkled her nose. “Like my mother.”

Amie opened her mouth in a silent laugh. Then she pointed to Lexia’s collection of nail polish.

“Oh!” Lexia jumped up, fingers tingling like they always did before a new project. “I could make it pretty.” She spun around. “I could start a trend.”

She tore a strip from the bottom of her bed sheet. Around Amie’s fragile head it went, then Lexia sprinkled on glitter and sparkles, and dotted the material with lime green nail polish. Lexia turned her friend toward the mirror.

“Look at you! You’re gorgeous.”

Amie’s eyes glowed, her fingertips touching the dots that matched her nails.

Lexia clapped her hands. “Let’s go have some fun.”

* * *

Only in showing Amie the spa did the oddities strike Lexia. Why, with the sun so brilliant, was the glass perpetually fogged? Why was everything so self-contained? At the last spa, she’d gone on excursions nearly every day, took lessons in the local language, and even visited the planet’s tiny moon.

Here, there was one short day trip to an island resort owned by the spa—and nothing else. The information panel talked up the splendors of the planet, the town of New Eden, the sustainable lifestyle of the local populace, and the fresh produce brought in daily to the spa.

Then she thought of Amie’s lean-to and all the plans she somehow hoped to give the girl. She thought of the disease that had stolen her friend’s voice as a baby. Why hide these things? The only thing on the other side of the glass was reality.

“Is it bad outside?” she asked Amie. They’d discovered the kitchens, now deserted after the formal dinner, and were working their way through a tub of berries and cream. Here was the food of New Eden. For once, Lexia was hungry. For once, things tasted sweet, and her fingers grabbed one berry after another, as if she’d never get enough.

Amie shook her head.

“But it isn’t easy.”

Amie shrugged and dipped a palm-sized strawberry into the cream.

“Why were you trying to get inside, then?”

Amie froze, mid-bite. Her gaze darted toward Lexia, a pleading look in the girl’s eyes.

“For the same reason I was trying to get out? Just to see what was on the other side?”

Amie swallowed the strawberry and threw her head back in silent laughter.

* * *

Maybe it was the berry-stained fingerprints left in their wake. Maybe it was the pilfered sparkling quenchers from the walk-in refrigerator. Or maybe the guards had simply tracked their every move since they had left Lexia’s quarters.

No matter. The first guard caught Lexia unaware, thick fingers around her wrist and upper arm. Amie, though quicker, fared no better. She kicked, tried to scratch, her mouth open in a silent scream.

Lexia screamed for her. Her cries brought officers and old, respected guests, and too many witnesses.

“They’re hurting her,” someone said, voice ringing with indignation.

An old woman hobbled into the center of the gathering. “Let the child go,” she said to the guards.

The man holding Lexia released his grip on her. She rubbed his sweat from her skin and tried to wipe away the ache.

“Now the other,” the old woman added.

The guards released Amie as if her skin burned them. The second her feet touched ground, she scampered off. No one chased after her, and Lexia let out a sigh that shook her whole body. She turned to thank the old woman, but froze. Yes! It was the same woman, the one in the spa, with the book and the secret smile. And now that smile bloomed again on the old woman’s face. Before Lexia could say a word, a barking voice cut through the silence.

“Lexia! What have you done!”

Her mother parted the crowd with her voice and a hand—the same hand that, seconds later, cracked against Lexia’s cheek.

Lexia stumbled into the guard behind her. His hands gripped her waist for longer than strictly necessary. She didn’t care. Her cheek stung, her eyes watered, her heart squeezed tight in her chest.

“Mind that she is still a child,” the old woman said.

“Mind your own business,” her mother snapped.

“You could say I am. Is she not my granddaughter?”

Her mother paled. Lexia felt all the air leave her lungs. She focused on the old woman, her soft face, and eyes that looked both sad and kind.

“Technically, no,” her mother said. “She is not.”

“But as long as you’re married to my son …”

Her mother’s mouth went grim. The old woman hobbled over to Lexia.

“We have not met, my dear, and I suspect we won’t again. A piece of advice from an old woman, then?”

Numb, Lexia nodded.

“Don’t let yourself get trapped. I did. So did your mother. That’s not a sufficient reason to end up trapped yourself.”

The woman kissed the bruise forming on Lexia’s cheek and turned down the hall. The crowd, the guards, silent and staring, parted for her. No one spoke. At last, her mother gave a frustrated sigh, collared Lexia, and dragged her through the corridors by the spa wrap.

* * *

When her mother engaged the override lock, Lexia pressed her hands against the smooth door. Her first impulse was to pound, to kick—just like a child. Instead, she leaned her forehead against the cool surface and shut her eyes. In her mind, Amie ran through the hallways, into the pool area, and crawled through the vent to freedom.

She wanted to believe the pictures in her head. An icy fist in the pit of her stomach told her it was better not to.

What had gone wrong? Why was she always wrong? She never sneaked out to slams, like the other girls, never even flirted with the spa workers. All she wanted was a friend. Lexia had never known that that hole inside her existed until Amie had filled the space. Now, nothing but an ache remained, that hole larger and darker than ever.

Her gaze lighted on the bed, or rather, what it sat on, its hollow platform. She crawled, wrists aching, and eased back the panel. Could she fit? She wasn’t as small as Amie. Inside the space smelled old, like layer upon layer of dust and memories. Lexia eased her feet to the farthest corner, settled her hipbone near the center, and at last pressed her cheek against the floor. The bruise throbbed, but it was a handy reminder. If she was truly going to do what she planned to, she’d need that.

Lexia packed, weighing each item for its potential worth and inevitable weight. In went all the plans and designs she’d made with Amie. Although it was frivolous, she added the lime-green nail polish. From her bed, Lexia tugged the smallest blanket and rolled it tight. Then she curled into the hollow space again, belongings at her feet, blanket beneath her sore cheek.

It took a very long time to fall asleep.

* * *

In the morning, her mother’s shrieks woke her.

“Where is she?”

“Sorry, Mrs. Mortarri, but there’s no record at all of anyone entering or leaving her quarters.”

“But she’s not here.”

Lexia held her breath. Would they search for her? Could anyone detect the panel, in place, but slightly off-kilter? Would anyone use an infrared detector, or for that matter, common sense?

“I suppose someone could have hacked the system,” a guard ventured.

“That boy from the gift shop. What’s his name?” Her mother snapped her fingers. “I don’t know, but find him. Find her!”

Poor Paulo, Lexia thought. He didn’t deserve this. The stomp of boots filled the room before footfalls echoed down the corridor. She squirmed, peered through the small sliver where the front panel didn’t quite meet the corner of the headboard. Her mother wore a spa wrap and a wash of tears across her face. The urge to shove the panel out of the way nearly overwhelmed Lexia. In her mind, she saw the scene play out. She’d burst from her hiding spot. Here I am, she would say. Her mother would embrace her, kiss the bruise on her cheek, and cry even after Lexia forgave her.

She braced her feet against the wall, ready to push back the panel, but froze when the intercom buzzed.

“Mrs. Mortarri, will you be keeping your massage appointment this morning?”

“Excuse me?” her mother said. “My what?”

“Massage appointment. Under the circumstances, we can reschedule.”

Lexia’s chest grew tight. Her head buzzed, and the sound of it was so loud, she was afraid she’d miss her mother’s next words.

“Yes, of course I’ll keep my appointment,” her mother said. “It’s been a stressful morning.”

And now Lexia couldn’t breathe.

Her mother turned, the spa wrap fluttering across Lexia’s field of vision before vanishing completely.

Where had her mother gone? Her real mother, not the one who had so recently swept from the room, intent on keeping a massage appointment. Where had that woman run to? Because certainly she’d gone somewhere and left Lexia behind, alone with an imposter.

She slipped from under the bed and replaced its panel, then she tore a few more strips from the bottom of her sheet. These she used to tie the blanket to her pack.

At the door, she hesitated, rocking on the balls of her feet. Would it open for her? She had shed the spa wrap, and what she guessed was the tracking device that went with it. She wore old clothes, from Earth—out of fashion, of course—but they were nondescript and sturdy. Lexia shut her eyes, inhaled a deep breath, and placed her hand on the console.

The door opened.

She grinned—couldn’t help it. In a way, it made sense. Why engage an override lock on an empty room?

In the corridor, a guard passed her, the same one who had gripped her wrists and left his sweat all over her. The man stared as though he didn’t recognize her. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe that was part of the problem with these spas. Everyone was either a guest or a worker—no one was an actual person.

In the pool area, she rushed past the mud baths, the mineral pools, running her fingers along the fogged glass without leaving any streaks. Lexia paused near the cabana where her mother booked all her massages.

The flaps were closed.

She clamped a hand over her mouth and wished she could cry silently like Amie did. Then, she turned toward the vent.

She crawled through the structure’s innards, spilled onto the pebbles outside, and scrambled to her feet. The spa sat behind her, a white blob, its own self-contained bubble in a brilliant green reality. Hills stretched for miles. Lexia ran, haphazardly at first, then with purpose toward the largest tree on the first hill.

On one of the branches, something white flapped in the wind. When she was ten feet away, she recognized it.

A strip from Amie’s turban.

Lexia stood beneath the branch and peered at the path ahead of her. Another glimmer of white, there, in the distance? She slid down the hill, never losing sight of the bit of white. When she reached the second tree, she tugged the strip from the branch and tied it around her wrist. Then she ran toward the next hint of white in the distance, leaving the world of fogged glass behind.

Inside Out first appeared in The Maze: Three Tales of the Future.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020