Free Fiction Friday: Knight at the Royal Arms

It’s not easy being a modern-day damsel in distress.

This week’s story is a touch longer, so if you want to download a .mobi or .epub file and take it to go, scroll to the end for the link.

The lobby of the Royal Arms Hotel is so very quiet, and I can taste the hunt in the air. Not that I’d planned on hunting. I only stepped inside out of the rain. Still, the thought tempts me. I don’t know what sort of shadow creature lives in this space, but considering the marble floors and gilt-edged mirrors, the prize might be worth the effort.

The glimmer has lulled the concierge to sleep. He slumps over his desk, snores rattling loose paper. The doorman has sunk to the floor. With the sun about to set, that leaves me, the creature, and possibly another tracker as the only ones awake. I take a few steps further in, boots skidding against the marble, not fully committing to the hunt. Not yet.

There must be another tracker. Someone must have a claim on this space, and I know I shouldn’t venture any farther. But there’s no denying DNA, and the shadow creature that resides here is calling to me. So I blow a goodnight kiss to the concierge and find the stairs.

* * *

In the third floor hallway, I breathe in dust, fingertips investigating the textured wallpaper. I remain silent and try to gauge whether that creaking floorboard gave me away.

Something always gives me away—a floorboard, the squeaking soles of my boots, a rather clumsy entrance that involves breaking glass. That’s all fine when I’m prepared to hunt. Tonight I only wanted a peek.

Behind me, something rasps, brief and brisk, like sandpaper against skin. Mist fills the far end of the corridor, swallowing the glow from the sconces. I squint, but the shadow creature hasn’t reached its full, solid form. For this, I am grateful. I race, carving a zigzag path along the corridor. I rattle one doorknob, then another, all of them locked.

At this point, the creature is still mostly vapor. You could poke your fingers through it. But then, you can poke your fingers through a thundercloud. That doesn’t make the lightening less deadly.

I sprint down the hall, intent on the last door. I try the knob, then spin, my back against the textured wallpaper. No stairs, not even a fire exit. That’s got to be a code violation. At the end of the hall, strands of gray mist probe tentatively. Something that resembles a claw solidifies and holds its shape long enough to tear a hole in the carpet.

Frantic, I try the door one last time. Three things happen. The creature surges forward, filling the hallway with its girth, the door flies open, and I tumble inside. I kick the door shut, my boots and the creature simultaneously slamming against the wood. The door frame shakes but stays put.

The room is dark, curtains drawn. My own ragged breathing fills the space, as does someone else’s. I’m staggering to my feet when the lights blaze on. I flinch, cover my eyes with one hand, and attempt to protect myself with the other.

“What the hell?” a voice says.

And then I know: I’m really in trouble.

I grope for a chair and whirl it so it becomes both a shield and a weapon.

“I was here first,” the voice says. The tone is strong, authoritative, but a hint of fear invades the arrogance. We all carry that in our voice, those of us who hunt. You can’t touch the shadows without them touching you.

“Says who?” I counter. True, I hadn’t planned on hunting tonight. Now that I’m here? Why let the opportunity slip by?

“Luke Milner,” he says. “Tracker number 127.”

“I know who you are.” Or at least what he is. There are so few of us that we know each other by reputation, if not by name and face.

“I’ve been tracking this creature for weeks,” he says. “It’s on record, claim 5867. Feel free to check.”

“Oh, I will.” I roll my eyes.

“Plus, you totally fell in here.” He shakes his head. “You don’t even know your way around.”

I grip the chair harder. “Oh, sure,” I say. “I fell in here. I also flushed out the creature. In what? Less than an hour? How long have you been tracking it again?” I make my voice go all sweet, which is perfectly awful of me. But I can’t help it. I dislike most other trackers. Like I said before, it’s in my DNA. As a damsel in distress, I have good reason not to like or trust nearly everyone.

“Know the way back out?” Here, Luke Milner offers up a perfectly awful grin, providing me with yet another reason for my aversion.

While logic dictates that if you can find your way in, you can certainly find your way back out again, shadow creatures have a way of erasing that sort of logic. I do have a knack for flushing them out—and an annoying knack for getting stuck in various labyrinths for days. Normally I don’t go in without a plan and a week’s worth of supplies. The hotel room is covered with that same velvet wallpaper as the hall, all fleurs-de-lis and scrollwork, which makes the space feel elegant despite the freeze-dried meals and canned goods that line the dresser. Luke even has an adorable little camp stove. Plus that queen-size bed? Big enough for two. Not a bad setup, and I can’t help but be a little impressed.

He waves his hands as if he can halt both my gaze and my thoughts. “Oh, no. Don’t even think about it. My claim. My creature.”

“Which you can’t seem to flush,” I remind him.

The trashcan overflows with wrappers and bottles. A room service tray holds a pot of coffee and pitcher of cream. One whiff tells me it’s starting to turn. He’s been here for a while without any luck. It’s hard to catch a shadow creature on your own; it’s even harder to trust another tracker. He can’t leave the hotel without risking a claim jumper. But why stay if you can’t draw out the creature to begin with?

“You saw it then?” he asks.

“Claws. Sharp. Not sure what it is, but it’s big.” I shrug. “Maybe a dragon.”

He pauses as if considering this—and me. “What makes you so special, then?”

It’s a fair if somewhat passive-aggressive question. “I come from a long line of damsels in distress.”

Luke snorts.

“Shall I step into the hall and demonstrate?” I gesture toward the door. All hunts require bait. Usually, that’s me. I survey the room again. This Luke Milner doesn’t seem to have anything that resembles bait.

“You don’t look like a damsel in distress.”

True. I keep my feet in boots. You try running around in satin slippers or high heels. Tulle and lace and all the rest? Highly flammable, especially in the case of dragons.

“It’s in the blood,” I say. “Did I not fall in here exactly when I needed to?”

“I was opening the door.”

“See? You must have some latent knight-in-shining-armor blood running through your veins.”

Luke makes a face.

Okay, very latent. But it’s there. He’s too well-stocked and prepared to be anything else. In theory, I should like that in anyone. Plus, he has that knight-in-shining-armor look, wavy hair and features chiseled in all the right places. His eyes might glint with humor if he weren’t so surly. Something tells me Luke Milner is often surly.

I’ve never had any luck with knights in shining armor. They’re always too little, too late, and I always end up bound ankle and wrist, eyebrows singed.

Luke narrows his eyes to slits. I cross my arms over my chest, prepared to wait him out. He glances away, but in the mirror, I catch his reflection—all sour milk and resignation.

“Do you have a name?” he says at last, “or do they just call you CJ?”

“C … J?”

His smirk provides the answer. CJ. Claim Jumper.

“I’m Posey Trombelle,” I say, putting some teeth into my name. “Tracker number 278.”

“Posey?” He makes another face.

“It’s short for Poinsettia. I was a Christmas baby.”

His expression goes blank. When he doesn’t respond, I add, “My sister was born in February, on the fourteenth. Trust me, she got it worse.”

“Well, what do you suggest we do … Posey?”

“What were you about to do when I fell into your room?”

“Go out,” he says. “Reconnaissance.”

I raise an eyebrow. Because that? Fairly obvious.

Luke rubs his hands across his face. A growl begins in his throat, but the sound is all frustration without any bite. “I have a theory,” he says, “that there’s more treasure to be had by not slaying the creature —

“Because most of it is in the lair,” I finish.

Oh, of course! How clever. Once you slay the creature, access to any treasure in its lair vanishes. I can’t help it. I like the way he thinks. Maybe this Luke has more knight in him than his sour-milk expression suggests.

“You figure out how to do that,” I tell him, “and they’ll have to call you Sir Luke.”

* * *

Luke stares at the document on the coffee table, pen clutched in his hand.

“You can’t do this without me,” I point out.

His knuckles go white.

Granted, a handwritten agreement on hotel stationery pales when compared to a notarized contract. Under the circumstances?

“In fact,” I say, tapping three paragraphs down on the paper, “you can’t get a better deal than this.”

No one would intentionally draw a creature to them, but I’ve signed on to do just that. Of course, I’m uniquely suited for the task. But while Luke searches out the lair, I must fend off the creature. While I often find myself in precarious situations, I seldom walk into them of my own volition. At least not while leaving myself wide open for betrayal. I occupy the creature, and he runs off with the treasure. I try not to think about that scenario too much.

At last his grip loosens on the pen. He scrawls his name across the bottom of the page, nearly obliterating my own.

Next comes a grappling hook and some rope, which Luke secures at my waist. He threads a whistle onto a length of nylon cord. He ties the ends and then places the whistle around my neck.

“Last resort,” he says. “If you need me—”

“Just blow?”

He cringes. An angry flush covers his cheeks. Before he can turn away, I touch his arm. “Hang on.”

From the depths of my cargo pants pocket, I pull a bandana. “A knight shouldn’t venture out without a token,” I say and tie it around his arm. As tokens go, one-hundred-percent cotton is no substitute for silk, lace, and embroidery. However, the bandana is pink.

“Seriously?” Luke eyes the bandana. His fingers twitch over the knot like he might undo the whole thing and toss it on the floor. Instead, he presses his palm against his jeans and sighs.

“See if it doesn’t bring you luck,” I say.

“I don’t believe in luck.”

“You should.” I give him a two-finger salute and slip out the door.

* * *

I take soft steps down the hallway, retracing my original path. I even zigzag, fingertips brushing the textured wallpaper on one side of the corridor and then the next. The ventilation system breathes to life, its steady, mechanical hum the only other sound.

At the corner, I pause. Things are too empty, too quiet. The space around me feels thin, like something else is using up all the available oxygen. Something large. The elevator lobby is the perfect place for an ambush. At least, it’s where I’d set one up.

The marble floors in front of the elevator sport a faux Persian rug, a Queen Anne side table, and chairs upholstered in the most amazing shade of canary yellow. The space is pristine. I sniff the air. No lingering scent of sulfur, no rot. What about some slime, a tuft of fur, or even a scale on the floor?  Nothing? I taste the air one last time, not trusting this good fortune, but my feet are already moving. To hesitate is to lose this chance.

I rush to the elevators, push the up and down buttons, then retreat to the safety of the stairs.

No sensible tracker uses the elevator—not if they can help it. It’s the equivalent of stepping into a lunchbox. Still, it’s a handy ruse. A damsel in distress inside an elevator? There’s no better bait.

The elevator bell chimes. The doors whoosh open. Dark mist spills out, and a roar echoes against the walls, the sound hearty. The creature must be on the verge of transforming into something solid—and deadly. I’m half a step inside the stairwell when mist curls around the handrail and engulfs my fingers. I glance at the gleaming claws clicking against the lobby floor, then behind me to the creature forming on the stairs.

Here be dragons. Not one, but two. And here I am, right between them.

I cast my gaze upward, searching for a handhold, a window or vent to crawl through … or that chandelier.

The elevator doors start to close, then spring open again. The creatures are solid enough to trigger elevator doors, not to mention claw, bite, and chomp. They are certainly solid enough to do a damsel-in-distress grab-and-dash.

You know, the usual.

With a hand on the grappling hook, I squint at the chandelier. Will it come crashing down on me mid-swing, effectively doing all the bone-crushing work for the dragons? Steam fills the elevator lobby area. The dragons won’t risk a full blast and burn themselves out of their playground. But a stream of fire in my direction?

I don’t wait to find out. I swing the grappling hook up and over the chandelier’s arms. Light bulbs shatter. I tug. Cracks appear along the ceiling. Plaster dust floats down, fogging the air and coating the floor, the table, the dragon. Before I can swing, a great sucking comes from the elevator—a wind tunnel drawing me in. I grip the rope and brace my feet against the floor. Then the winds reverse.

The explosion of sound startles me. No heat. No fire. Just slime.

“Gesundheit,” I say and swing up and over the sniffling dragon.

I land in the hallway, carpet soaking up the sound of my boots. Iridescent dragon snot speckles the textured wallpaper and coats the toes of my boots. I yank the rope one last time. The entire chandelier and half the ceiling crash to the floor. I sprint around the corner to avoid ricocheting debris. Even so, I choke on dust. My eyes water. I blink fast and hard, taste the grit against my lips. At the end of the hallway, a door flies open.

Luke sticks his head out. “What the hell?”

I give him a little finger wave and run.

* * *

Only underwater lamps light the pool area, bathing everything in a liquid blue. My boots squish against damp tile. Moist air clings to my face, turning the plaster dust into muck. With my back to the wall, I ease the lifesaving pole from its bracket. Since Luke’s grappling hook is now part of the third-floor decor, I need something—a tool, a weapon. I test its weight against my palm. Light but strong. It will do.

Now that I’m here, I have the thankless job of luring both dragons to this spot. That shouldn’t be too hard. After all, I’m a damsel in distress. Luring is what I do. I take mincing steps around the pool and coo stupid things like, “Oh, no, I might get my satin slippers all wet.”

I’ve never met a creature yet who could tell the difference between satin slippers and steel-toed boots.

Minutes tick by with nothing but the gentle lap of water and my damp footfalls. This was the plan. We didn’t have a backup plan in case the creatures didn’t show. I’m a damsel in distress. They always show.

Except for now.

I kneel at the pool’s edge and rinse the plaster from my face. Perhaps it’s the water’s chemical cocktail—too much bleach and chlorine—that convinces me, but nothing supernatural ever happens in this particular space.

But if the creatures didn’t follow me (and they should have, they really should have—I should be trussed up now, tied to the diving board or cooking in the hot tub), then there’s only one other spot they could be: their lair.

Which is where Luke was headed—without any backup plan of his own. Can I intercept him? I glance at my watch. Plenty of time before sunrise. Still enough time to—possibly—save Luke. Without another thought, I sprint past the heated towel rack and lounge chairs and crash into the glass doors separating the pool from the mezzanine.

I push. I pull. I rattle the handles so hard the glass shudders. Then I see a telltale glint on the other side of the doors. A dragon scale. I whirl and face the pool. What will it be? Damsel-in-Distress Stew? Or perhaps Luke is the main course, and I’m dessert.

Panic and chlorine clog my throat. Another way out—there must be one. I slip across damp tiles, careen into the changing room doors. These, too, are locked. I survey the space—the lounge chairs, discarded drink glasses with pink sludge and crushed paper umbrellas, a stack of rumpled towels—and discover a way out.

I find the service elevator behind a screen. Steam hisses and clouds roll through the room, as if the water in the pool is already boiling. I wonder if the dragons plan to serve me al dente. As soon as the doors screech open, I jump inside, press every button I can, and realize I’m still clutching the lifesaving pole only when the doors clang shut.

* * *

I land in the most obvious spot for a lair, down in the basement. The dank and dark, home to boilers and furnaces and the creatures most everyone else has forgotten. Only in this case, it seems the creatures have forgotten this space. Then again, these are dragons—by their very nature, quirky and particular. In this case, there’s a pair. A couple, perhaps?

Oh. A couple. Of course. I push the up button on the elevator. There’s no time for stairs. I can only hope I’m right and don’t end up as a charbroiled snack. When the doors open, I step inside and select the modern equivalent of the high tower: the penthouse suite.

You’d think, as a damsel in distress, I’d be well acquainted with penthouse suites. Sadly, my luck runs toward trolls and ogres. On the rare occasions I’m captured, I end up in landfills or junkyards or, for the occasional eco-conscious goblins, recycling centers.

The doors open on the penthouse level. Smoke fills the elevator compartment. The acrid scent tickles the back of my throat, and I choke on a cough. I step out and crunch something beneath the sole of my boot. The remains shine in rainbow patterns the way only a dragon scale can.

I take a cautious look around. The glimmer is in full force here. Despite the smoke, I can taste the magic that lets the dragons lie dormant during the day and come out to play at night. They haven’t taken over the entire floor, not yet, but the lair is well established.

I creep forward, pole outstretched like a spear, eyes cast downward. The last thing I want is to track through a pile of ash. That can mean only one thing. The tracker community may be combative, but the death of one of our own weighs heavy. My stomach squeezes tight. I clutch the pole harder. I want to close my eyes, because I don’t want to see that pile of ash. I keep them open out of fear and respect.

At the end of the hall, I brush fingertips over the penthouse door then press my palm against the paneled wood. Warm, but not searing hot. That’s something. Now for a distraction. I need something loud and sure, something these dragons won’t miss.

I lean against the wall, and that something thumps against my chest. Luke’s whistle. I grip it between my teeth and blow with all my might. Then I sprint down the corridor and launch myself behind a settee. The hiding place is flimsy. But once dragons get up a good gallop, they have a difficult time stopping, never mind turning around.

The penthouse door flies open. Claws scrape against the Italian marble floor, leaving wide grooves in its surface. The dragons galumph straight for the elevator, bypassing the settee. I crawl from beneath it, scrabble to gain purchase, then race for the penthouse.

I slam the door. It doesn’t matter if the dragons hear. They’re too clever to stay fooled for long anyway. Still, I throw the deadbolt for the slight delay it will give me. For good measure, I jam the lifesaving pole behind the handle.

“Luke?” I call out.

A grunt comes from the bedroom. Among satin sheets, rose petals, and candlelight, I find him, all trussed up, bound ankle and wrist, damsel-in-distress style. He grunts again, words muffled by a pink bandana—my bandana—gagging his mouth. So much for luck.

I can’t help it; I know it’s cruel. I laugh.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a knife, would you?” he says when I undo the gag, a frown fighting the relief on his face.

“Swiss Army.” I slice through the ropes around his wrists and set to work on his ankles.

A crash reverberates through the entire penthouse. My hands shake and the blade skitters up and over the rope, but it only catches on Luke’s jeans. A whoosh fills the air, followed by the cheerful crackle of burning wood.

“We have all of three seconds,” Luke says.

In those three seconds, I hack away the last of the rope. Luke smashes the window with a chair. He secures a grappling hook (one covered with plaster dust) and swings us—me clutched in one arm—out the window, past jagged glass, and over the ledge.

We land one story below, breezing through an already-opened window. When our feet touch ground, Luke releases me. I tumble into yet another canary yellow chair, knocking it over. I suck in air free of smoke, grateful for the hard floor that has just bruised my hip bones. As landings go, this one wasn’t half-bad. I catch Luke’s eye and point to the window.

“I like to go in with a back-up plan,” he says.

An admirable quality for a knight in shining armor.

“You’re pretty handy with a knife,” he adds.

“You’re not bad with ropes.”

The building trembles. Plaster rains down, dusting my skin—again. The elevator doors pop open and shut.

“We should leave,” I say. “They’ll destroy everything just to get to us.”

Even their own playground. Threat to their treasure brings out the nasty side of shadow creatures.

To my surprise, Luke takes my hand to help me up. He keeps a grip on it during our entire flight down the stairs. Even outside, with the first rays of sun banishing the night, he doesn’t let go. He pulls us forward, intent on getting us away, while I scan the structure.

“All clear?” he asks.

“Looks that way. For now.”

Four blocks from the hotel, we slow our steps. I keep the vigil, always tossing a quick glance behind. With the rising sun, the glimmer loosens its hold. The dragons will return to mist and shadows. The hotel will right itself before any of the regular guests can notice anything amiss. Already, glass in the smashed windows has repaired itself.

“I never thought to look in the penthouse until you came along,” Luke says.

I inspire thoughts of the penthouse? Is this a good thing?

“The living room was the treasure trove, but I decided to check the bedroom before leaving,” he continues. “I walked in on them while they were … I mean, he was—”

“Entertaining a special lady friend?” I supply.

A flush washes across his cheekbones—a hint of pink to match the sunrise. It’s kind of adorable.

“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “That.”

Luke pulls a small velvet sack from his shirt. “By our contract.” He tips the bag and coins flow into his palm. “Fifty-fifty split. You earned it.”

“So did you.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” he says, “working with you.”

Is that a compliment? I peer at him, intrigued. “Well, you are good with ropes,” I say. “And I don’t loathe you like I do most knights in shining armor.”

He tosses the coins in the air and catches them neatly again. “When was the last time you earned a haul like this?”

Almost never. Damsels in distress always get the short end of things, even when we’re the ones who make things happen. I can’t count the number of times my fellow trackers have left me bound, wrist and ankle, and made off with the treasure. Even though my boots are singed and snot covered, my hair a plaster-streaked mess, this time, the prize was worth it. This time, I had a worthy partner.

“There’s a lot more where this came from.” Luke stares hard just past my shoulder, like the only way he can say this is to not look at me. “We could spend days, weeks, and still not find it all.”

We? “So you’re not reporting me as a claim jumper?”

His lips twitch. “Well, you know, I can’t seem to flush them on my own.”

“That’s my specialty.”

“We’d need a contract.”

I nod toward a diner at the end of the block. They serve a huge breakfast special—eggs over easy, sizzling bacon, pancakes drenched in maple syrup—the perfect meal after a night of successful tracking.

“Everyone knows a contract written on the back of a paper placemat is totally binding,” I say. “We could talk about it. Maybe over some coffee?”

The sun crests the hotel, casting the street in a glow to rival the canary yellow furniture, banishing the creatures to shadow for another day. We turn toward the diner. Luke tosses the coins and lets them fall into his hand one last time.

“Maybe we should,” he says.

Knight at the Royal Arms was first published in Pulp Literature Summer 2017: Issue 15.

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Free Fiction Friday: Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream

The year: 1980
The place: Jr. High Gym Class
Your mission: Survive

I stand in the center of the gym, the air thick with the scent of dusty basketballs and sweaty tube socks. Strains of the chicken fat song fade, but a few girls defiantly sing-whisper the chorus:

Give that chicken fat back to the chicken and go, you chicken fat, go!

I am trapped in a great mass of girls, all in identical powder blue, one-piece gym suits. The elastic pinches my waist. The polyester shorts scratch and come with an automatic wedgie. No one dares tug. That would only bring on another chorus, one of:

Gro-oss, she’s digging in her buh-utt.

Some crimes require extra syllables.

But really, this class is the crime. Slimnastics. It’s not a real word. It’s not a real sport. There’s no such thing as an Olympic slimnast. In the past three weeks, we have learned all the steps, sung all the words.

None of us are slimmer for our efforts. Ms. Binkly, the gym teacher, is talking now, not that anyone is listening. The faintest lilt of the chorus sounds behind me, but I resist the urge to turn, to look, to act too interested.

Ms. Binkly’s most striking feature is a Marine Corps style haircut. Maybe we don’t always listen, it’s true. Here’s the thing:

No one ever talks back.

I stare at the ceiling, an ear toward the front. Something about her tone bothers me. It’s not the sound of a unit wrap up with warnings about the upcoming quiz. And really, how would you test a knowledge of slimnastics?

In the Chicken Fat song, where does the chicken fat go?

a) To KFC.

b) The principal’s thighs.

c) Back to the chicken.

d) All of the above.

No, what she’s saying now strikes us all breathless. If we’d actually exerted ourselves during the chicken fat dance, we’d all be doubled over. Instead, we stand absolutely still in cold horror. How do you test slimnastics? By making your twenty-five apathetic students choreograph and then perform their own routine.

In front of everyone.

Ms. Binkly places a stack of records on the floor. She claps her hands together. “All right, ladies! Break into groups, grab a record, and star in your own routine!”

She leaves us with that and retreats to her office. In a few minutes, the odor of sulfur will seep from beneath the door, followed by smoke.

Girls flock forward, pounce on the stack of records. I know enough about the pecking order not to get pecked. I step back and wait for the leavings.

I am left with a girl named Brianna and a single, dog-eared album on the gymnasium floor. We’re not friends, Brianna and I. Allies might be a better word, like the US and Russia during World War Two. We definitely have a common enemy, and we both need to maintain our GPA. We inch forward, shoes squeaking on the floor.

We stare at the woman on the album cover. She’s naked–or would be, if not for the mound of whipped cream she sits in. The album is called Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Brianna and I are young enough not to truly understand what these other delights might be, but old enough to know they don’t always involve food.

“This is hideous,” Brianna says.

She means everything. From the social doom of the album cover to the fact the only empty record player is the one next to Ms. Binkly’s office, where we end up ten minutes later, sucking in secondhand smoke while tripping through the opening steps to our routine. Our song of choice?

Whipped Cream.

Brianna and I are both smart enough to relish this bit of irony.

On performance day, Brianna skyrockets her hand into the air, and Ms. Binkly calls us to the front.

“Going first means a better grade,” Brianna says to my frown on our way to the center of the gym.

She’s right, of course. It’s this sort of cold logic that will make her class valedictorian in five years’ time. But now, as we churn our arms like egg beaters, I realize that slimnastics really does have a test.

What is Whipped Cream?

a) A garnish for desserts.

b) A song by Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass.

c) A form of public humiliation.

d) All of the above.

Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream was first published in Easy Street Magazine. It may, or may not, be based on actual events.

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Weekly writing check-in: writing in the time of COVID

As I mentioned, way back in the dark ages of April, I came down with all the symptoms of the coronavirus. I got better, got a bit of my writing mojo back, and all seemed well.

You know where this is going.

A couple of weeks ago, I started getting shortness of breath, tightness in my chest along with some pain. At first, I thought I had some allergy-induced asthma since we went from cold and rainy to BOOM! sunshine and blooms.

But no. To make a long story short, this week, I got confirmation. Yes, I absolutely had COVID back in April, and what I’m experiencing now is that second round some people are getting.

But no worries. My lungs are clear (chest x-ray), a blood test for clotting (just fine), and an EKG (also fine). I have a stress echocardiogram scheduled for Thursday just to make certain all is well with my heart.

Still. I cannot imagine what some people are going through with this virus. My lungs are clear, and it still hurts, I’m still short of breath. Often it’s weird and random. I can feel absolutely fine and begin to chide myself for overreacting, and then twenty minutes later, I’ll wonder if today’s the day I might be visiting the ER.

I made dinner last night since I was feeling like a sloth for not doing much all day (and by dinner, I mean that I put some pasta on to boil and dumped salad into a bowl–this was not a strenuous activity). After? I had to go lie down.

In actual writing news, I did get everything scheduled for the 2020 story project through July (whew!). I did take notes on the new project, and I think I found a plotline for a Coffee and Ghosts short story.

All things considered?

Not bad.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Life Expectancy of Fireflies

A short, odd, somewhat dark little tale.

After it was all over—after the handcuffs, the crime scene tape, and a noose crafted from a silk Armani tie—I think all of us would agree that it was Benji’s neck tattoo that caught our attention.

Of course, even here in the suburbs, we had our share of tattoos—the tramp stamps, the biceps circled in barbed wire, even a few full sleeves. But Benji’s tattoo was something else. Interlocking coils traveled his right shoulder to collarbone, across the hillock of his Adam’s apple, ending at last in a bloom below his left ear. You could imagine him leaning his head back, his throat a vulnerable canvas for the tattoo artist.

Within months, most women in the neighborhood had confessed to running their tongue along the intricate lines, as if the ink were something you could taste. By Benji’s second spring in the house at the end of the street, it was a rite of passage. Every housewife, single mom, and career woman had taken her tongue to Benji’s neck.

Except me.

I wondered if that’s why, in the evenings, he chose my porch. Not that he relaxed. Even when he tipped his head back, the cropped salt and pepper hair brushing the whitewash, his form melting into the steps, the man vibrated with tension. It filled the air around him. It made some women think of sex and sin and sweat, his bare neck an invitation to lap up the ink.

It made me clutch my cell phone, my thumb on the speed dial, my feet pushing against the floorboards while I sat in the porch swing. I took short, choppy breaths. Once, my jittery thumb hit 911. When the police cruisers arrived, all sirens and lights, all I could point to were the fireflies in the bushes, the dark house at the end of the street, and the porch steps, now vacant.

Only when my porch was empty did the air feel still enough to breathe. I’d spend those moments catching fireflies and letting them glow between my fingers. Only then was I glad that Benji had chosen me.

Benji filled our days. He helped carry in groceries (and, in some cases, left several hours later). He mowed lawns—usually shirtless. He drank gallons of freshly-squeezed lemonade and martinis expertly shaken. He rescued kites from trees and organized the neighborhood kickball tournament.

And in the dark house at the end of the street, he was cooking methamphetamine.

After it was all over, you wouldn’t have recognized Benji, not from all the descriptions: the creeper, the peeping Tom, the loner with bad teeth, the guy with the Satanic neck tattoo.

Only my story didn’t match. The police interrogated me, but it was a half-hearted attempt, their gazes filling the room with pity. They released me in less than an hour, even though I had the receipt for the tie in my purse. Even though moments before the police shackled his wrists, Benji turned toward me, ran his fingers along the tattoo, then blew me a kiss.

Half an hour earlier, I’d handed him the box wrapped in silver paper, the one that held the silk Armani tie. Twenty minutes after that, I dialed 911. For real, this time. No one knew how Benji smuggled the tie into his jail cell. We all could imagine the second, permanent tattoo.

Most nights, I think he wanted to end it. Most nights, I think he wanted me to be the one to do it. This was why he chose me, chose my porch.

But on summer evenings, I stand there, gaze locked on the dark house at the end of the street, and doubt fills the night. I catch fireflies and let them burn between my fingers until they wink out, one by one.

My porch is empty, the night still, and the air impossible to breathe.

This strange, dark little piece garnered many personal rejections until it was published in Fine Linen Magazine.

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Weekly writing check-in: outlining in the rain

Actually, the rain is outside, so I wasn’t outlining in the rain. However, I did finish an outline for what I think will be my next book (novella or novel, not quite sure at this point).

At least, I hope it will be my next book. I don’t want to jinx it or anything.

In the meantime, I need to go research a few things, like haunted engagement rings, wedding magazines, and ghost puns.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Short Sweet Life of My Invisible Prom Date

The perfect prom date doesn’t just build himself.

Geppetto carved Pinocchio, Pygmalion, his statue. So I knew it could be done. True, Victor Frankenstein had his monster. This was something to consider since I had no intention of attending zombie prom. Still, it was his example I started with.

After all, the perfect prom date doesn’t just build himself. Forget frogs, and snails, and puppy dog tails. That might be the stuff little boys are made of. The perfect prom date?

Hardly.

When it came to raw material, my high school left much to be desired. Even so, there was enough there that I could make do. I began the culling in March with Magnus Reynolds. His GPA was only second to my own—a close enough match. Since cutting open his head and extracting his brain wasn’t an option, I went with the next best thing.

True, there’s that dent in my front left bumper, and granted, it might technically be theft even if the mailbox contents have somehow spilled across the road. But I doubt his parents will miss a report card that resembled every other one.

Up next was Sam Collier. Now here was a rare find! A boy who simply didn’t know how hot he was. Considering the ego-driven pretty boys at my high school, Sam should be classified as endangered. Which is why I truly regret the mishap with the Bunsen burner during physics lab. Still, the lock of that perfect blond hair was worth it. It’s amazing what people don’t notice when a table’s on fire.

For the last ingredient, I had to truly get creative. This was my riskiest move, humiliating if I got caught, chancy when it came to the item I needed. Under the cover of steam, I crept into the boys’ locker room, waiting until the pound of water in the showers drowned out my footsteps. I rushed from locker bank to locker bank, ducking behind a garbage can to catch my breath and quiet my pounding heart.

I grabbed the first item my fingers encountered, then I bolted, sneakers skidding on wet tile. I clutched the crumpled material in my hand and didn’t stop running until I reached the girls’ bathroom. I crashed into the last stall and slammed the door behind me. Only then did I look at my prize.

A jockstrap.

Still. It fit the requirements. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with boys can tell you: sweat is an essential component of their makeup.

I was at the florist when I discovered my date’s name. I was buying the Dreamy Pink Wristlet (for myself) and the Dashing Boutonniere (for him), when the cashier said:

“Owen.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I said, you owe, um, fifty-five dollars and eighteen cents.”

Oh-um? Owen. Not only was it the perfect name, but it could be our private joke. All couples need at least one of those.

The night before prom, I gathered everything together: the tux I rented from The Men’s Warehouse (including socks and shoes, size 11), a white T-shirt, a pair of boxer briefs (no date of mine was going commando). In my closet, I set up the altar.

Anyone who’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein knows Victor’s downfall was his pride. He played God. They don’t call it the miracle of life for nothing. After all, didn’t Pygmalion pray to Venus? I needed divine intervention, and I wasn’t too proud to ask for it.

On my altar, I placed the report card, the lock of hair, and even the jockstrap. I sprinkled peppermint leaves (for fresh breath) and honey (for sweetness), then I lit candles (heart-shaped, of course). As the scent of pine, sandalwood, and cinnamon drifted across my face and through my hair, I prayed.

Now, it probably doesn’t surprise you that there isn’t a patron saint of prom. That night, I prayed to Saint Raphael, who is the patron saint of lovers, young people, and happy meetings. If that doesn’t describe prom, then it probably should. When I was done, I blew out the candles and slipped into bed. That night, I dreamed of Owen.

In the morning, everything was gone! The tux, the shoes and socks, even the jockstrap, if you can believe that. The aroma of burnt cinnamon lingered in the air, and something told me I’d messed up horribly. I would not be going to prom. I would not have the perfect prom date.

Miracles take faith, I told myself. For the rest of the day, I shoved the worry from my mind and acted as if all were well. I kept my mani/pedi appointment and the one for my up-do. The stylist even added sparkly rhinestones for free when she saw how badly my hands shook.

By seven that night, I was ready, even if no limo sat in our driveway. Not yet. Owen was nervous, too, I told myself, so he’d be a little late. It was his one (adorable) flaw.

“Honey?” My mom’s voice was soft. “Are you sure you’re okay with this, being at prom alone?”

I rolled my eyes. “I won’t be alone.”

“Tori—”

Just then, that flash of black appeared, the limo long and sleek. I caught the shimmery sight of Owen as he took our porch steps by twos.

“Bye, Mom!” I called out. I burst through the door and left her standing in the living room, her mouth a perfect o of surprise.

Of course, a perfect prom date deserved such a reaction.

I quickly learned that to see Owen, you couldn’t stare straight at him. He teased the corners of my eyes. I caught his grin—warm and charming. His height—at least three inches taller than I was. I worried people would stare and not see the real Owen, not see what I did—the wonderful boy who was the perfect prom date.

The kids at my school might be rude, but none were outright gawkers. Still, I was careful. As much as I wanted a photo, I sensed the flash might harm Owen, burn away the delicate work of miracles. We spent our time dancing in dark corners. Light from the glitter ball fell across us. My skin glowed, but Owen’s shimmered like something otherworldly.

And he was the perfect date. We danced, but not so my feet got sore. When I was thirsty, he fetched me punch. He was on such a mission when prom queen Sierra Blakely drifted by.

“I don’t think I know your date,” she said.

“He doesn’t go to our school.”

She glanced around. “Well, where is he?”

I nodded toward the punch bowl. At this distance, I could just see the sleeve of Owen’s tux. In his hand, the cheap plastic cup looked like a crystal goblet.

“I don’t even have to ask,” I told Sierra. “He just knows when I’m thirsty.”

“Oh.”

Her expression was wistful, or maybe sad. She’d gone with Trevor Radke. Sure, he was cute, and a football player, but he made all his friends call him Rad-Man. That was just all kinds of awkward.

We left prom early. Anyone with a passing familiarity with miracles and fairy tales knows not to mess with the deadline. We needed to be back in my room before midnight. Even on the ride home, I could feel Owen waver, his shimmer fading, and the best night of my life coming to a bittersweet end.

By the time we reached my room, he couldn’t stand without help, so I arranged his tux on the hangers and hung it on the back door of my closet. Then I placed the shoes neatly beneath. My perfect night needed its perfect ending. I wasn’t ready to let go, not quite yet.

I lit the candles again and switched off the overhead light. That helped. Then I wrapped the arms of his tuxedo jacket around my waist and placed my hands on the jacket’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” I whispered, “for being my date.”

I kissed him then. Everyone knows the perfect prom ends with a perfect kiss.

And it was.

Maybe it was that perfect kiss, or the candles, but something happened then. I couldn’t see Owen, not even a teasing shimmer from the corner of my eye, but all at once, those strong arms took form and pulled me closer. Owen held me like he never wanted to let me go. The scent of burnt cinnamon filled the air. As to what happened next?

Well, as anyone with a passing familiarity with prom knows, sometimes it ends with more than just a kiss.

* * *

A year later, and prom remains my most cherished memory from high school. Beating out Magnus Reynolds for valedictorian is a close second. Even so, perfection has its price, and miracles have a way of spawning some of their own.

True, I worry. I know all about Rosemary and her baby. But Owen was nothing but sweet, and the same goes for his son. (Yes, I can tell. A mother knows.) But when you get right down to it, Owen Jr. doesn’t need much: no burping or changing. He doesn’t need more from me than merely my presence. This makes me tired, but I’m also a single mom taking a full load of college classes and working a part-time job. Mothers will sacrifice anything for their children, and I will make sure Owen Jr. has everything he needs.

Although, when I think about it, I suspect he’ll only need one thing:

A date to prom.

This strange little story, with a possibly unreliable narrator, first appeared in Mad Scientist Journal, Winter 2014.

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Weekly writing check-in: murderbot and story planning

I’m really enjoying Network Effect, the fifth book in The Murderbot Diaries series. I’m glad I reread the first four books before diving in. I’m not 100% sure the fifth in the series stands alone. It could, but I think it’s far better to read the entire series in order.

This week, I finished scheduling stories for May and came up with a plan for posting stories for June and July. It involves a serial story for July, which was not my original intent.

But you know what? I did not expect a pandemic and murder hornets and all the rest. As we used to say in the Army: Improvise. Adapt. Overcome.

So I think that’s what I’ll go do on this cold, rainy Mother’s Day.

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