Category Archives: Reading

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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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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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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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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

Free Fiction Friday: Simon the Cold

For December, it’s stories about helpers, magical and otherwise.

I first met Simon the Cold outside the library on a night so icy it stole all the moisture from my breath. My feet crunched through the slushy mix of sand and snow. I walked with my head bowed, the air sharp against my cheeks. That was why I nearly crashed into the man bent over the garbage bin, its latticework gleaming with frost.

The glow from the man’s headlamp illuminated the inside of the bin like a spotlight—not a single sliver of light was wasted. I stood for a moment, regaining my balance, my jeans stiff with cold, and watched the man pull treasures from the dark depths.

He glanced up and said to me, “You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

When I didn’t respond, he added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

I forgot about the books I had on reserve. Instead, I raced to the second-floor cafe and bought the largest coffee on the menu board—the Caffeinator. With my pockets crammed with sugar packets and little containers of half and half, I ventured back outside. My boots skidded on the ice. A drop of coffee landed on my wrist, the scent warming the stale winter air, but I hardly felt it against my skin. My heart started pounding the second I spotted the man, still at the garbage bin. Heat flashed across my cheeks. I studied the cup in my hands. What was I doing? Was this in any way sensible?

Then I thought: How can I not do this.

So I marched forward, boots crunching, coffee sloshing, until the man raised his head and the headlamp shined its spotlight on me.

“I can’t take that from you,” he said.

I stood in the circle of his light, clutching the coffee, completely without words to convince him.

“And no tricks,” he added. “You look like the tricky sort to me.”

Perhaps it was nerves, or the cold, or the fact, I’m the least tricky person ever born, but I burst out laughing. “I’m not tricky at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m pretty transparent.”

“Ah, that you’re not, girly. That you’re not.”

Normally, someone calling me girly—of all things—would crawl beneath my collar and chew away at my restraint. But this man meant it, if not with kindness, then as an acknowledgment.

I see you there, young person, and what you’re trying to do. I’ve survived without you for this long and will continue to long after you’ve forgotten me.

That was why I took a step forward. He’d returned to sort his treasures, leaving me in the cold and the dark. He didn’t glance up. He didn’t stop his sorting. His fingers twitched ever so slightly. They were pale and stiff. Items slipped from their grasp, rattling the contents of the garbage bin.

I took another step forward.

“Old Simon hasn’t had a shower, girly, for quite a while. Just take that as fair warning.”

Nothing, I decided, could smell worse than this stale winter air. I took one last step and set the coffee on the edge of the garbage bin. From my pockets, I pulled the sugar packets and half and half.

“It’s funny,” I said, placing them next to the to-go cup. “You’d be surprised what some people throw away.”

When he didn’t respond, I added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

I walked toward the parking lot and threaded through the cars until I reached my own. I didn’t look back. That, I sensed, was part of the deal. So I left the lot by the back exit and drove the long way home.

* * *

It was only that night, in my dreams, that I saw with clarity the strange paleness of the man’s skin. The color, the texture, was like wax poured over real skin, the hue still there, but hidden deep beneath the surface. In my dream, I worried about frostbite—his and mine. When I woke, the comforter was crumpled at the foot of the bed. My skin felt waxy and prickly. I ran the shower hot until steam filled the bathroom and I had melted all the wax away.

Outside was that brilliant, breakable cold. Snow cracked, ice shattered and popped. Everything painted in bright colors—white, blue, yellow—the only colors in the world, it seemed, or at least the only ones worth noticing.

Maybe that was why I didn’t see the delivery truck. Maybe that was why I didn’t hear the horn. Maybe that was why, at the last moment, I felt myself jerked backward by the hood of my coat. My arms flailed, and my boots skidded against the ice-slicked sidewalk. I tumbled into the alleyway behind me and fell into the arms of the person who’d grabbed me.

It was him, the man from the library, the one in my dreams. Old Simon, he’d called himself, but I couldn’t remember if that was something he’d told me or part of my dream.

“You shouldn’t have done that, girly,” he said now. I didn’t know if he meant stepping into traffic or buying him coffee the night before.

“Old Simon’s got enough to do.” He heaved me to my feet with surprising strength. “Don’t need to add looking after you to my list.”

“You don’t look that old,” I said.

When he laughed, all I could see was a young man beneath all that wax, rich dark skin hidden beneath the layers of what looked to be oh, so cold. Only his eyes weren’t pale—or young-looking. This was a pair of eyes that had seen their share of winters and pedestrians trampled by horses, clipped by trolley cars, and bounced off windshields.

“I am old,” he said. “I have much to do and no time for rescuing you.” He brushed off his jeans and tugged his camouflage jacket into place by the epaulets.

“I can see that.”

At the entrance to the alley, he paused but didn’t turn around. “You can?”

“It’s in your eyes. At least, most of it is.”

“And the rest?”

“You’re looking for something.”

“That I am, girly.”

“I’m Halley,” I said, wanting to be clear on one thing if nothing else. No more girly. “Like the comet.”

“Returned to give me some grief?”

“Maybe I’m here to help.”

At that moment, I doubted my sanity. My pulse went thready. With a hand, I braced myself against the alley wall, my fingertips scraping icy mortar. I was a woman who lived on library books and television reruns of Doctor Who. I was young enough to still be called girly and not really mind. I was young enough to believe that someone like Simon the Cold had a mission and that I could help.

I was young enough to simply believe.

He hadn’t moved from the alley’s entrance—a good sign. He was listening, his head cocked back to catch all the telltale sounds of the alley. In front of him, cars churned up slush. Boots trampled sand and salt. But Simon’s attention? All on me.

“We could start with another cup of coffee.” I dropped my hand from the wall and walked toward the light.

“That we could, girly,” he said when I reached him. “That we could.”

* * *

I went with the ceramic mugs, despite the odd look from the barista. I picked up the solid black container of half and half and plunked it on the table, despite the odd looks from everyone else. Simon added cream and sugar like I thought he would. Patrons stared at me, at my cup, and the one opposite it. Their gazes flowed through Simon.

“People don’t see you,” I said.

“People generally don’t see the homeless.”

“But this is different.”

“I’m still homeless, girly.” He brought the mug to his lips, paused as if reconsidering something. “Halley.”

“I can see you.”

“That you can.”

“Why?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, we drank in silence, steam from the coffee filling the air between us, warming it until Simon himself looked warmer, his skin darker, as if the steam had melted a layer of frost.

“Are you sure you want to help me,” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good.” He set his cup on the table and grabbed my hand. “Because we start now.”

We dashed through the coffee shop, scooting past bags of beans and boxes of supplies. I glanced back in time to see two policemen—no, two things—reach our table. Hairy, large, and shapeless one moment, dark blue, official looking, clean-cut the next. They flickered from one form to another, like a hologram of two images.

I stumbled and fought to regain my balance. “Those aren’t people.”

“No.” Simon tugged me through the door and into the alleyway. We plunged into the shadows, the alleys behind the storefronts a labyrinth of brick walls and trashcans. Despite the cold, the stench of rotted vegetables lingered in the air.

“You’re not people,” I added.

Even in the dark alley, I caught Simon’s raised eyebrow. “I can’t be anything other than myself.”

“And that self is?”

“In trouble if we don’t keep moving.”

And so we ran, Simon in the lead. He kept hold of my hand and tugged me around Dumpsters and over pallets that creaked beneath our boots. We crunched plastic sacks and cardboard boxes. The air felt sharp in my lungs and clouds of my breath misted my face. My neck, where I had wound my scarf, started to heat. Without breaking stride, I yanked at the wool.

At last we emerged at the far end of the alley. Up the block, people streamed in and out of the coffee shop. Even at this distance, I could taste the coffee in the air. I sucked in the scent, grateful for anything that didn’t reek of water-logged wood or rancid meat.

“What are those things?” I asked.

“Something that would harm us all.”

“But you won’t let them.”

He dropped my hand and then turned to look at me. Outside, he was more wintery than before. “No,” he said. “You won’t let them.”

I touched my mittened fingers to my scarf in disbelief. How could I stop those things? I didn’t even know what they were. But Simon simply nodded.

We stood in the cold forever. At least, it felt like forever. Then I noticed the world around me, people moved at a glacial pace, their breath hanging in the air. Cars inched forward, each tread squeaking the packed snow.

“What did you do?” I asked Simon.

He grinned an icy grin. “I thought we needed a breather, a little time to collect our thoughts.”

“You can stop time?”

“No one can stop time. I merely . . . slowed it down, for a bit. It won’t stop our friends from the coffee shop for long. They’re too clever for that.” He took up my hand again and tugged me forward, through the ice statue pedestrians.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “One minute you don’t want me around, and the next I’m supposed to stop something?”

“Oh, girly … Halley … it’s more complicated than that.”

We continued our strange trek through frozen people and things, a dog with one paw raised, ready to shake; a split bag of groceries, cans hanging in midair; a shower of suspended grit from a snowplow.

“That night at the library,” he said when we’d reached the bridge that spanned the river. “And in the coffee shop. You saw me. I’ve been waiting for the one who sees. I just didn’t expect her to be so puny.”

“Hey!” I pulled from his grip. “I’m not as puny as I look.” That didn’t sound quite right—or at least, not as right as I wanted it to sound.

“I don’t know why they send me the likes of you,” he continued, almost as if I wasn’t even there. “You small ones who see too much and are far too fragile.”

A low boom sounded behind us. It sent a jolt through me, then it resonated with how hard my heart was beating. I was many things, but fragile wasn’t one of them. Simon grabbed my hands again, yanked me fully onto the sidewalk seconds before a black SUV rumbled past.

“Fragile. Like all humans.”

My heart thudded even harder, and the scarf around my neck felt tight, like it was choking me, deliberately. “The world, it’s—”

“Speeding up, and so should we.”

We ran, again. This time, I stayed silent. This time, I kept pace with Simon and thought about being fragile.

Maybe he was right.

* * *

The neighborhood changed the farther we went, from old Victorians in the painted-lady style; to respectable, if smaller, houses; to un-shoveled sidewalks, cars up on blocks, and chain-link fences that looked as though someone—or something—had clawed through them.

I’d never been to this part of town before. The longer we walked (our legs had given up on running miles back), the more certain I was of one thing: this part of town didn’t exist. It was another of Simon’s tricks. Unless it wasn’t, and it was simply one of those things people didn’t want to see.

Not seeing. There was a lot of that in the world, more than I ever realized.

“If you’re not human,” I said to Simon, “then what are you?”

We’d moved to trudging down the center of the street, the only clear path through all the snow. The accumulation hid the sidewalk, smoothed the steps leading up to houses. All the windows were dark, and the sun was sinking, its rays and warmth obscured by the tallest buildings.

“Something old,” he said to the pound of our footfalls.

“Not cold?”

“Not what?”

“That’s why I—” I broke off and tried again. “When I look at you, words pop into my head,” I said. Out loud, this sounded nonsensical, but I pushed on, with both my feet and my mouth. “I think: Simon the Cold. You don’t look old to me, just . . . frost covered.”

I braced for an outburst. After all, was it better to be old or cold? Either way, it wasn’t much of a compliment. But Simon’s laughter echoed against the buildings. For a bare second, the sun seemed to swell, glow brighter, before turning remote and winter cold.

“Oh, girly.” He cleared his throat. “Halley. I am both. I am in my winter.” He raised a hand, indicating the air, the snow, the ice around us. “This is like looking at my reflection.”

“But it’s not really your reflection,” I said.

He shook his head, a smile still lingering. “No, it’s not. Which is why I need to finish my work before spring comes.”

At last we reached the city dump. The entrance booth was empty, the gate looped with chains and padlocked. Simon walked up to the fence, passed his hand over the locks. They sprang open, the chains swinging with their weight.

“We need to arm ourselves,” he said.

“Here?” My gaze scanned the piles of discarded objects, tires and dishwashers and things that glinted in the setting sun.

“You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

Simon walked through the gate, his headlamp already secured. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a second lamp.

Hand outstretched, he offered it to me. “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

The glow of the lamp revealed treasures. And yes, I was surprised by what people threw away. In some cases, I wasn’t sure it was people doing the throwing. In my hands I held a sword in finely-wrought silver. If I swung the headlamp away and peered through the dark at it, all I saw was a broom with most of its bristles missing. Simon piled odds and ends into a grocery cart, one that had no hope of plowing through all the snow—unless you viewed it by lamplight. In that case, it was a sleek sled.

My fingers lighted on a garbage can lid. I knew without even using the headlamp that it would make a perfect shield—right size, right heft, its handle made for my grip.

“Is this how you see the world?” I asked Simon.

“Most of the time. Even old Simon can fall back into lazy habits.”

“So we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.”

“And the battle rages in front of our unseeing eyes.” He nodded. “Yes. There are layers to everything. People, this world, the things you hold in your hand. Most of the time, we don’t need to see these things. Most people don’t either.”

“But now?”

“Now, things are bad. I am . . .” He hesitated, the briefest of smiles gracing his lips. “Cold, and winter is much weaker than it appears.”

“And those things in the coffee shop?”

“If I’m ice—”

“They’re fire?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. They would burn this world, but not in the way you’re thinking, not with flame and destruction. They spark infidelities, betrayals, revenge. Oh, there is far too much revenge in the world. Why humans have developed a taste for it, I can’t say. It starts sweet but turns sour. It would fill your throat and choke you.”

I clutched my broomstick sword, another question occurring to me. “That night at the library, when you turned your headlamp on me. What did you see?”

Simon was silent for a long moment. He plucked a few more items from the debris and added them to the shopping cart. Before he turned from me, he uttered one word.

“Hope.”

* * *

We left the gates to the city dump unlocked.

“For those who might need things,” was all Simon said.

The air felt warmer against my cheeks as if, somewhere, an invisible bonfire heated the city. First one, and then another snowflake floated down, big fat flakes, the sort children loved to catch on mittened fingers and on their tongues. The night filled with snow until I could barely see where we were going.

That, I realized, didn’t matter. Simon knew the way. After a while, I discovered I did too. If I shut my eyes, the route we needed to take became clear, as if a map of it was on my eyelids. We were headed back toward the city center, straight into the heart of the banking and financial district.

“Why there?” I asked Simon.

“It’s where they start their destruction, burning resources. Think of the crash of twenty-nine, or of o-eight for that matter.”

“Will they crash the world today?”

“If not today, then someday, or somewhere. Old Simon can’t be everywhere at once.”

But we’re here now.

I didn’t say it out loud. Perhaps I only thought those words. Even so, Simon’s shoulders straightened, his step quickened, and I marched alongside him. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a mission, a purpose. I could do something—something worthwhile.

“You’ve always had a purpose,” he said, the words soft as the snow. “Remember that.”

They met us in the street, armed with briefcases and umbrellas, dressed in pinstriped suits. One woman wore high heeled shoes and yet glided effortlessly through the snow. I blinked and saw her, not as she appeared to everyone else, but her true form—a fiery beast that melted a path through the ice. Her cell phone was a weapon, something I only realized when Simon yanked me to the ground.

A lightning bolt whizzed over our heads and sizzled against the coffee shop’s brickwork.

I hunkered down next to Simon, my gaze taking in the things that surrounded us. The rest of the street had cleared, the snow so heavy, it had chased everyone else inside. Streetlights bathed the night in a yellow glow, and through that glow, they approached. Bankers, police officers, firefighters—all occupations you’d instinctively trust. They circled us, each braced to attack.

“I’m going to count to three,” Simon said to me, his voice calm and steady, like we were having a conversation in the coffee shop. “Then I want you to rush the one next to the fire hydrant.”

The firefighter. Even in disguise, he was a good head taller than I was. He clutched a hose, which, if anyone cared to look carefully—but of course, they didn’t—would be utterly ridiculous in all this snow and ice. In the world viewed through my headlamp, the creature held a coil of barbed metal. The weapon was thin, flexible, curling and uncurling like a snake. The creature stood there, unmoving, the coil undulating as if it had a mind of its own.

Simon grunted. “He’s yours. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Mine? “But—”

“He’s the one I can’t fight.” Simon’s voice had dropped now. “That’s where you come in.”

“Why can’t you fight him?”

“I can’t even touch him. We’re cut from the same cloth, as the expression goes, or in this case, the same piece of the universe.”

“You’re related.”

“In a way. But then, so are we, Halley. So are we.”

“And that’s why I can see you—and them.”

“She catches on quickly.” This was not Simon, but the firefighter, the huge thing in front of us. “Did you also inform her of her role after today’s confrontation?”

“She has no role.”

“Only if you dispatch us, and dear brother, and you are not up to the task. Not now, so far into your winter.”

“We shall see.”

The world exploded then. The firefighter shot skyward, flames and heat evaporating the snow. The air filled with steam. As a teen, I’d taken a year of karate, but I was no fighter. I didn’t know how to handle a sword. And yet, my hands knew what to do. My feet knew where to take me. I dashed not to where the firefighter had been standing, but where I knew he’d land, my sword at the ready.

His coil caught the blade seconds before his feet touched the ground. I blocked the second blow with my trashcan lid shield. But that barbed metal was pliant, and it wrapped itself around my blade, yanked the handle from my grip.

I panted, gaze darting between where my sword clattered to the road to Simon. The others surrounded him. He remained still, passive. I prayed he had a plan—for him and me.

The creature approached, barbed metal twisting this way and that, flicking toward my boots, catching strands of my scarf when I failed to lift my shield in time. I jumped back just as the coil swirled to catch me around the ankles. He advanced again, and again, I leaped. Leap, tangle, leap tangle, our movements a dance that led us away from Simon.

Keep him away from Simon. This was my only thought, even as my shield slipped from my grip and spun on the snow-slicked asphalt. Keep him away from Simon.

A crack reverberated. The buildings around us shook. I spun. We both did. The firefighter lowered his weapon and stared. A blizzard engulfed the other creatures, freezing them in place. At first, the rapid disintegration left me breathless, my stomach churning. A piece here, a piece there, torn apart, scattered.

The firefighter roared with so much force, I stumbled backward.

And onto my sword. With my teeth, I tore the mittens from my hands and picked up my sword. My fingers ached in the cold, but I clutched the grip, crouched low, and waited.

The firefighter twirled the coil, its barbs sparking in the air. In my mind, I saw its trajectory: toward the center of the fight, toward Simon. It would end him in a brilliant blaze of fire.

I sprang forward, caught the coil as it extended forward, the blade of my sword clanging against the metal, shaving off the barbs.

The blow sent me to the ground, sent the sword flying from my grip. The coil hung in the air and then fragmented, tiny barbs littering the ground, stabbing the snow.

The firefighter shrank. Pieces of the others broke off, scattered in the street before vanishing.

“Spring,” the firefighter said, his voice weak. “Spring.”

And then he, too, was gone.

I stood alone in the empty street, no sign of creatures, no sign of Simon. Nothing to show for what had just happened, only fat snowflakes that stuck to my cheeks and the broomstick I held in my hands.

* * *

My library books were overdue. This was what happened when you took time out to fight creatures no one else could see. The night I returned them to the library, snow still crunched beneath my boots, but the air felt soft against my face. Most everyone went without their hats and gloves. I’d left my mittens at home.

I glanced at the garbage bin, half hoping Simon would be there. He wasn’t, of course. I returned my books, paid my fine, and on the way out, stopped for a Caffeinator, making sure to stuff my pockets with sugar and those little containers of half and half. For old time’s sake, I told myself.

I could never find my way back to the city dump, although I tried several times. I still had the broomstick. I hung it above my fireplace. No one ever asked me about it. I wondered if anyone could see it, and if so, how it looked to them. When I spied it from the corner of my eye, it gleamed, the handle intricately carved.

I was going to balance the cup of coffee on the edge of the garbage bin, but someone stood there, head cast downward, a glow illuminating the contents inside.

My heart sped up. I clutched the to-go cup so tightly some of the coffee slipped from beneath the lid. A flash of pain spread across my skin, then the cool air rushed in to heal the burn.

I approached, but the man didn’t glance up.

“You’d be surprised what people throw away,” I said.

He took a step back, as if embarrassed at being caught. My heart pounded faster. Not Simon. Not Simon.

Then, I saw his eyes.

“Simon the Cold.”

“I ain’t cold, girly.”

“Halley.”

“That’s right, the comet. Here to burn another path through my sky?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“You talking about the winter? My winter?”

I nodded.

“You were there.” The question was in his eyes, if not his voice.

I nodded again.

“The way it works,” he said, his words slow. “I don’t always remember.”

And now I was cold. Simon? Not remember me?

“But it’s hard to forget a comet that blazes through the sky, especially one that saves your life.”

“I did that?”

“You did. But now I’m in my spring, and—”

“I’m nothing?”

“Or everything. That’s the problem with spring. It’s hard to tell what might grow. You can only plant the seeds.”

I held out the coffee then, both hands clutched around the cup.

He shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“How would you know? You’re in your spring.”

His laugh made the temperature rise at least a degree, maybe more. Wet, heavy snow slipped from a branch and plopped on the ground. I still offered the cup, arms outstretched, until—at last—Simon the Warm took it from my hands.

Simon the Cold was first published in Frozen Fairy Tales, and more recently produced in audio by The Centropic Oracle.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Heart Whisper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This was her fifth year up the riverside bluff.

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

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

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

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

Just a farmer.

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

Or at least everyone thought she should.

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

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

It wasn’t far enough.

The damn truck was coming straight for her.

Deliberately.

What. The. Hell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Need a ride?”

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

There was no salvaging that.

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

“Positive.”

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

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

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

Sadly, he wasn’t smarter than that.

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

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

With that, she raised both her middle fingers.

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

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

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

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

She needed to end this—quick.

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

She went with mountain lion.

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

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

Except for maybe dude-bro here.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

It was time.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Everything’s better with bacon.”

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

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

“You don’t—”

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

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

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

“Count on it.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isabelle kept going.

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

Turned out to be a wise decision.

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was being called home.

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

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

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

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

Apparently peaches were.

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

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

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

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

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

Assuming she would leave this year.

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was worth something.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

She froze.

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

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

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

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

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

“Me, too.”

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

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

“I don’t understand.”

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

“To do what?”

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

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

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

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

“Yes, exactly that.” The dragon grinned.

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

Maybe she’d been a dragon all along.

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

“I’m to leave the enclave?”

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

“Will the enclave call me home again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m afraid I can’t hear it.”

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

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

* * *

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

She was going to miss this view.

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

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

Isabelle: Get your walking papers?

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

Isabelle: I’ll start driving south.

Denisha: I’ll head north.

Isabelle: Meet you in the middle?

Denisha: Meet you in the middle.

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

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

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

“Her fifth year,” Isabelle said.

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

“And when it’s time to come home?”

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Maze

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

Eppie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you okay?”

“I head-butted the wall.”

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

“I know that.”

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

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

“Does your head still work?”

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

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

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

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

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

“I do.”

“What do you think it is?”

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

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

“What’s your—?” he began.

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

“Hey, Hank!” someone called.

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

He didn’t even know her name.

Eppie

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

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

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

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

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

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

The woman glanced away.

“Eppie …?” Chara said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cadet Langtry?”

“Yes, Matron?”

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

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

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

Now that would be a dance worth doing.

Hank

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

Day thirteen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eppie

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three inches from the floor, the maze caught her.

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

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

The boy.

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

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

“Is that you?”

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

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

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

And that made him oh so interesting.

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

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

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

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

“How do you know?”

“I’m inside it, inside the walls.”

“How on earth—?”

Eppie laughed. “Probably not.”

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

“Remember the trust falls from first year?”

“I hated those.”

“Same idea.”

“Will you help me?”

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

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

“Eppie Langtry.”

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

“Can I call you Henry?”

“Uh, I guess. Sure.”

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

Hank

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

“I’m over here,” he called.

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

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

“So you think it’s … something, too.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know what.”

“I almost want to say it’s not here.”

“Oh, it’s here.”

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

“Who did the stretching?”

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

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

“I don’t believe that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Only in vids.”

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

A spot of heat brushed against his palms.

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

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

“Do you feel that?” she asked.

Hank coughed again. “Yeah.”

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

“You okay with that?”

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

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

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

“I don’t know.”

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

“Yeah, I know.”

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

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

He had been, just like his older brothers.

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

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

But they had stopped. And now?

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

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

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

“Maybe they were hoping for the right combination?”

“Maybe they were hoping for us. Look.”

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

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

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

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

“That’s probably part of the problem.”

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

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

The second before they hit bottom, Eppie said:

“Don’t let go.”

Eppie

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

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

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

“Find them!” someone shouted.

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

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

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

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

“Something bad.”

“What did we do?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hank

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

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

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

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

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

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

“The prisoner is awake,” someone said.

Prisoner?

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

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

Weren’t they?

“Hungry?” the voice asked.

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

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

Eppie

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

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

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

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

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

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

“He told us what you did.”

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

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

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

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

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

Eppie stared straight at the matron and laughed.

Hank

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

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

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

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

“Henry?”

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

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

Eppie

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

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

For her?

Yes, and not just for her.

“Let’s find Henry,” she told it.

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

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

Dead?

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

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

“All true?” she wondered out loud.

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

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

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

And so it did.

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

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

And so the maze did.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

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

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

“How?”

“Take my hands.”

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

“Where are we?” Henry asked.

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

“Except for the cadets they ran through it.”

“Exactly.”

“So what is it now?”

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

“We knew there was something more.”

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

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

“Babies can’t stay little forever.”

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Valentina

A story for Veterans’/Remembrance/Armistice Day.

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

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

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

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

The Germans.

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

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

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

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

Maybe it was better that way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What the hell was he doing in this trench?

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

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

Je parle français.”

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

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

“English?” the officer ventured.

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

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

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

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

She nodded.

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

“Not in battle.”

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

“My mother,” she began.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fight at my side, Sergeant?”

She nodded, once.

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

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

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

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

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

The officer stayed her hand.

“That won’t be necessary.”

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Indeed they did.”

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

“She shot them! She shot them!”

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

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

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

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

“Did you know her?” the officer whispered.

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

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

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

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

So much blood.

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

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

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

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

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

“Valentina Andreovna.”

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

“What do we do now?” she asked.

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

“Will you fight again?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Fiction Friday: Aleag the Great

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He could taste his next meal in the air.

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

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

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

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

Aleag always bartered.

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

* * *

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

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

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

“No more than I am.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Of the valley?”

“If that’s what you wish.”

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

“Then we have that in common.”

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

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

Until this spring, anyway.

Still, it only seemed polite to ask.

The dragon inclined his head. “Aleag.”

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

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

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

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

“Great.”

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

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

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

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

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

Perhaps he had a point.

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

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Or tried to.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“There are other healers in this land.”

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

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

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

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

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

“I refused his offer.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Stop it.”

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

“Excuse me, my dear?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“No!” he cried. “No!”

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

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

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

“Because every other outcome is worse.”

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

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

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

And yet, Lily felt … nothing.

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

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

“It is.”

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

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

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

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

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

And then everything was black.

* * *

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

“No, no, no, no.”

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

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

Murderer … coward.

Fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He continued to stand there for a very long time.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

She was … alive?

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

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

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

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

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

“Is it?”

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

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

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

“Then what do you do with them?”

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

“On their way … then the sacrifice?”

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

“So each spring, they simply walk away?”

“As you will do, as well.”

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

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

“What will you do?”

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

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

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

“I might be,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“When I … refused Peter—”

“The lord mayor?”

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

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

“Thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Under the circumstances? Quite understandable.”

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

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

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

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

“As far as the crossroads.”

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

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

Yes, perhaps that had always been true.

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

“Most dragons are, my dear.”

“But thank you.”

“Again, the pleasure was all mine.”

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

Even after everything.

* * *

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

The sight always made him think of Lily.

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

He never denied them either.

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

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

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

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