Category Archives: Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Dragon’s Bane

Sometimes the best friendships are the unconventional ones.

Something is different in this part of the forest. Even the ground beneath Kit’s feet feels unsubstantial to her sneakers. Like the solid earth might crumble away at any moment, and she would plunge into nothing.

Everything in her world feels like that right now—a slow and steady crumbling—all her plans, the heart that beats in her chest, even the lease on her studio apartment. Worst of all, her one bit of solace, the forest, spins around her, nothing solid and sure.

Except when she stumbles upon an old log. She’s been here before, in this part of the forest, but how is it she’s never seen this particular clearing, with this particular log?

The log is huge, reaching halfway up her thigh. The surface is rough even through her jeans, the bark baked warm by the sun.

Kit pulls out a thermos. Before her trek into the forest—ostensibly to think, but really, it was running away—she brewed hot cocoa. The real kind, in a pan on her two-burner stove. She measured out the cocoa and the sugar, adding a dash of vanilla and cinnamon.

Now she uncaps the thermos, and the aroma rides the crisp autumn air, filling it with rich chocolate and a hint of wood smoke. Kit inhales, and for that single moment, everything is okay.

Then the log beneath her rumbles. It’s a rolling, tumbling, undulating motion that makes her think of a rollercoaster—and sends her plummeting backward and onto the ground.

She lands hard, breath leaving her in a whoosh, hot cocoa sloshing in the thermos. Somehow—somehow—she holds onto it, holds it steady and upright.

It’s then she finds herself staring into a pair of huge amber eyes. They are the size of Kit’s head—at least—and they glow with intensity. Beneath those eyes, she spies a snout and a pink, forked tongue.

She follows the elegant line of a neck to the large hump she earlier took for an old-growth log.

“You,” she says now, testing her voice in the still air, “are a dragon, or I’m losing my mind.”

The creature snorts, the scent of wood smoke with a hint of brimstone infusing the space around her.

“Although, I suppose there are worse ways to lose your mind.”

The dragon snorts again as if in agreement.

“I’m Kit.” She doesn’t hold out her hand. One, she’s still clutching the thermos. Two, she’s not certain dragons shake hands.

The dragon bows its head in acknowledgment. Then, like a whisper, a word lights in Kit’s mind.

Taggledorf.

“It’s nice to meet you, Taggledorf.”

The dragon thumps its tail once, and the earth shakes.

But this time, it doesn’t feel as if the ground will crumble beneath her.

* * *

Kit visits the spot often. Taggledorf doesn’t always appear. Even when she—it’s a long and complicated bit of pantomime to determine that Taggledorf is a she—doesn’t, her presence is there. The air holds that scent of wood smoke. Sometimes there’s brimstone.

But everything in that particular clearing grows a bit lusher, smells a bit richer. Hummingbirds flit and dragonflies buzz. In the winter, there is enough warmth radiating from Taggledorf’s back that Kit can spend hours in the cold.

She brings the man she wants to make her husband to this spot. She does not expect Taggledorf to appear, but yes, it’s a test. Her heart is still tender and cautious. While this man fills her with certainty, so did the other, the one that had her fleeing to the forest in the first place.

When she returns alone a week later and finds the clearing alive with forget-me-nots and wild roses, she has Taggledorf’s answer.

She weaves a crown of roses for her friend, and when Taggledorf does appear, a bit shy, Kit places the wreath on the dragon’s head.

“We will always be friends,” she says.

* * *

She brings her children to this spot, spreading a soft, flannel blanket across the clearing. In summer, they drink lemonade, in winter, hot cocoa. Taggledorf makes her scales shimmer and shine. The children spend hours slapping the scales with their chubby hands, squealing and shrieking with delight.

One time, the warm sunshine lulls Kit into a nap. She wakes, heart pounding and terrified, only to find that Taggledorf has corralled both children with her tail.

“Thank you, my friend.” Kit sighs and leans into the old-growth that is and is not Taggledorf’s midsection. “Thank you.”

* * *

Kit discovers that Taggledorf loves stories. It’s when she reads to her children that the dragon’s scales glow and hum. Picture books and Mother Goose, eventually graduating to chapter books. Her children sit on the dragon’s back and take turns reading aloud.

When they’ve moved on—to novels and textbooks and quantum mechanics—Kit takes to reading in the clearing any time she can. The heat against her back tells her which stories are her friend’s favorites.

When her eyesight dims, and her hands no longer can hold an e-reader, never mind a paperback, she plays audiobooks for them.

In the sunshine, they rest, safe in the knowledge that nothing changes as long as the story goes on.

* * *

It has been months since Kit has visited the clearing, maybe even a year, but she doesn’t want to think hard enough to count. Today is perfect for a trek—her last trek to her clearing.

The spring air is warm, but the path is still clear of summer growth, those brambles and branches that might trip her up.

Even so, the walk is long, much longer than when she pushed a double stroller along the dips and ruts. By the time she reaches the old-growth log that isn’t a log, her legs nearly give out beneath her.

“No stories today, my friend. I only want to rest, with you.” She sinks against her friend, knowing Taggledorf will cushion her fall. “I have no wish to be found until … after.”

She snuggles against the dragon with the full knowledge that stories go on, but hers ends now.

And thanks to Taggledorf, it was a good one.

* * *

The girl smells familiar. This is the first thing Taggledorf notices. The second is the salt, so strong it has chapped the girl’s cheeks and flavors the air.

Grief is something that can fill your mouth. This is something Taggledorf knows. It is something this girl is learning.

The girl settles next to her, back against Taggledorf’s midsection, the very place where she—the other she—sat for so many years. The girl’s body shakes, and Taggledorf lets the fire that always burns in her belly flare a bit—enough warmth to comfort and soothe while she ponders this girl.

She feels right.

Not everyone does, of course. That is the dragon’s bane. So many of her kind have abandoned friendship, opting to gradually become the landscape they occupy.

But Taggledorf knows that despite the grief and goodbyes, a good friend is a story unto itself.

So she opens her large amber eyes and stares at the girl.

The gasp has more delight than fear.

The fingers are gentle against Taggledorf’s snout.

“I miss her,” the girl says.

Taggledorf nods. She does too.

“I’m Carly.” The girl doesn’t hold out her hand. She already knows that dragons don’t shake hands.

Taggledorf blows a stream of smoke into the air. In it, is the sound of her name.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Carly says.

The dragon thumps her tail once, and the earth shakes.

And for now, at least, it doesn’t feel as if the ground will crumble beneath either of them.

Dragon’s Bane was written specifically for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: Lucky

For week two, I offer up a different take on sibling love.

“You’re lucky you didn’t bleed out.”

He says this as if I’m the one who built the explosive, dug the hole, ran the wires, and then—after all of that—pulled the trigger myself.

“Lucky,” he says, again, in case I didn’t hear him the first time.

I did, of course, through the haze of whatever is running through my veins. Morphine, maybe? I don’t know. Do they still use morphine? Whatever it is, whatever opiate fogs my thoughts, it is lovely and seductive. It tastes like temptation and blood. I’m glad—no, lucky—I don’t know its name.

I won’t be able to ask for it on the outside.

He sits at my bedside, easing back the sheet that covers me, the stethoscope barely there against my skin. He’s warmed it, I realize, warmed it against his palm. He probes, and while I’m naked, I’m also bandaged clear up to my armpits. Not that there’s any modesty in an Army hospital. Not that there’s any modesty in the Army.

My breasts are bound, like those of women warriors of old. Through the fog, I can see these women. They are fierce, with hair like coiled snakes. Their armor shines in the sun. Their weapons glint in the moonlight.

Were they lucky as well? Did they ever bleed out?

My gaze flitters down. The bandages are white and pure. They are armor in their own right.

“They didn’t have to amputate,” he says.

At first, I think he means my breasts. I blink, the fog of morphine, of war, of my own thoughts too thick for me to make sense of his words. Then I understand.

“I know.” What I don’t mention is I can see my reflection in the window. I can count the number of legs I currently have.

“An infection, though.”

“Try not to sound so hopeful.”

He grimaces. “Katy-bird—”

“Don’t ‘Katy-bird’ me.”

“You shouldn’t be here.”

You shouldn’t be here.”

He’s not my doctor. He’s not even assigned to this ward. He’s breaking all the rules—Army rules, medical rules. But he’s my brother, which is why everyone glances away when he does.

“I could send you home.” He delivers the threat in the way only a big brother can.

I stare at the window. There is no view. Even my reflection has faded. All I see is the glint on the glass that looks like the blade of a sword.

“I don’t want to leave them.”

“Them,” he says. “Your platoon?”

I want to nod; I want to shake my head. It’s my platoon—yes, of course, it is—but it’s so much more than that.

“I don’t want to leave me.”

Now he stares at the window as if he, too, can see the images of warrior women in its reflection. His nod is thoughtful, the sigh heavy—the sound only an older brother can make.

He threads the stethoscope through his fingers and then pockets it. He touches my cheek.

“You’re sure?”

Something shifts in his tone. All at once, he is not a doctor, not my older brother. He is simply Scott, and he looks as confused as the morphine is making me feel.

“I can’t leave.”

He nods as if I’ve explained my entire self in those three words. People leave all the time—wounded or killed in action or by their own hand. I don’t want to leave, not now, not ever. Here is where I can see the warrior women.

He kisses my forehead. It’s tender and filled with the warmth of absolution. At the doorway, he pauses, one last time.

“You’re still damn lucky you didn’t bleed out.”

For a moment, everything else fades—the war, the morphine, the glint of swords on the glass.

Yes, I want to tell him. I know.

I’m lucky.

Lucky may be my story that has racked up the most personal rejections, ever. It even snagged an honorable mention in Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction contest. Sometimes those stories everyone seems to love (but nevertheless declines) can be the hardest to sell.

Miss a story? Check out the titles here.

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Weekly writing check-in: starting 2020 with a sale!

Not only did I kick off the (Love) Stories for 2020 project this week, but I made a sale!

I sold a story to one of my “bucket-list” markets: a flash fiction piece to Daily Science Fiction.

So, yes, that was an excellent way to start the year. More details when I have a publication date.

I’ve been busy offline over this holiday. It’s a good thing I scheduled January’s story posts early. Otherwise, my 2020 project would not have started in 2020 (or at least not right away).

I’m looking forward to doing some new and creative things with my writing this year. Not so much goals and New Year’s resolutions–but I do have plans. I hope to talk about those in the next few weeks or so.

In the meantime, you can go check out the year’s first story: Gretel and Hansel.

 

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Free Fiction Friday: Gretel and Hansel

January’s stories will be a mix of sibling love, surprising friendships, and cautionary tales of workplace romances. I hope you enjoy them!

We kick off the (Love) Stories of 2020 project with this fairytale retelling. If you were ever curious about what happened to Hansel and Gretel after they returned home, this might answer that question.

Hansel wanted to go back.

Even after endless weeks in a cage, even after Gretel scrubbed and swept and scoured for the witch, even after she pushed the frog-skinned crone into the oven, Hansel wanted to go back.

They stood at the edge of the forest, where the grass grew wild and sharp; brambles grabbed at their skin. The trees above reached their branches toward the ground as if they might scoop the two up and carry them away.

“She’s dead,” Gretel said to him.

Hansel stared into the woods.

“I killed her.”

He shook his head, the movement so slow that at first, Gretel didn’t take its meaning.

“You didn’t kill her,” he said, his words as dead as the witch should’ve been. “She’s alive.”

Could she be? Gretel stretched her hands in front of her, palms skyward.

These hands. They’d shoved from behind. They’d murdered. The crunch of bones, the sizzle of hair and flesh. The thick smoke that had filled her mouth and throat, the plumes laced with the stench of rancid meat.

No one could live through that. No one, perhaps, except a witch.

“Why do you want to go back?” she asked.

A smile lit his face, the same sort of look she’d seen their father cast toward their stepmother, the same look Millie gathered from men in the tavern. True, some men reserved that gaze for the pint of ale they held in their grip. When Hansel licked his lips, Gretel hoped he wouldn’t answer.

He didn’t.

Every year, on the anniversary of their escape, Gretel would find Hansel at the edge of the forest. She’d stand with him while the sun dipped below the horizon, the slanting light flickering against the trees. The branches appeared to elongate as if beckoning them to step inside the wood.

Every year, she took his hand—a limp, clammy thing—and tugged him from the edge. With each step, her legs ached. Only the feel of Hansel’s hand in hers kept her steady on the path home.

But maybe she was wrong. Hansel lived as if his heart, his soul, still resided deep in the woods, in a gingerbread house. She’d catch him licking his lips, and she knew. She’d tasted the sugar too. It had left them both empty—she without her brother, he without his heart’s desire.

The year they turned sixteen, Gretel climbed the path to the woods only to find Hansel’s spot empty. Pulse fluttering in her throat, she bent low. Her fingers skimmed the dust trail. In the dim light, she barely made out a boot print. It was enough to go on.

Gretel scampered down the path, grabbed her cloak from the hook inside the cottage door, and raced back up the hill. Before she could catch her breath, before she could gather enough courage to venture into the woods, a hand gripped her wrist.

“Stay back, girl. Don’t go after him.”

The voice was lilting, filled with sorrow and knowledge. Not her father, then. Gretel turned to confront Millie from the tavern.

“I have to,” Gretel said. “He’s my brother.”

“He hasn’t been yours for a very long time.” Millie tugged on her wrist, a gentle, coaxing move that had Gretel stumbling forward. “It’s too late. Once the witch has you, she doesn’t let go.”

“Yes, she does.” She wrenched her wrist from Millie’s grip and held up her hands for the woman to see. “I did it once. I can do it again.”

Gretel pulled her cloak tightly around her and plunged into the forest.

Brambles wielded their thorns like daggers, their sharp points shredding her cloak. Branches grabbed at her hood. Eventually one plucked it from her head, the force choking her until she undid the drawstring.

On she ran until the woods opened onto a stream. The stream led to the gingerbread house. Gretel halted, letting the fringe of trees around the clearing conceal her.

The path to the house was covered with brittle, the air perfumed with spun sugar and melted chocolate. Even from this distance, desire churned in Gretel’s belly. Yes, she’d tasted the sugar. Yes, she’d thought of returning. But after that unbearable sweetness, the cream curdled in her mouth, the sugar scorched her tongue. She’d purged, not far from here, next to the stream while Hansel had continued to consume the treats as if they were the only thing that could sustain him.

The witch stood in the entryway to her house, but this was not the frog-skinned crone of Gretel’s memory. The witch glowed like spring itself, her skin the color of a pale crocus stem, her hair flowing, as white as lily of the valley and as soft as spun sugar.

Hansel lounged against the rail, a candied apple in his hands, the fruit so big and bright it glowed in the night. The witch curved a finger beneath his chin, and with no more than that, urged him inside.

Gretel threw herself forward, but the rock-sugar fence that surrounded the house barred her way, new segments sprouting across her path. She flung herself against the fence, again and again until her palms stung. She watched the blood, black in the moonlight, drip between her fingers and onto the ground.

“I’ve failed him,” she said, to the forest, for every creature to witness.

“Whoo?” came the soft call of an owl.

“Me. I have failed my brother.” Gretel studied her bloodstained hands. Certainly, this was proof of that.

“Whoo.” The call came again, a lullaby rather than an admonishment.

One by one, feathers dropped from the night sky, floating downward until they landed on Gretel’s palms. Each feather soaked up its share of blood before disintegrating. When a lone feather landed against her cheek, she sank to the forest floor and fell asleep.

The blaze woke her hours later, the gingerbread house lit with flames. The odor of burnt sugar and charred sweets filled her nose, her mouth, her throat, the stench so caustic it felt as if a noose had tightened around her neck.

“Hansel?” She called his name, again and again, her cries too thin to cut through the thick smoke that billowed from the house. “Hansel?”

Near dawn, the fire burned itself out, the rock-sugar fence a slag that oozed its way through twigs and leaves. Only the witch’s oven remained, squat and low to the ground. It was from here a figure emerged, movements tentative as a newborn calf.

Gretel leaped across the slag and ran to her brother.

Hansel took her by the shoulders, his fingers thin and tight. “I had to go back. I had to be the one to kill her.” He shook her as if that would help her understand. “Me, not you.”

His blond hair had turned ashen. If she brushed it from his eyes, Gretel thought it might crumble to dust against her fingertips. He reeked of burnt sugar and acrid smoke, but when she turned his palms skyward, they were clean and pink, like a child’s hands.

She took him by one of those hands and led him to the path that would take them home.

Gretel and Hansel first appeared in the August 2016 issue of Deep Magic.

If you enjoy fairytale retellings, you might like Straying from the Path.

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Weekly writing check-in: announcing my 2020 project

I took last week off from the blog.

I was ruminating on what it is I might like to do next year.

Actually, I’ve been pondering that for a while.

I want to do something completely different with my Free Fiction Friday posts.

So I thought to myself:

Why don’t I post one of my stories every single Friday for a year?

If you’re thinking: because that’s crazy. Well … I thought that too.

But you may have noticed I’ve been a little vague with the writing updates. That’s because I have been writing a lot of short fiction, mostly flash, or at least stories that clock in at 2,000 words or so.

Some I could (and have) sent out to various markets. But, I want to do something different, something challenging, something fun.

Thus, the (Love) Stories for 2020 project was born.

Because I think we could all use a little love, compassion, and kindness as we head into 2020.

I already have January’s stories ready to go, and February’s and March’s slotted (I’m going for challenging, not completely stress-inducing). I also have about 25 – 30 stories I can use, plus I plan on writing some more.

At year’s end, I’ll collect all the stories in a compilation and publish it in ebook and paperback.

So. Yeah. As my son might say. That’s how my 2020 is shaping up.

Wish me luck?

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