Category Archives: Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots

Ah, yes, they’ve all been duped by a cat. But haven’t we all been, at one time or another?

It was during the wedding feast, when the air was heavy with roast goose and red wine, that Mirabella realized they’d all been duped by a cat.

Her new husband, the Marquis of Carabas, was sitting to her right, his teeth tearing goose flesh, grease coating his lips. She shuddered and pushed away thoughts of the marriage bed. Her father, the king, was well into his cups and tore at his food as if to mimic his new son-in-law. He slapped the marquis on the back and praised heaven that—at long last—Mirabella had found herself a husband.

At long last, indeed.

Near the end of the table, the cat was lounging, booted hind legs crossed. With a paw, he wiped goose fat from his whiskers. Mirabella fixed her gaze on him until he raised his yellow eyes and took in her full measure.

Then, the creature winked.

She sat back, a flush heating her cheeks, traveling her neck, and ending somewhere near her décolletage. She sighed, not in the mood for wine, song, or her new husband. True, the marquis was handsome. A point in his favor, to be sure. A goose leg slipped through his fingers, and he stopped its descent with one meaty hand. Mirabella cringed and again shoved thoughts of the marriage bed from her mind.

She turned to her new husband and asked, “More wine?”

Without waiting for an answer, she filled his goblet to the rim. He’d barely spoken since they’d exchanged I do. Come to think of it, the lad—for he was hardly older than she—seldom spoke more than a word or two at a time. Mirabella leaned forward and, once again, trained her gaze on the cat. This time when he winked, she didn’t flinch.

Oh, there was no Marquis of Carabas. She’s stake her somewhat tarnished reputation on it. Certainly, if this lad were nobility, he would’ve curried her father’s favor long before now. Not only that, but he was untouched by palace gossip, which was rife with rumors about her improper relationship with her tutor. In her defense, the relationship hadn’t been at all improper.

Well, maybe a little bit improper.

But thanks to some rumors and a fast-talking cat, her father was now praising the heavens and had shoved this lad into her arms and her bed. Would he care to know the truth about the marquis? Of course not. A married daughter was one less burden, especially a daughter with a somewhat tarnished reputation.

The splash of wine against her chest forced a gasp from her. The red liquid soaked into the bodice of her gown, the spot resembling a sword wound. Her new husband stared at his empty goblet as if the wine had sprung forth of its own accord. Her father pounded the marquis on the back, his hearty laugh filling the banquet hall. And, at the end of the table, that damn cat winked.

* * *

Her new husband’s snores filled the bedchamber. From her vantage point on the balcony, Mirabella could see the outline of his form on the duvet. Make no mistake, it was a fine form, despite the drool.

“You admire my master, then, Princess?”

Ah, that damn cat.

“There is more to admire in a man than form or face, Master Cat.”

The cat trod along the balcony’s edge, feet whisper-soft against the stone, even with the boots.

“What is it you wish?” he said.

“I fear my wishes matter not to man or cat.”

“I did not ask that.”

Mirabella glanced into the bedchamber. Yes, assuredly, her new husband would not wake until noon, if then. “Tonight’s wish has already been granted.”

Could cats grin? Well, this one could, and did, twirling long whiskers with a paw. “And tomorrow’s wish?”

Yes, the crux of the matter.

“I cannot simply un-marry, Master Cat, and I doubt my new husband will appreciate his rival.” She gestured toward the telescope at the balcony’s far end. She had yet to peer at the night sky this evening—or rather, morning. Of course, at this moment, the only view was of a cat’s tail, which was swishing in front of the lens.

Still, the urge to lean over the telescope remained. For a few hours, she could pretend that Sebastian was still at her side, imagine his fingers lighting on the back of her neck, hear his ardent whisper. “Do you see it?”

The night spent with her tutor fueled court gossip even now. That the two of them had gazed at the stars and not into each other’s eyes was of little matter. As she ran a hand along the telescope, the skies were clear, but her mind was clouded with thoughts of the upcoming tour of the kingdom. The grand celebration of her marriage meant visiting people she didn’t much care for and receiving gifts she certainly didn’t need. But the real question was: pack the telescope or leave it behind?

“You’ll be traveling light,” the cat said.

“Unlikely, Master Cat. Have you never seen a royal entourage take to the roads?”

“I have, Princess. It’s all part of the plan.”

“What plan is that?”

“Do you not wish to see your Sebastian again?”

Her hand stilled on the telescope, her fingers ice. Damn palace gossip, and damn that cat besides. How could he know her heart?

“You keep a great many unsent letters beneath your bed.”

Oh. That was how.

“Would you like to be free? Study with your tutor in peace?”

Mouth dry, Mirabella nodded.

“Then, trust me.”

“I shall do no such thing, Master Cat.”

“But what if you could un-marry, Princess?” the cat asked. “Would you trust me then?”

“What God has joined together, let no man put asunder,” Mirabella replied. “Even cats know this.”

Ah, yes, cats could grin. “Oh, Princess, have you not noticed? I am certainly no man.”

* * *

The carriage bumped over never-ending ruts. A week on the road, and the only sign of the cat had been this morning when he had slipped a wineskin into Mirabella’s hands.

“Hold it beneath your cloak,” he said. “Just so.”

Only thoughts of her studies, of Sebastian, compelled her to comply. She cradled her burden and settled in for another long day.

A cry rose up outside the carriage.

“Brigands!” a guard shouted.

Swords clanked, and then the carriage door flew open. The cat sprang past her, a single claw piercing the wineskin. Red bloomed beneath her hand, the wine soaking her gown. The marquis took one look at the stain spreading across her bodice and crashed to the carriage floor, face-first. Never mind that she reeked of her father’s finest vintage (come to think of it, so did the marquis); she was, in everyone’s view, fatally wounded.

And with death came freedom. Un-marry, indeed.

Before she could leap from the carriage, a paw tugged on her sleeve.

“You’ll need this, Princess.” The cat proffered a dusty cloak, ragged along the hem. He dropped a small canvas sack at her feet. “And, of course, you’ll need these.” He pulled the boots from his hind legs.

He crouched, then sprang through the carriage window, and Mirabella swore his final sentence was more caterwaul than words. She pulled on the boots, the leather kissing her legs, the soles cupping her feet. She held one leg extended, turning it to study the boot. How was this possible?

No matter. They fit. She jumped from the carriage. The boots carried her through sword clashes and rearing horses. No one called out. No one stopped her. Except for a cat that wove between her ankles.

“Master Cat?”

His tail twitched, and he blinked slowly, but that was all.

She nestled him in her arms, the cloak shielding them both, and took to the road.

That night, she tugged the boots from her feet and placed them far enough from her campfire that no spark would reach them.

“Master Cat, would you like to take a turn in your boots?”

Within moments, the cat was standing before her in all his booted glory. He surveyed their surroundings.

“Seems safe enough,” he said. “I shall fetch dinner and return shortly.”

Mirabella pointed to the pot simmering over the fire. “I have dinner.”

“I shall fetch us a decent dinner, then.”

She huffed but couldn’t argue. Her skills with a telescope far surpassed anything she could manage with a cook pot.

“I shall almost regret finding Sebastian,” she said to him later, over stew and a loaf of hard-crusted bread from a nearby village. “I will miss these marvelous boots.”

“Why not commission another pair?” the cat asked, strutting about, the leather boots glowing warmly in the light of the fire.

“How will I do that, Master Cat? I will be a scholar and a somewhat impoverished one at that.”

“Haven’t you guessed, Princess? Who do you think gave me these boots to begin with?”

“Not the marquis?”

“Hardly.”

“But then—”

“Princess, you know their creator. Intimately, if I dare say so.”

“But … Sebastian is a scholar. He studies—”

“The mysteries of our world—and he has mastered a few.”

Mirabella sucked in a breath and blew out a stream of air rather than harsh words. After all, what was there to say?

With a paw, the cat twirled his whiskers, and then strode off into the night. So, it had been Sebastian all along.

And, of course, that damn cat.

A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots was first published in Timeless Tales, January 2014.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty

Continuing with the  fairy tale retellings. This week, a different take on Sleeping Beauty.

“Try it,” my cousins say. They are the perfect princess trifecta, all in pink, peach, and plum.

I hesitate. I don’t trust myself. Not around things that are sharp. My mother, the queen, has banned all things pointy—embroidery and knitting needles, even crochet hooks, but the object in the corner of my room is different.

“Come on,” Plum says. She holds up her cell phone, ready to take a picture while the other two urge me forward. “You know how she is.”

I do. So does my mother, who always intones, “Never trust a woman whose only goal is to look as young as her teenage daughters.”

My aunt’s gifts have a way of backfiring. Last year, she gave me an elixir that makes your lips red like cherries and your cheeks glow like apples. I refused even to try it, but my cousins guzzled it down. At that evening’s ball, fruit flies swarmed around them the entire time.

What I really want for my birthday is a baseball bat and glove. I want to round up the pages, cajole the scribe into keeping score, and play until the sun hovers low in the sky and it’s too late to bathe for a formal dinner, never mind the ball afterward. But my cousins tremble; if they don’t get proof that I’ve at least touched the present, their mother will rage. Pity compels me forward. Besides, compared to last year, a spindle is downright practical. I reach out. Plum’s cell phone camera clicks.

Three seconds before I hit the stone floor, I think: my finger is going to hurt all day long.

Chaos roars around me, but I can’t wake. A narcoleptic slumber is no way to spend your sweet sixteen. My mother thunders at my cousins, and they cower, all quivering tulle and satin.

My finger still hurts.

The sobs subside. Yawns fill the air. Courtiers sink to the floor. Page boys slump against the wall. My cousins, too, sleep. My mother tucks a blanket around me and kisses my forehead before taking to her own bed.

For one hundred years, we lie dormant. This wouldn’t be so bad except my cousins, they snore.

Heavy boots stomp. A sword rattles. The door crashes open. The scent of blood and sweat fills the room. Something looms above me, something I think means to kiss me.

I worry about one hundred years of neglected dental hygiene. But really? He’s the one with dragon breath. Volumes have been written about epic first kisses. This one? I’m not sure it rates a Facebook status update.

My eyes spring open, that kiss the living embodiment of caffeine. A boy I don’t recognize kneels by my bed. I worry about being nearly one hundred years older than he is. We will have to rename the village. Cougarville has a nice ring to it. First, we should probably get to know each other.

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Charming.”

I blink. I’m sure he’s many things. Clearly, he has mad skills in the sword-wielding department. But I was on the receiving end of that kiss. Charming?

Not so much.

“Shall we marry at sunset?” he asks as if he already knows the answer.

Shall we … what? He squeezes my hand. Pain shoots through my finger, and I yank free. Marry? For real? I’d rather swing a baseball bat … or a sword. And Charming does look tired. (I hear dragon-slaying is kind of stressful.)

After all this time, the spindle still sits in the corner of the room. I point to it.

“Can you bring me that?” I ask, all princess-y innocence. I should feel bad about this, but I don’t.

Charming only manages a step, spindle in hand, before he crashes to the floor, armor clanking loud enough to wake the dead. But everyone sleeps on, and Charming’s snores blend with my cousins’. It’s a fairytale match. They can fight over him once everyone wakes up.

I fashion a new notch in his belt, and then I attach the scabbard and blade around my waist. I pull on my own boots and pick up his shield. It feels good in my hand. I tuck a pillow beneath Charming’s head and leave the room.

My finger no longer hurts.

In the master suite, I pause next to my mother. A serene smile lights her face. I tuck the comforter around her shoulders and whisper, “I’ll be back.”

After I’ve slain a few dragons.

The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty first appeared in Unidentified Funny Objects, Volume 1 and in audio at Cast of Wonders.

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Free Fiction Friday: Crying Wolf

This month, it’s all about fairy tale retellings. First up, a retelling of … well, you can probably guess.

Sending you over to Daily Science Fiction today for my story Crying Wolf.

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Free Fiction Friday: A Measure of Sorrow

Leaving March with a giant who’s as gentle as a lamb.

A wolf seduced her sister, and a witch wrapped her bony fingers around her brother’s heart, so when a giant came for her, she told him she wouldn’t go.

He plucked a rose petal from the bushes that grew around his castle, and that was her bed. When the day grew hot, he offered dewy raspberries to quench her thirst. When she refused, a single tear fell from his eye and splashed at her feet. The salt on her lips tasted like sorrow. She was drenched, but unmoved.

Only when he left his almanac out—quite by accident—did she creep from the threshold of her cottage. It took all her strength to turn the pages, but turn them she did. The letters were as tall as she was, but read them, she did.

He caught her reading. If he wanted, he could have slammed the book shut, trapped her—

or squashed her. He didn’t.

He looked to the book and then to her. “Will you come with me now?”

“I am not a pet.”

“Of course not.”

“Or a meal.”

He blew air through his lips, the force of it ruffling her hair. “You are much too small for that.”

“Then what am I?”

“I need someone to tend to the mice. They are ailing. And the butterflies. My fingers are too clumsy, and I cannot mend the rips in their wings.”

“So, you have work for me?”

“Good work, with good pay. You can keep your family well.”

“They would feed me to the wolves.”

“Then how am I any worse?”

How indeed? Did she trust this giant and his promises of mice and butterflies?

“Will you?” He extended a hand.

She stepped onto his palm, and he lifted her higher and higher—even with his mouth, his nose, his eyes. Then he placed her gently on his shoulder.

“What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“The almanac. Will you read to me sometimes?”

“Would you like that?”

“Very much.”

“I shall read to you every night.”

Mice and butterflies filled her days. On the back of the Mouse King she rode, clutching the soft fur about his neck, racing through the castle to tend to mothers with large broods, crumbs and bits of cheese tucked in a canvas sack. With thread from a silkworm, she repaired butterfly wings, her stitches tiny and neat.

The giant peered at her handiwork through a glass that made his eye all that much larger. When he laughed his approval, the sound rolled through the countryside. And every night, when he reached for his almanac, she settled on his shoulder and marveled at how someone so colossal could speak words with so much tenderness.

Even when his bones grew old, and all he could do was move from bed to chair, he read to her. When his eyesight grew dim, he recited the words from memory, so strong was his desire to keep his promise. Until, at last, the day came when the stories stopped.

A thousand butterflies fluttered into his room. Mice came from fields and forest alike, led by the Mouse King. They bore the giant outside, where they laid him to rest beneath the rose bushes.

It was there she learned that all her tears combined could not rival the sorrow contained in a single giant teardrop.

A Measure of Sorrow first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and subsequently in Evil Girlfriend Media.

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Free Fiction Friday: Insidious Beasts

Sometimes help comes from surprising quarters.

I straddle the roof of my cottage, or rather, the part of the roof that remains. From my perch, I peer through the giant-sized hole and into my bedroom. The quilt is downy white, and part of me wonders if there’s any harm in simply dropping through that giant-sized hole and landing in its softness.

If there’s any harm in delaying what I must do today.

Above, the sky is clear, a startling blue that’s the color of forget-me-knots. Still, the air is sticky against my cheeks, and I taste the promise of rain on my tongue. Beneath the heat—and the late-summer storm that’s certain to roar through our valley—I sense the chill of autumn.

Yes, there’s great harm in delaying what I must do today.

With a finger, I test the ragged edge closest to me. A telltale red stains the thatch as if some giant creature cut its lips while taking a bite out of my house.

How—and why—did I sleep through that?

I woke to the sunrise touching my eyelids, birdsong in my ears, and a gaping hole above my head. That I don’t know, can’t remember, makes my stomach clench with foreboding.

“I can guarantee a lot,” comes a voice from the path below. “But, I never claimed my materials were giant-proof.”

Master Rinaldi stands at my front gate, fingers curled around the latch as if he’s merely waiting for an invitation to lift it.

I don’t grant him one.

“A giant did this?” I ask.

“What else? Insidious beasts. They’re taking over the forests, the hinterlands. You should move to the village. This is no place for a woman on her own.” He waves a dismissive hand at my cottage, which up until this morning, was a fine place for a woman on her own.

“Giants eat thatch?” It’s a ridiculous question. I know they don’t. We both know that.

He raises a suggestive eyebrow. “Perhaps it was searching for the treat inside.”

I ignore this. “You wouldn’t happen to have more thatch, would you, Master Rinaldi?”

I gauge the hole in my roof. The laborers I hired earlier this summer would all be in the fields, working to bring in the harvest. I could, perhaps, tackle this job on my own.

Perhaps.

When Master Rinaldi doesn’t answer, I turn my attention back to him. His gaze roves my legs, clad in breeches. There’s a calculating glint in his expression, one I’ve seen him wear in the marketplace.

Master Rinaldi knows weaknesses and how to drive a bargain. He is also blessed with a lovely wife and ten children, all strong and healthy. He is someone who has everything a man could want.

And yet, his eyes—and hands—roam.

If I wish more thatching for my roof, I suspect there’s an added cost, one that doesn’t involve the silver coins in my purse.

“So late in the season?” He shakes his head as if my plight is the saddest thing he’s seen in a month.

“I could try Master Carr,” I say, hedging my bets.

Master Rinaldi merely smirks.

The trouble is, Master Rinaldi’s supplies are the best—sweetest smelling, free of vermin, such as night loshes and murdocs. During the winter, too many families have slumbered beneath an infected roof only to never wake in the spring.

If I’m to make it through the winter, I may have to pay the price he’s asking.

The rumble starts so low and—to paraphrase Master Rinaldi—insidiously that I barely register it. The soft tremble travels the framework of my cottage until the shaking reaches my ribcage and bits of straw float to my bedroom below.

A shadow looms on the horizon—a giant-sized one, to match the hole in my roof.

Master Rinaldi falters. He steps away from my gate only to stop and double back. He doesn’t want to be here. But with me stranded on the roof, he has no wish to appear cowardly.

“Mistress Benton, I implore you. Pack what you can carry and leave with me now.”

The earth shudders with the giant’s approaching footfalls. I clutch the roof, the rough thatch cracking against my palms. Master Rinaldi stumbles, his gait haphazard, on a path that takes him away from me and toward the village.

“It’s coming back,” he says. “For you.”

Could I scamper down from the roof, grab a few precious belongings, and race for the village? Then what? Secure a room at the inn until my silver runs out? Throw myself on the mercy of the village elders? Of Master Rinaldi?

I shake my head, resolute in this.

“You’re mad,” he calls up to me. “A fool of a woman.”

Yes. Likely I am. But I’m a woman with a home of her own—a rare thing in these parts. If I leave, someone—a man—will claim this land. If I stay and die, then someone—a man—will claim this land.

No matter what I do, the outcome is the same.

So I choose to stay.

Without a glance over his shoulder, Master Rinaldi lurches down the path, his stride chaotic under the onslaught of the giant.

I hang onto the roof with all my might and wait.

* * *

As the giant grows closer, the steps grow lighter. It’s as if it knows the power in its footfalls and is now treading lightly.

And as the giant grows closer, I see that it—or rather—she is wearing a shift the color of forget-me-nots. Her feet are bare, her hands clenched in fists. Her hair, plaited into braids, is alternately gold, silver, and ebony.

She is awe-inspiring, and I can’t look away.

When the giant reaches my cottage, she kneels. This does not put us at eye level, although it comes close. Her eyes are the same color as her dress, and I think that may be why she wears it. I don’t know if vanity extends to giants, but I don’t see why it can’t.

She unclenches her right fist. In her palm rests the tangle that once was my roof. Interspersed in the straw and reeds is the inky black remains of a murdoc.

I press a hand against my chest and pull in a deep breath, just to reassure myself I still can.

“Is that why I didn’t hear you?” I ask.

The giant blinks her great blue eyes in what I take as yes.

“Has it been there all summer?”

Now a single tear rolls down her cheek. It lands on the packed earth of my walkway and splashes so high I can taste the salt of it on my lips.

How far gone was I? How close to death? My heart thumps with latent fear, and then my pulse sparks with anger. Convenient of Master Rinaldi to show up this morning of all mornings.

So convenient that, for a moment, I don’t have any words.

“How … insidious.” I say, at last.

A smile tugs the corner of her mouth. Oh, yes, she knows all about Master Rinaldi. The giant crumbles the tangle of straw in her fist, obliterating whatever remains of the murdoc. The wind steals the vestiges of straw and beast, lifts them high into the air, and carries them away.

Only then do I feel my breath return in full force. Only then does it occur to me to worry for someone other than myself.

“Are you hurt? Did the murdoc hurt you?”

Her smile has revealed something I missed previously. The blood. Scrapes and cuts, yes. She hurts.

“I have a balm, but it’s.” I point at the hole in my roof. I sigh. “It’s down there.”

She holds out a palm, and without hesitation, I step onto it.

I find the balm and a soft cloth, and I gesture for the giant to return me to the roof. From there, I lean forward, dab the healing balm—a recipe of my grandmother’s—against the wounds.

The giant laughs. In relief? Delight? It’s hard to tell. The force of it nearly knocks me to the ground.

Then she opens her other hand, and there is thatching, fresh from someone’s storehouse. I suspect Master Rinaldi’s.

Honestly? He owes me.

Together we make short work of repairing my roof. Near sunset, when the task is done, I pour us each a serving of mead, her portion in the largest bowl I own. She takes dainty sips but still manages to finish the drink almost immediately.

It is nearly dark now, I have a giant on my door stoop, and I’m not quite sure what happens next.

The giant pulls a piece of parchment from her pocket and unfurls it. The script is precise, but the letters so large I must back up to read the message.

My name is Martine.

I can speak, but my words are loud, and I don’t want to scare those around me.

If I’m showing you this note, it means I wish to be your friend.

“Martine,” I say. “That’s a pretty name.”

She smiles, her teeth so white and fierce that for a moment, I can’t collect my thoughts.

“I’m Benton,” I add, my heart pounding a strange beat. I’m not frightened. I’m not nervous. I want to name this thing I’m feeling, but suspect it’s nothing more than a spark of hope. I don’t want to extinguish it by staring at it too hard. “My mother wanted a boy and saw no reason to change the name when I wasn’t.”

Martine lifts an eyebrow, a wry gesture that makes me laugh.

“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask.

Where do giants stay? Does Martine have a family? Who are her people, and why is she alone?

She gives a slow shake of her head, and another tear trickles down her cheek. The heartbreak and sorrow that rolls off her might flood this valley.

“You can stay with me.”

Those blue forget-me-not eyes widen.

“I own the land from that corner of the forest, through the meadow, and all the way to the stream. Is that enough room?”

She claps her hands together, and the force of it reverberates across the land. Certainly, the villagers are trembling in their cellars at this very moment.

“Stay,” I say to Martine.

In time, I’ll learn of her heartache. Perhaps I can help her find her people, assuming she is lost, of course. Or perhaps she’s like me—a woman on her own.

“Stay, and be my friend.”

When Martine nods, that spark of hope kindles into flame.

And no matter how insidious Master Rinaldi is, I must admit that he is right in one respect.

This is no place for a woman on her own. But for two?

It’s perfect.

Insidious Beasts was written especially for the 2020 (Love) Story Project.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Girl with the Piccolo

Sometimes you get by with a little help from your (fr)enemy.

No one thinks about the empty note casings after the nightly revelry. Someone has to pick them up, right? That I spent four grueling years at the Acoustic Academy at Stormy Point for the privilege is something I try not to think about.

True, it takes only a breath or two to chase the notes into my sack. Still, patrolling the DMZ (Disharmonious Zone) feels anti-climactic. I didn’t sign up for this. But now, with the sun nearly cresting the horizon, I can’t say what I did sign up for.

I holster the piccolo and continue the patrol. When I first enlisted, I wanted something shiny, something big and brassy, a trumpet or a trombone, or—if I dared to dream—the saxophone. (Really, who doesn’t want the sax?) The supply sergeant gave me a once over and puttered around her inventory on grizzled wings.

“Here you go, sweetie,” she said, dropping a piccolo into my outstretched hands.

My own wings sputtered, and I sank to the ground in disbelief.

“None of that,” the supply sergeant barked. “Remember, everyone underestimates the girl with the piccolo. Don’t let them.”

Perhaps I have. Let them, that is. This might explain why that piccolo and I now do border patrol.

Through my viewfinder, I scan the tree line on the other side of the DMZ. I catch sight of my enemy counterpart. She is a brilliant pink, where I am midnight blue. Her wings drip with glitter. Mine sparkle with stardust. I wonder how she can breathe a single note through her piccolo with all that tinsel in the air.

Through the lens, I see her eyebrows furrow. When her viewfinder is level with mine, I stick out my tongue. This, sadly, is the highlight of my evening.

I near the border, my bag overflowing with spent notes. I swipe the residue from a tuba casing. The tubas are so wasteful. I can fuel my piccolo for a week on what they leave behind. Across the way, the pink fairy dips and swoops; I suspect she’s doing the same thing I am.

A shift in the air makes the fine hairs on my wings stand on end. I shoot skyward just as a full marching band crowds the path alongside the meadow. Stardust fills the air. I could reach out and pluck notes as they float past me. I might. Except. This particular band? Doesn’t include a piccolo player. Underestimated? Try forgotten. Typical. They can play on without me.

I turn to fly away when the stench of rotted nectar hits me. I blink back tears. The aroma clogs the back of my throat. The players are drunk, spoiling for battle, and a wing’s breadth away from the DMZ. From above, I watch the band weave along the path, each rousing measure inching them closer to treaty violation. I cast a look for the security forces. Certainly, someone is on the way.

Or not. I blow a few quick notes into my piccolo, an alert that may not reach its intended recipients, at least, not in time. Frantic, I peer through my viewfinder. The stricken face of my counterpart stares back at me, a hand on her own piccolo. A few breaths and she will bring in her own band—and they will not be drunk. They will be deadly, armed with wing-piercing notes. They will tear across the meadow, swoop into the DMZ, reigniting the Fairy Wars.

All on my watch.

I pull out my piccolo. Next, I take a quick peep through my viewfinder to make sure my pink counterpart is watching. She is. I mimic holding a baby, of rocking it to sleep in my arms. Certainly, this movement is universal. Pink fairies come from somewhere, yes? I peer through my viewfinder again. Nothing but a pair of pink fuzzy eyebrows, drawn into a frown.

I rock my imaginary baby again, then hold up my piccolo. I run my fingers across it while holding my breath—one false note will bring my plan crumbling down. I check my viewfinder again. One of those pink eyebrows is raised. In question? Understanding? This time, I waltz with my imaginary baby before checking the viewfinder.

I hope her smile means what I think it does. I hope this isn’t a ruse. Without her help, I will be tried for treason, assuming, of course, I survive the ensuing battle.

I hold up a hand for the countdown … three … two … one. Fairies have many lullabies, but only one in three-quarters time. When pitched just right, it soothes the most colicky baby, sends mortals into a deep sleep. As for drunken fairies …

Her piccolo plays counterpoint to mine. At first, my comrades show no sign of stopping their rampage. In fact, the tuba player bursts through the ranks, intent for the DMZ and the meadow beyond.

Before he can reach the DMZ, his pace flags. The tuba slips from his grip. His wings falter. By the time both are on the ground, he’s snoring. The rest of the band drops off, in twos and threes, notes scattered everywhere. My own notes, and those of the pink fairy, play in the sky, creating an iridescent lavender that prolongs the night.

At last, I need a breath—and so does she. I alight on the tuba. From this vantage point, I can peer across the meadow. Through my viewfinder, I study my enemy counterpart. How many times has she fogged my view with pink glitter? How many times have I stuck out my tongue? This time, before she can look away, I salute. Then, I shoot skyward. Someone else can clean up all these notes. After all this time, I realize what the supply sergeant meant.

Never underestimate the girl with the piccolo.

That goes for both of us.

The Girl with the Piccolo was first published by Kazka Press. It subsequently appeared in Evil Girlfriend Media and was produced in audio by Cast of Wonders. You can listen to that episode here.

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Free Fiction Friday: Keeping Time

For March, it’s all about strange and surprising connections, unexpected friendships and traditions.

To get you ready for springing forward, I give you Keeping Time.

The mantel clock kept its own time. It was fussy, too, in the way old clocks sometimes are, refusing to work when wound in a way it found unacceptable. Because of this, in each generation, the task fell to either the youngest or oldest member of the household.

Maisey was five when her grandmother showed her how to wind the clock. She bounced on the balls of her feet, her fingers itching for their turn. She’d warm the brass key in her palm, the way her grandmother did. Every evening they’d clean the old clock with a soft cloth and lemon-scented polish.

“Pay attention,” her grandmother would say. “It will soon be your turn.”

“When, Grandma, when?”

Her grandmother chuckled. “Not soon enough for your father.”

But when Maisey’s turn finally came, her feet no longer bounced. After the funeral, she dragged a chair through the gathering, cutting off words about her grandmother—some soft, some less so—and clambered up to reach the clock on the mantel.

“Maisey!” Her mother’s voice cracked, its edges so sharp that, if it were a real thing, you could cut someone with it.

“I promised Grandma,” Maisey said.

In the middle of murmured condolences and her mother’s sobs, she pulled out the key and wound the clock.

When her father retired, Maisey offered the key to him. But he had too many golf games—and then, too many back problems—to bother with an old clock. Her mother spent so much time canning tomatoes (which no one ever ate) and volunteering (which gave her a headache) to remember the old timepiece gathering dust on the mantel.

So Maisey dug out a chain from her jewelry box and hung the key around her neck. The clock ticked on, grateful for the gentle touch of Maisey’s fingers. When she packed the car for college, she placed the clock in last, belting it into the front passenger seat.

She went through three roommates until the campus housing department found one who didn’t mind the faux mantelpiece taking up half their dorm room. After one too many broken hearts, Maisey let each perspective boyfriend wind the clock at least once. In the end, she picked the man with the lightest touch and most nimble fingers. She learned there were advantages to this well beyond winding clocks. When she graduated, she took him, the faux mantelpiece, and the clock.

Together, they built a life.

When at last her granddaughter was born, a girl whose eyes shined each time she heard the clock tick, Maisey knew her own time was drawing near. These days, she polished the clock more often, fussed over its placement on the mantel.

“We need to spruce you up,” she’d say. “Can’t have you looking your years—not like me.”

The wood casing gleamed in the light. When little Tessa pressed a finger against its side, she gave Maisey a delighted smile.

“Oh, Grandma! It’s warm.”

It always was, this old clock, warm and constant.

“You have always been my loyal companion,” she told it on the day she loosened the chain from around her neck.

Einstein once said, “The only reason for time is so that everything doesn’t happen at once.” But what if, for the briefest moment, she could defy that rule—and even Einstein himself—by passing on the key before passing on herself? When Tessa turned five, Maisey presented the key to her, chain and all, and hovered while the little girl wound the clock for the first time.

And yes, there it was, her life, all of it, from her own grandmother’s death, the scrape of the chair across the floor, sharp braces against her lips, the whisper of taffeta prom dresses, textbooks weighing down her arms. Timothy on bended knee, the mantel and clock behind her, as if peering over her shoulder. On it went, in one great wash through her blood—all of time, all her life, all at once.

“What now, Grandma?” Tessa asked.

“Keep it well, my dear,” Maisey said, “keep it well.”

That night, the clock stopped ticking.

The afternoon of her grandmother’s funeral, Tessa dragged a chair across the floor and scrambled up to the mantel. She turned the key once, twice. Tessa inhaled lemon-scented dust, then held her breath. Behind her, the air shook. She turned, saw her mother, whose body trembled with sobs. Tessa jumped from the chair and threw her arms around her mother.

From the mantel, something shifted inside the clock. A single tock shuddered through its wood casing. Then, once again, the old clock started keeping its own time.

Keeping Time was first published by Kazka Press. It was subsequently produced in audio by The Centropic Oracle. You can listen to the story here.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Goblin and the Pixie

It wouldn’t be February without a pair of star-crossed lovers.

Everyone knew that pixies were cruel. Those teeth. Their words.

A conversation with one was like dying from a thousand tiny cuts. You might think: one or two scornful remarks won’t matter. But they added up, faster than you could count.

That was why Renate kept her distance. That, and because she was a goblin. And not one of those flashy lime green ones, or one a delicate shade of violet. She was brown, like the bark on the trees of the forest she called home.

Practical, but dull.

But the pixie? Oh, he would dazzle you—lithe, sultry. His talent was the piccolo, as Renata soon learned, but he could sing and dance and execute all manner of acrobatics. His wings were a glittery sapphire while his skin was the icy hue of a January sky.

He was so beautiful, his features elegant and lovely, even those razor-like teeth. Renata felt a bit chagrined for her admiration. It was shallow, wasn’t it? It made her shallow, didn’t it? She didn’t even know his name. Pixies seldom confessed such things, not even to a lover.

If you knew a pixie’s name, the saying went, then you knew their entire heart.

But never, in all the annals of history, had there ever been a goblin-pixie pairing. So Renata dreamed her unattainable dreams safe in the knowledge they were only that.

Until the day the pixie fluttered down from the sky and landed on the forest floor in front of her.

His feet barely whispered against the carpet of fallen leaves. His wings hummed, and the sound was warm and soothing, like a lullaby.

“Why do you stare at me all day long,” he asked.

Renata knew she didn’t have quick wit—if this were a conversational trap, then she would walk right into it. So she saw no reason to be dishonest.

“Because you are the most beautiful being I have ever seen.”

With those words, heat burned her cheeks, her skin so hot she might set the forest aflame.

The pixie tilted his head. “Do you like how I play the piccolo?”

“I do, very much.”

He twirled, a perfect pirouette, and landed gracefully. “And my acrobatics? What do you think of them?”

“They are lovely.”

For a long moment, he scrutinized her. Then, he nodded once and took flight.

Odd things happened after that. Sweet music—that of a piccolo—accompanied her trek through the forest. The tune changed depending on what she was doing. Slow and thoughtful for rooting out mushrooms. Lively and quick for picking berries.

When she was helping a doe birth twins on a slushy spring morning, a warm buzzing sounded above her, shielding her and the doe from rain. Renata glanced up, but all she could see was the furious beating of pixie wings.

On clear nights, when she peered into the sky, her name would sparkle among the stars.

She searched for hidden cruelty and found only kindness.

The next time the pixie landed before her, stepping lightly across daisies and buttercups, Renata could do little more than clutch her hands beneath her chin.

“Why do you always brighten my day?” she asked.

“Because you brighten mine.”

“Me?” This she could not fathom. “How?”

“You know which of the forest’s bounty is edible, and which is not.”

“Don’t pixies know this?”

He flushed, a delicate pink spreading through his entire body. “It’s a good thing pixies have strong constitutions. I only know what to eat from watching you.”

“I can teach you.” Such boldness! Renata almost swallowed back the words.

But he inclined his head and continued. “You care for the forest creatures. You care for our home when the rest of us enjoy it, use it, but far too often disregard it.”

“I love the forest and everything in it.” It was as close as she dared come to confessing her feelings for him.

He took one step closer. “And you have the eyes of a doe and the skin the color of a wise oak tree. You are beautiful.”

She was about to protest or shake her head when he took another step forward.

“I am Simon.”

Oh? Oh.

“You know I’m Renata.”

“I do. May I kiss you, Renata?”

She didn’t think twice, although perhaps she should have. She knew of the teeth, of the cuts, of the pain. Kissing a pixie was something a steadfast, ordinary goblin like herself should never do.

Renata stepped forward.

She closed her eyes.

The kiss was warm, steeped in magic and honey. When the quicksilver taste filled her mouth and blood ran down her chin, Renata gasped. She felt no pain, had no cuts.

It wasn’t her blood.

It was his.

Simon had sliced through his own lips as to not injure her.

But a steadfast little goblin such as herself had a salve for that. She tended to his wounds, and by nightfall, he was healed enough to play the piccolo.

It took until winter, with the snow piled high around Renata’s little cottage, until they discovered a way to kiss without incident.

Neither one minded.

The Goblin and the Pixie was written especially for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Burden of So Many Roses

The road to popularity at Fremont High School is paved with rose petals.

Or, to be exact (and I usually am), petals from three-dollar roses.

This year, I have a three-part plan to conquer those roses:

1. Money (Christmas, babysitting, minimum wage from the Sub Shoppe)

2. Handwriting samples (AP World History projects, chemistry lab, Spanish class)

3. Selection of boys (valedictorian, quarterback, swim team captain)

They’re all going to send me a rose on Valentine’s Day—even if they don’t realize it.

The problem? Girls from the cheerleading squad run the rose booth. I must make sure no one sees me take more than a few notecards. But a sweater with big pockets and a little misdirection work wonders. I slip in before school and give Sienna my biggest smile.

“For my best friend,” I say, a lie, of course.

One, that rose is totally for me. Two? Maybe next year at this time, I’ll have a best friend—or any friends, for that matter. First, I must tread the rose-petal path.

“Aw,” Sienna says. “That’s so sweet. Some girls don’t get any roses.”

Not that Sienna would know. She’s never been one of those girls. The thing is, everybody knows that girls buy for each other. It doesn’t make you popular. It doesn’t make guys think you’re hot. All it does is make you look desperate. I will not be that girl. Not anymore.

That night, I neglect calculus in favor of perfecting Marcus Hanson’s blocky boy letters and Toby Preston’s lazy scrawl. In the end, I spend fifty-four dollars for eighteen roses. I can always stash a few in my locker if lugging around so many roses turns out to be too much. On Valentine’s Day, I choose a pink sweater. When I walk into school and see Sienna wearing a similar style in a similar shade, I know it’s perfect.

This day will be perfect.

All morning, roses flood the classrooms. It’s a record sale, the principal announces over the PA system, with the proceeds going to Operation Smile. We are, she tells us, a most generous group of young people. Some more than others, I think.

More roses arrive, but by the time class ends, not a single one is for me. Next class. I’ll practically drown in all the roses. But by lunch, I trudge to the cafeteria empty-handed. Sienna, at the cheerleading table, has a stack of roses—red and pink and creamy white. She plucks one from the pile and hands it to a freshman girl passing by.

Oh, to be Sienna. To have roses to spare.

During chemistry, the collar of my pink fuzzy sweater chokes me. My armpits produce massive amounts of sweat. I blow an easy pop quiz. Then, I have the best thought.

All my roses will arrive during last class! I’ll stagger to my locker under their weight. When I pass Sienna, she’ll give me a secret smile, the sort only shared by girls who struggle under the burden of so many roses.

When the last bell rings, I stay rooted in my chair, convinced there’s been a mistake. Not a single rose! Mrs. Meyer clears her throat, then asks:

“Are you okay?”

I nod, but I’m not okay. I’m out fifty-four dollars. The path to my locker is strewn with other people’s rose petals. My books make my arms ache. I dial the combination, but don’t lift the handle.

“Hey, Emily.”

I turn. Toby Preston stands to one side, pink-cheeked and adorable.

“This is crazy,” he says. “But back in sixth grade, I never gave you this.” He pushes an envelope at me. “It was stupid, because we had to give everyone a valentine, but I didn’t want anyone to know I liked you.”

I hold the valentine like it’s made of spun glass. This is better than a rose.

“Would you like to go somewhere?” he asks. “Coffee shop, maybe?”

Oh! Even better. Who needs roses anyway? I nod and open my locker for my coat. Out spills a rose. Then another. They tumble out, cover the linoleum, bury me up to my ankles.

Toby’s cheeks blaze red. His Adam’s apple bobs once, twice, so hard my throat aches in response.

“I guess coffee’s out of the question,” he says. Before I can stop him, he sprints down the hall.

A custodian helps me clear away the roses. She loans me a pair of work gloves, but the thorns find my skin. One pricks my cheek, and I can’t stop the blood tear that rolls down my face.

“Seen this before,” she says after I shove the last rose to the bottom of the dumpster.

“Really?”

“It happens. Every few years or so.”

What happens?” I want to know why and what it all means.

Her eyes are kind, but she shrugs. “I think that’s up to you.”

I leave school empty-handed.

A block from home, I spot a little girl at a bus stop. In the center of the road sits a smashed shoebox. Red construction paper hearts flutter in the wind. Tires grind Red Hots and conversation hearts into powder. Her sobs fill the air but do nothing to stop the cars from plowing through her valentines.

“They’re all gone,” she says, “I don’t have any left.”

Neither do I. Then I remember Toby’s valentine. I pull it from my backpack. The wind nearly steals it, so I hang on tightly. Then I wonder if I can let it go.

“What’s that?” the little girl asks.

“It’s yours.” I kneel at her side and hand it to her.

“Oh! It even has my name on it! Right here. It says Emily.”

“See? It was meant for you.”

She skips down the sidewalk, clutching Toby Preston’s valentine to her chest. I turn for home. Only when I reach the front porch, do I feel it.

I am one rose lighter.

The Burden of So Many Roses was first published in Kazka Press as part of their monthly contest. The theme was an undelivered Valentine. And it’s one of those Valentine’s Day stories for when you’re not feeling Valentine’s Day.

I was thrilled when Toasted Cake picked it up for the podcast. Tina’s narration is, as always, amazing.

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Free Fiction Friday: Steadfast

Poppy fell the moment Carlos showed her his feet. She’d never met a man—or rather, a civilian man—with feet uglier than her own. But ballet slippers weren’t any kinder to toes than combat boots were.

Before she saw him, she’d planned on making a tactical retreat from the reception. It’d been a mistake to take leave for this wedding, an even bigger one to wear her dress uniform. Coming home never worked. Hadn’t she learned that by now? Too many awkward questions, too many thank yous.

What made her pause at the ballroom’s entrance, Poppy couldn’t say. She didn’t see the groom twirling his bride or the bridesmaids in clouds of chiffon floating across the parquet.

Only Carlos.

With uncommon grace, he crossed the room. He navigated the maze of chairs, tables, and guests like a man intimately familiar with each muscle of his body. When he landed in front of her, he didn’t speak but merely held out his hand.

“I don’t dance,” she said.

“Everybody dances.”

“Not me. I march.”

He tipped his head back and laughed. “I can dance well enough for both of us.”

And yes, he could. Demanding to see his feet came several glasses of champagne later.

“Stay,” he whispered the next morning. “Spend the week with me. You can come to rehearsal. I’m dancing the role of the steadfast tin soldier.”

She laughed at the audacity of it, of burning a week’s worth of leave in New York City, with this beautiful man whose world was so different from her own.

“Do you know anything about being a soldier?” she asked.

“That’s why I need you. You can be my technical advisor.”

“No one will believe that.”

Everyone did. Or, rather, they indulged their principal dancer. She taught Carlos how to drill with a wooden rifle. During breaks, he taught her how to hold herself so he could lift and spin her around.

With Carlos, she could dance. With Carlos, she was weightless.

At the airport, he tucked a necklace into the palm of her hand, the pendant an exquisitely engraved poppy.

“We both have demanding mistresses.” His words were so soft she barely heard them above the clamor of traffic and travelers. “You don’t need to come home to me. Just come home.”

She wore the necklace every day in Afghanistan. Poppy no longer regretted attending the wedding, or even wearing her uniform. Her only regret was never seeing Carlos dance on stage.

They wrote letters, the old-fashioned kind, hers torn from a notebook, the paper encrusted with sand and dotted with dirty fingerprints, his on the back of paper placemats, or cleverly crafted in the margins of playbills.

Then her world erupted in fire. When the burn subsided to mere embers, it was too late and Walter Reed a world away from New York City. Still, Poppy vowed: she would see Carlos dance.

Sleeping Beauty gave her the chance.

She had flowers delivered to his dressing room—white roses laced with red poppies. That way he’d know. That way, if he didn’t want to see her, he could hide until she abandoned her vigil at the stage door.

Poppy waited there, her head still buzzing from his performance, her weight sagging into the crutches, her foot heavy in its cast.

Her cheeks flamed when she caught sight of him emerging from the door, her skin hot against the December air. He scanned the alleyway behind the theater. The moment his gaze met hers, he froze.

“Bet my feet are uglier than yours now,” she said.

He exhaled and laughed. It was only then she saw the poppy tucked in his lapel. He took in her crutches, her foot in its cumbersome cast. His eyes grew somber.

“My steadfast soldier.”

“I’m home,” she said.

He moved close, fluid and graceful, and cupped her cheek with his palm. “So am I.”

All at once she was weightless.

Steadfast was first published at Flash Fiction Online (and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize as well). It was my attempt to retell Hans Christian Andersen’s The Steadfast Tin Soldier.

So I did, with a gender flip and an unapologetic happy ending. And if you like, you can also read a review of the story here.

All in all, how could I not share this story on Valentine’s Day.

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