Weekly writing check-in: thunder only happens when it’s snowing

Van Gogh Snow

So, it went from cold to the middle of winter. On Monday, we ended up with +6 inches of snow. Thursday, we had that odd Minnesota concoction of snow showers with thunder. Then the sky was all orange for a bit.

This week, I was busy with the 2020 project. I have all but two stories scheduled, so I think it’s safe to say I’m in the home stretch. As of right now, the full compilation has 101,000 words. (That’s a lot of words.)

I also had a little fun with a one-off project (more about that on Monday).

In time-sink news, Photoshop has released neural filters and sky replacement. I give you the backyard, Van Gogh style.

I predict many hours wasted.

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Short Story Saturday: Simon the Cold in audio

My story, Simon the Cold, is now out in audio from The Centropic Oracle. This is the third story I’ve had produced by them, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Simon the Cold first appeared in Frozen Fairy Tales from World Weaver Press.

If you’re a writer, I highly recommend submitting to The Centropic Oracle. They’re great to work with, do a thorough editorial review, and the whole process is transparent in their submission manager. So, dust off the reprints and send them in.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Ghost Must Go On

There’s no business like ghost business.

Locker thirty-five in Springside High School has always been haunted.

At least, as far as I know.

I press a hand against the cool metal, searching out the sensation that tells me an otherworldly presence is nearby. My business partner, Malcolm Armand, places his hand above mine. He stands so close that the pocket of air between us warms with the scent of nutmeg and Ivory Soap.

“Do you sense anything?” I ask, keeping my voice hushed in the long-emptied hallway.

It’s like we’re violating some rule, milling about the corridors long after everyone has left for the day. No teachers. No kids. Some places feel off when completely empty. A high school is one of them.

“There it is,” Malcolm says. “Do you feel that?”

Something stirs beneath my palm. It feels like a yawn. “I think we woke it up.”

“Man, I’ve met some lazy ghosts, but this one barely registers. I’m not sure it’s an actual ghost, never mind our culprit.”

“It’s not,” I say. “I only wanted to make sure.”

Truthfully, part of me wanted to check on an old friend. The ghost of locker thirty-five might not possess a sparkling personality, but it is consistent. I’m not sure there is a culprit, not in this case, and we’re in for a long night of walking the halls and checking bathrooms for a ghost that doesn’t exist.

“Does it ever do anything?” he asks.

“Only on pep rally days, then it”—I wave a hand at the locker—“expels everything onto the floor. It gets excited. I think.”

During my four years at Springside High, I never had locker thirty-five, although I’ve stepped over the mess its occupant made plenty of times.

“Performance anxiety?” Malcolm suggests. “I used to throw up before every cross country meet.”

I turn to him. The hallway is dark enough that reading the expression in his eyes is difficult, but this surprises me. Malcolm is always so confident, so self-assured. I’ve only known him a few months, but if you asked me, I’d say he had one of those charmed high school experiences.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah. Really.” He takes my hand. “Come on. Let’s tell Gregory he doesn’t have a ghost problem.”

His skin is so warm against mine. Technically, we’re working, which means, technically, we shouldn’t be holding hands. But the lines blur after five in the afternoon. Malcolm, my business partner, becomes Malcolm, my boyfriend. We have rules around this because, as co-owners of K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists, we work so well together.

We don’t want K&M the couple ruining that.

But rules have exceptions. I think holding hands with Malcolm while walking the halls of my old high school happens to be one of those.

“What do we tell Gregory instead?” Malcolm asks.

“That it’s most likely kids playing a practical joke on him? I mean, I’m sure they’ve all seen the Ghost B Gone webcasts. They’re still up on YouTube.”

Before Gregory took on a substitute-teaching job and volunteered to direct the school play, he was Gregory B Gone of Ghost B Gone, a web show that did weekly ghost evictions.

Granted, the most dangerous thing they ever “evicted” was a sprite—well, almost. There was that encounter with an evil entity, but that never ended up on video. It’s not something any of us like to talk about.

“He wants more than anything to see a real ghost,” Malcolm says.

Oh, he does. He really does. That Gregory built an entire career and life around something he couldn’t see, never mind sense, still puzzles me.

“This plays right into that,” Malcolm adds.

I’m sure this is something the entire cast and crew of You Can’t Take It with You have figured out. So when we arrive at the auditorium doors to find Gregory out front, expression lit with anticipation, I take the easy way out.

“You tell him,” I whisper to Malcolm.

Unfortunately, Gregory hears.

“Tell me what? You found something, didn’t you? I was right this time! Tell me I was right.”

Malcolm skewers me with a look. “Coward,” he mouths.

Why, yes. Yes, I am. Besides, of the two of us, Malcolm is the one who can work a room, talk to anyone, convince the only law firm in town that they need us on retainer. (You’d be surprised how many divorce lawyers end up haunted.) He can handle Gregory.

Me? Well, I make the coffee.

Malcolm shakes his head. It’s a slow, consoling sort of gesture. “You know, Katy and I were talking, and we think it’s probably a practical joke your students are playing on you.”

“We open in less than a week.” Gregory throws an arm toward the auditorium’s double doors. “Why would they do that?”

“Because they can. Because they’re high school kids.” Malcolm shrugs. “Maybe they want to see Ghost B Gone in action.”

Gregory strokes his beard. It’s closer to a goatee now, more award-winning director than rugged ghost hunter.

“So the flickering lights with no one in the booth?” he asks.

“A timer,” Malcolm says. “That’s pretty easy to rig up. I can even show you how.”

“What about all the thumps and bumps?”

“Special effects?” I say. “I mean, you guys are in a theater. You have that sort of thing, right?”

“The malfunctioning curtain?” Gregory tries again. “That couldn’t be caused by a student, could it? The whole thing came crashing down. Someone could’ve been hurt, and the kids were shook. I let them go early.”

And that was when he called us. I want to suggest that the kids took things too far, so of course, they were scared. I cast a glance at Malcolm and see the same conclusion reflected in his eyes.

“And nothing since, right?” Malcolm says. “Things don’t happen when you’re here alone.”

“I feel like I’m being watched.” Gregory rubs a hand across the back of his neck and shudders. “It’s kind of creepy, actually.”

I decline to point out the overabundance of security cameras in the school.

Gregory pushes open the auditorium door and secures it with a stopper. He waves toward the stage and the curtain pooled at its edge. “So all of this? Just a practical joke?”

We head down the aisle to where we’ve left our field kit. I open my mouth to speak, to frame my response in the nicest way possible when an otherworldly presence invades the space. It’s insidious at first, like a fine mist you don’t notice until your clothes cling to your limbs and your hair is plastered to your scalp.

Gregory remains despondent, arms crossed, expression dour. His sense of the supernatural is nearly nonexistent. But Malcolm’s isn’t. I reach for his hand and find him doing the same. We lace fingers just as a jolt runs through me, cold, wild, and wholly unpredictable.

Then an unearthly howl fills the entire auditorium, one that we all hear—even Gregory.

* * *

Behind us, the auditorium doors slam shut. The lights flicker. An icy surge of air flows up the aisle, bathing us in goosebumps. The presence swirls around us, pushing us into one of the rows.

“Coffee?” Malcolm asks.

“Down front, in the field kit.”

“We’re about to go into a full-on ghost infestation here,” he says, his voice taking on an edge.

I know, and the cold that comes with that will render the coffee we do have useless. We’ll have to backtrack, get the camp stove, or figure out a way to brew on the premises. Assuming this thing will let us leave. The way it’s shoving us into our seats makes that unlikely.

The ghost pushes again. I’m braced against Malcolm. He holds me steady, but his arms tremble with the effort. Gregory, on the other hand, lands hard in one of the seats. When he tries to stand, he’s shoved back down again.

All ghosts want something, are driven by one overriding desire. Often this is nothing more than to feel human again, which is why coffee works so well to catch them. But some ghosts have an agenda. This one has enough strength that I’m not certain a cup of coffee will distract it long enough so we can trap it.

Assuming, of course, we can reach the field kit and the set of precision-made German thermoses filled with Kona blend.

With us pinned in the theater’s prime viewing spots, the ghost retreats to the stage. It flows over the fallen curtain, the material undulating, and lets out another howl. The lights flicker again until a single spotlight shines on center stage.

“Katy?” Malcolm stares straight ahead. His voice is low, perfectly measured. “Do you think this ghost wants to star in a play?”

“A ghost could want that?” Gregory asks.

A ghost could. Not so long ago, Malcolm and I caught a ghost that wanted nothing more than constant attention and praise. Why shouldn’t a ghost want to star in a show?

“You’re brilliant,” I whisper to Malcolm.

“Eh, not really.”

But I catch a hint of a smile.

I clutch the seat in front of me and pull myself to standing. An icy cold finger shoves me backward, but Malcolm steadies me with a hand on the small of my back. 

“I don’t have a program,” I declare. “I want to know who the star of the show is.”

The neat stacks of programs by the door shoot upward. The space erupts in a flurry of paper. I duck, hands covering my head, but the sting of paper slicing skin is sharp. Malcolm swears. The cyclone of torn scraps tightens until it has swallowed up every last program. Then, like a cloudburst, the whole thing explodes, and bits of paper rain down on us.

Next to me, Gregory turns ashen. He stares, mouth slack, and then he buries his head in his hands.

“Those were the programs for opening night.”

“Sorry?” I say, but it comes out small, pathetic, and useless.

Malcolm leans down to pluck a wayward program from the floor. He flattens the paper against his thigh. I read the list of names and realize my mistake.

Of course. The program is filled with student names, the actual performers in the play. No ghost included.

But then, neither are we. Well, Gregory is, as director. With that thought, an idea takes shape. I’m still standing—barely, but I straighten and call out.

“Malcolm, haven’t you always wanted to work in the light booth, but no one would let you?”

Gregory casts me a look like I’ve lost my mind. To Malcolm’s credit, he merely grins, those dark eyes of his taking on a gleam. He almost always knows what I’m thinking—and trusts me even when he doesn’t.

“Yeah,” he says, “there was this clique at school, the theater group. I never got the chance.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a stagehand.” My voice doesn’t ring quite as false now. There’s something about talking nonsense to ghosts—and especially talking nonsense to ghosts with Malcolm—that inspires confidence. Besides, as a stagehand, I can approach the stage.

And then, I can grab the field kit and start pouring coffee.

“We have our director,” I say, easing past Gregory.

He peers at me through the v made by his fingers. The look is both accusatory and curious. “We have our tech crew.” I nod at Malcolm, who starts creeping along the row in the opposite direction.

I throw my arms wide. “And we have our star!”

The stage shimmers with the ghostly presence. Then the image contracts into an almost humanlike form. I squint, trying to detect something familiar about its shape, something that might give us a clue to what this ghost wants. Its outline is blurry, but I get the impression of an otherworldly sword in a scabbard at its side.

There must be thousands of plays that involve swords, but my mind goes blank. I can’t think of a single one.

I approach cautiously, each step deliberate. I inch forward, crouching lower and lower with each step. By the time I reach the first row, I’m hunkered down, next to the floor. I loop the canvas straps around one arm and hurry toward the stairs to my left.

Center stage, there’s a table already set up. It’s the perfect spot to place the cups and start pouring the coffee. For a ghost this strong, we’ll need all twelve cups: three black, three with half and half, three with sugar, and three extra sweet and extra light.

Always twelve, always the same combination. My grandmother, who taught me everything about ghost hunting, was adamant about this.

“As if ghosts don’t have a preference,” she’d always say.

I’m halfway there when I need to shield my eyes from the glare of the spotlight.

“Hang on,” Malcolm says. His voice echoes in the quiet auditorium, and it’s odd to have him sound so close without having him by my side.

I miss his sturdy warmth, his conviction. He either knows what to do or believes I know what I’m doing. In most cases, I’m running on instinct—this time included.

The brightness fades to something softer, an evening sort of glow. I blink, scan the stage, and locate the ghost. It’s wavering as if it can’t decide whether it likes me interfering with its show.

“Katy,” Gregory calls out in a stage whisper. “There’s a scene in You Can’t Take It with You where Alice and her father have an emotional moment. It’s just the two characters on stage. Maybe that’s what this thing wants, to act out a scene.”

I shake my head, not because he’s wrong, but because he’s so very right. And I know what comes next. My heart takes up residence in my throat. I can barely swallow and must force the protest from my mouth. “I don’t know the play.”

Gregory rummages in his messenger bag and pulls out a script. “I’ll feed you the lines.”

I meant to be a stagehand, to pour some coffee, ready a Tupperware container, and pounce on the ghost once it drank its fill. I have no intention of starring in a play, not with a ghost as a leading man, not even if the audience is only Malcolm and Gregory. Heat floods my cheeks, the sensation prickling. Even in the soft glow of the stage lighting, my blush must be apparent.

So must my discomfort, my awkwardness. Suddenly, I don’t know what to do with my limbs.

“Just repeat the lines and pour the coffee,” Malcolm says, his voice low, encouraging. “I bet that’s all it takes.”

So I do. Gregory feeds me each line. I stumble through the words. My hands shake, and I slosh coffee over the rim of three cups. I’m never this sloppy, haven’t been this sloppy since I was eight.

At the scene’s end, I’m supposed to embrace my father—or rather, my character is supposed to embrace her father. The ghost continues to waver by my side. Once or twice, it surged forward, swooped around the coffee cups, and then retreated.

The coffee’s starting the cool. It won’t tempt ghosts—or humans—for much longer. The ghost makes a final pass. As I’m reaching for the Tupperware, it settles next to the cup with extra cream and sugar.

“Yes.” Malcolm’s whisper fills the auditorium.

I’m poised to make the catch when the ghost slips beneath the table. All at once, the table leaves the floor, shooting upward. Cups scatter everywhere, and coffee splatters across the stage, onto the curtain, and—of course—onto me.

* * *

“Katy!”

Malcolm’s voice is so loud that the speakers screech a protest. I slam my hands over my ears, not that it helps.

“Katy,” he says, quieter now. “Are you okay? Did you get scalded?”

Scalding is an occupational hazard. I pluck damp sleeves from my arms, blow on the back of my hands. A few spots sting, but nothing requires immediate attention or the burn kit we keep in my truck.

“I’m okay. The coffee was already cool.”

Well, cool-ish, anyway.

“You’re sure?” Doubt laces Malcolm’s voice. Yes, he knows I might lie about something like this.

“I’m sure. Really.”

I peer into the rows below me. Gregory is standing, arms slack, script dangling from his fingers. He mouths something that might be a curse or a prayer.

“Maybe it doesn’t like comedies?” I say.

To be honest, part of me is relieved. I don’t want to stumble through more lines or playact on stage. I want to catch this ghost, go home, and wash the sticky, coffee-soaked sugar from my skin. I have the feeling that won’t be happening any time soon.

Despite the spotlight’s glare, I see the moment Gregory’s eyes widen. His mouth opens, but it’s Malcolm’s voice I hear.

“Katy! Watch out! To your left … right. Just—”

The creak of wheels against wooden floorboards has me jerking around. Barreling toward me is a structure that appears positively medieval—a battering ram or some elaborate device for scaling castle walls.

I leap back as the thing zooms past. It stops, abruptly, a few feet from where I now stand. Dust mingles with the scent of coffee, and I feel grit in my eyes and against my lips.

I sneeze.

“Oh,” Gregory says, almost conversationally. “It’s the balcony.”

“Balcony?” I squeak.

“From last fall’s Romeo and Juliet.”

Of course.

From nowhere, a script lands at my feet with a thump. I pick it up before the puddles of coffee can do too much damage. I’m not surprised by the playwright’s name.

William Shakespeare.

“Maybe it wants to do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet,” Gregory suggests.

The ghost whirls around, its joy tangible. It fills the air with sparks; the underlying menace, the threat of a full-on ghost infestation lessens—slightly.

The ghost flies upward and smashes itself against the glass of the sound booth. Malcolm yelps, and his cry reverberates through the theater.

“Mood lighting, tech crew,” Gregory says, sounding every inch the put-upon director. “We can’t keep our star waiting.”

The ghost returns to the stage the moment the lights dim, and Malcolm paints the area around me a deep indigo. Tiny fragments of light speckle the floor beneath my feet, the backdrop behind me, and I want to ask him how he figured out how to create starlight.

“Uh, Katy?” Gregory says.

I turn to face him, arms crossed over my chest.

“The scene needs a Juliet,” he says. When I don’t respond, he adds, “That’s you.”

He’s right. The way this ghost swirls about, bumping against the back of my knees, I can already sense what it wants—me, on the balcony, waiting for my Romeo.

“I don’t suppose you’d want to do a role reversal?” I say to it.

The whirling doubles, flavoring the air with anger—and more dust.

“Yeah,” I mutter, “I didn’t think so.”

The balcony is oversized, cumbersome. Its shadow stretches across the stage, and I feel tiny in comparison.

“Secure the wheels,” Gregory calls out. “We don’t want you rolling off the stage.”

No, no, we don’t.

With the toe of my sneaker, I lock each wheel into place. Then I grip the rails that will help me navigate the set of stairs to the top. The climb takes longer than I expect, and my thighs protest each steep step I take.

Once I’m at the top, I grip the balcony’s edge and peer out over the auditorium. Even though I’m fully dressed—if coffee-soaked—even though it’s only Malcolm and Gregory witnessing this debacle, I feel exposed. I feel … alone.

I feel like I’m back in high school, back when I was the girl who caught ghosts with her grandmother, the girl who made numerous trips into the boys’ locker room to do just that.

The girl who was always the odd one out.

“You’re Juliet. Look … pensive,” Gregory commands, still in director mode. He’s scrolling frantically through something on his phone. He eyes me, and then his phone’s screen. “I’ll read Romeo.”

He clears his throat, and when he speaks again, his full, modulated tone startles me so much that I nearly tip off the balcony.

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Damn,” comes Malcolm’s whisper through the speakers. “I need to learn to do that.”

The ghost surges upward as if it’s Romeo, and I’m truly its Juliet.

Gregory continues to speak, low and sonorous, things like: O, it is my love! and O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!

Malcolm coughs, once, twice, the third time coming out as a growl. Gregory casts him a quick look over his shoulder. Whatever passes between them is lost on me.

I’m still leaning forward as if I’m hanging onto every one of my ghost Romeo’s words. The planks beneath my feet creak. I tap the wood, not certain the construction is all that sturdy. I grip the rail of the balcony even tighter.

I’m so distracted by this that when Gregory clears his throat, for what must be at least the third time, I start.

“What?” I say.

“Not what, wherefore.”

Wherefore? Oh. Wherefore art thou. Of course.

“Romeo,” I begin, and my voice is a thin, reedy thing. “Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

At least I know these lines, but then, I think everyone knows these lines. I’m poised to continue, to utter the next couple of sentences, at least. The next line is there on my tongue, so strong I can almost taste it: Deny thy father and refuse thy name, for if thou wilt not but be sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Before I can, the planks beneath my feet groan again. The sound is ominous and fills the auditorium.

“Katy,” Malcolm begins, his voice hushed and worried. “Maybe you should—”

I never hear what Malcolm thinks I should do. I plummet through the balcony floor, the only thing keeping me from falling to my death—or at least grave injury—is my grip on the balcony’s rail.

I think I scream. At least, my throat aches in the aftermath of my plunge. One plank hits the stage with a thud, the other swings next to me, barely tethered to the structure by a couple of nails. At least, I think they’re nails. I’m mostly concentrating on my tenuous hold on the rail, not to mention the long drop below.

And the fact I don’t have too many options.

Gregory starts for the stage, but before he can clear the row he’s been standing in, Malcolm tears down the aisle. He doesn’t bother with the stairs but launches himself up and onto the stage.

And then he is there, standing beneath me, arms outstretched.

“Cross country?” I manage. 

“And track in the spring.”

“Varsity?”

He gives me a sheepish look. “Co-captain my senior year.”

Around us, the scene is still set. The light is soft, like twilight. Malcolm looks every inch a knight in shining armor—or at least one in loafers and a pressed dress shirt. He looks like a boy I might have crushed on in high school, the one who might have never acknowledge my existence.

That isn’t Malcolm. If I have any doubts about that, they vanish the moment he gives me one of his sweet, dark-roast smiles.

“Let go,” is all he says.

“But—”

“Let go.”

“Won’t I hurt you?”

“You could never hurt me.”

Sweat builds beneath my grip. My arms ache from fingertips to shoulders. Another minute and this won’t be a choice. I’ll slip.

“And I won’t drop you, Katy.”

So I shut my eyes, and with one deliberate movement, I commit.

I let go.

The fall lasts forever and is over in a second. Malcolm catches me. He teeters for a moment, then we both crumple to the stage. We remain there, panting, gasping, and when I catch his eye, I don’t even need to ask.

He’s okay.

So am I.

“Uh, guys,” Gregory says. “You should probably do something about that.”

We struggle to stand, Malcolm tugging me up with a hand, and confront the thing that Gregory is pointing at.

Center stage, one of my Tupperware containers sits. It’s one of the larger ones, and it’s missing its lid. That, in itself, isn’t so remarkable. What’s remarkable is what happens to be inside the container.

Our ghost.

Malcolm laces his fingers with mine, and we approach, steps soft and controlled. But I’m not sure the effort matters. When we reach the ghost, it floats contently inside the Tupperware. Something that sounds like a ghostly sigh fills the space around us, and in it, I think I hear an apology.

I kneel next to the container and ease on the lid.

“Now what?” Malcolm’s hand rests on my shoulder. “Nature preserve?”

That’s our standard procedure for releasing a ghost once we’ve caught it. For the really nasty ones, we drive further out. Once, we went all the way to Wisconsin.

I hold up the container and peer at the ghost inside. “Actually, I have another idea.”

* * *

We hold hands all the way to locker thirty-five. The fact that it’s dark and the halls are empty doesn’t bother me on this trip. We stand in front of the locker, Tupperware positioned at the vents. My fingers are on the lid, although I haven’t cracked it.

“You sure about this?” Malcolm asks.

“Not totally,” I admit. “But I think this one just wants to belong … somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is here?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“We can always come back.” I rap the side of the Tupperware with my knuckles. “If this one doesn’t behave.”

Inside the container, the ghost swirls its agreement. At least, I think it agrees with me. With ghosts, you never can tell. I crack the lid.

The ghost streams through the vent. I place my palm against the locker, and Malcolm adds his above mine.

“Verdict?” he asks.

There’s a bit of nudging, some jockeying for space, but then nothing but warmth.

“I think it belongs here,” I say.

“I think you’re right.”

Malcolm takes my hand again. When we reach the doors to the school, his arm wraps around my waist.

And I think: Yes.

 I belong here.

That’s right! Another Coffee & Ghosts story, this time a standalone short story that I wrote a few years back.

Hey, it’s October, we all need some more ghosts (and coffee).

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Weekly writing check-in: farewell, autumn

Another maple, showing off.

I started the week with this gorgeous girl right here. It wasn’t warm, but it certainly wasn’t cold.

Yet.

By the end of the week, I was pulling out my winter parka to walk the dogs. And my poor maple has lost most of her leaves. She’s looking chilly these days.

This week, I spent most of my time getting stories proofed and posted. I have all of November’s scheduled, and I’m into early December. I want them all up and ready to go before WordPress closes that back door to the classic editor (which I’m tying in now, quite happily, thank you very much).

So that’s my goal for the next week or two. Stories scheduled. Then I’ll deal with the new WordPress editor.

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Free Fiction Friday: Abandonment Issues

There are places where you don’t want to wake up.

There are places you don’t want to wake up.

Flat on your back in a plowed-under field, clumps of earth stabbing your spine.

That’s one of them.

A CEO’s office, your own drool defacing the mahogany desk, the room dark, the only sounds the hum of a custodian’s vacuum and your own thudding heart.

That’s another.

Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the Joint Personal Effects Depot, surrounded by containers that hold so little and yet, so, so much.

That’s a third.

Today, when I wake up, my joints ache with cold. I’m on my back as if I’ve been dropped from one reality into another. Around me, metal ticks and groans. It’s the sound of abandonment. No footfalls. No hint of breathing except my own. Empty places feel empty. This, I’ve learned.

I consider when to sit up. Too soon, too quickly, and I’ll vomit. This, too, I’ve learned—the hard way.

From my vantage point on the floor, I study the space. It looks industrial, with row upon row of control panels with dials and gauges. The layer of grime on the floor might act as insulation—if it weren’t so disgusting.

Despite all this, there’s nothing specific to grasp. No signs with words, no distinct sounds except the rasp of my own breath. No clue as to where I might be.

I press a palm against the cold tile, but before I can sit, I do hear something new.

Slow, deliberate footsteps punctuate the air around me. I bolt upright, scramble to my feet, only to pitch forward into a control console. My head swims. My vision tunnels. A second later, I coat a series of dials and buttons with a spray of vomit.

“Weak,” a voice behind me says. “Always so weak.”

I spin and then regret it as another wave of nausea hits me. I grope the panel behind me, fingers reaching for a dry, solid spot.

“Tell me, at least, that you’ve figured it out.”

The man before me must be at least seven feet tall. He wears a long black coat. The scent of damp wool clogs the space between us while a swirl of smoke rises in the air. His face looks as though someone has carved it in alabaster, all sharp edges and angles—and familiar. I’ve seen him before. I blink. Yes, certainly.

But where?

“You’ve made the connection, haven’t you?” he says.

Stray thoughts fill my mind, the barest tendril of an idea. I consider the trips I’ve taken and the places I’ve landed.

The field, for instance, with its old farmhouse. In the root cellar, I found a lockbox. Inside that, a deed with my grandfather’s name. Evidence of bounty lost in the Great Depression. Moments after my fingers touched the yellowed paper, something whisked me back to my actual life.

The man’s lips curl into a hint of a smile. No, someone whisked me back.

In that CEO’s office, I found a birth certificate, listing my name, my mother’s, and a third—the one embossed in gold on the door. Again, I could only hold the paper for seconds before that particular place vanished as well.

This is why, when I found myself in the Personal Effects Depot, I held my breath. My fingers inched their way through Gabe’s container until I found the one thing I couldn’t bear to leave behind. I gripped the chain of his dog tags so tightly that the tiny ball bearings left welts on my skin. But I had them. They traveled back with me.

I have them now.

But how does this place, with its soot and oil and years of grime, relate? Cold, impersonal, insubstantial. Even this man of smoke and oil could evaporate in an instant.

Assuming he doesn’t kill me first.

My confusion must show on my face because the man shakes his head and makes a tsking sound.

“Weak and slow. I can’t imagine how you’ve made it this far.”

While I don’t know what he means, I can only agree.

He takes a step forward. And I, still clutching the console, take three skittering steps to the side. My mind races. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates. What does it all mean?

“Of course, you are pretty,” the man says. “The pretty ones are never very bright.”

I stop taking those skittering, hesitant steps. With all my will, I hope he closes those last few feet between us. I have a roundhouse kick I’d like him to meet. Behind me, something drips, the steady plink of a dam about to break.

“Nothing?” the man asks.

My mouth is dry. I long to tip my head back and catch a few drops of that water. Even if I could, it wouldn’t loosen any words.

“Ah, well,” he says. “At least you are pretty. There’s consolation in that.” He grins, and something sparks in his eyes. “For me, at least.”

I grip the console tighter. The man steps forward, raises a hand as if to caress my cheek. I don’t let him. That last step leaves him open. Perhaps it’s meant to intimidate, this stance, to show off his height or that he doesn’t find me a threat.

What it does is give me a target.

My foot ricochets off him three times—knee, groin, jaw. A crack. A thud. A howl. I should finish him off, but perhaps he is right: I am too weak. Instead, I shake out my leg, push from the console, and run.

* * *

A cadence pounds in my head along with my footfalls. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates, and then, Oklahoma, Chicago, Afghanistan. If I run fast enough, maybe I can catch the connection that eludes me.

Everything is cold and damp and empty. An occasional drip lands on my nose or the back of my neck and sends shivers skittering across my skin.

My footsteps are too loud, my breathing too heavy. It’s all I hear in my frantic charge down this passageway. If someone chases me, I won’t know until too late. With that thought, I spin, search the dimly lit corridor behind me—no impossibly tall man with alabaster skin. I wheel around and continue my headlong dash forward.

The object I crash into is solid and warm. It says, “Oomph,” when it strikes the floor. So do I. The landing jars my wrists, paralyzes my arms. I can’t move them, not to fight, not to defend myself. I kick away from the figure opposite me, legs struggling, hands useless. Then the figure—a man—lunges.

He grabs my feet and nothing more.

“Hang …” His head droops with the effort to breathe, to speak. “On. Won’t hurt you.”

Gradually, I inch into a sitting position, still braced to run. When he lifts his head, I peer into the dark eyes of not the man I dispatched with a roundhouse kick, but those of my brother, Gabe.

Gabe. Who died in Afghanistan. All I can do is mouth his name. No sound emerges from my throat except for one, plaintive croak.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

“I … how?” My voice is rough, but the words, at last, are there.

He shakes his head.

The implication—the connection—hits me, sends me reeling backward so I might collapse on the floor again. My arms, still weak, tremble beneath me. I scan the space around me, this here that really isn’t.

“Am I dead?” My question is quiet, and it sinks in the cold air around us.

“I don’t know,” Gabe says.

“Why are we here?”

He shakes his head. “I keep traveling—flashing, really—to different places, then back to Afghanistan. Always Afghanistan.”

“The Army sent someone to the house. They knocked on the door…” I break off, not wanting to narrate Gabe’s death, not now, not here, not ever.

How I knew, even before opening the door, the shadow of a uniform through the etched glass, like smoke and oil blotting out the sun. He doesn’t need to know these things.

“I keep going back to Afghanistan,” he says. “Hell, I wish I wouldn’t. Anywhere else must be better.” His gaze surveys the dark, damp space around us. “Well, almost anywhere.” He climbs to his feet and then offers me his hand.

Despite the cold, metallic air, his skin is so warm.

Even with Gabe at my side, this place is strange and hollow. Abandoned, like that field in Oklahoma, that daughter in Chicago, the soldier in Afghanistan. And yet, different.

It’s missing life or some essential component of life. After all, a plowed-under field has its uses. A birth certificate can list a father who might not live in your life, but at least he lives. The personal effects of a soldier represent a life that once was.

But this place has none of that. It’s too empty, too impersonal to be hell.

“Do you think this might be purgatory?” I ask Gabe.

Before he can answer, sharp, slow applause echoes. It’s a brutal sound that infects the air with cruelty.

“Brava, Miss Malloy.” It’s the impossibly tall man again, all alabaster white and yet shrouded in smoke and oil. “You’re not as slow as I first suspected and certainly not as dimwitted as your … what is he, exactly? Your half-brother?” He casts a look at Gabe. “Honestly, it’s as if you enjoy dying in Afghanistan.”

Behind me, Gabe shifts, his hand resting on the small of my back, a posture that means he plans to take the fight over flight option—and wants me to do the opposite. But I’m pretty good with a roundhouse kick—thanks to Gabe—so all I do is tense in reply.

“Yes.” The man rubs his jaw. “You are fairly competent.”

“Am I also dead?”

“Are you?” And now his voice is laced with that smoke and oil, the sound deep and seductive. It’s enough to make you flutter your eyelids shut, if only for a moment. When I do, I see him, the harbinger of death, standing on my doorstep, wearing—of all things—an Army uniform with chaplain insignia.

“It’s up to me, then?” I say.

“Is it?” His tone matches the single, arched eyebrow.

I officially loathe the man in front of us. An oily smile spreads across his face. He revels in my hate, soaks it in.

“It’s so pure,” he says, “undiluted. Absolute. You don’t often hate, which makes it all the more delicious.”

Gabe bristles and steps in front of me.

“Oh, go on, big brother. Protect her, if you can, and if I don’t dispatch you back to Afghanistan.”

“Run,” Gabe says, the word a growl. “Run and don’t look back.”

“I tried that,” I say. “It didn’t work.” I could run forever.

“And I will always catch you,” the man says.

“Run!” This time, Gabe’s voice cracks.

I see what the man of smoke and oil plans to do. If he can read my thoughts, then perhaps I can sense his intentions. Static fills the air. I smell dry heat. Grit fills my mouth. I work to blink sand from my eyes. I land somewhere real this time.

Afghanistan.

A battle wages, but in this pocket of craggy hills and rock, the three of us stand as if we’re the only people in the world.

The man of smoke and oil raises a hand.

I throw myself in front of Gabe and catch the full blast meant for him, pieces of it like shrapnel. They pierce my chest, my legs, my heart. I think I must be torn to ribbons. The impact throws me into Gabe.

Twin cries of “No!” echo around me.

Gabe gathers me in his arms. “Marta, what have you done?” He looks up, his fierce gaze locked on the alabaster man. “Don’t do this, not to her. Don’t let it happen.”

“It … can’t,” I say, even though my lungs seer with each word. “I never died in Afghanistan.”

I pull the set of dog tags from beneath my shirt. The blast has fused them together. Smoke rises from the charred aluminum. And yet, the chain is cool to the touch.

“Yours.” I drop the chain around Gabe’s neck.

With a single howl, the man of smoke and oil evaporates, leaving behind only acrid air and soot. I breathe in both, and then everything vanishes.

* * *

I jolt awake, and everything is white. For an instant, panic seizes me. But death doesn’t smell like antiseptic, and I doubt the soundtrack for the afterlife contains soft clicks and beeps. I sit up, blink, and stare at Gabe.

His hospital gown is askew, exposing a bandaged shoulder. My fingers itch to adjust the gown, but my hands are clenched in his. Together we hold the dog tags as if they are a string of prayer beads.

At one time, I would have said that a hospital is a place where you didn’t want to wake up. Now I know that isn’t true.

Something teases my peripheral vision. I jerk my head, certain I’ve seen the man of smoke and oil, caught a glimpse of his alabaster face. And while a man does stand in the doorway, he only holds a pitcher of water.

“Sorry,” he says. “I thought you might like something to drink.

I nod my thanks, my heart too high in my throat for words.

“He’s done so much better since you arrived,” the man adds.

I nod again.

“I doubt my sister would fly all the way to Germany for me.” With that, he sets the pitcher on the tray table and leaves the room.

Gabe cracks open his eyes. “I bet his sister wouldn’t throw herself in front of some psycho demon’s death ray, either.”

“You didn’t die in Afghanistan.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Why?”

Gabe unfurls his fingers and studies the mangled dog tags. “You changed things when you refused to abandon me, even when I told you to run, even.” He rattles the tags. “Even after I died.”

I nod but remain silent. A glimpse of oily smoke catches my attention. There, in the corner of the room, but the inky tendrils scatter so quickly, I’m not sure they were there at all.

“Here.” Gabe raises the chain. Compliantly, I lower my head so he won’t have to strain. “You wear these from now on.” He pauses, and I wonder if he can see the oily smoke or just senses it. “They’ll keep you safe.”

I clutch the dog tags tight in my palm and know this one thing:

They will.

Abandonment Issues may be the closest thing to horror that I’ve written (clearly, I scare easily).

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Weekly writing check-in: a little less distracted

A little less distracted this week. In fact, I’ve made it my mission not to get caught up in the doom-scrolling and such. That being said, I do like staying informed, and I love long-form journalism. So, there’s a balance to maintain.

I spent my writing part of the week working on stories and images, although I’m still giving the new WordPress editor the side-eye.

For now, I create a draft post with a title, save it, and then access it via the WordPress admin console. Voilà! Classic editor restored.

Sometimes it’s the little things.

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Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing

Free Fiction Friday: With Hair of Teeth and Claw

This is not your mother’s Rapunzel.

This week’s story is a little bit longer than usual. If you’d like to download a copy for your phone or e-reader, you can do that at BookFunnel (link good until the end of the year).

She caught the thief with his hand wrapped around the stem of a flower, its spike of golden flocked petals sprouting from his fist. The brim of his hat shrouded his features, and the overcast night made it impossible to identify him. Even so, the witch knew a desperate husband when she encountered one.

“Let go of the lion’s tail,” she said, her words crisp as the air, with just enough bite to get her point across, but not so much that she didn’t appear neighborly. She’d always been a good neighbor.

“My wife, Mistress Witch.” The man sunk to his knees. “She is with child.”

“Yes. I know.”

In truth, the entire village knew every time the babe kicked or the woman’s back ached or her ankles swelled. Never had so many prayed for a timely birth.

“She craves all things fresh, all things green, all the things that grow in your garden. Please, Mistress. I will work, split logs, do whatever you ask, but let me take some of your bounty home to her, so our babe might grow strong.”

A first love, a first child, it was enough to make anyone a fool—or a thief. The witch spread her arms wide. “Take, neighbor, take all that your wife craves.” She grabbed hold of his hand. “Except for this.”

Beneath her grip, he unclenched his fist. The plant he held—lion’s tail, as the locals called it—dropped to the ground, stem broken, bright petals crushed.

“Leave the lion’s tail,” the witch said. “She should not eat it while with child, and I cannot be responsible for what happens if she does.”

The man bowed, his movements jerky and frantic. The witch helped him pluck the best greens and place them in a basket. She saw him to the edge of her property, and when he hesitated, she urged him forward.

“Go,” she said, voice gentle. “Take the greens and return to your wife.”

When the man had left, the witch bent and plucked the lion’s tail from the ground. She stroked the petals and wondered if his wife had already tasted of the plant.

That could be very bad indeed.

* * *

The babe was born strong, with a lusty cry and deep blue eyes that peered out at the world around her. Within a week, the entire village predicted she’d be a beauty. Within a month, her golden hair fell to her chin, the strands thick and wild. By nearly a year, the strands fought all attempts to comb them.

It was then that cries emerged from the cottage, by day and night, until the babe’s mother ran from the house. Neighbors peered from their windows and did nothing, but the noise brought the witch from her garden.

The woman trembled, skirts in tatters, arms scratched. Blood oozed from wounds. In her hands, she clutched a pair of shears. She pointed the tip at the house and the infant inside.

“That is not my child. That cannot be my child.”

She stood like that, her arm shaking, the shears more weapon than tool.

The witch examined the woman, gave a curt nod, then proceeded inside the cottage. Scattered strands of gold littered the floorboards from hearth to door. Other than a soft whimper, the room was quiet. She crouched to approach the babe.

“Shh … there you go. You are not in danger, and I will not hurt you.” She gathered the child to her and stroked the remaining tufts of hair.

“See? I’m a friend. Let’s find your mother.”

The child cried out, fists clenched, but the witch hummed a lullaby, one with the power to sedate a charging troll. The babe blinked and then stared at the witch with curious blue eyes. The sight of them transfixed her, and the old witch’s heart caught for a moment before resuming its natural beat. They stepped into the sunlight and into the crowd that now surrounded the cottage.

“She’s the one!” the mother said, jabbing her shears toward the witch. “She poisoned me with the plants from her garden.”

“Your husband stole from my garden to satisfy your cravings.”

The woman’s hand shook, the tip of the shears bobbing. “That cannot be my child. She looks nothing like me.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd. True, the woman was no beauty, and her husband no prince. The woman turned her wrath on the closest bystanders, silver shears glinting in the sunlight. The crowd eased back, catching laughter into cupped hands.

“Oh, then perhaps the child is mine?” the witch asked.

This time, no one held back their laughter.

“So you think I wasn’t a beauty in my day?” The witch scanned the crowd, the babe still secured in one arm. “Master Tailor, I believe you know different.”

The old man shuffled and stammered, a ruddy cast to his weathered cheeks. The witch turned back to the babe’s mother.

“You do not want your child?” she said to the woman.

“That is not my child.”

“Then who will care for her?” The witch held the child aloft for the village to see. “No one, then?”

She considered the quiet bundle in her arms. A beauty, it was true, but those deep blue eyes were uncanny, knowing. No wonder this simple woman trembled at the sight of her own child.

The witch cast a look toward her own cottage and the garden with its walls—ones that kept her tender plants safe from hooves and teeth. They kept the variety of weeds she cultivated from invading her neighbors’ gardens. Walls were handy but not foolproof. Her gaze met the babe’s, and once again, her heart caught.

In this case, perhaps she was the fool.

“I will care for her,” the witch declared. “Please, before I take her with me, tell me her name.”

The woman blinked as if waking from a dream. “She has no name.”

“You have not named your child?” No wonder the babe lashed out. Even now, at the sound of the woman’s voice, those short tufts of hair bristled, and the child cried out again.

“Oh, my poor child,” the witch murmured, “fate has been cruel.”

No one stopped the witch from taking the child. No one uttered a word of protest. When the witch passed the mother, so she might say goodbye, the woman only turned her back on both the witch and her own child.

To the witch’s surprise, the husband followed her home, weighed down by the cradle, a wee table, and a chair.

“Please, Mistress Witch, take these things for the child.”

The witch nodded, held open the door to her cottage so the man might bring the items inside.

“Would you like to say goodbye before you leave?” she asked.

He had none of his wife’s hesitation. His hand cupped the babe’s cheek. The tufts of hair wavered as if blown by a soft breeze, and the babe’s eyes were luminous.

“Goodbye, sweet girl. Goodbye, my Rapunzel.”

“Is that the child’s name?” the witch asked.

“It is what I wanted to name her,” he said, his voice wistful.

“Then Rapunzel she’ll be.”

* * *

With Rapunzel still in the crook of her arm, the witch gazed about her cottage. Oh, it was a poor place to raise a child. Too many dried herbs that, consumed incorrectly, might injure or kill. Too many sharp objects. She inspected the child’s head. Scars from the shears crisscrossed her raw scalp. Clearly Rapunzel was no stranger to those.

She would need to find a grate for the hearth, a cow or goat for milking, soft cloth for diapers, and something other than the stained gown Rapunzel was wearing.

“It’s been many years since I’ve even held a child,” she said to the babe. “And I’ve never had any of my own.”

At the thought, her heart caught once again. Had she ever intended to raise a child? Did she regret the time spent in the pursuit of her potions and spells? No. The village was a healthier, happier place for her efforts, even when its citizens didn’t fully comprehend them.

“We can make do for now.” The witch placed Rapunzel in her cradle. “I can soften bread in weak tea and stew some apples. Does that meet with your approval?”

Rapunzel sat up in her cradle, that unnerving blue-eyed stare never leaving the witch’s face. Then the child clapped her hands together and gurgled.

“Well, I see that it does. Tomorrow we will explore the village, get you some proper things. But tonight? Let’s get to know one another.”

It was late when Rapunzel fell asleep in the witch’s arms. She eased her into the cradle only to be caught short by the babe’s cries moments later.

She knelt at the cradle’s side, cupped a hand against the child’s soft cheek. “We both must get some rest.”

The babe quieted immediately, but the moment the witch withdrew her hand, the cries started anew, stronger, more strident than before.

“Oh, very well, it has been a rough day.”

She scooped the babe up and carried her to the large bed behind a curtained wall.

“I imagine you could use the comfort.”

But when the witch extinguished the lamp and felt the babe curled at her side, tiny fingers clutching her thumb, she wondered which one of them truly needed the comfort.

* * *

It was not the sudden acquisition of a child that shocked the witch. No, she’d come to terms with that during the darkest hours of the night. It was not the surprise of a cow tethered to the cottage gate. This, she suspected, was a gift from Master Tailor.

It was the way Rapunzel’s hair had grown overnight. The strands curled and swirled. They felt like silk flowing through the witch’s fingers, their length already to the child’s chin.

The witch pulled ancient volumes from a shelf and thumbed through them, searching for something, anything that might tell her what manner of sorcery this was.  She thought back to the man in her garden all those months ago. What had she given him?

She peered at the child who sat at her wee table. “Was it a combination of plants your mother ate?”

Rapunzel slapped the wood of the table, blue eyes stormy, hair undulating. It bristled, strands on end like that of a thistle.

“She is still your mother,” the witch said, her voice soft but no nonsense.

Another slap.

“Do you wish to be my daughter?”

Ah, the gurgle again. The hair calmed itself. Rapunzel peered at the witch, her blue eyes dark and serene.

“You shall be the daughter of my heart. Does that suit you?”

Rapunzel stood and toddled over to the witch. She clutched at her skirts with tiny fists.

“I see that it does.” The witch bent down and clutched the child close. When she had Rapunzel nestled against her chest, the witch found herself stroking strands of that hair, much like she’d done all those months ago with the petals of the lion’s tail. The locks slipped through her fingers as if they had a mind of their own.

“Inquisitive little beasts,” she murmured.

And then froze. The lion’s tail.

What manner of sorcery indeed.

“We have all been very, very foolish, I’m afraid,” she whispered into the child’s hair, “and you will be the one to pay for our folly.”

* * *

The witch took Rapunzel with her everywhere. Aside from the father, there was no one she could trust in the village to watch the child and not gossip. And gossip they would. Already rumors flew about the miraculous growth of the child’s hair.

Every morning, the witch worked to contain the strands before leaving the house. In a bonnet. Secured with bows. The strands had a life of their own, flowing through her fingers, curling into points, flicking back and forth, very much like a tail.

“Until we reach the woods, child,” the witch would say. “Contain them until we reach the woods.”

Rapunzel blinked, a frown marring her little brow as if she were trying hard to comply.

Even with the babe in a sling, the witch felt lighter on her treks into the forest. With her age, she knew the senselessness of rushing. Leave that to the young. She’d complete her tasks all in good time. This morning was no different.

In a clearing, she set Rapunzel on a blanket, handed her a crust of bread to gnaw on, and began her work.

“I will teach you this,” she said, flicking a glance and her words over one shoulder. “I will teach you which plants to consume and which ones to avoid. I’ll show you when to cut, how to cut, and when neither of those things matters.”

The witch inched her way around the clearing, always darting a look toward its center, toward Rapunzel. The child seemed content to chew her bread, clap her hands, and track the witch’s progress. Not for the first time, her thoughts drifted to Rapunzel’s mother. How could she abandon such a child? So compliant. So calm.

“We will see how long that lasts, won’t we?” the witch said with a wink.

Perhaps it was that steely gaze or the miracle of the hair that now hid the scars on Rapunzel’s scalp, but the witch swore the child understood more than she ought.

“Which makes me feel less foolish when I talk to myself,” she added.

Rapunzel gurgled.

The witch was near the old willow tree when a cry sounded behind her. Her throat tightened, and she was certain some harm had come to Rapunzel. Or perhaps the mother had a change of heart, followed them this morning, and was intent on stealing the child away.

Instead, when she turned, the witch came nose to nose with a river rat. The thing was large and hairy, its gray fur matted and stinking of stagnant water. This was not the sort of creature that kept the barn cats fat. This was the sort of creature that took whiskers and tails as trophies.

Where there was one rat, there would be another; they hunted in pairs. She’d survive a bite, although the infection would linger, and nastily so. Rapunzel? The daughter of her heart? A child barely bigger than a cat?

The cry went up again. The witch started forward, taking an inventory of the arsenal she had on hand. A pair of shears. Some twine. A handful of willow branches that she might fashion into a switch.

Rapunzel still sat in the center of the clearing. Despite the tears that washed her cheeks and tiny hands clenched into fists, she was unharmed. It was the sight of the child’s hair that froze the witch in place.

The strands had grown, not by inches, but whole yards. They flowed across the clearing as if exploring new territory. They curled and lashed out, the ends sharpening into points. Like teeth. Like claws.

Several locks had already trapped the second rat, bound it neck to tail, so all the witch could see of it was its grubby nose and crooked whiskers. Now several locks worked in tandem, approaching the first rat from two sides and from behind. The creature hissed—at the witch, at its predicament. A predator such as this always knew when it had met its match.

It made one desperate lunge, an attempt to inflict injury before succumbing itself. Claws extended, teeth bared, it launched itself from the branch, its target the witch’s face.

The golden strands of Rapunzel’s hair caught the beast midair. A slashing. A slicing. The carcass tumbled to the ground and landed with a soft thud.

Only for a moment did the witch hesitate. Only for a moment did she consider what the villagers might make of this child. Cries of monster echoed in the back of her mind. But then she rushed to the center of the clearing. The golden strands parted, let the witch through to her child, and she clutched Rapunzel to her.

With that tender embrace and her quiet words, the hair relaxed its guard. The strands softened their points, retracted until their length was a touch longer than earlier that day.

The witch cupped Rapunzel’s face. “Do you know what it is you can do, child?”

Rapunzel stared, unblinking.

“Is it even you who is doing this, or is it your wonderfully monstrous hair?”

At the words, the strands extended, a lock wrapping around the witch’s wrist, none too gently.

“Cut that out,” she said to the golden rope around her wrist. “It takes offense far too quickly. We will have to work on that.”

The hair tightened its grasp, while a separate lock flicked back and forth, once again an angry tail.

“If you are to live in this world, you will need to learn to control your hair.”

Rapunzel stared back, steely-eyed as ever. Then she clapped her hands together and gurgled.

The hair relaxed its grip and flowed into golden ringlets.

The witch released a sigh. Yes, to live in this world. That would not be an easy thing.

* * *

Rapunzel soon outgrew her cradle and wee table and chair. Her hair evaded all attempts to tame or trim it, and the strands quickly traveled down her back to her knees, until it swept the ground. Every morning, the witch would braid the strands, and Rapunzel would loop the plaits around her arms or her waist. She grew into her beauty and her strength, for she did everything under the weight of her hair.

The witch became deft at avoiding the majority of the villagers who might cause problems. The father was kind and no worry. He left Rapunzel all manner of carvings and trinkets. Master Tailor kept them in cow’s milk, although the witch made a point to avoid his wife.

Once, on a walk to the forest, they encountered Rapunzel’s mother. The woman herded two children—twins—in front of her. The girls danced along the lane, skinny arms freckled, red hair thin but flowing down their backs—free of all of the constraints the witch placed on Rapunzel’s hair.

The daughter of her heart halted, her spine impossibly straight beneath the weight of all her hair. She locked her gaze on the trio, strands of hair straining against their braids.

Then one lock escaped, slithered down the lane after the mother and two girls. A few strands wrapped themselves around the woman’s ankle. It was then the witch pulled the shears from her apron pocket and snipped the lock.

The strands released their grip, twitched much like a dying snake, and at last ceased all movement. The woman walked on, oblivious.

“She cannot hurt you, child,” the witch said.

Rapunzel glared, a non-answer if there ever was one. She was at that age—no longer a true child, not yet a woman. And the witch knew she’d spoken a lie.

Of course the mother still had the power to hurt. All mothers did. Try as she might, the witch couldn’t banish the image of the quivering strands of hair, lying dusty along the lane. Try as she might, she couldn’t muster the courage to ask for forgiveness.

But that night, Rapunzel crept into the witch’s bed, curled next to her, and clutched her thumb with long, slender fingers.

* * *

One morning, in Rapunzel’s sixteenth year, they awoke to an odd humming that came from outside the cottage. Rapunzel peered through the shutters, her hands poised to open them to the morning sunshine, her fingers unmoving.

“Child, please, let in the fresh air,” the witch said.

Rapunzel’s hands remained still. “There are many strange men outside our door.”

On the way to the door, the witch secured a broom. She sprang across the threshold, broom handle connecting with a jaw here, a temple there.

“Go, go! All of you. She is too young to marry.”

True, Rapunzel had fully grown into her beauty, and when tame, her hair was a sight to behold, glimmering without the benefit of light. The witch had not anticipated this, however. Not so soon, and not so many suitors.

In retrospect, perhaps she should have.

Rapunzel’s father took to guarding the path to the cottage, but this only worked for so long. Men came daily, hourly, knocks on the door, the windows. More than one man tried the chimney only to find his breeches smoldering from a stoked fire.

After a night of off-key serenading that had left them both bleary-eyed, the witch decided.

“We must leave the village.”

The daughter of her heart peered through the shutters, the tips of her braids twitching. “Why do they want me? They do not even know me.”

“They want your beauty.”

“But my beauty isn’t me. If that is all they want, then surely I will disappoint them.”

“That is something none of them understand.”

Rapunzel’s gaze darted toward the door. Already a fresh crop of men lined the path, their murmurs rising in the morning air.

“But how?” she asked. “How will we leave?”

“Do they make you angry?”

“Oh, they do.”

“Remember that when you step outside, and all will be well.”

Rapunzel’s father packed the wagon and hitched the horses. For the first time since the day he gave his daughter away, he ventured inside the witch’s cottage, cupped her cheek, and told her goodbye forever.

The witch stepped from her cottage for the last time, cries and calls of the men thickening the air around her.

“Going somewhere, Mistress Witch?”

“Can we follow?”

“Is there room in your wagon for me?”

Men lined the path three deep. The witch traveled its center until she reached the wagon. There, she climbed into the driver’s seat and took the reins from Rapunzel’s father. She gave him a reassuring nod before speaking to the men who had chased her from her home.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “if I were you, I’d step back.”

No one heeded her warning.

When Rapunzel emerged, the cries grew louder still. Jeering and whistles and bids for attention. One man and then another blocked her path. Two grabbed her wrists. A third—the tallest and fairest, the only one dressed in nobleman’s attire—pushed the others aside in his quest for her.

But when the last of her unencumbered hair cleared the doorway, a gasp filled the air. The strands whipped and whirled, the ends sharpening into teeth, into claws. The men released her. Some ran, the nobleman among them. Others froze in place. Rapunzel walked, expression serene, hands folded in front of her, while her hair dispatched the men.

The slate walkway ran with blood. Bits of flesh speckled the walls of the witch’s garden. The cries went from jeering to unearthly, the agony sharp in the air.

No one followed them from the village.

* * *

They rode for days, stopping only to sleep. The first night, when Rapunzel wished to keep them dry from the rain, her hair wove itself into a shelter.

“Oh, it can shield as well,” Rapunzel said, her fingers investigating the crosshatch of strands above their heads, her eyes curious once again.

“Indeed it can, my child. Indeed it can.”

At last they came to the borderlands, to a stone watchtower long abandoned. The space around it was vast and empty—only hill after hill that stretched into the horizon. No sign of a village, a farm, or even a hunter’s cabin. Desolate and barren and the perfect spot for the two of them.

“Here,” the witch said. “We can make this our home.”

And yet, as she said these words, the ground shook with the force of approaching horses. In the distance, the standard of the war prince fluttered above a line of soldiers on horseback.

“Quick, Rapunzel, hide. In the wagon. Pull in all your hair.”

The wagon creaked with the weight of Rapunzel and all her hair. The horses whinnied as if they wished to cover the sound. They were good beasts, the witch thought, and they loved Rapunzel almost as much as she did.

When the war prince arrived, the witch bowed low.

“Mistress Witch, may I ask what you’re about?” the prince asked.

He was a powerful man, large and dark, a mask partially shrouding his features. His eyes, black and inquisitive, took in everything. They surveyed the tower, the horses, the wagon, all before returning to the witch.

“But of course, Your Highness,” the witch said. “I plan to use this tower for my home. It is no longer in your use, is that right?”

“That’s true, but the borderlands are dangerous, and my army is small in number.” He waved a hand at the group behind him. They were a motley crew, large and small, green-skinned or not, pockmarked or masked for reasons the witch decided not to contemplate.

“I cannot guarantee your protection,” he added.

“And I do not ask for it. All I ask for is quiet to practice my craft.”

“And if a troll happens by while you’re practicing your craft?” Now those dark eyes were lit with humor.

“Oh, Your Highness, I have lived long enough to know exactly what to do with a troll if one happens by.”

The prince laughed. “I believe you do, Mistress Witch. But be warned, this is a lonely stretch of land. Men seldom travel it.”

“That’s what makes it perfect, Your Highness.”

He laughed again, as if he took her meaning. He bid her farewell and rode away, his soldiers following, their horses kicking up dust that floated on the humid air. The witch tasted that air and licked her lips.

“It shall rain soon,” she declared. “Let’s get settled.”

The watchtower had a single entrance that the witch sealed over once their belongings were inside. It was cozy here, space enough to work and live, and the window let in sunlight and fresh air but would shield them from rain.

“But how shall we leave?” Rapunzel asked.

“I shall climb down the face of the tower,” the witch said. “There are hand and footholds that should not crumble beneath my weight. Or perhaps your clever hair might weave itself into a ladder.”

At the suggestion, the golden strands did just that, the construction so quick it produced a breeze within the circular room.

“But I cannot climb down a ladder of my own hair,” Rapunzel began, then clamped her mouth shut. “Oh, I see. This is to be my prison.”

“Not a prison, child, but a sanctuary.” The witch laid her palm against Rapunzel’s cheek. “If your hair were not so fierce, so untamable, you might seek a quiet life in some faraway village. But when we left, your hair felled two dozen strong men.”

“And no one wants to live near a monster.”

The witch tugged her close, wrapping her bony arms around the daughter of her heart. “You are no monster—”

“But my hair—”

“Seeks out injustice. It always has. Why would it attack the woman who gave you life, but not your father? Why does it lash out at men whose only interest is your beauty?”

“The world doesn’t want that sort of justice, does it?”

“I’m afraid it does not.”

“I will stay, then.” Rapunzel gathered handfuls of her hair. It flowed and swayed and cascaded to the floor in waves. “We shall stay. Perhaps I can teach it to behave.”

The witch spent her days in the forest, gathering herbs and berries. Every fortnight, she ventured to the nearest village for supplies. She traded with merchants there, weaving her deception. Just an old crone brewing potions and remedies. That spring, the lion’s tail grew thick in the woods. Every time the witch caught sight of it, she flinched, only to confront yet another clump a few feet away.

Rapunzel practiced remedies and potions along with the witch. Together they cultivated containers of herbs and small plants so Rapunzel might feel the soil beneath her fingers without leaving the tower. Beneath her touch, the plants flourished. She coaxed all manner of exotic flowers from the soil, even those the witch had never managed to on her own. Their petals brightened the little room and perfumed the air.

At night, she studied history and took a particular interest in the battles once waged in the borderlands and the ghosts said to walk and howl, searching for their old regiments or gutted homes.

“I do not hear these howls,” Rapunzel said one evening. She lifted the heavy locks beneath her hands. “Perhaps my hair is too thick against my ears.”

“Perhaps people search for excuses not to inhabit these lands,” the witch said.

“Perhaps.” Rapunzel remained at the window for a long time, her gaze exploring the borderlands, the very tips of her hair twitching like that of a penned beast.

For eight months, they lived in quiet in their watchtower. The war prince had been right. Few strayed this close to the border. Once, the prince himself rode by on patrol, a small group of soldiers at his side.

“I see you live well, Mistress Witch,” he called out.

The witch leaned from the tower’s window and called back, “Very well and very alone, Your Highness. However, I see you have added to your party.”

The witch inclined her head as the prince’s younger brother rode forward. He was light where the war prince was dark, unmasked and unscarred. Even from a distance, the witch felt those legendary gray eyes taking in everything. In this, he was very much like his brother.

With a hand, she shielded her own eyes and hid her frown. There was something about him that unsettled her. True, she never paid much heed to palace gossip. Even so, she knew that the younger prince preferred the boudoir to the battlefield for his conquests.

With as much stealth as possible, she gestured at Rapunzel, urging the child to conceal herself further, to constrain every last strand of golden hair. Rapunzel merely covered her mouth with a hand so as to not to laugh out loud, her hair rippling across the floor with repressed mirth.

“Perhaps this stretch of land is not so lonely for you now, Your Highness,” the witch said, her voice rougher than she liked.

The war prince cast his brother a look. “Perhaps not.”

As the party rode off, the witch considered that perhaps she and the war prince also had something in common.

They were both liars.

* * *

Later, the witch would admit that she’d grown complacent. Life with the daughter of her heart was more than she had ever hoped for. Her trips to the village grew more frequent. Perhaps those gave her away. Perhaps she called too loudly for Rapunzel to lower her ladder of hair. Perhaps someone followed her, spied on them, although who would be curious about an old crone living alone, the witch couldn’t say.

But when she returned from her most recent trip to the village and saw not the golden ladder of hair but one of wood propped against the tower, the witch knew she’d betrayed Rapunzel in some fashion. She dropped the reins and leaped from the wagon. The horse, so gentle and loving, simply continued forward to meet its sister. The witch scampered up the ladder, her hands catching on the rough grain so much she had to claw her way to the window.

There, in the center of the room, Rapunzel stood. Around her, strands of her hair whipped and whirled, the ends sharp and deadly. Like teeth. Like claws. A monster of a thing. On the floor? A man.

A dead man—a dead nobleman from the looks of his clothes—one who had suffered the death of a thousand cuts, a thousand bites. One whose breeches were around his ankles. One whose hand had torn away the bodice of Rapunzel’s dress.

“He surprised me. I never heard him until he cleared the window.” Rapunzel stared straight ahead, her gaze on the window, not on the man, and not on the witch, a hollow look haunting her blue eyes. “And then … and then … Mother, I’m … I’m …”

“No!” While flight had never been one of the witch’s skills, she flew across the room, cradled Rapunzel to her. “You are not sorry. This is not your fault.”

“But—”

“He is dead. A lone nobleman, venturing out on his own, in the borderlands? This will surprise no one.”

“Turn him,” Rapunzel said, her voice devoid of emotion, a dead thing.

Panic gripped the witch, had her by the throat. With a foot, she complied, heaving the dead man onto his back. Fair hair. Royal crest.

The war prince’s brother.

“He will come searching, won’t he?” Rapunzel said. This was no question. “The war prince will search for his brother.”

“Perhaps. The borderlands are vast. It may be months before we see him again. And by then?” The witch surveyed the man, the window, and considered how they might accomplish this next task.

“If your hair can lower him to the ground, I shall bury him in the woods. I feel winter in my bones. An early snowfall will be welcome.”

Rapunzel nodded. “I shall scrub his blood from our floor.”

Without another word, Rapunzel’s hair wrapped the man from head to foot and lowered him through the tower’s window. When the witch reached the ground, she was surprised to find the longest strands of hair in a dense copse behind the tower, the claws already digging a grave.

By the time the witch found a shovel, the man was deep in the ground. So she took up an ax and splintered the ladder into kindling. And by the time she finished that chore, those beastly strands of hair had scattered dry leaves across the grave, the fresh-turned soil all but hidden.

She eased a hand beneath a lock of that hair. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for protecting her, thank you for being so fierce.”

The strands wrapped and unwrapped themselves around her wrist before caressing her cheek.

* * *

Despite her own words, the witch knew. A dead prince was still a dead prince, and justice would be served. A week later, when the war prince rode up with a contingent of his soldiers, she was ready to face that justice.

“Good day to you, Mistress Witch.”

The witch stood at the base of the tower. “And to you, Your Highness.” She bowed low. She liked this dark and masked prince, even though today he would, no doubt, declare her death sentence.

“I wonder if you can help me.”

“I will try, Your Highness.”

“My brother has gone missing. You met him on our last patrol through these parts. Did you happen to see him or even converse with him?”

Behind the prince, one of his soldiers unleashed a dog. Oh, yes, the witch thought, he knew the answer already. A moment later, so did everyone else. The hound let out a howl before digging at the fresh grave.

“Tell me, Mistress Witch, how did he come to die?”

She drew herself up tall, raised her chin. “I killed him, Your Highness.”

To her surprise, the prince laughed—a dark, somber laugh to be sure, but a laugh, nevertheless. “I doubt that.”

“Doubt what you will, Your Highness, but do you see anyone else here?”

“You have just admitted to murder, and of one of the royal family. Do you wish for death?”

“I am but an old crone, and death does not scare me.”

“I suspect you might scare death itself,” the prince murmured. “But you leave me no choice.” With a sigh, he addressed the soldier next to him. “Arrest her.” He returned his attention to the witch. “Unless you can give me a compelling reason not to.”

“I can give you that reason.”

The voice came from above, and it rang high and clear and unimpeded over the borderlands. The witch whirled, her chest constricting. No. Not Rapunzel. No. She shook her head, but the daughter of her heart paid her no heed.

Without another word, Rapunzel stepped onto the window’s ledge. She jumped, her hair fanning out behind her before rushing to the ground to cushion her fall. She landed on her feet, knee-deep in golden locks.

“Your Highness, no,” the witch began. “Please listen. She—”

The prince held up a hand, silencing her. “Let her speak.”

“I killed him, Your Highness,” Rapunzel said.

“Did you now? And you are?”

“Rapunzel.”

“Rapunzel? With hair of teeth and claw?”

“I … is that what they call me?”

“You are but a legend, a whispered story. I—” He broke off, his gaze drawn to the woods where the younger prince was buried. “My brother spoke of you.”

“I am very real, Your Highness, and I have killed your brother.”

“You confess to murder, then?”

“In self-defense, but yes, I do.”

The prince fell silent. The soldiers behind him shifted in their saddles. The one who managed the dog corralled and leashed the beast. Then with a single, deliberate motion, the prince removed the black leather mask to reveal a face crisscrossed with scars.

“Look upon this face, Rapunzel,” he commanded.

And she did.

“I have lost my only brother.”

“I am sorry for your loss, Your Highness.”

“You must understand that yes, he was my brother, and I confess to loving the boy he once was, but not the man he became.” The prince contemplated Rapunzel as he spoke, as if taking in her full measure, as if sizing up an opponent. “That, perhaps, was unfair of me, unfair to him.”

The prince drew his sword, the metal blade singing out. He aimed the blow directly at Rapunzel. A cry lodged in the witch’s throat, and it took all her strength not to sink to her knees.

Rapunzel’s hair whipped and whirled. When the frenzy subsided, she and the prince stood mere feet from each other, the tip of his sword poised at the hollow of her collarbone, the claws of her hair wrapped around his neck.

His soldiers sprang forward, weapons drawn.

“Stand down!” the prince called. When no one moved, he sheathed his own sword and said, “Stand down. She doesn’t intend to injure me.”

“True. I don’t.” With Rapunzel’s words, her hair unraveled from around the prince’s neck.

“And why is that?” He rubbed the skin of his throat, the move born of curiosity rather than pain.

“You did not intend to hurt me.”

“And your hair.” He gestured to the locks undulating along her back and on the ground. “It knew that.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

A smile lit the prince’s scarred face, then a laugh made it almost handsome. “Then I am lucky, for that was only my guess.” This time when he contemplated Rapunzel, his gaze was lit with interest. “And now I face another sort of dilemma, for I not only lost my brother but my best fighter.”

The witch’s heart caught. The tips of her fingers grew cold, her legs numb. “Your Highness, you can’t possibly mean—”

Once again, the prince silenced the witch’s protest with the barest flick of his wrist.

“I mean everything I say, Mistress Witch.” He directed his gaze toward Rapunzel once again. “Will you join my company and replace the man you have killed?”

Murmurs rose from the assembled soldiers. One stepped forward, probed a lock of hair with the toe of his boot. The strands curled around his ankle, and the man landed on the ground.

“She is but a girl!” another called out.

“I am strong,” Rapunzel said. She hefted her hair in both her hands. “I have been carrying the weight of this all my life.”

“A burden for certain,” the prince said.

“How will she ride?” someone else asked. “We have no cart for all that hair. We travel light.”

Before the soldier even stopped speaking, her hair swirled. It wove complicated patterns, fitted itself to her body until she was covered in what looked like golden chainmail.

“It seems I won’t need any armor,” Rapunzel said. “Or a cart.”

“Any more dissent? Perhaps you’d like to confer with my brother.” The prince gestured at the grave. “I’m certain he has an opinion on the matter.”

With the prince’s words, the witch knew: the matter was settled. Strength returned to her limbs, and a strange, detached determination filled her. She saddled a horse, and the sisters whinnied their goodbyes, tails swishing. She secured a bag of provisions and one of potions and remedies. If she could, the witch would have packed her heart as well, for it was too swollen and sore in her own chest.

“Goodbye, daughter of my heart.” The witch presented the reins to Rapunzel.

“Mother?” Rapunzel’s eyes grew large, as if only now she realized the consequences of her choice. “I don’t want—”

The witch hushed her. “Of course you do. It is right and good for children to leave home, to have adventures. This prince is a good man,” she added. “He will not lead you astray.”

“I can’t promise you comfort,” the prince added. “Or even safety. But adventure? That I can promise.”

Rapunzel’s gaze went once again to the horizon, her eyes lit with the promise of the adventure that it held.

“Go with him, child. Go be free.”

Rapunzel hugged the witch, mounted her horse, and joined the prince’s company. They rode off, and the witch tracked them until Rapunzel blended into the horizon. Even then, the witch stood at the base of the tower. At last she turned and confronted its surface.

“I’m not sure I know the spell to conjure up another entrance, or a staircase, for that matter.” She said these words to the horse, who snuffled and snorted a reply. “I’m not sure these old bones can stand the climb.”

Before the witch could even try, a golden ladder tumbled from the window. She grasped the silky strands, hardly daring to breathe, and climbed up to the ledge. Once she stood inside, the strands returned to the tower. They flowed through the window and into one of Rapunzel’s containers of exotic flowers, where they burrowed beneath the soil.

Then, in a moment that was no more than a blink of an eye, a stem pushed up and through, and the bloom of a lion’s tail unfurled.

With Hair of Teeth and Claw was first published in The Shapeshifter Chronicles.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Weekly writing check-in: distracted and frustrated

It’s been a distracting week, hasn’t it? I think we’ve had about three months’ worth of news packed into seven days.

This is to say that I’ve been distracted this week. Really, I think many of us have been distracted this week.

I have been working on stories. But now I’m frustrated. I’m working on scheduling some more for the rest of the year when WordPress starts insisting I use the new editor interface.

I loathe the new editor interface. Loathe. It.

I get it. I work for a software company. You got to update the user interface once in a while.

Still.

I simply loathe it.

So I’m either going to have to learn how to use it or find a way to switch back. I’ve been Googling. I’m not the only one who’s unhappy.

Edited to add: It seems I can start a post in the new editor, save it, and then reopen it in the classic view. I’m still not happy.

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Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing

Free Fiction Friday: Ghost in the Coffee Machine

For October it’s ghosts and witches and things that go bump in the night.

When it comes to ghosts, my grandmother has one solution: brew a pot of coffee. Like today, in Sadie Lancaster’s kitchen.

Sadie clutches her hands beneath her chin and stares at our percolator, her eyes huge. The thing gurgles and hisses as if it resents being pressed into service. My own reflection in its side is distorted. When I was younger, I thought this was how ghosts see our world.

In places with bad infestations, they swirl around the percolator. I can reach out, touch hot moist air with one hand and the icy patch of dry with the other. One time, a ghost slipped inside. It rattled around until the percolator sprang from the table and hit the floor, splashing scalding water everywhere.

I still wear the scars of that across my shins.

But Sadie’s ghosts are barely ghosts at all. I’d call them sprites. They might annoy you on the way to the bathroom at three a.m., but little more. They also, as my grandmother points out, help pay the bills. So I remain silent while she pours the coffee: three cups black, three cups with sugar, three cups with cream, and three cups extra light and extra sweet. Twelve cups. Always. If anyone complains, my grandmother snorts and says, “As if no one has a preference once they’ve died.”

Don’t get her started on instant coffee, either. Since I was five, my job involves carrying the cups throughout the house, up and down stairs, into bedrooms, dining alcoves, walk-in closets. We never skip the bathroom, no matter what.

“The last place you’d want a ghost,” my grandmother says to Sadie. “Lecherous little beasts.”

I walk past the two women, my steps slow and steady. I still burn myself, make no mistake. My hands wear the scars of multiple scaldings. We keep a burn kit in the truck. But as I place the last cup on the edge of the sink, I smile. At least I won’t need that today. I rush back to the kitchen for the Tupperware.

Some ghost catchers use glass jars, but ghosts confined to small spaces can manifest images—grotesque or obscene or both. Ghosts, generally speaking, are pissed off and rude, which is why you don’t want one in your toilet. We buy the containers with the opaque sides, since what you can’t see won’t offend you. I use several at Sadie’s that afternoon, although truthfully, I only snag three little sprites in the den.

“She’s imagining things,” I whisper to my grandmother.

“Yes.” Her hand steadies my shoulder. “But how many repeat customers do we get?”

She has a point. We’re good. When we’re really in the zone—the right type of coffee beans, perfect brewing temperature, clean catches—a house might stay ghost-free for decades. If we’re not careful, there won’t be any ghosts left to catch.

With the sprites in the back of our pickup, we rumble down the county road that leads out of town and into endless fields of corn and soybean. Ten miles out, there’s a windbreak with a little creek. This is where we’ll set the sprites free. They’ll be, if not happy, content at least, and in no hurry to find other humans to haunt. I’m setting the sprites free—legs braced, container at arm’s length—when my grandmother speaks.

“When I’m gone, Katy-girl, I’ll come back and show you how to rid them once and for all.”

I sigh. I’ve heard this before. “But then I’d be getting rid of you.”

“You wouldn’t like me as a ghost. Besides, they don’t belong on this plane. This has been my life’s work.” She touches three fingers to her heart. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be my afterlife’s work as well.”

She always says this. I always tell her she’ll live a good long time. Then we drive home, empty containers rattling against the flatbed, percolator perched between us, belted in, our third—and quite possibly most important—passenger.

* * *

That was three months ago. If my grandmother raged against the dying of the light, it didn’t show in her expression the following morning when I found her. She left me her house, the family business, and of course, the dented, silver percolator. I have yet to see a hint of my grandmother’s ghost. I’m not sure I want to.

The house is quiet without her in it. Even the ghosts have stayed away. I shake the canister of roasted beans, give it a sniff, certain I’ll need to dump it and buy fresh within a matter of days.

Sadie Lancaster calls as the first cascade of beans hits the garbage sack. I decide on those fresh beans now, and instead of running next door, I jump into my truck and head for the Coffee Depot.

Ten minutes later, I pull up in front of Sadie’s house, but I don’t find her cowering on the porch (her usual position pre-eradication). Percolator under one arm, I ring the bell.

“Oh, Katy,” she says, urging me inside. She beams like she has a secret. “There’s someone I want you to meet.”

This is it. My grandmother has chosen Sadie’s house as the spot for her grand reappearance and that’s why Sadie isn’t scared. My steps quicken, heart fluttering something crazy. Do I want to see my grandmother like this? I’ve never been afraid of ghosts, but this is different.

The aroma hits me first—rich, aromatic, turmeric, saffron, and a hint of rose petal. Sun glints off the sides of a samovar squatting in the center of the kitchen table, in the very place I always set the percolator. I clutch the thing to my chest as if that can protect us from its flashy usurper on the table. The samovar is gold-plated brass—I squint at it—in the Persian style instead of Russian.

“Katy,” Sadie says, throwing her arms wide, “I want you to meet Malcolm Armand. He catches ghosts with tea the way you do with coffee.” Her fingers twitch as if she’s urging us closer together. I stand my ground. “You two have so much in common,” she adds.

Malcolm runs a hand over smooth, dark hair. His white dress shirt gleams in the sunlight streaming through the kitchen windows. I’m in torn jeans and a T-shirt. Why anyone would attempt ghost catching in something so fancy is beyond me. Even so? I can’t help but feel grubby in comparison.

“It’s nice to meet you,” he says, extending that same hand, one without a single blemish or scar.

I fight the urge to whip my own hands behind my back, out of sight. I gulp a breath and shake his hand, breaking contact the second it’s polite (okay, maybe a couple of seconds before it’s polite). I try not to stare too hard at Malcolm, so I let my gaze travel the kitchen, the dining alcove. No ghosts here. I’d be surprised to find even the weakest sprite. And certainly, my grandmother isn’t in residence.

That leaves me alone with Malcolm—and the tea-scented suspicion about where all my business is going.

* * *

When I walk into Springside Long-term Care, the first thing I see is Malcolm standing in the center of the common area, enchanting all the residents, the gold-plated samovar glowing on a side table next to him. I freeze, so every time the automatic doors try to close, they bounce back open again. This draws attention. I sigh, give up my plan to sneak out, and step forward to meet the facility manager.

“Oh, Katy,” she says, a flush rising up her neck, “I meant to call, so you wouldn’t make the trip out here.” She waves a hand at Malcolm. “He offered a “try before you buy” and well … the residents just love him.”

Or at least most of the female ones do. They gather around Malcolm and his shiny, shiny samovar, their oohs and ahhs mixing with the scented steam.

I don’t point out that Springside is—and always has been—a gratis account. Older people, my grandmother always said, are haunted by many things. It’s only right that we chase some of their ghosts away.

I’m backing toward the door, willing myself not to inhale a hint of rose petal and saffron, when a bony hand grips my wrist. The percolator crashes to the floor, adding one more dent to its history.

“Katy-girl, are you going to let him get away with that?” Mr. Carlotta nearly growls the words. He may hold the world’s record for longest unrequited crush, in his case, on my grandmother. Even now, sorrow lines his eyes. His fingers tremble against my wrist.

“What can I do?” I wave my free hand toward Malcolm. “He’s so flashy.”

“More like a flash in the pan. Mark my words.”

A part of me grabs onto what Mr. Carlotta says. Be patient. Business will pick up the second it’s clear you can’t catch ghosts with tea. Because honestly, who ever heard of that? My practical side—the side that pays the property taxes and utility bills—wonders if the local coffee shop is hiring.

* * *

I trace the scars on the backs of my hands while waiting for the Coffee Depot’s assistant manager. My qualifications are thin. I know ghost hunting and how to brew a damn good cup of coffee. But customer service? Well, when you ghost hunt, people don’t mind if you shove them out of the way, not if you trap the otherworldly thing shaking their house to the foundation.

At the Coffee Depot? They probably frown on customer shoving. Still, the converted train station is quaint and life as a barista can’t be that bad, can it?

The assistant manager plops down across from me. He wipes fake sweat from his brow and gives me a grin.

“So,” he says. “Tell me a bit about yourself.”

“I make the best damn coffee you’ve ever tasted.” I declare this because I’ve read online that you should be confident in your interview.

He chuckles but doesn’t sound amused. “I’m sure you do. But tell me,” and now, the amusement is back, “what about frothing milk?”

I like cappuccino, even if frothing milk is something I’ve never done. Likewise, I’m sure there are many fine answers to his question. I do not choose any of them.

Instead, I say, “Why would you want to do that?” It’s like I’m possessed by the spirit of my grandmother, since in that moment, I sound just like her.

“Right,” he says. He clears his throat, then gives me a long look. “I’ll take that challenge. Go make me the best damn cup of coffee I’ve ever tasted.”

So I do. I stand, and with his nod, round the counter so I’m on the other side. My fingers barely brush the silver, industrial sized coffee machine when it starts to tremble. The thing wheezes. The tile beneath my feet shudders, sending a shockwave that resonates from toes to jaw. Next to me, the barista’s teeth clack together, and she pitches toward the cash register, clinging to it. Then, the machine erupts, spewing water and coffee grounds with so much force, they coat the ceiling, the walls, and all of the tables.

* * *

I offer to clean up. I offer to rid their machine of its ghost—for free. Everyone is damp, but since the water was only lukewarm, no one was scalded. This is why the assistant manager pushes me out of the store instead of calling the police.

As the door closes, his voice echoes behind me. “Yes, do you have the number for Malcolm Armand …?”

Something won’t let me leave the sidewalk in front of the shop. My feet remain rooted there, next to the planters with the sugar maples. I stand there so long it’s a wonder I don’t sprout leaves. But since I do stand there so long, I’m treated to the view of Malcolm Armand double parking and springing from his two-seater. In the passenger seat, belted in like a trophy girlfriend, sits the samovar.

“That’s not very practical,” I say.

He halts in his trek up the walk, samovar held away from me. “What?”

“Where do you put the ghosts? I mean, once you capture them.” I point at the convertible. “There’s no room.”

He eyes me, my coffee-soaked shirt, stained slacks, and all. He sniffs, nose wrinkling, and tromps into the shop without another look in my direction. I turn, uproot my feet, and inch toward the front window.

Inside is the mess I made, but I ignore that. What I want to see is how Malcolm works, what he does, how he entices the ghosts. I stare so long, the sun dries the back of my shirt. I study the inside of the shop, the placement of the samovar, and track Malcolm’s every move until the assistant manager jerks a cord and Venetian blinds block my view.

Whatever grips me about the shop—the ghost or Malcolm—loosens its hold. Dismissed, I trudge home, leaving a set of coffee-colored footprints in my wake.

* * *

“K-k-aty? Are you there?”

The call comes at nine in the morning, on a day so sunny and bright, only the most dedicated pessimist could remain that way. Since I have all my overdue bills spread out on the dining room table, I’m well on my way to joining their ranks.

“Sadie?” It sounds like her, but I’ve never heard her voice so shaky.

“Please hurry.”

“What’s going on? Where are you?”

“My porch. They won’t let me inside.”

“Who won’t?”

“The ghosts.”

“Why don’t you call Malcolm?” The question comes out sharp, laced with acid and jealousy.

“He’s t-trapped inside.”

“Trapped?”

“Dead?” Sadie’s voice hitches.

“Ghosts don’t …” Kill. No, normally ghosts don’t. But they can. “I’ll be right over.”

The second I pull the half and half from the fridge and give it a good whiff, I realize right over isn’t happening. I toss the reeking carton into the garbage and head to the canister with the beans. A few lone ones rattle in the bottom. I haven’t been back to the Coffee Depot since my disastrous interview, but it looks like I’ll be stopping there today.

With the percolator strapped in its seat, a four-pound bag of sugar snug against it, and several containers of half and half on the truck’s floor, I run two red lights on my way to the Coffee Depot. By the time the little bell above the door stops jingling, the assistant manager is rounding the counter. He stalks forward, arms loaded down with bags of coffee beans. He skids to a halt and shoves the beans at me.

“But—” I begin.

He holds up a cell phone. On the screen, a message reads:

Malcolm: Give her anything she wants.

Still uncertain, I blink at the words. In my arms, I hold everything I want, or at least need. For now. I head for the door.

“Call or text if you need a resupply,” the assistant manager shouts after me. “I’ll have someone run it over.”

The door whooshes closed before I can say thanks.

* * *

I test out the front door, the garage, even the window to the bathroom. Every surface I touch ices my fingertips. Sadie Lancaster’s house is in full-on ghost infestation. Usually something like this takes years to build up, or a sudden invasion of strong ghosts—a group of them. True, I haven’t cleared the sprites in a month or so, but that can’t be the cause of this.

My gaze travels the structure, from chimney to foundation. All the windows are black, the cheery blue paint molting into a dead gray. I need to get inside. I need to do that now. So I do the most logical thing. I march up the porch steps, press my palm against the doorbell, and let it ring for an entire minute. Then I cross my arms over my chest and tap my foot.

“Nobody’s getting any coffee if someone doesn’t open up this door.” I sound bossy, just like my grandmother. I kind of like it.

A moment later, the door creaks on its hinges. I scoop up the percolator and my bag of supplies and race for the kitchen.

“Malcolm?” I call out. “Are you okay?”

Is he even here? Maybe he went out the back once the ghosts released their hold on the doors. I plug in the percolator and take a few deep breaths so I don’t rush the preparations. Ghosts this strong will need the best coffee I can brew.

I survey the beans the assistant manager shoved at me. One hundred percent Kona? Really? Shame to waste that on ghosts. But the air prickles the skin on my arms. It must be fifty degrees in here and getting colder. One hundred percent Kona might not do the trick if I don’t hurry.

“Katy?” A voice rasps.

For a second, I mistake it for a ghost.

“Katy?”

No. Too deep, too human for that.

“Malcolm?”

“In the dining room.”

I set the percolator to brew and run. On the threshold, I trip over something bulky and sail through the air. I land hard, but manage to tuck and roll. When I stop, the blown out end of a gold-plated samovar fills my view, the brass twisted into vicious curlicues.

A groan comes from the threshold. Malcolm props himself up on one elbow, his cell phone clutched in one hand, his shirt, torn and tea-stained.

“What happened?” I say.

“It just … blew. I was adding in a sprite when—”

“Wait. You’ve been storing all the ghosts.” I heft the samovar, careful of the edges. “In here?”

He nods.

“You don’t release them?”

“Never have.” He shakes his head, eyes downcast. “Honestly? I don’t know how.”

This sad, honest confession tugs at me. We don’t have time, however, to go over the finer points of ghost hunting.

“Can you stand?” I ask. “Walk?”

“I think so.”

“Then you can help.”

In the kitchen, I pour the twelve cups. Malcolm adds the half and half and sugar. His hands are steady, and he stirs each cup without spilling a single drop. My grandmother would approve.

From there, we divide and conquer, carrying the cups to various spots in the house.

“Be sure to put one in the master bath,” I call from the living room. “There’s bound to be one in there.”

“It won’t let me in,” he says a moment later.

Oh, really? Nasty little bugger. Ghosts and their toilet humor.

At the door to the bathroom, I ease the cup of coffee from Malcolm’s hands then kick on the door. It flies open with all the strength of the supernatural behind it.

Malcolm places a hand on my arm. “I don’t think—”

“It’ll be okay.” I hear it for the lie it is, and so must Malcolm, but he lets me go.

I close the door and place the coffee on the vanity. That icy patch of air flutters past, swirls into the steam, and revels in it. Oh, it is having the best time—at everyone’s expense, too. Before I can trap it beneath some Tupperware, that same feeling from the coffee shop washes over me. This is the ghost in the coffee machine. This is … my grandmother.

The realization makes me drop the container. Malcolm pounds on the door, but I ignore him.

“Grandma?”

Now, the ghost swoops around me, a frigid caress against my cheek.

“What are you doing? I thought—”

Something that sounds like hush fills the air. Whatever her mission, it’s not for me to question.

“I love you,” I say. “And I miss you.”

I pick up the container and my grandmother flows inside, compliantly. I secure the lid and hug the Tupperware to my chest. During her life, my grandmother was right about most everything. But here’s where she was wrong:

I do like her as a ghost.

* * *

We drive out to the nature preserve, a good thirty miles from town. In a deserted campsite, I demonstrate how to open containers and set ghosts free. I even let Malcolm release a few. (Only the sprites, but you have to start somewhere.)

“Will they come back?” he asks.

“The strong ones can, but most choose to stay here, or find an old barn to haunt. Something’s got to scare all those Scouts on camping trips, right?”

Malcolm studies the backs of his hands. The beautiful olive skin is pink from scalding.

“You should put something on that,” I say. “Before it scars.”

“A little scarring never hurt anyone. I’m sorry for a lot of things.” He raises his hands. “But not for this.”

I nod and he gives me a piercing look that I swear could scar—if I let it.

“You know something,” he says, “I think this will work.”

“What will?”

“You and me. I’m all sizzle, and you’re the steak.”

“I’m a vegetarian.”

He throws his head back and laughs. And while I have no clue what he means, I can’t help but like the sound of his laughter.

* * *

I let my fingers trace the gold lettering on the window—for the tenth time in as many minutes. I can’t help it, can hardly believe the words are real.

K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists

In the store window, the gold-plated brass samovar sits, backside hidden in midnight velvet. Somehow, Malcolm talked the bank manager into a small business loan. Somehow, we’re on retainer with the only law office and investment firm in town. Somehow, my worry about bills and property taxes has evaporated.

Malcolm still wears the scars from what we call the day of the ghosts. He boasts a few fresh ones as well. So do I. We take a new, electric samovar with us when we go out on a call. Because even I must admit: some ghosts prefer tea. Sometimes I feel that particular presence and an icy caress along my cheek. Sometimes I say things that make Malcolm throw his head back and laugh.

What I don’t tell Malcolm: I do it on purpose.

What I don’t tell my grandmother: I know what her afterlife’s mission really is.

And I love her for it.

You knew I had to include some Coffee & Ghosts for October, right? Right? The story that kicked off what might be the world’s most niche series. Ghost in the Coffee Machine was first published in Coffee: 14 Caffeinated Tales of the Fantastic.

It was subsequently produced in audio by The Drabblecast (with sound effects!).

And, of course, the entire series is in audio, narrated by the incomparable Amy McFadden. Check it out on your favorite audio store, or from my store on Authors Direct (for a deep discount).

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Filed under Coffee & Ghosts, Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Weekly writing check-in: fabulous fall

I am maple; I am gorgeous.

Sadly, it seems that our fox has left us. I keep checking the backyard, but he hasn’t made an appearance this week.

On the other hand, our maple has been putting on quite the show. So, there’s that.

This week in writing, I’ve been going over the remaining Fridays in 2020, and I think, think, I have a story for each one. I spent this week/weekend working on images and editing and getting the first couple of stories for October posted.

This always takes longer than I think it will. Even so, I’m pleased with my progress and really pleased I can see a story for each upcoming Friday.

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Filed under Weekly Writing Check In, Writing