Free Fiction Friday: Midnight at the Hades Underground

Think you know how the story of Hades and Persephone ends? Think again.

During all the millennia of his existence, Hades had found contentment in so few things. One of those was in the simple act of tending bar.

Granted, it was his own bar, in his own club, far below the sunbaked asphalt and concrete above. A city, and a large one, filled with the clamor and detritus of humanity. Where, exactly? Well, where didn’t matter. The Hades Underground was everywhere.

The Hades Underground never closed.

Zeus leaned back against the bar, a cut-crystal glass in one hand, filled with Glenlivet and ambrosia—a deity-only concoction. Hades mixed drinks for the rare mortal. Although when he did, it was always their last.

“Brother,” Zeus said now. “You have outdone yourself with this.” He raised his glass, indicating the dance floor that pulsated with flashes of blue and yellow, high back booths in midnight velvet, the hallways that led deeper into the bowels of the club. Some mortals wandered down those halls never to return.

Hades liked to think of this last as a feature rather than a bug. He surveyed his club with satisfaction.

Yes, I really have.

“Even she seems to appreciate it,” Zeus added, a certain slyness in his tone.

Hades refused the bait. Persephone haunted the periphery of his vision, of his whole being. There, in the middle of the dance floor—the riot of blues and yellows and greens like springtime—she danced. A group of loyal nymphs created a tight circle around her, with mortal hangers-on forming a wider one.

No one dared approach.

“There are others, you know,” Zeus said.

“We don’t need to have this conversation again.”

Zeus and his matchmaking? No. No, thank you.

“Oh, I think we do.” Zeus pulled out his phone. How he loved that gadget. The constant stream of images and sounds. The entire world in the palm of his hand. Never had the King of the Olympians been so sated.

Who was he at this moment in time? Some tech billionaire, Zeke or Zucker-something-or-other. Hades had long ago stopped keeping track of Zeus’s personas.

“Look,” his brother commanded.

Pictures of women flashed across the screen, one after the other after the other, in a never-ending parade. Hades didn’t bother to count.

“And that’s just tonight,” Zeus added.

Yes, of course. Zeus invariably swiped right.

“Thank you, Brother, for your counsel,” Hades said. “I’ll take it under consideration.”

Zeus laughed, a booming sound that sliced through the chatter, the thump of the bass, and for the barest instant, brought the club to a standstill. Even Persephone halted mid-twirl to see what her father found so amusing.

He slapped Hades on the back, the impact like a thunderbolt. “You could, at least, tend to your little shadow.” Zeus nodded toward the end of the bar. “She’s been there all night.”

All week, actually. Hades cast her a glance, barely a whisper of a look. Most patrons found his full attention distressing, at best. He didn’t wish to inflict that on her.

“She’s an old soul,” is all he said. “It gives her comfort to sit here.”

“She’s more than that.” Zeus stood, swallowed the last of his drink, and then crushed the glass between his fingers. When he unclenched his fist, the shards rose into the air and filled the club with starlight. “And she’s looking for more than just comfort.”

He sauntered off, one of Persephone’s mortal hangers-on in his sights, his first conquest of the evening.

* * *

Hades ignored her—that little shadow, as Zeus called her. For a solid hour, Hades wiped down the bar of gleaming ebony, polished glasses with a cloth the color of lilies, took delight in the weight of the lead crystal against his palm.

There were so few visceral pleasures left to him. He let himself revel in this one.

But Zeus was right, at least in one respect. He should do something about her. It wasn’t her time; she wasn’t the type to fritter her lifespan away—no matter how long or short—sitting in his club.

She was a fighter, and always had been, more an acolyte of Ares than death’s handmaiden.

He approached, shrouding his gaze. She stared at him straight on. Hades suspected that he could lift the veil and she wouldn’t glance away. That was like her. No matter the end, she always met it well.

He signaled one of his mortal bartenders to pour her another drink. The concoction was startling sweet and free of alcohol.

“I don’t merit one of yours?” she asked when he slid the glass in front of her.

“It’s not your time.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t I know?”

“You might lie.”

“I might.” He nodded to concede the point. “But I seldom do.”

She carried with her the scent of harsh wind and dust, cordite and flames, of slick and quicksilver blood. Afghanistan, then. Her eyes held that look, but then they had for centuries now. Once earned, a thousand-yard stare seldom faded. He wondered: Did such ancient eyes in the face of an infant ever startle her mothers?

“Are you tired, my child?” Perhaps it was her time. He’d been wrong before. His gaze darted toward the dance floor. Yes. So very wrong.

She countered with a question of her own. “Why won’t you let me thank you?”

He raised a palm skyward. “Have I done something to deserve gratitude?”

“It was you.” She ran her fingertips around the circumference of the glass, full circle, a trip from birth to death. “Actually, it’s always you. At first, I thought it was Ares who came for me in the end. But war isn’t like that.”

“My nephew is many things. Compassionate isn’t one of them.”

“I’m sorry.” She gave her head a slight shake. “I don’t remember all the times.”

“Truly? I have no wish for you to.”

“And I don’t remember any before the year 1431.”

Even an old soul such as this one could comprehend dying only so many times. He’d erase every instance if he could. But some mortals were more aware than others, and that made it hard for them to forget.

And when the world decided you were a saint? Even harder.

“Humans live their lives as if they have an unlimited number of them,” he said.

“But most only have the one.”

“Yes. That’s the irony.”

“Are there others like me?” she asked.

“A few,” he acknowledged. “Fewer still who comprehend what they are.”

“They made me a saint, you know.” She laughed, not Zeus’s booming guffaw. This sound had a subtle, insidious sorrow. Those in nearby booths tilted their heads to catch the whisper of it. Those on the dance floor stumbled, mid-step.

Even Persephone.

“Yes. I know.” And his own words were heavy with sorrow.

“I never want to be a saint again.” Her gaze returned not to him, but the surface of the bar, as if she could peer into its depths. “It wasn’t the stake or the fire, but all those people pinning their hopes on me. It was a relief when you came. You didn’t need to offer your hand.”

“You didn’t need to take it.”

“Where does the pain go? Do you absorb it?”

“Mortal pain can’t touch me.”

“Do you wish that it could?”

Hades paused in the task of polishing yet another glass. The crystal crumbled in his hands, although if he were to release these shards, they’d fill the club with all manner of winged creatures, bats and ravens, and things not seen outside of Tartarus.

For the briefest moment, he unveiled his gaze.

She withstood it.

Yes, of course, she did. His little saint. His Joan. She would’ve withstood the flames as well had he not taken them from her.

“You never answered my question,” he said. “Are you tired?”

“He won’t stop whispering to me. He makes it sound so very simple, so very easy, so very right.”

“War is never those things.”

“I know.” She peered up at him as if daring him to unveil his gaze a second time. “But what is left for me?”

“The Elysian Fields?”

“So, heaven.”

“In a manner of speaking. Anything you might want, might be, might desire is yours for the asking.”

“That sounds … boring.”

Now he laughed, the echo of it reverberating through the floors of the club. The music hiccupped, and the speakers screeched in protest. A hush fell. Even the gaggle of nymphs ceased their giggling.

“Perfection often is,” he said.

Her gaze darted toward the dance floor. “Is it really?”

Before he could answer, a presence burst into the club. A man, although with a mere glance, it was difficult to tell. Most patrons only dared furtive looks. Some shrank back, into booths or against the walls, hearts pounding frantic prayers. Others preened and swooned, bloodlust thick in the air.

Yes, his nephew liked to make an entrance.

Was Ares here for this little saint? Was the mention of the Elysian Fields too much? Can’t lose a single soldier in the waging of war, can we now?

Ares swooped in, slipping onto the stool next to her. “I’ve missed you, my sweet. Indeed, I thought you’d gone AWOL.” He brought her hand to his lips and caressed the palm, the tender underside of her wrist.

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow, her expression filled with doubt, playfulness, and the assurance of a beloved favorite. “You thought that?”

“Feared it.” Ares released her hand and struck a fist against his chest, over the spot where a mortal’s heart would beat. “We still have much to do together, you and me.”

Hades anchored a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “She needs rest. Don’t use her like this.”

“While you have so much to offer?” His nephew regarded him through half-lidded eyes. “This is quaint, Uncle. But really, Hades Underground? Where else would it be?”

She laughed then, and the sound cut Hades like nothing he’d felt in ages. In it was his loneliness, that great expanse of nothing that greeted him every moment of his existence.

He was Hades Underground, and Hades Underground was him. Dark, endless, and ultimately empty.

And now it was midnight. The glitter ball over the dance floor threw beams of sunlight throughout the space. The processional began, Persephone at its center, flanked by nymphs and mortals, all clad in dresses that swayed like petals and cascaded like sea foam.

Hades retreated, left Ares to the spoils of this little scrimmage. Who was this mortal girl to him, anyway?

Besides, he had drinks to mix.

Crystal sang out as he poured and stirred—ambrosia, nectar, and a splash of vodka for the nymphs. They weren’t particular, so he always used an off-brand variety.

Then he mixed the club’s signature drink—and clever patrons knew to order a Persephone instead of a pomegranate cosmopolitan. Hades stirred in a dash of ambrosia.

And, of course, actual pomegranate seeds. Six, to be precise.

They gathered around the bar, Persephone, the nymphs, and her mortal followers alike, squeezing out the other patrons. Her entourage wasn’t especially polite, but as a group, they awed. Others in the club stepped aside, swallowed their complaints, or basked in the glow of spring incarnate.

Slender fingers grasped for equally slender stems of glasses, like plucking flowers from a field. Midnight at the Hades Underground brought sunlight and spring and the taste of nectar against your tongue.

No one—mortal or god—ever left before midnight.

Except, perhaps, his little saint. He didn’t need to glance toward the end of the bar to discern the empty stool.

Persephone had yet to sip her drink. It went that way some nights—most nights, actually. Perhaps if her feet were sore, or if she’d grown weary of her current entourage, she’d deign a mouthful.

Most nights, she threw the drink in his face.

To say he didn’t deserve that would be a lie.

But tonight she halted, drink mere inches from her lips. Something jostled the group of nymphs. They stumbled aside, the force like a scythe slicing through wheat. The commotion caught Persephone’s attention, and she set the glass on the bar.

At the center of the commotion—and its cause—stood his little saint, staring down his goddess.

Gods don’t breathe, not the way mortals do, but just then, everything went still inside him.

On the bar, the drink glowed an arterial red.

Certainly, mortals weren’t faster than gods, but his little saint snatched the glass with the power of Ares behind her. With the practiced ease of a soldier, she swallowed. What she lacked in finesse she made up for in ferocity.

She drank it—vodka, ambrosia, pomegranate seeds, and all.

She slammed the glass onto the bar. The crystal shattered, the sound a gunshot. Sparks erupted throughout the club, like tracer rounds and flares in a night sky.

Hades braced for a fight. Surely this was the first volley in a coming war. Any moment, he expected Ares to roar back in, rile up the mortals, and force Persephone and her entourage from the club.

He expected blood.

Instead, his little saint turned to him.

“May I?” she asked, her hand extended in the manner he’d always offered his. “I know we both have our relationship baggage.” She rolled her eyes, a move that was both goddess-like and purely mortal. “But I think you could use the rest.”

“As could you?”

“As could I.”

Persephone stamped her foot.

Hades turned to her, surprised she was—at last—a mere afterthought. “Go.”

Her eyes—those impossibly blue eyes, the color of the spring sky—widened.

“Or stay,” he amended. After all, he’d fashioned the Hades Underground for her. “It”—he waved a hand—“runs itself.”

“But—”

“My dear, you have never wanted to be Queen of the Underworld.”

“But—”

“It was my mistake to force you. And for that?” He inclined his head. “I apologize.”

He then turned to his Joan, his saint.

His … savior?

He offered his arm. Only when she took it did the emptiness relinquish its hold.

“Is that ‘no’ to the Elysian Fields then?” he asked.

“There are other options, right?”

“None of them very pleasant.”

“Truly?” She tapped her forehead. “Isn’t it all up here?”

“What do you think?”

He led her down one of the endless hallways, the path worn smooth by the soles of so many souls.

“We make our own hell,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she prompted, “Am I right?”

“Hm? I can’t really say. Trade secret and all.”

“You can’t? Or you won’t?” Her words were full of skepticism and humor. She knew. Of course, she knew. Then her voice softened, and she added, “What’s your hell then?”

He nearly glanced behind him, at the renewed frenzy on the dance floor, the golds and the blues and the greens. But no one knew the cost of looking back better than Hades did. So he focused on the images that consumed his little saint, the ones that formed the walls of her own personal hell.

He expected cordite and flames, but they only seasoned the anguish. No, it was the expanse, the emptiness, the loneliness—of backs turned, hands never offered, promises never kept.

“It won’t be like that,” was all he said.

“How long do I have?” she asked.

“An eternity, if you wish it.”

Their footfalls echoed behind them, obliterating sounds that haunted them both—the thump of the bass, the clink of crystal, the rapport of weapons, the thunder of artillery.

“But only if you wish it.”

Midnight at the Hades Underground is an exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Weekly writing check-in: words with (new) friends

Look! I have a new friend! A new mouse friend at that.

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one missing friends on my walk. So many new critters and heart rocks and such along the trail this week. I’m thinking I need to add my own contribution.

This week, I did some brainstorming on the next two episodes of Coffee & Ghosts, Season 4. My goal is to get the outline done and start writing episode 2 by next weekend. (And to be fair, my “outline” is more like a road map. It tells me, generally, where I want to go, but that’s about it.)

I also worked up some new story posts and the images for the coming month. So, I have a little breathing room there as well.

And that’s it for this week.

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Free Fiction Friday: Land of the Free (Haircuts)

For August, it’s stories about battles, real and imagined, and which ones are worth fighting.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The place to find the cheapest haircuts in the Khobar Towers
is the fourth floor apartment of Tower D.
I should know because Paul wields the scissors, and his haircuts
are always free.

Soldiers try to give me their place in line.
I wave away their offers, not wanting
to sandwich time with Paul
between two privates.

The line snakes. Paul’s platoon sergeant smirks.
He thinks it’s ridiculous that Paul and I
pretend not to be married. He rolls his eyes, mutters,
Officers, and shakes out an unfiltered Camel from the pack he carries
in his ammo pouch.

The sun slants low in the sky, and when my turn
finally comes, afternoon light fills the apartment,
floods the balcony, turning clouds of cigarette smoke
a tarnished gold.

Paul sees me and the scissors snip shut.
He holds himself to impossible standards
while in uniform.
No PDA goes without saying,
but if he can run his hands over every single
scalp in Echo Company, there’s no reason why
he can’t touch mine.

Still, the price of this haircut may be more
than I am willing to pay.
But I sit in the folding chair.
I shut my eyes.
I hold my breath.

Beth, he says, Really?

I nod, tugging my bangs to my nose, hiding
behind my excuse. I only wanted to see him.
But I can’t tell him that, not in so many words.

He pulls a strand of hair, then another.
It’s like cutting spun gold. And his voice is softer
than the smoke on the balcony.

Two stories above, someone stabs the buttons
of a boom box, and the first notes mingle
with the smoke.
Paul’s scissors snap closed.

That song. The unofficial anthem of everyone
in the Khobar Towers,
although I’m sure I’ve never heard it
before coming to Dhahran.

But you can’t walk a block without cheap speakers
distorting Lee Greenwood’s voice, or someone belting out,
God Bless the USA!

I’d pull on a gas mask, Paul says, but I’d still be able to hear it.
Paul’s patriotism has never been sentimental, and I’m glad to see
my soldier cynic hasn’t lost his touch with either words or scissors.

But by the time the song fades, and the Islamic call to prayer
takes its place, the evening sun can barely crest the balcony rail.
A single shaft of light slants through the balcony doors
and illuminates the bits of gold scattered
around the folding chair. And I find myself wondering
how much more of us will be left behind.

Land of the Free Haircuts first appeared in Proud to Be: Writing by American Warriors, Volume 2 and also made an appearance in my young adult novel The Fine Art of Holding Your Breath.

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Weekly writing check-in: cucumbers and novellas

Life has given us cucumbers. Many cucumbers. All the cucumbers.

In related news, we also now have pickles.

And I have a novella! That’s right. It’s done! (Well, for now.) I’m pleased with my progress and the story so far. I’m going to let it rest while I work up the second novella in the season, which as yet has no title, but might involve haunted engagement rings.

That’s it for this week since I really, really, must go get some story posts ready for August.

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Worlds of Wonder: Free Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Looking for some science fiction or fantasy to read? Head on over to the Worlds of Wonder giveaway. Free books for your e-reader. Go on. You know it’s hungry.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 5

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Crank the handle.

I know the words mean something, something important. I know there’s something I must do, but can’t remember. When the last of the candles dies and the dark erases the words, it’s almost a relief.

I pull my mouse to me, cuddle him against my neck. He is so soft.

“Don’t be scared,” I whisper.

Because he is scared, of the dark, of the cold so sharp it feels like a knife’s blade. I dig us further into our nest.

“Close your eyes, Jatar. Go to sleep.”

I shut my eyes. The sound of a voice pricks my ears, but I think this voice is in my head, not in my house. It is a rich voice, amused and musical. When I try, I can make this voice laugh.

And in that laughter, there is warmth.

* * *

It’s the silence in the end that’s the worst, when Soshi’s voice no longer fills my shuttlecraft, when I know she’s alone, in the dark. She has her mouse, I tell myself; she has her version of Jatar. She is not alone. This thought offers nothing, not even a cold sort of comfort.

Earth was never in my sector of responsibility. Before Soshi, I knew very little of it, just that it was another small, life-bearing planet. Enough small, life-bearing planets implode on our watch that one more hardly makes a difference.

Except, of course, when it does.

As always, the jolt takes me unaware, throws me into the control panel. Pain shoots along my extremities. The grind of metal on metal follows and what sounds like a ripping. I brace against the floor, the craft shuddering beneath me. I count to three.

And then it ends. Everything is solid around me. Everything is as it should be. Everything is the same.

“Hello?”

Including Soshi.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I would like to talk to you.”

Why my communications system picks up her transmission, I don’t know. It hasn’t failed to yet, just as the crash never fails to surprise me, never fails to injure. I push to stand, then fall back. I strain and stretch, managed to press a button, call out a few words, although they are rough. My memories are intact, but each time, I must relearn her language. In those precious moments, it is easy to lose her.

“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?”

I can’t find the will to move. I’m not certain I have it in me to live through this again—I’ve lost track of the number of times.

“Please. Talk to me.”

If I lie here and soak in my own juices, what good will that do? But if I claw to stand, lock onto her frequency, what good will that do?

Every time is different. Every time … breaks me a little more. My sigh comes across the frequency, changes her thought or her footfall or something, and I open up another vista into her soul. Just when I thought I knew all of Soshi’s trials, she tells me of shaking bones from a dead woman’s boots and those who collect children in order to eat them.

I spend this time between her first call and that last, desperate one deciding. Earlier, I researched. While Earth never was in my sector, our information is complete, and what’s stored on the shuttlecraft is more than I’ll ever need. Quite against my will, I’ve become the foremost expert on hypothermia in humans.

When the end is near, I coax her into burrowing, better that than paradoxical undressing. I know when the avalanche will strike and her best chance to survive it. Once she stepped outside and it took her. I listened to icy silence until the battery on the radio finally died.

I have a complete mental inventory of her storeroom. What she finds in the bottom of that bin, I’m never certain. A child’s toy? A fur-lined glove? A hat meant for an infant, perhaps, with whimsical ears.

“Hello? Are you there? I think I heard you last night. Well, it’s always night here. I mean, before. I heard you before.”

My strength returns, but so does my resolve not to answer. Does it matter, one way or another, if I’m there for her? Must I bear witness? She dies. She always dies. Once, I’d like that not to happen.

“Is there anyone there?” Her words are slow, deliberate, plaintive. “Should I change frequencies?”

Her question holds humor, as if she recognizes that it’s a somewhat ridiculous thing to ask. The first time I heard it, I launched myself to my feet, smashed into the control panel, and opened a communications channel. Now, I hesitate, but thoughts cloud my mind. She will not find her mouse without me. She will step into that avalanche.

She will die alone.

I propel myself off the floor. I land with a crack against the control panel. I still ooze, and I coat the surface with what can only be described as slime, at least in human terms.

“No.” It’s more of a cough than a word, but it crosses space and time and opens her up to me.

“No?”

Her voice is filled with so much hope, choking out a reply is almost impossible. The panel is such a mess that establishing a permanent link is, also, almost impossible.

“Don’t … don’t change the frequency … there’s a good girl. Hold tight, I’m having some technical difficulties, but I’m here.”

I’m always here.

In a manner of speaking.

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

Want the story to go? Download it over at BookFunnel.

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Weekly writing check-in: soggy with a side of words

Another view from my morning walk

My rock friends have vanished. (You may or may not have been waiting for an update.)

This may have something to do with all this rain we’ve been getting this week. I don’t know. I miss them.

However, I’ve been drowning my sorrow about that with writing. I’m over 20,000 words and closing in on the end of this novella.

Even better, I’m having so much fun. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that. I think I may have figured out my (new) process. More on that later. I don’t want to jinx it.

I also played around with a cover for Season Four.

Not a bad week, although I really must get the stories for August posted.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 4

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

I use the last of the dying embers to light a cheap candle. The flame throws little light and even less heat. A couple of them on the hearth chase away the worst of the dark—if not the cold. Jatar is speaking to me now, urging me forward. Before the cold can steal all my rational thoughts, I scrawl Crank the handle on any surface I might chance to look at—the floor, the walls, the plastic tub that once held the blankets and clothes I stumble around in.

My fingers are black from the burnt bit of wood that was my makeshift pen. I use as little water as possible to wash, although this is from habit. I will run out before the water does.

“The storeroom,” Jatar says. “You can navigate in the dark. I’ll help you. Don’t take a candle.”

“All right.” I push to standing.

“Go straight back and then to your left.”

“My left.” I don’t say it as a question, but that’s what it is.

“That’s the hand with the burn.” He never scolds, even when my words come out stupid.

“On the shelf, above your head, there will be another bin of blankets and things to keep you warm.”

Halfway inside the storeroom, my mind blanks. Everything is dark, but Jatar’s voice echoes behind me.

“A few more steps, dear girl. Just a few.”

How he knows what I need to do, I can’t say. Perhaps, before the avalanche, I spoke of these things. Yes. I nod to myself. I did. I told him where everything was and now he’s telling me. I lug the bin from the shelf and emerge into the dim light of the main room.

My movement causes one of my candles to sputter. It gutters and dies. Maybe it’s the cheap wax, but it sounds like someone drowning.

“Soshi? Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“That noise?”

“One of my candles,” I say. “The flame went out.”

“It sounded horrific.”

“It sounded like someone’s throat being slit.”

Jatar’s voice fills the speakers, but I don’t understand him. His voice has a musical quality to it, as if he uses notes rather than words. But I recognize the tone.

He is scolding me.

At last he comes to himself, the notes fading into lyrics I understand.

“Soshi, please.”

He doesn’t call me dear girl, and I think that hurts more than anything else. That makes me rush to explain before the cold steals this piece of me as well.

“I said that because I know what it sounds like. I’ve heard it before. It’s why I left the group. They weren’t collecting children because they were kind. They were collecting children because they were hungry.”

Jatar is silent.

“I ran away,” I continue. “I’d rather die alone than be someone’s dinner. I left the group, stopped following the train tracks, and found my mountain.”

“I had no idea, dear girl, no idea. You’ve never … I mean, I didn’t know.”

“I don’t like to think about it.”

“Then we won’t speak of it ever again. Go on, open the bin. There are warm things inside.”

I pull the items out, one by one. They are heavy in my hands, thick wool coats that might weigh more than I do at this point. There are light things as well, down-filled jackets and sleeping bags that sprout tiny feathers when I squeeze them. At the very bottom, there is something furry and soft. I don’t recognize it, and it isn’t something you wear. It almost looks like…

“Jatar! I have a mouse!”

“Do you now?” He sounds amused.

“Yes! Did you … did you find a way to send me a mouse?”

“I did, dear girl, I did.”

“Is it my birthday?”

“I think it might be.”

“I should have a can of peaches then.”

“You should have two.”

“Oh, I don’t know if I could eat two whole cans.” I am not as hungry as I used to be. Sometimes Jatar must bully me into eating.

“Try,” he says now. “Pretend I’m there, and the second can is for me.”

In the end, I manage to eat one and a half cans. This gives me energy to make tea. The drink heats my throat, my stomach, and for a few moments, I can pretend I feel warm.

“You know what you should do, now that you have a mouse?” he asks.

“What?” I am amazed that there’s something I can do, so he has my full attention.

“Build a nest, one you can share with it. You can keep each other warm.”

I do as he says, piling the heavy coats along the floor and against the wall near the hearth. I move the radio within arm’s reach. I can keep the candles lit from here. I curl into the blankets and pull the mouse to me.

“Would you mind,” I ask, “if I called him Jatar?”

“I would be honored.”

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

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Weekly writing check-in: rain and words

No rock friends. Have a misty, storybook view of my walk.

We’ve had some serious thunderstorms and rain these past few nights. This morning I discovered my rock friends have been washed away!

I hope by tomorrow they’ve found their way back into their trees. If not, I may need to search for them. (Yes, I realize I may be too heavily invested in this rock friendship.)

In actual writing news, I’m making good progress. I’m about 60 words away from an even 3,000 for this writing session. I’m compelled to get back to the manuscript–if only to make it an even number.

So with that, I’ll leave you to your Sunday.

 

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 3

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1, Part 2

“I wish I knew what day it was,” I say.

I am trying to draw Jatar out, get him to respond. Today he has been so very quiet.

“I always know what day it is,” he says.

“Somehow, I don’t think it’s the same as mine.”

“It is, and it isn’t.”

“Because if I knew what day it was, we could have a party.”

“What kind of party?”

“Well, that depends on the day. See? It’s important.”

His laugh filters through the speakers.

“It could even be my birthday.”

“Oh, dear girl, it certainly could. You deserve lots of birthday parties.”

“Would you get me a present?”

“As many as I could carry to you.”

“Like what?”

“How about a mouse?”

“I would very much like a mouse. I would name it Jatar.”

A harrumph comes from the speakers, one so strong the radio seems to vibrate with it.

“I think,” Jatar says, his words slow, “that I should be offended.”

Before I can explain that having a mouse named after you is an honor, the floorboards shake beneath my feet. I give a little cry, no more than a yelp from the back of my throat, but Jatar hears.

“What is it?” he demands.

“I don’t know. The house is …”

I can’t find words to describe the tremors that run through it. It’s like my house has suddenly caught a fever and is shaking with chills. Then there’s an awful groan.

“Oh, dear girl,” Jatar says, and now his voice is low, but taut, as if it were nothing more than a rubber band stretched to its limits. “Stay by me—I mean, the radio. Stay by the radio. Do not open the door. Do not go outside. Stay as still and as quiet as you can.”

I retreat to the radio, grip the mouthpiece, although I don’t need to. Another groan sounds. It is like nothing I’ve heard, not even in the days when we fought to leave the city, and certainly my mountain has never made such noises.

“What is it?” I whisper, my lips only a breath away from the mouthpiece.

“I have heard this sound before.”

“Will it eat me?”

“No.” This word is not quite as tight as all his others. It almost sounds like he wants to laugh. “It won’t eat you, dear girl.”

The roar comes next, so loud it steals my breath. It reminds me of the few trains that still ran, back when we were walking, back before I was alone. We’d follow the tracks, and the roar would sneak up on you. Someone always kept watch.

Or did. Because, of course, the trains stopped running after a while. We still followed the tracks. They would lead us somewhere important, somewhere safe. I’m not sure how true that was, because they didn’t lead me here, to my mountain, where I’ve been safe.

Until now.

The floorboards jump beneath my feet. The force knocks me into the wall and knocks embers from the fireplace. I claw my way across the floor. Before I can cup the glowing ember in my hands, I jerk back. I glance around, but the world shakes too hard, and my feet are too unsteady. Already smoke rises from the wood slats. I bite my lip and sacrifice the back of my left hand and shove the ember into the hearth.

I must scream. My throat aches as if I have. Jatar’s voice pours from the speaker in response. He must fight to be heard over the roar and rumble and chaos that have swallowed my house.

Then, everything is quiet. The world. Jatar. So quiet I can hear the fire sputter. My gaze goes there first. Build the fire back up, make it safe. My left hand is nearly useless. If pain could scream, it would fill this space, this mountain, this world. I worry that I have done more damage than I can repair.

First things first. The fire. I build it up. I don’t know if it’s the stoked fire or if my hand makes me feel as if I’m on fire, but the air is warm, warmer than before. I glance about, knowing I must dig out some first aid supplies, perhaps scoop up some snow or ice from outside.

“Jatar?” I say, hoping to hear his voice.

Nothing.

Panic seizes me before I remember: the battery. It’s an awkward thing, cranking the handle with my right hand, bracing the radio with my left elbow, but I manage it.

“Jatar?” I say, before I even have a full charge.

“Soshi? Dear girl, are you okay?”

“I burnt myself, but that’s better than the house burning down. I’m going to get the first aid kit.”

Actually, in the storeroom, I have many first aid kits, more than I could ever use.

“And maybe some snow,” I add, making my way across the room. My legs wobble, and I take unsteady and erratic steps.

Behind me, Jatar is saying something, but he sounds so very far away. Shock, I think. How do I cure myself of that?  Hand first, then the shock. I open the door to the outside. All I want to do is grope around, grab a handful of that sharp, crystalized mix of icy snow, and cool the fire of my skin.

At first, I don’t understand what I see. I can only open the door partway. Something solid, cold, and white blocks its progress. The rope lifeline that leads to the woodshed is gone. That is no matter. Because my woodshed is also gone. Either that, or it’s buried beneath a mountain’s worth of snow.

Why the avalanche spared my little house, I do not know. But it has. And yet, it hardly feels benevolent. I do not feel grateful.

For a very long time, I do nothing but stare at the snow. Then I shut the door. I throw the deadbolt.

I will never open it again.

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

Want the story to go? Download it over at BookFunnel.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020