Weekly writing check-in: milestones

It was a drive-through high school graduation experience for us.

This week, I got all of September’s stories scheduled. That always takes longer than I think it will. But they’re scheduled, and I’m pleased.

I need to conjure up nine more stories to round out scheduling until the end of the year (I have four already waiting in the wings). Unless I do another serial story, but I’d rather try for the nine, if I can make it.

I also did some story building work on Coffee & Ghosts.

But perhaps the biggest thing I did this week was to send my daughter off to college.

Honestly, I’m not sure how she’s old enough to attend college. But there you have it. You turn around one day, and they’ve become someone you’re incredibly proud of.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Saint of Bright Red Things

In Nazi-occupied France, Marigold Jenkins, the daughter of ex-patriot Americans, must keep her identities—all three of them—a secret.

She navigates the streets of Paris armed with a bright red handbag, scarlet lipstick, and a compact tailor-made for her role as a courier in the resistance.

But when a train accident leaves her concussed and stranded in a provincial hospital, Mari must navigate a new reality, one that leaves her at the mercy of a German officer. She must decide whether she can trust this man—and what she must sacrifice in order to do so.

The sharpness that stabbed her lungs each time she pulled a breath did not scare Mari. The spike of pain in her temple was of little consequence. No, it was the clean sheets against her skin, the pillow that cradled her head, and the soft prayers of the Sisters that frightened her the most.

The last thing she remembered was the screech of the train. The last thing she saw was a spider web of cracked window glass splattered with brilliant red. After that, blue sky, crushed grass beneath her, stones stabbing her spine. Her purse, the straps looped through one arm. The tug when she refused to give it up. The last thing she heard were those orders barked in German.

The last thing she said?

Oh, God, not in English. Please, not in English. The panic sliced through the fog clouding her mind, but the clarity didn’t last. A new bank rolled in, doubt married to fear—and pain. The spike of it radiated across her skull, down her neck.

Even so, sounds penetrated. A rattling cart. Consoling murmurs. The gentle whisk of fabric against the floor.

With deep reluctance, Mari cracked open her eyes. The light assaulted her, the stab of it like something solid, something she could swallow, something that would choke her. She took quick, shallow breaths, and spread her arms until her fingertips reached each side of the bed, searching, searching. Her forearm felt naked without the purse’s straps. She came away with nothing but the clean edge of the sheets. Under, then? Or on a side table? Check everywhere. Oh, but that meant moving.

“You’re awake.” The nun wasn’t much older than she was, with hazel eyes and freckles far too frivolous for the somber wimple. “Would you like some water?”

The sister helped her sit. It was all Mari could do not to cry out when the water flooded her mouth, soothed her throat. Had she screamed when the train jumped the tracks? Her throat was raw enough for it.

“Better?” the nun asked.

Again, she nodded.

“Where am I?” The words came rough as if she hadn’t spoken for days.

“You’re in hospital.” The nun murmured the name of the town—somewhere between Paris and Blois.

“What happened?”

“You should ask…” The nun glanced toward the entrance to the ward. She didn’t elaborate. She didn’t need to.

There, in shadows, stood a man. Even from this distance he was obviously German, and from his bearing, obviously an officer. Mari licked her lips, swallowed back the bile in her throat, and reached once again for the water.

The man’s footfalls echoed against the floor. A hush fell over the space, as if they all held their breaths for the length of his stroll down the center of the ward. The sister turned and busied herself with the cart of medication, the wings of her wimple hiding her face.

He halted at the foot of the bed with a single click of his heels and an almost gracious bow. “Fraulein.”

She nodded, squinted against the light, his form blurry.

“I am Major Messner,” he said.

She blinked. Was he the local commander, then? That would account for the hush, that collective intake of breath. Still, was he better or worse than the Gestapo? Better, certainly, although much depended upon what sort of man Major Messner was.

“I was hoping you could assist us.”

One who spoke passable French, at least.

“You were in a train wreck. The tracks were sabotaged,” he continued. “We are hoping those passengers riding on the west side might be able to … provide us with information.”

Images came flooding back. That spider web in red.  Her purse clutched tight, even when the jolt threw her into the window. Had she been traveling north or south? This, she couldn’t remember. The uncertainty of that simmered in her belly like slow-acting poison.

“Do you remember anything, Fraulein?” the Major prompted. “Anything at all? Perhaps you were glancing out the window and saw something … someone?”

“I remember very little,” she said. This, blessedly, was true. Her words, however, betrayed the state of her throat. She reached a hand for the water glass only to find him plucking it from the side table and bringing it to her lips.

Merci,” she managed.

“Let’s start with something easier, shall we? Where were you headed?”

The uncertainty returned, panic gripping her mind, rendering her mute. North or South? Which was it? Sweat bloomed along her limbs, the thin blanket and cool sheets suddenly stifling. Where she was headed depended so much on who she was. The name on her papers would tell her, and those would be in her purse.

She was … who then? Marguerite, the dancer? (Bless her mother’s insistence on ballet lessons.) No. Too flashy. Marguerite would never leave Paris for … she eyed the small ward … wherever here was. Too provincial. Françoise, the shop girl? Yes! She was little Françoise, almost certainly.

Mari hadn’t been herself, hadn’t been Marigold Jenkins since her mother planted a perfumed kiss on her cheek and fled Paris for the endless blue skies and palm trees of Hollywood, her father in tow. And then, of course, the Nazis came.

“I was returning to Paris after visiting my mother in the countryside,” she said, as if her mother would ever live in the countryside in any nation. “She’s … not well.”

“Returning?” The major cocked an eyebrow.  A single word filled with doubt. A single gesture a death sentence.

But she was Françoise, a silly bit of fluff. Despite the ache, Mari tilted her head, trained her eyes on him, and in all innocence asked, “Was I going, Major?”

His jaw twitched. It was enough of a lifeline for her to continue.

“Truthfully, Major, I think only my throat remembers what happened.” She let her fingertips light on her neck.

“Understandable.”

Was it? And would this German officer understand when she provided no information, real or fabricated?

“I will return when you’re able to talk.”

Before he turned to leave, Mari called out, “Major Messner?”

He inclined his head, unfailingly polite. He was, she realized, not as young as she first assumed, his hair shined silver rather than gold, and the lines around his eyes and mouth spoke of a man who had seen a certain share of life before the war.

“My purse. I don’t suppose.” She glanced away, down at her hands folded demurely on the blanket. “It’s a … never mind.”

To her surprise, he took a knee at her bedside. “Go on.”

“It’s only.” And here, she peered up from beneath her lashes. “My lipstick, and compact.” Mari touched her cheek. “I only wanted … but it’s not important.”

Major Messner laughed, the sound indulgent. “You shall have your purse, Fraulein. I shall see to it personally.”

Merci.” And thank you, Françoise, you silly, vain cow.

His footsteps echoed again on his walk up the ward. When he cleared the door, it was if everyone took their first breath in fifteen minutes. Mari’s heart thudded. Was her request bold or merely reckless? How closely would they inspect her purse before turning it over to her?

The nun returned with a pitcher of water. Under the cover of refilling Mari’s glass, she spoke.

“I should tell you, Mademoiselle, that Major Messner likes to … cultivate pretty brunettes.”

Mari raised her chin. Her hair, although tangled, looked nearly black against the white of her pillow.

“Despite this.” The nun’s fingers lighted on Mari’s temple. “And this.” They moved to her cheek. “You are very pretty indeed.”

“Is that a warning, Sister?”

“No.” The woman turned from her. “But it may be your salvation.”

* * *

Major Messner was a man who kept his promises, or at least ones made to pretty brunettes. The next morning, the purse was resting on the side table, its red crocodile skin far too brash for the hushed atmosphere of the ward.

Henri hated the purse, always said it called too much attention to her. What he meant was Nazi attention, in particular the sort of Nazi officer who cultivated pretty girls.

“We must fade into the background, one of a thousand Parisians made drab by the war. We do not want their attention.” Henri said this with the authority of a father figure and then continued with the persuasiveness of a lover. “You do not want their attention. You do not want to be thought a collaborator.”

“But I am frivolous,” Mari had argued, “either as Marguerite or Françoise. It marks me as a fool, not a collaborator.”

The purse was like a broadcast signal. It told the world, or at least, those here in France, that she was not a threat. She was silly and thoughtless and spent money she didn’t have for things she didn’t need. After last month’s successful run, even Henri had agreed. Mari was their best courier.

Now she reached a hand for her purse, her salvation. Inside, she encountered her papers. The air pent up in her lungs seeped out. No whoosh of breath. No obvious relief. But yes, she was Françoise.

She rummaged until her fingers encountered her compact and lipstick tube. The little brush was missing. No matter. She could dab some on, lightly, with her ring finger. To have him fetch her makeup and then not use it would invite folly, indeed. What she didn’t use on her lips, she could smear on her cheeks, give herself a schoolgirl blush.

Something told her that Major Messner would like that.

Mari ran her fingertips around the compact. Aside from her mother, only she knew of the false bottom. Not even Henri knew. She eased it open just enough to slip her pinky inside, to check to see if the contents were there.

They were. The slip of paper. With codes. Always a dangerous thing. Possibly the most dangerous thing of all. But necessary. And in this case, small. She could chew up the evidence and wash it down with the half glass of water that sat on the table.

Mari felt herself sink into the bed, her pillow soft beneath her head. She was safe. They all were safe. All she needed to do was slip the paper from the compact and send it down her throat. Her fingers inched toward the paper when a single thought froze her.

A trap.

What if the Major had found the list? What if her purse, delivered so promptly, was bait? What if they were waiting to see what she would do, whether she was working for the resistance or was merely an empty-headed shop girl?

Leave the list in place or slip it out?

She eased the false bottom closed–for now–and opened the compact. A tiny yelp emerged from her throat. Oh, she wouldn’t need any additional color from the lipstick–she had far too much of it already, in ugly purples blooming across her cheek. Both eyes looked bruised. Her lips were uncommonly red, and she couldn’t account for it. Applying makeup to a face in such condition seemed nearly as foolish as keeping that slip of paper hidden.

She closed the compact without making a sound. Then she clutched it and the lipstick against her chest. It was like keeping a vigil.

Hold very still. Be very quiet. Act the part of the shop girl, so happy to have her things back. Stay alert. Do not sleep. Above all, do not sleep.

Only when the footsteps taken with military precision stopped at the end of her bed did she realize that she had succumbed to sleep, lipstick and compact loose in her grip.

* * *

Her hand convulsed around the compact. It was an instinctive move that Mari hoped the Major didn’t see. His gaze darted to her clenched hand and then met her eyes. This man missed very little.

“I didn’t mean to startle you, Fraulein.”

“No, I … I merely dozed off.”

“The sisters said your head injury might make you sleepy.”

Did they? She supposed they had. Certainly that wasn’t a lie. And yet. The information, or perhaps the way it was phrased felt … dishonest. How many patients escaped interrogation due to sleepiness? Perhaps the sisters added something to the soup served earlier. Had it tasted odd? Mari blinked, trying to bring Major Messner into focus.

“I also made the mistake of looking into the mirror,” she said, for it sounded like something Françoise might confess.

“The bruises will heal.” He turned then, nodded at the nun attending the ward.

She rushed over with a straight-back chair and placed it next to Mari’s bed.

“Thank you, Sister.” He gave the perfunctory bow. So polite. So civilized. So deceptive. How could a nation of so unerringly correct individuals be so brutal as well?

The Major sat, arms resting on his thighs, hands clasped. He leaned forward. “The bruises will heal,” he said, again, this time his voice softer, as if the words he used might heal her face. “There won’t be any lasting damage, except, perhaps to your memory.”

“My memory, Major?”

“Of the accident. The doctor mentioned that head trauma can cause memory lapses, especially of the event itself.”

“I remember blood–I think it was blood. It was red.” Mari fingered the lipstick. “But then, so is my lipstick. And I remember hearing German, but that must have been after.”

Yes, after,” he echoed. “Those are … good details, good things to remember.”

Were they? What was this man about and what did he want from her, other than–to quote the sister–cultivate her?

“Your compact is quite intricate,” he said.

“It was my mother’s.” A truth among all the lies. Also something a shop girl like Françoise might not own. Or she might. With the war, one never knew, did they?

“I’m afraid my lipstick won’t last, at least not until…”

Until what, Mari, you fool? The end of the war? Yes, the perfect topic of conversation when speaking to a German officer.

“May I?” He held out his hand.

Mari unclenched her fingers, a slow unfurling that she hoped looked more like pain than reluctance. She passed him the tube–a precious commodity, that. He inspected it with clinical detachment.

“It should last,” he said. “If you’re frugal.”

“How frugal will I have to be, Major?”

“That depends,” he said. “I am not the only official interested in the train accident.” His gaze flickered toward the door and the presence that shadowed the entrance. Plain clothes, not military. Gestapo then?

“You might want to use your compact, freshen up before they speak with you.” He stood and turned his back as if to give her privacy for the task.

A trap or her salvation? And if she took that salvation, what was the cost? The shadows at the threshold stirred. She slipped the list from the false bottom, tore it once, twice, then shoved the pieces into her mouth. The paper was thin, like onionskin, but stuck everywhere–her molars, the roof of her mouth, against her tongue.

The sound that emerged from her throat was muted, barely a cough, but the Major handed her a glass of water. She washed away the list of codes, and he took the glass from her hand with one last bit of advice.

“Remember those good details, Fraulein.”

* * *

It wasn’t the first time silly Françoise had attracted the attention of the Gestapo. It was, however, the first time they asked her about one of their own.

“How well do you know Major Messner, Fraulein?”

“How … well?” Mari scrunched up her forehead, as if terminally confused by the man’s question. His gaunt face reminded her of a cadaver. The war had not been kind to him. She guessed that peace, when it arrived, would be less kind.

Her whole body trembled. But then, she reasoned, little Françoise would also tremble if confronted by the Gestapo.

“He … asked me about the train accident, what I remembered. Then he brought me my purse.” She displayed the compact and the lipstick in outstretched hands almost like making an offering.

“Yes,” the man said. He cast the items a disdainful look, but–opinion aside–swept them up and passed them to his partner. “We need them for our own investigation. This as well.” He caught up her purse and passed that along as well.

“So you’ve never met the Major before?”

“I don’t meet many Germans, only those that come into the shop, and then only Monsieur Reime deals with them because…” She glanced away, eyes downcast.

“Because why, Fraulein?”

She shook her head. “I’m not supposed to know.”

The man leaned forward. “Indeed. And why is that?”

Mari bit her lip. She cast a look at the nun who stood several feet away. In a flash of inspiration, she crossed herself. She pushed forward, and if on cue, the Gestapo agent leaned ever closer.

Préservatifs.” She hid her face in her hands, peering at the men through a v in her fingers. Yes, silly Françoise barely knew what a condom was, never mind having cause to use one. “They … trade in Préservatifs.”

The man’s lips twitched, ever so slightly. His partner looked away, and she had the distinct impression he was laughing.

“Of course, Fraulein,” the man said. “You … shouldn’t know of such things.”

She regurgitated her good details. I remember seeing red–like my lipstick. It’s red, too. And hearing German. But that was after. You must have brought everyone here, to the hospital. That was kind of you.

“Yes, Fraulein, we brought everyone here,” the man said. He stood. “I will still need to take your things.”

She nodded.

“But you have been most helpful.”

She saw the look he gave his partner, a barely contained roll of the eyes for the silly French cow who had nothing on her mind but her bright red purse and lipstick.

Only when they cleared the door did she dare exhale and shut her eyes. And only when the lights were dimmed for the night did she allow herself to cry.

* * *

He was waiting for her when she left the hospital.

Mari walked the cobblestone path with care, oddly out of balance without her purse. Yes, the Gestapo had kept that, and her mother’s compact, and the bright red lipstick. They were no doubt in the hands of some other silly French cow or perhaps a German one. What a prize all three items would make.

The spoils of war.

Major Messner clicked his heels and gave her that slight bow. “You look well, Fraulein. Your bruises are healing.”

She touched her cheek. “Yes. They are.”

“I have something for you.”

What could that be? When he didn’t move, she knew it was her job, as the civilian, the lesser in this relationship, to step closer. So she did. Honestly, hadn’t she taken that step already, back in the hospital?

“Your hand,” he said.

She held it out. A moment later, the tube of bright red lipstick fell into her palm.

“I couldn’t retrieve your purse or the compact. Beautiful item. Lovely craftsmanship. Was it really your mother’s?”

“It was,” she admitted.

“For that, I am sorry.”

She let her fingers curl around the lipstick tube.

“I made the convincing case that I wanted to embark on my own little affair.” He spoke these words not to her, but just past her shoulder, as if absorbed in the sight of the road behind her. Mari nearly turned to see what had captured his attention, but knew she’d discern nothing.

“You might say my … proclivities are well known.” Now he looked at her. “Returning your lipstick would clinch the deal, as you Americans might say.”

Her heart lurched. Her vision tunneled to a single bright point. She stumbled, an ankle twisting beneath her weight. He caught her arm, steadied her.

“It’s all right,” he whispered.

Was it? How could it be? Her mouth dry, she stared up at him, his eyes shaded by the brim of his uniform hat.

“What gave me away?” she whispered.

“Nothing you need worry about.”

She exhaled a jagged rasp.

“Well, truthfully, your accent.”

She’d spoken French as a toddler. Henri always said she had a charming way with words. As Marguerite, she could croon, smoky and seductive.

“You sound like her, a distinct American twang.”

Had that one summer at her grandmother’s–roasting beneath the relentless Savannah sun–betrayed her?

“As I said,” he continued, “nothing you should worry about. I might be the only man in the Reich who might recognize such a thing.”

“Her?” she ventured.

He pressed his lips together, something like a sigh escaping him. “Her name was Rachel. Her father was an American, from Texas, I believe.”

That would account for the twang.

“Her mother was French.” He paused, considered the road behind Mari again. “And a Jew. And Rachel?” He shut his eyes for an instant. “She was stubborn. Even so, I could have saved her.”

Mari nodded, the love affair playing out before her eyes. A young German officer and a Jewess? Yes, that was destined to end badly.

“I chose not to.”

“Would she see it that way?”

His laugh was short and bitter. “I suspect that, if she could, she would ask me that very same thing.”

“What do you want from me?”

It was a bold question, here under the linden trees. Their leaves rattled as if they disapproved of that boldness, of the thought that had entered her head. Would she let this man, this German, this Nazi cultivate her?

Yes. Yes, she would.

“Do you pray, Fraulein?”

“Pray?”

He nodded toward the church at the end of the street. Her mother had worshiped at the altar of Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, and then later, vodka. Her father paid homage to simile and metaphor, not that Hollywood appreciated either. Mari herself had no faith, unless it was the belief her lipstick would last until the end of the war.

“Do you want me to pray for you, Major Messner?”

“I want you to pray for a quick end to this war.”

“What will you do then?”

He stared past her again, his eyes ever alert. Slight movement caught her attention. His hand. His sidearm.

“Then I will pray for your soul,” she said

“Don’t waste your prayers on things that don’t exist.”

The rumble of an automobile caught her up short. The momentary flicker of panic in his eyes shot fear through her. A Citroën rumbled past, sleek and black, its pace slowing to a crawl, the sun glinting off the double chevrons of its grill. The Major leaned in, clutched her chin with a finger and thumb.

“You are so very much like her that I am nearly tempted,” he said a moment before he kissed her.

The car sped up.

In the quiet, he released her. He nodded once, bowed, and Mari took uncertain steps down the lane and toward the church. Her heels clicked, the leaves rattled, and the far off sound of a car backfiring–or of a gunshot–echoed.

The church was cool and dark. Mari covered her head, crossed herself, and collapsed into a pew. She stayed for hours. She thought he might come for her.

He didn’t.

The weight of something, his soul perhaps, drove her to her knees. She knelt, forehead on clasped hands, and prayed to the saint of bright red things–of lipstick and handbags and filigrees of blood in cracked windows. It was far easier than praying for those things that didn’t exist–a French shop girl named Françoise, a Jewess named Rachel, a German officer named Major Messner.

And a lone American named Marigold Jenkins.

The Saint of Bright Red Things was first published in The Binge-Watching Cure.

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Weekly writing check-in: sunrise walks and stories

Well, I didn’t quite make my goal for an outline for the next episode of Coffee & Ghosts, Season 4.

I did get some story notes done, and I’m almost to the point of starting to write.

Sometimes you simply must ponder things, such as: What if the vampire husband is from another dimension?

I mean, really, what if?

That could change everything.

I did do some work on September’s stories (and it’s hard to comprehend that September is right around the corner–how did that happen?), along with some editing and image work, and I hope to get those scheduled very soon.

Otherwise, I took several sunrise walks, got some good thinking time in, and while my mouse friend has vanished (!), I’m hoping she makes an appearance again sometime in the coming week.

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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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