Tag Archives: Fantasy

Free Fiction Friday: Aleag the Great

For November, it’s stories of saying goodbye, letting things go, and endings that bring about new beginnings.

The hue and cry of the villagers woke Aleag from a sound sleep. Dreams of ice and granite shattered, leaving him with the scent of spring in his nostrils—the elusive and tantalizing hint of violet, the heavy perfume of lily of the valley. He stretched, dug his claws into the earth, and peered down the mountain.

The villagers clambered up the mountainside, pitchforks and handcrafted spears clutched in their fists—as if such things could pierce his scales.

Did they need to do this every spring? At best, it was tedious. At worst?

At worse, something—or more likely someone—would knock the delicate balance between human and dragon off-kilter. Aleag was growing weary of the whole charade. He wouldn’t be responsible for the resulting destruction.

At the center of the crowd, a young woman stumbled. Her wrists were bound, her feet bare and oddly pink. Her gown fluttered around her ankles like sea foam. Every few steps, she glanced over her shoulder as if the threat was behind her instead of straight ahead.

Curious, Aleag emerged from his cave, tail casting a graceful arc once free of its confines. Sun glinted off his scales, its heat warming his blood and clearing the last of the icy dreams from his head.

He could taste his next meal in the air.

The villagers approached, scrambling over the last rocks and boulders to reach the outcropping that held his cave. The lord mayor took the lead. The man’s blood trembled in his veins. Aleag could feel it from where he waited.

Interesting how some men conquered fear with the threat of shame.

Then again, when you were offering up such a tasty morsel, courage had little to do with it.

Aleag deigned to meet them at the stake, the location where—year after year—they secured their sacrificial lamb, where—year after year—they would barter.

Aleag always bartered.

After all, he saw no reason to make this easy for them.

* * *

Someone yanked the rope. Lily stumbled forward, more a dog on a leash than a human being. That someone jerked again. Not Peter. No, never Peter, not in his new role as village lord mayor. Peter wouldn’t soil his hands in all this.

The rope passed from villager to villager—her friends, her neighbors, her patients—until, at last, it was Jack who had the unlucky chore of tying her to the stake.

“I’m sorry, Lily,” he whispered, an anxious glance in Peter’s direction.

“No more than I am.”

She’d known from the start that if it ever came to something like this, Jack would choose Peter over her. He always had, always did, and always with an apology.

At least tethered to the stake, she could see her little cottage in the valley below. Still intact. Still safe. Someday, it might prove useful again, if not to her, then someone very much like her.

The dragon approached, footfalls shaking the ground, pebbles scattering down the slope. A few bounced and came to rest against her bare feet, the feeling of them cool against her skin, like a balm. For the first time in a week, her feet stopped their ceaseless ache.

The dragon snuffled and sniffed, the force of his exhales ruffling her hair.

“And you are?” His voice was impossibly low, a quiet murmur meant for her ears only.

“Lily.” She managed that single word with her own quiet power, surprising herself, if not him.

“Of the valley?”

“If that’s what you wish.”

He snuffled again. “I thought I’d detected spring in the air, but I doubt my wishes have anything to do with this proceeding.”

“Then we have that in common.”

He surveyed her with his large yellow eyes, her startled reflection staring back at her from the dark pupil. It was an astonishing thing to be seen so completely. At that moment, Lily felt her entire being exposed—the secrets she kept in the cottage, the ones buried deep in her heart.

“And you are?” She knew his name; all the villagers did. Every spring, they scaled the mountain. Or rather, most of them did. Lily always remained in her cottage out of protest.

Until this spring, anyway.

Still, it only seemed polite to ask.

The dragon inclined his head. “Aleag.”

Peter stepped onto a nearby boulder, out of grasping range, Lily noted. He wore a sky blue sash of silk about his waist, indicating his rank as lord mayor. He puffed up his chest and began to speak.

“Aleag the Great! As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”

“Are you really?” Lily asked under her breath.

A hint of steam rose from the dragon’s nostrils, almost in question. “Am I what?”

“Great.”

The dragon snorted a stream of fire that sent the villagers scampering down the incline. Even Peter tripped and fell backward, Jack’s outstretched arms breaking his fall.

“It would seem,” Aleag said, humor and heat in his words, “that I’m at least adequate.”

When one was staring down certain death, one generally didn’t laugh. And yet. Lily found herself biting back the smile. “What would you need to do to be great?”

“Oh, the usual, I suppose. Crush a few villages beneath my claws, lay waste to the harvest, incinerate a couple of forests.” A sigh rumbled in his chest, the sensation shaking the earth beneath her feet. “I find I lack the enthusiasm for such things.”

Below, the villagers scrabbled back up the mountain, slower this time, their footfalls wary. Peter glared at Lily as if she were the one responsible for his undignified tumble.

Perhaps he had a point.

Lily turned to Aleag. Oh, but he was a fine creature. If not for her untimely end, she could admire him. Indeed, a creature such as this should be worshiped.

“What’s going to happen?” she asked.

Aleag swiveled his head and stared at her with the force of both eyes. Even without the stake and rope, Lily would’ve been trapped by his gaze alone—prey to his predator.

“My child,” he said. “Have you no idea?”

* * *

Peter clawed his way up the boulder a second time. Sweat had sprouted along his spine the moment they’d left the village. Now it coursed, a river overflowing its banks. The back of his tunic was drenched, the stain spreading into the sash’s heavy silk.

Leave it to Lily to make the creature laugh. Laugh! Of all things.

He brushed his hands against his thighs. His wrists ached from the fall, and the tender flesh of his palms—it had been several seasons since he’d worked the harvest—stung. He pulled himself up straight. He was the lord mayor, after all. As such, he was due a certain amount of respect.

“Aleag the Great!” Peter tried for the second time. “As is our tradition, we bring you an offering of spring!”

The dragon scrutinized him, from the top of his head to the bottom of his leather-clad feet. The gaze was unrelenting. Tingling erupted along Peter’s skin, a shower of needles, the sensation both sharp and tantalizing.

This is what these creatures did, of course. They made you crave the pain and welcome your own demise. Peter shook his head, blew out a breath, and cleared his thoughts.

Or tried to.

“An offering.” The words rumbled as if the dragon were bored. “What if I don’t find it … adequate?”

Before Peter could answer, Lily and this … this … this creature exchanged glances. It was as if they both found the situation humorous.

Heat rose in his cheeks. “She is our most treasured asset, our village healer. We do this to honor you.”

“Your healer?” The dragon swiveled his head, that remorseless gaze sweeping over Peter before the creature set its sights on Lily. “Pray tell, why would you sacrifice your healer?”

“To honor you.” Peter puffed out his chest again. He knew, of course, how dragons were, how they wouldn’t accept a sacrifice without some bartering, without knowing what it cost the village. The last lord mayor had told him such. That the most difficult part of the job was selecting a maiden each spring.

Truth be told? This year, it hadn’t been that hard.

“So, when the blacksmith blisters his hand,” Aleag intoned, “the carpenter tumbles from a cottage roof, countless women labor to birth children, are you telling me your healer won’t be missed?”

“There are other healers in this land.”

“Perhaps there are, and perhaps seeing how cavalierly you treat your own, they will decide not to make your village their home.”

“Perhaps, but our village is filled with a number of wise women. We will do without.”

His words sounded tinny, their echo doubling back on him. Behind him, the disgruntled murmur of a dozen of those wise women made his ears burn. Doubt churned in his stomach. He pressed a hand against his belly to steady himself.

Truly, Lily wasn’t that skilled. Truly! Any old fool could coax women through labor and set a broken bone. Yes, Lily had the touch. The mere brush of her fingertips could cool a fever or soothe a colicky infant.

She had brought him back from the brink, certainly. Peter exhaled as if the thickness in his lungs remained. Yes, she’d brought him back; for that, he’d always be grateful. But he could not abide—

“I refused his offer.”

Lily’s words rang clear, loud enough—he swore—to be heard in the valley below.

“Hm?” Aleag’s murmur emerged with a puff of smoke. “What was that, my dear?”

“He proposed,” Lily said. “I refused. Then he threatened me, and I refused again.”

“And now, you’re here.” Aleag swung his head around, that penetrating gaze finding Peter once again. “How interesting.”

* * *

And here Aleag thought this proceeding was going to be a bore. He peered into the crowd. The lord mayor looked, in turns, a putrid, sickly green and flushed to the point of violence. Yes, shame made a man do many things he might later regret.

“We were friends, always had been, since we were children.” Lily twisted, her gaze going from the lord mayor and then to Aleag. “But I had no wish to marry him. I have no wish to marry at all.”

Aleag snorted another stream of smoke. “You are wise beyond your years, my dear.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd. Women near the back bent their heads together, their whispers low and conspiratorial.

“Perhaps,” Aleag began, and now he addressed those beyond the lord mayor and the few men who remained at his side with pitchforks and spears. “Perhaps you should rethink your sacrifice. It seems to me that a man who could be so vindictive is perhaps not the man you want as lord mayor.”

Oh, and now the lord mayor turned a delightful shade of gray. He wobbled in his stance. Shame. Ambition. These things were never good for the soul.

“Stop it.”

Aleag blinked. Lily’s voice halted the soliloquy he’d been brewing in the back of his mind. Indeed, there was so much to work with. The defiant damsel, the spurned lover, the innocuous and yet sly third who hovered in the background. A fierce column of women who looked on the verge of toppling the lord mayor. The men, slowly but certainly slinking down the slope.

“Excuse me, my dear?”

“I said, stop it. Stop toying with us. It’s deliberately cruel, and you know it.”

He stared at her, his gaze unflinching. To her credit, she withstood it. “What is it, then, do you suggest I do?”

She tilted her chin in his direction and held up her bound wrists. “Take your sacrifice.”

* * *

Silence settled on the crowd before a ghastly cry went up. The sound was filled with despair and remorse, and so much shame that it shook Lily to her core.

Peter leaped forward, hands scrambling on the smooth surface of the incline. He pawed his way forward, boots skidding against the rock.

“No!” he cried. “No!”

Lily spun away from him, her whole being intent on the dragon. “Do it. Do it now.”

Aleag gave her a slow blink as if he didn’t need to move, as if time wasn’t of the essence.

“Because it will serve him right?” he asked.

“Because every other outcome is worse.”

Worse for Jack, for Peter, certainly for the village. Even if they couldn’t see it.

“Let me be the last sacrifice this village needs to make.”

Something sparked in Aleag’s expression, a glint in those yellow eyes. His lip curled, revealing the teeth that would soon be the end of her.

And yet, Lily felt … nothing.

No, that was hardly true. Her heartbeat thrummed in her throat, the roar of blood in her ears. She stole one last glance at her little cottage below. It had been a good home. Certainly, until a week ago, it had been a good life as well.

“This is what you want?” the dragon asked.

“It is.”

“Very well, then. I’m more than happy to oblige. You are the smaller morsel, but dare I say, bound to be the tastier one.”

“He with the most teeth gets to say what he wants.”

Aleag snorted yet another stream of smoke. “You have a sharp wit, my dear. Pity I have to eat you.”

“I don’t think you’re capable of pity.”

Those were Lily’s last words. For a moment, she saw the world around her in all its colors—the glorious blue sky, the sun painting clouds on the horizon pink, the green and red-roofed cottages in the village below.

And then everything was black.

* * *

Peter fell to his knees. He was late, much too late. The sweat that coursed down his spine washed across his entire body, his skin flashing cold, then hot, and cold yet again. He mouthed words, senseless things, the only coherent syllable that of an ending chant.

“No, no, no, no.”

The men holding pitchforks let them clatter to the ground. They crept away with barely a glance backward.

The women of the village cast him looks so caustic that certainly his skin would erupt in blisters. They, too, departed down the mountainside, in groups of twos and threes, their murmurs rising upward, taunting him.

Murderer … coward.

Fool.

It was this last that rankled most, although Peter couldn’t say why.

Then, only the three of them remained on the mountaintop: Peter, Jack, and of course, the dragon.

“Was … was she really the last?” Where he found the courage to ask, Peter couldn’t say. His words came out thick and phlegmy. He sounded like a child with a cold, not the lord mayor of a thriving village.

“Indeed. In all the years I have bargained with your village, it’s a wonder no one else ever thought to ask.”

Peter pushed to his feet. He wobbled, only to have Jack steady him by the elbows. He shook off his friend and stumbled forward.

“Are you telling me that all we had to do was ask?”

“Why not? It seems like a reasonable request, does it not? Please stop eating our maidens, if you would, dragon, sir.” Aleag said this last in a singsong, the taunt grating at Peter’s insides.

Peter glanced around, wondering if he might pick up a pitchfork and run this damnable creature through the heart.

“I wouldn’t try if I were you,” Aleag said as if reading his thoughts. “The request would still have required a sacrifice. The previous lord mayor knew as much.”

Peter’s mouth fell open. The air in his lungs grew thin, and his breath came in gasps like he’d never inhale fully and completely again.

“Go,” the dragon ordered. “Leave now. Take this knowledge and become a better leader of your village than he was.”

The creature retreated to his cave. A mist covered the cavern’s opening and settled on Peter’s face like morning dew.

He continued to stand there for a very long time.

At last, Jack plucked his elbow. “She’s gone.”

Peter nodded, his gaze fixed on the cave. He took one long, last shuddering breath and let Jack lead him down the mountainside.

* * *

The aftermath was Aleag’s favorite part. On this side of the mountain, nothing impeded his view—no village, no smoke, no pitchforks—nothing but the endless valley and the river below. He’d take a season—spend time counting the wildflowers in all the nooks and crannies—before deciding where to settle next.

He let his chin rest on his crossed forepaws and waited.

It would be a while before the damsel in distress woke from her slumber.

* * *

What Lily noticed first, she couldn’t say. The sun warming her limbs? The cool stone beneath her back? Or was it the elusive, tantalizing scent of violets washed with fresh pine?

When she opened her eyes, nothing but the dragon filled her view. Sunlight glinted off his scales, and she squinted, raised a hand to her brow until her eyes adjusted.

She was … alive?

“How did you sleep, my dear?” Aleag lifted his head just enough to look at her full on and then settled back down, almost like a hound at the hearth.

She raised herself on one elbow. “What did you do?”

“How did you sleep?” he asked again, not impatient, but certainly implacable.

Lily pushed strands of hair from her cheeks. She sat up and considered how she felt. Refreshed. Renewed. “Very well, actually.”

“I thought as much. A good sign, that.”

“Is it?”

“Indeed. The maidens who sleep the best find the most success on the other side.”

Lily glanced about. Yes, she recognized this side of the mountain. Often she’d trek here, searching out herbs and rare mushrooms, gathering up the profusion of wildflowers that grew in the valleys. “Wait … other maidens?”

“My dear, you don’t think I actually eat any of you, do you?” A shudder ran through his form, scales rippling like water. “Credit me with a bit of taste.”

“Then what do you do with them?”

“Chat for a bit and then send them on their way.”

“On their way … then the sacrifice?”

“Is never returning to the village, never letting anyone know they’re alive. Most agree that’s a small price, considering the alternative.”

“So each spring, they simply walk away?”

“As you will do, as well.”

Lily wrapped her arms around her legs and let her chin rest on her knees. “You agreed never to take another.”

“The time had come. I was growing bored with the whole charade.”

“What will you do?”

“Find a new spot to settle, another mountain. I assure you, the world is filled with mountains, with any number of well-appointed caves.”

Lily stood, stretched. Excitement thrummed in her veins. No, she couldn’t return to her cottage—that was clear—but perhaps she could begin a new life elsewhere. She glanced down at her feet, the skin still aglow with pink from their scalding. Before she went anywhere, she’d need to find some shoes.

“My dear, are you willing to make another exchange?” Aleag nodded at her feet.

“I might be,” she said.

“In that case, do you see that clump of violets over there, in the outcropping?”

They were a lovely bunch, lavender and cream-colored, their scent subtle and sweet. Lily nodded.

“Bring them to me?” The dragon kneaded the ground with his claws. “I don’t possess the dexterity for such matters.”

She gathered the bunch and then continued from there until her arms overflowed with blossoms. She returned to the outcropping and placed them gently in front of Aleag.

He plucked one and then another with tongue and lips, movements precise and dainty. He shut his eyes, and a sigh escaped him, the sound of it pure contentment.

“Thank you, my dear.” He caught her in his gaze and nodded at her feet. “How did you come by such a burn?”

“When I … refused Peter—”

“The lord mayor?”

“Yes, when I refused him, he got upset, knocked my cauldron from the hearth. The stew soaked my shoes.” Lily stepped close and raised the hem of her dress. “I’m lucky it was only a bad scalding.”

Aleag blew a stream of smoke across her skin. It was cool like spring, and fresh. It stole the last of the heat from the burn, the pink fading, the scars healing. Now she shut her eyes in pure contentment.

“Thank you.”

“It was my pleasure. I don’t often partake in such a feast.” Aleag flexed his claws. “I can’t pick them myself, after all.”

The sound of scrabbling caught Lily up short. The noise came from behind her. She spun in time to see Jack scale the lip of the outcropping.

Jack took a few stumbling steps forward and halted. He unslung a knapsack from his shoulders and placed it at Lily’s feet.

“It’s not much,” he said, “but there’s some clothes, good boots, and a few of your books. I hope I chose the right ones, and, of course, your stash of coins from beneath the loose floorboard.”

Lily shook her head. “I … don’t understand.”

“Usually, my grandmother is the one who does this.” Jack peered around her to address Aleag. “I hope you don’t mind, sir.”

“Under the circumstances? Quite understandable.”

“The women in the village? They know?” Really? Then why hadn’t she known?

“Only a few, and I only found out … after everything with Peter.”

Lily took the knapsack and ducked behind a boulder. She emerged dressed and ready for travel.

“Will you come with me?” she asked Jack.

“As far as the crossroads.”

So like Jack, choosing Peter over her. He always had, always did, always would.

“He needs me,” Jack said. “You don’t.”

Yes, perhaps that had always been true.

Lily approached Aleag and placed a kiss against his scaly snout. “You’re a bastard, you know that?”

“Most dragons are, my dear.”

“But thank you.”

“Again, the pleasure was all mine.”

Jack walked with Lily as far as the crossroads. She memorized the feel of his sturdiness next to her, his calloused palm next to her own. She’d miss him.

Even after everything.

* * *

The village prospered under Peter’s reign. The harvest never failed. The forests provided a never-ending supply of game. Every spring, violets covered the mountainside in a blanket of lavender and cream.

The sight always made him think of Lily.

As the years passed into decades, Peter became known as Dragon’s Bane. He never confirmed the rumors—that he had singlehandedly dispatched a dragon from their village.

He never denied them either.

After his third wife died, Peter relinquished his role as lord mayor. He and Jack found a cottage on the outskirts of the village where they tended a few acres of land and spent long evenings in front of the hearth.

It was only then that Jack told Peter the rest of the story.

Aleag the Great is another dragon story written for the (Love) Stories of 2020 project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Mad Scientist Next Door

Wrapping up October with a story about fences, neighbors, and (of course) Halloween.

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That infernal racket

Madam,

I don’t know what possesses you to conduct your experiments at three o’clock in the morning, but on behalf of all our neighbors, I’m begging you to stop immediately.

The solar panels, unsightly as they are, at least provide a function. I concede that the Rube Goldberg machine is educational.

This latest contraption of yours? What, pray tell, is its purpose? Other than to shake my house to its very foundation, I see no reason for its existence. I can’t begin to fathom what you’re doing or what your electricity bill must be.

For the sake of the neighborhood, I implore you to cease at once.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Sir,

What possesses you to be skulking around after dark? I nearly dialed 911 the other night, thinking a prowler was about.

If you must know, I conduct my experiments in the wee hours as a courtesy to the neighborhood, as to not cause a brownout during the summer months. Besides, the Rileys have never complained.

Doctor Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. My electricity bill is none of your business.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Wanda Waverly will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Although a new resident, as owner/manager of the Pick-n-Quick chain of convenience stores, Wanda brings her business acumen to the position of president. We are pleased she has decided to not only call our little community home but has stepped up to serve as well.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Doctor Brandenburg,

The Rileys are far too polite to lodge any sort of complaint. I shall take this to the board and the new president. See if I don’t.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That ghastly eyesore

Really, Doctor? A fence?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That ghastly eyesore

Sir,

My cedar fence is lovely, board-approved, and offers adequate privacy for both parties. Of course, this assumes that one party does not skulk about during the witching hour with his ear pressed against the slats.

Speaking of eyesores, tell me, please, how long that cauldron has been moldering on your front lawn. A few flakes found their way into my yard, and I conducted several tests. My estimate is at least fifty years.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Bylaws

To clarify some points brought up in last night’s association meeting:

  • All structures, temporary or permanent, must not exceed the dimensions outlined in appendix D of the H.H.A. bylaws.
  • Lawn ornaments are limited to three, must be no taller than two feet, and considered generally tasteful.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: You win

Sir,

I cannot believe you are so petty as to lodge a complaint against my fence. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you of some sort of witchcraft. I measured the boards myself, and I know they were in compliance with the bylaws.

But down it goes until next spring.

E. Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Good riddance

Dear Doctor,

It is hardly my fault if you cannot competently wield a ruler.

A.P.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Good fences

Sir,

I always thought Frost was being ironic when he wrote good fences make good neighbors.

Now I know better.

E. Brandenburg

P.S. Your animosity toward me is one thing, but the Riley’s play structure as well? Shame, sir. Shame on you.

P.P.S. Don’t bother to respond. I’ve blocked your email, and any additional missives from you will go straight to spam.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Halloween

To clarify some additional points from the previous association meeting:

  • Due to safety concerns, the annual Halloween parade has been suspended indefinitely.
  • Any structure erected for a holiday event needs approval, in writing, from the H.H.A. board ninety days in advance.
  • All items handed out for trick-or-treat must be wrapped and sealed. The Pick-n-Quick outside the main gate is offering H.H.A. members a 5% discount on all candy.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Wrapped treats

Mr. Payne,

I left some cellophane wrappers on your front porch. I constructed them based on the treats you distributed after last year’s Halloween parade. I think you will find that they will provide adequate coverage and pass muster with the board.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. The eldest Riley child, Alyssa, works as my apprentice, as you may already know. She’s informed me that contrary to my earlier accusation, you have toiled to … modify the Riley’s play structure so it conforms to the bylaws.

I’m not sure how you accomplished this. My own tools are finely calibrated, and certainly, the inspector for the H.H.A. possesses adequate ones. No need to tell me. The squeals and laughter from the Riley’s backyard are all I need to hear.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Wrapped treats

Doctor Brandenburg,

Let me extend my gratitude for the wrappers. While they caused a few raised eyebrows (I thought our esteemed president’s would vanish into her hairline), my treats were—undeniably—wrapped and sealed.

And thus, Halloween—along with the Riley’s play structure—was salvaged, at least somewhat.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. I could explain how the glamour on the play structure works, but that would defeat its purpose.

P.S.S I sorely missed your yearly light show.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Halloween

Mr. Payne,

Well, yes, everyone loves a Tesla coil—or nearly everyone. I find myself nostalgic for previous Halloweens—the parade, the costumes, the children’s cries of delight when you unveil the gingerbread house. I don’t see the point in denying them all that.

I must confess that this year simply didn’t feel like Halloween.

True, my sugar skeletons always pale in comparison to your gingerbread people. I suspect the adults only take my treatises out of pity (and no one thinks “trick or treatise” as amusing as I do). Of course, everyone leaves before the anatomy lecture.

And yet, I’ve come to rely on Halloween, along with the Hemlock block party, as a way to interact with my neighbors. This year’s curtailed celebration has hit me harder than I care to admit.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Halloween

My dear Doctor,

I wish to assuage your melancholy. Trust that I have lived enough years to see more than my fair share of petty tyrants. I predict this Wanda Waverly will move on in due course to terrorize yet another homeowners association.

In the meantime, I will spend the winter working with the beautification committee and planning next spring’s gardens. They will be spectacular.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. Trick or treatise is beyond charming. If I promise no tricks, may I read one of your treatises?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: the gardens

Dear Mr. Payne,

Botany has never been my forte, but I eagerly await the coming spring’s glory that is your garden. How you outdo yourself every year, I simply cannot fathom. The Hemlock Community entryway is the envy of all.

I do, however, have some thoughts on streamlining the irrigation system. Please refer to the schematics in the attached PDF.

Yours truly,

Emilia

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Spring has sprung!

Can you believe winter is finally over? Whew! That was a long one.

In anticipation of spring and all it brings, I would like to announce the following changes, effective immediately:

The beautification committee has been disbanded. Instead, H.H.A. has hired a landscaping company that will take over the planting and care of the foliage around the community’s entryway and main gate.

Regarding the main gate, H.H.A. has contracted with a security company for the front entrance. The gate will be locked at midnight every evening and unlocked at six in the morning.

Happy spring, everyone!

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: The Main Gate

It has come to the board’s attention that locking the main gate between the hours of midnight and six a.m. has put undue hardship on some residents of Hemlock Community.

Rest assured, we only had your safety in mind when we implemented these rules. Our aim was to keep out any undesirables that might threaten the residents.

That being said, this is no excuse for deliberate sabotage! When the perpetrator is found, justice will be swift.

The board can (and will!) revoke membership in the H.H.A. Without membership, the perpetrator can no longer live in Hemlock Community. Further, the board can (and will!) foreclose on the perpetrator’s house and subsequently evict him or her. See paragraph four, sub-paragraph three in the bylaws.

In the meantime, to pay for a security upgrade to the main gate, including keycards for all residents, we will use the funds earmarked for the annual block party.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: last night’s meeting

Alistair,

I thought my heart would burst from my chest during last night’s meeting.

Would they have poor Mrs. Riley wait outside the gate for hours on end? I simply let her inside the development. That’s hardly a crime. And yet, I’m certain this Waverly woman suspects it was me.

Granted, everyone who’s about during the later hours knows that Mrs. Riley and I often share conversation over a cup of tea when she returns from her shift.

Although, really, even with the upgrade, this new security system is laughable. It’s not keeping anyone out, although I suspect it’s keeping many of us in.

Of course, with a little rewiring … nothing a child of five couldn’t do … except for rigging the system to play The Imperial March whenever Wanda Waverly drives through the main gate.

Now, in the light of day, I concede that may have been taking things too far.

And yet, I find that I can’t regret it, either.

Yours,

Em

P.S. The Imperial March is from a movie called Star Wars. I’ve included a link to an article about it on Wikipedia.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: last night’s meeting

Emilia,

Taking things too far? Not nearly far enough. I’ve been offering the landscaping company my expertise, gratis of course. Not that they’ve taken any of my advice. The poor hydrangeas; they may never recover.

Ah, but they’re a loquacious crew, and I’ve unearthed an interesting fact. The owner of this company is Wanda Waverly’s daughter.

What a strange, petty nepotism this is.

Alistair

P.S. You have me pegged. My ignorance of current cultural phenomena provides the Riley children with endless hours of amusement. I no doubt will provide this same service to their grandchildren.

I do, however, have a passing familiarity with Star Wars. The franchise appears to have a number of vocal and passionate devotees.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That hideous sign in your front yard

Emilia,

I could not believe the sight that greeted my eyes upon waking this morning.

A For Sale sign? I’m not certain what’s worse—the garish design or how the support appears to impale your front yard.

Tell me all that’s the matter. Certainly, things aren’t so dire as this?

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That hideous sign in your front yard

Alistair,

Indeed things are that dire. Every time I step off my front porch, there she is, that Waverly woman, clipboard in hand.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received five citations. One more, and I forfeit my home. If I can’t find a buyer, the association can (and will!) foreclose on my house.

Beyond that, I suspect she, or the board, or someone is throttling the power supply into my house. I was conducting a delicate experiment in my third-floor laboratory the other day, one that needed a constant stream of electricity.

Suffice to say that I did not achieve that constant stream of electricity. Suffice to say I no longer have a functional third-floor laboratory—or eyebrows.

Worst of all? I was accosted last night. As you know, it’s my habit to stroll through the development in between experiments. It clears my head and refreshes me. But last night, a security guard curtailed my walk. He said I wasn’t allowed to stroll after midnight.

When did the development start employing roving security guards? Did I miss that announcement? Although he was, to use your own term, rather loquacious. Did you know that the owner of the security company is Wanda Waverly’s nephew?

In distress,

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The gloves come off

My dearest Emilia,

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve weathered my fair share of petty tyrants. Remind me to tell you how I thrice defeated eminent domain claims on this particular plot of land. The Payne residence remains, as it has for … let’s say, decades.

I cannot abide by this treatment of my friends and neighbors. I’m uncertain of what I shall do, but trust me, dear Doctor, I will do something.

Alistair

P.S. Your estimate about the cauldron is correct, or nearly so. It’s been there for a good sixty years. It’s a stubborn thing, and I cannot convince it to move. That it just barely meets the prescribed dimensions for lawn ornamentation no doubt vexes Wanda Waverly greatly.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

My dear Alistair,

So which am I? A friend or merely a neighbor?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

You, my dear Doctor, have the rare distinction of being both.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Worried

My dear Alistair,

I do not like the look of that strange mist that surrounds your house. It feels malevolent to me. As unscientific as that sounds, I stand by that assessment.

I do not pretend to understand your craft. However, I know that any work created in the throes of anger will not have the desired outcome.

Yes, I know you witnessed this morning’s sixth citation. The entire neighborhood was privileged to witness that event. If you truly want to help, perhaps you could make my third-floor laboratory vanish. I’ll never find a buyer at this rate.

Please, my dear friend, I beg of you. Don’t do anything you may regret.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

Have you read that fairy tale? I wouldn’t say our current association president is wandering around naked (certainly there’s a stipulation against that in the bylaws, but I digress). She does, however, have a few transparency issues.

I have an idea, one that does not involve my craft or your discipline. Are you willing to hear me out? I’ll meet you at our adjoining property line at the witching hour.

Yours,

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Alistair,

I am still completely flabbergasted, even after sleeping on the idea.

Do you really think it will work? I cannot possibly be the best choice. After all, you’ve lived here longer than I have. You would hold more sway, would you not?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

I have lived everywhere longer than you have. I am set in my ways, set in my craft. If you were to flip open one of those illustrated dictionaries, you would find my portrait next to the entry for curmudgeon. Were I not to get my way, I’d be tempted to conjure a few special apples or perhaps an unsightly pox.

You, on the other hand? With your keen mind and willingness to take in data, experiment, adjust your hypothesis based on new information? How you eagerly gather input and listen to those around you?

Why, yes, you are obviously the best choice for this endeavor.

I have every confidence in you.

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Curmudgeon

This, from the man who handcrafts a life-size gingerbread house for the neighborhood children each Halloween? And then sends them home with pocketsful of treats?

Oh, yes, you are quite the curmudgeon.

Em

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Last night

Oh, my dearest Alistair, please tell me you did not employ your craft to sway last night’s outcome.

I can hardly believe it’s true. But if it is, I want it to be an honest prize.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Last Night

My dear Doctor, you wound me. Do you think I would employ enchantment to obtain what I want?

Yes, yes, I might. Certainly, in the past, I have. In this case? Other than canvassing on your behalf and ensuring there was no subterfuge from any quarter, I performed no other tasks.

Alistair

P.S. Besides, I can hardly cook up an enchantment with my cauldron on my front lawn, can I now.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Dr. Emilia Brandenburg will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Emilia has made Hemlock her home for the past five years and has—quite literally—brightened the entire development. We look forward to her fresh ideas and vast experience in her new role as president.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Bylaws and Halloween

Effective immediately:

  • The annual Halloween parade will take place starting at 6:30 p.m. on the 31st. Everyone is invited to participate.
  • The beautification committee will reform under the auspices of Mr. Alistair Payne in time to decorate the entryway and parade route. All volunteers are welcome.
  • A belated block party and impromptu association meeting will take place in front of the gingerbread house at the end of the Halloween parade.

Emilia Brandenburg
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Halloween

My dearest Em,

To assuage any doubt you might be feeling this morning: You were simply splendid in your new role, as I knew you would be.

You will make a fine president.

With all my admiration,

Alistair

P.S. Your Tesla coil was magnificent.

This is the second outing for my curmudgeon witch Alistair Payne. He first appeared in Letters of Smoke and Ash.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Mini-release Monday: Dragon Whispers

Dragon Whispers: Six Tales of Dragon Adventure and Lore

Here be dragons … six of them.

Often mercurial, preternaturally perceptive, always inscrutable.

What if you had to barter for your village while tied to a stake? Or if the one thing you always wanted—a dragon of your own—was forever denied? Where might a midnight chase through a stately hotel lead?

From adversary to lover to devoted friend, from epic to urban fantasy—follow six heroines as they encounter six very different dragons. They’ll barter and bargain, chase and be chased, and in the end, learn the true meaning of dragon’s bane.

Dragon Whispers gathers together the dragon stories from The (Love) Stories for 2020 project:

  • Aleag the Great
  • Knight at the Royal Arms
  • Fire and Ivy
  • Dragon’s End
  • Heart Whisper
  • Dragon’s Bane

Let the adventure begin!

Don’t buy this book!

All right, you certainly can buy this book. I’m not going to stop you.

However, all the stories in it have (or will) appear as part of The (Love) Stories for 2020 project. So you can absolutely read them for free as well (Aleag the Great and Heart Whisper are scheduled for November). Plus, I’ll be releasing a compilation of all the 2020 stories at the end of the year.

So why release this (somewhat) slender compilation and then tell people not to buy it? Reverse psychology?

No, actually, I have a couple of reasons for doing this. As I was working on the project, I discovered I had dragon stories—in my head and on my hard drive—enough to create their own compilation.

These themed compilations sell surprisingly well for me–in markets you can’t really see. Library pay-per-checkout, print library sales, print sales via Ingram, and subscription services like Kobo Plus and Scrib. I have books that don’t sell on any of the e-retailer sites (and have the Amazon rank to prove it, ha!) but sell in print.

Unfortunately, it’s a murky thing. I can’t tell where these books are selling (most of the time), so my only recourse is more = better.

Also, it’s been more than a year since I’ve released something new. It’s always good to practice the steps since things change all the time.

But most of all, it was fun. I enjoy the production side of things almost as much as the writing. And maybe it’s a result of 2020, but it feels good to make something and put it out into the world.

So, sure, go buy the book if you wish, but if you’re in a reviewing sort of mood, I’d love some of those as well. Drop me a line, and I’ll send you an electronic copy.

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Filed under Books, Publishing, Reading

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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Filed under Audio Books, Publishing, Reading

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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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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Free Fiction Friday: Dragon’s End

Sometimes the end is just the beginning.

The knock on my door comes before sunrise. Three quick raps that sound sharp and official. When I answer and see Mayor Simos on my stoop, the words sharp and official sear my thoughts.

“It’s time,” she says.

Her face is creased from sleep and the weight of her office. A breeze rustles loose strands of her hair, wisps escaping the coronet braids.

I want to ask time for what, but her expression is cold and foreboding. I know I don’t want the answer.

“Bring your tools,” she adds, and then, almost as an afterthought, “and the book.”

Ah, yes. The book. A simple word that answers all my questions.

I know where it is, of course, locked in the trunk at the foot of my bed. The key, heavy cast iron, weighs down the cord looped around my neck. The cast iron flashes cold, then hot, against my skin.

I’m not certain I remember how to insert the key into the lock, not certain I can lift the lid. I haven’t done so since my grandmother passed the book to me before she passed on herself.

“Miri,” the mayor prompts, and she is all sharp edges with a razor-like gaze.

“Yes, sorry. Just a minute.”

I don’t invite her in. Instead, I shut the door against the protest that’s forming on her lips. I sag against the wood. There are few privileges to being me, but this is one of them.

The trunk at the foot of my bed is ancient and solid. The wood is reinforced with iron bands, the lock larger than both my fists. The key slips into the lock easier than I think it should. The tumblers click with far more assurance than I feel.

When I lift the lid, a fine layer of dust bursts into the air, filling my mouth, grit stinging my eyes. My nose twitches, but I hold in the sneeze.

I stare at the inside of the trunk, at the items I thought I’d never need to use. The saw with its serrated edge. The plane and the awl. The long, elegant pick with the hook at its tip. I pack these into a canvas bag. Next comes the book.

No one has touched it since my grandmother wrapped it in linen and placed it here. The trunk itself hasn’t moved in decades. I now sleep in the bed she slept in, the bed she died in.

The second my fingertips brush the linen, I’m afraid the soft material will crumble in my hands. The book must remain wrapped, at least for the trip to the caves. After that? Well, after that, I guess we’ll see what’s inside.

I open the door on Mayor Simos, her fist poised to knock. The reprimand is sharp in her eyes until her gaze lands on the bundle in my arms.

Even Mayor Simos respects the book.

The sun casts a glow on the horizon. There’s enough light to paint the sky indigo. And enough that I can see the playground where the village children gallop and run with the hatchlings, the earth bare and packed from feet, claws, and the swish and thump of tails.

When I was younger, I sat far back from the playground, up in the tree that shades the house my grandmother—and now I—live in. With my belly flush against a thick branch, my arms wrapped tight, I’d watch, envy fizzing inside me.

I wanted a hatchling of my own. I wanted to be chosen.

I am, of course. Chosen, that is. The book in my arms is proof of that. But I would never choose this path for myself. I would never choose it for anyone else, either.

Mayor Simos leads the way. Her coat, trimmed with gold braid, sways as we trudge toward the foothills north of the village. Cottages give way to pastures until we reach the foothills. The sun crests the horizon. Its warmth touches the back of my neck, almost like it’s urging me forward.

Tendrils of smoke issue from the caves. These caves, the ones closest to the village, are not our destination. This is where the hatchlings sleep. Their gentle snoring makes me think of puppies dozing by the fire. Somewhere, deep down, that envy fizzes once again.

Mayor Simos casts a glare over her shoulder as if my longing is both tangible and unseemly. I will my expression to remain placid, and we continue our trek up the mountain.

The snoring grows deeper, more sonorous the farther up we go. The cave openings are larger. If you were to wander inside, you might be lost for days—or forever. It would all depend on the humor of the occupant.

At last, we reach the final cave on this branch of the path. Dragon’s End, we call it. Nothing but blackness pours from the entrance. Worse is the silence. I strain my ears, hoping for a muted snore, but hear nothing.

“How long?” I ask.

“Five days, we think,” Mayor Simos says. “It’s hard to tell. They don’t need much in their retirement, so the shepherds seldom visit more than once a week.”

I nod as if this is vital information I can use. It isn’t. I have no idea what will greet me when I enter the cave.

We stand at the entrance for so long it becomes clear that Mayor Simos is waiting on something. Profound words? A dismissal? I don’t know. But there is one thing I’m sure of.

I go in alone.

I turn to do just that, but the mayor takes my arm.

“Miri, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“It may have been more than five days.”

“Has no one come around to check?”

I see the answer in her gaze. No, no one has, perhaps not for a very long time.

Instead of envy, anger bursts to life inside me. How could no one check? You could send a child of five up the slope. It isn’t dangerous. They care for our own in the way we do their hatchlings. They would never harm a child.

I clutch the book to my chest, the linen rustling in my hands.

“I’m sorry,” Mayor Simos says again. “I should’ve sent someone around. I simply didn’t think…”

I shake my head and shake away her apology. Maybe it’s her fault. Maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure it matters. No one in living memory has performed this task. Even my grandmother was a small girl when her own grandmother told her of the last dragon tended to in this manner. That tale has been lost over time. No one knows, for certain, what happened.

This is not supposed to be happening. I was never meant to take this trek up the path. I was supposed to live my quiet life. At some point, I’d give birth to a girl, who in time, would birth one of her own. I would pass the tools and the book onto my granddaughter. This undertaking is one that skips a generation.

Dragons live for such a long time. Chances of any of them needing our services are inestimably small. None of us ever thinks we’ll be the one to journey up the mountain, enter a dark and foreboding cave, crack open the book, and read the words inside.

After that? Here’s where the oral instructions become vague. My grandmother wouldn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—tell me.

I go in alone. Without Mayor Simos. Without any counsel. Without any hope of coming out again.

I draw in a breath. The sun has touched the valley below us. If I listen hard, the delicate snoring of the hatchlings fills my ears. I step forward, the cool air of the cave washing over me. Before I can dive in, before I can fully commit, Mayor Simos touches my arm.

“The book,” she says.

Ah, yes. The book. I consider it now, still clutched against my chest.

“In a week,” I say. “Send someone in for it. A child would be best.”

Her grip on my arm tightens.

“They would never harm a child,” I add. No matter what mess is left in my wake, this mountain possesses enough residual enchantment for a child to navigate into and back out of the cave. “A hatchling, perhaps, could go with them.”

Her grasp lessens, but I still feel her fingers against my skin. I don’t know what else she can tell me, but I want to enter the cave before she delivers any additional bad news.

So I wrench free, my arm and then sleeve slipping from her hold. I dive into the cave, committing fully. This is one rule I know, the one rule my grandmother insisted I follow.

Once past the threshold, do not hesitate.

* * *

But I do. I halt several steps inside the cave. Behind me, the entrance is barely a flicker of light. Before me? The cave splits in two, no four, no six directions.

“Which do I choose?” I say these words aloud as if there’s something else in the cave with me, something sentient and far cleverer than I am.

Nothing answers my plea except for the echo of my own voice, tiny and forlorn. I peer down each tunnel, but nothing distinguishes one from the other. Perhaps they all lead to where I need to go. Perhaps that’s why there’s no need to hesitate.

I pick the fourth tunnel, simply because I like the number four, and stride forward. The moment I do, a rumbling sounds behind me.

Rocks tumble and slide down the sides of the cave. I dash forward, pebbles and stones chasing after me. The walls of the cave shake. The earthen floor trembles, my feet skidding on the unstable surface. At last, a final boulder fills the path and blocks the entrance completely.

Yes. Of course. Do not hesitate.

I take quick, shallow breaths in the dust-laden air. The taste of earth fills my mouth. My heart thunders, much like the rocks and stones did. I wait until the dust and my breathing settle.

I peer toward the entrance. “How will they retrieve the book now?” I’m not sure who—or what—I’m asking. The rocks that block the path? Whatever force sent them tumbling in the first place?

As if in answer, a hint of sulfur rides the air.

“I guess that’s their problem, not mine.”

A rumble reaches me. I want to say it sounds like a laugh or, at the very least, a snort. More likely, the rocks are merely settling.

It’s not dark. At least, not as dark as it should be. A thin sliver of light emanates from the depths of the mountain. I’ve already hesitated enough.

I follow the only path open to me.

* * *

The strap of my canvas sack bites into the flesh of my shoulder. My arms ache from clutching the book. My fingers cramp from where I’ve gripped the sides. I can feel the hours I’ve trekked in my legs. My mouth is parched.

The muted light guides me. It’s barely there, this sliver of illumination. I don’t question it. To question it is to lose it, and I can ill afford to lose this one small advantage.

I have no provisions, didn’t think to bring any. Slowly, over the past hours, my anger at the shepherds has simmered into sympathy. How do you care for something can’t find?

And if I can’t find the dragon? What then?

The thought makes me stumble. I reach out a hand, my aim the cave wall, or really anything to keep me from falling, breaking an arm—or worse, a leg. The moment my fingers brush against the cave’s surface, a golden glow fills the space.

I remain there, palm flush with the cave wall, the stone cool beneath my touch. The glow around me, however? That looks warm and inviting. My eyes adjust, and I step closer to inspect the source.

Embedded in the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor are coins, layer after layer of them. Gold and silver shine forth. The coin of our realm, yes, that’s expected, but it’s more than that. I trace my fingers along the bumps and edges, trying to discern the languages written there. They are either from places too far away or too long ago for me to recognize.

I continue forward.

Other hues join the gold and silver of the coins, the walls now studded with gems—rubies and sapphires and emeralds. Some fall as I pass, as if the slight breeze from my movements is enough to dislodge them from their perch in the cave wall.

I wonder at this. Did the shepherds never wander this deep into the cave? A single gem could keep a family fed for generations. Certainly, the dragons allow this sort of barter—a small token in exchange for care.

A wave of dizziness strikes me. The air is, perhaps, a bit thin back here. Still, it would be worth the journey, even without the lure of riches. I don’t understand why no one has ventured this far into the cave. I would gladly tend to a dragon, were I to have one.

Gladly.

The dizziness crashes over me again, forcing me to my knees. Before me, the path is pristine. Behind me, my footsteps are sharp outlines in the dust. No one has been this way for ages. My chest tightens until pain radiates along my breastbone. I’m not truly dizzy. I’m not deprived of air. This is something else, something that’s simmered and fizzed for a long time.

All I ever wanted was a hatchling of my own.

What I have now is someone’s loyal and neglected companion, a creature who, while not dead, is not that far away from death.

Dragons can be killed, certainly. In battle. With the sharp edge of a sword angled just so or with boulders flung with catapults. But they can’t die naturally, not as humans do. As part of our alliance, we offer them this one, final service.

It falls to one family, generation after generation. This family is forbidden any other contact with dragons, from hatchlings to elders. It’s said to contaminate the pact. Often we’re never called upon to complete this final task.

Until we are.

Like today.

* * *

I find my breath. A few moments later, I muster the strength to stand and for the journey still ahead of me. The cave glows blood-red now from the gemstones in the walls. Perhaps this is intentional, meant as a warning, and my pulse beats in my throat.

I round a bend in the cave. And there, just like that—blocking my way forward—is a dragon. Its girth at midsection blocks my view of its tail and the cave beyond. I can only assume there’s a cave beyond, at any rate. Perhaps the cave ends here, and the dragon, grown so vast in old age, can no longer crawl free.

The claws on its forelimbs shine like mother of pearl. Its eyes are closed, mouth as well. If the creature breathes, I cannot detect it. Perhaps someone—a shepherd, maybe—has already done my job.

But there is no stench of death, of decay. The cave is dry, the air scented with a strange mix of brimstone and pine. It is not unpleasant.

I ease the canvas sack from my shoulder. The tools jangle, and I freeze, afraid the noise will wake the dragon.

It doesn’t move.

I place the book, still in its linen wrap, on the floor as well.

I don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the answers are in the book. That’s why it’s been passed down from generation to generation, cared for, but never read. I’ve never even been tempted before. I only ever wanted a dragon, never to kill one.

With careful fingers, I unwrap the linen. The leather cover is worn, the gold embossed title barely legible. I turn to the first page and find …

Nothing.

I flip to another page, and then another. I tear through the book, unconcerned with its age or condition. Nothing but yellowed parchment greets me. No words, not even barely legible ones in faded ink. All the pages are blank. At last, I stand and shake the book, hoping for a loose page or a note or something to flutter to the cave floor.

“I don’t understand.”

I whisper the words. They swirl in the space around me, their echo soft yet insistent before the sensation of being scrutinized washes over me.

I glance up and find myself staring into the golden eye of an ancient dragon.

* * *

Everything I thought I knew about my task has vanished. I’m to take my tools, the book. I am to perform what amounts to last rites for an ancient dragon. It will be in such a deep sleep that the steps I must perform to end its life won’t disturb it. This, my grandmother assured me.

Now that ancient dragon is gazing at me. A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils. Again, that odor of brimstone and pine surrounds me. I can taste the smoke against my tongue. The book slips from my fingers and crashes to the cave floor.

“I see they’ve sent me a child.”

The voice is deep and sonorous. It rolls through the space and shakes my bones.

“I’m no child.” My voice quavers, but the words come stronger than I expect. I lift my chin. “I live on my own,” I insist, as if this is proof of my maturation.

The dragon snorts a spurt of smoke. “Little more than a hatchling.”

“What am I to do?” I point to the book. “It doesn’t say.”

“Doesn’t it? Are you quite certain?”

Oh, spare me mind games with an ancient dragon. I’m ill-equipped for this sort of sparring. Besides, it must know even if I don’t. But it will no doubt make me work for that knowledge.

“Am I to kill you?” I see no reason not to be blunt.

“Are you? That seems rather rude. We’ve only just met, after all.”

“Then am I your…?” I trail off, a wholly different thought occurring to me.

“Sacrificial lamb, the morsel meant to appease me?” It tilts its head so both glowing yellow eyes can survey me, from the top of my head to the tips of my dusty boots. “You’re rather small for that.”

“Then, what am I?”

Its claws retract and then rake the earthen floor in front of me. “What you are, my child, is very much stuck.”

* * *

I very much am. Stuck, that is. Had the shepherds performed their assigned tasks, there would be provisions in here, a cistern of water at least.

“Why am I here?”

“Have you consulted your book?”

I spear it with a glare. Without water, I won’t live out the week. So I will be fierce in my dealings with the dragon.

The creature snorts another laugh. “Humans, always so inquisitive, and yet, so oddly obedient. Did it never occur to you to have a peek inside? Gird your loins for your one task in life?”

Well, no, it hadn’t. I spent my time gazing at the hatchlings. “I never wanted this.”

“Well, it seems to me you have it.” A sigh rumbles in its throat, dual streams of smoke rising from its nostrils. “A child, and an incurious one at that. What a disappointment.”

“At least it’s mutual.”

“Oh, perhaps this child has some fire, after all.”

The dragon looks not at me, but past me with so much concentration, I must resist the urge to glance over my shoulder. That’s what it wants, of course. But no one shares this space with us.

“We seem to have reached an impasse,” the dragon says. “You have no idea how to complete your task—”

“Do you?”

The dragon regards me with narrowed eyes before continuing. “It’s any guess who will succumb first. I will be reduced to some nether-slumber while you.” Once again, it surveys me from head to foot. “Will eventually shrivel up. Will I be conscious long enough to blow the dust of your bones from this spot? Who’s to say? Shall we place bets? Winner take all?”

My heart thuds heavily in my chest, a slow, painful sort of beat. Perhaps this is why elder dragons are banished to the upper caves. All I ever wanted was a hatchling, a dragon of my own. But this one? It’s an old, bitter, cruel thing, and I want nothing to do with it.

There’s no escaping its girth, but I find an outcropping of rocks on the side farthest from the dragon. I take my tools and the book.

Yes, even the book. The leather is soft enough, and so are the pages. It will make an adequate pillow. Perhaps that’s all it was ever meant to be.

“Ah, yes, and now the poor thing pouts.” Its words are a mere whisper, although clearly, it wants me to hear them. “I abhor tears,” the dragon adds, louder now. “So, if at all possible, refrain from crying.”

This last is the only thing we agree upon.

I comply.

* * *

In my dream, I am a warrior, a dragon as my mount. In my dream, we soar through the air, dodging arrows alight with flame. In my dream, the roar of battle shakes my bones.

My eyes fly open. The roar continues even as my dream fades. The world is dark, my bed like stone, nothing but the scent of brimstone and pine.

Then I remember.

The roaring grows ever louder. In the middle of the cave, the dragon thrashes its head. Its eyes are shut tight. It must be dreaming. The same sort of dream? Of battlefields and fire? Or is this something more, something worse?

It thrashes again. The agony in its cry races up my legs, my spine, settles at the base of my skull. I don’t think. I do not hesitate.

I rush forward, dodging its swinging head, nearly eclipsed by its jaw. I’ve never touched a dragon before. But from my perch in the tree, I’ve watched the village children do this so many times.

I leap and wrap my arms around the dragon’s neck. I hold on with all my strength even as my legs swing beneath me. One foot connects with the dragon’s chest, although I doubt it feels the impact.

“Shh.” I keep my voice low and soothing. There’s a trick to this, to the hushing of dragons. To say I have no training is true. But I listened; I practiced using that same tree branch. “Shh.”

Its head continues to swing, but slower now. My arms ache, but I clutch its neck, my feet scraping the cave floor.

“Evelynne … Evelynne.”

The cry rips through me. I’ve been so consumed with wanting a dragon of my own that I never considered what happens when the human a hatchling first bonds with is killed or dies.

How many humans does a dragon lose during its lifespan?

It could make you bitter. It could make you cruel. Perhaps this is why, at a dragon’s end, they are banished to the upper caves.

“Evelynne.”

The dragon’s swaying comes to an abrupt halt. I dangle from its neck. I cannot see its face, but I suspect those great golden eyes are now open.

I let go and drop to the cave floor.

It takes one look at me and then collapses as if its head is too heavy for its neck.

* * *

I am a bitter disappointment. The yellow gaze the dragon casts tells me that. I remain immobile on the cave floor, palms against the dusty surface.

“You should not know how to do that,” it says.

No, I shouldn’t.

“Lace your hands,” it commands.

So I do. True, it took years to learn the correct placement, of which finger goes where. Incorrect placement of fingers, of hands against a dragon’s neck will enrage rather than soothe. It’s a skill even those with hatchlings find difficult to perfect. Indeed, I had no idea if I was performing it correctly at all.

Until now.

“How do you come by this knowledge, child?” A fiery edge laces the dragon’s words, and its displeasure tastes like sulfur.

“My house overlooks the village playground.” My voice comes out steady and dull. “I would watch the hatchlings and the children. I would practice on a tree branch.”

“There’s more to it than that.” The dragon shakes its enormous head, its jaw whooshing mere feet above me. “There’s the bonding, the spellcasting. You should not … we should not.”

Because it’s forbidden, this contact. No thrill of fear courses through me, no regret. I would gladly calm this creature once again, given half a chance. I would gladly do it even if it meant my death. To prove it, I push to stand and anchor my hands on my hips.

Those great amber eyes blink, a shuttering of its gaze. When the dragon opens its eyes once again, something has shifted in its expression.

“What have they done to you, child?”

I shake my head, uncertain what it means.

“Why sequester the most talented humans like that?” The dragon murmurs the words, the question meant for its own pondering rather than for me.

Despite that, I decide on my own question. “Why do they banish the old ones to the caves?”

The dragon swings its head around so quickly that I’m nearly flattened against the floor. It regards me for a moment before speaking again.

“Forgive me, child.”

“Whatever for?”

“My temper, my rash judgment. Undoubtedly I’ve lived long enough not to give in to either.”

“Or maybe it’s because you have lived so long you gave into both.”

Something sparks in that golden gaze. Its lip curls, revealing sharp and gleaming teeth. “Yes. Precisely. Do you suppose they count on that?”

Do they? I glance back at the way I came. Even if I had strength and time on my side, digging through the debris would be impossible. I peer into the darkness behind the dragon’s girth.

“What is at the other end?” I ask.

“Other than my tail?”

“Yes.” I laugh because its tone is sly and full of humor. “Other than that.”

“A dead end, appropriately enough.”

I turn my gaze upward and follow the trajectory of the smoke that rises from the dragon’s nostrils.

“That is merely a thin layer of rock,” I say.

“Oh, my child, I am old.”

“So old as that? Truly?”

“My wings. I—”

The walls around us groan, and the dragon trembles with the effort to spread its wings.

“You see,” it adds. “I have tried.”

“But, they have given me tools.” I race to the alcove and weigh each tool in my palm, judging the merits of each. I return with the awl.

I hold it up so the dragon can see.

“Indeed,” it intones. “That was their mistake.”

The dragon lowers its head. A thousand times, I have seen the children and their hatchlings perform this maneuver. I step carefully, only lighting a foot on its forehead before settling between its horns.

Something washes over me, that scent of pine and brimstone again, along with something more—the feeling that I belong here.

The dragon raises its head, so my own nearly brushes the cave’s ceiling.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper.

With my first strike, dust rains down, followed by a stream of sunlight. It touches my cheeks and makes the dragon’s scales glow a fiery red. Its power, its strength, rushes through me.

This is why they confine the ancient ones to Dragon’s End. Or perhaps it’s why we’re both here. Together, we are something more, something powerful.

With a final chip at the thin crust, the earth that blocks the way out tumbles down.

“You’re free,” I say.

“No, my child, we are.” A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils, and this dragon reminds me of an old man with a pipe, contemplating a riddle. “I don’t suppose you’ve had a flying lesson, have you?”

“I don’t suppose I have.”

“But you’ve seen how it’s done.”

“A thousand times.”

“Then you should be adequate. But first things first. Go get the book.”

The book? I peer to where it still remains on the floor, leather cracked from where my cheek rested against the cover.

“Don’t you need to return it?”

The slyness in the dragon’s voice has me sliding down its neck, scooping up the book, and then returning to that spot of honor.

“I have no saddle,” it says, “and no reins. You’ll have to hold on.”

“I have years of practice.”

The dragon’s wings tremble and shake. Its hind legs quiver. With a mighty leap, it clears the edge of the cave and unfurls its wings.

“What is your name, child?” The question reaches not my ears, but my mind. Its thoughts touch mine, and the sensation is as intimate as a kiss.

“Miri.”

“I am Mercurial.”

“Of course you are.”

The dragon snorts a laugh and sends sparks into the air. “It is also my name.”

Mercurial swoops toward the village, wings shadowing the earth below. We are close enough now that I can see the chaos erupt on the playground. At the sight of Mercurial, a dozen hatchlings scamper and fling themselves in the air, wings beating furiously until they tumble and land once again. Their children race after them, laughing and crying out.

Work at the mill halts. The village elders emerge from what must have been a meeting, Mayor Simos among them.

“Now, my dear.”

I toss the book into the air. When it’s halfway to the ground, Mercurial shoots a stream of fire at it. The book lands at the mayor’s feet, flames chewing through the parchment.

“What a shame,” I say.

“Yes. All that knowledge, forever lost.” Mercurial circles the village a final time. “Where to, my sweet?”

“The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Dragon’s End.”

“Then hang on. We have the entire world before us.”

So I do. I entwine my arms around Mercurial’s neck. I don’t look back.

Not even once.

Dragon’s End was written specifically for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Miller’s Daughter

Rumpelstiltskin meets Groundhog Day, with a twist.

The part at the end, when I tear myself in half, is the worst. But it’s dramatic, and everyone seems to like it. Besides, I’ve perfected the move.

Mind you, I don’t actually tear myself in half. That would hurt. When I stomp my foot, much like a toddler, it opens a passageway to another forest, another miller’s daughter, another king intent on fortune.

I’m not sure why I slip through this passageway, only that I do. I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does. I leave one life for another, each familiar, but distinct. I’ve done this for so many years that I’ve forgotten what it’s like to have a life of my own.

The forest around me is still. I breathe in dry leaves. My limbs feel sluggish, my head even more so. When the sky stops spinning, I’ll need to bolt. I might already be too late. Right now, the hangman may be tightening the noose around the neck of the miller’s daughter. That’s happened more times than I care to count.

It’s hard to save someone mid-execution.

I inhale a steadying breath and push from the forest floor only to careen into the first oak I see. Its bark scrapes my cheek, but the thick trunk stops my fall. My head spins. I clutch the tree like a lovesick girl and wait.

When I merely see double, I head for the village.

From a farmer’s clothesline, I procure a shirt with flapping tails and a tattered overcoat. I jam an abandoned straw hat on my head. The oversized clothes make me appear old, shrunken.

As I leave, a billy goat bleats a reprimand at me.

Stalls line the village square with everything from rosy apples to funnel cakes sizzling in oil. Baskets bump my hips and arms as people hurry past. I can’t move. I am a hollow thing, starved, not just for food, but a real meal, a real bed, a real home.

A real life.

When did it all change? When did I change? A curse, perhaps. Or I bargained with the wrong crone. Or perhaps I did nothing, and it’s simply my fate to watch life from the outside.

I shake myself—the miller’s daughter. I must find her.

The tavern. I always start my search there. Nine times out of ten, that’s where I’ll find her worthless father.

Sometimes he’s weeping, it’s true. Sometimes he isn’t even at the tavern, but at home, wringing his hands and concocting foolish rescue plans. Most of the time?

He’s drinking, on credit.

That’s where he is today, surrounded by ne’er-do-wells, a barmaid on his knee. But if he’s here, if he’s drinking, it means his daughter is confronting a room full of straw.

I must wait until dark. Even then, obstacles line my path: palace guards, winding corridors, and any number of locked doors.

But people are creatures of habit and convenience. I’ve crept inside countless castles, pried open dozens of locks, procured keys hanging from the same hook, in the same spot, in nearly identical guardrooms a hundred times over. Tonight is no exception, and I tie the keys to a bit of rope that I loop around my waist.

On the other hand, the miller’s daughter is unpredictable. Sometimes she’s crying. Sometimes she’s resigned or angry. Sometimes she’s both and refuses my help.

It’s better now that I obscure my face, hide my true form. Those first times? My appearance was so shocking that no amount of reasoning could calm her down. Guards poured into the room, followed by the king himself. And I found myself slipping through that passageway far earlier than I had planned.

So it’s with caution that I ease open the door. The miller’s daughter stands in the center of the room, eyes dry, gaze contemplating the truly mammoth pile of straw. This king must be extraordinarily greedy. When she catches sight of me, she nods as if she’s been expecting her supernatural helper—and I’m late.

“The king wants me to spin this straw into gold.” She casts an almost regal hand toward the towering pile.

“That’s quite a task,” I reply. “One I’m well suited for. I could help you.”

She raises an eyebrow. “For a price?”

I execute a low bow. “But of course.”

She tugs a ring from her finger. “Will this do?”

I barely glance at it, because, yes, of course, it will. People are wary of getting something for nothing. I don’t need the ring, can’t take it with me when I travel to yet another miller’s daughter and her predicament, but it always makes this part go easier.

“Rest, my child,” I say, indicating a wool blanket in one corner. “You will wake to find this room filled with gold.”

The miller’s daughter lifts the hem of her skirt and retreats, settling in, her back to the room. She is unusually compliant. I pause, taste the air, breathe in the dry, scratchy scent of hay. The room is as it always is, and yet, I hesitate. But only for a moment. There’s no time to waste.

I return to the farm and lead the billy goat and several of his companions into the room filled with straw. No one ever questions an old peasant herding goats, not even in the middle of the night. I set them to work, and they’ll gladly eat their fill.

It’s not like I can spin straw into gold. That’s ridiculous.

The keys to the kingdom jangle at my side—quite literally—including those that unlock the royal coffers. Rarely do I find them empty.

The greedier the king, the more gold he already has.

This king’s treasure room glows. I pick my way through a maze of coins and jewels, of gold buried beneath more gold, a vast amount to last a hundred lifetimes. I unearth the ancient treasures, the acquisitions long forgotten.

It takes all night to lug enough gold to replace the straw. It always does. By morning, I’m covered in the ancestral greed and grime of this current king. As recompense, before I leave, I slip enough coins into my overcoat pocket to see me through the inevitable wedding and birth of the first child.

Predictably, I receive the necklace for my second night’s efforts, and by the third night, I’m floating with relief. It was so easy this time. All I need to do is extract the promise of her first-born, fill the room with gold, and take a well-deserved rest before my final performance.

I bound into the room, but skid to a stop at her outstretched hand.

“You’re not needed here,” she says.

“But…” I survey the mountain of straw that towers over us—bale upon bale stacked precariously until I’m certain the entire mound will tip over and crush us both.

“If I spin this straw into gold, the king says he’ll marry me, and if I don’t, he will kill me.”

“He’ll keep his word,” At least, he always has—so far. “He’ll marry you.”

“I would marry a man who has thrice threaten to execute me simply because I cannot perform the impossible?”

She shakes her head so hard, her glossy black braid comes undone. Her hair tumbles free. On reflex, I clutch the hat closer to my scalp.

“No, I don’t wish to marry such a man, not even to save my life.” She leans forward as if to peer at me. I shrink further into my coat. “You’ve been more than kind, but your services are no longer needed.”

Stunned, I open my mouth, but no words come out. I grope in my pockets and offer up the ring and the necklace.

“Those are yours,” she says. “They belong to you.”

I try all night long, but she won’t budge. With the first rays of dawn, I leave the room, my eyes prickly and raw from hay and sorrow.

I attend the execution. I owe her that. Upon the scaffold, in the village square, the hangman is shrouded; she is not. Her black braid glows in the morning light, and she surveys the gathering crowd with what looks like pity rather than fear, her eyes sharp and alert.

She scans each newcomer. At first, I think she’s searching for her father. When her gaze touches mine, the miller’s daughter smiles, and I realize she’s been looking for me. My stomach clenches, and I can’t glance away.

The hangman places the noose around her neck.

With her gaze still locked on mine, the miller’s daughter winks.

The hangman releases the trap door. The crowd gasps.

But she doesn’t hang. Her neck doesn’t snap. Beneath her, the cobblestones shimmer. The rope unravels, and she slips through an all too familiar passageway.

I’m not sure how it happens, only that it does.

The village square erupts in chaos, crying and wailing and shouts of witchcraft. My heart pounds so hard it fills my throat. I am frozen in place, hollowed out.

I remain there long after the crowd disperses, and the guards dismantle the scaffold. I stay for so long that the bustle returns, and the stalls reopen. Warm spice and the scent of ale dull the edges of my earlier terror.

It’s only then I pull the hat from my head. My braid tumbles to my shoulder, glossy and black, a mirror image of the miller’s daughter. I stare up at the space where the scaffolding stood.

Did she know from the start?

I brush my foot against the cobblestone. If I stamp hard enough, will I, too, vanish, leave as she did, as I’ve always done in the past?

I decide not to try.

Instead, I pull the ring and necklace from my pocket.

Those are yours. They belong to you.

It’s been ages since I felt the weight of the chain around my neck, but I secure it now and slip on the ring.

I am the miller’s daughter. I cast a glance over my shoulder toward the tavern but decide not to bother with this world’s version of my father.

After all, I have a pocketful of coin. The possibilities of what that might buy loom large: a real meal, a real bed, a real home.

A life.

I turn toward the stall, the one with the funnel cakes sizzling in oil, and decide to start there.

Rumpelstiltskin is another one of those fairy tales that I think deserve a retelling (or two).

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Free Fiction Friday: The Troll in IT

Posey and Luke are back for a second adventure. Miss the first one? Head on over to Knight at the Royal Arms.

I lean across the guard desk as the glimmer settles in the lobby. The whisper of it raises hairs on the back of my neck. The guards’ faces relax in the muted glow.

All is quiet—except for some gentle snoring.

I stretch and switch off the cameras covering the loading dock and the ones in the stairwell. Then I catch a glimpse of myself at the guard desk. Yes, of course, it will be my face the police will scrutinize tomorrow morning.

Decorative plants cast shadows in the dim light, their leaves wavering in the breeze from the ventilation system. Chin lifted, I gauge the air. Now that the glimmer has fallen completely, I can taste the shadow creature that lives here. The space is full of that anticipation before a hunt and the promise of treasure at the end.

But is it a troll? I’m not convinced. I’m a damsel in distress, after all. I know trolls.

The sound of boots thudding pulls my attention to the large double doors that lead to the loading dock. One door creaks open as if the person on the other side doesn’t trust that I’ve cut the feed to the cameras.

Granted, all four of them are shadow trackers, like I am. The five of us together?

Well, we have trust issues.

In the center of the lobby, I stand, hands on hips. The rest of the team emerges with painfully slow steps. I resist the urge to roll my eyes. The glimmer only lasts for so long. We don’t have all night. Or rather, that’s all we have.

This office building houses not only a software company but also a law firm and a yoga studio on the mezzanine. The moment the sun crests the horizon, and the glimmer lifts, someone is bursting through the front doors. I don’t want to be around for that.

I tap a foot clad in a steel-toe boot and wait.

“All clear, Trombelle?” comes a voice from those double doors.

“Of course, it is.” My sigh echoes in the quiet of the lobby.

The leader of this little expedition is Parker Pankhurst. He’s a pain to deal with and has the bad habit of grabbing his share of the treasure and running. According to him, he’s turned over a new leaf. These days, he specializes in ridding places of malignant shadow creatures (trolls would be among those) for both a fee and any treasure found in their lair.

As business models go, it’s not a bad one.

“We don’t have to bring you along,” he says to me now.

That’s the thing. They do. Nothing happens without a damsel in distress to lure a shadow creature from its lair. True, we often end up bound, ankles and wrists, eyebrows singed. But if a creature has no reason to leave its lair, it won’t.

No unguarded lair? No treasure. It’s that simple.

Trust me, nothing’s venturing out for the likes of Parker Pankhurst.

“Stop being such a knave, Pankhurst.” A new voice joins the conversation, this of Luke Milner.

In truth, the criticism is a bit harsh. Parker Pankhurst is a knave; he can’t help his DNA the same way I can’t.

The same way Luke Milner, knight in shining armor, can’t.

It’s who we are and why we’re able to track the shadow creatures to begin with.

Pankhurst casts Luke a dour look before nodding to the stairwell. “Let’s go,” is all he says.

The IT department is on the third floor. Even so, I feel the climb in my thighs. I’m glad we’re not trekking all the way up to the executive suites. Although maybe we should. I’m still not convinced there’s a troll here.

On the other hand, a crafty sort of shadow creature—say, a dragon—would make its home on the top floor, where it would have a spectacular view, not to mention the run of the executive washrooms.

On the third floor, we emerge to a forest of cubicles. Pankhurst leads us through the rows, each turn taking us deeper into the maze. When we reach what looks like a collaboration area, he holds up a hand, and the rest of us halt.

“Here,” he says. “Here’s where we set the trap.”

Yes, and I’m the bait.

“Do you sense a troll?” I whisper to Luke. Maybe my instincts are off, and I’m simply not detecting it.

“Not at all,” he says.

“Then—?”

He shrugs. Luke is all angles and planes, chiseled good looks. Shrugging just makes him appear elegant.

“We should at least be able to smell it,” he adds.

“Trombelle, over here.” Pankhurst barks the order. Next to me, Luke bristles.

I comply since it puts me front and center, and I can make my case. Pankhurst takes me by the wrists and tugs me toward a whiteboard on wheels. He secures me to one of the supports before locking each wheel in place with a solid click.

“Do any of you smell a troll?” I say. “Because I don’t smell a troll.”

The other two in our party—a blacksmith and her apprentice—exchange glances.

“Trust me,” Pankhurst says. “It’s here.”

“We should be able to smell it,” I insist. “This place should reek.”

And reek so badly that even when the sunrise banishes the glimmer, the stench would linger. Just how badly? Take a pair of old sneakers, simmer them in dog pee, and toss in a couple of rotten eggs for good measure. Inhale deeply and multiply that by a thousand.

That’s a troll.

“I’ll level with you.” Pankhurst turns, addressing us all. “I got a tip from a reliable source. There’s a troll. It’s making its home back in the server rooms. That’s where the rest of us are headed.”

I’m less than reassured. Luke’s mouth is a grim line. The blacksmith blinks a couple of times, shakes her head, and then secures her long black hair into a ponytail. Her apprentice looks bedraggled. They could probably use their portion of the treasure.

“You okay with this, Posey?” Luke’s at my side, a hand on my bound wrists.

“I guess I have to be,” I say. “It’s what I do, right?”

He’s wearing a pink bandana tied around his upper arm, my token from our first outing together. Since then, we’ve partnered a couple of times. Typically, knights in shining armor are all too little, too late.

Not Luke. If anything, he’s too scrupulous.

“If things get … bad, I’ll double back and get you.”

I nod, and as much as I want to trust Luke, I’ve heard this promise from other knights far too many times before.

“But just in case.” He slips something cool and metallic into my hands and leaves me with a wink.

I’ll grant you that winking is in the knight in shining armor skill set. Still, I’m pretty sure Luke must practice endlessly in front of a mirror.

They head off, through the maze of cubicles. I wonder if rather than a troll, there’s a Minotaur hiding among all those twists and turns.

If so, we may all end up as a midnight snack.

* * *

Only when the scuffling of boots on carpet fades do I investigate the object in my hands. My thumbnail finds a metallic groove. There’s just enough give in the ropes around my wrists that I can spring open the pocketknife.

The barest hints of the workaday world hang in the air—burnt microwave popcorn and room-temperature lattes all mixed with starch and sweat. At least this isn’t my world. Sometimes it is better being a damsel in distress, the occasional singed eyebrows notwithstanding.

I get to work sawing my way through the rope. I don’t dare cut all the way through. The troll—or whatever shadow creature is here—will know. Never mind that they can’t tell steel-toed boots from dainty satin slippers or practical canvas pants from flowing gowns. They’ll know the second I’ve cut the last thread of rope.

And if they know, they won’t venture from their lair to investigate. Never mind no treasure, Luke and the others could end up as that midnight snack.

I can only imagine Parker Pankhurst’s wrath if I botch this hunt—and what it might do to my standing in the tracker community, and Luke’s as well. Not that I’d mention his part in this. Still, knaves have a way of finding things out.

So I saw at the rope and wait, saw and wait, holding my breath each time the knife slips in my fingers. When I notice the shift in the air, I can’t say. The glimmer glows brighter, enough to make the whiteboard shimmer behind me. A clattering comes from several rows away. It’s a light tap-tap-tap of a noise, almost joyful.

It’s certainly not the sound of a troll dragging its knuckles across industrial-grade carpet.

My heart kicks up a notch. I scan the workstations, but nothing looks out of place—just endless rows of chairs and monitors. There’s a rustling and then a decided chomp. All at once, something leaps from one cube to the next, clearing the five-foot-high wall with ease.

Then the creature—or whatever this thing is—bleats.

It sounds like it’s laughing, or more precisely, laughing at me.

This is no troll.

I don’t bother with the pocketknife. Instead, I yank my wrists apart and break the last threads of rope. I rub the tender, red marks around my wrists and consider my next move.

The bleating echoes down one of the many cubicle aisles.

I decide to follow.

* * *

The twists and turns are endless; truly, there can’t be so many employees in this company. I suspect a combination of the glimmer and the shadow creature itself. This is an illusion meant to throw me off its tracks.

I creep past cube after cube, taking each opening with caution because there’s always the chance that this creature is leading me into a trap.

In fact, I’d bet my share of the treasure that it is. Even so, I trail after it. Luke would advocate caution. I know he would. Again, blame my DNA. I’d rather run after a creature, get myself into a tight fix, take the chance that this time it won’t end in a damsel-in-distress grab and dash.

I reach the end of a row and halt. The space in front of me is so dark and vast that it resembles the opening of a cave.

The creature slips inside with a playful kick of its hind legs. There’s that clattering again, like the sound of something hard striking stone. Then nothing but a gentle thud, thud, thud.

I pause outside the entrance. Dark shapes loom from either side. The scent of burnt popcorn is stronger here, as is the aroma of charred coffee. Blinking lights come from one corner, and it’s then I know where I am.

It’s the kitchen break area for this floor, lit by the numbers on the microwave ovens.

The thump, thump, thump continues. The sound is headache-inducing. I wince and rub my temples.

The creature pauses in its relentless battering to let out a plaintive bleat.

Trap, I tell myself. This is just the sort of trap someone—or something—might set for a damsel in distress. But the crying is too real, the creature’s distress palpable.

I decide to take it by surprise. I leap into the kitchen area, pocketknife at the ready. I slap my free hand against the light switch and confront the creature.

There, by the garbage, a microwave popcorn bag in its mouth, is the world’s most adorable baby goat.

* * *

The baby goat drops the popcorn bag and lets out a tremendous bleat. I stash the pocketknife and then drop to my knees so we’re on the same level.

“I’m not going to hurt you,” I say, my voice as soft as I can make it.

It stops bleating, but eyes me, the look in those strange, rectangular pupils wary and full of stranger danger.

“You know I’m not going to hurt you.”

It must, simply because, at the moment, my DNA is kicking in but hard. I want to give it a bath, tie a ribbon around its neck (although it would probably eat that), and give it lots of hugs and kisses. Or maybe pose it for some cute Instagram photos.

I’m a damsel in distress, after all.

It bleats again and bumps its head against the side of a cabinet.

“Do you need help?”

Now it jumps about, its little hooves clattering against the linoleum tile.

It has already amassed what amounts to a goatly treasure. The microwave popcorn bags, of course, but also a stack of paper to-go cups, a bag of Jolly Ranchers with only the grape ones left, and five greasy pizza boxes.

The cabinet it keeps bumping its head against?

The mother lode, also known as the kitchen garbage can.

The cabinet is one of those new models. The slightest pressure of your hand opens the door. As long as you press in the right spot—and not endlessly knock your head against its center.

I pull out first one and then another sack, both brimming with apple cores and grease-soaked paper towels. The plastic is translucent, and the baby goat dances with glee at the sight of Lean Cuisine packages and giant filters filled with soggy coffee grounds.

I knot the sacks so they won’t disgorge their contents all over the floor.

“Where to?” I ask the baby goat.

With a wag of its tail, it tippity-taps toward the entrance.

I swallow back a pang of guilt along with stale air and a hint of rancid butter. I’m not tricking it, not really. If there ever was a troll in IT, it’s long gone—as is its treasure.

Still, I’d like to know what this little fellow is up to.

Also? I really want to tie a bow around its neck.

* * *

We are deep in the bowels of the server room. My skin puckers from the chill, and my breath emerges in great clouds of fog. The baby goat leads the way, its hooves a light tapping on the elevated floor. I follow, the slosh and scrape of the garbage bags in my wake.

The glimmer is thicker here, like stardust. The air sparkles, but it’s a cold beauty. In all my years of tracking, I’ve never encountered a glimmer quite this strong.

A prickly sensation crawls up my spine. I glance over my shoulder, but if something’s spying on us, I can’t see it. I also can’t see my way back out of this forest of servers. It’s icy and dark, and the sort of spooky that makes me think of goblins, orcs, and especially trolls.

Not for the first time, I wonder who is playing the trick here.

If you were a goat and had a troll problem (as goats so often do), you might lure a damsel in distress into its lair as a way to appease it. Yes, this baby goat is adorable. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a crafty little bastard.

And yes, I know. I didn’t just walk into this.

I volunteered.

Worse, I left Luke behind. He doesn’t know where I am. Then again, I have no idea where he and the rest of the group have gotten themselves to. The IT department isn’t as vast as all that, not normally anyway.

With the strength of this glimmer? That’s another matter. The glimmer can bend to a shadow creature’s will and create a world for it, one free of annoying trackers like Parker Pankhurst. There’s a good chance Luke, Pankhurst, and the others are wandering through the maze of cubicles no closer to the creature’s lair than when they first started.

The goat leads me around a final corner, and there, standing in the center of the space, a club raised in one meaty hand, stands a troll.

The garbage sacks slip from my grip and land with a splat on the floor. I choke back a scream on the off chance the troll hasn’t seen me yet. I’m about to dash back the way we came. There might be no end to the server room, but this particular spot is definitely a dead end.

I don’t move.

Neither does the troll.

We stand like that, both of us like stone until I realize that there’s a good chance one of us actually is stone.

The air is a bit ripe—all coffee grounds and barnyard—but not troll-level ripe. Nothing emerges from its mouth. No roar or howl or the truly strange obscenities trolls favor. I inch forward, the baby goat dancing about me, and swipe a finger along one bulging arm.

Stone—from its hairy toes all the way to its bald, wart-infested head.

“How did you do that?” I ask.

The goat springs and kicks its hind legs. It bleats what must be a tremendously funny story judging by the tone.

“So, there really was a troll in IT.”

“Indeed, there was.”

The voice freezes me in place. The baby goat halts its scampering and ducks its head as if it’s been caught skipping school.

A ponderous clacking sounds against the floor. The steps are serious, and I resist the urge to straighten my shirt and retie my bootlaces. From one of the rows of servers, a second goat emerges.

It’s wearing a pair of rimless glasses and a black turtleneck sweater. The goat gives me a brief once over before taking a knee and inclining its head.

“William Gruff the Third, at your service,” he says.

I bob a curtsey. “Posey Trombelle.”

“Posey?”

“Short for Poinsettia. I was—”

“A Christmas baby, no doubt.”

I raise an eyebrow. Usually, I have to explain my name. This is one clever goat.

William Gruff turns a disapproving eye on the baby goat at my side. “And you led her here?”

The baby goat bleats and stamps its hooves. Then it scampers around the overflowing sacks of garbage, both bags threatening to burst.

“It seems,” William Gruff says, turning back to me, “that in all our precautions, we overlooked damsels in distress.”

“Everybody always does.”

It’s all sorry about the goblins or what do you mean, you didn’t get your cut of the treasure.

“Now that you’re here, why don’t I show you around?” William Gruff nods toward a room shrouded by a glimmer so thick it looks like a curtain of golden beads.

Without recourse, I heft the garbage sacks and follow both goats inside.

* * *

“Here’s where the magic happens,” William Gruff announces.

And yes, he means that quite literally.

The space hums, not so much with industry, but the activity of a single goat working on a desktop computer. I’m not sure how, exactly, its hooves hit all the right keys, or any keys for that matter. Again, magic.

The baby goat bites open one of the garbage sacks and scurries to bring its compatriot a series of treats: an oily bag of microwave popcorn, the Jolly Ranchers, and a dripping filter filled with coffee grounds.

William Gruff chews a to-go cup contemplatively. “We need to keep our programmer happy after all.”

I count the goats once, twice, and a third time. Yes. There are only three of them. Of course there are. And they’re doing what, exactly?

“Are you running a … startup?”

William Gruff plucks a business card from nowhere and shoves it along the floor with a hoof.

Gruff Cyber Security
Industry Leader in Eradicating Trolls

Because of course they are.

Again, I peer at William Gruff, at the turtleneck, the glasses, the distinct tuft on his chin that could best be described as Jobsian.

“How—?” I begin.

“You’ve met our angel investor, I believe.”

The troll in IT. I can’t help it. I laugh. The baby goat bleats its approval. Even the second goat lifts its head in acknowledgment.

Then all hell breaks loose.

* * *

The claxon is zombie-movie loud and obnoxious. The glimmer around us shudders. William Gruff charges forward and crashes into me.

“Who did you lead in here?” he demands. “Who? Who? Is it Pankhurst?”

“Pankhurst?” I stumble backward under the onslaught. “Oh, no.”

William Gruff pauses, but I suspect that’s only to gather steam for another attack. “Yes or no? Is it Pankhurst?”

“Yes, it’s Pankhurst.” I raise my hands, hoping to ward off another jab from those mean-looking horns. “But I didn’t bring him here, not on purpose.”

But maybe he used me. Oh, no maybe about it. I’m the overlooked precaution, after all. And Parker Pankhurst—that knave—knew that all along.

“Didn’t you?” William Gruff swipes one hoof and then the other across the floor, gearing up for a colossal attack.

“He tied me up and left me for troll bait.” I hold out my hands and point to the faint red marks around each wrist.

William Gruff turns to the baby goat. “Is that true?”

The baby goat scampers about, bleating and stamping hooves in what sounds like a drawn-out explanation. Then it comes to stand by me. Oh, I love it so much. When this is over, I plan to bathe it, brush out its hair, and dress it in little outfits—with its consent, of course.

Pankhurst bursts through the glimmer. “Get them! Get all of them.” He whirls and points at me. “Get her! She’s conspiring with them.”

The blacksmith leaps onto a desk, but stops when her gaze lands first on the goat and then on me. Luke skids to a halt. The apprentice, wisely, chooses to hang back.

“Posey?” Luke’s brow clouds with confusion and what might be hurt. “What are you doing here?”

“There’s no troll, not anymore. There’s no treasure.” I want to explain about the startup and cyber security, but I can’t put it into words because I don’t have the whole story.

“They stole my treasure.” Pankhurst jabs a finger at William Gruff.

“You left us for dead.” William Gruff takes a ponderous step forward. “You tethered this little one in a conference room, left him with no chance of escape. We were nothing but bait to you.”

Pankhurst’s entire face turns red. “You lie.”

“And then you ran.” William Gruff looks serene, but there’s a terrible glint in those rectangular pupils. “We cleaned up your mess. We reaped the rewards.”

“You’d believe them.” Pankhurst gestures, a dismissive flick of his wrist toward the goats. “Over a human.”

No one speaks. The glimmer vibrates a warning. Daybreak is imminent. We’re all in trouble if we’re still here when the sun rises.

I glance down at the little goat at my feet. Its expression is both soulful and hopeful.

“Yes,” I say. “I would.”

Parker Pankhurst whirls then and charges not at William Gruff, but at me.

The baby goat leaps, one of those feats that can take him over those five-foot-high cubicle walls. But he’s so tiny and no match for the combined muscle and beer-gut girth of Parker Pankhurst.

Frantic, I race forward. I’m not fast enough; I’m not strong enough. The second before the collision, the baby goat is plucked from the air and cradled in the capable arms of Luke Milner, knight in shining armor.

He tucks, rolls, and deposits the baby goat safely beneath a desk. He springs to his feet, ready to take all comers. Instead of charging again, Parker Pankhurst shrugs, palms skywards, and shoots us all a slimy smile.

Then the bastard turns and runs.

It’s then I notice the blacksmith and her apprentice have already vanished. It’s then I notice the glimmer fading into nothing. The sun must be up, and that means we have no way out.

“Hurry, both of you.”

The order comes from William Gruff. The baby goat darts from beneath the desk and butts the back of my legs, urging me farther into their room. With a solid kick of a hind leg, it shuts the door.

“Spend the day with us,” William Gruff says.

“But—” I scan the room. I can’t see the glimmer, but it whispers against the back of my neck, caresses my cheeks in a ghostly kiss. “How—?”

Luke looks as perplexed as I feel. He reaches out a hand as if he might touch the glimmer that isn’t actually there.

“You’ve heard of artificial intelligence, haven’t you?” William Gruff says.

“Of course,” I say, “but this isn’t—”

“Possible?” He forages around in a garbage sack and plucks out another to-go cup. He gives it three thoughtful chews. “Are you certain?”

A computer-generated glimmer? Really? No wonder Parker Pankhurst was so interested. Access to the glimmer, day or night? You could do anything with that.

Like launch your own tech startup.

“So this room.” I turn in a slow circle, taking it all in. “It’s protected by the glimmer.”

William Gruff gives a nod.

“And we’re safe?”

“As long as you don’t stray from here. Once the sun sets and the glimmer returns to the rest of the building, you may leave. I’ll grant you safe passage through the server room.”

“My face is all over the security footage,” I say.

William Gruff nods at the second goat, who clatters the keyboard with its hooves. “Not anymore, it isn’t.”

Luke and I exchange glances. He gives me another of those elegant little shrugs. I pluck at the bandana tied to his arm.

“Mind if I borrow this?”

He gives me a tired smile. I don’t know if that’s from this long night or me in general. I suspect the latter.

“Not at all,” he says, and that smile turns indulgent.

I tug the bandana free and, in a matter of minutes, have it fashioned into the cutest bow. I hold it out for the baby goat’s approval. He doesn’t eat it, which is good enough for me.

From the depths of my cargo pants, I pull out my phone and hand it to Luke.

“Take our picture?”

* * *

When you’re a shadow tracker, most nights end without any treasure. This isn’t one of those nights—or days, as the case may be. Both Luke and I leave with shares in Gruff Cyber Security.

I join the yoga studio. Since goat yoga is a thing, no one questions me when I show up with an actual baby goat.

My #goatsofinstagram posts keep racking up views, and I have hundreds of new followers.

Sure, somewhere out there, Parker Pankhurst has a poisoned arrow with my name on it.

But I have something he doesn’t.

A knight in shining armor and three devoted attack goats.

The Troll in IT is another exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: Fire and Ivy

For September, it’s stories about dragons and trolls (although not necessarily at the same time).

In Fire and Ivy, bargains have a way of backfiring.

Ivy Bremer stood at the edge of Merryside Township, shotgun in hand. Behind her, flags from the Fourth of July celebration fluttered. Pollen hung in the air, casting everything in a yellow glow.

Her arms ached from gripping the shotgun, her hip protesting the weight of the revolver strapped there. Both weapons were heirlooms, handed down from generation to generation until they sat in the town museum, displayed in shadow boxes, their purpose forgotten. That morning, Ivy had smashed the glass and freed them both.

Mayor was a thankless job—interim mayor even more so. It served her right for skipping that last city council meeting. Or maybe not. Maybe it was because she’d been standing in this very spot twelve months earlier. She’d seen him first. Either way, she was here now.

He was coming. The breeze shifted, lifting sticky strands of hair from her neck. A buzzing filled the morning, the sound like the drone of a prop airplane. Each approaching footfall shook the earth, a reverberation that traveled up her legs, captured her limbs and wrapped around her heart.

Ivy glanced behind her, at the town too quiet to be a real town, and caught the menacing shadow of the catapult. Silver pails glinted, and hoses coiled like snakes, strategically placed for the fire brigade.

As if that could stop the burning.

When had she known? Certainly not that first day, when she’d nearly drowned in the depths of those amber eyes, his gaze alight with the heat of flame behind it. Amber eyes! Why hadn’t she thought to question that?

The breeze picked up. The footfalls remained ever steady, and the buzzing seemed to penetrate her eardrums. In the fields bordering the road, cornstalks quaked. To Ivy, it looked as though they trembled with fear.

When had she known? Not at that first city council meeting, when they unanimously voted him mayor. She’d only felt hopeful. Not when he’d taken her under his wing—how apt—a month later. She’d only felt protected. Not when he proposed. She’d only felt cherished.

Was it the record profits for every business in Merryside? The flood of scholarships for their graduating seniors, the grants to improve the schools, the roads, the infrastructure?

They’d basked in the bounty, never thinking of what it might cost.

So, when had she known?

After the warmest January on record?

Perhaps.

After surveying the charred remains of the winter wheat?

Definitely.

Now she stood at the edge of town, the only one who never took coin, the only one who gave, the only one who could stand there. She widened her stance. The shotgun, heavy as it was, reassured her. The revolver at her hip felt right, like she was born to wear it.

He would not pass.

A thin column of smoke rose from the horizon. His footfalls shook the ground so much that her knees buckled—certainly, that wasn’t from fear. At first, all she saw was his head and the misty smoke issuing from his nostrils. The tip of his tail flicked into view. Had he been a dog—which, of course, he wasn’t—Ivy would’ve said he was happy to see her.

Then all of him came into view. His bulk cast a shadow along the road, shading her from the sun long before he took his final step.

“Ivy.” Her name from his mouth was both sulfurous and sensual. “Did the cowards send you to stop me?”

“I came on my own accord. I’m the mayor now.”

A laugh burst forth, one filled with brimstone. “A thankless job, is it not?”

His scales glinted in the summer sun, throwing rainbows across her vision. His talons sunk into the ground rhythmically, as if he were a cat kneading its owner’s lap. The claws churned up asphalt and dirt. Despite herself, Ivy calculated the repair costs and weighed them against the town’s diminishing budget.

But his eyes. Those amber eyes. Those were the same. She recognized herself in their reflection.

“Do you bar me entrance?” he asked, the question issuing with a stream of smoke.

She hesitated for a mere fraction of a second. “I do.”

He bowed his head as if in defeat. “Do you love me?”

This time, she spoke without the hint of a delay, her heart answering for her. “I do.”

Something crackled then, like a fire coming to life. Behind her came a whisper of sand and the sound of bows being pulled taut. She held up a hand, and both sounds ceased.

“Then grant me entrance,” he said, voice low, melodious, almost human. “Let me collect what’s mine.”

With deliberation, Ivy set the shotgun on the ground. She unbuckled the holster from around her waist and placed that next to the shotgun. She felt suddenly lighter without the weight of either, like she might step off into the air and float away.

Instead, she took a single step forward. Waves of heat washed over her skin. Her lungs struggled for oxygen, and sweat coursed down her spine.

“This is what’s yours.” She placed her hands on either side of his muzzle and kissed him.

The earth trembled. Ivy squeezed her eyes shut, but that didn’t stop the single tear from slipping down her cheek. In an instant, the dry heat stole it away.

The sizzling started near his tail. It traveled along his spine, the scales falling away in ones and twos, and then faster, their clatter like rain on a tin roof. Then her world imploded in a cloud of acrid smoke.

The wind picked up again, chasing away the clouds of smoke and revealing a man crumpled on the road in front of her. There he was, that same dark-haired stranger who had strolled into town a year ago.

Ivy crouched next to him, eased her thigh beneath his head, cradled his face with her hands.

His eyes locked onto hers. “Why?”

“They would’ve harnessed you, used you—or killed you in the attempt.”

“Or I, them. That’s the way it is, the way it’s always been.”

“Not now. Not anymore.” A tear wove a track through the grime on her cheek. “I had to stop this … them, and I’m … sorry.”

He shut his eyes, bliss washing across his face. He had the look of a man finally free. “I’m not.”

Another teardrop slipped from her cheek and hissed against his skin. His eyes—those amber eyes—flew open. He brought his fingertips to his mouth and then pressed them against her lips in a dry and dusty kiss.

“Goodbye, Ivy.” He smiled at her. In it, she caught the feral glint of teeth and tender mouth that had so willingly kissed her own. “And thank you.”

The fire that consumed him burned cold. The smoke was thick but sweet. One moment, his weight was solid against her thigh. The next, it was as light as the pollen in the air.

Then, he was gone.

All that remained was dust and ash. Something shimmered there among the specks of gray and black—a single scale. Ivy held it between her finger and thumb, turning it this way and that. Its surface shattered the light, threw a rainbow of color so bright it might blind. She let it rest in her palm before tucking the scale into her pocket.

Ivy stood. She didn’t bother to strap on the holster. She simply pulled the revolver from it. A single shot incapacitated the catapult mechanism, its net hanging loose and now useless. With the shotgun on her shoulder, she marched into town.

No one said a word as she returned the weapons to the museum. They were heirlooms, certainly, with their own sort of magic. Ivy licked the dust from her lips and regarded the relics, locked away in their shadow boxes once again. With luck, that was where they’d stay.

After that, all she had to do was point. Without a word, children collected the buckets. The volunteer fire brigade rolled up the hoses. Members of the city council dismantled the catapult, destroyed the arrows, filled in the trap.

Ivy surveyed the work. Behind her, the cornstalks whispered in the wind. On the breeze, she heard the echo of his promise.

I give you one year and one year only.

Everyone had wanted more, her heart included. She pulled the scale from her pocket, and it glinted in the sun. She held it aloft and let it cast a rainbow across the entire town of Merryside.

Everyone froze in place, like they had that first day a year ago. For a moment, her heart leaped; something that felt like hope filled her chest. Ivy glanced behind her, willing him to step into view.

What she saw instead, through that prism of light, was what could be—if they let it. That was its own sort of hope.

Ivy pocketed the scale. Decision made, she walked toward the town hall and the mayor’s office. The breeze dried the last remaining tear on her cheek.

Yes, she thought.

She’d give it a year.

Fire and Ivy is another story exclusive to The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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