Tag Archives: flash fiction

Free Fiction Friday: The Way Home

Sometimes the way home isn’t obvious.

The braid went slack in his hands, and the prince knew.

He’d been deceived.

In the moment before he fell, when he hung suspended in the air, the prince confronted the thorns that would steal his sight.

He refused to blink.

The pain was an exquisite brightness, the blood hot and wet. He clambered to his feet, drew his sword, and swung blindly.

The cackle of the witch’s laughter echoed in the air.

The prince stumbled across the countryside, sword unsheathed. He whirled in panic at the cries of birds and rustles in the underbrush. And always, as he walked, the faint whisper of the witch’s laughter followed him.

At last, his feet found a crossroads. The earth was smooth here, and his boots met nothing other than small stones and gentle ruts. He paused and sniffed.

A ripe, earthy scent rose up, warmed by the sun, the air filled with promise.

The marsh beckoned. The prince turned and left the road behind.

He was days into his trek when the cries of an infant accompanied his walk. His legs were weak with fever, and so too, the prince reasoned, was his head. Whatever promise had led him into this marsh eluded him.

The prince sank into the muck only to hear a startled cry moments later.

“My love? Is it really you?”

His lips were so dry that he couldn’t utter her name. Rapunzel knelt beside him, her tears bathing his face, easing the pain in his eyes. He raised a hand to stroke her cheek and missed.

He saw nothing but brightness and shadows. Of all the sights the thorns had stolen, he would miss the intelligence in Rapunzel’s gaze the most.

“Come,” she said, “come with me now.”

“I can’t—”

“Can’t what, my prince?”

“I can’t rescue you.”

“Can you walk?”

With her words, his legs found their strength. “I can walk.”

“Then come meet your son … and your daughter.”

With time, the prince’s feet learned which paths to take in and out of the marsh. His fingers became adept at finding and patching holes in the thatched roof of their little cottage. His children grew, and although he couldn’t see them, his son smelled of lilacs and morning dew, his daughter like wild roses and rain.

Each day, he ventured farther from the cottage, all in hopes of finding the crossroads once again, of finding rescue, and what that might mean. A true marriage. Proper schooling for the little prince and princess. He could resume his place in the kingdom.

It was the king’s own counselor who found him, standing in the center of the crossroads one hot, summer day. Despite his blindness, the prince recognized the king’s most trusted advisor, and the man rejoiced to have found the long, lost prince.

His feet knew the marsh so well that the prince raced to the little cottage without care. He found Rapunzel and swung her around, then hoisted the children to his shoulders.

“We are saved!” he cried. “We can go home.”

“Home?” the children echoed.

“To the palace, where we will live the way we were meant to.”

Rapunzel remained strangely silent.

“My dear,” he said. “Are you not happy? Haven’t you only ever wanted to escape?”

“Yes. Escape.” Her words were soft and hollow, and the prince barely heard them over the clatter of the carriages arriving to bear them to the palace.

Was it the noise that struck first, or the stench? Both swirled around him like a thick, damp cloud. So many voices, and all of them demanding something of him. So many smells. Waves of perfume. The dank scent of mildew. The hint of refuse that never left the air no matter where he ventured in the palace.

Nursemaids commandeered his children. Ladies-in-waiting swept Rapunzel away. The king prattled about diplomacy and trade routes and political alliances.

At their welcome home feast, in the clatter of dishes and hearty toasts ringing out, the echo of the witch’s cackle rose thin and high, a taunt meant for his ears only.

The prince knew.

This time, he’d deceived himself.

That night, he ran his hands over every inch of his chambers. His thoughts fractured each time the witch’s cackle sounded in his ears. Even if he could escape, how would he rescue Rapunzel and the children?

What caught his attention first? The scrape of leather on stone? The delicate gasp of exertion? He knew the moment Rapunzel burst through the window, landing with a soft thud on the stone floor.

“Come,” she said. “Your children are waiting below.”

“How is it you—?”

She silenced his question with a gentle finger to his lips. “Your children have stolen all the silk sheets from the royal beds.”

If he could not see the glint of intelligence in her gaze, he caught it in her tone.

“My father’s included?”

“And I have braided them into a ladder, your father’s included. Do you remember, my prince, how to scale a tower wall on a braided ladder?”

Indeed, he did.

“Come,” she said.

He let Rapunzel take his hand. At the window’s ledge, he cupped her cheek.

“I have been so blind.”

In answer, she merely kissed him.

And yes, his hands did remember how to grip a braided ladder.

Together, they raced through the palace grounds, into the forest, until—at last—they reached the crossroads.

The prince stood there with his little family, the warmth of the sunrise touching his face. Something earthy and ripe rose in the air. He turned toward its source.

The marsh beckoned.

The Way Home was first published at Long and Short Reviews.

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Free Fiction Friday: Like Bread Loves Salt

A tale for when you’re feeling a little salty.

A knock on the door wakes me from dreams of salt. I rub the grit from my mouth before pressing the tip of my tongue to my fingers. I do this gingerly, as if my dreams can poison me.

Salt.

A breeze rustles the leaves of the oak that shades my room, the sound like a whisper. In that whisper, I hear words.

Like bread loves salt.

The sound is too soft, too hollow for me to grab onto and shake into recognition. But I know—or at least, think I know—who speaks those words. With a second knock, I forget everything except the taste of salt on my lips.

Few people knock on my door these days. The chances I want to speak to the person on the other side are so dismal that, at first, my hand refuses to unlatch the deadbolt. But I do. I always do. There, standing on the threshold, is the wound for my salt.

“Anna,” I say.

Salt has visited her as well, or at least, it colors her hair. Her skin is fine and powdery, more like sugar. Anna is many things; sweet has never been one of them.

“You stole him.” Her voice is even, as if she’s simply informing me that my morning paper has been delivered. And oh, look; it has. I prefer newsprint to television and the internet, the dry feel of it against my skin, the residue of ink, words peppered on the salt of the page.

I scoot past her to scoop up the paper. “Look.” I point to a headline. It’s a poor attempt to change the subject, but I try nevertheless. “They’re saying this heat will break.”

“You stole him.” This time, her voice holds an edge. Any louder and the neighbors will peek through their curtains. Any louder and the bead of sweat rolling down my spine will become a torrent.

“Anna, I don’t know what—”

“Roger! You stole Roger!” She grips the handrail, her fingers tight, knuckles thick, like knobs.

“Roger’s dead,” I say, in that voice reserved for small children, dogs, and the aged. I dread the day I will hear it spoken at me, although by then, God willing, I won’t notice. “Remember? We buried him in April.”

It’s July now. I don’t think Anna’s forgotten, or that this is the onset of dementia. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s a stage of grief.

“I dream of you two, together.” She pokes a finger in my chest. “I see you. I see you with him, see what you do, what you’ve always done, for all those years behind my back.”

“Roger and I were never together,” I tell her. “He loved you.” This is the truth. And yet, the salt on my lips tastes like a lie.

“But I see you.” And now her words are a whimper.

I urge her inside. She slumps at the kitchen table. I brew tea. I hit the speed-dial on my cell phone. When Renee arrives, still pajama-clad, the salt is the flavor of guilt. But it’s Renee who apologizes.

“Oh, Aunt Jane, I’m so sorry.” She shakes a headful of curls that bear only the slightest trace of salt. “She’s been having these crazy dreams about … Dad. We’ve been going to a therapist. It’s been good for us, but …” Renee trails off, swipes her fingers over her lips as if she, too, can taste the salt in the air.

At the door, before they leave, Anna turns and says:

“You stole him.”

Now it sounds like a death sentence.

That night, I taste the salt in my sleep. I hear the whispered words.

Like bread loves salt.

It’s true. I always have. Bread only needs a pinch of salt to sustain her. But that love is three months gone. Oh, we were so careful. How can a love confined to dreams hurt anyone but the dreamers? Fifty years of nights. Fifty years of dreams. Fifty years of stealing salt.

And now, that residue of salt is all I have left.

Like Bread Loves Salt was inspired by the many love like salt folktales.

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Free Fiction Friday: Straying from the Path

It wasn’t an ailing grandmother that tempted Red into the woods that day …

It was a wolf, rather than an ailing grandmother, that tempted Red into the woods. All day his cries echoed, small, plaintive-sounding things that filled the forest. By the time she found him, night had fallen and the blood on the snow looked black.

By moonlight, she pried his paw from the rusted jaws of the trap. He ran from her. And why wouldn’t he? It was her kind that set the trap to begin with. The wolf limped through the underbrush, tail between his legs. Later, if you asked her at what point she fell in love, she would’ve said that night. At the time, all she knew was how his injured gait made her heart lurch.

Later that night, Red spied his yellow eyes from well beyond the woodpile at the edge of the forest. The next evening, she left a meat pie on the lowest stack of wood. By morning, the tin had been licked clean.

And so went the winter. As the days grew colder and her supplies dwindled, she cut back on her own portion of meat. She could go without, but the wolf was still healing. Now when she walked in the forest, she never feared brigands or the overly-friendly woodcutters. When men called on her, they found the howl of a single male wolf so unnerving that they left their teacups half full, crumb cake uneaten.

When at last the snow melted, and the sun heated the earth, Red took to bathing in the stream behind the house. No one dared disturb her. Every night, she set out a meat pie. Every morning, she collected the empty tin.

Except for the morning she didn’t. Flies buzzed around the soggy crust, the filling, chewed and pilfered by tiny mouths and claws. She threw on her cape and ventured into the forest—alone.

The trail was easy enough to follow. Drops of blood, tufts of gray fur. The farther into the forest she walked, the slower her steps. What was done was done. All she could do was delay her own knowledge of it, spend a few more minutes free of a world where, every time she closed her eyes, all she saw was matted fur and severed paws—far too many to count.

That night, for the first time in months, she did not bake a meat pie.

The scratching came when the coals in the fireplace were mere embers. There, at the door, sat her wolf, bloodied but no weaker for his fight. He cocked his head as if to say: Where’s my meat pie?

She threw her arms around him, buried her face against his neck, and cried until the dirt in his fur became streams of mud.

When the townsfolk came, bearing axes and ropes, she threw open the door for them.

Why no, she hadn’t seen any wolves at all lately. In fact, she’d stopped her treks through the forest for fear of them. Instead, she now cared for her grandmother here, in her very own cottage.

The men tiptoed from the room, not wishing to wake the old lady. The women rubbed their chins, hoping old age would not bring such a crop of whiskers.

After that, suitors stopped visiting. Although Red always sent them on their way with a meat pie, they found her grandmother’s beady eyes unsettling.

People forgot about Red, her grandmother who, while always ailing, never departed this world for the next. But on moonlit nights, townsfolk stumbling from the tavern swore they heard a woman’s laughter mixed in with the howls echoing in the night air.

First published in Flash Fiction Online and Cicada and in audio at The Centropic Oracle.

And yes, Little Red Riding Hood is one of my favorite fairy tales to retell.

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Free Fiction Friday: Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream

The year: 1980
The place: Jr. High Gym Class
Your mission: Survive

I stand in the center of the gym, the air thick with the scent of dusty basketballs and sweaty tube socks. Strains of the chicken fat song fade, but a few girls defiantly sing-whisper the chorus:

Give that chicken fat back to the chicken and go, you chicken fat, go!

I am trapped in a great mass of girls, all in identical powder blue, one-piece gym suits. The elastic pinches my waist. The polyester shorts scratch and come with an automatic wedgie. No one dares tug. That would only bring on another chorus, one of:

Gro-oss, she’s digging in her buh-utt.

Some crimes require extra syllables.

But really, this class is the crime. Slimnastics. It’s not a real word. It’s not a real sport. There’s no such thing as an Olympic slimnast. In the past three weeks, we have learned all the steps, sung all the words.

None of us are slimmer for our efforts. Ms. Binkly, the gym teacher, is talking now, not that anyone is listening. The faintest lilt of the chorus sounds behind me, but I resist the urge to turn, to look, to act too interested.

Ms. Binkly’s most striking feature is a Marine Corps style haircut. Maybe we don’t always listen, it’s true. Here’s the thing:

No one ever talks back.

I stare at the ceiling, an ear toward the front. Something about her tone bothers me. It’s not the sound of a unit wrap up with warnings about the upcoming quiz. And really, how would you test a knowledge of slimnastics?

In the Chicken Fat song, where does the chicken fat go?

a) To KFC.

b) The principal’s thighs.

c) Back to the chicken.

d) All of the above.

No, what she’s saying now strikes us all breathless. If we’d actually exerted ourselves during the chicken fat dance, we’d all be doubled over. Instead, we stand absolutely still in cold horror. How do you test slimnastics? By making your twenty-five apathetic students choreograph and then perform their own routine.

In front of everyone.

Ms. Binkly places a stack of records on the floor. She claps her hands together. “All right, ladies! Break into groups, grab a record, and star in your own routine!”

She leaves us with that and retreats to her office. In a few minutes, the odor of sulfur will seep from beneath the door, followed by smoke.

Girls flock forward, pounce on the stack of records. I know enough about the pecking order not to get pecked. I step back and wait for the leavings.

I am left with a girl named Brianna and a single, dog-eared album on the gymnasium floor. We’re not friends, Brianna and I. Allies might be a better word, like the US and Russia during World War Two. We definitely have a common enemy, and we both need to maintain our GPA. We inch forward, shoes squeaking on the floor.

We stare at the woman on the album cover. She’s naked–or would be, if not for the mound of whipped cream she sits in. The album is called Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Brianna and I are young enough not to truly understand what these other delights might be, but old enough to know they don’t always involve food.

“This is hideous,” Brianna says.

She means everything. From the social doom of the album cover to the fact the only empty record player is the one next to Ms. Binkly’s office, where we end up ten minutes later, sucking in secondhand smoke while tripping through the opening steps to our routine. Our song of choice?

Whipped Cream.

Brianna and I are both smart enough to relish this bit of irony.

On performance day, Brianna skyrockets her hand into the air, and Ms. Binkly calls us to the front.

“Going first means a better grade,” Brianna says to my frown on our way to the center of the gym.

She’s right, of course. It’s this sort of cold logic that will make her class valedictorian in five years’ time. But now, as we churn our arms like egg beaters, I realize that slimnastics really does have a test.

What is Whipped Cream?

a) A garnish for desserts.

b) A song by Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass.

c) A form of public humiliation.

d) All of the above.

Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream was first published in Easy Street Magazine. It may, or may not, be based on actual events.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Life Expectancy of Fireflies

A short, odd, somewhat dark little tale.

After it was all over—after the handcuffs, the crime scene tape, and a noose crafted from a silk Armani tie—I think all of us would agree that it was Benji’s neck tattoo that caught our attention.

Of course, even here in the suburbs, we had our share of tattoos—the tramp stamps, the biceps circled in barbed wire, even a few full sleeves. But Benji’s tattoo was something else. Interlocking coils traveled his right shoulder to collarbone, across the hillock of his Adam’s apple, ending at last in a bloom below his left ear. You could imagine him leaning his head back, his throat a vulnerable canvas for the tattoo artist.

Within months, most women in the neighborhood had confessed to running their tongue along the intricate lines, as if the ink were something you could taste. By Benji’s second spring in the house at the end of the street, it was a rite of passage. Every housewife, single mom, and career woman had taken her tongue to Benji’s neck.

Except me.

I wondered if that’s why, in the evenings, he chose my porch. Not that he relaxed. Even when he tipped his head back, the cropped salt and pepper hair brushing the whitewash, his form melting into the steps, the man vibrated with tension. It filled the air around him. It made some women think of sex and sin and sweat, his bare neck an invitation to lap up the ink.

It made me clutch my cell phone, my thumb on the speed dial, my feet pushing against the floorboards while I sat in the porch swing. I took short, choppy breaths. Once, my jittery thumb hit 911. When the police cruisers arrived, all sirens and lights, all I could point to were the fireflies in the bushes, the dark house at the end of the street, and the porch steps, now vacant.

Only when my porch was empty did the air feel still enough to breathe. I’d spend those moments catching fireflies and letting them glow between my fingers. Only then was I glad that Benji had chosen me.

Benji filled our days. He helped carry in groceries (and, in some cases, left several hours later). He mowed lawns—usually shirtless. He drank gallons of freshly-squeezed lemonade and martinis expertly shaken. He rescued kites from trees and organized the neighborhood kickball tournament.

And in the dark house at the end of the street, he was cooking methamphetamine.

After it was all over, you wouldn’t have recognized Benji, not from all the descriptions: the creeper, the peeping Tom, the loner with bad teeth, the guy with the Satanic neck tattoo.

Only my story didn’t match. The police interrogated me, but it was a half-hearted attempt, their gazes filling the room with pity. They released me in less than an hour, even though I had the receipt for the tie in my purse. Even though moments before the police shackled his wrists, Benji turned toward me, ran his fingers along the tattoo, then blew me a kiss.

Half an hour earlier, I’d handed him the box wrapped in silver paper, the one that held the silk Armani tie. Twenty minutes after that, I dialed 911. For real, this time. No one knew how Benji smuggled the tie into his jail cell. We all could imagine the second, permanent tattoo.

Most nights, I think he wanted to end it. Most nights, I think he wanted me to be the one to do it. This was why he chose me, chose my porch.

But on summer evenings, I stand there, gaze locked on the dark house at the end of the street, and doubt fills the night. I catch fireflies and let them burn between my fingers until they wink out, one by one.

My porch is empty, the night still, and the air impossible to breathe.

This strange, dark little piece garnered many personal rejections until it was published in Fine Linen Magazine.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Potato Bug War

May is all about odds and ends, those strange little stories that sometimes pop into my head.

First up is flash fiction piece that takes place during WWII.

Her students collected so many potato bugs that Emilienne had to dash back to the vineyard for an extra wagon and a pram, all under the glare of a German soldier. The pram squeaked its protest, the wheels jolting along ruts while Henri’s words rang in her head:

Make it a game. Let the children have some fun.

So Emilienne handed each of her charges a jar and sent them into the potato fields under the hot Burgundy sun.

“Whoever collects the most wins a sweet!”

The children scampered through the fields, hands greedy for the tiny bugs. The damage was minimal—for now. But a blight was a blight, the potato crop at risk. As Henri put it:

Can’t deprive les Boches of their pommes frites, can we now?

Her students bent and plucked. One girl stumbled across the furrows, jar clutched to her chest in triumph.

“Mademoiselle! Look how many I’ve collected!”

The girl ran off with another jar but turned before resuming her spot in the field. “Will it be enough?”

Emilienne patted her skirt pocket, the one with the sweet. “We’ll see.”

She arranged the jars in the wagons, glass scraping against metal, sun baking the striped creatures inside. They crawled over each other, all in search of an opening that was no longer there.

So many bugs, and yet, she wondered. How many did the Germans expect them to collect? Would it be enough? How much was enough when it came to potato bugs?

In the end, she awarded the sweet to the industrious little girl. The child’s two older brothers lugged the wagons into town while Emilienne pushed the pram. The jars rocked and clattered, her strange, many-legged babies squirming. Sweat trickled down her spine, and a taste, like rusty grit, filled her mouth.

At the turn-in point, a lone soldier waited. He was no more than a boy, this German, this Nazi. In her head, she heard Henri:

Poor bastard probably has to count them all.

“What will you do with them?” Emilienne knew better than to start a conversation. She wasn’t a collaborator. And no matter how much her belly rumbled at night, she wouldn’t accept those kinds of favors.

Still, she wanted to know. As if the fate of these potato bugs mattered to her, to Burgundy, to the war.

“Drown them.” The boy grimaced as if he, personally, was responsible for the task.

Poor bastard, indeed.

In the end, she relinquished all but one jar. It was such a foolish thing to do, hiding it there beneath the pram’s tattered cushion. Would they line up a firing squad? Shoot her? Perhaps, but only after the Gestapo had their turn.

Tell me, Fraulein, why have you deprived the Reich of these potato bugs?

Yes, why had she? Emilienne couldn’t say. That didn’t stop her from gathering potato leaves from the field. That night, in the wine cellar, she stabbed the lid with an ice pick. She shoved handfuls of leaves into the jar and fed her hungry, many-legged babies.

That summer, whenever she overheard the Germans complain about the harvest, Emilienne thought of a jar, hidden in the wine cellar, and swallowed a smile.

It was enough.

This strange little story was first published in Pulp Literature, Issue 19. And yes, the Germans really did send French citizens into the potato fields during a blight to collect potato bugs.

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Free Fiction Friday: Cheating Death

Sending you over to Corvid Queen this week for a retelling of Godfather Death.

From the editor:

Read on for a patient, compassionate, and surprisingly calming version of Death.

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Free Fiction Friday: A Most Marvelous Pair of Boots

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

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

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

At long last, indeed.

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

Then, the creature winked.

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

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

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

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

Well, maybe a little bit improper.

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

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

* * *

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

“You admire my master, then, Princess?”

Ah, that damn cat.

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

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

“What is it you wish?” he said.

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

“I did not ask that.”

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

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

Yes, the crux of the matter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What plan is that?”

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

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

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

Oh. That was how.

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

Mouth dry, Mirabella nodded.

“Then, trust me.”

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

A cry rose up outside the carriage.

“Brigands!” a guard shouted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Master Cat?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not the marquis?”

“Hardly.”

“But then—”

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

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

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

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

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

And, of course, that damn cat.

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

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Free Fiction Friday: The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My finger still hurts.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Charming.”

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

Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My finger no longer hurts.

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

After I’ve slain a few dragons.

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

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Weekly writing check-in: of wolves and viruses

So, this past week started off with a nice surprise. My flash fiction piece, Crying Wolf, was the Monday story over at Daily Science Fiction.

Then Wednesday happened. I woke up with all the classic symptoms of the coronavirus. On April Fools’ Day. Because, why not?

I’m much better. My chest is still tight, my lungs hurt a bit, and I’m short of breath. However, I’m not having weird, random pain in my lungs. I sneezed on Wednesday, and it felt like someone lit a match in my chest cavity.

I’m taking it slow, being careful, alert to any possible secondary infections. I wasn’t sick enough for the hospital, so for now, I have no idea whether it was the coronavirus or just some other random virus that decided to mess with my week. I wish I knew. Once I’m symptom-free, if I’m immune, I could go into the community and volunteer. But, of course, I don’t know for sure.

So. Not a lot of writing. I have been able to read, so that’s been a nice respite.

Be well, everyone.

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