Tag Archives: Free Fiction Fridays

Free Fiction Friday: Heart Whisper

It’s not all bad, a whispering heart. If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.

Isabelle Sterling pulled the pickup truck off the gravel road and bumped her way to the windbreak thirty feet in. With the engine off and the windows rolled all the way down, it was quiet—at last. A soft breeze whispered in the tall grasses and rattled cornstalks.

Isabelle jumped from the cab. The tallest stalks reached well beyond her waist. She peered down row after endless row, all black earth and rich green. The scent of soil was thick in the air, warm from the July sun.

Farming wasn’t one of her skills. Marilyn wouldn’t let her near the enclave’s gardens—not even the potted herbs—for fear she might wilt them. Still, even Isabelle knew this was a good omen.

She headed for the passenger door and the precious cargo belted in the front seat—like a toddler. Her truck still wore the dust of Georgia, the black paint flecked with red, the deep rust the color of blood. She wore it too. Every time she licked her lips, she could taste the red clay earth.

Isabelle eased the wooden crate from the cooler in the front seat, kicked the door closed, and headed for the road.

The rest of the trip would be on foot. She wiggled her toes inside her combat boots. Since being discharged, she tugged them on once a year for this trek up the bluff.

They’d carried her through Afghanistan; they could carry her here as well.

At the crossroads, she inched forward, just enough to stand in the shade cast by the stop sign. Her truck waited patiently behind her.

Anyone traveling this road would disregard it, maybe figure a farmer was checking her crops. Or more likely, a farmer had abandoned it there in the windbreak, keys in the ignition, and left it and everything behind—a relic to relentless toil and debt. She’d seen three such pickups on her way to the bluffs.

Isabelle sighed. It wasn’t the truck she was worried about.

This was her fifth year up the riverside bluff.

This was the year she wouldn’t come back down.

She felt the rumble first through the soles of her boots. All the hairs on the back of her neck stood at attention. She spun, jumped back, heart pounding a cadence she couldn’t control.

Breathe, breathe, breathe.

In the distance, a white pickup truck barreled forward, a cloud of dust blooming behind it—just a farmer, and nothing more.

Just a farmer.

She was, in the words of Marilyn, overreacting. Or hyper-reacting. After five years back on the soil of Black Earth, Minnesota, she knew better.

Or at least everyone thought she should.

The dust cloud grew larger, billowing like a sandstorm. Instead of slowing for the stop sign, the driver was gunning the engine and planning to run straight through.

She backed up, stumbled over the edge of the ditch.

It wasn’t far enough.

The damn truck was coming straight for her.

Deliberately.

What. The. Hell.

The truck swerved, and she pitched backward into the ditch. A spray of pebbles pelted her bare arms. She lost her grip on the wooden crate. It fell to the ground with a crack, the sound like a gunshot. Its contents spilled among the rocks and weeds.

The truck flew through the stop sign. Then the driver jammed on the brakes, backed up, and came to a halt on the road right above her.

Isabelle blinked and braced her feet against the earth. The rumble of the engine competed with the roar of her pulse. Dust floated on the air, filled her mouth, scratched her eyes.

From inside the cab came the relentless hammering of death metal. The driver lowered the volume and then hung himself out the window, fingers drumming the flame decal on the side of the door.

“Sorry about that, honey. I didn’t see you there.”

Like hell he didn’t. Isabelle gave him a stare, the one she’d perfected in boot camp, the one without a trace of emotion except for silent contempt.

“Need a ride?”

“Oh, I’m good.” Her palms stung. Her tailbone ached. But what hurt the most were the remains of her cargo scattered all around her.

There was no salvaging that.

“You sure you don’t need a hand?” The driver drummed the side of his truck even harder, a strange, staccato beat that made her heart pound a warning.

“Positive.”

“A pretty girl like you, out here all alone? Someone might get the wrong idea.”

“Someone might, but not you,” she said, weaving magic into her voice. “You’re smarter than that.”

She could see the spell weave around the guy’s head, tangling with sweaty strands of blond hair, clouding his blue eyes. And she saw the moment he shook it off, too.

Sadly, he wasn’t smarter than that.

“Those peaches wouldn’t be for me, would they, sweetheart?” His gaze went not to the scattered fruit but to her chest.

“No.” This time, Isabelle dispensed with magic. Instead, she infused her words with all the Georgia sugar she could muster. “But these are.”

With that, she raised both her middle fingers.

It was a dumb move, but after all the searching, the bartering, and thirty-six hours of driving, she didn’t need to deal with some dude-bro joyriding around the area, scaring livestock and running over cats.

He wasn’t local. Local boys (and girls) knew better than to get stupid around the river bluffs. They’d head into Mankato or even drive up to the Twin Cities.

This guy? If he didn’t leave now, he might not leave at all. Not today of all days.

His fingers stopped their drumming. The knuckles of his hand went tight.

She needed to end this—quick.

Isabelle bared her teeth. The glamour was simple, barely a spell at all. She preferred fox or coyote. Today she wasn’t taking chances.

She went with mountain lion.

During her first year in college, after her roommate’s disastrous encounter at a frat party, Isabelle had taught her the trick—along with some hand-to-hand combat moves. Despite evidence to the contrary, the enclave insisted that there were those who could weave magic—and then everybody else.

Isabelle didn’t believe it. Everyone had magic. Of some kind.

Except for maybe dude-bro here.

He blanched, blinked, and gaped, his mouth open like a fish left to flop around on the dock. Without taking his eyes off her, he put the truck in gear and inched respectfully up the road. At the stop sign, he took a right, the way leading to the interstate.

“There’s a good boy,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper. “And don’t come back.”

* * *

Isabelle used all but one bottle of water to give the peaches a bath. She cradled each one in her palm, the way a mother might hold an infant’s head. She washed away the dirt, used a fingernail to pry pebbles from the tender flesh, and placed each one back into the crate as if tucking it in for a nap.

And she still had the three-mile walk ahead of her.

“Uphill, both ways,” she said—ostensibly to the peaches—and laughed. Then she placed her palm against her heart and waited.

She wasn’t sure what, exactly, she was waiting for. But the gesture calmed her, reassured her that her heart was still where it should be, that it still beat, that neither it nor she was completely broken.

A breeze chased strands of hair from her cheeks. The crossroads were quiet once again.

It was time.

She tucked the last bottle of water into a knapsack, hefted the crate to her hip, and started her trek up the river bluff.

* * *

The barter had come through at the last minute, as barters tended to do. Isabelle needed twelve perfect peaches. And no, she couldn’t dash into a grocery store and toss a handful into a shopping basket.

Peaches, plucked by hand. And not just any hand, but that of enclave matriarch. And not just any peaches, but ones from Georgia.

Peaches were plentiful. What Isabelle lacked was something to offer in return. Then, she connected with an enclave courier in as desperate of straights as she was.

After that, it was nothing but the whisper of wheels against the interstate and some truly terrible talk radio. At last, she reached the red clay of Georgia, where her counterpart, a woman named Denisha, met her at the southern enclave’s peach orchard.

“Oh, snowdrop,” Denisha said when Isabelle hopped out of her truck. “Let’s get you out of this heat.”

Isabelle laughed. She’d been to Georgia before—three weeks of airborne school in August, no less. But that had been a lifetime ago, and her blood was sluggish and thick from Minnesota winters.

She grabbed the cooler from the seat. The thing was icy, even after all that driving. A trace of its contents filtered into the thick Georgia air, at odds with her surroundings. A harsh, cold, fishy odor that—judging by Denisha’s wrinkled nose—was overwhelming the sultry, sweet scent of peaches.

Inside the orchard’s office, they headed for the kitchen area. Denisha poured them both some sweet tea. She was about Isabelle’s age—late twenties or so, and she wore her hair in a coil of braids on top of her head. She looked like a queen capable of ruling her own enclave.

With the first sip, the sugar flowed through Isabelle’s veins. Enclave brewed. It had to be. There was enough magic mixed with the sugar and caffeine to not only revive her but fuel her drive back home.

“So this is really a thing,” Denisha said while Isabelle unpacked the cooler.

“It’s a thing.” Isabelle held up one of the packages. “Straight from the lutefisk capitol of the world.”

The dried cod, soaked in water, then lye, and then water again—because who the hell eats lye—was a gelatinous, smelly, and baffling delicacy. She’d grown up in Minnesota and didn’t understand it. She had no hope of explaining it to someone out of state.

“I thought she was joking with this request.” Denisha shook her head. “I’m really hoping she doesn’t ask me to share this year.”

Isabelle’s hand stilled on the package, the cold burning her fingertips. “She shares?”

“Sometimes. Depends on the request. Honestly, I think it’s partly a test, you know—will you do my bidding and all that. But it’s worth it, right? I wouldn’t give up being a courier for anything.”

Oh, how Isabelle wanted to ask. She wanted to ask so badly. Did Denisha see their enclave’s patron? Speak with her? Share the yearly offering? What was that like? The thought of it made her heart drum against her ribcage and her palms sweat.

“Yeah,” Isabelle said, heat prickling her cheeks, betraying her. “I wouldn’t give it up either.”

Denisha collected the packages of lutefisk. “So, I cook this … how?”

“You can boil it, but it’s probably better if you bake it. And if you have any bacon or pork drippings, you can serve that on the side.”

“Everything’s better with bacon.”

“In this case, it might just save you.”

Denisha laughed. “This is going to be an adventure.” She packed the lutefisk into the refrigerator and then filled a thermos with sweet tea. “For your drive back.”

“You don’t—”

“Oh, yes, I do. You saved my ass. Those.” Denisha pointed to where a crate of peaches sat, twelve perfect ones in a bed a straw. “Are for your patron. But these?” She hefted the thermos. “And those.” Denisha gestured to a canvas sack overflowing with even more peaches. “Are for your drive back. Trust me, those things are magical. You’ll eat the entire bag before you get home.”

Denisha walked Isabelle to her truck and then gave her a hug so heartfelt it chased the air from her lungs.

“Text me if you need any help with the lutefisk.”

“Count on it.”

Isabelle drove off, opting for back roads rather than fight Atlanta’s rush hour traffic. She felt as if she were leaving behind a friend, although really, she’d only known Denisha through messages on the courier group chat.

What did couriers do before the internet? In the Black Earth town hall, there was a photograph of a woman—a Sterling woman, one of Isabelle’s ancestors—carrying a basket of something dear cradled in her arms.

The woman’s feet were bare, her dress faded and frayed. The entire town looked as though it’d been coated in dust. In the background, an ancient Model T sat, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both.

Isabelle thought about that woman on her drive back to Minnesota, wishing she could ask whether being a courier had been worth it.

* * *

Halfway up the bluff, the urge to pluck a peach from the crate and take a giant bite nearly overwhelmed Isabelle.

Denisha had been right. If not for her own bag of peaches, Isabelle would’ve eaten the offering. After that, driving past Black Earth and heading straight for the boundary waters—and paddling into Canada—would’ve been her only option.

It was one thing to scramble for an offering at the last minute, quite another to deliberately sabotage yourself.

Oh, but the peaches were tempting. They honeyed the air. The phantom sensation of juice running down her chin, sticky and tart, had her swiping at her skin. She’d eaten the entire bag within hours, amazed they hadn’t sent her racing for a rest stop bathroom.

But these were enclave peaches, picked by a matriarch. Overindulging wasn’t a danger; it was mandatory.

From this point on the river bluff path, she spied the cave opening, but only because she knew where to look. It was the darkness between pine needles and leaves. It was the cool that chased away some of the day’s heat, sending a wash of goose bumps across her bare arms and legs.

She reached the spot where the mosquitoes stopped nattering in her ears and biting the back of her neck. The spot where most people turned around, their legs suddenly and oddly tired, their sunburn fierce despite thick layers of sunscreen, their water bottles mysteriously empty.

Isabelle kept going.

The path turned rocky. During her first run as a courier, she’d pulled on the combat boots on a whim, more from nostalgia rather than practicality.

Turned out to be a wise decision.

Her heart pounded again. Isabelle paused, shifted the crate on her hip so she could hold it with one hand, and pressed her free palm against her chest, waiting once again.

Her heart thrummed with a steady thump, thump, thump. During her last Army physical—one for yet another deployment requiring yet another round of shots—the doctor had paused, stethoscope pressed against Isabelle’s chest.

“Has anyone ever told you that you have a heart murmur?”

Isabelle’s breath caught in her throat. She gave her head one slow shake.

The doctor listened, the crease between her eyebrows deepening. “Strange no one has ever … huh, this is weird. I’m going to order some tests.”

The words froze Isabelle in place. She knew, even without the tests. It was the enclave.

She was being called home.

Even now, when her heart pounded or skipped a beat, when the air felt odd in her lungs, she’d hold herself still, listen with all her might, as if somehow she could hear the defects of her own heart.

She continued the trek, the climb registering in her thighs now. This last stretch always made her doubt. Was she on the right path? Would she walk in circles, searching for the cave and never finding it?

Then the entrance loomed, dark and foreboding, a place for bears or wolves or definitely something that might swallow you in a single gulp.

And well, yes, their patron could do that. But she—like all patrons—had a particular palate. Human flesh wasn’t on the menu. Isabelle adjusted the crate in her grip.

Apparently peaches were.

She stepped across the boundary where the path ended and the flat, smooth surface of the cave entrance began. Cool air washed over her, chasing the sweat from her skin. A burst of color filled her eyes. Gemstones glinted in the sun—blood reds to dazzle, blues the color of midnight, and greens that made her think of those endless fields of corn.

The gems looked ripe, like they were their own kind of fruit. You could reach out and pluck one from the wall—if you were foolish enough to try, that is.

In the center of the entrance stood a small altar made of marble, its surface only a few inches larger than the crate she carried. The first time Isabelle had placed an offering there, relief filled the breathlessness in her lungs. Certainly she’d never be asked for something she couldn’t carry.

In all five years, she hadn’t. Perhaps that was enough of a reward.

She crouched and brushed the marble surface and then exhaled to chase away any errant grit or dust. The altar was clean; it always was. But it felt right to do this, to make this final gesture before she left.

Assuming she would leave this year.

As always, if her patron lingered inside the cave, Isabelle couldn’t detect her. No sigh filled with smoke. No tail scraping the cave floor. Nothing but the gemstones glinting playfully and the altar waiting for her offering.

She eased the crate onto the surface and stood—one step back and then another.

Nothing.

Perhaps she’d been wrong about the five years. But no, when she’d returned from the Army, Marilyn had specifically said the previous courier—Isabelle’s second cousin—had “finished” with her duties.

Her matriarch hadn’t elaborated on what “finished” meant, exactly, only that the woman was nowhere to be found. And that it was Isabelle’s turn.

And ten years ago, before she’d enlisted in the Army, there’d been another such turnover. Indeed, it was one of the reasons she did enlist. Out of sight, out of mind.

Now, here she was. Another Sterling woman after five years of service to a patron she’d never seen, never mind spoken to.

She’d tried, of course, that first year. She called out, peered into the cave, even dared to take a few steps inside. The hollow space swallowed her voice. The light from the gemstones faded a few feet inside the void. No scent of brimstone or smoke, only that of clean, dry earth. If her patron lingered somewhere beyond, shrouded by the dark, Isabelle couldn’t tell.

If not for the vanishing offering—last year’s had been Mozart Kugeln from Vienna—she’d say nothing inhabited the cave at all.

So that was it: five years and nothing. Perhaps Marilyn would meet her at the crossroads where she’d left her truck and relieve her of her duties. Maybe this was like the Army. She’d done her time, served as best she could, but lacked the … heart for anything else.

But it had been a good five years. She’d gotten her degree and traveled the world—this time to places where people weren’t shooting at her.

That was worth something.

“Thank you,” she said into the stillness. “It’s been an honor to be your courier.”

Isabelle was at the boundary, toes of her combat boots flirting with the edge, when a sonorous voice sounded behind her.

“Oh, my child, that sounds like a goodbye.”

* * *

It was only after her discharge from the Army that Isabelle found herself freezing at the oddest provocations. She couldn’t account for it.

After all, she’d stood in the open door of a C-130, the pines of Georgia thick beneath her as the plane banked for another run at the drop zone. She was out the door the second the light turned green, no hesitation. She could work in the sand, the mud, the rain. She knew when to be still and when to move.

But here in the civilian world? Here with her patron?

She froze.

“It’s all right, my dear.” The words were low, infused with brimstone and heat, mist and flowers.

It was such a strange, enticing combination that Isabelle found herself turning around. She froze once again, this time in awe. Her patron was a shimmering green that changed with the light—from one angle, the icy green of new growth, from another, the deep somber skin of a ripe avocado. Flecks of red raced along the surface of the scales. The forked tongue was red as well.

But the eyes were a glowing amber. And it was those serious eyes that surveyed her now.

“Are you really a dragon?” It was an impertinent sort of question, and Isabelle almost wished she could bite it back.

“Some people call me that. I prefer to think of myself as myself.”

“Me, too.”

“Indeed. It’s a Sterling trait, one I’ve always admired.”

Isabelle glanced about the cave. She knew that she wasn’t some sort of damsel-in-distress sacrifice. Why now and what next both hovered on the tip of her tongue. At last, she went with:

“I don’t understand.”

“The enclave still needs you, my dear, they have always needed you and the Sterlings before you.”

“To do what?”

“The hard work of making ends meet, I’m afraid.”

“But, the gardens, and the farm, and the—”

“Etsy shop?” The dragon’s voice rose, more amused than sardonic. “Not enough to survive on, never mind thrive. We have always sent the Sterlings into the world. They’ve always been the most capable of handling the vagaries of life.”

Like making a thirty-six-hour roundtrip for a crate of peaches or dealing with dude-bros in their pickup trucks.

“Yes, exactly that.” The dragon grinned.

At least, Isabelle assumed that’s what all those teeth meant. She recalled the glamour she’d used on dude-bro. Forget fox, coyote, or even mountain lion.

Maybe she’d been a dragon all along.

“Indeed,” her patron said. “You’ve also been a soldier and a scholar. For five years, you have catered to my … whims. You’re ready to strike out on your own.”

“I’m to leave the enclave?”

“Not permanently, but for the time being, yes.”

“Will the enclave call me home again?”

Wisps of smoke rose from the dragon’s nostrils. She shook her head as if startled by Isabelle’s question.

“My child, didn’t you know? That was me.”

Isabelle touched fingers to the left side of her chest. “But—”

“I had to break one small part of you so that you could come home to us.” The dragon paused, and it was as if she spoke the next word with great reluctance. “Intact.”

The meaning of that word—intact—sank in immediately. Isabelle had kept herself from watching the news, from keeping up with her old unit, searching the internet for details. Somehow, she knew. She knew exactly how that last deployment had ended.

The dragon blew out a smoke ring. It broke against Isabelle’s chest, soothing but not healing her heart.

“It’s not all bad, a whispering heart,” her patron said. “If you listen closely, it can tell you what you want.”

“I’m afraid I can’t hear it.”

“You will. With time.” The dragon inclined her head toward the peaches, still on the altar. “Now, will you stay and join me for this repast?”

Isabelle took two steps forward and knelt at the altar. “I will.”

* * *

A full moon helped Isabelle navigate the path down the river bluff. Once in her truck, she rested her arms on the steering wheel and gazed through the windshield. Above her, through the fringe of cottonwood leaves, a field of stars littered the night sky.

She was going to miss this view.

Her phone, which she’d locked in the glove compartment, buzzed. She fumbled with the latch and pulled it out in time to see a text message flash across the screen.

Denisha: I never did ask. Were you on your fifth year too?

Isabelle: Get your walking papers?

Denisha: Sure did. I could use a brainstorming buddy if you’re available.

Isabelle: I’ll start driving south.

Denisha: I’ll head north.

Isabelle: Meet you in the middle?

Denisha: Meet you in the middle.

When Isabelle returned to Black Earth, she found Marilyn on the town hall steps, haloed by lamplight. Two duffle bags, a suitcase, and three boxes—all of Isabelle’s worldly possessions—surrounded her. In her hands, Marilyn held a small package wrapped in brown paper and tied with twine.

Without a word, she handed it to Isabelle. Inside was the picture of the barefoot woman, cradling the basket, chin tilted resolutely for that journey up the river bluff. Now, when Isabelle studied the photograph, she noticed something new.

The woman wore the barest trace of a smile as well.

“Her fifth year,” Isabelle said.

“Yes, indeed.” Marilyn hugged her then, arms thin but capable. “We will miss you, but you are ready.”

“And when it’s time to come home?”

Marilyn raised her gaze to the river bluff. “You’ll know, one way or the other.”

On her way out of Black Earth, Isabelle passed a truck pulled over on the side of the road, a white pickup with flame decals. It sat there, discarded, forgotten, or most likely, both. A relic to something, although she wasn’t quite sure what.

She drove into the night, listening to the whisper of wheels against the interstate and for the quiet murmur of her own heart.

Heart Whisper is (yet another!) dragon story written for The (Love) Stories for 2020 Project.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Maze

How can you escape if there’s no way out?

Eppie

On the twelfth day, Cadet Eppie Langtry found the cracks in the wall.

She’d stopped her trek through the maze and leaned against its smooth surface. Exhaustion from the first six hours washed through her, the force of it pushing her into the unforgiving wall. After a few quick breaths, she wiped a hand across her eyes and rolled her shoulder. It was nothing more than a simple push to get going. But beneath her, something shifted.

Eppie sprang back, gulping cold air. She inched closer and probed the crevice with her fingers. The unrelenting and unchanging wall of the past twelve days slid against her skin. She nudged the wall with her shoulder, the way you might a best friend, as if she and this impenetrable white slab had anything in common. The crevice deepened.

Eppie glanced upward. The walls and ceiling were bare, but so bright that some days, she wanted to crouch into a ball, bury her head in her arms, and simply rock the twelve-hour shift away.

She never did. The stories of those who had halted for too long kept her trudging forward through the maze. With her shoulder molding new shapes in the wall, Eppie latched onto the first glimmer of … something. Like everyone else in her class, she’d spent hours pounding the surface, scratching the walls, kicking as hard as she could. Not even blood from torn fingernails was a match for the bright, white glare. Worse, after that first day, everyone’s boots went missing from their lockers, and they now navigated the icy maze in bare feet.

Her toes ached with the cold. Eppie sandwiched one foot on top of the other and inspected the dip in the wall her shoulder had made. She poked at the wall with her fingertips, and the pliant give became unrelenting again. It was as if the maze resented her earlier attempts of kicking and scratching.

Eppie blew out a breath. “I’d be resentful too,” she said, her words barely reaching her ears. It was as if the walls absorbed both the sound of her voice and what she had to say.

She tried her shoulder again, rolling it around, gentle, persistent, but giving it a bit of rhythm, like a dance routine. If the cadre were filming this—and no doubt they were—she must look ridiculous. A giggle escaped her lips, and Eppie slapped a hand across her mouth. She hadn’t laughed in how many days? Certainly not the last twelve.

Beneath her shoulder, the crevice grew into a valley. Since the wall seemed to like her shoulder, what about a hip? Now she was dancing. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder…

Something solid and warm blocked her progress. Eppie halted, drinking in the first hint of heat in more than six hours. Was this the key, then? Movement? Friction? The wall beneath her still glowed white. It looked deceptively cold, but its warmth was delicious. She turned her face toward the wall, tongue flicking across her lips. What if she leaned forward? What if she let her mouth graze the surface? What then?

She was a mere breath away when the wall beneath her skin coughed.

Hank

Cadet Hank Su stomped through the corridor. No matter how hard he tried, the bright white swallowed the sound of his footfalls until all that remained were small, pathetic steps against the frigid floor. No matter how hard he screamed, the walls absorbed it. By dinner, his throat was so raw, even water scraped on the way down. He crashed from side to side. He kicked until they took away his boots. He gathered up all his strength and bolted down the corridor.

Gentle curves morphed into straight, hard surfaces—almost on a whim—and he slammed into the wall, this time not on purpose. Hank experimented with speed, sprints and slow jogs, but always moving forward. After that first day, when his best friend Ryan didn’t come back, Hank had known this was no ordinary training exercise. Every night, he confronted that empty bunk next to his. To stop seeing the image of the stripped mattress and empty footlocker, Hank bent his head forward and ran with all his strength, grateful for the crash at the end.

But today, day twelve, he walked the corridors, keeping his pace steady. When he stood still, the walls closed in. If he extended his arms, certainly he’d be able to touch both sides at once. Every time he tried? The walls exhaled. There was no other word for it. And they left him standing in the center of the hall, fingertips straining for the cold surface on either side of him.

An illusion. A trick. Something someone was recording. Would the cadre play it back, at the end of the exercise, so everyone could laugh at him? He shook his head, banishing that notion—and the thought that there was no end to this. That was why they punched the walls. That was why they kicked. Didn’t the cadre understand that? Or maybe they did, and that was the point.

Hank inched closer to one wall, letting his fingers trail along its surface. So smooth. So cold. An ache bloomed beneath his fingertips. He moved closer still, resting his forehead against the wall. The shock of cold almost made him jerk back. But as unrelenting as the wall was, it soothed his brow, made his throat feel less parched. Hank inhaled, held the recycled air in his lungs, then blew out a long breath and pitched forward.

There, on the wall—like the indentation on a pillow—was the impression of his forehead. With hands and fingers, he probed the dent. Nothing. In frustration, he leaned his head in the same spot, and the wall gave way again.

This time, Hank stood still. The corridor remained quiet. The lights blared down, like they always had. A dry, stale taste had invaded his mouth a few hours back. But this? This was new. This held hope. He rolled his head from side to side, the motion so gentle, his eyelids grew heavy. It was like an icy lullaby, and after six hours of running the maze, a relief.

The going was slow, but the wall yielded beneath his head. He forgot about running, about screaming, about kicking. He forgot about feeling foolish. Who cared? At last he was getting somewhere.

The giggle stopped all his progress. Hank felt his eyes grow wide. Certainly his mouth hung open. A giggle. A girl’s giggle. He stepped back and surveyed the wall.

“Hello?” His voice sounded rough, so he coughed to clear it.

Nothing. Right. Walls didn’t giggle. That didn’t stop him from trying again. “Hello?”

“Is someone there?” The voice sounded light, but steady, and even better, real. Not some computer-simulated thing—and Hank knew all about those. This was a real girl.

Or, at least, Hank hoped she was. Instead of jumping back, he surged forward and cracked his head against the wall.

“Ow.” His voice sank into the walls around him, and it was almost like he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Are you okay?”

“I head-butted the wall.”

“You can’t do that,” the girl said. “You’ve got to go slow.”

“I know that.”

“And use body parts that haven’t hit the wall, either.”

“I know that too.” Or, at least, he did now.

“Does your head still work?”

What kind of question was that? Hank stared at the wall so hard, the surface blurred red.

“I mean,” she said, “since you hit the wall with it.”

Oh. Of course. He was an idiot. “Let me try.” He eased forward, resting his head against the wall. From one side to the other, he rolled his head, the cold dulling the pain from the bruise.

His feet remained in the same spot, but the wall felt pliant under his forehead. He brought up a hand, testing the surface not with fingertips that had scratched, but with the heel of his hand. The sensation didn’t register at first, but a small circle beneath his palm radiated warmth.

“Do you feel that?” he asked. “The heat?”

“I do.”

“What do you think it is?”

A moment passed, a single heartbeat of hesitation. “Us?”

Was it? The reflex to jerk away nearly had him on the opposite side of the corridor. Instead, he stretched his fingers and pressed them against the wall. Warmth ran along his skin, pooled in his palm. The girl. It had to be, standing like he was, her hand against his.

“What’s your—?” he began.

The claxon alarm rang. The walls faded. The floor vanished beneath his feet. The plummet stole his breath, felt endless until the jolt of hitting the ground. He found himself in the assembly yard, like he had after every twelve-hour shift, along with all the others in his class. Lines formed for the dining hall. By rote, Hank joined one.

“Hey, Hank!” someone called.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he traced patterns across his palm. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her warmth. When he opened them, Hank realized one thing:

He didn’t even know her name.

Eppie

Eppie scanned the dining facility, gaze darting, hopeful and quick. Too many times, she’d spotted someone, someone like her, someone with a secret. Her heart would speed up. She’d open her mouth to call out, raise a hand to wave, only to have that someone turn away.

Could she find the boy? If so, what then? How would that help them tomorrow, when they both went back inside the maze? She took her seat and pushed her dinner around her plate. Eat, she told herself. Build up your strength. Tonight’s stew was smooth, at least. And hot. The center of the spoonful burnt her tongue, and the heat of it seared the back of her throat.

Eppie clutched her water cup, brought the rim to her lips, and drowned the heat. When she set the cup down, the sharp gaze of a matron fell on her.

“What did you do?” her friend Chara asked.

Eppie shook her head. “I didn’t do anything.” Except make the maze move. Except talk to a boy, who was somewhere beyond the yellow dividing line that ran the entire length of the dining facility.

But what if the cadre had seen Eppie and the boy, heard them talk? Well, what of it? Eppie folded her arms across her chest. She raised her chin and stared back at the matron.

The woman glanced away.

“Eppie …?” Chara said.

Eppie put a finger to her lips. “Not here.”

She was scraping her plate clean when the bell sounded. Normally, they’d be released into the yard for a precious hour of social interaction, but not at this point in their training, not while they were all navigating the maze. Instead, they walked the lines to their separate dormitories, were pushed through showers, and watched the lights flicker above their bunks.

“Wakeup at zero four hundred, ladies,” the matron said. “That comes awfully early.”

“Actually, it comes at the same time every day,” Chara whispered.

Eppie giggled. The feel of it in her throat made her think of dancing with the maze. The boy. His warmth.

“There’s more to the maze,” she whispered to Chara.

The matron’s footfalls sounded in the aisle between the two rows of beds.

“I’m not sure it’s a maze at all,” she added.

The footsteps grew louder, then slowed, then stopped—right beside Eppie’s bunk.

“Cadet Langtry?”

“Yes, Matron?”

“If I were you, I’d conserve my energy by not speaking.”

Eppie stilled her breath even as her thoughts raced. “Yes, Matron.”

So they knew? They must. If the cadre couldn’t use the maze to observe them, then they had planted something in their uniforms, a tracking device, perhaps. A sudden, delicious thought of flinging off her uniform filled her head. Flinging it off and running through the maze naked. Flinging it off and finding that boy. He’d keep her warm.

Now that would be a dance worth doing.

Hank

Hank stood at the entry point to the maze. He was alone in his own little corridor. They all were. If he held still, he could hear the others, their breathing, an occasional shoulder slam against the wall. No one liked going in, but the sooner they did, the sooner the day would end.

Day thirteen.

When his door whooshed open, Hank took soft steps. He let his fingertips skim the wall, the gentlest of touches. He could hold a baby bird and not injure it. Still, the cold against the soles of his feet, and the idea of the girl, urged him forward, faster and faster.

Soft and fast, he chanted to himself. Soft and fast.

Could he find her? He’d thought of her—dreamed of her—all night. Was she thinking of him? Dreaming of him? Did she even want to find him?

In nearly two weeks, what they’d both discovered yesterday was the first thing that hadn’t hurt. He wanted more of that, so after half an hour (by his guess), he decided to cozy up to the wall.

He veered right, simply because he was right-handed. Hank hesitated. Was that predictable? Or maybe no second-guessing? The maze probably hated that. After all, he did.

Hank froze, his palm against the wall’s surface. When, exactly, had the maze started having opinions?

“But you do,” he whispered. Was it sentient? Would it eat them? It hadn’t bothered to in the past twelve days, so he didn’t see why it should start now.

“Do you have a name?” he asked, his face close now to the bright white of the wall. “I was stupid,” he added. “I didn’t ask the girl what her name was. I’m worried I won’t be able to find her.”

He stood now, both hands against the wall, his face inches away, legs spread. “Can you help me?”

Beneath his palms, something shifted, as if a wave deep within the wall itself had rolled past.

“I’m sorry,” he added, “I didn’t know I could hurt you. I only thought they were trying to hurt us.”

The wave surged past again, stronger this time, carrying him with it.

“Got it,” he said, feet scurrying to catch up. “You want me to go that way.”

Hank ran, faster than he could on his own. With that wave beneath his palm, he nearly flew. Cold air blasted him in the face. His eyes watered, and his mouth went dry. But he didn’t care.

He was flying. He was going to find the girl.

Eppie

Eppie kept her uniform on. Tempted as she was to chuck the whole thing, the air was too frigid. Plus, at the end of the shift, did she really want to end up in the assembly yard completely naked? No. No, she did not.

Today, when her fingertips met the wall, the surface gave, just a bit, beneath the pressure. Nothing too hard, nothing violent, but yet, when she pressed her whole hand—not just the palm—against the wall, she felt herself sink into it.

“Do you forgive me?” she asked. “We didn’t know. They never said.” And here she was, talking to the wall as if it were a real living thing. Was it? She pressed deeper into the surface and the wall swallowed her hand, up to her wrist.

“Oh!” It didn’t hurt. In fact, it made her think of what it might be like to push your way into a marshmallow. During her first year at the Academy, they’d had those, complete with a campfire that threw sparks into the air, the sweet smell of burnt sugar filling her nose. Back when things had felt hopeful, the Academy a lucky break.

Eppie eased her other hand into the wall. “What went wrong? Was it always supposed to end this way?”

The surface moved under her touch, like it was melting, except it was still far too cold for that. “You are so cold,” she said. “That doesn’t seem right.”

Could a living thing be so cold, even one from another planet or dimension, or wherever this thing was from? She let herself fall forward, arms spread wide as if for a giant hug. If the maze didn’t catch her, she’d break her nose, maybe some bones. But she closed her eyes, let gravity take her, and fell head first into the marshmallow wall.

Three inches from the floor, the maze caught her.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I knew you would.”

At that moment, something rolled over her. This was less of a marshmallow and more of a thick wave of frosting. With it came a whoop and a flash of heat. Heat. Warmth.

The boy.

“Hello!” Eppie clambered to her hands and knees. She was fully inside the wall now. She slogged forward. It felt like pushing through a meadow of velvet grass with stalks that grew taller than her head.

“Hello!” she called again, louder now. “Are you there?”

“Is that you?”

Of course it’s me, Eppie wanted to say. But she knew what he meant. “From yesterday, right?”

“It is you!” he said. “And the maze, it somehow—”

“Brought us together.” Even the ice cold interior couldn’t cool the blush that flashed across her face. She didn’t know what this boy looked like, didn’t know his name. All she knew was that he liked to head-butt his way into things, that he was loud, that he was trying to find her.

And that made him oh so interesting.

“I’m over here,” she said when he didn’t respond.

“Yeah, that’s just it. I don’t know where ‘here’ is.”

He laughed, and the maze around her shook. Gentle waves made the velvet insides quiver and sent her this way and that.

“The maze likes that,” she said. “It likes to hear you laugh.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m inside it, inside the walls.”

“How on earth—?”

Eppie laughed. “Probably not.”

“You’re right about that,” he said. “But how?”

“Remember the trust falls from first year?”

“I hated those.”

“Same idea.”

“Will you help me?”

“I don’t know where you are.” Eppie held her arms out, fingers investigating the velvet that surrounded her. His heat. She should search for his heat. But all that met her fingertips was more frigid air.

“Hey.” His voice was soft. “Before I forget. What’s your name?”

“Eppie Langtry.”

“I’m Henry, Henry Su. But everyone calls me Hank.”

“Can I call you Henry?”

“Uh, I guess. Sure.”

“I don’t want to be like everyone else.”

Hank

He’d found her! He’d found the girl. Hank didn’t even care that she wanted to call him Henry. No one ever did. In fact, Hank liked that he could be Henry, if just for this girl.

“I’m over here,” he called.

“It’s like you’re everywhere.” She laughed, and the sound flowed through the space, seemed to fill it.

“I think it likes it when you laugh,” he said.

“So you think it’s … something, too.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know what.”

“I almost want to say it’s not here.”

“Oh, it’s here.”

“I mean …” She sighed, and that too, traveled through the walls. “It’s from somewhere else, or another dimension, one that was rolled up small, but now is stretched thin.” She paused, then added, “That’s why it’s cold. That’s why it hurts.”

“Who did the stretching?”

This time, Eppie’s exhale filled his ears. They both knew the answer to his question. Whoever did the stretching also shoved them inside every morning.

“Why did it pick us?” Hank asked, his voice quiet. “I mean, you’re special.” Hank knew she was. The trust fall proved that. “But I’m nobody. Average grades, average test scores, average everything.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I can prove it. On the outside, at least.”

“Maybe it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.”

“So what do we do?” he asked. “How do we help it?”

“I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that I want to feel your hand again.”

Hank swallowed, hard. For a full ten seconds, he quite possibly forgot how to breathe. “Maybe.” He coughed. “Maybe I should hold still, and you try to find me.” He cleared his throat again and added, “It might be easier that way, since you’re on the inside.”

He let himself melt into the wall. The surface grew softer beneath him, more pliant. From somewhere deep inside the wall came a whooshing noise, a sloshing that sounded like someone pushing through knee-deep water.

“Have you ever seen a wheat field?” Eppie asked.

“Only in vids.”

“This must be what it’s like, walking through one, only the stalks are so soft.”

A spot of heat brushed against his palms.

“Oh, I found you!” Eppie cried out before he could utter a word.

They stood like that, palm to palm. A circle of heat bloomed beneath their hands, spread into the wall itself.

“Do you feel that?” she asked.

Hank coughed again. “Yeah.”

“I think it wants us closer together. You know, more points of contact.”

“You okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” she said. “It’s like dancing.”

Well, he wasn’t going to use that word, but yes, like dancing. They eased closer together. Was that her cheek against his lips?

“Why do you think it needs us?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s … I don’t know, using us? Not in a bad way. I mean, I barely know you, but I couldn’t stop thinking of you last night. You know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“It feels … right, and yet, nothing makes sense.”

“Nothing about this last year makes sense. Weren’t you excited to get into the Academy?”

He had been, just like his older brothers.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be easy,” Eppie continued. “But even the training that seemed stupid at the time had a point, and you kind of knew what that was, even if you didn’t exactly.”

Hank snorted. That was the Academy, all right. “Both my brothers graduated from here. Frederick never talks about the maze, and all Jon says is don’t stop moving.”

But they had stopped. And now?

“All that training,” she said, “and then they put us in here, and it feels like … it feels like—”

“A mistake,” he finished. “Someone’s made a mistake, and they don’t know how to fix it.”

“Then why are they sending class after class through the maze?”

“Maybe they were hoping for the right combination?”

“Maybe they were hoping for us. Look.”

Shadows played against the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor of the maze. Dark figures ran, punched walls, scratched and kicked. Hank wanted to scream. Stop! You’re not helping.

“More than one dimension, then?” Eppie asked.

“I wasn’t paying attention that day in class.”

“I think this goes beyond anything they teach in class.”

“That’s probably part of the problem.”

The claxon bell blared, echoing through the maze with enough force to rupture an eardrum. Hank felt it shake the walls. The surface beneath his hands trembled, like a wild creature racked with fear and pain. Before the bottom fell out—before the walls melted and his feet slid through nothing—he lunged forward.

Forget trust falls. This was a trust dive. He grabbed Eppie around the waist the same moment she clutched his shoulders. He wasn’t losing her this time.

The second before they hit bottom, Eppie said:

“Don’t let go.”

Eppie

Something about the assembly yard was different, and it wasn’t simply because she was clutching the boy, Henry. They held onto each other, and Eppie took in the grass beneath her, the sky above, a twilight blue with a nearly full moon. And yet, when she stared hard, she saw the maze, or the outline of it, floating above their heads.

Others saw it too. Faces turned skyward. Necks, some long and slender, others thick and sturdy, were all she could see of her classmates. Another dimension? A being? Whatever it was, things were different.

Matrons and wardens converged on the yard, corralling boys and girls, not even caring that they mixed the groups.

“Find them!” someone shouted.

“Eppie!” Chara dashed up, breathless, hair streaming from its regulation bun. “They mean you.”

For the first time, Eppie’s gaze met Henry’s. His soulful dark eyes looked worried. “Us?” he said.

He sprang to his feet and reached for her. Eppie grabbed on with one hand, pushing herself up with the other. Then, still clutching Henry, she ran. Their classmates parted for them, then filled the gap behind, forcing the wardens and matrons to shove, to pull out the tazons. Zaps, sizzles, and the cries of their classmates echoed behind them.

“What are they doing?” Eppie forced out between breaths.

“Something bad.”

“What did we do?”

Henry glanced at her before sprinting harder. “Something bad?”

They raced past their classmates, intent on those last few steps to freedom. The protected forest around the Academy would shelter them. She knew enough, Eppie was sure, to survive for days in there, despite the lack of supplies. The two of them together? They’d make do.

At the very edge, where the scent of pine filled the air, and branches reached out as if to greet them, they slammed into a wall. Not like one from the maze. This wall was thick, electrified. It sent Eppie backward, through the air, her grip torn from Henry’s.

Her hip crunched against the earth first, a sickening sound that made her think of broken bones. She rolled, hoping that would absorb the shock. She rolled and rolled, right into a pair of white, gleaming boots. She stared up into the glowing end of a tazon.

Eppie never raised her hands. Her mouth stayed closed. She held on, held her breath, and braced for what would happen next.

The jolt shot through her entire body, and then her world went black.

Hank

Hank had ended his day surrounded by black. Now, waking, it was all he saw. He reached out a hand, waved it, blinked, and waved it again. Nothing. Either the cell was lightproof, or the tazon had blinded him.

Or both. He’d heard about the cells. They all had. The cadre sent you there when you acted out. You were meant to reconsider your choices in this space, contemplate whether the rules were really that bad, whether the wardens and the matrons truly mistreated you.

Life choices. We all make them, the superintendent had intoned during first-year orientation.

Yeah. What a choice. All he’d done was what? Figure out the maze? Where was the reward for that? The accolades? He pushed himself up, tucked his legs beneath him, then reached a tentative hand above his head.

A meter, maybe a meter and a half. Not enough room to stand and barely enough to turn around. He inched his fingers along the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. The surface snagged callouses on his hands, the texture rough-hewn and unmoving. He scraped a knuckle and warm blood oozed between his fingers.

His head swam, an ache spreading across his skull. A panel slid back. Light flooded the space. He squinted, trying to peer out his cell, the panel, the door—or what he thought was the door—anything to give him more information.

“The prisoner is awake,” someone said.

Prisoner?

“Ah, very good.” A shadow crossed the open panel. “Comfortable, Cadet Su?” a smooth voice said. “I imagine fraternizing with female cadets is a great deal more fun than this.”

What? He never … well, sure, he thought about Eppie, but they’d just met—sort of. Plus, they’d been inside the maze. All rules were off.

Weren’t they?

“Hungry?” the voice asked.

In response, Hank’s stomach rumbled. Stupid, stupid. It made him look weak. Of course, getting thrown into a pitch-black cell didn’t make him appear all that strong, or smart, either.

“Well then,” the voice said, the solicitous tone chilling Hank’s thoughts. “Why don’t we have a little chat?”

Eppie

The straight-back chair was unremarkable except for one thing: Eppie couldn’t move. Her bare feet were flush against the floor. The surface flashed hot, then cold. She jerked against invisible bonds, unable to break contact. Sweat bathed her forehead, trickled down her spine.

“You’re making it too hard on yourself,” the matron said. “Simply tell us what happened. Then you can go back to the dorm, have a nice dinner, see your friends.”

A false promise. She’d been trained—they all had—in resisting interrogation. Why did this matron think such simple offers would work now? The floor flashed again, a searing heat that forced a yelp from her throat.

That. It was one thing to read about torture, quite another for someone to cook the soles of your feet.

“You know,” the matron said. “Cadet Su told us some interesting things.”

The matron was all sly words and looks, playing mostly good cop. Eppie had braced for the inevitable switch—a new matron, or a warden, even. Pretending that Henry had said something might be standard procedure. In this case, it wasn’t logical.

“He told us what you did.”

What she did? Or what they’d done together? Neither of which amounted to much. Or perhaps, it amounted to so much that no one could understand what had happened. Eppie pictured the maze floating above the yard. The cadre wanted to control something they couldn’t comprehend. And good luck with that.

“You can’t hide anything from us,” the woman said. “We have it all on vid, for playback, any time we like.”

Then why bother asking? Eppie clamped her mouth shut. She’d stuck with the canned response, the one the cadre themselves taught. Name. Rank. Serial Number. You open your mouth, you give them an opening. Speak and you’ll eventually say something you don’t mean to—or can’t take back.

“So, you don’t mind that Cadet Su, that Hank, betrayed you?”

Perhaps someone named Cadet Su would betray her. And Hank? Well, how could you trust a Hank? Eppie shut her eyes and pictured Henry, his dark silky hair, his warm hands against her, around her waist, palm against palm as they ran. Maybe the Academy did have vids. But clearly their knowledge didn’t add up to much if they didn’t know the difference between Hank and Henry.

Eppie stared straight at the matron and laughed.

Hank

He knew the beating would come the moment laughter burst from his mouth. Cadet Langtry had betrayed him? Eppie? The few glimpses of the girl he’d had over the past two days told him how rock steady she was—much more than he was, that was for sure. How smart she was. After four years of training at the Academy, couldn’t the cadre see that?

Maybe they did and figured he was the idiot in the equation. Well, that was partly true, because he had just laughed, loud and long, at their ludicrous suggestion. Another round with the tazon? Sure, why not? Tossed, bruised and battered, back into his pitch-black cell? Not surprising.

What surprised him were the questions—not the ones about Eppie, but the others. What was the maze made out of? How did they get inside the walls? (And really, only Eppie had, so why ask him?) The cadre controlled the entrance and exit, herded them through the maze day after day. Yet, they knew so little. Which made him, and Eppie, and their classmates what? Lab rats?

He pressed gentle fingers against his eyes. They were swelling shut, both of them, not that it mattered inside the cell. Still, it was so dark, he was afraid he’d forget whether his eyes were open or closed. He wondered if Eppie were doing the same, testing her own bruised eyes. He hated to think of her that way, hated that maybe it was all his fault. He pressed a hand against the wall, wishing for one intense moment that it was the maze again, that he’d detect her warmth, find her again.

“Henry?”

The soft voice made him bolt upright. He should have smacked the hell out of his forehead and given himself a second concussion. Instead, the rough stone gave way—like in the maze.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

Eppie

Eppie couldn’t say when the floor beneath her bruised limbs cushioned rather than punished. Her hip stopped aching, then her ribs. She dozed, possibly, before her eyes went wide with amazement.

She was inside the maze again, but it was more than that now. Actually, when she considered it, the maze had always been more than that. It was something unto itself. And it wasn’t tethered to this world any longer. It had broken free. They’d seen that in the yard. But it hadn’t left. It had come back.

For her?

Yes, and not just for her.

“Let’s find Henry,” she told it.

And so they traveled. High above the Academy, Eppie breathed in the panic below. Hovercrafts for on-planet use, space transport, footlockers and bags scattered in the yard, and parents streaming through the halls in search of their children. Her stomach tightened. Her own parents? Had they been notified? Or was she not part of that world anymore?

The maze carried her through the long corridors of the Academy. She eavesdropped on hurried meetings, press conferences cut short. A scandal, with two cadets dead due to unauthorized experiments.

Dead?

“Please,” she told the maze. “Where’s Henry? Is he all right?”

So they floated lower, and lower, beneath the first floor, the basement, into the catacombs that fueled so many rumors among the cadets.

“All true?” she wondered out loud.

They passed her own cell. Her uniform, ghostly white, flat and listless, was crumpled on the floor. Perhaps the urge to lose her uniform had been right all along. She certainly didn’t need it now.

A sob echoed through the dark hall and wrenched her heart, but she was powerless to console the mourner. The maze continued down the hall, down another level. Eppie held up her hand, like she had the first time she’d met Henry inside the maze.

“I’ll know him,” she said. “Just go slowly.”

And so it did.

“There. There he is.” That telltale warmth, the palm that fit against her own. Henry. “He’s never been inside,” she added. Not like she had. She knew the maze, and it knew her, but Henry? They hadn’t gotten to that point.

“I think he’ll trust you now. Will you try?”

And so the maze did.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

He coughed, and his whole body shook with it. The maze trembled as if it too were in pain.

“Let go,” she told Henry. “Just let go.”

“How?”

“Take my hands.”

Palm to palm, then laced fingers. She pulled him up, the now useless uniform empty and deflated on the floor.

“Where are we?” Henry asked.

“I’m not completely sure, but I think we’re inside a baby universe,” she said. “It was an experiment, here at the Academy, for years and years, and no one knew.”

“Except for the cadets they ran through it.”

“Exactly.”

“So what is it now?”

“Now I think it’s evolving.” Her voice was hushed. “And I think it’s evolving because of us, because we tried to find each other, because—”

“We knew there was something more.”

They floated up, up, up, out of the catacombs, through the Academy, and hovered over the chaos of the yard. Then they went higher, into the stars.

“It’ll need room to expand,” Eppie said.

“Babies can’t stay little forever.”

Eppie laughed and shot forward, her form ethereal now. Henry caught her, and they twirled.

“Someday, we’ll have to settle down,” he said. “All three of us.”

But for now they were simply a boy and a girl, with an entire universe between them.

I first published The Maze as part of a small compilation. It was also this small compilation that ended up getting me an invitation to submit a story to The Future Chronicles. This is my way of say: put your work out there–you never know what might come of it.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Valentina

A story for Veterans’/Remembrance/Armistice Day.

Valentina pressed her back against the trench wall and waited. Eight hundred feet away, the Germans waited in another set of trenches. Earlier, she’d peered over the top, watched men move up and down the front line.

She wondered if any of them peered back, detected something different in the Russian soldiers along this part of the line. Could they tell? Would they know? Would their lips curl in disgust at her shorn hair? An equal number of cheers and jeers still rang in her ears—from the parade through Petrograd, at the train station when they disembarked.

But now, as she waited, chest tight with anticipation, Valentina never thought the world could be so quiet, that a war could be so quiet. She waited for the whistle, lips pursed as if she were the one who would give the command.

Up and over the top. Across churned up earth and muck and barbed wire to the other side, to the Germans.

The Germans.

Her mother had taken a German lover once, years ago. He’d been not a beer-soaked lout, but prim, proper, face defined by round spectacles and a neat beard. Every time he encountered Valentina, he’d inclined his head like she were already a person worthy of respect, not a small child, not the illegitimate spawn of an opera singer.

Were there men like that waiting for her on the other side? She clutched her rifle and hoped not.

At dawn, the signal came. It rippled up and down the line. The first rays of sun touched the trench, and Valentina crawled to its top, pulled herself up and over.

No man’s land. Certainly. No woman’s land. That too. The sun warmed the back of her neck. Odd that, out of everything, she noticed its touch. Whizzing filled the air, the sound reverberating in her ears. Her vision tunneled, so if there was anything to her left or her right, she couldn’t see it.

Maybe it was better that way.

A few yards from the trench, something grabbed her foot, threatened to pull the boot clean off. She pitched forward, her body smacking the mud. A moment later, something crumpled on top of her.

Something warm and heavy that forced the air from her lungs. Hot liquid soaked through the back of her uniform. Earth filled her mouth, metallic and rank. If war had a taste, then perhaps it was this. Valentina struggled to suck in a full breath, arms straining against her own weight and that of someone else.

With a heave, she pushed her comrade up and off and into the dirt.

Masha. A neat bullet wound through the center of her chest. The girl—her friend—stared blankly at the sky, unblinking. Valentina crawled forward, yanking her foot from the barbed wire that had caught it. She placed her hand on Masha’s chest. She prayed, although, in truth, she hadn’t been to Mass in years.

She wanted to shut her eyes; she wanted to cross herself. Instead, she inched forward through the dirt and eased Masha’s eyes closed.

Ahead of her, members of her unit were already clearing the way, nearing that first trench. She scrambled to her feet and, crouching low, ran to catch up.

A cry went up when they took the first trench. And then the second. They were doing it! They were soldiers, true soldiers, not props, not propaganda, not objects to shame men into fighting. Who needed men when the women of Russia could fight?

Valentina plowed forward, intent on that third trench. They had the Germans on the run! She leaped. She jumped. When that third line of trenches came into view, she thought nothing of plunging into one.

The trench held two men. With the shooting and the shouting, the occasional rounds of artillery, neither noticed the rattled and crash of her entrance. They were locked in their own dance. An officer, tall, lithe, Russian. A German soldier, rifle pointed at the officer’s chest.

Valentina didn’t think. She plunged again, bayonet at the ready. For a moment, she hovered, her entire weight balancing on the tip of her blade. Only then did the German notice her, his eyes wide with shock. She saw the moment her gender registered. Surprise. Shame.

Then she fell forward, the sharp edge of her bayonet sinking all the way through.

Her head buzzed. He mouthed a few words, a prayer, perhaps, and she watched the German die. She owed him that.

A hand on her shoulder jerked her from what felt like a trance. She spun, faced the man she’d saved.

“Are you all right?” he asked. “I think for now we’re—” He broke off, his eyes widening almost as much as the German’s had. “God in heaven, you’re a woman! Not even. A mere girl.”

Valentina brought her heels together and raised her chin. “I’m a sergeant in the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death.”

The officer sank against the trench wall. His features were indistinct, but she’d viewed enough men from up on stage, from behind a curtain that she could discern their type, no matter how dimly lit they were.

This one? Part of the aristocracy, the sort that secured box seats, the sort that could pass through the throng backstage, knock on a dressing room door, be granted entrance.

What the hell was he doing in this trench?

“We are doomed.” He directed these words not to her but toward the sky above. “Clearly, we’re doomed if they mean for us to fight the Germans with schoolgirls at our side.”

And although the words weren’t meant for her and weren’t even in Russian, Valentina responded.

Je parle français.”

“Of course you do,” he said. “German as well? That might prove useful.”

“And Italian.” They’d spent a glorious year in Italy—well, glorious up until the end. Her mother’s voice had never rung so clear than it did in Milan.

“English?” the officer ventured.

She shook her head. Her mother had never taken a British lover, although she always told Valentina that the best way to learn another language was across the expanse of a pillow and between soft bed linens.

Or sequestered in a cocoon of blankets at the foot of the bed, which was where Valentina had spent so many of her nights.

The officer’s gaze shifted. He scanned the sky above them again, placed a hand on the trench wall as if he could intuit the battle from the vibrations that shook the earth.

When his gaze returned to her, something had shifted. “First, thank you,” he said. “And again, are you all right?”

She nodded.

“Have you … I mean, I’m not certain how to…” He gestured toward the German crumpled at their feet. “Have you killed in battle before?”

“Not in battle.”

Her answer widened his eyes again. “I see,” he said, although there was no way he possibly could.

“My mother,” she began.

He held up a hand. “Speak no more. I understand.”

She doubted that but remained silent. Oh, the blood. So much blood. They had to flee Italy, of course, and Paris held only temporary safety. On their return to Russia, her mother adopted a new stage name, sang once again.

But her voice never rang as clear as it had before.

“He would’ve killed her,” Valentina added, although whether she was speaking to him—or herself—she couldn’t say.

“Of course.” The officer raised his rifle. “It’s what men do. And now the women are here, trying to clean up our mess. I’m afraid you’re too late. This war is already lost.”

She shook her head. “I don’t believe that.”

“I wish with all my heart I didn’t either.”

“Are you going to fight?” Would he flee? He didn’t seem the type, but then she imagined that, once upon a time, the men who now wandered Petrograd in tattered uniforms hadn’t been the type either.

But this man could run anywhere. The world was open to him. He’d be safe in Paris, Italy too.

“The war may be lost,” he said, “but I’m still fool enough to fight in it.”

He surveyed her, from the top of her head down to her boots, his gaze critical. On its own accord, her spine stiffened. The trench wall shielded her completely even though she was standing at attention.

“Fight at my side, Sergeant?”

She nodded, once.

For the third time that day, Valentina crawled up and over a line of trenches. This time, she was not alone.

They moved forward quickly, coming up behind lines that Russian soldiers had already secured, past groups of captured Germans, past some of her own comrades. They ran hard into the setting sun. Her eyes watered beneath its glare. Her limbs ached from a day spent clawing up and down trench walls, sprinting and jumping, throwing herself onto the earth.

Where had the hours gone? Certainly, she’d only just speared that German through with her bayonet. And yet, here they stood, on the edge of a forest, the sun dipping below the horizon.

He’d held up his hand to stop her advance, but her own feet had halted along with his.

Her ear caught not the sounds of battle, but clinking glass, raucous cries. Something sharp stung her nose. Panic flooded her, and she reached for her gas mask.

The officer stayed her hand.

“That won’t be necessary.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I think I do.” He nodded toward the copse of birches. “Come with me.”

At the sound of shattering glass, they sped up. At the bunker, they froze again.

Women, armed and uniformed much as she was, used the stocks of their rifles to smash bottle after bottle. Men roared. Some shoved, grabbed at the rifles, only to be pushed back. Some men gave up the fight, fell to their knees, and rescued what vodka they could before it soaked into the earth.

The officer swore. “It won’t be the communists, or the anarchists, or even the Provisional Government that will lose the war for us. It will be this.” He pointed at the men desperately slurping at the ground. “And the Germans know that.”

“They left it here then, for the men to find?” she ventured.

“Indeed they did.”

The sound of a gunshot silenced everyone. A keening rose into the air, followed by shouts.

“She shot them! She shot them!”

Again, they ran, found the crowd gathered around a bunker.

At the entrance, Valentina’s commander stood, tall and proud. She was fierce, had fought with the Cossacks before the government put her in charge of the Women’s Battalion.

“Yes, I shot them both! Dereliction of duty. Does anyone here question that?”

There, on the ground, in a soup of blood and vodka, were a man and woman, both partially dressed, a bare leg here, an expanse of belly there, the embrace mangled but clear.

“Did you know her?” the officer whispered.

Valentina nodded. “Sophia. Her name is … was Sophia.”

“I believe our association may put you in harm’s way.” He stepped away from her and approached the commander from the opposite side of where they’d been standing.

He didn’t outrank her commander, although Valentina wondered if that mattered. He was a man, an officer, and he’d been fighting in this war much longer than they had. But he offered up a salute and merely inclined his head when listening to the commander’s response.

It was such a simple thing. Something told her that he’d see to it no one else was shot for any reason. Certainly, Sophia and this soldier were only making love. It looked … mutual, at least. With all that blood, it was hard to tell.

So much blood.

No one expected the counterattack. No, that wasn’t true, Valentina realized when the officer appeared at her side once again, grabbed her hand, and pulled her from the main thrust of the assault.

They ran deep into the forest, dodging tree limbs and branches. Pine needles raked her face, and their scent was thick in her mouth. They raced until the sounds of the battle faded, and the earth no longer shook beneath their feet. They ran until he stumbled, and they came to rest beneath a tree.

There they sat, his ragged breathing filling the night. In the quiet, Valentina heard the scampering of tiny feet, the rustle of leaves. She peered through the canopy above and spied the stars.

“Dmitri Sergeevich,” he said. “My name,” he added when she didn’t respond. “I never introduced myself.”

It was such a simple thing, this offering up of his name.

“Valentina Andreovna.”

“Hm.” Something in his tone suggested he approved—of what, she wasn’t sure.

“What do we do now?” she asked.

“What all lost children do. We head into the forest.”

“Will you fight again?”

“Will you?” He lumbered to his feet, bracing a hand against the trunk. “Ah, that’s the question, isn’t it, Valentina Andreovna.”

He offered his hand, the one not clutching the bark. After a moment’s hesitation, she took it. He craned his neck skyward and studied the stars.

“North, I think.” He released her hand and pulled a flask from the inside of his uniform tunic. He took a long draw before passing it to her. “To fortify yourself for the walk.”

She brought the flask to her mouth, the metal cold against her lips. The sharpness returned, vodka flooding her tongue, washing away the grit, the trace of pine, the residue of gunpowder. When she finished, nothing remained except for the taste of blood.

They walked north, their steps unhurried, unhindered as if they truly had left the war behind. Valentina tested her voice. The vodka had cleared the cobwebs from her throat. After a few bars, when Dmitri Sergeevich didn’t shush her, she launched into song.

It was a lullaby her mother used to sing, one meant to soothe both her current lover and illegitimate child. And if Valentina didn’t possess half the voice her mother did, she knew this.

That night, under the Russian sky, it had never rung so clear.

Valentina was inspired by the events surrounding the 1st Russian Women’s Battalion of Death’s participation in the Kerensky Offensive of July 1917.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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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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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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: Abandonment Issues

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

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

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

That’s one of them.

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

That’s another.

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

That’s a third.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have them now.

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

Assuming he doesn’t kill me first.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nothing?” the man asks.

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

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

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

What it does is give me a target.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

He grabs my feet and nothing more.

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

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

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

“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

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

He shakes his head.

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

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

“I don’t know,” Gabe says.

“Why are we here?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Am I also dead?”

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

“It’s up to me, then?” I say.

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

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

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

Gabe bristles and steps in front of me.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Afghanistan.

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

The man of smoke and oil raises a hand.

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

Twin cries of “No!” echo around me.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I nod again.

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

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

“You didn’t die in Afghanistan.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Why?”

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

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

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

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

They will.

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

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Free Fiction Friday: With Hair of Teeth and Claw

This is not your mother’s Rapunzel.

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I know.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That could be very bad indeed.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This time, no one held back their laughter.

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

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

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

“That is not my child.”

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

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

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

In this case, perhaps she was the fool.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Then Rapunzel she’ll be.”

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I imagine you could use the comfort.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another slap.

“Do you wish to be my daughter?”

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

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

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

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

“Inquisitive little beasts,” she murmured.

And then froze. The lion’s tail.

What manner of sorcery indeed.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapunzel gurgled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rapunzel stared, unblinking.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hair relaxed its grip and flowed into golden ringlets.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

In retrospect, perhaps she should have.

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

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

“We must leave the village.”

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

“They want your beauty.”

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

“That is something none of them understand.”

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

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

“Do they make you angry?”

“Oh, they do.”

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

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

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

“Going somewhere, Mistress Witch?”

“Can we follow?”

“Is there room in your wagon for me?”

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

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

No one heeded her warning.

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

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

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

No one followed them from the village.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When the war prince arrived, the witch bowed low.

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

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

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

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

“I cannot guarantee your protection,” he added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But how shall we leave?” Rapunzel asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But my hair—”

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

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

“I’m afraid it does not.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They were both liars.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But—”

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

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

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

The war prince’s brother.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

“Good day to you, Mistress Witch.”

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

“I wonder if you can help me.”

“I will try, Your Highness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can give you that reason.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Did you now? And you are?”

“Rapunzel.”

“Rapunzel? With hair of teeth and claw?”

“I … is that what they call me?”

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

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

“You confess to murder, then?”

“In self-defense, but yes, I do.”

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

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

And she did.

“I have lost my only brother.”

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

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

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

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

His soldiers sprang forward, weapons drawn.

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

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

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

“You did not intend to hurt me.”

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

“Yes, Your Highness.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“A burden for certain,” the prince said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Go with him, child. Go be free.”

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

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

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

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

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

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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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