Tag Archives: Reading

Super Free Book SFF promo

So many authors! So many books! All free!

If you need something new to read, this is where you should go.

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Little Free Library: spooky edition

We got spooky this past weekend with the Little Free Library. Not only that, we had some little free pumpkins as well.

I feel compelled to point out that all the candles are LEDs, not wax and flame. Before Halloween, I bought a handful of spooky children’s books, which went fast.

Then on Halloween, I added the candles and the table with the pumpkins and the candy.

After that? Well, as you can see, it was spooky.

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Little Free Library: currently on offer

Currently on offer this week: great books and a lot of variety.

Some fantasy and speculative fiction, an awesome WWII novel, some fun middle grade and young adult books, a little nonfiction, plus a handful of books for the small set.

And plenty of sunshine for reading in the park.

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Little Free Library: How it’s going

So, we’re officially official! My Little Free Library is up and ready for reading.

You’ll notice we opted for the easy, screw-in library post. We are not digging holes for this. (That being said, I did check with all the utility/cable companies to make sure we wouldn’t hit anything crucial or dangerous).

Wouldn’t you know, we’ve been in a drought all summer, and the moment we set up the library, we get rain. You’re welcome.

But! The library really is waterproof, and we apparently added enough coats of varnish to the wood that the design is holding up just fine. (I say we, but you know, my daughter.)

I loaded it up with some books and then hoped for the best.

You guys, people are already finding it. They’ve taken books to read and dropped some off as well. Someone brought a handful of children’s books for the small set. I have mostly middle grade, young adult, and adult titles, so this was a boon.

I literally check it several times a day (I’m outside anyway, and hey, it’s better than scrolling social media), and every time I see a new book or that one has vanished, it’s like a gift.

The local Barnes and Noble was having a 50% off book haul sale, so I stopped in and picked up a few more titles as well.

In the months to come, I hope to have even more fun with this: theme months, featured authors, and so on. But for now, I couldn’t be happier.

So, if you’ll excuse me, I need to step outside and check on my library.

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Little Free Library: How it started

So, I’ve wanted a Little Free Library probably from the first time I ever spotted one. This year, for Mother’s Day, I decided to buy one for myself.

It didn’t take long to reject the idea of building one from a kit. That wasn’t happening. An unfinished one, however? That my daughter could paint as a Mother’s Day present?

Totally doable.

People, it took us at least a month to figure out how we wanted to paint it. An entire month. But have you seen some of the designs? So amazing. We scoured Pinterest board after Pinterest board. Then, one day, I said:

“What about a Starry Night library?”

And an idea was born.

The first thing we did (I say we, but it was really my daughter) was prime the entire library with exterior house paint primer. Then my daughter bought some good acrylics.

The problem with acrylics is they’re not weather-proof, so once the painting was all done, we (again, she) gave it several good coats of an oil-based sealer.

Of course, once you paint your library, you have to get it into the ground.

But that’s a post for another day.

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2020 Recommended Reading

As we wind our way toward the waning days of 2020, I thought I’d scroll through the 98 books I’ve read (so far) this year to see what I could see.

What did I see? A handful that really stood out. Mind you, if I finish a book, that means it was entertaining and did everything a book should do. But there were definitely some four and five-star reads this year.

That being said, these are my four and five-star reads. There’s a very good chance they are someone else’s one-star reads. That’s the way entertainment works.

Without further ado, here are the  books:

Fiction

The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel by Martha Wells

You’re sensing a trend, aren’t you, right up until that last title. My pleasure reading definitely skews historical/fantastical, plus I have a thing for spies.

I absolutely love the Murderbot series of books, and I highly recommend them (and reading them in order). In fact, I reread the first four in preparation for Network Effect (and I’ll reread all of them next year when book six is out).

One of the points of view in The Secrets We Kept is in first person plural, that of the typists. Really, it made the book (well, for me, at least). I absolutely plan on writing a story in first person plural one of these days and inflicting it on unsuspecting slush readers everywhere.

Nonfiction

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears) by Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

Come for the bears, stay for what really must become a Coen Brothers movie.

True or False: A CIA Analyst’s Guide to Spotting Fake News by Cindy L. Otis

Young adult nonfiction, but really all that means is the prose is lively and accessible (rather than dull and serious and self-important). For middle school on up, especially for adults who forgot that they learned about yellow journalism in high school.

For Writers

The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger

From the description:

This is an excellent reference guide for genre fiction authors seeking to improve their craft or for readers and pop culture enthusiasts interested in understanding their own taste. It is the perfect counterpoint to The Hero with a Thousand Faces not to mention Save the Cat, Women Who Run With The Wolves, and The Breakout Novelist.

If you’ve been stymied by all the usual suspects when it comes to writing advice, seriously give this book a try. I can’t tell you how many oh, so that’s why moments I had while reading this.

QuitBooks for Writers series by Becca Syme

I read Dear Writer, Are You In Writer’s Block? this year but I recommend all of Becca’s books in the series. Granted, they are probably more useful if you have a passing familiarity with CliftonStrengths, but I still think you can get a lot out of them even if you don’t.

Standout short story (that you can read for free)

Little Free Library (over at Tor.com)

A wonderful little story. You can also buy a copy for your e-reader (links at the bottom of the story post).

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New Release: Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020

One year. Four dozen stories.

115,000 words.

Here’s How We Survive: The (Love) Stories for 2020

When I first conceived of this project, way back in late 2019 (around November, I think), I had no idea what 2020 would bring.

Then again, none of us did.

All I knew was that I had any number of previously published stories that weren’t doing anything and several on my hard drive that had never found a home.

With a little creative scheduling, I figured it would be fairly easy to write enough new stories to fill in any blanks.

Then 2020 actually happened.

I wondered what I’d gotten myself into and feared that somewhere along the way, I’d get derailed. So I took it one story and one week at a time.

It was both easier and harder than I thought it would be. In some ways, it became my anchor for 2020. I could always edit a post, create images in Photoshop, or excavate stories from my hard drive.

(Note: if you’re fairly new to writing, it may seem strange that you can forget about writing stories. I’m here to tell you: it really does happen.)

A couple of times, I came this close to not having any stories scheduled. At others, I had so many in the queue, there wasn’t enough room on the WordPress dashboard to display them all.

Once, I became exceedingly confused and published a story on Thursday, realized my mistake, and unpublished it until the next day. This was post-COVID, so we can simply blame lingering coronavirus brain fog for that.

I learned a number of practical lessons, things like it’s good to have several posts in reserve in case you sprain your ankle or that scheduling each story/post will take much longer than you think it will.

The project–and 2020–gave me the chance to reflect on my writing in a way I’m not sure I would have otherwise. As the saying goes:

Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten.

Or, in this case, fifteen. That’s the breadth of the stories in this collection. It’s not the sum total of my entire writing career, but it’s a significant portion of it. I chose not to include some earlier stories (and, actually, some later ones too). They’re not necessarily bad. They were published, after all–one even nominated for a Pushcart Prize. They simply didn’t fit the collection.

So now I’ll turn my attention not only to 2021 but beyond. Sure, there are many things I’d like to accomplish this coming year, but I’m going to keep my eye on the next decade as well.

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Free Fiction Friday: Flowers and Stones

A contemporary retelling of Diamonds and Toads, one filled with coleslaw, tattoos, and forget-me-nots.

I’m standing at the self-checkout when the first pinpricks race up and down my back. I freeze, an entire cabbage clutched in my grip. For a moment, with the icy sensation against my spine, my mind blanks.

I stare at my hands. Why cabbage?

Oh, yes. Coleslaw. Homemade. It’s been a long week, and I’m in the mood to shred something. Coleslaw is good for that.

I roll the cabbage between my palms like it’s a basketball. With a little finesse, I could give it a spin, land a three-pointer in the open grocery sack at the checkout station across the way.

Another wash of pinpricks reminds me that I’m not the one in the family who does those sorts of things. No pickup games with vegetables or ill-advised tattoos for me. So instead, I scan the cabbage and drop it in my canvas sack—only to have the screen flash at me:

Unexpected item in bagging area.

The light above my station blinks in time with my heart. I stare at the cabbage, in the sack, with dismay. In this case, I’m that unexpected item.

A cashier and then a manager try to scan the cabbage. They struggle to add it manually, fingers jabbing at the screen. Then the manager sends the cashier for a price check. Even then, she can’t add the amount to my bill.

I keep my lips pressed together, not daring to say a word. I know if I speak, I’ll simper like some old-school Disney princess.

And that won’t help.

“You know what?” the manager says, at last, her tone conveying that this is all my fault, although she can’t really explain why. “It’s on us.”

My remaining groceries are waiting, some patiently, like the carrots. Others not so much, like the mint chocolate chip ice cream that’s starting to sweat.

A third wash of pinpricks chases across my skin before the pain centers between my shoulder blades. An urge—to rush to the restroom, rush off and leave everything behind—overwhelms me. I want—need—to find a mirror.

At that moment, I don’t care about anything else. Not my groceries, or even my purse. I’d leave everything behind all so I can yank up my shirt and glimpse the image emerging on my skin.

That urge thrums in my blood until it emerges as a compulsion. I remember to grab my purse, but I leave everything behind in my search for a restroom.

This is a high-end grocery store, with carpet and chandeliers, and enough samples on Fridays to make a meal (which is why I shop here on Fridays). The restroom is well-appointed, with a beveled mirror and infinity sinks.

I crash through the door. I don’t do a stall check. I don’t care if anyone else is here. I plant myself in front of the mirror and yank my shirt up and over my shoulder.

Then I spin, a slow rotation, like a dog trying to catch her own tail. The second I spot the intricate design, it slips from view. At last, I pull out my phone for a selfie.

Just as I snap a photo, a woman walks into the restroom. She halts, dark eyes panicked. Well, yes, she’s just stumbled onto a bit of crazy. I wouldn’t blame her if she backed out slowly, hands raised in a pacifying gesture, and then ran for the manager.

It wouldn’t be the first time.

Then her expression softens. Curiosity rather than fear lights her eyes.

“Oh, hey.” Her voice is low and melodic and full of appreciation. “Did you just get some ink?”

Not exactly.

But I nod. “Yeah. Sort of.” As if there’s sort of when it comes to tattoos.

“Let’s see.”

Again, her expression is bright and friendly. So I hold still and let a complete stranger examine the tattoo between my shoulders.

“That’s wicked good,” she says. “Where’d you get it done?”

I have no idea.

I swallow. “A place out in San Francisco. They’re fantastic.”

At least, I’m pretty sure it’s San Francisco. I clamp my mouth shut before I can rhapsodize about a place I’ve never been.

The woman pushes up a sleeve. “Great minds, huh?”

I don’t know what she means, but I nod and admire the triple moon goddess tattoo on her forearm. It’s really well done, and certainly there by choice rather than a surprise, like the one currently stinging my back.

The woman takes another look at my ink, her eyes squinting as if she’s having trouble focusing.

“Is it … fading?” She shakes her head. “No, now it’s …”

I slip my arm back into my shirt before this gets truly awkward. “The lighting.”

Again, I press my lips shut before I can enthuse about the ambiance. Instead, I point to the chandelier above our heads (yes, fancy, even in the restrooms).

She accepts this with a nod. Because, really, what’s her other option? Declare that my tattoo is changing before her eyes?

She heads for a stall. I take that as my cue to leave.

When I reach the self-checkout station, I discover my groceries are bagged and paid for. There’s a note—a kind one, to be sure—suggesting that I find another place to do my Friday grocery shopping.

The manager won’t meet my eyes. Because, yes, this has happened before.

I wait until I’m three storefronts away and tuck myself into a corner by the kiddie haircut place that’s closed for the evening. It’s dark and safe, and I concentrate on the brick rather than the fire against my back.

I tug my phone from my jeans pocket. The picture I took earlier is slightly unfocused. But I’ve done this so many times, it hardly matters. I tap and zoom, crop and enhance.

At last, an image emerges.

A triple moon goddess.

The scrollwork is intricate, and the woman in the restroom was right; it really is wicked good.

And this can’t be a coincidence. Something is brewing. That much, I know. Still, as I study the tattoo, I don’t know what it means.

Or what it is my twin, Alyssa, is trying to tell me.

* * *

Finding a tattoo artist in a city the size of San Francisco isn’t hard. Alyssa’s found any number of excellent tattooists in any number of cities.

It’s finding one who won’t remember working their magic on her skin that’s the issue. Another? Finding one the crone doesn’t know about.

Alyssa doesn’t know if an actual crone is shadowing her steps. It’s simply the name she’s given the thing that’s haunted her and Emma since they turned eighteen. The crone knows things she shouldn’t, knows things she can’t.

Every time Alyssa thinks she’s outsmarted this being, something else disrupts her life—or worse, Emma’s.

Moon and Stars Tattoos is surprisingly empty for this time of day. One artist bends over the extended arm of her customer, her brow etched with pure concentration. The others appear on the verge of napping. Through the open door, Alyssa catches strains of something ancient—Fleetwood Mac, she thinks. She’s never been much for music, but it sounds like something her mother would listen to.

Alyssa decides to risk it. Her card is ready, printed fresh this morning. The words: Can’t speak, acute laryngitis should get her into a chair and inked without any issues.

As for the tattoo itself? Alyssa will let her gaze wander the artwork displayed on the walls. The right image will announce itself. If she’s meant to get ink today, meant to warn Emma, that image will lead her to the right artist.

A hush falls on the space as she steps through the door. One of the male artists smirks. Another day, another time, she’d open her mouth and let him have what for. After all, what for is her primary skill. But not today. Today is too important.

One of the women raises an eyebrow. Yes, Alyssa knows. She looks impossibly young. They’ll probably ID her, too.

“Can I help you?” the woman asks. If her eyebrow is skeptical, her voice, at least, is kind.

Alyssa doesn’t mean to be rude (really, it simply happens all on its own), but her gaze is still tracking the images on the wall, searching out the one she needs, and so she barely gives a nod.

It’s the scrollwork she notices first, intricate and refined. It reminds her of the very first tattoo she ever got, the one that was an apology, a love letter to her twin. With a shaky hand, she points.

“That’s one of mine,” the woman says.

Alyssa digs the card from her pocket, praying that the words haven’t transformed into something obscene between this morning and now. Her heart thumps in her chest. Everything feels right, from the music to the tattoo to the woman waiting patiently.

She knows better than to wish too hard. It’s like a beacon, sending her hopes and fears into the world where anyone might pluck them from the sky.

Like the crone.

Even so, her entire being is focused on the card and, at the same time, not. She fills her senses with everything else. Rainbows and unicorns decorating the wall, the music playing low enough the words are a mere suggestion, the scent of anticipation and blood.

The door is three steps away. Depending on what’s now printed on the card, she can make a run for it. A quick break to the left, and it’s all downhill. Not that anyone will chase her. At least, no one ever has. But this could be a first.

Alyssa pulls out the card and hands it to the woman and waits.

And waits.

“Oh, no problem,” the woman says at last. She grins at Alyssa, and her eyes sparkle with delight. “Really, the less you say, the better my work. I’m Samantha, by the way.”

Alyssa digs out her ID and hands it over.

Samantha glances at it. “Nice to meet you, and yeah, I was going to have to card you. You barely look eighteen.”

Alyssa shrugs. The male tattoo artist—the one with the smirk—snorts.

And because Alyssa is feeling triumphant, she sends him a smirk of her own. When he averts his gaze, her triumph doubles.

She follows Samantha to her station. While she waits, Alyssa lets her gaze wander the art on the walls once again until it lands on the triple moon goddess.

This time, her smile is nothing but pure.

* * *

Everyone in the call center knows to route the worse customer calls to me. They’re not supposed to. It’s not an official policy. If anything, our manager would wring his hands, sweat gathering on his forehead, and insist it isn’t fair.

No one ever listens to him. Since our center has the highest customer satisfaction rating in corporate, he never insists too hard.

At the end of each year, I get a holiday bonus and a plaque.

At the end of each year, I try not to think about the full-ride scholarship I gave up.

Sometimes I pretend I’m Snow White and each caller a dwarf, albeit ones who never made it into the fairy tale (Irate, Belligerent, Passive-Aggressive, Confused, Outraged, Lost, and Arrogant).

Repeat complainers sometimes ask for me by name. A few send me holiday cards.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to them.

I’m incapable of saying a bad word to anyone.

To compensate, I take out my frustration on inanimate objects. Cabbage, carrots, and a fierce grater all wait for me in my kitchenette. I’m going to shred the heck out of some vegetables.

I’m going to forget about the customer who called me every foul name in the (urban) dictionary before breaking down and admitting that his wife had died. All he wanted was a pair of pants that fit, but since she did all the shopping, he had no idea what to order.

I’m going to forget about the lonely old woman who didn’t want to complain so much as to talk to someone.

I’m going to forget I can still feel the residual burn of the triple moon goddess between my shoulder blades.

At this point, all that remains is a ghost of a tattoo. I’ve watched at least two dozen come and go over the years. Sometimes they’re sophisticated—works of art in their own right. Sometimes Alyssa sends me nothing more than a heart, the red so vibrant you might mistake it for fresh blood.

And sometimes she sends a message.

I’m shredding and wondering what on earth I’ll do with all this coleslaw. I’ll never be able to eat it all on my own, and it’s not like you can freeze coleslaw. My mother, perhaps. Maybe she’s having a luncheon this weekend or some sort of charitable event.

A knock comes on the door of my tiny cottage. Yes, just like an old-school Disney princess, I live in an actual cottage. Although hardly anyone ever knocks on the door.

When I answer, I find my mother backlit by the big house up on the hill. Fairy lights adorn the patio, its slate gleaming as if by magic. In the yard, it’s as if a celestial hand has sprinkled tiny stars along the branches of all the trees that surround what is, in truth, a mansion.

This is not the modest split-level Alyssa and I grew up in. Henry, the man who owns this mansion, is not our father. He is like a prince at the end of a fairy tale, but one with a salt and pepper goatee and round, rimless spectacles. Instead of sweeping away the maiden, Henry fell hard for the matron.

He still can’t fix all that is wrong.

It’s as if my thoughts have brought my mother to the cottage doorstep. In truth, they may have. Above her head, above the house on the hill, a moon rises. Not quite full, but only a few days off.

I look at my mother and blink. For a moment, the young woman from the restroom appears before my eyes. I blink again, and my mother replaces her.

Maiden. Mother.

I’m afraid to blink a third time. So instead, I say, “It’s lovely to see you.”

It doesn’t matter if that’s true or not. It’s the only thing I can say to her. We don’t talk, haven’t since Alyssa and I turned eighteen. I don’t mean that in a Lifetime movie sort of way, although the results are nevertheless the same.

My mother stares at me, clutches her throat as if the words she wishes to speak burn.

Perhaps they do.

“I’m making coleslaw,” I say, brightly, as if there aren’t any number of things we should be talking about. “Could you use some? I’m always happy to share.”

Something sparks in my mother’s expression, something that tells me I’m on the right track.

“Are you having guests?” I venture.

“Yes.” The word is no more than a whisper, but it is a word. “Guest.” Relief floods her eyes. She turns, and I follow her gaze to the swollen moon rising above the house.

Guest. Singular.

A full moon.

And then I know.

* * *

Once upon a time, a young woman cradled two daughters inside her, her belly as round as the brilliant full moon.

When the time came, there would be three of them, three to make a family.

But the daughters were too eager, not content to stay put until the time was right. So the young woman sent her hopes, her fears, into the world.

Someone plucked them from the sky.

There would be three of them, three to make a family.

But only until the debt came due.

* * *

On the flight home, Alyssa pretends to sleep. Even with headphones and a book propped in front of her, the guy (and it’s always a guy) next to her will want to talk.

She can’t risk the altercation, the escalation, the plane making an unscheduled landing in the middle of the country, and security escorting her—and the guy—off the plane.

It’s happened before.

She feels the stirrings of that impulse—to lean across the middle seat and ask the guy next to her about those three restraining orders. Oh, and some outstanding child support payments as well. It would be gratifying, absolutely, to watch this guy’s complexion go from ruddy to bright red, to have half the passengers cheering him on, half applauding her.

This is how the crone tempts her. Alyssa can’t know these things about this guy. But in every altercation (and there have been several), she’s always been right.

Instead, she channels everything she knows and loves about her sister.

It was Emma, of course, who saved them that first day, who held fast even when Alyssa started spewing hateful words.

She hadn’t meant to say them, of course. But in the last seven years, she never has. She can hear what she says warped, transformed in the air until these mutations reach the ears of the other person. A simple I love you becomes I hate you—and always have.

But the crone never counted on Emma, her sister who should’ve gone on to some Ivy League school, been a doctor or a scientist, or something more.

They say twins have their own language. If so, Alyssa and Emma had long forgotten theirs. But that didn’t stop Emma from picking up on the false notes in Alyssa’s tone. It didn’t stop her brilliant twin from grabbing a pencil and scribbling a message across her calculus homework.

What’s going on?

They spent a blissful Saturday exchanging notes until the crone caught on. It took three days before text messages were ruined, and another five for emojis.

By then, they had a plan. Alyssa would leave. Emma would stay, take care of their mother and explain the situation as best she could.

That was when Alyssa went in for her first tattoo. The intertwined E and A were so beautiful, the letters surrounded by fancy scrollwork and leaves. At the time, Alyssa didn’t think to question why that bit of artwork was on the wall, at eye level, as if waiting for her.

She only knew she had to get it. Alyssa held her breath, worried that there was something too magical about the artwork. It would change before her eyes, and she’d be left with something nasty or obscene on her skin. When it remained—perfect and oh, so beautiful—she hurried home, excited to show Emma.

Alyssa found her twin clutching her ankle, pain and fear flashing in her eyes. Together they sat on the lower bunk and watched as the tattoo faded from Alyssa’s ankle, bloomed on Emma’s, only to vanish entirely after a few minutes.

But during all that, the image remained pure.

And Alyssa knew that no matter where in the world she was, she’d have a way to send Emma a message.

Their mother wasn’t surprised to find Emma burning the goodbye note Alyssa tried to pen before she left—one filled with so many invectives it was hardly a note at all. (It was a silly attempt, but Alyssa had to try.)

Over the years, they’ve peeled back the layers of their story—of crones who might grant wishes but always demand their due in the end.

And, at last, they’ve reached the end.

Now, on this final flight home, Alyssa knows there’s only so much she can channel of Emma. Her sister speaks in flowers, Alyssa in stones. Emma’s words perfume the air, Alyssa’s sting the ears and bite the flesh.

If Emma is often too pure for this world, then Alyssa is well suited for it. Because sometimes the guy sitting in seat 1F deserves what for.

Alyssa knows this, too. This fight, this final confrontation that’s waiting for them, it won’t be the two of them against the crone.

It’s Alyssa versus Emma.

And Alyssa plans to win.

* * *

I’m clutching a gigantic bowl of coleslaw, my arms aching with the effort. With careful steps, I navigate the path to the main house. One distraction and slaw will coat everything—me, the decorative stones Henry has placed by hand, the flowers and shrubs he pampers.

Dusk shrouds the patio. My mother stands on the slate, haloed by those thousand fairy lights. On the table sits slender-stemmed glassware, an elaborate floral arrangement, with sweet, summer wine chilling in silver buckets. It’s the trappings of an evening garden party, and an expensive one, too.

It will all go to waste.

My mother’s hands are clutched beneath her chin, her dress billowing about her. She is as picturesque as any fairy tale princess, except her eyes are huge and wary.

Above the house, a full moon rises. There, in the twilight, the first evening star glimmers.

The night holds its breath. It’s waiting, as we all are, for the crone.

I’ve known all along what Alyssa plans to do. How could I not? Her intent is indelible, present in each and every tattoo she sends me. Now that I’ve received the final one, it’s as if all the pieces have fallen into place.

I know, without consciously knowing. I’m ready because she’s made me that way.

I won’t let her do what she plans on doing.

A ride-share pulls into the circular drive, blaring death metal and spewing exhaust. Alyssa steps out, throws a handful of bills at the driver, and then gives him the finger for good measure. Hands on hips, she surveys the backyard. Her feet are clad in steel-toe boots. Her jeans are worn through at the knees, and the collar of her gray T-shirt hangs loose.

She looks like she did the day she left, and not a minute older.

At the sight of her, my chest constricts; my heart is tender and raw.

If the past seven years don’t show on my face, I feel them in my bones. Like Sleeping Beauty, I long for a hundred-year nap. I’m tired of this relentless niceness. It is false and draining, and I can’t imagine another seven minutes living this way, never mind years.

That’s why I plan to stop Alyssa. I will step into the void, offer myself as a sacrifice to the crone. She wants more. She wants blood.

She can have mine.

My gaze meets Alyssa’s. Her tough-girl stance shifts. I wonder if she can read my intent in the same way, if it’s in the blood and always has been.

The crone materializes equal distance between us.

I don’t drop the bowl of coleslaw, but I let it slip through my grip. My fingers guide it to the ground, where the soil swallows it up. A cackle rings in my ears, unsettling and scornful. The slaw, of course, was a mere pretense.

I have not fooled the crone.

To my surprise, she is not the hideously-bent creature from any number of tales. She is not any one creature.

I blink and see my manager from work. I blink again, and the sales clerk from the grocery store appears before my eyes. A third time, my guidance counselor from high school, the one who urged me to apply to Harvard.

Is the crone everyone and no one at the same time? I dart a look toward Alyssa. Her eyes are narrowed, brow furrowed in confusion. I wonder what it is she sees. Missed opportunities? A truncated life, or one denied?

And because I am looking at Alyssa, I see the moment she decides. It’s there in the way the soles of her boots churn the earth, the tightening of her fists. I start my run a split second before she does.

I will win.

I think this as I gain ground. I think this as I pull ever closer. What will happen when my body meets the crone’s? I’m not sure. I only know I need to reach her first.

The full moon shines down on the backyard, revealing a pathway to the crone. She is everyone and everything I cannot have. She is everyone and everything Alyssa’s been denied.

I’m so close, hands extended, fingertips yearning, when something white and billowing brushes past me, the figure lithe and quick.

Our mother.

She reaches the crone before I can, before Alyssa can. When the two collide, the night explodes into a million stars. A wave washes through me. There’s a loosening—in my heart, my throat. I feel words, real words, in my mouth.

I want to laugh. I want to cry. I want to reach out and bring my mother back.

When those million stars fade and only the moon illuminates our backyard, nothing remains of my mother or the crone. In their wake, we discover a patch of rich earth surrounded by quartz and agates.

We stand there, me, Alyssa, and Henry, and marvel as seedlings push through the soil, sprout, and bloom as if moonlight alone sustains them. Daisies and roses, slender lilies, and flowers I don’t know the names of, but certainly, Henry does.

At last, around the border, a flock of forget-me-nots blossom. Henry kneels, gathers a handful, and says:

“As if I could, my love. As if I could.”

* * *

Henry is like a prince in a fairy tale.

He smooths the way for Emma to start college. When she balks, Alyssa prods and cajoles, poking her sister relentlessly until—at last—she enrolls in the honors program.

Whenever Emma falters, Alyssa says, “Don’t you dare waste that brilliant brain of yours.”

Henry smooths the way for Alyssa, too. She agrees—reluctantly—to take classes of her own at the community college. One each semester. She navigates the strange language of profit and loss statements, of double-entry accounting. Until she’s fluent, Henry will keep the books for her, make sure the taxes are paid on time.

The first artist (other than herself) to step through the doors of Flowers & Stones Tattoos is Samantha from San Francisco. The first customer (other than herself) is a woman who wears a triple moon goddess on her forearm.

Her storefront is a cozy, safe place in this world. She handles the rude customers by channeling Emma. The ones who are lost, who stare at the walls until their gaze lands on the artwork they need? Those customers she tends to with care. Alyssa sends them into the world again, armed, she hopes, to fight their own battles.

When the E and A tattoo doesn’t bloom on Emma’s ankle, Alyssa drags her to Flowers & Stones. While Samantha works on Emma, Alyssa swears she feels the residual burn against her skin.

On weekends, she, Emma, and Henry gather. The garden overflows with blossoms and fragrances. The quartz and agates gleam in the sunshine. A sapling takes root, flourishes in less than a season to shade the chair where Henry rests each evening.

They are three, Alyssa thinks.

Three to make a family.

Flowers and Stones was written especially for the (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Inside Out

When Lexia befriends a girl from outside a luxury spa facility, she starts seeing the cracks in her mother’s disastrous fifth marriage, the world in which she lives, and her own future.

The day Lexia discovered the glass wasn’t fogged was the day she decided to see the outside for herself. Something swirled beneath her hand whenever she tried to wipe the condensation from the window. A few bursts of light would shine through, then the clouds reformed, opaque as ever. Behind her, hot mineral baths churned up steam. The heated pool sent out waves of moist air. Sweat bloomed all over her skin until she glowed.

But beneath her fingers, the window was cool. Light shined behind the glass, the effect like winter on Earth—a glare to make you shield your eyes and glance away. Why? The question pinged in the back of her mind. Why would someone hide the outside?

Lexia wore her flimsy spa wrap, but didn’t care. She’d see the outside, if not through the glass, then some other way. In the last year, she’d learned that there was always some other way. She cast her gaze about the spa. A group of women, her mother among them, sat at the far end, each encased to her shoulders in diamond-speckled mud. A year ago, Lexia would have sat nearby, let the women pet her, buy her trinkets from the gift shop, listen to her mother’s mock protests.

“Oh, but you’ll spoil her,” her mother had always said, followed by a secret smile that told Lexia no amount of spoiling was ever enough.

That was before her mother embarked on another marriage—her fifth; she was a professional decorative—before their fights. Now, relaxing felt like work, pampering a chore. So Lexia turned her back on the women and went in search of something more substantial.

Like a vent. All this moist air needed to go somewhere. And somewhere had to be better than here.

With all the steam, and chatter, and strains of soothing music, no one noticed when she rounded a corner. Or almost no one. An old lady, her gnarled fingers curled around an old-fashioned book, glanced up and gave her a smile, the sort that said she knew what Lexia was up to—and highly approved. Heart thumping, Lexia dipped out of sight and confronted the nearest vent. She pried her fingers beneath its rim. To her surprise, it slipped right off. For easy cleaning, she imagined. Not that Lexia had cleaned all that much in her sixteen years.

She eased inside, replacing the cover as best she could. Lexia crawled, hiked up her wrap, and crawled some more. The change in pressure clogged her ears as she moved from one air lock to the next, through invisible filters. The air cooled, took on a metallic flavor. Churning and clanking filled her head. It was like moving through a huge metal beast, and she was somewhere deep within its innards.

One dark turn led to another until she confronted an actual door. She punched in the code she’d seen Paulo use on the gift shop register. The door slid open, revealing a grate, and beyond that, the outside.

“Oh! That worked.” She laughed, the soft sound bouncing around the enclosed space.

Tiny streams of sunlight lit the backs of her hands. There was only one thing to do. She flattened her palms against the hatchwork and shoved.

The sun’s glare hit her full in the face. Lexia blinked. Tears burned her eyes and streamed down her cheeks. When a shadow blocked the light, Lexia squinted, ready to bolt back inside the spa.

But wait! It was a girl. Like her! Or almost. This girl was thin, with enormous eyes. No hair. Not a single strand marred the smooth surface of the girl’s head. No eyebrows, either, Lexia realized. Still, this girl looked so pretty, and so nice.

“Hi,” Lexia breathed. “Do you want to come in?” She’d read that the local population was transplanted from Earth. Certainly this girl understood her.

The girl backed up, pebbles scattering in her wake, and turned from the vent’s opening. Lexia threw herself forward, latched onto an ankle, her own chest scraping rocks and metal.

“Please don’t go! I won’t hurt you!”

The ankle in her hands stilled. Lexia unfurled her fingers bit by bit, convinced the girl would bolt. Instead, the girl turned around and crept forward until they were face to face, Lexia leaning over the vent’s edge, the girl just below her.

“I’m Lexia.”

The girl took Lexia’s hand, turned her palm skyward, and traced lines with a finger. Puzzled, Lexia shook her head. The lines continued, up and down, over her skin, like a child learning the alphabet. Oh, the alphabet.

“You’re Amie!” Lexia exclaimed, unsure if she should feel clever or not.

The girl, Amie, nodded.

“Well,” Lexia said. “Come on inside.”

Together, they crawled through the vent. At the entrance to the pool area, Lexia pressed a finger against her lips. She slipped from the opening and casually strolled around the pool area, collecting items as she went—a robe, a head wrap, someone’s oversized frothy drink. Back in the vent, Aimie gulped the drink, the foam coating her upper lip in strawberry red. Lexia draped Amie in terrycloth from ankle to head, a nearly perfect camouflage for a girl from the outside.

Outside. It was almost too much.

“Come on,” Lexia said when Amie set down the drink. “My room has everything we need.” She took Amie’s hand, and together they left the spa.

No one noticed. Or almost no one. Lexia swore that same old lady stared at them. The smile was still there, only now it was tinged with worry.

* * *

In the hallway, Lexia’s stomach jumped each time a guard strolled by. They were all tall, all handsome, all with sharp eyes no amount of solicitude could hide. She led Amie through the corridors, not too fast, but not so slow someone might notice a girl who didn’t belong. Only when they had reached her quarters, and the door had whooshed closed behind them, did Lexia let out a breath.

“We did it!” She grinned at Amie. “And you need a bath.”

Lexia filled the tub and drained it twice, and still gray scum floated to the top of the water. But at least Amie looked clean and—more importantly—now smelled like lavender and vanilla. Even better, the girl’s dark eyes glowed and although she was silent, her smile filled Lexia’s heart.

It was after the bath, and a tray full of chocolates, that Amie pointed at the model on Lexia’s desk.

“I get to do one every month,” Lexia said, her hand lighting on the structure. It was her best one yet, a scale replica of the first station on Mars. “Since it’s a hobby, I can’t do more than that. I always tell myself to go slow, make it last, but I can’t stop myself.”

Amie cocked her head, brow furrowing.

“I wanted construction, you see. I have the test scores for it, all the spatial ability. And I love geometry.” Lexia shrugged. “They keep telling me I’m too pretty, that it makes more sense to be a decorative, like my mother, and her mother. It’s a better career choice—a safer one.”

She leaned closer, and Amie did the same, so their noses almost met over the top of the Mars structure. “Some girls even cut themselves.” Lexia drew an imaginary blade along her cheekbone. Amie jumped back and shook her head, her eyes wide and scared.

“Oh, don’t worry. I won’t. Besides, do you see anything sharp in here?” Lexia laughed, but it was the bitter sound she sometimes heard from her mother. She clamped her mouth shut. “Do you know how hard it is to build anything without something sharp?”

Amie’s gaze went to the Mars station, then lighted on Lexia’s face. Her hand moved again, first in the air, then on the table surface, like when she’d taught Lexia her name, but different.

“Oh, plans,” Lexia said at last. “You’re wondering if I draw plans. I can, but—” Why hadn’t she considered this before? No, it wouldn’t be nearly as fulfilling as building a model, but it beat waiting for her nail polish to dry or dozing through yet another facial.

She pulled up two chairs to her in-room console. She scrolled past all the social chatter, the notices for Slam Tonight! and the spa offering a “me” day, and dug into the educational programs. Yes! Design and Drafting, architecture, everything to teach her how to build virtual houses, cities, even stations that could be used anywhere in the galaxy, from research centers, like on Mars, to ones like they sat in now—a spa facility meant for rest and relaxation.

Lexia tore her gaze from all the potential plans and speared Amie with a look. “Did you know about this?”

Amie grinned and gave her a shrug.

“Do you need help with something, on the outside? Is that why you’re here?”

Amie leaned forward and pressed the keypad. On the screen, images of makeshift dwellings appeared. Amie pointed to one and then to herself.

“You live … there?” Lexia shook her head in disbelief. The wooden structure was little more than a lean-to. Sure, Lexia had done her time in Adventure Girls. Once, she had even slept outside, with nothing but canvas stretched over her. But at the end of the trip, the entire group had returned to a spa facility, where every pore was sucked clean, hair and nails made to shine.

Amie tapped Lexia’s wrist. The girl pointed to the screen, and then to Lexia. With her hands, she mimicked building.

“Do you want my help? Want me to show you how to make it better?”

Amie gave an emphatic nod.

“Okay.” Lexia pulled her hair into a loose bun at the base of her neck. “Let’s see what I can do.”

* * *

It took a week of designing, of visualizing, not just on the screen, but in her head, and when she could, in real time. Lexia took to collecting odd bits the spa guests left lying around. Old-fashioned books, empty containers from box lunches. These she fashioned into a small village. She learned, by watching Amie move stick figures around the structures, about life on the outside.

She knew that—somewhere—her console time was being logged. Keeping up appearances meant venturing from her quarters. She’d loved school, but a girl destined to be a third-generation decorative spent most of her time experimenting with foundations rather than building them.

But leaving her room meant leaving Amie behind. Unless … Her fingertips lighted on Amie’s bald head. Even when the look was in fashion (and it currently wasn’t), it attracted too much attention.

“Want to go somewhere?” she asked, feeling sly.

Amie’s eyes went wide, but her lips curled into a smile.

“I’ll get you a wig,” Lexia said. “And then we can really have some fun.”

* * *

In the gift shop, Lexia ran her fingers through the strands of a pink wig, one with spring-green highlights. A presence shadowed her steps, tall and broad. Paulo stood behind her. Paulo, who keyed in codes on the register so sloppily, Lexia often wondered if it were on purpose.

“You going to wear that to the slam tonight?” he asked.

“I might.”

“Haven’t seen you at one.”

“My mother’s been giving me fits.” Actually, she hadn’t seen her mother in nearly two weeks, at least not up close, but it was a handy excuse.

“Sneak out tonight.” With the suggestion, Paulo winked.

“I might,” she said again. Always keep them guessing. This was her mother’s advice when it came to men. When Paulo grinned, Lexia saw that it did, indeed, work. But it was an empty sort of victory. Why build castles in the air when she could construct real places to live? Who needed boys when she had a friend—a sister—waiting for her, one who needed her help?

* * *

From her vantage point in the hallway, Lexia could see the wide-open door of her quarters. When her mother’s voice barked commands, Lexia almost ran away. One thought kept her locked in place.

Amie.

Lexia swiped the sweat from her upper lip and considered the wig, tissue-wrapped and snug in a spa bag. Another command echoed from the room and a guard stepped out. He blinked, surprise washing across his features before he schooled them into a bland expression.

“Ah, Mrs. Mortarri? I think I’ve found her.”

He nodded at Lexia, and she had no choice but to enter her room.

“You’re not in that much trouble,” he whispered as she passed.

If he thought that, then he didn’t know her mother.

“There you are!” Her mother whirled, hands on hips. “Where have you been?”

“Nowhere. A walk.” Her voice sounded strained, shaky. She clutched the ribbon handles of the bag and willed herself not to search for Amie. Don’t move. Don’t glance around. Don’t breathe.

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Shopping?”

Lexia cringed. Of course. No one cared if she spent hours in the educational modules on her console, but the second the charge at the gift shop went through, the system must have alerted her mother.

Her mother held out a hand. Lexia pulled the wig from the bag and dropped it into her mother’s waiting palm. A year ago, she could have purchased three new wigs, and her mother would have laughed—and tried them all on herself.

“Really, Lexia? You shouldn’t cheapen yourself with such trash, not to wear and not to associate with.”

The words felt like a blow to the throat. No, she really didn’t like Paulo—at least, not in the way he wanted her to—but the boy wasn’t trash. He simply had to work and wanted to dance and drink when he wasn’t. And the wig that was oh, so pretty? And would look so nice on Amie? Well, that wasn’t trash either.

“And what is that?” Her mother pointed at the Mars station and the replica of Amie’s village she’d built around it.

“A model,” Lexia said, and how the words found their way from her throat, she didn’t know. “I like building them.”

“I’m not sure it’s the best use of your time.”

“It’s just a hobby.” Casual, not plaintive. Don’t let her see how much it means.

Her mother shook her head. “You’re just so … just so … well, I simply don’t know what I’m going to do with you.”

In earlier times—better times—her mother might have tried to understand. She’d sit on the floor with Lexia, both of them surrounded by building blocks, and laugh when her own constructions inevitably collapsed while Lexia’s remained standing.

“You must get it from your father,” she’d say, “because clearly you didn’t get it from me.”

Soft words no longer came from her mouth. Not since last year, since her last, awful marriage. She never spoke of Lexia’s father. It was as if she wished both of them would simply fade away. They no longer shared quarters. Lexia was never invited to her mother’s dinner parties; not that she wanted to eat with a bunch of adults. But eating alone, in her quarters, made everything taste the same, like salt, even the desserts. Especially the desserts.

As if she had no more words for Lexia, her mother left, without a goodbye, a kiss, a hug. Lexia stared at the shut door. Oh, that she could burn a hole into it with just her eyes.

“I’m what, Mother? Just because you don’t care about the things I do, doesn’t mean I’m—”

A pair of thin arms wrapped around her, a soft sigh bathing her neck. Lexia spun, mouth wide open in wonder.

“Where did you—?”

Amie pointed to the bed, or rather, the platform it sat on. Lexia knelt, rapped her knuckles against the side, and listened to the hollow sound. She eased back the panel and peered inside. Beneath the bed, there was just enough room for an Amie-sized girl.

“You’re smarter than I am,” she said. “I don’t even have your wig, and now we can’t—”

Amie pressed a finger against Lexia’s lips.

“I talk too much, don’t I?”

Amie simply drew her to the console. There, she scrolled through the fashion channels until the display landed on turbans.

“Oh, but those are for old ladies.” Lexia wrinkled her nose. “Like my mother.”

Amie opened her mouth in a silent laugh. Then she pointed to Lexia’s collection of nail polish.

“Oh!” Lexia jumped up, fingers tingling like they always did before a new project. “I could make it pretty.” She spun around. “I could start a trend.”

She tore a strip from the bottom of her bed sheet. Around Amie’s fragile head it went, then Lexia sprinkled on glitter and sparkles, and dotted the material with lime green nail polish. Lexia turned her friend toward the mirror.

“Look at you! You’re gorgeous.”

Amie’s eyes glowed, her fingertips touching the dots that matched her nails.

Lexia clapped her hands. “Let’s go have some fun.”

* * *

Only in showing Amie the spa did the oddities strike Lexia. Why, with the sun so brilliant, was the glass perpetually fogged? Why was everything so self-contained? At the last spa, she’d gone on excursions nearly every day, took lessons in the local language, and even visited the planet’s tiny moon.

Here, there was one short day trip to an island resort owned by the spa—and nothing else. The information panel talked up the splendors of the planet, the town of New Eden, the sustainable lifestyle of the local populace, and the fresh produce brought in daily to the spa.

Then she thought of Amie’s lean-to and all the plans she somehow hoped to give the girl. She thought of the disease that had stolen her friend’s voice as a baby. Why hide these things? The only thing on the other side of the glass was reality.

“Is it bad outside?” she asked Amie. They’d discovered the kitchens, now deserted after the formal dinner, and were working their way through a tub of berries and cream. Here was the food of New Eden. For once, Lexia was hungry. For once, things tasted sweet, and her fingers grabbed one berry after another, as if she’d never get enough.

Amie shook her head.

“But it isn’t easy.”

Amie shrugged and dipped a palm-sized strawberry into the cream.

“Why were you trying to get inside, then?”

Amie froze, mid-bite. Her gaze darted toward Lexia, a pleading look in the girl’s eyes.

“For the same reason I was trying to get out? Just to see what was on the other side?”

Amie swallowed the strawberry and threw her head back in silent laughter.

* * *

Maybe it was the berry-stained fingerprints left in their wake. Maybe it was the pilfered sparkling quenchers from the walk-in refrigerator. Or maybe the guards had simply tracked their every move since they had left Lexia’s quarters.

No matter. The first guard caught Lexia unaware, thick fingers around her wrist and upper arm. Amie, though quicker, fared no better. She kicked, tried to scratch, her mouth open in a silent scream.

Lexia screamed for her. Her cries brought officers and old, respected guests, and too many witnesses.

“They’re hurting her,” someone said, voice ringing with indignation.

An old woman hobbled into the center of the gathering. “Let the child go,” she said to the guards.

The man holding Lexia released his grip on her. She rubbed his sweat from her skin and tried to wipe away the ache.

“Now the other,” the old woman added.

The guards released Amie as if her skin burned them. The second her feet touched ground, she scampered off. No one chased after her, and Lexia let out a sigh that shook her whole body. She turned to thank the old woman, but froze. Yes! It was the same woman, the one in the spa, with the book and the secret smile. And now that smile bloomed again on the old woman’s face. Before Lexia could say a word, a barking voice cut through the silence.

“Lexia! What have you done!”

Her mother parted the crowd with her voice and a hand—the same hand that, seconds later, cracked against Lexia’s cheek.

Lexia stumbled into the guard behind her. His hands gripped her waist for longer than strictly necessary. She didn’t care. Her cheek stung, her eyes watered, her heart squeezed tight in her chest.

“Mind that she is still a child,” the old woman said.

“Mind your own business,” her mother snapped.

“You could say I am. Is she not my granddaughter?”

Her mother paled. Lexia felt all the air leave her lungs. She focused on the old woman, her soft face, and eyes that looked both sad and kind.

“Technically, no,” her mother said. “She is not.”

“But as long as you’re married to my son …”

Her mother’s mouth went grim. The old woman hobbled over to Lexia.

“We have not met, my dear, and I suspect we won’t again. A piece of advice from an old woman, then?”

Numb, Lexia nodded.

“Don’t let yourself get trapped. I did. So did your mother. That’s not a sufficient reason to end up trapped yourself.”

The woman kissed the bruise forming on Lexia’s cheek and turned down the hall. The crowd, the guards, silent and staring, parted for her. No one spoke. At last, her mother gave a frustrated sigh, collared Lexia, and dragged her through the corridors by the spa wrap.

* * *

When her mother engaged the override lock, Lexia pressed her hands against the smooth door. Her first impulse was to pound, to kick—just like a child. Instead, she leaned her forehead against the cool surface and shut her eyes. In her mind, Amie ran through the hallways, into the pool area, and crawled through the vent to freedom.

She wanted to believe the pictures in her head. An icy fist in the pit of her stomach told her it was better not to.

What had gone wrong? Why was she always wrong? She never sneaked out to slams, like the other girls, never even flirted with the spa workers. All she wanted was a friend. Lexia had never known that that hole inside her existed until Amie had filled the space. Now, nothing but an ache remained, that hole larger and darker than ever.

Her gaze lighted on the bed, or rather, what it sat on, its hollow platform. She crawled, wrists aching, and eased back the panel. Could she fit? She wasn’t as small as Amie. Inside the space smelled old, like layer upon layer of dust and memories. Lexia eased her feet to the farthest corner, settled her hipbone near the center, and at last pressed her cheek against the floor. The bruise throbbed, but it was a handy reminder. If she was truly going to do what she planned to, she’d need that.

Lexia packed, weighing each item for its potential worth and inevitable weight. In went all the plans and designs she’d made with Amie. Although it was frivolous, she added the lime-green nail polish. From her bed, Lexia tugged the smallest blanket and rolled it tight. Then she curled into the hollow space again, belongings at her feet, blanket beneath her sore cheek.

It took a very long time to fall asleep.

* * *

In the morning, her mother’s shrieks woke her.

“Where is she?”

“Sorry, Mrs. Mortarri, but there’s no record at all of anyone entering or leaving her quarters.”

“But she’s not here.”

Lexia held her breath. Would they search for her? Could anyone detect the panel, in place, but slightly off-kilter? Would anyone use an infrared detector, or for that matter, common sense?

“I suppose someone could have hacked the system,” a guard ventured.

“That boy from the gift shop. What’s his name?” Her mother snapped her fingers. “I don’t know, but find him. Find her!”

Poor Paulo, Lexia thought. He didn’t deserve this. The stomp of boots filled the room before footfalls echoed down the corridor. She squirmed, peered through the small sliver where the front panel didn’t quite meet the corner of the headboard. Her mother wore a spa wrap and a wash of tears across her face. The urge to shove the panel out of the way nearly overwhelmed Lexia. In her mind, she saw the scene play out. She’d burst from her hiding spot. Here I am, she would say. Her mother would embrace her, kiss the bruise on her cheek, and cry even after Lexia forgave her.

She braced her feet against the wall, ready to push back the panel, but froze when the intercom buzzed.

“Mrs. Mortarri, will you be keeping your massage appointment this morning?”

“Excuse me?” her mother said. “My what?”

“Massage appointment. Under the circumstances, we can reschedule.”

Lexia’s chest grew tight. Her head buzzed, and the sound of it was so loud, she was afraid she’d miss her mother’s next words.

“Yes, of course I’ll keep my appointment,” her mother said. “It’s been a stressful morning.”

And now Lexia couldn’t breathe.

Her mother turned, the spa wrap fluttering across Lexia’s field of vision before vanishing completely.

Where had her mother gone? Her real mother, not the one who had so recently swept from the room, intent on keeping a massage appointment. Where had that woman run to? Because certainly she’d gone somewhere and left Lexia behind, alone with an imposter.

She slipped from under the bed and replaced its panel, then she tore a few more strips from the bottom of her sheet. These she used to tie the blanket to her pack.

At the door, she hesitated, rocking on the balls of her feet. Would it open for her? She had shed the spa wrap, and what she guessed was the tracking device that went with it. She wore old clothes, from Earth—out of fashion, of course—but they were nondescript and sturdy. Lexia shut her eyes, inhaled a deep breath, and placed her hand on the console.

The door opened.

She grinned—couldn’t help it. In a way, it made sense. Why engage an override lock on an empty room?

In the corridor, a guard passed her, the same one who had gripped her wrists and left his sweat all over her. The man stared as though he didn’t recognize her. Maybe he didn’t. Maybe that was part of the problem with these spas. Everyone was either a guest or a worker—no one was an actual person.

In the pool area, she rushed past the mud baths, the mineral pools, running her fingers along the fogged glass without leaving any streaks. Lexia paused near the cabana where her mother booked all her massages.

The flaps were closed.

She clamped a hand over her mouth and wished she could cry silently like Amie did. Then, she turned toward the vent.

She crawled through the structure’s innards, spilled onto the pebbles outside, and scrambled to her feet. The spa sat behind her, a white blob, its own self-contained bubble in a brilliant green reality. Hills stretched for miles. Lexia ran, haphazardly at first, then with purpose toward the largest tree on the first hill.

On one of the branches, something white flapped in the wind. When she was ten feet away, she recognized it.

A strip from Amie’s turban.

Lexia stood beneath the branch and peered at the path ahead of her. Another glimmer of white, there, in the distance? She slid down the hill, never losing sight of the bit of white. When she reached the second tree, she tugged the strip from the branch and tied it around her wrist. Then she ran toward the next hint of white in the distance, leaving the world of fogged glass behind.

Inside Out first appeared in The Maze: Three Tales of the Future.

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Simon the Cold

For December, it’s stories about helpers, magical and otherwise.

I first met Simon the Cold outside the library on a night so icy it stole all the moisture from my breath. My feet crunched through the slushy mix of sand and snow. I walked with my head bowed, the air sharp against my cheeks. That was why I nearly crashed into the man bent over the garbage bin, its latticework gleaming with frost.

The glow from the man’s headlamp illuminated the inside of the bin like a spotlight—not a single sliver of light was wasted. I stood for a moment, regaining my balance, my jeans stiff with cold, and watched the man pull treasures from the dark depths.

He glanced up and said to me, “You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

When I didn’t respond, he added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

I forgot about the books I had on reserve. Instead, I raced to the second-floor cafe and bought the largest coffee on the menu board—the Caffeinator. With my pockets crammed with sugar packets and little containers of half and half, I ventured back outside. My boots skidded on the ice. A drop of coffee landed on my wrist, the scent warming the stale winter air, but I hardly felt it against my skin. My heart started pounding the second I spotted the man, still at the garbage bin. Heat flashed across my cheeks. I studied the cup in my hands. What was I doing? Was this in any way sensible?

Then I thought: How can I not do this.

So I marched forward, boots crunching, coffee sloshing, until the man raised his head and the headlamp shined its spotlight on me.

“I can’t take that from you,” he said.

I stood in the circle of his light, clutching the coffee, completely without words to convince him.

“And no tricks,” he added. “You look like the tricky sort to me.”

Perhaps it was nerves, or the cold, or the fact, I’m the least tricky person ever born, but I burst out laughing. “I’m not tricky at all,” I said. “In fact, I’m pretty transparent.”

“Ah, that you’re not, girly. That you’re not.”

Normally, someone calling me girly—of all things—would crawl beneath my collar and chew away at my restraint. But this man meant it, if not with kindness, then as an acknowledgment.

I see you there, young person, and what you’re trying to do. I’ve survived without you for this long and will continue to long after you’ve forgotten me.

That was why I took a step forward. He’d returned to sort his treasures, leaving me in the cold and the dark. He didn’t glance up. He didn’t stop his sorting. His fingers twitched ever so slightly. They were pale and stiff. Items slipped from their grasp, rattling the contents of the garbage bin.

I took another step forward.

“Old Simon hasn’t had a shower, girly, for quite a while. Just take that as fair warning.”

Nothing, I decided, could smell worse than this stale winter air. I took one last step and set the coffee on the edge of the garbage bin. From my pockets, I pulled the sugar packets and half and half.

“It’s funny,” I said, placing them next to the to-go cup. “You’d be surprised what some people throw away.”

When he didn’t respond, I added, “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

I walked toward the parking lot and threaded through the cars until I reached my own. I didn’t look back. That, I sensed, was part of the deal. So I left the lot by the back exit and drove the long way home.

* * *

It was only that night, in my dreams, that I saw with clarity the strange paleness of the man’s skin. The color, the texture, was like wax poured over real skin, the hue still there, but hidden deep beneath the surface. In my dream, I worried about frostbite—his and mine. When I woke, the comforter was crumpled at the foot of the bed. My skin felt waxy and prickly. I ran the shower hot until steam filled the bathroom and I had melted all the wax away.

Outside was that brilliant, breakable cold. Snow cracked, ice shattered and popped. Everything painted in bright colors—white, blue, yellow—the only colors in the world, it seemed, or at least the only ones worth noticing.

Maybe that was why I didn’t see the delivery truck. Maybe that was why I didn’t hear the horn. Maybe that was why, at the last moment, I felt myself jerked backward by the hood of my coat. My arms flailed, and my boots skidded against the ice-slicked sidewalk. I tumbled into the alleyway behind me and fell into the arms of the person who’d grabbed me.

It was him, the man from the library, the one in my dreams. Old Simon, he’d called himself, but I couldn’t remember if that was something he’d told me or part of my dream.

“You shouldn’t have done that, girly,” he said now. I didn’t know if he meant stepping into traffic or buying him coffee the night before.

“Old Simon’s got enough to do.” He heaved me to my feet with surprising strength. “Don’t need to add looking after you to my list.”

“You don’t look that old,” I said.

When he laughed, all I could see was a young man beneath all that wax, rich dark skin hidden beneath the layers of what looked to be oh, so cold. Only his eyes weren’t pale—or young-looking. This was a pair of eyes that had seen their share of winters and pedestrians trampled by horses, clipped by trolley cars, and bounced off windshields.

“I am old,” he said. “I have much to do and no time for rescuing you.” He brushed off his jeans and tugged his camouflage jacket into place by the epaulets.

“I can see that.”

At the entrance to the alley, he paused but didn’t turn around. “You can?”

“It’s in your eyes. At least, most of it is.”

“And the rest?”

“You’re looking for something.”

“That I am, girly.”

“I’m Halley,” I said, wanting to be clear on one thing if nothing else. No more girly. “Like the comet.”

“Returned to give me some grief?”

“Maybe I’m here to help.”

At that moment, I doubted my sanity. My pulse went thready. With a hand, I braced myself against the alley wall, my fingertips scraping icy mortar. I was a woman who lived on library books and television reruns of Doctor Who. I was young enough to still be called girly and not really mind. I was young enough to believe that someone like Simon the Cold had a mission and that I could help.

I was young enough to simply believe.

He hadn’t moved from the alley’s entrance—a good sign. He was listening, his head cocked back to catch all the telltale sounds of the alley. In front of him, cars churned up slush. Boots trampled sand and salt. But Simon’s attention? All on me.

“We could start with another cup of coffee.” I dropped my hand from the wall and walked toward the light.

“That we could, girly,” he said when I reached him. “That we could.”

* * *

I went with the ceramic mugs, despite the odd look from the barista. I picked up the solid black container of half and half and plunked it on the table, despite the odd looks from everyone else. Simon added cream and sugar like I thought he would. Patrons stared at me, at my cup, and the one opposite it. Their gazes flowed through Simon.

“People don’t see you,” I said.

“People generally don’t see the homeless.”

“But this is different.”

“I’m still homeless, girly.” He brought the mug to his lips, paused as if reconsidering something. “Halley.”

“I can see you.”

“That you can.”

“Why?”

He didn’t answer. Instead, we drank in silence, steam from the coffee filling the air between us, warming it until Simon himself looked warmer, his skin darker, as if the steam had melted a layer of frost.

“Are you sure you want to help me,” he asked.

I nodded.

“Good.” He set his cup on the table and grabbed my hand. “Because we start now.”

We dashed through the coffee shop, scooting past bags of beans and boxes of supplies. I glanced back in time to see two policemen—no, two things—reach our table. Hairy, large, and shapeless one moment, dark blue, official looking, clean-cut the next. They flickered from one form to another, like a hologram of two images.

I stumbled and fought to regain my balance. “Those aren’t people.”

“No.” Simon tugged me through the door and into the alleyway. We plunged into the shadows, the alleys behind the storefronts a labyrinth of brick walls and trashcans. Despite the cold, the stench of rotted vegetables lingered in the air.

“You’re not people,” I added.

Even in the dark alley, I caught Simon’s raised eyebrow. “I can’t be anything other than myself.”

“And that self is?”

“In trouble if we don’t keep moving.”

And so we ran, Simon in the lead. He kept hold of my hand and tugged me around Dumpsters and over pallets that creaked beneath our boots. We crunched plastic sacks and cardboard boxes. The air felt sharp in my lungs and clouds of my breath misted my face. My neck, where I had wound my scarf, started to heat. Without breaking stride, I yanked at the wool.

At last we emerged at the far end of the alley. Up the block, people streamed in and out of the coffee shop. Even at this distance, I could taste the coffee in the air. I sucked in the scent, grateful for anything that didn’t reek of water-logged wood or rancid meat.

“What are those things?” I asked.

“Something that would harm us all.”

“But you won’t let them.”

He dropped my hand and then turned to look at me. Outside, he was more wintery than before. “No,” he said. “You won’t let them.”

I touched my mittened fingers to my scarf in disbelief. How could I stop those things? I didn’t even know what they were. But Simon simply nodded.

We stood in the cold forever. At least, it felt like forever. Then I noticed the world around me, people moved at a glacial pace, their breath hanging in the air. Cars inched forward, each tread squeaking the packed snow.

“What did you do?” I asked Simon.

He grinned an icy grin. “I thought we needed a breather, a little time to collect our thoughts.”

“You can stop time?”

“No one can stop time. I merely . . . slowed it down, for a bit. It won’t stop our friends from the coffee shop for long. They’re too clever for that.” He took up my hand again and tugged me forward, through the ice statue pedestrians.

“I don’t understand,” I said. “One minute you don’t want me around, and the next I’m supposed to stop something?”

“Oh, girly … Halley … it’s more complicated than that.”

We continued our strange trek through frozen people and things, a dog with one paw raised, ready to shake; a split bag of groceries, cans hanging in midair; a shower of suspended grit from a snowplow.

“That night at the library,” he said when we’d reached the bridge that spanned the river. “And in the coffee shop. You saw me. I’ve been waiting for the one who sees. I just didn’t expect her to be so puny.”

“Hey!” I pulled from his grip. “I’m not as puny as I look.” That didn’t sound quite right—or at least, not as right as I wanted it to sound.

“I don’t know why they send me the likes of you,” he continued, almost as if I wasn’t even there. “You small ones who see too much and are far too fragile.”

A low boom sounded behind us. It sent a jolt through me, then it resonated with how hard my heart was beating. I was many things, but fragile wasn’t one of them. Simon grabbed my hands again, yanked me fully onto the sidewalk seconds before a black SUV rumbled past.

“Fragile. Like all humans.”

My heart thudded even harder, and the scarf around my neck felt tight, like it was choking me, deliberately. “The world, it’s—”

“Speeding up, and so should we.”

We ran, again. This time, I stayed silent. This time, I kept pace with Simon and thought about being fragile.

Maybe he was right.

* * *

The neighborhood changed the farther we went, from old Victorians in the painted-lady style; to respectable, if smaller, houses; to un-shoveled sidewalks, cars up on blocks, and chain-link fences that looked as though someone—or something—had clawed through them.

I’d never been to this part of town before. The longer we walked (our legs had given up on running miles back), the more certain I was of one thing: this part of town didn’t exist. It was another of Simon’s tricks. Unless it wasn’t, and it was simply one of those things people didn’t want to see.

Not seeing. There was a lot of that in the world, more than I ever realized.

“If you’re not human,” I said to Simon, “then what are you?”

We’d moved to trudging down the center of the street, the only clear path through all the snow. The accumulation hid the sidewalk, smoothed the steps leading up to houses. All the windows were dark, and the sun was sinking, its rays and warmth obscured by the tallest buildings.

“Something old,” he said to the pound of our footfalls.

“Not cold?”

“Not what?”

“That’s why I—” I broke off and tried again. “When I look at you, words pop into my head,” I said. Out loud, this sounded nonsensical, but I pushed on, with both my feet and my mouth. “I think: Simon the Cold. You don’t look old to me, just . . . frost covered.”

I braced for an outburst. After all, was it better to be old or cold? Either way, it wasn’t much of a compliment. But Simon’s laughter echoed against the buildings. For a bare second, the sun seemed to swell, glow brighter, before turning remote and winter cold.

“Oh, girly.” He cleared his throat. “Halley. I am both. I am in my winter.” He raised a hand, indicating the air, the snow, the ice around us. “This is like looking at my reflection.”

“But it’s not really your reflection,” I said.

He shook his head, a smile still lingering. “No, it’s not. Which is why I need to finish my work before spring comes.”

At last we reached the city dump. The entrance booth was empty, the gate looped with chains and padlocked. Simon walked up to the fence, passed his hand over the locks. They sprang open, the chains swinging with their weight.

“We need to arm ourselves,” he said.

“Here?” My gaze scanned the piles of discarded objects, tires and dishwashers and things that glinted in the setting sun.

“You’d be surprised what people throw away.”

Simon walked through the gate, his headlamp already secured. He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a second lamp.

Hand outstretched, he offered it to me. “Or maybe you wouldn’t.”

The glow of the lamp revealed treasures. And yes, I was surprised by what people threw away. In some cases, I wasn’t sure it was people doing the throwing. In my hands I held a sword in finely-wrought silver. If I swung the headlamp away and peered through the dark at it, all I saw was a broom with most of its bristles missing. Simon piled odds and ends into a grocery cart, one that had no hope of plowing through all the snow—unless you viewed it by lamplight. In that case, it was a sleek sled.

My fingers lighted on a garbage can lid. I knew without even using the headlamp that it would make a perfect shield—right size, right heft, its handle made for my grip.

“Is this how you see the world?” I asked Simon.

“Most of the time. Even old Simon can fall back into lazy habits.”

“So we see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear.”

“And the battle rages in front of our unseeing eyes.” He nodded. “Yes. There are layers to everything. People, this world, the things you hold in your hand. Most of the time, we don’t need to see these things. Most people don’t either.”

“But now?”

“Now, things are bad. I am . . .” He hesitated, the briefest of smiles gracing his lips. “Cold, and winter is much weaker than it appears.”

“And those things in the coffee shop?”

“If I’m ice—”

“They’re fire?”

“In a manner of speaking, yes. They would burn this world, but not in the way you’re thinking, not with flame and destruction. They spark infidelities, betrayals, revenge. Oh, there is far too much revenge in the world. Why humans have developed a taste for it, I can’t say. It starts sweet but turns sour. It would fill your throat and choke you.”

I clutched my broomstick sword, another question occurring to me. “That night at the library, when you turned your headlamp on me. What did you see?”

Simon was silent for a long moment. He plucked a few more items from the debris and added them to the shopping cart. Before he turned from me, he uttered one word.

“Hope.”

* * *

We left the gates to the city dump unlocked.

“For those who might need things,” was all Simon said.

The air felt warmer against my cheeks as if, somewhere, an invisible bonfire heated the city. First one, and then another snowflake floated down, big fat flakes, the sort children loved to catch on mittened fingers and on their tongues. The night filled with snow until I could barely see where we were going.

That, I realized, didn’t matter. Simon knew the way. After a while, I discovered I did too. If I shut my eyes, the route we needed to take became clear, as if a map of it was on my eyelids. We were headed back toward the city center, straight into the heart of the banking and financial district.

“Why there?” I asked Simon.

“It’s where they start their destruction, burning resources. Think of the crash of twenty-nine, or of o-eight for that matter.”

“Will they crash the world today?”

“If not today, then someday, or somewhere. Old Simon can’t be everywhere at once.”

But we’re here now.

I didn’t say it out loud. Perhaps I only thought those words. Even so, Simon’s shoulders straightened, his step quickened, and I marched alongside him. For the first time in my life, I felt like I had a mission, a purpose. I could do something—something worthwhile.

“You’ve always had a purpose,” he said, the words soft as the snow. “Remember that.”

They met us in the street, armed with briefcases and umbrellas, dressed in pinstriped suits. One woman wore high heeled shoes and yet glided effortlessly through the snow. I blinked and saw her, not as she appeared to everyone else, but her true form—a fiery beast that melted a path through the ice. Her cell phone was a weapon, something I only realized when Simon yanked me to the ground.

A lightning bolt whizzed over our heads and sizzled against the coffee shop’s brickwork.

I hunkered down next to Simon, my gaze taking in the things that surrounded us. The rest of the street had cleared, the snow so heavy, it had chased everyone else inside. Streetlights bathed the night in a yellow glow, and through that glow, they approached. Bankers, police officers, firefighters—all occupations you’d instinctively trust. They circled us, each braced to attack.

“I’m going to count to three,” Simon said to me, his voice calm and steady, like we were having a conversation in the coffee shop. “Then I want you to rush the one next to the fire hydrant.”

The firefighter. Even in disguise, he was a good head taller than I was. He clutched a hose, which, if anyone cared to look carefully—but of course, they didn’t—would be utterly ridiculous in all this snow and ice. In the world viewed through my headlamp, the creature held a coil of barbed metal. The weapon was thin, flexible, curling and uncurling like a snake. The creature stood there, unmoving, the coil undulating as if it had a mind of its own.

Simon grunted. “He’s yours. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Mine? “But—”

“He’s the one I can’t fight.” Simon’s voice had dropped now. “That’s where you come in.”

“Why can’t you fight him?”

“I can’t even touch him. We’re cut from the same cloth, as the expression goes, or in this case, the same piece of the universe.”

“You’re related.”

“In a way. But then, so are we, Halley. So are we.”

“And that’s why I can see you—and them.”

“She catches on quickly.” This was not Simon, but the firefighter, the huge thing in front of us. “Did you also inform her of her role after today’s confrontation?”

“She has no role.”

“Only if you dispatch us, and dear brother, and you are not up to the task. Not now, so far into your winter.”

“We shall see.”

The world exploded then. The firefighter shot skyward, flames and heat evaporating the snow. The air filled with steam. As a teen, I’d taken a year of karate, but I was no fighter. I didn’t know how to handle a sword. And yet, my hands knew what to do. My feet knew where to take me. I dashed not to where the firefighter had been standing, but where I knew he’d land, my sword at the ready.

His coil caught the blade seconds before his feet touched the ground. I blocked the second blow with my trashcan lid shield. But that barbed metal was pliant, and it wrapped itself around my blade, yanked the handle from my grip.

I panted, gaze darting between where my sword clattered to the road to Simon. The others surrounded him. He remained still, passive. I prayed he had a plan—for him and me.

The creature approached, barbed metal twisting this way and that, flicking toward my boots, catching strands of my scarf when I failed to lift my shield in time. I jumped back just as the coil swirled to catch me around the ankles. He advanced again, and again, I leaped. Leap, tangle, leap tangle, our movements a dance that led us away from Simon.

Keep him away from Simon. This was my only thought, even as my shield slipped from my grip and spun on the snow-slicked asphalt. Keep him away from Simon.

A crack reverberated. The buildings around us shook. I spun. We both did. The firefighter lowered his weapon and stared. A blizzard engulfed the other creatures, freezing them in place. At first, the rapid disintegration left me breathless, my stomach churning. A piece here, a piece there, torn apart, scattered.

The firefighter roared with so much force, I stumbled backward.

And onto my sword. With my teeth, I tore the mittens from my hands and picked up my sword. My fingers ached in the cold, but I clutched the grip, crouched low, and waited.

The firefighter twirled the coil, its barbs sparking in the air. In my mind, I saw its trajectory: toward the center of the fight, toward Simon. It would end him in a brilliant blaze of fire.

I sprang forward, caught the coil as it extended forward, the blade of my sword clanging against the metal, shaving off the barbs.

The blow sent me to the ground, sent the sword flying from my grip. The coil hung in the air and then fragmented, tiny barbs littering the ground, stabbing the snow.

The firefighter shrank. Pieces of the others broke off, scattered in the street before vanishing.

“Spring,” the firefighter said, his voice weak. “Spring.”

And then he, too, was gone.

I stood alone in the empty street, no sign of creatures, no sign of Simon. Nothing to show for what had just happened, only fat snowflakes that stuck to my cheeks and the broomstick I held in my hands.

* * *

My library books were overdue. This was what happened when you took time out to fight creatures no one else could see. The night I returned them to the library, snow still crunched beneath my boots, but the air felt soft against my face. Most everyone went without their hats and gloves. I’d left my mittens at home.

I glanced at the garbage bin, half hoping Simon would be there. He wasn’t, of course. I returned my books, paid my fine, and on the way out, stopped for a Caffeinator, making sure to stuff my pockets with sugar and those little containers of half and half. For old time’s sake, I told myself.

I could never find my way back to the city dump, although I tried several times. I still had the broomstick. I hung it above my fireplace. No one ever asked me about it. I wondered if anyone could see it, and if so, how it looked to them. When I spied it from the corner of my eye, it gleamed, the handle intricately carved.

I was going to balance the cup of coffee on the edge of the garbage bin, but someone stood there, head cast downward, a glow illuminating the contents inside.

My heart sped up. I clutched the to-go cup so tightly some of the coffee slipped from beneath the lid. A flash of pain spread across my skin, then the cool air rushed in to heal the burn.

I approached, but the man didn’t glance up.

“You’d be surprised what people throw away,” I said.

He took a step back, as if embarrassed at being caught. My heart pounded faster. Not Simon. Not Simon.

Then, I saw his eyes.

“Simon the Cold.”

“I ain’t cold, girly.”

“Halley.”

“That’s right, the comet. Here to burn another path through my sky?”

“What happened?” I asked.

“You talking about the winter? My winter?”

I nodded.

“You were there.” The question was in his eyes, if not his voice.

I nodded again.

“The way it works,” he said, his words slow. “I don’t always remember.”

And now I was cold. Simon? Not remember me?

“But it’s hard to forget a comet that blazes through the sky, especially one that saves your life.”

“I did that?”

“You did. But now I’m in my spring, and—”

“I’m nothing?”

“Or everything. That’s the problem with spring. It’s hard to tell what might grow. You can only plant the seeds.”

I held out the coffee then, both hands clutched around the cup.

He shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way.”

“How would you know? You’re in your spring.”

His laugh made the temperature rise at least a degree, maybe more. Wet, heavy snow slipped from a branch and plopped on the ground. I still offered the cup, arms outstretched, until—at last—Simon the Warm took it from my hands.

Simon the Cold was first published in Frozen Fairy Tales, and more recently produced in audio by The Centropic Oracle.

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