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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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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Mini-release Monday: Dragon Whispers

Dragon Whispers: Six Tales of Dragon Adventure and Lore

Here be dragons … six of them.

Often mercurial, preternaturally perceptive, always inscrutable.

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

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

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

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

Let the adventure begin!

Don’t buy this book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Filed under Books, Publishing, Reading

Short Story Saturday: Simon the Cold in audio

My story, Simon the Cold, is now out in audio from The Centropic Oracle. This is the third story I’ve had produced by them, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Simon the Cold first appeared in Frozen Fairy Tales from World Weaver Press.

If you’re a writer, I highly recommend submitting to The Centropic Oracle. They’re great to work with, do a thorough editorial review, and the whole process is transparent in their submission manager. So, dust off the reprints and send them in.

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Filed under Audio Books, Publishing, Reading

Free Fiction Friday: The Ghost Must Go On

There’s no business like ghost business.

Locker thirty-five in Springside High School has always been haunted.

At least, as far as I know.

I press a hand against the cool metal, searching out the sensation that tells me an otherworldly presence is nearby. My business partner, Malcolm Armand, places his hand above mine. He stands so close that the pocket of air between us warms with the scent of nutmeg and Ivory Soap.

“Do you sense anything?” I ask, keeping my voice hushed in the long-emptied hallway.

It’s like we’re violating some rule, milling about the corridors long after everyone has left for the day. No teachers. No kids. Some places feel off when completely empty. A high school is one of them.

“There it is,” Malcolm says. “Do you feel that?”

Something stirs beneath my palm. It feels like a yawn. “I think we woke it up.”

“Man, I’ve met some lazy ghosts, but this one barely registers. I’m not sure it’s an actual ghost, never mind our culprit.”

“It’s not,” I say. “I only wanted to make sure.”

Truthfully, part of me wanted to check on an old friend. The ghost of locker thirty-five might not possess a sparkling personality, but it is consistent. I’m not sure there is a culprit, not in this case, and we’re in for a long night of walking the halls and checking bathrooms for a ghost that doesn’t exist.

“Does it ever do anything?” he asks.

“Only on pep rally days, then it”—I wave a hand at the locker—“expels everything onto the floor. It gets excited. I think.”

During my four years at Springside High, I never had locker thirty-five, although I’ve stepped over the mess its occupant made plenty of times.

“Performance anxiety?” Malcolm suggests. “I used to throw up before every cross country meet.”

I turn to him. The hallway is dark enough that reading the expression in his eyes is difficult, but this surprises me. Malcolm is always so confident, so self-assured. I’ve only known him a few months, but if you asked me, I’d say he had one of those charmed high school experiences.

“Really?” I say.

“Yeah. Really.” He takes my hand. “Come on. Let’s tell Gregory he doesn’t have a ghost problem.”

His skin is so warm against mine. Technically, we’re working, which means, technically, we shouldn’t be holding hands. But the lines blur after five in the afternoon. Malcolm, my business partner, becomes Malcolm, my boyfriend. We have rules around this because, as co-owners of K&M Ghost Eradication Specialists, we work so well together.

We don’t want K&M the couple ruining that.

But rules have exceptions. I think holding hands with Malcolm while walking the halls of my old high school happens to be one of those.

“What do we tell Gregory instead?” Malcolm asks.

“That it’s most likely kids playing a practical joke on him? I mean, I’m sure they’ve all seen the Ghost B Gone webcasts. They’re still up on YouTube.”

Before Gregory took on a substitute-teaching job and volunteered to direct the school play, he was Gregory B Gone of Ghost B Gone, a web show that did weekly ghost evictions.

Granted, the most dangerous thing they ever “evicted” was a sprite—well, almost. There was that encounter with an evil entity, but that never ended up on video. It’s not something any of us like to talk about.

“He wants more than anything to see a real ghost,” Malcolm says.

Oh, he does. He really does. That Gregory built an entire career and life around something he couldn’t see, never mind sense, still puzzles me.

“This plays right into that,” Malcolm adds.

I’m sure this is something the entire cast and crew of You Can’t Take It with You have figured out. So when we arrive at the auditorium doors to find Gregory out front, expression lit with anticipation, I take the easy way out.

“You tell him,” I whisper to Malcolm.

Unfortunately, Gregory hears.

“Tell me what? You found something, didn’t you? I was right this time! Tell me I was right.”

Malcolm skewers me with a look. “Coward,” he mouths.

Why, yes. Yes, I am. Besides, of the two of us, Malcolm is the one who can work a room, talk to anyone, convince the only law firm in town that they need us on retainer. (You’d be surprised how many divorce lawyers end up haunted.) He can handle Gregory.

Me? Well, I make the coffee.

Malcolm shakes his head. It’s a slow, consoling sort of gesture. “You know, Katy and I were talking, and we think it’s probably a practical joke your students are playing on you.”

“We open in less than a week.” Gregory throws an arm toward the auditorium’s double doors. “Why would they do that?”

“Because they can. Because they’re high school kids.” Malcolm shrugs. “Maybe they want to see Ghost B Gone in action.”

Gregory strokes his beard. It’s closer to a goatee now, more award-winning director than rugged ghost hunter.

“So the flickering lights with no one in the booth?” he asks.

“A timer,” Malcolm says. “That’s pretty easy to rig up. I can even show you how.”

“What about all the thumps and bumps?”

“Special effects?” I say. “I mean, you guys are in a theater. You have that sort of thing, right?”

“The malfunctioning curtain?” Gregory tries again. “That couldn’t be caused by a student, could it? The whole thing came crashing down. Someone could’ve been hurt, and the kids were shook. I let them go early.”

And that was when he called us. I want to suggest that the kids took things too far, so of course, they were scared. I cast a glance at Malcolm and see the same conclusion reflected in his eyes.

“And nothing since, right?” Malcolm says. “Things don’t happen when you’re here alone.”

“I feel like I’m being watched.” Gregory rubs a hand across the back of his neck and shudders. “It’s kind of creepy, actually.”

I decline to point out the overabundance of security cameras in the school.

Gregory pushes open the auditorium door and secures it with a stopper. He waves toward the stage and the curtain pooled at its edge. “So all of this? Just a practical joke?”

We head down the aisle to where we’ve left our field kit. I open my mouth to speak, to frame my response in the nicest way possible when an otherworldly presence invades the space. It’s insidious at first, like a fine mist you don’t notice until your clothes cling to your limbs and your hair is plastered to your scalp.

Gregory remains despondent, arms crossed, expression dour. His sense of the supernatural is nearly nonexistent. But Malcolm’s isn’t. I reach for his hand and find him doing the same. We lace fingers just as a jolt runs through me, cold, wild, and wholly unpredictable.

Then an unearthly howl fills the entire auditorium, one that we all hear—even Gregory.

* * *

Behind us, the auditorium doors slam shut. The lights flicker. An icy surge of air flows up the aisle, bathing us in goosebumps. The presence swirls around us, pushing us into one of the rows.

“Coffee?” Malcolm asks.

“Down front, in the field kit.”

“We’re about to go into a full-on ghost infestation here,” he says, his voice taking on an edge.

I know, and the cold that comes with that will render the coffee we do have useless. We’ll have to backtrack, get the camp stove, or figure out a way to brew on the premises. Assuming this thing will let us leave. The way it’s shoving us into our seats makes that unlikely.

The ghost pushes again. I’m braced against Malcolm. He holds me steady, but his arms tremble with the effort. Gregory, on the other hand, lands hard in one of the seats. When he tries to stand, he’s shoved back down again.

All ghosts want something, are driven by one overriding desire. Often this is nothing more than to feel human again, which is why coffee works so well to catch them. But some ghosts have an agenda. This one has enough strength that I’m not certain a cup of coffee will distract it long enough so we can trap it.

Assuming, of course, we can reach the field kit and the set of precision-made German thermoses filled with Kona blend.

With us pinned in the theater’s prime viewing spots, the ghost retreats to the stage. It flows over the fallen curtain, the material undulating, and lets out another howl. The lights flicker again until a single spotlight shines on center stage.

“Katy?” Malcolm stares straight ahead. His voice is low, perfectly measured. “Do you think this ghost wants to star in a play?”

“A ghost could want that?” Gregory asks.

A ghost could. Not so long ago, Malcolm and I caught a ghost that wanted nothing more than constant attention and praise. Why shouldn’t a ghost want to star in a show?

“You’re brilliant,” I whisper to Malcolm.

“Eh, not really.”

But I catch a hint of a smile.

I clutch the seat in front of me and pull myself to standing. An icy cold finger shoves me backward, but Malcolm steadies me with a hand on the small of my back. 

“I don’t have a program,” I declare. “I want to know who the star of the show is.”

The neat stacks of programs by the door shoot upward. The space erupts in a flurry of paper. I duck, hands covering my head, but the sting of paper slicing skin is sharp. Malcolm swears. The cyclone of torn scraps tightens until it has swallowed up every last program. Then, like a cloudburst, the whole thing explodes, and bits of paper rain down on us.

Next to me, Gregory turns ashen. He stares, mouth slack, and then he buries his head in his hands.

“Those were the programs for opening night.”

“Sorry?” I say, but it comes out small, pathetic, and useless.

Malcolm leans down to pluck a wayward program from the floor. He flattens the paper against his thigh. I read the list of names and realize my mistake.

Of course. The program is filled with student names, the actual performers in the play. No ghost included.

But then, neither are we. Well, Gregory is, as director. With that thought, an idea takes shape. I’m still standing—barely, but I straighten and call out.

“Malcolm, haven’t you always wanted to work in the light booth, but no one would let you?”

Gregory casts me a look like I’ve lost my mind. To Malcolm’s credit, he merely grins, those dark eyes of his taking on a gleam. He almost always knows what I’m thinking—and trusts me even when he doesn’t.

“Yeah,” he says, “there was this clique at school, the theater group. I never got the chance.”

“Well, I’ve always wanted to be a stagehand.” My voice doesn’t ring quite as false now. There’s something about talking nonsense to ghosts—and especially talking nonsense to ghosts with Malcolm—that inspires confidence. Besides, as a stagehand, I can approach the stage.

And then, I can grab the field kit and start pouring coffee.

“We have our director,” I say, easing past Gregory.

He peers at me through the v made by his fingers. The look is both accusatory and curious. “We have our tech crew.” I nod at Malcolm, who starts creeping along the row in the opposite direction.

I throw my arms wide. “And we have our star!”

The stage shimmers with the ghostly presence. Then the image contracts into an almost humanlike form. I squint, trying to detect something familiar about its shape, something that might give us a clue to what this ghost wants. Its outline is blurry, but I get the impression of an otherworldly sword in a scabbard at its side.

There must be thousands of plays that involve swords, but my mind goes blank. I can’t think of a single one.

I approach cautiously, each step deliberate. I inch forward, crouching lower and lower with each step. By the time I reach the first row, I’m hunkered down, next to the floor. I loop the canvas straps around one arm and hurry toward the stairs to my left.

Center stage, there’s a table already set up. It’s the perfect spot to place the cups and start pouring the coffee. For a ghost this strong, we’ll need all twelve cups: three black, three with half and half, three with sugar, and three extra sweet and extra light.

Always twelve, always the same combination. My grandmother, who taught me everything about ghost hunting, was adamant about this.

“As if ghosts don’t have a preference,” she’d always say.

I’m halfway there when I need to shield my eyes from the glare of the spotlight.

“Hang on,” Malcolm says. His voice echoes in the quiet auditorium, and it’s odd to have him sound so close without having him by my side.

I miss his sturdy warmth, his conviction. He either knows what to do or believes I know what I’m doing. In most cases, I’m running on instinct—this time included.

The brightness fades to something softer, an evening sort of glow. I blink, scan the stage, and locate the ghost. It’s wavering as if it can’t decide whether it likes me interfering with its show.

“Katy,” Gregory calls out in a stage whisper. “There’s a scene in You Can’t Take It with You where Alice and her father have an emotional moment. It’s just the two characters on stage. Maybe that’s what this thing wants, to act out a scene.”

I shake my head, not because he’s wrong, but because he’s so very right. And I know what comes next. My heart takes up residence in my throat. I can barely swallow and must force the protest from my mouth. “I don’t know the play.”

Gregory rummages in his messenger bag and pulls out a script. “I’ll feed you the lines.”

I meant to be a stagehand, to pour some coffee, ready a Tupperware container, and pounce on the ghost once it drank its fill. I have no intention of starring in a play, not with a ghost as a leading man, not even if the audience is only Malcolm and Gregory. Heat floods my cheeks, the sensation prickling. Even in the soft glow of the stage lighting, my blush must be apparent.

So must my discomfort, my awkwardness. Suddenly, I don’t know what to do with my limbs.

“Just repeat the lines and pour the coffee,” Malcolm says, his voice low, encouraging. “I bet that’s all it takes.”

So I do. Gregory feeds me each line. I stumble through the words. My hands shake, and I slosh coffee over the rim of three cups. I’m never this sloppy, haven’t been this sloppy since I was eight.

At the scene’s end, I’m supposed to embrace my father—or rather, my character is supposed to embrace her father. The ghost continues to waver by my side. Once or twice, it surged forward, swooped around the coffee cups, and then retreated.

The coffee’s starting the cool. It won’t tempt ghosts—or humans—for much longer. The ghost makes a final pass. As I’m reaching for the Tupperware, it settles next to the cup with extra cream and sugar.

“Yes.” Malcolm’s whisper fills the auditorium.

I’m poised to make the catch when the ghost slips beneath the table. All at once, the table leaves the floor, shooting upward. Cups scatter everywhere, and coffee splatters across the stage, onto the curtain, and—of course—onto me.

* * *

“Katy!”

Malcolm’s voice is so loud that the speakers screech a protest. I slam my hands over my ears, not that it helps.

“Katy,” he says, quieter now. “Are you okay? Did you get scalded?”

Scalding is an occupational hazard. I pluck damp sleeves from my arms, blow on the back of my hands. A few spots sting, but nothing requires immediate attention or the burn kit we keep in my truck.

“I’m okay. The coffee was already cool.”

Well, cool-ish, anyway.

“You’re sure?” Doubt laces Malcolm’s voice. Yes, he knows I might lie about something like this.

“I’m sure. Really.”

I peer into the rows below me. Gregory is standing, arms slack, script dangling from his fingers. He mouths something that might be a curse or a prayer.

“Maybe it doesn’t like comedies?” I say.

To be honest, part of me is relieved. I don’t want to stumble through more lines or playact on stage. I want to catch this ghost, go home, and wash the sticky, coffee-soaked sugar from my skin. I have the feeling that won’t be happening any time soon.

Despite the spotlight’s glare, I see the moment Gregory’s eyes widen. His mouth opens, but it’s Malcolm’s voice I hear.

“Katy! Watch out! To your left … right. Just—”

The creak of wheels against wooden floorboards has me jerking around. Barreling toward me is a structure that appears positively medieval—a battering ram or some elaborate device for scaling castle walls.

I leap back as the thing zooms past. It stops, abruptly, a few feet from where I now stand. Dust mingles with the scent of coffee, and I feel grit in my eyes and against my lips.

I sneeze.

“Oh,” Gregory says, almost conversationally. “It’s the balcony.”

“Balcony?” I squeak.

“From last fall’s Romeo and Juliet.”

Of course.

From nowhere, a script lands at my feet with a thump. I pick it up before the puddles of coffee can do too much damage. I’m not surprised by the playwright’s name.

William Shakespeare.

“Maybe it wants to do the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet,” Gregory suggests.

The ghost whirls around, its joy tangible. It fills the air with sparks; the underlying menace, the threat of a full-on ghost infestation lessens—slightly.

The ghost flies upward and smashes itself against the glass of the sound booth. Malcolm yelps, and his cry reverberates through the theater.

“Mood lighting, tech crew,” Gregory says, sounding every inch the put-upon director. “We can’t keep our star waiting.”

The ghost returns to the stage the moment the lights dim, and Malcolm paints the area around me a deep indigo. Tiny fragments of light speckle the floor beneath my feet, the backdrop behind me, and I want to ask him how he figured out how to create starlight.

“Uh, Katy?” Gregory says.

I turn to face him, arms crossed over my chest.

“The scene needs a Juliet,” he says. When I don’t respond, he adds, “That’s you.”

He’s right. The way this ghost swirls about, bumping against the back of my knees, I can already sense what it wants—me, on the balcony, waiting for my Romeo.

“I don’t suppose you’d want to do a role reversal?” I say to it.

The whirling doubles, flavoring the air with anger—and more dust.

“Yeah,” I mutter, “I didn’t think so.”

The balcony is oversized, cumbersome. Its shadow stretches across the stage, and I feel tiny in comparison.

“Secure the wheels,” Gregory calls out. “We don’t want you rolling off the stage.”

No, no, we don’t.

With the toe of my sneaker, I lock each wheel into place. Then I grip the rails that will help me navigate the set of stairs to the top. The climb takes longer than I expect, and my thighs protest each steep step I take.

Once I’m at the top, I grip the balcony’s edge and peer out over the auditorium. Even though I’m fully dressed—if coffee-soaked—even though it’s only Malcolm and Gregory witnessing this debacle, I feel exposed. I feel … alone.

I feel like I’m back in high school, back when I was the girl who caught ghosts with her grandmother, the girl who made numerous trips into the boys’ locker room to do just that.

The girl who was always the odd one out.

“You’re Juliet. Look … pensive,” Gregory commands, still in director mode. He’s scrolling frantically through something on his phone. He eyes me, and then his phone’s screen. “I’ll read Romeo.”

He clears his throat, and when he speaks again, his full, modulated tone startles me so much that I nearly tip off the balcony.

“But, soft! what light through yonder window breaks? It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”

Damn,” comes Malcolm’s whisper through the speakers. “I need to learn to do that.”

The ghost surges upward as if it’s Romeo, and I’m truly its Juliet.

Gregory continues to speak, low and sonorous, things like: O, it is my love! and O, that I were a glove upon that hand, That I might touch that cheek!

Malcolm coughs, once, twice, the third time coming out as a growl. Gregory casts him a quick look over his shoulder. Whatever passes between them is lost on me.

I’m still leaning forward as if I’m hanging onto every one of my ghost Romeo’s words. The planks beneath my feet creak. I tap the wood, not certain the construction is all that sturdy. I grip the rail of the balcony even tighter.

I’m so distracted by this that when Gregory clears his throat, for what must be at least the third time, I start.

“What?” I say.

“Not what, wherefore.”

Wherefore? Oh. Wherefore art thou. Of course.

“Romeo,” I begin, and my voice is a thin, reedy thing. “Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?”

At least I know these lines, but then, I think everyone knows these lines. I’m poised to continue, to utter the next couple of sentences, at least. The next line is there on my tongue, so strong I can almost taste it: Deny thy father and refuse thy name, for if thou wilt not but be sworn my love, and I’ll no longer be a Capulet.

Before I can, the planks beneath my feet groan again. The sound is ominous and fills the auditorium.

“Katy,” Malcolm begins, his voice hushed and worried. “Maybe you should—”

I never hear what Malcolm thinks I should do. I plummet through the balcony floor, the only thing keeping me from falling to my death—or at least grave injury—is my grip on the balcony’s rail.

I think I scream. At least, my throat aches in the aftermath of my plunge. One plank hits the stage with a thud, the other swings next to me, barely tethered to the structure by a couple of nails. At least, I think they’re nails. I’m mostly concentrating on my tenuous hold on the rail, not to mention the long drop below.

And the fact I don’t have too many options.

Gregory starts for the stage, but before he can clear the row he’s been standing in, Malcolm tears down the aisle. He doesn’t bother with the stairs but launches himself up and onto the stage.

And then he is there, standing beneath me, arms outstretched.

“Cross country?” I manage. 

“And track in the spring.”

“Varsity?”

He gives me a sheepish look. “Co-captain my senior year.”

Around us, the scene is still set. The light is soft, like twilight. Malcolm looks every inch a knight in shining armor—or at least one in loafers and a pressed dress shirt. He looks like a boy I might have crushed on in high school, the one who might have never acknowledge my existence.

That isn’t Malcolm. If I have any doubts about that, they vanish the moment he gives me one of his sweet, dark-roast smiles.

“Let go,” is all he says.

“But—”

“Let go.”

“Won’t I hurt you?”

“You could never hurt me.”

Sweat builds beneath my grip. My arms ache from fingertips to shoulders. Another minute and this won’t be a choice. I’ll slip.

“And I won’t drop you, Katy.”

So I shut my eyes, and with one deliberate movement, I commit.

I let go.

The fall lasts forever and is over in a second. Malcolm catches me. He teeters for a moment, then we both crumple to the stage. We remain there, panting, gasping, and when I catch his eye, I don’t even need to ask.

He’s okay.

So am I.

“Uh, guys,” Gregory says. “You should probably do something about that.”

We struggle to stand, Malcolm tugging me up with a hand, and confront the thing that Gregory is pointing at.

Center stage, one of my Tupperware containers sits. It’s one of the larger ones, and it’s missing its lid. That, in itself, isn’t so remarkable. What’s remarkable is what happens to be inside the container.

Our ghost.

Malcolm laces his fingers with mine, and we approach, steps soft and controlled. But I’m not sure the effort matters. When we reach the ghost, it floats contently inside the Tupperware. Something that sounds like a ghostly sigh fills the space around us, and in it, I think I hear an apology.

I kneel next to the container and ease on the lid.

“Now what?” Malcolm’s hand rests on my shoulder. “Nature preserve?”

That’s our standard procedure for releasing a ghost once we’ve caught it. For the really nasty ones, we drive further out. Once, we went all the way to Wisconsin.

I hold up the container and peer at the ghost inside. “Actually, I have another idea.”

* * *

We hold hands all the way to locker thirty-five. The fact that it’s dark and the halls are empty doesn’t bother me on this trip. We stand in front of the locker, Tupperware positioned at the vents. My fingers are on the lid, although I haven’t cracked it.

“You sure about this?” Malcolm asks.

“Not totally,” I admit. “But I think this one just wants to belong … somewhere. Maybe that somewhere is here?”

“Sounds good to me.”

“We can always come back.” I rap the side of the Tupperware with my knuckles. “If this one doesn’t behave.”

Inside the container, the ghost swirls its agreement. At least, I think it agrees with me. With ghosts, you never can tell. I crack the lid.

The ghost streams through the vent. I place my palm against the locker, and Malcolm adds his above mine.

“Verdict?” he asks.

There’s a bit of nudging, some jockeying for space, but then nothing but warmth.

“I think it belongs here,” I say.

“I think you’re right.”

Malcolm takes my hand again. When we reach the doors to the school, his arm wraps around my waist.

And I think: Yes.

 I belong here.

That’s right! Another Coffee & Ghosts story, this time a standalone short story that I wrote a few years back.

Hey, it’s October, we all need some more ghosts (and coffee).

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Miller’s Daughter

Rumpelstiltskin meets Groundhog Day, with a twist.

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

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

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

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

It’s hard to save someone mid-execution.

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

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

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

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

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

A real life.

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

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

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

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

He’s drinking, on credit.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She raises an eyebrow. “For a price?”

I execute a low bow. “But of course.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re not needed here,” she says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The hangman places the noose around her neck.

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

The hangman releases the trap door. The crowd gasps.

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

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

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

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

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

Did she know from the start?

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

I decide not to try.

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

Those are yours. They belong to you.

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

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

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

A life.

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

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

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Free Fiction Friday: The Troll in IT

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

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

All is quiet—except for some gentle snoring.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, we have trust issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, and I’m the bait.

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

“Not at all,” he says.

“Then—?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a troll.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is no troll.

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

The bleating echoes down one of the many cubicle aisles.

I decide to follow.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

“You know I’m not going to hurt you.”

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

I’m a damsel in distress, after all.

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

“Do you need help?”

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

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

The cabinet it keeps bumping its head against?

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

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

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

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

“Where to?” I ask the baby goat.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

I volunteered.

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

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

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

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

I don’t move.

Neither does the troll.

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

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

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

“How did you do that?” I ask.

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

“So, there really was a troll in IT.”

“Indeed, there was.”

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

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

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

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

I bob a curtsey. “Posey Trombelle.”

“Posey?”

“Short for Poinsettia. I was—”

“A Christmas baby, no doubt.”

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

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

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

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

“Everybody always does.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

And yes, he means that quite literally.

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

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

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

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

“Are you running a … startup?”

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

Gruff Cyber Security
Industry Leader in Eradicating Trolls

Because of course they are.

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

“How—?” I begin.

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

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

Then all hell breaks loose.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes,” I say. “I would.”

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

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

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

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

Then the bastard turns and runs.

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

“Hurry, both of you.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Of course,” I say, “but this isn’t—”

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

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

Like launch your own tech startup.

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

William Gruff gives a nod.

“And we’re safe?”

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

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

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

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

“Mind if I borrow this?”

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

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

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

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

“Take our picture?”

* * *

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

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

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

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

But I have something he doesn’t.

A knight in shining armor and three devoted attack goats.

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

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020