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Free Fiction Friday: Midnight at the Hades Underground

Think you know how the story of Hades and Persephone ends? Think again.

During all the millennia of his existence, Hades had found contentment in so few things. One of those was in the simple act of tending bar.

Granted, it was his own bar, in his own club, far below the sunbaked asphalt and concrete above. A city, and a large one, filled with the clamor and detritus of humanity. Where, exactly? Well, where didn’t matter. The Hades Underground was everywhere.

The Hades Underground never closed.

Zeus leaned back against the bar, a cut-crystal glass in one hand, filled with Glenlivet and ambrosia—a deity-only concoction. Hades mixed drinks for the rare mortal. Although when he did, it was always their last.

“Brother,” Zeus said now. “You have outdone yourself with this.” He raised his glass, indicating the dance floor that pulsated with flashes of blue and yellow, high back booths in midnight velvet, the hallways that led deeper into the bowels of the club. Some mortals wandered down those halls never to return.

Hades liked to think of this last as a feature rather than a bug. He surveyed his club with satisfaction.

Yes, I really have.

“Even she seems to appreciate it,” Zeus added, a certain slyness in his tone.

Hades refused the bait. Persephone haunted the periphery of his vision, of his whole being. There, in the middle of the dance floor—the riot of blues and yellows and greens like springtime—she danced. A group of loyal nymphs created a tight circle around her, with mortal hangers-on forming a wider one.

No one dared approach.

“There are others, you know,” Zeus said.

“We don’t need to have this conversation again.”

Zeus and his matchmaking? No. No, thank you.

“Oh, I think we do.” Zeus pulled out his phone. How he loved that gadget. The constant stream of images and sounds. The entire world in the palm of his hand. Never had the King of the Olympians been so sated.

Who was he at this moment in time? Some tech billionaire, Zeke or Zucker-something-or-other. Hades had long ago stopped keeping track of Zeus’s personas.

“Look,” his brother commanded.

Pictures of women flashed across the screen, one after the other after the other, in a never-ending parade. Hades didn’t bother to count.

“And that’s just tonight,” Zeus added.

Yes, of course. Zeus invariably swiped right.

“Thank you, Brother, for your counsel,” Hades said. “I’ll take it under consideration.”

Zeus laughed, a booming sound that sliced through the chatter, the thump of the bass, and for the barest instant, brought the club to a standstill. Even Persephone halted mid-twirl to see what her father found so amusing.

He slapped Hades on the back, the impact like a thunderbolt. “You could, at least, tend to your little shadow.” Zeus nodded toward the end of the bar. “She’s been there all night.”

All week, actually. Hades cast her a glance, barely a whisper of a look. Most patrons found his full attention distressing, at best. He didn’t wish to inflict that on her.

“She’s an old soul,” is all he said. “It gives her comfort to sit here.”

“She’s more than that.” Zeus stood, swallowed the last of his drink, and then crushed the glass between his fingers. When he unclenched his fist, the shards rose into the air and filled the club with starlight. “And she’s looking for more than just comfort.”

He sauntered off, one of Persephone’s mortal hangers-on in his sights, his first conquest of the evening.

* * *

Hades ignored her—that little shadow, as Zeus called her. For a solid hour, Hades wiped down the bar of gleaming ebony, polished glasses with a cloth the color of lilies, took delight in the weight of the lead crystal against his palm.

There were so few visceral pleasures left to him. He let himself revel in this one.

But Zeus was right, at least in one respect. He should do something about her. It wasn’t her time; she wasn’t the type to fritter her lifespan away—no matter how long or short—sitting in his club.

She was a fighter, and always had been, more an acolyte of Ares than death’s handmaiden.

He approached, shrouding his gaze. She stared at him straight on. Hades suspected that he could lift the veil and she wouldn’t glance away. That was like her. No matter the end, she always met it well.

He signaled one of his mortal bartenders to pour her another drink. The concoction was startling sweet and free of alcohol.

“I don’t merit one of yours?” she asked when he slid the glass in front of her.

“It’s not your time.”

“Isn’t it?”

“Wouldn’t I know?”

“You might lie.”

“I might.” He nodded to concede the point. “But I seldom do.”

She carried with her the scent of harsh wind and dust, cordite and flames, of slick and quicksilver blood. Afghanistan, then. Her eyes held that look, but then they had for centuries now. Once earned, a thousand-yard stare seldom faded. He wondered: Did such ancient eyes in the face of an infant ever startle her mothers?

“Are you tired, my child?” Perhaps it was her time. He’d been wrong before. His gaze darted toward the dance floor. Yes. So very wrong.

She countered with a question of her own. “Why won’t you let me thank you?”

He raised a palm skyward. “Have I done something to deserve gratitude?”

“It was you.” She ran her fingertips around the circumference of the glass, full circle, a trip from birth to death. “Actually, it’s always you. At first, I thought it was Ares who came for me in the end. But war isn’t like that.”

“My nephew is many things. Compassionate isn’t one of them.”

“I’m sorry.” She gave her head a slight shake. “I don’t remember all the times.”

“Truly? I have no wish for you to.”

“And I don’t remember any before the year 1431.”

Even an old soul such as this one could comprehend dying only so many times. He’d erase every instance if he could. But some mortals were more aware than others, and that made it hard for them to forget.

And when the world decided you were a saint? Even harder.

“Humans live their lives as if they have an unlimited number of them,” he said.

“But most only have the one.”

“Yes. That’s the irony.”

“Are there others like me?” she asked.

“A few,” he acknowledged. “Fewer still who comprehend what they are.”

“They made me a saint, you know.” She laughed, not Zeus’s booming guffaw. This sound had a subtle, insidious sorrow. Those in nearby booths tilted their heads to catch the whisper of it. Those on the dance floor stumbled, mid-step.

Even Persephone.

“Yes. I know.” And his own words were heavy with sorrow.

“I never want to be a saint again.” Her gaze returned not to him, but the surface of the bar, as if she could peer into its depths. “It wasn’t the stake or the fire, but all those people pinning their hopes on me. It was a relief when you came. You didn’t need to offer your hand.”

“You didn’t need to take it.”

“Where does the pain go? Do you absorb it?”

“Mortal pain can’t touch me.”

“Do you wish that it could?”

Hades paused in the task of polishing yet another glass. The crystal crumbled in his hands, although if he were to release these shards, they’d fill the club with all manner of winged creatures, bats and ravens, and things not seen outside of Tartarus.

For the briefest moment, he unveiled his gaze.

She withstood it.

Yes, of course, she did. His little saint. His Joan. She would’ve withstood the flames as well had he not taken them from her.

“You never answered my question,” he said. “Are you tired?”

“He won’t stop whispering to me. He makes it sound so very simple, so very easy, so very right.”

“War is never those things.”

“I know.” She peered up at him as if daring him to unveil his gaze a second time. “But what is left for me?”

“The Elysian Fields?”

“So, heaven.”

“In a manner of speaking. Anything you might want, might be, might desire is yours for the asking.”

“That sounds … boring.”

Now he laughed, the echo of it reverberating through the floors of the club. The music hiccupped, and the speakers screeched in protest. A hush fell. Even the gaggle of nymphs ceased their giggling.

“Perfection often is,” he said.

Her gaze darted toward the dance floor. “Is it really?”

Before he could answer, a presence burst into the club. A man, although with a mere glance, it was difficult to tell. Most patrons only dared furtive looks. Some shrank back, into booths or against the walls, hearts pounding frantic prayers. Others preened and swooned, bloodlust thick in the air.

Yes, his nephew liked to make an entrance.

Was Ares here for this little saint? Was the mention of the Elysian Fields too much? Can’t lose a single soldier in the waging of war, can we now?

Ares swooped in, slipping onto the stool next to her. “I’ve missed you, my sweet. Indeed, I thought you’d gone AWOL.” He brought her hand to his lips and caressed the palm, the tender underside of her wrist.

“Really?” She raised an eyebrow, her expression filled with doubt, playfulness, and the assurance of a beloved favorite. “You thought that?”

“Feared it.” Ares released her hand and struck a fist against his chest, over the spot where a mortal’s heart would beat. “We still have much to do together, you and me.”

Hades anchored a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. “She needs rest. Don’t use her like this.”

“While you have so much to offer?” His nephew regarded him through half-lidded eyes. “This is quaint, Uncle. But really, Hades Underground? Where else would it be?”

She laughed then, and the sound cut Hades like nothing he’d felt in ages. In it was his loneliness, that great expanse of nothing that greeted him every moment of his existence.

He was Hades Underground, and Hades Underground was him. Dark, endless, and ultimately empty.

And now it was midnight. The glitter ball over the dance floor threw beams of sunlight throughout the space. The processional began, Persephone at its center, flanked by nymphs and mortals, all clad in dresses that swayed like petals and cascaded like sea foam.

Hades retreated, left Ares to the spoils of this little scrimmage. Who was this mortal girl to him, anyway?

Besides, he had drinks to mix.

Crystal sang out as he poured and stirred—ambrosia, nectar, and a splash of vodka for the nymphs. They weren’t particular, so he always used an off-brand variety.

Then he mixed the club’s signature drink—and clever patrons knew to order a Persephone instead of a pomegranate cosmopolitan. Hades stirred in a dash of ambrosia.

And, of course, actual pomegranate seeds. Six, to be precise.

They gathered around the bar, Persephone, the nymphs, and her mortal followers alike, squeezing out the other patrons. Her entourage wasn’t especially polite, but as a group, they awed. Others in the club stepped aside, swallowed their complaints, or basked in the glow of spring incarnate.

Slender fingers grasped for equally slender stems of glasses, like plucking flowers from a field. Midnight at the Hades Underground brought sunlight and spring and the taste of nectar against your tongue.

No one—mortal or god—ever left before midnight.

Except, perhaps, his little saint. He didn’t need to glance toward the end of the bar to discern the empty stool.

Persephone had yet to sip her drink. It went that way some nights—most nights, actually. Perhaps if her feet were sore, or if she’d grown weary of her current entourage, she’d deign a mouthful.

Most nights, she threw the drink in his face.

To say he didn’t deserve that would be a lie.

But tonight she halted, drink mere inches from her lips. Something jostled the group of nymphs. They stumbled aside, the force like a scythe slicing through wheat. The commotion caught Persephone’s attention, and she set the glass on the bar.

At the center of the commotion—and its cause—stood his little saint, staring down his goddess.

Gods don’t breathe, not the way mortals do, but just then, everything went still inside him.

On the bar, the drink glowed an arterial red.

Certainly, mortals weren’t faster than gods, but his little saint snatched the glass with the power of Ares behind her. With the practiced ease of a soldier, she swallowed. What she lacked in finesse she made up for in ferocity.

She drank it—vodka, ambrosia, pomegranate seeds, and all.

She slammed the glass onto the bar. The crystal shattered, the sound a gunshot. Sparks erupted throughout the club, like tracer rounds and flares in a night sky.

Hades braced for a fight. Surely this was the first volley in a coming war. Any moment, he expected Ares to roar back in, rile up the mortals, and force Persephone and her entourage from the club.

He expected blood.

Instead, his little saint turned to him.

“May I?” she asked, her hand extended in the manner he’d always offered his. “I know we both have our relationship baggage.” She rolled her eyes, a move that was both goddess-like and purely mortal. “But I think you could use the rest.”

“As could you?”

“As could I.”

Persephone stamped her foot.

Hades turned to her, surprised she was—at last—a mere afterthought. “Go.”

Her eyes—those impossibly blue eyes, the color of the spring sky—widened.

“Or stay,” he amended. After all, he’d fashioned the Hades Underground for her. “It”—he waved a hand—“runs itself.”

“But—”

“My dear, you have never wanted to be Queen of the Underworld.”

“But—”

“It was my mistake to force you. And for that?” He inclined his head. “I apologize.”

He then turned to his Joan, his saint.

His … savior?

He offered his arm. Only when she took it did the emptiness relinquish its hold.

“Is that ‘no’ to the Elysian Fields then?” he asked.

“There are other options, right?”

“None of them very pleasant.”

“Truly?” She tapped her forehead. “Isn’t it all up here?”

“What do you think?”

He led her down one of the endless hallways, the path worn smooth by the soles of so many souls.

“We make our own hell,” she said. When he didn’t respond, she prompted, “Am I right?”

“Hm? I can’t really say. Trade secret and all.”

“You can’t? Or you won’t?” Her words were full of skepticism and humor. She knew. Of course, she knew. Then her voice softened, and she added, “What’s your hell then?”

He nearly glanced behind him, at the renewed frenzy on the dance floor, the golds and the blues and the greens. But no one knew the cost of looking back better than Hades did. So he focused on the images that consumed his little saint, the ones that formed the walls of her own personal hell.

He expected cordite and flames, but they only seasoned the anguish. No, it was the expanse, the emptiness, the loneliness—of backs turned, hands never offered, promises never kept.

“It won’t be like that,” was all he said.

“How long do I have?” she asked.

“An eternity, if you wish it.”

Their footfalls echoed behind them, obliterating sounds that haunted them both—the thump of the bass, the clink of crystal, the rapport of weapons, the thunder of artillery.

“But only if you wish it.”

Midnight at the Hades Underground is an exclusive story for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 5

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Crank the handle.

I know the words mean something, something important. I know there’s something I must do, but can’t remember. When the last of the candles dies and the dark erases the words, it’s almost a relief.

I pull my mouse to me, cuddle him against my neck. He is so soft.

“Don’t be scared,” I whisper.

Because he is scared, of the dark, of the cold so sharp it feels like a knife’s blade. I dig us further into our nest.

“Close your eyes, Jatar. Go to sleep.”

I shut my eyes. The sound of a voice pricks my ears, but I think this voice is in my head, not in my house. It is a rich voice, amused and musical. When I try, I can make this voice laugh.

And in that laughter, there is warmth.

* * *

It’s the silence in the end that’s the worst, when Soshi’s voice no longer fills my shuttlecraft, when I know she’s alone, in the dark. She has her mouse, I tell myself; she has her version of Jatar. She is not alone. This thought offers nothing, not even a cold sort of comfort.

Earth was never in my sector of responsibility. Before Soshi, I knew very little of it, just that it was another small, life-bearing planet. Enough small, life-bearing planets implode on our watch that one more hardly makes a difference.

Except, of course, when it does.

As always, the jolt takes me unaware, throws me into the control panel. Pain shoots along my extremities. The grind of metal on metal follows and what sounds like a ripping. I brace against the floor, the craft shuddering beneath me. I count to three.

And then it ends. Everything is solid around me. Everything is as it should be. Everything is the same.

“Hello?”

Including Soshi.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I would like to talk to you.”

Why my communications system picks up her transmission, I don’t know. It hasn’t failed to yet, just as the crash never fails to surprise me, never fails to injure. I push to stand, then fall back. I strain and stretch, managed to press a button, call out a few words, although they are rough. My memories are intact, but each time, I must relearn her language. In those precious moments, it is easy to lose her.

“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?”

I can’t find the will to move. I’m not certain I have it in me to live through this again—I’ve lost track of the number of times.

“Please. Talk to me.”

If I lie here and soak in my own juices, what good will that do? But if I claw to stand, lock onto her frequency, what good will that do?

Every time is different. Every time … breaks me a little more. My sigh comes across the frequency, changes her thought or her footfall or something, and I open up another vista into her soul. Just when I thought I knew all of Soshi’s trials, she tells me of shaking bones from a dead woman’s boots and those who collect children in order to eat them.

I spend this time between her first call and that last, desperate one deciding. Earlier, I researched. While Earth never was in my sector, our information is complete, and what’s stored on the shuttlecraft is more than I’ll ever need. Quite against my will, I’ve become the foremost expert on hypothermia in humans.

When the end is near, I coax her into burrowing, better that than paradoxical undressing. I know when the avalanche will strike and her best chance to survive it. Once she stepped outside and it took her. I listened to icy silence until the battery on the radio finally died.

I have a complete mental inventory of her storeroom. What she finds in the bottom of that bin, I’m never certain. A child’s toy? A fur-lined glove? A hat meant for an infant, perhaps, with whimsical ears.

“Hello? Are you there? I think I heard you last night. Well, it’s always night here. I mean, before. I heard you before.”

My strength returns, but so does my resolve not to answer. Does it matter, one way or another, if I’m there for her? Must I bear witness? She dies. She always dies. Once, I’d like that not to happen.

“Is there anyone there?” Her words are slow, deliberate, plaintive. “Should I change frequencies?”

Her question holds humor, as if she recognizes that it’s a somewhat ridiculous thing to ask. The first time I heard it, I launched myself to my feet, smashed into the control panel, and opened a communications channel. Now, I hesitate, but thoughts cloud my mind. She will not find her mouse without me. She will step into that avalanche.

She will die alone.

I propel myself off the floor. I land with a crack against the control panel. I still ooze, and I coat the surface with what can only be described as slime, at least in human terms.

“No.” It’s more of a cough than a word, but it crosses space and time and opens her up to me.

“No?”

Her voice is filled with so much hope, choking out a reply is almost impossible. The panel is such a mess that establishing a permanent link is, also, almost impossible.

“Don’t … don’t change the frequency … there’s a good girl. Hold tight, I’m having some technical difficulties, but I’m here.”

I’m always here.

In a manner of speaking.

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 4

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

I use the last of the dying embers to light a cheap candle. The flame throws little light and even less heat. A couple of them on the hearth chase away the worst of the dark—if not the cold. Jatar is speaking to me now, urging me forward. Before the cold can steal all my rational thoughts, I scrawl Crank the handle on any surface I might chance to look at—the floor, the walls, the plastic tub that once held the blankets and clothes I stumble around in.

My fingers are black from the burnt bit of wood that was my makeshift pen. I use as little water as possible to wash, although this is from habit. I will run out before the water does.

“The storeroom,” Jatar says. “You can navigate in the dark. I’ll help you. Don’t take a candle.”

“All right.” I push to standing.

“Go straight back and then to your left.”

“My left.” I don’t say it as a question, but that’s what it is.

“That’s the hand with the burn.” He never scolds, even when my words come out stupid.

“On the shelf, above your head, there will be another bin of blankets and things to keep you warm.”

Halfway inside the storeroom, my mind blanks. Everything is dark, but Jatar’s voice echoes behind me.

“A few more steps, dear girl. Just a few.”

How he knows what I need to do, I can’t say. Perhaps, before the avalanche, I spoke of these things. Yes. I nod to myself. I did. I told him where everything was and now he’s telling me. I lug the bin from the shelf and emerge into the dim light of the main room.

My movement causes one of my candles to sputter. It gutters and dies. Maybe it’s the cheap wax, but it sounds like someone drowning.

“Soshi? Are you there?”

“Yes, I’m here.”

“That noise?”

“One of my candles,” I say. “The flame went out.”

“It sounded horrific.”

“It sounded like someone’s throat being slit.”

Jatar’s voice fills the speakers, but I don’t understand him. His voice has a musical quality to it, as if he uses notes rather than words. But I recognize the tone.

He is scolding me.

At last he comes to himself, the notes fading into lyrics I understand.

“Soshi, please.”

He doesn’t call me dear girl, and I think that hurts more than anything else. That makes me rush to explain before the cold steals this piece of me as well.

“I said that because I know what it sounds like. I’ve heard it before. It’s why I left the group. They weren’t collecting children because they were kind. They were collecting children because they were hungry.”

Jatar is silent.

“I ran away,” I continue. “I’d rather die alone than be someone’s dinner. I left the group, stopped following the train tracks, and found my mountain.”

“I had no idea, dear girl, no idea. You’ve never … I mean, I didn’t know.”

“I don’t like to think about it.”

“Then we won’t speak of it ever again. Go on, open the bin. There are warm things inside.”

I pull the items out, one by one. They are heavy in my hands, thick wool coats that might weigh more than I do at this point. There are light things as well, down-filled jackets and sleeping bags that sprout tiny feathers when I squeeze them. At the very bottom, there is something furry and soft. I don’t recognize it, and it isn’t something you wear. It almost looks like…

“Jatar! I have a mouse!”

“Do you now?” He sounds amused.

“Yes! Did you … did you find a way to send me a mouse?”

“I did, dear girl, I did.”

“Is it my birthday?”

“I think it might be.”

“I should have a can of peaches then.”

“You should have two.”

“Oh, I don’t know if I could eat two whole cans.” I am not as hungry as I used to be. Sometimes Jatar must bully me into eating.

“Try,” he says now. “Pretend I’m there, and the second can is for me.”

In the end, I manage to eat one and a half cans. This gives me energy to make tea. The drink heats my throat, my stomach, and for a few moments, I can pretend I feel warm.

“You know what you should do, now that you have a mouse?” he asks.

“What?” I am amazed that there’s something I can do, so he has my full attention.

“Build a nest, one you can share with it. You can keep each other warm.”

I do as he says, piling the heavy coats along the floor and against the wall near the hearth. I move the radio within arm’s reach. I can keep the candles lit from here. I curl into the blankets and pull the mouse to me.

“Would you mind,” I ask, “if I called him Jatar?”

“I would be honored.”

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

Want the story to go? Download it over at BookFunnel.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 3

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1, Part 2

“I wish I knew what day it was,” I say.

I am trying to draw Jatar out, get him to respond. Today he has been so very quiet.

“I always know what day it is,” he says.

“Somehow, I don’t think it’s the same as mine.”

“It is, and it isn’t.”

“Because if I knew what day it was, we could have a party.”

“What kind of party?”

“Well, that depends on the day. See? It’s important.”

His laugh filters through the speakers.

“It could even be my birthday.”

“Oh, dear girl, it certainly could. You deserve lots of birthday parties.”

“Would you get me a present?”

“As many as I could carry to you.”

“Like what?”

“How about a mouse?”

“I would very much like a mouse. I would name it Jatar.”

A harrumph comes from the speakers, one so strong the radio seems to vibrate with it.

“I think,” Jatar says, his words slow, “that I should be offended.”

Before I can explain that having a mouse named after you is an honor, the floorboards shake beneath my feet. I give a little cry, no more than a yelp from the back of my throat, but Jatar hears.

“What is it?” he demands.

“I don’t know. The house is …”

I can’t find words to describe the tremors that run through it. It’s like my house has suddenly caught a fever and is shaking with chills. Then there’s an awful groan.

“Oh, dear girl,” Jatar says, and now his voice is low, but taut, as if it were nothing more than a rubber band stretched to its limits. “Stay by me—I mean, the radio. Stay by the radio. Do not open the door. Do not go outside. Stay as still and as quiet as you can.”

I retreat to the radio, grip the mouthpiece, although I don’t need to. Another groan sounds. It is like nothing I’ve heard, not even in the days when we fought to leave the city, and certainly my mountain has never made such noises.

“What is it?” I whisper, my lips only a breath away from the mouthpiece.

“I have heard this sound before.”

“Will it eat me?”

“No.” This word is not quite as tight as all his others. It almost sounds like he wants to laugh. “It won’t eat you, dear girl.”

The roar comes next, so loud it steals my breath. It reminds me of the few trains that still ran, back when we were walking, back before I was alone. We’d follow the tracks, and the roar would sneak up on you. Someone always kept watch.

Or did. Because, of course, the trains stopped running after a while. We still followed the tracks. They would lead us somewhere important, somewhere safe. I’m not sure how true that was, because they didn’t lead me here, to my mountain, where I’ve been safe.

Until now.

The floorboards jump beneath my feet. The force knocks me into the wall and knocks embers from the fireplace. I claw my way across the floor. Before I can cup the glowing ember in my hands, I jerk back. I glance around, but the world shakes too hard, and my feet are too unsteady. Already smoke rises from the wood slats. I bite my lip and sacrifice the back of my left hand and shove the ember into the hearth.

I must scream. My throat aches as if I have. Jatar’s voice pours from the speaker in response. He must fight to be heard over the roar and rumble and chaos that have swallowed my house.

Then, everything is quiet. The world. Jatar. So quiet I can hear the fire sputter. My gaze goes there first. Build the fire back up, make it safe. My left hand is nearly useless. If pain could scream, it would fill this space, this mountain, this world. I worry that I have done more damage than I can repair.

First things first. The fire. I build it up. I don’t know if it’s the stoked fire or if my hand makes me feel as if I’m on fire, but the air is warm, warmer than before. I glance about, knowing I must dig out some first aid supplies, perhaps scoop up some snow or ice from outside.

“Jatar?” I say, hoping to hear his voice.

Nothing.

Panic seizes me before I remember: the battery. It’s an awkward thing, cranking the handle with my right hand, bracing the radio with my left elbow, but I manage it.

“Jatar?” I say, before I even have a full charge.

“Soshi? Dear girl, are you okay?”

“I burnt myself, but that’s better than the house burning down. I’m going to get the first aid kit.”

Actually, in the storeroom, I have many first aid kits, more than I could ever use.

“And maybe some snow,” I add, making my way across the room. My legs wobble, and I take unsteady and erratic steps.

Behind me, Jatar is saying something, but he sounds so very far away. Shock, I think. How do I cure myself of that?  Hand first, then the shock. I open the door to the outside. All I want to do is grope around, grab a handful of that sharp, crystalized mix of icy snow, and cool the fire of my skin.

At first, I don’t understand what I see. I can only open the door partway. Something solid, cold, and white blocks its progress. The rope lifeline that leads to the woodshed is gone. That is no matter. Because my woodshed is also gone. Either that, or it’s buried beneath a mountain’s worth of snow.

Why the avalanche spared my little house, I do not know. But it has. And yet, it hardly feels benevolent. I do not feel grateful.

For a very long time, I do nothing but stare at the snow. Then I shut the door. I throw the deadbolt.

I will never open it again.

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 2

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

Read Part 1.

Jatar won’t talk to me until I’ve assured him that I’ve fed myself, tended to the fire, and the other chores. How he knows I need to do these things puzzles me. Of course, I did fling my words into the darkness before we found each other. So I ask him.

“Yes,” he says. “I did hear you. I have trouble on my end. Your radio is nothing like the device I use.”

“You still have trouble?”

“Had. I mean, I had trouble. But you can hear me now, yes?”

“Yes.” Sometimes I want to nod or smile, but I know he can’t see these things. We have nothing but voices to guide us—their tone, their thickness or thinness. How a smile makes the throat warm and disapproval has an edge.

“You are not on earth,” I say, “are you?”

The frequency carries his sigh to me, and the sound holds reluctance. “No, I am not.”

“You are lucky then.”

“I don’t know about that.”

“Where are you?”

“I don’t know about that, either.” By the way he says this, I know he wants me to laugh.

I do, but I also want to know the answer. “Where are you?”

“I’m not certain where matters all that much, not anymore.”

“But you must be somewhere.”

“Must I, dear girl? Must I really?”

I don’t know how to answer that. I crank the handle to charge the battery, just so I don’t lose the connection. I hate that, every morning—or what I call morning—charging the battery, sprouting sweat, and praying that Jatar’s voice will come over the speaker and fill my little room with warmth.

“Maybe you are in my radio,” I say now.

This time, he laughs. “What I wouldn’t give to be there, living inside your radio.”

“You would have to be very small,” I say. “Smaller than a mouse.”

“You wouldn’t need to feed me very much.”

No, I wouldn’t. A thought seizes me. I think of small things, tiny things, mouse-sized things. I think of their absence.

“I killed them,” I say. The confession both lifts me up and weighs on me. I know its truth.

Our frequency is clear of buzz and static. So when there’s silence, it stretches long and empty.

“Who do you think you’ve killed,” Jatar says at last, his words quiet and low.

“The mice. When I first … found this place, there were droppings everywhere. The food is in metal containers and on metal shelves. But I stopped leaving crumbs. No more crumbs, no more mice.”

“And it’s you, not the lack of sun or heat that’s responsible.”

“I don’t need to eat every last crumb.”

A few nights ago, I left a bit of cracker on the floor, deliberately. I placed it well away from my sleeping pallet. My first nights in this space, I was consumed with the fear of mice, of rats, crawling over me in my sleep. I jerked awake so many times, breathing hard, cold sweat washing across my skin that I almost gave up on sleeping. But this time, when I woke, the crumb remained, untouched.

“Oh, dear girl, you did not kill the mice. They no doubt went elsewhere. They are resourceful creatures. Besides, they carry diseases. They could contaminate your food, your water…”

Jatar’s voice fades, either from the buzzing in my head or failing battery power. I remember standing over that crumb, then falling on my knees next to it. For how long I stared, I don’t know. Here’s what I do know:

I picked it up and ate it.

“I can’t talk now, Jatar,” I say into the mouthpiece.

“Soshi, please. Listen to me, you did not kill the mice.” Jatar’s voice fills the air. He does not stop talking, not even when I refuse to respond. “You’ll lose me soon if you don’t crank the handle.” He knows the life of the battery—or at least how to gauge it. “Crank the handle, at least. Tell me you’re still with me.”

But I don’t. I sit, curled by the fire, chin on my knees. I could’ve captured a mouse, tempted it with some crumbs, built a home for it, close enough to the fire so it would always be warm. We would dine together, morning and night. I could spare what it would need to survive. I would have given it a good mouse name.

But I don’t have a mouse. Something about that makes me clutch my legs to my chest. Salt from tears irritates my cheeks, but it’s only later, when the tracks have dried, that I scrub my face with my palms. I’ve forgotten to eat, and the fire is low, but it’s the radio that I reach for. My chest heaves as I crank the handle.

“Jatar,” I say when there’s enough power to carry my voice. “I want a mouse.”

“I know you do, dear girl. I know you do.”

He is there; he is always there. Maybe he does live in my radio. Maybe Jatar is my mouse.

“I know you do,” he says one last time. His sigh carries so much weight I’m surprised the air isn’t thick with the sound. “Your fire,” he prompts.

“I should stoke it.”

“Dinner?”

“Not yet.”

“Tend to your chores. I’ll be here when you’re done.”

“You will?”

“Where else would I go?”

* * *

I have found a rubber band, one that feels stretchy and fresh in my fingers. Its edges have not rotted away. It is strong, and when I wrap it around the mouthpiece, the button remains depressed. I love my radio, but now I am no longer tethered to it. I can use both hands while talking to Jatar.

Not that he can see my hands. But I can stoke the fire, feed myself, and crank the handle. I can fall silent, and he will not worry—too much. He can hear the rustle of my boots against the floor, the whisper of the broom, the crack and sizzle when I stoke the fire.

“Have you gathered wood recently?” he asks now.

“Last night … yesterday. It’s stacked high. I don’t dare bring any more in for a while.”

The air is too dry; sparks from the fire have too great a range. The thing that keeps me alive can also kill me. At least then I’d be warm, I tell myself. I don’t speak these words to Jatar, but my laugh gives me away.

“That sounds morbid.”

“It is,” I admit. “I was thinking about the fire, how it might kill me before the cold does.”

“I wish you wouldn’t—”

“It’s like that poem about the world ending in fire and ice. And I think it could be both, couldn’t it?”

“I suppose it could, and suppose we change the subject?”

I agree, but don’t know what to say at first. Jatar does not talk much about himself, although I wish he would. That doesn’t stop me from trying.

“Can you see the stars where you are?” I ask.

“On occasion, yes, I can.”

“Ours left. Actually, that’s not right. I’m guessing they’re still in the sky.”

“Your guess would be correct.”

“We blotted them out, all the stars, our sun, and now we have nothing. You know, when I first found this place, you could still see the stars from here. I thought: oh, I am so lucky. There used to be a stream. It even had fish, although they swam funny, so I never ate them.”

“That seems like a wise decision.”

His words have a teasing quality that makes me want to talk more so I can hear the humor and approval in his tone.

“It must have been a beautiful spot, with the mountains and the woods. I wonder why no one else ever came up after I did. Was it just too late?”

“Perhaps they weren’t as smart as you.”

“I don’t think that’s it. I think something happened, but I just don’t know what that something is.”

“Hm.” Jatar sounds as if he’s giving this much thought. “It’s possible that the only thing to happen was self-inflicted, especially with the cities, as crowded as they were. Disease, fighting. It’s hard to say.”

“The cities were crowded. It’s why we left.” I nod before stopping myself, since Jatar can’t see me. I may be the only witness to these things, and yet, I might as well be blind for all I’ve seen. Self-inflicted. The phrase makes me think of something else I found along the stream, something else I witnessed, and yet didn’t.

“I’m wearing a dead woman’s boots,” I say.

I must shock Jatar with this confession. Silence greets me, and I wonder if I need to crank the handle again. At long last, he coughs.

“Dear girl, Soshi … I don’t know what you mean by that.”

“When there was still some sunlight, when I could walk along the stream, I found a body, a skeleton, really. Small, like me, so I’m guessing it was a woman. She was mostly bones, but the gun was still in her hand, and for some reason, nothing had chewed away the boots on her feet. Thick leather. They’re heavy, but they are very good boots.”

“The boots on her feet.” Jatar says these words slowly. “Your boots?”

“I had to shake her bones from them, but yes. I took her boots.”

“Did you leave her gun?”

“By that time, there was nothing left to shoot. I didn’t see the point, even though I was still scared. I didn’t think anyone would climb up this high in the mountains, not if they hadn’t already.”

“So you left the gun.” Jatar’s voice is tight as if this is something he absolutely must know.

“I left the gun,” I say. “What would I shoot at? The wind? What would that do? Maybe cause an avalanche?”

“Yes, I suppose it could.” He clears his throat. “I don’t like this subject either.”

“Then you tell me something about you.”

“I am not that interesting.”

“Are you a scientist?”

Jatar is intelligent; I can tell he holds back in saying things, perhaps so I don’t feel bad for not being all that smart myself.

“A scientist?” he says. “Is that what you think I am?”

“You are very smart.”

“I don’t know about that, but you could call me a scientist, in a manner of speaking.”

I sigh. The radio carries the sound to wherever Jatar is, and he laughs.

“What do you study? Planets? Stars? Solar systems?”

“Yes, you could say that. I … take the temperature of things. Some of those things include stars and planets.”

“Earth?”

There’s the slightest hitch in our frequency, the slightest bit of hesitation in his voice. “No, actually, Earth wasn’t something I monitored.”

“But you are now?”

“On my own time.”

“You must have a lot of time.”

Here, he laughs, the sound so clear and hearty, I can’t help but laugh as well.

“Oh, yes, I do,” he says. “I have time to spare.”

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

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Free Fiction Friday: In a Manner of Speaking, Part 1

For July, I’m posting a serial story. You can come back and read a segment each week or scroll to the end of the post to download an epub or mobi file to take with you.

Soshi Patel believes herself the last inhabitant on earth, trapped in an abandoned prepper’s shelter, living by candlelight and on canned peaches. Out of desperation, she uses the last of her good candles to build a ham radio from a kit. When she connects with a voice on the other side, it’s more than she could’ve hoped for.

But this voice, this Jatar, knows things he shouldn’t. As he comforts Soshi through the last days on a dying earth, it becomes clear that he carries his own burden, the weight of which can only be measured in time.

I use the last of the good candles to build the radio. I still have light. The fire burns, and there is a never-ending supply of the cheap, waxy candles in the storeroom. I will—eventually—burn through all of those. My fire will die. The cold will invade this space.

But today I have a radio. Today I will speak to the world—or what’s left of it. I compare my radio to the picture in the instructions. It looks the same, but not all the steps had illustrations. This troubles me. My radio may not work.

I crank the handle to charge the battery. This feels good. This warms my arms, and I must take deep breaths to keep going. I shake out my hand and crank some more. When buzz and static fill my ears, I nearly jump. That, too, sounds warm. I am so used to the cold. The creak and groan of ice, the howl of the wind. These cold sounds are their own kind of silence. They hold nothing warm or wet or alive.

I decide on a frequency for no other reason than I like the number. I press the button on the mouthpiece. This, according to the instructions, will let the world hear me.

“Hello?” My voice warbles and I leap back, as if something might spring from the speakers.

Nothing does, of course. In fact, nothing happens at all. It takes more than one try to reach the world.

“Hello? Hello? Is anyone there? Can you hear me? I would like to talk to you.”

Perhaps I should try another frequency—or try a little patience. If someone is out there with a radio, might they right now be cranking a handle to charge a battery, or sleeping, or adding wood to their fire? This last is something I must do and soon. The embers grow a bright orange, but the chill has invaded the edges of the room.

That means venturing outside. Of all the chores, I like this one the least. The trek to the shed is short, but nothing lights my way. The dark is just that: dark. While the cold is fierce, I know nothing can lurk outside my shelter, waiting to pounce. And yet, every time I collect wood, it’s as if a predator stalks me. I anticipate claws digging into my shoulder, sharp teeth at my neck, my spine cracked in half.

But the only thing outside my shelter is the cold. But it is the cold that will take me in the end. So in a sense, I am its prey and it is stalking me.

With my parka buttoned tight, I clip myself to the rope between my shelter and the shed. Wind tears at me, and I plod to the shed. I pat the pile of wood, reassured that yes, it is substantial. For now. With my arms full, I push against the wind and spill into the shelter.

It’s then I hear something. At first, I don’t recognize it because it’s been so long since I’ve heard that sound. Then the notion of it lights my mind. I fly across the room, wood spilling from my arms, the wind banging the door behind me.

It’s a voice.

I grab the mouthpiece, my thumb clumsy through wool mittens.

“Hello! Hello! Are you there? Can you hear me? Hello?”

The wind screams at my back. The door slams against the wall, the noise like a death knell.

“Please. Talk to me.”

My small space is chaos. Whirling snow, slamming door, biting wind, and scattered wood. It is too loud and too cold for anyone to hear me over the radio, and I have foolishly let the heat escape. It will take hours to warm the air to the point where I can sit without my body convulsing with shivers.

I have been so very foolish.

I fight the wind to shut the door. With it latched, I turn to inspect the mess. Stoke the fire first. Perhaps by the time I stack the wood and sweep the debris, the flames will throw enough heat that I can sit, crank the radio, and try again.

After I clean, after I heat my insides with broth, I crank the handle and try the radio again. I send my voice into the endless night, into the world, maybe even the universe. My voice could go on forever, long after I am gone. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

No one answers.

* * *

When I wake, my nose is chilled, but only slightly. The air holds enough warmth that I can move and think. The fire is hungry, I can tell, but content to give me heat for the moment. Last night’s folly has not ruined anything. My gaze lands on the radio, and I wonder. Is it more of a curse than a possible blessing?

I will try again today. It will not hurt to try. It will keep me warm and keep me busy. As long as I don’t hope too much, it cannot hurt me, either.

After I eat a can of peaches for breakfast, I set to the task of cranking the handle and giving the battery a full charge. I debate switching frequencies. I wonder if that voice I heard was merely wishful thinking. These thoughts do not stop my thumb from pressing the button.

“Hello? Are you there? I think I heard you last night. Well, it’s always night here. I mean, before. I heard you before.”

Even now, without the sun, I still think in night and day, breakfast and dinner. I could have broth for breakfast, but I never do. I could reconstitute eggs and eat them for dinner, but again, I never do. I am a creature of habits. Now, these habits are all I have left.

“Is there anyone there?” I speak slowly, in case these words must fight the static to reach whoever is on the other side. “Should I change frequencies?”

This seems to be a silly question. If no one has answered my other calls, I’m not certain why this would compel them to. My fingers touch the dial. I’m about to spin it when something crackles over the speaker.

“No.”

I stare at the space in front of the radio as if it’s possible to see the owner of this voice.

“No?” My reply is a tiny thing.

“Don’t … don’t change the frequency … there’s a good girl. Hold tight, I’m having some technical difficulties, but I’m here.”

“I don’t understand. You can hear me?”

“I can hear you.”

“You have a radio too?”

“In a manner of speaking. I have a way to talk to your radio, at least.”

Again, I stare at the space in front of the radio. I even wave a hand in the air. The voice is so rich and deep and clear. Yes, there is no static on my frequency. I wonder if that is something this other voice has done.

“Are you a man?” I ask.

“In a manner of speaking.”

I laugh. The button on the mouthpiece is still depressed, so this voice, this man, hears my laughter. His own in response is as rich as his voice.

“I don’t know what that means,” I say.

“I don’t either, except that I was a man, once—or male, at least. If that makes sense,” he says, his reply filled with both humor and sadness. “Now I am, perhaps, less than that.”

I still don’t understand, but I’m not certain it matters. Not when there’s a voice on the other side of this endless night, not when that voice wants to talk to me.

“I’m Soshi,” I say, a strange, unaccountable shyness invading my voice and heating my cheeks.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Soshi. I am Jatar.”

I like the way his name feels in my mouth, and I say it out loud. “Jatar.” Yes, it is delicious. Speaking is delicious. I touch my cheeks. The skin burns hot, but my fingers are like ice. The fire. Too late, I realize I’ve let it die down far too much.

“Oh, no,” I murmur. “I forgot about the fire.”

“Go, go. Tend to your fire. Then fix yourself something to eat, and come back and charge your battery. I will be here, on this frequency.”

“Always? When I call, you will be there?”

“In these times, Soshi, there aren’t many things I can promise. But I will promise you this. I will always be on this frequency, and I will always hear your call.”

In a Manner of Speaking was first published in Selfies from the End of the World: Historical Accounts of the Apocalypse and in audio at Escape Pod.

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Free Fiction Friday: What Little Remains

In a post-apocalyptic city, Kit ekes out an existence by tending to her rooftop garden. A rift in time brings her a new friend from the past and something else far more menacing.

You can also listen to this story here, narrated by Ashley Klanac.

In the mornings, I slip out the broken window so anyone still living in this building will not hear me. Footfalls echo in the empty hallway, and since debris blocks the stairwell to the roof, no one climbs to the top anymore.

Except me. But I take the long way.

I slide along the tenth-floor ledge, rough bricks scraping my shoulder blades, heels locked against the building. My fingertips inch from brick face to mortar. It’s this I concentrate on. To think of the fall is to wish for it.

In the mornings, mist hides the city and dampens the stench of rotted wood and flesh. In the mornings, I inhale the scent of damp soil from the rooftop garden and the sharp odor from the volunteer tomato plants. When I was little, I always imagined the plants with tiny flintlock rifles over their shoulders, marching from one garden to the next. I know better now. But as I tug weeds from around their stems, I like to think we’re both fighting a good fight.

This morning, when I pull myself onto the rooftop, my foot strikes a rake. The handle flips up and plops back onto the tarpaper shingles. I freeze, certain that yesterday I left the rake leaning against the stairwell to the floors below. I take a cautious look around.

In the garden itself, a set of footprints, much larger than my own, crosses the expanse. Tiny hairs prickle on the back of my neck, like someone has come from behind and blown a stream of air against my skin. I remain stricken.

By the time the sun touches my face, my feet ache, and my calf muscles knot, so when I do move, my gait is hobbled. I study the outline of the footprints. Some sort of heavy work boot—the depression is deep and the soil crushed. Yet my spindly volunteer tomatoes stand proud, all green except for a faint yellow blush. No one has tugged on a carrot or dug a potato. The soil is moist. The watering can sits on the east side of the garden, not the west, where I left it yesterday. And then, of course, there’s the matter of the displaced rake.

Only when the sun warms the top of my head do I notice them. My heart jolts. I grip the rake, certain I’ll snap the ancient wood in half. There, on the roof’s edge, is a perfect set of fingernails—the press-on kind, that, once upon a time, were advertised on TV. They are such a brilliant red, they make the brickwork around them look dull and dowdy. They are so pristine and lined up so exactly, I’m surprised they’re not attached to some starlet hanging on for dear life, waiting for the man in those heavy work boots to clomp across my garden and rescue her.

I whirl around, certain he’s here to do just that. The roof is empty. A breeze rustles the leaves of the tomato plants. They bow their heavy heads and whisper to each other. They will not tell me what they know.

* * *

All week, I sneak up to the garden earlier and earlier, until there’s a danger I’ll miss the ledge in the dark. Fresh footprints greet me each morning. Mid-week, someone clears the scum from the top of the water in the rain barrel. Weeds gather in wilted piles along the edges of the garden’s cedar container. Most unsettling, every day I find a set of press-on nails in the same spot. Today they glow sparkly pink, glitter catching the early morning light.

Something compels me to search for the starlet. I kneel at the ledge, stretch out a hand. It’s silly, but at the same time, I’d want someone to reach out for me. Today, the sun strikes my face at the same moment my fingers reach the air beyond the ledge. A burst of light blinds me. Wind kicks up dust, and I duck my head.

Warm hands with sharp nails grip my arm. I jerk backward and tumble across the roof. Someone tumbles with me. After the noise and light, all is quiet except our haggard breaths.

“I’m through!” the girl next to me says. “And look! My fingernails. I thought I’d lost them for sure.”

Her clothes flow with her every move. Her hair is tall, so tall, maybe taller than her head—well, at least the bangs are. Brilliant blue is smeared across her eyelids. Dark pink streaks her cheeks. And her lips are as red as my tomatoes should be. I touch my own face, but brick dust and mud can never compare.

“Are you an actress?” I ask.

“What?” She shakes her head, but her hair barely moves. “No, silly. I just live—” Her brow creases and she scans the rooftop. “Well, here, but not here.” Her gaze travels until it reaches the garden. “Oh, how strange. I keep wondering how my grandmother’s garden changes. But it doesn’t. I’m just seeing yours.”

“Thank you for pulling my weeds,” I say.

She laughs. “But then I get in trouble for not pulling my grandmother’s. And I always put my nails there.” She points to the ledge. “So I won’t ruin them. I thought the wind was blowing them away.”

The air shimmers above the nails. Something bright flashes from the space beyond but vanishes before I can even grasp what it might be.

“I’m Shelli, by the way, with an i.” She stands and her clothes flutter, their colors startling, like the blue jays and goldfinches you still sometimes see.

Her feet are tiny, her shoes so clean and bright. They do not have the heavy soles that crisscross my garden and trample the soil.

“I’m Kit,” I say, “with an i.”

Shelli laughs, but as she walks the rooftop’s perimeter, her features grow somber. “This isn’t all like my grandmother said it would be.”

“She’s been here?”

“A long time ago.” Shelli shields her eyes with a hand and peers out over the ledge. “Is this the end of the world?”

“No, unfortunately.”

She scrunches up her face. “The future, then?”

I shrug. That glimmer catches my eye again. I wonder what it is about my rooftop that makes the air do that. I wonder what it is about my rooftop that brings strangers to me.

“I’m from 1999,” she says. “What year is it here?”

Some claim to know the year, but no two claims match. I’ve since stopped caring, so all I do is shake my head.

Shelli leans forward where the ledge is still waist high. “I go to school …” She points. “There.”

I follow her gaze and her finger to the charred remains, where wisps of smoke rise in the morning mist. “I used to go there,” I say.

Her mouth turns down, but she is still so pretty. I want to work in her grandmother’s garden, have shiny, tall hair, and fancy nails—a different color on each finger. I do not want to stay on my rooftop. I do not want to use everything I have to coax tomatoes from the soil. I want to go to a place where hope still lives.

“I don’t know how to bring you back,” she says, as if reading my mind. “I’m not even sure how I got through.”

“That’s okay.” But the words leave my mouth with a sigh.

Her gaze darts from black-streaked buildings to my garden and then to me. “It’s not really okay.”

She’s right, of course, but I don’t have words to tell her that. “I want to show you something,” I say instead and point to the heavy footprints in the garden. At the sight of them, it feels like a boot is crushing my heart. “Someone else is slipping through.”

Shelli kneels at the garden’s edge and traces the impression as if that will tell her what we need to know. She says, “Be careful.” And I think that maybe it has.

Before I can respond, all the air around us is sucked away. I duck my head, bring a hand up to cover my nose and mouth. Soil and dust swirl around me. Grit stings my eyes. Then, all is quiet. Shelli is gone. Only her pink, sparkly nails remain, not clinging to the edge, but at my feet in a little pile. I scoop them up and hold one against my finger.

Oh, so pretty.

* * *

Today, I find the tomatoes crushed, their seeds and pulp spread across the garden, their juice soaking into the soil. I tunnel my fingers beneath the dirt, excavating tiny bits of green flesh in hopes of saving it. My efforts only drive the dirt deeper into what little remains.

I gather the tomatoes anyway. Perhaps with water from the rain barrel, I can rinse the bigger chunks clean—or clean enough. Perhaps …

The slap of the rake handle against tarpaper shingles forces my gaze up. At first, all I see are big, white boots, with heels so enormous, they could smash my largest tomatoes with one step—and probably have. His clothes do not billow. They are sleek and stiff, an exoskeleton that encases him from foot to head. The man before me is not from the past, not like Shelli. If he’s from the future, then I think humanity may be better off among the remains. My gaze darts to the building’s edge and the nails there—a set of brilliant blue. Only today, one nail points toward the rooftop stairwell.

“You don’t belong here,” I say to the man.

His image flickers then solidifies again.

“This isn’t your world.”

More flickering, but he stubbornly stays on my rooftop. Not only that, but he takes a step forward, followed by another.

I dodge his steps, like a mouse out-maneuvering a feral cat. The toe of one boot catches me and sends me flying toward the building’s edge. I roll, palms scraping tarpaper and grit. I grip the ledge, stop my descent, heart thudding against the brick, lungs inhaling dust. When I open my eyes, bright blue nails greet me, pointed toward the stairwell. I scramble to my feet and dash for safety.

Shelli flings open the door and pulls me inside. “Thank God! You’re okay.”

“You too.”

We cling to each other in the shelter of the stairwell.

“He can’t open the door,” she says.

“Did he try?”

Shelli nods and I clutch her tighter.

“What do we do?” she asks.

I shake my head. What can we do? He’s already destroyed my garden. Once the noon sun strikes the rooftop, cowering in the stairwell won’t be an option. We’ll broil in here, and with the stairs blocked, there’s no way down. Perhaps the two of us could rush him, using our combined strength to push him over the ledge.

I open my mouth to voice this idea, but can’t force the words from my throat. So little remains—of my garden, of this world—that I don’t want to take one more life, even one that doesn’t belong here.

In front of us, the man crouches, lifts a handful of tomato and soil to his face. He pushes back his visor and inhales as if it’s the most wonderful thing he’s ever smelled. Then, he turns toward us. Sorrow washes across his face. His mouth moves. After a long moment, I piece together his words.

I’m sorry.

Oh, and so am I.

“He’s trapped,” I say to Shelli. “He’s not in this world, or his own, but in between.”

She nods, but her eyes are huge, the beautiful blue around them caked and creased. Dark smears travel down her cheeks. I venture from the stairwell, Shelli gripping my hand.

“You need to get back,” I say to the man. “Right?”

The sorrow fades, and he nods. He steps from the garden, trailing mud and tomato innards. I try not to cringe at the destruction or his approach.

“There must be a way.” I glance toward the now-empty ledge. “Shelli! Your nails! They’re gone.”

I creep forward and take the man by one of his stiff, gloved hands. His fingers swallow mine whole. The safety of the stairwell is too far away; he is too strong. But he trots by my side like a compliant puppy.

“Where, exactly?” I ask Shelli.

She bends over, hair sweeping the bricks. “Here, where this dent is.” She peers at me through the strands of hair. “My grandmother told me to stand here and wish upon a star. Funny how it’s lasted all this time.”

We position the man at the ledge and stand across from him. An urge hits me, like I should salute. Instead I stretch out my hand. A smile lights his face that makes him look like an action hero. He shakes my hand, then Shelli’s.

Then, it’s as if the wind steals him. When the dust settles, speckling my arms and face, nothing remains except for me, the crushed tomatoes, and one of Shelli’s bright blue fingernails.

* * *

Footprints no longer mar my garden. The rooftop’s ledge looks lonely without Shelli’s colorful nails. I may have salvaged a tomato plant. A week has passed, and it seems to have a hold on the soil, if a tenuous one. I am its fiercely protective mother. I spend hours on the roof, chasing away chattering crows, providing sips of water from the rain barrel.

This morning when I crest the rooftop, something bulky sits on the opposite ledge. I creep forward slowly, still on all fours. There, in the spot where Shelli’s nails used to clutch the edge, a basket of tomatoes sits, along with packets of seeds. Beneath those, I uncover a set of press-on nails, the very shade of the tomatoes.

The sun hits the ledge, warming the tomatoes, making their skin glow. The nails dazzle my eyes. Together, they are the color of blood and hope.

And oh, so pretty.

Sometimes a character and her voice arrive in my head and I’m simply there for the dictation. This would be one of those stories.

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Free Fiction Friday: Insidious Beasts

Sometimes help comes from surprising quarters.

I straddle the roof of my cottage, or rather, the part of the roof that remains. From my perch, I peer through the giant-sized hole and into my bedroom. The quilt is downy white, and part of me wonders if there’s any harm in simply dropping through that giant-sized hole and landing in its softness.

If there’s any harm in delaying what I must do today.

Above, the sky is clear, a startling blue that’s the color of forget-me-knots. Still, the air is sticky against my cheeks, and I taste the promise of rain on my tongue. Beneath the heat—and the late-summer storm that’s certain to roar through our valley—I sense the chill of autumn.

Yes, there’s great harm in delaying what I must do today.

With a finger, I test the ragged edge closest to me. A telltale red stains the thatch as if some giant creature cut its lips while taking a bite out of my house.

How—and why—did I sleep through that?

I woke to the sunrise touching my eyelids, birdsong in my ears, and a gaping hole above my head. That I don’t know, can’t remember, makes my stomach clench with foreboding.

“I can guarantee a lot,” comes a voice from the path below. “But, I never claimed my materials were giant-proof.”

Master Rinaldi stands at my front gate, fingers curled around the latch as if he’s merely waiting for an invitation to lift it.

I don’t grant him one.

“A giant did this?” I ask.

“What else? Insidious beasts. They’re taking over the forests, the hinterlands. You should move to the village. This is no place for a woman on her own.” He waves a dismissive hand at my cottage, which up until this morning, was a fine place for a woman on her own.

“Giants eat thatch?” It’s a ridiculous question. I know they don’t. We both know that.

He raises a suggestive eyebrow. “Perhaps it was searching for the treat inside.”

I ignore this. “You wouldn’t happen to have more thatch, would you, Master Rinaldi?”

I gauge the hole in my roof. The laborers I hired earlier this summer would all be in the fields, working to bring in the harvest. I could, perhaps, tackle this job on my own.

Perhaps.

When Master Rinaldi doesn’t answer, I turn my attention back to him. His gaze roves my legs, clad in breeches. There’s a calculating glint in his expression, one I’ve seen him wear in the marketplace.

Master Rinaldi knows weaknesses and how to drive a bargain. He is also blessed with a lovely wife and ten children, all strong and healthy. He is someone who has everything a man could want.

And yet, his eyes—and hands—roam.

If I wish more thatching for my roof, I suspect there’s an added cost, one that doesn’t involve the silver coins in my purse.

“So late in the season?” He shakes his head as if my plight is the saddest thing he’s seen in a month.

“I could try Master Carr,” I say, hedging my bets.

Master Rinaldi merely smirks.

The trouble is, Master Rinaldi’s supplies are the best—sweetest smelling, free of vermin, such as night loshes and murdocs. During the winter, too many families have slumbered beneath an infected roof only to never wake in the spring.

If I’m to make it through the winter, I may have to pay the price he’s asking.

The rumble starts so low and—to paraphrase Master Rinaldi—insidiously that I barely register it. The soft tremble travels the framework of my cottage until the shaking reaches my ribcage and bits of straw float to my bedroom below.

A shadow looms on the horizon—a giant-sized one, to match the hole in my roof.

Master Rinaldi falters. He steps away from my gate only to stop and double back. He doesn’t want to be here. But with me stranded on the roof, he has no wish to appear cowardly.

“Mistress Benton, I implore you. Pack what you can carry and leave with me now.”

The earth shudders with the giant’s approaching footfalls. I clutch the roof, the rough thatch cracking against my palms. Master Rinaldi stumbles, his gait haphazard, on a path that takes him away from me and toward the village.

“It’s coming back,” he says. “For you.”

Could I scamper down from the roof, grab a few precious belongings, and race for the village? Then what? Secure a room at the inn until my silver runs out? Throw myself on the mercy of the village elders? Of Master Rinaldi?

I shake my head, resolute in this.

“You’re mad,” he calls up to me. “A fool of a woman.”

Yes. Likely I am. But I’m a woman with a home of her own—a rare thing in these parts. If I leave, someone—a man—will claim this land. If I stay and die, then someone—a man—will claim this land.

No matter what I do, the outcome is the same.

So I choose to stay.

Without a glance over his shoulder, Master Rinaldi lurches down the path, his stride chaotic under the onslaught of the giant.

I hang onto the roof with all my might and wait.

* * *

As the giant grows closer, the steps grow lighter. It’s as if it knows the power in its footfalls and is now treading lightly.

And as the giant grows closer, I see that it—or rather—she is wearing a shift the color of forget-me-nots. Her feet are bare, her hands clenched in fists. Her hair, plaited into braids, is alternately gold, silver, and ebony.

She is awe-inspiring, and I can’t look away.

When the giant reaches my cottage, she kneels. This does not put us at eye level, although it comes close. Her eyes are the same color as her dress, and I think that may be why she wears it. I don’t know if vanity extends to giants, but I don’t see why it can’t.

She unclenches her right fist. In her palm rests the tangle that once was my roof. Interspersed in the straw and reeds is the inky black remains of a murdoc.

I press a hand against my chest and pull in a deep breath, just to reassure myself I still can.

“Is that why I didn’t hear you?” I ask.

The giant blinks her great blue eyes in what I take as yes.

“Has it been there all summer?”

Now a single tear rolls down her cheek. It lands on the packed earth of my walkway and splashes so high I can taste the salt of it on my lips.

How far gone was I? How close to death? My heart thumps with latent fear, and then my pulse sparks with anger. Convenient of Master Rinaldi to show up this morning of all mornings.

So convenient that, for a moment, I don’t have any words.

“How … insidious.” I say, at last.

A smile tugs the corner of her mouth. Oh, yes, she knows all about Master Rinaldi. The giant crumbles the tangle of straw in her fist, obliterating whatever remains of the murdoc. The wind steals the vestiges of straw and beast, lifts them high into the air, and carries them away.

Only then do I feel my breath return in full force. Only then does it occur to me to worry for someone other than myself.

“Are you hurt? Did the murdoc hurt you?”

Her smile has revealed something I missed previously. The blood. Scrapes and cuts, yes. She hurts.

“I have a balm, but it’s.” I point at the hole in my roof. I sigh. “It’s down there.”

She holds out a palm, and without hesitation, I step onto it.

I find the balm and a soft cloth, and I gesture for the giant to return me to the roof. From there, I lean forward, dab the healing balm—a recipe of my grandmother’s—against the wounds.

The giant laughs. In relief? Delight? It’s hard to tell. The force of it nearly knocks me to the ground.

Then she opens her other hand, and there is thatching, fresh from someone’s storehouse. I suspect Master Rinaldi’s.

Honestly? He owes me.

Together we make short work of repairing my roof. Near sunset, when the task is done, I pour us each a serving of mead, her portion in the largest bowl I own. She takes dainty sips but still manages to finish the drink almost immediately.

It is nearly dark now, I have a giant on my door stoop, and I’m not quite sure what happens next.

The giant pulls a piece of parchment from her pocket and unfurls it. The script is precise, but the letters so large I must back up to read the message.

My name is Martine.

I can speak, but my words are loud, and I don’t want to scare those around me.

If I’m showing you this note, it means I wish to be your friend.

“Martine,” I say. “That’s a pretty name.”

She smiles, her teeth so white and fierce that for a moment, I can’t collect my thoughts.

“I’m Benton,” I add, my heart pounding a strange beat. I’m not frightened. I’m not nervous. I want to name this thing I’m feeling, but suspect it’s nothing more than a spark of hope. I don’t want to extinguish it by staring at it too hard. “My mother wanted a boy and saw no reason to change the name when I wasn’t.”

Martine lifts an eyebrow, a wry gesture that makes me laugh.

“Do you have a place to stay?” I ask.

Where do giants stay? Does Martine have a family? Who are her people, and why is she alone?

She gives a slow shake of her head, and another tear trickles down her cheek. The heartbreak and sorrow that rolls off her might flood this valley.

“You can stay with me.”

Those blue forget-me-not eyes widen.

“I own the land from that corner of the forest, through the meadow, and all the way to the stream. Is that enough room?”

She claps her hands together, and the force of it reverberates across the land. Certainly, the villagers are trembling in their cellars at this very moment.

“Stay,” I say to Martine.

In time, I’ll learn of her heartache. Perhaps I can help her find her people, assuming she is lost, of course. Or perhaps she’s like me—a woman on her own.

“Stay, and be my friend.”

When Martine nods, that spark of hope kindles into flame.

And no matter how insidious Master Rinaldi is, I must admit that he is right in one respect.

This is no place for a woman on her own. But for two?

It’s perfect.

Insidious Beasts was written especially for the 2020 (Love) Story Project.

Miss a story? Check out all the titles here.

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Weekly writing check-in: taking inventory

I spent this week looking at what I wrote last year. Mind you, I didn’t write as much as I wanted to.

Still, I managed eighteen short stories along with a bunch of story starters.

Since I’m committed to doing that 2020 project, I need to make sure I have enough material.

I also excavated some stories I’d forgotten about, some of which will work very nicely for the above-mentioned project.

So … I think I’m good to go. I do need to write some new stories, but I can certainly get through the next few months on what I currently have.

Whew.

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Weekly writing check-in: holidays, snow, and cold

Current Mood

We’re getting snow; we’re getting some cold heading our way. It’s the holidays!

Even so, I managed some work on both my writing and my 2020 project this week. That’s one of the great things about flash fiction and short stories. You can make progress even when things get hectic.

And since I’m running behind this morning and we have a Girl Scout meeting later on today, I’ll leave you with this lovely picture of a snowplow.

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