Tag Archives: Speculative fiction

Free Fiction Friday: Knight at the Royal Arms

It’s not easy being a modern-day damsel in distress.

This week’s story is a touch longer, so if you want to download a .mobi or .epub file and take it to go, scroll to the end for the link.

The lobby of the Royal Arms Hotel is so very quiet, and I can taste the hunt in the air. Not that I’d planned on hunting. I only stepped inside out of the rain. Still, the thought tempts me. I don’t know what sort of shadow creature lives in this space, but considering the marble floors and gilt-edged mirrors, the prize might be worth the effort.

The glimmer has lulled the concierge to sleep. He slumps over his desk, snores rattling loose paper. The doorman has sunk to the floor. With the sun about to set, that leaves me, the creature, and possibly another tracker as the only ones awake. I take a few steps further in, boots skidding against the marble, not fully committing to the hunt. Not yet.

There must be another tracker. Someone must have a claim on this space, and I know I shouldn’t venture any farther. But there’s no denying DNA, and the shadow creature that resides here is calling to me. So I blow a goodnight kiss to the concierge and find the stairs.

* * *

In the third floor hallway, I breathe in dust, fingertips investigating the textured wallpaper. I remain silent and try to gauge whether that creaking floorboard gave me away.

Something always gives me away—a floorboard, the squeaking soles of my boots, a rather clumsy entrance that involves breaking glass. That’s all fine when I’m prepared to hunt. Tonight I only wanted a peek.

Behind me, something rasps, brief and brisk, like sandpaper against skin. Mist fills the far end of the corridor, swallowing the glow from the sconces. I squint, but the shadow creature hasn’t reached its full, solid form. For this, I am grateful. I race, carving a zigzag path along the corridor. I rattle one doorknob, then another, all of them locked.

At this point, the creature is still mostly vapor. You could poke your fingers through it. But then, you can poke your fingers through a thundercloud. That doesn’t make the lightening less deadly.

I sprint down the hall, intent on the last door. I try the knob, then spin, my back against the textured wallpaper. No stairs, not even a fire exit. That’s got to be a code violation. At the end of the hall, strands of gray mist probe tentatively. Something that resembles a claw solidifies and holds its shape long enough to tear a hole in the carpet.

Frantic, I try the door one last time. Three things happen. The creature surges forward, filling the hallway with its girth, the door flies open, and I tumble inside. I kick the door shut, my boots and the creature simultaneously slamming against the wood. The door frame shakes but stays put.

The room is dark, curtains drawn. My own ragged breathing fills the space, as does someone else’s. I’m staggering to my feet when the lights blaze on. I flinch, cover my eyes with one hand, and attempt to protect myself with the other.

“What the hell?” a voice says.

And then I know: I’m really in trouble.

I grope for a chair and whirl it so it becomes both a shield and a weapon.

“I was here first,” the voice says. The tone is strong, authoritative, but a hint of fear invades the arrogance. We all carry that in our voice, those of us who hunt. You can’t touch the shadows without them touching you.

“Says who?” I counter. True, I hadn’t planned on hunting tonight. Now that I’m here? Why let the opportunity slip by?

“Luke Milner,” he says. “Tracker number 127.”

“I know who you are.” Or at least what he is. There are so few of us that we know each other by reputation, if not by name and face.

“I’ve been tracking this creature for weeks,” he says. “It’s on record, claim 5867. Feel free to check.”

“Oh, I will.” I roll my eyes.

“Plus, you totally fell in here.” He shakes his head. “You don’t even know your way around.”

I grip the chair harder. “Oh, sure,” I say. “I fell in here. I also flushed out the creature. In what? Less than an hour? How long have you been tracking it again?” I make my voice go all sweet, which is perfectly awful of me. But I can’t help it. I dislike most other trackers. Like I said before, it’s in my DNA. As a damsel in distress, I have good reason not to like or trust nearly everyone.

“Know the way back out?” Here, Luke Milner offers up a perfectly awful grin, providing me with yet another reason for my aversion.

While logic dictates that if you can find your way in, you can certainly find your way back out again, shadow creatures have a way of erasing that sort of logic. I do have a knack for flushing them out—and an annoying knack for getting stuck in various labyrinths for days. Normally I don’t go in without a plan and a week’s worth of supplies. The hotel room is covered with that same velvet wallpaper as the hall, all fleurs-de-lis and scrollwork, which makes the space feel elegant despite the freeze-dried meals and canned goods that line the dresser. Luke even has an adorable little camp stove. Plus that queen-size bed? Big enough for two. Not a bad setup, and I can’t help but be a little impressed.

He waves his hands as if he can halt both my gaze and my thoughts. “Oh, no. Don’t even think about it. My claim. My creature.”

“Which you can’t seem to flush,” I remind him.

The trashcan overflows with wrappers and bottles. A room service tray holds a pot of coffee and pitcher of cream. One whiff tells me it’s starting to turn. He’s been here for a while without any luck. It’s hard to catch a shadow creature on your own; it’s even harder to trust another tracker. He can’t leave the hotel without risking a claim jumper. But why stay if you can’t draw out the creature to begin with?

“You saw it then?” he asks.

“Claws. Sharp. Not sure what it is, but it’s big.” I shrug. “Maybe a dragon.”

He pauses as if considering this—and me. “What makes you so special, then?”

It’s a fair if somewhat passive-aggressive question. “I come from a long line of damsels in distress.”

Luke snorts.

“Shall I step into the hall and demonstrate?” I gesture toward the door. All hunts require bait. Usually, that’s me. I survey the room again. This Luke Milner doesn’t seem to have anything that resembles bait.

“You don’t look like a damsel in distress.”

True. I keep my feet in boots. You try running around in satin slippers or high heels. Tulle and lace and all the rest? Highly flammable, especially in the case of dragons.

“It’s in the blood,” I say. “Did I not fall in here exactly when I needed to?”

“I was opening the door.”

“See? You must have some latent knight-in-shining-armor blood running through your veins.”

Luke makes a face.

Okay, very latent. But it’s there. He’s too well-stocked and prepared to be anything else. In theory, I should like that in anyone. Plus, he has that knight-in-shining-armor look, wavy hair and features chiseled in all the right places. His eyes might glint with humor if he weren’t so surly. Something tells me Luke Milner is often surly.

I’ve never had any luck with knights in shining armor. They’re always too little, too late, and I always end up bound ankle and wrist, eyebrows singed.

Luke narrows his eyes to slits. I cross my arms over my chest, prepared to wait him out. He glances away, but in the mirror, I catch his reflection—all sour milk and resignation.

“Do you have a name?” he says at last, “or do they just call you CJ?”

“C … J?”

His smirk provides the answer. CJ. Claim Jumper.

“I’m Posey Trombelle,” I say, putting some teeth into my name. “Tracker number 278.”

“Posey?” He makes another face.

“It’s short for Poinsettia. I was a Christmas baby.”

His expression goes blank. When he doesn’t respond, I add, “My sister was born in February, on the fourteenth. Trust me, she got it worse.”

“Well, what do you suggest we do … Posey?”

“What were you about to do when I fell into your room?”

“Go out,” he says. “Reconnaissance.”

I raise an eyebrow. Because that? Fairly obvious.

Luke rubs his hands across his face. A growl begins in his throat, but the sound is all frustration without any bite. “I have a theory,” he says, “that there’s more treasure to be had by not slaying the creature —

“Because most of it is in the lair,” I finish.

Oh, of course! How clever. Once you slay the creature, access to any treasure in its lair vanishes. I can’t help it. I like the way he thinks. Maybe this Luke has more knight in him than his sour-milk expression suggests.

“You figure out how to do that,” I tell him, “and they’ll have to call you Sir Luke.”

* * *

Luke stares at the document on the coffee table, pen clutched in his hand.

“You can’t do this without me,” I point out.

His knuckles go white.

Granted, a handwritten agreement on hotel stationery pales when compared to a notarized contract. Under the circumstances?

“In fact,” I say, tapping three paragraphs down on the paper, “you can’t get a better deal than this.”

No one would intentionally draw a creature to them, but I’ve signed on to do just that. Of course, I’m uniquely suited for the task. But while Luke searches out the lair, I must fend off the creature. While I often find myself in precarious situations, I seldom walk into them of my own volition. At least not while leaving myself wide open for betrayal. I occupy the creature, and he runs off with the treasure. I try not to think about that scenario too much.

At last his grip loosens on the pen. He scrawls his name across the bottom of the page, nearly obliterating my own.

Next comes a grappling hook and some rope, which Luke secures at my waist. He threads a whistle onto a length of nylon cord. He ties the ends and then places the whistle around my neck.

“Last resort,” he says. “If you need me—”

“Just blow?”

He cringes. An angry flush covers his cheeks. Before he can turn away, I touch his arm. “Hang on.”

From the depths of my cargo pants pocket, I pull a bandana. “A knight shouldn’t venture out without a token,” I say and tie it around his arm. As tokens go, one-hundred-percent cotton is no substitute for silk, lace, and embroidery. However, the bandana is pink.

“Seriously?” Luke eyes the bandana. His fingers twitch over the knot like he might undo the whole thing and toss it on the floor. Instead, he presses his palm against his jeans and sighs.

“See if it doesn’t bring you luck,” I say.

“I don’t believe in luck.”

“You should.” I give him a two-finger salute and slip out the door.

* * *

I take soft steps down the hallway, retracing my original path. I even zigzag, fingertips brushing the textured wallpaper on one side of the corridor and then the next. The ventilation system breathes to life, its steady, mechanical hum the only other sound.

At the corner, I pause. Things are too empty, too quiet. The space around me feels thin, like something else is using up all the available oxygen. Something large. The elevator lobby is the perfect place for an ambush. At least, it’s where I’d set one up.

The marble floors in front of the elevator sport a faux Persian rug, a Queen Anne side table, and chairs upholstered in the most amazing shade of canary yellow. The space is pristine. I sniff the air. No lingering scent of sulfur, no rot. What about some slime, a tuft of fur, or even a scale on the floor?  Nothing? I taste the air one last time, not trusting this good fortune, but my feet are already moving. To hesitate is to lose this chance.

I rush to the elevators, push the up and down buttons, then retreat to the safety of the stairs.

No sensible tracker uses the elevator—not if they can help it. It’s the equivalent of stepping into a lunchbox. Still, it’s a handy ruse. A damsel in distress inside an elevator? There’s no better bait.

The elevator bell chimes. The doors whoosh open. Dark mist spills out, and a roar echoes against the walls, the sound hearty. The creature must be on the verge of transforming into something solid—and deadly. I’m half a step inside the stairwell when mist curls around the handrail and engulfs my fingers. I glance at the gleaming claws clicking against the lobby floor, then behind me to the creature forming on the stairs.

Here be dragons. Not one, but two. And here I am, right between them.

I cast my gaze upward, searching for a handhold, a window or vent to crawl through … or that chandelier.

The elevator doors start to close, then spring open again. The creatures are solid enough to trigger elevator doors, not to mention claw, bite, and chomp. They are certainly solid enough to do a damsel-in-distress grab-and-dash.

You know, the usual.

With a hand on the grappling hook, I squint at the chandelier. Will it come crashing down on me mid-swing, effectively doing all the bone-crushing work for the dragons? Steam fills the elevator lobby area. The dragons won’t risk a full blast and burn themselves out of their playground. But a stream of fire in my direction?

I don’t wait to find out. I swing the grappling hook up and over the chandelier’s arms. Light bulbs shatter. I tug. Cracks appear along the ceiling. Plaster dust floats down, fogging the air and coating the floor, the table, the dragon. Before I can swing, a great sucking comes from the elevator—a wind tunnel drawing me in. I grip the rope and brace my feet against the floor. Then the winds reverse.

The explosion of sound startles me. No heat. No fire. Just slime.

“Gesundheit,” I say and swing up and over the sniffling dragon.

I land in the hallway, carpet soaking up the sound of my boots. Iridescent dragon snot speckles the textured wallpaper and coats the toes of my boots. I yank the rope one last time. The entire chandelier and half the ceiling crash to the floor. I sprint around the corner to avoid ricocheting debris. Even so, I choke on dust. My eyes water. I blink fast and hard, taste the grit against my lips. At the end of the hallway, a door flies open.

Luke sticks his head out. “What the hell?”

I give him a little finger wave and run.

* * *

Only underwater lamps light the pool area, bathing everything in a liquid blue. My boots squish against damp tile. Moist air clings to my face, turning the plaster dust into muck. With my back to the wall, I ease the lifesaving pole from its bracket. Since Luke’s grappling hook is now part of the third-floor decor, I need something—a tool, a weapon. I test its weight against my palm. Light but strong. It will do.

Now that I’m here, I have the thankless job of luring both dragons to this spot. That shouldn’t be too hard. After all, I’m a damsel in distress. Luring is what I do. I take mincing steps around the pool and coo stupid things like, “Oh, no, I might get my satin slippers all wet.”

I’ve never met a creature yet who could tell the difference between satin slippers and steel-toed boots.

Minutes tick by with nothing but the gentle lap of water and my damp footfalls. This was the plan. We didn’t have a backup plan in case the creatures didn’t show. I’m a damsel in distress. They always show.

Except for now.

I kneel at the pool’s edge and rinse the plaster from my face. Perhaps it’s the water’s chemical cocktail—too much bleach and chlorine—that convinces me, but nothing supernatural ever happens in this particular space.

But if the creatures didn’t follow me (and they should have, they really should have—I should be trussed up now, tied to the diving board or cooking in the hot tub), then there’s only one other spot they could be: their lair.

Which is where Luke was headed—without any backup plan of his own. Can I intercept him? I glance at my watch. Plenty of time before sunrise. Still enough time to—possibly—save Luke. Without another thought, I sprint past the heated towel rack and lounge chairs and crash into the glass doors separating the pool from the mezzanine.

I push. I pull. I rattle the handles so hard the glass shudders. Then I see a telltale glint on the other side of the doors. A dragon scale. I whirl and face the pool. What will it be? Damsel-in-Distress Stew? Or perhaps Luke is the main course, and I’m dessert.

Panic and chlorine clog my throat. Another way out—there must be one. I slip across damp tiles, careen into the changing room doors. These, too, are locked. I survey the space—the lounge chairs, discarded drink glasses with pink sludge and crushed paper umbrellas, a stack of rumpled towels—and discover a way out.

I find the service elevator behind a screen. Steam hisses and clouds roll through the room, as if the water in the pool is already boiling. I wonder if the dragons plan to serve me al dente. As soon as the doors screech open, I jump inside, press every button I can, and realize I’m still clutching the lifesaving pole only when the doors clang shut.

* * *

I land in the most obvious spot for a lair, down in the basement. The dank and dark, home to boilers and furnaces and the creatures most everyone else has forgotten. Only in this case, it seems the creatures have forgotten this space. Then again, these are dragons—by their very nature, quirky and particular. In this case, there’s a pair. A couple, perhaps?

Oh. A couple. Of course. I push the up button on the elevator. There’s no time for stairs. I can only hope I’m right and don’t end up as a charbroiled snack. When the doors open, I step inside and select the modern equivalent of the high tower: the penthouse suite.

You’d think, as a damsel in distress, I’d be well acquainted with penthouse suites. Sadly, my luck runs toward trolls and ogres. On the rare occasions I’m captured, I end up in landfills or junkyards or, for the occasional eco-conscious goblins, recycling centers.

The doors open on the penthouse level. Smoke fills the elevator compartment. The acrid scent tickles the back of my throat, and I choke on a cough. I step out and crunch something beneath the sole of my boot. The remains shine in rainbow patterns the way only a dragon scale can.

I take a cautious look around. The glimmer is in full force here. Despite the smoke, I can taste the magic that lets the dragons lie dormant during the day and come out to play at night. They haven’t taken over the entire floor, not yet, but the lair is well established.

I creep forward, pole outstretched like a spear, eyes cast downward. The last thing I want is to track through a pile of ash. That can mean only one thing. The tracker community may be combative, but the death of one of our own weighs heavy. My stomach squeezes tight. I clutch the pole harder. I want to close my eyes, because I don’t want to see that pile of ash. I keep them open out of fear and respect.

At the end of the hall, I brush fingertips over the penthouse door then press my palm against the paneled wood. Warm, but not searing hot. That’s something. Now for a distraction. I need something loud and sure, something these dragons won’t miss.

I lean against the wall, and that something thumps against my chest. Luke’s whistle. I grip it between my teeth and blow with all my might. Then I sprint down the corridor and launch myself behind a settee. The hiding place is flimsy. But once dragons get up a good gallop, they have a difficult time stopping, never mind turning around.

The penthouse door flies open. Claws scrape against the Italian marble floor, leaving wide grooves in its surface. The dragons galumph straight for the elevator, bypassing the settee. I crawl from beneath it, scrabble to gain purchase, then race for the penthouse.

I slam the door. It doesn’t matter if the dragons hear. They’re too clever to stay fooled for long anyway. Still, I throw the deadbolt for the slight delay it will give me. For good measure, I jam the lifesaving pole behind the handle.

“Luke?” I call out.

A grunt comes from the bedroom. Among satin sheets, rose petals, and candlelight, I find him, all trussed up, bound ankle and wrist, damsel-in-distress style. He grunts again, words muffled by a pink bandana—my bandana—gagging his mouth. So much for luck.

I can’t help it; I know it’s cruel. I laugh.

“You wouldn’t happen to have a knife, would you?” he says when I undo the gag, a frown fighting the relief on his face.

“Swiss Army.” I slice through the ropes around his wrists and set to work on his ankles.

A crash reverberates through the entire penthouse. My hands shake and the blade skitters up and over the rope, but it only catches on Luke’s jeans. A whoosh fills the air, followed by the cheerful crackle of burning wood.

“We have all of three seconds,” Luke says.

In those three seconds, I hack away the last of the rope. Luke smashes the window with a chair. He secures a grappling hook (one covered with plaster dust) and swings us—me clutched in one arm—out the window, past jagged glass, and over the ledge.

We land one story below, breezing through an already-opened window. When our feet touch ground, Luke releases me. I tumble into yet another canary yellow chair, knocking it over. I suck in air free of smoke, grateful for the hard floor that has just bruised my hip bones. As landings go, this one wasn’t half-bad. I catch Luke’s eye and point to the window.

“I like to go in with a back-up plan,” he says.

An admirable quality for a knight in shining armor.

“You’re pretty handy with a knife,” he adds.

“You’re not bad with ropes.”

The building trembles. Plaster rains down, dusting my skin—again. The elevator doors pop open and shut.

“We should leave,” I say. “They’ll destroy everything just to get to us.”

Even their own playground. Threat to their treasure brings out the nasty side of shadow creatures.

To my surprise, Luke takes my hand to help me up. He keeps a grip on it during our entire flight down the stairs. Even outside, with the first rays of sun banishing the night, he doesn’t let go. He pulls us forward, intent on getting us away, while I scan the structure.

“All clear?” he asks.

“Looks that way. For now.”

Four blocks from the hotel, we slow our steps. I keep the vigil, always tossing a quick glance behind. With the rising sun, the glimmer loosens its hold. The dragons will return to mist and shadows. The hotel will right itself before any of the regular guests can notice anything amiss. Already, glass in the smashed windows has repaired itself.

“I never thought to look in the penthouse until you came along,” Luke says.

I inspire thoughts of the penthouse? Is this a good thing?

“The living room was the treasure trove, but I decided to check the bedroom before leaving,” he continues. “I walked in on them while they were … I mean, he was—”

“Entertaining a special lady friend?” I supply.

A flush washes across his cheekbones—a hint of pink to match the sunrise. It’s kind of adorable.

“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “That.”

Luke pulls a small velvet sack from his shirt. “By our contract.” He tips the bag and coins flow into his palm. “Fifty-fifty split. You earned it.”

“So did you.”

“It wasn’t all bad,” he says, “working with you.”

Is that a compliment? I peer at him, intrigued. “Well, you are good with ropes,” I say. “And I don’t loathe you like I do most knights in shining armor.”

He tosses the coins in the air and catches them neatly again. “When was the last time you earned a haul like this?”

Almost never. Damsels in distress always get the short end of things, even when we’re the ones who make things happen. I can’t count the number of times my fellow trackers have left me bound, wrist and ankle, and made off with the treasure. Even though my boots are singed and snot covered, my hair a plaster-streaked mess, this time, the prize was worth it. This time, I had a worthy partner.

“There’s a lot more where this came from.” Luke stares hard just past my shoulder, like the only way he can say this is to not look at me. “We could spend days, weeks, and still not find it all.”

We? “So you’re not reporting me as a claim jumper?”

His lips twitch. “Well, you know, I can’t seem to flush them on my own.”

“That’s my specialty.”

“We’d need a contract.”

I nod toward a diner at the end of the block. They serve a huge breakfast special—eggs over easy, sizzling bacon, pancakes drenched in maple syrup—the perfect meal after a night of successful tracking.

“Everyone knows a contract written on the back of a paper placemat is totally binding,” I say. “We could talk about it. Maybe over some coffee?”

The sun crests the hotel, casting the street in a glow to rival the canary yellow furniture, banishing the creatures to shadow for another day. We turn toward the diner. Luke tosses the coins and lets them fall into his hand one last time.

“Maybe we should,” he says.

Knight at the Royal Arms was first published in Pulp Literature Summer 2017: Issue 15.

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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: Cheating Death

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

From the editor:

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

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Free Fiction Friday: The Secret Life of Sleeping Beauty

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My finger still hurts.

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s your name?” I ask.

“Charming.”

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

Not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

My finger no longer hurts.

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

After I’ve slain a few dragons.

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

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Free Fiction Friday: A Measure of Sorrow

Leaving March with a giant who’s as gentle as a lamb.

A wolf seduced her sister, and a witch wrapped her bony fingers around her brother’s heart, so when a giant came for her, she told him she wouldn’t go.

He plucked a rose petal from the bushes that grew around his castle, and that was her bed. When the day grew hot, he offered dewy raspberries to quench her thirst. When she refused, a single tear fell from his eye and splashed at her feet. The salt on her lips tasted like sorrow. She was drenched, but unmoved.

Only when he left his almanac out—quite by accident—did she creep from the threshold of her cottage. It took all her strength to turn the pages, but turn them she did. The letters were as tall as she was, but read them, she did.

He caught her reading. If he wanted, he could have slammed the book shut, trapped her—

or squashed her. He didn’t.

He looked to the book and then to her. “Will you come with me now?”

“I am not a pet.”

“Of course not.”

“Or a meal.”

He blew air through his lips, the force of it ruffling her hair. “You are much too small for that.”

“Then what am I?”

“I need someone to tend to the mice. They are ailing. And the butterflies. My fingers are too clumsy, and I cannot mend the rips in their wings.”

“So, you have work for me?”

“Good work, with good pay. You can keep your family well.”

“They would feed me to the wolves.”

“Then how am I any worse?”

How indeed? Did she trust this giant and his promises of mice and butterflies?

“Will you?” He extended a hand.

She stepped onto his palm, and he lifted her higher and higher—even with his mouth, his nose, his eyes. Then he placed her gently on his shoulder.

“What made you change your mind?” he asked.

“The almanac. Will you read to me sometimes?”

“Would you like that?”

“Very much.”

“I shall read to you every night.”

Mice and butterflies filled her days. On the back of the Mouse King she rode, clutching the soft fur about his neck, racing through the castle to tend to mothers with large broods, crumbs and bits of cheese tucked in a canvas sack. With thread from a silkworm, she repaired butterfly wings, her stitches tiny and neat.

The giant peered at her handiwork through a glass that made his eye all that much larger. When he laughed his approval, the sound rolled through the countryside. And every night, when he reached for his almanac, she settled on his shoulder and marveled at how someone so colossal could speak words with so much tenderness.

Even when his bones grew old, and all he could do was move from bed to chair, he read to her. When his eyesight grew dim, he recited the words from memory, so strong was his desire to keep his promise. Until, at last, the day came when the stories stopped.

A thousand butterflies fluttered into his room. Mice came from fields and forest alike, led by the Mouse King. They bore the giant outside, where they laid him to rest beneath the rose bushes.

It was there she learned that all her tears combined could not rival the sorrow contained in a single giant teardrop.

A Measure of Sorrow first appeared in Luna Station Quarterly and subsequently in Evil Girlfriend Media.

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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.

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Story Saturday: Ides of March

Need something to read for this Ides of March? Go visit the Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Fair and pick up a new title or two.

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