Tag Archives: Speculative fiction

Worlds of Wonder: Free Sci-Fi and Fantasy Books

Looking for some science fiction or fantasy to read? Head on over to the Worlds of Wonder giveaway. Free books for your e-reader. Go on. You know it’s hungry.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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: Like Bread Loves Salt

A tale for when you’re feeling a little salty.

A knock on the door wakes me from dreams of salt. I rub the grit from my mouth before pressing the tip of my tongue to my fingers. I do this gingerly, as if my dreams can poison me.

Salt.

A breeze rustles the leaves of the oak that shades my room, the sound like a whisper. In that whisper, I hear words.

Like bread loves salt.

The sound is too soft, too hollow for me to grab onto and shake into recognition. But I know—or at least, think I know—who speaks those words. With a second knock, I forget everything except the taste of salt on my lips.

Few people knock on my door these days. The chances I want to speak to the person on the other side are so dismal that, at first, my hand refuses to unlatch the deadbolt. But I do. I always do. There, standing on the threshold, is the wound for my salt.

“Anna,” I say.

Salt has visited her as well, or at least, it colors her hair. Her skin is fine and powdery, more like sugar. Anna is many things; sweet has never been one of them.

“You stole him.” Her voice is even, as if she’s simply informing me that my morning paper has been delivered. And oh, look; it has. I prefer newsprint to television and the internet, the dry feel of it against my skin, the residue of ink, words peppered on the salt of the page.

I scoot past her to scoop up the paper. “Look.” I point to a headline. It’s a poor attempt to change the subject, but I try nevertheless. “They’re saying this heat will break.”

“You stole him.” This time, her voice holds an edge. Any louder and the neighbors will peek through their curtains. Any louder and the bead of sweat rolling down my spine will become a torrent.

“Anna, I don’t know what—”

“Roger! You stole Roger!” She grips the handrail, her fingers tight, knuckles thick, like knobs.

“Roger’s dead,” I say, in that voice reserved for small children, dogs, and the aged. I dread the day I will hear it spoken at me, although by then, God willing, I won’t notice. “Remember? We buried him in April.”

It’s July now. I don’t think Anna’s forgotten, or that this is the onset of dementia. Maybe it’s the heat. Maybe it’s a stage of grief.

“I dream of you two, together.” She pokes a finger in my chest. “I see you. I see you with him, see what you do, what you’ve always done, for all those years behind my back.”

“Roger and I were never together,” I tell her. “He loved you.” This is the truth. And yet, the salt on my lips tastes like a lie.

“But I see you.” And now her words are a whimper.

I urge her inside. She slumps at the kitchen table. I brew tea. I hit the speed-dial on my cell phone. When Renee arrives, still pajama-clad, the salt is the flavor of guilt. But it’s Renee who apologizes.

“Oh, Aunt Jane, I’m so sorry.” She shakes a headful of curls that bear only the slightest trace of salt. “She’s been having these crazy dreams about … Dad. We’ve been going to a therapist. It’s been good for us, but …” Renee trails off, swipes her fingers over her lips as if she, too, can taste the salt in the air.

At the door, before they leave, Anna turns and says:

“You stole him.”

Now it sounds like a death sentence.

That night, I taste the salt in my sleep. I hear the whispered words.

Like bread loves salt.

It’s true. I always have. Bread only needs a pinch of salt to sustain her. But that love is three months gone. Oh, we were so careful. How can a love confined to dreams hurt anyone but the dreamers? Fifty years of nights. Fifty years of dreams. Fifty years of stealing salt.

And now, that residue of salt is all I have left.

Like Bread Loves Salt was inspired by the many love like salt folktales.

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Story Saturday: Digital Book Binge

Head on over to the Digital Book Binge to pick up some (FREE!) summer reading. Find a new-to-you author or series.

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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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Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

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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