Tag Archives: Speculative fiction

2020 Recommended Reading

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

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

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

Without further ado, here are the  books:

Fiction

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

Code Name Hélène by Ariel Lawhon

The Secrets We Kept by Lara Prescott

Miss Graham’s Cold War Cookbook by Celia Rees

Network Effect: A Murderbot Novel by Martha Wells

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

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

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

Nonfiction

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

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

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

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

For Writers

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

From the description:

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

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

QuitBooks for Writers series by Becca Syme

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

Standout short story (that you can read for free)

Little Free Library (over at Tor.com)

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

1 Comment

Filed under Books, Reading

Free Fiction Friday: Inside Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Please don’t go! I won’t hurt you!”

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

“I’m Lexia.”

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

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

The girl, Amie, nodded.

“Well,” Lexia said. “Come on inside.”

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

Outside. It was almost too much.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

Amie cocked her head, brow furrowing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Amie grinned and gave her a shrug.

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

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

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

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

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

Amie gave an emphatic nod.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

“I might.”

“Haven’t seen you at one.”

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

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

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

* * *

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

Amie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Her mother raised an eyebrow. “Shopping?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where did you—?”

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

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

Amie pressed a finger against Lexia’s lips.

“I talk too much, don’t I?”

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

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

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

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

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

“Look at you! You’re gorgeous.”

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Amie shook her head.

“But it isn’t easy.”

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Now the other,” the old woman added.

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

“Lexia! What have you done!”

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

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

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

“Mind your own business,” her mother snapped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Numb, Lexia nodded.

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

It took a very long time to fall asleep.

* * *

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

“Where is she?”

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

“But she’s not here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And now Lexia couldn’t breathe.

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

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

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

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

The door opened.

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

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

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

The flaps were closed.

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

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

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

A strip from Amie’s turban.

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Simon the Cold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then I thought: How can I not do this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I took another step forward.

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You don’t look that old,” I said.

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

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

“I can see that.”

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

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

“And the rest?”

“You’re looking for something.”

“That I am, girly.”

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

“Returned to give me some grief?”

“Maybe I’m here to help.”

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

I was young enough to simply believe.

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

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

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

* * *

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

“People don’t see you,” I said.

“People generally don’t see the homeless.”

“But this is different.”

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

“I can see you.”

“That you can.”

“Why?”

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

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

I nodded.

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

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

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

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

“You’re not people,” I added.

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

“And that self is?”

“In trouble if we don’t keep moving.”

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

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

“What are those things?” I asked.

“Something that would harm us all.”

“But you won’t let them.”

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

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

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

“What did you do?” I asked Simon.

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

“You can stop time?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fragile. Like all humans.”

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

“Speeding up, and so should we.”

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

Maybe he was right.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Not cold?”

“Not what?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We need to arm ourselves,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“But now?”

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

“And those things in the coffee shop?”

“If I’m ice—”

“They’re fire?”

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

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

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

“Hope.”

* * *

We left the gates to the city dump unlocked.

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

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

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

“Why there?” I asked Simon.

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

“Will they crash the world today?”

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

But we’re here now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mine? “But—”

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

“Why can’t you fight him?”

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

“You’re related.”

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

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

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

“She has no role.”

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

“We shall see.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And then he, too, was gone.

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, I saw his eyes.

“Simon the Cold.”

“I ain’t cold, girly.”

“Halley.”

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

“What happened?” I asked.

“You talking about the winter? My winter?”

I nodded.

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

I nodded again.

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

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

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

“I did that?”

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

“I’m nothing?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 Comments

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Maze

How can you escape if there’s no way out?

Eppie

On the twelfth day, Cadet Eppie Langtry found the cracks in the wall.

She’d stopped her trek through the maze and leaned against its smooth surface. Exhaustion from the first six hours washed through her, the force of it pushing her into the unforgiving wall. After a few quick breaths, she wiped a hand across her eyes and rolled her shoulder. It was nothing more than a simple push to get going. But beneath her, something shifted.

Eppie sprang back, gulping cold air. She inched closer and probed the crevice with her fingers. The unrelenting and unchanging wall of the past twelve days slid against her skin. She nudged the wall with her shoulder, the way you might a best friend, as if she and this impenetrable white slab had anything in common. The crevice deepened.

Eppie glanced upward. The walls and ceiling were bare, but so bright that some days, she wanted to crouch into a ball, bury her head in her arms, and simply rock the twelve-hour shift away.

She never did. The stories of those who had halted for too long kept her trudging forward through the maze. With her shoulder molding new shapes in the wall, Eppie latched onto the first glimmer of … something. Like everyone else in her class, she’d spent hours pounding the surface, scratching the walls, kicking as hard as she could. Not even blood from torn fingernails was a match for the bright, white glare. Worse, after that first day, everyone’s boots went missing from their lockers, and they now navigated the icy maze in bare feet.

Her toes ached with the cold. Eppie sandwiched one foot on top of the other and inspected the dip in the wall her shoulder had made. She poked at the wall with her fingertips, and the pliant give became unrelenting again. It was as if the maze resented her earlier attempts of kicking and scratching.

Eppie blew out a breath. “I’d be resentful too,” she said, her words barely reaching her ears. It was as if the walls absorbed both the sound of her voice and what she had to say.

She tried her shoulder again, rolling it around, gentle, persistent, but giving it a bit of rhythm, like a dance routine. If the cadre were filming this—and no doubt they were—she must look ridiculous. A giggle escaped her lips, and Eppie slapped a hand across her mouth. She hadn’t laughed in how many days? Certainly not the last twelve.

Beneath her shoulder, the crevice grew into a valley. Since the wall seemed to like her shoulder, what about a hip? Now she was dancing. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder, step. Hip, shoulder…

Something solid and warm blocked her progress. Eppie halted, drinking in the first hint of heat in more than six hours. Was this the key, then? Movement? Friction? The wall beneath her still glowed white. It looked deceptively cold, but its warmth was delicious. She turned her face toward the wall, tongue flicking across her lips. What if she leaned forward? What if she let her mouth graze the surface? What then?

She was a mere breath away when the wall beneath her skin coughed.

Hank

Cadet Hank Su stomped through the corridor. No matter how hard he tried, the bright white swallowed the sound of his footfalls until all that remained were small, pathetic steps against the frigid floor. No matter how hard he screamed, the walls absorbed it. By dinner, his throat was so raw, even water scraped on the way down. He crashed from side to side. He kicked until they took away his boots. He gathered up all his strength and bolted down the corridor.

Gentle curves morphed into straight, hard surfaces—almost on a whim—and he slammed into the wall, this time not on purpose. Hank experimented with speed, sprints and slow jogs, but always moving forward. After that first day, when his best friend Ryan didn’t come back, Hank had known this was no ordinary training exercise. Every night, he confronted that empty bunk next to his. To stop seeing the image of the stripped mattress and empty footlocker, Hank bent his head forward and ran with all his strength, grateful for the crash at the end.

But today, day twelve, he walked the corridors, keeping his pace steady. When he stood still, the walls closed in. If he extended his arms, certainly he’d be able to touch both sides at once. Every time he tried? The walls exhaled. There was no other word for it. And they left him standing in the center of the hall, fingertips straining for the cold surface on either side of him.

An illusion. A trick. Something someone was recording. Would the cadre play it back, at the end of the exercise, so everyone could laugh at him? He shook his head, banishing that notion—and the thought that there was no end to this. That was why they punched the walls. That was why they kicked. Didn’t the cadre understand that? Or maybe they did, and that was the point.

Hank inched closer to one wall, letting his fingers trail along its surface. So smooth. So cold. An ache bloomed beneath his fingertips. He moved closer still, resting his forehead against the wall. The shock of cold almost made him jerk back. But as unrelenting as the wall was, it soothed his brow, made his throat feel less parched. Hank inhaled, held the recycled air in his lungs, then blew out a long breath and pitched forward.

There, on the wall—like the indentation on a pillow—was the impression of his forehead. With hands and fingers, he probed the dent. Nothing. In frustration, he leaned his head in the same spot, and the wall gave way again.

This time, Hank stood still. The corridor remained quiet. The lights blared down, like they always had. A dry, stale taste had invaded his mouth a few hours back. But this? This was new. This held hope. He rolled his head from side to side, the motion so gentle, his eyelids grew heavy. It was like an icy lullaby, and after six hours of running the maze, a relief.

The going was slow, but the wall yielded beneath his head. He forgot about running, about screaming, about kicking. He forgot about feeling foolish. Who cared? At last he was getting somewhere.

The giggle stopped all his progress. Hank felt his eyes grow wide. Certainly his mouth hung open. A giggle. A girl’s giggle. He stepped back and surveyed the wall.

“Hello?” His voice sounded rough, so he coughed to clear it.

Nothing. Right. Walls didn’t giggle. That didn’t stop him from trying again. “Hello?”

“Is someone there?” The voice sounded light, but steady, and even better, real. Not some computer-simulated thing—and Hank knew all about those. This was a real girl.

Or, at least, Hank hoped she was. Instead of jumping back, he surged forward and cracked his head against the wall.

“Ow.” His voice sank into the walls around him, and it was almost like he hadn’t spoken at all.

“Are you okay?”

“I head-butted the wall.”

“You can’t do that,” the girl said. “You’ve got to go slow.”

“I know that.”

“And use body parts that haven’t hit the wall, either.”

“I know that too.” Or, at least, he did now.

“Does your head still work?”

What kind of question was that? Hank stared at the wall so hard, the surface blurred red.

“I mean,” she said, “since you hit the wall with it.”

Oh. Of course. He was an idiot. “Let me try.” He eased forward, resting his head against the wall. From one side to the other, he rolled his head, the cold dulling the pain from the bruise.

His feet remained in the same spot, but the wall felt pliant under his forehead. He brought up a hand, testing the surface not with fingertips that had scratched, but with the heel of his hand. The sensation didn’t register at first, but a small circle beneath his palm radiated warmth.

“Do you feel that?” he asked. “The heat?”

“I do.”

“What do you think it is?”

A moment passed, a single heartbeat of hesitation. “Us?”

Was it? The reflex to jerk away nearly had him on the opposite side of the corridor. Instead, he stretched his fingers and pressed them against the wall. Warmth ran along his skin, pooled in his palm. The girl. It had to be, standing like he was, her hand against his.

“What’s your—?” he began.

The claxon alarm rang. The walls faded. The floor vanished beneath his feet. The plummet stole his breath, felt endless until the jolt of hitting the ground. He found himself in the assembly yard, like he had after every twelve-hour shift, along with all the others in his class. Lines formed for the dining hall. By rote, Hank joined one.

“Hey, Hank!” someone called.

He didn’t answer. Instead, he traced patterns across his palm. If he closed his eyes, he could still feel her warmth. When he opened them, Hank realized one thing:

He didn’t even know her name.

Eppie

Eppie scanned the dining facility, gaze darting, hopeful and quick. Too many times, she’d spotted someone, someone like her, someone with a secret. Her heart would speed up. She’d open her mouth to call out, raise a hand to wave, only to have that someone turn away.

Could she find the boy? If so, what then? How would that help them tomorrow, when they both went back inside the maze? She took her seat and pushed her dinner around her plate. Eat, she told herself. Build up your strength. Tonight’s stew was smooth, at least. And hot. The center of the spoonful burnt her tongue, and the heat of it seared the back of her throat.

Eppie clutched her water cup, brought the rim to her lips, and drowned the heat. When she set the cup down, the sharp gaze of a matron fell on her.

“What did you do?” her friend Chara asked.

Eppie shook her head. “I didn’t do anything.” Except make the maze move. Except talk to a boy, who was somewhere beyond the yellow dividing line that ran the entire length of the dining facility.

But what if the cadre had seen Eppie and the boy, heard them talk? Well, what of it? Eppie folded her arms across her chest. She raised her chin and stared back at the matron.

The woman glanced away.

“Eppie …?” Chara said.

Eppie put a finger to her lips. “Not here.”

She was scraping her plate clean when the bell sounded. Normally, they’d be released into the yard for a precious hour of social interaction, but not at this point in their training, not while they were all navigating the maze. Instead, they walked the lines to their separate dormitories, were pushed through showers, and watched the lights flicker above their bunks.

“Wakeup at zero four hundred, ladies,” the matron said. “That comes awfully early.”

“Actually, it comes at the same time every day,” Chara whispered.

Eppie giggled. The feel of it in her throat made her think of dancing with the maze. The boy. His warmth.

“There’s more to the maze,” she whispered to Chara.

The matron’s footfalls sounded in the aisle between the two rows of beds.

“I’m not sure it’s a maze at all,” she added.

The footsteps grew louder, then slowed, then stopped—right beside Eppie’s bunk.

“Cadet Langtry?”

“Yes, Matron?”

“If I were you, I’d conserve my energy by not speaking.”

Eppie stilled her breath even as her thoughts raced. “Yes, Matron.”

So they knew? They must. If the cadre couldn’t use the maze to observe them, then they had planted something in their uniforms, a tracking device, perhaps. A sudden, delicious thought of flinging off her uniform filled her head. Flinging it off and running through the maze naked. Flinging it off and finding that boy. He’d keep her warm.

Now that would be a dance worth doing.

Hank

Hank stood at the entry point to the maze. He was alone in his own little corridor. They all were. If he held still, he could hear the others, their breathing, an occasional shoulder slam against the wall. No one liked going in, but the sooner they did, the sooner the day would end.

Day thirteen.

When his door whooshed open, Hank took soft steps. He let his fingertips skim the wall, the gentlest of touches. He could hold a baby bird and not injure it. Still, the cold against the soles of his feet, and the idea of the girl, urged him forward, faster and faster.

Soft and fast, he chanted to himself. Soft and fast.

Could he find her? He’d thought of her—dreamed of her—all night. Was she thinking of him? Dreaming of him? Did she even want to find him?

In nearly two weeks, what they’d both discovered yesterday was the first thing that hadn’t hurt. He wanted more of that, so after half an hour (by his guess), he decided to cozy up to the wall.

He veered right, simply because he was right-handed. Hank hesitated. Was that predictable? Or maybe no second-guessing? The maze probably hated that. After all, he did.

Hank froze, his palm against the wall’s surface. When, exactly, had the maze started having opinions?

“But you do,” he whispered. Was it sentient? Would it eat them? It hadn’t bothered to in the past twelve days, so he didn’t see why it should start now.

“Do you have a name?” he asked, his face close now to the bright white of the wall. “I was stupid,” he added. “I didn’t ask the girl what her name was. I’m worried I won’t be able to find her.”

He stood now, both hands against the wall, his face inches away, legs spread. “Can you help me?”

Beneath his palms, something shifted, as if a wave deep within the wall itself had rolled past.

“I’m sorry,” he added, “I didn’t know I could hurt you. I only thought they were trying to hurt us.”

The wave surged past again, stronger this time, carrying him with it.

“Got it,” he said, feet scurrying to catch up. “You want me to go that way.”

Hank ran, faster than he could on his own. With that wave beneath his palm, he nearly flew. Cold air blasted him in the face. His eyes watered, and his mouth went dry. But he didn’t care.

He was flying. He was going to find the girl.

Eppie

Eppie kept her uniform on. Tempted as she was to chuck the whole thing, the air was too frigid. Plus, at the end of the shift, did she really want to end up in the assembly yard completely naked? No. No, she did not.

Today, when her fingertips met the wall, the surface gave, just a bit, beneath the pressure. Nothing too hard, nothing violent, but yet, when she pressed her whole hand—not just the palm—against the wall, she felt herself sink into it.

“Do you forgive me?” she asked. “We didn’t know. They never said.” And here she was, talking to the wall as if it were a real living thing. Was it? She pressed deeper into the surface and the wall swallowed her hand, up to her wrist.

“Oh!” It didn’t hurt. In fact, it made her think of what it might be like to push your way into a marshmallow. During her first year at the Academy, they’d had those, complete with a campfire that threw sparks into the air, the sweet smell of burnt sugar filling her nose. Back when things had felt hopeful, the Academy a lucky break.

Eppie eased her other hand into the wall. “What went wrong? Was it always supposed to end this way?”

The surface moved under her touch, like it was melting, except it was still far too cold for that. “You are so cold,” she said. “That doesn’t seem right.”

Could a living thing be so cold, even one from another planet or dimension, or wherever this thing was from? She let herself fall forward, arms spread wide as if for a giant hug. If the maze didn’t catch her, she’d break her nose, maybe some bones. But she closed her eyes, let gravity take her, and fell head first into the marshmallow wall.

Three inches from the floor, the maze caught her.

“Thank you,” she whispered. “I knew you would.”

At that moment, something rolled over her. This was less of a marshmallow and more of a thick wave of frosting. With it came a whoop and a flash of heat. Heat. Warmth.

The boy.

“Hello!” Eppie clambered to her hands and knees. She was fully inside the wall now. She slogged forward. It felt like pushing through a meadow of velvet grass with stalks that grew taller than her head.

“Hello!” she called again, louder now. “Are you there?”

“Is that you?”

Of course it’s me, Eppie wanted to say. But she knew what he meant. “From yesterday, right?”

“It is you!” he said. “And the maze, it somehow—”

“Brought us together.” Even the ice cold interior couldn’t cool the blush that flashed across her face. She didn’t know what this boy looked like, didn’t know his name. All she knew was that he liked to head-butt his way into things, that he was loud, that he was trying to find her.

And that made him oh so interesting.

“I’m over here,” she said when he didn’t respond.

“Yeah, that’s just it. I don’t know where ‘here’ is.”

He laughed, and the maze around her shook. Gentle waves made the velvet insides quiver and sent her this way and that.

“The maze likes that,” she said. “It likes to hear you laugh.”

“How do you know?”

“I’m inside it, inside the walls.”

“How on earth—?”

Eppie laughed. “Probably not.”

“You’re right about that,” he said. “But how?”

“Remember the trust falls from first year?”

“I hated those.”

“Same idea.”

“Will you help me?”

“I don’t know where you are.” Eppie held her arms out, fingers investigating the velvet that surrounded her. His heat. She should search for his heat. But all that met her fingertips was more frigid air.

“Hey.” His voice was soft. “Before I forget. What’s your name?”

“Eppie Langtry.”

“I’m Henry, Henry Su. But everyone calls me Hank.”

“Can I call you Henry?”

“Uh, I guess. Sure.”

“I don’t want to be like everyone else.”

Hank

He’d found her! He’d found the girl. Hank didn’t even care that she wanted to call him Henry. No one ever did. In fact, Hank liked that he could be Henry, if just for this girl.

“I’m over here,” he called.

“It’s like you’re everywhere.” She laughed, and the sound flowed through the space, seemed to fill it.

“I think it likes it when you laugh,” he said.

“So you think it’s … something, too.”

“Yeah. But I don’t know what.”

“I almost want to say it’s not here.”

“Oh, it’s here.”

“I mean …” She sighed, and that too, traveled through the walls. “It’s from somewhere else, or another dimension, one that was rolled up small, but now is stretched thin.” She paused, then added, “That’s why it’s cold. That’s why it hurts.”

“Who did the stretching?”

This time, Eppie’s exhale filled his ears. They both knew the answer to his question. Whoever did the stretching also shoved them inside every morning.

“Why did it pick us?” Hank asked, his voice quiet. “I mean, you’re special.” Hank knew she was. The trust fall proved that. “But I’m nobody. Average grades, average test scores, average everything.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“I can prove it. On the outside, at least.”

“Maybe it’s not what’s on the outside that counts.”

“So what do we do?” he asked. “How do we help it?”

“I don’t know. The only thing I do know is that I want to feel your hand again.”

Hank swallowed, hard. For a full ten seconds, he quite possibly forgot how to breathe. “Maybe.” He coughed. “Maybe I should hold still, and you try to find me.” He cleared his throat again and added, “It might be easier that way, since you’re on the inside.”

He let himself melt into the wall. The surface grew softer beneath him, more pliant. From somewhere deep inside the wall came a whooshing noise, a sloshing that sounded like someone pushing through knee-deep water.

“Have you ever seen a wheat field?” Eppie asked.

“Only in vids.”

“This must be what it’s like, walking through one, only the stalks are so soft.”

A spot of heat brushed against his palms.

“Oh, I found you!” Eppie cried out before he could utter a word.

They stood like that, palm to palm. A circle of heat bloomed beneath their hands, spread into the wall itself.

“Do you feel that?” she asked.

Hank coughed again. “Yeah.”

“I think it wants us closer together. You know, more points of contact.”

“You okay with that?”

“Why wouldn’t I be okay?” she said. “It’s like dancing.”

Well, he wasn’t going to use that word, but yes, like dancing. They eased closer together. Was that her cheek against his lips?

“Why do you think it needs us?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you think it’s … I don’t know, using us? Not in a bad way. I mean, I barely know you, but I couldn’t stop thinking of you last night. You know?”

“Yeah, I know.”

“It feels … right, and yet, nothing makes sense.”

“Nothing about this last year makes sense. Weren’t you excited to get into the Academy?”

He had been, just like his older brothers.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be easy,” Eppie continued. “But even the training that seemed stupid at the time had a point, and you kind of knew what that was, even if you didn’t exactly.”

Hank snorted. That was the Academy, all right. “Both my brothers graduated from here. Frederick never talks about the maze, and all Jon says is don’t stop moving.”

But they had stopped. And now?

“All that training,” she said, “and then they put us in here, and it feels like … it feels like—”

“A mistake,” he finished. “Someone’s made a mistake, and they don’t know how to fix it.”

“Then why are they sending class after class through the maze?”

“Maybe they were hoping for the right combination?”

“Maybe they were hoping for us. Look.”

Shadows played against the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor of the maze. Dark figures ran, punched walls, scratched and kicked. Hank wanted to scream. Stop! You’re not helping.

“More than one dimension, then?” Eppie asked.

“I wasn’t paying attention that day in class.”

“I think this goes beyond anything they teach in class.”

“That’s probably part of the problem.”

The claxon bell blared, echoing through the maze with enough force to rupture an eardrum. Hank felt it shake the walls. The surface beneath his hands trembled, like a wild creature racked with fear and pain. Before the bottom fell out—before the walls melted and his feet slid through nothing—he lunged forward.

Forget trust falls. This was a trust dive. He grabbed Eppie around the waist the same moment she clutched his shoulders. He wasn’t losing her this time.

The second before they hit bottom, Eppie said:

“Don’t let go.”

Eppie

Something about the assembly yard was different, and it wasn’t simply because she was clutching the boy, Henry. They held onto each other, and Eppie took in the grass beneath her, the sky above, a twilight blue with a nearly full moon. And yet, when she stared hard, she saw the maze, or the outline of it, floating above their heads.

Others saw it too. Faces turned skyward. Necks, some long and slender, others thick and sturdy, were all she could see of her classmates. Another dimension? A being? Whatever it was, things were different.

Matrons and wardens converged on the yard, corralling boys and girls, not even caring that they mixed the groups.

“Find them!” someone shouted.

“Eppie!” Chara dashed up, breathless, hair streaming from its regulation bun. “They mean you.”

For the first time, Eppie’s gaze met Henry’s. His soulful dark eyes looked worried. “Us?” he said.

He sprang to his feet and reached for her. Eppie grabbed on with one hand, pushing herself up with the other. Then, still clutching Henry, she ran. Their classmates parted for them, then filled the gap behind, forcing the wardens and matrons to shove, to pull out the tazons. Zaps, sizzles, and the cries of their classmates echoed behind them.

“What are they doing?” Eppie forced out between breaths.

“Something bad.”

“What did we do?”

Henry glanced at her before sprinting harder. “Something bad?”

They raced past their classmates, intent on those last few steps to freedom. The protected forest around the Academy would shelter them. She knew enough, Eppie was sure, to survive for days in there, despite the lack of supplies. The two of them together? They’d make do.

At the very edge, where the scent of pine filled the air, and branches reached out as if to greet them, they slammed into a wall. Not like one from the maze. This wall was thick, electrified. It sent Eppie backward, through the air, her grip torn from Henry’s.

Her hip crunched against the earth first, a sickening sound that made her think of broken bones. She rolled, hoping that would absorb the shock. She rolled and rolled, right into a pair of white, gleaming boots. She stared up into the glowing end of a tazon.

Eppie never raised her hands. Her mouth stayed closed. She held on, held her breath, and braced for what would happen next.

The jolt shot through her entire body, and then her world went black.

Hank

Hank had ended his day surrounded by black. Now, waking, it was all he saw. He reached out a hand, waved it, blinked, and waved it again. Nothing. Either the cell was lightproof, or the tazon had blinded him.

Or both. He’d heard about the cells. They all had. The cadre sent you there when you acted out. You were meant to reconsider your choices in this space, contemplate whether the rules were really that bad, whether the wardens and the matrons truly mistreated you.

Life choices. We all make them, the superintendent had intoned during first-year orientation.

Yeah. What a choice. All he’d done was what? Figure out the maze? Where was the reward for that? The accolades? He pushed himself up, tucked his legs beneath him, then reached a tentative hand above his head.

A meter, maybe a meter and a half. Not enough room to stand and barely enough to turn around. He inched his fingers along the walls, the floor, and the ceiling. The surface snagged callouses on his hands, the texture rough-hewn and unmoving. He scraped a knuckle and warm blood oozed between his fingers.

His head swam, an ache spreading across his skull. A panel slid back. Light flooded the space. He squinted, trying to peer out his cell, the panel, the door—or what he thought was the door—anything to give him more information.

“The prisoner is awake,” someone said.

Prisoner?

“Ah, very good.” A shadow crossed the open panel. “Comfortable, Cadet Su?” a smooth voice said. “I imagine fraternizing with female cadets is a great deal more fun than this.”

What? He never … well, sure, he thought about Eppie, but they’d just met—sort of. Plus, they’d been inside the maze. All rules were off.

Weren’t they?

“Hungry?” the voice asked.

In response, Hank’s stomach rumbled. Stupid, stupid. It made him look weak. Of course, getting thrown into a pitch-black cell didn’t make him appear all that strong, or smart, either.

“Well then,” the voice said, the solicitous tone chilling Hank’s thoughts. “Why don’t we have a little chat?”

Eppie

The straight-back chair was unremarkable except for one thing: Eppie couldn’t move. Her bare feet were flush against the floor. The surface flashed hot, then cold. She jerked against invisible bonds, unable to break contact. Sweat bathed her forehead, trickled down her spine.

“You’re making it too hard on yourself,” the matron said. “Simply tell us what happened. Then you can go back to the dorm, have a nice dinner, see your friends.”

A false promise. She’d been trained—they all had—in resisting interrogation. Why did this matron think such simple offers would work now? The floor flashed again, a searing heat that forced a yelp from her throat.

That. It was one thing to read about torture, quite another for someone to cook the soles of your feet.

“You know,” the matron said. “Cadet Su told us some interesting things.”

The matron was all sly words and looks, playing mostly good cop. Eppie had braced for the inevitable switch—a new matron, or a warden, even. Pretending that Henry had said something might be standard procedure. In this case, it wasn’t logical.

“He told us what you did.”

What she did? Or what they’d done together? Neither of which amounted to much. Or perhaps, it amounted to so much that no one could understand what had happened. Eppie pictured the maze floating above the yard. The cadre wanted to control something they couldn’t comprehend. And good luck with that.

“You can’t hide anything from us,” the woman said. “We have it all on vid, for playback, any time we like.”

Then why bother asking? Eppie clamped her mouth shut. She’d stuck with the canned response, the one the cadre themselves taught. Name. Rank. Serial Number. You open your mouth, you give them an opening. Speak and you’ll eventually say something you don’t mean to—or can’t take back.

“So, you don’t mind that Cadet Su, that Hank, betrayed you?”

Perhaps someone named Cadet Su would betray her. And Hank? Well, how could you trust a Hank? Eppie shut her eyes and pictured Henry, his dark silky hair, his warm hands against her, around her waist, palm against palm as they ran. Maybe the Academy did have vids. But clearly their knowledge didn’t add up to much if they didn’t know the difference between Hank and Henry.

Eppie stared straight at the matron and laughed.

Hank

He knew the beating would come the moment laughter burst from his mouth. Cadet Langtry had betrayed him? Eppie? The few glimpses of the girl he’d had over the past two days told him how rock steady she was—much more than he was, that was for sure. How smart she was. After four years of training at the Academy, couldn’t the cadre see that?

Maybe they did and figured he was the idiot in the equation. Well, that was partly true, because he had just laughed, loud and long, at their ludicrous suggestion. Another round with the tazon? Sure, why not? Tossed, bruised and battered, back into his pitch-black cell? Not surprising.

What surprised him were the questions—not the ones about Eppie, but the others. What was the maze made out of? How did they get inside the walls? (And really, only Eppie had, so why ask him?) The cadre controlled the entrance and exit, herded them through the maze day after day. Yet, they knew so little. Which made him, and Eppie, and their classmates what? Lab rats?

He pressed gentle fingers against his eyes. They were swelling shut, both of them, not that it mattered inside the cell. Still, it was so dark, he was afraid he’d forget whether his eyes were open or closed. He wondered if Eppie were doing the same, testing her own bruised eyes. He hated to think of her that way, hated that maybe it was all his fault. He pressed a hand against the wall, wishing for one intense moment that it was the maze again, that he’d detect her warmth, find her again.

“Henry?”

The soft voice made him bolt upright. He should have smacked the hell out of his forehead and given himself a second concussion. Instead, the rough stone gave way—like in the maze.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

Eppie

Eppie couldn’t say when the floor beneath her bruised limbs cushioned rather than punished. Her hip stopped aching, then her ribs. She dozed, possibly, before her eyes went wide with amazement.

She was inside the maze again, but it was more than that now. Actually, when she considered it, the maze had always been more than that. It was something unto itself. And it wasn’t tethered to this world any longer. It had broken free. They’d seen that in the yard. But it hadn’t left. It had come back.

For her?

Yes, and not just for her.

“Let’s find Henry,” she told it.

And so they traveled. High above the Academy, Eppie breathed in the panic below. Hovercrafts for on-planet use, space transport, footlockers and bags scattered in the yard, and parents streaming through the halls in search of their children. Her stomach tightened. Her own parents? Had they been notified? Or was she not part of that world anymore?

The maze carried her through the long corridors of the Academy. She eavesdropped on hurried meetings, press conferences cut short. A scandal, with two cadets dead due to unauthorized experiments.

Dead?

“Please,” she told the maze. “Where’s Henry? Is he all right?”

So they floated lower, and lower, beneath the first floor, the basement, into the catacombs that fueled so many rumors among the cadets.

“All true?” she wondered out loud.

They passed her own cell. Her uniform, ghostly white, flat and listless, was crumpled on the floor. Perhaps the urge to lose her uniform had been right all along. She certainly didn’t need it now.

A sob echoed through the dark hall and wrenched her heart, but she was powerless to console the mourner. The maze continued down the hall, down another level. Eppie held up her hand, like she had the first time she’d met Henry inside the maze.

“I’ll know him,” she said. “Just go slowly.”

And so it did.

“There. There he is.” That telltale warmth, the palm that fit against her own. Henry. “He’s never been inside,” she added. Not like she had. She knew the maze, and it knew her, but Henry? They hadn’t gotten to that point.

“I think he’ll trust you now. Will you try?”

And so the maze did.

“Eppie?”

“I’m here.”

“Where’s here?”

“Inside the maze.”

He coughed, and his whole body shook with it. The maze trembled as if it too were in pain.

“Let go,” she told Henry. “Just let go.”

“How?”

“Take my hands.”

Palm to palm, then laced fingers. She pulled him up, the now useless uniform empty and deflated on the floor.

“Where are we?” Henry asked.

“I’m not completely sure, but I think we’re inside a baby universe,” she said. “It was an experiment, here at the Academy, for years and years, and no one knew.”

“Except for the cadets they ran through it.”

“Exactly.”

“So what is it now?”

“Now I think it’s evolving.” Her voice was hushed. “And I think it’s evolving because of us, because we tried to find each other, because—”

“We knew there was something more.”

They floated up, up, up, out of the catacombs, through the Academy, and hovered over the chaos of the yard. Then they went higher, into the stars.

“It’ll need room to expand,” Eppie said.

“Babies can’t stay little forever.”

Eppie laughed and shot forward, her form ethereal now. Henry caught her, and they twirled.

“Someday, we’ll have to settle down,” he said. “All three of us.”

But for now they were simply a boy and a girl, with an entire universe between them.

I first published The Maze as part of a small compilation. It was also this small compilation that ended up getting me an invitation to submit a story to The Future Chronicles. This is my way of saying: put your work out there–you never know what might come of it.

2 Comments

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: The Mad Scientist Next Door

Wrapping up October with a story about fences, neighbors, and (of course) Halloween.

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That infernal racket

Madam,

I don’t know what possesses you to conduct your experiments at three o’clock in the morning, but on behalf of all our neighbors, I’m begging you to stop immediately.

The solar panels, unsightly as they are, at least provide a function. I concede that the Rube Goldberg machine is educational.

This latest contraption of yours? What, pray tell, is its purpose? Other than to shake my house to its very foundation, I see no reason for its existence. I can’t begin to fathom what you’re doing or what your electricity bill must be.

For the sake of the neighborhood, I implore you to cease at once.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Sir,

What possesses you to be skulking around after dark? I nearly dialed 911 the other night, thinking a prowler was about.

If you must know, I conduct my experiments in the wee hours as a courtesy to the neighborhood, as to not cause a brownout during the summer months. Besides, the Rileys have never complained.

Doctor Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. My electricity bill is none of your business.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Wanda Waverly will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Although a new resident, as owner/manager of the Pick-n-Quick chain of convenience stores, Wanda brings her business acumen to the position of president. We are pleased she has decided to not only call our little community home but has stepped up to serve as well.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: That infernal racket

Doctor Brandenburg,

The Rileys are far too polite to lodge any sort of complaint. I shall take this to the board and the new president. See if I don’t.

Alistair Payne

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That ghastly eyesore

Really, Doctor? A fence?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That ghastly eyesore

Sir,

My cedar fence is lovely, board-approved, and offers adequate privacy for both parties. Of course, this assumes that one party does not skulk about during the witching hour with his ear pressed against the slats.

Speaking of eyesores, tell me, please, how long that cauldron has been moldering on your front lawn. A few flakes found their way into my yard, and I conducted several tests. My estimate is at least fifty years.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Bylaws

To clarify some points brought up in last night’s association meeting:

  • All structures, temporary or permanent, must not exceed the dimensions outlined in appendix D of the H.H.A. bylaws.
  • Lawn ornaments are limited to three, must be no taller than two feet, and considered generally tasteful.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: You win

Sir,

I cannot believe you are so petty as to lodge a complaint against my fence. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect you of some sort of witchcraft. I measured the boards myself, and I know they were in compliance with the bylaws.

But down it goes until next spring.

E. Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Good riddance

Dear Doctor,

It is hardly my fault if you cannot competently wield a ruler.

A.P.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Good fences

Sir,

I always thought Frost was being ironic when he wrote good fences make good neighbors.

Now I know better.

E. Brandenburg

P.S. Your animosity toward me is one thing, but the Riley’s play structure as well? Shame, sir. Shame on you.

P.P.S. Don’t bother to respond. I’ve blocked your email, and any additional missives from you will go straight to spam.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Halloween

To clarify some additional points from the previous association meeting:

  • Due to safety concerns, the annual Halloween parade has been suspended indefinitely.
  • Any structure erected for a holiday event needs approval, in writing, from the H.H.A. board ninety days in advance.
  • All items handed out for trick-or-treat must be wrapped and sealed. The Pick-n-Quick outside the main gate is offering H.H.A. members a 5% discount on all candy.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Wrapped treats

Mr. Payne,

I left some cellophane wrappers on your front porch. I constructed them based on the treats you distributed after last year’s Halloween parade. I think you will find that they will provide adequate coverage and pass muster with the board.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

P.S. The eldest Riley child, Alyssa, works as my apprentice, as you may already know. She’s informed me that contrary to my earlier accusation, you have toiled to … modify the Riley’s play structure so it conforms to the bylaws.

I’m not sure how you accomplished this. My own tools are finely calibrated, and certainly, the inspector for the H.H.A. possesses adequate ones. No need to tell me. The squeals and laughter from the Riley’s backyard are all I need to hear.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Wrapped treats

Doctor Brandenburg,

Let me extend my gratitude for the wrappers. While they caused a few raised eyebrows (I thought our esteemed president’s would vanish into her hairline), my treats were—undeniably—wrapped and sealed.

And thus, Halloween—along with the Riley’s play structure—was salvaged, at least somewhat.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. I could explain how the glamour on the play structure works, but that would defeat its purpose.

P.S.S I sorely missed your yearly light show.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Halloween

Mr. Payne,

Well, yes, everyone loves a Tesla coil—or nearly everyone. I find myself nostalgic for previous Halloweens—the parade, the costumes, the children’s cries of delight when you unveil the gingerbread house. I don’t see the point in denying them all that.

I must confess that this year simply didn’t feel like Halloween.

True, my sugar skeletons always pale in comparison to your gingerbread people. I suspect the adults only take my treatises out of pity (and no one thinks “trick or treatise” as amusing as I do). Of course, everyone leaves before the anatomy lecture.

And yet, I’ve come to rely on Halloween, along with the Hemlock block party, as a way to interact with my neighbors. This year’s curtailed celebration has hit me harder than I care to admit.

Yours,

Emilia Brandenburg

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Halloween

My dear Doctor,

I wish to assuage your melancholy. Trust that I have lived enough years to see more than my fair share of petty tyrants. I predict this Wanda Waverly will move on in due course to terrorize yet another homeowners association.

In the meantime, I will spend the winter working with the beautification committee and planning next spring’s gardens. They will be spectacular.

Yours,

Alistair Payne

P.S. Trick or treatise is beyond charming. If I promise no tricks, may I read one of your treatises?

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: the gardens

Dear Mr. Payne,

Botany has never been my forte, but I eagerly await the coming spring’s glory that is your garden. How you outdo yourself every year, I simply cannot fathom. The Hemlock Community entryway is the envy of all.

I do, however, have some thoughts on streamlining the irrigation system. Please refer to the schematics in the attached PDF.

Yours truly,

Emilia

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: Spring has sprung!

Can you believe winter is finally over? Whew! That was a long one.

In anticipation of spring and all it brings, I would like to announce the following changes, effective immediately:

The beautification committee has been disbanded. Instead, H.H.A. has hired a landscaping company that will take over the planting and care of the foliage around the community’s entryway and main gate.

Regarding the main gate, H.H.A. has contracted with a security company for the front entrance. The gate will be locked at midnight every evening and unlocked at six in the morning.

Happy spring, everyone!

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Wanda Waverly
Subject: The Main Gate

It has come to the board’s attention that locking the main gate between the hours of midnight and six a.m. has put undue hardship on some residents of Hemlock Community.

Rest assured, we only had your safety in mind when we implemented these rules. Our aim was to keep out any undesirables that might threaten the residents.

That being said, this is no excuse for deliberate sabotage! When the perpetrator is found, justice will be swift.

The board can (and will!) revoke membership in the H.H.A. Without membership, the perpetrator can no longer live in Hemlock Community. Further, the board can (and will!) foreclose on the perpetrator’s house and subsequently evict him or her. See paragraph four, sub-paragraph three in the bylaws.

In the meantime, to pay for a security upgrade to the main gate, including keycards for all residents, we will use the funds earmarked for the annual block party.

Wanda Waverly
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: last night’s meeting

Alistair,

I thought my heart would burst from my chest during last night’s meeting.

Would they have poor Mrs. Riley wait outside the gate for hours on end? I simply let her inside the development. That’s hardly a crime. And yet, I’m certain this Waverly woman suspects it was me.

Granted, everyone who’s about during the later hours knows that Mrs. Riley and I often share conversation over a cup of tea when she returns from her shift.

Although, really, even with the upgrade, this new security system is laughable. It’s not keeping anyone out, although I suspect it’s keeping many of us in.

Of course, with a little rewiring … nothing a child of five couldn’t do … except for rigging the system to play The Imperial March whenever Wanda Waverly drives through the main gate.

Now, in the light of day, I concede that may have been taking things too far.

And yet, I find that I can’t regret it, either.

Yours,

Em

P.S. The Imperial March is from a movie called Star Wars. I’ve included a link to an article about it on Wikipedia.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: last night’s meeting

Emilia,

Taking things too far? Not nearly far enough. I’ve been offering the landscaping company my expertise, gratis of course. Not that they’ve taken any of my advice. The poor hydrangeas; they may never recover.

Ah, but they’re a loquacious crew, and I’ve unearthed an interesting fact. The owner of this company is Wanda Waverly’s daughter.

What a strange, petty nepotism this is.

Alistair

P.S. You have me pegged. My ignorance of current cultural phenomena provides the Riley children with endless hours of amusement. I no doubt will provide this same service to their grandchildren.

I do, however, have a passing familiarity with Star Wars. The franchise appears to have a number of vocal and passionate devotees.

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: That hideous sign in your front yard

Emilia,

I could not believe the sight that greeted my eyes upon waking this morning.

A For Sale sign? I’m not certain what’s worse—the garish design or how the support appears to impale your front yard.

Tell me all that’s the matter. Certainly, things aren’t so dire as this?

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: That hideous sign in your front yard

Alistair,

Indeed things are that dire. Every time I step off my front porch, there she is, that Waverly woman, clipboard in hand.

In the last two weeks, I’ve received five citations. One more, and I forfeit my home. If I can’t find a buyer, the association can (and will!) foreclose on my house.

Beyond that, I suspect she, or the board, or someone is throttling the power supply into my house. I was conducting a delicate experiment in my third-floor laboratory the other day, one that needed a constant stream of electricity.

Suffice to say that I did not achieve that constant stream of electricity. Suffice to say I no longer have a functional third-floor laboratory—or eyebrows.

Worst of all? I was accosted last night. As you know, it’s my habit to stroll through the development in between experiments. It clears my head and refreshes me. But last night, a security guard curtailed my walk. He said I wasn’t allowed to stroll after midnight.

When did the development start employing roving security guards? Did I miss that announcement? Although he was, to use your own term, rather loquacious. Did you know that the owner of the security company is Wanda Waverly’s nephew?

In distress,

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The gloves come off

My dearest Emilia,

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve weathered my fair share of petty tyrants. Remind me to tell you how I thrice defeated eminent domain claims on this particular plot of land. The Payne residence remains, as it has for … let’s say, decades.

I cannot abide by this treatment of my friends and neighbors. I’m uncertain of what I shall do, but trust me, dear Doctor, I will do something.

Alistair

P.S. Your estimate about the cauldron is correct, or nearly so. It’s been there for a good sixty years. It’s a stubborn thing, and I cannot convince it to move. That it just barely meets the prescribed dimensions for lawn ornamentation no doubt vexes Wanda Waverly greatly.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

My dear Alistair,

So which am I? A friend or merely a neighbor?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The gloves come off

You, my dear Doctor, have the rare distinction of being both.

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Worried

My dear Alistair,

I do not like the look of that strange mist that surrounds your house. It feels malevolent to me. As unscientific as that sounds, I stand by that assessment.

I do not pretend to understand your craft. However, I know that any work created in the throes of anger will not have the desired outcome.

Yes, I know you witnessed this morning’s sixth citation. The entire neighborhood was privileged to witness that event. If you truly want to help, perhaps you could make my third-floor laboratory vanish. I’ll never find a buyer at this rate.

Please, my dear friend, I beg of you. Don’t do anything you may regret.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

Have you read that fairy tale? I wouldn’t say our current association president is wandering around naked (certainly there’s a stipulation against that in the bylaws, but I digress). She does, however, have a few transparency issues.

I have an idea, one that does not involve my craft or your discipline. Are you willing to hear me out? I’ll meet you at our adjoining property line at the witching hour.

Yours,

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Alistair,

I am still completely flabbergasted, even after sleeping on the idea.

Do you really think it will work? I cannot possibly be the best choice. After all, you’ve lived here longer than I have. You would hold more sway, would you not?

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: The Emperor’s New Clothes

Dearest Em,

I have lived everywhere longer than you have. I am set in my ways, set in my craft. If you were to flip open one of those illustrated dictionaries, you would find my portrait next to the entry for curmudgeon. Were I not to get my way, I’d be tempted to conjure a few special apples or perhaps an unsightly pox.

You, on the other hand? With your keen mind and willingness to take in data, experiment, adjust your hypothesis based on new information? How you eagerly gather input and listen to those around you?

Why, yes, you are obviously the best choice for this endeavor.

I have every confidence in you.

Alistair

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Curmudgeon

This, from the man who handcrafts a life-size gingerbread house for the neighborhood children each Halloween? And then sends them home with pocketsful of treats?

Oh, yes, you are quite the curmudgeon.

Em

 

To: Alistair Payne
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Last night

Oh, my dearest Alistair, please tell me you did not employ your craft to sway last night’s outcome.

I can hardly believe it’s true. But if it is, I want it to be an honest prize.

Em

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Re: Last Night

My dear Doctor, you wound me. Do you think I would employ enchantment to obtain what I want?

Yes, yes, I might. Certainly, in the past, I have. In this case? Other than canvassing on your behalf and ensuring there was no subterfuge from any quarter, I performed no other tasks.

Alistair

P.S. Besides, I can hardly cook up an enchantment with my cauldron on my front lawn, can I now.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: H.H.A. Board of Directors
Subject: Meet your new president!

It’s with great pleasure that I announce the results of last week’s election. Dr. Emilia Brandenburg will serve as the Hemlock Homeowners Association’s president effective immediately.

Emilia has made Hemlock her home for the past five years and has—quite literally—brightened the entire development. We look forward to her fresh ideas and vast experience in her new role as president.

Daniel Brown, Esq.

 

To: Members of the Hemlock Homeowners Association
From: Emilia Brandenburg
Subject: Bylaws and Halloween

Effective immediately:

  • The annual Halloween parade will take place starting at 6:30 p.m. on the 31st. Everyone is invited to participate.
  • The beautification committee will reform under the auspices of Mr. Alistair Payne in time to decorate the entryway and parade route. All volunteers are welcome.
  • A belated block party and impromptu association meeting will take place in front of the gingerbread house at the end of the Halloween parade.

Emilia Brandenburg
President, Hemlock Homeowners Association

 

To: Emilia Brandenburg
From: Alistair Payne
Subject: Halloween

My dearest Em,

To assuage any doubt you might be feeling this morning: You were simply splendid in your new role, as I knew you would be.

You will make a fine president.

With all my admiration,

Alistair

P.S. Your Tesla coil was magnificent.

This is the second outing for my curmudgeon witch Alistair Payne. He first appeared in Letters of Smoke and Ash.

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Mini-release Monday: Dragon Whispers

Dragon Whispers: Six Tales of Dragon Adventure and Lore

Here be dragons … six of them.

Often mercurial, preternaturally perceptive, always inscrutable.

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

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

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

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

Let the adventure begin!

Don’t buy this book!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Publishing, Reading

Short Story Saturday: Simon the Cold in audio

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

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Audio Books, Publishing, Reading

Free Fiction Friday: Abandonment Issues

There are places where you don’t want to wake up.

There are places you don’t want to wake up.

Flat on your back in a plowed-under field, clumps of earth stabbing your spine.

That’s one of them.

A CEO’s office, your own drool defacing the mahogany desk, the room dark, the only sounds the hum of a custodian’s vacuum and your own thudding heart.

That’s another.

Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the Joint Personal Effects Depot, surrounded by containers that hold so little and yet, so, so much.

That’s a third.

Today, when I wake up, my joints ache with cold. I’m on my back as if I’ve been dropped from one reality into another. Around me, metal ticks and groans. It’s the sound of abandonment. No footfalls. No hint of breathing except my own. Empty places feel empty. This, I’ve learned.

I consider when to sit up. Too soon, too quickly, and I’ll vomit. This, too, I’ve learned—the hard way.

From my vantage point on the floor, I study the space. It looks industrial, with row upon row of control panels with dials and gauges. The layer of grime on the floor might act as insulation—if it weren’t so disgusting.

Despite all this, there’s nothing specific to grasp. No signs with words, no distinct sounds except the rasp of my own breath. No clue as to where I might be.

I press a palm against the cold tile, but before I can sit, I do hear something new.

Slow, deliberate footsteps punctuate the air around me. I bolt upright, scramble to my feet, only to pitch forward into a control console. My head swims. My vision tunnels. A second later, I coat a series of dials and buttons with a spray of vomit.

“Weak,” a voice behind me says. “Always so weak.”

I spin and then regret it as another wave of nausea hits me. I grope the panel behind me, fingers reaching for a dry, solid spot.

“Tell me, at least, that you’ve figured it out.”

The man before me must be at least seven feet tall. He wears a long black coat. The scent of damp wool clogs the space between us while a swirl of smoke rises in the air. His face looks as though someone has carved it in alabaster, all sharp edges and angles—and familiar. I’ve seen him before. I blink. Yes, certainly.

But where?

“You’ve made the connection, haven’t you?” he says.

Stray thoughts fill my mind, the barest tendril of an idea. I consider the trips I’ve taken and the places I’ve landed.

The field, for instance, with its old farmhouse. In the root cellar, I found a lockbox. Inside that, a deed with my grandfather’s name. Evidence of bounty lost in the Great Depression. Moments after my fingers touched the yellowed paper, something whisked me back to my actual life.

The man’s lips curl into a hint of a smile. No, someone whisked me back.

In that CEO’s office, I found a birth certificate, listing my name, my mother’s, and a third—the one embossed in gold on the door. Again, I could only hold the paper for seconds before that particular place vanished as well.

This is why, when I found myself in the Personal Effects Depot, I held my breath. My fingers inched their way through Gabe’s container until I found the one thing I couldn’t bear to leave behind. I gripped the chain of his dog tags so tightly that the tiny ball bearings left welts on my skin. But I had them. They traveled back with me.

I have them now.

But how does this place, with its soot and oil and years of grime, relate? Cold, impersonal, insubstantial. Even this man of smoke and oil could evaporate in an instant.

Assuming he doesn’t kill me first.

My confusion must show on my face because the man shakes his head and makes a tsking sound.

“Weak and slow. I can’t imagine how you’ve made it this far.”

While I don’t know what he means, I can only agree.

He takes a step forward. And I, still clutching the console, take three skittering steps to the side. My mind races. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates. What does it all mean?

“Of course, you are pretty,” the man says. “The pretty ones are never very bright.”

I stop taking those skittering, hesitant steps. With all my will, I hope he closes those last few feet between us. I have a roundhouse kick I’d like him to meet. Behind me, something drips, the steady plink of a dam about to break.

“Nothing?” the man asks.

My mouth is dry. I long to tip my head back and catch a few drops of that water. Even if I could, it wouldn’t loosen any words.

“Ah, well,” he says. “At least you are pretty. There’s consolation in that.” He grins, and something sparks in his eyes. “For me, at least.”

I grip the console tighter. The man steps forward, raises a hand as if to caress my cheek. I don’t let him. That last step leaves him open. Perhaps it’s meant to intimidate, this stance, to show off his height or that he doesn’t find me a threat.

What it does is give me a target.

My foot ricochets off him three times—knee, groin, jaw. A crack. A thud. A howl. I should finish him off, but perhaps he is right: I am too weak. Instead, I shake out my leg, push from the console, and run.

* * *

A cadence pounds in my head along with my footfalls. Dog tags and deeds and birth certificates, and then, Oklahoma, Chicago, Afghanistan. If I run fast enough, maybe I can catch the connection that eludes me.

Everything is cold and damp and empty. An occasional drip lands on my nose or the back of my neck and sends shivers skittering across my skin.

My footsteps are too loud, my breathing too heavy. It’s all I hear in my frantic charge down this passageway. If someone chases me, I won’t know until too late. With that thought, I spin, search the dimly lit corridor behind me—no impossibly tall man with alabaster skin. I wheel around and continue my headlong dash forward.

The object I crash into is solid and warm. It says, “Oomph,” when it strikes the floor. So do I. The landing jars my wrists, paralyzes my arms. I can’t move them, not to fight, not to defend myself. I kick away from the figure opposite me, legs struggling, hands useless. Then the figure—a man—lunges.

He grabs my feet and nothing more.

“Hang …” His head droops with the effort to breathe, to speak. “On. Won’t hurt you.”

Gradually, I inch into a sitting position, still braced to run. When he lifts his head, I peer into the dark eyes of not the man I dispatched with a roundhouse kick, but those of my brother, Gabe.

Gabe. Who died in Afghanistan. All I can do is mouth his name. No sound emerges from my throat except for one, plaintive croak.

“Yeah,” he says. “I know.”

“I … how?” My voice is rough, but the words, at last, are there.

He shakes his head.

The implication—the connection—hits me, sends me reeling backward so I might collapse on the floor again. My arms, still weak, tremble beneath me. I scan the space around me, this here that really isn’t.

“Am I dead?” My question is quiet, and it sinks in the cold air around us.

“I don’t know,” Gabe says.

“Why are we here?”

He shakes his head. “I keep traveling—flashing, really—to different places, then back to Afghanistan. Always Afghanistan.”

“The Army sent someone to the house. They knocked on the door…” I break off, not wanting to narrate Gabe’s death, not now, not here, not ever.

How I knew, even before opening the door, the shadow of a uniform through the etched glass, like smoke and oil blotting out the sun. He doesn’t need to know these things.

“I keep going back to Afghanistan,” he says. “Hell, I wish I wouldn’t. Anywhere else must be better.” His gaze surveys the dark, damp space around us. “Well, almost anywhere.” He climbs to his feet and then offers me his hand.

Despite the cold, metallic air, his skin is so warm.

Even with Gabe at my side, this place is strange and hollow. Abandoned, like that field in Oklahoma, that daughter in Chicago, the soldier in Afghanistan. And yet, different.

It’s missing life or some essential component of life. After all, a plowed-under field has its uses. A birth certificate can list a father who might not live in your life, but at least he lives. The personal effects of a soldier represent a life that once was.

But this place has none of that. It’s too empty, too impersonal to be hell.

“Do you think this might be purgatory?” I ask Gabe.

Before he can answer, sharp, slow applause echoes. It’s a brutal sound that infects the air with cruelty.

“Brava, Miss Malloy.” It’s the impossibly tall man again, all alabaster white and yet shrouded in smoke and oil. “You’re not as slow as I first suspected and certainly not as dimwitted as your … what is he, exactly? Your half-brother?” He casts a look at Gabe. “Honestly, it’s as if you enjoy dying in Afghanistan.”

Behind me, Gabe shifts, his hand resting on the small of my back, a posture that means he plans to take the fight over flight option—and wants me to do the opposite. But I’m pretty good with a roundhouse kick—thanks to Gabe—so all I do is tense in reply.

“Yes.” The man rubs his jaw. “You are fairly competent.”

“Am I also dead?”

“Are you?” And now his voice is laced with that smoke and oil, the sound deep and seductive. It’s enough to make you flutter your eyelids shut, if only for a moment. When I do, I see him, the harbinger of death, standing on my doorstep, wearing—of all things—an Army uniform with chaplain insignia.

“It’s up to me, then?” I say.

“Is it?” His tone matches the single, arched eyebrow.

I officially loathe the man in front of us. An oily smile spreads across his face. He revels in my hate, soaks it in.

“It’s so pure,” he says, “undiluted. Absolute. You don’t often hate, which makes it all the more delicious.”

Gabe bristles and steps in front of me.

“Oh, go on, big brother. Protect her, if you can, and if I don’t dispatch you back to Afghanistan.”

“Run,” Gabe says, the word a growl. “Run and don’t look back.”

“I tried that,” I say. “It didn’t work.” I could run forever.

“And I will always catch you,” the man says.

“Run!” This time, Gabe’s voice cracks.

I see what the man of smoke and oil plans to do. If he can read my thoughts, then perhaps I can sense his intentions. Static fills the air. I smell dry heat. Grit fills my mouth. I work to blink sand from my eyes. I land somewhere real this time.

Afghanistan.

A battle wages, but in this pocket of craggy hills and rock, the three of us stand as if we’re the only people in the world.

The man of smoke and oil raises a hand.

I throw myself in front of Gabe and catch the full blast meant for him, pieces of it like shrapnel. They pierce my chest, my legs, my heart. I think I must be torn to ribbons. The impact throws me into Gabe.

Twin cries of “No!” echo around me.

Gabe gathers me in his arms. “Marta, what have you done?” He looks up, his fierce gaze locked on the alabaster man. “Don’t do this, not to her. Don’t let it happen.”

“It … can’t,” I say, even though my lungs seer with each word. “I never died in Afghanistan.”

I pull the set of dog tags from beneath my shirt. The blast has fused them together. Smoke rises from the charred aluminum. And yet, the chain is cool to the touch.

“Yours.” I drop the chain around Gabe’s neck.

With a single howl, the man of smoke and oil evaporates, leaving behind only acrid air and soot. I breathe in both, and then everything vanishes.

* * *

I jolt awake, and everything is white. For an instant, panic seizes me. But death doesn’t smell like antiseptic, and I doubt the soundtrack for the afterlife contains soft clicks and beeps. I sit up, blink, and stare at Gabe.

His hospital gown is askew, exposing a bandaged shoulder. My fingers itch to adjust the gown, but my hands are clenched in his. Together we hold the dog tags as if they are a string of prayer beads.

At one time, I would have said that a hospital is a place where you didn’t want to wake up. Now I know that isn’t true.

Something teases my peripheral vision. I jerk my head, certain I’ve seen the man of smoke and oil, caught a glimpse of his alabaster face. And while a man does stand in the doorway, he only holds a pitcher of water.

“Sorry,” he says. “I thought you might like something to drink.

I nod my thanks, my heart too high in my throat for words.

“He’s done so much better since you arrived,” the man adds.

I nod again.

“I doubt my sister would fly all the way to Germany for me.” With that, he sets the pitcher on the tray table and leaves the room.

Gabe cracks open his eyes. “I bet his sister wouldn’t throw herself in front of some psycho demon’s death ray, either.”

“You didn’t die in Afghanistan.”

“Doesn’t look like it.”

“Why?”

Gabe unfurls his fingers and studies the mangled dog tags. “You changed things when you refused to abandon me, even when I told you to run, even.” He rattles the tags. “Even after I died.”

I nod but remain silent. A glimpse of oily smoke catches my attention. There, in the corner of the room, but the inky tendrils scatter so quickly, I’m not sure they were there at all.

“Here.” Gabe raises the chain. Compliantly, I lower my head so he won’t have to strain. “You wear these from now on.” He pauses, and I wonder if he can see the oily smoke or just senses it. “They’ll keep you safe.”

I clutch the dog tags tight in my palm and know this one thing:

They will.

Abandonment Issues may be the closest thing to horror that I’ve written (clearly, I scare easily).

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: With Hair of Teeth and Claw

This is not your mother’s Rapunzel.

This week’s story is a little bit longer than usual. If you’d like to download a copy for your phone or e-reader, you can do that at BookFunnel (link good until the end of the year).

She caught the thief with his hand wrapped around the stem of a flower, its spike of golden flocked petals sprouting from his fist. The brim of his hat shrouded his features, and the overcast night made it impossible to identify him. Even so, the witch knew a desperate husband when she encountered one.

“Let go of the lion’s tail,” she said, her words crisp as the air, with just enough bite to get her point across, but not so much that she didn’t appear neighborly. She’d always been a good neighbor.

“My wife, Mistress Witch.” The man sunk to his knees. “She is with child.”

“Yes. I know.”

In truth, the entire village knew every time the babe kicked or the woman’s back ached or her ankles swelled. Never had so many prayed for a timely birth.

“She craves all things fresh, all things green, all the things that grow in your garden. Please, Mistress. I will work, split logs, do whatever you ask, but let me take some of your bounty home to her, so our babe might grow strong.”

A first love, a first child, it was enough to make anyone a fool—or a thief. The witch spread her arms wide. “Take, neighbor, take all that your wife craves.” She grabbed hold of his hand. “Except for this.”

Beneath her grip, he unclenched his fist. The plant he held—lion’s tail, as the locals called it—dropped to the ground, stem broken, bright petals crushed.

“Leave the lion’s tail,” the witch said. “She should not eat it while with child, and I cannot be responsible for what happens if she does.”

The man bowed, his movements jerky and frantic. The witch helped him pluck the best greens and place them in a basket. She saw him to the edge of her property, and when he hesitated, she urged him forward.

“Go,” she said, voice gentle. “Take the greens and return to your wife.”

When the man had left, the witch bent and plucked the lion’s tail from the ground. She stroked the petals and wondered if his wife had already tasted of the plant.

That could be very bad indeed.

* * *

The babe was born strong, with a lusty cry and deep blue eyes that peered out at the world around her. Within a week, the entire village predicted she’d be a beauty. Within a month, her golden hair fell to her chin, the strands thick and wild. By nearly a year, the strands fought all attempts to comb them.

It was then that cries emerged from the cottage, by day and night, until the babe’s mother ran from the house. Neighbors peered from their windows and did nothing, but the noise brought the witch from her garden.

The woman trembled, skirts in tatters, arms scratched. Blood oozed from wounds. In her hands, she clutched a pair of shears. She pointed the tip at the house and the infant inside.

“That is not my child. That cannot be my child.”

She stood like that, her arm shaking, the shears more weapon than tool.

The witch examined the woman, gave a curt nod, then proceeded inside the cottage. Scattered strands of gold littered the floorboards from hearth to door. Other than a soft whimper, the room was quiet. She crouched to approach the babe.

“Shh … there you go. You are not in danger, and I will not hurt you.” She gathered the child to her and stroked the remaining tufts of hair.

“See? I’m a friend. Let’s find your mother.”

The child cried out, fists clenched, but the witch hummed a lullaby, one with the power to sedate a charging troll. The babe blinked and then stared at the witch with curious blue eyes. The sight of them transfixed her, and the old witch’s heart caught for a moment before resuming its natural beat. They stepped into the sunlight and into the crowd that now surrounded the cottage.

“She’s the one!” the mother said, jabbing her shears toward the witch. “She poisoned me with the plants from her garden.”

“Your husband stole from my garden to satisfy your cravings.”

The woman’s hand shook, the tip of the shears bobbing. “That cannot be my child. She looks nothing like me.”

Laughter rippled through the crowd. True, the woman was no beauty, and her husband no prince. The woman turned her wrath on the closest bystanders, silver shears glinting in the sunlight. The crowd eased back, catching laughter into cupped hands.

“Oh, then perhaps the child is mine?” the witch asked.

This time, no one held back their laughter.

“So you think I wasn’t a beauty in my day?” The witch scanned the crowd, the babe still secured in one arm. “Master Tailor, I believe you know different.”

The old man shuffled and stammered, a ruddy cast to his weathered cheeks. The witch turned back to the babe’s mother.

“You do not want your child?” she said to the woman.

“That is not my child.”

“Then who will care for her?” The witch held the child aloft for the village to see. “No one, then?”

She considered the quiet bundle in her arms. A beauty, it was true, but those deep blue eyes were uncanny, knowing. No wonder this simple woman trembled at the sight of her own child.

The witch cast a look toward her own cottage and the garden with its walls—ones that kept her tender plants safe from hooves and teeth. They kept the variety of weeds she cultivated from invading her neighbors’ gardens. Walls were handy but not foolproof. Her gaze met the babe’s, and once again, her heart caught.

In this case, perhaps she was the fool.

“I will care for her,” the witch declared. “Please, before I take her with me, tell me her name.”

The woman blinked as if waking from a dream. “She has no name.”

“You have not named your child?” No wonder the babe lashed out. Even now, at the sound of the woman’s voice, those short tufts of hair bristled, and the child cried out again.

“Oh, my poor child,” the witch murmured, “fate has been cruel.”

No one stopped the witch from taking the child. No one uttered a word of protest. When the witch passed the mother, so she might say goodbye, the woman only turned her back on both the witch and her own child.

To the witch’s surprise, the husband followed her home, weighed down by the cradle, a wee table, and a chair.

“Please, Mistress Witch, take these things for the child.”

The witch nodded, held open the door to her cottage so the man might bring the items inside.

“Would you like to say goodbye before you leave?” she asked.

He had none of his wife’s hesitation. His hand cupped the babe’s cheek. The tufts of hair wavered as if blown by a soft breeze, and the babe’s eyes were luminous.

“Goodbye, sweet girl. Goodbye, my Rapunzel.”

“Is that the child’s name?” the witch asked.

“It is what I wanted to name her,” he said, his voice wistful.

“Then Rapunzel she’ll be.”

* * *

With Rapunzel still in the crook of her arm, the witch gazed about her cottage. Oh, it was a poor place to raise a child. Too many dried herbs that, consumed incorrectly, might injure or kill. Too many sharp objects. She inspected the child’s head. Scars from the shears crisscrossed her raw scalp. Clearly Rapunzel was no stranger to those.

She would need to find a grate for the hearth, a cow or goat for milking, soft cloth for diapers, and something other than the stained gown Rapunzel was wearing.

“It’s been many years since I’ve even held a child,” she said to the babe. “And I’ve never had any of my own.”

At the thought, her heart caught once again. Had she ever intended to raise a child? Did she regret the time spent in the pursuit of her potions and spells? No. The village was a healthier, happier place for her efforts, even when its citizens didn’t fully comprehend them.

“We can make do for now.” The witch placed Rapunzel in her cradle. “I can soften bread in weak tea and stew some apples. Does that meet with your approval?”

Rapunzel sat up in her cradle, that unnerving blue-eyed stare never leaving the witch’s face. Then the child clapped her hands together and gurgled.

“Well, I see that it does. Tomorrow we will explore the village, get you some proper things. But tonight? Let’s get to know one another.”

It was late when Rapunzel fell asleep in the witch’s arms. She eased her into the cradle only to be caught short by the babe’s cries moments later.

She knelt at the cradle’s side, cupped a hand against the child’s soft cheek. “We both must get some rest.”

The babe quieted immediately, but the moment the witch withdrew her hand, the cries started anew, stronger, more strident than before.

“Oh, very well, it has been a rough day.”

She scooped the babe up and carried her to the large bed behind a curtained wall.

“I imagine you could use the comfort.”

But when the witch extinguished the lamp and felt the babe curled at her side, tiny fingers clutching her thumb, she wondered which one of them truly needed the comfort.

* * *

It was not the sudden acquisition of a child that shocked the witch. No, she’d come to terms with that during the darkest hours of the night. It was not the surprise of a cow tethered to the cottage gate. This, she suspected, was a gift from Master Tailor.

It was the way Rapunzel’s hair had grown overnight. The strands curled and swirled. They felt like silk flowing through the witch’s fingers, their length already to the child’s chin.

The witch pulled ancient volumes from a shelf and thumbed through them, searching for something, anything that might tell her what manner of sorcery this was.  She thought back to the man in her garden all those months ago. What had she given him?

She peered at the child who sat at her wee table. “Was it a combination of plants your mother ate?”

Rapunzel slapped the wood of the table, blue eyes stormy, hair undulating. It bristled, strands on end like that of a thistle.

“She is still your mother,” the witch said, her voice soft but no nonsense.

Another slap.

“Do you wish to be my daughter?”

Ah, the gurgle again. The hair calmed itself. Rapunzel peered at the witch, her blue eyes dark and serene.

“You shall be the daughter of my heart. Does that suit you?”

Rapunzel stood and toddled over to the witch. She clutched at her skirts with tiny fists.

“I see that it does.” The witch bent down and clutched the child close. When she had Rapunzel nestled against her chest, the witch found herself stroking strands of that hair, much like she’d done all those months ago with the petals of the lion’s tail. The locks slipped through her fingers as if they had a mind of their own.

“Inquisitive little beasts,” she murmured.

And then froze. The lion’s tail.

What manner of sorcery indeed.

“We have all been very, very foolish, I’m afraid,” she whispered into the child’s hair, “and you will be the one to pay for our folly.”

* * *

The witch took Rapunzel with her everywhere. Aside from the father, there was no one she could trust in the village to watch the child and not gossip. And gossip they would. Already rumors flew about the miraculous growth of the child’s hair.

Every morning, the witch worked to contain the strands before leaving the house. In a bonnet. Secured with bows. The strands had a life of their own, flowing through her fingers, curling into points, flicking back and forth, very much like a tail.

“Until we reach the woods, child,” the witch would say. “Contain them until we reach the woods.”

Rapunzel blinked, a frown marring her little brow as if she were trying hard to comply.

Even with the babe in a sling, the witch felt lighter on her treks into the forest. With her age, she knew the senselessness of rushing. Leave that to the young. She’d complete her tasks all in good time. This morning was no different.

In a clearing, she set Rapunzel on a blanket, handed her a crust of bread to gnaw on, and began her work.

“I will teach you this,” she said, flicking a glance and her words over one shoulder. “I will teach you which plants to consume and which ones to avoid. I’ll show you when to cut, how to cut, and when neither of those things matters.”

The witch inched her way around the clearing, always darting a look toward its center, toward Rapunzel. The child seemed content to chew her bread, clap her hands, and track the witch’s progress. Not for the first time, her thoughts drifted to Rapunzel’s mother. How could she abandon such a child? So compliant. So calm.

“We will see how long that lasts, won’t we?” the witch said with a wink.

Perhaps it was that steely gaze or the miracle of the hair that now hid the scars on Rapunzel’s scalp, but the witch swore the child understood more than she ought.

“Which makes me feel less foolish when I talk to myself,” she added.

Rapunzel gurgled.

The witch was near the old willow tree when a cry sounded behind her. Her throat tightened, and she was certain some harm had come to Rapunzel. Or perhaps the mother had a change of heart, followed them this morning, and was intent on stealing the child away.

Instead, when she turned, the witch came nose to nose with a river rat. The thing was large and hairy, its gray fur matted and stinking of stagnant water. This was not the sort of creature that kept the barn cats fat. This was the sort of creature that took whiskers and tails as trophies.

Where there was one rat, there would be another; they hunted in pairs. She’d survive a bite, although the infection would linger, and nastily so. Rapunzel? The daughter of her heart? A child barely bigger than a cat?

The cry went up again. The witch started forward, taking an inventory of the arsenal she had on hand. A pair of shears. Some twine. A handful of willow branches that she might fashion into a switch.

Rapunzel still sat in the center of the clearing. Despite the tears that washed her cheeks and tiny hands clenched into fists, she was unharmed. It was the sight of the child’s hair that froze the witch in place.

The strands had grown, not by inches, but whole yards. They flowed across the clearing as if exploring new territory. They curled and lashed out, the ends sharpening into points. Like teeth. Like claws.

Several locks had already trapped the second rat, bound it neck to tail, so all the witch could see of it was its grubby nose and crooked whiskers. Now several locks worked in tandem, approaching the first rat from two sides and from behind. The creature hissed—at the witch, at its predicament. A predator such as this always knew when it had met its match.

It made one desperate lunge, an attempt to inflict injury before succumbing itself. Claws extended, teeth bared, it launched itself from the branch, its target the witch’s face.

The golden strands of Rapunzel’s hair caught the beast midair. A slashing. A slicing. The carcass tumbled to the ground and landed with a soft thud.

Only for a moment did the witch hesitate. Only for a moment did she consider what the villagers might make of this child. Cries of monster echoed in the back of her mind. But then she rushed to the center of the clearing. The golden strands parted, let the witch through to her child, and she clutched Rapunzel to her.

With that tender embrace and her quiet words, the hair relaxed its guard. The strands softened their points, retracted until their length was a touch longer than earlier that day.

The witch cupped Rapunzel’s face. “Do you know what it is you can do, child?”

Rapunzel stared, unblinking.

“Is it even you who is doing this, or is it your wonderfully monstrous hair?”

At the words, the strands extended, a lock wrapping around the witch’s wrist, none too gently.

“Cut that out,” she said to the golden rope around her wrist. “It takes offense far too quickly. We will have to work on that.”

The hair tightened its grasp, while a separate lock flicked back and forth, once again an angry tail.

“If you are to live in this world, you will need to learn to control your hair.”

Rapunzel stared back, steely-eyed as ever. Then she clapped her hands together and gurgled.

The hair relaxed its grip and flowed into golden ringlets.

The witch released a sigh. Yes, to live in this world. That would not be an easy thing.

* * *

Rapunzel soon outgrew her cradle and wee table and chair. Her hair evaded all attempts to tame or trim it, and the strands quickly traveled down her back to her knees, until it swept the ground. Every morning, the witch would braid the strands, and Rapunzel would loop the plaits around her arms or her waist. She grew into her beauty and her strength, for she did everything under the weight of her hair.

The witch became deft at avoiding the majority of the villagers who might cause problems. The father was kind and no worry. He left Rapunzel all manner of carvings and trinkets. Master Tailor kept them in cow’s milk, although the witch made a point to avoid his wife.

Once, on a walk to the forest, they encountered Rapunzel’s mother. The woman herded two children—twins—in front of her. The girls danced along the lane, skinny arms freckled, red hair thin but flowing down their backs—free of all of the constraints the witch placed on Rapunzel’s hair.

The daughter of her heart halted, her spine impossibly straight beneath the weight of all her hair. She locked her gaze on the trio, strands of hair straining against their braids.

Then one lock escaped, slithered down the lane after the mother and two girls. A few strands wrapped themselves around the woman’s ankle. It was then the witch pulled the shears from her apron pocket and snipped the lock.

The strands released their grip, twitched much like a dying snake, and at last ceased all movement. The woman walked on, oblivious.

“She cannot hurt you, child,” the witch said.

Rapunzel glared, a non-answer if there ever was one. She was at that age—no longer a true child, not yet a woman. And the witch knew she’d spoken a lie.

Of course the mother still had the power to hurt. All mothers did. Try as she might, the witch couldn’t banish the image of the quivering strands of hair, lying dusty along the lane. Try as she might, she couldn’t muster the courage to ask for forgiveness.

But that night, Rapunzel crept into the witch’s bed, curled next to her, and clutched her thumb with long, slender fingers.

* * *

One morning, in Rapunzel’s sixteenth year, they awoke to an odd humming that came from outside the cottage. Rapunzel peered through the shutters, her hands poised to open them to the morning sunshine, her fingers unmoving.

“Child, please, let in the fresh air,” the witch said.

Rapunzel’s hands remained still. “There are many strange men outside our door.”

On the way to the door, the witch secured a broom. She sprang across the threshold, broom handle connecting with a jaw here, a temple there.

“Go, go! All of you. She is too young to marry.”

True, Rapunzel had fully grown into her beauty, and when tame, her hair was a sight to behold, glimmering without the benefit of light. The witch had not anticipated this, however. Not so soon, and not so many suitors.

In retrospect, perhaps she should have.

Rapunzel’s father took to guarding the path to the cottage, but this only worked for so long. Men came daily, hourly, knocks on the door, the windows. More than one man tried the chimney only to find his breeches smoldering from a stoked fire.

After a night of off-key serenading that had left them both bleary-eyed, the witch decided.

“We must leave the village.”

The daughter of her heart peered through the shutters, the tips of her braids twitching. “Why do they want me? They do not even know me.”

“They want your beauty.”

“But my beauty isn’t me. If that is all they want, then surely I will disappoint them.”

“That is something none of them understand.”

Rapunzel’s gaze darted toward the door. Already a fresh crop of men lined the path, their murmurs rising in the morning air.

“But how?” she asked. “How will we leave?”

“Do they make you angry?”

“Oh, they do.”

“Remember that when you step outside, and all will be well.”

Rapunzel’s father packed the wagon and hitched the horses. For the first time since the day he gave his daughter away, he ventured inside the witch’s cottage, cupped her cheek, and told her goodbye forever.

The witch stepped from her cottage for the last time, cries and calls of the men thickening the air around her.

“Going somewhere, Mistress Witch?”

“Can we follow?”

“Is there room in your wagon for me?”

Men lined the path three deep. The witch traveled its center until she reached the wagon. There, she climbed into the driver’s seat and took the reins from Rapunzel’s father. She gave him a reassuring nod before speaking to the men who had chased her from her home.

“Gentlemen,” she said, “if I were you, I’d step back.”

No one heeded her warning.

When Rapunzel emerged, the cries grew louder still. Jeering and whistles and bids for attention. One man and then another blocked her path. Two grabbed her wrists. A third—the tallest and fairest, the only one dressed in nobleman’s attire—pushed the others aside in his quest for her.

But when the last of her unencumbered hair cleared the doorway, a gasp filled the air. The strands whipped and whirled, the ends sharpening into teeth, into claws. The men released her. Some ran, the nobleman among them. Others froze in place. Rapunzel walked, expression serene, hands folded in front of her, while her hair dispatched the men.

The slate walkway ran with blood. Bits of flesh speckled the walls of the witch’s garden. The cries went from jeering to unearthly, the agony sharp in the air.

No one followed them from the village.

* * *

They rode for days, stopping only to sleep. The first night, when Rapunzel wished to keep them dry from the rain, her hair wove itself into a shelter.

“Oh, it can shield as well,” Rapunzel said, her fingers investigating the crosshatch of strands above their heads, her eyes curious once again.

“Indeed it can, my child. Indeed it can.”

At last they came to the borderlands, to a stone watchtower long abandoned. The space around it was vast and empty—only hill after hill that stretched into the horizon. No sign of a village, a farm, or even a hunter’s cabin. Desolate and barren and the perfect spot for the two of them.

“Here,” the witch said. “We can make this our home.”

And yet, as she said these words, the ground shook with the force of approaching horses. In the distance, the standard of the war prince fluttered above a line of soldiers on horseback.

“Quick, Rapunzel, hide. In the wagon. Pull in all your hair.”

The wagon creaked with the weight of Rapunzel and all her hair. The horses whinnied as if they wished to cover the sound. They were good beasts, the witch thought, and they loved Rapunzel almost as much as she did.

When the war prince arrived, the witch bowed low.

“Mistress Witch, may I ask what you’re about?” the prince asked.

He was a powerful man, large and dark, a mask partially shrouding his features. His eyes, black and inquisitive, took in everything. They surveyed the tower, the horses, the wagon, all before returning to the witch.

“But of course, Your Highness,” the witch said. “I plan to use this tower for my home. It is no longer in your use, is that right?”

“That’s true, but the borderlands are dangerous, and my army is small in number.” He waved a hand at the group behind him. They were a motley crew, large and small, green-skinned or not, pockmarked or masked for reasons the witch decided not to contemplate.

“I cannot guarantee your protection,” he added.

“And I do not ask for it. All I ask for is quiet to practice my craft.”

“And if a troll happens by while you’re practicing your craft?” Now those dark eyes were lit with humor.

“Oh, Your Highness, I have lived long enough to know exactly what to do with a troll if one happens by.”

The prince laughed. “I believe you do, Mistress Witch. But be warned, this is a lonely stretch of land. Men seldom travel it.”

“That’s what makes it perfect, Your Highness.”

He laughed again, as if he took her meaning. He bid her farewell and rode away, his soldiers following, their horses kicking up dust that floated on the humid air. The witch tasted that air and licked her lips.

“It shall rain soon,” she declared. “Let’s get settled.”

The watchtower had a single entrance that the witch sealed over once their belongings were inside. It was cozy here, space enough to work and live, and the window let in sunlight and fresh air but would shield them from rain.

“But how shall we leave?” Rapunzel asked.

“I shall climb down the face of the tower,” the witch said. “There are hand and footholds that should not crumble beneath my weight. Or perhaps your clever hair might weave itself into a ladder.”

At the suggestion, the golden strands did just that, the construction so quick it produced a breeze within the circular room.

“But I cannot climb down a ladder of my own hair,” Rapunzel began, then clamped her mouth shut. “Oh, I see. This is to be my prison.”

“Not a prison, child, but a sanctuary.” The witch laid her palm against Rapunzel’s cheek. “If your hair were not so fierce, so untamable, you might seek a quiet life in some faraway village. But when we left, your hair felled two dozen strong men.”

“And no one wants to live near a monster.”

The witch tugged her close, wrapping her bony arms around the daughter of her heart. “You are no monster—”

“But my hair—”

“Seeks out injustice. It always has. Why would it attack the woman who gave you life, but not your father? Why does it lash out at men whose only interest is your beauty?”

“The world doesn’t want that sort of justice, does it?”

“I’m afraid it does not.”

“I will stay, then.” Rapunzel gathered handfuls of her hair. It flowed and swayed and cascaded to the floor in waves. “We shall stay. Perhaps I can teach it to behave.”

The witch spent her days in the forest, gathering herbs and berries. Every fortnight, she ventured to the nearest village for supplies. She traded with merchants there, weaving her deception. Just an old crone brewing potions and remedies. That spring, the lion’s tail grew thick in the woods. Every time the witch caught sight of it, she flinched, only to confront yet another clump a few feet away.

Rapunzel practiced remedies and potions along with the witch. Together they cultivated containers of herbs and small plants so Rapunzel might feel the soil beneath her fingers without leaving the tower. Beneath her touch, the plants flourished. She coaxed all manner of exotic flowers from the soil, even those the witch had never managed to on her own. Their petals brightened the little room and perfumed the air.

At night, she studied history and took a particular interest in the battles once waged in the borderlands and the ghosts said to walk and howl, searching for their old regiments or gutted homes.

“I do not hear these howls,” Rapunzel said one evening. She lifted the heavy locks beneath her hands. “Perhaps my hair is too thick against my ears.”

“Perhaps people search for excuses not to inhabit these lands,” the witch said.

“Perhaps.” Rapunzel remained at the window for a long time, her gaze exploring the borderlands, the very tips of her hair twitching like that of a penned beast.

For eight months, they lived in quiet in their watchtower. The war prince had been right. Few strayed this close to the border. Once, the prince himself rode by on patrol, a small group of soldiers at his side.

“I see you live well, Mistress Witch,” he called out.

The witch leaned from the tower’s window and called back, “Very well and very alone, Your Highness. However, I see you have added to your party.”

The witch inclined her head as the prince’s younger brother rode forward. He was light where the war prince was dark, unmasked and unscarred. Even from a distance, the witch felt those legendary gray eyes taking in everything. In this, he was very much like his brother.

With a hand, she shielded her own eyes and hid her frown. There was something about him that unsettled her. True, she never paid much heed to palace gossip. Even so, she knew that the younger prince preferred the boudoir to the battlefield for his conquests.

With as much stealth as possible, she gestured at Rapunzel, urging the child to conceal herself further, to constrain every last strand of golden hair. Rapunzel merely covered her mouth with a hand so as to not to laugh out loud, her hair rippling across the floor with repressed mirth.

“Perhaps this stretch of land is not so lonely for you now, Your Highness,” the witch said, her voice rougher than she liked.

The war prince cast his brother a look. “Perhaps not.”

As the party rode off, the witch considered that perhaps she and the war prince also had something in common.

They were both liars.

* * *

Later, the witch would admit that she’d grown complacent. Life with the daughter of her heart was more than she had ever hoped for. Her trips to the village grew more frequent. Perhaps those gave her away. Perhaps she called too loudly for Rapunzel to lower her ladder of hair. Perhaps someone followed her, spied on them, although who would be curious about an old crone living alone, the witch couldn’t say.

But when she returned from her most recent trip to the village and saw not the golden ladder of hair but one of wood propped against the tower, the witch knew she’d betrayed Rapunzel in some fashion. She dropped the reins and leaped from the wagon. The horse, so gentle and loving, simply continued forward to meet its sister. The witch scampered up the ladder, her hands catching on the rough grain so much she had to claw her way to the window.

There, in the center of the room, Rapunzel stood. Around her, strands of her hair whipped and whirled, the ends sharp and deadly. Like teeth. Like claws. A monster of a thing. On the floor? A man.

A dead man—a dead nobleman from the looks of his clothes—one who had suffered the death of a thousand cuts, a thousand bites. One whose breeches were around his ankles. One whose hand had torn away the bodice of Rapunzel’s dress.

“He surprised me. I never heard him until he cleared the window.” Rapunzel stared straight ahead, her gaze on the window, not on the man, and not on the witch, a hollow look haunting her blue eyes. “And then … and then … Mother, I’m … I’m …”

“No!” While flight had never been one of the witch’s skills, she flew across the room, cradled Rapunzel to her. “You are not sorry. This is not your fault.”

“But—”

“He is dead. A lone nobleman, venturing out on his own, in the borderlands? This will surprise no one.”

“Turn him,” Rapunzel said, her voice devoid of emotion, a dead thing.

Panic gripped the witch, had her by the throat. With a foot, she complied, heaving the dead man onto his back. Fair hair. Royal crest.

The war prince’s brother.

“He will come searching, won’t he?” Rapunzel said. This was no question. “The war prince will search for his brother.”

“Perhaps. The borderlands are vast. It may be months before we see him again. And by then?” The witch surveyed the man, the window, and considered how they might accomplish this next task.

“If your hair can lower him to the ground, I shall bury him in the woods. I feel winter in my bones. An early snowfall will be welcome.”

Rapunzel nodded. “I shall scrub his blood from our floor.”

Without another word, Rapunzel’s hair wrapped the man from head to foot and lowered him through the tower’s window. When the witch reached the ground, she was surprised to find the longest strands of hair in a dense copse behind the tower, the claws already digging a grave.

By the time the witch found a shovel, the man was deep in the ground. So she took up an ax and splintered the ladder into kindling. And by the time she finished that chore, those beastly strands of hair had scattered dry leaves across the grave, the fresh-turned soil all but hidden.

She eased a hand beneath a lock of that hair. “Thank you,” she said. “Thank you for protecting her, thank you for being so fierce.”

The strands wrapped and unwrapped themselves around her wrist before caressing her cheek.

* * *

Despite her own words, the witch knew. A dead prince was still a dead prince, and justice would be served. A week later, when the war prince rode up with a contingent of his soldiers, she was ready to face that justice.

“Good day to you, Mistress Witch.”

The witch stood at the base of the tower. “And to you, Your Highness.” She bowed low. She liked this dark and masked prince, even though today he would, no doubt, declare her death sentence.

“I wonder if you can help me.”

“I will try, Your Highness.”

“My brother has gone missing. You met him on our last patrol through these parts. Did you happen to see him or even converse with him?”

Behind the prince, one of his soldiers unleashed a dog. Oh, yes, the witch thought, he knew the answer already. A moment later, so did everyone else. The hound let out a howl before digging at the fresh grave.

“Tell me, Mistress Witch, how did he come to die?”

She drew herself up tall, raised her chin. “I killed him, Your Highness.”

To her surprise, the prince laughed—a dark, somber laugh to be sure, but a laugh, nevertheless. “I doubt that.”

“Doubt what you will, Your Highness, but do you see anyone else here?”

“You have just admitted to murder, and of one of the royal family. Do you wish for death?”

“I am but an old crone, and death does not scare me.”

“I suspect you might scare death itself,” the prince murmured. “But you leave me no choice.” With a sigh, he addressed the soldier next to him. “Arrest her.” He returned his attention to the witch. “Unless you can give me a compelling reason not to.”

“I can give you that reason.”

The voice came from above, and it rang high and clear and unimpeded over the borderlands. The witch whirled, her chest constricting. No. Not Rapunzel. No. She shook her head, but the daughter of her heart paid her no heed.

Without another word, Rapunzel stepped onto the window’s ledge. She jumped, her hair fanning out behind her before rushing to the ground to cushion her fall. She landed on her feet, knee-deep in golden locks.

“Your Highness, no,” the witch began. “Please listen. She—”

The prince held up a hand, silencing her. “Let her speak.”

“I killed him, Your Highness,” Rapunzel said.

“Did you now? And you are?”

“Rapunzel.”

“Rapunzel? With hair of teeth and claw?”

“I … is that what they call me?”

“You are but a legend, a whispered story. I—” He broke off, his gaze drawn to the woods where the younger prince was buried. “My brother spoke of you.”

“I am very real, Your Highness, and I have killed your brother.”

“You confess to murder, then?”

“In self-defense, but yes, I do.”

The prince fell silent. The soldiers behind him shifted in their saddles. The one who managed the dog corralled and leashed the beast. Then with a single, deliberate motion, the prince removed the black leather mask to reveal a face crisscrossed with scars.

“Look upon this face, Rapunzel,” he commanded.

And she did.

“I have lost my only brother.”

“I am sorry for your loss, Your Highness.”

“You must understand that yes, he was my brother, and I confess to loving the boy he once was, but not the man he became.” The prince contemplated Rapunzel as he spoke, as if taking in her full measure, as if sizing up an opponent. “That, perhaps, was unfair of me, unfair to him.”

The prince drew his sword, the metal blade singing out. He aimed the blow directly at Rapunzel. A cry lodged in the witch’s throat, and it took all her strength not to sink to her knees.

Rapunzel’s hair whipped and whirled. When the frenzy subsided, she and the prince stood mere feet from each other, the tip of his sword poised at the hollow of her collarbone, the claws of her hair wrapped around his neck.

His soldiers sprang forward, weapons drawn.

“Stand down!” the prince called. When no one moved, he sheathed his own sword and said, “Stand down. She doesn’t intend to injure me.”

“True. I don’t.” With Rapunzel’s words, her hair unraveled from around the prince’s neck.

“And why is that?” He rubbed the skin of his throat, the move born of curiosity rather than pain.

“You did not intend to hurt me.”

“And your hair.” He gestured to the locks undulating along her back and on the ground. “It knew that.”

“Yes, Your Highness.”

A smile lit the prince’s scarred face, then a laugh made it almost handsome. “Then I am lucky, for that was only my guess.” This time when he contemplated Rapunzel, his gaze was lit with interest. “And now I face another sort of dilemma, for I not only lost my brother but my best fighter.”

The witch’s heart caught. The tips of her fingers grew cold, her legs numb. “Your Highness, you can’t possibly mean—”

Once again, the prince silenced the witch’s protest with the barest flick of his wrist.

“I mean everything I say, Mistress Witch.” He directed his gaze toward Rapunzel once again. “Will you join my company and replace the man you have killed?”

Murmurs rose from the assembled soldiers. One stepped forward, probed a lock of hair with the toe of his boot. The strands curled around his ankle, and the man landed on the ground.

“She is but a girl!” another called out.

“I am strong,” Rapunzel said. She hefted her hair in both her hands. “I have been carrying the weight of this all my life.”

“A burden for certain,” the prince said.

“How will she ride?” someone else asked. “We have no cart for all that hair. We travel light.”

Before the soldier even stopped speaking, her hair swirled. It wove complicated patterns, fitted itself to her body until she was covered in what looked like golden chainmail.

“It seems I won’t need any armor,” Rapunzel said. “Or a cart.”

“Any more dissent? Perhaps you’d like to confer with my brother.” The prince gestured at the grave. “I’m certain he has an opinion on the matter.”

With the prince’s words, the witch knew: the matter was settled. Strength returned to her limbs, and a strange, detached determination filled her. She saddled a horse, and the sisters whinnied their goodbyes, tails swishing. She secured a bag of provisions and one of potions and remedies. If she could, the witch would have packed her heart as well, for it was too swollen and sore in her own chest.

“Goodbye, daughter of my heart.” The witch presented the reins to Rapunzel.

“Mother?” Rapunzel’s eyes grew large, as if only now she realized the consequences of her choice. “I don’t want—”

The witch hushed her. “Of course you do. It is right and good for children to leave home, to have adventures. This prince is a good man,” she added. “He will not lead you astray.”

“I can’t promise you comfort,” the prince added. “Or even safety. But adventure? That I can promise.”

Rapunzel’s gaze went once again to the horizon, her eyes lit with the promise of the adventure that it held.

“Go with him, child. Go be free.”

Rapunzel hugged the witch, mounted her horse, and joined the prince’s company. They rode off, and the witch tracked them until Rapunzel blended into the horizon. Even then, the witch stood at the base of the tower. At last she turned and confronted its surface.

“I’m not sure I know the spell to conjure up another entrance, or a staircase, for that matter.” She said these words to the horse, who snuffled and snorted a reply. “I’m not sure these old bones can stand the climb.”

Before the witch could even try, a golden ladder tumbled from the window. She grasped the silky strands, hardly daring to breathe, and climbed up to the ledge. Once she stood inside, the strands returned to the tower. They flowed through the window and into one of Rapunzel’s containers of exotic flowers, where they burrowed beneath the soil.

Then, in a moment that was no more than a blink of an eye, a stem pushed up and through, and the bloom of a lion’s tail unfurled.

With Hair of Teeth and Claw was first published in The Shapeshifter Chronicles.

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020

Free Fiction Friday: Dragon’s End

Sometimes the end is just the beginning.

The knock on my door comes before sunrise. Three quick raps that sound sharp and official. When I answer and see Mayor Simos on my stoop, the words sharp and official sear my thoughts.

“It’s time,” she says.

Her face is creased from sleep and the weight of her office. A breeze rustles loose strands of her hair, wisps escaping the coronet braids.

I want to ask time for what, but her expression is cold and foreboding. I know I don’t want the answer.

“Bring your tools,” she adds, and then, almost as an afterthought, “and the book.”

Ah, yes. The book. A simple word that answers all my questions.

I know where it is, of course, locked in the trunk at the foot of my bed. The key, heavy cast iron, weighs down the cord looped around my neck. The cast iron flashes cold, then hot, against my skin.

I’m not certain I remember how to insert the key into the lock, not certain I can lift the lid. I haven’t done so since my grandmother passed the book to me before she passed on herself.

“Miri,” the mayor prompts, and she is all sharp edges with a razor-like gaze.

“Yes, sorry. Just a minute.”

I don’t invite her in. Instead, I shut the door against the protest that’s forming on her lips. I sag against the wood. There are few privileges to being me, but this is one of them.

The trunk at the foot of my bed is ancient and solid. The wood is reinforced with iron bands, the lock larger than both my fists. The key slips into the lock easier than I think it should. The tumblers click with far more assurance than I feel.

When I lift the lid, a fine layer of dust bursts into the air, filling my mouth, grit stinging my eyes. My nose twitches, but I hold in the sneeze.

I stare at the inside of the trunk, at the items I thought I’d never need to use. The saw with its serrated edge. The plane and the awl. The long, elegant pick with the hook at its tip. I pack these into a canvas bag. Next comes the book.

No one has touched it since my grandmother wrapped it in linen and placed it here. The trunk itself hasn’t moved in decades. I now sleep in the bed she slept in, the bed she died in.

The second my fingertips brush the linen, I’m afraid the soft material will crumble in my hands. The book must remain wrapped, at least for the trip to the caves. After that? Well, after that, I guess we’ll see what’s inside.

I open the door on Mayor Simos, her fist poised to knock. The reprimand is sharp in her eyes until her gaze lands on the bundle in my arms.

Even Mayor Simos respects the book.

The sun casts a glow on the horizon. There’s enough light to paint the sky indigo. And enough that I can see the playground where the village children gallop and run with the hatchlings, the earth bare and packed from feet, claws, and the swish and thump of tails.

When I was younger, I sat far back from the playground, up in the tree that shades the house my grandmother—and now I—live in. With my belly flush against a thick branch, my arms wrapped tight, I’d watch, envy fizzing inside me.

I wanted a hatchling of my own. I wanted to be chosen.

I am, of course. Chosen, that is. The book in my arms is proof of that. But I would never choose this path for myself. I would never choose it for anyone else, either.

Mayor Simos leads the way. Her coat, trimmed with gold braid, sways as we trudge toward the foothills north of the village. Cottages give way to pastures until we reach the foothills. The sun crests the horizon. Its warmth touches the back of my neck, almost like it’s urging me forward.

Tendrils of smoke issue from the caves. These caves, the ones closest to the village, are not our destination. This is where the hatchlings sleep. Their gentle snoring makes me think of puppies dozing by the fire. Somewhere, deep down, that envy fizzes once again.

Mayor Simos casts a glare over her shoulder as if my longing is both tangible and unseemly. I will my expression to remain placid, and we continue our trek up the mountain.

The snoring grows deeper, more sonorous the farther up we go. The cave openings are larger. If you were to wander inside, you might be lost for days—or forever. It would all depend on the humor of the occupant.

At last, we reach the final cave on this branch of the path. Dragon’s End, we call it. Nothing but blackness pours from the entrance. Worse is the silence. I strain my ears, hoping for a muted snore, but hear nothing.

“How long?” I ask.

“Five days, we think,” Mayor Simos says. “It’s hard to tell. They don’t need much in their retirement, so the shepherds seldom visit more than once a week.”

I nod as if this is vital information I can use. It isn’t. I have no idea what will greet me when I enter the cave.

We stand at the entrance for so long it becomes clear that Mayor Simos is waiting on something. Profound words? A dismissal? I don’t know. But there is one thing I’m sure of.

I go in alone.

I turn to do just that, but the mayor takes my arm.

“Miri, I’m sorry.”

“Sorry?”

“It may have been more than five days.”

“Has no one come around to check?”

I see the answer in her gaze. No, no one has, perhaps not for a very long time.

Instead of envy, anger bursts to life inside me. How could no one check? You could send a child of five up the slope. It isn’t dangerous. They care for our own in the way we do their hatchlings. They would never harm a child.

I clutch the book to my chest, the linen rustling in my hands.

“I’m sorry,” Mayor Simos says again. “I should’ve sent someone around. I simply didn’t think…”

I shake my head and shake away her apology. Maybe it’s her fault. Maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure it matters. No one in living memory has performed this task. Even my grandmother was a small girl when her own grandmother told her of the last dragon tended to in this manner. That tale has been lost over time. No one knows, for certain, what happened.

This is not supposed to be happening. I was never meant to take this trek up the path. I was supposed to live my quiet life. At some point, I’d give birth to a girl, who in time, would birth one of her own. I would pass the tools and the book onto my granddaughter. This undertaking is one that skips a generation.

Dragons live for such a long time. Chances of any of them needing our services are inestimably small. None of us ever thinks we’ll be the one to journey up the mountain, enter a dark and foreboding cave, crack open the book, and read the words inside.

After that? Here’s where the oral instructions become vague. My grandmother wouldn’t—or perhaps couldn’t—tell me.

I go in alone. Without Mayor Simos. Without any counsel. Without any hope of coming out again.

I draw in a breath. The sun has touched the valley below us. If I listen hard, the delicate snoring of the hatchlings fills my ears. I step forward, the cool air of the cave washing over me. Before I can dive in, before I can fully commit, Mayor Simos touches my arm.

“The book,” she says.

Ah, yes. The book. I consider it now, still clutched against my chest.

“In a week,” I say. “Send someone in for it. A child would be best.”

Her grip on my arm tightens.

“They would never harm a child,” I add. No matter what mess is left in my wake, this mountain possesses enough residual enchantment for a child to navigate into and back out of the cave. “A hatchling, perhaps, could go with them.”

Her grasp lessens, but I still feel her fingers against my skin. I don’t know what else she can tell me, but I want to enter the cave before she delivers any additional bad news.

So I wrench free, my arm and then sleeve slipping from her hold. I dive into the cave, committing fully. This is one rule I know, the one rule my grandmother insisted I follow.

Once past the threshold, do not hesitate.

* * *

But I do. I halt several steps inside the cave. Behind me, the entrance is barely a flicker of light. Before me? The cave splits in two, no four, no six directions.

“Which do I choose?” I say these words aloud as if there’s something else in the cave with me, something sentient and far cleverer than I am.

Nothing answers my plea except for the echo of my own voice, tiny and forlorn. I peer down each tunnel, but nothing distinguishes one from the other. Perhaps they all lead to where I need to go. Perhaps that’s why there’s no need to hesitate.

I pick the fourth tunnel, simply because I like the number four, and stride forward. The moment I do, a rumbling sounds behind me.

Rocks tumble and slide down the sides of the cave. I dash forward, pebbles and stones chasing after me. The walls of the cave shake. The earthen floor trembles, my feet skidding on the unstable surface. At last, a final boulder fills the path and blocks the entrance completely.

Yes. Of course. Do not hesitate.

I take quick, shallow breaths in the dust-laden air. The taste of earth fills my mouth. My heart thunders, much like the rocks and stones did. I wait until the dust and my breathing settle.

I peer toward the entrance. “How will they retrieve the book now?” I’m not sure who—or what—I’m asking. The rocks that block the path? Whatever force sent them tumbling in the first place?

As if in answer, a hint of sulfur rides the air.

“I guess that’s their problem, not mine.”

A rumble reaches me. I want to say it sounds like a laugh or, at the very least, a snort. More likely, the rocks are merely settling.

It’s not dark. At least, not as dark as it should be. A thin sliver of light emanates from the depths of the mountain. I’ve already hesitated enough.

I follow the only path open to me.

* * *

The strap of my canvas sack bites into the flesh of my shoulder. My arms ache from clutching the book. My fingers cramp from where I’ve gripped the sides. I can feel the hours I’ve trekked in my legs. My mouth is parched.

The muted light guides me. It’s barely there, this sliver of illumination. I don’t question it. To question it is to lose it, and I can ill afford to lose this one small advantage.

I have no provisions, didn’t think to bring any. Slowly, over the past hours, my anger at the shepherds has simmered into sympathy. How do you care for something can’t find?

And if I can’t find the dragon? What then?

The thought makes me stumble. I reach out a hand, my aim the cave wall, or really anything to keep me from falling, breaking an arm—or worse, a leg. The moment my fingers brush against the cave’s surface, a golden glow fills the space.

I remain there, palm flush with the cave wall, the stone cool beneath my touch. The glow around me, however? That looks warm and inviting. My eyes adjust, and I step closer to inspect the source.

Embedded in the walls, the ceiling, and even the floor are coins, layer after layer of them. Gold and silver shine forth. The coin of our realm, yes, that’s expected, but it’s more than that. I trace my fingers along the bumps and edges, trying to discern the languages written there. They are either from places too far away or too long ago for me to recognize.

I continue forward.

Other hues join the gold and silver of the coins, the walls now studded with gems—rubies and sapphires and emeralds. Some fall as I pass, as if the slight breeze from my movements is enough to dislodge them from their perch in the cave wall.

I wonder at this. Did the shepherds never wander this deep into the cave? A single gem could keep a family fed for generations. Certainly, the dragons allow this sort of barter—a small token in exchange for care.

A wave of dizziness strikes me. The air is, perhaps, a bit thin back here. Still, it would be worth the journey, even without the lure of riches. I don’t understand why no one has ventured this far into the cave. I would gladly tend to a dragon, were I to have one.

Gladly.

The dizziness crashes over me again, forcing me to my knees. Before me, the path is pristine. Behind me, my footsteps are sharp outlines in the dust. No one has been this way for ages. My chest tightens until pain radiates along my breastbone. I’m not truly dizzy. I’m not deprived of air. This is something else, something that’s simmered and fizzed for a long time.

All I ever wanted was a hatchling of my own.

What I have now is someone’s loyal and neglected companion, a creature who, while not dead, is not that far away from death.

Dragons can be killed, certainly. In battle. With the sharp edge of a sword angled just so or with boulders flung with catapults. But they can’t die naturally, not as humans do. As part of our alliance, we offer them this one, final service.

It falls to one family, generation after generation. This family is forbidden any other contact with dragons, from hatchlings to elders. It’s said to contaminate the pact. Often we’re never called upon to complete this final task.

Until we are.

Like today.

* * *

I find my breath. A few moments later, I muster the strength to stand and for the journey still ahead of me. The cave glows blood-red now from the gemstones in the walls. Perhaps this is intentional, meant as a warning, and my pulse beats in my throat.

I round a bend in the cave. And there, just like that—blocking my way forward—is a dragon. Its girth at midsection blocks my view of its tail and the cave beyond. I can only assume there’s a cave beyond, at any rate. Perhaps the cave ends here, and the dragon, grown so vast in old age, can no longer crawl free.

The claws on its forelimbs shine like mother of pearl. Its eyes are closed, mouth as well. If the creature breathes, I cannot detect it. Perhaps someone—a shepherd, maybe—has already done my job.

But there is no stench of death, of decay. The cave is dry, the air scented with a strange mix of brimstone and pine. It is not unpleasant.

I ease the canvas sack from my shoulder. The tools jangle, and I freeze, afraid the noise will wake the dragon.

It doesn’t move.

I place the book, still in its linen wrap, on the floor as well.

I don’t know what to do. It occurs to me that the answers are in the book. That’s why it’s been passed down from generation to generation, cared for, but never read. I’ve never even been tempted before. I only ever wanted a dragon, never to kill one.

With careful fingers, I unwrap the linen. The leather cover is worn, the gold embossed title barely legible. I turn to the first page and find …

Nothing.

I flip to another page, and then another. I tear through the book, unconcerned with its age or condition. Nothing but yellowed parchment greets me. No words, not even barely legible ones in faded ink. All the pages are blank. At last, I stand and shake the book, hoping for a loose page or a note or something to flutter to the cave floor.

“I don’t understand.”

I whisper the words. They swirl in the space around me, their echo soft yet insistent before the sensation of being scrutinized washes over me.

I glance up and find myself staring into the golden eye of an ancient dragon.

* * *

Everything I thought I knew about my task has vanished. I’m to take my tools, the book. I am to perform what amounts to last rites for an ancient dragon. It will be in such a deep sleep that the steps I must perform to end its life won’t disturb it. This, my grandmother assured me.

Now that ancient dragon is gazing at me. A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils. Again, that odor of brimstone and pine surrounds me. I can taste the smoke against my tongue. The book slips from my fingers and crashes to the cave floor.

“I see they’ve sent me a child.”

The voice is deep and sonorous. It rolls through the space and shakes my bones.

“I’m no child.” My voice quavers, but the words come stronger than I expect. I lift my chin. “I live on my own,” I insist, as if this is proof of my maturation.

The dragon snorts a spurt of smoke. “Little more than a hatchling.”

“What am I to do?” I point to the book. “It doesn’t say.”

“Doesn’t it? Are you quite certain?”

Oh, spare me mind games with an ancient dragon. I’m ill-equipped for this sort of sparring. Besides, it must know even if I don’t. But it will no doubt make me work for that knowledge.

“Am I to kill you?” I see no reason not to be blunt.

“Are you? That seems rather rude. We’ve only just met, after all.”

“Then am I your…?” I trail off, a wholly different thought occurring to me.

“Sacrificial lamb, the morsel meant to appease me?” It tilts its head so both glowing yellow eyes can survey me, from the top of my head to the tips of my dusty boots. “You’re rather small for that.”

“Then, what am I?”

Its claws retract and then rake the earthen floor in front of me. “What you are, my child, is very much stuck.”

* * *

I very much am. Stuck, that is. Had the shepherds performed their assigned tasks, there would be provisions in here, a cistern of water at least.

“Why am I here?”

“Have you consulted your book?”

I spear it with a glare. Without water, I won’t live out the week. So I will be fierce in my dealings with the dragon.

The creature snorts another laugh. “Humans, always so inquisitive, and yet, so oddly obedient. Did it never occur to you to have a peek inside? Gird your loins for your one task in life?”

Well, no, it hadn’t. I spent my time gazing at the hatchlings. “I never wanted this.”

“Well, it seems to me you have it.” A sigh rumbles in its throat, dual streams of smoke rising from its nostrils. “A child, and an incurious one at that. What a disappointment.”

“At least it’s mutual.”

“Oh, perhaps this child has some fire, after all.”

The dragon looks not at me, but past me with so much concentration, I must resist the urge to glance over my shoulder. That’s what it wants, of course. But no one shares this space with us.

“We seem to have reached an impasse,” the dragon says. “You have no idea how to complete your task—”

“Do you?”

The dragon regards me with narrowed eyes before continuing. “It’s any guess who will succumb first. I will be reduced to some nether-slumber while you.” Once again, it surveys me from head to foot. “Will eventually shrivel up. Will I be conscious long enough to blow the dust of your bones from this spot? Who’s to say? Shall we place bets? Winner take all?”

My heart thuds heavily in my chest, a slow, painful sort of beat. Perhaps this is why elder dragons are banished to the upper caves. All I ever wanted was a hatchling, a dragon of my own. But this one? It’s an old, bitter, cruel thing, and I want nothing to do with it.

There’s no escaping its girth, but I find an outcropping of rocks on the side farthest from the dragon. I take my tools and the book.

Yes, even the book. The leather is soft enough, and so are the pages. It will make an adequate pillow. Perhaps that’s all it was ever meant to be.

“Ah, yes, and now the poor thing pouts.” Its words are a mere whisper, although clearly, it wants me to hear them. “I abhor tears,” the dragon adds, louder now. “So, if at all possible, refrain from crying.”

This last is the only thing we agree upon.

I comply.

* * *

In my dream, I am a warrior, a dragon as my mount. In my dream, we soar through the air, dodging arrows alight with flame. In my dream, the roar of battle shakes my bones.

My eyes fly open. The roar continues even as my dream fades. The world is dark, my bed like stone, nothing but the scent of brimstone and pine.

Then I remember.

The roaring grows ever louder. In the middle of the cave, the dragon thrashes its head. Its eyes are shut tight. It must be dreaming. The same sort of dream? Of battlefields and fire? Or is this something more, something worse?

It thrashes again. The agony in its cry races up my legs, my spine, settles at the base of my skull. I don’t think. I do not hesitate.

I rush forward, dodging its swinging head, nearly eclipsed by its jaw. I’ve never touched a dragon before. But from my perch in the tree, I’ve watched the village children do this so many times.

I leap and wrap my arms around the dragon’s neck. I hold on with all my strength even as my legs swing beneath me. One foot connects with the dragon’s chest, although I doubt it feels the impact.

“Shh.” I keep my voice low and soothing. There’s a trick to this, to the hushing of dragons. To say I have no training is true. But I listened; I practiced using that same tree branch. “Shh.”

Its head continues to swing, but slower now. My arms ache, but I clutch its neck, my feet scraping the cave floor.

“Evelynne … Evelynne.”

The cry rips through me. I’ve been so consumed with wanting a dragon of my own that I never considered what happens when the human a hatchling first bonds with is killed or dies.

How many humans does a dragon lose during its lifespan?

It could make you bitter. It could make you cruel. Perhaps this is why, at a dragon’s end, they are banished to the upper caves.

“Evelynne.”

The dragon’s swaying comes to an abrupt halt. I dangle from its neck. I cannot see its face, but I suspect those great golden eyes are now open.

I let go and drop to the cave floor.

It takes one look at me and then collapses as if its head is too heavy for its neck.

* * *

I am a bitter disappointment. The yellow gaze the dragon casts tells me that. I remain immobile on the cave floor, palms against the dusty surface.

“You should not know how to do that,” it says.

No, I shouldn’t.

“Lace your hands,” it commands.

So I do. True, it took years to learn the correct placement, of which finger goes where. Incorrect placement of fingers, of hands against a dragon’s neck will enrage rather than soothe. It’s a skill even those with hatchlings find difficult to perfect. Indeed, I had no idea if I was performing it correctly at all.

Until now.

“How do you come by this knowledge, child?” A fiery edge laces the dragon’s words, and its displeasure tastes like sulfur.

“My house overlooks the village playground.” My voice comes out steady and dull. “I would watch the hatchlings and the children. I would practice on a tree branch.”

“There’s more to it than that.” The dragon shakes its enormous head, its jaw whooshing mere feet above me. “There’s the bonding, the spellcasting. You should not … we should not.”

Because it’s forbidden, this contact. No thrill of fear courses through me, no regret. I would gladly calm this creature once again, given half a chance. I would gladly do it even if it meant my death. To prove it, I push to stand and anchor my hands on my hips.

Those great amber eyes blink, a shuttering of its gaze. When the dragon opens its eyes once again, something has shifted in its expression.

“What have they done to you, child?”

I shake my head, uncertain what it means.

“Why sequester the most talented humans like that?” The dragon murmurs the words, the question meant for its own pondering rather than for me.

Despite that, I decide on my own question. “Why do they banish the old ones to the caves?”

The dragon swings its head around so quickly that I’m nearly flattened against the floor. It regards me for a moment before speaking again.

“Forgive me, child.”

“Whatever for?”

“My temper, my rash judgment. Undoubtedly I’ve lived long enough not to give in to either.”

“Or maybe it’s because you have lived so long you gave into both.”

Something sparks in that golden gaze. Its lip curls, revealing sharp and gleaming teeth. “Yes. Precisely. Do you suppose they count on that?”

Do they? I glance back at the way I came. Even if I had strength and time on my side, digging through the debris would be impossible. I peer into the darkness behind the dragon’s girth.

“What is at the other end?” I ask.

“Other than my tail?”

“Yes.” I laugh because its tone is sly and full of humor. “Other than that.”

“A dead end, appropriately enough.”

I turn my gaze upward and follow the trajectory of the smoke that rises from the dragon’s nostrils.

“That is merely a thin layer of rock,” I say.

“Oh, my child, I am old.”

“So old as that? Truly?”

“My wings. I—”

The walls around us groan, and the dragon trembles with the effort to spread its wings.

“You see,” it adds. “I have tried.”

“But, they have given me tools.” I race to the alcove and weigh each tool in my palm, judging the merits of each. I return with the awl.

I hold it up so the dragon can see.

“Indeed,” it intones. “That was their mistake.”

The dragon lowers its head. A thousand times, I have seen the children and their hatchlings perform this maneuver. I step carefully, only lighting a foot on its forehead before settling between its horns.

Something washes over me, that scent of pine and brimstone again, along with something more—the feeling that I belong here.

The dragon raises its head, so my own nearly brushes the cave’s ceiling.

“Close your eyes,” I whisper.

With my first strike, dust rains down, followed by a stream of sunlight. It touches my cheeks and makes the dragon’s scales glow a fiery red. Its power, its strength, rushes through me.

This is why they confine the ancient ones to Dragon’s End. Or perhaps it’s why we’re both here. Together, we are something more, something powerful.

With a final chip at the thin crust, the earth that blocks the way out tumbles down.

“You’re free,” I say.

“No, my child, we are.” A stream of smoke rises from its nostrils, and this dragon reminds me of an old man with a pipe, contemplating a riddle. “I don’t suppose you’ve had a flying lesson, have you?”

“I don’t suppose I have.”

“But you’ve seen how it’s done.”

“A thousand times.”

“Then you should be adequate. But first things first. Go get the book.”

The book? I peer to where it still remains on the floor, leather cracked from where my cheek rested against the cover.

“Don’t you need to return it?”

The slyness in the dragon’s voice has me sliding down its neck, scooping up the book, and then returning to that spot of honor.

“I have no saddle,” it says, “and no reins. You’ll have to hold on.”

“I have years of practice.”

The dragon’s wings tremble and shake. Its hind legs quiver. With a mighty leap, it clears the edge of the cave and unfurls its wings.

“What is your name, child?” The question reaches not my ears, but my mind. Its thoughts touch mine, and the sensation is as intimate as a kiss.

“Miri.”

“I am Mercurial.”

“Of course you are.”

The dragon snorts a laugh and sends sparks into the air. “It is also my name.”

Mercurial swoops toward the village, wings shadowing the earth below. We are close enough now that I can see the chaos erupt on the playground. At the sight of Mercurial, a dozen hatchlings scamper and fling themselves in the air, wings beating furiously until they tumble and land once again. Their children race after them, laughing and crying out.

Work at the mill halts. The village elders emerge from what must have been a meeting, Mayor Simos among them.

“Now, my dear.”

I toss the book into the air. When it’s halfway to the ground, Mercurial shoots a stream of fire at it. The book lands at the mayor’s feet, flames chewing through the parchment.

“What a shame,” I say.

“Yes. All that knowledge, forever lost.” Mercurial circles the village a final time. “Where to, my sweet?”

“The farthest I’ve ever been from home is Dragon’s End.”

“Then hang on. We have the entire world before us.”

So I do. I entwine my arms around Mercurial’s neck. I don’t look back.

Not even once.

Dragon’s End was written specifically for The (Love) Stories for 2020 project.

Leave a comment

Filed under Free Fiction Friday, Reading, Stories for 2020