Tag Archives: Stories for 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a voice.

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

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

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

“Please. Talk to me.”

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

I have been so very foolish.

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

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

No one answers.

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

“No?” My reply is a tiny thing.

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

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

“I can hear you.”

“You have a radio too?”

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

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

“Are you a man?” I ask.

“In a manner of speaking.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Free Fiction Friday: The Way Home

Sometimes the way home isn’t obvious.

The braid went slack in his hands, and the prince knew.

He’d been deceived.

In the moment before he fell, when he hung suspended in the air, the prince confronted the thorns that would steal his sight.

He refused to blink.

The pain was an exquisite brightness, the blood hot and wet. He clambered to his feet, drew his sword, and swung blindly.

The cackle of the witch’s laughter echoed in the air.

The prince stumbled across the countryside, sword unsheathed. He whirled in panic at the cries of birds and rustles in the underbrush. And always, as he walked, the faint whisper of the witch’s laughter followed him.

At last, his feet found a crossroads. The earth was smooth here, and his boots met nothing other than small stones and gentle ruts. He paused and sniffed.

A ripe, earthy scent rose up, warmed by the sun, the air filled with promise.

The marsh beckoned. The prince turned and left the road behind.

He was days into his trek when the cries of an infant accompanied his walk. His legs were weak with fever, and so too, the prince reasoned, was his head. Whatever promise had led him into this marsh eluded him.

The prince sank into the muck only to hear a startled cry moments later.

“My love? Is it really you?”

His lips were so dry that he couldn’t utter her name. Rapunzel knelt beside him, her tears bathing his face, easing the pain in his eyes. He raised a hand to stroke her cheek and missed.

He saw nothing but brightness and shadows. Of all the sights the thorns had stolen, he would miss the intelligence in Rapunzel’s gaze the most.

“Come,” she said, “come with me now.”

“I can’t—”

“Can’t what, my prince?”

“I can’t rescue you.”

“Can you walk?”

With her words, his legs found their strength. “I can walk.”

“Then come meet your son … and your daughter.”

With time, the prince’s feet learned which paths to take in and out of the marsh. His fingers became adept at finding and patching holes in the thatched roof of their little cottage. His children grew, and although he couldn’t see them, his son smelled of lilacs and morning dew, his daughter like wild roses and rain.

Each day, he ventured farther from the cottage, all in hopes of finding the crossroads once again, of finding rescue, and what that might mean. A true marriage. Proper schooling for the little prince and princess. He could resume his place in the kingdom.

It was the king’s own counselor who found him, standing in the center of the crossroads one hot, summer day. Despite his blindness, the prince recognized the king’s most trusted advisor, and the man rejoiced to have found the long, lost prince.

His feet knew the marsh so well that the prince raced to the little cottage without care. He found Rapunzel and swung her around, then hoisted the children to his shoulders.

“We are saved!” he cried. “We can go home.”

“Home?” the children echoed.

“To the palace, where we will live the way we were meant to.”

Rapunzel remained strangely silent.

“My dear,” he said. “Are you not happy? Haven’t you only ever wanted to escape?”

“Yes. Escape.” Her words were soft and hollow, and the prince barely heard them over the clatter of the carriages arriving to bear them to the palace.

Was it the noise that struck first, or the stench? Both swirled around him like a thick, damp cloud. So many voices, and all of them demanding something of him. So many smells. Waves of perfume. The dank scent of mildew. The hint of refuse that never left the air no matter where he ventured in the palace.

Nursemaids commandeered his children. Ladies-in-waiting swept Rapunzel away. The king prattled about diplomacy and trade routes and political alliances.

At their welcome home feast, in the clatter of dishes and hearty toasts ringing out, the echo of the witch’s cackle rose thin and high, a taunt meant for his ears only.

The prince knew.

This time, he’d deceived himself.

That night, he ran his hands over every inch of his chambers. His thoughts fractured each time the witch’s cackle sounded in his ears. Even if he could escape, how would he rescue Rapunzel and the children?

What caught his attention first? The scrape of leather on stone? The delicate gasp of exertion? He knew the moment Rapunzel burst through the window, landing with a soft thud on the stone floor.

“Come,” she said. “Your children are waiting below.”

“How is it you—?”

She silenced his question with a gentle finger to his lips. “Your children have stolen all the silk sheets from the royal beds.”

If he could not see the glint of intelligence in her gaze, he caught it in her tone.

“My father’s included?”

“And I have braided them into a ladder, your father’s included. Do you remember, my prince, how to scale a tower wall on a braided ladder?”

Indeed, he did.

“Come,” she said.

He let Rapunzel take his hand. At the window’s ledge, he cupped her cheek.

“I have been so blind.”

In answer, she merely kissed him.

And yes, his hands did remember how to grip a braided ladder.

Together, they raced through the palace grounds, into the forest, until—at last—they reached the crossroads.

The prince stood there with his little family, the warmth of the sunrise touching his face. Something earthy and ripe rose in the air. He turned toward its source.

The marsh beckoned.

The Way Home was first published at Long and Short Reviews.

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Free Fiction Friday: Like Bread Loves Salt

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

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

Salt.

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

Like bread loves salt.

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

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

“Anna,” I say.

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

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

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

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

“Anna, I don’t know what—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You stole him.”

Now it sounds like a death sentence.

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

Like bread loves salt.

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

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

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

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Free Fiction Friday: Straying from the Path

It wasn’t an ailing grandmother that tempted Red into the woods that day …

It was a wolf, rather than an ailing grandmother, that tempted Red into the woods. All day his cries echoed, small, plaintive-sounding things that filled the forest. By the time she found him, night had fallen and the blood on the snow looked black.

By moonlight, she pried his paw from the rusted jaws of the trap. He ran from her. And why wouldn’t he? It was her kind that set the trap to begin with. The wolf limped through the underbrush, tail between his legs. Later, if you asked her at what point she fell in love, she would’ve said that night. At the time, all she knew was how his injured gait made her heart lurch.

Later that night, Red spied his yellow eyes from well beyond the woodpile at the edge of the forest. The next evening, she left a meat pie on the lowest stack of wood. By morning, the tin had been licked clean.

And so went the winter. As the days grew colder and her supplies dwindled, she cut back on her own portion of meat. She could go without, but the wolf was still healing. Now when she walked in the forest, she never feared brigands or the overly-friendly woodcutters. When men called on her, they found the howl of a single male wolf so unnerving that they left their teacups half full, crumb cake uneaten.

When at last the snow melted, and the sun heated the earth, Red took to bathing in the stream behind the house. No one dared disturb her. Every night, she set out a meat pie. Every morning, she collected the empty tin.

Except for the morning she didn’t. Flies buzzed around the soggy crust, the filling, chewed and pilfered by tiny mouths and claws. She threw on her cape and ventured into the forest—alone.

The trail was easy enough to follow. Drops of blood, tufts of gray fur. The farther into the forest she walked, the slower her steps. What was done was done. All she could do was delay her own knowledge of it, spend a few more minutes free of a world where, every time she closed her eyes, all she saw was matted fur and severed paws—far too many to count.

That night, for the first time in months, she did not bake a meat pie.

The scratching came when the coals in the fireplace were mere embers. There, at the door, sat her wolf, bloodied but no weaker for his fight. He cocked his head as if to say: Where’s my meat pie?

She threw her arms around him, buried her face against his neck, and cried until the dirt in his fur became streams of mud.

When the townsfolk came, bearing axes and ropes, she threw open the door for them.

Why no, she hadn’t seen any wolves at all lately. In fact, she’d stopped her treks through the forest for fear of them. Instead, she now cared for her grandmother here, in her very own cottage.

The men tiptoed from the room, not wishing to wake the old lady. The women rubbed their chins, hoping old age would not bring such a crop of whiskers.

After that, suitors stopped visiting. Although Red always sent them on their way with a meat pie, they found her grandmother’s beady eyes unsettling.

People forgot about Red, her grandmother who, while always ailing, never departed this world for the next. But on moonlit nights, townsfolk stumbling from the tavern swore they heard a woman’s laughter mixed in with the howls echoing in the night air.

First published in Flash Fiction Online and Cicada and in audio at The Centropic Oracle.

And yes, Little Red Riding Hood is one of my favorite fairy tales to retell.

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Free Fiction Friday: Knight at the Royal Arms

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What the hell?” a voice says.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Oh, I will.” I roll my eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You saw it then?” he asks.

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

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

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

Luke snorts.

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

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

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

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

“I was opening the door.”

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

Luke makes a face.

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

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

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

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

“C … J?”

His smirk provides the answer. CJ. Claim Jumper.

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

“Posey?” He makes another face.

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

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

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

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

“Go out,” he says. “Reconnaissance.”

I raise an eyebrow. Because that? Fairly obvious.

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

His knuckles go white.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just blow?”

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

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

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

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

“I don’t believe in luck.”

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You know, the usual.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I give him a little finger wave and run.

* * *

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

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

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

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

Except for now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Luke?” I call out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An admirable quality for a knight in shining armor.

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

“You’re not bad with ropes.”

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

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

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

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

“All clear?” he asks.

“Looks that way. For now.”

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

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

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

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

“Entertaining a special lady friend?” I supply.

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

“Yeah.” He clears his throat. “That.”

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

“So did you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“That’s my specialty.”

“We’d need a contract.”

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

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

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

“Maybe we should,” he says.

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

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Free Fiction Friday: Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream

The year: 1980
The place: Jr. High Gym Class
Your mission: Survive

I stand in the center of the gym, the air thick with the scent of dusty basketballs and sweaty tube socks. Strains of the chicken fat song fade, but a few girls defiantly sing-whisper the chorus:

Give that chicken fat back to the chicken and go, you chicken fat, go!

I am trapped in a great mass of girls, all in identical powder blue, one-piece gym suits. The elastic pinches my waist. The polyester shorts scratch and come with an automatic wedgie. No one dares tug. That would only bring on another chorus, one of:

Gro-oss, she’s digging in her buh-utt.

Some crimes require extra syllables.

But really, this class is the crime. Slimnastics. It’s not a real word. It’s not a real sport. There’s no such thing as an Olympic slimnast. In the past three weeks, we have learned all the steps, sung all the words.

None of us are slimmer for our efforts. Ms. Binkly, the gym teacher, is talking now, not that anyone is listening. The faintest lilt of the chorus sounds behind me, but I resist the urge to turn, to look, to act too interested.

Ms. Binkly’s most striking feature is a Marine Corps style haircut. Maybe we don’t always listen, it’s true. Here’s the thing:

No one ever talks back.

I stare at the ceiling, an ear toward the front. Something about her tone bothers me. It’s not the sound of a unit wrap up with warnings about the upcoming quiz. And really, how would you test a knowledge of slimnastics?

In the Chicken Fat song, where does the chicken fat go?

a) To KFC.

b) The principal’s thighs.

c) Back to the chicken.

d) All of the above.

No, what she’s saying now strikes us all breathless. If we’d actually exerted ourselves during the chicken fat dance, we’d all be doubled over. Instead, we stand absolutely still in cold horror. How do you test slimnastics? By making your twenty-five apathetic students choreograph and then perform their own routine.

In front of everyone.

Ms. Binkly places a stack of records on the floor. She claps her hands together. “All right, ladies! Break into groups, grab a record, and star in your own routine!”

She leaves us with that and retreats to her office. In a few minutes, the odor of sulfur will seep from beneath the door, followed by smoke.

Girls flock forward, pounce on the stack of records. I know enough about the pecking order not to get pecked. I step back and wait for the leavings.

I am left with a girl named Brianna and a single, dog-eared album on the gymnasium floor. We’re not friends, Brianna and I. Allies might be a better word, like the US and Russia during World War Two. We definitely have a common enemy, and we both need to maintain our GPA. We inch forward, shoes squeaking on the floor.

We stare at the woman on the album cover. She’s naked–or would be, if not for the mound of whipped cream she sits in. The album is called Whipped Cream and Other Delights. Brianna and I are young enough not to truly understand what these other delights might be, but old enough to know they don’t always involve food.

“This is hideous,” Brianna says.

She means everything. From the social doom of the album cover to the fact the only empty record player is the one next to Ms. Binkly’s office, where we end up ten minutes later, sucking in secondhand smoke while tripping through the opening steps to our routine. Our song of choice?

Whipped Cream.

Brianna and I are both smart enough to relish this bit of irony.

On performance day, Brianna skyrockets her hand into the air, and Ms. Binkly calls us to the front.

“Going first means a better grade,” Brianna says to my frown on our way to the center of the gym.

She’s right, of course. It’s this sort of cold logic that will make her class valedictorian in five years’ time. But now, as we churn our arms like egg beaters, I realize that slimnastics really does have a test.

What is Whipped Cream?

a) A garnish for desserts.

b) A song by Herb Alpert & Tijuana Brass.

c) A form of public humiliation.

d) All of the above.

Chicken Fat and Whipped Cream was first published in Easy Street Magazine. It may, or may not, be based on actual events.

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Free Fiction Friday: The Short Sweet Life of My Invisible Prom Date

The perfect prom date doesn’t just build himself.

Geppetto carved Pinocchio, Pygmalion, his statue. So I knew it could be done. True, Victor Frankenstein had his monster. This was something to consider since I had no intention of attending zombie prom. Still, it was his example I started with.

After all, the perfect prom date doesn’t just build himself. Forget frogs, and snails, and puppy dog tails. That might be the stuff little boys are made of. The perfect prom date?

Hardly.

When it came to raw material, my high school left much to be desired. Even so, there was enough there that I could make do. I began the culling in March with Magnus Reynolds. His GPA was only second to my own—a close enough match. Since cutting open his head and extracting his brain wasn’t an option, I went with the next best thing.

True, there’s that dent in my front left bumper, and granted, it might technically be theft even if the mailbox contents have somehow spilled across the road. But I doubt his parents will miss a report card that resembled every other one.

Up next was Sam Collier. Now here was a rare find! A boy who simply didn’t know how hot he was. Considering the ego-driven pretty boys at my high school, Sam should be classified as endangered. Which is why I truly regret the mishap with the Bunsen burner during physics lab. Still, the lock of that perfect blond hair was worth it. It’s amazing what people don’t notice when a table’s on fire.

For the last ingredient, I had to truly get creative. This was my riskiest move, humiliating if I got caught, chancy when it came to the item I needed. Under the cover of steam, I crept into the boys’ locker room, waiting until the pound of water in the showers drowned out my footsteps. I rushed from locker bank to locker bank, ducking behind a garbage can to catch my breath and quiet my pounding heart.

I grabbed the first item my fingers encountered, then I bolted, sneakers skidding on wet tile. I clutched the crumpled material in my hand and didn’t stop running until I reached the girls’ bathroom. I crashed into the last stall and slammed the door behind me. Only then did I look at my prize.

A jockstrap.

Still. It fit the requirements. Anyone who has a passing familiarity with boys can tell you: sweat is an essential component of their makeup.

I was at the florist when I discovered my date’s name. I was buying the Dreamy Pink Wristlet (for myself) and the Dashing Boutonniere (for him), when the cashier said:

“Owen.”

“Who?” I asked.

“I said, you owe, um, fifty-five dollars and eighteen cents.”

Oh-um? Owen. Not only was it the perfect name, but it could be our private joke. All couples need at least one of those.

The night before prom, I gathered everything together: the tux I rented from The Men’s Warehouse (including socks and shoes, size 11), a white T-shirt, a pair of boxer briefs (no date of mine was going commando). In my closet, I set up the altar.

Anyone who’s read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein knows Victor’s downfall was his pride. He played God. They don’t call it the miracle of life for nothing. After all, didn’t Pygmalion pray to Venus? I needed divine intervention, and I wasn’t too proud to ask for it.

On my altar, I placed the report card, the lock of hair, and even the jockstrap. I sprinkled peppermint leaves (for fresh breath) and honey (for sweetness), then I lit candles (heart-shaped, of course). As the scent of pine, sandalwood, and cinnamon drifted across my face and through my hair, I prayed.

Now, it probably doesn’t surprise you that there isn’t a patron saint of prom. That night, I prayed to Saint Raphael, who is the patron saint of lovers, young people, and happy meetings. If that doesn’t describe prom, then it probably should. When I was done, I blew out the candles and slipped into bed. That night, I dreamed of Owen.

In the morning, everything was gone! The tux, the shoes and socks, even the jockstrap, if you can believe that. The aroma of burnt cinnamon lingered in the air, and something told me I’d messed up horribly. I would not be going to prom. I would not have the perfect prom date.

Miracles take faith, I told myself. For the rest of the day, I shoved the worry from my mind and acted as if all were well. I kept my mani/pedi appointment and the one for my up-do. The stylist even added sparkly rhinestones for free when she saw how badly my hands shook.

By seven that night, I was ready, even if no limo sat in our driveway. Not yet. Owen was nervous, too, I told myself, so he’d be a little late. It was his one (adorable) flaw.

“Honey?” My mom’s voice was soft. “Are you sure you’re okay with this, being at prom alone?”

I rolled my eyes. “I won’t be alone.”

“Tori—”

Just then, that flash of black appeared, the limo long and sleek. I caught the shimmery sight of Owen as he took our porch steps by twos.

“Bye, Mom!” I called out. I burst through the door and left her standing in the living room, her mouth a perfect o of surprise.

Of course, a perfect prom date deserved such a reaction.

I quickly learned that to see Owen, you couldn’t stare straight at him. He teased the corners of my eyes. I caught his grin—warm and charming. His height—at least three inches taller than I was. I worried people would stare and not see the real Owen, not see what I did—the wonderful boy who was the perfect prom date.

The kids at my school might be rude, but none were outright gawkers. Still, I was careful. As much as I wanted a photo, I sensed the flash might harm Owen, burn away the delicate work of miracles. We spent our time dancing in dark corners. Light from the glitter ball fell across us. My skin glowed, but Owen’s shimmered like something otherworldly.

And he was the perfect date. We danced, but not so my feet got sore. When I was thirsty, he fetched me punch. He was on such a mission when prom queen Sierra Blakely drifted by.

“I don’t think I know your date,” she said.

“He doesn’t go to our school.”

She glanced around. “Well, where is he?”

I nodded toward the punch bowl. At this distance, I could just see the sleeve of Owen’s tux. In his hand, the cheap plastic cup looked like a crystal goblet.

“I don’t even have to ask,” I told Sierra. “He just knows when I’m thirsty.”

“Oh.”

Her expression was wistful, or maybe sad. She’d gone with Trevor Radke. Sure, he was cute, and a football player, but he made all his friends call him Rad-Man. That was just all kinds of awkward.

We left prom early. Anyone with a passing familiarity with miracles and fairy tales knows not to mess with the deadline. We needed to be back in my room before midnight. Even on the ride home, I could feel Owen waver, his shimmer fading, and the best night of my life coming to a bittersweet end.

By the time we reached my room, he couldn’t stand without help, so I arranged his tux on the hangers and hung it on the back door of my closet. Then I placed the shoes neatly beneath. My perfect night needed its perfect ending. I wasn’t ready to let go, not quite yet.

I lit the candles again and switched off the overhead light. That helped. Then I wrapped the arms of his tuxedo jacket around my waist and placed my hands on the jacket’s shoulders.

“Thank you,” I whispered, “for being my date.”

I kissed him then. Everyone knows the perfect prom ends with a perfect kiss.

And it was.

Maybe it was that perfect kiss, or the candles, but something happened then. I couldn’t see Owen, not even a teasing shimmer from the corner of my eye, but all at once, those strong arms took form and pulled me closer. Owen held me like he never wanted to let me go. The scent of burnt cinnamon filled the air. As to what happened next?

Well, as anyone with a passing familiarity with prom knows, sometimes it ends with more than just a kiss.

* * *

A year later, and prom remains my most cherished memory from high school. Beating out Magnus Reynolds for valedictorian is a close second. Even so, perfection has its price, and miracles have a way of spawning some of their own.

True, I worry. I know all about Rosemary and her baby. But Owen was nothing but sweet, and the same goes for his son. (Yes, I can tell. A mother knows.) But when you get right down to it, Owen Jr. doesn’t need much: no burping or changing. He doesn’t need more from me than merely my presence. This makes me tired, but I’m also a single mom taking a full load of college classes and working a part-time job. Mothers will sacrifice anything for their children, and I will make sure Owen Jr. has everything he needs.

Although, when I think about it, I suspect he’ll only need one thing:

A date to prom.

This strange little story, with a possibly unreliable narrator, first appeared in Mad Scientist Journal, Winter 2014.

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Free Fiction Friday: What Little Remains

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

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

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

Except me. But I take the long way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

“Are you an actress?” I ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’m Kit,” I say, “with an i.”

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

“She’s been here?”

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

“No, unfortunately.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, so pretty.

* * *

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

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

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

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

His image flickers then solidifies again.

“This isn’t your world.”

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

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

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

“You too.”

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

“He can’t open the door,” she says.

“Did he try?”

Shelli nods and I clutch her tighter.

“What do we do?” she asks.

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

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

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

I’m sorry.

Oh, and so am I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where, exactly?” I ask Shelli.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

And oh, so pretty.

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

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Free Fiction Friday: The Potato Bug War

May is all about odds and ends, those strange little stories that sometimes pop into my head.

First up is flash fiction piece that takes place during WWII.

Her students collected so many potato bugs that Emilienne had to dash back to the vineyard for an extra wagon and a pram, all under the glare of a German soldier. The pram squeaked its protest, the wheels jolting along ruts while Henri’s words rang in her head:

Make it a game. Let the children have some fun.

So Emilienne handed each of her charges a jar and sent them into the potato fields under the hot Burgundy sun.

“Whoever collects the most wins a sweet!”

The children scampered through the fields, hands greedy for the tiny bugs. The damage was minimal—for now. But a blight was a blight, the potato crop at risk. As Henri put it:

Can’t deprive les Boches of their pommes frites, can we now?

Her students bent and plucked. One girl stumbled across the furrows, jar clutched to her chest in triumph.

“Mademoiselle! Look how many I’ve collected!”

The girl ran off with another jar but turned before resuming her spot in the field. “Will it be enough?”

Emilienne patted her skirt pocket, the one with the sweet. “We’ll see.”

She arranged the jars in the wagons, glass scraping against metal, sun baking the striped creatures inside. They crawled over each other, all in search of an opening that was no longer there.

So many bugs, and yet, she wondered. How many did the Germans expect them to collect? Would it be enough? How much was enough when it came to potato bugs?

In the end, she awarded the sweet to the industrious little girl. The child’s two older brothers lugged the wagons into town while Emilienne pushed the pram. The jars rocked and clattered, her strange, many-legged babies squirming. Sweat trickled down her spine, and a taste, like rusty grit, filled her mouth.

At the turn-in point, a lone soldier waited. He was no more than a boy, this German, this Nazi. In her head, she heard Henri:

Poor bastard probably has to count them all.

“What will you do with them?” Emilienne knew better than to start a conversation. She wasn’t a collaborator. And no matter how much her belly rumbled at night, she wouldn’t accept those kinds of favors.

Still, she wanted to know. As if the fate of these potato bugs mattered to her, to Burgundy, to the war.

“Drown them.” The boy grimaced as if he, personally, was responsible for the task.

Poor bastard, indeed.

In the end, she relinquished all but one jar. It was such a foolish thing to do, hiding it there beneath the pram’s tattered cushion. Would they line up a firing squad? Shoot her? Perhaps, but only after the Gestapo had their turn.

Tell me, Fraulein, why have you deprived the Reich of these potato bugs?

Yes, why had she? Emilienne couldn’t say. That didn’t stop her from gathering potato leaves from the field. That night, in the wine cellar, she stabbed the lid with an ice pick. She shoved handfuls of leaves into the jar and fed her hungry, many-legged babies.

That summer, whenever she overheard the Germans complain about the harvest, Emilienne thought of a jar, hidden in the wine cellar, and swallowed a smile.

It was enough.

This strange little story was first published in Pulp Literature, Issue 19. And yes, the Germans really did send French citizens into the potato fields during a blight to collect potato bugs.

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Free Fiction Friday: Cheating Death

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

From the editor:

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

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