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Card Challenge

Card Challenge: Day 61

Card Day 61: A knight rides on a white horse across the pages of a book. The opposite page has a dark pit, tentacles reaching out from it.

“Are you sure this will work?”

Ursula gave an exaggerated shrug, not even making the polite attempt to hide her ignorance. “I mean, I figure it has as much chance as anything else.”

Quentin sighed, fixing her with a firm, side-eyed stare. “Just so you know, those aren’t the kinds of things that inspire confidence when you’re asking someone to risk life and limb on some plan you’ve cooked up.”

She returned his stare with a lopsided smile, her barely-managed hair flopping across her eyes. She brushed it aside mechanically and shrugged yet again. “If you’d rather I lie to you, I can, but I thought you’d like to know that there’s about an equal chance of success and failure with this.”

“False confidence is a powerful thing,” he muttered, returning to his pacing.

She remained crouched on the ground, flipping through the pages are her eyes flew across the words. “If it makes you feel better, I’ve done my homework.” Another page flipped, snapping crisply in the air. Quentin looked down at it, noting the ornate script that flowed across the page. To him, it looked like some kind of spirograph creation, circling in and out and back across itself. But Ursula assured him she could read it.

“And all of that research never mentioned another way?”

She did not speak, but shook her head. Studying on page intently. After an extended paused, punctuated by Quentin’s frantic footsteps, she finally broke the silence. “Remember, I’m taking the risk with you. But we’re out of options, Quentin.”

He slumped against the wall of the roach motel, pointedly not looking at her. “I know. I know better than anyone. Better than you.” He stomped from the room to the tiny, dingy bathroom, slamming the door behind him. Ursula sighed, leaning back on her heels and letting her head fall into her hands. She understood that he was nervous, that the task was likely a death wish, but he had sought her out. He had brought the information, put the pieces together, and pushed her towards identifying a final solution.

Still, the cold feet made sense, she supposed. It was a suicide mission most likely, but at least she knew the information she had was correct. Quentin’s sister had been the Seventh Forgotten Woman taken by the creature, and Quentin was her Legacy Bearer. He was the only one who remembered he had a sister, and Ursula had verified that by digging through prior records. Old magic struggled with the conveniences of modern technology. The erasure was there, but there were crumbs remaining—failed links, dead domains, and occasional mentions. This entity, fortunately, did not actually re-write any timelines, and so there were at least traces to be found. Interviews with her family had led to blank stares, minor defensiveness. Only Quentin remembered the bubbly 26-year-old woman who went for a jog and vanished from time and space.

The Unsatiated—the name was the closest translation she could make—had met its human needs, so that meant that is merely needed one moon cycle to fully emerge. And last time it had, there had been a swath of the country that suddenly disappeared, hundreds of people vanishing in a blink and barely remembered. From what she had pieced together, however, the creature seemed to feed on the memories it could accumulate, taking first a few until it could emerge from hibernation, then devouring all those that remembered the missing individuals. And then stealing away those who remembered the new missing, and so on. In this interconnected age, the results would certainly be devastating.

Still, she felt powerlessness sweep over her again. The only solutions were conjectures strung together across a dozen ancient sources, none of which had been able to stop it. Of course, Ursula certainly believed she had done due diligence and devised a process that had a shot at working, but only time would tell. And, unfortunately, that time was tomorrow during the new moon.

Her eyes ached from deciphering the old script, and she could feel the mental fatigue piling up. The corners of her eyes were flooded with dark shadows and grasping claws, reminding her that the words she poured over were not meant for mortal minds. She closed the book, letting her façade of bravado fade as she dragged herself to the stiff mattress. A good night’s sleep was possibly one of the most overlooked necessities for a successful banishment.

_

Given his haggard look, Ursula assumed Quentin had not taken her advice about sleep. He had been gone when she woke, and returned only an hour before they were to leave for the lake. She bit her tongue, avoiding the scolding her certainly deserved. The time was better spent preparing him.

“So once I’ve done the summoning, you’re on. Know what to do?”

“Yeah, I know,” he mumbled, grief seeping through his voice.

“And you have the—“

“I’m ready, okay! Can we get this over with?” His anxiety boiled over into anger, and Ursula pursed her lips at him.

“Lack of preparation will get us both killed. I’m putting my life in your hands. I’m putting hundreds of lives in your hands. So, thank you, but I will cover all the bases. You have the token, yes?”

Shame flashed over his face, a shudder of embarrassment and irritation mingling as well. But his anger was dulled. “Here.” He held out a bracelet made of faded strings woven together.

“And it was hers?”

“I made it for her at summer camp when I was eleven. She wore it for years, but left it at home when she went to college. I found it in the bottom of her—of the storage room closet.”

“Good, that will do nicely. A gift bound in love, tying Legacy with Forgotten.” She looked down at her carefully prepared notes, striking through the items. “And you’re prepared for what might happen at the end?”

“Forgetting her? No, I can’t stand the idea. But there’s no choice, right?”

“No. You won’t even remember that you saved the world. But you will have.”

“Great,” he muttered sarcastically. “Are we good?”

She merely motioned to the van, and he folded himself inside. The ride there was long, mostly silent, and heavy with the impending tension. Darkness held close to their van, unbroken by star or moonlight. Wind whipped its way through the trees, and Ursula could feel nature beginning to bristle with the impending defiance of the laws of the world. Yes, the time was drawing near, and so at least if they failed, there would be very little time to live with the disappointment.

Their arrival was met with silence as well, and Ursula gathered her bag of supplies to complete the summoning. The trees clustered around them, groaning with the wind. Yes, it was the perfect night for arcane rites and rituals. Eventually, the lakeshore rose into view, water lapping angrily at the rocky shore as it promised an impending storm.

“Better make this quick. Looks like it might get bad out here,” offered Quentin, his courtesy suggesting they put the previous conflict behind them.

“It will certainly get bad out here,” she offered with a grim smile, “and it’s going to be our fault.” With that, she dropped to her knees and began to gather her equipment from the canvas bag. She started by drawing a large spiral on the ground with ground-up chalk, closing the outer edge. Starting at the edge closest to the lake, she placed a water-smoother stone etched with a name in each ring, leaving the central most clear. In the middle, she placed a single white candle, lighting it against the best effort of the wind. Her hands were shaking as she poured a measure of blessed oil into a lidded, gold bowl, placing it to the side next to a knife. Preparations complete, she proceeded with the rite.

Quentin listened to her whispered words, hearing them whisper through the woods with a sibilant, melodic tone. It seemed to rise over the wind, circling around him with a strange pull. Then, he heard things he recognized. Names he did not know, followed by the one he did. April Maria Davidson. That name was like music to him; he thought he might never hear another soul say it with such a knowing tone. Yes, she was known, she existed, and he remembered. For the moment, at least, he remembered. But he would soon have to sacrifice even that.

Once Ursula grew quiet, there was a ripple from the water. It was a woman rising out of the water, her body glistening with pale white that seemed to shine like the absent moon. Her hair was dark, falling down to her knees and covering her with an inky veil. She floated there above the water, mist and substance all at once, her eyes radiating hate towards the mortal on the shore. Her mouth split open, rows of teeth glistening inside her dark maw, and released a soundless scream. Quentin felt it slam into his body, even if he could not hear it. Ursula crumpled to the ground, and he feared she may have heard that sound that his mind so flawlessly protected him from.

One of the creature’s arms swam forward, an extension of mist reaching across the lake towards the now distracted Ursula. Just as it was about to reach her, Ursula rolled, bringing forward a mirror and deflecting the appendage.

“Do your damn job already,” she snapped, looking at Quentin with ferocious, pained eyes. “Or you and I can both die here.”

Shocked into action, Quentin drew the bracelet from his pocket and scooped up April’s stone from the circle, careful not to disturb the remaining stones or chalk spiral. His lips fumbled over the name Ursula had taught him, trying to approximate her melodic way with the language. It sounded more like marbles being thrown into a garbage disposal, but it also caught the creature’s attention. She fixed her empty eyes on him, mouth knitting together into a smile. Now, he could hear her whispers.

“Don’t listen to her. Think of April. Do what we said.”

Quentin broke his gaze from the woman, the whispers fading to a distant suggestion or voices. He knelt beside the gold bowl and held the knife in his trembling hand. This was it, the moment of truth or utter failure.

Boldly, drawing on strength form a source he could not recognize, Quentin drew the knife across his palm, screaming the creature’s arcane name once again. “I, Legacy Bearer, banish the name of April Maria Davidson. Bound to the essence, I too banish you from our world. I complete your task, I break all of April Maria Davidson’s ties to this world. And so, I banish you.”  His voice was breaking, and he felt tears trickling down his face. Despite the woman’s screams, he pressed his bleeding hand against the etched stone, then wrapped it in the bracelet. Quentin looked at the bloodied stone and the bracelet, his last memento of his beloved sister.

It was a sacrifice in the truest sense as he cast the items into the gold bowl, lifting the candle to light the oil. The scream grew louder, the wind whipped stronger, and Quentin felt his memories begin to fade like dust. He fell to his knees, weeping, as the final thoughts of April fell through his mind, rebuilt around the emptiness of a person erased. It ached as those memories dissolved, almost as if his entire being was being destroyed as well.

And then, there was nothing. He looked around at the dark lakeshore, taking in the woman kneeling on the ground nearby, a strange assortment of items surrounding her.

“Um, excuse me, who are you, and why are we out here?”

The woman smiled, but her eyes looked sad and lonely. “I’m no one,” she quipped. “And I guess you were out for a walk?”

Quentin scratched his head, looking around. “Huh. Weird, I just don’t remember coming out here. Must have been distracted,” he laughed, though it did nothing to resolve his discomfort.

She smiled politely back. “Some things are better to forget, I guess.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 60

Fair warning, today’s is quite long (~2000 words). But I had the day off, so I decided to spend a little more time and do a bit more character/scene building. I’m curious if anyone has any opinions on the pacing of this, or if it feels like then ending is a bit from left field. I’ve read over it and kind of like it, but I would appreciate anyone who could help me see my blind spots in that regard. Thanks!


Card Day 60: A man sits in a jail cell with a contented smile on his face and a ball-and-chain around his ankle. The walls behind him are covered in a faded, ornate wallpaper with concrete showing through.

Nathan watched the snow fall, relaxing in the cabin with a steaming mug of coffee and a well-loved paperback. The fire crackled in the fireplace, and all around him was silence. He smiled. This was a well-needed vacation, even if only for a day or two. Life had so quickly become a cage of obligations and responsibilities; it had taken his boss reminding him that he would soon lose his days before he remembered to schedule time off for the year. He was, in general, a simple man who was not prone to long, extravagant vacations. He was also a lonely man, unencumbered by family obligations. Still, relaxing in the old high back chair, his feet warmed by the fire, Nathan finally realized how much he had actually needed the break. It was late by the time he stumbled towards the thick feather bed, finally ready to relinquish his first vacation day. A sedated smile spread across his face as he nestled among cedar-scented quilts, sleeping easily.

The overly-cheery trill of his cellphone woke him up, though the room was still shadowed. Nathan shuffled from underneath the sheets, trying to orient himself and find his phone. Finally, he tracked the sound to the pocket of his jeans, lying crumpled in the corner. He punched the accept button at what had to be the last ring.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice coming through gruff with sleep.

“Mr. Wickers? I hope I didn’t wake you,” came the staticy reply from the other end, the man’s voice obviously realizing the inconvenience.

Nathan lied. “Not at all. Who is this, again?”

There was a chuckle, echoing through the poor connection. “Oh, it’s Ralph, the property owner. Sorry ‘bout that. Enjoying the stay?”

“Everything’s great. Is there anything I can help you with?” A trickle of irritation was beginning to form; Nathan had come here to get away from everything, not entertain or hassle with the property owner.

“Oh, no, nothing like that. It’s just—you may have noticed the snowfall.”

Looking out the window, Nathan saw it was still falling down thickly, a good foot or so of snow already covering the ground outside. It had drifted up to cover the tires of his tiny sedan, and his voice fumbled with surprise. “Oh, well, yes, I guess it’s been quite a bit, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah, the ranger is telling us it may be a couple of days until the roads are going to be clear enough to leave. Now, I know you only had it booked for last night and tonight, but having folks run off the mountain is not good for business. Plus, I just couldn’t live with myself. Feel free to stay in the cabin until the road clears up. I have a little snowmobile if you need any supplies?”

Nathan scratched his head, yawning. Well, sounded like he was going to have to take a prolonged vacation. Given how wonderful the first night had been, perhaps it was a blessing in disguise. “I think I’m okay. I always overpack.”

“Well, glad to hear it. You can call me at this number if you do find anything you need. Otherwise, there are candles in the linen closet if the power should go out. Oh, and more wood down in the basement.”

“Thank you.”

“Alright now. Keep warm, and enjoy your stay.”

The line went dead and Nathan tossed the phone onto the fluffy bed. His reticence to take vacation days was finally paying off, leaving him plenty of days to burn, even if he had to spend the rest of the month in the little cabin.

Still, the reality of the snowstorm did mean he needed to make some preparations. A chronic overpacker, he had realized his error when unpacking and left some of his food in the car, figuring the trunk would keep it as cold as the ice box. Now it seemed providential that he had unwittingly overpurchased groceries due to his finicky tastes. Those needed to get inside before his car was but another snow drift, however. Nathan quickly bundled up and rushed towards his car.

There was a childlike eagerness as he bounded through the snow, taking leaping steps almost as if he were walking across the moon. This was the kind of frivolity he had lost recently, an enjoyment of life that was buried under quarterly reports and performance metrics. Suddenly, he felt weight slide from his shoulders, an invisible burden he had not realized was weighing him so heavily down. Nathan laughed, the sound muffled by the still falling snow, but carrying through the woods.

Box of canned goods and chilled meats in hand, Nathan shoved through the snow and back into the cabin. The inside was toasty compared to the great outdoors, and he felt heat flood back into his cheeks. It was certainly a hot chocolate kind of day.

Once he had a mug in hand, Nathan unpacked his art supplies, settling himself back into the plush chair. Drawing was a love that he had clung to even when life became hectic, but one that had taken on a desperate, pressured quality. It always felt like there was not enough time, but the project had to be completed. Surrounded by snow, he felt those pressures lift. He had all the time in the world to create to his heart’s content. And so, pencil in hand, he began to sketch.

Enthralled with his work, Nathan did not notice the shadows stretching across the cabin until he finally realized that it was almost too dark to see. He gathered up some logs from the basket near the fireplace and built up a fire, giving himself a warm and shifting light to finish his work. Before he could sit down, however, his phone snapped him back.

The number was familiar as he picked up the wailing device. Ralph’s voice greeted him.

“Sorry to bo—ster Wickers,” he began, the connection clearly worse given the raging storm.

“No problem. I’m having trouble hearing you, though.”

“Yeah—tting bad out—anted to che—ou needed anything be—ight since it may get wor—“

“You’re breaking up really bad. Do I need anything tonight? No, I’m fine.”

“Sorr—to hear you are good. Have you—mily from cabin 12? I—but no one answered.”

“I haven’t seen anyone all day, Ralph.” Nathan was surprised to find himself yelling into the phone, as if that would make the signal travel farther. He shook his head at the illogical response. Oh well, no one else would know.

“—kay, guess they—fore it got bad. Ha—ice night, Mister—“

Nathan hazarded a goodbye as the line went silent, then hung up. Looking outside, he could see the wind and snow picking up, turning into a right blizzard. As a precaution, Nathan wandered to the linen closet and found the stash of candles, setting them around the cabin in case he should need to light one. He put the thick box of matches into his pocket and considered his preparations complete. Now it was time for dinner.

About halfway through cooking the steak, the lights flickered and failed in the cabin. Nathan shook his head. Looked like he would be roughing it, after all. Fortunately, he had a roaring fire ready to keep him warm and cook food.

With no lights to keep him alter, Nathan found himself growing tired not long after dinner. He continued at his drawing, trying to complete the landscape view as he remembered it from the drive in. But his head lolled forwards, the pencil slipping from his fingers. Eventually, he nodded forward in the chair, once again lulled asleep by the warm, quiet surroundings.

Something crashing against his door snapped him awake quickly and he shot up straight in the chair, sending his sketchbook skittering across the floor. The fire was low, casting long shadows around the room and giving everything a dream-like instability that left him feeling off balance, even as he stood to discover the source of the noise.

He peered out the window, noticing that the snow had taken and brief respite and let the moon come out. Its light seemed magnified by the snow on the ground and the world stretched as a brilliant sea of white. Nathan craned his head towards the door, but could not see what made such noise. Just then, another bang rang through the cabin. Hopefully it was not someone stranded out in the mess. It was not a good night for it, even if there was an eye to the storm. Feeling his concern rise, Nathan made his way to the door.

His hand was on the handle when it shook with another impact, and Nathan recoiled as if burned. That was not a knock, but someone throwing itself at the door. The desperation left him feeling wary, and his resolve solidified as low, angry growls began to emanate from the other side of the door. This was no weary traveler.

He pressed his eyes against the peephole, straining to see what was causing this ruckus. Perhaps a wolf or something lost in the snow? Wasn’t rabies a summer disease? Could there be a rabid wolf pacing around his cabin? But, looking out, he saw nothing.

Just snow as far as he could see, leading up to the tree line. No animal, no person, nothing. But he still heard the growl. Despite no change in his limited view, Nathan felt the door shudder with impact, the force transferring to him and sending him stumbling back a step. He gave a short yelp at the sudden push and stared at the door in bewilderment. There was nothing out there, but something had certainly done that.

At his yelp, the thing went silent, even cutting the growl. After a few moments, he could hear the snow crunching outside away from the door, and he rushed back to his other window, hoping to catch sight of whatever it was. He peered out through the window, and listened as the crunching snow grew nearer, the sound deafening in the silent night. Still, Nathan saw no form to accompany the steps, try as he might.

Was it snow blindness? Or was he hallucinating? Dreaming? He watched in horror as tracks suddenly appeared in the snow from around the corner. They were large tracks with three long digits, one appearing after the other. Whatever it was, it seemed to walk like a person.

A screeching sound cut through the sound of steps in the snow, causing Nathan to wince. He looked back out and saw long gouges appearing down the side of the cabin just below the eaves. The sounds of splintering wood and crunching snow melded into a medley of horrors as he sat and watched, transfixed by terror. What was happening outside his cabin? Nathan fell back from his crouched position by the window, landing on his palms with his legs splayed, but his eyes still locked to the window. It was coming closer, this invisible fiend, and he was trapped.

The steps paused in front of the window, and Nathan saw something’s breath condense on the window pane with a cloudy white smudge. He could see some shadow behind it, a flash of shaggy white fur, but the appearance faded as the breath disappeared from the glass. Nathan held his breath, hoping whatever it was would not see or hear him, would not know how to pierce the feeble sanctuary of the cabin.

Of course, whatever it was had already demonstrated its only way of requesting entry. He heard the steps move back, then surge forward. Nathan watched as the glass shattered, as something from his nightmares tumbled through with gangly appendages and the smell of rot. The snow swallowed up his screams.

The next morning, the new silence was broken by the artificial song of Nathan’s phone ringing over and over, but no one in Cabin 11 was available to answer Ralph’s concerned phone call.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 59

Card Day 59: A man and a woman falling through an orange background.

As it always had, the moon had risen bright and full on the horizon. Now it hung low in the sky, heavy and tinged orange. Nevertheless, it appeared just as content as the two silhouettes resting on the top of the train car. Ilene passed the glass bottle across the roof of the car, leaving it to the safety of Lewis’ waiting hand. They sat in silence, staring up at the expanse of stars rolled out before them. It was a mid-summer night in the middle of the South, so the air still held onto its cloying warmth and humidity. Still, it was better than trying to coax a breeze through the tiny cabin windows. The only sounds were the distant chirping of crickets and the occasional gulp from the bottle or clink of glass against the metal roof.

Lewis was the first to break the silence. “Know which town we’re in tonight?” He passed the bottle back to her, and she took a hearty swig.

“Nah, one of those one-stop deals, I think.” She left the bottle in between them. Giving way to the comfortable silence yet again. Eventually, a thought sprung to mind, and she spoke again. “Do you know when we have to raise the big top?”

Lewis sputtered around his drink, the liquid obviously trickling down the wrong pipe. He shook his head empathically as he tried to clear his airways. “Not for sure,” he coughed, “but you know boss usually says before noon.”

“Should we plan on practicing tomorrow?”

He shrugged his shoulders, relaxing back against the roof on his elbows, an occasional cough breaking through. “We can, but I’ve been tossing you around so long, I’m not sure it will help. Plus we had the show yesterday, and we don’t want to wear ourselves out.” He gave her a wink. “But if you’re worried I’ll drop you—“

She waved away the end of his sentence, chuckling good naturedly. “Drop me and I might finally draw a reasonable check from someone.”

Neither of them laughed at the joke; the truth of the matter stung a bit too much. Ilene drank another swig, sighing. The comfortable silence between them took on a mournful quality, the moon watching over with its solemn gaze.

“Hey, Leney?” asked Lewis, rolling to his side to look at her. She kept her face pointed up at the stars as if she were trying to catalogue each one.

“Hm?”

“When you were a kid, is that that you wanted to do?”

She released a grim bark of a laugh. “What, make poverty wages while being dragged from Podunk to Podunk by a fly-by-night circus? Yeah, what kid doesn’t dream of that?” The bitter edge to her voice cut through the companionable atmosphere, and Lewis rolled back to look at the stars.  He laced his fingers across his stomach, just listening to the sound of crickets. The acridity slowly faded from the air between them, replaced by the companionship that only comes from years lived in a hopeless state.

“I wanted to be a vet,” whispered Lewis, just loud enough to carry to her ears. He knew it was not the conversation she wanted to have, but it was one he needed. He needed her to help set him free.

Ilene shook her head as she took another drink. “Not me. Couldn’t stand the idea of blood and sick animals.”

He rolled his eyes over to study her for a moment. “Then what did you want to be?”

“A florist,” she chuckled, shrugging her shoulders with an air of defeat. “I guess I never dreamed too big.”

Lewis knit his brows together in concern, turning to face her full on. Sensing the intensity of his stare, Ilene even turned to look at him, the jaded smile fading on her lips. “Leney, I think you would make a fine florist. You’d do great.”

He watched her wilt, uncomfortable under his eyes and with his praise. She studied the bottle in her hand, feeling how light it was. Determined to end the moment, she tossed it back, draining the last few drops and repositioning her eyes at the empty sky. “Yeah, but I’d have to get my GED. And I was the kid with the bright idea to run off and join the circus.” She replaced her shell of sarcasm, fixing Lewis with a grin that kept him at bay, always on the outside. He wished he could crack that enigma, but she always seemed to sense whenever he was closing in.

“Well, we both made some foolhardy decisions.”

“It could have been worse,” conceded Ilene, lying down beside him on the roof. He felt her hair, long and untamed, brush against his shoulder, the scent of her shampoo drifting closer.

“True. I mean, I could have never met you.” He grinned widely, and she rolled her eyes at him.

“You really don’t give up, do you?”

“You’re the only woman I’ve found that would stick by me all these years.”

“Lew, I’m contractually obligated to hang around these train cars. Don’t go getting any wild ideas.”

“Yeah, but you’re not contractually obligated to drink on the roof with me.”

“No, but everyone has to maintain their sanity somehow. Speaking of, you’re going to have to start providing more incentives,” she shook the empty bottle, “if you expect to keep luring me up here.”

He gave her the most winning smile he possessed. “As soon as I get that raise they promised me, I will. And it’s got to be coming any day now, because—“

“They’ve been promising me for six years,” finished Ilene with a laugh. “You may also need to get some new material.”

The evening stretched between them, quietly joining their solemn counsel. It was a familiar friend, one that always joined in their ritual without fail. Given the noise and hubbub of the job, both needed the escape. Everyone needed their escape, Lewis thought, mind flipping through the many other characters. Some found it in the pages of dirty magazines, others at the end of a needle. Some discovered revitalization in a new town every night, the endless adventure of the experience. Others found it in fitness, in solitude, in study, and perhaps most popularly in the back corner of small town bars. Lewis, he found it in friendly silence and an occasional drink to unwind. He watched Ilene from the corner of his eyes. She seemed to find it in brooding thoughts enjoyed mutely with his company. The beer probably helped, too.

“Have you ever thought about quitting?”

For a few moments, he thought Ilene would not answer, but would ignore him and hope he got the message. But, finally she spoke, her voice quiet. “Every day. Don’t you?”

“Most days,” he said with a sigh. “More and more now that my body ain’t as young as it used to be.” As if to prove his point, he rolled his neck, listening to a chorus of pops. Suddenly, he propped himself up on his elbow, a glimmer of wild hope in his eyes. “What if we did, Leney? You and I just set off, started our own thing?”

She laughed at his response, and he could hear the desperation in it. No, such thoughts had no place in this world, no matter how much she might hope. “And do what, Lew? You bandage up all the strays while I make them daisy chain collars?”

His eagerness faded, replaced by the omnipresent weariness of their lives. “I guess you’re right. It is a kind of crazy idea.”

She seemed to soften at his disappointment, realizing her remarks had cut deeper than she intended. She rested her hand on his, squeezing it softly. “We are both getting too old for this. Maybe we should start planning to retire. You and me. Find some small town where the circus doesn’t run through and put down some roots.”

“Want to leave tonight?” he asked with a wistful smile.

She shrugged. “Not tonight, but maybe in the next town over.”

Lewis smiled, closing his eyes as he completed the ritual. “Yeah, next town over should be just fine.”

As it always did, the moon set slowly, abandoning the silhouettes to their contemplation.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 58

Card Day 58: A person made entirely of orange, autumn leaves walks with a wooden walking stick towards dark hills beneath an orange sky.

Walter pondered his map beneath the heavy brows of old, stately buildings. His back ached with the weight of his backpack, and his knees groaned and cracked as he stood and tried to unravel the knot of roads. He pinched the bridge of his nose, the map catching and flapping in the breeze once half-loosed. This was supposed to be the trip where he accomplished all his lifelong goals, saw the world, and embodied the idea of “aging well” that he heard preached so furiously. Instead, it seemed to be the trip of getting lost, sore bones, and midafternoon headaches.

The map continued to defy him, reminding him again and again that his eyes were not what they used to be. No, Walter agreed, they certainly were not. Then again, none of him was. Walter, of course, considered himself middle aged, but h was nonetheless old enough that people mistakenly referred to him as an elder. He was also old enough to carry the aches and pains of a life lived long and hard.

He shifted his weight, swinging the backpack to his other side and momentarily relieving the pinch against his back. The map was so small, and the buildings here were not as well marked as he would like. Walter leaned back against the nearby building, granting reprieve to his aching feet as he removed a portion of the weight. This building had stood the test of time, that e could be sure, it could handle his meager weight for a few moments.

Despite the frustrations, he smiled at the memory of many such side streets and new experiences. Yes, this travel had been rough, and his body was tired, but it had also been incredibly rewarding, He had never thought he was the kind to leave his tiny home, take off to Europe, and squander his savings on rich food and exotic accommodations. But Walter had wanted to age well, seize life in both hands as long as he had it.

And maybe that was the more accurate truth, he granted. Walter was looking to die well. Even in the twisted Italian streets, he could not escape that reality, No, fleeing to Europe, abandoning the life he had known, and putting miles and oceans between him and his doctors had done nothing to remove the burden of steadily dying. The memory swelled up, overtaking him even there. He remembered well the sterile office, the soft words, the professionalized sympathy. Words hung frozen in the air, others floated past him unheard. Six months were two words that kept his attention. Walter watched in the office as his golden years shrunk from a couple of decades to “won’t see the end of the major league season.”

There were, of course, so many pitying glances. The receptionist at the front was sorrowful, eyes watery and mild as he stepped forward to settle his bill. Walter let himself chuckle in the shadowy, foreign streets. Yes, he had paid them for the pleasure of receiving his death sentence. He did suppose, however, that with such feedback, it was unwise to wait to collect on bills.

No matter how bad life had gotten, Walter had always held to his sense of humor, grim as it was. Part of his need to leave was that the folks he knew no longer had room for humor in the scenario. He was constantly being smothered by concern from his friends, neighbors, and co-workers. The jokes he wanted t make—morbid, grim, and utterly inappropriate to the situation—were met with slight gasps of shock and tearful eyes. Walter had fled the suffocating atmosphere of propriety to grieve his life his way. And so he toured lonely streets, laughing at his own dark jokes.

A car horn broke through his reverie. Somewhere, a pedestrian had almost lost a leg, he smiled grimly. It had only taken him one or two close calls with pounding heart and rapid breaths to learn that pedestrians did not have the right of way in many cities around the world. Still, he had remarked to more than one bystander, he as a dead man walking either way. Car or cancer, did it really matter at this point?

Still, the city sounds drew him way from the home he had left and back to his current conundrum. The early morning sun was shifting towards noontime, and he had still not found his desired goal. Admittedly, his journey had started a bit later in the day, as he had enjoyed a couple of hours dozing in the soft, luxurious bed and letting his aching muscles unwind. And then he had been forced by his raging stomach to endure a heavy, delicious, and decadent breakfast at a local restaurant.

For years, Walter had watched his diet. He had cut out coffee to prevent any negative cardiovascular effects. Breakfast had been a grapefruit and glass f water, perhaps with a multivitamin on the side. But here, in this world of food and fantasy, he devoured rich and creamy desserts, fatty dinners full of cheese and cream, and drank dark coffee by the gallon. The taste of pastry still hung about his mouth, reminding him of the snack he had squirreled away in his backpack for later. If you have six months he saw no reason to waste it on careful eating and moderation. If ever there were a time for indulgence, it was now.

Walter straightened and smiled as a young woman walked down the side street towards him. Young, he chuckled. She was clearly fit the middle-age category far more accurately than Walter did. A young boy hung on her hand, and he could hear the melodious voice gently chiding him. Having been a mischievous child himself, Waletr had learned that he could recognize a mother’s rebuke in almost any language, at last based on his travels thus far.

“Scusi,” he offered, his tongue trying to figure out the unfamiliar sounds. Yet again, he bristled at the difficulty of switching language. There had been a time he would have leapt between languages flawlessly, back when his mind was sharp and quick. Now, he felt like he was paging through a dictionary carved into stone tablets for as long as it took him to recall the few phrases he had learned on his flight over.

She paused, seemingly surprised by the stranger’s voice. He did his best to smile pleasantly, and she returned the smile before rattling off some string of syllables that, while sounding lovely, meant nothing. Walter continued to smile, then held out the map.

“Dove sono?” he asked in broken tones. As beautifully a the words rolled of her tongue, he felt like he was spitting stones

She wrinkled her brow—trying to decode his broken Italian, he reckoned. Walter held up the map, waving his index finger over it before giving an exaggerated shrug. Her face suddenly brightened as she let out a simple “Ah.”

The woman gave her son a sharp look, then grabbed the map with her free hand. After a brief study, she placed one long, manicured finger on a tiny intersection. “Here.” Her English sounded foreign, exotic, and perfect. Walter felt a deep sadness ell up inside of him that he had never experienced this part of life before now. How long had he wasted on his tiny corner of the world while turning his back on everything else?

“E il museo?” he asked again, his tongue beginning to wake and wrestle with the new sounds.

She smiled at him and then returned her eyes back to the map. Quickly, she pointed to another area, a tiny open square in the tangle of streets. “Here.” She added again, fixing him with a broad smile. Walter added his smile to hers as he folded the map back up and stowed it away.

“Grazie.” She half-spoke something to him as she turned back to collect her son, quickly disappearing down the shadowy street and back into the sunlight.

Walter began to walk, the old cobblestones under his feet as centuries old buildings loomed over him. There was something so right about being in the ancient city as he himself grew old. He walked the ancient city streets, feeling kinship with the worn stones he trod, the comfort of familiarity blanketing him from watching windows in squat buildings.

Walter felt as if he had a lot to learn from the city that had aged so well, well enough to become a treasure in its own right. He smiled and set his goal. He would learn to live well, age well, and die well in whatever few days he had left. With that, he pulled out his breakfast pastry, and let the sun shine down on his aching bones.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 57

Hello, wonderful Reader! I apologize for not posting yesterday. I was running from 7:30-9:45 with class and clients, so I was simply worn out by the time I finally made it home. Just a day of back-to-back-to-back appointments. So, I just had to keep myself sane and healthy. Still, I was frustrated because I really wanted to write this story! But, better late than never. I only have one day left to skip, so hopefully nothing too major gets in the way. Thanks for sticking with me, and I hope you enjoy today’s piece. Happy reading!


Card Day 57: An hourglass. As the sands fall, they cover a youthful young woman below while revealing an old woman above.

The world fell out of balance slowly, so slowly that at first no one noticed. Eventually, however, the changes grew to a swell so extreme that it was impossible not to notice. Religious folks proclaimed the apocalypse, the green champions decried humanity’s misuse of the world, and science curried to find a suitable answer for the unraveling of everything believed to be true. Nevertheless all the time spent pointing guilty fingers do nothing to slow the inevitable. In the end the world fell apart, just like everyone warned it would.

With the collapse of the world as she knew it, Opal found herself the only person—perhaps the only creature—left alive. Her world had gone from one full of joy, vibrancy, and community to one that was best described as a barren waste. Admittedly, this change had begun long before the world started its tumultuous descent into nothingness. She had wrought her own demise long before, and humanity simply imitated her chaotic spiral into oblivion.

The first loss had been her husband, an unmourned passing which ultimately freed her from his tyrannical, at times abusive rule. She had not wept for him, but had leapt into life with seal. From there, she blossomed, caring for her beautiful children, managing her household, and running her little universe in shining perfection. Her methods were, of course, trying to those around her who might have found it difficult to live to her exacting standards. But Opal had standards, and just because that meant others had to work did not mean she was wrong.

After his passing, Opal later was forced to say farewell to her twin brother, who died surprisingly young under curious circumstances. There was, of course, a shadow cast across Opal at the time, but she grieved him so deeply that no one pressed the issue. Still questions hung around the family like old cobwebs, seeking to uncover why he had died so brutally, what the symbols carved into his hands, forehead, and soles of his feet could mean, and why every mirror was shattered in his house. The craze of Satanism was in full swing, and Opal poured all her ire towards that possibly fictitious and certainly exaggerated subculture. Opal had loved her brother dearly, and many said she was never the same after he passed.

She did, in fact, become a bit of a recluse. She dressed darkly, wearing thick sunglasses and veils to cover her face. More surprising in the small town was her departure from the local Lutheran Church, akin to spitting in the face of half the town. Her children—grown by then—tried to convince her to return, but she only withdrew more and more. It became such that she rarely left her house.

Of course, then her eldest daughter died, and most thought the news would simply shatter what remained of the fragile woman. However, she responded to the news with all the grace they remembered from the woman of old, carrying herself with dignity at the graveside as she buried a child. She mourned appropriately, and then placed her home for sale. Hr life moved into times of perceived festivity. She traveled, saw the world, dressed vibrantly, and eschewd all the things a proper lady was expected to do in her old age. Opal had a fondness for Jack Daniels, ordorous cigars, and younger men. Her children, those who remained in their small hometown at least, spoke of her in hushed whispered with blush rising to their faces. Senility, they tried to suggest. But their mother would not offer them that.

No, while Opal appeared to age, she remained quick enough to cause a ruckus any time someone suggested her mind was going. Her wits never suffered, and even though she appeared to grow old, she remained as spry and active as she ever had. Many folks said she was brighter, smarter, and more athletic than the Opal they remembered way back in high school days. But soon, those folks began to die off, leaving Opal the shining example of a generation buried to time.

She buried three more children as time went on, leaving herself beholden to no one. Though the town she had once knew had forgotten her, Opal still breezed in from time to time, a figure cut out of mystery that no one rightly knew what to do with. It seemed as if she enjoyed baffling the locals, winging in with her knowledge, grace, and devil-may-care abandon for anything reputable folk would do.

Her ties to the living world grew thin as Opal buried grandchildren she had hardly known, accompanying weeping great grandchildren she recognized only by their sharp cheekbones. She was the figure in black hovering about the edges of the gravesite, her eyes turned downwards in silent contemplation, But she never stayed long, carried off by the next wayward wind to chase whatever fancy had most recently struck her.

When the world began dying, she hardly noticed. She had no one to mourn as people—young and old—began to simply collapse in the streets. The news was depressing and had no impact on her daily life, so she ignored it. Only when the traffic thinned to a trickle and her favorite shops began to board up did she notice something was wrong. Yes, something was terribly wrong. An epidemic of death wrapped across the globe, claiming victims without disease or injury. One moment, a child was laughing, the next her heart stopped. A mother drove home from work, and then plowed her car into the guardrail, brain-dead before the impact.

The anxiety that seized the planet did nothing to Opal; she knew she could not die. However it did crimp her style, leaving no one to be in awe of her, to accompany her wild adventures, to scam for a few extra dollars. The woman beholden to no one began to feel lonely, to wilt without the eyes of others on her.

And now, she was relatively certain she was the last one left on the planet. Being immortal was not nearly as much fun without an audience.

She sat just outside Chicago, resting on the hood of her most recent vehicle, yet again out of gas. She knew that the gas pumps probably still worked, but it was generally easy to just find a new one and pick up again. Hotwiring was one of the many skills her long life had granted her. Only, now, she paused for a break. She thought she had seen someone in her rearview mirror, so opted to do the polite thing and wait.

Sure enough, the lanky woman came waltzing down the highway, swaying to unknown music and dancing in the destruction. Opal’s face twisted into a bitter scowl as the woman neared. “I don’t find that very funny,” she snapped once the woman was in earshot.

The young woman smiled at her, fixing Opal with a concentrated stare. “Opal, darling!” she greeted. “I hope you don’t take offense, but,” she shrugged, “I assumed you’d be more welcoming to me with a face you can trust.”

Opal resettled herself against the hood of the car, crossing her arms. “That’s not a face I care to see anymore.”

“But, Opal, it’s your face, yes? And my, weren’t you beautiful!” The creature wearing her face smiled at herself in the reflection of a nearby car before finding Opal’s eyes again. “Were being key, I’m afraid.”

“What do you want?” spat the old woman, now beginning to feel the heat of the sun on her wrinkled skin. Her mind was sharp, her body young, but her appearance had definitely degraded over time. She did not need that worthless hellspawn rubbing it in.

“I got the sense you were looking for me.”

Well, that at least was true. Opal had finally decided she had had her fun. It was time to make peace with death and move along. “I’m ready to die,” she said bluntly, not meeting the creature’s taunting gaze.

“I’m sure you do. But that’s not how this works.”

“But I made the decision, I made the deal. Now I want it to be over!” She slid off the hood of the car, standing to her full five and a half foot height. Not an imposing figure, but one that seethed with years of unspent fury.

The young woman did not respond, but ambled along the highway, gazing aimlessly out into the wastes. “Do you even know why all this happened, Opal?”

“I don’t care why it happened, I want—“

“You should care. You caused it.” Opal’s words dried up in her mouth, and the creature smiled, pleased with the response. “You see, Life and death are so delicately balanced, and then you come along. You unhinged it all with your “immortality” schtick. I mean, really, you thought there would be no consequences?”

“But there were!” she said with a start, taking frenzied steps towards the woman. “I sacrificed everything! I gave you Samuel!”

“Ah, the brother. Yes, I suppose that sated Death for a while. But eventually, his books came back out of balance. And he’ll search high and low to find that missing number. Only, my boss and I made sure he could not find you.” Her face broke into a wide, pointed tooth grin. “We made an agreement, after all.”

“Well, then I’m ready to pay for my crimes. Give me all you’ve got, drag me to hell if you must. I’m ready to die.” Opal put on as brave a face as she could muster, trying to cover up the years and decades of weariness etched in every wrinkle.

The demon wearing her face laughed, a throaty sound that echoed across the empty sky. “Opal, dear, you are paying already. Welcome to your Hell. You’ll have long enough to enjoy it, I promise.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 56

Card Day 56: A boy climbing a ladder and sculpting a bird out of the clouds.

Florence had never been a good sleeper, and tonight certainly was no different. She tossed and turned, fighting against her covers to achieve the perfect balance of hot and cold, feeling at once too tightly covered and too exposed. It was impossible, she decided, to get comfortable in the sweaty tangle of sheets, and the air outside of the shelter of the blankets was too chill. She gave in to the losing battle, lying helpless and frustrated in a knot of sheets, pillows, and irritation.

Self-help books all told her the same thing. Lying there and trying to sleep was not going to do any good, so she should find something soothing and relaxing to do until she felt tired again. With a groan of frustration—the clock already said 2:15 and her alarm was set for 6:00—she set her feet on the comfortably cool wood floor, padding softly towards the kitchen.

Growing up, her mother had always given her a glass of milk and crackers when she could to sleep, and Florence repeated the ritual religiously. A snack acquired, she sat munching at the darkened kitchen table, trying to figure out why her body could be so tired when her eyes remained so alter. The crackers were loud in the silence of her home, the only sounds the occasional hum of a car drifting along outside and the quiet whisper of the air conditioning circulating through the house. It stayed set on a nice, cool temperature at night, just like the doctor ordered. Not that it helped.

The first part of the ritual complete, she moved to the living room, the dog-eared book and tiny reading light at their appointed positions. Computers, television, and cell phones were all forbidden, but books were highly recommended. Sometimes Florence felt she should probably develop a taste for bad books so that they would actually put her to sleep. Still, doctor’s orders.

A few pages in to the dog-eared copy, she did feel her eyes beginning to get slightly heavy, just enough that she dared hope it might be working. There was something about reading that quieted those anxious voices in her head, lulling them into sleep just as surely as smoke stilled the hornets’ nest.

Her chin was sinking onto her chest when there came a slight knock at the door. It was quiet, but rang out obtrusively in the quiet of the house. She snapped to attention, a new wave of fear crashing over her. Who would be out this late at night? Why would they knock on her door? What could they want? Should she call the cops? Was it a ploy?

New anxieties began buzzing about, shattering the forced meditation of her evening ritual. She set the book down from where it lay steepled on her stomach, leaning forward in her chair. There was no other sound, no call for help, no repeated pounding. In fact, the silence refilled the house so quickly, she assumed it had been a half-experienced dream, a car backfiring on the road that her brain twisted into some fitting sound. Still there was a tiny doubt nagging at her, and so she walked over towards the door. Peering through the glass, there was nothing out there but her front porch, wilting flowers that reminded her to add “water the plants” to her checklist.

Turning to walk away, her foot brushed up against something. It was a tiny package wrapped in butcher paper and bound with twine. It was awkwardly oval shaped, and definitely foreign to her house. Had she heard this dropping against her floor?

A thousand new questions began clamoring in her head as Florence carefully undid the string and unwrapped the present. She was half expecting a severed finger or ear to leer out from the wrapping. Instead, much more pleasant fare awaited. Inside was a small, ceramic dove. Its wings were spread mid-flight, and it was crafted finely enough that she imagined she could see the feathers ruffled by the air. It was beautiful, she conceded, if still a creepy package to wind up in her entryway at nearly 3:00 in the morning.

The trespass sent chills up her spine, but she found the object captivating. It was hard to focus on all the anxious thoughts as she stared at it, the limited light from streetlamps outside glinting off the smooth finish. It was perfect, cool to the touch, and oddly reassuring. Still, she as certain the excitement would keep her up the rest of the night. Might as well finish a book, at least.

Returning to her chair, Florence found herself turning the trinket over in her hand, examining all the impossibly tiny details. She was drawn to it, her eyes running back and forth over it, seemingly discovering new details at each pass. Without realizing it, her hand began to loosen and her head dropped forward. Eventually, she fell precipitously to sleep, the figurine resting softly in her lap.

_

In her dream, she was flying. The landscape raced away below her, dappled pastures broken up by stretches of pale white clouds. The sun was warm, the breeze cool, and she felt the exhilaration of freedom rush over her. Ahead, a mountain swelled into view, its peak snowcapped and gleaming in the brilliance of the sun. Guided by a quest she only half understood, Florence swung herself towards the mountain, diving at a microscopic opening hundreds of feet below her.

The landing was smooth and gentle, carrying her gracefully into the mouth of the opening. She rested briefly, and looked up to see an open door. Listening to the draw of some unspoken goal, she walked through the door.

The inside of the mountain was beautiful, swirls of white, pale blue, and purple rock dancing about in naturally flowing veins. The walls glimmered with embedded minerals, giving the whole place a seeming glow. Following the path, she eventually entered into a large room seated at the base of a sweeping caldera. Sunlight streamed into the room, highlighting a tiny man carefully carving an abstract figure. To the best of her knowledge—and for some reason, she felt she should trust her gut here—it as a man and woman dancing.

“Ah, Florence,” he chirped as she entered. He carefully descended from the ladder in a cloud of rock dust. It was hard to tell where the pale white dust ended and he began. He was swallowed by a long white beard and a mop of white hair which danced about him like a fine mist. His cloak had likely once been a nice, bright, cheerful blue, but it had turned pale at the accumulated debris, as had the simple brown pants. There was not a clean inch on him, but that did not prevent him from making a show of dusting his hands on his pants.

He extended a hand once he reached her, and she bent to shake it graciously. The wisdom of her dream had fled, and she was merely confused. “I’m glad you made it. I’ve been trying to get in touch with you.” He fixed her with a stern glare, his eyes a bright stone grey. Normally, she could see them shinning with glee. Now they looked somewhat serious, though still inviting.

“You wanted to see me?”

“Well of course. You don’t think folks just wander their way in here, do you? I’d never get my work done!” he said, gesturing quickly at the statue behind him. Florence nodded knowingly, but her puzzlement spilled out across her face.

“But I suppose that is precisely the problem, now isn’t it?”

“I really don’t know,” said Florence honestly, trying to take in whatever was going on around her. She missed the confidence of her previous flight.

“Of course you do. I’ve been in here working diligently to craft you the best dreams I can. I have worked up all kinds of wonderful things. And what do you do? You let them go to waste, spoil, and rot!”

“I—I’m sorry,” she began her stammering apology, but stopped as he waved his hand.

“Yes, I’m sure you are. But I am a busy man. Do you know how many dreams I have to construct a night? Do you? Billions, Florence. And then so many people do not even appreciate what they are given.’ He sighed, shaking his head. His cheeks were flushed red with the passion of his speech.

“I try to sleep, but—“

He waved off her defense once again. “Now, I took valuable time out of my day to meet with you about this. I simply cannot spend my time on projects that are going to waste.”

“I don’t know how to fix it,” she mumbled, her eyes scanning the ground. He pursed his lips and studied her out of one eye, thoughts obviously racing through his own head.

“Yes, that is a problem, isn’t it?” He stroked his long beard once, twice thoughtfully. “Do you think you could give me some sort of notice? Maybe if you know you aren’t going to sleep, you could just let me know, say around noon?”

“I wish I could, but I just can’t. What about that statue you sent me?” she asked, surprising herself with how easily the pieces fit together.

He shook his head. “No, far too tiring for me. If I did that every night, I wouldn’t get half of my dreams done in a day.” His voice trailed off, and then his head shot up, a smile on his face and twinkle in his eye. “I’ve got it!” He raced off to a workbench near the nearly-completed statue, pulling up a sheet of paper. “You are on Earth, right? Well, I’ve got just the thing. One of my coworkers brought it in just this week. The perfect sleeping potion!”

Florence grabbed the paper from him, her eyes scanning it and devouring it eagerly. Yes, it all made sense. It was so clear. She nodded, a smile swallowing her face. “This is perfect!” she exclaimed. Not only had he solved his problem, but hers as well.

The man nodded knowingly, turning back to his project. “Just don’t forget it. I won’t have myself wasting all this energy for nothing.” With that, the beautiful dream faded into swirls of color, then darkness.

_

Florence woke with a start, the sound of the alarm chirping from her bedroom. She craned her neck, stretching out the sore muscles form the uncomfortable position. This was not recommended, she thought grimly. Still, she felt rested, somehow at peace. It had something to do with a dream, she thought fuzzily, grasping at what remained. She remembered sculptures, rock dust in the air, and flying. But the details remained a hazy suggestion of something more.

Still, as she shifted to get up, she felt the dove sculpture shift in her lap. Somehow, that seemed to remind her of something, something old and half-remembered. She set the figurine on the table beside her, mentally making a grocery list. Some sort of inspiration told her it might be the answer to what she needed.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 55

Card Day 55: A tiny city and landscape inside of a drop of rain.

The rain feel in sheets against the glass window, just as it had done for the past four days. Nora had hoped that it would let up and grant a reprieve at some point, but that did not seem to be happening. The sky still stretched on in endless, angry, gray waves, dumping more and more water onto the tiny town. It had been predicted as an evening storm, flash flooding possible near the river. She looked out at the roiling waters beneath the window, the streetlamps a tiny marker to the high water. Obviously, the forecast had been wrong. From her attic, she could see the water rushing past and hear it sloshing through her house now. She hoped desperately that she would be able to stay dry in the cramped space, uncomfortable as it was. But if it continued she knew she would be shimmying out the window and onto the roof. She was not thrilled at the possibility.

Her supplies, meager as they had been, were dwindling. When the water lapped up to her knees on the first floor and the voice on the radio said to move up, she had grabbed what she could and made for higher ground. Her foraging had produced a bottle of apple juice, assorted water bottles from her fridge, a couple of cans of soup, a loaf of bread, and three cans of green beans. The loaf of bread, half the juice, and one and a third bottle of water remained.

Nora had been sitting by the open window, straining her ears to hear the rumble of outboard motors brining rescue teams. The radio said they were making attempts to get people—like herself—who may have been trapped in their homes. Given the surprise of the flood, Nora guessed that meant they were trying to evacuate all 3,000+ citizens of Riverrun. She was in an older, less well-off part of town, as distinct a division as such a small town could have. There were no schools or hospitals nearby, and she assumed she was low on the list. Still, she did not want to miss someone coming past, especially given her dwindling food and water situation.

The radio droned on, turned down low, in the corner. It repeated the same general message over and over, with occasional updates. She listened for the trill announcing something new, but otherwise left it as droning background noise. It was better than simply listening to the water rush by or crash down. It helped her feel less completely alone, even though she was beginning to have the strange thought that she was the only human left in Riverrun.

The idea was, of course, ridiculous, and she laughed it off every time it crept up. But there was something about being in a dusty old attic for days, without another human face and only the robotic voice of the emergency broadcast that made her question everything. She distracted herself with the random assortment of junk in her attic, reading the first few pages of some old books, sorting through the clothes she had tossed up here, and trying to find anything that might make her stay more comfortable. Any attempt of distraction was met with the encroaching realization that this was really happening. She had read words on many pages, but found that none of them stuck. They were all swept away by the pounding river in what used to be her street.

Her contemplation of boredom and cabin fever was rudely interrupted by the sound of something thudding against her house. It was a sudden, loud bang that seemed to shake the walls off the house itself. She peered out the window. Probably a car, patio set, or tree branch that got swept up in the current. It was certainly not the first time she had heard something. But this had been different in a way. It had sounded sturdier, and had not bounced back and forth against the walls like most things did. There was no groan of something getting stuck on the corner of the house, no trailing series of bumps as it drifted along on the sidewalk. Just a single, solid knock against the walls. Then nothing but rushing water.

Of course, looking out into the water provided no clues either as there was nothing but a swirling mass of muddy water, always trickling on at concerning speeds. She gained damp hair and a slight, sticky dampness for her troubles. It did, however, show her that the water was now only a few feet below the window. She would have to climb soon and hope for the best. Sighing, she pushed herself to her feet. It would probably be wise to find something that floated if the roof was her last hope.

Ransacking the junk in her own attic she began to hum to herself, trying to fill the silence and drown out her fear. It was not working, but it seemed better than paralyzing resignation to the terror coursing through her. Then came the sound again, this time two knocks. They were slow, steady, and measured. Thump. Thump. Nora climbed back over the items she had unpacked—candlesticks and photo albums would not make acceptable rafts—and peered out the window. “Hello?” she called. Her own voice surprised her, cracking slightly and hoarse with disuse. Maybe that was a rescue boat docking nearby, using her home as an anchor. Maybe they were rowing to conserve fuel or prevent accidents or something.

The wind howled around her, but there was no other response. “Is anyone out there?” she called, but no one was there to respond. Nora looked at the house across from hers, seeing a tiny face framed by their attic window. The neighbor’s kid. The little girl stared at her, eyes round. There was a glimmer of fear in her face, one that Nora recognized. Only the girl did not seem to be looking at Nora, but at something in t hater below. Whatever, Nora sighed, pushing back into the shelter of the attic. There were plenty of things to terrify a seven-year-old in a flood like this.

Still, Nora followed her gaze feeling her own eyes grow wide at the sight. In the water, there was a thing. No, she corrected, her eyes struggling to make sense of what she was seeing, the water was a thing. It pulled back from her house, swelling up into an almost-fist. Nora could see the ground, muddy and sodden, from her vantage. The fist landed against the wall of her home, the same echoing thump from before. Once, twice, and the water settled back down. But she could see now that there was more than pure randomness to the motion. There was a direction to t, a constant change in direction and change of goal that defied the reality of water.

It did not flow, but it seemed to congregate, select, and move in for the attack. While some water flowed on, like water should, there seemed to be a mass, a form constructed of water but held together by something she could not understand.

Nora watched it swell again, moving along the side of her house. It paused just below her window, then crashed forward like a wave. She could not hold in a tiny yelp as the not-quite-water splashed against her face.

In that moment, Nora swore she saw it pause, almost as if it were listening. It spun together, swirling in on itself, buzzing with some activity she could not interpret. Then, she watched as the spiral turned into a column, snaking up to her window. Like a cobra striking, it slammed through the open window, knocking her back and spilling water into the sanctuary of the attic.

Nora sputtered, kicking back and sliding against the wood floor. She quickly brushed the water out of her eyes, spitting out the muddy ooze from her mouth.  By the time she got her eyes open, it was already time for them to fly wide in shock.

The water on her floor pulled back towards itself, assembling into an oddly humanoid shape. It stood on two legs, two watery appendages hanging at its sides, and its head nearly scraping the low ceiling of the attic. It rippled forward, never quite lifting it legs to move, but more flowing forward through the air, the rest of the body following behind. Nora’s mouth sat open in shock, the scream forgotten at the back of her throat. She could not breath, could not move, could only stare in wonder at the creature, hear her own heartbeat racing in her head.

It reached her, watery arms wrapping around her with irresistible strength. She felt frozen, but the chill of its touch kick started her muscles. Nora began to kick and flail, struggling against the impossible figure. It was unperturbed, absorbing any blow that landed and seeming to absorb her into its watery form. Before she knew it, Nora was encased in water, suspended within the thing’s body like a bug in amber.

The creature dove gracefully back into the monstrous body of its host, taking Nora into the depths with it. The scream she had been building finally escaped, a bubble of air bursting through the water and breaching the surface. The water rolled on, moving towards the next house.

The rain pounded on, and the city of Riverrun steadily grew silent, until only the sound of rain and rushing water remained.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 54

Card Day 54: A woman wearing a rainbow-striped skirt reaches for a golden apple.

Linette’s problem was that she knew she was running out of time. The letter had shown up on her kitchen table two days ago, its simple message handwritten in an ornate, looping script. “Linette,” it began, “We would like to offer you the opportunity of a lifetime. Pick up the phone. Call us.”

And so she had, dialing the number at the bottom. A cheery woman on the other end answered, greeting her by name before she could even speak. “We’ve had our eye on you,” said the perky voice, no hint of shame or disgust at the creepy message. She had gone on to reveal things that Linette thought no one in the world knew about, and then gave her the promised opportunity.

They—who they were was never disclosed—wanted to offer her enough money to spend the rest of her life in luxury. The only catch was she had to complete a simple task. They would provide everything she needed, a clearly outlined plan for completion, and full coverage should anything go wrong. Realizing the job sounded too good to be true but unable to pause in her excitement, Linette agreed. And the line promptly went dead.

It was a hoax, a practical joke, she assumed. She was the unwitting patsy while some teenagers giggled merrily in some loud and gaudy bedroom.  Of course, her opinion changed when she woke up to a pale grey, metal box at the foot of her bed the next morning. The awareness that someone had crept so close to her while she slept left her frozen there for the first hour, anxiously awaiting the intruder’s return. No one walked in, and eventually curiosity drew her out. She flipped the metal clasps, the sound echoing in her empty room, and looked inquisitively into the dark recesses.

Inside was another letter, this on crisply typed in small font. She set it aside to explore further. There was a small flash drive, two plastic keycards, a pair of thick-rimmed glasses, and a brick of cash. Linette’s heart beat quickly as she lifted the cash up, looking at the stack of $100 bills staring up at her. Benjamin was smiling at her, and she could only gaze back in wide-eyed shock.

She quickly grabbed for the letter, trying to figure out what she had signed herself up for. The “too good to be true” feeling was back in full force, currently occupying a pit of snakes in her stomach.

“Ms. Linette Jones,” was the formal opening to the letter. “We appreciate your dedication to our service. We hope that this may be the beginning of a fruitful relationship. Inside this box you should have found one (1) military grade encrypted flash drive, two (2) numbered and identified keycards for Room 1178 and Room 932, one (1) pair of video recording lenses, and the first installment of your reimbursement for service.

“We have a simple task for you to begin, so that you may prove your dedication to our initiative. First, put on the glasses so we may monitor your progress. This will also help to provide you with a small deal of concealment as they are equipped with video recording disruption capabilities. All you must do is go to the two rooms and do simple tasks. Both offices are within your current office building, hence your current utility.  Room 1178 hosts a large collection of mainframes. Find the port and plug the USB into them, then leave the room. Next, go to Room 932. This room should be a plain, but empty office. Take your glasses and break off the left earpiece, and then slide it into the bookshelf, the broken end in between the books. You have until 4:45pm on January 3rd to complete the assignment.

“As you can surely understand, this is a very delicate matter. We assure you, your cooperation in this is for not only your benefit, but the benefit of all those you currently know and work with. However, given the delicate nature of this situation, failure to complete the assignment will result in permanent TERMINATION. “

There was no name or signature, only the crisp words on creamy paper. Linette had gotten up and gotten ready, trying not to think about the stack of bills she had sequestered under her mattress. She shoved the items into the recesses of her purse and went to work.

Now, she looked at the clock, watching the number tick away. It was 4:15pm already, and she felt no more certain of how to proceed than she had two days ago.  There was a heavy cloak and dagger feel to it, and, despite the letter’s assurances, she felt certain there was a nefarious plot underway. Still, the final note about termination left a lead weight in her stomach. She had no difficulty reading through the innuendo, nor understanding that she was far over her head.

Linette scooped up her purse with sudden resolve. She could use the money to flee to Mexico or something, put this behind her, and never open an unaddressed letter again. But she had to survive.

She put the glasses on her face, feeling out of place with the heavy frames. A couple of her coworkers gave her odd looks as she walked past, commenting on the new look. She tried to keep her head down instead.

It felt like an impossible wait by the elevators as the lift climbed from the first floor to the fifth. She hoped no one would join her as she waited, because the thought of friendly chitchat brought a wave of nausea over her. The job was possible, she knew, but only if she did not think about it at all. Finally, the doors opened and she flung herself into the little metal sanctuary.

Cheery music piped in, a sharp contrast to the anxiety flooding her thoughts. Linette felt as if the world had slipped off of its axis, sending her into a tailspin without an emergency escape.

The doors opened on floor eleven—it would be best to start at the top and work her way down, she reasoned. Trying to appear confident, she strode down the pale grey hallway, her eyes scanning the numbers on the doors. What would she do if there was someone waiting inside?

Fortunately, the door swung open onto nothing but rows of blinking computers. She was not a tech-savvy individual, but she did know what a USB port looked like. Locating one was difficult amidst all the wires and displays, but she found one and jammed the device into it. At a half run, she fled the room and exited back into the quiet hallway.

It felt impossible, this conspiracy swirling around her. Everyone she passed was simply going about their day, not a thought or care in the world. She felt like she had a gun pointed at her head, forced to jump through flaming hoops. Worst financial decision she had ever made, she decided as she stood waiting for the elevator again.

This time, a man in a suit and woman in a fitted dress were standing inside, chatting as the doors slid open. They barely glanced at her as she slipped into the small cage, pressing the eleven button just above their ten. She imagined he gave her a side-eye as she did it, that there was a brief hitch in the conversation. Just paranoid, she cautioned herself, closing her eyes and breathing deep. Just paranoid.

Stepping out onto the eleventh floor, she saw even fewer people than before. Now it as simply a matter of finding the door and leaving the frame—

“Lin?” she heard from the other end of the hall. She spun around quickly, trying to figure out who could know her here. No one she knew worked on eleven.

Jason from International Services was standing just a few feet from her, smiling broadly. She tried to mimic his smile, but felt her eyes beginning to crack from the pressure. “Jason, hi.”

“Nice glasses,” he said with a knowing smile, his eyes drilling into her. His smile was genuine and friendly, but Linette felt a slight threat emanating from him nonetheless.

“Yeah, my contacts were really bothering me today,” she lied fluidly, surprising herself with the ease. She let her eyes wander, trying to find the door she needed and trying to find an escape for the impossibly inconvenient conversation.

His lips were moving, her were responding out of force of habit, She could almost feel the time ticking away, second by second. “I didn’t know you worked up here,” he said casually.

“I don’t,” she said, barely realizing the words. He gave her an inquisitive look.

“Then why would you be up here, Linette?” Her name brought her back to the conversation, catching his searching eyes. He knew. And she knew he knew. “Go home, Linette,” he whispered, his voice soft and sad.

She responded with desperation. “I can’t.” the words hurt tumbling from her lips, and she could see they pained him, too.

He sighed. “You know I cannot let you do what you were going to do.”

“Jason, I—“ He put a hand up to cut off her words.

“Please, Linette, don’t make me do something I don’t want to do.” She looked frantically down the hallway, down where the door should be. In her mind, the numbers were there, hovering just against that fourth door form the end.

“I don’t have a choice,” she replied, steel in her voice. She broke off down the hall with breakneck speed, trying desperately to reach her target. What she would do when she got there was a giant mystery, but she could only hope that eventuality had been worked out. Instead, however, she felt heavy arms plow into her back, flinging her forward to the cold tile floor.

Pinned to the ground, the glasses busted against the floor, Linette could see her watch from its trusty position on her wrist. “4:48,” it proclaimed cheerily.

Too late.


I am not too happy with this one. I feel like it is all jumbly, misplaced, and probably rife with logic errors. It was an idea I liked, but then it just wasn’t really working for me today. Oh well. Everyone has an off day. This one was also tough because the card screams Atalanta to me, but I’ve already used that in a few places. So, I was not getting much new from this card. I went with unattainable goals and distraction, but I’m not sure how well it came through. Either way, I hope you found something you enjoyed in reading it. Please feel free to drop me a comment about what you loved, hated, or anything in between. Happy reading!


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 53

Card Day 53: A single die with a devilish figure growing legs and emerging from the pips on the surface.

Natalie felt the heft of the die in her hand. It was small, cold, and surprisingly heavy in her hand. Despite being a single small die, it felt like she was holding a crushing weight. Perhaps it was simply the import of the question.

He cleared his throat, obviously annoyed by her prolonged silence. “So, are you the gambling sort?” he asked again, raising his eyebrow provocatively.

She looked down at the die, feeling surprisingly as if the pips were eyes staring eagerly up at her. They were so dark on the dingy white background, and the sensation chilled her. “I’m not,” she whispered, still not meeting his eyes. At her response, he stood up straight, shrugging his shoulders.

“Oh well, I tried.” His hand, long and slender with crisply manicured nails, reached towards hers, moving to pinch the die from her hand.

Reflexively, her fingers closed over it and held tight even as the edges bit into her hand. “No, I’m not the type, but I have to try.” Her yes met his and she was struck by the lack of humanity in them. They were dark blue, the pupils large and endless pits spiraling back into his skull. There was no life or light in those eyes, instead they seemed to suck the brightness of the hospital room into him, leaving everything feeling dim. As if she had forgotten to take her sunglasses off when she came in. It took her several breaths before she realized that his lips were smiling even as his empty eyes drilled into her.

“You’ll take my wager?”

He looked too pleased with this turn of events, and she thought back to every story she had ever heard. These kinds of deals never went the way you wanted, and there was always a hidden catch. But Natalie felt that she had no choice. She was back against the proverbial wall, and she would cling to the only way out she had, even if that meant dancing with the Devil himself. Behind her, she heard the sounds of the respirator churning, the heart monitor keeping a steady tempo. It all seemed to be counting down the seconds remaining in the offer. She could see him beginning to grow weary with the waiting, almost ready to withdraw the offer from a hesitant buyer.

“I’ll take it. We play and, if I win, no one dies tonight or anytime soon.” She had tried to be very clear in her wording, but even now she wondered if she had left too many loopholes. How soon was soon? Who was included in the “no one” discussion? What if no one died, but everyone spent the remainder of “soon” in a coma? She gnawed on her bottom lip apprehensively as she replayed the discussion. It had all seemed to clear before, but now there only seemed to be holes.

He placed his hand on her arm, the skin dry and radiating an unhealthy heat. “I may not be an honest man, but I’ll make sure you get what you deserve. You win, I’ll make sure you and your family live a nice healthy life together. I win, and no one intercedes. This story unfolds like it should, only I get a little piece of you once your time is up.”

“You will save her, right? If I win, I mean.” There was desperation dripping from her words and she clasped his hand. Obvious discomfort stretched across his face at the touch of her hand. Behind her, the machines keeping her daughter alive continued their steady symphony, unobtrusively metering each measure of her too-young life.

He simply nodded, withdrawing his hand from her and taking a couple steps back, as if the distance between them had suddenly become too intimate. “Do you want to know the rules?” he asked condescendingly. She could see he was growing tired of the mortal game, and she began to fear she might lose him. Still, playing without rules would not win her anything.

“Yes.”

He nodded curtly, pulling another ivory-toned die from his pocket. Its pips were just as dark and deep, reminding her suddenly of the pupils of his eyes. Maybe that’s why she thought they were looking up at her. “You’ll go first and roll your die,” he gestured at her still clenched fist, and she suddenly became aware of the sharp pain, releasing it suddenly. “After that, make a bid—higher than your number—that you think will be the total on both our dice after I roll. Then I roll. If our two dice add up to the bid, I win. If I roll lower than your number but go over the bid, you win. If I roll higher than you and go over, it’s a draw and I roll first next time. The game is over when we roll the same number or if we roll lower than the bid six times. Winner of the most rounds wins. Got it?”

She nodded her head slowly, the different rules and permutations floating around her. Natalie was suddenly aware that, cognitively, she was in no shape to make such decisions. It was hard to even follow his words. Somehow she suspected that would not void her agreement.

“Good,” he purred, moving towards the counter in the corner of the room. “You’re up.”

Her hand was shaking so much, she felt she did not even have to put much effort into juggling the single die. It fell from her hand, clattering across the table. Four eyes loomed up at her in the increasingly dim light of the hospital room.

“Tough one,” he sighed, not a hint of compassion or sympathy in his voice. “Bid it.”

“Seven?” she bid questioningly. He smiled a crooked grin and made a grand show of shaking the lone die with both hands. She watched as it tumbled to the table, three tiny beads facing up.

“Beginner’s luck,” he grinned as he scooped his die from the table, obviously pleased with his performance. She shook her head, trying to hold onto all the rules and decide if there were a better way, Should she have bid higher? Lower? Was it really just luck? Was he cheating? Her fingers numbly gathered the die to her, suddenly terrified of releasing it. What if they matched this round? It would all be over.

“Take too long and we’ll have to call it,” he said with a pleased smile, gesturing at the large clock on the wall. The die plummeted from her hand, bouncing a couple of times before settling.

A six. “Seven,” she bid, and he looked irritated.

“I suppose the luck may be turning. Not much chance for me here,” he growled. Hi roll produced an unfortunate three, and she saw disgust ripple over his otherwise calm features. “All tied up now, I suppose.”

The traded rounds, their scores racking up steadily. The game remained close to her partner’s obviously swelling irritation. They swapped the first player position as well, and she quickly realized that she stood little chance of winning against him if he set the bid. His years of experience quickly became obvious when he had the power. There was a hunger as he played, a revelry in the competition. Yet a darker demon took over every time his lead slipped, and she watched rage boiling below the surface. Natalie began to fear that it might just boil over, scalding her as collateral.

Her eyes were tired and the game was long. They sat at nine games to seven in his favor, and his pleasure at the events was clear. Fatigue wearing on her, Natalie tossed the die again. Another four. “Five,” she answered, slightly more confidently. A four gave her a good chance he would be under her number, good enough that she needn’t risk not meeting the bid to prevent another point for him. Still, only a two or three would give her the point. A one went to him, a four ended the game, and five or six gave him the lead, a results she feared she would not come back from. Fortunately, it was a two that landed on the table. Nine to eight.

She rolled again, she bid again, he rolled again, and they were tied. She felt thunder rolling in her chest as the importance of the situation settled on her shoulders. This was an important roll. She could pull ahead, possibly win. With prayers on her lips to figures she had never really considered before that moment, she released the die. One.

He chuckled. “Tough break. At least you’ll have another chance to win it back.”

“Three,” she stated despairingly.

His die tumbled over the faux wood surface rattling and grinding its way to a rest. She watched the numbers flash as it bounced, her heart sagging as she knew none of them held the answer. A single, solitary eye gazed up at her from the table. He appeared miffed.

“Well, that was an anticlimactic end,” he grumbled. “I suppose the deal is off. Best of luck, and you will never see me again.”

Natalie’s heart bounded into her throat as she saw her daughter, tiny and pale, rapped in the hospital sheets. “Please! One last roll. Winner takes all.”

His lips twisted into a smile, and she realized that she had played right into his trap. “If you insist. Of course, since I am agreeing to your wager now, it is only fair that I take the lead roll.” The five landed on the table, and he smirked. “Last roll, right? Winner takes all? Let’s go with a bid of six, then.”

She gulped, her hand shaking. She knew that the most likely outcome was she rolled a two, three, or four and bust the bid while still being a lower number. Five would not help her, only put her in the same predicament. And a six was just as useless in this sudden death round. With a wish and a prayer, she tossed the die onto the table. She could not watch it dance and spin, seeming to take an eternity spinning on its edges before it finally came to rest.

One.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 52

Card Day 52: A red-headed woman floats, wearing a metal cage as a skirt. Inside, two fish swim.

Everyone who grew up near Lake Wonapango had their own story about the lake. Some were your traditional and expected fish stories, some dealt with summer love and improprieties, and others were tragic tales of misadventure. And then there were the other stories, ones that spoke of great loss, the kind that does not stop when the sufferer passes on. Lake Wonapango held deep, dark secrets on its sandy bed, and sometimes those secrets floated to the surface. I remember well the night I myself came face to face with one of those secrets. All my years of trying to forget have done nothing but burn it more firmly in my thoughts.

I was never the fishing type. While it was the most common past time for those who lived around the lake, it was just never my thing. I did not have the patience or the appetite for the long hours spent catching the local fare. It seemed wasteful to haul them up and toss them back in. Still, like most folks around the lake, I had my boat. It was little more than a rowboat—I mean, it had a tiny outboard motor strapped to it, but I rarely used it. You see, I took the boat out not for fishing or swimming, but just to enjoy the water. I always went out at night, and the growl of the motor seemed overwhelming in the otherwise peaceful setting. So, I used it as a chance to get a good work out in, rowing along to a few of the calm, quiet spots I knew of.

The night in question was one of those nights hanging in between spring and summer. The air carried the heavy humidity of summer, but still settled on the cool side of warm. It was heavy with the hopes and aspirations of summer. The crickets, frogs, and cicadas had all started their raucous chorus, so I would say it was anything but quiet out there. But out on the water, it was still peaceful. There’s something about Lak Wonapango that just feels rights when the critters are singing out of key.

There were two empty bottles in the bottom of my boat, and I was leaned back against the edge, the lake water gently rocking me back and forth. The sky stretched out like an endless canvas above me, inky darkness pierced by diamond light. The moon was full, glowing warmly down on the scene. I know that this memory is colored by nostalgia, cast glorious in contrast to the events that were to come. But I don’t know if I could imagine something better and more peaceful than that evening. Maybe that’s why it had to go so wrong. Perhaps beauty and peace like that simply cannot exist in this world for long. The balance must be righted.

In that moment of peace, there was a splash. Now, anyone who has spent much time on isolated waters can tell you a splash does not mean much. I was surrounded by all sorts of wildlife that may have wanted to slide into the water. Or a tree branch could have fallen in. Heck, it could have even been one of the many local fishes swishing to the surface to snag an unfortunate water skimmer. There was no real reason it should have caught my attention. Part of what bugged me is that it did, though. Whatever thoughts and reveries I had been lost in shattered along with the surface of the lake. I sat forward, scanning about. The boat listed a bit with my sudden movements, the bottles rolling and clanging in the bottom.

The ripples began near an old fallen log that jutted its way into the river. Probably a turtle, I thought, swimming back t the shore after a long day of sunning. I tried to rest back against the boat, slip back into my quiet contemplation, but my ears were on edge, straining for any other sounds.

Silence. Completely and totally save for the water lapping against my boat. The bugs and frogs had quieted down, and their absence made me feel suddenly self-conscious. I grabbed the oars to row back home, suddenly feeling out of place on the lake that had always been home.

As my paddles dipped into the water, I imagined I heard an echoing splash hiding in their noise. It was paranoia, I told myself, or an echo from the banks. But still my ears strained. I finally paused mid-stroke, the oars lying limp in the water, and heard another splash following behind me. I spun around and watched as something broke the surface of the water. It was an arm, long and pale in the moonlight. I felt frozen to the spot, watching as the other arm rose and fell, gentle strokes pulling whoever it was steadily closer. I watched the pale shadow glide beneath the water, the feet arcing into the air and pushing it downward just before it reached my boat.

People did swim in Lake Wonapango, so I assumed I must have surprised a sunbather or skinny dipper with my evening sail. I wondered who it was, since they had obviously made towards my boat and darted away to avoid detection. My mind wandered to a couple particular townsfolk I would not mind stumbling upon skinny dipping, but before the thoughts could get too far, something bumped the bottom of the boat.

I was alert and scanning the water, assuming it must be someone playing a joke on me after disturbing them, I was not too thrilled about the potential baptism I might endure if they took it too far; my goal was relaxation, not swimming in the murky water. I watched for them, trying to see when they would surface. But no one showed.

The second bump was louder, sending me careening into the side and almost overboard. It was no longer a funny joke, and I grabbed the paddles again. They could spend all evening in the dark depths of Lake Wonapango if that’s what they wanted to do, but I was going to go home and put an end to the long day.

The paddle in my left hand barely moved in the water before something latched onto it, ripping it from my hands. Wood splintered as it came free, disappearing into the water behind a trialing white arm. I watched it rocket to the bottom until I lost it in the shadows.

I admit, I was cursing up a good storm out there on my boat. Down to one oar, it was going to take me a while to get myself home. This joke was not funny any longer. I took my remaining paddle and prepared for the long journey home.

Only then a hand appeared over the side of the boat. The fingers were long, pale and greenish in the light. I assumed it was the reflection of the moon on the water or something, but now I’m not so sure. One thing I did note as weird was the webbing between the fingers and the long, tapering fingernails. That hand was attached to a long, slender arm.

Suddenly, a face broke the surface of the water. It was mostly human, but just not quite right. The eyes were too round, not the right oval shape. They also stretched a bit too big and had an unusual sheen to them. The lips were wide and flat, curled into a suggestion of a smile. Overall, the face was somewhat flattened. But she blinked those big, shining eyes at me and I was caught. Her hand—a bit slimy, very cold—trailed along mine, winding up my arm. I felt myself leaning towards her, enraptured at the unnatural beauty. Her hair lay in wet ringlets along her body, and it was clear she was completely naked below the water. I could not tell you what else was going on in the world around me then, because my entire being was consumed with devouring her presence. It was as if I had never experienced human connection until that point. Her lips slipped into an alluring smile, an unspoken invitation to come closer.

I tingled with the feeling of her hand on my arm—I only later realized that the tingle was not simply arousal, but a potent toxin that left my arm numb for hours after. In the moment, however, it was bliss. Every nerve danced with her touch, sizzling to new life as her skin glided over my own.

I was in the water before I realized it, drawn in by her smiling eyes. I felt as if I were diving straight into her pupils, drenching myself in their dark depths. But the muddy water of Lake Wonapango filled my mouth, its vile taste reminding me that this was no paradise. My arms flailed about, the one she had carefully caressed flopping mostly useless in the water. I felt her hands running across my chest, the same burn of pleasure and paralysis following her fingertips.

You would think that I would have been able to realize the danger I was in with this mystery creature, but I felt no threat from her. Even as she gently tugged me towards the lake bed, I felt she was only interested in my wellbeing. She could have held me underwater and watched me drown as long as her eyes held mine. No, it was not the awareness of her perilousness, but the long forgotten admonitions of my parents. You never go swimming if you’ve been drinking. It was a recipe for disaster. Their warnings ringing clear, I made for the boat

I suppose she sensed my intention to scape, because those long nails on her hand began digging into my skin. Fortunately, she had well-numbed most of my upper body by that point. I managed to flop into the boat, my vision going blurry around the edges. Eventually, the moon was the only thing left that and some thunderous pounding against the sides of my boat.

I woke up the next morning, the heat having returned in force. My chest was sticky with blood, my head pounded, and my arms felt like they were filled with jello. It was a long, painful, exhausting trip back to shore. A long road of recovery and failed forgetting stretching ahead of me.

Most people blamed the bottles in the bottom of my boat for the strange report. I must have fallen in, gotten scraped up on some rocks. Others, I think, thought it was suicide gone wrong. But, I now know why the lake has claimed more than its fair share of victims. I know why men and women go missing out there, no sign of a problem in their peacefully floating boat. I stay away from the lake at night. I got lucky once, and I’m in no mood to tempt fate. I don’t think I could resist those eyes this time, and I know I’d make my home on the sandy bottom of the lake if she ever invited me again.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 51

Card Day 51: A sad looking child holding a slingshot stands with his back to a life-size teddy bear with a tear trickling down its face.

Hannah knew that no one believed in imaginary friends, but that did not change her situation. It also did not change the fact that she was lonely, and Carmen was a very good friend to her.

“I didn’t mean to break the vase,” whispered Hannah from her spot beside Carmen in time out. “It as an accident.”

“I know it as,” Carmen smiled sweetly, seemingly unperturbed by the punishment. “But momma sure was mad, wasn’t she?”

Hannah’s legs hung off the bed, swaying back and forth as they kicked at the bed spread. She spun her braided hair around her finger, looking glumly at the floor “Yeah, she had a real fit.”

“Well, next time you shouldn’t run in the house.”

“But you told me you wanted to play tag!” Hannah said, her eyes widening and her voice rising. Camren still just smiled and fixed her with a friendly stare.

“But like momma says, ‘Imaginary friends aren’t excuses!’”

Hannah crossed her arms, pouting. It was not fair that she had to sit in time out for something that was barely even her fault. Yes, she may have been the one to break the lamp, but it had ben Carmen’s idea. It was really an injustice that the two always had to be punished as one, but she supposed that was the risk with an imaginary friend. No one would blame the person they could not see, but it inevitably meant an innocent party was unfairly tried and sentenced.

“Time out is over. Just try to stay calm and remember to use your inside manners.” Momma was in the door, standing tall but looking tired. Her hair was tucked up into a frazzled bun, letting airy wisps of dark hair float about her face. He eyes were heavy and tired, but still filled with a hearty measure of love and care. She balanced her toddler, Jasper, carefully on one hip, her weight resting lightly against the doorframe.

Hannah needed no prompting and hopped up, trying to find the next activity to occupy their time. Carmen sat politely on the bed, watching as the woman slowly walked back down the hallway. Once momma had disappeared back into the kitchen, sounds of stirring and chopping accompanying her return, she slid off the bed and into the floor. “Wanna play dolls?”

Hannah rolled her eyes, but eventually gave in to her friends exaggerated look of request. The two settled in front of the little house. Its rooms stretched before them, a chaotic landscape of toppled furniture and mismatched doll clothes. Hannah picked up a light-haired man and straightened his shirt and pants before seating him at the kitchen table. Carmen was methodically moving through the house, righting the rooms and assembling the family members. The walls of the house were a cheery shade of pink, spring green trim rounding along the walls. When she reached the kitchen, she lifted the father from his assigned seat, gathering him with the rest of the family. There were two little girls, a little boy, a momma, and a dad.

“What a happy family,” sighed Carmen as if mimicking the weary sighs of adults. She looked down at the collection at dolls wistfully, carefully setting them on the floor. “I don’t have a dad,” she added with that same sigh, gazing at the man in his khaki pants and eternal smile.

Hannah felt a twinge of fear and discomfort at the topic, grabbing the man off the floor and putting him behind the house. “I did, once. He was a very mean man. We don’t need a daddy in our house,” she said with finality. It was weird looking down at the small family on the floor, their home gaping in front of them while they smiled with perfectly painted plastic smiles. The mother’s hair was never mussed and frizzed, and the little girls never wound up with dirt on their dresses. No one broke vases in the perfect doll house.

“What was it like?” asked Carmen, pulling Hannah from the uncomfortably mature thoughts that had been drifting through her mind.

She picked up one of the little girls, setting her in one of the pink rooms with a tiny tea set. “What was what like?”

Carmen picked up the little boy and set him in the room next door, moving steadily closer to soiree Hannah was building. “Having a dad?”

At first, Hannah shrugged, her eyes growing distant as memories she did not want to consider filtered in, their shadows stretching over the idyllic dollhouse. Carmen was placing dolls, moving them through the motions of family life. Sister joined the tea party, brother continued trying to sneak through the door, mother ran between the bedrooms and the kitchen, always a bit frantic. She kept her eyes on Hannah, eagerly awaiting the answer. “He was very mean,” she repeated again, her voice sounding distant, “very bad. He used to lock me in the closets when I misbehaved. Sometimes, he would hit me. A lot of time, he and momma yelled. She would cry, and her face would be all red and puffy. Once, he hit me and I didn’t wake up until tomorrow morning.” The words slipped numbly from her lips, falling to the ground. In an instant, she was back in those moments. There were screams and yells, her pounding heart and rapid breaths. She felt tears stinging at her eyes, begging to be released at the memory.

Carmen’s voice brought her back, tying her paradoxically back to reality. “That sounds really bad. I’m glad he’s not your daddy anymore. I’m glad you can live with me.”

Hannah knew how to respond, putting on her old smile as the nightmares continued to pulse through her head. Nevertheless, she tried to focus on the game at hand, to be the perfect host and entertain her friend. In reality, she sought merely to distract herself, lose herself in a world of fantasy where grown men did not take out their inner demons on helpless victims. But that was a world she did not know, and sometimes she wondered if she ever would. Carmen’s voice again broke through. “Why did he do that?”

Hannah’s smile slipped and she shrugged. “I don’t know. He came home late a lot, smelling bad and yelling. Then he would be really mean. The last time I saw him—“ fear welled up in her throat. She remembered that last time. There had been so much noise, explosions of anger blossoming in their tiny home. She had been in her room, in this room, when it had been green instead of blue. He had come into the room, smelling a stinky kind of sweet and wobbling on his feet. There had been blood and pain and darkness. Even in the memory, she could feel fear clawing its way up her throat, pulsing behind her eyes. She took a breath, trying to refocus. “The last time was bad,” she finished, her voice barely a whisper. “Can we play something else?”

Carmen could sense the tragedy behind the words, even if she was young. It was the way such a friend worked. The two shared so much that even feelings were little more than a river flowing between two banks. She did not have the images or the sounds in her mind, though, and so she could be stronger. Hannah smiled appreciatively at her friend. Carmen was the strength she needed. “How about Pirates?”

With that, the two girls fled to the dress-up closet, donning baggy leggings and eye patches. They spent the evening storming beaches and burying treasure, ruling their ship-room with mostly-cotton-but-occasionally-iron fists. The weight of the previous moments was replaced by laughter and false bravado, daring adventures and death-defying feats.

The flurry of activity followed by silence in the kitchen signaled the play date was drawing to an end. The two were caught mid-mission by momma’a reappearance.

“Time for dinner, Carmen. Clean up and wash your hands.”

“Yes, momma,” she sighed, dropping to a seat on the bed. She began to remove the layers of costume. “Can Hannah have a place, too?” she asked.

A flash of worry brushed across her mother’s face, and she smiled gently. “Sweetie, Hannah’s not real. I know you found that diary, but she doesn’t live here anymore.”

Carmen opened her mouth to protest, but Hannah shook her head. Her mother’s disapproving gaze also helped to silence the matter. “Yes, ma’am,” she sighed plaintively, stomping towards the bathroom. Hannah watched her go, sitting down on the bed, trying to forget what her room looked like after that fateful night, trying to forget the months of loneliness before the new family moved in, bringing the friend she always needed.

Too bad no one believed in imaginary friends.


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Card Challenge: Day 50

Card Day 50: A bride and groom stand in the moonlight, suspended inside a bird cage with a black cat watching from below.

May 7, 2011

Maybe this is what they always mean when they talk about a loveless marriage. It’s not a contemptuous one, an angry one, or a bitter one. It’s just loveless. I mean, I remember the feeling of butterflies and dreaminess when we first got married. I’d wake up in the morning and just smile at his face, snoring and drooling. Now I see him and I’m just left with nothing but boredom and abstract irritation at having to wash two pillowcases. Nothing changed between us, there is no major conflict, no affairs, no abuse. I just don’t feel anything. I almost wished I could just hate him, because that would make my path clear. Instead, it’s just like sharing the house with a visiting relative. Just smile, be on your best behavior, and go through the motions. Is this what love is? Is this what marriage is?

May 9, 2011

I wonder if he feels the same. He still kisses me good morning and goodnight with that beaming smile. Am I that good at acting that he cannot see the emptiness? Or has he just got me fooled and really feels as empty as me? I don’t know. I talked with Tracy yesterday—she just wanted to blab on about her newborn, which is great and all, but I felt like it took forever to get a word in. I asked her about how she and Jeff have been, and she said great. Of course she would. But when I started talking and asking about this kind of…lull, she just looked at me like I was discussing something obscene. In her oh-so-perfect way, she just told me she “hadn’t gotten there yet,” and laughed her fake smile.

Maybe this isn’t what marriage is supposed to be like. But we didn’t do anything wrong! We used to do all kinds of things together, share everything, cuddle, and spend hours just wasting the day together. That just stopped at some point, and everything just settled into a rut. And now I look at him, smile, and feel nothing. Maybe we just weren’t meant to be.

May 12, 2011

We had a fight tonight. A big one. I don’t even know how it started, but he ended up just unleashing on me about all of this stuff. And I really couldn’t even feel angry. I felt offended that he would yell at me like a child, but I felt like there should be guilt or sadness or something. It was just annoyance at having to waste time in all the verbal jousting.

He did ask why I had checked out. That was the first time I really felt like I could add something to the conversation .But I didn’t know. I don’t know why I checked out. All I know is that I woke up one day, and I just did not care anymore. He was just a man sharing my bedroom, and we just danced around one another in the circuits of daily living. I wanted to be able to tell him something, but I just had to be honest. I don’t know. He asked if I even loved him anymore. I didn’t answer. I just don’t know.

May 13, 2011

He slept on the couch last night. I wish we could go back to the point where he did not know, because now our lukewarm home has turned artic. I wish I could help him understand that it has nothing to do with him or anything he did. But I don’t think it’s anything I did, either. Maybe people just fall out of love? Is that a thing? Because I think he’s fine, and I’m fine, but we just aren’t fine together. It’s not fair for either of us to sit and flounder in an unfulfilling, unappreciative marriage. Right?

May 16, 2011

We’ve talked. We talked and talked and talked until the words we said really had no more meaning. He was frustrated because I couldn’t explain, I felt bad because he looked so pained. Our words spun in circles and it felt like we were getting nowhere. He wants to do therapy, and maybe we should. I just don’t feel like anything is wrong with me or us. We just aren’t right together.

Somewhere along the way, the two of us enjoyed a bright stretch of life together. Then, we decided that they joy we had should last forever, and we committed to it. Only brilliance like that doesn’t last, but it fades. It has faded. It is not because we did something wrong, but because we tried to make something miraculous and ephemeral eternal under the strain of daily living. I don’t think therapy can help with that. We dreamed, we reached, and ultimately I woke up. I’m sure he will soon.

May 18, 2011

He scheduled the appointment, and I agreed to meet. He guilted me into it with those pleading eyes. The therapist was…fine, I guess. He wasn’t nearly as weird and new agey as I thought he would be, and did not jump down my throat. I mean, I figured he would blame me for checking out, assume I was cheating, or tell me how terrible I was for not communicating sooner. He just listened and nodded a lot, asking a few questions here or there. Chad seemed to feel better when we left, and I kind of did too. Dr. Schwartz told us to make a list of things we loved about each other when we were first together, like that would be hard. It’s easy to remember what I did love, but it’s hard to remember why.

May 20, 2011

Chad gave me his list. He said he loved my laugh, my determination. He loved that I always ate things in even numbers and hid silly notes around his dorm room. He said that he loved the way I argued in class, how I doodled dinosaurs on my notes, and the way I looked when I just woke up from a nap. I gave him my list, and he seemed to be very touched. I felt a little sad. I miss feeling that way about him. I miss the love we had. Dr. Schwartz asked if we were interested in working through, or ready to go our different ways. I said I don’t know (do I say anything else anymore?), but maybe I do.

May 25, 2011

Fake it till you feel it. That was seriously the advice today. Just pretend I love him, and magically it will get better? He said we should act like the people we fell in love with. Maybe this guy is the quack I though he was. Chad did not really seem to appreciate that either, so at least we’re on the same page on this. Still, he’s the one with the degree, so I might as well give it a shot. Not like I can lose anything, right?

May 27, 2011

Chad planned a night out for us. We went back to the diner we had our first date, walked along the park where we first kissed, and he danced with me just like I used to love. He took everything he could from my list. I just tried to enjoy myself, laugh, and be the person I used to be. It was surprisingly hard. About halfway through the date, he stopped me. “Just be you,” he said and sighed. But his eyes looked at me lovingly through the pain. So I acted like I felt. He seemed happy, and it made me feel a little better to see him smile again.

May 28, 2011

I woke up this morning and he had his arm around me. He was snoring, and I was just listening to it, smiling, before I even realized it. It was not love—not quite, at least—but it was something. It was peace. Comfort. I just laid there, warm and content. And maybe that’s the first step.


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Card Challenge: Day 49

Card Day 49: A giant eating a city.

Ryan woke up hungry, just like he had every midnight for the past four days. He stumbled wearily from bed, his feet dragging the cluttered wood floors of the apartment toward the kitchen. He had lived in the place long enough to navigate the treacherous span of hallway, living room, and kitchen with ease, leaving lights off to avoid waking his light sleeping roommate. Once he arrive, Ryan bathed the kitchen in the cold light of the refrigerator, searching desperately among the bare shelves. Behind a jar of pickle juice—someone had neglected to buy more—he found a hidden container of Chinese takeout. Led by his ravenous, primitive hunger, he ate the meal straight from the cardboard container by the light of the fridge.

_

He woke up late in the morning, a brief spark of panic flooding him before he remembered it was Saturday. He had not missed his alarm, it had just never been set. Rolling over in the warmth of his bed, he listened to the sound of his roommate opening and closing cabinets in the kitchen. As if on cue, his stomach growled menacingly, assuring he would have no peace lying lazily in bed to while away the day. Tugging on a pair of shorts of indeterminate age and cleanliness from his bedroom floor, he meandered out.

“Did you eat my food?” snapped Garret in greeting.

Ryan grumbled his apology, “Maybe. I was hungry last night.”

“Really? Geez, dude, you’ve eaten everything in the house.” The obviously irritated man slammed the refrigerator door shut with as much force as possible, rewarded only with the unsatisfying “snick” of the seal catching.

Ryan grabbed a bag of croutons from the pantry, shaking them quickly before turning them up into his mouth. “Not everything,” he said around the mouthful of bread.

“I guess it wasn’t everything, but it sure is now.” Garret gestured at the empty fridge and the bare pantry. “Are you going to start munching on the baking soda next?”

“Sorry, Garret,” responded Ryan, casting his ashamed eyes down on towards the ground. “I just—I think something may be wrong. I’ve been starving the past few days.” He gave a halfhearted shake of the empty bag, hoping to find some crumb.

“What, you gotta tapeworm or something?” asked the unsympathetic Garret as he snatched his keys off the counter. “Well, maybe you should get that checked out. I’m going to Jumbo Burger.” This time, the door resounded with a far more satisfying slam.

Ryan tossed the bag into the garbage can, feeling that same gnawing hunger. Maybe it was a parasite or something. All he knew was that, Since Tuesday, he had not felt full once. He had eaten hamburgers, salads, ice cream, canned vegetables, boxed dinners, frozen dinners, and a hearty helping of chocolate, but that bought him mere moments of satiation. Looking into the depths of the overflowing trash can and gaping emptiness of the cupboards, he felt a sense of shame and dread. He scheduled a doctor’s appointment for that day, and made sure to leave with enough time to pick up a couple burgers and fries on his way.

_

Arriving home after the appointment, he only felt more frustrated. They had taken blood, checked his vitals, and congratulated him on losing twelve pounds since the last visit. As he told the story about his unending hunger, his doctor looked at him with an empty smile and asked if he had felt stressed recently. Ryan was certain that, even after hearing his stomach roaring in the appointment and producing the $35 receipt from his midafternoon lunch purchase, the doctor did not truly believe how dire this situation was.

He set the groceries on the table, unloading two bags worth of chips, popcorn, bread, and as many calorie-dense food as he could gather on his dwindling budget. He hoped that some of the tests would come back and solve this problem before he literally ate himself out of rent. Garret wandered into the kitchen, eyeing the groceries.

“Sorry about your food. Have whatever you want,” mumbled Ryan in a peace offering. Without speaking, Garret ripped open on of the bags of chips before disappearing back into the living room. The loading music of the latest smash hit game blared from the room, and Ryan grabbed the bag of chocolate candies, stuffing them into his mouth as he tried to fill the endless pit.

He remembered hearing that black holes grew larger and more powerful the more matter they consumed. He began to wonder, mostly in an attempt to stay upbeat about the situation, if he did not have a black hole steadily growing in the pit of his stomach. Then again, he had no proper education in astronomy, so there was no telling.

His afternoon was spend scouring the internet for any relevant information, becoming more convinced that he did, in fact, have some kind of parasite, and eating through the copious groceries he had bought. Night settled heavily on the apartment, eventually silencing the sounds of gameplay from the living room. Ryan heard the floor creak as Garret made his way to his room, and finally pulled his acing eyes from the screen. All the research he did provided no cures, or at least none until he received the report back from the doctor. He could feel the pit in his stomach growing once again. Knowing that there was nothing left for him from his afternoon foraging, Ryan took a couple of hefty shots of whiskey from the communal bottle—the only thing that seemed to have absolutely no effect on his overwhelming hunger—and let the alcohol soothe him to sleep over the protests of his stomach.

Only, this time, he awoke already buried in the fridge. His hands were ice cold, and he saw the torn open bags of frozen vegetables lying on the floor. His mouth was gritty with the raw peas and carrots, and something else. In shock, he realized that the steaks they had frozen for a summer barbecue—once it finally got warm enough—were also missing. Their packages lay beneath the vegetable bags, confirming his suspicions.

Ryan rushed to the bathroom just in time to throw up the amazing amount of food he had devoured. Hunger roared back to life, even more painful than before. He felt every muscle in his body was aching with the hunger, and his stomach knotted over itself, end over end. Sitting on the cold tile floor of the bathroom, he shook with terror and weakness, feeling every fiber of strength in his being rallying to bolster his hunger. The growls of his stomach echoed through the tiny room, haunting him with their commands.

Ryan leaned his head against the toilet and wept. He was quick to flush before his body took over and devoured the expulsion in desperation. Eventually, he felt his vision narrowing, growing dim around the edges. This was it, he despaired. Somehow, he was starving to death despite having eaten as much as he could cram into his mouth. The cool porcelain of the toilet pressed against his forehead as the white tiles faded to black.

_

Ryan woke in his bed, feeling surprisingly refreshed. As he looked at the clock and saw it was mid-afternoon, the alertness made more sense. The memories of the night before felt like a nightmare in the bright sunshine of the afternoon, and he dared to hope that was the case. He threw his legs over the side of the bed, delivered from the impossible hunger. Silence filled the apartment, so quiet he could hear the clock ticking softly on his desk. Garret must still be asleep, he thought, and decided to make a gesture of apology. He would refresh the groceries in the house—real food, this time—and perhaps pick up a lock for the fridge.

Stepping into the hallway, he could see the carnage from the night before still in the kitchen. The freezer door stood open, but at least it was empty, Ryan thought grimly. Packaging laid over the floor, a despicable reminder of his curse. At least whatever it was seemed to have finally remitted. Throwing up must have helped. He wandered in there, his feet padding softly on the wood floor, and cleaned up what remained of his mess. Now, shower and then the grocery store.

He was nervous entering the bathroom, the site of his breakdown the night before. But those thoughts vanished as he caught sight of himself in the mirror. Blood on his face, on his chest. Blood caked in his hair, staining his teeth. He felt frozen terror settling in his limbs, forcing him to stand and stare at his horrifying appearance. What had happened?

Feeling certain he was still in a nightmare, Ryan slowly exited the bathroom, still staring into his own eyes as if that monster would leap from the mirror and devour him. Once outside, he slowly turned to look towards the other door in the apartment, hanging slightly ajar. Garret’s room lay on the other side, silent. With a trembling hand, Ryan pushed the door open.

Garret was inside, his eyes wide in fear and pain. There was so much blood, so many chunks of missing flesh with uneven teeth marks running up and down his body. Looking at the mangled body, Ryan felt a disturbing mix of disgust and desire.

He savored the taste of blood on his lips, quashing the revulsion with the sheer pleasure of finally being sated.


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Card Challenge: Day 48

Card Day 48: A young girl and boy in tattered clothes walk along a dark city sidewalk. Their shadows fall on a blank wall behind them, taking on the shape of a ferocious monster.

Malcolm pressed back deeper into the shadows, listening to the hollers and clashes of the neighborhood gangs roaming the streets. His jeans were cold and damp after sitting on the rain soaked pavement, but he hoped the shadows loomed thick enough to keep him hidden. He mentally berated himself, squeezing his eyes shut as if he could force himself to wake up from this terrible nightmare. Decisions this stupid did not come around too often, but he knew that this one could be the one to end all possibility of future bad ones. He had known he needed to leave and make for the shelter earlier, but he had dawdled and lost track of time, meaning he was trying to cross half the city after nightfall.

They were approaching his alleyway, their voices a loud echo of three of four different people babbling at once. Most of what they said was nonsense, posturing, and blustering, but he also knew that they were itching to find anyone to take out their inflated aggression on. He had no money or food to buy them off, and no good will to earn him mercy for his passage. They would not take the affront likely.

Malcolm held his breath as their voices passed a dozen or so feet in front of him. The wall against his back was cold and rough, but he pressed against it even tighter, almost as if he was trying to melt right into it. The voices grew in volume, and he could see five men wander past, their bodies hulking and casting long shadows down the entrance to the alley. He did not dare move or even breathe as they sauntered past, eyes roaming the streets and looking for a fight.

He exhaled slowly and silently as their shadows passed by on the street, fading as they turned down another side road. Cautiously, Malcolm stood, his knees aching from his prone state for so long. He had been lucky to hear them early, before they had a chance to see him, but they had spent an awfully long time dawdling, smoking, and regaling each other with the previous night’s exploits. At least, Malcolm considered grimly, he knew who had been responsible for the four dead bodies on Lower East. Not that the knowledge would ever be put to the cause of justice, but the closure on the mystery was somewhat welcome. In a world where dead bodies turned up in the city streets like rats, it was nice to have at least one person to blame for some of the atrocities.

On tiptoes, he crept to the edge of the alley and peered around the corner, ears straining for the slightest sound. Their voices still echoed, but fading quickly. Otherwise, there was nothing. Not one to pass up an opportunity, Malcolm sprinted across the street and into another alley way, walking slowly through the shadows. It was best to stay in the alleys, off the main thoroughfares, hidden in darkness. It at least gave him a head start on hiding.

Malcolm could not help but wonder, as he walked the lethal streets, what a life without constant danger might have been like. He had read books about it, about people who lived their lives in moderate comfort, more concerned about who to love and how to find a job than how to survive a night on the street. People in his books were studied and learned, knowing amaing things about the way the world worked. But, he guessed few of them knew how to make a scrap of bread last a week or how long you could go without purified water before the runoff began to make you too weak to stand. The people in his books would have died in a week.

And, Malcolm supposed, he probably should have. He was born on the streets, and it was rare to see an infant who actually grew to adulthood. He had a couple of birthdays left but—barring any future stupid mistakes—Malcolm felt his chances were good to defy the odds. It was his mother he had to thank for protecting him, raising him, sacrificing for him, and ultimately teaching him the tricks of the trade. She knew how to hunker in an alley if the shelter filled up, how to scrounge for food, and how to keep warm on nights that claimed many a finger, toe, and life.

Malcolm’s childhood was filled with many similar nights tucked into the shelter of dumpsters while chaos ranged around them. His mother would hold him close, covering his ears to block out some of the awful things. Of course, it never got rid of it all. When he would get very scared, she would turn him to face her, her hands clutching his cheeks softly.

“Malcolm,” she would whisper with her soothing voice, “you don’t have to worry one cent about them out there.” Her eyes were sincere and hopeful, wooing him into peaceful trust. “Ya see, you got a guardian angel watching over you, little man. Nobody gonna hurt you, not while your angel’s on watch.” She would gather him close to her and stroke his hair with smooth, measured strokes until he fell asleep beneath her watchful gaze.

Of course, that guardian angel had not saved her in the end. Like most people, she wound up black, blue, and ice cold after leaving to find food at dusk in desperation. Malcolm cursed himself at the memory. He had been too young to go, too young to help, and too young to be left alone. Hell, he thought, he was still too young to be on his own in a world like this. But no matter how hard he railed against the injustice, it did not change the facts.

He wove through the streets, following practiced paths that he hoped would lead him to the Gathering before too long. The little community was probably on edge since he was missing, especially with the violence encroaching ever closer to their tiny sanctuary. Malcolm just hoped he would make it home, rather than providing evidence for their worry.

Lost in his thoughts, regrets, and memories, Malcolm did not see the shadows looming around the corner, nor the glass bottles littering his path. He did, however, notice them once his foot struck one, sending it skittering across the pavement with loud cries of offense. At the sound, the shadows moved, gaining voices that encroached quickly on his position. Malcolm’s eyes flew wide open, watching as the group of three rounded the corner. His heart raced, pushing blood to his limbs so that he could flee. Spinning on his heels, he took off, feeling the worn soles of his sneakers slip and slide over the pavement. The men gave a yell and took off after him. All his hopes for silence and discreetness were gone in an instant as he created a stampede.

He was out onto the street in an instant, scanning quickly side to side to find an escape. Unfortunately, he only saw the gang from before closing in. The leader gestured to him, and they began the pursuit as well. No amount of ducking and swerving through alleyways was going to help as they quickly cut off his potential escape routes.

His mouth ran dray with fear as his brain quickly shuffled through options. He had seen on man dart down a side alley to cut off his forward escape, another darting after him down the road. The three were still rushing up behind him. Malcolm looked down the large road and accepted his only path. It was in the open and a bad place to lose pursuers, but it was the available option.

Since nothing was going his way that night, the streets were slick with rain and refuse. He did not make it far before his feet flew off in different directions, landing him on the pavement with a sharp crack to his head. They were upon him in a minute, leering jackals circling their prey with looks of excitement plastered on their faces.

Malcolm’s vision swam, bursting with stars, He felt blood seeping from his forehead, a decent gash appearing where he had fallen. The world spun around him, a mirage of bloodthirsty faces rotating dizzyingly around him. He tried to stand, but his legs were weak and wobbly beneath him. With a helpless groan, Malcolm sank back to the ground, his fight gone. The circle tightened around him like a noose.

Suddenly there was brilliant light. Malcolm thought it was yet another sign of concussion, but the others responded as well. They shielded their eyes, looking around and yelling at one another. Their words were gibberish to him, indistinguishable for the loud humming he heard in the air around him. Their mouths opened in screams, and he imagined that he watched as some invisible force flung them away from him. In his delusional state, Malcolm swore he saw their bodies fly across the streets, smashing into buildings and crumpling lifeless to the ground, He though, perhaps, he saw one of them running and screaming, only to be cut down by an invisible blade. Weirdest of all, Malcolm thought he felt the gentle caress of his mother’s hands in his hair as he drifted into unconsciousness. The darkness closed in, and Malcolm said his final goodbye to the cold world that had been his unfortunate home.

However, the bright rays of morning pried his eyes open once again. He found himself lying in the middle of the streets, a pounding headache radiating from the cut on his forehead, but no worse off. Around him, seven men lay in various states of disarray, cast aside and torn apart.

His mother’s words floated back through his memory, and he felt the gentle presence of her watchful eyes on him once again.


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Card Challenge: Day 47

So, tomorrow is kind of a big day for me. It means I may or may not post tomorrow, depending on if I get wonderful or terrible news at around 9am in the morning. The whole internship thing I have mentioned wraps up tomorrow, and I find out where or if I will have a place next year. So, if you are the praying sort, I gladly accept those. But any good thoughts, warm wishes, or positive vibes are also appreciated. As much as I like the idea today, I feel like I was not really able to focus sufficiently to execute it very well. Please let me know if you have any thoughts or suggestions, and happy reading!


Card Day 47: A collection of toys for sale in a shop window. There is a rabbit, a car, some clothes, and a sad looking doll of a young boy.

Little Danny Vicars had been missing for three days, something which set the sleepy town of Crowncrest on edge. Those sort of things happened in the big cities so many had fled, not in the smiling streets where everyone knew your name—and your business. Nevertheless, somehow the shadows had crept along the sunny, picket fences and stolen away one of their own. On that third day, the owner of Jack’s Pawn and Thrift found a Danny-faced doll in his donation bin, complete with the scuffed tennis shoes, red windbreaker, muddied jeans, and unruly blond hair that had been on all the descriptions. A sick joke, decried the good people of the town, casting mistrustful stares at one another. No one knew who could pull such a cruel joke, and Mrs. Vicars pained wails echoed along the streets yet again.

Of course, no one understood that, with the grim discovery of the callous doll, Little Danny had been found. In all of their tracing and retracing of his last day, the true event was lost.

The day before his vanishing act, Danny was playing in the cul-de-sac with his friends, riding bikes and pretending to command armies in battle. Eventually, as many eleven year-olds are wont to do, it became an opportunity to show off and impress one another, drifting from the cul-de-sac to the nearby woods, pulling complex tricks—little more than hops and millisecond wheelies—with their bikes, and using the words their mothers so vehemently objected to.

Danny played along, but he had that quiet, cautious side that so often made him the butt of jokes. His attempt at a bike stunt had ended with him rolling in the dirt, his friends howling with laughter.

“You just ate it!” mocked Joey, holding his sides with laughter. Calvin was content to simply point and laugh. Grumbling, Danny picked himself and his bike out of the dirt and wheeled over to his friends.

“How about you shut your damn mouth, Joey,” he snapped, the uncommon curse words stumbling off his tongue.

“Oh, now you’re a big tough guy, huh?” Joey’s laughter stopped sharply, cutting off mid howl. His face turned into a hard mask, staring down at his friend. “Think you can just tell me off like that?” Joey gave Danny a push, which was all it took to ignite the two into a contained brawl.

“Hey, stop! We’ll get in trouble,” pleaded Calvin as he tried unsuccessfully to break the two up. They continued to spar, both making feints at one another, but both too afraid to throw the first punch.

“That’s what I thought,” spat Joey as the two circled, “too chicken shit to do anything.”

“Am not!” yelled Danny as he watched his opponent, throwing fake punches that Joey avoided with unsteady ducks.

“Oh yeah?” questioned Joey at the height of his youthful impudence, “then—“ he swung, the blow swinging just over the top of Danny’s head—“prove it.”

“Joey, that’s not fair—“ began Calvin, but the leader cut him off.

“I double-dog-dare you to go into Widow Madison’s creepy old shed.”

Widow Madison was, clearly, the town’s requisite loony. The old woman had, however, been in the town longer than anyone could remember, and she was rather harmless. Most people said that she had once been a very well-respected, polite, and successful citizen, working in the elementary school for years. There was little evidence of such success now in the face of the withered old woman. She was most often seen sitting and glaring from her back porch, if not tending to whatever hid inside the creepy lean-to in her backyard. The adults of the town admitted that she was old, likely quite demented, but ultimately harmless. She had lived a hard life, always trying to complete her happy family with some beautiful, successful children, but never doing so. When her husband left her, the woman who had once been so vibrant faded into the shadow that now haunted her own home.

The children made no allowances for the personal tragedy, and instead invented dark pasts and secret evils for the lonely woman. Rumors had always swirled and deepened about the old woman and her eccentricities, most commonly falling back on the old witch trope. Thus, her home had become the ultimate place of secrets and danger.

Danny did not dare hesitate, even as his heart fluttered in his chest. “Deal!” he said. Calvin’s eyes grew wide, looking at the two, and Joey merely looked smug.

“You’re going to be sorry,” spat the older boy, his arrogance etched on his face, even if internally he realized how risky his gamble for superiority truly was.

The three wheeled their bikes back to the country roads, towards the old part of town with its larger homes and sweeping backyards. Widow Madison was at her station on the front porch, watching them with her weathered eyes as they tried to stroll casually along. Of course, being eleven, their casual was about as convincing as if they had walked into the Main Street Bank with ski masks on. Nonetheless, they felt confident in their ruse, giggling to one another as they passed.

After finding the old woman, they looped back around, skirting behind the Wilson’s backyard to reach her rickety fence. “Are you two going to watch?” asked Danny, a slight waver in his voice. On the one hand, he hoped they would in case anything went wrong, but on the other, he hoped they would not be able to see through the knot holes in the wood well enough to know if he completed his quest.

Joey squeezed his eye against one of the holes, then pushed away. “Can’t see a damn thing with all those bushes. Last winter, Michael Stringer said he saw body parts in there,” he grumbled. “You better bring back proof. Tell us what’s really in the shack.” Joey grinned, malice flickering in his eyes. Danny glanced nervously from the two boys to the wooden fence, then dutifully pushed himself up and over.

The garden on the other side was overgrown with weeds and flower gardens that had not been tended in ages. True, in the winter, it would have been a desolate graveyard of spindly limbs and wilted plants, but in the midst of the summer, it was a jungle. Danny picked his way along the ground, keeping one eye on the backdoor of the house as if waiting for it to open.

He reached the shack without incidence, putting one hand on the door, its peeling paint flaking beneath his hand. His heart thundered, a stampede pounding in his temples as his breaths came in rapid gasps. With one deep breath, he shoved on the door.

It groaned with the pain of opening, revealing shelves upon shelves of old dolls lining the walls. They all stared down with empty eyes, girls and boys, men and women, all arrayed neatly on the shelves.  Each one had a nameplate attached to the shelf below them.

Olivia Madison, 1953,” read one in spidery script. The little girl smiled vacantly at him, her arms slightly outstretched as if welcoming him inside.

Jimmy Madison, 1954,” read another. He walked along, watching the years climb and the dust fade from the dolls. One of the dolls, a man rather than a child, had her husband’s name, and a date the town busybodies would have recognized instantly.

Fearing discovery, Danny rushed towards the door, grabbing one of the last dolls on the shelf on his way out. Judith Madison came along with him, her legs dangling as he ran towards the wooden fence. Her pretty pink dress got tangled by the rosebushes, ripping a large tear into it, and he unceremoniously tossed her over the wooden fence, resulting in a large scuff over her right eye, a hairline crack on the back of her head.

Danny then threw himself over the fence, catching his breath as Calvin and Jeoy stared in wonder at the doll.

“You did it?” whispered Joey, his eyes wide with shock. Danny simply nodded, trying to see if his heart was going to slow down or spring right from his chest.

“Did she see you?” asked Calvin in fear.

Danny went o shake his head no, but paused, He did not think so, but he hadn’t checked. Panic flooding him, he scurried to the knots in the fence, trying to catch a glimpse of the back porch. His heart froze, breath caught in his throat, when he saw the pruney face glaring out the back window towards the fence.

“No,” he lied.

Unable to revel in his victory due to the queasiness in his stomach, Danny made an excuse to go home. “Don’t forget your girlfriend!” mocked Joey after him, tossing the battered doll at him. That night, Danny shoved the little doll under his bed, but felt her eyes peering at him all throughout the night. His conscience began to gnaw at him. He was not a thief; he was not a bad kid. The next morning, he left early for school, planning to swing by Widow Madison’s before school and leave the doll on her front porch. He could make it right.

Of course, Danny never made it to school, and three days later, there was an empty spot in the shed, a smudged marker vacant for “Danny Vicars, 2010.


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Card Challenge: Day 46

Card Day 46: A collection of theater masks showing all different emotions.

Put on your mask; don’t let them see you sweat, rehearsed Lily to herself, carefully arranging her face into the mask of friendly interest and moderate warmth. Inside, the battle of anxiety roared on, waves crashing against the roughhewn rocks walls of her defenses, threatening to overwhelm her. But on the outside, she was polished and calm, a delicate smile hovering in the curve of her lips. Her eyes might have been screaming, but in a fast-paced, microwave minute and Facebook isolation world, no one was likely to notice if her disguise was incomplete.

She flexed her hands beneath the table, curling and uncurling her fingers in what was proving a fruitless attempt to generate some blood flow and rid them of their clammy feel. Her face remained carved with attention and friendliness as her date—the fourth one tonight, with three more lining the tables to her right—rattled on about his most recent hobby.

Distracted form the conversation, she almost missed his joke, barely giving her time to swap out masks and put on her “good-humored, chuckling” face. Fortunately, she caught the first sign of a smile on his lips and made the swap, mirroring his own soft smile. This had been such a bad idea.

The bell on the other side of the room dinged, its chime echoing. One more swap into the “pleased to meet you, but no promises” mask and she had a brief moment of respite. Chairs squeaked across the floor, the men walked nervously and awkwardly along the plotted course, and eventually some new face was sitting at her table.

Watching him extend an eager hand in greeting, she felt as if she were a creature on display. She did not see that momentary pause she was sure others saw in her face. No, his expressions skipped fluidly from introduction, to interested, to laughing—she had not thought her response would be quite so funny—and back to serious. Her self-consciousness peaked, but she dutifully kept her head high and her lips in an appropriate half smile, not willing to break the façade.

Didn’t everyone have their repertoire of masks? Lily felt her mind wandering, pulled along the train of thought. Was she really so weird? Did it come so easily to everyone else, and she was merely missing some vital piece that made the masks something more? It was as if he had read the script beforehand, and knew exactly how to play his role. In contrast, Lily realized she always felt like the surprised, underprepared understudy, diligently studying those around her and floundering through her most important roles. Of course, such a life of improvisation had left her practiced at the art, and she knew she could fool most people. Only, here, in this setting, she was surrounded by people flawlessly playing the right social game, completely unaware of the impossible talent they possessed.

Lost in thoughts, Lily realized she had missed some vital cue. The man across the table—Steve, his name tag said—was giving her a slightly bewildered look, obviously waiting for some response. She was supposed to be embarrassed now, and she quickly rearranged her face, bringing up a hand to cover her eyes that would never match. Transition complete, she set her fingers delicately on the table.

“I’m so sorry. I was distracted—“ by how human you are, her mind completed—“by how incredibly well-spoken you are. I was just thinking, I wish I could speak—“live—“like you.”

He chuckled good-naturedly, his eyes looking proud and humble all at once. That was a mix she had never quite pinned down, so she opted for abject humility whenever such complexity was called for. Her cheeks were beginning to ache with the constant smile.

The bell again, her savior. She stole the brief moment she had, letting herself fall inward and just relax. There was no one watching for the briefest of moments, and she could just be, without the social mask the world required. This was such a terrible idea, she reiterated, wondering why she ever let her friend talk her into it.

Another man, but this time something aught her attention. She nearly missed it, slipping into her “pleased to meet you, likewise” mask, but she was so familiar that it could not go undetected. She saw him put on his own mask, “the pleasure is mine,” covering his face as he spoke the words.

As she pulled her interested and aloof face on over her old one, she watched as he slipped into his engaged and passionate one, telling her all about his current business venture. It was not the mask that caught her eye, but that brief pause in between where she could see him.

He asked about her work, and she watched his intensely interested face flicker into life while she swapped to the humorous work cliché look. She watched as she spoke and his mask fell fr an instant, only to reappear with a slightly brighter smile. As she asked a question, she jumped at the opportunity.

“Stop,” she whispered, just as his mask fell but before it could be replaced. Her eyes were dancing, her lips curled in the most authentic smile she had ever felt. “You’re like me.”

He observed her for a moment, his face empty of all the socially dictated expressions for this occasion. This was not, he seemed to recognize, a socially dictated exchange. His eyes lit up as well. “I always wondered if people could tell.”

“I don’t think they can,” with a conspiratorial head nod towards the other tables, “but I know what to look for.”

“So, why’d you end up in a place like this? Torture, right?”

Lily was shocked by the giggle that leapt from her lips, even if her mask did not match. Her face was stuck on intently interested while her mind was dancing through joy and discovery. “Parents, guilt trip, you know.”

“And eventually us kids have to give in, put on a good show.” She nodded sharply once. “Wanna go? I know a great place without all of,” he jerked his head sharply to the side, “them.”

It was completely unacceptable to get up and leave in the middle of speed dating, certainly against some rules somewhere. But being with him, Lily felt herself empowered. She could thrust aside the shackles of modern social convention, be who she wanted, and do what felt right to her. He seemed to have no such concerns, whisking his jacket from the coatrack and leading her out the door.

“So,” she took a too-long pause to look at his nametag, “Evan, where is this place?”

“Hop in my car and I’ll drive us there. It’s got great atmosphere, private, no people to bother us. You can really get to know me.” He made no effort to hide the pride and arrogance in this, no cover of false modesty. Lily studied him and realized she understood everything about him, because he made no attempt to hide it. She knew it was against all the rules to get in the car with a strange man after meeting him for ten minutes, but she also knew that the world’s rules had never made sense to her. She slid into the passenger’s seat, squeaking across the leather seats.

He started the car and began to drive along the city streets, speeding in and out of the round pools of streetlight. They sat in silence, faces blank and empty. There was no room for masks between them; they were merely humans.

He finally stopped just beside a dreary looking tunneled walkway. Someone who was better at independently reading cues would have felt their hair rising, a gut feeling of dread and bad choices settling in. Lily, however, did not. She was thrilled to have found someone just like her, tired of the shackles of acceptable social life, ready to embrace the freedom of truly being human with another human. She stepped out of the car without hesitation.

“See, I told you we would be free,” he said, as if he could read her thoughts. “It’s just through there, one of my favorite spots. I’ll catch up,” he pointed to the trunk and Lily nodded.

“Through the tunnel?” she asked, her voice flat. He smiled, slipping into a reassuring mask—she felt for him, because it certainly was hard to let those habits die. Without another word, she turned on her heal and began an even-paced marched through the tunnel.

The sound of his steps accelerating behind her was somewhat surprising, but less so than the feeling of a thin cord around her throat. Her face burst into an expression of shock and terror, perhaps one of the most authentic expressions she had ever worn. She had no tie to consider the appropriate mask—was there one for such an event?—but merely clawed at his hands.

Her fight was short lived, and she hit the ground with a muffled thud. Evan looked down at her, wiping his hands. It was not quite how he had expected the night to go, but she had been far easier to woo than many of the others. His cold, empty mask finally gave way, revealing a hint of anger, fury, and pleasure all mingled together on his face.

He did not like being truly seen, and Even said a silent thanks that she had been too foolish to dig any deeper. She might not have liked what she saw.


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Card Challenge: Day 45

Card Day 45: A snake shaped thermometer sits on a barren landscape under a moonlit sky. The red liquid leaks out of the thermometer and onto the ground.

 Vernon was groggy as he woke up, his eyes stinging with sand and his face raw from his unconventional pillow on the hard ground. He pushed himself to his feet, taking a deep swig from the canteen on his side in an attempt to wash the dry, musty taste from his mouth. It was unsuccessful, and he grimaced at the foul taste of his own tongue.

The sun was low on the horizon, already baking the ground with waves of heat. It promised to be another hot one. Vernon grumbled as he bent to grab his hat from the ground, slapping it against his leg a couple of ties to rid it of the windblown sand. His cold, grey eyes sufficiently shielded from the staining light of the sun, he surveyed his little camp. He stomped along the hard ground, sand skittering around his imposing steps, and quickly gathered the last of his meager belongings, tossing them into his knapsack.

By his judgment, he had another day, maybe day and a half before he reached Fortune Falls. It would be a long, exhausting day in the heat, and he was aware that his supplies were beginning to dwindle. But it was nothing he could not handle and, frankly, he had been in far worse situations. As he took his first begrudging steps for the day, he remembered the time back a couple years ago he had been caught up North in the midst of a blizzard with a hunting jacket and a hole in his shoe. The doctor—when he had finally gotten to him—was amazed that he had not lost a few digits to frostbite. But Vernon still had his ten fingers and ten toes, and he curled them quickly in appreciation. Yes, the heat and sun of the desert was unpleasant, but passable.

The “road” into town, if you could even call it that, was little more than a set of wheel tracks in the dust. It wove around a few large rocks and cacti, leaving a meandering shadow of a trail all the way to the horizon. A couple of wagons had passed him the day before, but Vernon waved them off. They did not trust him and he did not trust them; it was better to avoid the unhappy partnership and expectation of payment for the service. He might have been cheap, but that had served him well in his life. Old as he was, Vernon was not interested in changing any time soon.

Four days of travel, but he felt sure his journey was nearing an end. He went to wipe the sweat from his brow, a reflexive response to the searing heat of the sun, but there was nothing left to clean away. He chuckled at his instinctive response, and took pride in his evident adaptation to the incredible heat of the past days.

A slight pain re-emerged in his head, a spike of pain that arced across his skull. Must be the bright light, he surmised, squeezing his eyes shut and moving forward. Hopefully it would go away once he got to the inn at town, taking a chance to relax and get out of the sun. He was not about to let a minor inconvenience annoy him.

Shifting his bag from side to side, he thought of the few provisions left, trying to decide if breakfast was warranted for his walk. As he considered the limited rations and his own current nausea, it seemed unwise. Later in the day, once he had woken up and gotten prepared for the day, he could have some lunch. Save up the extra for a nice dinner should he have one more night of camping in the sticky desert.

The path before him seemed to swim, and Vernon found himself pausing to look at the dancing trail. Up ahead of him as a mirage of shifting sands, the trail wandering and doubling back on itself. His brain felt fuzzy, his mind distant and not able to put all the pieces together. The early morning sun glared down at him, baking his exposed arms. His hands shook as he paused and took a sip from his canteen, hoping to calm his nerves and sight.

Looking up, nothing had improved. Instead, he imagined he saw a bandit waiting, watching him. If he had been clear of mind, he might have recognized instead the waving arms of the cactus, but in the moment he was certain the scoundrel was lining up his shot. Panicking, Vernon dove for cover among the nearby rocks.

His breathing was rapid, his heart was thundering, and his head was pounding in time. Vernon contemplated his next move carefully. While it was risky, the best option was to dessert the desert path, try to circumvent the ne’er-do-well. He crawled carefully along the ground, keeping in mind the meager directions he knew to get to his desired destination. Fortune Valley was in between two mesas, one of which he was pretty sure he could see on the horizon. A river ran behind the town, so he would have gone too far if he hit that.

Crawling along the ground, he watched for the man to move or see him, but he stood stalwart, watching the path. Vernon considered turning back to warn any approaching travelers, but ultimately decided that was their responsibility. He had a mission, and he needed to reach Victory Falls before night.

Once he was certain he had skirted far enough from the shadowy figure waiting, Vernon took to his feet and began his measured walk again. With all the force of concentration he could muster, he placed one foot in front of the other, trying to figure out why they seemed to be dragging and scuffing through the sand. His feet felt heavy, uncoordinated. But he pressed on, pushing himself forward.

“Howdy,” he heard, a word blown on the wind. Vernon spun around, trying to find the stranger, but there was no one nearby. The sun stared down form overhead, proclaiming noon. But, even in the clear, shadowless light of the day, he could see no fellow traveler.

“Hello?” he asked, his voice cracking like the dry ground around him. No one responded.

Stumbling, he turned back towards the direction he was fairly certain he had been heading. The landscape all looked the same, but he was certain he had been heading toward the bush to his right. As he passed it, he realized that there was not, in fact, a bush of any sort. Still, he knew his landmarks.

The desert land swam beneath his uncertain feet, and Vernon began whispering to himself, discussing the world around him as it passed. Every now and then, he heard a voice speaking to him, random words and phrases. But he never found the source.

“Keep going and I’ll put a bullet between your eyes,” he heard, clear as day. Drawing his pistol, Vernon snapped around, his aim roving wildly to find the aggressive stranger. Again, there was no one in the desert to threaten him. He scanned the horizon closely, trying to find any evidence of life. Nothing.

“You stop following me now, you hear? I got a gun to, and I won’t hesitate to shoot you where you stand!” he yelled, circling slowly to find the fleeing enemy. Still, nothing moved besides the sand over the rocky ground.

“I’ve got him in my sights. Whatcha want me to do, boss?” Another voice picked up, and his search took on a more frenzied turn. The sun was heavy and red on the horizon, casting long shadows, but none of them solidified into humans. Except, wait, was that someone? One of the shadow stretched long, seemed to be sighting him. He had a dead shot on Vernon, and Vernon felt his heart leap into his throat.

With the speed of self-preservation, Vernon took flight. His feet stumbled over one another, tangling and dancing wildly as he fled the impending danger. He thought he heard their yells behind him, the sound of approaching footsteps. Vernon pushed on, driving himself deeper and deeper into the desert. He had hoped to reach Fair Valleys tonight, but that was looking less likely, especially with all the dangerous bandits hiding in the desert.

He was panting heavily, his heart thundering, pain arching up and down his legs with the fury of his flight. Finally after what felt like hours of travel, he felt his legs give way beneath him. The ground jumped up to meet him, and he felt his face scrape along the rocky soil. Vernon scrambled to look behind him, but saw no sign of pursuit. Baffled by their sudden disappearance, Vernon let himself collapse against the ground, trying to regain his breath so he could push on. His vision swam, blurry around the edges. As he lay against the ground, he watched a snake slither into view, eyeing him curiously.

With a snap of its tongue, the snake opened its mouth wide. “You don’t look very good, friend.”

Vernon’s head hit the ground, overwhelmed by the impossibility of the endless desert.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 44

Card Day 44: A golden set of scales weighs a feather in one tray, a coin purse in the other. The feather hangs low despite its apparent lightness.

Trevor had been stretched thin between the angel on his right and devil on his left for days now. Sitting before the man from HR—a man he had never seen before and who did not wear the name badge required by company policy—was not helping the situation, as the man seemed to be the living embodiment of all the immoral, cowardly suggestions whispered by his personal devil.  The basement room was cool, dimly lit, and echoed with creaks and groans of the internal piping of the old building. Trevor though he might smell the rotten egg scent of leaking gas, but he assumed it was just nerves. No one else seemed to mind.

“Trevor, now I know you have been working so very hard for us over these past few months,” said the man. He had introduced himself as Mr. Smith, leaving Trevor to wonder how stupid he actually looked. Mr. Smith gave a stiff smile, his face contorting as if it were unused to the gesture. “You must simply be exhausted.” His gruff voice was meant to sound comforting, but it just took on a low, growling quality.

“I guess that is true. I haven’t had a vacation in six months because no one will approve—“

“I know, it is completely indefensible on our part. I mean, overworked as you are, you are bound to mishear or misunderstand some things, right?” His eyes glinted with sly camaraderie

“I mean, maybe, but I don’t think that’s—“

“I know, and I think that’s the problem. You’ve been thinking too hard for too long. That’s why the Company would like to offer you an all-expenses paid vacation.” With a flourish, he produced a brightly colored travel brochure full of sun and sand. It seemed all the more out of place in the grey basement office. “We’ll take care of everything, and you can just relax, forget anything you may or may not have seen or heard. What do you say?” He pushed the brochure over the metal table, and Trevor saw his name printed on the top of the tickets, the dates beginning tomorrow and spanning two weeks.

“Are you trying to make me disappear?” asked Trevor, feeling a twinge of righteous anger at the meager buyoff. Given what he knew was in those files—what was maybe even still sitting in some forgotten basement corner—it seemed like a foolish ploy. He knew the drill. Once he stepped out of the airport, some local gang would swing by and shoot up the place, leaving him a silenced victim in a worldwide war on drugs.

“Disappear?” Mr. Smith looked genuinely surprised and confused. “Why, not at all, Trevor. We don’t want you to disappear. That causes questions. We just want you to feel happy. Taken care of, even.” His oil slick smile was back, greasy as two-dollar pizza.

Trevor sat silent, staring at the man’s cold, black eyes. He could see a spark of frustration beginning to grow there, and Trevor felt the weightiness of the situation settling over him.

The smile never wavered as he reached into the briefcase at his side. “Of course, a vacation is merely a token of our gratitude for your most recent service. You have been so loyal to us for so many years, it is only fair we do the same. Take a look,” he said sliding the envelope across the table and sending the brochure skittering to the floor. “We here at the Company would like to assure you never have to worry about going without. In fact, we would like to reward your loyalty very generously.”

Trevor opened the envelope, peering in at bank statements, checks, and financial plans that were well above his knowledge base. As he set the envelope back on the table he realized that his hand was shaking with the tension of the situation. Perhaps, he reasoned, he simply needed to make a treaty with the devil to escape this increasingly gloomy picture.

“So, as you can see, we really would prefer it if you didn’t have to disappear, as you so quaintly put it.” Trevor watched the man’s stretching smile, suddenly reminded of Shark Week.

“And what do you want from me?”

“Trevor, Trevor, you have already done so much. We don’t really want anything from you. In fact, we’d like to relieve you of some of your responsibilities, take those pesky files and recordings you’ve been tending for us. It’s quite a burden carrying all that sensitive information, and we know we’ve unfairly burdened you. So, if you just give us those files, everything will be taken care of.”

Trevor looked down at his hands in his lap, his voice shaky. “I can’t give them to you,” he admitted weakly. The air turned electric with his confession, but Mr. Smith had carefully rearranged his pleasant smile by the time he looked up. His eyes still drilled angry holes.

“I understand, Trevor. You may feel you have a duty to protect that information, to make sure it does not go missing. I think the stress is getting to you, and you should stay in the Clarion tonight, a nice relaxing evening in the city’s finest hotel. You can’t be responsible if someone were to break into your home, take some work files you forgot you had lying around, right?”

“You won’t find them in my house,” whispered Trevor, taking care not to make eye contact. He prayed the encounter would end, that the Company would exhaust its solutions and let him go. It was an impossible pipe dream, but he had to cling to one ridiculous hope in the despair.

Mr. Smith’s smile was cracking, revealing more and more of the anger coiled beneath the surface. “Well, burglaries can happen anywhere. Where are the files, Trevor?” his voice was a barely contained growl now.

“I—“ his throat went dry with the impending confession, “I already gave them to the police.”

The words hung there in the air, and Trevor watched Mr. Smith’s face twist from an unconvincingly fake smile to a look of disgust. “Well, I thank you for wasting my time then,” he spat, standing suddenly from the metal chair. It skidded across the concrete floor with a harsh shriek.

Trevor dared to breathe a sigh of relief. Now they knew that it would be suspicious if he went missing; perhaps that was his key to salvation.

“You just made my job much more difficult, Mr. Conner,” sighed Mr. Smith, smoothing wrinkles from his dark suit jacket before straightening his inky tie.

“I’m sorry,” whispered Trevor quickly, his eyes darting towards the door, waiting for it to open and grant him his desired freedom.

“I’m very sure you are. Well,” his voice matched the sneer on his face, “at least you’ll know you did the right thing.”

The last thing Trevor heard was the metallic snap of a gun being cocked before his world collapsed into an explosion of light, sound, and finally darkness.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 43

I confess, today’s post is way longer than the limit, but I was having such fun writing it that I just wanted to keep going. This is another one I may return to in the future, just because it was an interesting idea I would like to develop a bit more. Any thoughts, questions, concerns, or critiques, feel free to swing by the comments and let me know. As always, happy reading!


Card Day 43: A half-devoured thanksgiving feast.

The food sat half-eaten and rotten on the table. Victoria tried not to think about why that was, though it was a scene she had seen replayed over and over again in her travels. It all happened so fast, no one even had time to realize what was happening. One moment the world was full of holiday cheer, turkey, and family togetherness, and the next it was a place of chaos, terror, and bloodshed. She shuddered at her own memory, shunning thoughts of the football game cutting to emergency broadcast, the sound of rending flesh carrying through the last frame before all hell broke loose across the world.

“Phil, double check the windows in the back. I’ll block the front doors. You,” she pointed at the teenage girl gagging at the stench of wasted food, “check the kitchen for nonperishables. And Davey, see if you can’t get rid of the maggot party in the dining room,” she finished with a weak smile before turning towards the high backed chair nearby. She pushed it up against the door; it was heavy enough to slow down someone trying to enter, but mobile enough they could pull it away if escape became the priority. It had been a few nights since they had a major disturbance at night, but she was not about to let down their guard just yet.

“I don’t know if I can stay here,” moaned the girl, a hint of sickness in her weak voice. “It smells awful.”

“Liza, there are beds, a fireplace, and a roof over our head. It’s sundown, so it has to do. Any luck in the kitchen?”

Liza gestured to the counter behind her where there was a stack of cans and boxes. Victoria marched over to them, carefully inspecting each one. Condensed soup, a few boxes of hamburger helper, pancake mix, and baking supplies. It was a relatively meager pantry, but she assumed most of the cupboards had been emptied to complete the feast lying in decay on the dining room table.

Phil wandered into the room, looking grim. “Windows weren’t good, but I pulled some stuff in front of them. We should be fine tonight.”

“Were they broken?”

His face stretched into a tight smile. “Not so much. Looks like folks here had ‘em open, enjoying the breeze when it all went down.” Those in the kitchen were silent, each called back to their own personal hell. Phil spoke up again. “At least it looks like we’ll have a decent dinner tonight.”

That snapped Victoria back to the present, the house filled with the stench of death and a ragtag band of sorrowful faces looking to her for leadership. “Can you two throw something together for us? Store what you don’t use.”

“Shouldn’t you women be the ones in the kitchen?” smirked Davey, a smile in his eyes.

“I’ll be in charge of cooking if you’d like us all holed up here for a week with food poisoning,” shot back Victoria. He chuckled, turning toward the counter to inspect the goods.

“I just don’t see why you always get out of working,” he said with a smile. Liza shook her head at the two adults, constantly chiding and joking at one another. It was hard to find joy in the newly desolate, always dangerous world, but somehow they managed. Mostly through practiced avoidance and intentional unremembering, but if it allowed them to survive, so be it.

“For your information, I’m going to check upstairs for supplies and any other…disposables.” She struggled with the last word, and all of the light left the room. They all knew what disposables meant, and the wordplay did little to lessen the grimness of the task. Phil nodded sharply and attended to his task.

Victoria passed the basement as Davey was walking up, his face slightly green after his unpleasant task. “All done,” he said weakly, gesturing vaguely to the darkness behind him. “Doesn’t look like anyone made it down there, either. No disposables to speak of, but there may be some supplies. Want me to grab a light and check?”

She put a steadying hand on his shoulder. “Maybe later. You’re a bit green in the gills, so why don’t you take a break?” He gave a weak, thankful smile and nod, shuffling towards Phil’s boisterous voice. Victoria continued toward the stairs.

The second floor was a dim hallway with doorways on either side. Given the smell, she was hesitant to open the doors, but it was the task she had chosen. The first room was empty, a child’s bedroom with toys scattered across the floor. A well-worn teddy bear sat forlorn on the bed. At least someone would get a bed to sleep in tonight. The second door was less pleasant. There the door opened onto a chilled bathroom, someone’s unfortunate torso half in and half out of the window. The winter had kept it from smelling too foul, but the scent of rot was still evident. She grabbed the towel hanging on the doorway and shoved the body the rest of the way out. One disposable down, but given the size of that feast, there had to be more. Maybe, she dared to hope, they had escaped. Her mind imagined the family, at least the one hanging in frames along the stairway, rushing to the windowless basement, barricading themselves in until the horrors had ceased, until dawn poked through. Maybe they had found one of the survivor colonies. Maybe they were waiting in the remaining two doors on the floor.

She tried ot think of other things, putting the family out of her mind as she rustled through the medicine cabinet. Some antibiotic ointment, bandages, acetaminophen, and cough syrup. Nothing lifesaving, but some nice luxuries. The light through the window was growing dimmer, and she pressed on down the hallway.

Door three held the horrors she had hoped to avoid, blood leaving the carpet caked and cracking with her steps. There was not enough substance left of the bodies to clean out the room; they were smeared on the walls and ceiling indiscriminately, no way to make it habitable. She closed the door behind her and continued to the last room.

The nursery surprised her, pristine as it was. This face had not been in the photos—too young or not yet born, she supposed. A tiny mobile sat still and collecting dust, the baby blue walls a stark contrast to the crimson room of before. It would do to sleep, she supposed, tossing books from the tall bookshelf to the floor. She dragged the shelf in front of the window, leaning against it. This life made her sick most of the time, but only in the silence of isolation could she let the mask crack. She had wept the tears she had, but the emptiness in her soul continues to ache.

After securing the remaining windows, she stomped back downstairs to find Phil, Davey, and Liza building a roaring fire in the hearth using the broken dining room chairs. A haphazard collection of pots sat with whatever dinner would be, and Victoria fell into one of the chairs.

“That bad?” asked Phil, catching the drawn pallor of her face.

“Could be worse. Two bedrooms, one bed, one room…” she shrugged, and they understood. One room desolate, destroyed, defiled. One room full of everything they wanted to forget.

It was not long before she had a bowl of soup in front of her, the flavor weak and watery. She ate it with a thankful smile, though the only sound over the meal was the clinking of spoons on the porcelain dishes. How different, she imagined, than the last meal in this house, full of family and life. They were the surviving dead, marionettes mimicking the role of the living. She sat down by the window—blocked by the dining room table now in its side—and peered through the sliver of a crack left visible. The sound of someone sinking to the floor beside her snapped her back to reality.

“Time yet?” asked Liza, almost bored.

“Soon, I guess.” The silence deepened between them,

“Where were you—the first time, I mean?”

Victoria pondered the question, considering leaving the silence intact. Liza’s brimming eyes convinced her otherwise. Secrecy and pain were no way to build a future. “In Liberty, at my uncle’s place. We were watching the game.”

“How did you make it out?”

Victoria ran her tongue along the back of her clenched teeth, trying not to remember the painful night when the stars crashed down. “Like most people did, I suppose. Once the windows started breaking, I ran to the basement.”

“Did your family-“

“No. None of them. It was all over so quick, I didn’t have time to save any of them.” She fixed the girl with an empty stare. “I used to feel guilty, not saving any of them, but then I realized it’s a miracle I even survived. I didn’t know what I was doing or what was happening. Even if I went back now with what I know, I don’t think I could act quick enough to do anything.”

Liza dropped her eyes to the floor. “I don’t even know how I made it. I fell asleep and woke up to everything,” she pointed around the room, “like this.” Victoria could see the pain in her expression, and balked. She had never been good with this emotional kind of stuff, and the events of the past had only served to harden her.

“We’re all lucky, I guess,” she said unconvincingly, turning back to the windows. She stared up at a sky rapidly emptying of stars. Bright streaks flashed down towards the ground, hitting with a whistling crash. From the impacts stood lanky creatures, modeled from stardust, glimmering with cold light. The looked around with large, shining eyes that lit the air around them like spotlights. Victoria moved away from the window.

“They’re awake,” she sighed, standing on creaking legs. “Let’s lie low, make sure they don’t spot us. Away from the windows and keep quiet,” she said, reminding here band of survivors needlessly. They all knew the drill by heart. It only took one night of devastation to learn the rules.

Grimly, the settled in, waiting for the light of morning to call the stars home and free them once again.


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 42

Halfway there! Very exciting. This project seemed impossible in the beginning, but I am really enjoying how I am learning and growing through it. Also, I’m happy to say that the habit is starting to take hold, which was always my hope.  I really enjoyed writing today’s story, and I hope you enjoy reading it!


Card Day 42: The bars on the window of a snail shell prison have been sawn through, leaving a blanket rope dangling to the ground beside broken chains.

The fall knocked the breath from his lungs, and his first gasping breath was full of the taste of the fresh, free air. The moon and stars stretching above him was a welcome sight as he recovered, his back resting firmly against the fresh spring grass. Everything took on a new light, a delicate and ephemeral beauty that he thought he would never experience again. He drank deeply of the air as if it were the only thing that would sustain him.

Slowly, the reealit6 of the situation settled back on him, encouraging him to stir from his spot on the ground. He was still next to the tall stone building, just below the window he had crashed through moments before. While he had tried to be quiet, he was certain that they would notice his absence soon and mount a search party. He needed to put distance between himself and the god forsaken building before they could fan out.

As he pushed off the ground, he felt a dull ache radiating from his left ankle. Apparently the fall was not completely flawless, but he supposed it could have been far worse. Had he landed wrong and broke a leg, or struck his head and lost consciousness, it would have been a short jaunt back to his cell in the dank castle. At least he had a chance. Limping slightly, he began to push through the woods, following the thin sliver of the moon overhead. If he remembered correctly and things had not changed too much, there was a decent sized city not too far away. He planned to hit the main highway and plead for help to anyone who happened to pass by.

The forest seemed to close in on him, wrapping its branches towards him to slow his progress. Just a figment of his imagination, he assured himself, but it did not dispel the uneasy feeling that the trees themselves were watching and misleading him. If not for the moon, he was certain he would have circled right back to that infernal tower. The night was surprisingly still and calm. There was no hum of insects, no chatter of the nocturnal wildlife. It was as if the whole world was holding its breath, betting for and against him. Onward was his mantra, and his irregular steps led him deep into the heart of the woods.

The wind brushed against his back, and he could hear the words floating towards him, an indecipherable haze of haste and panic. “Find him!” he thought he heard snaking through the trees. Despite the pain and encroaching feeling of hopelessness, he pressed on. He could not go back, would not allow that fate to befall him.

Lo hanging branches tugged at his arms, leaving painful welts and gashes. Their malevolence was clear, and he suspected the woodland would eagerly betray his heading to those foul witches. He could hear the yips and barks of the hellhounds at their employ, already picking up his scent and barreling through the undergrowth toward him. The road and a friendly stranger were his only hope.

Then again, he also needed a stranger with no sense of self-preservation. That is the only reason someone would stop and pick up someone looking as bedraggled and unsavory as himself. He knew it had been four days since he had bathed, and nearly nine months since his last true haircut and shave. The women did their best to keep him presentable, but that still left him with a shaggy mane of tangled hair, now further complemented by early spring leaves and brambles, and a good shadow’s worth of stubble across his face. Add that to the fact his torso was now laced with scars in intricate patterns, a few still seeping blood, and he looked like a terror crashing through the forest. He resigned himself to the fact that he was more likely to give someone a heart attack leaping in front of their car than he was to find someone who would be willing to stop for him. Still, he did his best to feed the fire of hope within him; without it, he was merely a shambling husk of a person, better left to do whatever those she-demons had in mind for him.

The vision of asphalt stretching before him was almost more than he could bear. He felt his knees weaken at the sight, a memory of civilization that he thought would only live as a dusty fragment of nostalgia. The stone was cool under his hands, having already released the meager spring heat into the night, the stones rough. Like a dying man gasping for water, he clung to it. Freedom was in sight.

Lights on the road, and his heart quickened. It was a foolish hope, but the only one he had.

“Here!” he screamed, waving wildly at the approaching vehicle. Taking a risk, he stepped over the crisp lines to stand in the path. Even if it hit him, that meant freedom, he supposed. “Please help!” he called again at the oncoming lights. The car swerved, careening into the opposite lane, and he heard the engine accelerate away from him. He worked quickly to regain his deflating confidence. At least now he had a path, and he could walk along until he found civilization or a lunatic willing to take a chance on him. The city lay to the west, if he remembered, and that meant—

“So that’s where you got off to,” came the saccharine voice from behind him. The sound sent a chill up his spine as his stomach turned with revulsion. “Gave us all quite a scare tonight.”

Her pale face was the only thing of her that was visible of her in the inky black night. Her body was covered by a thick black robe, and soft black gloves ran up to her elbows. She smiled, the sight ghastly in the dim moonlight. He could see other figures stepping from the tree line, surrounding him front and back.

“Now, you may think we are upset, but please don’t. Your spirit, your will to live, your fight is precisely why we chose you. In fact, I think if you never tried such a daring escape, we would have known you were not the one.” She was walking towards him now, her feet crunching softly along the ground. In his mind, everything she touched withered and died after exposure to her toxicity. The very air around her was poisoned and defiled by her exhalation.

“But now,” she purred, her eyes alight with pleasure, “we can be sure.”

He turned to run, darting across the road and toward the second line of trees. It was an impossible hope, but something in him whispered that the opposing forest would be a haven, not yet touched by their black magic. He heard shouts behind him, arcane words that hummed with familiarity. In an instant, he felt the shadows grip his feet, the asphalt liquefying to hold him fast. She approached him, a smile on her blood-tinted lips.

“Sh,” she whispered, as if she could be soothing, “you should be honored. You, of all the human worms we have tested and tried, have a purpose. You shall be the vessel for our Master. He will be most pleased with your offering.” She laid her hand against his forehead, her skin radiating an unnatural warmth. The shadows deepened around him, until that was all he could see. With that, he gave in to the unnatural sleep as they dragged him towards his protested fate.


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Card Challenge: Day 41

Card Day 41: A man in black and woman in white sitting around a chess board while windswept hearts surround them.

Galen’s palms were sweaty, anxiety coursing up and down his body in paralyzing waves. He took a few deep breaths, trying to calm his racing heart and relax his sweating brow, but the effect was negligible. He sat in the uncomfortable, wood-backed chair and prayed for success to gods he did not believe in. As his anxiety reached a fever pitch, the door swung open.

She waltzed in, pale white dress billowing around her. Her hair hung in strands of spun gold, gossamer strands that floated about her like a halo. Her eyes were crystal clear and blue, gleaming from a flawless marble face. She was as beautiful as he remembered, and if possibly even more so. He felt, for a moment, as if his pounding heart must have frozen, because he could feel or hear nothing as she floated to the chair opposite him.

She smiled, extending her hand across the black and white board between them. It hung in the air, slim and delicate with perfectly trimmed nails and smooth skin. Galen took it, feeling electricity spark from the connection.

“Sorry I’m late. It’s nice to see you again, Galen,” she said, her voice smooth.

“You as well, Ama,” he responded, his voice cracking slightly due to his nerves. She merely smiled at his embarrassment.

“Shall we play?”

He responded with a sharp nod and watched as she carefully lifted a pawn from the board, moving it across the board. Galen’s hand shook as he considered the pieces, trying to find the right move to make a strong opening, but not become too aggressive and over reach his skill. He gave a nervous chuckle as he felt the seconds slipping by.

“I’m not very good at chess,” he admitted, feeling blood rush into his cheeks. She simply studied hi from across the table, her eyes taking in his stubbled chin and scruffy mess of brown hair. As he watched her watching him, he felt as if he saw a glimmer of interest and attraction flicker across her eyes. He felt a swell of confidence, sitting up a bit straighter in his chair. Unknowingly, he broke the spell and she returned her eyes to the game.

“There will always be other games,” she comforted, resting her hands lightly on the edge of the board, the only sign of impatience that he could see.

“Well, you never know, maybe I’ll get some of that beginner’s luck!” he rallied, taking a haphazard stab at the pieces, hoping the move would at least keep him in the game. There was a pleased look that snaked into her eyes, immediately robbing him of the brief moment of confidence.

She considered her move quickly, pearly hands skimming over the board and placing her pieces with practiced ease. “So, how have you been?”

Her presence was intoxicating. Galen thought of all the difficulties he had faced since they last met, the feelings of isolation, or captivity even, but they all paled in her presence. In that moment, he felt deep, abiding, comforting peace. He was in the presence of his one true love, and the feeling was freeing. “Everything is worth it to be with you again,” he said smoothly and earnestly. This time, she blushed.

“Maybe we will one day find your game, and then we can stop meeting under such circumstances.” Her eyes were again trained to the board, like a predator stalking prey through the underbrush. His hands did not move.

“I’ll play forever if that means I can spend it with you.”

“At this rate, we might just.” There was an edge of irritation in her voice, impatience bristling at the surface. But her smile remained, light and friendly.

Galen quickly grabbed a piece, sliding it across the board.

“We’ve played so many, Ama. What is your favorite game?”

Her hand hung in the pace between them, a bishop midway in its flight across the board. “I suppose I’ve never thought about that. My favorite has always been the game at hand. It’s more about who you’re playing with, in my experience.” The thought complete, she placed her piece.

Galen looked at the board and tried to discover some impressive move, but his lack of experience was showing. He was beginning to wish it were any other game than chess. It had been years since he played, and even then it had only been at his grandfather’s request. He had not played a match since the man passed years before, and the rust was showing in his performance. Whereas the figures had been arranged so neatly at the beginning, now they sat in a slight scatter across the board, telling secrets he could not interpret. “Well, I hope this one is not a complete waste for you, then,” he said, placing a piece at random.

She laughed, the sound like a bell, and Galen felt a wave of ease flood over him. “Galen, I always enjoy playing with you. If I didn’t, I would not visit so often.”

It was his turn again, and he was beginning to understand that her speed meant this was likely to be a short game. “You know I enjoy the time with you, too, Ama. It’s the highlight of my week. Maybe we’ll one day find a game that I can beat you at.”

She was barely looking at the board now, instead smiling up at him. “I’m sure we will, someday. And what a day that will be.” There was a sadness in her eyes as she completed her turn, a sadness Galen knew all too well. “Check.”

He looked down at the traitorous board. It could not be nearing the end so quickly. There had to be something wrong. Looking at the blur of black and white, he tried to piece together how the game had gone so wrong so quickly. He saw the threat, but his options seemed limited. The sweat at his brow began to slowly trickle down his face an embarrassing problem to have, as he tried to identify the safest approach. He was, however, in a corner, and the time was nearly up.

“You know I love you, right?” he asked, a pleading tone in his voice, as he carefully lifted a knight to block the threat. It bought him time, if not much more.

“Of course I do, Galen. And I care deeply for you.” She took the knight, but he breathed a sigh, safe for the moment.

The slight tremor in his hand was now a full blown shake, threatening to topple all the pieces on the board at the slightest wrong move. He went to set his piece down carefully, but her hand grabbed his. The delicate touch surprised him and sent a tingle up his arm.

“You cannot move yourself into check,” she reminded, nudging his hand back. Stymied, Galen picked up another piece and moved it after checking for her approving nod.

“I hope that someday you might love me as well, Ama.”

The sadness was back in her eyes, almost tearfulness. “There are many days I think I do, Galen. But there are rules we must live by.” She set her piece down with a depressing finality. “Checkmate.”

Galen felt his shoulder’s sag in defeat, looking at his fate played out along the board. “I guess today was not my day,” he sighed, letting his head fall into his hands as his king toppled onto the checkered board.

“No, not today.” She rose from the chair, sweeping towards the door. “But I do mean what I say, I think I love you. Perhaps next time you will win, and we can be together,” she said, as she had so many times before. With a final wave, she left the room, and Galen heard the sound of the lock falling into place behind her.


So, I did not plan to pull a romance card the day before Valentine’s day, but it happened. I have already done a bad date, a mourning for lost lovers, and a love note (yeah, Day 9 was totally a sweet love letter. Nothing creepy there!). This one is heavily inspired by the Atalanta myth, and I admit there may be flaws. It may not be very clear what is going on based on the narrative alone, but I thought it was a fun way to weave in romance and competition. And not write a super standard V-Day story. That said, thanks for reading, and happy Valentine’s Day tomorrow!


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Card Challenge: Day 40

Card Day 40: A boy stands inside a glass dome, the world inside the dome a sunny scene with a house in the background. Outside the dome is a snowy world. Imagine an inverted snow globe.

Kevin pressed his face up against the glass, seeing the first flakes of snow falling for the season. He sighed, leaning against the cool glass as if he could somehow pass through it and catch the tiny flakes on his tongue. Alas, the window remained an impassable boundary, cutting him off from the wonders of the world outside.

He drifted through the empty house, aimless and tired of the same faded wallpaper, crushed carpet, and creaky wooden steps. What he would not give to get out and feel the cool wind on his cheek, the sun on his back, the tingle of snow against his skin. The breeze from the air conditioner, warmth of the stove, and icy residue of the freezer were no suitable substitute, despite his best efforts. He sighed, begrudgingly bearing his burden. Such was the life of a deceased spirit unable to pass on.

Kevin made his way to the attic. He had always wondered, growing up, why attics tended to be such a magnet for ghosts and ghouls in movies, books, and campfire stories. Having lived the life himself for almost ten years now, he finally understood. Everyone stored their interesting things in the attic or basement. After spending a couple of months following behind the current residents, watching the world move by past his window, Kevin felt his boredom grow. It was not until he found a box of old comics and books in the basement, the unusual medical textbooks in the attic, and a stash of old tapes and a Walkman under the stairs that he found a hobby that did not leave him feeling dejected and alone. Unlike some spirits, he was at least conscientious enough to wear headphones when he listened to his music.

The internet was a remarkable invention even if he could not fully interact with the computer—the screen tended to blink and fade to off whenever he was too close by. The current owners often left the thing running, displaying news, family updates, or short videos. It was something different to pass the time, even if it did little to relieve his boredom for long.

The good thing about living in a haunted house was that people eventually got tired of the weird happenings, flickering lights, occasional bumps and whispers in the night, and sometime oldies blared through speakers that they moved out. A new gaggle of residents would move in, bringing their own bizarre junk for exploration. Kevin imagined that, were he alive, he probably could have earned a couple of degree based on the information he absorbed through boxed up textbooks alone. He had also read numerous dairies, journals, failed novels, children’s books, and salacious wannabe romance novels.

Of course, he always knew what he would do at 7:13pm. No matter where he had been, what he was doing, or what he felt like, he would be magnetically drawn to the second floor landing. He found himself there now, looking out the large bay windows at the accumulating snow. What he wouldn’t give for a sled and an hour outside, he thought wistfully. His legs—or their incorporeal spirit form—began to walk towards the stairs of their own volition. Kevin sighed, awaiting the inevitable.

The sound of a toy car clanking down the stairs echoed in the room, even though there was nothing to create such a racket. Kevin felt himself follow suit, tumbling down the stairs in a disjointed heap of limbs. He stopped against the wall, a lingering dull ache to remind him of the sudden pain and darkness of a broken neck.

His current roommates startled a bit, and he could hear a feminine voice rise at the sudden noise. It was much quieter than the actual event, but still a disruption. For a boy who never really liked to be the center of attention, his unavoidable disturbance was certainly a fate worse than death. The ritual complete, Kevin slowly stood, brushing himself off and stretching out the kinks in his joints from the fall. Recently, his shoulder had been popping out of join in what would have certainly ben a painful situation if he could have felt pain. Instead, it was a inconvenient pop to reset the socket, and then he could return to what he was doing.

Hearing nothing more, his tenants calmed back down, attributing the sound to someone on the street, the heat kicking on somewhere, or the refrigerator cycling. They nestled back down on the couch, him running his hands over her hair as they watched some comedy. He only really knew it was a comedy because of the laugh track. It really did not seem that funny to Kevin, but then again, he had to remember that mortal concerns had little pull over him anymore. Wacky situational comedy had lost its relevance when he took his shortcut from the second floor.

Still, seeing the snow outside awakened a thick feeling of nostalgia. For a long time, actually dying, leaving the mortal coil, had been a distinct fear. He had floated along the halls of his family home, watching his parents grieve and struggle to move on, but ultimately afraid to actually leave the world behind. It was, after all, the only world he knew. Then, he realized that he could still learn and experience some of life, even if it had to be from a distance. More recently, however, he felt a deep fatigue and ennui with the whole situation.

He ached for the feeling of snow, for a scene besides the same inside of the house. Different paint and trappings did little to relieve the sameness of the space.

Feeling adrift in his feelings, Kevin made his way back to the attic. She was, apparently, a veterinarian, and so he was learning a great many things about animal care. It was wonderfully useless knowledge, since he would never have any need to keep an animal alive per se, at least not in his current form. Sometimes he imagined leaping in to save the day, giving some puppy the Heimlich when the owners were out, but generally animals had an instinctive fear of him.

Settling back into the corner he had created, Kevin let the evening slip through his fingers. He found himself gazing sorrowfully out the tiny round window, watching snow pile on the streets, cars, light posts, and tree branches. The moon rose high, nothing but a orb of haze behind a wooly blanket of grey clouds. He lazily turned the pages, studying the diagrams and text. A real lifelong learner, he thought with a sardonic smirk.

His studying was disrupted by the long, pained creak of branches outside the house. The wind had kicked up and paired with the heavy snow and ice, leaving the trees to fight against the constant battering. He could hear the branches groaning beneath the strain.

The wind howled a bit louder, whistling through microscopic cracks he never could find. The branches swayed and kicked, creaking all the more loudly. Try as he might, Kevin was completely unable to focus on his book with the racket.

With a sudden crash, one of the branches finally gave way, crashing down through the roof. It slammed into a pile of boxes, shattering an old mirror that had been in the attic even longer than Kevin. Even though he was in no danger, the sudden noise made him jump.

Then, miracle of miracles, Kevin watched the snow filter in through the gaping hole in the roof. Entranced by the dancing flakes, finally so close, Kevin stumbled towards them. Barely believing, he reached out his hand and felt the tiny flakes land on his skin. They burned with a sharp cold, never quite melting on his hand. The feeling was wondrous, a final touch of the world he had known and left behind. He could hear the wind, feel the snow, see the moon, smell the new fallen snow, and taste fresh winter air.

Content and at peace, Kevin finally left his childhood home, seeking the next step in the grand adventure of death.


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Card Challenge: Day 39

Card Day 39: A ladybug’s spots open to reveal a staircase, a periscope, an ant, and a tentacled creature. Other spots have locks visible, but remain closed.

Gloria imagined the recycled air pumping through her helmet smelled fresher as she gazed on the untouched landscape of Zultara. Pale orange sand dunes stretched as far as she could see beneath the deep blue of the sky. The sun, she imagined, was now warming her back, even if the climate control of the suit did not allow her to experience it. Then again, it was quite a few ticks below zero on the planet’s surface, so she took time to be grateful that the suit did not pass along that information either.

“Got the Beetle ready, Andre?” she asked, hearing the echo of her voice dimly over the comm unit.

“Locked, loaded, and juiced. Should get us to the dig site and back. Don’t you just love traveling in style with me?” came his chipper response. She heard the slight off-worlder accent in his words, a clip on the end of his syllables that she supposed came from a long time spent speaking through spotty comm channels.

“Dre, I spent seven months trapped in the cap with you, and I have one question.”

“Yeh?”

“Do you ever stop?”

He laughed, the sound crackling in and out in her ears, echoing around the helmet as if it bouncing around a cave. Gloria smiled, even if no one could see it through the reflective surface of her helmet. She had been lucky to get a great crew, and she was eager for the ride over to the dig with Andre. As cramped at the little two-seater could be, she at least had a traveling companions who she felt comfortable enough to sit knee to knee with.

Gloria turned from her vantage point and looked at the humped, oblong vehicle they depended on to traverse the sandy surface. It had a relatively boring, functional name—the All-Terrain Personnel Transportation Skimmer—but its awkward design with various tacked together plates earned it the name Beetle while it still rested in the cargo hold. She carefully stomped aboard and pulled the door down closed, hearing the hiss of the seal popping into place. Andre slid in beside her, keying on the driving dash. He keyed in the destination and the vehicle hummed to life, beginning to navigate the alien terrain. A green lit blinked and the panel emitted a little whistle. On cue, Gloria and Andre lifted off their helmets and breathed the stale air of the Beetle.

“Does your helmet stink? Mine is rank,” chattered Andre, wiping a bead of sweat from his light brown forehead.

Gloria laughed, shaking out the mane of unruly, frizzy brown hair that floated about the cabin in the reduced gravity. “That really sounds like something you need to get worked out, Andre. Mine smells like year old air, but that’s because it is.”

He shrugged his shoulders, rolling his head back with a series of snaps and pops. “The price we pay for discovering the universe.”

The two sat in companionable silence, broken by an occasional discussion of the bizarre world passing along outside their vehicle. The Beetle hummed and whirred over the terrain, traveling with bumps and jostles along the uncertain paths. Gloria sat in the formed plastic chair, trying to relax as much as the uncomfortable suit would allow, and eventually felt her eyes grow heavy.

She woke to Andre’s laugh, a ringing sound that sounded much friendlier and warmer when it had the open air to bounce about it. Groggily she pushed herself up in the seat, blinking quickly to shake away the sleep. “What’s going on?” she mumbled, the words dribbling from her still sleeping mouth.

“You snore like a mineral crusher going full force, Glor. I’ve never heard a woman go like that! I guess it’s a good thing our cabins are sound proof, or else we’d all be crazy from sleep deprivation.”

She sat up and glared at him, wiping away the drool from her mouth with the back of her hand. “Nicely done, Dre. Now you’re never going to get to spend the night in my cabin,” she said with an exaggerated waggle of her eyebrows. The smirk in her eyes told the rest of the story, and he redoubled his laughter.

“Then I’ll regret this moment till the day I die. We’re here, though,” he said, gesturing to the panel in front of him that showed their dot on top of the tiny flag marker. “Time to stop seducing me and get to work!”

They clambered out of the Beetle, both a bit stiff from the two hour ride across the dunes. Gloria stretched, trying to get rid of the tension sitting squarely behind her shoulder blades. “Got the digger?” she yelled over her shoulder. Andre was half buried in the back hatch, pulling out various drills and imaging devices.

“Yeah, in here somewhere. Found the camera for under surface recon,” he said, tossing a thin, snake-like cord her way. “You run that once we get into the undercrust ocean.”

“This isn’t my first rodeo. I think I can figure it out.” She wished he could see the smile behind her words, because his silence made her worry he had misunderstood her. Fortunately, he came into view, holding the corer over his head like a championship trophy.

“Success!” His shout of triumph was loud enough to cause a squeal of feedback in her helmet, and his laughter trailed after it. She could not have asked for a more optimistic, upbeat person to keep her motivated on such a long trip.

Andre moved over to the spot, checking the readings with the radar unit on his wrist. Once he found a spot they could break through, he set to work stretching and bracing the misleadingly delicate device. After a few moments, it spun into life, throwing sand up around it as it diligently pushed downward.

Gloria sank to the ground beside the Beetle, running the sand through her gloved hands. The tactile sensors transferred the slightly slimy, viscous quality of the sand to her palm as it dribbled slowly to the ground. She wondered what the sand was made of, and mentally noted that as a question for Danica later. Andre flopped onto the ground next to her after a moment, glancing over his shoulder to look at the energy gauge on the side of the Beetle.

“Uh-oh, Glor.”

“What?” she asked, quickly sitting up and turning in panic to look at the panel.

“We’re down to seven weeks battery power. Think we can make it back?” He made a comical picture, his giant gloved hands pressed exaggeratedly against the round surface of his helmet. Gloria gave him a good natured slap.

The sun trekked over head as they watched the machine making its steady progress. Occasionally, Andre rose and unkinked the line or navigated around a particularly nasty rock in the way. They chatted, discussing their lives growing up, the family they left behind, their plans for the nice hunk of change sitting in their respective ban accounts. Finally, it was Gloria’s turn.

“You know, I need to train you how to use the camera and then I can just kick back and relax on these outings. Not even sure why they need two of us anyway,” she said with a short bark of a laugh.

“Starscape Policy 89×4: No unit shall travers alien surface or atmosphere without accompaniment by a fellow unit. In event of catastrophic emergency, such a policy can be lifted to facilitate retrieval and rescue.” He saluted stiffly at the end, and she rolled her eyes, an invisible gesture he somehow managed to understand.

Shaking her head, she turned back to the data readout, tracking the progress of the camera through the tunnel he created until it finally burst through into murky, blue water. “Got hydro. Now, let’s see what we’ve got going on.” The camera swam through the water, trading one view of blue for another filled with its own bubbles. Shadowy stone formations peaked through from the bottom, and she carefully guided it deeper.

“We’re lucky we got a good reading on a place we could break through. I’d hate to have wasted all this time and not find anything to harvest.”

“Mhm,” she said, distracted. Her eyes tried to pierce through the gloom and displaced dust from the tunnel. Suddenly, she froze. “Andre,” she said, waving him over. He hustled towards her, huddling close to see the tiny screen. There before both of them was a creature beyond imagining. It was iridescent, wings radiating off of a cylindrical body and pushing it through the water. It moved gracefully, the tiniest of current following behind it.

“Is it-?” Andre’s voice caught in his mouth,

“It’s alive. We finally did it. No water harvest here, we’ve got a sanctuary.”

“And we’ve got the biggest breakthrough in human history!” He gave a short leap, thrusting his fist into the air with a yelp of joy.

Gloria smiled, laughing at his display and at the miracle spinning across the screen in front of hr. She thumbed on the recorder, cataloguing history. “I love this job.”


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This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


Card Challenge: Day 38

Card Day 38: A man walks up a staircase in the sky towards a door. Behind him is crisp blue sky, and below him place water, dutifully reflecting the sky so the image is seamless.

The sun was an angry, white eye burning in the endless expanse of blue sky and sea. It glared down with an unbearable intensity, scouring everything beneath its fiery gaze. Renee looked up, and saw nothing but the blue sky stretching from horizon to horizon where it joined with the choppy blue ocean. There was not a hint of cloud in the sky, meaning there would be no respite from the heat, nor would there be any evening rain to collect on the tiny tarp stretched over the raft.

Her tongue sat swollen and dry in her mouth, rolling around in her aching parched mouth. No rain meant no drinkable water again today. It was day four, and the thirst was beginning to grow unbearable. She carefully, measuredly scooped a palmful of sea water into her hand, sipping at it just enough to relieve the crusty feeling in her mouth. She knew the salt water was actively shortening her own hydration reserves, but it was nice to have a moment of relief.

Renee leaned back against the edge of the rubber raft, its side comfortably warm in the early morning sun. Her legs and joints ached, as did her head. It felt as if her entire body had been wrung dry, leaving nothing but a weak husk to bake in the constant sun. Perhaps, she thought, she would luck into a chance rain storm. Her stomach ached with a familiar emptiness, reminding her that water was not the only concern. The limited food rations had dwindled, and she had not felt like eating much since her water ran out.

Carefully, Renee stretched her light rain jacket across the width of the raft, creating a tiny refuge hidden from the sun. Her skin was raw with the constant water, sun, and salt. This is what jerky must feel like, she thought sardonically, turning to slide beneath the flimsy shelter. It would eventually get hot pinned beneath the jacket and raft, but for now it was a relief to feel the shade. The constant struggle for survival left her feeling weary, exhausted, and hopeless, and so she had little energy left to fight the weight of her eyelids over dry, aching eyes. The sound of the water against the boat, calm and rhythmic, rocked her into an uneasy sleep.

_

Renee woke suddenly from her dream to a sudden sound. She was thankful for the alarm, because she had been yet again reliving her frenzied flight from the sinking ship, hearing the sounds of her crew calling for help as the storm ripped them apart. The first thing she was aware of was the rapid pace of her heart, the ache in her bones, and the sound of something tapping softly against the boat. Moving tenderly from her lean-to, she investigated the source of the sound.

The sight was enough to convince her that she had finally snapped and was now hallucinating after her time in isolation and exposure. From in the midst of the sky was a set of blue—or possibly clear—steps leading to a door cut out of the sky. She was not sure how her eyes picked out the stairs and door from the seamless blue sky, but she somehow knew it was there. And her little boat had stopped against it. Renee stared at it in amazement, reaching out to feel the cool material of the steps beneath her fingers. There was no logic to explain this bizarre encounter.

Barely had she managed to wrap her head around the presence of steps in the middle of the sky hen the door opened. The sky simply arched back, revealing a square of white within the otherwise azure fabric. A hand pushed open the door, and her eyes travelled along it to the man standing before her. He was short and portly, wearing a well-fitted black suit. The most ridiculous piece, however, was the crisp black top hat balanced precariously on top of his head. He smiled at her as he stepped through the doorway and along the steps.

“Hail, traveler! Well met?” he said, his voice rising in the questions as he stood on the last step. Rene stared up at him from her spot sitting on the floor of the small boat.

“Who are you?” she asked, her voice cracking with dehydration. It hurt to speak, straining her vocal cords that seemed to have stiffened with disuse.

“Oh, that’s no matter. I’m here for you, and that’s what is important. Permission to come aboard?”

Renee paused, trying to wrap her mind around what was happening. She had been traveling alone for so long, and there was no protocol for how to respond to mystery men descending from the sky. Her confusion was evident.

“I suppose this is all a bit shocking, but if I may have a seat, I would be happy to explain.” He gestured to the open end of the raft. “May I?”

She nodded, unsure of what else to do. He delicately stepped into the raft and, despite her fears, it did not tip or buck too wildly at the added weight. Renee sat on her end, having disassembled her raincoat shelter, watching him warily.

“So, you seem to have found yourself a bit…lost,” he said with a friendly smile.

Renee’s head bobbed in ascent, a reflexive response to the human contact. Trying to regain her ability to focus, she gave her head a quick shake to clear it. “Who are you, again?” Her voice surprised her with its whispering quality, like sheets of paper shuffled together. It was also hard to speak, her words coming in rough gasps.

“I am just the man responsible for keeping an eye on things, trying to help wanderers like you find their way.”

It was a half-answer and she noticed her defenses raising, even though her head felt heavy and thoughts were lethargic. “And what is—“ she paused, gesturing at the strange structure rising out of the sky to save her voice.

“Oh. Hm. Well, that is just a doorway,” he said with an unconvincing smile. “But, enough chitchat. I have something for you.” She watched as he drew a small cylinder from his coat, shaking it so that she could hear the water lapping inside. “I’m sure you’re quite thirsty.” His manicured hands unscrewed the cap, pouring soe of the liquid into a silver cup. He passed it to her, and she eagerly accepted, her thirst clawing at the back of her throat.

However, as she looked at it, she froze. The liquid was not the clear, cool water she had expected. Instead, it was a murky, grey substance that sloshed about with the motion of the boat. Noticing her uncertain gaze, he spoke up, “I know it looks a bit odd, but trust me, it’s for your own good. You’ve been out here quite a while, and this will help you feel better.”

“Is it medicine?” she asked. There was some thought buzzing about, some reason she should worry, some innate fear, but it would not come to the forefront of her mind.

“Yes, in a sense. Quite like medicine.”

Though she knew she had no reason to trust him, there was something about the man from the sky that left her feeling comfortable. Even as the thought arose that he might be seeking to harm her, it seemed so impossible that she dismissed it. The heat, hunger, and thirst scrambled her thoughts, and she was drinking deeply of the liquid before she realized it. It flowed smoothly down her throat, soothing the raw tissues and leaving her feeling cool and comfortable. Renee was amazed. She could feel it flooding through her body, relieving her aching joints and soothing her burned skin as it traveled. It was truly miraculous. As the last drops of the grey liquid trickled down her throat, she sank into the feeling of relief.

“Better now, yes?”

“Much better,” she said with a contented smile, her voice taking on its soft and feminine tone again.

“Good. That’s my job, after all. If you’re ready?” He stood, motioning towards the stairs leading to the open door.

“Go with you?” she asked, standing quickly. Her heart leapt into her throat, and she felt the ecstasy of salvation flooding through her.

He laughed, a ringing and easy going sound that soothed her soul. “Would not do much good to just leave you here, now would it? Come along.”

The man walked regally up the stairs, gliding along them with practiced ease. Renee followed, testing the first step anxiously before quickly clambering behind him. The two stepped into the doorway, swinging the slice of sky shut behind them.

On the ocean, the little raft continued to bob along, carrying its lifeless cargo in a gentle embrace across the restless waves.


Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.