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Card Challenge: Day 83

Card Day 83: A blank, wooden marionette seated on a crimson and gold throne.

King Torvald woke suddenly on his throne. He jolted into consciousness, suddenly sitting upright and blinking.

“I apologize. I must have dosed off,” he offered a humble look of chagrin to his gathered advisors. They all gave him rather puzzled looks, exchanging uncomfortable glances between themselves. Torvald felt embarrassed at his lapse, but he was still the king. No one would call him out or chide him for it. Still, it did nothing for his image.

He rubbed his eyes, blinking rapidly as if the world was suddenly brighter. “Now, where were we?”

“Discussing trade relations with Vongoria, sir.”

“Ah, yes, no wonder I fell asleep!” The others politely echoed his laugh before continuing the morning meeting. Trade decisions were only one of the many topics covered, others included tax reform, local ordinances, and palace gossip. It was nearly lunchtime when the meeting finally wound down, but Torvald was missing something.

“I know we’ve run long, but I hate to think we dragged Archibald here only to avoid discussing the Kimal fleet nearing our waters.” There were those same hidden glances back and forth, but Archibald eventually cleared his throat and offered a meager smile.

“Of course, milord. Do you have any further commands regarding the situation?”

“Further comments? Please, fill me in on this week’s development, and then I will make a decision. I cannot be speaking from days old information!” He cast his eyes around at the other assembled advisors, noting their slight nods and concerned eyes. It must be bad news.

“They have continued to encroach, though they have not yet made any sort of offensive movement. Their delegates continue to assure us it is meant merely as an exploratory expedition of the local marine life.”

“And have we sent a formal response to Queen Cynthia that they are terrifying our citizens?”

“Ah,” Archibald looked towards the other advisors, seeking some kind of support but finding nothing, “no sir, we have not. I thought you were opposed to such an action?”

The king laughed again. “What a joke! Me not being interested in contacting Queen Cynthia. No, I’m sure it is just an exploratory mission. Certainly she will recall them if she realizes she is causing unrest. Draft that, Archibald. I will review it tomorrow.”

“Sire,” this time is was his commerce advisor, a slim woman with dark hair piled atop her head, “does this mean you do not want us to send our fleet to meet them?”

“What? Why would you think I want to send a fleet? That would only serve to increase tensions, force Cynthia’s hand to respond with equal force.”

“Sir you did instruct us to do that this morning,” Archibald offered. His discomfort at correcting his king was clearly written across his face, especially in the beads of sweat glistening on his sagging forehead.

“This morning? We haven’t even discussed Kimal!”

“It was right before you, um, you ‘woke up,’ sir.” The local mayor was looking at him with wide, concerned eyes.

That hit Torvald with considerate force, but he kept him face composed in a calm half-smile. Then he laughed, perhaps a little too loudly, a little too quickly. “Well, look at me, making ruling in my sleeps. From here on, if I’m snoring, then don’t take my word for it.”

They chuckled softly, nodding. A few distant, muffled, “yes milords” filtered through the assembled as they gathered their belongings to leave. The uncertain looks still remained in their eyes. Torvald waved at his second in command. Ricker nodded smoothly and accompanied Torvald down the hall as they made towards his chamber.

“Well, that was embarrassing.”

Ricker fell into step, his long robes rustling along the stone floors. His eyes were sympathetic, reflecting back Torvald’s own shame, but adding a hint of compassion. “You have not been sleeping well, Torvald. Things like this are bound to happen. Should I call the palace pharmacist to mix you a sleeping draught?”

“Yes, and have the whole palace twittering about the neurotic old king. No, I think I will manage it just fine. Can you believe we almost sent our fleet to challenge Kimal’s?”

“It would have been a bold and risky decision. Though, I must say, they have encroached before. And we have struggle with raiding parties on our borders, which Cynthia has not stopped. A show of force might have—“

Torvald cut him off with a wave. “Yes, we have had some rogue bandits crossing over, but that is not the country’s fault. Cynthia has been nothing but cordial to us. I am hopeful we can improve trade relations before the next harvest.”

“I do not share your optimism, but perhaps that is why you rule and not I.” There was a slight bitterness in his voice, an edge to his tone that left Torvald with a furrowed brow.

“Yes, Ricker, that is the way of things. You may have greater freedom to speak as you will, but do remember who I am.” With that, Torvald settled into his chamber for lunch, followed by an afternoon of hearing grievances brought forward by the citizens To be honest, it was his favorite part of the day. There were always some interesting bit of information, some bizarre situation that he was called upon to settle. Yes, some people left angry and bitter, but many more left satisfied with his judgment. Or at least they told him as much as they left. After they were gone, there was little he could do if they disagreed or harbored resentment. That was a poison that would kill them without any of his help.

So it was that he settled in for the night, his head full of the day’s spinning events, but his body tired. Sleep came quickly and certainly.

However, the next morning, he was surprised to wake up with ink staining his fingers. There were black smudges on his white sheets, as well as a distinct cramp in his hand. This was a new thing. He had woken up with drool on his pillow, on the floor after falling from his bed, halfway out of his nightgown, and hugging his pillow like the lover he never had, but he had never woken up with a pained, ink-stained hand.

He did not have long to investigate the mystery before the answer presented itself to him. Torvald rose from bed, washed and dressed, and started to munch on his breakfast—fresh grapes and still-warm bread from the bakery—when someone knocked on his door.

“Enter,” he monotoned distractedly as he read over the letter Archibald had composed. It was good, forceful but friendly.

“Sire?” One of his staff stood in the doorway, looking somewhat confused and shaken, but pleased. At Torvald’s nod, the man continued. “I sent the letter off with one of our fastest messengers. It should reach Kimal within three days.”

The delicious taste withered in Torvald’s mouth, and his fork clattered to the table. “What letter to Kimal?”

Confusion mingled with fear now on the poor man’s face. “The one you gave to me in the early hours this morning. You said it must be sent immediately and swiftly. It was of the utmost importance for the security of the State.”

“I did not write—“ the ink on his hands suddenly made sense, and Torvald left the words dangling in the air. “Send out another messenger and overtake the first. Tell them not to rest or stop until they have reached the first. Have them both return here immediately.”

While the poor man was clearly confused and terrified of impending wrath, he did not protest, but scurried out the door. Torvald could hear his shoes slapping against the stones of the floor as he sprinted through the halls. Then his door swung back shut and there was silence. After a moment, Torvald broke the silence with the bell outside his door. A young woman, cheeks blushing and hair amess from her sudden summoning, appeared in his doorway. “Who is the best pharmacist in the city?” he asked her.

She wrinkled her forehead, obviously deep in thought and burdened by the weight of his request. “I would say Greshom. He lives in Western Well, and—“

With a wave, he silenced her. “Send for him. Have him brought to my chambers discretely.” Like a bird swopping from a branch, she was gone.

This was a delicate matter. He was making poor decision and jeopardizing years of diplomatic work, all in his sleep. He could not let the palace know he was struggling so, but he certainly needed help. Richer’s advice was good, if perhaps the source was dangerous.

When Torvald returned from the morning meeting with his advisors—a much shorter and less uncomfortable one this time—Greshom was waiting in his chamber. The man was old, bent at the waist until he seemed to fold over onto himself. His hair was stark white, but trimmed close to his head. And he smelled faintly of unfamiliar herbs. The perfect pharmacist, Torvald thought upon seeing him.

“It is a pleasure to be called to your service, milord.” His voice quavered with age, and the man bowed even lower.

“You come highly recommended, and I hope you can help me with a sensitive matter.” Greshom raised his eyebrows, but was wise enough to remain silent after the king’s vague but suggestive comment. “I have been—“ his voice trailed off, searching, “—sleep walking, I suppose. I wrote a letter and made a diplomatic decision yesterday while sleeping. I suppose I am sleep ruling, to be honest. And I do not make the best decisions.”

“Hm,” hummed the old man, his eyes drilling into the floor as he chewed on his lower lip. “That is very odd. Not a usual case, by any means. Any other strange phenomena?”

“Is that not strange enough?”

I suppose you’re right. Well, I will go to my shop, mix you up a sleeping draught. That should help. In case it does not, I have also brought you this,” the old man pressed a pendant into Torvald’s hand. “It will protect you from any unsavory influences that might be lingering about.”

“I thought you were a man of science.”

Greshom smiled a tired smile. “My years have taught me to revere science, but my mistakes have taught me to never be too careful.” He patted the king’s arm and began his slow shuffle towards the door. Most people waited to be dismissed, but Greshom appeared to have no time for such pleasantries. “I will have the draught ready before dinner, check in this time tomorrow.”

When the potion arrived, Torvald eyes it suspiciously. It was a cloudy, pinkish liquid in a tiny vial. When the time came to drink it, he discovered that the liquid tasted almost as foul as it looked, but had a somewhat chunky, slimy texture that gagged him on the way down. Still, he could not let his true disgust show. He was the king, after all. Still, it was a wonderfully relaxing sleep.

One that ended with him again waking to ink-stained hands. He had thought ahead this time and asked that no message be sent until he approved them over breakfast, but the poor messenger looked pale and drawn in the doorway. Apparently, he had withstood quite the storm and rage from Torvald that night. His hands shook as he handed over the missive, and Torvald read it greedily. It was practically a declaration of war against Kimal, lambasting them for guerilla incursions and threatening to sink their “exploratory” fleet. Torvald’s head spun, and he cancelled the morning meeting. It was as if he had lost his mind.

Greshom arrived promptly at lunch time to find the king languishing in his bed, contemplating the reality that he had lost control of his own body.

“I assume by your demeanor the draught did not work.”

“Not at all, Greshom. I did the same thing again, and I am sure the whole palace will soon know me as the crazed king.”

“I was afraid of this, sire. I hope you will not judge my deception harshly, but the pendant I gave you is not really a warding device. It is more of a detection one. If I may see it, I think we can find out what has been going on.”

Torvald’s hand trembled as he removed the pendant, and Greshom’s were surprisingly strong. He lifted the pendant to his lips, blowing a soft breath over the surface. Torvald’s eyes grew wide as the pale stone glowed, but Greshom simply closed his eyes and nodded.

“Yes, quite the hex. Milord, someone has been enchanting you, taking control of your senses. It is strong, dark magic.”

“What? Are you sure? Who could do this?”

“Well, if you will follow me, this,” he lifted the pendant in the air, watching it spin on its string, “will show us the source of this evil.”

Torvald untangled himself from the bed, enthralled by the slight drift of the pendant out the door of his chamber. He mutely followed Greshom, doing his best to hold back anger at the man’s slow pace.

Up and down the halls they paced, passing doors and dodging confused glances from various cooks, maids, messengers, advisors, and visitors to the palace. Torvald only had eyes for the spinning stone as it pointed them along the way. Finally, they stopped in front of a door Torvald knew well.

“Here is where the caster dwells.”

As much as Torvald dreaded what he would find, he pushed the door open. Ricker sat in his chamber, bent over his desk. His face showed shock, but also guilt.

“Guards!” commanded Torvald, his voice strong and his eyes trickling with grief.


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

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Card Challenge: Day 74

Card Day 74: A bare tree with an anchor tattoo on its branches, holding flowers and standing by a stone path.

Sunlight streamed through the large windows of the diner, painting everything with cheery tones of late spring. It was too hot to sit outside today, but Edwin was sweating nonetheless. He had a date. Checking his watch yet again—he had taken an extended lunch break, but was hoping to get as much time as possible with the lucky woman—he watched the door like a hawk from his vantage point. His fingers tapped along the Formica table, yet another sign of his impatience,

Finally, the bell over the door rang and two women walked in. The younger one placed her hand on the older woman’s arm, whispered something, and then found an empty booth sitting along the windows. The older woman smiled widely and scanned the room. Edwin gave her a wave, and she brightened with recognition.

She was beautiful. Her hair was pale gold, edging on white but still holding onto the last glimmers of its radiance. Bright blue eyes that danced within the wrinkled, yet stunning architecture of her face. She was dressed casually, but with the air of a woman who valued looking put together and proper. Edwin’s heart caught in his throat as he stood to greet her.

“Are you my date?” she asked, and Edwin deflated at the sound of confusion and disappointment in her voice.

“Yes,” he stumbled, trying to retain his smiling exuberance even as her words struck him a crucial blow. “I’m Edwin.”

She extended her hand with a sunny smile, putting on a happy face to cover the disenchantment he saw in her eyes. “I’m Louisa. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

Edwin covered up the pain and shook her dainty hand, feeling it warm and fragile in his ungainly paws. They sat down at the table, Louisa carefully placing the white napkin across her lap and looking about with a polite smile.

“I must say, I usually do not date such older men. You could be my father!”

She appeared oblivious at the embarrassment and irritation that flashed across Edwin’s face. Suddenly, he knew this had been a terrible idea. It was just going to end in more heartache. “I’m not so sure we’re that far apart,” he said.

She gave a polite chuckle. “Perhaps not,” though it was clear she did not believe it. At least she had the tact to change the subject. “Either way, my friend” there was a pause as her mind rattled on for the name and then gave up, “over there set us up, so I might as well trust her on you.” Edwin followed her hand to the table with the young woman and offered a restrained smile and wave. The woman’s face was questioning and concerned, but his smile seemed to put her at ease.

The waiter swooped in then to take their orders, breaking up the awkward tension Edwin found himself trapped in. Edwin had grilled chicken, and Louisa ordered the fish and chips. That done, the two returned to their conversation.

“So, what do you do Edwin?”

“Same thing I’ve done for 40 years,” he said with a disgruntled edge to his voice. As if realizing the tone that had crept in, he brightened up. “I run accounts down at Lewer Manufacturing.”

“Oh, that’s quite a job. Did they just move into town recently? I don’t think I’ve heard much about them.”

“No, they’ve been here a while, Lou. Just not one of the big dogs.”

She giggled and blushed. “No one but my parents call me Lou.”

Edwin appeared embarrassed and flustered. “I’m sorry, I won’t if you—“

She waved away his apology. “No, it’s okay. I actually quite like the way it sounds when you say it.”

“So, what do you do with yourself?” he asked as he regained his composure.

He saw her come alive at that question, having tapped a deep passion. “Oh, I work as an assistant down at a little flower shop on Governors Street. I’ve been there a while, and I hope that someday I might be able to start my own little shop. Pass it down to my children, maybe.”

“Tell me about your children,” he said with a smile, eager to engage the smiling woman.

She instead looked confused. “Oh, I don’t have any children. One day, maybe, but not today.” There was a storm cloud brewing in her next question. “Do you have any children?”

His smile was sad and drawn. “Yes, I have three. Two daughters and a son.”

Her displeasure was clear. “So you’ve been married before?”

“Yes. Best decision I ever made,” he said with a soft and wistful smile.

The waiter brought back their food, once again breaking the tension between the diners. Louisa daintily dove into her dish, eating with relish and reserved dignity. “The food here is the best,” she confided in between mouthfuls. “I’m very glad you could join me for lunch today—?” her eyebrow rose in the question.

“Edwin,” he supplied, fatigue in his voice.

“That’s right. Sorry, I’m just a bit out of sorts today. My friend told me she was setting me up on a date, and that’s just gotten me all confused. I’m not sure I like the whole blind-date idea. It certainly doesn’t sound very proper, does it?”

“It’s a different time, I suppose.” His eyes watched her carefully, full of nostalgia and grief. She did not seem to notice.

“I suppose you’re right. So, tell me Edwin, what do you do?”

“Accounting,” he said with a nod. “And I hear you’re quite the florist.”

She blushed again. “Well, I have put together a few arrangements, but I don’t know if I’d going calling myself ‘quite’ the florist.” She laughed at the thought and munched happily on a French fry doused in ketchup. “I really must thank you for joining me for lunch. I always hate eating at a table alone. Do you come here often?”

“I’ve been here from time to time. It is a town-fixture, after all.”

She gave him a puzzled smile and laughed. “Well, the food is certainly good, but they just opened up! I think you might be getting ahead of yourself there, Edwin!”

He could not help but laugh himself at the fiery woman across from him, the glimpse of her former wit and charm. “Just trust me on this one, Lou.”

“Lou,” she scoffed. “Nobody calls me Lou but my momma and daddy. Ooh, and daddy certainly won’t like to hear that I had dinner with an older gentleman!” She smiled at the impropriety and gave Edwin an exaggerated wink. “Then again, you seem like a rather nice fellow. No reason to, but I feel like I can really trust you, Ed.”

“My wife’s the only person who calls me Ed,” he added conspiratorially, sadness prickling at the back of his words.

Louisa looked happy as she pushed her plate away. “A fine lunch,” she began looking around her chair. “Now if I could only find my pocket book…”

“I’ve got this one, Lou. It’s the least I could do after the pleasure of your company.” He waved over the waiter and sent him away with his credit card, all while Louisa smiled at him from behind her thinning lashes.

“Are you sure your wife will be okay with you treating me?”

“I think she would understand, Lou. I had a lovely time.”

As if surprised by the thought herself, she responded “I did, too, Ed. It feels like it was special somehow.” For a moment, Edwin dared to believe that he might get her back for just an instant, but the moment was carried away by the ringing of the bell near the door.

“Well, I must get back to the shop. Have you seen my keys?”

Edwin waved the young woman over from the table, and she cut through the diner quickly.

“Ready to go, mom?”

“I can’t find my keys.” The young woman gave him a sympathetic smile.

“It’s okay, I’m driving.” The young woman squeezed Edwin’s hand with a smile. “Did it go well?”

She could read the sadness and joy mixed in his eyes. “It was perfect. Best lunch break I’ve had all week.”

“Ooh, now your wife certainly won’t like that, Ed!” laughed Louisa as she rose from the chair. She was chattering with the young woman as they left, oblivious to the sad smile the woman sent towards Edwin as they left. He remained at the table for a moment, just sitting in the stew of conflicting emotion.

Eventually, with a sad smile on his face, Edwin reached into his wallet for the tip. His eyes traced their habitual pattern across the cards, receipts, and finally photos in his wallet. The settled, as they always did, on the photo of himself and Louisa. They were younger then, smiling from ear to ear with youthful exuberance for a life that would use and abuse, but never break, them. He was in his suit and she was in her wedding dress, standing in the sunshine outside of the wood-paneled church building in their first moments as man and wife.

Edwin removed the crumpled dollar bills and placed them on the table, closing his wallet on the painful photo with a resolved snap. This was not the life he had envisioned, but he supposed they had at least found a moment of joy, even if it was joy drenched in sorrow.


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


Card Challenge: Day 69

Card Day 69: A man being pulled along in a cart by a toy soldier while other toy soldiers line the passage.

The lights were out at Fort Kestrel when Zach arrived home. His house was also empty, and he made the correct assumption that, due to whatever had caused the power outage, his wife had to stay at her post a bit longer today. It was a bit irritating floundering about in the dark, but he fumbled with the window shades upon entering, and pale light filtered in from outside. It was, at least, a sunny day. Even if that made the underlying reason for the power outage less clear.

Zach scrounged along the baskets under the coffee table until he found one of the big, decorative, scented candles that had decorated the top before other clutter pushed them aside. He lit it, the artificial scent of cinnamon quickly assailing his nostrils. At least it was light for those pesky interior rooms. And in a large enough glass that he could carry it with him, He was not in the mood to scrounge around for other candles or spend the time policing the flames. Then again, last thing they needed was a house in ashes.

The base was surprisingly quiet, but Zach tried not to think about it too closely. There may have been some sort of drill or announcement that he was not aware of. Living on base had its fair share of intrigue, but most of it was more boring than intriguing for Zach. Still Lily should have been home, especially since he had gotten out early. And usually the neighbor kids were out screaming this time of day, just after dinner time for the perfectly happy family. They wre good kids, he just was not a fan of loud noises late at night.

Honestly, that meant the decision to live on base had probably been the wrong one, but Lily’s job had bizarre enough hours that it had been worth it. Still, those bizarre hours were almost always planned, and this one wasn’t. It was probably nothing, Zach told himself, walking around the house and opening whatever windows he could find.

Looking out, so much was quiet. There was a hush over the base that made him feel uncomfortable. It was generally a bustling place, but now it sat lonely. As the sun began to grow closer to the horizon, promising a beautiful sunset, Zach jiggled his cell phone in his hand, quickly tapping the central button to bring the screen to life.

There was a message waiting for him. He must have missed the vibration while driving along the pitted roads leading from his office to his house. At least that explained something. He swiftly clicked through the menu options, wondering what he had forgotten.

“Zach.” Her voice held a tint of panic, and he wondered if it was a panic he should catch as well, or simply related to the bustle of the office. “I—Honey, I love you. Something went very wrong today. I won’t be coming home. If you get this, stay off base. Stay in your office. I—“ he could hear her voice fracturing. “I love you, Zach. Remember that, okay?” The message went silent in his hand, replaced by the emotionless metallic voice of the menu operator. Zach could sympathize with that emptiness, plunging the depths of emotional numbness he now felt. That message was dire. It was terrifying, final, and heartbreaking. He sat frozen, afraid that if he moved, all he was would shatter.

Eventually, the message service disconnected, leaving the phone empty in his hand. That was okay. He was empty, too. But his mind swirled with a thousand questions. What had happened? Did she mean she wouldn’t come home tonight? Ever? The tears in her voice seemed to suggest ever. What gave her forewarning, but no way to escape? What should he do now that he was on base? Where was everyone? Had something happened to everyone? Is that why the power was out? They tumbled over one another in his brain, never around long enough t piece together any answer.

Then, the warning claxons began to sound. He jumped at the sound, the way it echoed in the emptiness. If the message time was anything to judge by, they were about an hour and a half too late. If only he had answered his phone, he could have found answers to some of these questions. He could have told her he loved her too. But she knew that, didn’t she?

The correct protocol for various drills ran through his head, but he felt heavy. It was too much to stand, move, follow through on proper procedures. Besides, it was not an alarm sound he recognized. The weather sirens went off every week like clockwork, so he knew that tone. This was different. Nor was it the bugle calls that ran at regular intervals across the day. It was probably wise to move to the storm shelter, but part of him wanted to sit here until Lily came through the doors. Even if that meant he never moved again.

Zach eventually picked up a new sound, the sound of a car roaring along the empty roads. Come to think of it, they had been surprisingly empty. There was a full lot at the commissary, but empty streets. Zach’s thoughts flashed back to the empty-eyed guard at the entry shack, waving him through after a cursory glance at his ID. That, at least, was normal. But he wondered what that man was doing now. Was that his vehicle? Was he investigating the sirens? Was he caught up in whatever had silenced the base?

His phone clattered to the floor as Zach stood, marching towards the door. He did not know what was going on, but he wanted to find out. The best way to find out would be to go toe Lily’s lab, see if anyone there could tell him anything. He grabbed the keys from the side table, and was about to start his car when he realized silence had once again settled over the town. Unsure of why, he opted to remain silent rather than drawing any further attention to himself.

Along his walk, Zach noticed that all the windows were drawn. Yes, it was getting late, he recognized that by the golden glow in the sky, but there were usually some home opened to the great outdoors, windows wide on dinner tables and television screens. Tonight, it was dark. He could not even distinguish candlelight flickering behind the heft of closed curtains.

The rumble of a truck caught him by surprise, and he instantly became the proverbial deer in the headlights. Before he could adjust to the brightness, there were dark uniformed figures surrounding him. This was not good.

“All civilians were commanded to report to Jefferson Plaza at 1800.” The voice was cold, emotionless, and stiff. It was also a voice he did not recognize, and the bright truck lights prevented his eyes from reading the nametag.

“I was at work. I did not know,” he stammered, blocking the bright light, but it did nothing to unshadow the people surrounding him.

“We will take you there now. Get in the truck.” One of the men grabbed his arm, and he instinctively recoiled.

“No, I need to see my wife. Lily Summers? She works in the Med Research Building—Calvin Research Hospital?” He was glad the name came to him, because he was certain that referring to the “rat lab” or “bone cabinet” would not have jogged their memories like it did Lily’s.

All four of the soldiers around him froze, heads cocked slightly to the right. Zach was afraid to breathe, afraid he might upset whatever delicate balance was at play. These men were not soldier—there was a stiffness and awkwardness to their movements that suggested the gear was unfamiliar and bulky. It was almost as if they did not quite fit in the uniforms, even though the shadows clearly filled it out.

“We will take you there. Get in the truck.”

Zach did not trust these unusual soldiers with their mechanical ways, but he needed to see Lily. He also realized that their willingness sto take him to her in her restricted lab meant they certainly were not who they masqueraded as. His sense of foreboding grew as he hauled himself into the back of the truck.

The base was small enough that it was but a brief, bumpy ride to the squat white building. N the dim light of the truck, he could read their nametags. Martinez, Halcomb, and Bridges, plus whoever was doing the actual driving. He knew Halcomb from one of Lily’s work get togethers, and he also knew that the person wearing his uniform was not Halcomb. That man spoke with a soft voice, a slight stutter on occasion. None of that was evident in the short words spoken by this man. His words came out in short, sharp, loud bursts, almost as if the ability to modulate his speech was not quite there.

Zach unloaded from the truck when told, marched into the white building as informed, and sat in the back of the elevator as the uniformed men pushed buttons and entered the clearance code. There was no reason Zach should have been brought down to Lily’s level, not with his lack of clearance, and he knew that. He tried to study the faces behind the darkened visors as they rode together in the elevator, but all he could make out were eyes. And he did not dare trust what he saw, because the eyes he could see were bulging in fear, screaming in terror. Their mouths were thin, flat lines that appeared bored. It had to be an illusion of the light.

The doors opened onto a long, hallway, lit sporadically with emergency lighting. As he walked along, he heard the crunch of glass beneath his feet, lying below each shattered bulb. Whatever had happened, a lot of power must have surged through to burn out this many lights and, in all likelihood, power for the entire base. It was still odd no one had gotten power back up.

They paused in front of a metal door, punching in numbers on the keypad with fingers that skated over the buttons like spiders along a web. It was a strange contrast to their previous stiffness, and it left him feeling as if tiny legs were skating along his skin. Zach shivered as the doors gaped wide.

He saw Lily standing before him, and his insides melted. She was okay, she was alive, and whatever this craziness was, she would help him out. He expected her to be surprised at his arrival, but she looked disinterested to annoyed.

“Ah,” she said pursing her lips as she turned towards him, “Zach.”

His words flooded out of him, unleashing some of the tidal wave of emotions bottled inside of him. “Lily. You’re okay. What happened?  I got you message, but I was already home? Where is everyone? What is going on? What about the power?” He rattled off questions as he took a couple of frantic steps towards her, arms out wide. Unfortunately, the guards from before grabbed his arms and held him fast to the spot. Zach pulled against them, struggling with all the might his untrained body had, but their hands squeezed tight enough that his hands began to go numb. “Lily?”

The woman sighed, smiling sadly at him. “Yes, I suppose I am this ‘Lily’ you are looking for. She talks about you. She wants me to tell you she loves you, and that you should run.” The woman gave a quick yip of a laugh at this. “Of course, it will do you no good to run now.”

“What do you mean? Lily? I love you, Lily! What’s going on?”

His please, the fervency in his eyes, did little to break the woman. “I’m sure she appreciates that. She can hear you, you know. But, unfortunately, I need her right now. I need you.”

“Wha-Who are you?” She was walking towards him and Zach felt paralyzed by her eyes—by Lily’s eyes—staring at him with such cold detachment.

“I’m just a traveler taking a lift,” said the woman with a calm smile, but Zach felt terror race up his spine. “Unfortauntely, it’s a bit cramped in here. I need to drop off some passengers, and I think you can help.”

“Lily!” he screamed, renewing his fight against the soldiers at his arms. But he did nothing, and they did not even flinch at his furious protest. She watched him fight, that same calm smile on her face. Exhausted, he looked back at her with defeated eyes. “Why?”

“Why? Well, that’s easy. Lily,” she said the name as if it were foreign to her tongue, “invited us. She was poking around with that energy crystal back there,” the woman tossed her head towards a dull, whitish rock on the table across the room. Zach knew nothing of that, but that was nothing new. “And she broke through. She let us free, let us into your world. She’s quite the lovely host.”

“What do you mean? How did you come from that rock? Where did it come from? Where did you come from?” The torrent of questions poured out of him in a stream, barely comprehensible.

“My, aren’t you the curious one?” said Lily, laying a cold hand on his cheek. “You will have plenty of time for your answers once you let us in. For now, just know that we came from very far away, and we are very happy to be here. It’s been so long.” The hand on his cheek turned into a vice, pulling his head towards her. Her lips—Lily’s lips—were on his, stiff and passionless. The woman breathed into him, and Zach felt his vision grow dark as his body went limp. Something oozed through his throat and lungs, seeping into his blood, along his body. Eventually, Zach felt something slithering behind his eyes, a mist creeping along his spine. And then, Zach stood. Only, Zach did not want to stand. He wanted to crumple to the floor, collapse into tears. His face was an emotionless mask. Someone else moved his lips, pressed air through his lungs, made words appear before him.

Someone else walked down the hall and away from Lily. Someone else donned a uniform that was the wrong size, and tried to forget the pain streaming from Lily’s eyes. Someone else tasted blood on his lips and savored it.

Zach screamed, but someone else smiled.


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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 29

Okay, I confess, this one is 125 words over. It was originally almost 300 words over, but I found some places to cut. I just finally could not find anymore, not without risking the integrity of the story as a whole. So, as the 1200 was an arbitrary limit, and this plot is relatively complex, I’m going to leave it as is. I’ve actually been considering changing the value to 1000-1500 words, just because almost all of my drafts are around 1400 words initially. Instead, I think I may leave the 1000-1200 word goal, but make it a goal and not a requirement. Some stories need room to breath, and sometimes the editing process (to reach an arbitrary word count) is problematic. The word count was just a way to keep myself motivated and not crazy from the amount of time required by this, as well as be succinct enough to tell a story. I do not want it to become something that prevents me from telling certain stories, and I have begun to feel I cannot use certain ideas because I would need more space, which was never my intent. So, I’m going to loosen up the word count restriction and focus on telling short stories (still aiming for 1200 words, but with wiggle room) that I really enjoy.

Also, I added an RSS feed button to the side. It was really just a chance for me to learn how to do that (it’s crazy simple, too), but if anyone wants to follow and get it in a reader, you can! Happy reading!


Card Day 29: A woman in a cluttered chemistry lab pours one vial into a bottle with yellow liquid. In her chest is a heart shaped hole.

Audrey had always poured herself into her work, but this morning was a level of insanity they had not expected. She had been assigned to a government project—along with her specially chosen support staff—months prior, but that morning had changed things. Audrey appeared in the lab like a banshee, her face pale, eyes red, and hair flung to the winds. She screamed, tossed aside equipment, and demanded they all leave immediately. Concerned but unwilling to risk bodily injury, they complied and listened as she locked the door behind them.

In the chaotic, now empty, lab, Audrey sank into her chair and began to cry again, the tears stinging at her raw eyes. It had seemed like a nightmare, walking into her home to find her husband and the bottle of pills, their love consummated so finally. Surrounded by the dull drone of her equipment, she wept quietly, unheard by the confused ears listening outside.

Grief-stricken but determined and brilliant as ever, Audrey used the next night to transport the body to the cold storage unit in the lab. It was not uncommon for her to receive large boxes shipped from confidential suppliers, and so no one paid any mind as she wheeled the dolly down the halls with the large box. Rumors of her outbreak had spread, and those who did see avoided her. Safely back in the lab, she breathed a sigh of relief. Her project would be her savior, she realized.

Audrey—and her now forsaken team—had been assigned a grant to research tissue recovery for serve injuries. It was a nationwide project, and it seemed to be the perfect opportunity for her to make a name for herself once and for all. To the befuddlement of her team, they had also just made a major breakthrough, less than a week before the fated morning. Audrey smiled. She did need to alert the project committee of their new direction, though she guessed that the finer details could go unnoticed. Really, she was simply planning to skip rat trials and jump to the big leagues, providing assistance to thousands of hurting people in months, should her plan work.

_____

She waited outside the bar that night, sitting in her tiny sedan with the heater blasting to keep the cold at bay. It was very late, and her coffee was doing little to keep her sense sharp. Still, it was a necessary cost if her project was to proceed. As the neon signs began to go out up and down the street, she looked for the right straggler wandering from the now quiet establishments. She knew that bone growth would be tricky, and so she preferred to avoid that problem if she could. That meant she needed a subject of approximately 72 inches; other matters could be easily dealt with. She scanned the patrons stumbling out into deserted parking lots until she found one that seemed appropriate. He was within an inch of her height requirement, muscular, blond, and falling over drunk. It was easy to slip him a quick jab of anesthesia. In the few moments of bewilderment he had to realize what had happened, who was behind him, and how to respond. His eyes were already dropping low. Audrey had planned ahead, however, and maneuvered his stumbling form towards the trunk, guiding him carefully over the lip of it as his legs finally gave way beneath him. With a slam of the trunk, she pulled out of the lot and back towards the lab. Another box, another dolly, and the second set was complete.

She had never fully rigged someone up for life support solo before, and it was a long process. Her subject, of course, was breathing and resting quite nicely, but she needed to make sure he was properly hydrated, fed, and sedated for the duration of the process. The next few months would be rigorous, but ultimately he would give his body to save millions. She considered waking him to tell him that, but ultimately decided against it, He was a large man and could likely easily overpower her. After it was all done, and and her husband could discuss the events that had transpired. He was brilliant, like her, and would certainly see the reason, she reassured herself.

Months passed, and her fervor never faded. So intent was her work that people were beginning to suspect that she lived in the lab, tough the rumors never developed into anything more. Her response had left a cloud of avoidance around her that most were too afraid to cross, and she refused to open the door to any knock or offered assistance.

It had taken far more trials than she had expected, with many setbacks along the way. Tissue regenerated so slowly, and the cells took time to accept the retrovirus instructions and DNA. She had lost months waiting for a skin cell to correctly replicate. It had also required far more tissue and DNA samples than she expected. Audrey hated walking into the cold storage unit to see the mangled body, missing chunks of skin, hair, and tissue. It had taken so many more samples, so many more trials and errors than she had ever thought possible. But, it seemed to be working.

The skin was the right shade of pale white, and the hair looked to be coming in just fine, though it was still very short from the close trim she had given her original patient.  When she checked his pupils last, the right chocolate brown eyes stared up at him, finally having overcome the last remnants of slate grey. And today marked the 90th day since the cortical injections into the cerebrum. Sure, some argued that those would not regenerate, but she had seen the cells change and grow over the past days, and she was certain that her plan was flawless. Some of the cells were even on their second regeneration since she began, still holding to the new blueprint she had provided. Sixty days had been the shortest she could have waited, but she needed to be certain with a breakthrough this important.

Her hands shook as she turned the IV off, disconnecting the body from the sedative that had tirelessly worked for months. His muscle tone had significantly deteriorated—a fact she felt bad about—but he otherwise appeared healthy. She had been the perfect nurse throughout it all, rotating him as needed, providing all the appropriate care to his injection sites, washing and shaving his face weekly. She simply had not been able to exercise him effectively, not without jeopardizing the entire project. Now, she waited for those eyes to open.

They did slowly, the pupils growing and shrinking in the light. She waited for recognition to blossom in them, for the refreshing hug she had longed for these past months. But, that never came. Instead, rage burst into bloom, contorting his face into a snarling mask. Her husband dove from the table, leaping towards her. There was nothing human left inside him to control the animal instincts he felt, and so he enjoyed the ability to rip her apart, taste her flesh and blood. She screamed, pleaded with him, but there was never any glimmer of recognition in his animal eyes.

_____

“This is a message from the emergency broadcast system. The public is asked to please remain under quarantine. Those who do not comply will be shot on sight. Researchers continue to seek a cure for the Replicator virus, and vaccines will be made available as soon as possible. Individuals are asked to observe family and friends for any signs of infection, including decreased appetite, change in skin tone, change in eye color, sensitivity to light, and unusual aggression. If you see any of these symptoms, please contact your local response unit immediately for containment. This has been an alert from the emergency broadcast system.”


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


Ten Percent

In high school, I was a part of a writer’s group. We called ourselves WD and met weekly in a local Starbucks to read and critique on another’s pieces. We had a stuffed catfish named Sheldon, hand sewn by one of our members, who presided over our meeting (and by cat fish, I mean some unholy creation that was half cat and half fish. More of a mer-feline, if you like.) There was a weekly theme that had to be adhered to, and a pretty strict limit on the length of stories (I think it was 1-2 pages and no more). With two poets and two short story-ists, the feedback was generally pretty good and covered the main bases. I, however, often found myself fighting against that page limit. I would shrink margins and sneakily decrease the font by a half point. I did everything to make it look shorter than it was. And, generally, they found me out and I promised not to do it again. Sadly, I also regularly lied to my friends about that very thing. As I reflect, though, that limit was probably very good for me. It forced me to write, get the words out, and identify the core components of the story. But part of me has always loved having the freedom to just fully flesh out all the pieces of a story.

Honesty time? The Stories We Tell—what I’m working on now—has worn me out. While I like the idea, and am still quite enamored with it, it was a larger undertaking than I imagined. It requires so much consistency and logic that it is exhausting. While it is a great character piece for me, it’s also been very challenging. And I love that about it. But, I need a break. While I could soldier through it and force myself to write it, it won’t do the concept or the previous portions justice to do so. I think one week off to focus on a short and simple piece will do me good, and revitalize me to finish that story. It’s probably only got about 25% left to go in that last part, but I just need some fresh eyes on it. So, I plan on having the final part up in about a week. But for now my mostly nonexistent readers, here is a shorter piece in memory of the great times with WD.

Theme: “Some people say humans only use 10% of their brains. Those people are idiots.”


“Some people say humans only use 10% of their brains. Those people are idiots. I mean, perhaps it is true that those proposing such a foolish thought do, in fact, only use 10% of their own mental capacities. That would certainly explain a few things. I myself take great care to use all of the brain I can. It feels so perversely wasteful to do otherwise, especially when so many in the world do not have the privilege of such ample brains as I.

“Take a look at this specimen here. It’s quite a lovely one, I think. Taken from a recently deceased family man who just walked in to the wrong place at the wrong time. Tragic. He was a blue-collar, nine-to-five kind of guy. Carried pictures of his kids in his wallet. According to reports, nothing more than a high school education, but it was more than enough for a happy and successful life. And, despite what some might say, every single piece of his brain is wonderfully valuable. Take this here.”

Hands turn the brain upside down, showing the jagged edge of the brain stem lying vacant. A scalpel deftly slices through the meninges. The probe digs down and lifts up a small strand of cross shaped fibers.

“The optical tract. It runs all the way through the brain, carrying all kinds of signals from rods, cones, and nerve endings.  Can you imagine the millions upon billions of sights this nerve has seen?! All of those moments flowing through this tiny little piece.”

“And, here.” The scalpel dives again, separating a small hunk of striated matter in the back. “The cerebellum. This lump of flesh lets us move and balance. It bestows grace, balance, and coordination. Without this, we’d be falling all over ourselves. It constantly adjusts our body position, our movements, fine tuning like a skilled craftsman honing a masterpiece.”

Now a long-bladed knife delicately cuts the lonely brain down the middle, dividing it into two equal halves. It gracefully slices again, shaving off a thick segment like a butcher slicing steaks.

“And what would we be without the corpus callosum, eh? We’d be half a person, unable to connect our rights and our lefts. We’d see the world as half as brilliant, completely unable to integrate complex cognitive information. You know they’ve severed this in folks? Suddenly the world exists as two defined halves, and never the twain shall speak again! How marvelous to see it all as one. Not to mention,” the scalpel hovers  over a small, pale, round structure, “the thalamus! The seat of all our sensory information. It takes our whole world in and divvies it to the correct location. The master multitasker of our brain, constantly assessing and routing information. A healthy dose of thalamus with some good corpus callosum, and the whole world is a web of interconnection. Nothing is beyond our ken!”

The long blade carves off another section, laying it lovingly on the table. It continues, slicing the shrinking brain like a tender pot roast. “That’s not even to mention the hypothalamus, hippocampus—see the seahorse there?—the amygdala! And so many other areas that we can only intimate the location of, so unique are our very brains.” The probe flew swiftly across the sections, pointing out large regions of mottled brain. “Wernicke and Broca, side by side and so crucial to relating to one another. A good bit of that duo and perhaps I’ll have one of those fabled silver tongues! Fronto-orbital regions, sensory strips, motor cortex. I think I’ve shown you more than enough to suggest far more than 10% of our marvelous brains are useful. I think I’ve made my case.”

The chef’s knife plunges into the mushy grey matter, dicing the brain into fine chunks. Wernicke and Broca mingle, while the right side visual regions muddy up their linguistic solidarity. The olfactory bulb bumps pieces of the vaunted optic tract as the cerebellum balances everything out once and for all.

“As I said, I always strive to use all of my brains. Tonight, I think I’ll try that Bolognese recipe I’ve been slobbering over. I’ve a lovely Chianti I’ve been saving just for this. Won’t you stay for dinner?”


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