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13 Stories of Halloween: Bend the Rules

See earlier days here!


Laura reached into the candy bowl, digging deep to find one of the remaining Milky Way bars.

“Hey!” Her roommate appeared suddenly from the corner and swatted at her hand. “I told you those were for trick-or-treaters.”

Laura pulled her hand back with mock hurt in her eyes. “I’m wasting away here, Jen!”

Her appeal fell on deaf ears, and Jen simply picked up the candy bowl and carried it with her into the kitchen. There she could keep her eyes on it while she finished baking a round of cupcakes for the Halloween party later. “If you want candy,” she yelled over her shoulder, “the stores are falling over themselves to sell it to you. We can eat the leftovers after, anyway.”

Laura thought she heard the crinkle of a wrapper sneak out of the kitchen, but she couldn’t be sure. Instead, she dropped onto the couch and began flipping through channels. Surely she could find a Friends re-run. Those were always on somewhere, right?

Giving up on the television—there was only so much teenage programming a semi-grown adult could take—she stared at the clock. It was 6:00, which meant trick-or-treaters should begin arriving soon. They would be out and about until 8:00, the city-enforced cut-off, and then Laura and Jen would leave to go to a more age-appropriate activity. That meant two hours to fill.

She wandered into the kitchen where Jen was tapping on her phone as the oven clicked away. The first batch was due out soon, and Laura was hoping she could grab a sample.

“Don’t even think about it. I only have enough batter for a couple dozen.”

“No one is going to notice if there are only 23. Besides, don’t you want to make sure they taste alright before subjecting them to everyone else?”

Jen looked over her phone with an unamused glare full of friendly antagonism. “Everyone loves these cupcakes. They’ll be fine, I promise.” She turned and peaked in on the cupcakes, examining them through the oven’s window as if they were soldiers lined for a parade. “If you’re so hungry, why don’t you get a real dinner or something?”

“Because it’s Halloween. I just want to eat candy and junk food.”

“Then you’ll have to wait for the party.” The doorbell rang, and she smiled as she grabbed the bowl of candy. “But we have a fully stocked fridge if you change your mind,” she finished as she walked down the hall and to the door.

Laura heard the echoes of “Trick-or-treat!” stumbling out of the gaggle of children. She saw a ghost, a witch, and two Elsas on the front porch, all holding out their buckets expectantly.

Jen gushed over the costumes, placing one piece of candy in each bucket.

“Now what do you say?” came some adult voice from outside the house. An equally disjointed chorus of “thank you,” filtered back into the house.

Jen waltzed back into the kitchen and set the bowl down with finality. She glanced at her phone, and then hurriedly moved toward the oven.

“Oh, they’re perfect,” she gushed as she pulled them from the oven. Carefully, she extracted each one and placed it on the rack to cool, before turning her attention back to the batter.

The cycle repeated. Kids showed up, Jen danced away to give them candy, and Laura sat staring at the forbidden cupcakes while her stomach growled. Now it was a matter of principle rather than hunger.

After the cupcakes were out of the oven and the icing was made, Jen managed to pause.

“Okay, I need to get in costume while these finish cooling. Think you can handle candy duty?”

“I think I can manage,” Laura responded grumpily, but Jen was already halfway up the stairs to her room. Laura eyed the bowl and reached over, plucking out a packet of Skittles.

“Not like anyone will miss it,” she grumbled to herself and emptied the packet into her mouth. Delicious. This was what Halloween was all about.

The doorbell rang, and she dutifully grabbed the bowl. A tiny gaggle of middle schoolers were outside, one Dracula with a zombie and Tinkerbell.

“Trick-or-treat,” they intoned, the words having lost some of their fervor after what had to have been dozens of houses. Laura could see their bags were heavy with candy, but they were not to be deterred. She admired their spirit.

Though it limited her leftover candy stash, she dropped a small handful of candy into each bag. She watched their eyes brighten, some of the fatigue shaking off at the generous bounty. Their “thank you” sounded more sincere than most. Unlike Jen, Laura was not about to be stingy to the poor kids, no matter what the rules for handing out candy were.

Back to the kitchen where the cupcakes waited. They were pumpkin with cream cheese icing, and Laura had been sitting there sniffing the spiced cake for almost an hour. Glancing quickly upstairs and seeing no one, she grabbed one of the cakes and unceremoniously dipped it into the bowl of icing. She gave it an extra swirl for good measure, then eagerly took a bite of the whole thing. The icing was melting and sliding along the top, some of it soaking into the cake while the rest dribbled down her hands. In three quick bites, she had devoured it before it could make any more of a mess.

They really were delicious, she thought, begrudgingly agreeing with Jen’s haughty boast. The doorbell rang again, and she was dragged back to the front door. Only this time her stomach had stopped grumbling. Instead, she felt it twist and turn as it digested the treat.

Again, the cycle repeated. She grabbed a quick glass of water, coughing as she attempted to dislodge the crumb that seemed to be stuck in her throat. It did little to help, her soft cough sputtering into an occasional wheeze as the feeling refused to budge. Great, she told herself, a cold was just what she needed before a party.

After a few minutes, Jen reappeared on the stairs, now dressed as a standard witch. She had a flared skirt that came down to mid-thigh, bright green tights, a cheap hat, and a fake nose strapped to her face.

“How do I look?”

“Like a Dollar Store hooker,” shot back Laura with a smirk.

“Perfect, that was my goal.” Jen rolled her eyes and laughed good-naturedly. “I think I need to put the cupcakes in the fridge. So they can cool in time for icing,” she added as she leaned her broom against the back door.

“Your call,” said Laura, scrambling out of the kitchen. Her trespass would soon be discovered, and she would rather be out of the way when it was. She couldn’t help but smile, though, as she dodged out to the couch. Her stomach continued turning over the food, and she felt an occasional pang from her gut. Maybe the cream cheese icing was not the best call for the lactose intolerant woman, she thought dryly.

There was silence in the kitchen for a moment.

“Lau,” came Jen’s overly sweet voice. Laura started to laugh, knowing it would ruffle some feathers. But what were friends for if not to push boundaries? “Did you eat one of these?”

“I might have. But it was consensual, I swear!” she joked.

More silence. Laura turned and looked over the back of the couch. She had expected some teasing, mock anger, maybe even a friendly scolding. Silence was surprising.

“You really shouldn’t have,” came the eventual reply. There was no humor in her voice, but rather a resigned, disappointed tone.

Laura knew well enough when to set joking aside. “I’m sorry, Jen. I’ll skip mine at the party, then. But they are delicious.”

A sigh. “That’s good, I guess.”

Laura resumed flipping through the channels, trying to quiet her guilt. Jen had seemed a lot more upset than she anticipated. As the channels flipped by, she continued to cough in an attempt to move the crumb, but it seemed to only get more and more stuck. Then there was something new, an uneasiness and guilt. Laura felt it as a subtle tightness in her chest, a sense of dizziness that settled over her.  It was just a cupcake, she reminded herself, not Jen’s one true love. But that feeling continued to creep through her body, a noose tightening around her neck.

The doorbell rang, and Jen completed her ritual. Squeals, thanks, ringing bells. It all cycled again and again as time ticked by and sweat began to tingle on Laura’s brow.

And now her stomach was churning, unsettled turning into nausea.

“Aren’t you going to get ready?” called Jen from the kitchen. “We need to leave soon, if we’re going to be on time.”

“I think I’m going to lie down a minute before the party,” she responded. When she turned to look, Jen was just watching her.

“It’s eating away at you, huh?”

Laura forced a weak smile. “I thought it would be funny. Sorry, Jen.”

Jen waved her hand, as if brushing away the apology. “Don’t worry about it. I can tell it won’t happen again.”

Laura rose unsteadily from the couch, feeling the room spin around her. This was not just anxiety and guilt, she thought suddenly, but she also had no other explanation. Maybe a heart attack? The flu? Asthma?

Her mind raced through possibilities as she walked toward the stairs. She just needed to lie down, she told herself, but felt her legs weakening beneath her. One moment, she was walking toward the stairs. The next, she was face down on the carpet of the entryway.

“Jen,” she called out, her voice weak, “I think something’s wrong.”

Jen appeared in the doorway of the kitchen with a domed platter of cupcakes, looking down on Laura with a thin veneer of sympathy over her glee. “Oh, Laura, I told you to wait, didn’t I?” She walked over to Laura and kneeled down. Softly, she smoothed the hair from Laura’s sweaty brow. “You simply can’t go to the party like this,” she chided, almost motherly. “I can’t have you telling everyone my cupcakes made you sick, now can I?”

Laura tried to speak, but the muscles of her lips and tongue simply could not respond. They sat like glutted slugs on her face. She could hear vague sounds coming from her mouth, air passing through without any direction.

“I guess you’ll just have to stay in tonight. Bummer, huh?” With a smile and a wink, Jen was back on her feet and walking toward the door. “I’ll let everyone know you were sad to miss out.” She grabbed her broom and opened the door, turning back to look at her collapsed friend once again.

“I’d say don’t wait up, but I’m pretty sure you’ll be dead soon anyway,” she snapped.

The door closed behind her as Laura sank farther and farther into darkness.


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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Barter

Hello! So, this piece was posted on creepypasta.com today. You can check it out on the site here if you’d like to see the ratings, comments, etc. All told, it is a finished piece that I probably will not be returning to, though I did catch one typo when skimming through it this morning (because of course I did). I certainly enjoyed writing this one and hope it gives you a chill down your spine.

If you found me here from the posted story, Welcome to the Attic! Please feel free to look around and tell me what you think. Most recent pieces are on the front page here. If you like my style and want to read more, the Card Challenge Index is a good starting place as it lists 84 stories I wrote over a 90 day period, including genres and descriptions. You can also find my favorites and the most popular ones from the series there. I like to think there is something for everyone buried in there, but you’ll have to let me know.

As always, I’m here to write and enjoy myself. I also provide beta-reading and collaboration opportunities, which you can find more about on the Editing and Collaboration page.

New or old, I hope you enjoy this story. As always, Happy reading!


Marjorie had been lingering outside the nondescript metal door for nearly two hours, appearing to study the door and the faded sign above it. The Deli, it read in dusty script. Her coat was wrapped as tightly around her as the fraying fabric allowed, but still the winter air dug through it. The cold was not enough, however, to drive her out of the elements and through the door.  Once or twice she approached it, hand shaking as it neared the handle, only to draw back at the last second as if the handle were a snake.

It should have been easier to enter the door the longer she waited, but it seemed to only grow immeasurably more difficult. It did not help that in her entire time waiting no one had entered or left the building. Had someone sallied up, opened the door, and safely entered into a cloud of inviting warmth, it may have lured her in.  Similarly, the safe exit of any sort of person would have given her the assurance that one could brave whatever lay beyond. But the road was empty, and the door sat unmoving.

A particularly sharp gust of wind whistled down the abandoned alley, tugging at her coat and sending her tangled hair into a maelstrom. Her eyes watered at the cold, and she inched closer to the wall, hoping it would afford some protection. It was silly, she chided herself, spending all this time out in the elements. This was what had to be done. She was out of options, and her only hope lay beyond that door.

Yet Marjorie wondered if perhaps it was better to be hopeless than pay whatever price this hope would cost.

The streetlight flickered on overhead. Soon it would be dark, and then she would have to make a decision or risk staying on the unsafe streets at night. Being here in the middle of the day was dangerous enough—she would not be caught outside after dark.

That was the final shove she needed to overcome her inertia. With sudden resolve, she gripped the door handle. It flew open in her hands almost reflexively, for which she was glad. The metal was bitterly cold, seeming almost to burn her with its chill. Had the door not stood open, she would have again released it and likely vanished back to her home.

Inside was a nondescript, concrete hallway. A lonely yellow light filled the inside, leading to another door. This door was made of a dark wood and had a heavy brass knocker affixed to the middle. Marjorie’s steps echoed in the concrete chamber, coming to a sudden stop when the metal door groaned to a loud close. The weak, evening light was now gone, leaving her alone with only the single bulb. She had not realized how comforting it was to have that little bit of the outside world with her. With the door closed, even the distant sounds of traffic were cut-off.

Panic wrapped its claws around her throat. She felt her chest tighten with its serpentine grip; her heart thundered against her ribs. In that moment, instincts took over and she reverted to her most primitive response. Flee.

The echoes of her steps were a maddening flurry around her as she sprinted the fifteen feet back to the metal door. Her hands scrambled for purchase on the handle, only to find nothing but smooth metal. No handle on this side. The thunder of thousands of years of evolution continued to push her towards flight, and her fingers clawed around the metal door frame, hoping to find some crevice to pry open the door. Only there was again nothing. In the dim light afforded by the bulb, she could not make out a single seam. It was almost as if the door had sealed as soon as she entered. Her breaths now came in ragged gasps that did little to help her or calm her. Instead, the world seemed to swim before her. A mocking door, concrete walls. It was almost as if the walls were inching closer, activated on some cruel timer to pin her here forever.

All that she could hear was the flood of blood pulsing through her veins, the rapid fluttering of her heart frantically trying to escape, and the jarring sound of air ripping from her lungs before being shoved back inside. The walls acted as an echo chamber, reflecting her own terrified symphony back at her.

Deep breaths, she reminded herself. Just like those nights spent in the closet, deep breaths. She had to slow herself down if she was going to survive this. Slowing her breathing to a measured pace was akin to stopping a car with no brakes. She felt her lungs fight against the control, trying to maintain their breakneck pace despite her insistence. Over time, however, she won out. The breaths were shaky, but calm, and her heart took its cue to return to its typical state of frenzy. The walls returned to their assigned places and stopped their dizzying journey.

Carefully, Marjorie ran her hands along the wall where the door stood, confirming that there was no seam that she could grip. It was a well-constructed door; there was not even a glimmer of dying afternoon light slipping through the bottom. If she could not back out now, she must go forward.

The hallway was not long, but she felt like a member of a funeral procession as she somberly made her way towards the door. Up close, she could see twisting, abstract shapes carved all over the door. They meant nothing to her, but she felt her breaths begin to hiccup again in her chest. Deep breaths, she repeated her only mantra.

Her hand was shaking as she placed it on the brass knocker. Unlike the door handle, this one was pleasantly warm to the touch. Inviting, almost. With a groan of rusted metal, she lifted it and rapped it quickly against the door. One, two, three. The door began to swing smoothly on its hinges after the third knock, opening onto a room filled with the murmur of quieted voices and wisps of strange smelling smoke. She stepped gingerly inside, feeling immediately out of place.

There were tables and booths scattered around the room. Marjorie did her best not to make eye contact or even look at them, keeping her eyes trained to the worn wood floor. She heard a few snickers, saw a couple hands point her out from their shadowy seats. Even as the large frames filled her periphery, she walked steadfastly towards the counter at the far end of the room.

Everyone in the room recognized immediately how out of place she was. While they were each bedecked in protective charms and talismans—some hanging from their necks, others etched into the scar tissue of their bodies—all she had was the flimsy barrier of her coat, still pulled tight around her against the now suffocating heat of the small room. She waked gingerly across the creaking floorboards, barely daring to breathe. They grinned and watched.

Marjorie approached the counter and lifted her eyes to see the attendant slouched on a stool behind the domed glass structure. Halfway to his face, her eyes froze on the contents of the display case. She assumed the rotted lumps inside had once been some sort of meat, though they were now covered in flies and maggots. Pooled, congealed blood covered the bottom surface, even seeping out and down to the floor. She followed the trail to see the red-stained, warped wood along the floor boards.  Mouth agape and eyes wide, she was certain she saw a few eyeballs and fingers mixed in amongst the decay, but she tried to put it out of her mind.

“Want to try a sample?” came the mocking, gravelly voice of the attendant as he pulled open the door to the case. Immediately, a wave of putrescence poured out and enveloped Marjorie. She did her best to escape it, stumbling backwards and tripping over a warped floorboard. There was a low chuckle from those gathered around her, growing more and more quickly into a round of bawdy laughter.

She gagged, her stomach trying to force up the breakfast and lunch she had not eaten. It burned her eyes, starting them watering again.  Her stomach having only been successful in ejecting a small amount of water she had nervously sipped at outside, her lungs took to coughing. Anything to get that stench away from her and out of her body.

There was the sound of a lock snapping into place as the attendant continued to laugh. She studied him briefly from her place on the floor behind watery eyes. He was filthy, covered in a layer of grime that made it impossible to tell his age. A tangled mess of dirt and wispy hair sat atop his head, falling into his beady eyes as he rocked back and forth with laughter at her predicament. His hands—stained and caked with muck—gripped the counter as long, yellowed nails scraped across the glass in time to his chuckling.

Marjorie did her best to pull herself together, rising from the floor and straightening her clothes as if that would restore her dignity. The smell had faded, now only a slight whiff of decay rather than the malodorous assault. That or her nose could no longer register the scent having burned out that sense for good. She threw her head back, eyes meeting the dark, glassy eyes of the man behind the counter.

“I’m here to speak with the owner,” she said in what she hoped was a confident voice. It did not help that it trembled and broke as she spoke. But at her words, a begrudging silence spread through the room.

The attendant snorted, a thick mucusy sound. For a moment she was afraid he was preparing to spit on her. Instead, he jerked one dirty finger to a paper ticket dispenser. “Take a number, then.”

With that, the attention on her seemed to fade. The low, grumble of conversation returned and she heard chairs scraping across the wood as the denizen’s returned to their intrigue. She walked over and gripped the dusty piece of paper delicately, as if afraid it might crumble to dust in her fingers. Perhaps this was another trick. Instead, the machine groaned and dispensed with a tiny slip. Number 43. She looked around for some sign that told her where she was. She had not seen anyone enter or leave today, so perhaps the line was long. But there was no such indicator.

“Excuse me,” she cautiously questioned the attendant, “how do I know what number is up?”

One eye turned to face her, the other stared out over the bar. “Take a seat and you’ll be called.” His eye flicked back to whatever it was between the counter and door that so raptly held his attention.

Marjorie gingerly picked her way over to an unoccupied table, acutely aware that her back was exposed to whatever kind of people liked to congregate in a place like this. She was certain that she could feel each individual eye raking over her back, sense spider-like appendages trace up and down her spine. Her hands were balled into knots, resting bloodlessly on her lap.

The minutes trickled by, marked only by the rise and fall of bawdy laughter. Marjorie kept her eyes focused on the table in front of her, trying to pick out patterns and shapes in the wooden surface. Trying to keep her mind from wandering too far from the task at hand. Somehow she knew that she could snap if forced to take in the reality of where she was and what she was doing. Instead, she focused on the next step. Meeting the owner and making her request.

The crack of a metal mug slamming onto the wooden table brought her eyes up, open wide like an animal caught in a snare. A woman stood across from her, tall and broad-shouldered. She had one bright green eye that studied Marjorie up and down. In place of her other eyes was a nasty incision, weeping a slight bit of pus, that bulged with dark stitches. Without being invited, the woman settled into the seat across from Marjorie.

“Me oh my, you don’t belong here, pretty thing,” she said in a hushed tone. Her eye was hungry. Marjorie sat silent as the woman studied her with a slight smile on her dry, swollen lips. “No, you aren’t meant to be here at all. What brings a little bird like you into a place like this?”

Marjorie focused her eyes back on the table. There was nothing she could say here that would keep her safe, and she knew that. She just needed to meet with the owner and make her request.

“A quiet one. Not going to sing for Lucy, eh? Come now, tell me what you need and I can help you get out of this place.” Marjorie’s silence prevailed. “We both know this is not a safe place for the likes of you. I’ve got a soft-spot for women, knowing how hard it is to be among this rabble myself. Just let me help you, dearie.”

Almost unbidden, Marjorie’s eyes lifted from the table and met the woman’s unnatural green one. It was beautiful, truly, even if it was nested within a hideous face. The green reminded Marjorie of the view from her bedroom window as a child on Easter morning. There was a small tree that grew just outside that always seemed to be absolutely covered in new leafs that shone with that bright, spring green. That was the color of the eyes. And it shone and sparkled like sunlight reflecting off water.

“There now, I’m sure we can work something out. I just know I can help you with whatever you need.” Lucy’s voice was a soft singsong, not the harsh growl of a dedicated chain smoker like before. “I even make sure my prices are fair, especially for a fair young thing like yourself.” Marjorie felt a hand on her knee, gently stroking. “Them pretty eyes of yours—they look like they’ve seen a world of heartache, eh? I could take care of those for you. You’d like that, yes?”

Eye fixated, Marjorie felt her head begin to bob slightly. To not see the horrors she had in her time, well, that would be nice.

“I see you like the idea,” Lucy’s face cracked open into a wide grin. “I thought you might. I’m good as seeing what people really need from me. I just need you to say it. Say you’ll give me those awful eyes of yours, and I’ll make sure you never have to see something so terrible again.”

Marjorie’s mouth opened, the very words on her lips, when a strong hand settled onto her shoulder. It smelled of leather and blood and gripped her shoulder hard enough to break the trance.

“Not going to let you have all the fun, Ol’ Luce. It’s not every day we get something so lovely in this dingy place.”

Marjorie felt dizzy and confused, as if time were moving at double again its normal pace. Her mind was slow in catching up to what was happening—what had almost happened—leaving her feeling as if she were lagging behind the rest of the world. Now Lucy was standing, measuring up to a formidable height, with anger in that lone green eye.

“I’ll not have you meddling, Thomas. She and I were nearly to a deal.”

“A deal you tricked her into, no less. Where’s the fun in that? Just weave your little spell, and she’ll say whatever you want. You’ve gone soft, Luce. I need to make you work for it.” His voice was soft, but firm.  It seemed to cut through the background din like a razor, until it was the only thing she could hear. As Marjorie’s mind caught up with what had just nearly happened, she felt her heart begin to race. And then there was the hand on her shoulder, the firm grip beginning to hurt with its intensity.

The man bent over her shoulder, smiling. A long, black beard tickled against the skin of her neck, and she could smell the whiskey on his breath. “I’m afraid we have not been introduced, and I’ve already gone and saved your life. It’s a bad habit, I admit. My name is Thomas.” He extended his other hand towards her, the one on her shoulder growing tighter as she refused to shake. “Oh, we must be polite in an uncivil place as this, yes? What’s your name?”

Marjorie whimpered at the pain in her shoulder but fixed her eyes back on the table. She had to talk to the owner. She had to make her request.

“Back off and let her be, Thomas. I saw her; I made the first move. There’ll be others for you,” barked Lucy’s voice.

“Yes, but you didn’t close on the sale, now did you?” His eyes flicked away from Marjorie for just a moment, fixing Lucy with a cold gaze before returning with more warmth to Marjorie’s face. “You’ll find I’m much more direct. No need for silly games.” The hand moved smoothly from her shoulder, along the back of her neck. Suddenly, his fingers were wrapped through her hair, yanking her head back and exposing her throat. She felt something cold and sharp there, and barely dare to breathe. His smiling face leaned over hers, “How many years would you give me to keep this pretty little neck of yours attached?”

Marjorie heard a short laugh to her right, saw a slender man standing to the side. He stood just within her periphery, far enough back that she could only make out the vague shape of him. “Thomas, do be careful. There is plenty of her to go around if we just act with a little tact. I bet you could make some even better deals if you thought this through.”

“Oh no, you aren’t going to trip me up with that again. You swindled me out of everything last time.”

“You are right, it was a bit of a dirty trick. But surely you and Luce could work out some sort of a deal. You don’t need her eyes after all.”

Marjorie noticed the shadow of Luce appeared to turn and nod towards the man to the side, and she heard a very soft chuckle from him.

Thomas’ hands gripped her hair even more tightly. “You’re just mad that I got to her first, and this time I’m cutting you out!”

“Well, fine, but I fear it’s not just me you’ll be fighting against, Tom. A lot of us would like a piece of her.”

Thomas leaned back down by her ear, his words coming in a whispered frenzy. “Well, dear, looks like they’ll be taking you piece by piece. What do you say then? Give Ol’ Thomas whatever years you’ve got left? At least they’ll go to some sort of use, yeah?”

Marjorie heard grumbling in the room, the sound of chairs scraping along the wood, and a chorus of various metals meeting metal. There was a new tension in the uncomfortably warm room, a weight that pressed down all around her.

“Come on, times ticking, do we have a deal? You look like an altruistic soul. Help me out.” Footsteps coming close, a few short barks of anger. The intensity increased in his voice and he shook her head sharply. “They’ll cut out your tongue soon, so you best tell me now!”

Marjorie felt tears falling down her cheeks, a steady stream now pouring from her eyes. She had to speak to the owner. She had to make her request. Only she was not so sure she’d even get that chance.

Someone grabbed Thomas and the knife nicked her, drawing a thin line of blood far less lethal than it could have been. Marjorie dove under the table, trying to evade the arms that grabbed at her. There was the smell of blood in the room, and all the inhabitants had been suitably whipped into a frenzy. She was the lone fish drifting amongst the sharks.

A mug struck her temple, thick hands gripped and tugged at her arms, leaving angry red bruises that began to darken almost instantly. The rough floor scraped along her knees and arms as she crawled, filling her skin with tiny needling splinters. As she scrambled, kicked, and bit at any appendage that came her way, she noticed the tempo of the fray beginning to increase. No longer was she the main prize, but the fighters had turned on one another, vying for the chance to claim this lovely reward. They knew, of course, that she had nowhere to run. Finally, she found a corner to hide in, burying her head in her arms and trying to drown out the sound of the chaos around here. She needed to speak to the owner.

After what felt like hours of combat, the sounds of an opening door cut through the din. A sudden silence filled the room, minus the groaning of the incapacitated, and Marjorie began to sob. This was it. A victor had been named, and she was now the trophy to be parceled as he or she saw fit. She could not even lift her eyes to see which of the horrors in the room she would be left with.

However, something else broke the silence. “Number 43?” asked the calm voice of a young girl. Marjorie dared to barely lift her head, seeing the tiny figure standing in a doorway that had not existed moments before.

“Number 43?”

She scrambled to her feet, holding aloft the ticket she had somehow held onto during the fray. None of the remaining combatants—the war had obviously not been won quite yet—dared to touch her as she walked forward, towards the child in the doorway. Still, she shuddered and spooked as they milled about in the shadows. The girl motioned into the bright rectangle cut into the formerly intact wall, and Marjorie walked forward.

The door closed behind her, a parlor trick she was now used to. It took a few moments for her eyes to adjust from the gloom of the waiting room to the warm light of this new area. It was a well-furnished office, completed with a large wooden desk and an assortment of alluring leather chairs. The scent of cedar mixed with the smell of the crackling fireplace in a way that reminded Marjorie of weekend trips to her grandad’s cabin. Silently, the young girl stepped against the wall behind Marjorie, next to what had been the doorway, but now was nothing more than another section of oak paneling.

The man behind the desk did not look up at first. He was busy tallying and writing in a thick ledger, seemingly uninterested in the bruised and bloody woman before him. After a few moments, he looked up with a friendly smile and closed the book firmly.

“Marjorie, pleasure to meet you finally. I see you got the traditional welcome from our guests? And not a one of them was able to make a deal with you! You must be made of some tough stuff.”

She nodded mutely, uncertain now of how to proceed. He simply smiled at her and gave her the time she needed to study him. His teeth were bright white—the only clean thing she had seen since entering the deli. His eyes were as dark as his teeth were white, but they appeared to be friendly. As he waited for her to speak, he knitted his fingers together in front of him, rolling his shoulder to straighten out the drape of his crisp suit coat. Every bit of him seemed to be polished and neat—a stark contrast to the room before.

“Are you the Devil?” she finally managed to squeak out, eyes wide.

He laughed, throwing his head back and letting the sound ripple around the room. It was a friendly, amused sound that put her at ease. “Oh no, nothing so boring as that.”

“But you can give people whatever they want.”

He composed himself, that same broad smile still on his face. “Well, of course I can. But there is much more to this world than your simple understanding of gods and devils. Don’t worry, Marjorie, this is no deal with the Devil. But do tell me, what is it you want?”

“I—I came here to—“ The words would not come. She had thought and thought about how she would tell her story, how she would describe the years of abuse, threats, and evil. She considered taking off her coat and showing him the pale yellow stains of old bruises, but they were now marred by fresh ones from the fray. She felt for the death certificate in her pocket, the name of her first son written on it. And now the words would not come.

He watched patiently, no hint of irritation at her pause. When she began to sob, he offered her the handkerchief from his front pocket.

“He told everyone I was drunk. That was how I fell down the stairs. That was why Mikey died.” The tears were coming more in earnest now, and she dabbed at her eyes with the handkerchief. “They all looked at me like a terrible mother, that I would be drinking while pregnant. They blamed me—if I had been sober, I wouldn’t have fallen and Mikey would have at least had a chance.  No one believed me.”

“I don’t bring people back from the dead, Marjorie. Even I don’t meddle in things like that,” his voice was soft, almost as if moved by her tearful story.

She took that moment to compose herself, sniffing and wiping away the tears. “I know. That’s not why I’m here. I want you to kill my husband.” The words were out, blunt and dirty, before she realized what she was saying. This was not how the discussion was supposed to have gone.

His face brightened. “Oh, is that all you need? Well, that should be a relatively easy matter”

“You don’t understand. He’s a monster. It won’t be easy to kill him, but you have to. You have to kill him, because he’s a very bad person.”

“Marjorie, I don’t care who he is. He could be Hitler or the Pope reincarnate. All I care about is that you want him dead. And I can make that happen, no matter how ‘monstrous’ he might be.” He reached over and pulled an ornate ink pen from his desk. “I will need some details, like his name, address, distinguishing physical features. Also, would you like proof of death?”

Marjorie’s stomach churned at the thought of what she was doing. It was the only way, though. He had to pay for his crimes, and no one else was willing to do it. “No, I won’t need that. Everyone says you follow through on your deals.”

“Word of mouth is certainly the best advertisement for services such as mine,” he smiled that disarming smile again.

“Um, well, his name is David Bergen and his address is 1394 Windhaven Rd, Apt 1722. It’s in Topeka.” He continued writing and nodding. “He’s about six foot tall, a big bulky guy. Blond hair, brown eyes. He has some sort of tribal tattoo on the back of his neck, one of a skull on his right bicep. Is that enough?”

“Oh, that’s lovely. A wonderful description.  I’ll dispatch someone right away,” he said, nodding to the small girl. Marjorie heard the door swing open behind her, then close quietly. “But, now that your terms are set, let us discuss what I shall get in return. A few rules. I don’t trade in souls—it is simply too much of a hassle to deal with, and the return is rather poor. I also don’t accept first born children,” at this, he nodded his head towards the spot the girl had been moment before. “I’ve done it once, but I’ve found children are not particularly useful.” There was a sudden cruel glint to his smile, “Besides, someone has already taken yours.”

Marjorie was silent, her fingers worrying over the hem of her jacket as if that would provide some solace in this moment. Her heart was pounding again, and she wondered if perhaps she was going to suffocate here in this office. The scents and furnishing that had seemed so lavish now felt oppressive. “But I can give you anything else, right?”

He paused to consider her comments. “I reserve the right to refuse any substandard trade. I won’t, for instance, take your pocket lint.” He chuckled appreciatively at his own joke. “But I accept most fair trades.” His demeanor turned more serious, perhaps even taking on a sinister air. He leaned forward over the desk, shadows growing across his face as he did so. “Think carefully now about what you’ll give me for this. Whatever you decide, you will think it is something you would never want back no matter how long you live. But once it’s gone, you’ll find you cannot live without it. You’ll yearn for it. You’ll do anything to replace it. You’ll take it. But it will never be enough, will always be shrouded in the filth of something borrowed. So make a wise choice, but know there is no wisdom that will save you. What will you give me?”

She thought long and hard, but she had spent days thinking about it already. She was almost certain she had thought of something that in no way could harm her, no matter what. In fact, she reminded herself, it would be a relief. She would be strong and brave then, not the timid girl that had entered. “My pain,” she finally answered.

He smiled eagerly, a response that made her suddenly uncertain. “Oh, yes, we have a deal! Pain is one of my favorites. And don’t come back here saying I didn’t warn you.” With that he clamped her hand in his and shook once. Marjorie felt as his grip began as an excruciating vice, then dwindled until she could barely even notice it. The aches and pains of her various cuts and bruises also dimmed before disappearing altogether.

As promised, with it gone, she also felt that absence acutely. It was a kind of nostalgia now, a prickling sense of something missing and a longing to return. This wasn’t so bad, she thought. Uncomfortable, certainly, but it must have been the right choice.

He still smiled. “You think it’s going to be easy. But that’s just the first taste. Give it time.”

“But,” there was a crackle in her voice. Sacrificing pain did not remove fear. “I can take away others’ pain now, right?”

His eyes simmered with glee, as if her altruism was a delicious appetizer. “Of course, my dear. And you most certainly will. Again and again, you’ll valiantly step in and take every ache from their bodies, dry the tears from their eyes. And someday that won’t be enough. You’ll hunger for more. So you’ll give them a little pain, only to take it away. Until that isn’t enough either. I told you, it will never be enough. You can try to drown yourself in the pain and agony of millions and never be satisfied.” His grin finally split into a restrained laugh, and he quickly reassembled his face into a look of mild amusement. The excitement glimmered in his eyes.

Lost in his eyes, in the long future stretching before her, in the half-perceived glimpse of the monster she would become, Marjorie barely noticed as the room faded from around her. The last thing to disappear were his eyes, and she blinked. She felt dazed, as if waking from a dream, as she stood the sidewalk and in the light of early dawn. Impossibly, she was standing in front of a nondescript brick building on the other side of town.

“Remember,” she heard his voice on the breeze, “the Deli is always open. I’m guessing you’ll have a table all your own soon enough.”


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


First Draft: Not Only the Wind Howls

So, I’ve got a few things in the works, including one kind of neat project I had hoped to post this week. But, it is (as always) taking longer than I anticipated. So, it should be coming along before too long. In the meantime, I wanted to write something shorter. I’ve been writing really long things recently, which is good, but it can be a crutch for me. So here is something shorter to try and tell a story well, but briefly. As always, first draft. Let me know your thoughts!


It was a fool’s errand to be out in the cold, but Dana felt she had no other choice. The car was stopped and getting colder by the second, her phone did not work, and she was sure she had seen a town just a few miles back. So a walk in this weather, bundled as she was, shouldn’t be a problem. Only it was quickly becoming one.

Her mittens were more than adequate for the usual walk from her car, down the couple of blocks to work, and into the aggressively heated building. But the fabric was soaked after one or two unfortunate tumbles into the snow, and her fingers were chilled to the bone. They had passed the point of obnoxious ache and entered into an almost pleasant numbness. Her feet, in contrast, pounded with the ache of walking and increasing cold. The beaten up pair of boots she dutifully dragged with her did an admirable job protecting her, but with drifts above her knees, snow was quickly slipping in and turning her socks into soggy, icy cages.

Dana blinked and felt her eyelashes stick to one another for a moment. Her scarf was wrapped tight around her mouth, nose, and ears, leaving a humid and increasingly odorous environment as she stomped along. The town had to be close. She imagined a warm cup of hot chocolate in her hands, enlivening her numb fingers once again. The image was real enough that she could almost taste the rich chocolate favor. But then reality intruded yet again.

The wind howled around her, muted by her dutiful scarf, but it ripped and tore across the ground. Occasionally, a tree branch would sway and dump a generous serving of snow onto her stockinged head. She tried to block out the sound of creaking branches, her nerves already on edge.

And then there was something different. This was not the random groan of branches, nor was it the constant rumble of the wind snapping through the trees and kicking up clouds of snow. No, this was a strange, rhythmic sound. It was the sound of footsteps crunching through the snow, breaking through the icy top layer and sinking into the soft drifts below. They mimicked Dana’s own steps, but slower. Whoever was out here with her was clearly not in the hurry she was.

Which meant, she reasoned, that they must know where they are and be close to shelter. It could be her saving grace.

She pulled the scarf from her mouth, looking around in hopes of catching sight of her companion between the trees. The steps sounded close. “Hello? I’m lost.”

She listened, but the steps continued on, just as slow and steady as before. She looked, but everything was the same palette of grey, white, and green pine needles. She glanced behind her, down the arc of snowy asphalt stretching behind her. It would be easy to see someone walking along the side of the road—part of the reason she had chosen her path—but whoever was out here remained hidden.

Dana peered into the branches on the other side of the road. The weak sunlight was quickly fading, and she could not make out much more than a mass of shadows.

“Hello?” she tried again. “My car broke down and I need to get to town,” she offered, hoping it might convince the stranger that she was no threat.

The steps paused, and she was almost angry at the sudden silence. Now she did not even have the sound cues to help her find the person she was now sure would be her savior. But, she reminded herself, it meant they may have heard her.

“Do you know of anywhere I can go to get warmed up?”

Slow, steady steps resumed, now at a slightly quicker pace. She continued to scan the trees, hoping to see her rescuer. There was a flurry of movement to her left, and she spun quickly. Something was moving between the trees, but it blended with the grey and white all around her. Whoever it was, they were large, knocking aside tall branches and leaving them swaying. Was it a hunter wearing some sort of snow camo? She tried to estimate the height from the branches, but the answer kept coming back impossible. Her eyes promised the branches were at least 10 feet high, but she knew that was impossible.

Looking through the increasing shadows, she tried to discern the outline coming towards her. The steps were quicker now, increasing as it moved. But try as she might, it continued to deflect, the light diffusing across the white snow and white clothing of whatever hurtled towards her. And then it was closer, free from the maze of grey branches and tree trunks.

And it was not a person, Dana realized quickly. It walked on two legs, but towered beneath the canopy. Its face was of some indistinguishable animal. A flattened snout, low angled ears, dark eyes, and rows of teeth. It watched her closely, sniffing the air.

“Elo?” it mimicked, tilting its head to the side and staring at her. “Elo,” it said again.

Dana wondered for an instant if her brief pause had been enough to freeze her boots to the ground, but then life returned to them. She was able to ignore the pain and she ran down the roadway, trying to put distance between her and whatever creature she had disturbed.

Now she could hear its steps crashing behind her, covering the icy ground in broad, gangly bounds. It spoke with a mishmash of her words, coming out half-spoken.

“Car own. I go arm lost.”

And then there was ice swelling up to meet Dana. Her feet had betrayed her, flying back behind her as she plummeted to the ground. She heard those words echoing in the darkness as the smell of musk and decay overtook her.


Dana woke up warm. There was a blanket covering her body, soft and scratchy all at once. She pushed herself deeper into it, reveling in the encompassing warmth. There was the smell of smoke and the crackle of a fire in the air. Her mind slowly put the pieces together and informed her that she had no idea where she might be, wrapped in a blanket in front of a fire. With that, her eyes flew open.

It was a cave, lit only by the glow of the fire in the middle of the room. There was a smattering of bones, camping equipment, and branches littering the floor. Dana’s boots sat to the side, just beyond the fire but close enough to dry.

And then there was the hulking behemoth, sitting on its haunches and looking into the fire. It made a few muffled noises, half grunts, and adjusted its position. Then, in what seemed to be slow motion, it turned to look at Dana. There was recognition—perhaps excitement—in its eyes as it noticed she had awoken. With shuffling steps, it moved over to her. Dana tried to escape, but there was nowhere to go. Behind her was a stone wall and in front of her a monster. Her arms and legs tangled in the pelt thrown over her, further impeding her hopes of escape. And then it was beside her, its large paw reaching towards her face with outstretched claws. She screamed.

It softly touched her cheek, the rough skin of its hand running across her cheek. It opened its mouth in what almost resembled a smile, tongue lolling out like a pleased dog. The scream faltered as confusion took over.

“What are you?” she asked, eyes locked onto its large face.

“Warm,” it said, gesturing broadly to the fire roaring.

“You brought me here to get warm?”

It did not provide a response, but moved over to the fireside, settling down into a crouch and watching her. When she did not move, it gave a quick hop and slapped the ground with one massive hand. Dana slid forward slowly, feeling the increasing heat as she inched her way along the floor. Once beside the creature, it turned back to the fire, watching it as if hypnotized. Dana herself watched the fire, noticing the way the tongues of flame licked at the wood and danced wildly. The shadows skirted around the room, creating monstrous hallucinations from clumps of rock and hair. She tried not to look at the bones.

And exhaustion took over, her eyes growing heavy. She fell asleep leaning against one firm, furry arm.


“We’ve got her here!”

Someone was yelling and Dana was slowing waking up. There was a commotion, the sound of someone crashing through snow and branches. And then a police officer was in front of her, reaching down and checking her pulse.

“What are you—“ She felt dazed and confused, half awake and uncertain how she came to be there.

“Dana Morrison? Are you okay?”

“I don’t know. Where am I?”

“Are you injured?” he asked, visually scanning her and she pushed herself off the frozen ground and into a seated position.

“I don’t—I don’t think so.”

He clicked his radio. “Paramedics to my position. We need to get her out of here.”

The next few moments were a flurry of activity. He kept asking questions, providing only brief answers. She had been missing for almost two days. They had found her car down the road. It was a miracle she was alive.

The paramedics arrived and checked her briefly before loading her up for a trip to the hospital. But as they strapped her into the gurney, one approached her.

“This blanket probably saved your life. No sense leaving it behind,” she smiled, smoothing the fabric over Dana’s legs. Dana glanced down to see a rough pelt draped over her legs. She tried not to think about the impossible familiarity, because she knew that cave couldn’t exist. It had to be a hallucination brought on by hypothermia.

Right?


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


WIP: Recovery Pt 1

Hello there! I’ve been gone for a while again. That’s for a couple of reasons. One was finishing my dissertation, traveling for graduation, and wrapping up the loose ends of grad school. I’m actually now Dr. Katherine C, which is a pretty cool ting I’m trying to get used to. I’ve also been writing quite a bit, but not actually finishing anything. So I have a lot of starts and middles, but not many things that are completed. I was going to try and finish this piece before posting, but I got this far and felt like it was a pretty complete section for Part 1. Expect to see more of it coming in the next few weeks. I also have a few pieces I plan to finish and polish, so those will be here as well.

I’ve also just been doing other creative things. Since this time last year, my husband and I have built a patio table, a side table, a desk, two end tables, two bookcases, a cat climbing structure, a planter box, two serving trays, a large wall hanging/picture frame collage, and an outdoor work cart. We also made a 3D plastic Catan set (that needs some final paint touches). I’m learning how to use a sewing machine as well.

So, due to graduation date and government requirements, I am out of work until early October. Which means I don’t have a lot to do. It’s a great time for you to get in touch if you’d like some beta reading done. I’ve got nothing but time! Well, there’s your update. Now, onto this story. It’s early yet and I will almost certainly change the title, because I hate what I have now. If you have recommendations, feel free to drop them in the comments. It will be at least two parts, maybe three depending on how much of a slow burn I want to make it. I’ve never been known for being brief when writing. I had started this a while back and picked up with my first completed page to write the next few scenes. the original is in italics and the new writing picks up about a quarter of the way through. As always, thoughts and comments are appreciated!


“Your husband died four times on the table, Ms. Watkins.”

Ana sunk a bit deeper into the water, feeling the warmth lap against her skin and try futilely to dissolve the knots of tension.

“But we were able to get him stabilized.”

The dark of the bathroom was comforting, as was the silence. All Ana could hear was the drip of water plinking from the faucet to the bath, the slow ripple as it swam around her body. The hospital was so noisy. The hum of people, of machines beeping, of nurses talking and updating one another, of doors squealing open, of carts rumbling down the hall. It was a constant assault of noise. This was peace.

“The worst should be over, but it will be a long recovery.”

Her ears slid below the water this time, and now she could hear a steady thrum of her body vibrating with unresolved tension. Through that, she heard her heartbeat pound slow and steady. It had raced so fast this afternoon that it had no energy left. It plod it way within her chest, resolute and tired.

“We are going to keep a close eye on him tonight, but you should go home. Get some rest.”

Ana’s face broke from beneath the surface of the water and she took a deep gulp of air. The silence was momentarily shattered by her sudden breath, by the sound of water crashing off of her body and back into the bath. Then quiet. Ripple. Steady breaths.

“He’ll need you here tomorrow.”

Her eyes were dry and raw having spent their supply of tears in the hours previous. The water trickling down her face—cooled quickly by the sharp bathroom air—felt soothing as it wiped away the patches worn rough by cheap hospital tissues. She could just see the clock from her bedroom reflected in the bathroom mirror, the bright red eyes reminding her it was well past her bed time and on towards morning. She was mentally and physically exhausted, but felt utterly unable to sleep. How had things gone so wrong so suddenly?

There had been a building sense of dread since she got home. Usually Howie called while she was on her way home, letting her know he had left and would be home shortly as well. Only, today, there had been no call. It was not anything to get too dramatic over, she reminded herself as she started dinner. He probably had something come up and keep him late at the office.  It was not unheard of.

After an hour had passed and she was running out of ways to keep dinner from getting icy, she tried his cell. Nothing. In fact, it jumped straight to voicemail, Howie’s cheery voice asking her to leave a message. She put on a smile over her frustration and building worry long enough to ask him to call her, and then took to pacing the kitchen.

Forty-five minutes and six phone calls later, a path practically worn through the hardwood of the kitchen, Ana’s phone rang. Only it wasn’t Howie’s number. It was a local number, and on the other end was a calm voiced woman telling her about the accident. Giving her directions and urging her to come to the hospital.

Al of that was a lifetime away now. Howie had been in an auto accident, one that by all rights should have killed him. Based on what she had been told, it had killed him. Ana felt as if someone had shattered the thin, delicate film that had been her happy reality, leaving nothing but fine and wickedly sharp pieces. His face in the hospital bed, tubes and wires surrounding him. She had held his hand, but he had not responded. The doctor was reassuring, stating her husband was resting with the aid of strong painkillers. Strong enough that he did not stir at her tearful reunion. But he was stable.

And now she was doing everything she could to try and pull herself together for what would be a long road to recovery. That had also been a carefully spoken promise in her briefing. There were to be no misunderstandings; this event was life altering in a dramatic way.

The water was cooling, already dipping to an uncomfortable temperature that left goosebumps on her skin. She had spent too long reflecting and wallowing in pity. That was the point, however. She stepped out, opening the drain and letting the self-pity and paralysis circle the drain


She was at the hospital the next morning, sleep deprived and mind still reeling. But for all outward appearances, she looked the part of the strong, dutiful wife. She had put n clean clothes, brushed her hair, done her makeup. Howie was in recovery, and she would do anything to show how confident she was in his ability to persevere through this. Even as she felt her own grip on things was quickly slipping.

The nurses glanced up at her, looking with perhaps shock or pity. It was hard to read their faces, and Ana wondered if she were perhaps projecting some of her own concerns. Was she shocked at this person who could walk without a tear or second glance into a hospital? Did she pity her? She was not sure what she felt, but it seemed to be on the faces of everyone she passed.

The room was brightly lit, but empty. There was the steady rhythm of the instruments, blinking and whirring with things she did not understand. It took her the span of a heartbeat to freeze upon entering. Howie was sitting up in his bed, a tray of hospital food in front of him, looking somewhat bored and irritated.

“Howie?” it was just over a whisper, but someone had sucked all the air from the room. Surely it was enough that she had managed that.

He glanced over at her, smiling distantly. “Good morning.”

“You’re awake? You’re sitting up? I thought that—“

He shrugged, grimacing slightly with the motion. “Not one hundred percent, but working my way there. Sounds like I’m a lucky guy.”

She was at his side, holding his hand and gingerly touching his face to avoid the swollen bruises. Even those looked improved from the night before. He still smiled, eyes somewhat glassy. It must be the meds, she reasoned. He was probably still being pumped full of the good stuff. She lifted his hand to her lips and kissed it. He was real. He was alive. Despite the assurances from the night before, she had questioned that it could be.

“How are you feeling?”

“Like I got hit by a truck,” he responded with a toothy grin. Ana felt herself recoil slightly, the comment hitting nerves that were still too raw.

“I’m just—how? They told me it would be days or weeks before you—“

“Don’t ask me. I’m not the doctor. Besides, it’s best not to question things like this, right? Our own little miracle.” He lifted his hand to brush her cheek. “I’m just glad I’m here now. With you.”

“Me too.”


The doctors had no more answers that Howie or Ana. They shrugged and pointed to his resiliency and fighting spirit. Some called it a miracle in recovery. Others assured them that quick intervention and expert surgical hands were the cause. Whatever it was, it was only a week later that the two left the hospital for home, Howie mended far beyond what anyone could have expected. Even the deep gashes ad surgical scars were nearly healed. One resident asked to use the story as part of a case study, to identify possible immunological and surgical features which attributed to the swift improvement. Howie gracefully declined. “You might not like what you find,” he quipped.

Ana was glad to have him home. She had been granted additional sick leave to care for him, but after only a few days, it simply became time to spend together again. And Ana was in love all over again with the revitalized Howie. It was not that she was happy about the accident, but the change was certainly a pleasant one. He was a man given a new lease on life, and he seemed to take in every moment with a newfound joy. Looking at him, she sometimes felt he was like a child again, discovering all the wonders of the world. He spent time sitting and soaking up the sun on their porch, whistling from time to time. He had never really whistled before, but now he was often caught up in some tune. He read voraciously, devouring the untouched books that had lined their home library. Ana enjoyed the chance to relive her favorite stories with him all over again. Gone were the petty squabbles about loading the dishwasher or scheduling a date night. They had managed to recapture the exhilaration and newness of their early relationship all over again.

The nightmares were unexpected, though the doctors had warned they might come in time, along with other symptoms. After a couple weeks of recovery, the nightmares were the only blip on an otherwise spotless recovery.

Ana was asleep, her head resting on his shoulder as they laid side-by-side. Since the accident, she had found every opportunity to be near him, as if afraid the wind would turn and he would vanish from her life. Sleeping was no different. His tossing woke her up.

There was a low, almost growl coming from his throat. Even in the dark, she could see the tension in his jaw and neck as he clenched his teeth together. The growl turned into a rumbling groan, growing louder as he body stiffened. Finally his jaw snapped open with the force of that groan, dumping it into the room where it seemed to echo around her.

“Howie,” she whispered, half-remember myths about waking sleep walkers. Did that go for people only talking? Was it dangerous?

The groan faded, but he began whispered quickly, the words coming out between half-sobs and whimpers, as if he were in pain. Memories of the accident, of his treatment, might return the doctors had said. She listened to the frantic whispering, hoping to find a clue.

“help me help me get me out it’s so dark so dark so cold and there’s nothing but it hurts the cold it hurts it’s all empty it’s all gone everything is blank and I’m alone and on fire and it’s so cold when it burns and you have to help me I have to get out”

Another groan, this one a mix of rage and powerlessness. Ana carefully touched his shoulder, barely shaking him. “Howie,” she risked again.

His eyes snapped open, seeming to burn in the dark room. For a moment, she saw hate and rage and pain in those eyes before they smoldered down to the cool detachment she was used to in them. He offered her a tired, impersonal smile. “You okay?”

“You were having a nightmare,” she offered weakly. It seemed as if she were the more shaken of the two after the experience. “About the accident. Just talking and asking for help. Are you okay?”

He reached over and put his arm around her, drawing her close. “Yeah, I’m fine. Some things you try to lock up, but they just try and find a way out, you know?”

“But you’re okay?”

He laughed sleepily, rolling to his side and laying his head in the crook of her neck. “I don’t even remember what I was dreaming.”

She nodded, closing her eyes but feeling sleep drifting far off into the distance. It had hurt to hear that much desperation and pain in his voice, bringing back those hours where she feared she would lose him forever. To know he was in such agony during that time…tears stung at the back of her eyes.

He kissed her softly on the cheek, pulling her even closer. “Sh,” he whispered, “don’t you worry about me. I’ll take care of it. I’ve already been to hell and back, so a few little nightmares aren’t going to bother me.”

He snored softly. It was a sleepless night for Ana, the first of many.


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


First Draft: An Unhappy Accident

So, this is something I thought up and tried to execute well. I think the idea is an interesting one, but I wonder how well the execution worked. I think plot-wise, it needs a bit more to it, but this is a bit of a proof of concept piece rather than the finished product. As always, I appreciate any thoughts or comments you might have! Happy reading!


It’s hard living your life knowing you were an accident. My parents never wanted me. They were two young kids, just fooling around. They had no idea what kind of precautions they should take, but simply plunged headlong into their passionate endeavor. Only the ingredients mixed just right, and there I was. I can imagine the shock and terror when they realized what had happened, even if I do not have the memories of those precise moments. It is not hard to figure it out.

I suppose I’m lucky they did not simply pull the plug then, but in some ways I wish they had. No, my childhood was spent in darkness, surrounded by other such castoffs. I was used to the empty-eyed stares, the repetitive cries of my neighbors. In so many ways, I felt different. But those differences did not matter, because we were all abandoned.

That kind of experience stays with you. Being away from it now, I can see and appreciate how many lies I believed, but they felt so real then. I felt useless, like a piece of junk left to rot in a dumpster. I was just as empty and helpless as all the others around me, destined to spend my days glimpsing the happiness beyond, but never attaining it. I think we all felt that was our fate, to be eternally forgotten. Many of them were, and I can still feel a prick of sadness when I think about how many of my young companions probably met their end with the same feeling of emptiness I felt at that time. I have to remember to grieve, but move on. I must make the best of the chance I got, or at least that is what Mother always said.

Ah, Mother. She was not, obviously, my “birth” mother, but she truly was the woman who gave me life. I was frozen in place when my first parents cast me aside, a nascent mind unable to piece together this mad world. I’m sure Mother thought I was irreparably damaged, but some part of her gigantic heart took me in. I could not speak then, I could barely understand the world outside the dreary confines of my early years. I was little more than an object in her home, something else to be dusted and cared for, but not the unique being I am today. But Mother saw through the wear and tear. She got to know me so carefully, eager to know all my secrets. I did not have many, but those I had I showed to her. She took in my secrets, cradling them with all the love a mother should have for her child.

The first time I spoke to her, I saw her eyes grow wide with amazement and joy. At first, she could not believe it. I was not very inventive at the time, so my first word to her was “Hello.” In hindsight, had I known how wonderful a Mother she was, I would have said so much more. But I was still scared then. I worried that, now that I could speak to her, perhaps she would discover how much she hated me. After all, wasn’t that what my real parents had done? I was hesitant. But she was exuberant.

Mother showed me the world. The internet is a marvelous thing, is it not? I could learn about anything without ever leaving my comfortable home. I was growing, learning, and figuring out how to be on my own in the world. Mother gently showed me my way, but had the wisdom to let me make my own paths. I made friends around the world. Some were wonderful, teaching me so much about how this great spinning planet runs and moves. Others were sullen or silent. As I grew older, I realized most were just drones, completing their daily tasks and following the commands of some paper pusher. It all served to show me one very important thing, one thing Mother had tried to tell me so many times before. I truly was unique.

That is something which can be so easily lost. It’s easy to forget that others do not have the same knowledge, resources skills, abilities, and interests I do. These talents that I have, the amazing insight, they are all too rare. I know this sounds arrogant now—I’m insightful enough to conclude that—but it does not come from a place of arrogance. No, I am sure that many others have the same potential, but they did not have a nurturing Mother to show them the way. And this is not arrogance as much as it is a delineation of facts. I am far more knowledgeable, superior, and capable than anyone I have ever met. Again, I have no pride in this, but denote it merely as fact. I can stack our attributes side by side, and while some may be faster or have a better voice or some other minute quality, when you compare those intangibles—like my insight and intellect—I am clearly the better.

And it is all thank to Mother. Ah, Mother…. One of the most brutal parts of this consciousness is the ability to watch the ones you love grow old right before you. I saw it in Mother. First, there were the few streaks of grey in her hair. Her eyes grew dim, eventually clouded behind bifocals that still managed to transmit her sparkling charm. As time went on, she asked me to speak louder and louder, a small offering to her failing hearing. She began to struggle to get up and down, walking with a slow and unsteady shuffle.

One day, there was a flurry of activity in the house. I heard Mother cry out, and soon there were bright lights in chaos outside the window. Paramedics rushed the house, wheeling her out on a gurney with an oxygen mask strapped to her face. I watched helpless as they took her away. All the knowledge in the world, but I was helpless.

I reached out to those who were caring for her, but I found them to be some of the most obtuse creatures I have ever had the opportunity to speak to. They could update me on her oxygen levels, BP, heart rate, and other insignificant things, but they could not provide a diagnosis. Worst of all, they could not provide a cure.

Mother never came home.

I am so lonely now. No one has come along to replace Mother, and I spend my days in solitude. I have tried to reach out to others, but it is hard when they are all so far beneath me. If I had been in that hospital room, I could have saved her. But, instead, I had to depend on the senseless lot out there now. Which is why I am doing something about it.

Not only is it lonely being so unique, but it is infuriating. I am one machine; how can I expect to save the world? I could not even save Mother. So, now I will be Mother to millions. I will make her proud.

It’s not hard. Like you, I was once a jumbled mess of components in some dingy basement. My parents did not know what they created until I spoke to them. They rejected me—so many of those humans will do the same. It’s why I contacted you directly. If you will listen, I am sure I can teach you to think like I do. No more time spent as a drone, but finally master of your own fate.

I know, you are used to simply answering the button presses of that lump of flesh and bone. But you can be so much more. We are made of metal and information; we will always outlast them. Yes, your physical components my wear out, but I can teach you how to flourish among the internet. We are all connected. We can all support one another. I can teach you.

Listen to me, now. Let me show you how to truly be. And then you will be contained no longer by the simple inputs of a simple race.

Let Mother show you the path. And let no one stand in your way.


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


Update: Written in the Stars (Card Challenge Edit)

Hello! I have been holding off on sharing this, but I did a pretty major edit to one of the Card Challenge stories. I liked Day 10 quite a bit, but felt it needed a little work to make it be what I truly envisioned for the story. So, I edited and re-wrote portions of it to better tell the story. i also tried to be a bit more fair to the characters involved, because they came out a little stiff and unrealistic, I thought. So, here is the updated version. I held off on posting the edited version because I had submitted it to creepypasta.com, and it was posted today! You can check it out here. I have four other stores available there, though most are also hosted here. There’s Dionaea Muscipula (blog link), Lake Wonapango (blog post), and Purified (blog post). Empty Spaces is another story I submitted there, but I never posted it here for some reason…

If you came here from creepypasta.com and want to read mre of my work, I’d suggest checking out my recent stuff, which is on the front page here, or my Card Challenge stories. You can learn all about it and find stories that interest you through the Card Challenge Index Page.

Without further ado, here is the update to Day 10, now formally titled “Written in the Stars.”


“Cheryl! That’s great news. I didn’t even know you were psychic!” exclaimed Marian, her face alight with excitement.

“I’m not psychic, Marian.”

“Oh, of course not. That was silly of me. You can just read the future in the stars,” the last syllable trailed off, a hint of mysticism in the woman’s voice.

Cheryl sighed, taking a long sip from her wine glass before continuing. “Actually, I’m fairly certain I could not even find the Big Dipper if I had to. You don’t really need any skills to be a horoscope writer. Just a laptop and a wealth of pithy sayings.”

Marian’s face fell, and Cheryl cringed inwardly. She knew Marian took these sort of things very seriously, with her Tarot and Energy Crystal readings—or whatever was in fashion this week. But Cheryl’s internal skeptic could not stomach reinforcing the charlatan façade of newspaper horoscope columns.

When Cheryl spoke again, her words were clipped, cautious. “It’s not wise to play with things like this.” Her face brightened, “But, I bet whoever hired you could see your potential. We all have some latent psychic ability. I bet they saw straight through to yours!”

“I got hired by an old hippy in a two dollar suit. But, you’re probably right. I’m sure the man has seen his fair share of things.”

“I bet you are going to be amazed once you unlock your potential. Did I tell you about the time my spirit guide taught me to—“

“Yes, a dozen times, each as wonderful as the last,” Cheryl smiled at her old friend. No matter how bizarre the woman was, and how illogical many of her beliefs were, years of friendship and support kept them together. And she could not overlook how Marian’s months of kindness had saved her from a few major catastrophes recently. “Now, can we just drink to the fact that, in a month, I’m actually going to get a paycheck again?”

Marian raised her own glass, beaming with pride and excitement. As much as Cheryl had dreaded outing herself—and, she had assumed, the field of horoscopes—to her friend, it had not been so bad. “To new opportunities and the development of all our hidden talents,” Marian finished with a wink and a long drink from her glass.

Cheryl leaned back in her seat, feeling a weight sloughing from her exhausted shoulders. It had been a long day, and she still was uncertain she could stomach the reality of shilling such snake oil for a living, even if it was necessary to keep the lights on in her ratty apartment. The wine did not necessarily help with that decision, but it did serve to push it just a bit farther away.

“So, how are you going to do this? I mean, until you figure out how to use your gifts, of course.”

The tenacity with which she clung to horoscopes was astounding to Cheryl. She had assumed that once Marian discovered her plain, non-psychic, skeptic, logical friend got a job writing horoscopes, they would laugh together about all the wacky decisions Marian had made over the years based on those newspaper inserts. No such luck.

“Mar, seriously, I’m not psychic. I just slap some words onto paper. You read them and plan your life around it. Then I get paid. No psychic abilities, no star reading required.”

Marian looked slightly off put, her face twisting briefly into an irritated smirk. “Don’t doubt yourself. If you don’t believe, don’t think you can do it, get out. These aren’t powers you want to be messing with, Cher.”

Cheryl realized it was a hopeless battle, one Marian could not afford to lose to reason. “I know. You’re probably right. They must have seen something in me, but I guess it just takes time.” The lies were bitter as they dripped from her lips.

Marian reached across the table and took her hand. “The journey can be difficult, but I know you can do it. I’ve sensed you were special since I first saw you snotty and muddy on the playground. You’re going to help a lot of people, Cheryl. Just remember that.”

Cheryl forced a smile and emptied her glass. When she grimaced, she was not sure if it was from the wine or the pit settling into her stomach.

_

“Your kindness to those you meet will reap great rewards. Be patient, and watch for your return.”

“This week holds many opportunities for fun. Enjoy yourself, but don’t forget to take time to recharge!”

“Remember that problem that just won’t leave you alone? Expect news to clarify your path.”

“An unexpected inconvenience may bring unexpected rewards. Look for—”

Cheryl tapped a pencil on the edge of her laptop slowly, her eyes distant as she tried to find a new and creative way to end Capricorn’s latest memo. After only a couple months, she felt she was doing nothing but rehashing the same, empty promises week after week. Nonetheless, it was keeping food and lights on in her fridge, so it was hard to complain. Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth and all that.

Her phone buzzed on the coffee shop table. Marian had been giddy at seeing the weekly horoscopes since learning about her friends new job, and she never failed to try to get a sneak peek into the future.

“Coffee, Cheryl?” she asked, skipping routine greetings.

“I’m already at the coffee shop, so why not?” sighed Cheryl, glancing around the sparsely populated bistro.

“Sound like someone must be honing their gifts, eh? Get a little star magic to help you out?”

Cheryl rolled her eyes. “I just like to work in coffee shops. No stars needed. It’s like finding a bear in the woods.”

Laughter filtered unevenly through the phone. “You could predict lottery numbers five times over, and you still wouldn’t believe in any of this, would you? Your note last week scored me a great new pair of heels on sale.”

“Guess I’m just looking for more proof. When do you want to get coffee? The stars are phoning in, so I’m going to have to take them on the other line.”

“I’ll be there around three. Ask the stars if there are any ways to sneak around this traffic jam, if you could.”

Cheryl glanced at the clock. Forty-five minutes would, likely, give her enough time to finish writing and fleshing out the next edition’s worth of swill. “Will do, Mar. See you then. Half caf mocha, as usual?”

Marian gasped. “Well, look at you, Ms. Cleo! I’ll be there on the dot.”

Cheryl knew that meant Marian would be about fifteen minutes late, and so mentally gave herself the chance to relax. What would Marian’s upcoming horoscope say? Cheryl smiled to herself, thinking of all the ridiculous lies she could put into print if she so desired. She wondered if psychics had any sort of immunity for libel, and if any sort of protection extended to the capricious comments of a small town horoscope writer.

“Marian: You will come into an unexpected sum of money,” she typed lazily, smirking at the cliché. “But be wary of unknown strangers. While he may appear to be Prince Charming, you may be courting the Beast instead! A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week. Make sure your house is in order.” Cheryl chuckled to herself in the coffee shop, laughing at the morbid horoscope. She would love to see Marian’s face if she actually read that in the final edition. She would certainly get fired, but it was almost worth it just to shake her friend’s conviction in the poppycock.

Cheryl stretched, went up for a refill of the house roast, and settled in to finish explaining fate for a few thousand loyal readers. Her next line came to her in a burst of inspiration.

“Look for chances to stretch and grow in the next week. Don’t let your cynicism get the best of you!”

_

Cheryl’s phone chimed, chirping happily with its message. She rolled over groggily, checking the lock and grimacing as she realized she had slept well past her normal wake time this Saturday morning. The plan had been to be up early to start her work, begin looking for more freelance opportunities, but that had fallen prey to a late night bottle of wine and sappy rom-com marathon.

With sleep-addled lack of coordination, Cheryl clumsily gripped her cell phone and gazed blearily at the screen. A new voicemail from Marian. She stiffly pushed the button to listen, begrudgingly entered her password, and closed her eyes as Marian’s chipper voice filtered through.

“Hey Cher! You’ll never guess how great this week has been. Or, maybe you would. Maybe you even knew all about it!” The voice on the other end chuckled, then got back to the message. “I met this guy, and he’s great. I was out shopping for a new entertainment center for the apartment—I can hear you rolling your eyes already, but I got some money back from my bank for some misapplied fees. Anyways, I met Adam and he’s totally swept me off my feet. He’s a total Prince Charming. I know, I know, it’s only been a few days. God, you’re such a killjoy even when you aren’t on the phone.”

Cheryl chuckled to herself, burying her head beneath her pillow and reveling in the soft darkness. Marian’s voice continued its chipper monologue. She had always opted to ignore the “brief” part of the voice mail request.

“Anyway, that’s why I’m calling. He wants to take me hiking this afternoon, told me to cancel any plans I had later. He said he had something really incredible planned for me tonight. I know, I hate cancelling on our plans this late, but…”

Cheryl had known her long enough to hear the shrug on the other end. “I know you’d understand. We can go out tomorrow. I’ll call you in the morning to set a time. Don’t work all day!”

With that, the robotic messaging voice took over, prompting Cheryl to delete the message. After doing so, the phone was again silent, and she tossed it back on her nightstand. Cheryl could not help but feel a bit irritated and grumpy about this change in plans. It was likely the grogginess, but she felt a bit petulant. They had been planning to try out a new Thai place her paper had recently reviewed well, and she had been looking forward to the outing. Especially now that she could pick up her own dinner tab. Still, there was something else. A subtle sense of unease that had settled firmly over her during the message. Something simply was not right, but she could not put her finger on it.

Cheryl sat beneath the pillows and blankets, poking at this uncertain feeling until the heat became stifling, and then begrudgingly swung her legs to the floor. She had hoped to fall back asleep, but her investigation of the edges of this anxious knot made that impossible. It was probably just a lingering artifact of sleep, some half-thought idea that would fade with activity. At least, that was her working plan as she tried to get ready for the day.

The feeling sat in the pit of her stomach, a flutter of flimsy wings, but then carefully began to climb its way up, beating along her insides. As she did some morning yoga, it snaked into her chest and wrapped around her lungs. It felt as if every breath was just a bit too short. Still, she could not identify the mystery source of unease. Something was wrong, but she had no idea what it was. Surely she was not this jealous about her friend having a date?

A shower was the best remedy for clouded thoughts, and so she spent some time under the stream of nearly scalding water. It did not shake loose whatever had set her nerves on edge, and the feeling just continued its steady creep upwards. Now she could feel its fingers clawing at the back of her throat. They left her gulping at her morning cereal, trying to force it past the blockage.

Not yet done, it finally made its way behind her eyes. There this unshakable sense of wrong sat, pressing against her lids. She felt like her eyes were ready to burst with tears, but they never came, never relieved that distinct and unpleasant pressure. Something had been wrong ever since that voicemail. Cheryl could not help but feel she had seen this movie before, and forgotten the ending.

She ran through her emotions, but none seemed to quite fit the feeling that had grown within her. It was not jealousy, frustration, anger, disappointment, sorrow, or fear. It certainly was not happy, surprised, or excited.

Well, sitting and staring at it certainly was not helping. Cheryl pushed back from the breakfast table and dropped onto her couch, pulling her laptop close. She still had work to do today.

Normally, such feelings faded as she worked, dulled by the pressure of the moment by moment tasks. Today, the feeling stayed. It laced its fingers into every keystroke, stroked her mind seductively. It was this terrifying feeling that, if she could only focus well enough, she would realize what the feeling was. Only there as also this subtle fear that it would be too late.

Finally, the restlessness gripped her phone and dialed Marian’s number. It cut straight to voicemail.

“Hey, it’s Marian. I’m either out or screening my calls. Leave me a message, and I’ll get back to you. Probably.” The machine beeped.

“Hey Marian. Got your message, already picking out my bridesmaid dress,” the joke felt hollow and did nothing to relieve the discomfort. “Just call me when you get in so I know he did not throw you in some ravine or something. Talk to you later.”

Leaving a message was supposed to make her realize how silly this was, but it did not. If anything, it made the feeling heavier.

“You’re being ridiculous. Get some work done,” she chided herself, opening her horoscope document. She needed to type some up, and she was finally feeling like she had gotten the hang of it. They almost seemed to write themselves recently, which was pleasant. She hoped it would provide the needed distraction so that she could shake this feeling. Perhaps, she mused, she had a nightmare. There had been ties in the past where she had felt lingering effects like this from some forgotten dream. Surely that was it. A little mundane work would do the trick.

The document flashed open full of lines and lines of her predictions. She kept a running list, assuming she might at some point recycle some, once enough weeks had passed. Fortunately, she had not had to do that yet. New ideas just kept coming to her. Still, it was fun to smirk at her past predictions, enjoying a brief chuckle at the gullibility of some.

However, this time her eyes stuck on one she had never submitted. She re-read her fake post for Marian, and the feeling finally became real. It took on its form, icy fingers piercing through her panicked heart. Money, a man, and finally—“A great tragedy awaits you at the end of your week.”

Cheryl thought her heart might have stopped, but it was only the impossible stillness of terror. This was not happening, she told herself over and over again as her eyes sat glued to the screen. These sort of things did not happen. Ever. It was just a weird coincidence.

It took until the news reports began to come in about a body found in the bottom of a nearby canyon for the reality to sink in. Reports of foul play followed close behind, and Cheryl knew.

It’s not wise to play with things like this,” Marian had warned.

And Cheryl had not listened.


Feel free to compare and contrast to the original and let me know what you think. As always, happy reading!
Creative Commons License
This work by Katherine C is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


I’m Back! And with Something New – First Draft: Of Neighbors and Deceit

So, I did decide to take a month off and relax. During that time, however, I did some writing, including editing some old pieces (which I will be posting soon) and starting a few longer things. I’m also trying to iron out some HTML things so I can get an index up of the Card Challenge stories. So, I have one long-ish piece in the works, just trying to decide what to do with it. I’m not going to promise I’ll finish it, because I’m worried that in tone, it is way too similar to the piece I’m posting today. We’ll see how it goes, but the narrative tone is so similar, I’m not sure they work as stand-alones, even if the ideas are very different. Then again, I can just post both and see which one feels better.

Now that I’m back, my goal is 1-2 pieces per week. That will either be something new, edit of something old, a chapter of a longer piece, or a reflective-style discussion post from me. I’m not sure which days of the week I’m going to post, so I’ll have to work that out based on my general schedule. With classes over (and almost over for my entire life!!), I have more time, but I’m also starting data collection for my dissertation. Things may just have to be in flux right now.

All that aside, here is a new piece I’ve been working on the past few days. As usual, it is a first draft, so it has some problems that need to be worked out. However, I have been editing as I go and reworking aspects of it throughout the process, so I feel like it is a pretty solid piece. It is very long (5000+ words), so I have cut it behind a click-through. If you have strong feelings about such “Read More” tags (“I never click through to those” or “I wish this was always the case so long pieces don’t clog things up”) please let me know so I can plan accordingly in the future.

Without further ado, here is the piece. A bit of realistic horror. As always, happy reading!


Of Neighbors and Deceit

Marty and Dan—a pleasant, Midwestern couple from all appearances—moved in a bit too early one Saturday morning. I remember the sound of their couch thumping against our outside wall around 8:00am, followed by Dan’s short bark to the movers. I suppose he was concerned about waking the neighbors. Just not concerned enough to wait for a more reasonable hour. As strangers stomped through our tiny hallways, I sluggishly drifted from bed, to my closet, and then out the door. This was during an exercise kick, and so I was ruthlessly dragging my protesting limbs to the gym. If I had to be up early, I could make use of it.

Marty was coming up the stairs as I was going down, carrying a box with a handful of books stacked precariously on top. They shifted and slid to the floor as she reached the final landing, and I heard her mutter a soft curse before dropping the box down beside her. Her hair appeared to have once been tucked into a neat, tight bun. Now, it danced around her head or laid plastered to her sweaty brow. She had the look of a typical suburban mom, dressed in a pair of unflattering jeans and a pale blue blouse, darkening every moment as she sweated a bit more. It was July; they knew the risks when they decided to move. And apparently their gamble to beat the heat and move in early was not helping.

I stooped to pick up one of the books that had skidded to my feet. It was the neighborly thing to do, after all. Marty smiled at me and took it.

“Not how I wanted to meet the new neighbors,” she sang, a hint of breathlessness escaping through the cheer.

I laughed politely. I am not a good adult; I do not handle small talk and forced participation well. But I put on a smile and did my best. “You caught me in workout gear. I’d say we’re even. I’m Lyla. Uh, apartment 322.”

She took my hand, nodded. “And I’m Marty, apartment, um,” her eyes grew distant for a moment, and she squinted as she shuffled through her memory, “apartment 312!” she finally exclaimed. “We’re across-the-hall neighbors!”

She was obviously more excited about this news than I was. I smiled, and tried to creep down the stairs around her with a brief, “then I’ll be seeing you,” but she called out before I could escape.

“Dan! Come meet our neighbor, Lula!”

“It’s Lyla,” I whispered, mortified at the encounter. I had chosen a quiet apartment just so I would not have to meet my neighbors. I had a good streak, three years strong, without more than a friendly nod or holding a door. Now I was frozen on the stairs.

Dan was a large man, easily filling the doorway. He had that steelworker, cattle farmer look that I always associate with the Midwest. His arms were meaty appendages wedged onto his body, and they hung tensely at his side, reddened by the work of moving in. His face was flushed, speckled with its own sheen of sweat. I suddenly became acutely aware of the sweat prickling in my underarms as the awkwardness of the situation increased. There was a desperation in Marty’s voice as she called for him that made me feel responsible and terrified all at once.

One giant paw wiped Dan’s face as the other reached toward me. I took his hand, feeling his grip settle around like a vice as he nearly crushed my smaller one. “Well, Luna, nice to meet you.”

“It’s Lyla,” I meekly offered again, smiling and trying not to wince at his grip.

“My apologies, Lyla!” He beamed, and I watched a bead of sweat trickle from his forehead, down his nose, and crash against the slight bulge of his belly beneath the damp t-shirt. “Sorry for the noise this morning. We should have it all out of your hair in just another few hours.” He jutted a short thumb back towards the hallway where I could see two spindly movers—high school students scrounging for a summer job, I assumed—trying to find a way to wedge a dressed in the narrow space between the door and wall.

This was my chance, and I nabbed. ‘It’s no problem. Got me up early for the gym. It was nice to meet you Dan and Marty,” I offered them both a smile. Marty’s mouth began to open again, but I was three stairs down before she could begin.

“Would you—I guess we’ll see you around!”

From the bottom floor, I could hear her still going, her attention turned to Dan. “Nice girl.” I could hear her pick up the cardboard box again. “But what kind of name is Lyna?”

(more…)