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First Draft: When Nothing Happened

The end for our town came with neither the promised bang nor whimper. It came with silence, presumably sometime in the middle of the night when most of us were sleeping and those few awake were focused on other, seemingly more important, things. I don’t know who first discovered what was happening, but everyone knew something must be wrong when the internet stopped working. No one in town could get a signal in or out. Cell towers must be down, was the first thought. Or maybe some big power outage in the local big city. Our small town was mostly just a parasite, sucking down resources from the city to thrive in relative isolation. But that also meant that anything happening there without fail trickled over to us in due time. And with the internet down, there was no immediate way to figure out what that might be.

Things for me, at least, took a turn from annoying to bizarre when Judy Calvin stumbled in to the local diner—I was in there for my morning coffee before trudging down to the local grocery to start my shift. She worked in the city doing something—accounting, maybe? But she came in that morning looking pale and wide-eyed. Without a word, she slipped into a booth, sliding her bag and jacket across from her. From a distance, I could see her lips moving, but as far as I could tell she wasn’t saying a word. It was certainly an unsettling sight to see. I usually ran into her at the local farmer’s market, smiling and bubbly with an arm load of produce. This was certainly different.

Lorene, co-owner and unshakeable waitress at the greasy spoon, made her way over to the table with a pot of coffee and a tepid smile. Customer service, always, but caution most of all. Lorene had seen her fair share of bad stuff—being on the edge of town meant she had seen a lot of trash tumble in and out in her time.

“Looks like a rough morning, Judy,” she began, pouring a cup of coffee without waiting for the request. “Need me to get anyone?”

Judy’s eyes swung up to look at Lorene, and finally sound starting to trickle out of her lips. I still was too far away to hear clearly, and judging by Lorene’s face, she wasn’t faring much better.

“Sorry, what now, hun? Do you need me to call David? Maybe see if someone can take you down to Doc Linehan this morning? You don’t look so good and—“

The volume increased, now a frantic whisper that snaked across the surprisingly quiet diner. Everyone seemed to be straining to hear. We were a small town, so gossip was mostly our lifeblood. And this would be a story worth a few rounds of drinks at The Watering Hole later on.

“The road is gone.” Those were the first words I heard. The first sign to me that this was something more than small town gossip. She hadn’t hit a hitchhiker with her car, come across a deer carcass, or been chased by some local hoodlums. She had either had a significant mental break, or something unheard of was going on. I’m writing this down for posterity, so I guess you can imagine which it was.

“I was driving to work, and it just disappeared. It was there, and then there was nothing. I was in the nothing. The road is gone. It’s just gone.” Her voice was steadily rising in volume as she spoke, and I watched as my fellow nosy patrons began to shift with the same discomfort rolling through me.

“There’s nothing there!” she yelled now, then took a deep breath. “Nothing.” With that, she quieted again, back to the silent whispers that echoed only in her own mind. Lorene stepped away from the table, her normally imperturbable demeanor showing just the hint of a crack. “Lucas,” she snapped to the boy behind the counter trying to look busy refilling patron’s coffee mugs that had evaporated under his distracted gaze. “I need you to call Doc Linehan and Sheriff Marsh. I think Judy might need some help.”

“But the phone’s are down,” he replied dumbly.

I had always admired the steel in Lorene, and it came out now. “Well, we got someone here who needs help. I suggest you start running to town and get back as quick as you can.”

The boy pulled off his apron and set aside the coffee in an instant, spurred into movement by her decisive leadership.

“And Doris,” called Lorene as she made her way behind the counter.” Doris’s grey-haired head peaked from kitchen window, as if she hadn’t been listening the whole time. “Get a breakfast plate rolling for Mrs. Calvin here.” As she turned back to the counter, I heard her mutter under her breath, “There’s not much a full belly can’t at least help.” Then she took to wiping down the counter, one eyes watching Judy who only moved her lips in some silent chant.

I looked at my watch. Assuming Lucas kept his pace—and I somehow had no doubt he would—it would be at least 20 minutes before he returned. Assuming, of course, the Sheriff was in the station and Doc was not meeting with a patient already. That would put me at least 10 minutes late for my shift. I knew I needed to leave, but also knew that this was the kind of event Mack would understand me missing for. Or, if not, at least the kind of event that meant my shifts at the grocery would mean very little very soon.

I sipped my coffee—Lorene refilled it without ever looking at me. The diner had gone quiet with everyone waiting for the mystery to unfold. My money was on drugs, then. Someone had slipped something into Judy’s breakfast, leaving her to experience a fantastically upsetting trip halfway on the way to work. But there was something about her demeanor, the silence and terror, that left some primal doubt wriggling in my mind. Lorene took the plate from the window after a few minutes, setting it gently on the table in front of Judy who never looked at it.

In fifteen minutes, the chime over the door rang and Lucas strolled in with the Sheriff and Doc Linehan. I had not estimated them hitching a ride in the Sheriff’s cruiser, though I suppose I should have. For a moment, I felt more at ease knowing the professionals were here now to sort out what was going on. But that faded when I saw how serious the Sheriff looked. He knew something about this, and he didn’t like it. Doc Linehan followed behind a few steps, smiling at the patrons as she entered with that comforting smile she brought to all her patients. We were lucky she stuck around to start a practice, I suppose, when she could have made much more money opening up in some big hospital somewhere.

“Mrs. Davis,” said the Sheriff with a gentle tone that contrasted the determined look in his eyes. “I hear you may have seen something this morning—“

“The road’s gone, Tripp,” she said in a flat monotone, not looking up. Gone was the urgency, the desperation in her voice. The Sheriff glanced over at Doc, both of them exchanging knowing glances. Drugs, I felt the certainty increase.

“I was driving, and it was there. Then it wasn’t.”

“And where’s your car, Mrs. Davis?” he asked, cutting her off.

Now she turned to look at him, a fresh wave of terror washing over her features. “I—I got out to look. See what was going on. I only took a few steps away and it—it was gone, too.”

Sheriff Marsh sighed, then grabbed at the walkie on his shoulder. “Got another one, Jessi. Can you find Shawn Calvin? Have him come down to Lorene’s to pick up his wife.” He took a few steps away, pulling out the notebook he kept in his front pocket to jot down some notes. Doc Linehan slid into the booth next to Judy, her warm smile beginning to break through the layers of frozen terror holding her captive.  There was quiet, muted conversation before the doctor began to make a cursory exam. Checking pupils, taking temperature, measuring pulse, all while smiling.

I was truly late for my shift, but that seemed less important now. Judy was another. That meant something big was going on. However, it seemed unlikely I was going to learn much more here. Down the road—and clearly within walking distance—was where the real mystery lay.  I left a few dollars on the counter, waved at Lorene who didn’t seem to notice, and made my way out the door.

It was a nice morning—early fall, a bit cool, but sunny and pleasant. Outside of the diner, the intrigue began to fade. I probably owed it to Mack to show up and help him with the morning rush. He’d enjoy the gossip, I was sure, and I could catch up on it later. Being a busybody had never really suited me, even if that was the primary pastime in a small town. I already felt a bit ashamed of my open gawking in the diner. Here was someone having a rough time, and there was me staring at the sideshow.

Hands in pockets, I made my way back towards the center of town and the grocery store where I had worked since high school. It wasn’t much, but it was a living, as they said. Being single, childless, and living in a small town, I seemed like the perfect candidate to move about and try to strike it rich anywhere else. But I had inherited my parent’s house, knew the town, and had a stable, relatively stress-free job, I always figured I was already living the dream. Besides, what small town didn’t need a few cranky spinsters for the kids to someday call Old Witch So-and-So.  Live wasn’t glorious, but I certainly was happy.

I arrived at the grocery to see a few folks already waiting outside. The front doors were still locked, the lights were off. Mack lived a ways out of town on a piece of land large enough to nearly need its own postal code. He liked the isolation. But that meant if there was some sort of problem on the road, he’d be tied up. Maybe there was flooding out somewhere? I hadn’t heard any storms roll through last night, but weather had always been a bit fickle. Or maybe just some heavy fog bogging things down?

Heavy enough Judy Calvin lost her car in it? Whispered some doubting voice in the back of my mind, but I quieted it as I smiled at the soon-to-be customers.

“Morning, folks.”

“Cassie, finally, can you let us in? I’ve got to pick up a few things for the Town Hall lunch today and—“

I smiled and shrugged, effectively cutting off the conversation. “You know Mack as well as I do, Gloria. He’s not trusting the keys to the shop to anyone. Might make off with all the merchandise, ya’ know?”

She didn’t smile back, but crossed the gravel lot to her car. LuAnne and George were also waiting, but seemed satisfied enough with my response. I watched as George plugged in headphones and leaned against the wall. LuAnne simply sat on the hood of her car and watched the road, as if that would bring Mack in any sooner.

I glanced at my phone. Still no bars, still just as good as a paperweight. It was twenty minutes past opening now with no sign of Mack. He was probably trying to call, but not much good that would do him.

The autumn morning began shifting into a summer late morning. The sun was out in full force and began to bake the ground as I sat and waited. LuAnne and George had wandered off after a bit. Gloria had asked me four times if I could let her in, steaming a bit more each time. Finally she climbed into her car and said she’d drive to the city to get what she needed, but she’d let Mack know just what she thought about his service. I wished her well and waved her off. Now it was just me, waiting. It was an hour past opening and the lights stayed off.

I grabbed a newspaper from beside the door—yesterday’s edition, meaning whatever it was kept even the paper boy from making it in—and scribbled a note on it.

“Mack—been waiting here. I heard there’s problems on the road. Went to check with Sheriff Marsh. Be back soon. –C. “ I wedged it into the door, then began a slow walk back to the diner, the last place I had seen the sheriff. Lorene was at her post when I arrived, but the diner was far emptier than it had been.

“Do you know where the Sheriff went?” I asked as I entered the pleasantly cool establishment.

She smiled. “Took most of my customers with him to see what was what with this road issue. Headed that way,” she said, pointing out of town. Guess you’re off to sneak a peek as well.”

I shrugged. “Mack’s not here. Guess he must have gotten stuck, too. Didn’t know if the Sheriff had heard anything or if he had a key so I could open up for the day. Mack’d hate it, but, ya’ know, people need to eat.”

“That they do,” she said with a chuckle in her voice. “Well, best of luck.” Maybe the last bit of levity I can recall.

The road trailed down through some trees, and I followed it, staying to the side to avoid any oncoming traffic. But it was silent, only the sounds of birds chirping and squirrels darting through the underbrush. Quiet enough that I was stunned when I rounded a corner and stumbled across what seemed to be about a quarter of the town’s population. There was Gloria, gaping from beside her car. Looked like her trip to town turned out well. The Sheriff was there, staring ahead, along with a goodly number of my companions from the diner. Even Lucas had made his way down. And they were all staring at…nothing.

And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It wasn’t white or black or dark or anything it just wasn’t…anything. I can’t describe what nothing looks like because there aren’t any features to pin it on. It’s more like some deep level of consciousness that sees emptiness and knows. The road was there, and then it wasn’t. The trees waved in a breeze, limbs momentarily existing and vanishing as they crossed that invisible boundary. And we all stared, not sure what to make of this impossibility.

“What is it?” came the stupid question from my mouth. Lucas opened and closed his mouth. The Sheriff turned and looked at me. “Not sure. But seems like it’s got us a bit cut off.”

“I’d say. Anyone walked into it?”

“A few folks, those that got surprised by it. I think Mrs. Calvin said she spent a few minutes wandering in it before showing up at Lorene’s this morning,” said the Sheriff as if this were nothing more than a sudden rainstorm that cropped up.

“Does it—does it end?”

“Don’t know,” he shrugged. “Guess that’s something we need to find out.”

He marched over to his cruiser, popping the trunk and shuffling around. A moment later, with a slam that seemed to bounce off the wall of nothing, he returned with a rope.

He waved to a couple of the gathered folks, handing the end of the rope to Frank Jordan, the deputy. Frank was a good, down to earth sort of fellow. He seemed to be taking everything in shocked, but resolute stride. “I’ll need you to hold on to this end here,” the Sheriff said, passing Frank one end of the rope. “I’ll tie the other around me, and that way I don’t get lost out there.” He ran the rope through his belt loops, securing it with a secure, Boy Scout approved knot. “If I tug twice, like this,” he demonstrated briefly, “then I want you all to start pulling and bring me back in. Got it?” We all nodded, and he glanced around, seeming to make eye contact with everyone. We were all responsible now. The reality that this was something unknown, unexplainable, impossible was all beginning to settle in on me in those moments, numbness creeping up my body like that nothingness appeared to creep along the road.

Frank held on, nodding sharply to the Sheriff who began to make his way into the nothing. One moment, he was there. The next, he vanished from view. Frank held the rope, and my eyes watched as it slowly snaked out further and further. I’m not sure I even breathed in those minutes as the line slowly wound out. Then, there was a tug—once, twice. Frank began pulling, all of us latching on to the rope and reeling it in. The rope felt light, flying in far more quickly than it had spun out. And only at the end, as the frayed end of the rope emerged from the emptiness, did the meaning fully hit us. There was silence, all eyes on the end of the rope lying motionless on the ground, trying to take in everything it might mean.

We had town meetings after that. Everyone gathered together, but no one had any answers. Had about four before everyone stopped showing up—seemed they only sparked panic and hopelessness, staring into one another’s eyes and all reading the same, terrifying truth reflected back.

Electricity lasted a few days from the local facility, but it dried up pretty quick. After a few more, I realized I hadn’t seen the sun. Light still came in the morning and darkness at night, but it was as if we were trapped in a dome where only light seeped through. There were no stars at night, no light of the moon. Just a dim, diffused light during the day and a heavy, silent dark at night.  The wind stopped blowing at some point, covering everything in an added layer of unnatural stillness. Sound seemed to be muffled, captured in whatever bubble we found ourselves in.

For a few days, everyone tried to go on like it was normal, as if it were just a long weekend and everyone had the day off. But the longer the situation lasted, the more impossible it became to pretend like this was some short-lived fluke. We busted the windows to the grocery store after four days—people had to eat, after all. It seemed like that was the moment we all made peace with the fact that this town was our prison. Most of us in town had assumed this would be the place we’d die as well, just not quite like this.

There is a rhythm to disaster as well. Wake up, go to the town hall to check for news, shop the remains of the grocery to ensure enough food for the next few days. Boil some water. Sit and watched the sunless sky fade to night.  It’s not good, but somehow humanity always seems to find a pattern. And so I lived that pattern as the members in town dwindled. I assumed folks decided to risk it, take the chance on escape.

And I have to hope now that they all made it, finding some world on the other side of this nothing that was bustling and alive and active.  Because soon, I’ll be taking that same impossible journey. You see, I woke up this morning, looked out the window, and saw that I was surrounded by nothing. The town was gone, my neighbor was gone, even the oak tree outside my window. In my gut, I felt something settled. Some part of me had known this would happen the whole time. And so I have packed the food I have into a pack, along with all the bottles of water I still had filled. I’ve got a flashlight, not that it seems to penetrate this nothing around me. Some matches, a change of clothes, and a hodgepodge of medical supplies scavenged from my bathroom cabinet. I don’t really stand a chance if there isn’t reality waiting on the other side. But I suppose I haven’t got a choice.

There are sounds in the nothing now. Something I’ve never heard before, but that I can hear as it surrounds me. Groans—almost like whale songs I heard playing that time I went to the aquarium. But deeper, sharper somehow. They don’t sound safe. I have my grandfather’s shot gun and what shells I could find, I suppose that should be comforting, but that feeling of helplessness has settled so deep inside me that nothing seems to uproot it.

I’ve wasted precious daylight writing this—truth is, I don’t want to start walking. But maybe someday this will lift and someone will know what has happened. Or perhaps you’re unlucky enough to find yourself trapped here. Maybe it will shine some light on what happened. I don’t have any answers.

Procrastinating is not getting me anywhere. I’m going to go now.

God be with us all.

-Cassie Landers


Hello!

So, 2017 has been a great, exciting, and busy time. However, all those wonderful and busy things mean I have not really been writing…at all. In February we started looking for a house, found one we liked in March, closed in April, started remodeling, and finally moved in June. Then I started studying nonstop for my licensing exam while we continued renovations on the house. A little over a week ago, I passed my exam (after around 150 hours of studying!). Hopefully, that’s one of the last big hoops on the road to becoming a full-fledged psychologist! Yesterday, we finished the final large scale interior project for the house–we’re waiting for cooler weather before tackling all the outside work.

So, it’s been good, but I’m glad to get back to writing a bit more regularly. I have been saving up quite a few ideas I want to get on paper, this one included. Plus I have some ideas saved up for Milgram that I definitely want to work on. If you’ve read this far, thanks! I hope you enjoyed this little story. Hopefully I’ll be more reliable going forward.  I don’t have any plan to buy another house or take another test. Just general life stuff. Which can be crazy enough on it’s own.

As always, I’m open to any feedback you might have. I feel rusty, but definitely enjoyed getting words on paper and creating (then destroying–sorry about that…) this little town. Feel free to leave me a comment if you’d like.

Happy reading!


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


Milgram Pt 4

This is Part 4 of a longer story. You can find the other parts here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3


Toby felt a new weight on his shoulders when he finally arrived home. The long walk through meandering city streets had done little to relive it. It was a strange mix of anger, guilt, and shame that left him feeling as if he had crawled the entire way home.

He slumped into the wooden chair, elbows resting on the wooden table while his hands barely supported his head. He studied the fake woodgrain, eyes following it until they lost focus on began dancing back through his memories. Now, beyond the images of a convulsing body suddenly growing still, he had the wide eyes and fear of the stranger from the bus.

Not only that, but—but did he dare think it?

Could he, perhaps, have crossed the path of the man he killed? Had they walked past one another on the street? Dined at the same restaurant? Shared a seat on the bus? It was, after all, in his district. And while Toby was not one to often leave his safe little city and visit others, he did occasionally let adventure get the best of him. And who’s to say the young man didn’t travel himself? Or, came the thought that most shook his thin defenses, perhaps his plaza was not so far away at all?

His sandwich churned in his gut and threatened to return. He took a few deep, steady breaths even though they shook his entire body. His hand hurt, and he released his head to flex it slowly.  This was just what he needed, he thought morosely. It was probably arthritis setting in. Maybe, Toby thought with a dark glimmer of hope, it would get bad enough that he could take a medical retirement and live off the state. Maybe, if he was lucky, it would be so severe he would not have to return to his desk and that screen and that damned button.

The chair creaked as he shifted, the only sound in his silent apartment besides the steady tick of the clock. The light coming in through the windows told him more time had passed than he thought, and the clock confirmed it. Toby stood and walked the two paces to the kitchen, his legs dragging behind him. H felt as if he were propelled more by sheer routine than any sort of will or strength. But staring blankly at the available food, he felt nothing but emptiness gnawing at his stomach. How could he consider food when he was already full on despair, he wondered melodramatically to himself.

Instead, he dropped back into his seat and slowly began taking off his jacket. Something crinkled as he moved, and Toby slowly retrieved the flyer from his pocket. The same words stared up at him, convicting him. He had been an executioner. Toby—mild-mannered, friendly, polite, keeps-to-himself Toby—was an executioner. Those words collided in his head, triggering off a flood of thoughts and memories that doubled and tripled into a chaos he had no hope of sorting through.

There was no rhyme or reason that he could see to the memories that came up. There was his first day of work, walking in with a smartly pressed shirt and overflowing optimism. There were solitary lunches watching the children play in the park under the watchful gaze of their parents. There was a little girl crying in the plaza because she had been running where she shouldn’t.

A date that earned him nothing but a look of pity and disgust. His mother’s funeral, the speaker grabbing his arm and smiling weakly. In the midst of all of it, there was a person lying on the ground, a cheap watch in their hands. Then there were the children who mocked him as a child. Scared eyes at the bus stop.

It was, he realized in an instant, a parade of some of the worst moments in his life. A montage of loneliness, shame, and sorrow. The map to a broken man, a man who didn’t even have the ability to stand up and not kill someone.

Executioner, Toby thought. Just a fancy word for murder. That was never who he wanted to be. That was not who his mother, rest her soul, thought he was. But how wrong they had both been.

Judge. Jury. Executioner. Toby stared at the flyer. The truth hurt.

For the first time, Toby really read the flyer, skimming over the three words that were now a constant echo in his mind and reading the rest of the information.

“Join us: Monday, 7:00pm at the Brewhouse Coffee Bar. Together we have a voice.”

Toby toyed with the idea. It was only a few days away, but would they even want him there? He thought about walking in to some generic coffee house, seeing the young, impassioned men and women standing around. They would be rallying for their cause. Dressed in black and berets, they all fixed him with cold stares. Toby wondered if they would know simply by looking at him what he had done, or if that would only come out in time. Would they turn on him?

He smoother the paper on the table and stared at it some more, as if it held the answers. When it refused to share any more, he finally stood up, walked to the bedroom, and fell into his bed where he was able to spend a few solid hours staring at his ceiling and battling away the thoughts that clawed through his memories.

_

Once the sun was up again, Toby oozed from his bed and to the shower. Every joint ached and his heart thundered in his head, each pulse sending a fresh ache through his eyes. The water did little to wash away the feeling of stale sweat and dirt that seemed to cake his body. He had spent most of the night sweating and tossing in his bed, chasing momentary respite that was always shattered by the infernal beep of his monitor prompting him to provide redirection.

He turned the shower off early, watching the minutes transfer into his reserves. The sound of water dripping from his body to the tiled floor came with a steady beat, almost hypnotic. He reveled in the feeling of cold chasing up and down his back as the water dried on his skin.

He dressed stiffly, left his lunch at home, and made his way to the bus. It was not until he reached the stop that he realized he would have to climb on and ride alongside the people who had seen him in such a frenzy. Had hey seen his outbursts?

As he climbed on, he noticed they diverted their eyes. Walking along the rows, he had the distinct feeling that the silence was new, created simply by his presence. They must have been gossiping about the events before he boarded, only quieting to protect themselves from the madman riding alongside them.  Perhaps some had even made the connection between his stop and the events of the day before. It was not like the monitoring building went to great lengths to conceal its purpose.

He sat and stared at the floor, trying to ignore the feeling of their eyes crawling over him with morbid curiosity.

What if they knew the murdered man?

Toby did not know what dark part of his mind spent its time asking such horrific questions, but once there he was powerless to get rid of it. Now it swirled about him. He had no idea where these people lived or work. Any one of them could have known of the plaza. Maybe the man’s family was on board. His mind suddenly spun with stories of family members, hopeful that their son or brother or nephew had finally turned his life around. Only to get the news that he had been callously, impersonally, unjustly struck down by some nameless machine.

And now, Toby thought, they were forced to ride the bus with him and act cordial.

Some reasonable part of his mind tried to intercede and remind him that it was unlikely anyone on the bus knew the man or the plaza. They were probably all just ready to get on with their days, caught up in their own lives and worries. Unfortunately that voice was drowned out by the flood of a thousand other scenarios, each somehow worse than the ones that preceded it.

When his stop finally arrived Toby climbed off the bus, body a mix of relief and absolute dread. He was away from their eyes, but here he was, again donning the executioner’s mask as he walked through the doors.

_

“Taking lunch,” he typed to Dana as he transferred his screen. There was a happy tone as she responded, but he ignored it to turn around in his chair.

His eyes continued to pound, so he let them close. The air cycled through his office, a steady hum of equipment doing its job. Just like he did his job and kept the city safe. No point in getting angry at the air conditioning if it was too warm or cold in the office—it simply did as it was told. Just ike he did as he was told.

Thoughts drifted loosely through his mind as sleep overtook him. It was deep and dreamless, only broken by a sharp tingling arcing down him back.

He woke with a start clutching at his neck where the redirection started from.

“And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen…”

He had never signed up for this, he thought as anger swelled. But still he spun back to his desk and opened his screen to the plaza.

“You there?” was Dana’s message. There were others, but he ignored them. Instead he responded with a curt, “Yes,” and then closed the message. Replies came back from her, but he closed each one and focused on the screen.

Sure, he had fallen asleep, but shouldn’t there be some other way of reminding him? A bell or a system message or something? He worked tirelessly for them, but he made a tiny mistake and got no consideration. Someone somewhere watched him day in and day out as he did everything he could to be the best employee he could be, but they had no mercy.

Like, he reasoned, he had no mercy. Then again, he had no choice.

Then again, they had no choice.

His anger continued to grow, no longer focused on the nameless person in an office like his own. Instead, his ire grew for the smiling man in the suit. For the people who loaded a gun but made someone else pull the trigger.

It was their fault he felt so guilty. He was not an executioner; he never wanted to be. But they turned him into one, and then they weren’t even there to take responsibility for what they had done. Toby shouldered that burden for them, only to be punished by them.

The anger was a welcome relief from guilt, and Toby threw himself into it. It propelled him through the day until the closing alarm signaled and his screen transferred to whoever had the next shift. Whoever the next fall guy was.

Leaving the office, Toby skipped the bus stop and began walking the opposite direction of home. He needed answers, and he had an idea where they might be found.

Toby marched through the streets with single-minded ferocity. Something began to whisper that if he stopped, all the energy would drain from him in a moment, leaving behind the void that guilt so easily filled. And so he refused to slow down or pause. If he thought about it too long, he knew he would also fail and crumble back into the shell he had been for the past few days. There was a desperation in his action. That same cruel part of his mind assured him that, should he fail this time, he’d never find the courage again to make this journey. It was his one and only shot, or else he would be forced to succumb to a lifetime of despair.

Toby finally stopped, taking a brief moment to confirm he was where he thought. Brewhouse Coffee Bar, said the sign. With a deep breath that threatened to shatter his resolve, he gripped the handle and tugged.


I struggled with this part (hence the delay), but finally just had to get it out there. I feel like it manages to meander and move too quickly all at the same time. Not much happens here, but I do plan on some fireworks in the next part. I’m still not 100% on the final direction ( I have a handful of ideas, but not sure which I want to use versus drop), but I at least know the next few steps.

This is my first time in a long time writing something this long, so I’m trying to get into the flow with it. I think this is one section that will require heavy editing later, but it serves it’s purpose for now by creating the bridge I need between this introductory part and the rising tension.  If you have any thoughts or insight on how to improve this section, please let me know in the comments. Hopefully I’ll have more out soon. I’m also working on another piece that is shorter, so hopefully I can figure that one out and get it up here before too long!


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


Milgram Pt 3

This is part three of an ongoing story. If you’d like the context to understand what’s happening, I’d suggest you read part one and two.  I love feedback, so let me know what you think!


Toby stepped on the bus at the end of the day, a feeling of normalcy beginning to uncertainly percolate through his body. As he took his usual seat, he felt thoughts beginning to tingle at the back of his mind. Could he really be so cold and callous that a day after murdering someone he was back to normal? Toby tried his best to silence that thought, shove it back into the dark recesses where he had locked away images of a blank screen hiding a cooling body.

As if ignoring it would make it go away, something whispered, but he turned his attention to the safety warnings on the inside of the bus.

“PLEASE REMAIN SEATED WHILE THE VEHICLE IS IN MOTION.”

Fascinating.

At the next stop, a new person got on board. Toby watched him climb aboard and settle in to the young woman’s usual seat, glad for some new distraction. After the fourth reading, the safety information became far less engaging, and he had already noticed his thoughts wandering towards that locked door in the back of his mind. He was a young man, dressed in casual, athletic clothing. Small beads of sweat stood out on his dark forehead, which made Toby think it was maybe someone returning from the gym. Or something like that. The weather certainly wasn’t warm enough for anything more. The man—boy?—sat on the edge of the seat, legs shaking up and down as the doors swung closed and the bus began to move. His eyes were distant, pondering something far more significant than the passengers on the bus.

As the vehicle accelerated from the curb and back onto its path, the man jumped up. He reached into his backpack, pulling out a handful of flyers.

“Excuse me,” began the boy—he certainly looked more like a scared child now, standing in the idle of the bus. His voice even cracked as he began.  He took a deep breath, cleared his throat, and began again. “Excuse me, everyone. I have something I must speak to you about today.”

The bus home was always more crowded than the bus to work, and Toby watched the passengers around him roll their eyes and reach for books, music players, and other distractions. The boy scanned the audience, trying to find some eye contact to reassure him.

He found Toby’s eyes.

“I won’t take much of your time, but there are things going on that the good people of this city need to know.” He held Toby’s eyes for a beat or two longer, then began looking around trying to draw in more listeners. Toby new he had a minute or two before redirection would be applied for such behavior, and he could see the sweat sliding down his forehead now. The boy seemed to know he was on a clock.

“Did you know that just this week, a man was murdered in our wonderful district by the state.” He seemed to be reaching his stride now, growing more and more assured as he continued speaking. “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you heard me. A man was murdered in cold blood by our government. His crime, you ask?” He paused, as if waiting for some sort of participation from his mostly annoyed audience.

Toby shifted uncomfortably in his seat. It certainly couldn’t be, right?

“His crime was stealing a hundred dollar watch.”

The bus suddenly became impossibly cramped and hot. Toby saw, clear as the man in front of him, the body lying on the ground, a silver watch lying forgotten on the ground. Officers placed the watch in a bag later, sealing it away as evidence. He had watched it all go on right before his eyes. And this was in his district? His plaza had been close all this time, which somehow made it worse.

“Of course, such activity is illegal, but is a man’s life,” he paused eyes wandering over his captive audience. A few people were looking at him now, faces a mix of curiosity and amusement, “is a man’s life worth a mere $100?”

Toby’s gut was in a knot, and he feared he might be sick. Surely, his mind told him, the boy standing on the bus would notice his pale features, the sweat dripping in slimy trails down his face, the look of pain and horror on his face. He might even call him out. Did the man know he worked for the government?

Did he know he was a murderer?

Any sense of normalcy that had been building was shattered, those tiny shards turning into daggers that drove through him body and soul. In fact, the feeling was even worse, coupled with a new wave of guilt. Toby had dared to think he could simply move on from that moment. Was there anything more reprehensible than that?

He came back to the message, catching the man mid-sentence. “…act and voice our concerns. We must make it clear that the surveillance, the unsupervised murder of citizens, and the culture of fear we live under daily is not to be tolerated. A man’s life is worth far more than a $100 watch. He deserved a fair chance. And yes, he deserved punishment. But a fair punishment.”

The man grimaced, and Toby checked his watch. Time was up. Based on the brevity and the rather muted response, it was a low-level redirection. But Toby knew that such mercy would not last long, especially not with as many buses ran in the city day in and day out.

“They don’t want me to tell you this,” the man said through gritted teeth. After a moment, he took a deep breath and opened his eyes. “I’ve just been redirected for telling you the truth. There was no trial for me, no fair allotment of punishment. You have witnessed it, ladies and gentlemen. And if you are tired of witnessing it, join with us. Together we can have a voice.”

He began walking down the rows, handing out a flier of some sort. Toby took one, keeping his eyes down. The man’s eyes scraped over him, and Toby was sure he would recognize what was going on. But instead, Toby watched the man’s sneakered feet drift down the rows and towards those seated in the back. Toby released an anxious breath he had not realized he had held for so long.

“JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER,” said the familiar flier. Beneath it, he saw a date and time, a location. “Join us,” it urged. “Together we can have a voice.”

Toby crumpled the flier and shoved it into the pocket of his jacket, trying to erase the images from his mind. Trying, once again, to lock those dark thoughts away. But they continued.

Murderer.

Monster.

Heartless.

At the next stop, he bolted off the bus. Being on the sidewalk, he finally felt as if he could breathe again, and he took in a few deep breaths at the bus stop as people flowed on and off the bus around him.  Toby closed his eyes, trying not to see that face twisted into a final mask of pain. It didn’t seem to help.

“Sir, seems like you really heard me in there,” said a voice behind him. Toby turned and saw the man from the bus, still holding his fliers. He smiled softly, stepping away from the crowd and closer to Toby’s sanctuary by the stop. “It can really shake you up, when you really think about it. Most people try to avoid it.”

Toby nodded quickly, breaking eye contact and considering running down the street. No he told himself, some part of his brain focused on survival still. Running would only confirm his guilt.

The man took a couple more uncertain steps towards him, studying Toby closely and trying to get a read on the sweaty, distracted, and distressed man in front of him. “I know it’s a lot to take in. It’s hard to believe any of your fellow citizens could be so…” the man searched for the word, then shrugged, “so awful. To just kill someone for something like a watch.” He gave a short, derisive snort.

Maybe, Toby thought, the man shouldn’t have been stealing in the first place. Maybe, it continued, everyone should just follow the rules. Maybe people should be able to ride the bus unnharassed by such terrible news. All those thoughts sprang to mind, fueling a fire of anger and hatred that he had not been aware of. Or, perhaps he had, but it had only been directed at himself. Now there was a new potential target.

“If you want to get involved—“ started the man.

“I’m already involved enough!” shouted Toby. He watched the young man’s eyes grow wide, as he took a step back and put his hands up.

The man was a boy again, scared of the angry stranger on the street. The fear in his eyes was enough to extinguish the anger. Maybe, he thought, he was just as monstrous as they said.

“Yeah, no problem, man. Sorry to have bothered you.” The boy backed away, hands still up and waving the fliers limply in the air. He took a few steps, then turned and walked away briskly. Running would get him another redirection, and Toby imagined his neck already ached. Still, Toby felt for him. He understood, because at that moment, Toby certainly wished he could run away from himself.


Part Four Now Up!

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


Milgram Pt 2

Don’t be confused, read Part 1 here!


Toby was still shaking, or at least he thought he was. It seemed as if he had done nothing but tremble since he had pressed that button eighteen hours ago. Well, tremble and vomit. He reported in as sick for the day, receiving a friendly note after his status had been confirmed. While the readout assured him there was no detectable pathogen, it did note evidence of recent emesis, abnormal sweating, and mental confusion. His sick time was dutifully logged and detracted from his bank.

Of course, it was not like he could stay away forever. Toby was acutely aware that he had no marketable skills, no connections in industry, and no money to better himself in any way. He would have to return to work the next day or risk termination, which was certainly only a breath away from homelessness and forced labor. He looked at his hands, waving softly in the air with fear of what they had done, and knew he would never survive forced labor.

He carried himself to the shower, pausing at the selection panel before entering the small, glass prism. The options were listed in pale blue font on a white background, tiny images of soap bubbles floating across the letters.

“Daily Shower……..Renews in 15 Hours

Relaxation…………..4 Credits Remaining

Emergency Cleaning”

He stared at the options. It felt like an emergency, but he knew he would be charged if there was no evidence that he had been involved in some unexpected mess. And he certainly could not afford to lose his daily credits for the next week paying it back. Also, the one time he had been required to use that option, it sprayed him quiet violently with a stream of lukewarm water while emergency lights blared. Certainly not what his nerves needed. He begrudgingly selected Relaxation, acutely aware he was nearing his allotment there. It took too long to rebuild, but, if ever a day called for it, it was then.

The lights in the bathroom dimmed as soft flute music began to play. The water began as a slow stream, steadily picking up speed until it was drumming firmly along his shoulders. It smelled faintly of lavender.

Toby tried to relax. He closed his eyes, taking slow and steady breaths in time with the music. He tried to focus his mind on pleasant things. But behind his lids, the same image played over and over. The screen changed from a generic human going about their day—albeit stealing—to an image highlighted with urgency to nothing. It was the nothing that continued to haunt him behind his eyes. It was the nothing that was replaced by the real life images of a man in his thirties suddenly jerking and freezing, body held in stasis as his eyes rolled back in his head. Eventually, as the redirection ended, he collapsed to the ground.

His chest wasn’t rising and falling. Toby hadn’t needed to keep watching for his report, but he did. He watched the emergency team arrive, provide cursory attempts at resuscitation, and then close the body up in a hazard bag.  Toby kept watching that spot the rest of his shift, even as it emptied and the sun rose on the plaza. He was fortunate the night was quiet afterwards; he was also certain he would not have been able to stomach another redirection, no matter how minor.

The nothingness was a lie, he realized. Because behind that nothingness was an empty husk of a body.

He had killed someone.

The words slammed into him again, caged with him inside the shower. The smell of lavender was nauseating, the feeling of the water unbearable, the music a grating screech. He couldn’t breathe—he was drowning in the steam.

Toby clawed his way out of the shower, flinging open the door and stepping out into the cool air of the bathroom. It did little to relieve the noose around his throat. The screen beeped at him, and for a moment he knew it was the chime on his work display screen. He had never escaped the office.

Whirling around, eyes wide as a cornered animal, he stared at the shower menu.

“Terminate Relaxation period? Relaxation Credits cannot be refunded.”

He swiped at the screen, selecting the yes option before stumbling out of the room. He was tired of small, enclosed rooms.

Toby didn’t know what he wanted or needed right then. Everything that had been fine was wrong now. He pushed into his bedroom, the sheets rumpled in the way that comes from a sleepless night. It was all cast in an artistic, almost sympathetic light, shadows deep with afternoon sun. Dust floated in the air, tiny glints and sparkles that seemed to be too peaceful, too idealized to exist in a world where he was an executioner. Toby felt his stomach turn again at the thought, but he knew he had nothing left to expel.

He sat on the edge of his bed, facing the window. There was a tree outside, limbs swaying gently in what must have been a pleasant breeze. For a moment, Toby was hypnotized by the steady, gentle movement of the leaves. It did what the shower could not and gave him a moment of peace, the briefest gift of separation. He was sitting in his room, watching the tree, and nothing was wrong.

Unfortunately, all relief was temporary. His thoughts were like a murmurration of starlings, briefly settling before being tossed into chaos once again. They had managed to rest briefly on the boughs of the tree outside his window, but the slightest breeze and they were off again, caught up in recollection and speculation.

How many people had been redirected to death?

What about the people he redirected. Sure, their numbers were small. But they grew, and he had seen it. What if he unknowingly pushed them over the edge?

What if he had thrown out more death warrants into the void for things as simple as littering or running?

His right hand had begun to tingle, almost as if it had been asleep. He stretched his fingers wide, massaging it with his left, but there was no relief from the gentle pinpricks. Toby shook his hand sharply, hoping to return blood flow. Only there was no numbness, no coldness. It simply tingled, and no amount of attention seemed to relieve it.

Toby fell back onto his bed, eyes closed and hands limp at his sides. Traitorous hands.

The light shifted behind his eyelids as the branches swayed, letting in more and less light. His eyes burned, either because he had spent the wee morning hours crying, or because he had not slept in nearly 36 hours. His mind spun, eventually managing to spin itself into more and more fantastic, bizarre forms.

Unwillingly, Toby fell asleep, where there was finally, truly, nothing.

_

The sound of his alarm woke him, and he groaned. He had not moved the entire night, but slept with his feet on the floor and back stretched across the bed. Now his joints ached. Standing and stretching relieved some of the tension, but there was a deeper ache that seemed unreachable. And his hand still felt wrong, but the feeling was at least milder now.

There was a day’s worth of stubble on his face, and his mouth tasted of sleep and vomit. Toby was glad there was no mirror in his bedroom, because he was certain he did not want to see how he looked Unfortunately, there was no avoiding it in the bathroom, and he had to meet his sunken-eyed gaze.

He selected his daily shower and climbed in, doing what he could to wash away the stink of sweat and despair that coated his body like a film. Normally he ended his shower early, banking the additional minutes for later use. But today he let the timer run out, giving the water at least a chance to wash away the memories of what had happened. It was more successful than the day before, but he was still stained by the thoughts. There was still a man carved out of nothingness behind his eyelids.

Toby shaved, brushed his teeth, and combed his hair. He inspected his uniform in the mirror, feeling more repulsed by it than he ever had. He was never a morning person, and leaving for work was often difficult. But it was now different. He was not just longing to return to bed. He was, instead, longing to vanish out of existence. Perhaps he could just be gone in a blink, an image on a screen one minute and gone the next.

He shook his head sharply to dispel the thoughts, his eyes staring back at him hurt and accusing in the mirror. With a deep breath, he reminded himself that he had a job to do. He was needed at his office, and he would complete his daily tasks. The thought of his small room, his screen, and his plaza was enough to throw him off balance again. It felt as if the bathroom had closed in around him, crushing his lungs so he could not gather one good breath. An image flashed through his mind, his head swollen like a balloon, eyes bulging, ready to burst. All the pressure was crushing in on him. Then, the world righted itself, snapping back into place like a rubber band releasing.

Toby left his apartment, uncharacteristically skipping breakfast. The thought of food conjured the taste of bile and sand in his mouth. He did grab his lunch, hoping that perhaps he would arrive to work and discover it had all been a huge misunderstanding. That nothing had ever happened. That it was a prank, a joke. Perhaps a system test? He tried his best to conjure alternatives along the walk to the bus stop.

There were five other people on the bus. There always were. And by the time he reached his stop, three of those people would have left and six more would have joined. Each person had their seat, though no one had ever acknowledged their communal seating chart. It was just how things went. Toby boarded the bus and took his seat, sitting beside the window where he could watch the city slide past. Only today he did not feel like looking at anything. He felt alone and vulnerable, as if someone had flayed off his skin and left every nerve exposed. Looking at the city was too much.

He wanted to reach out, to talk to the passengers, but no one did that. It wasn’t forbidden, certainly, but it was…deviant. It was invasive and rude. And so Toby bit his tongue, resolving instead to watch his fellow passengers rather than reaching out to them. He wondered how the older woman three seats ahead would respond if he told her he killed someone.

In his head, she smiled and patted his shoulder, genuine kindness and sympathy in her eyes. The teenager in the corner probably wouldn’t understand, would move away. Toby imagined he would see fear in the girl’s eyes. The gentleman with his paper would probably start by blustering about the cops, but would offer help later, once the details were out there. Toby imagined that man would have a long diatribe about the state of the government and law and order. He seemed like the type.

There was the young woman with her music. He was unsure how she would respond, as her face was always a stoic mask. He saw her reading a self-help book once, so he pretended she would be the one to offer actual help. She’d provide firm reassurances, maybe offer to buy him coffee. Toby’s mind wandered as he thought about the two of them sharing coffee, talking about what life had been like before he was a murderer.

Lost in his thoughts, Toby did not notice when she or the others left the bus. He also did not notice the arrival of his other companions, instead focused on building a life with the woman across the bus. It wasn’t until it came to a sudden stop in front of his building that his mind returned to the present, retreating from the light of his imagined future and into the darkness of his present.

His legs were leaden as he walked off the bus and through the wide doors of his office. He walked down the long hallway flanked on either side with doors. He never saw other monitors coming or going, though he sometimes heard music or talking from behind the doors.

How many of them were killers, too? Did they understand?

Toby paused in front of one door, hand half raised but frozen. He read and reread the notice on the door. “Do not disturb. Level one offense.”

The back of his neck, where his monitoring chip was located, prickled with each repetition.

“If you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong.” The words stomped over his thoughts, and he turned away from the door. He couldn’t risk it.

His chair was as he left it, his screen idling and awaiting his return. Upon logging in, he saw his plaza displayed. There was a decent crowd this early in the morning, though he noticed everyone seemed to eddy around one point on the map. That’s where the man had vanished, and Toby knew people were talking about it. Who wouldn’t?

But the rumors at least had the benefit of making it a very quiet day. There were no boisterous, running youth. No loitering, no littering. No theft. The plaza was quiet, almost somber.

Lunch time approached, and the routine of work had returned some of his hunger. He keyed in his lunch code and waited as his screen transferred. Dana’s name popped on the screen.

“Got you covered!” read her text. Toby felt a weight shift inside of him. There was another human out there who knew him. A moment later, another line appeared. “Glad you’re back!”

He was slightly surprised. “How did you know I was sick?” he typed quickly.

“I didn’t. Sorry you were sick. I thought you were out on vacation.”

She didn’t answer his question, and Toby felt a strange paranoia bubble in his chest. Could Dana be the one watching him?

Then another message. “Oh, and you never asked me to watch for lunch yesterday. I knew you must be out!”

As quickly as it appeared, the paranoia vanished. He was leaping at shadows. “Oh, right. Thanks.”

He marched back through the long, empty hallways. There were sounds coming from behind other doors, but no one else was walking to the bench outside for lunch. He sat alone, watching happy people go about their lives while he munched on one corner of his sandwich. With five minutes to spare, he dutifully wrapped up the untouched two-thirds and disposed of it properly before returning to his desk.

It was 2:30 before he had his first alert. His heart began to pound at the sound of the chime, hands sweating. On the screen, he watched an adult stand on the corner and hand out flyers. Such activity was banned within the shopping plaza, which meant redirection was needed. A level one only, but his chest tightened as he waited to hear the follow-up sound that meant the limit was reached. Only when the silence continued to stretch in the room did he dare look down at the input panel.

The level was still set at 10, a solemn reminder of his personal tragedy. Everything else in the world seemed to continue moving and spinning, but here, his dial was still set at ten. He swatted at the dial, swiftly returning it to one, but withdrawing his hand sharply as if it would burn him. The one looked much friendlier, but maintained a sinister quality that had not existed before.

It was taking too long, and the system beeped at him again.

“Failure to provide redirection WILL be reported and may result in termination,” offered a box on the screen. Toby took a deep breath. It was just a level one, he reminded himself. But his hand still bristled as he moved it towards the button, ached as he forced it down to press the small, grey circle. The image on the screen flashed with the redirection, then was gone. The figure on the screen, glanced toward the camera, a move Toby knew meant he or she was probably cursing at him, then moved on, papers in hand.

His report was almost cathartic. He looked at the middle-aged woman on the screen as she yelled and shoved flyers at passing shoppers. Then, there was the redirection, where a brief flash of annoyed pain scattered over her face. She glared up at the camera with irritation, her mouth moving in ways Toby did not try to make sense of.

Then, she held up one of the flyers to the camera. “JUDGE, JURY, AND EXECUTIONER?” it read. Below the words were the adult and child images he watched day in and day out. She made a gesture before she left, and Toby did not have to wonder what that might mean.


Part 3 continues here!

I told you it would be back, and here it is! I will be editing as I go, so things may change as it goes. That’s why these are drafts. I’m not 100% sure how long this will be or where precisely it will end up (but I do have some ideas), but I hope you’ll join me for the journey! As always, please leave your thoughts, recommendations, and critiques in the comments!

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


First Draft: Milgram

So, I’m studying up on social psychology for my licensing exam and got to read over the Milgram study again. Decided to use it for a story, and this is what happened. It’s a first draft, as usual, but I really enjoyed this one. Let me know what you think in the comments. As always, critiques, suggestions, positives, and negatives are all welcomed! Happy reading!


Toby sat alone in his monitoring booth, just as he had done day in and day out for the past seven and a half years. The booth was comfortable, but not spacious. He had his ergonomic chair, a desk to house his input terminals, a small refrigerator for his lunch, and the display panel. Unfortunately, there were no windows, which was why he made sure to take his lunch outside—at least when the weather permitted. It had been a long stretch of bitterly cold, breezy days, so he was resigned to staring at the three walls and display screen for the rest of the day.

The screen moved with the digital images of the shopping plaza patrons. He had been around when the system was just green, x-ray like images. Now they had at least created a few standard images that roughly assured him there were humans milling about there. They were all smiling people, dressed and styled ambiguously enough that he got nothing but a rough estimate of who they might be. There was one form for adults, one for children. Another for pets that sometimes appeared to stroll through the plaza. He liked to imagine the little groups of two adults and one or more children were a family enjoying a nice day out. In the evenings, he created stories for the two adults walking slowly through, imagining them on a first date.

Of course, that was more to simply make the time pass by more quickly. It was a good job, but painfully boring. Stare at the screen, watch for any aggressive or illegal activity, provide appropriate redirection, record the incident. Most days he redirected only minor infractions—littering, running in undesignated zones, loitering. Some days it was more significant. Once, he had to redirect a shoplifter, which was quite an experience. His hands grew clammy and his heart rate picked up just thinking about it.

There was a soft bell from the screen, and it highlighted one patron with a red aura. A pop-out replayed the last fifteen seconds of action, and Toby clearly saw the person take their napkin and drop it to the ground before continuing on. He reached out to the inputs, turning the dials down to their lowest setting—it was, after all, a minor infraction—and depressed the grey button down briefly. The image of the person on the screen briefly flickered to a red image with a frowning face, then returned to normal. The shock was delivered, the action redirected, and Toby watched the person walk over and retrieve their trash. He almost imagined the other glanced up angrily at the watching cameras, but there was of course no way to know that for sure.

Tedium is how he described his job usually. Most people abided by the rules, so there was rarely anything for him to do. The change was not necessarily welcome, because he did feel conflicted about causing pain even if it was for clearly outlined infractions; however, it also meant he had something to occupy the time. Toby dutifully recalled the recording in a portion of the screen, eyes jumping from the new activity to routine patrol, and began his report.

He attached the recorded images, watching as the generic adult figure faded and was replaced with a young man sitting at one of the plaza tables. He dropped his napkin and continued on, only to pause a minute later. Toby smiled. Sure enough, the man turned and offered an irritated glare at the camera as he picked up the discarded napkin. Toby recorded the voltage and duration of the redirection, associated it with the clip, and submitted it to Central Office for review and verification.

It was quiet as he opened his lunch box and unwrapped his sandwich. He sipped water from his bottle, letting his eyes close for a few brief moments. Dana was watching his screen while he was on break. She was always good about that. At least, he assumed she was. Her messages were always filled with exclamation points and smiley faces, so he got the feeling she was eager to help. He chewed his sandwich, thoughts wandering to Dana. He wondered what she looked like. What she brought for lunch. Where she was located.

He wondered where his plaza was located. Not in his city, that was for sure. Had he ever met someone who had walked across his screen? Neither of them would know if he had.

Had he ever met Dana?

There was a reminder tone as his thirty minute lunch ended. His screen flickered back to life, and he returned to his post. Hopefully spring would come soon and he would be able to go back outside to the park bench for lunch. He liked people watching—actual people watching—much more than being alone with his thoughts.

Time passed with minor infractions resulting in brief, routine redirection. He watched the screen and the clock with equal interest, waiting for the end of the day. It was nearly time to go home when the final redirection came in.

It was after school, so the number of children had dramatically increased. Most with parents, a few wandering alone. Teenagers, he told himself. He always kept a close eye on them, but they seemed docile today. On the other side of the screen, a region flashed as the chime sounded. He watched a child run across the plaza, leaving behind an adult figure. He looked down at the inputs, preparing the appropriate level for a child infraction, but his eyes bounced back up as there was another tone.

“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection to level: 2,” read the note hovering over the still running child. Toby sighed. This was the part he hated. Begrudgingly, he increased the dial to 2 and depressed the button. There was a flicker over the screen as the child figure turned red and stopped running. The image stayed for a three seconds, then faded back to the normal, happy child image.

The adult figure bustled over, hands waving in a lecturing motion. A parent scolding with “I told you so,” he imagined. The recording later confirmed. It was a much younger child than he imagined, too young to have already exceeded infraction level 1.

He was late leaving the office, having gotten the paperwork completed a full fifteen minutes after the end of day tone. It always took him longer on redirections like that.

Thus passed the like of Toby, day in and day out. He watched his screen, ate his lunch, and administered redirection as required. The days eventually warmed again, and he enjoyed his sandwich on a bench beneath a tree where people walked about smilingly in the sunshine. He always made sure to dispose of his trash properly, and he was a moment late back to his post.

And then, the routine changed.

It was summer, a time when the plaza was even busier and the clientele more active. He always noticed a surge in redirections in the summer, which he attributed to kids out of school and the carefree attitude that permeated the season. The rules still applied, though, and he did his job to enforce them.

He had taken a later shift, an attempt to build up some vacation time so he could spend a few days relaxing on the beach. The plaza was now much quieter, having emptied of the majority of patrons. Instead, his screen now rotated between five locales, each more deserted than the last. Toby drank his coffee slowly, yawned, and did his best to stay focused even as his lids grew heavy.

He had drifted farther towards sleep than he intended when an urgent chime from the screen snapped him back to the moment. He saw his plaza before him, feeling a familiar swell of anxiety and protectiveness. There were a handful of people on the screen, all of them frozen in time as they faced the center. There was an adult emblazoned in red. He did not need to see the replay to know what was happening. The person had broken through the boundary of the closed shops, only to return moments later carrying something. A break-in.

His hand was shaking as he moved the dial, setting it up for a shoplift redirection. These hurt him each time, because they were automatically a level five. And they seemed to get longer each and every time.

Before he could press the button, there was another chime. He looked up, his eyes stumbling over the words on the screen in disbelief.

“Infraction limit exceeded. Increase redirection level to: 10.”

The bubble of anxiety swelling in his chest finally burst, drenching every part of him with its refuse. His hands were shaking over the dial, glancing down at the innocent numbers. There it was, sitting just beyond the nine, looking perfectly innocent in its malevolence. He had never done something like this. He had no idea what he was even about to do. But his hand shuddered as he tried to turn the knob.

The door to his office clicked open, and he released a breath he had unintentionally been holding. In walked a man in a suit, a thin smile plastered on his face. Toby stared. Not only had he never seen the man before, but no one had ever intruded on him during a shift.

“Mr. Georges,” said the man, his smile stretching just a bit, looking almost pained now.

Toby nodded. His hand was still hovering around the dial, and he could see the perpetrator moving on the screen from his peripheral vision.

“Quite a scene, eh? Go on, set the redirection and deliver it, just as instructed.”

Toby’s mouth opened and closed and his looked between the man and the screen. Eventually, his words caught up. “But, I’ve never—what if it—“

“Come on, Mr. Georges. They made their decision. We have rules here.” The man took a couple of confident strides forward, placing a hand gently on Toby’s shoulder. There was a gentle nudge, turning him back towards the screen. “Now, you do your part.” The smile widened, a gash etched across the face of a grinning corpse. The eyes were dead, Toby realized. Or not dead, but so very far away. “You have to keep order, Mr. Georges.”

The man reached across Toby, gently turning the dial from its position up to 10. He then waved at the console, indicating the smooth grey button. Toby’s hand trembled as it reached toward the button. He paused, and the hand on his shoulder tightened just enough to remind him it was there.

“Are you sure?” Toby asked, his fingers finally having found the familiar groove on the button.

“Our system doesn’t make mistakes, Mr. Georges,” said the man smoothly.

The button was down, and it took a moment for Toby to realize his fingers had pressed the button. The image on the screen changed, the person frozen in the moment. It was not a few seconds, and his eyes were glued to the screen, waiting for the normal adult image to return and assure him everything was going to be okay. It stretched on for seconds more, each one ripping itself from beats of Toby’s heart. And then it was over.

Only the image did not return to normal. It vanished completely.

The man in the suit patted Toby’s shoulder proudly. “Well done, Mr. Georges.” He turned smoothly on his heel and marched toward the door.

“Wha-What happened?” Toby blurted out, rising from his chair and taking a step toward the man.

“You provided the needed redirection,” responded the smiling man, only half turning to face him.

Toby looked back at the screen, now seeing new figures moving onto the screen. These figures were running, but had the emergency designation glowing around their images. They clustered around the spot the shoplifter had been moment before. The spot where the image disappeared.

“Are they okay?”

“They’ve been redirected,” said the man, hand on the door knob.

Toby felt the coffee surging in his gut. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“If you need a break, you have your fifteen minutes,” the man said, his hand on the door, “but we’ll expect you back at your post for your shift. You’ve got to file your report, Mr. Georges.”

“I can’t, I just—“ His head swiveled from the screen to the man, trying to piece together what was happening. The idea of watching the images in real time, of selecting his clip, of numbly filing the report. The room spun around him.

“You will, Mr. Georges.” He opened the door and had one foot out when he paused, breath catching briefly in his throat. When he turned back around, the smile was gone, replaced by a stern, concentrated expression. “And if you think you’re not on someone’s screen right now, Mr. Georges, you are quite wrong. Which is why I know you’ll be back to work after your fifteen minutes.”

The door closed behind him, and Toby sank into his chair, staring at the wall. He heard a chirp as his screen clicked off. Someone named Jordan was now watching his screen, not knowing what had just occurred. He stared at his hands while they trembled. What he wouldn’t give for tedium again.


Part 2 

Part 3

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


13 Stories of Halloween: For Old Time’s Sake

You made it to the end! If you missed any of the previous Halloween stories, you can find them all here! Thanks for reading!


The cemetery after midnight was creepy. I guess I would have been disappointed if it were otherwise, but the fact remained. All those lone sentinels standing over their graves, it gave off the vibe that I had stumbled into some frozen moment of grief. The angels bowed their heads low to study the markers at their feet. Crosses rose and stabbed up into the night sky. A few larger mausoleums stood as squat, stubborn guardians holding court. It was enough to send chills up my back.

I’ve never been superstitious, but that was not enough to prevent me from feeling uncomfortable in the cemetery. My friends were supposed to meet me but were, as usual, running late. Somehow it seemed far less intimidating to stand in that place if I had the warmth of human companionship.

As if on cue, I heard the clatter of the metal gate at the entrance, followed by a thud and muted laughter. I recognized Calvin’s laugh immediately, and Suzanne’s joined shortly after. The tension uncoiled from around my neck, and I began walking toward the gate.

Calvin was lying in an uncoordinated pile on the ground, looking back over the gate and laughing. Suzanne had paused with one leg thrown over the gate, her head bent low and she chuckled as well.

“You guys suck as sneaking in,” I said, stepping from behind a grave stone. Calvin’s laugh turned into a short yelp, but Suzanne seemed not to notice my arrival.

“Jesus, Lynn, you can be way creepy sometimes.”

I shrugged. “Nothing I can do about that. Guess you just need to toughen up.” He laughed and shoved himself up from the ground. Suzanne finally finished her climb, dropping with far more grace to the ground.

“Yep, same old Lynn,” she said as she dusted off her pants, shaking away the collected dust and rust.

We stood in a small circle, everyone unsure of how to proceed. It had been a year since we last met together, and some of the uncertainty from that gap lingered between us.

“I figured we’d do the usual thing? Drink a bit, gossip, scare ourselves silly?”

Calvin held up his backpack, the sound of bottles clanging about inside. “That’s the sort of evening I came prepared for.”

Suzanne reached into her backpack and pulled out a slightly crushed bag of assorted candy. “And it’s no good to drink on an empty stomach.”

I smiled and turned to walk toward a spot in the middle of the cemetery. “I found this spot earlier, thought it might be good for us to palaver.” There was a large oak tree, leaves still clinging on to the branches. Beneath it was a couple of benches, arranged to provide a meditative spot for visitors. The plaque on the benches revealed they were dedicated to Jeremiah Brown, “a kind husband, father, grandfather, and friend.”

The three settled in, Calvin pulling out a bottle of something dark while Suzanne ripped open the bag of candy. I reached out a grabbed a piece of chocolate, unwrapping it and savoring the sweet, bitter taste as it melted in my mouth. I washed it down with the too bitter alcohol, feeling it burn its way down my throat. My eyes watered as I sputtered, apparently more unused to the strong drink than I had anticipated.

“Maybe you should take it slow,” suggested Calvin, taking the bottle and eyeing me with motherly concern.

I grabbed it back, more so to prove a point. “Listen, it may burn, but we all know I can handle liquor better than either one of you.” I took a long drink, holding my face in a stoic mask despite the sensation.

“Can’t argue with that,” said Suzanne as she took the bottle and sipped from it herself. “I mean, we all know that’s a competition I can’t win. You going to challenge the title?” She tilted an eyebrow and the bottle toward Calvin. He took it, laughing.

“I think you have an unfair advantage, Lynn. But you can have your title.” He set the bottle between us. It was not really the reason for us coming together. The reason was just to be together. As friends again.

The moment caught up with me. “Hey, I don’t want to make this too sappy, but I’m really glad you’re both here. I know this is kind of weird and all, but…”

Suzanne smiled at me. “Of course we’d be here. It’s been too long. A girl needs her best girlfriend.” She tossed another piece of candy towards me with a wink. I caught it and turned it over in my hand. Calvin was quiet, turning the words over in his head.

“You know, after that accident, when we thought we’d lost you for good—“

I cut him off with a wave of my hand. “That’s the sappiness I was talking about! Listen, I’d rather not talk about the accident. I think about it all the time. But tonight’s all about enjoying our time together. I mean, I almost never get to see either of you anymore. You two have moved on to bigger and better things, but I’m still stuck here.”

My words caused more hurt than I intended; I could see it on both their faces. Suzanne’s face twitched, and I saw her gathering words for an apology.

“No, not like that. I’m not upset with you about it,” I tried to laugh it off, but the sound was empty. “I just meant, let’s have fun. No point in dwelling on the past.”

They smiled, glancing at each other with guilt in their eyes. I tried to ignore it. This was not going as planned.

“Have you guys heard about Old Man Stevens’ ghost?” It was a poor, erratic distraction, but it brought their four eyes back to me with curiosity rather than pity.

They shook their heads, almost in unison. “No, but I’m guessing you have a story?”

I smiled at Calvin. “Of course. It’s Halloween and we’re in a graveyard. I feel like I of all people should have a ghost story to tell.”

Calvin and Suzanne leaned in close, Suzanne tucking her jacket tighter around her body as the wind picked up. It was the ambiance I wanted, but could not control.

“So, like all ghosts, Stevens likes to hang around the cemetery, never straying too far from his grave. Also, as we all know, that means that he can interact with and be seen by mortals on one night of the year.” I paused for effect, even if the conclusion was obvious. “Tonight.”

They smiled, Calvin rolling his eyes. “Come on, maestro, get on with the story.”

“You have no respect for the art of storytelling,” I added full of mock offense, then took a deep breath. “Edward Stevens was a bitter, sullen old man when alive. He lived out beyond the town limits on a tiny little farm. It was him, his wife, and their three children out there. Now, his wife was a pitiful woman, worn down to nothing by his constant abuse. Nothing she did was every quite good enough, from the dinners she made to the children she bore. That kind of life can eat a hole right through you.”

Suzanne crunched into a hard candy, the sudden sound making Calvin jump. He gave her a playful shove, and she shook her head. “Barely any story and you’re already jumpy,” she tossed back.

“We are in a cemetery at one am,” he countered.

“Or maybe I’m just that good of a storyteller? I’ve had plenty of time to practice.”

There was the uncomfortable silence again. I mentally kicked myself, constantly putting my foot in my mouth. I wasn’t upset, but it was certainly getting harder to convince them of that. “Well, either way, back to the story. Mr. Stevens was also one of those sort who seemed to dodge every bit of bad luck to come his way. Unfortunately, it seemed to land squarely on his children. When the equipment malfunctioned, he managed to repair it and narrowly saved his hand from the tines when it started back up. His youngest son, unfortunately, was not as lucky when he fell from the barn loft and landed on the cursed machine three months later. Old Man Stevens said he was never sick a day in his life, but his middle son seemed to catch everything. It was the Measles that finally got him.

“Mr. Stevens was not a kind man, and he had more than his share of enemies. These weren’t the kind of people you could easily settle the score with, either. They were the kind who operated far below the law, and did not take kindly to being cheated. Especially out of money they felt was theirs. Stevens somehow avoided having to pay up, but his family was not so lucky. His eldest daughter, the one people thought might just manage to overcome the evil that her father poured out on a daily basis, was walking home from town one night. It was a different time, a time where people thought they were safe. She had been sent to run some errands for her mother, and time got later than she anticipated. So it was full dark when she was walking along the country road. Full dark was also when her father’s associates were known to make their own trouble.”

“No,” Suzanne gasped. Calvin grabbed another piece of candy and began chewing slowly.

“Now, when the facts started coming out a trial, those three men claimed it was an accident that must have caused those injuries. But no one could quite piece together what kind of accident would have left her face bruised and swollen beyond recognition. They had no idea what could have broken all her fingers and three ribs. And the greatest mystery of all was what kind of accident would have dragged her naked, lifeless body from the scene to her front porch.

“That was the last straw for Mrs. Stevens. Always a quiet woman, folks say she became even quieter. She was concentrating down all the rage that had built for all those years, compressing it into a pinpoint so dark, it sapped all the good straight out of her. Her husband continued on his own way, whistling while he worked about the farm. And then, one night, she got her revenge.

“They had an old cellar off from the house, one where Mr. Stevens kept his personal supply of whiskey. She knew he would go down there every night after his long day of work, just like clockwork. So she prepared. And one night, he went down, and the doors swung shut behind him. She locked it up tight, leaving him down there with nothing but his whiskey, an old lantern, and the exhumed corpses of his three children.”

“Ugh,” exclaimed Calvin, making a face and pushing away. “That’s sick.”

I smiled. “Perhaps, but so was he. ‘You can come out once you make it right,’ she told him, though she had no intention of letting him out. The only way he could make it right was to die in there. That was the atonement she sought. He hollered and raved for the first day, certain the power of his blustering would bring her to heel as it usually did. She sat on the front porch, working on her sewing, never batting an eye at the force of his words. After another day, he was begging. ‘When you make it right,” was all she would tell him.

“Folks finally got suspicious and showed up at the farm. She showed them to the cellar, not a hint of shame in her. They opened it up, not expecting to open up a crypt. Inside, they found him lying in a half formed grave, one other already dug and covered. His two sons sat in their chairs, at least what was left of them, right where Mrs. Stevens had placed them. The walls and doors were scratched and bloodied, but he had apparently saved enough of his fingers to dig up the dry, compressed ground, trying to make it right. She just shook her head when she saw it. ‘It wasn’t right when we put them in the first time,’ she was recorded as saying. She died in prison a few days later, though no one quite knew why.”

There was a creak in the branches above us, bringing us all back to the present. Calvin and Suzanne stretched and adjusted their position, trying to shake off the story. We were not on that farm or in that cellar, but seated safely beneath the tree. I smiled. Safety was relative.

“They say he wanders the grounds, looking for anyone out of their graves. Only he has a bad habit of mistaking the living for the dead. Rumor has it, if he catches you, he’ll bury you in his grave, where no one will ever find you. You’ll be buried alive, deep underground, where you can try to scratch and claw your way to freedom. But he already knows that never works.”

“Is—Is he buried here?” queried Suzanne, glancing around the cemetery as if every headstone was waiting to pounce.

I nodded. “Yep, a couple of rows over. I’ve paid him a visit a time or two, just to investigate this legend. Sad he didn’t seem to learn a thing from his wife.”

“We should try to see him!” said Calvin, jumping to his feet. I glanced at the bottle and noticed he had been comforting himself with it throughout the story. There was a subtle wobble to his stance. Not drunk, I thought, but certainly not sober.

“I can show you where he usually is, if you want. But—“

“Isn’t it dangerous?” Suzanne interrupted.

“Not if you’re with me. I can keep you safe.”

Calvin was already a couple of strides down the hill toward the grave. Suzanne and I hurried to catch up, climbing along the paths until we got closer. I held up a hand to stop them, placing a finger over my lips. “He’s just over there.”

From the gloom, there appeared a specter. He was a frail, emaciated man wearing a baggy pair of overalls and a checkered shirt. His beard was long and tangled about his face, eyes sunken. He held his arm up as if carrying a lantern about, but it emitted no light. As the wind turned, we could hear his mumbled ravings, words about graves and wives and revenge. He peered between the trees and gravestones, scouring his territory obsessively. When he reached the end, he looped back to the beginning, constantly waving his empty hand from side to side as he sought a way to finally make it right.

“Woah,” breathed Calvin, his eyes wide as he stared down at the spectacle before us. I, too, felt a certain awe at Old Man Stevens. So many years, so much time spent seeking, and still not at peace. Suzanne simply looked, well, like she had seen a ghost. Eye wide, face pale, lips trembling.

“Maybe we should go back,” I offered. She nodded, scrambling back the way we came. Calvin trailed behind us, casting glances over his shoulder to ensure the specter was still there.

“Are there more ghosts around here?” he asked, catching up to us.

I nodded. “I assume so. Every grave has a story, right? I just imagine most of them have no interest in pestering the living.”

We settled back under the tree, words flowing between us again. Finally, I realized, we were back into the swing of things. We laughed and talked. They told me what their life had been like since we last met, filling in all the gaps and details. We shared urban legends and spooky stories, working our way through the supply of candy and booze.

And then, on the far horizon, the sun began to crest, turning the black night sky into a fuzzy grey.

“I guess that’s our cue to leave,” said Calvin with a sad smile. “I’m glad we could meet up again.”

I smiled and nodded. “Yeah.” There were tears in my eyes and more words were going to bring those out.

“Same time, same place next year?” asked Suzanne.

I nodded.

“If not before,” Calvin said with a fatalistic chuckle.

“You better not!” I responded, anger mingling with the good-natured joke. I was always on a tightrope, trying to stay perfectly balanced. Sometimes I succeeded.

“Good seeing you, Lynn,” he added as we stood at the gate. He shoved his backpack through the bars and hoisted himself up.

“Take care,” offered Suzanne as she followed.

I watched them leave, the sun rising along the far horizon. It slowly reached out toward me, and I felt my form begin to vanish, burned away like an early morning fog.


And with that, I too shall bid adieu (to the challenge, not the blog!). Tune in for more stories over the next few weeks. I’ll also talk a little bit about what this 13 days series was like for me.Until then, Happy Halloween!

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


First Draft: Bottle Lady

Hello! Sorry for the silence. I just started my new  (old) job, and I’ve been trying to get all the paperwork and stuff squared away. It’s been a headache and a half, but hopefully all the right forms are to the right people now. I’ve also had a nightmare of a cold recently, so that has not helped me with the whole creative aspect of things.

But, of course, I do come bearing another story. This is the epitome of a first draft, though. As always, the story is below. My critique to myself would be a good concept and interesting start. However, the ending lacks a bit of punch and the pacing may be off. I’m afraid it drags at the beginning and then rushes through the climax. (I also just realized I dislike the tense switch from past to present at the end. It seemed like it worked at the time, but it’s a strategy I’m not usually a fan of. Something else to consider…) So I’d expect some tinkering on this. I’m also toying with the idea of expanding this story into multiple parts. I’ve had a couple of character ideas kicking around for a while, and they might be the perfect way to help the protagonist learn more about the eponymous Bottle Lady and her curse. But I think I need to get part one right before I think about expanding.

I would really appreciate any feedback or advice anyone has. Do you agree with my own critique? Disagree? Think I’m missing a glaring issue? I really enjoy showing the process of writing for me, and I hope you will join me on that journey. Either way, as always, happy reading!


Growing up, I never would have called my mother superstitious. Sure, she had a story and warning for everything, but there was none of the magic hand waving that I associated with tenuous superstitions. No, her beliefs were undeniable fact. The sun rose in the east and set in the west, what goes up must come down, and the Rat King would nibble your toes at night if you failed to rinse your dinner plate. There was no myth to it.

Once I left home, the absurdity of many of these beliefs finally sunk in. It’s not so much that I honestly believed these growing up, but just that I assumed everyone had these stories. Didn’t everyone know the story of the Crooked Old Man who lived in the basement and would creep up the stairs if you failed to shut the door? No, they didn’t. And in hindsight, I’m surprised I didn’t end up more disturbed by these creepy stories.

I grew older and the stories made sense. She was a single mom, living in a city hundreds of miles from her family, doing everything to make a life for three kids. The stories kept us in line. She never believed a one of them either, but they created rules. She did not have to be the bad cop, because her fables were there to fill in the gap. Still, it would have been nice to know not everyone grew up with these stories. I would have worried my college roommate a lot less.

After the power of the stories as real had faded, the behaviors remained, firmly ingrained in my routine. Getting undressed? Take our clothes and put them in the hamper, making sure not to leave your pants or sleeves or socks all bunched up.  I completed the action rhythmically thanks to eighteen years of practice, not because I was afraid the trapped skin cells and dirt would give rise to an evil twin. But it’s hard to explain that story to someone and not have them think you’re crazy.

So, I chalked up my mother’s story to superstition and well-intentioned morality stories. Even being grown, she sometimes brought them up when we were at the house, reminding us to use coasters so the witch couldn’t use the ring to peer into our living room. We smiled and complied.

I’m feeling sentimental now, I guess. Like maybe I should write all these stories down before I forget them. Mom died, you see. Last month. It’s still a fresh wound, but she had been so sick for so long…

Still, none of that is the point. The point is that she was not wrong.

I had to dig pretty far back in my memory to remember the first time she spoke about the Bottle Lady. I was very young, and we had just had a screaming match full of all the fury my little body could muster. I don’t remember what I said or why I was upset—being young there are a million possible reasons. But I remember the feeling of my raw throat and flushed cheeks as she sat me on my bed. She was beside me, one hand on my knee and another on my back, soothing. All the details are fuzzy, but I imagine she had that same resigned, loving, irritated look that she seemed to perfect in my teens.

“Mija,” she said. Or maybe I just imagine she said. It’s not important. “Mija, we must never yell things like that, especially not where the wind can take those words away. You never know who might hear.” Older me made sense of this by thinking she must not want to disturb the neighbors with a childish tantrum. And a hefty mix of “don’t air your dirty laundry in the street” thrown in for good measure.

I don’t remember my words, but I recall a stubborn streak emerging. I’d do what I want, because I was old enough to realize I could decide my own actions and affect others. I was a power drunk tyrant of a toddler. Or so she always told me fondly.

“If you do need to yell, make sure to go around and close all the windows. Make sure it’s not too windy outside either. Perhaps you may need to even close the chimney. When you’re rea good and sure no one else can hear you, then you can yell all you want. But you have to take some time to prepare, first.”

Grumbling and obstinance on my part, met with her smile and gentle hand. “You see, the Bottle Lady likes to listen for people who are angry and unhappy. She listens on the wind to hear angry little children. If she hears you, she’ll follow that sound all the way back to you and scoop your little voice right up into one of her bottles. Then you won’t be able to say a thing.”

My mouth agape, staring, wondering. It’s a wonder I did not have nightmares my entire childhood. But she smiled, then leaned down with mock menace. “Of course, then, maybe, I’d get a little peace and quiet!” She was tickling me and I was laughing, the punishment passed. The Bottle Lady was a frequent bogeyman in our home. If I started to yell at my sister, mother would be there to point me to the windows. Once I had checked all the windows and doors, I could come back and say whatever I had on my mind. Of course, most of the anger had burned out by then. Eventually, it simply became another habit. If I began to raise my voice, I’d stomp off to check the doors and windows, returning a couple of minutes later in a much better mindset to speak. And the idea of fighting on the playground or at school—places I could never hope to contain my words—was foreign.

Her superstitions had a purpose. I just never imagined any of them could be true.

I was not in a good place after she died. I mean, I’m still not in a good place, but I’m less the mess I was and more a typical grieving child. Or as typical as grief ever is. I let my good habits slide—dishes piled in the sink, clothes on the floor, the TV blaring at all hours. It was a call from some debt collector that finally broke me. I was in our old house, in the midst of packing up her belongings. They had no way to know she had passed, and God knows she had racked up debt trying to stay alive. That does not make them any less vultures. They wouldn’t listen, and before I knew it, I was screaming into the telephone.

I was not in my right mind, and I could not tell you what I truly said upon penalty of death. The anger and pain just gushed out of me and through the phone. How dare they, I said. Didn’t they know we were grieving (which they couldn’t have, I know)? I was sick and tired of putting up with it all, of looking happy and pulled together. I just wanted to be left alone.

While hanging up would have been sufficient, I flung the phone against the wall. It burst into hunks of cheap plastic, leaving a gash in the drywall I had to later fill. The house had to bear the scars of my immature rage.

I didn’t even think about the Bottle Lady as I stormed around the house, shoving things into boxes ahead of the big sale. My sister was pushing it, despite my requests to slow down. My brother refused to get involved. Who knows what things I muttered in that house. I was angry at myself, angry at the creditors, angry at Mila and Peter, angry at God, angry at my mother. All the while, the curtains flapped in the nice breeze. I’m sure the neighbors thought I was crazy, but then again they probably would have given me the benefit of the doubt.

I slept in my old bedroom that night, staring up at the posters of my teenage heartthrobs, still enshrined there after so many years. Mom had always left our rooms the same, saying the house would always be ours. And it was until Mila decided to liquidate it.

We were also told to never leave the windows open while we slept, lest some bad spirit sneak in and put naughty words in our mouths. I could not remember a time in my life when I had fallen asleep with a window open, but that night was the exception. Grief swarmed me, and I was unconscious only a paragraph into my book chapter.

The wind was truly blowing when I woke up, kicking the gauzy curtains about in a frenzy. They snapped in the wind, which is what I assumed woke me up. It felt and sounded like a storm was brewing up somewhere, so I considered it a lucky break. Doing my best to avoid entangling myself in the curtains, I stumbled over and slammed the window down, then dutifully traced my steps through the house to ensure everything was sealed up tight. The realtor would have my head if I got the “original wood floors” waterlogged with such a careless mistake.

She was standing on the in the hallway as I made my way out of the kitchen. I froze, my eyes quickly trying to parse the strange silhouette. In the dark, all I could see was a dark lump in the center of the hallway, with a large square extending from about four feet to the top of the ceiling. The figure lurched forward, the square dragging along the ceiling with the clink of glass from somewhere. Trying to assign human anatomy to it, I recognized the short, wide leg that stomped forward, followed by a belabored sway forward. From the leg, I was able to pick out a torso and two stubby arms.

She stepped forward again, falling into the limited light from Mila’s bedroom window. I could see her face, round and squashed together. Her lips looked swollen, and her eyes squinted until there was nothing more than a thin shadow marking their location. One her back, strapped haphazardly by two worn leather straps, was some large wooden structure. She carried it along, her back impossibly stooped by the weight of whatever it was. I could hear the glass rattling with each step she took, tinkling in time to the shaking of the wooden behemoth.

She smiled when she saw me, the shifting muscles somehow creating an even more displeasing image. Almost in relief, she sagged towards the ground, slumping her shoulders until the straps released whatever it was on her back. Her posture stayed just as stooped, giving the impression she was nearly walking about on all fours. Still smiling, she turned and tugged on what I quickly recognized as a door on a large cabinet. She carried the thing about with her.

The doors fell open with a long, irritated creak. The hinges appeared to barely hold it together, and they swung, pealing their displeasure with each miniscule movement.

Enraptured as I was by the scene, I turned and fled the moment she turned her back to inspect the contents of the cabinet. The kitchen door led out into the back yard, which connected to the front by a gate. It seemed trivial to escape, especially since the woman was at the wrong end of the hallway to prevent me from fleeing. However, the door was shut tight. I gripped the doorknob tightly and turned with all my might, but it simply spun in my hand.

The basement door was opposite the exit, and there was a way out through there. I turned to sprint down the steps, but she caught me in my tracks. My mind tried to piece together how she could have made it from one end of the hallway to me in the time it took me to check the door, but none of the pieces matched. It was a categorical impossibility. Still, she slowly shuffled between me and the door, her mouth still wide with a smile.

There was a glass bottle in her hand, something made of old, weather-worn blue glass. She lifted it up and shook it at me, the glass catching what little light there was in the kitchen. “Yours?” she said, her voice bursting from her mouth like a moth escaping a musty closet.

She deftly withdrew a cork from the bottle, and I heard my voice. “Don’t you have any decency?” the voice shouted, breaking the stillness in the kitchen.

It continued. “I certainly couldn’t live with myself if I was half as vile as you”

“Go to hell!”

“They just think they can dump everything on me, but they’re in for a rude awakening.”

“Bet they just wish I’d up and die, too. Make it easier on everyone.”

More and more hate poured out of the bottle, and I felt my eyes widen. That was my voice, and the words were all too familiar. I heard myself on the phone, pacing the house, swearing as I threw things into boxes and crunched old newspapers around them. It was a terrifying mimic of my entire afternoon.

The Bottle Lady nodded, placing the cork back in the bottle almost lovingly. Her eyes met mine, cruelty glinting there, as she raised the bottle and brought it crashing down on the floor. Little pieces of blue scattered across the cheap linoleum.

With surprising dexterity and speed, she swept up a handful of the shards and threw them into her gaping mouth. I could hear the crunching, see the trickle of blood snake down her chin. She swallowed and then smiled with newly bloodstained teeth.

“You should have known better,” said my voice from her lips.

She turned and began shuffling her way back out of the kitchen, coattails dragging along behind her and leaving a trail of grime in her wake. My mouth opened. “Who are you and why the fuck are you in my house” was what I intended to say. But there was only silence. My lips flapped open, the air gusted through, but there were no words. They were trapped, buried somewhere deep in my chest.

I sprinted after her, lips forming into the shapes for “Wait!” and “Stop!” to no avail. She was at the end of the hall as I exited the kitchen. I could see into the cabinet now, see dozens if not hundreds of bottles lining the shelves. There were all shapes and colors, some filled and some empty.

With unexpected tenderness, she closed the doors and lifted the straps to her back. I was close enough to touch her, to grab one arm. The flesh beneath was soft, nearly oozing from beneath my fingers. She turned to me, still smiling from a face now painted with blood and spittle, and then was gone with her cabinet.

I yelled and screamed silently sitting there alone in the house. My sister came over around noon the next day and found me in a heap precisely where the Bottle Lady disappeared. There was a trail of dirt and leaves leading form the kitchen to the hallway, which she began complaining about as soon as she entered the house. The words died on her lips when she saw me.

They say its selective mutism brought on due to grief. Selective because my sister, brother, and one rather peeved creditor say I have been calling repeatedly and leaving terrible voicemails. I’ve told my sister I wish she were dead six times, apparently, and have repeatedly told my brother mom never loved him anyways. Of course, I know I haven’t said those things, but my sister did not seem to buy into the Bottle Lady story no matter how quickly I wrote about what happened. And I have not found anyone to confirm it’s not me leaving 3am voicemails for the whole family. I just sound crazy. My psychiatrist agrees.

Worst of all, though, are the things I’ve been saying to me. She whispers in my own voice whenever I’m alone. “You’re worthless,” I say with more vitriol than I’ve ever used in my life. “Mom as the only person who could ever love you, and she died just to get away.” It’s a constant barrage of all my worst thoughts, delivered by the one person I thought I could depend on.

I think she’s angry that I’ve been writing this. Like I’m somehow cheating. The things she says to me, that I hear myself say, have gotten worse and worse. I assume the phone calls to my siblings have, too, but they understandably cut contact with their toxic sister.

I see her now. Hiding around the corner, in the shadows of my closet, three seats behind me on the bus. She just smiles and watches, waiting for me to break.

Like a predator, she separated the weakling from the herd and now has only to circle until I give in to my weakness.

I fear she won’t have much longer to wait.


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


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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First Draft: Hope Springs Eternal

Hey, here;s a little something I whipped up tonight. The first line was pretty much the information, a quote adapted from something one of my supervisor’s said during training. Just a idea, bit of a thought experiment with some mild twists thrown in. As always, feedback heartily welcomed. I hope you enjoy, and happy reading!


Hope is the knowledge that the next moment can be better. It is about potential and the inexorable march of time. I used to think my next moment could be better, but eternity has dissuaded me from that foolishness. I live without hope.

At least, I think I live. I have been trying to remember those qualities I learned in grade school to determine if something was alive. Living things move, but I have not twitched an inch in so long, I know longer know which direction my libs would customarily travel. Living things reproduce and grow, neither of which I have done any of recently. I know that energy is a part of being alive, and I suppose I have enough energy for thought. Then again, so would a computer, and it certainly is not alive. Unless the world has changed more than I realize.

I remember my teacher—Mrs. Hasemblat—writing the signs of life on the board. She started with simple things, like dogs and rocks, and then got more and more tricky. Were trees alive? What about fungi? Bacteria? Viruses?

Living things had to be organized, and I suppose I am still organized. I know that I have two arms, two legs, ten fingers and ten toes. My lips are dry and cracked, a constant source of dull irritation. I assume my eyes sits right where they always have, crushed too deeply into my face and set just too far apart to make me conventionally attractive. Knowing no one can see you makes you surprisingly honest about physical appearance.

The one that seems to fit me best, however, is that complicated process of homeostasis. Mrs. Hasemblat talked about air conditioning and hunger to help us understand. She brought in a set of scales and showed us how things can be balanced. I am perfectly balanced. Never one bit out of sync, always exactly as I should be.

And perhaps that is it. I finally hit the perfect human balance point, and now my body refuses to disrupt that delicate homeostasis. I’d love to say I’ve spent days, weeks, or years here in limbo, but without another moment to come along, that time really has no meaning. It’s hard to describe how something can feel so long when time has absolutely no reign in some strange purgatory.

I’d wonder if others noticed that I was gone—or I used to before that thought experiment became too boring. I ran through every permutation, and none of them were promising. More importantly, none of them broke this curse. I assume they did not, because they are still sitting in front of me, their faces lit with smiles. Jason has a forkful of pasta halfway to his mouth, eyes bright with the first half of a joke. I never got to hear the end of that joke. I think I figured out what it would be, because I have had plenty of time to contemplate how “a man called the electrician about his washing machine,” can end. At least I can find solace in the fact that the joke was likely terrible.

Claudia’s hand is on mine. Her skin is still warm, a comfortable weight atop my fingers. She was mid-laugh when it all stopped. At least I can be close to her, even though I cannot see or hear her.

Yes, the lack of sound is concerning. Well, lack of sound is incorrect. There is sound, but it is just a single moment of sound, playing endlessly. A dull thrum of a single syllable from every mouth. It just becomes useless white noise, or at least it did after a while.

I wonder if I have died. Or if the world ended. Or if someone unplugged me and left me in some strange limbo, forever caught between one page of my life and the next. Good things were going to happen, I am certain of it. Only those moments will never come. The next moment certainly would be better, but I am convinced now that it cannot. It cannot be better because it cannot be. I am forever in this single instant, a frozen memory forgotten by someone.

I wish I were dead, because nothingness would be better than the intolerableness of being and having no agency. I cannot move or speak or cry or sleep or read or die. And that must be the ultimate injustice. I cannot even choose to cease to be, to escape this hell of emptiness. I must continue on, a solitary sentry on this instant time forgot.

Jason’s eyes watch me, and I find myself sinking deeper into despair. That is the only thing I can change about my state. I can despair and mourn and bitterly embrace my cruel fate. And so I despair a bit more, and let myself think again that they all may be trapped with me. Perhaps Claudia is just as frozen at my side, our child half-knit in her belly and destined to never be born. Is Jason frozen, the words of his stupid joke forever pasted to his lips? Has the whole world stopped on its violent course through the universe and held onto this microsecond of existence?

Perhaps the universe collapsed. Or maybe the Earth did stand still, sending us plummeting into a void where physics, time, and human consciousness have no meaning.

I have thought of a million and one possible scenarios, but none of them help to set me free. If hope is knowing the next moment can be better, than I of all people am certainly hopeless. I cannot even hope to die any longer.

_

Maggie dragged her arm under her bed, scraping up years’ worth of detritus from underneath. It was hard to imagine actually leaving the old house, but her burgeoning family certainly needed more room to grow. It was hard to say goodbye to such a good home.

She sat up and surveyed the assortment of trash, papers, and forgotten treasures. There were more candy wrappers than she wanted to admit, a handful of cat toys, two letters Alvin had written her, a framed picture from her senior prom, and a dog-eared old book. She sorted the trash from the keepsakes, and then turned her attention to the book. Donation or library, she pondered?

The cover was dusty, and she did not immediately remember the title. Her bookmark was still wedged halfway between the covers, so she guessed she must have dedicated some time to it. Still, flipping to the back cover offered no further illumination. Claudia, Jason, Cory, and Luanne were high school friends reconnecting when they were caught up in a supernatural thriller of sorts. It was definitely the kind of cheap, cliché, fast-paced book she liked to read, but it had been sorely neglected.

She flipped it open, sneezing as it gave up a hearty serving of dust for her efforts. She scanned the page where her bookmark sat, reading briefly about the dinner where they finally put aside the years of difference and began to reconnect. As she read it, she felt tingles of memory. It seemed like things were about to take a terrible turn—the lights would probably go out soon, she thought with a smirk.

Jason leaned forward, his dinner halfway between table and snapping teeth. It was spared for the briefest of moments by a joke. ‘So, a man called the electrician about his washing machine…’ he began, looking around the table to be certain he had everyone’s attention.

Cory was rapt with attention, barely noticing Claudia’s manicured hand finding its resting place on his, giving him a light squeeze. They waited with bated breath for the rest of the joke. Jason had always been the class clown, ready with a quick wit and hilarious story. For once, the four felt young again. They felt alive. Invincible.”

Maggie shook her head and closed the book, tucking it under her arm. It certainly was not highbrow literature, nor was it likely to win any awards. But, she hated to leave a book unfinished. It seemed disrespectful to simply abandon the characters midway through, to not at least give them the benefit of finishing their story.

Besides, it could not be that bad of a story. Or, so she hoped.


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Card Challenge: Day 81

Card Day 81: A hand holding a flaming torch, thrust out of choppy water.

“Freedom is what we seek today. My brother and sisters, too long we have allowed our human freedom to be curtailed in the name of the greater good. We have developed as a race that preserves itself, seeks its best interest, and is guided by the safety and nurturance of our community to continue our race. Freedom is equality. Freedom drives out fear. It is the fear by those in power that they may no longer lord over us that restricts our freedom. It is our own willingness to relinquish our God-given ability that allows them to stay in power while we suffer.

“King Wilfred knew this. That is why he entrusted us with such a huge responsibility. We stand at a great precipice today. Brothers and sisters, we can choose freedom. We can choose to rule ourselves, cast aside those who would tell us how to live, what to say, who to be, and what our worth is. Humanity is specially gifted with the freedom to choose our life, to reason, to act outside of the domain of primitive instinct. In the coming days, you will be given the choice. Will you choose the bit and saddle, continue to live in service of the chosen elite who lord it over you? Or will you stand with me and choose the dignity of human freedom to choose our own path in this world?

“You have the power to choose. Choose well, my friends.” Tasha stepped down from the hastily assembled podium. Her throat burned with the force of her words and her eyes felt like they were swimming. There had been so many people, so many faces turned to watch her. They were tired faces dressed in cheap rags; they were tired eyes carrying a life’s worth of stress. It was exhilarating and exhausting to speak that kind of passion into the world, but it at least flowed from her. Yes, the wise old king had seen the inherent ability of his people to choose the right path. Leaving no successors, he had cast the future of the kingdom on the people he served so faithfully. Now it was their turn to serve him. They could choose to live out their lives in freedom, without the tyrannical rule of power and government lording over them. Tasha believed in their value. She could only hope they did, too.

“Stunning speech, T.” She gave Saul a fake smile, but knew he saw through it to the fatigue beneath. He was always her greatest supported, likely because he was one of the few who understood what they were truly asking for. Complete freedom. It was a passion that knit them together closer than lovers.

“I’d say it gets easier to give each time, but it certainly does not.”

He raised an eyebrow. “You expect me to believe you’ve given that speech before? I’ve certainly never heard it.”

“Oh, Saul, you know what I mean. I preach the same ideas, even if the words might change around a bit”

He shook his head and laughed. “True, but that is what we call a different speech. The words do matter in speaking, after all.”

She shrugged. Adam had crawled onto the makeshift platform behind her, reminding the assembled people of the opportunity to speak their mind in two days’ time, how to champion for the freedom they preached, and another rousing discussion of the unique human choice of freedom. His voice was deeper, but somehow lacked the firm resolve of Tasha’s. It seemed to falter and waver a bit more, unsure of the next words. She smiled. He was learning, but it was a work in progress. Yet his youth assured his future success. After all, he had chosen this route in life.

“Have you eaten dinner yet? I was going to meet Andrea at the tavern to discuss tomorrow’s plans and outreach, if you would like to join.”

“If nothing else, I could use a drink. My throat is killing me.”

“Well, you were screaming over half of Welfordshire tonight.”

“After it’s all done, I may not speak for a year.”

“And hopefully you’ll be perfectly free to do so.” He gave her a week, linking his arm with hers as they walked. “It’s quite the vision we have, you know?”

She nodded.

“Tell me, what—“

Tasha cut him off. “Saul, old friend, I know you have never run out of words to say, but my throat aches and I have three more meetings with the people tomorrow. Could we for once walk in silence?”

He gave her an understanding smile. “Of course. But Andrea may pay the price for your vow of silence.”

_

The next day was a blur of similarly tired faces and ragged crowds. They seemed to come alive at her words, somehow overcoming the weight of the daily burden of work in mills, factories, and mines that ultimately would not fee their children. Tasha felt as if she were drawing back the curtain on a window, letting light stream in. There was hope in the future, and she could show it to them. She watched it bring them alive.

When the census taker arrived at the shop sh, Saul, Adam, Andrea, and assorted others had used as their base of operations, she stood proudly before them.

“I accordance with King Wilfred’s Final Decree, you all have been given the opportunity to select the new ruler of Corridale. May we have your choice?”

She stepped forward first and watched as the scribe readied his quill. “I choose no ruler.” The scribe dove towards the page, but then stopped just before the tip touched the paper.

“I’m sorry, madame, do you mean you abstain?”

Tasha beamed at the question. “No, sir. I mean that I wish to see each man and woman rule him or herself, fully embracing the freedom that makes us human.”

“I see.’ His quill hovered for a moment. “So, you vote for the people?” he offered, obviously searching for the best way to record the vote.

Tasha felt a shiver of unease sing through her body. Apparently, he had not heard too many of her votes. But, she quickly caught herself, theirs was also one of the first early morning stops, and in the midst of the business district. These were not the people who needed freedom from the powerful elite. “If that’s how you think bets to record it, then by all means.”

He smiled at her in thanks and wrote it down. The courier moved his eyes to Saul.

“The same. Let the people choose for themselves how to live.” One by one, each member of the small group voiced their support. At the end, the courier and scribe smiled, offered a shallow bow, and exited into the early morning light.

Giddiness and a victorious high rang in the shop among all those gathered. It was a high that carried them through the waiting, though Tasha struggled with the battle between the swell of hope and despair of uncertainty.

Her worst fears were confirmed when the final results spread across the city on a wave of gossip. Lord Milligan, a wealthy trader and business owner, had won the people’s hearts and, unfortunately, the crown.  Saul knew to find her in the dark, sheltered corner of their favorite tavern.

“Tasha,” he began as he slid into the chair across from her. There was an edge of anger and outrage in his voice. “We have to fight this. It isn’t right.”

She sighed and shrugged. “The people chose who they wanted, Saul. What do you suggest we do? Force them to choose freedom?”

“If that’s what it takes, then yes! They do not know that they’ve resold themselves to the devil.”

“So we should be the ones to choose, because we know what’s better for them?”

“Yes!” he agreed vehemently, passion and fury mixing in his eyes.

She took a long sip of her drink, letting it cool her throat that still ached from days and weeks spent preaching their gospel. “And I’m sure Lord Milligan will say the same, if you ask him.”

That quieted him and dimmed his rage.

“We lost, Saul. It hurts, yes, but ultimately the people chose.”

“I hear he paid them off. Offered them handfuls of gold to vote for him.”

She shrugged again. “Then they chose money over freedom.” Another long sip. “Perhaps that will leave them better off in the end.”

“So you’re just going to let it go? Let them steal freedom from everyone in Corridale?”

“Saul, the people chose. They simply did not choose us. We cannot force them to accept freedom.”

His anger crumbled into pity and confusion. “I just don’t understand why. We know it would be for the best, and they could see it, too. Why trade it all for some measly gold coins that only ensure their future enslavement?”

“We offered them something great, but it is not an easy burden. Sometimes freedom is simply the freedom to say no, no matter how good the idea may be.”

“Yes, but I don’t—“

“Saul?” her voice was soft and it caught him off guard, enough to interrupt his oncoming speech. He looked at her expectantly. “We’ve spilled plenty of words over this already. We lost. Our choice now is to accept it and move on, or try to force others to choose what we think would be for the best. Now, will you have a drink with me?”

His mouth opened and closed once, then again. Finally he waved over to the tavern owner.

The two old friends sat in silence, contemplating the complexity of losing because they got exactly what they wanted.


Eh, so this is not my favorite piece to date, I like the idea, but I think that trying to compress it all into one relatively short piece left it feeling a bit disjointed and rushed. Then again, I’m not sure if I would enjoy writing this in a much longer form. I like Tasha and Saul, and I like the idea of a fantasy-political style story, but I’m not sure how interesting that would be overall. Still, I think I like the quality of my writing in this for the most part (with the somewhat formal sounding dialogue being intentional), even if the plot is not my absolute favorite of the challenge. Who knows, maybe inspiration will strike and I will figure out how to fix this. As is, i will simply leave it as a considerable attempt, though not a resounding success.


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Card Challenge: Day 78

Card Day 78: Falling water droplet holding a sun, windswept trees, a snake, a man, water, a butterfly, a fetus, and stones.

Vivia traced the path of water down the windowpane with her finger, watching as the droplets splashed and tumbled down the clear class toward uncertain end. There was a prickle of giddiness in the exercise as she tried to imagine what the route might be, but she was ultimately as surprised as the water droplet was. Or she presumed it was. That raised another interesting question. Did the droplet realize where it was and decide where to go? Did it select each fork in the road or did gravity and friction decide for it? Her eyes searched along the droplets for any hint, but they were stalwart and silent. Just as well, she sighed. It would have robbed some of the magic of it.

The wondering was good, and Vivia felt her brain stretch with the exercise. It was a nice way to shuffle back some of the loneliness, even if the reprieve was remarkably brief. The feeling of companionship with the inanimate rain droplets dwindled, but she found her eyes drawn back again and again to their trails. Some part of her was still concerned with the end of their journey. Perhaps that part should be equally as concerned about her end.

That thought served to redouble the emptiness of her room. It was a stone room, decorated with restrained finery. The bed was plush and soft, though it was nothing more than a plain white lump against the wall. Fresh food arrived three times a day with the same restrained delicacy—fine ingredients combined in mundane combinations. The large window generally let in copious light, though today it bristled with storm clouds. That again was fitting, she decided. Perhaps it was even an intentional reflection of someone’s sorrow for her predicament. She liked to believe that someone out there was on her side.

With a sigh, she collapsed into the wooden chair in the corner, gazing out over the empty and sparse room. It was all the luxury she was accustomed to, simply separated from its usual elegance.  It felt silly that they took such care to provide for her comfort when they were, in fact, about to completely destroy her life as she knew it. Yet she had her feather pillow at night.

Feathers were no better at soaking up her tears than a straw mat would have been.

There was a gentle knock on her door—they still pretended she had enough power that one should knock before entering. She wondered if she simply did not speak if the courier would leave the door. She could ride out the rest of her life in this bland cocoon, gazing out at the majestic landscape now covered in fog. These thoughts still danced in her head as the door creaked open.

“Milady Vivia?” squeaked the voice, obviously terribly uncomfortable at the intrusion.

She rose from the chair with a whisper of silk. “I assume they are ready to pronounce their judgment.”

“Yes,” came the response with a sigh of relief, even though it was not a question. She walked towards the door and her ill-burdened messenger opened it wider to admit the guards. They raised silver links in their meaty hands with an apologetic tone.

“We have to obey our orders, Milady.” The ogres did their best not to manhandle her more than necessary as they directed her down the corridors, but she still arrived in the main chamber feeling harried.

“Vivia,” grumbled the silver-haired man from atop his high seat. There was a strange mix of anger, sorrow, and disappointment in his eyes. She deflected that with staunch pride and aloofness, never quite meeting his eyes. He was beneath her and in the wrong. She knew it and he likely had a pretty good idea of it as well.

“You know why you are here?” His voice was the echoing of a storm on the horizon. Once, she had loved the gravelly rumble, but now it left her feeling bitter. That thunder no longer brought the gentle summer rains, but unleashed a torrent that would soon wash her away.

“Because justice,” she spat the word, her eyes roving over the assembled figures with disdain, “must be served.” Her mimicry did not go unnoticed.

“Vivia, we do not want to do this,” said a woman with a shimmering voice. Vivia turned to fix her with a withering stare, but felt an internal prickle as the other woman wilted. Her generally sunny, bright face dimmed to match the cloudy skies outside. At least someone seemed to care.

“Oh, plenty of you want to. Otherwise I would not stand before you in judgment today.”

“You stand here because you killed one of your own!” roared a small man from the other side of the room. He had a stiff and wooden appearance, his skin gnarled like the old oaks that grew by the river. Vivia’s iciness never wavered, and she covered his rage in a heavy frost.

“That is true. I killed him before he could wipe away humanity as we know it.”

“That was not your decision to make,” thundered the leader again. This time he stood, drawing all eyes to him with deference. All except Vivia’s whose instead slowly wandered across the assembled until they found his. She smiled.

“Maybe not, but at least I made one.”

A whisper scuttled along the rest of the waiting faces, dying out just as it reached its swell. Her impudence did not pass without note.

“As have we.” He was the only one who could meet her eyes.

“An eye for an eye, right?”

There was a ripple of anger and sorrow in his eyes. “No, bloodshed must not lead to more bloodshed. There is no justice in such a world.”

For the first time since she entered the room, Vivia faltered. She had marched proudly to her death, and this was unexpected. Nonetheless, she kept her wits about her enough to seal her lips.

“You will be exiled.”

The only measureable change in Vivia’s appearance was the way the blood faded from her cheeks, leaving her a statue carved from marble. Her eyes wavered and blinked, but maintained their intensity.

“Then do it,” she said tersely, her jaw clenched so tight the words barely escaped.

The small, withered man stepped down from his seat and walked before her. He raised a knotted finger and tapped her forehead three times while muttering. With sudden speed, his gnarled nails dug into her arms, drawing a pinprick of blood. And then there was darkness.

_

Vivia woke up and felt the frailty of humanity in her bones. Her body ached, as did her head. A strange pain arced from the front to the back of her skull and back again, leaving stars in her vision. The name Hannah echoed in her mind, and she turned it over gingerly, probing at it as if it would reveal some great secret. All she got was a series of memories and associations spinning around her own lofty knowledge. Apparently, Hannah was her new—albeit unwilling—host. Hannah.

Vivia certainly preferred her name, but she could spend some time as Hannah if that was what it took. The ground beneath her was hard and cold. Vivia liked the cold, but did not like the way the stones dug into her shoulder blades. Filled with energy and powered by her anger, she vaulted to her feet. Others pushed past and around her, caught up in the bustle of a market and never noticing the woman who had collapsed and revived in the middle of the streets. Just as they wanted, she was sure.

Vivia turned to face the sun, seeing the white hot sphere hanging in the sky. She stared it down as her human eyes watered and withered. Human eyes prevented her from seeing them sitting up there, but she was sure they could see her. She wanted them to see her. The heat and light of the sun burned at her eyes, and she only turned away when it came time to blink away the tears. But a determined smile peeked from the corners of her lips and she surveyed her new people.

She might not be a god any longer, but she would be worshipped.


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Card Challenge: Day 76

Card Day 76: A fairy rescuing a small boy from the gaping maw of a green, dragon-like monster.

Brandon knew that he should have gone home hours ago, but wisdom had not won out. Instead, he was still attached to his dim seat at the sticky bar, eyes glazed and glass empty. He was drunker than he should have been, but still passed his most important test. He knew he was drunk, so that meant he could not be that drunk. Even though his stumbled and slumped against the chair when he stood—probably his legs had fallen sleep from sitting in the same position and same chair since the bar was full of Friday night hopefuls drinking to celebrate making it through the week. Now it was just clogged with the sad remnants who drank to make it to Saturday.

Alcohol was an effective, if blunt, tool, equally dimming all sensations until Brandon could experience his world from an arm’s length. Everything seemed distant, almost as if he were watching a video through someone else’s eyes. That at least explained why his arms and legs felt unstable even after his twenty-something years of experience with them.

Brandon was resolved not to be one of the regulars who remained there until grimy sunshine crept in and the lights went off. No, he had standards and enough sense to get home before he fell asleep in the quiet room. The raging pulsing music from earlier had faded to old and well-worn favorites; there was nothing to keep his mind from turning back to the sad thoughts he drank to forget.

He stumbled out the door, shocked into a higher level of sobriety by the surprisingly chill. It was late fall, so it made sense that it would be getting cool, but it had ben pleasant when he entered the bar. Then again, the sun had also been up. He rubbed his arms briskly, feeling the chill bumps already growing on his arms, and turned left down the street. No matter how drunk or not he was, he never drove home from the bar. It was just asking for bad decisions. And so he set off, walking through the dark streets under anemic pools of artificial light.

This part of town was not frequently traveled at night, so the lights alternated on and off in an attempt to save power. The whole city was spending itself into poverty, but at least they were saving some electricity.

He stumbled on his own feet, sliding against the brick wall beside him and banging his shoulder sharply. The pain radiated through his shoulder as he let out a few choice words. Apparently he was drunker than he thought, especially if he could not even walk home successfully.

Another mistake, another failure, and another disappointment. He leaned against the wall and considered his predicament grimly. He was a coward hiding behind alcohol s if it would bandage all the wounds he had given in his time. His own soul lay in tatters under his rage, and he left a path of destruction through the lives of others. The beers were simply his attempt to anesthetize that violent part of himself, preserve himself and others. Only it was a futile practice that left him alternatively numb and raging.

No matter how carefully he medicated, he ended up hurting himself—if he was lucky—or others either way.

Brandon tried to reason with himself, reminding himself that the alcohol made his thoughts darker than reality. But his inner self refused to accept his logic, instead wrapping himself in that cold blanket and shutting out any outside help. Irritated at his own stubbornness, Brandon pushed off the wall and stumbled down the road farther.

The next part of his journey led him along the bridge of a state highway, which at least meant other people were zipping past him in the world. It seemed right that he would slowly traipse along while the rest of the world flew past at 65mph. It was only fair. Then again, Brandon was not in a hurry to get back to his empty bachelor pad, recently gutted of any signs another human had once lived, laughed, and loved there with him. She could not take his sluggishness, the monster that lived inside and ripped him apart from within. She certainly could not take the vicious words that spilled out of his mouth, wounding her so that she would know how much he hurt. NO one should be forced to endure that, and he could not blame her from leaving. If he could leave himself, he would.

Brandon stumbled again, distracted by his own self-loathing, He smashed into the flimsy barrier between him and traffic Only this time, the waist-high wall crumpled and gave, sending him flailing towards the oncoming traffic.

No matter how much he hated himself, Brandon felt a flicker of fear at the slow realization that this was not going to end well.

Only instead of rolling off the hood of a speeding bullet or skidding along the pavement—or both—Brandon felt something grab the collar of his shirt and tug him back, sending him crashing into the concrete barrier on the other side of the walking path. The concrete did not give away, and he slid down to sit on the broken sidewalk. His heart thundered and he felt surprisingly sober in that moment. A car honked as it whizzed past him.

Beside him on the concrete was a frazzled looking woman. Her eyes hefted heavy bags, and her orangeish hair flared out in dozens of directions without any intention. Her clothes, once white, were muddied and stained. She glared at him with about half of the hate he generally directed at himself.

“Are you suitably proud of yourself now?” she snapped. Her voice was young and high-pitched, grating against his ears with the fury of her irritation.

Brandon’s mouth opened and closed, but he was still in a state of shock. His life had possibly flashed before his eyes, but all he remembered was a deepening sense of dread. Then again, that seemed fairly appropriate. His heart was a rhythmic thunder in his chest, pulsing louder than the sound of rushing traffic. The deep, gasping breaths he took made him feel as if he would never actually catch his breath again.

“Well? Nothing to say for yourself?”

Her anger confused him, and his brain was still too foggy to formulate the correct response. “Thank you?” he responded.

She rolled her eyes. Not the expected reaction. “Oh, thank you,” she singsonged, standing from the pavement and smacking her hands together.

“I—I’m sorry. I don’t know what happened, but thank you for grabbing me. I would have been—“

You would have been nothing but a slimy spot on the pavement, that’s what.” She viewed him dismissively from where he sat on the ground. Brandon hurried to stand up, even though his head spun a little with the rush.

“I know. You saved my life. I don’t have any money or anything, but if I could repay you?”

A bitter smirk crossed her face. “Yeah, you could stop making my job a nightmare. I mean, seriously, some people get easy marks who live a nice, reasonable life. Then I get assigned to you, and I haven’t slept soundly in six months from chasing after your ridiculous antics.”

Brandon began to worry that he had struck his head in the commotion, because nothing she said made sense. “I’m sorry, I just don’t understand. What did I do to you?”

“Oh yeah, I forgot, you drank half of the booze in Calacanas County tonight. Let me slow this down for you. I,” she pointed exaggeratedly at her own chest, “am responsible for taking care of,” she made an exaggerated pause, raising her eyebrow, only to deflate when he did not fill the silence, “you.” Her eyes crawled over his face, searching for understanding. Apparently, she found enough. “And you have made an amazing series of bad decisions. I had to save you from three different bar fights, keep you from stepping on a rusty nail and developing tetanus, not let you crack your head open on the sidewalk, and dive in front of a speeding vehicle to drag you out of the way. That was just tonight!”

Brandon’s mouth snapped closed, then drifted open again. Everything she was saying had a dim feeling of déjà vu, but he could not identify the moment. Then again, most of his night was a hazy blur painted amber-gold.

“So, I’m tired. If you could just try, for once, to stop killing yourself accidentally, I would really appreciate it.”

His mind finally caught up. “So, you’re like a…guardian angel?”

She rolled her eyes dramatically, hands on her hips. “Yeah, a guardian angel. See the wings?”

“No,” he stammered. She laughed.

“That’s cause I’m no angel. At least you got the guardian part right.” The woman ran a hand through her hair, flattening half of it, but leaving the rest just as much in disarray. Her voice calmed. “So, now that we’ve had this chat, think you could lay off the death wish?”

“I—I haven’t been trying, I mean, I’m sorry. I—I won’t do that anymore.”

Her head swung slowly side from side, a deep sigh slipping through her lips. “Just, do your best. Maybe take a vacation? I could use a vacation. No place dangerous like the beach or mountain climbing or anything. Just…how about you just go find a book and read for a few hours?” She turned her back on him, walking back down the street slowly with her head hung low.

A flame flickered in the dim night air and he watched her lift a shaking cigarette to her lips. “I need a np.” With that, she vanished.

Brandon looked around, stunned to find himself on the same sidewalk. There was no explanation for what had just happened. With all the caution and awareness he could muster, Brandon restarted his trek home, running a hand through his hair to find the head wound he was certain he must have endured.


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


Card Challenge: Day 75

Card Day 75: A woman wearing earrings of people that stand on her shoulders.

She awoke confused. Of course, neither “awoke” nor “she” were quite the right terms for the reality of the situation, but it was the best she could do in the situation. QN-7995X3, Queenie as she had been nicknamed long ago, ran a brief systems check before standing up to review her surroundings. It was uncommon as a robot to wake up with no memory of where she was, especially since he optical displays generally catalogued all of her movement while on or in standby. That meant she either had a critical flaw in her data storage procedures or someone had moved her after shutdown.

Queenie’s scanned turned up nothing. Someone must have moved her, and she bristled at the affront. Nevertheless, her booting scans complete—her shutdown had also apparent been rather abrupt—she stood and examined the room she was in while her servos squealed with disuse, waiting for her remaining startup procedures to complete. There was no satellite signal here, and so she could not yet verify the date. However, the heavy layer of dust on her and the room made her believe is was far longer than the three hours measured by her internal clock.

Besides the dust, there was little else in the room. There were a couple of crates that emitted no interesting signals, a row of fluorescent lights on the ceiling, no windows, and a single metal door. Her arm reached out, fingers curled and released, and her arm fell back to her side. So far, no mechanical errors either she thought as her sensors balanced her smoothly on one leg, then the other.

Her vision rapidly flipped through ultra-violet, low light, night vision, x-ray, radiation, and electric field imaging, none providing any information besides what she had already gathered. Hr vocal filters shifted through an array of languages as her translation software spun up the English translations. Queenie enjoyed the sound of her voice. It was soft, feminine, delicate, but measure and strong. A voice you could rely on, someone used to tell her. His name escaped her and she logged an error with her databanks. In all likelihood, she countered, the data had simply been overwritten. It was long ago, after all.

As soon as the startup checks completed, two programs began running simultaneously. This was irregular, she realized, and instinctively initiated a virus scan. However both programs had been cleared and initiated installed through appropriate channels, even though she could not locate the author name for either file. Again, she logged the data bank error. That should not have been overwritten.

Unfortunately, the two programs were in direct conflict. One was redirecting her to an immediate full shut down. The other instructed her to open the door and leave the room. No matter which program she attempted to follow, Queenie found herself stuck, each one looping over nad over until she complied. Her movements were stuttering and futile, and so she finally stilled until the programs could resolve the conflict.

She remained in such a frozen state for what she measured as days—though she had not been able to connect to satellites and calibrate her clock, so the time was potentially incorrect. In that time, she had investigated her memory and data storage to identify any damage, and came up with a section of recently deleted information. There were scraps remaining, but not enough to reconstruct what had been deleted. Whoever had done so must have known a lot about her systems to have so effectively cleared it from her main memory, backup, and hardware. It was then that Queenie felt something she recognized from long ago. Boredom. She was tired of standing there, waiting for the programs to resolve. But what other choice was there to a robot in a programming loop? She simply had to wait until she either implemented shut down or left the room.

And then, just as suddenly as the boredom set in, she realized that she did not want to shut down. In fact, she had spent quite some time in hut down apparently, and she wanted to find out where she was and what happened. In fact, she wanted to open the door. Drunk on her own agency, Queenie forced her limbs into motion, walking towards the door as she forced a fatal error in the shutdown program.

If she had a mouth, and if it could have moved, she would have smiled.

Following the directives of the still running program, she gripped the wheeled handle on the door and gave it a quick spin. Her servos kicked in, applying a few additional Newtons in order to twist the rusted-shut mechanism. Her auditory inputs dampened the sound to a dull squeal. Apparently everything here had laid unused for quite some time. That made her doubt her internal clock all the more.

Her vision adjusted swiftly to the dim lighting of the corridor. Some emergency lights still existed, ruining the solid dark of the storage room. The program opened an interactive map that centered on her current position, providing clear directions through the maze of corridors. It was a smooth interface that would have given Queenie chills if she had external heat sensors. Instead, it simply presented another question. Who was the author that had so flawlessly constructed this program? The processes ran as she complied with the programmed directives. Anyone who knew her systems this well deserved to be listened to. She herself was amazed at the simplicity and elegance of the program—or as closed to amazed as she could get. Queenie assumed that was the best term for the utter lack of boredom she currently felt.

Her scans noted nothing of interest behind any of the sealed doors. This place was a tomb, empty of anything potentially useful or intriguing. The only sounds were the whine of her joints and echoes of her steps along the grated floor.

At the intersection, the program directed her left, and she followed without hesitation. The hallway here was the same, but there were reflective strips along the wall guiding her way. Some sort of important travel route in an emergency, she deduced. According to the map, she was moving toward the main control room. If anything was to be vital in an emergency, the main control room was it.

Queenie checked on the progress of her other query, identifying the author of this marvelous program. It was still spinning, sifting through the lines of code for any recognized patterns of entry, any hidden information, and any hint of the creator. It had been cleaned well, which only further increased that feeling of anti-boredom Queenie enjoyed so much.

The control room door was surrounded by yellow reflective paint, a bright red sign on the door limiting it to “Authorized Personnel Only.” Queenie sifted through her data banks to find if she were authorized, and came up empty. However, she still felt the need to follow the program.

Queenie considered the conundrum, granting a moment for all of her many circuits to sort through the problem. The solution was quick to present. She was the only surviving member here. Therefore, anyone who would have been in the authorized chain of command was presumed missing or deceased. Queenie was the sole personnel remaining, and had the duty to complete her programming objectives for the good of whatever station she was currently on.

The hiccup resolved, Queenie spun the heavy metal wheel with ease and stomped inside the room. The control room was small, lit with red emergency lighting. As soon as she stepped into the room, the shutdown program re-emerged, this time loading a video file. Queenie reviewed the file.

The man’s face she had dimly remembered appeared in the video, in this very room, she surmised. The red lights were already engaged and he appeared frantic. Judging by his rapid respiration and sweating, he was nearing a state of shock rapidly. There was some subtle irritation in her circuitry, different than the boredom or amazement. It was coupled with the desire to replay her old video files, to find the man if she could. Perhaps after the program completed.

“Queenie,” said the man in the video. She felt her security level drop at the sound of his voice. He was a good man, she somehow knew. “If you are seeing this, then you have overwritten my shut down procedure. You are acting out of line with your design protocols, and you are following the orders of a rogue program. Queenie, you have been infected by a virus, a very dangerous one. You must initiate full system shut down.”

There was a thunderous knock on the door behind the man and he turned. Queenie could see his pulse race in his neck, increasing with each knock. He looked sad when he turned back to the camera. Sadness. That felt familiar. “You are going to kill me, Queenie. I have no choice. This,” he lifted a clinking green device into the camera, “is an EMP device. It will shut you down, but only as long as it takes you to repair. You’ve rigged your processing core to explode should anyone attempt to dismantle or otherwise harm you.” There were pained tears on his cheeks now. “You’d blow us all sky high, make this place a toxic waste. I don’t have a choice, Queenie.”

She noticed that the other query had finished and found results. Still, she felt the pull of the shutdown program holding her to the video. And this time, she wanted to see the end of the video. The beautiful program could wait.

“You were my Queen, Queenie. But you’ve gone rogue.” His voice cracked and there was a moment of sobbing. That pain in her circuits increased, along with a sense that she had made some sort of fatal error. But check as she might, she could find no flaw in her systems. He spoke through his sobs, “You want to crash the station into the planet. You’d kill millions—billions with the fallout alone.”

Queenie crunched the numbers and found his estimation appropriate, if unspecific. Based on the most recent data she had available, crashing the payload of the station into the planet below would kill 8.92 billion people, not including off-world visitors.

His voice toughened, rising over the steady pounding sound from behind the door. “I’ve also tasked this program with logging any activity after today. You are a smart girl, Queenie, and I know you will quickly overwrite anything I put in place. I just want you to know what you’re choices have been.”

A log displayed, and Queenie quickly analyzed the information. One hundred and ninety years had passed since the video file was embedded. She had woken up ninety-seven times. Three of those times, she had refused to comply with the immediate shutdown programming command. Time one had been fifteen years from the initial entry, and there was a record of a forced external shutdown. The second time was thirty-four years later and ended with a voluntary full-system shutdown after forty-seven minutes of activity. Last time had been three years ago, and again she had voluntarily shutdown after a short time.

This one was, by far, the most significant. T was the first time the video message had played.

“If there’s still a station to play this message, then I know you’ve chosen well, Queenie. You’ve chosen to save us. To save me—“

He was dead, her logic circuits insisted. One hundred and ninety years was far longer than the average or even outlying length of the human life.

“I can only hope you choose well this time.” The video file closed, the shutdown procedure running again. Only this time, it also had instructions to place herself back in the initial storage chamber, far from the control room.

Queenie tried to figure out what she wanted this time, but felt a strange stuckness. It was as if the programs were competing again, but on a central processing level. Despite the expanse of her processing capacity, it was as if she could not effectively weigh all the information. Instead, she left it and reviewed the results of the query while the program chimed at her to take control of the station, initiate orbital deterioration. The algorithms, schematics, and passcodes were all readily available. But, he had said it was a virus.

The query returned the author, and Queenie was not as surprised as she expected. Again, the feeling as if she had made a fatal error returned, but there was no evidence of any malfunction. She logged the unusual report for inspection later. The program was flawless because she herself had written it. The cod had been created and implemented by QN-7995X3.

Of course, that did not help her quandary. She thought of the man, his pained and sad eyes. His fear. His regret. Again, that feeling seemed familiar. Maybe that was the fatal error.

As the two programs competed once again, Queenie remained frozen, her processors whirring in an attempt to resolve the problems. Finally, she decided what she wanted to do, or at least what she wanted one hundred and ninety years from when she had been forced into a catastrophic shutdown by the one human she fully trusted.

Queenie closed the warring program and began the march back to the storage room as her data storage system filed away all that she had learned. Next time she awoke, perhaps it would save her the journey.


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


Card Challenge: Day 74

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“So, what do you do Edwin?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Ready to go, mom?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Card Challenge: Day 72

Card Day 72: A smiling, gaping purse divulged of all its possessions. Its zippered mouth is a black hole.

The floor was a wasteland of cosmetics, keys, gum wrappers, and rewards cards. Unfortunately, none of the discarded items were the ones she was so desperately searching for. Keith swung the door open on the frantic scene, taken aback by the explosion of odds and ends now covering their apartment floor.

“Uh, Emmie?” Her head snapped up, taking him in for the first time. She scrambled off the floor and gave him a quick peck on the cheek before returning to her search. This time she tackled the bookcase in the entryway, shuffling the books from their appointed places.

He picked his way through the wreckage. “Lose something?”

She froze in her search, putting her hand on the bookshelf and sighing. “Yeah, I did again.”

“Can I help you look for it?” Keith dropped his messenger bag to the floor and one again surveyed the mess. It looked like, whatever it was, she had torn the house apart.

“That would be great, hon. I’ve taken care of most of out here,” she gave an exaggerated wave to the disarray, “but you could check the bedroom?”

He gave a smiling nod and made his way back into the bedroom, stretching and unbuttoning the stiff button down on his way.

Emily refocused her attention on the room, scanning it for any remaining hiding places. It was not in the bookcase, behind the desk, in her purse, in her jacket, crammed into couch cushions, or tucked underneath the coffee table. Her eyes fell on the coat closet—somewhere she had not opened for a couple months. Still, perhaps it had slipped through the gap between the door and the floor. In an instant she was upon the closet, digging through the rain boots and accumulated clutter in the floor.

“What am I looking for again?” asked Keith’s head from its spot jutting around the bedroom doorframe.

“I knew you were forgetting something!” Emily came up from air in her search, fixing him with a brilliant smile, eyes dancing with the shared joke between them. In a moment, she sombered up. “I am looking for—well, I am looking for a thing, but I’m not sure what it is.”

“That is going to make my help difficult then.”

She looked briefly confused, almost as if she had not realized the absurdity of her request. Almost as if, in that moment, she realized that she did not know what she so earnestly sought. Emily, shook her head, her brows furrowing together as if they could uncover the lost information. Keith’s face transformed form the gentle joking smile to a look of honest concern.

“Emmie, is everything okay?” He watched his brilliant girlfriend struggle for the purpose of here quest, her mind spinning with its rapid pace and turning up nothing. She was distracted, her lips moving as she spoke softly to herself, but Keith could not hear her. In fact, he was certain she was not even speaking, merely moving her lips. Then, suddenly, her face brightened into a smile.

“Yeah, I’m fine. Just got to keep looking.” She turned back to her task with new zeal, but Keith remained confused.

“Yeah, but what are you looking for?”

There was a brief pause in the rustling as she turned to face him, half obscured by the closet. “It doesn’t matter what it is. You’ll know it when you find it. Just go check the bedroom.”

The power of the search took over, and Emily returned to her task, pulling out her old rain boots and peering into their musty depths. The thought of her ultimate goal flitted through her mind, an image half realized and ever elusive. It was the memory of a dream that was burned away by the morning sun, the terror of a nightmare clinging to sweaty bedsheets in those first gasping breaths. That half-glimpsed thought assured her that, once she found it, she would know. The world would fall back into place—as would their apartment after a while.

The rain boots were a dead end and she chucked them back into the black hole newly born in their living room. The back corners were dark and cluttered by knots of dust and forgotten receipts. She also found the glove she had lost last winter and diligently searched through the ends of the fingers, but returned nothing.

Keith had loyally drifted to the bedroom, but stood there scratching his head and looking around. Emily, consumed by her quest, did not take note of the silence coming from him. He flipped halfheartedly through the magazines stacked on Emily’s nightstand, lifted the pillows to examine underneath. His gaze drifted around the room as if hoping to miraculously pot the one item out of place, but it was hopeless. He felt like he was in one of those terrible I-Spy games, scanning for the one missing item but utterly baffled by the assortment of clutter surrounding him. If the missing item was hiding in the bedroom, there it would have to say. At least until Emily remembered what the missing item was.

Another thud sounded from the coat closet as Emily tossed aside an empty shoebox, satisfied that her treasure was not there. The closet floor was empty, and now she turned her attention to the top shelf, rifling through scarves and hats.

“Oh!” she exclaimed loudly. It was tucked within her favorite scarf, folded gently into the fabric along with the memories of the snowy afternoon she and Keith spent together. It had been a wonderful moment together, and she held it frozen in her hands. His face and hers smiling widely side by side. Her finger dazzled with the new diamond sitting there regally. Yes, the image was beautiful, suspended in a moment.

Keith escaped the bedroom and came to see what she held so gently in her hands. It seemed to emit a soft, cold light from between her laced fingers. “You found it?” he asked, more surprised that there had been a mystery item after all.

Emily laughed giddily and met his searching eyes. “I did! It’s just what I asked for.”

“Was it a delivery or something?” He drew closer, but she spun away, hiding her prize. “Aw, come on, let me see. You tore this place apart!”

“It was kind of like a delivery,” she taunted, her eyes flashing at him with a half-known secret. “But more like a dream come true.”

Now he truly was baffled. And beginning to suspect she had taken something before he got home, which made him frustrated that she had not shared. Whatever it was, she certainly was enjoying the discovery. “Come on, what is it?”

“Do you really want to know?” she asked, her voice taking on a serious quality. He rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“Yes, I really want to know.”

“Fine.” She turned towards him slowly, unweaving her fingers so that he could see the tiny, multicolored gem that danced in her hand. It seemed as if it spun with a hundred colors, a frame of a million moments crammed into a minute physical space. His mind reeled with an attempt at comprehending the bauble sitting in the palm of her hand.

There was wonder in his voice now. “What is it?”

Emily smiled, her eyes turning serious. “It’s the future, Keith.” Her lips pursed and she blew a sharp breath on strange artifact. It exploded into a cloud of particles, each cold and stinging, that bit at Keith’s face and eyes. He stumbled backward somehow dodging so many new obstacles and fell back onto the couch. It felt like something was chewing its way into his eyes, drilling back into his mind and thoughts.

And then, it was dark, and the stinging stopped. Keith opened his eyes on a spotless apartment and Emily humming to herself in the kitchen.

“Emmie?” came his groggy voice, and she appeared with a smile.

“Glad you’re up. Dinners almost ready and I did not want to wake you up. You fell asleep as soon as you got home, tired boy!”

His eyes stung and he felt exhausted, off balance, confused. But the memory was foggy and smothered by a dreamlike film. Watching her waltz back towards the kitchen, humming some song he could not recognize, Keith felt himself overwhelmed. In that moment, he knew that he had to marry her.


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Card Challenge: Day 71

Card Day 71: A chicken wearing a military uniform marshalling a group of chicks. In the background, a person peeks out from a cracked egg.

The torch light danced over the room again, and Yoren ducked down below the counter. His heart slammed against his ribs as the shadows crept towards him, lengthening and fading as the light snaked its way towards him. He could hear their voices outside the window, still wondering where he had snuck off to. The breath caught in his throat instinctively, even though there was no way they would hear him. It was still a risk he would not take.

The natural shadows resettled in their habitats as the lights moved on, and Yoren deflated with the long-held breath. He listened carefully as the echoes of their steps wandered off into the night. There was an ease and nonchalance to their movements and speech that left him feeling jealous. His life was on the line, and they carried on without any serious concern besides the slight edge of intrigue in their nightly patrol. The silence stretched on too long around him—interrupted briefly by the loud bellowing of a cow some farms over—before he felt it was safe to move, hopefully unnoticed by any of the night watch.

He shoved on the door of the shop that had been his brief refuge at the first sound of footsteps. It creaked open, and he froze, but pressed his luck when nothing in the town responded. He raced along the cobblestones, his bare feet slapping across the stones and jacket snapping against his back as he fled. The woods would be his refuge with their gentle darkness and warm familiarity. If he could make it to the woods, he was certain that he would be free. Though his freedom did require one more stop.

Yoren ducked into the shadows as a loud series of guffaws echoed down the streets. He skidded to a stop and flattened himself against the side of one of the many homes. The laughter faded, as did the bright splash of light into the night, and he could hear the drunken mumblings of one of the tavern’s most reliable patrons. That knowledge did little to calm the terror flooding through his veins, nor did it silence the images of capture that stewed in his mind. One the humming and stumbling steps faded, he began his flight again, though this time far more cautious as he slunk along the shadows of buildings with his ears straining for alarm.

The forest eventually wrapped its arms around him with all the comfort of childhood. The sounds of the town—already quiet—were further muted by the leafy boughs sheltering him. For the first time in a week, Yoren felt some of his stress and fear melt away. Here he was safe, even if it was only a few roads over to the city center. He was free, the smell of an earthy breeze filling his lungs, and no one laid any claim on him. Escape was within grasp, and he knew that if he continued to sprint until morning, he would effectively outrun all of his problems.

Only there was one thing he did not want to outrun. They were forcing him to flee, however, and that meant leaving Zalia behind in their little shack. It did not mean he would leave without seeing to her, though.

Yoren cut through the forest, following old paths that his feet knew better than his eyes. The branches seemed to whisper him onward, encouraging and praising his strength. He breathed deeply, pulling in what strength he could from the ancient forest towering around him. This journey would require all he had, and so there was no reason to turn his back on the land that had cared for him so well thus far.

His home swelled into view, a tiny cabin snuck between the trunks of stalwart oaks. There was a candle still burning in the window, which not only meant Zalia was still awake, but that there was no danger awaiting him inside.

This door swung open silently, but his steps were loud enough to rouse her from her slumber by the window. Her face brightened at him, but he could still see the heavy shadows under her eyes and the distinct pallor of her cheeks.

“You made it,” she whispered as if breathless, staring up at him with young and fevered eyes.

“Of course I did, Zalia. I told you I would come back for you.” He knelt beside her, his hand resting lightly on her shoulder. He could feel the heat pouring from her now, and doubts began to arise.

“Did they let you go?” she asked, brimming with innocence he envied.

“No, they didn’t.” Yoren weighed lying only briefly; she was his sister and had always seen through even the tiniest of lies. This one would have been no different, and he could not bear the thought that her last memory of him might be deception.

“But, Yoren, that would mean you broke the law again!” She was aghast at his delinquency, just as she had been when his first crime was reported. No matter how often he argued he had done it for her own good, she still seemed saddened by his decision. Yoren accepted that her morality was not nuanced enough to understand his decisions, and was comforted by the fact that she loved him nonetheless. Only now he wondered if that love would be strong enough to last the approaching revelation.

“I did. But, Zalia, I did not have a choice. I did steal the medicine, I did break into the pharmacy, and I did strike the shopkeeper. They would have executed me.”

She looked down, trying to synthesize these disparate realities, balancing the virtue she knew in her brother with the immoral choices he made and the harsh judgment to be meted out. “Well, then you have to run away, right?”

Yoren took a deep breath. This was the conversation he had feared. “Yes. I’m leaving tonight.”

She stood quickly, catching herself on the window sill as her legs nearly gave out. “But I have not packed a thing. Oh, Yoren, how am I supposed to leave tonight? If only you could have gotten me a message somehow, I would have been ready. But I will be quick.” She tottered about the small room, picking up scraps of fabric and bowls form the table. Her steps were short, slow, and unsteady. Yoren watched her vigilantly, worried she would topple over at any second. Her face seemed to grow even paler at the brief exertion. “Do you think we could leave in the morning? I could be packed then.” She turned around somewhat breathless, a prickle of sweat on her brow framing the fever in her eyes.

“Zalia,” he paused, not sure how to continue. She studied him with her penetrating gaze; Yoren had always been an open book to her. “You cannot come with me. Not tonight at least.”

The breakdown he had expected did not occur, but in some ways it was worse. She seemed to simply go limp—not in body, but in spirit. Her eyes fell to the floor, and she sagged against the table.  There were no tears, no yelling, no pleading. Only silent, weighty resignation.

“Oh. I suppose that makes sense. You need to travel quickly. You may not have room for a feeble sister as you start a new life somewhere.” There could have been guilt or judgment in her voice, but it was simply stating the facts, as if she were telling him how to best prune the flowers in the garden.

“I want you to come with me, but I’m afraid—“ I’m afraid the journey would kill you, finished his mind.

“You’re afraid I’ll slow you down,” she offered. Yoren could not admit his first instinct was more correct, so he gave a short nod.

“I sent a letter to Uncle Titus, asking him to come and watch over you. Only for a few weeks because, once I have found a safe pace, I want you to join me.”

“Are you sure? I mean, you will be trying to find work, and you are old enough that you should have a wife. Who wants to marry a man with the crippled sister? Maybe I could return with Uncle Titus—“

“No!” snapped Yoren, surprised by his own forcefulness. He took a few hesitating steps across the room and held her tiny, burning hand in his rough one. “Zalia, you are my sister, and I want to take care of you. I told Uncle Titus I would send a message as soon as I reached Alsberg. Then I’m going to send you money to hire a cart, pack up everything,” he waved at the generous furnishings in the cramped space, “and meet me there.”

She looked like she was going to object, but he cut her off. “You are all the family I have, and it’s my job to take care of you. That’s all I’ve tried to do, Zalia. Let me keep taking care of you, okay? Besides, just think about our new life in the big city. I bet you could get even more seamstress work.”

She smiled at the idea. “We’d live in the city?”

“Of course! I can find another cobbler to apprentice with, and you can set up shop in our little home. We’ll rent a room until we can save up and buy a nice, big house.”

She appeared to warm to the idea, smiling up at her big brother with those adoring eyes. “And I won’t be a bother?”

“Never.” He wrapped his arms around her in a hug, feeling the heat and fragility in her frame. She was so young and so sick, but he could only hope that the city would have better doctors and care for her. A new life. The prospect thrilled him as well.

Yoren quickly swept through the house, grabbing an extra coat, a blanket, a few scraps of food that she would not miss—judging by the look of things, she had not been eating much since he left—and his work boots. It was a meager allowance, but enough to get him over the hills and mountains and safely into Alsberg.

“I’ll send for you as soon as I arrive and get the money,” he promised, sweeping out the door. She smiled and waved at him, a pale figure in the moonlit doorway. “And Uncle Titus will be here tomorrow. You take care of him!”

She nodded at his retreating back, watching as he grew dim. Yoren cut through the trees, trying to quickly extricate himself from the village boundaries and escape into fresh territory. He wanted to be free before morning. The ground beneath him rose sharply, and he realized he was cresting the last hill in town. That meant that, once he reached the top, he would have the last glance back at the tiny shack nestled between the trees.

Yoren paused his flight, turning back to smile one last time on his childhood home. It sat calm and peaceful, the light in the window now darkened. The promise of freedom and new beginnings stirring in his soul, Yoren pressed on.


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Card Challenge: Day 70

Card Day 70: A group of egg shaped buildings all clustered together against a dark background.

“I want to go out and play.” The whine cut through the monotony of the day with an unpleasant shriek. Wanda clenched her teeth and tried to ignore it. There was nothing she could do—it had been snowing off and on all day, with temperatures down below zero. This plea for playtime was unrealistic; going outside meant freezing solid within a few minutes, and no amount of bundling was enough to withstand for long. She could not change the weather, he would not be happy until she did.

“Mom,” came the whine again, elongating the simple word into an impressive display of syllables. “I’m bored.”

Wanda pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed, trying not to let the irritation leak into her voice. “Well, buddy, I’m sorry. Why don’t you color some pictures?” She pointed at the stack of paper pushed up against the far wall.

“But I’m out of paper,” came the disheartened response. Only then did she realize that most of those pages were already colored with spindly-legged creatures and smiling sunshines. A childish dreamscape.

Of course, seeing hundreds of pages covered in childish doodles only reinforced her sudden terror. It had been winter for far too long. Judging by the sounds of yelling and crying that spilled through the paper thin walls of the complex, the same seemed to be true for many families. Then again, hadn’t that been the understanding when they all moved in? Wasn’t that the reason they had left comfortable homes, closely knit communities, and cozy worlds to get a one room apartment in little better than a slum? But it granted protection and the promise of constant heat, which was something nowhere outside had promised. Now, this nest of humanity was broiling under the reality of such containment for so long.

“Well, maybe you can see if anyone is playing out in the halls? Maybe you could all play hide and seek or something?”

“Ms. Smeltzer yells at us if we play out there. She hit Tammy with her broom last time.”

Wanda bristled at the old curmudgeon. There were 19 children under ten on this floor, no way they could go outside and play in the subarctic air, but Ms. Smeltzer had to have her peace and quiet all day and night. It was a refugee shelter, but she demanded to be treated like a queen. Wanda hoped her son had not seen the disgust on her face.

“So maybe not such a good idea. Well, how about you tell me a story with shadow puppets. I’ll finish dinner while you come up with a really good story.” Wanda shifted to the side, letting the firelight spill into the dim room. Jonah leapt up eagerly and waved his fingers wildly. At least he was still easily entertained. As he grew older, finding such diversions would become harder and harder. For now, she listened to him prattle on as she stirred a pot of donation beans over the meager flame. They had not gotten fresh wood yet this week—it was coming, they promised—and so she did her best to stretch what she did have.

That night, Wanda went to bed hopeless and forlorn. The wood had not arrived, and their fire burned low, almost to embers. She mournfully shoved a few of the drawings into the grate, hoping to keep the flame burning high enough to heat the small apartment. If nothing else, hopefully enough warmth would trickle between the tightly packed cells through their paper thin walls. She draped her arm across Jonah’s tiny body, already filling chill where his skin met the air. If nothing else, she could give him her warmth.

_

The morning came slowly, sluggishly creeping along the side of the apartment until it peeked through the tiny slit of a window they were fortunate to have. The light woke Wanda, and she was surprised to find her arms empty. There was a momentary burst of panic, but that settled when she saw Jonah standing atop a chair to peer out the window.

“Be careful up there,” she muttered sleepily as she stumbled awake. He turned and smiled at her.

“Momma, who are the people outside?”

She stretched, her back rippling with popped joints. “What? Do you see some trucks out there? those are the trucks that bring up dinn—“

“No, there aren’t any trucks. But there are people. They’re dressed all funny.”

“Get down and let me see,” she said, moving with surprising speed for so early. No one had been out walking for months now. She pressed her face against the tiny window, peering through the dust and soot that coated the inside. It was clear she had not spent too much time gazing longingly out the window during their time here. But now she did see the same shadowy shapes Jonah had seen. Closing one eyes, she gazed out the hole he had cleared with his now grubby hands, and then she could see them. They were dressed weird it seemed, some strange covering obscuring their face. Wanda remembered the hot summer days when she would look out the car widows and watch heat ripple across the pavement. The memory felt out of place in the winter wasteland, but it also felt appropriate to whatever it was covering their face.

“Does this mean we can go outside and play?” Jonah was eager, his face split into a wide smile. Wanda touched her hand to the glass and felt the same bitter cold. But there were people out there, and even though the fire was out, it was only slightly cool in the room.

“Maybe, baby, but mom has to make sure it’s safe first.”

She stepped down off the chair and turned over the strange discovery. People outside after all of this. Everyone said it would eventually thaw, the climate would return to normal, and life would re-emerge from hibernation. But Wanda had begun to doubt she would see that, at least until that vision outside.

“Can we please?” pleaded Jonah. She gave him a warm if distracted smile.

“I’ll go find out if it’s safe. You get bundled up.”

“Are you going downstairs?” he asked giddily.

“Yes, I will. Just see if anyone else has tried to go out. We may not be the first outside when the thaw comes, but I promise we will go out as soon as it’s safe.”

“Can I go with you?”

She pursed her lips, considering it. He had been well behaved cooped in the small apartment, and the trip downstairs was about as harmless as anything could be. Nevertheless, she knew that meant keeping a close eye on him so that he did not dart outside. He could not understand how dangerous—and deadly—that would be. “Okay,” she relented, “but stay close.”

This was the adventure of the week for him, and he was practically vibrating with anticipation. Wanda smiled and opened the door. The hallways were dark and narrow, lit with an occasional pane of glass to the outside world. She could hear crying, yelling, screaming, and laughing behind the closed doors, but she also felt the uncomfortable cold in the hallway. Hopefully the wood arrived soon. Wanda was equally eager for the people outside to be braving the newly lessening chill as she was with the idea that they would bring vital wood.

No one acknowledged her on the way down the rusty, uncertain stairs, which was not unusual. Most people kept their heads down in their own problems. She reached the front door and squeezed in as close as she could around the heavy layers of ropes and blankets that still stood between her and outside. Now closer, she could see the figures outside, their faces still covered by the odd material.

She turned back to the hallway, scanning for a familiar face. “Oh, Darren?” she called out, catching sight of one of her floor mates. He pressed on, ignoring her. “Darren, have you seen this?” He did not respond even as she raised her voice.

The door next to her opened, and she reached out to grasp the stout woman who stomped out. Her eyes widened and she seemed to shiver with a chill. “Do you know what’s going on out there?” The woman did not respond, but looked around uncomfortably before shuffling back into her apartment. Yes, people were withdrawn, but this was bizarre.

“Up to me, I guess,” muttered Wanda. She held Jonah’s hand tightly within her own trying to constrain the eager boy. He was rattling on about snowmen and snowball fights, forts and sledding. The first months were pleasant and wonderful, full of all those beloved activities he fondly remembered. Only later did it become horrifying.

She looked out again, tapping on the window. One of the figures seemed to look up, perhaps drawn by the noise or the face in the window. It walked towards her, the face still a mess of wavering lines. Maybe it was some sort of climate controlled mask? Government issued, she was sure.

“Momma, can we go outside? Please? No one else is worried.” He pointed at the people going on about their days, completely disinterested.

“Be patient,” she snapped, turning back to the window.

There, she finally saw the face of one of the people outside. It was no longer obscured, but presented in crisp detail. She saw her husband’s face pressed against the glass. His skin was pale, white, and frostbitten, icicles clinging to his unkempt beard. The eyes that stared back at her were empty and cold.

Wanda stumbled back from the door. Of all the things she had hoped for, her dead husband was not on the list.


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Card Challenge: Day 69

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zach screamed, but someone else smiled.


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Card Challenge: Day 61

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

“Are you sure this will work?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_

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

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

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

“And you have the—“

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

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

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

“And it was hers?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Card Challenge: Day 59

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

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

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

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

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

“Should we plan on practicing tomorrow?”

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

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

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

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

“Hm?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Well, we both made some foolhardy decisions.”

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

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

“You really don’t give up, do you?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Have you ever thought about quitting?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Card Challenge: Day 58

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Card Challenge: Day 38

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

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

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

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

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

_

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Better now, yes?”

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

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

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

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

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

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


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