Theme: You weren’t supposed to wake up here.
From darkness to light. It all happened in an instant, the world exploding into vibrancy. I gasped— I could remember breathing, yet this felt like my first breath. The oxygen raced ragged down my throat, ripping into my lungs. It ached to breathe, it ached to see.
My brain felt unsure of how to parse the world. Light and shadow. Noises—someone was walking somewhere, something screamed, whether mechanical or animal I could not tell. There was an assault of smells that made me gag, either because they were unpleasant or because I had been so deprived. I gagged, flooding my senses with that bitter taste.
It was too much at once, and I felt myself drowning in sensation. As the flood subsided, I could piece things together, steadily understanding. Above me was the roof, wooden and in disrepair. The walls were dusty and stained. Those screams were certainly not mechanical. Those smells were certainly rot.
Worst were the shadows finding permanence. Bodies, lying on a table like the one I occupied. They lay there still, quiet, and unmoving.
And then there were the footsteps.
Something obscured my view, and my eyes struggled to refocus. Then there was a monstrous face, the source of the smell.
The eyes bulged at strange angles, barely contained by the flesh of its face. A ragged gash served as the mouth, a menagerie of teeth standing at lazy attention inside. It sniffed.
“Got another one,” it growled in a bubbling voice. It paused, head titled for a response, then shrugged. “Guess I’ll get this one.”
Rough hands on my body, like coarse stones tearing my skin. “Please,” I heard my voice, unfamiliar and harsh with disuse, “I shouldn’t be here.”
It laughed. “Of course you should. Now back to sleep.”
A needle’s pinch, then darkness.
Theme: “The door crept open”
The growl came from the closet. There was no denying the fact nor any reconciling it with reality. Lana hadn’t been sleeping and now wouldn’t be anytime soon. Instead, she stared at the wooden door and clenched the blankets about her with the primal instinct they would protect her.
“Get it together,” she whispered through gritted teeth. The impossibility required rationality to reassert itself quickly, shoving the fear to the side. “There are no monsters in closets.”
As if to prove to herself and whatever had growled, she flung the blankets aside and put her feet on the floor. Once grounded, she expected to feel safer. Instead, she felt more certain she was going mad.
Did the knob move? The door shake? Lana strained her ears to listen for anything. Was that breathing or the AC whispering through the vents?
“This is ridiculous. You outgrew this stuff in grade school.” She stood and forced her legs toward the door.
The room was chilled, her palms clammy. She studied the narrow wooden door. It only really counted as a closet so her landlord did not run afoul of housing laws; no room for monsters in there. Lana gripped the handle and took a breath.
“Grow up, Lana,” she growled to herself in a final act of motivation.
The door crept open and–
There was Nothing.
Nothing, vast, infinite, and dark. Stretching into eternity and beyond for impossible depth. How was emptiness so much worse than everything she had imagined?
As the Void reached out to draw her in, Lana longed for fangs, fur, and claws.
The crone had been clear with her instructions. Davalon had left the bottle under the full moon, had only water from the Halcyon Lakes since dawn, and now held the sweet-smelling elixir uncorked in his hand.
“Drink it before your task, and you will be guaranteed success. No follies will find you.” Before he left, she placed a hand on his arm, one finger raised in final warning. “Take care. This is a powerful spell. Do not squander it.”
He did not intend to. Steeling his nerves and belting his scabbard to his side, Davalon tossed his head back and drank the elixir, feeling a tingling swim through his body alongside the adrenaline. He prepared to leave for the arena, where his opponent was already boasting loudly.
The curtain to his tent swirled, and Maryalei appeared. There was a new stutter step to his heartbeat as she looked at him.
“I was not sure I would catch you,” she said.
Davalon felt his whole body vibrating with life; he was not sure if it was anticipation, fear, lovesickness, or the effects of the draught. “Marya,” he said before the words stuck. He felt like a schoolboy, not a knight-to-be. And yet, if the crone’s magic failed, when would he have this chance? “I am glad you came.”
She smiled, a hint of laughter in her eyes.
“After this,” he started, feeling a growing sense of confidence as his head swam with opportunity, “I would have your hand in marriage, if you’ll have mine?”
She rushed to him. “Of course,” she sighed, an unexpectedly easy victory.
At that moment, Davalon felt an empty feeling as the confidence fled and fear and nerves remained. One task, he recalled and hoped he might live long enough to enjoy what his potion had granted.
Theme: They never saw it coming
Trevor bounced from foot to foot, waiting for the doors to open and admit his soon-to-be wife down the aisle. He felt sweat run down his collar, a heavy smile on his nervous lips. He had not seen her since yesterday’s rehearsal, per tradition and her request; he imagined her resplendent for him alone. So he looked to the heavy wooden doors at the end of the aisle as the organ geared up and started the notes.
It was a bar too far into the song and the doors had not opened. He shifted again, smile shuddering, still waiting. Then, a creak and groan as the aged wood slowly edged open.
His eyes found hers just above her harsh smile. And then confusion and panic settled in as another figure in a white dress started down the aisle as well, hand in hand. Her father was supposed to be walking her down the aisle, but instead, there was a second bride.
The nerves settled firmly into a knot in his stomach.
Anna walked down the aisle in time to the song, never letting her gaze deviate from his. His eyes swung back and forth between his bride and the other woman, trying to wake up from this nightmare. Finally, the song ended and Anna stood at the bottom of the steps. They had rehearsed; he would go down, take her hand, and help her up. Only he froze.
“I figured since you thought you could date both of us, you wouldn’t mind marrying us both?” she said with acid dripping from her voice.
Louisa smiled too, and he was trapped beneath their withering gazes. “Only I’m not sure either of us wants to say ‘I do.’”
Trevor fainted, the only way to save any dignity he had left.
Theme: “Laughter filled the air.”
Dave sat on the edge of the bed and shifted again, loosening the tie around his neck and grinning at the woman across from him. Susan? Sarah? One of those typical names. However, she was far from typical, he began to realize.
“So, I don’t normally do this. I know, big shock.” His nervous laughter filled the air, bouncing off the freshly pressed sheets and dusty curtains.
She just smiled, that same absent smile that had been plastered on her face since he opened the door. She tilted her head, and Dave got the sudden image of a gyroscope, her head rotating around the stable point of that lipsticked smile.
The woman at the bar had led the conversation, steadily building Dave’s confidence to Icarian levels. When he slyly passed his room key to her, he felt certain of the move. And then instantly expected her to laugh him away. Instead, she raised an eyebrow and tucked the key into the distractingly low neckline of her dress.
And now, that smile.
“Can I get you something to drink?” he asked nervously. “I got ice from the machine earlier, and—“
Her finger was on his lips, gently silencing him. She smiled wider and leaned over the edge of the bed. Maybe, Dave thought, this was normal and he was the weird one. Frankly, that had held true in most of his life.
“You’re the boss,” he said with another burst of nervous laughter.
“Oh, I’m much more than that,” she said. And the smile grew wider, showing more teeth than fit in a human jaw. Had they always been that sharp?
With practiced ease, she flew to his throat, successfully cutting off the scream before it could bubble out. The hunt looked different nowadays, but the outcome never changed.
Theme: Image Prompt
My feet could no longer feel the earth beneath them, but I remembered it.
I remembered the feel of dark soil under my soles, thrumming with the vibrancy of earth and whispering ancient ways to me. The sway of Mother Earth, the loving gaze of Mother Moon. The exaltation of all things feminine and trampled by the day-to-day life.
We danced, my sisters and I, beneath that moonlight. We leaped, held aloft in the arms of our two mothers, cradled in that space. In the smoke and stars, we saw visions.
I remembered breathing deep the perfume of wilted flowers and sweat, mingled with the bonfire scent. It was intoxicating and every time my feet dug into the soil, I could feel the bounty of life surge through me. We joined together to celebrate the divine around us, the divine within us.
Moonlight, starlight, dirt, and blood. In those moments, we existed not as human flesh, but as something carved from the essential elements and told to celebrate. I did not need air to live, only those moments of ecstasy. My worship kept my heart beating, my lungs moving, and I thrived on that inhuman diet on those nights of revelry.
The flickering shadows of the fire threw scenes of the future before us, cloudy, mystical. And somehow we did not see what was to come until the sacredness of our space was trampled beneath booted feet, feet that could not feel the hum of the earth. Their bodies were covered so that even the moonlight could not strike them.
My feet no longer feel the earth beneath them, dangling here in the in-between. All I feel is the grip of the rope, punishment for daring to touch the sacred.
Jessie settled in her chair and let the beach surround her. Deep breath in and she tasted the salty air, slightly fishy, but pleasantly so. She heard gulls circling out at sea, their calls coming in with the steady rhythm of the waves. Her phone buzzed; she ignored it.
The sun was warm, bright. The sand beneath her feet radiated heat up through the soles of her feet, and she dug her toes down to find cooler sand below. The phone was ringing. Another deep breath, sinking into her seat.
She watched the waves come in and out, sea dancing with sunlight, white foam licking at the sand. Another ring, this time an email, and she let the waves carry away the distraction. Her ears settled on the roar of the waves.
Someone was knocking on a door, and she let her eyes drift across the sand. Now there was the sound of kids playing, calling to one another. A steady bubble of human chatter beneath the steady pulse of the waves. She breathed in time to the tides, in and out, with the same steadiness and certainty.
Just a peaceful day on the beach, blue skies, white sands, and–another knock. “Jessie? You in there? I brought the reports you asked for. I can come back later?” No footsteps. Lena was, despite her words to the contrary, waiting.
Jessie’s eyes snapped open, the beach fading from her mind as the office returned. Her peace lay shattered and dispersed in the piles of paper on her desk. She briefly noticed that her hands were digging into the arm of her chair. So much for a break.
She stood and opened the door before Lena could leave. Deep breath in, the subtle scent of salt, as the world reclaimed its space.
Theme: The call came at midnight
The phone was ringing. I reached a hand toward the buzzing, glowing thing and sat up, trying to clear the sleep from my voice.
“Hello?” It didn’t work, and my words came out with the familiar fuzzy, just-woken quality.
“Mike? It’s Chris.” Chris. I checked the caller ID on the screen. New guy from work. Nice enough, but not the sort I would take middle of night phone calls from.
“Uh-huh,” I added to the conversation, dropping all pretense. If you called this late–early–then you knew the person had been sleeping.
“I figured it out. I was having this dream, and it just all–Boom!”
“Figured what out?”
“The time travel project, of course”
Chris laughed. “Why else do you think I’d be waking you up? We both know what a grump you are.”
He was clearly drunk. Or high. Probably both, I reasoned.
“Listen, Chris, I think you need to get back to sleep. We’ve got work tomorrow, and we can talk then.” I figured he would instead be sleeping off whatever this was, but did not say as much. I just wanted to go back to sleep myself.
“Work? Mike, what are you–” he stopped midsentence.
“It’s Wednesday morning, bud. Sleep it off.”
“No, it’s not. We don’t–”
He paused, there was an intake of breath on the line. Part excitement, part shock.
“What’s the date, Mike?”
“Now? It’s February 10.” I said after checking the phone screen.
“February 10…” he trailed off, waiting for me.
I sighed and ran a hand across my face. The smart thing to do was hang up. “2021,” I said instead.
“Oh.” In his voice was surprise, confusion. “Oh,” he said again. This time somber and shocked. “I have to get back,” were his final words before the call disconnected.
This is a new thing. Welcome to my first Terse Tale, chosen as a name almost entirely because of alliteration. I’ll be sharing some micro stories I have been writing for an online challenge over the past few weeks. These are 100-300 word stories based on a given prompt. I’ve always been rather wordy, so I have found it really tough and rewarding to try and tell a convincing story in a short format. Sometimes the attempts is a success, other times less so. But I have found myself thinking a lot more about what I say and how I say it when writing. Ideally, I will post these weekly for as long as I continue to write them!
So, in the interest of brevity, here is the first one, based on the theme “it was as if time itself stopped.”
It was as if time itself stopped. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. I wondered how long I could stay there silent, motionless, barely breathing. Perhaps they would just go away and I could imagine nothing was wrong.
They were touching me now, a hand light on my arm. I think it was supposed to be reassuring, yet it only served to threaten my careful shell of denial. And they were talking, but I could not be bothered to tune my mind to their words. I was in freefall and neither gravity nor time could touch me unless I chose to stop.
“We’re not going home?” My words broke through, surprising both of us, and they stumbled mid-sentence. A heartbeat of silence.
“No. The boosters were too damaged to get us off the surface.” They were repeating what they had already said, I realized, but the words felt all new to me, striking a fatal blow each time.
“Not with the storms and solar flares picking up. We’re lucky to have landed at all.”
Lucky, they said. Didn’t feel that way. I glanced at the small photo taped haphazardly to my work station. That small face that I knew would age years in the time I was away, but now–
“A few weeks, with rationing. No one could have predicted–”
“And a few months until rescue,” I interrupted. They didn’t say anything more. They did not need to. I understood perfectly my sentence as I was to serve it. Weeks or months had no meaning; I would float through the remaining time left, but I was already dead.
I grabbed the picture as I walked away. He and I were now both frozen moments in time, even if mine soon would run out.