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  1. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Past Contest January 2017 Contest - Instructions and Entries Here

    Discussion in 'Monthly Short Story Contest Archives' started by Tenderiser, Jan 1, 2017.

    First attempt at remembering to write 2017 successful. Go me!

    This month it's an open contest. Stories can be about anything and everything; give us the best your imagination can come up with.

    Voters will be reminded not to take prompts into account, but for those who prefer working with a prompt:

    OPTIONAL prompt: Give us a story about a new year's resolution gone horribly wrong.

    Requirements
    • 1,200 - 5,000 words
    • Any genre
    • Any style
    • Polished to the best of your ability
    How to Enter

    Post your entry as a reply to this thread. It will be automatically anonymised. Please title the story and include the word count.

    You will be able to post entries until 14 January at 23:59 GMT.

    Voting

    Voting will run from 15 - 31 January. There is no fixed voting criteria: voters will choose the story they think is the best.

    Winner

    The winner will be announced on 1 February. He or she will get a shiny medal under their avatar, automatic entry into the annual Hall of Fame contest, and their winning story featured in the WritingForums annual ezine.

    Get writing!
     
  2. Scotty455

    Scotty455 Member

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    Hanging (1960 words)


    When the phone rang Tom was in the living room, sprawled over the sofa watching the Christmas special of The Office on low volume. He was nursing a nasty hangover from last night before by watching the television with the curtains drawn and a piping hot cup of coffee.

    Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

    Tom thumbed over the pause button on the television remote, considering stopping the program.

    He knew who was calling. The ring belonged to the landline phone. All of his friends texted him, and if they didn’t text, they phoned his mobile. There was only one person who called his home phone, and they would ring again when the call died out. And again. With this possibility in mind, he paused the television, climbed off the sofa and went into the hallway. In his flat, all the rooms were jumbled all together, divided by thin walls with crumbling plaster around the light switches.

    Tom picked up the phone. “Mum?”

    There was a mouse-squeak on the other end.

    “Mum. Listen to me. Speak into the receiver, remember?”

    “… Hear me. Thomas! Can you hear me?”

    “Yes mum. I can hear you.”

    “Happy almost Christmas, sweetie! Sorry I forgot to phone you yesterday. Your brother was home and you know him. Busy busy busy. ”

    “It’s no problem,” said Tom.

    “How are you? How’s Danielle? How’s the new flat?”

    Tom answered the questions in order, as usual. “I’m good. She’s staying at her parents at the moment. She’ll be home before long. And the flat is-”

    “That’s great. Really great hearing from you. We’re fine, thanks. Your father has got the football on and…” His mum went on. He caught something about how the oven was broke and the curtain needed fixing, and something about the neighbours. The rest tuned out like a radio with poor signal.

    He leaned forward and looked into the living room. The Office was paused at the part where David Brent scores a date for the Christmas party and his colleagues are in shock. Tom knew the whole episode off by heart. He watched it every Christmas Eve. It was tradition. His dad played Michael Bublé in the living room and her mum decorated the tree with gingerbread biscuits, and Tom watched the Christmas episode of The Office.

    He tuned back into the conversation.

    “… You wouldn’t believe what your Uncle brought your father for Christmas. Baileys’ Irish cream. I can tell because of the bottle shape. He knows that your father doesn’t drink, not after...”

    “Mum,” said Tom.

    “…Your brothers’ wedding. Cha Cha Slide proves he can’t cope with more than a pint or two.”

    Mum.”

    “What?” she said.

    “I need to go.”

    “Go? Why?”

    “Someone’s at the door.”

    Tom reached out to knock the door with his hand but he was tethered by the red-spiral chord of the landline phone. He shifted the receiver to his other hand, stretched out his left foot and punched the letter box three times with the end of his slippers. “It’s Danielle,” he said. “I’ve got to go.”

    “One second, Thomas,” said his mum. “I’ve got a visitor over here as well. I’ll just be a jiffy.”

    Tom heard shuffling sounds from the other end of the phone. He heard the latch on the door open and his dad welcome the guest. ‘I’ll make you a cup of tea,’ he heard her mum in the background. ‘Let me just finish talking to Thomas and we’ll have a right old catch up.’ The receiver crackled as her mum picked up the phone.

    “Sorry Thomas,” his mum continued. “Who did you say had come through the door again?”

    “Danielle. She’s back from visiting her parents. I’m going to help her with the bags.”

    “Oh.” A pause. “Well that’s strange. Danielle’s looking at me right this moment. She’s brought presents.”

    Shit, he thought. The presents. How did I forget she was dropping off the fucking presents?

    “Thomas?” said her mum. “Tom. Are you still there? What’s going on? He says that you’re at his house. Are you hungover, Thomas?”

    “Yeah,” he said. “I’m hanging. I thought Danielle was at the door… but it must be carol singers. They’ve gone away now.”

    The lame excuse hung in the air for several hours.

    ‘Ask him if he’s watching the Christmas special of The Office,’ he heard Danielle saying in the background.

    “Danielle wants to know if you’re watching the Christmas special of The Office?” said his mum,

    “I’m not!” said Tom.

    ‘Tell him he’s lying,’ said Danielle.

    “I’m not-”

    “Anyway,” said his mum, before Tom could finish. “I don’t want to be rude to Danielle. Must go. Got to dash. Have a wonderful Christmas, sweetie!”

    She hung up the phone.

    Tom placed down the receiver, heaving a long sigh. He rested his forehead against the wall dividing the hallway and the living room. Flakes of plaster crumbled onto the carpet from around the light switch. At least there would be no more interruptions now, he told himself. His parents’ house was several hours away by car and he’d have enough time to watch the end of the episode before Danielle arrived home.

    He climbed back onto the living room sofa and stretched his feet out onto the coffee table, taking advantage that Danielle wasn’t there to tell him off. He wriggled his toes around in his slippers and sipped lukewarm coffee from a novelty mug he received from his mum last Christmas.

    Before Tom pressed play, he checked the time on his phone. It was two in the afternoon. That left just enough time to watch The Office, clean the hob, and gather up the trail of frying pans and mugs he left after struggling to get up in the morning. He placed the phone down on the coffee table and picked up the remote off the arm of the sofa.

    His thumb brushed over the play button.

    Ring, ring. Ring, ring.

    This time it was his mobile. It vibrated against the glass surface of the coffee table, turning his recovering hangover into a splintering migraine. He reclined into the sofa and sandwiched his head between two velvet cushions. He forced himself to exhale like when sick people breathed into paper bags to calm down. When he summoned enough courage, he sat up and checked who was phoning him.

    It was Darren.

    Darren-from-work-Darren.

    Darren-never-get-a-word-in-edgeways-Darren.

    Darren-I’m-going-to-tell-you-a-story-that-you’ve-heard-twenty-times-before-and-was-never-particularly-interesting-in-the-first-place-Darren.

    “No,” said Tom, aloud. “Not this time.”

    Carefully, so he didn’t miss-swipe, he cancelled the call.

    Before anyone could phone him again, Tom removed the battery from his mobile. Once the phone was in parts, he thrust all of them down the side of the sofa, where hopefully he would never find them again. He decided to distraction-proof the rest of the flat. He unplugged the landline from the wall, he turned off the radio and closed the curtains in the kitchen. If there was much as a window cleaner, he didn’t want to see them, he didn’t want to hear the mops squeaking against the glass. He wanted to watch the Christmas special of The Office in peace.

    If Danielle wanted to phone him, she could wait. If his mum needed to phone back about the Christmas dinner, she could wait. They could all just wait. They could wait until Tom had watched the Christmas special and left time for his head to recover. It was his Christmas Eve as well.

    Once he was satisfied, he went into the living room and lay down on the sofa. Tom picked up the remote off the arm of the sofa and pressed play. He waited for punchline when Gareth – the office pervert – realised that David Brent, of all people, managed to get a date for the Christmas party.

    The doorbell rang.

    Tom turned onto his front and groaned into the sofa cushion. He was half-expecting something to happen, just not the doorbell. Danielle was several hours of motorway from home and his friends had Christmas plans of their own, plans that weren’t getting interrupted every fifth second. The ring of the doorbell bounced around his skull like a game of ping pong between the left side of his brain and the right side.

    In the hallway, he unhooked his dressing gown from the coat hanger and tied a small knot around his midriff. He checked himself in the plane mirror next to the table with the unplugged landline on. His black hair was at right angles to his head and there were heavy sags under his eyes. Two day old stubble traced the curve of his jawline, making him look weary and dishevelled.

    He spied through the peephole into the corridor.

    Tom didn’t recognise the man standing there. He must have been in his late thirties, well-dressed, tapping his right foot on the floor. He cradled papers in his arms and clicked the top of a biro with the thumb of his left hand.

    A salesman.

    Tom considered not answering the door, but then the man would ring the doorbell again, which his hangover couldn’t manage. He pushed the latch to the side so the door and the chain were still attached.

    He opened the door a jar, enough for one eye to see into the corridor. “I’m not interested, thanks.”

    “Sir,” said the man. “Are you telling me you’re not interested in making shed loads of money?”

    “No.”

    “Not even making shed loads of money, for free?”

    Tom paused. “I guess, but-”

    “Do you have a mobile phone?” said the man.

    “Yes,” said Tom. “But right now I really wish I didn’t.”

    The man’s eyes lit up like a predator smelling the scent of prey on a headwind. “That’s perfect! I work for a premium reseller that takes your mobile phone in exchange for stone cold cash.”

    Reseller? Isn’t that-”

    “I think the first thing to say about our business is that it’s not illegal.”

    Tom slammed the door shut. There were all varieties of phony salesman at the door every other day of the year, but on Christmas Eve he had expected a ceasefire, an informal agreement to leave him alone. Instead, what he got were insistent phone calls and unwanted visitors. Part of him didn’t want to watch The Office anymore. If he started watching office, someone would call him, someone would knock on the door, someone – somewhere – would find some way to interrupt him.

    He leant into the living room from the hallway. The television in the living room had turned grey from inactivity. If he didn’t press play soon, the DVD player would turn off and he would have reboot the whole thing and find the place it cut off.

    This time, he didn’t get as far as the sofa.

    The doorbell rang.

    That stupid, ignorant, insistent sales man was going to keep ringing the doorbell until he handed over his mobile phone for nothing. Tom decided: let him have it. He reached his fingers deep into the fabric between the sofa cushions and fished out the back of the phone, the battery and the screen he stored there earlier. He pieced them together into something that looked vaguely like a phone as he approached the door.

    With his free hand, he unlatched the chain on the door, turned the lock, and swung the door open wide so it slammed against the wall of his flat. “DO ME A FAVOUR MATE. TAKE MY PHONE, SHOVE IT UP YOUR ASS, AND FUCK OFF!”

    He breathed in.

    In front of Tom stood three boys wearing elf hats with their nose painted red. In the middle, the largest boy, held a bucket full of loose change and a fundraising clipboard fastened to the side. His jaw hung open.

    Carol singers.

    You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
     
  3. zoupskim

    zoupskim Contributor Contributor

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    There's Really no Prompt? (1201)

    Bob Rogers was shocked. For the first time in his life, except for the time he'd been upside down in that Honda Fit with pizza sauce on his crotch, he was truly shocked.

    "...Honey, I think- GASP!" His verbal dialog was transformed into words. "Oh God, my thoughts too." He thought thoughtfully, testing the heft, depth, and thoughtiness of his thoughts. "This... this is unpreceden- dectadente..."

    Curses. He still couldn't spell. "No matter!" He declared de-clara-tively. "My day..." He paused epically. "... has COME!"

    "Bob, what on Earth are you-" His wife entered the living room. "What the crap?" Perplexity consumed her ample bosoms. "What?" She sighed deeply, her tight sweater barely containing the bubbly party within. "... I'm gonna punch you."

    "No time for that, dear!" Bob flexed his butt and grabbed his thesaurus.

    "The writing prompt this month... is OPEN."

    -----

    Monica was ready for her day. She'd donned her black baggy pants, slipped on her black tank top, and rolled her face in her jewelry drawer/tackle-box. She flicked her bushy fox tail, flexed her canid fox jaw, and prepared to do fox things, very foxily.

    She was a fox human hybrid, or furry for all you judgmental people. "Monica!" I exclaimed with, great relish-

    "Augh GOD!" She glares. "I thought I got rid of you."

    I stand all wide-legged, flex my awesome butt again, and point. "No, Monica! I got rid of you!"

    "Mh hm" She crosses her arms and kinks her hip, because I'm the flippin' writer. "Where are your pants?"

    I laugh at her feeble brain thoughts. "Pants are not required for writing, fox woman."

    "Apparently brains aren't either." ... Dang it, I should have given that burn to me to say. "Are you still married to that Christian doorknob?"

    "... This is getting too personal." And Freudian. "Shutup, me!"

    "Looser says what."

    "Wha-" Augh, GOD!

    "Hehe, I take it back. This is fun."

    "Enough talk!" I open a portal to the abyss, purple and twisty, like Madonna. "Time is words!"

    -------

    Betty Baxter would have been more worried about the purple, twisty tornado if she wasn't so annoyed. It was lunch hour, and today was meatloaf day. Plus, the vortex had trapped her pants. For all you boring, non-space people, a space suit without pants is just a dumb looking sweater. Again, it wouldn't be so bad, if her jumpsuit wasn't bright orange, her pale bottom half juxtaposed against the darker protective gear.

    "Betty!" I grab Betty- "Time to-" and get punched in the face.

    "Stand back, alien fiend!" She turns to face- yes I can write face down and bleeding- Monica, and assumes a wide-stance-ed, martial arts stance. "Don't make me lay the space-smack on you!"

    "... This is what you started writing instead of me?" Monica kinks her hip, it's sort of my go-to thing when writing her, and makes a funny face. "It's just a woman you."

    Betty relaxes her stance a little. "What are you... like, a furry?"

    "I'm a kitsune, jerk. He started writing me before the internet was a thing."

    "Oohh... still, you look very furryish." Betty kicks me as I try to get up. "Wierdo."

    "Seriously. How lazy is it to just write a girl version of yourself in space?" Monica kicks me as I roll away from Betty. "You're lazy."

    Betty kicks me agai- "Hey, stoppit!" I hop up and back into Monica's rapidly approaching, clenched, bony fist- CRAP!

    "Who is this blad, whiny wierdo?" Betty rears back and-

    Monica raises her fist high, assumes control of the narrative- wait, what? "No time to explain, Betty!" She points a clawed finger at my bleeding, beaten form. "Grab Bob and let's go!" Betty punches me, before throwing me into Monica's purple portal.

    ----------


    Darret focused his prosthetic eyes on the coalescing purple energy. A few homeless stragglers gathered on the edges of the portal, drawn to the electrical charge like moths to a lamp. He laughed as the vortex only confused and dazed them, feeding none of the countless hungers that tormented those disconnected from Nightland.

    He undid the button on his holster, Glock pistol nestled comfortably in his right palm. As the three figures emerged, a little smirk crept onto his face. "Ladies." He loved pale, pantless girls.

    "Darret." Monica doesn't kink her hip. Instead, she crosses her arms. "Wassup."

    "... What, that's it?" I push away from Betty, who I just realized, despite being the one writing her, doesn't have pants on. "That's all you do?! Arms crossed?"

    Monica rolls her eyes. "Oh, like your garbage is any better."

    "Hey..." Betty slinks close to Darret and grabs his- heyELLO.

    "Whoa!" Monica spins away, a chain on her nose flipping my head. Ow.

    "Sup, guy." Betty fingers the collar of Darret's maroon, aramid jumpsuit, which is just PAINTED on, like he's wearing f-ing nothing.

    "Augh, blast it all, the pantless space woman's taken the narrative!" I avert my eyes and mind, both scarred for eternity.

    Monica runs past me, arms wrapped around her head. "Why'd you write two sex-centric characters!?" Glad I'm not the only one who invents words. "Centric is a word."

    "Shut up, and Betty's not a sex bomb, she just never met Darret!" Do I look? I'm the writer... no, I won't look.

    I'll make Monica look. "AAH, Jerk!

    "Hehe."

    "Control your story, idiot!"

    "How can I pants-write without any pants!?" I check the two characters, and see all the sex- "Augh no! I hate Darret!"

    "Okay okay, what's another story!?" Monica is tip-toe bobbing up and down. "Quick quick qui-"

    "I'm trying, shutup!" The purple portal warps and twists transporting us to-

    -----------

    She was trapped. She needed to get out. The purple, spinning twirl of energy produced four people. One pair was pantless, and one pair were engaged in sexual intercourse- the composition of the group would surprise you. Fuzz stood at attention and prepared to kill. "Link?"

    "AAUgh, GOD" I hate myself.

    "Who the heck is this?!" I hate Monica. "What is it with you and weird looking women?!"

    I stand up and scream at Monica. "Writing men is boring, okay!? Nothing but sexist, boner loving jerk-offs" I gesture at Darret. "Look at him!"

    "Ooh, hello, sex toy." Darret is being insufferable as usual. "I like your gun." I hate him. "Care to join us?"

    "Link?" Maybe Fuzz will kill him- oh shit-

    "FUZZ!" I. Hate. Monica. "You called your character, a human character, a soldier and protagonist of your FIRST book attempt..." Her hands are around my neck. No, I don't know when it happened. "...FUZZ?!

    "I'm sorry."

    "YOU INSIDE OUT, MONKEY-JERKING SACK OF SHIT!!!!" I'm dying, help. Please, one of you readers- "YOU REPLACED ME WITH THIS!?!?! I'LL KILL YOU@!!!21"

    Without a response to her cybernetic link, Fuzz assumes all the unidentified people are hostiles. She aims her assault rifle. Despite being mid-coitus, Darret manages to snap-draw his Glock- get it?- and fire two quick shots. Fuzz is hit in the hip and thigh, drops mechanically to one knee, and fires on full automatic.

    ----------

    "Honey."

    "..."

    "...Bob..."

    "...Hm?"

    "How's the story for that contest coming?"

    "... I'm not writing anymore."

    "Oh?"

    "Never... Never again.

    "...Really?"

    "Yeah. Writing is dangerous."

    The End
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2017
  4. fellowmartian

    fellowmartian Member

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    And What Light Without Shadow (4345 words)

    The darkness seems to move at first, to undulate, or would, if anyone were there to see it. Wright is unused to moving stealthily, but he makes sure that nobody is watching before he emerges from the shadow’s tenebrous reaches, his figure coming into existence only as it meets the light.

    The bright met the dark, and brought forth from it life, the touch of its shafts weaving motes, conjuring the first twins from the air.

    He stops himself. He is perhaps not on the most holy of errands to be thinking of scripture. In one moment he finds it apt that he is moving away from the darkness, away from the shadows, moving as he is towards the Bright that is Pia. He feels shameless about it, now, his months of agonising over. He needs her, that’s all there is to it. But in the next moment he reminds himself they cannot be open, and ducks in close to the wall, moving softly and quickly to the next shadow, checking around to make sure he’s not seen. He wonders if it is irony that the shadows, the very darkness from which he looks to pluck Pia, shelter him as he goes, or whether it is all just part of the balance.

    The dark nurtures what must be hidden; the bright illuminates what must be shown.

    If he is stopped, seen, he can probably make some story for now, but it will mean he has to go back to his chamber, that he cannot see Pia tonight, and he needs to see her. He needs it in his bones, in his poor, weak flesh, but also from a practical viewpoint. The wedding is only a few days off, and they must plan.

    He makes his way in silence, nobody to see him but the moon. Across and around cloisters, along halls, up and down stairwells. The two couples have been placed at opposite ends of the complex. The distance is not to keep Wright from Pia: there would be no point. Both brights, their union is as unimaginable and as abominable as his union with a dog or a horse. Two keys without locks, two seeds without soil.

    Instead the distance is to separate the couples-to-be, in the run-up to their unions. It is Enner, his dark-of-adulthood, his bride-to-be, that he should not be seeing this week. Pia, Enner’s sister, twin, her bright-of-childhood, is somebody he should not ever be seeing or thinking of in the way that he is now.

    Bright can shine only against dark, cradled by it, given contrast, as dark can exist only in the shadows thrown by bright. In each pair of twins shall there be one dark, one bright, and in every union. The balance must be kept.

    He passes under Enner’s window, and the guilt returns. He has nothing against her. He does not wish to hurt her. He imagines her disgust, her turmoil, when she discovers that he has left her and stolen away with her sister; imagines her beautiful face flowing with tears – no, she will not cry, she will just stare, inscrutably. He knows her. She will walk away, say nothing, but the darkness will billow from her, unseen but felt by all.

    And Fallion. What will he think? His brother, his dark-of-childhood, the person who knows him best? He will not be as surprised as the others; he knows how impulsive Wright can be, how driven by what he feels is right and hang the consequences. But Fallion’s world will be wrecked, his destined union with Pia cast aside, his chances of finding a bright to complement him in his adulthood all but ruined. Fallion takes matters of bright and dark more seriously even than most. He wonders again how he can do this to the brother he has loved best in all the world, and in answer Pia’s beautiful face comes again to mind: her deep brown eyes, her long hair flowing. Biologically, it is the same face as Enner’s: they are identical twins, but the bright she has been brought up to be, the bold, brave, creative soul he knows and loves, shines out of Pia’s face where Enner’s seems to gather shadows and lines, even at seventeen.

    She is waiting for him, and she opens the door silently as he sneaks past his final obstacle: The door to Enner’s rooms, across the hall from Pia’s. His relief is palpable as it stays resolutely closed: had it opened, his only option would have been to have claimed he had snuck over here to see Enner. He isn’t sure he can bear such hypocrisy just days before he is about to do what he is about to do. The door closes behind him and he falls into her arms.

    As they kiss, he feels her brightness like a hearth after a night in a snow-cave. He knows that the bright and dark are analogues only, that the roles ascribed to each only use darkness and light to evoke the characteristics expected of each – mystery and stillness and patience from darks, action and vigour and passion from brights. He knows that there is nothing physical about them that makes brights actually bright or darks actually dark, but he cannot but feel that she radiates, that the two of them coming together is like one sun shining on another, that the sum of their brightness casts everything else into shadow.

    After a time, their brightnesses pull apart.

    ‘Nobody saw you?’

    ‘I’m sure.’

    Pia goes to the window, looking out as if looking for more watchers, observers, investigators into their sin. ‘What, then?’

    ‘Agriff will help.’

    ‘You told him?’ Her eyes widen with fear. She does not have the trust of Wright’s other brother that he has. Worse, she has the natural distrust of him that most people have of greys, those not raised as dark or bright. Like most, she finds it hard to imagine not having a twin, growing up without her complement. Wright suspects she might even be of that persuasion that believes it kinder to euthanise one twin when the other dies young or is stillborn.

    ‘Of course not. I’m not stupid. I just asked him to trust me, that he has to help me, and I couldn’t tell him more. He trusts me. He probably thinks I have some surprise planned for Enner.’

    ‘And we can make it work. The night before?’

    ‘If you’re still sure you want to do it so close.’

    ‘You know it won’t make any difference. They’ll be devastated whenever we go. The night before gives us the best chance to get away. Everyone will be trying to get as much sleep as they can before...’ she trails off, perhaps thinking of Fallion and her betrayal, he thinks, or of Enner.

    He knows she’s right. She is always forthright with her opinion, and it’s almost always right. Of the two of them, he often reflects that she is the brighter: the surer, the stronger, the more confident. He wonders if, over time, he will end up playing some kind of comparative dark to her extreme bright, but he finds he doesn’t care. He feels a brief kinship with moths. He stands behind her and holds her.

    ‘I wish I could stay long enough to see the sun rise with you.’

    The darkness should nurture and comfort brights, but they have both always loved the day, loved the dawn. He loves to feel it wash over their entwined bodies. Perhaps that’s why, even though everything he’s ever been told, every story, every set of role models, says he should find comfort in the arms of a dark, that he should be nourished by the balance, calm brought to his impulsiveness by the enveloping breadth of his opposite, he has always found himself drawn to brights. And ever since the match was made between his house and hers, to Pia in particular, to the one person in all the world that everyone who knew him would be most horrified to find him with, holding her this way, kissing her neck. He wishes he could walk boldly out the front door with her in the daytime, rather than sneaking away in the deep blackness of the early hours, but this is one endeavour in which they need the dark as their ally.

    ###

    Enner’s silence stretches out and settles itself over the room like a mantle, enveloping the furniture, the balcony, Agriff’s body… it even seems to fold itself out over the landscape: the manicured lawns and well-tended trees seem stilled by her inscrutable consideration. Even for a dark, the silence seems long, and Agriff yearns to break it, to ask a question to find out what his brother’s intended is thinking about what he’s told her.

    But he knows better. Enner will share her thoughts when she’s good and ready. And the last thing he wants is to wreck everything now – he has spent too long waiting for this day. He runs his hand through his beard and looks about the plush dining-room.

    When Enner does speak, her words are uninflected, as always; they seem to float across the room without spin, without subtext.

    ‘Why are you telling me this?’

    Agriff swallows. ‘I would’ve thought that was obvious.’

    ‘Nevertheless. Enlighten me.’

    Agriff wonders if he can detect the smallest hint of irony. Quick on the heels of that comes the realisation that, if he can, Enner almost certainly intends him to.

    ‘Someone of your name… you should know better than anyone… the shame this could bring. Mother and father… they’d never get over it.’

    A long silence. Agriff wishes he could see her face, but she regards the grounds as if to see whether her silence has yet fully withered the acacias. He hears rooks cawing. They seem somehow outside the silence, like Enner has cast a spell around them.

    ‘And so instead, you now expect what to happen?’

    He sees the trap. What he wants to happen and what he wants her to think he wants to happen are two different things. He thinks quickly.

    ‘You can stop it, surely? Talk to Pia. Make them see they need to stand down, go through with the wedding.’

    She makes an odd bark, twice, sharp and quick, and it takes him a moment to realise she’s laughing.

    ‘Have you met Pia?’ She shakes her head. ‘If things are as you say, she will just dig her heels in, and be warned.’ She thinks for a moment, then adds, ‘and anyway, why ask me to ask Pia, instead of speaking to Wright yourself?’

    He opens his mouth, then closes it again. He sits down heavily in the chair at the head of the dining table. ‘Look at me,’ he says, and waits.

    Now that she is asking things of him, wants answers from him, he feels a sense of control settle on him. He senses that she believes him. Perhaps she’s noticed things, and this makes them fit together, assembles the puzzle in a way that cannot now be unseen. But she senses his duplicity, as well. If this is going to work… He sees what he has to do. Maybe he can’t come out of it with hands completely clean, but it doesn’t matter what she thinks.

    Taking her time as in all things, she turns, and looks at him with deep, brown, steady eyes.

    ‘How many greys do you know?’ he asks.

    ‘Few enough.’

    ‘Then hard for you, probably, to imagine. What do you think it’s like growing up as one? Being looked down on, being condescended to? Being pitied.’ He spits out the word. ‘I’m older than Wright, older than Fallion… older than Ygrant.’

    ‘Ygrant?’

    ‘My twin. Stillborn.’

    ‘But you arrived first?’

    ‘Yes.’

    ‘You would’ve been a bright. The eldest.’

    ‘Would’ve! Would’ve. Why would’ve? Tell me. Why would’ve been? What difference should it make to me, to how everyone, everywhere looked at me? What difference whether Ygrant lived? Why does it mean I should be alone? Why does it mean my younger brother should take my father’s place?’

    ‘I won’t speak to you of scripture.’

    Agriff raises his eyes to the ceiling.

    ‘But the system works,’ Enner says, ‘Every twin has their counterpart. Twin until marriage, Spouse until death. Bright always has its dark, dark always its bright. The balance is always struck.’

    ‘And why not find your own counterpart? I’m not the only one without a twin out there. Why raise me to be alone, forever?’

    ‘You have no twin.’

    Her blank, matter-of-fact voice grates on him. She sits, and he instantly stands again and begins to pace. ‘In Attravia, they are free to find their own companion. There are no greys.’

    ‘Have you ever met an Attravian who grew up without a twin? I met one of their “brights” who did that, once. Never had a dark, never grew up learning how they interlocked, never had her bright tendencies attenuated. She was insufferable. Cock-sure about everything. No restraint. She was going to find a dark, somewhere, as if by magic, and never mind that that dark would’ve also grown up with no bright twin, nobody to give her direction, nobody to focus her.’

    ‘And that’s worse than being a shadow on the edge of everything? Not even a shadow, not even with the definition of a shadow. A haze, hardly there at all. At least they have a chance. What do I have? Contempt, at best. At worst—’ He stopped short. What did it matter?

    She settles into the chair, thinking. He wonders if she is focusing on him as a distraction from thinking about what he’s told her. Pia and Wright in each other’s arms. He knows she must think it an abomination, even in an abstract sense. In a real sense, Enner seems very much in love with Wright, and Pia and Enner are close. If they elope, it will take both from her at a stroke. Maybe their intention to do so has already taken them, in her mind.

    ‘Your brother is kind to you, from what I’ve seen.’

    His pacing has taken him to the window but at this he swivels and bears down on her. His composure snaps and years of grey existence boil to the fore as he paces around her, his voice rising.

    ‘Kind? Oh yes, my brother is kind. He always makes sure to remind me that he’ll take care of me, that I’ll never want for anything when he’s in charge. My younger brother. Never want for anything. Except a vocation, or a partner, or a use. When he found out I knew about Ygrant, knew I’d have been my father’s heir, he told me not to think about it, he said such things are not meant for the minds of greys. When Fallion suggested to him that I might feel bad that they were matched with you and Pia, he gave me a puppy. It wasn’t even his puppy. I had a grey friend once, one of the servants’ children, when I was about nine or ten. He found us kissing. Her whole family were hoofed out on the street; he said she was giving me ideas, that it would only lead to disappointment. Yes, my brother is very kind to me. When he bothers to notice I exist. He honestly thinks I haven’t noticed him sneaking off to be with Pia, haven’t noticed the stolen glances. He thinks I’m blind. And stupid. He thinks anyone who’s not a bright is blind and stupid.’

    He pauses, his rant having robbed him of breath for a moment. He’s genuinely not sure what to make of the silence from Enner this time. Maybe he’s shocked her with the depth of his feeling, although it would be the first time he’s seen her shocked. She clicks her tongue.

    ‘Still, he’s kinder to you than some others.’

    ‘Yes, because they don’t believe I’m bloody human. He thinks I am and he can still only bring himself to think of me as slightly better than a dog. He congratulates himself on his humanity, I’m sure. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Why does it matter why I hate him? The only thing that matters is, what are you going to do? Your bloody sister is fucking my bloody brother, and they’re going to run off with each other and live in sin, bright with bright. They’re going to leave you and my other brother two useless dangling ends, ruin both bloody houses.’ He flings a coin he’s been fiddling with over the balcony as if he’s trying to hit the rooks on the lawn, and it seems to break the air around them, break a tension that he’s built up with raw emotion. He turns to her.

    ‘So. What matters.’ He draws a long breath and asks the only question he wants an answer to: ‘Are you going to sit there and question my motives, or are you going to do something about it?’

    Another silence from Enner, but this time, as he looks into her eyes, the silence speaks through her tensed muscles, her downturned mouth, her set jaw, the gaze she pierces through him and into the middle distance, and he realises it’s never been in doubt what she’s going to do, and despite himself, despite his hatred for the religion that’s cursed him to live as a neuter, a cipher, a nothing, he finds himself thinking of scripture.

    …and while bright be the apparent danger, quick to assert dominance, ready with the sword, woe betide the one who rouses the tranquil dark, for they shall not see their end until it is upon them.

    ###

    As Wright slips in and closes the door behind him, he is in such a hurry, his nerves so jangled, that he takes only peripheral notice of the figure sitting at the table in the servants’ hall, and assumes that it is Pia. Who else could it be? He reflects later that he should have known that Pia’s presence—any bright’s presence—in a room is never inferred. Brights make themselves known.

    In the event, he does not realise that it is his brother Fallion sitting there until he turns and rests against the locked door, thinking his worries on the other side of it.

    ‘Brother.’ Fallion’s greeting and incline of his head is characteristically laconic.

    Wright flinches. He imagines his whole life crashing around him. Pia is not here, and Fallion is. Have they already taken her away? Will he ever see her again? The realisation that, until tomorrow, they are both technically still children hits him. His parents can do whatever they wish. He has no idea what to say to Fallion. What can he say?

    ‘Not like you to be speechless.’

    ‘Fallion, I… I never meant…’

    ‘Yes, you did. But. There’s no helping it now. Anyway,’ Fallion says, rising from his seat, ‘there’s no time to waste. If we’re to get the two of you out of here, you’d better follow me.’

    Wright gapes like a fish as Fallion goes to the other door, the door that leads outside and across to the stables. He stammers half-words at him in his confusion, and finally manages to get out: ‘Fallion, wait, what’s going on? Are you handing us in?’

    Fallion shakes his head slowly, not as a negative response, Wright sees, but in a world-weary kind of way, as if shaking his head at the foolishness and folly of his brother, or maybe of all brights. It never ceases to amaze Wright how his brother can have all the same features, the same figure, the same eyes, and none of his mannerisms. How two people so alike can be so different.

    ‘Fallion, where’s Pia?’

    ‘She’s taken one of the horses. I told her how to avoid the guards Agriff and Enner set to catch you eloping. She’s waiting.’

    ‘You’re helping us?’

    ‘Evidently.’ Fallion’s tone and expression are less readable even than usual. In one moment Wright thinks he senses anger, betrayal, hurt, just under the surface, but in another he swears he sees something softer in his twin’s eyes… pity, maybe?

    ‘You’re not leading us into a trap?’

    ‘As I told Pia, you don’t really have any choice but to trust me. Think about it on the journey. Even you should be able to wrap your head around it if you really try.’

    The swiftest horse is gone, which gives a note of truth to Fallion’s story, and they take the two best from what’s left and sneak out of the back gate, before galloping through the woods. Fallion leads—not only does he know where he’s going, but he has always been the better horseman of the two. He seems to have an almost telepathic communication with the beasts, and Wright has sometimes watched horses following commands of his brother’s that he couldn’t even perceive.

    He realises the truth of it: he has no choice. It’s not in his nature to follow, but he gives himself over now to the rhythm of the horse’s hooves at it follows the lead. The most important day of his life, and he is in the hands of his brother who he has betrayed. He tries to think about it on the journey, as suggested, but it all swirls around chaotically. A trap set by Agriff – then they were betrayed, although not by Fallion. He wonders if he could have done more for Agriff, done more to ease his burden, been kinder. He tries to pick apart the whys, but he finds himself feeling tired, allowing himself to be hypnotised by the rhythm of the gallop, finds solace in the unusual sensation of not being in control.

    He has stopped paying attention to their journey, and is plucked from his thoughts by Fallion’s horse pulling up at the edge of a clearing. Pia is astride her horse on the opposite side of it. She does not come to him; she seems to be waiting for something. He makes to trot towards her, but then turns to Fallion, who speaks first.

    ‘This is where I leave the two of you. It’s a good head start. I’ll say I gave chase, but lost the scent. I’d suggest a ship, from Antillos port.’

    ‘Fallion, why are you helping us?!’ Wright is nearly shouting now. His brother’s kindness feels sharp, like a blade pushed into him. He suddenly wants to be punished, to be hated by his brother. He has cause.

    Fallion stares hard at the ground, and Wright isn’t sure he’s going to answer, but then he says softly, ‘You never did get the trick of putting yourself in anyone else’s shoes. Maybe that’s why we’re here.’

    ‘I don’t understand.’

    ‘Have you even noticed what I’ve been doing my whole life? What did you think I was doing when I stepped aside for you all those times? How do you think it is that I’m the better horseman, but you’re the captain-to-be of our regiment? Why did I stay home with the puppies while you learned to hunt?’

    ‘This isn’t hunting. I’m stealing your wife, for god’s sake.’

    ‘Is she? Mine, I mean. It doesn’t seem that way to me.’

    ‘With me gone too, though—you’ll have no twin for father to offer up alongside you for a match.’

    Fallion shrugs. ‘It is what it is. You want to change the world, Wright. I want to accept it. Wishing you weren’t going won’t change the fact that you are. I’ll miss your charging about, at the least. It can be entertaining. Maybe I’ll become an anchorite, cloister myself away.’

    A pained look flashes across Wright’s face. ‘Don’t joke.’

    ‘I’m not; not completely. If I can’t be a dark to you, or to Pia, maybe I can be a dark to the bright of the world. The High Council have been getting too bright recently anyway. And I never liked company that much. Who says Pia would’ve been any better for me than Enner would have been for you?’

    ‘You said Enner wants us caught. That, I can understand.’

    ‘I’m not Enner. Listen, I don’t expect you to understand, not really. How much you really care or understand about being a bright, right now, is clear from the fact that you’d consider—of your own volition—a life with another bright. But that’s fine. You’ve got an idea into your head, and you’re following it. I know you. I know nothing will dissuade you from it. If I helped them catch you, you’d be a shell of yourself. You’d probably run away eventually anyway, just to rebel.’

    Wright nods glumly. His brother has always been the wiser one.

    ‘Or maybe that makes you a perfect bright. Anyway, you’re not married yet. I’m still your dark. My role is to give you what you need, to give you the platform to shine. I’m not playing at this, Wright. What kind of dark am I if I only do it when it doesn’t really hurt me?’

    Wright looks into his brother’s eyes then, and sees the softness again that he saw at the stables, and while there is pity in it, he sees more now: hurt, and forgiveness, but most of all, boundless, simple love. He holds the gaze for a moment, then looks away, staring hard into the undergrowth. A pair of owls begin to hoot. He struggles to regain his composure before he can look back at his twin.

    ‘Maybe I’ll come back one day.’

    ‘Maybe.’ Fallion’s face is impassive again now, but Wright thinks he detects doubt in his voice.

    The two embrace awkwardly, the horses shuffling under them, and then it’s done. Wright crosses the clearing and he and Pia ride off into the woods, in the direction of the sea. Fallion stands where he is, horse unmoving, bleeding stillness into the clearing as he watches the dawn break slowly around him, the light dissolving the shadows.
     
  5. Lifeline

    Lifeline Out of the Night Supporter Contributor

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    Family Loyalty (2577 words)

    >
    Lucas chewed on his lower lip. For a moment, the prompt had vanished before it had come on again - that shouldn't have happened. Maybe he had made a mistake in avoiding the all-too-obvious backdoor. But heck, if something looked too easy then it probably was and playing safe wouldn't get him where he wanted to be.
    > 0%
    One who didn't gamble didn't win - Yes! A triumphant smile stole over his face, although his stomach gave an uneasy twist at the same time. If this didn't work he'd be in a world of shit; and if it did work he'd be stuck in even deeper - talk about irony.
    > 2%
    His fingers drummed a beat on the table on their own accord. Don't get nervous now. Judging from the lack of speed, the download would take a good while. Estimated time to finish… one hour, twenty-nine minutes if the current rate held.
    Lucas searched for a cig-pack in his pocket, lit a fag, and glanced at his watch: zero-one-four-zero and he had sentry duty at two. Damned if he'd show up. His future was on the line, so what if he added a fiddling insignificant misdemeanour like being AWOL to his record? He took another drag of his cigarette and glanced at the screen.
    > 4%
    Checking the download every few moments would accomplish nothing but make him antsy. Fuck, he was halfway there already!
    Someone laughed right outside his window. Lucas jumped up, scanned the outside vicinity of his cabin, but saw only a guy talking on a mobile. The sun painted long, clear-cut shadows on the ground. Fuck, fuck. All was quiet around the base though it wouldn't stay like that for long.
    He very firmly closed the window. Beside being much too tense, he had a good reason to shut himself in: Sergeant Bennett would be around soon. Getting shouted at through the door was much easier on the ears than screamed at through the slit.
    Lucas propped his feet up on the table and tried not to fidget. Hurry up and wait - nothing new about that, but this time he'd done it all to himself.
    > 9%
    Fuck, his stomach was knotted in anticipation or something else he didn't care to name. Planning this electronic assault had resulted in answering unsettling questions and questioning his own sanity more often than not, but he was committed now - and the clock was running.
    Time passed some more. Hell, couldn't they start battering his door in? At least this maddening wait would be over.
    > 13%
    Someone banged at the door, none too gentle. "Private Page!"
    Lucas' heart skipped a beat before he recognised the deep voice. Bastard! Couldn't Bennett just knock politely like everyone else?
    "I'm not here!" he called and started whistling. If all went as planned he'd part ways permanently with Bennet in a little while; no need to be polite anymore.
    > 15%
    "Open the door!" Bennett sounded riled up. "Why are you not on your post?"
    Lucas looked at his watch. Yeah, oh-two-one-oh; Bennett hadn't lost much time in coming to bust ass. Lucas lit a fresh cigarette and inhaled. "Didn't feel like it, Sarge. Y'know, it's nice sleeping in."
    Another bang, this time louder. "Open the door at once or I'll get the Master Sergeant to open it for me and then you'll be in so much shit that not even a straw will do you any good." Bennett paused ominously.
    No doubt he thought this threat awesome. "Don't think I'll do that Sarge, I'm in the middle of jerking off." Although Bennett couldn't see him, Lucas flipped the bird in the direction of the door. Man, speaking his mind did wonders after having to bite his tongue for far too long.
    > 21%
    "Page, I warn you! If you don't fucking open the door right this sec I'll throw you in the brig!"
    Was it his imagination or did the download slow down? Lucas removed his feet from the table and leaned forward to check. "Yeah whatever, Sarge," he answered, his attention caught up in checking performance parameters.
    > 22%
    Fuck, the download dried up. Why, why…? His fingers flew over the keyboard, but the noises from outside his room got on his nerves. He shouted over the din, "I need to concentrate, Sarge! Would you mind shutting up?"
    > 22%
    There… they tried to isolate the compromised computer. Exactly what he'd anticipated they'd do, what he'd planned for: he had all their attention now. Pity for them that his claws were already hooked into a secondary link. He initiated the switching sequence and glanced at his watch; by now they should know who they were dealing with - hopefully.
    A slow grin stole over his face and he keyed in the little routine he'd prepared for this step in the dance. The image of a mutt dog, marking territory right at the entrance of Fort Ahzra, would now appear on their screens. Pissing in their pantry gave him a warm and fuzzy feeling right down to his toes.
    > 24%
    The download speed picked up again. With the current crisis dealt with, he noticed that the pounding on the door and the disagreeable noises had stopped. Maybe Bennett had dropped dead and if so: good riddance!
    Lucas stubbed out his cig, wanted to start on the next but was brought up short. Fuck, the pack was empty. He searched under stacks of components and disordered piles of paper for a fresh one, found it in the top drawer. Better make this one worthwhile. If all went according to plan, it could be his last fag for a long time: nothing like family to get him off his ass. Fuck, Charles would likely shout his head off, but as soon as he'd calmed down he'd be the first to kick the wayward puppy of a younger brother into action. Lucas snorted and lit the fag.
    > 35%
    He stilled his randomly tapping fingers. Almost forty-five minutes gone by, and the download was still going strong. When would they get down to business? The human factor, this variable was always the most troublesome to fix. And what would happen if he actually managed to finish downloading the damn thing? If they didn't react as he thought they would? Fuck, he got more nervous by the second.
    > 43%
    A little screen popped up and a warning flashed over his screen: 'Unauthorised attempt to take over admin-rights'. Now they were right in his own backyard. Lucas exhaled in one relieved rush. That was just fine. "Come to Papa," he crooned.
    The door to his room banged open. Lucas had a moment's flash of a guy in camo who was halfway through the room already, another behind him was almost through the door - then his face hit the wall nose first.
    Pain pierced through his brain. FUUUCK!
    He threw his head back, his skull connected with another head - score one for being a big bastard - had the short-lived satisfaction of hearing a muffled yell.
    "Clear!"
    A body barrelled into him, and the impact squeezed all air out of his lungs. His head was caught and banged into the wall. FUCK! Not his nose, again! Couldn't they show a bit of variety? Tears streamed down his face and he clamped his jaw shut against the temptation to bawl like a little kid.
    Through his disorientation he felt someone twisting his hands behind his back, zipping them up. Blood was gushing from his nose - broken? - but at least they were not screwing him over anymore. The hitting-the-head-of-this-fucker-against-the-wall part had stopped; none too soon. Fuck, these guys sure didn't mess about!
    He was manhandled around, slammed with his back into the wall.
    "Clear!"
    Lucas blinked through streaming eyes and licked blood from his lips.
    Bennett stood right before him, feet a regulation shoulder-width apart, hands folded over his chest.
    "Now you have done it, Page," his voice was deceptively calm, "you can kiss your precious application and for that matter your entire career goodbye. You'll never set foot on my, or indeed on anyone's base again. You have gone several steps too far."
    Lucas managed a glance at his notebook, where a young man he'd never seen before plugged an external drive to the laptop. He was in jeans and tee and looked like he provided rear-end support or worked on a contractor basis; not someone from this here backyard base: an outsider.
    > 63%
    The prompt vanished and the screen blanked. Wiped out, as the system initiated a magnetic reformat at the first attempt to copy the hard drive over. The young man cursed but there was nothing that he could do.
    Another guy entered the room. Lucas sucked air through his mouth, his nose being out of commission for the moment. The picture he'd pulled from the files didn't do Captain Hayes justice. Middle aged, nondescript face, camo without insignias; he could have been easily overlooked if not for his stark presence.
    Looking now at Hayes, Lucas was reminded of the web of dependencies, contingencies, and scenarios with which the captain wrestled daily and on which he based his decisions. Not Lucas Page's part of the woods that, no Sir - direct action was so much easier.
    The captain went over to the REMF who swore again and threw a disgusted look Lucas' way which might or might not have contained an element of respect - tough luck. Nothing, ever, would be retrieved from this hard drive. The guy said, "Captain, the data on the hard disk is not readily available. I'll recommend we take it with us and try to restore it on the base."
    Hayes shrugged and patted him on the shoulder. "Not your fault. Let's decamp, we'll sort it out later."
    Lucas' heart beat faster as Hayes turned and appraised him. "So you are the young Page."
    Lucas bit his tongue on an immediate urge to backtalk when no question had been asked; Hayes had simply stated a fact.
    "Don't you think that was a bit of overkill what you did?" Hayes asked mildly.
    Lucas clamped his mouth shut to not burst out laughing - Hayes had no idea! Out of the corner of his eye he saw that the REMF bundled the thing up which once had been a laptop. It didn't matter - the crucial tracks had been destroyed thoroughly. No one would find out, ever, what he'd done on his last leave.
    Hayes shrugged. "You could have just gone through conventional channels like everyone else but you certainly got my attention in a quite spectacular manner. I hope you knew what you were doing because if not," Hayes paused a moment, "it's too late now to change your mind."
    Yes!
    The relief was staggering. Pay-off was everything he'd thought it could be.
    At first it had been boredom as much as anything that he'd written to his older brother. The answer had been 'Just muddle through Lucas and please stay out of trouble'. Charles' jokes had lightened his daily grind.
    But then the mails had started to arrive more and more infrequent, became terse and snappish. At this point, Lucas had started worrying about his older brother. And because he'd been that, well, that and more than a bit curious, he'd started to make discreet inquiries about just where Charles had gone and ran into an immediate wall of 'No comments'. They'd brushed him off - and nothing was better guaranteed to fire his professional pride. If they wanted war they were welcome to it.
    Alternately saluting, sweating, and cursing his brother, chain-smoking pack after pack during days of fierce concentration and exhilaration, he'd broken more and more security clearances, because that was where Charles' trail led. Damnit, it was not safe, nor sane to open the highest level of classified files! Such a hack could get him executed.
    Yet however the cold, analytical part of his brain might have cautioned, the cause had been good: No one barred him from his brother.
    Once in possession of all he needed or indeed never had wanted to know, he'd sat down with booze and cigs to have a serious talk with himself. Just how far was he willing to go for his brother? How far did family loyalty reach?
    All the way. It was a chilling and uplifting realisation. Truth be told, he craved for playing hard and fast for a payoff beyond anything one might find in the conventional forces: the ultimate challenge was beckoning - and Captain Hayes could give him the chance to dance on the razor's edge. Only sissies cried for safety nets.
    Yet, despite numerous and vocal pleas, Lucas' CO had refused to forward his application to Fort Ahzra. Probably had something to do with the CO being loath to loose the most skilled computer-guy on the base; if it wasn't for Lucas' coding skills, the shooting range would still have only stationary targets.
    So he'd resolved to get smart - in this particular situation the best strategy hadn't been to hit the roadblock with a frontal assault. Rationality and treading lightly be damned - hacking into their files and downloading a fiddling manual which wasn't even that current anymore had been the obvious choice to get Captain Hayes' attention directly, and no more playing by the rules of administration. The tricky part had been leaving just enough traces behind to be followed but not enough to be anticipated; inciting curiosity rather than being dismissed as just lucky. Luck favoured the guy who gave it a kick in the ass.
    Knowing full well the consequences if he failed - which would have been an ended career and no chance whatsoever to get out of prison - and man that had made for some sleepless nights - he had set to work preparing his assault. Because at the end of the day and disregarding such little things as the hacker's code, pride, and impudence, Specialist Charles Page deserved to have his little brother watch his back and watch it he would! Just as soon as they got together.
    And yet he'd been forced to wait. Breaking the law openly while hoping for retribution and simultaneously giving the opposite impression would accomplish nothing if he just got placed in the judiciary system before the Captain could interfere - if he got curious enough. No sense to blow the mission uselessly. And then he'd found out that Charles' OC would pay a visit to this base.
    Unfortunately he'd needed extreme measures to get the attention of Hayes: his nose felt twice its size but that was barely noticeable compared to the shit he would shortly be in by his own choice. The Flares played without pulling punches.
    Hayes regarded him a moment longer but when he received no comment, turned to Bennett. "Sergeant, thank you for your assistance. We'll take it from there. Lucas Page is not your responsibility anymore."
    "But Sir… ," Bennett sputtered, "Private Page is… "
    "That's all, Sergeant." Hayes didn't even raise his voice - impressive. For the first time in ages Lucas wished he could salute an officer, but the time for that would come.
    He'd burned all his bridges going in, but the reward was the challenge to play with the best. One who didn't gamble didn't win, indeed. Lucas smiled as he was hustled away. His brother had a surprise coming.
     
    Last edited: Jan 12, 2017
  6. pyroglyphian

    pyroglyphian Active Member

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    Storm in a Teacup (1262)

    September 3rd, 1902

    The sun was a thousand shards of glass upon the Atlantic as the Bethlehem set sail from the Cuban port of Manzanillo. Captain Graves bid his crew weigh anchor, and with a cool easterly breeze propelling the galleon home to familiar shores they were making good time. The men sang sea shanties as they worked, each rejoicing at the thought of home, whatever home meant to him.

    When they reached Bermuda the weather began to change. The air seethed with a malevolent energy and darkness poisoned the sky. Fear rippled throughout the Bethlehem’s decks. Great waves churned beneath the vessel, thrashed wild by a tempest that tormented the rigging and threw spray into the eyes of terrified sailors. Mountain upon mountain of water buffeted the ship. The crew tumbled free and were decimated as torrent after torrent crashed across the deck, tossing men overboard into the heartless ocean. The screams of the drowning men mingled with the shrieks of the ravenous gulls that waited to feast upon the bodies, wherever they washed up.

    “Man overboard Captain!” yelled First Mate Hawkins between mouthfuls of water, his face a snapshot of animal panic in the volley of lightning strikes.

    “They’re gone already!” Graves howled back above the deafening drums of thunder, his grey beard dancing in the wind, “Save the living! Stick with me lads an’ yee’ll be alright!”

    A spike of lightning struck the forward mast, scarring retinas and blasting sparks and charred timber across the deck.

    ————

    Mildred sipped her tea and gently placed the cup down on a coaster that was set upon an old oak table in the living room of her two-bedroom cottage on the outskirts of a village named Great Pickleton in the south west of England.

    “Another piece of cake, Gertrude?”

    “Oh, please,” Gertrude responded. She dabbed her lips with a silk serviette. “I must say this crockery is quite exquisite.”

    Mildred felt a small thrill. “Yes, it is, isn’t it? It’s Gien. I save it for special occasions. Alfred is due home later this week so I thought I’d get it out and dusted off. We’ll likely have a welcoming party.”

    “Mmm, lovely. How long has he been away?”

    “Seven months. He’s serving in the West Indies with the King’s Royal Fleet.” Mildred cut another slice of sponge cake.

    “An exciting life,” Gertrude said.

    “Yes,” Mildred said, pausing, “And a trying one.”

    Gertrude nodded, “Still, back soon.”

    “Yes. This is his last voyage. After this it’s all plain sailing for us,” Mildred smiled, “So to speak.”

    She passed Gertrude a slice of cake.

    ————

    Captain Graves awoke on the deck. His head throbbed and his vision was blurred. He got up slowly and ambled to his cabin quarters, dizzy and baffled by what had taken place.

    Gradually the rest of the crew regained consciousness, and there was much consternation as they learnt that the Bethlehem had floundered upon windless waters. Despair seeped into their hearts and the galleon’s decks grew silent. Men lay spiritless in their hammocks, staring up at the ceiling, or staring face down at the wooden floor planks through twisted hemp. Others curled up knee-to-chest in the corners, stranded upon a vessel held impotent in the dead air.

    No sun shone from the sky. No waves lapped at the bow. The only sense of life outside the ship was a dull glow originating from beyond the beige mist that stretched to the horizon. The world was an endless void of muddy water, with nothing to mark the passage of time except an hourglass passed back and forth between Captain Graves’ gnarled old hands. He sat staring with watery grey eyes at the teacup before him, as lost and alone as his ship, hope bleeding out with every grain of sand in the hourglass.

    ————

    Mildred stared over her cup, “I suppose I’m glad in a way. Having him away for so long has taught us to cherish the time we do have together, when he’s home.”

    Gertrude smiled indulgently, “Yes…”

    “I do miss him so.” Mildred took a sip, “Oh dear, my tea has gone cold. Has yours? Let me make another pot.”

    She picked up their cups and walked out to the kitchen. Gertrude followed with the cake.

    ————

    Captain Graves’ stomach keeled over as the the Bethlehem lurched in an unfamiliar fashion. He dropped the hourglass, arose from the desk and moved quickly outside to look over the deck. Yes, the ship was definitely moving. He frowned at the pale brown water. Like tea… Where in God’s name are we?

    “All hands!” he yelled. The crew roused themselves and took to their stations.

    “Smithy, up in the Crow’s Nest and keep a keen eye,” he called out to a young lad.

    “Aye Captain!” Smithy called back, clambering up the main mast.

    The water was flowing faster, compelled by an unknown force. The Bethlehem picked up speed and soon the wind was rushing in Captain Graves’ ears, his beard alive once again and fluttering behind him in a merry dance.

    Faster still they ploughed through caramel waves. Some of the crew howled with excitement, “Yeeeeehah!”

    Others turned to their Captain with worried faces. “Captain? Shall we brace the sails?!” they cried.

    “Nay!” their wild-eyed Captain bellowed back, “Let her run free!”

    ————

    Mildred poured Gertrude’s cold tea out into the sink and washed the cup around.

    “Do you want sugar again Gertie?” she called out.

    “Yes, two please,” said Gertrude, carrying the plate of cake into the kitchen.

    “Very well.” Mildred picked up her own cup from the side and carried it to the sink.

    ————

    “Captain! Captain!” Smithy yelled from the Crow’s Nest. He was pointing out beyond the bow of the ship, towards the horizon, flapping and howling like a deranged man.

    Captain Graves took his telescope out and followed the line of sight. He was confused for a moment as he couldn’t see what Smithy was pointing at, and then he understood: Beyond a certain point in front of the Bethlehem the ocean tapered off into nothingness.

    “Cataract!” Smithy yelled. The frightened crew turned to their Captain. “Captain we must turn back!”… “You’ll doom us all!”…. “We’ll be capsized!”

    “Nay! We’ve reached the edge of the world lads!” Captain Graves yelled to them, “We’ll be the first to see the other side! Onward!”

    ————

    As Mildred started to tip the cup into the sink she had the strangest feeling wash over her. A sort of deja-vu. Images of a ship lost at sea flashed across her mind. It was then that she noticed a tiny speck floating on the surface of the tea.

    “Oh Gertrude, I’ve come over all queer,” she said, putting her hand to her cheek, “And look at this… there’s a tea leaf in my cup that looks like a little ship floating along.”

    “Why Mildred Graves, I dare say you have boats on the brain,” Gertrude said, coming up behind her, “You do seem to have gone a little pale though. Why don’t you sit down and let me make the tea this time.”

    “I think I will.” Mildred handed the cup to Gertrude and trundled back to the living room.

    Gertrude lingered by the sink. She held the cup close to her face and looked at it. “Oh yes,” she called, “It does look like a miniature ship, Mildred. How wonderfully curious, the imagination,” she said, “Just as one sees animals in the shapes of clouds.”

    She stared at the speck a moment longer and then poured the tea out into the sink.
     
  7. Mocheo Timo

    Mocheo Timo Active Member

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    The Pile of Stones (2,381)

    Snow fell like feathers on the windshield of the car. Bojan switched on the wipers and took another drag of his cigarette before he returned his hand to the wheel. The old Ford moved steadily, unobstructed by the small traffic or the mild precipitation. Despite the cold, the morning was bright and the plain gave sight to the village in Ilijas where he was headed.

    Galiba sat quietly by his side, looking less happy than expected. For someone who was about to see her mother again after nearly two years, she seemed more pensive than usual. It had been her nagging, after all, which convinced Bojan to take a break from his unsocial routine in Sarajevo and travel to visit his mother-in-law. The man was not upset though, he had decided to establish a good relationship with her family that year. He needed that, if he were to concretize his normal life.

    He looked at her with an expectation of approval. Galiba bent her torso and pecked his cheek. He extended his hand and affectionately touched her waist – a dancer’s impeccable waist.

    Bojan had met her two years ago in a traditional bar, shortly after getting divorced. Her long red hair had been tied in a bun and concealed in a veil, but she wore the most attractive bosniak dress with fine embroideries of gold on black which highlighted her chest. On top of that, the sway of her hips had been intoxicating...

    The precipitation stopped and Bojan switched off the wipers. He was absorbed by the bucolic sight of Ilijas. He could see children outside their houses trying to play with the thin layer of snow; they scooped the ice with their bare, reddish hands and tried to pack it into snowballs. Some women wearing hijab stood outside on guard, smiling peacefully at the young. Other than that, there was little movement in town.

    This would make a perfect place for Bojan to start over. In Sarajevo there was always the risk that someone would unearth his past. It had been more than two decades after the war, but recently one of his closest friends, Drasko, had been incriminated with allegations of crimes against humanity and genocide. Drasko had opened a butcher shop where he merely did business and tried to live a secluded life. The walls, though, had ears. And starting a new life in the capital maybe hadn’t been the best idea; yet Bojan was doing the same mistake...

    Galiba had her hand on her forehead as she explained the direction to her mother’s house. Bojan had yet to meet her mother; he knew that her father had been killed in the war and that the family had been greatly impoverished ever since. But Galiba had never reported any problems in family affairs.

    “How are you feeling?” he asked.

    “I’m ok, it’s just that it’s been a while since I last saw my mother,” she said. And the subject was dropped.

    The house was a simple building made out of wood. Being on a higher elevation, it overlooked the town on the plain below, along with a snaking river that crossed it. Uphill, the road dwindled into a hazy path which was swallowed by a beech forest. The dark gigantic trees shredded the morning light where they stood, making one opt for the sight of the plain downhill. A chilly breeze blew, penetrating cloth and finding the skin underneath. Bojan shivered.

    A short woman with ruddy, dirty cheeks and messy straw hair opened the door. Galiba embraced her with a hug.

    “Bojan, this is my sister Lamija.”

    “Pleasure to meet you Lamija.”

    Lamija smiled awkwardly and stood in front of them without saying a word. As Galiba touched the door, the young woman opened it, flushed for having stood in the way of the visitors.

    They hung their jackets and were immediately drawn to the hearth of the living room. The bricks of the fireplace, being made of bare clay, glowed with the burning heat inside of it. The old sofa in front was vacant.

    “Lamija, where is Mom?” Galiba asked.

    “The lady sick,” her sister answered in a barely audible voice, “in bed.” And she pointed to a room with a closed door across the hall.

    “Lamija, dear, why don’t we prepare some coffee for Mom and for our guest?" Galiba said. Bojan had been living with her for almost one year and a half now; it seemed odd to have him referred as a “guest”. He did not pay mind to it though.

    The ladies disappeared inside what Bojan assumed was the kitchen. He sat on the sofa and waited. A dusty grandfather clock ticked the time away from behind the seat. He enjoyed the solitude. He envied how undisturbed Lamija’s life seemed – with nothing to hide or account for.

    Galiba returned from the kitchen and headed to the room across the hall.

    “Coffee’s ready,” she told Bojan as she passed by and entered. Shortly after, she came out again. “Well, come in. I want you to meet my mother Nejra.”

    The room had nothing but a bed, a bedside table, a painting hanging on the wall, and a heating device on the floor which kept it warm. Lying on the bed was a plump woman with fading brownish hair, saggy cheeks, and beady blue eyes.

    “A pleasure meeting you, Gospoda Nejra,” Bojan said. The old woman smiled.

    “Oh, what a handsome chap you are!” she exclaimed. With a trimmed beard, and a neat look, Bojan did not find the compliment odd. “I can see Galiba has made a good choice,” she continued, “we all got to make our choices in this world don’t we?” and then she glanced at the painting.

    Bojan looked at it. As he saw it, he felt as if he would get a convulsion. It was a picture of the devil himself. The similarity was uncanny. He had met a man with the name of I— who had looked exactly as the fellow portrayed in the painting. These were his precise looks when in flesh. The deep solemn eyes shaded by a crease in the long forehead..., the well-groomed moustache..., the bare and pointy chin..., the blue civilian coat...

    To his distraction, Lamija entered the room trying to carry three chairs and a small table all by herself. Galiba immediately rushed to help her out, and Bojan followed instinctively.

    “Now here comes the coffee” Nejra said with delight.

    Lamija brought the coffee tray and placed it on the small table with unsteady hands which made the cups rattle and nearly fall.

    “Give her a hand, Galiba my dear. I still plan on using these cups a couple more times,” said the old woman.

    Galiba then took control. With a flourish, she lifted the aluminium dzezva until the black liquid poured from its mouth emanating a rich aroma. She immediately picked two sugar cubes and placed them inside the cup alongside a spoon. She handled it to Bojan. He stirred, tasted it, and added yet another sugar cube.

    “Oh, have as much as you like. We’ve always been drinking it bitter and strong in this house,” said Nejra.

    As they sipped their coffees, the old woman told Bojan about her life in Ilijas. She shared some of the difficulties of depending on retirement money and on Lamija for doing all the chores of the house. She mentioned the generosity of the neighbours, and trifles of her routine. She seemed to have overcome the loss of her husband after all.

    After a long while, Bojan started to feel restless. Nejra was a good talker and he knew he had come to that place to spend time with her. But there was something about the atmosphere of the room which began to deeply disturb his senses. The deep solemn eyes...

    The heater was producing unbearable warmth. The fire inside of it was kept in a stronger intensity to create a nursing environment for the sick woman. The temperature made Bojan feel drowsy. The well-groomed moustache...

    More than anything, he felt a craving to smoke. The smell of coffee still lingered in the room, and its hanging taste tickled his throat, sending a direct calling to the brain. Bojan touched the left pocket of his pants, feeling the shape of the squared box of nicotine. The bare and pointy chin...

    “... stones,” was saying the woman, “this is the sole thing I’ll ask of you. Won’t you give a helping hand to this old lady?” Bojan realized she had mentioned a serious matter.

    “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?”

    “Long time ago, there was a particular place from a shoulder of the mountain, which gave sight to the whole plain of Ilijas. It is not a very populous town, but Ivan and I started our family here,” Nejra’s eyes became red, a tear escaped her watery pupils, “we’d alway- we’d always sit there and watch the- the town.”

    Galiba extended her arm to hold her mother’s. The old lady moved it away, as if saying she was fine.

    “After so many years,” Nejra continued, “this spot has not been preserved; now, all that has been left are broken branches and a pile..., a pile of stones that hides all the beauty.”

    “She wants your help in clearing the pile,” Galiba said. Her mother nodded in approval.

    Bojan’s head was spinning. The name of I— had given a twist in his stomach. He was anxious to leave the room. To clear piles of stones, of branches, of carcasses, of whatever it was, as long as it took him away from there.

    “I’ll clear it for you Gospoda Nejra,” he said, “I’d better do it at once, before sunset.”

    “You’re a kind man Bojan,” she said with a sincere smile and tears that ran down her cheeks. “Galiba, dear, do you still remember where the place was?”

    “Don’t worry mother, I’ll take him there.”

    Bojan left the room, the devil eying him from behind. He lit his cigarette with triumph, delighted by the cool temperature outside the house. Galiba started walking towards the beech forest, taking the dwindling path which disappeared under the shadows.

    The way was packed with snow and they walked stepping over twigs and roots, entering into the heart of the forest until they were surrounded by the gigantic trees.

    Bojan’s distress soon returned. In the stillness of the woods, he relapsed into a former state. His head began to ache with turmoil, with the events of the war of 92. He heard the continuous gun shots and the bullets clinking like coins on the floor. He heard the laughter of his Serbian friends, while Bosnian women and children shrieked. He saw Drasko – the real Drasko, not his butcher facade. He saw several faces. He saw I— immortalized with his deep eyes, and groomed moustache, and naked chin. The blue civilian coat...

    Bojan would give him a cause to be happy now. He’d clear the pile for the man’s wife. The idea made him calmer.

    Snow started falling like feathers as if plucked out of angels’ wings, swirling with the breeze and penetrating the treetop umbrella as the sky donned a hue of orange. Galiba had stopped on her tracks. She stared fixedly at the way ahead, perhaps wondering if it was too late to reach the desired spot.

    “Should we go back?” Bojan asked.

    She was silent for a moment, but then answered. “No, let’s keep going. I was just trying to decide whether left or right. I remember now.”

    They continued walking despite the weather. Bojan’s head cleared a bit, although his senses were starting to numb. He carried on with difficulty. He blamed it on the cold, wishing he could be back to Nejra’s room again. He thought of the village. As soon as they were back to Sarajevo, he would end his cobbling services and start a new life somewhere more quiet, somewhere more like Ilijas.

    Suddenly, they reached a place where there were no more trees and the way fell into a cliff, as if the mountain was giving its shoulder. Bojan looked around confusedly – there was no pile of stones. He saw a shovel resting on the end of a tree root with some stones piled next to it. But that could not be the pile Nejra referred to. The stones he saw were not much bigger than the size of a hand. Besides that, they were only about a dozen, and they definitely did not block the view.

    Galiba walked slowly in his direction. He saw some of her red lustrous hair hidden underneath the furry hood of her coat. She seemed to sway her hips with her gait, as if getting ready to dance. Her pearly blue eyes, though, were cheerless. She would probably tell him that they had gotten the wrong path; that the pile of stones was in fact somewhere else...

    The setting sun brandished a poignant light across the vale. It swept the villages, reaching from its lowest points to its furthest heights. The snow fell steadily from the darkening skies. A chilly breeze blew, penetrating cloth and finding the skin underneath.

    The stain spread in Bojan’s undershirt. She had known. She had known all along. The visit, the coffee, the entire thing had been a set up. All that has been left… His coat was soaked. …are broken branches… With a groan he tried to move his hands. They were numb. His lower limbs quivered and he fell on his back. He knew she had hesitated. His chest dripped; it pooled the snow around, making it incarnadine. He knew she had chosen a path…and a pile, a pile of stones…

    With her bloodshot eyes she looked – not at him, not at the knife lodged in his chest – but at the horizon.

    “Rest still father,” she said, “you have been avenged.”

    She walked towards the shovel, picked up one of the stones and threw it in the direction of the cliff. The snow fell steadily, and it was dark. How many years would it take? How many more to be avenged? One stone had been cast, but several still remained. Galiba had chosen her path; it was one…that hides all the beauty.
     
  8. ChaseTheSun

    ChaseTheSun Senior Member

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    Oops, I'm new to these things. Missed the 'title and word count' part. Hope that doesn't disqualify me. Here is the exact same entry again with title and word count.

    You Look Beautiful (1,516 words)

    Sometimes things happen. They happen the way a tsunami happens – unstoppable, guided by an invisible hand – of fate? Of a higher power? – or worse, not guided at all. To be guided would be to be governed, and some things – tsunamis, for example, feel as far from governed as the north pole from the south.

    During these times of things happening – and you know what I mean by ‘things’ – betrayals, mortal mistakes, natural disasters … during these times, to think of the sovereignty – the purpose – of a higher power is as comforting as it is mortifying. To think that something bigger than you has this under control can bring comfort and can bring an intense, burning anger of resentment. And often a fluctuation between the two.

    And finally, within and beyond and surrounding the emotions, the comfort and the resentment, it is the question ‘why’ that tears it all apart.

    But you aren’t thinking about any of these things today. You have, over the last few days, and you will, sporadically and cruelly for the rest of your life. But right now, you sit. So still, so quiet. A quiet which could be mistaken as unfeeling, or even – incongruous, I know – at peace.

    No.

    It is the quiet with which you have braced yourself, as though on a thin layer of cotton wool, beneath which lies a bed of shattered glass. One wrong move and you’ll slip through the illusion of safety and feel yourself being shredded, desiccated, irreparably torn. And thus you sit, so still, and fix your eyes somewhere in the middle distance between the floor and his radiantly smiling face.

    I have asked why. Of course I have, and of course I can. One step removed, having the freedom to cry without anybody looking at me, gauging my response, rating it on a scale of appropriate to obscene. Asking “why” brings the tears and stops them a moment later. Like a car, trying to drive with the handbrake on, lurching, stopping. The smell of burning rubber. Of failure. Of stymied progress. I am that car, and sitting here is my handbrake. I look at you, then look away. My stomach lurches, my hands grip, the tears fall and I have accomplished nothing.

    How do you do it? Sitting so quietly whilst all around you more glass breaks?

    The one person who could be of any comfort to you sits two seats away. Two of your children in between. One as silent and empty-eyed as you. The other peering curiously around, too young, too innocent. I meet her eye and she smiles shyly and my heart breaks again as I will her silently, “Remember, little one.” Perhaps she will. Like dreams that float near then evaporate, she will have vague memories. Mostly she will recall vicariously through the memories of her siblings and parents. I will them each to speak of him often, for their sake and for hers. To teach her all that he was, and would always be to them. Help her learn to know him, to grasp those wisps of memory and solidify them into tangible pictures and scenes, words, sounds, actions, events.

    I will miss his laugh. I couldn’t possibly ask you what you will miss. His hugs? The way he’d race past you on his way to the skate park, a quick peck on the cheek, “Love you, Mum.” The way he’d bicker with his brother over the Playstation. The way he’d pinch his sister’s cheek, tease her for her dimples – “Every person is a puzzle. God lost some of the pieces to make you. That’s why you have holes in your cheeks.”

    Did I forget to tell you how much I respected you? No, I didn’t forget, but I was a coward. Nobody ever knows what to do in these situations, and if they do know, they often don’t have the courage to, in case they are wrong after all. Suddenly you become the broken glass, like a box with huge, bright orange “Handle With Care” signs screaming to any who come near.

    I should have told you. I should have said how much I admired your strength. When your little one tugged on your skirt and said, “I need to go to the toilet,” and you had the ability to lean down, touch her cheek and say, “I’ll take you in just a moment, honey.”

    I should have told you. I should have held you close and said more than just, “You look beautiful today” – what a crass way to show comfort! But even now, thinking on it, in the quiet safety of my lounge room, I cannot think of the right words. Put on the spot, in a space nobody ever wants to be in, I can afford to allow myself reprieve for my lack of insightful words. But still, I wish, somehow, I could have murmured something in your ear that you could hold onto.

    The one who could comfort you keeps his distance the whole while. His eldest son, still so young, and not a tear to be shed. I feel like crying out, begging him to hold you so close. To envelop your tiny frame in his huge arms and never let you go. To hold each of his remaining children. To look at the radiantly smiling face before him, surrounded by flowers. But he sits, and he stares down, lost in his grief, already building his walls of self-protection. He has no desire to reach out, and no ability to let you or anybody else reach in. I avoid looking at him. His inability to hold you in this moment claws at my heart.

    I focus on the face before me.

    “Such an outstanding young man,” the minister is saying with a catch in his voice. “A young man to face some incredibly weighty challenges; but what a way he had of facing them. With bravery, with maturity – not without fear, but always with courage and such a strong faith in the same God who now keeps him from all fears and challenges.”

    Ah, yes. That hand, that higher power. That question, why? That rising bile of resentment, the momentary comfort of relaxing into the sense of there being some bigger, vaster reason and purpose. If there is a purpose to this, there is a little less despair. But then that resentment again, for what sort of big picture and purpose could God possibly have, to require such a sacrifice?

    I sit in my seat and I cannot be still like you. With your beautiful mass of curls tamed into a straight, smooth chignon, with your neatly pressed suit jacket and pencil skirt, small, tidy dress shoes with a tasteful heel. Always so immaculately presented. How did you even have the strength to dress this morning? How is your makeup so flawless?

    How can you look so exquisitely beautiful, and so very tired and broken, all at once?

    He is carried away from us and finally, as you move to let him go, you fall through the cotton wool and land on the first shard of glass. Finally the pain begins to stab through your body. You crumple; you cry out; you weep and keen so bitterly I think I have never heard such an awful, melodic, tragic sound and I almost want to put my hands over my ears. Instead, I wrap my arm around my little brother and pull him close. The same age as your boy. It could so easily have been … but I cannot go down that route in my mind. I cannot imagine. The rocks, the waves, the boyish crows of victory as, one after the other, each friend edges further out, daring each other, brave, foolish, reckless. Invincible. The ocean, battering the cliff, wave after crashing wave. Dauntless, victorious… so very stupid.

    I am not a mother. I cannot hope to understand what you are experiencing. Let me rephrase that. I hope to never understand. Not fully, not in the way I know too many mothers have already had to, and already are destined to in the future. My God, please let me not ever experience this.

    Is it selfish to hope that I never have to experience what I see you feeling? Perhaps, and perhaps not.

    Asking “why” hurts. It opens up options, it introduces new questions, and it never, never brings itself to a helpful, safe, comforting conclusion. All I know is that seeing you hold your children close and walk with such dignity and broken grace away from the final resting place of your eldest son, I wing a prayer to the One who I am left to brokenly and helplessly trust despite my confusion. And that prayer is that one day, should I ever have the joy to be a mother and then the agony of losing a child, my prayer is that I can hold myself with the grace, the strength and the vulnerable, tragic beauty with which you now stand and step, slowly, bravely, into the rest of your life.
     
  9. Fernando.C

    Fernando.C Contributor Contributor

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    Shauna (2627)


    She ran. The piercing wind of the late night assaulted her bare skin. The forest was vast and in the darkness its size seemed to have tripled. Trees and tress and trees, everywhere she looked, surrounding her. Tall, silent sentries of the woods.

    Her feet scraped against fallen branches and sharp rocks. She tried to ignore the pain as best she could. It wasn’t easy. Every step was fresh agony, her feet felt both numb and ablaze at the same time. That didn’t make sense. Then again nothing else seemed to do so tonight.

    Voices, low and hushed, murmured in the dark. A thousand inhuman whispers filling the air. They made her skin crawl. The audience to her misery, entertained by her struggles. How many they were, what or who they were, she did not know nor did she particularly care to find out. They would be present throughout her entire ordeal, she’d been told, they would cheer if she succeeded and they would cheer if she failed. If she survived the night or were caught to pieces, it made no difference to them and neither fate would lesson the obscene pleasure they took from all this.

    She tried her best to ignore them, to continue on pretending they didn’t even exist, that countless eyes weren’t all fixed on her. Yet she felt those hidden gazes upon her, scanning every inch of her naked figure, appraising her, surveying her, lingering...

    She barely suppressed a shiver.

    The further she went, the denser the forest grew, making navigation a challenge. Trees grew closer together, bushes covered the spaces between and around them. Thorns and twigs cut her skin. She winced. she cursed. She pushed through.

    A lone wolf howled somewhere in the distance. A sorrowful sound. There was none of that proud tone interlaced with mystery that used to echo in the hills near her house. There was melancholy to the wolf’s song. There was subtle raspiness to the wolf’s voice, not too unpleasant, yet a clear mark of the beast’s age.

    She ran on. Her legs carrying her as fast as they could. Less than three hours, that was all the time she had left. Less than three hours to find her way out of this blasted sea of wilderness. The penalty for missing the deadline would be her little sister’s life. Shauna...

    Innocent, gentle Shauna, at the mercy of that...that creature, the loathsome thing had her at its clutches. The things it could do to her, the monstrous acts that….

    No!

    She mustn’t think like that. Such negative thoughts did nothing but break her spirit. Hope, she would cling to it. she needed it, if she were to survive this. And survive it she would. So far the journey had been relatively uneventful, which only meant that whatever evil machinations the Warlock had in store for her were yet to come. And she must remain strong and vigilant if-

    Without warning, the solid earth beneath her had turned into mushy mud, pulling her down like quicksand. Panicking, she tried to fight against it but the more she struggled the faster she was pulled down. In mere seconds only her head remained above ground. Taking deep breaths, she tried to calm herself down. Not easy, considering the circumstances. Maybe if she remained perfectly still, she could buy herself some more time.

    The mud reached past her jaw. Next would be her mouth, then her nose and eyes. And then she would be swallowed whole, trapped below the earth, slowly suffocating to death.

    And Shauna...who would save Shauna then?

    I won’t leave her alone at the mercy of that monster. I Can’t. Die. Yet.

    Summoning every last remnant of her will, she pushed and kicked upward. The earth held her in place. Hardening about her, encasing her. It was becoming hard to breathe, she felt the earth crushing her chest, her legs, her whole body. Her ears rang with the sound of her bones snapping, the pain enveloping her like a blanket of hot lava. Her vision grew dark, the world dissolving into a blur.

    The blackness was a welcome relief.

    She was sitting on the worn-out front porch of the old house, a cup of cinnamon tea in her hands, fresh steam rising from it in brave rebellion against the chilling air of mid-winter. Shauna snuggled beside her, both of them wrapped tightly in a blissfully warm woolen blanket. And the wolves howled in the distance. Their voices, majestic and terrible, echoed in the valley. Mum and Granny Edna were there too. The latter in the middle of one her famous stories.

    The old cheerful woman had a head filled with a thousand tales, of the wondrous and the unknown, of magical places and strange creatures. Shauna and her used to love Granny Edna’s stories, begging her day and night to tell them one more and then one more and then one more. Some made them laugh, some made them cry and some gave them nightmares for days and sometimes weeks. But they always came back for more. Granny Edna was a great storyteller.

    “Have I ever told you about the legend of the Great Wolves, dears?”

    She had, in fact. That was one their favourites, however, so they simply shook their heads. “No, Granny Edna. Tell us, tell us”.

    So the old woman launched into the familiar story. Of the Great Wolves, ancient ancestors of the smaller and tamer wolves of today, or so Granny Edna claimed. Even the smallest of them were said to tower over the tallest of men when standing on their hind legs.

    Their coats of brilliant white or grey dazzled in the sun as they galloped through fields and hills. The Great Wolves ruled the wild in those days, it was said, and such fierce rulers they were. Brutal yet just, as was nature itself. Appropriate since the Great Wolves were the protectors of nature, its greatest guardians.

    And now they were gone.

    Their successors, the modern wolves, bore only a fraction of their forebears’ majesty. Still intelligent, still beautiful to behold, but gone were the humbling grandeur, gone was the almost regal air with which they held themselves and dead was their reign. Or so Granny Edna claimed.

    Granny Edna reached the conclusion of the epic but sad story. A voice, much louder and significantly less pleasant, drowned out the old woman’s words.

    It called out to her, harsh and low-pitched.

    “Rowena! Rowena, you’re sister awaits you. And her time runs out.”

    She turned to see it was Shauna herself who spoke to her. Except it wasn’t. Her sister’s lovely features had contorted into a misshapen monstrosity, her eyes - instead of brilliant blue - were now seas of blood red, and all her hair had fallen, the skin of her head yellowish and leathery.

    “Rowena,” The creature that wasn’t Shauna hissed.

    She jolted awake find herself in a large and round clearing. So quick she was in getting to her feet that she felt disoriented. What part of the forest was she in? Was she closer to her destination or farther?

    For the next several minutes she walked in circles trying to get a sense of her surroundings. As she did so the memory of the last moments before blacking out flashed before her eyes. How was she still alive? And with her bones intact no else. She’d heard them break, with that sickening noise. Now as she carefully examined her ribs, her legs and arms, she felt no pain, found no bruises, save for the ones that had already been there.

    A sudden flash of hot pain cut her reflections short. The pain originated from her left thigh. Sighing, she bent down to investigate. That strange tattoo of an hourglass, carved there by the creature, which served as a constant reminder of the time constrained imposed upon her, now flashed red. As more and more sand fell into the bottom container. The top one was exactly half full at the moment.

    That meant she had spent one whole hour unconscious. Precious time wasted by her carelessness.

    Seeing no other alternative, she chose a random direction and resumed her trek. In no time she came upon a giant tree, its branches so massive they could be trees unto themselves. It’s trunk thickest than the thickest castle wall, and it rose so high that it seemed to go on forever.

    Before she could walk past it, the branches stretched to either side, effectively blocking her path. Perhaps she could climb over them. But the moment she began to do so, one of the branches wrapped itself around her, swung her several time in the air before knocking her into the ground. The pain left her breathless. Worse, she found she couldn’t feel anything from waist down, much less move.

    But that wasn’t the end of it. Another branch rushed at her, its tip sharp as any sword, it sliced through her chest, tearing apart flesh and bone, her blood gushing out like a geyser as her world went to black once more.

    She came too, once again in the same clearing. Not only she had the use of her legs back, but her terrible chest wound was healed as well, though it had left a pink and swollen painful reminder.

    What was happening? She’d died - yes, died - twice, only to find herself here both times. Was this some sort of trick? the Warlock was capable of all sorts of magic, so that was a possibility.

    A look at the hourglass tattoo told her yet another hour had been wasted.

    “Damn.” She swore. Tears glistened in her eyes, rolling down her cheeks. She had less than an hour to find a way out of the forest, or Shauna would perish. And she didn’t have the faintest idea where she exactly was and which direction to go.

    Shauna’s face flashed before her eyes, wide-eyed with curiosity and that beautiful smile that seemed eternally plastered onto her face.

    I’ll find a way to save you, little sister. I promise.

    But how, she could no longer risk taking a random path only to be brought back here and lose the remaining hour of the deadline.

    The Wolf howled once more, a chilling note, so hollow. The sound echoing throughout the vast jungle like that of a lone raindrop falling into an empty well. Here and there, it was intercut with high-pitched, blood-curdling screams that could not possibly originate from anything remotely human.

    The hair at the back of her neck rose at the sound of those screams.

    Her arms wrapped around her torso, covering her breasts in the process. Not for the sake of modesty for she’d long given up on that but just so she had a semblance of a shield, futile as it was. An illusion, nothing more. Still, it gave her some comfort. The only comfort she had left, even if it was a false one. Her house was gone, her mother was gone and her sister…

    She was everything to Rowena. All that she cared about in this world.

    I won't fail you little sister.

    Dark blurs shot out from behind bushes and trees. They came in ones and twos, until they were almost a dozen. What were they?

    They came closer, tightening the circle. She gasped as they came into full view. They walked with their backs bent like old men. Their skins were hard and rough, dark green in color with darker patches here and there. Mostly bald, some had a few strands of hair.

    It was their faces that terrified her the most however. Eyes of sickly yellow with a tiny dark spot for a pupil and no irises. They didn’t have noses, their mouth opened to reveal small but sharp fangs that matched the color of their skins.

    They snarled at her and they hissed.

    She had no place to run, so swallowing her fear, she did the only thing she could think of. She lunged at them. She punched and she kicked with a gusto she didn’t know she possessed. In return the vile monsters tore at her skin with their claws and bit into her flesh, their saliva, the colour of slime, mixing with her blood. She ignored the pain as she continued to fight.

    By the time she collapsed to the ground, she was a mess of a cuts and wounds and bruises, a coat of blood and sweat covered her body. Of the creatures, only two still stood.

    When she opened her eyes this time, she was no longer in the clearing. Instead she stood facing an old, run-down hut. From her surroundings, she guessed she had to be deep into the forest.

    A large lantern, blue flames burning within it, sat on a stool in front of the hut.

    “Burn it down” A voice said, harsh and low-pitched

    Clad in his dark cloak, hood pulled down to cover his face, his arms hidden in giant sleeves, the Warlock stood before her.

    “Where’s my sister?” she demanded.

    “You will see her once you completed-”

    “I played your sick game Warlock,” She said as she advance on him, “I’ve done everything you asked of me. Now give me my sister!”

    The Warlock hissed at her, an inhuman sound. His hands - still covered by his sleeves - wrapped around her neck. She had trouble breathing.

    “You agreed to obey my every command down to the very last, in exchange for your sister’s life. This is the last command, the last test. Burn down the hut.”

    Robbing her neck after he released her, she walked -resigned - to the lantern, picked it up and tossed it at the broken window of the hut. It landed inside. Within seconds the entire structure caught fire, she would’ve been surprised except this was the least odd thing she’d seen tonight.

    “Congratulations,” the Warlock said, “you passed”.

    “Good, now where’s-”

    She never finished her sentence.

    The Warlock pulled his sleeve up to reveal a single large black claw, which he drove into her heart. She screamed in pain. He twisted the claw and she fell to her knees.

    But she didn’t die. instead her skin began to harden, turning a greenish color. Her hair was falling, her vision blurred and she felt a sharp pain in her spine.

    No...Shauna...I must...I need to save…

    Just then then the pain vanished as the Warlock retracted his claw. Rowena began to take sharp, fast breath to calm herself. She felt more clear headed than she had for a long time. Her worries, he fears, all of it were gone.

    She began to laugh, louder and louder, to the point of hysteria.

    The Warlock helped her to her feet. She stood with a hunched back, now completely bald. Her laughter did not subside. He put a hand on her shoulder and she looked up at him, her eyes full of admiration. Longing. Had he always been so magnificent? So beautiful?

    “Come now child.” he told her as he led her away.

    She followed her master without question, for nothing brought her more joy than pleasing him. He was everything to her after all. All that she cared about in this world.


    ***

    The wolf sang still, tired and morose. The lonely notes falling upon the ashes of the old hut. The Warlock was long gone along with his newly-acquired servant. And by tomorrow morning a new hut with a brand new lantern in front of it would replace the old one, as it was always did.

    But if an unfortunate soul were to - unlikely as it seemed - happen upon it before sunrise, they would find among the ashes, the charred remains of a child.
     
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