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  1. Tenderiser

    Tenderiser Not a man Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor Community Volunteer

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    Current Contest October 2017 Short Story Contest

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

    Prompt Option 1:

    [​IMG]

    Prompt Option 2: Sneezing triggered my time traveling, and I was allergic to cats... (Thanks to @TheWriteWitch)

    Requirements
    • 1,200 - 5,000 words
    • Any genre
    • Any style
    • Polished to the best of your ability
    • One entry per person
    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 October at 23:59 GMT.

    Voting

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

    Winner

    The winner will be announced on 1 November. 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. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Testing the anonymiser
     
  3. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Here is my October entry inspired by the first prompt, enjoy!



    The end of three children (4997)

    *** 2017 ***

    Larry Reining examined the nightmarish landscape around him. The sky was ablaze in orange flames. Beneath him, the ground quaked. The road in front of him pulsated and breathed as though it were alive.

    Serpents crawled in and out of the ground in his peripherals and he heard a sinister laugh.

    Then, a flashback. Memories. One summer in his past.

    *** 1995 ***

    Sarah Dirlum, age 12, peeked around the corner of the kitchen; tiptoeing on the old vinyl tiles. The kitchen door was noisy, but the safest way out of the house. Daddy’s K-mart jacket lay draped across the back of the chair, which meant he was probably upstairs sleeping one off.

    She listened for the sound of her older brother snoring on the couch in the living room. The television was on. She could see it's dull glow and hear a news pundit rambling about some boring economic policy. Dave was a big guy and suffered from sleep apnea, so the lack of sound meant he was either up in his room or already awake.

    He wouldn't stop her from leaving, but he tormented her mercilessly. With what was in her bag, she didn't want to be caught. She didn't quite understand. This is the second time. Oh god, I might be dying. Last time wasn't as bad, there is so much blood.

    She hurried through the kitchen and closed the screen behind her, careful to not let it bang. She sprinted through the yard and took off up the hill into the woods. It was a damp June morning; dew clung delicately to every blade of grass, waiting for the sun to kiss it away.

    Her tomboy legs carried her over the rough terrain quickly. The poor side of town nestled snugly against the side of Irving mountain, which rose up to watch over the town. It was too steep to build on, so Sarah felt as though the entire mountain were her sanctuary.

    *****

    Twelve year old Larry’s feet pounded on a hardened game trail with enthusiasm that only children in summer have.

    He was a scrawny boy, much smaller than most of his friends. He had not yet broken the five foot mark and his voice cracked with every other word.

    “Dude, slow down,” his physical opposite croaked out through labored pants behind him. Dip was a year younger than Larry, but was already being taken by puberty. Over the past year, he’d shot up seven inches and ballooned past two hundred pounds.

    “Come on, Dip.” Larry bounded over a rock and didn't break stride. The fort they'd started to build yesterday was just up over the hill.

    At the top of the incline, Larry finally slowed down and waited for his best friend. He pushed his glasses up on his nose and looked around. Dip wheezed, but pulled himself up.

    There it was. A foot-high rock wall marking the outer perimeter of the structure-to-be, with thick branches crisscrossed around them to form walls.

    “Dude, what's that?” Dip pointed along the hillside to a small, white column of smoke with one hand while picking a scabbed over pimple with his other. “Maybe someone's burning old tires again?”

    “Nah, tires are rubber, they make black smoke. White smoke is mostly water, someone's burning brush probably,” Larry regurgitated science class. “Wanna go check it out? We got all day.” He tossed his All That knapsack against a tree.

    “Sure, let’s go.” Dip patted him on the back and leapt off of him. Larry didn't say anything but nearly buckled under the much larger boy.

    They skipped over the dried leaves and through the short blueberry bushes down hill towards town.

    Larry stopped at the edge of a steep drop off. Dip, mindlessly watching his feet, nearly ran him down. If it weren't for Dip grabbing his collar, Larry would have taken a nasty fall.

    “Oh, sorry man.” He stumbled to catch his own balance and looked down. “Isn't that Sarah Dirlum?”

    “Looks like it, I think she lives somewhere around here.” Larry didn't want to admit to Dip that he knew exactly where she lived. He stumbled across her in the woods a few times before. He kind of liked her, but didn't know why. Everyone would make fun of him if they found out. He wanted to go say hi, but then Dip might think something is up.

    Dip put less thought into the matter and simply bounded down the hill in front of Larry. Larry’s heart jumped. Wait. He wanted to go over there, but didn't think that they actually would. He panicked and froze for a moment before shaking it off and acting cool. He ran after Dip, damned if he was going to look slow in front of her.

    “Hi, Sarah!” Dip did not feel that same shyness towards girls. Not that his pockmarks or growth spurt was any indication, but he didn't think about girls much.

    Sarah jumped, out of surprise. She then turned and faced the boys, stepping in front of the small flaming metal bucket.

    She looked back to make sure that the contents were burnt beyond recognition. She didn't know if she should be mad at them for sneaking up on her or be friendly. Did she want company? It hadn't dawned on her. They’re probably just passing by anyway. What would stupid boys want to do? Tease me because of my training bra? Snicker to each other about the hair on my legs?

    “Hi, guys,” she finally uttered politely.

    “Didn't mean to scare you,” Dip said sincerely. Larry just looked on from behind.

    “It's okay. I was just…”. She turned and looked at the whimpering flames. “What are you guys doing?”

    Larry felt panic again. Building a fort. How childish. Quick, make something up. What? Something radical.

    “We're building a fort up over the hill.” Dip pointed to Larry’s initial horror. To his relief, Sarah seemed interested.

    “You guys doing that just the two of you?” She hinted that she would be willing to join them.

    Larry chimed in. “Yeah, it’s a basic four wall structure. We'll use cross struts to support it.”

    “Cool,” she nodded blankly.

    “You wanna come help? You can hang out there too.” Dip looked back at Larry for reassurance then up the hill in the direction of their spot.

    “Sure.”

    They skipped up the hill together, chatting about their summers and interesting things that they’d found in the woods.

    The three children spent the remainder of the morning playing together. They gathered branches for structure and any garbage they could for walls and roof. They sat together on a log in front of a fire pit and laughed. Larry and Dip shared the snacks that they'd brought. Sarah promised to bring something the next day.

    Around one, Sarah’s face turned white and her eyes widened in horror. “I have to go,” she blurted out and stood up. She wanted to stay with her friends, she just… couldn't.

    “Okay.” Dip said, mindlessly munching on Lay’s potato chips. They were confused by her sudden rush to leave, but didn't bother to question why.

    “You'll be back tomorrow?” Larry asked hopefully.

    “Yeah,” she smiled and ran off down the hill. She kept looking behind her, as though running from something she couldn't get away from. She ran straight home.

    She didn't bother checking for her brother or dad, she made a beeline for the bathroom.

    As she sat on the toilet, she heard her brother loudly plodding around outside. He seemed to be talking to someone, but she didn't hear anyone else. Who was he talking to? He didn't sound himself.

    “Where'd the owl go? I wanna talk to the owl!” He slurred.

    What is he blabbering about?

    “No, leave me alone, I wanna see the colors.”

    Sarah ignored her brother’s antics after looking down at her underwear in terror. Blood, so much blood. What's happening to me? I can't let anyone know, Daddy will think I've been doing things I shouldn't be. Is this an STD? Can I get those without having sex? Am I just dirty? I can't burn all my underwear, Daddy will be mad that he has to buy me more.

    She finished and flushed the blood without looking at it. She cleaned herself for the second time that day and held her panties under the water in the sink.

    Without any warning, the door swung open. She and her brother both jumped in surprise, for he had not realized that she was there. Sarah screamed for him to get out and covered her bare bottom half with her hands while trying to hide her underwear.

    He saw them. “Aww, what's a matta’ sis? Time of the month?” Despite her screams, Dave didn't retreat. He didn't seem himself. His eyes had a blank expression and they wandered as though he were seeing things that she wasn't.

    “Get out!” She rushed to push him out of the door and slam it, but he was much larger than her. He grabbed her arms and pinned her against the wall.

    “Gettin’ yur blood now, huh? Finally gonna start filling that training bra?” He grabbed the strap across her shoulder and pulled it so that it hurt her. With her free hand she grabbed it and clawed him. He didn’t seem to notice the scratch.

    “Get off me!” Sarah protested the torment, but was unable to defend herself, and still nude from the waist down.

    “What's a matta’ sis? Pussy all dirty? Let's see if yur tits are comin’ in yet.” As she squirmed, he ruthlessly pulled her hair and squeezed her sore, budding breast.

    “Stop it! Daddy!? Help?” She cried in desperation. Dave just laughed.

    “Dad’s gone. Hmm, no tits yet, sissy. Maybe it's not yur blood. Maybe yur dyin’.”

    “Leave me alone!” She hollered through tears and drool and scratched at him with all of her might.

    “Ow!” Dave yelled out as she scratched his face. “You stupid bitch.” He said finally, before seeming to just forget about everything and wandered off; leaving her shaking, terrified, and confused.

    *****

    Larry and Dip didn't part ways until the sun was on its way down.

    Dip meandered home through the woods. He walked into the back door of his house. The tv was on in the living room. A photograph of his mother watched him from above the kitchen table. He entered the living room where his father was watching a movie.

    Dip recognized the movie: Top Gun, one of his favorites. He watched for a moment while Tom Cruise played volleyball in the sand. He was drawn to his glistening muscles and lean physique. He wished he looked like that. There was just something nice about their bodies.

    “Hey, dumbass, get me a Bud,” his Dad noticed his presence. Dip just watched the television so he raised his voice: “Hey, faggot!”

    Dip turned to him now.

    “Get me a beer, idiot. You know, the red cans in the fridge?” Dip just grunted and looked back at the tv before looking at the fridge.

    “Like those shirtless guys, huh queer?”

    “Shut up! You're gross.”

    “I'm not the one with scabs all over my face. You're disgusting. Get me a beer.”

    “Get it yourself.” Dip immediately regretted standing up for himself as the former high school linebacker bounded up from the couch and shoulder checked him on his way to the fridge. Dip knew he should just ignore him, but shoved his father in retaliation anyway.

    “Come here, fat-ass,” the old man wrapped his muscular arm around Dip’s neck and placed him in a headlock.

    “Get off me.” As powerful as Dip was for his age, he was still no match physically. His father gave him a stern punch to the temple before tossing him to the ground. Dip stammered away into the hallway.

    He slammed and locked his door behind him. In his bedroom he laid face-down in the bed.

    He looked up at the movie posters around his room. His eyes landed on Schwarzenegger. Buff, fit, handsome. All muscles. His skin tanned, smooth, and slick. Nobody calls him names I bet.

    Dad hates me so much. I ruined everything. Mom killed herself after having me. It's all my fault. Everyone would have been better off if I weren't even born.


    *****

    Larry emerged from the woods with his knapsack bouncing on his back and trotted along the side of the dirt road towards his Dad’s house. His mother lived the next town over with her new husband.

    He approached an old abandoned trailer. He knew high-schoolers would hang out back there and drink beer. He could hear four older girls’ voices. He wasn't eavesdropping but overheard them giggling about sex.

    As he passed them, he heard. “Hey, little boy!” He stopped and faced them. The tallest girl approached him on wobbly feet. She reeked of alcohol. “Do you think I'm pretty?” This girl was older than him, but still a kid. A high school sophomore at the oldest.

    Larry just stood there.

    “Why won't my boyfriend touch me? Does that mean he's a faaaaag?” She slurred.

    Again, Larry didn't respond. He just looked down at the girl’s feet.

    “You'd fuck me, I bet,” she giggled, running her hand up her own leg.

    Her friends jumped to her side. “Come on, Jennie. He wouldn't even know what to do with it. He probably doesn't even have any hair on his dick yet.”

    The four girls surrounded him. Larry just looked up at them through his glasses, then down the road towards his house.

    “Look,” one of the girls said behind him and abruptly pulled down his shorts and briefs. Larry jumped in surprise and angst.

    The girls all started laughing as he struggled to grab his pants while covering himself with his shirt.

    “Oh my god, it's only like an inch!” One of the girls pointed and laughed.

    Larry tried to turn away and run with his pants down, but one of the girls reached out and grabbed him by the penis. He screeched and his voice broke as he begged for them to stop.

    “Did you hear his voice crack?” The lead girl laughed. “I think you just made him a man.” She teased. “Look, he's like totally hard.”

    Finally, she let him go and he pulled his pants up as he took off running for home, sobbing. He heard them continue to laugh at him as he hobbled home with his dick tucked in his waistband.

    *****

    The kids all met up at the fort the next day. They were quiet, hoping that the day would be a distraction. Sarah had woken up bloody again. Larry had arisen to his own sticky mess and was terrified that the girl the previous night had done something to him. Dip had swelling and a cut right in the middle of his forehead from his dad.

    They wandered along the ridge-line, further than any of them had ever gone before. They quickly loosened up and started to joke around. Larry and Dip were surprised and thrilled by how much fun they were having with Sarah and she felt the same way. She didn't fit in much with other girls.

    They each brought some snacks to share. Larry had his knapsack stuffed with chips and apples. Dip had a case of Surge. Sarah brought homemade muffins. She didn't know why her dad left them in the living room but she’d taken half of them.

    She was embarrassed that it was all she could find at home. They both had name brand products. She wasn't even sure what the chopped up stuff in them was, but she was relieved when the boys seemed to like them. They both told her how they don't have many home cooked meals. They were embarrassed by that fact, and she was embarrassed that she knew that she couldn't afford TV dinners every night like them.

    They came across an old house. It was long abandoned, probably before any of their parents had even been born. The dirt trail that lead to it from the main road had been overgrown. An ancient cellar door was propped open on the side and the porch roof had caved in.

    “Check that out,” Dip gawked up at it.

    “Looks haunted,” Sarah came up behind him. To her, it looked like the house was moving on its own and she thought she saw something in the window.

    “Bogus. There's no such thing as ghosts,” Larry rationalized. “But there could be bugs and animals in there and stuff.”

    “You're not scared to go in there are you?”

    Larry lowered his head. “Fear is a good thing.” He spurted out nervously. “It's a precognitive evolution that protects us from danger.”

    Sarah bounded up the creaky front steps. “Nothing's gonna happen,” she assured and carefully stepped along the ancient porch boards. There was plywood over the door, but the windows were broken and the trio climbed through one into the dusty living room.

    “Be careful,” Larry said, looking at the broken glass as he climbed through. “You don't want to get an infection from cutting yourself in here.”

    Right away, Larry started to feel like something was off. The shadows seemed to move on their own, but only when he looked away. His peripherals were full of motion, but the house was still.

    They explored together for a while. The living room took up the entire front of the house and was divided by a half-wall. To the right there was a staircase which lead to some bedrooms. They all heard things scurrying around, and caught glimpses of things out of the corner of their eyes, but never got a lock on anything.

    They opened a door in the kitchen. Together they all screamed as a figure emerged from it like a shadow and passed through them like smoke. It screeched with a high pitched wail as it vanished.

    Larry slammed the door shut and together the kids ran to the front door screaming. Dip pulled on the old brass doorknob, but it wouldn't budge.

    Larry remembered. “It's boarded up. The window!” They fell over each other as they all heard footsteps wandering all over the house.

    From the open window, the beams of light bouncing off of the dust began to move. They formed a face, which then melted and shrieked. The broken window twitched and its broken glass shards became like gleaming teeth. Sarah saw eyes form above it out of the light rays. Dip saw the window like a portal to another world. Outside, his mother was slitting her wrists on the glass.

    They backed away from the window as Larry heard a terrible sinister laughter come from the depths of the basement.

    “Guys?” His voice cracked as they all reached out to each other to maintain contact. “We’re trapped in here.” The window glared back at them as they turned to face the timeless, grey room.

    Dip ran back to the front door and attempted to break it down with his shoulder. The whole frame creaked but didn't budge. Dust poured down from the molding. He was about to hit it again, but the dust reached out for him with long, spindly arms and claws.

    He screamed and ran into the kitchen. The others didn't see it, they didn’t need to; they ran with him.

    The kitchen was better lit; it had a large bay window. It faced thick trees, but in its day it would have illuminated the room completely.

    “Stay in the light,” Larry squeaked. Together, they entered the middle of the kitchen and looked around.

    Dip turned to Larry. “What are we going to do?”

    Sarah shook and looked to the other two for guidance. What are they thinking? They're probably regretting bringing me along. Her dilated, wet eyes looked at Larry.

    He felt immense pressure to think of something. Why do I always have to solve everything? I can't do this. Ghosts aren't real. There is no credible evidence. She's counting on you. Think of something.

    The wind rustled the leaves outside and the whole house creaked. Once again, Larry heard a deep laughter from below them.

    “What is that?” He shook, looking at all of the closed doors, wondering which one lead down.

    Dip did not respond. He was staring off at the wall. “Dude, what is it?” Sarah and Larry both looked at the faded wallpaper. It had a simple pattern of diamonds and triangles. Then they saw them all start to move.

    At first, they just wiggled, but then they started to roam. They watched them as the walls transformed into grotesque living flesh. “The house... I think it's alive,” Sarah uttered, almost inaudibly.

    “What do you think it wants?” Dip wondered, hoping that Larry would pipe up with an answer like he always did. This time though, he stared at it silently.

    They stood in the middle of the room with the walls pulsing around them and waited. For what? They didn't know. They could hear sounds everywhere them and shadows swirled around. Sarah clung tightly to Larry, who squirmed uncomfortably as his pants started to become tight again. Oh no, not again. Not now. Please.

    As Sarah began to take in the pulsing mass around her, she gradually became more horrified by her friends’ appearance. Dip’s forehead was torn open and blood oozed from it, he seemed completely unaware of it. Larry too looked strange. His eyes were swollen, four or five times their normal size and were pulsing like the house. Oh my god. Are they part of the house? Are they being absorbed by it?

    “You’re… You're bleeding,” she pointed to Dip’s forehead.

    His face went white and he gently touched the cut from his father’s jab. There was blood on his fingers. “It's nothing, my Dad just…” he trailed off as he saw the blood start to move along his arm.

    He shrieked out for his friends. “Oh shit, it's on me, get it off. Get it off!” He flailed his arms as Larry tried to calm him down only to become overwhelmed with panic himself as it migrated to him.

    Larry flailed helplessly as the drop of blood grew to engulf his arm and saturate his clothes. He felt it moving and squirming against his skin. He frantically tried to rip his shirt off over his head. “Help, get it off!” He screamed, his voice cracking twice in the short sentence. Dip grabbed the shirt and effortlessly pulled it off, nearly pulling him with it.

    He scrambled to get his blood soaked pants and shoes off. He rolled around on the floor to escape the blood. He scrambled to stand in a panic to end up butt naked, rock hard, facing Sarah. He screamed out in horror and ran off to the living room, trying to cover himself.

    He got to the middle of the room facing the stairs before it dawned on him that he was now alone. He snapped his head at the writhing, fleshy wooden walls and heard female whispering voices circling him. He saw eyes open all around him and stare.

    Dip ran into the living room after him, stopping at the door so that he had line-of-sight for both Sarah and Larry. Sarah stayed behind the wall but approached.

    “Dip, I..”. He cried, his nose running.

    “You wanna wear my shorts? I don't mind, really.”

    Larry looked down at the huge basketball shorts covering his giant friend. “I can't,” he gulped out. “They're too big.” He sobbed from embarrassment, aware that Sarah could hear him from the other room.

    Sarah shook nervously as she slid her fingers down her shorts to feel her underwear. She pulled her hand out to find blood on her fingertips. Oh god, no.

    Her stomach fluttered with dread as she unbuttoned and pulled her shorts down. She yanked her t-shirt down to stretch it, trying to cover her blood, but she knew that the boys would see it. What will they think of me? I'm so gross.

    “Larry,” Sarah called out to him. He didn't respond, but she could hear his sniffling stop for a moment. “You can wear mine,” she handed her shorts to Dip who obediently grabbed them and held them out for Larry.

    He looked up at them. Girl’s shorts? They'll make fun of me. They're Sarah’s. She's here for me now, will she laugh later? He got up and wiped his nose. He hid himself as best he could as he snatched them and pulled them up. They were a little big for him, but they fit.

    He turned the corner. “Thanks,” was all that he could muster with his head down. He turned to Dip. “It just grabbed me, dude.”

    “I know, man” Dip paused for a moment. “What are we going to do?”

    “I don't know,” Larry looked around. He peeked through the door next to the kitchen but pushed it closed again quickly. “Guys, I found the basement. Remember, there was a cellar door outside? It was open.”

    “For all we know there is no door anymore. Or it could be a trap like the window.” Sarah said wearily looking at the glass-toothed beast in the wall.

    “You got a better idea?”

    There was silence.

    Dip stepped forwards and put his ear to the wall. He could hear footsteps, then very faintly: “Come down here, boy,” in his father’s voice. He pulled away in a sweat and looked at his friends.

    “You're bleeding,” Dip pointed to Sarah. He didn't mean to humiliate her, rather expressing concern.

    “Yeah, so? So are you!” She lashed out and pulled her shirt down to cover herself.

    “I know,” he looked at the floor. He knew that he'd upset her, though wasn't entirely sure how. “My dad did that to me.” He admitted.

    “Your dad?” Larry turned with concern. “Like, how?”

    “He hits me,” he said slowly. “A lot.” Sarah and Larry glanced at each other.

    “You...” Larry tried to offer advice. “You should talk to the principal. Or I can do it if you want.”

    “Yeah.”

    There was silence.

    “I'm sorry I snapped at you,” Sarah said eventually. “I don't know why I'm bleeding. I think I'm sick.”

    “You sure it's not just your period?” Larry piped in.

    “Huh?” The lack of women in Sarah's life had never seeded the word for her.

    “You know, every month girls’ ovaries release an egg and it comes out with your pee.” His tenuous grasp of the subject was more than Sarah knew. “It's supposed to happen... Just like what you saw is supposed to happen to me.” He lowered his eyes and blushed, not able to maintain eye contact through the end of the thought.

    “It is?” She shuffled her feet and adjusted her shirt.

    Larry just nodded. “You're supposed to get pads or something for it.”

    “Guys, the basement.” Dip butted in and leaned against the door. They opened it and peered down.

    Larry inspected the woodwork. “Guys, I think it’s getting weaker.” The material still moved and looked organic, but he was seeing flashes of its dusty, static structure.

    Dip didn't say anything before stepping into the darkness and taking the first stair. The basement was dimly lit by two ground-level windows and a musty stench filled the air. There were tentacles and serpents slithering on the ceilings and later he’d swear that he saw his father.

    Dip gazed at the snakes, who vanished before him and reappeared in his peripheral vision. His eyes darted back and forth as they seemed to always move when he looked at them.

    “There is something down here,” he whispered.

    “Do you see the door?” Larry whispered back, leaning over Dips shoulders as Sarah leaned on his.

    “Yeah.” Next to a bunch of shelves that seemed to be breathing, a metal storm door was propped open by an old paint can. A thin beam of light shown through.

    “Can we make it?” Larry asked.

    Dips eyes darted back and forth, watching things move about. Then he heard his father’s voice again. “Try it, fat boy. I'll fuck you up again.”

    He took a deep breath. “Yeah, we can make it.” He looked back at his friends. “You ready?”

    They timidly nodded. All at once they took off into the dark basement and turned at the bottom of the stairs. The house reacted to their motion, but its influence was driven back by their focus.

    Through the doors, they burst free into the light and scrambled off into the woods. They didn't stop running until they reached their fort, convinced that it was still chasing them. They saw shadows rushing at them from every angle.

    Once inside, they grabbed hands as it whirled around them outside. They kept seeing it, but it seemed both there and not there. Together, they waited, and it faded. They were safe. They'd escaped. Whatever it was, they'd beaten it together.

    They sat in the fort for a while and talked. Larry's voice didn't crack once. After a few hours they went to Larry’s house to get him clothes. The two young men stayed there and talked about Dip’s home situation and the lady went home with at least some understanding of what was happening to her.

    They would spend the rest of the summer recovering and become an inseparable click throughout grade school. They would recount over and over the events of the day and what lead up to it, trying to understand.

    Larry, would be the only one to ever completely understand what had happened. Twenty two years later.


    *** 2017 ***

    The flashback ended and Larry peered over the melting, pulsing landscape.

    He burst out laughing uncontrollably. Sarah accidentally took her brother's muffins. In the middle of the hellish landscape, it all clicked. This time was different though. This time was fun. This time, he’d ingested the psilocybin mushrooms on purpose.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 5, 2017
  4. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    The Garment

    3065 words



    Do you remember the disappearance of the young Rhodes girl? That must have been, what, twelve years ago now? Well, I have my own story to tell in relation to that event, one which I don’t go around telling just anyone, in view of what people may think. At the time, it had quite an unpleasant effect on my nerves and indeed, I lost many a night’s sleep as a result.


    If you recall, the disappearance of Jenny Rhodes caused quite a stir among the people of the area. Of course, she was never found, a fact which Charles Rhodes and his wife never quite recovered from. Much was done to find her; fields were traversed, woods were scoured, rivers were dredged, but no trace or clue was ever discovered.


    Although there was the statement of Mr Wicks, who claimed to have seen a cloaked figure leading a young girl into Croaker Wood, on the night of her disappearance. You might remember his account from the newspapers. Let me see if I can recount the details to refresh you. Mr Wicks had been returning home at dusk, having been walking in the woods, when he decided to make a brief visit to the little wooden tower on Spade’s Hill. From the top of the tower, he was admiring the view and, according to his statement, had seen a figure covered with a dark cloak, apparently helping a young child along the footpath, before entering Croaker Wood.


    Upon the discovery of the disappearance of the young Jenny Rhodes, Mr Wicks had informed the authorities of his encounter. When supplied with a photograph of Jenny, he was quickly able to identify the child he had seen, in particular, on account of the little red coat with wide brown buttons. But when he had been asked whether he recognised the stranger, or was able to describe his or her appearance, he had merely conceded that he could not, given the great distance and fading daylight when it happened.


    Now this, it seemed to me at the time, was just a little odd. Mr Wicks had specifically made mention of the girl’s coat with brown buttons, as being the same from the photograph, and yet he claimed he was unable to say anything at all about the stranger’s face. He had said the figure was cloaked, but not that he had worn a hood, which might have hidden the face from view. Now you may call me an old cynic, but I couldn’t help thinking whether this Mr Wicks might in fact know more than he was saying.


    ……………………………


    And here is where my own involvement began with the whole thing. Perhaps three days after the initial incident had taken place, I decided to pay a visit to Mr Wicks, who was quite well known in the small town of Grimstock. I had written to him in advance, explaining that my visit was not a formal one, but that I felt concerned over the official handling of the case, and only wanted to help find the poor girl and relieve the Rhodes family from their terrible situation.


    Unfortunately, Mr Wicks was reluctant to receive me. This only made me more suspicious, prompting me to write a second time, promising my word as a gentleman to keep our conversation between the two of us. I also pointed out how Mr Wicks could put to rest any suspicions that I, or other people may have, that he had been somehow involved with the girl’s abduction. Ultimately my persuasion succeeded and a visit was arranged.


    Certainly, from my immediate impression of Mr Wicks, I could not have imagined such a man capable of stealing, let alone harming, a young innocent child, such as Jenny Rhodes. He was quite a small, round, timid man, and throughout our meeting showed a good deal of nervousness. But what is it people say? - you think you know a person! Appearances can be deceptive. He looked very uncomfortable speaking about what he had seen, and spoke quietly, as if someone else might be listening.


    I will try to tell you, as accurately as I can, what the man described for me. He did indeed see a cloaked person, helping a child into the woods, but could not possibly have seen either person in enough detail to have identified them; not with the naked eye. But Mr Wicks was a frequent rambler, who often enjoyed fishing, birdwatching and trainspotting, and would have been wholly at a loss without his trusty binoculars. This was how he was able to distinguish the type of clothing they wore, despite the dull light. He also briefly saw the girls face, though not sufficiently to memorise it, nor identify it from the photograph.


    But it was the cloaked figure that caused the most trouble for Mr Wicks to relate. Although it was wearing a large black hood, the contents were partly visible for a moment, as the head had turned to look around, before they both entered the woods. He described a face that was almost white and horribly sunken, to a degree which shocked Mr Wicks. The sight was so fleeting that no sooner had they both disappeared, he wondered whether he had seen anything inside the hood, at all.


    This is the reason he became reluctant to speak about the incident. People had started to ask too many questions, and the thought of the cloaked figure kept coming back to him, in a most disagreeable way. Eventually he decided to keep the details to himself. In fact, there was slightly more to his story, which he had never previously mentioned. He saw the two figures shortly after, as they were passing a sparse patch of trees. In his opinion, they must have been following the footpath which leads to the old mausoleum.


    Well, what was I to think? His story had a certain logic, but still seemed to me, slightly contrived. Could he have made the whole thing up, when in fact he had taken the girl himself? At least I had something to go on; a trip to the mausoleum was on the cards. When I left Mr Wicks, it was with great relief. His anxious appearance must have infected me so much that some dark cloud seemed to hang over me, long after my visit. You may also have heard how he died a few months later. In view of that fact, I’m sure it won’t do any harm to tell you about his story now, despite my promise of confidentiality.


    ……………………



    Before I left the district of Grimstock, I paid a visit to the mausoleum of Croaker Wood. There is no road to reach the building, so I found myself walking the twenty minutes required to travel from the main road. The path I followed through the trees was laid roughly with rocks and overgrown with grass and weeds. Roots must have pushed up many of the rocks, making the path broken and full of gaps. Although my walk was accompanied by the chatter of birds and rustle of wildlife, the mausoleum itself was ominously quiet.


    I cannot say there was anything to note about the exterior of the small rectangular building, except to mention how overgrown with moss and ivy it had become. Even the wooden door was spread across with several strands, although they had recently been broken where the door opens, suggesting recent usage. Perhaps some new person or persons had been laid to rest.


    I paused for a moment, deciding whether or not to try the door. I wasn’t particularly looking forward to disturbing someone’s tomb, but on consideration, felt it was my duty to discover anything that may provide a clue about the Rhodes girl. So I turned the iron-ring handle and pushed against the solid thick wood. The door opened, though only with some effort and creaking so loudly that it actually startled me.


    You know how, when you are dreaming and you are being chased, it feels like you are in slow motion, as if you are running through water. From the moment of opening the door, I felt an intangible resistance to my every move. I had thought at first it was just the weight and stiffness of the door, but this feeling persisted as I entered the dimness of the mausoleum.


    At least I had come prepared. I pulled out a flashlight and directed the beam into the gloomy interior. I found myself having to breath dry and unwholesome air, which rasped in my throat. Cobwebs were agitated by the breeze that I had let in, some showing signs of habitation. Stone steps immediately led the way down, between dirty grey brick walls. The staircase descended only a short way into the ground, before a small chamber opened out. As I passed my beam around, the darkness gave way to a dust-covered earth floor and a number of stone coffins, of varying sizes.



    I crept quietly around the chamber (it just seemed wrong to cause too much disturbance), and shined a light on the coffins, observing all to be closed and apparently untroubled. No rising lids or hissing Draculas to be seen, I’m glad to say. Pieces of a table were heaped near one of the dirty walls, while in a corner, a black granite gravestone was set flat in the earth. Lying on top, was a pile of dark matter, which I thought at first was a mound of earth. Upon further inspection, I discovered it to be a pile of dark cloth. I wasn’t too keen on touching the material, which was mouldy, mottled with stains and not at all pleasant to smell, but lifted it carefully with two fingers to determine its nature.



    I’m not sure whether I was entirely glad or repelled when it dawned on me that the horrible fabric was a long, very dark robe or cloak. I had to assume, whether rightly or wrongly, that this was the same garment that Mr Wicks had claimed to see being worn by the mysterious figure. But what worried me more, was the way it had been neatly folded and placed on the gravestone, and also how the stone was partially clear of dust, as if something solid had scraped it away. I suppose it is possible that I had done that myself, as I was moving the garment.



    In any event, I did not care to stay in that chilly shadow-infested tomb a moment more than necessary. I certainly wasn’t about to go around removing coffin lids and upsetting the dead, no matter how much I had wanted to solve this puzzle. There just didn’t seem to be any evidence to easily pursue. What I did do, however, is to drop the item of clothing into a plastic bag to bring with me. I didn’t enjoy struggling with it into the bag, such was its odor and unclean appearance.



    I know it’s silly, but even as I took the garment, I felt as if I were doing something I shouldn’t. But it’s not like I had desecrated someone’s grave, is it? And yet, I couldn’t help but hurry out of that morbid sepulchre. It’s funny how the mind can play tricks. I suppose the thought of being found out or accosted in some way must have gotten into me. Every movement of my flashlight seemed to bring shadows jumping out, as I hurried through the chamber and up the dusty steps.



    For a moment, I wondered why I could not see daylight at the top, which I would have expected in view of the short distance to the open entrance. Could someone possibly have closed the door? I felt an unexpected rush of panic seize me as I ascended. Of course my fears were entirely unfounded when I realised the daylight was greatly diminished by dark clouds which seem to have gathered since my entering the mausoleum. Indeed, the rain had already begun, and several heavy drops spattered on my face while I closed the heavy creaking door and turned back towards the road.



    As before, the trees of the surrounding area were unnaturally still and silent, except for the pitter patter of rain on leaves. What’s more, the twenty minute walk to the road was most unnerving, as the quietness seemed to follow me all the way through the darkened woods. It was as if I had frightened away every bit of wildlife.



    ………………………



    I cannot say that anything of greater interest happened to me during my visit to the district of Grimstock. I returned home, late in the day, ready to resume the monotony of scholarly existence. I suppose I was going to hand in the mysterious garment to my local constabulary, but after consideration, could not imagine what possible use it would be, unless I was also going to disclose the account of Mr Wicks. Even if I had done so, I feel sure the man would have denied our conversation and been very angry with me.


    My plan, at the least, was to examine the item as soon as a suitable opportunity arose. I was, however, lucky enough to procure some text in relation to the mausoleum of Croaker Wood; mainly historical documents, which I had hoped might shed some light on the owners and its current occupants.


    It came as a point of interest to me that the mausoleum had been built by the then owner of the land, which includes Croaker Wood, and which was so named after the family, that is Croaker. Geoffrey Croaker had become a land owner of some wealth within a relatively short period of time, but his well known reputation of having a hot-tempered and volatile personality was known by locals, and thought never to have softened, despite his newly acquired comfortable circumstances.


    Unfortunately, a dispute arose between Mr Croaker and a neighbouring landowner of high standing, Sir Henry Rhodes, regarding where exactly the border existed between the two properties. This dispute came to a head when, one evening, Sir Rhodes was out shooting pheasant, and wandered near to the edge of his many acres. It would seem that a terrible incident occurred, the details of which are omitted, but which resulted in the accidental shooting and killing of Mr Croaker’s only daughter, of eight years. Apparently, Mr Croaker and two of his children were picking raspberries in a place which Mr Croaker insisted was part of his own land, though which Sir Rhodes claimed could not have been.


    Mr Croaker, who held Sir Rhodes entirely responsible for his daughter’s death, attempted to prosecute Mr Rhodes, but at length, nothing was to come of it. Mr Croaker swore revenge upon Sir Rhodes, but when he died many years later, Sir Rhodes was relieved that nothing unpleasant had befallen him. Geoffrey Croaker was interred in his own mausoleum, alongside where his daughter had been put to rest, over thirty years earlier. The property of Sir Henry Rhodes was eventually passed down to one of his grandchildren, that being Charles Rhodes.


    All of this proved to be considerably interesting for me, and yet brought me no closer to a true explanation for the disappearance of Jenny Rhodes. But I should point out that I haven’t quite reached the end of my story. It was while I was sitting at my desk, poring over official documents and newspaper clippings, and generally making great effort to piece together the whole thing, that I started to feel that something wasn’t quite right. No, I don’t mean with regards the events I was studying, but rather with my immediate surroundings.


    The sun had gone down without my noticing and I found myself straining my eyes to read, so absorbed was I, that it hadn’t occurred to me to switch on a lamp. But what did come to my attention was a rustling noise and a soft thud on the floor, quickly followed by another. I turned to glance briefly behind me, but noticed nothing at all amiss in the dimly lit room. I shrugged it off as something having fallen down within my wardrobe, which is perfectly plausible, given all the shoes I keep on an interior shoe-rack.


    I tried to concentrate on an almost illegible document, but the next sound from the room aroused me more properly, in a way which I hope not to experience ever again. If I say someone very close to me had breathed against my neck, and that not only did I feel that icy breath, but heard the gentle rasping exhalation, I hope you will understand the painful paralysis that seized me. For several seconds the muscles with which I breath literally failed, and my head filled with the thought that I was going to suffocate. Never has so much effort been required to move any part of myself in the smallest degree, but somehow, I did eventually move. My body started to turn with a slowness that seemed impossible, and I sensed at the same time another body was bending round to meet me.


    I can no longer be sure whether I felt bony fingers touch my bare arm. The effort and the shock was so much that I felt myself sinking into blackness before I could witness whatever presence had so terrified me. I may even have screamed; at least the distant echo of a scream came into my mind upon waking.


    Well, there is little more to say about my experience, except that it has stayed in my mind like a black stain. It was my own wife’s that was the next face I saw after coming around. I couldn’t help noticing that the dark cloak or robe was lying nearby on the floor. My wife insisted that when she found me unconscious in my chair, the horrible item was draped over my arm and shoulder in a way that she thought most peculiar. As to how that could have happened, I would not care to speculate. I distinctly remember it being inside the plastic bag, which I had hung on the side of my wardrobe, prior to sitting at my desk. And yet, I discovered the bottom of the bag to be ripped, as if the garment had been too heavy for the bag to hold it.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 2, 2017
  5. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Loose Ends (1748 words)

    The girl was afraid of me. Not that I could blame her, really. I’m not exactly what anyone would want to see upon arriving in this place. And I expected the hostility. I didn’t expect to get pelted by rocks, but they each have their own way of expressing their disdain. It was normal, and I couldn’t take it personally.

    She scurried off into the wheat fields after the pelting was finished. Must have been a farm girl for it to manifest this way, and it showed. She knew her way through the maze of towering wheat. It was always interesting to see the manifestation—one time someone manifested an entire circus. That was probably the most unique one I’d ever seen, and I’ve been doing this long enough that unique ones don’t come along too often.

    I stepped into the maze myself. The rustling gave her away, but I let her lead me on a little. No need to hurry. A barn was in the distance—probably belonging to her family, or one she dreamed of owning someday. She probably thought she was safe there, that she could keep me out by closing the door and barricading it, but it wouldn’t work. For better or for worse, nothing could keep me out. The rustling stopped. I stopped as well.

    “Surely you’re not done running from me yet,” I called out. “I thought you’d have more energy than that.”

    There was no immediate response. Until, of course, a rock came hurtling through the wheat and cracked me right in the head. I placed my hand against the bone—no pain of course, and I couldn’t be broken that easily. But even still, she had an arm on her. Probably played softball in a little league. I rubbed my head a little before continuing on in the direction the rock came from. The wheat rustled again and I knew she was on the move.

    It was good for them to run. Not too long, but long enough to tire them out. They needed it. Some more than others, but none were ever ready without the running. The elderly were usually more than happy to take my hand when the time came, but kids were completely different. It was their last chance to be kids, after all. It was only right that they take it, and I certainly wasn’t going to stop them.

    She dashed out of the wheat maze and across the field, stopping to gather some more debris to throw at me. If I had lips I would have smiled, but she wouldn’t have seen it that way anyway. She was a young one—only ten and a half, almost to the day. And she was only being a kid, doing what kids were always supposed to do: breaking rules. Harsh that it ended up like this, but I never questioned it. I tried looking at the Old Man’s blueprints once and couldn’t even tell what I was looking at. But as long as He understood them, that was fine by me. We go back pretty damn far, me and the Old Man. He’s earned my trust.

    So I followed her, not bothering to dodge the rocks. They bounced right off my old bones. I’m sure she figured it was hopeless to keep trying, so she turned and ran toward the barn again. The door closed behind her, and I could hear the thud of the lock on the other side. I reached the door and knocked.

    “You can’t come in,” she yelled. “I don’t want to play with you.”

    I sat down, back against the door. The light breeze made a ripple across the wheat. It resembled golden water—a vast, gilded ocean, empty of anything meaningful. Nothing was meaningful here. Nothing except our words to each other.

    “Is this your barn?” I asked.

    She didn’t answer right away. There was rustling on the other side of the door. But finally her voice came back through the gaps in the boards.

    “It’s my daddy’s barn,” she said. “But it’s gonna be mine when I grow up. He’s gonna let me have it and the fields and the cows, too.”

    “Your daddy sounds like a nice man,” I said. “Does he work hard?”

    “Uh-huh.”

    I sat in the silence that followed for a moment. There was always so much left behind. Threads left to dangle, dreams unattained. I looked up—the sun shone bright here without any trace of clouds. A beautiful day on a beautiful farm.

    “Where did you learn to throw so well?” I asked.

    “Softball,” she replied. “I have a game tomorrow. If we win we’ll be in the championship.”

    I gazed down at my hands. “I’m sure you’ll do very well.”

    There was some more rustling behind me, and then the door creaked open. She poked her head out and looked around before finding me. We glanced at each other. I can only imagine what she thought when she looked into my eyeless sockets. She emerged from the barn and sat down next to me.

    “Do you know what this place is?” I asked.

    She shook her head.

    “That’s okay,” I continued. “Sometimes it’s okay to not know everything.”

    “Maybe Daddy knows,” she said. “I’ll go ask him.”

    This was always the hardest part. When they’re right on the cusp of it. It would get better for her soon, but it never got easier for me.

    “I don’t think your daddy’s here right now,” I said quietly. “Do you remember how you got here?”

    She tilted her head. Racking her brain about it, surely. I never knew where the line was drawn, how much each of them actually remembered about it. It was probably different for everyone. Finally she shook her head.

    “Well, what do you remember, then?”

    “I was running with Bobby by the road,” she said. “We climbed the hill together, even though Daddy always told us not to.” She looked back at me. “Bobby got to the top first. He said he was the king and I had to do what he said.”

    I listened without speaking.

    “Mommy called us in for dinner,” she continued. “So we ran back down the hill. There’s a big pile of rocks at the bottom that we always jump over. But I tripped and didn’t jump in time.”

    She stopped. The breeze blew again, sending another ripple through the world. I could almost hear it.

    “Is this a dream?” she finally asked.

    I shook my head. “No, not really. But it’s like a dream, if you think about it. You get here the same way.”

    “By going to sleep?”

    A moment’s pause. “Yes, by going to sleep.”

    She rubbed her eyes. “My dreams aren’t this long.”

    “No, I don’t suppose they are.”

    She tugged at my sleeve. I looked down into her eyes again. They were searching, inwardly this time, trying to make sense of it all. She was so close. Just a little more.

    “Am I gonna miss my softball game?”

    “Yes.”

    “What about school? I’m supposed to go back in a month. Are they gonna start without me?”

    “Yes.”

    Her eyes were glazed. The tiniest of tears began to peek out from the corners.

    “What about Daddy?” she asked. “And Mommy and Bobby?”

    Without lips it was impossible to smile. But I tried my hardest. “You know, people do a lot of things. There’s always something going on. Always something coming up next. So many threads they hold on to.”

    She looked a little lost. I didn’t blame her. I always rambled at this part, never knowing just how to explain it in terms they’d understand.

    “When people come here they’re usually so stressed and worried about those threads they’ve left dangling,” I continued. “It’s understandable. They’ve gone for so long being forced to worry about them. And it’s never clean. There are always things left undone, frayed and limp, never to be neatly tied up.”

    I stood. She stood with me.

    “But that’s what I’m here for,” I said. “It’s my job to help convince you that it’s okay to let go of those threads. That you don’t need to worry about them anymore.”

    We looked at each other for a silent moment. Then I reached out.

    “Do you think you’re ready to take my hand?”

    She stood still for a moment. It was impossible to know what she was thinking—I could never tell what they were thinking in this exact moment. She reached her hand out slowly. It shook. There was a hesitation for the briefest moment, and then she clutched my bony fingers in hers.

    Her eyes opened wide. Whatever it was she saw when she touched me, I never got to see it. No matter how many times, no matter how many people. I never got to know what they knew, what they learned. But she learned it. Her grip tightened a moment before she let go of my hand.

    She looked at me then, tears streaming down her cheeks. “I saw it,” she said.

    It was easy to hide my envy. Lacking the ability to have facial expressions made me impossible to read. Maybe there was some benefit to that.

    “Did you now?”

    She nodded, smiling, wiping the tears away. “I saw everything. It was really pretty.”

    The sky was the brightest blue I’d ever seen. “Well, then I guess it’s time, isn’t it?”

    “I think so,” she replied.

    There were new tears, but her face was blissful. They always knew such a profound peace in the end. If I could have smiled, I would have.

    “Then let’s see what comes next.”

    “Okay.”

    The breeze blew through the wheat one last time. She squeezed my fingers tight, clutching earnestly, as if she were trying to bring me along. The sunlight was blinding, the breeze deafening, but then it all faded away. I glanced over once it settled, but I was alone. My hand hung limp at my side.

    Wherever she had gone, it was probably very pretty.

    Snow swirled around, glittering in the sun and collecting on the naked branches above me. In the distance a young boy was building a snowman. Already the base was set, and he diligently worked on the torso. A carrot and top hat sat in the snow beside him. I sighed and began to make my way over, hoping against hope that I might avoid getting pelted with projectiles this time.
     
  6. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Could You Get the Light? (1,226)

    Henry pulls the string attached to the attic bulb as he ascends the ladder; it snaps off at the top. Yellow light illuminates the space around the narrow ceiling hole. He takes his final steps up the ladder one creaky rung at a time, bracing himself on the towers of white tax boxes to the right of the entrance. He finds it hard to breathe through the static heat and floating pink insulation particles.

    Straight ahead are large green and brown plastic tubs stuffed with old holidays.

    He hefts himself completely inside the attic and pulls the ladder up behind him, shutting himself in with a gust of air that blows back his thinning grey hair. He stands hunched over on the support boards and moves to the plastic tubs, snapping them open.

    “Marsha?” he says, his voice dampened. “You there, hun?”

    He listens for a moment to the pulse in his ears.

    “Of course you are.” Henry smiles to himself. He digs through the open green tub, pushing aside a plastic skeleton and plastic pumpkin with a smiling face. “I could use some help finding your old photo album, if you know where it is.”

    The stillness remains.

    “I can’t remember if we ever showed the kids your old Halloween photos. Grandpa Lester in that old mask of his when you were-” Henry pauses, bracing himself on the box. He sighs and rubs his forehead. “Wow. Seven? And now I get to be the grandpa in the creepy mask.”

    He continues digging until he reaches the bottom of the tub and pulls out an old mask – a rubber skull with a black hood sewn to the top.

    “Gotcha. I’m glad you kept this. Now Ryan has a costume. After my turn, of course.”

    He tucks the mask under his arm and walks slowly across the support beams to the small northern window where pale brown boxes of many sizes and states of ruin sit, held firm under the dust. Henry draws his hand across the top of one; his fingers are smudged grey, then his pants. The tops are folded into themselves, held without tape, placed without labels.

    He straddles two boards and opens a square box placed on top of two others.

    “Ah. Our old records,” he says to no one. “Do you remember this one?”

    Henry pulls out a worn, bright orange record sleeve.

    “You loved this one. I didn’t, but I always listened to it.”

    Henry sets the mask down on the pink fluff, places the record next to it, and flips through the other records. He pulls out a stark blue album sleeve with a hot air balloon on it.

    “This was one of my favorites. It wasn’t your favorite, but you loved that it was mine.”

    He looks at it for a moment, reading each track, playing each melody in his head. He smiles and sets it down on top of the orange record and shuts the box, sliding it over to access the considerably larger and heavier box below it. Henry can’t remember why it’s so large and heavy. He grunts as he leans over to reach it – it’s too far for comfort. He instead pushes it forward onto the pink cushion. It rattles sharply as he does so, but he keeps pushing until the board is clear, then kneels where it rested before. He blows off the dust; it swirls in a cloud of history in the small rays of the afternoon light.

    Inside are various misshapen pieces of hand-spun pottery. Henry chuckles to himself as he picks up the top one. It’s bumpy and grey, with various finger indents across the lip. He runs his thumb over the fingerprint grooves in the imprint of Marsha’s index.

    “Our first pottery project.” He laughs to himself. “I forgot how many rejects we made.”

    He carefully places the pot back into the box and picks up another one. This one is painted in glossy brown and is of much better quality.

    “You got good fast.” He rotates the pot, feeling its sandy ceramic sides with his dusty hands. Always were a fast learner. But a perfectionist.”

    Henry puts the pot back and reseals the box.

    From the small attic window, he peers down into his driveway where Ryan and Lily, his grandchildren, are playing in their costumes. Ryan wears a long, black cloak, black pants, black shirt, and black shoes. He twists his face into a snarl and lumbers towards Lily who shoots at him with her toy pistol, making the sounds herself. She’s dressed in forest camouflage fatigues and wears a genuine military hat from her uncle that fits too large. It slants over one eye. She pushes it up with her left hand and shoots with her right. She would make a good cowgirl, but she wanted to play army. Ryan grabs her by the shoulders and pretends to gnaw at her neck as she falls and pretends to die.

    The top-most of the tax boxes falls and hits the support beam with a smack. The dense yellowing papers within spill out of the side of the box.

    Henry whips around. He leaves the window and sidles back to the box, turning it onto the side opposite its burst-out opening.

    “Damn it that scared me,” he says, breathless. “Not necessary.”

    As he gathers the papers that spilled, he sees an old dollhouse made of wood tucked off in the shadows of the attic. Henry puts the papers back into the box without organizing them, then takes light, cautious steps onto the pink fluff towards the small wooden house. It’s made entirely of oak, stained golden, though now warped and aged past its prime.

    The top is hinged – it hides a small compartment built into the top. Inside, black velvet lines the bottom and sides.

    “Hah. Marsha, you devil.”

    Henry reaches in and pulls a small leather-bound photo album from under a pile of old jewelry never appraised. It’s free of dust. He moves back over to the light at the window. The album cover crackles as he opens it.

    Inside are no more than a dozen pages of fading polaroid pictures that feature Marsha as a little girl, sometimes with her family. She picks flowers in her family’s farm in one; she stands waist-deep in snow, barely recognizable in her bundles of clothes in another. One of Christmas and her childhood dog Dewey; one of Thanksgiving and her first time sitting at the adult table. On the second to last page is uncle Lester in his rubber skull mask, one arm wrapped around little Marsha. She rests in his side with her eyes closed, ready for her nap.

    Sweat rolls down Henry’s forehead. Breathing has become more difficult. He can still hear Ryan and Lily playing outside.

    He snaps closed the album, picks up the records, tucks the mask back under his arm, and heads to the exit. The tax boxes are still, though he eyes them carefully as he passes. He grunts as he pushes the ladder back down, and is greeted with a rush of cool air once more. Stepping carefully onto the ladder, Henry starts to make his way down.

    “Oh.”

    Henry reaches for the light’s pull-string that’s no longer there.

    The light clicks off.

    Henry smiles.

    “Thanks, hun.”

    He descends, and shuts the attic door.
     
  7. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Found (4733w)


    When Eliza first passed by the house on the corner, she took in an eyeful of the generic Autumn-themed decorations all over the yard, topped off by little golden crosses in each window, and she thought to herself: Now there’s a house of people who think Halloween is the devil’s day.

    Possibly, she admitted internally, she was being unfair. But she knew what people were like around here – either they went all in with big inflatable lawn spiders and plastic skeletons and enough pumpkins to keep an orphanage in pie for a year, or they absolutely hated those people and instead went for tasteful smiling scarecrows and a reminder that they still loved Jesus, too.

    Well, there was a third option. The ‘no decorations at all’ house. The one with a yard full of overgrown, dead grass that purposefully went dark on Halloween night, and might have a big dog laying outside the doorway – one with big jaws and a sullen expression and a spiked collar. Her dad’s house, in other words.

    “Hey, Spike.”

    The dog looked up at her mournfully as she fished in her coat pocket for her keys. The old Rottie was way too docile to bother anyone, but Dad still banked on his intimidation factor. He only stood after she had the door open – slowly, because of the arthritis in his back – and Eliza held it open to let him trot inside to the warmth of the house ahead of her, reaching down to scratch his ears as he passed. His tailed wagged a little in acknowledgment.

    As Spike padded on into the living room, she paused to unbutton her coat and hang it up on the overcrowded coat rack, over the top of one of her dad’s jackets. She gave the mess of boots under the rack a glance, but decided she’d just leave hers somewhere they were less likely to get buried. Then it was time for the obstacle course – winding her way between tables piled up with boxes, and shelves piled up with boxes, and freestanding piles of boxes. Spike had been able to duck under some of the tables, and she remembered being a kid and giggling as she did the same, but she wasn’t as keen on the fun of it anymore. Plus, there was less room. There was always less and less room.

    “Love what you’ve done with the place for Halloween,” she called as she made it to the relative clearing that was the living room.

    A grunt came from another part of the house – his workshop, probably, but it could be hard to tell.

    About half of the couch was owned by newspapers and magazines in their own distinct stacks, but the half closest to Dad’s recliner was always kept cleared off for her. It wasn’t that he was disorganized. She sat and looked over the magazines as she tugged absently at her boots, and could see that he’d already sorted them by date. Newspapers too. There was a method to it – it was just that the method was putting everything he’d ever owned in a box, and filing it away in the front room.

    One of the cats hopped up onto the back of the couch, distracting her from frowning at the stacks. It stretched, digging its claws into the well-worn tears, and gave her a haughty look. What was this one’s name? Spike was her childhood companion, but he’d started getting the cats after Mom had moved away. Pinky? That would make sense – it was one of those weird hairless cats, so Pinky definitely fit. It straightened up, curling its bald tail around its feet and blinking down at her.

    The sound of dog claws clicking on the tile followed by a faint shuffling and grumbling heralded the return of Spike and first appearance of her dad. He was wearing sweats and holding a red-stained tissue against his hand, muttering something about how nothing ever stayed where he put it.

    Eliza stood up immediately, one boot still on her foot. “What happened? What’d you do?”

    “Just a nail.” He tried to wave it off, but he was on bloodthinners for his heart, so the paper tissue wasn’t really doing the job.

    “Rusty?” she demanded, kicking off her other boot and coming to meet him halfway, making him show her the damage.

    “Not rusty.”

    “I’ll get you a band-aid.”

    He scowled. “Liz, now, there’s really no need for –.”

    She had already gone past him, through the kitchen and down the little hallway – made narrower by the boxes stacked up along one wall – to the bathroom. She almost swore under her breath as she hit the switch, but the light over the sink came on, no problem. He must’ve gotten around to fixing it. Not long ago, though, most likely – the electric lantern he’d been using for months was still sitting by the sink. At least being out of bandages was never going to be a problem. When she opened up the medicine cabinet, rows of boxes of them stared back at her, most of them old enough that the packaging was dated. These must’ve been from – what – fifteen years ago?

    “Dad,” she started, still coming through the kitchen, “you know band-aids can go bad, right? Like, they degrade.”

    He still had the same scowl on his face, but he was sitting down in his recliner, at least, with Spike between his feet. “Maybe the new ones do. They used to make’em better.”

    She wasn’t entirely sure that was true, but the one she’d grabbed for his hand seemed to work out fine. She gave Spike another pat before turning to sit heavily on the couch. God, it was uncomfortable. It’d been luxurious when she was a kid, but now the cushions were flat and stained and pocked with claw marks.

    “So what were you doing with nails, anyway?”

    He shook his head. “Gotta put up some more shelves in the workshop.”

    “Old ones collapse again?”

    “No, no. Just running out of room.” He snapped his fingers as if just remembering. “Oh, hon, can you help me move some of my tools out to the garage later? Turned out I had a bunch of duplicates I didn’t need in the house.”

    “If they’re dupes, why not take them to the Goodwill or something?” she tried, knowing better.

    “No, I still might need them. Just don’t need’em in the house, gettin’ in the way.”

    Heaven forbid there were things in the way. “Yeah, no problem. I’ll move them.

    ###

    Eliza stood out on the back porch, leaning on the railing as she smoked. She hadn’t put her coat back on, but the crisp air was refreshing after being inside for a while. It wasn’t that the house was dirty, per se, just dusty and a little musty and a lot of the vents and windows were blocked off, so it tended to feel like there wasn’t any air in there at all.

    Or maybe that was just her.

    Either way, she took long deep breaths of fresh air between long deep draws off her cigarette. The irony wasn’t lost on her. As much as anything, stepping out for a smoke was an excuse to get out for a second. She couldn’t tell her dad that she just needed to not be in his house for a couple minutes. It gave him a chance to surreptitiously clear some things out of her old room, too – she knew that there would be boxes in the corners, but she just asked that there weren’t any on the bed when she stayed over. It always took a little work to get it into shape, and she knew he didn’t want her to realize this for fear she might stop coming over at all. There wasn’t any danger of that, but some part of her didn’t mind him believing the threat.

    From here she could see down the street, to the corner. The houses between her dad’s and the one that had caught her eye had their inflatable spiders and whatnot all set up for the night, and on the corner, their little window crosses had lit up. It made her smile a bit. They were putting in some effort, at least – even though it kind of looked more like Christmas decorations than anything.

    As she gazed, mostly aimlessly, in that direction, a window on the side of the house (one without a cross) opened up, and a bag was thrown out of it. She was instantly more interested in this than anything else that was going on in her life. Neighbor drama was the best kind of drama. A moment later, a girl – blond and younger than her, still a young teenager – slipped out, grabbed the bag, and started off quickly down the street, looking behind herself once. As she got closer, Eliza could make out the tall, bright red boots under her long coat. She didn’t seem entirely comfortable walking in them, but was determined to.

    Liz couldn’t help herself. She hissed through her teeth as the girl came up beside the porch, hissing more intently when she didn’t look up right away.

    “You didn’t close the window behind you,” she stage-whispered, once she had the girl’s attention. “Rookie move, dude.”

    She looked alarmed, glancing back at her house with wide eyes.

    “Hey, probably no one’ll notice. Don’t worry about it.” She put her cigarette out against the railing – a bad habit, but one with a long history of her mom’s small burns alongside it. “Let me guess – Halloween party and you’re not supposed to go?”

    “Yeah,” the girl admitted, after a hesitation.

    “Wonder Woman?” Liz pointed towards her boots.

    This time she grinned. “Yeah.”

    “Nice. Another tip, though – next time put your boots in your bag, too. They’ll be dirty by the time you get where you’re going.”

    She gestured further down the street. “It’s not far. It’s just at Desmond’s house.” She hesitated again. “Are you going?”

    “Dude, I’m like twenty-five. I don’t think I go to high school parties anymore.”

    “Oh!”

    Liz laughed. Her mom always told her to be flattered when people thought she was younger than she was. Mostly, she just thought it was funny. “I’ll keep an eye out, though. Which house is it?”

    The girl pointed a little more directly and described it, and from her higher vantage point, Liz could make out the white house with the brick chimney and above-ground swimming pool. There were already a few cars parked outside it. She was guessing none of them belonged to Desmond’s parents.

    “You should get going,” she told the girl. “Don’t stay too late – if it gets too cold someone’s gonna notice that open window.”

    The girl grinned again and set off on her way. It was a pretty sleepy little part of town, and the house wasn’t far, but Liz still watched her go until she made it to the front door. Halloween wasn’t until tomorrow, but there could be troublemakers around anyway. When she’d still lived here there’d been these brothers who’d lived across the street, a little older than her and complete assholes. They’d busted out her dad’s car window playing a game they’d ‘invented’ that was basically just baseball except with rocks, once. She was pretty sure that the older one owned the family home, now, and lived there with his kids.

    Christ, she didn’t want to think about that. Dad was probably waiting on her to move those tools, anyway. She headed back inside.

    ###

    The next morning she found herself on the porch again, this time with coffee, and cradling the house phone between her shoulder and ear. Mom still wanted to know how Dad was doing, but she didn’t want him to know it, so she asked increasingly specific questions so that Eliza could just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ until she had the whole picture. It was painfully tedious. Eliza cupped one hand around her coffee and slipped her cellphone out of her pajama pants with the other, sighing silently as her mom laid out another situation for her to give her usual monosyllabic answer to.

    After a little while, the door creaked open behind her, and Dad joined her with Spike in tow. Mom? he mouthed, and she nodded and rolled her eyes.

    A long line of yeses and nos later, she was finally able to get off the phone with a long-suffering audible sigh, and finished off her coffee.

    “Same old Mom, eh?” her dad asked knowingly.

    “You bet.”

    He had no idea, really, but it was easier to agree than explain. She’d lost count of how many years it’d been since they’d seen each other, and in that time she’d realized that it wasn’t her dad that had made her mom act crazy. Well, he hadn’t helped. They hadn’t helped each other; that was really the thing. All she knew was it was a miracle she’d turned out as normal as she had.

    “Hey – you remember those kids Eddy and, uh – God, what was his brother’s name?” She frowned in thought. “They lived across the street.”

    “Those little jackasses that put out the window of my Lincoln?”

    She laughed. “Yeah, yeah.”

    “Yeah, I remember those punks.”

    “Does Eddy live over there, still? He’s like, got kids now, right?”

    Dad nodded. “Yeah, and his kids are little punks, too.”

    Eddy’s kids couldn’t possibly be more than five or six years old, tops. She wasn’t sure how they could already be little punks, but snickered anyway.

    “What about’em?”

    “I was just thinking about them when I was out here last night. You still keep track of the neighbors?”

    “Sure do. Neighbor drama is my favorite kind of drama.”

    She grinned. “So, last night, I saw a kid sneaking out of the house on the corner.”

    “The Jesus house?”

    “The Jesus house,” she agreed solemnly. “This like, teenaged girl – she was sneaking out to go to a Halloween party down at the old Poole place. Wait, is it still the Poole’s?”

    “No, no, they moved out a couple years ago, some yuppies moved in.” He waved that part off. “Blond girl? That strawberry blond color – like Mrs.’s Hendricks’?”

    Eliza took a moment to remember what her kindergarten teacher’s hair looked like, then nodded, and he shook his head.

    “Yeah, that’s the Winston kid. Think her name’s Claire. She’s always sneakin’ out.”

    “Really? ‘Cause she’s not very good at it.”

    He elbowed her gently, trying to hold back a smile. “And just what would you know about sneakin’ out?”

    “Nothing, Dad. Not a thing.”

    ###

    Liz huffed and straightened up, popping her back, and rolling her shoulders. “All right, think that’s the last of’em!”

    “Thanks, hon,” he called from the workshop, and went back to hammering.

    He was this close to running out of studs to nail shelving brackets to, but she guessed she was just enabling him by moving stuff out into the garage so he’d have more space. On the other hand, she knew he’d just try to move it all himself if she didn’t come around periodically to help out, and then he might get hurt, and she’d feel guilty, and … It was really best if she just enabled him. She just wished he’d use screws instead of nails, so they’d be a little more likely to not pull out of the wall once he loaded them down.

    She squinted into the darker corners of the garage. It had been a two-car, at some point, but even before Mom jetted, it’d been a one-car-and-ten-thousand-boxes sort of place. His old Lincoln with the window still busted out was the main feature, up on blocks and with the hood popped. It’d been that way for about as long as she could remember. The shitty little Honda he wasn’t even supposed to be driving anymore was out in the driveway, because it could withstand the elements and, presumably, none of this junk could.

    Well, she knew she shouldn’t call it junk. Some of it was hers, after all. Granted, it was stuff she didn’t care about anymore – there were garbage bags full of stuffed animals and dolls, and her old Erector Set carefully repacked into the original box, a chemistry set with half the chemicals missing, and things she didn’t remember but that had obviously been for her. A wooden rocking horse. A crib. Her dad had made those himself, back when the workshop was for carpentry and not mostly just a workshop in name. He insisted that one day she’d have kids, and then she’d want this stuff back, and she didn’t bother to argue anymore.

    There was their artificial Christmas tree, from the year after Mom had had enough of pine needles all over the floor. They’d found out that fake ones shed, too, and just gone back to the real ones for the scent, and this one had been chucked in the garage. They’d had a fight about it, but Dad had insisted they keep the fake one, just in case one year they couldn’t find a real one that they liked in time. It’d been here ever since. The real trees had gone from being set up in the front room, to the living room, to not at all – crowded out by other things.

    She peered closer, and pulled her phone out to turn on its flashlight. Some other Christmas decorations – a green wreath with a red velvet bow, a little wooden reindeer. She kind of remembered that the yard hadn’t always been so unapproachable, but they’d still mostly decorated inside. And there were some Easter- and Thanksgiving-themed tchotchkes, too, that had her mom’s decorative sensibilities – Mom might actually like to have those. A little closer. She pushed a bag aside with her foot. Ooh, there they were.

    Halloween decorations. She knew there had to be some around here some place.

    “Hey, Dad!”

    “What?”

    “Remember how I said I liked how you’d decorated for Halloween?”

    She heard him snort as she came closer to the workshop door.

    “I lied. Boo.”

    He turned from where he’d been inspecting his handiwork to see her in the doorway, holding up the hooded mask from a Grim Reaper costume.

    “Is that what you were diggin’ around in there for?”

    “Hey, I was digging around indiscriminately. I just happened to find treasure.” She pulled the hood over her head and positioned the wooden skull over her face. The eyeholes had mesh over them, so she could see out, but not very well. “I remember you making this.”

    He came closer to give it a look-over. “Oh, yeah. I’m surprised you remember that. You were pretty little then.”

    “Yeah, but I always thought it was the coolest.” Her voice was muffled inside the hood, and her dad’s face was unclear on the other side.

    “You wanna keep it?” he asked.

    She barely even considered it. The only way to convince him to get rid of stuff was to take it off his hands. “Yeah! It’s rad.”

    She tugged it off in time to see him grinning before he composed himself. “Well, it’s all right. I could’ve done better.” He took the mask from her to analyze it, and pointed out a little notch on the top of the skull. “See, I got distracted working on it and the knife slipped. Put too much time into it already by then to redo the whole thing.”

    “That just makes it cooler.” She thought of all the dinosaur toys packed away alongside her dolls – the ones with little removable patches that exposed their plastic bones and guts. “It’s got battle damage.”

    He laughed. “Well, as long as you like it.”

    And she thought about the dolls and dinosaurs and stuffed animals and rocking horse. She’d liked all of them, at some point. Now she tended to get rid of things the moment they stopped being useful or she stopped caring, for fear of ending up like him.

    “I love it,” she said firmly.

    ###

    On the porch, Eliza smoked and looked across the street. Wasn’t much else to look at. Eddy and his little punk kids – who were dressed up as a cardboard robot and a bathrobe wizard – were just leaving the house, and she waved at them. She didn’t think he recognized her, but he waved back because it was the neighborly thing to do. She bet that, just like her family told stories about the jackass kids who broke a car window, his family talked about the old man across the street whose wife had left him and how he never opened the blinds anymore. No one knew what the inside of the house looked like, but they could see that uncut grass and the beat-up Honda in the driveway, and they probably spied on him just like he spied on all of them. They knew no one ever came by but her. They knew he never left if he could help it.

    That was probably why Eddy hesitated before he waved back. It probably had nothing to do with the fact that she’d found the long black robe that finished out the Grim Reaper costume and – with her dad snickering behind her – strolled outside to drape herself dramatically over the porch railing.

    “I’m your Halloween decorations, now,” she’d deadpanned.

    “I’ll miss my daughter, but all right.” He tried to match her tone but couldn’t. “Give’em something to think about,” he’d added. She didn’t know if he really didn’t realize that in a sleepy little neighborhood like this, they were already thinking about him – or just chose not to.

    She snuck a cigarette under her mask after her dad had closed the door. Through the mesh, she could see groups of kids – some shepherded by adults or beleaguered teens, some not – going from house to house, ringing doorbells and calling out the familiar trick or treat! It was odd to think that this whole thing was the same as when she’d been a kid. Even some of the costumes were familiar. She guessed it’d been just about the same when her parents were kids, too. The house on the corner had been a field, and so had Eddy’s, and so had the old Poole place, when her parents had moved in here, but as soon as there were houses, there were kids demanding candy from strangers.

    She put her cigarette out on the banister and looked down to the corner. Now there’s a house of people who give out apples for Halloween, she thought. Did kids still egg houses? It’d have to be the high school kids, if they did, and they’d be out and about once it got a little darker. The Winstons’ windows with their little golden crosses would be egg-free for a while yet. Bless their hearts.

    As she watched, that side window opened again. No bag this time – the kid tumbled out first, and closed it behind her. She stumbled a bit, but started stomping down the road, cutting across lawns. No Wonder Woman this time, either – more a shapeless muddy brown dress with a white Peter Pan collar. It could’ve been a Wednesday Addams costume if it’d been black, but instead just had a dour, puritanical look. As she got closer Eliza could see, even through the mesh, that her face was a little splotchy, and she kept swiping at her eyes. Poor kid. She wanted to do something to cheer her up, but nothing was really coming to mind, so when the girl got close enough, she did the first thing that came to her:

    Put on a deep, spooky voice and intoned, “Happy Halloween, Claire.”

    Claire stopped dead in her tracks and looked up at her, wide-eyed. Nope, that had missed the mark. Liz hastily pulled the hood and mask off.

    “Sorry, yeah, that was weird. My dad lives here and he said he thought your name was Claire. Winston, right?”

    She looked relieved, but still a little frazzled. “Yeah. It is.”

    “I’m Eliza. Liz. Whichever. Franklin.” She hooked a thumb back at the house. “My dad’s lived here forever, so he kinda knows everyone.”

    Claire sniffled.

    “So, what’s up? Another escape?” She tried to keep her tone light and friendly, in the hopes that it’d make whatever was going on in the Winston household seem a little less dramatic by extension.

    “Yeah.” Her voice was small. “My parents found out about the party. Well, they found my costume.”

    “Not big Wondy fans, huh?”

    “They said it’s sinful,” she mumbled. “My dad said I could go to Hell for wearing something like that. My mom mostly just … just cried a lot.”

    Liz winced. Although she’d been born here, her parents weren’t from the area. They hadn’t bought into the whole hellfire, damnation, thing, and hadn’t raised her with it. She sometimes forgot to be grateful for that, amidst the rest of her family’s weirdness.

    “Aw, dude, that’s not … I mean, you’ve gotta know that’s not true. It’s just clothes.”

    “I dunno.” She crossed one arm to hold onto the opposite elbow, looking down.

    Without thinking about it, Liz headed down the porch steps, making a path through the tall brown weeds and grass, crunching over the fallen leaves, and beckoned Claire over. She seemed a little uncertain, but took the big step across the drainage ditch from the street over to Dad’s lawn.

    Liz wanted to squeeze her tight. She just looked so small and fragile and … defeated. It wasn’t a good look for a kid, and it was kind of a familiar one. But that would probably be too much coming from some stranger who she’d barely met once before, so instead she just put one arm around her shoulders, and was surprised when Claire leaned into it. Against Liz’s side, she gasped in a brief sobbing breath.

    She tried to figure out what to say. After a beat, she tugged her hood back on, because something about being hidden and muffled made this easier.

    “My parents split up when I was – probably a little bit older than you. It’d been coming for a long time, but that didn’t make things easy.”

    “Sometimes I wish mine would,” Claire whispered. “Maybe then they wouldn’t focus so much on everything I do.”

    She nodded. “I get that. Y’know, I used to worry a lot – well, I still do – I worry about turning out like my parents. ‘Cause whether they’re together or apart, they’re still a mess. I think I thought that I had to be a mess because they were.”

    And she felt Claire nodding against her.

    “You don’t, though. You don’t have to be like them. And – I think this is the important part – you don’t have to be the opposite of them, either.” The hood was getting hot, even though there was a distinct chill in the air. She told herself it was just because of the mask, and not because her face was getting warm. “My dad’s a hoarder.” She’d never said it out loud before. “And someday he’s probably going to get crushed under a stack of boxes filled with back issues of Popular Mechanics from 1986. But that doesn’t … have anything to do with me. It doesn’t have to. Your parents don’t have to make you who you are.”

    “You really think that?”

    She made herself say it with conviction. “Absolutely. Sometimes you just – sometimes you just have to put up with them until you can get away. And it’s not always that they’re bad people, you know? I think your parents probably mean well. I’m sure they’re trying. But, dude – they shouldn’t tell you you’re going to Hell, okay? That’s fucked up.”

    Claire sighed in obvious relief and her voice shook with nervous laughter. “It is, right? My friend’s parents don’t say things like that to them.”

    “Yeah, no, it’s for sure fucked up. They think Halloween’s evil, don’t they?”

    “They said it’s pagan.”

    Eliza tsked. “Well, all I know is thanks to Halloween, my face is a skull, and it’s cool as hell.”

    Claire giggled.

    “Hey, do you want to come inside and meet my dad and his dog? They’re both very old,” she confided. “And he’s got one of those weird hairless cats.”

    “I love those cats!”

    “Then you already have something in common.”
     
  8. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    The Last Punch (1'346) Using the first prompt



    “You can tell it if you like, before we go.”

    “Don’t you know, I thought you knew everything?”

    “Not for me, it’s important for some, maybe for you. You don’t seem quite ready.”

    “There’s so much, it’s too much.”

    “So make it short, the important bits. Things will start to fade soon. That’s how it goes.”

    “Okay, the important bits.”

    There was the punch, I don’t where it hit I just know it was pain, intense and sudden, I saw stars, actual stars just like a cartoon creature hit with an anvil. Pain and flashing stars. But it was just an accident, it was just the booze, it was just a weird night. Things get out of hand but we reign them in again.


    A new day all fresh with no mistakes in it. I remembered that from when I was a kid ‘Anne of Green Gables’ don’t know what it was about it that made me think of Anne with an ‘e’. Maybe because she lived in a world of pain she couldn’t escape, except through her imagination. She always said tomorrow is always fresh with no mistakes in it, yet. So I had a new day and he was a new man and I put the memory of the other man behind me. Don’t hang on to things, don’t be the one to make a fuss. Don’t confuse the two, they weren’t the same person.


    Then, just when I was feeling like it was all gone, just when I had almost finished digging a hole for the memory, it came back, another one wham! Across the cheek. The memory might have faded but my cheek, it remembered all by itself. Pain and stars. I should have known, staggering in late from a rare night with the girls, giggling at my own drunkenness, dropping my keys as I wobbled through the front door. You could see into the sitting room from the front door, he was sitting there, in the dark with the light from the T.V flickering over his face. It was a hard face, for a moment I didn’t recognise him. I should have.

    “Hiya.”

    I called, as I tried to hang my coat up, I kept missing the hook, had to keep picking the coat up over and over again. I was still trying when I felt him behind me.

    “Where’ve you been then?”

    His voice was very low and very quiet, distant thunder, a storm about to break and me with no shelter. I tell him about my evening, pull my scarf from my neck, kick off my shoes and bend down to push them aside and then, pain and stars. He was shouting,

    “Look at the state of you. You’re an embarrassment, staggering around the streets at night like some drunken whore!”

    There was more, more shouting, more slurs against my character but I didn’t stay, I slipped out and watched. I was watching as he kicked out, hitting her in the stomach, I was watching as he stood over her, as she crying on the floor wondering, why doesn’t she move, why doesn’t she get up? She just lay there in a pile, looking up at him with a stupid expression on her face.


    Where was the action, the primal reflex? Even the lowliest of animals manage that don’t they? Fight or flight? But there’s no counter attack, no fleeing, she doesn’t even play dead. She just lies there looking up at him and I just watch.


    Then there’s tears, not hers, his. He’s down on the floor too, stroking her hair and whispering sorry over and over again. She pats him on the back and tells him it’s okay like she’s comforting a child but, there’s no compassion on her face she’s just staring at the wall and patting him absently, and I slip back into place.

    He loves me, he says.

    He loves me, I tell myself.

    “It’s just that I get so angry, you make me so angry, why do you do it? I don’t want to hurt you, you know that don’t you?”

    I guess it all makes sense when he explains.


    Then it’s tomorrow again, all fresh with no mistakes in it. Let’s forget, it doesn’t do to dwell on things. Just do the ‘living’ thing, work, home, dinner, T.V. It’ll be like it never happened. But it’s not fresh this tomorrow, it’s has mistakes in it, built in, down to the foundations. You’d have to blow it all up and start again.


    Instead, use window dressing, change a few things on the outside, cheaper than starting again. Subtle changes, little modifications to my behaviour and little adjustments to my thinking. Now I’m undercover, so very careful, don’t give yourself away, showing your real self is dangerous. Morph into something else.


    Then it begins, losing yourself is easy. You tell yourself that you’re busy, day to day life is demanding. Those friends of mine, they take up too much time, I’m an undercover agent, a spy, can’t risk a social life. Don’t have time for shopping I’ve got my disguise, don’t need anything new. Don’t have time to read, books are just full of tales that make me forget my cover story.


    The spy, she’s learnt everything she needs to know, all the details, all the secrets. There she goes, out into the world. At work I see her talk easily with my colleagues, they don’t even know that I’ve been replaced, she’s all bluff and bravado, a brave face even when that face has a black eye. They try to catch her out but she’s got an explanation for everything. Nod and smile everybody, you knows she’s lying but, got to collude in the lie, just like when the villain is pretending that James bond is really just some sharp suited business man or a rich playboy just out for some fun. ‘She’ doesn’t really exist anywhere else now. She gets the bus, there are those who remember seeing her yesterday and the day before but, they don’t know her.


    The spy takes care of the public and I’m left at home. A toy that just lies there on the bed waiting for her owner to get home but, it’s all wrong. Toys are supposed to come alive when you leave, to have their secret magical life, but there’s no magic, no life, just secrets.


    Back at home the undercover agent really came into her own. She would switch places with me so I could hide. She was good too but she can’t get it right all the time. I would pop out at the wrong moment, stick my head over the barricades, bad move. Bad move. Punishment follows but then prisoners just take their punishment, that’s just the way of things, what else is there to do?


    Then I would catch my reflection and, it was me, not the spy, not the toy, just me. I could see who I used to be but there’s no longing or sadness attached to the memory. ‘Are you going to stay?” she whispers. Quiet words about escape, fantasies that seem dangerous. He’ll come for me, I’d tell her. He’ll always come for me. He promised and, he keeps those sort of promises.


    “But here I am, I guess he can’t come for me now, can he?”

    “No. No he can’t. Would you like to go now?”

    “Oh… I guess so, it’s just so weird, this collection of empties.”

    “Empties?”

    “Yeah, empty pill bottle, empty vodka bottle, empty woman slumped in a chair. I should feel something for her, shouldn’t I?”

    “It is you and not you. Familiar and foreign. That’s the way of things that you leave behind.”

    “Hmm. You know I thought you’d look different, shouldn’t you be all in black, you know, have a cloak and a scythe or something like that?”

    “I have different styles, but I can do that, if it helps.”

    “No… no you’re okay as you are. What do we do now?”

    “We walk away.”

    “That’s all?”

    “That’s all.”
     
  9. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    End Of Innocence (2078) (Warning for language and trigger warning)

    The tears fall down my face as I look at the little girl in the photograph. My mother had given it to me a few weeks ago, but I hadn’t been able to look at it. Not yet. I had stuffed it in between some other papers, but as I had just picked those up, the photograph had fallen out. As I had picked it up, I had looked at it, without even realising it. Seeing the little girl, her happiness, her innocence… it makes me feel sick to my stomach. This girl, she had no idea about the evil in this world. She had no idea what was about to happen to her. How could she? She was just a child.

    In fairytales there is always a happy ending. The princess marries her prince, and they live happily ever after. As a little girl I had been glued to the tv screen, getting lost in those fairytales. For just a few moments, I was in another world, dreaming of being there with the princess, sharing her adventure with her. Dreaming of one day being her, of getting my happily ever after. I must’ve been about six years old when I met him, the boy who seemed like my own Prince Charming. We held hands, shared kisses which were innocent as anything. It seemed like finally, I was the princess in my own fairytale. But somewhere along the way I lost my happy ending. We grew older, and we grew apart. I didn’t mind. Not until people started saying those horrible things about me. I had never even heard those words before. I was only nine years old. Words like fucking? What were they talking about? What did it even mean? Prince Charming had spread a rumour around, saying that I had begged him to kiss me, I had begged him to… what was the word? Fuck? I didn’t know what it meant. I just knew that somehow I had done wrong, even though I hadn’t done what he said I had done. But people didn’t believe me. I was a slut. I did know that word. I knew it was a bad word. A bad person, who did bad things. That was the first time I was made to feel ashamed about myself. A boy had made me feel that way.

    People say that when you’re in trouble, you should tell adults. They will help you. But I can still see the teachers, three of them, looking at me, laughing, as I asked them for help. I must have been about eleven years old when we went on a school trip. I was excited, because school trips had always been full of games, music and laughter. I had never even spoken to the boy from the other class before, but I did know him. A tough boy, who would do anything he could just to get a laugh, to get respect from the other kids. Tough Guy had always seemed nice enough, and tough as he was, I had never been scared of him. He had never threatened me. He only fought with other boys, never with girls. So what was there to fear? But as I felt him climbing on top of me, a new sense of fear was released into my body. This felt wrong. This should not be happening. I can still hear the laughter of my classmates ringing in my ears. Laughter as though we were clowns, performing an act in a circus. But I didn’t feel like I was in on the act. I could only feel fear, and dread, as Tough Guy made movements on top of me that felt wrong. More than wrong. I noticed my teachers, and asked them for help. As you should. Because adults will always help you out, right? But all they did was laugh. I was left to feel helpless, I was in pain, I felt ashamed, wrong. And for the first time in my life, I started to see what kind of evil was lurking out there in the world.

    As a little girl I was taught then when you do something wrong, you will get punished. When you are bullied or hurt, tell someone, and the person who has hurt you, will get punished. It created a sense of logic in my mind. Do right, and be kind to people, and you won’t get punished. Be a good girl. It also created a sense of safety in my mind. Because if someone was going to hurt me, then at least they were going to be punished. Prince Charming had hurt me, but I had kept quiet about that. The whole thing had been my own fault, for giving him a kiss on the cheek. So I would be punished. Tough Guy had hurt me, and I had asked for help. But I had been laughed at, so maybe I had overreacted. Maybe it had all been a joke. I was still safe, right? There was still a sense of justice out there. There had to be. I must have been thirteen years old when I was in the little pool in a neighbour’s garden with their son. I had known them for years, and I considered them to be like a second family to me. The boy had a learning disability, and although he was quite a few years older than me, in some ways he was still my age. I felt safe around him. He had always been sweet to me, protective. But I was growing up, and so was my body. And as I was floating around in the swimming pool on my back, my eyes closed, enjoying the sun, all of the sudden I could feel hands touching me. I ignored it, because I knew it was wrong. It should not be happening. So if I ignored it, perhaps it was not happening? I tried to push Sweet Boy away, but he wouldn’t stop, and before I knew it, I heard his mother cry out my name. I was afraid. Not for me, but for him. He had hurt me, so he would be punished. But she dragged me out of the pool by my arm, and dragged me into the house. How dare I seduce her son? How dare I show off my body like that? I was a little slut. Nothing more. I was to never show my face in their house again. I ran out of the house, confused. Because had I hurt him? Was I being punished for it? What had I done wrong? I wasn’t sure, I just knew that it had to do with my body. So from that day on, I decided to keep it hidden, so something like that wouldn’t happen again. I had hurt Sweet Boy somehow, and although he had hurt me, and touched me in places where he shouldn’t have, I knew he hadn’t meant it. I simply must have done something wrong, just as I had done with Prince Charming and Tough Guy. I did not want to believe that this evil that I had first gotten a glimpse of years before, was bigger than I had first imagined it to be.

    I had always wanted to be a princess, and my mother had loved dressing me up as one. Only when I went to bed would I change out of my beautiful dresses. And even as I got older, I stuck with only wearing dresses. But after what had happened with Sweet Boy, I decided to throw them all out. I became a t-shirt and jeans kind of girl. This way I could hide my body, which somehow had caused so much trouble. And for a few months, I thought this was it. This was the solution to the evil I had discovered. But I had only been fourteen years old for a few weeks, when I walked into an empty classroom. I was early, as per usual. When the teacher walked in, and he flashed me a smile, I still felt safe. He had always been friendly to me. He was one of those teachers in their fifties, t-shirt, jeans, soft-spoken. No one ever paid any attention to him. On that day another teacher came in, one I didn’t know. The same type of man. He seemed nice, as he flashed me a smile, before turning to his colleague. I didn’t pay them any attention, not until I heard them talking about me. I was such a pretty girl. Such a pretty face. I looked up, and Friendly and Nice noticed. I expected them to stop talking, to be embarrassed. Maybe to apologise. But they simply sat down on Friendly’s desk, and started discussing my looks out loud. I could feel my heart beating out of my chest, my skin felt like it was on fire. Because this was wrong. Sure enough, they were only words, but they felt more than wrong. They made me feel ashamed, dirty. I crossed my arms over my chest, trying to cover up my already fully covered-up body, hoping they would stop talking, but it only made them laugh. As I felt tears welling up in my eyes, I wondered what I had done wrong? Where had I fucked up? What was so wrong with me?

    I had learned all about the evil in the world, about the evil that I had discovered years ago. I now knew that it was, what could happen. What could be done about it. But the things that had happened to me, they hadn’t be so bad, had they? Rape was bad. That hadn’t happened. So I kept quiet. Because if I complained, then was I not just asking for attention? No, people who were raped needed to tell, they needed to get justice. I was just unlucky. Well, that was not true. I had fucked up, I had done wrong, perhaps I had led people on. But no more. My body was fully developed, but I was covering it up. I did not wear make-up, to not lead anyone on. I simply tried to be invisible. But when I was sixteen years old, it was one of the hottest summers. I was melting away in my long-sleeved shirt, jeans and boots, and I hated it. All I wanted was to go out shopping, buy some cute dresses, and go to the beach. But I couldn’t risk it. Not with evil out there. I didn’t want to attract any of it. So as I sat there at a family party, melting away, I watched a little girl being taken upstairs by her mother to take a bath, to cool off. I made a throwaway comment about how I wouldn’t mind having a bath. And there it was. Evil showing itself. This family friend, who had been like a grandfather to me, he leaned over to me, and whispered in my ear. “I wouldn’t mind helping you getting undressed.” No one heard. Granddad had gotten away with it. I told my parents I had a headache, and wanted to go home, because I simply could not be around him anymore. But as we left, he put his hand on my lower back, and he whispered into my ear again. “You’re such a pretty girl, and such soft hair…” His hand touched my hair, and I could the tears stinging in my eyes. Even him, Granddad, even he had managed to made me feel dirty and wrong. Ashamed. As I got home, I took the scissors and cut off my hair. I just couldn’t risk it. Somehow it had attracted more evil.

    As I look at the little girl in the photograph, the tears fall down my face. She was happy, innocent. But it had been ripped away from her. She had been made to feel dirty, ashamed. She was a slut, she had attracted it, caused it. She was to blame for the evil those people had done to her. I know now that I was wrong. I wasn’t to blame for any of it. They were. They did me wrong. But it doesn’t matter. They still ruined my life. They killed that innocent, happy little girl. Prince Charming, Tough Guy, Sweet Boy, Friendly and Nice, Granddad. They were only the beginning. I am no one special. I’m not even pretty. I’m just a woman.
     
  10. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Lullaby. (2,457)


    Sarah. Self inflicted drug addiction had caused seemingly irreparable damage to her body and mind. We both realized that if she continued on this path of self destructive behavior it would eventually lead to her demise.
    How it came about that Sarah finally grasped the seriousness of her choices remains a mystery.
    Somehow, in a moment of lucidity she grasped the very real significance of her actions. She came to understand the permanent ramifications of continued self deprecating behavior. When or why this sudden epiphany occurred isn't of any consequence. Miraculously she had a come to Jesus moment!
    I had her locked up in my apartment during the first days. She was in total agreement.
    At first.

    Sarah had always been a coherent woman before drugs ravaged her. This powerful master took hostage of her ability to think and act rationally. It was Sarah, the old version of sensibility who knocked on my door one morning asking for my help. I welcomed her with open arms. I wanted her back.
    From the beginning, together we battled her withdrawal monsters. The methods were simple, tried and true. Hot chicken broth by the bowlful between bouts of severe vomiting. Long warm baths meant to soothe her body so racked with pain she could barely move without wincing and crying out in agony. It was painful to watch someone I cared about hurt so badly.
    The ensuing seventy two hours were pure hell. I don't know who begged for just a few merciful moments of oblivion more? With every hour those tenuous minutes slowly gave way to prolonged periods of calm and freedom from the grotesque visions of detoxification.
    Sarah was existing in the wretched clutches of an entity that promised a fairy tale ride on a magic carpet to the perfect utopia. With a quick snort, a line of pure white powder or the smooth plunge of a gleaming silver needle into a pulsing ravenous vein was magical instant euphoria. The predator beast supplying untold pleasure as it quietly invaded. Drifting, floating on a rainbow of pure spiritual ecstasy.

    By the end of three tortuous days the raging, powerful,, continuously unrelenting storms were moving on. The spinning and reeling, the shrieking and screaming became soft moans and mews. Sarah, gaining control, her body refusing to writhe in a synchronized dance to entertain the voyeuristic peeping tom.
    Suddenly there's a new sense of reality. You begin to believe you've beat the odds. Sarah was regaining her balance after teetering on the edge of a cliff that would send her crashing into the ragged rocks below to be swallowed up by the waves of an ocean so violent and cruel she would have drown in its grip.
    Only it isn't that simple.
    There's a new threatening, equally powerful force. The grotesque gargoyle, demanding retribution, penance. Time to pay the devil his due.
    Meet depression!
    Say hello to his brother, self recrimination. Let me introduce you to their stunningly captivating sister, self pity, so lovely, sensually dancing and swaying in your thoughts while she whispers seductively in your ear. No, you don't simply turn your back on the master and say thanks, but I don't want you any more, I don't need you any more, I've rejoined the living.
    Jesus, she makes it through detox and lands smack dab in the arms of helplessness with a shot of hopelessness to up the ante! How the hell do we win the battle only to lose the war?
    Doctors should prescribe potent "reality" shows to fight depression. By some stroke of insane unexpected sheer luck Sarah got hooked on a ridiculous nonsensical new drug of choice.
    It's amazing how cathartic it was for Sarah to watch some Kardashianesque nonsense on the television screen of idiotic life. It prevented her from thinking at all, which was what we needed most. Hour after hour she was mesmerized by the lives of the privileged and ridiculous. Somehow they were able to offer Sarah new insight into her screwed up existence convincing her she wasn't.

    I left early every morning for work and when I came home in the evening I would find her where I left her, on the sofa, almost catatonic. Out of nowhere for no apparent reason, other than the characters on the screen switching gears, Sarah, from a posture of lifelessness would suddenly begin panting, hyperbolic twitching would ensue as if she was running an imaginary marathon. It saddened me to see her like that, but a part of me was also glad, she was still alive.
    Witnessing her journey through drug addiction was heartbreaking. The first days suffering through withdrawal was life altering for me. The syndrome in its entirety is devastating but also misleading, because the hardest part comes later, when it looks like there's a definite road back. It's inherently at that precise point when most relapses occur.
    "OK, I've won. I proved something to myself. I can stay clean. It's been a couple of weeks. I'm in control!"
    Here it comes "I see where I screwed up".
    Are you kidding me? I could see the words swirling around in her head. Was she really going to say it?
    "Let's score something?"
    "Sarah, you're lucky to be alive! Jesus Christ have you forgotten already? You enjoyed the constant puking, the stench, the shakes, your skin crawling, screaming and begging that the pain would stop because your brain was exploding?"
    "I know what I did and how I let it happen. Trust me I'm good!"
    Addiction, it owns you. Listening to her I knew nothing I could say would be louder or more convincing than the voices in her head whispering the promise of self realization and new personal power.
    There was no use talking, trying to reason with a junkie. The first score after two weeks clean can easily send you to your grave.
    "Look, I'm beat."
    I left her there talking to the voices in her head. I knew this was coming. I started to get worried after these two weeks had passed. I'd come home in the evening, and she was no longer shaking, the sweating stopped, she could hold down small amounts of food and sleep. She still looked too thin and wretched though.

    One evening I found her cleaning the kitchen. Cleaning her way. She had left it worse than if an elephant had trashed the place. Plastic bags all over the floor, all the cutlery spread around in a puddle of water, pots and frying pans all mixed up in the cabinets There were cleaning products spilling dangerously close to food. You couldn't ignore the weird smell all over the place. Even the freezer seemed uncomfortable. I could only imagine that conversation.
    "I'm glad to see you've started feeling active again.". She just shrugged her shoulders and lit another cigarette.
    I grabbed a couple of beers from the refrigerator and rescued an ashtray from the sink.
    "Come on, let's sit down on the sofa for a while?"
    She followed me like a docile obedient puppy. Sarah grabbed a beer from my hand and started drinking quickly, silently. It was almost midnight. I'd had a horrible day at work. I lit myself a cigarette and inhaled deep. The smoke attacked my mouth and scorched my throat.
    "Everybody can change, Sarah!" I felt like I was doing what I had promised myself a thousand time I wouldn''t do:, I was about to give her the speech. Sarah was too smart for this. It sounds like a cliché but when a person wants to rehabilitate the only person who can make that happen is that person.

    "If we didn't change, we wouldn''t be humans. Even birds can change."
    Sarah looked up at me, surprised.
    "Yes, it's true. Not many people knows what I am about to tell you. I read it recently in a magazine. It's based on true events. Listen to me for a few minutes with an open mind? Apparently a million years ago there was a flock of birds. Don't ask me where. You know how birds work ... they have very strict schedules."
    She was listening, so far so good.
    "In the Spring they fly to the North, looking for temperate climates and abundant food. In the Fall they emigrate to the South, looking for the same. It's like clockwork. They don't understand anything about frontiers, or passports, nothing restricts their freedom, every single year they return to the very same spot where they were born no matter how many thousands of miles away."
    I was on a roll.
    "Birds have amazing navigational skills. I can't even drive to the corner without using my GPS! So, there was this flock, they were Grey Cormorants, if I remember the article. There were about 50, a family clan. All of them were related, cousins and brothers in-law and aunts and all that stuff. The leader of this flock, the King, his position was hereditary, the male son succeeded his father when the old King died. They were patriarchal. Uruk, was a great king. He always knew when to give the order to start flying away, when to order the flock to eat, rest or how to avoid a cluster of stormy clouds."
    Sarah turned towards me and appeared to be engrossed in my story.
    "In 20 years of successful leadership, Uruk had kept the flock safe from any harm. There had been just a couple of questionable incidents, they weren't his fault. One of his sons, the middle one, had crashed one morning against a steep mountain wall doing a free fall. He was going down at least at 35 feet per second, absolutely reckless behavior."
    This was the "making my point" moment.
    "He was always trying to impress the ladies with his daredevil stunts in the air, constantly looking for the applause and admiration of the flock. Uruk had told him a million times to stop goosing around, they were "Cormorants" after all. But that son was a lost cause. His smashed body lay there nothing more than just a bloody spot over the white rock. Each year, when the flock flies over this place they glide around in circles for a few minutes in silent homage with deep sadness and respect for their careless lost brother."
    Sarah was actually very engaged.
    "There had been cases of poisoning due to careless behavior. There are bugs that contain toxins and Uruk had forbidden the flock to eat red swamp dragonflies and high plateau fireflies. But sometimes someone forgot the rule and died of a heart attack. The worse came when the bird that ignored this warning didn't die swiftly. The flock could spare no time to ease his suffering and they were just left behind. It didn't matter if it was a father or a mother, the poor fool watched them fly away while he agonized in silent solitude and sent them a last goodbye wave with his wing."
    Time for the lesson.
    "But one day something unheard of happened, a total scandal. The older folk couldn't remember a case like this ever taking place.. The incident had started taking shape a few weeks earlier. Ur, the older son of Uruk, and heir to the throne had started a relationship with Niove, his cousin. At first they kept it secret; they exchanged charged stares when they were flying. When they shared a juicy mosquito during the idle afternoon hours, they rubbed each others backs with pleasure, they had even been seen flapping their wings for each other to fight the heat in romantic unison.

    The gossip quickly started until the news arrived in Uruk's ears who had in mind to match Uruk with Lassa, his sister. So the king and leader decided to have a talk with his son and future heir to the throne. The clouds were dark, announcing a threatening storm, the South wind blew hard and the crickets filled the air with maddening noise.
    Father and son spoke sheltered under black acacias. What they said to each other nobody knew, but the heat of the argument, like tectonic plates crashing resonated throughout the land and the open skies. It appears that Ur had fallen in love with Niove and wouldn''t accept any other arrangement. The word "rebellion" spread like gunpowder amongst the grey birds. An heir to the throne refusing to obey the command of his father? This was something unheard of since the world began and cormorants crossed the blue open skies. Everybody knew that Uruk would not tolerate it. And it was so. That very night Uruk cast out both Uruk and Niove from the flock. With a voice raging of thunder he said "you re no longer my son!" Nothing else was said that stormy night and few were the ones who were able to sleep at all.
    The next morning Uruk gave the order to migrate to the North, leaving behind the two lovers who watched the flock disappear beyond the horizon. They had mixed feelings in their hearts, and bittersweet tears fell down Nioves eyes. She leaned her head on Ur's chest, who tried to console and comfort her.
    "Don´t worry my love, we'll find a better place where we can start over together and create our own family, we don't´t need them. I tried to talk some sense into the old man, to reason with him. I tried to explain to him that you're pregnant and you can't fly now, that you need a few weeks of rest, but the old fool refused to listen. We'll head to the South together. I heard there are vast oceans down there and there's lots of fish to eat. We can go there slowly, walking if we have to ...everything will be fine my dear.".

    A soft sound interrupted my narration. Sarah was sound asleep. Her face was at last free from anxiety, relaxed and resting. I had chased the ghosts away or at least one day more. I stood up carefully and took her in my arms, like a child. I took her to my bedroom and put her in my bed. She curled up under the blankets, and laud her head peacefully on the pillow. She would sleep all night long. I caressed her forehead gently and stared for a second at the face that I had once loved many years ago.
    I returned to the sofa and lit another cigarette. I had always had a knack for inventing stories on the spot. Tomorrow I'll explain to her the ending of the story ... how the penguins came into this world. I'll explain how love had changed them from what they were into who they had to become.
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 12, 2017 at 7:32 PM
  11. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Death and Almonds [4988]

    My name is Almonds, like the nut. Almonds aren't really nuts, did you know? They're seeds, I read so in a magazine. My name is Almonds because Mom and Dad had silly senses of humor. That's Almonds, mind you, in the plural, which is even sillier than just the one.

    But that's enough about almonds. Say a word too much and it turns all gobbledygook. Can't very well have that happen to my name. It isn't really a boy's or girl's name, I don't think, so I get if you're wondering. I'm a girl of thirteen, fourteen, or fifteen. Not sure. It's been a long time since there were cakes and candles, and Mom and Dad to tell me how old I am. I remember being eight, and that plus five or six or seven seems about right. Some days I'm thirteen, the next I might be fifteen. One time I was sixteen, but that was just a phase.

    Apart from numbers, there are words for what I am. Those are "homeless" and "orphan". But don't you feel sorry for me, now, I won't have it. I (sometimes) eat. I have a home, in the streets and parks. I sleep under the sky when the weather's good, and when it isn't, there's always a bridge or an overpass. I even have family, though Mom and Dad both died when I was eight or maybe nine.

    He's more of a friend, really, one of those imaginary ones you might see in cartoons. But honestly, I think "imaginary" is a little offensive, even if he isn't real. That's why I use "invisible" instead. So what if he's not real? I'm not gonna hold that against him. He's my friend.

    One day, me and Death—or is that Death and I? Whatever—were sitting on a bench near the park, facing an empty street. Being November, it was kinda nippy. I had withdrawn into my own little world, as one does when there's nothing really going on. Catching snow crystals on my tongue, watching my breath turn to mist as I emptied my lungs, spitting on the ground so I could watch it turn to ice. Thinking about this, that, and the other without really thinking about any of them. Death wasn't doing much of anything either. I say "he", but I don't know if Death is a boy or a girl. I never asked, and it's kinda hard to tell when everything's all bones. I've always thought of him as a boy, though, like a big brother almost, because he's silly like only a boy can be.

    "Look," Death said. His voice sounds like it comes from somewhere inside my head. I guess because he doesn't have vocal chords or anything like that.

    I looked, and saw a big man making his way past the street across the road. Huffing and puffing, stopping to bend over his knees and wheeze. His legs were shaking, his face red.

    "Is he all right?" I said.

    Well, I didn't say anything, as in make words with my mouth. The same way that Death's voice has nothing to do with my ears, I can answer him just by thinking. That comes in awful handy when chatting with somebody imag... 'scuse me, invisible. For a long time, I was afraid that he could read my mind, so I didn't think much beside lalalalala. But it doesn't work like that. I have to think at him. I can't explain it any better than that, but it's easier than it sounds.

    "No. He is having a heart attack."

    I bit my lips and wrung my hands. Lumps of ice stuck to my mittens, from making snowballs earlier.

    "We have to let him know."

    "He knows."

    "Well, then we should tell somebody so they can help him!"

    "He is beyond help."

    You see what I mean about being silly and stupid and cruel like only a boy can be?

    "But he's dying!"

    "So he is."

    I looked away, like I always do. I didn't see anything, but I imagined I heard the sound of his final, pleading gasp. I absolutely heard him fall to the pavement with a great big thud. I squeezed my eyes shut, biting my lip. Tears streamed down my face, already freezing.

    "It is over. Shame. You could have witnessed something beautiful."

    "It isn't funny. Go to hell!"

    And like that, Death was gone. There was no sonic boom, no slipstream swirling up snow. No marks where he'd been sitting, no sign he was there at all. Just blop and gone, like a soap bubble bursting. He'd left me with a corpse, and didn't care one bit how upset I was. Not a very nice friend, is he? But he's what I've got.

    "I didn't mean it literally, you dummy!"

    The man wasn't breathing. Already the snow was gathering on him. It would look awful silly and maybe suspicious if somebody came along, him lying in the street and me just sitting there twiddling my thumbs. But if I called out and told them what had happened, they might think I was just young and scared and kinda in a shock. I looked down the street, both ways, but nobody was there. Just me and a dead man, and I had no notion of what to do with myself. How awkward. Death would know what to do, but he'd up and left me, like he does whenever it suits him.

    "I wager he has money on him." Death came back just as suddenly, like a light flipped on. Startled me good, this time. One of these days I'm gonna hang a bell on him.

    "That would be stealing," I said, crossing my arms and pushing out my lip. Bit childish and petulant, maybe, but that day I felt thirteen.

    "He is dead. You are hungry."

    "I'm not hungry. I'm peckish."

    "You are starving. Trust me. I know these things."

    "Like heck I am, I ate only yesterday."

    "It was the day before yesterday. It was half a hot dog."

    "Was it?" I tried to remember, feeling out the nuances of my growling belly. I realized Death was right. I let out a shuddering breath and pushed myself off the bench.

    "It's not stealing if they're dead," I said aloud, because I needed someone to tell me that it wasn't, and Death didn't know I needed that and probably wouldn't care.

    Death shrugged, a creak of bones and a whisper of dry robes. "Go on. I will keep an eye out."

    "You don't have an eye," I pointed out.

    I crossed the road on trembling legs, listening for footsteps and motors, angry voices and police sirens. My head was in an aquarium without fish, and the water was terribly cold and flowed into my nose and mouth, making me dizzy, flushing all my thoughts away. A butterfly was trapped in my heart, wings beating, beating beating beating at the walls. I felt light as a breeze, like my feet didn't touch the asphalt, like a strong wind might swoop by at any time to swallow me up and carry me off, and I would cease to be Almonds and just be wind. Wind is silly, when you think about it, and I had to think about something other than what I was doing.

    I teased the man's wallet from his back pocket, doing my best not to have to touch him. I didn't let myself breathe before it was out. The wallet was soft black leather, heavy, and in my hands. I slipped it into my big inner pocket and crossed the street in a hurry, looking both ways to make sure I wasn't run over. Death would have gotten a kick outta that, I'm sure.

    "Let's go into the park," I said. "Don't wanna be around when they find him."


    Me and Death huddled next to a frozen stream in the cool shadow of a bridge. Well, I huddled, Death just stood there like a big bony scarecrow. I held the wallet in my hand, anxious about opening it. I felt that as soon as I unfolded it, the policemen who were watching me in their binoculars would swoop on down and take me to juvie or back into foster care. If you've ever tried inching into cold water, even though you don't really feel like swimming, but all your friends are watching and just waiting to call you a chicken, you know what I was feeling. Sometimes, the best thing to do is plunge.

    First thing I saw was the faded picture in the pocket with the plastic window. It was jammed in there, folded on one side, too big to fit properly. There was the dead man, but younger and thinner, and a woman who looked kinda like him but not quite. They were hugging, smiling at the camera. I guess she was his girlfriend, or maybe his sister. It made me sad, knowing that somebody would miss him, but, I guess, at the same time, I was happy that he wouldn't just be forgotten about.

    The bill compartment contained a rumpled double dollar and a bunch of cobwebs. Okay, so I made the cobwebs up, but there ought to be some, you know? Like in the cartoons. The coins added up to just about another dollar.

    "Well, that was a whole lotta ick for nothing," I said. "Guess I'm having dry noodles again. Ooh, what's this then?"

    I fished out a rectangle of shiny blue plastic from one of the pockets. There were big embossed numbers on the face, and a logo I recognized as that of a local bank. On the flipside was a grainy black-and-white mugshot of the man, with his name—Joe Smith—and a whole lotta nonsense numbers.

    "This any good?"

    Death shrugged. "Assuming there is money in the account..."

    I finally found it in me to smile. "Heck yeah!"

    "... And you possess the code."

    "Oh." My smile wilted, just like all the flowers do in autumn. Sometimes, when it isn't terribly cold, I'll sit for hours and watch them fade. It's not as good as television, but there's something precious about seeing things really happen, and you're the only one there to know, you know? And then the moment is gone forever, and you can't just call on it whenever you want. Makes you appreciate it better. I think people would be happier if they took time now and again to watch flowers wilt.

    "1385," Death said. "Let us find an ATM, and dispose of the evidence. I trust you did not leave fingerprints."

    I grinned big and raised my hands. "Mittens, yo!"


    I reckon my eyes were round as a pair of saucers when I looked at the numbers on the little screen. I was gaping, and may have been drooling, like in a cartoon.

    "That's a lotta money. A lotta lot. How do we get it out?"

    "You do not know how to do this?"

    "Not exactly." I messed with the buttons for a bit. "Okay, here we go. Score!"

    There was a lotta money inside that card, let me tell you, but I didn't have the heart to empty it out. I had to consider Joe's widow, or sister, or whoever she was, and that there might be kids. I left the ATM with three thousand tucked into my pocket, the one with the working zipper. I did hang on to the card; I had one last thing in mind for it.

    I've never had close to that much money before, not in all my life put together. I was walking on clouds, light-headed and fleet-footed, like what I imagine it must be like to be drunk. I felt like a secret agent, or an undercover cop, or a messenger with a tip-top secret letter for the President.

    Look, I'm not stupid. I barely went to school, but I've read tons and tons of magazines, all kinds, and the streets have their own lessons. I know that some people would wanna take the money from me. Some might try to hurt me. I'm not afraid of them, you understand, I'm afraid for them. My big bony brother doesn't like anybody messing with little sis.

    When I was in the group home, right after Mom and Dad died, I didn't have friends. I was kinda weird, I guess, kinda not like the others. Being shy, I stuttered, and whenever I managed to speak at all I said exactly the wrong thing. Some of the other kids would laugh and call me cruel names, so I would run off, all red in the face, to cry in my secret spot. But they found out about that, and then that became the first place they looked. Nowhere to hide, nowhere to cry in peace. I think that was what helped me eventually stop crying. Over silly nothings, anyway.

    Rodney was the very worst of them. He was mean to me every day since I got there. Once, we were alone just the two of us, and he wanted to play a game but I didn't, then when I told him no he made a fist and punched me in the stomach so I fell against the wall. First he looked at me, all wide in the eyes, like he'd done something on accident. Then, his whole face changed, like he'd discovered a new taste he liked. He attacked again, and I tried to push him off, but he was older than me and stronger. I cried, and I screamed, screamed so hard I got a nosebleed and a really bad headache. And then Rodney just fainted, like a puppet with snipped strings. I fainted too, but was okay, afterwards. Rodney was not.

    The ambulance took him away. Couple of days later, the grownups called us together and told us, in very serious no-nonsense voices, that Rodney had cancer. The killing kind, all over his bones and everywhere. They said that he'd had it for a long time, and that the advanced tumor pressing on his brain was why he'd been aggressive. I knew different.

    There was no cancer, not until I did whatever it was I did. But I couldn't say so. I couldn't let anyone know that I had invited Death to come take Rodney, because then they would take me away and punish me. Or so I thought. Now I'm older, and know that nobody would believe me. Maybe they would take me away for being crazy, but that's beside the point. I still have no idea how I made Death come, but he did, and he's stayed around ever since. He watches over me, helps me out, and sometimes bothers me like a pebble in the shoe. You'd think that'd make me feel safe, but no, it makes me feel like Typhoid Mary, or an unshielded nuclear reactor. I try not to think about it much.


    I decided now was a good time for vacation, so me and Death headed downtown, into that merry mess of roads and signs and traffic lights.

    Dogs on leashes, kids led by hand, pigeons doing bombing runs. People rushing with umbrellas. Starbucks cups with pick-me-ups. Lucky fellas with strollers and suitcase rollers. Cellphones, briefcases. Hormones, pimply faces. Sneakers squeaking, tires screeching, high heels clacking on the pavement stones. Alley cats, laundromats, well-dressed men with fancy hats. Overflown trashcan, dingy van, coughing man. A bent, toothless old schmuck. A beeping, backing-up garbage truck.

    Hot dog vendor, manhole, clothesline, utility pole. Bus stop, record shop, donut-munching lazy cop. Panhandling gimp, Goodyear blimp, strutting pimp, I smell fried shrimp. Jazz, to my amazement, streams from a café basement. A pretty dress in a storefront window. Another, black, on a weeping little widow. Flashing screens. Speeding car. Epilepsy. A billboard war between Coke and Pepsi. Glitz and glamour, noise and clangour; end of the day, she's just fine, this itty bitty city of mine.

    And here's the hotel now, the Principessa Giada. Mom and Dad took me here once, when I was very young. It's pretty fancy. As far as I'm concerned, it could be the Burj Al Arab and not make a lick of difference. I like this better, because I came here with Mom and Dad, and I like to think there's a piece of them still in there. Not ghosts or anything (more than enough of that in my life, thank you) just... an echo of a memory, so vague but so important.

    The front doors of the Giada are of the sliding variety, and open as if by magic. I love those. Whenever I have occasion to pass through some, I fling my arms wide and do a Moses. One time I poked a guy in the eye and had to run away.

    This time I didn't harm anyone. I stepped in from the cold and was blasted in the face with hot air. The lobby was big, quite charming, with polished hardwood floors and a black marble counter. Just like it was back then. They've switched up the rest of the decor since I was here, kinda streamlined it. There are several little coffee lounges, with bookcases, ferns, and television fireplaces. Right cosy. Kind of a hipster vibe to it all, but in a classy way.

    There were few people in the lobby. A bored-looking bellboy by the elevators, pawing at his phone. A stylish old lady in the lounge, reading the newspaper over a cup of tea or coffee. And the guy behind the counter.

    I locked eyes with this last one, the... innkeep? Yeah, let's call him that. He was youngish, but balding, with a black suit and a red tie. Prim and proper, almost stiff. He smiled at me, but I could tell he didn't quite know what to make of a young girl by herself in his lobby, dressed kinda ragged and gawking at everything like she's never set foot indoors. Also, I seemed to have trekked snow onto his nice floor. Oops. I thought that if I tried to rent a room, he would ask me lots of silly, difficult questions. The adult, non-homeless world has rules to it, rules that I don't understand, that make no sense to me. It's not the kind of thing covered by my magazines.

    "Hey, Death, gonna need you to do your trick."

    "I do not want to. It hurts."

    "Yeah... you're gonna have to, though."

    His sigh dripped down my spine.

    "Pretty please? I really need a vacation."

    "Very well. Wait."

    I waited near the counter, showing the innkeep a big smile. The doors slid open, and Joe Smith came in, very light on his feet for a man that size. That's because Death doesn't really understand physics.

    I've said already that Death is an invisible friend, but he can make himself seen if he wants. Of course, he doesn't flaunt his whole Grim Reaper look, because that would make a scene. Instead he wears the faces of the dead. Sure, it's darn creepy, and causes both of us great pain, but it's a neat trick. Sometimes, you need an adult to get things done.

    "Over here, Daddy!"

    I could see the innkeep relax just a little. He probably wasn't keen on babysitting me or figuring out a way to get me outta there. I know his type. Homeless kids are only a problem as long as they're in his field of vision, but chasing them with a broom might be unseemly.

    "Good evening, sir," the innkeep said. "Might I be of service?"

    Death was trying to smile, but even in the guise of Joe Smith he looked kinda like a skull, somehow.

    "Less teeth," I said.

    "Yes, good evening." Death has the silliest accent, one that belongs to no nation. He sounds like he learned English by listening to tapes.

    "I would like a room..."

    "A suite."

    "A suite. Your best."

    The innkeep coughed into his fist. "The Giada Suite is available... at $845 a night."

    I propped my elbows up on the counter, though I had to stand on my toes to reach. "Are you implying that we can't afford it? Sir, we have half a mind to take our business elsewhere."

    "Miss, are you well?" He looked at me with distaste and concern. I felt something wet on my lips. I touched it, and my fingers came away red.

    "Oh, just a nosebleed, I get them sometimes." I wiped it on my sleeve. The pain was growing bigger, and it was hard to keep a straight face.

    "Go ahead and put it on Daddy's card."

    The innkeep gave "Daddy Joe" an inquiring look. Well, more of a "is this bitch high" look, I personally think. The innkeep waited nervously while our transfer was accepted, but once it came through, he treated us like royalty.

    "Hey, mister, does this hotel have a kiosk or something?"

    "There is a gas station, across the streets and two blocks down."

    "Great. Daddy, go wait in the room. I'll be quick." I pretended to hand him the keycard, but I kept it.

    Death headed for the elevators. I knew he'd dissolve as soon as he was out of sight; the trick was starting to really hurt.


    The cashier at the Fuel-n-Flee was a crabby, tired-looking lady with a mustard stain on her shirt. It was a slow night, so she watched me all the time. I showed her a big smile, but that only made her frown harder.

    "This ain't no library."

    "I'm browsing, to decide which magazines I might care to purchase."

    "Uh-huh. You think you're the first broke kid to come in here with big pockets? I'm watching you."

    So when time came to pay, I decided to have a little fun. I bought way more than I needed, so much that it barely fit on the counter. By now the cashier looked like she was sucking on a lemon.

    "This some joke? I'm not ringing this up."

    I took out my whole cash roll.

    "I could go to the Petrol Palace instead."

    Her expression didn't change, but she began processing my order.

    "Didn't take you for a drug dealer."

    I sighed. "I'm not—"

    "Save it for the judge, I don't care."

    Once my stuff was bagged, I left her a $100 tip.

    "Go have some fun," I said. "You need it."

    She looked about ready to slap me. "Take you hush money and fuck off before I call the cops!"

    I blushed like a strawberry. Stupid, stupid! I knew better than to flash money like that, but still I'd gone and done it. I wasn't a dealer, but the cash was still ill-gotten. I left the Fuel-n-Flee in a hurry.


    Death doesn't have much by way of facial expressions, but I could tell he thought I'd lost my sense when I walked through the door with three full bags, and poured everything onto the king-size bed. Chocolates and soda cans tumbled out. It rained gumdrops and licorice and chewing gum, chips and crackers and caramel. I was a smidgen gentler with the magazines.

    "Don't you say a word. I'm on vacation."

    "My lips are... well."

    Death stood in the corner like a... like something you would typically put in a corner, a grandfather clock maybe? I turned on the TV and cranked the thermostat all the way up, turning the whole suite into some kinda sauna. As the temperature rose, I removed clothes until I was down to my bare essentials. After freezing for months, that furnace heat was all kinds of heavenly. I lay melting, zapping past hundreds of channels, gobbling candy until my belly ached. Then I gobbled some more. I watched cartoons, and part of some program about people with psychic powers cropping up all over the world. Wish I had some of that, but it's probably a bunch of hokum. I was drowsy, so I turned it off and fell asleep reading magazines.

    I got up late, but that didn't matter. With no school and no job, nobody cares when you go to bed or when you wake up. I missed the hotel breakfast, so I ate a big lunch at a nearby café. Back at the Giada, I had a long shower. I really miss those.

    The rest of my stay can be summed up as vegetating in front of the telly. I wanted to stay another night, but Death advised against it. After all, I paid with a stolen card. Might get awkward if somebody traced it. So I made Death check out, while I went outside to "wait in the car", with half the minibar stuffed in my pockets.

    I headed for the park. There's a series of alleys that make a great shortcut. Soon, someone ran up behind me, too sudden for me to turn. Someone grabbed my neck, pushing me hard against the wall.

    "I just want the money."

    "I don't have any!"

    He whirled me around and grabbed my throat, pushing me up the wall so I could hardly breathe. His face was horrible, with greyish skin full of sores. Mad eyes. Rotten teeth and breath. Then I remembered, I had seen this man last night, in the Fuel-n-Flee. I deduced that he had seen me too.

    "Stop shouting," he hissed. "I don't wanna hurt you, but I will."

    I wept silently while he went through my pockets. Through my tears I saw a skull-faced shadow looming over his shoulder.

    "Don't! Don't do it, don't, don't kill him, don't..."

    "Don't cry," the man said. "You're lucky all I want is money. Gotta be careful out here. Promise me you'll be more careful."

    I couldn't speak with his hand clamped around my throat, so I nodded weakly.

    He took the money and the card. The bags had spilled, the magazines soaked and ruined. At least I still had the candy. Wish I'd bought some real food.

    "You needed that money."

    "We don't kill. I managed before, and I'll manage now." I massaged my throat. "Is it bruised?"

    "Not much."


    December. Christmas time. I was warming myself in the library, reading a book about dinosaurs. Silly lizards.

    "Alice, would you like some coco?"

    I looked up from my book and smiled. "Yes, please!"

    Yeah, I go by Alice now. That's the librarian, Christina. She's super nice and looks like an Amazon. She has no hair, which is kinda cool. Death told me it's because she had cancer. I think she's brave for not wearing a wig.

    Christina arrived with that coco, with cream on top.

    "You have a little mustache there, sweetie," she said, and wiped the cream off my lip with a thumb. "It's getting late. Are your parents picking you up?"

    I blushed a little. "No, I... live right nearby. You're closing?"

    Christina mussed up my hair. "Not for another hour. You can take that book with you, if you want."

    "No, that's okay, I like coming here."

    "I've noticed." Christina smiled. "Especially during school hours."

    I bit my lip. I'd overlooked that crack in my story.

    "Homeschooled," I blurted out. "And this is kinda my homework..."

    "Then I won't disturb. I'll come by before I close up."

    "Thanks, Christina."

    She nodded and went back behind her desk.

    "Hey, Death, do you think she knows?"

    "She suspects."

    "She's so nice, don't you think? I wish she was my mom."

    "Well..." The voice in my head fell silent.

    "What?"

    "She always wanted children, but by the time she was ready, the cancer had made her barren. If you told her your situation..."

    "She'd take me in a heartbeat."

    "Yes. She is very fond of you. You remind her of herself."

    There was nothing I wanted more than to live with Christina, not a thing in the whole wide world. But...

    "She had to fight cancer on a librarian's salary."

    "Yes. It left her in severe debt."

    "She can't afford to care for me."

    "No."

    Tears rolled down my cheeks. I hate cancer so much.

    "But she would try to make it work."

    "Yes. It would ruin her."

    Christina must have heard the sound of my sniffles, because she peeked over the desk. "Alice, are you okay?"

    I dried my eyes. "I'm fine. Gotta go."

    Christina called after me, but the only thing I heard was the booming waterfall in my head. It was cold outside, so cold it froze my tears and sucked the air from my lungs. The snow fell thick; the wind used me for a punching bag. I walked without a place in mind, dreaming of warmth.

    "I can't do it anymore. I'm so tired. So cold. Hungry. I need... The police station. Turn myself in. Where... is that, exactly?"

    "Five miles in the other direction."

    "Not gonna... Not gonna make—"

    I fell on my knees in a pile of snow. I skinned my hand trying to catch myself against the wall. In some alley that smelled of trash, I sat in the snow and failed to get up.

    "Hey, Death? I'm scared."

    Death crouched beside me.

    "Most people are," he said. "But it is not so bad."

    "You're not real, are you?"

    "Does it matter?"

    "No."

    The alley turned from dark to light, from cold to warm. From alley to living room, from snow and brick to a soft chair. There was a tree made of light, presents and paper strewn on the floor, carols on the radio, mulled wine and pipe smoke, like Dad used to... Huh? I looked for Death, but found another face, one I could swear I'd forgotten. People always used to say I had Mom's looks, that I would grow up to be just like her, like this beautiful, impossible woman.

    Mom kissed me on the forehead, and laughed. "All tuckered out, sweetie? Let's get you to bed."
     
    Last edited by a moderator: Oct 15, 2017 at 12:51 PM
  12. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    The Fear Master

    (2521 words)

    Devastating darkness. Deafening silence. Jenny opened her eyes but nothing changed. Devastating darkness. Deafening silence. She tried sitting up but a sharp sensation pierced through her stomach, anchoring her back flat to the ground. A drip of sweat snaked along the furrows of her forehead despite the chill lingering in the air. The sweat drop rolled off the bridge of her nose and landed in her eye, the resulting sting shocking her body into life. She leapt up onto her feet.

    Where the hell am I? She thought, glaring into the vast nothingness around her. However, she dared not step towards the darkness but the darkness dared to step towards her.

    ‘Hello Jennifer,’ said a soft voice.

    Jenny circled, seeking out the voice but found only more darkness. ‘Who’s there?’ She shouted, trying to command her voice.

    A whistling wind whirled around her, carrying the smell of a hospital ward filled with old people nearing death. A shape shone from deep in the distant darkness and floated towards her. As it neared her, the shape coalesced into a slender human-like figure but it gave off an unmistakable aura of something dangerously unhuman. The figure wore a dark cloak hung around the shoulders that draped down to where its feet should be, though it hovered above the ground. A black fedora hat sat upon a massive head that thinned down to give a pointed chin. The figure stopped so close to Jenny its icy breath numbed her cheeks. It stared at her with a pair of yellow eyes flickered with bits of brown, like a rotting banana.

    ‘Why, who else could it be but me my dear, the Fear Master,’ said the figure with that soft voice.

    ‘I’m dreaming,’ said Jenny, nipping at her forearm.

    The Fear Master smiled revealing two rows of serrated teeth. ‘If you say so, my dear. Indeed, if you survive, they'll say it was simply chemicals in your brain.’ She stroked her pointed chin with a bony hand. ‘But tell me, if I'm only your imagination then how is it thousands of people describe me the same way?’

    Jenny nipped at her arm some more. ‘Folklore, urban legend, whatever you want to call it.’ She stopped nipping and cocked her head. ‘What do you mean if I survive?’

    The Fear Master lifted her head high and unleashed a thunderous laugh that seemed beyond a being with such a soft voice. The laugh stopped dead. The Fear Master narrowed her eyes, staring at Jenny with the solemnity of a doctor carrying bad news. ‘Your situation is perilous, my dear. Tell me the last thing you remember.’

    Only then, as she tried thinking, did Jenny feel the pulsating pain radiating from the side of her head. Her mind was as empty as the surroundings. ‘I can’t remember anything’.

    The Fear Master shook her odd shaped head then pulled a stethoscope out the air and inserting the ear tips, pointed the chest piece to the empty air. Lub-dub. Lub-dub. Lub-dub.

    Jenny placed her hand on her chest, convinced the beating heart was hers but her heart was beating at least twice as fast. She clutched her stomach. ‘The doctors, I was at the doctors with Colin,’ she announced. The Fear Master smiled and nodded in frenzy, encouraging her to continue. ‘I couldn’t breathe and the darkness surrounded me. Then I woke up here. Well, I didn’t wake up since this is a dream.’

    A scowl replaced the smile on the Fear Masters face. She grew larger like a balloon being inflated until she loomed ominously over Jenny. Yet still she inflated, larger and larger. Boom.

    The Fear Master exploded into a dust that trickled down over Jenny, who found herself standing alone once again in the darkness.

    Jenny stood rooted to the same spot for what felt like an eternity. It was as though time had been destroyed along with the Fear Master. For however long it was, Jenny stood in a trance-like state until moist air dampened the back of her neck, startling her, but not enough to move. A cold, hard touch pressed against her cheek before stroking up and down. That unmistakable stench of nearing death was back. She was back. The Fear Master leaned into her ear.

    ‘I implore you to take heed of what I say, my dear. I’m not out to get you, I’m here to help. This is no dream. Fear has overloaded your body so strongly that you’ve gone to the darkest corners of your mind, to the parts most people don’t even know exist.’ She shifted to the other ear. ‘Your unconscious body still lies in that doctor’s room and if you don’t find a way to overcome your strongest fears, to escape, that body of yours will fall into a coma before shutting down completely.’ The Fear Master nuzzled her pointed nose into Jenny’s hair, inhaling hard, holding the scent for a moment before exhaling. ‘And right now, I don’t fancy your chances.’

    ‘Help me,’ said Jenny, her cracked voice almost inaudible.

    ‘Only you can conquer your fears, my dear. But I will give you this warning; what hurts you here will hurt you out there too.’ The Fear Master gripped Jenny with her bony hands. ‘You can’t run from your fears, my dear, never forget that.’

    The Fear Master clicked her bony fingers creating a cloud of thick tasteless smoke. Jenny struggled for air but the smoke cleared as fast as it appeared. She found herself standing in a hospital waiting room filled with rows of empty chairs. A bloody bandage lay strewn across the floor while a vending machine hummed in the corner. The reception desk facing the entrance sat unmanned. There were no people anywhere. At least she thought not, until a voice floated from around the corner. Jenny followed the reverberations and found her company director and Tom, her newly promoted boss, having a chat.

    ‘Sure, she’s good, great in fact. Better than you if I’m honest. But she’s twenty nine, and a woman. She’ll no doubt have a couple of kids and want lots of time off. Waste of company time. So that’s why I gave you the job,’ the director said, patting Tom on the shoulder.

    ‘I don’t think she wants kids,’ Tom replied, then laughed.

    ‘They all say that Tom, then next thing you know they get fat and the hormones are everywhere.’

    ‘You piece of shit,’ Jenny shouted, pounding towards them while they continued laughing, ignoring her. ‘I knew I was better than Tom.’

    Jenny shoved Tom but rather than move him, she fell straight through him and landed on her knees. The jilt sent a sharp pain travelling up and through her stomach. She laboured up but turning back to the men she found her two closest friends instead.

    ‘I mean, she says she doesn’t want kids but what kind of life is that? Pointless, almost,’ Lesley said to Rita, who simply nodded. ‘Unfulfilling is the word. What is life without children, passing on your genes?’

    ‘You know, I’d never tell her this but I think she’d be a terrible mother anyway. Sure, she’s a great person but I’m not sure she’s got that mum thing about her,’ Rita said while Lesley took her turn to nod.

    The anger inside Jenny dissipated and sadness filled the void. ‘Why would my friends think that about me?’ She shook her head. ‘No, this isn’t real, this is my mind, those are my thoughts…those are my fears.’

    And as though she’d pronounced a magic spell, her friends disappeared, leaving Jenny alone again. Almost.

    A figure now sat in the chair at the reception desk. Jenny walked over and gasped. ‘Ah Jenny, just in time for your appointment, please head down the corridor,’ said the Fear Master, now swivelling in the chair. ‘Surely you expected to see me again?’

    Jenny said nothing and wandered down the corridor, pushing through a pair of swinging doors. She stood in a standard hospital corridor with hand gel dispensers near the entrance, health posters plastering the walls and painted lines on the floor leading people to various departments. The corridor was shadowy with one ceiling light flickering halfway down providing the only light.

    A door around the same spot creaked open suggestively. You can’t run from your fears Jenny, she reminded herself, marching like a boxing champion heading to the ring for the title fight, both determined and apprehensive. She took a deep breathe at the entrance then walked in.

    The room was quiet, filled with baby cribs and a smell that reminded Jenny of newness, like when you get into a brand new car for the first time. She toured around them, confused about why she seemed drawn to this room. She was sure the cribs were filled but she refused to look at any of the tiny occupants. But then the wailing started.

    Wha wha wha. The sound emanated from a crib in the far corner. Jenny walked towards it and peered down. A pair of bulging blue eyes stared back at her and the wailing stopped, for a moment. Wha wha wha.

    ‘Ok, ok. Stop crying,’ Jenny said to the baby as though it could comprehend. The baby ignored her and inspired others to join the cacophony. Without thinking, Jenny picked the ringleader up and cradled him in her arms. She rocked back and forth, the way she imagined her mother might have rocked her.

    It worked. The ringleader stopped and the gang followed suit. At least they could follow orders, thought Jenny under the newly found silence. She continued rocking the little bundle in her arms, not wanting to risk setting them off again. The blue eyes and few strands of reddish hair reminded her of Rita’s son Harold.

    ‘Murderer,’ a voice shouted, shattering the cosiness.

    ‘Murderer,’ a different voice echoed.

    Jenny scanned around the room but there was no obvious source.

    ‘Murderer,’ a new voice whispered. This voice so close she could hold it, in fact, she was holding it. She diverted her eyes down, finding those bright blue eyes staring back, but they no longer bulged, they were narrowed with an accusing intent behind them.

    ‘This isn’t real. I don’t fear you and you can’t hurt me.’

    ‘Murderer, murderer, murderer,’ the rest of the babies were chanting in unison, now standing up in their cribs, pointing their little fingers at Jenny.

    ‘Can’t hurt you?’ The blue eyed baby asked with a tone of condescension before widening its mouth, showcasing a set of sharp fangs that seemed impossibly long to be in there. The last air of Jenny’s gasp had just been inhaled when the baby launched the fangs deep into her shoulder. She screamed out and threw the baby back down into the crib.

    ‘Murderer, murderer, murderer,’ the rest continued chanting, hammering down on their cribs with miniature fists.

    With blood seeping through her top, Jenny bolted from the room but instead of the corridor she expected, she found herself inside another room, facing a woman lying in a hospital bed with both legs up and opened. She looked just like Jenny, with auburn coloured hair, hazel eyes and high cheek bones, but she had a distinctive freckle below the right eye, like her mother had. Sweat streamed down her as though her hair were a rain cloud dropping a rain storm on her face. She screamed out in agony, adding thunder to the rain.

    The woman noticed Jenny. ‘Why did you kill me Jennifer?’ She screamed at her. Jenny stood, overwhelmed, and said nothing. ‘I loved you but you murdered me.’ The woman groaned in more pain.

    ‘I was, I was just a baby, an unborn baby,’ said Jenny, each word a struggle to enunciate.

    The woman placed her hands between her legs then raised her blood soaked palms to Jenny. ‘This was you. You gutted me inside like a fish.’ She screamed some more. ‘It would have hurt less giving birth to barb wire.’

    ‘I’m sorry mum.’ Jenny had fallen onto her knees, covering her eyes from the scene in front of her. ‘I was only a baby.’

    ‘Your baby will murder you too, and you’ll deserve it.’

    ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ Jenny screamed back, covering her ears.

    The door behind swung open and a bundle of babies marched into the room in single file, chanting their war cry. ‘Murderer, murderer, murderer.’

    The babies encircled Jenny as the woman jumped out from the bed, no longer screaming in pain but still dripping in blood. The babies grabbed Jenny and held her flat against the floor. The woman stood over her and cackled, then reached down and ripped through Jenny’s stomach.

    ‘It wasn’t my fault, I was a baby. It wasn’t my fault,’ Jenny screamed, blanking out.

    The bright light shining from the doctor’s ceiling was the first thing she noticed, followed by Colin’s bearded face. She was lying on the floor of the doctor’s office with her head snuggled into Colin’s thigh. Her head and stomach were aching.

    ‘Jenny, you’re back. Thank God. You passed out honey.’

    Doctor Levin was kneeling beside her. He shone a small torch into each of her eyes and lifted her arm, placing a finger gently on her wrist.

    ‘I want to keep the baby Colin. I want to be a mum. I’m not afraid. It wasn’t my fault.’

    ‘Are you sure? I know…’

    ‘I’m sorry to interrupt but we need to get you to a hospital, now,’ said Doctor Levin, his voice sharp.

    ‘Doc, what’s going on?’ Colin asked.

    Doctor Levin pointed to her stomach. Jenny and Colin both looked at the red moisture soaking through her top. The doctor lifted it but there were no obvious source of bleeding around her stomach.

    Bouts of darkness started filling Jenny’s vision and she could feel her head getting lighter and senses dulling. ‘My shoulder,’ she mumbled.

    The doctor and Colin looked at her bewildered before sharing the look with each other. Colin pulled the neck line of her top down, revealing her shoulder and two deep puncture wounds. ‘What the hell?’ He looked back at Doctor Levin, shaking his head.

    ‘I have no idea what that is but it’s the least of our problems,’ the doctor announced, using his eyes to point to the pool of blood oozing out from under Jenny’s skirt. The oozing was fast becoming a pouring. ‘Help me,’ the doctor said.

    Colin lifted Jenny up under the shoulders and the doctor grabbed her legs. Jenny’s body was limp as she drifted in and out of consciousness. ‘Call the hospital and tell them we are coming,’ the doctor shouted to a receptionist as the men passed through the reception area.

    The sights and sounds were blurry to Jenny as she was carried but one thing stood out as clear as an afternoon sun on a cloudless day. It was slender and wore a dark cloak. It tipped its fedora hat towards her and smiled with those familiar serrated teeth. ‘It wasn’t my fault,’ Jenny told the Fear Master as they passed by her.
     
  13. Anonymizer

    Anonymizer New Member

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    Molly and the Gatekeeper [1686 words]

    The pavement was slippery because of the afternoon rain and Molly tripped several times on her way to the train station.

    “Fucking heels” she growled as she grabbed the railings to keep herself from falling.

    Pulling herself to her feet, she dusted off her overcoat needlessly and soldiered on. After, predictably, losing her footing twice more, she gave in and took off the high-heels, stuffing them in her bag. The cold, wet pavement was sweet relief to her tired and sore feet, it felt downright pleasant and after a while she took off in a half run, half juggle, grinning like a mad person. She had to slow down twice to avoid stepping on shards of glass and later a small pool of fresh vomit.

    The train station came into view after turning a corner and Molly skidded to a stop at a place where she needed to cross the street. The pedestrian light turned green and she stepped onto the road.

    The bus came out of nowhere. Blinding yellow light swallowed her as the giant red monster rushed at her with mind-boggling speed, she didn't even have time to scream and soon knew no more.

    #

    She seemed to be lying on a hard surface when she came to. Something soft brushed against her face. She snapped her eyes open to find herself staring at a round, furry face inches from her, huge red eyes regarding her curiously.

    “Wha…”

    She jumped to her feet and the cat hissed.

    “Don't be alarmed by Lurillan. He's quite friendly actually,” a soft voice said from somewhere behind her.

    She spun around so fast she felt slightly dizzy. A figure, short and slender, his face obscured by the shadow of the archway under which he stood. The archway was large and made of some ancient stone. Molly couldn't tell what was behind her.

    “Who are you?” she asked. “And where the hell am I?”

    He smiled slyly. “My name isn't meant for the ears of a three-dimensional being, call me Gatekeeper if you like. That's a...rather adequate if grossly simplified description of what I do”.

    Lurillan the cat moved around and between her legs, brushing against her as he did so. Gatekeeper's answer served to confuse her further. What was happening? The last thing she remembered...the bus...blinding light…

    “I had an accident” she blurted out. Yet she didn't even have a scratch. How was that possible?

    “Yes you did,” said Gatekeeper, “And you're dying at the moment.”

    “What?”

    Gatekeeper stretched a thin arm and pointed to the side. A crack appeared in the air, wider and wider, until it was large enough for a baby elephant to pass through. An image shimmered into existence within it.

    Molly took a step closer and screamed in horror. It was her lying in that cold, wet street and she was a broken, twisted mess. Her face was bruised and swollen almost beyond recognition, her torso had torn open and she almost retched at the sight of her entrails. She quickly looked away, taking short, rapid breaths to calm herself.

    Gatekeeper motioned with his hand and the image dissolved only to be replaced with another. That of Molly's body being shut in a body bag by Emergency workers. Another image soon followed; A fresh headstone in a familiar cemetery. It read:

    Molly Werner
    Beloved Daughter, Cherished Friend
    1986 – 2017

    Mum and dad were there and so was Shannon, her younger sister. Seeing them made her heart break, her tears flew as wildly as theirs. Mum could barely stand and had to be supported by dad who looked forlorn and barely aware of what he was doing, his hands shaking as he held Mum. Shannon was on her knees hugging Molly's headstone, wailing.

    “Do you wish to hear them as well?

    “No!” she shouted, “No, no, just please take it way”.

    He waved a hand and the scene evaporated.

    “That,” Molly began, “How's that happening? How can I be dead? I'm right here”.

    “It is happening, it happened and it will happen” Gatekeeper said, there was a slight music to his voice. “Time does not operate as you perceive it to. It is fluid and complex, unimaginably complex.

    I pulled you from the current of time a mere split-second before the bus collided with you. An unnatural act on my part as beings of three dimensions cannot be removed from time. What I did creating in a minor split in time, resulting in two versions of you existing simultaneously in one timeline. In others words I made a temporary copy of you.”

    Molly barely registered any of that. Her head hurt and she wished more than anything to be woken from this insane nightmare already.

    “it's not a nightmare Molly” Gatekeeper remarked, leaving Molly agape.

    “WHAT IS IT THEN?” she shouted, “WHAT THE FUCK DO YOU WANT FROM ME? I DON'T UNDERSTAND”.

    Gatekeeper stepped out of the archway and as he did so, a black velvet hood materialised around him, keeping his face hidden save for his lips and jaw. The hood expanded backwards as he walked, forming a full-length cloak which swirled behind him as though not fully solid. He came to a stop a mere step from her, the corner of his mouth twisting in an unpleasant smile.

    “I rescued you and now I offer you an opportunity. To break yet another law, to cheat death.” he paused, letting the words hang between them.

    Molly took a deep breath. If this was real, which she still had trouble truly believing, the one thing was for certain. Whoever, whatever, this Gatekeeper might be, he was dangerous, incredibly dangerous and no friend of hers. She couldn't explain her sense of foreboding but she chose to trust her instinct in this, it had never failed her before.

    “What do you want in exchange?” she asked dreading the answer.

    “A life for a life.”

    He waved a hand and black fog rose from the ground between them, twisting and morphing into a strikingly detailed likeness of a middle-aged man with sharp, angular features.

    “Garmishal Hox,” said Gatekeeper, “47 years of age, born 2765. Travel to his present time, Lurillan will help you with that, locate him, kill him. Do that within seventy-two hours and I will see the course of time changed for you, so you may live. Fail and I'll put you back on that street, at the exact moment whence I pulled you out. This time it will be final, you'll be crushed by that bus, dead before you hit the ground”.

    Molly shuddered. Lurillan, who seemed to have left at some point unbeknownst to her, appeared at her side again at the mention of his name.

    “I'm just an average girl, not a trained soldier or an assassin how am I supposed to kill anyone?”

    “Hox is an average man as well. Not a fighter at all. You'll do fine.”

    She gritted her teeth, that awful image of her broken and bloody body etched into her mind. “Fine.”

    Gatekeeper grinned. Lurillan jumped into her arms, those large red eyes unnerved her. There was intelligence in them, deep and far beyond that of any normal feline.

    “Seventy two hours begins now” said Gatekeeper as he and his world dissolved around her and Molly found herself in another time, and another place.

    She took a moment to reorient herself. Lurillan leaped from her arms and look back at her expectantly. She found herself sitting in a train that ran above the largest and by far most strange city she had ever seen. The city seemed to have been built in descending levels, narrow cobblestone streets ran between colourful buildings the shortest of which dwarfed the Empire State Building and there were no cars. Not to mention that almost everything was circular in design.

    If she could she would have spent an eternity studying the magnificent city. Oh well. She tear her eyes from the windows and turn to Lurillan who was occupying the seat next to her.

    “Now what?” she asked him.

    He cocked his head, a strange expression on his furry face. Before Molly could say more, two men in grey and blue uniforms approached her. Great. The last thing she needed was to come to the attention of the local authorities.

    “Molly Werner?” one of them asked.

    Her jaw dropped. How did they know who she was?

    “You are under arrest for the imminent murder of one Garmishal Hox. Come with us please.”

    They ignored Molly's protests as they handcuffed her. Lurillan stayed where he was, his eyes locked into hers, unblinking. The two officers each held one of her arms then they pushed a button on their helmets and everything dissolved again.

    Molly found herself in a white, circular room. A man sat behind a massive desk across the room. The officers ledt her alone and shut the door behind her. AS she cautiously approached the desk, the man looked up. Molly gasped. It Was Garmishal Hox himself.

    Hox smiled a warm smile and gestured for her to sit. “Ah Miss Werner” he said in a deep voice, “I was wondering when you'd show up.”

    Molly looked at him quizzically as she sat.

    “Lurillan twarne me of your arrival, you see, long ago in fact.”

    Could this day end already?

    “Wh...why?”

    “You're not the first pawn in this war between me and Gatekeeper and he's not afraid to sacrifice as many as necessary to succeed.”

    Molly sighed. “He's not gonna make good on his promise is he?”

    “No. I'm afraid your life in your original time is over, but you could start a new life in this one.”

    “And why should I trust you? Who even are you?”

    “I, Miss Werner, am a very important man and very powerful, this I suspect Gatekeeper failed to mention to you. Powerful enough to plant an agent within the ranks of a minor god. My alliance would be beneficial to you. Do you accept?”

    Molly hesitated, her mind going over the events of this insane day. She still couldn't believe any of it was real.

    “Yes.”
     
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