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Okua
Oct 30, 2016


In.

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Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Scales 1199


Maddie and I were not supposed to go to the public pool on our own, but this one evening under a summer heat-wave, Dad had hesitantly let us out of his sight. Giddy with a new-found feeling of independence, we swam length after length together. Mermaid-swimming, we called it: arms stretched out, legs stuck together like a tail, eyes wide open even if it stung a little. Maddie was always telling me that I was doing stuff wrong, but being a year older with longer limbs, I was faster anyway.

Eventually, I hauled myself from the water and waited for her to finish while I watched the last guests leave.

“Aren't you getting tired?” I asked.

Maddie stopped by the ladder and shook her head. “No way. I can swim forever.”

“But it’s cold and the pool’s closing.”

“It’s not cold at all,” Maddie said, pouting. “Mermaids swim in the ocean all winter.”

“Then maybe you’re part mermaid,” I said, knowing that that was exactly what she wanted to hear – no matter how often I said it, she smiled like crazy. And while I had Mom's eyes and Dad's nose, we both agreed that Maddie didn't look much like Mom at all. Her mom could’ve been Ariel for all we knew. Her hair even looked a little red in the light of the sinking sun.

I thought I had won. It looked like Maddie was about to climb out when she suddenly kicked and propelled herself back instead. Floating effortlessly, she laughed - “Take me to the beach on the way home and then I’ll come!”

“It’s almost dark.”

“I just wanna go look at it,” she pouted, drawing out the last word for what felt like forever.

If Dad had been here, he would have said something to make her come. Now, she just floated while I thought about how long it would be before we’d miss dinner, and I didn’t know what to say. I nodded.

We got our towels – mine frayed and blue, Maddie’s in Barbie-pink – and I took both our bags, one on each shoulder, heavy with the shorts and t-shirts we had shed before. The smell of chlorine lingered even past the showers and the fence. We carried it with us down the road until we reached the beach with those dunes that glowed like giant pieces of buried amber washed up ages ago.

Maddie didn’t run straight into the waves as I’d feared. She just looked out at the sea and said, “I actually am going to become a real mermaid.”

“How?” I asked.

“There’s a spell.”

“That’s dumb. Who told you?”

Maddie shrugged. “The internet.”

“That’s even dumber.”

“It was a special webpage. With real videos and stuff.” Maddie paused a moment. “…But I can’t show you, ‘cause it’s secret. Only for half-mermaids.”

This was her revenge for being called dumb. I stopped in the shadow of sea-weed-covered rocks and dropped the bags in the sand where they lay among crumbled up ice-cream wrappers and empty soda bottles.

“I’m your sister," I said. "I can keep a secret.”

Saying nothing, Maddie looked at the water like it was a thousand fathoms deep, unknown territory. In truth, we knew the beach well: it was shallow and calm even when it was windy, kid-friendly.

You wanted to go the beach,” I said. “What's the matter? I guess you don’t wanna show me ‘cause you’re really normal.”

Maddie shook her head, biting her cheek like she always did when she was scared. I knew I wasn’t being nice, but then again, I was scared too. Scared that it wouldn't work and she would get Dad involved once we got home, and scared that it would work, that she was somehow right.

Then she said, “I’m just going to go out until my legs are in, okay?”

“Okay,” I said.

Adjusting my bathing suit, I told myself that I could always swim the breast-stroke and pull her back if the waves started to act up. (In truth, I knew she was too heavy, and there was no lifeguard here). Maddie stepped into the surf and the sea-breeze, water up to her hips. When she spread her arms out all ceremonially and looked up to the sky, I could see the tan-lines on her shoulders and the baby-fat still clinging to her stomach. Her thighs appeared like pieces of concrete wave breakers above the waterline. Her lips moved and I couldn’t hear a thing.

I wanted to turn around and leave.

It’d only be a few minutes before I was home, and the desire to be on the couch with Disney Channel on, sitting on a big beach towel as I air-dried, grew overwhelming.

“Laura, look!” Maddie’s voice rang out, and I looked at her, and she looked at the darkening horizon.

Sea-foam came sailing in on chest-high waves - not the common yellowish kind of foam, but pearly white stuff, and Maddie saw it swirl around her legs. At first, she swayed like she wasn’t able to stand, and then she made an odd jump towards me. She did a few movements that I guess was an attempt at swimming mermaid-style, but the waves pushed her in, made her wash up on the shore. I ran towards her, sand flying around me.

She lay with her legs extended into the water. Foam covered her, toes to belly. Her chest rose and fell rapidly, glistening with brown, slick kelp. We both waited for the miracle.

Hesitantly, like she knew what I was gonna answer, she asked, “Did it work?”

I shivered and saw that the sun was almost gone.

“Why didn’t it work?” Maddie asked. She forced herself to look down and slowly stretched out one leg, as if the limb was brand new and unfamiliar. She flexed her chubby toes. ”The website said… The website said it wouldn’t work if you don’t believe.”

Somewhere, a gull cried.

While she got up, I got our bags and carried her towel, too, leading us hastily onwards while she kept glancing at me. Each step she took looked like it caused her pain; she flinched a little, but that could have been caused by the gravel and sun-warmed asphalt under her bare feet.

We made it all the way to our garden gate before I blurted out, “I’m sorry.”

Pausing in the middle of a step, Maddie turned to look at me, still with sand in her hair. She stood with one hand on the latch.

“It was me who didn’t believe,” I said.

"It was?"

“I’m really sorry. I wish you could’ve become a mermaid, you know - but I couldn’t believe enough. Please don’t tell Dad I let you go to the beach, right?”

“Yeah,” Maddie said. “Ok.”

“It looked like it worked for a moment. It really did. Didn’t you see the foam come in?”

“Maybe.” Maddie opened the gate and went on ahead, clutching a seashell of some sort she must have picked up in the surf. “Ok. You’re dumb, Laura. Thanks for ruining it.”

The gate swung back and shut before I could follow her.

I heard the latch fall into place.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Uh, first time giving a crit, but I made some notes while reading & I hope these comments are good.
Notes on Metrofreak's Heart Improvement.

First of all this punctuation mistake happened often and bugged me so much:

quote:

"Just dandy." he smiled
Either end the speech with a comma or capitalize the first letter of the dialogue tag. I also found a "tumblr" of ice water, and other spelling errors.
Why does the story start with that scene in the diner? It doesn't seem like that is when the immediate problem (the wound) first appears, nor is it a big turning point. It is an interesting opener that then goes on into... talking with a waiter. I ended up skimming the first lines just looking for more about the injury. It doesn't help that the sentences seem kind of awkward to me...? An example:

quote:

From the flip phone in his left hand came the electronic sound of his girlfriend, Jessica “So I’ll just meet you at home, ok? You know how crunch time is.” There was a creaking sound on the line, a chair, probably.
The sentence-length doesn't vary. The choice of what details to give seems weird to me. I don't know why it matters that the phone is in his left hand. And why mention the sound of the chair? It does nothing except establish that there is a chair, where describing a different background noise or a specific kind of chair could at least help create a picture of Jessica's enviroment.
There's also no punctuation between "Jessica" and the dialogue.

The fact that nobody else can see the wound and that this is a metaphor for Matthew's emotional state is established three times. (The girlfriend, the waitress and at the hospital). Some of those words could probably have been spent better elsewhere. In contrast, the end felt kind of rushed to me. Matthew loses his home and job and takes out the heart in the span of very few sentences considering its a turning point for him as a character.
In general, I feel that the story isn't complicated as soon as the reader figures out that the wound is methaphorical, which happens pretty quickly because it is established several times. More time could have been spent describing the character's change instead of the beginning and downward spiral leading up to the change.

So basically spell-check and pacing is important.
Those are my 5 cents

*edit* I also just now got that the title is a pun

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


In.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Peace at last
(149 words)

No corpses are hanging from lonely gallows
after the war, like a fever, has gone;
though blood of dead nymphs remains in the shallows

Crows have settled on shallow graves
and sated themselves on boils and brawn:
No corpses are hanging from lonely gallows

The fallow fields grow, even trampled by slaves;
ash-fed weeds hide the shivering fawn
though blood of dead nymphs remains in the shallows

The wet nurse Demeter comes forward and saves
abandoned dead on the battle-ground lawn:
No corpses are hanging from lonely gallows

These bodies are turned into hollowed-out caves -
from their river-veins nourishing life-blood is drawn
though blood of dead nymphs remains in the shallows

like pomegranate seeds floating on waves
that will carry death east to be swallowed by dawn:
No corpses are hanging from lonely gallows
though blood of dead nymphs remains in the shallows.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


In

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Nice with some line by line crits, thanks

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


IN. i'll submit something this time goddamn it.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016



Change 987 words

As soon as we got out of the cab, Thomas was already fiddling with his GoPro camera and its unwieldy chest strap. I waited on the sidewalk with a feeling that this entire trip was a mistake. We were supposed to be a pair of old friends seeing the sights, but though I kept my distance, I could tell people were pegging us as a couple. Thomas had not noticed. He was busy filming the neon lights for Susan, though I was sure she would have liked to see her fiancé’s face in the video, too.

He had joked that they might get married in Vegas. I knew Susan had a little courthouse picked out back in Corpus Christi, and that I’d be there in four months’ time. (I had crumbled the invitation into a ball, but carried it with me).
After the wedding, there’d be a reception behind the white picket fence in Susan's rose garden, where everyone would ignore that it was doomed by the Texas heat to wilt each summer. I had been house-sitting for them before; I knew how they lived.

I knew where I wanted to go. The nearest casino was a tourist attraction in itself, all the signs lit up to guide me in. Servers sauntered around in feathers and rhinestone bras, impossible for me to ignore as I went down between the rows of lit-up distractions.

Thomas came close to make himself heard above the music, a familiar, disdainful crease forming between his eyebrows. "How can anyone spend money on these? They just suck people dry. " He made a sweeping gesture towards the one-armed bandits. Towards the seated men and women. "Look at 'em. No life in their eyes - zombies spending all that money on nothin'-"

"Afraid of being cleaned out?”

He didn’t return my jab, choosing instead to glare.

"Sorry, sorry,” I said. “I’m just going to go over there real quick, ok? Even if you don’t indulge, I want to try…”

Thomas nodded, and as I headed off I wondered what he'd do. He wouldn’t admire the waiters, God no, too faithful for that. Maybe he’d head for the blackjack table - a thinking man's game, according to him. The last I saw before the crowd separated us was a security guard giving him trouble about the camera.

Gold coins and poker chips spilled onto the floor from the pockets of drunken guests and the ever-present slots. I could focus on rows of 7's and cherries lining up, symmetrical patterns of cartoon-characters and the endless high-pitched pings of machines all around me, even if I did, occasionally, see a glimpse of a woman's auburn hair and think of Susan.

Last time I came over for a friendly visit, I was too early. I had seen her coming out of the shower, drying her hair with a towel. She smiled at me.
Officially, I only ever came to see Thomas, but soon any visit felt pointless if she was not in the room.

At some point I abandoned the slot machine for the bar, only to return again later with the taste of alcohol burning in my mouth.

Soon, I lost track of time and Thomas, wanted it no other way.

People around me appeared like spirits of the air, bellowing out poker terms and numbers. Light and see-through clothing danced on fake air-condition breezes or moved along in drafts drawn by those rushing from one time-waster to another. I didn't keep track of wins and losses. I counted cards I'd have to send to wish Susan and Thomas happiness as married folks, polite invitations I would resent, and birthdays that wouldn’t ever be the same as back in our college days. I got all the cocktails that I would have gotten in those future parties in the span of this one evening. And I reached out and laid my hand on the bare upper thigh of the girl who got me the drinks. Though I got some stares from the dealer at my table, arms crossed like a cartoon djinn, I got away with it.

- Then I was dragged from the deep water of my self-pity by Thomas' hand around my wrist. He always used the same low tone with me when I was drunk. "Time to go."

I felt like the red rope sectioning off the VIP-area would wrap around my legs and pull me back. Instead, I was brought rudely into the night. The air was cold, and a smell of chlorine emanated from a gigantic circular fountain right in front of us. It was quiet for now, but Thomas told me that were light-shows here every thirty minutes. People were throwing coins.

"Look," I said. "It's like it’s a... whatchamacallit. A whishing well."

I had nothing to throw in and could only stare. All my coins were swallowed up by the casino.

A moment later, Thomas had his wallet out and the rifled edges of a heavy coin dug into my palm.

“You could wish me and Susan luck," he suggested.

I waited for my balance to return, watching the water. I thought about throwing the coin into Thomas’ face, or throwing him into the fountain. Or maybe the GoPro - but those things, he had explained, can withstand everything. I thought about diving into the fountain myself for no reason at all, except that my feet really hurt in these high heels and people do dumb poo poo in Vegas. People like me, at least, and not like Thomas who was filming even now. Susan’s black pupil stared from the lens of his camera. Turning to the fountain, I thought about her, in her bathrobe, rising like Venus from this stagnant pool.

My were chances so infinitely small that there was no reason to gamble here.

And so I threw the coin in, like any good girl friend would.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


In, with critter.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


The Grand Escape From Humanity (~1560 words)

It was in an Inca temple in South America that I first came face to face with the jellyfish-god. Floating in a great pool, its soft, gelatinous body shimmered. It had a flat, broad head like a mushroom-cap and long, luminous appendages, organs with purposes I could only guess at. It was unlike any earthly thing I had ever had on my dissection table, and yet it reminded me of that - a simple jellyfish.

I felt a push at the small of my back, urging me to go forward. It was unnecessary: I had come by accident, but the crowd huddled around the pool would not let me leave. Empty cups rolled around on the stone floor.

The being in the pool turned towards me.

And the high priest turned towards me, speaking his own language with a fervor even I could pick up on. My translator whispered in my ear, close enough that I could hear the wet sounds of his mouth.

"He says that the Eternal Fish fell from the stars in a blaze of light. It likes water. No air. It doesn’t talk language known to us. It can rebirth itself again and again. We feed it to make it help us.”

I nodded as if I understood.

“You can touch.”

With the mood in the temple so desperate and urgent, it felt like an order. I bowed down and reached out, letting the tip of my index finger disturb the surface of the pool.

As if it sensed the miniscule vibration I had sent through the water, the jellyfish-god darted towards me.

In the distance, I heard a cannon go off.

My heart leapt at the dull boom, a reminder that my people, the conquistadors in the street, were approaching. Worried glances were cast in the congregation; the high priest alone was unshaken.

"If it remains here, it will be killed,” he said, pointing to the water. “But it knew this.”

The cannons fired again, and I thought that I could hear distant shouts as well. Once the soldiers came, we would take even the gold decorating the high priest's headdress. When he bowed down, the feathers of birds of paradise reached the floor and dragged through dust and sand.

As I watched, the jellyfish convulsed. Tentacles broke, separating into segments that floated to the surface. Its main body moved like a pig's bladder inflated with air, bulging this way and that. The glistening membrane stretched to what I thought were its limit, and then beyond. Mysterious fluids rose in swirls of blue and green.

I clutched the strap of my bag and listened as thousands of footsteps and gunshots and bodies dropping and cannonballs landing and bricks falling rose to a crescendo, a drumroll greater than anything the ceremonial drums in the temple could ever produce.

The natives around me seemed to do the same.

Their god ruptured. At first the crack was small, like a clean scalpel-cut. Then it deepened and widened. Organs burst forth as azure globules, soft purple masses and bronze entrails of all kinds. I stared into the pool, unable to see anything beyond the biological debris and the foam on top. Hands brushed against my shoulders and arms as we all crowded around the basin.

We waited.

A woman's shrill scream was left to sound and resound outside with no reaction from any of us.

Then, at last - a stream of bubbles broke the still surface. At first it looked like another broken part of the once enormous body, but then it moved and swam towards the edge of the pool. People stretched their arms and hands towards it, and a white head poked up, dragging itself across their skin. The whole creature resembled a maggot, and they lifted it, placed it in a pot of water in a wicker basket and brought it to me.

Before I knew what had happened, the jellyfish-maggot, the unearthly thing, lay in my arms.

“It is the very same being. Its body has been renewed,” said my translator. “Now, take it and keep it safe.”

The doors to the sanctuary opened, Spanish tongues and Spanish boots spreading profanity across the temple. I told them I was their countryman. They did not ask about the wicker basket, and I went through the doors and out on streets that were shadows of what they had been before, though there were no shadows with all the fires and torches burning.

I do not know what happened to the people in the temple.

***

The jellyfish-god stayed with me as I crossed the sea. It was my secret. My spoils of war, growing bigger each day in a glass aquarium.

I poked and prodded it: One of the maggot-body's ends had split apart into an array of fronds that might one day become long arms.

I fed it.

My attic room was built of dark wood, the roof slanted so that little sunlight came through a small window. On the floor, empty cages contained only empty nests and useless notes. Gone were the animals I had studied. All I had
left were a few starved goldfish and prayers. I then fed the goldfish to the only thing that mattered.


The jellyfish learned to hurl itself against the glass when I came into the room. Spirals of its strange blood swirled in the water.

Feeding it became a ritual.

Experiments showed that fish and fat was always devoured in an instant. It opened a mouth between the arms, and its insides were the color of amber. Salt water, too, invigorated it – just a few drops made it gain several centimeters. When I watched it, I saw my own reflection in the glass. I began to see meaning in the way the jellyfish moved its arms, and it fed me: I gathered the liquids that it bled and smeared it on my hands. I drank cerulean and red, and each time it felt like I had just had the best night’s sleep in my life and a strong whiskey at once.

I stood in front of my window not caring for the fact that I could barely see the view through the dirty glass. The brick houses and plants and people all seemed sick now - bound to break apart.


There was a splash of water as the jellyfish threw itself against the side of the aquarium. Vials of its blood came dangerously close to rolling off the table. There weren’t enough vials yet, and the jellyfish-god was still too small…

I went down to the sea, far from the polluted harbor, with both arms wrapped around the tank. The jellyfish grew agitated. It lurched this way and that, and I brought it further out into the surf in response. For a moment, it seemed like it calmed down.

The water reached to my shins. It was such a bright, warm day, and I felt a strong urge to swim as I gazed at the horizon.

Then the jellyfish gathered itself for a last attack and tipped the aquarium over. I tried to catch it, but felt only its soft body spilling between my fingers. For a moment, it quivered in my grasp, dripping, deflating – and then it had fled, carried outwards by the waves.

It floated for a while, easily visible as a blot of purple and blue in the green and grey. Then it sunk. I saw tentacles squirming. Instinctually I looked for a net, for anything that would prevent this miracle from becoming lost to me.

I tried to follow it, running along the shore, glimpsing an occasional limb or the ridge of its head carving a path through the water.

It swam. It was alive, but leaving.

***

I drank the last vials and went to the coast again.

They say the air there should be so good for your health, but I could not feel it. It seemed to me one long, cold mist. Bones ached more and more as my body broke - not like the jellyfish-god broke into colorful, magnificent pieces to be reborn again, only a steady and very human decay. If I found it again, I would drink the creature dry, fill a cup with its ichor as the Incas did.

But I could not find it no matter how often I went to the sea.

I looked for falling stars and listened to sailors. Were there missing fish or fishermen who never made it home?

I tried to warn them that if they saw an iridescent body gliding through the waves, dragging long tentacles after itself, they should stay away.

I dreamt of the beach crawling with little white and grey larvae. Maggots eating the world one fish, one seal, one sailor at the time. (The Incas practiced human sacrifice, after all).

Sometimes I saw glimpses of it, and I knew that it was devouring whales out there. It was free and far enough away to wave at me with those limbs - almost inviting me, teasing me with those glimpses. I thought about the grey-and-purple splotches growing on my skin. And as leaving the seaside grew harder, it began to dawn on me that I had released something terrible into the world.

One morning I went down to look for amber and found the unmistakable color of its blood-like liquids coming in with the tide.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Solitair I could give it a try

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


I'm just writing my impressions as I go.

Solitair posted:

Collective Soul
1298 words

Area 51: GOOD AFTERNOON.

Jensen typed those words into the keyboard at her station, as she'd done every day since the other technicians hooked the specimen up to it. Years had passed since it was brought to Area 51, and in that time experimentation proceeded in a continuous twenty-four hour cycle. The director wanted to know everything there was to know about it, considering the nine people it killed before the proper authorities caught wind of it.

Here, it's unclear to me whether Jensen is the director or not. And I would think this specimen being an actual alien lifeform(!) alone is enough to justify wanting to learn about it, no matter who it has killed, but maybe this is a world where aliens are common knowledge?

quote:

X: FIND COYOTE DEER ARNETTE TEXAS. SEVERAL PEOPLE SPARSE DISTANT. MYSELF CLOSE COLLECTED. MYSELF SYNCHRONICITY ELECTROMAGNETISM. OTHERS PLANET SYNCHRONICITY SOUND VISION. CURIOSITY. AREA 51 OBSERVE MYSELF PRESENT. MYSELF OBSERVE ARNETTE TEXAS PAST.

At least they had that much in common.

I can just make out the gist of what's being said, but it took me a while to figure out what it is they have in common. It also doesn't seem like you're doing much with the concept of Jensen and the alien being alike in their purpose, both being observers.

quote:

The citizens of Arnette, Texas had conversation with each other, often about topics other than their careers. There were wealthy neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods, as was the case with every other town Jensen had ever been to. Both were ubiquitous signs of the human condition, with most humans considering the former to be a perk of being alive and the latter to be regrettable problem that could be curbed but never truly eliminated.

Why are you telling me what humans think about conversations and poverty?. I know, I am a human. It made me think that maybe Jensen was going to turn out to be an alien, too.

quote:

The mold in the tank, with its microscopic cells working in perfect sync, had formed a sac of ganglions with an uncanny resemblance to an animal's nervous system, but lacked the ability to process these simply concepts.

Without that last part, you'd be showing that the alien is inhuman instead of telling it.

quote:

Area 51: CAN YOU SEE ME RIGHT NOW?

X: SINGLE AREA 51 NODE VISIBILITY. MAJORITY NODE LOCATION UNKNOWN.

That aspect of its biology needed further study. Jensen made a note of it before she decided to focus on the most important matter.

More observer/bering observed stuff. I thought this was going to be a theme, but it's just thrown aside. There could be a power struggle going on with the scientists wanting information the alien is withholding (on purpose or otherwise), and in that context this reveal could have carried more weight. Being observed without your knowledge is an unsettling thing!

quote:

Area 51: WHY DID YOU KILL CHESTER MURRAY?

Chester had been the first casualty reported. He had suffocated in his sleep one night. While his family had been devastated by the news, more distant acquaintances assumed that his health issues had caught up to him, making the discovery of mold clogging his trachea a surprise. Of course, by the time of the autopsy, he wasn't the only one.

X: QUESTION KILL. ARNETTE TEXAS DISTRESS SURVIVAL.

That question would have way more impact if you didn't follow it up with a bunch of exposition. I'd leave Chester's details to the reader's imagination - perhaps with just a hint about his cause of death - or put the exposition earlier in the story. And why is Jensen asking about him when there were nine people dead?

quote:

If that distressed, but alive town knew that its citizens had been killed by something sapient, they would want more substantial answers than that, as did the director. Jensen would have to try a different tack.

"That distressed, but alive town" sounds awkward to me. If it is distressed, it is by definition alive - even though alive is an odd adjective for a town. You also refer back to the town with "they", so maybe it should have been about those distressed citizens.
(and there's a spelling mistake).

quote:

The only link connecting the victims, aside from them living in or near the Arnette city limits, was the strained relationship they had on the people they lived with. Chester Murray was an alcoholic who made his wife and children miserable. Patricia Gallagher was the landlord who imposed draconian rules on tenants who put up with it because they thought they had no better options. Lorelei Weston had recently come out of the closet, only to find that her devout Christian parents and siblings weren't having any of her sexual identity. If the mold couldn't tell the difference between those situations, perhaps its senses weren't that fine-tuned, after all.

Again with the exposition/telling that slows the conversation down. Instead of puzzling out what happened from what the alien says and/or clues/foreshadowing from earlier in the story, I'm just getting the answers served, and that's boring.

quote:

Area 51: EVERY NODE YOU DEACTIVATED ONLY MADE THE SITUATION WORSE. THE NODES YOU THOUGHT YOU WOULD HELP ONLY GOT MORE MISERABLE. YOU HURT ARNETTE, AND IT MIGHT BE A LONG TIME BEFORE THOSE NODES GET BETTER.

I like this. Up until now, the all-caps speech has been very technical language. Now the mood changes. Jensen describes what has happened on the most basic emotional level - "You hurt Arnette" - and here the use of the town's name like they're talking about a person works. Jensen gets to show emotions! Empathy and humanity.

quote:

Assistance with what? Jensen wasn't sure if the mold could even articulate the answer if she asked. For a moment she sat in her chair and buried her fingers in her hair. Then she got up, printed the conversation log, and left the room to present her findings: another incremental breakthrough, with much more stumbling around yet to come.

Aaand its over without nothing really getting... resolved? Since it was mentioned at the beginning that they've had this speciment for a long while, I didn't really know whether anything new came to light in this conversation. What are the stakes of the story? And does Jensen have a personal stake in this? Because it seems like a failure to communicate doesn't lead to any consequences.
The story is centered around dialogue, but you keep putting it on hold to deliver exposition.
All in all some trouble with telling instead of showing, with some ideas/themes that could perhaps be pushed a little further.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


...
I'm IN, and give me a flash rule asap.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Black mold 1594 words

Thranguy posted:

Use in your story:
A building that used to be a library

It was a while since I had last gone to the library, and I had expected a little decay. A few books taken away from the shelves, a new crack in the plaster, more cancelled magazine subscriptions. I knew it was bad times, and the building was only a few years older than me. But I had not expected that the automatic doors would move aside to reveal dead silence and bare walls.

I had found shelter from the rain, but the cold followed. I was hurting right down to the marrow in my bones. Didn’t want to think about it. Instead, I went around the grand room inspecting stacked cardboard boxes and piles of pages. Disassembled bookcases. All of it was marred by white lines and dots where the booklice and beetles were gnawing. A big black spider crawled across a row of encyclopedias and further away, a young man stood hunched over a crate.

"Come to have a look?" he asked.

"I don't know," I said.

"It's all free.”

“They’re shutting it down?”

“Two weeks ago. Now they’re selling out of the stock.”

I wondered if either of us knew who they were.

The young man's sleeves were bunched up around his elbows, and sweat shone on his brow. I could only imagine that dragging those crates around was hard work.

“I thought it was an awful waste to let the books get thrown out, so I'm trying to save the stuff worth saving,” he said.

It looked like it would take a long while to find anything in this mess, but I had nothing better to do the whole afternoon. Dennis wouldn't come around until evening, and I didn't feel like sitting around just waiting for for my son. It would make us both worry. I asked the man his name:

"Jason." He stepped back when I approached, keeping distance. I didn't know what to make of it. His name had made me think he'd be sociable.

"Jason was my husband's name," I said.

"Huh. That’s a fun little coincidence."

"I don't know if 'fun' is the right word."

"You're right, you're right." Jason smiled. "Can I help you find something?” He gestured to the room, and his right sleeve fell down and covered his hand. He should have hemmed it, or have had someone do it for him…

"...I'd like something that lasts,” I said. “Something long. One of those you could use as a brick."

Jason made a very particular face with everything scrunched up and squished together. Then he started going from crate to crate, fishing out novels here and there. It was a joy to watch the spring in his step so unlike Dennis' slow lumber, or the way his fingers brushed against his lips when he was thinking. He felt the books more than he looked at them, tracing spines and leather bindings and mold.

“This one.” He caressed the book’s cover: a blaze of fire behind the pitch-black silhouette of a Paris skyline. "Man, it was tough to get through - but it was worth it. And it looks you've got a lot more time than me to read, so maybe it won’t take you four months like it did me. You might as well take the sequel and the third one, too."

I didn't like him thinking that I had no better use for my time than sitting in an armchair, but he said it with a smile and so kindly that I didn't mind. "I'll take them."

"If it's the whole series, it's going to be heavy... I'm guessing you have a car outside?"

"I walked," I said.

Jason looked to the window, to the rain. “Really?”

"It's bad weather, I know. But you're being silly if you're about to say I shouldn't go home in it. People treat old women like paper, like they can't even get a little wet."

He lowered his gaze, and head, and shoulders, sort of shrinking in front of me when he realized I wouldn't budge. "Take my phone number,” he then said, scrawling the digits on an old stationery pad left on the old librarian’s desk.
“Call me when you’re safely home. Just so I don’t worry.”

I took the note and the books from him. Immediately, I could feel he was right. The stack was heavy and hard to carry even in a plastic bag decorated with the faded logo of the library. It was a matter of principle now, so I went out anyway, leaving lights of the ex-library behind me.



By the time I was home, Dennis had let himself in. From the hallway, I could see his dark jacket hanging on the back of a kitchen chair. Blue light from his phone shone on the slowly rotating ceiling fan. My home smelled like his cigarettes and hand sanitizer - only when he was gone would I start to smell my scents, the bedsheets, my coffee and potpourri.

I waited in the hallway, but the shivers refused to go away.

God, the rain had been bad.

God, everything ached. Jesus was cruxified on the wall behind the door, and I had not gotten around to dusting him off in a while.

I straightened my back, and the books fell from my frozen, stiff hands.

Dennis saw me. He didn't look half as happy about seeing me as the young Jason had. Nowadays he said "Mum" like people say the name of a dog down the road when it barks late for the fifth night in a row - "Why were you out, mum? You know you need to stay in bed.”

"Why do you keep going on about that?" I asked. Just because he had insinuated that I might be tired, I decided not to lay down. I took the chair opposite him, tried not to slouch - and failed. I was tired of this same conversation beginning again. "Son. I'm old, I know. No reason to stop living...“

Dennis rubbed his eyes. "I just got off the phone with the doctor-"

"The new one?"

"Yes, the new one that you've had for months-"

"He doesn't know what he's talking about."

"He says that you need to come in for treatment and start taking this seriously." Dennis sighed. A few months ago, there had been more fire in his voice when he said things like this. Now, I was finally wearing him out.

“I have been in-“

“Ages ago! And you left early!”

I laid my hand on the oilcloth between us. Maybe I expected him to take it, but I wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t. "I'm aging, son. It happens. It's alright. And growing old is not a disease. I’ve still got so many years left in me. It’s hard for you to get used to, but I’m just creaking a little, that’s all."

Dennis stood up. His voice rose to levels unprecedented, except for perhaps when he was a small child yelling about candy. "You're ill, mum. Do you want to die? Because that's what's going to happen if you go on like this."

"No! No." I shook my head. "Not at all. I want to stay alive and read and tell Jason that I finished his book. Listen to what I’m telling you. I know myself. I'm just not sick."

"Okay," Dennis said, talking to his reflection in the kitchen window now. "Mum's lost it."

"I'm talking about the other Jason - I met him down at the library earlier today."

"The library's closed."

"I didn't know that! He was there, giving me books."

Dennis sighed. Then he drew back and put on his coat. "I don't want to do this. I just… can't right now, ok?"

"Ok," I said.

"I left the lasagna in the fridge.”

“Ok.”

“Try to keep it in you.”

Then he was gone. It was fair enough that boy needed space sometimes.

But the door slammed and I was there alone with all the hours I had in front of me.

Eventually, the rain stopped.

I stood around for a bit, shivering. I felt like I was not in my body but in the thin layer of rainwater on the kitchen-floor tiles, spread around, shimmering, impossible to gather together. Finally, I made it to the wall where my phone hung. I pressed Jason’s number on the white-worn buttons.

His voice sounded different when he picked up. Older.

He asked, “Who’s this?”

“Just me,” I said. “I’m safe and home.”

I thought I heard someone on the stairs, but it was nothing, just the building creaking. And the rain hitting the windows. The clock ticking.

“Good.” Something rustled on Jason’s end. “If that’s that-“

I interrupted him and surprised myself. Words pressed their way out with a taste like vomit lingering on my tongue. “Did I look sick to you?”

Jason cleared his throat. “Uh. Why? I mean. I guess. A little, but it might’ve been the light-“

“Honestly?”

“Yes.” His voice was just deep enough now that the hairs on my neck stood up, and Itightened my grip on the phone.

“Thank you, Jason.” I wanted to repeat the name. I said it rarely now. I couldn’t say it without thinking about how my husband had looked when he died, white as the sheet on the hospital bed. My head hurt – perhaps I was getting a head cold from the weather – and I sunk down on a chair. A spider crawled across the ceiling, skittering from crack to crack. “Thank you very much.”

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


IN with a flash rule

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Asimov's Laws and the Apocalypse (~1000 words)

quote:

Flashrule: Old friends

It had been 22.478 days of rubble and silence since humanity went away. Rho watched the sunrise with a simulated ache and a sense of restlessness, perhaps some longing for the time of his creators. From a perch on top of the scrapheap, he scanned the landscape slowly. In the far distance, service robots without sentience resumed their Sisyphean tasks.

A worried impulse stretched through the wires of his spine. Something had been wrong for a while.

Delta-four lumbered to Rho’s side, knocking trash around as he went with an older model’s clumsy gait. He had once been a diagnostician. Now, he was obsolete - and a friend. He said, ”Good morning.”

The sky was rust-red. The conversation was familiar. Something they had taught themselves to stave off the boredom when adaption algorithms told them that their usual tasks had become meaningless. Rho opened his mouth to answer, but was silenced by a jab of pain hitting the back of his head.

Delta-four extended a ball-jointed finger, pointing. ”You seem to be broken. It is a storage component in your side.”

There, Rho's outer shell was torn open – it had happened weeks ago, in a sandstorm – and he thought of particles burrowing below plates and plastic, ruining delicate wiring. “Storage…?”

“Higher functions,” Delta supplied. If he thought anything about the matter, it was not reflected in his voice.

Rho’s sight turned blurry, and then his eyes refocused. He could lose a leg or an arm, but cognitive functions, perhaps even sentience…

“Had you managed to forget?” Delta asked. “Did you think you were human?”

Rho made fists of his hands. He hated the reminder that he had anything in common with the slow, shuffling machines sorting through the rubbish heaps. And Delta just sat there, blinking in the sunlight. And beneath that gleaming metal was a component like the one now failing in Rho...

“It had to happen eventually. We are things that break,” Delta creaked.

Cogs whirred, impulses sparked. Of course, Rho knew that he should do no harm - but that protocol was about harm to humans and Delta-four had just said…

Delta was a thing.

Rho got to his feet.

”I'm worn out, too. Breaking," Delta began. "But how many years have we-”

Rho’s foot crashed into Delta's head, splitting metal joinings apart so that a face-plate cracked off and fell to the ground looking no different from all the other scrap. A deeper layer of his body appeared, dotted with welded points and screws. A startling, loud whirring emanated from his chest, like heavy breathing born of strain.

Rho stared at the damage he had done. At Delta, as he staggered.

Then he prepared to do it again. Raising one fist, Rho paused for a moment to aim, to see Delta scan their surroundings. Was he trying to flee? Rho threw himself forward and carried the punch through, trying to hit the other robot’s side and tear out the electronic component right then and there when Delta barely dodged out of the way. Losing his balance, Rho saw nothing but dust and the jagged heap of scrap they stood on, and he was not allowed to regain sure footing as he was hit in the back. Dull pain reverberated. He grit his teeth.

Delta had found a primitive weapon, a lead pipe, but he wielded it like he resented touching it. With no inflection, he asked, “Why?”

He received no answer but Rho’s punch hitting his shoulder. Though he saw it coming, Delta’s reflexes were too slow, and Rho even managed to grip onto the pipe. He couldn’t get it out of his friend’s hand, though, and they were both pulling at it-

“Why?”

Rho looked down at their hands – his articulated fingers next to Delta’s, which had broken and were remade as claws. He wouldn’t look up, couldn’t look up.

Inside Delta was a small component that was vital. That was all he needed to know and care about. Life; the life here in the scrapyard. Two black shadows stretched across relics and trash piled up all the way to the desert – Rho couldn’t allow himself to think of anything but that world, that desert.

Delta could.

He wrestled the pipe away and swung it in a heavy arch that would have collided with Rho’s head had the other robot not blocked it with his arm. The shock of the impact travelled up into this shoulder and torso instead, putting a strain on wires and pistons and leaving him open for a kick that swept his legs out from under him. Delta’s feet were blockier – but that also meant heavier, more painful when they hit Rho’s slim ankles.

Rho lay in the sand, close to shutdown. His eyes opened and closed, and stray signals sent his fingers spasming. The sky was blocked from his view by Delta’s face as he crouched down.

“Of all things,” Delta said, “that the humans had, why bring back this?”

“Bring what back?” Rho asked.

“Violence.”

“I must protect my own existence.” Rho raised his hand, and Delta didn't notice. Once, they had both had protocols to take such a hand and hold it, mimicking humans who would need that comfort.

"I had thought we were no longer bound to our programming," Delta said. He seemed lost in thought, but meanwhile Rho's hand trailed down Delta’s side.

Just as the other robot realized what was happening and tried to pull away, Rho dug in and took his prize. It was easy, though the metal was slick with oil and other fluids, for it had cracked through the strain and heat of the fight. Wires resisted him for a moment before he had the cylinder in his hand.

“And you brought deception, too,” Delta amended. Then he made a low, choking sound.

Then he said nothing, as he lacked the capacity. Thought nothing. Was nothing. His jaw hung open, his hands turned limp.

And like nothing had happened, he rose and turned away.

In the dust, one hand clenched around the vital component, Rho watched as his mute friend went back to their shed to resume his meaningless tasks.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Fast judgement and good crits. Thank you.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016




These are great pictures.
I'm in.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


A storm in a two-storey house


As the warnings rolled in with the radio static, Ben stared at the GAME OVER screen. He’d given up on beating the level a long time ago and should have been doing something else, but he didn't. He didn't even move. The air smelled of stale cola and the approaching thunderstorm. He had lit a candle in the window - a safety spell passed down from his grandmother to mom, shining like a signal when the world grew dark. His mom would've been cross if he hadn't.

The boy pulled idly at a frayed black wire that ran from the power outlet to his TV - maybe. It was all a bit of a mess and hard to see for sure. He sure as hell didn’t feel like sorting any of it out. His mom would be cross about that, too.

She had a habit of showing up just as he thought about her.

Ben glanced at his watch and sat that it was almost half past five; then came the sound of the front door opening, which told him the same thing. She had finally come home. It took a very trained ear to catch the sound of her footsteps, light as those of a wayward spirit lost in their house. Soon a slender hand pushed his door open. Her face appeared white but for the black circles under her eyes.

"Hey Ben," she said. "I’m back.”

“Hey. Nothing’s happened here.”

"Like usual, then?"

“I'm not coming down. You're gonna sleep, right?”

“I’m a little tired...” She swallowed and cleared her throat. “You look like there’s something wrong.”

"I’m just bored.”

“You’ve been just bored for a while now.”

"Just go away, mom." Ben turned in his chair, pulling his knees up to his chin. "I’m trying to beat a level."

Too worn-out by her workday to argue, his mother sighed. "Have you tried reading a book or something instead of staring at that TV all day?"

When she received no answer, she left, leaving the door open. Ben did not bother closing it. She was going down to her afternoon nap, and she would not get up until she was hungry enough to fix dinner. The house became very quiet. Then again, it was quiet no matter if she was awake or not. Ben saw no point in talking to her when neither of them had anything to talk about.

It used to be that they talked about the books. Ben scowled at them now. They mocked him from their shelves. He had not had the energy to finish even one for over a year. Too much school. Greek myths did not help him there.

He dug his nails into the wire. Pressing down the START-button seemed too heavy a task. Better to just sit and watch the room grow darker as the heavy clouds rolled in...

Then a jolt of electricity burst from the wire – it went up his arm and through his elbow with enough force that it felt like his bone was splitting apart. It echoed through his shoulder, his ribcage. It was painful – powerful - a million trillion volts, he wagered. He let go at once, of course, not really as a conscious move as much as a reflex and a consequence of his fingers seizing up. He dropped out of the chair, hit the floor, and lay there.

There was a bright flash of light that faded, leaving him with his new glorious view of the carpet as he heard footsteps again.

Heavy, thunderous footsteps.

He saw a pair of large feet. Then ankles, and bulging calves, the bottom hem of a white dress.

Though his body still buzzed with energy, Ben managed to roll onto his back.

At last, he saw a face.

There was a man in a toga in his room.

"Hi, boy." The stranger's voice was deep, his face a network of wrinkles and lines that - somehow - smoothed themselves out while Ben watched. The eyes stayed the same, a stormy grey contrasting against the gold of his skin, and his beard remained long and curly.

"Had a mishap, did we?" the man continued.

Ben drooled a little on the carpet.

"I was in the area, with that thunderstorm coming up. You know me. Most young ones do." The man looked at Ben. Then it felt like he looked at something a little behind Ben, or inside of him, and it was almost as unpleasant as the electric shock. At the same time Ben wondered idly if lightning had struck him.

"Zeus?" Ben asked.

"That I am."

And Zeus sat down in the armchair and stared into the electrically charged air. Dark clouds were rolling in on the other side of gently wafting lace curtains.

Ben managed to get up – slowly but surely – until he was sitting with his back against the wall. “I didn’t get hurt much.”

“That I see.”

“Was that why you came? To see?”

Zeus nodded.

Ben chewed on the inside of his cheek. He still couldn’t hear anything from downstairs.

But he heard the rain. He saw the droplets running down his window, and the candle flickered as Zeus turned to watch the weather, too.

"Now you're sitting like you're bored like me," Ben said.

On the TV, the GAME OVER screen flickered.

Zeus scratched his beard, but even that looked like he was a dignified philosopher from Greek pottery. "Used to be," he said, "that people were praying all the time. always something to listen to. Now it's quiet."

"Is it boring?"

"It is eternity. What do you think?"

Ben mulled it over. He did this thing when he was thinking where he tapped his foot against the floor. Tap, tap, tap. “It sounds like hell,” he then said. Reflexively, he looked to the doorway to make sure his mom wasn't around to hear a bad word. “I guess you need people to start things and talk with you if you want anything interesting."

"Like Paris!" Zeus said, suddenly gesticulating wildly. There was a glow in his eyes, and gusts of wind came down on the house hard enough to make the window panes shiver and the walls creak. "Good stories start with people."

“I can’t talk with my mom. Neither of us got any stories.”

Lightning flashed. Ben closed his eyes and counted down while he waited for the thunder. It washed over him like a wave, and he couldn't hear a thing but that.

And he thought that he just might be alone when he opened his eyes, and all of this would've been a dream...

But no, Zeus was there.

And his mom was there, in the house, up and awake. She crept through the rooms like a draft wind, towards the stairs.

"Ben? Who're you talking to?"

Reflexively, Ben was about to say that it was nothing and nobody. But then he saw Zeus, who had not moved. Then he started shaking at the hands without knowing why. Maybe it was the thunderstorm, so infinitely larger than usual. Bigger than anything Ben had ever known, bigger than the house and the game and his afternoon. It was as if he could see this moment painted on a Greek vase, the armchair made into a throne for the king of the gods whose chin had sunken, resting on his chest, and whose hands were slack in his lap...

"Go downstairs," Ben said.

Zeus raised an eyebrow.

"Do it. You'll like her."

"Will I?" asked the god. He stood up and took a few barefooted steps across the wooden floor, and Ben feared that it would break under his weight. But he made it to the door, one hand trailing along the wall, tapping against the frame.

Tap, tap, tap.

Down the stairs he went, following a draft that blew from the first floor into Ben's room to dance around the candle's flame. Ben shivered as if the cold rain had hit him. He held his breath. His toes were still numb.

Then Zeus was gone.

Then the voices came: Mom and Zeus were chatting in the kitchen. Ben closed his eyes and he heard them speak on the slopes of Olympus, nymph and seducer like in the myths. Probably. Again his mother spoke too softly for him to make out the words and even Zeus' voice was just a low rumbling. He figured he'd hear about it later.

And then Ben heard nothing but the thunder and wind and rain. All the lights flickered, and at last the TV turned off as the power went out.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


I love Eurovision, count me IN.
And give me a song.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


A Ripple In The Water (977 words)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gyd...sionSongContest

Today my daughter was a red flamingo flapping between the trees.

I couldn’t help but think of how it looked. Clutching a letter in my hand, I ran after her, out of breath in a matter of seconds. We did not sink into mud, the bird and I, and there were no thorns. These woods were wild once, then slated to be cut down. They got a second chance at life through a radical change into the kind of park that single mothers feel safe letting their kinds run wild in.

Within limits. Nanna was too wild, spurred on by the bright, sunny day - though that wasn't what had originally set her off. That was the letter. That was me.

"Come back here!” I yelled.

The flamingo stopped and blinked its small, white eyes. Pinprick pupils made only for picking out shrimp and algae; for looking only down.

“Don’t be afraid."

Nanna bolted as well as a large bird could down the path, and I could feel the pity coming from passing pram-pushing babysitters.

Nanna had been a sphynx cat two weeks ago. There had been a long parrot-phase before that. (Whenever I coughed, she flew to the living room couch as she scattered colourful feathers over the cushions). The three days where she had tested out being a scorpion had been nerve-wracking: I could have squished her flat against the floor at any time if I was not careful. Or she could have stung me to death.

In-between wanting to be different animals, she wanted to be a doctor.

I told her I’d like that. She didn’t seem convinced. She was good at being a flamingo, far ahead though she ran on webbed feet. I stumbled - the ground was uneven, a fine path made muddy by dogs. Here and there, I saw paw tracks from bigger animals. My handbag bounced back and forth, beating against my side as my breath quickened, as I crossed the bridge. I saw how all water in the park flowed to the same big lake.

"Nanna!"

Still I had no choice but to run along with her, even when my stomach started to hurt. drat medication, drat digestion problems, goddamn stomach aches. Lots of things hurt now. I unwillingly imagined that I was pulling a rope each time I swung my arms back and forth, and at the end of the rope was a hospital bed that would come careening down to hit me, incapacitate me, but I had to keep running anyway. Maybe I could dodge the disaster when it came - jump over it, slide under it, fall to one side of the road and have it pass me by.

The flamingo moved slower, and at last it came to the lake. Sunlight was reflected by the still water. It was all upper-class closed-neighbourhood water-treatment clear - except for the part where it was red. A crowd of flamingos had gathered where the lake was shallow. They were going through the usual motions: preening, feeding, sleeping with their small heads tucked under scarlet and salmon-pink wings.

I saw them as red blood cells with white foam and water between them.

When I called Nanna's name this time, it rang out in the quiet. I understood, now, why she was a flamingo today. She was somewhere in the flock. How could she not be? It was such a good hiding place. They were so beautiful.

And unafraid.

Not afraid of me when I took of my shoes and stepped into the water. It was only a little colder than walking barefoot on a tiled floor, than pacing back and forth at the doctor's office to show them the body that had given birth but should – could - never give blood.

A woman stopped with her five-year-old in tow, looking at me from the shore. I felt like all strangers had a kind of x-ray vision that let them know the contents of my medicine cabinet.

The flamingos did not judge. I touched wings and long necks, pushing them aside to venture deeper into that red, pulsing place.

"Maybe it’s easier to be a flamingo than a human,” I said. I was scanning each and every pair of bird-eyes, looking for those that recognized me. "But you can't become a doctor if you're a flamingo. All you get to do as an animal is stand around here or in the zoo. Is that the life you want to choose?"

Some of the birds turned away from me. One of them came closer.

I held out the letter.

The flamingo stood right in front of me, smelling not of brine and fish and feathers but like oatmeal cookies and children's soap.

All the feathers fell off - in the right moment it could've been comedic, just one whomp - and then there was a girl, my girl.

We were both in water up to our knees, but it was the most private place in the whole park. Nobody could see us for the swarm of pink bodies.

(Lots of things hurt now).

We opened the letter, and I read it aloud. And we stared at the last line, the beautiful word in all-caps and italics: NEGATIVE, meaning that there was nothing bad in Nannas blood.

She was going to get a better life than me. Than a bird.

"You've no reason to be afraid," I told her. "Well - you might catch a cold, but that’s nothing."

"Nope." Nanna shook her head and smiled, infecting me as well.

And I took her hand. Led her back to shore.

We went past the mother who had stared at me. He five-year-old smiled pulled at her arm, wanting to go to the ice-cream truck out in the street, and when his mother did not go along he became a toucan.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


In with Binge-Eating Disorder

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Only Horse
~1094 words

quote:

Binge-Eating Disorder

There is a dying horse outside my house.

All is quiet but for the flies buzzing and - further away - crying; the persistent squaling of a young girl. Flies gather on the horse's flanks in the shade of cedar trees. In my bathrobe, frozen on my way to the mailbox, I see the its chest expand and contract, contrasting with the heavy stillness of its head and limbs. There are shadows between the ribs and a trickle of blood running across the gravel. I taste iron.

Its eyes fall open. Blackness.

The girl comes back around the bend with her mom in tow, riding helmet askew. Her voice is so shrill, as if this is the greatest suffering she's ever known. "He just fell!" she exclaims.

He mother shakes her head. That’s the scene: Horse, girl, mother.

"Get that off of my property, please," I say.

"Excuse me?" asks the mother, hand resting protectively on her daughter's shoulder. "Can't you see she's upset? We'te getting hold of a veterinarian."

I fight to keep looking at her instead of the animal. Every moment it lies there, I grow emptier, colder, lighter until it doesn’t feel like I’m really there in my slippers. "Just get it away."

The girl cries again.

"It's an animal," I say, voice wavering. "It doesn't think."

But I have committed the mistake of making eye contact with the horse, gazing into it. I can see the meat and bone beneath the hair. (Horse-hair - such a rough texture). The smell of it wafts through the open door behind me and straight into my house.

It follows me as I stalk back into my kitchen. I need breakfast. I need to get my mind off of this.

I can see them through my window: Horse, girl, mother talking on her smartphone. Anxiously waiting.

I draw the curtains, but even though I don't look out, I can still hear the crying. The shrill sound of my kettle coming to a boil does not dispel it. I get out toast and jam and butter, eat two slices, dicover that I can't stop. No matter what I cram into my mouth I still taste iron, but I keep going, even licking my dirty hands -

Two sticky fingers hook themselves around the edge of the curtain. I can't help it. I peek. Horse, girl, no mother. She's off somewhere. The girl is heartbroken, but she still cries - so it could be worse.
The worst is when you open your mouth and no sound comes out at all.

As I mash buttered toast inside me I know that I'm getting full, but it's not enough. The light, uneasy feeling is still there. I shouldn't go on, but I do. All the danger signs are there, bent and crooked signposts sticking out of burnt umber sand, ignored. You’re doing it again. I reach into the cupboard.

Biscuits, dry like a desert. Three packets gone in the blink of an eye. What else? Oats full of fibre, hopefully satisfying with full-fat room-temperature milk lazily soaking through the grains -

When I turn around, the horseman Famine has taken a seat at my kitchen table. He folds his hands, waiting. Of course, it was his horse outside. He has my father's emancipated face, but he is someone else entirely.

"I want to go apologize to her," I say - or more likely, I failt to say it since my mouth is full, overflowing. Milk dribbles down my chin. I soak it up with bread. The girl is still outside, but I am afraid to leave the table; I feel like I might float away if I do. I concentrate on the sensation of barely-chewed paste going down my throat as I pour leftovers from two nights ago, spices and flatbread, into a bowl. Two portions. Then, why not, the last dregs. Leftovers from a land without leftovers, my Ethiopia shimmering in the distance but unable to touch me as the pain in my belly reminds me of where I am.

I wonder what the horseman thinks. He has horse-eyes, dark infinities above gaunt cheeks. He moves his hand, and the curtains flutter. I see the street: no girl, no mother, only horse.

I should at least apologize to the horse if nobody else, but I can't go if I'm not full, if I'm not done, and my body keeps roaring. For what? More or less? The hideous build-up of pressure? I can't go because I have no arms or legs anymore: I am only my stomach, reduced to the hurting and the beating of my heart, the blood, the food inside me.

Hands come away red. The plate is a swirl of brown rust.

And I reach forward, gather the last apple that rolls across the surface of the table and eat that too, in three bites. Down runs the juices; I have eaten Famine himself.

I stagger away from the table.

The air won't get inside me. I groan.

I make it to the front door. The veranda. The path.

I stand above the animal.

What am I thinking? I am thinking nothing. The horse smells of death now, and I know that stench well enough that I don’t dare close my eyes for fear of seeing red earth cracked open by the dry heat of the summer than hollowed out men and made bones brittle. I have a child's memories of starvation swelling like a blister in my mind. I remember mostly hunger pangs.

Now, we are both bloated in the sun. God, at last the car comes up the path, and there's a vet, and I stand back as she unrolls her equipment. Take it away! Relieve my duty as watcher of the horse.

She looks at me like she's heard stories from the girl about a reprehensible man who shouts at mourners. It's not like that, I want to say, but I am scared that I will vomit if I open my mouth. It hurts to stand up straight, my stomach aching, the skin pulled so taut. I suppose she also looks at me as a picture of fat American gluttony. I’m not even American, I want to say. I'm from where you eat all your dead animals.

The doors shut and the car drives awat and I don't even hear it, really.

I hear a little girl crying. I lie down in pain and out of breath where the gravel cuts into my back.

No horse, no girl, no mother, only me.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


In a world with intelligent, telepathic owls

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Same, I can see that I'm not gonna make it. Sorry

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


I'm IN.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


The Trick
1235 words

"You come to kill it?" the man asked, squinting at me. “Nobody does that anymore. Nobody’s come to try for years.”

“Why not?” I chuckled. "Is there really nobody brave enough? Me and Calla are gonna beat it.”

“I should hope so. The whole town’s dying.”

I could see the truth of his words around us, in the red dust and the empty houses. I suppose I fit in well enough. I looked like a sorry excuse for a wizard after having trekked so far from the capital I called my home to be here, back in the awful wasteland I’d left behind so long ago.

“After we’ve looted its hoard, I’ll be rich enough to buy this town and everything in it,” I said. “Right, Calla?”

Beside me, Calla nodded, seemingly unbothered by the heat and the sulphur smell in the air. She was looking at the village women with glass beards around their necks, with hair like hers in deep black braids as they hauled water from the depths of the well. She had the same umber skin as them. As me.

My mouth was dry. I pointed towards the waterskin hanging from the villager's belt, asking, “How much for that?”

The man did not look like he was eager to part with it at all. I knew a trick to make him change his mind, though. With a flourish of my hand, I conjured a couple of golden coins – illusions, nothing but mist come morning, but by then I’d be out of town. I was ready to hand them over, but then Calla grasped my wrist and looked me in the eye. She had such a commanding gaze. It was part of the reason I’d let her hire me in the first place.

“Don’t,” she whispered.

Usually she let me get away with it. I held back my magic and I might have pouted, but she reached into her own purse and paid the man herself. I filled my mouth with sweet water and went with her out of the pitiful village.

We were headed for the dragon’s domain: a flat, grassy plain, everything ashen in color and dry enough that the very ground was cracking open. As if reading my thoughts, Calla looked back at me and said, “I know you hate it. Think about the gold.”

“Oh, I think about it every step of the way.”

That was the deal. The gold was mine. I figured Calla was the type to go for the glory instead, but in that case, it was a wonder that she didn’t regret it now when we walked along dusty trails that had once been riverbeds. On a flat rock we found a body, left like a noble on his marble slab in the temple. His sword and shield laid by his side.

"Poor guy," I said. "He didn't even make it that far."

She nodded. "Why didn't he know that a shield won't do a thing against dragonfire?"

"Maybe he was a country boy," I suggested, and now I could see our goal in the distance: a bone-white, dried-out lake. "Good thing we're city slick."

Calla laid her hand on my shoulder. I wanted to look tough to her, but it was so hard to do when I caught my first glimpse of gleaming scales nestled in the bottom of the pit.

"Good thing we're wizards," I added.

The hand on my shoulder was gone again. Calla looked less than confident, too: Sweat gleamed on her forehead. She clenched her hand as if casting a spell, but I couldn’t figure out what she did. Perhaps she had simply cast a quick glamour-spell to hide some nervous tick.

Another corpse, this one wielding a crossbow, hid behind a rock to my left. I passed it without commenting on it. Every weapon had been tried by now, but the dragon still lived. Our plan was to bring no weapon at all, and it had been Calla's idea. Now she led the way, reminding me one last time -

"Do it for the gold. And remember the ravine,” she added, the last word deep in her throat.

And we crested the edge of the lakebed and I saw the dragon and the gold at once.

The dragon was not as big as I had feared. More quality than quantity. Still frightening. It had teeth that looked like nothing would shatter them, scales like titanium, a fat belly dragging across the ground. Its claws were digging into the dirt as it rested in the sun.

Behind it - behind the heat shimmer - gold and jewels lay in a blurry heap.

I took a last sip of water, planted my staff in the ground and summoned my magic. The incantations cam easy, creating things far more impressive than illusory coins. A booming sound and a burst of fire, like lightning, woke the dragon – it started kicking, flaying the air with its front legs before it rolled, eyes focusing not on me and Calla, but our illusions. She made knights with spears gleaming in the sun, almost inviting the dragon to follow as they ran, all to overwhelm its lizard brain.

Enraged, it scrabbled towards the fake soldiers. Calla led it out of the lake and up into the dry grass above. We both knew where to lure it – she’d told me about a gash in the earth behind a low hill to the east, hard to notice before you were close enough to fall. And she had said it led straight to the underworld. It had claimed the lives of sheep and kids around these parts - and now it would claim the dragon. My grip on my staff grew shaky, my breath ragged as the magical exertion tore at me, but I remembered the gold before I cast a final spell. I drove the dragon into a rage. The sudden burst of fireworks behind it made it lurch forward, shocked and dazed, making a leap for all its illusory enemies.

Claws scraped against the edges of ravine. There was a roar, a sound of scales sliding across stone, four legs failing to find purchase as the dragon fell deeper and deeper. It disappeared. It died.

I went back towards the lake, sliding down the sandy slope. Reaching the hoard at last, I laid my hand on the gold and felt my breath leave me.

Oh. Of course.

The lockets and gem-encrusted necklaces slipped between my fingers. The silver melted away, the mirrors turned to mist. Calla’s illusion, the one she'd cast as soon as we came (though she had planted the seed far earlier) had succeeded in pulling me along.

There was no reward here, not even water, and the bitter climb back up had me choking on dust. That was why nobody had come to kill the dragon lately. They’d seen no reason to, when it had nothing to be claimed.

Calla still stood with her back turned to me, facing the horizon. I saw her black hair flowing down her back. Remembered how much she had in common with the villagers.

I hated this part of the country; I had left it for a reason. As had Calla, I realized. There had never been any treasure at all except this barren land - but it was hers, and we had saved it.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


I'm in

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Hands and knees
1.574 words

I am lying on the floor.

Alone.

The lined-up bottles with their odd lines and colors throw my reflection mercilessly back at me. I am staring at my own eyes, wide and glassy like those of a dead fish, as I wheeze. My tongue is a swollen, limp thing in the back of my mouth. The convulsions have ceased for now, but the throbbing in my head remains, turning my hands into talons clawing at the carpet. I can hear - but not feel – my own feet twitching, stomping out an epilectic accompaniment to the rythm of the rap music still playing on the stereo. The trigger for it all is right beside me, thin syringe carelessly dropped, but despite it I feel a sudden sense of clarity.

I might die with my cheek covered in my own vomit after just one month of living alone.

I force a breath into my lungs and cough it out again. Now my eye fixes on the thin vein of light beneath the door. If I could only open it - if someone could only see or somehow sense that something’s broken inside me though even I don’t know what. If only the voices I can barely hear through these walls would stop talking about – what is it? TV? Games that I don’t know about? I need them to turn from that and come save me, but they won’t -

I am alone.

You can’t live alone." Mother had said it, voice soothing right by my ear last August, her left hand pressing our laptop shut. The list of dorm rooms and apartments blinked away. ”You won’t be able to take care of yourself. Doctor said you need to be careful with a brain like yours.”

Alone, I roll onto my stomach. Another shaking ripple runs through my flesh, and I drag myself forward on my elbows, towards the light that shines burning yellow like the sun in a bad dream. Something sharp pierces the fog in my head. Glass shards from a broken bottle, maybe, the one I was holding when the choking started…? It doesn’t matter what it was, now it’s nails dragging across my thigh.

Digging in.

Hurts.

Another burst of oxygen finds my brain; I wish I could savour it, but I see mother’s face in the stains on the wallpaper. She might have been right about me taking care of myself. I have been a sinner for a while, and this month, as soon as I had a place to call my own, as soon as I had left our house, her house – then I had built a regular Gomorrah. I keep waiting for that tell-tale sound of her feet – I pause, watching the fibres of the rug move under my breath. It's just a matter of time before she finds me. I've always known that, but if she finds me dead...

”I’ll always get you,” she said, her voice a warm, moist place to slide into after the jabs and loud leering at school. The car was safe when she picked me up, a little crucifix dangling from the rear-view mirror. If she was in a bad mood she’d talk until she was out of breath. No doubt she’d be choking too if she saw me now, after I left her so suddenly – though would it be from gasping and yelling or would it be crying, the wrecking sobs that hurt so much worse than anything else she could do?

I am not dead yet.

Another few inches. Glass piercing muscle, a sound escaping me like the mewl of a kicked cat. It’s a slow pain like the throbbing of knees after kneeling in the cat-piss corner of the washing room when I’d been bad as a small kid.

I feel like a big kid now, not an adult, curling in on myself so close to the door. The carpet is dusty, and even when I can catch a breath I feel all I’m getting into my bloodstream are these particles.

Forward forward forward, just enough air to whisper now.

”Hey! I need – ”

The medicines in the bag. Can’t convey that – suddenly my throat’s completely closed. Even the voices on the other side of the door sound fainter. Mother never liked the medicines none. Need her hands, the way she’d massage muscles back into place, pressure pressure pressure. Nobody can get to the medicine, nobody’s hands can get on him. Nobody can lay on hands like she could. Doctor said – I can’t remember his face, saw him only twice, was five years old and not allowed to look at the books in the waiting room. I should be so careful about anything that messed with blood and brain cells, but I made mistakes because I could lock the door. Broken or not, I can almost reach the door.

My reflection squirms past, jumping from bottle to bottle all in a row beside me. Matted hair changes color, label to label. Mother cut it with a sharp knife, and I used to brag I was the only one whose mother knew how to do that. She said we didn't need no hair stylist, didn't need anyone but each other and God.

Couldn’t have stayed. Shouldn’t have left.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Stop crawling.

Look down. Ah. The syringe, sticky with blood, scattered all over my thigh. Jagged pieces jutting out, and I am reaching for them with shaking hands, pulling them one by one away. Skin red and bloody beneath. Mothers knife could cut the pieces out real quick; my hands are not good enough. Little bean-shaped part of my brain can’t control the heart or lungs anymore, and all the other parts that still work can tell me is that I’m not dead yet.
I twist, falling, fingers brushing against the hard wood of the door.

I can see her face in the blackness crowding the ceiling. Black lipstick, The way you could see her tongue moving around when she took over a PTA meeting, clasping the table as if it was a pulpit. Clean teeth, since we didn’t need anything with white sugar in it, and abstained from meat and kept the fast and everything. The store had been so cool the first day I went down to buy food for this room; in the bright blue lights I must’ve looked normal at last buying soft milk chocolate and wine gummies in bags with cartoon characters smiling wide.

My thighs no longer feel like they’ve been stabbed. They don’t feel like anything at all.

The handle moves.

I gasp, trying to form the words not dead but I can’t push them out of me.

Mother told me the worst thing about Hell is that you’re stuffed in there with all the other sinners so tight none of you have any room to breathe at all, and you’re choking for eternity. That is all the time it took me to crawl from there to here, times a million, times a billion and still longer.

I can reach up, touch the lock so that it snaps to unlock the door, and with that, I collapse like a doll with the strings cut off. My breath is a dragging, rattling, wet sound. Fingernails scratch against the wood – mine or hers?

The door opens, sweeping me to the side.

Mother looks at me and I feel like burning.

"My boy,” she says, tall as the ceiling when seen from the floor.

She wraps all my convulsing, fragile lines and shapes up in her own, cradles me in her duvet jacket, carries me to bed. I want to ask her how she found me. She’ll probably say she has her ways. Maybe God led her here, or maybe she’s done to me what she’s done to Dad and somehow found traces she could print out from our computer. A phone number, an address crammed into her little purple purse. I don’t know. I don’t know much.

“You’re just a kid.” Her hand on my chest. Her God inside me, if she’s doing this right and fixing all that’s broken in me; but somehow her eyes don’t seem the same as last I saw them. Everything is growing dim and dark, but her eyes glow like the fires of Hell I’ve seen in my bad dreams. I wonder if her purse is big enough of a knife or if she might yet make me kneel on a cold hard floor until I’ve learned that I can not handle being alone.

Her hand is on my chest, and I reach for it. Sparks dance around her head, crowning her with dizzying stars, and somehow I pry her palm away. I placed the syringe beneath my skin on purpose, and her take her hand with purpose, too – her face contorts, her mouth moves. Don’t you want your mother? I can’t make her go away, but I can turn away from her, rolling onto my side.

I don’t know if she lays her hands on me afterwards. Maybe she did, in the dark, while I was passed out. She inhaled the smell of my vomit and sighed, yes, only to help her stupid sinner of a son anyway. Or maybe she has brought her knife along and clutches it in her hand only to turn away at the last second. Maybe she gives me medicine or says a prayer.



Either way, I wake up alone.




prompt

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


I am in. Can I get a flashrule?
6

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Shared between us
1601 words

Exam season filled the whole dorm with an air of dread, and the only thing that relieved Liam of it was watching Eva in the common kitchen. She was in room number 5, he was in 4, and her books were stacked on the counter-top; English, Shakespeare, essays. He was the kind of guy who would spread his bag and binders across the shared dining table, saying that he liked the ambiance there. Especially in the evening, when Eva cooked. This particular Thursday, he had found something interesting, and besides him and Eva, the only other person in the kitchen was Olive munching on her granola bar before her evening run. He called Eva’s name, and she sighed and pushed a strand of her hair behind her ear as she came closer.

"What's that?" she asked.

Liam was the kind of guy to pretend he didn't just grab and copy the code she was looking at from the internet, so he took full credit and talked it up, too. He called it an RNN first, waiting for her confused expression before he explained the acronym - "It means a Recurrent Neural Network," he said. "Maybe you've seen a post on Facebook or Twitter or something like that. There's that post where a guy used one to generate super weird recipes."

"I don't think I've seen that," Eva said, glancing back at the stove.

"You feed it text and it learns how to write more text like it using what it's read." Liam leant forward in the chair, fingers stroking the keys. "We could make it generate something stupid. It’ll be fun. Any kind of text can be used as its data.”

Eva shrugged, drawing backwards like he had bad breath. He hoped he didn't, but got sidetracked thinking of whether or not he had brushed his teeth in the morning.

"Um... How about this?" Eva said, raising her anthology of American drama.

"We need a lot more than that."

Across the room, Olive from room 3 didn't even look up from her phone. He couldn't really get around to liking her, just because of the way she looked at him. Like he wasn’t allowed to sit there. She said, "There's got to be stuff on the internet."

”Sure, sure.”

There was more than just stuff. A little lazy googling later, Liam found a vast dump of files. Plain text. Plays. All sorts, not anything he recognized, but then again he never did read much. He made the program read all of it instead. ”It’s going to take a while,” he told Eva. ”I’ll be back in just 30 minutes, okay?”

Back in his room, he brushed his teeth and smelled his breath, thinking of how clever he'd been - usually, he couldn't talk about drama or novels at all, but as long as computers were involved, he had a home field advantage. Yeah. He and Eva would sit together at the table laughing at a stupid thing he'd made. Nonsense Shakespeare. He'd say that was how all poetry looked to him, to make her feel smart even though she couldn't get a simple script to run.

He found her sitting by the computer when he returned. She couldn’t have been there long, but her shoulders were already slightly hunched. She looked at him for just a second, as if afraid to take her eyes off the screen.

”I saw the weirdest thing,” she said. ”I thought it had made a line from this poem I really like – The Dry Salvages, you ever read that?”

Liam shook his head, inching closer to the computer.

”But it wasn’t that at all – it was something else. But it was coherent. Just this one line stuck in my head - but it won’t generate anything like it again…”

She still generated more prose, ridiculous grammar, strange metaphors.

"Of course," Liam replied, taing a seat beside her. "It's a computer. It doesn't know any English or anything besides what we put into it. Look at that!" And he pointed out a phrase that they both found funny, Eva’s giggles quiet as she pulled a pad of post-its from her pocket, writing down the words she had seen. Liam couldn't glean more than the word mask and a doodle.

-

"Hey, can I see that program again?" Eva asked, leaning over the table at breakfast. He let her borrow his computer – he’d always let her do whatever – and all she said was, "How long can I use it?"

"How long do you want to?" Liam smiled at her, and she smiled back; she had written on her hand in ink and rested her cheek against it so that she had mirrored, smudged letters on her jaw. "I can leave it with you. I don't need to take notes by hand anyway."

She pressed the button, generating eighty lines of senseless quotes. Watching over her shoulder, Liam saw her highlight just two words and stroke them with the mouse. She scribbled them on another post-it note.

-

When he returned from class he paused outside the kitchen door.

Now he heard more than just one person scribbling. Pencils scratched against paper, the sound joined by clicking and occasional speaking as if breathlessly enthralled by something. Words, fragments of sentences - Hali, one said, and another Tabithos, never with any laughter. Inside, he found four in all around the table, Olive and two others from the dorm having joined Eva, and they had all brought their laptops: Liam saw his program running on all screens.

"What's going on?" he asked, and it was Eva who answered him.

"We've almost found it. Your program's making something... pretty wild."

He reached for his computer.

Eva twitched. "Please, just a little longer? I've almost got it.

-

In the evening, he heard people talking through the walls.

”A paragraph!” someone exclaimed. "We've completed the first lines he spoke!"

-

The scene: A college campus, quiet with the tense stress of exams going on in little rooms. A week had passed, Throughout the entire week, various people looked down at lists of names and realized that there is someone who did not show up. Seats were empty. Only outside did people gossip about friends not answering their phones or Facebook messages.
-

Liam came back in the late afternoon, and from behind the kitchen door came the same noises.

On his knees, he looked through the keyhole.

He saw that the post-it notes now covered the wall in a vibrant yellow, like the scales of the wing of a giant moth. It seemed like the wall was breathing, bulging ever-so-slightly out, the growing more concave in a rythm slow enough that you could almost convince yourself it wasn't happening. He had heard more frantic movement throughout the night and morning as Olive and Eva added phrases to the tapestry. Heard them running to create yet more text, looking for those golden words that made their insides sing. No shadows passed over the uneven yellow surface now.

Liam understood.

On the wall was not a play they were inventing, but one that they were discovering, fishing words and phrases out of the maelstrom of text in Liam’s program. Certain words in sequence was all that had been needed; now these fragments begged to become finished sentences. He could only guess at why it was so compelling and why it had ended up within the data in the first place. It was just a text from the internet – what play would it facinate them enough that they’d try to reconstruct it from scattered words?

His head swam with thoughts of Eva; of grabbing her and getting her out before the play was finished. Whatever happened in the kitchen was a kind of madness - he was sure of it, and his fist was clenched around a lighter. Light shined through as the door opened just a crack. A light like egg yolk on his shoes.

Inside the kitchen he averted his eyes from the wall, knowing instinctively that he shouldn't look - but he wanted to, because even though there should be no breeze in the humid room, he could hear the notes flapping and rustling.

He looked at the dirty lineoleum covered in wires, ink and pencil shavings. He expected to hear quick footsteps or see, perhaps, a hand belonging to someone sleeping from pure exhaustion on the floor, but the room was quiet and void of life.

Five people apart from him lived in this dorm, and he knew them by names and room numbers and morning routines, but all he found here was the sound of the post-its moving in a non-existant wind.

He turned his head.

Yellow paper moved, and beneath each note he did not see the brick wall, but something luminous and inexplicable, like there was a room lit by chandeliers just beyond the words scrawled more and more impresicely. As the light shone brighter, he strained to catch glimpses of that place behind the paper, hearing faint voices, faint music - wherever it was, he felt a desire to go there. He came close enough to see the individual words and Eva's neat handwriting, realizing only then that he had kept the lighter on the whole time.

Flames caught all that was flammable.

Liam couldn't care less that the fire devoured his notes and the books and even the curtains; he watched the play burn, and only when the foul smoke had almost choked him did he draw back and leave at last.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Hand me a card, I'm in.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


The Labyrinth (788 words)
prompt: https://imgur.com/a/iWx5L

Lia stands before the stone door in the deep woods still with Marie’s feverish voice stuck in her head. They read so many stories together. True stories. About the tunnels behind this door and the key to life that can be found within: Keep it with you and never suffer misfortune.

Marie believes her legs would be healed.

That was what she whispered just before she curled up to sleep.

Lia draws her red veil closer around her body, casts a last glance back, and steps inside.
It is dark here - a blue shade of darkness, soft like night. The walls are covered in illegible writing, and a cold draft pushes her gently onwards. The hall slopes down and ends in a circular room. She pauses as she sees the slumbering Bull.

He looks like the stories said he would. Like a man, only too large, with horns on his head and bristles down his shoulders. He stirs and wakes from his bed of autumn leaves, turning his small, bovine-looking eyes towards her. He is lit byt the golden glow shining from an open door behind him. She is so close, yet so far, a faint metalling ringing just out of reach.

"Oh," the Bull says. "Good. You will attempt the challenge?”

"Show me the keys,” Lia says. It is best not to talk too long with fairy-folk.

The Bull beckons with one too-long hand for Lia to follow as he lumbers towards the golden chamber. He stands too close behind her with his smell of damp earth and waiting predator – but there they hang, in a tangled web from the ceiling, key after key after key. Glowing like buried suns, like second chances. A treasure – and, Lia thinks, bait.

Marie’s eyes glowed, too, when she told Lia to read the story about the key. But grasping a key is hard; it is as if Lia’s free hand, the one not holding her veil, won’t obey her.

The Bull smiles.

"There are rules, you know," he breathes. "About what I get to do."

Lia knows, but tells herself that she’s the best at running in the village. Her hand shakes. A traitorous thought: Was that why Marie insisted on becoming her friend and reading these stories? Because Lia can run fast and would be stupid enough to try this?

The Bull smiles wider.

And then the string breaks, the key is in her hand, and nothing is like before. The darkness swells like a wave. The circular room twists and turns around Lia, spinning like her head, and the hallway, once she reaches it, is no more.

It has become the labyrinth.

Now the Bull starts running, too.

This is the chase, and there is nowhere to flee but into the dark tunnels where the Bull has the advantage.

Lia sheds her sandals – it is better to run barefooted and make less noise, even if it means running on half-frozen dirt. Nobody knows what happens if you’re caught. (Or did Marie just skip over that part, as to not frighten Lia away from the task?)

She turns a corner, and the Bull cannot be far. Her heart pulses like it is trying to compress a whole life’s worth of beats into these minutes. This is when some people in the stories throw away their keys to make the Bull lose interest.

Lia opens her hand.

It would be easy.

Instead she lets go of her veil, and her naked skin is painted blue like midnight, like granite. Now, she melts into the shadows. She can no longer see her hands, cannot tell where the darkness begins or ends. Her feet are cold enough by now that the floor of the labyrinth feels the same temperature as her body.

Her edges are gone. She blurs into the labyrinth; she feels like a ghost. Not at all like a girl who came to Marie’s bedside in order to be kind. Kindness isn’t helping her here. Only her own body, her own mind and the cold draft lead her towards the exit.

The Bull’s thunderous footsteps chase away the memory of Marie's voice. Lia feels stronger the more she runs, even as her legs burn, because she is braving the darkness and outrunning the monster – Marie could never have done this – it feels like years since she sat at Marie's bedside.

She takes the key into her mouth. The metallic taste rolls over her tongue before she closes her eyes.

Then she swallows.

Down it goes, glowing like a buried sun, safe inside her.

And so the amulet is hers as she emerges naked and wet from the tunnel, crawling out onto the forest floor.

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


I am in

Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Prompt:
How to Handle a Tire Blowout While Riding a Motorcycle
How to Meet Your Girlfriends Parents

All the while the soup was getting cold

1460 words

I’m doing 60 miles an hour while my heart is doing, like, 300 beats in the same span of time. I can’t show up to meet my girlfriend’s parents for dinner while drenched in sweat, so I try to focus on staying steady on the motorcycle, not on the dinner ahead.

There’s the house down at the bottom of the hill, just two more bends away. They must all be waiting – sweet Meghan with her copper hair tied up and the parents she warned me about. She called me this morning, telling me to compliment her mother's silverware, espicially the tureen, and for God's sake don't be late, and ask her father about his time in Europe, and on and on. I called her love and told her to calm down.

I feel the motorcycle wobbling, but it’s probably just my tense grip. Relax.

I'm second-guessing even her dad's name. Maybe Harry - and her mom is Daisy, yeah, that’s it. And she said I should lie and tell them I go to church every Sunday. I don't do anything with God but take his name in vain.

A car zips by, water from the rain-slick asphalt spraying from its wheels. My trousers are wet now, and I’m about to say something very heathen when the bike lurches. No matter how tight my grip is or how my thighs clench around it, the machine has set its course straight for the barrier and the rough hillside behind. Uncontrollable. I see stars, then asphalt and finally gravel that I hit shoulder-first, sliding down the road while my bike gives its death throes beneath me.

Then nothing.

-

Then I stand in the long grass by the roadside, staring at the house lying all cozy in the cul-de-sac with desert flora blooming behind the picket fence. The bike with the blown-out tire must be somewhere behind me. I’ll let it lie; I've more important stuff to do.
Even if I’m too beat up for the dinner, I owe it to Meghan to explain. Got to tell her I’m sorry that I don’t even know what time it is anymore - and this light just beyond the rim of the horizon isn’t helping at all. It looks like the sun's about to rise, but coming from the west while the east is still black as midnight.

I get going, stepping gingerly into the garden and peering through the windows.

Beyond the white drapes, the living room is filled with throw pillows and homemade quilts. The words “Live, laugh, love” hangs cross-stitched above a door through which I can barely see three people: Mom, Dad and Meghan seated around a table.

I'm inside before I know it - literally. Got to tell Meghan I might've gotten a brain injury, because I can’t remember how I got to be standing at the door. Like I just walked through a wall. I pause as I hear her father's voice:

"Bless, oh Lord, this food…"

Interrupting the prayer would be rude, so I wait with folded arms. My trousers have dried, and I don’t notice any ache in my body. I wonder why I never bothered to learn how to deal with a tire blowout. I wonder if Meghan is going to want me to call an ambulance. Perhaps I’d make a better impression if I came in and thanked Jesus for surviving…

It’s a rather long prayer.

Eventually I hear an “Amen” and open the door.

Meghan raises an eyebrow, but doesn’t seem to recognize me at all. She says, "There’s not usually a draft pulling at that door, right?”

“No,” Daisy answer, lips slightly pursed. She lifts the lid of the expected tureen, fingers grazing enamel flowers.

"Maybe the Holy Ghost is coming to dinner," her dad says, smiling as he butters a roll of bread.

"Since your boyfriend isn’t,” Daisy adds.

Meghan stabs a piece of potato, scowling. "He didn't mean to."

"I'm sure."

"Something must've happened."

Daisy handwaves Meghan’s statement. "Or he doesn’t respect you enough to meet your family. Maybe it's good for you to sit down, have a glass of wine and think things over."

"You just don't like him because I said he has a motorcycle once, and because he's not like the last one - "

"Oh shush, honey."

“HEY!” I yell. “I’m right here!”

And nothing happens.

Then the other shoe drops. I raise my hand, but even though it’s not transparent or anything, I’m fairly sure I’m the only one seeing it - which means the motorcycle accident was a lot worse than I thought. I cross my fingers hoping that this isn’t a ghost story, but rather some out-of-body experience and that there’s still time for me. Meghan calling an ambulance sounds very good by now.

While I stand stunned beside her, Daisy grabs the decanter with wrinkly old-lady hands. Meghan raises her glass in surrender. She bites down on her lip, watching as her mother pours.
I reach for Meghan’s hand, and though I cannot feel her warmth, I do succeed in making her glass wobble. Aha. I can affect things.

The obvious next step is to punch the decanter, and I do so gleefully and glad that if I’m about to die, I get to be invisible before then. The decanter doesn’t splinter, but it wobbles violently, wine splashing over the table as Daisy’s face takes the same color.

"Meghan!" she says.

"Wasn't me!"

Harry watches them both, chewing. Behind him is a window where I see the light again, closer, like a streetlamp shining too brightly outside. It’s an uneasy yellow color causing every emotion associated with cold sweat to course through me, though I don’t feel the sweat itself, nor any heartbeat. I hear myself say, “You’ve got to find me, Meghan,” but she's wielding a knife with a piece of speared asparagus on it like a weapon, facing her mom.

"Please just let me be for a moment,” she yells. “I’m too old for -“

"You're too young to have a relationship half as serious as what you're describing with this boy who can’t even show up to dinner on time! Your dad and I have talked about your priorities in life and – “

"Just shut up!"

I’d like to end this argument, but my options are limited. I do the only thing I can think of to get their attention: hitting more poo poo. I reach for the centerpiece, that glorious tureen, and wobble it to the edge of the table till it’s shattered on the floor.

Daisy turns from red to plum-purple.

Harry makes the sign of the cross and says, “Lord knows I was just joking about spirits. I saw none o’ you did that.”

I crouch by the shards, thinking fast because I see my hands turn more see-through. I move the pieces into an arrow on the carpet: The porcelain gleams just for me in the otherworldly light waiting just beyond the wall now. It’s getting harder to grab and push and pull. Please see it, Meghan. You know nothing would keep me away from you. I was to show up here again sometime in March, asking your dad for your hand in marriage, right? We’d planned it out.

"Mom," Meghan begins, and then she pauses and points. "There's something going on here. Why’s there an arrow?"

“I just see my ruined tureen and soup all over the carpet!” Daisy yells.

I open the window, thinking this will be the last show of force I can make. Meghan can't see me, but she's looking into the empty street behind me, which is close enough. Then she looks back at her mother. A split-second decision is made.

I love her because she leaps through the window, heading steadfast and barefooted in the direction I’ve shown her. Though it’s a short walk, she doesn’t hesitate. I follow, trusting her like she trusts me.

We see the ditch for the first time together. My broken body on the asphalt. God, I can't. The light is catching up to me, a last piece of tureen slipping through my fingers and into the cracks of the earth. Legs give out. Meghan please.

The sweetest sound is her voice, even when she’s calling 911.

-

A man in a yellow vest with a deep voice like the one you’d imagine God might have tells me I’m lucky to be alive. I blink away blood and squint through the swelling of my face. Finally Meghan comes into view and kneels by me, and I tell her I’m sorry about the dinner and she smiles and I vow to learn to fix a blown-out tire and she says that’s good, we’re good.

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Okua
Oct 30, 2016


Thanks for the crit, Jay!

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