Here is a small line-by-line of RandomPauI's story. I would really try and read some more books and stories to get a better feel for how you should structure your language, paragraphs, dialogue, and action. This feels very ESL (no idea if you actually are ESL, and if you aren't, no offense, getting words down correctly can be a struggle for pretty much everyone). The first portion of the tenet read more/write more is the best way to get your stuff sounding more natural.
I, Don (Rogue) from Jabalí, shall now relate to you our tiny town's contributions, big and small, to the overthrow the vile foreign King Harold III....the tyrant [who] replaced our beloved mayor Father Montoya with the vile Louis de Poltrot….
GenJoe fucked around with this message at Jan 31, 2018 around 20:20
|# ? Jan 31, 2018 20:08|
|# ? Nov 21, 2018 18:17|
Crits of Love and Hate (Week 284)
sparksbloom’s Yellow Light
Interesting, well executed opening. Double use of 'only’ could be improved on.
Irene doesn't quite seem real, especially her second line of dialog. So much so that I entertained a reading where she’s a figment of the narrator’s imagination, early on, although this didn’t pan out.
Ultimately, this reads like a twilight zone (Black mirror?) episode, but without the twist, without the reveal or payoff. Prose and voice are good, but there's no substance here. Mid-low.
Exmond’s Fleeting Moments of Comfort
Over on length, obviously. But onward. First line gets dialog tag punctuation wrong, a problem throughout. Okay opener in general.
Huband. Sprakled. Obviously didn't even get a spell check, let alone actual proofreading. The emotional core works, even if it doesn't break much new ground.
I think that this could have been edited down to make the wordcount. The entire ending section, after the break, could probably be condensed down to a short paragraph giving us her waking up with the coat on. The partner’s character doesn’t do much for the story and could easily be removed.
flerp’s Three Days Good opening. Some word repeat issues, although probably intentional.
'costed’ should be just ‘cost’.
Good stuff. Not entirely clear on what is going on, but there's enough to work with. I think it's a ghost thing, he has to spend a year in repeating frozen time for each day of the still-living one's life that goes by. Not sure how he knows the rules, but I guess he may have gone through several yeardays before figuring out the cutting thing. Top group, at least.
Guiness13’s A Choice
Okay opening. A lot of characters. And using Amos and Andy as names may be overly clever.
Okay. A bit too talky, with too much of the story in flashback or in things that aren't happening. You have your protagonist forget the logic he just exposited so that you have to rehash it all in the confrontation.
CascadeBeta’s Obsidian Rain
Opening is a bit muddled. Not clear what he is concerned about, for instance.
Muddled prose throughout. A bit purple/overwritten as well. Passive protagonist, ending that just fizzles out. The central imagery is strong though, and you don't get bogged down too much with exposition or world building. Low, Loss contender. Liked less on second look. The impulse to not immediately reveal what his parents did was good, but I think the story needs to answer more by the time it's done.
Crain’s The Porter
Some grammar issues, particularly dialog punctuation. The viewpoint shifts aren't a great idea in a piece this short. But an okay spy story. My biggest complaint is that you fail to clearly establish the stakes here, either on the personal level or the international.
I had this in a low-middle range.
Sitting Here’s By Nature
Very slow opening. ‘shown’ should be ’shone’; the first paragraph typo fairy paid you a visit. Takes way too long to introduce a character, and that character doesn’t wind up being the viewpoint character.
I like the second half a lot more than the first, the first bit is a lot if summary and world building to set up the other part. And I’m not sure how to fix that. Maybe use as part of a connected cycle of stories, establishing what you need in an earlier one to get you to a point where a version of this can start with its main character? Probably middle overall.
Jay W. Friks’s Spirit of Ceremony
Opening is a bit unclear. What others? “‘96”, you need that apostrophe.
Not sure that's ever answered. Protagonist doesn't seem to have either a boss or employees. Lots of comma splices and bad dialog punctuation. What is happening is probably ten kinds of illegal.
Opener misuses 'when’. But. Well. It draws attention to it. And when we get the magical realism turn midway, it's good to have had that sticking out there.
Anyhow, this is extremely good, in contention for the win. My only complaint is with how the ending works, sort of trying to have its cake and eat it too on the M.R. conceit. Because you really don’t want the reader to start thinking about this in a naturalistic way. I mean, for the days to be getting short like that in a physical sense, what has to be happening is the Earth tilting on its axis, which would probably be causing more weather problems than the story shows. The mention of Europe complicates things even more. Maybe the days are getting longer and they’re extrapolating, but if they’re getting shorter there too, well, the consequences either involve the imminent end of the world or a return to a pre-copernican model of the solar system, either one of which would no doubt be accompanied by some world-wide freaking out that we don’t see here.
Still, very much my favorite of the week.
Fleta Mcgurn’sThe Sisters
‘Getaway’ is not quite the right word. Good opener in general though.
I like this one enough, maybe high middle or so. But I think it's more than a little too self-aware, in both the narration and the dialog. Too much is happening in the text that should be in subtext instead.
Antivehicular’sA Newcomers Guide to Afanasi
Bold opening/structure. I sort of dig this, but the prose is a little clunky throughout and I feel like this sort of writing needs a bit stronger sense of a payoff at the end, a bit more to reward the reader as it were Either do more with the narrator’s story, and give it enough substance to carry an ending, or else end with a more interesting sort of twist or reveal. Middle.
sandnavyguy’s A Scarf’s Life
Another bold structural choice. “Clad” is odd for mittens. But I see that hand covering is an ongoing motif.
I dig this, high group but not quite up with the very top. The biggest weakness here is the ending, or lack thereof. I think there is probably a way to give this a much more definitive ending without going too coincidental or maudlin, but that a Scarf's Life is incomplete without a final fate of some sort: the way you have it the story is more accurately ‘Part of a Scarf’s Life’.
Uranium Phoenix’s The Hated Enemy
Good opening. Good story. Not great, but good. High middle area. The middle doesn't quite work: there's not enough motivation for her to do all of this for this particular enemy soldier. But the beginning and ending are solid.
Sham bam bamina!’s With Apologies to Some Guy in Montreal
Opening is okay, a bit bloated. Actually, that goes for the whole thing. Feels like it could be better with a lot fewer words. The voice is strong, but the plotting a bit week: this story could use more incident. It might also work better with a different structure, an opening that foreshadows or sets up where you’re going, because as it’s structured now you have Elliott show up just after the narrator finishes remembering him, as if magically summoned.
sebmojo’s In Mortal Chains
Very strong opening.
Strong little piece in general. Leaves me wanting more, but in a good way. High middle.
|# ? Jan 31, 2018 21:09|
yeah, sure, in
|# ? Jan 31, 2018 22:02|
Romance, you say? Then I'm in.
Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
in and a flash rule.
Sybil and Samuel Vimes from multiple books by Sir Terry Pratchett
In w Flash rule
Orpheus and Eurydice of Greek mythology
In for romance week with a flash rule please.
Laura and Shadow Moon from Neil Gaiman's American Gods
|# ? Jan 31, 2018 23:00|
reminder that there is an ongoing writing goals thread if people want a little extra incentive to get words done in the month of February
|# ? Jan 31, 2018 23:24|
reminder that there is an ongoing writing goals thread if people want a little extra incentive to get words done in the month of February
Thanks for the reminder, been meaning to do that...
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 00:13|
Thanks for the crit Exmond!
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 00:17|
Week No. 286 Crits
I am in! also flash rule
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 01:23|
Thanks for the crits, they were helpful.
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 01:43|
Lancelot and Guinevere from Arthurian legend
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 03:23|
cyberpunk brawl results
sebmojo wrote a story where characters who felt like they had history interacted, came at a head, and then tried to kill each other, while having just the right mix of irrelevant cyberpunk poo poo and relevant cyberpunk poo poo. felt like generic cyberpunk, sure, but it at least it did something kind of interesting. cantdecideonaname wrote a story about two people talking about a thing that they will do later, and then it ends before they actually do anything interesting.
so yeah sebmojo wins. maybe ill do bigger crits later but im gonna go play dbz instead.
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 04:58|
I'm in and I'll take a flash rule thank you
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 14:40|
I'm in and I'll take a flash rule thank you
Petruchio and Katherina from Taming of the Shrew
|# ? Feb 1, 2018 23:43|
I'm in love
|# ? Feb 2, 2018 02:07|
|# ? Feb 2, 2018 09:45|
Yeah I'm in also, inscribe my name on the list of the damned etc
|# ? Feb 2, 2018 18:52|
|# ? Feb 2, 2018 22:51|
Oh yeah and flerp, you simpering dweeb, put your goddam wordfists up. I feel like having a brawl that you don't judge, for once.
|# ? Feb 2, 2018 23:04|
Oh yeah and flerp, you simpering dweeb, put your goddam wordfists up. I feel like having a brawl that you don't judge, for once.
based off of all the brawls of urs i had to read, this'll b a p easy win
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 00:17|
based off of all the brawls of urs i had to read, this'll b a p easy win
Can I make this everyone's worst nightmare and judge?
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 00:23|
Can I make this everyone's worst nightmare and judge?
Write a good story first
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 00:36|
Oh yeah and flerp, you simpering dweeb, put your goddam wordfists up. I feel like having a brawl that you don't judge, for once.
based off of all the brawls of urs i had to read, this'll b a p easy win
your prompt is a quote I really like by one Don Van Vliet: "The way I keep in touch with the world is very gingerly, because the world touches too hard."
You should also find some way to pander to me, since I'm the one who has to read your spew. Crows. Fungus. Hiveminds. Dreams. Etcetera. You know the drill. You're not limited to that list, just use your judgment.
also you both suck and will invariably waste my time with drivel you come up with in the 15 minutes leading up to the deadline. SO. This brawl is going to have two deadlines.
11:59:59PM PST on Friday, February 9.
You must have a completed story that you can show to someone (not me). That person will confirm either to me or in the thread that you wrote a complete story. They should NOT offer critique, just confirmation that the story exists and is a complete first draft.
11:59:59PM PST on Wednesday, February 14.
this is important
This is the actual posting deadline. You MUST write a second draft, and there MUST be some sort of apparent editing between the two drafts. How will I know? You're going to post both of them in your submission post. So that means you need to keep a copy of your first draft intact.
Word count: 750
Sitting Here fucked around with this message at Feb 3, 2018 around 01:23
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 00:53|
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 13:49|
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 16:20|
Sign-ups are now over!
You have 36 hours to make me regret even thinking of this topic.
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 17:04|
This is pretty late, but I've been meaning to type this up and the weekend is finally here, so before I have to go knee-deep in TDome entry writing, here's a crit for Unfunny Poster's "My Last Day" (with some minor digressions about the same author's "Choon-Hee and the Gweomul")
Some of the issues with this story have already been covered thoroughly here: the use of sexual harassment in a "feel-good" week, and the lack of detail/interest in a "setting should pop" week, both prominent issues with this story and already discussed in other crits. Instead, I'd like to focus on the problem of the passive main character in the story, which was also an issue with "Choon-Hee." The major piece of advice I want to give you is to think more specifically about your main characters, both to make them greater sources of action in the story and to bring out what's interesting and unique about them.
Let's talk a little bit about Sarah. Sarah's primary feature, evident from the title and the second sentence on, is that she doesn't care about her job and her surroundings. She's done, she's checked out, it's over. This isn't always a good approach to a main character -- stories improve when the characters have stakes in the action -- but in Sarah's case, I think there's a lot of potential here that just didn't get used well. Sarah's checked-outness getting her in trouble is a good start, although I think it'd help if the story didn't treat her like a complete victim here when she actually did gently caress up; I'm no expert on casino rules, but I'm pretty sure a dealer who can tell a fight's brewing at their table is supposed to alert someone, not just let it happen. That aside, though, it's good that this trait of hers is moving the plot, and I wish you'd carried that forward and thought about how it would influence the rest of the piece, instead of just using it as the impetus to get Sarah in Greg's office.
Think about it this way: Sarah's in Greg's office getting the shakedown/the harassment. You have Sarah react like any rational actor would in the situation, which is acceptable... but it's not the same person we saw being established here. What I wanted to see here was Sarah using her lack of caring as a weapon against Greg. He'll fire her if she doesn't sleep with him? Sure, whatever, she's leaving anyway. Blackball her with the state Gambling Commission? Okay, who said she wanted another dealer job, or another one in this state? Greg's trying to wield power over her, and I think this story would have been a lot stronger if she'd countered by making it clear he was powerless, based on the character trait we already had established. You'd create a stronger persona for Sarah, it'd be clearer that she was driving the action by her own decisions and traits instead of involuntary reactions, and overall it would create a more interesting piece than the much more stock interaction we have here.
A note about Greg: in short fiction like this, it's inevitable that supporting characters will get the shaft a bit, but Greg is still way too much of a stock character for someone who gets as much page time as he does. When you're writing characters like this, I think it might be useful for you to think of a single striking or different detail about them, something that suggests to readers that there's more there. I think you tried this with the bit about bad sandalwood cologne, which is a nice touch, but "wears bad cologne" is still kind of a stock trait of this sort of guy. Try jumping off from your first idea and thinking of variations on it -- maybe something like "Greg wore good cologne, but it didn't help" or "Greg'd started wearing a much nicer cologne than his usual Walgreens crap" (foreshadowing that he's been stealing from the till, maybe?), or something else that's a surprising or telling detail. It can help round out a character a lot in a short word count.
On one hand, I feel like Sarah as a main character is an improvement over Choon-Hee from your last piece, who is nearly entirely passive and whose only character trait is "curious child"; Sarah feels like she has some kind of distinct approach and attitude towards the world, but that attitude really needs to be carried through the whole story instead of used as an initial plot propellant. I'd work on being mindful about the design of your main characters and trying to think through how the person you've designed would react uniquely to a situation.
Antivehicular fucked around with this message at Feb 4, 2018 around 01:26
|# ? Feb 3, 2018 21:39|
Thanks for the feedback Antivehicular. I'll try to make sure my entry this week is at least a step in the right direction.
|# ? Feb 4, 2018 00:47|
He was the only one who could see me. He shambled up my road one day, alone, like me. Past the brightly painted cottages, faded prayer flags and verdant vegetable gardens, his shoulders hunched under a manky overcoat and feet shuffling in too-big shoes. His nervous eyes glanced sideways from his downward pointing face as if the windows might be watching him.
This valley is mine, it is me. My steep bush-clad sides tower over the single narrow road and the roots of my trees run through the uneven foundations of the rotting-wood cottages. My vines creep up walls and my ferns clog gutters, a living blanket wrapped around the people who call this place home. My dirt is under their fingernails and they are part of me, too; but they don’t even know I’m here.
They soak my soil with their sweat as they toil, smiling, to carve gardens into the rocky hillside. They cut tracks like serpentine tattoos looping through the bush up my flanks. I don’t mind; their rubber wheels tickle as they ride up and down, faces red and laughing. They make me laugh, too, but they can’t hear me, they don’t talk to me, and so my laughter peters out, shared by no one.
Except for him. Barely more than a boy yet his face was lined with a lifetime’s worth of pain. That day he leant his back against a tree in a sun-drenched clearing at the very end of the road, looked straight at me and told me I was beautiful.
You can see me! I said, delighted. I laughed and danced around him, birds swooping at the insects that buzzed in my wake. He was amazed by my ancient yet eternally renewed green skin, and I let him gently stroke my grassy hair. But his eyes brimmed with sadness when he said no one would ever believe that he’d seen me; that no one ever believed him about anything.
He would come and visit me and I’d lie in the warm sunlight while he told me stories about the things that had happened to him and the things he’d dreamed. I couldn’t tell which was which and neither could he. Sometimes the stories were so sad, filled with cruel adults and numbing drugs and restraints that cut, that I would cry with him. But then he would spin tales from the threads that drifted through the air, beautiful creations just for me, and the troubled clouds would clear from his sky-blue eyes. I love you, I told him, because he could hear me, and because I did.
One day he came in the wind and rain and couldn’t see me. Jaw masticating and eyes clouded he shuffled up and down the road. “You fucks! Can’t… I can see… she loves you but you don’t! You don’t even know...” he shouted, his words bitten off like he was too angry to let them out unscathed.
Then he, like me, became invisible. The people with their brightly coloured homes and bikes and cars, their warm, comfortable clothes and overflowing gardens averted their eyes and shut their doors. He wandered around in the road, cold and confused, as they sat inside next to their fireplaces.
I tried to comfort him but he brushed away my touch, frightened eyes searching wildly for the source. So I rushed up and down the street, my chest constricted with sorrow, rattling glass panes as hard as I could and banging loudly on tin roofs. Why won’t you let him in? I yelled, but they were blind to both of us.
He came back that night in the freezing cold. The wind drove the rain through his clothes and he was deathly white except for his red-rimmed eyes. You’re freezing! I said. Go, bang on their doors! Demand their help! But he couldn’t hear me. He put his back against our tree, hugged his knees to his shivering chest and buried his exhausted face in the folds of his stinking coat.
I stood above him and parted the sluicing rain so it fell like curtains around him. He raised his face, neck trembling from the effort. “There you are,” he said, and smiled. He had stopped shivering, so I smiled back at him, relieved.
By dawn everything was perfectly still. The valley was filled with mist laced with tendrils of woodsmoke that drifted from mossy brick chimneys. I caressed his face; his skin was cold under my fingers. I cried, and the sound of tears dripping from the tips of leaves rang like bells in the silence. Why did they throw you away? I thought, wrapping my arms around him. I love you, I whispered, and with my muscles of earth and skin of moss I pulled him deep inside me. This valley is me, and it is him now, too.
|# ? Feb 4, 2018 08:16|
Little Gray Daisies (#1495)
Prompt: Orpheus and Eurydice
The fridge was empty just like his head. Olan searched inside of it with dim interest. He hadn't collected his checks, gone to the post office or paid any bills in two months and yet somehow he was still surprised he was completely out of food. Even the sesame seed packets Lee used to hoard from her favorite restaurant were gone. He couldn’t remember eating them and didn’t want to think any harder about it. Thinking led to remembering that his wife was gone, it was better not to think at all.
Olan closed the fridge and looked around the kitchen. The sink was filled with mounds of dishes and flies buzzed sluggishly around the overflowing trash bags blocking the pantry door. He lazily kicked the bags aside and opened the pantry. At the top of the empty racks was a bottle of wine someone gave the two of them thinking that all because she wrote and he drew for a living, that they were a wine tasting kind of couple. At the time Lee had fed the assumption, she would say
“Oh, awesome! Peanut Nor, I love this brand!” She mispronounced Pinot Noir on purpose but still acted like it every alcoholic gift was going to be savored and mixed with little crackers. She just loved messing with people who were too polite to correct her.
She told him, one long night locked out the apartment, that the people who would correct her would make good readers for her drafts. They proved themselves as forward and blunt.
Tears welled in Olans eyes. He’d gone and done it. Started thinking about her and the one bedroom, one bath apartment suddenly felt huge and empty. The walls stretched away and ever step to the cupboard to find a corkscrew took more of his life force.
“It-it’s alright. Just gotta get a drink in me. I...I just need to sleep.” He was talking to himself and hoping he would listen. The bottle shook in his trembling hands and purple splotches splattered across the countertops. He swallowed the glass with one pull and felt a pleasant dizzy warmth crawl up from his stomach. Olan took the bottle with him to bed hoping it would grant him a dreamless slumber.
He sat down on the mattress and took two more pulls of the bottle than laid back as the alcohol did its work. He read the bottle label. “Stygian Harbor” in a fancy wavy font with a picture of a field of flowers under a night sky. Lee would probably criticise the font as being too nice looking for what amounted to a last minute gift, she knew all about stuff like that. Her handwriting was a thing of beauty. She had told him a few times how she wanted to release a book in handwriting only, maybe make it look like an old journal.
She never did as she was pretty sure someone had already done that. Olan told her that artists mimic each other all the time. He said it was more important if she said something different through such a medium than the mimicking of the medium itself. She was aggravated by a book review at the time and took his words as him chiding her lack of dedication. Even though she felt talked down too, Olan found notes for the Journal story in her desk shortly after she died. She was working on it, maybe proving him wrong or proving herself wrong. It didn’t matter anymore.
Someone chased her into oncoming traffic. A serial killer, a rapist, the police weren’t certain. She was signing books at the bookstore until late and walked home per usual. Someone chased her and despite being 10 pm at night when no one would normally be driving down Duthie Road. .someone was.They hit her as she ran away from her assailant.
“gently caress. No, I can’t do this again.” The tears flooded Olan’s face, he played it all out in his head again and now he was going to sleep remembering that she was gone.
In his dreams that night he got up to get a drink of water. He sipped it slowly trying to remind himself that the simple things can bring happiness. Cool water when you’re thirsty, shag bath mats on your bare feet, crickets chirping in the night. Olan looked in the mirror and half of him stared back. He turned his head and look saw sinew, blood vessels, and coursing fluids in perfect anatomical harmony.
He’d had this dream before during a stint in jail for assaulting a police officer. Olan never liked authority and took it out in a big way during a protest. During his time away he figured out he didn’t like much of anything including himself. All his drawings and paintings were too self-involved, too ego-oriented. He felt dirty doing the things that used to give him purpose. Was he saying anything poignant at all or just stroking the ego of a side of himself he didn’t want to acknowledge.
After a bender, he tried to get back in the game and make a mural for a friends bookstore. He couldn’t come up with anything that didn’t feel self-involved or cliche. Lee worked at that bookstore and watched him stare a blank wall one hot sunny afternoon. She said he should stop staring or else he’d start to think the blank wall was art.
He didn’t get that. Was she joking, making an analysis out of him and his non-mural? Olan was pretty neurotic back then and took it the wrong way. She humored his cantankerousness instead of getting mad. Olan was charmed and found himself talking to her instead of telling her to mind her own business. They talked about Crayola color names, authors who smelled bad in real life, and their favorite foods.
The mural was done in a week after they met and the next week they were going out to museums and watching underground wrestling leagues. He couldn’t live half empty again. He hopped on one leg to the kitchen and searched for something sharp. There were little gray daisies growing out of the wine stains on the countertop.
He picked one and heard her sigh. It smelled like her: lavender and apple-scented shampoo. Olan put it under his tongue and tasted her lips. The apartment collapsed. The walls and ceiling fell away like set pieces on a stage. Wind billowed around him and Olan felt a bed of flowers under his chilled feet.
The moon overhead was low and full, shedding enough light to give him a path. There were people lying in the flowers. Particles rose up from them like ashes from a fire. The particles joined into a thick dust cloud above.
Olan heard her murmuring in her sleep.
There she was, her rib cage pressed in like a massive thumb stamped down on her chest. Olan fell next to her.
“Olan, what are you doing?.”
“I want to stay here with you. I’m half torn and it hurts.”
“No. You can’t stay. We’ll just end up feeling bad for each other.”
“Olan, you need to go. I can’t sleep if you’re here.”
“Are you in pain?”
“I shouldn’t be but when you hurt yourself, I feel it. How do you think I’ll feel if you kill yourself?”
“How long do I need to wait?”
“For as long as you can. I don’t know what’s above me. Can you see?”
Olan looked up. The black curtain kept its secrets close.
“When you figure out what’s up there then we can meet again.”
She went silent and he didn’t get up. She picked a flower growing from her wounds and put in his hand.
“Olan. Please. For me?”
She did look like she was in pain. He glared at the dust above, trying to see anything beyond it.
There really was no telling what remained of the people past the point where the dust flowed. Olan wondered if his memories would be remain when he died. If they were taken away than Olan wanted to stay alive to find a way to keep his memories of Lee.
It was an unfound theory but it sustained him. He was whole again and found the walk back easier. A giant closed eyelid sat in a crater at the lowest point of the flowerbed. He tore it open and woke up.
Bleary-eyed and hungover Olan went to the bathroom and got a drink of water. He sipped it slow and wondered if he could make up more things to keep himself going. His companion was gone but somehow her absence felt different to him today. It felt judgemental.
“Well? Get on with your life! I wanna hear all about it when we meet again.”
A little gray daisy floated in the glass.
|# ? Feb 4, 2018 17:09|
Warmth (998 words)
The forlorn girl gazed into the sink. Long silken hair, rough cut, filled the basin. The cold steel scissors shuddered in her hand. The mirror was broken. Everything was broken. She’d have to ask Sergei how it looked.
She pocketed the scissors and reached for her glove. Her fingers were white and cold and numb.
Sergei stood overlooking the stairs. He held a pistol and a carton of cigarettes. Five flights below lay the body a man, his head smashed open like a bottle of jam.
Sergei cast the cigarettes into the void. He’d made a promise, after all.
“How do I look?” she asked.
“You look beautiful.”
“You’re not even looking.”
“I am, I am.”
Sergei turned around. He dwarfed Imogen by a good two feet. She looked up at him with a stern expression. Even as she shivered, there was fire in her eyes.
“How do I look?”
“You look tough. You look strong.”
Sergei bent over and opened his suitcase. It was filled with books and papers and clothes. He pulled out a cap, jet black, folded shut. He snapped it open and put it on her head.
“It’s nearly time,” he said.
“I know,” she said.
They descended the stairs holding hands. They had one pair of gloves between them. In his pocket, Sergei kept his pistol. In her pocket, Imogen held close the scissors.
The abandoned apartments opened out onto a steely grey town. The sky was blue and the earth was white.
The streets were sparsely populated, but the posters were everywhere. Imogen pulled the cap over her eyes, her head low. Sergei swept the sidewalks with a glance. People were quiet. Quiet was good.
“My name is Sergei. I’m assigned to protect you.”
She’d been drinking tea with her cousin when they’d first met. Before the winter, before the war. He’d looked so smart then, in his uniform, but she could immediately tell how nervous he was.
“Sit down,” she’d commanded. “Join us for tea.”
I could use some tea now, she thought. Something simple, something warm. She held his hand tight.
Sergei rounded the corner. The ticket booth was crowded, angry, chaotic. A man in pince nez glasses was being dragged away by the scruff of his coat. His face had been beaten, his things confiscated. He would be taken out back and never seen again. Once he was gone, the crowd slowly cooled.
“Are you prepared?” Sergei asked.
“Does it matter?”
“It always matters.”
“Then the answer is yes.”
The two made their way through the gathering throng. Imogen put on a practiced squint. The tides broke against Sergei, and at last they stood before the counter. “Two tickets please, for me and my brother.” He paid in crumpled bills.
The man with the newspaper watched them leave.
Imogen counted their change. It wasn’t much, but it might be enough. “We’ve still a few minutes before the train. Would you like something to drink?”
“If you’re offering, yes, if it’s someplace discrete.”
She surveyed the street and selected a cafe with boarded-up windows. The interior was warmed by a pot-bellied stove. Black tea was cheap, but only for one. She nodded and waited and brought back a cup.
Sergei had picked a table near the entrance. She sat down and placed the cup before him. He took it to his lips and let the smell warm him.
Imogen sat in silence, hands together. Sergei placed the drink down before her, half-full. She raised it up and shared the flavor. She offered Sergei the briefest of smiles. He smiled in turn and looked out the door.
“I miss...” she said, trailing off. He nodded.
“I do as well.”
“We’ll have to make it a habit again.”
“Of course, of course.”
She examined the inside of the cup. There was the sound of a train in the distance.
“That’s us,” he said. She nodded. Hand-in-hand they left the shop.
The train platform stretched into the distance, its metal awnings coated in snow. The gas lamps flickered with each new arrival as human beings poured in and out of every orifice.
“Excuse me miss, you seem to have dropped something.”
She turned in the direction of the voice. It belonged to a middle-aged man with a stately square beard and black mustache. In his hand he held a folded newspaper.
“Well aren’t you a beautiful boy. Strange you should respond.” His smile turned cruel.
“I-” Imogen said. Sergei spun around. He pulled his pistol. So did the man. Two shots rang out and Sergei stumbled, teeth grit. The shoulder of his coat was dyed deep crimson. Imogen held fast to him. The man approached calmly. They’d drawn quite a crowd.
“Useless. You can release him, Miss Dvoryane. If you wish to continue living, you may accompany me.” His gun trained on Sergei, he extended a hand.
Imogen looked into the man’s eyes. Trembling, she let go of Sergei’s hand. The man leaned down and took her by the wrist. She whipped out her scissors and stabbed him in the eye.
“JZUYAAA,” the man toppled backward, blood running down his face. He pulled the trigger, shooting wildly. The people panicked.
Sergei steadied himself against the train. He fired again. He didn’t miss.
“You need to go,” he said. He turned toward Imogen.
“I can’t,” she said. Her words were laced with pain. He looked and saw the hole in her side.
“Ah...” he said, his own breathing heavy. Imogen pulled herself close to him. “I’m sorry,” he said “I meant to protect you.”
“You did,” she said, smiling softly. “You did.”
The train whistled. There were footsteps, shouts. The military police trapped beyond the gates. Sergei shuddered. He clambered aboard with the girl in his arms.
“Are we leaving?” she asked. Her eyes were shut.
“We are,” he said.
“That’s good. I’m glad.”
They stumbled into an empty compartment, onto the seat, and collapsed. He held her tight and never let go.
|# ? Feb 4, 2018 17:23|
Prompt: (287) Bad Romance
Word Count: 881
Marie contemplated her next move. Before her laid a great challenge; she must attempt to swim across the dangerous river.
Pausing, Marie looked out across the water finally seeing the the ferry that she had been waiting for. The elderly attendant pushed his pole into the water slowly, but surely, edging the boat closer to the dock with each passing moment.
By the time the ferry reached the port Marie waded into the water, her mind began to race. This would be the most dangerous part of her journey but Anna, her love, was waiting for her.
“Child,” the ferryman shouted from the boat, “before you attempt to cross consider this. While you lack my fee, you are still free to venture forth. Should you fail though, your soul will be lost in the river for all time. Nobody, not even I, will be able to help you.”
As Marie heard the ferryman’s words, she took note that should she fail she would never see her Anna ever again. However, she was determined to see her sweet Anna again. To hold her in her arms once again, and to forever be with her as they had dreamed. The love she felt for Anna was why she was now so far away from home risking her very soul.
Their relationship had begun as all do, innocently glancing at each other. They took turns trying to see what the other was like. Marie was intrigued by Anna’s face and her flowing red hair that perfectly framed it. Her piercing eyes felt as though they were able to see into Marie’s very soul. Meanwhile, Anna viewed Marie’s bright colored and matching personality to be her greatest feature.
With each glimpse they caught during their days in the marketplace, they would both ask to themselves; Do you even know who I am?
The answer was simple; Yes.
Time passed on and the two young women began to recognize their building affection for one another. It was Anna who made the first move, leaving a flower at Marie’s stand. In return, Marie decorated Anna’s front door with a flower wreath. Both innocently denying they knew who had performed such acts to their family when questioned.
For months they continued to share more symbols of their building affection. One night after a festival, Anna found Marie and asked her to take a walk through the grove that Marie’s family owned. They walked for hours talking about their hopes, their dreams, and most importantly their feelings for one another.
This became their most treasured way of spending their evenings. Each night they would wait until the entire village was asleep, and then they would sneak out of their homes and walk through the groves of olives and junipers.
One such night, Marie waited for Anna until the moon had reached its peak. Concerned she walked to the section of the village Anna’s family lived in. Along the way she heard the moaning and the wailing, making her heart race faster.
Marie’s walk turned into a sprint as she ran to Anna’s home. The lights were on, and the wailing was even louder. She slowed as she approached the building, slowly and quietly moving towards the window to see what the cause was. Peering through an open window, Marie saw the cause for the deep sobbing.
Anna laid in her bed, coins on her eyes, with her family crying around her.
“My poor baby girl!” her mother cried into her husbands shoulders.
“I’m sorry my dear. The horse broke free crashing into her. The priests did all they could but she was far too injured for their medicine to help. Come now, we must prepare for her journey to Hades.”
Marie gasped at the news.
As the tears began to well up in Marie’s eyes she felt lost. She had never cared for someone so much in her whole life, nor had she experienced the tragedy of death. As the family placed the burial cloth over Anna’s body, Marie pulled herself away from the window. With her eyes full of tears she weeped all the way back to the grove she and Anna would walk through.
Resting next to a juniper tree, she broke down completely. Her joy, her happiness, her comfort was now gone from the world. Marie sat there, crying the whole night.
By the time the sun rose, tears would no longer flow but still she cried. Her mind filled with grief, took her to the edge of the grove that overlooked the sea. Determined to see her Anna again she plunged herself over the edge, falling to her death.
When she awoke, she was at the edge of the river Styx where the dead were to take Charon’s ferry across into Hades. Without tokens to pay for her passage across she was forced into her only option: swim.
As Marie finally reached the shore her body ached but she had made it to the land of the dead. She had risked everything she could offer, just to be with her beloved. As she caught her breath a figure came walking over a nearby hill, it was her Anna. They had both made it to the land beyond, and they would be together for all eternity.
|# ? Feb 4, 2018 17:42|
Second Chances (To Make First Impressions)
Flash Rule: Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice
Mary-Jo’s first impression of Cameron Williams was he was really cute. The second was he was a real jerk.
Right after she’d sat down at the empty desk besides him, he sneered, “Are those Payless brand shoes?” like she should be ashamed they were even on her feet. Then a blonde girl named Jessica Thompson—of course her name was Jessica—squeaked “Ew, she’s wearing poor-kid sneakers!” loud enough it took Mr. Jacobson five minutes to get the class settled down from laughing. Mary-Jo spent all forty-five minutes of class with her feet shamefully tucked under her seat, wishing her family had the money for real Adidas.
By lunchtime, every seventh grader at Bankside Academy knew Mary-Jo could be spotted by her off-brand sneakers. She spent lunch sitting alone in the farthest corner of the lunchroom, nibbling on her sandwich and fighting tears.
Mary-Jo decided right then she would earn every year of her full scholarship at this fancy private rich-kids’ school—and she would not say another nice thing to Cameron Williams the whole time. Even if he was the cutest boy in their grade.
Cameron got back his mid-quarter geometry test with 57/100—See Me! in sharp red pen and knew he was in for it. Coach Holloway lectured him for five minutes that he didn’t care how good of a basketball player he was; if he didn’t have a passing grade by quarter’s end, Coach would suspend him himself.
“Mary-Jo Kenner’s a tutor,” his best friend Robert mentioned as he drove them home from practice. “I hired her for Algebra last year and she got me to a B from a D-minus. Thirty bucks a session. And she’s pretty.”
The next day in third period English, Cameron sat down by Mary-Jo as casually as he could muster. “Hi,” he said, hoping she’d forgotten the thing from three years ago.
Within seconds of her look he knew she hadn’t forgotten a drat thing.
“Uh, Robert said you tutor. Do you think you could help me with—” he stammered.
“Drop dead, Cameron Williams,” Mary-Jo hissed, before making a show of crossing the classroom and sitting besides Tammy Brooks. His crush Jessica started laughing shrilly, and Cameron hunched down in his letterman jacket and wished the floor would swallow him whole.
Four straight weeks of professional tutoring—three times a week, two hundred dollars a session—got him to a middling C. But Cameron couldn’t put the way pretty Mary-Jo’d held a grudge against him out of his mind.
The moment Mary-Jo saw Cameron Williams walking towards her at lunch, she waited for some obligatory platitude, like everyone in their two-hundred person graduating class had done her since class ranking was announced. Even Jessica Thompson had said congratulations with an plastic-doll smile.
Instead, he set a cream colored envelope on her Chemistry II book. “I’m holding a party two nights after graduation,” he mumbled. “See you there. Maybe.”
“Girl, we have to go!” Tammy said once they were alone again. “Bobby Kepler took me to last year’s party. The Williams have full membership at Ivy Meadows Country Club, and I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Ivy Meadows—”
“I haven’t been to any country club,” Mary-Jo said, a little sharper than she meant.
Tammy fiddled with her straw in the tense silence. “Anyways, if Cameron gave you a direct invite, he really wants you there.”
Mary-Jo looked down at her three-year old Keds. “I don’t know how to dress for some fancy rich-kid party.”
“I’ll doll you up like at my sweet sixteen last year. Just…y’know, think about it, okay?”
Two nights later, as Mary-Jo doodled in the margins of her valedictorian speech’s rough draft, the invitation envelope caught her eye. She tilted the card so the embossing and gold lettered cream paper caught the lamp light, until her second-youngest sister Emily rolled over and mumbled it was probably half past midnight. Then she found the RSVP card, checked Yes, I’ll attend, and wrote 2 Guests.
She doubted she’d enjoy herself. But Tammy liked glamming her up, and Emily would adore going somewhere high-class for her fifteenth birthday.
“I can’t believe you invited Mary-Jo Kenner to your graduation party,” Cameron’s girlfriend Jessica sneered as soon as she saw Mary-Jo talking to Robert by the buffet.
“Is there a reason you think I shouldn’t have invited her?” Cameron said, setting his drink down.
“She was there on scholarship.” Jessica sneered the last word.
“So she’s not really like the rest of us. Ew, she even brought her baby sister.” Jessica huffed loudly. “I bet Tammy bought her clothes again. She’s so classless.”
Cameron thought someone else was classless. He was able to speak with Mary-Jo for a few minutes; she was cool but pleasant, which was the best he could hope for given their past and probable future.
He and Jessica broke up six weeks after he started college, and he deleted every one of the twenty pleading messages she left on his voice mail.
Mary-Jo came back from Monday’s classes with a voice mail waiting. “Hey, this is Cameron Williams. I saw your flyer on the library message board and I really need math help. Call me back with a good time for you.”
She groaned, hoping it wasn’t the Cameron Williams as she left a message at the number left. When she saw it was indeed him waiting for her outside the main campus library Friday at six-fifteen, she thought about going straight back to her dorm and standing him up. But his sixty bucks meant she could eat more than once a day next week. She walked up, waited for him to recognize her, and let him uncomfortably remember their first meeting long ago as they walked to the study room.
He was wholly lost about calculus, but she knew how to help people lost in calculus. At the end of the hour, she knew he’d remember everything she’d taught. She wasn’t a math major for nothing. “Leave a message if you need another session next week,” she said the second the hour was up.
“Yeah, sure. Thank you.” Cameron fidgeted a bit. “Would you like to go to the café off-campus? They make the best French pastries.”
“I can’t really…” Mary-Jo mumbled without looking at him.
Fine. He still owed her for the shoe thing.
Fifteen minutes later over lattes and eclairs, Mary-Jo asked what she’d pondered since they’d re-met. “What’re you doing at a state college?”
“Both Dad and Grandpa were alumni. What about you? You’re smart enough to go wherever you could’ve wanted.”
“I went where I got enough money to cover costs. No scholarships, no college.” Her words came out bluntly. “And there would have been no Bankside without one, if all the titters and ‘poor kid’ whispers for six years didn’t clue you in. Five kids doesn’t leave a family much money for college. Or expensive name-brand shoes.”
Cameron looked away. “I’m sorry for what I said to you in seventh grade,” he finally mumbled. “I was a stupid, rude kid, and I should have said I was sorry years ago.”
Mary-Jo blinked rapidly. There’s what she’d wanted to hear as a gawky twelve-year-old. “Apology accepted.”
“Thank you. Do you really have four siblings?”
She nodded. “Me, Emily, Jane, Lydia, and Paulette. All girls. You?”
“I'm an only child.”
The two of them got lost in conversation until the café’s closing hour. “Meet there next week?” Cameron asked as they pulled up besides her dorm hall.
Mary-Jo fidgeted. “I can’t afford eating there weekly.”
“My treat every time, then,” Cameron said, and there was a dimple in his cheek when he smiled.
Three years after they went from study-dates to just-dates, Cameron proposed to Mary-Jo just after Valentine’s Day. She could barely stammer out her yes through her tears. His parents booked the Ivy Meadows clubhouse for an October wedding. All four of Mary-Jo’s younger sisters were bridesmaids.
Mary-Jo wore pale pink flats under her five-thousand dollar dress at the reception.
Cameron didn’t tell anyone his new wife had bought them secondhand for ten dollars.
Bankside Academy Class of 2005 - Ten-Year Reunion! the marquee on the hotel sign read.
Mary-Jo squeezed Cameron’s hand as they walked to the Sunlight Ballroom. “Who’s going to be the most floored that I’m ‘Mrs. Cameron Williams’?”
Cameron grinned. “Definitely Jessica Thompson.” He glanced at the black strapped sandals she was wearing. “You always wear the prettiest shoes.”
“Got them at Payless. Don’t announce it to everyone in the room.”
Cameron huffed. “Will I ever live that down?”
“I plan to tell our children the first thing their father ever said to me was my shoes were cheap.” Mary-Jo kissed his cheek. “And I took years to forgive him.”
|# ? Feb 4, 2018 22:11|
It bothered Monty that his wife still hadn’t smiled. It had been a month since he’d brought her back from the dead. The muscles in her cheeks were fully functional. It wasn’t paralysis. She knew who he was. She hadn’t suffered any memory loss. It was something else. Something he couldn’t figure out.
“Hey,” he said softly. “Have you been in here all day?”
They’d designed the library together. Kate had always wanted a library growing up and when her father died that’s how they spent the inheritance money. They had made it the largest room in their house. Calling it a room was almost an insult. Hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings, stained glass windows, two stories tall and filled with books upon books, it was a veritable cathedral to the literary arts. A place of worship for the written word. But now it was just collecting dust. Kate had kept her affinity for the space but not for its purpose. The books she had piled together before she died remained where she had left them. Unopened. Undisturbed. And the room was dark now save for the flickering of a television screen casting colors onto the shelves.
The newest addition-- a television. Plus a couch. Both placed dead center. Monty stood in the doorway and watched her watch the screen. Her back was to him.
“Have you been in here all day?” he asked again.
“Yes,” Kate said without turning her head. She slowly picked up a single piece of popcorn and placed it on her tongue. “Except for a few trips to the kitchen.” She sucked the salt and the butter off her thumb. “I never liked popcorn. I remember that but I don’t remember why. I don’t have any memories as to why. It’s delicious.”
“You never liked television, either.”
“I know,” she said. “How strange.”
He pinched his nose and leaned against the doorframe. “Watch anything good today?”
“Oh, it’s all good,” she said. “I’m discovering that everything has its charm. As long as you’re willing to look for it.” She removed the kernel from her mouth, flicked it into a second bowl, and grabbed another piece of popcorn. She sucked her thumb clean in the same practiced gesture as before. “Why didn’t you name me something clever?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Science fiction,” she said, gesturing at the television, “tropes this constantly. Everyone is always oh-so-clever when it comes to naming things. Thomas is a doubter. Lupin is wolfish. Ariadne solves the labyrinth. Mr. Solo is a loner.” She still hadn’t turned to face him. “I could have been an Eve. Or an Ava. A Persephone. Onomastically speaking, I’m partial to Eurydice myself. Seems particularly fitting given our circumstances. Why didn’t you give me a new name?”
Was this is a joke? Monty straightened up. “I didn’t give you a new name because your name is Katherine. Because... that’s just who you are,” he said. “Because you’re the same person.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Am I though?”
Yes, he thought. Same memories. Same experiences. Same... body. Same person. “Yes,” he said.
Kate turned back to the television. After a moment, Monty left the room. There was an awful, gnawing pit in his stomach.
They sat across from one another. Silverware sat untouched. Kate broke the silence.
“Oven-roasted salmon with glazed brown sugar and a toasted almond parsley salad on the side,” she said. “It was on the Food Network at 2:30 this afternoon. It seemed easy. It was.”
“It looks delicious,” Monty said. He didn’t have an appetite. Only that same pit. It had been whispering foul thoughts to him for hours. He forced a smile. “Looks great.”
“I know it bothered you,” she said, straight-faced as always, “cooking for both of us all those years. I don’t why I was so resistant to learning how to contribute in the kitchen. It’s quite simple. Just following directions and- well, you cook. You know all that already.” She scratched her temple. The scar from the procedure was red but fading. “Not hungry?”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “Sorry,”
“Neither am I.” She pushed her plate towards the middle of the table. “Not for this anyhow. Fish. Salad. Truth be told, I think I could spend the rest of my life just eating popcorn. There’s something about that combination of salty and sweet…” She looked up at the ceiling as her words trailed off with her thoughts. “I would need to supplement my diet, of course,” she said. “Vitamins and such. But that’s one of the beauties of living in the modern world, isn’t it? You can largely do as you please.”
“Do you love me?” He hadn’t meant to say it.
Kate paused. She watched his face. “I’m fond of you, Monty, yes.”
“That’s not what I asked.”
“I know what you asked.”
He exhaled sharply through his nose. He propped his elbows on the table and he pressed his knuckles into his eyes until he saw stars. They sat in silence.
“I’m going to go watch television,” Kate said quietly.
Monty waved her off with a slight motion of his fingers. He didn’t open his eyes. He heard the soft scrape of table legs on linoleum and then nothing again. Silence again.
Her found her in the library. In the dark. He cleared his throat.
“Can you turn off the television, please?”
He couldn’t hear her sigh but he could see it. He could see her shoulders rise and fall. She reached for the remote and turned off the power and plunged the room into pitch black. Monty cursed himself under his breath. He fumbled at the wall for the lightswitch.
When the light's came back, Kate was sitting half-turned on the couch so she could face him. “Yes, Monty? What is it?”
His face was red. “Do you love me?”
“Yes,” she said. Her face was inscrutable. “I love you.”
“Why didn’t you say it at dinner?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, pursing her lips. “I should have.”
“Why didn’t you say it at dinner?”
“I’m saying it now!”
“But you don’t mean it!” With a shaking hand, he rubbed his forehead. “You don’t mean it.”
Kate sighed. She moved the popcorn bowl, sat up, and pushed off the couch. She took a step towards Monty. “I love you,” she repeated. “I’m sorry.”
“You don’t smile anymore. You don’t laugh anymore. You don’t read.” He wiped his eyes. “You look at me sometimes like you don’t know who I am.”
“Monty, I- I don’t know who you are.”
He stared at her. A tear ran down his cheek. “We’ve been married for years.”
“We have a lifetime’s worth of memories and experiences-”
“Yes,” Kate hissed. “But they aren’t my experiences! They aren’t my memories!” She rubbed her temples and paced the hardwood floor. “I have all this- this stuff in my head. But it’s all second-hand. Our marriage, our wedding, our first kiss, our attempts to have children, our failures, our fights, they aren’t mine! I haven’t experienced them. They are no different in my mind then a book on one of these shelves. That’s why I don’t read, Monty. Because it reminds me of this truth and it hurts. I’m grateful for you but...” She wiped her eyes with one hand and grabbed a book at random. Shūsaku Endō’s Silence. She pointed it at him and waved it to emphasize each word. “If Garupe or Ferreira or Kichijiro walked into this room right now I would know about them but I wouldn’t know them. That’s what it’s like being in this house with you. I know about you. I don’t know you.”
They were both crying.
“How- how do I introduce myself?” Monty asked. He couldn’t help but laugh through his tears.
Kate shrugged and threw her hands up and smiled for the first time. “I don’t know.” She laughed and wiped her eyes.
She put down her book and he leaned against the wall. They each took a moment to quietly compose themselves again. Monty took a deep breath.
“Do you want to watch some television?” he asked.
“What- what do you want watch?”
Monty shrugged. “I don’t care,” he said. “I honestly don’t care. I don’t know what’s even on these days. Something you haven’t seen before. Something we can sit and watch and make our own opinions about. Something new for us both.”
Kate nodded. “Yeah,” she said. “I’d like that.”
He smiled at her and she smiled back.
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 00:43|
Magpies in the Black
Flash rule: Niu Lang and Zhi Nu (Chinese mythology)
Fengxia's husband is half a star system away, and yet she feels his presence everywhere. Each morning, as she wakes and dresses, her gaze moves in turn to her mementos: her last family portrait, then the smooth stone from their garden, then the portrait again. When she takes her meals in the engineers' commissary, each soy cutlet reminds her of Tsung-Dao tending the vats and hydroponics, and she thanks him silently as she adds peach preserves to her golden congee. On her walk to work, as her path takes her past the entrance to the Academy, memory and association work in chorus; she thinks of her days alongside Tsung-Dao within the Academy cloister, and she thinks of her children hard at work there, of their luminous dark eyes inherited from their father. The children favor Fengxia, but she is grateful they have Tsung-Dao's eyes.
Memory of Tsung-Dao follows Fengxia to work every day, but in her workshop, the past is overtaken by the present. There's her work, the constant thrum of little projects that makes up every day for a Midpoint Station engineer, but there's also the calendar silently counting the days on Supply Planet Epsilon. Today is the fifth day of Epsilon's seventh month, high summer; Fengxia remembers the taste of dust from the summer storms. Tsung-Dao will be reinforcing his greenhouse walls and checking his irrigation systems. She has cable testing to run, budgeted for eight hours' work time, in reality not more than six. Two hours of freedom, she thinks, will be enough to prepare the magpies.
Fengxia's marriage, and the "eccentricity" left by her time on Epsilon with Tsung-Dao, is an open secret to her colleagues. After the departure of the old senior climate-control head, who'd called her "Dirt-Digger" until he'd received his orders to spend four years working planetside systems on Supply Gamma, nobody's mentioned or asked about it or about the magpies. She isn't the only one with a downtime project, after all, or with "eccentricities." One day, Fengxia would like to work up the nerve to speak and to ask. For now, she is content to work in silence.
Fengxia thinks of Tsung-Dao walking the rows of vats, and she borrows his diligence to work through the cable testing. She tries not to think of the communications arrays the cables are bound for, the cross-systems comms that justify Midpoint Station's existence but that allow only basic shipping/receiving notices and emergency calls to the supply planets. How little of the arrays' power would it take to call Tsung-Dao twice a day, a simple "good morning" and "good night," and why will she never have it? It makes her think of her mother's stories about Earth: how the planet was covered with undrinkable water, so one might die of thirst in the middle of the ocean. Fengxia is that thirsty castaway, adrift on a sea of comms that only make her lonelier. Instead, she has the magpies, and the one day a year that she can launch them to reach Tsung-Dao on Epsilon. Her thoughts have grown heavier as the day has grown closer, and when she finally finishes her tests and takes the locked box from under her work table, she cannot bear to dwell on it any longer. To happier work.
The magpies are named for another one of her Mother's Earth stories, about cheerful black and white thief-birds. They're black and silver, all bright metal and dull power panels, and every one of them is a theft from the materials stores of Midpoint Station. This year, there are seven -- fewer than she'd like, but all that she could afford, and hopefully enough that at least one will survive to reach Epsilon. She spends her two hours nervously double-checking connections and reinforcing solder joins, and when she's mostly content, she withdraws seven data sticks from her pocket and snaps each into place in a storage compartment on a magpie's back. Each stick holds the same set of video diaries from her and from the children, the stories of their lives to send across the gulf of space to Tsung-Dao. If the magpies survive, the data sticks surely will. It's the new module she's worried about.
It's an experiment, an illegal and treasonous experiment: a signal hijack for the shipping/receiving comm line to provide unauthorized video uplink, perhaps ten minutes' worth. The components require stronger shielding, more metal scrap, and infinite risk. Years ago, Fengxia might have been afraid of the consequences, but now her only fear is mechanical failure. If this works, it's worth it. If it doesn't?
She refuses to consider it, not when she's still got so much to do. Fengxia packs each magpie carefully away in her carrying case before tidying her workbench and starting on her way to the cargo bay. An engineer with a toolcase is always well-camouflaged, and nobody questions her stepping into a probe-dispatch bay. Fengxia glances behind her, where the cargo workers pay her no mind, and tells her thundering heart to quiet. This will all be worth it, soon.
Fengxia opens the probe-dispatch chamber, then her case. She picks up each of her magpies in turn, kisses it on top of its "head," then places it in the chamber. When they're all assembled, a little nest of hopes, she closes the chamber, enters the coordinates, and presses the button to launch. There's no viewport, but she can see them in her mind: her magpies flying through the blackness, towards Epsilon, towards Tsung-Dao.
Fengxia exhales and waits for the rush of fear that comes with sending the magpies on their way. This year, it doesn't come. After seven endless years without Tsung-Dao, after six dispatches of messages and love and hope, after months of finding a new way -- she simply has no fear left. If there's shame and exile in this for her, or simply disappointment, she's beyond caring. Only the hope matters.
The magpies will be a day in transit. She'll see him soon.
Tsung-Dao's wrist monitor beeps in late afternoon, just as he's finished the day's maintenance on the greenhouse irrigation lines. In summer, the task is endless, but it's easy, comfortable work. He's always had a knack for that sort of dirty necessity; as he wipes the grime off the face of his monitor he's smiling, even before he reads the message. DRONES LANDED, the display scrolls; NORTH SPIRE.
Tsung-Dao presses the "acknowledge" button and starts jogging towards the ruins of the northern comm spire, left to corrode in the winds after the facility's construction. In the shadow of the leaning mass of plastisteel and glass fiber, the battered shapes of the drones huddle, as if to escape the wind. Fengxia's programming.
Tsung-Dao knew it was the day for her drones, but he hadn't dared to think about it. It's better to forget them and be surprised than to anticipate them and be disappointed. Now that he can see them, though -- three this year -- the anticipation is killing him, making his hands shake. He scoops up the drones and cradles them to his chest as he hikes home.
Tsung-Dao sets the drones down on his mudroom table as he changes clothes, shedding dusty work clothes in favor of something fresh and soft, and runs a hand futilely through his grimy hair. It's stupid -- Fengxia can't see him -- but he doesn't want to greet her looking work-filthy. He feels that acutely enough when he watches her video diaries, where she's pristine and perfect against the bright metal walls of Midpoint Station, and he's dustier and more weathered every year. Maybe it's best that she can't see him now.
He brings one of the drones inside and opens the familiar bit of its casing to withdraw the data stick. He slots it into his vidplayer, and the screen is filled with Fengxia, warm golden skin glowing in the silvery light of the Station. "Hello, darling. Before we begin, could you press the blue button on the magpie, please? Press and hold for ten seconds."
Obediently, Tsung-Dao flips over the "magpie" and holds the button down. A hatch on the thing opens, and a black-and-white holoprojection springs to life from it, of... Fengxia's quarters? He can see her dressing table, with the flat riverbed stone they'd found together, just after they'd made landfall. There are footsteps, and then Fengxia comes into view, hair bed-tousled.
"They made it," she says. "Tsung-Dao. It's you."
It's live video, he realizes. It's live video, and if she can see the wear in his face, she doesn't care. She's aglow with delight, and warmth floods Tsung-Dao's chest. It's her. It's her.
"Fengxia," he says, the only word he can think to say. "Darling."
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 02:09|
Darren lost his breath the first time he saw May. She was climbing out of her dad’s Jeep on the first day of school. She turned around and pulled her bag out of the back seat. Then she walked past into the school.
He didn’t know who she was, then. He soon found out there was just one problem. She was dating his best friend.
Darren and Sam and been friends all through high school. They were an odd match. The team gave him poo poo for hanging out with the drama kid who always wore black, but after Darren got in a fight over it in his first month, they mostly backed off.
But late this summer, Sam had stopped wanting to hang out, blowing him off and canceling. Eventually, he got fed up and went to Sam’s house to confront him directly.
He got up in his face. “Man, are we cool?”
“Yes! C’mon, Darren!” Sam tried to squirm away, but Darren wasn’t going to let him get away that easily. He knew his tricks too well, and Sam didn’t stand a chance against the linebacker. “We’re fine! We’re fine! Cut it out! Ow, Jesus.”
Darren let him go. “So what’s up with you, then? I thought we were tight, but it’s like you’ve been ghosting me for weeks.”
“Ghosting? You sound like…” Sam rubbed his pierced lip. “No, dude, we’re cool. Just… this girl, she’s new here, a sophomore, I ran into her and I’ve been showing her around.”
“Ohh.” Darren smirked. “Giving her the grand tour, huh?”
“Yeah—hey, don’t make this weird, man. She just moved in down the street. I’m just helping her get situated.”
“I’m serious, Darren.” Sam narrowed his eyes. “Don’t just show up here unannounced or something. Don’t gently caress this up for me.”
Darren tried to laugh it off. “OK, whatever you say, dork. I won’t gently caress this up.”
He was about to gently caress it all up.
He had Photography class with her. Ordinarily, he couldn’t have given less of a poo poo about photography. But she was really into it—she seemed to have an answer to every question the teacher had. And he needed to get a good grade here.
I’m just going to ask her for help for the scholarship, he told himself.
He walked up and said hi to her after the bell rang. “It’s May, isn’t it?”
She looked confused. “Yes…”
“I’m Sam’s friend. Darren.” Nothing.
He’d never mentioned him to her.
“So, I was wondering,” he said as they walked down the hall to the next class. “I don’t know about any of this stuff, f-stops and shutter speeds and film stock. But I need this last elective to graduate, and I already took weight training and I’m not allowed in track anymore, so… Can we help each other? You know, meet and go over stuff from class?”
“Um… sure, I guess.” She gave him a half-smile and stopped outside the stairwell. “I have to go this way.”
“Cool. Thanks. Thanks! See you.”
At the end of the day, May looked at her texts from Sam.
how was it
They didn’t have any classes together. His elective had been full when she had gone to sign up, and they had different lunch periods.
cool. wanna come over after
She thought about asking him about Darren. Then—not sure exactly why—she decided not to.
Darren was hoping for a football scholarship. His grades had never been high enough to get any recognition, and he was no good at taking tests. The ACT had been a disaster. So the scholarship was his last ditch golden ticket to get out of this town.
The college scouts were coming around and watching them play at practices. He had gotten some early interest, but wasn’t exactly the star of the team. So far, the interest was only tentative, no real bites. That meant he’d need to keep his grades up. And that meant passing Photography.
He and May met every Wednesday. (Mom had raised an eyebrow at that—“I hope you know what you’re doing, Buster. And you don’t treat her like the last ones.” He’d rolled his eyes—“It’s not like that, Mom”—and shut himself in his room. She usually worked late, anyway, so she shouldn't be around.) They first met at the library, then his place—every time she had some excuse or reason why they couldn’t go to hers.
And they did work on studying for the weekly exams. …the first few weeks.
Darren made the first move. He was standing beside her at the kitchen table, going over the aperture math, when he leaned over to kiss her. She didn’t pull back… but there was something wrong.
He opened his eyes and her face was blank. “What’s wrong?” Blink. “Was it bad? …should I have not…?”
“No…” May frowned. “I’m not… it’s just…”
“It’s Sam. You two are dating, aren’t you?”
“Yes. No. I mean…” She bit her lip. “We’re not, really. Not really. He’s a friend. It was good to have someone to talk to here—he was the first one I saw around my age when we first moved here—but… I don’t know. He’s so involved in the yearbook all the time, and I mean, he’s funny, but…” She shook her head. “I don’t think we… fit.”
“All right. Well, we can keep it quiet, if you want?” He touched her hand.
May closed her eyes, then nodded.
“I don’t want to lose… him or you.”
“You don’t have to.”
Winter break was coming up. Darren came into homeroom and saw Sam was one of the few already in his seat at the back of the room. His eyes bored into Darren, then turned back to his desk.
He walked over. “What’s up, Sam?” The final bell hadn’t rung yet. The classroom was still mostly empty.
“gently caress off.”
Mr. Medevsky’s eyes shot up, but he said nothing.
“What? Hey, listen, Sam…”
“I said back off!”
“Mister Robinson.” Mr. Medevsky’s voice was ice at the end of the room. “I don’t want to have to engage in disciplinary action with either of you. Mister Thomas, I suggest you go and take your seat.”
Darren did what he asked, then pulled out his phone under his desk.
does he know
he s getting to paranoid
he kept asking and I didn't know what to say
I told him about us
Darren tried to talk to Sam after the bell, but he pushed him away.
“No. You two can go gently caress yourselves. I don’t care.” Near tears, he pushed out into the crush of students.
“I’m sorry about Sam.” May rubbed Darren’s arm. They were sitting at his kitchen table, trying to focus on the big test coming up. And failing.
He sighed. “Me too.” He stared at the side of her head for a moment. “May… What do you want to do? I mean, what’s this all for?”
She tilted her head. “I want to be a photographer. I almost don’t care what… or where… or who I’m shooting for. I can do it just about anywhere, I think.”
He nodded. She could. The pictures he’d seen, that she’d been willing to show him, even just the snapshots on her phone, were just… breathtaking.
Darren, on the other hand…
He sighed again. Then he turned back to the textbook. “All right. Now, the study guide says to focus on the types of film…”
Flash rule: Lancelot and Guinevere
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 03:19|
One hour until submissions close.
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 04:00|
Flash Rule: Balthamus and Baruch from His Dark Materials
In Jinbik’s experience, people only went to Gravemold’s to black out on whatever concoctions its undead bartender whipped up. It was the last place he expected to find Vuo, the famous ghost hunter, clutching a carafe of water.
“I thought ghost hunters usually drank the hard stuff,” Jinbik said, approaching the bar. The burly ghost hunter whipped his head around and sized up Jinbik. Despite Gravemold’s location in the city’s deepest dregs, there was enough light to twinkle in Vuo’s eyes.
Jinbik sat down next to the man and ordered a fungal ale. Jinbik said, “Don’t worry, I’m not with the Inquisition. I have a job for you.”
Vuo bristled at the imposition. He glared at Jinbik and said “What makes you think I’m still in operation?”
Jinbik took a big swig of the pungent ale, wiped foam from his lips and said, “I’ve been following you since before the Baroness came to power. My sister idolizes you; she still has one of your old posters.”
A puff of dust spun into the air as Vuo scoffed. “I only take on interesting cases.” Jinbik could tell his gambit had worked. Vuo was intrigued despite himself. Jinbik had to conceal a smile with his mug of ale. He launched into his story.
“I saw a ghost when I was a kid. The drat thing appeared at the foot of my bed one night. It took years of therapy and meditation to get over my insomnia. But I dreamed about the ghost a few nights ago, and again last night. Instead of feeling terror, it brought me peace. I need to see it again, put all this behind me.” Vuo sighed, but Jinbik pressed on.
“I think the ghost was young, maybe six or seven. I first saw it about twenty years ago.” He had Vuo’s full attention now. “Vuo, it could be your brother.”
Vuo led Jinbik on a winding path through the bottom layer of the city. The latter had to hustle to keep up; Vuo’s muscular legs gave him a powerful stride.
Vuo had left Gravemold’s after Jinbik mentioned the brother. It was a calculated manipulation. For all Jinbik knew, his ghostly visitor really could be Vuo’s brother, the reason Vuo had started ghost hunting at all.
They had come from to the city from the southern reaches, where the continent met the sea. Their religion strictly forbade belief in ghosts, but Vuo had always been a rebel. Grenu, Vuo’s younger brother, was as devout as a priest, even at a young age. Vuo stuck up for himself when bullied, so the bullies turned to Grenu for having a heretic brother. Thus, Vuo blamed himself when Grenu was found bludgeoned to death in an alley. It turned into a quest to find Grenu’s spirit and atone.
They stood in front of a lichen-caked tenement building. Jinbik asked, “You brought me to your house?”
“Don’t get your hopes up. I need to get some stuff if we’re hunting a ghost.” Vuo slipped into the door and closed it before Jinbik could follow. Jinbik heard the bulky southerner stomp upstairs. Another minute and Vuo returned to the stoop with a small pack slung over a shoulder.
He said, “Some of my brother’s meditation paraphernalia. Worth a try, eh?” Vuo flashed a smile.
Jinbik hoped the man wouldn’t be disappointed. He had no idea if this ghost was Vuo’s brother or not. Yet he strongly hoped it was. He liked when Vuo smiled.
The men trekked up to the middle tiers of the city, where southern immigrants had built their temples. It was morbid; Vuo was almost certainly taking them to where Grenu had died. As Jinbik stared at Vuo’s muscular back, he remembered the ghost in his dream and tried to will it to be this man’s brother.
Vuo kneeled down and Jinbik stumbled into him, toppled over with a gasp.
“This is the spot.” Vuo turned to look at Jinbik sprawled in the alley.
“A little warning next time,” said Jinbik as he sat up. “What do you need me to do?” Jinbik eyed Vuo, who had pulled a string of metal prayer beads from his satchel.
“Call to that ghost of yours. If you start to feel calm you’re heading in the right direction,” said Vuo. He wedged a stake between two cobblestones and began chanting under his breath. Feeling Jinbik’s skeptical glare he said, “I’ve seen hundreds of ghosts and this is how I’ve always done it. I could do without your judgment.”
“Right, sorry,” Jinbik said. He kneeled now in a pose approximating Vuo’s own. His mind returned to the ghost in his dreams. Small in stature, blurring the air like a heat mirage. Had it spoken? Did it have Vuo’s southern accent? He placed a hand on Vuo’s shoulder to steady himself.
In his dream, the ghost had calmed Jinbik, erased years of stress eking out a life in the city’s multiple tiers. He had awoken that morning and resolved to feel like that again. His false swagger when he strutted into Gravemold’s. His affected calm recounting his story... Now he had to do this. Not just for himself, but for Vuo. He barely knew the southerner, but was drawn to him nonetheless.
The ghost... The ghost... Jinbik tried to swivel his mind from Vuo and his broad shoulders to that tiny ghost. His forehead hurt from squeezing his eyes shut. Vuo’s chanting had stopped, so Jinbik cracked one eye open.
Vuo trembled in the presence of the small ghost and leaned onto Jinbik. Jinbik’s ears popped and the sides of his tongue tingled. A preternatural calm chilled Jinbik. He realized Vuo was chanting again, something different from before.
“It’s not him. It’s not him,” he was saying. As quick as it had appeared, the ghost flickered out of view. Jinbik hugged Vuo and helped the sobbing man to his feet. He took them to a nearby flophouse.
The events had broken Vuo. Jinbik didn’t realize how vulnerable the man was. Now he was filled with regret for putting Vuo through that. Jinbik had known a few men like that, feigning confidence to mask their true sensitive and empathetic self. Perhaps they could build something out of this shared misadventure. Hunting ghosts with Vuo--Jinbik would have something to taunt his sister with.
Jinbik did his best to console Vuo as night became dawn. Sunlight did its best to trickle to the city’s middle tier and into the flophouse room.
The pendulum of Vuo’s mood had swung from anxious and depressed back to the confident and resolved man Jinbik had met the day before. After a small breakfast, Vuo apologized profusely for himself and how he acted, but Jinbik just shrugged.
“I could have left if I had wanted to. To be honest, seeing that ghost again was exhilarating.” Jinbik held out a hand over the table. “I’d like to work with you; I want you to find your brother.” The thrills of ghost hunting--and the thrill of doing so with Vuo--were tantalizing to his tired mind.
He expected a dismissal, not a tender kiss. Vuo’s eyes sparkled as he said, “Then we better find some clients.”
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 04:39|
Flash Rule: Sam Vimes and Lady Sibyl
You know what they say, every marriage ends in divorce or death. Not that many people bother with getting married these days. Still, every last love affair ends in either a painful breakup or someone dancing with the reaper. I wonder which one demonic possession counts as. Little bit of column A, little bit of column B I guess.
She was human, screaming, Frozen in fear. Understandable. Her boyfriend just grew an extra pair of arms and dark brown horns and a new burning soul ready to put into practice all of the ideas about pain and torture that thousands of years contemplation in the netherrealms brought about. I draw my Peacemakers and started firing. A lot of the other hunters use more modern guns. It's a trade-off. The newer guns tend to jam or fail completely a lot more often with seriously blessed ammo. The classics don't have that problem, but they also don't have high-capacity magazines or nearly as much stopping power per bullet. My two cylinders almost empty before he stops moving, one bullet left in the right-hand gun.
She's not grateful, still screaming. They rarely are, not right away. Then I hear the rip of her flesh and her own extra arms and horns start to emerge. “This,” I mutter to myself as I take aim, “is at least a dozen kinds of bad.” I should have a partner out here.
One shot. A solid hit to the eye won't be enough to take this thing down, but it should slow it down a few steps. I take aim and fire, then let the Colts drop as I reach behind my back for my axe. It reels back. The hit was good. It crouches, springs at my next. I swing, and blessed steel tears through spine and throat. The body is still twitching, but not moving with enough purpose that I need to do any more dismembering. Good thing. The ichor in the thing’s blood has stripped off the blessings and started to corrode the metal already.
I don't have time to cool down. I collect the peacemakers and get back into my car, put dispatch on speaker as I reload.
“Samantha Quinn reporting. Today's incursion turned out to be a double.”
“Acknowledged,” says Ramon. “Not the only one today.”
“Tell me we're dealing with a horde,” I say. That would be bad enough, understaffed as we are.
“No official word yet,” says Ramon. “But it's not looking good.”
One of the worst things about this job is that you can't swear, not without every blessed bullet and blade on you squealing with feedback and rattling in their pockets. I sign off, snap the revolvers shut, and call Michael.
“Hey, hon,” he says. “What's up? Aren't you on duty?” I can't make words come out. “Sam? You okay?”
“It's,” I say. “No. I'm not okay. It's bad. You've got to get out of town. Pull Josh out of class and get on the interstate.”
“What about you?” says Michael. “Hell,” (The bullets rattle.) “What about the rest of town?”
“If this is what I think it is,” I say, “They're good as gone. There'll be a check at the border. Children and Saints only.” Saints, not exactly a moral judgment. The kind of soul demons can't get inside. All of us at the Agency. Most of our loved ones, thankfully including Michael. Not many besides.
It's as bad as I thought. A polyhost incursion capable of at least geometric growth, possibly exponential. End of the world potential. Legion. Last time this thing got loose in the world we lost Indianapolis, and it wound up getting away anyhow. We’re going to make sure that doesn’t happen again. We have a plan in place. We’ve run the drills.
There are five working portals big enough to let this thing slink back home. Five field agents have to cover them. A solid area consecration is good enough to keep one closed for a day. Ramon gives me the address. I bring up Aquinas on my phone and he starts feeding me instructions.
It’s getting bad on the streets, multiple incursions. He’s starting to get creative, playing with shape and form. Tentacles. Fusions of hosts. Not quite organized enough to start blocking traffic, though. “Turn right at Hollyrod Avenue,” says Aquinas. “Would you care to confess your sins en route?”
“Not now,” I say. The agency’s non-denominational. We’re not even religious, technically speaking. We just find what works and use it. Once we managed to train an expert system in the functional rites, we secured the apostolic succession in the blockchain and issued them to each agent. More reliable than actual priests, and a ton more secure. I wheel around the corner, down a blind alley, and find the gate.
It’s in an abandoned shooting gallery, the evil vibes coming off the portal strong enough to have driven off even the most desperate addicts. Aquinas runs the rituals, consecrates the ground. One less bolthole for Legion. I get back in the car, start for the highway. I call Michael. No answer. I start to worry. He’s not going to just pull Joshua out of class. He’s going to take the whole class, at least, and probably get killed doing it. I almost turn around, head for the school. Then my phone buzzes.
It's Ramon. “Alfie didn't make it,” he says. I set the blessed weapons feedbacking and Aquinas displays a disapproving glare.
“Where?” I ask.
“Sewers,” says Ramon. I turn the car around.
It's dark. I’ve got one pistol out and the phone in flashlight mode, slinking down the tunnel. I'm ready, but it almost surprises me anyhow, got to be made from three people originally. Mostly just bendy arms and suckers and beaks. It's taken some damage. My Peacemaker does some more. It lashes out, knocks the gun and phone from my hand. I draw my other Colt and unload it.
It goes down. But my phone is trash. No Aquinas, no consecration. No last time hearing Michael's voice either. I stagger forward, and almost trip over what's left of Alfie.
His phone is still working. His thumb is warm enough to unlock it. I start the ritual. It finishes just as the bombs start to go off.
We don't use nukes. Old joke: what do you get if you drop an A-bomb on a demon? An angry, radioactive demon. Anyhow, you can't bless a nuke. Just doesn't work. We use huge thermobaric bunker busters, in large numbers. The shockwaves knock me into the much, knock me out.
I'm not out long. I barely remember making my way out of the sewers, through the smoking ruins, to the survivor’s camps. Michael’s there, smiling broadly, standing beside Joshua and in front of a fleet of school buses.
“How did you-” I start to ask.
“If any of our drivers weren’t Saints yesterday, they are now,” he says. We hug. I almost say it doesn’t work that way, but the fact is we don’t know that much about how it works. The dead number in hundreds of thousands, the city is gone, but lots more survived than might have and Legion is off the rolls of the other side forever. It’s more of a win than I had dared hope for.
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 04:42|
Spirit of Place
One of the first things Annie had noticed when she'd moved into her aunt's West Virginia home was the house on top of the nearby hill, separated from her window by half a mile of wooded slope. Its lonely, ramshackle look had matched her feelings so well that she'd cried--for her dead parents and for herself, stranded far away all she'd known. She had come to love Aunt Rhea eventually, but the mountains and forests, never.
That house, though--
Annie turned her car onto the gravel road that climbed the hill in swoops and curves. Isaiah waited for her halfway up, smiling as she put on the emergency brake. "One of these days!" she called out the window. "I'll roll down your crazy drive and take five million trees with me."
"Oh, they'd stop you before you got far," he said, opening the passenger door and sliding in.
Isaiah had hair as dark as midnight shade, which was the first thing she'd noticed about him four years before. Since then Annie had become familiar with his oak-brown eyes and the gleam they had when she was happy. Such as now, when she warmed her lips on his and inhaled his woodsmoke scent. "Never get a real furnace," she said.
"No danger," he said, his fingers tangling with hers.
She drove slowly the rest of the way to his home. Either the house or Annie had changed since her initial viewing. The grey-clapboard structure appeared hale and strong. Wildflowers grew bright around the porch--more, it seemed, every time she visited. Isaiah led the way inside. They sat together at his dining table, spreading out their textbooks. His voice settled into the rhythm of tutoring her through sines and cosecants.
Annie had to break that rhythm before she lost her nerve. "Here, wait a second. I printed something out for you."
She passed papers to Isaiah. As he scanned them, his eyes darkened. "An application to Notre Dame."
"You'd have to submit it online, but that shows you what it looks like. I'm going to try. I thought maybe...." But he was already shaking his head, and the room felt five degrees colder. "Dammit, Isaiah!" Annie snapped. "You're too smart to rot here!"
"I belong here," Isaiah said, "like I've told you. This place is my soul, and vice versa. I'm its genius loci."
"That was a stupid joke even when we were kids. Now it's just--can't you just tell me I don't matter enough for you to even think about leaving with me? Don't dress it up in dumb fantasies."
Isaiah crumpled the application in his fist. "We both know you've never considered staying."
"I can't," Annie said. "I need something else, big skies, cities, I don't know, but something that doesn't remind me every day that my parents are dead!"
"Then maybe you should go."
She shoved her books into her bag and fled out a door that banged closed behind her. Her car roared down the hill. Somehow she didn't hit a tree; somehow she got home with her skin as well as her anger intact, and somehow she forced herself out of bed the next morning.
It was a school day, but Isaiah wasn't in their shared classes. Fine. She stumbled through trig without him and made it to the start of her work shift. Annie tended the counter in the town's one coffee shop and hated it: the in-and-out regulars were okay, but some of the people who lounged in the corners scared her.
One, an unfamiliar man, stared at her with dilated pupils through her last hour. She ran to her car as soon as she could. She hurried out of the parking lot, too, but a pair of headlights crept up behind her on the winding road home, where there was nowhere to lose him.
She knew better than to lead him to Aunt Rhea's, and that left one real option.
Annie switched her lights off and hit the gas, trusting her knowledge of the road's every twist and turn. The headlights dwindled out of view as she raced blind to Isaiah's house.
At the foot of his treacherous driveway, she flipped the lights on again--illuminating Isaiah standing beside the turn. Annie parked and lunged out of the car. "Help," she panted. "There's a man. Behind me--!"
Lights appeared around the nearest curve.
Isaiah grabbed her hand. "Come on!"
Up the hill they ran. The path shouldn't have been smooth, but it was. Tree branches bent away from them; every step found solid footing. Isaiah pulled Annie forward until he could wrap an arm around her, shielding her, and even side by side they moved easily through the woods.
The man after them had no such fortune, judging by the cracks and thuds and howled swears. The sounds got fainter as he lost ground, but they didn't stop. Annie shuddered at the memory of the man's drugged-out pupils.
From below: "Gonna gently caress you after I kill you, drat bitch!"
Isaiah stopped dead. His whole body stilled. The ground moved instead, roared and shook, drowning out Annie's startled shout and any cries below. Trees slid horribly down as a part of the hillside collapsed. And then there was no more sound but their uneven breathing.
"I'm not sorry," Isaiah finally said.
"Genius loci. Spirit of place." Annie buried her face in his shoulder. "Oh, God, you are, aren't you? You can't leave."
"I can't, Annie. And you can't stay. I know it. You can't be joyful here." Isaiah wrapped both arms around her and pressed his cheek to the crown of her head. His heart beat against her collarbone, and her tears dampened his shirt.
They held each other tightly on the damaged hill. Annie tried to believe that after college, after big skies and cities, she could come back to his mountains and forests, but she loved him too much to speak a promise she couldn't keep.
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 04:53|
|# ? Nov 21, 2018 18:17|
Castles in the clouds
Vanya was rebooting the library WiFi, head down and bum up under the counter, when the little bell rang. Vanya jerked her head, and clonked it on a shelf.
“Balls,” she muttered as she pulled herself up.
“Hi,” said the customer in a tall lanky sort of way. “I have, uh…” His voice trailed off as he looked at her. He had dark brown eyes.
“Books!” Vanya said into the silence, and reached out for his pile of returns. He didn’t let go of them. They stood in an awkward tug-of-war posture for a few moments.
She released her hold on the five hardbacks and took a step back, checking out of the corner of her eye for the municipally issued pepper spray.
“There’s a problem, my nephew, may have, he actually did, write on them. He wrote on them. Only pencil,” he added quickly.
Vanya gave him her number 3 frown, concern with a hint of censure. “Well,” she said. “Children will be children.”
The man winced. “He’s 35. Anyway, I have to go, so, uh, sorry. Thanks.”
Vanya called out to his back. “The books?” She rubbed the sore spot on the back of her head as he plonked them down and cannoned out the door.
Ten minutes after closing she sat down at her librarian’s desk in the back room, Staedtler Mars Rasoplast in hand, and picked up the first book. Borges, Collected Fictions. She opened it in the middle, smiling faintly, and riffled through the pages. Each page was covered in fine markings, annotations, diagrams. The blank sheet opposite ‘The Library of Babel’ had an intricate sketch rendering of the library, with its hexagonal chambers of books filling the page. She scanned the next, which seemed to be a poetic comparison of Borges infinite aleatoric library with a beehive.
She closed the book and weighed it in her hand, considering. Then she slapped it down on the desk with a thump and picked up the next, something science fictional with a cat person and a raygun. This one was illuminated too, gray word-filigree on every few pages. She looked at the pile and estimated the time it would take to clean them, one eraser stroke at a time.
Vanya’s frown deepened to number 5(b); cool rage with an overtone of admiration. She reached for the keyboard and tapped in a membership query, then picked up the phone.
The phone was answered by Daniel Swofford-Grey – that being the name of the pencil-happy customer. His voice on the phone was deeper than in person.
“This is the Library,” Vanya said. She paused for a moment, conscious for the first time of the oddity of a building calling a person. “These books are very heavily damaged.”
“I’m sorry,” said Daniel. “My, uh, nephew is extremely sorry too. How can I fix it? Have you read them?”
“No,” said Vanya. “You mean the books? I’ve read the Borges, I love it. Not really into science fiction.”
“The writing,” said Daniel. “The annotations.”
“I really want to go home, Mr Swofford-Grey. I don’t have time to read graffiti.” She tapped her fingernails on the plastic wrapping of one of the hardbacks. “I will have to ask you to replace the books, I'm afraid Library policy is--”
“Would you read the words?” Daniel's voice was urgent. “I'll replace all the books, or clean them. But would you read what I wrote?”
There was a pause of the exact length and quality to make it clear to both of them what he had just admitted.
Vanya opened her mouth, and closed it again. She wasn't normally lost for words. On the one hand, book vandals were a scourge. On the other, what she had read had seemed interesting and it couldn't hurt. And his eyes were that nice shade of brown.
“Well, then. I'll check them out for you and you can pick them up tomorrow. You can clean them or pay for them, up to you.” She hesitated at the expectant silence. “I'll look at the Fictions. I... liked your beehive drawing.” She felt her face flush, and put the phone down.
I hope he's not a loony she thought.
Later that night she was sitting in bed with her peppermint tea. The book was propped up on front of her.
At first the neat notings and jotted diagrams had seemed random, distributed across the orderly rows of Borges’ words like weeds in a garden.
She read one dense paragraph about classification systems in military libraries, and frowned at its juxtaposition with an intricately drawn lily. When an entire margin appeared to be filled with an concise analysis of the last scene in Dr Zhivago, but from the perspective of a blind man having the story described to them she sighed, and considered closing the book and putting it back on the nightstand.
But then, winding in and out of Borges’ story about leathery pampas horsemen, the writing caught her. It was, she realized, a mirroring of the story it coiled around like a climbing vine. She turned the page and read another fragment that was like the shadow cast by the paragraph it surrounded. The page after that was blank, and had a picture of a willow tree blasted by the sun.
Each word was an echo, like a ripple in water, filtered through metaphor and signs to make its own ripples. She turned back to the beginning and saw the connections she'd missed the first time.
She closed the book, two hours later. Her mind was a swirling vortex of intricate flotsam. At the center, a pair of eyes, dark brown.
She thought about the other four hardback books, sitting on her desk at the Library pregnant with words, and she thought about seeing Daniel again.
And each of those thoughts was like a balloon, lifting her up to the clouds.
|# ? Feb 5, 2018 04:56|