NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge, First Round Story: Last Call

Artist Unknown
Round One
Genre: Horror
Subject: An Allergy
Character: A Bartender

“Last Call”

“No,” I whispered, as my throat tightened around the word, and my eyes widened to try and stop the sudden surge of tears. The box was empty, and that meant she was going to die.

“No!” I slammed the lid closed and clenched the banged up metal lunch box. My fingernails dug into the scratched but smiling animated cars on the front. I’d never wanted to throw something as much as I did then. Of course I couldn’t do that, not with the rows of glass bottles full of precious rotgut surrounding me.

“Something the matter, Zella?”

Something the matter? It was a stupid question, since something was always going wrong in these demon-accursed times. Accusations roiled in my gut like rotten food I needed to vomit out to make everything better.

Who can I trust? That was a better question.

My best bet was the man who’d worked for me as a server while I tended the bar. I turned that very person, and his usual calm and controlled nature was almost my undoing. My lip trembled as I opened the lid to show him the medicine was gone, and his gentle amber eyes widened.

“That’s not possible. We just got back from Shaky’s three days ago,” he said in disbelief, the deep timbre of his voice rumbling in his chest like thunder. He ran a hand over the dark molasses skin of his scalp, and his short, white hair. It was a concession we all made now that a single bathroom item cost more than five bottles of rotgut.

“It is possible if you consider the worst,” I choked on the words.

Something slammed against the doorway leading to the back alley and rattled some of the bottles on the wall closest to it. A crack like a bull whip echoed off the brick walls outside, followed by a screech that was anything but human. Then the same something scrabbled away, leaving the alley. It all happened in seconds, but such occurrences were commonplace and no longer fazed us.

However, it was a grim reminder neither of us needed: ghoul.

“Maybe someone got—”

“The wards and defenses are solid. It had to be someone here,” I interjected, and waved a hand toward the bar. He frowned as he turned a wary glance up the stairs, and his thin shoulders hunched over his lean, six foot frame. It had been years since anyone could eat for more than survival, which meant bulky guys like Cal had thinned out. His grey t-shirt and faded jeans were baggy, with his belt cinched down to new holes in the worn, brown leather.

“No one’s come into the group in over four years. Do you think it’s one of them?”

I scowled at the question more than him, and I’d swung from distraught to livid as the answer formed on my lips.

“There’s no other explanation.” I crossed my arms over my chest, shifted my weight to my right foot, and jutted out a bony hip that was visible between my black tank top and ripped blue jeans. Alcohol had dried on my clothing from when I brewed, and wafted from me as though I’d taken a dip in one of the stills.

“Gather everyone up in the bar,” I said, and my eyes hardened at his hesitation.

“Even the padre?”

“Yes.”

With nothing left to say, Cal’s soft footfalls retreated. I never did understand how he did that; I tromped as loud as a horse on a wooden trestle bridge in my boots.

“Mommy?” The wobbly voice called down the stairs, and my heart clenched.

“Yeah, Haylie baby?” I asked, and moved so she could see me.

“Is everything okay?” Her voice was already wheezy, and she wavered on her tiny feet. “I don’t feel too good,” she said, and scratched at the hives on her arms. The light from the lamp mounted on the wall next to her glinted on the sheen of perspiration on her thin, sallow face. She had steel blue eyes like me, but when her hair was long it was like her father’s: curly and chocolate brown. God be damned, how I missed him. We’d lost him when the decimation tore across the land like a tornado and ripped our lives apart.

“Everything’s fine, baby. I know you don’t feel well, so why don’t you go lie down.” I did my best to keep the words soothing and unruffled, but what I wanted to do was break down and cradle her in my arms.

“Sing to me later?” she asked.

I smiled as best I could. “Of course, now go get some rest.” She turned and headed upstairs to the loft over the bar, and the smile dropped from my face like a weight. Before I followed Cal up the stairs, I grabbed a fixed blade karambit from the shelf next to me, and slid it into the back pocket of my jeans.

Time to get some answers.

<****>

As I expected, no one took the accusation well. What shocked me, though, was no one wanted to spend the rotgut to trade on more medicine.

“We’ve been talking about it,” Nick said, his tone and slate gray eyes harder than concrete, “and we think it’s time to stop her medication.”

My heart, which had sped up when the conversation began, stopped short as though I’d come to the edge of a cliff without warning.

“You know what will happen if we do that!” Cal exclaimed when I said nothing.

When the demons invaded the world, swarming over the earth like ants from a hill someone stepped on, everything turned to chaos. Millions died in the first wave, and once dead they rose as zombies to aid in the torment of the living. Some who died turned into zombies on steroids, or what we call ghouls. No one knew why a small percentage became ghouls, but most guessed it was something in their genes. As far as we knew it was an allergic reaction to the demonic aura pervading our world, and had all the symptoms of an anaphylactic response: hives, itching, feeling warm, nausea, dizziness, and a constriction of the airways. The difference was how the symptoms worsened over time instead of having a sudden onset.

“Yes, we do, but this has gone on long enough. The medicine isn’t working as well as it used to, and buying it is draining our resources,” Nick continued. The other four of our group shifted nervously behind him.

“Give the medicine back, Nick.” I was hoarse, and though my voice whispered through the room everyone tensed at my words.

The medicine, developed by backwater chemists, was like epinephrine. The downside was the medicine became ineffective after a few years. Those affected died a slow and painful death. Once they turned to ghouls they had to be exterminated by their families. Fire was the only way to kill a ghoul—even destroying the brain wouldn’t stop them.

“I don’t have it, and even if I did I wouldn’t give it to you,” he responded, and crossed arms over his chest. As Cal’s lean frame spoke of quiet, unyielding strength, Nick had always been more of a lanky wolf. His cheeks were gaunt with perpetual hunger, and his broad jaw clenched in stubborn opposition.

“I don’t believe you.”

“Like I give a shit. I don’t have it, and you’re not taking more rotgut to get it.”

The air crackled with tension and I curled my fingers, ready to grab the karambit.

“If you let my daughter die, I won’t brew for you or anyone else,” I countered, throwing down the biggest threat I had in my arsenal besides the knife.

“We can always join another group, or find another brewer,” Nick spat. He clenched his hands, prepared to take me down if I so much as twitched the wrong way.

I couldn’t help the manic laughter that burbled out of me. “What, you’d join Shaky and his lot of med heads? Or maybe you’ll swear to the priesthood?” I mocked, gesturing toward the priest. The man’s short-cropped hair was pumpkin orange, and his green eyes were the shade of spring grass. He wore traditional Catholic garb, an angelic expression on his freckled face, and he was the nicest person you’d ever hate. He was too good to be real, even for a priest.

I resented his presence as surely as I resented his God, but we needed him. He put the wards in place that helped keep us safe, and we were one of the few lucky establishments to warrant a full-time priest on site. Rotgut was major currency.

“Plus,” I added, “the few brewers around wouldn’t know proper brewing procedure if it jumped on a table and danced naked in front of them.”

Nick shook his head. “We’re not doing it.”

“Why?” I begged, needing to understand. “What has changed so much that you need to let my daughter die? You’re like an uncle to her—you’ve read her bedtime stories and helped take care of her.” I was pleading now, willing him to reconsider.

A shadow passed over his features, and he drew back like I’d struck him. He wavered on his feet, along with his resolve.

“Now Zella, don’t you think your daughter has suffered enough?” The priest’s soothing voice rolled over the group like a fog bank. Nick’s face clouded with a scowl, and he was steady on his feet again.

“This doesn’t involve you, Father Cormac.” My words were scathing, but his unperturbed smile never wavered.

“You always were too willful for your own good,” he said, his words like poisoned honey. He lifted his right hand, palm facing him, and closed it in a tight fist. The double front doors we thought were barred and warded slammed open. Zombies, with a smattering of ghouls, flooded through the doorway like a tsunami.

The people standing behind Nick were the first taken down, their screams wet with their own blood as the undead tore into their bodies, and ate them hand over fist. Nick had just enough time to grab one of the chairs from a nearby table and bash it over the head of the nearest zombie.

Cal dashed over to the bar, grabbed two machetes, then rushed over to hand one to Nick. The two of them waded through the walking bags of rotted flesh, cutting them down with ruthless efficiency.

I wasn’t an offensive fighter, but I could keep myself alive until someone more capable came along. All my value came from the ability to brew a mean batch of rotgut. As the guys handled the minions, I scanned the room for Father Cormac, but he’d disappeared.

Once they’d managed to shred or beat back the monsters, I helped them bar the doors once more.

“Demon bastard must have taken down the wards on the front door months ago, after the other priest was killed,” Nick said, out of breath and leaning against the door. The undead were still trying to get in.

“But how? I thought the wards repelled demons, too?” Cal panted. They were both covered in rotten guts from head to toe, and the smell was almost unbearable.

“I had the other priest remove them before I fed him to my horde,” the priest said from the doorway next to the long, dark wooden bar.

Nick’s and Cal’s eyes widened, and I turned in a slow circle on the spot, holding out hope the worst wasn’t still happening.

“Then I made sure the ghouls and zombies attacked anywhere but the front door, to perpetuate the illusion you were safe.”

“Mommy,” Haylie choked out.

Father Cormac, or rather the demon, had my daughter’s collar in the grip of one hand, and her medicine in the other.

“It was so easy getting these pathetic animals to obey me, and it took almost no effort to convince one of them to swipe the medicine. I could have done this years ago, but watching you all scurry to eke out a living in this wasteland is the only amusement I have.” The demon cackled, his eyes glowing like jewels as his face contorted into something ghastly. His bones elongated and contorted, his teeth turned to translucent needles, his tongue lengthened and forked, and his back burst from his black robes and hunched in on itself.

“All good things must come to an end, though, and this game has played itself out,” he lamented in a mocking tone, then dropped the vials from his fingers, which had grown spindly–like spider legs, the nails long and deadly. When the vials clinked to the floor he ground them beneath his boot heel.

“No!” I screamed my fury at the demon. As I ran toward him I pulled the karambit from my back pocket and lunged at his midsection, where his belly bulged like a bloated corpse.

The demon shrieked with glee, and yanked my daughter to shield him from the blow. The knife plunged into her body just below her sternum, and her eyes widened. I froze, the shock washing over me like an icy tide.

“Ah, delicious misery,” the demon hissed, and pushed her body into mine. He laughed, the sound echoing in my skull, and then vanished.

I collapsed and turned Haylie over in my lap, tears streaming down my face.

“Mommy,” she whispered, “sing to me, please?”

My smile was half-hearted, and I reached down to stroke her face, though I couldn’t see it through the tears. The pounding of the ghouls and zombies on the door, as well as the shouts from Nick and Cal faded in the background. I could smell nothing but the sweet scent that was hers alone, like lilies and spring water.

“Of course, baby,” I said, my voice hoarse from unshed tears. “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” I sang until she stopped breathing and her skin turned gray. Her eyes changed to burning red, like the fires of hell, and her teeth sharpened.

The doors finally gave way behind me to the panicked shouts of Cal and Nick, but nothing turned my gaze from Haylie’s. A feral awareness flooded her face, and she growled at me, like a rabid dog.

“I love you,” I said, my voice soft, right before she lunged for my throat. The pain was sharp, and would have drawn a gasp from my lips if I’d been capable. Haylie pulled back, teeth and mouth red with blood as she chewed my trachea. My vision wavered at the edges, and it was a race to see if I died first from blood loss or lack of oxygen. Everything faded, and as I slipped away I hoped we’d all be together soon.

I love you, baby.

Book Review: The Hammer and the Blade, by Paul S. Kemp

Egil and Nix, adventurers and swords for hire, are pulled into the dark schemes of a decadent family with a diabolical secret. A fast paced adventure redolent with the best of classic sword and sorcery tales.” — GoodReads

hammer-and-blade

The Hammer and the Blade is the first book in the Egil and Nix series by Paul S. Kemp. I had high hopes for it when I picked it up and read the interplay between the main characters in the first few pages. It was amusing, and I must admit I fancy main characters that are smart-asses. 
Egil and Nix aren’t out to save the world–just their corner of it. They bungled into a pact made between a sorcerer’s family and a family of demons, and jeopardized the sorcerer’s power base and life. As a result, they’re forced into helping the sorcerer fix the mess. That makes it sound as though the sorcerer is a victim here, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. 

 

As much as I enjoyed it, I can certainly see the flaws. But first, the pros:

  • I love the dialogue and wit between the main characters. It’s entertaining, and more often than not I was laughing out loud. 
  • Action abounds in the book, and in general keeps the story rolling. 
  • Nix’s personality is reminiscent of Silk’s in The Belgariad; flamboyant and a little over-the-top. Egil is a more steadfast character, and his comical delivery is dry in comparison, but no less amusing. 
  • Some of the world-building is interesting, and setting up (most likely) for stories later on. 

The cons:

  • For as long as the book was, I was surprised to see my progress and realize so little happened in regards to the story. I’m not sure where the filler went, for the most part, but it must have happened somewhere. There was no depth.
  • The characters besides Egil and Nix feel two-dimensional, and not very fleshed out. A couple of the guards, Baras and Jyme, get better treatment, so they’re not as bad. However, most of the others just feel flat. 
  • One of the scenes where they fight a demon is pages long, and went on for what seemed like forever. I enjoy a good action scene, but you need to know when to say; ‘Enough is enough.’
  • While I enjoy the wit and sarcasm, it undercuts the tension and thrill we should feel during tense and dangerous moments. 
  • The outrage the characters feel for the sisters’ potential predicament loses its credibility and punch when the sorcerer is defeated. I can see the whole, ‘turnabout is fairplay’ aspect, and an eye for an eye, but it does undermine their anger.


I’m giving the book 3.5/5 stars.

3-5-star

The book was a potato chip when I was looking for a baked potato. If there had been a little more depth to the characters and the story, it would have gone a long way.

I’d recommend this book if you need something light and entertaining, that you can put down at a moment’s notice if need be. It was good, but hopefully the second novel brings us a little more story and a little less wit.

Book Review: Staked, by Kevin Hearne

When a druid has lived for two thousand years like Atticus, he’s bound to run afoul of a few vampires. Make that legions of them. Even his former friend and legal counsel turned out to be a bloodsucking backstabber. Now the toothy troublemakers—led by power-mad pain-in-the-neck Theophilus—have become a huge problem requiring a solution. It’s time to make a stand.

As always, Atticus wouldn’t mind a little backup. But his allies have problems of their own. Ornery archdruid Owen Kennedy is having a wee bit of troll trouble: Turns out when you stiff a troll, it’s not water under the bridge. Meanwhile, Granuaile is desperate to free herself of the Norse god Loki’s mark and elude his powers of divination—a quest that will bring her face-to-face with several Slavic nightmares.

As Atticus globetrots to stop his nemesis Theophilus, the journey leads to Rome. What better place to end an immortal than the Eternal City? But poetic justice won’t come without a price: In order to defeat Theophilus, Atticus may have to lose an old friend.” — GoodReads

staked

Staked by Kevin Hearne
 
Staked is book #8/9 in Kevin Hearne’s The Iron Druid Chronicles. I have to admit, it’s not the best book in the series, and I was let down by certain aspects. The concept is still interesting, and I enjoyed the overall story itself, but there were a few issues I feel should be addressed:
  1. The book opens with a warning from the author that unless you’ve read A Prelude to War, you might be a little lost. For anyone who didn’t read the Author’s Note in Staked, they were even more lost than those of us who did. There have been very few book series I’ve read, where a short story between the primary books in a series contributes to the main storyline that heavily. Even then, the authors did a much better job at starting a novel that didn’t leave their readers feeling lost in the sauce. A Prelude to War is important to the primary storyline–gotcha. That doesn’t mean you just dump us off like we got a copy of a book missing the first few chapters. It’s obnoxious, and smacks of; “Give me more money!” I’m not saying that is Mr. Hearne’s intent, at all. However, for those of us who spend money on the hardback, only to be told we need to spend more money, it can be a little frustrating. Add to that the fact it’s only available on eReaders…well, needless to say it has upset quite a few people.
  2. I’m probably in the minority here, but too much emphasis is being placed on Oberon’s interactions. KH did a great job of making him an entertaining SIDE character in the other books, without making him overbearing. This book he didn’t stick with that. It seems to have gotten out of control, much in the way Minions have gotten out of control with Despicable Me. 
  3. I love first-person narration. I love writing in first-person narration. I really did not like having three different first-person narrators in the book, with only the chapter number art as the indicator as to who I was reading from. It was overly confusing, and slowed the reading and story up. It would have been a better story, and easier to read, if he’d switched to third-person. As it stands, it seems as though he started the series in first-person, realized he wanted to do the story from other perspectives, and rolled with the first person for everyone. It didn’t turn out as well as I’m sure he would have hoped. 
  4. Speaking of the narrators…Owen and Granuaile also miss the mark in this book for me. Owen is kind of put on the back burner, relegated to twiddling his thumbs, and I would have enjoyed more from him in the primary story, (rather than all the time put into Oberon, who needed no further development). Granuaile comes off as whiny, and fell flat as a character. Her daddy issues are superficial and yawn-worthy. Atticus has almost lost the spark that made people fall in love with his character. I’m left with the image of a chicken running around like its head has been cut off, for how the characters behaved in this book. That’s to say, a whole lot of nothing with a messy finish.
  5. Along with the Oberon issue, it feels as though KH is putting so much time into unnecessary things, (those Twitter things between Owen and Oberon, and Oberon’s book, or whatever it is), as well as other projects. It’s easy to see how the series has suffered as a result. 

Overall, I’m giving it 3/5 stars:

3-out-of-5

 

The only thing that kept it from being two, was essentially the high the series is riding from the other books. The third star is my hope that the final book of the series brings back the aspects of the story, and characters, that made us fall in love with the series in the first place. As a stand-alone? The book would get two stars. 

I’ll be purchasing Scourged (#9, final book) when it comes out, but that’s only because I have to know how it ends. If I was told to expect more of what this book gave me, I’d rather live with not knowing than waste my time. 

I’ll have to see how the last book ends before I recommend the series to anyone. I know I’d be pissed at me if I started with something so awesome, then got around to the last couple books. 

Book Review: The Summoner, by Gail Z. Martin

The comfortable world of Martris Drayke, second son of King Bricen of Margolan, is shattered when his older half-brother, Jared, and Jared’s dark mage, Foor Arontala, kill the king and seize the throne. Tris is the only surviving member of the royal family aside from Jared the traitor. Tris flees with three friends: Soterius, captain of the guard; Carroway, the court’s master bard; and Harrtuck, a member of the royal guard. Tris harbors a deep secret. In a land where spirits walk openly and influence the affairs of the living, he suspects he may be the mage heir to the power of his grandmother, Bava K’aa, once the greatest sorceress of her age. Such magic would make Tris a Summoner, the rarest of magic gifts, capable of arbitrating between the living and the dead.” — GoodReads

 

summoner

 

The Summoner is the first book in Gail Z. Martin’s Chronicles of the Necromancer, and despite its girth it’s an easy, breezy beautiful cover girl. Er, I mean read. Damn jingles. In reality, it reads as something that might do better in the Young Adult section than adult. If you enjoyed Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, this might be a book series for you. It has the same kind of general feel to the storyline. It’s dark, but there’s no Lovecraft-ian monster lurking in that darkness. 

There are some books I read for the twists, the surprises, and the depth of the plot. This isn’t one of those series. The plotlines are predictable, the character arcs are similarly foreseeable with cliche characters, and it has all the earmarks of the classic hero’s journey. Sounds boring, right? Well, not completely. 

It has some pretty interesting concepts: the Eight Faces of The Lady, a ‘good’ necromancer, being able to see ghosts on Haunts (Halloween), and the world in general. It makes the read enjoyable and interesting, but as I said, very easy on the mind. 

What really made me enjoy this book? Sometimes you need something almost modern, fairytale-like, where the good guys prevail after a few hardships, and the bad guys lose. Real life is messy, and having a story where everything fits nice and neat is relaxing. Think of this series as the opposite of what you’ll see in A Song of Ice and Fire, as far grittiness and plot. 

Most of the pros and cons below can double as both, as you’ll note in the lists. 

The Pros:

  • Engaging concepts, as noted above. 
  • Easy read for moments where you don’t have a lot of time to read, and don’t want anything that’ll get you in trouble for staying up late to read it.  
  • You know the good guys are going to prevail despite the hardships, and nothing overly horrific will happen to them. Everyone ends up with who and where they should.
  • It’d be good for teens looking to get into adult fantasy, without their parents having to worry too much about the content. 
  • Gives you the feel goods.  

The Cons:

  • There’s no real depth to the plot. You see everything coming from a mile away, whether it concerns the overall story or the character arcs. 
  • The good guys don’t face any true life-threatening hardships. The worst that might happen is hurt feelings, and some bruises. Honestly, The Hunger Games, is darker and grittier than this book, and THG is slotted for teens. Even on the first read-through, there was no real sense that any of the characters were in true danger.
  • Your teens could read this.
  • It was a lot of book to give us nothing new in the genre, except a world that was more engaging than the characters.

It’s getting 3/5 stars:

3-out-of-5-stars

 

Overall, if you’re looking for a book where you won’t need to think too hard, and is essentially a 637-page fairytale, this is for you. I’d also recommend this for teens more than adults. I’m not saying teens can’t handle deep concepts, because they can. However, if they’re looking for something that gives them a classic hero’s tale and won’t traumatize them, this is it.

If you prefer Game of Thrones-type stories, this is absolutely not for you, and will seem like absolute fluff in comparison.

Huh, fluff. That is a good word to describe this book. It’s fantasy fluff.

So if you’re looking for a little feel good fluff in your reading time, pick up The Summoner by Gail Z. Martin. If you’re looking for nitty gritty, this is not the book you are looking for. /waves hand

Potato Chip Prompt: One for Sorrow

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One for sorrow
Thick as her blood
Two for joy
Sun after the flood
Three for a girl
Eyes open forever
Four for a boy
Who’s ever so clever
Five for silver
The gleam of his knife
Six for gold
Why he’s taken her life
Seven for a secret
Never to be told
Eight for a wish
To never grow old
Nine for a kiss
Of forbidden desire
Ten for a bird
Stole the tongue of a liar
Eleven for a funeral
The coffin so small
Twelve for Hell
Through broken glass they’ll crawl
And Thirteen for the Devil
Who’s come to take them all

Original Rhyme here.

Writing Prompt: (Graphic) Sometimes, the Low Road is More Satisfying

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Her hair was stringy and greasy, an unwashed, tangled mess of brown hair that was probably once a rich dark chocolate, but was now lackluster. The rope only allowed enough slack for her to stand on the balls of her feet, and the muscles in her calves twitched and jumped. Her face contorted and a small whimper escaped her throat, like a rabbit flushed from a bush, and she lifted her legs up enough to flex her feet.

“Cramps,” she said, breathless from the agony.

“Wh-where am I?” he asked, surveying the small, metal box of a room. The dark gray walls ran with some kind of green mold intermixed with rust stains, like someone threw water on a particularly drab watercolor painting. A slow, steady trickle of water ran from the ceiling down toward a drain in the center of the room. Patches of dark red were splattered here and there, as though someone had taken a can of paint and tossed it about to add color.

There was a quivering spot, just below his sternum, that whispered, ‘That’s not paint.’ He resolutely turned his head, straining his neck to watch her, and waited for her response.

She shrugged, an interesting movement given her position. “I don’t know. I’ve been here a while,” she said, her voice raspy from disuse and thirst.

The end of her sentence echoed eerily against the walls, and should not have been possible in the tiny space. Her words thrummed through his mind, familiar in their cadence, and he tried to dig the memory out from the haze of his mind like a particularly obstinate rock from the dirt.

He turned his eyes away, not wanting to see his horror reflected in the muted despair and surrender of her dull hazel eyes.

“Don’t like it much, do you?” she asked, her voice changing from the consistency of gravel to the purr of a high-end sports car.

It snapped his head around like someone in a movie breaking a neck.

She was changed. No longer bound, she walked over to him, swaying her full hips. Jeans with artful rips in all the right places, and a v-neck, sleeveless coral shirt that shimmered in the low light that came from nowhere, yet everywhere, clung to her. She also wore a white, half-sleeve cardigan, and her hair was in in a messy carousel braid, hanging over her left shoulder and ample breast. Her strappy, caramel brown sandals had beads over the top of her foot, and revealed feet tanned to the color of Kahlua and Cream, just like the rest of her smooth skin.

His mouth went dry, and his heartrate picked up, beating against his rib cage like a man desperate to be released. He clenched his fists against the painful tightening in his jeans, and he licked his lips.

“Untie me, and you’ll find out just how much I like it,” he fairly growled.

She laughed, low and cruel, running her hands mockingly over her breasts and hips. “What, you don’t remember me?” Then she paused. “Or this?” she asked, and ran her finger over the tip of her tongue, and slowly pulled her lower lip down.

Then she pouted, and moved closer, until her breath was hot on his skin, even through the thin material of his blue cotton shirt; the one he’d picked because it matched his baby blue eyes.

“I thought I’d made more of an impression on you…” she trailed off, looking away.

His mind raced, still trying to place her, but it eluded him in the same way a nightmare dissipated upon waking. In fact, it gave him an uneasy sensation in his gut, much in the same way greasy food sat uneasily on a bottle of his favorite rum.

“I mean, a girl doesn’t get much closer to someone than being killed by him,” she whispered, and her eyes turned back to his, no longer hazel, but eyeless with the angry yellowish-red of lava in the center of the pits, and surrounded by the black of volcanic sand. Blood mixed with her mascara and ran in crooked lines down her cadaverous skin.

He jerked back. “What the fuck?!”

She tsk’d. “Such language. Though what did I expect from you? Certainly not this,” she said, and stepped back. Like magic, blood ran like a river from the corners of her mouth, and she opened it wide to reveal no teeth and her tongue cut out. She held it in a hand devoid of fingers from the second knuckle onward, replaced from that point on with sickly green, scaly fingers tipped with razor sharp obsidian nails. It was as though her human hands were merely fingerless gloves for something far worse hiding beneath. All her hair had been clumsily shorn, leaving clumps as an insult to her former beauty.

Her shirt sat oddly flat against her chest, as both of her breasts had been cut off, and blood soaked through the shirt. It fell from the hem in a slow, steady drip, and splattered on the floor in the softest of patters. The crotch of jeans was soaked through, too, and all down the inseam of her pants.

Recognition slammed through him like a bullet through the gut, and his breath caught.

She hadn’t been his first, or even his tenth. Not for him or his knife. He’d kept her chained in that box for weeks, prolonging the torture for as long as possible. First he’d taken her hair, removing the braid she’d played with coyly on their date, her tears of shame and humiliation making her makeup run almost as fast as she had when he’d taken her. After raping her more times than even he kept track of, and breaking her spirit to pieces smaller than eye could see, he’d stabbed her where all women were filthy and tried to control men. But not him. After that, there was no more amusement for him, so he’d untied her and made sure the police couldn’t identify her remains; his final act of control over all of them.

How was he to know the road to his favorite dumping ground had been washed out in the heavy rains, as his windshield wipers labored to keep up with the downpour? When the water swept across the road and took him into the river, it forced him to be the one to feel the fear he’d inflicted on others, as a force beyond his control took his life.

He choked on the remembrance of the river, and his eyes widened as he couldn’t look away from her gaze.

“Good, you do remember.” Then she smiled, her mouth full of brand-new, needle-like teeth, and a longer, prehensile tongue grew from the stub of the old, like watching a vine lengthen in fast-motion. When she ran it hard over his cheek, it tore flesh away as though it were made of shark’s skin, and she laughed as he screamed in pain.

“Stop!” he demanded, his emotions a maelstrom of fear and anger.

“But you didn’t, did you?” she asked, and pouted again, though this time it didn’t have the same effect on him. “You know, when I died they offered me a nice place for the rest of eternity, or I could join you here, and wallow in this miserable pit, but I would have my revenge.” She paused, as her smile grew even wider. “Taking the high road is overrated.” Then she straightened her fingers and stabbed her nails into his crotch, closing her fist and ripping everything away, flesh and clothing alike.

He howled like the winds of a tornado bearing down on a town, and thrashed against his bonds. She shoved her severed human tongue in his mouth, cutting him off, and he gagged against the cold, slimy flesh. Vomit hitting the back of his throat like a jab. But when the first icy touch of water met the flesh of his feet, he cracked open a tear-filled eye. The room was filling with murky water, fast, and pooled around his ankles. His panic spiked higher as the water level increased, and all she could do was laugh.

She grabbed his handsome face, her nails now stabbing the flesh of his cheeks, and pulling his chin down to look in her eyes again.

“You shouldn’t give it all up on the first date,” she crooned, throwing his words from their first ‘date’ back at him, like hot oil from a frying pan. “We’re going to have so much fun.” Then she rent the flesh of his face as he cried out around the tongue, blood, and water choking him.

The last thing he heard was her chuckling, the sound falling like heavy stones in his mind and against his flesh, and then all went black. He couldn’t breath, and his lungs burned with the water and blood that made its way past his constricted throat.

Again, her voice echoed in the dark, and it was then, for the first time, he knew their fear. The fear of the never ending. Of an eternity of pain.

Good, she whispered. There were times her dance with his pain was fast, like a quickstep, while others were slower, like a samba. Even though she’d given up the chance to be in a better place, sometimes revenge was enough.

Potato Chip Prompt – Banks and Lawyers: Vultures and Wolves

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Banks are there for the optimistic, and lawyers are the last resort of the ones who have drowned but don’t realize they’re dead yet. They both run on something that has no soul: money. Yet people still feed the gluttonous beasts in the hope that something positive can grow from the roots of something corrupt. Like planting dead seeds in barren soil, yet expecting an orchard of juicy fruit.

No good can come from either, yet here we were. I was withdrawing my meager savings, painstakingly deposited to hopefully pave the way for a better life, and borrowing against my equity. All in order to pay a lawyer in the hopes that another lawyer won’t take me for all I’m worth, and more. Like taking food from vultures to feed a starving wolf in the hopes it’ll fend off the other, just as hungry wolf, in gratitude for the sustenance. Soon, though, the vultures will circle, looking for their fair share plus more, and the food you took from the vultures to feed the wolf only whets the hungry beast’s appetite. Neither are satisfied for very long, if at all.

Because you are not a person. You are nothing more than the sum of numbers gathered and calculated by the vultures and the wolves, who feast on your flesh and the marrow in your bones. That is, until nothing is left but the desiccated and broken fragments of you and your family.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” the vulture said, and held out a hand for me to shake.

I said nothing in response, but nodded instead, and shook his hand.

I exit the vultures’ nest, and make my way toward the den of wolves on the other side of town. The alpha wolf’s smile is as sharp and predatory as his suit, and he was just as equally eager to do business with me as the vulture.

I liked to hope I could be the better predator and make out the other end of this alive, but the chances were slimmer than my savings as of an hour ago.

“Let’s see what we can do to make sure we win this,” the hungry wolf growled, and gestured for me to sit down across the desk from where he was seated.

I sat and said a silent prayer, but when you choose to do business with vultures and wolves, using the very heart of greed as currency, it was unlikely a divine life preserver would be thrown your way.

Greed does not rest until it is satisfied, and greed is never satisfied…Sam Eastland.

Writing Prompt: Lesson Learned

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The hilt of the knife was slick in Sarah’s sweaty palm, and the lantern rattled softly in her other, trembling hand. The sound of it was swallowed by the trees, crowding over her, as though they were waiting for her to do something.

Watching.

It wasn’t quite dusk, yet this deep in the woods the darkness was rising from the forest floor, swallowing her pale white light. Her knees ground into the damp foliage and scattered sticks beside the hole that was too small to have swallowed Jeremy. But it had. No matter what any of those stupid grown-ups said, he hadn’t run away.

She dropped a rock into the hole. Maybe not the best thing to do with something that had eaten a person, but what else should she have done? As she dropped it, everything went quiet in the forest, like a switch had been flipped to off. No birds calling their end of day songs, or the critters that were snuffling and running around nearby.

Dead silence.

The rock never touched the bottom. At least not that she could hear. The air was heavy with the scents of rotting, Autumn vegetation, and folded around her like a wet blanket. Her heart tripped along at the continued silence, and she held her breath.

Then, something rumbled from deep below her. She gasped, and went to to stand and flee, but the shaking of the earth made her fall on her butt. As she fell, the knife flew from her hands into the foliage of nearby ferns, and the lantern fell to the ground, the plastic cracking on a rock. Then the tremors stopped, as her blood thundered in her ears, and her breathing was a ragged pant.

Maybe it was nothing, she thought, as the forest slowly resumed its usual chatter around her. There are mines everywhere around here. Maybe one of them collapsed.

Maybe I imagined the hand.

It had been blue, like a person caught in a blizzard and frozen to death, with blackened, broken nails. But she’d been so shocked when Jeremy…fell? Perhaps that was it. He’d fallen in, and now he was passed out at the bottom of a forgotten mine shaft, dying, because she was scared of an imaginary hand.

She crawled forward toward the hole. They’d been silly to come here, chasing ghost stories of miners trapped in the shaft during a freak blizzard. Her parents had been furious that she’d come here, after being told her entire life to avoid the area. It wasn’t safe. She thought her father’s head would explode when he found out she’d been out here with her boyfriend–someone her father strongly disapproved of.

“J-Jeremy?” she whispered, cringing back quickly as the name tumbled from her lips, ready to be dragged down, too.

“Ssssaaaraaah…” The voice was faraway, but definitely coming from the hole.

She gasped. “Jeremy!” She scrambled forward, unafraid now that her worst fears–yet greatest hope–had been confirmed. “Are you okay? I’m going to go get help!”

Then the same blue hand shot from the hole and grabbed her wrist. Except this one had the same freckle on the first knuckle of its thumb that Jeremy did. She tried to wrench her hand from its grasp, or reach for the knife to stab at it, but the weapon was too far away. She was reaching for the lantern to bash the thing, when a face floated up from the darkness, freezing her in mid-motion.

“That won’t be necessary. I missed you so much, Sarah,” he said, his voice raspy as dead leaves scratching across the pavement. “Now we can be together…forever.”

She screamed as he dragged her down, just as he’d been dragged down. No one heard her, though, as the forest muffled the sound as surely as a murderer suffocating someone with a pillow. Not long after, the forest went about it’s usual business of life, but the creatures had long ago learned to avoid the business of the dead. Something the humans never seemed to figure out. Jeremy and Sarah weren’t the first, and they wouldn’t be the last.

Writing Prompt: Ten Notes of Sorrow

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“She has been up there all day,” her mother said, a permanent, disapproving frown on her face.

“I see,” he said. The man stepped through the open front door, his pressed suit at home in the grandeur of the mansion.

Piano music floated down the sweeping staircase, like bits of tulle thrown into the air and left to fall where they will. It was the same set of ten melancholy notes, over and over.

“If you do not do something about this, I will be the one that needs to be committed! It is the same, all night and day.”

“I understand,” he replied, his tone patient and voice low. He held his right hand up, just above shoulder height, and without looking back he twitched his ring and middle fingers forward a couple of times. At the signal, two men in white orderly uniforms walked through the front door. They were burly men, who could probably muscle their way through anything, except maybe a book.

“Thank you, Dr. Slater,” the mother murmured. Her shoulders slumped, but she regained her stiff, upright posture as a pause in the music occurred, followed quickly by the restart of the song. She grumbled something under her breath as she followed the men up the stairs. As she set her foot down on the step that would bring her eyes level with the transom window, she turned. The lead-lined glass offered a distorted view of the medical vehicle in the growing darkness, which thankfully did not have the name ‘Stillwater Sanatorium’ emblazoned on the sides. The woman gave a slow shake of her head, careful not to dislodge the perfectly coifed hairdo. What a scandal with the neighbors that would have been, but thankfully Dr. Slater knew how to be discreet.

The men had gone ahead of her to her eldest daughter’s room, but she froze with her foot on the top step when her younger daughter yelled, “No!”

As quick as was ladylike, she rushed toward the bedroom at the end of the long hall, lit by the yellowish light of electric wall sconces. Through the commotion, the piano music had never faltered or changed in volume.

“She is not crazy!” the younger sister shouted as their mother reached the doorway.

Her older daughter was still at the piano, thin shoulders hunched over it, never making eye contact with anyone. Her dirty brunette hair was pulled back in a loose, messy braid. Bony fingers moved at a constant pace over the keys, like some kind of undead creature trapped playing the same song for all eternity, and all who heard it were damned.

Her younger daughter stood between the men and her sister, arms stretched wide to bar them from moving further into the room. She was what her sister may have looked like, if not for her addled brain. Slender of body and face, smooth, creamy skin like her mother, and lustrous mahogany hair that fell to her waist when let down. She was scowling at the men, but turned pleading eyes to her mother. They were a captivating cornflower blue just like her father’s, God rest his soul.

“Helen,” her mother scolded, “this is no way to behave. Your sister is sick, and she needs help.”

“She needs to be at home!” her daughter insisted. “She hates that place.”

Still, her older daughter said nothing, and she never would. In her twenty years on this earth, she’d never cried, not even as a baby, or uttered a single word. She wouldn’t even make any noise as she thrashed when being forced to do something necessary that she didn’t want to do, like eat, or take the occasional bath. The only person who could get her to do anything had been her husband, and the last five years after his death had been a hard lesson in her older daughter’s stubbornness.

“We cannot take care of her here. At least when she is at hospital they can get her to eat something. If we continue this at home, she will waste away and die.”

“Her body may die here, but her spirit will die there. Which is the worse death, Mother?” she asked, the words raw in her throat. Then, under her breath, “What would Father say?”

The mother rocked back as though her daughter had slapped her. As she opened her mouth to say something they would both regret, Dr. Slater cleared his throat.

“Helen, dear, this is for the best. We have doctors that can work with your sister to try and help her learn a way to communicate with us and–”

“She communicates with this,” Helen said, and gestured toward the piano.

When their father had been alive, the only thing his older daughter responded to in regards to learning was the piano. He’d tried to hire her teachers, but she refused to learn from anyone but him. They’d been working on a song together, but he’d died before they could finish it. Now, she played those same first ten notes he’d taught her, over and over, and refused to play any of the other songs she’d learned.

“She just misses Father,” Helen choked out, tears falling freely down her face.

Her mother rushed forward, and took her younger daughter into her arms, consoling her.

“Be that as it may,” Dr. Slater said gently, as the two men moved past them to the older girl, “it is too much of a burden for your mother and you to watch your sister die at home. It was bad enough for you to discover your father the way you did…” he trailed off.

The two women’s faces went white as a sheet, then they both turned to watch the men carefully pull her sister to her feet. They were relaxed, but ready for any kind of violent tantrum she might throw their way.

Nothing happened, and she shuffled docilely along with them toward the bedroom door. As she passed, Helen reached out and grabbed one of her emaciated hands, drained of all life.

“I love you, Dorothy,” she whispered, her throat closing around the words like a fist.

Her sister said nothing and continued to stare at the floor. The men–who had paused when Helen grabbed Dorothy’s hand–eased her from her sister’s grip and they continued on their way.

“I will see you out,” he mother murmured, and followed behind the sad procession.

The dam of her emotions was like a fist squeezing her heart. She was heading toward the window, where dusk softened toward night, to watch her sister go, but stopped at the piano. The music sheets, usually neat as a pin on the music desk, were askew. Helen adjusted them, brushing a loving finger over the only ten notes her sister played during the years following her father’s death.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high…” she trailed off, her voice barely a whisper. For the first and only time since her sister learned to play, the lid on the piano closed. The soft discordant notes as a result of the little impact was like a small death in her soul. As though some part of them all died that night, not least of all the music, her sister’s only voice.

Potato Chip Prompt: I’ll Kill You…

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“That’s not the point,” I ground out.

“What is your point then?” he asked. He’d decided to be douchier than usual, and was invisible at the moment. And even if ‘douchier’ isn’t a word, his behavior caused it to elbow its way into my mental dictionary.

“I have a test tomorrow, and you won’t shut up.” I groaned, and thunked my head on the desk.

“Tests are of no concern to me,” he quipped. The pages to my textbook flipped wildly as a phantom gust of air blew through the room.

“Just go away!” I shrieked, popping up and slapping a hand down on the pages. Just then, the screen of my laptop flickered. “NO!” Too late. Before I could remove the plug, it surged, and a small puff of smoke emanated from the keyboard.

“You–”

The door to the dorm room opened, and my roommate walked in.

“Hey–Oh!” She stopped in her tracks and waved a hand in front of her nose. “Another laptop, huh? You just have no luck, Cynthia.”

I sighed, and dropped my face into my hands.

“I, uh, just came by to grab my bag,” she said, uncomfortable in the face of my despair.

Of course, the ghost never bothered her, and it just served to make me look beyond crazy. I didn’t answer, just waved her off.

“I hope your night gets better,” she murmured, and closed the door behind her.

Ghostly laughter bubbled up from everywhere, and nowhere, in the room.

I swallowed a scream. “Why are you doing this to me?” I’d asked him a thousand times, and it was always the same.

“Because nothing amuses the dead so much as tormenting the living.”

“You’re an ass,” I sighed. “I’d kill you myself if you were alive.”

“We’ve already covered that, Darling. Good luck with the exam.”

I threw a pen in a random direction, though even if I hit him it wouldn’t do any good. It clattered uselessly against the wall over my bed, and set the ghost’s laughter off once more.