Flash Fiction ~~ Lost

The woman across from him was as old and weathered as her shack near the sea, and her cold eyes were the same stormy green as the chill waters washing along the shore. Her mouth was set in a perpetual frown, but her words were warmer than her countenance.

“Ye’ll drive yerself mad if ye do this,” she said, her voice gruff from disuse, but her tone soft. Knowing.

“If there’s a chance, then I have to find her. I won’t lose her this way,” he insisted. He didn’t raise his voice, but the resolve there was firm. He leaned on the table, and his tan, work-roughened hands supported his solid weight.

“She were lost long before she sought the sea,” the woman replied, softening further, but never turning away from the desperate grief shining in his honey brown eyes.

He wasn’t the first, nor would he be the last to seek her here, and she made a point to never turn away from the pain of those who sought her out. She could do no less, but no more, either.  

Just like the others, he ignored her words and asked; “How did you make it back without going insane?” He looked to the large conch shell sitting high on a shelf.

Her eyes followed his. Even in the low light offered by the overcast day, it gleamed, and the dark red lines on the shell were like runnels of blood spiraling against the pearl white.

 Her very bones ached with the question, and as she turned back to meet this stranger’s eyes, she wondered if it was time. There was a strength in him that had little to do with his stature, and more to do with the fire she saw in him. His soul burning bright through his eyes. Such a soul just might have the strength needed.

He barely heard her over the wind off the sea when she whispered; “I made a deal.”

“A deal?” he asked, his voice losing its frenzied edge as it gave way to confusion.

She didn’t answer him as she stood from the table and hobbled over to the shelf. Her hands shook as she extended her arms to their limit to take the shell down. When her fingers had barely brushed it the wind picked up, whistling through gaps in the wood and howling around the shack.

“What deal?” he asked again, a heaviness settling into his gut like an anchor hitting the seabed.

Her back was to him, hunched, but not from age. More like she was folded tight around the shell. Then, even though her words this time were not loud, they found their way to his ears all the same.

“An exchange. Do ye still wish to find her?” she asked.

The weight in his stomach grew heavier, but he swallowed, trying to wet his dry mouth before he answered; “Yes. With everything I am.”

She turned to him then, her mouth set in a soft, mournful smile. Her eyes were full of sorrow, and like the little shells on the beach that held tiny pools of the sea, the tide was more than they could hold, and tears spilled down her cheeks. When the first drop hit the wood of the floor, the wind shrieked its warning, but it fell on deaf ears. He was lost in the endless depths of her eyes.

“Good. Because that is what it will take,” she said. Then, faster than he’d imagined she could move, she smashed the shell on the floor.

It was later, when he woke, hungry, cold, and alone in the shack, that he finally understood. His eyes were grainy as he opened them, and the coarseness of the dried saltwater along his skin was rubbing it raw. Seaweed green eyes looked across the floor of the shack, but the shattered conch was gone. As was the old woman. His humorless exhale of a laugh ended in a shudder. He curled in on himself, cradling his own shell protectively with his shivering form.

The conch was an all-over pale pink color, like the roses his wife would lovingly tend in their garden, while the underside of the flat portion was the gleaming porcelain of her skin.

“I’ll never leave you again,” he whispered, the words raspy from his dry throat.

The shell pulsed with warmth in his hands, and he held on even tighter to it as the sea of grief washing along the shores of his mind drew back. Even if only for these few moments.

For right now, though, those moments were enough.

Short Story ~~ Come Away

0 for 4 on the contests, but such is life.

This was for a contest with the prompt: New Beginnings

Word Limit: 2500

 

~~~~

 

Come Away

 

If you’d asked Thomas right then what had woken him, he wouldn’t be able to put his finger on exactly what it had been. All he knew was the air was still. Like that moment of anticipation in a movie theatre, between the previews ending and the movie beginning, when everything’s dark and everyone’s holding their breath. Except this was endless, like someone had hit the pause button on the world at just the right moment.

Thomas held still, too; something wasn’t right. Heart hammering, he opened his eyes to a slit, revealing nothing more than the ceiling of his room. After a long, tense moment, he slowly moved his head to look around. Moonlight streamed in through the window, illuminating familiar sights, like his desk and dresser, while throwing others into sinister shadows.

He closed his eyes, and breathed in slow and deep. He was ten now, and being afraid of the dark wasn’t okay anymore. Plus, his mom had warned him he’d never be allowed to watch a scary movie ever again if he had nightmares. She’d let him stay up late and watch one with her after Paige went to bed, since it was Halloween and a Friday night. He couldn’t remember getting to the end of the movie, so his mom must have put him to bed.

When nothing pounced on him from the dark, he sat up, and then he heard a stifled laugh from down the hall. He rolled his eyes and sighed.

That must have been what woke me up. Paige is playing in her room, he thought, and shook his head. Annoyance flashed through him like lightning, for his little sister and at himself. Paige, for being up, and himself for being scared over a six year-old.

Thomas threw his covers back, and quietly padded to his door. When he grabbed the knob, he gripped it tight, and slowly turned it to minimize the noise. He opened the door just enough to slide through the gap, to avoid the squeak that happened a few more inches beyond that.

He didn’t want to wake his mom. She’d worked all day, then took them trick-or-treating, and ended the night watching the movie with him after he’d begged for it. He didn’t need to wake her just to tell Paige to go back to sleep.

His socks made no noise on the hardwood floor as he moved two doors down from his room. He frowned as he approached, though, because her door was already ajar, so he pushed it all the way open.

Paige’s room looked like someone threw up one of their aunt’s bridesmaids’ dresses all over the room. Everything was pink and lacy, and Thomas usually had to repress a shudder at the sight. Tonight, though, something was missing: Paige.

A giggle floated on the air, but this time from downstairs.

Maybe she needed some water, he reasoned. He glanced behind him at his mother’s door, but pursed his lips and turned towards the stairs instead. When he made it to the bottom, he headed left toward the kitchen, but she wasn’t there. It was when he went to the end of the counter, toward the dining room, that he saw the open sliding glass door.

His heart stopped. Their mom had been worried about Paige opening the back door and getting lost in the woods behind the house. Mom called Paige her, ‘Mischievous Rugrat,’ to which Paige would usually laugh, her green eyes sparkling. Their mom had put in one of those locks that bolted at the top of the door, specifically so Paige couldn’t reach it, even with a chair.

Yet, the door was open.

More giggles floated in through the open door, and then through the sheer curtain in dining room he saw her: curly brown hair bounced as she skipped, her bunny slippers kicking up sticks in her wake, and her white and pale pink onesie pajamas glowing in the moonlight.

There were no thoughts going through his mind when he rushed out the back door, only stopping long enough to shove his feet into his slide sandals. Then he took off across the back yard, the dead leaves and sticks barely crunching beneath his feet as he ran as fast as he could. His breath was coming in heavy pants, and his arms pumped as he broke through the tree line where he saw Paige last. She couldn’t have been far, but with each moment he didn’t see her, his panic rose in him like a bath filling, until he thought he might drown in it.

He stopped to take a look around, wild-eyed, as his blood pounded in his ears like an urgent drum.

“Paige!” he called, the woods silent.

“Thomas?” Paige said, surprised.

Her voice came from Thomas’ left, not too far away, and he started in that direction. He didn’t run, since he didn’t want to pass her by accident, but he wasn’t being a slow poke, either. After a few minutes, he was close enough to hear her having a conversation, but not what was being said. It stopped him dead in his tracks. He clenched his fists and grit his teeth.

She’s not alone. This was turning into a much bigger mess than just putting his little sister back to bed. He was torn between running back to the house, or to keep going to try and get Paige.

“Come on, Thomas! Come meet my friends!” Paige said, her words bright and excited.

Thomas’ stomach clenched. Friends. As in more than one. He didn’t have much choice, though; they knew he was here.

He crept forward, pushing low-hanging branches and brush out of the way, until he entered a clearing. It wasn’t large, but it was almost the size of their backyard. It was the stones that caught his attention, though.

Some were short, coming up to his knees, while others were eye-level with him. They were all gray and smooth, and shaped like eggs with the bottoms in the ground. Each of the tops had a hole, and it went from one side to the other. The smaller ones he could probably barely fit a pinky finger through, while the larger ones were big enough for his fist. The stones formed a perfect circle around the clearing, with six or so feet of clearance between them and the tree line. In the center of the circle was Paige.

“Thomas!” she said, and jumped up, waving at him. “Did you come for the tea party, too?”

“Tea party?” he asked, gaping at her as he moved closer. Then he saw the low, round table, covered with a white lace tablecloth, and the fanciest tea set he’d ever seen outside of one of Paige’s princess books. The small plates at each setting had equally little cakes. Page’s wide grin was dusted with powdered sugar, and the cake at her place setting had a neat little bite taken out of it.

“Paige,” he said, disbelieving, “please tell me you didn’t eat anything a stranger gave you.”

She just laughed. “They aren’t strangers, silly; they’re my friends! We’ve been talking for days and days. So, do you want some cake?” she asked, and started to turn toward the table.

He wanted nothing more than to jump the circle, grab her hand, and run with her back to the house. But there was something about that ring that set his teeth on edge, and made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Each time he tried to step forward, his brain screamed; “No!

“No, I do not want any cake!” he said, scowling and clenching his fists. “I want you to get over here so we can go home!” By the time he finished the sentence he was almost shouting.

Paige’s eyes had gone wide, and her lower lip trembled. “You’re being mean, Thomas,” she accused, and a small sob escaped her.

“Oh, don’t mind the boy, little one. He just doesn’t understand.”

Thomas’ body jerked in surprise. The voice was coming from right next to Paige, but there was no one there. Also, it sounded strange. High-pitched and buzzing, like a bee was trying to speak after breathing in helium.

“Who’s there?” Thomas demanded, voice trembling.

Paige’s eyes went wide, and were shiny with unshed tears. “It’s like you said, Novus. He can’t see you!”

“No, little one, he can’t,” Novus said, as though mournful about the fact. To Thomas, though, there was something disingenuous about the way they said it. Like when a bully has to apologize to a kid they beat up.

“Paige, please. Let’s go home,” Thomas begged, deciding to ignore the voice. Whoever they were, they didn’t sound very big, and he’d rather take his chances than talk to them anymore.

“We can’t leave yet. Novus promised I’d get to meet Herne!” she said, and stamped her foot.

“I don’t care, Paige! We need to get back before mom wakes up and worries about us!” Thomas said, shouting again.

“She will not wake until all has finished here. Worry not.” There was a pause. “In fact, you should not have woken either, naughty boy. Perhaps there is some belief in you, yet.” Then a tinkling laugh, like broken glass falling on metal, caused Thomas to shiver. “Or there will be after tonight.”

“He comes!” a chorus of voices called, similar to Novus.

Thomas jumped at that, but before he could call for Paige to run, something came out of the tree line across the clearing from him. Thomas’ jaw dropped.

The man—if that’s even what he was—was huge, and not just because he was riding the biggest deer ever seen. Most of his face was hidden by a deer skull mask, with antlers that were more like towering branches. Though it wasn’t quite right, because the eyes of the skull were set in a more human way, and there were no eyes, only darkness. The nose portion covered down to his chin, so he couldn’t see a mouth, but his cheeks were left bare. His skin was a dusky purple, his upper body muscular, and he wore nothing but a forest green cloak, with pants and boots to match. He also had a longbow sitting across his back, and Thomas swallowed at the sight of the weapon.

The deer snorted and stamped its hooves when it reached the stone circle, chewing the bit of its bridle.

“Has she partaken of the food and drink?” the man asked, his voice rumbling across the clearing like thunder.

“She has, Lord Herne!” the voices chorused out again.

Thomas’ eyes jerked away from the man to his sister, who was still, her head tilted back to look up at the man.

“Then it is time. Bring her,” he said, and held out a hand.

“Wait! You can’t just take my sister!” Thomas yelled, breaking out of his stunned trance.

Everyone went still at his words, and then the man turned his gaze to Thomas.

“I can, child. She has eaten our food, and drank the water from our spring. She is ours.”

Thomas’ head was spinning. None of it made any sense. He opened his mouth to yell at the man again, but something fluttered in his face. He jerked back to get away, but before he could, something cool brushed across his forehead.

It was as though a curtain was pulled back, revealing everything. A small form hovered in front of his face, its wings beating so fast he couldn’t see them properly. Bits of leaves covered their body, almost like scales, and thorns and flowers were tangled in their hair. The eyes were a liquid silver, like a faceless coin in water, and its mouth was pulled back in a cruel grin, revealing sharp teeth that would do a shark proud.

“A gift,” the buzzing voice said, but the pronouncement came across as more of a curse. “From Novus.”

Novus floated away, back toward Paige, and he realized there were at least twenty of these things, all floating around her. She turned, just enough to meet his gaze, and smiled wide, as though all her dreams had come true. Then she turned, and started walking toward the man.

“Paige! No!” he yelled, and grabbed the stone closest to him to launch himself over it. Before he could complete the movement, Novus was in his face again, throwing some kind of powder at him.

“Shh,” Novus said, holding a finger to its lips. “Sleep and peace, Thomas,” it continued, the words sing-song.

Thomas’ eyes drooped, and his legs grew weak beneath him. He tightened his grip on the stone, struggling to remain upright and awake, but it was no use. The last thing he saw before falling asleep was his sister taking hold of the man’s hand.

 

<***>

 

Giggling woke Thomas with a start, and his eyes flew open. Everything from the night before crashed through his mind, and he scrambled to get out of bed, nearly falling as his sheets tangled around his feet. When he jerked open his door, indistinct voices were coming from downstairs. Thomas dashed from his room and down the stairs, slipping dangerously in his socks over the smooth floor.

When he burst into the kitchen, his mom was at the stove making breakfast, and Paige was sitting at the table. He gaped at her, as she happily munched on pancakes.

“Good morning, sleepyhead. Your pancakes are on the table,” his mom said, gracing him with her smile, before turning back to the stove.

He couldn’t move, though. There’s no way that was a dream! But there she was. He scowled, and cautiously made his way over to the table. Paige didn’t pay him any mind, and hummed a happy tune as she ate.

Thomas sat down, but didn’t eat. He just kept staring at Paige.

“Are you okay?” his mom asked, from right next to his shoulder.

Thomas nearly jumped out of his skin, and yelped.

His mother frowned, and then raised an eyebrow. “I think we’ll hold off on anymore scary movies until you’re older,” his mom said, and made her way to sit down and eat.

His cheeks burned, and he dropped his eyes to stare at his pancakes.

“Can I have more milk?” Paige piped up, holding out her cup before their mom could sit.

“Oh, of course, honey,” she said, and grabbed the cup.

Once their mom walked away, Paige’s giggle caught his attention and he looked at her.

Instead of green, liquid silver eyes stared back at him, and a cruel grin full of sharp teeth made him let out a small gasp. Then it put a finger to its lips in a sign for quiet, and when Thomas blinked, the face was Paige’s again.

“We’re going to have so much fun, Thomas,” Novus said, and giggled.

Short Story ~~ Love Thy Neighbor

Written for a contest. 3k word limit

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

 

The steady creak of the rocking chair on the worn floorboards of the porch mixed with the rustle of dead leaves across the yard. The breeze was cool and gentle, calling for no more than a light jacket and jeans. It blew the occasional strands of auburn hair across her face, tickling her until she tucked them behind an ear.

The sun was low on the horizon, and by Faye’s reckoning it was getting on to five. She had a pot of stew on the stove that’d be ready soon, and the scent of it drifted out the window to wind around her like a needy cat.

Despite the idyllic country scenery, perfect fall weather, and her mawmaw’s famous stew cooking on the stove, Faye was downright ornery.

“You’re just riling yourself up. No good will come of this,” Holt said. He came to stand next to her chair, which, like the small house, was built by her granddaddy.

“So says you,” Faye countered, and jutted her chin up, refusing to look at him.

“I just think you’re being stubborn about something that’ll likely amount to nothing,” he reasoned, and shrugged, the fabric of his long-sleeved, plaid shirt rustling.

“I just don’t like it,” she said, the words near to a growl.

Holt huffed. “You don’t say.”

She turned to look at him then, and angry hazel eyes met calm brown ones. The color was the same as the rich earth deep in the woods that were twenty steps from the back of her house. The acres of land had been in her family for over two-hundred years.

“I’ve tried talking to him, Holt, and he was having none of it. What else was I supposed to do?” she asked, her hands gripping the arms of the chair so tight her knuckles were white and the wood groaned.

“Oh, I don’t know. Let it go?” he asked, his sarcasm creeping in as it inevitably did. The corner of his mouth quirked up at her responding scowl, and she turned away from his teasing.

“You know I can’t do that, and you know why.”

Before he said anything else, a truck crested the hill off in the distance. The weather was unusually dry for this time of year, so the vehicle kicked up a cloud of dust from the dirt road in its wake.

Holt sighed. “I don’t need to be here for this,” he said, resigned, heading inside.

It wasn’t long after that the sheriff’s tires crunched over the gravel on her driveway. Faye stood from the rocking chair, and stepped down from the porch as a bear of a man unfolded from the vehicle. Barrel-chested, and with a laugh that boomed from him like a canon, there was hardly a soul that didn’t get along with Sheriff Clyde Gresham.

“Faye Lynn,” he greeted, and nodded at her as she approached.

“Sheriff Gresham,” she replied, and tilted her head back to look up him.

“Now, Tammy told me you called in about your new neighbor. Said something about him spyin’ on you?” Gresham asked, voice rumbling, reading from a notepad he’d pulled from his jacket pocket.

She pursed her lips and crossed her arms. “He’s setting up a bunch of cameras, and I think some are pointed at my house. I don’t appreciate that, Gresham,” she said, voice low.

He nodded. “I understand that, Faye. Have you spoken to him?”

“I surely did. He told me to mind my own business. I didn’t want to go over there in the first place, because people these days are downright crazy, but I didn’t want to bother you if I didn’t have to,” she said, her eyes straying to the neighbor’s house every so often as she spoke.

Gresham leveled a look at her. “Is that all?”

She scowled at him. “What are you implying, Sheriff?” she asked, shifting her weight to one foot and gritting her teeth.

“Come on, Faye Lynn. I haven’t met a single person in a fifty-mile radius that hasn’t been on the wrong end of your bad temper and sharp tongue a time, or two. Were you truly being neighborly, or were you your usual, charming self?” he asked, and raised an eyebrow.

Faye harrumphed. “I was neighborly enough for me, I suppose. But it still don’t give him the right to do all that.”

He sighed and closed his notebook. “I’ll go and talk to him, but I won’t be happy if I have to come back out here because you’re harassing the man.”

Faye’s jaw dropped. “Me? He’s the one setting up cameras pointed at my property!”

“Which I will address, but if I don’t find any problems, I don’t need you taking matters into your own hands,” he said, keeping eye contact.

Their eyes remained locked for a few heartbeats, until she finally dropped hers first.

“Just get him to stop invading my privacy, and there won’t be a need for that, now will there?” she said

Gresham shook his head, but said nothing else. He made his way over to the neighbor’s house, which, despite the amount of land the properties had, wasn’t terribly far away from Faye’s. The other house had once belonged to another branch of her family. Cousins on her father’s side. The houses weren’t so close that you could carry on a conversation, but not so far that you could leave your curtains open without someone being able to see your business.

She waited there, halfway between the sheriff’s truck and her porch, but Gresham’s comments combined with Holt’s wormed their way through her mind. All too soon, in her opinion, the sheriff was making his way back to her. She tensed, and waited for the words of dismissal.

He didn’t disappoint.

“I checked his cameras, Faye, and none are pointed at your house,” Gresham said, trying for reassuring.

Faye’s expression darkened like the clouds of a thunderstorm on the horizon. “And what about the back of the property?” she asked.

Gresham frowned. “You mean the woods?”

She nodded, and he raised an eyebrow. “Unless you’re running around your woods naked, Faye, I can’t see how that would matter.”

“So he does have one pointed there,” she accused.

Gresham studied her for a long moment, and something passed through his eyes. A flicker of thought she couldn’t readily identify, but suspicion sat heavy in the air between them.

“He’s trying to find what killed his brother, and I can’t fault the man for that. We never caught the bear that tore the poor man apart. You have some information about that you haven’t shared with us?” Gresham asked.

Her scowl stayed in place, not letting on to the thrill of fear that shot through her. “What information could I have about a rabid bear? Does it look like I have it for a pet running around here?” she asked, and gestured toward her house.

“Then what does it matter if he has a camera pointed at the woods?” he asked. When she didn’t answer, he continued; “In fact, I was happy for it, and told him to let us know if he catches it on camera. Something like that ain’t good for any of us. ‘Course, with the small arsenal he has in that house, I doubt he’d take the time to let us know before going after it.” They both looked at the house at that proclamation. “Can’t say I’d do any different.”

Holt was right; this wasn’t helpful at all.

“Well, thank you for coming out, Gresham. I appreciate it,” she said, doing her best to make the words sound genuine.

Gresham snorted. “Right. At least try to be sympathetic, Faye. The man lost his brother, and we don’t need you pulling out your crazy and waving it in a grieving man’s face.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Again, thank you, Sheriff.”

He just shook his head one last time, and headed to his truck. She watched him back out of the drive, and head back up the dirt road toward town. As she turned to go back to her porch, though, her new neighbor was making his way toward the wood fence separating the property.

It was inevitable since she’d called the sheriff, but she didn’t want to talk to him again.

“You didn’t have to call the sheriff, you know,” Jeremiah Chastain said when they met at the fence. His thick eyebrows were knotted in a frown, and his jaw was tense, as though trying to hold back less polite words. The setting sun shone against his black hair, and made his forest green eyes glow.

You told me to mind my own business, and cameras pointed at my property are my business,” she insisted, holding her ground, arms still crossed.

He mimicked her posture, crossing muscular arms over a well-defined chest. “They aren’t pointed at your house, just at the tree line.”

“I don’t want any of them pointed at any of my property.”

“The sheriff told me I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I’m just trying to see if that bear is still around. I’ll be heading into the woods soon, but figured I’d put the cameras up first. He was killed in the backyard, and anything that bold might strike again.”

Her eyes widened and her breath hitched. “What do you mean, you’re going into the woods? You need to stay out of there. It’s not safe.”

He raised an eyebrow, and amusement quirked the corner of his mouth in a small smile. “Concerned for me?”

She growled and dropped her arms to her sides, hands clenched into fists. “No. I just don’t want police crawling all over my property again, or dealing with yet another new neighbor when you get eaten, too.”

The mirth fled from him as quickly as it came. “My brother and I were raised in the woods near our home, we’re both accomplished hunters, and we both served in the military. I refuse to believe any rabid bear could catch him off guard. He was too cautious for that. I will get to the bottom of this, and bag that animal,” he said, his voice low and with conviction.

“No good will come of this,” she said, echoing Holt’s words from earlier, and put a note of pleading in them.

He searched her face, though she didn’t know what he was looking for. Whatever it was, he didn’t find it, and stuck his hands in the pockets of his jeans and shrugged.

“Even so, I have to do this,” he said. Then he nodded, and turned on the heel of his boot and headed back to his house.

Faye’s hands clenched as she stomped her way back to her house, boots thudding ominously against the porch. She jerked open the screen door, and went inside to find Holt at the two-seater kitchen table, waiting.

“Well?” he asked, trying for relaxed, but failing miserably.

Now that she was in her house and away from the stubborn man, her shoulders slumped, and that was all Holt needed.

He closed his eyes and the corners of his mouth curved downward as he sighed. “That’s it, then,” he said, and drew in a shuddering breath.

“I can’t make any guarantees, Holt, but I’ll do my best to make sure he doesn’t get hurt,” she said quietly, and set about putting the stew away. She wouldn’t be eating it tonight.

Holt didn’t say anything in return.

 

<***>

 

“Damn that stubborn woman,” Jeremiah muttered, and glared at the microwave. It was bad enough his brother was dead, and he was stuck in the middle of nowhere with a crazy neighbor, but there was no takeout here to boot. He was a terrible cook on a good day, but at least back home he had access to pizza, curry, and egg rolls. There was nothing here but microwave dinners, and being subjected to the delicious smells of his neighbor’s cooking was near to torture.

The microwave beeped, and he sighed in resignation as he grabbed the food and headed for his laptop. He couldn’t wait to finish up here and get back home. Not that there was much there except takeout, but at least that was something. His brother was all he’d had, and some stupid fucking animal had taken that from him.

He put the food down and opened the laptop. The camera feeds came up on the screen, but before he could pick up his food and settle in for the night, something moved on the outer edge of the camera pointed toward the neighbor’s tree line.

“Damn it!” he said, and slammed a fist on the table, rattling his fork. A small, upright form was headed into the woods.

His chair scraped loudly across the floor as he pushed back from the table, and set about grabbing what he needed. He burst through the back door, and headed toward the part of the woods he’d seen the fool woman heading into. He jumped the fence easily enough, and in no time was at the edge of the trees. It didn’t take long to find the path she’d taken. It was worn, but small, and not easily noticeable unless someone was looking for it.

He kept the rifle barrel low, and pointed at the ground, his finger off the trigger. She couldn’t be too far ahead of him, and with his much longer strides he should have caught up to her by now. There was a clearing up ahead, so he slowed his pace, and crouched at the edge. A quick sweep didn’t yield anything, but it was dark and difficult to tell.

Just as he twitched to start forward again, something stirred on the other side. It made no sound, but it moved like shadows given life. Two eyes appeared, yellow, along with a feral snarl of sharp teeth, and then the largest, black wolf Jeremiah had ever seen stepped into the clearing.

Two things flashed through his mind then: there wasn’t currently a confirmed wolf population in Tennessee—he’d researched potential predators when he knew he’d be coming in the woods here—and that he was upwind. In those precious few seconds it took his brain to catch up, the wolf had already crossed the clearing.

Jeremiah fell back and tried to bring his rifle to bear on the animal, but the best he was able to do was hold the weapon horizontal against its neck. Jaws snapped inches from his face, as it growled and thrashed. He tried to push it back and butt-stroke it to get breathing room, but when he pushed and twisted, the wolf pulled back enough that Jeremiah missed. Then it lunged forward again and bit deep into his arm.

Searing pain raced up his limb as though he’d stuck it straight into a fire. He screamed and dropped his weapon, trying to punch the wolf’s nose with his free hand. It connected, and the wolf reared back, shaking its head. The reprieve was only momentary, and it came at him again, jaws open wide to finish him off. Then it was gone in a flash of red, followed by yelps and snarls.

He didn’t have any time to think about it, though, as his eyes rolled back in his head. Darkness and agony ate the edge of his thoughts, and he passed out.

 

<***>

 

Sunlight stabbed through his eyelids, and he groaned. He went to lift his arm to cover his eyes, but something was on it, stopping him. He cracked an eye open and looked to his right. Panic shot through him like a rabbit flushed from the brush, and he jerked away from the naked, sleeping form of his neighbor. The motion caused her to stir, and when she rolled over to face him, dried blood coated her from her chin on down.

“What the—” he started, and tried to scramble further away, but pain lanced through his hand. He collapsed with a gasp, and then brought his shaking hand up to look at it. It was red, swollen, and torn from the wolf’s attack. Memories from last night slammed into him, and his breath left him in a rush.

A small movement caught his attention, and his eyes darted up to see Faye crawling to him. She stopped just beyond his reach.

“I’m so sorry, Jeremiah,” she whispered, eyes mournful. “I tried to keep you out of the woods. My granddaddy has been sick for a long time, and you and your brother paid the price. But he won’t hurt anyone else, I promise.” Her breath hitched at that, and her eyes shone with unshed tears.

Granddaddy? He frowned, brain trying to catch up. It was a wolf that attacked, not a person. Jeremiah opened his mouth to speak, but something over her shoulder made it fall all the way open.

“H-Holt?” he whispered, voice strangled. His brother stood not five feet from him.

“Hey, little brother, good to see you,” Holt said, and a lopsided grin graced his face for a moment before it faded. “Don’t get your hopes up,” he continued, voice as sad as Faye’s eyes.

“Why?” Jeremiah demanded, trying to grasp for something solid in the whirlpool of emotions dragging him under.

“Werewolves can see ghosts,” Faye explained, her voice tight.

“Werewolves?” he repeated, the word weak and disbelieving. He looked from his brother to her, trying to find the joke, but their grim expressions sent his heart racing. “Then…”

Faye drew in a shuddering breath, and locked eyes with him. “Welcome to the Pack.”

His silence was thunderous in the quiet woods. It was a long, tense time before he sighed, his pragmatism winning as his stomach grumbled. “Does this mean I at least get some of that stew?”

It took a moment for her shock to wear off, and her chuckle was weak, but she nodded. “Absolutely. Let’s head home.”

Short Story ~~ Nine

Well, another contest, another loss. C’est la vie.

But, you know what that means: I get to post it here for you all to enjoy!

***Warning***

This story describes torture and implications of sexual violence. If you are sensitive to such material, it’s recommended you refrain from reading this story.

~~~~~~

Nine

 

A groan, half-awake and filled with pain, echoed in the small room. When Carter tried to move his hands to clutch his aching skull, they wouldn’t move. His dove gray eyes shot wide, and his heart immediately began pounding as adrenaline rushed through his system like a spring flood in a small river. Even the low light coming from everywhere and nowhere was too bright, and stabbed through his eyes straight to his brain. With his mouth dry as cotton and hanging open as he pulled in one ragged breath after another, his first thought was that he somehow managed to paralyze himself following his bender the night before. He turned his head to the right, his scalp scraping against something cold and unyielding, and it wasn’t relief that washed through him when he saw the manacle. All the muscles in his body went rigid at once.

His eyes darted to look down the length of his well-muscled and naked chest, but there wasn’t enough give across his shoulders for him to see his legs. He tried to tuck his knees, but the sharp bite of metal at his ankles told him all he needed to know. He was spread-eagle, chained down, and the cool air on his skin pointed to him being totally naked.

“Oh, good. You’re awake.”

His head snapped around at the calm, female voice on his left, but they must have been just out of sight, because he couldn’t see her.

“Who the fuck are you, and where the fuck am I?” he shouted, but his dry throat had the words dissolving into a less than intimidating coughing fit. He tried to swallow what little moisture he had in his mouth to get it to stop, but there was nothing for it. He’d drank way too much last night and was well beyond dehydrated.

Out of nowhere a hand touched his forehead, and he jerked away in response.

“Stay still,” the same voice said, but there was no irritation. In fact, the voice remained level, and there was absolutely no inflection whatsoever.

Two warm, dry hands touched on either side of his face, and this time he didn’t try to get away. He opened his eyes, but despite the dizziness and pounding in his skull, he was able to lock gazes with the owner of the voice. Of course, that was all he could see. A black hood from a hoodie covered everything from above their blond eyebrows up. Everything below their cobalt blue eyes was covered in one of those face masks that bikers or snowboarders wore.

Even weirder than their attire, though, was the fact their eyes matched their voice: cool, calm, and no emotion to be found. That wasn’t to say their eyes were lifeless, like a doll’s. No, there was intelligence and an assessing sort of look. Between the eyes and the manacles, Carter’s heart picked up more speed, and another wave of dizziness caused his stomach to roil. He closed his eyes, and his head involuntarily leaned into one of the hands, as he tried to steady himself.

“Skin cool and dry. Sunken eyes. Dizziness. I’d say you’re severely dehydrated. I have something to help with that,” she said.

Then the warmth was gone from his face, and small, rummaging sounds came from somewhere in the room. Carter tried to lick his cracked lips, but the sharp edges of skin merely scraped along his dry tongue. Maybe they were bringing him water. The small patter of liquid hitting the ground grew closer, and he swallowed in anticipation.

Something wet and rough slapped down over his face, and he went from being dry as a desert to drowning in the blink of an eye. He thrashed as much as the restraints would allow, trying to throw the cloth from his face. Trying to breath. He couldn’t scream out loud, but it echoed in his mind. Nothing helped. There was no escape as she poured an endless stream of water over the cloth. Darkness ate the edge of his thoughts, sending him careening toward blessed unconsciousness. Just as he was about to fall over that edge, the cloth was gone.

This time when he coughed, they were wet, hacking things that burned in his lungs and made his chest ache.

“Better?” the voice asked after his coughing had quieted down.

He squinted his eyes open to see her hovering over him again. He scowled and bared his teeth.

“You crazy fucking bitch!” he screamed, his throat raw and agonizing. He tried to spit at her, but it just dribbled over his lips and onto his chin.

The cloth appeared in his vision again, and his eyes went wide as saucers. He pulled against the manacles, hoping some of the water had wet his skin enough for him to slip free, but no such luck. His skin burned where the metal tore it further, having already scraped most of it away in his struggle from being waterboarded.

Instead of placing it over his face, though, she wiped the spittle from his chin. On instinct, he turned his head to bite at her hand, but his teeth snapped shut on nothing but air.

“You stupid fucking whore! Let me go!” he raged at her when his attack was unsuccessful.

Her eyes appeared over him again, meeting his. Still assessing.

“It’s not time for that yet,” was all she said. Then she was gone again.

His head dropped back down to the smooth stone of the table as he tried to sort through his bewildered thoughts. Nothing made sense. He didn’t know how he got here, who the weird chick was, or why she had him strapped down to an old ass sacrificial altar.

Let me go!

It’s not time for that yet.

Was she going to let him go? Did he just need to tough this out? She came back into his field of vision, staring deep into his eyes again.

“Don’t fight,” she said, and held up a black-handled, double-edged dagger.

Those words, combined with the color of her eyes, and what he assumed was the color of her hair from her eyebrows, sent his heart tripping along. He didn’t know why, but it had nothing to do with the weapon in her hand. That was, until she slowly sliced through the flesh on the inside of his left bicep.

“God damnit! What the fuck do you want?” he screamed, but she didn’t stop.

“I want for nothing here, Carter Moore,” she said, still nothing in her voice as she lifted the knife from the wound. She examined the blood as it dripped along the short length of it, and turned her gaze to him from over the edge. “I am here for the same reason you are here: necessity. You need me, just as much as I need you.”

She knew his name. Giddiness bubbled inside of him and broke out from his throat in a nervous, incredulous laugh.

“I’m stuck with a psycho stalker who thinks we’re soulmates, and she’s going to cut me to little pieces. What kind of fucked up bullshit have I walked into?”

“Soulmates?” she asked, and paused. “Interesting perspective. I suppose, in some way, we are meant to be here together. In this time and place.”

“Oh, God, you’re insane,” he said with a groan, which morphed into a scream when she drew the blade along his skin again. This one was an inch away from the first, and moving toward his elbow.

This continued on, and on. She’d cut, move an inch, and when she ran out of space she moved to the other side of the limb. She avoided any arteries. She also never cut so deep that he bled profusely enough for him to hope he’d bleed to death, and end this nightmare. Not that he wanted to die, of course, but his body was on fire from the shallow-cut nerves, and his mind was a delirious whirlwind of her words.

Each time she moved from one limb to the next, she’d stop, look him in the eyes, and say; “It’s not time for that yet.”

When he struggled, she’d say; “Don’t fight.”

When he’d pause in his screaming and cursing her to the depths of Hell, she’d respond with; “You need this.”

The first statement kept a thread of hope thrumming through him, but with each scream his throat grew rawer, until his voice was too hoarse for them anymore. The times he managed to pass out before she stopped in time to keep it from happening, she’d wake him with a cool cloth to the forehead. After the second waterboarding session, he did his best not to appear dehydrated or thirsty.

By the time she finished both arms, one leg, a foot, and had started on the next, he was shivering uncontrollably. He’d long ago puked up what was left in his stomach from the night before, and what little bile he had. She’d wordlessly cleaned him up.

But it was the other two statements, more than her torture, that left a lingering unease worming its way through his scattered thoughts. They mixed with flashes of blue eyes, and strands of blond hair ghosting between his fingers.

It was at the second cut along the arch of his foot that did it.

“P-please,” he said, teeth chattering, the word barely more than a whisper, and shuddering.

When it fell from his lips, the knife stopped. Even though he couldn’t see her, there was a stillness from where she was. A complete absence of mobility that was more like a void in space, as opposed to a person not moving.

“What did you say?” she asked, her face so close to his foot her breath tickled along his skin.

Tensing all the muscles in his body to stop the shaking for a moment, he forcefully said from between gritted teeth; “Please,” expelling the word in one go. “Stop.”

She stood, her eyes meeting his from down the length of his bloodied body. Unlike the usual, assessing gaze he was accustomed to, this time it held a weight. His chest grew steadily heavier with each passing moment, until his breathing stopped. It was in that moment, when he couldn’t draw another breath, that the final thread of hope withered and burned away in his mind.

Then, from that second to the next, he could breathe again. He sucked in great gulps of air, nearly choking. What little moisture he had went to his eyes as they watered, and he hadn’t thought his chest and lungs could be in any more pain. He’d been wrong.

It was then that someone giggled.

He cracked open one eye to look at the woman, but her eyes were back to their usual, and there was no movement from her face to indicate it’d been her.

“Oh, Sister, you always do such lovely work,” a young voice said behind him, coming from where the woman at his feet initially appeared.

“My work is only possible through you, Sister,” the woman said, inclining her head, and looking beyond him.

Another giggle. “Such flattery.”

“Still, what are you doing here? It’s time for him to move on. He’s been made ready,” she said, and tilted her head.

Then a girl came into view on his left. She was in her late teens, wearing a flowing, green dress accentuating her curves, and could certainly be the sister of the woman. Her curling, blond hair was loose about her shoulders. The only difference was, this girl was full of life. Personality. And at the moment, she was pouting.

“I wanted to send him on his way with you. You know how much I enjoy these ones,” she said, moving closer to the table. Her hips came flush against the stone, right above his arm. She turned her face to him, skin at the corner of her eyes crinkled with mirth and her eyes themselves dancing. She bit her lip.

Something about her raked along his consciousness. It was almost as painful as her nails digging into his arm as she dragged them across the sliced flesh from wrist to upper arm.

“Sister,” the older one admonished as he screamed.

“Who are you people?” He sobbed.

They both went still in the same way the woman had earlier. As though his words were some kind of switch thrown within them.

“Don’t you remember?” the younger one purred. She shifted to face his head, and leaned over.

He gave a small shake of his head, unable to speak, his airway constricted.

She put her mouth to his ear. “Perhaps you want a reminder then,” she teased, and licked his ear lobe. “Come on, Baby, don’t be like that. You know you want it. You need this. Don’t fight,” she whispered.

The phrases rippled through his mind, as though the words were stones and his thoughts a pond.

The girls. The abandoned trestle bridge not far from the old quarry. The shattering of one beer bottle after another on the rocks of the creek’s embankment. Stroking himself to completion as the events with the most recent girl played over and over his mind. Taking her from the parking lot at knife-point, the blade leaving a small, shallow cut through the fabric of her dress and in her skin. Her wide blue eyes. Matted, wet blond hair from his fist holding her beneath the water. Cold, blue lips, forever parted but never again to draw breath.

The new mystery girl moved her face so it was inches from his. Their eyes locked. He fell into her gaze, spiraling, until he wasn’t looking at her face, but his own. He’d recognize that sneer anywhere. Heat filled the other’s eyes, and his own laugh rumbled eerily through the body his mind was trapped in. The other him leaned down, and he struggled to get away, but couldn’t. The other was just too strong.

“You need this, Baby. Don’t fight.”

Carter screamed as every horror he visited upon those girls was paid back in full. From abduction to death. For all nine of them.

Then he was back, gazing up into the younger one’s face. He met her smile with tears and terror.

“Who are you?” he whispered, the words carrying a foreboding that was heavier than lead.

“We’ve been known by many names over the years,” the older one said. “Spirits of vengeance. Maiden, Mother, and Crone…” she trailed off.

“Or Judge,” the younger one whispered, and nuzzled his cheek with hers as he whimpered.

“Jury,” the older one said.

She pulled back the hood, and pulled down the face mask. Every time he blinked, her face changed, cycling from one of Carter’s victims to the next. Not as they were in life, but as they appeared in death.

The older ones were in various stages of rot, all the soft tissue of the face gone because of the carrion feeders. Teeth were exposed with a few missing, caught in an eternal, ghoulish grin, the gums black with decay.

The more recently deceased still held an echo of the ethereal beauty they had in life, but their skin was pale, and they watched him with white, filmy eyes.

“And Executioner,” a new voice rasped, like sawgrass rubbing against itself in the night wind.

Carter shuddered. The new voice penetrated to his core, and his bones ached.

In the wake of that proclamation, a third woman appeared behind Jury. Her spine was bent with age, and the determined thud of her gnarled, wooden staff on the floor echoed as she made her way to the table. Her skin was wrinkled, and her thin-lipped mouth was a severe line across her face. She wore a black cloak, and wisps of white hair lay across her shoulders. There was a black blindfold across her eyes, but Carter knew there was nothing she missed.

“You were taken from the mortal realm by our youngest Sister,” the Crone said.

He looked at the younger one, who grinned and wiggled her fingers at him in a small wave. “I couldn’t wait to meet you, so I took you early! The girls had told us so much about you,” she said, her grin broadening to a manic level.

He grimaced in response, and returned his attention to the Crone.

“We do not generally condone such actions,” the Crone said, admonishing the younger one, “but it was deemed appropriate that you surrender your few remaining months in light of your behavior. A form of expedited karma, if you will.”

She lifted the staff, and when the butt came down thunder rumbled through the chamber. “Your soul has been Judged and found wanting. The Jury has made it ready. It is time, Carter Moore,” she intoned, and leveled the considerable weight of her attention on him. “Choose. Remain here in the care of my Sisters for eternity, for your soul is not fit to reenter the Cycle. Or, surrender yourself to me, and cease your existence forevermore.”

Judge, Jury, and…Executioner.

It’s time.

Don’t fight.

You need this.

There was a fine trembling running through his body, down to what there was of his soul. “Yes,” he whispered to the Crone, “take me.”

This time, she gripped the staff with both hands and lifted it from the ground. “So Mote it Be,” she said, her voice wielding the very essence of Creation and Destruction. Beautiful and terrifying in its power. She brought the staff down, and there was a flash of intense, bright light, followed by a crack. When the light dimmed, the table was broken in half, and Carter Moore was gone.

The younger one pouted. “It’s never fun when they choose to leave.”

“As though we don’t already have plenty to tend to,” the middle one stated, and then sighed.

A warm breeze blew through the room, and her appearance changed, along with that of the younger sister. Between them they were all women, spanning the past, present, and future of the world. When the wind died down, nine women were gathered around the altar, and nine sets of blue eyes were fixed on it.

“The contract is fulfilled,” the younger one said, and this time her smile was bittersweet.

“Balance must be maintained,” the middle one said, her smile as gentle as April rain.

“So Mote it Be,” the Crone said again, but this time the power was tender, and wrapped lovingly around the spirits like a handmade quilt.

The women, no longer rotting and dead, looked up at the three, silent as the tears streaming down their faces. They all nodded, and then were gone, following Carter Moore into oblivion.

The Crone leaned heavily on her staff, and her gaze fell on the cracked altar. “Humanity is rife with darkness, Sister; fear not. There will always be more,” she rasped, and then they, too, were gone.

Short Story ~~ Between

This was written for a writing contest that had a 7k word limit–I finished this with 6990. Sadly, I did not place, but that doesn’t mean I can’t post it here for all you lovely people to enjoy!

~~~~~~~

 

Happy endings aren’t real. This might seem obvious to some, but it bears a comment because, all too often, people pine away for something that can never happen. Even if you live a full life, what happens? You die. That’s not a happy ending, it’s just an end.

Even worse are people who try to chase that perfect fairytale life peddled in modern re-tellings. I’ve read the original The Little Mermaid, and through the marvels of modern technology I was able to see the movie. The latter is wishful thinking to the extreme. I’d call it crap, but it’s for kids and not adults. The first is closer to the truth, but still off. Of course, stories were funny that way, especially ones no one believed to be true.

“Mornin’ Lykke!” The voice boomed over the docks, like someone beating one of those big drums in an orchestra. A large, walrus-like man waved at me from the end of the last dock for the little town of Haven Cove. His characteristic bright yellow bib overalls were like the light of a lighthouse, guiding fisherman safely in.

“Morning, Jeff,” I said, and waved back. My voice was rough from lack of use, but when you lived alone there wasn’t much conversation going on.

“How’s the bite?” he asked, once my boat was flush with the dock.

I tossed him the bow and stern lines, one after the other, to tie up the Sea Witch, but didn’t disembark.

“Active east past Acker’s Rock.”

Jeff whistled, a high, ear-piercing shriek that tore into my ear drums, and I flinched. He gestured for a couple of the dock workers to hop aboard and unload the catch.

“You don’t say? Mind if I pass it along? Been a slow day for some of the guys.”

“Sure, but I’m not sure how good it’ll be now,” I warned.

Jeff let out a great bellow of a laugh, and his belly shook with chuckle tremors afterward.

“Fished it out, eh?”

“Something like that,” I hedged. I may be in exile from my kin, but I still had my magic, and I could call upon the Sea and Her bounty. Granted, I did so sparingly, and I never took more than I needed. There was no telling Jeff that, though. He’d just look at me like I was crazier than he already thought I was.

“Well, thanks anyway.” He ran a seasoned eye over my trawler. “You know, I never see the Witch in dry dock, and yet she’s always lookin’ dandy, and never needs repairs,” he observed with a glint in his eye.  “I’d really love to get in contact with whoever does the work.”

“I’ve told you before, Jeff, I can’t tell you. Even if I did, he’d never help you, and then he’d abandon me. What would I do then?” I scolded, and put my hands on my hips.

Just like humans, the Sea Folk came in all shapes and sizes, though we had the distinction of varying in species as well. In our human form most of us were all lean muscle and slender, so I didn’t have much to put my hands on. My most striking features were my–you guessed it–ruby red hair, and eyes the blue of the Mediterranean.

“Alright, alright,” Jeff said, holding his hands up in surrender. Then he tucked his thumbs behind the straps of his overalls, and gave me a giant grin, showing off one of his missing molars in the back. “You can’t blame a man for trying.”

I harrumphed, and we both waited for the dock workers to finish their offload. Jeff wrote the receipt out, and handed it to one of the workers. He was young, but not as young as the other one. Though, all humans seemed young to someone who was born around when the Romans invented plumbing. The breeze coming off the ocean ruffled hair as dark as the deepest ocean depths, and what looked to be a natural tan was darkening from time on the docks. His eyes were the dark gray of thunderclouds roiling over the ocean, and watched me in a calculating yet wary manner. Like one predator sizing up another.

“Go and fetch the lady’s funds,” Jeff said with a growl, “and I’ll be countin’ it once it comes back.”

The worker mumbled something and shuffled off, shoulders bunched and hands shoved in the pockets of his olive-green overalls.

“Problems?” I asked, watching him walk away.

I wouldn’t deny that all Sea Folk were attracted to pretty things, though the obsession differed from one to another. Like many of my kin, there was something that sparked my hunger with humans. This human hit that desire in me like a punch to gut that left me breathless and dizzy. I gritted my teeth against the sensation, and willed myself to not stagger.

“Nah, he’s a good lad,” Jeff reassured, incorrectly interpreting my reaction. “Strong back, just doesn’t always mind his manners around temptation. Hired him as part of a probation program. Judge seems to think hard work and the threat of smelling like fish guts forever will keep them from re-offending.”

I couldn’t help a small chuckle. “The judge might be on to something there.”

“Why can’t she turn in her own hand receipt?” asked the other worker, piping up for the first time, as though the question burst from him when he couldn’t hold it back any longer. He had that gangly look about him that teens did. The one where they weren’t yet used to their longer limbs. The orange skullcap was pulled low over his brow, so I couldn’t see his hair, but his eyes were a warm brown, and curious.

“None of yours,” Jeff said, the growl this time not as biting, and gave a light cuff on the back of the youth’s head. “Start taking in the haul to Ned.”

The kid fixed his cap, and grabbed the rope attached to the fish bin. He walked away, sneaking glances at me as he went.

I’d put my chilled hands in the pockets of my blue parka, though I could have worn a bikini and not been bothered by the chill October air. I did it for show–for the humans. Nothing outed you as strange like wearing shorts in near-freezing weather. So, I made sure to pay attention to the temperature, and had on my knee-high rubber boots, angler pants, and a knit cap to help tame the hairs not contained by the braid that fell to my lower back.

Jeff didn’t know my story, just that I wouldn’t leave the boat. He chalked it up to some quirk or another, maybe a phobia, though the word was likely beyond Jeff’s ken. He was a simple man, who was willing to work with my eccentricity as long as I brought in the catch.

Little did he know I couldn’t step foot on land, or in the sea, or risk dying.

The other worker came back, and as Jeff said he would, he counted the bills. Jeff boasted arthritis in both knees, and even squatting to hand me the bills would have been too much, so he gave them back to the man to hand to me. I did my best not to let my hand touch his, since touch would only make everything worse, and nearly snatched the money from him. I left out a small sigh of relief when there was no contact, and I avoided looking him in the eye.

I thanked the men, they tossed me the lines, and I puttered my way back out to the ocean to find somewhere to anchor for the night.

It was a little after midnight, and I was sitting on my bed and downing a shot of liquor from a flask given to me by a Shaman friend of mine, when dripping water pattered over the deck.

I sighed and flopped back. “If you’re here to kill me, do it. I’m already bored,” I said, and ditched the shot glass. The flask was supernaturally warm against my lips, and I took a long haul, trying not to lose my cool and sputter.

“Why ever would I do that?” a soft voice asked. “It’s so much more fun to watch you suffer,” he hissed.

I groaned. “You don’t have permission to be on my boat, you slimy sea snake.”

The Beisht Kione hissed at me. I turned my head to the side, and his long, thin form was silhouetted in the doorway against the light of the full moon. Imagine an eel whose head was black, while the rest of him was a murky brown. He was twelve feet long, and his tail remained in the water, dipping in and out as the boat rocked. There were spiked fins along his spine he could collapse, starting at the base of his skull going all the way to the tip of his tail, as well as on the sides of his face. Those were flared out, and his mouth was open, showing off dozens of razor-sharp teeth.

“I may not be able to touch you while you are on this boat,” he spat the word, his phlegm eating through the wood of my small table, “but one day you will slip.”

“Literally? Because I’m pretty sturdy on my feet. I’ve had lots of practice over the years.”

I couldn’t help but poke fun at him, just as he couldn’t help but want to kill me. We were eternally bound, he and I. Both of us doomed to spend our lives alone. He had a couple motivations for murder: I’d killed his brother and his boss, the actual Sea Witch. She’d also originally bound the brothers Beisht to my aura, and they could track it with their eerie, yellow glowing eyes. I’d named the boat after her, because she was the reason I was stuck like this. If I touched the land, I’d turn to dust. If I touched the water, I’d be ripped apart by the Beisht Kione.

And it was all because I didn’t manage to get one lousy kiss. Falling in love with someone who doesn’t love you back is bad. Falling in love with someone who’s engaged to be married to the love of his life a few days after you fell in love with him, and you didn’t know that but the Sea Witch did? That is the epitome of crap with a side of shit.

“I will taste your flesh, Lykke, and we’ll both be free. Do you not grow tired of being confined to this cage?” he crooned, his voice almost as slippery and smooth as his skin.

“Not today I’m not. Now get out of here. You’re ruining my drink,” I said, and held up the flask. “A toast to us, Beisht, for continued health and happiness.” With that heaping dose of sarcasm, I took another gulp to kill the tightening of my throat.

“One day,” he promised. “I’ll join you for that drink, but only after you’re in my belly.” Then he slid noiselessly back into the black waters.

The ocean rocked the boat, and I remained silent. “Not today,” I whispered, closing the flask and tossing it to the floor. It clattered somewhere, and I’d regret having to find it later, but I couldn’t muster a care.

For the first time in days I rolled over and tried to fall asleep, hoping the liquor would grant me dreamless slumber. My regular dream–or rather nightmare–was usually filled with dreamy blue eyes the color of a cloudless summer sky, soft, coal black hair, and a kind voice overlapped by the cackle of an evil woman I’d killed. Tonight, though, the eyes were gray and wary, and my never-lover’s voice was replaced by a longing I hadn’t experienced in almost two-hundred years.

 

<***>

 

The radio weatherman was going on and on about the incoming storm, but I didn’t need a human with faulty science to tell me what was coming. It was big, and it was bad. I hadn’t been out long since my last visit to town, but I turned back and headed in. I could use my powers to calm the waters around my boat, and the Shaman who helped me keep the Witch seaworthy put in some protections, too, but it was better to dock up. I never knew when a rogue wave would come crashing down and destroy the only thing standing between my continued existence and the Beisht.

Most of the fisherman would be out, hauling as much catch as they could in the calm before the storm. Fishing was always better before a storm, and not so great after. I didn’t have the same problems as most fisherman, though, so I could afford to head into town earlier, and maybe have one of the dock workers grab a few supplies for me.

When I made it to the dock there weren’t too many boats tied up. The ones that were, were boats of some of the older fisherman. Their caution was tempered by years on the water, in a way it hadn’t done for the younger generations yet. They’d likely gathered at the local dive bar, drinking their earnings, and lamenting the stupidity of youth. Some things will never change.

As I pulled up to the last dock, the kid from yesterday was there to greet me. I tossed the bow line up to the kid, who tied it down to the cleat. He was concentrating hard on doing the knot correctly while I tossed the fenders over and headed to the stern line. This time, though, I also tossed up the spring lines, since I’d be here for more than just an offload.

“Got another load?” the boy eagerly asked once his task was complete.

While I ran a practiced eye over the knots, I shook my head. “No, didn’t want to chance getting caught in the storm.” When I was sure the knots were good, I looked up to meet his gaze. He’d deflated a bit at hearing there was nothing here for him to do, but I waved him onto the boat. “Come here. I need to give you my tie-up fee, and maybe you can run some errands for me.”

He jumped at my words, literally, and landed with a loud thud on the deck of the Witch. His boots were loud on the deck following my quieter steps, and I headed into my kitchen area. I grabbed a tin from one of the cabinets, and grabbed some money.

I turned back to him and held up the money. “I’m going to write a list. Whatever’s left after you’ve gotten everything on the list is yours,” I said, and handed him the cash.

He nodded, but it was hesitant. I smiled a little at that. Good, the kid was smart enough to realize that his take would depend on my list. I jotted down what I needed, as well as a couple of splurges. I was a sucker for red liquorice, and the handmade shampoo and conditioner from a woman in town. I’d never met her, but I’d be forever grateful to her husband, one of the seasonal dock workers, for introducing me to it.

When I handed over the list, the kid looked from the list to the money, and his eyes went wide.

“Are you sure?” he asked, his hesitance for a completely different reason.

I smiled. “Yes, I’m sure. Now, go and hand in the tie-up fee to Jeff, and if you can’t run the errands yet, let me know, and get to it when you can. Deal?”

He gave me a hesitant smile, but nodded. “Deal.” Then he was off like a shot, and the quick beat of his feet on the dock faded as he ran to Jeff’s office.

I’d planned on starting a pot roast and sitting down with one of my new books, but something about the coming storm was making me itch below my skin where I couldn’t scratch. Instead, I put the nervous energy to good use and started cleaning everything. Even though I kept a tidy boat, there was always something to clean.

As I worked, the sky grew prematurely dark, and the wind picked up at a steady pace. It didn’t take long for the rain to join in, and by that point the other boats were pulling in to the docks. Once it really started coming down, I headed in to cook dinner. With the weather turning foul as quick as it did, I supposed the kid probably headed home. Hopefully I didn’t put my trust in a thief, but I hadn’t gotten that vibe from him.

The wind was howling, and I’d just pulled out some veggies to cut when the door to my kitchen and bunk area was yanked open. I dropped into a crouch and held the knife in front of me to ward off whatever was coming through my door. Unfortunately, the only thing my paranoia was warding off was a wet, bedraggled teenager, whose eyes were wide and breathing so ragged I thought he’d pass out.

“Wh—”

“You’ve got to help Brandon!”

I slowly stood and put the knife down on the counter. “Who’s Brandon?” I asked, raising an eyebrow.

“The guy on the dock with me and Jeff the other day,” he said, his voice going thin and impatient.

My stomach clenched and a sick chill ran down my spine. I walked behind the boy and closed the door, pushed him down into one of the two chairs at the small table, and pulled the wet skull cap from his head. His hair was dark from rainwater, but dry it was probably the same color as his eyes.

“Stop, you—”

“—have to help Brandon, I know. But right now your lips are blue, and your teeth are chattering so hard you might bite your tongue off. Having you go into some kind of hypothermic shock isn’t going to help anyone, so sit down, shut up for a moment, and let me get you warm,” I commanded, pushing him back down when he’d tried to stand up again.

He remained seated that time. I snatched the blanket from my bunk and threw it over his shoulders. I grabbed my electric kettle and set it to heat some water, and grabbed some of my instant hot chocolate. It’s not as good as the real stuff, but it works in a pinch. While it heated, I grabbed a towel and dried his hair as best I could. He was shaking so bad he couldn’t even stop me from doing it. Once that was done, I grabbed one of my skull caps and pulled it down on his head.

By the time he was getting restless the water was boiling, so I made the hot chocolate. I also added some milk to cool it down just enough that he didn’t scald himself when drinking it, but left out the marshmallows. I doubt he’d be amused.

After he took three gulps, and some of the color returned to his lips and cheeks, I sat down in the other chair.

“Now, tell me what’s wrong,” I said.

“Brandon started working the docks a few weeks ago, but he wanted to make more money. Jeff didn’t see any problems with him working more, since it was accomplishing what the judge wanted. He’s been going out with a couple of boats Jeff recommended, and he was really enjoying it. It’s the happiest I’ve seen him since he started here.

“But today he and Jeff got into a big fight because Brandon was asked to go out with a boat, and Jeff knew a storm was coming. Jeff told him if he wanted to die right as he started to live his life the way he should, to go ahead and get on that boat. The boat he got on, the Whistler, is the only one not back yet!”

The words had tumbled from him with quick desperation, and he slowly leaned toward me as he spoke.

“Did you tell Jeff?” I asked.

“Yes, and he told the Coast Guard, but they can’t do anything until the storm passes! I once heard Jeff say you were the best, and that you helped save some people during a storm a few years ago,” he said, the declaration its own request.

I frowned, and cursed inwardly at Jeff putting such a fool idea in the kid’s head. This storm—hurricane, really—was going to make the one a few years ago look like a spring shower. Every so often, nature hungered for death the same way as the Titans of old. This one had that same savageness about it. It wouldn’t be content unless it left utter destruction in its wake.

When I met his gaze, though, the anguish there left me with little choice, and I sighed. What immortal wanted to live forever, anyway?

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Gavin,” he said. Hope shone in his eyes like sunlight reflecting off the water, and I knew I was doomed.

“Alright, Gavin, I want you to head back home—”

“No!” he said, too quick, and put the hot chocolate down with a hard thump on the table.

There was something more there than the desire to help a fellow worker, and it raised the hairs on the back of my neck.

“Look, I can’t take you out with me. I’m sure your parents will be worried.”

“I’m an orphan, no one will care, and I want to help save Brandon,” he said, setting his jaw and glaring at me. “Brandon is the only one who cares, and we don’t have time to waste arguing. I’m going,” he declared.

That would explain the reaction. If this guy is the only person he thinks cares about him…

Still, I just stared at him. “And you think Brandon would want you out in that storm?”

He snorted. “Like he’d be one to point a finger. He went out into the storm,” he pointed out.

“So you want to do the same stupid thing? No. You need to leave,” I said, putting a hand on my hip and pointing to the door.

He gripped the edges of the chair, wrapped his legs around the chair’s legs, and clenched all his muscles. “No, and you can’t make me.”

Actually, I could, you little snot. I wanted to verbalize the thought, but if I bodily removed him from the boat it’d open a can of worms I’d never be able to close again. Fisherwomen were strong, there was no doubt, but they weren’t, lift-a-full-grown-teenage-boy-off-a-boat-and-onto-the-dock strong. It was ten years too soon for me to move on to a new location, which was always an ordeal.

After a couple of heartbeats, I growled at him. “Fine, but you won’t tell anyone I took you out, least of all Jeff. He’d have my hide if he knew,” I said, and opened to door to head up to the wheelhouse. “Get the lines, and be happy I don’t hit the throttle before you can jump back on,” I said.

He jumped up quick to obey, and soon we were on our way. He’d tried to finagle staying in the wheelhouse with me. In response, I’d shot him a look full of pure venom, and he retreated to the kitchen to get out from beneath my withering gaze.

Once we were away from the docks, I headed down and poked my head into the kitchen. The kid was looking a little green around the gills, but my sympathy meter was at zero.

“Did they say where they were headed?” I asked.

“Acker’s Rock, just like you suggested the other day,” he said, and then bolted for the bathroom.

I left him to his business and went back up to set our course. It was rough going, even for me. Between the magic imbued in the boat and my personal magic, it was still far too dangerous for anyone, Sea Folk or human, to be out here. Thankfully, unlike humans, I didn’t need fancy electronics to find another boat. I could just ask the Sea.

Many believed, thanks to a fairytale, that Sea Folk had no souls. It was a silly idea, but humans tended to perpetuate the concept that nothing on Earth was as special as them, hence why nothing else could possibly have a soul. But I did. In fact, there was a small part of said soul that was eternally connected to the ocean, like a calming presence always in the background.

This was what I reached for now, submerging my mind in it, like dipping into a comforting, warm bath.

Where are they? I asked Her.

The answers were never in words, but pictures, sensations, and feelings.

Fear slammed into me like a tsunami, and it was all I could do to remain standing. I gripped the wheel until my fingers were bloodless, and grit my teeth so hard the grinding of them almost drowned out the blood pounding in my ears like drums.

Where? I asked again, pushing the fear away. It retreated, like a wave pulling back to the ocean. An image of Acker’s Rock floated into view, but it was the scattered wreckage in the water surrounding it that sent my heart pounding.

Then, as a wave crested and fell, there was a large piece of wreckage, and a person clinging to it. I couldn’t tell who it was, but I had to hope for the best. I retreated from the connection, and continued on toward the Rock.

Time stretched out in front of me, as though I was running toward a finish line that grew further away instead of closer. With each moment that went by, the weather worsened. By the time I was able to see the wreckage and the Rock, the only thing keeping my boat from being destroyed by the storm was pure magic.

I set the boat to idle, but couldn’t get any closer to the Rock without risking my boat, too. Magic could only do so much. I also didn’t want the boat to crash into any survivors. I caught sight of the person floating on the wreckage, and this time I was close enough to see it was Brandon. My heartrate picked up again.

There was no way he’d be able to hear me shout for him in this mess, so I blew the horn in the hopes he’d hear me. His head whipped around, and I saw his mouth moving as though he was trying to speak. He twisted his body and the wreckage to face the boat. The panic in his body language was almost palpable across the distance, but I swallowed against my own that tried to rise in response to his.

I left the wheelhouse, and was almost blown overboard by the wind, but just managed to keep my feet underneath me. I staggered over to the railing, and grabbed the life preserver. When I tossed it out toward him, the throw came up short, but I had a few tricks up my sleeve. Using the boat as a conduit to the water I couldn’t touch, I put my hand on the metal of the bulwark and closed my eyes.

My magic wasn’t infinite, and I was already approaching my limit by keeping the boat from being destroyed by the storm, but there was nothing for it. I pulled harder on my magic, and moved it through the metal into the water. Sea Folk magic had a tendency to behave like water, and it tries to spread out to fill all available space. This is problematic when using it in the ocean, because, as you can imagine, the ocean is vast. You’d probably pass out or die before accomplishing that. One of the first lessons in using magic was focus, and forming the magic into a shape in your mind to fit what you were trying to accomplish.

I formed the magic into an extension of my arm, and reached toward the life preserver. I grabbed it, and began pushing it as quick as possible toward Brandon. I was panting with the effort of focusing my magic in two directions at once, and my sweat combined with the rain to soak my clothing inside and out.

When the life preserver was within reach, something surged through the water and snatched it from me. The sudden movement jerked me forward, and I almost fell face-first onto the deck. I staggered to my feet, and a familiar form swam ominously through the waves. The Beisht’s head dipped above the water, and he bared his teeth at me. Daring me.

I cursed and clenched my fists.

“What the hell is that?” Gavin shouted next to me.

I jumped and almost fell over again. I was about to yell at him to get back inside, but a thought occurred to me. It wasn’t a pleasant one, but it was the only one I had at the moment. Looked like it was going to be a can of worms situation, whether I liked it, or not.

I ignored the question. “Do you have a knife?” I asked, shouting to be heard over the storm.

His brows furrowed, but he nodded, and pulled his knife from the sheath on his belt. It was a simple fileting knife, and would probably do nothing against the Beisht, but it was better than nothing.

“I need you to do what I say, no matter what you see. Can you do that?” I asked, leveling a deadly serious look his way.

After only a moment, he nodded again.

“Good. When I get close to Brandon, throw the other preserver and haul him in once he has hold of it. Then, even if I’m not back in the boat, you two get out of here. Do you understand me?”

His eyebrows shot up, and his mouth hung open. “We can’t leave you!”

I grabbed the front of his overalls and brought him close to my face. “Do you understand me?”

He frowned and swallowed, but nodded. I let him go, and undressed. His concern turned to shock as his eyes went wide again, and his cheeks flushed red.

“Wh—”

“Give me your knife,” I interrupted.

He limply handed me the knife without another word. I took one last, shaky breath, and dove into the water, trying to stay as close to the boat as possible.

There was nothing quite like changing from one form to another, especially since I hadn’t been in this one in so long. Magic washed over me, and from one moment to the next, my human form was gone. Most humans depicted mermaids as having brightly colored scales, and clam shell bras, but the truth was far more practical.

My particular species was not unlike a Shortfin Mako shark. The scales along the back of my arms, back, and fin were an indigo blue, while my sides and underside all the way up and around my mouth was white. Five gills slits, from below my earlobe to just above where my shoulder met my neck, moved as I pulled in water through my mouth. My teeth were slender and sharp, and my nails matched. I had all the same fins as the shark, with the only difference being the pectoral fins were shorter, and further back. My nose flattened into nothing but slits, and my eyes were large and black. My hair changed color to match my back, and the strands not in the braid floated freely in the water.

Even though my transformation was fast, I still tensed, and expected an attack from the Beisht. After a moment, none came, and my mouth set in a grim line. He wanted to play. However, I didn’t have time to waste. I took off for Brandon, and braced for the attack I knew would come when I got within range of him. Being as fast as I was, it didn’t take me long to get close, and I put my hand out of the water to signal to Gavin when I was about ten feet away.

The same moment the life preserver hit the water, the Beisht came from below and tried to slam into me. I twisted away at the last second, and made a grab for the life preserver. His teeth and slimy skin grazed my side, and I grimaced at the burning that raced along my nerves. The problem with the Beishts didn’t just come from their teeth, but the poison their skin and saliva secreted.

I put on another burst of speed, and managed to get the life preserver to Brandon. I surfaced for just a moment to make sure he grabbed it, and paralyzing fear radiated from him like heat from the sun.

“Grab it!” I yelled, the words slightly garbled from the water in my mouth.

That was when the Beisht attacked again, grabbing right above my caudal fin with its teeth. I screamed as he dragged me under. I twisted, and bent over to try and stab at him with the knife. I managed to get a good strike in near his gills, but instead of letting go he thrashed and tore into my muscles. My next strike went for the eye closest to me, and that time he let go. He darted away into the dark waters, but now that he was bleeding and I wasn’t trying to get a life preserver to Brandon, I could focus on him.

Unfortunately, his next target wasn’t me.

Brandon had managed to grab the life preserver, despite being scared out of his wits, and Gavin looked to be pulling him in as fast as he could. The Beisht was faster. I put on a burst of speed to intercept him, but with my injury I barely made it in time. I hit Brandon’s legs with my body, but he managed to cling on.

Again and again, the Beisht went for him, and I couldn’t keep every hit from Brandon. I could smell his blood in the water. It was on the last attack before Brandon made it to the boat, I miscalculated, and my arm ended up in the Beisht’s jaws. This time, before I could stab him, he wrapped his body around mine like a snake, and began to squeeze.

Dark spots danced in my vision, and my struggles grew weaker with each passing moment as I started to pass out. Then, all of a sudden, he let go of my arm and unwound from my body. I sucked in a deep gulp of water, and pushed back from where he coiled and roiled.

Need some help? A friendly, chipper voice asked, and water surrounded me like a reverse bubble.

I went limp with relief as I was lifted from the water. Once I cleared the railing, the bubble burst, and I flopped down onto my deck. The impact wasn’t gentle, and it sent shocks of pain radiating out from every injury. I couldn’t help a small whine. Water spirits weren’t always kind creatures, and this one had never really liked me, anyway.

“Brandon!” Gavin’s voice was anguished, and it jerked my attention to the two of them a few feet away.

Brandon was lying on the deck, and there was a stillness about him that was less unconscious, and more like death. My heart clenched at the sight, and I dragged myself over to him.

“Please,” Gavin begged, “I don’t know what you are, but you have to help him!”

“She’s not a healer, kid,” said a drawling, overly affable voice from the rail.

The two of us turned to look over, and my heart leapt.

“I can’t, but you can, Devin,” I said.

Devin’s long, black hair was pulled back in a braid that snaked down his back, and rain slicked over his dark skin, soaking his t-shirt and jeans. His dark eyes held a perpetual spark of humor, and not even this situation could diminish that. He was crouched on the railing, remaining there with the help of whatever elemental spirits he was connected with at the moment. They were likely how he made it out here with no boat, too. Devin was the shaman who kept the Witch ship shape.

He huffed out a laugh. “Divination is more my thing, but I’ll see what I can do,” he said, and hopped down to the deck, landing gracefully next to us. Before he went to Brandon’s side, though, he leveled a look my way, the humor retreating momentarily. “You owe me,” he said.

I didn’t even hesitate before nodding. Devin might fall into the chaotic neutral side of things, but he wasn’t evil. I might not like whatever he’d have me do, but I doubted I needed to fear whatever it was.

“Agreed,” I said.

“So be it,” he replied, the humor flooding back into his eyes like a dam breaking.

Devin shooed Gavin out of the way, and sat, cross-legged, next to Brandon. He put one hand over Brandon’s heart, the other over his forehead, and closed his eyes. Devin’s magic rose in the air and shimmered, like heat waves were coming from Brandon’s body. After a moment, his brows furrowed.

“His body I can heal, but his spirit has wandered a little too far. Unless we can coax it back, there’s nothing I can do,” Devin said, though he didn’t move. His magic crawled over my skin as he poured more and more into the healing.

I pursed my lips, and my heart pounded. I looked from Devin to Gavin, whose face was pale and tight with worry.

“How well do you know Brandon?” I asked.

“I-I don’t know. He’s worked at the docks for a few weeks; we started at the same time. He’s been really great to me, and even made sure I got enough to eat when my foster parents only gave me scraps,” he said, the last few words tight and frustrated.

Anger surged through me at the kid’s plight, but now wasn’t the time.

“Saving him will come at a price: he’ll be bound to me, forever. He’ll never be able to leave my side for any great distance, or time. Only my death or his will free him, and trust me when I say, I’m rather difficult to kill,” I said, and bared my teeth. “Do you think he’d agree if he were awake?”

I didn’t think it possible, but Gavin paled further. “I don’t know,” he admitted, again, but then he drew in a deep breath. “But I think he’d rather live by your side than die here,” he finished.

I nodded, and turned back to Gavin. Not all Sea Folk kill the humans they lure to them. Most used their magic to send out what amounted to an invitation, and those that answered were compatible with that particular Sea Folk. When such a human is found a soul-bond is created, tying them together. The arrangements aren’t always romantic. Humans can be useful when the Sea Folk wish to mingle with humans, or spend extended time on the surface. There was no way for me to see if what I experienced the other day with Brandon was mutual, but we’d just have to pray.

I closed my eyes, and sent my mind down into the center of my being. The same place the connection with the Sea existed. I gently grabbed a small piece of what made me, me. There was a sharp tug, like someone had pinched my heart, and I gasped. Gradually, the pain faded, and when I opened my eyes there was a small glowing orb in my hand no bigger than a marble.

“Open his mouth,” I said, my voice no more than a whisper.

Gavin moved closer to Brandon’s head, and pushed on his chin to open his mouth. I dropped the piece of my soul into his mouth, and motioned for Gavin to close his mouth again.

For a few heartbeats, nothing happened, then; “He’s coming back,” Devin said.

Color flushed through Brandon, as though his blood had finally decided to start flowing again, and he stirred with a groan, but remained unconscious.

“Is there something wrong? Shouldn’t he wake up?” Gavin said, panic rising in his voice with each word.

Devin finally opened his eyes, and smiled at Gavin. “Magic isn’t like in the movies, kid. He’ll need a few days to recover, and he’ll be wobbly for a couple weeks, but after that he should be right as rain.”

Gavin and I both sighed in relief. I looked toward the ocean, still raging around us. “Were there any other survivors?” I asked.

Devin shook his head. “No, though I don’t know how long the Beisht will be out of commission. He’s a slippery one.” He paused a moment, eyes sparkling. “Now that you finally managed to bond with a human, maybe that means the curse is broken and you can set foot on land?” Devin looked down at Brandon. “What’s with you and pretty boys you barely know?”

I snorted, and started to shift back to my human form. I winced at the number of bruises and bite marks that littered my body, but Sea Folk were tough and healed fast. I’d recover, though even for me it’d take a few days.

“I’m not going to jump on land just yet until I’ve confirmed the curse is gone,” I said, ignoring his second question. I laid back on the deck, not caring the boy was blushing again, or that we were in the middle of a storm. “Let’s head in.”

Christmas Comepetition Winning Entry!

I couldn’t be more excited to type that headline in! I entered at Christmas writing competition on the Writer Writer website, and I won! The story was posted yesterday on Christmas, which means I can now post it here for all you lovely people to read.

The story was originally posted here on the Writer Writer site.

Enjoy!

All I Want for Christmas

There was nothing special about the sight in front of him. In fact, the very same scene could be found across the country, if not the entire world. The dull roar of the crowds blended with the cries of children and a contemporary holiday track. Dazzling decorations glittered from every conceivable surface, and the large, fake tree stood watch over the large, fake Santa beneath its boughs in the center of the mall.

He’d given a small shake of his head at the merry, “Ho, ho, ho!” and moved along to find the bench he’d been using since the mall had opened thirty years ago. It was tucked away in a corner, out of direct line of sight, but with a perfect people-watching vantage. The years he managed to circle back to this particular part of this particular country, he was always amazed they hadn’t commandeered the spot for a vending machine or trash can, but luck was with him again this year.

He sat down, getting himself settled for however long he needed to be there. It varied from place to place and year to year. At times he’d sit for hours on end, while others he needed less than an hour. Once he was comfortable, or as comfortable as one could get on the benches in a mall, he started watching the crowds. People were bustling along, trying to get the rest of their shopping done in the last week leading up to Christmas. Others were strolling through, having completed their holiday tasks and were out enjoying the atmosphere.

There was a certain magic in the air around Christmastime, and most people fed into it, and were fed by it. There was only so much one man could do, and though magic was surely a powerful force, it was far more efficient than people were led to believe. Reinforcing an idea that was already present—parents buying gifts for their children by proxy for Santa—was far more plausible than a man riding around the world in a sleigh pulled by flying reindeer.

As he sat, he smiled kindly behind his long white beard and curled mustache at the children who walked by, their eyes going wide as they tugged on the sleeves of their parents’ jackets. They’d point at him and whisper, and the parents, catching sight of him, would smile. He’d play along and wave, sometimes throwing in a little wink for the kids who didn’t get the attention of their parents, as though to say; ‘This is our little secret.’ He wasn’t wearing the traditional Santa garb like the one sitting under the tree, but the red plaid and black buckled boots were enough to set the tone. People saw what they wanted to.

Or what they didn’t want to.

Some people were jaded, seeing only the commercialism, when in reality the holiday season was about giving, and helping fellow beings on the planet all shared. Others were never up to feeling the holiday cheer, no matter how much he tried to encourage it with his presence.

“I don’t know why we’re here.”

“Because you promised your son you’d take him to see Santa. I don’t want to be here anymore than you!”

The snippet of conversation caught his attention. Away from the main thoroughfare, not far from where he was sitting, a couple were arguing. It wasn’t an uncommon scene this time of year. Holidays were stressful, he knew that, with people pushing themselves and their budgets to try and make the holidays the best they could for their children. However, that wasn’t the case here.

“He can’t hold me to things I’ve said while I’m drinking, I told him that. He did this on purpose.”

“You shouldn’t be drinking any—”

“Not this shit again—”

There was a tug at his sleeve. Startling just a bit, he looked down at a small, thin boy with large, somber brown eyes. His clothes were worn, and barely enough to keep the cold air outside from cutting through them. His head was covered by an old, grey beanie, and there was a smudge of dirt on his left cheek.

“Hello,” he said, smiling kindly to the boy.

“Are you Santa?” the boy asked, his quiet voice trembling but serious.

“What do you think?” the man asked, his eyes twinkling as the corner of his mouth was tugged almost into a full smile.

The boy considered him for a moment, looking him over from head to toe. After a long moment, during which his parents were oblivious to anything except their argument, he nodded.

“I know I’m not supposed to ask for things,” the boy said in a tenuous whisper that broke the man’s heart, “but if you’re Santa, then it’s okay, right?”

“Of course,” the man said immediately. “It’s the rule. Anyone can ask Santa for anything, no matter who they are.”

The boy looked down at his feet. “Even bad children?” The question was meek and fearful, as though he expected the man turn him away for admitting to such a thing.

“May I ask you a question?”

The boy looked up from beneath his lashes, not able to make direct eye contact, and nodded.

“Have you tried your best to be good this year? Your very best?” he asked, his gentle words slowly coaxing the boy to look him in the eye.

The boy hesitated for a moment, considering the question, but finally gave the man a slow nod. “I have tried my hardest, yes.”

“Then that is all I can expect. No one is perfect; everyone makes mistakes,” he said, wanting nothing more than to give the boy a hug, but refraining. “Now, what did you want to ask for?” he asked cheerfully, getting back to business.

“I-I just want my parents to be happy,” the boy said, and looked over his shoulder at the two, who were now screaming at each other and attracting quite a crowd.

The man’s mouth curved down and his eyes lost a fraction of their sparkle. The boy’s request caused his heart to clench, and he had to swallow against the tears threatening to overtake him.

“Do you know how to keep a secret?” he asked the boy. The man already knew the answer, of course, otherwise the child would not still be with the two ‘adults’ he came here with.

The boy’s face was serious as he nodded, his eyes alert and ready.

The man motioned for him to come a little closer, and he whispered; “Well, did you know one of the stories about Santa got something wrong?”

The boy’s eyes went wide. “What story?” he asked, curious and eager.

“Well, I don’t actually have elves working for me,” he said, his voice grave as he conveyed this groundbreaking information.

The boy gasped. “Really?”

The man nodded. “Really. Have you ever heard the story of Peter Pan and Neverland?” At the boy’s nod, he continued; “Well, my workshop is something like that. I take special little boys and girls to the North Pole, and they help me make toys for all the children in the world, and they stay young forever. That’s why they think they’re elves: they never grow up!” he said, and grinned.

The boy let out a small, surprised burst of laughter. “That’s so cool!” he said.

The man nodded. “Yes, it is. Now,” he paused, and looked around. The parents were still going at it, now with a large crowd who had their cell phones out, recording the whole fiasco. “Each year I choose a new boy or girl to come and join me at the North Pole. Only one a year. If you’d like, I think you just might fit in very well at my workshop with the other boys and girls.”

The boy’s eyes went wide again, and his mouth dropped open. “You-you’d pick me?” he asked, incredulous.

The man smiled, his eyes warm as fresh gingerbread. “Of course.”

The boy opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, and looked back over his shoulder. “Do you think it would make my parents happy if I went with you?” he asked, his hesitant whisper back.

The man pondered before he spoke. “Some people are never happy, no matter what. I can’t say whether you leaving would make them happier, but if none of you are happy now, maybe knowing that you’re safe and happy with me would help them,” he said.

The boy turned back to the man. “You’d let them know where I’ve gone?”

“I can’t tell them that, exactly, but I can let them know that you’re safe, and in a better place. Would that work?”

“Yeah, I think that would work,” he said.

Mall security was coming to the scene, trying to break things up, and one of them was calling over their walkie talkie for someone to contact the police.

“Are we leaving now?” he asked the man.

The man stood up, and held his hand out to the boy. “I think that would be best.” As they walked away the man spoke again; “There’s something I have to do with you first. A kind of magic, to make sure your parents don’t get in trouble for you running off, and to make sure you can go to the North Pole, but you have to trust me. Okay?” he asked the boy.

The boy nodded and smiled wide. “Okay. I trust you, Santa.”

The man smiled back. “Good.”

<****>

Daily News Chronicle

25 December 2018

Christmas Tragedy: Missing boy found, deceased, in park near mall

Five days after missing boy, Ethan Taylor, disappeared from the Governor Square Mall, police K9 units found his body in Hall Park. Though the police aren’t sharing many details at this time, they did disclose that foul play was involved, and would be launching a full investigation.

Though he’d been missing for five days, a delay in his search occurred due to the arrest of his parents, followed by a freak blizzard that shocked the local weatherman and residents alike.

An investigation is also being put in motion regarding complaints against the parents and the boy’s home life, as many who knew the family are leveling abuse allegations their way.

“It’s such a tragedy,” the boy’s grandmother said, through tears. “To have to live like he did, and then to be killed.”

When asked how the family were doing, all she had to say was; “All we can hope is that he’s in a better place.”

THE END

Writing Prompt ~~ Legacy

It had been more than two weeks since the fire, but the stink of it was still in her hair, on her skin. She took long showers twice a day, but the smell lingered. When she closed her eyes at night, the images came back to her. Images of the flames, of the way the dark varnish on her grandmother’s cuckoo clock, brought over from Germany when she immigrated here, bubbled and popped.

Most of all, though, Amelie remembered the heat.

Each night, she’d woken in a sweat from both the memories and the fear of them. She’d screamed herself raw each time as she clawed her way out of her mind, the thick smoke choking her as her throat constricted, trying to protect itself. It was as though the flames had followed her into the realm of dreams, intent on licking along her body, their tongues burning and pulling all the moisture from her skin as it blistered.

When she woke, though, her skin was pristine if only a little tender. And with each wakening, she’d remember it wasn’t her who’d been swallowed by the flames. When the fog of nightmares lifted and the memories came flooding back, she’d weep. She’d sob until her body convulsed with them and her eyes went gritty and dry.

She’d promised herself fourteen days. A fortnight to grieve in her soul, recover in body, and strengthen her mind. Two weeks for a plan to churn in her subconscious, sitting at the back of her mind like a slowly simmering stew.

When the new moon rose, leaving more shadow than light stretched over the quiet landscape, she left the hideaway. It had been Quinn’s idea to build it, and though she’d been foolishly over-confident enough to scoff at him for such caution, she’d humored him. He’d gone to work on the very back end of their twenty-acre property, making what amounted to a doomsday bunker, though their concern was less apocalypse and far closer to home. What she wouldn’t give to hear him say, ‘I told you so.’

She clamped down on the sob that tried to break through her swollen throat, and swallowed against it. If she started crying now, she might not stop.

Though she didn’t expect anyone to still be at the house, she took her time moving through the familiar woods. She placed her hands on the rough bark of the trees, like touchstones, and with each caress she was more grounded and less insubstantial. Her hold on the world had been tenuous at best these last two weeks, with the loss of so much that was dear to her leaving her adrift. The trees brought some of what made her, her back, like an artist drawing an outline for a character. Amelie was solid again.

At just after midnight she made it back to the clearing just behind what was left of their house. The night was still, and so was she as she assessed the ruin. She hadn’t been in any condition to do so when she fled, and looking at it now, some of the comfort from the forest withered and left her hollow like a rotted tree trunk.

After a time, she made her way to the wreckage, careful to not disturb too much in case someone came snooping around. The single cabin hadn’t been what most folks would consider much, but it had been enough for her and Quinn.

When she came to the back of the house, she knelt and cleared away fire and autumn debris from a small section of otherwise normal looking ground. However, when she worked her fingers into the earth, a small seam appeared and a trapdoor lifted. Not wanting the remainder of the cabin to collapse on her, she pulled out a flashlight and shone it into the dark cellar. As far as she could see, everything was untouched, so she made her way down the steps into the darkness. Once inside, she lit the lamps around the room. They’d never wired electricity down here, just in case someone with more than half a brain had been involved with planning their demise.

When the soft glow illuminated the small work area, everything really was intact, and she let out a small, shaky sigh. Then, when her eyes strayed over to the bookshelf, her breath caught in her throat. Her feet carried her over to the ceiling-high shelves before she could think to do it, and shaking hands grabbed a picture frame.

Dark eyes with a wicked sense of humor and smile to match gazed back at her. His auburn hair was tousled from sweat and hard work while he helped build their cabin, and dirt streaked through his face and trimmed beard. It was her favorite picture of him, and an ache spread through her chest.

“I miss you,” she whispered, and ran a thumb across the picture’s cheek.

This time, instead of a sob, something hardened in her, and she had to put the frame down before she cracked it and the glass when her fists clenched. Her eyes scanned over the books along the shelves, though she knew exactly where the one she wanted was. On the top shelf, high enough that she had to stand on tiptoe to grab it, she pulled down the dusty, dark tome. A cuckoo clock was not the only thing her oma had brought from Germany.

Oma had never shied away from the darker side of their abilities, saying the dark was as much a part of anyone as the light. Amelie, on the other hand, had never been totally comfortable with such things, and after learning them never had cause to use them again. Oma respected her decision on this, saying some witches remained in the light, others steeped in darkness, while most walked in the grey. Amelie had been more than happy to remain on the light side, though she never thought less of her oma for walking a darker path than her. That was just Oma.

Amelie sent a silent prayer to her grandmother on the other side of the veil, asking for guidance. She took the book and the picture over to the small chair in the corner of the room and sat down to read.

Her thoughts were sharp as broken glass, and claws of rage raked through her as she poured over the spells.

It was sometime around dawn when she finally put the book down, her mind whirring with one possibility after another. As the cold, autumn wind shifted small amounts of rubble overhead, she looked at Quinn’s picture.

“They wanted an evil witch, and that’s just what they’ll get.”