Writing Prompt: Satisfied Customer

It wasn’t Grace’s usual kind of place. Her eyes cut judgmental swaths through the smoky interior of the bar, narrowing on the various ‘lowlifes’ scattered about like dry, dead leaves. Like the woman in the corner with scraggly grey hair, whose eyes were as dead as the fish in Grace’s local market. Or one of the men at the end of the bar, hunched over his beer as though a demon was coaxing his soul from him, one sip at a time.

She pursed her lips and gave a disdainful sniff, though regretted it immediately as an amalgamation of sour odors invaded her delicate nose. Her sea green eyes watered, and she coughed to try and remove the pungent flavor at the back of her throat.

“In or out, lady,” a rough voice grumbled not far from the door, the leather-clad biker squinting against the late afternoon sun streaming in behind the newcomer.

She jumped, but moved to comply, her steps small and faltering. As she made her way to the bar, her navy blue sailor pants, and blue and white striped, long-sleeve shirt were as out of place as her expertly styled, cream soda brown hair. Her white scarpin shoes hit the wooden floor with tentative thunks, and when she finally made it to the surprisingly clean bar top, a soft voice greeted her.

“What’ll ya have, doll?” a man asked, emerging from the murky shadows at the far end of the bar.

His hair was a soft black, with piercing, summer sky blue eyes. A perpetual smile quirked the corner of his mouth, and when he finally flashed a friendly smile, it was worthy of an orthodontia commercial.

Clutching her handmade bag in front of her, she slid onto a bar stool, flinching inwardly at what might be on the seat, but thankful she wore dark pants. While the bartender was a sight, her breath caught at what was mounted on the wall behind him: a gold vein antique mirror. It was large, and set in an ornate, gilded frame. Like her, it didn’t belong in such a seedy bar, but it was also like her in that it was broken. A spiderweb of cracks radiated from the center, throwing back a broken image; just like her heart.

“I heard…” she started, not wanting to sound foolish, and unsure of what exactly she was asking.

“Yes?” he prompted her.

“I heard you could help me with a broken heart,” she said, quick and under her breath. It was one of those things you hear about through the grapevine: a friend of a friend knew a second cousin twice removed whose best friend had come here for help. Or something like that. It was a rumor, not taken seriously except by those who believed in superstitions, or were dull of mind. It was probably just a place where druggies discovered trendy new narcotics. She wasn’t the drug-using type, but anything to dull the pain was welcome at this point; alcohol did nothing for her anymore.

His smile sharpened and turned hungry, like a predator spotting prey. “Is that so?”

“Y-yes,” she stuttered, her usual self-assured demeanor splintering.

“There is a price, of course.”

“I have money,” she said, moving to open her handmade purse.

“We don’t deal in money here, doll,” he said. “We exchange something a little more…eternal.”

She swallowed. All her instincts screamed at her to leave–to turn, run, and never look back. But her heart, shattered to more pieces than there were grains of sand, bade her stay. She couldn’t live with the pain any longer.

“Anything.”

The man nodded, still grinning, and put a hand under the bar. In the distance, a faint buzzing sounded for a moment. Not long after, a girl clattered down a narrow staircase, coming from the upstairs above the bar. She was disheveled, and her movements sluggish, as though she were about to melt languidly to the floor. When she lifted her head, her eyes were nothing but pupil peeking between strands of greasy, ginger spice hair.

“Come here, love,” the man crooned, crooking a finger at the girl.

A slow, dreamy smile spread across her face, and she fell into the man’s arms, snuggling against his chest. He let her stay there for a moment, then pulled her away, to arm’s length. His smile never changed as he moved one hand, faster than Grace could see. The next moment, the girl’s eyes had widened, and there was a gaping hole in her chest. Blood poured from the wound, unrestrained, like a dam letting loose. With her heart in his hand, he let the girl drop unceremoniously to the floor, like garbage.

Grace let out a strangled noise, and toppled the stool when she backed away from the bar. She glanced around wildly, but nobody else had moved, or acted like they even noticed what just happened. She’d dropped her purse to hold her hands out in front of her, to ward off the bartender.

“I–I–” she stuttered, not able to form a coherent thought, let alone sentence.

“Don’t worry, doll. This won’t hurt a bit,” he whispered near her ear, appearing there out of nowhere.

She jerked forward, but his arm caught her around the waist. At his touch, her body grew heavy, and she couldn’t move. Her head fell backward to rest on his shoulder, unable to support itself.

“What did you think was used to mend a broken heart, but another heart. Like patching jeans,” he said, matter-of-fact, as though they weren’t speaking of organs.

In her peripheral, the hand with the heart rose toward her chest. She tried to struggle free, scream–anything. It was to no avail, however, and he pressed the girl’s heart into Grace’s chest. Heat, like from a bonfire, flared through her, and scorching places she didn’t even know could feel such pain. Then it was gone, and her lungs filled  as she gasped for air, and life returned to her limbs. She stumbled away from the man, and her shaky hand ran over her sternum, where not even a single drop of blood had fallen. Had that really happened?

“What the hell?” she screeched, and rounded on the man.

“Precisely,” he said from behind her, magically back behind the bar.

She jumped in surprise and turned back again.

“Wha–”

“How do you feel?” he asked, interrupting her.

“What?! What a ridiculous question! I–”

“Not about that,” he said, waving a dismissive hand toward the dead girl. “How does your no longer broken heart feel?”

She stopped, her mouth hanging open, and realized she felt fine. In fact, better than fine. Her depression was gone, replaced by the old fire in her soul, before she’d given it over to that cheating scum. Purpose, drive, and a liveliness filled her to bursting. Despite the gruesome scene, she laughed, full of joy and pride; more like her usual self.

Grace picked up her fallen handbag, and placed her hands on her hips. She looked the bartender straight in the eye, and smiled. “I feel fantastic.”

“Excellent. I always love a satisfied customer.”

“About the price,” she started.

The bartender leaned against the bar. “Yes, the price.” He looked her over, and tapped his long, spider-like finger against his chin. “We’ll say twenty years.”

“Twenty years?”

“Yes, in twenty years I’ll collect my price. Until then, enjoy,” he said, and gave a small bow.

“What’s the price?” she asked, not sure she wanted to know, given the dead girl on the floor.

“Oh, nothing as gruesome as that. In fact,” he said, and held up a finger, “I’m sure it’s something you won’t miss. Have a nice life, doll.”

Grace wasn’t going to get a straight answer out of him, but whatever the price, she was sure her vast wealth would cover it. He’d said something more eternal, so maybe he meant her investments.  Either way, money talks to everyone–eventually.

“You, too,” she said, and spun on her heel.

She walked out the door, and glanced back only once to the dingy sign above the door: The Crossroads. It was barely visible under the dirt and grime of never being washed, and no one on the sidewalk paid any attention to seedy, hole-in-the-wall bar. Grace straightened her shoulders, and with a spring in her step went about her day.

Inside the bar, the bartender shook his head. “Not even a thank you. Typical human.” Then his eyes ranged over the patrons, and each one shuddered under his scrutiny. “Someone clean this up,” he barked, kicking the girl out of his way.

The burly biker scrambled to obey, while the bartender turned to face the mirror Grace had admired. He stroked a finger over the surface, and it rippled, as though he’d run his finger across a still pond. An eerie blue glow emanated from the reflecting glass, and between the cracks faces appeared. Young and old, men and women; the captured souls spanned the ages. They screamed, though no sound could be heard, and the demon gazed longingly into their tortured faces.

“Yes, another satisfied customer, indeed.”

The Trouble with Gods, Chapter One

Chapter One

 

If I had a heart, it’d be pounding quicker than the sticky fingers of the kids who created me. I slid into a darkening alley, my footfalls softer than the down of a chick, and my presence no more substantial than a shadow. My slight frame, forever the size of an eight year old, fit easily between the grey, stone wall of the bakery, and a couple stacks of wooden crates leaning haphazardly against it. I held a breath I didn’t need to take, and waited.

A snuffling, like a combination of a pig rooting through a trough and a dog scenting a rabbit, came first. Through the spaces between the boards, I watched a nose appeared around the corner. It was slitted, with four of them on each side of a long, slender, fox-like snout, and when it breathed in and out they quivered. Its mouth hung open as it panted, while its tongue lolled over teeth that were jagged as broken glass. It had ears like a bat, and no eyes, but there were saucer-like indents in its skull where eyes would have been. The skull itself was wide, almost like a bear’s. It finished revealing itself, and blocked the exit to the alley all in one go. The body was that of a jackal, while its twin tails twitched like a cat’s. The color of its hairless, taught skin, though, wasn’t black as humans perceived black, but the complete absence of color: a void. Its mere presence sucked in the light around it, and threw nothing back for eyes to see.

Devourer. 

I swallowed involuntarily. Devourers ate gods, and though I was nothing more than a wisp of a god, a god I was. Gods were born from humans; their thoughts, wishes, desires, and so on. There were the larger, more powerful gods, who represented the strongest of human emotions: hate, love, greed, generosity, sorrow, joy, debauchery, virtue, and such.

Me? I was the culmination of the orphans, the street kids–the unwanted–of the city. I was a minor god, or probably less than a minor god. I was barely visible even to the children who conjured me, because the wishes of broken children are fragile things. Easily destroyed, easily forgotten, and easily left behind when adulthood comes calling.

Adults were stronger, and it showed in their gods. I endured, but they did, too, and were powerful besides.

Noting that the Devourer hadn’t moved, I admitted I could do with a little less endurance and a little more power. They rarely bothered the powerful gods, who could perform blessings of peace or destruction to be rid of the dangerous creatures. Those without such power had no option but to run. I didn’t even have the option of calling for help. The powerful gods wouldn’t care to save a god they considered worth no more than the scum on a lakebed, the weaker gods would have run themselves, and the average human couldn’t see Devourers, let alone combat them. The oblivious chattering of the residents in the evening’s soft, fading light, was muffled and unconcerned. Lucky them.

It stood, still as a statue, and waited. The only advantage being so puny afforded me, was that my scent was barely discernible to Devourers. Then it did something that, in my three hundred or so years of existence, I’d never seen before. It shuddered, and in the depression where eyes would be something bubbled through the skin, but didn’t break it. It was similar to the ‘lahva’ people spoke of from other lands; liquid rock that could destroy with its mere presence.

What bubbled out pooled in the depression, until it became like a fly’s eye: bulging, circular, and unblinking. Instead of being red, as lahva was often described, it was a sickly green, like some of the potions I’d seen kids snag from apothecaries in the city.

After the whatever-it-was finished coming out, the Devourer zeroed in on where I hid. A growl rumbled in its gut, as though another animal resided there, in combination with a hiss from the back of its throat, like that of an angry snake.

“What is it, Shinkuma?” a soft voice asked, and the Devourer turned its head toward something out of sight of the alley, its tails twitching in what might be called happiness, if they experienced such a thing. The utter lack of emotion in the words, comparable in many ways to the beast’s lack of color, sent a sensation of spiders crawling down my spine.

The Devourer swung its head back toward me, and made another rumbling hiss. Despite being mostly incorporeal, I still interacted with the physical world. I couldn’t walk through the walls to escape, and though I was created to be exceedingly quick, the Devourers were quicker.

I’m sorry, Bash, you were right; I shouldn’t have gone out. He’d never weep for me. His construction held no room for one of my primary traits: curiosity. He protected, and made safe the unwanted children, so he was stern yet gentle, and he regarded me with thinly veiled disdain most of the time. There was also no tolerance for intruders, and they were dealt with swiftly and mercilessly.

There was movement at the entrance, and my molten gold eyes widened in shock when they locked with the unfeeling, silver eyes of a tall, slender man. His clothing spoke of old wealth, with loose, silk pants that were gathered just below the knee and wrapped down to the ankles, and were dyed the black of a moonless night. His shirt, made of the same flowing material, was the purest of white, and tucked into the top of his pants. He had a fitted, knee-length, long sleeved jacket on, despite the intense heat of the summer, which was made from a stiffer material, black, with silver buttons and embroidery. Ankle boots with low heels were a polished black, and lace-less, as though they simply came into existence on his feet. Maybe they had.

His face and nose were narrow, with skin pale as death itself, and thin lips that had never known a smile. His right hand, with long, agile fingers, rested casually on the hilt of an old, chipped sword, which looked as out of place on him as he did in the back alley of Lady Wept Hill. It did not have a sheath, and was slid through a wide, midnight blue silk belt.

“Come out, or Shinkuma will eat you,” he said, even and undemanding, but the underlying command in his lifeless words reverberated through my very bones.

“To make eating me easier? You did not say he would not eat me if I come out,” I replied, my voice small and wobbly.

I might have hated myself for it, if self-loathing was part of my construct. Fear was there, because in some forms of play fear existed, ready to be conquered, but the fear wasn’t always that precise during construct. It meant I could feel it in any form or fashion, not just in the healthy, fun way.

“If you do not come out, you will surely be eaten. If you do come out, you may yet live, lowly god,” he countered.

I huffed out an indignant scoff. I knew my rank among gods, but drawing attention to such a thing was callous, and tacky. Still, a slight existence was better than the oblivion of the Devourer’s gullet.

When I moved back out the way I’d come, I scowled at him from behind shaggy, poppy red bangs, as he examined my face with its smattering of freckles and smudges of dirt. The rest of my hair was curly and wild, barely brushing my narrow shoulders. The course material of my tunic-length, beachgrass green shirt was bunched in my small fists to keep them from shaking. The fitted shorts that stopped at my knobby knees were the same color and material, and like most kids whose age I reflected, I wore no shoes.

“Ah, I see. You are one of the ‘P’ five of Haven.” He considered me for a moment, and those eyes as cold as distant stars gave nothing away. “Which one are you? Not Protection, or Parent, I would wager,” he said, “since they are not able to leave the confines of Haven.”

“Play,” I said, sullenly, and crossed my arms over my chest.

“What is your True Name?” he asked.

I ground my teeth. “I do not give my True Name to those who threaten my life,” I growled, doing a weak imitation of the Devourer.

“You do not?” He tilted his head in consideration for a long moment, and it shifted his shoulder-length, silky hair, which was the grey of thunderstorm clouds. Just as with my heart, if I was capable of sweating I’d be doing so. The seconds ticked by, each more excruciating than the last as the Devourer’s attention remained unwavering on me. “As you say, then. Your determination has not yet been made, and you will not speak of this, or Shinkuma will destroy Haven. Do you understand, lowly god?”

Your determination has not yet been made. What in Celestial’s name did that mean? However, I nodded, a little too quick to support my bravado from moments before.

“Good.” Then he lifted his right hand from the sword’s hilt to eye level, and without breaking eye contact, snapped his fingers. The Devourer and the strange man vanished, and I very nearly collapsed to the ground.

Instead, I took a deep breath and leaned my back against the bakery’s wall. People, who were conspicuously absent when the man and the Devourer were here, walked by the entrance to the alley. They were running evening errands, or on their way home, and not one of them noticed me. Grownups rarely did, but at this particular moment it made me want to curl up on the cobblestones, still warm from the day’s heat, or maybe throw rocks at them to get them to notice me.

Neither options being particularly helpful, I fairly flew from Lady Wept back to Haven instead. I’d been there looking for new game ideas for the children, as well as potential new inhabitants. However, it would do no one any good if I were killed, so I cut my expedition short in light of the encounter with the man and the Devourer. The streets outside of Lady Wept were eerily quiet, as though they, too, wished to not draw attention to themselves, lest they be cut down or eaten. Or, maybe I was being melodramatic, and it was just the growing dark sending people into their homes. Imagination was not always the boon people made it out to be.

Haven, a place for children and children only, was tucked beneath one of the outer bridges of the city of Raventide. It wasn’t the largest of bridges in a city that boasted multiple canals, bridges, and a seaside view, since the homeless adults guarded such territories fiercely, but it was comfortable. The stone arch they resided under was all land, and was next to an arch over a small river, with the third arch also over water. It meant they had no territorial disputes over their bridge. It also provided water to drink, play, and wash in. It was warm in the shallows, yet still chilly in the deeper parts even in summer.

As I approached, the perimeter fence made from driftwood, and other foraged materials, glowed with a soft, blue radiance. Only gods, and those who manipulated god magic such as priests and priestesses, could see it. It was strong, and it had to be to withstand the adults, ever looking to kidnap and kill the children, or take Haven from us. It also enabled Protector–Bash–to teleport instantly to any point of the fence. It is directly connected to his essence, the way a child is connected to a mother by umbilical. It was his greatest strength, and his greatest weakness.

When I neared, there was a small pop of displaced air, and a short flash like the poppers given to children during festivals with fireworks.

“What happened?” Bash prompted. He was the size of a thirteen year-old kid, lanky in build, and wore no shoes. His ragged shorts were a ruddy brown, and held up by a length of jute rope just wider than his thumb. A tan, sleeveless shirt covering his lean chest was just as ragged as his shorts. Arrogance, reflected in his constructed age, tilted his chin upward, and he looked down on me in disapproval with golden eyes just like mine. There was a disdainful curl to his lips, and nostrils flared from annoyance, while his thick, black eyebrows were drawn down in a scowl. His chestnut hair was shorn close to his scalp, and I could see his deeply tanned skin through it.

“Jolly, did you hear me?” he asked, growing more impatient. “What happened? And don’t try to feed me dung and say nothing. We’re connected, Jolly; I know something happened,” he growled, and swung the staff, thick as a blacksmith’s bicep, with a single hand from where it rested over his shoulders, and slammed the metal-capped butt of it on the hard-packed, dusty earth. It would be impossible for a human to wield such a weapon, being far too wide for even two adult hands. However, since it was part of his construction and thus a part of him, it would never leave his hand unless he wished it, or he was dead.

“I ran into a Devourer–”

“Ravens of the Night take you, Jolly. Are you trying to get us, and yourself, killed? I told you–”

“Not to go out. Yes, I know, Bash,” I interrupted right back. “But the Devourer isn’t the problem–well, not the whole problem, at rate–the man controlling the Devourer, is.” I shuddered. The man told me not to speak of it, but there was something wrong, and it wasn’t as if Bash could leave and tell anyone, anyway.

“No one controls Devourers. They are controlled by nothing more than their hunger for gods.” He scoffed at me.

“I’m not lying! The man even had a name for it.” At the last moment, I didn’t divulge the name. Names were powerful, and if it was the Devourer’s True Name, it might summon the creature to us. “Anyway, the man had the strangest eyes, and there was no way he was human.”

“Of course he wasn’t human. Humans can’t see, hear, or feel Devourers as they can with gods.”

I sighed. I wasn’t going to get anywhere with Bash, and the others might not believe me, either. I needed to get everyone together to show them what happened. We were connected, since our construction happened at the same time, from a group wish made by the first unwanted children of Raventide, not long after its founding. That was three hundred-odd years ago, and Bash’s unwillingness to budge was unchanged in all those long years.

“Have the perimeters been quiet?” I asked, and scanned the area. Summer wasn’t as bad as winter for interlopers, but we had to be ever vigilant. There were always too many who would take advantage of any wavering in our protection.

“They have,” he admitted, grudgingly, not wanting to do what I wanted, but unable to tell a lie to me because of the connection.

“Good. Lets go get the others so I can show you all what happened. There’s no way this will bring anything positive to our doors.”

“We don’t have any doors in Haven,” Bash pointed out.

I rolled my eyes, and moved past him. Never did have a sense of humor. I jumped lightly over the glowing fence, and the familiar wave of hopes, fears, and dreams of the youngest of the unwanted of Raventide, washed over me. It was cleansing, and comforting, as though I’d reconnected with a piece of my soul.

Home. 

 

Potato Chip Prompt: The Moment You Knew You’d Leave

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I’d been here too long, and the burden was too much. Like trying to roll a boulder uphill. The continuation of my existence deemed all this necessary, but was it really? Couldn’t I just leave all this behind and walk away? I might, but for the expectations of others. They depend on me, and therefore I continue on. With the end nowhere in sight, though, my shoulders slumped in defeat. I was out of time, and could do no more. I trudged forth, yet another decision in front of me. How would I carry out this final act? Slow and simple, or short and hard? Either way, it’d be hell. I took a deep breath and blew it out in resignation. Self-checkout it was. How these people could eat this much food was beyond me, and I still had half the list left. It would have to wait for another day, however, because the kids needed to be picked up from school. I was putting off for tomorrow what should be done today, but I truly hate grocery shopping.

Writing Prompt: The Missing

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The envelope was postmarked for the middle of nowhere Wyoming, which was a helluva long way from the hotel room in the middle of nowhere Florida. There was just enough handwriting on the delivery address to know it was written by a kid. It might have been an adult, but most adults didn’t have the variation in size of letters and numbers the way kids did, even if an adult’s handwriting was atrocious. I turned it over, and the guess about the kid was confirmed by the cartoonish stickers littering the back of the envelope. Some of them were ripped in half where the envelope had received similar treatment.

The CSU had bagged a half empty water bottle. It was a store brand from a mega chain, and we only had one of those around here, which was both good and bad. Good, because it narrowed our search. Bad, because it was like asking for information about a building that was the equivalent of a highway: lots of traffic, little recall.

“What the hell is this, the ’90s?” my partner, Drummond, asked, and waved a pudgy, latex gloved hand toward the blood-stained, midnight blue, velvet coat. It was thrown on the white, laminate tabletop. The blood from the coat smeared over the table, already dry and getting dark.

In spite of the scene, I chuckled. “They need to leave velvet there, along with the teased hair in the 80s, and hippies in the 70s.”

“No kidding. I mean, who wears this anymore?”

“Maybe no one still alive, if this is all from one person.”

The room was covered in blood, with shoe prints that had skidded through it, and handprints from where someone caught themselves after falling. The cheap floral and green bedspread lent a musty scent to the room, and I wasn’t looking forward to what processing would reveal with this nightmare. Hotel rooms were the worst.

“You think Velvet Man is the vic, or the doer?”

“Who knows? Maybe it’s mutual, and they beat the crap out of each other.”

I signaled to one of the responding uniforms to come over. “Anyone hear anything?”

“Not according to them. Everyone went deaf, dumb, and blind around 2:30 this morning,” he said, not even needing to reference his notebook.

“Normal for this part of town,” Drummond grunted, and shifted his considerable weight from one black, wing tipped clad foot to the other.  He wasn’t big enough to catch crap from brass, but lets just say I’d be the one chasing down any perps if it came down to it.

“What about who the room belongs to?” I asked the uniform, Holt.

Holt shook his head, while sweat from the humidity shone on his tan scalp through his short, black hair. “Clerk didn’t get ID, even though the guy paid in cash. Said their scanner/copier was broken.”

“Why am I not surprised?” I muttered.

I took in the room, with the gaudy orange curtains, the muddy brown carpet stained by more than just the blood, the cheap, pressed wood furniture, and the television set that was probably broken in the struggle.

All we had was a load of blood, the jacket, the water bottle, and a torn envelope from a kid somewhere in Wyoming. Where was this guy, was he dead, and who was he?

Random Inspiration

On the western bank of the wide river, whose waters rushed strong and cold during the spring and remained treacherous even during the hottest summers, grew a tree older than the memory of even the oldest residents of the nearby town. Its branches brushed the sky with rustling green leaves during the growing season, promising life, just as during harvest time their lifeless husks whispered of the dead when the chill wind passed through them. Roots that ran deeper than any person could imagine were rumored to be anchored in Hell itself, and no lovers had ever been able to carve their initials in the tough, deep, ashen-grey ridges of its bark.

“Cursed,” the village elders proclaimed, “haunted.”

Yet, it didn’t stop the younger generations from heading down to the river on the anniversary of when the tree supposedly acquired its curse, or asking the old folks their take on the situation.

“Some say it was a pair of lovers, caught by the girl’s father as they were trying to run off. When the father had the boy strung up on the tree’s branches, she threw herself into the river, and the father’s bitter tears tied him to the spot. You can hear him crying there,” said one old man, his toothless grin extremely satisfied by the wide-eyed listeners.

“Feh, I heard ’twas an outlaw and his childhood sweetheart. She waited years for him to give up his wicked ways, and he finally did, but on the night they were to meet and begin their life together, his past caught up to him. The lawmen of the time ran him down on their horses, stabbed him near a hundred times, and parted his head from his shoulders as she wept over his corpse. It’s her that hangs from that bedeviled tree, taking her own life in a fit of grief,” proclaimed an elderly woman, who spent much of her time rocking back-and-forth on her front porch.

“Hah! Young lovers and childhood sweethearts my aching foot,” yet another man, a nearly ancient fixture in the small community, spat. “No good dissenters, is more like; caught in the act of planning a coup beneath the rattling, bare branches of the tree. By midnight, everyone gathered to watch the various forms of execution. Most were attached to weights and thrown into the river, a couple were flayed alive as their small children watched, a few were staked down and disemboweled to die slowly, while the youngest, thirteen summers old, was spared such pain by being beheaded.”

“At the very least,” the soft-spoken voice of the woman who ran the general store asserted, “the ground around that damned tree is soaked with the blood of the innocent and guilty alike. Nothing good can come of such a thing–best you keep away.”

But they never did. Fueled by foolish provocations and the desire to impress their crushes, the children–usually teenagers–would sneak out and head to the tree.

Most times nothing would happen despite numerous claims otherwise, and they would go back home incredibly disappointed, but ready to scare the next generation into the time-honored right of passage.

Sometimes, however, when the moon was a disc of ebony in the sky and the wheel of the year began to turn toward darkness, a lone, misguided person might be granted a meeting with the souls trapped in the heartwood. It was then they could whisper angrily or woefully of their crimes, injustices, and demises to the living, as they were doomed to experience the moment of their deaths over and over.

Most fled for home and spoke to no one of what happened. Others, though, succumbed to the madness of the ghosts and were never seen again. Marked as runaways, no one searched for them. However if one dug deep enough near the roots of the tree, just a breath farther than most felt they needed to, the corpses of the missing would be found–an expression of horror forever etched in their features. While their souls joined the legion of dead to fall beneath those branches.

So if you’re asked, or taunted, to visit the tree, maybe it would be best to accept the good-natured ribbing of your cowardice over the loss of your life and eternal soul? But then again, who’s to say you’ll meet with the dead? Take a chance and roll the dice…if you dare.

Writing Prompt: Take a Stand

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“Going to cry again, little boy?” she sneered, and pushed his work and books off the desk. The papers fluttered to the ground, and the books fell open with a thud that echoed in the empty room, as the pages bent in various directions.

Riley pushed his black, wire-framed glasses up the bridge of his freckled nose, which he always believed to be too feminine for his already delicate features. He was pretty, not handsome, and when you threw in his willowy limbs, the combination had made him a target for bullies since he started school. The ringleader being the tall, leggy blonde in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform, who stood over his desk–Sasha.

His only saving grace came about over the summer break, when he’d sprouted to being one of the tallest in the class. Still, old habits died hard, and people continued to tease him, which in turn meant he continued to seek refuge during lunch in the classrooms of sympathetic teachers. He rotated through them to avoid confrontations like this, but Sasha seemed hell bent on making his life miserable.

Riley stood, the chair squeaking across the scuffed linoleum, and he leaned down into Sasha’s personal space, his warm chocolate eyes level with the cerulean of hers. A flicker of doubt passed through them, and she took an involuntary step back.

“Not so little anymore, Sasha,” he said, his recently deepened voice rumbled through his chest. Her breath hitched, and she took a few more steps back, out of easy reach. “It’s a miserable human that finds pleasure in the misery of others,” he continued, and bent down to gather his papers and books.

“And I should care what a bastard like you thinks?” she hissed, malice dripping from her voice like corrosive acid.

A half-smile quirked his lips, and when her eyes narrowed he chuckled. “Yes, I’m a bastard by birth, but at least not in temperament. If that is the worst of my sins over the years, I will count myself lucky, and your opinion on the matter means less than nothing to me.” He put the papers and books in his black messenger bag, and walked past Sasha and her clenched jaw and fists.

“Do you want to go out sometime?” she asked, and despite the small flutter in his stomach, it was more about being recognized by the opposite gender than about who had done the recognizing. The workings of the female mind boggled him, however, and he didn’t see that changing anytime soon.

He didn’t stop, just kept going until he made it to the door, where he turned to find the most arrogant sneer adorning her classically gorgeous features. Her right hip jutted out suggestively, and her arms were crossed over her chest, waiting.

“No, I think not,” he said, and she started in surprise. “I’d also say leave me alone, but I can take what you dish out, Sasha, if for no other reason than to keep you from setting your sights on a lower classman. I’ll shield them from the potential agony of dealing with you,” he finished with a small, humble smile, and left her standing there, utter shock written in every line of her body.

Over the years Sasha never let up, and Riley kept his word to keep her wrath from those defenseless against it. For a total of ten years this happened, counting before and after the classroom discussion. It was ten years later at their reunion, and the still spoiled girl searched the crowd for the only person to ever turn her down. Anticipation turned to bitter disappointment as the night went on and he never showed. As she sat at a table and contemplated her years of verbal abuse toward one of the nicest people she’d ever known, the misery she inflicted on others settled about her shoulders like a heavy cloak.

As for Riley, he went on with his life and was now reclining on his couch with his kind-hearted and beautiful wife, watching their favorite movie and laughing the night away. Not a single thought was spared for the reunion, or the girl he hated, then finally pitied in the end. All because one day, many years ago, he took a stand, and from that day forward he refused to back down.