Cara Michaels’ Picture Choice: Both
Title: Queen of Nothing
He slept deep and easy, no nightmares or hard-learned reflexes keeping his body on alert. I watched him from the corner of the room, silent and envious. I wanted to sleep like him. He shifted in his crib with a cooing sigh, little hands kneading a thin blanket. Dreaming of mama’s breast? The comfort and warmth of a full belly? A soft voice and loving touch?
Lucky little man.
Would that my worries could be so simple.
A monitor on his changing station stood at the ready to alert Mom and Dad to his moods and needs. I had to get a move on before a wailing cry for milk or a clean diaper trapped me here to face questions I couldn’t answer. I passed by the crib, close enough to touch his plump cheek. Close enough to catch the sweet scent of innocence and wish…
Not the life for you, girl.
I moved through the house, noting the closed doors, marking potential exits. Down the stairs, into the basement, away from any easy way out.
The unfinished room held box hills as tall as a basketball player, obscuring a clear overview. But the clutter was magician’s flare—the show to distract the eye from the real trick. I wended my way along a barely-there path among the storage debacle to the back where a large safe sat in the corner farthest from the stairs. Scarred concrete flooring around it showed the heavy strongbox had been moved recently, and with no small amount of effort.
This final theft—this stripping of the very last piece of my heritage—no, they hadn’t planned their heist well, I thought. They’d been lucky to have the manpower to move it at all.
The safe had not been opened yet that I could tell. A brief paranoia rolled through me. Would they think to put on this spectacle if they already had the contents? Or did they believed me too broken to retaliate?
With my gloved left hand, I spun the simple combination dial—right, left, right again. As the notched cams aligned inside, the lock clicked and I pulled the door open. Inside, a slightly smaller safe lay, this one with a security keypad. I punched in the code, opened the safe, and revealed one last layer of protection. Combination, code, and key.
“Tah-dah,” I said softly as I pulled a key from my hip pocket.
Something bright flashed, blinding me long enough—too long. When my eyes adjusted, they stood before me. Father with a gun in his trembling hand, mother holding a wee babe with a felt crown sitting lopsided on his head. They didn’t look like people who would steal. They looked like a family frightened by an intruder.
“I’m only here for what belongs to me,” I said.
“This is our home,” the man said. “Nothing here is yours.”
“You’re wrong.” With any luck, he wouldn’t pull the trigger. I could tell he didn’t want to, but right now his fear outweighed his sense. “I promise. I’m not here to hurt anyone. I only want what’s mine.”
The baby watched me with wide, steady eyes.
“They said you would come.” The man’s throat worked to get the words out. “Told me to keep it safe. Or—or—”
He couldn’t finish whatever dire threat they’d made to gain his cooperation.
“And did they happen to mention what it is?”
“Something—something sacred,” he said.
“Yes.” I drew the crown out of the safe. The only tie remaining to my heritage. To my destiny. “Sacred to me.”
“A crown?” He started to lower the gun, confusion twisting his features. “I don’t understand. All this secrecy over the crown of—what?”
“Nothing,” I said. And I didn’t even lie. “I’m the queen of nothing.”
They’d made certain of it.
“This is just a memory,” I said, holding up the slender twists of metal adorned with jewels. The baby smiled and adjust his crown. “Of a life that used to be.”
“If I let you take it, they’ll come for us,” he said.
“No.” I shook my head. There would be no more death on my hands unless it belonged to the ones who had taken everything from me. “I won’t let them.”
“You’re going to kill them.”
“Believe it or not, I’ve had crazier plans.”
He seemed startled then cocked his head at me. “You haven’t threatened us. And if we hadn’t heard you, you’d have taken your crown and left, yes?”
He turned to his family. “Let’s go back to bed, honey. We must have been dreaming.” He glanced over his shoulder at me. “Good luck.”
“Sleep well,” I said. When their steps had receded beyond hearing, I whispered, “I’ll keep the monsters at bay.”
Cara Michaels is the author of the Gaea’s Chosen sci-fi romance series and host of the #MenageMonday flash fiction challenge.