Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sarah Aisling Week 97: A Measure of Grace (Part 4)

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 4)

“So . . . how long do you plan on stalking and sabotaging me? Isn't this town big enough for the both of us?” I face the window, watching rivulets of rain zipping around in random patterns as the wind buffets the house. Perhaps it's not wise to turn my back on Mr. Ripped and Tattooed, but he's had plenty of opportunities to hurt me if he wanted to.

“Stalking and sabotaging? Seriously?” His tone is incredulous.

I grip the edge of the counter and fight against a wave of panic as another blast of thunder rattles the windows. “Are the storms always this bad around here?”

He huffs, a sound that is half laugh, half disgust. “Are you scared?”

I whirl around and glare at his shadowy form in the dim room. “Are you always such a jerk?”

“Deflection.”

“What?”

“You deflect when things get sticky.”

It's hard to make out his face in the blue-gray gloom. Soon we'll be in complete darkness. I turn away again and open a cabinet, taking out a jar candle and lighter I noticed earlier. The dusty wick crackles and flares to life, bathing most of the kitchen with a golden glow.

When I turn around, he's gone.

I pan the room, my eyes straining to unscramble objects in the darkness beyond the circle of light thrown by the candle. Grace's nails click on the kitchen floor beside me. She whines softly and nestles her wet nose against my palm. I crouch down and ruffle her fur, which earns me one of her full-face licks. A delighted giggle bubbles up, and I can't hold it back.

“Glad you're having a fan-fucking-tastic time in there, China. Mind pulling the damn shade down and closing the curtains?” His derisive voice drifts in from the living room.

I rise to my feet and yank the shade down, tugging the curtains shut with a vicious snap; then I whirl around and offer my best angry face to the darkness. “Happy? And for the last damn time, my name's not China! It's Marie.”

“Marie.” His voice is soft and close, startling me.

I fight not to react and give him something else to make fun of me for as his form morphs out of the dark. The top of my head only reaches his chest, forcing me to look up at him. Those fascinating eyes of his gleam in the candlelight, but I can't tell what mood he's in this time.

He brushes a strand of hair away from my face, his fingers grazing my cheek. “Marie.” He tilts his head and says my name as if he's tasting it. His gaze roams over my face, considering me, and then he nods. “I can see it.”

A foreign sensation flutters in my chest. He's too near. I haven't felt the touch of another human being since Katie was dying, and with the counter digging into my back, there's nowhere to go. “Um . . .” I push his hand away. “What can you see?”

“The name—it suits you.” His voice is still soft, not the harsh growl from earlier. The way he's looking down at me causes that strange flutter again.

I don't ask why he approves of my name, and I ignore the openly intense gaze roaming my features as if I'm a puzzle he's trying to solve. “Do you have a name . . . or should I just keep calling you jerk?”

A slow smile spreads across his face, amusement glinting in his eyes. “You can call me Max.”

“Max.” I tap an index finger against my lip while looking him up and down. For some reason, I don't believe him. “Doesn't quite fit you.”

“No?” His smile never falters, but there's something disquieting in his eyes.

“No.” I clear my throat, growing uncomfortable with his close proximity. “Um, you're in my personal space . . . Max.”

Max steps back with his hands raised in front of him. “My bad.”

Grace inserts herself in the space between us and presses against my legs. I feel safer with her there.

Max crouches down and rubs Grace's ears. “You're a good girl, Nudge. Don't let your guard down. She's going to need all the help she can get.”

I bristle. “I've survived this long all on my own.”

His hands freeze mid-rub, and he trains those strange eyes on me. It's disconcerting to look down at him and still feel intimidated. I'm grateful Grace provides a buffer when he stands again, wiping his large palms on his jeans.

“Tell me . . . where are you from?” he asks.

“Maine.”

“How did you end up here?”

That's a loaded question. I don't know where here is, and how I arrived is a mystery as well. More thunder crashes, and the howling wind beats at the house. I suck in a breath and look around. The curtains are drawn across the living room windows, blocking my view of the storm. The flickering candlelight lends a coziness to the room, and I'm thankful we have shelter from the storm.

“I . . . um . . . don't know.”

“You don't know.”

“Max, I don't even know where we are.” It's hard for me to admit this to a relative stranger, especially one I remain unsure of. He's definitely an enigma, doing things that on the surface seem cruel while claiming they're helpful.

Max nods. “It makes a strange sort of sense.”

“It does?”

“When I noticed you wandering around the cliffs, you seemed out of it. Nudge planted herself by your side and refused to leave. Then you lit the fire, and I had to come take care of it.”

A sinking feeling twists in my belly. “Is Grace your dog?” I look into his eyes and pray he says no. How would I go on without her?

Max gazes down at Grace, an affectionate smile on his face. “This lovely girl has been with me for a while, but clearly she's made her choice.”

I swallow the sudden lump in my throat. “Thank you. She means a lot to me.”

“I'd love to take credit, but she has a mind of her own. Couldn't force her away from you that first night, and I suspect I couldn't now.” Max lifts the leather cord with the dog whistle over his head and hands it to me. “Take this. You can use it to call her without announcing your presence to everyone for miles.”

I accept the whistle and hang it around my neck. “Thanks.”

Grace, perhaps sensing the change in both of our demeanors, wanders over to the back door and scratches at it, looking up at me expectantly.

“Should I let her out in this?”

“Unless you want a puddle in the kitchen—or something worse.” Max laughs. It's a nice sound, and for the first time, he seems more relaxed. “Don't worry. She won't go far, and she'll come back as soon as she's done.”

When I open the door, Grace darts out into the darkness of the yard. The storm is subsiding, reduced to a strong wind with gentle rain pattering against the grass and leaves. Since it's a covered porch, I step outside to wait for Grace. I'm not comfortable being alone in the house with Max. Maybe he's not the complete jerk I thought he was, but I still question his motives and intentions.

The wind whips my hair around, and I pull the edges of my hoodie together, crossing my arms to hold it in place. The air smells clean and fresh. I've always loved the scent of the outdoors when it rains. It's also been a while since I smelled air untainted by the stench of death and decay. A shiver works its way up my spine, and I hug myself tighter.

How did I end up here? Katie and I were the last ones left of our clan; everyone else had already died, and my dad had gone into the station the week before and had never come home. The day before Katie died, she seemed a bit stronger and asked to go out in the yard. We sat in the grass and blew dandelion fluff together, making wishes that would never come true.

Katie had stared into space for a while, chewing on her bottom lip. The lip chewing was an affectation we had in common, especially when in deep thought. I knew not to disturb her when she was like that, so I waited patiently, shredding the cottony fluff between my fingers.

When she was ready to talk, Katie laid her hand on my arm. I felt the heat radiating off her; in my mind, I pictured ripples of heat hovering over hot pavement.

“I'm not going to make it, Ro.”

“Kiki—”

“Shut up.” Katie glared at me, her tongue snaking out to play with her lip ring—a habitual, nervous habit. “Everyone else is gone. You don't show any signs of the virus, so I'm going to assume you're one of the cursed.”

“Cursed?”

Her hand tightened on my arm until it was painful. “Whatever is left . . . out there . . . it'll be ugly. We've watched those zombie shows and end-of-the-world movies. That's the new reality. Maybe there aren't any flesh-eating creatures, but you can bet your ass people will turn mean. The power will go out soon, and there won't be any more food deliveries.” She had a coughing fit and took several gasping breaths before she could continue. “I don't mind dying—really don't want to live in a such a shit world—but what bothers me is leaving you behind.”

Katie started crying then, big, fat tears that kept streaming, something I'd only seen her do a handful of times in twenty-three years.. She didn't try to wipe them away but let them drip down her chin and over her neck, wetting her shirt.

I shook my head. “We're twins—we share the same DNA. I'm sure it's only a matter of time before I get sick.”

Katie rolled her eyes. “You know that's not true. For whatever reason, you've been chosen to survive.” She coughed again, long and hacking, then wiped her dripping nose on her sleeve. “We need to go over some things that might help you live longer. For one, you should head to Uncle Jack's cabin. It's rural up that way, and he's got a huge garden.”

“Don't you think I'd be better off somewhere warmer? How will I make it through the winter?”

“Eventually, but what if Uncle Jack or some of his friends are still alive? He's one of those conspiracy theory nuts, lives off the grid. Maybe we should have listened to him when he spewed wild scenarios.”

I threw a dandelion stem at her. “He's a crazy old coot! He poked, prodded, and looked me over like he was considering purchasing a head of livestock last time we saw him! I'm surprised he didn't force my mouth open to check my teeth.”

The two of us surged into peals of laughter. When it dried up, Katie coughed for five minutes straight before she regained control of her breathing.

It was the last laugh we ever shared.

After Katie was gone, and I found the courage to bury her in the backyard, I did take her advice and head for Uncle Jack's cabin. The power was still on then, but I couldn't bear to stay there when everyone I'd ever loved was dead.

A sob wrenches out of me. I look into the darkness, and listen to the light tap of rain. The storm is almost over, but my own inner hurricane is just beginning.

“Hey, you all right?” Max touches my shoulder, and when I glance up at him, he almost seems concerned.

I pray he mistakes my tears for rain. “Yeah, just waiting for Grace to come back.”

He looks at me strangely. “She's been back. Pushed the door open and went inside a while ago.”

I close my eyes and feel my face heat up. “Sorry. Guess I was lost in thought.”

“You coming in? We need to talk before I go.”

Go? Go where? I nod. “Sure. Right behind you.”

The kitchen seems overly bright after being out in the dark. I notice a small puddle with a trail of wetness leading across the floor toward the living room and lean through the archway to confirm that Grace is curled in a ball on the couch, fast asleep. Part of me worries about her getting the couch wet, but I realize how silly that is in this new reality.

Max sits in the same chair he did earlier. This time he's not leaning against the wall and instead rests his muscular forearms on the table. His grim expression sends butterflies somersaulting through my belly.

I take the seat across from him, watching candlelight flicker over the angular planes of his face. He sighs, scrubbing a hand over his mouth and nose, then rakes his fingers back, starting mid-forehead as if he expects there to be hair in his eyes. It would almost be funny if he didn't look so serious.

“Listen, China . . . you need to leave here as soon as possible.”

“What? No!” I expected he might say many things at this strange meeting: Keep out of my way. I'll stay on my side of town, and you stay on yours. Don't make noise. I want my dog back. What I didn't expect was expulsion from what seems like a haven in an otherwise sick, decaying world.

Max slams both palms down on the table. “Yes. This place isn't for you.”

“But it's for you?” I blink against the sting of tears. I will not cry in front of this Neanderthal. How dare he try to dictate where I can live!

Max nods. “At least for the time being. You should supply up, take Grace, and get on the road as soon as possible.” When he mentions Grace—the first time he's called her by the name I gave her—he glances toward her sleeping form, looking almost sad. “She'll be a good early-warning system and will protect you with her life.”

“And if I say no?”

Max stands abruptly, the chair legs scraping loudly against the floor. He glares down at me, a muscle in his jaw twitching beneath the reddish-brown scruff. “Nobody says no to me.” He looks and sounds dangerous, but there's something in his eyes that's raw and determined, almost as if he needs me to leave.

“If you want to talk to me, sit down.”

“What?” he huffs with outraged confusion. “I'm sorry, did you think this was up for discussion?”

I join him in standing, though he still towers over me, and place my hands on my hips. “I'm sorry, I must have missed the part of this one-way conversation where you stated why exactly I should give a shit what you think!” Despite the anger sparking in his eyes, I refuse to be the first to look away.

Max throws his head back and laughs, though this time it's not the pleasant sound from before. “You're a piece of work. You've got balls—have to give you that.” He shakes his head, still laughing. “So, pack it up, and try not to make too much noise while doing it. Get a good night's sleep and head out in the morning.” Max makes his way toward the door, still shaking his head.

What happened to the guy who seemed concerned for me a short while ago and claimed the things he'd done were to help me? The thought of going back into the fray, where the cloying scent of death lingered and bodies clogged up almost every available place of shelter was abhorrent and sent a powerful wave of nausea through me.

“I'm not going anywhere.” My voice is low and firm.

He pauses with his hand on the doorknob, giving me a healthy view of his broad shoulders, lean-muscled back, and tapered waist. My gaze rakes over his tension-filled form, and I realize he's not naturally bulky; it took a lot of work to build up that physique—significantly more time than the world has been in chaos.

Max lowers his head and scoffs. “Yeah, you are. One way or another, you'll be gone by the end of the week.” Then he wrenches the door open and walks out.

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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Kimberly Gould Week 97: The Best of Both Worlds

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Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: The Best of Both Worlds

Jennifer slowly peeled the mask off her daughter’s finger painting. The two year-old had covered the entire poster board in bright colours, mixing, blending and streaking until Jen wasn’t sure where the mask was. Working from the corner, she pried the sticky paper off the stiffer board.

It worked like a charm, a map of the world now filled the board, coloured brightly and messily. When it was dry, she would mark the points of interest for little Kelly to identify when she got older. Here was home. That was where Grandma lived. That was where Baba lived. As she had before, Jen wonder what force must have been at play to bring together two people from so far away and join them, creating this new home. Nicholas’ parents were still back in Ukraine and she worried for them when she knew she shouldn’t. He didn’t seem worried at all. Her family still lived in South Africa, Johannesburg. And yet, coming to Boston for school, they met and stayed. Kelly was a full American citizen.

The door opened with a clatter. “I’m home,” Nicholas said with a slight accent. It had been slipping away more and more over the years. Hers had vanished before they finished at MIT. “You’ll never guess what I found?”

Jennifer checked on Kelly, reading one of her board books in the living room. “What’s that?”

“Something for both of us. I know compromise isn’t easy, so I bring you…”

He set the cupcake on the table in front of her before complimenting the map.

“That isn’t-”

“Da. Bacon cupcakes.”

Jen just stared in disbelief. She wasn’t sure if this was the best idea ever, or the worst possible combination of tasty foods.

“Try one,” Nicholas urged.

She’d made a lot of changes for this man, accepted a lot of new and difficult customs, language, religion… Closing her eyes, she bit into the confection.

Her eyes popped open. The natural sweetness of the bacon was accentuated with maple, the perfect compliment and maple blended the bacon with the super-sweetness of the cupcake. It really was the best of both worlds.

“Wow,” she murmured around her mouthful. Nicholas had already left her, picking up Kelly and bouncing her in his arms as he wandered the house.

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Kimberly Gould is the author of Cargon: Honour and Privilege, and it's sequel Duty and Sacrifice. She can be found most places as Kimmydonn, including Kimmydonn.com

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Monday, April 28, 2014

SJ Maylee Week 97: He’s Gone

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SJ Maylee’s’ Choice: 2

Title: He’s Gone

Roxanne climbed off her bike and kicked down the stand with more force than necessary. Something about the way the light bounced off Lake Michigan reminded her of the enchanting day she and Jonathon spent in Osaka.

The cherry blossoms were magic that day. They’d made everything glow pink, even their blue jeans shined like the sweet flowering trees. They’d cuddled under them, believing they had all the time in the world. She’d give away all she’d ever had just to have him with her again.

She walked along the edge of the lake struggling to keep the peace from that day alive in her heart. A drop of rain hit the path in front of her and she walked around a puddle. She halted her forward movement and breathed in the world which now seemed so empty.

It had been over a year since he vanished before her eyes, but not a day had gone by that she hadn’t thought of him. If she concentrated hard enough, she could still feel his arms holding her tight.

A drop hit her cheek and reminded her that he was gone.

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SJ Maylee believes hearts are meant to come together and find love. As a writer she has a tendency to break hearts, but she always glues them back together. You can follow her at @SJMaylee,

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Sunday, April 27, 2014

Miranda Kate Week 96: InterDimensioning

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Miranda Kate’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: InterDimensioning

Elisa thought she was seeing things. She rubbed her eyes. Nope, they were purple - or lilac - and all different shades. She turned a full circle taking in the hills surrounding her and their strange growths that looked like trees, despite all the colours being wrong. She had never seen black bark before.

She checked her watch, but it didn’t tell her anything. No time had passed, as she knew it wouldn’t, and if she waited it might even start moving backwards. She sighed. She was sick of these games and she didn’t want to play anymore.

She sat down cross-legged on the soft grass – the only thing that appeared normal here. She wondered how long he would be. She didn’t fancy hanging around here for too long, she felt exposed.

She scanned the hills. She felt like her ears were reaching out of her head to pick up any unusual sounds, but there was nothing out of sync, there were only normal wildlife noises like bird song, shuffling of small creatures, and wind through the trees. If it wasn’t for the colour of the trees, she would’ve thought she’d been transported to another place in her own dimension.

She tapped her watch. Yes, it was still working and moving clockwise. She had expected something freakier, like last time, especially after Logan’s description. But then she remembered how he’d described that place, the entire underestimation; they’d had to run for their lives to the portal and she figured that maybe this time he was overcompensating just to be on the safe side.

She was also learning that his perception was a little off kilter. He looked at things as though he could see round corners – and maybe he could. How many people could just move someone out of their own dimension in a blink of an eye? Not many. Most of them had some kind of giant machine in their house to do it, and even then the chances of finding anything interesting were slim.

Logan had developed such a simple method with the tiny doorway he’d built. He’d snap his fingers and they were gone. If others found out it would destroy the entire portal industry. But then wasn’t that how it had happened with computers? They used to fill a room with machines to get just one tiny megabyte, and now you could attach a tiny screen to your wrist like a watch to access everything.

This prompted Elise to look at her watch again. How long was he going to be?

She heard a loud sucking pop behind her, and stood up. Finally.

But when she turned and saw the look of alarm on his face as he ran towards her, all her impatience was gone.

“Quick Elly! RUN!”

A crunching sound was following him and she saw the entire hill shift behind him. The lilac trees were starting to blend together. She didn’t need to ask anything, she reached out and grabbed his hand as he passed her and they ran together into what she hoped would be an exit.

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You can read more of my writing on my blog - Finding Clarity - at http://purplequeennl.blogspot.nl/ or join me on Twitter @PurpleQueenNL

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Saturday, April 26, 2014

Jenn Monty Week 96: Time Loop Part 1

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Jenn Monty’s Picture Choice: One

Title: Time Loop Part 1

Elian was lost; literally as well as figuratively this time. She looked around, hoping to see something familiar. Not even Starbucks ventured into this neighborhood, apparently. There was a bar across the street, though. That would have to do. She pulled out her phone to check the time, refusing to acknowledge the lack of texts from Jonathon. Eleven am was late enough to begin creating the haze she lived in most days. She crossed the street and pushed the heavy door. A cool darkness greeted her. She lifted her sunglasses and surveyed the place. The bar itself appeared to be hand carved wood complete with ornate scroll work and a worn brass foot rail. There were several shabby tables in the middle of the room and an old pool table in one corner. Three young girls sat at a table near the back of the room and looked up when she entered. They each gave her the once over before returning to their conversation. A man stared intently into his glass at the end of the bar, either too drunk to notice her or too consumed by his own thoughts to care. Elian moved to the bar and sat down.

“What’ll it be?” The bartender didn’t even bother to walk the length of the bar.

“Blood Mary with an extra shot for good measure, thanks.”

The bartender nodded. The man at the end of the bar looked up at her, his dark brown eyes full of questions. Elian thought it was strange her order would get his attention when her entrance hadn’t. Maybe it had been the sound of her voice; the place was strangely quiet given the chattering girls a few feet away. She flashed a smile then pulled out her phone again. She still didn’t have any messages. She stared at the screen absently. What exactly had she said before storming out? Something mean, she knew that, but the specifics slipped from her memory. The vodka coursing through her veins at the time hadn’t helped either. She had walked out while it was still dark. Six hours later she was sober enough to regret the event even if she couldn’t remember the fight. Time to fix the sober bit, she thought as the bartender sat her drink down.

“Start a tab?” he asked.

“Please,” she said. She drank half the glass, enjoying the tangy burn as it went down her throat. Just thirty more minutes, she thought. Thirty more minutes until the regret was gone and the quiet phone forgotten. The man at the end of the bar watched as she devoured the rest of her drink.

“You know what, just bring me a shot glass and a bottle of vodka,” she said.

“Seems a little early for such a bad day.” The brown-eyed man said.

“Yeah? Well maybe it isn’t so early for me.”

“Ahh.” He swirled the remaining liquid in his glass. The bartender poured Elian a shot. She picked it up and turned to the man.

“Cheers.” She raised her glass then downed the drink. He raised his own glass and followed suit.

“Shot?” she asked as she poured herself another drink.

“Sure, why not,” the man replied. “My name is Noble, by the way.”

“You’re kidding, right?” The bartender sat another shot glass down.

“No. That’s really my name. So what type of day prompts shots before noon?” Noble asked as he took the glass Elian had just poured. She tipped the bottle into the second glass before answering.

“I’m lost.” Elian clinked Noble’s glass and downed her second shot.

Noble chuckled. “Lost will be the right word if you keep drinking like that.” He upended his own glass before continuing. “Are you lost literally or figuratively,” he asked.

“Both,” Elian answered as she poured another round.

“Let’s start with the literal lost, then.” Noble picked up the now full shot glass. “Where are you trying to go?” He tipped his head back, but kept his eyes on Elian.

“I’m not really trying to get anywhere specific. But I will eventually need to get back home.” Elian slammed her third shot and smacked the glass back down on the bar. There it was, the haze she wanted. She leaned back from the bar and closed her eyes. A grunt from the bartender prompted her to open her eyes a few moments later. He ripped the shot glass from her loose fingers with a glare.

“Sorry,” she gave a sheepish grin and shrugged her shoulders. She glanced over to the liquid brown eyes still watching her every move. Elian had almost forgotten she was in the middle of a conversation with this handsome stranger. Her smile stretched out and her shoulders dropped. A few more minutes and she’d be putty in anyone’s hands; hopefully, his hands. What was his name again? Oh yeah, Noble. What an incredibly funny name. She giggled.

“Feeling better?” Noble asked.

“Yes, a bit. Thanks,” Elian replied.

“So where’s home?”

“Oh, yes. That. Just south of St Edward’s Cathedral.” Elian slid her sunglasses back down as the room appeared to brighten slightly. She noticed a brief break in the chatter across the room and looked over at the table of girls. Everyone at the table stared intently in her direction. She put her hand up and rippled her fingers. A girl with pink pigtails sneered and looked back toward her friends. The chatter started up again and Elian swiveled her head back toward the bar. She leaned closer to Noble who obliged by moving closer.



“Do you think they are old enough to be in here,” she asked as she gestured toward the back table. Noble laughed and his eyes sparkled.

“They are more than old enough,” he replied.

“Ah,” Elian leaned back a bit. “I suppose I am too far removed from the party scene then,” she said. Noble laughed again.

“I would be surprised if you had ever been to one of their parties,” he said.

“Hey now. I’m not that old,” Elian retorted.

“It has nothing to do with age, trust me. You just don’t appear to run in their circles.”

Noble winked and picked up his glass absently. “So eventually you want to get back down to the south side of town.” He looked into his empty glass.

“Eventually I suppose I won’t have a choice,” she replied. She pulled out her phone to confirm no new messages.

“When that time arrives, I will call you a cab,” he said.

“I prefer to walk. If you can point me in the general direction I’ll be fine.” She said. Noble looked at her thoughtfully for a moment before nodding.

“So now that that is settled,” he paused. “How are you lost, figuratively speaking?” He finished his thought with a glance at her face.

“Oh you know,” she waved her hand. “The usual. No clue where my life is headed. No clue which direction to take. Yadda, yadda.” She glanced at her phone again. Noble looked at her phone and then back to her face.



“Anything to do with whoever is on the other side of that phone?” he asked.

“A bit, yes.” She replied.

“Would you like to talk about what he isn’t saying?” Elian raised her eyebrows enough Noble could see the gesture over the sunglasses.

“Or maybe it’s a she,” he added. Elian smiled and he released a small sigh.

“He,” Elian looked over the top of her glasses for emphasis. “Isn’t the problem. I am.”

“I’m sure that’s not entirely true,” Noble offered.

“I’m sure it is,” she replied.

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Like what you just read? Have a question or concern? Leave a note for the author! We appreciate your feedback!

Jenn Monty, also known as Brewed Bohemian, is a lover of Sci-Fi, Fantasy, Horror and anything with "Punk" in the name. She is an avid reader and writes flash fiction at www.BrewedBohemian.blogspot.com

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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Mark Ethridge Week 96: The Whole World Went Insane - Part 6

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Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: One

Title: The Whole World Went Insane - Part 6

Kelly shook my shoulder, until I woke. She put a finger across my lips to keep me quiet. I got to my feet and listened for anything different in the sounds of the forest. Kelly pointed toward the sun, just peeking above the horizon in the east. I looked, but couldn’t see anything.

The three days since we’d left the barn had been quiet. We’d made good progress, perhaps another five days, and we’d reach the camp.

I heard a branch on the ground snap. In the forest those cracks sound like gunshots, audible for miles. This one was close.

Kelly grabbed my arm, I could see the terror in her eyes. I knew why. We’d been found, but I didn’t know who had found us. I pulled my knife out of its sheath, and my hammer from my backpack.

God, how I wished I was Jessica, so I could talk to the animals, and ask their help. “Who’s out there? How many are there? Can we escape? Do we have to fight?” I didn’t know any of those answers. I headed into the trees.

Kelly followed. I didn’t know if that was good or bad and I was too scared to care. If men had found use, we were in trouble. Big trouble. I had to find out.

I used what I’d learned from Jessica about moving through the trees, and the brush. Don’t run. Walk. Quickly. Don’t pound your feet. Don’t move anything. Don’t step on anything. Breathe. Watch. And make no sound.

I quickly outpaced Kelly. I wanted to stay with her, keep her safe. “Dear God,” I prayed as I moved, “Give me a fully loaded, working Uzi, and I’ll tell the world you’re real.” I kept moving, changing course as I went. I headed west, then northwest, then north, slowly continuing to change direction, until I was heading East, toward the noises I’d heard toward what scared Kelly.

“Frank!” She was lost, of course. And terrified. And crying out for help from the only person she knew. “Frank! Don’t leave me!”

I wasn’t leaving. I was looping back, trying to get behind the people we’d heard. Hoping I could do that before they caught Kelly. Desperately trying to get to them before they got to her.

“Frank!”

It broke my heart to hear her cries. But there was nothing else I could do. I was close enough to hear them now. There were three of them. All male. Trouble didn’t begin to describe what we were in. I didn’t want to die, and if I went against the three of them I probably would. I couldn’t think of any way I’d come through this without being hurt. I couldn’t think of any way to keep her safe either.

I heard Jessica’s words from months ago. “Find yourself, Frank. Beneath all the rules. Beneath all the civilization. Forget what the world expects of you, and find yourself. You’ll know when you do. You’ll understand when you do.”

“There she is, boys!”

“Won’t be long no, Pa!”

A father and his two sons.

“Where’s the guy?”

“He’s gone!”

“Smart. Not worth dyeing to keep her.”

They thought I’d left her. They thought I could abandon her. They thought she was a toy, a possession I’d picked up along the way. Who knows what they thought I did to her.

They were in for a surprise.

There was no way I was letting them hurt her. I’d die before they hurt her. I move silently through the brush, in a straight line toward the three of them.

They caught Kelly. The father laughed. “Have some fun, boys!” I moved low to the ground, without thinking. I moved by feel. I heard them breathing. I heard their hearts beating. I heard Kelly’s heart, her pulse was racing, her breathing ragged. She was panic-stricken.

The boys grabbed her, one on each arm. They pushed her to the ground, on her back. One tore off her shirt. “Oh, Pa! She’s got pretty tits!”

I erupted from the a few feet behind the father, my hammer and my knife met at his neck. Blood gushed out, as he fell, his neck bent at an impossible angle. I didn’t stop. I didn’t slow down. The boys were staring at their father’s body. They hadn’t moved.

I slid the knife in an arc, watched it connect with the back of the closest boy. It made a deep slice, cutting through fabric, skin, and everything beneath. The boy screamed in agony, and fell to the ground, reaching for his back. I swung the hammer at the nose of the second, and watched his face implode as the hammer embedded itself between his eyes. I turned back to the first as he writhed on the ground, and put the knife through his back. He soon stopped moving.

I stood there, blood everywhere. I’d just killed three people.

I got Kelly’s shirt, and handed it to her. She wrapped herself in it.

“I will never leave you. Never abandon you. You’re family.” I didn’t know why I said that. I didn’t know what I meant by it.

“You didn’t leave?” She looked at the bodies. “You didn’t leave?”

“I tried to get to them before they could get to you. I tried.” I stared at my hands, at the blood on them. “I tried.”

“You saved me from them.”

I didn’t speak. I’d killed three people. I’d never killed anyone until then. And I knew I’d kill again to protect her. She knew that too.

We didn’t speak. We found our way back to the clearing we’d stopped in that night, and gathered our things. “Thank you.” I couldn’t answer her. What could I have said?

We headed west, after the sun. We walked in silence. She walked beside me. She’d never walked beside me before. She’d always followed. We didn’t stop until that evening when we came to another clearing. “Shh,” I whispered, and indicated she should stay put. She didn’t follow as I approached the clearing. There was a broad, flat field next to a building. A horse stable. I could see a horse in one of the stalls. At the far end of the stable was a man, with a rifle.

At the southern edge of the field, leading into the trees, was a road. Beside that was an old desk, with a man sitting at it. He had a rifle too. Next to the desk was a couple of posts, each about seven feet tall. Tied to the posts, her feet still on the ground, was a naked woman. A sign on one post read, “Come play with our fillies!”

I knew what was in the other stalls in the stable. Women. Tied up. There were other men, inside the stable, watching over the stalls. They had guns. The man outside was the escort. He’d walk others from the desk to the stables, show them the stalls, and let them pick which woman they wanted.

It was a business. And it looked successful.

That’s when Kelly put her hand on my shoulder. She leaned forward, and whispered, “Is there anything we can do?”

We retreated into the brush and trees. “No.”

She looked dejected.

“Kelly. I don’t know how many more are inside. I do know they have rifles, and guns. All we have is a knife and a hammer.”

“Isn’t there anything we can do?”

“Yes. There is. We can get to the camp. And tell Jessica what we found.” I knew what Jessica would do. She’d bring the wolves, the bears, the eagles. And she’d take the place out. Not one man would survive. Then, she’d help the women all she could.

That’s when I had an idea. “Perhaps there is something we can do.”

I told Kelly what I was thinking. “Let’s do that.”

It was crazy. I knew it was crazy. But I found I had to do something.

We spent the night working on my plan, gathering the things we’d need from the forest. Dawn would be interesting. I wondered if either of us would see another sunset.

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Mark woke up in 2010, and has been exploring life since then. All his doctors agree. He needs to write.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Pablo Michaels Week 96: Jamison’s Cottage

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Pablo Michael’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: Jamison’s Cottage

I walked around the back of our house toward the farmhand’s cottage. Nothing hindered me from re-entering Jamison’s living domicile. He always welcomed me into the small cottage, understanding his place was my escape into the fantasies he encouraged.

I peered through the antique wrought-iron gilded window set in the door, only to peer into a vacuum of darkness. My foolish expectations desired to visualize Jamison lying naked on his bed, like he often did on a hot evening after work. Sometimes, I thought he was teasing me, but I knew him better. He wanted to allow me to be comfortable with his natural habits, so I could grow to be an uninhibited man. But longing for him, my heart still skipped multiple beats remembering the first time I saw him nude.

That first summer, on a very hot day when we had a slow day without chores, Jamison told me to jump in his car. He had said, "I'm taking you for a ride. With all the windows down, our hair flying like strands of straw around our faces, we drove for a couple of hours until we traveled slowly of a narrow, dirt road, dust billowing behind us hiding our past. He parked the car under the shade of willow trees, disembarking on a trail by a stream. Hiking along the meandering path, we stopped near a deep pool bordered by smooth, rounded slabs of rock.

"Take off your clothes," Jamison had mentioned, as he shed his boots, socks, and trousers. He was already shirtless from the start of our trip. "We're going skinny dipping. The water's cold, so don't be surprised if your ball sack shrinks half its size." He laughed, finally dropping his white Jockey shorts.

I was down to my undershorts and t-shirt when he begged, "Don't let me find you hiding in your underwear. This is something men do together." He dove into the still water sending a ring of waves bounding over the rocky shelf beside me.

Overwhelmed with his body's masculine beauty not to mention his long, thick dick, in a semi-flaccid state, before he went beneath the water's surface, I rushed to remove my remaining clothes and jumped head first to conceal my erection before he surfaced. The drop in temperature from one hundred to apparently fifty degrees grabbed my balls and dick like a frigid, metal vice, shrinking them to a smaller size and shape, like Jamison told me.

We splashed around in the water for nearly an hour, until we surfaced under the willows on a flat slab of rock.

I can visualize Jamison's nude body, so perfect to a fourteen-year-old boy, like me, still going through adolescent changes. He acted carefree and natural but never suggested anything sexual that afternoon. He treated me like his little brother, but still there was that unique glimmer of bonding I later recognized, existing between gay men whose love is strictly platonic.

We talked about dreams we shared, his usually experienced with men and in my case with other boys until the breezes began cooling the afternoon.

After school and on weekends during the winters when it was raining or the Tule fog shrouded the faint rays of diminished sunlight, I stared through this door’s window, hoping summer would return. At first Jamison observed with patience. But one Friday evening, he inserted a disc into his DVD player. We watched Auntie Mame, both of us laughing hysterically. Afterward, he said, “Your parents and Elena are like Vera Charles screaming at you about your chimes, those damn bells.” Of course, the chimes were put in storage every fall until spring arrived. “So when the popcorn buds of the flowering cherry tree burst into those white snowball clusters of blossoms, we will hang your chimes again, and soon go to the swimming hole.”

We returned to that swimming hole over the years after we hung the chimes and the days became warmer. When I turned sixteen, Jamison allowed me to drive. I had hoped we would have gone after I turned eighteen, but he had already departed after hearing my dad was going to rent out the farm, and we'd be moving to California.

Having no need to explore the farmhand’s cottage. I turned and gazed at the beautiful white flowering cherry tree. A gust of wind blew a flurry of white petals in swirls to the surrounding ground, while I heard the chimes sing, “Those damn Bells.

I understood what Jamison wanted me to do before signing the papers for the final sale. I heard his voice. “Life is a banquet. Live. Dammit! Scott, live! The message is Live.

I did that after my eighteenth birthday with Tad, my high school friend. I’m going to live again today. I’ll look him up, before I sign the papers. Maybe he’s still enjoying life, like that day we spent here in the cottage making love with Jamison’s aura glowing around us.

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Pablo Michaels writes LGBT fiction and has published with Naughty Nights Press, http://naughtynightspress.blogspot.com You can follow him at @bell2mike

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Samantha Lee Week 96: Plans

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Samantha Lee’s Picture Choice: 1

Title: Plans

"I have a plan."

I took a moment to consider and decided that there was no phrase ever uttered in any language so frightening. Glancing down from our hiding spot, I saw a mist cloaked mountain ledge, a shimmering lake of silvered magic lapping at its edge, and a dozen heavily armed guards milling around the stone statue of a monstrous dragon. Given our track record, it was more than likely the statue would come to life and attack us the moment we showed ourselves. Our odds of this mission succeeding were slim, the likelihood of one of us being injured or worse were astronomically high, and it was almost guaranteed to be difficult, painful, and near impossible.

Fi declaring she had a plan was definitely, absolutely, positively more frightening.

"It's not that bad," she hissed, rolling her eyes. "Not all my plans are dangerous."

I gave her the skeptical look that statement deserved. "Your last great plan got me killed."

"But I fixed it!" she protested. "And you weren't killed; you were only mostly dead, not, you know, DEAD dead."

Uh-huh. HUGE difference there. Mammoth, really. Why hadn't I seen it before? "That's very reassuring. What's your plan?"

"We destroy the statue, disable the guards, slip into the cave, get the icon, go home. Not necessarily in that order. Except the statue part. That definitely happens first."

Sighing, I rubbed at my eyes with both hands and let out an exasperated breath. "Do you have any more detail to the plan than that?"

She winced. "Well, I'm trying to figure out how to destroy the statue without, um, what's the word? Triggering it? Activating? Animating? Whatever."

"What happens if you can't? If it does whatever?"

"Well, it's demonic, decidedly neither feline nor avian, and those scales look like pretty tough armour, so I'd really rather not find out. Of course, I doubt destroying it will be as easy as hitting it with a hammer in just the right spot."

"Regretting bringing a werewolf for backup?" I asked. "Dhampir, djinn, demon, banshee, bard, berserker, vampire, Fae...you had better options."

Fi snorted and gave me an exasperated look. "Are you kidding? Half of those options would have yanked me home the moment they'd assessed the situation, a quarter would have ratted me out to the half before we'd ever left home, and the last quarter would have already attacked and made with 'oops' face. This will be easy. No worries."

"Until you said that," I told her. "Now we're jinxed. Thanks for that."

"You are way too superstitious. Especially for a werewolf. Look, just climb down and take a bite out of that guard with the blue sash, okay?"

"Why him?"

"Looks like a screamer - I want the distraction. Meanwhile, I'll take care of the statue."

I quirked a brow. "How?"

Glaring, she tossed her hair over one shoulder and took another look at the scene below. "I...I'm still thinking it through. I'll figure out. Once you've got Blue screaming, the guards will start after you. Shifting once you're out of sight should throw them off; then double back, slip into the cave, and snatch the idol. It, ah, should look like a squashed, compact geometric Foo dog with one paw on a big round opal."

"Uh-huh. Remind me again why we're doing this?"

"Because it's fun?"

Right. Of course. And the Earth rotated the sun because Jupiter lost a bet. I just stared at her.

Finally, she huffed out a breath and rolled her eyes. "The idol is one of four that, combined, let you unlock a particular gate and...point being, we destroy it and what's behind the gate stays behind the gate forevermore. Of the four, opal is not only the easiest to get at, but the easiest to destroy. Theoretically."

My stare became a glare.

Clearing her throat uneasily she added, "To be on the safe side, Keely is going after ruby, Khardeen and Fang are fetching sapphire, and London and Sparrow are retrieving topaz. Which they will bring as far from each other as possible until I can pop up to destroy them. Easy as pie."

Sure, if pie required a genius mastermind to bake and came from a recipe that made a pharmaceutical chemist's work seem simple by comparison. No big.

Remember what I said about our track record? Just as I was moving to ease down the ridge to the ledge below, Fi's hand clamped around my upper arm, drawing me back beside her. She pointed to the statue, its eyes flaring with a sudden amber light, the guards giving up a shout as they noticed.

Fi sighed. "So I guess the guardians are linked. That's...inconvenient."

"New plan?"

"Forget everything; just get me the idol. I'll take care of...of this."

I laughed, a tad hysterically, as the lizard's multiple tongues began to wiggle, its claws to twitch, and gave her yet another skeptical look. "Well, gee, that sounds like a great plan. Very detailed. Love it."

Fi shrugged. "Think of it as a plan with room for improvisation." Grinning, she reached out and ruffled my hair. "This could be fun if you let it," she said. "Think of it as an adventure - do you have any idea how many mortals would kill to do this sort thing? Movies, books, theme parks - they obsess over it. You should count yourself honoured you get to experience it first hand."

"I hate you," I told her. "So, so much."

Smiling, she stood, her back to the ledge, and quickly kissed my cheek. "Don't look so worried, honey; I have a plan, remember?"

And then she took a step backwards, slipping over the lip of the edge.

Definitely, absolutely, positively more frightening.

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Monday, April 21, 2014

Lizzie Koch Week 96: Stan

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Lizzie Koch’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Stan

Friday 9th May 2014
      It’s the perfect spring morning, a bit chilly. There’s a thin coating of  frost on the ground  even though  there’s wall to wall sunshine in a cloudless, blue sky. The bare winter trees are now dressed in their buds of blossom, some have flowers. It’s really pretty. I’m so pleased the weather is perfect because today, I’m going to France, then Belgium, on the ferry, my first time abroad and two countries!
  It’s a special trip. I’m going to see where my Great, Great Granddad ( Stan) is buried. I’ve seen photos of him. He looked really young and handsome. My Dad said he takes after him. It’s the first time we’re all seeing his grave, Nan and Grandad are coming too. It’s hard getting the family tree in my head. But it’s my Nan’s Grandad. It’s her first time too.
   The ferry crossing is OK. Bit boring but better than school. Missing double maths. Cool. The view is amazing though. I can see the white cliffs even though I’m closer to France. France is no different to home except we’re driving on the wrong side of the road. Dad has sworn a few times and Mum is tutting. Trying to write but feeling sick.
     Journey was OK once Dad got used to the roads. Hotel is awesome. In my own room but can hear Mum and Dad talking, well their mumbled voices anyway. Tomorrow, we’re going to the grave, a place called Ypres, in Belgium. Apparently, the whole town was destroyed. I don’t know much about it as we’re just learning about it in school. Mr Gibbs wants lots of photos and a journal of my trip, saying how privileged I am especially as it’s a 100 years since the war started. I don’t know how I feel. I mean I know Stan’s a relative but I don’t know him. And this war was supposed to end all wars. Well, that worked out well ???
     I really wanted to try frogs legs but bottled it. Just had steak although Dad made jokes that it was  horse. Can’t take him anywhere.
    I’m stuffed and tired, bed cosy. Night, night.
  
Saturday 10th May 2014.
  Off to Belgium
   Missing Kayleigh’s birthday party today. Not impressed. Was OK with it yesterday as missed school but just been on facebook and seen all the plans and fun they’re going to have. Typical. And the weather is rubbish. And now Mum is having a go about the cost of going on the internet. What’s the point of having a mobile if I can’t use it when I’m mobile????
     Arrived in Ypres. So many chocolate shops!!! Of course! Belgian chocolate. Mum is excited. I’m excited! Grandad has bought me some. I might share with Kayleigh for her birthday when I get back. Might.
    Well, the Belgians have no idea about chips! Mayonnaise! Who has mayo on chips? Where’s the Ketchup??? They know how to serve ice cream though!
    Off to the museum now and grave, Apparently, there’s a special ceremony. Mum say’s out of respect to leave my journal at home and pay attention.
   Oh my God! I don’t know what to say! Mr Gibbs! Everyone should come here!
   I’m alone in my hotel room and I can’t stop crying. Apparently, it was 99 years ago today, TODAY that my Great, Great Granddad, Stan, died. He was gassed! There was a massive ceremony, chememorating commemorating the fallen. Over 59 thousand British soldiers dead or injured and my Great, Great Granddad was one of them. I can’t believe the carnage! The mud! The explosions! It was awful what they had to live through. The town was obliterated. I saw a model of the town in the museum of the war. Soldiers apparently disappeared in the mud. Stan had a grave. Some didn’t. They’re out there somewhere. And there’s graves that are unknown soldiers. That is so sad.  Rows and rows of  young men. All dead. Stan was only 19. That’s no age, only five years older than me!
    It was really quiet as we walked among the graves. They were really neat and clean, the grass so short and fresh. People come every day to look after them and that makes me so proud.
   The other thing that surprised me were the fields. So full of bright, green grass and poppies. Hundreds of them. It was beautiful. To think those fields were just mud, full of bodies and death, explosions. I can’t imagine it, even though the museum showed me. It’s so hard to imagine. What it must have been like to actually be there, living it, I just can’t imagine. So brave!
    After the graves, we had dinner. We hardly spoke. We were all subdued. But then we walked to the gate. Every night they have this ceremony. And it finishes with a lone trumpet or bugle playing the Last Post. We all cried. Such respect shown for people they don’t know. I love these people.
     I don’t care about Kayleigh’s party. Because of people like my Great, Great Granddad, Stan, she’s able to have one. I’m so pleased Mr Gibbs is teaching us about this war. It’s 100 years since it started and no one is left, Nan says. We have to remember. I’m going to put my feelings into a poem. Miss James wants a poem for English homework. I’m going to ask for a service of remembrance too. I want people to know how brave Stan was, and all the other soldiers from all over the world.
   It’s so quiet now. I think everyone is asleep. It’s so dark outside. I wonder how Stan felt, in the trench knowing he was to fight with all those guns shooting at him,  and bombs falling around him. How do you walk towards that? To certain death? I bet he was terrified. But so brave. So young. Nan said he loved spring, loved the garden coming to life. I bet he hated it here. I still can’t stop crying and I’m rambling.    
  My emotions are so jumbled.   
  Going to try and sleep.
  Night night Stan, your Great, Great Granddaughter, Megan.

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I dream of sharing my work with the big wide world one day as a published author. Right now, I share flash fiction with a wonderful community of writers and friends. If you liked this story, then why not visit my blog at http://40somethingundomesticateddevil.blogspot.co.uk/ for more. Thank you. Love Lizzie x

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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Ruth Long Week 95: Naturescape

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Ruth Long’s Picture Choice: One

Title: Naturescape

I sit on a carpet of grass
with a skirt full of daffodils
and although my eyes
are closed
I can see the color
and hear the activity
all around me
the peaceful hum
of steady accomplishment

a chubby little bee
in his fuzzy yellow
and black sweater
buzzing from coneflower
to buttercup to foxglove

a red-breasted robin
overpowering the
scarlet columbine
climbing the tree
beneath her
sharp-clawed feet

a jackrabbit
skip-hopping
across the green grasses
through the meadowrues
and pipsissewas to her
underground hideaway

and if I close my eyes tightly enough
I imagine they let me become one
with them, if only for a moment
tucked into the crook of
Mother Nature's arm

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A reader by birth, paper-pusher by trade and novelist by design, story-telling in my passion. If you enjoyed reading today's story, please consider checking out my blog bullishink.com, joining my creative community sweetbananaink.com or participating in the madcap twitter fun @bullishink.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

Sarah Aisling Week 95: A Measure of Grace (Part 3)

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 3)

Through the open back door, I spy Grace lying on her back in the grass, wiggling around and pawing at the air. The pulse in my temples hammers, creating a low roar in my ears.

Did I leave the door open? I didn't clean up the kibble, and unless Grace is a miracle dog, she didn't either.

My sneaker catches on the edge of the door frame, and one knee comes down hard on the planks of the porch. Pain radiates from my bruised kneecap, causing my eyes to water. “Shit, shit, shit, shit!”

Grace trots over and licks my nose. Her breath smells of apples, which makes me laugh through my tears. “You're going to turn into a McIntosh, you silly dog.”

I stand on wobbly legs and notice the sky. The sun is hiding behind bruised-looking, purplish-gray clouds. The storm is still some distance away, but it's coming.

Turning back to the house, I hesitate in the doorway, realizing there's a deeper issue I need to face. I'm not alone here. Someone doused my campfire, left an apple in my bag, took the guitar, and cleaned up the dog food Grace spilled on the kitchen floor. Not only that, but Grace didn't alert me at any of those times. Either she's a crap guard dog, or something really weird is going on. Maybe a bit of both. The actions of my stalker are an odd mix of benevolent and unkind.

I go inside and look things over with fresh eyes. There's a fine, even layer of dust coating everything except what I've touched. With a sense of trepidation, I climb the creaky, narrow wooden steps to the second floor. The bathroom, both bedrooms, and the closets are unoccupied and dust-covered, much like the first floor. My guess is nobody's been inside this house for weeks.

I poke through the dresser and closet in the master bedroom. It appears clothes and underthings are missing from the drawers, and a bunch of empty hangers line the pole in the closet. The rest of the room is tidy.

My next stop is the bathroom. There are no toothbrushes in the holder. A sweep of the medicine cabinet suggests toiletries are missing, and the garbage can is empty.

I leave the bathroom and sit on the edge of the neatly-made bed to contemplate this new information. The click of Grace's nails clatter against the wooden stairs, and she enters the room a few seconds later. She lays her dark muzzle on my thigh, her tongue sweeping out for one quick lick at my hand.

I pat her head and scratch behind her ears. “What's going on, Grace? It seems as if whoever lived here went on vacation or something. They took clothes and toiletries and left the house neat—even emptied the garbage. Those don't sound like the actions of people fearing for their lives, do they?”

Grace whines softly and lifts her head to look up at me with a slightly troubled look that says she wants to understand me but doesn't. I think she senses my disquiet.

“I think I need to check out a few more houses to see what they look like.” Just saying the words causes my heart to thump against my ribs. Part of me already suspects what I'll find, but I have to know.

Grace remains at my side as I leave the house, never more than a few inches away. She doesn't bound across the yard to grab an apple. As we exit the back gate, she doesn't rush out to explore.

Heading for the sidewalk, I stand there and pan the street. All the lawns appear well manicured. There are no garbage cans set by the curb. The driveways are empty; the few cars visible are parked on the street.

I walk to the end of the block and into the middle of the intersection, turning slowly to observe each of the other streets. They're all the same.

Grace whimpers and hurries to catch up when I start with purposeful strides toward one of the houses. The front door is locked, but on a hunch, I check the back door. It's unlocked. Taking a deep breath, I go inside.

The interior is completely different from the little blue house. The décor is an Asian-inspired mix of crimson, black, and cream with lovely paintings gracing the walls of every room. A ceramic tea service rests on the kitchen counter, reminding me of the delicious tea I used to drink at Ming Ha's. The owner used to giggle behind her hand when she saw me coming and would say to the wait staff, “She drink lot of tea for little girl.”

What this house has in common with the other is tidiness, a light coating of dust, and—when I finally find the courage to check the bedrooms—missing clothes and toiletries. There's plenty of food in the cabinets here, too. No garden or apple tree.

The next house and the one after that are much the same. Grace trots along beside me as I go from place to place, moving faster each time. My heart pounds until I fear it might explode.

What is this? It's like the vanishing Mayan civilization, except these people knew they were leaving. Some houses are naturally neater than others, but that has more to do with the people who lived there and the life they lived BV—Before Virus as I've labeled the line of demarcation between the old world and the new.

I stalk back up Fortune Street—some kind of cosmic joke?—a slightly hysterical laugh bubbling up from inside. Grace yips and spins in a circle, still remaining close, and I pat her head, unsure which of us I'm trying to reassure.

A distantly familiar tightness squeezes over my chest, and I lose my breath. I fall to my knees on the front lawn of the blue house as dark panic oozes over me, filling every space, invading every neural pathway.

“Katie,” I squeak out, the burning loss of my twin never as real to me as right now.

Katie. My identical twin. The darker, louder, braver one. The twin that didn't suffer panic attacks.

I topple to my back on the soft blades of grass, staring up at the threatening gray sky.

Ever since the age of ten, when our selfish mother left us with a well-meaning but inept father, Katie was the balm that soothed my panic away. She would swing down from the top bunk, hold my hand, and sandwich me between her body and the wall until I could breathe again. As we got older, Katie was always available by phone, no matter what she was doing. When she was dying from the virus, Katie snatched my cell phone and recorded what she called her Panic Opus—a personal message followed by the song she used to sing to me after mom left.

I've been careful to keep my cell phone charged, alternating batteries and using a solar charger. The thought of losing Katie forever is too much to bear.

My cell phone is inside the house in my rucksack, well out of my reach.

I draw in a whistling breath. In the past thirteen years, I've never had to work through a panic attack alone. I don't know how.

Grace barks sharply. Her wet nose nudges at my jaw.

I reach up and grasp the warm fur on her chest in one fist. I don't know what commands she's familiar with. “Grace . . . down.”

Grace immediately drops to the grass and curls her body against mine, resting her head on my chest. I hug her around the neck and crush her against me. She whines lightly but doesn't struggle or push away.

Grace's warm body and obvious concern for me does the trick. The icy crush of panic ebbs away a little at a time until I can breathe again. The feeling of foreboding still clings to me, a desolate shroud, but my chest fills with air over and over.

When I'm finally able to curl up to a seated position, Grace barks happily and dances around me in circles before darting forward to lick my face from bottom to top.

“Graaace!” I laugh and hold my hands up. She keeps trying to reach my face through my fingers.

On my way back inside, I realize the large propane tank on the side of the house might still power the stove. Excitement at the thought of hot food pushes me to move faster. Twenty minutes later, a saucepan of soup is bubbling away on the stove.

I find a few cloths under the sink, dancing my way around the kitchen and dusting while the soup is heating. I start singing, too. A buoyant joy bubbles over, and though I recognize the signs of my post-panic-attack mania, I ignore it. There's nobody to talk me down or even notice or care, so why should I?

I waltz around the kitchen with a broom and even open a can of beans for Grace. After setting the table with a real ceramic bowl, metal silverware, and a vase with a fake flower, I sit down to my first civilized meal since leaving home. “Grace, dinner!”

The soup is delicious. Curls of chicken-scented vapor awaken my senses, and I close my eyes as I dip my spoon over and over. For a moment, I almost forget.

The lack of canine sounds pulls me from the fantasy. I open my eyes, and the steaming plate of beans sits on the floor untouched.

“Grace?”

The back door is open, but I don't see Grace. I get up from the table and lean against the doorframe, which gives me a panoramic view of the backyard, but my furry buddy isn't there. My good mood is forgotten. Grace hasn't been out of my sight since we found one another. The sky is much darker and more threatening now with rumbles of thunder in the distance.

I rush off the porch and run around the side of the house, calling her name with a shrill and hysterical edge to my voice. As I round the corner of the house, something solid knocks the wind out of me, and I land on my backside in the grass. “Ooph!”

Parked in front of me is a pair of grungy, black combat boots. Tucked into the boots, is a pair of rust-hued jeans belted by thick, studded leather, followed by a white ribbed tank. Well-defined, tattooed arms are crossed in front of an impressively broad chest. His strong, scruff-covered jaw twitches, and his mouth presses into a straight line that exudes disapproval as he looks down on me with transparent, blue-green eyes that remind me of sea glass.

My mouth gapes. I fight to draw deep breaths, my gut still smarting along with my butt.

“You have a death wish?” he asks in a growly voice.

I shake my head, never taking my eyes off his.

“I know you're not mute. Shit . . . could hear you singing and screaming for that dog halfway across town!” He shakes his head and glares at me with disgust.

He moves abruptly, bending his tall body to reach for me. I flinch, holding my arms up in front of me.

“Take my hand.” His large hand grips my forearm like a vise, and he hauls me to my feet as if I weigh nothing.

I struggle to pull away, but he stalks toward the backyard, pulling me along with him. “Stupid broad,” he mutters.

“What . . . did you . . . call me?” I ask breathlessly, appalled by his rudeness.

He laughs abruptly. “For that, you find your voice!”

I realize he's heading for the house to do God-knows-what to me. “Grace! Grace!”

He drags me onto the porch and swings me around, slamming me up against the wall and pressing a hand over my mouth. “Shh!”

I stare up at him with wide eyes and try to fight back tears.

“No more screeching, okay? I'm gonna take my hand away.”

I nod. After all, who's going to hear me?

He pulls his hand off my mouth and kicks the metal milk can off the porch, sending it flying onto the lawn with an echoing clang. His large hands grip his head, scrubbing over buzz-cut hair before he towers over me. “Do you want that dog to die?”

Anger rips through me, and I forget about being scared. I take a step forward and glare up into those sea-glass eyes of his. “Are you threatening to kill my dog?”

His expression morphs to one of confusion and hurt, and for a moment, I see underneath his façade. “Are you crazy?”

“Me? You're the one who attacked me and threatened my dog!” Pieces start clicking into place. “Wait, wait . . . that was you all those times, wasn't it? You put out my fire, stole my guitar, and . . . and cleaned up the dog food on the kitchen floor?” I tilt my head, confused.

“Don't forget the apple I left in your bag, sweetheart.”

“But that was a nice thing to do.”

He laces both hands over the back of his neck and looks up at the sky. “Oh my God. Everything I did for you was nice.”

“Yeah, letting someone freeze to death by putting their fire out—what a gentleman. Oh, and let's not forget the guitar!”

“You unbelievable—”

The rest of his words, which I'm sure would burn my ears, are lost by a blinding flash followed by a crack of thunder that shakes the ground. Fat raindrops slash through the air, coming faster and harder by the second. He grabs my arm and tugs me into the house, shutting the door.

“Wait! Grace is still out there!” I yank open the door and stalk onto the porch. When I open my mouth to yell for her again, he slaps a hand over it.

“Don't. There's a better way to call the dog.”

I turn and watch him pull a leather cord out of his tank top. He brings the object dangling on the end to his lips and blows. No sound comes out, and I realize it's a dog whistle. He blows again and looks into the gathering dark and pelting rain expectantly.

More thunder rolls, long and grumbling. A short bark sounds between claps. Grace barrels up the steps to the porch and straight over to the intruder. She doesn't bite him or growl; she stands up on two legs with her paws on his chest and licks his face when he leans his head down. The jerk actually smiles and scratches my dog behind the ears.

“Who's a good girl?” Grace lands back on all-fours and butts her nose into his hip. “You don't miss a trick, Nudge, do ya?” He slides two fingers into his pocket and tugs out a piece of jerky, sinking into a crouch and feeding it to Grace.

I cross my arms and lift a brow. “Nudge?”

Sea-glass eyes gazes up at me with a poorly concealed smirk. “I concede to you, China. Grace is a much better name for her.”

“My name's not China.” I point at the dog. “Her name is Grace. She's mine.”

“Can we talk about this inside maybe?” He stands to his full height, reminding me how much bigger and stronger he is than I am.

I chew my lip, wondering what to do. Grace seems to know and like him; she did come when he blew the dog whistle. I nod my head, deciding to trust Grace's instincts.

As soon as the door is open, Grace bolts for the now-cool bowl of beans and starts chowing down.

Sea-glass eyes saunters into the kitchen and looks around. “You dusted, swept, and used the stove?” He manages to sound outraged by this.

“Yes. Would you like a bowl of chicken noodle?”

He glances over at me sharply. One hand presses against his flat stomach, and he seems undecided, though he's clearly hungry.

“I won't poison you.”

He nods and pulls out a chair, sitting in it and leaning back against the wall. Tilting his head, he watches through narrowed eyes as I ladle up a bowl of soup and place it in front of him then proceeds to spoon it into his mouth faster than I've ever seen anyone eat.

I rest my butt against the sink and watch this stranger with the sea-glass eyes suck down another bowl of soup. My gaze wanders over his pumped up arms and the thick, tattooed vines winding over them. Heart-shaped roses in various stages of bloom and decline, some with plump, ruby drops of blood oozing from their drooping heads, cling to the vines.

“See something you like, China?” He rests his head against the wall, watching me, an inscrutable expression on his ruggedly handsome face.

I turn away, my face burning. Then I do what comes naturally when I'm uncomfortable—I put him on the defensive. “So . . . how long do you plan on stalking and sabotaging me? Isn't this town big enough for the both of us?”

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Sarah Aisling hails from the East Coast of the US and loves living by the ocean with her incredibly indulgent husband and precocious daughter. She’s currently editing her upcoming novel, The Weight of Roses. When Sarah isn’t being enslaved by her characters, she can be found with her nose in a book, obsessing over nail polish or anything leopard, biking, hiking, camping, and spending time with friends and family. Twitter: @SarahAisling Facebook

Friday, April 18, 2014

Jeff Tsuruoka Week 95: Night Train Part Eight

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Jeff Tsuruoka’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Night Train Part Eight

Madeline left the apartment late that morning. She went to gas up her car and collect what she needed for a road trip.
I spent the rest of the day cashing in where I could, which more or less meant New Jersey. I couldn't get to my city dough. I emptied a handful of bank accounts, burned a few favors, and collected on the Jersey rackets I ran outside of Jack's purview.
New duds were a must. Most of the people I knew had never seen me in anything but a suit. I bought a couple of pairs of tweed slacks, three shirts that wouldn't have looked out of place around a factory, underwear, and a good pair of walking shoes.
The change felt good. I had two closets full of tailored suits back in the city, worn one damned dear every day of my adult life, and hated every shoulder-constricting, neck-choking second of it.

I met up with Madeline in scenic downtown Hoboken.
Hoboken had a Main Street, a town square, and a train station. Some called the place quaint. I called it New Jersey.
There was a little diner situated just off the town square. The place smelled like a grease fire and looked like rail car. Conversation stopped when I went in to grab some grub for the road. Every townie eye burned into me as I stopped at the counter and placed my order. I've been told I have a certain presence. Some of the lunch customers looked like they were trying to place me, the rest stared with unabashed nosiness. It was a silent curiosity, though. They all stayed hushed up until I'd paid and gone back outside.
Madeline picked me up in front of the diner.
She sat behind the wheel of her new, cherry red breezer, staring at me as I loaded my new clothes into the boot. I dropped the sack of hamburgers into the back seat and climbed into the convertible.
She had her hair secured against the wind with a scarf of the same red as her car.
Her traveling outfit-- a simple white blouse and tan trousers-- didn't look much different than my own, which didn't stop her from giving me a critical going-over from behind her dark glasses.
“Why Moe,” she said as I settled into the passenger seat, “you look... you look like a rube!”
I turned to her, trying to get a look at myself reflected in her shades.
“Thank you?” I replied.
I didn't think my new olive drab shirt or the gray pants looked all that bad.
“I say it with love, chouette,” she laughed. “My family tree is a big ol' rube bush.”
“Well, that sure makes me feel better.”
She laughed again, then slammed her bare foot on the gas pedal. We rocketed away from the curb, leaving Hoboken behind in a cloud of road dust and greasy smoke.

There wasn't much conversation along the way, only partially because of the wind and the roar of the convertible's engine. That didn't change much when we stopped for a quick lukewarm hamburger supper. Madeline couldn't appreciate the finer points of a greasy New Jersey burger.
I took over the driving after our meal.
Madeline lay back in the passenger seat, her feet up on the dash. I felt her looking at me, searching my face for answers I didn't have yet.
I kept my eyes on the road.
We got off the interstate just after dark. An hour or so after that we stopped at a motel I'd have driven right by if it hadn't been for the lit neon, 'Vacancy', sign in the window of the office shack.
Madeline yawned and stretched as I parked and shut the car off.
“Where are we?” she asked.
“Maryland. Somewhere on the eastern shore.”
“Maryland? What the hell are we gonna do in Maryland?”
“Exactly,” I said. “Where are they going to expect us to go? California. Maybe Louisiana to be with your people. Maryland's perfect. Nobody goes to Maryland. On purpose, anyway.”
“You ship through Baltimore all the time, don't you?”
I conceded defeat with a shrug and got out of the car.
“I'll go get us a bungalow,” I croaked, stepping into the office.
The proprietor was a tall man in an ugly green bathrobe. He big ears, a big chin, and a shock of grayish brown hair that poked up in every direction. His beard appeared similarly untamed.
I watched that beard rise and fall with his breathing as he snoozed in his chair behind the desk.
A car door slammed shut behind me. I turned and got an eyeful of Madeline stretching in the moonlight.
The desktop had plenty of things on it-- pencils, newspapers, two ashtrays, and a coffee mug. Everything but a bell.
I cleared some surface space and rapped on the desk until the man woke up.
He opened one eye, smiled at me, and began the process of getting out of his chair.
“Evening, friend,” I said. “We could use a roof if you've got one.”
“We?”
He closed his robe with clumsy, gnarled fingers and shambled to the desk. He moved like a man who'd recently lost weight and wasn't sold on his new mobility.
I nodded toward Madeline out by the car.
“Your wife?” he asked.
“Nope, but I'll say she is if it helps you sleep at night.”
He squinted at me for a second, then opened the register and slid it my way.
I picked up one of the pencils and scribbled something illegible.
“Got any luggage?”
“In the car.”
“No funny business, right?”
“Been on the road all day. I'm too tired for funny business.”
He chuckled and shook his big, shaggy head.
“The rate is four dollars per night. Two night minimum.”
I gave the man a sawbuck. He gave me a key and directions to the bungalow.
When we got there I unlocked the door and stepped inside, feeling around for a lamp.
Madeline followed me in. She found the lamp right away and switched it on.
The word, 'bungalow', implies a cozy shack with a fireplace, maybe some gingham curtains. The one we rented for four dollars a night was nothing more than a wood hut near the edge of some woods. There wasn't a fireplace, the curtains were plain, off-white muslin, and it wasn't cozy so much as it was small.
Madeline dropped her shoes at the foot of the bed and sat down, testing the mattress. She looked around and nodded her approval of the simple but clean furnishings.
I tossed my hat on the table by the window.
“Drink?” I asked.
“You tryin' to be funny, chouette?”
I uncapped my flask and walked it over to her. She took a belt and handed it back.
“L'chaim,” I toasted.
We emptied the flask over the next hour. When we were done I set it down on the nightstand and laid back on the bed.
Madeline stretched out next to me, her fingers playing with the buttons of my shirt. We stayed that way until we fell asleep.

I woke up a little after sunset.
Soft, red light streamed into the bungalow through the cheap curtains. Birds chirped in the trees.
I stayed in bed, enjoying the warmth of Madeline's body until I got restless and hungry, then untangled myself from her arms and went out in search of breakfast.
A quick trip to a truck stop a couple of miles down the road yielded coffee and donuts. I set Madeline's on the table next to my, then dragged a chair out in the front of the bungalow to eat mine.
The surrounding woods were green and lush. Flowering bushes grew right up to the front door. I fixated on some little white flowers on a vine, meditating on the delicate petals and the drops of dew.
I didn't taste the coffee or the donuts. My mind had begun to work again. It worked so hard that I didn't notice Madeline watching me from the open doorway.
“You gonna tell me about it?” she asked.
I snapped out of it and looked at her. I loved the way Madeline looked in the morning, with her hair all over the place and the sleep still in her eyes. The morning light added to the overall effect. So did the clingy white nightgown she had on.
“Tell you about what?”
“Your plan, Moe. I gotta tell you, this running away? It's not you.”
“My plan,” I grumbled. “Don't have one, baby. My plan was to get someplace where I could come up with a plan.”
She ducked back into the bungalow and came out a few seconds later with her coffee and the other chair. She sat down next to me, setting her bare feet in my lap.
“That's what this is?”
“Seems as good a place as any. At least it's quiet.”
“It's quiet all right. Come up with anything yet?”
“Yeah. I have to go back to New York. Like you said, running away isn't me.”
“You gonna run the operation then?”
“If the boys want me to.”
“That's gonna mean moving against Hersch. And Tynan.”
“Maybe. Maybe not. I'm less worried about O'Shaughnessy. He's the smart one.”
She thought about it.
“When are we going?”

“We've got this place for at least another night. We're in Maryland. May as well check the place out. Who knows? It could be good.”

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Jeff Tsuruoka is an author in search of a writing career. He has found a home in the Flash Fiction circuit and is grateful to the blog hosts that give him the opportunity to get his work out there. You can follow him on Twitter @JTsuruoka and be sure to keep tabs on his weekly contributions to Daily Picspiration.

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