Saturday, October 31, 2015

Sarah Aisling Week 173: A Measure of Grace (Part 40): Exposure

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 40): Exposure

Many confusing bits snap together, illuminating the truth. Gibbs has been allowed to terrorize and intimidate, balking authority and dancing out of punishment's reach because he's related to the vice president. Nepotism at its most horrific and damaging.

I think of Andrea—who refuses to speak of what Gibbs did to her—of myself, and anyone else he hurt along the way. James' frustration and the rivalry between him and Gibbs makes sense now.

“Jesus . . .” I gnaw at my lip, the far-reaching implications of this new information sinking into my gut.

Max lays a hand on my shoulder, massaging it lightly. “Don't worry, China.”

I stare up at him, surprised. “How can you say that? This makes him virtually unstoppable!”

Candlelight plays over Max's relaxed features. He seems outwardly calm, but when our eyes meet, hardness and resolve reside in his. “Nobody's unstoppable. Power is largely perception. Gibbs can only get away with what he's allowed to, and the Alliance has given him free reign. Even his superiors are afraid to intervene, right?” Garth nods in affirmation. Max stops rubbing my shoulder and squeezes it gently, his voice even. “My perception is that Gibbs is a loose end that needs to be tied off. He has no power out here. The fact he's used to getting his way, combined with his huge ego will be his downfall.”

Garth grimaces. “I agree with everything you just said, but Gibbs is a cold son of a bitch. He's well trained and has no compunction about ending lives.”

Max stares back dispassionately. “We're well matched then.”

Garth blanches, his gaze flicking from Max to me, imploring. “I worry about you . . . being out here. Perhaps you should return to the compound, stay with your mom and me. Nina is distraught since receiving the report you and Gibbs went missing.”

Max takes a menacing step toward Garth, but I grab his arm. “Don't.” When I'm sure Max isn't going to yank Garth from the chair, I stand and face my stepfather across the table. “I couldn't care less if Nina is distraught. The compound is the last place I'd ever go!”

Garth swallows, shooting Max a nervous look. “You'd be safe with us. Gibbs is on the outside, and we'd assign guards to you. Celine misses you in the kitchen, and you could—”

I raise a hand, palm out. “Stop . . . just stop! I know you mean well, but you can’t change the fact that Nina is a shit mother! She let Katie die, and I’d rather die than join the Alliance cult.” Ignoring the hurt in his dark eyes, I take a gulping breath and clench both fists at my sides, struggling to lower my voice. “I’m grateful you’re working to find a viable cure, but the fact of the matter is the Alliance is sacrificing healthy citizens to save the ones they deem worthy. I realize most of the people living at the compound have no idea of the atrocities being committed to cure them, but how could you think I’d ever be able to live with myself knowing what I do?”

Garth bows his head. “The offer stands, Marie. Believe it or not, I care what happens to you.” He glances at Max, his distrust plain.

Max lets out an ugly laugh and paces the small space, raking the fingers of both hands through his hair in violent tugs. “Judge me all you want, Doc, but I guarantee you’re responsible for more deaths than I am. I’m just honest with myself about the shit I’ve done.” He halts next to the table, glaring down at Garth. “She’s safe with me. I’ll do whatever it takes to protect her.”



Something shifts in Garth’s expression, a mixture of assurance tinged with fear. “Then what makes you so different from the Alliance?”

For a moment, the world seems to freeze. Once the words are out, it seems as if Garth wishes he could swallow them back. I have to give him credit for being brave—or stupid—enough to question the morals and intentions of the larger-than-life man looming over him.

Max’s body stiffens, his hands clenching and unclenching. He slams a palm down on the table with a solid smack and leans down until he and Garth are nose to nose. To my surprise, his voice is low and even. “The difference is that I’m willing to sacrifice my own life and freedom to protect those I love. The Alliance considers it perfectly acceptable to sacrifice what’s left of the human race to cure the ones they deem elite. I’ll bet the majority of people in your compound never had to choose between their own freedom and someone they love. It’s so much easier to condemn a person to death when they’re seen as a number or concept. The Alliance justifies genocide in the name of saving the world. What makes me so different? If I have to answer that, you’re already fucking lost.” Max stares Garth down for a few seconds longer before standing slowly and reaching for me. “Come on—let’s get the fuck out of here.”

I take his offered hand and rise from my seat.

“Wait!” Garth looks down, tracing the pattern in the wood. “I’d like to speak with Marie . . . alone.”

Max smiles tightly. “That's up to her. I’ll wait outside if she wants me to.”


My gaze bounces between them, wondering what decision to make. In the end, my curiosity wins. “All . . . all right.”

Max cups my face and kisses me. “I’ll be right outside. If you need me—if you even think you need me—call my name.” He backs toward the door, pointing a warning finger at Garth before turning to shut the door behind him.

An awkward silence descends. Garth continues tracing the wood-grain. I watch him closely, golden fingers of candlelight licking at his gaunt face, and wonder what he wants to say to me without Max present.

Garth sighs and presses both palms against the table as if steeling himself. Then his dark eyes meet mine with a blend of determination, fear, and excitement that frightens me. “There's been a breakthrough in my research. I'm extremely close to a viable cure that can be replicated in volume.”

A feeling of foreboding washes over me. Why would he be sharing this with me and looking like that unless he was about to ask for something I won't give. “This conversation is a bad idea.” I rise from the chair, but Garth covers my hand with his.

“Sit. Please.”

I lower myself down and yank my hand from under his. “Don't ask me to betray my new family.”

“Of course not.” Garth shakes his head, but a fever resides in his eyes. “This is so crazy, really. Tell me—who does this virus affect?”

I shrug. “People who aren't immune.”

“Just people?”

“And dogs.”

“Precisely. I kept reaching for this elusive piece of the puzzle, this aberration in the data that made no sense. As it turns out, I was looking in the wrong species!” When I simply stare at him, wondering what he's getting at, he leaps up from the table and starts pacing. “I'm a scientist, for God's sake! I'm supposed to think outside the box. I was missing a crucial detail all this time.” He stops walking and plants both hands on the counter, his head drooping.

“Garth, what the hell are you talking about?”

He whirls to face me. “Canine DNA. The key to curing the dogs is in us, and the key to curing us is in them. This is a cross-species virus, after all. I could go into all sorts of scientific terminology, but let's just say I'm pretty sure the formula for the cure is only days away!”

“That's wonderful.” I say the words but don't feel the joy. “Why couldn't you say this in front of Max?”

“I need your help with the final step.”

“Like . . . you want to test your formula on me?”

“Not exactly. I still need canine DNA to complete testing, and I understand you have a dog. I was hoping—”

I'm up out of my chair and lunging at him before thinking. “Where did you hear such a thing?”

Garth grabs my arms, holding me away from him. “It's a little too late to play coy now, isn't it? James told me.”

“Rat bastard!”

“Marie, calm down. Let's talk rationally, okay? I'm letting you go.” He releases my arms, and I breathe in huffs, fighting the urge to claw at his face. “James didn't want to betray your trust—the man is really quite smitten with you—but when I told him about the research, he swore me to secrecy before sharing any information. Nobody else at the Alliance knows about Grace, not even my assistant.”

“Don't you say her name!” Tears sting my eyes, and I swipe the back of my hand across them. The thought of Grace in Alliance hands sends a shot of ice through me. “Forget what James told you. Just get out of here!”

“I'm not talking about taking Gr—her.” Garth leans down and rummages through a leather satchel on the floor, returning with a zip-lock of glass tubes, syringes, and labels. “Get me blood samples. Eric knows how to draw them. I never have to touch her. I don't even know where your group is staying! Please.” He holds the supplies out to me with a beseeching look.

I stare at his offering while I contemplate my options. If I refuse his request, he might become desperate enough to betray us to the Alliance. If I agree to provide the samples, at the least it will buy us time to strategize. “Okay.” I feel dirty accepting the bag, as if I'm selling my soul to the devil.

Relief transforms Garth's face; he even smiles. “Thank you, Marie. This is going to change the course of our destiny! I'll be able to cure you and Nina permanently.” The smile disappears, his brow furrowed. “Everything has taken such a devastating toll. I know you're angry with your mother, but she cries all the time and begs James to find out what happened to you. I hate lying to her. Higher ups are no longer interested—unless, of course, you're found with Gibbs. He's the one they're desperate to find.”


He fishes around in the satchel and hands me a creased photo. “You should have this.”

The photo is of a dark-haired woman from behind, wearing a fancy red and black dress. “It’s Katie! I remember this. We went to a costume party two years ago. But where did you get this?”

“Nina kept tabs on her girls. I know that doesn’t make up for anything, but I’m happy I could give you a picture of Katie—even if it’s only the back of her.”

“Thank you.” I stow the picture into a pocket in the lining of my jacket.

“Marie, how did you know to ask about the vice president before?”

“Gibbs has been using the industrial complex as a home base. Lewald Nielsen paid him a visit, and we caught the meeting on camera. Nielsen has been helping Gibbs, bringing him supplies. He also delivered a mean right hook, compliments of the vice president.” I remember when Eric told us about the generator running at the immediate care clinic. “Maybe they're the ones who were using the medical clinic! To treat Gibbs' wounds!”

Garth swears under his breath. “This isn't good.”

I shoot him a look. “That's overstating the obvious, isn't it? What rock have you been hiding under?”

A sharp rap on the door startles me, and I press a hand to my chest.

“Everything okay in there?” Max sounds tense.

“Yeah, I'll be right out.”


Sweat beads on Garth's forehead, and he looks as if he's going to throw up. “The corruption—it reaches higher than I thought. The vice president is scheduled to visit the lab and review our research in a few days. Clearly, he can't be trusted, but what about the president?”

“Yeah . . . don't think I'd trust him either. Be careful, Garth. I should go.”

“You be careful, too.” He pulls me into an awkward hug. “I do care what happens to you. Be cautious of that young man. He's a hothead.”

I don't address his comment about Max. He wouldn't understand anyway. “Thanks for caring.” I hug him quickly and step back. “Oh, and Garth?”

“Yes, dear?”

“You don't have to worry about Max. If you do anything to compromise Grace, I'll kill you myself.”

Garth remains frozen in place as I exit the house.

Max hurries across the grass toward me in several long strides. His rumpled hair sticks up in every direction. I almost laugh until I see his expression. He's worried and reaches for me, yanking me against his broad chest.

“What's wrong?” I rest my cheek against his jacket, my breath puffing in small clouds.

“Garth has a point. You might be safer at the compound, but . . . I don't want you to go. I wouldn't be able to touch you or see your beautiful face next to mine on the pillow.” His hold tightens, and I squeeze back with my free arm. “I will protect you. I'd do anything for you.”

“Max, I'm not going anywhere. There's nothing anyone could say to convince me to desert you. Even if we have to leave this place and try to survive out there, I—”

“Wait, wait.” Max steps back, holding me by the shoulders. “Why would we have to leave?” His keen gaze lands on the plastic bag I'm holding.

Hot tears spill down my face, and I drag in a breath of icy air. “Please, let's go. I don't want to talk here.”

Max leads me out of the yard and into the trees. It's dark in the woods, and after I trip a few times, Max produces a penlight, shining it low. We follow a different path than the one we used to reach town, and neither of us speaks until the rocky slope at the back of the industrial complex is visible.

Max sits on a log, pulling me down with him. “Okay, talk. What the hell did he say to you?”

My lip trembles. “Garth knows about Grace. The missing link to the cure is canine DNA, and he's asking for samples.”

“What the fuck? How did he find out?”

“James told him, but no one else at the Alliance knows. Garth wants samples. He doesn't want to meet Grace or know anything about our location. I agreed, mainly to buy us time. I thought if I refused, he might be desperate enough to betray us.”

Max cups my cheeks, tilting my face until our eyes meet in the gloom. “You did good, China. We'll protect Grace together—whatever happens.” He moves in slowly, pressing tender kisses to my lips. “Love makes us a family, and that includes Grace.”

I lean into his embrace. The world might be in tatters, but we have so much to fight for.

An owl hoots nearby.


And again.

“That's Eric,” Max murmurs. He pulls the walkie from his pocket and turns it on, clicking the transmit button a few times. “I turned it off when we went to meet Garth.”

The speaker crackles to life. “Max?”


“Thank God! You have to get to the plant entrance, pronto!” Eric's panicked voice sends my heart into overdrive. His demeanor is usually so unflappable.

“Which one?”

“Rear. It's bad, man. Someone was here. Tek's down. I’m closer, so I’m heading back.”

“Be right there. Radio silence.” Max grabs my hand and drags me along behind him. I wrap the baggie around the lab supplies and stuff it in my jacket, fighting to keep up with his long strides.

Biting wind whistles around us. It’s impossible to see where we’re going as we start weaving between the large rocks, so I simply allow Max to lead, trusting I won’t end up with a broken ankle or worse. At the top of the trail, we carefully step into the stone tunnel that lets out at the rear entrance of the power plant, escaping the harsh wind. The closer we get to the end, the harder my heart slams against my ribs. My boot slips on the smooth stone a few times, but Max helps me regain my balance.

Light bobs just ahead. The tunnel emerges onto a gravel landing, and we nearly trip over Eric in the darkness. He’s hunched over someone on the ground. It’s Tek.

Max lets go of me and crouches beside Tek, careful not to shine the penlight in his eyes. “What the fuck happened?”

I gasp, holding my hands over my mouth. Tek’s eyes are swollen shut, his face a rainbow of bloody bruises. “Oh my God!”

Eric points to Tek’s hand, which is fisted around something. “He won’t let go of it. Insisted I get you here.”

“What are his injuries?”

Eric shrugs. “Hard to say, but I think he was just beaten badly. There might be internal bleeding.”

Max grips Tek’s shoulder. “Tek, it’s Max. Can you hear me, buddy?”

There’s a faint moan from Tek.

“I’m here. What happened? What’s that you’re holding?”

Tek moans again and opens his hand. Something tumbles to the ground.

Max cries out, grabbing for it. “No!”

I reach for him. “Max, what is it?”

He palms the item and ignores me, lunging for Tek. “Tek! What the—who did this?” There’s a hysterical edge to his voice that sends a tsunami of fear raging through me.

Tek licks his swollen lips. “Gibbs gave to me . . . before he . . . knocked me out.” With great effort, he raises his head and grabs onto Max’s jacket. “Has her. Ali.”

And then he passes 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

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Kimberly Gould Week 173: Curiosity

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Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: Curiosity

The ceiling shimmered with silver. Clarice knew that there were fish hiding there, their silvery sides blending with the sun. However, it wasn’t the fish that drew her attention, it was the shadows. The dark spots were almost as long as she was and they flapped their tails in strange ways, never sinking far below the surface.

This shadow was very large, the size her mother had taught her to avoid. Nothing preyed on sharks, except those shadows.

Curiosity had always gotten the better of Clarice and she inched nearer to discover what the shadow hid.


Justine hauled back on the rigging, tightening it into place while her brother tied the line off. She looked over the side of their boat, looking at the flashes of silver below, fish scales. They were so close to the surface. It was no wonder fishermen had frequented here, dragging their nets and raking in spoils.

She wasn’t fishing today. This stock was still recovering from decades of exploitation. She was getting ready to plunge down with her air tank and her waterproof camera. She didn’t wait for Dylan, he’d be right behind. Sliding over the side, she sunk her height and half again before the buoyancy caught her.

She found herself nose-to-nose with a shark.


Clarice startled at the odd creature in front of her. She wasn’t like the other fish, her shape all wrong. Sniffing, she found it didn’t smell like a fish either. What strange creature was this?

Before she had a chance to find out, a second joined the first and both raced to the surface, clawing their way into the ceiling.

Clarice followed, curiosity unsated.


Justine screamed and Dylan scrambled up the side of their boat, tugging her after. The shark surged up beneath her and she wriggled, wanting out of it’s way. Instead, she slipped free of his hand and sunk back beneath the waves.

Resigned now, she tried to hold still, hoping the predator wouldn’t be attracted to her. That was foolish, of course it was interested in the large piece of meat. Was that all she was now? A meal?

The shark came closer, circling. It bumped Justine with it’s nose and tail, not biting at all. Curious, she stretched out her hand, running it over the great nose.


Clarice heard the splash at the same time as the strange creature from above the ceiling. She kicked up and took hold of another shadow, which pulled her away.

Swimming down in search of another meal, Clarice wished she’d found out how it tasted.


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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


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Michael Wombat Week 172: Mirela

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Michael Wombat’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: Mirela

The angel’s head was too big, and the wings too small. Those were the first things I noticed. I had said that we should use the stonemason from Brasov, but no, Grigore had insisted that we save money by employing the village blacksmith instead. I suspected that the blacksmith had simply crept into a graveyard in dead of night and severed the head of an existing statue and the wings from a second to add to the childishly carved body and hands. Our own little angel, Mirela, had been perfect. This mawkish grotesque was nothing but an insult to her memory.

The midnight breeze chilled my back as cold as the moonlight that cast across the bare winter trees and the book held in the angel’s hands. A book, for the love of sacred God! Mirela hadn’t even started learning to read when she was murdered, her innocent soul snuffed out by an evil monster.

De mormânt, how I had wept. I had roared, I had screamed into the black heavens for God to help us, but He wasn’t listening. I had ranted at Grigore, but he was not listening either. Grigore had not allowed me to attend to any preparations for the funeral, nor even the ceremony itself that morning. He had said it was for my own sanity, but I knew I needed to see Mirela’s grave with my own eyes in order to bring peace. What the Americans call closure. I could not be certain that she was truly gone unless I saw for myself.

I felt a slight tremor through the thin soles of my slippers. It was beginning. I took a pace back, shaking with trepidation, although the prospect of seeing my baby again filled me with an exquisite agony. The freshly-dug earth shook, then poured aside as a pair of small white hands broke through the surface. The fingers clawed at the soil, but were unable to push it aside.

I reached down and took the thin forearms in my hands, giving a gentle tug. With my help, my little daughter emerged from her grave, coughing out gobbets of dirt and spittle. She looked up at my face, her clear eyes seeking recognition.

“Mămică?” she whispered.

“Mirela, fiica mea prețioase,” I purred, reassuringly. The moonlight lit clearly the ugly scars on her neck, and the lengthened incisors when she smiled at me. “Te iubesc.”

I released her wrists and she reached for me. I stooped to pick up the wooden stake at my feet.

“Îmi pare rău, dragă. Fii la pace acum,” I said gently, and, tears rimming my eyes, plunged the sharpened point deep into her chest. She screamed, and a look of pure evil drenched her eyes. She clutched at her pierced chest and ran into the shadows beyond the gravestones, still impaled on the shaft of ash that I had sharpened that afternoon.

I must have missed the heart, because she still lives. My daughter creeps, hissing, just out of my sight, in the dark shadows cast by the ranks of bitter gravestones. She is hunting me, and I do not know whether I have the courage, or the heart to hurt my little girl again.


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Michael Wombat has published several books - search for him on Amazon, or go talk to him on Twitter where he is @wombat37.


Friday, October 23, 2015

Mark Ethridge Week 172: I See Angry People (Part 3)

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Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice:

Title: I See Angry People (Part 3)

I’d reached the point where days didn’t matter anymore, calendars didn’t exist, years had no numbers. Time had become more flexible, consisting of daylight and darkness. How many days had I walked to the west? I didn’t know, and it didn’t matter.

As I walked I came across pieces of the world that had been. The world of cities, and towns, roads, cars, buildings, stores, and farms. All of it was gone. Dead. Countless clearings where farms had been were returning to nature. Weeds, saplings, bushes, vines, covering everything, tearing down the creations of mortal men.

Hay balers, tractors, ATVs, and trucks were scattered across the landscape, miles apart, signs of what was. I learned not to look to closely at the machines, filled with dead, rotting bodies, blood stains etched forever into windshields, and dashboard plastics. “The worms crawl in, the worms crawl out,” echoed endlessly in my head.

I didn’t bother to count the number of burned houses I saw, the number of empty towns. I walked. I headed West. Further west than I’d ever gone, by a long time. At night, I tried to sleep. How do you sleep with the truth echoing in your head, your dreams? How do you sleep when you see men hunting women? When you hear the words, “We had to take back our manhood!” every night.

It couldn’t have been that way everywhere. There had to be good men. Men like me, who cared for those around them, took care of them, helped them, protected them. As I walked my plan changed. I wasn’t walking just to gather things the people at the camp might need, or want. I began to walk to learn, to study, to understand.

What happened to the world?

What had the world become?

Every few days an eagle had greeted me when I woke. An emissary from Jessica, I knew, asked to check on me, what I was doing, where I was going, when I’d come back. I’m sure my answer was upsetting when it reached the camp. “I don’t know.”

One, an eagle asked, “why are you heading west?”

“I don’t know.”

He’d looked at me, looked through me. “You’re looking for something.” He flew away.

The eagles stopped showing up after that. How many days ago had that been? He’d been right. I was looking for something. Not for the first time in my life, either. I’d looked for revenge, for a reason to live, for a reason to stop fighting, for a reason to keep fighting. I’d always looked for something.

Yes, I was looking for something. The same something I’d always looked for. The answer to why. Why had the world come apart? Why all the violence? Why all the destruction? Why had it happened. Why was it still happening. Where did it all lead. How did it all end.

I was looking for something, like the eagle had said. And after countless days, I figured out what I was seeking.

Others like me. Men who were still men, who hadn’t become animals. Were there any left? There were very few men at the camp. I could count them on the fingers of one hand. And have a finger left over. At the camp, including myself, there were five men, and dozens of women, some of them still girls, really.

Five men.

And the four I knew at the camp were nothing like me. They were weak, scared, hiding. They were safe in the camp. Two of them were married. I was happy for them, they’d found love in an insane world. They were safe in the camp. Outside the camp, they were hunted, like they were diseased, and needed to be put down for the safety of everyone else.

One wore dresses, said he was in the wrong body. From how he acted, I knew he was. He’d asked me to call him Sarah, so I did. We all did. He cried sometimes at night about being in the wrong body, and how in the old world, he could have been fixed. Could have had surgery, and at least looked like he was supposed to look. And how that could never happen since the world went insane. He was safe in the camp. Outside the camp we all knew he’d be killed by the first men he stumbled into.

The fourth man was old. He told stories of his life. Of the wars between countries for resources, oil, food, water. Of the fish all but vanishing from the oceans. Of countless animals he’d seen vanish from the world, elephants, lions, tigers, frogs, lizards, bees. He told stories of a great extinction throughout the world. The old man always said, “Nature let loose a virus on mankind. It drove us nuts. Made us kill each other. Nature did this to save the world from us.”

No, none of the men at the camp were like me. I was different. I didn’t talk of the past. I wasn’t hiding. I was building a life. Building a future.

I’d never met another man like me.

That’s what I was hunting for, why I was heading west. To find others like me. So I wouldn’t be alone.

I kept heading west, day after day. Past empty towns, empty homes, empty farms, and all the remains of the world that had been. In the hopes of finding a second glimpse of the world starting over.


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


Thursday, October 22, 2015

Denise Callaway Week 172: Lost Dreams

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Denise Callaway’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Lost Dreams

Kelly shivered as she watched the full moon reflect from the motionless water. The letter jacket was worn and tattered, a remnant from her past. She pulled it closer to shut out the chill. The red solo cups bumping the edge of the shore reminded her of that night. One bad decision and all was lost.

They had barely graduated and she had joined her friends in the celebration at the lake. Loud music drifted out across the lake. She remembered the laughter. They were on top of the world. Then the lake patrol came onto the scene. People were darting everywhere. Cars moved quickly...and Kelly wasn’t quick enough.

Hours later, Kelly awakened in the hospital. She could see her parents’ frantic movements with the surgeon. She tried to speak but there were no words. Something was off. She could not place it. Then they realized she was moving and were in the room. Platitudes and assurances seem to come in dizzying degrees. As she was overcome with darkness, the truth of what had taken place continued to elude her. Days passed by like a blur. Moments of near consciousness followed by odd dreamlike sequences. She heard voices talking about her. The word “decision” was tossed around. Then another long period of darkness.

Kelly fought back from the shadows. Finally fully awake, she looked around the room. She was alone. Time to assess the damage. Reaching down to push up from the mattress, the damage became all too apparent. The thump against a stump of flesh hit the bar painfully. Her eyes widened with horror as her mouth opened to scream.

The nurses ran into the room. Hyperventilation. Panic. She began to fight them. Shouts to hold her still. Then darkness.

When she awakened next, her mother sat facing her. “!” Her voice was scratchy from lack of use. Her mother lifted a glass for her to drink. “I had a horrible dream! I thought I had no…” as she started to tell the story, she raised her arm. Her eyes widened with horror, “Mom! My arm!”

“I know, honey,” sadness filling her voice. “They tried to save it. Really, they did. But it was either you or your arm.”

Laying back, Kelly stared at the ceiling. What was she going to do? Her arm. Her drawing arm! She was an artist! The scholarship, the dream, all lost in a moment.


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Denise finds herself lost in a field of dandelions. With one blow, her dandelion dreams transform into the words on a page. Some of those dreams have found their way to her website:


Monday, October 19, 2015

Lizzie Koch Week 172: The Secret Ball

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Lizzie Koch’s Picture Choice: One

Title: The Secret Ball

Ella knew it was wrong but she had been suspicious of the annual ball for a few years now so when Beckie’s invite arrived invite post, Ella took it for herself. It was the only way to see for herself, to report on this secret but highly sort after event. No amount of digging could unearth anyone who had attended one of these super Royal balls and now Ella could report from the inside.

Layers of pale blue tulle and silk bellowed around her as she sat in the taxi, placing the silvery blue eye mask over her face. She wasn’t sure how people were selected for the ball and Ella was similar in height and hair colour to Beckie as well as age but the mask was a relief and security for Ella as she walked through a tall stone arch towards the lavish building.

A thick red carpet blanketed marble steps to the main entrance where a tall man stood. Without a word, he took Ella’s invite, giving her the once over before setting his eyes on hers. His stare seemed to go on for ages and Ella could feel her nerves starting to fray. But with a nod, he let her pass.

The ball had already started as Ella stood at the top of the stairs looking down at all the pretty dresses twirling around the dance floor. A hand took her elbow gently.

“May I have this dance?”

Ella turned. She felt her cheeks blush at the impossibly beautiful masked face staring back. Through the black bejewelled eye mask, steel blue eyes sparkled. Without waiting for an answer, he lead Ella to the dance floor, placing a hand firmly around her waist.

“You waltz?”

“Yes,” Ella replied. She thought she’s take a few classes in preparation for the ball and as he took her hand she found herself gliding across the floor. All the questions she wanted to ask remained in her head as the dance and the man captivated her. And she was quite out of breath by the end.

“Drink?” he asked, leading her to the bar. He handed her a flute of champagne.

She sipped it, trying not to gulp it down, keeping her eyes on the man. It was then she noticed the Royal crest on his collar, and reddened deeply.

He smiled. “What’s your name?”

“I thought you’d know seeing as you invited me.”

“My staff sort the invites. The same thing every year. A ball full of young men and women, all gorgeous, all full of life with their lives’ ahead of them.”

“And what’s it all in aid of?”

“It’s rather old fashioned. To find me a wife.”

Ella spluttered. “Sorry,” she said, wiping the drink from his lapel. “It is rather old fashioned and very Disney,” she laughed nervously.

“I like old fashioned. I’ve been around a bit and don’t care for change.”

She regarded him; his smooth young face beneath the mask, sculptured cheeks and flawless skin. “Remind me to get whatever it is you use. You look amazingly young, well younger than you’re making out.”

“Thank you for the compliment. And if I may give you one? You seem to fit in well, looking like a Disney princess in your gown.”

“There’s quite a bit of it.” She laughed, smoothing down her dress.

“I like it . . . I like you.” He leaned in towards her, inhaling deeply as his lips grazed her cheek. He pulled back. “Sorry.”

“No, don’t be.” Ella forgot all about her investigation into the secret balls as she gently kissed him on his lips.

“Do you believe in love at first sight?” he asked.

“Yes,” she whispered, kissing him again.

A scream pierced the moment and Ella tried to look around her. But darkness enveloped her along with a sudden rush of air. Still in the grip of the man’s arms, Ella looked up and found herself in the gardens, sprawled across the damp grass.

“How did we get here? What’s going on?”

“I don’t want you to see what’s going on in there.”

It was then Ella heard the terrified screams, magnifying by the second.

“We need to help them. I need to call the police.”

“No you don’t. What you need to do is make a choice.” He knelt down beside her, taking off his eye mask revealing his full beauty. His finger traced her cheek, along her chin, and tilted her head up towards him. His lips met hers as gentle and as cold as a snowflake before hunger got the better of him, crushing her lips to his. “Make a choice,” he mumbled.

“And it will stop? The screaming will stop?”

“Yes, No more balls, no more hunting for a wife, if you say yes.”

“But I’m not who you think. I’m Ella, not Beckie. The invite wasn’t meant for me. I stole it.”

“I don’t care.” His lips ran down her neck, the smell of her blood fuelling his excitement. “But I need to know now.”

“The people in there, they’re not leaving are they?”

“You know the answer to that.”

He stared into her eyes and smiled as her hand reached up to his face; silky smooth and cold. So cold. He could hear her heart thump loudly against her chest, could see the curiosity in her eyes, the lust oozing from every pore. He didn’t need an answer and couldn’t wait as he lunged forward, kissing her neck, listening to her moan with pleasure then pain. He ignored it, continuing to feed, her body growing limp. Pulling away, Ella fell to the grass, her heart beat shallow, almost gone.

“My beautiful Ella,” he whispered, offering her his punctured wrist. “Welcome to the family,” he said as she drank.


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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 for more. Thank you. Love Lizzie x


Sunday, October 18, 2015

Laura James Week 171: Immortality

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Laura James’s Picture Choice: One

Title: Immortality

Melanie was getting too old to be crashing teenage house parties. The music too loud, the beer too warm and god knows what had been mixed in the punch bowl to give it the rather luminescent green glow. The kids around her didn't seem to care, dancing, drinking, throwing up, more drink then dancing some more. Her head was pounding in time to the inane music but it was the dull ache in her feet that convinced her to leave.

Getting to her coat was impossible so Melanie just pushed her way out the front door and into the cool evening. There were bodies everywhere in various states of inebriation and undress and it took Melanie a while to get to the bottom of the stairs. Removing her high heels she couldn't help but sigh with relief as the pressure on the balls of her feet disappeared and her toes spread with joy.

Swinging her shoes by her side she headed to the lakeside and walked out along the small wooden jetty. Melanie sat on the edge and lowered her feet into the water and gently swirled her legs, causing small ripples to spread wide and far. Free from the pounding music her headache disappeared and soon her mind was able to ponder her next step.

She was disturbed from her contemplation by the sounds of heavy feet stomping down the walkway towards her. It took all her willpower not to turn around and see who had followed her, she didn't want to appear nervous or worse overly keen with this unexpected company.

"Do you feel like some company?"

Melanie raised her eyes and found herself looking up into the handsome face of a young man patiently waiting for her answer. She smiled and patted the ground next to her, "Please sit."

"Names Brad." He held out his hand which Melanie took. "Melanie."

Melanie regarded him as he sat down next to her. He had to be around nineteen, twenty at the most, a fine specimen of youth. She was older than him by a good few years. Truth be told she was older than everyone at the party but in the dark, at the water's edge age didn't matter.

She watched him glance at her feet, "Isn't the water a bit cold for splashing about?" She kicked her legs causing the water to cascade over them both. Laughing "It's the perfect temperature, you should try it."

"I think I'll leave the paddling to you, if that's all right."

Melanie shrugged and went back to gently moving her legs.

"Can I interest you in a drink, I promise it's not green." He held up a bottle of Jack Daniels, "Sorry no glasses I didn't expect company out here."

Melanie smiled at him,"Only lady's bother about glasses, and it's been a few years since I was a lady." She took the offered bottle smiling round the neck as she took a good long drink, the alcohol warming her from the inside.

Brad took a drink himself and they sat in silent comfort passing the bottle of Jack back and forth until it was empty. "Looks like we may need another bottle?" Brad lent forward and nuzzled Melanie's ear, "Unless you can think of something else to pass the time."

Brad, his senses dull but libidos on high alert was Melanie's perfect choice. She lent back allowing him to fumble at the front of her dress, planting small kisses on his neck. Soft moans of pleasure escaped Brad's lips swiftly turning into grunts of pain as she bit down.

The blood had a faint tang of Jack and Melanie drank it down, enjoying every mouthful of the sweet nectar that Brad was providing. Once she had her fill she pushed him off the jetty into the water and watched as he slowly sank beneath the ripples.

Standing she grabbed her shoes and turned back to the party, the years falling away until she was the perfect age to once again enjoy the freedom of youth.


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Based in Dunfermline, Scotland, Laura is obsessed with all things horror and spends her time writing flash fiction which she hopes, on occasion, really scares her readers. Feel free to stalk her on twitter, @lejamez


Saturday, October 17, 2015

KendallJaye Collard Week 171: From High Prairie To Hellshot

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KendallJaye Collard’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: From High Prairie To Hellshot

It had been quite a while since I’d felt so alive. This bounty kept me tracking for nearly two weeks. It was my first real challenge in years. Was I Legend? Myth? Tall Tale? People wondered where I came from. People speculated about my past. People argued if I was a boy or a girl. Truth is it didn’t much matter. I was known as ‘Kid’ Harper. And I was the best in the business.

When Marguerite contacted me to find the husband that abandoned her and the seven children, I’d nearly turned her down. Cases like this usually ended up with some drunk in a saloon elbow deep in whores and liquor too embarrassed to come home. But when Marguerite showed me a picture of her husband, I knew that good fortune had finally smiled on me.

The eyes that stared from the photo took me back to when I was eight. Father and I were at the pond half mile from home. We’d been fishing all afternoon. The angry shotgun blast rang out in the otherwise peaceful day. Father and I abandoned everything and ran like hell to get home. We arrived to find Mother dead on the plank floor of our homestead and a bandit rummaging through everything we owned in hopes of finding treasure. Being caught red-handed, the thief sought to make a clean get away. He shot Father in the chest. His mark was off when he fired at me, and the bullet went clean through my shoulder. I fell to the ground and was as still as possible. He didn’t even check to see if he had killed me. Ten seconds later he was on his horse. I raised my head only when the pounding of hooves had stopped. I was an orphan.

The bandit had scarves over his mouth and neck, but his eyes were clear as day. Ice blue and full of hate. Impossible to forget. And now, fourteen years later, they were within the reach of justice. My justice.

I told Marguerite I’d hunt her husband. She promised money upon his return. I declined. She didn’t know I wouldn’t be bringing him home. I left her residence with renewed spirit and a smile hidden by years of stoic practice.

Two weeks’ tracking led me to Hellshot, Texas. Perched on my horse on the out skirts of town, I planned my ambush. The sun was setting, and the dark clouds rolling in promised a storm. I promised a storm of my own. I stared down Main Street and saw the sign for the hotel swing in the increasing wind. I knew he was there. My hand went without thought to the holster under my left arm and rested on the mother of pearl grip of my revolver.

Now or never.

I spurred my mare to action.

If I fell, I would make sure to take Blue Eyes with me.

Tonight would be another tale for the storytellers. Maybe the greatest of them all


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KendallJaye Collard gets her kicks above the waistline, Sunshine. Wine drinker, Cancer Survivor, and protected by rocksalt. Spread the love with her at @KJCollard.


Thursday, October 15, 2015

Kimberly Gould Week 171: The Call of the Wild

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Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: The Call of the Wild

Adam looked at the door for long minutes before taking hold of the handle and pushing his way in. End of the line. There was no more credit, no more loans, nothing else he could draw on and nothing to eat. He needed an advance on his paycheck, the one that didn’t pay all his bills, hadn’t for months.

The real bitch was that he’d be fine food-wise in a few more days. As soon as the moon was full, he’d have his snout full of rabbit, squirrel, deer and anything else that roamed the Edmonton river valley. He’d gorge himself so his night feed would last the day.

With five hundred dollars in his hand Adam planned to pay part of his rent and as little on his interest as he could. He was still looking at his wallet when a shoulder bumped him from behind.

“Adam?” his cousin Franklin asked. “You okay?”

“Yeah, sure, why shouldn’t I be?”

Franklin brushed a hand through Adam’s brown and slightly curly hair. A stray leaf fell from it. “Because you look like shit, bro. We’re family. You need something, just ask.”

Adam nodded but didn’t say anything. “I know. I’m okay.”

“Bullshit,” Franklin replied. “Come on over to my place tonight. Have a beer, eat whatever Celeste manages to throw together, and talk like we can’t as wolves. Something is wrong and I’ll be damned if I’m letting one of us face it alone.

Adam’s frown lightened. He couldn’t ask Frank for money, but he could live with him and his fiancee, and they’d be more than willing to share their food. He could catch his breath. “That sounds awesome, man. Thanks.”

Franklin left his arm around Adam’s shoulder. “No sweat man. We Brown’s gotta stick together. Like Grampa Ike always said-”

“You’re only alone when you’re dead.”

“Exactly. I know, let’s invite Linc over and rough him up about Zoe. It’ll be a blast.”

Adam actually laughed. His cousins had a way of managing to do that. “Yeah, that’d be great.”

“I feel it too,” Franklin said. “The moon is coming.”

It was true. Most of his irritation came from his financial turmoil, but the pull on his blood wasn’t helping. “Just another week.” Adam sighed in relief.

“Dude, you’re looking forward to it. That’s awesome. I kinda wish I could skip this one. Busy time for Celeste. She could use my help at night. Sometimes being a Brown really blows.”

“And sometimes it’s all that keeps me going.”


Author’s note: I’ve borrowed characters from my alter-ego’s box set story, Not Your Bitch. If you’re interested, it’s only $0.99 for 11 new stories. Amazon - All Romance Ebooks- Barnes & Noble - Kobo - Apple- Smashwords


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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


Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Sarah Aisling Week 171: A Measure of Grace (Part 39): Making the Pieces Fit

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 39): Making the Pieces Fit

I haven’t forgotten you—and I can reach out and touch you wherever you are whenever I want.

The words slice into me like sharp blades, dicing my insides and sending ice surging through my veins.

But it doesn't end there. He's not quite finished injecting me with terror. And, quite clearly, he loves every sick moment of it—even if he isn't here to witness the effects of his handiwork.

Gibbs continues in a low, intimate tone, “I bet your heart is beating out of your chest, maybe sweat breaking out over your soft, sweet skin. Mm-mm. I remember the feel of you, all that creamy perfection just waiting to be touched. Your dropping the towel and spreading yourself out on the bed for me . . .” His lids flutter closed. “God . . . I couldn't wait to have you. But then you went and ruined everything.” Blazing gray fills the screen again.

The depth of the craziness in his eyes is terrifying, and I'm amazed by the flood of fear that grips me even though I know I’m safe in the control room. Gibbs isn't here; he can't hurt me.

His pupils dilate, inky circles expanding within the striated gray irises filling the laptop screen. “Forgiveness is key, Sweet Marie. My father taught me that. And I'll give you another chance to please me. Maybe I'll even let you live. That boyfriend of yours—Mr. Tough Guy—he can watch before I slice his throat. Still have that blade you tried to gut me with? Bring it to the party.”

My throat constricts as I fight back tears, indignation, and a fresh flood of fear.

Max's hands clamp down on my shoulders a little too hard, and he curses under his breath. “I won't let that happen.”

Gibbs steps back, offering a chilling view of his shark-like grin. “Right about now, he's probably holding you, making promises to protect you that he can't keep.” He winks. “And now you're wondering how I know that. It's almost like I'm right there with you, isn't it?”

I gasp.

Max groans, loosening his grip to pull me gently against his chest. “Don't let him psych you out—that's what he wants. What guy worth a damn wouldn't offer comfort when some nut-job makes a speech like that?”

Tek pauses the video, raising a hand. “Max is right. This guy is using every trick in his toolkit to freak you out. Gotta say, the man does think fast on his feet.” He shakes his head.

Max's arms come around me, providing a sense of safety. I'm in the middle of the power plant within a maze of massive walls. Gibbs can't touch me here. He can't.

“Finish this shit.” A hint of clamped-down anger wavers underneath Max's words.

Tek unpauses the video.

The smile ebbs from Gibbs' bruised face, the resultant expression grave, tinged with resentment. “I'm in quite a jam because of you—hope you understand why I can't let it go. I'd offer to make things easy on you, but that's no longer in the cards. It appears I have a vengeful streak despite my father preaching forgiveness.” He leans close to the camera again, his voice pitched low and threatening. “You’ll never see me coming.”

The screen goes dark.

“Sure we will, you deviant fuck!” Max slams the laptop closed. A vein pulses on his forehead, a winding river of vexation.

Tek bats Max’s hand away. “Easy with the equipment, eh? They’re not manufacturing this shit anymore, you know!”

Max shoots back, “That you know of.”

I slip away from them and fall into a chair next to the table full of manuals. Grace lays her head on my knees and whines, swiping her tongue out to lick my hand. The familiar tightness starts in my chest, and I lean forward to hug Grace, chanting, “Go away, go away, go away.”

Max moves to my side, crouching beside the chair and reaching for my hand. “Panic attack?”

I nod, focusing on my breathing rather than attempting to speak.

“Shh . . . it’s okay.” He rubs my back in a slow soothing motion. “I’ve got you, China. Always.”

Tek turns back to the monitors, giving us privacy.

Between Grace’s concerned licks and Max’s gentle words, my breathing gradually returns to normal, the constriction in my chest loosening. “I’m okay.”

Max squeezes my hand. “Do you trust me?”

I gaze into earnest sea-glass eyes. “With my life. You know I do.”

“Then believe me when I say Gibbs will never hurt you again. He’s not going to slit my throat or touch you. The only thing he’s going to do is die. Painfully.”


After another bitching and bargaining session between Max and Tek, with some wise input from yours truly, we agree transparency should win out. Max will only acquiesce if the videos are discussed rather than shown. Perfectly acceptable since Tek is able to print a picture of Gibbs to show Ali and Andrea so they’ll be able to recognize him.

We assemble in the kitchen, the place our group tends to gather most often. Lunch is an unusually somber affair.

Max stares at his plate and shovels food into his mouth. He only speaks if spoken to, giving off a combative vibe. I’d wonder if he were angry with me if not for his thumb rubbing gently across my palm and the way his expression softens when he looks my way.

Tek, on the other hand, barely touches his meal. He smiles a lot and makes inane conversation.

Andrea’s gaze darts around the table, reminiscent of a frightened rabbit. She repetitively places a hand against the base of her throat and fiddles with a delicate gold chain, clasping whatever hangs there as if it’s a talisman.

Ali chatters on like nothing is wrong. She cheerfully fills the gaps in conversation, waiting until everyone has eaten as much as they’re going to before clapping her hands sharply. “Okay! Now that our totally awkward meal is finally over—” she rolls her eyes for dramatic effect “—perhaps we can move on to whatever unpleasant business is at hand?”

Max’s fingers tighten over mine, his posture rigid. He wipes his free hand over his face, sighing heavily. “For fuck’s sake, Ali! If you knew something was brewing, why’d you do all that happy chat and shit?”

She shrugs. “I figured it was what everyone needed.”

Andrea’s fingers worry at her necklace double-time. “What’s going on?” Her voice is reedy with a pre-hysterical waver.

Max touches Andrea’s arm. “I didn’t mean to freak anyone out. There’s just no good way to go about this conversation, and obviously, I suck at breaking news gently.”

Tears spring to her eyes, and she bites her quivering lip. “Do we have to leave?”

“No! Nothing like that.” Max looks up at the ceiling and rakes the fingers of both hands through his hair, leaving it wild and disheveled. “We have a potential issue. Nothing’s certain, and we’re going to do all we can to protect everyone.”

Andrea’s eyes go wide and she starts babbling. “Oh my God! Protect us from what? Do they know I’m alive? That we’re here?”


Ali breaks in, speaking in a soothing tone. “Connor, perhaps you’re not the best one to lead the discussion.”

Max shoots her a dark look. “Stop trying to handle me.”

Tek’s forehead wrinkles. He seems torn between intervening and staying out of the sibling rivalry.

“Maybe I should start things off.” My voice is firm and well modulated despite my rollicking insides.

Four sets of eyes train on me.

“I mean, it’s me he wants, right?”

“Who?” Andrea asks, releasing her necklace. Is it my imagination, or does she seem relieved this isn't about her?

Ali’s lips round into a dramatic “O” of understanding. “This is about the guy who attacked you. What’s his name . . . Gibbins?”

“No, his name is Gibbs,” Andrea answers in an acid tone. “That stupid, egotistical piece of shit attacked you?” Twin patches of red stain her cheeks.

Everyone looks to Andrea, surprised.

“You know Gibbs?” I ask.

“Well, I was the Alliance's lab rat. Who do you think was part of the strike team that captured me and was more than happy to make sure I’d never forget his face or name or the depth of his cruelty?”

“Oh God.” I slap a hand over my mouth, and my imagination runs wild, wondering what that sadistic bastard did to her.

Max pounds a fist on his thigh. “See? That fuck needs to die!”

Tek shakes his head. “Killing isn’t the answer.”

I wince, waiting for Max to go nuclear.

Instead, it’s Andrea who speaks. “Yeah, it is.” Her flushed face and the determination in her expression cause possible objections to die on everyone’s lips. She swallows and clears her throat. “Gibbs gives new meaning to the term sick fuck. I won’t speak of what happened, but trust me when I say as long as he’s alive, no one is safe. No one.”

I reach across the table to hold her hand. “Does Eric know what he did to you?”

“No!” she shouts, coming half out of her chair, jabbing an accusing finger in the air. “And if any of you say anything, he’ll go after Gibbs on his own. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to Eric because of me.”

“Let’s put this to a vote,” Max declares. “All in favor of eliminating Gibbs?”

Four hands fly up without hesitation. Tek eyes each of us in turn and slowly raises his, too.

Max bangs his fist on the table. “Unanimous.”

It’s much easier to discuss Gibbs after the awkwardness of sentencing the pig to die is over. Now it’s simply a matter of logistics, plans, alternate plans, and strategies. We spend a few hours hashing out details and exploring everyone’s suggestions. Pictures of Gibbs are handed out like wanted posters; Andrea refuses her copy, stating that she doesn’t need any reminder of the face that haunts her nightmares.

More cameras will be placed in well-hidden, strategic locations now that Gibbs expects surveillance. Extra precautions will be taken to protect our location from discovery. Traps will be set and monitored more frequently.

Max grasps my hand beneath the table. “One last thing—we institute a buddy system. Nobody goes out alone or unarmed, no exceptions. Agreed?”

This vote is unanimous, too.


A few uneventful days pass by, during which we institute the agreed-upon routines and precautions. Combat training continues, inside instead of out, with a wider focus on weapons and ways to incapacitate an attacker. Max insists on a level of proficiency that goes beyond thought to reflex.

In our first post-vote training, he stared us down one by one and said, “Even a split second of hesitation can be the end of you, especially when dealing with someone who eats, sleeps, and shits violence.”

No one so much as cracked a smile; Max's warning was too accurate to be humorous.

He's turning the group of us into killing machines, and I still wonder if it will be enough.

Words Ali said to me the last time we trained on the beach echo in my mind: I beat you because my belief that I can is stronger than your belief that you can. In a life or death situation, determination often wins over brute strength.

I wonder if victory will simply come down to who has more to lose, who wants to survive the most.

The sudden dizzying slam of my back on the mat snaps me out of my musings and leaves me staring up at the ceiling, gasping for breath.

Ali claps her hands. “Gotcha!”

Max strolls across the gym, arms crossed. Grace is right on his heels, an eager mascot. “Sloppy.” He taps his temple. “Keep your mind in the present. Sharp and clear.”


“Go again.” He moves on to watch Tek and Andrea, calling out pointers. “Crouch. Now come up hard with the heel of your hand . . . Good . . . Maintain your balance . . . That's it.”

We switch partners, and I go at Tek like the machine Max has been coaching me to be. Sweat beads on my forehead and drips into my eyes. I blink through the sting, determined not to be bested again. I point over Tek's shoulder, and though he isn't fooled, he hesitates long enough for me to sweep his feet out from under him. There's a satisfying thud as his ass hits the mat.

“Nice, China.” Max's mouth twitches when Tek groans loudly and curses.

“Is this a private party, or can anyone get in on the fun?” Eric's friendly face peeks around the doorjamb, his eyes lighting up as he drinks in our indoor training ground. Grace barks, racing over to offer a greeting, and he gives her a quick scratch behind the ears.

Andrea bowls Ali over in her excitement, rushing toward Eric with flushed cheeks and an expression that goes from blah to animated.

Ali climbs to her feet, rubbing her hip and points an index finger at Andrea's retreating back. “Now that's the kind of motivation I'm talking about!”

Eric opens his arms wide and grabs Andrea in a bear hug, her feet leaving the floor to anchor around his waist. “How's my girl?” He kisses her thoroughly, one large palm caressing her behind. Grace dances around them in excited circles.

Ali sidles up beside me and openly ogles their PDA. “Nice. She really comes to life when Eric's around.” She inclines her head in Max's direction and lowers her voice. “Kind of the way my brother came to life when he found you.”

“You think so?” I flush with pleasure.

Though I could be referring to Andrea and Eric, Ali instinctively senses I'm talking about Max. “Yes, yes, yes! Connor was an ornery corpse before you woke him up. He's never been good at living for himself.” Her vibrant demeanor softens, the love of a worshipful little sister shining in her eyes. “He's always been my champion, and I love him for that. Somewhere along the way, he forgot to save a piece for himself. The way we grew up . . .” Ali chokes on the words, shaking her head.

Max appears, squeezing between us to put his arms around our shoulders. He kisses my cheek then bends toward Ali. “We've got enough going on without bringing up the past, okay, Squirt?” He releases me and ruffles Ali’s hair.

I expect Ali to protest, but she surprises me by throwing her arms around Max and pressing her face into his shirt. Tears stand in Max's eyes as he holds his beloved sister and rocks with her. Though I've always been aware of their special connection, I'm seeing a side of the devoted siblings I haven't witnessed before.

Eric saunters over with Andrea tucked under one beefy arm. “Yeah, I hate to break up the tender moment, but we need to talk.”

The tone sounds serious for Eric, and my gut tightens in response. What now?

Max squeezes Ali one last time before letting go, deftly passing her into Tek's waiting arms. He looks to Eric warily. “Who do you need?”

“You and Marie. Maybe a recording device from Tek's bag of tricks.”

Max moves into action, herding us out of the gym and leading the way through the maze. We all squeeze into the control room and turn to Eric expectantly. Grace nudges my thigh with her snout, and I pat her head absently. Adrenaline is flowing even though I have no idea what we're meeting about.

Max stands behind me and massages my tense shoulders. “What's goin' on, man?”

Eric rubs his nose and glances down. “Garth wants to talk. He asked me to set up a meet at one of the houses in town.”


Eric shrugs. “He didn't share, but he did stress the importance.”

Max's hands freeze mid-motion, his tone grim. “Yeah, well, you haven't seen—” He hesitates.

Tek stares hard at Max for a moment. “Somebody's been staying at the industrial complex.”

“Outsiders?” Eric asks.

There's a long silence before Max finally answers. “Gibbs.”

“Really? Thought for sure he was either dead in a ditch somewhere or had taken off.”

“He's looking for us.”

“You sure? He's probably fighting just to stay alive.”

Everyone talks at once, their voices overlapping and echoing in the small room until I have the urge to slap both hands over my ears. Andrea's skin is pasty, the fear radiating off her slight form. She opens her mouth and closes it again after sneaking a glance Eric's way. Understanding dawns in Ali's eyes—the realization she hasn't been told the full story.

Max finally bangs the side of his fist against the doorjamb and yells for quiet. “Look, Gibbs was staying in the industrial complex—until he discovered our surveillance equipment. Somehow he sensed Marie was involved and said as much on camera. Gibbs could have taken the camera or smashed it, but he wants us to know he's out there and looking for revenge.”

“Not good. I still don't understand how he survived.”

“Do you know who Lee is?” Max asks.

Eric's eyes widen. “Where'd you hear that name?”

“He paid a visit to one of the buildings Gibbs was holed up in. I'm guessing Gibbs didn't find that camera because I'm pretty sure he wouldn't want any witnesses to their interaction. Lee brought food and supplies. He said whoever sent him was unhappy.” Max pauses, turning to Ali and Andrea. “Why don't you two take Grace and head back to quarters. This might be a lengthy discussion.”

Ali's jaw sets stubbornly, but she doesn't object when she notices how relieved Andrea seems. “Okay. Come on, Grace! Who wants a treat?” She shoots Max a hard look over her shoulder as she follows Andrea into the hall.

Max clenches his fists and waits for the hum of the elevator before inviting Eric to watch the video on the laptop. “Get a load of this.”

Eric watches silently, scrubbing one huge hand over his face when the screen goes dark. “Shit and double shit.” He drums his fingers on the desk for a few seconds. “Lee is Lewald Nielsen.”

Max gestures impatiently. “Should I know what the fuck that means?”

My insides twist. “He's the vice president's personal aide, isn't he?”

Eric points a finger at me. “Bingo! Give the girl a prize. And make that a triple shit. The guy is a former Navy SEAL. Him and the vice go way back.”

Max considers this for a long moment. “So you're saying Vice President Wesley sent his top henchman to deliver a message to Gibbs—a lieutenant in the Alliance army. Why the fuck would he chance exposing himself like that?”

“That's a Jim Dandy of a question, isn't it? Maybe Garth can shed some light.”

“Just what I was thinking. You realize how careful we have to be now, right? Gibbs can't find us, and he certainly can't see you with us.”

Eric claps Max on the back. “Word.”


Night falls as we crouch in a thicket within view of the meeting place—the same house where I convalesced under the watchful eye of Garth. The lacy, pale gray sky deepens to mottled charcoal, the air dense with moisture.

I blow on my hands and rub them together in an attempt to generate warmth. Remaining still in the damp gloom allowed a numbing chill to settle over my face and hands, and my legs no longer have feeling. A twig pokes me in the back as I shift around.

Max and Eric are like twin stone statues—one holding binoculars, the other peering through a night vision scope—and I have the crazy urge to knock them both over.

“Tell me again why the hell we're here over an hour past meeting time?” Exasperation is clear even in my hushed tone.

Max doesn't even twitch, continuing his vigil. “We need to be sure Garth hasn't dicked us over or been exposed for his deception. If nobody storms the castle in the next fifteen minutes, we approach.”

“Might take another hour before I can walk,” I mutter under my breath. Discomfort makes me grumpy.

“Keep watch, Eric.” Max stuffs the binoculars in his jacket pocket and looks over at me. Even in near-darkness, there's a twinkle in his eye, and the corner of his mouth turns up. He crab-walks closer to me and brushes his knuckles across my cheek. “Is someone cold and cranky?” Soft lips replace his knuckles, feathering across my skin. “Need me to warm you up?”

I'm amazed that even numb and freezing in the middle of the woods, my stomach flips, and a shot of warmth spreads through my insides. “That might help improve my mood . . .”

Max wraps me in his arms, ghosting his cool nose along the curve of my neck. I forget we're crouched in prickly bushes or that I can't feel anything from the thighs down—because I sure feel a lot of warm tingling in my belly.

Our lips meet softly, his gloved hands slipping inside my jacket to caress my back. The hem of my shirt rides up, allowing a cold draft to pepper the exposed skin with goosebumps. I lose myself in the taste and feel of him.

“Get a room, you two!” Eric chuckles.

Max continues kissing me but releases one of his arms to punch out at Eric.

“Ow!” Eric hits back, nearly sending Max and me tumbling to the damp ground. “Sorry, Marie. By the way, we're ten minutes past the time you decided on for going in.”

For a moment, I wonder if Max heard Eric, but then he nips my bottom lip just hard enough to send a jolt of pleasure right to the center of me before pulling away. He holds me by the hips when I stand and remains hunkered in front of me, using his hands to massage feeling back into my legs.

A familiar rumble reverberates in the distance. I half expect to feel the thrum beneath my feet. The forlorn bleat of a train whistle, so loud and unexpected now, triggers memories of walking home from school with Katie alongside the tracks. When we were older, we used the corridor as a shortcut to make curfew even though Dad warned us to stay away from the deserted railway after dark.

I shake off the wisps of my past. “It's a train!”

Eric lowers the scope. “Must be supplies coming in. I heard they might use trains. The rails tend to be free of debris. A lot of time is wasted clearing roadways.”

Max rises and cocks his head, a contemplative gleam in his eyes. “Interesting.” He nudges Eric with an elbow. “We all clear to approach the house?”


“Take a look with that heat signature gadget Tek gave us. See how many bodies are in or around the area.”

Eric fumbles something that looks like a cell phone out of his pocket and aims it at the house. The screen is grainy with black and gray blotches, but a figure made up of reds and yellows morphs into focus. He pans the area slowly, but the landscape remains dark. “Just one.”

“Excellent.” Max turns to me, brushing an errant strand of hair out of my eyes. “You ready?”


“Be prepared to run or fight if necessary.”


Max bumps fists with Eric. “Stay here and watch for company.”

“Will do. Good luck, guys.”

Once we leave the safety of the thicket, Max doesn't touch me. We walk single file, with him in the lead, sticking to the shadows as we make our way to the house where Garth awaits.

Any possible light is concealed behind tightly closed blinds or curtains. If Eric hadn't verified someone was inside, I never would have chosen this one out of the many darkened homes. As instructed, we approach the back door and enter without knocking.

Garth is sitting at the kitchen table, casually holding a Kindle. A jarred candle flickers in the center of the polished wood, creating a soft halo of light that doesn't extend far beyond the chairs. He appears relaxed, but a subtle stiffness in his posture suggests otherwise. When he glances up, shadows dance over his weathered face, deepening to dark slashes beneath bloodshot eyes. “Good evening.”

“Garth.” I pull out a chair and sit across from him.

Max lays a hand on my shoulder and remains standing. “Tell me about Gibbs and the vice president.” His tone is brusque and businesslike.

Garth's lips stretch into a faint smile. “You don't bother much with niceties, do you?”

“Why would I when cutting to the chase is so much more efficient?”

“All right, then.” Garth places both palms on the table as if bracing himself. “Wes is Gibbs' uncle.”


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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, October 9, 2015

Michael Wombat Week 170: All the Crepuscular Dudes

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Picture 2

Michael Wombat’s Picture Choice: 1, although I’m not sure you’ll immediately see why. It brought to mind a poem by our own KendallJaye Collard, which in turn inspired me to write this

Title: All the Crepuscular Dudes

I remember only shards these days. It's all fading away. Except for a few things, most of my time with Aoide has gone already, but the feel of her breath on my neck, the curl of her fingers interlaced with mine, the swirl of my mind when the side of her mouth curved in a half-smile – those things will stay with me forever.

We met at a party held in a large Georgian house. I had gate-crashed earlier that evening, looking for some mindless distraction to wrench my mind away from the latest job, and the desperate pleading in the target’s eyes just before I put a bullet between them. The Service pays its operatives well, but not well enough to completely erase the pang of shame that eats at our souls. I needed bright lights and noise to wipe away the patina of guilt, and the ever-growing thought that one day my Glock might just fire a bullet between my own eyes. This shindig promised lights, noise and more. It turned out that the celebration was for the eldest daughter of the house, who was about to get married to – God forgive her – a futures trader.

The family was hideously rich. A thirty-piece band played swing tunes, the champagne was Dom Perignon White Gold, and the food was magnificent. I had just made my selection from the menu for the first three courses, which oddly still sticks in my mind - miniature pastries filled with spiced cheese, a meat tile (pieces of veal, simmered, sautéed, served in a spiced sauce of pounded crayfish tails and almonds), to be followed by fig and ginger frumenty.

As it turned out I never even saw the dining room, for at that moment I saw her. Aoide; a pretty thing in a white dress, bobbed dark hair held in a circlet of silver, a graceful nose, and a full mouth with a delicious overbite. I’ll swear as she floated down the wide staircase at the other side of the room that she gazed at me directly with eyes large and ocean-pearled. I found it impossible to look away.

She half-smiled at me as she crossed to the stage, climbed up, and joined the band as they played “Serenade in Blue”, singing with a voice like liquid gold. As the final notes faded, no-one applauded, no-one took any notice of her song. She crossed to my side and took the glass of champagne out of my trembling fingers. I felt a tug in my chest as I gazed slack-jawed at the curve of her neck, the freckles spattering her bare shoulders.

She took my hand in cool fingers and led me outside into the warm twilight. Bats flitted and swooped, and an occasional travelling silence marked the flight of an owl overhead. Aoide spoke of the kinship she felt with the twilight creatures; the owls, bats, nightingales and moths – all the crepuscular dudes, as she called them, often heard, rarely seen. She felt the music in their sounds; the hoots, clicks and warbles all melding together into a magnificent vespertine symphony.

She led me to a walled garden, where the air caressed us with the scent of evening primrose, sweet rocket, phlox, honeysuckle, moonflower vine, angel's trumpet and night-scented stock. Her hand on my shoulder nudged me to a chaise lounge in a summer house, and there in the dark we talked like old friends. We laughed and lamented, spoke of our fantasies and our deep dark shames.

She confessed her envy of her two sisters; Mneme, who had almost total recall, and the cerebral, perceptive Melete. For my part, I opened up more to Aoide than I could ever have imagined doing with anyone. I did not go into details about the Service, but she could see the fury raging inside me, the eternal struggle against a yawning maw of empty despair. Her eyes offered understanding and hope, but no pity, and I loved her for that.

She laid her head on my shoulder, her warm breath on my neck setting my mind awhirl, then she was kissing me, undressing me, seducing me there among the scented night flowers, our soundtrack the music of all the crepuscular dudes. I asked if she’d stay with me. She said that she would be with me always. Afterwards, half dozing in her warm embrace, I wondered whether I should tell her what I did for a living, how many innocent lives I had ended, how many families destroyed. I questioned whether I would, after all, welcome the kiss of the Glock against my forehead. I decided that, unworthy though I was of the breath of life that Aoide had offered me, to turn my back on such sweet serendipity would be a disgrace greater than admitting to my iniquitous occupation as a destroyer of lives.

A bright future with Aoide flickered in my mind, but before it could grow into a warming flame I noticed that my back was cold. Aoide had gone. She hadn’t moved, or stood up – I would have noticed – she simply was no longer there. It was as if she had become a night-scent herself and drifted away on the soft breeze. As strangely as our union had begun, so too had it ended. I was devastated. A lifetime with her had slipped from my grasp almost before I had dared to dream it. An opportunity to turn my life to good things, missed.

I dressed myself and stumbled home, and though I visited the Georgian house time and time again, initially to enquire fruitlessly about Aoide, then later as a family friend and eventually as owner, I never saw her again. The agony of her abandonment swallowed my self-loathing whole, and suicide became less important than discovering what had happened to the girl who had seduced me in the twilight. I never did make that discovery.

I'm an old man now, and my memory plays tricks. If I did meet Aoide again, I'm not even sure that I would recognize her. Time can be a cruel tide to drift away on. However, the tide of time has helped me to recognise one thing - after a million what-ifs and a lifetime of lost sleep, I have realised that our brief encounter wasn't a missed opportunity at all.

In the half century since that night I have lived life as a good man. I left the Service behind and took a job as a gardener. I buried the Glock deep under my potato patch. I fell in love with a good woman – the daughter who had married, and then rapidly divorced, the futures trader. We raised two other good women, and we travelled the wide, mesmerising world. Yes, we lived in contentment rather than bliss, but who’s to say that’s not the better state? And, over time, I forgave myself. Aoide was the source of all of that. She breathed spirit and integrity into my lungs one twilit evening, and I’ll be forever grateful to her for that.

There have been difficult days, too. My wife died four years ago, my eldest daughter the year after. I cry sometimes. Occasionally, in the dark, I can still see the horror in a target’s face; smell the acrid pistol shot, the iron splash of blood. But then, every evening, I receive a remarkable gift. The moths appear, then the bats and owls – all the crepuscular dudes.

Then I remember her breath, her touch, a heartbeat, a tingle and a moment of dizziness. Aoide joins me every evening as the blanket of night settles about us. She is with me still and always, just as she promised that night long ago, and every evening at dusk I softly sing our song. When I hear that serenade in blue I'm somewhere in another world, alone with you.


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Michael Wombat has published several books - search for him on Amazon, or go talk to him on Twitter where he is @wombat37.


Thursday, October 8, 2015

Mark Ethridge Week 170: I See Angry People, Part 2

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Picture 2

Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: One

Title: I See Angry People, Part 2

The sunrise gradually beat back the darkness of the night. By the time it cleared the horizon, I’d already walked 20 minutes. I would have prefered a sky full of golds, oranges and yellows. Instead, I got a sky full of gray clouds, and no blue anywhere. I should have known the day would have mirrored the weather. I walked with no path, on no trail, beside no road. That was the safest thing, walk where no one else had, where no one had reason to walk. My years of living with the wolves had taught me to walk in silence through the forest, through the brush. In the years since the world went insane, things had changed. There were more animals. Birds, squirrels, foxes, wolves, deer, everything. There were more trees. I’d never known how much trees would grow in a few years until everyone stopped cutting them down. And the grass, weeds, and bushes were everywhere. In every town I’d stopped in, yards were gone. The grass died when no one watered it, or fertilized it. Natural grasses, clover, crabgrass, dandelions, and weeds took over. Vines ran wild, engulfed fences, covered lawn chairs, decks, lamp posts. And trees followed them. I walked through a changed world, headed west, by the compass and the sun. I stopped after a few hours, took a drink of water from my canteen, and ate some trail mix as I listened to the sounds of life around me. Then, I resumed my westward trek. With no maps, no GPS, no guide, I never knew what I’d find, or if I’d find anything. The idea was, walk in a straight line long enough, and you’ll find a place where a town or city once was. That’s what happened. In the early afternoon I came across an old city. On instinct, I drew my bow and an arrow. I had to be ready to fight and flee with each heartbeat. I worked my way through a couple of old neighborhoods filled with mass produced, nearly identical houses, nearly evenly spaced, like they were squares of a tablecloth dropped from the sky to cover the land. Going was always slow, with weeds and brush where yards had been, and tangled masses of vines where fences had been. Moving yard to yard took time. Until I came across a school. The sign on the building was still there, “Green Farms Elementary School”. As I worked through the weeds, and dense brush, I tried to remember what going to school had been like. The clean halls, the huge open expanse of land, a parking lot, and long halls lined with rooms. A cafeteria, an office, a gymnasium, and a library. The school’s doors were long gone. I needed to be very cautious, quiet, and alert. My ears listened to every sound, my eyes studied every shadow and flicker of light. I worked my way through the building, to the library. Children’s books. Chapter books, story books, any kind of children’s books. Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Anything I could find. I stuffed a dozen titles in my backpack. “The kids may not be able to read yet. But it won’t hurt to have books for when they can.” I smiled, I hadn’t expected to think of the toddlers and babies at home. None of them mine, of course. Valerie and I hadn’t, for whatever reason. Not that we hadn’t tried, just seemed like it wasn’t meant to happen. But Kelly, she had a son. Two years old now. Can you believe we used to take education for granted. Never thought we’d have to teach them everything. Manners, language, everything. When I’d grown up, that’s what schools were for. Kindergarten, pre-K, daycare. They’d done the teaching. Now, all of that was gone. If we wanted our children to read, we had to teach them to read. I wandered through the rest of the school as I looked for anything useful. Nothing remained. As the sun got low, I knew I had to find a place to hide for the night, and it couldn’t be the school. That was big, roomy. Others would stay there, especially groups. The hunter, gatherer type. Groups of men, or even groups of women. Those who’d survived the years of chaos. I had to clear the building, and find a safe haven. A tool shed behind a nearby house would do. I knew no one would look there, so I’d be safe either in, or near it. I set up my tent, and after making certain no one was around, I settled in for the night. I woke in a cold sweat, my eyes wide, my knife drawn. I didn’t move, barely breathed, as I tried to listen to my senses, listen to the sounds outside my tent. A woman. Screaming. Gunshots. Men screaming. More gunshots. Whether I wanted to or not, it was time to move. Time to find the sounds, see what was happening, and see if there was anything I could do. The sounds let me back to the school, to the cafeteria, filled with tables, chairs, dust, and a gunfight. I was silent, I knew no one knew I was there. A trail of blood led to a table turned on its side. A dead man was on the floor. There were three other men, trying to surround the table. One at a time they’d stand up, shoot at the table, then duck down, and move. “It’s over, girly!” “You ain’t gettin’ outta here alive!” More shots at the table. More movement. Three to one is never fair, so I drew my bow, let an arrow fly. It struck the closest man in the neck. I’d had a lot of practice over the years with my bow. I didn’t miss what I aimed at. The other two noticed the third had fallen. They turned from the table toward me, started shooting. A second arrow took down a second man. I spoke for the first time. “You OK behind the table?” There was no answer, I hadn’t expected one. Whoever was behind that table had lost a lot of blood. Maybe too much. The third man screamed, “Who are you?” “Nobody.” He fired shots in my direction. Son-of-a-bitch was terrified, shooting wildly. I put an arrow in his leg. He went down, alive, but no longer a threat. Arrow ready to fly, I approached him, “Drop the gun.” He did. “Move.” I motioned toward the table, threatened him with another arrow. He moved, though I knew he hurt like hell. We crossed to the table. The woman I’d heard scream was there. Propped against the table legs. Blood was everywhere. I pulled my knife, put the blade through the hand of the man, left him screaming in pain, and went to the woman.

Her breath was ragged, weak. I knew she wasn’t going to live. “You have a name?”

She nodded, her answer a whisper, “Jessie.”

“I’m pleased to meet you, Jessie.”

She shivered. I wouldn’t let her die alone. I sat down next to her, put an arm around her. “Sorry I didn’t get here sooner.” Her eyes asked, so I answered, “I’m Frank. I won’t hurt you.”

She made a weak smile, closed her eyes, and leaned her head back. She whispered. “Did I get them?”

“Yeah,” I nodded. “You got them all.”


And she was gone. I kissed her cheek. “Rest well in Valhalla, warrior.”

There was still the question of what to do about the last of the men. A year earlier, I’d have put an arrow in him, and been done. But I wasn’t a heartless killer. “Quit howling like a girl, stupid!”

He shut up, gritted his teeth, “I ain’t no girl!”

“No. You ain’t. Girls are civilized. You?” I drew an arrow. “You’re an animal.”

“She came after us!”


“I don’t fucking know! She pulled two guns, and started shooting. We had to shoot back. She shot Timmy and Jerry. In the back!”

“Good.” I pulled my bowstring tight. “I’m sure they deserved it.”

“What? No? Don’t kill me?”

“How many women have you killed?”

He didn’t answer.

“How many have you raped?”

He didn’t answer, just wet his pants, his eyes glued to my arrow. “Don’t kill me. Please, don’t kill me.”

“Why?” I aimed at his left eye. “Why shouldn’t I?”

He closed his eyes, “Oh, God…”

Since I had one of the evil men, one of the men who destroyed everything, in front of me, I decided it was time to ask questions. And there was one question I’d always wanted an answer to.

“Tell you what, if you answer my question, I might let you live.”

He nodded, “Anything! Anything!”


“She shot at us.”

“No. Why?”

“Why did she shoot at us?”

“No. Why did you, all of you, go crazy?”

“Is that what you think?”

“Yeah. Every fucking one of you went crazy. At the same time.”

“Mister, you don’t know a God damn thing.”

“Then tell me why.”

He spilled his guts, told me everything. Told me how men once ruled the world. How women belonged to men. How men were superior, stronger, smarter, faster. How women weren’t equal, never had been, never would be.

How he and other men decided to take back everything men had lost. Put women in their place. Turn them back into possessions, like they were meant to be. Where a man could have his way with any woman, because he was a man.

He rambled, and talked, and I stood there, and listened.

“And that’s why. We needed to become real men again. Not those weak, civilized men. We had to take back our manhood!”

I shot him. In the left eye.

“You aren’t a man. You aren’t even human. You’re just an animal.”

I returned to the table, picked up Jessie’s body, carried her to the shed. I found an old shovel. It took hours, but I dug a hole for her body. And I made a wooden cross to mark where she rested. “Rest in peace, Jessie.” I looked at the sky, “Take care of her, God.”

It was going to be a long day. It was time to pack my tent, and walk.

“Just had to take back our manhood.” I shook my head. “How stupid is that? Are they really that stupid?”

I walked through half the night. I put that city behind me, and headed further west.


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