Sunday, May 31, 2015

Miranda Kate Week 152: Final Decimation

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Miranda Kate’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Final Decimation

Daniels swiped at his face as he hammered in the nails. He couldn’t risk tears blurring his vision and causing him to hammer his fingers. But they wouldn’t stop falling. Big splats dropped onto the thin plywood, all the wood he had left.

Thoughts of felling trees with his son made him pause, his chest hitching. They hadn’t come here to die, they’d come here to live. He relived the moment he’d opened the doors of the old wood shack – all those infected bodies. A fraction of a second he’d stood there and now they were doomed.

Abby had insisted it wasn’t his fault when her youngest had passed, but he couldn’t believe it. Harris had argued that it might have already been among them before they had come up to the cabin. But his words had turned to dust, along with his bones, in the ground just yards from where Daniels stood making his owns son’s coffin.

Coffin. He fell to his knees, his back convulsing with sobs that seemed to come from his heart. He was the one to open the door, why hadn’t he fallen? Why did it have to be his son? Damon had been such a sweet lad; he’d never put a foot wrong; he’d been easy, helpful, respectful, always willing, loyal, his sense of integrity exceeding that of his own fathers. Daniels couldn’t have wished for better, he’d never been so proud of anyone or anything more in his life.

But now he was gone. How was he going to survive this? How, when he didn’t want to? He felt rage burn up his throat, forcing his mouth to open in a roar that tore at his very soul. His fists hit the ground again and again, as though the pounding would release the pain he felt in every inch of his body. It wasn’t fair, it should have been him!

He heard feet near him and felt hands on him; bodies covering his, the sounds of other sobs joining his. He reached out an arm knowing it was Pansy, wanting to give comfort as much as receive it. His other arm found Steve, who had turned to Damon in the wake of Bobby’s death, and looked up to him as a big brother.

He had to stay strong; he had to stay alive. They needed him; his strength, his teachings, his knowledge. And he needed them too. As his arm moved round Pansy to embrace her, he felt the bump, the life growing inside her. He had a grandchild to meet and care for. He had a family to look after. He had Damon’s family to look after. He needed to make him proud.


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Thursday, May 28, 2015

Mark Ethridge Week 152: If It’s Just A Dream, Let Me Dream (Part 9)

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Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: One

Title: If It’s Just A Dream, Let Me Dream (Part 9)

My wife and daughter were asleep in our room in the cave complex. I kissed them each on the cheek, and went to find Blue. It was time I arranged a visit with the head of the church on Blue’s Earth. Time for him to meet Blue, and learn why we would not allow him to destroy her people in the name of God.

I put on my full armor and then armed myself to the teeth, with every weapon I could carry. It was the first time I fit a suit on Blue. She wasn’t comfortable but understood it would protect her from the nanotech weapons the church carried to all such meetings.

“Notice how they put up a warehouse in the middle of nowhere and requested a meeting there?” She nodded. “They’ll show up heavily armed with a full escort of Marine Dogs.”

Blue laughed, “The don’t learn, do they.”

“No, they don’t.” It was part of their superiority complex. Part of the stupid belief that God was on their side, and they couldn’t lose. That they were doing God’s will, and he would support them, and guarantee their victory. “It’s part of their religion. Their God always gives them victory.”

She stretched. The armor moved with her, with her different anatomy, different shape, different size. Where my armor had a head, arms and legs, as I did, Blue’s armor was almost shapeless, a four-foot tall blob. If she extended part of herself, as I would extend an arm, her armor would adjust, change shape, let her move freely.

It was an exoskeleton the Church had never seen. One we were ready to supply to all Blue’s people.

“Of course, they picked the time best for them when solar radiation levels are at their minimums.” Blue had learned well. “Thinking they’ll be safer without worrying about the flares.”

It was my turn to laugh, “Indeed, they will.” After a few moments I asked, “Are you ready?”

She nodded. It looked like a nod anyway. “I’ve never met one of your people’s holy men.”

“I’m not sure I’d call him that.”

“But it is his title, isn’t it?”

I nodded. It was his title. “Agent of the Pope, Cardinal whatever his name is.” Not that it mattered what his name was. He was, of course, a white male, about 648 years old, and the son of a religious leader. That’s how it worked. Only sons of clergy could rise to high positions in the church. And they lived like kings, with all the benefits, all the money, all the power, food, health care. And an ocean of human slaves bowed to their every wish.

“His royalness will show up with a freaking army.”

“No doubt,” she understood, “I would be surprised if he did otherwise.”

I smiled, though it wasn’t visible in the armor, “They’re called Levites.”


“It’s an Old Testament thing. The Levites were the strong-arm of the Israelites.” I chuckled. “The power that guaranteed the Israelites listened to Moses, and to the priests.”


“Yep. They killed those who didn’t.”

Blue’s laugh cheered me up. “So he’ll be surrounded by trained killers?”

“Indeed. And they'll be armed to the teeth.” I realized it was a saying Blue had trouble understanding, given her people didn’t have teeth.

“Ah, you and your sayings.”

“What would your people call it?”

“Fully packed.” I could see that. Fully packed blue blobs, no signs of weapons anywhere, because they were all inside their bodies, hidden from view, and not detectable by our scanning technology. A gift nature had given her people. Their hides were so resistant to the solar flares and their radiatoin, conventional sensor technology couldn’t penetrate their skins.

The Church thought them blue blobs of cells, deserving of death. Abominations created by Satan and his minions. Experiments at creating life gone awry. Imperfect attempts to create synthetic humans, in the image of God.

“His holiness will be waiting.”

She nodded again.

“The first thing he will do is order the Marines to rid God’s universe of us.”

Blue laughed. “He won’t be happy then the Marines turn on his Levites, will he?”

“Not happy at all.”

“Will any of the dogs survive?”

“That’s the plan.”

“None of the Levites will.”

“That’s the plan.”

We headed to the meeting point. I didn’t use the scanners in my armor, I knew they wouldn’t work, knew the church would defend against them. What the church wasn't ready for were the old-fashioned drones. Three of them, two on the ground and one airborne. Drones with old-fashioned optical cameras and old-fashioned broadcast radio data feeds back to Blue and me.

The feeds displayed on the heads up displays of our suits. The feeds showed the arrival of the Levites, with the Marines. We watched them put the Marines beside all the entrances to the warehouse. We watched the Levites shove stakes in the ground inside the warehouse. The stakes mines, the kind that blew up when they detected foreign genetics. Of course, they’d fail to detect Blue, so that wasn’t a problem.

The Levites took positions throughout the warehouse. They wore full suits of armor equipped with both projectile weapon systems, and energy weapon systems. The projectile systems used rail gun technology. Tiny projectiles fired at hyper sonic speeds. Such weapons took full advantage of kinetic energy. The energy weapons used pulsed energy. It wasn’t laser, it wasn’t a particle beam or any kind of beam. It was a concentrated pulse of energy that traveled at the speed of light. A wall of compressed energy destroyed everything in its path.

They saved the big gun for near the seat of his holiness. The antimatter gun. It fired a beam of antiprotons and positrons. That beam annihilated the air it passed through, and everything it hit. It was their Sword of God. Nothing had ever stood before it.

Blue put a hand on my arm, “Are you certain we will survive?”

“I’ve done this before.”

“And you survived?”


She laughed. “Is it time to visit then?”

“After his holiness arrives.”

We waited as the drones watched and let us know what was happening inside the warehouse. We waited for the party to begin. It would be a heck of a party. If it went well, Blue and I would walk away, and the Dogs would be free. If it went badly, the Levites might not be the only humans who didn’t see the next solar flare.


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


Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Lizzie Koch Week 152: Evening the Score

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Lizzie Koch’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Evening the Score

Strained and tired eyes squinted through the darkness. Doug hadn’t passed another car for a while now on his long journey south. He hadn’t stopped for a while either but nature demanded he do so. Pulling off the main road, Doug parked in a remote spot and turned off the engine. A heavy silence fell before his ears adjusted to the sounds of the night. He inhaled the cool desert air, enjoying the cricket chorus, the unspoiled starry night and the emptiness.

A series of dull thuds proved a sharp reminder of the job in hand as he marched to the boot of the car, banging it with his fist. Silence fell. Jumping in the car, Doug sped away, back on the mainroad, radio blaring to block out the renewed banging.

Through the rearview mirror, streaks of orange bled into the night sky. Doug was nearing the end of his journey. At least the noise had stopped.

By the time he stopped the car, Doug had to shake awake his cargo, pulling off the tape from her mouth. He pulled the bleary eyed girl from the boot, keeping a tight grip on her trembling arm. Even in her weakened state, he wasn’t going to risk her making another break for freedom. Freedom didn’t exist . . . for either of them.

“Please, let me go.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “Please. I have money. My father has money.”
“What have I told you? Don’t talk to me. I don’t want to know anything about you.”
She sobbed as she glanced at her surroundings, noticing the small, stone, rundown building, a sign above the door a clue to her fate.
“Please, you don’t have to do this. Whatever these men are paying you, my father can double, treble!”
“If it was just about the money, I’d consider it. But it’s not. So stop wasting your breath.” He pushed her forward towards the building. “Forget your life. This is your new life.”

She just had time to see another girl, bruised, frightened and semi naked before she was thrown into a room with the sound of the door locking behind her.

Doug collected his money. “And now we’re even, ” he said, leaving the building without a backwards glance.


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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


Saturday, May 23, 2015

Aleea Davidson Week 151: Eulogies in Gray

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Aleea Davidson’s Picture Choice: Two

Title: Eulogies in Gray

If there was such a thing as a perfect day for a funeral, today would be it. Gabriel—‘Gabe’—Montgomery shrugs his shoulders under his thin coat trying to push the collar up to garner some protection against a witch of a wind trying to scrap her icy fingers down the back of his neck. He tightens the muscles in his core to suppress an urge to shiver. He believes in maintaining complete control over his mind and body. The cold will not dictate how he acts.

Everything is shades of November gray. Slate-gray sky, coal-gray dirt piled by the grave site, naked trees with skeletal talons for limbs turned the dreary colour of ash. He supposes it all fits his gray mood.

Mouth dry and back aching from the frozen ground he’s been standing on for the last half hour, Gabe half-heartedly listens to Father Donahue pepper an impersonal eulogy with bible verses meant to comfort grieving friends and family. It’s all bullshit. The man being buried didn’t engender grief in those he left behind.

Wondering again why he’s here, Gabe comes up void of an answer same as he has every other time he’s asked.

Guilt? Obligation? The search for closure? He fights the urge to laugh out loud at that last one. Closure? Not fucking likely.

He stares at the dark rectangular hole in the ground then glances at the coffin to its side. Like everything else the final resting place for his father’s body is a fitting shade of steel gray—gray like the soul of the man lying inside.

Father Donahue rambles off a line about forgiveness, and Gabe resists the urge to look up and see if the Priest’s eyes are directed at him. He wouldn’t put it past the old codger. Twenty-six years have passed since the last time Gabe felt his ass go numb sitting on a wooden pew in the Saint Michael’s Church. He still, however, remembers the glare Father Donahue would direct his way whenever he had a bit of wisdom he wanted to impart to a headstrong kid with a temper and a penchant for trouble.

Too bad the man never thought to direct some of that advice to Gabe’s father. Guess that would’ve been hard to do though, given Neil Montgomery never stepped a foot into a church his entire life.

Gabe battles back a relentless slew of memories swimming to the surface of his mind. They come anyway, mashing together in a chaotic, toxic swill of images and words. His teeth clench hard enough the joints of his jaw protest with a burst of pain reminiscent of a meaty fist hitting the side of his face.

Useless, stupid, good-for-nothing, idiot, bastard...

The words bounce around inside Gabe’s head, barbed and painful. The old man sure knew how to deliver an insult with his punches. The words, reeking of cheap whiskey and wet with specks of frothy spit, never failed to take their toll. To this day, Gabe struggles against the roots they dug into his psyche. At thirty-six he’s built a veritable business empire. He’s well known and well respected, probably even a little feared, and he has more money than he could ever spend. Despite it all a part of him has never stopped longing for the approval and love he never received as a child. He’s such a fucking cliché.

Up until the day the lawyer called to tell him the old man had passed, Gabe thought he at least had a handle on all his emotional baggage. Guess not. Now he’s here, back in this crummy town, wading through a wealth of unresolved crap and trying to settle the old man’s estate.

‘Estate.’ What a laughable damn word. Neil Montgomery’s ‘estate’ was a shitty little house with a sagging front porch. Tiny rooms with weathered furniture boasted walls stained yellow from cigarette smoke, dingy carpets reeking of nicotine and spilled booze. The entire place needed to be bulldozed. A battered, rusted out truck and a bank account with seven hundred and thirty-six dollars rounds off the entire life achievement of his old man.

Jamming his cold hands into his pockets, Gabe waits out the final minutes of the eulogy then watches the casket lower into the ground. The few mourners—a motley collection of distant cousins and the local bar crowd—scurry away, eager to get out of the cold and away from the reminder their lives have an expiry date.

Gabe stays longer than he should, afternoon darkening into evening, before he finally makes his way to side of his father’s grave where he crouches down, staring at the scraped-smooth dirt walls. From his pocket he removes a tarnished silver flask that he found in a desk drawer in the old man’s bedroom. He drops it down beside the casket, lid off, the glug of draining liquid reaching his ears seconds before his sight registers the darkening soil created by the expensive single-malt Gabe filled it with.

Standing, Gabe impulsively grabs a handful of dirt from the pile and lets it rain down from his hand to the casket.

When he speaks his voice is steady and strong, and the knot in his gut eases just a little. “You used to call me a bastard, dad, but the truth is no one was more of a bastard than you.” Gabe sighs. There are a thousand hurts and accusations he could voice, but the cold wind sucks away the heat of any lingering anger and all he feels is...lost.

“Rest in peace, old man.”

Gabe dusts the grave dirt from his palm and turns, leaving behind the shell of the man who never loved him.

He is not his father’s son.


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Aleea lives in her imagination most of the time. It's an interesting place to be... Occasionally she can be coaxed out to chat on Twitter, though she finds it akin to torture to stick to that absurd 140 character limit. (@Aleeab4u)


Thursday, May 21, 2015

Michela Walters Week 151: Rising Tide

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Michela Walters’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: Rising Tide

Water, it is said to be a life giving force and without it we would all perish from the earth. In reality, my worry is more of having too much of a good thing. The water has been rising for the past two hours as the storm roars towards my beachfront home. The basement is already a lost cause, and I helplessly pull soggy box after soggy box upstairs in hopes that my little cottage will still be standing when all is said and done.

The bottom falls out of the waterlogged box i’m carrying, dropping all my precious memories from my trip around the world, onto the basement stairs. My youthful and eager face stare up at me, a reminder of a time when I still believed the world could be a better place and that my life was going to be springtime and roses all the time. I chuck the remnants of wet cardboard over the railing, into the murky water below and slump onto the steps, thumbing through images of pyramids at sunrise, chickens on a bus rumbling through a rural Indian village, a rave in Germany and a sea of crazy outfits in Shinjuku. The images swirl in my mind, remembering how independent and strong I felt doing something so crazy as backpacking around the world after college. Now,after a vicious divorce and a life with not much other than my solitary freelance writing career, I have to wonder where I took a wrong turn.

“Probably in Albuquerque,” I mumble, a nod to my childhood Saturday morning cartoon addiction.

I stand up, knowing my time is running out and stomp up the stairs to find some sort of bin to put what’s left of my youth.

My phone beeps, signaling the storm warning bulletin I need to listen to but am afraid to do. Grabbing a trash bag from under the sink, I load it with all the memorabilia and load it into my gassed up car. There’s a lot of things I will leave behind and pray will be okay, but these mementos are not one of them. I’ve only just realized in the last five minutes that if I’m going to enjoy life and not just let it pass me by, I need to grab hold of the sense of wonder and enchantment from my youth. I haven’t a clue how I’m going to do it, but know I have a long and slow evacuation ahead of me to think about it.


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Michela Walters is a wife, mother and book enthusiast. She is currently attempting her hand at writing her first romantic fiction novella. You can read her other stories on her blog:


Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Sarah Aisling Week 151: A Measure of Grace (Part 31): Family

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 31): Family

We stare until the planes are well out of sight and the rumble of their engines can barely be heard. The jet trails are already beginning to fade; soon any evidence they passed by will be erased.

My heart continues to beat fast. The president is going to visit the alliance.

“What the hell was all that?” Max asks.

I glance at his confused expression and realize he doesn’t know. “We never did have the chance to talk about this. Brace yourself. The President of the former United States is on that plane.”

He laughs. “Ri-ight.”

“Seriously. He is.”

“Want to tell me why you sound so sure?”

“Sit with me.”

We settle on top of the boulder that just provided cover and look out over the valley below. Grace wanders around, rooting through the leaves with her snout.

The rocky hill, dotted with trees and bushes, slopes down to meet brilliant green grass edging a serene pond. I’m struck once again by how beautiful the world is and how nature continues on, oblivious to our pain. Everything and everyone will eventually be reclaimed by the earth. The thought leaves me feeling so vulnerable and inconsequential.

Max waves a hand in front of me. “Still with me?”

“Yeah, sorry.” I wrap my arms around my knees and rest my chin on them. “Just realizing how little we mean in the big scheme of things.”

“Now that’s something I learned the hard way—over and over.” He shrugs. “Guess it doesn’t faze me anymore.”

I digest that for a moment, feeling sad for Max and Ali both. Despite being abandoned by my mother, I had a pretty good life before the virus. “When I was staying at the main compound, we watched a live presidential speech in the cafeteria.” I retell as many details as I can remember.

“Shit. That’s just . . . wow.” Max shakes his head. “Do you think he knows everything?”

“I'm not sure. I’ve wondered that myself.”

“The prime minister, too. And, boy, they don’t play around, huh? Preserve what they consider the 'core of humanity' and fuck the rest of us.”

“Seems that way.”

Angry, he slips off the boulder and paces. Grace stops what she’s doing and watches.

“We’re glorified lab rats. Meanwhile, the crisis has barely touched the elite. They have food, electricity . . . order. Let’s not forget a supply of immune to experiment on. Maybe God should do the world a favor and let their luck run out so—” Max halts mid-stride and mid-sentence, swinging toward me with an apology in his eyes. “China, I’m sorry. I wasn’t thinking.”

“It’s okay. I know what you meant.”

He comes to stand in front of me and takes my hands. “I’d love to see them burn, but I’m also invested in their success because of you. Damn it—I’m so conflicted!”

“Me, too.” I swallow hard, afraid if I try to say more, I’ll start crying.

Throughout the rest of our journey, I fill Max in on the alliance: their hydroponic gardens, societal structure, the clueless and trusting nature of the average citizen. I gloss over the part about the treatments, simply telling him an individualized compound is created for each person. I don't want to think about the sacrifices being made or my refusal to partake.

We’ve just come climbed the treacherous path up the side of the cliff and traversed the scarily deep crevasse, when Max decides to blindside me. The steep stone path lies before us, the smooth stone walls away on each side. Every sound echoes, yet the atmosphere is also hushed, cutting off the whipping wind from the sea.

Max stops walking and faces me, pressing in close. “When were you going to tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“That you refused treatment.”

My breath catches. I can’t see more than a glint of his eyes in the dimness. “I don’t know.” Guilt compresses my chest.

“Were you ever going to?”

“Of course!” I reach up with both hands, cupping his face. “I just didn’t know how. Part of me was hoping I’d never have to if they found another way. Who told you?”

“Eric let it slip in his innocent, bumbling way.” He grasps my wrist and pulls it away from his cheek, turning his head so he can plant a kiss on the tender underside. “Damn it, China . . .”

“I'm sorry.”

Max buries his head in my neck, his breath hot. “What for?”

I stroke his hair, scratching my nails lightly at his nape. “I love you, Max. I love my new family and the promise of surviving together.” Tears well up, and I blink in an effort to stave them. “I don't want . . . to leave you.”

Though I'm sandwiched between cool stone and Max's warmth, it feels as if I'm walking a tightrope with no safety net.

Max groans, wrapping his arms around my waist. He shifts his weight so his back rests against the opposite wall and pulls me with him. “We'll find a way because the alternative is unthinkable.” He nudges his nose alongside mine and kisses me, slow and deep, melting my insides.

I’ve missed this so much, missed him.

When our lips part, he rests our foreheads together and runs a finger across my neck where James’ collar used to lie. “No fucking way I’m letting you go again.” His voice is rough with emotion. “I’ll shake the heavens or go to hell and battle the devil himself if I have to.”

My throat aches. I know he means every word and worry what will happen to him if he can’t defy fate after all. He’s so hard on himself. My death would be a heavy blow.

Acid gnaws at the pit of my stomach. I’m afraid to die. I don’t know if I believe in an afterlife. Part of my fear of the dark has always been the thought that when we die, maybe there’s nothingness forever. Maybe we’ll be trapped inside bodies that no longer work, left to scream with no mouths.

Katie believed we return to spirit, that many come back to earth through reincarnation. I never bought into what our dad used to call her “new age claptrap.” For the first time, I long to believe I won’t spend eternity trapped in a decaying carcass.

Grace’s bark echoes from farther down the tunnel, startling me from the macabre thoughts. Max grabs my hand and leads me the rest of the way to the end. I squint as we emerge into the light. He fishes a set of keys from his pocket and unlocks the heavy metal door. Grace yips happily and races into the dimness, her nails scrabbling against the damp concrete.

Max locks the door behind us. I close my eyes and listen to the rhythmic hum of the power plant as feelings of safety and belonging swell inside me.

“Oh my God . . . I thought I’d never be here again. Thank you for rescuing me and bringing me home.”

“Home. I like the sound of that.” He puts an arm around my shoulders and pulls me close, wincing when my elbow jostles against his sore ribs. “Let’s go home, China.”

When we open the door to our quarters, Grace brushes past us with a joyful bark. Max seems nervous.

Ali’s slight figure appears at the end of the hall. She takes a few halting steps then breaks into a run, launching herself at Max. He catches her mid-flight and expels a grunt of pain but laughs and spins in circles once she grabs onto his neck and clamps her legs around his waist.

Grace races over, jumping on them and barking.

Happy tears blur my vision, and I can't stop smiling. It's so good to witness the love of siblings. My heart catches at the thought, turning the moment bittersweet. I'll never share a moment like that with Katie again, but she'll always be a huge part of me.

Tek hovers at the end of the hall and flips me a wave, obviously enjoying the moment.

Ali continues to screech. I see Max's face over her dark head, his expression a mixture of joy and discomfort. Mostly joy.

“Get off me, Ali-bear. Think I have a . . . collapsed lung!”

“Ali-bear?” I lift a brow.

Ali lets go abruptly, landing on her feet, and looks up at Max. “You haven't called me that since . . . since Mom died.” Her eyes glisten. A slight wheeze sounds with each breath.

I catch Tek's attention and mimic using an inhaler. He nods and disappears toward the bedrooms.

Max clears his throat, looking uncomfortable. “Yeah . . . well. Anyway, you were grinding my fucking ribs together. Got any pain meds in this joint?”

Ali grins. “Step into my office. I'll hook you up.” She winks, and it's clear she's keeping things light for Max's sake. Next, it's my turn for a bone-crushing hug. “Marie! Welcome home. I knew Connor would bring my new sister back safely!”

I hug her back, feeling an overwhelming sense of belonging. Max rolls his eyes and twirls a finger next to his temple, but I'm touched by Ali's acceptance. “Thanks! I'm honored to be part of this family.”

Up close, Ali's wheeze is more pronounced. Tek moves casually along the hall and holds out the inhaler.

The feminine version of sea-glass eyes flash with annoyance. “Why do I feel as if I'm being handled?” Ali accepts the inhaler with a sigh.

“Just looking out for you.” Tek rubs her shoulder while she takes a hit. He glances at me casually. “We could use more of that special brew of yours, medicine woman.”


I just hope it won't require another trip to that creepy town. I'm so ready to spend the next ten years right here.


My stomach still feels queasy, so we agree to meet in the kitchen in a few hours for a communal dinner. Tek leads Ali away, insisting she needs to rest. Grace follows them, tail wagging.

Max takes my hand and leads me directly to his room, closing and locking the door.

In the middle of the dresser, sits a lovely plant on a doily. The spiky flowers stand proudly in hues of the deepest pink. I run my index finger along a velvety petal. “So beautiful.”

“Nap with me?” Max’s voice breaks the spell, bringing our surroundings into sharper focus.

My guitar rests in the corner next to my rucksack, and the charcoal of Grace from my room is pinned above the bed. I wave a finger around. “Why are my things in your room?”

Max grabs my finger and uses it to draw me closer. “Our room.”

“I don’t have a say in that decision?” I arch a brow, hand on hip. A secret surge of pleasure flows through me.

Max offers a slow smile. “Of course you do.” He backs up and sits on the bed, trapping me between his knees. “But if you want to go back to your old room, you’ll have to lug the mattress back in there and use all your best self-defense moves on me.”

“Is that how it is?”

“That’s how it is.” Max scoots back, taking me with him. We face each other on our sides, and he grazes his knuckles across my cheek. “Any objections?”


Max rolls to his back and tucks my head beneath his chin. We fall asleep holding each other tightly, legs tangled, the beat of his heart thrumming in my ear.

When I awaken, we’re still in the same position, and Max is stroking my hair lazily. The parts of me pressed to him are warm and sweaty, but I’m reluctant to break the spell by moving.

He brings one of my hands to his lips to kiss it. “I’m glad you’re up. We almost missed dinner, and I’m really freakin’ hungry.”

As if on cue, my stomach growls loudly. “Guess I am, too.”

I move to sit up, but he stops me. “China.” He waits for our eyes to meet, looking deeply into mine with heated sincerity. “I love you. It took me a while to say the words out loud, but my heart’s been beating for you a lot longer.”

“Yeah?” My fingers curl over his. “How long?”

“Remember when we took that trip to town and you had that fever?”

I nod.

“For a few minutes there, I was afraid you were a goner.” Max kisses my temple and presses his face into my hair. “The thought of never seeing the spark in your eyes again or listening to your sassy mouth or watching the sway of your tight, little ass really bothered me.” He laughs a little after the last part, and I smack his chest.

“If I croaked, you’d miss my tight, little ass?”

“God yes, the way it twitches as you walk—especially when you’re pissed. There’s nothing sexier.” The glint of amusement fades, and his expression turns grim. “Seriously, though, the thought of spending the rest of whatever time I have left without you made me sick.”

“I think I fell for you that day by the lake.”

“Really? I acted like such a tool!”

“Sure did. Good thing I have a knack for seeing beneath the surface.”

A sharp rap sounds on the door. “Dinner’s in five, lovebirds!” Ali trills in a sing-song voice. “Don’t forget to put some clothes on.”

Max leans over to grab his boot and throws it at the door. “Enough already!”

We freshen up quickly then join Ali and Tek in the kitchen. Grace lays stretched out on her side, licking her chops.

I bend down to pet her. “Looks like you gorged yourself, girl.”

She lifts her head for a moment to lick my cheek but returns to her well-deserved nap. I head over to the sink to wash my hands before joining the others at the table, which is only set for four.

“Where’s Andrea?” I ask. “She didn’t leave . . .”

“No, no!” Ali waves a pale hand. “She can be a tad antisocial, needs her alone time, but pitches in where she can. I think she felt intimidated tonight.”

“Of Max?”

“No, you.”

I’m surprised. “Me?”

Ali nods. “Andrea’s embarrassed about the way she treated you that first day.”

“That was weeks ago!”

Tek rubs my shoulder. “Yes, and it sure is nice to have you guys back. I think Andrea’s worried you’re upset with her.”

“I’ll talk to her tomorrow.” A mouthwatering scent wafts up my nose, distracting me. “Do I smell steak?”

Ali nods, squirming in her chair like a kid. “Yes! We broke out some of the good stuff for this special occasion.”

Max groans, rubbing a hand over his belly. “It’s been a long time since I had grade A beef.”

“That’s not all.” Tek walks over to the fridge and pulls out a bottle of wine. He pops the cork and fills four glasses. Then he places plates with steak and baked potatoes in front of us.

When we’re all seated and done exclaiming over the food and wine, Ali raises her cup. “A toast. To love and family. May we triumph over every evil.”

The rest of us raise our glasses.

The kitchen is mostly silent as we eat. The food is superb, the best steak I can ever remember. Maybe I appreciate it so much more now that the world is in shambles.

Tek pours another round of wine, and Ali raises her glass again.

“Another toast, to the woman who finally conquered my brother’s bulletproof heart. I can’t wait to meet my future nieces and nephews!”

Max glares at her. “Ali.”

A sick feeling spreads through my chest, and the food I just consumed sits heavy. There’s nothing I want more than to make a life with Max, for the world to once again be a place I’d feel safe having children. Chances are, I’ll be long dead before any of that comes to pass.

“What, Connor?” Ali emphasizes his given name.

He shakes his head. “Just don’t.”

I lay a hand on his arm. “Max, it’s okay.” He stares back at me, his expression pained. I meet Ali’s steady gaze. “The virus keeps mutating, and the vaccine is losing effectiveness. The alliance has a new treatment that’s promising . . . but it’s not something I’d consider.”

“They’re using the blood of the immune.” Ali exchanges a look with Tek as understanding dawns. “That’s why they almost sucked Andrea dry. It’s what they’ll do to us if we’re caught.”

“Yeah, not something I can live with.”

Max cradles my jaw, guiding my face toward his. “You’re going to be fine. I’ll do whatever’s necessary.”

Ali nods sagely. “He’s right. I’ve already dreamed about your children. You guys are going to make some beautiful kids.”

“Ali!” Max protests.

“Oh, and it’s not you who’s going to save her life. It’s Grace.”


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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, May 19, 2015

Kimberly Gould Week 151: Leftovers

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Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice: Two

Title: Leftovers

Jason opened the door and stumbled into the dark house. The dark, silent house. He didn’t turn on any lights, feeling his way along the wall to the bedroom. He couldn’t face the light, not yet. After he had slept, perhaps.

He wasn’t given a choice. The light flicked on in the hallway and twelve-year-old Jessica looked down from the top of the stairs.

“You’re home!” she said, skidding down the carpeted flight and into his arms. “Daddy, I thought you’d be home before I went to bed. I’ve been so scared.”

“I’m sorry, pumpkin. I didn’t mean to scare you.” His voice sounded hollow, dead.

Jessica backed up to look at him and her bottom lip began to tremble. He could read the unspoken question in her eyes. He shook his head in the negative.

Jessica didn’t say another word, but fled, the sound of her sobs tearing what remained of his soul to shreds.

It had happened so quickly. They’d only had a day to consider the possibility that Marie might not come home, and now it was stark reality. What was he going to do? Could he raise Jessica alone? Would she be better off with one of her grandmothers? Leaning heavily on the railing, Jason made plans to ask his mother to move in, at least for the next month or two while they dealt with the immediate and planned for longer term.

At the landing he squared his shoulders and pushed those thoughts away. They were for the daylight, the morning, and only faced with the help of his family and friends. Now, he was alone, going to his empty bed. He’d buy a new one. He couldn’t sleep in this one without her.

His toe caught something and he looked down. Marie never left things out, but here were a pair of her shoes, bright red, the kind she would wear when they went out for dinner. The kind she might have had last night when…

Jason slid down to his knees and picked up the skinny heel, driving it into his chest as he hugged the shoes and wept, his sobs nearly as loud as Jessica’s.


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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


Monday, May 18, 2015

SJ Maylee Week 151: Taylor’s Journey

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SJ Maylee’s’ Choice: Both

Title: Taylor’s Journey

Taylor jogged along the path. Her weekly run had become a ritual. The same distance on the same path, week after week. She’d relied on the workout. It was the only thing in her life that wasn’t changing on her. Over the course of a few short weeks, her life had become something she no longer recognized.

The tornado that tore through her home a couple of weeks ago had also taken out the building where she worked and the man she’d met the week prior had disappeared the same night. She hadn’t known Jasper long, but something about him soothed her soul. The losses were immense but she was still breathing. Her luck was better than some. For all she knew, the tornado might have taken off with Jasper too. She squeezed her eyes shut as a sob ripped another slash across her heart.

She stopped and leaned against a large tree. The rugged bark gave her something to cling to as she took in large gulps of air. The sky darkened as her sobs grew. She couldn’t remember any stretch of the woods where the growth sheltered her from the sun. Her heart beat faster when the shadows grew around her.

A haze swirled in front of her and she lost her footing, sliding downward, but there were no hills in the forest.

She screamed and it echoed back to her.

A flurry of disorientation left her light headed. She went down hard, landing on her ass. Stoney pebbles bit into her palms. She kicked out, trying to stop her downward movement.

Finally, she stopped. Her feet had rammed against something. The mist cleared away revealing an expansive canyon and the man who had stopped her slide.


“I knew you would come.”


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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,


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Miranda Kate Week 150: The Future

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Miranda Kate’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: The Future

Daniels took a moment to appreciate all they had achieved since their arrival at the cabin last winter. He said down on a tree stump and took in a lung full of the sweet autumn air. The leaves were starting to turn and they looked pretty surrounding the new cabins. They’d had a productive summer. The three buildings stood strong ready for the next winter.

When they had arrived, Daniels had hoped to achieve one extra house by this time, but was amazed that they had managed two. The enthusiasm and dedication of everyone working together, especially the two young lads Bobby and Steve, was heart-warming.

Daniels had worried about being the leader. It wasn’t a mantle he really wanted, but it had been thrust upon him with this being his father’s land. Plus he was a doer and always had been. You could sit and talk your arse off about all the plans in the world, but until you go up and actually did something it didn’t mean shit. He liked ‘doing’, it helped him feel like he had a purpose, and it distracted him from the grief of the past and the fear of the future. But it seemed he wasn’t alone in that, as was clear by the productivity everyone had shown over the summer months, and it made his job a whole lot easier.

He scanned the solar panels on the roofs hoping they would hold throughout the winter. He had to admit to being impressed by his own son’s ability at wiring those puppies up. Seems his brief apprenticeship under the local sparks before the clearing had paid off. Although all the kids of his generation seemed to know a lot more about electrical gadgets, Steve and Bobby had known a trick or two, too. He’d enjoyed watching them figure it out together, just leaving the heavy work of physically installing them to him and the older guys.

Daniels sighed. But was it all for nothing? Little Sandy, Abby’s youngest, had been burning up a fever off and on for two weeks now, and none of them could be sure it wasn’t more than just a seasonal virus. And then Kyle, Janice’s eldest vomiting up over dinner last night, and taking to his bed, running hot and cold all night. Was it just the change in the weather, as Harris insisted, or was it something more?

They’d buried the burnt remains of the bodies they’d discovered in the workshed wearing facemasks and gloves. They’d made sure they were good and deep too, putting them in an area of scrub they had no plans on ever using for growing. But were they free of the risk of being infected still, or was this the beginning?

It was part of what they faced every time one of them fell sick, and soon the stash of medical supplies they had hoarded would run out.

But this evening Daniels didn’t want to think about that. He wanted to appreciate how far they had come and how they had moved from surviving in the city to thriving up in the mountains.


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You can read more of my writing on my blog - Finding Clarity - at or join me on Twitter @PurpleQueenNL


Thursday, May 14, 2015

Mark Ethridge Week 150: If It’s Just A Dream, Let Me Dream (Part 8)

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Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: One

Title: If It’s Just A Dream, Let Me Dream (Part 8)

The tree stump was the last marker of the village Blue’s family once lived in. My wife and I placed a white ribbon on that stump, as a reminder of how our people behaved. “So like our ancestors in the 1600s and 1700s. Murder anything in the way of your beliefs.”

She held my hand, kissed my cheek. “My love. You know why we brought you here, through all the centuries.”

I knew. I was from a time of war. A time before one church, with multiple religions fighting for power, multiple governments fighting each other, while corporations quietly took over everything. A day when money as the only thing that mattered was beginning.

Money won. And the few who could fight the church and its corporations were hopelessly outnumbered. They were not helpless. They scoured the history of our Earth, looking for the right people. They found us. I was one of many. Trained by the US Military, with a record on social media of the time, of speaking out against going with the flow. I’d always known the dangers of blindly following anything, or anyone.

But I’d also known how easy it was to fall into that trap.

Her and her people found me. They pulled me through time. A hundred centuries, or more. It didn’t matter. They showed me what we had become. “We’ve murdered hundreds of worlds, taken countless billions of lives. We need to save the galaxy from ourselves.”

Since then, we’d been on dozens of planets. Saved a dozen worlds. Watched as the corporate church of our people deemed worlds too corrupted by Satan for saving. Then released a synthetic plague on those worlds. Invisible machines, nanotechnology, turned into a planet-killing weapon. Those machines destroyed all life, starting with proteins, moving to microorganisms, bacteria, and continuing up the chain of life.

What the machines didn’t destroy died because the plague destroyed the chain of life. We’d seen too many worlds cleansed of sin by the church leaders, and their actions. The worst part was their declaration, “By the will of God.”

“We both know where this will end.” I shook my head as I stared at the stump, and the white ribbon on it. “They’ll unleash the plague.”

She nodded. “What we do here could change everything.”

“If this works, we’ll save Blue and her people.”

“That’s all that matters to you, isn’t it, my love?”

I nodded. “I fight for life.” I looked at the red sun hanging in the black sky, with the flickering stars visible in daylight. “For all life.”

“The Christians don’t matter. The religion doesn’t matter.” She smiled. “You are free from them.”

She knew I was. She knew all of us pulled through the centuries fought for life. Not for religion. Not for God. Not for our Human race. We fought for life.

I smiled. “It’s time, isn’t it?”

I felt the tension in her hand. “Yes. It is.”

“I’ll tell Blue and the others what’s going to happen next.”

We, the rebellion, had found a way to fight back. We’d figured out the plague of nanomachines the Church used on worlds. We’d studied those machines, how they worked, how they communicated with each other, how they destroyed life on worlds. And we’d made a vaccine. Our own plague of nanomachines. Machines that destroyed the plague. Machines that protected the chain of life.

“The beauty of nanotechnology,” I hugged my love. “Once unleashed, once practical, once developed, it becomes magic available to anyone.”

“Even a ragtag rebellion?”

“Even a ragtag rebellion, with no cash.” We smiled, and I kissed her. “Make a handful of machines, and watch as they make as many of themselves as needed.”

She kissed me. “It’s time to tell Blue what will happen now.”

The Church was in for one hell of a surprise when God spared a world they claimed he’d condemned. I had to wonder what the Church leaders would think of that, how they would react. “We’ll need to ramp up production of the suits.”

“And the weapons.”

Yes, we would. The Church would not take kindly to the failure of the plague. There would be a Holy Crusade.

There would be blood.

As there had always been through the history of my people.


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


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Denise Callaway Week 150: Small Journeys

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Denise Callaway’s Picture Choice: Two

Title: Small Journeys

Susan continued down the path, one foot hitting the gravel followed by the next in the slow padding of an easy jog. She needed escape and clear her head. Too much has been happening way too fast and now Marcus wants them to move in together. I’m twenty-two, she thought. I’m not ready for this. Her feet continued their easy gait.

The prompt from her smart phone startled her as it informed her of her distance and time. One and a half miles down. She was striving for five. She had a 10k coming up in a week and the cause was important to her. She had lost her dad recently due to lung cancer. This 10k was to help raise funds for research and to provide a cathartic release of some of her grief.

Grief, that was a journey on its own. The monster would jump out of trees and startle her, shaking her to her feet. Then, having once more cried her last tear, it would shrink back and hide once more, waiting to catch her unaware. Susan had traveled with grief once before. The loss of her grandmother had shaken her up at fifteen. Now she met the darkness once more, and it seemed to know her ways. Grief was much harder to shake now. Perhaps that was why it was so hard to make a move. Marcus treated her well, loved her dearly. He stood by her as she dealt with the loss of her dad. He patiently checked on her when he didn’t hear from her to make sure she was fine and had eaten. Why is the idea of moving in together so difficult? Because no one can replace dad. As that thought came to her, she paused in her run. She stood, bent, hands on knees, panting...the sting of tears came unbidden. She wasn’t ready for this love thrust upon her. Still, looking up she realized the paths had merged and her next small journey had begun.


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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:


Sunday, May 10, 2015

Laura James Week 149: The Collector (Finale)

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Laura James’s Picture Choice: One

Title: The Collector (Finale)

Hector stood at the door unable to breath, his mind working overtime. If he refused to let the police in they would keep coming back, if he let them in there was a chance they would spoil his fun. Without his parents interference he had spent the past few weeks expanding his collection and now most of the top floor contained cages of various sizes. Glancing round he checked the stairs gaining comfort from the fact there was nothing obvious to be seen.

Closing his eyes he quickly opened the door and rushed the police through to the living room. "I promise you my parents will back at some point, you can wait in here."

He watched as the detective sat in an armchair and smiled up at him, yet the smile didn't quite reach his eyes. Hector prayed silently that his latest acquisition was still unconscious, "So your parents are fine then?"

"I'm sorry what?" Hector brought his attention back to the policeman, cursing to himself.

"I asked about your parents." Again there was the smile that didn't quite reach the eyes.

"As I said, they're out. No idea when they'll be back."

"Really, your neighbour mentioned hadn't seen them for a while. He phoned us worried." The detective flipped through his notebook.

Hector couldn't concentrate, the detective's smile was putting him off and to make matters worse he had forgotten about the policewoman. He glanced around but she wasn't in the room which meant she had to be elsewhere in the house. With nothing to lose but everything to gain, a calmness spread over him. He moved to the back of the detective's chair, his mind empty, barely aware of what he was doing.

He picked up an old tie his father had discarded in the days he was alive and wrapped it around the detective's throat. He was no longer in the living room but walking a stone path to freedom, his collection complete he need only reach the top and he would finally be free. Step after step he climbed, gaining strength with every meter that passed beneath his feet.

Reality returned as the summit grew closer, bringing Hector back into the family home. Relaxing his arms he watched the detective slump forward out of the armchair. One down one to go. Picking up a fire poker he walked out of the room. The policewoman had probably found his collection and would be wondering what to do. Hector knew what to do. His mind focused he began the hunt.

"PC Long. Come out, come out wherever your are!" He sang as he walked. A noise from the stairs caught Hector's attention. "I hear you up there." With joy in his heart Hector bounced up the stairs two at a time, so focused on the act of catching his specimen he tripped on the final step. Stumbling forward he couldn't quite hold his balance and fell forward onto the carpet, dropping the poker in the process. Cursing his carelessness he reached out for the poker. As his hand touched the cool metal he was aware something hovering above him.

A sharp pain developed in his neck and the smell of burning flesh confirmed what he suspected. "Well played PC Long, well played." He croaked with his last breath.


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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, May 9, 2015

Nick Johns Week 149: Soul Music

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Nick John’s Picture Choice: One

Title: Soul Music

I was in a dungeon again.

Secretly, ignoring their priests, they called for me. They had no idea what they were dealing with.

The fear was a rat gnawing its way out of my stomach. My unwilling feet shuffled to the door.

I knew it for what it was.

I studied it through the hatch.

Seeing me the child snarled and flew at the door. The weathered oak shook as if struck by a battering ram, giving final confirmation to my suspicion. He fell to the floor, stunned and peaceful for a moment; then I saw the feral glint return to his eyes. Crawling away he began to croon under his breath; his body rocking from side to side. Fingernails ripped crimson channels in his forearms, drops staining the floor as sat, head on one side, regarding me with cold hatred.

Our eyes locked. He knew me.

I drew out my chosen weapon for this task and, taking a deep steadying breath, began to play.

At the sound of the first note, his rocking stopped abruptly. A laugh began inside him, forcing its way out through pale red lips in single sounds, like bubbles from hot mud.

I changed to a different melody. A slow, halting lament, mirroring the rhythm.

The laugh rose in pace and pitch, daring me to follow. I moved to a sailors’ jig, rising up the scale.

His mouth pursed then relaxed to emit a ragged giggle.

He stared, not blinking now, no movement in him, a wailing gargoyle. Faster he cackled; my jig became a frenzied tarantella; fingers flying across the stops.

He threw back his head and let out a throat scoring shriek. A single note, a demented torment to dogs and bats – and me.

With sweating hands I gripped the suddenly treacherous pipe, lest it squirm from my grasp and damn me. I gasped to wring the terminal note from its wooden guts and, a ringing noise rising in my ears and lights dancing before my eyes, found it.

It soared out from the pipe, thin as the last failing breath that propelled it, pure as a morning echo across a winter lake. It called with a magical summons not to be denied in this world or the next. A hook and line cast into the netherworld.

The note shook, a ghostly vibrato; and returned to me, its ethereal catch snagged, wriggling but helpless. It was dragged deep into the now cracked wooden flute and lay silent.

The child lay still, life betrayed only by an almost imperceptible movement of the chest, features now smooth once more in innocent rest. I leaned against the door, pale and sweating, legs shaking and called to them for my payment.

As footsteps approached in the passage outside, I snapped the tainted instrument between my shaking hands and ground the splintered shards underfoot. They came, but would not approach me or meet my eye. I thrust their grateful guilty gold deep into my pockets, brushed aside their nervous thanks and insincere offers of lodging and asked for directions to Hamlyn.


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Despite his Mother telling him not to, Nick continues to make things up.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

Michela Walters Week 149: Therapy

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Michela Walters’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Therapy

“What the hell is that?” Ellie barked, wandering over to the weird artsy-crafty pinup figurine sitting on the shop table.

Her husband of ten years, turned from the bike he was restoring to see what she was complaining about. Mike wiped the grease off his hands and picked it up. “Oh, don’t you like it? Sierra made it for me in your likeness.”

Ellie held out her hand, asking to see the figure more closely. Now that she knew her niece had made it, she felt obligated to examine it further. Sierra had come to live with them after Ellie’s sister died from cancer a few months ago. It was a huge transition to go from having no kids to an instant family with a surly and mourning teenager, but Ellie loved the girl like her own long before she’d taken custody. She was still grieving and the change of city and high school was wreaking havoc on the teenager’s life. They were all doing the best they could, but it was challenging and rewarding all at the same time.

Saddling up behind her, Mike nuzzled his wife’s ear, peering down at the statue Ellie cradled in her hands. “She was trying to imitate my tattoo. Think she did a pretty darn good job of it too,” he mumbled into her neck.

“Oh my gosh, it does look me now that you say that.” Ellie hadn’t even put the connection together between the tattoo her husband had asked her to pose for their fifth wedding anniversary and the trinket resting in her palms. She studied if a few more seconds before releasing a heavy sigh. “She’s really talented, isn’t she?” Turning to look into his eyes, she saw his emotions beginning to peek through his tough tattooed exterior. He loved Sierra just as much, if not more than Ellie did. They’d tried to have kids for years with no luck, and after a while they just gave up hope of ever having children. They had a second chance to try and help their niece through this and maybe together they would help heal each other.

As if sensing he was close to breaking, he nodded roughly and went back to working on the bike. “I think the art therapy classes are really doing wonders.”

Ellie couldn’t agree more and rubbed her hand over his muscular back. “It was a great suggestion, Hon. Baby steps, right?” She gave him one last quick squeeze and went into the house to let Sierra know how much she liked the figurine, hoping a compliment would be another inch towards normalcy to creep them all towards a happier future.


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Michela Walters is a wife, mother and book enthusiast. She is currently attempting her hand at writing her first romantic fiction novella. You can read her other stories on her blog:


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Sarah Aisling Week 149: A Measure of Grace (Part 30): Letters in the Sky

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 1

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 30): Letters in the Sky

I don’t press Max about what threats were written on the wall. We’ll have to go downstairs eventually, and he can’t stop me from seeing them.

Eric mutters a few more curses as his heavy footsteps sound on the stairs.

Max swings the bathroom door shut and drops to his knees beside the tub, dipping his newly bloodied fist into the water. “Fu-uck.”

“Burns, does it?” My words have sharp edges.

“China . . .” His perfect lips spread into a slow smirk, and he runs a damp finger along the edge of my jaw. “Are you pissed at me?”

I cross my arms. “Maybe.”

Max and I face off. To his credit, he tries to reign in the smirk, but he fails at curbing the glint of amusement in his eyes.

Eric’s loud voice comes from just outside the bathroom door. “Oh, shit! There was a freakin’ massacre in here!” He knocks on the bathroom door. “Yo, you guys okay? Anybody hurt?”

Max stares at me meaningfully. “Just Gibbs—Marie stabbed the bastard. Then I fought with him, and we tumbled down the stairs. Thought he broke his fucking neck, but he got up and walked away. He has life-threatening injuries and won’t last long without medical attention.”

A sequence of uniquely strung together expletives comes from the other side of the door, followed by a wall-shaking slam. “Are you both all right? Did he . . .? I mean . . .” Eric falters.

Max’s expression is thunderous. He opens his mouth and closes it again, eyes trained on me the entire time.

I try to keep my voice strong. “Gibbs tried to coerce me—said if I didn’t sleep with him, he’d kill Grace.”

“Son of a bitch!”

I caress the unbruised side of Max’s face. “Max busted some ribs when they fell down the stairs. Other than that, we’re fine.” I won’t waste time being angry at him for trying to protect me from the messages waiting below.

“Good. What’s the plan, now that it's all gone to hell?”

“Everything else be damned—I’m taking China home.” Max cups the back of my neck and leans in for a kiss.

Nothing has ever sounded better.

* * *

Max fetches my clean clothes and hovers outside the bathroom while I towel off and get dressed. Part of me is annoyed while another part finds it endearing. I brush my damp hair, coaxing the tangles into submission.

Eric bangs around downstairs, making preparations for our departure.

Now that the mist has cleared from the mirror, the bruising and swelling on the side of my face is a startling sight. I prod gently with the pads of my fingers, wincing at the sharpness of the pain. Tears threaten to fall as the memories of Gibbs looming over me, his surprise when I stabbed him, and the molten rage twisting his features before he punched me flash through my mind. Making a strangled sound, I brace my hands on the edge of the sink and close my eyes, fighting back a wave of nausea.

“China?” Max’s voice comes from close to the door, followed by a soft thump—maybe his forehead or hand. He sounds so concerned that I can’t find it in myself to be angry.

“I’ll be okay.”

“I—I’m sorry . . . that I wasn’t here sooner. I never should have made you stay with those genocidal bastards.”

“You didn’t make that decision alone, and it was the right one.” I lower my head, unable to meet my own gaze in the mirror. “I know things now—important stuff. Give me a moment alone, okay? I’ll join you guys in a few.”

“All right.” Max’s boots scrape along the floor, his gait hesitant. He pauses at the top of the stairs for a few seconds before huffing a sigh and descending them quickly.

I draw in a long, slow breath and let it out, avoiding my reflection as I swing the door open and step into the hall. The room where it all happened beckons to me, calling my name in a dry voice that rasps like the whisper of dead leaves. And though I should, I can’t pass by without going in and looking at the macabre scene.

Blood paints the bed, leaving a fuzzy outline of my torso in the center of the stark white sheets. The streaks that seeped into the floorboards are already darkening to a deep maroon, and I doubt anyone will ever sand the wood deep enough to remove the stain. The bloody, balled up towel Gibbs used to stanch the flow from his wound lies next to the dresser, and jagged pieces of the chair he blocked the door with litter the room. The curtain’s ripped, and a large crack spiders across the top of the old window.

The closet door stands open, and I notice my things were removed. Nothing of me remains here—except a piece of my soul that can never be returned.

The back of my throat aches. I wasn’t raped, thank God, but Gibbs violated me just the same. Logically, I comprehend that I'm not at fault, but feelings of guilt still swirl beneath the surface. Now I understand why many victims wonder if there was something they did to cause their assault. I’ve heard the rhetoric about assumption of guilt, largely from my own father, and never thought I’d find myself struggling against it so hard.

You did good, Ro. Didn’t even need your sissy to shank that piece of shit. Leave the guilt in this room. Close the door. Never look back.

Katie’s voice stirs me to action. I turn away from the horrid sight and shut the door behind me. As I make my way down the stairs, I steel myself for Gibbs’ parting threats, written in blood.

The caustic scent of bleach curls up my nose. A large bottle of Clorox rests on the bottom step. The wall has already been scrubbed, down to bare sheet rock in certain places. A pinkish haze is the only evidence left.

Grace trots over to greet me, sneezing a few times when the smell gets in her nose. I pat her head and lead her through the living room into the kitchen. Canned goods and bottled water cover the table, and Eric goes back and forth, filling a wagon outside. He nods at me but keeps working.

Grace wanders into the den. That’s where I find Max, looking out the window through the site of James’ rifle. He ruffles Grace’s fur, nods at me, and lifts the gun again. “This is a nice piece, expensive. Long range scope, lots of ammo. We’re taking it.”


“Don’t ask me what that fuck wrote on the wall right now. Be pissed at me if you need to—I can live with that.”


Max lowers the rifle and whips around. His eyes search mine. “What?”

“I trust you. And I can imagine the kind of shit he wrote. He’s a vile excuse for a human being.” I offer a sad smile. “Why is Eric taking supplies?”

Max rests the rifle against the wall and walks over, cupping the uninjured side of my face in his palm. He runs the other hand down my arm and tangles our fingers. “You are something else. I’m proud of you.” He presses a kiss to my forehead.

I grin. “Why—because you think I let you off the hook?”

“No.” His lips curve into a half-smile. “Because you’re giving me time. You understand I need to channel my energy into planning our getaway and getting us home safely.”

“The supplies?” I arch a brow.

“Gibbs is either on the run, or he’ll go back with a story. We don’t have time to clean the carnage upstairs, but we’re making it look like either Gibbs took you and ran or you gathered supplies and ran. Eric will plant evidence, leading them in the wrong direction.”

“Where is he taking all that stuff?”

“There’s a car behind the barn. We managed to get it running.”

“Wait, wait.” I wave my arms. “It’ll be dark soon! What if James shows up?”

Max grabs my hands and rests them against his chest. “Don’t worry about anything. Tek created a diversion to keep General Smith busy. We’ll be long gone by the time he realizes Gibbs fucked him over.”

“Aren’t we taking a huge risk driving a car around here?”

“We’re going to make it look like you took the car.” Max looks at me with sympathy. “In actuality, we have to hoof it several miles off the beaten path.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

He smooths my hair back and presses a kiss to my temple. “You don’t have to. I'll carry you.”

I laugh sharply. “With possible broken ribs?”

Max doesn't laugh. “Whatever it takes.”

And he's not joking. Two hours later, we’re traveling through dense woods under the scant light of the moon. My meager possessions are strapped to Grace's back. She doesn't seem to mind the special dog carrier bag; in fact, she appears to wear it with pride.

The world is an eerie wash of green through the night-vision goggles Eric snagged for us. Even so, it's tough going. My body aches, and I'm sweaty and exhausted. It feels as if every twig along our path has poked or scraped me, and I've already fallen twice.

Max stops short, and I crash into his back. “Ooph!”

He unslings the rifle from his back and crouches in front of me. “Get on.”


“At the rate we're going, we might make it home by next week. You're hurt and tired.”

“And you’re not? You can't carry me with those ribs!”

Max stands and turns, lifting his shirt. “Eric taped me up. It's a great short-term solution. Now, get on before I toss you over my shoulder.”

My gaze rakes his torso, dipping below the binding to take in his muscled abs and the smattering of downy hair leading beneath the waist of his cargo pants. I reach out and trail my fingers over his warm skin.

Max laughs. “Is this how women feel when they say ‛My eyes are up here'?”

“Maybe.” I suppress a smile. I'm no longer willing to argue about him carrying me. Sweat stings my eyes and soaks through my clothes, not to mention the damp strands of hair clinging limply to my forehead and cheeks. I don’t think I can physically keep going much longer.

This time, when Max crouches down, I climb on his back, wrapping my arms around his neck and legs around his waist. He sucks in a breath when my knee bumps his side but starts off through the woods at a fast clip, using the rifle to push low-hanging limbs aside. Grace walks next to us, looking to Max for cues often. She seems to understand this is serious business and never loses focus or races off to chase rabbits.

Max said we should maintain silence as much as possible. I wonder how much the request has to do with safety and how much it has to do with the difficulty of talking while carrying me and trying to breathe. Part of me feels guilty for allowing him to schlep me all the way home, but it's unlikely I'd make it on my own. My lids grow heavy, and the mostly-rhythmic sway of Max's body as we travel lulls me to sleep.

When I next open my eyes, I'm reclining against a tree with Grace curled at my side. Her saddlebag and my night-vision goggles lie on the ground next to us. Faint bluish light filters through the dense leaves above, highlighting the shadowy forms of nearby trees, bushes, and boulders. I pet Grace, and she lifts her head to lick my face, wagging her tail madly.

I don't see Max. He must be safe because I know well the ruckus Grace would make if there were any danger. I hug her close, feeling an overwhelming sense of gratefulness and affection. If Grace had gotten loose when Gibbs was attacking me, she probably would have torn him apart.

Grace whines and licks my ear, making me giggle. “You don't seem so fierce right now, do you?” I ruffle her fur.

Max emerges from between two trees with a dripping canteen in his hand.

“You're awake.” He crouches beside me, offering the canteen. “Take a drink.”

He tips the container to my lips, and I take a gulp of the delicious, cool water. Until this moment, I didn't realize how thirsty I was. I try to stop him from taking it away, but he shakes his head.

“Go easy. You've had a traumatic day and haven't eaten for hours. If you drink too much too fast, you'll get sick.”

I pull in a few deep breaths and rest my head against the tree trunk. He's right; even though the water tasted wonderful, my stomach curdles at the sudden intrusion. “Oh . . .”

He massages my shoulder. “Deep breaths. Give it a chance to settle.”


“When you're feeling better, I have some protein bars.”

Grace stretches with front paws low and her butt in the air, yawning widely. She stands, wagging her tail, and stares at Max expectantly.

He laughs. “You want your share, girl?” He digs in the saddlebag and pulls out a collapsible bowl, filling it.

Grace laps at the water happily, nudging her snout into Max’s leg when it runs dry. He pours a little more for her then lowers himself to the ground next to me with a grunt of pain.

“How are your ribs?”

“They kill.” Max rubs his jaw. “That fucker had a hell of a right hook, too. And that was with a knife wound! Jesus.”



“It must have been the adrenaline. How else could be live through all that and walk away?”

Max snorts. “He had help.”

“What do you mean?”

“Found another set of boot prints back at the house. Probably would have missed them if he hadn't stepped in the blood. Someone helped Gibbs escape.”

My scalp prickles. “Are you sure?” Even as I ask, I realize how pointless the question is. Max is thorough.

He nods grimly. “Different tread. This suggests possible dissent within the alliance, which could work for or against us.”

The sky seems to be growing lighter, the forest around us more visible.

“How close are we to home?”

“A few hours. I couldn’t keep up that pace and decided to stop and rest before I ran into a tree or fell into a ravine.”

Max dumps the rest of the water over his head, despite the chill in the air. He puts the canteen down and slicks his hair back. A few errant pieces fall over his forehead, a testament to how long his hair has grown since we met. I look him over, deciding I like the boyish look showcased by longer locks, though if I said so, he’d probably shave it all off.

He stills, fingers in mid-motion, and stares back at me. “What?”

“Nothing.” I turn to pet Grace, concealing a smile. “I can’t wait to get home.”

“We’ll leave soon.”

I stand and stretch, not surprised by the aching stiffness. My legs seem steady enough after a few minutes. My boob throbs in time with my pulse, and a dull pain has spread across the cheek Gibbs punched and slapped, but I’m otherwise okay after sleeping on Max’s back for most of the night.

“I can walk the rest of the way.”

Max rises, draping a muscular arm around my shoulders. “You sure? ‛Cause I’ll carry you as far as I have to.”

“I know you would.”

And the realization that the sentiment goes much further than giving me a piggyback ride home makes my heart beat faster.

There’s a narrow, gurgling stream nearby, and Max stops to refill the canteen before we go. He helps me cross the brook. Grace leaps from stone to stone, the saddlebag strapped around her body again.

I munch on a protein bar at Max’s insistence, and it does give me more energy for the trip ahead. Part of me half expects Gibbs to jump out and attack us; every rustling bush or snapping twig sets my pulse racing.

Eventually, filmy beams of sunlight shine through the overhanging leaves. For some reason, I feel safer in the light of day, and my anxiety eases slightly.

A faint buzzing in the distance grows louder, and I realize I’ve been hearing the sound for a while.

Max notices, too. “We need to seek higher ground and a break in the trees, but we don’t want to be spotted.” He changes direction, leading me up a hill. “Stay close.”

The rumbles of multiple engines drone in the sky.

“Airplanes?” I ask.

“Sounds like. Come on!”

Max starts to run, pulling me along by the hand. We reach the top of the summit and hunker behind a huge boulder surrounded with vine-infested vegetation. The sky is a brilliant blue, dotted with shreds of cottony clouds.

We don’t have long to wait. From the west, three fighter planes zoom through the sky. Two more follow behind them. The first three curve into spiraling loops at slightly different times. I wince, afraid they’re going to collide, but the pilots know what they’re doing. They even seem to be having fun. The two in the rear shoot past the three twisting planes and fall into a tandem dive, leveling out and rising together.

Max lifts the riflescope to his eye. “Well, I’ll be . . .”


“The fucking alliance has fighter jets, painted up all pretty.” He shakes his head and hands me the rifle.

It takes me a few seconds, but I locate a plane as it levels out. Sure enough, it’s beige with red accents. I can barely make out the word “Alliance” stenciled along the body before the jet shoots out of sight again.

The surprises aren’t over yet.

“Oh, my God . . .”

“What is it?”

I should let Max look through the scope, but I can’t stop staring. “Look to the left.”

“Holy shit! Is that . . .?”

“Uh huh.”

Slicing through the slowly dissipating exhaust trails hovering in the sky is Air Force One, flanked by another group of fighter planes.


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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