Thursday, April 21, 2016

Denise Callaway Week 196: When the Smoke Clears...

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Denise Callaway’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: When the Smoke Clears...

Lost in the crowds, rioting and cursing,
Could any kindness remain?
Is all that is good lost?
When the smoke clears,
Do we only see bloodstains?

Lost in angry rhetoric, shouts of hate,
Could love make a break?
Can it risk the cost?
When the smoke clears,
Do we only hear the empty ache?

Circling the lost and lonely, listless and forsaken,
Could forgiveness take light?
Can it spark a new flame?
When the smoke clears,
Do we only feel the cold winter’s bite?

Running into dead ends, lost in unseen nightmares,
Could salvation be reached?
Can it lift the damned?
When the smoke clears,
Do we only smell the stench of leech?

Curled up and forgotten, passed by unseen,
Could we lose our breath?
Will it continue to consume?
When the smoke clears,
Do we only know the bitter taste of death?


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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:


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Mark Ethridge Week 196: I See Angry People (Part 18)

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Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: Two

Title: I See Angry People (Part 18)

I always found it interesting to see people eat nothing but nuts, berries, and what they fondly referred to as weeds. As the five of us made our way eastward, into the foothills of the Appalachian mountains, the four women had their first experience of eating what was available. Of living on what the land provided.

They weren’t too happy about that.

We didn’t talk much, what was there to talk about? I couldn’t really understand the nightmare they’d lived in. And I was pretty certain they couldn’t remember how long, how many days, weeks, months, or even years, they’d been kept in that nightmare.

At first, they didn’t tell me their names.

The first day they joined me on my walk, I didn’t have anything to feed them. It’s not like I was expecting to feed anyone but myself. I shared what little water I had, shared what pine nuts and berries I had. Until they were gone.

I carried the weakest one most of the day. She was light, maybe 90 pounds. Too light for a full grown woman. There were scars on her. I didn’t ask where they came from. I carried her in silence.

After a couple of hours, we took a break, to give them a chance to rest, to catch their breath, and to let them care for the one I carried. While they rested, I hunted. I searched for anything we could eat. Any source of water.

I found nothing nearby.

We couldn’t stay where we were. That’s always the way it is when you’re walking in nowhere. You have to walk until you find a place you feel safe for the night. Trees were sparse, but you could tell they wouldn’t stay that way. Saplings, and small trees dotted the landscape. Another ten years, and they’re be a large forest that covered everything.

Bushes, and briars where everywhere. “I hope you all like whatever berries we find on the briars. ‘Cause that’s lunch.” That was the thing with the briar patches. They meant food. Not the best food. But when you have nothing, you’ll take what you can get. Wild blackberries and raspberries, chokeberries, and were everywhere.

It amazed me how the thorn laden runners of the briars always had edible berries. As long as I could find briar patches, I could find something to eat.

I let the four women eat all the berries they wanted, and I watched them help their weak friend.

It was four days before they said anything to me. Four days before the weakest one put her hand on my cheek, “Thank you.”

I made nothing of it. “They were evil men.”

I never touched them. Not once. It would have been wrong. They were wounded souls, I could see that.

As we walked, I scanned the countryside for trees. When I found them, I checked for nuts. Walnuts, chestnuts, hickory nuts. Hell, even acorns. Anything we could break open, and eat. I gathered what I could, and shared what I could.

When we came to a creek or river, we walked along it for a while. It gave them a chance to bathe. And yes, I had to wander off, and let them bathe in peace. They deserved privacy, after all. They thought about fish as a meal. So, I tried my hand at fishing. It took time, but we had a small fish dinner, and spent the night by the lake. Yes, I did make a fire, and I did cook the fish. It made them happy. And it let them rest for a few extra hours.

As we walked along the waterway on the fifth day, she declared she wanted to try to walk. I helped her to her feet, the other three gathered around her, and helped hold her up. We went slower that day. Took more breaks. Drank plenty of water.

That night, she spoke, “I’m holding you back.”

There was nothing I could say, so I shrugged. “You’re getting better.”

“You could leave us behind.”

“That wouldn’t be right.”

She thought for a while, and stared at the stars overhead. “I wondered if I’d ever see the stars again.” She was silent for a while. And she cried. I watched her tears, and felt that familiar ache I’d felt so many times. She tried to speak again. “You know what they did?”

“I know what that place was.” I nodded. “I know you weren’t free there.”

I sat on the ground, and looked at the stars. She sat too. I made started to move a bit further away from her, so she could feel safe, like I wasn’t a threat, but she stopped me. “We were objects to them. Things. Possessions.”

I could have told her to stop, that I knew what happened in that place. But I’d learned sometimes, you have to let a person say what they need to say.

“They did what they wanted.” She crossed her arms, pulled her knees toward her chin, made herself small. And her tears became an ocean.

I said nothing. What was there to say? Another man might have held her, let her cry on his shoulder. Maybe that would have been the right thing to do. Maybe it would have been the wrong thing to do. I let her cry. I listened to her, tried to hear the screams of anguish I knew her soul let loose.

With time, her tears slowly faded. She looked up, at me, with the most wounded eyes I’d ever seen. Eyes that relived all the nightmares she’d been through every time she slept. Every time she closed them. “Thank you.”

We sat in silence, and watched the stars for a time. “I’ll get you to Jessica’s town. You’ll be safe there.” I nodded, and tried not to look at her. “There are others there. They’ve been through what you’ve been through. They know.” I looked back to the stars, “They understand. And they can help.”

When she was ready to sleep, I watched her make her way to where her three friends were. Then, I found a plot of ground, and slept beneath the stars.

The sixth morning, everything changed. I woke to find an eagle standing next to me, staring at me. When I opened my eyes, it screamed. It was a friend of Jessica’s. The eagle had been searching for me.

“Yes. I’m Frank.” I nodded at the eagle. “Tell her. Tell her I’m alive.”

The eagle spread its wings, slammed them against the air, lifted from the ground, and was gone. But we all heard its cries as it flew. And I knew it was spreading the word. I’d been found.

The four women wondered what had happened. “That eagle was a friend of Jessica’s. Jessica’s asked them to look for me. To let her know if they find me.”

We continued east. As the day continued, one by one, the women approached me. They told me their names. Susan, Linda, Tasha, and Ellie. They each said thank you. I told them it would take a while, maybe another week. Maybe longer, until we reached Jessica’s place. But they’d be safe there.

Ellie was the weak one. She tried so hard to be strong. To walk on her own. Susan, Linda, and Tasha helped her as much as they could. But, when Ellie grew too tired to walk, the four of them decided the best way to keep going was to let me carry her.

It was a simple thing, a little thing, but I knew it was a big step, a big risk for them. I was, after all, a man. And it was men who’d done unspeakable things to them, who’d caused so much damage to their hearts, and minds, and souls.

For some reason, Ellie talked to me while I carried her. “My parents came here from Ireland, when I was a little girl.” She tried to smile. “I don’t remember much about the trip. We came in a plane, I remember that.” She seemed to enjoy riding piggyback, her arms around my neck, over my shoulders. Her head next to mine. “I remember seeing Ellis Island, and the Statue of Liberty. It was beautiful.” Her story paused for a while, like she was thinking, or maybe remembering. “Mom and Dad were full of hope. We were coming to America, the land of opportunity.”

She was quiet once more. But I felt the dampness on her cheek when it brushed mine as we walked. I felt the silent raggedness of her breath, as her tears fell. And I knew enough to keep walking, and let her cry all she wanted.

A lot of dreams had died when the world went insane.

When Ellie’s tears fell no more, I finally spoke. “I’m glad you’re still in this world.”

I thought a moment as we walked. “Can I ask you something?”

She nodded.

“Why haven’t you four left?”

She looked puzzled.

“You’re free to leave anytime.” I glanced at her. “You’re not possessions. You’re people. And after what you’ve been through, I have to wonder why you haven’t left.”

Tasha heard my question, “Because you aren’t like them.”

Susan was next, “You haven’t touched us. You’ve made sure we have something to eat. You’ve take care of us. And you didn’t have to.”

“You could have left us behind,” Linda continued. “You could have set a pace we couldn’t have kept up with, and left us behind.”

“Or, you could have slipped away during the night,” Tasha pointed out. “You could have abandoned us. Left us to fend for ourselves. But you didn’t. Instead, you made sure we were safe.”

I listened to their words, “But. I’m a man.” I paused, “I’m one of them. The same gender that did all those things to you.”

Ellie’s cheek brushed mine again as we walked, “But, you’re not like them.”

Susan summed it up. “You’re different.” She almost smiled, “You’re not evil.”

Ellie said it best, “You won’t hurt us. We can feel that. We know that.”

We walked another while. I’m not good at time. There are no watches anymore. Just the sun, and sunrise, and sunset. When I played out, we found a place to settle for the night.

It was the first night the four of them asked me to stay nearby. Where they could see me. Susan spoke the words, “We’d feel safer if we know where you are. If we can see you.”

That sixth night, I stayed on the far side of the same clearing they were in, as far as I could get from them without being beyond their sight. They slept huddled together. Sisters in their plight. Sisters who understood each other. Who understood their wounds. Who knew the hurt each of them felt.

I slept lightly that night, ready to wake at the slightest sound. And as I slept I wondered how long it would take to reach Jessica’s town.


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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, April 19, 2016

Kimberly Gould Week 196: Streets of London

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Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice: Both

Title: Streets of London

Jessica continued to turn in circles, finding something new to see in every spin. There was the parliament, there a cathedral, there the palace, Waterloo bridge, the Eye.

Ah, the Eye. She had spent the entire time pressed against the glass, looking at every building on the skyline in turn until the others in the carriage with her were ready to strangle her.

“Oy, watch where you’re going.”

“Oh my God, I’m so sorry. Everything is even prettier in the dark with all the lamps out.”

“American?” the young man asked, sizing her up.


“Ah, much better. You like London at night?”

“Oh, yes. It’s beautiful, magical.”

“Lookin’ for magic? I know just the pub. Come with me.”

The stranger slipped his hand through Jessica’s. She knew she should be catching up with her friends. They’d left her behind, cutting in a straight line while she took in everything. The flat they’d rented for the week wasn’t far from Waterloo station.

In her free hand, she unlocked her phone and sent them a text: Hooked up with a local. See you later!

“All set?” he asked.

She tucked the phone away again. “Yep. Now what kind of magic do you have for me?” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and gave him a look that should encourage him down whatever path he had planned.

“Blood magic.”

Jessica shrieked, but one more cry went unnoticed amid buses, taxis and street vendors.


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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, April 18, 2016

Laura James Week 196: Waiting

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Laura James’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: Waiting


He sat on the edge of the bed, hands resting on his knees staring straight ahead. Waiting had never been his strong point but he wouldn't give in, he could outlast them.


The silence was deafening, memories of the last few days fought for attention in his mind, his fingers started to twitch.


A dull ache at the base of his spin forced him to stand. He made his way to the window giving no indication to those he knew were watching that he was in any discomfort and opened the curtain. The sun was bright and he felt the heat on his face.


Closing his eyes he allowed the warmth to spread through his body and focused on the pain in his back. It was spreading and it took all his strength not to cry out. Raising his hands he gripped the window sill hoping that they wouldn't see past his body. His fingers cracked and he crushed the sill leaving indentations in the wood.


Dark clouds moved over the sky cutting off the heat the sun was providing.


Opening his eyes he saw the world outside shrouded in false darkness, his resolve wavered. Would it really be so bad if he gave in? He wasn't ashamed of what he was, what he had done.


He stepped back from the window, bring half the sill with him. He looked at the wood in his hands and with reluctance left it drop to the floor. This he couldn't hide.


Standing in the centre of the room he watched the door. They would come for him soon, he had left them no choice. But he was ready, the time to hide had passed. If they wanted his true self for better or worse they would get it. He relaxed and gave in to the change.


His senses were heightened in his true form and he sensed that they were behind the door long before the handle turned. Smiling he crouched, his nails gripped the carpet ready to pounce as the door opened "Come on in boys, I'm ready for you!"


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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


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Sarah Aisling Week 195: A Measure of Grace (Part 49): Down the Rabbit Hole

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Sarah Aisling’s Picture Choice: 2

Title: A Measure of Grace (Part 49): Down the Rabbit Hole

The first few days underground go smoothly. We convene in the kitchen for meals and discuss the situation, contingency plans, and probabilities. The consensus is that the Alliance will move on when Gibbs doesn’t turn up; whether this is because we truly believe it or simply because we wish it were so is unclear. We have plenty of food and resources, which would allow us to remain below ground for an extended period of time, but Eric’s untimely capture is a complication nobody accounted for and dulls our collective moods.

The laptop is our constant companion, accompanying us at meals, to the gym (Max insists keeping in shape is imperative), and to the living room where we play cards or watch movies. Primary responsibility of the laptop is assigned in shifts: me and Max, Ali and Andrea, and Tek on his own. Sometimes Max joins in on Tek’s shift. Max has a hard time looking Andrea in the eye, his expression often clouded with guilt.

When I'm alone with Max in our room, the lovemaking is intense, the sensations heightened by our predicament. Max’s hands are always gentle, guiding me over or under him. The only time the guilt vacates his sea-glass eyes is when he’s inside me, confessing his love and devotion. During those moments, a deep and abiding tenderness softens his tone and expression.

Grace becomes restless after a few days, pacing and looking reproachful. We take turns bouncing a tennis ball down the corridor for her to fetch, but she quickly tires of the game and flops down with a soft whine. A few hours later, she’s happy to play again though the duration grows shorter each time.

Alliance soldiers come and go in shifts, but Wesley doesn’t return. When the men do speak, they do so in low tones, the words often lost to the hum of the power plant.

By day five, claustrophobia sets in. Andrea stops eating and hides in her room unless it’s time for her watch. Max becomes downright ornery and sarcastic, reminding me of the tightly strung man who knocked me on my ass as an introduction and deserted me without explanation. By day eight, he’s spending more time in the gym, taking extra shifts with Tek, and avoiding the hurt expression on my face. When I confront him, he tells me I’m being ridiculous and over-sensitive, suggesting I “get over it” before stalking away.

Tears sting my eyes, and I throw my pillow at his retreating back, supremely dissatisfied when the pillow simply slumps to the floor, looking flat and defeated, much like I feel. I swipe the heels of both hands over my eyes, wiping away the moisture gathered there, and catch my reflection in the mirror. “Oh, hell no.”

I know where to find Max. Whenever the world becomes too much, he throws himself into physical activity, burning off excess energy and guilt.

The clank of barbells greets me in the hall outside the gym. I peek around the door to make sure Max is alone before I enter, slamming the door shut behind me. Max doesn’t miss a beat, his powerful arms steadily lifting and lowering the weights. Sweat glistens over his bulging biceps, and he grunts softly each time he presses up.

Instead of confronting him, I don a pair of boxing gloves and take my frustrations out on the punching bag hanging in the corner. I imagine every sarcastic remark Max has made and picture them written in black marker across Wesley’s forehead—then I pummel his face. Sweat drips into my eyes, causing me to blink against the sting, and when I train my gaze on the red leather again, Gibbs’ leering face replaces his uncle’s. I punch harder, crying out each time my fist connects.

“Bring your elbows in tighter.” Max’s voice beside my ear startles me, and I round on him, fists raised in a defensive posture. He holds his hands up and takes a step back, amusement sparking in his eyes. “Down, girl.”

This incites my anger, and I advance on him, peppering his torso with sharp jabs. “Do you think . . . this is . . . funny . . . you ornery . . . bastard?”

“Whoa!” Max grabs my wrists.

I struggle, trying to break free. “You’ve been acting like the secretive jerk I met in town! Pulling away, avoiding me.” My voice wavers, and the weakness provokes my anger all over again. “It hurts, Max, and I don’t deserve it!”

Max lets go of my wrists in favor of my upper arms and backs me into the wall, holding me there. He huffs and stares at the ceiling. “This is why I didn't want to do this. Caring about people creates liabilities and difficult choices.”

“You see me as—as a liability?” My words are saturated with hurt.

When he gazes down at me, a storm is brewing. “Yes . . . no—I just . . .” He makes a frustrated growling sound and cups the side of my neck with one hand, his thumb skimming gently along my jaw. “I love you. I can't change that, nor would I ever want to, but the more people I care about, the tougher the choices. If you weren't waiting at the bottom of that conduit for me, I would've taken out those soldiers to rescue Eric.”

“What about Ali?”

“Tek would take care of her if something happened to me, but who the hell is going to watch out for you?” Max leans his forehead against mine. “Damn it, China. I can't stand the thought of anyone hurting you.”

You're hurting me. The past few days . . . you've looked right through me. You're sarcastic and gruff, like a different person.”

“I'm sorry.” His lips hover a hair's breadth from mine. “Forgive me.” The whispered plea turns into a tentative kiss, seeking absolution.

Part of me wants to reject him the way he’s rejected me, but I understand how hard it was for him to let me in. The tension eases from my body, and I melt against him, returning and deepening the kiss. He releases my arm and slips his hand behind my shoulder, pulling me closer. I wrap my arms around his waist, my boxing-glove-clad hands dangling uselessly behind him.

Max steps away and grins, giving the red leather coverings a playful squeeze. “Still want to take a shot at me?”

I narrow my eyes. “Maybe.”

Max laughs. “Let’s get these off.” He tugs at the gloves and tosses them aside. His fingers ghost over my hips, catching the hem of my shirt, dragging it up. “I’d never get these sleeves over those.”

Goosebumps skate across my skin, and not just because of the change in temperature.

Max’s shirt joins mine on the floor. We leave a trail of clothing from the punching bag to our favorite weight bench.

The make up sex is amazing.


Three days later, an ill-tempered Wesley shows up at the plant during our shift. “Everybody out! Return to the compound. This assignment is over.” He kicks something into the wall with a loud clatter.

An unfortunate soldier has the gumption to ask if Gibbs has been located and is castigated by some brief but well-placed sharpness from the vice president.

After the soldiers clear out, Wesley paces around Gibbs’ fake base camp, muttering to himself. He finally makes his way over to one of the cameras, his blue eyes arctic. “I’m disappointed, Kyle. We spoke at length about your obsessions, your inability to remain focused on the big picture. I took you under my wing, allowed you to stunt the careers of many good men in your thirst for power. Now you’re fucking with me, causing us to waste vital manpower in the quest to bring you in. The free ride is over.” A slow, shark-like grin splits Wesley's face, and his tone becomes taunting. “I've been reading your journal, Kyle. I know the truth, and you need to be punished. Let the games begin, my boy. When the shit hits the fan, you know where to find me. Go big or go home.”

With those parting words uttered, Wesley squares his shoulders and leaves the plant, taking the remaining soldiers guarding the door with him.

Max doesn't speak. He rests both elbows on the kitchen table and watches the feeds with narrowed eyes for quite a while before glancing at his watch with a muttered oath. “It's almost time to change shifts anyway. Let's bring Tek in on this.”

“Do you think Wesley really left or is he hoping we'll believe he's gone and slip up?”

“Not sure. I want to see what Tek thinks.”

Tek thinks we need to be extremely cautious and wait a few days before venturing above ground. Everyone is on edge due to the extended seclusion, but we grudgingly agree with Tek's plan. We’ve made it this long—what’s a few more days?

On day two, Ali runs down the hall, banging on doors. “Heads up!”

Adrenaline surges through my system, and I'm instantly awake and pulling shoes on before my brain boots up. Max reacts just as quickly. Grace yawns, stretches, and does a full-body shimmy before heading to the door with an expectant look.

When we arrive in the kitchen, a bleary-eyed Tek is going through the feed recordings. Ali massages his shoulders, flashing a hopeful smile when she sees us.

Andrea moves about the room like a caged animal. “Well? Anything?”

Tek glances at her. “Patience.” He returns to watching the feeds closely, the rest of us hovering behind him in silence. “There!” Tek points at the screen.

Max leans closer. “Can you blow it up?”

“I think so.” Tek expands the feed full screen.

A lone soldier with a hood obscuring his face enters the plant, bypassing the fake base camp in favor of the blown keypad. He kicks debris out of the way and slips something thin under the door. When he turns, the hood slips.

My heart races as I recognize the face. “That's James!”

James mutters something on his way out. We have to rewind the recording three times before we catch the words. “Message delivered.”

Max insists on waiting until the next morning to retrieve the message, intent on taking a chance by using the elevator to avoid slithering through the conduits again. I demand to go with him, and after a lot of bickering, he finally gives in.

None of us is willing to attempt sleep. We don't talk much, and nobody suggests playing cards. Every eye in the room is occupied with the feeds, searching for any sign of movement.

There is none.

At the agreed upon time, Max shoves a pistol under the waistband of his pants. He straps a knife to his ankle, and slips another into his pocket. “Arm yourself.” He presses a gun into my hand and confirms that I have my knife. “We probably won't encounter anyone, but we're sure as fuck going to be ready for them.”

Tek checks the feeds a final time before we step into the elevator. Max has an earpiece attached to the walkie-talkie so the others can communicate with us if necessary. “Ready?”

My insides are quaking, but I nod. Max takes my hand and leads me into the elevator. We ascend in silence, our fingers tightly linked.

The doors part smoothly. Max drops low and peeks out, looking right and left. “Come on. Be ready for anything.”

There's no ambush waiting for us, but rather an unmarked, sealed envelope that James must have slipped beneath the door. Max picks it up carefully and inspects it, both by feel and by holding it in front of his flashlight. “Looks like a one page note.” He gives me the flashlight and then slits the envelope, tugging out an unlined piece of paper. “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.”

We bend our heads together and read the note.

Dearest Marie,

If the envelope was sealed and you're reading this, I'm probably still alive. I took a great chance by trusting Smith to deliver this missive, but there was no one else I could trust.

I've been successful! I trust you know of what I speak and the ramifications of such a discovery. Your mother has benefitted greatly, and I hope that in time you will, too. The rest of what I have to say must be said in person. You'll figure out where, and I'm certain your companion will take the necessary steps to ensure your safety. I will wait for three days—all the time I can spare without casting suspicion.

I pray for your safety and hope to speak with you soon.



I grab the paper and read it three times. “The cure—Grace's blood was the key to the cure!” I tap the note with a finger. “He wants to meet at the house where he took care of me.” My heart skips a few beats and takes off running. A sense of elation and disbelief swirl inside, leaving me lightheaded.

Max isn't as enthusiastic. “This could be an elaborate trap. Also, those tubes of Grace's blood can only go so far. What happens when the news gets around, and they run out of this new miracle before everyone is cured?”

“I don't know.”

As we return to the others and make plans to meet Garth, I remain optimistic in spite of the potential obstacles.


“Stay down. We wait it out.” Max shoots me an irritated look for the umpteenth time.

I wriggle around, surreptitiously rubbing at my numb posterior. “It's been hours! You've circled the town, watched the house, skulked through the woods . . .”

Max pans the area with his binoculars. The night vision device rests on top of his backpack, waiting for the dark. “We wait.”

Evening descends slowly. The sun dips below the horizon, allowing the biting chill in the air to deepen. A bluish wash paints the world, highlighting the shadows. My toes prickle with pins and needles, exacerbated by the cold.

Max switches from binoculars to night vision glasses and leaves me sitting on a stump behind a screen of bushes while he makes another revolution of the area. He seems satisfied once he returns. “Okay, time to meet Garth. Be careful. If you sense anything unusual, get out of there.” Max presses a walkie-talkie into my hand. “Call if anything goes wrong, and I'll come running.”

I step in close and grab the front of Max's jacket, going on tiptoe, and kiss him fiercely. His rigid posture finally softens, and he slips his fingers into my hair, tilting my head to deepen the kiss.

When we part, he sighs deeply and caresses my cheek. “I love you, China. Now go—before I change my mind.”

The walk to Garth's house is eerie. It's been a while since I traveled the streets of this deserted town. The chorus of crickets accompanies me. As I enter the front yard, I have to suppress a shriek when an animal rustles in the upper branches of a tree, sending bits of bare twig and dead leaves falling. Out of habit, I round the side of the house and approach the back door, which is traditionally kept unlocked. The curtains and blinds are tightly drawn, offering no sign of occupancy. I hesitate a moment before rapping lightly.

Garth opens the door a crack and peeks out. “Marie, thank God!” He pulls me inside, shuts and locks the door, and surprises the hell out of me with an uncharacteristic, smothering hug.

When he lets go, I stand in the entryway awkwardly. “What was that?”


“You've never been one to dole out the affection.”

Garth laughs, and his relief is apparent in the exhalation. He takes me by the arm and leads me into the kitchen, which is bathed in candlelight. “Tea? Something to eat?”

“No, thanks.”

He gestures to the table. “Have a seat.”

I sit where I have a clear view of the back door. “You found the cure?”

Garth tilts his head, looking me over with a funny smile. “Max is rubbing off on you.”

“I take that as a compliment.”

“Oh, it is. It definitely is.” He takes the seat across from me and picks up a steaming mug, sipping carefully. New lines seem to have creased his haggard face. His eyes are bloodshot, and they’re surrounded by dark, baggy circles, but hope resides in them as well.

The refrigerator in the corner kicks on; my eyes flick in that direction and return to Garth. “How's Nina?”

“Your mother is doing well. She wasn't, but she is now.”

“You tested the cure on her?” My tone holds accusation.

Garth shrugs, watching me carefully. “Nina relapsed. She was dying. You know I'd never willingly do anything to harm her.”

I consider this a moment, knowing Garth speaks the truth. “Are there others . . . relapsing?”

“Yes.” Garth rubs a hand over his face and looks down at the table. “We lost two so far. They didn't respond to re-treatment. Several have been re-treated successfully, but I question how long it will last. And how long . . .” The words trail off, but I can follow the path for myself.

“Until I get sick again.”


“How sure are you this time?”

My question brings a smile that reaches his dark eyes. “As sure as I can be. Canine DNA was the missing piece.”

“Who else knows that?”

“No one. I've been careful.” Garth glances toward the refrigerator. “I brought a dose with me, specially mixed for you. I'd feel better conducting more tests before you try it, but the choice is yours. What I can't do is allow you to take it with you.”

“Why not?”

“If you were discovered with a dose, the Alliance would be tipped off. They might arrest me or, at the very least, put me under close surveillance. I know you can't easily come to me, so I'll leave it here.” Garth opens the refrigerator and shows me a syringe filled with reddish fluid. He instructs me on its use and potential side effects. “If at any time you become symptomatic, get here as soon as possible and give yourself the shot. If you wait until you're delirious with fever, it might be too late.”

We return to the table, and I think this over for a moment. “I'll wait.”

“A wise decision. My research will continue though it's much slower going when I lie to my staff.” Garth smiles wanly.

“Have you heard anything about Eric? The Alliance caught him at the power plant and took him in.”

Garth seems genuinely surprised. “They did?”

“Wesley was looking for Gibbs. Handpicked a trusted team because he's a snake, just like his nephew.”

“I'm afraid I haven't seen Eric. I wondered why he hasn't contacted me. That's the reason I took a chance and used James to deliver my message.”

“Did you tell James I'm staying at the plant?”

“Of course not! I begged him to deliver an envelope. Told him I didn't know if the message would be received, but if it were, it could help save lives. He started to question me and then changed his mind, said he'd rather not know. The envelope was sealed when you found it?”

“Yes, it was. I should go.” I rise from the table and pace toward the back door.

Garth joins me, undoing the bolt. “I trust Max is waiting to escort you home?”


“Give him my best. Thank him for taking such good care of you.”

“I will. And tell Nina . . . tell her I'm glad she's feeling better.” Garth gives me a look that causes guilt to gnaw at my insides, but I thrust it away. “Thank you for everything, Garth. Be safe.”

The shock of frigid air is a balm to my flaming cheeks. It angers me that I feel even a smidgen of remorse about my mother. She doesn't deserve my forgiveness.

A brisk breeze kicks up, swirling dead leaves and debris around the yard. Nearby wind chimes clang, reminding me of the ones Mamie had in our backyard and the way they would rattle urgently before a storm. I shield my eyes and wait for the wind to die down, the chimes reduced to a pleasant tinkling. I blink, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness before walking around the side of the house.

The wind gusts again. I stop and turn so it buffets my back.

A sudden bump from behind sends me stumbling forward. I land hard on my knees, wondering what I stumbled into. The walkie-talkie flies out of my pocket. “Shit!” I feel around in the high grass, searching for the walkie-talkie, stopping when I encounter the toe of a boot instead.

Before I can raise my head, my world goes dark. Fabric whispers against my skin, blocking the wind. A hood? I try to scream and something warm and dry is crammed so far into my mouth I start gagging.

Panic strikes.

I can't breathe.

“Shh . . .” I'm hauled to my feet, my arms wrenched behind me and secured. “Shh . . .”

A sharp pinch sears the skin of my arm, and something slightly cold is injected. I struggle harder, pulling free from my assailant, and run in the direction I think will bring me to the front yard and into Max's view—a difficult proposition with a hood and gag.

My legs go rubbery, and I trip over something, falling to the ground. I twist my body as I go down since I can't use my hands for protection. A feeling of numb heaviness spreads through my body. I fight to remain conscious. A spiraling free-fall sensation sends me careening into the abyss, like Alice down the rabbit hole . . .

The first thing I notice is the pounding behind my temples, followed by stiffness in my limbs. There is no gag or hood—my mouth is dry but clear, and a slight breeze tickles my face. I can freely move my arms and legs though they do feel tingly and sore.

Was it a dream? Did I trip over something and knock myself out?

I lie still for a time, straining to hear any sound however small, but the silence is total. I shift, and a mattress creaks beneath me. Not home, not the power plant, but maybe Garth brought me inside his house. Thought processes are sluggish, but the idea finally dawns to open my eyes and see where I am.

Natural light pierces my vision when I lift my lids, and instinct makes me scrunch them to slits. Daytime. That means many hours have passed, possibly days. The bright light comes from an open window across the vast room, a room hewn of stone.

I turn my head, wincing at the dull throb of pain. I’m alone, something I sensed but needed to confirm. Pushing up slowly to a seated position, I pan the room. The stone floors are covered by thick green area rugs. Other than the bed, there’s a roll-top desk, a couch, and two chairs. Heavy drapes the same hue as the carpet ripple in the breeze coming in the open window. The walls are free of decoration.

I swing my legs over the side of the bed and stand, testing my weight. When I feel steady enough, I make my way to the window, feeling like a newborn foal trying to find my footing. I lean my palms on the stone ledge and gaze out the window.

The view is spectacular. A blue-gray sky with misty clouds rides above hills and valleys carpeted with brilliant green grass and adorned by hundreds of trees in various states of undress.

Looking down causes a dizzying sensation that makes my stomach roll. The view is so breathtaking because I’m high above the ground. Rolling green lawn spreads out, punctuated by stone walls, some solid, some partially collapsed. Spying movement, I focus on the outermost left corner. A soldier crouches behind the jagged wall, gun at the ready. There’s another in the right corner. One halfway down the lawn behind a pile of rubble. The longer I search, the more soldiers I see.

This is a fortress, guarded by the Alliance.


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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

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Mark Ethridge Week 195: I See Angry People (Part 17)

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Mark Ethridge’s Picture Choice: One

Title: I See Angry People (Part 17)

The main road out of that town lead into a foggy afternoon. The sun would set soon, and I would be invisible once more. I walked through the night, until I found trees, in the form of a forest. Where there were trees, there was wood. And I could make more arrows, which I needed.

I slept in that forest, for a few hours. My dreams were filled with Billy, the protected, innocent boy, who’d died at the hands of violent, cruel men. I woke in silence, fire in my blood. It was time to start my plan.

I spent the day searching for the right kind of wood, the right weight, the right balance, to the tree limbs and branches. I gathered twenty, and spent the afternoon honing tips onto them, attaching carefully cut, thin strips of wood, like feathers, to them, so they would fly straight.

I’d had a lot of practice over the last few years. I was very good at making wooden arrows, at getting the tips sharp enough, getting the balance of weight right, getting the wooden fins that guided them in flight positioned properly, cut to the right length, width, and thickness.

They weren’t as good as store bought arrows, with metal tips, and synthetic, plastic fins to guide them in flight. But they were good enough for what I used them for.

An old shirt made the perfect sling shot, another weapon I was well practiced with. One whose ammunition supply was nearly endless. I gathered a bag of rocks, all with sharp, jagged edges, most between one and two inches in size. If I needed to use them, the sharp edges would cause more damage than flat sides, or curved surfaces.

Normally, I’d have set fires around the area, but I’d been on such a long walk, I’d run out of old butane lighters. And no one had made matches in years, those were long gone. So, I had no way to set fires. I’d have to come up with other plans.

I spent three days in the forest, planning. Gathering the things I needed. Drawing plans on the dirt, making models of rocks and pieces of rotten trees. Three days of laying out how to attack the unknown that was that house, and that town.

On the fourth day I headed back to the place. I waited until after midnight to enter the town. In the darkness, I moved from one home to another, one store to another. Over the next five nights, I studied the layout of the town. I studied where the people in that town set up watch points. Where they patrolled the streets.

I watched them drag two women into that house. Those women screamed, they fought, and they got beaten when they did. The men made their comments, awful as they were, about what they were going to do with those women.

I wanted to let my arrows fly. Strike at those men. Go down in a blaze of glory, taking as many of them as I could with me. But that was suicide, and would not accomplish anything. The women wouldn’t be freed. And I wouldn’t be able to bring an end to the evil things happening in that town.

I stayed hidden, out of sight, invisible. No one knew I was there.

A cache of arrows here. A cache of rocks there. Trees and fences used as blinds, hiding me from sight. Houses set up so I could run through them, front to back. Piles of fabric, dried leaves and grass, anything that would burn good.

The five days turned into six, then seven.

Then, I was ready. I’d knew where the men who walked the streets were, and when they were there. I knew where the guards of the house were, which windows they peered from. I knew when they changed who had guard duty.

As I said, starting the fires was the big problem. One I solved using a wooden torch I could carry from place to place. All I had to do was light it. Something I’d had years of practice doing using a fire plow. I’d made one in the forest, and it was simple to use it to light my torch.

Which I did, on the eighth night in town, in the dead of night, when I knew most of the men were sleeping. With my torch, I moved from one house to another, where I’d set up my fire starting piles, and I started fires, one at a time, making certain they all caught, and burned.

It wasn’t long at all before ten houses had fires in them. Then twenty. By that time, the first fires I’d set were raging, lighting up the night. I waited, then, for the men to start investigating what was happening.

That’s when I moved between houses, using the paths I’d set up, moving through houses, over fences, through brush. I started with one house, when a man came to see what was happening there, I shot him with an arrow, then moved to the next house, where I fired another arrow, and moved again. It took them three houses to figure out what was happening. By then, most of the fires were running wild.

That’s when I moved to the second set of houses I’d set up, and started lighting fires in them.

Fires turned the night an ugly orange, with ghostly shadows everywhere. Smoke filled the air, and the fires began to spread from house to house.

I use my slingshot to fire two rocks into the upstairs window of the house the men kept the women in. The one they’d murdered Billy in. When a face appeared in that window, it received a sharp rock from my slingshot.

And the man fell.

And I moved to another location, and attacked another window in that house. Then I moved again. And again.

Gunfire echoed in the night, as the men in that house fired from their windows, blindly into the smoke filled air, as they aimed at shadows in the flickering orange light of the fires.

I moved through the streets, arrows ready, and each time I saw a man, an arrow flew. I never missed. Arrows struck legs, arms, chests, shoulders. The idea wasn’t to kill them so much as to wound them, slow them down, hurt them, cause them to panic. And it worked.

In the end, I walked through the streets of fire and finished the wounded with more of my arrows. When I ran out of arrows, I pulled them from dead bodies, and then kept moving. I never stayed in one place.

As the sun began to rise, the men in the house had to give up, and come out into the open. The fires had spread through the town, and had reached that house. It’s wooden fence burned, the flames raced across the lawn, danced in the bushes, the vines, the trees in its front yard.

And as those men came from the house, I shot them with the guns of their dead.

Then, I moved into that house, drew my knife, and cut the bindings on anyone I found inside. “Run! The place is on fire! Run!”

The women that could, ran. Two couldn’t run. They limped and staggered from the burning house. One couldn’t walk at all. I threw her over my shoulder, and dashed from the burning house.

It was a scene I’d seen before. A fight I’d had dozens of times. A war I knew would never end.

I don’t pretend to know why, but several of the women followed me as I left the burning wreckage of that town. Outside, I lead them to a few bushes, where I’d hidden some clothing I’d gathered from the houses. “You can wear these.”

I didn’t wait for them.

They followed me anyway. Three of them. Plus the one I carried. The one who couldn’t walk.

It took that day to reach the forest. That night, they slept in fear, and nightmares, beneath the canopy of the trees. It would be many nights before they would sleep without waking. Many nights before they would begin to talk about what happened. Who they were. Many nights until they spoke to me.

All I could do was watch over them, and catch what sleep I could.

“You’re free to go where you want. You don’t have to stay with me.”

None of them left.

That night I promised Beth’s ghost I’d take care of them. I’d get them to Jessica’s little town in the woods in the mountains. They’d have a chance to live again.

Somehow, I think Beth smiled, wherever she was, beyond the veil of life.


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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, April 12, 2016

Kimberly Gould Week 195: Catch Me If You Can

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Kimberly Gould’s Picture Choice:

Title: Catch Me If You Can

Curse the girl!

Bertram splashed through water to his knee, picking his path carefully to avoid falling in to his neck. The sound of laughter and more splashing ahead urged him on, keeping close to the mangroves and their roots.

When he caught her, he would clip her wings, leash her to his hitching post and never let her out of his sight again.

“Come, come, Bertram. I’m right here. Don’t you want your wish?”

He took four quick paces, falling into the water on the last. There was no use in trying to hurry.

“You’d best keep running, fairy.”

Her laughter echoed. “Okay. Let’s run.”

Blinded by a bright flash, Bertram raised his arm to cover his eyes. Unable to see, he could smell the difference resulting from the fairy’s magic. There was no longer the stink of water, rot and decay. No, fresh cut grass filled his nose and he heard a whinny that he thought had to come from a horse.

“Find me!” She called from within the corral.

He would hitch her indeed.


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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