Saturday, December 17, 2011

A Lady of Cunning (Part 3 of 3)

The group hadn’t come this way, but there was a boot print in the mud, half hidden by twigs and leaves. If Hale had gone the other way, who did this print belong to?

“I don’t see them here,” she said. “We must’ve passed them.” She covered the boot print with leaves, wondering if this weren’t some sort of test. Little Whipple would have known if there were anyone else in the wood today. She would have told them to be watchful. No one enters Cutter Wood without an assignment. If this were a test, Macy would surely pass without the aid of the Lady of the Ax.


Lochlin gave Macy a curious glance that was too polite to be a frown. “Well, if you’re certain, you should follow them.” She pointed toward a spot midway between the direction Clever Hale had gone and where Macy stood. “I’ll make my own search this way.”

“Agreed,” Macy said, with as much seriousness as she could muster. She was certain Little Cowle probably thought her daft, but Macy was too pleased to have the boot print all to herself to care. As she watched Little Cowle and her red hood disappear into the trees, Macy wondered if this wasn’t Little Whipple’s plan all along, a chance for Macy to redeem herself and show Fray Cole and everyone else that she was the one meant to be Lady of the Ax. For the first time since that horrible miscarriage of justice, when Lochlin Cowle stole the ax and the title out from under her, Macy allowed herself to imagine how good she would look in that red cloak. Red really was her color. It did nothing for Lochlin’s pasty complexion except to make her seem even pastier. She pictured her cloak next to Clever Hale’s green stripe. The contrast between the two would make them one of the handsomest couples in town. Macy could already feel the admiring glances as they walked hand and hand down Centre St.

But first, she had to win that cloak. As soon as Little Cowle was out of sight, Macy uncovered the boot print. She was certain they belonged to the fox. Macy thought of the way one of the wolves had been disguised as Little Lee during the Hunt. Macy would’ve won Lady of the Ax had she only discovered it and gotten to the ax first. It hardly seemed fair. Macy killed almost all the mimic wolves herself. Lochlin got only one. The one that looked and acted just like her best friend.

Macy would never admit it to anyone, but secretly she’d spent the last few nights wondering if she’d have had the courage to swing that ax full-strength at the neck of Teagan or Charlotte. She wondered if maybe that willingness to sacrifice and trust your gut was the real qualification for being a Lady of the Ax. And buried deep below those thoughts was one she kept hidden, even from herself. The thought that maybe the Elder Frays had gotten it right. Maybe she didn’t have what it takes to be a Lady of the Ax.

Now was not the time for pondering though. Macy straightened and pulled her cloak tighter around her to block the chill. She looked in the direction the boot print was pointed and realized she could see a trail. Little bits of fresh leaves on the ground where they’d been knocked off low limbs. Bent branches and cracked sticks showed her the way when foot prints did not.

Macy began to feel quite proud as she followed the trail of the fox deep into Cutter Wood. Soon she reached the clearing, and there in the center of it sat a large fox. Just as her note had described, it was larger than any fox she’d ever seen in real life. It had to be a mimic. Still, it was not too large to survive Macy’s blade. And Macy was as good at knife-throwing as she was at wielding the ax.

The clearing was silent. Macy listened for the sound of Little Cowle or Clever Hale approaching but heard no one. She was the first to find the fox. Perhaps she really was a Lady of Cunning as well as a Lady of the Ax. She couldn’t wait to see the defeat on Lochlin Cowle’s face when she brought the fox tail to Little Whipple and Lochlin stood empty-handed.

Macy crouched down and crept toward the edge of the clearing. She needed to get within throwing range, which for her, she thought smugly, was still quite far. The fox would not even see her before the knife pierced its hide. Macy took one last slow, deep breath and as she exhaled, she threw. The knife caught the fox in the neck and it dropped like a stone. She could not keep the shout of victory from her lips as she ran into the clearing. She would have to be quick now to get the tail. Clever Hale and Little Cowle would be headed her way now that she’d made her location clear.

It was the sound that caught Macy’s attention first. An unexpected whoosh , and then the clearing looked wrong. The fox too far away. It took a moment for the rest of her senses to catch up, before she felt the rough rope of the net. She was trapped. Dangling in a net two feet off the ground. Macy watched in utter astonishment as the fox disappeared in a poof of cinnamon scented air. “What?” She asked the space where the fox had lain, her brain still not catching up with her circumstance.

Laughter pierced through Macy’s confusion. Clever Hale and Little Cowle emerged from the trees together. It was Hale who was laughing, his easy smile now garish. Macy couldn’t believe she’d ever found him attractive. Lochlin was as serious as ever.

“Get me down!” Macy shouted. She knew her face had to be as red as Lochlin’s cloak, which only made her more furious.

“This was too easy,” Hale said, still grinning. “Even a real fox wouldn’t have fallen for this.”

Lochlin shook her head sadly. “Do you not remember rule number one, Little Bridges? Little Red didn’t fight for glory. Hopefully, you will remember this now.”

Macy burned with rage. She thought of her note, assist in its capture. How could she not have seen? The trail so easy to follow. The fox, just sitting there waiting to be killed. The shame of it all made her sick to her stomach. She would not let Lochlin or Clever Hale see that though. “Get. Me. Down.”

“I’m sorry,” Lochlin said from somewhere behind Macy, “I really am.” Then Macy felt a sharp tug as Little Cowle pulled her ponytail tight, and cut it off.

*****
Tangled Fiction is taking a break for the holidays. We'll see you all back here next year, with a brand new tangle started by me! Happy Holidays!

Photo via weheartit.com (If this is yours, please let us know so we can credit you properly!)

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Lady of Cunning (Part 2 of 3)


“Ah, here we are. Come in, come in,” Little Whipple said, snapping her hand through the air.

So they wouldn’t be alone on assignment. That was disappointing, but Macy wouldn’t let that bother her. If there was one thing in which she had confidence, it was her ability to be charming. There wasn’t anyone else at this school who could diminish this experience for her. Not even, she decided, if it were a Lady of the Ax.


She turned. Saw the red cloak and the plain face above it. And wanted to vomit.


“And here is the Lady of the Ax who’ll be joining you,” Little Whipple continued. “Lochlin Cowle.”



The Ladies’ post was a Grandmother’s cottage in the heart of Cutter Wood. Lochlin and Macy, being both Ladies of the Fray, were to share this cabin until their assignment was complete. Clever Hale would be somewhere close by, perhaps in a Wood Cutter’s cottage.

Macy woke to find two letters placed upon the table in the modest little kitchen. One addressed to Little Bridges. The other, Little Cowle. The cottage was quiet, as Lochlin Cowle had already donned her red cloak and set out to find breakfast. A do-gooder, Macy thought. Perhaps she should’ve been a Lady of the Brown Nose, if there were such a title. Though Little Red would not approve, Macy snatched up Lochlin’s letter, and read.

There is a fox in cutter wood. You are to slay it, and return with it’s tail.

Slay a fox? Such a terribly easy assignment. A smile slid across her lips. Perhaps being a Lady of the Ax was not all it was thought to be. Iconic, yes, but nothing more than a slayer. She opened her own letter, the red ink a familiar and exciting find. The sight of it made her pulse pound.

There is a fox in Cutter Wood, much larger and more cunning than the wolves of the Mimic Ring. You are to assist in the capture of this fox.

Macy’s smile fell. Assist in the capture. The words made a vile sound in her head and laid heavily on her tongue. Assist. She was to assist the Lady of the Ax. Macy tossed her letter into the fire, watching flames consume the red ink.

The door opened and Little Cowle stood in its frame with two squirrels and a basket of robin’s eggs. “Is that my letter?” she asked, in her meek, quiet voice.

Macy stood, knowing she was taller than Little Cowle. She wouldn’t be looked down upon by such a girl. “Of course it is.” Macy’s arm extended only half way, and Lochlin had to cross the room to take the letter. Macy pretended to watch the fire as the other girl read her simple assignment.

“Right then.” Lochlin folded the letter and tucked it inside her cloak. “Can you skin a squirrel?”

***

Her breakfast was terrible. Gamey and wild, with bits of missed fur still attached to the meat. She had never skinned a squirrel, but she couldn’t have asked Lochlin for help. Macy Bridges was every bit as capable of wielding a blade.

“We should start with the eastern portion of the wood and sweep to the west, following the sun,” said Clever Hale. Macy wondered if his assignment was to assist the Lady of the Ax as well. Such a handsome and talented boy, wasted on a peasant’s task.

Macy’s eyes followed a murder of crows through the eastern sky, their black feathers nearly blotting out the early morning sun. “I agree with Clever Hale,” she said, hoping to be rid of Lochlin and alone with the boy.

“As do I.” Little Cowle fastened her ax at her hip.

Macy’s own hips felt bare, with nothing but a small blade dangling from her belt. Cutter Wood was cold beneath the trees and a light frost, the first of the season, covered the ground. Dead leaves coated in delicate ice crunched beneath her boots.

“Perhaps we should split up,” suggested Clever Hale. Little Cowle nodded, and Hale set off toward the North East alone, making it clear he did not wish to be followed.

Before Lochlin could speak, Macy said, “This way. I saw tracks.” Of course the only tracks Macy had seen belonged to the three of them. As she watched Hale walk away, something tickled the back of her mind. Instinct, maybe. Something about the way he slipped between trees, silent and swift. She remembered his easy grin and realized his movements were just as a Clever’s should be. Still, there was something there that she couldn’t ignore.

“I don’t see tracks,” Lochlin said, breath rising from her lips. “Where did you spot them?”

Macy scanned the ground hoping to find tracks of any kind, so that she could say she’d mistaken them for a fox. The group hadn’t come this way, but there was a boot print in the mud, half hidden by twigs and leaves. If Hale had gone the other way, who did this print belong to?

“I don’t see them here,” she said. “We must’ve passed them.” She covered the boot print with leaves, wondering if this weren’t some sort of test. Little Whipple would have known if there were anyone else in the wood today. She would have told them to be watchful. No one enters Cutter Wood without an assignment. If this were a test, Macy would surely pass without the aid of the Lady of the Ax.

*****
Visit us on Friday for the conclusion by Valerie! And for more fiction from this world, check out the tag "Lady of the Ax"

Photo via weheartit.com (If this is yours, please let us know so we can credit you properly!)


Monday, December 12, 2011

A Lady of Cunning (Part 1 of 3)

 (
Despising a color was a new experience for Macy Bridges. She couldn’t recall another time in her life when she’d found herself at odds with anything that couldn’t be considered competition. And yet she here she sat, despising a poor, defenseless color.

There’s no color as smothering as blue, she thought. Callous and deep as the dark sky, it’s impossible to escape.

Three days had passed since the Hunt at Little Red’s Academy for Ladies of the Fray. For all of that time, the cerulean blue cloak of a Lady of Cunning sat folded and scorned on the corner of Macy’s dresser. It didn’t matter that fewer Ladies of Cunning had been named this year than had been named in a decade. Ladies of Cunning weren’t iconic and their blue robes did nothing but make it clear how far they were from being a Lady of the Ax.

She knew the charge by heart: As Little Red uncovered the wolves disguise, it is the duty of a Lady of Cunning to see what others do not, to question what others cannot, and to uncover the lies that will harm. The words were a constant refrain in her mind. Each time they repeated, she found the words even more hateful.

The injustice of being usurped of her rightful title by sniveling Lochlin Cowle still prickled every time her eyes snagged on the cloak. She hadn’t even bothered to go in for a proper fitting. She didn’t expect to wear it much. Blue, she’d decided, made her skin look sallow, and it was common for Ladies of the Fray to go without their cloaks depending on their work. It would be easy to set it aside and forget the travesty that had befallen her. Better, she thought, to shove it into the darkest corner of her closet and hope the blue faded from neglect.

Most of the other girls had fawned over her, of course, many of them wishing they’d also been named Ladies of Cunning. They used words like “unique” and “elite,” but Macy knew it was all talk. No one in their right mind wanted to be anything other than a Lady of the Ax.

Still, she didn’t dissuade their praises. After all, it was better if they thought she believed it was true. No one needed to know she’d had to return the red leather boots she bought and no one needed to know she’d shed a single tear over her placement.

The knock at her door came as the sun was beginning to set over to Cutter Wood. The view from her fourth story apartment had once filled her with a sense of destiny and knowing. Now it was just the sun abandoning the world yet again to darkness and wolves. She drew the curtain, for all the good it did, and opened the door to find a young girl in the brown slacks and shirt she’d only recently left behind herself. A new recruit to the Academy judging by her height and the way her feet resisted holding still. She held out an envelop with Macy’s name scrawled across the front and said, “Little Bridges.”

Macy took the envelop with a nod and a curt, “Thanks,” and shut the door again.

She’d been expecting the letter, but not quite so soon. Most were given at least a week before receiving their first assignment, time enough to celebrate and move from the student wing to the quarters set aside for newly appointed Littles. Macy had barely started packing. Nothing seemed worth taking anymore. Everywhere she looked, little bits of blue stared back, from the background of photographs and tucked within pieces of jewelry, even her make-up palate was tainted.

Crawling into bed to tuck her feet beneath the covers, Macy paused before opening the letter. She wasn’t used to doubting herself. Three days ago, she’d have torn the letter open before the door clicked shut. It never would have occurred to her that she wouldn’t like what she found inside. Now, though, she worried that its early arrival was a bad sign. Had she performed so poorly in the mimic ring that they wanted to get rid of her entirely?

Better to know, she thought, tearing the letter open before she could change her mind.

She recognized the format of an assignment letter immediately, the page carried the signature scent of cinnamon and the ink was red. It was the letters themselves that didn’t make any sense. Macy read them again and then once more before allowing herself to smile.

Little Bridges, it began, Due to your exceptional record during your time at the academy and your exemplary performance during the final hunt, we request that you present yourself for early assignment. Report to Little Whipple’s office tomorrow morning by 7 AM. Sincerely, Fray Cole.

Macy barely slept, she was unable to still her thoughts long enough to drift off and when she did, her dreams were a press of blue threatening to swallow her up, spitting her back out when she refused to relax into them. It didn’t matter. When the sun rose, she was alert and fresh as if she’s had a full night’s rest. She only hesitated when it came time to don her cloak. She did it quickly, without looking in the mirror and headed out the door with her head held high.

The cloak whispered behind her as she walked and several passing students stopped to watch her pass. Macy kept her eyes forward to give the appearance of confidence, but also to avoid catching glimpses of the blue draped over her shoulders. This moment was very nearly a perfect one. If nothing else, she would be able to revel in the success of having been sent out on assignment before any of her classmates in spite of her status as a Lady of Cunning.

Little Whipple’s office sat in the corner on the ground floor with a view of the practice field out one window and the Cutter Wood out the other. The door was open when she arrived, the room humming in the tone of hushed voices. She paused to knock, but Little Whipple spotted her and waved her inside.

“Come in, come in. It’s good to see you,” she said without meeting her eyes. Little Whipple wasn’t known for her sentimentality. She’d congratulated Macy on the day of the hunt, but had been distant since then. Macy didn’t need to wonder why.

She stepped inside, moving to take one of the seats on the receiving side of Little Whipple’s desk. But seeing that one was already occupied by a boy only a few years older than herself, she stopped. The stripe of green running from the collar of his shirt down his right arm gave him away as a Clever Pan, but other than that he was a stranger.

“This is Clever Oliver Hale. He graduated from Pan’s School for the Clever two years ago and will be assisting you on this assignment. Hale, this is Little Macy Bridges, Lady of Cunning.”

“There’s no better match for a Clever than a Lady of Cunning,” he said. He had an easy grin, as Clever Pans should, inviting and playful. “Pleasure to meet you.”

Macy smiled, enjoying the way her stomach teased her voice when she said, “And you.” It didn’t matter what the assignment was, Macy thought, things couldn’t get any better than this.

“Ah, here we are. Come in, come in,” Little Whipple said, snapping her hand through the air.

So they wouldn’t be alone on assignment. That was disappointing, but Macy wouldn’t let that bother her. If there was one thing in which she had confidence, it was her ability to be charming. There wasn’t anyone else at this school who could diminish this experience for her. Not even, she decided, if it were a Lady of the Ax.

She turned. Saw the red cloak and the plain face above it. And wanted to vomit.

“And here is the Lady of the Ax who’ll be joining you,” Little Whipple continued. “Lochlin Cowle.”

*****
Check back on Wednesday for Part 2 by Lacey! (Also, you can find more fiction in this world using the tag: Lady of the Ax.)

Photo via weheartit.com (If this is yours, please let us know so we can credit you properly!)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dear Adam

Dear Adam,

You were always the one who knew better. The brave one. The one who was kind.

I’ll always remember how on the first day of kindergarten, I peed my pants because I was too scared to ask to go to the bathroom. And while everyone laughed and called me a baby, you stayed silent. Your mouth pressed in that thin, straight line that I learned means you’re Deciding Something Important. And how later that day during story time, when I sat surrounded by space as vast as the ocean, you waded across it and sat beside me.

I was only five, but I knew then that you were better than me. Because I would never have chosen the outcast. I wanted to be in the middle of everything, I just didn’t know how.

I never used to understand that saying about seeing the forest for the trees, but I get it now. I took you for granted. I think I spent the last eleven years trying to make up for that one day in kindergarten. Trying desperately to get everyone to like me, to show them all I was more than a shy loser. I spent so much time judging their every nuance, every glance my way, that I totally missed the best friend I will ever have, standing right there accepting me just the way I was.

Your heart is so big, sometimes I felt smothered by it. I knew I could never live up to being the girl you thought I was. I was shallow and weak. I wanted to be popular.

All you needed was me, and I thought I needed the world. You thought I was beautiful, but I needed someone else to say it. I needed to feel like I won something, I guess. I needed someone like Garrett, who could have any girl, to want me. Even if it was only for one night. Even if it meant losing you.

When you kissed me that night, it felt like everything was exactly how it was supposed to be. It felt like fate, and forever and it scared the shit out of me. I didn’t run because it was awful, I ran because it was perfect and I knew I would screw it up. And then Garrett was there, with his flask, and all his attention on me.

And the worst part is, when he kissed me, I felt nothing. He was rough and he smelled like whiskey and all he kept telling me was that I was freaking hot. And the whole time I wished that I had stayed with you. I knew I was making a mistake, but I never told him to stop. I thought maybe it would be worth it, maybe it would be the moment that changed everything for me. And it was. Just not the way I wanted.

As long as I live, I will never forget the look on your face when you found us. I can’t forget the moment after the surprise, and after the hurt, when your mouth made that straight line I’d come to love. When you decided we were done.

When you turned and left without a word, I felt like I was back in the middle of the empty ocean again, but this time no one was going to come save me.

I don’t know if I’ll ever get the courage to give you this, but I just want you to know that I know the last thing you want to do right now is read a letter from me so thank you, for reading this.

And I just want to tell you that it kills me every time I pass you in the hall and you act like you don’t know me. But I understand. I’m sorry. You deserve way better than me.

Love Always,
me

*****
Come back next week for an all new tangle started by Natalie!

Photo found via weheartit. If it's yours let us know so we can credit you!

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Death Gate (Part 3 of 3)

My father doesn’t acknowledge me, or the day, when I come into the kitchen, despite the headline on the front page of the paper he’s hiding behind that reads Is Today The Day?

I’ve promised the paper an exclusive on what I saw behind the gate, if I make it through the day. Part of me hopes I don’t. I keep thinking about Tommy Diaz, and how his parents would feel if I survive the gate’s curse when he didn’t.

“See ya, Dad,” I call as I open the kitchen door to the warm September morning. I don’t even bother with my backpack. There’s no way I’m going to the madhouse otherwise known as school. Today, I finish what I started.

Or die trying.


Every day for six months, I’ve tried to die.

On that very first day, the six-month anniversary of passing through the death gate, I returned to the littered bunker and sat inside. Waiting for whatever it was that was going to claim me to get it over with, and trying not to gag on the overwhelming scents of stale beer and piss – apparently, visiting the gate had become even more popular in recent months. A small crowd gathered, posting Facebook updates whenever I stood to stretch my legs or sniffled too loudly. But the sun went down and the moon came up and all the diligent followers abandoned me and the gate around midnight.

Kim stuck around. She hugged the life out of me when I stepped back through the gate. A photographer from the paper snapped a shot of the moment: Kim looking tearful and relieved, me looking still dazed and still confused.

I gave my exclusive and the paper ran the story under the title Beth Survives the Death Gate! And for a few weeks, everything was miserable. I couldn’t go two minutes without someone snapping a picture or asking for an autograph or begging me to tell them something I hadn’t told the paper. But then it stopped. People moved on. Forgot all about me and the gate when it was time to think about something more exciting like Homecoming.

I thought it was over. But every morning, I woke with the same question in my head: why six months?

What did it mean that Tommy had died six months after going through the gate? Nothing. It meant that was when he died and nothing else. There was no Death Gate Guide that said six months was what you got after entering, no way of knowing when death would come for you. Or how. Every morning, the thought broke over me like frigid sea spray, with a growl and startling violence.

I spent three days rolled up in my comforter, letting dad think I was sick, wondering if there was something lurking inside me the same way there’d been for Tommy. I spent three days letting death taunt me.

And then I got over it. I got up and started taunting death right back.

It never occurred to me that tempting fate came with such variety. I thought I’d run out of dangerous activities before a month had passed. But that was only the beginning. Once you start dreaming up all the different ways you could die on any normal day, the possibilities are endless.

I started off with the obvious – walking the edge of the crumbling sea wall, driving too fast, diving into the ocean in November – any opportunity that looked even marginally reckless was a good one.

Then I got creative. I started looking at everything with an eye for the unexpected adventure it might offer. School became much more interesting when started noticing how many windowless doors dotted the halls, and the pier was a wealth of nookish alleyways and craggy descents. Things that might have scared me before became something else entirely, challenges and possibilities.

At first, no one noticed but Kim. She’d tag along beside me making nervous jokes about back when we thought the death gate was for real and how crazy the whole town got over nothing. “Everyone’s going through it now,” she’d say, snapping her gum through her teeth. “But it’s so last year, ya know? It can’t ever be as cool as when you did it.” And then, when she realized I was really going to jump off the pier, or climb up the tallest turret of that old wall, or squeeze past the barbed wire fence on the old Seavers property, she’d add, “You don’t have anything to prove, Beth.” I didn’t know how to tell her it was about dying with integrity without sounding crazy. Instead, I smiled and said, “I know.”

My new reputation came in with the tide and sometime after Christmas there was a new Facebook fan page, Beth Defying Death!, reporting on my recent daredevil activities. The fan count has been reinvigorated by the possibility that I might still die in an exciting way. I couldn’t really care about the page one way or another, but the discussions over what crazy thing I’d do next have been useful. I never would have thought to cross Winney Lake on my own – a notoriously thin lake at its widest point, even in February.

Now, it’s the one-year anniversary of my passing through the death gate, and I’m running short on ways to die. Haven’t I done everything I can to make sure it isn’t something stupid and sneaky like a brain aneurysm that takes me? What else can I possibly do? After living with death for a solid year, our relationship is ready for the next step.

For the first and only time, I comment to the fan page, “Today, at 2pm, I’m crossing Winney lake.” Within minutes, it has more likes than people at my school alone and Kim is on the phone begging me to drop this already.

“I’ll meet you there,” I say and hang up.

There are crowds on either side of the lake when I get there. Stomping their feet in the fresh snow and talking in low voices. No one says anything directly to me. They’re all too afraid to be the last one to speak to me before I die. If I die. There’s a new theory floating around that the death gate didn’t steal my life, it made me invincible. After a year of chasing death, I’m ready to believe them.

I have to wend through tall weeds to get out onto the pond. Snow covers everything, hiding dark ice below it. I move quickly at first. My breath is loud in my ears and before long, I’ve managed to work up a sweat. When I’m a little more than halfway across the breadth of the lake, I stop to rest. The ice is so quiet and so loud all at once. It yawns and groans, pops and hisses. I wonder if this is what death sounds like. If death is a whisper and a snap.

Beneath me, the ice shudders. I have time to wonder if death isn’t a sound, but a feeling before the ground falls away and my body drops like an anchor.

I thrash, reaching for solid ground, kicking my heavy feet. My lungs contract. My mouth freezes. And water covers my head.

Death is a cold lake and a single note in my ears.

Death is my heavy feet, my numb fingers.

Death is the promise that makes everything else mean something. I kick. Of all the things I’ve done this year, I don’t regret a single one. I kick. I wouldn’t have done any of them if I hadn’t crossed that threshold. My hands press against something solid. The death gate didn’t kill me, but it did change me.

I haul my body out of the water and roll away from the hole in the world. I roll until I’m dizzy and my ears and eyes start to work again. The shore isn’t far but it’s loud and fractured with people running in all directions. Part of me can’t believe that there are so many people obsessed enough with my life to stand out here in the cold while I attempt something not all that amazing. And part of me can’t help but wonder if they’re out here because this is the closest they’ll ever get to doing something dangerous.

I climb to my feet, listing for any sounds of cracking or complaining from the ice. It’s hard to hear over the clatter of my teeth. My head will ache when I can feel it again, but the pain will be welcome.

My progress across the ice is slow, but by the time I’ve made my way back to the reeds where an ambulance with warm blankets waits, I know that my fate was sealed before I ever stepped through the death gate.

But what the rest of the town doesn’t know is, so were theirs.


****
Thank you for reading! Next week is an (un)Tangled week, so check in on Monday for short fiction from Valerie!

Photo by Lacey Boldyrev

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Death Gate (Part 2 of 3)

“What?” Kim jumped back from the gate like my words had made it come alive. “You’re fun, Beth. I was just messing with you.”

I slid down the small hill until my nose found its way between the bars. I could smell rotting leaves, and dirt, and maybe stale beer inside.

“C’mon, Beth. Let’s go.” Kim tugged at my sleeve. I pushed on the gate and it gave way. I took a breath, filled my lungs with the stench of lilac, and stepped inside.

That was when it started, about six months ago.


Everyone started waiting for me to die.

Kim was on her phone, texting God knows who, the minute I went through the gate. If the sea wall wasn’t so far from town, and it hadn’t been so cold, I’m sure there would’ve been a crowd waiting when I came back out. As it was, it hadn’t been necessary. Kim snapped a pic of me looking dazed and confused, one hand out in front of me, pushing the door open. By the time we got back to my place, everyone in school had a copy. I got seventy-two new friend requests on facebook. I became, quite suddenly, the most popular girl in Hancock Bay.

It was the single greatest thing that ever happened to Kim. I know this because she said so almost every day. I can’t believe I’m best friends with a real-live celebrity!

A month after I went inside, my fan page, Beth Against Death! and its counterpart, the death gate’s fan page, Death For Beth! had around 2000 fans each – most of them double dippers. A ticking clock counted down the days until my impending doom – or triumph – depending on which side you were on.

By summer, the whole town knew. There wasn’t a day that went by without a tourist coming into the Ice Palace and asking for a photo with “the girl who went through the death gate.” My father was not impressed, but every one of those tourists also bought a cone, or a sundae, or a smoothie, so he mostly kept quiet about it. Business was business whether it was for Rayburn’s Hand-Churned Ice Cream or “that freaky girl who’s going to die.”

Only my grandmother got upset when she heard the news from her knitting circle. You’re just like your mother, she said. Once upon a time, that would’ve made me mad, but every day since I went through that gate, my mother has felt just a little bit closer. Like she’s a buoy out in the bay and the undertow’s pulling me toward her.

When the breeze comes in from the sea, it always brings the scent of lilacs with it. I used to hate the smell, but I find it comforting now. At night, even though our house is too far inland to hear them, I listen to the waves crash against what’s left of the sea wall and think about my mother’s stories. Red sunrises and water ghosts. Pathways to a city under the sea. And promises accidentally made, but binding nonetheless.

In my dreams I remember the darkness beyond the gate. The way it grew thicker the further I followed it. How it went on too far, seemed endless. How I turned back, feeling emptier than I had when I went in.

But no one cares about that. They want the kind of story told over a campfire. One that will make them jump and scream and clutch their friend’s hand. One where I emerge breathless and victorious, having conquered death itself. Or peed my pants. Either will do, so long as it’s entertaining and shallow.

If anyone is broken up about the idea of me dying, they haven’t shown it. Not even Kim, who was so scared for me before I went in. The betting pool leans heavily in favor of my death coming exactly six months from the day I went in. Or in other words – today.

My father doesn’t acknowledge me, or the day, when I come into the kitchen, despite the headline on the front page of the paper he’s hiding behind that reads Is Today The Day?

I’ve promised the paper an exclusive on what I saw behind the gate, if I make it through the day. Part of me hopes I don’t. I keep thinking about Tommy Diaz, and how his parents would feel if I survive the gate’s curse when he didn’t.

“See ya, Dad,” I call as I open the kitchen door to the warm September morning. I don’t even bother with my backpack. There’s no way I’m going to the madhouse otherwise known as school. Today, I finish what I started.

Or die trying.

****

Come back Friday for the conclusion by Natalie!

Photo by Lacey Boldyrev

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Death Gate (Part 1 of 3)

They say if you go inside, your fate is sealed. Just like that. You open the rusted iron bars, step through the threshold and you might as well say goodbye to the world. I’ve only known two people to ever test the urban legend: Tommy Diaz, who died six months after he went inside from a heart condition nobody knew he had, and me.

***

There was nothing special about that day. It was cold outside, not really winter anymore but not quite spring either. Just cold in that wet way that sticks to your bones. The walk to the old turret wall was a short one, made longer by Kim’s nostalgic silence. She’d been talking about days that I’d rather just forget--sleepovers at my old house with popcorn and root beer floats, and a mother that could tell the best stories. I’d never told Kim, but the reason my mother’s stories were so good, or scary, or real, was because to her they were true.

The turret wall was built in the eighteen hundreds, made to protect our city by the sea from invading ships. Now it was just an old crumbling structure along the nature walk. Smaller structures were scattered along the trail. Some were bunkers that held cannons in them hundreds of years ago. And then there was the death gate.
 
Nobody knew why the death gate was built. Nobody that I knew, anyway. I’m sure a historian somewhere knew why it was put there, but it didn’t matter.  The legend was what we cared about. It was the kind of thing everybody knew, but nobody talked about. The dare that everyone claimed they’d take, but nobody ever did.
 
“Do you think it’s for real?” Kim asked as we stopped to stare at the gate. Someone had spray painted the wall next to it years before us. An eerie warning, though not at all subtle.  Enter and you die.

“No.” I stuffed my fists into my jacket pockets and stared down through the bars. Inside was littered with trash—a broken red plastic cup, a slew of beer bottles, a candy wrapper. It wasn’t the sort of place you’d expect to carry such a reputation.  It was just another littered bunker.

“What about that kid that died?” Kim climbed down the small slope to get a better look inside.

“He had a heart condition.” The words tasted like a lie. Tommy Diaz was an athlete with no prior history of any heart problems. He went inside one night on a dare, the red plastic cup could’ve been left there by him, and six months later Tommy was dead.

“I guess. Still, isn’t it fun to pretend? Like when we were little and we’d sneak into the cemetery and do the Bloody Mary thing.”

I shrugged. At least she wasn’t still talking about my mother.

“Oh, come on, Elizabeth. You’re no fun anymore.”

“Beth. Just Beth.” Elizabeth was my mother’s name. She’d died some years before and nobody had ever explained exactly how or why. She was too curious for her own good, my grandmother said. She was ill, was all my father could say. My mother was crazy. That much I knew. Cold-hearted as it seemed, it was easier to forget her completely. And in a town by the sea, where people tossed their problems into the waves like dead rats from a plagued ship, forgetting her was just something we did. Most of the time.

“And I am fun,” I mumbled. My skin prickled in that way it does when hidden eyes are watching. The wind didn’t blow colder, though I half expected it to, but still I could smell it—lilacs. My mother’s perfume smelled of lilacs.  Whether it was to get away from her memory, or if something inside me was trying to find her again, I don’t know, but I said, “Move. I’m going inside.”

“What?” Kim jumped back from the gate like my words had made it come alive. “You’re fun, Beth. I was just messing with you.”

I slid down the small hill until my nose found its way between the bars. I could smell rotting leaves, and dirt, and maybe stale beer inside.

“C’mon, Beth. Let’s go.” Kim tugged at my sleeve. I pushed on the gate and it gave way. I took a breath, filled my lungs with the stench of lilac, and stepped inside.

That was when it started, about six months ago.

*********************
Come back on Wednesday for Part 2 by Valerie!

Photo by Lacey Boldyrev

Friday, November 18, 2011

Early Morning (Part 3 of 3)

Daisy stared at the birds, wondering how they could possibly show her anything. They were just birds, she told herself. And she was just a girl with a sleep disorder. 

“Let go,” Caleb whispered in her ear, startling her with his closeness and the way his voice tickled her skin.

She closed her eyes, controlled her breathing, and steadied her heartbeat. She could feel the eyes of every bird, but instead of weighing her down, she felt lifted. She felt like she could perch beside them and be accepted as one of them. When she opened her eyes, she was met with Caleb’s smile.

She remembered everything.


It began in the spring, when the elm was newly stripped and the crows were dark lumps on its charred branches. Instead of going through the yards on her way to school, Daisy gave the old tree a wide berth. The early morning air was cutting and it would have been faster to pass through Caleb’s yard, but it wasn’t worth it to walk beneath the old bones of the tree.

So when she paused and held out her hand to feel for rain, she should have noticed how odd it was that an elm seed landed in the center of her palm. At the time, it had only been a strange irritation. And as she closed her fingers around the seed’s delicate skirt, a crow said caw.

That was the first night she’d woken in the forest with nothing on but her old Muppet Show t-shirt and sweats that weren’t meant for outdoor use. But now she also knew that it was the first night she’d stood outside a circle of crows.

They flew one after another, beak to tail to beak, all of them diving forward and falling back. Each night it was the same; crows flying in a constant circle. At first, there were only twenty, but over the summer more had come. And more and more until there had been so many Daisy couldn’t see to tell them apart. They flew in a ring. The only noise about them was the beating of their feathers and the rush of wind.

Sometimes she would close her eyes and the sound of their flight, the feel of their passing, gave her the sense of flying with them. And sometimes she would stare until they were nothing but a smear black in the moonlight. She always stayed: to watch, to listen, and to protect them as they focused on the task at hand.

But even now she didn’t know what that task was. Caleb’s smile was pleased by also devious when she turned her face back to him.

“Good,” he said and he squinted up at the rising sun. The light fell in streaks across his face, revealing and hiding in equal parts. “Tonight will be the last.”

* * *

That night, Daisy woke to the caw, caw, caw of a crow just outside her window. She was already prepared for a night out in the elements, but she grabbed a hoodie from the back of her desk chair before moving silently through the house and out the back door. It was more than a little amazing to think that she’d done this so well in her sleep that neither of her parents had caught on. That either said something about her future as a spy or her parents’ anti-anxiety meds.

Her breath came in short, white puffs as she jogged around to the front of her house. She’d expected to find Caleb waiting for her by the lurching elm, but there were only crows and the cold quiet of night.

A single crow jumped into the air, its wings spread wide, and glided into the forest. The others followed, one by one like bows on a kite string.

Daisy followed and even though they soon disappeared in the shadows, she knew where to go. She could find it in her sleep, she thought wryly.

The clearing wasn’t far from the place she and Caleb had visited earlier in the day. Just behind the small creek and through a copse of old, gnarled elms, she emerged from the shadowed woods to find the clearing full of moonlight and more crows than she’d ever seen in one place. They stood at irregular intervals, each one a dark star against the grass, and each one looking at her.

Daisy didn’t move. Mostly because there was no clear pathway ahead of her and she wasn’t prepared for kicking crows, but partly because she knew it wasn’t time.

In the center of the clearing, a pale figure crouched. His head hung down and, Daisy realized, he was stark naked. Without seeing his face, she knew it was Caleb. She started to call out, to make sure he was okay, but he lifted his head and stood.

The crows all leapt into the air. They darted toward him, beating their wings furiously to gain speed, diving over and over each other to be the first to reach him. Daisy ran after them, trying to keep him in her sight, suddenly aware of what was about to happen. The crows flew and she ran, but the crows were faster. They swept around him in a continuous ring. Their wings thundering through the air and blotting him from her view.

She reached out, pulling back in pain. Blood in her palm where a beak cut it open. She cried out, “Caleb! Caleb!” But there was no response except for the beating of wings and the shushing of air.

When it was over, the birds slowed in their circle and landed all around her. Caleb was nowhere to be found. In his place, standing on a pile of his old clothes, was a crow.

* * *

The first streaks of dawn were climbing from the horizon when Daisy left the forest. She felt the crows settle into the sagging branches of the elm. There was one more now, than there had been before. Not that anyone but her would notice.

She jogged the short distance to her doorstep and paused to glance back at the dark shapes in the tree. They were waiting for her. She knew. It thrummed in her like wingbeat. Come play. Come play. Come play.

She turned the knob and pushed the door open just a hair. “Soon,” she said, and closed the door behind her.


***
Thank you for reading! We'll be taking next week off to chow on some Turkey, but we'll be back on Monday the 28th when Lacey will kick off a new Tangle.

Photo found via weheartit.com. If it's yours, let us know so we can credit you properly!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Early Morning (Part 2 of 3)

Caleb cocked his head to the side and frowned. Just when she thought she might die from the silence, he spoke. “I saw you,” he said, in a surprisingly low voice.

Then he did the most unexpected thing of all. He smiled.

That smile let Daisy know he wasn’t talking about this morning in her back yard. She clutched her bag in her arms. If he saw her last night, maybe he knew what was happening to her. Maybe he could tell her why the woods pulled her from her bed, or why the crows seemed to speak to her.

Caleb’s smile shifted as he leaned forward in his elbows. His thumbs stuck out through holes cut into the sleeves of his thermal. He always wore one beneath his t-shirts, even in the summer. And his thumbs always stuck out from those holes, like if they didn’t, his arms might turn to wings and carry him away.

“Daisy?” he whispered. His voice cut through her and made her shiver. That skin prickling feeling returned. She didn’t like the way he looked at her as if he knew all of her secrets. It angered her that that might be true. She should know more about herself than Caleb Brown.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said. She felt his eyes on her as she walked away, knowing that he knew, just as well as she did, that that was a lie.

* * *


The sun kissed her cheeks and Daisy opened her eyes to a clear blue sky, branches cutting through it like bony fingers ready to descend on her. She sat up with a start, the same way she always did upon waking in the forest. She should expect it by now, but it was one of those things that you just can’t become accustomed to. She brushed the red and yellow leaves from her clothes, pulled her hair into a fresh pony tail, and began the walk home.

She was prepared to tell her mother about her morning jog, and how she’d seen a deer dart across the path. She was prepared to answer any questions to fill in the gaps. But she wasn’t prepared for Caleb Brown, perched among the heavy branches of the dead elm, watching her with those steely gray eyes. She stopped and stared back at him, the silence thick but this time not uncomfortable. He knew, and today, so would she.

“We need to talk,” she said.

Caleb closed his eyes and jumped from the tree, landing gracefully just in front of her. “You already know. You just need to let go.” He stuffed his hands into his pockets and turned away from her. Daisy had already walked away from him and his answers once before. She wasn’t about to let him get away this time.

“Wait.” She grabbed his elbow and Caleb froze, as if her touch caused him the same tremors she felt in her own body. His arm was solid and it surprised her. Some part of her thought he might be intangible like the early morning mist over the field. “If you won’t tell me, can you show me?”

Caleb assessed her briefly and then he turned toward the forest. He drew a breath and let it out in a cloud of gray. “I can try.”


* * *


Caleb led Daisy through the woods on a path she knew by heart. Over a small stream that would soon turn to ice, and through the thickets part of the trees on a trail worn down by her own two feet. Her practical side told her it was unwise to follow him so far from anyone. Though Caleb had lived next door to her for years, she hardly knew him, and that had always been the way she preferred it, until today. Today Daisy wanted to know his secrets. Her secrets.

She wanted to ask where he was taking her, but she already knew, just like he’d said. She knew, she just had to let go. “Let go of what?”

“Yourself,” was all he said, and then he stopped and looked up. Daisy followed his gaze to the tops of the trees where an entire flock of crows covered the branches. They sat still, watching her watching them. Not one would caw, not one would move. “Look at them,” Caleb whispered, as if he were afraid to speak too loud, lest the birds come crashing down like a heavy snow. “Let go and let them show you.”

Daisy stared at the birds, wondering how they could possibly show her anything. They were just birds, she told herself. And she was just a girl with a sleep disorder.

“Let go,” Caleb whispered in her ear, startling her with his closeness and the way his voice tickled her skin.
She closed her eyes, controlled her breathing, and steadied her heartbeat. She could feel the eyes of every bird, but instead of weighing her down, she felt lifted. She felt like she could perch beside them and be accepted as one of them. When she opened her eyes, she was met with Caleb’s smile.

She remembered everything.

***
Come back Friday for the conclusion by Natalie!

Photo found via weheartit.com. If it's yours, let us know!

Monday, November 14, 2011

Early Morning (Part 1 of 3)

It was happening more and more frequently these days. Daisy kept waking up in the woods. And even though she loved seeing the sun spill it’s first pale light over the fields just as she stepped out of the trees, she would’ve preferred to see it from her bed, or even better, in photographs taken while she was still asleep.

It hadn’t been so bad during the summer, when it first started, but now the mornings were cold, and she knew that soon there would be frost on the ground around her when she woke. Already this morning, she could see a faint hint of her breath against the sky as she made her way back to the house.

Crows crowded the dead branches of the elm tree that got struck by lightning last spring. They watched her silently as one, their heads tilting in unison to follow her path.

After the third time she’d found herself curled up on the floor of the forest with no memory of how she got there, she’d invested in a set of workout clothes. It was hard to fall asleep in sneakers, but she’d gotten used to it.

Daisy had never been a liar, but something about what was happening made her feel like she should keep it to herself. Even if that meant pretending to be enthusiastic about running. She told herself she was just sleepwalking, a perfectly normal habit, but deep down inside she knew that was a lie, too.

In the beginning, Daisy had anxiously searched the news every time she woke up in the woods, but so far there’d been no reports of any crimes on those nights. So far. The longer it went on, the more she started to think that the absence of blood on her hands didn't mean she wasn't hurting anyone. This was the third time this week and it was only Wednesday. A small, but growing, part of her was beginning to feel that even if she was doing something really bad, it had to be better to know than not.

Just as Daisy reached her back door, a crow let out a loud caw. Startled, she turned toward the sound. It came, not from behind her, but to her right. The bird dipped its head at her before flapping its wings and flying off. As she watched it go, she caught sight of Caleb Brown, standing still as the dead elm tree, next to his own back door. They locked eyes, and Daisy held her breath. Caleb had a way of staring through people, like he could see past whatever front they put up into who they really were. It was why she, like most kids at school, avoided him. He hardly ever spoke. He didn’t need to. He said it all with the tilt of his head or a cutting glance.

Daisy tried to come up with something to break the silence. But everything she thought of, even good morning, felt fake and too thin. It wasn’t a good morning and he would know that the minute she said it. Caleb’s grey eyes watched her, but for once they seemed expectant instead of judgmental. He was waiting for her to speak and suddenly she felt the urge to confess everything. It pulsed inside her mind like a heartbeat. Tell him. Tell him. Tell him. Maybe he would have an answer.

She sucked in a breath, whether it was to tell him where she’d been or because she needed oxygen she would never know, because just then a crow called out in the distance, and then another, and another, until she had to turn and look. The dead elm shook with the weight of all the crows preparing for flight. They burst from the branches like black leaves in a windstorm, falling up instead of down.

Daisy knew it was just birds being birds but her heart pounded in her chest, nonetheless. When she looked back to see what Caleb thought of it all, he was gone. She was surprised to find that instead of relief, all she felt was alone. Daisy looked at the empty dead tree and shivered. If she didn’t go inside now, she’d be late for school.

* * *


At lunch, Daisy headed to the library for a nap. Whatever she was doing the nights she went out to the woods, it wasn’t sleeping. Exhaustion was becoming an old friend.

She knew he’d be there even before she rounded the stacks that kept her favorite carrel hidden. She could sense him in that skin prickling way you could tell you were being watched, even when you couldn’t see the watcher. As she honed in on that sensation, she realized that she’d always sensed him that way, in the back of her mind. It was just that before, that feeling told her to stay away. And this time, it lead her to him.

Caleb leaned against the desk, his arms crossed. He was relaxed in a way she’d never seen him before and that, more than anything stopped Daisy in her tracks. His grey eyes met hers and held her in place. Despite the faint stirrings of panic in her belly, she noticed the way his dark hair fell over one eye but not the other. She wondered if it was intentional.

Caleb cocked his head to the side and frowned. Just when she thought she might die from the silence, he spoke. “I saw you,” he said, in a surprisingly low voice.

Then he did the most unexpected thing of all. He smiled.


*****
Come back Wednesday for part two by Lacey!

Photo found via weheartit.com. If it's yours, let us know!

Monday, November 7, 2011

Turn The Page

There are boys, and then there are boys, and for a girl like me, a hopeless romantic with an uncanny ability to torture herself, there’s Paul.

I see him every day after school, at his granddaddy’s farm stand just outside of town. I have to walk passed on my way home and since the summer he turned eighteen and graduated high school, he’s been working there. I walk by each day just to catch a glimpse of his sun-kissed skin and that smile that steals my breath.

“Afternoon, Ms Emma Jean,” he says, in that lazy way of his that exudes confidence without any hint of arrogance. It only makes him more beautiful. He stacks a crate of fresh-picked peaches next to the snap peas that Mama asked me to buy today. “What can I get you?”

I smile, but only just, hiding the way my heart hammers in my chest. “A pound of those,” I say, pointing to his hand resting on the crate of peas. His fingers are long, and calloused from days spent in the fields. I wonder what they would feel like twined with mine.

He grabs a peach and tosses it to me. I nearly fall over trying to catch it and he laughs. My cheeks burn. “Pretty peach for a pretty girl,” he says. And then he turns away to pack up Mama’s snap peas. The peach in my hands is soft, perfectly ripe, and means more to me than any piece of fruit ever should. I wish it meant something to him.

***

Another day, another glimpse, another pound of produce that Mama really doesn’t need.  I should just walk by and not wonder how his hands would feel against my skin, or how soft his lips would be on mine. I should just keep going, but instead I say, “A dozen Granny Smith’s, please.”

“You gonna bake a pie?” Paul asks, as he sifts through the crate to find the best apples. He likes to be sure you get what you pay for, even if you don’t know what to look for in a good fruit. I like that about him. He takes pride in what he does.

“No. I mean, yes.” Heat creeps up my neck. “Apple is my favorite.”

“Mine too,” he says, handing me the bag. I reach for it and when my fingers graze his, he smiles. “Anything else?”

I look at the crates and try to think of something else, anything else that Mama might want. Anything to stay a moment longer. To touch his hand again. But there’s nothing, and my heart can’t take much more today. “No. That’s it.”

***

The next day I stay after school for softball practice and when I pass Paul’s farm stand, he’s already packing up the crates into the bed of his pick-up. My stomach sinks, realizing I have no reason to stop and talk to him. I hoist my backpack up on my shoulder and walk faster, trying to pass him without looking. Out of the corner of my eye, I see him bend and lift a heavy crate, and even though I can’t make out the details, I know the way his muscles move beneath his skin.

“Hey,” Paul says. I keep walking, hoping he didn’t see me watching him. “Wait, Emma.”

Me? I stop short, nearly tripping over my own two feet. Paul smiles and waves me over. I should keep going. Go right on home and forget about Paul. Forget about his dark brown hair and eyes like drops of chocolate. “Hey,” I say, walking toward him.

He closes the tailgate and leans against it, propping one foot up on the bumper. “Nothing for your mama today?”

“I was late. Softball practice.”

“Oh yeah? I used to play too. Baseball, I mean.”

“I know.”

He arches one eyebrow and I shy away from him. I’ve watched him for years, silently torturing myself with daydreams about a boy I can’t have. He could have anyone.

“So how was that apple pie?” He rubs the back of his neck and looks down at our feet. I kick at the dirt and gravel.

“It was good. Had to be with such good apples.” I close my eyes, not wanting to see the look on his face. I know how stupid I sound. “I’d better go.”

“Wait.” He grabs my wrist, but quickly lets go. He smiles. “Sorry.”

I can’t do it. I can’t stand here and pretend I don’t want him. “I really shouldn’t be here, Paul.”

He steps in closer. “But here you are.”

“Not in the way I want to be, “I mumble, not loud enough for him to hear. Or maybe I shout it, and I just can’t hear over my own heart beating. “See you.”

***

I pass by the farm stand but today it’s empty. No crates, no baked goods from his Mama’s kitchen, and no Paul. No Paul. Somehow I know he’s gone. I feel it inside, like when you spend every afternoon on the beach ‘til summer ends, then you don’t go anymore and something just feels off. Missing. Over.

Paul’s part in my story is over before I even turned the page.

I stop along the dirt road, stare at the empty spot at the edge of the field, and I notice how the sky meets the corn stalks in a way I never have before. 


******************
Thanks for reading! We come back next week with a brand new tangle started by Valerie!

Photo found via weheartit.com. If it's yours, let us know!

Friday, November 4, 2011

Storykeeper (Part 3 of 3)

As soon as she was gone, I hung the chain around my neck and threw on a pair of jeans. The key hummed against my racing heart. I knew exactly what it unlocked, and I couldn’t wait to find out what was inside. The sun was just peeking over the hill when I slipped out the back door and headed for Nana’s shack.

***

The shack was the same as it had always been; pointed, sloping roof, crooked little door, and broken windows, but today it felt like a new place entirely. It wasn’t Nana Marin’s shack any longer. It was mine. I stepped through the threshold and breathed in the familiar scent of lemons and honey, mothballs and herbs. A scent that lingered in the cracks of the walls and hung on the wool curtains that Nana had sewn together so many years before.

The key around my neck felt alive, pulsing with anticipation as if it were a part of my soul. I knew what it wanted.

In the back corner of the shack sat a four poster brass bed, and at the foot of the bed, a heavy trunk with a small rusted keyhole. I’d seen Nana eye the trunk longingly each time I’d visited, but she’d never opened it in front of me. Was it because Mom had the only key? A witch as powerful as Nana could’ve opened it with magic, I was sure, but I couldn’t begin to know how to do that myself. I slipped the chain over my head and slid the key in.

I held my breath as I lifted the heavy lid. The hinges groaned, shattering the quiet of the empty shack. Inside I found Nana’s robes. It wasn’t what I’d expected, but my heart still skipped a beat when I pulled the fabric from its resting place, and slid it over my shoulders. The wool scratched against my skin, the weight of it tugging my arms down at my sides. In the left pocket I found Nana’s hair pins and smiled as I twisted my long hair into a bun. Nana wasn’t gone. She was inside me. I could feel her there, just inside the shield of magic, whispering in my ear, You’ll never have trouble getting the things you want, Sophie.

I wanted to make the wind in the trees sing along with my rhymes. I wanted the earth to move at my touch. I wanted to call the birds in a tongue they’d understand. I wanted to know the future.

I wanted the magic.

At the bottom of the trunk, beneath a heavy aged book, I found a deck of cards. Not regular playing cards like I had back in my bedroom. These were Nana’s magic cards. Something tickled in my stomach, a mix of elation and fear. My cards had told my story, things I’d already known, but they were ordinary playing cards. Could Nana’s tell me more? I sat on the cold dirt floor, willed a fire to life in the hearth and smiled when the flames licked the charred logs. The woods outside fell silent.

The cards said sssssnick.

I shuffled the cards until I felt the warmth in my hands that said they were ready to speak. “Okay,” I said. “Tell me my story.”

I laid the cards out in front of me. The story they told was a familiar one; the witch woman in the pointed shack who keeps the stories of others. They told of how, without even trying, she’d used her magic to make things grow, how she belonged to the woods as much as they belonged to her.

Until her sixteenth year when she made a choice. A choice to know more, a desire for more power and more knowledge than she had already been given. The magic consumed her and bound her to the shack in the woods, in life and in death, never set free until another witch of the same line would make the same choice.

I looked around the empty shack, some small part of me hoping to see Nana sitting in her rocker by the fire watching me with curious eyes, but I was alone. I shuffled again.

The cards said sssssnick.

“What choice had she made?” I asked them, as I lay them out before me in long rows that seemed to stretch on for miles.

The Ace of Swords sat at the top of the first pile, just touching the head of the High Priestess. They told me the story of how the witch’s desire for more brought her to read the cards of the ancients. Cards that held so many answers, so many stories, and so, so much magic. Too much for one witch alone. Cards that had been locked away for years in a trunk that only a small brass key could unlock. The magic of the cards would confine the witch, making her the keeper of stories, never having one of her own.

Power corrupts, Sophie, My mother had warned. Everything has consequences. I thought it impossible that Nana, with her cool but gentle hands, could have been corrupted by anything, let alone her own magic. Was she a prisoner here?

Somewhere in my mind, I knew the answer. It was like a whisper through the trees, just soft enough that I had to strain to hear it. The key lay next to the cards as if it were a part of the deck. Nana was gone, on the sixteenth year of my birth. I looked down at my hands resting in my lap, atop Nana’s robes. I had to clench them together to keep from shuffling again. The desire to know more was there, pulling me toward the cards, making me want to listen to all the stories they had to tell.

Make your own decision. I remembered the tightness to my mother’s mouth as she spoke those words to me. As if she had more to say, but the words wouldn’t leave her lips.

I fell back, kicking the cards away from me. The cold earth pressed against me, but it wasn’t what made my body shiver and my hands shake. The story in front of me wasn’t Nana Marin’s.

It was mine.

***
Thanks for reading! Next week we untangle with a full short by me on Monday!

Photo by Striking Photography by Bo via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Storykeeper (Part 2 of 3)

My breath, too, became thin as I considered the cards before me. I thought of all the words I could use to describe what was happening; eerie, unlikely, coincidence, impossible. And as I stared at the rows of cards, laid exactly as they’d been four years ago, a story began to unfold in my mind.

It started with a young girl who lived at the bottom of a hill who considered things that were not in any way ordinary to be ordinary. She saw things others did not, could do things others could not, and it was all because of one, very unordinary thing.

She was a witch.


Just like Nana.

I wanted to run to the shack and see her but I knew instinctively that she would be gone. The cards said it too, in the way the queen of hearts sat next to the six of spades. I could feel her absence from my life like a hole in a shield I never knew I’d had until now. Nana Marin had protected me all this time, but now power began to swim toward me in waves. It flowed from the earth and the air into my veins.

I was a witch. The strongest in five generations. The world was mine for the taking, and I was ready to take. I remembered Nana’s words. You will never have trouble getting the things you want out of life.

I wished she would ask me one last time if I felt any different today. My chest ached at the thought I would never speak to her again and for a moment I was lost in the sadness of it all.

A soft knock on my bedroom door was followed by Mom’s tentative whisper. “Sophie? Are you up?” She pushed open the door before I had time to even think of hiding the cards. Her eyes fell on them for a long moment, and the paralyzing silence returned. I could only watch her watch me in the faint light of my bedside lamp.

“Oh, Sophie,” she said, as she stepped into the room and pushed the door shut behind her. She leaned against it like it was the only thing holding her up and took a deep breath.

I was suddenly angry in a way I’d never been before. It took me a moment to recognize the feeling behind it. Betrayal. All this time she’d known and pretended she didn’t. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

She shook her head and light glinted off of the tears in her eyes. “I couldn’t. Your grandmother made me promise.”

The slight emphasis she put on the word made filled in details I hadn’t realized were missing. The strange tightness in her mouth whenever I told her I was going out for a walk. The way she sometimes stammered when I asked her about Nana directly. She couldn’t tell me. Nana made her promise.

At once I felt sorry for Mom, and giddy at the thought that such a thing was possible. Did I have this skill too? Did Mom?

I looked up at her with new eyes. She read my expression. “You have to be very careful, Sophie. You can’t use it.”

Careful. I knew the word, but I couldn’t understand it in relation to me. I was literally bursting with power. I couldn’t not use it. I couldn’t keep it locked up inside me like a dirty secret. “Why?”

“Because,” she walked toward me, but stopped when her toes came close to the bent corner of the eight of clubs. She looked down at the cards, taking in each one before moving on to the next. Her bottom lip trembled when she spoke again, “because it’s not safe. Power corrupts.”

The energy flowing inside of me said different. It said I would always be safe. Nothing could hurt me. I didn’t think I could ever be afraid again. “Is that why you never use yours? You’re scared?”

With a sigh, she lifted the long, thin chain she’s always worn around her neck over her head. A tiny, ornate brass key dangled from it. “This is yours now. Use it and make your own decision.” She held it out to me and I saw a hint of something I couldn’t decipher in her eyes, not quite fear, not quite sadness. “Everything has consequences, Sophie. Just remember that.”

As soon as she was gone, I hung the chain around my neck and threw on a pair of jeans. The key hummed against my racing heart. I knew exactly what it unlocked, and I couldn’t wait to find out what was inside. The sun was just peeking over the hill when I slipped out the back door and headed for Nana’s shack.

*****
Come back Friday for Lacey's conclusion!

Photo by Striking Photography by Bo via Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, October 31, 2011

Storykeeper (Part 1 of 3)


I didn’t know Nana Marin was dead until my seventh birthday.

It wasn’t a great shock, though I realize now that it should have been. I asked my dad when she would arrive and whether or not she’d wear a pointed hat for the party – I had it in my head that nanas were given to wearing pointed hats at parties. Dad gave me a strange look and told me that she’d passed away when I was just a baby, but Mom took me by the hand and said, “Don’t tell stories, Sophie.”

That made a sort of sense to me so I nodded and never mentioned Nana visiting again. It was easier to go to her.

She lived in a slouching old shack in the steep hills behind my house at the end of a little trail that forked off of a bigger one that forked off of an even bigger one. I don’t remember how I found it the first time, but by the time I was eight I could get there in my sleep. Once a month I visited and on every birthday after the seventh.

Nana was always dressed in layers of wool and flannel, her hair was pinned up in a bun that looked like a pastry rested on the top of her head, and she smelled like lemons and honey. Her house was warm despite the way light seeped in around the logs and autumn winds snaked down from holes in the roof. When I visited, we would sit on the dusty ground and weave together ropes of pine needles I’d collected or little bits of yarn she produced from somewhere in the house. She taught me songs I’d never heard and when we sang them together, the wind whistled through the trees in harmony.

When I turned twelve, I brought her a deck of playing cards because I overheard Mom telling Mrs. Gallow how much Nana Marin loved a game called Gin Rummy.

“Ah!” She said, snapping them apart and back together again. “Shall I tell you your future?”

I was suspicious that magic could be done with an ordinary deck of cards, but I nodded and said, “Please, Nana.”

The cards said, sssssnick.

She flipped over the first card and pressed it into the dirt between us. I remember it was the eight of clubs and the corner was bent. She didn’t say anything, but she nodded, took a small breath and laid down every single card in that deck. She piled them in rows, all climbing toward my shins, and then sat back to examine them.

“Mmm,” she said and pressed her fingers together so that they pointed like the tip of her house. “Mmm.”

“What does it say?” I was not feeling patient and not enjoying the fact that these very unmagical cards were doing magical things. “Nana!”

“Oh, Sophie,” she said with a laugh. “You will never have trouble getting the things you want out of life. You are far too stubborn. This is a good thing because the cards are telling me a story. About you. And on your sixteenth birthday, they will tell you, too.”

“But I want to know now.” I protested, careful not to whine.

“Now is not the time.” She swept up the cards and returned them to me. “Cards like these have many stories to tell, but they will not be pressed. They hold tightly to them until the time is right.”

I never brought her cards again.

I asked Mom once, around my fourteenth birthday, if Nana had ever read her future. Mom’s face sort of emptied out until all that was left behind were the pieces of it: eyes, lips, nose, and the same pointy chin I carried on my own face.

Her only response was, “Where do you get such silly questions?” Then she pushed a bag of green beans into my hands and said, “Snap.”

Nana never mentioned the cards again and neither did I, both of us looking ahead to my sixteenth birthday as though it were nothing special. The closest she came to saying anything about it was on my fifteenth birthday.

“Feel any different today?” This question was a tradition and she asked it with playful smile. Or, she usually did. Today her mouth was serious.

“No, Nana,” I said. “I feel like the same old Sophie.”

She pressed her hands to my cheeks; they were no warmer than the cool dirt we sat on, but far more forgiving. “Next year. That’ll be the one. You watch.”

I was used to setting aside the strange things Nana said because when it came down to it, everything she said was strange. She was dead and I knew by now that the dead don’t talk. At least not to most people.

The night before my sixteenth I woke in the middle of the night. I was hopeful that this was the change Nana mentioned and I would feel it. It wasn’t, and I made an indifferent trip to the bathroom.

When I returned to my bedroom, annoyingly awake for so early in the morning, I reached for a book to pull the waking from my eyes and knocked over a small jewelry box. Two green, plastic bracelets and the entire deck of playing cards spilled to the floor. I sat to collect them, but ended up shuffling them.

The cards said sssssnick.

I shuffled until my hands felt warm and then laid them out on the carpet as Nana had done, in long rows of eight and nine. The first I recognized immediately; the eight of clubs with one corner turned. The second also looked familiar and the third and the fourth.

“They’re exactly the same,” I said, breaking the silence that suddenly felt too close.

Silence rushed in again, holding the house hostage. My breath, too, became thin as I considered the cards before me. I thought of all the words I could use to describe what was happening; eerie, unlikely, coincidence, impossible. And as I stared at the rows of cards, laid exactly as they’d been four years ago, a story began to unfold in my mind.

It started with a young girl who lived at the bottom of a hill who considered things that were not in any way ordinary to be ordinary. She saw things others did not, could do things others could not, and it was all because of one, very unordinary thing.

She was a witch.

*****
Valerie's up on Wednesday with Part 2!

Photo by Striking Photography by Bo via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, October 21, 2011

Crossroads (Part 3 of 3)

Before she appeared, he’d known the answer to that. If the demon that answered his call had born any other face he’d have said, “My soul for health and wealth.” Now, though, it wasn’t so simple.

“I’m here to make a deal.” Jason said, finding a small piece of resolve to stand on. He cleared his throat and smoothed his shirt before he continued. “I’m here to bargain for your soul.”


Meredith looked at him for a long, long time. Her head tilted slightly to the right, her face revealing nothing. The breezes twisting around her stopped, and everything went still. Too still.

Jason felt his certainty waver. The selfish part of him wanted to dig up his bag and run. Not out of fear, but from the shame. She’d always been good at this. Holding back, using her silence to make him speak. He felt fifteen again as he asked the question he didn’t want to hear the answer to. “What did you do, Mere?”

At this, her eyes turned kind. For the first time since she’d appeared, she looked like Meredith, and not some demon hiding behind her face. “I promised I’d always look out for you, didn’t I?”

“Not like this.” The sickness that had started in Jason’s stomach reached out for the rest of his body. Anger like liquid fire shot through his veins. He wanted to climb into hell and take down whatever demon had convinced his sweet, selfless sister to give up her soul. She didn’t deserve hell. Especially not for him. “You should’ve let me die.”

Meredith nodded. “Maybe I could’ve, if you were dying, but you weren’t.”

“I don’t understand. If I wasn’t dying, then why?”

“Would you have rather been a quadriplegic for the rest of your life? I couldn’t stand it, my baby brother, forever strapped into a chair, all because I was late picking him up.”

Jason thought back to the accident. So much of it was missing from his memory. He didn’t know why he’d been on the roof of the school that day, or how he’d managed to fall off. And since it was after school hours, no one had seen him but the janitor that found him splattered on the ground and called 911. He didn’t even know he’d been waiting for his sister. “No that’s…” He wanted to say that wasn’t true, but suddenly truth seemed like a slippery thing. Instead he told her what he knew. “That wasn’t worth your soul.”

Meredith shrugged. “What’s done is done.”

Jason walked toward her. The closer he got, the more he could feel the heat leaking from her in waves. It reminded him that she was here with him, but her soul was down there burning. He cupped his hand around the bag dangling from her wrist. It was heavy. Too heavy for someone as frail as Meredith to hold. The longer he held it, the more he realized he wasn’t feeling weight, he was feeling pull. The bag was her anchor. It kept her tied to hell even when she was out in the human world. It only increased his determination. He held his gaze steady on hers. “I can fix this.”

“Don’t.” She whispered.

“My soul for yours.” He said, and the bag he held in his hand began to glow.

They both studied it for a few moments before Meredith took a deep breath. “Are you sure? Your soul for my freedom?”

Jason knew he should be feeling fear, or at least sadness, but all he felt was relief. He would be redeemed. His life, all the terrible things he’d done since his sister died would be erased. Meredith would make the world a better place then he ever could’ve. He was positive, and he made his voice show it. “My soul for your freedom.”

A blast of heat burst at them from the ground, shooting Meredith’s hair straight up into the air. For a moment Jason thought she looked like she was falling. And then he realized the sensation was his. His feet stayed rooted to the ground, but he felt his soul detach and drop down, farther and farther until it touched flame. He squeezed his eyes shut in agony, but behind his lids he saw a landscape of fire and torture so horrific it made the burning of his soul feel like a slight itch.

“Jacey, open up.” Meredith teased. She sounded much more vibrant and alive than she had moments before.

Jason opened his eyes, grateful that at least his sister was saved.

Meredith pulled her bag free wrist away from Jason’s hand and grinned as he panted and tried to catch his breath. “Thanks, kid,” she said, in voice not at all her own.

As Jason watched, pale, pretty, teenaged Meredith morphed into a gorgeous, golden-skinned, raven-haired woman of about thirty. Without the headscarf and the shabby clothes and the wrinkles, it took him a moment to recognize the gypsy woman who’d told him how to summon the demon.

Jason glanced down at the heavy bag that now dangled from his wrist and could hardly speak. “Where’s Meredith?”

The painfully attractive woman threw her head back and laughed. “Hell if I know, kid.” she ruffled his hair as she walked past him, still grinning. “Thanks for the trade.”

*****
Next week is our week off, but we'll be back on Monday, October 31st with an all new tangle started by Natalie!

Photo found via google images, original author unknown.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Crossroads (Part 2 of 3)

When the truck had gone, and the dust settled, the demon stood before him. It wasn’t what he’d expected. It had no horns. No forked tongue or spaded tail. No pitchfork like a cartoon devil. It had eyes, not red, but as green as his own. And skin the color of milk with a touch of honey.

And a face Jason Turner could never forget.


The demon wore his sister’s face. There was no mistaking her crooked smile nor could he miss the small scar on her chin.

“No,” he said and retreated one small step. A feint at what he actually wanted to do in that moment.

He’d been prepared to go toe to toe with something inhuman, with something grotesque and terrible. He’d never seen a demon before tonight, but he’d had it on good authority that they weren’t that easy to look upon. Of course, he wasn’t finding it easy to look upon his sister, either.

The demon cocked its head to the side regarding him through amused eyes. “No? C’mon, Jacey. Is that any way to greet me after so long.”

The pain in his stomach writhed again. “You can’t be here,” he said, gritting his teeth across his words.

“I’m afraid I can,” was her response.

For a quiet moment, Jason watched the demon, his sister. He had come here to change his life. He’d come looking for the means to forget the person he’d been in all the years before this one and be better. There was irony in it, to be sure; selling your soul in order to convince yourself you have one. That was the level to which Jason had fallen. Only a demon could raise him up again.

But his sister hadn’t suffered from his less desirable traits. She had been kind and loving and good. The sort of person who’d give the coat on her back if she saw someone in need. The sort of person who made sacrifices for others. Jason had never been that good or selfless. He was the sort of person who chastised her for confusing recklessness with kindness. He was the sort of person who summoned demons at crossroads. Not her. She couldn’t be here.

A trick, he thought, that’s all this is. “Why are you using her face?”

Slow snaking breezes lifted the dust around her feet. It billowed around her, obscuring her feet in dull clouds. Moonlight cast pallor over everything, greying even her vibrant skin. And all around them, beetles snapped and clattered from the tall, dying grasses.

“Always so good with denial.” The demon with his sister’s face said sadly.

Lifting her hand before her, she opened her fingers to reveal a small leather bag. Not his, he realized. This one was darker, the drawstring at the top adorned with beads that glittered green and pink in the moonlight. Its strap was long and coiled around her wrist many times. At the edge of those coils her skin was pinched and pink. Even at a distance, Jason could see the scar from where it had dug into her skin.

He didn’t want to recognize it and he didn’t know what it meant that he did, but the beads on the bag were distinct. They were the beads from a necklace he’d given her on her seventeenth birthday when he’d been barely fifteen. It hadn’t been in their budget, but he’d taken extra work at the butcher for a month to afford it. That was before he’d discovered easier, more practical ways of affording the finer things in life.

“Jacey.” Her hand closed again on the little bag, clutching. Her fingers flushed white and Jason remembered how they twisted in the bed sheets at the end of another sleepless night. Her skin had lost its blush of honey so quickly and no one understood how or why such a healthy girl had grown so suddenly ill. Exceptionally tragic given her brother’s concurrent recovery from a fall that should have left him immobilized if not dead. “Jacey, why are you here?”

Before she appeared, he’d known the answer to that. If the demon that answered his call had born any other face he’d have said, “My soul for health and wealth.” Now, though, it wasn’t so simple.

“I’m here to make a deal.” Jason said, finding a small piece of resolve to stand on. He cleared his throat and smoothed his shirt before he continued. “I’m here to bargain for your soul.”

*******
See you Friday for Valerie's conclusion!

Photo found via google images, original author unknown

Monday, October 17, 2011

Crossroads (Part 1 of 3)

He left the BMW sitting beneath a crooked street lamp next to an ancient pump, the keys dangling from the ignition. The attendant smiled a patient smile and asked how much.

“Just fill it up,” he said, with a wave of his hand. He had no intention of paying the man, or using the fuel that would fill his empty tank. He had somewhere else to be, and he had no desire to return to his old life. He’d forget the beemer and buy himself a Bentley by morning.

The crossroads are a place where devils dance in the moonlight. Where souls are traded like stocks on Wall Street. A place where a person can forget who he was and the things that he’s done, if only he’s willing to pay.

He smoothed down the front of his collared shirt and loosened his tie. Nothing was too costly for Jason Turner. This, he decided, was what had to be done. A practical measure. A bump in the road to success.

He stood in the center of Cropsy and Manson, two dirt roads that lead to nowhere and the sight of far too many fatal car accidents. Someone should put a stop sign here, he thought. But there would be no stop sign, no traffic signal. Too many souls would be saved. Not many made the kind of deal Jason was willing to make and the crossroads demons had to meet their quota one way or another.

A soul like Jason’s wasn’t ideal, he knew that. They’d want someone pure, someone virtuous. Someone who didn’t already have one polished loafer in the devil’s door. He’d need more than just his weathered soul if he wanted to strike up a bargain.

From the pocket of his trousers, Jason removed a small leather bag he’d bought at a charm shop from a gypsy woman. The bag smelled like cat piss and dirt, but she’d assured him it would do the trick. He dug a small hole with the toe of his shoe, tossed the bag inside, and stamped the dirt back into place. With fisted hands and a rigid back, he waited.

Nothing happened. He was duped, he knew it. Something heavy settled in his stomach. He doubled over, heaving into the dead grass along the side of the road. He was out of options. He needed this. He needed to enlist the help of hell’s best businessmen. Without the deal, Jason was done.

Maybe the gypsy woman had forgotten to mention something. Some key that would unlock the gates of hell and grant him an easy way out. “Bury it,” she’d hissed at him. “Bury it, and face your demon.” She’d gripped his hands so tightly Jason could still feel the bite of her arthritic boney fingers. He was ready to face the demon, any demon. If only one would show.

An eighteen wheeler sped down Crospy leaving Jason just enough time to jump back. When the truck had gone, and the dust settled, the demon stood before him. It wasn’t what he’d expected. It had no horns. No forked tongue or spaded tail. No pitchfork like a cartoon devil. It had eyes, not red, but as green as his own. And skin the color of milk with a touch of honey. 

And a face Jason Turner could never forget.

*******
See you Wednesday for Part 2 by Natalie!

Photo found via google images, original author unknown

  © Blogger template Shush by Ourblogtemplates.com 2009

Back to TOP