Monday, January 31, 2011

Melody

There's this melody I've carried with me all my life. A song no one knows but me. It's always there hovering at the edges of my consciousness, tickling the back of my mind. I hear it now riding above the thick bass that shakes the dance floor. It worms its way between the writhing bodies of my new classmates. A lingering echo of the déjà vu I felt when I entered the gates of this estate, maybe.

I’m an island in this sea of dancers. They’re fluid, moving through each other, greeting old friends with air kisses, all to the beat of some insipid techno music. Until now, I always thought these kind of people weren’t real. Something you see on tv. An over-exaggeration of the lifestyles of the super-rich. A joke. If my friends back home were here they’d laugh themselves silly. Nobody actually listens to techno, Dani would say. It’s euro-trash. They just dump it here in America. But I guess it's different if you've actually been to Europe.

Of all the crappy moments I’ve had today. From the front desk girl sneering at me as she handed me my room key, Oh, you’re one of them. To finding out that my roommate and everyone else on campus moved in yesterday. To watching my dad’s beat up station wagon pull out of the parking lot, this is the moment where I know for sure I’ve made a huge mistake.

My head aches. Whether it’s from the music or the champagne they handed me when I walked in the door, I don’t know. The crowd feels like it squeezing me in even though not a soul acknowledges my existence. I am furniture, or one of the columns holding up the domed ceiling. Something to be moved around, but otherwise ignored. I need to get out of this place.

I push against the tide until I’m standing in the grand foyer. It’s hollow and lonely now that everyone’s in the ballroom. I tug at waist of my favorite sundress and remember the smirks and gasps of horror from the girls in their evening gowns as I passed through earlier. I should’ve known and yet I never suspected. Who has a prom the night before the first day of school?

It’s only when the light changes that I realize I’ve been walking on auto-pilot. I’ve crossed the foyer and entered a dim corridor. I take one look at the sconces on the wall – the real, oil burning kind – and the red velvety patterned wallpaper, and déjà vu swells around me. I know this place. I’ve been here before. Which is crazy. Until yesterday, I’d never been outside of Michigan.

Stop. Go back, now. I couldn’t make myself turn around if I wanted to. Because I realize now, it’s my melody that’s calling me, singing in my bones, pulling me further down the hall. I pass the library and the parlor; rooms I can see in my mind’s eye before I reach them. The end of the hall opens into a wide circle. To my right are stairs that I know lead to bedrooms, and the study. To my left an archway looks into a large round room. My destination.

The room is empty except for a grand piano that stands in a pool of moonlight. The surface is so glossy it looks like water. Before I can stop myself I’m seated on the bench, driven by a need to hear my song need, to hear it come from somewhere outside of myself. My hands tremble. I’m suddenly certain in a way that I have never been, that this is the place my song comes from. This room, this piano.

My fingers begin to pick out the melody. Like always, I feel a stab of disappointment that I can’t play it better, the way it deserves to be played.

The song - my song - always makes me feel melancholy, like something beautiful was lost, but in this place, it’s overwhelming. I lose myself in the music. In the parts I can hear but can’t play. In the emotions it churns in me. And for a moment I’m not alone in this awful place, I’m not even Kyra. I’m transported to another time, where this song made me happy. Where this song meant... love.

“How do you know that song?”

I’m not sure what’s louder, my scream or the discordant noise the piano makes when I slam my hands down in shock.

The boy who spoke stands in shadow in the archway. His voice had sounded astonished, but even in silhouette, I can see his posture is indignant, tense. My heart thuds in my chest. I can’t think of a single word to say.

He walks toward me, into the moonlight, and I gasp. He could be a sculpture, he’s so beautiful. And this is the biggest surprise.

In this house full of things I know by heart, I don’t know this boy at all. His face is foreign to me. And unlike everything else I’ve come across tonight, he’s completely unexpected.

His eyes bore into me, searching for something I’m sure I don’t possess.

“How do you know that song?” he asks again. There’s no surprise this time, only anger.

I want to stand up and run from the room, but I can’t. His question and his eyes, pin me in place.

He moves warily around the piano, never taking his eyes off me, until he reaches the end of the bench.

It takes a few seconds for it to sink in that he’s still waiting for an answer. I focus on my guilty hands still smashed down on the keys.

“I don’t. It’s just something I always play.” I glance up at him.

He frowns at me and I slip my hands off the piano and into my lap. “I’m sorry, I was looking for the bathroom, and I saw the piano and I just…”

His eyes narrow with suspicion, like he’s really seeing me for the first time. “Do you even go to the school?” It’s more accusation than question.

“Yes. I’m new.” He looks at me skeptically. “I’m uh, one of the ten,” I say remembering my roommate’s disdainful nickname for us scholarship kids.

He nods, believing me, I guess, but his tone doesn’t get any friendlier. “This part of the house is off limits.”

“Right. Of course. I’m sorry.” I take a shaky breath and stand. He stays at the edge of the bench, in my way. Our eyes meet, and time stops. Everything stops, even my heart. This close, I can hear his breath catch in his throat. The hostility in his gaze falls away, replaced with something softer. A magnetic force pulls us closer. His lips on my lips is the only thing that matters. I lean forward just as he dips his head down to meet mine. Yes. I don’t even know his name, but I know this is how it’s supposed to be.

And then he jerks away from me, leaving me dangling in space and I remember to breathe.

He takes a step back and looks at me with an open, curious expression. I realize I’m trembling, and clutch my arms to still myself. The walls behind his eyes fall back into place and his posture returns to the indignant, you don’t belong here stance he had when I first spoke. He’s just like everyone else at this school. I don’t know why I expected any different.

“The guest bathroom is to the right of the ballroom.” He nods towards the door, no longer looking at me.

I step around the piano, still breathless. “Thanks.” I say. “Um, sorry.”

He sighs heavily but doesn’t respond. The silence is painful as I walk past him and out of the room. I can feel his eyes on me the entire way but I don’t look back. I’m afraid of what might happen if I do. As soon as I’m through the archway I manage to take three whole steps before I collapse against the wall.

My breath is coming in short gasps and I know I’m about to cry. I hate this place. I try to slow my breathing and collect myself. I will not go out there and let those spoiled brats think they got to me already.

At first I think the melody is only in my head, where it always is. But then it grows louder, fuller. It tumbles out of the piano room and into the hall. The rational part of my brain screams at me to run, but instead I creep closer. I peek my head around the archway.

The mystery boy sits at the piano, drenched in moonlight. His eyes are closed. All the tension in his body is gone and he’s playing my song. My song. Only more fleshed out than I’ve ever been able to make it. He plays it like it’s classical music; and it aches in a way I never imagined.

The floor tilts beneath me and before I know it I’m running. Down the hallway, through the foyer, past the shocked faces, and the laughter. I don’t care anymore, all I want is out.

With every footstep, his words echo through my mind. How do you know that song?

And with every breath, the question I don’t want to ask presses against my chest. How does he?


*****
Come back Wednesday for an all new short story by Lacey!

Photo via weheartit.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Little Boy Lost (Part 3 of 3)

I duck into the tree-house. Max is standing there, staring down at the floor, the suggestion of a smile on his face.

“Okay, little dude. What’s so—Oh!” Shit.

I just sort of stare because it’s so dim in here that there’s a chance it might not be real, but then the smell slams the back of my throat and I have to battle with the violent urge to toss my cookies. I press a hand over my mouth and try to keep it all in.

“What is it?” Max asks and I realize that he’s squinting, not smiling, because his glasses are more than a little broken. It’s probably a hell of a lot better that he can’t see. I don’t know how he’d react if he could and the last thing I need is to take him home with fresh trauma in tact.

A dark red pool sits like oil on the floor. Its edges are thick and tall and form an uneven circle around what I’m way too certain is a heart. It’s not big enough to be a cow heart like the ones we cut up in bio. This one is small, the size of my fist, which means it could be human. It looks odd, though, not that I want to take the time to figure out why. More and more this feels like some elaborate prank. I’ll probably be on YouTube before I get home with some catchy title like ‘Playground Puker!’

I reach out and tug Max back toward me. “Looks like old steak or something. It’s gross whatever it is. Don’t touch it.”

A gust of wind funnels through the little window of the tree house and for a moment the air is clear. Max shivers and I remember how cold his fingers were and how seriously messed up this game is.

“Max, we need to go home. Mom will be worried if we’re out too long.” It’s pretty much blatant manipulation, but sometimes that’s best.

“No, Joshua, listen to me. She said we have to play. We must find the red things. The red things must be found.” He shifts his weight on his feet, back and forth. Rocking himself to stay calm. “It’s important because it’s a puzzle and there are pieces missing.”

I think, you’re the one with pieces missing. Somewhere outside and behind me, a crow barks and it’s like he’s barking at me, chastising. I grind my teeth and remind myself Max is a good kid and this isn’t his fault.

“Please, Joshua, it’s important.” He says, trying to focus on my face.

“Okay, Max.” I stand away from the door. As long as I can get him out of here and away from the bleeding heart on the floor, it’s a partial victory. “Where to next?”

He springs into action, diving down the metal slide on his belly. He sort of sticks at the end and inches to the bottom like a worm. I’m sure I’d get stuck one foot from the top if I tried. I hop down the way I got in and find Max dusting his hands on his jeans. “C’mon!” He calls, racing off into the field we just left.

I don’t know how he’s picking his directions, but I follow as he heads toward a whole pile of crows. They erupt in front of him and he crouches over whatever god-awful thing they were tearing apart while they scream their displeasure from seven feet away.

“Look! Look! What is it?”

The smell is strong, so strong that I know what I’ll see before I get there. It’s half buried in dying grass, and the blood is a soggy mess in the dirt, but it’s exactly what I was expecting. Or, almost exactly.

It’s not a whole heart, but half a heart with all the chambers open to the sky above. With another vicious twist of my guts, I realize that’s why the other appeared so small. It was missing a piece.

“That’s it.” I say standing up. “We’re going home. Now.” I say the last just as mom would when she’s at her most terrifying.

Max lowers his head and speaks in a small voice. “But there’s one more piece. Just listen to me. You never listen to me. She said four and we’ve only found three.”

“She said four hours, Max, not four pieces and she was clearly a psycho. You just can’t tell because you – because she was nice to you and you can’t tell the difference between nice and evil, psycho bi-“ I stop because he’s looking away and rocking on his feet. “I’m sorry. I can’t tell the difference either. C’mon.”

He follows now and I feel bad because I can tell he’s trying not to cry. I hate upsetting him. It makes me feel like a total dick.

We’re halfway home when the skin on the back of my neck prickles. Red flashes in the corner of my eye and I turn to find her standing next to a streetlight. It’s not dark enough to be on, but her dark curls are edged with orange light. It’s gotta be coming from the sun, but it looks more like it’s coming straight out of her hair in a Hi!-I’m-the-devil sort of way.

“I wouldn’t give up, if I were you.” She sings because that’s what crazy, hot chicks do.

“I’m not giving up.” I say without stopping. “I’m not playing.”

“You don’t have a choice. The game’s started and you’re in it.” Her voice follows us down the road. “And you’re running out of time. Remember what I told you, Max.”

The whole trip home is less than fifteen minutes, but it feels like it takes an hour. When we get there, I go straight up to my room. All I want is for this four-hour time limit to pass so I can start to forget this stupid game.

With five minutes still on the clock, I think, Max walks into my room. He knocks and enters all in one movement, which is something we’ve talked about without successful changes. It’s not usually a problem. I was only doing bio homework. This time.

He sits on the bed next to me. “Joshua, please don’t be mad, but I know where the fourth pieces is.”

“Max,” I start, but he raises his hands to stop me. They’re still pale and blue and I realize he still looks cold.

He lays back and lifts his black shirt over his torso revealing a flash of red underneath. For just a second, I don’t understand what I’m looking at, but then all of the pieces slide into place and cold spills over my shoulders and down my back.

In his chest is a dark, blood-black hole where is heart should be and all I can think is that I’ve lost.

********
Next week is an (un)Tangled week with individual shorts from each of us! Valerie will post on Monday, Lacey on Wednesday, and Natalie on Friday.

Photo by i_yudai via Flickr creative commons.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Little Boy Lost (Part 2 of 3)

I walk to the playground, looking for Max. He’s not on the swings anymore.

“Max! Come on, let’s go.”

No reply. I scan the playground, I don’t see his big round glasses anywhere. Shit.


“Max!” I trot over to the swings, like maybe he’s still there but I just can’t see him. “Max!” The rusted hinges creak as the swing sways under my hand. It’s still warm.

The playground spins around me and all the noises are sucked away. My heartbeat is the only sound in my ears. My eyes sting, growing wet. I couldn’t have lost him.

I catch a glimpse of something red melting into the tall hedges that surround the playground and somehow I hear her voice—that airy giggle. “Wait!” I chase after her. It’s too coincidental that she just comes up and talks to me and now my brother is gone. “What game? Do you know—” I push between the hedges and trip over something small, sending me flying face first into the sidewalk.

The girl in the red jacket vanishes around the corner. I turn to face the offending object—a pair of small glasses, I’d recognize those coke-bottle lenses anywhere.

“The game, Joshua.” Her voice is a whisper in my ears. “Four hours. Shh…”

I don’t want to play her stupid game. I want my little brother. “Where’s Max?” I don’t get an answer.

I lay on the sidewalk for what feels like forever staring up at an empty sky, not seeing anything. I know I have to find him, but it just feels so hopeless. Like somebody told my brain to shut off and forget about him.

“Joshua?” I turn to the sound of Max’s voice, still in a state of stupor. For a second I don’t believe he’s real. His face looks like plastic and his eyes seem too small and too dark. He bends over me and takes his glasses. One of the lenses falls to the ground and shatters.

Max frowns, a too-grown-up expression on his little kid face. “You broke them.”

“Uh. Sorry?” I pull myself up off the cement and when I tower above him, my big brother mode kicks in. “Where were you?”

“I was here, Joshua. Looking at this.” Max holds up a dead bird by its foot. Its black wings fall lifelessly toward the ground, revealing a flash of red feathers underneath.

“Gross! Put it down.”

Max shrugs and drops the bird on the sidewalk. I cringe, about to yell at him, but then I remember his Asperger’s and let it slide.

“C’mon. Let’s go home.”

“I don’t want to go home. I want you to play some more.” Max looks over his shoulder at the playground.

I’ve had enough playing. “No.”

“But the girl said you have to keep playing, and I’m supposed to make sure you do.”

A small shudder runs through me. “What girl?” She was just some random crazy chick, and Max was here all along.

“The girl in the red jacket.”

I grit my teeth. “What ever happened to not talking to strangers?”

“You talked to her.”

I run a hand down my face and draw a breath. “Fine.” Mom says it’s best to indulge him sometimes, because it helps with his social skills. “What did she say we--I had to do?”

“Find the red things,” he says, like it’s the most informative direction he’s ever given and I’m a dolt for not already knowing.

“The red things? Like what?”

“I’ll show you.” Max takes my hand. His fingers are icy and sort of blue. I need to get him home soon. “But it’s a secret.” He holds one skinny finger up to his lips. “Shh!” And then he leads me back into the playground.

My eyes skirt around the hedges waiting to see her or some other snobby bitches giggling behind them. Why do girls get so much power? Thinking about how bad I wanted to kiss her and the tickle of her voice in my ear makes me want to puke.

Max leads me past the swing set and over toward this tree-house thing that has a rock wall and a slide on the back. I used to love that thing. I was king of the rock wall in second grade.

Max scuttles up the wall like a little spider monkey and a sad smile tugs at my cheeks. If he had friends who actually noticed him, he’d be rock-wall king of the 21st century.

It’s not so much fun now when I can climb the whole thing in one step. I duck into the tree-house. Max is standing there, staring down at the floor, the suggestion of a smile on his face.

“Okay, little dude. What’s so—Oh!” Shit.


****
Come back Friday when Natalie brings us the final chapter!

Photo by i_yudai on flickr.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Little Boy Lost (Part 1 of 3)

The girl in the red jacket is staring at me. Not in a creepy way, but not in a way that‘s exactly normal, either. I mean, who stares at strangers in the park, or, well, who keeps staring at strangers in the park, once they’ve been caught.

She’s got this weird little half-smile going on but I’m pretty sure she’s not checking me out. Which is too bad. She’s kinda hot, in a I-stare-at-strangers kind of way. We’re probably about the same age too, which is a surprise, because other than when my mom makes me take my little brother, the only people here are usually under seven or over forty. This girl can’t be more than seventeen.

Now I’m staring, so I shift my gaze to the playground, looking for Max, and making sure he’s not getting in any fights or talking to any creepers. He’s got Asperger’s and he’s not the best judge of character or at social situations in general. But he’s a cool little dude.

He looks alright. He’s swinging on the swings with his head tipped way back, watching the clouds. I used to do that. All of a sudden, I miss swinging so much it’s like they outlawed it or something. Like all the swings died in some kind of swing flu epidemic. I want to go out there and join him but I won’t. A 6’ 1” kid on the swings? I have enough working against me already. No need to add fuel to the loser pile.

I feel her breath in my ear a second before she speaks.

“Hey.” It’s a whisper so low that if I didn’t feel it I wouldn’t be sure someone even spoke. I whip my head around and she’s on the bench next to me. The girl in the red jacket.

“Uh, hey?” My voice cracks and it comes out like a question. Smooth. That’s me.

She smiles like she just won the lottery or something, her tongue sliding out between her teeth. “I have to tell you something.”

This’s gotta be a prank. Maybe her bitchy friends are hiding nearby and this is some dare she has to do. Cute girls don’t come up to me in the park. They don’t come up to me anywhere.

I look around, but no one’s paying any attention to us. If she’s got friends watching this, they must be experts at camouflage. I turn back to her and her eyes are wide, round, like she’s excited to see me. She leans toward me and I kinda want to kiss her, but instead I say, “Okay?”

Her face flips from happy to serious like she’s a TV and someone changed her channel. Now her round eyes – brown, with flecks of gold – are somber. “It’s a secret.”

I’m almost positive this chick is crazy, but I kinda don’t care. I smile and drop my voice to a whisper. “I can keep a secret.”

She smiles back, coy this time. “I know.”

A breeze blows then, tugging her dark curls away from her face and for a second all I can do is watch them float around her head. She giggles, an airy sound that sends a shiver through me. Before I can ask what she means, she slides closer and cups her hands around my ear. She takes a breath and I go still, waiting to hear what this strange girl has to say. It feels like an hour passes as the world drops away. There is nothing but her hands on my ear, the tickle of her breath and then she speaks.

“The game starts now.”

I wait for more but she just laughs. She drops her hands and stands.

“What--”

“Shh...” She puts a finger to my lips. “You have four hours.” She winks, like I’m in on the joke, and then turns and runs away.

What the hell was that? I should’ve known a girl like that wouldn’t be talking to me for any good reason. Suddenly all I want is to go home. I walk to the playground, looking for Max. He’s not on the swings anymore.

“Max! Come on, let’s go.”

No reply. I scan the playground, I don’t see his big round glasses anywhere. Shit.

********
Come back Wednesday to see what Lacey does next!

Photo by i_yudai on flickr.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Strange Tongue (Part 3 of 3)

  “Be careful.” David’s body hunches over the table. The muscles in his face strain and push against each other as my mom fights for her last words. “Now that you know, he’ll find you.”

David’s eyes roll up as he collapses face first into his notes. She’s gone.


I don’t have time to feel sad. I sprint back behind the counter before the real David comes back. Maybe he’ll think it was a dream, if he remembers anything at all.

A middle-aged woman in a black pencil skirt comes up to me and orders a chai latte. I smile at her politely, but my eyes keep skirting around her back to the corner. David hasn’t moved.

“Extra cream, please,” says the woman. “And a dash of nutmeg.”

“Of course.” The corner stays silent.

“He’ll be back soon, you know,” she whispers.

“What? I wasn’t—”

“Don’t be coy, Alan. I know what you’ve done.”

I pull myself away from David and try to place where I’ve seen this woman. Her eyes are the color of coal and her hair as dark as the cocoa beans in the grinder. Her features are sharp, smart, and unearthly beautiful but in a way you wouldn’t notice unless you took the time to study her.

“I’m sorry, do I know you?”

She smirks, the corner of her mouth twitching just slightly amused. “We’ve never actually met. My name is Amon. I’m surprised your mother never mentioned me.”

The ceramic cup in my hand falls to the counter and shatters. All eyes in The Bean Queen focus in on me and this woman, who I’m pretty sure isn’t a woman.

“Jesus, Alan!” Kris comes running in from the back. “What is wrong with you?”

“Sorry. I’ll—”

“I’ll get the broom. Try not to break anything else.”

“Kris, wait! I…I gotta go.” I toss my apron onto the counter behind me and sprint past David’s corner toward the front door. The screams from my dream echo inside my head. I can’t be that person. I can’t be a demon.

I push into the door and it pushes back. It’s locked.

He’ll find you, Mom said. Not much of a forewarning.

“Why the rush, Alan?” The woman in the skirt asks.

“Yeah, Alan.” The douche with the triple espresso. His eyes turn as black as hers, and his smile is just as tight and unnatural. Everyone in the café has those same coal black eyes, except for David Stokes who still lies slumped over his notes.

I back myself up against the wall. “Kris?”

Kris comes from the back and steps up to the counter holding a broom. “I’m tired of cleaning up your messes, Alan.” Her eyes. Her smile. All the same.

He’ll find you.

The woman, Amon, takes a step toward me. “We won’t hurt you Alan. You’re far too important.”

“I’m not what you think.” I feel the lie, a cold spark that my mind tries to extinguish. The truth burns inside my chest, growing and coiling around itself until I feel the fire all the way to my finger tips. “I’m not who you think,” I say between gritted teeth.

“We’ve been watching you. We can help you, Alan,” Amon says. “We can prepare you.”

“I don’t want it.” My voice comes out like a question.

“It isn’t about earthly desires, Alan. It’s your birthright.”

“No.” I try the door again. I can see out through the glass, but it’s like nobody out there can see me. Nobody even blinks when I pound my fist against the door and scream. I throw my weight against it, trying to break it. Nothing. They just walk by like sheep to the slaughter. It makes the fire grow hotter.

“Alan.” Amon lays a cold hand against my shoulder and I sink down to the floor. She crouches down in front of me. I don’t see any part of myself in her/his face, not like I did with Mom on David’s. I don’t know him. I don’t owe him anything. I am not his son.

I shove the hand off my shoulder and her whole arm goes up in flames. They reflect in her dark eyes like the sun over placid water.

“I said, I’m not who you think.” I wave a hand at Kris and she bursts into flames. Triple espresso, I smile at him first. “I don’t have a problem with you guys, but this is a place of business. Keep your soul snatching on your own time.”

Their screams fill my ears, just like in my dreams. Only this time the power is real, raw, and amazing. They’re evil and they deserve this. I back over toward the corner where I’ve left David, hoping he’ll wake up. I don’t know if I can drag him out myself and I can’t leave him here.

“Alan!” Amon screams, her voice is raspy. Her sharp features have begun to melt. “Stop!”

She reaches for me and with barely a thought, the flames grow hotter, higher, until I can’t tell her apart from any of the others.

“He won’t get me, Mom.” I turn around to find David awake and staring at the inferno in front of him.

“David, c’mon. We have to get out.” I grab hold of his red shirt, the fabric looks like blood in my hands. David doesn’t move. “David!”

“Let me get my notes.” He starts to gather his chem notes.

“Are you serious?” Sweat pours down my face and stings my eyes. Smoke fills most of the café making it hard to breathe. “C’mon!”

David’s fingers wrap over mine. “I thought we had an understanding Alan,” he says all at once and as calm as if he were ordering his coffee. His eyes are no different than they’ve always been. Nothing about him is any different. David Stokes is definitely in there, but I think maybe a small piece of sanity was lost in limbo.

“David?”

“I come in every day, you make my coffee just the way I like it. You don’t cause trouble. You’re a good boy, Alan. And then you use me to talk to her?”

“I—” Is he really doing this now?

David sighs. “It’s fine, really. I understand. After all, had you not spoken to her, I would never be able to speak directly to you. And then there’s this.” He gestures to the carnage folding in around us. David smiles at me, his skin stretched too thin over his bony face. I’ve never seen him smile, never seen anything so personal come from him, but his expression is somehow familiar, like looking into a mirror.

“I always knew you’d take after me, son.”

*****
Monday, we'll have a brand new short started by Valerie!

Photo by Jayeb333 via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Strange Tongue (Part 2 of 3)

Beneath the table, I press my hands into fists and those against my thighs. I don’t know what I’ll do if this hasn’t worked.

I take a slow breath and in a shallow voice, I ask, “Mom?”


Vertical lines etch into the skin above his nose as the frown deepens. Slowly, his eyes meet mine. He squints.

“Alan?” The voice is soft, surprised, but still unmistakably David’s and I realize that if the powder didn’t work, he’s going to think I’ve lost my mind.

“Yes,” I say, trying to sound casual. “It’s me.”

David’s eyes swoop around the coffee shop, taking it all in before returning to me. “What have you done?”

There is no mistaking that tone, even in David’s nasally voice. I let out the breath I’ve been holding. “Mom.”

She – he grabs my face, turns it roughly from side to side. “This is real? You’re, I’m here? With you?”

“Yes, but I don’t think we have much time.”

“I shouldn’t be here.” She looks down at her chest – David’s chest, lifts his hands and studies them. This time her voice is full of horror when she asks. “What have you done, Alan?”

I’m struck by the surrealness of seeing my mom’s expression interpreted by David’s face. He looks twenty years older, but also like David, at the same time. For a moment all I can do is watch David’s mouth twist into my mother’s. It would be funny if it wasn’t so scary.

“I needed to talk to you.” Hearing the words out loud, I realize how pathetic they are. I ripped open the veil, pulled my mom out of wherever she was, and forced her to possess a slightly annoying, but totally innocent college student who just wanted to study for his o chem midterm. I don’t even know what happened to David. I never thought to ask. Is he in limbo? Can he see us right now? Does he know what I’ve done?

The fury on his face is all Mom. “You promised.”

“I know but—”

“No.” She/he leans forward and speaks low through gritted teeth. “No magic. Ever. It’s too dangerous.”

I put my hands flat on the tabletop and brace myself for what I have to say next. “Something’s happening to me.” How could I tell her about the dreams? How ever since she died, there's this hunger building inside me. How almost every night now I dreamt of flames, and screams. Horrific scenes of people begging for their lives as they burned to death while I laughed, a delicious power surging through me, filling me up the way no meal ever could. And worst of all, it was me who set them all on fire. “I need to know about my father.”

David’s face contorts with rage. The words spew out of his mouth in one angry stream. “I did not spend every ounce of my lifeforce shielding you from his influence just so you could seek him out the moment I was gone.”

I jerk back, her words a slap to my face. “What?”

No. Mom had cancer. It ate away at her. The potions she drank were for healing. But I remember the name of the recipe – Soul Saver. The way she was always running her hand through my hair just before she mixed up a new batch.

“Alan,” she grabs my hand with both of hers. Her mouth is open, but no more words come out.

“Hey lovebirds,” a man’s voice shouts from behind me. “You think I can get some coffee?”

I turn around to see the counter is empty. Kris must’ve gone on her break. A red-faced man glares at me, taking a moment to glance pointedly at my hand in David’s before crossing his arms and making what I’m sure he thinks is a hilarious joke. “If you’re done gazing into your boyfriend’s eyes, maybe you can come take my order.”

A few of the other customers laugh and I feel my face get hot even though he’s got it wrong and I wouldn’t be embarrassed to hold my boyfriend’s hand in public, anyway. If I had one. “Sorry, sir.”

I choose a pace somewhere between walking and running. I don’t want him to think I’m rushing for him, but I don’t know how much more time I have with Mom. And I don’t want to be anywhere near David when she leaves.

I feel Mom’s eyes on me as I hurry through making the man’s triple espresso.

“You know, I don’t have a problem with you guys,” the man says when I hand him his change. “Just keep it on your own time. This is a place of business.”

“Yes, sir,” I say, and the hunger flares in me. I would love to watch this idiot burn.

I shove the fantasy aside and sit back down across from Mom. She’s doing that thing she used to do where it’s like she’s looking inside me, like she can read my thoughts. It’s unnerving to see that knowing look on David’s face.

“You’ve changed.”

I almost laugh. She has no idea. “I know. Tell me what you meant about my father.”

David’s eyes fill with tears and I’m amazed that his body reacts to my mom’s emotions. She’s really in there.

“I thought I could protect you. I thought if I raised you right, you’d never need to know.”

“Mom, please.”

She nods her head quickly and wipes her eyes. She takes a deep breath and spits it out. “Your father was a demon.”

The sights and sounds of the café fade away until there is only the word “demon” echoing in my brain, and David’s tear-streaked face pleading with me. And I know in my gut that she’s telling the truth. This isn’t some nightmare, or a sick joke. My father was a demon, and so am I.

David/Mom wraps his arms around his stomach and gasps. “I have to go.”

“Wait!” I say, too loud, but I don’t care.

“Be careful.” David’s body hunches over the table. The muscles in his face strain and push against each other as my mom fights for her last words. “Now that you know, he’ll find you.”

David’s eyes roll up as he collapses face first into his notes.

She’s gone.


******
Come back Friday for part 3 by Lacey!

Photo by Jayeb333 via Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, January 17, 2011

Strange Tongue (Part 1 of 3)

David Stokes is as regular as a period.

My mom told me not to speak of things I have no earthly way of knowing about, but there’s really nothing else to it. David arrives when you expect, orders the same whole milk grande latte with a dash of nutmeg on top, stays for about as long as you’d expect, and when he leaves, it’s a temporary relief. He’ll come again and probably sooner than you’d like.

Today is no different. At exactly four oh three, he pushes through the drafty front door of The Bean Queen and walks right up to the counter. I’m already steaming the milk, but he states his order anyway, “One grande latte, whole milk, thanks, Alan,” like it’s all one word, like my name is an ingredient in his 4pm fix. He leaves a five-dollar bill on the counter and moves to claim his usual table in the corner. It’s the one beneath the art deco print of an impossible looking girl looking at her reflection in a mirror. It’s about as odd as he is, but I think his preference is more about the corner and less about the art.

The machine squeals as it presses the last of the juice through the beans. I hit the button with one hand, frothing the milk with the other. It might not be as fancy as the prints on the walls, but mixing the perfect latte, especially for someone as regular as David Stokes, is an art. My mom taught me to take pride in my work, even when others didn’t.

I pull a mug from the top of the machine, where steam warms the ceramic. In the bottom, I place one of her favorite earrings. A stud. It’s small with a diamond set in gold, all of it fake if I knew her at all. We never had money for luxuries, though that hadn’t stopped her from bending over backward to get me a laptop for my freshman year of college. Her argument was that “Education isn’t a luxury, Alan,” but neither was medicine.

Selling the laptop was the only time I’d ever lied to her, but we needed the money. She needed the money. And now I need her.

I slip the small folded paper envelop from my pocket. Its contents look like nutmeg and sugar and smell like fresh cut wood and something light and sweet. The woman who sold it to me through the back ally door of the local new age boutique store down the road called it Strange Tongue. I hadn’t bothered to ask what was in it, only what it would do. If it didn’t work, I’d be out more than the price of a laptop.

Covering the earring with the powder, I glance over the top of the machine. David Stokes is in a red shirt, which is almost funny. His coat and scarf hang on one of the knobs that dot the wall sporting a mural of a regal looking coffee bean. As expected, he’s covered the table with his organic chemistry books and is tearing up the paper of his notebook with formulas and atomic structures. It’s perfectly predictable. David Stokes is perfectly predictable, which makes him exactly what I need.

The woman’s instructions had been to find a creature of habit. Spirits have an easier time with chaos, she said, so finding a creature of habit was basically like ensuring that whatever happened wouldn’t be permanent.

“I’m sorry,” I say under my breath. David has no chance of hearing me, but saying it aloud makes me feel better. “And thank you.”

The espresso goes in first and the powder hisses as it melts into the black liquid. I lean over the cup and speak the words the woman gave me. They’re written in clear block letters on a sticky note in my pocket, but I’ve been repeating them to myself all day. I watch for a second to be sure the earring doesn’t float, which I realize now I probably should have done before, but the surface becomes placid. The earring stays at the bottom and I pour the milk over, shaking the foam into a delicately ridged pattern that David will never notice.

Before I can think twice, I slide the cup onto the counter and take the five. “David,” I say, slapping his change down.

As usual, he takes the leftover dollar and stuffs it into the over-sized coffee mug on the counter with a handwritten sign that reads, “If you fear change, leave it with us!” I barely manage a “Thanks, man,” before he scoops the change into his pocket and returns to his table.

Focus is difficult after that. I keep one eye on David in the corner as I mix drinks that are more syrup than coffee for girls who are more sparkle than substance. They lean on the counter, fishing for discounts with low-cut tops, but my eyes are on David. I don’t know what to expect, but I don’t want to miss it.

Five sips in, his head dips and I make change for the girls in a rush. They leave in a burst of giggles. I didn’t miss the shot at my preference, but I also couldn’t care less.

David hasn’t moved for a full minute. His head is bowed over his chem books, his hands limp on the table. I slide into the seat across from him. It wobbles beneath me as I lean forward.

“David?” I ask, not knowing what else to say.

His eyes blink slowly and his arms fall from the table to wrap around his stomach. The gesture makes his shoulders slope in on themselves. He looks cold, small. When he raises his head, there’s a little frown on his lips, the kind that sits to heavily in the eyes that the lips have no hope of hiding the hunger behind them. It’s a frown I know so, so well.

I lean forward until my chest presses against the table. My heart pounds against it, each beat coming more quickly than the previous one, all my hope raging inside me like a storm. I swallow and know my voice will shake before I speak. Beneath the table, I press my hands into fists and those against my thighs. I don’t know what I’ll do if this hasn’t worked.

I take a slow breath and in a shallow voice, I ask, “Mom?”

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

Photo by Jayeb333 via Flickr Creative Commons

Friday, January 14, 2011

Girls With Guns (Part 3 of 3)

“What do I call you?” I ask, backing away from Amie’s twitching fingers.

“Tam.” She’s by the door, the gun still trained on Amie’s body. I don’t think it’s so strange anymore. It might be the only comforting thing that’s happened tonight.

“This way, Tam.” I step past and, for the second time tonight, take the girl with a gun to my car.


I try to stay calm even though she’s driving my car, and no one drives my car. Especially not crazy, murdering, girls with guns. “Just to be clear, when you said she was going to eat me, you meant…”

“Devour your soul.”

“Right.” She’s so matter of fact, I would almost believe her if what she said was even remotely sane. “Why would she do that?”

She turns to face me, even though we’re going like seventy-five. “So she can keep looking like me, and stealing my life.”

I nod like she makes perfect sense. “So you killed her.”

She laughs. “I wish.”

I’m starting to think I made the wrong choice. “How do I know you’re not the bad one? You shot Amie.”

“Do you want to kiss me?”

“W-what?” This night just gets weirder and weirder.

“Right now. You just saw me shoot someone. I’ve got a gun pointed at you and I’m kidnapping you. Do you want to kiss me?”

She can’t be serious. “Um, no offense, but no.”

She looks back to the road, unfazed. “That’s how you know.”

“Oh.”

“You wanted to kiss, Amie, right?”

“Yeah but, I mean, I already wanted to kiss her so...” I shrug.

She turns to me again and I swear she almost looks happy. “You did?”

“Yeah.” I can just make out the “Thank you for visiting Joplin. Come again!” sign as it whizzes past us and then we’re in pure dark. Nothing but fields on both sides of us. With nothing for the headlights to catch on it’s like we’re driving in a tunnel. “So are you going to explain anything? At least tell me where we’re going.”

“Away from people.”

“If you’re going to kill me, can you do it in town so my parents don’t have to wonder where I am?”

She heaves a frustrated sigh. “I’m not going to kill you. This bitch has been ruining my life for centuries and it’s time for it to stop. I need your help.”

Centuries? I wonder if when we left Joplin, we drove straight into the Twilight Zone. “I don’t really see how I can help you with your family drama.”

She laughs. Actually laughs. “You won’t have to do anything but reek of that virgin blood flowing through your veins. Amie won’t be able to resist.”

She jerks the car off the road before I have a chance to ask her what the hell that means. The car dips and jerks as we drive over the ditch between the road and the field. I can feel the whole underside scrape against the rough ground and I’m pissed. I just finished paying it off.

She puts the car in park once we're a ways from the road. “Don’t even think about running,” Not-Amie, Tam, says. She points her gun at me for emphasis as she reaches into the backseat for her purse.

Amie’s gun glares at me from her waistband. I could grab it and shoot her, but the image of Amie’s still body, with its black bullet hole and no blood stops me. My brain’s finally starting to catch up with the events of the night. Putting the pieces together in a way that makes the impossible make sense. A bullet probably won’t kill Tam. And then she’ll be pissed I tried.

Tam slides back into her seat and pulls and digs through her bag. “Turn around.”

I do as I’m told. I’m not real religious but I wonder if I should say a prayer or something. I wonder if it will make a difference or if it’s too late now. Tam tugs at my t-shirt and I jump.

“Hold still.” She lifts my shirt until my whole back is exposed.

What is it with hot chicks undressing me tonight and it not being any fun? My voice squeaks when I ask, “What are you doing?”

“I said, hold still.” She pushes me forward slightly so my forehead touches the window.

Something cool and soft and kind of squishy presses against my back. It takes me a minute to realize she’s drawing on me. Whatever it is, it’s intricate. It reminds me of the sculptures she, I mean, Amie, was always making. She rests her free hand on my hip, just above the waistband of my jeans and it’s oddly intimate. Her breath tickles my skin as she whispers nonsense words over her artwork. When she lets go of my waist and pulls my shirt back down I’m surprised to discover I’m disappointed that she’s done.

I turn back to face her. “What was that?”

She caps a tube of bright red lipstick and drops it into her purse with a hint of a smile. “Just think of it as protection.”

“From what?”

A bright flash lights up the car. Tam looks out the windshield and frowns. “From her.”

I follow her gaze to Amie, who stands in the glare of my headlights, wearing a big grin. One hand’s on her cocked hip, the other one’s giving us the finger. “Howdy,” she says with way too much cheer. There’s no sign of the gaping black wound she had the last time I saw her. She chomps on her gum and I wonder if it’s the same piece she was chewing when she got shot. “You didn’t think it’d be that easy, did you?”

Tam points her gun at me. “Get out.”

I look back and forth between the two evils. At least if I’m out of the car, I might be able to run for it. We’re not that far from the road. I get out and so does Tam.

Amie’s grin stretches too wide for her face when she sees me. It’s grotesque in a way I never thought a smile could be. I can’t believe I ever thought she was hot. She reaches out for me as if for a hug. “There you are Chad! I was afraid Tamara had taken you all for herself.”

“He’s all yours if you promise to leave me alone.”

What? Didn’t she just say she was protecting me? “Hey!”

Amie ignores me and turns her grin on Tam. “You know I don’t make promises.”

Tam pulls a tiny red bottle covered in gold swirls and little jewels that sparkle in the light out of her pocket. “I think you might, just this once.”

Amie’s mouth drops open and the little color she had, drains from her face. “You wouldn’t dare.”

Tam raises an eyebrow at her. “Wouldn’t I? I told you I was done. I wanted a mortal life.”

“But I miss you!” Amie’s face contorts in a way that almost makes her look inhuman, but the whine in her voice is all teenage girl. “Don’t you miss me? Don’t you miss doing whatever you want? Being whatever you want?”

“I am doing what I want.” Tam shouts back.

“How can you stand being trapped in one body? One pathetic life?”

I try to follow the conversation but I’m lost.

Tam shakes her head. “You’ll never understand.” She uncorks the bottle.

“Wait!” Amie’s face shifts back and forth between anger, hurt, and fear. “Fine. I’ll promise, if you promise not to put me in there.”

Tam thinks it over. “Okay, but the bottle stays with me.”

For one second Amie’s face flares with rage but she wipes it away with a smile. “Fine. After I finish with Chad, you’ll have to tell me how you found it. I thought I’d hidden it well.”

Finish with me? I back away from them both and try to smile like I have a clue what’s going on. “Seeing as how you two have patched up your differences, why don’t you just let me go?”

Amie laughs. In a blink she’s standing in front of me. She takes my face in her hands. “Oh honey, you are a funny one aren’t you?”

She mashes her cold, pale lips to mine. My mouth opens in surprise, betraying me, and before I can move I feel her inhale. Feel her start to suck the life right out of me. I shove at her but either she’s really heavy or I’m really weak. A high-pitched sound pierces my ears. There’s a burning sensation against my mouth and then a bright flash of light. I drop to the ground, released from her death grip.

I look around for Amie, but see only Tam. She lifts the tiny bottle; it glows like there’s a light inside it. “What the hell?” I gasp, my throat raw.

Tam smacks the cork and smiles at me. “I don’t make promises either.”

******
Check back Monday for an all new story started by Natalie!

Photo by The Justified Sinner via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Girls with Guns (Part 2 of 3)



She leans in close to me till her lips are just a breath from my cheek. It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to turn and kiss her. I pretend that I don’t want to. That I don’t want her. But Amie isn’t dumb. And if there’s anything she knows, its guys.

She reaches for my belt buckle.


This isn’t at all how I imagined it would happen. Everything we ever hear is about guys pressuring girls into acting before their ready and it ruins their lives forever. I’ve never wanted to be that guy, but it never occurred to me that I might run into that girl.

Her laugh is birdsong in my ear, her breath thick with cherry and mint. When she throws one leg over mine and rips my shirt off over my head, I can only stare at her red lips. Even after all this, there’s not a smudge on them. They’re as pristine as a picture. I don’t have to be a girl to know it’s the sort of thing to envy and I suspect I don’t even have to be a boy to know it’s the sort of thing to want against my mouth.

There’s a crash and I think it’s probably my heart exploding straight through my chest, but Amie looks up with a scowl, her hand already on her gun. She slides off my lap like I’m not even there.

“Thought I smelled something.” The voice is so like Amie’s I’m surprised it wasn’t her mouth moving.

Getting to my feet, I’m even more surprised to find that the girl standing in the doorway looks a hell of a lot like Amie, too. They’re the same height and same, unmistakable build, with the same pale skin and the same dark hair. The only difference I can see is in the lips. On this girl, her lips are nearly as pale as her skin, the barest hint of pink along the edges.

They stand in mirror images of each other; one leg bent and ready for action, the other stock straight and still, a gun raised and trained on the other.

Amie doesn’t seem surprised by any of it. “This ain’t your business, hon. Look elsewhere.”

“You’re wrong there,” the not Amie says, “you crossed a line and this is my territory.” She glances at me and I’m all over unsettled by the way her eyes fall down my chest. I wish I were more dressed.

“Shit, this is yours?” Amie says with a bright, false smile. Her fingers fidget on her gun in a way they didn’t at Ronnie’s. it makes me nervous to see her nervous. “Well, then, Chad and I’ll be on our way.”

“You can leave him. I’d consider it a donation. A tithe.” It’s all she says, but the look they share is full of meaning. In the silence that follows, an entire negotiation happens and I’m in on none of it, but the tension in the room is suddenly very loud.

“No, thanks.” Amie says. Her feet shift.

The not Amie doesn’t answer, she fires. The sound is a quiet pop, but Amie falls back and doesn’t get up.

“Chad, is it?” Amie’s voice. No. Not Amie’s voice. She shoves my shirt into my hands and tugs at my arm. “Time to go, Chad.”

It’s the convenience store all over again. I move where I’m told, do what I’m told. I pull my shirt over my head, tell this not Amie where my car is, grab the cash from Amie’s purse and all the while this girl is still holding her gun on Amie’s body.

“What the hell do you think she’ll do now?” I ask. I’m sweating bad, but if I’m ever going to stand up for anything, it might as well be the dead girl on the floor.

The girl smirks, the picture of Amie. “I expect she’ll do something else foolish, which is why it’s time for us to get going.” She steps back, giving me a path around the bed. “After you.”

Something about the body on the floor makes the threat of the gun both more and less real. “You just shot your sister. Why should I go anywhere with you?”

She frowns down at Amie’s body, looking more pensive than apologetic. “I suppose you could call her that.” She crouches, lifting Amie’s gun from the floor. “But you should go with me because she intends to eat you and I haven’t decided, yet.” She stands, tucks Amie’s gun into her belt. “She’ll be wicked hungry when she wakes.”

“What do you mean, haven't decided yet?" I feel crazy, but I'm pretty sure it’s her.

She studies me like she would gum on the bottom of her shoe. “Virgins aren't really my thing."

I stare. At her. At the gun. At the body on the floor. At the black as pitch hole in the hollow of her throat. And I suppose it could be shock or a trick of the light, but I watch all the color drain from Amie’s lips until they’re as pale as the rest of her.

“Won’t be long now,” the girl sings from above me. “Are you with me?”

The night has gone from surreal to flat out impossible. I open my mouth to argue or make any of this make any sense at all, but I see Amie’s fingers curl against the carpet.

All choices look like bad choices. Between the waking dead girl on the floor who may or may not want to eat me, and the twin girl with the gun, there’s really only one option. “What do I call you?” I ask, backing away from Amie’s twitching fingers.

“Tam.” She’s by the door, the gun still trained on Amie’s body. I don’t think it’s so strange anymore. It might be the only comforting thing that’s happened tonight.

“This way, Tam.” I step past and, for the second time tonight, take the girl with a gun to my car.

******
Valerie's up on Friday with Part 3!

Photo by The Justified Sinner via Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, January 10, 2011

Girls with Guns (Part 1 of 3)

Amie Franco is sitting in the front seat of my car and I’m too afraid to make a move because of the gun on her lap. It’s not pointed at me, but it’s there.

“Turn right up here,” says pointing to a side street up ahead. She ties a bandanna under her chin and slips a pair of dark sunglasses over her eyes, even though it’s almost dark out.

“Ok.” I turn the car where she says because what else can I do? I’m still too shocked and confused to think on my own. I want to ask her where we’re going. Or better yet, what the hell just happened, but I can’t form words. Not so long as the barrel of her revolver stares at me.

“Over there.” She points to the Motel just ahead. Amie pulls her dark hair back into a low ponytail. “I ain’t eighteen,” she says. “Are you?”

I shake my head no and park the car. “Seventeen.”

“Well crud. C’mere.”

I swallow down my weird fear of her and lean across the seat.

She grabs my hair and ruffles it. “Untuck your shirt,” she says.

I struggle with it, my car isn’t very big.

My shirt untucked and my hair a mess, she sizes me up. “That’ll work. Go rub your hands on the tire. Get ‘em dirty. Makes you look older. Like a drifter or something.”

“What for?” I don’t get it. What does she want me to do?

“So’s you can go rent us a room for the night. They don’t rent to minors. But I bet you can pass for at least eighteen.”

“Oh.” I stare back at her. Amie’s looking at me like I’m some project of hers. Like one of the weird sculptures she makes in art class. “I don’t have much cash.” Truth is I don’t have any. I used the last twenty I had to buy the gas I’ve used being her getaway driver.

“It’s on me,” she says, handing me a wad of the bills she stole from Ronnie’s. That’s what she did. She robbed Ronnie’s convenience store.

I nod, even though I know how wrong this is and I take the dough.

I walk inside and up to the counter. I try to time my stride so I don’t look nervous. The attendant is reading a magazine. He’s a skinny dude with glasses and frizzy red hair.

“Help you?” He says, not looking at me.

“Uh, yeah. I need a room. Just for tonight.”

He puts his book down at peers at me over his glasses. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen.” I wipe my sweating palms on my jeans. He can’t see my hands from behind the counter.

“Got I.D.?”

“Shoot,” I say. I’m sweating bad. “Left it in my truck. I broke down a few miles back and walked up here.”

“That so?” He leans over the counter and peeks out into the parking lot. He can’t see my car from here. I parked as far away as I could. “You don’t have a young girl out there you’re trying to sneak in here, do you, boy?”

If he only knew. “No, sir. Just tired.”

He looks me over again. “Well, all right.”

My shoulders slump and I hold back my sigh of relief.

“Name?”

“Chad.” Crap. I flinch. Should’ve given a fake name.

He writes it down. “Chad what?”

I can’t give him my last name. My parents are the only Winthrop’s in Joplin. I glance around the room and spot a Bob Dylan record leaning up against an old turn table. “Uh, Dylan.”

“Okay, Mr. Dylan. It’ll be forty for the night. One full-sized bed ok?”

I nod. “Sure. Yeah it’s just me. That’s fine.” With a shaky hand I slap a fifty on the counter. “Keep the change.”

“Thanks.” He hands me a small brass key. “Room 409,” he says. I take the key and clutch it in my fist like my life depends on getting it safely out to Amie in the car.

Hell, maybe it does.

The room is tiny. The bed is okay though. It’s bigger than my bed at home. Amie flops down on the end of it and kicks off her red cowgirl boots. I know those boots. I’ve marveled at them, well mostly her legs but the boots were there too, the whole school year. She wore them with everything.

Tonight it was a denim miniskirt and a white tube top. If I bent down enough I bet I could see her underwear between her legs, but the gun on the bed beside her keeps me from peeking.

“That’s better.” Amie looks up at me and smiles. She’s the only seventeen-year-old girl in school who wears red lipstick. It stands out against the milky whiteness of her skin. “You can sit down. I ain’t gonna bite ya.” She puts the gun on the night stand and taps the bed beside her.

“Oh.” It just registers that I’ve been standing in the doorway staring at her. “Sorry.” I sit down beside her. I don’t know what the hell to do with my hands. I end up letting them dangle between my knees.

“You’re Chad, right?”

“Ah, yeah.” It shocks me that she’s asking. We’ve had almost every class together since she started coming to school. She was home schooled before this last year, but I’d seen her around town before then. I guess I just assumed she knew me. But why would she? We ran in opposite directions. Never collided. Until now.

“I’m Amie.”

“Yeah. I know who you are.”

She smiles. She pulls a piece of gum out of the front pocket on her skirt and pops it in her mouth. “Want some?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

She shrugs. “Didn’t cost me nothin’.”

I laugh a little, even though it feels wrong. She’s a criminal. I’m sitting on a bed with a crazy criminal, in a room bought with stolen money, watching her red lips smack, chewing on stolen gum.

“So I guess I owe you somethin’ for helping me out back there.”

“Ah, no. No you don’t owe me anything.” I lean forward.

Amie smirks. She inches closer and opens her knees a little till her thigh is touching mine. I stare down at her bare knee and swallow back my nerves.

“Nothin’ you want, Chad?”

Yeah. There’s a whole lot I want, but I shake my head. “I’m good.”

She leans in close to me till her lips are just a breath from my cheek. It takes every ounce of self-control I have not to turn and kiss her. I pretend that I don’t want to. That I don’t want her. But Amie isn’t dumb. And if there’s anything she knows, its guys.

She reaches for my belt buckle.

******
Come back Wednesday for Part 2 by Natalie!

Photo by The Justified Sinner via flickr creative commons

Friday, January 7, 2011

Lady of the Ax (Part 3 of 3)

I can’t let her win. I grab the bow and I sight my target—right between wide eyes.

After all, I have no friends in the Mimic Ring.


I force myself to stop and count. It would be so easy to let the arrow loose on Macy – not to kill, just to wound – just enough to keep her from grabbing the ax. But Macy’s surprised eyes remind me of what we’re taught on the very first day at the Academy and from every day there on. Little Red didn’t fight the wolf for glory, she fought to keep those she loved safe. Shoot Macy just to steal the ax and I’ll be banned from ever becoming a Lady of the Fray.

Macy’s lips pull into a wide grin as she realizes I won’t do it. She reaches for the ax and the desire to shoot her goes beyond wanting the ax for myself. I want to shoot that smug look off her face.

Caryn lets loose a scream full of terror and I forget about Macy – for now. The big wolf in front of the pack has Caryn on the ground, an enormous paw on each side of her body. I don’t even think, I just shoot. The wolf falls sideways, disintegrating before he hits the ground. The rest of the pack goes still, uncertain about what happened.

A distant howl pierces the air and the wolves turn their heads as one. Sara must’ve found the knife. The wolves take off into the trees and Macy smirks at us as she sprints after them. If I leave now I could tackle her and take the ax. Caryn grabs my arm. “Thanks.”

I can’t look at her. Even though I’m glad she’s still here, glad she still has a chance to become a Lady of the Bow, I’m watching my own chance disappear into the forest. I want to count to ten but there’s no time. “Let’s go,” I say. “Before Macy and Sara get them all.” If we don’t kill a wolf during our trial, we’ll be forced to become Lady’s Aides instead of Apprentices. It could take years to become a full-fledged Lady of the Fray.

Caryn is covered in the stench of wolf, her breath is ragged as she attempts to stand. I hand her the bow and quiver of arrows and her hands shake as she takes them. Even though we all know the wolves won’t kill, it felt like she almost died. More so than it ever had in practice.

“Come on,” I give her arm a gentle tug. “We can still catch up.” We head in the direction Macy ran. I try to listen for the wolves or maybe catch a scent, but the odor on Caryn is so overwhelming I can’t smell anything else, and her usually graceful way of slipping through the trees has been replaced with loud tromping as she rustles every branch and steps on every twig. If she doesn’t calm down she’s going to draw the wolves right to us and I am weaponless.

I need to get away from her. This isn’t a team challenge. “I think we should split up.”

“NO!” Her shout is so loud it echoes. She clutches at my arm and before I can pull away, I hear the rumbling of massive paws heading straight for us. Caryn’s eyes are wild with fear. Her grip on the bow is so tight her knuckles are white. I don’t understand why she’s acting like this. Caryn gets skittish around the wolves, but never when she has a bow and arrow in her hand.

The rumbling becomes a ground shaking thunder and Caryn leans closer to me, her fingernails cut into me through my sleeve. I can smell her sweat, she’s practically oozing the big wolf’s scent, which is strange. We’re trained to use our sense of smell at the academy – a wolf can hide his body, but not his scent.

Use all your senses, they would tell us. Think what would’ve happened to Little Red if she’d only relied on her eyes.

We learn to recognize each other’s scents so we don’t wound each other in the dark woods. Caryn’s is soft, like lilac and peach, even when she’s afraid.

The wolves burst through the trees on our left in a blur of black fur and glistening white teeth.

“Get back!” Macy shouts at us from our right. She jumps between us and the wolves, ax at the ready. Caryn pulls me away from the fray and I’m too angry to be scared anymore. This is supposed to be my moment.

Macy starts showing off, like those ridiculous anime movies where Little Red is always some cross between a ninja and a samurai, twirling and leaping and kicking as she swings her sword and slays a dozen wolves.

Macy wields the ax like a pro and the wolves drop one by one. Caryn doesn’t even fire off a single arrow, just clutches the bow to her chest like a shield. Sara is nowhere to be found.

As the last wolf retreats, Macy takes aim and hurls. The ax lands perfectly between the wolf’s shoulder blades and as he disappears in a scented mist, it drops to the ground near me. Macy smiles triumphantly, her hood already red with synthetic blood, but the trumpets don’t sound to signify that the last mimic wolf has been killed. She frowns and looks to the sky for an answer.

Mimic wolves. Named for the program that can create anything. Not just wolves. Medical schools use them to make bodies for practice surgeries.

An idea so horrible it makes me shudder, forms in my mind. They wouldn’t. I inhale sharply, searching for the faintest hint of lilacs or peaches but I smell only wolf, and cinnamon, and the garish perfume that Macy wears.

We are trained to trust our gut, our instincts finely honed to sense a wolf in even the most unlikely places. I take a deep breath and count to five. There are no friends in the ring.

I grab the ax with both hands and before I can stop to think, I turn and swing for Caryn’s tiny neck. Time slows. My name, in Macy’s startled voice, floats at me from behind. Caryn’s terrified eyes open so wide they’re in danger of popping out. I watch, mesmerized, as the blade inches toward her. A crimson jet of blood spurts from her neck when the ax makes contact and for one horrible, endless second, I’m certain I made a mistake. And then Caryn vanishes in a cinnamon-scented cloud and the world comes rushing back into focus. Cheers erupt from the heavens as the sky melts into a thousand multi-colored hoods over smiling faces and clapping hands.

“Ladies of the Fray,” a voice echoes from speakers everywhere. “Please welcome your newest Lady of the Ax, Lochlin Cowle!”

**********
Come back on Monday for an all new story started by Lacey!

Photo by ®DS via Flickr Creative Commons.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Lady of the Ax (Part 2 of 3)

And with that encouragement, the little black door opens and we enter the Mimic Ring.


The second I step into the ring, a new smell hits me—the mimic wolves. They’re not in sight, which can only mean there are more of them than we’d ever imagined. Their fur is manufactured to smell just like the real thing—earthy, hot, and foul. It burns my throat and tickles my nose when I draw a deep breath and start to count. Thirty seconds before the four-note chord will tell us to begin.

I glance over at Caryn. Her eyes scan the clearing we’ve entered into. She’s looking for the bow. Temptation to help her find it tugs at my insides, but I have to get to the ax before Macy. Caryn will be fine.

The Mimic Ring is much like the Cutter Wood, enclosed in a high brick wall. The sky isn’t real, but it looks like a sunny spring morning. On the other side of those puffy white clouds sit our elders—the Ladies of the Fray.

I have no way of knowing how deep the wood goes or where the ax might be hidden. I pick out a spot on the far left where I will enter when we’re given the signal. Macy is to my right. The ax could very well be closer to her. She’s taller than I, and a fast runner. I’m nimble and light on my feet. We both have a good chance of getting the ax.

“Be safe, Lochlin,” Caryn whispers.

I nod and smile. The four notes play all at once and we charge the dark wolf-infested wood. I sprint through the trees, sticking close to the brick wall so not to lose my way and end up back-tracking. Footsteps fall behind me, too heavy to be Caryn and too slow to be Macy. Having Sara on my back is disconcerting—she’s loud and I’m not sure I trust her.

We aren’t friends in the ring. We’re not even classmates, we’re competitors. I push myself to run faster. Sara’s footsteps fade behind me, allowing me to breathe easier.

The wall curves, ushering me to the right. For a second, I lose my footing and slide down a small incline. The bottom is wet with mud and littered with wolf prints. The foul odor is stronger. I brace myself, scanning the trees for any sign of beast or Lady. It’s probably nothing, but I know they’re all watching and I have to be at my best.

Something shines to my right, the ax head I hope, but as I near it I realize it’s a dagger wedged into the trunk of an oak. Sara will find it if she’s still following, leaving the bow for Caryn.

A low rumble comes from deep in the shadows. I crouch down and grasp the dagger, just before a mimic wolf springs at me. One of the first things we learn at the academy is to never turn your back to a wolf. I dip, weave and thrust.

At about the size of a black bear, this wolf is smaller than most of the training wolves I’ve hunted in Cutter Wood, but no less determined to shred my hood and burry it’s teeth in my neck. One last thrust and the wolf falls dead at my feet, quickly disintegrating. Its ghastly scent is replaced by cinnamon and baked things, reminding me of Red’s famed basket. Another wolf howls, then another and another. I’ve got to get to the ax.

If I take the knife I’ll be able to defend myself, but I’ll leave Sara defenseless. If Sara can’t find the knife she’ll likely take Caryn’s bow. I jam the dagger back into the tree and leave it behind, hoping to outrun the other wolves.

The woods grow denser, leaving me no space to walk along the wall. The thick trunks and spindly branches push me farther into the wood where a new smell hangs on the breeze—coppery and sweet.

A wide pine gives me cover, a moment to catch my breath and strategize. Still no sign of the ax. I recognize the smell as blood, but I’m not sure if it’s real, or another illusion of the Mimic Ring.

The scream that rips through the forest is most definitely real. I sprint toward the sound of Caryn’s voice, then skid to a stop somewhere deep in the wood, far from the wall I’d planned to follow. Between me and Caryn stands a pack of twenty or so wolves, these as big as grizzlies.

“Lochlin! The bow!” Caryn shouts. She points to where the bow hangs from a tree branch. I could get to it and with Caryn’s help we could slaughter the wolf pack. I take a step toward it and something else catches my eye. Just beyond, my ax sticks out of a stump. If I go for the ax, I’ll be too late to help Caryn.

“Lochlin!”

I glance once more at my friend and then back to the stump where my future lies wedged between splinters of rotten wood. I am destined to be a Lady of the Ax. I’ve dreamed of being cloaked in crimson, of hunting real wolves with the Ladies of my color.

A figure weaves gracefully through the wood toward the stump. I catch just a glimpse of Macy’s curled dark hair.

One of the wolves rushes at Caryn. The smell of cinnamon and sweets left behind by fallen wolves seems to call them in and make them ravenous. She fends them off with a thick branch, one that won’t hold out much longer.

The image of Macy’s frosted lips flashes through my mind, repeating her warning, “Stay away from the ax, if you know what’s good for you.”

I can’t let her win. I grab the bow and I sight my target—right between wide eyes.

After all, I have no friends in the Mimic Ring.

**********
Come back on Friday for part 3 by Valerie!

Photo by ®DS via Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Lady of the Ax (Part 1 of 3)

Today is the day of the Hunt and every student, teacher, and affiliate of Little Red’s Academy for Ladies of the Fray has dressed in their finest to attend the slaughter.

Pressed between Brina Dallow and Caryn Lee, I count to ten between each breath. The air is thick with sweat and perfume and the lavender mixture the attendants pump into the room to keep us calm. The room itself is large enough to hold all one hundred and sixty-four girls in the senior class and we’ve been seated in rows around a square practice mat large enough for four girls to use at a time. When our names appear on the monitor, we’ll be given five minutes to stretch and warm up before passing through the unremarkable black door on the only empty wall. Beyond the door is the Mimic Ring and inside that, our final test before graduation: wolves.

I’m not counting because I’m nervous, or, not only because I’m nervous, but because everyone else is so nervous I can practically hear them sweating. The only person in the room pretending she doesn’t have a care in the world is Macy Bridges. She’s seated as far away from me as I could manage, but she’s propped herself up on the edge of her seat and turned so that her voice reaches the greatest number of ears as she boasts the twelve wolves she axed in her last training session. It doesn’t matter that training wolves don’t hold a candle to the mimic wolves waiting for us in the ring; she’s commanding the space with pink, frosted lips.

“Little Whip says I’ll surely make Ladies of the Ax, but I just don’t know.” She says, brandishing Little Whipple’s nickname and false modesty like twin trophies.

“I hope to Red I don’t end up in the ring with her,” I grumble for only Brina and Caryn to hear. Brina grunts her approval, but Caryn offers only nervous laughter in response. She has no designs on becoming a Lady of the Ax, only on getting through the Hunt in one piece.

Of the four girls who enter the ring together, only one of them will emerge as a Lady of the Ax with the others becoming either Ladies of the Bow, Ladies of the Knife, or Ladies of Cunning.

More than anything, I want to be a Lady of the Ax. It has been the desire that pulled me from my warm bed before breakfast each morning for a pre-dawn run through the Cutter Wood, the goal that brought me to the practice ring when everyone else had retired for the evening. More than anything, I want to follow Little Red and trade my brown hood for crimson.

Four tones sound in a climbing, gentle chord, drawing all eyes to the monitor and Macy’s diatribe to a close. The screen glows red and no one breaths as we wait for the first name to appear in delicate, white script. I count my heartbeats and try not to think about the crowd outside the ring; all Academy girls in brown hoods like mine, Ladies of Cunning in cerulean blue, Ladies of the Knife in steely gray, Ladies of the Bow in ochre, and Ladies of the Ax in dark, bloody red. We won’t be able to see or hear them from inside the Mimic Ring, but we’ll know they’re there, watching through the dome of mirage glass, a brilliant and eager fire.

Silently, the first name surfaces through red pixels: Caryn Lee.

Beside me, she shudders and I reach over to squeeze her hand. Brina’s arm drapes over my shoulders as she presses her own hand against Caryn’s shoulder.

“I’m okay,” Caryn mutters, her voice belying her words with a weak tremble. “Really. I’m ready.”

The second name appears and it’s Sara Vickers. Already, I know they’re a good match. Sara is bound to go for the knives, and Caryn prefers the bow. “This is good,” I whisper and give her hand a shake for emphasis.

The third name appears and for a moment, I don’t recognize it as my own, but Brina smacks my shoulder in triumph and I let a smile tug my mouth wide. We’ve secretly hoped that one of us would end up in the ring with Caryn and it’s my name hanging below hers in letters far too refined for my own hand. But our cheer dies as soon as the fourth name appears on the screen. Macy Bridges stands to a smattering of relieved applause and stalks to the practice mat on her long, well-trained legs.

Brina catches my arm. “Get the ax, Lochlin,” she says with a hard edge in her brown eyes. I nod and Caryn and I approach the mat in silence to warm our muscles. Getting the ax doesn’t ensure your place among the Ladies, but it’s just about the strongest indicator there is.

I move with focus and intention through the stretches of my warm up and from them into the sequence of basic defensive postures we learn in our first years at the Academy. I count to ten twice between each, clearing my mind of everything but the task ahead: finding the weapons, getting the ax, killing the wolves.

One glance at Caryn tells me she’s tense, but focused. We aren’t supposed to be friends inside the ring. We’re supposed to worry about ourselves and about our performance, about keeping our own flesh away from the teeth of the mimic wolves, which, while not programmed to kill, will tear your skin just as easily as the real thing. But if Little Red had done as she was told, there would be no Academy for Ladies of the Fray and wolves would run rampant in our cities.

The four-note chord plays again and we move toward the little black door. Here, the air is spicy, alive with cinnamon and citrus as if we need help boosting our heart rates. Macy charges to the front of the line and turns to grace us with a mimic smile from her frosty lips. I try not to sneer immediately.

“Good luck, girls,” she says with a quick tug on her dark hair to tighten her bouncy ponytail. Only Macy Bridges would curl her hair for the Hunt, I think. “And,” she adds, all the false sweetness of her voice falling away, leaving only a threat behind. “Stay away from the ax, if you know what’s good for you, especially you, Lochlin Cowle.”

And with that encouragement, the little black door opens and we enter the Mimic Ring.

*****
Lacey's up next with Part 2 on Wednesday!

Photo by ®DS via Flickr Creative Commons.

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