Monday, February 28, 2011

Butterfly Girl

“You are an impossible girl, Sascha,” mom said, stroking the skin of my back.

Wrapped in the sticky fingers of a fever, I hugged the pillow to my face letting it pull some of the heat from my cheeks. I responded with a single drawn out syllable, “Mmmm.”

Mom laughed and danced her fingers over my shoulder blades. “How old are you, now? Seven? Eight?” She teased, trying to distract me from the roiling of my belly. I would not be budged. “Well, I can see that you are eight. Your wings are just beginning to show and what sort of wings do you think they are?”

I turned and pressed my head against her knee. I was too miserable to tell her I wasn’t interested in her ridiculous ramblings. Nothing would keep her from telling me what sort of wings I had, just like nothing could have stopped her from telling me I had a cricket where my heart should be and a lion’s roar where other people held their fear.

My sisters would say if mom’s imagination were a stone, it would grow flowers.

“They are butterfly wings, Sascha. And people will see you and they will love you. It is impossible not to.”

* * *

I saw them at Cara Phillip’s eleventh birthday sleepover. We were playing Bloody Mary and it was my turn in the stark black and white bathroom. It was unwelcoming even when the lights were on, so sightings of Bloody Mary were higher here than they were in bathrooms with pastel seashells or baby duckling themes. The single candle we lit cast sharp shadows and cinnamon scent into the corners.

It was impossible that she actually existed, but that was why she was so enticing. Stuffed with cookies and popcorn, having painted our nails and obsessed over the breasts we didn’t yet have, we all wanted to believe in impossible things.

The toilet had a loud flush that sounded like it was pulling all the extra noise from the world. My words were lost beneath its burbling as I turned slowly three times.

No matter how many times I’d done this without seeing the infamous woman, the moment just before I opened my eyes was my favorite. My breath quickened, my heart tapped a steady beat against my chest, and I felt hopeful and anxious, like the world was about the change, like I was about to change. I played the game for that moment, when every thing I wanted to happen, could happen.

I opened my eyes.

Candlelight flashed over the mirror, erratic and indifferent. I saw a slice of my face with bright color behind it and I screamed.

All nine girls pushed through the door at once saying my name, asking what I’d seen. Their voices were excited and eager, all of them wanting validation of the story we’d been telling each other.

Cara climbed into the tub behind me and wrapped her arms around my waist. “Did you see her?” She rested her sharp chin on my shoulder and watched my face in the mirror while everyone else watched her.

I couldn’t tell her what I’d actually seen, wings spreading out behind me in brilliant blues and golds. It wasn’t what she wanted to hear. It wasn’t what any of them wanted to hear, so I only nodded my head and said, “it was horrible.”

But I didn’t think that at all.

* * *

I looked for them after that. I tried to catch them in the mirror, looking through the corner of my eye or squinting to blur my vision. I tried imagining them full and spread out in the sunlight, real and bright. I tried to spot them anywhere my reflection might appear, windows, puddles, even in dark sunglasses.

It didn’t matter how hard I looked I couldn’t find them again.

* * *

“You only become more beautiful every day.” Mom pulled a brush through my hair and I dabbed gloss over my lips. It was the same gloss Cara used and I deferred to her on all matters of beauty. “And your wings are even more stunning than ever.”

Birds sang evening songs in the maple tree just outside my bedroom window, promising a perfect evening. I wanted to climb outside, into the tree and sing with them.

“Mom,” I complained. “Don’t you think I’m a little old for that sort of thing?”

“You will never outgrow your wings.” She twisted my hair into thick, dark ropes in her hands, following the style I’d picked out of a magazine. “It won’t be long before others see them, too.”

“Mmmm.” I twisted the cap of my gloss and dropped it into my purse. It matched my dress perfectly and I was more excited than mom knew to attend my first formal dance.

She pinned my hair in place, tucking little white and blue flowers into big curls. “Mmmm,” she said in response.

* * *

Cara announced there would be a Summer’s End party at the lake and so there was. We brought our bathing suits and beach towels, someone brought a cooler of beer, and we claimed a full half-mile of shore all to ourselves. That was the sort of power Cara had.

When the sun was gone entirely and we left the volleyball court for the bonfire. I don’t remember who saw them first. I was dancing with Cara and her entourage to a hyper song with more bass than anything that sounded like actual music when someone shouted my name and we all stopped.

“Sascha, whoa! Do you guys see that?” I couldn’t see through the light of the bonfire. The voice came out of the blackness behind it and though it sounded familiar, I couldn’t put a name to it. I didn’t answer. I didn’t need to. Everyone was staring and my name flew to me from all directions. Someone said, “She’s like a butterfly,” and I knew what they’d seen.

I wanted to see it, too. And I wanted to hide it from them before they’d seen too much. How could I share a piece of myself I hadn’t yet seen? It didn’t seem fair to catch descriptions, “blue” and “gold” and “impossible” and not know the shape of the thing they were carving out with their words.

“Are you all high?” Cara’s voice was a splash of cold water. “Think we’ve all had enough for tonight, don’t you?” She pushed the lid of the cooler down and stood before it like a Grecian statue, all impossible curves and power.

Around us, the mutterings became sharper with “bitch” dropped loudly enough for Cara to hear. She pretended not to and turned to me with a concerned smile. “People can be such freaks,” she said with emphasis, but her eyes jumped from my face to the space above my shoulder. When she looked back again there was an extra shadow in her light brown eyes.

* * *

The changes started slowly, but I noticed them right away because each one was more impossible than the last.

I was never alone – not in the hallway, not at lunch, not on my walk to the parking lot after school. Someone was always with me.

People asked my opinion before asking Cara’s.

Weekend plans started with me. If I said I was going to see the school play, everyone I knew went to see the school play.

Butterflies showed up everywhere. Butterfly stickers plastered my locker, girls wore butterfly print t-shirts, butterfly earrings, butterfly barrettes in their hair. My name became a dim memory, replaced with Butterfly or Mariposa or Papillon.

And Cara became quiet.

* * *

“Have you seen them, yet?” Mom sliced tomatoes and tossed them into five bowls of salad. I handed her another one and stirred the pasta. I shrugged, not only to answer her question, but hoping to feel something more than my shoulders move.

I didn’t feel anything.


She tossed more tomatoes and washed her hands. “You will. When the time is right, you will.”

It wasn’t easy to believe her and it wasn’t easy to accept that so many others had seen something about me that was so secret I couldn’t even choose to share it. It seemed that my wings belonged more to other people than to me.

Every day, I looked for them less.

* * *

Cara sent a text that said, sorry things have come to this, but it’s time to get out of the temple, little goddess.

The next day, the floor in front of my locker was littered with the wings of butterflies. They were so bright and beautiful it was as if someone had brought every color under the sun here to murder them.

I bent to collect them, my heart a trembling thing in my chest, and held them delicately in my hands. No one stopped to help me. They gave me a wide berth and did not step on any of the wings. I could pick no words out of their fearful whispers.

I didn’t cry until I was in my car and then I let my tears fall all the way to the lake. I carried the bundle of wings to the end of a long pier and sat with my legs folded beneath me. One by one, I dropped the wings into the water. They floated away from me in all directions, reaching up and out but not slipping beneath the dark water.

When the last one had flown from my fingertips, I closed my eyes.

Sunlight pulled the last of the tears from my skin. My shoulders rolled back and I felt the familiar stirring in my belly that the world was about to change, that I was about to change.

I opened my eyes and there in the water, drawn out in the colorful wings of Cara’s victims, were my own. Impossible and bright.

* * *
Check back on Wednesday for a complete short story from Valerie!

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Friday, February 25, 2011

Black Mirror (Part 3 of 3)

The flickering thought in my mind flares. “Everard,” I whisper so afraid to speak, so afraid to break the spell, but needing to before something terrible happens.

She doesn’t answer me but her fingers dig into my shirt, leaving red fingerprints to crown my shoulder like droplets of blood. But it’s not blood. It is the dye that grounds the scryer to this realm.

“Everard, I haven’t been cleansed.”


The images fly by so fast that I can’t take them all in. They’re confused, like they’re for me, but not for me. Garett didn’t clear his thoughts before we entered. They're clouding my intentions. Spoiling my one chance to find Aurelia. In the glass I see myself naked and dripping in red dye. And then my sister drenched in blood. I don’t know what’s truth anymore.

The images set my teeth on edge. Anxiety is not supposed to be in the chamber but I can’t shut it off. I’m failing. I have failed. My body starts to tremble. I grip Garett’s shoulders and try to stay focused on the vision. He’s whispering to me but I ignore him. I can’t hear his words over the hum in my brain, anyway.

My eyes burn from staring without blinking but I can’t afford to miss anything. Suddenly I tip forward and then just as I thrust my hands out to catch myself, I’m yanked backwards.

“Everard!” Garett shouts at me as he pulls me away from the mirror. He shakes as I try to wrestle away from him, back to the mirror, and I realize the mirror is shaking too. The truth about what happened to my sister is too much for even the mirror to bear.

“No,” I shout, and claw at the ground. The truth is in there and I want it out. I kick back and Garett’s grip loosens. I scramble to the mirror on my hands and knees. I am face to face with what should be my reflection, but it’s Aurelia’s face I see looking back at me. She puts her hand to the glass and I reach up to place my palm against hers.

“Everard, don’t!” Garett’s voice is piercing but I can’t stop. I have to know.

I press my hand to the glass. My sister’s face contorts into something less than human. A grin splits cracked black lips as the thing that’s not my sister laughs. The noise is unlike anything I’ve ever heard. High and keening. The whole room vibrates with the sound. My palm is on fire. It feels like it’s melded to the mirror. Heat, dark and stinging, spreads up my arm and through my veins. I feel Garett’s grip on my shoulders just as the glass starts to quiver.

The crash of dozens of mirrors all fracturing at once fills my ears and then I’m wrenched away, onto the ground. Garett throws his body over mine and the world explodes into a thousand shards of glass.

For a moment there is only silence and the sharp pain of the tiny glass knives stuck in my body. I hear my own ragged breaths, but no others. “Garett?” He makes no sound.

The room is much darker without the moonlight reflecting from the walls. I twist myself out from under Garett. He lies motionless. In the faint light I can see one large piece of the seeing mirror sticking out of Garett’s back. It takes me a moment to recognize my own bloody reflection in the glass.

I want to scream, but the sound won’t come. It’s trapped inside me with the horror that I created. Garett is dead because of me. Just like my sister.

The door to the chamber slams open and the room sparkles with the light from the hall.

The Master takes one look at the glass and stops in the doorway. “Everard?” His eyes catch on the bloody heap of his son. “What have you done?”

“I just wanted to find my sister,” I say. My voice is barely a whisper.

I’m not sure that the Master heard me. He’s looking at Garett, his usually emotionless face full of pain.

I can feel blood running out of my wounds in streams but I don’t ask for help.

The Master’s footsteps crunch as he makes his way to his son. He places fingers to Garett’s neck and goes still. An eternity passes before he speaks again. His voice is soft. “Everard, please go to my office and bring me the grimoire and the small box I keep in the cabinet there.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

His shoulders slump in reply. He leans forward and pulls the shard of glass from Garett’s back. “There’s not time. Go!”

Standing is nearly impossible. I take a deep breath and begin to yank the largest pieces of glass from the backs of my legs. All the while, the Master mumbles words over Garett’s dead body. He doesn’t turn to look at me even when I cry out in pain.

I tread carefully, the combination of my bare feet, slick with blood, and the glass strewn floor makes the trip a slow one. I tell myself I’ll be able to run when I reach the hall. I let myself hope that the Master knows how to save Garett.

I am two steps from the door when the laughter starts. It’s the sound the thing in the mirror made, only much more horrible because it’s not coming from the other side of the glass. It’s right here in this room. I am too afraid to turn around.

The Master shouts, “No!” He starts to say something else but he’s cut short by a sickening thud. The Master makes a gurgling noise and I know without looking that his death is in my hands too.

“Don’t bother, Aveline,” says a voice behind me that is Garett’s, but not. “Garett is gone, but thanks to you, I’m free.”


Next week is individual shorts week! Come back Monday for a full short story by Natalie!

Photo by photomaker66 via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Black Mirror (Part 2 of 3)

Garett’s mouth works like a fish gasping for air. His eyes are wide and his cheeks pale as he lifts a finger to point at me. “Everard?” He asks in a voice much softer than I’ve ever heard him wield. “You’re a girl?”


I had suspected Everard was hiding something from the day I met him. Her. But I had never suspected this.

Everard shake her head, no, likes she’s hoping that maybe, just maybe I will believe what I saw was my imagination, but it’s no use. “Yes you are!” I say, though there is no certainty in my voice. “I—I saw you.” The image of her skin, so milky white and soft with pink spots dappled over her chest and collar from the hot water of the bath.

She sprints past me and closes the door with a soft click, sliding a chair in front of it. “So help me Garett Ledwich, if you tell anyone, anyone, you will regret it.”

Myriad emotions roil around inside of me. The most prominent of all is anger. “You lied.”

Her face looks torn. She pulls the robe tightly around herself. “I had to.”

“You had to because you know girls are forbidden! You are not allowed to practice—”

Everard presses her warm lips to mine, her mouth coated with droplets of condensation from the heavy steam that fills the room. She pulls away quickly and I’m left gasping for air like she’s sucked my breath away. “If you tell,” she whispers in my ear, “I’ll tell the Master that you kissed me and you know he’ll be able to see that it’s true.”

My lips tingle, the taste of hibiscus lingering on my tongue. I’m too shocked to say anything to her, but thoughts race in my mind, jumping and tumbling over one another. “I wasn’t going to tell.”

“You—You weren’t?” Everard looks small beneath the descrying robe. When I thought she was a boy her frailty made me want to hurt her, but now it makes me feel strange. Like I need to protect her.

I shake my head. “No. But, Everard, you can not go into the chamber.”

“I’ve done everything correctly.”

“You can fool me and the others in this house, even my father, but you can not fool the spirits.”

“I have to.” Her decision has already been made and it is of no use to attempt to change her mind. She has risked far too much to turn back now. Whatever she wishes to see, it’s of grave importance to her.

“Then I will go with you.”

“You can’t. Only one person is allowed. If she—if they know you’re there, they won’t talk to me. I won’t see. It won't work. You’ve ruined everything!” She pushes the heels of her hands into her eyes. When she pulls them away her eyes are rimmed with red. I’ve never seen Everard cry, and I’ve given her plenty of reasons. I’d always tried to break her, when I thought that she was a boy.

“It also won’t work for a girl. Not in this house.”

She sighs and her vulnerable face is replaced with the determined one she’s always worn. “Why do you want to help me?”

“Because you’re a—because I’m…sorry.”

Everard doesn’t have time to find fault in what I’ve said. A knock at the door makes us both go rigid. “Everard? Have you finished cleansing? The chamber awaits.” My father’s voice comes through the door soft and certain, something I can never be.

Everard straightens her back, thrusting her chin out and her shoulders back. She gives me a firm nod. “Yes, Master. I’m ready.”

Thankfully the path to the chamber is empty. The mind must be clear when the scryer leaves the cleansing bath, and no other persons are to be there to distract. But I’m there and Everard, a girl, is very distracting. She stops at the entrance to the chamber and dips her finger tips into a bowl of red dye. She whispers the grounding chant, the sacred words that will keep her grounded in this reality whilst she visits a realm that is not our own.

For me this does not feel like the reality.

Inside the chamber moonlight bounces off of the black mirrors that line the walls. In the center of the room, one large oval shaped obsidian mirror stands alone, framed in silver that is older than anyone alive can remember.

Everard places one slender finger in the center of the mirror. She leans in close to it so that her lips just brush the surface as she whispers a word that I can’t hear, a word that only she can know. One that binds the mirror to her, insuring that what she sees will be hers alone. I turn my head to the side, feeling like I am invading this private moment.

When she steps away I say, “It won’t work the way you want it to.”

“I know. You’re going to call her for me.” She sits down, gazing into the mirror from an angle so that she can’t see herself. She gestures for me to sit in front of her.

Everard rests her hands, small and cold and delicate, on my shoulders. I tense beneath her touch, fighting with my emotions. She whispers in my ear, her breath smelling of hibiscus brushes my cheek. The fennel and orange in her hair seems oddly out of place there, it sparks some distant flame in my mind. Something I’ve forgotten.

My mouth repeats her words, speaking of secret glances and sacred sights. Images flash across the mirror, swirling clouds of gray and black and dirty white. Everard keeps whispering the chant and I keep repeating.

I’ve never been inside the chamber, not without my father and never during the ritual, but I’ve rehearsed it so many times. The process has been drilled into me by my father since I was old enough to comprehend our legacy. I should feel as though I have done this countless times, but something feels off. Something is not right. I shake the nagging thoughts away, reminding myself that my head needs to be cleared. Forget that Everard is not who’d I’d suspected. Forget that two in the chamber is unorthodox. There will be time to sort it out after this is over. After I help her to find what she’s fought so hard to see.

She stops speaking and after I breathe the last word of the chant I fall silent with her. Images swirl in the black mirror--some hazy, some clear, some simple, and some absolutely terrifying. Everard needs my words and my presence to see. She doesn’t need my eyes. My gaze drops from the images to my hands lying limp in my lap. My finger tips look almost blue beneath the moonlight that paints the chamber walls.

The flickering thought in my mind flares. “Everard,” I whisper so afraid to speak, so afraid to break the spell, but needing to before something terrible happens.

She doesn’t answer me but her fingers dig into my shirt, leaving red fingerprints to crown my shoulder like droplets of blood. But it’s not blood. It is the dye that grounds the scryer to this realm.

“Everard, I haven’t been cleansed.”

Valerie finishes it up Friday!

Photo by photomaker66 via Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, February 21, 2011

Black Mirror (Part 1 of 3)

Garett Ledwich has been suspicious of me from day one. “I know you’re hiding something,” he’d said, leering.

I’d been in the house for two days and had no friends to speak of, so I did the only thing I could think of and pushed my nose right into his face. It wasn’t easy. He was taller and bigger than me, but I’d learned a thing or two about looking menacing when you’re not. I pushed my shoulders back and raised my chin. “And I know you’re ugly, but I’m not taking offense.”

He swung and I ducked and slammed my shoulder into his guts. He hit the ground, knocking his head against a wooden bench. It made an unsurprising hollow sound. That was where the fight ended, but I’d made a life-long enemy of the Master’s son, which might have been the end of things if he hadn’t also made enemies with every other boy in the house.

Sunset pours orange and pink through the western windows of the library. It illuminates my notebook and exposes thousands of dust motes in the air. They swirl around the end of my pen, racing back toward the darker air where they won’t be forced to reveal themselves. I make careful notes on herbs for foreseeing and hinderseeing annotating each with sketches - fennel and meadowsweet and clove. Between them I draw the face of a girl, my sister, as I remember her with a watchful expression and hair curling away from her shoulders.

When the bell rings six times, the door opens and Master Ledwich enters. He wears no jacket and his sleeves are pushed up to his elbows. Red stains the tips of each of his fingers and I sit up straight. The other four young men in the study do the same. No one misses his fingertips. He hasn’t said a word, but we are attentive as dogs.

“The moon is full tonight. And you are all ready.” His eyes rest on each of us in turn, settling last on me. “Everard, you’re first. The bath is prepared. The rest of you will follow in one-hour intervals.”

I stand, pulling gently on the hem of my vest. “Thank you, Master Ledwich.”

Garett gifts me with a sneer as I pass. “Do us a favor and drown.”

I make no reply. I follow Master Ledwich into the hall where the gas lanterns are dim and light crawls across black mirrors. Any other night, I’d stop and stare into them. But tonight, I keep my eyes on the Master’s back. Our footsteps fall in between the soft ticks of the Grandfather clock. I match mine to his so the rhythm is clean and predictable.

“Everard,” Master Ledwich says without turning around. “Remember to relax. Do not bring expectation into the chamber or you will meet with disappointment.”

“Yes, sir.” I hope I sound more certain than I feel. I’ve been in the house for six months and in all that time I’ve not set foot inside the descrying chamber. It lies below the house, where it is quiet, with a shaft that goes all the way through the house to capture the moonlight. No other light ever touches the chamber because it is only in darkness that one may truly see anything at all. And it is the sole reason I am here. To see her. To find my sister and bring her back.

He gestures to the bath chamber and I leave him in the hall. The room is filled with steam and scents of fennel and orange blossom. They’ll have been added to the bathwater in order to cleanse my skin of any impurities. I don’t relish the thought of smelling fennel in my hair for three days, but it is the first step of the cleansing ritual and I must complete them all if I’m to have any hope of seeing.

I undress carefully and slip into the scalding water. I stay in as long as I can, focusing on the meditation that is meant to clear my mind of thoughts and expectation and my sister. This may be my only chance to prove my worth and I intend to do everything exactly as I should.

I cannot fail her.

When I’m as red as the dye on Master Ledwich’s fingers, I step from the water and dry off quickly. Steam sticks to my skin, keeping me warm and damp as I complete the last steps of the cleansing. Clove oil behind my ears to remind me to listen, a drop of sweet hibiscus on my tongue to seal my lips, and lavender oil over my heart to keep me calm. I am ready, but I let myself linger because it isn’t often that I’m allowed privacy enough to be unfettered by layers of cotton and wool and silk. It feels honest.

And that was my mistake because Garett, too eager to wait his turn, took that moment to open the door.

Cold air rushes in, cutting the steam in half. I scramble to pull one of the descrying robes from the hooks on the wall, but it’s too late.

Garett’s mouth works like a fish gasping for air. His eyes are wide and his cheeks pale as he lifts a finger to point at me. “Everard?” He asks in a voice much softer than I’ve ever heard him wield. “You’re a girl?”

Lacey's up next on Wednesday!

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Friday, February 18, 2011

Hart's Ridge (Part 3 of 3)

It’s half buried in the dirt, but I uncover it easily. As soon as I do, I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d taken Nate’s hand and run while we had the chance.

“No,” he whispers, reaching for the small, silver locket in my hand. Beneath his touch, it separates leaving us each with half a heart and the beginning of the curse in our hands.

“It’s nothing. Just an old locket,” Nate says between deep inhales. He knows it not nothing just as well as I do.

“So this is how it works? For over a hundred years some boy just came up here trying to stop some girl and they both found this?” The light catches the locket as I hold my half in front of our faces. “That seems impossible.”

“Because it is impossible. C’mon. Let’s just—let’s go.” The fear is evident in Nate’s voice and it takes him back a step to that small awkward boy wheezing up the hill. “We can still go home, Cami.”

“No. We can’t.” I can't. What am I going home to? An entire town of people, including my parents, who will resent me for the rest of my life because I didn’t go over the cliff and stop it all? This is it. It has to end with me.

“Why not?” Nate keeps glancing over his shoulder at the tree line. A shadow moves in the dark—a bird probably, unless someone else has come to watch the show.

I close my eyes and wait for the pull of it, the invisible thread that will draw me to the edge of the bluff and send me sailing to the Red River below, but there’s nothing. Just the heat of the morning sun on my eyelids. “I don’t understand?”

Nate wraps his arms around himself, shivering. “Please, Cami. It doesn’t have to happen this way. You don’t have to be their sacrifice.” He waves his arm back behind him toward the tress, or the town below. “Please.”

Shadows darken Nate’s eyes and create creases around his mouth that I hadn’t noticed before. Memories from all the years we’ve known each other crash together like the waves down below us. How could I have had Nate all this time and not known it? Not cared? Is this how Cami felt about Jed? Is this why there love was so secret, because even she didn’t know?

I lean into him and tuck my face into the bend of his neck. “What were you going to say before?”


“Before you reminded me of who I used to be.”

Nate pulls back to peer at me behind the thin red curtain of his hair. “I was going to say—” He searches my face.

“Please,” I whisper, brushing the hair out of his eyes. “I really need to know.”

Nate laughs. “What the heck, it is Valentine’s, right? I was going to say that…that I love you, Cami. I’ve always loved you.”

As soon as the words leave his lips an icy chill runs through me. It’s the confirmation I need. I snatch the locket out of Nate’s hand as I pull away from his warm arms and back toward the edge of the bluff.

Love. Love is what brought this curse to the perfect town of Hart’s Ridge. The curse that has to end before it takes another life. Before it takes Nate.


My feet keep shuffling my body backward. My mind is reeling, spinning with all the things I can’t make my mouth say. It’s better if I don’t say anything to him now.

If I choose to jump, rather than wait for the possession of the curse, will that end it?

“Cami, what are you doing?” His eyes flash between me and the woods.

I shake my head no, tears prick my eyes. Why did he have to say that? I can’t stop thinking that maybe I love him too. It makes it that much harder, but convinces me that I have to do this.

“Please, Cami.” He’s not pleading with his words, but with his eyes, like he’s trying hard to convey some secret message. Whatever it is it doesn’t matter.

I reach the edge and pause just long enough to whisper, “I’m sorry,” and watch Nate’s eyes grow wide and scared as he lunges for me, screaming my name.

Like the pebbles I’d tossed so carelessly, I sail down over the cliff. My fingers fold tight around the locket, knowing in my heart that I had no choice. I had to do it to save him. I saved Nate, and I saved the town. The curse of Hart’s Ridge ends with me, Camilla Hart. A sad smile crosses my lips and just as I know my head will hit the water of the blood-red river, somewhere above me I hear the crack of a gun.

Thanks for reading! Come back next week for a new story started by Natalie!

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Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hart's Ridge (Part 2 of 3)

I turn around to find scrawny Nate Beckstrom hunched over, one hand on his knees, the other clutching his asthma inhaler. He peers up at me through his longish red hair, and says the first words he’s ever spoken to me in my life. “Oh thank God, I thought I was too late.”

“Not yet.” I toss another rock over the ridge, turning my back to Nate.

He’s probably come to watch the curse go down. Since no one has ever seen it play out, it’s been the source of much friendly contention and about a thousand different ghost stories over the centuries. Anyone who could return to school with a first-hand account of the true story would be crowned king or emperor or god. I can’t really begrudge him that sort of fame.

I hear two short puffs and then a pause before Nate’s breathing becomes normal and closer than before. “I’ve been thinking about the curse,” he says from my right.

“Who hasn’t?” I toss another pebble and watch its hopeless descent. It’s paving the way for me, carving a small path through the air so I won’t get lost when the time comes.

“I don’t think it happens the way people say. I don’t think Jed and Cami were in love and I don’t think they killed each other. Have you ever held a shotgun, Cami? It’s not really the easiest way to commit suicide, but if the story is true then they found it in his hands. In his hands. And a hole straight through him. It doesn’t add up and I don’t think you should be out here.”

It’s difficult to picture Nate holding a shotgun in any way that looks real. I try it, but it’s like imagining a child wielding a broom or a sword, awkward and incomplete and in some small way adorable.

It’s less adorable when I imagine a bloody hole in his head.

“It doesn’t matter,” I say. “At least not for me, but you should get out of here.”

Quiet opens between us like the Red River below. Nate stands stone still, watching me through strands of red hair. He stands out against the dark pines behind him the contrast makes him seem older and not at all awkward.

“Don’t let them do this to you.” He doesn't plead. He says it like it’s something he’s said to me before. Only he hasn’t, because this is our first conversation of all time. “Don’t let them make you their sacrifice.”

Sacrifice? I don’t like the word, the idea, the implication, but it rattles uncomfortably in my mind. Sacrifice, sacrifice, sacrifice. Hart’s Ridge is cursed, I remind myself. This isn’t the sort of thing people would do willingly. The town is trapped and I am the only one who can free it. I’m not their sacrifice, I’m my own.

But I remember how my mother hugged me longer than usual last night before bed and how my windows opened soundlessly on the worst day of the year.

“Why are you here?” I step away from him, angrily dragging my foot through the dirt and pebbles. Dust rises between us, a thick distance in the morning sun.

“Because –“ He stops and I watch as he files straight past his first answer to the second. “Because I remember when you chased Cindy Dirks through the playground in the third grade for calling you the “curse maker” and how you used to fight this whole damn town for putting their own destiny on you. And I remember when you used to answer questions in class and wear bright colors and make eye contact and I just – just – “

Right at the end, his voice splinters high and low, but it doesn’t matter. I step forward, slipping my hands around his cheeks and press my lips to his.

For just a second, we are quiet and still, but then his hands settle on my waist and our kisses become quick and breathless.

When we pull away, I feel a smile on my face. I can’t remember the last time I smiled and that thought makes me laugh and laugh until I have kneel on the ground, my fingers pushing the pebbles apart. Nate kneels with me, his eyes narrowed with a hint of concern, but his mouth is a reflection of my own – a wide-open smile. Our breath moves together in little white clouds.

“You’re right, Nate.” I press my palms flat to the ground, steadying myself. “I’m not going to let this happen.”

He grins at me then and I’m half certain that if I did step off this cliff right now, I wouldn’t fall. I’d fly.

The sun glitters on the ground between us and I shuffle the pebbles around to find whatever it is the sun has. It’s half buried in the dirt, but I uncover it easily. As soon as I do, I wish I hadn’t. I wish I’d taken Nate’s hand and run while we had the chance.

“No,” he whispers, reaching for the small, silver locket in my hand. Beneath his touch, it separates leaving us each with half a heart and the beginning of the curse in our hands.

Come back Friday to see part three by Lacey!

Photo via

Monday, February 14, 2011

Hart's Ridge (Part 1 of 3)

In Hart’s Ridge, there is no crime, or traffic accidents. It never rains on soccer games, weddings, or parades. With it’s beautiful pine-covered bluffs overlooking the winding Red River, Hart’s Ridge is, in fact, the perfect place to live. But that perfection comes at a price, and every February 14th for the last one hundred and fifty years, that price has been paid in blood.

The story goes that sixteen-year-olds Jed Macon and Camilla Hart were secretly in love. So secret that no one had any idea until the echo of a gunshot brought the townspeople out to the ridge where they found Jed, dead, the shotgun still in his mouth, and Camilla bloody and broken on the rocky shore of the Red River below. Each had one half of a locket clutched in their hand. To this day no one knows if Camilla fell, jumped, or was pushed.

Now, every Valentine’s Day, one boy and one girl from town end up dead the same way. This year it’s my turn.

Oh, if you ask anyone from town they’ll tell you they have no idea who it’s going to be. It’s always a surprise. The curse has its own mysterious methods of choosing. But if you listened in to their whispered conversations you’d hear what they really think. Cami Hart is going over that cliff and she’s taking that curse with her.

The good people of Hart’s Ridge have been waiting for this moment ever since the day I was born, Valentine’s Day, sixteen years ago. A particularly tough year on the town, since we lost the star quarterback and the first girl ever to get early acceptance to an Ivy League school. My parents named me after my great-great-great Aunt Camilla in that hopes that honoring her would keep me safe, but all they did was fuel the town's hopes that getting rid of Camilla meant getting rid of the curse for good.

This year, while all the fathers lock up their shotguns and the mothers clutch their bibles in their sleep, I sneak out my bedroom window to the place I love most even though I shouldn’t.

If it’s my last day on earth, I want to watch the sunrise from the bluff. In the early morning light, the Red River really does look like blood running through the snow. I think I should feel sad, but I don’t. I hate this place. It’s hard to miss people who won’t even talk to you. Not that I blame them. Who wants to be friends with someone they know is going to die.

Up on the ridge, the pine trees have kept the ground relatively snow-free. I throw rocks over the edge wonder how it will feel to be possessed. Will I even know what’s happening? Will the fall hurt? Or will I already be gone by that point, taken over by another Camilla and her never-ending heartache.

“Cami!” My name echoes through the trees. Faint at first, but it grows louder as it repeats. I don’t recognize the voice. Male, but not my father. I wonder if it’s starting already.

I stay silent, whoever it is will find me soon enough. I watch the last of the streaks of color fade from the sky and wait. I want these final few moments of peace.

The crunch of footsteps behind me doesn’t make me turn, but I can’t ignore the wheezing sounds.

I turn around to find scrawny Nate Beckstrom hunched over, one hand on his knees, the other clutching his asthma inhaler. He peers up at me through his longish red hair, and says the first words he’s ever spoken to me in my life. “Oh thank God, I thought I was too late.”

Come back Wednesday to see part two by Natalie!

Photo via

Friday, February 11, 2011

Familiar Unknown (Part 3 of 3)

“What are you doing out here?” She asked, surprised that her voice was only a whisper.

The boy reached for the black band around his wrist. He slipped it off and held it out to her. A hair tie. “I think this belongs to you.”


Jake waited for her to reach up and pull the small band from his fingers, but she regarded it from a distance and made no move to claim it. Without knowing her at all, he knew what it felt like to have no claim on the world around you. Even on something so small and insignificant. He rolled the band over his wrist where it pinched his skin.

“It was a gift,” she said, adding, “something to remember me by when I’m famous.”

Jake felt a smile edging his lips. Her humor was honest and dark and he liked it. “I'm Jake.”

Light fell around Emma’s shoulders between pockets of shadow. Jake thought they looked like bruises on her pale skin, though he suspected her real bruises were buried far beneath.

“Do you know how deep these woods are?” He plucked the band at his wrist. The snap and sting providing a strange sort of comfort.

Without making a sound, she stood and turned away from the sharp rays of the sunset to peer into the darker places of the woods. “Deep enough.”


Emma traced an invisible path through the woods ahead, imagining what might lay beyond the darkest trees, imaging a place where glass didn’t shatter and where silence wasn't a thing to fear. She traced a second path and imagined a place where her muscles could relax. She traced a third path and imagined a place where sweet things tasted sweet and not like an apology crafted from refined sugar.

When she turned to find Jake, he too was lost in the woods. She wondered if her lips were as flat and pinched, if her eyes looked as heavy like some invisible thing were smothering her. She wanted to reach out and pull the smothering thing away from Jake’s face and suddenly, more than anything, she wanted to remove it from her own. All of her muscles shuddered beneath the weight of it.

Turning back to the woods, she saw a million paths. “I’m going,” she said, opening her eyes a little wider and experimenting with an expression that didn't make her mouth feel tight. “Are you?”


Jake’s eyes lingered on the curl of her lips as she spoke. They flashed in and out of a smile before settling back into a firm seal. He snapped the band again and frowned at the sun.

“Sun’s almost down. How will we get back?” He knew the answer, but asked anyway. It seemed like the sort of thing that should be asked.

Birds called softly overhead and Jake looked up, but they were all hidden between branches and needles. Emma heard them too and tilted her head back to search for them.

“Back to what?” She asked, stooping to fish in the dirt for another branch to dismember.

Jake watched the pieces begin to fall from her fingers. “Yes,” he said. “I’m going.”


Before either of them could choose, a white bird flew between them, coasting through the pine trunks as though drawn forward by a string.

Emma snatched up a handful of twigs and stepped off the path she’d jogged so many times. The ground was soft and quiet beneath layers of pine needles. She waited long enough to hear Jake fall in beside her and together they followed the trail of the white bird. It perched on a low branch just within sight and as they drew near, it leapt again into the air and charted their course.

They followed in the dwindling light and all the while, Emma snapped her twigs, letting the pieces fall behind them.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said when the bird had become difficult to see.

Jake reached out to squeeze her hand and she was grateful the sun was not there to reveal the flush of her cheeks.


The air was growing cool, but Jake felt warmth spilling up his arm. Before touching her hand, he had been concerned that they had no food or supplies, that they had made the sort of mistake they would both suffer for. But now he felt bold.

Still, Jake hoped the bird knew more than they did. But even far from home and lost, Jake couldn't help but think they were both in a better place. Together and quiet and cold was better than the alternative.

Just as the last light was fading, Jake smelled spice and mint. Again he reached for Emma and together they followed the scents to a place where light glowed warmly through thick glass windows, reflecting pink off of carved wooden shudders. The bird perched on top of the small cabin and sat preening its feathers after such a long flight.

The roof was black as licorice and front door white as snow. The molding was painted in a red and white swirling pattern than reminded Jake of peppermints. His stomach growled and he said, “It looks good enough to eat.”

“Are you coming?” Emma asked with a smile.

Valerie's up on Monday with a new story!

Photo used with permission by Matt Hill, aka Matt(ikus) on flickr

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Familiar Unknown (Part 2 of 3)

Her eyes widened at the same time he felt it. Jake’s skin pulled tight against his body. He knew why she made him feel the way she did. He knew why her eyes weren’t cold and empty.

He knew her face.



Emma shoved open the side door of Hofstetler’s. The chill in the air pulled her skin tight, shrinking it around her bones, and she shuddered. It was freezing out, but she didn’t care. Anything to get away from her dad and the scene he was making in the middle of the frozen food aisle. It was bad enough when her parents fought at home, but doing it on the phone in the middle of the grocery store was a level of humiliation Emma couldn’t bear.

She could go sit in the car – she had a key – but she didn’t want to be confined. She was trapped already. If they didn’t live so far from town, she would run home. But they did. As much as she loved the woods – her woods – she hated that they were so far from the places she needed them the most.

Emma stuffed her hands into her coat pockets and stepped into the alley. She would stay as long as she could stand it. Until her father’s shouts at her mother became shouts for her.


Jake tipped his head back against the cinder block wall and watched his sigh float up to the flat grey sky. The air was icy but he pushed his sleeves up anyway, needing to feel free from something, even if it was just his shirt.

He heard the door open at the same time he heard her voice. “Oh,” she said. It was a soft sound, full of surprise and something else he recognized. Disappointment. She wanted to be alone.

Jake peeled himself off the wall and turned to the girl. She stood stock still in her designer jeans and expensive down jacket. Her face was flushed, her brown hair messy in its ponytail as if she were running. He wondered how she could look so in motion without moving at all. “Hey,” he said.

She looked all over him, at his bruises, the stain on his sweatshirt, his boots. Everywhere but in his eyes. She looked, but she didn’t really see and he couldn’t tell if he was glad she didn’t or not. Mostly he wanted to be ignored, he wanted to disappear, but this time, with her, he wouldn’t mind being seen.

“Hi,” she said with a disinterested shrug, before walking to the wall across from him and leaning against it.

The alley was narrow and they stood only a few feet apart. It felt too close, like they were invading each others' space. She tapped a heel of one foot into the toe of the other, her eyes on the grease-dotted ground. Jake watched her breathe in angry little huffs and thought that maybe they weren’t so different. The jokes he would’ve made, poor little rich girl, stuck in his throat.

She lifted her head and looked him straight in the eye. “Parents really suck, you know?”

He was pinned by her gaze. She searched his face, like she expected an answer, and that answer mattered. He had the sudden urge to tell her everything he knew about just how much parents sucked but he stopped himself and only nodded instead. “Yeah, I do.”

She reached up and pulled a band out of her hair. It fell loose and wild around her shoulders and Jake felt his fingers itch to touch it. He shoved his hands into his pockets and shifted his gaze to his feet.

“Hey,” she said, but he didn’t look up.

Something small and soft hit him in the chest. He threw his hand out and caught it instinctively. Her hair tie.

“You don’t go to Fremont do you?”

He shook his head, finally meeting her gaze. “Nope. I dropped out.”

He expected to see something ugly in her eyes, disgust or pity, but it wasn’t there. Instead she looked wistful, maybe even sad. “You’re lucky.”

He didn’t know what to say to that but it didn’t matter. Before he could open his mouth a shout rang out from the parking lot. “Emma! Dammit, where are you?”

“Shit.” The girl jumped away from the wall. “I gotta go.”

And just like that she was walking away from him -- a breeze that passed through the alley on its way to somewhere else.

She was halfway to the parking lot when he remembered the small black band in his hand. “Hey,” he called after her. “You forgot your hair thing.”

She shrugged, “Keep it.” And then she looked at him over her shoulder with just the hint of a smile, “Happy Valentine’s Day.”



It was the bruises that made Emma remember. The way they lined his arms in shades of purple, green, and yellow. She’d seen him before.


Something about the way he said her name made her heart beat faster. It was the mixture of surprise and hope. He was happy to see her.

“What are you doing out here?” She asked, surprised that her voice was only a whisper.

The boy reached for the black band around his wrist. He slipped it off and held it out to her. A hair tie. “I think this belongs to you.”

Come back Friday to see part three from Natalie!

Photo used with permission by Matt Hill, aka Matt(ikus) on flickr

Monday, February 7, 2011

Familiar Unknown (Part 1 of 3)

Something about the woods fascinated Emma. It wasn’t the way shadows fell through the canopy in scattered bundles of gray. It wasn’t the smell of pine and earth, or the crackle of leaves and twigs beneath her feet. It was more than that. It was part of her.

Emma sat on her back porch steps staring at the darkening tree line. Her tank top hung loose around her too-thin shoulders as she picked at a piece of her sneaker, ragged and worn from one too many runs down wooded paths that let to anywhere.

The summer heat pressed against her, making her skin too thick to be in. Through the back porch door, their voices carried; her parents were fighting again. A shattering of glass made Emma turn her head, but their argument carried on inside, undeterred by whatever thing they had broken. It was probably something of hers.

Emma wanted out.

“I’m going for a walk,” she said over her shoulder. The shouting didn’t cease. She leapt off the steps, stuffed her hands in the pockets of her jeans and headed toward the trees.


Jake abandoned everything he ever knew, none of it worth keeping. Not at the price he had to pay. He’d never been the outdoors type--he preferred to escape inside whatever movie, video game, or book that he could find, but fantasy was only temporary. The forest seemed endless. Some place he could get lost in, and never have to come out. Some place nobody would come looking.

He stuck his thumbs through the cut-out holes in his long-sleeved t-shirt. He’d started doing it so no one would see the bruises that dotted his arms, but now it felt like security, a familiar gesture in a place so foreign to him. But then Jake remembered he didn’t want the familiar. He wanted something new, something different. He pushed his sleeves to his elbows and let his bare arms sway at his sides as he walked with no destination, and no intention of turning around. He’d walk on forever, as long as there were trees, and hopefully never see another human face.


Emma leaned back against a tall pine to catch her breath. Running in this place felt like living. The hammer in her chest and the ache in her side let her know she was alive.

She slid down to sit in the orange and brown needles that covered the earth, allowing her toe to tap against a moss-covered rock. She picked up a twig and broke it into pieces, tossing each one farther than the last, not thinking about anyone or anything. Just breathing. Just being. Like this was where she had to be.

She couldn’t decide what made her look up; the weight of his eyes, all the colors of the forest, pensive and untrusting, or a change in the air, the light scent of some spicy fragrance that didn’t belong there. But when she saw the boy, faded blue jeans and a worn shirt that did nothing to hide his bruised arms, she couldn’t look away. It wasn’t because it was so unusual to see him standing there, though she had never met another person in the woods. It was because she saw something in him, in his tight shoulders and tired features. She saw something familiar. She saw herself.


Jake folded his arms in front of his chest. He didn’t like the way the girl eyed his bruises, or the way she kept staring at him like she expected him to speak first. To explain what he was doing there. He already knew he didn’t belong in the woods. He didn’t need her to say it.

“I come out here a lot, you know?” she said, not getting up. She picked up another stick, brushed the wet dirt from it, and started breaking it into pieces. “It’s quiet. Empty.” She tossed the broken sticks on to the ground, one at a time.

Jake tried to find reason in it, tried to see what she was aiming for, but there was no pattern to it. She just was tossing them wherever she felt like tossing them. It made him smile.

“I like to be alone,” she went on. Jake’s smile fell and he turned away from her. He didn’t want to see the hint in her eyes that said she didn’t want him. He took a step back the way he’d come. He wouldn’t go home, but he’d go away from here, from her.

“But I don’t mind some company,” she added. “As long as it’s good company.”

Jake turned around. The girl was watching him, her face curious, not condescending. Her pale eyes seemed washed out and tired, but they weren’t empty like the eyes of a stranger. Looking at her made him feel something he couldn’t define. She made him feel normal. Like it was normal to find a girl leaning against a tree in the middle of a silent forest. Normal, to have arms covered in bruises that needed no explanation. She made him feel like this was exactly where he was supposed to be.

He came to stand in front of her, leaned down toward her, blocking the setting sun with his shoulder so that he could see her face. Her eyes widened at the same time he felt it. Jake’s skin pulled tight against his body. He knew why she made him feel the way she did. He knew why her eyes weren’t cold and empty.

He knew her face.

Wednesday, Valerie will pick up the story where I left off.

Photo used with permission by Matt Hill, aka Matt(ikus) on flickr

Friday, February 4, 2011

Water Sacrifice

I was twelve the day my papa took me to the clinic in Old Ogallala. He left me in the small waiting room where green light filtered through the spill of lettuce, tomato, and green bean plants in the sky gardens outside while he disappeared down a narrow hallway to speak with the artist. The air was filled with buzzing and the distant sounds of a radio, but the waiting room was empty except for the girl sitting behind the desk. She held a book to her face and made no signs of having an interest in conversation. I picked a seat and waited staring at a sign that read, “No Water Kept on Premises!”

Papa returned with a guilty set of lines on his brow. He avoided my eyes when he held is hand in the air and said, “Come here, Eira.”

He took me to a room sectioned off into smaller, semi-private spaces with shower curtains of all colors and designs. We ducked behind one with tall palm trees and smiling monkeys where an old man with hard, black eyes sat.

“It was an accident,” I whispered so only papa could hear me. “I promise I won’t do it again.”

His frown was a heavy thing, wet at the corners and wordless.

My papa looked away and the black-eyed man put knife between my palms and cut fast. He made quick work of the stitches. I shed a thimble full of tears before it was done and left the clinic with my papa’s fear on my hands.

* * *

It was an accident that I met Tarn at all. I was as far from town as I could get on an ancient bicycle. The sky was wide-open and so blue it hurt to look at. I rode until I found the edges of an old wind farm and pushed my way through the late autumn wheat right up to the base of a turbine. They hadn’t been used for ages and rust grew around the pole like a fungus. When the wind blew, it drew long, mournful sighs from the propellers.

Far beneath my feet, the aquifer was losing its charge, dropping precious inches in water level. The entire town was on edge. All eyes were on the sky watching for miracles.

But the sky was selfish.

Holding my hands over the dying stalks of wheat, I felt the tingle in the middle of my palms that mean water was near and followed it through the field until my hands were warm all over. If I closed my eyes, I could sense how near it was, how easy it would be to draw up into my hands, how many things I could do with just that much.

My fingers itched. I had never been so bold. To waste water on magic was the thing most feared by my town. But it wasn’t a waste if it called water down from the skies. It was a sacrifice.

I stopped when the pull on my hands was so strong I had to resist dropping to the ground. And then I pulled back.

Water sifted up from the ground in tiny drops to pool in my hands as though I held a bowl. My hands became hot and then hotter. I tried to stop, to throw it all into the sky as I’d planned, but the water was stubborn and so hot on my skin.

I heard a noise struggle out from my throat and I knelt in the wheat to bury my hands in anything that might siphon the water from them.

“Be still,” a voice spoke in my ear and I could not do as it asked, though I tried.

Hands gripped my wrists and pushed my palms open against the earth. I closed my eyes, felt hands covering mine and little by little the pain fell away until I could hear the wailing of the turbine over the sound of my breathing.

“Still in pain?” He asked. I opened my eyes to find a boy the color of parched earth held my hands in his. He wore a dusty green jacket with a tall collar that used to be square at the edges, but had been frayed into half circles.

I moved my fingers and winced at the pinch in my knuckles, but the skin was only pink and not red and blistered as I feared it would be. “Not so much.” I continued to demonstrate my range of motion, flipping my hands over and making fists. The old scars were bright white against my palms.

He watched my hands as long as I did. Longer, even, until I pulled them away to rest lightly in my lap.

“I’ve never met another one,” I said. “Dowser.” Saying the name aloud would have seemed a brave or stupid thing if I hadn’t just tried to burn my hands off. The quiet between us was a field of wheat.

“Tarn,” he offered. “Did they do that to you?” He lifted a finger to point, but I knew what he meant.

I opened my palms to the sky. “Most parents do.”

“It doesn’t work.” He stood then and I saw where he’d come from. The door at the base of the turbine stood open and I realized he must live here. Away from everyone. Alone.

“It does a little.”

* * *

He was my secret.

I visited every month, sometimes twice, to learn what he knew. Patiently, he taught me to tease the water from the earth and guide it through the transformation. It would always burn a little, he said, the trick was in the breath.

“Soon you’ll be able to call a storm from the sky.” In the bowl of his palms, water became light and air. It was hot as flame and I could feel my cheeks warm though I was three feet away.

“Rain would help my town. It’s what everyone prays for.” I opened my hand and felt the tingle in my palm. “Maybe if I could only show them, they would understand.”

“They won’t, Eira.” He turned and the sun cast a dark shadow over his face. “It’s better not to try.”

I thought of my papa’s face on the day I’d set the armchair on fire. All it took was the glass of water I’d been holding when he told me I wasn’t yet old enough to attend a school dance. I’d argued as though my life depended on it and then the glass was empty and the chair was covered in flames that twirled and spun like girls in dresses.

“Because they’re afraid.” I studied the scars on my palms and understood, perhaps for the first time, that he thought he was protecting me. “Because they don’t understand how it can help them. Us.”

“They understand their fears above all things.” His voice was thick and I wondered at all the things he hadn’t said.

I didn’t argue because I knew it was true. My scars were not unique. The town was filled with slashed palms because of an old superstition that it would keep the magic away. My papa and I knew better, and it was the worst kind of secret.

But out here there were no secrets, because there was no one to keep them from.

“Are you afraid of them?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. In the sky above, the propeller turned, calling out to the others that stood so far away. But its call was lost to the wind. No one to hear it except for us.

* * *

The storm arrived on a summer evening when the air was so heavy with water my palms sang.

It was too much at once. The roads and spillways were too full too fast. Sirens wailed beneath long chains of thunder. The clouds carried lightening in their bellies and dumped more water than all the town had dreamed of for hours.

When water began to seep beneath the doorway, papa packed a small bag and told me to do the same. We raced through the house unplugging and lifting anything too heavy to take with us and then we left and climbed toward the school with water rushing quickly past our knees. It was enough to knock us over in places. Papa gripped my hand and we pulled and balanced against each other.

The school sat atop the only hill high enough to be called a hill in Old Ogallala. Everyone was there or making their way as we were.

Papa must have thought we were safe because the water was lower and less fierce. He let go of my hand and bent over, breathing hard. “Go on,” he said. “I’m right behind you.”

For a moment, the rain slowed and the sky shone blue and white and grey. I could hear the soft whimpers of children and the soothing words of their parents, the siren calling from the edge of town, the water rushing, rushing, rushing.

My palms resonated like bells and I turned in time to see the great swell of water racing to devour us. I saw my papa standing below me on the hill, his eyes on me, his mouth a hard line. I tasted water on my tongue and knew that if I did nothing, my papa would die.

I raised my palms and I pushed against the vibration in them. The water pushed back and I drew a deep breath to steady my feet and with a cry that sounded too full to have come from my lungs, I pushed again.

I saw the water shift, tossing waves into the air as though a thousand beasts were thrashing beneath the surface, and change its course. Just slightly at first and then with purpose. I pushed again and the water receded farther down the hillside. I pushed again and felt how quickly the water responded to me now and I continued to direct it as I walked back down the hill to where my father stood.

His eyes were soft and sad and he raised them to the sky. Behind us, the town had grown loud with murmurs. I knew they watched me, and worse, that they feared me. Papa knew it too.

He took my hand in his and rubbed one rough thumb over my palm. His breathing was ragged, tripping over tears. He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again with a shake of his head. Then, he stepped away.

Our hands fell apart. Mine was still warm with the calling of water, but also cold without his. I didn’t need to turn to see the decision of the town, it was all over papa’s face. I said, “Goodbye, Papa,” and I stepped into the water.

Photo by [Clint] via Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Food For Thought

Nobody ever said the end of humanity would be a picnic. I mean, what were the theories? The biblical thing with four guys on horses. The one about the sun being so hot everything melts, and all those natural disasters start happening. Then there’s my personal favorite, where we all turn into flesh-eating dead guys. But none of them are what actually happened. What actually happened was way worse.

It all started when one news caster misread her teleprompt. She skipped over a period or something, meshing two unrelated stories together. The result was mass hysteria. There was looting, murder, you name it. I remember my first thought being of my tenth grade English teacher, slapping my fingers with a ruler for not using correct punctuation. My second thought was I hope she was one of the first to go.

It was slow, the end of humanity. It started in my city, I think. With that one grammatical slip. Then it spread, like a fungus. Mushroom spores of violence planted their fungal little legs throughout every American town. With our country in total chaos, other world leaders took notice. I can’t blame any one of them. I mean, who wouldn’t want to take out the world super power that was the United States?

Long story short, we got nuked. We nuked back--Yeah, we had nukes. Who knew? Now the population of planet Earth is probably about two-hundred thousand. Seems like a lot until you realize there used to be eleven million in New York City alone.

I’m one of those survivors. Me and my neighbor, Jimmy, who now has two heads. One belonged to his dog, Bill.

Nah, I’m kidding. But half his face is melted off from radiation. I’m pretty normal. I lost my big toe to gout, but I don’t think that was related. Everyone I knew and loved is dead, except Jimmy. It’s just me and him now, and every day is a battle just to keep what we’ve got. I’ve seen knife fights break out over a rock-hard moldy cheeseburger from Mickey D’s.

There’s a banging at the door and I set my journal on the floor beside my bare mattress. I wait, holding my breath and listening. Three heavy knocks. Two lighter ones. Four quick ones. It’s Jimmy. I get up and unbolt all fifteen locks on the steel door and he tumbles in, wide-eyed and breathless.

“Dude? What happened?”

Jimmy clutches my arms. “I got it. I got the box.” He pulls a box of saltine crackers out of his coat pocket. His half-gloved hands fumble with it, till he drops it on the floor in front of us. We’re both so hungry we dive on the box like a pack of hyenas on a zebra carcass, tearing open the cardboard, ripping apart the plastic to get at the stale crackers. We both forget about the door.

They hit Jimmy first and send him sailing into the picture window where I used to sit and read comics before we burned them all to keep warm. My mind registers what’s about to happen, but my body doesn’t have time to react. They file into the apartment, a swarming mass of black and gray, and I have just enough time to utter “Wait!” before the butt of a riffle meets my head and everything goes black.

I come to in a dark room with steel chaining me to a cold, wet concrete floor. “Jimmy?” I whisper. Everything is in shades of black and grey, except the milky whiteness of my own pale skin. A window high up on the wall allows just enough light to get in that I can see someone, or some thing, is in the room with me. It’s too big to be Jimmy. Even with all his clothes and a parka, Jimmy is still about the size of a ten year-old. I wrestle with myself trying to decide if I should talk to the lump of dark clothing, or just let it be. But the need to know something eats at me.

“Hey? You know where we are?”

The lump wiggles but doesn’t speak.

My gut pinches and growls. “Um, sorry, but do you have any food?”

The lump hisses at me and I flinch back against the wall. “Okay. Jeez.” I rub the skin around my ankle where the chain has bruised it. It makes me think of that one movie where all those people got kidnapped and stuffed into a basement with nothing but a saw. A chill runs through me. I really should’ve watched better movies before they stopped making them.

I guess I probably should’ve told you what happened after we all nuked each other’s brains out, huh? You know how different people react differently to temperatures and whatever? Like, you could be cold and I could be sitting right next to you all sweaty. The same thing happened with radiation. I’m not a scientist, I don’t know the semantics. I just know that some people are normal, like yours truly. And others are like the lump of hissing laundry over there. Who knows what he looks like?

“Hey!” I shout. My voice bounces off the empty walls. “Hey! Can I get some food?” Nobody answers me. A watery drip is the only sound I hear in the darkness, aside from the heavy erratic breathing of Hissy Face.

Those guys, the ones with the guns? They’re the elite. We don’t really have a specific name for them. Some people call them the Sherriffs, but that’s not right because sheriffs are supposed to protect and serve. All they’ll serve you is a gun to the forehead. Jimmy and I had a good name for them. We called them assholes.

Nobody knows how the assholes got to be so powerful. The rest of us are starving, scrawny toothpicks, but not them. They’ve got muscle packed onto muscle. Like they eat some serious protein every morning and wash it down with a heavy dose of roids.

Hissy Face moves a little, shifting his weight. The light from the window catches in his face and reflects off his eyes like a cat’s. I catch a glimpse of a grayish colored face with black eyes and sharpened teeth. Gross.

“Help me!” I know it’s useless, but a guy’s gotta have hope, right? The chains around my ankle won’t let me go anywhere, except closer to Hissy Face. No thanks.

Why would they bring me here and where the heck is Jimmy? My stomach growls again. The assholes have gotta have something to eat. They’ve obviously been hording all the food. I can’t even imagine what it would be like to have a full stomach anymore.

Hissy Face moves again, this time inching a little closer to me. I inch back against the wall and slide along it until my ankle chain digs into the skin.

He comes closer still. I can’t move, but I’m sure his chain will pull him back before he can get to me. He creeps closer in the darkness, a mass of black and grey slowly rolling toward me not making any sound. I move again and my chain clanks. His doesn’t.

He’s not on a chain.

“Um. Help!” I stand up and try to wiggle free. He’s close enough now I can smell him. He smells like dead things—putrid and hot. He comes into the light and I see that he’s wearing the same black and grey uniform that the assholes wear, but he’s not quite as big and healthy as the rest of them. He’s as scrawny as me.

“Hey. Ah, I don’t have anything to eat. So, yanno.”

His head twitches and he licks his lips really fast. It reminds me of Jimmy’s iguana, before we ate it. I pin my back against the cold wet wall. Hissy Face is in my face. His breath smells like metal. I close my eyes and feel along the wall, hoping to find anything I could use to club him. His tongue, wet and stinging hot, swipes across my cheek. It makes me throw up in my mouth.

A stomach rumbles—his not mine.

Somewhere above me I hear voices and laughter—the assholes. A face comes into view in the window and I scramble for it.

“Hey! Help!”

The face, blurry behind the dirty window, laughs. “Nothin’ personal, kid. Captain’s gotta eat.”

Past experiences flood my mind and I keep going back to that one biology lesson in ninth grade—the food chain or whatever.

I slide down against the wall, allowing the cold of wet concrete to seep into my jeans. Hissy Face takes another long lick, then a nip at my nose.

And to think, all me and Jimmy had to eat today was a box of freaking crackers.

On Friday, Natalie will bring you something sweeter. Maybe. Hopefully. (She thinks dead birds are endearing.) Thanks for reading!

Photo by madc0w via flickr creative commons

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