Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Time Has Come

It's been an amazing year and a half collaborating on stories and sharing them with you. In that time, Natalie, Lacey and I have seen both our writing and our careers grow, and with that growth, we feel it's time to move on to new challenges. We will no longer be posting collaborative stories at Tangled Fiction. We want to thank you for your enthusiasm and support as we tangled our ideas together. Your comments meant so much to us, and we hope you'll keep up with us on our personal blogs.

Lacey Boldyrev's blog
Natalie C Parker's blog
Valerie Kemp's blog

Thank you again for helping us make Tangled Fiction a success. We will miss you.

Lacey, Natalie, and Valerie

Friday, February 17, 2012

The Curse Garden (Part 3 of 3)

Kit braced herself for the moment when the cheerful woman approaching got a good look at her face and realized who she was. She took a deep trembling breath. If these two wouldn’t help her, she didn’t know what she’d do.

The priest sensed her unease and sought to reassure her. “Do not worry, young lady. Rachel is a good-hearted woman.”

Rachel frowned as she reached them, running a brief eye over Kit before turning to the priest. “Father Malcolm? Who are you speaking to?”

A cold, hard realization settled into the pit of Kit’s stomach. A just penance, she thought. She had wished to be noticed, to be beautiful and lively, and now she was nothing. A thin voice that only the blind could hear.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered to the priest as she stared at the confused expression on the woman’s face. “I have to go.” She turned and ran back toward the town square where she hoped to find the healer. The priest shouted after her, but this time she was glad to be unseen.


Kit stared in horror at the empty shop windows. Dust settled in the corners of the glass, spiders had made their homes beneath the door knob and the rusted sign dangled precariously from its hinges. The healer was gone, and the space she’d occupied just days before left no hint that she’d ever been there at all.

Kit twisted the knob, knocking the cobwebs free, and pushed open the door. Inside was just as abandoned and empty as the façade. No jars lined the cracked walls, and no smells drifted in the stale air. Kit made her way to the back of the shop, sweeping under the blue black curtain.

Sitting alone on the back wall sat a glass jar. Empty, it seemed, until Kit drew nearer. The jar was dusty, old, like everything else in the healer’s shop. Inside it laid a handful of dirt and a note on faded parchment. Kit twisted off the top and pulled out the paper.

Buried secrets in the garden lie
Like silent curses that were meant to hide
An evil growing deep within

The rest of the note had been eaten away by the dirt in the bottom of the jar. Frustration pricked her skin and made her face burn hot. Kit threw the jar and watched it shatter into pieces on the floor. She knew where she had to go, but with only half a cryptic note, Kit didn’t know what she’d find there.


Father Malcom thought Kit to be a lost soul, and it was close enough to the truth that she felt she ought not to correct him. He fed her, gave her a room for the night, and then packed her satchel with enough salt pork, bread, cheese, and apples to last nearly a week, before he sent her on her way. Two days swift travel, for now she knew the way, and Kit arrived at the garden.

Nothing seemed amiss; the same neat rows of flowers, and the same heavy scent of roses. Kit walked between the rows allowing her fingers to graze the petals of the largest blooms, careful not to prick her finger. She didn’t know exactly what she was looking for, but her feet shuffled along the path as if they knew the way.

Deeper into the garden she walked, until the rows of flowers gave way to open green bordered by stone gargoyles with menacing smiles. “Guardians.” Kit pinched her lip between her teeth. The word had slipped out without thought. She pulled her hands close to her sides and continued on past them, afraid to touch them for fear of what magic they held.

Kit neared the end of the garden, where a tall row of hedges carefully trimmed into the shapes of animals, like wolves and bears, made a barrier against the forest beyond. In the center of the hedge wall sat two gargoyle statues with a space big enough for a third in between them. This, Kit knew, was where she needed to go.

She knelt between the statues and pulled the rose bud from her satchel. She dug a small hole with the blade of her knife, and buried the rose.

Buried secrets in the garden lie

The air shifted and the scent of roses overpowered her, turning from heavenly sweet into something bitter and rotten.  The hedges began to move as if they might come alive and swallow her.

Inside her, Kit could feel it growing. The evil she’d tried to dispel was stirring, writhing like some great leviathan, coiling around her soul, ready to claim her.

One must never, ever do magic on themselves.

It started first in her toes, becoming solid, grounding her in the soil between the smiling gargoyles. It moved up her legs, forcing her into a crouch. Her skin hardened, grayed, like stone.

She’d wanted to be more, and in turn she was made less. This was righting the wrong that she had done. This was claiming her punishment for disobeying the laws of magic. This was her final penance. 


Thanks for reading! As always, we hope you've enjoyed. Next week we take a break, and the following week we'll come back with something extra special for our readers! Stay tuned!

Photo by koalie via Flickr Creative Commons.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Curse Garden (Part 2 of 3)

But Kit wasn’t ready to give up. Not now that there was hope.

When she was sure she had the path firmly in her mind, she rolled the map again and slipped it into the pouch holding her meager belongings. She would need food to make the journey. The sparse collection of coins in her pocket wouldn’t buy much. Maybe a week’s worth of meals if she was prudent.

She made quick work of gathering supplies; bread and dried beef, a few apples and a block of hard cheese, and a small knife in case the rose stems were tough. With each item carefully packed in her pouch, Kit dropped her very last coins in the open hands of a young priest seated in the hot sun, then set out to find the garden of curses.


It had been three days since Kit had found her way to the hidden garden. A place she’d found surprisingly unremarkable given the magic that lay inside. While the roses themselves were glorious, the garden was like any other she might see in town. Well-tended, but utterly plain with its orderly rows of multi-colored roses. Even the scent, while heavenly, as all roses are, smelled like that of any other rose garden.

She’d reached the small patch of flowers at the last possible moment to save herself. The evil thing inside her had begun to stretch and take hold. It was with great effort that she forced a hand, no longer completely her own, to take a rose.

Still, in that moment, she had the presence of mind to remember the healer’s warning. She scanned the small rows of roses for the smallest, least beautiful, least colorful bud, and plucked it. She hoped that whatever magic the garden and its caretaker held, would appreciate her restraint. Perhaps the curse that came with the tired-looking burgundy bud would be a minor one.

Kit felt a certain kinship for the flower that even now stuck out of her pack as fresh as the day she picked it. She too was always overlooked among her more beautiful, more colorful sisters. It was her longing to step out of their shadows that had wrought the ailment for which she’d sought a cure.

All her life, Kit had heard the warnings. One must never do magic for selfish gain. One must never do magic to cause harm. And one must never, ever, do magic on themselves. She had only wanted to know what it was like to be the center of attention. To feel Galen’s eyes on her the way her sisters did, but barely noticed.

When she found the book of spells while out on her daily walk, it felt almost as if the book had found her. She’d been compelled to take a faint dirt path she’d never noticed before. As she followed it, she felt a sense of growing excitement. She was meant to take this path. Meant to find whatever lay at the end of it. When she reached the hollow tree and found the book hidden inside, she’d thought it a gift. If only she’d known the evil it would release.

Kit pushed the memory away and focused on keeping her feet on the path. She would be out of the Keening Wood by midday if she kept up her pace. So far she’d felt no trace of the garden’s curse, only the lightness of having her wicked illness removed. Buoyed by three days of freedom, she was beginning to believe that she’d made the right choice. That it was the brightest, most beautiful roses that carried the highest price. Kit felt most certain that she could happily return to being the least noticeable of her sisters if it meant she was forever safe from evil.

When she reached the small brook that traversed the path out of the wood, she stopped to drink and admire her plain reflection in the water. The water rushed and swirled around the rocks, and the tall trees blocked most of the sunlight, making it too dim and choppy to see herself properly. Kit made a promise to herself that as soon as she reached town, she would find a looking-glass and appreciate the face she’d long wished would be different.

As she burst from the woods and into the outskirts of town, Kit brimmed with a joy she hadn’t felt in years. It was good to be alive and to be herself, faults and all. She cheerfully greeted the few strangers she met on the road with a smile and a, “Good day!” but none responded in kind. No matter, thought Kit, rudeness could not spoil this good day.

It was only once she reached the town center that Kit began to sense that all was not well. She’d asked a merchant the price of an apple, but he ignored her repeated requests. She attempted to inquire about working in exchange for a room at the inn, but the innkeeper stared through her as though she weren’t there. She wondered if word had gotten out about her troubles. Had the healer warned the town against her?

Kit bit her lip to keep it from trembling. So this town would be like the last then. Afraid of her evil, unwilling to help. She was surprised to find she felt more anger than hurt this time. She was cured. She was certain of it. She choked back a frustrated sob and left the inn. She was hungry and tired and had nowhere to go.

“Are you alright, lady?” Came a gentle voice below her.

Kit looked around until she saw the young man sitting against the corner of the inn. It was the priest she’d given her last coins to before entering the wood. Kit sighed with relief. At least someone in the town still had some decency.

“No sir, I’m not,” she said honestly. The graveness of her circumstances hit her all at once. She was tired, hungry, penniless, and still an outcast despite being cured.

He tilted his kind face toward her and Kit realized he was blind. “Ah,” he nodded, knowingly. As though he could see all of her troubles without the use of his eyes. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Oh, thank you.” Relief rushed through Kit.

“Follow me,” he said, as he rose carefully to his feet.

She followed as he lead her slowly down the alley to a small doorway. “Rachel,” he called into the little wooden building barely bigger than a shack. “I’ve got a young lady in need.”

Kit braced herself for the moment when the cheerful woman approaching got a good look at her face and realized who she was. She took a deep trembling breath. If these two wouldn’t help her, she didn’t know what she’d do.

The priest sensed her unease and sought to reassure her. “Do not worry, young lady. Rachel is a good-hearted woman.”

Rachel frowned as she reached them, running a brief eye over Kit before turning to the priest. “Father Malcolm? Who are you speaking to?”

Come back Friday for the conclusion by Lacey!

Photo by koalie via Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, February 13, 2012

The Curse Garden (Part 1 of 3)

The healer’s shelves were filled with rows of jars, each stuffed and carefully labeled with the sort of magic they contained. They were mostly simple magics; peony blossoms to sooth the itching pox, cedar twigs to quicken the healing of shallow wounds, red earth clods to strengthen a weak stomach. Kit inspected every one, but there was no magic for sale that would cure her of the sickness nestled inside her.

“What ails you, dear?” The healer asked, appearing at her elbow. She was a handsome woman shortened by age. One dark swath of hair cut through a fall of silver and her eyes were sharp green.

Kit found that she couldn’t reply except to pull her arms more tightly around herself and shake her head. She knew how easily kindness and concern folded into fear. The name of her illness had that power, and she had no desire to have that experience again.

“Ahh.” The healer’s smile became secretive and knowing.“Don’t be ashamed. You certainly aren’t the first young woman to find herself in such a predicament. I have just the thing.”

As the old woman ducked through the heavy blue curtain at the back of the shop, Kit grasped her meaning with horror.

She followed without thinking.  “Lady Healer, you’ve misunderstood me!”

Behind the curtain was a much smaller room, though it was equally filled with labeled jars. These, though, were for more serious ailments: broken bones, boils, and watery lungs. On the walls were maps of the surrounding countryside all annotated with what rare herb or flower grew where and when they were likely to bloom. Drying leaves and berries hung in bundles from the rafters and a ladder reached up between them where Kit could make out a loft.

“Here we are,” the old woman said, producing a jar filled with spiny white leaves. “These’ll do the trick. Boil them for five minutes, then drink the water. Don’t eat the leaves. Bury them and in two days, you’ll be clear as spring air.”

“I’m sorry, but this won’t help me. My problem – well, it isn’t so ordinary,” Kit said, hoping she hadn’t revealed too much. When the healer drew back, clutching the jar with rigid fingers, Kit feared she’d soon be chased from the shop and probably the village, but then the woman nodded.

“I see,” she said, turning her eyes to the little table shoved into one corner and beginning to sort through the many scrolls stacked on top. “Magical afflictions are certainly tricky. You’ll need something much more powerful than anything I have here, and I know of only one place to send you.”

Something like hope stirred in Kit and she watched the woman anxiously. The healer sorted through her scrolls for a moment, finally selecting one and returning to Kit.

“There is a place, not too far from here, where a garden of roses grows on the side of a steep hill. Plucking any of those roses will cure you of whatever it is that afflicts you. It isn’t hard to get to, but the price is a steep one.”

Kit found it impossible to imagine any price would dissuade her of finding this garden and plucking one of its roses.

“I’ll pay whatever you ask for that map,” she said, giddy with relief. “I’ll give you everything I have.”

But the old woman didn’t return her smile. “No price. I will give it to you, but before you take it, you must know that every person who has taken a rose has been cursed.”

“Cursed?” Kit withdrew the hand that was already reaching for the map. “In what way?”

“It’s different for everyone. Some have been so trivial as a change of hair color or a nose that runs every other day. But others have forgotten the names of their children or have become unable to bear even the slightest touch without pain. I can’t say what it will be for you, but I can say this garden is equally full of curses as it is of cures. You cannot have one without the other.”

Anything, thought Kit, would be better than the thing lurking inside her. A runny nose was nothing by comparison. She took the map and thanked the old healer profusely.

Outside the shop, the day was bright and busy. Kit dodged a stream of children chasing a ribbon someone had spelled to race like a snake above their reaching hands, then found a quiet alley behind a row of hawker stalls selling spiced meats and fresh vegetables. When she was sure she’d gone far enough that no one would disturb her, she spread the map out on the hard-packed dirt to study.

It looked simple enough. The path was clearly traced in blue ink, breaking away from the village and the main road immediately to cut through wheat fields, then diving into the Keening Wood. Instead of continuing through, however, the path cut into the thick of the forest and climbed a little unnamed rise. That was where it ended, the garden marked only by a drawing of a small flower.

Kit pressed her finger against the flower and her heart fell just a little. It might take her several days to travel this distance and she only had less than three to spare. She could feel the illness inside her, coiled and trembling, waiting for the moment it would stretch through her entire body and change her forever. Her time was running out. But Kit wasn’t ready to give up. Not now that there was hope.

When she was sure she had the path firmly in her mind, she rolled the map again and  slipped it into the pouch holding her meager belongings. She would need food to make the journey. The sparse collection of coins in her pocket wouldn’t buy much. Maybe a week’s worth of meals if she was prudent.

She made quick work of gathering supplies; bread and dried beef, a few apples and a block of hard cheese, and a small knife in case the rose stems were tough. With each item carefully packed in her pouch, Kit dropped her very last coins in the open hands of a young priest seated in the hot sun, then set out to find the garden of curses.

Thanks for reading! Check back on Wednesday for part 2 by Valerie!

Photo by koalie via Flickr Creative Commons.

Monday, February 6, 2012

A Boy Called Ginger

I’ve grown up knowing that one day, before my eighteenth year, I would be chosen to sit in as a Decider for the execution of scourge delinquents.  Life or death, at my disposal. Today is that day.

I know it won’t be easy, deciding someone’s fate, but it is a requirement to join the ranks of the Executioners. A role carefully chosen for me at birth. My entire life, I’ve been training for this moment.

“The Executioners are an invaluable asset to this colony,” my father said this morning as he handed me my invitation.  “Our survival depends on them and their fair and just decisions. The scourge delinquents must be eradicated.”

It’s a speech I’ve heard more times than I can count. I rolled my eyes and pretended not to hear him, but his words have burrowed deep into my mind. Invaluable. Survival. Eradicated.

“It’s too much for a boy,” my mother said.  My mother has colored my hair blonde since infancy. Ginger haired boys are not accepted among the colony. She’d never admit it, but I believe it makes her feel that I am weak. But after today, I’ll no longer be a boy. I will be a man. An Executioner. I will make them both proud.

I take my seat along with the six other boys in my class, making us a total of seven. Seven Deciders, an odd number so there can be no chance of a tie. But there won’t be a tie. There’s never a tie. We’ve never been told as much, but every one of us knows what is expected of us. When they bring in the delinquent, we will hear his case, then hold our thumbs in the air and turn them down. Down, for death.

The trial is merely a formality. Something left over from the old world, before the Colony. I know this, and still I feel a sense of pride to be sitting here in this room, with its gold pillars and intricately carved archways. Like being chosen as a Decider, the step before Executioner, means something great. It is a privilege, my father would say.

Barron Berg leans over and whispers to me, “Do you think we’ll get to see it?”

“See what?” I try to spot the Executioners from across the room, and I think I see the toe of one’s boot, just outside the door.

“The actual death.”

I turn to face him then, expecting to see a childlike glee written in his features, but instead I see fear.  Dread. Barron’s eye’s, usually full of mischief, are white and wide, and sweat shines across his brow.

“No,” I say as I rest my hand on his shoulder. “We’re only here to decide the fate of the delinquents. Not carry it out.” Not today.

Barron looks a little more at ease as he slides back into his chair. “Thanks, Cam.”

Just then the Judge walks in, surrounded by half an army of Executioners. Their uniforms are designed to intimidate, and I can feel my pulse surging at the sight of them. Sleek, gray, and sharp. Every angle crisp and perfect.  I feel myself slide forward in my chair and I sense a similar reaction from Barron.

The proceedings begin, the opening speech by the judge, the rules given by the head Executioner. And then they bring in the first scourge delinquent.  He’s a middle-aged man with dirty clothes and unkempt hair. I wonder if they’ve brought him in this way, or if he’s been detained somewhere below the courthouse.

“What do you think he did,” Barron asks.

I shrug. It doesn’t matter what he did. His fate has already been sealed. The Colony does not tolerate rebellion of any kind. He could be a thief, a gambler, an addict. We hear his case, thievery, and we all turn our thumbs down. The executioners carry him away to have his hand amputated. He’ll spend the rest of his life in a five by five cell beneath the courthouse.  And with no anesthetic or medical care, his life will be short-lived.

I tell myself to feel no remorse, and mostly it works, but then I think of how my life would have turned out, had my mother not hidden my hair. The Colony requires its citizens to fit into a specific mold. Blonde hair. Blue eyes. Medium build. Anything less is considered rebellious.

Two more cases follow the thief. Both young men. Both rebels. Both defeated, weak, and dirty. Thumbs down without a second thought. One more, and we will have completed the first of three days of trials.

Whispers filter through the courthouse below the deciding booth. I can’t make out what anyone is saying, but I hear the words girl and rebel. It is rare to find a woman among the scourge delinquents. Our women have been taught since childhood to be meek and compliant. Mothers. Wives. I’ve only ever known one girl who didn’t fit the Colony’s mold. In public, she was perfect, but in private, I knew her better.

My thoughts drift back to my childhood, and for the moment I’m distracted. I don’t see the doors open, or hear the judge call her name. But I feel Barron tense beside me. His fingers bite into my wrist. When I look down at the floor, I see her. Shoulders held high. Head raised. Eyes fierce. Completely fearless.



I was eleven, Annabelle ten, and we raced barefoot across the farm complex, stealing tomatoes and pelting them at one another until our skin turned red. We didn’t stop to think what could have happened had we been caught. I didn’t think. I don’t think Annabelle cared.

“C’mon, Ginger,” she’d said. Annabelle was the only person who knew the real me. All of me. She knew me better than I knew myself. “Come and get me.”

I still remember the feel of her in my arms. Fragile, like a small bird, but more fierce and wild than any scourge delinquent. Annabelle, my Annabelle.

She kissed me, the last summer that I saw her. Before they told me she’d died of some long-eradicated disease brought over on the slave ships. She’d climbed the apple tree faster than any boy, perched on the thickest branch and waited for me to catch up. She was always waiting for me to catch up.

Our feet dangled below us, and we stole apples and ate them like the world was ours.

“Do you want to kiss me, Ginger?”

I choked then, on a piece of apple, and nearly fell from the tree. When I looked at her, her blue eyes were shining brighter than the summer sky. Hopeful. Happy. Alive. And I was frozen, mesmerized by her. She grabbed my ears and pressed her lips against mine. I still had apple in my mouth.


I taste it now, the kiss and the apple, as I look down at the girl I once knew. Annabelle is not dead. She’s very much alive, and more on fire than I’ve ever seen her.  It takes three Executioners to hold her, though she barely seems to be straining against them. She’s grown-up, and even though the situation is a tense one, I can’t help but notice how incredibly beautiful she’s become. Like nothing I’ve ever seen. Again I am eleven years old, and I am mesmerized by this girl.

But this time her life, and mine, is on the line.

The judge reads her name, tells the court what she’s guilty of. The list is long. The longest we’ve heard so far. Thievery. Resisting arrest. Assault. Breaking and entering. Corruption of a minor. Kidnapping. Murder.

My breath hitches at the last charge. Murder. There can be no absolution for her. My stomach twists. My muscles tense. I close my eyes and feel her lips. Smell her skin. Hold her against me, like I’ve longed to do all these years.

“Cam,” Barron whispers. I nod and he doesn’t say anything else.

The room falls silent. The eyes of the Executioners, the judge, all focus on us, the boys in the deciding booth. I can’t stop staring at Annabelle, half wishing her to not be her, and completely hoping that she will remember me. That she will see me and all those memories will flood her mind. Give her something to think about besides what comes next.

Barron nudges me, and I realize I should be holding my thumb in the air. As I raise my arm, her eyes meet mine. They don’t scan the courthouse. They just find me. My chest tightens, and my breath stops.


She recognizes me, I know because she smiles and her lips move. Ginger.

The judge orders, “Decide.” And as one, the boys turn their thumbs to the floor. I feel Barron hesitate, but he follow suit, until only my thumb remains undecided.


I twist my wrist, and point my thumb toward the summer sky.

Thanks for reading! We'll be back next week with a new tangle started by Natalie!

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

Friday, February 3, 2012

Kingdom of Lies (Part 3 of 3)

Without looking down, Magda drew swirls, circles, and runes with a finger, lightly skimming the surface of the pool. Any pool, she knew, could be used to see. If you knew how to use the magic the water held onto so tightly.

“Show me my home,” she whispered, as she leaned forward and gazed at her reflection.

It was selfish, she knew, to risk so much for one glimpse of home. If the sisters turned their empty eyes this way, it wouldn’t only be her in danger, but Mathias and everyone else in these woods. But she would be quick, she assured herself. She could afford this one small comfort.

At first, the pool revealed nothing but her own face made pale by the darkness of the water.
Magda kept her breathing even and focused on the relaxing her thoughts until the only thing in her mind was a single, clear note.

It was different for all seers. For some, the note sounded loudly as though bellowed from a great height. For others, it was breathy and faint, just a secret of a sound so difficult to discover it required the most solitary of rooms to develop. But for Magda the note was so simple to invoke it took effort not to do so accidentally. In her mind, it sounded as clearly as any bell. Though she had never shared the note with another – it was considered folly to do so – she knew precisely what it would feel like humming through her chest and nose.

Once, her grandfather told her of a time when seers would join around a pool to combine their powers and see great distances. When that happened, each of their unique notes had sounded together. “We are a choir,” he’d said. His eyes grew watery to remember it. He was not blessed with an over abundance of emotion and so when it surfaced, Magda took notice.

As she gazed over the pool, growing increasingly frustrated with its placid surface, she wondered if Mathias and his seers might open their minds to hers. Perhaps, if they could gather enough power, they might succeed in clearing the minds of King Caldriel’s seers and break his hold over the kingdom.

The water shimmered and the note in her mind became muted. The image that rose through the shallow pool was not that of her family home in the valley of the Fold River, but that of her grandfather’s face.

Magda sat back on her heels, startled. It wasn’t unusual to see something she hadn’t asked to see. Minds wander, after all, and she recalled now that hers had done exactly that. But it was unusual to see someone who had passed onto the next world. Grandfather Pim had left them long ago. She shouldn’t be able to see him, yet there he was, pushing a smile into his tired face.

He didn’t speak. At least, not in the conventional sense. But in her mind, Magda again heard his voice answering questions she wasn’t aware she’d asked. Quickly. For, they both knew there was no time to waste on reminiscing. The stone-faced sisters would be quick to find her now.

They had just enough time for Magda to understand one thing with absolute clarity: she must kill the king.

* * *

She didn’t remember her walk back to the cabin in the woods. Bastian walked beside her, she knew, but it wasn’t until the smell of smoke teased her nose that she had any sense of where she was. The next hour – or was it two? – passed with more raised voices than she’d ever heard at the cabin.

It wasn’t every day they discussed regicide.

It was Mathias who resisted the most, and he did so with such fury that Magda nearly lost her nerve. But when he raised his hands and asked, “What power do we have that could possibly give us a fighting chance against Caldriel’s army?” Magda saw the fear that caused his hands to tremble.

She didn’t back down. Instead, she raised her chin and looked at each of the seers gathered around their rough-hewn kitchen table when she said, “We are what Caldriel fears. Why else would he pursue us so desperately? It is because he fears our power. All we need do is join our minds and free those of his seers. With their help, we’ll be able to challenge his hold on this kingdom and the next.”

Mathias stilled with his eyes on Magda. “But what of the sisters? If we join our minds, we’ll be a hundred times brighter than any one of us alone. The sisters are as sharp as Caldriel’s hounds. They would spot us and prevent us from reaching the others.”

From this, Magda knew he was no longer allowing fear to dictate his thoughts. He was planning, which was nearly as good as if he’d proposed the idea himself.

She looked at the old and young faces at the table, at Celeste whose hands were pressed together at her unsmiling mouth. How could she ask them to risk the small, happy lives they’d managed to create here? Yet, they were here. Not a single person had left the room when she proposed they take action.

“Yes, they would,” Magda said, confirming Mathias’ words. “That is why we must have someone in the palace. Someone who can join us from inside and overwhelm the sisters.”

This time it was the entire room that stilled.

Mathias broke the silence with a simple, but clear, “No.”

But Magda was tired of running. She was tired of hiding and was not at all satisfied with a prison in any shape, even if it was one she found agreeable. She could see in the press of his lips that Mathias knew this, too. He would let her go.

She stood and her red consecration robes swayed around her ankles. Though she’d been offered other clothing, she’d never accepted. It was as if part of her had always expected to return, though she never would have guessed how and with what purpose.

“I’ll leave tomorrow,” she said, and though she was more afraid than at any point during her flight, she discovered that fear was easier to carry when the path ahead was clear.

Thanks for reading! Next week, Lacey will be delighting us with an unTangled short of her very own. And the three of us have been chatting about a contest at the end of this month, so stay tuned!

Photo found via weheartit.com. If this is yours, please let us know so we can credit you.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Kingdom of Lies (Part 2 of 3)

The scent of wood smoke lay heavy in the air, enveloping them. In the dim light of the fading dusk, Magda could just make out a cottage, and in its doorway, a man. No, she thought, as Bastian came to a stop with a soft whiny. Not a man, a boy. Not much older than she.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he said, with a voice that was at once kind and calming, and decidedly not the voice she’d heard in her mind.

Magda let go of the reins, and slid off the fatigued horse. She managed one step toward the boy before exhaustion overtook her and she fainted into his waiting arms.

Over the weeks she’d been safeguarded, Magda had explored every square inch of what Mathias told her was protected by the shroud.  A small stretch of forest, bordered by the thickets trees Magda had ever seen. Trees that wouldn’t naturally have grown in the kingdom, without a little magic. It was the trees, Mathias explained, that protected them from the King’s seers.

A small band of runaway servants and seers alike, Mathias and his companions knew the truth about King Cadriel. And like Magda, they’d tried to escape. But there was no escape from the far-reaching clutches of the demon king. He’d spread his seed far and wide among neighboring kingdoms, already ensnaring the people of the land with his spell. The only safe place was to hide in plain sight.

The morning air was brisk, sunlight seeping through the canopy of trees, as Magda lead Bastian from the stables. Mathias had gone into a nearby village, two days travel at best, with a former servant man by the name of Sazh. Though she’d only known Mathias a few weeks, when the boy was gone, Magda felt restlessness in her heart. The cottage walls seemed to press in on her, and the constant bustling of the other women, especially an elder seer named Celeste, made Magda long for open air and green pasture. Though she knew she couldn’t leave the safety of the shroud, she climbed onto Bastian’s back and led him into the forest.

The woods were silent and the air around her seemed thick and heavy. The shroud, she thought, for as she neared the border the weight began to lessen and her breath came easier. She peered through the thickest of trees, spotting something glinting in the distance. Water, she knew by the way the light bounced and moved in soft waves.

This way, Magda. The voice she’d heard just weeks before, when she came upon the cottage, was back again in that same soft lulling tone. Underneath her red robes, her skin prickled and she felt Bastian tense beneath her. The voice was familiar in a way that things sometimes are, without really being. Like a name long forgotten.

“Come, Bastian.” She clucked her tongue and nudged the horse’s sides with her calves. “This way.” But the horse refused to move, stomping his hoof in protest. She tried again, and Bastian locked his legs and jerked his neck, tugging the reins from her hands. She huffed, and jumped from his back, allowing the stubborn stallion to graze alone as she crept closer to the pool.

Magda. Her name was a whisper through the trees. From somewhere on the other side of the shroud, in the direction of the pool, she heard it again, and again. She glanced back the way she’d come, knowing the cottage to be near, but too far for her voice to be heard by the women. Mathias had travelled into the village many times before, and he’d never been detected by the king’s seers. They wouldn’t notice her. They’d probably long forgotten that she’d run away.

She turned back toward the pool, watching the peaceful waves drifting along it’s sunlit surface, reminding her so much of the pool back home, where she’d first learned to see, when times were better. Was it really better, to be naïve and believe her king was fair and just, and not the monster she now knew him to be? She couldn’t know, and decided it best not to wonder.


Though she missed her home, her life had not been a terrible one. She’d found Mathias and the cottage after all. And she still had Bastian by her side. The horse lifted his head and snorted once at her, as if reminding her of his presence, before he went back to grazing on a patch of purple clover.

Still, she thought. It would be lovely to see her home again. If only for a moment. She slipped between the trees, tearing her red robe as she made her way beyond the boundary of the shroud, and to the pool just beyond.

Magda knelt at the water’s edge, leaning back on her heels, not yet ready to gaze into the water. She could just see Bastian’s ears pricked and pointed in her direction from where she’d left him inside the shroud. She should turn back. She felt it in her bones, the fervent need to run back inside the shroud. Back to safety, back where she was protected from King Cadriel’s seers. Back to Mathias.

Magda, we’ve missed you. The voice sounded more like her grandfather each time she heard it. It beckoned to her, like a watery finger from beneath the surface of the pool. Without looking down, Magda drew swirls, circles, and runes with a finger, lightly skimming the surface of the pool. Any pool, she knew, could be used to see. If you knew how to use the magic the water held onto so tightly.

“Show me my home,” she whispered, as she leaned forward and gazed at her reflection.

Thanks for reading! Come back Friday for Part 3 by Natalie!

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Monday, January 30, 2012

Kingdom of Lies (Part 1 of 3)

Magda wasn’t sure how many days she’d been running. They had begun to meld into a continuous blur of light and dark, green and brown, somewhere in the second. She was tired all the way down to her bones, and she knew that Bastian, her horse, wouldn’t be able to go much further before collapse. Still, the urge, the desperate, clawing need, to go further wouldn’t abate.

No amount of distance felt safe. Not from the king’s men. His seers could see her anywhere she went in his lands. Unlike most villagers, she knew this to be fact rather than just rumor, because until she'd snuck into the stables and stole away on the old horse, she had been one of them. A novice seer, that is. A job she’d loved until she’d discovered the awful truth about the king. Until she’d made the fatal mistake of following her heart. And until the moment the king set his hounds on her with the order she be brought back, dead or alive.

Knowing what she did, Magda couldn’t decide which option was the better, and so she hoped she would face neither. Unfortunately, being able to see people on the king’s land, is not the same as being able to see the lay of it, and Magda had no idea how close she was to the border, or how to tell when she’d crossed to the other side. She was tempted to use her gift to search for a soul that might know it, but the risk of opening her mind to the sisters was too great. Opening up, even just a little, was enough to make her a shining beacon on the map. They’d be there in no time.

Even without the opening her mind, she stood out too much. She still wore the bright red robes of the consecration ceremony, where she looked into the golden bowl and saw the king’s true, monstrous, face upon the surface of the water. Whatever he was, he was not King Cadriel and as she stared with dawning horror, she saw that the sisters, and everyone in the court had fallen under his spell. She felt pinned to the spot, as though someone were holding her there and sending her this vision.

Amidst the flickering candles and the stone-faced sisters, Magda watched the thing-that-was-not-her-king’s plan spool out across the water in scene after horrific scene. He would turn the kingdom into a wasteland where other beasts like he could thrive, and then they would spread to other lands, until the whole of the world was swallowed, and those in it dead or worse, playthings. When the vision finally released her, she found that she had already planned her escape. Each step fixed inside her mind except this last – where to go.

Bastian trembled beneath her and his steps began to slow. Magda couldn’t remember the last time they’d had water. Only that it had been in the moonlight and now, the sun was slipping behind the hills that never seemed to get any closer. “There now,” she stroked Bastian’s neck, letting him know he could stop. “It’s alright.” They’d been running along the edge of the forest, where the land was flat, and she nudged him toward the trees. She doubted they could make it far enough to find water, but at least they would be sheltered, perhaps hidden from view.

This way, girl. The voice sounded inside her mind, Magda was sure of it, but Bastian’s ear pricked, and he turned in the direction from which it seemed to come. Only a few steps more. The voice was reassuring. It reminded Magda of her grandfather, not in the sound of it, but in the gentle tone. Magda was too tired to fight it, she felt her body go slack with relief. If this was a trick, she would meet her end. She couldn’t run anymore, nor could Bastian, who even now, stumbled as he slowly made his way over roots and fallen branches.

The scent of wood smoke lay heavy in the air, enveloping them. In the dim light of the fading dusk, Magda could just make out a cottage, and in its doorway, a man. No, she thought, as Bastian came to a stop with a soft whiny. Not a man, a boy. Not much older than she.

“We’ve been waiting for you,” he said, with a voice that was at once kind and calming, and decidedly not the voice she’d heard in her mind.

Magda let go of the reins, and slid off the fatigued horse. She managed one step toward the boy before exhaustion overtook her and she fainted into his waiting arms.

Come back Wednesday for part two from Lacey!

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Friday, January 20, 2012

Red River (Part 3 of 3)

I almost lost his stone between the railroad ties. It was black as the tar that coated everything, but just as I was about to give up, my pinky fell into the hole and hooked it.

It makes a soft clattering sound when I thread it onto my cord with the first. Seeing both of them together looks more like proof than one on its own. Still not enough, but now I know what I’m going to do to convince Gentry this town’s more than just a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I’m going to kill myself a baker’s dozen Red River Proteans. I’m going to hunt them harder than ever before. And I’m going to do it all on my own.


It’s a strange thing, wearing someone’s heart around your neck. At first, I barely noticed they were there. Unless I was hunting, I didn’t think much about them. But now that I’m up to number four, I can feel their weight. Not a heaviness, but a pull. A deep longing for the cool waters of the river.

I'd always thought of the Proteans as monstrous things hidden in pretty, human-looking packages. They didn't have feelings. They had hearts, but they were made of stone. Proof that they were cold and unfeeling. But this – this is an ache I know all too well. Their hearts call out for the water, but can't reach it. They have lost everything, their home, their bodies, and they are left to do nothing but endure it. It's how I feel about the summer, and Gentry, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

I should crush them all, and end their suffering, but that won't help me get Gentry back. And like that old saying, "misery loves company". At least in a way I don't feel so alone.


It’s early morning when I see my fifth victim. A girl this time. She stands with her feet still in the water, her ankles blending smoothly into the surface so that it’s hard to tell if there’s anything below them at all. She’s dressed for summer, despite the late October chill, and there’s no puff of white when she speaks.

“Please,” she says, her hands reaching out to me in a way that says both I’m begging and don’t hurt me. Her eyes are wet as they fall to the stones around my neck, but I can’t tell if it’s tears or just the way she is. She lets out a soft gasp as she stares at my trophies and for the first time I realize how garish they are. I must look like a monster to her. She quivers slightly, an unnatural movement, and I remind myself that she’s the monster. Not me.

“Please,” she says again, her voice watery and trembling. “You have my…” She searches for the word, “my soulmate. Please, just let him go, and I promise we’ll never come back here.”

Something pinches in my gut, but I shake my head no. California has my soulmate, and I need hers to get him back. My fingers grip the handle of my knife. “I can’t do that.”

She quivers again, but lifts her chin high as she steps out of the water. “Then take me too. I don’t want to be here without him.”

I try not to see the fear or the love in her eyes as I lift my knife. They are monsters, I tell myself, they don’t have emotions. If I don’t stab her now, she’ll grab me, pull me into to the icy water.

She makes no sound as I slide my blade into her chest. Just a splash, and a soft thud as her heart lands on the mud. I ignore the sting in my eyes as I string hers next to the rest.


I keep finding myself on the tracks over the river. Whether I'm headed to school, or the library, or the store, I seem to end up on the train tracks, staring down at the half frozen river. It's too cold now to catch Proteans. Snow lines the banks and the water is barely a trickle. My plan to get Gentry back is stalled until spring, and I only have five hearts to show for it. I can't even show him those, because he decided to stay out in California for Christmas. I gaze down through a gap in the tracks and let the stones' longing wash over me.

Gentry's never coming back. That's what I imagine they whisper at night when I'm trying to fall asleep. That's what my gut says now. Let them go. Gentry too.

I know I'm probably just imagining their pain, but I feel guilty nonetheless. At least when the Proteans deal death it's quick. They don't leave their victims to suffer for months on end, halfway between living and dying. It's starting to feel cruel. And I'm starting to feel foolish. Like I've been holding onto something I never really had.

I picture Gentry that last day in the sun and wonder if he ever felt the way I did. I can't see the kind of sadness in his eyes that I carried. Only the excitement he felt over something new. Maybe he never cared about Red River or me. Maybe he just liked the rush he got whenever he slid his knife into their soft bodies, and felt the cold water splash down his arm.

It was Gentry that taught me about the Proteans, how they were evil, and I trusted him. But now that I know their pain, I can't help but wonder if he was wrong. I think maybe I should toss the stones back in the river, but I can't.

Misery loves company.


The banks of the river are slick with ice. The air is brisk but calm and I barely notice the sting on my cheeks. I take a seat on the same rock I was on when I made my first kill, Jake. It's him that I feel the strongest. I finger his heartstone and remember the soft look of surprise in his eyes when I slid the knife into his chest. It was the last thing he expected, and I don't know why. His heart aches the most, a mirror of my own longing for Gentry and I find myself wanting to talk to him and find out.

Carefully, I pull the cord over my head and undo it. I slip Jake's heart off and hold it in my hand. If I throw it into the water, what will happen? Will he just swim away? Or will he come out of the water to demand I release his friends. Will he pull me in with him? It's that last question I find myself thinking about the most.

I never thought I could leave Red River, but without Gentry, it's unbearable here. I pray for summer to come and yet I know that when it does, and Gentry doesn't come back, I will feel even emptier than I do now. Red River is already just a shell of the town it once was to me, and I will be the hollow girl in it.

It’s time to let go. “I’m sorry,” I say, to Jake’s heart, to the river, to myself. I slip the other four hearts off the cord, and with a deep breath, I throw them into the water.

We are taking next week off, but come back Monday, January 30th, for an all new tangle started by me!

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Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Red River (Part 2 of 3)

I don’t like the way he makes me feel. Intoxicated, almost. It took me years to feel this way about Gentry. He leans in close to me, so close that I can smell his skin. My eyes close and I expect something like Gentry’s cologne, but that’s not right. The scent isn’t right.

I step back and watch him dry his hair. Something about this boy feels wrong. The way his eyes shine, the way his skin seems to move like it’s part of the river.

“Where’d you say you were from?” I ask.

Jake grins and just beneath his lip I can see his teeth—pointed, sharp. “I didn’t.”

I know him by his teeth. The sight sends warmth fluttering down to my fingertips and yanks me out of his intoxicating spell.

It’s clear from the twist in his smile that he thinks I’ll be easy. I’m happy enough to let him go on thinking it. Tucking my hair behind one ear, I drop my eyes and give a shy smile.

“I’ll trade you for your name,” he says, probing. But I know better.

Dropping to one knee, I grip the hilt of my knife, hidden safely in my boot. He doesn’t see me coming. He’s too focused on what my blood will taste like or how my screams will sound muffled by water. When I stand, thrusting the silver knife beneath his ribcage to the place his heart would be, his eyes are soft and bewildered. Only for a second. Then, his skin shimmers and all the water that was his body rushes down over my hand and back into the river.

I haven’t killed in weeks. Not since before Gentry left, and even then, Red River had been a quiet place.

Gentry thought our work was done. He thought we’d finally found the last of them and it was like knowing that the danger had passed drained the life right out of him. The river was just a river, the tracks were just tracks, and I guess I was just a girl.

On the ground, something gleams in the mud. I push my knife back into its sheath and lift the little pebble between my thumb and forefinger. It’s black with a hole through its center. Proof that their hearts are hard as stone. To be sure, I should set it on the tracks and wait for a train to come by and shatter it into a thousand pieces. That’s the drill. They aren’t dead until the black rock is broken.

My feet are soaked and I’m beginning to feel the chill of autumn resting on the tip of my nose. I stuff the stone into my pocket and head for home.

* * *

It’s been two months since Gentry left Red River. By the time he calls, I’ve stopped hoping for it. His number lights up on my phone and I’m all too eager to answer. But when I hear his voice, thinned out be the distance between us, I only say that I’m fine, and that Mr. Poll from the feed shop was found wandering main street without his pants again.

Though the stone hangs on a cord around my neck, I don’t say one word about the Protean I killed last week.

* * *

When the full chill of autumn moves in, hunting is more of a challenge. They’re harder to detect when the water becomes sluggish. It’s less likely that their skin will shimmer like the river, and more likely that they’ll hold their shape.

The scent of honeysuckle is long gone, replaced with the earthy smell of rotting leaves, but when I take a long, deep breath, I can still smell the tar from the tracks. It’s holding onto summer as hard as I am.

I visit our spot by the river every day. It was against our rules to hunt alone. But what choice did he leave me? One kill isn’t likely to bring him back, anyway. I need to convince him this town’s worth his time, that this town needs him.

They’re out there, I know it. Waiting to lure unsuspecting boys and girls down to the muddy banks and bleed them dry. There’s something about this place that attracts them. Something about the river bed they find irresistible; something about the tracks that delights them. Gentry may not have known it, but I do.

I find the second one a short distance down the tracks. He looks like a normal boy – slight build, dusty blond hair, ill-fitted clothing – but he leaves a trail of watery footprints behind him, so faint you’d miss it for the dirty gravel of the tracks. He might’ve made it all the way to town if I hadn’t caught up to him and pushed my knife into the soft spot beneath his ribs.

I almost lost his stone between the railroad ties. It was black as the tar that coated everything, but just as I was about to give up, my pinky fell into the hole and hooked it.

It makes a soft clattering sound when I thread it onto my cord with the first. Seeing both of them together looks more like proof than one on its own. Still not enough, but now I know what I’m going to do to convince Gentry this town’s more than just a small town in the middle of nowhere.

I’m going to kill myself a baker’s dozen Red River Proteans. I’m going to hunt them harder than ever before. And I’m going to do it all on my own.

Come back Friday for Part 3 by Valerie!

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Monday, January 16, 2012

Red River (Part 1 of 3)

I roll my window down just so I can watch Gentry’s hair blow in the wind, from the passenger side of his old Chevy. He smiles, a dimple hidden beneath the honey colored stubble on his face, like he knows I’m watching him.

He reaches for the radio and bumps up the volume and we sing off pitch to Sweet Home Alabama, my bare feet tapping along to the beat on the dashboard. The smell of honeysuckle hangs in the air and it mixes with Gentry’s cologne and the exhaust from the pick-up and it all brings one word to my lips; summer.
I try not to notice the leaves have started to change. I don’t want to see the summer end. I’m not ready to say goodbye to this.

To say goodbye to Gentry.


Gentry grabs my hand to steady me. One foot after another, I balance on the railroad track, only leaning on him because I want to.  His fingers are long and warm and I try to memorize the shape of his hand and how mine fits into it.

“I’m gonna miss this smell,” he says. His eyes are hidden beneath the brim of his baseball cap. The shadow it casts makes his jaw line sharp and I have the urge to kiss him there.

But I just breathe in deep instead--Iron, rust, tar, and honeysuckle. I’d miss this smell too if I were the one leaving, but I’m not. I can’t imagine ever leaving Red River. It’s a thought I just can’t have. “You don’t have to go,” I mumble.

If Gentry hears me, he doesn’t show it. He kicks a rock with the toe of his boot and it skitters down the small incline and plops into the river beside us. “You wanna go for a swim?”

Neither of us has a bathing suit, but that’s never stopped us before. The river water is crystal clear and it’s real deep beneath the railroad bridge just a ways up the track. Gentry likes to jump from the bridge, but I’ve never tried. Today I think I will.

“Sure.” I smile at him like he’ll always be mine, and we’ll always have this. And if just for today, I try to believe it.


I didn’t know it was the last time I’d see Gentry. He cut our summer short when he left for California two weeks sooner than he’d promised. I told myself I wasn’t going to think about him after he left, but he’s in me. Like the hot iron of the railroad tracks, the feel of the cool river water on my skin, the sound of Sweet Home Alabama on the radio. There are some things you just can't let go of.

I head down to our spot on the river, wanting solitude, and wanting more than ever not to be alone. I stop short on the river bank, looking up at the boy on the railroad bridge above. My eyes play tricks because I think it’s Gentry, until he jumps and a mess of dark hair plunges into the water.

When he comes back up, he swims to me. I watch, as he climbs up the rocky slope, water dripping from his naked shoulders. “Hi,” he says. Goose bumps cover his chest and arms.

“It’s too cold for a swim.”

The boy laughs. “Yeah.  I guess so.” He rubs a hand through his brown hair and then he looks at me in a way that makes my cheeks warm. His eyes are deep, dark brown, set beneath a heavy brow. “I’m Jake.”

I smile, but it feels wrong. It’s too tight on my face. I haven’t smiled like this for anyone but Gentry. “You don’t look like a Jake.” His name should be something more exotic. It’s right on the tip of my tongue but I can’t grasp it. A name I’ve only heard in stories.

He laughs again and my breath catches. “You know, I’ve heard people look like their names, but I never really believed that.”

The wind blows cold and a leaf that’s just started to turn orange falls down and lands between us, floating on the water. Jake bends and picks it up. He hands it to me. “I bet your name is something pretty. Something like Summer.”



The leaf is cool and wet in my hand and I imagine what Jake’s skin feels like. Cool from the river, but warm against my fingertips. He points to a towel hanging from a dogwood branch. “Hand me that, please?”

I move aside so that he can reach it himself. I don’t like the way he makes me feel. Intoxicated, almost. It took me years to feel this way about Gentry. He leans in close to me, so close that I can smell his skin. My eyes close and I expect something like Gentry’s cologne, but that’s not right. The scent isn’t right.

I step back and watch him dry his hair. Something about this boy feels wrong. The way his eyes shine, the way his skin seems to move like it’s part of the river.

“Where’d you say you were from?” I ask.

Jake grins and just beneath his lip I can see his teeth—pointed, sharp. “I didn’t.”

Come back Wednesday for Part 2 by Natalie!

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Monday, January 9, 2012

If, Then

Alexis Flores is pretty sure she has things figured out. The world makes sense, if you know how to look at it. Signs are everywhere, pointing out dangers and opportunities, pitfalls and advantages. They’re not obvious, giant neon-glowing billboards with instructions written just for you. No. They’re quiet things. Everyday things. The sort of thing you’d walk right past without a second thought. Nobody looks twice at ice cream melting on pavement or a shivering light bulb in a street lamp, not unless they know what they’re looking for. Which Alexis Flores does, and she never ignores the signs.

So when she sees the car ahead of them on I-10 riding the break harder than a Baptist Preacher on the devil, she doesn’t see a nervous driver. She sees Morse code in red lights, stop – stop – stop, and pulls her mom’s suburban off on the next exit, following the small road to a diner. The only establishment for miles and miles, it seems. One bright spot in the middle of pine trees and kudzu.

“I knew we shouldn’t’ve let you drive.” Phoebe Holt throws up her hands. Alexis sees them in them in the rear view mirror. Wrists covered in every kind of bracelet you can find at the Gulfport strip mall. “You owe me a Raging Fine ticket, Lex. Sweet Lord a’mighty, where the hell are we.”

From shotgun, Kayla Montgomery gathers her purse from the floor and glances over her shoulder at Phoebe. She’s used to following Alexis’s lead. At first, it bothered her, but it doesn’t any more. She’s seen enough to know that there’ll probably be a twenty-car pile-up a mile down the road, or a bomb at the concert right in their section. She doesn’t question Alexis’s gut anymore. She follows it.

Now, she turns to Phoebe, who’s fidgeting in the back seat and says, “We’re at Mama Beaux’s Diner for dinner. I hope they have pie.”

They aren’t so far from home. Just far enough that they’ve gone past all the Gulfport suburbs on the way to New Orleans. And just far enough that there’s nothing significant on the map for another dozen miles or more. Alexis thinks Mama Beaux’s must be fine dining for these parts judging by the number of trucks and SUVs in the parking lot. She decides there must be something good here. Something tasty. That’s why they were stopped here and not five miles before where their choices would’ve been fast food or faster food. Her stomach growls.

Walking inside the diner is like waking up in the middle of the day with the sun heavy on your skin. None of the girls realized how quiet it was in the parking lot, how lonely and dark, until they fell into the noise and warmth of Mama Beaux’s. It’s the sort of place that feels like home even if you’re only ever there once.

“Oh, they have pie,” Phoebe says, wryly. She points to a sign over the bar that reads, Yes, We’ve got pie!

The girls are seated in a booth that’s covered in rooster décor. Rosters are carved into the seats, a painting of a giant rooster stretches across the table, and a little rooster lamp sits between salt and pepper shakers and a bottle of ketchup.

“What’s the deal?” Kayla asks, looking up at Alexis with a glimmer in her eyes. “We’re supposed to miss the concert and buy a rooster?”

“Just Phoebe,” Alexis answers.

Phoebe’s expression lacks all humor, but she doesn’t have time to respond before their waiter stops at the edge of the table. Red hair, white t-shirt, blue jeans that have come by their distress honestly.

“Can I get you ladies something to drink?” He’s too young to be calling them ladies, but he does it with the sort of tired confidence wrought of repetition.

Phoebe stares. Kayla Simpers. Alexis says, “Coffee for all of us, please.”

“Comin’ right up,” he says, pushing his notepad into his back pocket without bothering to write on it.

“Never mind,” Kayla says when she’s sure he’s out of earshot. “It’s all so clear, now.”

But Alexis only roles her eyes and reaches for one of the menus he dropped on their table. There’s an entire page dedicated to pie. Alexis takes one look, notices a small smudge of dark purple-blue, and decides on a slice of blueberry. Kayla and Phoebe don’t decide so easily and when the waiter returns with their mugs of coffee on a tray, they ask him for his favorite.

“Custard,” he answers, his eyes drifting to Alexis. But Alexis orders blueberry.

^ ^ ^

Kayla won’t stop talking about Rooster. That’s what she’s decided to call the waiter, since they failed to obtain his name that night at the diner. She’s certain that’s why Alexis was pulled off the road. Not for the best pie they’ve ever tasted, but for Rooster. There was no terrible accident on the highway and no bomb at the Arena, but that doesn’t always mean much to Alexis. Sometimes, the signs are preventative and you never know why. You just have to trust. If they’d gone, then something horrible would’ve happened. Since they didn’t, nothing did. It’s self-evident from where Alexis stands.

When Kayla texts her a picture of a rooster with his white chest all puffed out and the caption, Keepin’ it cocky, scrawled beneath, Alexis just laughs. Sets the photo as Kayla’s icon in her phone and responds with an image of a dead end sign.

“Why do you always wait for things to happen to you?” Kayla asks when school’s finally over and she can dig into this conversation. “He was clearly into you, right? And you might deny it, but you’re into him.”

“Waiting is safest.” Alexis won’t deny she’s into Rooster, but without the signs, it’s pointless. If she’s meant to see him again, then she will. Until then, she dismisses any thoughts she’s begun to have of Rooster’s red hair.

This works pretty well until the very end of her shift at the Winn Dixie when she’s called back to the storeroom.

“What do you know about these pies?” The boss asks Alexis, but she’s not really expecting an answer. This boss is the sort of person who’s incessantly inquisitive. She answers questions with questions. Answers gum up the process.

Alexis sees three boxes on the floor between them. Each one has been sliced open to reveal neat stacks of pies.

“Why would I ever make an order like this?” The boss asks, running her middle finger down the order sheet again. “What am I going to do with two dozen custard pies? Lexie? Will you see what you can do with them?”

Alexis says she will and begins loading them onto a cart, two by two. It’s easy enough to find room for food in a grocery store.

“And why custard?” Her boss continues, pressing one palm to her forehead as if waiting for the logic of it.

“Maybe the vendor got it wrong?” Alexis suggests, careful to use a question, but it makes sense to her.

^ ^ ^

Alexis doesn’t know what to expect, but that’s okay. She doesn’t need to know. She just needs to follow the signs, and that’s what she does. Right back to Mama Beaux’s Diner. She sends Kayla a picture of the front door, just for the fun of it.

The diner isn’t as packed on a weeknight as it was the night they landed here. Alexis is given a booth all to her self. But she’s not just sitting there looking lonely. No. She’s prepared and has schoolbooks to spread out in a way that looks productive. Headphones, too, just in case.

A waiter appears at the end of her table. Alexis is surprised to find it’s not Rooster, but a woman with an apron tied high over her pregnant belly. Her cheeks are flushed and she’s as nice as her curls, but Alexis has begun to wonder what she’s doing here. She orders coffee and one slice of custard pie.

She’s mid-way through her second round of coffee – black with two packets of sugar, the real stuff, not the chemicals – when someone slides into the booth across from her.

It’s Rooster. And he looks even more like a rooster with his hair stuck up at odd angles, but his t-shirt is brown and that diminishes the comparison.

“I didn’t catch your name,” says Rooster. “And I meant to. But I had a feeling I’d see you again, so I didn’t panic.”

This is the sort of comment that makes Alexis smile against her will. She prefers to keep her emotional reactions private, but she was caught by surprise. She says, “Alexis Flores. And you’re right, this pie is excellent.”

“Ford Weber,” he answers, glancing at her books, then out the window where the parking lot is painted in gray scale. “I’m ready whenever you are.”

Alexis hears her favorite song come over the diner’s sound system, she notices that her bill comes to six dollars and fifty-four cents, leaving her exactly three dollars to tip. She follows the pattern to its logical conclusion: the two of them leave the diner for their first date.

It’s only a week later that Kayla and Phoebe beg Alexis to read the signs for them. They say they’d both like a rooster of their own. No matter how many times he’s come around, Kayla refuses to address him as anything but Rooster. Surprisingly, Ford’s okay with this.

Alexis thinks their request is a strange one. They’ve never had trouble finding dates or boyfriends when they wanted them. She asks them why they suddenly need her?

They give the same answer: your love is destiny.

“It’s not destiny,” she says, ignoring the bit about love. Sunlight falls through her bedroom window and hits a blue top in her closet. Instinctively, she puts it on. “It’s a negotiation.”

^ ^ ^

Ford is waiting for Alexis on the beach. It’s their sixth date and his turn to choose. Alexis was perplexed when he told her to bring a towel, which she also took to mean, “wear a bathing suit.”

There’s a sign by the boardwalk warning people away but those aren’t always the important signs, and Alexis walks past without reading. When the board walk ends, she kicks off her shoes, making her way across the sand to where Ford stands with the surf slipping around his toes. Alexis can already taste the salt.

“C’mon,” says Ford, pulling his shirt off over his head and his pants down over his hips until he stands only in his suit. “I’ve got something to show you.”

Alexis feels a thrill stutter through her body, it’s like caffeine hurrying her blood along as fast as it can go. This isn’t the sort of thing she does. Not because she wouldn’t, but because she doesn’t think of things like this. Not normally. She strips down to her one-piece and takes Ford’s hand.

The water is cold, at first, but it’s better when she’s in all the way to her neck, lifting her chin above the little waves that ripple past. There aren’t real waves this far behind the breaker islands, just their playful echoes, so it’s easy to swim into the deeper water.

“What do you want to show me?” Alexis asks, noting the way the water becomes dark up ahead when all around them the wavelets catch moonlight on their tips.

“If I tell you, it won’t be a surprise.”

Ford swims away, into the dark water where shadows leech all the red from his hair until it’s as black as waves. Alexis doesn’t follow. She treads water and scans the space ahead for any signs of danger. But if the danger’s beneath the surface, it could be anywhere. Why weren’t they supposed to be out here? Maybe she should have paid more attention to the sign by the boardwalk.

“Maybe we shouldn’t,” she calls. “It’s so dark, Ford. Let’s go back.”

But Ford swims a little farther from her. “Dark is the point. C’mon, they’ll only be here a little while, and maybe never again.”

Alexis knows this is a bad idea. The sign is clear. The path ahead is murky, unknown, and potentially dangerous. There’s only one established reaction to this sign: go back.

She doesn’t move.

“I don’t know,” she says. And distantly wonders if this is why Kayla and Phoebe wanted her help. Because knowing is safer than not?

Ford swims toward her a short way. Raises his hand, bobbing as he treads the black water. His palm fills with moonlight, but the back remains dark with shadow. Alexis thinks this, too, could be a sign, but she knows better. It’s not a sign. It feels too uncertain, too risky and exciting to be a sign. This is something else.

Moving to the edge of the dark water, Alexis probes it with her toe and shivers at how much colder it is there than here. If she returns to shore, she knows she’ll be safe. She will dry off in the moonlight, climb back into her clothes, and return home none the worse for the wear. If she doesn’t go back to shore, anything might happen, and ‘anything’ includes the full spectrum of horrible things.

Ford sees her hesitation. “I’ll go back with you if you want. But I promise, this is worth it, and I’ll be with you.”

Again, Alexis feels a twinge of excitement. If she goes with him, she doesn’t know what will happen. She doesn’t know if it will be safe or exciting and she isn’t sure which one is right. It makes her tread faster and her skin feel hotter. It makes her feel awake and alive. She wonders if this is what it feels like to live without the safety of signs, to never know which choice is the safest.

She looks again at Ford’s hand, one small piece of light surrounded by darkness, takes a deep breath, and crosses into the dark water.

Thank you for reading. Check back on Monday for a new Tangle started by Lacey.

Photo by kagey_b via Flickr Creative Commons.

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