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.”

Summer.

Gentry.

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 d├ęcor. 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.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Stars Fall (Part 3 of 3)

Lights sweep through the house from the backyard. I hear engines revving and voices shouting and my heart crashes into my chest like a star falling from the sky. Missy grasps my hand in hers, pressing something hard between our palms. It stings or burns, I can’t tell which, but someone is pounding at the back door. 

Missy just smiles up at me; playfully, excitedly, calmly. She’s not worried about the men at the door and I wonder what she knows that I don’t. 

But then she says, “It’s an adventure,” and I know I’m about to find out. 


***

The pounding at the door grows in intensity until I’m sure they’re going to crash through it. It could be the neighborhood watch. It would be looters, driven mad by the chaos. It could be the army. It could be Mom and Dad. No, not Mom and Dad.

I look down at the warm object in my hands. It’s small and black, and almost looks like a rock, but not quite. It shines too much. Glimmers, like some type of metal that I don’t have a name for.  “Missy, where did you get this?”

Missy stares at the metal rock and in her eyes I see that same strange glow. It scares me. “Missy?”

“We have to go now, Tabby.” She slips her tiny hand in mine and leads me to the front of the house.  Bright beams of light flash this way and that. The voices of men shouting, sirens, fire, all of it mixes together until it’s nothing but white noise and the pounding of my heart in my ears.

I’ve seen enough movies to know that the government shouldn’t be trusted. What if aliens crash landed, and they want to eradicate all witnesses? But what choice do I have?  I open the door, before they bust through it.

Men rush in with guns drawn. They swarm the living room, the kitchen, and I hear their boots stomping up the stairs. The flashlights on their helmets sting my eyes. I pull Missy close to me and hide the object in the pocket of my pajamas.

“Is there anyone else in the house?” a soldier asks me. My first instinct is to lie and say, yes my parents are home. But they’d know, and I don’t know what could happen to me for lying to them.

“We’re alone. Our parents are in town.”

“We?” he asks.

I nod. Missy’s fingers grope my pocket and I grab her hand too hard, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She grins up at me, like this is all some part of a game. Usually I’d wish I could be as fearless, but tonight I’m glad to be scared enough to be smart.

The soldier barks commands into a walkie-talkie and then tells us to come with him. I take one last look around our house. It doesn’t look like home with all these strangers here. Mom’s leopard-print snuggie lays draped over her rocking chair, and for no other reason than to feel close to her, I take it with me, and follow the soldier outside.

Our front yard looks like a war zone. Flashing lights are everywhere and it is so overwhelming that I’m disoriented and barely notice that Missy has walked away to speak to a man in a white coat. I pat my pocket. Empty.

“Missy!”

The man takes her by the hand. Soldiers rush in and pin me back. All I can do is scream her name and pray she turns around. Why won’t they let me go to her? It’s like they don’t even see her. The man in the white coat turns to me and then slowly Missy does too. In their eyes I see the same glimmer.

“It’s an adventure, Tabby,” my sister says, as she points her finger to the sky. “I’m going, because you said I could, but these men will take care of you now.” Her voice changes and she’s gone from six to twenty-seven again. “Tell them nothing.”

And just like that, she’s gone.

******
We hope you enjoyed our tangle this week! Next week, an all new untangled short by Natalie!

"Geminid-Shooting-Stars" photo found here.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Stars Fall (Part 2 of 3)

This is bad. This is so, so bad. "Missy," I shout, as calmly as I can manage. "It’s cold. Let’s go inside."

Missy doesn’t even bother to tear her eyes away from the sky. "No way! This is the coolest thing ever."

Before I can argue, the yard lights up bright as day. A burst of heat and light streaks right over our heads with a high, keening sound, heading toward the patch of trees behind our house. It – something – lands there with a boom that I feel more than hear.

Missy squeals with delight and runs toward the glow. "Missy! No!" I shout, but it’s too late. She’s already disappeared into the trees.


The trees whine and crackle with fire. Smoke creeps through the trunks so quickly that soon I can’t see much at all. Running simply isn’t possible, so I call again and again, “Missy!” but my cries are chopped to pieces, powerless against the blades of helicopters.

I inch forward with my hands stretched out in front of me. They sink into thick smoke until they are nothing more than faint hand-shaped outlines, a dark gray against gray. If Missy isn’t hurt, she’s at least as lost as I am. Soon, even my cries are choked out by the smoke. I have to lift my shirt over my nose and mouth just to breath. My eyes sting. I stop and realize I don’t even know which direction I’m going. For all I know, I’m moving in circles, bending around tree trunks this way and that way without anything to orient me.

I cough. Struggle to draw another breath. Fear settles over my shoulders, slips down my back like cold water. I don’t know how to get out.

Heat rises. Another fundamental I’ve gleamed from class, so I kneel with one hand braced against a tree trunk. The air isn’t so thick down here and I manage a few deeper breaths of stuffy air. The sounds of helicopters and fire attack from all sides. I’m going to be smothered by smoke and sound, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

A hand slides into mine. Small, hot, and familiar. Before I can say her name, I see her eyes and stop.

They shine like stars; points of shimmering white surrounded by black.

“Tabby!” She tugs at my hand. “Let’s go, Tabby. We have to go!”

Once more she tugs, and I’m on my feet and running. I don’t know how we don’t crash into the trees, but Missy steers us around them without effort, moving faster than we should be able to in this haze.

The smoke begins to thin. I blink, and we’re out of the trees, running across the flat expanse of our backyard and straight for the house.

She’s so fast. My legs are nearly as long as her entire body, but she’s two steps ahead the entire time. I don’t know if we’re being chased, if there’s anything behind us but noise and light, but it feels like we can’t afford to be slow. Even when we’ve made it back to the house and slammed the backdoor behind us, it feels like something is so, so wrong.

Missy lets go of my hand and runs through the dark hallway ahead of me. The only sound in the house is the TV in the living room and the ringing in my ears. Mom and dad are still in town. Date night means they’re probably inside a movie theatre, unable to hear the sirens and oblivious to whatever it is that’s happening here.

I don’t feel my legs anymore. I only know they work because I manage to get myself to the kitchen sink for a glass of water without falling over. After two full glasses, I’m still thirsty.

“I made a wish, Tabby,” Missy says from behind me, making me jump. “I touched a fallen star.”

She sounds different. Not in the way I’ve come to expect. She sounds calm and still. I remember how strange her eyes looked in the smoke, and how quickly she ran through the haze. Another chill rushes over me, tugging at my skin and hair with thousands of tiny fingers.

“What did you wish for?” I ask. Setting the glass on the counter and turning around.

From the living room, a local reporter has broken into the regular program. She’s trying not to shout as she says, “Authorities are asking everyone to stay indoors. Wherever you are, stay put and if you’re near the site of any one of these…these fires, do not approach them. Authorities are asking for anyone caught close to a blast site, where we’re learning there are possibilities of toxic substances, to contact the police.”

Missy stands in the middle of the kitchen, holding a something small in her hands. Her fingers are stained black with it, but she smiles.

“What is that?” She’s never made me so nervous. I’m afraid to look into her eyes.

She takes a step toward me. I hear the TV turn to snow in the other room. There’s no sound of helicopters anymore, just static and the hissing of the fire in the distance.

“Are you ready, Tabby?” she asks. “You have to say yes. Oh, please, say yes.”

This is my sister, I think. There’s nothing to be afraid of. I force myself to look into her eyes and I’m relieved to find they’re the same hazel they’ve always been. More green than brown and as mischievous as ever.

“Okay, I’m ready, Missy,” I add her name to prove that she’s her. To ground her in our house and her small body. “Now, tell me what it is.”

Lights sweep through the house from the backyard. I hear engines revving and voices shouting and my heart crashes into my chest like a star falling from the sky. Missy grasps my hand in hers, pressing something hard between our palms. It stings or burns, I can’t tell which, but someone is pounding at the back door.

Missy just smiles up at me; playfully, excitedly, calmly. She’s not worried about the men at the door and I wonder what she knows that I don’t.

But then she says, “It’s an adventure,” and I know I’m about to find out.

*****
Part 3, written by Lacey, will be up on Friday. Check back to see where the adventure leads!

"Geminid-Shooting-Stars" photo found here.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Stars Fall (Part 1 of 3)

"How many do you think there’ll be?" Missy asks me. She tilts her head way back so she can look up at me. It pulls her mouth open wide and she looks like a fish, gasping for air. Somehow she still manages to have that grin in her eyes, the one that got her her nickname. Her real name’s Cadence but we call her Missy, short for mischievous, because ever since she was born she’s been joyfully getting into trouble.

Whether she’s dropping something, just to see what happens, or finger-painting the walls, or digging holes in the yard she does it all with this look of pure delight in discovery. She’s six now, but from one minute to the next she could be two, or twenty-seven. Her personality is boundless. I’m already the smallest girl in the sophomore class, but sometimes she makes me feel even smaller. I just try to keep up.

"I don’t know," I say. "A lot. Too many to count. They’ll be moving too fast, anyway." The night air has bite and I force myself not to shiver. I refuse to regret not taking Mom’s leopard-print Snuggie. There are some things worth freezing for. My pride is one of them. Still, I eye Missy’s footie pajamas with longing.

There isn’t much I like about living outside of town, but I do like the way the sky feels like the whole world at night. It spreads out before us, the moonlight adding blue to the black. Any minute now the meteor shower will start. Our big, flat backyard, bordered only by the woods behind it is the perfect viewing spot. I would never admit it out loud but I’m almost as excited to see the shower as Missy. There’s something about the idea of all those shooting stars. So many wishes.

I hop onto the picnic table, and Missy climbs up next to me. She scoots as close to me as she can. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was afraid being out here in the dark, but nothing scares Missy. For her, everything is an adventure. I’m the one that secretly uses her cell phone as a night-light.

"What are you going to wish for?" I ask.

"Tabby," she thrusts a tiny finger at my face, scolding. "You’re not supposed to tell!"

"That’s only for birthday wishes. Meteor showers are special. They don’t count."

She frowns, thinking it over. "Oh, right," she nods slowly, totally trusting her big sister way too much. "I forgot."

Sometimes I just want to hug her. "So?"

"I’m gonna wish for a swing set, and a swimming pool, and a magic wand, and…" She takes a deep breath so she can shout the rest. "An adventure! The real kind. Not like when you just pretend."

"Wow," I say, but before I can finish the thought, Missy squeals and points to the sky.

"It’s starting!"

The sky comes alive with little streaks of light. Three or four at a time at first, and then a steady stream of yellow shoots from behind us, across the yard, and toward town. It’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen. They light up the yard like fireworks.

I didn’t expect them to be so bright.

Missy runs out into the yard and spins, her head tilted back, pure glee on her face. "Look at all of them Tabby! Look!"

I do as she commands, and I’m surprised to see that in just the few seconds that I looked away, the meteors seem to have gotten bigger. Or closer. Or both.

They’re no longer tiny star-sized dots in the sky. They’re growing. I track one as it flies over my head. The angle looks wrong. Like it’s going down instead of across. The next one I track is even bigger. And the one after that is huge. I watch it disappear into the horizon and then there’s a slight flash of light, like heat lightning, in the distance.

My skin prickles. That’s not right. I may spend most of science class doodling in my notebook, but I’m sure that meteor showers go past the earth from like millions of miles away. They’re not supposed to get bigger or enter our atmosphere.

For the first time since the shower started I sit still and just listen. Faint pops sound from every direction. The meteors. Missy dances in the yard, practically in her own spotlight. My throat goes tight and I have to force myself to take a deep breath and look up.

The sky is filled with giant glowing orbs. They don’t seem to be falling at random anymore. They move quickly, on their own paths, some close, some miles away. Over the popping sounds now I can hear the thrumming beat of helicopters, and sirens in town. The flashes that once looked like heat lightning are getting bigger and brighter and a ground-rumbling thunder accompanies each one.

This is bad. This is so, so bad. "Missy," I shout, as calmly as I can manage. "It’s cold. Let’s go inside."

Missy doesn’t even bother to tear her eyes away from the sky. "No way! This is the coolest thing ever."

Before I can argue, the yard lights up bright as day. A burst of heat and light streaks right over our heads with a high, keening sound, heading toward the patch of trees behind our house. It – something – lands there with a boom that I feel more than hear.

Missy squeals with delight and runs toward the glow. "Missy! No!" I shout, but it’s too late. She’s already disappeared into the trees.


*****
Come back Wednesday for part 2 from Natalie!

"Geminid-Shooting-Stars" photo found here.

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