Blood and Driftwood

This was originally written for Jolene Hayley’s Beware the Seas showcase last fall. I’m missing the beach in this snowy winter, though, so I’m reposting it here. I hope you enjoy!

TWs: Blood, a small wound, mass death, death of a parent


My skin tingled from the salt spray of the ocean and my hair whipped around my face as I meandered my way down the beach with Oscar at my side. His black fur stood out against the pale sand, despite the early morning gloom.

My eyes skittered over the colorful shells that spotted the sand, not yet picked over by the other beachgoers who would soon join us. I hadn’t yet found the one I would take home today, but I knew it was waiting for me somewhere along the high tide line.

The sun peaked its sleepy head over the horizon. The red and golden hues of the sky reflected off the choppy, churning waves. A storm was coming.

Not looking where I was going, I stepped on something sharp and cried out. Oscar barked in alarm, crowding around me as I sank to the ground and cradled my bloody foot. Shooing Oscar away, I inspected it but couldn’t tell how bad the cut was. Blood and sand stuck to my skin. Tears pricked at my eyes as I looked back the way we came. We were a good two miles from my car, and I had nothing to bandage the wound with.

The tail of a half-buried conch tinged red with my blood caught my eye. It stuck out from the sand, almost invisible while we were walking, but sharp enough to puncture my poor foot.

Pounding on the wet sand made me whip my head around. A man was running toward us! I waved my arm at him, and he waved back. As he got closer, Oscar barked his head off and ran in a circle, so I grabbed his collar and held on, which left me without free hands to signal that I needed the man’s help and wasn’t just being friendly. As a result, the jogger flew past us, kicking up clumps of sand in his wake.

“Hey!” I yelled at his retreating back. He ignored me, probably a result of his earbuds, and continued on his way. I choked back a sob and buried my face in Oscar’s damp fur. The two miles back to my car seemed like an insurmountable distance on an injured foot. I counted to ten and breathed in and out.

When Oscar started whining from being held in place, I let him go. He raced down to the water, and back to me, then back to the water. Normally, I’d have laughed and dug my phone out for a video. Instead, I sat in pain and dread, not wanting to start my journey home.

I glanced down at the shell again and before I knew what I was doing, I dug it out of the sand. It lay in the palm of my hand, the red splashed across it contrasting with the stark white of the shell. I didn’t know why I felt so attached to it, but I figured that if it had tasted my blood, that surely made it mine. I couldn’t let some other beachcomber claim it for themself.

I struggled to my feet, a maneuver that took longer than it should have due to a yapping dog playing around my legs. Instead of heading back the way we came, though, I hobbled down to the water’s edge. Waves lapped at the beach, not quite reaching me. Oscar stopped playing as soon as I stopped walking. He sat by my side, alert but silent.

The shell weighed heavy in my hand. With all the strength I could muster, I heaved it out into the churning water. It flew farther than I thought possible, seeming to travel hundreds of yards, before a tendril of water rose up from the top of a cresting wave to grab it.

I blinked. It must have been a trick of the light. Or an oddity of wave science. Tendrils don’t just rise up out of the water. The wave breaking must have sprayed water into the air, appearing to swallow the shell with intention.

After several more minutes, the ache in my foot grew stronger. A quick glance down showed me a puddle of red around my right heel. With a shaky breath, Oscar and I began the long hobble back to my car, leaving bloody footprints in our wake.

The storm I’d predicted early that morning raged against the walls of my house that night. Rain pelted the windows with such force I was convinced they would break. The wind howled, and I feared it would rip the roof off. The house twisted and swayed on its stilts, and I imagined them snapping, sending us tumbling into the canal.

I sat wrapped in a blanket in front of the empty fireplace. Oscar cowered against me whining softly to himself, and I absentmindedly ran one hand along his back, and my other hand along the bandages on my foot. The wound, once cleaned, showed a perfectly round puncture. It was small, but deep. I’d keep an eye on it, but I hoped it wouldn’t need a visit to the doctor.

Oscar quaked with fear, an unfortunately contagious emotion. I wanted nothing more than to light a fire, to bask in its comfort and warmth, but it was too dangerous to open the flue. So I sat in the darkened room, the soft glow of candles around us, their pale light a promise that I would see tomorrow dawn bright.

A bolt of lightning flashed, illuminating the shades pulled down over the windows. Thunder cracked, and I jumped. It sounded like the world was breaking open. My heart hammered in my chest, threatening to burst free. My hands curled around the blanket, pulling it tighter around me, and I buried my face in it.

Oscar jumped down from the couch and stood in front of me. His low growls blended in with the storm howling outside the walls, but his hackles were raised and his teeth were bared.

“What is it, buddy?” I asked. He rarely acted this way, and I didn’t dare touch him while he was like this. It didn’t matter how much I wanted to pull him into me and whisper that it would all be over soon.

Something heavy dragged across the back deck. Lightning cast a shadow across the windows, the outline of a tall, human-shaped thing. Oscar’s growling morphed into frantic barking, his front legs leaving the floor each time he barked.

Something hit the door with a loud bang. I couldn’t move, could hardly breathe. With shaking hands, I covered my mouth to hold in a scream. Another loud band, and the spell was broken. I stood up, leaving my security blanket on the couch and grabbed the closest weapon-looking thing I could find–a ceramic bowl my mother had given me for my birthday the previous year. Hefting it, I limped toward the door, but Oscar blocked my way.

“Stop it, buddy. Maybe… Maybe someone’s caught out in the storm and needs our help.” My voice cracked on the last word. I glanced at the bowl-weapon, and briefly wondered if I really believed that.

I tried moving around Oscar again anyway. Again, he blocked my path. For such a small dog, he sure was a pain sometimes.

Another bang on the door. The house rattled with the force. Another flash of lightning showed the shadow of a monster. No, I corrected myself, the shadow of a person that only looks like a monster because of this storm.

After several minutes of bargaining with Oscar, he finally stopped barking and let me by. The lightning and thunder had moved on, leaving the screaming wind and heavy rain behind. Oscar watched, silent once more, as I wrenched the back door open. All that met me was horizontal rain soaking my clothes through the torn screen door.

Looking at the sky the next morning, I’d never have known there had been a storm. The soft purples and yellows belied the mess that greeted me when Oscar and I descended the steps leading down from my front deck.

Garbage and broken branches were strewn across the yard. A tree toppled over in front of my car, missing it by mere inches. I breathed a sigh of relief that it hadn’t smashed right onto the car, and sent a silent thank you to whoever was listening that my driveway wasn’t blocked by the tree. I could back out and take care of it later.

There were more cars than usual in the beach’s parking lot when I got there. I patrolled up and down for several minutes before sliding into a spot someone had just vacated. I was slightly later getting here than most mornings, but a half hour had never made this much of a difference before.

When Oscar and I crested the dunes, following the well-worn path of thousands of feet, a crowd of people facing toward the ocean greeted us. Oscar barked, and a few heads turned our way. I smiled and waved. They blinked and looked away.

Curiosity sang through my veins despite the unnerving feeling that something was very wrong, but I tugged Oscar in the opposite direction from the crowd. He seemed eager to leave, even though it meant walking the wrong way on the beach. I was surprised at his eager acceptance of the change, but didn’t mind.

The wound on my foot throbbed with each step I took away from the crowd. Sharp pain shot up my leg, clawing its way toward my knee. Once Oscar and I were far enough from the other people, I unclipped his leash and sank to the ground. He nuzzled at my pocket where his tennis ball sat.

“Okay, buddy,” I said, and threw the ball down the beach as far as I could. As he raced away, I let out a groan and cradled my foot. The pain was more than a throb now. It was a constant, piercing pain that brought tears to my eyes.

Oscar dropped the ball in my lap. Where he’d normally look expectantly at me, he climbed into my lap and whined. I pet him with both hands, knowing that if I didn’t keep them occupied, I’d peel the bandages from my wound to check on it. I expected a gangrenous mess, but now was not the time to look.

He let me pet him, but when I grabbed the leash to reattach it, he pranced out of my reach.

“Oh, come on.” I got up, tested my weight on my bad foot, and knew I wouldn’t be able to catch him. Tears ran down my cheeks. I bent over and held out the leash.

“Please, buddy. For me?”

Oscar stared at me, his little pink tongue poking from his mouth. He ran down the beach, away from where we came.

I didn’t want to leave him, but I hoped that maybe someone in the crowd could help me. I hobbled back the way we came. With every step, the pain in my leg receded back into my foot. By the time I reached the crowd, the throbbing was almost non-existent.

“Excuse me?” I waved to get the attention of a woman standing near the back of the crowd. She turned to me, her face impassive, her eyes unblinking. “Um. I was just wondering if you might be able to help me catch my dog?”

She blinked once, finally, then looked away from me. How rude. I turned to the little boy standing next to her.

“Can you help me catch my dog?” I asked him. He hid behind his mother’s leg.

Oscar woofed softly behind me. His hackles were raised, his teeth bared, but he made no other sound. When I reached down to clip his leash on, he snapped at me and I jerked back. I stumbled into a row of people in the crowd, and we all fell into a writhing heap.

“I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” I said. I tried to get up, but there was nowhere to put my hands to push myself up without squishing someone’s arm or leg. But no one protested or complained, or even said “screw you, lady.” They all lay there, arms flailing like when a beetle gets flipped upside down.

Somehow, I extricated myself. I crawled forward, curiosity finally getting the better of me. I needed to see what they were all staring at. Oscar woofed again, then growled. I ignored him. It was easy wending my way through the forest of legs, and I made it to the front of the group in several seconds.

I gasped. The beach had been carved away in the previous night’s storm, exposing a giant tangle of driftwood. Except the wood didn’t look ocean-worn, and it was vaguely human-shaped…

Something wet bumped the back of my arm, and I shrieked. Oscar had the good sense to look apologetic, or so I thought, but his hackles were still up. I clipped his leash on while I had the chance, and stood.

The wood in the sand hollow quivered. The crowd pressed closer, sweeping Oscar and me along with them. We now had front row seats to whatever was going on, but I wasn’t sure I wanted them. The unnatural silence was broken only by Oscar’s barking and the pounding waves.

Whatever was holding these people in a trance seemed to break when the thing moved. It rose slowly, as if awaking from a deep slumber. Someone in the crowd passed out. Two more people followed suit. Dropping Oscar’s leash, I rushed over to check on them. His barks reached a crescendo as the thing grew taller and more people fell.

I couldn’t find a pulse. I raced from person to person, checking their necks and their wrists, but they were all gone. All… dead…

The thing towered over me, pulled up to its full height. Seaweed hung in clumps from its head and limbs. Its long fingers reached out to grab me, but it drew back when a giant, black ball of fur chomped down on its leg and shook its head.

It raised its hand to strike my beloved Oscar, so I dove toward its legs and hugged my pup to my chest. The blow never came. Instead, I felt a vice-like grip squeeze my sides and the earth slipping away from me. I held onto Oscar like a lifeline.

“What do you want from me?” I screamed. It brought me level with its craggy face. I glared at what I thought was an eye.

“You gave me a gift.” Its voice emanated from everywhere and nowhere. If my hands weren’t full of squirming dog, I’d have clamped my hands over my ears to block out the horrid sound.

“I did not. Now put me down.”

It cocked its head at me, and if it had a nose, I was convinced it would be sniffing the air. It brought its other hand up and grabbed my dangling legs, flipping me upside down. I lost my grip on Oscar, and he fell to the ground. It was only a few feet, and the soft sand broke his fall, so he was up on his feet and barking as soon as he shook off being stunned.

Blood rushed to my head. The pounding and pressure made it hard to think. The creature peeled the bandage off my foot.

“You chose me,” it said.

“Put me down,” I whispered. I couldn’t manage anything louder.

Gently, the creature placed me on the sand at its feet. It knelt beside me and caressed my hair.

“My bride,” it said.

“Um. No.”

It pulled its hand back, and let it hang at its side. “You chose me.

Realization dawned. The ocean had reached a hand out of the waves yesterday.

“I stepped on a shell and it stabbed me. I gave it back to the ocean. It wasn’t for you.”

The creature sat on the sand next to me and stared out at the crashing waves. The sun had risen fully, and its reflection dappled the murky water.

“What did you do to all those people?” I asked.

“You chose me. I had to come.”

I craned my neck and looked at the pile of people behind us. So many lives lost, and for what? For this creature to have enough energy to woo me? My heart broke when I saw the little boy shaking his mom’s arm. Oscar picked his way over to the boy, and nuzzled his arm. The boy threw his arms around my dog’s neck and sobbed.

“Was it worth it?” I pointed behind us.

The creature said nothing. When I turned to demand that it answer, it stood and waded out into the water. I watched until its head disappeared beneath the waves.

My foot was bleeding again, but it wasn’t infected like I thought it would be. Still probably best to see the doctor.

I limped through the pile of bodies and scooped up Oscar’s leash and the small boy. He protested at leaving his mother, but I wanted to get him away from all that death. I didn’t know what I was going to tell the police, but I’d come up with something good.

No one would ever believe the truth.

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On Self-Care

There’s a lot of rhetoric these days surrounding the idea of self-care, so much so that it’s not often that I go one day without hearing about it. But even though this idea is so pervasive in our culture, I’m still surprised by how hard it is to actually do it.

I think that part of the issue is just that self-care takes different forms depending on the circumstances of someone’s life. For instance, my self-care might look like sitting on the couch for a whole day doing nothing or it might look like deep-cleaning my apartment. Both are equally self-caring depending on the day.

One thing I’ve learned since leaving my last graduate program and now starting another, is just how important self-care is before you burn out. Self-care is an on-going process and isn’t just a bubble bath when you’re at your very last ounce of strength.

I have a new friend here who doesn’t seem to understand the concept of on-going self-care, and she’s now considering dropping out of the program. That’s the price she might pay for not allowing herself the space to rest and relax without any school stuff on her mind, and yet she is incredibly resistant to making those changes.

As a result of these ruminations recently, I wanted to make a list of self-care things I do. Maybe you’ll find them helpful.

  • Eat and drink enough and on time.
    • I have set times that I have meals and snacks because I know if I don’t eat I don’t feel well. I don’t need to set a timer because my body is good at letting me know when it’s time, but if you struggle with this, setting reminders on your phone might be helpful. I also have a large water bottle that I try to drink 2 of every day. Having the bottle as a measure is super helpful in making sure I’m drinking enough water.
  • Go to bed on time.
    • I struggle with this when life gets tough, but nothing makes things worse than not having enough sleep. I try really hard not to stay up too late, even when I don’t feel like going to bed.
  • Take care of the dishes
    • Even on days when all I want to do is curl up and not do anything, I still try to make sure I load/unload the dishwasher and do up the dirty dishes in the sink. Having a clean kitchen helps me feel like I’ve accomplished something, and it usually only takes about 10 minutes max to do.
  • Declutter my apartment
    • Having clutter around makes it hard for me to think, but I often don’t have the energy to keep everything in order during the week. So on some weekends when it’s gotten really bad, I spend 10 minutes picking things up and putting them away, and it helps me focus on my studies.
  • Leave my apartment
    • If I don’t leave my apartment for a day or two, I tend to end up feeling foggy and tired. I try to plan things so that I don’t have long stretches at home, alone, for days on end. Even if it’s just a quick trip to the grocery store, I find that the movement and change of scenery helps clear my head.
  • Read/Watch Netflix/Listen to Music
    • One of the hardest things for me is allowing myself the time to take a break from school and do something I love, but I’ve been trying to give myself some time every day. This semester, I’ve been watching more movies and reading more books than I ever have before while in school, and I’m actually really proud of myself for this.

Those are basically my entire arsenal for practicing self-care, and I don’t have kids so that makes it a little easier. The biggest thing is just giving myself permission to relax and rest, even if it doesn’t feel like I have time to. I’m definitely better at school and research when I allow myself time away from it all without guilt.

We aren’t meant to work until we drop. There’s more to life than perfect grades, and it’s important to take advantage of those things before work/school/whatever feels like too much to handle.

What are some of your self-care practices?

Life Updated: November 2018

It’s been about 3 months since I uprooted my life and moved to the mid-west for a PhD program. Things were hard in the beginning, but I have a new routine, and new friends, and the semester is slowly creeping to a close.

Things are better now. I’m generally happier, I’m finding where I fit in the program. I’m also incredibly glad I’m no longer at my previous job. It sounds like things there just keep getting rougher.

Things are far from perfect here, but they are looking up, and I am grateful for that.

I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this month. I’ve never won NaNo proper (I’ve won Camp NaNo in the past…), but this year I’m determined to get this story out of my head. And despite being really busy with schoolwork and research, I’m surprisingly still on track. A good portion of the first 10K of my WIP was taken from a previous draft (which I then had to edit and change some parts), but after that it’s all been new words. Even if I don’t win this year, I’m proud of the time management I’m learning to be able to fit everything in.

I’ve also started watching The Haunting of Hill House on Netflix, which is an amazing show. I love the book, and I’m really enjoying seeing the differences and similarities between the two.

What are all of you up to? Is anyone else participating in NaNoWriMo?

The Magic Box

Happy Halloween, everybody! I hope you are all enjoying the spookiest time of the year. I know I am! I had a lot of fun writing this story, and I hope you enjoy it.

TWs: demon, blood, murder (not graphic), self-inflicted wound


The box was perfect despite its plain cardboard exterior, and it sat on the top step to Talia’s apartment waiting for her to get home from work. Though the day was dreary and a light rain drizzled its way down from the gray skies, the box practically glowed from within. When Talia rounded the corner of her street and saw the box sitting there, she broke into  a run, a giant grin on her face.

She tossed her umbrella aside and scooped the box up. It was heavy, but Talia didn’t want to put it back down to make it easier to grab her keys from her bag. She jostled the box around, managing to pin it to her side under her left arm as her right hand rooted through her handbag.

When she was safely inside, she tossed her raincoat into the corner of her kitchen, and tore into the box.

Nestled inside the crinkled black strips of paper sat her future. With shaking hands, she pulled the contents from their hiding places and placed them on the table one by one. A jar of black salt. A black candle. Three pieces of black tourmaline. A piece of chalk. A piece of parchment. Instructions.

Talia closed her eyes for a moment, her hands flat on the table. She took a deep breath. Then, she got up to put water on for tea.

She wasn’t a bad person. She just needed some help getting ahead. It’s not like Mariska meant to steal the promotion from her, but Talia couldn’t let another opportunity go by. She’d been working at the bank for seven years, and she was still a lowly teller. Mariska, on the other hand, was hired three years ago and made manager last week.

Talia ground her mug into the counter while she waited for the water to boil. The screaming kettle made her jump, but she appreciated its ability to let its feelings out in a way she couldn’t.

Tea in hand, she returned to the instructions.

First of all, THANK YOU for your purchase!

Secondly, witchcraft is very personal. As such, I will not be giving the step-by-step instructions I’m sure many of you were expecting. I’m going to tell you what each of the pieces in the box is for, and it’s up to YOU to decide how to use them!

 Talia threw the instructions onto the table and ground her teeth. She didn’t know anything about casting spells, and this rando from the internet wanted her to just… figure it out? She only bought the box because it promised to be an easy way to meet her goals, and yet now she had to put in some actual work.

She was less than pleased, but she picked the instructions back up and continued reading.

Black salt: Used to consecrate your workspace and ward against unwanted energies.

            Black candle: Invites the energies appropriate to your spell to enter your space.

            Black tourmaline: A protection stone. Use it to protect yourself from the spell.

            Chalk and/or parchment: Can be used to draw sigils.

 

            Happy casting, witches!

Talia read the list again. And a third time. And a fourth. An idea was forming in her mind for how to create the spell, but she needed to do some research first.

The new moon was four nights away, and Talia thought she’d never be patient enough to wait for it. But the internet said that new moons were great for aggressive magic, and Talia didn’t want to blow her chance at getting that promotion. So, she waited, each day a special agony.

Mariska greeted her with a cheery smile every morning, but Talia knew that beneath that veneer lay a greedy woman gloating at her own success at the expense of Talia’s. Talia avoided her manager as much as possible, which wasn’t hard seeing as how everyone else fawned over Mariska, vying for her attention.

It made Talia burn. That position should have been hers. She should be the one everyone wanted to be around.

Just four more days. In the meantime, she would plan the spell and make it perfect.

On the night of the new moon, Talia gathered all the supplies she needed for the spell onto the counter in her kitchen. With the chalk, she drew a circle on the linoleum floor, along with a sigil in the middle.

She had poured every ounce of ill will and anger she possessed into creating that sigil. It had taken her days to shape it into something she was proud of. The result was a spiky, angry-looking symbol embodying her deep hatred and resentment.

Once the circle was finished, she poured the black salt over the chalk, then rested the three black tourmaline stones on top of the salt in a triangle around the circle. She used a knife to carve Mariska’s name into the black candle.

She set the candle down on the floor just inside the chalk circle and lit it. She stepped inside the circle, too. As the flame flickered, Talia raised her arms above her head and chanted.

“She stole my job, but it will be hers no more. She thinks she’s better than me, but she will learn the truth. She will burn burn burn with the fires of retribution.”

Talia was practically shouting by the time she finished the third recitation of the words she’d written. Threes were important, the internet had said, and Talia had listened.

She grabbed the piece of parchment. She’d pasted a picture of Mariska on it with the plan to burn it. Before she could, though, the candle flame blew out. Talia frowned. Not only could she not burn Mariska’s picture, but she’d read that it was important to let the candle burn down to nothing before extinguishing the flame. Should she relight it?

Unsure, she stepped out of the circle and reached for the lighter on the countertop. Her fingers barely brushed it when she snatched her hand back. It was burning hot to the touch.

So, no, she would not relight the candle.

She crouched down and inspected it. The bottom part of Mariska’s name hadn’t been melted, but Talia couldn’t see a way to help that. With a sigh, she plucked the candle from the floor, ran the wick under some water, then threw it in the trash.

She thought she’d feel different after the spell was cast, but as she cleaned up the circle, she couldn’t help noticing a distinct lack of relief. If the spell didn’t work, she’d have to try again next month.

The day dawned bright and cheery. Talia wanted to burrow back under the covers, but work beckoned. Her only consolation at braving the too-happy morning was seeing if Mariska’s life had started unraveling yet.

The train ride to work was interminable. Talia practically bounced with glee at the thought that she would soon be a manager wielding her power over Mariska.

“Morning,” she mumbled to the greeter at the desk just inside the bank’s automatic doors. The girl was young, perhaps in her late teens, and Talia didn’t know her name. The greeter girls all looked the same. It’s not like she had to have conversations with them.

“Good morning, Talia,” the girl said. “Mariska was looking for you.”

Talia glanced at her watch. 7:45. She was fifteen minutes late, but even so, Mariska couldn’t have been looking for too long…

“Thanks,” Talia said. She scanned her ID at the employees only door and pushed it to go through. She bashed her shoulder into the solid oak when it didn’t give. She tried her ID again. Still declined.

“Could you…?” Talia turned to the greeter girl and gestured at the door.

“Um. We’re not supposed to…” she said.

Talia clenched her fists, but let the slight slide. This girl must be new, because she clearly didn’t understand that when a higher-ranking employee asked you to do something, you did it. Talia approached the teller’s window next to the door instead of sniping at the girl.

“Hello!” she called. Her voice sounded strange to her. Too loud. Too much.

Mariska poked her head from the back room and frowned. “Yes?”

“My ID won’t scan me in.”

“Ah yes, that’s been happening to some other people this week, too. The tech guys are working on the system, I think.”

Mariska’s high heels clacked on the floor, one deliberate foot in front of the other. Talia’s already poor mood worsened. Mariska was taking her time on purpose. She waited for the spell to cause her manager to slip on a wet patch on the floor and break her ankle, but no such luck. Mariska opened the employee door, and Talia slipped past.

“Talia,” Mariska said.

Talia ignored her and made a beeline for the breakroom with Mariska close behind.

“Talia,” Mariska said again. “I would like to see you in my office.”

“I’ll just put my stuff away.”

Five sets of eyes followed Talia from the breakroom after she stowed her things in her locker. She didn’t dare make eye contact with any of them for fear of what she might see there. Pity. Relief it wasn’t them.

Mariska gestured to the wooden chair in front of her desk. Talia perched at the very edge while Mariska sank into the plush leather chair that should have been hers. Talia looked down at her hands clasped tightly in her lap.

Talia felt her boss’ eyes burning into her. When she didn’t look up, the other woman spoke.

“Some performance issues have come to my attention,” she said. Talia’s head finally snapped up. Mariska continued. “Late arrivals. Rude to customers. I’ve, personally, had multiple complaints over the last week or so, and I also looked through your personnel file. It appears that this has been an ongoing issue.”

Mariska paused, waiting for Talia to speak. Talia stayed quiet.

“Would you care to explain?”

“I don’t remember being rude to anyone,” Talia said. She hoped Mariska couldn’t see the lie in her eyes. It was only once. Maybe a few times. But sometimes people were rude, and Talia was expected to just take it? No. And after the news broke about the promotion, Talia had an even harder time just taking it.

Mariska sighed. Disappointment clouded her face, as though she expected this answer from Talia but was hoping for a different one.

“Well, consider this a formal reminder to keep your words in check. I was considering letting you go, but I’ll give you one more chance. And remember: the customer is always right.”

Talia bared her teeth. She hoped it look like a smile.

When Talia got home, she reached in her bag for her keys. When the keys were hard to find, she set her bag on the porch railing, and searched with both hands. They weren’t there.

Annoyance made her eye twitch. She knew she’d put them in her bag after locking her door this morning. There’s no way she could have left them at home, and she never took them out at work.

She took a deep breath. Her dad had a spare. She could call him. He would come over and unlock her door for her. Everything would be okay.

Her dad picked up on the third ring.

“Heya Tali Balli. What’s shaking?”

“Nothing, Dad. Just locked myself out of my apartment.”

“Sorry to hear that. I’d come over and let you in, but your mom surprised me with a trip to the beach, so we’re out of town. I can get Kevin to come over and change the locks, though.”

“Nah, that’s okay. You just enjoy your vacation. I’m sure I left a window or something open.”

She would do anything to not have to see Kevin. Her dad’s favorite locksmith gave her the creeps, and she didn’t want to deal with him ever, but especially not today.

Her dad hung up with lots of love and kisses. She went around the back of her apartment, looking for a way in. No luck in the window department, but the sliding glass door was wide open. The white curtains billowed out the door, blowing in the breeze.

She knew she should call the police. She’d seen every horror movie in existence, but still she couldn’t help but creep in through those billowing curtains.

The place was trashed. Kitchen drawers pulled out and emptied onto the floor. Glasses and dishes smashed, the pieces scattered across the linoleum. She moved deeper into the apartment. Glass crunched under her feet. Couch cushions were sliced open, the stuffing strewn about.

She didn’t want to know what her bedroom looked like.

This wasn’t supposed to happen to her. This was supposed to be reserved for Mariska. The job was supposed to fall into her lap while Mariska’s life was ruined.

Anger boiled beneath her skin.

A noise from her bedroom made her jump. Was the burglar still here?

Talia grabbed a leg from one of the smashed chairs in her dining room and crept her way down the hall. Her heart hammered in her chest, and she feared the intruder would be able to hear it. The anger in her veins propelled her onward.

Weapon raised, she jumped around the corner and into the bedroom. A man rooted through her dresser drawers, throwing shirts behind him. Talia raised the chair leg and brought it down on his head as hard as she could.

The next few hours were a flurry of commotion. The police stalked through the house. The paramedics rushed the bleeding man away. Statements were given. Photos were taken. A warning to not leave town for a while was issued.

Talia wanted to curl up in bed with a cup of tea and a mindless show, but her house was tainted. She couldn’t even crash at her parents’ house because her keys were missing and even though Mrs. Jemp across the street had an extra key, she hated Talia and would never give it to her.

This wasn’t how this was supposed to go.

Talia wracked her brain for what had gone wrong with the spell. She was no closer to discerning the truth when three heavy knocks on the door sounded through the ruined space.

She picked her way through the wreckage of her living room and opened the door. A gust of wind and an empty porch greeted her. The gloam of the evening created an eerie atmosphere, and Talia’s skin crawled with goosebumps, even while she tried to convince herself it was just the kids down the street playing games. She shut the door, retreating to the spare bedroom.

That room was untouched by the filthy hands of the thief. Talia knew it would be her haven for a while.

That night, Talia woke in a panic. The room was too hot, too dark, too small. A noise from the corner caught Talia’s attention. She reached for the bedside lamp, but knocked it off with her reaching hand. The bulb shattered on the floor.

She was now trapped in bed, in the dark, her heart hammering in her chest.

“Who’s there?” Her voice disappeared into the corner, like the words were ripped from her mouth and devoured.

A husky laugh met her ears. Talia gripped the duvet and pulled it to her chest with shaking hands. Two red eyes opened, staring at her from the corner. Talia pulled the covers over her head, hoping that the childhood rule of “nothing under the covers is fair game to monsters” held into adulthood.

A few silent minutes passed. The air under the covers went stale with fear and sweat. The hairs on the back of Talia’s neck stood at attention. When she could stand the unknown no longer, she peeked her head out.

Her nighttime visitor hadn’t moved. It still stood in the corner, eyes staring, except now she could see white teeth in a grinning mouth.

The covers were ripped off of her. She felt exposed, naked, despite the ample nightgown she wore. She pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped her arms around them, making herself as small as possible. She squeezed her eyes shut.

And for the first time in twenty years, she prayed.

She prayed for her safety, for the thing to go away and never return, for forgiveness. She promised to be nicer, to be kinder, to not let things get to her so much.

The thing in the corner laughed again.

“You have to mean it for it to work.” Its words buzzed through her head, leaving pressure and pain in their wake. Talia thought her head would split open, almost welcomed the relief that would bring, but the pain of its words were not just physical.

The throbbing in her head reached a crescendo, and she passed out.

When morning dawned, Talia hardly noticed. She lay on her side staring at the lamp on the bedside table.

It wasn’t broken. There were no glass shards from the bulb on the floor. It sat, painted a cheery yellow with blue and white flowers, mocking her.

The previous night had felt so real. Had it been a dream?

No, she decided. It had happened for real. If she couldn’t trust her own mind, she was doomed. She’d find a way out of this. She had to.

She reached for her phone. The voicemail at her job picked up, and Talia thanked the universe for being this kind to her at least. She didn’t want to hear the gloating pleasure in Mariska’s voice while she explained the break-in and how shaken up she was. Talia hoped Mariska wouldn’t call her later to check in, but knowing her boss, she would want to make sure Talia wasn’t lying herself.

She sat up in bed and swung her legs over the edge. The floor was cool under her feet, waking her up even more. Talia wanted to hide under the covers, wanted to sleep until this was over, but she knew it would never be over until she fixed it.

She had a lot of work to do.

The shop smelled like incense and candles all competing to be the dominant scent. It was entirely unique and surprisingly pleasant. A bell over the door tinkled as Talia shut it behind her. If only Talia had come here in the first place, she might never have been in this mess. Local help was better than internet help any day.

The walls lining the short hallway into the main room of the shop were filled with skulls, bleached and mounted on shiny blocks of wood. Their empty eye-sockets followed her as she passed them one by one. Talia shivered.

A woman in black slacks and a white short-sleeved button-down shirt behind the counter smiled until Talia stepped over the hallway threshold into the open room. The woman’s smile disappeared, and she drew a symbol with her right hand in the air in front of her.

“I need some help,” Talia said.

“Clearly.” The woman hopped down from the stool she’d been sitting on, a strange look on her face. Talia couldn’t quite place it, but it almost looked like a mix of annoyance and clinical interest. “Come on. I’ll make some tea, and you can tell me all about it. The name’s Gussie, by the way.”

“Talia.”

Talia followed Gussie through a beaded curtain and into a small kitchen at the back of the shop. Gussie busied herself with the teapot while Talia took a seat at the small round table in the corner of the room.

“No offense,” Talia said, “but you don’t look like you can help me.”

Gussie sent a withering look over her shoulder. “And you don’t look like someone even remotely magical enough to make a curse work, let alone have it rebound.”

Talia’s toes went cold, and she clenched her hands in her lap.

“How…”

“It’s written all over you. I don’t care about the whys.” Her lips curled into a devilish grin. “I want to hear the how. What exactly did you do to cast the spell?”

Talia explained. Gussie listened, her smile growing wider with every word. They both sipped their tea.

“Well, good luck with that.” Gussie laughed. It was a harsh sound, unsympathetic.

“What?”

“You people are all the same. You think you can just order shit from the internet and play at being a witch, and then when it doesn’t work, you come in here crying about the results. You know what? I. Don’t. Care. You can just go away and deal with your demon problem yourself.”

Demon. Talia had been avoiding that word. It thudded in the air, worming its way into her stomach and sitting there like a rock.

“How much money would convince you to help me?”

Gussie leaned over the table, her dark eyes boring into Talia’s. Talia wanted to look away, but she felt stuck.

“Honey, you could offer me all the gold in the world, and I’d still tell you to go fuck yourself.”

Heat bloomed in Talia’s cheeks. She felt like the other woman had slapped her. Gussie rose from the table, and left Talia sitting there. The beaded curtain clacked behind her, a sound that wouldn’t normally have entered Talia’s consciousness, but today it sounded like a door slamming in her face.

A soft chuckle emanated from the corner of the room.

Talia had barely settled in at home before the doorbell rang. With a groan, she got off her bed and ambled to the door.

It was one of the detectives from the day before.

“Can I come in?” he asked.

Talia stood aside and let him in. He hovered in the entryway, but shut the door behind him.

“The man who broke in here, his name was Henry Foster. He died this morning from blunt force trauma to the head.”

The blood drained from Talia’s face. She’d killed someone. The detective was still talking, and Talia had to force herself to hear him over the rush in her ears.

“…warrant for your arrest. I’m sorry.”

He held handcuffs out, and gestured for Talia to turn around. She shook her head, not comprehending. He grabbed her arm and spun her around. This wasn’t happening. Couldn’t be happening. That man had broken into her house! She had been defending herself. Surely, the authorities would see that.

Except they wouldn’t. Not while she was being stalked by evil.

The cold metal bit into her wrists, and she bit back tears. Her father’s best friend, a talented lawyer, would have her out on bail by dinnertime, but she still had to deal with the shame of being marched past her neighbors bound by the law. The last thing she needed was for them to see her crying.

If ever the ground was going to open up and swallow her, now would be a convenient time.

Familiar soft laughter followed her from the house.

As she suspected, Mr. Caldicutt had her out of jail in time for the evening news. He offered her a ride home, but Talia declined, opting to take the train. She just wanted to be alone.

She felt the thing’s presence the whole train ride home. It felt like isolation and death, its cold breath of hatred on the back of her neck. It was watching, amused. Talia wished it would make itself known. The waiting was almost unbearable.

She locked herself inside her house knowing that wouldn’t keep her safe. Gussie was right. She’d thought she could just take this power and use it without thought or training, and now her life was falling apart. It was all Mariska’s fault. If Talia hadn’t been passed over for a promotion again, she would never have had to order that magic box. But she wasn’t going to let her boss ruin her life. Things were still salvageable if only she could figure out how.

The candle was still in the garbage under the sink. Talia dug it out. It stank of discarded food and darkness, but she washed it off in the sink, then grabbed a knife and a lighter.

With what was left of the black salt, she made another circle, and she ringed it with the tourmalines. She sat inside the circle, and paused.

A dark presence prowled the outside of her circle, testing it for weaknesses. A growl rose up, emanating from nowhere and everywhere. It rattled around in her head, pain threatening to keep her from thinking or acting. She pushed past it.

She used the knife to carve away Mariska’s name. In its place, she etched the word “love.” She set the candle in the same place she’d put it the first time she cast the spell, and she held the lighter against the wet wick until it dried and caught flame.

Wind kicked up in the kitchen, whirling the shards of glass and broken furniture around in a frenzy. Inside the circle was a haven of stillness.

Talia used the knife to slice into the palm of her hand. Blood streamed out of the wound, and she dripped some onto the flame of the candle. It sputtered but didn’t go out. Talia took it as a good sign.

She stood. Howling joined the frenzy outside the circle. The pain of it lessened with each moment the candle stayed aflame. She raised her hands to the sky, one pale, one covered in blood.

“By my blood I end this spell. By my will I sever ties with this dark entity in my home. Leave this place and never return.”

She choked the words out three times, each time harder than the last. By the end, she could hardly breathe, her words quiet. She tried to give them power despite the difficulties she was having. The howling reached a peak, then died immediately after she managed to say the last word.

Shaking, Talia lowered herself back to the floor. She sat there all night, watching the candle burn down to nothing, until it finally extinguished itself.

Talia called in sick again the next day and spent it sleeping instead. When she woke mid-afternoon, she felt refreshed and energized, like the events of the previous week had been a dream.

She returned to work the day after, a spring in her step. She smiled at everyone, learned the greeter girl’s name, and was pleasant when customers were rude. After a week of this new Talia, Mariska made a positive note in her file.

The charges against her were dropped. She cleaned up her apartment, got new furniture and dishes, and even though she could only afford used items, she was grateful she had her freedom to buy them at all.

One night, several weeks after the night she banished the demon, she noticed a piece of paper wedged between the kitchen counter and the wall. She grabbed her tweezers from the bathroom, and fished around until she grabbed the paper and pulled it out.

On the paper, in jagged black marker, was the sigil of hatred she’d created. Her heart sped up, the blood drained from her face, and she felt light-headed. As she blacked out, she heard the hated laughter she thought she’d left behind.

Who Wants to Live Forever

Happy Almost-Halloween, everyone!

It’s been a while since I’ve had a story to post. It feels good to have one appropriate to the season, and I hope you enjoy it.

TW: serial killer, death of a father, on-page murder, grief


The dull sound of the knife going shk shk against the wood soothed the carver. His masterpiece would soon be finished. He held the doll up and studied the man sitting opposite him, his eyes darting from the doll to his guest.

During his struggles to get free, the man’s dark hair had fallen in his eyes, and he sat with his head bowed. The carver looked back at his doll. He hadn’t quite captured the air of quiet mystique that enshrouded his guest. With a frustrated groan, he tossed the doll behind him and picked up a new block of wood. This time, it would be perfect.

The other man squirmed in his chair again, struggling against the ropes binding him, his cries muffled by the cloth gag in his mouth.

“Now, now,” said the carver, “There’s no need for that.”

The man stopped moving. His hair had moved out of his eyes, revealing bruises and small cuts. The mystique was gone, and with it, the carver’s desire to start over. He retrieved the doll he’d thrown on the ground and dusted it off. It wasn’t perfect, but then again, neither was the man in front of him.

The man said something through the gag. Though the carver didn’t hear the words, he knew what the man was saying. They all said the same thing.

Please let me go.

            I have a family.

            I promise I won’t tell anyone.

            I’ll do anything. Please don’t kill me.

The carver learned early on to stuff their mouths full of cotton. It made things more pleasant for him as he shaped wood into perfection. If only they could see that they were part of something greater than themselves. The carver was sure they’d appreciate his artwork once they fully understood what was happening.

When he was satisfied with the form he’d sculpted, the carver brought out his paints. With a flourish, he dipped his tiny paintbrush into the paints and began. He ignored the mottled bruises on the man’s face, capturing the pale skintone and sparkling blue eyes instead.

The carver felt his guest’s attention as every brushstroke brought his masterpiece closer to life. He added hair, painstakingly attaching pieces cut from the man’s own head. He sewed a suit for the doll, the cloth for it taken from a ripped section of the man’s own clothing.

“What do you think?” the carver asked. He held the doll up for his guest to see.

The man shook his head and cast his eyes to the floor. The carver caressed the doll, an almost perfect reflection of the man opposite him.

One thing was still missing.

The carver picked up his blade and approached the man. The man’s eyes widened, and he renewed his struggle against his bonds. His skin tore against the heavy rope, but he didn’t stop.

“No point in that,” the carver said. “I was a Boy Scout a long time ago. Those knots will hold.”

The man slid his chair back until he ran into a wall. Blood dripped from his arms where the ropes had cut into him. A whimper escaped his throat, muted by the gag.

“There’s honor in this,” the carver said. “You don’t understand, but I’m helping you. You’re going to live forever.”

The carver plunged his knife into the man’s chest, and twisted it. The man’s soul coiled around the tip of the blade, a faint and fragile thing. The carver drew it out of the man, slowly, gently, until it was free from its mortal form.

With a flourish, the carver etched a symbol onto the doll’s back beneath its dapper suit. The symbol glowed blue for several seconds before the light faded into the doll.

For the first time in months, the carver smiled.

Ω

On a bright summer day, sunshine beamed down and illuminated Harry’s golden head as he played in the sandbox in his front yard. His mother sat on the front steps, half watching, half lost in thought. Harry wanted to hug her and tell her that daddy would be home soon, but when he did that last night, her eyes watered and she just shushed him as she tucked him in.

The phone rang inside, and Harry’s mother stood.

“Don’t leave the yard,” his mother called out to him. “I’ll be back in two seconds.”

“Okay, Mommy.” Harry returned to the sand.

Footsteps crunched on the gravel, and a man with tufty white hair approached. He had an orange vest and a hardhat on, and Harry was immediately in love. He wanted a hardhat, too!

The man glanced to the front of the house, but Harry’s mother hadn’t returned yet. He thrust a brown paper bag into Harry’s arms.

“Your daddy wanted me to give you this,” the man said. “He wanted me to make sure you promised not to tell anyone about it.”

Harry nodded, and gripped the bag with his tiny fingers. The front door slammed open, and Harry’s mother approached the man. She pushed Harry behind her protectively, and as she asked the man what he wanted, Harry scampered into the house.

Once he was safely in his room, he tore into the bag. He pulled a doll out. His eyes grew wide, his mouth broke into a giant grin.

Harry had always wanted his own doll, but his parents never seemed to want to buy one for him. Boys weren’t supposed to have dolls. He looked around for someplace safe to hide the doll.

Under the bed? Too scary.

In his dresser? Too slow to get to.

Under his pillow? Yes. Perfect.

The front door creaked open and shut, and Harry heard his mother’s voice along with a few deeper men’s voices. The voices went on for a few minutes until his mother screamed. Harry jumped.

He wondered what it was all about, but he didn’t want to leave the doll. He was afraid it would be lonely, so he kept one hand shoved under his pillow, stroking the doll’s short hair.

One of his daddy’s policeman friends came into his room and knelt in front of Harry.

“Do you remember me?” the man asked.

Harry nodded  his head, his grip on the doll tightening.

“Mr. Granger. Daddy’s friend. You’re the policeman.”

Officer Granger nodded.

“Your mom asked me to come talk to you, and I’m sorry to tell you this,” Mr. Granger said, “but your daddy won’t be coming home.”

Harry’s stomach sank. He suddenly wanted his daddy very, very badly.

“Why not?” Harry whispered.

“Well, your daddy was taken by a very bad man. The bad man hurt your daddy, and he died. Do you understand?”

“It means I won’t see him again,” Harry whispered. His eyes filled with tears, and he sobbed. Mr. Granger gathered Harry in his arms and held him while he cried. The long, comforting strokes on his back weren’t enough to calm him.

“I promise I’ll do everything I can to catch the bad man and make it so he can’t hurt anyone ever again,” Mr. Granger said. Harry cried harder.

After a while, his mother came in and Mr. Granger transferred Harry to her. Harry clung to her, afraid that if he let go, the bad man would get to her, too.

“We’ll be in touch soon,” Mr. Granger said to her. “Let us know if you can think of anything else.”

Harry’s mom nodded, never breaking her shh-shhing, and back rubbing, bouncing Harry around the room on her hip like how she used to when he was a baby. Normally, he would have balked at the treatment, but in that moment, he wanted nothing more than to be close to her.

Eventually, the tears dried up, and Harry’s mom put him to bed, but it wasn’t the same without his daddy to tuck him in. In the dimly lit room, he pulled the doll out from under his pillow and hugged it to him. He tried to cry quietly.

The doll looked just like his daddy, right down to the color of his suit.

A gentle pressure on his bed made Harry sit upright. A shadow perched near his legs, just where his daddy used to sit to tuck him in.

A low song, hummed by a soft voice, filled the room. Harry looked from the shadow to the doll. He lay back down, holding the doll to his chest, the song filling his head with good dreams.

Something, or someone, moved his covers up, tucking him in for the night.

Cover Reveal– Love and Bubbles

I am incredibly excited to be part of the cover reveal for the Love and Bubbles anthology put together by Jaylee James and Jennifer Lee Rossman. I’ve been looking forward to the release of this book since the call for stories was announced, and the day is almost finally here!

You can preorder the anthology here, and you can add it on Goodreads here.

But before we get to the cover, here’s some information about the book!

Love & Bubbles
An anthology of queer underwater love stories
Edited by Jaylee James & Jennifer Lee Rossman
Dive into romance with these thirteen stories of queer love under the sea!

Love & Bubbles is a short fiction anthology of love stories united by an underwater theme and featuring characters from across the LGBTQ+ spectrum.

Go on a deep-sea voyage to study a brand-new species alongside a cute, distracted scientist. Discover your magic with a water witch and the help of a cute mermaid. Explore the waters of an alien ocean. Get summoned to the surface with a grumpy old merman and his non-binary water demon neighbor. Swim with a catfish goddess, rescue a dolphin… and so much more!

Featuring stories by: 
Evvan Burke
Minerva Cerridwen
Lizzie Colt
Lia Cooper
Maggie Derrick
M. Hollis
V. S. Holmes
Jaylee James
Jennifer Lee Rossman
Riley Sidell
Mharie West
Victoria Zelvin
And without further ado: The absolutely gorgeous cover!
Love and Bubbles
I don’t know about you, but this cover makes me even more excited for the anthology’s release on October 18th. Don’t forget to pre-order your copy today!

About the Editors:
Jaylee Jamesis a nonbinary writer, editor, and story curator native to Kansas City who is best known as the editor ofCircuits & Slippers, an anthology of science-fiction fairytales, and Vitality Magazine, which published LGBTQ+ genre fiction between 2014-2016. E also writes a smattering of short fiction and video games. Learn more atJayleeJames.com.

Jennifer Lee Rossman is a science fiction geek from Oneonta, New York, who has never ever threatened to run over anyone with her wheelchair. Nope, definitely not. Her debut novel, Jack Jetstark’s Intergalactic Freakshow, will be published in December 2018. She blogs at jenniferleerossman.blogspot.com and tweets @JenLRossman.