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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The Christmas Corridor

Grandma’s house was dusty and dark when we arrived for Christmas Eve. Her milky eyes and clawed hands weren’t so helpful for keeping a clean house anymore, but she was too proud to ask any of us for help. My mom sighed, and set about assigning tasks to us kids.

“We can’t decorate until everything is clean,” Mom said.

I groaned. Mom narrowed her eyes.

“Carla,” she said in that warning tone she often got with me, but I grabbed my cousin Ina’s hand and dragged her away to the parlor before she could continue scolding.

Good thing Ina was always more thoughtful than me, because she had rags and furniture polish in the hand I hadn’t grabbed. We worked our way around the room, turning on lamps, dusting off the thick layer of grey that coated everything, Ina chattering away.

“…and then Marcus said that he wouldn’t ever date Gina because she smells like pea soup…”

I ignored Ina as much as I could, but that was hard because her voice was loud and grating. She had no volume control, no inside voice I could remind her to use. Not that she would have listened to me. She was a whole three weeks older, which she reminded me of every time I tried to suggest she do something different.

She was still going on about Marcus and smelly Gina when I came to the fireplace. A whole year of grime lay before me, begging to be cleaned. I sprayed it with the polish and began rubbing.

The ornate carvings made it difficult, and I wished I had some q-tips and several hours to get into each crevice. Grape vines and dancing men, beautiful and pleasing. Grandma’s family must have been very rich, or very talented, to make this. I’d never asked her the story behind the mantle, easily the centerpiece of the house, but I would ask her this year.

Grandma was a woman of few words, but I hope she’d tell me the story. Her childhood was a mystery, and we’d all learned early not to ask too many questions. My mom answered any questions we had to the best of her ability, but always warned us not to ask Granny.

The one time I’d asked Granny about her life, she threw her spoon into her soup bowl and screeched about nosy children who didn’t understand their place.

I never asked another question.

“I hate cleaning,” I said, interrupting Ina and my own endless thoughts. “And I wonder if this is the year the curse will befall our family.”

“You don’t actually believe in that silly story, do you?” Ina asked. “I don’t.”

“Why not? Every grandmother in our line has died on Christmas Eve. Granny’s not looking too great, and today’s Christmas Eve.”

“Oh, shut up,” Ina said. She threw a dirty rag at me. “Besides, it’s not every grandmother. Just every other.”

“Okay, yeah. Every other. As in ours.”

Ina ignored me, and I returned my attention to the mantle. One grape on the right side was particularly grimy, and I rubbed it harder with the cloth.

“Damnit,” I muttered. “Get clean.”

“Language,” Ina scolded.

I shot her a dirty look, but she just returned it with an innocent one of her own. Damn Ina and her prudishness. It’s not like I’d said fuck.

I returned my attention to the grape. I pushed down with the rag, and the grape depressed into the mantle. Fear froze my body, icing its way from my head to my toes. I broke the carvings.

With shaking hands, I brought the rag away from the mantle. Ina hummed to herself behind me, lost in dusting the baseboards. At least she’d stopped talking.

The grape was pushed down deep, far lower than the other grapes around it. But, a small drawer had also opened beneath it, cutting through the chest of one of the dancing men.

Relief flooded me. I hadn’t broken it. I wouldn’t get into trouble.

A rustling noise behind me made me turn around. Grandma shuffled into the room, her slippers scuffing on the hardwood floor. She was bent and crooked, her figure imposing and terrifying even in its twistedness. I didn’t want to be afraid of her, but I couldn’t help it. She’d never been overly affectionate, which had led to my never really bonding with her. And now she was just a scary old woman whose temper got worse with every task she was no longer able to do herself.

I looked into the little drawer before she could make her way across the large room. A small key lay nestled inside. I grabbed it, and slid the drawer closed as quietly as I could. It closed with a small snap as the grape popped back into its normal position.

With a sigh of exhaled anxiety, I pocketed the key. I’d look at it later. For now, a semi-blind old woman was picking her way through the living room toward me.

“Not breaking things again, are we?” Grandma said. Her voice was thin and ancient, its sound even more grating than Ina’s despite its softness.

“No, Grandma. Just cleaning,” I said.

Ina popped up from the floor and held out the dusty rag. As if Grandma could see it.

“We’re doing just fine, Grandma” Ina said. “But thanks for checking on us.”

“Hmmph,” Grandma said. She began her slow scuffle back toward the door.

Ina and I stayed still, watching Grandma’s retreating back. I felt bad for the woman. No matter how intimidating I found her, she was still just an old woman trying to do the best she could and being told it wasn’t good enough. But those charitable thoughts were easier to have when she wasn’t staring at me, demanding answers.

I turned the key over and over in my pocket, waiting for her to leave. Waiting for the opportunity to look at it better.

The key was black and ornate. Heavy. Old. It lay in the palm of my hand in a shaft of moonlight streaming through a crack in the shutters, its heft more than I’d have ever expected from a key so small. It was barely half the length of my pinky finger.

Ina, Marie, Jessie, and Toni slept on the other futons in the bedroom we always shared. Their breath came regular and even. I risked life and limb by climbing my way through the minefield of spread-out cousins on the floor. The door creaked slightly as I opened it. I froze, held my breath for a few beats, but no one in the room stirred. I shut the door behind me. It didn’t creak going the other way, and it closed with a quiet click.

The long hallway lay dark before me, suggesting I return to the safety of the bedroom. But the key weighed in my hand, a promise of adventure and novelty in a house that had seen little of that my entire lifetime.

I’d never seen a mysterious locked door in this house, but I was determined to find it. If the key was hidden, the door may be too. I’d start with the fireplace.

For over an hour, I pushed on each knob and whorl, each carving and ornament. No dice. Strangely, even the grape that had spat out the hidden drawer at me was no longer working.

The grandfather clock in the corner struck midnight. I whirled around at the sound, heart pounding. The chiming mocked my inability to find that which was hidden.

I leaned against the mantle, hoping it would open a secret panel in the walls like I’d seen in so many movies, but the walls stayed firmly shut. I picked up each candlestick and nick-knack on the mantle, but each came away easily. I stifled a frustrated groan.

I flopped onto the couch in defeat. I sat until the grandfather clock chimed the half hour.

A shuffling noise down the hallway stirred my attention. I turned my head toward the noise as it grew louder, making its way through the darkened house and into the parlor where I sat.

My grandmother was even more terrifying in the dark. Her head was shrouded in a scarf, her white nightgown flowed behind her, both giving her a wraith-like appearance. If it weren’t for the scuffling of her feet, I’d have thought her a figment of my imagination.

“The door’s over here, dearie.” She pointed with her arthritic fingers toward the wall behind the television stand. No wonder I hadn’t been able to find it.

“Thanks, Granny,” I said. A little part of me suggested caution, but I hopped off the couch anyway and slid the stand away from the wall as carefully as I could. Only one small Santa fell off, his face contorted in the darkness into a scowl, censuring me for disrupting his slumber.

Grandma pushed an invisible spot on the wall and a false panel opened up, just like I’d hoped for. It revealed a wooden door, unimpressive and plain with a black lock that matched the key in my robe pocket. I’d been expecting something a little more exciting, but my hand automatically reached out, stuck the key into the lock, and turned it. That, at least, gave a satisfying ka-thunk as it turned.

I finally hesitated, a pit growing in my stomach. How had Grandma known what I was doing?

This had all felt so natural, her coming to help, my willingness to follow along. The magic of midnight hours made the strange feel normal, and hid the truth too well. A pang of fear jolted through me, and the certainty that I needed to be back in bed overwhelmed me.

I looked back at my grandmother, who smiled at me, a leer in the shadows of the dark. I opened my mouth to say goodnight, to leave this room and go back upstairs, but my body betrayed me. I smiled back, and I opened the door.

Behind was pitch black. Cold seeped out, giving the feeling of a large space. Impossible. My brain was churning out information about how on the other side of the wall was the dining room and there shouldn’t be space for a cavern inside the house, while my body swayed on the threshold.

Despite the chill, the unknown beckoned me. Something inside of me screamed at me to shut the door and leave, but I couldn’t have ignored the pull if I tried. The room drew me inside.

Grandma followed me in, her scuffling feet right behind me. I felt her clawed hands on my back, shoving me further in. And I felt the floor rising up to meet me as I tumbled into the dark.

Pale light from a weak winter sun streamed through the parlor windows, hitting my eyes and waking me. I hadn’t meant to stay here all night, but dragging my old body down the hallway and into bed had left me too exhausted to bother mounting the stairs and then picking my way through Carla’s cousins and into her own bed.

My bed now.

Granny had died in her sleep, on Christmas Eve, just as every other matriarch of the family died. The Family Curse, they called it.

A gift, I called it.

I slipped the key back into the secret drawer in the mantle, ready for the next generation to find.

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.

Author Interview: Chace Verity

Hey, everyone! This week, I’m very excited to welcome my friend and writing buddy Chasia to my blog for an author interview. Enjoy!

Hi, Chasia, and welcome!

Thanks for having me!

Can you tell my readers a little about yourself?

I’m Chasia, pen name Chace Verity, and I’m an American citizen and Canadian permanent resident. When not writing or working a people-job, I’m reading or playing video games or watching Korean dramas & variety shows.

Can you talk a little about your inspiration for your debut novella TEAM PHISON?

It started with me overhearing two guys chatting in a multiplayer game my husband was playing. One guy had a thick country accent and was super new to the game. He kept asking questions, apologizing, etc. The other guy was very polite to him and got embarrassed every time New Guy thanked him for helping him. It’s rare to see such genuine kindness in online games between two strangers. The team ended up losing the mission, but Nice Guy was the last one standing, and New Guy was super impressed with him. It was hard to forget such a sweet interaction.

Any upcoming projects you can talk about? (Or give a sneak peak of? 😉

Here’s a short chapter from my upcoming fantasy novella, My Heart Is Ready (out December 15, 2017)!

Lester liked the crown of wildflowers woven through the strawberry farmer’s hair.

Neither of the human twins had noticed him spying on them.

Lester listened to their argument with his claws digging into the topmost branch of the twisty orange maple tree. The high noon sunlight bounced off the harpy’s golden wings and shielded him in a protective glow.

Humans had the best gossip. Even when the secrets themselves weren’t terribly interesting, humans had a way of packing intense emotions into them. Rumors and speculation would crackle in the harpy’s head and send a delightful buzz through his body.

Harpies had evolved quite a bit from their days of stealing food out of humans’ hands. Now, they stole their words.

The twins had many remarks between them. Lester didn’t understand them all, but he understood the emotions. Despair. Exasperation. Confusion.

Anyone passing by might have noticed the emotions, too. This particular farm in northern Florea was famed for its rainbow strawberries. The colors changed depending on the mood in the air. Currently, all the strawberries in the patch were a solemn shade of midnight blue. Even the pixies flitting around the fields had lost some of their glitter.

“What is an Absolute?” asked the sister, throwing her hands in the air. “There’s something more to this arrangement than being some fancy knight, isn’t there? You’ve never wanted to be a knight before.”

“Doesn’t matter,” her brother retorted. “Think of the money we’re getting. You’ll be so happy at Rosales. It’s what we’ve always wanted.”

The young woman with long, black hair had the most adorable glare. Her sunburned cheeks puffed out like a chipmunk.

Lester adjusted the rusty metal coronet on his head. In addition to being one of the rare males in his species, he had arms as well as wings. Said arms came from his human father.

No other harpy was like him. He was the king of harpies.

A glimmer of interest in finding a queen ran through him every time the woman cursed at her brother. He had observed this woman a few times while perching from this tree, and she had always looked standoffish. She never interacted with the farm’s visitors, never played with the pixies, never smiled.

It was interesting to see her so animated now.

“I’d rather not get an education at the expense of your happiness,” she said, circling her brother.

“Who said I’m unhappy?”

“Our parents gladly accept your farce, but I know you better than them. Stop lying to me. Why do the Absolutes want a peasant who has never held a sword in his life?”

“I’m good with a sickle,” he said. “No one can cut grains faster than me.”

She stopped in her tracks. “I can.”

“Besides you.”

“You love being on the farm. Why are you really going with them?”

The brother clenched his jaw. The man had attractive qualities in his doughy face, a handsome rogue similar to a magpie. Lester, queer in every aspect of his life, didn’t mind the prospect of a king or a nonbinary regent at his side, but he was currently more drawn to the woman with exquisite biceps.

“I owe the queen, you know,” the brother said. “I’ll visit you at Rosales when I can. Say, when do you leave? Next week?

Lester cocked his head to the side. Were the twins affiliated with Haveri? What could this man owe the Crow Queen?

The possibilities rattled through Lester’s brain like tiny bolts of lightning and caused the feathers along his legs to stiffen.

Goddess, rumors were magnificent.

So was this muscular woman with flowers in her hair.

Perhaps Lester could impress the strawberry farmer by finding out what an Absolute was for her.

What does your writing process look like in general?

Outrageously chaotic. Often, I write a few chapters, get a good foundation going, and then drop the project for several months while I think more on it. If I have an outline, I can hammer out the whole thing in a short time. But I rarely have the patience to sit down and outline a story.

On a more technical level, I do almost everything in Scrivener. Draft, revise, edit, etc. I share works on Google Docs to be critiqued, but I retype everything in Scrivener. If I need to jot down ideas or lines while I’m away from my computer, I send an e-mail to myself on my phone.

Any favorite snacks for when you’re writing?

Is coffee a snack? XD I’ve been trying to eat healthier – I’ve swapped candy-while-writing for banana-chips-while-writing. Sometimes I go radical and get yogurt-covered pretzels for a snack.

What are your favorite books at the moment?

I’m currently captivated by Diana Wynne Jones’s Reflections: On the Magic of Writing. This series of essays is really enlightening, especially for anyone who writes for kids. It’s a different sort of writing advice because it’s not meant to be writing advice; you just happen to learn from her observations.

Where can readers find you and your work?

The latest information about my stuff can be found on Goodreads or on my Twitter! I’m also a part of the Crystal Queer Patreon.

Short Fiction Contest Winner: Bob’s Bones

I’m very excited to share with you the winning story of the short fiction contest written by Kelvin Woelk! Enjoy.


I claimed the last two top beside the big window, since no other tables were open. Maybe a cute girl would come in. I could offer the empty chair.
The door opened and a skeleton entered, toe bones clacking loudly across the wood floor.
 
I looked around. No one else seemed to notice as the skeleton approached the blackboard menu, the items written in white as if it had scraped them onto it with its own bony finger. It stepped up to the ordering counter, and the barista nodded and tapped her own finger against a screen, her face bathed in a light blue aura. The skeleton stepped politely to the side. I noticed it had offered no form of payment, nor seemingly had one been demanded.
 
A minute later, it crossed into the room where I sat, its head turning this way and that, plate and cup held in place with bleached curled knuckles. I realized, with mild panic, that it was looking for a place to sit. I looked down, hoping to avoid giving any kind of signal, hoping a seat might open somewhere far away.
 
But we had made whatever substitutes for eye contact when you look at a skeleton and it looks back at you with round black empty sockets. It clattered over, setting the cup and saucer down and placing a bony hand on the empty chair.
 
“Do you mind?” The lower jaw moved like a bad special effect. Before I could answer, it pulled the chair back and slipped between it and the table, with a sound like someone losing at Jenga.
 
“I’m Bob,” it said, finger bones extended, thumb bone pointing up. I could see only those two empty circles, black as night, but it seemed to be seeing me just as I was seeing it.
 
This is how it ends, I thought. In a coffee shop, shaking the offered hand of death who, frankly, can’t even come up with an interesting fake name. Probably moonlights as tech support. Of course, if you’re Death, it probably matters even less what you call yourself.
 
I reached out and felt the cold hard bones wrap around my own warm, soft flesh.
 
“I love the smell of coffee, don’t you?” the skeleton said, releasing its grip and raising its two empty nostril holes.
 
“More so than the taste,” I said calmly, expecting each word to be my last.
 
“Spoken like a tea man,” it replied, directing its two black voids toward my hands wrapped around the white porcelain cup. “Coffee’s not to everyone’s taste. But nice on a day like today.”
 
It raised its cup to approximate lip position and held it there.
 
It took me a few seconds to realize that it was blowing—or trying to—across the steaming liquid. It made no sense of course. But the day had already pegged high on the weirdness scale.
 
I watched with cringing fascination as it took a long sip. The dark liquid dropped out the bottom of its skull, splashing its spine, ribs and pelvic bones before dropping wetly onto the chair and floor. The skeleton looked down, then at me, shrugged and said, “It’s alright, they know me here.”
 
Feeling I had nothing to lose, I took a deep breath.
 
“So”, I said. “As much as the whole cloak and scythe thing seems a bit tired, it’s what most of us are conditioned to expect. However, I find this in between motif kind of half-hearted. No offense.”
 
Genuine puzzlement seemed to emanate from inside those black round voids.
 
“What?” it said, its jaw moving slightly and emitting a single clack. “What, the death thing again? I’m just a regular Joe, like you. I was coming from an appointment with my orthopedist when I spotted this place. I thought a coffee sounded nice. Not that my opinion matters, but you’ll live out the day, I’m pretty sure.”
 
“And tomorrow?”
 
It shrugged again. “Beats me. But no one gets out alive, am I right?”
 
“Anyway,” I said, “the orthopedist bit is pretty funny.”
 
The look now directed at me, combined with accompanying silence, was most unnerving.
 
“Lack of soft tissue is no joke, my friend,” the skeleton said. “Walk around without cartilage for a couple of days. You’ll regret it faster than than you can crack your knuckles. Would you excuse me for a moment? That’s the one thing about coffee I don’t love. Goes right through me.”
I easily stifled my laughter this time. The skeleton slipped from behind the table and headed toward the bathrooms. People in the ordering line moved aside, politely letting it pass. As it turned the corner out of sight, I considered going straight home to lie down. Maybe when I woke up—if I did—things would make sense again. But almost immediately, the walking boneyard was back at the table.
 
“Well, I think I better get going.” It again raised its cup, teeth clinking against the edge, and I watched the last of the coffee follow the predictable path, with predictable results.
 
“I kind of barged in,” it said putting the cup down, “but you seemed like a nice guy. Perhaps we’ll meet here again sometime.”
 
It stepped in the puddle as if hardly noticing it, turned and walked toward the door and opened it. A blast of outside air moved across my body, sending a cold shiver through my flesh. The skeleton stepped over the threshold, and I heard the latch quietly engage.
 
A girl approached pushing a yellow bucket on wheels, holding onto a long wooden mop handle. The wheels made a pleasing sound as they rolled over the wood floor. It was, finally, time to go.
 
 The girl began mopping around my feet. I stood up and gazed out the window, hoping to convince myself of what had just taken place. But no tracks appeared in the snow that was re-painting the sidewalk white, and I did not see the skeleton then or ever again.

SONY DSCKelvin Woelk has throughout his life held various job titles including, but not limited to, grocery clerk, hospital clerk, electronic technician, and technical writer. He currently lives in northern Colorado where he helps maintain the website for a small independent bookstore and to connect people with good books. Kelvin also enjoys photography, sending and receiving hand-written letters, playing ping pong, and trying his hand at writing short stories and non-fiction for younger readers. You can find a few other examples of his work, for better or worse, at www.birdseyetravels.wordpress.com.

Guest Story: Insubstantial

Happy Friday the 13th, everyone! In honor of today, please enjoy a story written by my wonderful friend and writing buddy, Kate Sheeran Swed.

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Image from Pixabay

 

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.

It is the sensation of waking with one arm splayed on the pillow, the limb drained and temporarily useless—only it tingles throughout her body. She can’t convince her numb fingers to grasp the doorknob.

The window is open, and she sneaks onto the slope of the roof more easily than ever before. Though she can’t manage her usual grip on the gutter, her ankles don’t smart when she lands.

She is weightless. She almost giggles, thinking of how she will surprise her mother by walking in the front door. But a cold feeling against her spine stifles her laughter. It is like getting up to use the bathroom at night, when the darkness convinces her to waste no time in returning to her room, lest the monsters should realize there’s a morsel out of bed.

If she loses her grip on the earth she will fly away, a balloon without a tether.

Calliope gives her head a shake, willing the dizziness to pass. Soon she will go inside, where her mother will press a cool hand against her forehead and check for fever. For now, she scans the yard for something familiar. The trees tilt, and she blinks to set them right. The flowerbeds wobble from daffodil to snapdragon, a double exposure in her brain.

Through the chaos, she catches sight of her lunchbox, anchored in the grass. She tries to remember the last time she held the handle, but it’s hard to distinguish the difference between days and years.

It should not be here. It belongs on the kitchen counter, jaw unhinged, waiting to be sated with peanut butter sandwiches and notes from her mother: Don’t forget to hand in your lunch money! Always with a heart.

On the street, kids hurry by, backpacks quivering as they cast wide-eyed glances at the house. Calliope kneels before the lunchbox. She expects damp knees, but no sensation leaks through her jeans.

There are two boys beyond the fence now, poking noses and fingers between the bars and whispering, jabbing one another with elbows. Calliope cannot hear what they’re saying. She wants them to leave her alone.

The lunchbox is decorated with a unicorn. There are rainbows on the thermos. But the hinges are rusty, the unicorn’s horn all but faded away.

Calliope reaches for the clasp.

One of the boys squeezes between the bars of the fence, pauses, looks back to his friend. The friend urges him on with a bright red sleeve.

“What do you want?” asks Calliope. The boy looks past her and swallows, then darts toward the porch.

Calliope decides to pay him no mind. She touches the tip of her index finger to the clasp on the unicorn lunchbox.

Her finger disappears. When she pushes forward, alarmed, the rest of her hand follows.

She jerks it back.

The boy reaches the porch, touches the bottom step. For a moment, the house settles in Calliope’s vision, and she sees it as if for the first time.

The porch swing hangs drunkenly from one chain. The welcome mat is gone. The kitchen window is broken, mold-black curtains hanging dirty and frayed.

It’s disorienting, like stumbling into a carnival and searching for a familiar strain through the cacophony of clashing tunes.

The boy hurtles back down the walk while his companion giggles.

Calliope is heat. She pours it into her fingers, curls them around the handle, and hurls the lunchbox with all the substance she has left.

The boys scream when the box hits the fence. They run.

Calliope sinks once more to her knees and tries to piece it all together, her thoughts no more solid than the ground beneath her feet. She will grow too heavy for the surface and descend through layers of earth, forget her place in time and fall through the years, until everything exists at once. She will hear the reason for the cockroaches, and how they keep the melody of the world from tilting off key.

The day slinks on.

*

Calliope cannot convince her blood to circulate.


Kate Sheeran Swed loves hot chocolate, plastic dinosaurs, and airplane tickets. She has trekked along the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu, hiked on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland, and climbed the ruins of Masada to watch the sunrise over the Dead Sea. Following an idyllic childhood in New Hampshire, she completed degrees in music at the University of Maine and Ithaca College, then moved to New York City. Her stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Electric Spec, and Fantasy Scroll Magazine. She holds an MFA in Fiction from Pacific University. You can find her at katesheeranswed.com or on Twitter @katesheeranswed.