Friday Flashfic: Gunslinger

There ain’t much in the way of opportunity for a girl of mixed blood and little money at home. There weren’t no good family wanted me for a daughter-in-law, and Mr. Shipley, who ran the general store, thought I’d have my hand in the till. Well. I ain’t of a disposition what would make a good farmer’s wife, and ain’t nobody like to be looked down on.

Out here, it don’t matter none who my mama was. The frontier’s a mean madam, and there’s few enough of us that survive her. Naw. Out here what matters is a cool head, a keen eye, and a quick hand on the trigger.

I got all three.

Friday Flashfic: The Lottery

The platform was bedecked with ribbons, and the soldiers positively sparkled in the gold trim of their dress uniforms, but Thara had eyes only for the ships.

They towered over the field, great obelisks of metal alloy and dark ceramic, the smooth gray of their hulls broken only by the stark white NASA logos.

Colony ships. Astera One, Two, and Three. In a matter of hours they would begin loading, filling the arks with all the technology to carry humanity to the stars. Most of the places for personnel were filled already – those with valuable skills or the money to claim a land-parcel already had their berths. But on each ship, a handful of open spots would be given out to those lucky enough to win one.

Three hundred berths, Thara thought. Three hundred chances to escape this hellhole. And there are only three hundred million people here. 

She clutched her ticket tighter, feeling thick cardstock cut into her hand. This was her chance to escape the Colonia, where a corrugated aluminum shack was a luxury. For now, she was still small enough to work in the factory, climbing into the machinery to repair the mechanized assembly line that turned out droids for the Army. But that wouldn’t last much longer.

The woman from the Population Bureau was finishing her speech, something about the next great Frontier and humanity’s drive to explore. Thara snorted. It was all bullshit; everyone knew the planet was dying. Hell, they’d already had to move the launching pads inland. In another year the next third of the country would be underwater.

The man beside her coughed, great hacking sobs that rocked his chest. Blood and phlegm spattered on the ground, and she edged away. Radiation poisoning, most likely, so not really contagious. But better safe than sorry – there were no more pigs, but the avian flus were still deadly.

There was dutiful applause as the suit finished talking, and then the soldiers rolled the giant rotating drum forward. They could have done it all by computer, nowadays, and sent the results to the ‘links. But the Grunts, as the poor laborers were called, didn’t trust computers anymore. And the government was cheap.

The lady spun the drum with great enthusiasm. The big screens were showing a closeup of her face, with its plastered-on smile and fearful eyes. She was a nobody – expendable. From the number of soldiers surrounding the crowd they government was expecting a riot.

She stopped, and pulled open the door of the drum with a clang.  Absolute silence, broken only by quiet coughing.

“The -” the woman squeaked, cleared her throat, and began again. “The first number is!” She reached into the drum and pulled out a ticket, holding it aloft so the cameras could get a good view: 23333 090271378.

Thara clenched both fists this time, nails digging into her palms. She didn’t need to check the ticket – she’d spent the whole night staring at it, memorizing it. The number on the screen wasn’t hers. Her number was burned into her brain; tattooed on her eyelids. She chanted it in her head. Two, Three-Three-Three-Three, Oh-Five-Eight-Eight-One, Seven-Five-Oh-One.

Somewhere else in the crowd, the soldiers were escorting the lucky winner away to the Bureau, where they’d be fed, bathed, and issued their standard colonist package. They would be getting out. They would see the stars.

Thara clenched her teeth as the woman handed off the winning ticket to another suited official and reached in again.

One chance gone. Two hundred and ninety-nine to go.

Friday Flashfic: Galatea

Iemo ran his hand gently over her cheek. It didn’t matter if the stone was hard and cold, unyielding under the gentle pressure. She looked just like Rema, this creation of his – every detail perfect, down to the stomach, slightly rounded. Oh, how she’d hated that little curve! She’d wanted it flat and strong, but he loved the softness it gave her.
Had loved.
Would love again.
He struck the matches and lit the candles, proud that his hands only shook a little. He chanted, careful not to stumble over the harsh, strange language. He pricked his finger and touched it carefully to the statue’s forehead.
The stone cracked.

Friday Flashfic: The Wild Hunt

They warned him not to travel through the woods that night. He laughed at them – superstitious peasants – and walked on down the narrow dirt road.
What had he to fear? The full moon illuminated his path. He had a sword, a bow, and a courageous heart. He was young, strong, foolish.
They appeared from nowhere, spectral figures astride horses whose hooves did not strike the ground. They pursued him, and before them ran hounds with eyes of fire.
At the head of the hunt, a man with stag’s antlers blew his great horn.
On Midsummer Night, the Wild Hunt rides.

Friday Flashfic: Exile

Once upon a time the City had been a somewhere. Awestruck travelers had stood at the top of the rise and gaped as it rose before them, carved out of a delicate spire of rock.

Now it stood empty, a decayed monument to former beauty.

The bridges were hardly in better shape. Some had given up their struggle to collapse into the chasm. Once they had been the gateways into a glorious fairyland; now they were sad piles of rock and dusty mortar at the bottom of a ravine.

All in all, Elea thought, a fitting place for an exile.

Flashfic: An Invitation

He came to her in dreams, a pale white beauty dressed in dark silk. He was charming, too; he laughed at her jokes and kissed her palms and stroked the hollow place at the front of her throat.
She began to look forward to the night. Her days were long, and dreary, and empty.  Her nights were full and bright and real.
Every night: “May I?”
One night: “Yes.”
He kissed her throat, lips warm and soft – but then they were cold and hard, and then they were not lips but teeth, and she was cold, and it was dark…

Flashfic: 11:00 pm

It’s late, and the streetlight on the corner flickers fitfully as I park my car. I have my pick of the spots; the lot is empty save for some scattered shopping carts and an old, beat-up pickup a couple spots over. It’s probably the owner’s car, because who else would be at the grocery store at this hour?

I push the door open at 10:56 exactly. I’ve made it with four minutes to go before closing, according to the peeling sticker on the glass. I step into the fluorescent light and rub my aching temples. The too-bright glare with a greenish tint isn’t helping my headache.

The store is small but stuffed to the brim. The aisles are barely wider than my hips and the products are practically falling off the shelves. I glance down, but they don’t seem to be organized in any sort of logical fashion. Cans of beans  and jars of pickles share shelf space with brightly-colored cereal boxes and packages of cookies. I smile despite myself; a few years down the road I’ll be buying those instead of formula.

The clock on the wall ticks, and I glance up. 10:57. I pick and aisle and wander down, heaving a sigh of relief when I come across the powdered milk purely by accident. I grab two cans and head for the checkout.

When I got pregnant, I’d imagined the miracle of childbirth, the wonders of motherhood, the sheer joy of  creating and caring for a new life.

I hadn’t imagined crapping during the delivery, or having to go to work after a night full of interrupted sleep, or rushing to the grocery store at nearly eleven because I couldn’t breastfeed and my husband had selective hearing loss when it came to errands.

There is no one at the checkout, and I slam the formula down in irritation. The door is open. The lights are on. There’s three minutes till close – tick – two minutes till close, so where the hell is the owner?

I rub my eyes. All I want to do is crawl into bed and sleep for the rest of the year…but I’ll settle for buying this formula and going home. I’m going to be up all night anyway; at least at home I can  watch reruns of Law and Order.

Tick. It’s 10:59, and I’m starting to get a little creeped out. Tentatively, I call out.

“Hello? Is anyone here?”

I’m met by silence.

“Hello? I know it’s almost closing but I really need to buy some baby formula.”

A door slams, and I nearly jump out of my skin. But it’s just the owner, coming out from the back room. He’s younger than I would have expected, with an open, friendly face and twinkling blue eyes. A butcher’s apron covers his jeans and checked button-down, and it’s seen some use – it’s covered in reddish streaks and hand prints.

“I didn’t know you guys butchered anything yourself – doesn’t it all come packaged?”

He just laughs. Something about him seems odd to me but I’m not sure why. I try to think through the fog of sleep-deprivation and come up empty.

“Listen,” I say, “Can you ring this up for me? I’ve got to get home before the baby drives my husband too crazy.”

The man lifts his hands and I notice he’s holding a meat cleaver. He runs a finger along the flat of the blade, then lifts it up to his mouth and sucks on it.

My heart stars beating faster, and the hairs stand up on the back of my neck.

But the baby is at home, crying, so I try once more.

“Can you ring me up or not?”

Tick. It’s 11:00 pm. The man grins a jack-o’-lantern grin.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t work here.”

Flashfic: Yuki-onna

The snows come howling down from the mountains like ravenous wolves. They prowl the streets of the town and rattle the shutters and push against the doors.

The cold creeps in through the cracks and reaches out its fingers, stroking our skin and chilling us to the very bone.

On this, the longest night of the year, we lock our doors and stuff the keyholes with dried rosemary. We wear jewelry made from horseshoe nails and fill our pockets with salt.

But still, the snow ghosts come.

They come out of the whirling snows; they shriek like the souls of the damned. Their wails wake us up in the night and though they strike fear into my heart Riku goes to the window to listen.

He tells me that he dreams about them, women with skin pale as the snows and just as cold. Their blue lips brush against his skin like icy butterflies, and in their wails he hears singing.

I fear that one morning I will awaken and his bed will be empty. That iron and salt and rosemary will not be enough. That we will find his body, blue and stiff and empty, lying in the snows. Like we found my father’s. Like we found my mother’s.

But more than that, I fear that once they have taken him they will come for me.

Riku is not the only one whose dreams are full of ghosts.

A Morsel: Pendant, Tea, Rabbit

In response to a writing prompt from Tami Moore:     
          It rained again during the night. I spent hours putting bucket and bowls and cups under all the leaks in the rotten roof. One of these days it will fall on our heads and then we’ll have to move again, but I can’t fix it myself and I certainly can’t afford to hire someone to do it for us. I’ve got a little money saved up from working down at the watch shop, but anyone who came up here to work on the cabin would meet Lara.
                 I glanced over at the bed, where Lara was wrapped in the blankets like a little caterpillar in its cocoon. She was dreaming, her eyes flicking back and forth under her pale eyelids. Lara has always had very vivid dreams.
                The sun was just rising over the ridge, rays spilling in through the cracked windows of the cabin and reflecting off the knife in my hand. Lara would be up soon – she always woke with the dawn – and I had to leave for work. The watch shop opens at nine but it’s a long walk down the mountain to town. I went back to the sandwich I was making. Peanut butter and strawberry jam, cut into quarters with the crusts removed. It’s what she’s had for breakfast and lunch every day for the past eleven years, and she cries when I don’t take the crust off or use jelly instead of jam. I suppose I should be lucky that she eats any food at all. She only stopped breastfeeding when our mother died, and she was three years old then.
                I finished the sandwich and went to draw a bucket of water from the well. I didn’t have time to empty the things in the cabin, but if I filled a pitcher and added lemonade mix, maybe she would drink that instead of the rainwater. Maybe not.
                When I returned Lara was sitting up in bed, clutching Bunny to her chest. It was my toy first. I can remember giving it to Lara the night after Mother died, to get her to stop crying. She hasn’t let go of it ever since. It even bathes with her. The white fur is grey now, and patchy, the glass eyes are dull, and the lavender ribbon is shredded, but if you try to take bunny away from Lara, she’ll scream until she makes herself sick. Lara was looking out the window, blue eyes wide, not blinking. Sometimes she’ll go for days without talking, without even looking at me, just staring at things that aren’t there.
                “Lara, come eat breakfast.” Suddenly her eyes focused on me.
                “A witch tried to take Bunny away.”
                “What witch?” I dropped lemonade mix into the pitcher and stirred.
                “She was pretty, but her hands were black and her teeth were green. She tried to take Bunny but I kicked her, and then she screamed.” Lara got up from the bed and came to the table. I brushed her messy curls out of her face as she started on the sandwich.
                “You were just dreaming, Lara,” I replied.
                “No I wasn’t.”
                It’s hard to argue with Lara, but I tried. “I was watching you. You were sleeping.”
                Lara put down the sandwich and turned to look at me, her expression earnest. “I was asleep here, but I wasn’t asleep there. On the Other Side.”
                The Other Side. The land of the faeries. I sighed. “I have to go, Lara-bear. I’ll be home later. Try to stay out of trouble.”
                Lara gave me one of her rare, gorgeous smiles. “Don’t worry sissy, Bunny will keep me safe.”
                I took one last glance in through the window before I left. Lara was having an animated conversation with the air.
                The sun was setting by the time I returned to the cabin. I was usually back much earlier, as I only worked part time and left in the early afternoon, but – well. I’d been working on his watch when he came in, a complex piece with a fish that moved around the watch face and acted as the hour hand. It had taken me the better part of two weeks to build it and he’d been using it as an excuse to come see me. The shop’s bell rang, and that was all the warning I got before he was sitting in front of me.
                “Come to dinner with me tonight.” I confess I was shocked. I thought I’d been doing a good enough job of discouraging him, but it seemed not. “Come on! It’ll be fun. You never do anything for fun, do you?” His tone was light, teasing, flirty even, but I made myself keep working on the watch, kept myself from looking at him.
                “I can’t.”
                “Why not? What excuse is it this time, Ivy? There’s always something.”
                “I – I don’t feel well.” My heart was beating double-time, and my palms were starting to sweat. He smelled like cinnamon, and I wanted him to lean in closer.
                At the same time I wanted him far, far away.
                “So let me drive you home. Where do you live? Not in town, or I’d see you a lot more often. Up on the mountain?”
                I stood up so quickly my chair fell down, slamming into the floor. The noise startled him, and he jumped up.
                “Your watch is done.” I was out the door before he recovered enough to chase me. He wouldn’t want me once he met Lara. I’d be the girl with the crazy sister. And then he’d tell his friends, and word would get around, and people would bring up doctors and hospitals and Children’s Services. Maybe it was time to move again.
                It took me a long time to calm down, so I didn’t get home until sunset. It’s no use going home when I’m angry; Lara tries my patience enough as it is. So as I walked up the path to the cabin I wondered, with a slightly sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, what Lara had gotten up to while I was gone.
                I pushed open the door of the cabin and gasped. Lara had picked hundreds of flowers, pulled off the heads, and set them to float in the rainwater buckets and pots and bowls. And she had taken out every candle we owned and lit them. It was magical, and beautiful, and crazy, just like my sister.
                Lara came over to me and tugged my hand.
                “It’s for the faeries,” she said. “They won’t come inside unless there are flowers.”
                I felt like I was sleepwalking. “Of course…faeries…”
                “They’ve mostly left, but you can meet Violet.”
                I looked down at her. “What?”
                “Look.” She pointed to the table, were my tea mug sat, filled with tiny violets. I peered in, preparing myself to converse with Lara’s imaginary faery.
                But then, over the far rim, a tiny head appeared. Emerald eyes met mine.
                “Oh my God.” I closed my eyes and opened them again, wondering if I was dreaming –or hallucinating. But she – brown hair, emerald eyes, and delicate violet gossamer wings –was still there.
                I looked at my sister in disbelief. “A faery.”
Lara smiled. “I told you,” she said, “It’s all real.”