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Written by Valerie

Venial Transgressions

She couldn't feel her face.

Winter had snaked through the trees, wrapping itself tight around graying trunks and settling comfortably beneath the canopy. During the day it crept forward, leery of the sun, traipsing around the mottled patterns of light that strained past the leaves. It was not so cold then, in the day. It was bearable: a slavering beast in a muzzle of steel.

For her purposes the day would not suit. She needed it to be unbearable. She needed the killing bite of winter unrestrained.

When night fell, she laid the bait and charged through the underbrush.

Her quarry followed.

It wasn't difficult to pinpoint its location in the darkness. It moved loudly, breath hard and guttural, grunting with the effort. In truth it was a wonder it heard her clearly enough to give chase. The pursuit was a slovenly thing, a drunken thing interspersed with animal's sounds of frustration. A snort. A stomp. A branch snapping and a hollow thud as it tripped and ripped itself amidst barren brambles. Every now and then it would become discouraged and she could sense it slowing, the anger dissipating in the cold, replaced by weariness. Yet she was not so easily dissuaded. She had spent too much time planning this, preparing this.

She shouted. She taunted. She threw another stone.

It shrieked in mindless fury and the chase began again.

Where they ran their noise silenced the forest. Singing insects ceased their strumming, animals froze in their tracks to watch with wide, luminescent eyes. She did not stop to observe these things fully, to take them in, yet she saw them in her peripheral, noted them in the back of her mind. She imagined it all watching – the animals. The trees. The forest itself, as though it were one great collective of conspiring sentience. They cut a swath through its tentative peace and it withdrew at the violation.

Not here. Not here. Turn back.

She ran forward with her prey hot on her heels. Not long now. Ahead she could see the marker she'd put so carefully in place. Behind she could see its silhouette, a thing of gangling limbs loosely attached to a wide-set frame. A set of white teeth glowed in its face, a sneer of senseless rage.

“Come!” She cried, luring. Jeering. “Come on, coward! Come and get me!”

Stooping low, she grabbed a fistful of dirt and aimed for its head. It was close enough now, close enough that she could see the hatred. It sputtered and roared incoherently, reaching out, fingers groping at her as she darted just out of reach. There she danced, she nimble, it utterly without grace. Backwards she bounded.

One step.

Two.

Three.

She leapt clear. It fell short, and tumbled into the pit.

Silence descended. Everything waited with bated breath, even her, though her heart was pounding and her lungs burned from the running. With an aching slowness she crept forward, towards the edge of the trap she'd spent hours digging alone. A pitiful sound oozed out of it, seeping upwards and over the fast-growing vines she'd used to camouflage her trench.

“Althiira?”

He slurred her name almost beyond recognition.

She could see him now. He lay twisted strangely, his leg askew, the ivory of bone glinting through flesh. His head lolled from side to side, uncomprehending, drugged by pain and drink. She could smell it on him: the blood and liquor. A bitter brew with a hint of metal.

“Althiira, help me.”

He was crying. His chest heaved with sobbing. She could see the glisten of vomit there, over his clothing, yellow and viscous. A hand reached up towards her with twitching, beseeching fingers.

Quick kills are best, a hunter once told her. There's no need to leave them to suffer. Finish it. Let it be done with.

“Aaaalthiiiirrraaaaa.” His hands pulled dirt down upon him and the sobbing grew softer. His breath left his lips in a white plume of noxious vapor. “Help me, pleeeeease.”

Her heartbeat slowed. She searched herself, searched deep, and found no compassion there. No pity. No remorse.

She stood and peered into the pit.

Then she turned and left winter to consume her father.

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Written by Valerie
Venial Transgressions
She couldn't feel her face.

Winter had snaked through the trees, wrapping itself tight around graying trunks and settling comfortably beneath the canopy. During the day it crept forward, leery of the sun, traipsing around the mottled patterns of light that strained past the leaves. It was not so cold then, in the day. It was bearable: a slavering beast in a muzzle of steel.

For her purposes the day would not suit. She needed it to be unbearable. She needed the killing bite of winter unrestrained.

When night fell, she laid the bait and charged through the underbrush.

Her quarry followed.

It wasn't difficult to pinpoint its location in the darkness. It moved loudly, breath hard and guttural, grunting with the effort. In truth it was a wonder it heard her clearly enough to give chase. The pursuit was a slovenly thing, a drunken thing interspersed with animal's sounds of frustration. A snort. A stomp. A branch snapping and a hollow thud as it tripped and ripped itself amidst barren brambles. Every now and then it would become discouraged and she could sense it slowing, the anger dissipating in the cold, replaced by weariness. Yet she was not so easily dissuaded. She had spent too much time planning this, preparing this.

She shouted. She taunted. She threw another stone.

It shrieked in mindless fury and the chase began again.

Where they ran their noise silenced the forest. Singing insects ceased their strumming, animals froze in their tracks to watch with wide, luminescent eyes. She did not stop to observe these things fully, to take them in, yet she saw them in her peripheral, noted them in the back of her mind. She imagined it all watching – the animals. The trees. The forest itself, as though it were one great collective of conspiring sentience. They cut a swath through its tentative peace and it withdrew at the violation.

Not here. Not here. Turn back.

She ran forward with her prey hot on her heels. Not long now. Ahead she could see the marker she'd put so carefully in place. Behind she could see its silhouette, a thing of gangling limbs loosely attached to a wide-set frame. A set of white teeth glowed in its face, a sneer of senseless rage.

“Come!” She cried, luring. Jeering. “Come on, coward! Come and get me!”

Stooping low, she grabbed a fistful of dirt and aimed for its head. It was close enough now, close enough that she could see the hatred. It sputtered and roared incoherently, reaching out, fingers groping at her as she darted just out of reach. There she danced, she nimble, it utterly without grace. Backwards she bounded.

One step.

Two.

Three.

She leapt clear. It fell short, and tumbled into the pit.

Silence descended. Everything waited with bated breath, even her, though her heart was pounding and her lungs burned from the running. With an aching slowness she crept forward, towards the edge of the trap she'd spent hours digging alone. A pitiful sound oozed out of it, seeping upwards and over the fast-growing vines she'd used to camouflage her trench.

“Althiira?”

He slurred her name almost beyond recognition.

She could see him now. He lay twisted strangely, his leg askew, the ivory of bone glinting through flesh. His head lolled from side to side, uncomprehending, drugged by pain and drink. She could smell it on him: the blood and liquor. A bitter brew with a hint of metal.

“Althiira, help me.”

He was crying. His chest heaved with sobbing. She could see the glisten of vomit there, over his clothing, yellow and viscous. A hand reached up towards her with twitching, beseeching fingers.

Quick kills are best, a hunter once told her. There's no need to leave them to suffer. Finish it. Let it be done with.

“Aaaalthiiiirrraaaaa.” His hands pulled dirt down upon him and the sobbing grew softer. His breath left his lips in a white plume of noxious vapor. “Help me, pleeeeease.”

Her heartbeat slowed. She searched herself, searched deep, and found no compassion there. No pity. No remorse.

She stood and peered into the pit.

Then she turned and left winter to consume her father.
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The Mandela Effect
Written by Valerie in portal Paranormal

Confabulation.

He was not lying.

They all sat there staring at him, staring at a man who sat on his hands yet kept his tongue unbitten. He had to keep the hands contained for fear of slapping their faces. He wasn't a violent man, no, but to be accused over and over of the same thing was trying his patience. His tongue wagged again and again. It bore no fiction. It falsified nothing, yet they did not believe.

“I did not kill him,” he would say.

In came the accusations. The proof. The photos of a corpse he did not remember. The bloody trousers he swore he'd never worn. It was all quite gruesome, truth be told. Whoever had killed the fucker sure was a violent man, that was certain. Smashed the other guy's head against a wall until it split. From the picture, it looked like he kept smashing long after the legs stopped that odd, sporadic, dying-insect twitch. After the eyes had come out of the sockets with odd, wet pops, like shapes out of one of those sorting cubes that children loved to poke around with, looking for the right hole. The eyes wouldn't fit again, though. The holes were too contorted because of the damage done to the skull.

They stared at him. Their hands pawed the photos closer, thrusting them across the table and tapping with bony fingertips. Look, they'd say. We know you did it. We have the proof. We have witnesses. We have. We have. We have.

“I know what I did!”

He'd shouted it. They leaned back in their chairs, eyes widened or narrowed. They waited, expectant.

“And I didn't do that.”

Quieter that time. They scrutinized him, bore down on him with looks of disgust and then tore in again.

A man in the corner scribbled furiously at his notepad. He'd glance up on occasion, perusing the lot with a quizzical brow, and go right back to his frenzied writing. At first he imagined smoke drifting up from his pen, just to be funny – but now he was certain it was actually real.

My word. He'd burn the whole place down, at this rate.

It went on. The accusing, the questioning, the heated responses. Always no, forever no, because he would not admit to something he did not do.

It was clear in his mind's eye. Perfectly so. Rounding the corner at the bar to pick up his fiance. Seeing the victim kissing her, leaning her against the wall. Her kissing him back, pulling him closer when she should have been shoving him away. Screaming for help. He'd run in to save her, beat the man to death, batter his face against the concrete until it was unrecognizable. No one would want him then. No one would want him after -

“I walked on by. I left them there. I showed up at the courthouse to file for a divorce.”

“And do you know why the police were called on you?”

“They weren't.”

Blank stares around the table. Silence, save for the persistent scribbling of the pen. He was convinced that sound was eternal. That it would go on until the world stopped spinning and God came down to smite everyone who ate bacon and wore dresses made of various fabrics.

“He's not lying.”

Heads whipped towards the notepad man. Their expressions were incredulous, the lot of them, their mouths dropping open.

Finally. Someone gets it.

“He thinks he's telling the truth because that's the way he remembers it. You could shove the corpse in his face and he still wouldn't own up. You could drag his hysterical fiance in here and even she wouldn't be able to convince you. He's telling you what he believes happened, and nothing is going to convince him otherwise. Nothing you could say, anyway.”

“You're willing to testify to that in court, doctor?”

The man snorted. He stood up, screeched the chair over the floor and to the table, reclaiming it with a dull thump.

“After a bit more study of the subject, maybe. Alone.”

A brief, murmured meeting ensued. Glances were cast his way, and still he sat on his hands. Still he sat, though now the tongue was bitten. To be called insane on top of everything else? It was absurd. Insulting.

It was so good he was not a violent man.

The rest of them filed out, a long procession of haughty looks and pointed glares. The door shut behind them with a definitive click. The psychologist took up a place directly across from him, made a bridge of his fingers, and asked:

“Now. One more time. What happened when you found Jessica cheating on you?”

Later, he would swear that the fellow had fallen out of his chair. That he'd gotten that pen stuck straight through his throat because of it, isn't that the damnedest thing? What a way to go, honestly. What a stroke of rotten luck. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

And he didn't know what to make of that security footage, but it certainly wasn't of him.

He was not lying.

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The Mandela Effect
Written by Valerie in portal Paranormal
Confabulation.
He was not lying.

They all sat there staring at him, staring at a man who sat on his hands yet kept his tongue unbitten. He had to keep the hands contained for fear of slapping their faces. He wasn't a violent man, no, but to be accused over and over of the same thing was trying his patience. His tongue wagged again and again. It bore no fiction. It falsified nothing, yet they did not believe.

“I did not kill him,” he would say.

In came the accusations. The proof. The photos of a corpse he did not remember. The bloody trousers he swore he'd never worn. It was all quite gruesome, truth be told. Whoever had killed the fucker sure was a violent man, that was certain. Smashed the other guy's head against a wall until it split. From the picture, it looked like he kept smashing long after the legs stopped that odd, sporadic, dying-insect twitch. After the eyes had come out of the sockets with odd, wet pops, like shapes out of one of those sorting cubes that children loved to poke around with, looking for the right hole. The eyes wouldn't fit again, though. The holes were too contorted because of the damage done to the skull.

They stared at him. Their hands pawed the photos closer, thrusting them across the table and tapping with bony fingertips. Look, they'd say. We know you did it. We have the proof. We have witnesses. We have. We have. We have.

“I know what I did!”

He'd shouted it. They leaned back in their chairs, eyes widened or narrowed. They waited, expectant.

“And I didn't do that.”

Quieter that time. They scrutinized him, bore down on him with looks of disgust and then tore in again.

A man in the corner scribbled furiously at his notepad. He'd glance up on occasion, perusing the lot with a quizzical brow, and go right back to his frenzied writing. At first he imagined smoke drifting up from his pen, just to be funny – but now he was certain it was actually real.

My word. He'd burn the whole place down, at this rate.

It went on. The accusing, the questioning, the heated responses. Always no, forever no, because he would not admit to something he did not do.

It was clear in his mind's eye. Perfectly so. Rounding the corner at the bar to pick up his fiance. Seeing the victim kissing her, leaning her against the wall. Her kissing him back, pulling him closer when she should have been shoving him away. Screaming for help. He'd run in to save her, beat the man to death, batter his face against the concrete until it was unrecognizable. No one would want him then. No one would want him after -

“I walked on by. I left them there. I showed up at the courthouse to file for a divorce.”

“And do you know why the police were called on you?”

“They weren't.”

Blank stares around the table. Silence, save for the persistent scribbling of the pen. He was convinced that sound was eternal. That it would go on until the world stopped spinning and God came down to smite everyone who ate bacon and wore dresses made of various fabrics.

“He's not lying.”

Heads whipped towards the notepad man. Their expressions were incredulous, the lot of them, their mouths dropping open.

Finally. Someone gets it.

“He thinks he's telling the truth because that's the way he remembers it. You could shove the corpse in his face and he still wouldn't own up. You could drag his hysterical fiance in here and even she wouldn't be able to convince you. He's telling you what he believes happened, and nothing is going to convince him otherwise. Nothing you could say, anyway.”

“You're willing to testify to that in court, doctor?”

The man snorted. He stood up, screeched the chair over the floor and to the table, reclaiming it with a dull thump.

“After a bit more study of the subject, maybe. Alone.”

A brief, murmured meeting ensued. Glances were cast his way, and still he sat on his hands. Still he sat, though now the tongue was bitten. To be called insane on top of everything else? It was absurd. Insulting.

It was so good he was not a violent man.

The rest of them filed out, a long procession of haughty looks and pointed glares. The door shut behind them with a definitive click. The psychologist took up a place directly across from him, made a bridge of his fingers, and asked:

“Now. One more time. What happened when you found Jessica cheating on you?”

Later, he would swear that the fellow had fallen out of his chair. That he'd gotten that pen stuck straight through his throat because of it, isn't that the damnedest thing? What a way to go, honestly. What a stroke of rotten luck. It would be funny if it weren't so sad.

And he didn't know what to make of that security footage, but it certainly wasn't of him.

He was not lying.
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Write a story in which something is implied, then flip the implication on its head.
Written by Valerie in portal Fiction

Brandon waited for the sound of a pin dropping.

Silence like this had to be pierced at some point. He prayed for anything besides his wife's breathing next to him, besides the clink of her pearls as she fiddled with her necklace. The jury was eyeballing him with a mingle of sympathetic looks and scowls. The sympathy outweighed the anger, which was why he'd be getting his son back again.

The gavel had been struck. Soft murmurings started up as people finally became mobile.

"I know he did it."

"That boy's going to get killed."

"Wait to see it in the papers."

Heavy doors creaked open somewhere behind him. Brandon stared up at the judge and hated him, hated the way he looked down at him, the way his thoughts were written all over his face. I can't wait to land your ass in prison next time.

You wish, fucker.

His wife put a hand on his arm. Her fingers were delicate and dainty. The engagement ring he'd given her so long ago glared up at him, condemned him. He wanted to take her pretty little hand and crush it between his fists. To bruise her eyes and leave the imprint of his knuckles along her lovely face. She'd deserve it. Deserve every little bit of it.

"Come on, sweetheart," she murmured. "We won. Let's get out of here."

Their lawyer smiled at them as they walked past. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, and the reek of pricey cologne. The best con money could buy. He followed them out to their car and opened the door for his wife.

"That was a great victory today. I'm so glad for your family. I hope you'll contact our firm with any furth-"

Brandon put it in drive and pressed the gas. Deb gasped, the door on her side shutting awkwardly as she tugged it in. The lawyer stood behind them, dumbstruck back to that plastic smile, polished leather shoes glinting on the asphalt.

"That was rude," Deb said. Her voice was like nails being driven into his eardrums. "He's done a lot for us."

Brandon's teeth clicked together hard. It hurt down to the roots and he clenched harder. He merged onto the highway past a minivan that blared its horns angrily, gunning it up to eighty, then ninety.

"It's sixty," his wife pointed out. Her voice was tense, her shoulders pale and borne through her red dress. It was a ridiculous thing to wear to a trial. She looked like a slut, not like some saddened mother whose son had broken a leg. An arm. A son that had had bruises often enough the nurses of his private school called protective services.

They'd showed up at the hand-carved door of their sprawling house with grim faces. Their son had watched from the staircase with his teddy in hand, wide-eyed and wondering.

The blue on his cheek had been steadily turning yellow. It'd be gone by the time they picked him up, like it'd never happened. But it had, everything had, and that truth would never go away.

"The speed limit is-"

"Shut the FUCK up!"

He whipped around a semi and she shuddered, turning her head away with tears in her eyes. He didn't care. He couldn't bring up even a single shred of empathy, not anymore. Enough was enough, and he'd had his fair share. His hands tightened on the wheel and he imagined choking the life out of her slender throat. He imagined it and wished he had the balls to carry it through.

She'd earned a taste of her own medicine.

"I'm not covering for you anymore," he rasped.

Deb didn't answer. She turned her face away, watching the cars whiz by, worrying her hands in her lap.

"If you ever touch our son again, I'll fucking kill you."

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Write a story in which something is implied, then flip the implication on its head.
Written by Valerie in portal Fiction
Brandon waited for the sound of a pin dropping.

Silence like this had to be pierced at some point. He prayed for anything besides his wife's breathing next to him, besides the clink of her pearls as she fiddled with her necklace. The jury was eyeballing him with a mingle of sympathetic looks and scowls. The sympathy outweighed the anger, which was why he'd be getting his son back again.

The gavel had been struck. Soft murmurings started up as people finally became mobile.

"I know he did it."

"That boy's going to get killed."

"Wait to see it in the papers."

Heavy doors creaked open somewhere behind him. Brandon stared up at the judge and hated him, hated the way he looked down at him, the way his thoughts were written all over his face. I can't wait to land your ass in prison next time.

You wish, fucker.

His wife put a hand on his arm. Her fingers were delicate and dainty. The engagement ring he'd given her so long ago glared up at him, condemned him. He wanted to take her pretty little hand and crush it between his fists. To bruise her eyes and leave the imprint of his knuckles along her lovely face. She'd deserve it. Deserve every little bit of it.

"Come on, sweetheart," she murmured. "We won. Let's get out of here."

Their lawyer smiled at them as they walked past. Perfect teeth, perfect hair, and the reek of pricey cologne. The best con money could buy. He followed them out to their car and opened the door for his wife.

"That was a great victory today. I'm so glad for your family. I hope you'll contact our firm with any furth-"

Brandon put it in drive and pressed the gas. Deb gasped, the door on her side shutting awkwardly as she tugged it in. The lawyer stood behind them, dumbstruck back to that plastic smile, polished leather shoes glinting on the asphalt.

"That was rude," Deb said. Her voice was like nails being driven into his eardrums. "He's done a lot for us."

Brandon's teeth clicked together hard. It hurt down to the roots and he clenched harder. He merged onto the highway past a minivan that blared its horns angrily, gunning it up to eighty, then ninety.

"It's sixty," his wife pointed out. Her voice was tense, her shoulders pale and borne through her red dress. It was a ridiculous thing to wear to a trial. She looked like a slut, not like some saddened mother whose son had broken a leg. An arm. A son that had had bruises often enough the nurses of his private school called protective services.

They'd showed up at the hand-carved door of their sprawling house with grim faces. Their son had watched from the staircase with his teddy in hand, wide-eyed and wondering.

The blue on his cheek had been steadily turning yellow. It'd be gone by the time they picked him up, like it'd never happened. But it had, everything had, and that truth would never go away.

"The speed limit is-"

"Shut the FUCK up!"

He whipped around a semi and she shuddered, turning her head away with tears in her eyes. He didn't care. He couldn't bring up even a single shred of empathy, not anymore. Enough was enough, and he'd had his fair share. His hands tightened on the wheel and he imagined choking the life out of her slender throat. He imagined it and wished he had the balls to carry it through.

She'd earned a taste of her own medicine.

"I'm not covering for you anymore," he rasped.

Deb didn't answer. She turned her face away, watching the cars whiz by, worrying her hands in her lap.

"If you ever touch our son again, I'll fucking kill you."
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Your biggest fear.
Written by Valerie

Take Me to Church

In went the cassette. The old woman had bleached blonde hair and lipstick right inside the smiling lines. She hit play with a nail painted scandalously red.

"Remember to take notes, girls!"

Pens hit paper inside pink notebooks. There are crosses on them, glammed up with fake rhinestones worthy of prostitutes. Five thirteen and fourteen year olds just starting to come into the prime of Knowing It All.

The cassette plays. An old man drones out at us, low and methodical. Verbal morphine. His words drip with euphemisms. I can picture him hunched over his desk at a bible college as he writes his script. His skin is wrinkled. His hands are shaking. His chapped lips curl up at the corners as he revels in his wisdom.

"You are a sacred gift."

"A perfect bride."

"A holy vessel."

His smile grows wider. Page after page is filled with it, his mantras, his tried and tested words. If he could still get it up he'd feel uncomfortable in his tight black suit. The thought of it arouses him. Makes him feel young again. He'll shape so many young virgins for so many young men. They'll be awkward and frightened and clueless. They'll expect nothing and nothing will be given to them.

"Your bodies are temples that musn't be sullied."

Don't fuck anyone.

"The more you explore, the less special it will be."

Don't fuck anyone.

"Every kiss you give is a kiss stolen from your husband."

Don't fuck anyone.

He unconsciously grinds his hips. The writing gets a little sloppier. The tip of his tongue pokes out between his white, perfect dentures. Finally he looks up at us over the speakers on either end of the boom-box. His smile is so wide and brilliant. He looks so grandfatherly and sweet as he tells me that if I let myself be defiled I am

"Worthless."

I am

"A whore."

I am

"Unworthy."

He thrusts into the mahogany. Ecstasy. His typewriter quivers as his desk violently jolts. He taps the papers together and staples my newfound phobia. He leans over and bequeaths it to me, his tie askew, his eyes piercing. I rip open my ribs and put his words there. I slip them inside and close myself off. He looks on with approval and a sagely nod as he locks the chastity belt in place and pats my cheek. All of my worth protected under lock and key.

"You are your virtue."

I am reduced to what lies between my still-growing legs.

The cassette stops playing. The blonde ejects it and stows it away from the next group, patting it lovingly.

"Now girls," she says, eyes twinkling. "What did we learn today?"

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Your biggest fear.
Written by Valerie
Take Me to Church
In went the cassette. The old woman had bleached blonde hair and lipstick right inside the smiling lines. She hit play with a nail painted scandalously red.

"Remember to take notes, girls!"

Pens hit paper inside pink notebooks. There are crosses on them, glammed up with fake rhinestones worthy of prostitutes. Five thirteen and fourteen year olds just starting to come into the prime of Knowing It All.

The cassette plays. An old man drones out at us, low and methodical. Verbal morphine. His words drip with euphemisms. I can picture him hunched over his desk at a bible college as he writes his script. His skin is wrinkled. His hands are shaking. His chapped lips curl up at the corners as he revels in his wisdom.

"You are a sacred gift."

"A perfect bride."

"A holy vessel."

His smile grows wider. Page after page is filled with it, his mantras, his tried and tested words. If he could still get it up he'd feel uncomfortable in his tight black suit. The thought of it arouses him. Makes him feel young again. He'll shape so many young virgins for so many young men. They'll be awkward and frightened and clueless. They'll expect nothing and nothing will be given to them.

"Your bodies are temples that musn't be sullied."

Don't fuck anyone.

"The more you explore, the less special it will be."

Don't fuck anyone.

"Every kiss you give is a kiss stolen from your husband."

Don't fuck anyone.

He unconsciously grinds his hips. The writing gets a little sloppier. The tip of his tongue pokes out between his white, perfect dentures. Finally he looks up at us over the speakers on either end of the boom-box. His smile is so wide and brilliant. He looks so grandfatherly and sweet as he tells me that if I let myself be defiled I am

"Worthless."

I am

"A whore."

I am

"Unworthy."

He thrusts into the mahogany. Ecstasy. His typewriter quivers as his desk violently jolts. He taps the papers together and staples my newfound phobia. He leans over and bequeaths it to me, his tie askew, his eyes piercing. I rip open my ribs and put his words there. I slip them inside and close myself off. He looks on with approval and a sagely nod as he locks the chastity belt in place and pats my cheek. All of my worth protected under lock and key.

"You are your virtue."

I am reduced to what lies between my still-growing legs.

The cassette stops playing. The blonde ejects it and stows it away from the next group, patting it lovingly.

"Now girls," she says, eyes twinkling. "What did we learn today?"
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trauma
Written by Valerie in portal Health

Liberated

The carpet was ruined before she moved in.

It was pocked by burns from cigarette butts and browned by coffee stains. It reeked of urine from an old cat that died in the closet, leaving its stench behind as a ghost. The dull blue fabric was bright once, but whatever vibrancy it’d had was long gone.

She parted the curtains to sunshine and dust motes.

“It’s shit,” she told the window.

She burned the bottom of the pan making a packet of 25 cent ramen. She ate it that way, tasting it all acrid against her tongue. Her boxes were half opened and half closed, spread around her in a near perfect circle like the makings of some second-rate wizard trying to summon demons.

“Here I am from the depths of hell,” she murmured.

If she said it too loud he’d hear her. It was silly, nonsensical, and she laughed at it even as she took it in.

She threw out the pan. Too used and abused to be worth much anymore.

Unpacking was gruesome. Her fingers convulsed around things. Gripped them tight enough that she hoped, just maybe, they’d disappear. A sleight of hand to wash away the clothes he’d picked out for her, the jewelry he’d bought for her, the things he’d shower down in a sacrifice against the bruises. Blood washed over her altar to account for his sins.

Most of it she’d sell. The rest she needed just to get by for a while. Just to get by.

Night came creeping through the window. Winter brought it fast on the heels of five o’clock, bleak and vindictive. She closed the curtains again. She shuttered the blinds and locked the door. Turned the deadbolt. Pressed her forehead against the wood and breathed.

There was a red streak between her feet. It grinned up at her with bloody ferocity, and she found herself grinning back.

“You’re free,” she whispered.

And suddenly she didn’t want her blouse on. She didn’t want the Victoria’s Secret bra holding up her breasts. The skinny jeans he’d brought her because they made her ass look so good. They were his hands all over her and she didn’t want them anymore. She could say no. She had.

The buttons flew across the room. Her shoes cracked against the wall. She was laughing, loud and hysterical and manic, and she didn’t care. She was pale and naked in the darkness. It washed over the marks he’d left on her, concealing them.

The burns that pocked her skin.

The yellow of her stains.

The dullness of her skin.

The carpet was ruined before she got there, but she’d call in the morning to have it replaced.

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trauma
Written by Valerie in portal Health
Liberated
The carpet was ruined before she moved in.

It was pocked by burns from cigarette butts and browned by coffee stains. It reeked of urine from an old cat that died in the closet, leaving its stench behind as a ghost. The dull blue fabric was bright once, but whatever vibrancy it’d had was long gone.

She parted the curtains to sunshine and dust motes.

“It’s shit,” she told the window.

She burned the bottom of the pan making a packet of 25 cent ramen. She ate it that way, tasting it all acrid against her tongue. Her boxes were half opened and half closed, spread around her in a near perfect circle like the makings of some second-rate wizard trying to summon demons.

“Here I am from the depths of hell,” she murmured.

If she said it too loud he’d hear her. It was silly, nonsensical, and she laughed at it even as she took it in.

She threw out the pan. Too used and abused to be worth much anymore.

Unpacking was gruesome. Her fingers convulsed around things. Gripped them tight enough that she hoped, just maybe, they’d disappear. A sleight of hand to wash away the clothes he’d picked out for her, the jewelry he’d bought for her, the things he’d shower down in a sacrifice against the bruises. Blood washed over her altar to account for his sins.

Most of it she’d sell. The rest she needed just to get by for a while. Just to get by.

Night came creeping through the window. Winter brought it fast on the heels of five o’clock, bleak and vindictive. She closed the curtains again. She shuttered the blinds and locked the door. Turned the deadbolt. Pressed her forehead against the wood and breathed.

There was a red streak between her feet. It grinned up at her with bloody ferocity, and she found herself grinning back.

“You’re free,” she whispered.

And suddenly she didn’t want her blouse on. She didn’t want the Victoria’s Secret bra holding up her breasts. The skinny jeans he’d brought her because they made her ass look so good. They were his hands all over her and she didn’t want them anymore. She could say no. She had.

The buttons flew across the room. Her shoes cracked against the wall. She was laughing, loud and hysterical and manic, and she didn’t care. She was pale and naked in the darkness. It washed over the marks he’d left on her, concealing them.

The burns that pocked her skin.

The yellow of her stains.

The dullness of her skin.

The carpet was ruined before she got there, but she’d call in the morning to have it replaced.
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Written by Valerie in portal Fiction

“My younger sister was autistic.”

Neon flashed through the window. One of the letters was broken, the ‘A’ in ‘Gentleman’s’ flicking on and off between pulses. It glanced off the side of her face, leaving it green and alien-looking.

“That so?”

“Yeah. You should have seen the fits she threw.” She pulled her stockings slowly up over her legs, slipping her underwear beneath her rumpled skirt. “The slightest change would drive her to screeching melt-downs. Usually in public, with my parents wringing their hands.”

He lit a cigarette and watched her, fingers thumping over the comforter. “Sounds rough.”

“Not for the reasons you’d think. I mean, it was embarrassing, sure, but I was a kid too at the time. Nobody blamed me for it.”

“Naturally not.”

“They planned everything around her,” she continued softly. Her nimble fingers began lacing up her high-heeled boots. “Whether or not we could do something depended on Abby. Could Abby handle the noise of it? The lights? The sounds?”

“Mmmm.” He flicked some of the ashes into the tray near the bed, looking up at the ceiling and blowing out smoke.

“It was like I was competing with her, after a while. Trying to tear their rigid attention away from her just for a moment. I was all over sports. Academics. You name it. I did everything to try and win a little.”

“Like you won my heart?” His voice had a slight slur to it. A half empty bottle of vodka sloshed as he bumped the nightstand.

“I think on some level she knew it. What I was trying to do. I swear she’d get this gleam in her eye and start her screeching if they so much as patted me on the head. If she made it a day without freaking out they’d take her for fucking ice cream or buy her some new toy.” She laughed dryly, bunching her hair up on her head. “Every time they said ‘good job Jess’ to me, it was an afterthought.”

“S’rough,” he muttered. The bottle gleamed in the faint light as he picked it up, choking down a few swigs. “S’real rough.”

She stood and moved to her purse, putting the cash inside. “She threw a tantrum at my graduation. I got magna cum laude if you can believe it. A whopping four-point-oh.”

“H’I didn’ know you spoke Latin,” he babbled. “S’sexy.”

“Right when they called my name, right then, she started screaming. She filled the whole auditorium with it. People turned and stared. Every eye in the room was on her as I walked up on that stage to shake hands. My parents didn’t even see me do it. They were on their way out the door when they handed me that diploma.”

“Ooouuuuuch. Y’want me t’kiss it better?”

Jess slung the purse over her shoulder and closed the curtains. “I hate her,” she whispered. “I’ll always hate her.”

“Awwwww,” he said. “I love’ya baby.”

She crossed the room to the door and pulled it open. “Nah,” she replied. “Bet you’ll forget me. Might remember the story though.”

There was no reply. She glanced back at the bed to see him passed out, his gut exposed pale and milky in the sparse light.

“Goodnight Casanova.”

She stepped into the night unheard.

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Written by Valerie in portal Fiction
“My younger sister was autistic.”

Neon flashed through the window. One of the letters was broken, the ‘A’ in ‘Gentleman’s’ flicking on and off between pulses. It glanced off the side of her face, leaving it green and alien-looking.

“That so?”

“Yeah. You should have seen the fits she threw.” She pulled her stockings slowly up over her legs, slipping her underwear beneath her rumpled skirt. “The slightest change would drive her to screeching melt-downs. Usually in public, with my parents wringing their hands.”

He lit a cigarette and watched her, fingers thumping over the comforter. “Sounds rough.”

“Not for the reasons you’d think. I mean, it was embarrassing, sure, but I was a kid too at the time. Nobody blamed me for it.”

“Naturally not.”

“They planned everything around her,” she continued softly. Her nimble fingers began lacing up her high-heeled boots. “Whether or not we could do something depended on Abby. Could Abby handle the noise of it? The lights? The sounds?”

“Mmmm.” He flicked some of the ashes into the tray near the bed, looking up at the ceiling and blowing out smoke.

“It was like I was competing with her, after a while. Trying to tear their rigid attention away from her just for a moment. I was all over sports. Academics. You name it. I did everything to try and win a little.”

“Like you won my heart?” His voice had a slight slur to it. A half empty bottle of vodka sloshed as he bumped the nightstand.

“I think on some level she knew it. What I was trying to do. I swear she’d get this gleam in her eye and start her screeching if they so much as patted me on the head. If she made it a day without freaking out they’d take her for fucking ice cream or buy her some new toy.” She laughed dryly, bunching her hair up on her head. “Every time they said ‘good job Jess’ to me, it was an afterthought.”

“S’rough,” he muttered. The bottle gleamed in the faint light as he picked it up, choking down a few swigs. “S’real rough.”

She stood and moved to her purse, putting the cash inside. “She threw a tantrum at my graduation. I got magna cum laude if you can believe it. A whopping four-point-oh.”

“H’I didn’ know you spoke Latin,” he babbled. “S’sexy.”

“Right when they called my name, right then, she started screaming. She filled the whole auditorium with it. People turned and stared. Every eye in the room was on her as I walked up on that stage to shake hands. My parents didn’t even see me do it. They were on their way out the door when they handed me that diploma.”

“Ooouuuuuch. Y’want me t’kiss it better?”

Jess slung the purse over her shoulder and closed the curtains. “I hate her,” she whispered. “I’ll always hate her.”

“Awwwww,” he said. “I love’ya baby.”

She crossed the room to the door and pulled it open. “Nah,” she replied. “Bet you’ll forget me. Might remember the story though.”

There was no reply. She glanced back at the bed to see him passed out, his gut exposed pale and milky in the sparse light.

“Goodnight Casanova.”

She stepped into the night unheard.
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Write about the selfishness of suicide.
Written by Valerie

You’re drunk.

Your words are cyclical. You keep tripping over your tongue and yourself. I can hear the slurs and the grunting. Your teeth are chattering and you keep telling me how cold you are.

“You shouldn’t be outside, bud. It’s freezing out there.”

I want to be relieved you picked up the phone. I tell myself I should be, that any sister would be. I keep distracting you with words, meaningless babble you won’t remember past the booze.

“I…I don’t even kn-know what to say t-to you. I haven’t kn-known what to say to you for a l-long time.”

More words. I don’t remember what they are the moment they leave my lips. I’m hurling them through the receiver, using hints and clues to tell the cops where you are. Downtown, somewhere. You’re not wearing gloves. You could get frostbite in this weather.

“I n-need to hang up and c-call my f-friends.”

What friends, I want to ask. The ones that feed your addiction? The ones that got you the weed you smoked? All those chemicals volleying around in your brain are about to pitch you over a bridge, boy. Or maybe they’ve just loosened your long-bitten tongue to honesty.

“Y-you’ve always been the responsible one. Y-you were right. I sh-should just d-drown.”

And that’s it, isn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised, really. You’re standing on the precipice and now you’re cutting the belay line. You want to make me bleed before you go. Drive the dagger in, up, and out. Eviscerate me and leave me cut wide with my guts on the ground.

After all these years of pushing me away, you’ve come to blame me for the distance. All the lying to get what you want, all the scheming and charming your way out of consequences.

There’s no one to scheme now. No more people to lie to.

Standing in that place, you want to leave me with the guilt so you can go free. You’ll let me be your scapegoat. Your ghost will grin as your family is ripped apart with finger-pointing.

“I-I’ve gotta go n-now.”

I will not bear your cross for you.

I will not.

“Stay on the line, bud. Don’t hang up. I love you.”

Fuck you for that.

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Write about the selfishness of suicide.
Written by Valerie
You’re drunk.

Your words are cyclical. You keep tripping over your tongue and yourself. I can hear the slurs and the grunting. Your teeth are chattering and you keep telling me how cold you are.

“You shouldn’t be outside, bud. It’s freezing out there.”

I want to be relieved you picked up the phone. I tell myself I should be, that any sister would be. I keep distracting you with words, meaningless babble you won’t remember past the booze.

“I…I don’t even kn-know what to say t-to you. I haven’t kn-known what to say to you for a l-long time.”

More words. I don’t remember what they are the moment they leave my lips. I’m hurling them through the receiver, using hints and clues to tell the cops where you are. Downtown, somewhere. You’re not wearing gloves. You could get frostbite in this weather.

“I n-need to hang up and c-call my f-friends.”

What friends, I want to ask. The ones that feed your addiction? The ones that got you the weed you smoked? All those chemicals volleying around in your brain are about to pitch you over a bridge, boy. Or maybe they’ve just loosened your long-bitten tongue to honesty.

“Y-you’ve always been the responsible one. Y-you were right. I sh-should just d-drown.”

And that’s it, isn’t it? I can’t say I’m surprised, really. You’re standing on the precipice and now you’re cutting the belay line. You want to make me bleed before you go. Drive the dagger in, up, and out. Eviscerate me and leave me cut wide with my guts on the ground.

After all these years of pushing me away, you’ve come to blame me for the distance. All the lying to get what you want, all the scheming and charming your way out of consequences.

There’s no one to scheme now. No more people to lie to.

Standing in that place, you want to leave me with the guilt so you can go free. You’ll let me be your scapegoat. Your ghost will grin as your family is ripped apart with finger-pointing.

“I-I’ve gotta go n-now.”

I will not bear your cross for you.

I will not.

“Stay on the line, bud. Don’t hang up. I love you.”

Fuck you for that.
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Written by Valerie in portal Fiction

VOICES

The room had four whitewashed walls that flowed into four corners. Each was a perfect ninety degree angle, forming lines indicated only by shadows. The temperature was an agreeable seventy degrees. The floor was plush and malleable, and there was a clean steel table across the way from a hole made to vacuum away urine and bowel movements after meals came out the other end.

“It’s for the birds, really. It’s all for the birds.”

The woman’s voice was shrill. She hunched like a magpie, her shawl strewn across her shoulders, her beady eyes flicking about. Her manicured nails clutched at the black hose covering her knobby knees.

“There’s no helping it. None at all. I’m telling you we’re stuck in here, and nothing’s going to get us out.”

“Shut. Your fucking. Mouth,” came a snarled reply. Across from her, huddled in his own corner, was a massive man. A serpent had been tattooed over his bald head and trailed down the back of his neck into his shirt. Its eyes were his eyes; those of a snake.

“Why should I?” She snapped back. “I’m just stating facts, and facts-”

“Aren’t. Helping. Anything.” The joints in his fingers popped as he balled his hands into fists. Each word was forced, garbled. It seemed to pain him to speak.

“It’s better than sitting here in silence. It’s better than sitting here staring at each other saying nothing.”

“Silence is. Better. Than your nattering.”

“When I want your opinion, Neanderthal, I’ll ask for it. You’re what got us in this mess in the first place.”

The veins on the man’s temples bulged. “What’d. You say. To me?”

“You heard me, bastard. This is all your fault. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be here. We’re trapped here because of your temper. If you hadn’t-”

He charged. His feet left impressions as he leapt, showing his weight. He reached his hands out and wrapped them around the woman’s throat, leering at her, choking off a scream. Her eyes flew wide with horror and the nostrils on her beak of a nose flared.

“Enough.”

It was a statement and an order. The snake returned to his corner, the magpie took rasping breaths. The speaker regarded both with cool reproach, his features sharp, his face clean-shaven and his eyes bright.

“You’re behaving like animals,” he said softly. “Show some decorum.”

“Come. Off it.”

“No,” he replied. He crossed his legs, straightening his spine. The curve of it fit into his corner perfectly. “She’s right. It is your fault, but it is also mine. I failed to stop your foolishness.”

The snake only growled in reply.

“I allowed you to overpower me. At perhaps the most crucial moment, you won out. Had I been stronger we would not be here now.”

“The fucker. Deserved. What he got.”

“Did he?”

“Yes. He did.”

“He deserved being stabbed thirty times?”

“Every. Single. Time.”

“And having his corpse mutilated? Having his skull smashed open on the pavement? Having his eyes gouged out wi-”

“HE. WAS FUCKING. MY WIFE!”

The shout reverberated impossibly off the walls. There was silence. Then:

“Your wife appeared to be fucking him back quite readily.”

The snake roared. The magpie cried out and curled into herself as he hurtled towards the quiet man, hands out to strike.

Their eyes met. It was silent enough to hear the breathing, hear the hearts beating. The quiet man remained seated, his legs crossed, his back straight and unrelenting. The snake hissed through his teeth.

A slit opened in one of the walls. A tray slid through bearing food and drink. It spun to the final corner and stopped.

Bony hands reached out and picked it up. The bedraggled man pulled it into his lap and lifted the spoon. Applesauce, strips of meat and green beans were all eaten in the same way. His mouth opened like a baby bird’s, giving a soft pop as he placed the worms inside. He macerated each bite slowly and noisily. The mechanisms in the room assured he was regularly bathed, yet he still managed to reek. Despair had a scent and it hung heavy on him.

“He should chew with his mouth closed,” cooed the magpie. “Should have beat that into him when I had the chance.”

“Would have. Stopped you,” grunted the snake. He glared at the woman with a malice that went beyond mere words.

“How?” She mocked. “By throwing a tantrum? You weren’t so big back then, boy. I should have, could have, curbed you then.”

“Could. Not have,” he replied confidently. “Not even. With your. Little stick.”

“He’s right,” said the quiet man. “Beating him never would have worked. It only made him stronger. It fed him.”

The woman huffed. “And what would you have suggested?”

The quiet man smiled. He pulled a pair of glasses from his pocket and placed them on his nose. They made his eyes seem larger. “Talking to him. You would have learned more about him by talking to him. Children learn nothing from fear.”

“Oh, and you got so far with just talking to him. We’re still here, aren’t we? Even after all your efforts?”

His large eyes grew sad. “Yes. We’re still here. He was a very troubled child.”

“Oh boo hoo, daddy beat me, mommy was a druggie. There’s plenty of kids out there like him, but they don’t KILL people!”

The snake hissed at the magpie again, but she ignored him.

“Every mind is different,” replied the quiet man. “Every child is different. But by beating on the boy, you only became another tormentor. You closed his mind to you the moment your switch landed across his legs.”

“I was trying to stop him from winding up HERE!” She shrieked. Her hands flashed about the room. Her expression showed her distaste. “Really, as though this is a feasible alternative to just killing someone and being done with it. Cruelty, I say. Whoever came up with that law, a hex on them!”

The spoon clattered down against the tray. All heads turned back towards the corner where the thin man was sitting. They watched him bite the scab off his thumb and press the bloody skin to the wall. There were many such marks. The first were beginning to fade, but he renewed them whenever the brown gave way to the white.

He began breathing heavily. Excitement got his legs churning. Bedsores covered them, signs of his rare movement, but he scrambled towards the wall where the slit had appeared before. He gazed up lovingly, adoringly, towards the ceiling and waited.

“Pathetic.” The woman’s face showed disgust.

“Weak.” The snake, for once, agreed.

“Sad,” murmured the quiet man pityingly.

An automated message played. The room was full of it, full of the metallic, unfeeling voice. The man’s ribs trembled with each breath as he reached desperately upwards and began to weep.

CONVICT: NATHANIEL JORDAN

CRIME: MURDER OF THE FIRST DEGREE

TIME SENTENCED TO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT: TEN YEARS

TIME ELAPSED: FIVE YEARS AND TWENTY ONE DAYS

A sound like a dying animal rose out of the man’s throat. He clawed at the wall, his tears disappearing into the mangled beard on his face. “Please,” he rasped. “Please. Please. Please.”

The magpie sighed and tugged at her shawl. “It’s for the birds,” she murmured. “It’s all for the birds.”

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Written by Valerie in portal Fiction
VOICES
The room had four whitewashed walls that flowed into four corners. Each was a perfect ninety degree angle, forming lines indicated only by shadows. The temperature was an agreeable seventy degrees. The floor was plush and malleable, and there was a clean steel table across the way from a hole made to vacuum away urine and bowel movements after meals came out the other end.

“It’s for the birds, really. It’s all for the birds.”

The woman’s voice was shrill. She hunched like a magpie, her shawl strewn across her shoulders, her beady eyes flicking about. Her manicured nails clutched at the black hose covering her knobby knees.

“There’s no helping it. None at all. I’m telling you we’re stuck in here, and nothing’s going to get us out.”

“Shut. Your fucking. Mouth,” came a snarled reply. Across from her, huddled in his own corner, was a massive man. A serpent had been tattooed over his bald head and trailed down the back of his neck into his shirt. Its eyes were his eyes; those of a snake.

“Why should I?” She snapped back. “I’m just stating facts, and facts-”

“Aren’t. Helping. Anything.” The joints in his fingers popped as he balled his hands into fists. Each word was forced, garbled. It seemed to pain him to speak.

“It’s better than sitting here in silence. It’s better than sitting here staring at each other saying nothing.”

“Silence is. Better. Than your nattering.”

“When I want your opinion, Neanderthal, I’ll ask for it. You’re what got us in this mess in the first place.”

The veins on the man’s temples bulged. “What’d. You say. To me?”
“You heard me, bastard. This is all your fault. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be here. We’re trapped here because of your temper. If you hadn’t-”

He charged. His feet left impressions as he leapt, showing his weight. He reached his hands out and wrapped them around the woman’s throat, leering at her, choking off a scream. Her eyes flew wide with horror and the nostrils on her beak of a nose flared.

“Enough.”

It was a statement and an order. The snake returned to his corner, the magpie took rasping breaths. The speaker regarded both with cool reproach, his features sharp, his face clean-shaven and his eyes bright.

“You’re behaving like animals,” he said softly. “Show some decorum.”

“Come. Off it.”

“No,” he replied. He crossed his legs, straightening his spine. The curve of it fit into his corner perfectly. “She’s right. It is your fault, but it is also mine. I failed to stop your foolishness.”

The snake only growled in reply.

“I allowed you to overpower me. At perhaps the most crucial moment, you won out. Had I been stronger we would not be here now.”

“The fucker. Deserved. What he got.”

“Did he?”

“Yes. He did.”

“He deserved being stabbed thirty times?”

“Every. Single. Time.”

“And having his corpse mutilated? Having his skull smashed open on the pavement? Having his eyes gouged out wi-”

“HE. WAS FUCKING. MY WIFE!”

The shout reverberated impossibly off the walls. There was silence. Then:

“Your wife appeared to be fucking him back quite readily.”

The snake roared. The magpie cried out and curled into herself as he hurtled towards the quiet man, hands out to strike.

Their eyes met. It was silent enough to hear the breathing, hear the hearts beating. The quiet man remained seated, his legs crossed, his back straight and unrelenting. The snake hissed through his teeth.

A slit opened in one of the walls. A tray slid through bearing food and drink. It spun to the final corner and stopped.

Bony hands reached out and picked it up. The bedraggled man pulled it into his lap and lifted the spoon. Applesauce, strips of meat and green beans were all eaten in the same way. His mouth opened like a baby bird’s, giving a soft pop as he placed the worms inside. He macerated each bite slowly and noisily. The mechanisms in the room assured he was regularly bathed, yet he still managed to reek. Despair had a scent and it hung heavy on him.

“He should chew with his mouth closed,” cooed the magpie. “Should have beat that into him when I had the chance.”

“Would have. Stopped you,” grunted the snake. He glared at the woman with a malice that went beyond mere words.

“How?” She mocked. “By throwing a tantrum? You weren’t so big back then, boy. I should have, could have, curbed you then.”

“Could. Not have,” he replied confidently. “Not even. With your. Little stick.”

“He’s right,” said the quiet man. “Beating him never would have worked. It only made him stronger. It fed him.”

The woman huffed. “And what would you have suggested?”

The quiet man smiled. He pulled a pair of glasses from his pocket and placed them on his nose. They made his eyes seem larger. “Talking to him. You would have learned more about him by talking to him. Children learn nothing from fear.”

“Oh, and you got so far with just talking to him. We’re still here, aren’t we? Even after all your efforts?”

His large eyes grew sad. “Yes. We’re still here. He was a very troubled child.”

“Oh boo hoo, daddy beat me, mommy was a druggie. There’s plenty of kids out there like him, but they don’t KILL people!”

The snake hissed at the magpie again, but she ignored him.

“Every mind is different,” replied the quiet man. “Every child is different. But by beating on the boy, you only became another tormentor. You closed his mind to you the moment your switch landed across his legs.”

“I was trying to stop him from winding up HERE!” She shrieked. Her hands flashed about the room. Her expression showed her distaste. “Really, as though this is a feasible alternative to just killing someone and being done with it. Cruelty, I say. Whoever came up with that law, a hex on them!”

The spoon clattered down against the tray. All heads turned back towards the corner where the thin man was sitting. They watched him bite the scab off his thumb and press the bloody skin to the wall. There were many such marks. The first were beginning to fade, but he renewed them whenever the brown gave way to the white.

He began breathing heavily. Excitement got his legs churning. Bedsores covered them, signs of his rare movement, but he scrambled towards the wall where the slit had appeared before. He gazed up lovingly, adoringly, towards the ceiling and waited.

“Pathetic.” The woman’s face showed disgust.

“Weak.” The snake, for once, agreed.

“Sad,” murmured the quiet man pityingly.

An automated message played. The room was full of it, full of the metallic, unfeeling voice. The man’s ribs trembled with each breath as he reached desperately upwards and began to weep.

CONVICT: NATHANIEL JORDAN

CRIME: MURDER OF THE FIRST DEGREE

TIME SENTENCED TO SOLITARY CONFINEMENT: TEN YEARS

TIME ELAPSED: FIVE YEARS AND TWENTY ONE DAYS

A sound like a dying animal rose out of the man’s throat. He clawed at the wall, his tears disappearing into the mangled beard on his face. “Please,” he rasped. “Please. Please. Please.”

The magpie sighed and tugged at her shawl. “It’s for the birds,” she murmured. “It’s all for the birds.”
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Second degree burns.
Written by Valerie

Burned

The sun shone through the hole in the dead man's hat. It'd been a clear shot that got him despite shaking hands. The bullet went true, flew through his big ogre's brow and dropped him back against the wall. She remembered the spray of blood painting the flowered moulding, the way his eyes rolled to and fro in his head, his irises expanding big and black like some old goat's.

"Ahmithy?"

The name was slurred, nearly incomprehensible. She stood there and said nothing, felt nothing, watched as his body fell and he started jigging on the floor. That jolted her out of it and the laughter bubbled up in her throat. He kept twitching the way the horse had when he'd stuck a bullet between its ears, and she laughed all the harder.

When the movement stopped she screamed, kicked him in the face and broke what was left of it. That hat, that tall proud thing, she took for herself. His blood ran down her neck as she pulled it over her brows with a grin to beat the best of them.

"I told you, you bastard," she'd whispered, pulling the money from his pockets. "I told you, I told you, I told you."

The sun shone hotter. It was on her back now, burning her real slow, a bun in an oven. The old nanny under her wheezed as it went. Sometimes it gave a pathetic buck, too broke and too gnarled to get her off of it. She'd been that way too once. Looking up at the open window as he rode her, hands beneath the pillow and squeezing it tight. He was forty three, she sixteen.

She remembered how he'd left the room once he was done. Remembered the sound of his pissing coming through that open window. She'd been too frightened to cry out of fear that he'd hear her. Mother told her she must never cry over such things.

"It's the way it goes. It's a good match. He's got the money, and we don't have room or food for you anymore."

His hand never left hers at the wedding. It gripped tight, the ring biting into her flesh, leaving marks on her palm. People cooed at how sweet it all was while he warned her not to run away with his sharp, glaring eyes.

Her skin turned red. Blister-red, creeping up her arms. She squinted through the hole in the hat.

"You're a right nasty piece of work, you are."

The sun continued shining cheerily.

"It ain't fair. None of it's fair. Why's everythin' gotta hurt so much? I ain't done nothin' to you."

A warm breeze picked up, traveled over her throat like a breath. His face leered in her mind's eye, all grizzle and moonshine-stink.

"You're barren, you little whore." His hand snapped across her cheek. "Look at me. I got myself a piss-poor dowry and a barren wife who can't bear me no children. What use are you? What use are you?"

Again came the hand. It left welts on her cheeks but no tears in her eyes. Amity was out of tears. A year went by and his hands got harder along with his drinks. She'd go to church and get the stares, the looks that spoke of whispers to come the moment her back was turned.

"My child," the preacher said one day. "I could speak to your husband. Make him see the light. Such behavior is not right in the eyes of our Lord."

Amity wanted to scream at him. Beat at his chest with her fists. YOU put me with him, she'd to say. YOU tied me to him, you and God, in front of that damned altar, and not a one of you asked me how I felt about the whole damned thing.

She smiled. "No thank you father. I'd rather you didn't."

He'd done it anyway.

Her husband beat her so hard that night she'd lost the hearing in her left ear. Amity did not go to church again.

It all broke when he killed the horse. It was a stout creature, a sweet old gelding that loved to kiss her hands with its soft lips. He'd been drunk and in one of his rages. She didn't remember the reasoning. She just saw how he grabbed that sweet thing, that sweet oblivious thing, and shot it dead.

Afterwards he stood over it. He looked surprised at first, staring down with the gun dangling in his fingers. Then the shock turned to rage and he turned it on her.

"Why'd you let me do that?!" He'd roared at her. "Why'd y'let me do that, you worthless piece of shit?"

He held the gun up against her temple, grinning like the devil. "Maybe I should do it to you. Blow out your worthless brains too, shouldn't I?"

Do it, she'd wanted to say. Yet she held her tongue, her heart fluttering in the cage of her ribs.

He struck her with it instead and left her lying there, stumbling over the dead horse and into the night.

Darkness was coming but her skin was on fire. The sun left its angry memories all over her. In the dusk she could see dust rising, horses coming. She imagined the faces of angry men meaning to hang the murderer.

Amity could feel the cold of the gun in her hand. It was a reassuring thing. The riders came closer, circled her, stared at her.

"You best come with us now, girl," said the leader in his saddle, tall and proud. "You got things to answer for."

She stared down at her hands, gripping the reins for the first time in her life, gripping the gun.

"He killed me first," she whispered. "That's the truth of it, you know. He killed me slow like the sun."

She raised the gun, and they raised theirs. But it was her own bullet that found her first.

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Second degree burns.
Written by Valerie
Burned
The sun shone through the hole in the dead man's hat. It'd been a clear shot that got him despite shaking hands. The bullet went true, flew through his big ogre's brow and dropped him back against the wall. She remembered the spray of blood painting the flowered moulding, the way his eyes rolled to and fro in his head, his irises expanding big and black like some old goat's.

"Ahmithy?"

The name was slurred, nearly incomprehensible. She stood there and said nothing, felt nothing, watched as his body fell and he started jigging on the floor. That jolted her out of it and the laughter bubbled up in her throat. He kept twitching the way the horse had when he'd stuck a bullet between its ears, and she laughed all the harder.

When the movement stopped she screamed, kicked him in the face and broke what was left of it. That hat, that tall proud thing, she took for herself. His blood ran down her neck as she pulled it over her brows with a grin to beat the best of them.

"I told you, you bastard," she'd whispered, pulling the money from his pockets. "I told you, I told you, I told you."

The sun shone hotter. It was on her back now, burning her real slow, a bun in an oven. The old nanny under her wheezed as it went. Sometimes it gave a pathetic buck, too broke and too gnarled to get her off of it. She'd been that way too once. Looking up at the open window as he rode her, hands beneath the pillow and squeezing it tight. He was forty three, she sixteen.

She remembered how he'd left the room once he was done. Remembered the sound of his pissing coming through that open window. She'd been too frightened to cry out of fear that he'd hear her. Mother told her she must never cry over such things.

"It's the way it goes. It's a good match. He's got the money, and we don't have room or food for you anymore."

His hand never left hers at the wedding. It gripped tight, the ring biting into her flesh, leaving marks on her palm. People cooed at how sweet it all was while he warned her not to run away with his sharp, glaring eyes.

Her skin turned red. Blister-red, creeping up her arms. She squinted through the hole in the hat.

"You're a right nasty piece of work, you are."

The sun continued shining cheerily.

"It ain't fair. None of it's fair. Why's everythin' gotta hurt so much? I ain't done nothin' to you."

A warm breeze picked up, traveled over her throat like a breath. His face leered in her mind's eye, all grizzle and moonshine-stink.

"You're barren, you little whore." His hand snapped across her cheek. "Look at me. I got myself a piss-poor dowry and a barren wife who can't bear me no children. What use are you? What use are you?"

Again came the hand. It left welts on her cheeks but no tears in her eyes. Amity was out of tears. A year went by and his hands got harder along with his drinks. She'd go to church and get the stares, the looks that spoke of whispers to come the moment her back was turned.

"My child," the preacher said one day. "I could speak to your husband. Make him see the light. Such behavior is not right in the eyes of our Lord."

Amity wanted to scream at him. Beat at his chest with her fists. YOU put me with him, she'd to say. YOU tied me to him, you and God, in front of that damned altar, and not a one of you asked me how I felt about the whole damned thing.

She smiled. "No thank you father. I'd rather you didn't."

He'd done it anyway.

Her husband beat her so hard that night she'd lost the hearing in her left ear. Amity did not go to church again.

It all broke when he killed the horse. It was a stout creature, a sweet old gelding that loved to kiss her hands with its soft lips. He'd been drunk and in one of his rages. She didn't remember the reasoning. She just saw how he grabbed that sweet thing, that sweet oblivious thing, and shot it dead.

Afterwards he stood over it. He looked surprised at first, staring down with the gun dangling in his fingers. Then the shock turned to rage and he turned it on her.

"Why'd you let me do that?!" He'd roared at her. "Why'd y'let me do that, you worthless piece of shit?"

He held the gun up against her temple, grinning like the devil. "Maybe I should do it to you. Blow out your worthless brains too, shouldn't I?"

Do it, she'd wanted to say. Yet she held her tongue, her heart fluttering in the cage of her ribs.

He struck her with it instead and left her lying there, stumbling over the dead horse and into the night.

Darkness was coming but her skin was on fire. The sun left its angry memories all over her. In the dusk she could see dust rising, horses coming. She imagined the faces of angry men meaning to hang the murderer.

Amity could feel the cold of the gun in her hand. It was a reassuring thing. The riders came closer, circled her, stared at her.

"You best come with us now, girl," said the leader in his saddle, tall and proud. "You got things to answer for."

She stared down at her hands, gripping the reins for the first time in her life, gripping the gun.

"He killed me first," she whispered. "That's the truth of it, you know. He killed me slow like the sun."

She raised the gun, and they raised theirs. But it was her own bullet that found her first.
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Written by Valerie

A Warmup

The door slid upwards and the room behind it attacked. It was a barrage of smell, light and heat that made her gag, squint and tug at her collar all at once. In her days serving she'd been victim to chemical weapons with less potency.

She entered. The smell got worse but her eyes adjusted quickly. Flailing bodies were tossing one another about beneath strobe lights, enacting various questionable interpretations of dance. A good number of them boasted an extra limb or two. Or mandibles. Or scales. The culmination of interplanetary peace amidst the worst each People had to offer. Den of iniquity times ten.

Erica skirted away from the insectoid creature looking at her, briefly seeing her reflection in its multi-faceted eyes. It made a clicking sound and followed, reaching out to tug at her sleeve.

"How about a drink for the human?" The voice came out with a high whine, followed by another click. His kind were undoubtedly half the reason for the odor. They were voracious scavengers that carried the scent of their dinners around with them in a sickly-sweet perfume.

"Not interested."

"Oh, but the human is so pretty. The human has such nice features." The tug got more insistent as the thing's pincers clamped down.

Erica gritted her teeth. She was supposed to be keeping a low profile, but she guessed brawls and gunfire weren't terribly uncommon in a joint like this. Sweeping her hand around, she brought her gun up right beneath the thing's massive jaw, leering at it as its antennae flattened against its hairy head.

"No means no on my planet, buddy," she growled. "Don't know what it means where you're from, but I'm not here to play games. Touch me again and you won't be reporting back to the hive tonight."

"Nnnno disrespect was intended, human," the creature replied, letting go of her arm and putting up its hands. The clicking got more prominent, anxious. "You will get no more trouble from this one."

"See that I don't."

She turned away but kept the guy in her peripheral. If she flashed her badge she could probably clear a swath through the crowd in an instant, but she couldn't play it that way. Even if Hensen already knew she was here, she could at least use the throng to blend in.

The music kept flipping between different preferences. Now it was a high keening, some sort of wind instrument or other that was utterly irritating. Nearby a couple fell to the floor, doing what she assumed was a quickie. Erica gave them as wide a birth as she could while holding down bile.

She didn't like to consider herself racist, but as quickly as everything had evolved, everyone was having a difficult time adjusting to all the new faces and customs. It had taken centuries, after all, for earth to gain peace, and that was just amidst one species. There was no telling how much longer it would take for everyone to get comfortable again.

"Y'look tense."

Erica looked towards the voice. It had a distinct drawl to it, the sort she only heard in old westerns she'd watched on boring evenings off.

"Have a drink with me?"

The man smiled at her. He had quite the smile, she noted. Dimples and everything. She was immediately leery. There were all kinds of cues that he was out of place: the whiteness of his teeth, his clean clothing, the quality weapon on his hip. She supposed he could be another agent sent looking for Hensen, but she doubted they would have been kept in the dark about each other if that were the case. It would be too dangerous to cross paths and mistake an ally for an enemy.

She slid into the seat beside him, nodding at the bartender. "Just a water for me, thanks."

She got a downright condescending look from him, but he slipped off to retrieve it anyway, his spindly wings fluttering uselessly on his back.

"Sorry critters, Malorites."

Erica arched a brow wordlessly, but the man just continued to smile.

"I'd be pissy too, if I got that close to flying. Like they got caught in the transition of evolution and kept the souvenir for laughs. Not like it has good looks to rely on either."

Pursing her lips, she watched the back of the Malorite's pale, bald head. He returned, bearing his gums in his estimation of a smile, watching her with wide black eyes. Once he trotted off to cater to some other patron she subtly pushed her water away.

"Scared it got some of its slime in there?" The man asked, chuckling.

"Some might take offense to your comments."

"You don't appear to." He winked at her. His eyes were blue and bright, the sort of eyes sappy adolescents wrote poetry about. She immediately disliked him.

"I should be going," she said. There wasn't likely much she could get out of this guy. She should be probing others for answers, not cavorting with someone just because they made her less uncomfortable. Because they were human.

"That's the crux of the matter, isn't it?" He tapped a finger on the glass of his drink. "They're not human. Not like you. They're just too different, aren't they?"

Erica froze. Her mind backtracked to her encounter with the sniveling little bug, and she immediately began groping at her sleeve. She felt nothing.

"Too late I'm afraid." He flicked the glass, making a soft, high ping. The people disappeared, the bar vanished, and to her it seemed they sat alone in an empty room together, silent save for their breathing.

"Shit," she whispered. "Hensen."

The mind-reader smiled at her. His fingers formed a steeple in front of his lips, and he tapped them softly. "It's hard to pinpoint one person in a mess like this. Find one mind. If I tried to seek you out without a little direction I'd probably drive myself insane in under a minute. Thankfully people around here are easily swayed with something shiny."

Erica fumbled for her gun, but that too was gone. Or rather, she wasn't really moving. At the bar she likely looked like she'd fallen asleep, and Hensen would just be smiling to himself quietly. Nobody was going to come to her aid. She was going to have to –

"Thinking your way out of this one likely isn't going to happen, miss O'Riley," Hensen said warmly. "In that department I have you at a distinct disadvantage."

Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Erica willed herself to veer her thoughts away from certain subjects. He could get them, yes, but she'd make him shred her mind to do it.

"I could," he said agreeably, "But I find that distasteful. You're a brilliant woman, O'Riley. It would be a pity to do such a thing to you."

"I won't cooperate."

He smiled again. "Of that I have no doubt! I would be disappointed if you did. Honestly, madam, I just wanted to talk."

"Is that why you made yourself look like that? To make me come over and talk?"

The man made a wave of his hand. The visage fell away, one he'd catered strictly for her no doubt, drawing on attributes she'd find attractive. In its place, however, was a creature arguably more appealing. His eyes were purely white and peered out of a finely boned face, framed by dark braids. The rings on his hands dotted all six of his long, webbed fingers, and his ears fanned out on either side of his head, sporting gemstones. He looked like some sort of merman from an old fairytale.

"Ah," he said, and again flashed his teeth at her. "You do not find my kind so repulsive. So fickle you humans are. All about the looks."

She didn't refute it. In a way, it was true.

"In what way is it not?" He tilted his head.

"Most people can't just crack in and tell what I'm thinking," she snapped. "We haven't denied anyone alliance based on their appearance. Despite personal thoughts on the matter, everyone has had equal opportunity."

Hensen blinked in owlish surprise. Either he was a good actor, or it was genuine. "My dear O'Riley. You actually believe that, don't you?"

"Of course I believe it. It's true."

"Perhaps you are not so clever as I thought," he murmured. "A pity."

Erica felt her blood start to boil. She wanted to take one of his pointy ears and twist it until he cried for his mother.

Laughter bubbled up out of Hensen's throat. "I wouldn't dear. In my world, we consider that flirting."

"If you're going to kill me," she replied lowly, "Just do it. Like I said, I won't cooperate. You'll have to –"

"Yes, yes. Tear it out of you. Turn you into a babbling vegetable, like I have so many other people on a digital list I'm sure you have somewhere. A fiend am I, a scoundrel of the highest caliber!"

"I wouldn't say anything about you implies caliber," she hissed.

Hensen's eyes flicked suddenly to his left. Hope surged through Erica's chest. Someone was coming. He wasn't the only one who could stick a tracker on her. No doubt her superiors had…

"I was hoping to do this more gently, my dear," Hensen said. "But I'm afraid this is going to be a bit uncomfortable instead. Do find it in yourself to forgive me."

He reached out before she could pull away, hands gripping her temples in a vice. Pain shot down her spine, radiating from the base of her skull. She opened her mouth and screamed, writhing as she felt something being inserted into her head. It was a knife, she knew it. Knew it from the feeling. One cutting her down the middle, passing through every single nerve as it went.

Hensen's expression was genuinely remorseful. "Do cling to sanity now, dear," he said. "You're going to be very important later."

He vanished. The glaring lights thumped back to life, and she closed her eyes tightly against them. Feet shuffled away as she fell back off the stool, clutching at her head and weeping openly.

Vaguely she could hear someone saying her name, asking if she was alright, but it was drowned out by the train of memories barreling its way through her mind.

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Written by Valerie
A Warmup
The door slid upwards and the room behind it attacked. It was a barrage of smell, light and heat that made her gag, squint and tug at her collar all at once. In her days serving she'd been victim to chemical weapons with less potency.

She entered. The smell got worse but her eyes adjusted quickly. Flailing bodies were tossing one another about beneath strobe lights, enacting various questionable interpretations of dance. A good number of them boasted an extra limb or two. Or mandibles. Or scales. The culmination of interplanetary peace amidst the worst each People had to offer. Den of iniquity times ten.

Erica skirted away from the insectoid creature looking at her, briefly seeing her reflection in its multi-faceted eyes. It made a clicking sound and followed, reaching out to tug at her sleeve.

"How about a drink for the human?" The voice came out with a high whine, followed by another click. His kind were undoubtedly half the reason for the odor. They were voracious scavengers that carried the scent of their dinners around with them in a sickly-sweet perfume.

"Not interested."

"Oh, but the human is so pretty. The human has such nice features." The tug got more insistent as the thing's pincers clamped down.

Erica gritted her teeth. She was supposed to be keeping a low profile, but she guessed brawls and gunfire weren't terribly uncommon in a joint like this. Sweeping her hand around, she brought her gun up right beneath the thing's massive jaw, leering at it as its antennae flattened against its hairy head.

"No means no on my planet, buddy," she growled. "Don't know what it means where you're from, but I'm not here to play games. Touch me again and you won't be reporting back to the hive tonight."

"Nnnno disrespect was intended, human," the creature replied, letting go of her arm and putting up its hands. The clicking got more prominent, anxious. "You will get no more trouble from this one."

"See that I don't."

She turned away but kept the guy in her peripheral. If she flashed her badge she could probably clear a swath through the crowd in an instant, but she couldn't play it that way. Even if Hensen already knew she was here, she could at least use the throng to blend in.

The music kept flipping between different preferences. Now it was a high keening, some sort of wind instrument or other that was utterly irritating. Nearby a couple fell to the floor, doing what she assumed was a quickie. Erica gave them as wide a birth as she could while holding down bile.

She didn't like to consider herself racist, but as quickly as everything had evolved, everyone was having a difficult time adjusting to all the new faces and customs. It had taken centuries, after all, for earth to gain peace, and that was just amidst one species. There was no telling how much longer it would take for everyone to get comfortable again.

"Y'look tense."

Erica looked towards the voice. It had a distinct drawl to it, the sort she only heard in old westerns she'd watched on boring evenings off.

"Have a drink with me?"

The man smiled at her. He had quite the smile, she noted. Dimples and everything. She was immediately leery. There were all kinds of cues that he was out of place: the whiteness of his teeth, his clean clothing, the quality weapon on his hip. She supposed he could be another agent sent looking for Hensen, but she doubted they would have been kept in the dark about each other if that were the case. It would be too dangerous to cross paths and mistake an ally for an enemy.

She slid into the seat beside him, nodding at the bartender. "Just a water for me, thanks."

She got a downright condescending look from him, but he slipped off to retrieve it anyway, his spindly wings fluttering uselessly on his back.

"Sorry critters, Malorites."

Erica arched a brow wordlessly, but the man just continued to smile.

"I'd be pissy too, if I got that close to flying. Like they got caught in the transition of evolution and kept the souvenir for laughs. Not like it has good looks to rely on either."

Pursing her lips, she watched the back of the Malorite's pale, bald head. He returned, bearing his gums in his estimation of a smile, watching her with wide black eyes. Once he trotted off to cater to some other patron she subtly pushed her water away.

"Scared it got some of its slime in there?" The man asked, chuckling.

"Some might take offense to your comments."

"You don't appear to." He winked at her. His eyes were blue and bright, the sort of eyes sappy adolescents wrote poetry about. She immediately disliked him.

"I should be going," she said. There wasn't likely much she could get out of this guy. She should be probing others for answers, not cavorting with someone just because they made her less uncomfortable. Because they were human.

"That's the crux of the matter, isn't it?" He tapped a finger on the glass of his drink. "They're not human. Not like you. They're just too different, aren't they?"

Erica froze. Her mind backtracked to her encounter with the sniveling little bug, and she immediately began groping at her sleeve. She felt nothing.

"Too late I'm afraid." He flicked the glass, making a soft, high ping. The people disappeared, the bar vanished, and to her it seemed they sat alone in an empty room together, silent save for their breathing.

"Shit," she whispered. "Hensen."

The mind-reader smiled at her. His fingers formed a steeple in front of his lips, and he tapped them softly. "It's hard to pinpoint one person in a mess like this. Find one mind. If I tried to seek you out without a little direction I'd probably drive myself insane in under a minute. Thankfully people around here are easily swayed with something shiny."

Erica fumbled for her gun, but that too was gone. Or rather, she wasn't really moving. At the bar she likely looked like she'd fallen asleep, and Hensen would just be smiling to himself quietly. Nobody was going to come to her aid. She was going to have to –

"Thinking your way out of this one likely isn't going to happen, miss O'Riley," Hensen said warmly. "In that department I have you at a distinct disadvantage."

Biting down on the inside of her cheek, Erica willed herself to veer her thoughts away from certain subjects. He could get them, yes, but she'd make him shred her mind to do it.

"I could," he said agreeably, "But I find that distasteful. You're a brilliant woman, O'Riley. It would be a pity to do such a thing to you."

"I won't cooperate."

He smiled again. "Of that I have no doubt! I would be disappointed if you did. Honestly, madam, I just wanted to talk."

"Is that why you made yourself look like that? To make me come over and talk?"

The man made a wave of his hand. The visage fell away, one he'd catered strictly for her no doubt, drawing on attributes she'd find attractive. In its place, however, was a creature arguably more appealing. His eyes were purely white and peered out of a finely boned face, framed by dark braids. The rings on his hands dotted all six of his long, webbed fingers, and his ears fanned out on either side of his head, sporting gemstones. He looked like some sort of merman from an old fairytale.

"Ah," he said, and again flashed his teeth at her. "You do not find my kind so repulsive. So fickle you humans are. All about the looks."

She didn't refute it. In a way, it was true.

"In what way is it not?" He tilted his head.

"Most people can't just crack in and tell what I'm thinking," she snapped. "We haven't denied anyone alliance based on their appearance. Despite personal thoughts on the matter, everyone has had equal opportunity."

Hensen blinked in owlish surprise. Either he was a good actor, or it was genuine. "My dear O'Riley. You actually believe that, don't you?"

"Of course I believe it. It's true."

"Perhaps you are not so clever as I thought," he murmured. "A pity."

Erica felt her blood start to boil. She wanted to take one of his pointy ears and twist it until he cried for his mother.

Laughter bubbled up out of Hensen's throat. "I wouldn't dear. In my world, we consider that flirting."

"If you're going to kill me," she replied lowly, "Just do it. Like I said, I won't cooperate. You'll have to –"

"Yes, yes. Tear it out of you. Turn you into a babbling vegetable, like I have so many other people on a digital list I'm sure you have somewhere. A fiend am I, a scoundrel of the highest caliber!"

"I wouldn't say anything about you implies caliber," she hissed.

Hensen's eyes flicked suddenly to his left. Hope surged through Erica's chest. Someone was coming. He wasn't the only one who could stick a tracker on her. No doubt her superiors had…

"I was hoping to do this more gently, my dear," Hensen said. "But I'm afraid this is going to be a bit uncomfortable instead. Do find it in yourself to forgive me."

He reached out before she could pull away, hands gripping her temples in a vice. Pain shot down her spine, radiating from the base of her skull. She opened her mouth and screamed, writhing as she felt something being inserted into her head. It was a knife, she knew it. Knew it from the feeling. One cutting her down the middle, passing through every single nerve as it went.

Hensen's expression was genuinely remorseful. "Do cling to sanity now, dear," he said. "You're going to be very important later."

He vanished. The glaring lights thumped back to life, and she closed her eyes tightly against them. Feet shuffled away as she fell back off the stool, clutching at her head and weeping openly.

Vaguely she could hear someone saying her name, asking if she was alright, but it was drowned out by the train of memories barreling its way through her mind.
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