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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

October Diaries: The Ebb

October 8,

   There is an old saying in our circle: “Nothing goes right for thieves besides thieving.” A bond that might’ve seemed strong becomes unpredictably shattered; an innocent walk for fresh air ends in being ambushed by highwaymen; passing off a merchant’s calls with a casual decline ends in him going for your throat. Of course, this saying isn’t infallible, but these are just some personal examples.

   Once you devote yourself to stealing from the corrupt, everything else seems to doomed to end tragically. It’s as if all the luck we accumulate throughout our lives goes towards one specific action. But even luck can only patch up wounds that haven’t been dealt. It can divert someone’s glance away from the corner you’re hiding in, not because it was any doing of your own, just the chance of their thoughts wandering with their eyes. It can help you sidestep death, when it’s the difference between one half of a moment and another.

   This is how thieves of the Shadow Syndicate exist, moving with strength, skill, finesse, deliberation, and in moments when those things are not enough, knowing when to rely on the tumble-turn of dice. We catch the rhythm of chance in the silences that dictate whose blood is split, and who gets to slink away from the scene.

   The shadows know we are already dead, and so long as we admit that to ourselves, they let us use them. The moment we fool ourselves into thinking we’re any different from anyone else, we embrace our demise.

   I stood with my back against the wet brick of an alleyway, and tightened the laces on the back of my mask until the leather was pushing against my lips. The four vertical slits for breathing were enough for me to taste the autumn air sweeping through the streets, touched by the scent of moss, rotted wood, and fresh rain.

   Moonlight tore through a gap in the clouds, bright in its full radiance. 

   Shadowsteps travel in pairs or triplets, but seldom alone. So why was I here, trying to predict my fate as the night's clouds rolled across my eyes?

   A disease was spreading throughout the Northern Sanctum of the Shadow Syndicate, effectively putting all of my companions in feverish, cough-ridden, sick-spewing states, each of them taking turns in the washroom to rid themselves of the pestilence swarming their insides.

   “Shade,” the headmistress had called me that night through the door of her chamber, “don’t go alone like Aren did. I’m ordering you as the head of this sanctum, and telling you as your friend.”

   “There are no orders,” I said to the door, “not when all of the seasoned members are clinging to the sheets of their bed. The initiates who just came two weeks past are shivering with both fear and fevers, afraid that they signed up for a death sentence. Do you want a fresh set of promising souls lost to this?”

   I listened to her fit of coughing, already walking away. She knows I am right, doesn't she? I thought.

   “Shade, wait!”

   “The Blackmore house is known for its prestigious grasp of healing tinctures. If there’s a cure, they’ll have it. You can’t dissuade me.”

   “I know I can’t. That’s why I’m telling you: if you die, no one’s hands are stained besides yours.”

   “As if I care. It’s better that way, anyways. No guilt, no fault, no shame, no strength but my own. Have we ever blamed one another for dying? But whose hands are stained when I let all of you die a beggar’s death? Ramus is already dead. And Aren, who left on his orders, hasn’t returned in weeks. The morning he left, he had a bloody cough. A deadman following another deadman’s orders to find a plant for a potion that will never be created. So who’s left to help?”

   There was at least silence before she blurted out the rest of her pleas. “… Don’t think that way. We’ll find something. We’ll get well enough, eventually, to figure something else out. Just stay here. Help care for us. Change the sheets, fetch fresh clothes, cook for us.”

   “You expect me to be a house servant while you all die? Nithe and Nocturos are gods for mischief, headmistress, much as we’d like to think so, they won’t heed prayers for this. They don’t dabble with remedies and healing. I don’t need to explain to you where their reach stops extending. They aren’t helping us with this one.”

   “Shade …”

   “I’m leaving. If I don’t …” I shook my head, and bit back what was itching in my throat. “Farewell, Yamora.”

   I thought I heard her say my name again as I was walking down the halls. I even stopped and tilted my head, when I thought muffled crying followed.

                                                                         ~

   I stared at the glittering mansion in the distance as I let myself hear her whispers through the door one last time before shutting the memory out. I stuck some nitskel into rolling paper and lit up the end of the cigarette.

   From the small loops in my satchel I took out the caw pipe and blew harshly into it, sending off the harsh grating of a raven’s calls in a specific beat that Wisp would recognize. With gratitude at the calm before the storm, I savored the quiet, the heat of smoke in my lungs, until I heard his talons tapping on the roof above.

   I took a final drag before stamping out the sizzling end. 
I raised my hand up and motioned for him.

   When Wisp landed on my shoulder, I fed him a piece of dead rat I had found on my walk there. A bit of intestine or heart, I guess. He seemed to enjoy it.

   “Take this back to the Sanctuary,” I said as I slipped a small scroll into the pouch attached to his leg, “just to let them know I’m here. They’ll be grateful to hear from me at all.”

   Wisp nuzzled my neck before pecking out some grime from my earlobe. I could never get used to that. I scratched his neck in return. “Come back to these rooftops afterward. Don’t stray far, I may need you.”

   Staring at me with strangely cognizant, black beads of eyes with a tinge of mud in the center, he cocked his head, pecked me again, then flapped off before shitting dangerously close to my boot.

   “There’s a good raven,” I muttered before clenching warmth back into my fingers.

The lettering Blackmore on the iron entrance gates shone with dew from the evening’s rain. I waited for the guard that patrolled the street in front of the home to pass out of peripheral view, and strolled out onto the street.

   “Fine evening, gentlemen,” I greeted two more guards on either side of the gate, as my finger caressed the trigger of a rune-powered crossbow behind my back.

   “Have an invitation, stranger?” the one on the right asked me.

   “For the celebration?” I asked as I spotted the boiling life of a party bubbling behind the windows.

   “That’s right.”

   “Sure, sure, I certainly do. I think I have it somewhere in here …” I flipped the crossbow out and fired two darts tipped with a soporific tincture, each one landing in their necks.

   I rushed to their bodies and glanced at the patrol nearing the end of the street. I snatched a set of keys from the warm body and slipped it into the lock, opening the gate proficient at rusted screams before dragging the bodies behind the stone wall under the iron grating.

   Just before the guard turned, I cracked a knuckle over the lock of the gate and said, “Caveas,” triggering a burst of green light and the melting of the tumblers inside, fusing them together to create a seal.

   Past the stretching of the front yard, I crouched through a long path bordered by lush gardens with the moonlight on my shoulder. A drunken couple with masks dangling from their necks were swaying arm in arm. I ducked behind a rose bush while they passed in laughter and sloppy kisses, taking a little too long for comfort.

   One of their masks slithered off their neck, the silk lacings too smooth to stay pinched from a single knot. I picked it up, dawning the visage of scarlet and black demon. My mask still concealed the bottom half of my face while I tied the lacings tight. I should’ve known that royals are the type of people to make light of demons, especially the ones that enter homes uninvited.

   Upright, in the open amongst scattered revelers in the garden, I passed through the steam cast by strangers’ breath and went into the first chamber, where a pianist clad in black had a room enthralled with the pounding of his hands on the keys. Nobody batted an eye as I strode into the other corridors, nodding at anyone who bothered to make eye contact.

   My costume was by far the most elaborate, and perhaps inappropriate for even this occasion. It was authentic, after all. A shadowstep's raiment complete with the tools of the trade.

   The chandeliers, the lights, the uproar of applause as a piece finished and another began, the tinkling of glasses, the stench of vomit mingling with steaming trays of delicacies fresh from the kitchen. Thieves are good at managing themselves in chaos, but playing the role of someone apart of it all was more dizzying than I anticipated.

   As I got a feeling for the expanse of the mansion, I began to notice that some of the revelers wore similar costumes. Matching grey cloth and leather, each of their masks the frozen expression of a scowling gargoyle. Guardsmen.

   I touched one of the gargoyles lightly on the arm. “Can you direct me to Apothecary Blackmore?”

   His eyes flinched before meeting mine, a little bloodshot from sneaking drinks, as if his breath wasn't enough indication. “Who’s asking?”

   “Count Pissbane,” I said, blurting the first thing that came to mind.

   “Oh, Count, my apologies for not recognizing you,” he inclined his head. “You mean the Apothecary Blackmore?”

   “Naturally. The family’s legacy precedes him. I wish to speak with him, it’s urgent.”

   “Well, Count Blackmore is preoccupied, as he’s the one playing the keys in the main hall.”

   I twitched. “You mean to say that Count Blackmore is the same man who crafted his famous tinctures? Not another man working under his name?”

   “ ‘Course, who else would it be?”

   It was the first time hearing of royalty as anything more than a vessel for inherited wealth and prosperity. I was in the home of a man who had built his wealth up from the innovation of cures meant to heal others. I almost felt guilty for sneaking in. But that was besides the point, and it was far too late for guilt. This wasn’t a normal assignment. In fact, it wasn't an assignment at all. The Shadow Syndicate didn't order it; it was of my own volition.

   “In any case, when will the … performance be over?”

   “Just started playing few hands ‘for you greeted me, sir. Could be some time.”

   “Very well. My thanks.”

   “What did you say your name was? I’ll tell one of the servants you requested him.”

   “How dare you disgrace my family name by forgetting it," I spat. "Forget it.”

   “Apologies …” he slurred. “Is that on the registration?”

   His hand was pointing to the hilt of my crossbow hanging from my belt. “Yes, it’s … registered.”

   I walked away before he could get another word out, looking for the nearest staircase. Royals always have their study on the highest floor. With a view overlooking a city like Westrun, why wouldn’t you?

   Someone made a gesture of pointing and laughing at me, I turned to catch a look, and bumped into someone by mistake. A glass shattered, and the bottom of my boot crunched shards to splinters.

   The woman I bumped into was nearly in tears of frustration, a red mouth hanging open only to issue blank utterances of rage.

   “My apologies, miss. Can’t imagine it’s terribly difficult to find one precisely like it in short time.” I tipped my mask and slipped up a nearby set of carpeted stairs, leaving some of the confusion behind me. I stopped at the top, getting my bearings in order.

   Interacting with other people is far more difficult than sneaking, stealing, or killing them. All these years of stealing from others and never speaking to them, I had almost forgot the subtle nuances of picking which words to speak and which to swallow.

   I shook off my nervousness and continued up the stairs, passing by a couple whose jaws seemed positively locked together. I couldn't resist arcing an eyebrow as I awkwardly squeezed by.

   In a hallway brightly lit by torches on either side, I checked both of the corridors before murmuring, “Fade.” The spell snapped at my feet, and I slipped into the air. Or, at least I thought I did. When I looked down at my hands, I saw their outlines wreathed in shadow; every contour of my body shifting with the subtle sifting of darkness over darkness, like layers of silk being passed over itself. Painfully obvious, and useless in the bright light of the torches.

   “So that’s what happens when you cast that spell in well-lit rooms,” I sighed. “Embody,” I murmured, returning to my usual form and continuing down the hall. I considered snuffing the torches somehow, but it would only look more suspicious to anyone who knew they were supposed to be lit.

   Not being able to rely on the most basic spell for slipping through rooms without drawing attention was enough to pull my hand over the hilt of my dagger protectively. I shook the notion of killing over talking out of my head, for now, and searched for the next flight, trying not to goggle at the unique architecture arching all around me. Instead of curved or straight hallways, the walls came up to sharp, wooden points that met up with the beams of the ceiling, surrounding you with the impression of impossible intricacy through symmetry. 

                                                                   ~

   "This disease …” Aren had told me between coughing and dabbing blood away from the edges of his mouth, “it’s not incurable. The plant that combats it is found in high, mountainous regions, or so Ramus told me.” He wrapped himself tighter in his cloak while the winds hit us outside one of the sanctuary’s doors.

   “To the worms with the plant, we asked every last tradesmen in Westrun, and they didn’t have a leaf of it. We need magick, or an elixir already concocted.”

   “There are no healers in the city who can cure this by will alone, and none of our connections could end in procuring an elixir. That’s why I’m leaving. Ramus said even one vial of the concentrate could heal half of us, if not all of us, such is the potency of the plant.”

   My hand had been gripping his arm so tight, the prints of my fingers on his leather remained after I let go. “Then go, if you think it’s best. Don’t say I didn’t tell you you’re mad when you’re crawling on your belly up there in the snow.”

   “I’ve always been a little mad,” Aren smirked. “But it’s not madness. I’d do anything for the people that gave me a family.”

   What he said was enough for my eyes to drop from his, almost ashamed to see the hopeful glint in them, the one that I didn’t have. “Before you go,” I had said, “tell me what Ramus told you. The name of the disease, the plant, what it would take to craft the elixir.”

   Aren outlined it, expressing frustration at how simple it really was, and similarly, at how quickly the disease seized its victims. “Ghoul’s bane is the plant’s name,” he’d said. “And the disease, Ramus called it ‘the ebb’.”

   “Ghoul’s bane, the ebb,” I repeated.

   “Shade?”

   “Yes?”

   Aren discarded a handkerchief that had once been white and was now a single, overlapping stain of muddied red. He took out another and coughed into it. “What do you plan to do with this information?”

   I laughed. “The same thing that we always do.”

                                                                    ~

   The next hallway was guarded by a patrol. I was crouched on the last of the three steps, peering out from the wall. I considered simply walking up to the guard and talking my way to the next floor. But if there were men standing outside Blackmore’s chamber, it’d end in blood anyways.

   I tugged the crossbow from its holster, took aim when his back was turned, and fired.

The tip lodged in his back. A vein in my heart pinched itself. He stopped and reached for it.

   I waited for the drug to sweep through his blood, for him to fall and crash to the ground in unconsciousness.

   Instead, he turned around and spotted me.

   By the time he’d pulled the bolt from his armor, I was sprinting down the hall towards him.

   “Help!” he screamed while he unsheathed a sword.

   I drew my dagger and parried his blade. An armored fist slammed into my face in response, staggering me into a lapse of darkness and sparks. He swung his sword after punching a second time, tearing through the tapestry hanging on the wall while the sound of more men from the upper floors came. Shouts rang out like alarm bells being sounded throughout a city, each one triggering another. His sword stuck in the thick wool of the tapestry, I saw my opportunity, and slashed at his neck.

   Red colored the vision of my left eye, while his blood splattered my right. I pushed myself against the wall while he bled out on the floor.

   Footsteps came tumbling down the stairway.

   The first glimmer of armor I saw, I grabbed at it, hauling the man to floor and burying my dagger into the one that followed after, slamming him into the wall and repeating the motion where his padding wasn’t thick enough to stop my blade.

   They screamed and wailed in a way that would impress a rowdy group of children. I turned to the man scrambling to his feet, snapping the trigger on my hand-crossbow until half a dozen needles found their way through his mask, two of them sticking out from one of the eyeholes of his mask. 

   It's not unnecessary if it helps calm your nerves.

   This time, I couldn’t tell if the footsteps were coming from the staircase above or below. I took that as a good indication that it was both. My mind raced, and the spells in my head flipped like pages in the wind.

   I tore the demon’s mask off my face and sprinted up the stairs, encumbered by the weight of a particularly large mechanism dangling from my belt, each of its components attached to a different ring to distribute the weight evenly.

   A guard came running down. I grabbed his ankle through the banister, causing him to roll the rest of the way down, crashing into a glass stand encasing a family heirloom. The glass showered him, and my dagger followed in similar fashion.

   More gargoyles came rushing from behind. I fired blindly with my crossbow at the large mass of them bottlenecking at the bottom steps. The mechanism spat and whirred with charged runes, smoke puffing out as heat spread to the handle and scalded my hand until I smelt burnt leather.

   A few of them took the hint and found cover behind the wall. One of them stupid enough to leap over the bodies at his feet charged at me with a sword and a scream.

   I slammed the trigger back.

   A burst of shadow and smoke, but no bolt. The canister was empty. I squeezed it again in disbelief. He slashed at my hand, disarming my crossbow and slicing my fingers in the process. Still crouched over the body beneath me, I kicked at his legs. His head slammed into the steps. Either the wood or his skull cracked. I prayed for the latter and scrambled up the flight of stairs.

   Blood trailed me as I took three steps at a time. My thoughts seemed to have left me somewhere during the first struggle. Instinct alone was guiding me through the initial storm that it caused. Optimism shrank.

   Every sconce had a burning torch; no corner was left darkened. I cursed, pulling torches out at random and tossing them behind me as I ran. I needed my element. I needed opportunity to slip in and out of their reality. But the gargoyles started coming again, eager to stomp out the flames before they could take hold of the walls.

   I finished the final flight of stairs and pulled out a spell scroll, tearing off the wax binding and speaking the trigger word, “Moerium,” as I directed it at the empty space at the top of the staircase.

   A summoned doorway stretched from the ground, growing from a slit of gushing shadow. It stretched and filled up the empty space, creating the illusion of a locked door. The spell would only hold until someone assumed it didn’t exist.

   Throughout the skirmish, the screams hadn’t stopped. It was while I stared at the door that this realization sunk in. It used to be just the guardsmen calling for one another, but now I could hear the revelers alerting the rest of the sleeping city. For all I knew, I had drawn all of the Westrun to Blackmore’s gates.

   I ran my hands through the sweaty locks of auburn hair dangling in front of my eyes, walking just slow enough to look at each door on the final floor.

   One of them had the same family lettering as the gates. I didn’t bother trying to slam through a solid slab of iron and drew out my lockpicks.

   Fists began pounding against the illusionary door. That was something, at least. The more they convinced themselves it was impossible to get through, the longer the spell would last.

   The tumblers caught into their familiar places after a few seconds of picking. I turned the keyhole to the left and felt the latch give, easing myself into, at last, a darkened chamber. I didn’t have time to pick the lock to latch it again, since the tumblers reset when you try to turn it a full rotation with picks.

   Hiding in the chamber wouldn’t buy me time, either, as my blood trailed directly to me. If that wasn’t enough, the outlines of bloody fingers were smeared across the handle.

   But that didn't matter so much anymore.

   I stood in the middle of a gigantic laboratory. Herbs that I had never seen before hung by the dozens from the tall ceilings. A ladder of staggering height was pushed up against a wall, with ropes attached to the ceiling to allow for a climber to attach freshly picked plants to hundreds of hooks scattered about.

   A genius surrounding himself with his craft. There were even sheets of music spread across the floor, gusted from a table from the open balcony at the far end of the chamber, where sage curtains billowed in the breeze.

   There were numerous desks where various stages of an elixir’s development could be observed. A staton for cutting, chopping, grinding, mixing, another for boiling, reducing, combining, and another with elaborate symbols etched into strong, dark wood. Enchantment runes.

   Blackmore wasn’t just an apothecary. He was an alchemist.

   I spotted a case of elixirs. The labels of which were, unlike everything else in the room, clean and readable. Only the finished products were treated with an eye of cleanliness. I went to the glass case and started scanning.

   “I see you’ve let yourself in,” someone said.

   I whipped around to see the pianist, still dressed in his concert garb. He drew out from one of the pillars in front of the balcony. He, too, was wearing a mask. The upper half of a skull covered his eyes, forehead and cheeks, while black and white makeup depicted the rest of the skull on the lower portion of his face.

   “I will admit I am flattered,” he continued. The tails of his coat blew in the breeze, while the steady tapping of his feet echoed, louder in my ears than the incessant pounding of the guardsmen on the illusionary door. He slipped his mask off and retied his thick, black ponytail. “I must ask, however, why you went through all this trouble, killing a good portion of my guard in the process. We could have scheduled a meeting. Enjoyed some quality nitskel and discussed your prospects with my products. Instead … this. Digging a rather deep and, what I imagine is now an inescapable grave,” he added with an almost sorrowful chuckle.

   “H-h—”

   “You don’t seriously think someone of my caliber doesn’t have passageways in his own home, the same way a spider might dig an impressive hole for catching his prey? Not that I ever constructed it to … ‘catch prey,’ ” he sighed, and set the mask on a desk, “rather to simply escape the monotony of the same drawl I must endure. Councilmen rambling, appointments that drag on too long. You understand.”

   I could only stare as I thought my options through.

   “But you needn’t worry. I don't have any men follow me. I assure you we’re alone. I was rather thrilled, actually, to have this night interrupted by something so exciting. This kind of life becomes awfully repetitive.” His cheeks were gaunt as his lips were thin, speaking smoothly as he paced around the chamber.

   “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Thieves are only taught to steal, not to speak, hm? I can imagine as much. I was quite the same, working my way up in small shops when I was just an apprentice. It seemed the bubbling of tinctures was the only smalltalk I could master.”

   “I don’t want to kill you, Blackmore. I just need your help. You have to understand this was none of my intention.” Every inch of me was crawling. I was practically begging. I never beg. I take what I want. I leave, and no one suspects a thing. Now I was just buying time to find a way to escape this mess I created.

   Blackmore laughed until the skeleton grin stretched across his face. “Intention! Now that’s a queer word for you. Ah, and why should I help you? Have a fair share of coin on you, a bargain to offer? You’re from the Syndicate, I assume. Or else you wouldn’t be able to pull off that rubbish of keeping twenty men slamming against something that wasn’t constructed by my orders. I don't recall having a doorway built at the top of my stairs.”

   “Assume what you will,” I said as I started unhooking the contraption on my belt, snapping the wooden pieces together and latching the hinges shut. He wasn’t the type to flinch at movement. “This is not an act of malice, I assure you.” I kept working my hands until the grappling hook was primed, the gears were set, and the trigger was ready.

   “A fascinating contraption,” he commented, getting a little closer.

   I drew my blade and pointed at him. “Stay there, Blackmore. As I said, I’m not going to hurt you. Keep your distance and this nightmare will be over.”

   He put up his hands and chuckled, taking a few steps back. “Jittery?”

   I set the spring-loaded crossbow down and started searching the glass case.

   “Ahh …” he hummed. “You found some of my finished products. Beautiful, aren’t they?”

   “Indeed. You’ve a staggering collection. I don’t take a liking to wealthy folk, the ones who were born with gold for teeth,” I said as I nudged a few vials aside. I came to a line of thin and long bottles. “But I respect you for this. I would never steal from someone like you.”

   “And yet here you are.”

   I laughed. “I considered myself a man of morales until I entered your house tonight. Devotion and love will twist someone of virtue into doing things he’d never imagine himself doing. I may as well be the scoundrel you think I am.”

   “You speak of virtue, yet you're a thief by trade. I fail to see ... any virtue. So why do it? Why take the labor of someone as … honest as you might see yourself?”

   "I won't attempt to explain the intricacies of the Syndicate's purpose." I spotted a slender vial with parchment glued to it. The inky scrawl read: Ghoul’s Bane. I wrapped my fingers around it.

   When I turned with it in my hand, Blackmore had a dagger in my side, and a smile on his face. When he flexed his grip to twist it, I managed to wrap the entirety of his neck in my hand.

   The surprise of his face was something I’d normally relish, especially as the pain in my side got my jaw gnawing on itself. But he didn’t deserve this. It wasn't fair. But my family didn’t deserve to die from a disease, either. A family that took a peasant with a knack for pickpocketing, and turned him into a man who learned to balance out the wealth from those who used their power for dictating the actions of the impoverished.

   “What, first time you stabbed someone?” I asked as I shoved him to the ground and ripped the dirk out of my side, the blade barely the length of my finger. “You can’t just stick someone in their ribs and expect things to go well. There’s things to … consider,” I winced. “Leather, padding, flesh, organs, arteries. You might’ve missed the important ones. I already told you I wouldn’t kill you, on principle. Take my wound as the price I paid for this,” I said, waving the tincture. “On second thought …” I went and grabbed a few more with the same label.

   “The morales of a thief are as straight as—” he started to growl. 

   “Shh!” I listened. The banging had stopped. So did my heart. I slipped the vials into my satchel and snatched up the crossbow with the grappling hook, sprinting for the balcony.

   I jumped over Blackmore, who made an attempt to grab my leg. I stumbled, and got the damn drapes out of my way

   As I did, the door of his chamber opened.

   “Get down, Count!” someone screamed.

   I breathed in the brisk air of midnight from the balcony and aimed the hook at the roof above.

   Bolts were fired. Mine … and theirs.

   The arrows thudded into me as the hook found grooves in the concrete. I didn’t bother counting how many had stuck into my chest, just jammed the lever down beside the trigger and let the spring loose, setting off the gears that pulled me up.

   Blood flowed, dripped, and whipped into the open air beneath me. The roof came rushing to me me, and pushed the arrows deeper when I slammed into it. I gritted my teeth and hauled myself over in a pain strong enough to cast the world into a glimpse of sheer darkness.

   Four. There were four of them in my chest.

   When I breathed in, I heard a whistling. When I breathed out, spurts of flame spread inside. I found it ironic that when I coughed, blood spurted from my lips the same way it came from Aren.

   “Rima-ri-rima-morra,” I gasped. Wisps of light seeped from my fingertip and were gusted away by the wind. More blood gushed from my chest as I tried to direct the healing spell I could not finish speaking. “R-r-ima,” I wheezed. I didn’t have anything left. No breath to cast, no energy to draw from. I was a serpent trying to devour its own tail already in ashes.

   I fumbled for the caw pipe and concentrated into blowing into it. I could hear blood spurting from my lips inside of it. I managed a caw before I began coughing and retching, each convulsion a new set of blades digging into me.

   Nothing goes right for thieves besides thieving. The same principle applies to saving the lives of those that mean the most to him, even when he's using the same tricks he'd used to join them. 

   When I looked up from the pain, my soaked hands were already clutching the three elixirs, the glass clinking together as the shaking took over my movements. I could feel my death rattle trying to wheeze out from me, eager to be the last. I shoved it back down and coughed more.

   I could see through the crimson sheen that had taken over every detail of the world, the silhouette of my raven waiting patiently at the roof's edge.

   “W-wisp,” I managed. I pried open the pouch on his legs and stuffed the elixirs inside. One of them dropped and crashed at the ground below. “S-sanctum.”

   Wisp didn’t start off right away. He was waiting for a snack, a scratch. For me to whisper something to him before I told him to leave, as I always did.

   I managed to lean against the wall of the roof. Wisp hopped onto one of the arrows on my chest, and bent his head next to mine while the breaths came slower and slower, deeper and deeper. He rubbed his beak against my cheek, and nibbled at my ear. I wanted to sigh in relief, but there simply wasn't any air to take in. A faint warmth from his breathing against my face caused me to look up at him.

   I stared at one of his black and brown eyes as he looked back into mine. I raised a trembling hand to clumsily stroke his feathers, smearing blood over the perfect fletching of his wings. 

   “Go.”

   The moon, swarmed in greying tendrils, beamed down at me. I closed my eyes as I listened to the flapping of his wings, until I could hear them no more. I imagined how Wisp would beat the same rhythm upon the next week’s dawn, with the sanctuary bustling in activity, discussing assignments, and the tasks to be completed for the next day. The next tomorrow.

    A tomorrow that would arrive for them, without me.

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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
October Diaries: The Ebb
October 8,
   There is an old saying in our circle: “Nothing goes right for thieves besides thieving.” A bond that might’ve seemed strong becomes unpredictably shattered; an innocent walk for fresh air ends in being ambushed by highwaymen; passing off a merchant’s calls with a casual decline ends in him going for your throat. Of course, this saying isn’t infallible, but these are just some personal examples.
   Once you devote yourself to stealing from the corrupt, everything else seems to doomed to end tragically. It’s as if all the luck we accumulate throughout our lives goes towards one specific action. But even luck can only patch up wounds that haven’t been dealt. It can divert someone’s glance away from the corner you’re hiding in, not because it was any doing of your own, just the chance of their thoughts wandering with their eyes. It can help you sidestep death, when it’s the difference between one half of a moment and another.
   This is how thieves of the Shadow Syndicate exist, moving with strength, skill, finesse, deliberation, and in moments when those things are not enough, knowing when to rely on the tumble-turn of dice. We catch the rhythm of chance in the silences that dictate whose blood is split, and who gets to slink away from the scene.
   The shadows know we are already dead, and so long as we admit that to ourselves, they let us use them. The moment we fool ourselves into thinking we’re any different from anyone else, we embrace our demise.
   I stood with my back against the wet brick of an alleyway, and tightened the laces on the back of my mask until the leather was pushing against my lips. The four vertical slits for breathing were enough for me to taste the autumn air sweeping through the streets, touched by the scent of moss, rotted wood, and fresh rain.
   Moonlight tore through a gap in the clouds, bright in its full radiance. 
   Shadowsteps travel in pairs or triplets, but seldom alone. So why was I here, trying to predict my fate as the night's clouds rolled across my eyes?
   A disease was spreading throughout the Northern Sanctum of the Shadow Syndicate, effectively putting all of my companions in feverish, cough-ridden, sick-spewing states, each of them taking turns in the washroom to rid themselves of the pestilence swarming their insides.
   “Shade,” the headmistress had called me that night through the door of her chamber, “don’t go alone like Aren did. I’m ordering you as the head of this sanctum, and telling you as your friend.”
   “There are no orders,” I said to the door, “not when all of the seasoned members are clinging to the sheets of their bed. The initiates who just came two weeks past are shivering with both fear and fevers, afraid that they signed up for a death sentence. Do you want a fresh set of promising souls lost to this?”
   I listened to her fit of coughing, already walking away. She knows I am right, doesn't she? I thought.
   “Shade, wait!”
   “The Blackmore house is known for its prestigious grasp of healing tinctures. If there’s a cure, they’ll have it. You can’t dissuade me.”
   “I know I can’t. That’s why I’m telling you: if you die, no one’s hands are stained besides yours.”
   “As if I care. It’s better that way, anyways. No guilt, no fault, no shame, no strength but my own. Have we ever blamed one another for dying? But whose hands are stained when I let all of you die a beggar’s death? Ramus is already dead. And Aren, who left on his orders, hasn’t returned in weeks. The morning he left, he had a bloody cough. A deadman following another deadman’s orders to find a plant for a potion that will never be created. So who’s left to help?”
   There was at least silence before she blurted out the rest of her pleas. “… Don’t think that way. We’ll find something. We’ll get well enough, eventually, to figure something else out. Just stay here. Help care for us. Change the sheets, fetch fresh clothes, cook for us.”
   “You expect me to be a house servant while you all die? Nithe and Nocturos are gods for mischief, headmistress, much as we’d like to think so, they won’t heed prayers for this. They don’t dabble with remedies and healing. I don’t need to explain to you where their reach stops extending. They aren’t helping us with this one.”
   “Shade …”
   “I’m leaving. If I don’t …” I shook my head, and bit back what was itching in my throat. “Farewell, Yamora.”
   I thought I heard her say my name again as I was walking down the halls. I even stopped and tilted my head, when I thought muffled crying followed.
                                                                         ~
   I stared at the glittering mansion in the distance as I let myself hear her whispers through the door one last time before shutting the memory out. I stuck some nitskel into rolling paper and lit up the end of the cigarette.
   From the small loops in my satchel I took out the caw pipe and blew harshly into it, sending off the harsh grating of a raven’s calls in a specific beat that Wisp would recognize. With gratitude at the calm before the storm, I savored the quiet, the heat of smoke in my lungs, until I heard his talons tapping on the roof above.
   I took a final drag before stamping out the sizzling end. 
I raised my hand up and motioned for him.
   When Wisp landed on my shoulder, I fed him a piece of dead rat I had found on my walk there. A bit of intestine or heart, I guess. He seemed to enjoy it.
   “Take this back to the Sanctuary,” I said as I slipped a small scroll into the pouch attached to his leg, “just to let them know I’m here. They’ll be grateful to hear from me at all.”
   Wisp nuzzled my neck before pecking out some grime from my earlobe. I could never get used to that. I scratched his neck in return. “Come back to these rooftops afterward. Don’t stray far, I may need you.”
   Staring at me with strangely cognizant, black beads of eyes with a tinge of mud in the center, he cocked his head, pecked me again, then flapped off before shitting dangerously close to my boot.
   “There’s a good raven,” I muttered before clenching warmth back into my fingers.
The lettering Blackmore on the iron entrance gates shone with dew from the evening’s rain. I waited for the guard that patrolled the street in front of the home to pass out of peripheral view, and strolled out onto the street.
   “Fine evening, gentlemen,” I greeted two more guards on either side of the gate, as my finger caressed the trigger of a rune-powered crossbow behind my back.
   “Have an invitation, stranger?” the one on the right asked me.
   “For the celebration?” I asked as I spotted the boiling life of a party bubbling behind the windows.
   “That’s right.”
   “Sure, sure, I certainly do. I think I have it somewhere in here …” I flipped the crossbow out and fired two darts tipped with a soporific tincture, each one landing in their necks.
   I rushed to their bodies and glanced at the patrol nearing the end of the street. I snatched a set of keys from the warm body and slipped it into the lock, opening the gate proficient at rusted screams before dragging the bodies behind the stone wall under the iron grating.
   Just before the guard turned, I cracked a knuckle over the lock of the gate and said, “Caveas,” triggering a burst of green light and the melting of the tumblers inside, fusing them together to create a seal.
   Past the stretching of the front yard, I crouched through a long path bordered by lush gardens with the moonlight on my shoulder. A drunken couple with masks dangling from their necks were swaying arm in arm. I ducked behind a rose bush while they passed in laughter and sloppy kisses, taking a little too long for comfort.
   One of their masks slithered off their neck, the silk lacings too smooth to stay pinched from a single knot. I picked it up, dawning the visage of scarlet and black demon. My mask still concealed the bottom half of my face while I tied the lacings tight. I should’ve known that royals are the type of people to make light of demons, especially the ones that enter homes uninvited.
   Upright, in the open amongst scattered revelers in the garden, I passed through the steam cast by strangers’ breath and went into the first chamber, where a pianist clad in black had a room enthralled with the pounding of his hands on the keys. Nobody batted an eye as I strode into the other corridors, nodding at anyone who bothered to make eye contact.
   My costume was by far the most elaborate, and perhaps inappropriate for even this occasion. It was authentic, after all. A shadowstep's raiment complete with the tools of the trade.
   The chandeliers, the lights, the uproar of applause as a piece finished and another began, the tinkling of glasses, the stench of vomit mingling with steaming trays of delicacies fresh from the kitchen. Thieves are good at managing themselves in chaos, but playing the role of someone apart of it all was more dizzying than I anticipated.
   As I got a feeling for the expanse of the mansion, I began to notice that some of the revelers wore similar costumes. Matching grey cloth and leather, each of their masks the frozen expression of a scowling gargoyle. Guardsmen.
   I touched one of the gargoyles lightly on the arm. “Can you direct me to Apothecary Blackmore?”
   His eyes flinched before meeting mine, a little bloodshot from sneaking drinks, as if his breath wasn't enough indication. “Who’s asking?”
   “Count Pissbane,” I said, blurting the first thing that came to mind.
   “Oh, Count, my apologies for not recognizing you,” he inclined his head. “You mean the Apothecary Blackmore?”
   “Naturally. The family’s legacy precedes him. I wish to speak with him, it’s urgent.”
   “Well, Count Blackmore is preoccupied, as he’s the one playing the keys in the main hall.”
   I twitched. “You mean to say that Count Blackmore is the same man who crafted his famous tinctures? Not another man working under his name?”
   “ ‘Course, who else would it be?”
   It was the first time hearing of royalty as anything more than a vessel for inherited wealth and prosperity. I was in the home of a man who had built his wealth up from the innovation of cures meant to heal others. I almost felt guilty for sneaking in. But that was besides the point, and it was far too late for guilt. This wasn’t a normal assignment. In fact, it wasn't an assignment at all. The Shadow Syndicate didn't order it; it was of my own volition.
   “In any case, when will the … performance be over?”
   “Just started playing few hands ‘for you greeted me, sir. Could be some time.”
   “Very well. My thanks.”
   “What did you say your name was? I’ll tell one of the servants you requested him.”
   “How dare you disgrace my family name by forgetting it," I spat. "Forget it.”
   “Apologies …” he slurred. “Is that on the registration?”
   His hand was pointing to the hilt of my crossbow hanging from my belt. “Yes, it’s … registered.”
   I walked away before he could get another word out, looking for the nearest staircase. Royals always have their study on the highest floor. With a view overlooking a city like Westrun, why wouldn’t you?
   Someone made a gesture of pointing and laughing at me, I turned to catch a look, and bumped into someone by mistake. A glass shattered, and the bottom of my boot crunched shards to splinters.
   The woman I bumped into was nearly in tears of frustration, a red mouth hanging open only to issue blank utterances of rage.
   “My apologies, miss. Can’t imagine it’s terribly difficult to find one precisely like it in short time.” I tipped my mask and slipped up a nearby set of carpeted stairs, leaving some of the confusion behind me. I stopped at the top, getting my bearings in order.
   Interacting with other people is far more difficult than sneaking, stealing, or killing them. All these years of stealing from others and never speaking to them, I had almost forgot the subtle nuances of picking which words to speak and which to swallow.
   I shook off my nervousness and continued up the stairs, passing by a couple whose jaws seemed positively locked together. I couldn't resist arcing an eyebrow as I awkwardly squeezed by.
   In a hallway brightly lit by torches on either side, I checked both of the corridors before murmuring, “Fade.” The spell snapped at my feet, and I slipped into the air. Or, at least I thought I did. When I looked down at my hands, I saw their outlines wreathed in shadow; every contour of my body shifting with the subtle sifting of darkness over darkness, like layers of silk being passed over itself. Painfully obvious, and useless in the bright light of the torches.
   “So that’s what happens when you cast that spell in well-lit rooms,” I sighed. “Embody,” I murmured, returning to my usual form and continuing down the hall. I considered snuffing the torches somehow, but it would only look more suspicious to anyone who knew they were supposed to be lit.
   Not being able to rely on the most basic spell for slipping through rooms without drawing attention was enough to pull my hand over the hilt of my dagger protectively. I shook the notion of killing over talking out of my head, for now, and searched for the next flight, trying not to goggle at the unique architecture arching all around me. Instead of curved or straight hallways, the walls came up to sharp, wooden points that met up with the beams of the ceiling, surrounding you with the impression of impossible intricacy through symmetry. 
                                                                   ~
   "This disease …” Aren had told me between coughing and dabbing blood away from the edges of his mouth, “it’s not incurable. The plant that combats it is found in high, mountainous regions, or so Ramus told me.” He wrapped himself tighter in his cloak while the winds hit us outside one of the sanctuary’s doors.
   “To the worms with the plant, we asked every last tradesmen in Westrun, and they didn’t have a leaf of it. We need magick, or an elixir already concocted.”
   “There are no healers in the city who can cure this by will alone, and none of our connections could end in procuring an elixir. That’s why I’m leaving. Ramus said even one vial of the concentrate could heal half of us, if not all of us, such is the potency of the plant.”
   My hand had been gripping his arm so tight, the prints of my fingers on his leather remained after I let go. “Then go, if you think it’s best. Don’t say I didn’t tell you you’re mad when you’re crawling on your belly up there in the snow.”
   “I’ve always been a little mad,” Aren smirked. “But it’s not madness. I’d do anything for the people that gave me a family.”
   What he said was enough for my eyes to drop from his, almost ashamed to see the hopeful glint in them, the one that I didn’t have. “Before you go,” I had said, “tell me what Ramus told you. The name of the disease, the plant, what it would take to craft the elixir.”
   Aren outlined it, expressing frustration at how simple it really was, and similarly, at how quickly the disease seized its victims. “Ghoul’s bane is the plant’s name,” he’d said. “And the disease, Ramus called it ‘the ebb’.”
   “Ghoul’s bane, the ebb,” I repeated.
   “Shade?”
   “Yes?”
   Aren discarded a handkerchief that had once been white and was now a single, overlapping stain of muddied red. He took out another and coughed into it. “What do you plan to do with this information?”
   I laughed. “The same thing that we always do.”
                                                                    ~
   The next hallway was guarded by a patrol. I was crouched on the last of the three steps, peering out from the wall. I considered simply walking up to the guard and talking my way to the next floor. But if there were men standing outside Blackmore’s chamber, it’d end in blood anyways.
   I tugged the crossbow from its holster, took aim when his back was turned, and fired.
The tip lodged in his back. A vein in my heart pinched itself. He stopped and reached for it.
   I waited for the drug to sweep through his blood, for him to fall and crash to the ground in unconsciousness.
   Instead, he turned around and spotted me.
   By the time he’d pulled the bolt from his armor, I was sprinting down the hall towards him.
   “Help!” he screamed while he unsheathed a sword.
   I drew my dagger and parried his blade. An armored fist slammed into my face in response, staggering me into a lapse of darkness and sparks. He swung his sword after punching a second time, tearing through the tapestry hanging on the wall while the sound of more men from the upper floors came. Shouts rang out like alarm bells being sounded throughout a city, each one triggering another. His sword stuck in the thick wool of the tapestry, I saw my opportunity, and slashed at his neck.
   Red colored the vision of my left eye, while his blood splattered my right. I pushed myself against the wall while he bled out on the floor.
   Footsteps came tumbling down the stairway.
   The first glimmer of armor I saw, I grabbed at it, hauling the man to floor and burying my dagger into the one that followed after, slamming him into the wall and repeating the motion where his padding wasn’t thick enough to stop my blade.
   They screamed and wailed in a way that would impress a rowdy group of children. I turned to the man scrambling to his feet, snapping the trigger on my hand-crossbow until half a dozen needles found their way through his mask, two of them sticking out from one of the eyeholes of his mask. 
   It's not unnecessary if it helps calm your nerves.
   This time, I couldn’t tell if the footsteps were coming from the staircase above or below. I took that as a good indication that it was both. My mind raced, and the spells in my head flipped like pages in the wind.
   I tore the demon’s mask off my face and sprinted up the stairs, encumbered by the weight of a particularly large mechanism dangling from my belt, each of its components attached to a different ring to distribute the weight evenly.
   A guard came running down. I grabbed his ankle through the banister, causing him to roll the rest of the way down, crashing into a glass stand encasing a family heirloom. The glass showered him, and my dagger followed in similar fashion.
   More gargoyles came rushing from behind. I fired blindly with my crossbow at the large mass of them bottlenecking at the bottom steps. The mechanism spat and whirred with charged runes, smoke puffing out as heat spread to the handle and scalded my hand until I smelt burnt leather.
   A few of them took the hint and found cover behind the wall. One of them stupid enough to leap over the bodies at his feet charged at me with a sword and a scream.
   I slammed the trigger back.
   A burst of shadow and smoke, but no bolt. The canister was empty. I squeezed it again in disbelief. He slashed at my hand, disarming my crossbow and slicing my fingers in the process. Still crouched over the body beneath me, I kicked at his legs. His head slammed into the steps. Either the wood or his skull cracked. I prayed for the latter and scrambled up the flight of stairs.
   Blood trailed me as I took three steps at a time. My thoughts seemed to have left me somewhere during the first struggle. Instinct alone was guiding me through the initial storm that it caused. Optimism shrank.
   Every sconce had a burning torch; no corner was left darkened. I cursed, pulling torches out at random and tossing them behind me as I ran. I needed my element. I needed opportunity to slip in and out of their reality. But the gargoyles started coming again, eager to stomp out the flames before they could take hold of the walls.
   I finished the final flight of stairs and pulled out a spell scroll, tearing off the wax binding and speaking the trigger word, “Moerium,” as I directed it at the empty space at the top of the staircase.
   A summoned doorway stretched from the ground, growing from a slit of gushing shadow. It stretched and filled up the empty space, creating the illusion of a locked door. The spell would only hold until someone assumed it didn’t exist.
   Throughout the skirmish, the screams hadn’t stopped. It was while I stared at the door that this realization sunk in. It used to be just the guardsmen calling for one another, but now I could hear the revelers alerting the rest of the sleeping city. For all I knew, I had drawn all of the Westrun to Blackmore’s gates.
   I ran my hands through the sweaty locks of auburn hair dangling in front of my eyes, walking just slow enough to look at each door on the final floor.
   One of them had the same family lettering as the gates. I didn’t bother trying to slam through a solid slab of iron and drew out my lockpicks.
   Fists began pounding against the illusionary door. That was something, at least. The more they convinced themselves it was impossible to get through, the longer the spell would last.
   The tumblers caught into their familiar places after a few seconds of picking. I turned the keyhole to the left and felt the latch give, easing myself into, at last, a darkened chamber. I didn’t have time to pick the lock to latch it again, since the tumblers reset when you try to turn it a full rotation with picks.
   Hiding in the chamber wouldn’t buy me time, either, as my blood trailed directly to me. If that wasn’t enough, the outlines of bloody fingers were smeared across the handle.
   But that didn't matter so much anymore.
   I stood in the middle of a gigantic laboratory. Herbs that I had never seen before hung by the dozens from the tall ceilings. A ladder of staggering height was pushed up against a wall, with ropes attached to the ceiling to allow for a climber to attach freshly picked plants to hundreds of hooks scattered about.
   A genius surrounding himself with his craft. There were even sheets of music spread across the floor, gusted from a table from the open balcony at the far end of the chamber, where sage curtains billowed in the breeze.
   There were numerous desks where various stages of an elixir’s development could be observed. A staton for cutting, chopping, grinding, mixing, another for boiling, reducing, combining, and another with elaborate symbols etched into strong, dark wood. Enchantment runes.
   Blackmore wasn’t just an apothecary. He was an alchemist.
   I spotted a case of elixirs. The labels of which were, unlike everything else in the room, clean and readable. Only the finished products were treated with an eye of cleanliness. I went to the glass case and started scanning.
   “I see you’ve let yourself in,” someone said.
   I whipped around to see the pianist, still dressed in his concert garb. He drew out from one of the pillars in front of the balcony. He, too, was wearing a mask. The upper half of a skull covered his eyes, forehead and cheeks, while black and white makeup depicted the rest of the skull on the lower portion of his face.
   “I will admit I am flattered,” he continued. The tails of his coat blew in the breeze, while the steady tapping of his feet echoed, louder in my ears than the incessant pounding of the guardsmen on the illusionary door. He slipped his mask off and retied his thick, black ponytail. “I must ask, however, why you went through all this trouble, killing a good portion of my guard in the process. We could have scheduled a meeting. Enjoyed some quality nitskel and discussed your prospects with my products. Instead … this. Digging a rather deep and, what I imagine is now an inescapable grave,” he added with an almost sorrowful chuckle.
   “H-h—”
   “You don’t seriously think someone of my caliber doesn’t have passageways in his own home, the same way a spider might dig an impressive hole for catching his prey? Not that I ever constructed it to … ‘catch prey,’ ” he sighed, and set the mask on a desk, “rather to simply escape the monotony of the same drawl I must endure. Councilmen rambling, appointments that drag on too long. You understand.”
   I could only stare as I thought my options through.
   “But you needn’t worry. I don't have any men follow me. I assure you we’re alone. I was rather thrilled, actually, to have this night interrupted by something so exciting. This kind of life becomes awfully repetitive.” His cheeks were gaunt as his lips were thin, speaking smoothly as he paced around the chamber.
   “What’s wrong?” he asked. “Thieves are only taught to steal, not to speak, hm? I can imagine as much. I was quite the same, working my way up in small shops when I was just an apprentice. It seemed the bubbling of tinctures was the only smalltalk I could master.”
   “I don’t want to kill you, Blackmore. I just need your help. You have to understand this was none of my intention.” Every inch of me was crawling. I was practically begging. I never beg. I take what I want. I leave, and no one suspects a thing. Now I was just buying time to find a way to escape this mess I created.
   Blackmore laughed until the skeleton grin stretched across his face. “Intention! Now that’s a queer word for you. Ah, and why should I help you? Have a fair share of coin on you, a bargain to offer? You’re from the Syndicate, I assume. Or else you wouldn’t be able to pull off that rubbish of keeping twenty men slamming against something that wasn’t constructed by my orders. I don't recall having a doorway built at the top of my stairs.”
   “Assume what you will,” I said as I started unhooking the contraption on my belt, snapping the wooden pieces together and latching the hinges shut. He wasn’t the type to flinch at movement. “This is not an act of malice, I assure you.” I kept working my hands until the grappling hook was primed, the gears were set, and the trigger was ready.
   “A fascinating contraption,” he commented, getting a little closer.
   I drew my blade and pointed at him. “Stay there, Blackmore. As I said, I’m not going to hurt you. Keep your distance and this nightmare will be over.”
   He put up his hands and chuckled, taking a few steps back. “Jittery?”
   I set the spring-loaded crossbow down and started searching the glass case.
   “Ahh …” he hummed. “You found some of my finished products. Beautiful, aren’t they?”
   “Indeed. You’ve a staggering collection. I don’t take a liking to wealthy folk, the ones who were born with gold for teeth,” I said as I nudged a few vials aside. I came to a line of thin and long bottles. “But I respect you for this. I would never steal from someone like you.”
   “And yet here you are.”
   I laughed. “I considered myself a man of morales until I entered your house tonight. Devotion and love will twist someone of virtue into doing things he’d never imagine himself doing. I may as well be the scoundrel you think I am.”
   “You speak of virtue, yet you're a thief by trade. I fail to see ... any virtue. So why do it? Why take the labor of someone as … honest as you might see yourself?”
   "I won't attempt to explain the intricacies of the Syndicate's purpose." I spotted a slender vial with parchment glued to it. The inky scrawl read: Ghoul’s Bane. I wrapped my fingers around it.
   When I turned with it in my hand, Blackmore had a dagger in my side, and a smile on his face. When he flexed his grip to twist it, I managed to wrap the entirety of his neck in my hand.
   The surprise of his face was something I’d normally relish, especially as the pain in my side got my jaw gnawing on itself. But he didn’t deserve this. It wasn't fair. But my family didn’t deserve to die from a disease, either. A family that took a peasant with a knack for pickpocketing, and turned him into a man who learned to balance out the wealth from those who used their power for dictating the actions of the impoverished.
   “What, first time you stabbed someone?” I asked as I shoved him to the ground and ripped the dirk out of my side, the blade barely the length of my finger. “You can’t just stick someone in their ribs and expect things to go well. There’s things to … consider,” I winced. “Leather, padding, flesh, organs, arteries. You might’ve missed the important ones. I already told you I wouldn’t kill you, on principle. Take my wound as the price I paid for this,” I said, waving the tincture. “On second thought …” I went and grabbed a few more with the same label.
   “The morales of a thief are as straight as—” he started to growl. 
   “Shh!” I listened. The banging had stopped. So did my heart. I slipped the vials into my satchel and snatched up the crossbow with the grappling hook, sprinting for the balcony.
   I jumped over Blackmore, who made an attempt to grab my leg. I stumbled, and got the damn drapes out of my way
   As I did, the door of his chamber opened.
   “Get down, Count!” someone screamed.
   I breathed in the brisk air of midnight from the balcony and aimed the hook at the roof above.
   Bolts were fired. Mine … and theirs.
   The arrows thudded into me as the hook found grooves in the concrete. I didn’t bother counting how many had stuck into my chest, just jammed the lever down beside the trigger and let the spring loose, setting off the gears that pulled me up.
   Blood flowed, dripped, and whipped into the open air beneath me. The roof came rushing to me me, and pushed the arrows deeper when I slammed into it. I gritted my teeth and hauled myself over in a pain strong enough to cast the world into a glimpse of sheer darkness.
   Four. There were four of them in my chest.
   When I breathed in, I heard a whistling. When I breathed out, spurts of flame spread inside. I found it ironic that when I coughed, blood spurted from my lips the same way it came from Aren.
   “Rima-ri-rima-morra,” I gasped. Wisps of light seeped from my fingertip and were gusted away by the wind. More blood gushed from my chest as I tried to direct the healing spell I could not finish speaking. “R-r-ima,” I wheezed. I didn’t have anything left. No breath to cast, no energy to draw from. I was a serpent trying to devour its own tail already in ashes.
   I fumbled for the caw pipe and concentrated into blowing into it. I could hear blood spurting from my lips inside of it. I managed a caw before I began coughing and retching, each convulsion a new set of blades digging into me.
   Nothing goes right for thieves besides thieving. The same principle applies to saving the lives of those that mean the most to him, even when he's using the same tricks he'd used to join them. 
   When I looked up from the pain, my soaked hands were already clutching the three elixirs, the glass clinking together as the shaking took over my movements. I could feel my death rattle trying to wheeze out from me, eager to be the last. I shoved it back down and coughed more.
   I could see through the crimson sheen that had taken over every detail of the world, the silhouette of my raven waiting patiently at the roof's edge.
   “W-wisp,” I managed. I pried open the pouch on his legs and stuffed the elixirs inside. One of them dropped and crashed at the ground below. “S-sanctum.”
   Wisp didn’t start off right away. He was waiting for a snack, a scratch. For me to whisper something to him before I told him to leave, as I always did.
   I managed to lean against the wall of the roof. Wisp hopped onto one of the arrows on my chest, and bent his head next to mine while the breaths came slower and slower, deeper and deeper. He rubbed his beak against my cheek, and nibbled at my ear. I wanted to sigh in relief, but there simply wasn't any air to take in. A faint warmth from his breathing against my face caused me to look up at him.
   I stared at one of his black and brown eyes as he looked back into mine. I raised a trembling hand to clumsily stroke his feathers, smearing blood over the perfect fletching of his wings. 
   “Go.”
   The moon, swarmed in greying tendrils, beamed down at me. I closed my eyes as I listened to the flapping of his wings, until I could hear them no more. I imagined how Wisp would beat the same rhythm upon the next week’s dawn, with the sanctuary bustling in activity, discussing assignments, and the tasks to be completed for the next day. The next tomorrow.
    A tomorrow that would arrive for them, without me.
#fantasy  #fiction  #horror  #adventure 
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Written by SonOfSlayer

January

Buck had a good system. For every dozen drafts he poured he kept two dollars. For every tenth shot of well whiskey he pocketed three dollars. It was almost fail proof. Tammy owned the bar with him. I’d stumbled into the job on accident. It wasn’t much of a job but it wasn’t much of a town. My girlfriend had family there. There was always a war over money. She was older than I was and she wanted a family. I only wanted a clear white space. It caused conflict. I was burned out and she was useless by herself. She wasn’t far in life but she was as far as she was because of weak men. People in the town liked me because she had big tits. We’d walk around the town and I’d see people from the bar waving to us. I thought it was funny how they saw us.

And funny that I was the one to blame for the two of us being poor, but I was the only one who worked steadily. Apart from a pack of smokes a day and my coffee I had no personal expenses. I didn’t care about food or furniture. I didn’t care about glasses or plates or clothes. My budget was tight and angry. I spent money on typing paper and ribbon. I’d had a computer but it was destroyed during the drive up from Phoenix. I plugged it in and it was dead. I remembered her face when I was setting up the attic. I plugged in my machine and when it wouldn’t turn on I felt relief from her, satisfaction. It was the first time I’d felt a definite hatred for her. I thought about it while I poured.

“One dollar, Lutz.”

Lutz was a regular. He came in and drank from noon until close. House drafts were a dollar. And he nursed each beer for all it was worth. He drank day and night and left me with four quarters. Every Tuesday Buck made tacos. Three small tacos for a dollar. They were sloppy and shitty. They sold like wild fire. Tips at the bar were lousy. Except for Wednesdays, I walked home with maybe thirty dollars. Buck came out of the kitchen and sat next to Lutz. I poured him a draft. He looked around the bar. It was half full. He smiled, “How’s taco villa?”

“The usual. Do we have enough back there?”

“I just filled the prep bar.”

The phone rang. I looked at him. He shook his head. I picked it up.

“City Folks.”

“Hi sweetheart. How’s business?”

“It’s good. Same cast of characters.”

“If you need money for the lotto payout it’s in the office in the safe.”

“Nothing but losers today. I think Sam won twenty bucks.”

“But he lost a hundred to get it.”

“Right.”

“If I had the money he’s blown on that machine I could retire. Anyway, let me talk to Buck.”

She did that a lot. Buck refused to take her calls. She figured some banter might get some momentum going and he’d pick up the phone and flow into the conversation.

“Yeah, Buck just stepped out.”

I looked at him. He shrugged. I told her he said he’d be back in half an hour. Tammy came in after six at night. Buck never left. Buck had a son and a daughter from a previous marriage. He’d landed in town with a small savings and met Tammy. She was divorcing a man who had money. She put up the cash for the bar. It was Buck’s idea but she held the keys. Buck hired me because he wanted to bring some dignity into the bar. That’s what he said. I was young and strong. But I also had no temper. It took a lot for someone to get at me. Sam tried on my first day:

“Hey, nurse. Can you get me another one?”

His buddies laughed. I ignored him.

“Come on, man! Look, I’ll give you five bucks if you bring me two at once.”

I brought the two over. He looked at me and smiled, “You’d make a good faggot, you know that?”

I leaned over the bar and stared at him, “Care to find out?”

The bar broke up laughing. I put some glasses in the dishwasher:

“Seriously, Sam. Once you’ve had an ass like this you’re hooked. You’re totally gay.”

My girlfriend walked in and sat at the bar. The guys looked at her. She leaned over the bar and kissed me. Sam yelled, “Wait! I thought you were a faggot! That’s cheating!”

I filled a glass for her, “Sam, you’re only gay if you’re fucking a guy and you slap his left ass cheek three times.”

The bar broke up laughing again. Sam pounded on the bar, “I love this fucking guy!”

After that a few of Sam’s smartass friends tried to have a go at me. They weren’t hard to beat. Once I put them in any gay situation they broke down laughing. Buck and Tammy heard about it and gave me more hours. Then the full-time night bartender was fired for skimming the till. Buck caught her doing it. His system was better. I didn’t know why he was doing it. To cheat the government, maybe. He seemed happy with Tammy. Me, I had shit. I had big rent and a fucked up girlfriend. The bar job would have been alright had I lived in the town with a woman I cared about.

She ended up getting a job in Bend, working the sales floor for a fixture company. Faucets and toilets and lighting. She had to get up early. Apart from Wednesday night, when she would come into the bar while I closed, she was asleep when I came home. It was a blessing.

I usually came home and wrote. I hadn’t sat down for a hard run the first week of the job. One night I moved my typer downstairs and wrote from the kitchen table. I’d set up the attic for my study, then she immediately wanted to make it into our bedroom. We had two bedrooms downstairs by the bathroom. But she wanted to encroach on my fucking creation. I sat at the table and drank coffee. I lit a smoke off the stove and worked into a story. I heard the footsteps. The footsteps were black clouds above me. I reached over and turned up the radio. I felt her behind me. She walked over to the stove and brushed away the little spot my cigarette left on the burner.

She rinsed the rag in the sink, “I hate it when you do that. It’s so trashy.”

I sat there and stared at the page. She walked into the bathroom, “What the fuck?”

I reached over and grabbed my coffee. She came out, “I told you I hate seeing cigarette butts floating in the toilet. There’s something desperate about it.”

I read over the page:

Those who retain beauty and youth never had expectations of others.

She sat down at the table, “You’re awfully late.”

“Did the typer wake you?”

“Not really. I knew you were here. Why didn’t you come to bed with me?”

“Not tired.”

“What are you writing about?”

“Nothing right now. I’m listening to you whine.”

“Oh, so it’s fair that I have to work all day then wake up to you downstairs in the kitchen by yourself?”

“That’s what happens when people work opposite schedules. You should get some sleep.”

“This isn’t working out.”

“I get paid at the end of the month. I can be out then.”

“No. You’re not living with me if we’re not together. I can’t take that bullshit.”

It was her best move. If she was driving she’d tell me to get out of the car. I’d just made rent and she was telling me it wasn’t working out. Her uncle and grandmother lived in the town. But they never spent time with her. She told me that she was tired of the two of us not spending time together. She said that I had to do something about it. I lit another smoke off the stove and sat down, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do about it, I’m not going to quit my job, that’s for damned sure. If you’re really shaken up over it you can find different hours somewhere else.”

“No, you can switch to the day shift at the bar.”

“And walk away with six dollars in my pocket after seven hours? Good idea.”

“Then you’ll have to leave.”

“Gladly. In a month.”

“No, tomorrow!”

“Maybe you forget that I’m on the lease with you.”

“Merle likes me. He only rented the house to us because he likes me.”

“You must be proud.”

“Fuck you.”

“No thanks.”

She raised her eyebrows, “Really?”

“I’m trying to write here. Why do you have to walk down and start in on me? You bitch about having no time together yet any time left over you spend bitching at me. If it’s so fucking important for you that I leave I’ll hit Buck up for an advance and rent out a room for a month off my final check. Now, let me fucking write. Please.”

“Fine. I’m leaving, then.”

“Perfect.”

“Good. I’m tired of waking up and arguing with you. I have to be at work in three hours and I’m sitting here arguing with you.”

“Whose fault is that?”

“I can’t believe the way you treat me.”

“It’s too bad, I know. The way you suffer.”

“Maybe you can shack up with one of those sluts from Wednesday night.”

“She’d probably treat me a lot better.”

“I’m not going back to bed. We need to talk about why you are the way you are.”

I looked at the page again, stood up and put my shoes on. It was snowing outside. I zipped up my coat and found my gloves.

“Where are you going?”

“To build a fucking igloo and get some peace.”

“I’m going to get ready for work. This isn’t working out.”

I took off the gloves and the coat and sat back down. I shook it off and picked up the story where I’d left it. I heard her walk down. She walked straight to the bathroom. I unrolled the page and set it on top of the pile.

Upstairs I laid across the bed and watched the window. It wasn’t snowing but it was white. There was nothing pure about it. I was defeated and pissed. It was bright and deadly out there, cold and deadly, but it was like summer compared to where I was living. I heard her coming up the stairs. She stopped at the foot of the bed.

“Are you going to be here when I get back?”

“I have to work tonight.”

She put her hand on her hip and stared and me. I hated it.

“That’s not what I mean.”

“I need to sleep.”

She bitched some more and walked out. I jacked off to an old girlfriend and fell asleep.

“One dollar Lutz.”

“I just gave you a dollar for the last one.”

He laughed at himself. Sam came in and sat next to him. He nodded at me, “You ready for your big night?”

I set his beer down, “You’re just jealous.”

“Shit. I’m over that phase in my life.”

Lutz looked over at him, “What? Sex?”

“You’re goddamn right. I was so relieved when that day hit. Now when the old lady wants to have sex I’m like, ‘Damn baby, is it your birthday already?’”

Lutz threw his dollar down, “Shit, I’d be happy enough just to get some on my birthday.”

I took the dollar and stuck it in the till, “You’re not getting some rotting away on that stool.”

He waved me off, “Shit. I’ve had my share of pussy. Now I sit and reflect. You’ll get to be my age one day and you’ll resort to reflection, too.”

“Way ahead of you.”

They laughed. Sam raised his beer to me, “Just send her on this way.”

I poured a coke and slammed it, “I respect human life too much to do something like that.”

Lutz smiled. I refilled the glass and lit a smoke across from them. Sam rubbed his head, “I can’t believe I’ve been sitting here and neither one of you have said anything about my haircut.”

Lutz rubbed the haircut, “Awww, it looks nice, honey.”

“Just got a trim. I like it. Barbara says it makes me look younger. The way she cut it hides my receding hairline. Eight bucks.”

Lutz had long hair. He braided it back into a pony tail. They both had mustaches. Sam smiled at me, “You ought to get a shave and gel your hair down. You’re looking like a car thief.”

“Miami Vice,” Lutz said.

“Too cold to shave. I walk to work.”

“You live seven blocks away.”

I nodded to his mustache, “I could grow a dick-duster.”

Lutz laughed. Sam looked at him, “What the fuck are you laughing at? You got a mustache.”

“No, I have a handlebar. You have a mustache. Or, as your fair accuser behind the bar calls it, a dick-duster.”

Sam looked at me, “Shit. He has room to talk. Looks like he just woke up.”

I poured him another beer, “You look like a gay cop, Sam. You need to come to grips with your alter ego.”

“What alter ego?”

“Think about it.”

Lutz sipped his beer, “Another Wednesday. I see you’re wearing your finest.”

I set Sam’s empty glass in the dishwasher, “You use what you have. Wednesday night covers a lot of stress for me.”

“Rhonda and Cindy’ll cover you. More than once, too.”

“I know. Two more hours until the gates open.”

My girlfriend’s uncle walked in and sat down a few seats from Sam. Her uncle was a good man. He was consciously drinking himself away. He’d been through most of the painful sickness. Now he was gliding evenly into death. He looked like hell, but he was upbeat lately. He spent 21 days in treatment. Some fucked up family intervention. He was almost 40. The whole family consisted of 12-steppers and ex-things. They invited Jack over for some bullshit dinner and they surrounded him. Parts of the family had broken off and become rich, whether it was in insurance or children’s clothing. Jack was living off the money he’d made from selling his ranch after his divorce. His ex-wife turned to speed. But he stuck with the liquor. I’d never seen him sober. Everybody liked him. He did his 21 days and took the Antabuse and convinced the heads he wanted to turn over a new leaf. He even gained a few pounds back. After his 21 days he walked out and went to the bar. He hit the Vodka hard in the morning. In the afternoon he napped, and at dusk he awoke and had a few beers to warm up.

I set the glass in front of him, “Here’s another nail for your lid.”

“Thanks.”

Sam nodded at him, “Where you been keeping yourself?”

“I’m around.”

I wiped the bar down and emptied the ashtrays.

Jack smiled at me, “Heard you’ve been being a horse’s ass.”

“Yeah. I’m an inhuman monster.”

“She called me from work today.”

“I’m sure.”

“I don’t know why you two had to move into that big house.”

“Because she’s a fucking idiot.”

“Things been that bad?”

“I don’t like her.”

“I can’t say anything about that. She’s always been crazy.”

“If you see it that way. I don’t think she’s crazy at all. She’s a control freak. I can’t remember the last time I was attracted to her soberly.”

The Love brothers walked in. They worked light construction around town. I worked for them when we first moved into town. They paid seven dollars per hour. The job was long and pointless. I showed up for work my last day and they were three hours late. And they didn’t have the money to pay me. But they had money for the bar. I refused them service until they paid me off. They bitched to Buck about it. Buck told them when they paid me they could drink. Wednesday night was a big deal for the men in town. It was a Wednesday last month when I wouldn’t serve them. They walked back in the office and talked to Buck about me. I was 27 and they were in their forties but I wasn’t worried about them. They were famous in town for not paying their debts to their workers. They sat at the bar after Buck had backed me up. Sam was there with Lutz. Sam smiled to them, “Carl and Dale Love. How’s tricks?”

Carl was the older one. But they were both graceless. He nodded at me:

“He won’t serve us.”

Sam smiled, “Come on, kid. Forgive and forget. They need a beer.”

“And I need my money.”

Dale eyed me, “You’re gonna look awful funny trying to pour drinks with two broken arms.”

I called Buck out of the back. He walked behind the bar.

“Can I have fifteen minutes off right now?” I said.

“Sure. What’s wrong?”

I took off my apron and set it on the bar. I pointed at them, “Both you cocksuckers. Out back, now.”

Nothing happened. I put it back on, “Get the fuck out of here.”

Buck smiled and looked at them. Carl dug into his pocket and tossed a fist of twenties over the bar and on the floor. I picked them up and tossed them back. The bills hit them and scattered. I poured Sam another one and took away his glass. I stood back in front of them, “Now, hand me that money like men. One more little tantrum like that and you guys are 86’d for good.”

They looked at Buck. He put his hands up, “He’s the bartender. I just own the place.”

Carl looked at Dale, “Give him the money.”

I shook my head at him, “No, you give me the money. You’re the boss, right?”

He gathered the money and handed it to me. I put it in my pocket and poured them a beer. I set them down on the bar and knocked on the wood. I put their beer money in the till. Lutz smiled. I leaned on the bar and stared at them, “Honor feels good, doesn’t it? You can only burn so many people. I could have been a psychopath. I could have burned your fucking houses down.”

They gave each other a dumb look and drank their beers. Every Wednesday since then they were good tippers and respectful. This Wednesday was no different. They sat down next to Jack and ordered a pitcher. I set it down with the glasses and poured their glasses, “You guys here for some action?”

Dale laughed, “Hell yes. I even took a bath.”

I smiled at Carl, “What about you?”

“Shit, I’m not wasting my time in the shower.”

The phone rang.

“City Folks.”

“It’s me. How’s work going?”

“It’s just fine.”

“Listen, I’m sorry about this morning. I want to come in tonight and drink a little.”

“We’ll be open.”

“Alright. I love you.”

“Alright.”

I hung up. It rang back.

“City Folks.”

“I told you I loved you.”

“I heard you.”

Jack shook his head. She paused for a second. The first wave walked in.

“I have to go. The first team just walked in.”

“Maybe I won’t come down tonight. Maybe I should just move on.”

“Take care.”

I hung up.

Wednesday was ladies’ pool league night. The largest and most wretched women in the county filled the bar with their fat asses and sexual repression. Once in awhile they had a thin one in the herd, but my girlfriend showed up around seven at night and she stayed until closing, drove me home and bitched at me until she had to go to work. Once in awhile we had sex, but not too often. She was paranoid about me taking off with a girl after work, or she would try to get herself worked up for home when we got there. I preferred masturbation over either. One of her biggest problems with the bar job was Wednesday. Once in awhile a cow would run her hand down my lower back or touch my hair. But I always walked out of the bar with at least a hundred dollars. Buck smiled at me, “Trouble in Paradise?”

“She says she’s moving on.”

“Moving on to what?”

“I don’t care.”

The girls pulled out their sticks and rolled them on the table. They were the team from Madras. I walked over.

“Hello, ladies. The usual?”

They cackled and elbowed each other:

“We’ll take three pitchers of Coors light and a few pizzas.”

“Will you ladies be running a tab again tonight?”

“Only if there’s a lap dance involved.”

They cackled again. I smiled, “You couldn’t afford it.”

I walked away and poured the pitchers. I nodded to Buck, “Three pizzas.”

“Cheese or meat combos?”

“What do you think?”

He walked back in the kitchen and threw them in the oven. I walked the pitchers over and came back with the glasses. Tammy walked in and waved to me. I set the glasses down and poured their first beers. Little things like that fattened the tip jar. The pool games went on until eleven or so, then the mating ritual began. I walked behind the bar. Tammy looked at me and smiled. I fixed her a Bloody Mary. She lit up, “My girlfriend’s daughter’s coming in tonight with them. You’d like her. I told her about you.”

“That’s nice, Tammy. But I can’t do anything about it, being how I live with Satan and all.”

“Maybe she won’t come in tonight.”

“And maybe I’m a Swedish doctor.”

“I don’t know why you don’t kick her to the curb. You should be with a nice girl.”

I looked at her. Jack was right beside her. She saw him, “Oh, hey Jack. Shit.”

He laughed, “I didn’t hear a word. But you’re probably right.”

She laughed with him and nodded to me, “You’ll like Tina. She’s funny.”

Jack had another, then walked out and toward the next place.

I did like Tina. She was a healthy farm girl. She took her vitamins. The bar was in full swing. I hustled my ass off. Rhonda and Cindy didn’t play pool. They ate pizza at the bar and smiled at me over their Chablis. It was just after eight. Tina walked to the bar.

“What can I get for you?”

“A shot of Maker’s and a Newcastle.”

“Nice.”

I set her up. She tipped heavily.

“How long have you worked here?”

“Two months.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“Don’t say that out loud. She’ll appear.”

She laughed, “Tammy said you should dump her.”

“Tammy’s right.”

The door opened and she walked in. I looked at Tina, “Great. Thanks a lot.”

She laughed and walked past her. They eyed each other. It was good. She sat a few stools away from Rhonda and Cindy.

“Who was that?”

“A customer.”

“I’ll bet. Give me a drink.”

“Goat’s blood or the soul of a child?”

Sam and Lutz broke out laughing. She got up and walked out. I ran some pitchers over to a pool table. I looked outside. It was snowing. Carl and Dale had found a group of bison and blended in. I poured Lutz another. He took the glass and moved his eyes to the door. I nodded.

She sat back down, “Let’s try this again. Can I have a whiskey sour, please, bartender?”

I fixed the drink and set it down. She smiled, “I don’t have any money.”

I reached into the tip jar. Lutz nudged her, “Must be nice.”

She took a drink, “He has a good ass on him, but his brain is evil.”

Sam looked over and smiled at me, “Oh, I think he’s a big sweetheart. You’re lucky.”

Cindy glanced at her, “Damned right.”

I looked around the bar. Everything was covered. I poured a coke and opened a pack of smokes. Tina sat down and held her lighter out. She lit me up, “You work hard. Do you work that hard in bed?”

“Hell, no.”

My girlfriend was in flames. I set Tina up with another shot and a beer. She tipped me five dollars.

“Thanks, Tina.”

She winked at me and walked off. I walked over and poured Sam another beer. He looked at my girlfriend, “How’s work going down at the bathroom joint?”

“It’s not just a bathroom joint. I sell ceiling fans and lighting, too.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

He rolled his eyes at me. She nodded for another drink. I made her one in a big water glass. It was full of whiskey. I put a ten in the till. Buck smiled at me through the opening between the kitchen and the bar. I walked back. He was pulling some pizzas from the oven, “You don’t have to do that. I’ll buy her drinks.”

“It’s not about the money.”

He shook his head, “They always gotta make it a fucking war.”

She was a fast drunk. It only took her two or three shots before it set in. For somebody who once lived in Manhattan and hung around her great and godly circles she had no composure. And she was totally transposed as a drinker. Everything turned opposite. It wasn’t any better than normal, but it was almost entertaining to watch her mind try to adjust or function. But she drank the whiskey and went to the bathroom, battled the truth in the mirror, came out and drank the whiskey. Tammy sat at the other end of the bar. I made her a Black Opal and set it down. She looked at my girlfriend and smiled at me, “You asshole.”

“If she wants to come in here and put on that skin she’s going to wear it.”

She watched me talk to Tammy. I walked over and handed Lutz his beer. She was drunk and she leaned into Lutz and motioned to me, “See that man right there? I’m going to fuck that man.”

Sam raised his eyebrows at me. Lutz put his arm around her, “If you’re going to do that you need to slow down. I don’t think our bartender’s quite seasoned for hardcore sex.”

She rolled her eyes and shook her head, “No. I’m going to fuck him. He treats me like shit but I’m going to fuck him.”

She laughed suddenly and loudly, “Where’s my uncle!”

I walked over, “He’s around. Probably down at Goodwater’s. He said he was coming back. Here, let me give you a refill.”

Buck walked out of the kitchen and smiled at me. He looked to the phone. I tossed it to him and poured another pitcher for the players. He talked for a minute and hung up. He sat down on the other side of my girlfriend and nodded. I poured him a draft and set it down. He patted his shirt pocket. His pack was empty. I tossed him a pack from the bar. He smoked straights. I wrote a receipt for it and shoved it under the drawer in the till. Tammy walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him, “Hi, Papa. You tired?”

My girlfriend drank and looked at them, “See that? You two are in love. Why can’t it be like that with the man I love?”

Sam looked over at her, “Jesus, woman. Show some class.”

Her eyes widened and glared at him. She pointed, “You. You shut up.”

Rhonda and Cindy looked at me. I lit up and took away their drinks, “You ladies still thirsty?”

“Two more then we’re good, baby.”

My girlfriend stared into the glass, “She calls him baby and he doesn’t even care.”

Buck stood up and Tammy took his place on the stool. She put her arm around her and talked into her ear. I liked Tammy. She was older with high blonde hair. She was thick and strong-minded but she wasn’t garish. My girlfriend slammed the drink and asked me for another. Tammy looked at me, “It’s your call.”

I poured her another and set it down, “It’s fine. Buck called Goodwater’s a minute ago. Jack’s on his way over.”

I put her keys in my pocket. She made a delayed and sloppy swipe for them, “Hey!”

Tammy rubbed her arm, “Don’t worry, honey. Jack’s going to get you home whenever you want to leave. Just sit here and drink and relax a little. You know, if you just loosened up once in awhile things might be better with you two.”

She stared at me. Her eyes were half shut, “Do you think I need to loosen up once in awhile?”

“I think you should keep drinking and forget about everything for an hour or two.”

Tina showed up at the other end of the bar: “Hey, bartender!” She was drunk: “Why don’t you walk over here and give me some more?”

Sam rubbed his forehead. My girlfriend started crying. She looked at me, “Do you love me?”

Tammy nodded yes at me quickly. I set a new whiskey sour down in front of her, “Here, drink this.”

I put her old glass in the dishwasher and set Tina up. I set the drinks down. She gave me a ten and two ones, “Keep it.”

“Thanks, Tina.”

She leaned over the bar and wrote her number down on the back of a coaster. She slid it over and shook her head, “Call me when you can get away for a few hours.”

She walked off. I looked at the number and threw it in the trash. My girlfriend smiled at the other end of the bar. I raised an eyebrow at her and poured Sam another. I watched the beer fill the glass and repeated the number over in my head. I associated the number with her auburn hair and her hips. It was locked in. The bitch of it would be timing. I couldn’t do anything with her while I was still with Satan. I wiped down the bar and calculated the perfect escape plan. I had a whiteboard in my mind and I stood there with a pointer and showed myself, in detailed steps, how I could pull it off. I could get the times of departing buses for Portland. I could quit the bar and have one day at the house to pack a duffel bag. I could take an early morning bus. The previous afternoon I could leave the house and go to Tina’s place, fuck her all night and have her drop me off at the station, jump on a bus and head into the city and get a place. There I could live alone and write another novel. There I could meet a nice girl who had a real soul and a real life. I could get a cheap car and take road trips. I could sit awake until four in the morning and write and drink and smoke and look out my window. I could walk Chinatown when I couldn’t sleep. I could live on the east side if I wanted to. Maybe rent a room out of a house with some decent people and walk to the cafes in the early mornings and drink real coffee. I could get a dog and teach him to catch a frisbee. Maybe I could be a waiter or a writer for some stupid little magazine up there to pay the bills. One thing was for sure, I was dead in this town.

Jack walked in and sat next to her. She hugged him and laughed, “Here’s my boy!”

He nodded at me, “Vodka soda.”

I set him up. He tossed a twenty on the bar. I handed him his change and walked over to clear one of the tables. The women were leaving. They almost emptied out at once. Tina blew me a kiss and walked out. They were laughing. Rhonda and Cindy left me a ten spot each on the bar and took off. I hustled the bus tub behind the bar. I set up Sam and Lutz with two on the house and started the pre-close. It was just before midnight but I liked to get the place ready to vacuum right at one. Buck and Tammy stood by the kitchen in their coats. Buck looked at Jack, “You gonna get her home alright?”

“I’ll take care of her.”

She looked at me and slurred, “At least somebody gives a shit.”

Tammy walked over and kissed me on the cheek. She scrubbed the back of my head and smiled, “See you tomorrow night. Thanks a lot for all your work.”

“Any time, Tammy.”

My girlfriend looked into her glass and repeated my words bitterly. Tammy walked over and squeezed her shoulder, “You behave yourself tonight, sweetie. We’ll see you.”

Buck waved and they left. Jack stood up and gripped her shoulders, “Come on. He’ll get the car home. You need to get your head down for awhile. You’re going to be feeling like shit tomorrow.”

She looked at her glass and tipped it over on the bar, “Whatever.”

I glanced at the whiskey dripping off the corner of the bar from the lip of the glass. It was a perfect snapshot of the last year I’d been with her. He walked her to the door. She kept turning and saying hostile things to me. He waved and they were gone. Back at the bar I poured Lutz and Sam two more. Sam smiled at me, “You got your hands full with that one.”

“Hardly.”

Lutz watched me drain the beer tray from under the taps, “Well, hell. Time I got my drunk ass to sleep. Thanks a lot.”

“See you tomorrow, Lutz.”

Sam slammed his beer and stood up, “Same here. I have to work at five sharp. Supposed to snow hard in a few hours.”

“You two be careful. Thanks for the company.”

They left. They always left at the same time. Nobody bothered to wonder. I walked over to the juke box, put a dollar in and played some Don Williams. I vacuumed the rugs and did the dishes. It was almost one in the morning. I had another hour to wait. I couldn’t total out until I locked the door, so I counted my tips. A hundred and forty-seven dollars clear. A few more weeks like this and I could be alright. I made myself a large Jack Coke and sat at the corner of the bar. I lit up and unbuttoned my long-sleeve. It was hot in the bar. I set my shirt on the bar and zoned out. I finished the drink and set the garbage bags by the back door. The front door opened and the cold air shot in.

“You closed?”

“Not yet. You still have a good hour.”

His name was Blanks. I never knew his first name. I knew he lived south between the bar and Bend with his wife and two boys. I hadn’t seen him in over a month. He was addicted to the machines. He played poker constantly. The last time he was in he blew his whole two week’s pay. He was a famous loser in the county. He had big sorry eyes and a droopy mustache. He sat at the bar, “Walked here from Goodwater’s. Old lady took the car back. We had a fight.”

“I hear you.”

“Bottle of Bud.”

I opened the bottle for him. He walked over and sat behind the poker machine. He held up a roll of bills, “You see this? Nine hundred dollars. I’m going to turn this into a small fortune. Right here, right now.”

“Don’t say that.”

“Fuck it. I’m due.”

I went back to the walk-in and hauled out some bottles and rotated the beer case behind the bar. I wheeled out a replacement keg and set it under the taps in the cooler for the morning bartender. It had been a heavy night for house drafts and she was old and weak. I set the clean glasses back and wiped down the bar one more time.

“Another bottle of Bud.”

I walked it over. He handed me a twenty, “Keep it.”

“Blanks, you need to hold onto this.”

“Ah, fuck it. I’m already up three hundred.”

“Walk away now. Twelve hundred dollars is a lot of money.”

His eyes were sick with fever, “No. I have unfinished business with this fucking machine. Remember the last time I was in here? This motherfucker took six hundred away from the table.”

“These machines are designed to win. Once in awhile somebody gets lucky, but that’s all it is.”

“Bullshit. This thing is MINE.”

“Alright.”

I stood behind the bar and drank my drink.

He yelled: “Ha! Sixteen hundred! Here we fucking go! Bring it on, you motherfucker!”

I totaled out the till. It was a good night for Buck and Tammy. I rolled the receipt and wrapped a rubber band around it. I walked back into the office and set the deposit bag in the safe. I walked out and picked up my drink, “How’s it going, Blanks?”

“Fucker has me down to five hundred. I’m not worried, though. It’s just fucking with me.”

By a quarter to close he was dead broke. He walked over to the bar and plopped down, “Son of a bitch. That was my rent and bills.”

I didn’t say anything. He dropped his head on the bar and started crying. He sobbed about how his wife was going to be pissed at him and how his kids had no food. He was pathetic there. He sat up and looked at me, “Hey, about that twenty. I might need that for a cab.”

“I put it under the ashtray.”

He looked over and swiped it up. I walked in the back and grabbed my coat and gloves. I watched him from the kitchen window. He went to the machine and fed it the twenty. It was gone instantly. He screamed and hit the machine. I walked around and lit up. Five minutes to close.

“Blanks, I have to shut it down. I’m sorry.”

“How am I getting home?”

“I don’t know.”

He leaned over the bar, “Listen, loan me a hundred dollars. That machine is just waiting to pay out. I’ll give you half of what I win.”

“No fucking way. I have bills and rent. I can’t afford to piss my money away on the fucking lottery.”

He sobbed and wiped his face, “What am I going to do?”

I called a cab. I had gotten to know Jerry over the phone but I only saw his face through the opened door of the bar.

“Burris cab.”

“Hello, Jerry. Blanks needs a ride home.”

“Does he have money?”

“I’ll get the fare. Can you hurry?”

“I’m turning the corner now.”

I hung up, “I’ll get the cab ride. I have to close up. Jerry’s almost here. I’m sorry, Blanks.”

He downed his beer and slid the bottle over to me. I trashed it. Jerry stuck his head in the door, “Let’s go, Blanks.”

I handed him a twenty and five ones, “He has twenty five bucks, Jerry. Is five dollars good enough for a tip?”

“It’s fine. Talk to you later.”

Blanks walked to the door with the money. There was a machine by the pool table near the front door. He hesitated and looked at me. I reached over and flipped off the lights over the pool tables. He walked out. I turned them back on and locked the front door. I took out the trash and set the alarm. I started the car and let it warm up for awhile. I lit up and watched the snow. She hated it when I smoked in her car. I blew a cloud against the windshield and drove off. Seven blocks to the house. I looked up the street and set it into low. She didn’t have snow chains. I already knew she wasn’t going to work. They were calling for a big storm. I listened to the wind and drove through the small and dormant streets. I didn’t want to go home but I had no choice. I parked in the driveway. All the lights were on.

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Written by SonOfSlayer
January
Buck had a good system. For every dozen drafts he poured he kept two dollars. For every tenth shot of well whiskey he pocketed three dollars. It was almost fail proof. Tammy owned the bar with him. I’d stumbled into the job on accident. It wasn’t much of a job but it wasn’t much of a town. My girlfriend had family there. There was always a war over money. She was older than I was and she wanted a family. I only wanted a clear white space. It caused conflict. I was burned out and she was useless by herself. She wasn’t far in life but she was as far as she was because of weak men. People in the town liked me because she had big tits. We’d walk around the town and I’d see people from the bar waving to us. I thought it was funny how they saw us.

And funny that I was the one to blame for the two of us being poor, but I was the only one who worked steadily. Apart from a pack of smokes a day and my coffee I had no personal expenses. I didn’t care about food or furniture. I didn’t care about glasses or plates or clothes. My budget was tight and angry. I spent money on typing paper and ribbon. I’d had a computer but it was destroyed during the drive up from Phoenix. I plugged it in and it was dead. I remembered her face when I was setting up the attic. I plugged in my machine and when it wouldn’t turn on I felt relief from her, satisfaction. It was the first time I’d felt a definite hatred for her. I thought about it while I poured.
“One dollar, Lutz.”
Lutz was a regular. He came in and drank from noon until close. House drafts were a dollar. And he nursed each beer for all it was worth. He drank day and night and left me with four quarters. Every Tuesday Buck made tacos. Three small tacos for a dollar. They were sloppy and shitty. They sold like wild fire. Tips at the bar were lousy. Except for Wednesdays, I walked home with maybe thirty dollars. Buck came out of the kitchen and sat next to Lutz. I poured him a draft. He looked around the bar. It was half full. He smiled, “How’s taco villa?”
“The usual. Do we have enough back there?”
“I just filled the prep bar.”
The phone rang. I looked at him. He shook his head. I picked it up.
“City Folks.”
“Hi sweetheart. How’s business?”
“It’s good. Same cast of characters.”
“If you need money for the lotto payout it’s in the office in the safe.”
“Nothing but losers today. I think Sam won twenty bucks.”
“But he lost a hundred to get it.”
“Right.”
“If I had the money he’s blown on that machine I could retire. Anyway, let me talk to Buck.”
She did that a lot. Buck refused to take her calls. She figured some banter might get some momentum going and he’d pick up the phone and flow into the conversation.
“Yeah, Buck just stepped out.”
I looked at him. He shrugged. I told her he said he’d be back in half an hour. Tammy came in after six at night. Buck never left. Buck had a son and a daughter from a previous marriage. He’d landed in town with a small savings and met Tammy. She was divorcing a man who had money. She put up the cash for the bar. It was Buck’s idea but she held the keys. Buck hired me because he wanted to bring some dignity into the bar. That’s what he said. I was young and strong. But I also had no temper. It took a lot for someone to get at me. Sam tried on my first day:
“Hey, nurse. Can you get me another one?”
His buddies laughed. I ignored him.
“Come on, man! Look, I’ll give you five bucks if you bring me two at once.”
I brought the two over. He looked at me and smiled, “You’d make a good faggot, you know that?”
I leaned over the bar and stared at him, “Care to find out?”
The bar broke up laughing. I put some glasses in the dishwasher:
“Seriously, Sam. Once you’ve had an ass like this you’re hooked. You’re totally gay.”
My girlfriend walked in and sat at the bar. The guys looked at her. She leaned over the bar and kissed me. Sam yelled, “Wait! I thought you were a faggot! That’s cheating!”
I filled a glass for her, “Sam, you’re only gay if you’re fucking a guy and you slap his left ass cheek three times.”
The bar broke up laughing again. Sam pounded on the bar, “I love this fucking guy!”
After that a few of Sam’s smartass friends tried to have a go at me. They weren’t hard to beat. Once I put them in any gay situation they broke down laughing. Buck and Tammy heard about it and gave me more hours. Then the full-time night bartender was fired for skimming the till. Buck caught her doing it. His system was better. I didn’t know why he was doing it. To cheat the government, maybe. He seemed happy with Tammy. Me, I had shit. I had big rent and a fucked up girlfriend. The bar job would have been alright had I lived in the town with a woman I cared about.
She ended up getting a job in Bend, working the sales floor for a fixture company. Faucets and toilets and lighting. She had to get up early. Apart from Wednesday night, when she would come into the bar while I closed, she was asleep when I came home. It was a blessing.


I usually came home and wrote. I hadn’t sat down for a hard run the first week of the job. One night I moved my typer downstairs and wrote from the kitchen table. I’d set up the attic for my study, then she immediately wanted to make it into our bedroom. We had two bedrooms downstairs by the bathroom. But she wanted to encroach on my fucking creation. I sat at the table and drank coffee. I lit a smoke off the stove and worked into a story. I heard the footsteps. The footsteps were black clouds above me. I reached over and turned up the radio. I felt her behind me. She walked over to the stove and brushed away the little spot my cigarette left on the burner.
She rinsed the rag in the sink, “I hate it when you do that. It’s so trashy.”
I sat there and stared at the page. She walked into the bathroom, “What the fuck?”
I reached over and grabbed my coffee. She came out, “I told you I hate seeing cigarette butts floating in the toilet. There’s something desperate about it.”
I read over the page:
Those who retain beauty and youth never had expectations of others.
She sat down at the table, “You’re awfully late.”
“Did the typer wake you?”
“Not really. I knew you were here. Why didn’t you come to bed with me?”
“Not tired.”
“What are you writing about?”
“Nothing right now. I’m listening to you whine.”
“Oh, so it’s fair that I have to work all day then wake up to you downstairs in the kitchen by yourself?”
“That’s what happens when people work opposite schedules. You should get some sleep.”
“This isn’t working out.”
“I get paid at the end of the month. I can be out then.”
“No. You’re not living with me if we’re not together. I can’t take that bullshit.”
It was her best move. If she was driving she’d tell me to get out of the car. I’d just made rent and she was telling me it wasn’t working out. Her uncle and grandmother lived in the town. But they never spent time with her. She told me that she was tired of the two of us not spending time together. She said that I had to do something about it. I lit another smoke off the stove and sat down, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do about it, I’m not going to quit my job, that’s for damned sure. If you’re really shaken up over it you can find different hours somewhere else.”
“No, you can switch to the day shift at the bar.”
“And walk away with six dollars in my pocket after seven hours? Good idea.”
“Then you’ll have to leave.”
“Gladly. In a month.”
“No, tomorrow!”
“Maybe you forget that I’m on the lease with you.”
“Merle likes me. He only rented the house to us because he likes me.”
“You must be proud.”
“Fuck you.”
“No thanks.”
She raised her eyebrows, “Really?”
“I’m trying to write here. Why do you have to walk down and start in on me? You bitch about having no time together yet any time left over you spend bitching at me. If it’s so fucking important for you that I leave I’ll hit Buck up for an advance and rent out a room for a month off my final check. Now, let me fucking write. Please.”
“Fine. I’m leaving, then.”
“Perfect.”
“Good. I’m tired of waking up and arguing with you. I have to be at work in three hours and I’m sitting here arguing with you.”
“Whose fault is that?”
“I can’t believe the way you treat me.”
“It’s too bad, I know. The way you suffer.”
“Maybe you can shack up with one of those sluts from Wednesday night.”
“She’d probably treat me a lot better.”
“I’m not going back to bed. We need to talk about why you are the way you are.”
I looked at the page again, stood up and put my shoes on. It was snowing outside. I zipped up my coat and found my gloves.
“Where are you going?”
“To build a fucking igloo and get some peace.”
“I’m going to get ready for work. This isn’t working out.”
I took off the gloves and the coat and sat back down. I shook it off and picked up the story where I’d left it. I heard her walk down. She walked straight to the bathroom. I unrolled the page and set it on top of the pile.

Upstairs I laid across the bed and watched the window. It wasn’t snowing but it was white. There was nothing pure about it. I was defeated and pissed. It was bright and deadly out there, cold and deadly, but it was like summer compared to where I was living. I heard her coming up the stairs. She stopped at the foot of the bed.
“Are you going to be here when I get back?”
“I have to work tonight.”
She put her hand on her hip and stared and me. I hated it.
“That’s not what I mean.”
“I need to sleep.”
She bitched some more and walked out. I jacked off to an old girlfriend and fell asleep.



“One dollar Lutz.”
“I just gave you a dollar for the last one.”
He laughed at himself. Sam came in and sat next to him. He nodded at me, “You ready for your big night?”
I set his beer down, “You’re just jealous.”
“Shit. I’m over that phase in my life.”
Lutz looked over at him, “What? Sex?”
“You’re goddamn right. I was so relieved when that day hit. Now when the old lady wants to have sex I’m like, ‘Damn baby, is it your birthday already?’”
Lutz threw his dollar down, “Shit, I’d be happy enough just to get some on my birthday.”
I took the dollar and stuck it in the till, “You’re not getting some rotting away on that stool.”
He waved me off, “Shit. I’ve had my share of pussy. Now I sit and reflect. You’ll get to be my age one day and you’ll resort to reflection, too.”
“Way ahead of you.”
They laughed. Sam raised his beer to me, “Just send her on this way.”
I poured a coke and slammed it, “I respect human life too much to do something like that.”
Lutz smiled. I refilled the glass and lit a smoke across from them. Sam rubbed his head, “I can’t believe I’ve been sitting here and neither one of you have said anything about my haircut.”
Lutz rubbed the haircut, “Awww, it looks nice, honey.”
“Just got a trim. I like it. Barbara says it makes me look younger. The way she cut it hides my receding hairline. Eight bucks.”
Lutz had long hair. He braided it back into a pony tail. They both had mustaches. Sam smiled at me, “You ought to get a shave and gel your hair down. You’re looking like a car thief.”
“Miami Vice,” Lutz said.
“Too cold to shave. I walk to work.”
“You live seven blocks away.”
I nodded to his mustache, “I could grow a dick-duster.”
Lutz laughed. Sam looked at him, “What the fuck are you laughing at? You got a mustache.”
“No, I have a handlebar. You have a mustache. Or, as your fair accuser behind the bar calls it, a dick-duster.”
Sam looked at me, “Shit. He has room to talk. Looks like he just woke up.”
I poured him another beer, “You look like a gay cop, Sam. You need to come to grips with your alter ego.”
“What alter ego?”
“Think about it.”
Lutz sipped his beer, “Another Wednesday. I see you’re wearing your finest.”
I set Sam’s empty glass in the dishwasher, “You use what you have. Wednesday night covers a lot of stress for me.”
“Rhonda and Cindy’ll cover you. More than once, too.”
“I know. Two more hours until the gates open.”
My girlfriend’s uncle walked in and sat down a few seats from Sam. Her uncle was a good man. He was consciously drinking himself away. He’d been through most of the painful sickness. Now he was gliding evenly into death. He looked like hell, but he was upbeat lately. He spent 21 days in treatment. Some fucked up family intervention. He was almost 40. The whole family consisted of 12-steppers and ex-things. They invited Jack over for some bullshit dinner and they surrounded him. Parts of the family had broken off and become rich, whether it was in insurance or children’s clothing. Jack was living off the money he’d made from selling his ranch after his divorce. His ex-wife turned to speed. But he stuck with the liquor. I’d never seen him sober. Everybody liked him. He did his 21 days and took the Antabuse and convinced the heads he wanted to turn over a new leaf. He even gained a few pounds back. After his 21 days he walked out and went to the bar. He hit the Vodka hard in the morning. In the afternoon he napped, and at dusk he awoke and had a few beers to warm up.
I set the glass in front of him, “Here’s another nail for your lid.”
“Thanks.”
Sam nodded at him, “Where you been keeping yourself?”
“I’m around.”
I wiped the bar down and emptied the ashtrays.
Jack smiled at me, “Heard you’ve been being a horse’s ass.”
“Yeah. I’m an inhuman monster.”
“She called me from work today.”
“I’m sure.”
“I don’t know why you two had to move into that big house.”
“Because she’s a fucking idiot.”
“Things been that bad?”
“I don’t like her.”
“I can’t say anything about that. She’s always been crazy.”
“If you see it that way. I don’t think she’s crazy at all. She’s a control freak. I can’t remember the last time I was attracted to her soberly.”
The Love brothers walked in. They worked light construction around town. I worked for them when we first moved into town. They paid seven dollars per hour. The job was long and pointless. I showed up for work my last day and they were three hours late. And they didn’t have the money to pay me. But they had money for the bar. I refused them service until they paid me off. They bitched to Buck about it. Buck told them when they paid me they could drink. Wednesday night was a big deal for the men in town. It was a Wednesday last month when I wouldn’t serve them. They walked back in the office and talked to Buck about me. I was 27 and they were in their forties but I wasn’t worried about them. They were famous in town for not paying their debts to their workers. They sat at the bar after Buck had backed me up. Sam was there with Lutz. Sam smiled to them, “Carl and Dale Love. How’s tricks?”
Carl was the older one. But they were both graceless. He nodded at me:
“He won’t serve us.”
Sam smiled, “Come on, kid. Forgive and forget. They need a beer.”
“And I need my money.”
Dale eyed me, “You’re gonna look awful funny trying to pour drinks with two broken arms.”
I called Buck out of the back. He walked behind the bar.
“Can I have fifteen minutes off right now?” I said.
“Sure. What’s wrong?”
I took off my apron and set it on the bar. I pointed at them, “Both you cocksuckers. Out back, now.”
Nothing happened. I put it back on, “Get the fuck out of here.”
Buck smiled and looked at them. Carl dug into his pocket and tossed a fist of twenties over the bar and on the floor. I picked them up and tossed them back. The bills hit them and scattered. I poured Sam another one and took away his glass. I stood back in front of them, “Now, hand me that money like men. One more little tantrum like that and you guys are 86’d for good.”
They looked at Buck. He put his hands up, “He’s the bartender. I just own the place.”
Carl looked at Dale, “Give him the money.”
I shook my head at him, “No, you give me the money. You’re the boss, right?”
He gathered the money and handed it to me. I put it in my pocket and poured them a beer. I set them down on the bar and knocked on the wood. I put their beer money in the till. Lutz smiled. I leaned on the bar and stared at them, “Honor feels good, doesn’t it? You can only burn so many people. I could have been a psychopath. I could have burned your fucking houses down.”
They gave each other a dumb look and drank their beers. Every Wednesday since then they were good tippers and respectful. This Wednesday was no different. They sat down next to Jack and ordered a pitcher. I set it down with the glasses and poured their glasses, “You guys here for some action?”
Dale laughed, “Hell yes. I even took a bath.”
I smiled at Carl, “What about you?”
“Shit, I’m not wasting my time in the shower.”
The phone rang.
“City Folks.”
“It’s me. How’s work going?”
“It’s just fine.”
“Listen, I’m sorry about this morning. I want to come in tonight and drink a little.”
“We’ll be open.”
“Alright. I love you.”
“Alright.”
I hung up. It rang back.
“City Folks.”
“I told you I loved you.”
“I heard you.”
Jack shook his head. She paused for a second. The first wave walked in.
“I have to go. The first team just walked in.”
“Maybe I won’t come down tonight. Maybe I should just move on.”
“Take care.”
I hung up.


Wednesday was ladies’ pool league night. The largest and most wretched women in the county filled the bar with their fat asses and sexual repression. Once in awhile they had a thin one in the herd, but my girlfriend showed up around seven at night and she stayed until closing, drove me home and bitched at me until she had to go to work. Once in awhile we had sex, but not too often. She was paranoid about me taking off with a girl after work, or she would try to get herself worked up for home when we got there. I preferred masturbation over either. One of her biggest problems with the bar job was Wednesday. Once in awhile a cow would run her hand down my lower back or touch my hair. But I always walked out of the bar with at least a hundred dollars. Buck smiled at me, “Trouble in Paradise?”
“She says she’s moving on.”
“Moving on to what?”
“I don’t care.”
The girls pulled out their sticks and rolled them on the table. They were the team from Madras. I walked over.
“Hello, ladies. The usual?”
They cackled and elbowed each other:
“We’ll take three pitchers of Coors light and a few pizzas.”
“Will you ladies be running a tab again tonight?”
“Only if there’s a lap dance involved.”
They cackled again. I smiled, “You couldn’t afford it.”
I walked away and poured the pitchers. I nodded to Buck, “Three pizzas.”
“Cheese or meat combos?”
“What do you think?”
He walked back in the kitchen and threw them in the oven. I walked the pitchers over and came back with the glasses. Tammy walked in and waved to me. I set the glasses down and poured their first beers. Little things like that fattened the tip jar. The pool games went on until eleven or so, then the mating ritual began. I walked behind the bar. Tammy looked at me and smiled. I fixed her a Bloody Mary. She lit up, “My girlfriend’s daughter’s coming in tonight with them. You’d like her. I told her about you.”
“That’s nice, Tammy. But I can’t do anything about it, being how I live with Satan and all.”
“Maybe she won’t come in tonight.”
“And maybe I’m a Swedish doctor.”
“I don’t know why you don’t kick her to the curb. You should be with a nice girl.”
I looked at her. Jack was right beside her. She saw him, “Oh, hey Jack. Shit.”
He laughed, “I didn’t hear a word. But you’re probably right.”
She laughed with him and nodded to me, “You’ll like Tina. She’s funny.”
Jack had another, then walked out and toward the next place.
I did like Tina. She was a healthy farm girl. She took her vitamins. The bar was in full swing. I hustled my ass off. Rhonda and Cindy didn’t play pool. They ate pizza at the bar and smiled at me over their Chablis. It was just after eight. Tina walked to the bar.
“What can I get for you?”
“A shot of Maker’s and a Newcastle.”
“Nice.”
I set her up. She tipped heavily.
“How long have you worked here?”
“Two months.”
“Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Don’t say that out loud. She’ll appear.”
She laughed, “Tammy said you should dump her.”
“Tammy’s right.”
The door opened and she walked in. I looked at Tina, “Great. Thanks a lot.”
She laughed and walked past her. They eyed each other. It was good. She sat a few stools away from Rhonda and Cindy.
“Who was that?”
“A customer.”
“I’ll bet. Give me a drink.”
“Goat’s blood or the soul of a child?”
Sam and Lutz broke out laughing. She got up and walked out. I ran some pitchers over to a pool table. I looked outside. It was snowing. Carl and Dale had found a group of bison and blended in. I poured Lutz another. He took the glass and moved his eyes to the door. I nodded.
She sat back down, “Let’s try this again. Can I have a whiskey sour, please, bartender?”
I fixed the drink and set it down. She smiled, “I don’t have any money.”
I reached into the tip jar. Lutz nudged her, “Must be nice.”
She took a drink, “He has a good ass on him, but his brain is evil.”
Sam looked over and smiled at me, “Oh, I think he’s a big sweetheart. You’re lucky.”
Cindy glanced at her, “Damned right.”
I looked around the bar. Everything was covered. I poured a coke and opened a pack of smokes. Tina sat down and held her lighter out. She lit me up, “You work hard. Do you work that hard in bed?”
“Hell, no.”
My girlfriend was in flames. I set Tina up with another shot and a beer. She tipped me five dollars.
“Thanks, Tina.”
She winked at me and walked off. I walked over and poured Sam another beer. He looked at my girlfriend, “How’s work going down at the bathroom joint?”
“It’s not just a bathroom joint. I sell ceiling fans and lighting, too.”
“Oh. Sorry.”
He rolled his eyes at me. She nodded for another drink. I made her one in a big water glass. It was full of whiskey. I put a ten in the till. Buck smiled at me through the opening between the kitchen and the bar. I walked back. He was pulling some pizzas from the oven, “You don’t have to do that. I’ll buy her drinks.”
“It’s not about the money.”
He shook his head, “They always gotta make it a fucking war.”
She was a fast drunk. It only took her two or three shots before it set in. For somebody who once lived in Manhattan and hung around her great and godly circles she had no composure. And she was totally transposed as a drinker. Everything turned opposite. It wasn’t any better than normal, but it was almost entertaining to watch her mind try to adjust or function. But she drank the whiskey and went to the bathroom, battled the truth in the mirror, came out and drank the whiskey. Tammy sat at the other end of the bar. I made her a Black Opal and set it down. She looked at my girlfriend and smiled at me, “You asshole.”
“If she wants to come in here and put on that skin she’s going to wear it.”
She watched me talk to Tammy. I walked over and handed Lutz his beer. She was drunk and she leaned into Lutz and motioned to me, “See that man right there? I’m going to fuck that man.”
Sam raised his eyebrows at me. Lutz put his arm around her, “If you’re going to do that you need to slow down. I don’t think our bartender’s quite seasoned for hardcore sex.”
She rolled her eyes and shook her head, “No. I’m going to fuck him. He treats me like shit but I’m going to fuck him.”
She laughed suddenly and loudly, “Where’s my uncle!”
I walked over, “He’s around. Probably down at Goodwater’s. He said he was coming back. Here, let me give you a refill.”
Buck walked out of the kitchen and smiled at me. He looked to the phone. I tossed it to him and poured another pitcher for the players. He talked for a minute and hung up. He sat down on the other side of my girlfriend and nodded. I poured him a draft and set it down. He patted his shirt pocket. His pack was empty. I tossed him a pack from the bar. He smoked straights. I wrote a receipt for it and shoved it under the drawer in the till. Tammy walked over to him and wrapped her arms around him, “Hi, Papa. You tired?”
My girlfriend drank and looked at them, “See that? You two are in love. Why can’t it be like that with the man I love?”
Sam looked over at her, “Jesus, woman. Show some class.”
Her eyes widened and glared at him. She pointed, “You. You shut up.”
Rhonda and Cindy looked at me. I lit up and took away their drinks, “You ladies still thirsty?”
“Two more then we’re good, baby.”
My girlfriend stared into the glass, “She calls him baby and he doesn’t even care.”
Buck stood up and Tammy took his place on the stool. She put her arm around her and talked into her ear. I liked Tammy. She was older with high blonde hair. She was thick and strong-minded but she wasn’t garish. My girlfriend slammed the drink and asked me for another. Tammy looked at me, “It’s your call.”
I poured her another and set it down, “It’s fine. Buck called Goodwater’s a minute ago. Jack’s on his way over.”
I put her keys in my pocket. She made a delayed and sloppy swipe for them, “Hey!”
Tammy rubbed her arm, “Don’t worry, honey. Jack’s going to get you home whenever you want to leave. Just sit here and drink and relax a little. You know, if you just loosened up once in awhile things might be better with you two.”
She stared at me. Her eyes were half shut, “Do you think I need to loosen up once in awhile?”
“I think you should keep drinking and forget about everything for an hour or two.”
Tina showed up at the other end of the bar: “Hey, bartender!” She was drunk: “Why don’t you walk over here and give me some more?”
Sam rubbed his forehead. My girlfriend started crying. She looked at me, “Do you love me?”
Tammy nodded yes at me quickly. I set a new whiskey sour down in front of her, “Here, drink this.”
I put her old glass in the dishwasher and set Tina up. I set the drinks down. She gave me a ten and two ones, “Keep it.”
“Thanks, Tina.”
She leaned over the bar and wrote her number down on the back of a coaster. She slid it over and shook her head, “Call me when you can get away for a few hours.”
She walked off. I looked at the number and threw it in the trash. My girlfriend smiled at the other end of the bar. I raised an eyebrow at her and poured Sam another. I watched the beer fill the glass and repeated the number over in my head. I associated the number with her auburn hair and her hips. It was locked in. The bitch of it would be timing. I couldn’t do anything with her while I was still with Satan. I wiped down the bar and calculated the perfect escape plan. I had a whiteboard in my mind and I stood there with a pointer and showed myself, in detailed steps, how I could pull it off. I could get the times of departing buses for Portland. I could quit the bar and have one day at the house to pack a duffel bag. I could take an early morning bus. The previous afternoon I could leave the house and go to Tina’s place, fuck her all night and have her drop me off at the station, jump on a bus and head into the city and get a place. There I could live alone and write another novel. There I could meet a nice girl who had a real soul and a real life. I could get a cheap car and take road trips. I could sit awake until four in the morning and write and drink and smoke and look out my window. I could walk Chinatown when I couldn’t sleep. I could live on the east side if I wanted to. Maybe rent a room out of a house with some decent people and walk to the cafes in the early mornings and drink real coffee. I could get a dog and teach him to catch a frisbee. Maybe I could be a waiter or a writer for some stupid little magazine up there to pay the bills. One thing was for sure, I was dead in this town.
Jack walked in and sat next to her. She hugged him and laughed, “Here’s my boy!”
He nodded at me, “Vodka soda.”
I set him up. He tossed a twenty on the bar. I handed him his change and walked over to clear one of the tables. The women were leaving. They almost emptied out at once. Tina blew me a kiss and walked out. They were laughing. Rhonda and Cindy left me a ten spot each on the bar and took off. I hustled the bus tub behind the bar. I set up Sam and Lutz with two on the house and started the pre-close. It was just before midnight but I liked to get the place ready to vacuum right at one. Buck and Tammy stood by the kitchen in their coats. Buck looked at Jack, “You gonna get her home alright?”
“I’ll take care of her.”
She looked at me and slurred, “At least somebody gives a shit.”
Tammy walked over and kissed me on the cheek. She scrubbed the back of my head and smiled, “See you tomorrow night. Thanks a lot for all your work.”
“Any time, Tammy.”
My girlfriend looked into her glass and repeated my words bitterly. Tammy walked over and squeezed her shoulder, “You behave yourself tonight, sweetie. We’ll see you.”
Buck waved and they left. Jack stood up and gripped her shoulders, “Come on. He’ll get the car home. You need to get your head down for awhile. You’re going to be feeling like shit tomorrow.”
She looked at her glass and tipped it over on the bar, “Whatever.”
I glanced at the whiskey dripping off the corner of the bar from the lip of the glass. It was a perfect snapshot of the last year I’d been with her. He walked her to the door. She kept turning and saying hostile things to me. He waved and they were gone. Back at the bar I poured Lutz and Sam two more. Sam smiled at me, “You got your hands full with that one.”
“Hardly.”
Lutz watched me drain the beer tray from under the taps, “Well, hell. Time I got my drunk ass to sleep. Thanks a lot.”
“See you tomorrow, Lutz.”
Sam slammed his beer and stood up, “Same here. I have to work at five sharp. Supposed to snow hard in a few hours.”
“You two be careful. Thanks for the company.”
They left. They always left at the same time. Nobody bothered to wonder. I walked over to the juke box, put a dollar in and played some Don Williams. I vacuumed the rugs and did the dishes. It was almost one in the morning. I had another hour to wait. I couldn’t total out until I locked the door, so I counted my tips. A hundred and forty-seven dollars clear. A few more weeks like this and I could be alright. I made myself a large Jack Coke and sat at the corner of the bar. I lit up and unbuttoned my long-sleeve. It was hot in the bar. I set my shirt on the bar and zoned out. I finished the drink and set the garbage bags by the back door. The front door opened and the cold air shot in.
“You closed?”
“Not yet. You still have a good hour.”
His name was Blanks. I never knew his first name. I knew he lived south between the bar and Bend with his wife and two boys. I hadn’t seen him in over a month. He was addicted to the machines. He played poker constantly. The last time he was in he blew his whole two week’s pay. He was a famous loser in the county. He had big sorry eyes and a droopy mustache. He sat at the bar, “Walked here from Goodwater’s. Old lady took the car back. We had a fight.”
“I hear you.”
“Bottle of Bud.”
I opened the bottle for him. He walked over and sat behind the poker machine. He held up a roll of bills, “You see this? Nine hundred dollars. I’m going to turn this into a small fortune. Right here, right now.”
“Don’t say that.”
“Fuck it. I’m due.”
I went back to the walk-in and hauled out some bottles and rotated the beer case behind the bar. I wheeled out a replacement keg and set it under the taps in the cooler for the morning bartender. It had been a heavy night for house drafts and she was old and weak. I set the clean glasses back and wiped down the bar one more time.
“Another bottle of Bud.”
I walked it over. He handed me a twenty, “Keep it.”
“Blanks, you need to hold onto this.”
“Ah, fuck it. I’m already up three hundred.”
“Walk away now. Twelve hundred dollars is a lot of money.”
His eyes were sick with fever, “No. I have unfinished business with this fucking machine. Remember the last time I was in here? This motherfucker took six hundred away from the table.”
“These machines are designed to win. Once in awhile somebody gets lucky, but that’s all it is.”
“Bullshit. This thing is MINE.”
“Alright.”
I stood behind the bar and drank my drink.
He yelled: “Ha! Sixteen hundred! Here we fucking go! Bring it on, you motherfucker!”
I totaled out the till. It was a good night for Buck and Tammy. I rolled the receipt and wrapped a rubber band around it. I walked back into the office and set the deposit bag in the safe. I walked out and picked up my drink, “How’s it going, Blanks?”
“Fucker has me down to five hundred. I’m not worried, though. It’s just fucking with me.”
By a quarter to close he was dead broke. He walked over to the bar and plopped down, “Son of a bitch. That was my rent and bills.”
I didn’t say anything. He dropped his head on the bar and started crying. He sobbed about how his wife was going to be pissed at him and how his kids had no food. He was pathetic there. He sat up and looked at me, “Hey, about that twenty. I might need that for a cab.”
“I put it under the ashtray.”
He looked over and swiped it up. I walked in the back and grabbed my coat and gloves. I watched him from the kitchen window. He went to the machine and fed it the twenty. It was gone instantly. He screamed and hit the machine. I walked around and lit up. Five minutes to close.
“Blanks, I have to shut it down. I’m sorry.”
“How am I getting home?”
“I don’t know.”
He leaned over the bar, “Listen, loan me a hundred dollars. That machine is just waiting to pay out. I’ll give you half of what I win.”
“No fucking way. I have bills and rent. I can’t afford to piss my money away on the fucking lottery.”
He sobbed and wiped his face, “What am I going to do?”
I called a cab. I had gotten to know Jerry over the phone but I only saw his face through the opened door of the bar.
“Burris cab.”
“Hello, Jerry. Blanks needs a ride home.”
“Does he have money?”
“I’ll get the fare. Can you hurry?”
“I’m turning the corner now.”
I hung up, “I’ll get the cab ride. I have to close up. Jerry’s almost here. I’m sorry, Blanks.”
He downed his beer and slid the bottle over to me. I trashed it. Jerry stuck his head in the door, “Let’s go, Blanks.”
I handed him a twenty and five ones, “He has twenty five bucks, Jerry. Is five dollars good enough for a tip?”
“It’s fine. Talk to you later.”
Blanks walked to the door with the money. There was a machine by the pool table near the front door. He hesitated and looked at me. I reached over and flipped off the lights over the pool tables. He walked out. I turned them back on and locked the front door. I took out the trash and set the alarm. I started the car and let it warm up for awhile. I lit up and watched the snow. She hated it when I smoked in her car. I blew a cloud against the windshield and drove off. Seven blocks to the house. I looked up the street and set it into low. She didn’t have snow chains. I already knew she wasn’t going to work. They were calling for a big storm. I listened to the wind and drove through the small and dormant streets. I didn’t want to go home but I had no choice. I parked in the driveway. All the lights were on.
#fiction  #prose  #story  #deadbirdshot  #shortstory  #whiskey  #love  #vodka  #lustforlife  #beer  #culture  #hate 
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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy

Sigh

    “The sooner you embrace darkness, the sooner your eyes adjust.”

    This is just one example of the many odd things she would say to you, whether you were deep in conversation of no relevance, or simply passing a mundane greeting.

    Of course, it was different. We were in of Mage Stelma’s Third Division Infantry. That meant we were marksmen of sorts, but gods know we used blades more than arrows. War gets messy like that. Beyond that, expert conversationalists. Words were our secondary art, because it passed the time, it settled into our hearts; we savored every syllable, or tried to, with the full knowledge that today or tomorrow was likely our last.

    She had a name before she came here. A real name, I mean, passed down from parents. A name that held childhood memories. I suppose that’s why we try to detach ourselves from those.

    We all called her Sigh, because that was the sound her bolts made as they flew through the air.

    It was a stark contrast to the noises her targets emitted.

    I understand, already this story has gone sour. I am focusing on one marksman instead of the entire infantry. You don’t have a clue as to the battles we fought, what they looked like, or even what war we waged, whether in our hearts or with the opposing sides.

I apologize. This story is not about the war itself, rather the poetry of bloodshed it inspired. You’ll just have to come to grips with that. Your narrator is not intelligent enough to understand the machinations of political or economic dominance from one culture to another.

    I just shoot things. And if I am not too tired, I think about it after I do.

    “How’d you sleep last night?” I asked Sigh one morning. The weather was not dismal, but it was threatening. Thick, grey clouds boasting a storm which would drench all of us and our equipment. We all silently prayed it would not.

    “We awaken, thinking we’ve just stepped out of a dream, without realizing we merely passed into another.” She grinned at me, with chapped lips and impossibly brown, dirty eyes. I say impossibly, because I had never met someone quite like her, and I always thought she deserved some features less common than the ones the gods had given her. Regardless, I found her beyond beautiful.

    “That being said, how about you?” she asked me.

    I returned the grin. “I slept well. Well enough. Better than most nights.”

    Last night, we heard deep rumbling in the distance. Many of us huddled into our coats, imagining thunder. The smarter ones, particularly Sigh, perked their ears, stopped fidgeting with their heirlooms and trinkets that kept them company away from home, and realized it was not thunder at all.

    It was far more frightening than ominous weather. Far, far more frightening. The truth: the opposing army had devised some kind of machinery that could shake the ground so horribly, could produce sounds so booming that it was reminiscent of thunder.

    We all quivered, after Sigh and a few others had pieced it together.

    Still, I wasn’t lying. I slept very well. What can I say? I have a propensity for not caring.

That morning, the booming had mysteriously ceased. Now, as the silence settled in, we prayed it would rain, and prove the possibilities all wrong.

    “What do you think made those sounds?” Silver Thomas asked no one in particular.

    Here we were, crouched peacefully over some frying eggs and a slab of oat-bread that Sigh was cutting into portions.

     “And here you are, interrupting a perfectly peaceful morning,” I groaned. “Can’t you just eat your oat bread, sometimes?”

    “What?” Silver Thomas muffled through a mouthful. “I’m merely wondering what you all think.”

     “Be comforted that you do not know when death comes. It is the only thing in life that you can reserve your laziness for: you do not have to plan for it,” Sigh said as she handed out clay plates with the eggs.

     A clap of thunder. Her hand was outstretched towards Silver Thomas, who had his silver eyes upturned toward the sky, and an odd expression on his face.

    The next moment, it was gone, buried into the ground under a heaping mound of fiery steel, coal, and metals spewing out like a crack in the earth itself.

    It took his body with it, several feet into the earth, as well as his breakfast.

    Sigh snatched her crossbow and dove for the trenches, disregarding the rest of us, all sitting dumbstruck and shocked around the campfire—admittedly looking less impressive next to the ball of hellfire.

    She was never much of a comrade. Didn’t find excuses, nor any opportunities, to risk her hide for us.

    She contributed the light spitter to the armies, as we preferred to call it. With this brilliant device, she called it even and made her own survival priority.

    Fair is fair.

     She personally drew the plans and an engineered example, shown to Mage Stelma herself, several months prior to our being issued onto the fields. Sigh had a comprehensive education in rune magick that bordered on expertise, before she volunteered to be a marksman for the Moon-elves during the War of the Eclipse.

    It was like a crossbow without strings and bolts, had a long handle and a wide, hallow muzzle. Each spitter took about a year’s preparation, so many of those with enough knowledge in destructive magick and runes were called to cease their studies, halt their lives, to instead craft these weapons with as much speed and efficiency as possible.

Under penalty of treason, imprisonment, or simply death. 


    War makes allies threaten allies. Isn’t that silly?

    The weapon was powered by the moon. Every marksmen was trained in activating a charging rune at night, setting it down in the open before bed so that it could soak up the rays.

    The following day, it could issue a few dozen shots before fizzling out. A few dozen incredibly powerful and fatal shots, that is.

    A whole slew of runes were charged by various practitioners in the crafting process, such that dumb folks like myself could simply put his eye down the sights, aim, mutter a word, and press a thumb against an insignia that fired it.

    Not many of us understood how it worked, but it saved the poor blacksmiths in neighboring towns and villages some time. They still had to forge arrowheads, just not so many.

    Sigh had two of her own, but preferred her crossbow and bolts nonetheless.

    “Magick is a fickle friend,” she’d say as she twirled a knife around, telling us about her education at the colleges. “After all those years, I still prefer metal. It won’t backfire. Magick, in the wrong hands, will often backfire. No matter how much you plan, think ahead, for the most complex spells, something will almost always go wrong. And before you know it, you set your kitchen on fire, your mother is screaming at you, and the dog has become a rabbit with talons and wings. All because you wanted to try and warm your bedsheets before you went to sleep.”

    “Is this from personal experience?”

    Sigh sighed. “Yes.”

    Anywho. Back to the carnage.

    Trebuchets. Empowered by, oh, you guessed it, fire magick. Combined with some more mathematically inclined minds—Sun-elven blacksmiths who knew a thing or two about trajectory—the combination of wood, steel, iron, rope, and we had hellfire on our hands.

    Quite literally, raining down.

    When you are presented with chaos, your mind oscillates—very briefly—between two choices: shock, or decisive action.

    I saw, as I turned my gaze to the skies, countless meteors in a myriad of shapes, sizes and color, dripping with silver, fire and ruin … as well as a whole flock of messenger ravens.

    Dead ones, mind you, half-scorched. All stiff and clenched up from rigor mortis.

    One of them landed in my lap, still twitching, staring up at me with sizzling feathers and black eyes.

    That was when my mind chose the second option.

    I spotted Sigh. She was running not away, but toward the enemies, sprinting for the bordering forestry with spitters dancing on her belt, her weapons barely clinging to their leather loops with how fast she clipped the soil.

    I jumped up and out of the trenches, dodging a cluster from the trebuchets as I did.

Someone behind me screamed, “Wait, Will!—” before another cluster cut him off, filled his throat with molten steel.

    If there was anyone smart enough to survive this, it was Sigh. Sometimes, you have to kill the hero’s instincts in you so that, maybe tomorrow, you can actually live to fulfill them.

    It felt like the ground was trying to shake me off of it. I toppled over, scrambled to my feet, and jumped into my strides instead of stepping into them, because even the air shook with such a ferocity it seemed bent on escaping the hold of my lungs.

Ash and smoke stuffed my senses. I felt rain on my face, and wiped it off.

    No, that was Silver Thomas’ blood.

    There was more of it—hotter—on my arms. I assumed several people had left parting gifts on my skin, as I ran with just as much of a lack of consideration for them as Sigh, toward the shelter of the trees and bushes.

    “Left, Will!” I heard her scream.

    She said my name! I somehow made room for that thought.

    She was crouched beneath several canopies, far away, and her shouts reached me.

    I blindly followed, dove to the left, and felt the searing heat of another cluster land just behind me.

    Then her mouth opened again, but it hung, stopped short. She had the look of someone staring at a corpse.

     I braced myself for death. Which is to say I took a breath and did something between a whimper and a chuckle.

    She whipped out both her spitters, took aim, and shouted MIRA!

I thought that she was aiming for my head, to end my misery sooner than the hellfire would.

    Violet light shot out of the muzzles, displacing the cluster just as it singed my hair. The light ricocheted off and flung into the sky.

    I didn’t bother with anymore second chances and rushed to meet her in the safety of the forest.

    “The Sun-elves,” she said, “they fired, betting that most of us would retreat. Oh, how right they were. Come,” she tugged on my arm and we went deeper into the trees.

    “Thank—”

    “Sush. We’re still going to die,” she promised. “I just made yours last a little longer. Still grateful?”

    I nodded.

    “You’re like me, then, I guess.”

    Lines of their soldiers were already halfway across the fields, all but waltzing with drawn swords towards our demolished camp and trenches, while we ducked our heads beneath bushes and pulled our hoods up.

    Amidst the carnage, they must not have spotted us. We both checked our belts for what we had to survive.

    Sigh, as per usual, had everything if she needed to last for a handful of days, all in the various-sized pouches hanging from her belt, including rations, bolts, and materials for starting fires.

    I had a dagger, a sword, a spitter, and a dead raven in my hands.

    Not all marksmen are created equal.

    I had been clutching it so hard during the chaos, if whatever the Sun-elves did to it did not kill it, I certainly had choked the poor thing to death.

    Some of its feathers stuck to my bloodied hands as I pulled away from it. There was a message tied to its talon. Even Sigh was curious.

    We opened up the small scroll of parchment.

     Our scout had written a series of symbols which meant: They’re faster than anticipated. Retreat with all haste.

    And the Sun-elf who’d caught him, presumably, had saved some of the stores of his inkwell by writing in the scout’s blood: Hah!

    The crunch of branches and idle conversation drifted through the trees. I raised widened eyes to Sigh, who responded by putting a steady finger against my lips.

    She whispered in the smallest voice, “Death is most efficient, most merciful, when she arrives unexpectedly,” and grinned.

    She set down the two spitters, unhooked her hand crossbow from her belt, and readied a bolt. She then, with another finger, hushed my hand, which had reached for a spitter, and shook her head.

    Oddly enough, everything was quiet.

    The screams, the thunder. My mind had echoed it into the time that stretched beyond the initial chaos. Now it was all still again, wind through trees, silent, grey skies and a calm, afternoon sun. And a river.

     There was a river to the right of us, at the edge of the forest, running peacefully. It was the picturesque scene of a placid morning.

    I suppose it was because many of us had died so quickly.

    The Sun-elves, dressed in elegant, gold-trimmed black raiment, strolled past us, laughing and chortling. A stark contract to our mismatched, grey, black, and sage wools and leathers.

    The elf on the far right of the trio had caught Sigh out of the corner of his eye, before she buried a bolt in his head, another in the left, while I sprang up and slew the one in the middle, who hadn’t time enough to draw his own weapon.

    Not a scream. Just three, soft thumps to the ground.

    “She is a merciful mistress, indeed,” Sigh said, checking their pulses before going to their pockets. “But she's much work to do through my hands, before the day is done.”

    I tried to keep up with her as the day wore on, but she was too nimble, too harried. Often, she took risks as we delved deeper behind enemy lines. I pestered her about what we should do, what our plans were. How we were to get word back to the other encampments before more blood was shed on our side of the war. Because, gods be true, we were losing it. Not just today, but for the past two years.

    She just kept up with those strange sayings, as if she was passing off mundane conversation per usual.

    “Why haven’t we turned back?”

    “If we spoke the language of the trees, we would be too interested in what they said to ever turn our ears any other place.”

    “Damnit, Sigh! We’re leagues away from any camp. Where are we going?”
 She stopped, grabbed my arm, and looked me straight in the eyes, in a way she never had before.

    She said, with a tilt of her head, and I swear, a look of affection: “Once, I lost my timepiece. When I found it, someone had stepped on it. It was all cracked and dented, the hour hand trembling like a heart trying to beat a dead body. I’ve not tried to keep track since then. And I hate timepieces.”

    I thought it had been too much. The war had smashed her sanity, just how someone had smashed her timepiece. So I nodded. “All right, Sigh. I understand.”

    And I think, as I said that, she really thought I did.

    Night arrived all too quickly. We found ourselves at the edge of the river, miles downstream from our camp. I felt like I had been following a ghost the entire day. When we came near the Sun-elf camp with the trebuchets, she stopped for a few minutes, the only few minutes she allowed herself not to move, besides to avoid attention from other soldiers.

    When she did, she brought out a notepad, a quill, an inkwell, and scrawled notes, glancing up every now and then at their machines, before folding it and giving it to me. She was analyzing how they were designed, I thought.

    They were quite daunting, towering things. The height of castle turrets, with all the complex rigging and cogs you might imagine.

    “Sigh, you should have it. You should give this to Mage Stelma yourself.”

    The camp was silent, save for the burning of a torch here or there. The snoring of a soldier supposed to be on watch, leaning against a tree close enough that we could make out how his breath parted the hair falling over his face each time he exhaled.

    “Words are like birds. Catch them as they come,” she whispered to me. “Some are prettier than others. Don’t bother reaching out to the ugly ones, Will, for they’ve been handled too much, and are boring little things. Take time, and be patient, for the ones which really catch your eye.”

    Her hand lingered on mine as she gave me the note.

    “I will, Sigh,” I said. “I promise.”

    I almost forgot. And I apologize. I’m not very good at this storytelling business. I just needed to get some of this out.

    One of the most peculiar moments we shared. An hour or so before the conversation beside the camp with the trebuchets, she stopped, felt the tiny quiver at her waist, and looked down at it.

    When she looked up, there were tears streaming down her face. My tired heart throbbed; I wanted to hug her. I almost did.

    “I’ve only three bolts left,” she mumbled.

    She did not always speak in riddles, in words of wisdom of little relevance to what was already being said.

    That started after her brother died. That was when she felt inspired to design the light spitters. Her revenge.

    After she had passed the note to me, she walked to the riverside, and stepped into the water as normally as one might keep walking anywhere that is not freezing.

    Despite it being springtime, the water had pieces of frozen ice here and there. We were, after all, in the Runelands. It was the reason for the war in the first place, to fight for this wasteland of eternal winter. The Sun-elves wanted a whole continent for their own race, to call the home of the highborns.

    “Sigh, what are you doing? Come out. Let’s go home.”

    I wondered what I meant by the last word. If we had one, I mean.

    She waded deeper into the water. A log passed her, slapped against her thigh before drifting downstream.

    It was not a log. It was an arm. Its sleeve bore the patch of our division.

    More logs came, varying in sizes and shapes. Some still had heads attached.

    “When I was a young girl, I had a dream that I was a puppet,” she said, plucking one up by the finger. “It was only when I was older that I realized no one tugged on my strings but me.”

    Her face was devoid of all expression.

    I couldn’t do much for the tears on my face. “Where are you going?”

    She immersed herself in the water, pale as snow, and let the current lift her up on her back, carry her away. Even I was shivering from the cold, but she was still as stone.

I realized, as I watched the current take her, that she was not mad. She was raving sane.

We were the mad ones, trying to carry on normally while the war tore us apart, both literally and figuratively. It severed our heart strings, cut our mind off from the grace of poetry; it made killing our art, survival a craft with many different mediums, some of them terrifyingly bloody.

    I didn’t join her in the water; I crossed to the other side of the river, and kept up with her, as I watched the bodies from the Third Division crowd around her, embrace her as one of their own.

    Fetid steam rose up from the water. Moonlit rays fell through the fog, glinted on their icy eyes and frozen lips. A nightmare of unparalleled beauty.

    I lost track of her. There were too many bloodless bodies, and her face was just as pale as theirs. She stared up at the stars, with the same thoughtful revelation as the dead have when they first meet death.

    Soon enough, the flames and torches of another enemy camp came into view. That is when I slunk away into the trees. I didn’t remember much of the training I had as a scout. They had declared me a marksmen after I lied, told them I could not see very well.

    Apparently, they did not sympathize with me.

    The thought of being not only across from enemies, but behind them, terrified me. Yet I found myself in the role I had scurried away from.

    They were waiting for them.

    The Sun-elves, with tankards in their hands and laughter in their throats. The laughter of victors. The war had been waging for three years. We were in our death throes, and they were entertained by our erratic behavior on the battlefields. Our last-ditch strategies to overcome an army far better equipped and trained than our own.

    “Don’t suppose they’ll have much on ‘em. They were running, after all,” I heard one say.

    I climbed into a tree, careful to choose the heavier branches that would not sway so much under my weight, and watched from above, thinking of the raven and wondering what words they would write all over my body with my blood, if they caught me.

    There were three of them at the riverbank, but dozens in the camps just a few walks away. This camp wasn’t asleep, like the other.

    The bodies started to arrive at the riverbank. They already had a pyre ablaze, ready to incinerate our remnants.

    I thought for a moment, foolishly, that Sigh was just handing herself to her enemies, to join her comrades that she had treated with a curt coldness, to reprimand herself, atone for her lack of concern for their wellbeing when we were caught in crossfires.

    Instead, she made an appearance with numb, freezing, and dripping fingers.

    Someone had picked up an arm to haul out of the water. At the end of that arm was a crossbow, bearing a cocked arrow. It was rather comical, how he aimed it for her.

    The bolt slunk into the soft flesh beneath his jaw.

    As he fell to the ground, Sigh sprang on the other two. I imagined her blue lips whisper mira as violet light shot from the end of her spitter and into the second.

    The third? He drew a sword, raised a cry, before falling to her dagger.

    The ‘raised a cry’. That was the important part.

    “Now, you stay there!” she shouted.

    It was for me, not an arrogant cry toward the fresh corpses at her feet. I know this because she shot her head back, toward the direction where I was sitting in the darkness.

The reinforcements came. Sigh was determined to use the last two of her bolts, and did so with poetry on her lips as they sighed through the air and found their opponents.

    She twirled the spitters and sent out violet arrows that flickered and sizzled into the Sun-elves proliferating around the riverbank.

    More and more came.

    She fended them off with an elegance that I can only compare to a virtuoso on a stage.

    Even when they came to their senses, and began using arrows instead of swords.

    She took those gracefully. Used the momentum of the steel thudding into her body to slide into her next steps, to whisper truths that she’d tell me when I asked her each morning how she slept.

    “When the unknown approaches, embrace it like an old friend. Because truly, the unknown is quite common, we see him very often.”

    She twirled, the spitters sparking and firing with dazzling effects.

    You could see, between brief flashes of light, how her blood sprang out of her wounds as more arrows came.

    One of the arrows caught the spitter in her left hand. It fell to the ground, light dripping from the end of it, smoke from its hallow shaft wafting into the air, I swear, in the shape of crows and moths.

    “Did you dream of anything interesting, last night?” I had asked her, once. We both found ourselves awake before dawn, and no one else had risen. We were clutching tea and looking into a fire.

    “When I met him,” she replied slowly, “he had the air of boyish musings about him. He had the breath of youth untouched by tragedy. He was aware of it, oh, certainly he was. It had touched him. But he kept it away, somehow, I could tell. It didn’t clutch him the way it did with others. And when I hugged him, tighter than I had held anyone else, I think, for the first time, I had loved someone.”

    The final spark emerged from her spitter. Then she turned toward me. A doll for hexing poked with too many pins and needles. She caught my eyes, somehow, as more of those needles drove into her back.

    I realized, then, that was the first time she had spoken with a response relevant to the question.

    Worst of all, I realized she had been speaking of me.

    She had never hugged me, before.

    That’s what dreams are for, to do things you could never bring yourself to do in life. She had lost her brother, already. Why would she give her heart to me, knowing my hands would soon die with it?

    Her words, they weren’t so esoteric anymore. Riddles are merely disguised truths, after all. I divined them all as she fell with my name spending the last of her breath. So now I wasn’t the one carrying a heart to the grave; she’d snatched mine, at the last possible moment, and took it with her.

    It took me two days to reach an allied camp. The wounded were groaning and moaning in agony along with the chipper birds in the dawn. My bloodied hands clutched the note Sigh had scrawled out about the trebuchets. I didn’t care about anything, anymore. I hoped I was considered wounded enough to go home, wherever that may be, but I’d not suffered much besides frostbite, which out here, is child’s play. You are laughed at if you cannot handle it.

    After word of my arrival was given, I was granted access to see Mage Stelma, and was escorted to her tent. “What happened to our Third Divison?” she asked me, hands spread out over battle plans that had already failed.

    “This,” I said, too exhausted to elaborate, handing over the note.

    “You’re mistaken,” she said after looking it over.

    “Excuse me? This is a description of their machines, how they operate. A brave soul died just to—”

    “I understand that was your purpose for seeing me. That you’re exhausted, and I appreciate your undying effort, marksman. But, surely you’ve mistaken this note for another.” she handed it back to me, annoyance slanting her eyes. “Have you not read it at all?”

    “No,” I mumbled.

    I looked down at the note.

I always wanted to be alone with you. Never had the courage to say so, but I have craved it since I met you. Although tonight will be my last, I think I have enjoyed it more than most others, because it was spent alone with you. I never dared say so, just like I never had the courage to hold you, not your hand, your body, nor your life, for fear of losing it.

Yet, I love you.

    “Do you have any other word of their machinery?” her voice came from across the table, across several leagues. “Marksman …?”

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Written by Harlequin in portal Fantasy
Sigh
    “The sooner you embrace darkness, the sooner your eyes adjust.”
    This is just one example of the many odd things she would say to you, whether you were deep in conversation of no relevance, or simply passing a mundane greeting.
    Of course, it was different. We were in of Mage Stelma’s Third Division Infantry. That meant we were marksmen of sorts, but gods know we used blades more than arrows. War gets messy like that. Beyond that, expert conversationalists. Words were our secondary art, because it passed the time, it settled into our hearts; we savored every syllable, or tried to, with the full knowledge that today or tomorrow was likely our last.
    She had a name before she came here. A real name, I mean, passed down from parents. A name that held childhood memories. I suppose that’s why we try to detach ourselves from those.
    We all called her Sigh, because that was the sound her bolts made as they flew through the air.
    It was a stark contrast to the noises her targets emitted.
    I understand, already this story has gone sour. I am focusing on one marksman instead of the entire infantry. You don’t have a clue as to the battles we fought, what they looked like, or even what war we waged, whether in our hearts or with the opposing sides.
I apologize. This story is not about the war itself, rather the poetry of bloodshed it inspired. You’ll just have to come to grips with that. Your narrator is not intelligent enough to understand the machinations of political or economic dominance from one culture to another.
    I just shoot things. And if I am not too tired, I think about it after I do.
    “How’d you sleep last night?” I asked Sigh one morning. The weather was not dismal, but it was threatening. Thick, grey clouds boasting a storm which would drench all of us and our equipment. We all silently prayed it would not.
    “We awaken, thinking we’ve just stepped out of a dream, without realizing we merely passed into another.” She grinned at me, with chapped lips and impossibly brown, dirty eyes. I say impossibly, because I had never met someone quite like her, and I always thought she deserved some features less common than the ones the gods had given her. Regardless, I found her beyond beautiful.
    “That being said, how about you?” she asked me.
    I returned the grin. “I slept well. Well enough. Better than most nights.”
    Last night, we heard deep rumbling in the distance. Many of us huddled into our coats, imagining thunder. The smarter ones, particularly Sigh, perked their ears, stopped fidgeting with their heirlooms and trinkets that kept them company away from home, and realized it was not thunder at all.
    It was far more frightening than ominous weather. Far, far more frightening. The truth: the opposing army had devised some kind of machinery that could shake the ground so horribly, could produce sounds so booming that it was reminiscent of thunder.
    We all quivered, after Sigh and a few others had pieced it together.
    Still, I wasn’t lying. I slept very well. What can I say? I have a propensity for not caring.
That morning, the booming had mysteriously ceased. Now, as the silence settled in, we prayed it would rain, and prove the possibilities all wrong.
    “What do you think made those sounds?” Silver Thomas asked no one in particular.
    Here we were, crouched peacefully over some frying eggs and a slab of oat-bread that Sigh was cutting into portions.
     “And here you are, interrupting a perfectly peaceful morning,” I groaned. “Can’t you just eat your oat bread, sometimes?”
    “What?” Silver Thomas muffled through a mouthful. “I’m merely wondering what you all think.”
     “Be comforted that you do not know when death comes. It is the only thing in life that you can reserve your laziness for: you do not have to plan for it,” Sigh said as she handed out clay plates with the eggs.
     A clap of thunder. Her hand was outstretched towards Silver Thomas, who had his silver eyes upturned toward the sky, and an odd expression on his face.
    The next moment, it was gone, buried into the ground under a heaping mound of fiery steel, coal, and metals spewing out like a crack in the earth itself.
    It took his body with it, several feet into the earth, as well as his breakfast.
    Sigh snatched her crossbow and dove for the trenches, disregarding the rest of us, all sitting dumbstruck and shocked around the campfire—admittedly looking less impressive next to the ball of hellfire.
    She was never much of a comrade. Didn’t find excuses, nor any opportunities, to risk her hide for us.
    She contributed the light spitter to the armies, as we preferred to call it. With this brilliant device, she called it even and made her own survival priority.
    Fair is fair.
     She personally drew the plans and an engineered example, shown to Mage Stelma herself, several months prior to our being issued onto the fields. Sigh had a comprehensive education in rune magick that bordered on expertise, before she volunteered to be a marksman for the Moon-elves during the War of the Eclipse.
    It was like a crossbow without strings and bolts, had a long handle and a wide, hallow muzzle. Each spitter took about a year’s preparation, so many of those with enough knowledge in destructive magick and runes were called to cease their studies, halt their lives, to instead craft these weapons with as much speed and efficiency as possible.
Under penalty of treason, imprisonment, or simply death. 

    War makes allies threaten allies. Isn’t that silly?
    The weapon was powered by the moon. Every marksmen was trained in activating a charging rune at night, setting it down in the open before bed so that it could soak up the rays.
    The following day, it could issue a few dozen shots before fizzling out. A few dozen incredibly powerful and fatal shots, that is.
    A whole slew of runes were charged by various practitioners in the crafting process, such that dumb folks like myself could simply put his eye down the sights, aim, mutter a word, and press a thumb against an insignia that fired it.
    Not many of us understood how it worked, but it saved the poor blacksmiths in neighboring towns and villages some time. They still had to forge arrowheads, just not so many.
    Sigh had two of her own, but preferred her crossbow and bolts nonetheless.
    “Magick is a fickle friend,” she’d say as she twirled a knife around, telling us about her education at the colleges. “After all those years, I still prefer metal. It won’t backfire. Magick, in the wrong hands, will often backfire. No matter how much you plan, think ahead, for the most complex spells, something will almost always go wrong. And before you know it, you set your kitchen on fire, your mother is screaming at you, and the dog has become a rabbit with talons and wings. All because you wanted to try and warm your bedsheets before you went to sleep.”
    “Is this from personal experience?”
    Sigh sighed. “Yes.”
    Anywho. Back to the carnage.
    Trebuchets. Empowered by, oh, you guessed it, fire magick. Combined with some more mathematically inclined minds—Sun-elven blacksmiths who knew a thing or two about trajectory—the combination of wood, steel, iron, rope, and we had hellfire on our hands.
    Quite literally, raining down.
    When you are presented with chaos, your mind oscillates—very briefly—between two choices: shock, or decisive action.
    I saw, as I turned my gaze to the skies, countless meteors in a myriad of shapes, sizes and color, dripping with silver, fire and ruin … as well as a whole flock of messenger ravens.
    Dead ones, mind you, half-scorched. All stiff and clenched up from rigor mortis.
    One of them landed in my lap, still twitching, staring up at me with sizzling feathers and black eyes.
    That was when my mind chose the second option.
    I spotted Sigh. She was running not away, but toward the enemies, sprinting for the bordering forestry with spitters dancing on her belt, her weapons barely clinging to their leather loops with how fast she clipped the soil.
    I jumped up and out of the trenches, dodging a cluster from the trebuchets as I did.
Someone behind me screamed, “Wait, Will!—” before another cluster cut him off, filled his throat with molten steel.
    If there was anyone smart enough to survive this, it was Sigh. Sometimes, you have to kill the hero’s instincts in you so that, maybe tomorrow, you can actually live to fulfill them.
    It felt like the ground was trying to shake me off of it. I toppled over, scrambled to my feet, and jumped into my strides instead of stepping into them, because even the air shook with such a ferocity it seemed bent on escaping the hold of my lungs.
Ash and smoke stuffed my senses. I felt rain on my face, and wiped it off.
    No, that was Silver Thomas’ blood.
    There was more of it—hotter—on my arms. I assumed several people had left parting gifts on my skin, as I ran with just as much of a lack of consideration for them as Sigh, toward the shelter of the trees and bushes.
    “Left, Will!” I heard her scream.
    She said my name! I somehow made room for that thought.
    She was crouched beneath several canopies, far away, and her shouts reached me.
    I blindly followed, dove to the left, and felt the searing heat of another cluster land just behind me.
    Then her mouth opened again, but it hung, stopped short. She had the look of someone staring at a corpse.
     I braced myself for death. Which is to say I took a breath and did something between a whimper and a chuckle.
    She whipped out both her spitters, took aim, and shouted MIRA!
I thought that she was aiming for my head, to end my misery sooner than the hellfire would.
    Violet light shot out of the muzzles, displacing the cluster just as it singed my hair. The light ricocheted off and flung into the sky.
    I didn’t bother with anymore second chances and rushed to meet her in the safety of the forest.
    “The Sun-elves,” she said, “they fired, betting that most of us would retreat. Oh, how right they were. Come,” she tugged on my arm and we went deeper into the trees.
    “Thank—”
    “Sush. We’re still going to die,” she promised. “I just made yours last a little longer. Still grateful?”
    I nodded.
    “You’re like me, then, I guess.”
    Lines of their soldiers were already halfway across the fields, all but waltzing with drawn swords towards our demolished camp and trenches, while we ducked our heads beneath bushes and pulled our hoods up.
    Amidst the carnage, they must not have spotted us. We both checked our belts for what we had to survive.
    Sigh, as per usual, had everything if she needed to last for a handful of days, all in the various-sized pouches hanging from her belt, including rations, bolts, and materials for starting fires.
    I had a dagger, a sword, a spitter, and a dead raven in my hands.
    Not all marksmen are created equal.
    I had been clutching it so hard during the chaos, if whatever the Sun-elves did to it did not kill it, I certainly had choked the poor thing to death.
    Some of its feathers stuck to my bloodied hands as I pulled away from it. There was a message tied to its talon. Even Sigh was curious.
    We opened up the small scroll of parchment.
     Our scout had written a series of symbols which meant: They’re faster than anticipated. Retreat with all haste.
    And the Sun-elf who’d caught him, presumably, had saved some of the stores of his inkwell by writing in the scout’s blood: Hah!
    The crunch of branches and idle conversation drifted through the trees. I raised widened eyes to Sigh, who responded by putting a steady finger against my lips.
    She whispered in the smallest voice, “Death is most efficient, most merciful, when she arrives unexpectedly,” and grinned.
    She set down the two spitters, unhooked her hand crossbow from her belt, and readied a bolt. She then, with another finger, hushed my hand, which had reached for a spitter, and shook her head.
    Oddly enough, everything was quiet.
    The screams, the thunder. My mind had echoed it into the time that stretched beyond the initial chaos. Now it was all still again, wind through trees, silent, grey skies and a calm, afternoon sun. And a river.
     There was a river to the right of us, at the edge of the forest, running peacefully. It was the picturesque scene of a placid morning.
    I suppose it was because many of us had died so quickly.
    The Sun-elves, dressed in elegant, gold-trimmed black raiment, strolled past us, laughing and chortling. A stark contract to our mismatched, grey, black, and sage wools and leathers.
    The elf on the far right of the trio had caught Sigh out of the corner of his eye, before she buried a bolt in his head, another in the left, while I sprang up and slew the one in the middle, who hadn’t time enough to draw his own weapon.
    Not a scream. Just three, soft thumps to the ground.
    “She is a merciful mistress, indeed,” Sigh said, checking their pulses before going to their pockets. “But she's much work to do through my hands, before the day is done.”

    I tried to keep up with her as the day wore on, but she was too nimble, too harried. Often, she took risks as we delved deeper behind enemy lines. I pestered her about what we should do, what our plans were. How we were to get word back to the other encampments before more blood was shed on our side of the war. Because, gods be true, we were losing it. Not just today, but for the past two years.
    She just kept up with those strange sayings, as if she was passing off mundane conversation per usual.
    “Why haven’t we turned back?”
    “If we spoke the language of the trees, we would be too interested in what they said to ever turn our ears any other place.”
    “Damnit, Sigh! We’re leagues away from any camp. Where are we going?”
 She stopped, grabbed my arm, and looked me straight in the eyes, in a way she never had before.
    She said, with a tilt of her head, and I swear, a look of affection: “Once, I lost my timepiece. When I found it, someone had stepped on it. It was all cracked and dented, the hour hand trembling like a heart trying to beat a dead body. I’ve not tried to keep track since then. And I hate timepieces.”
    I thought it had been too much. The war had smashed her sanity, just how someone had smashed her timepiece. So I nodded. “All right, Sigh. I understand.”
    And I think, as I said that, she really thought I did.
    Night arrived all too quickly. We found ourselves at the edge of the river, miles downstream from our camp. I felt like I had been following a ghost the entire day. When we came near the Sun-elf camp with the trebuchets, she stopped for a few minutes, the only few minutes she allowed herself not to move, besides to avoid attention from other soldiers.
    When she did, she brought out a notepad, a quill, an inkwell, and scrawled notes, glancing up every now and then at their machines, before folding it and giving it to me. She was analyzing how they were designed, I thought.
    They were quite daunting, towering things. The height of castle turrets, with all the complex rigging and cogs you might imagine.
    “Sigh, you should have it. You should give this to Mage Stelma yourself.”
    The camp was silent, save for the burning of a torch here or there. The snoring of a soldier supposed to be on watch, leaning against a tree close enough that we could make out how his breath parted the hair falling over his face each time he exhaled.
    “Words are like birds. Catch them as they come,” she whispered to me. “Some are prettier than others. Don’t bother reaching out to the ugly ones, Will, for they’ve been handled too much, and are boring little things. Take time, and be patient, for the ones which really catch your eye.”
    Her hand lingered on mine as she gave me the note.
    “I will, Sigh,” I said. “I promise.”
    I almost forgot. And I apologize. I’m not very good at this storytelling business. I just needed to get some of this out.

    One of the most peculiar moments we shared. An hour or so before the conversation beside the camp with the trebuchets, she stopped, felt the tiny quiver at her waist, and looked down at it.
    When she looked up, there were tears streaming down her face. My tired heart throbbed; I wanted to hug her. I almost did.
    “I’ve only three bolts left,” she mumbled.
    She did not always speak in riddles, in words of wisdom of little relevance to what was already being said.
    That started after her brother died. That was when she felt inspired to design the light spitters. Her revenge.

    After she had passed the note to me, she walked to the riverside, and stepped into the water as normally as one might keep walking anywhere that is not freezing.
    Despite it being springtime, the water had pieces of frozen ice here and there. We were, after all, in the Runelands. It was the reason for the war in the first place, to fight for this wasteland of eternal winter. The Sun-elves wanted a whole continent for their own race, to call the home of the highborns.
    “Sigh, what are you doing? Come out. Let’s go home.”
    I wondered what I meant by the last word. If we had one, I mean.
    She waded deeper into the water. A log passed her, slapped against her thigh before drifting downstream.
    It was not a log. It was an arm. Its sleeve bore the patch of our division.
    More logs came, varying in sizes and shapes. Some still had heads attached.
    “When I was a young girl, I had a dream that I was a puppet,” she said, plucking one up by the finger. “It was only when I was older that I realized no one tugged on my strings but me.”
    Her face was devoid of all expression.
    I couldn’t do much for the tears on my face. “Where are you going?”
    She immersed herself in the water, pale as snow, and let the current lift her up on her back, carry her away. Even I was shivering from the cold, but she was still as stone.
I realized, as I watched the current take her, that she was not mad. She was raving sane.
We were the mad ones, trying to carry on normally while the war tore us apart, both literally and figuratively. It severed our heart strings, cut our mind off from the grace of poetry; it made killing our art, survival a craft with many different mediums, some of them terrifyingly bloody.
    I didn’t join her in the water; I crossed to the other side of the river, and kept up with her, as I watched the bodies from the Third Division crowd around her, embrace her as one of their own.
    Fetid steam rose up from the water. Moonlit rays fell through the fog, glinted on their icy eyes and frozen lips. A nightmare of unparalleled beauty.
    I lost track of her. There were too many bloodless bodies, and her face was just as pale as theirs. She stared up at the stars, with the same thoughtful revelation as the dead have when they first meet death.
    Soon enough, the flames and torches of another enemy camp came into view. That is when I slunk away into the trees. I didn’t remember much of the training I had as a scout. They had declared me a marksmen after I lied, told them I could not see very well.
    Apparently, they did not sympathize with me.
    The thought of being not only across from enemies, but behind them, terrified me. Yet I found myself in the role I had scurried away from.
    They were waiting for them.
    The Sun-elves, with tankards in their hands and laughter in their throats. The laughter of victors. The war had been waging for three years. We were in our death throes, and they were entertained by our erratic behavior on the battlefields. Our last-ditch strategies to overcome an army far better equipped and trained than our own.
    “Don’t suppose they’ll have much on ‘em. They were running, after all,” I heard one say.
    I climbed into a tree, careful to choose the heavier branches that would not sway so much under my weight, and watched from above, thinking of the raven and wondering what words they would write all over my body with my blood, if they caught me.
    There were three of them at the riverbank, but dozens in the camps just a few walks away. This camp wasn’t asleep, like the other.
    The bodies started to arrive at the riverbank. They already had a pyre ablaze, ready to incinerate our remnants.
    I thought for a moment, foolishly, that Sigh was just handing herself to her enemies, to join her comrades that she had treated with a curt coldness, to reprimand herself, atone for her lack of concern for their wellbeing when we were caught in crossfires.
    Instead, she made an appearance with numb, freezing, and dripping fingers.
    Someone had picked up an arm to haul out of the water. At the end of that arm was a crossbow, bearing a cocked arrow. It was rather comical, how he aimed it for her.
    The bolt slunk into the soft flesh beneath his jaw.
    As he fell to the ground, Sigh sprang on the other two. I imagined her blue lips whisper mira as violet light shot from the end of her spitter and into the second.
    The third? He drew a sword, raised a cry, before falling to her dagger.
    The ‘raised a cry’. That was the important part.
    “Now, you stay there!” she shouted.
    It was for me, not an arrogant cry toward the fresh corpses at her feet. I know this because she shot her head back, toward the direction where I was sitting in the darkness.
The reinforcements came. Sigh was determined to use the last two of her bolts, and did so with poetry on her lips as they sighed through the air and found their opponents.
    She twirled the spitters and sent out violet arrows that flickered and sizzled into the Sun-elves proliferating around the riverbank.
    More and more came.
    She fended them off with an elegance that I can only compare to a virtuoso on a stage.
    Even when they came to their senses, and began using arrows instead of swords.
    She took those gracefully. Used the momentum of the steel thudding into her body to slide into her next steps, to whisper truths that she’d tell me when I asked her each morning how she slept.
    “When the unknown approaches, embrace it like an old friend. Because truly, the unknown is quite common, we see him very often.”
    She twirled, the spitters sparking and firing with dazzling effects.
    You could see, between brief flashes of light, how her blood sprang out of her wounds as more arrows came.
    One of the arrows caught the spitter in her left hand. It fell to the ground, light dripping from the end of it, smoke from its hallow shaft wafting into the air, I swear, in the shape of crows and moths.
    “Did you dream of anything interesting, last night?” I had asked her, once. We both found ourselves awake before dawn, and no one else had risen. We were clutching tea and looking into a fire.
    “When I met him,” she replied slowly, “he had the air of boyish musings about him. He had the breath of youth untouched by tragedy. He was aware of it, oh, certainly he was. It had touched him. But he kept it away, somehow, I could tell. It didn’t clutch him the way it did with others. And when I hugged him, tighter than I had held anyone else, I think, for the first time, I had loved someone.”
    The final spark emerged from her spitter. Then she turned toward me. A doll for hexing poked with too many pins and needles. She caught my eyes, somehow, as more of those needles drove into her back.
    I realized, then, that was the first time she had spoken with a response relevant to the question.
    Worst of all, I realized she had been speaking of me.
    She had never hugged me, before.
    That’s what dreams are for, to do things you could never bring yourself to do in life. She had lost her brother, already. Why would she give her heart to me, knowing my hands would soon die with it?
    Her words, they weren’t so esoteric anymore. Riddles are merely disguised truths, after all. I divined them all as she fell with my name spending the last of her breath. So now I wasn’t the one carrying a heart to the grave; she’d snatched mine, at the last possible moment, and took it with her.

    It took me two days to reach an allied camp. The wounded were groaning and moaning in agony along with the chipper birds in the dawn. My bloodied hands clutched the note Sigh had scrawled out about the trebuchets. I didn’t care about anything, anymore. I hoped I was considered wounded enough to go home, wherever that may be, but I’d not suffered much besides frostbite, which out here, is child’s play. You are laughed at if you cannot handle it.
    After word of my arrival was given, I was granted access to see Mage Stelma, and was escorted to her tent. “What happened to our Third Divison?” she asked me, hands spread out over battle plans that had already failed.
    “This,” I said, too exhausted to elaborate, handing over the note.
    “You’re mistaken,” she said after looking it over.
    “Excuse me? This is a description of their machines, how they operate. A brave soul died just to—”
    “I understand that was your purpose for seeing me. That you’re exhausted, and I appreciate your undying effort, marksman. But, surely you’ve mistaken this note for another.” she handed it back to me, annoyance slanting her eyes. “Have you not read it at all?”
    “No,” I mumbled.
    I looked down at the note.

I always wanted to be alone with you. Never had the courage to say so, but I have craved it since I met you. Although tonight will be my last, I think I have enjoyed it more than most others, because it was spent alone with you. I never dared say so, just like I never had the courage to hold you, not your hand, your body, nor your life, for fear of losing it.
Yet, I love you.

    “Do you have any other word of their machinery?” her voice came from across the table, across several leagues. “Marksman …?”
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Challenge of the Week #57: you’re god; rewrite the creation story. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by joyceanne

Godfrey

The “Hallelujah” alerted Godfrey just as he was pouring his first morning cup of coffee. Godfrey was never a phone person, nor a morning person, but he knew he should answer.

Hello.

Godfrey, hi, it’s me Angela.

Hey Angela. What’s up?

Just checkin’ in. Want to hang out today?

Sorry. Can’t today. I’ve got too much work to do.

You ALWAYS have too much work, Godfrey. Jesus! Take a little break? Just a teensy weensy one? With me? Pleee - ase?

Godfrey pictured Angela puckering her lips as she whined, elongating the vowels. He really liked her. Bright to behold and a heavenly disposition, she was the candle’s light in his dark room. Godfrey tended to brood and to be something of a loner. Poetic and just made that way -- but, yet, he appreciated Angela’s company.

He looked down at Star, his black and tan cocker spaniel. She had dropped a little blue tennis ball at his feet and was waiting for him to toss it. This was their morning routine.

No can do, Ange. Call me later. Maybe we can get together for dinner.

OK. I'm going to hold you to that.

No promises.

Right. Talk to you later. Wait, I just thought that …

Godfrey could hear Angela launching into something as he disconnected. He picked up Star’s tennis ball and went downstairs.

Come on, girl. The dog trotted after him and gazed up at him hopefully. What was on that poster his sister sent him? “If humans could perfect the cocker stare it would end wars.” Kitch, yes, but sometimes kitch was necessary.

Listen, Starry girl, we’ll play later. Time for you to go out now. I gotta work.

He raised her doggie door and went back upstairs to his study. Setting his coffee on the desk, he sat down and woke up his computer. An open document appeared just as he had left it last night, mostly blank. He lifted his mug, a gift from Angela with an angel hand-painted on it, and sipped his coffee. Hot and “black as midnight on a moonless night” as, Dale Cooper, FBI agent on Twin Peaks, would say. What he wouldn't give to settle in right now with the latest book by Mark Frost, a prelude to the series return. He couldn’t wait to watch the new episodes in that weird world, but he had a deadline, and he desperately wanted to complete the draft of a story by tomorrow morning. So far he had nothing. Zip. Nada.

His phone rang again, like a choir of angels singing Cohen’s masterpiece. Angela’s face lit up the screen. She was drop-dead gorgeous and he’d love to spend the day with her. What she could do with those wings of hers…. He sighed and pressed ‘Send to Voicemail.’

Your mind is a tool. It will do anything you tell it.

That was his meditation guide’s instruction. Lately, though, Godfrey’s mind veered wildly out of control, racing around ideas, solving problems. There were so many issues just in the Americas. Like the crack in Antarctica and the South Dakota pipeline. And the U.S. Election. Now what was he going to do about that? Angela said let it go. She said she would take care of it but he wasn't so sure. It was a mess.

He positioned his fingers on the keyboard. Poised and ready, he tried a title.

The New World

He pulled down the menu and changed the font to "Merriweather." That sounded happy.

Looking out the window of his study, he spied a red-breasted woodpecker. It was a funny little bird,  feeding on the insects of the decaying pin oak. Perhaps his hero should be a bird. Not a common woodpecker,  but something majestic, grand, a really interesting character that everyone would love and be able to relate to. No, wait -- a small woodpecker could be alright. Not too fancy. A little quirky.

“A small player in the grand creation scheme, the woodpecker …” He pulled down another menu to enable the drop-cap style for his first letter ... “successfully pulled larvae from the bark…” and, Voila! There it was. Godfrey could see the larval sac hanging from its beak.

Outside, the woodpecker slurped it down. It was a beautiful day - the kind of day that was originally created for Adam - until Eve came along and they both got carried away with the apple and that nasty snake. It messed up the whole plot. A perfect little Garden of Eden.

"Well," Angela said "it “twisted the thread." Nothing more boring than a cozy, picture-perfect world, she reminded him.

The downside - why did there always have to be a downside? - was that now everything and everyone had to suffer through some unbearable trials - hurricanes, dust storms, hail storms, snowstorms, wars, epidemics, poverty, bigotry, corruption, you name it. The list just went on and on.

This was depressing. Onward, keep going. Create, Godfrey, create! He chided himself for his monkey mind.

The house was getting hot. The sun was rising higher. Let’s change that and take the sun out of the picture. He wrote:

“Suddenly the sun vanished from the sky. The woodpecker twisted its neck in surprise. It was dark. ‘Black as midnight on a moonless night.’ (insert footnote here referencing David Lynch, Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks) The bird was alone, alone in the night.”

Darkness fell and Godfrey heard an owl hooting in the forest. ‘The owls are not what they seem’ (second footnote Lynch, Twin Peaks) The woodpecker froze on the tree trunk. No more tree-pecking for him. Should the bird stay or try to fly back to his nest? The question perplexed him. The owl thing did, too. Were they symbolic of the wise ones or of the destroyers? What did he know about woodpeckers and owls anyway? Not much. The old adage “Write what you know” came to mind.

Ok, well, so forget the bird and get rid of the forest.

“All the trees wavered in time and vanished from the woods. The woodpecker fell to the ground.”

Godfrey recalled something about oceans, five of them he thought. He never learned how to swim and was afraid of the water.

“The waters of the seas receded into black holes, into bottomless pits, and all the rivers and lakes poured into them. Left to dry in darkness, the land ....”

Now, he was on a roll. Meanwhile, the little woodpecker hopped along the grass outside his window, a shadowy dance under a sickle moon.

Poor little fellow, thought Godfrey. He’ll have to poke his beak at the ground to find any food, but that will bring the cats and coyotes and worst of all the snakes. He hated snakes ever since "The Fall." And the owls.

This is not working. I need a break, Godfrey decided. When he returned, he’d have at it again, starting from scratch.

First destroy, then create.

He closed the document and searched his computer for the folder of creation stories. The prospect was scary, yes, but he was tired of them. Better to call Angela, fool around and play a little and then start fresh. Maybe they could read some of Frost’s book or watch Twin Peaks reruns. His hand clutched the mouse. A simple right click into the trash, right click, empty the trash. Easy-peasy-done.

He called Angela.

Hey Angela. I’m stuck. I'm done for now, at least.

Really? Terrific. Want to go apple picking at Little Tree? Bring your Star.

Ok. Meet me downstairs in twenty minutes?

Perfect. See you then.

Angela curled her leg beside her and lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag. Silly Godfrey was sooo intense. Probably time to move on. She could do it … again. Boring and stressing herself over this guy was ridiculous. He wouldn't feel a thing. No hope for this story. Destroy and then create.

I need a blank canvas.

Angela selected everything she had written. This was hard, really hard. But something had to be done.

Ready, Set, Delete. There!

Poor Godfrey.

Ok, well, here we go again. Angela blew smoke rings and stubbed out her cigarette and began typing,

“Out of the darkness of the void, a dog howled and a bird took flight.” Angela scrunched up her face in concentration and sipped on her icy lemon water. ‘The dog’s name was Godfrey. The bird was a little woodpecker with a thatch of red feathers on its crown and a mustard-colored beak." Angela smiled her satisfaction. "Godfrey called the woodpecker ‘Star’ and they were best friends, playing together in the backyard of Angela's house by the lake. High above, perched in the pin oak’s branches, an owl peered down and hooted.”

This was the beginning. She closed her eyes.

This is good. And Angela rested until the next day.

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Challenge of the Week #57: you’re god; rewrite the creation story. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by joyceanne
Godfrey
The “Hallelujah” alerted Godfrey just as he was pouring his first morning cup of coffee. Godfrey was never a phone person, nor a morning person, but he knew he should answer.

Hello.

Godfrey, hi, it’s me Angela.

Hey Angela. What’s up?

Just checkin’ in. Want to hang out today?

Sorry. Can’t today. I’ve got too much work to do.

You ALWAYS have too much work, Godfrey. Jesus! Take a little break? Just a teensy weensy one? With me? Pleee - ase?

Godfrey pictured Angela puckering her lips as she whined, elongating the vowels. He really liked her. Bright to behold and a heavenly disposition, she was the candle’s light in his dark room. Godfrey tended to brood and to be something of a loner. Poetic and just made that way -- but, yet, he appreciated Angela’s company.

He looked down at Star, his black and tan cocker spaniel. She had dropped a little blue tennis ball at his feet and was waiting for him to toss it. This was their morning routine.

No can do, Ange. Call me later. Maybe we can get together for dinner.

OK. I'm going to hold you to that.

No promises.

Right. Talk to you later. Wait, I just thought that …

Godfrey could hear Angela launching into something as he disconnected. He picked up Star’s tennis ball and went downstairs.

Come on, girl. The dog trotted after him and gazed up at him hopefully. What was on that poster his sister sent him? “If humans could perfect the cocker stare it would end wars.” Kitch, yes, but sometimes kitch was necessary.

Listen, Starry girl, we’ll play later. Time for you to go out now. I gotta work.

He raised her doggie door and went back upstairs to his study. Setting his coffee on the desk, he sat down and woke up his computer. An open document appeared just as he had left it last night, mostly blank. He lifted his mug, a gift from Angela with an angel hand-painted on it, and sipped his coffee. Hot and “black as midnight on a moonless night” as, Dale Cooper, FBI agent on Twin Peaks, would say. What he wouldn't give to settle in right now with the latest book by Mark Frost, a prelude to the series return. He couldn’t wait to watch the new episodes in that weird world, but he had a deadline, and he desperately wanted to complete the draft of a story by tomorrow morning. So far he had nothing. Zip. Nada.

His phone rang again, like a choir of angels singing Cohen’s masterpiece. Angela’s face lit up the screen. She was drop-dead gorgeous and he’d love to spend the day with her. What she could do with those wings of hers…. He sighed and pressed ‘Send to Voicemail.’

Your mind is a tool. It will do anything you tell it.

That was his meditation guide’s instruction. Lately, though, Godfrey’s mind veered wildly out of control, racing around ideas, solving problems. There were so many issues just in the Americas. Like the crack in Antarctica and the South Dakota pipeline. And the U.S. Election. Now what was he going to do about that? Angela said let it go. She said she would take care of it but he wasn't so sure. It was a mess.

He positioned his fingers on the keyboard. Poised and ready, he tried a title.

The New World

He pulled down the menu and changed the font to "Merriweather." That sounded happy.

Looking out the window of his study, he spied a red-breasted woodpecker. It was a funny little bird,  feeding on the insects of the decaying pin oak. Perhaps his hero should be a bird. Not a common woodpecker,  but something majestic, grand, a really interesting character that everyone would love and be able to relate to. No, wait -- a small woodpecker could be alright. Not too fancy. A little quirky.

“A small player in the grand creation scheme, the woodpecker …” He pulled down another menu to enable the drop-cap style for his first letter ... “successfully pulled larvae from the bark…” and, Voila! There it was. Godfrey could see the larval sac hanging from its beak.

Outside, the woodpecker slurped it down. It was a beautiful day - the kind of day that was originally created for Adam - until Eve came along and they both got carried away with the apple and that nasty snake. It messed up the whole plot. A perfect little Garden of Eden.

"Well," Angela said "it “twisted the thread." Nothing more boring than a cozy, picture-perfect world, she reminded him.

The downside - why did there always have to be a downside? - was that now everything and everyone had to suffer through some unbearable trials - hurricanes, dust storms, hail storms, snowstorms, wars, epidemics, poverty, bigotry, corruption, you name it. The list just went on and on.

This was depressing. Onward, keep going. Create, Godfrey, create! He chided himself for his monkey mind.

The house was getting hot. The sun was rising higher. Let’s change that and take the sun out of the picture. He wrote:

“Suddenly the sun vanished from the sky. The woodpecker twisted its neck in surprise. It was dark. ‘Black as midnight on a moonless night.’ (insert footnote here referencing David Lynch, Dale Cooper, Twin Peaks) The bird was alone, alone in the night.”

Darkness fell and Godfrey heard an owl hooting in the forest. ‘The owls are not what they seem’ (second footnote Lynch, Twin Peaks) The woodpecker froze on the tree trunk. No more tree-pecking for him. Should the bird stay or try to fly back to his nest? The question perplexed him. The owl thing did, too. Were they symbolic of the wise ones or of the destroyers? What did he know about woodpeckers and owls anyway? Not much. The old adage “Write what you know” came to mind.

Ok, well, so forget the bird and get rid of the forest.

“All the trees wavered in time and vanished from the woods. The woodpecker fell to the ground.”

Godfrey recalled something about oceans, five of them he thought. He never learned how to swim and was afraid of the water.

“The waters of the seas receded into black holes, into bottomless pits, and all the rivers and lakes poured into them. Left to dry in darkness, the land ....”

Now, he was on a roll. Meanwhile, the little woodpecker hopped along the grass outside his window, a shadowy dance under a sickle moon.

Poor little fellow, thought Godfrey. He’ll have to poke his beak at the ground to find any food, but that will bring the cats and coyotes and worst of all the snakes. He hated snakes ever since "The Fall." And the owls.

This is not working. I need a break, Godfrey decided. When he returned, he’d have at it again, starting from scratch.

First destroy, then create.

He closed the document and searched his computer for the folder of creation stories. The prospect was scary, yes, but he was tired of them. Better to call Angela, fool around and play a little and then start fresh. Maybe they could read some of Frost’s book or watch Twin Peaks reruns. His hand clutched the mouse. A simple right click into the trash, right click, empty the trash. Easy-peasy-done.

He called Angela.

Hey Angela. I’m stuck. I'm done for now, at least.

Really? Terrific. Want to go apple picking at Little Tree? Bring your Star.

Ok. Meet me downstairs in twenty minutes?

Perfect. See you then.

Angela curled her leg beside her and lit a cigarette. She took a deep drag. Silly Godfrey was sooo intense. Probably time to move on. She could do it … again. Boring and stressing herself over this guy was ridiculous. He wouldn't feel a thing. No hope for this story. Destroy and then create.

I need a blank canvas.

Angela selected everything she had written. This was hard, really hard. But something had to be done.

Ready, Set, Delete. There!

Poor Godfrey.

Ok, well, here we go again. Angela blew smoke rings and stubbed out her cigarette and began typing,

“Out of the darkness of the void, a dog howled and a bird took flight.” Angela scrunched up her face in concentration and sipped on her icy lemon water. ‘The dog’s name was Godfrey. The bird was a little woodpecker with a thatch of red feathers on its crown and a mustard-colored beak." Angela smiled her satisfaction. "Godfrey called the woodpecker ‘Star’ and they were best friends, playing together in the backyard of Angela's house by the lake. High above, perched in the pin oak’s branches, an owl peered down and hooted.”

This was the beginning. She closed her eyes.

This is good. And Angela rested until the next day.
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Challenge of the Week #56: Write the beginning of a story about a tyrannical king who threatens the entire realm. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by Harlequin

The Remedy: A Jester's Tale

    "Things will never be as they were, my friend," Magister Fahim said as he poured wine, the burgundy liquid illuminated by the gold of his goblet and daring to spill over the edge. He began to pour into a second cup, but I held my hand up just as he met my eyes to ask.

    "Not when my mind broods over such things," I explained, and he nodded. "And, no, they haven't been as they were for a long while," I added, rubbing the silver feather ring wrapped around my thumb, as I do when my thoughts are trailing away from me.

    The countless glass spheres and vials of Magister Fahim's study glinted from the fire in the hearth while we stood in the center of the massive chamber, its walls adorned by the rich colors of potions simmering over the barest flames, and the faded portraits of famous alchemists.

    "How humorous," Fahim replied, "you see, I drink specifically when my mind 'broods' over things. So what is it that occupies yours, dear jester?"

    All I had to do was look at him. The wound on my cheek was enough, if not for the hatred and confusion in my eyes. Today was the first day without the bandage hiding its freshly stitched surface.

    "His condition is getting steadily worse," he said with a sigh before deflating into the sofa. I wrapped my cloak around my chest and sat down on the armchair opposite him, watching how his ivory eyes searched mine.

    I relived the embarrassment of just two weeks before, when King William III pushed me against one of the walls in the dining halls, forcing me to remove and cut my clothes into tatters, unless, he 'should do the same to my throat'. All the while, he'd had a sword trained on me. When I didn't do it fast enough, he dealt me a gash that extended from the bottom of my chin to my cheek. I still am not certain if it was meant for my throat or not.

    "Certainly, it is," I agreed. "And now ... beyond repair."

    An elixir erupted. Showers of scalding glass and corrosive liquid sprayed over us. I stamped out a breath of flame that caught on my tunic and wheezed though air fouled by a stench strangely similar to browned butter. Magister waved the smoke away with his hand as if it would help, before returning to his senses and opening one of the windows. His reaction told me that this happened at least once a day.

    "Gods, can't you keep a keener eye on those?" I asked.

    "Time is precious, what with chaos brewing in the city ... excuse the pun," he said, caught between a laugh and a cough. "The experiments that are demanded of me give me little time to ensure safety."

    "And what was that experiment for?"

    Magister Fahim checked the number engraved on the station's stonework, before referencing it to one of his notebooks.

    "An elixir meant to conduce convulsions upon its eruption, hence the impressive amount of smoke. Oh my. I ... I apologize."

    "Marvelous."

                                                                    ~ ~

    Shivering from the cold and twitching involuntarily from the elixir, we'd moved our discussion into Fahim's personal garden. Our breath cast steam that dispersed towards the star-splattered sky. The neat rows of herbs were brightened by the faint glow of a waning moon sinking beneath passing storm clouds.

    Steadily, the dance of my fingers subsided as I stared at them.

    "Casimir," Magister Fahim said after a long silence, "you must do something about King William."

    "Oh, are you speaking to me? You must be speaking to someone else nearby, since you are addressing someone whose formal title is 'the fool' ... or did that connection not inspire any doubts? Forgive me, but what will my words do to soothe him? The time is not for talk, but a remedy of some sort. You're the alchemist, fix him something."

    Fahim chuckled and sat on one of the benches. "Touchy tonight, are we? You know as well as I do that title meant little to William. It was an excuse to bring you into his court."

    I remained silent with a leg propped against one of the ivy-ridden pillars that lined the gardens. His face was darkened from the lack of light, lending me only the silver of his straight hair outlining his face, the soft lines of his jaw and nose. The rest was a shadow of robes and glittering adornments. He had a decade and a half of age over mine—a mere eighteen years, but his mind had used those years as if they were half a lifetime. "I have scoured every last line of my tomes, tried everything from archaic healing spells to the bleeding edge of my studies. There is nothing at my disposal that can aid him. If anything, the overwhelming amount of substances I've fed him over the last two years have only hastened his condition."

    "Comforting. And you suppose a quiet talk with me will do him more good?"

    "No, I am not suggesting that. Just keep in mind how ... close you are to him."

    "Close? Care to gander at my mauled face? Nobody is 'close' to our king anymore, not even himself."

    The magister sighed in exasperation, though I had little notion as to why. William was far from reasoning with. The last person to confront him directly about his ailment was one of his advisors, Gendric. His head was later served on a platter during one of the council dinners. William spoke little about it, just stuck his fork into an eyeball and added it as a garnish to the cream topping of his sponge cake. It was nothing short of divine intervention that he hadn't force us to join him in relishing it.

    "Are you forgetting how he dragged you from the gutters and fostered you like his own? Somewhere behind all the viciousness is that boy who still trusts you as if you were his brother. Since he was a child, it was all he could talk about, wanting a sibling. You might as well be his brother, Casimir. Such is why he funnels his cruelty into you more than any of us. It's as if, even in madness, he still is more endeared to you." There was a glint of revelation in his eyes as he pondered this aloud; the pale tint of his irises gleamed as they caught mine.

    I simply shook my head, the bells of my hat chiming in. "That William has long since left us, magister. And I am not his brother," I spat, making no attempt to comment on William's obsession with beating me.

    "Like the doubled face of a masquerade mask," Fahim continued, "he switches by day, by hour, and it seems the more we look, the more we see that hideous tyrant rearing his head, and less of the young man we remember. Whatever madness has gripped him isn't letting go anytime soon. The hour for careful consideration has long since passed, seasons ago. It's time for more substantial action."

    "Such is why my position renders me—"

    "Casimir. Please do not force me to speak anymore directly than I already am. William is on the verge of beginning a war, and if not, a revolt in Portsworth that could cost the city its vitality. His condition has gone beyond mistreating those in his court, it is affecting everything from what laws are written to who is hung at the week's end. Soon, it will be more than just our heads on dinner plates. That is only the beginning. It would be a mercy if his cruelty stopped there."

    "What are you ..."

    Fahim stood up from his bench and placed a hand on my shoulder before his voice brushed beneath a whisper. "In a handful of days, we'll celebrate his birthday. Surely, there will be adequate chaos during that night for some ... mishaps to occur. Why don't you take a midnight stroll in my gardens? All the herbs are labeled," he continued as he opened the door that led into the Foxfeather Castle. He slipped a note into my hand. "I advise," he added, just as the door creaked shut, "admiring the violet petals of the plants in the far left plot."

    The door into the castle thudded with a clang of its handle on the wood. Fahim's footsteps echoed into the hallways, leaving me alone in the frosted air with a list of ingredients and instructions. The moon illuminated one of the words: nightshade.

    "Splendid," I murmured.

                                                                  ~  ~

    "Nonsense, nonsense," I spoke to myself as I ground the plant into a mortar in Fahim's chamber."Three 'pinches'? What exactly constitutes a damned pinch anyways?" The recipe glared back at me. "I am not a damned apothecary! Why am I doing this?" The late morning light filtered through the towering windows of the study, casting my shadow's strange movements onto the alchemical stations and cracked tomes scattered about their surfaces.

    For a moment, my hands stopped while my mind wandered to the days in which, I, too, thought I had found a brother in the most unlikely person.

    "CASIMIR!" a infuriated voice roared, loud enough for every last mouse in the castle to hear.

    My whole body jumped, spilling the ground contents all over the table. I dragged a book nearby in an attempt to cover the mess, only to spill some of it onto the ground.

    "H-here, Wi—my king," I called back, grabbing more parchment to conceal the herbs.

    "Here?! Where, here?"

    "Magister Fahim's chamber!"

    No sooner had I shouted that than did King William III burst inside in an obnoxious display of glittering jewelry and fury, his fist plastered to the hilt of his sheathed sword as he strutted into the study. His crown of ruby-studded gold feathers was tilted over impeccably combed auburn hair, his bronze eyes ablaze with scrutiny and frustration.

It was the antithesis of the William I'd glimpsed when I looked at him through the haze of a hangover five years ago, quite literally, in the gutters of a city I had no recollection of stumbling into. His hair was tangled, his eyes were keen yet relaxed, and everything about him spoke only gentleness. He never had a taste for gold nor bloodshed, nor any action that necessitated one for the other.

    "What're you mumbling about in here, halfwit?" he said, drawing close enough for me to smell what spices his breakfast might've contained.

    "I was studying, my king," I replied, watching the corners of his sharp lips curl upwards in some twisted avidity. My hands desired to further hide the mess behind me, but I stuffed my fist into the other and held them there.

    He scoffed. "How could a feeble mind likes yours grasp any use of studying? Come, I wish to show you a masterpiece I completed. You will admire it."

    Repressing any tell of the relief that filled me, I forced a grin and indulged him, following his footsteps out of the chamber.

    "I don't believe you wished me a blessed birthday, fool," he said with his back to me.

    "Wi—my king," I stammered. It had become habit to address him personally, as to his previous requests, "when I joined you at breakfast this morning, I brought you a book and countless wishes of good health." But lately, if he so much as heard me utter his name without any formalities, a swift kick to my stomach was in order.

    "Should a king not deserve twice the wishes as a normal man?"

    "Infinite wishes of good health to you, my king," I sighed.

    He stopped, then eyed me and flashed a broad smile. My hopes rose. He'd mentioned a masterpiece, and this talk of deserving twice as much as a normal man was precisely the humor that he'd used to mock himself. And in my first years at Foxfeather Castle, it was not rare for William to share some of his attempts in various arts. His paintings and poetry were nothing to swoon for, but they were heartfelt, and I enjoyed the rare glimpses into his heart. There was a tenderness, a longing for a simpler life.

    The studded ring on his knuckle slammed into the healing flesh of my scar, doubling me over in pain, but mostly surprise.

    "Next year, I would advise remembering your courtesies better."

    Before I could get to my feet, I felt his hand grip my hair through my hat, dragging me by the roots until I slipped from his grasp. "Quickly, now!" he urged.

    I fixed my hair and hat, and continued following him. "At once, my king." His boots echoed into the corridors, and I scrambled to keep up.

    The Foxfeather Castle being one of the largest in the Moonlands, it took several minutes of a stifled silence, strafing through wide corridors and tight staircases before we arrived at his chamber.

    At the foot his door, a slightly dried, reddish liquid was seeping beneath the crack. I assumed it was spilled wine.

    "Mind the hide I've added to the floor," he advised before pushing open the door. "I believe it adds an air of warmth, don't you agree?"

    Rot swarmed my mouth and nose upon the door's opening. My stomach heaved. My feet immediately planted at the doorway, but he'd already stepped over the skinned corpse of his wife, and was beckoning me to the easel in front of the open window. His eyes betrayed nothing of normality, only expectation for my approval.

    I swallowed, trying not to stare at the corpse. She was face down, the bare flesh of her back exuding decay just within arm's reach of the bed, where the curtains had been ripped out during a struggle. Slashes of blood covered one of the portraits of William in his kinder years, the years in which he would drone on about how he did not deserve someone as beautiful as Lady Elise, much to my rolling eyes. One of her fingers, now severed from the hand, had evidently been used to stir his morning tea.

    "Fool, is there something amiss? You are ... still far from the painting," he observed.

    "Nothing, my king," I cleared my throat, "only admiring the decoration of your chamber. Might I close the door?"

    "A fine idea! Yes, this sight is not for common eyes, I admit. I think it is my finest work yet, after all. It is a blessing just to behold it." He stepped back as if it took multiple perspectives to fully appreciate his painting, pinching his clean-shaved chin as he admired it.

    "A blessing, indeed," I agreed as I stepped over Lady Elise and went closer to the painting. "Ah, yes, the finest." My eyes watered at the stench, my mind, numb at the sight.

    On a stool next to the easel, paintbrushes rested in a glass of blood and innards.

    I leaned closer to observe the 'masterpiece': himself, standing atop a mountain with a sword drawn towards crimson skies. The mountain's height came from corpses beneath him, their depth illustrated by the various sinews and strings of flesh he'd extricated from Lady Elise. Burgundy lightning flashed from storm clouds the color of liver, casting a rain of blood over his heroic stance.

    Who knew blood had so many shades?

    "It is truly ... breathtaking, my king. You honor me by allowing humble eyes to see it," I managed to say without a tremor. While he was fixated on his own creation, I stole a glance at Lady Elise, observing the subtle squirming of a few maggots writhing through the topmost layers of her muscles.

    Doubtless, this had not happened this morning, but the previous night. Meaning his chambermaids had witnessed this, and all the same, uttered not a word of it to anyone. When I looked at his face, I realized he had not slept a moment the night before, yet his demeanor was sparking and as frightening as ever.

    "I thought it revolutionary," he explained, his eyes no longer on the painting, but digging into mine. "The methods, I mean, by which I created this. From life to art, yes? Is that not the process by which all artists harvest inspiration? A certain surrender and death of the senses for the resurrection of their expression."

    I could not help but step away from him, remembering the comfort of the dagger at my side. "The metaphor is ingenious. The scribes will be fascinated and eager to record your methods."

    "Hmph. Yes. Well, you are quite a busy fool. Return to your duties, if you wish."

    I bowed as deep as I could, as quickly as I could, and left the chamber.

    Bloodied footprints trailed my boots, as every last fiber of his carpets had been drenched.

    Skinned corpses. Scarred faces. Bruised bodies. Shattered trust and flourishing terror. This was not to my liking, not to my living. Highborns have a way of standing around and waiting for things to fix themselves, or worse, to erupt into chaos beyond mending.

    "Six leaves of deadly nightshade," I muttered, reading off of Fahim's instructions. "Minced, then ground, activated in diluting oil. Simmer for two turns, then add crushed abrin to aforementioned mixture." The acrid stench rising from the vial made my nose crinkle, but I found a satisfied grin rising to my lips. Perhaps the only reason Fahim provoked me was not because I had any advantage at spiking William's goblet, merely that I was the only one who would do it. As I slid a palmful of crushed prayer pea to the concoction, I realized he was correct.

    The time passed with some idle reading from one of Fahim's less academic books, after a servant had come to bring his afternoon tea. I accepted, stopping her only to ask if she had seen Fahim at all that day, to which she replied she had not. The information seemed unsettling, but I waved it away.

    I left the elixir to cool, my decision settling into a calm silence in my head. I returned to my own chamber to dress in a grey, black, and scarlet tunic with a high collar. A leather spaulder embroidered by gold rested on my shoulder, nestled over a matching half-cloak. My silver dagger hung at my belt beside a pouch filled with mechanisms befitting trickery. Topped and tailed with black boots and a four-pointed hat, I returned to Fahim's study for the final preparations, satisfied with my raiment and eager for the night's entertainment.

    And afterwards, in the light of a sinking sun setting the chamber afire with its bleeding hues, I contemplated what final jests I would grace the king's ears with.

    My foster brother, after all, had long since died.

    As I lightly corked the vial I'd transferred the substance to, I contemplated how madness seems to cascade from seemingly nothing, and how retaliation begs not vengeance, but a cessation to that desire. But is it truly cessation?

    “No. No. N-no,” I stuttered to myself.

    A whole dining hall of angry eyes stared up at me, some in surprise, but most with only loathing. For every one of the advisors in King William III's court, there were two dozen strangers given invitations to the celebration. Folks who understood nothing of the lunacy that had consumed him. Folks who knew him only from the stories of the benevolent king that promised peace. And Fahim, although I spotted him, was as silent as the rest, his jaw as dropped as theirs. In other words ...

    Blades were unsheathed.

    A goblet clattered to the floor.

    The torches' steady blazing was the loudest noise in the ensuing silence, and their eyes boring into me, the sharpest blades I'd ever felt.

    "Three pinches," I whispered to myself, "not six. Fuck my luck." The toxins had spread far too quickly.

    I loosened the uncomfortably tight collar on my tunic, praying that one of the courtmen's voices would ring out in the silence to justify the murder they'd just witnessed. They wished for this too, didn't they? I was only the ... I shook my head, there was no time for hopeful thinking. 

    Dazed, I stepped down one of the stone steps with trembling hands, physically clean, but in their eyes they saw his blood on them. If they were being dramatic and imaginative all at once, it’s likely that they perceived the blood dripping from every inch of my body. They should have.

    “He poisoned the king!” one of the guests shouted.

    The guard nearest me drew closer and unsheathed his weapon. His longsword gave me an even more intimidating glower than the one behind his visor, and I stared back, back at the other hundreds of weapons brandished at me, and struggled to breathe. People don’t scare me so much, they are not always the most intelligent. Their weapons do.

Everyone in the room had a good idea of what they wanted to do, just a whole mess of different ideas about how to do it. Maybe that’s what kept them from killing me so quickly.

    “Please, honored guests of the court,” I stammered, eyeing a sorceress who was making strange motions with her hands, “you must understand this is for theatre's sake! Just a jest, a daring performance, if you will! Wi—the king simply stunned you with his acting! Uh?” I had done many performances in my day, with nefarious acts sprinkled between. I’ve lied, stolen, even killed before this, and yes, with poison, but gods … I never botched it this terribly.

    The emptied vial of toxin fell from the pocket in my sleeve and shattered against the floor. A crash that sent my mind reeling, hoping for any hint that this was an odd dream I was to stir from with a gasp. When no hint came, some sense of reality snapped; everything became just as I said: nothing more than a performance. My heart fluttered with an odd sense of relief. 

    My explanation provoked some hesitation from them, from the barest few, perhaps those least graced with wit. I almost pitied them. 

    “That ain’t no jest,” the guard growled behind me. “King makin’ noises like that, foamin’, beggin’ for help. He's gone."

    “Well, he’s not exactly a king anymore,” I mumbled, only loud enough for me to hear.

I glanced back at King William III. His body was hanging over the side of his throne, a stream of bloodied drool heading towards the puddle of vomit beneath, and a hand getting steadily colder, stretched out toward an empty goblet beside his fallen crown.

    I regretted nothing of it, only the means. I stole one last look at him before darting my eyes to every last one of them. I meant it. Portsworth needed it, and I'd done it. If this was a dream, and dying meant waking up, I steeled myself to make it last as long as it could.

    “This is not as it seems ...” my voice echoed back to me from the grandiose stone walls, showing me just how absurd they sounded. A shameful disgrace, even to a fool. A lackluster display.  

    The guards were the only ones I had to worry for, the dining tables being many strides from the throne. An irrepressible smile, coaxed a little from sheer thrill, a little by the possibility of escape, found its way to my face. I spread my hands out in surrender and settled for other words."Gods, I may murder, but lying is simply too sinister a crime to commit. And so, lords and ladies of the court, I must confess: I poisoned your fucking king!" I shouted, drew my dagger and dug into the pouch at my belt.

    "Seize him!"

    A gloved hand gripped my shoulder in a vice, while my neck was greeted with a cold tongue of steel.

    I smashed the glass containers that my fingers had snatched from the pouch. Some filched gifts from Fahim's study that I reckoned would be more useful to me than him.

    Clouds of green and orange smoke plumed from the shattered vials, encasing the guard and I before spreading throughout the hall. I squirmed out of his grip, held my breath and darted away, my cloak barely managing to trail behind while my bells jingled a parting farewell. Someone swung a sword at my head. I ducked, threw a handful of vials behind me, and sprinted into an empty corridor.

    Was I laughing?

    After a collective fit of wheezing, coughing, and some retching, the packed room of guests, entertainers, knights, guards, mages, sorcerers, and relatives all shouted a cacophony of death threats and insults as they started toward the archway I had just disappeared into. A mob to avenge their newly departed king, all on his birthday!

    One of my finest jests.

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Challenge of the Week #56: Write the beginning of a story about a tyrannical king who threatens the entire realm. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by Harlequin
The Remedy: A Jester's Tale
    "Things will never be as they were, my friend," Magister Fahim said as he poured wine, the burgundy liquid illuminated by the gold of his goblet and daring to spill over the edge. He began to pour into a second cup, but I held my hand up just as he met my eyes to ask.
    "Not when my mind broods over such things," I explained, and he nodded. "And, no, they haven't been as they were for a long while," I added, rubbing the silver feather ring wrapped around my thumb, as I do when my thoughts are trailing away from me.
    The countless glass spheres and vials of Magister Fahim's study glinted from the fire in the hearth while we stood in the center of the massive chamber, its walls adorned by the rich colors of potions simmering over the barest flames, and the faded portraits of famous alchemists.
    "How humorous," Fahim replied, "you see, I drink specifically when my mind 'broods' over things. So what is it that occupies yours, dear jester?"
    All I had to do was look at him. The wound on my cheek was enough, if not for the hatred and confusion in my eyes. Today was the first day without the bandage hiding its freshly stitched surface.
    "His condition is getting steadily worse," he said with a sigh before deflating into the sofa. I wrapped my cloak around my chest and sat down on the armchair opposite him, watching how his ivory eyes searched mine.
    I relived the embarrassment of just two weeks before, when King William III pushed me against one of the walls in the dining halls, forcing me to remove and cut my clothes into tatters, unless, he 'should do the same to my throat'. All the while, he'd had a sword trained on me. When I didn't do it fast enough, he dealt me a gash that extended from the bottom of my chin to my cheek. I still am not certain if it was meant for my throat or not.
    "Certainly, it is," I agreed. "And now ... beyond repair."
    An elixir erupted. Showers of scalding glass and corrosive liquid sprayed over us. I stamped out a breath of flame that caught on my tunic and wheezed though air fouled by a stench strangely similar to browned butter. Magister waved the smoke away with his hand as if it would help, before returning to his senses and opening one of the windows. His reaction told me that this happened at least once a day.
    "Gods, can't you keep a keener eye on those?" I asked.
    "Time is precious, what with chaos brewing in the city ... excuse the pun," he said, caught between a laugh and a cough. "The experiments that are demanded of me give me little time to ensure safety."
    "And what was that experiment for?"
    Magister Fahim checked the number engraved on the station's stonework, before referencing it to one of his notebooks.
    "An elixir meant to conduce convulsions upon its eruption, hence the impressive amount of smoke. Oh my. I ... I apologize."
    "Marvelous."
                                                                    ~ ~
    Shivering from the cold and twitching involuntarily from the elixir, we'd moved our discussion into Fahim's personal garden. Our breath cast steam that dispersed towards the star-splattered sky. The neat rows of herbs were brightened by the faint glow of a waning moon sinking beneath passing storm clouds.
    Steadily, the dance of my fingers subsided as I stared at them.
    "Casimir," Magister Fahim said after a long silence, "you must do something about King William."
    "Oh, are you speaking to me? You must be speaking to someone else nearby, since you are addressing someone whose formal title is 'the fool' ... or did that connection not inspire any doubts? Forgive me, but what will my words do to soothe him? The time is not for talk, but a remedy of some sort. You're the alchemist, fix him something."
    Fahim chuckled and sat on one of the benches. "Touchy tonight, are we? You know as well as I do that title meant little to William. It was an excuse to bring you into his court."
    I remained silent with a leg propped against one of the ivy-ridden pillars that lined the gardens. His face was darkened from the lack of light, lending me only the silver of his straight hair outlining his face, the soft lines of his jaw and nose. The rest was a shadow of robes and glittering adornments. He had a decade and a half of age over mine—a mere eighteen years, but his mind had used those years as if they were half a lifetime. "I have scoured every last line of my tomes, tried everything from archaic healing spells to the bleeding edge of my studies. There is nothing at my disposal that can aid him. If anything, the overwhelming amount of substances I've fed him over the last two years have only hastened his condition."
    "Comforting. And you suppose a quiet talk with me will do him more good?"
    "No, I am not suggesting that. Just keep in mind how ... close you are to him."
    "Close? Care to gander at my mauled face? Nobody is 'close' to our king anymore, not even himself."
    The magister sighed in exasperation, though I had little notion as to why. William was far from reasoning with. The last person to confront him directly about his ailment was one of his advisors, Gendric. His head was later served on a platter during one of the council dinners. William spoke little about it, just stuck his fork into an eyeball and added it as a garnish to the cream topping of his sponge cake. It was nothing short of divine intervention that he hadn't force us to join him in relishing it.
    "Are you forgetting how he dragged you from the gutters and fostered you like his own? Somewhere behind all the viciousness is that boy who still trusts you as if you were his brother. Since he was a child, it was all he could talk about, wanting a sibling. You might as well be his brother, Casimir. Such is why he funnels his cruelty into you more than any of us. It's as if, even in madness, he still is more endeared to you." There was a glint of revelation in his eyes as he pondered this aloud; the pale tint of his irises gleamed as they caught mine.
    I simply shook my head, the bells of my hat chiming in. "That William has long since left us, magister. And I am not his brother," I spat, making no attempt to comment on William's obsession with beating me.
    "Like the doubled face of a masquerade mask," Fahim continued, "he switches by day, by hour, and it seems the more we look, the more we see that hideous tyrant rearing his head, and less of the young man we remember. Whatever madness has gripped him isn't letting go anytime soon. The hour for careful consideration has long since passed, seasons ago. It's time for more substantial action."
    "Such is why my position renders me—"
    "Casimir. Please do not force me to speak anymore directly than I already am. William is on the verge of beginning a war, and if not, a revolt in Portsworth that could cost the city its vitality. His condition has gone beyond mistreating those in his court, it is affecting everything from what laws are written to who is hung at the week's end. Soon, it will be more than just our heads on dinner plates. That is only the beginning. It would be a mercy if his cruelty stopped there."
    "What are you ..."
    Fahim stood up from his bench and placed a hand on my shoulder before his voice brushed beneath a whisper. "In a handful of days, we'll celebrate his birthday. Surely, there will be adequate chaos during that night for some ... mishaps to occur. Why don't you take a midnight stroll in my gardens? All the herbs are labeled," he continued as he opened the door that led into the Foxfeather Castle. He slipped a note into my hand. "I advise," he added, just as the door creaked shut, "admiring the violet petals of the plants in the far left plot."
    The door into the castle thudded with a clang of its handle on the wood. Fahim's footsteps echoed into the hallways, leaving me alone in the frosted air with a list of ingredients and instructions. The moon illuminated one of the words: nightshade.
    "Splendid," I murmured.
                                                                  ~  ~
    "Nonsense, nonsense," I spoke to myself as I ground the plant into a mortar in Fahim's chamber."Three 'pinches'? What exactly constitutes a damned pinch anyways?" The recipe glared back at me. "I am not a damned apothecary! Why am I doing this?" The late morning light filtered through the towering windows of the study, casting my shadow's strange movements onto the alchemical stations and cracked tomes scattered about their surfaces.
    For a moment, my hands stopped while my mind wandered to the days in which, I, too, thought I had found a brother in the most unlikely person.
    "CASIMIR!" a infuriated voice roared, loud enough for every last mouse in the castle to hear.
    My whole body jumped, spilling the ground contents all over the table. I dragged a book nearby in an attempt to cover the mess, only to spill some of it onto the ground.
    "H-here, Wi—my king," I called back, grabbing more parchment to conceal the herbs.
    "Here?! Where, here?"
    "Magister Fahim's chamber!"
    No sooner had I shouted that than did King William III burst inside in an obnoxious display of glittering jewelry and fury, his fist plastered to the hilt of his sheathed sword as he strutted into the study. His crown of ruby-studded gold feathers was tilted over impeccably combed auburn hair, his bronze eyes ablaze with scrutiny and frustration.
It was the antithesis of the William I'd glimpsed when I looked at him through the haze of a hangover five years ago, quite literally, in the gutters of a city I had no recollection of stumbling into. His hair was tangled, his eyes were keen yet relaxed, and everything about him spoke only gentleness. He never had a taste for gold nor bloodshed, nor any action that necessitated one for the other.
    "What're you mumbling about in here, halfwit?" he said, drawing close enough for me to smell what spices his breakfast might've contained.
    "I was studying, my king," I replied, watching the corners of his sharp lips curl upwards in some twisted avidity. My hands desired to further hide the mess behind me, but I stuffed my fist into the other and held them there.
    He scoffed. "How could a feeble mind likes yours grasp any use of studying? Come, I wish to show you a masterpiece I completed. You will admire it."
    Repressing any tell of the relief that filled me, I forced a grin and indulged him, following his footsteps out of the chamber.
    "I don't believe you wished me a blessed birthday, fool," he said with his back to me.
    "Wi—my king," I stammered. It had become habit to address him personally, as to his previous requests, "when I joined you at breakfast this morning, I brought you a book and countless wishes of good health." But lately, if he so much as heard me utter his name without any formalities, a swift kick to my stomach was in order.
    "Should a king not deserve twice the wishes as a normal man?"
    "Infinite wishes of good health to you, my king," I sighed.
    He stopped, then eyed me and flashed a broad smile. My hopes rose. He'd mentioned a masterpiece, and this talk of deserving twice as much as a normal man was precisely the humor that he'd used to mock himself. And in my first years at Foxfeather Castle, it was not rare for William to share some of his attempts in various arts. His paintings and poetry were nothing to swoon for, but they were heartfelt, and I enjoyed the rare glimpses into his heart. There was a tenderness, a longing for a simpler life.
    The studded ring on his knuckle slammed into the healing flesh of my scar, doubling me over in pain, but mostly surprise.
    "Next year, I would advise remembering your courtesies better."
    Before I could get to my feet, I felt his hand grip my hair through my hat, dragging me by the roots until I slipped from his grasp. "Quickly, now!" he urged.
    I fixed my hair and hat, and continued following him. "At once, my king." His boots echoed into the corridors, and I scrambled to keep up.
    The Foxfeather Castle being one of the largest in the Moonlands, it took several minutes of a stifled silence, strafing through wide corridors and tight staircases before we arrived at his chamber.
    At the foot his door, a slightly dried, reddish liquid was seeping beneath the crack. I assumed it was spilled wine.
    "Mind the hide I've added to the floor," he advised before pushing open the door. "I believe it adds an air of warmth, don't you agree?"
    Rot swarmed my mouth and nose upon the door's opening. My stomach heaved. My feet immediately planted at the doorway, but he'd already stepped over the skinned corpse of his wife, and was beckoning me to the easel in front of the open window. His eyes betrayed nothing of normality, only expectation for my approval.
    I swallowed, trying not to stare at the corpse. She was face down, the bare flesh of her back exuding decay just within arm's reach of the bed, where the curtains had been ripped out during a struggle. Slashes of blood covered one of the portraits of William in his kinder years, the years in which he would drone on about how he did not deserve someone as beautiful as Lady Elise, much to my rolling eyes. One of her fingers, now severed from the hand, had evidently been used to stir his morning tea.
    "Fool, is there something amiss? You are ... still far from the painting," he observed.
    "Nothing, my king," I cleared my throat, "only admiring the decoration of your chamber. Might I close the door?"
    "A fine idea! Yes, this sight is not for common eyes, I admit. I think it is my finest work yet, after all. It is a blessing just to behold it." He stepped back as if it took multiple perspectives to fully appreciate his painting, pinching his clean-shaved chin as he admired it.
    "A blessing, indeed," I agreed as I stepped over Lady Elise and went closer to the painting. "Ah, yes, the finest." My eyes watered at the stench, my mind, numb at the sight.
    On a stool next to the easel, paintbrushes rested in a glass of blood and innards.
    I leaned closer to observe the 'masterpiece': himself, standing atop a mountain with a sword drawn towards crimson skies. The mountain's height came from corpses beneath him, their depth illustrated by the various sinews and strings of flesh he'd extricated from Lady Elise. Burgundy lightning flashed from storm clouds the color of liver, casting a rain of blood over his heroic stance.
    Who knew blood had so many shades?
    "It is truly ... breathtaking, my king. You honor me by allowing humble eyes to see it," I managed to say without a tremor. While he was fixated on his own creation, I stole a glance at Lady Elise, observing the subtle squirming of a few maggots writhing through the topmost layers of her muscles.
    Doubtless, this had not happened this morning, but the previous night. Meaning his chambermaids had witnessed this, and all the same, uttered not a word of it to anyone. When I looked at his face, I realized he had not slept a moment the night before, yet his demeanor was sparking and as frightening as ever.
    "I thought it revolutionary," he explained, his eyes no longer on the painting, but digging into mine. "The methods, I mean, by which I created this. From life to art, yes? Is that not the process by which all artists harvest inspiration? A certain surrender and death of the senses for the resurrection of their expression."
    I could not help but step away from him, remembering the comfort of the dagger at my side. "The metaphor is ingenious. The scribes will be fascinated and eager to record your methods."
    "Hmph. Yes. Well, you are quite a busy fool. Return to your duties, if you wish."
    I bowed as deep as I could, as quickly as I could, and left the chamber.
    Bloodied footprints trailed my boots, as every last fiber of his carpets had been drenched.

    Skinned corpses. Scarred faces. Bruised bodies. Shattered trust and flourishing terror. This was not to my liking, not to my living. Highborns have a way of standing around and waiting for things to fix themselves, or worse, to erupt into chaos beyond mending.
    "Six leaves of deadly nightshade," I muttered, reading off of Fahim's instructions. "Minced, then ground, activated in diluting oil. Simmer for two turns, then add crushed abrin to aforementioned mixture." The acrid stench rising from the vial made my nose crinkle, but I found a satisfied grin rising to my lips. Perhaps the only reason Fahim provoked me was not because I had any advantage at spiking William's goblet, merely that I was the only one who would do it. As I slid a palmful of crushed prayer pea to the concoction, I realized he was correct.
    The time passed with some idle reading from one of Fahim's less academic books, after a servant had come to bring his afternoon tea. I accepted, stopping her only to ask if she had seen Fahim at all that day, to which she replied she had not. The information seemed unsettling, but I waved it away.
    I left the elixir to cool, my decision settling into a calm silence in my head. I returned to my own chamber to dress in a grey, black, and scarlet tunic with a high collar. A leather spaulder embroidered by gold rested on my shoulder, nestled over a matching half-cloak. My silver dagger hung at my belt beside a pouch filled with mechanisms befitting trickery. Topped and tailed with black boots and a four-pointed hat, I returned to Fahim's study for the final preparations, satisfied with my raiment and eager for the night's entertainment.
    And afterwards, in the light of a sinking sun setting the chamber afire with its bleeding hues, I contemplated what final jests I would grace the king's ears with.
    My foster brother, after all, had long since died.
    As I lightly corked the vial I'd transferred the substance to, I contemplated how madness seems to cascade from seemingly nothing, and how retaliation begs not vengeance, but a cessation to that desire. But is it truly cessation?

    “No. No. N-no,” I stuttered to myself.
    A whole dining hall of angry eyes stared up at me, some in surprise, but most with only loathing. For every one of the advisors in King William III's court, there were two dozen strangers given invitations to the celebration. Folks who understood nothing of the lunacy that had consumed him. Folks who knew him only from the stories of the benevolent king that promised peace. And Fahim, although I spotted him, was as silent as the rest, his jaw as dropped as theirs. In other words ...
    Blades were unsheathed.
    A goblet clattered to the floor.
    The torches' steady blazing was the loudest noise in the ensuing silence, and their eyes boring into me, the sharpest blades I'd ever felt.
    "Three pinches," I whispered to myself, "not six. Fuck my luck." The toxins had spread far too quickly.
    I loosened the uncomfortably tight collar on my tunic, praying that one of the courtmen's voices would ring out in the silence to justify the murder they'd just witnessed. They wished for this too, didn't they? I was only the ... I shook my head, there was no time for hopeful thinking. 
    Dazed, I stepped down one of the stone steps with trembling hands, physically clean, but in their eyes they saw his blood on them. If they were being dramatic and imaginative all at once, it’s likely that they perceived the blood dripping from every inch of my body. They should have.
    “He poisoned the king!” one of the guests shouted.
    The guard nearest me drew closer and unsheathed his weapon. His longsword gave me an even more intimidating glower than the one behind his visor, and I stared back, back at the other hundreds of weapons brandished at me, and struggled to breathe. People don’t scare me so much, they are not always the most intelligent. Their weapons do.
Everyone in the room had a good idea of what they wanted to do, just a whole mess of different ideas about how to do it. Maybe that’s what kept them from killing me so quickly.
    “Please, honored guests of the court,” I stammered, eyeing a sorceress who was making strange motions with her hands, “you must understand this is for theatre's sake! Just a jest, a daring performance, if you will! Wi—the king simply stunned you with his acting! Uh?” I had done many performances in my day, with nefarious acts sprinkled between. I’ve lied, stolen, even killed before this, and yes, with poison, but gods … I never botched it this terribly.
    The emptied vial of toxin fell from the pocket in my sleeve and shattered against the floor. A crash that sent my mind reeling, hoping for any hint that this was an odd dream I was to stir from with a gasp. When no hint came, some sense of reality snapped; everything became just as I said: nothing more than a performance. My heart fluttered with an odd sense of relief. 
    My explanation provoked some hesitation from them, from the barest few, perhaps those least graced with wit. I almost pitied them. 
    “That ain’t no jest,” the guard growled behind me. “King makin’ noises like that, foamin’, beggin’ for help. He's gone."
    “Well, he’s not exactly a king anymore,” I mumbled, only loud enough for me to hear.
I glanced back at King William III. His body was hanging over the side of his throne, a stream of bloodied drool heading towards the puddle of vomit beneath, and a hand getting steadily colder, stretched out toward an empty goblet beside his fallen crown.
    I regretted nothing of it, only the means. I stole one last look at him before darting my eyes to every last one of them. I meant it. Portsworth needed it, and I'd done it. If this was a dream, and dying meant waking up, I steeled myself to make it last as long as it could.
    “This is not as it seems ...” my voice echoed back to me from the grandiose stone walls, showing me just how absurd they sounded. A shameful disgrace, even to a fool. A lackluster display.  
    The guards were the only ones I had to worry for, the dining tables being many strides from the throne. An irrepressible smile, coaxed a little from sheer thrill, a little by the possibility of escape, found its way to my face. I spread my hands out in surrender and settled for other words."Gods, I may murder, but lying is simply too sinister a crime to commit. And so, lords and ladies of the court, I must confess: I poisoned your fucking king!" I shouted, drew my dagger and dug into the pouch at my belt.
    "Seize him!"
    A gloved hand gripped my shoulder in a vice, while my neck was greeted with a cold tongue of steel.
    I smashed the glass containers that my fingers had snatched from the pouch. Some filched gifts from Fahim's study that I reckoned would be more useful to me than him.
    Clouds of green and orange smoke plumed from the shattered vials, encasing the guard and I before spreading throughout the hall. I squirmed out of his grip, held my breath and darted away, my cloak barely managing to trail behind while my bells jingled a parting farewell. Someone swung a sword at my head. I ducked, threw a handful of vials behind me, and sprinted into an empty corridor.
    Was I laughing?
    After a collective fit of wheezing, coughing, and some retching, the packed room of guests, entertainers, knights, guards, mages, sorcerers, and relatives all shouted a cacophony of death threats and insults as they started toward the archway I had just disappeared into. A mob to avenge their newly departed king, all on his birthday!
    One of my finest jests.
#fantasy  #fiction  #horror  #adventure  #Netherway 
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Challenge of the Week #56: Write the beginning of a story about a tyrannical king who threatens the entire realm. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by joyceanne

The Mad Lord Damien

For as long as the Jungle People could remember, the Waterfalls bestowed the gifts of the Wild River. Pulsing swiftly through the land, the river flowed past their primitive huts and fishing villages on the Upper Level. When it reached the Narrow Channels, it churned white caps in the forced constrictions of the land. Gathering strength, it crashed on, coursing powerfully south to the cliffs until it reached the ledge and plunged into the pool below, foaming and rippling through Turquoise Lake. Never has a lake been more clean, pure and refreshing. The water brought game to the banks and enriched the soil where fruit trees and shrubs lushly thrived. It nourished the Jungle and sustained all that lived near it.

Alone, on the river's upper banks, an old woman knelt, weeping. Illuminated by the crescent moon reflected in the lake’s shimmering surface, her tears sparkled as they dropped like crystals and swam with the tiny plankton that glowed between the rocks. Her weathered face was burnished from the sun and her hair cascaded down her back in streaks of grey and silver.

“I renounce you, Damien!” she cried. “Your cruelty and vanity shame me and disgust me. If your father, Lord Tanzi, were alive, he, too, would sorrow over your deeds. What happened to your heart, my son? Where did your soul fly?”

She bowed to the Waterfalls. “Oh Spirit of the Jungle, head my plea and rescue my people from the madness I have spawned.“

A large hairy beast watched his mother from the other side, baring his teeth, glaring red eyes at the wonder of the Waterfalls, and shaking a club at his mother.

“Be still!” he bellowed.

She saw her eldest child, but she could not hear him over the noise of the rushing water, and she continued, yelling loudly, intending her curse to reach his heart if not his mind.

“Damien, you are not my son. Within this sacred sack, filled with rubies, the gemstone of your birth, is wrapped the cord that bound you to me in my womb. How I wish I had never conceived and given birth to you. I renounce you now and forever.”

She raised her right fist, tightly grasping a pouch sewn from banana leaves. Lifting her eyes to the night sky brooding beyond the treetops, she moaned and flung the pouch down into the swirling water.

The Waterfalls roared in his ears. His heart was filled with both hate and sorrow as he watched his mother flee into the Jungle. He would find her, and when he did, he would make her suffer.

Damien thumped his chest and moaned. He squatted in the brush and put his mighty arms around his head, pressing them against his ears.

The angry blood rose within him. He had watched his father perish when the Wild River’s powerful current sent his boat tumbling over the ledge. Now, his mother had repudiated him and fled from him, cursing him in the name of the Great Spirit of the Waterfalls. Taller than he, louder than he, he despised the Waterfalls. It haunted him day after after day, night after night, a continuous bass thrumming throughout all the melodies of his realm. Ever since he was a child, he had heard it from within his cave under the cliff. He would destroy it, and he would build a mighty statue of himself, Damien, Lord of the Jungle, where it reigned.

He howled again and raised his club.

“Come before me now and honor your King and Lord! I call you to do as I bid.”

Thump, thump, thump. The earth drummed through the soles of his feet. His subjects began to appear out of the trees. Hordes of young, naked men and women with downcast eyes crept out in the darkness.

“Remove this,” he commanded, pointing to the Waterfalls.

His subjects looked at one another and then bowed their heads. This was insanity. Like everything else that had been decreed since Lord Tanzi had died and Damien had assumed control.

They had been made to arrest all their wise elders, leaders of the Jungle People. They had hung them from trees to slowly die and left their corpses to rot on the limbs. They had turned on their own kin in obedience to the mad king’s whims, still hoping for a miracle and offering prayers for his enlightenment.

But to destroy the Waterfalls, the Great Wonder, and risk the wrath of the gods? This would bring ruin.

A young man spoke. “Lord, my brother, if you tamper with the Waterfalls, we risk massive rockslides and flooding and splitting of the earth.”

Damien brought his club down on his brother’s head, and Rulo fell to the ground. Tears filled Damien’s eyes as he continued beating his only flesh-and-blood brother.

Why must he hurt the ones he loved? Why wouldn’t they obey him?

“Damien, Lord, I beg of you. Listen, there might be another way. We shall fill our buckets and empty the river to stop the water.”

Damien frowned and nodded his head as he pondered his brother’s suggestion. Perhaps, perhaps ... If the river were emptied of water, there would be none left to plunge over the cliffs and into the Lake. The roaring would cease, the land would be dry and his own statue could be built there.

And so Damien decreed that all the trees along the banks of the Wild River be cut down and their branches be banded together with reeds to make buckets to empty the river of water.

Sunrises and sunsets passed as the Jungle People toiled. Loyal servants died in the effort. Many drowned. Sadness filled their hearts. Still, the river flowed on and plunged over the cliffs into Turquoise Lake.

Damien fumed as the work showed no signs of progress. It had been a trick. The Wild River and the Waterfalls, his people - they were all laughing at him. In the morning, he ordered his brother, Rulo, be brought before him, and he called all his remaining subjects together.

*****

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Challenge of the Week #56: Write the beginning of a story about a tyrannical king who threatens the entire realm. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by joyceanne
The Mad Lord Damien
For as long as the Jungle People could remember, the Waterfalls bestowed the gifts of the Wild River. Pulsing swiftly through the land, the river flowed past their primitive huts and fishing villages on the Upper Level. When it reached the Narrow Channels, it churned white caps in the forced constrictions of the land. Gathering strength, it crashed on, coursing powerfully south to the cliffs until it reached the ledge and plunged into the pool below, foaming and rippling through Turquoise Lake. Never has a lake been more clean, pure and refreshing. The water brought game to the banks and enriched the soil where fruit trees and shrubs lushly thrived. It nourished the Jungle and sustained all that lived near it.

Alone, on the river's upper banks, an old woman knelt, weeping. Illuminated by the crescent moon reflected in the lake’s shimmering surface, her tears sparkled as they dropped like crystals and swam with the tiny plankton that glowed between the rocks. Her weathered face was burnished from the sun and her hair cascaded down her back in streaks of grey and silver.

“I renounce you, Damien!” she cried. “Your cruelty and vanity shame me and disgust me. If your father, Lord Tanzi, were alive, he, too, would sorrow over your deeds. What happened to your heart, my son? Where did your soul fly?”

She bowed to the Waterfalls. “Oh Spirit of the Jungle, head my plea and rescue my people from the madness I have spawned.“

A large hairy beast watched his mother from the other side, baring his teeth, glaring red eyes at the wonder of the Waterfalls, and shaking a club at his mother.

“Be still!” he bellowed.

She saw her eldest child, but she could not hear him over the noise of the rushing water, and she continued, yelling loudly, intending her curse to reach his heart if not his mind.

“Damien, you are not my son. Within this sacred sack, filled with rubies, the gemstone of your birth, is wrapped the cord that bound you to me in my womb. How I wish I had never conceived and given birth to you. I renounce you now and forever.”

She raised her right fist, tightly grasping a pouch sewn from banana leaves. Lifting her eyes to the night sky brooding beyond the treetops, she moaned and flung the pouch down into the swirling water.

The Waterfalls roared in his ears. His heart was filled with both hate and sorrow as he watched his mother flee into the Jungle. He would find her, and when he did, he would make her suffer.

Damien thumped his chest and moaned. He squatted in the brush and put his mighty arms around his head, pressing them against his ears.

The angry blood rose within him. He had watched his father perish when the Wild River’s powerful current sent his boat tumbling over the ledge. Now, his mother had repudiated him and fled from him, cursing him in the name of the Great Spirit of the Waterfalls. Taller than he, louder than he, he despised the Waterfalls. It haunted him day after after day, night after night, a continuous bass thrumming throughout all the melodies of his realm. Ever since he was a child, he had heard it from within his cave under the cliff. He would destroy it, and he would build a mighty statue of himself, Damien, Lord of the Jungle, where it reigned.

He howled again and raised his club.

“Come before me now and honor your King and Lord! I call you to do as I bid.”

Thump, thump, thump. The earth drummed through the soles of his feet. His subjects began to appear out of the trees. Hordes of young, naked men and women with downcast eyes crept out in the darkness.

“Remove this,” he commanded, pointing to the Waterfalls.

His subjects looked at one another and then bowed their heads. This was insanity. Like everything else that had been decreed since Lord Tanzi had died and Damien had assumed control.

They had been made to arrest all their wise elders, leaders of the Jungle People. They had hung them from trees to slowly die and left their corpses to rot on the limbs. They had turned on their own kin in obedience to the mad king’s whims, still hoping for a miracle and offering prayers for his enlightenment.

But to destroy the Waterfalls, the Great Wonder, and risk the wrath of the gods? This would bring ruin.

A young man spoke. “Lord, my brother, if you tamper with the Waterfalls, we risk massive rockslides and flooding and splitting of the earth.”

Damien brought his club down on his brother’s head, and Rulo fell to the ground. Tears filled Damien’s eyes as he continued beating his only flesh-and-blood brother.

Why must he hurt the ones he loved? Why wouldn’t they obey him?

“Damien, Lord, I beg of you. Listen, there might be another way. We shall fill our buckets and empty the river to stop the water.”

Damien frowned and nodded his head as he pondered his brother’s suggestion. Perhaps, perhaps ... If the river were emptied of water, there would be none left to plunge over the cliffs and into the Lake. The roaring would cease, the land would be dry and his own statue could be built there.

And so Damien decreed that all the trees along the banks of the Wild River be cut down and their branches be banded together with reeds to make buckets to empty the river of water.

Sunrises and sunsets passed as the Jungle People toiled. Loyal servants died in the effort. Many drowned. Sadness filled their hearts. Still, the river flowed on and plunged over the cliffs into Turquoise Lake.

Damien fumed as the work showed no signs of progress. It had been a trick. The Wild River and the Waterfalls, his people - they were all laughing at him. In the morning, he ordered his brother, Rulo, be brought before him, and he called all his remaining subjects together.

*****
#fantasy  #fiction  #prosechallenge  #Itslit  #getlit 
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Challenge of the Week #56: Write the beginning of a story about a tyrannical king who threatens the entire realm. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by JamesMByers

Ego, Porridge, and a Dwarf

     Falling to her knees, Acirema wiped the blood from the corner of her mouth. Many times she had been beaten, and many times she had gotten back up. Servitude seemed her only reality. Desperation settled in, but beneath each heartbeat nestled the sound of hope. King Dlanod laughed. She expected this.

     "My porridge was too cold. How can you expect me to eat it cold?”

Mustering the strength to stand, the young dwarf looked her king in the eyes as she moved to the bowl. In his anger, he had tipped it over. Hurriedly wiping up the mess, she dabbed the blood from her latest slap as she collected the utensils that had fallen around his routine seating arrangement.

     “Perhaps your porridge might taste better if you hadn't banned all the elves from our kingdom, sire? They cooked. We dwarves are miners and smiths, not short order chefs. Don't you remember the feasts you once had?”

     The orange ogre turned and slapped Acirema to the ground again. The wooden bowl flung across the room, skidding along the way. Shaking it off, the dwarf moved one knee at a time until she slowly collected the bowl and spoon she dropped from his attack.

     “You are not my advisor,” he sneered. “I do what must be done for this kingdom in order to provide peace, security and freedom. The elves, gnomes, and fairies got in my way. You're lucky. I loathe your race. But you do as you're told so I keep them around. Look at this nation now. The orcs, ogres, and goblins shall proposer under my intelligence! Everyone else can get in line or be destroyed.”

     Moving to the nearby window, the dwarf servant peered outside. The second sun was rising. Though she could barely make out the faces of those below her, she sensed something in each person making their way about life ... hope. A glimmer resonated through each step taken. And though many of them were headed to work on the great stone wall King Dlanod enforced as a tribute, the unity his reign cemented among the many tribes reassured her all was not lost. 

     Whips cracked. Chains clanked. But the music they produced formed a new beat in her heart; a rhythm in her soul. She called it freedom. Thinking of her former king, Amabo, she knew a leader could be wise and kind. In this moment she thought of her people.

     Looking back at her beastly ruler on her way to the kitchen, Acirema smiled. Things were changing. Perhaps she wouldn't be beaten down forever. Perhaps, if those people felt the same as she did, together they could make a difference. She rounded the corner and entered the chef’s quarter humming the tune of days to come. For now, she had to make the porridge ...

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Challenge of the Week #56: Write the beginning of a story about a tyrannical king who threatens the entire realm. The most masterfully written piece, as voted and determined by the Prose team, will be crowned winner and receive $100. Quality beats quantity, always, but numbers make things easier for our judges, so share, share, share with friends, family, and connections. #ProseChallenge #getlit #itslit
Written by JamesMByers
Ego, Porridge, and a Dwarf
     Falling to her knees, Acirema wiped the blood from the corner of her mouth. Many times she had been beaten, and many times she had gotten back up. Servitude seemed her only reality. Desperation settled in, but beneath each heartbeat nestled the sound of hope. King Dlanod laughed. She expected this.

     "My porridge was too cold. How can you expect me to eat it cold?”

Mustering the strength to stand, the young dwarf looked her king in the eyes as she moved to the bowl. In his anger, he had tipped it over. Hurriedly wiping up the mess, she dabbed the blood from her latest slap as she collected the utensils that had fallen around his routine seating arrangement.

     “Perhaps your porridge might taste better if you hadn't banned all the elves from our kingdom, sire? They cooked. We dwarves are miners and smiths, not short order chefs. Don't you remember the feasts you once had?”

     The orange ogre turned and slapped Acirema to the ground again. The wooden bowl flung across the room, skidding along the way. Shaking it off, the dwarf moved one knee at a time until she slowly collected the bowl and spoon she dropped from his attack.

     “You are not my advisor,” he sneered. “I do what must be done for this kingdom in order to provide peace, security and freedom. The elves, gnomes, and fairies got in my way. You're lucky. I loathe your race. But you do as you're told so I keep them around. Look at this nation now. The orcs, ogres, and goblins shall proposer under my intelligence! Everyone else can get in line or be destroyed.”

     Moving to the nearby window, the dwarf servant peered outside. The second sun was rising. Though she could barely make out the faces of those below her, she sensed something in each person making their way about life ... hope. A glimmer resonated through each step taken. And though many of them were headed to work on the great stone wall King Dlanod enforced as a tribute, the unity his reign cemented among the many tribes reassured her all was not lost. 

     Whips cracked. Chains clanked. But the music they produced formed a new beat in her heart; a rhythm in her soul. She called it freedom. Thinking of her former king, Amabo, she knew a leader could be wise and kind. In this moment she thought of her people.

     Looking back at her beastly ruler on her way to the kitchen, Acirema smiled. Things were changing. Perhaps she wouldn't be beaten down forever. Perhaps, if those people felt the same as she did, together they could make a difference. She rounded the corner and entered the chef’s quarter humming the tune of days to come. For now, she had to make the porridge ...
#fantasy  #fiction  #prosechallenge  #Itslit  #getlit 
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Written by RioRamirez

Cure Writer's Block

From William Garner's article on LinkedIn:

Writer's Block Is a Real Phenomenon That Resides in Your Subconscious

In all my years of writing, I’ve suffered from several different maladies and conditions but never the one we all fear and loathe: Writer’s Block. This doesn’t mean I don’t understand it, though, because I do. I’ve studied it in other people over the decades and have formulated my hypothesis about it and what causes it.

Writer's Block resides deep within your subconscious and can be accessed primarily through dreams and dreaming, and sometimes consciously by communicating with that nagging little voice at the back of your mind.

I’ve done experiments on myself to artificially induce Writer’s Block, and have been overwhelmingly successful. Those results were a dubious success, of course, because no one wishes to suffer from this dreadful disease of the subconscious, let alone for any extended period of time. But at least I saw it first hand.

When I stated above that I’ve never suffered from Writer’s Block, I meant it while I was actively writing, not experimentally inducing it for the purpose of intensive study.

What Are Some of the Probable Causes of Writer’s Block?

There is no one cause, because Writer’s Block may surface slowly or all at once at any point in the writing process. If you’re at the very beginning, with not even a storyline in mind, and you can’t write even write that first word, then the cause may be lack of passion, direction or drive.

Of course, one of the worst causes is wanting desperately to write but not having anything to write about. The next is having too many distractions that cloud the whole dreaming, designing, building and writing process.

If you’re not passionate about what you do, then the art of writing becomes a chore, a drudgery. And you’ll likely not write much, or even finish your writing project. You must love what you wish to write about, be absolutely passionate about it, because this is a story that you will share with other people. Writing becomes a chore when you’re simply writing for money or a reason other than for passion.

I’ve read published books by authors who seemed to be doing it for the money, and it’s reflected in their work. I’ve also talked with authors who’ve told me their prime motivation was to earn lots of money. Some did it well, but their work wasn’t as good as others’ whose artwork was based on a deep-seated passion that underlies and fuels it.

Passion is a deep, often hidden desire to express yourself and what you have to say, what you believe in so fiercely that it must come out in some artistic form. And when it surfaces, it’s in the form of a book, your first book.

If you’re in the middle of actually writing your first book, and Writer’s Block creeps up on you and your work grinds to a halt, then the cause is more likely your not being in sufficient contact with your subconscious, such that when your subconscious needs to connect with your typist and it cannot, the subconscious gets pouty or just plain angry and closes down for a period of time.

This is the time you need to take a step back from your work and ask yourself: How am I not in good contact with my subconscious now? What happened such that I lost contact? And how do I get back on track?

You could be stressed out at work and this is impinging on your writing at night or on weekends. Your family may be undergoing a crisis, something that takes you away from your work and your subconscious’s working for you on your book project. You must notice what the cause is and do whatever it takes to assuage the negative effects so you can get back to the fun business of writing your first book.

If You Suffer From Writer's Block, Ask Yourself This Important Question

“Am I still passionate about writing this book?”

Could be that you initially started your first book because you were inspired by a lover who came into your life, turned it upside down, and you fell in love so deeply that you got lost in all that passion. You began writing about it and then, out of the blue, your lover suddenly disappeared . . . along with the fiery passion that had driven you to embark on the journey to begin with.

This happens sometimes. It’s not the end of the world, although the pain is often unbearable, not just the loss of a loved one but also the loss of your passion for writing a book you thought you would finish and get out there for all to read and appreciate.

It may be a good idea, too, to write down the question, say it aloud before you go to sleep, so your subconscious will hear you and come up with some answers. If your subconscious isn’t paying you much mind, for whatever reason, you may consider taking a long break from your project, say, a month, then returning to it with a fresh look.

If you have somehow lost interest in your writing project, or if your passion has waned even a little, then you might want to consider trying another approach to writing this particular book, or choose another idea altogether. This doesn’t mean you should quit your current project. It may need to ferment a bit more, so put it aside and try something else, another story idea.

What Is Your Subconscious and How Do You Communicate With It to Overcome Writer's Block?

One of the greatest creations in the Universe, besides majestic planets like Earth and powerful energy sources like our sun, is the human subconscious. It is in direct communication with the Universe, which suggests it also communicates collectively with the subconscious of others.

You do not have to believe in this line of thought to write anything, even though I have injected small hints that you should consider it. Whatever you choose to believe, the fact is that you must give your writing sufficient time to develop. Time comes in days, weeks and months.

I’ve studied the human subconscious, mostly in myself, since I was a child, wondering what inner engine drove me to do the things I did. I didn’t have to think about doing certain things, I just did them. Sometimes they were rational and positive; other times, not so.

One item I discovered over the years was that there was a clear line between what I did consciously and how my mind functioned subconsciously. When I went to sleep each night, I knew there was a whole different creature that came alive and took me on endless journeys through space and time, introducing me to new thoughts, ideas, beliefs and ways of doing things in my life.

Your Subconscious, or Inner CHILD, is a Real Person Inside You

Nearly 15 years ago, I woke up one morning and scrambled out of bed to write something down. Whatever was in my head at that moment had to come out and it wasn’t going to wait for my bus driver, my typist, to take dictation. It was coming in a flood and that was that.

When I got to my notepad, my hand started scribbling things down. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was writing, I just took it on faith that I had to do this.

After I was done autowriting, I looked at what had emerged: a single word, along with details about each letter of the word. It was an acronym, CHILD:

C: the little Child in you, the curious wide-eyed being that looks at the world without filters and preconceived notions about anything. A little sponge that senses things with wonder and awe.

H: the true Heart in you, the purely subjective part, filled with every conceivable emotion known.

I: your Intuition or information-gathering system, the sensory apparatus that receives every possible stimulus in the Universe, much like a radio receives radio signals to produce spoken word and songs.

L: the cold, stainless-steel Logic that sees the world purely objectively, like a robotic computer that takes in and analyzes things in a totally impartial and neutral way, without emotion of any kind.

D: the little Demon in you, that mischievous entity that plays pranks and does impish things. Can sometimes be very destructive and hurtful.

These entities all comprise the human subconscious, which is the true engine that drives each and every one of us in our daily lives. They all work together and, depending on how one’s DNA is wired, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil.

I will not get into the moral implications of good and evil, only stating that they exist in all of us to some extent and, in others, they comprise their whole being. Sociopaths and psychopaths are an example.

Destiny or Free Will? Both!

We can communicate with what I term our Inner CHILD, or we can ignore it and just float through life, going wherever it takes us.

I contend that we do have a destiny. Each of us, when we are conceived (not born), have a certain imprint from those celestial bodies that mediate and modulate our behaviors; in fact, everything we do in life. This is imprinted onto our DNA when it first forms chemically in that single cell that will later become an individual being.

When we are first imprinted by the Universe, using celestiophysics, we are then given a map of destiny that propels us through life. Some of us follow this map without much thought. Others, like me, question it each day and consciously make a choice whether to follow that map or go “off-map” and do something that we were not initially programmed to do. Again, most people do not pay much if any attention to their map of destiny. They simply live life and go with the flow.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, but wouldn’t it be cool if you actually knew how it worked so you could use this invaluable tool to your advantage?

These thoughts bring me to my personal philosophy, Subism. It holds that the human subconscious is direct communication with the Universe, and that celestial bodies (planets, stars, whatever) directly and indirectly influence all life on earth. The philosophers of old weren’t familiar with celestiophysics, so they formulated their own ideas about how humans operate and function, and what makes us do the things we do. I suggest that we do all the things we do because of the strong, inexorable influences of celestiophysics, which we can to some extent manipulate and control.

I have often wondered why we spend so much time trying to read the minds of other people when we should be learning how to read our own and get in touch with our own subconscious.

How Do You Use Your Inner CHILD to Help You Write?

We can start with something we all agree on: we dream a lot. Sometimes you may not recall each or any dream, but your subconscious is actively dreaming, sending little (and giant) messages up to your conscious self to do certain things, avoid other things. Dreams are one method the subconscious uses to communicate with your conscious self.

Interestingly, when your subconscious presents a dream to you, it does so in very rudimentary language. We dream in metaphors and symbols and motifs, not in complete film-like visions. Our Inner CHILD only knows one method of talking to our conscious self, and that is in the language of a child, a small voice that expresses itself using little vignettes that represent small words and actions. Curiously our subconscious also uses phrases and sayings from books or passages we've read or from certain songs we've heard.

I’ve never heard of anyone dreaming in the language of an adult. Never. If someone tells you that they do in fact dream this way, it’s not a deep-sleep dream but a lucid dream, one you actually control because you’re partly conscious.

During a very difficult time in my life some years back, I had a recurring dream: a was sitting in a bus filled with other people. I wasn’t talking or interacting with those people, just sitting alone and minding my own business. Then the bus suddenly filled with water, as if we’d just plunged into the middle of an ocean. No one around me moved an inch or spoke anything to me or to each other. They all just sat there as the bus filled with water. I looked around, saw stone-cold faces on my fellow passengers, and tried frantically to get out.

And then the dream went lucid, where I could actually manipulate the dream in a semi-conscious state. I changed the dream so I got out of that sinking bus.

Since I had already known that my Inner CHILD was responsible for communicating with me, I then figured out a way to interpret what my subconscious was trying to tell me. I didn’t get it at first, so the dream stayed with me each night for a week or so, until I woke up and listened to my subconscious. To interpret my dream, which was in the language of a child, I used the thoughts, ideas and words of a child, say, of about four years old.

When I used this method, interpreting the dream in a child’s voice, the dream became clear: “I can’t get out and no one will help me.” Simple as that.

The dream told me that I was in a world of hurt and no one was coming to my aid, even when I actively asked for help. In the real world, I was on my own. I have a term for that: yoyo, which means "you’re on your own" when things get really tough for you. I was yoyo for a long time, until I realized what was actually happening, then when I figured out my temporary predicament, I was able to change how I thought, how I acted, and consequently the actions I took to climb out of that dark hole, from inside that sinking bus.

You may be quick to dismiss this as overly simplistic. Please do not. Instead, try it for yourself, using previous dreams you've had, and try to corroborate the newly interpreted message with how things worked out for you subsequently.

How Do We Use Our Subconscious To Cure Writer's Block?

Once you follow the prescription below, your Writer's Block will slowly dissipate and disappear altogether.

Learn how to feed your subconscious properly, to nurture it. You would do this with a human child, wouldn’t you? Your Inner CHILD is even more important. It’s the entity within yourself that guides you through every moment of your entire life. How could you not want to nurture such a being?

Your Inner CHILD is energetic and rambunctious, has a voracious appetite for new adventures and actions, so get out in the world and do stuff. Travel to new places, meet new people, eat new foods, explore new vistas. If you cannot afford to go to Europe or Africa, then explore your own town or city, or maybe drive to the next state and see what’s up there.

If those things are not in your current budget, then find a way to make it happen, now that you know your Inner CHILD needs these things. You need these things, too, dear Writer.

Your subconscious loves to run and jump and play around, so get out and exercise your body, even if it’s a long walk or hike. If you’re going to be a sedentary writer, then your subconscious will eventually rebel. Yes, I do know some overweight writers who do well, but they don’t last too long. Unfortunately, they die young and the being that dies first is their Inner CHILD.

This explains how people sometimes grow cold and distant, and they lose their humanity. In reality, they’re losing the most important part of them—their subconscious.

The CHILD inside you needs stimulation, and the world around you provides just that, so please take full advantage of your atmosphere and make it a daily routine to get out of your office and home and see different and stimulating sites, absorb what you sense all around you, roll in the grass, get dirty and make mud pies . . . something. There’s a new movement out there that is telling all of us to “ground” ourself with the earth. Actually get down on the bare ground and let it touch your skin. The earth is one giant healing mechanism, so find out more about grounding and then implement your new-found knowledge.

What else? Take trips to local stores, shops, museums, businesses that produce something interesting to see designed or in the process of being built. Feed your imagination ‘til its cup runneth over. There are no penalties for overfilling that cup. When your subconscious has had enough, it will tell you.

Go to shows, films, performances and watch the beautiful artwork of people who are just like you: they have a dream, they design and build it, then they do whatever it takes to implement it. Seeing the art of others is inspiring on all levels, especially when they’re actually creating it.

Visit the local hardware store and look at all the tools and items that are used to build things. Check out a restaurant and see how they prepare their meals. I feel it a grand experience to observe artists designing and building things, because it’s not unlike what I do when I create my own stories. In fact, watching other artists may be the most inspiring thing you can witness for yourself when you go out on these little excursions. I love watching glass-blowers! Especially the truly great ones who produce the world’s finest artisan glasswork, those Murano artists in Italy! Wow, they’re amazing to watch. When I’m done witnessing world-class art in motion, I leave with an all-body tingle that’s right up there with the best orgasms ever. Now that is a powerful thought, huh? What an inspiration!

The point is to experience how people outside you and your world of friends and acquaintances conduct their lives and do what they do. When you do, you become a part of their work, too, and you fuel their own desires and passions. You become a part of their artistic process. Let these artists do the same for you.

If your story is set in a beachside resort, go find one and write from there. If you can’t afford to be there, then find a nice area at a beach where you can write and be inspired. Maybe your story takes place in a cool dive bar. Find one and soak up the atmosphere for a few hours. Try not to drink too much or you may not get as much work done. Oh, and please remember: beer all over a keyboard is major notgoodness.

Get Off Your Tush and Connect With Real Human Beings

People make the world go round. And round. When I sometimes forget to get out of my office, which I love, I find that I miss the company of good people. So I jump out of my chair and go find someone to say hello to, ask questions about them, take an interest in another human being, share my own thoughts and experiences with them.

Connecting with another human being is one of the most important acts we should perform on a regular basis. When we don’t, we get lonely and grumpy. Your Inner CHILD does not make a good companion when it’s idle, lonely, cranky and without proper stimulation from the outside world. Use is or you lose it.

Eat something different each day. It doesn’t take much to break up your diet, so try a new cuisine on Friday night, share it with friends, savor every bite. Your subconscious will be as joyful as your conscious self, I promise you.

Considering all the nourishment I suggest above, one item is very clear: it all feeds your subconscious with new stimuli that will aid you in curing Writer's Block and help you write whatever you wish.

How Do You Listen to Your Inner CHILD When It Speaks to You?

First, let’s consider when your subconscious is actually trying to tell you something. An example: you’re sitting in a chair, writing away and you get this nagging voice inside your head that says you need a small pillow at your lower back. Don’t ignore it.

This is your subconscious telling you something: I want to feel comfortable when I tell you this cool story to write.

Those little voices that creep up at all times of the day and night are the core of your subconscious trying to tell you something. You should listen to those voices. Now, if they tell you to go out and run over the first pedestrian you come across, I would think really hard before carrying out that command. If you listen to voices like that, someone will probably have you committed or take you out back and tie you to a tree. How’s that for grounding?

When you hear the calling of your subconscious, please take a listen, pay attention to what it is trying to say, then, provided the command is a reasonable one, please act on it. Once you start listening to your subconscious, it will say, “Aha, my human is finally listening to me! Way to go!” And, from that point forward, if you continue to listen to your subconscious, it will give you more and more great knowledge and information that will not only enhance your life, but also cure Writer's Block and help you write better.

Communicating with your subconscious is not that challenging. Again, if it tells you to do something and you do it, then you’re effectively communicating with your subconscious. Keep doing it. And when you go to bed at night (or during the day, depending on your lifestyle and schedule), ask out loud and write down some questions or topics that you want your subconscious to mull over while your typist and bus driver are passed out for eight hours. When those guys are comatose, your subconscious is hard at play on its own eight-hour vacation.

How To Train Your Subconscious to Work For You

The more you listen to your subconscious, the more it will talk back and provide the information you need. You can train it to give you more and more information by asking questions, writing them down, then sleeping on them. Keep asking the same questions over and over until you get what you want. When asking questions or asking for help, please be kind to your subconscious.

Remember: your subconscious is a child and understands when you are being impatient or downright tedious. You know how people say to treat yourself kindly and gently? They’re really saying you should be kind and gentle to your subconscious.

The reason I suggest you say what you want out loud is because when you speak it and hear your own words, your brain stores and processes that information in different areas, which work in unison to come to your aid. When you physically write it down, that too is stored and processed in another part of your brain. When you read your own words, that is also stored and processed in yet a different part of your brain.

These working areas are also complex computing centers that help to enhance what you desire and wish for, and they help your subconscious make those wishes and dreams come true.

Training your subconscious involves all the above steps, plus actively talking to it, and not just before you go to sleep. You can have meaningful conversations with your subconscious, not only asking questions but also asking for guidance and assistance. The more you communicate with it, the more it responds and with better and more relevant information that will help and guide you accurately.

The only time my subconscious has failed me is when I have ignored it. That fact, in itself, I find fascinating and compelling. My subconscious has never steered me in the wrong or in a negative direction. Ever. When I’ve chosen to go off-map, then sometimes I’ve gotten into trouble. Yes, I’ve learned a lot from those experiential experiences, especially when off-map, but I’ve also paid a steep price for venturing off my Universal path.

Talk to the Individual Components of Your Subconscious

You also can talk to the individual components of your subconscious. It takes time and effort, but you can do it. I’ve often consulted my Logic element to get an objective view on a particular subject. And when I’ve needed to discuss something about my love life, I’ve talked to my Heart.

Having five separate ultra-complex computer modules inside your head is like having a team of experts of the Universe at your beck and call. Thing is, you must treat that team nicely and with great respect or it will ignore you and your queries. Your subconscious will never be vengeful and send you down a wrong path; only your conscious self does that.

The worst you can expect from your subconscious is silence, and that is the most crushing thing that could happen to your beautiful mind, not having the backing of one of the mightiest beings in the Universe.

This may be one of the causes of Writer's Block: your subconscious shutting down.

When Your Subconscious Goes Dark

When your subconscious fails to talk to you or communicate with you, something is very wrong. Remember that your subconscious is a child, so it needs special attention. Like I said, it will never steer you wrong, but it may ignore you. If it does, ask what’s up. Yes, really.

When you go to bed, write down that question, plus a few others: Are you okay? Have I done something really dumb to make you ignore me? What am I doing wrong here? How can I get back on track? Will you please help me?

The times I’ve had my subconscious go silent, they were when I was not treating myself well. I’ve had some challenging jobs in my life—scientist, Army Ranger, corporate security specialist—and each one has brought on a host of problems and challenges that drove me bananas at times. Sometimes after very difficult days, I would drink one too many beers, which is a great way to shut down one’s subconscious.

Point is, I abused myself and I paid for it, not only externally but also internally. Be kind and gentle to yourself, and your subconscious will thank you for it in ways you cannot even imagine now.

Your Subconscious Will Cure Writer's Block and Write Everything For You

All you need to do is nurture it and treat it like it’s the most precious thing in the Universe. It will help you cure Writer's Block, design your story, then guide your typist to get it all down on paper, virtual or real.

You must first master the inner workings of your subconscious before you can begin. Once you do, may you never ever suffer from Writer's Block again.

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Written by RioRamirez
Cure Writer's Block
From William Garner's article on LinkedIn:

Writer's Block Is a Real Phenomenon That Resides in Your Subconscious

In all my years of writing, I’ve suffered from several different maladies and conditions but never the one we all fear and loathe: Writer’s Block. This doesn’t mean I don’t understand it, though, because I do. I’ve studied it in other people over the decades and have formulated my hypothesis about it and what causes it.

Writer's Block resides deep within your subconscious and can be accessed primarily through dreams and dreaming, and sometimes consciously by communicating with that nagging little voice at the back of your mind.

I’ve done experiments on myself to artificially induce Writer’s Block, and have been overwhelmingly successful. Those results were a dubious success, of course, because no one wishes to suffer from this dreadful disease of the subconscious, let alone for any extended period of time. But at least I saw it first hand.

When I stated above that I’ve never suffered from Writer’s Block, I meant it while I was actively writing, not experimentally inducing it for the purpose of intensive study.

What Are Some of the Probable Causes of Writer’s Block?

There is no one cause, because Writer’s Block may surface slowly or all at once at any point in the writing process. If you’re at the very beginning, with not even a storyline in mind, and you can’t write even write that first word, then the cause may be lack of passion, direction or drive.

Of course, one of the worst causes is wanting desperately to write but not having anything to write about. The next is having too many distractions that cloud the whole dreaming, designing, building and writing process.

If you’re not passionate about what you do, then the art of writing becomes a chore, a drudgery. And you’ll likely not write much, or even finish your writing project. You must love what you wish to write about, be absolutely passionate about it, because this is a story that you will share with other people. Writing becomes a chore when you’re simply writing for money or a reason other than for passion.

I’ve read published books by authors who seemed to be doing it for the money, and it’s reflected in their work. I’ve also talked with authors who’ve told me their prime motivation was to earn lots of money. Some did it well, but their work wasn’t as good as others’ whose artwork was based on a deep-seated passion that underlies and fuels it.

Passion is a deep, often hidden desire to express yourself and what you have to say, what you believe in so fiercely that it must come out in some artistic form. And when it surfaces, it’s in the form of a book, your first book.

If you’re in the middle of actually writing your first book, and Writer’s Block creeps up on you and your work grinds to a halt, then the cause is more likely your not being in sufficient contact with your subconscious, such that when your subconscious needs to connect with your typist and it cannot, the subconscious gets pouty or just plain angry and closes down for a period of time.

This is the time you need to take a step back from your work and ask yourself: How am I not in good contact with my subconscious now? What happened such that I lost contact? And how do I get back on track?

You could be stressed out at work and this is impinging on your writing at night or on weekends. Your family may be undergoing a crisis, something that takes you away from your work and your subconscious’s working for you on your book project. You must notice what the cause is and do whatever it takes to assuage the negative effects so you can get back to the fun business of writing your first book.

If You Suffer From Writer's Block, Ask Yourself This Important Question

“Am I still passionate about writing this book?”

Could be that you initially started your first book because you were inspired by a lover who came into your life, turned it upside down, and you fell in love so deeply that you got lost in all that passion. You began writing about it and then, out of the blue, your lover suddenly disappeared . . . along with the fiery passion that had driven you to embark on the journey to begin with.

This happens sometimes. It’s not the end of the world, although the pain is often unbearable, not just the loss of a loved one but also the loss of your passion for writing a book you thought you would finish and get out there for all to read and appreciate.

It may be a good idea, too, to write down the question, say it aloud before you go to sleep, so your subconscious will hear you and come up with some answers. If your subconscious isn’t paying you much mind, for whatever reason, you may consider taking a long break from your project, say, a month, then returning to it with a fresh look.

If you have somehow lost interest in your writing project, or if your passion has waned even a little, then you might want to consider trying another approach to writing this particular book, or choose another idea altogether. This doesn’t mean you should quit your current project. It may need to ferment a bit more, so put it aside and try something else, another story idea.

What Is Your Subconscious and How Do You Communicate With It to Overcome Writer's Block?

One of the greatest creations in the Universe, besides majestic planets like Earth and powerful energy sources like our sun, is the human subconscious. It is in direct communication with the Universe, which suggests it also communicates collectively with the subconscious of others.

You do not have to believe in this line of thought to write anything, even though I have injected small hints that you should consider it. Whatever you choose to believe, the fact is that you must give your writing sufficient time to develop. Time comes in days, weeks and months.

I’ve studied the human subconscious, mostly in myself, since I was a child, wondering what inner engine drove me to do the things I did. I didn’t have to think about doing certain things, I just did them. Sometimes they were rational and positive; other times, not so.

One item I discovered over the years was that there was a clear line between what I did consciously and how my mind functioned subconsciously. When I went to sleep each night, I knew there was a whole different creature that came alive and took me on endless journeys through space and time, introducing me to new thoughts, ideas, beliefs and ways of doing things in my life.

Your Subconscious, or Inner CHILD, is a Real Person Inside You

Nearly 15 years ago, I woke up one morning and scrambled out of bed to write something down. Whatever was in my head at that moment had to come out and it wasn’t going to wait for my bus driver, my typist, to take dictation. It was coming in a flood and that was that.

When I got to my notepad, my hand started scribbling things down. I wasn’t paying attention to what I was writing, I just took it on faith that I had to do this.

After I was done autowriting, I looked at what had emerged: a single word, along with details about each letter of the word. It was an acronym, CHILD:

C: the little Child in you, the curious wide-eyed being that looks at the world without filters and preconceived notions about anything. A little sponge that senses things with wonder and awe.

H: the true Heart in you, the purely subjective part, filled with every conceivable emotion known.

I: your Intuition or information-gathering system, the sensory apparatus that receives every possible stimulus in the Universe, much like a radio receives radio signals to produce spoken word and songs.

L: the cold, stainless-steel Logic that sees the world purely objectively, like a robotic computer that takes in and analyzes things in a totally impartial and neutral way, without emotion of any kind.

D: the little Demon in you, that mischievous entity that plays pranks and does impish things. Can sometimes be very destructive and hurtful.

These entities all comprise the human subconscious, which is the true engine that drives each and every one of us in our daily lives. They all work together and, depending on how one’s DNA is wired, sometimes for good and sometimes for evil.

I will not get into the moral implications of good and evil, only stating that they exist in all of us to some extent and, in others, they comprise their whole being. Sociopaths and psychopaths are an example.

Destiny or Free Will? Both!

We can communicate with what I term our Inner CHILD, or we can ignore it and just float through life, going wherever it takes us.

I contend that we do have a destiny. Each of us, when we are conceived (not born), have a certain imprint from those celestial bodies that mediate and modulate our behaviors; in fact, everything we do in life. This is imprinted onto our DNA when it first forms chemically in that single cell that will later become an individual being.

When we are first imprinted by the Universe, using celestiophysics, we are then given a map of destiny that propels us through life. Some of us follow this map without much thought. Others, like me, question it each day and consciously make a choice whether to follow that map or go “off-map” and do something that we were not initially programmed to do. Again, most people do not pay much if any attention to their map of destiny. They simply live life and go with the flow.

There is nothing wrong with this approach, but wouldn’t it be cool if you actually knew how it worked so you could use this invaluable tool to your advantage?

These thoughts bring me to my personal philosophy, Subism. It holds that the human subconscious is direct communication with the Universe, and that celestial bodies (planets, stars, whatever) directly and indirectly influence all life on earth. The philosophers of old weren’t familiar with celestiophysics, so they formulated their own ideas about how humans operate and function, and what makes us do the things we do. I suggest that we do all the things we do because of the strong, inexorable influences of celestiophysics, which we can to some extent manipulate and control.

I have often wondered why we spend so much time trying to read the minds of other people when we should be learning how to read our own and get in touch with our own subconscious.

How Do You Use Your Inner CHILD to Help You Write?

We can start with something we all agree on: we dream a lot. Sometimes you may not recall each or any dream, but your subconscious is actively dreaming, sending little (and giant) messages up to your conscious self to do certain things, avoid other things. Dreams are one method the subconscious uses to communicate with your conscious self.

Interestingly, when your subconscious presents a dream to you, it does so in very rudimentary language. We dream in metaphors and symbols and motifs, not in complete film-like visions. Our Inner CHILD only knows one method of talking to our conscious self, and that is in the language of a child, a small voice that expresses itself using little vignettes that represent small words and actions. Curiously our subconscious also uses phrases and sayings from books or passages we've read or from certain songs we've heard.

I’ve never heard of anyone dreaming in the language of an adult. Never. If someone tells you that they do in fact dream this way, it’s not a deep-sleep dream but a lucid dream, one you actually control because you’re partly conscious.

During a very difficult time in my life some years back, I had a recurring dream: a was sitting in a bus filled with other people. I wasn’t talking or interacting with those people, just sitting alone and minding my own business. Then the bus suddenly filled with water, as if we’d just plunged into the middle of an ocean. No one around me moved an inch or spoke anything to me or to each other. They all just sat there as the bus filled with water. I looked around, saw stone-cold faces on my fellow passengers, and tried frantically to get out.

And then the dream went lucid, where I could actually manipulate the dream in a semi-conscious state. I changed the dream so I got out of that sinking bus.

Since I had already known that my Inner CHILD was responsible for communicating with me, I then figured out a way to interpret what my subconscious was trying to tell me. I didn’t get it at first, so the dream stayed with me each night for a week or so, until I woke up and listened to my subconscious. To interpret my dream, which was in the language of a child, I used the thoughts, ideas and words of a child, say, of about four years old.

When I used this method, interpreting the dream in a child’s voice, the dream became clear: “I can’t get out and no one will help me.” Simple as that.

The dream told me that I was in a world of hurt and no one was coming to my aid, even when I actively asked for help. In the real world, I was on my own. I have a term for that: yoyo, which means "you’re on your own" when things get really tough for you. I was yoyo for a long time, until I realized what was actually happening, then when I figured out my temporary predicament, I was able to change how I thought, how I acted, and consequently the actions I took to climb out of that dark hole, from inside that sinking bus.

You may be quick to dismiss this as overly simplistic. Please do not. Instead, try it for yourself, using previous dreams you've had, and try to corroborate the newly interpreted message with how things worked out for you subsequently.

How Do We Use Our Subconscious To Cure Writer's Block?

Once you follow the prescription below, your Writer's Block will slowly dissipate and disappear altogether.

Learn how to feed your subconscious properly, to nurture it. You would do this with a human child, wouldn’t you? Your Inner CHILD is even more important. It’s the entity within yourself that guides you through every moment of your entire life. How could you not want to nurture such a being?

Your Inner CHILD is energetic and rambunctious, has a voracious appetite for new adventures and actions, so get out in the world and do stuff. Travel to new places, meet new people, eat new foods, explore new vistas. If you cannot afford to go to Europe or Africa, then explore your own town or city, or maybe drive to the next state and see what’s up there.

If those things are not in your current budget, then find a way to make it happen, now that you know your Inner CHILD needs these things. You need these things, too, dear Writer.

Your subconscious loves to run and jump and play around, so get out and exercise your body, even if it’s a long walk or hike. If you’re going to be a sedentary writer, then your subconscious will eventually rebel. Yes, I do know some overweight writers who do well, but they don’t last too long. Unfortunately, they die young and the being that dies first is their Inner CHILD.

This explains how people sometimes grow cold and distant, and they lose their humanity. In reality, they’re losing the most important part of them—their subconscious.
The CHILD inside you needs stimulation, and the world around you provides just that, so please take full advantage of your atmosphere and make it a daily routine to get out of your office and home and see different and stimulating sites, absorb what you sense all around you, roll in the grass, get dirty and make mud pies . . . something. There’s a new movement out there that is telling all of us to “ground” ourself with the earth. Actually get down on the bare ground and let it touch your skin. The earth is one giant healing mechanism, so find out more about grounding and then implement your new-found knowledge.

What else? Take trips to local stores, shops, museums, businesses that produce something interesting to see designed or in the process of being built. Feed your imagination ‘til its cup runneth over. There are no penalties for overfilling that cup. When your subconscious has had enough, it will tell you.

Go to shows, films, performances and watch the beautiful artwork of people who are just like you: they have a dream, they design and build it, then they do whatever it takes to implement it. Seeing the art of others is inspiring on all levels, especially when they’re actually creating it.

Visit the local hardware store and look at all the tools and items that are used to build things. Check out a restaurant and see how they prepare their meals. I feel it a grand experience to observe artists designing and building things, because it’s not unlike what I do when I create my own stories. In fact, watching other artists may be the most inspiring thing you can witness for yourself when you go out on these little excursions. I love watching glass-blowers! Especially the truly great ones who produce the world’s finest artisan glasswork, those Murano artists in Italy! Wow, they’re amazing to watch. When I’m done witnessing world-class art in motion, I leave with an all-body tingle that’s right up there with the best orgasms ever. Now that is a powerful thought, huh? What an inspiration!

The point is to experience how people outside you and your world of friends and acquaintances conduct their lives and do what they do. When you do, you become a part of their work, too, and you fuel their own desires and passions. You become a part of their artistic process. Let these artists do the same for you.

If your story is set in a beachside resort, go find one and write from there. If you can’t afford to be there, then find a nice area at a beach where you can write and be inspired. Maybe your story takes place in a cool dive bar. Find one and soak up the atmosphere for a few hours. Try not to drink too much or you may not get as much work done. Oh, and please remember: beer all over a keyboard is major notgoodness.

Get Off Your Tush and Connect With Real Human Beings

People make the world go round. And round. When I sometimes forget to get out of my office, which I love, I find that I miss the company of good people. So I jump out of my chair and go find someone to say hello to, ask questions about them, take an interest in another human being, share my own thoughts and experiences with them.

Connecting with another human being is one of the most important acts we should perform on a regular basis. When we don’t, we get lonely and grumpy. Your Inner CHILD does not make a good companion when it’s idle, lonely, cranky and without proper stimulation from the outside world. Use is or you lose it.

Eat something different each day. It doesn’t take much to break up your diet, so try a new cuisine on Friday night, share it with friends, savor every bite. Your subconscious will be as joyful as your conscious self, I promise you.

Considering all the nourishment I suggest above, one item is very clear: it all feeds your subconscious with new stimuli that will aid you in curing Writer's Block and help you write whatever you wish.

How Do You Listen to Your Inner CHILD When It Speaks to You?

First, let’s consider when your subconscious is actually trying to tell you something. An example: you’re sitting in a chair, writing away and you get this nagging voice inside your head that says you need a small pillow at your lower back. Don’t ignore it.

This is your subconscious telling you something: I want to feel comfortable when I tell you this cool story to write.

Those little voices that creep up at all times of the day and night are the core of your subconscious trying to tell you something. You should listen to those voices. Now, if they tell you to go out and run over the first pedestrian you come across, I would think really hard before carrying out that command. If you listen to voices like that, someone will probably have you committed or take you out back and tie you to a tree. How’s that for grounding?

When you hear the calling of your subconscious, please take a listen, pay attention to what it is trying to say, then, provided the command is a reasonable one, please act on it. Once you start listening to your subconscious, it will say, “Aha, my human is finally listening to me! Way to go!” And, from that point forward, if you continue to listen to your subconscious, it will give you more and more great knowledge and information that will not only enhance your life, but also cure Writer's Block and help you write better.

Communicating with your subconscious is not that challenging. Again, if it tells you to do something and you do it, then you’re effectively communicating with your subconscious. Keep doing it. And when you go to bed at night (or during the day, depending on your lifestyle and schedule), ask out loud and write down some questions or topics that you want your subconscious to mull over while your typist and bus driver are passed out for eight hours. When those guys are comatose, your subconscious is hard at play on its own eight-hour vacation.

How To Train Your Subconscious to Work For You

The more you listen to your subconscious, the more it will talk back and provide the information you need. You can train it to give you more and more information by asking questions, writing them down, then sleeping on them. Keep asking the same questions over and over until you get what you want. When asking questions or asking for help, please be kind to your subconscious.

Remember: your subconscious is a child and understands when you are being impatient or downright tedious. You know how people say to treat yourself kindly and gently? They’re really saying you should be kind and gentle to your subconscious.

The reason I suggest you say what you want out loud is because when you speak it and hear your own words, your brain stores and processes that information in different areas, which work in unison to come to your aid. When you physically write it down, that too is stored and processed in another part of your brain. When you read your own words, that is also stored and processed in yet a different part of your brain.

These working areas are also complex computing centers that help to enhance what you desire and wish for, and they help your subconscious make those wishes and dreams come true.

Training your subconscious involves all the above steps, plus actively talking to it, and not just before you go to sleep. You can have meaningful conversations with your subconscious, not only asking questions but also asking for guidance and assistance. The more you communicate with it, the more it responds and with better and more relevant information that will help and guide you accurately.

The only time my subconscious has failed me is when I have ignored it. That fact, in itself, I find fascinating and compelling. My subconscious has never steered me in the wrong or in a negative direction. Ever. When I’ve chosen to go off-map, then sometimes I’ve gotten into trouble. Yes, I’ve learned a lot from those experiential experiences, especially when off-map, but I’ve also paid a steep price for venturing off my Universal path.

Talk to the Individual Components of Your Subconscious

You also can talk to the individual components of your subconscious. It takes time and effort, but you can do it. I’ve often consulted my Logic element to get an objective view on a particular subject. And when I’ve needed to discuss something about my love life, I’ve talked to my Heart.

Having five separate ultra-complex computer modules inside your head is like having a team of experts of the Universe at your beck and call. Thing is, you must treat that team nicely and with great respect or it will ignore you and your queries. Your subconscious will never be vengeful and send you down a wrong path; only your conscious self does that.

The worst you can expect from your subconscious is silence, and that is the most crushing thing that could happen to your beautiful mind, not having the backing of one of the mightiest beings in the Universe.

This may be one of the causes of Writer's Block: your subconscious shutting down.

When Your Subconscious Goes Dark

When your subconscious fails to talk to you or communicate with you, something is very wrong. Remember that your subconscious is a child, so it needs special attention. Like I said, it will never steer you wrong, but it may ignore you. If it does, ask what’s up. Yes, really.

When you go to bed, write down that question, plus a few others: Are you okay? Have I done something really dumb to make you ignore me? What am I doing wrong here? How can I get back on track? Will you please help me?

The times I’ve had my subconscious go silent, they were when I was not treating myself well. I’ve had some challenging jobs in my life—scientist, Army Ranger, corporate security specialist—and each one has brought on a host of problems and challenges that drove me bananas at times. Sometimes after very difficult days, I would drink one too many beers, which is a great way to shut down one’s subconscious.

Point is, I abused myself and I paid for it, not only externally but also internally. Be kind and gentle to yourself, and your subconscious will thank you for it in ways you cannot even imagine now.

Your Subconscious Will Cure Writer's Block and Write Everything For You

All you need to do is nurture it and treat it like it’s the most precious thing in the Universe. It will help you cure Writer's Block, design your story, then guide your typist to get it all down on paper, virtual or real.

You must first master the inner workings of your subconscious before you can begin. Once you do, may you never ever suffer from Writer's Block again.
#fantasy  #scifi  #fiction  #nonfiction  #romance  #horror  #adventure  #education  #childrens  #poetry  #science  #philosophy  #spirituality  #news  #writersblock 
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Written by SonOfSlayer

Wrecking the edges

Scab earned his name after his father opened his bedroom door and caught him jacking off to a magazine called Chicks With Dicks. He tried to toss the mag and zip up, but he caught his dick in his zipper and his father had to cut his pants with scissors to build pressure for the zipper to pop open. But the zipper had a hold on him, and his father had to rip it away. It left a scab that was constantly broken because Scab couldn’t stop jacking off. He told a few of us the story after he was kicked out of the house. His father was a lifer in the Air Force. He was already apprehensive about Scab because Scab played the cello. Scab’s mother sneaked him money when she could. He was juggled between the families of friends, then he was allowed back in the house until the day he graduated, but by then his father was dead. His mother followed two years after. He stayed with me for awhile, then with somebody else after I left Arizona, then he eventually met a girl and lived with her, until she discovered that he also liked men. He actually closed his eyes one day and pointed to the map. He had set his finger on Philly, quit his job and moved. His little brother was living with him. I hadn’t seen him since he was shipped off to live with their grandmother in Tulsa after their mother died. He stood in the kitchen and ran his mouth about his new punk band, about how it went against the mainstream and underground, how it was against anything stock or ordinary, as well as false and forced for trend.

“Alright. So what’s the fucking band called?”

“Wreckedge, as in wrecking the fucking edges: straight edge, emo, rap metal, gangster, R&B, hip-hop, destroying all that bullshit. Even taking it beyond the realm of thrash.”

“You’ve got a lot of balls to be able to say that.”

“Fuck you. You’ll see.”

“You’re standing there with an eyebrow ring and eyeliner, telling me that you’re part of something different. You’re an idiot.”

“No,” he paused and acted like he was scratching his balls, “maybe I’m doing this on purpose to reach everybody and help re-educate them.”

“Talk about bullshit.”

“You’re a hopeless cynic. I understand why you’re a writer. But your perception of music is retarded.”

I sat there and drank my coffee. He lit a smoke and walked out of the kitchen. I cracked my neck and rolled a sheet through. I started a letter to Emily, telling her about Philadelphia. Right now she was getting ready for work. Blitz walked back in and put a tape in the cassette player, “What are you writing?”

“A letter to my girlfriend.”

“Check this shit out. This is Wreckedge.”

He hit play. It was awful. Blitz played rhythm guitar and sang. The band was out of key and the lyrics were laughable, something about burning down the world and how they were the chosen few, a lot of shit like that. I reached over and hit stop. He looked at me, “Why’d you stop it?”

“It sounds like everything else. Only worse.”

He gave me a hurt look. I tilted my cup at him.

“Just being honest.”

He stood up and ejected the tape. He held it and glared at me, “You’re a dick. You have no ear for the original.”

I nodded to the tape in his hand, “Likewise.”

He punched the wall and walked out. Scab walked through in his boxers. He brewed a new pot and waited by the counter. It was useless to talk to him before he tasted coffee. He pulled the pot off the heater and held his cup under the drip. He walked past the hit on the wall and sat down. He drank his coffee.

“You saw my little brother, huh?”

“We had a conversation about his God complex.”

“I heard.”

“I didn’t mean to fuck with him.”

“Don’t worry about it. We go round and round over that shit.”

The doorbell rang. Nobody got up. There was a wait, another ring and the door opened. A young girl walked in. Scab and I stared at her. She was there for Blitz. She was barely dressed. Her body was great to the point where it was cruel for us to look at it. I lit a smoke. She stood in the kitchen and stared at us.

“Where’s Blitz?”

Scab looked into his cup, “He’s on the shitter.”

Blitz screamed from his room: “No, I’m not! Shut the fuck up!”

I walked over and poured a coffee. She looked at Scab, “So, I take it you’re Craig?”

“Right. This here’s my buddy Henry from Portland.”

“Maine?”

“Oregon.”

“Oh.”

Scab looked at me and smiled. I shook my head at him. He nodded at me.

“Henry’s a writer.”

“Oh? For a living?”

“That’s right,” he said, “novels published and everything.”

I poured the sugar in, “Don’t listen to him.”

She cocked her head at me. I was in town to do a reading. I had to read that afternoon.

“What’s your last name?”

Scab told her. She laughed, “Oh my god! Wait, you guys are fucking with me.”

“That’s right. I told you not to listen to him.”

She ran over and pulled my wallet from my pocket. She read my license.

I sat down. She walked over and gave me my wallet, “Can I please give you a hug?”

Scab smiled at me. I stood up. I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and I could feel her navel ring and tits press into me.

“I’m Samantha.”

“Of course,” I said. Scab laughed. I sat back down. Samantha sat next to me at the table, “I never do this. I never geek out like this. I had no idea you were so young.”

I pulled the letter out and flipped it over, “Young my ass.”

“How old are you?”

“I could be your father.”

“I doubt it.”

“How old are you, Samantha?”

“Twenty-three.”

“Well, if we were in Kentucky I could be.”

“How old are you?”

“Thirty-six.”

“That’s not too bad.”

Scab got up and poured another cup. He lit one of my smokes, “Henry doesn’t believe in aging.”

She reached over and touched my arm, “I can’t believe you’re sitting right here. I have so many questions for you. I mean, I’ve read everything of yours I could find.”

I looked at the diamond in her navel. I wanted to fuck her so badly I could barely swallow. But I had Emily, and I couldn’t do that to her. I grabbed a shirt from my suitcase and put it on.

“You can ask me.”

Scab sat down. The phone rang. He held it over to me, “Emily.”

I answered, “Hi, beautiful.”

Samantha smiled. Emily was behind the bar getting ready to open.

“I just got to work. How’s Scab doing?”

“He’s good. I started writing you a letter today.”

“Shit, I have to go. Fuckface just got here.”

“I’ll talk to you.”

We hung up. Fuckface was her boss, the bar manager. His real name was Todd. Todd was a real prick. Emily wouldn’t quit her job. She made good money there. Samantha looked at Scab, “How did you two meet?”

“Grew up together. He went on to become a famous writer and I went on to become a sleeper.”

“Blitz said you played the cello for a living.”

“I scrape by.”

Samantha focused on me again.

“I think your writing is amazing.”

I smiled at her. Scab shook his head, “He’s one of those queers who can’t take a compliment.”

She laughed and squeezed my arm, “Oh, he’s just humble.”

Blitz walked in and shot her a cold stare. She walked over to him. Her jeans were loose and low. Scab and I watched her ass cheeks wobble around her thong. It was torture. She hugged Blitz, “You never told me you knew Henry Struyveint.”

Blitz shot me a bitter nod, “This dude’s a dick.”

I put out my smoke, “Thank you, Blitz.”

Samantha laughed. Scab looked into the newspaper, “He’s just pussyhurt because Henry doesn’t like Wreckedge.”

Samantha cocked her head at me. She was pigeon toed and soaked with sex.

“Why don’t you like it?”

“I have go to take a shower.”

Scab laughed. Blitz shook his head, “Fuck all this. I’m outta here. Sam, you can stay here and suck his dick. I don’t give a fuck. I’m on a mission.”

He grabbed his guitar from the couch and slammed the front door. Scab smiled into the paper. Samantha looked at me, “Are you staying here?”

“Two days.”

“I want to talk to you about your writing. I’ll see you later. Bye, Craig.”

“See you, sweetheart.”

She went after Blitz.

I looked at Scab, “I’ll be hitting the ceiling tonight.”

“Man, fuck that. Emily blows her away.”

“No, she does. And she gives me balance. But still.”

“I hear you.”

“How long has Blitz been here?”

“Oh, fuck. It’s gotta be half a year since he showed up here.”

“Does he have a plan?”

“Never does. He gets to one place then shoots to the next. No roots, no address. I expect no less.”

“He’s changed.”

“He’s changed into a little bitch.”

I laughed. Scab nodded at the counter, “Well, hell, he fits right in here. They think Blitz is a cool nickname he’s earned. They think it’s cool and he lets them think that. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want anybody to know that my father was an uber jock and named me after a football play. But he’s let it go to his head.”

I rolled the sheet back through. Scab stretched, “I heard you tell Blitz you were writing a letter to Emily.”

“I was.”

“You’ll be back before she even gets it.”

“I know.”

Scab told me he’d met a girl and he was happy with her. He met her through some personals in a fetish or sex magazine. She was a full-on woman with a cock above her pussy. Scab told me the cock was functional but she couldn’t get off with it, and that he’d fought the notion of being bisexual after the last guy he was with bored him within half an hour. He said he did a week of soul searching and he figured out that he liked the body of a woman, but also a cock, but that having to see a guy’s bare torso or ass to get to the cock was always an obstacle which became too large to hurdle:

“I never thought of myself as bisexual because I never liked to take it up the ass or even give it up the ass. I didn’t even like kissing another guy. I just liked sucking a hard dick. I use to always fantasize that I was sucking some dude’s dick while I fucked his girlfriend or his wife. Now I have it both ways, with the same woman.”

I stared into my cup, “Fucking freaks.”

“You’ll meet her.”

He got up and poured another cup, started a new pot. He sat back down and opened the paper, “Just don’t tell her you know she has a dick. She doesn’t think it’s anybody’s business.”

“Got it.”

“She’s my girlfriend, man. She has a good job with a nice boutique and a good head on her shoulders. I feel ashamed sometimes that I actually had to get intimate with a few guys just to suck their cocks.”

“It’s a rough method.”

I looked around. The place wasn’t all that bad. He didn’t like it. He had a basement and an upstairs. He told me there was a ghost in the apartment, that the ghost mostly hung out at the top of the staircase and it slept in the basement at the base of the stairs. He said when he was in his room on-line he could feel it watching him, but it also liked to stand behind him while he was at his computer. I walked to the window. I saw four black girls playing skip-rope rhymes down on Fitzwater. They were fast and good. I’d never seen it in the flesh. I walked over to the coffee pot, topped him off and emptied it into my cup and started a new pot. It was a small machine. Scab put away three pots every morning.

“What time is it?”

“Almost noon.”

“There goes my shower.”

“What time is the reading?”

“Half an hour.”

“At least it’s close.”

I sat down and opened my briefcase. I pulled out the story I was going to read. It was a 40 page poem about building barns up and down highway 5 when I was 30. I closed the case and drank my coffee. Scab looked at me, “What’s it like?”

“It’s different. It’s smaller than you’d think it would be. I haven’t reached a rock star level yet. It’s inevitable, though. They’ve been pushing me to the teeth. It’s getting to where I hear about my writing everywhere.”

“Any enemies?”

“The usual underground bullshit. Writers who think they’re better, harder. I get love/hate stare-downs in coffee shops. But overall I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I actually like it. I didn’t think I would.”

Scab looked at my wrist. My publisher had sent me a Rolex Presidential. I looked at him, “And if the writing flops I can sell the watch. Fuck it.”

My cell phone rang.

“Yes?”

“Mr. Struyveint ?”

“Yes.”

“This is Dagmar from the Book Cellars. You’re reading here today.”

“Right.”

“Listen, the person reading before you had to cancel. We have a full house here and some people are starting to leave.”

“What happened?”

“Well, Harold Percy, you know who that is?”

“Hairy Pussy. Dark poetry and bad hair.”

She laughed, “Right. He said he had to cancel because he was in the middle of his best work and he didn’t want to break out of his zone to read today.”

“Yet he could break out and call.”

“Well, he’s the local fame around here. I think he’s uncomfortable because he didn’t get to be the featured reader.”

“What’s the crowd like?”

“Most of his camp left. You can imagine them. But now we’re hanging. A lot of people just started coming in. Maybe I panicked.”

“I know an opener. I’ll send him down. He can warm them up with his cello.”

Scab looked at me and shook his head. I smiled at him, “He’s accomplished. His fee is one-hundred dollars per half hour.”

“Awesome. Thank you, Mr. Struyveint.”

I hung up, “Scab, grab your shit and head down there. I’ll meet you.”

“You’re an asshole.”

“Just do it. You’ll make some money.”

He got on the phone and called his girlfriend. She was driving over to get him.

He walked out of his room with his cello and his gear, “You want a ride?”

“I’m walking it. I’ll meet you down there.”

I walked out and made my way up 18th, through Rittenhouse Park. I walked past the freaks and watched a mime. I lit up and walked toward the bookstore. Half an hour had passed. The streets of Philly were dirty and warm. There was an edge to the town that I didn’t like. It wasn’t a refined entitlement like Portland, but there was something like a parade to it, maybe an overdone front. The bookstore was crowded. I tossed my smoke and cracked my neck.

The reading went by. It was the usual bullshit, answer questions and deflect contact. A guy in a wheelchair gave me heavy attitude. He was obsessed with the dead midget from Fantasy Island. He’d written the unauthorized biography. There were a lot of literary Amazonian whores. They wouldn’t give me the time of day if I hadn’t been published. All their men they’d push aside to fuck a rising writer. If it weren’t for Emily I could have them. But it wasn’t on Emily. I shook hands and waited for the remaining shadows to drop away so I could leave by myself. It was cooling off in the park. I dialed the bar back home. The prick was gone, so she had time. I sat on a bench and talked to her. I heard a small engine behind me. It grew louder then stopped. I smelled a clove cigarette. I heard some people walk into the bar. Emily asked me about Scab’s woman. I told her she was normal, even beautiful. I told her I couldn’t get past the cock. She laughed. I hung up with her and lit a smoke. I heard the small engine again. It rolled up to the side of the bench. I put my lighter in my pocket. I didn’t want to look over. I tasted the bitter chalk of the clove. I reached down into my briefcase and pulled out my story. I was trying to look occupied.

“Hey, man,” he was smiling straight ahead. I glanced at him.

“Hey, alright, Eugene. You found me.”

“I wasn’t looking for you. But since we’re both here I thought I’d give this to you.”

He handed me a fat manuscript. I looked at the cover. It said: HERVÉ. I flipped through the pages. It was single spaced and hard to read. The sentences were close together.

“Have you sent this off to anybody?”

“No. I don’t know how to get it started.”

“First of all you, since you’re using a typewriter, you have to double space your lines and space twice after each period.”

“Oh.”

I felt bad, “You’re really into this Hervé guy.”

“He was an unsung hero.”

“How’d you get the chair?”

His eyes lit up, “I was twenty-nine. I drove a disposal truck. I went off the road. It wasn’t my fault. The steering column locked up on me. I got a nice settlement. Not that I wouldn’t rather be walking.”

“Were you wearing your seatbelt?”

“No. If I’d have had it on I wouldn’t have sustained such serious injuries.”

“Sorry.”

“Well, I’m a painter. I was watching the E Channel and they were running a special on Hervé. He committed suicide.”

“I think I remember hearing about it.”

“He was a great French painter, his paintings even hung in the big museums. One night he was drinking and listening to his opera albums and he ran out of booze, so he drank turpentine.”

“Jesus.”

“I know. See, no one took him seriously because he was a midget, well, a dwarf, or in his case whatever it’s called when you just stop growing. Nobody takes midgets seriously.” He tossed his clove, “Anyhow, I’ve always dabbled in writing. I researched Hervé and decided to write that book. The more I learned about him the more I grew to love him. You know, on a purely fan-based level. He was ahead of his time.”

I started to get the creeps. I stood and shook his hand, “Thanks for the book. I’ll get into it on the plane.”

“I wrote my number and contacts on the last page. You taking off?”

“I should go. I have to meet up with my buddy and his lady.”

“You can’t have another smoke with me?”

I looked at his feet on the pedals of his chair. They were pigeon toed and useless. But I thought of Samantha standing in the kitchen.

“One more smoke.”

I sat down. We stared at the same group of women.

“So you can’t have sex anymore?”

He put his hand on his stomach, “There’s nothing from here on down. I have a piss bag attached to my leg. I still think about it once in awhile. I miss the company of a woman, the intimacy. Before this happened I had four going at one time, juggling. I guess it’s some form of payback.”

“You lost all the urges?”

“It happens to most people who lose what I’ve lost.”

“That’s good, then.”

“It’s a blessing. I just sublimated all that energy into my work.”

I thought about it. He looked over at me, “So you promise to read the book?”

“I’ll get into it on the plane.”

“Do you get a lot of people like me, you know, approaching you and handing you unsolicited work?”

“I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you.”

He laughed. I stood and shook his hand again, “I have to go, Eugene. You take good care.”

He smiled. I walked off a few blocks and threw the book in a waste basket.

Back at the apartment I drank with Scab and Mara. Mara was alright. I liked her hair. When she wasn’t staring at me I glanced to her crotch. I couldn’t see anything. Scab had made a hundred dollars. He ordered a pizza. Mara sat next to me on the couch. She was getting drunk. She put her arm around me and crossed her legs. I scratched my nose and laughed politely. She took my hand into hers, “I want to know where all of that writing comes from.”

I squeezed her hand, freed mine, and patted her on her knee, “It comes from the same place. I really don’t have an answer.”

“Oh, what a load of shit! You’re among friends here. Don’t give me that evasive bullshit.”

Scab smiled and nodded into his drink. She had me cornered. Scab really got off on it. She uncrossed her legs and cleared her throat, then crossed them the other way.

“I mean, you have to have some kind of fucking process with it.”

Scab looked at her and stared at me. I picked up my drink. She made them strong. Blitz walked in with Samantha. He set his guitar case on the floor, “Mara, can I make a couple of drinks for me and Sam?”

“Of course.”

Samantha sat across from us in the chair.

“Hi, Henry.”

“Hi, Samantha.”

Blitz called from the kitchen, his voice heightened to Samantha’s pitch, “Yeah. Hi, Henry!” It was evil and bitter. I raised an eyebrow to the kitchen, “That suits you perfectly, Blitz. Maybe you could make me a drink while your little bitch ass is in there and forward lateral it to me.”

Samantha looked over her shoulder at him, “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Blitz walked in and held the drink to me, “It doesn’t mean anything. Here’s your drink, cocksucker.”

I took the drink and smiled. Scab rubbed his eyes. I saw Blitz again as the same teenage boy who used to hide from himself. He brought Samantha her drink and stood against the doorway from the kitchen. He flashed his eyes on Samantha and stared at me. I let him know that I was backing off. Mara leaned forward and shook my leg, “Look, I don’t write. I don’t even read as much as I used to. Apart from your writing, I don’t buy books. But you’re here and I have questions.”

I took a drink and stared into the kitchen, just over Blitz’s shoulder. Scab finally stepped in, “Jesus Christ, Mara. Give the guy a fucking break. He’s off the clock.”

“No, I’m not trying to interrogate him. If he’s half as instinctive as I think he is then he understands. We buy his work.”

“That’s your fucking choice,” Blitz said.

The little fucker had read my mind. An argument broke out in the apartment between them. Mara threw her hand up, “Oh, forget it!”

Samantha raised her hand, “I have questions!”

Scab and I laughed. Samantha sat forward, “That story you read today, it was a long poem, right?”

“Right.”

“Do you still write poetry? Do you think that novelists are failed poets? Who said that?”

“Faulkner. That’s a bunch of bullshit.”

“Why?”

“How many great poets wrote great novels? Maybe one or two. I don’t get tangled in a certain type of writing. Classification is for people like Harold Percy. I sidestep all of that garbage.”

Mara shook her head, “What about Salinger or Bukowski?”

“What about them?”

“Well, Salinger turned into a recluse, and Bukowski had an open hatred for a lot of his readers.”

“Their problems.”

“But you have to admit money and fame changes people.”

“It changed my life but it didn’t change me. Being poor and stuck doesn’t mean you’re doing something great, and just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you’re special. It means you have to work twice as hard because you exist on two planes, but I’d have to say the writing has gotten better since I’ve been doing it for a living.”

Samantha smiled at Mara. Blitz looked confused. Mara got up and made herself a drink. Scab looked across to me, “Dude, I’m sorry.”

I waved him off, “I don’t give a fuck. She pours a strong one.”

Samantha sipped her drink and smiled at me. Mara sat, looked at me and nodded.

“I’m done.”

Blitz laughed. Scab got up and poured a few more. I lit up and looked at Mara.

We sat in an Irish pub down 18th. I walked out to the mailbox and dropped off Emily’s letter. We had shown up there early but the bar became crowded. We sat at our table and drank. Emily called and told me that she was busted for selling to a minor. She said the kid had a full beard and his license was the best fake she’d ever seen. She said she was taking it to court. Todd let her go that night. She was crying. Todd had been trying to get in her pants since he’d hired her. She told me that the bar was packed and she read the license and made his drink and half a minute later the place was silent and she was fired. It was pure and simple entrapment. I told her to use my credit card and fly up to Philly for a week. We made plans and hung up. I told the table what had happened back home. A guy and his wife walked up with a bar napkin and a pen. He tapped me on the shoulder, “We really hate to do this, but can we have an autograph?”

I took the napkin and signed it. The guy put his hand out, “Thank you so much. We’re big readers.”

I shook his hand. They walked off. Scab looked at me, “So Emily’s flying up?”

“She’ll be here the day after tomorrow.”

We started talking about Arizona, about growing up together, telling Mara and Samantha about Phoenix and the way it was for us. I was getting drunk. A few more people had approached the table with books or notebook paper to be signed. People were sending drinks to the table. We ordered food. I had the New York strip with fries. I grew angry thinking about Emily. She had poured her soul into that place. Emily refused to live off the money from my writing. She wouldn’t let me buy her a car, she wouldn’t let me foot every bill when we went out. She’d been with me long before anything had happened for me, and that made her more than my girl. It made her blood. The more we sat at the table the more people approached us. They were leaving and returning with others. The first couple from earlier came back with a book. I grabbed the pen and started signing it. The pen died on me. I shook it but it was emptied out. Mara reached into her backpack. I grabbed the steak knife from the table, “I got it.”

I poked a hole in my fingertip and let some blood form. I finished it in crimson. I handed it back to them, “Here you go.”

They walked off. I dipped my finger in my drink and sucked the opening clean. I smiled at Scab. Blitz broke out laughing.

“Fucking hardcore, man!”

We closed the bar and walked back. We played music and finished off the rest of the bourbon from earlier. Scab took Mara to his room and Blitz took Samantha to his. I closed my eyes on the couch and spun into sleep, spent the next morning listening to music, eating healthy and sleeping off a good part of the afternoon, only to close the same bar the next night with Scab and Mara and Mara’s constant mouth. Nature did right by making her pussy the dominant of her two sexes.

I slept for maybe five hours. When I drank a lot I usually woke up early and charged. I always figured it was because I had trouble sleeping regularly, and the alcohol sent me into a brief coma. I brewed some coffee and sat behind the typer. I looked at my watch. Just past ten. Philly was bright. I opened the blinds slightly and worked my way into a story. I always felt like writing after a night of hard drinking. It made the other world more clear, it had a way of letting the unimportant drop to the sides. I drank my coffee and lit up. I picked out some Jeff Buckley and played it low next to the machine. A couple of hours passed around me. The cut on my fingertip wasn’t painful but it was aggravated by the keys. I was writing about a labor job I had worked when I was twenty-four. I was cutting wood for an overweight, alcoholic framer. Blitz and Samantha came into the kitchen. Samantha stopped when she saw me. She stood in the doorway and froze there, trying to be quiet. I laughed and stopped the story.

“Morning, you two.”

Blitz poured two coffees.

“Maybe for you. I have to be at work in an hour.”

He handed Samantha a coffee. She walked out the front door to get a pack of smokes for Blitz and a paper for the table. Blitz cracked his back and sat down.

“What are you writing?”

“I’m just fucking around.”

“Man, don’t you feel hungover?”

“Only slightly. One day when you’re a man you’ll be able to deal with a hangover.”

“Why do you always have to give me shit?”

“Why not?”

“Whatever. Fuckin’ dick.”

“Part of the reason I don’t feel sick is because I downed six ibuprofens and a big glass of water before I passed out.”

“That really works?”

“Think about it. Hangovers are the result of dehydration, mostly.”

“See? Why’d you have to tell me to think about it? Why couldn’t you just say it helps with dehydration?”

“Jesus. Somebody’s sensitive this morning.”

I walked over and refilled my cup. Blitz drank his coffee and turned down the music, “You hate Wreckedge yet you listen to this East Village coffee house bullshit.”

I put my arms around him and kissed the top of his greasy head. He tried to wrestle loose but I had him. I let go and sat down. He shook his head at the table, “Fuckin’ fag.”

Samantha walked in with the paper. She sat down and tossed Blitz his smokes. Blitz lit up and looked at me, “When’s your birthday?”

“October. Why?”

“I’m going to buy you a razor.”

I scratched my beard. Samantha laughed at the paper, “Oh my god!”

She turned it to me on the table. It was the photo from the back of my last book, and a write-up about me signing the autograph in blood the night before. The reporter had a good time with it. He interviewed the couple and went on about me being dramatic, how if I couldn’t handle fame then I should get a real job. One like his, maybe. Samantha scowled, “What a bunch of bullshit. You weren’t being dramatic. You were only fucking with them.”

I slid it back over to her. Blitz sat next to her and read the article.

“Dude, this is fucking insane. With all the bullshit happening after dark in Philadelphia, they have to run that shitty story. Never mind all the little girls who were mugged and raped, let’s run a story about a drunken writer cutting loose in an Irish pub.”

I nodded at the paper, “Maybe Saturday Night Live can make a good skit out of it.”

Samantha laughed, “It says that you were unavailable for comment. What an asshole. I’m going to write a letter to this newspaper.”

“Let it go. It’ll be forgotten when everybody has a couple of hours worth of sitcoms in their heads.”

Blitz nodded, “I heard that.”

Samantha looked at the paper, “I mean, I was right there. It was a small deal, and here it is now, larger than life. They’re acting like you burned down a church. The couple even mentioned a lawsuit. They called it a biological attack.”

“Shit, good luck getting one over on my lawyer. He’d love to jump on this. They’ll bail out. It’s sad.”

I took a shower. She took Blitz to work. He’d found a job in a music store. It was perfect for him. He could hob-knob with all the other indie-rock clones trying to break through and get famous. Scab and Mara stumbled downstairs. I had a fresh pot waiting for him. He smiled, “My savior.” He set Mara a cup on the table. She gripped it. Her eyes were red and remorseful.

“Good morning, Henry.”

“Mornin’, sunshine.”

“Henry, listen. About the last two nights, I didn’t mean to give you a lot of shit. I was pretty lit up early on.”

“It’s alright, Mara.”

“I never drink like that, let alone two days’ worth.”

Scab sat down, “Samantha get Blitz to work alright?”

“They left a few minutes ago.”

“You’ve been up for awhile?”

“I’ve been writing.”

Scab flipped through the paper and saw the write-up. He showed Mara. She sneered, “Fucking vultures.”

Scab walked to the fridge and pulled out the eggs, “Omelets?”

“Damned right.”

“Not for me,” Mara said, “the last thing I want right now is food.”

“It’ll sop up your hangover.”

She looked at me, “It’ll make me puke.”

Scab smiled, “You afraid to puke?”

“Who isn’t?”

Mara stretched and yawned. I glanced up her bed shirt, but it was too low on her thighs. Scab poured the eggs.

We spent the day inside, watching movies and drinking coffee. I passed out on the couch a few times. Everybody was back at the apartment. It was a mellow night. I ordered Chinese food for us, then I called Emily. She was flying in the next afternoon. I told her I’d borrow Mara’s car to pick her up, but she wanted to take a cab into the city. She’d never been to the East Coast. We talked about renting a car on Friday, taking a day or two and staying in Manhattan. It was another perk to the job. Having money was still new. I gave her directions to the apartment, hung up and walked with Scab to the store for smokes.

We sat in the same bar. It was just after eight. The bar was dead. I walked the drinks over and sat across from Scab. He used my phone to call the apartment and told Mara we were having a quick drink. He handed it back over. I put the phone in my pocket, “You two are getting pretty serious.”

“We are. We’ve talked about moving in together. She wants to leave her place. There’s plenty of room where I am. Blitz is all for it. Not that I give a flying fuck what he thinks.”

“Does he know about her?”

“Oh, fuck no. You’re the only one who knows. Sometimes I even forget she has a cock. She’s starting to think about getting it removed.”

“How do you feel about it?”

“The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. I think I’m actually over the whole hard cock trip. I wanted it because it seemed so impossible to attain. Fuck, man, I haven’t even touched her cock in weeks. Straight, regular sex. I never would have thought.”

“Can she have children?”

“No, but that’s another reason why I love her. She made her first comments a few days ago in bed about how her cock is getting in the way of a full-on relationship. She has to constantly tuck and tape it, especially when she gets all dolled up.”

“What a pain in the ass.”

My phone rang. I set it on the table and it stopped. It rang back. Scab grabbed it and turned it off. He waved for two more drinks.

We ended up closing the bar and stumbling back into the apartment. Mara was on the couch watching TV. She pointed at me, “You’re a bad influence on my boyfriend. I like it.”

She walked him upstairs. I took the cushions from the couch and made camp in the dark basement. Ghost or no ghost, I was sleeping twelve good goddamned hours.

Emily crawled onto the cushions with me. I had to piss but I slid her clothes off, and had long and tortured sex. I ran upstairs and pissed, then took a fast shower. We ate breakfast. It was good to have her there. She met Mara and Samantha.

“Do all of you live here?”

Scab ran the dishwasher, “We all might as well.”

Samantha and Mara watched Emily flip through the story I had started the day before. She read the pages and tucked her hair behind her ear. She never knew how hot that made me. Or maybe she did.

That night we went out to the pub again. We closed it, and walked back up 18th in our group. Up ahead I saw the wheelchair coming toward us. I laughed, “I know that guy.”

He slowed down and steered off to my left. I felt one freezing slice into my side. The sidewalk came up and hit me on my knees. I heard Emily scream. I fell to my shoulder and saw one of his wheels. Then I felt the weight of his torso and freezing slices into my stomach and ribs. I heard him cursing me. I saw Scab rolling around with him on the sidewalk. I turned on my back and burned there. The wounds were fire now. I couldn’t swallow. The liquor had turned the wounds into hoses. I could feel blood pouring out of me. I saw Blitz wrapping me with his jacket. Emily had my head in her hands. She was telling me to stay with her. I felt the pain leave my body. There was this weird numbness, a calm that hovered over me. I was fully aware of everything going on around me. I looked into Emily’s eyes and stayed there. I heard yelling and sirens. A plastic mouth went over my own and I faded out.

Emily’s bloodshot eyes. She held my hand. I fell back to sleep for awhile, and when I awoke I felt cleaner, like a lot of time had passed me. I looked around the room. Scab and Blitz and Samantha were there. I saw Mara behind them. Everybody except for Emily wore different clothes. It was good there. I was pumped up with a lot of morphine. Eugene had missed most of my major organs. He almost got my heart, but he was drunk and in bad aim. I asked Emily how bad it was. She told me some of my large intestine was gone now. But I was going to make a complete recovery. I found out that Eugene tried to kill me because someone had rescued his manuscript from the trash and mailed it back to him. I should have been less reckless. I spent one week in total at the hospital. This time I made the front page. Back at Scab’s we sat at the table and drank coffee. Eugene was locked down for a long time. I now had an open hatred for one of my readers. Scab brewed a new pot. Samantha had to take Blitz to work in an hour.

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Written by SonOfSlayer
Wrecking the edges
Scab earned his name after his father opened his bedroom door and caught him jacking off to a magazine called Chicks With Dicks. He tried to toss the mag and zip up, but he caught his dick in his zipper and his father had to cut his pants with scissors to build pressure for the zipper to pop open. But the zipper had a hold on him, and his father had to rip it away. It left a scab that was constantly broken because Scab couldn’t stop jacking off. He told a few of us the story after he was kicked out of the house. His father was a lifer in the Air Force. He was already apprehensive about Scab because Scab played the cello. Scab’s mother sneaked him money when she could. He was juggled between the families of friends, then he was allowed back in the house until the day he graduated, but by then his father was dead. His mother followed two years after. He stayed with me for awhile, then with somebody else after I left Arizona, then he eventually met a girl and lived with her, until she discovered that he also liked men. He actually closed his eyes one day and pointed to the map. He had set his finger on Philly, quit his job and moved. His little brother was living with him. I hadn’t seen him since he was shipped off to live with their grandmother in Tulsa after their mother died. He stood in the kitchen and ran his mouth about his new punk band, about how it went against the mainstream and underground, how it was against anything stock or ordinary, as well as false and forced for trend.
“Alright. So what’s the fucking band called?”
“Wreckedge, as in wrecking the fucking edges: straight edge, emo, rap metal, gangster, R&B, hip-hop, destroying all that bullshit. Even taking it beyond the realm of thrash.”
“You’ve got a lot of balls to be able to say that.”
“Fuck you. You’ll see.”
“You’re standing there with an eyebrow ring and eyeliner, telling me that you’re part of something different. You’re an idiot.”
“No,” he paused and acted like he was scratching his balls, “maybe I’m doing this on purpose to reach everybody and help re-educate them.”
“Talk about bullshit.”
“You’re a hopeless cynic. I understand why you’re a writer. But your perception of music is retarded.”
I sat there and drank my coffee. He lit a smoke and walked out of the kitchen. I cracked my neck and rolled a sheet through. I started a letter to Emily, telling her about Philadelphia. Right now she was getting ready for work. Blitz walked back in and put a tape in the cassette player, “What are you writing?”
“A letter to my girlfriend.”
“Check this shit out. This is Wreckedge.”
He hit play. It was awful. Blitz played rhythm guitar and sang. The band was out of key and the lyrics were laughable, something about burning down the world and how they were the chosen few, a lot of shit like that. I reached over and hit stop. He looked at me, “Why’d you stop it?”
“It sounds like everything else. Only worse.”
He gave me a hurt look. I tilted my cup at him.
“Just being honest.”
He stood up and ejected the tape. He held it and glared at me, “You’re a dick. You have no ear for the original.”
I nodded to the tape in his hand, “Likewise.”
He punched the wall and walked out. Scab walked through in his boxers. He brewed a new pot and waited by the counter. It was useless to talk to him before he tasted coffee. He pulled the pot off the heater and held his cup under the drip. He walked past the hit on the wall and sat down. He drank his coffee.
“You saw my little brother, huh?”
“We had a conversation about his God complex.”
“I heard.”
“I didn’t mean to fuck with him.”
“Don’t worry about it. We go round and round over that shit.”
The doorbell rang. Nobody got up. There was a wait, another ring and the door opened. A young girl walked in. Scab and I stared at her. She was there for Blitz. She was barely dressed. Her body was great to the point where it was cruel for us to look at it. I lit a smoke. She stood in the kitchen and stared at us.
“Where’s Blitz?”
Scab looked into his cup, “He’s on the shitter.”
Blitz screamed from his room: “No, I’m not! Shut the fuck up!”
I walked over and poured a coffee. She looked at Scab, “So, I take it you’re Craig?”
“Right. This here’s my buddy Henry from Portland.”
“Maine?”
“Oregon.”
“Oh.”
Scab looked at me and smiled. I shook my head at him. He nodded at me.
“Henry’s a writer.”
“Oh? For a living?”
“That’s right,” he said, “novels published and everything.”
I poured the sugar in, “Don’t listen to him.”
She cocked her head at me. I was in town to do a reading. I had to read that afternoon.
“What’s your last name?”
Scab told her. She laughed, “Oh my god! Wait, you guys are fucking with me.”
“That’s right. I told you not to listen to him.”
She ran over and pulled my wallet from my pocket. She read my license.
I sat down. She walked over and gave me my wallet, “Can I please give you a hug?”
Scab smiled at me. I stood up. I wasn’t wearing a shirt, and I could feel her navel ring and tits press into me.
“I’m Samantha.”
“Of course,” I said. Scab laughed. I sat back down. Samantha sat next to me at the table, “I never do this. I never geek out like this. I had no idea you were so young.”
I pulled the letter out and flipped it over, “Young my ass.”
“How old are you?”
“I could be your father.”
“I doubt it.”
“How old are you, Samantha?”
“Twenty-three.”
“Well, if we were in Kentucky I could be.”
“How old are you?”
“Thirty-six.”
“That’s not too bad.”
Scab got up and poured another cup. He lit one of my smokes, “Henry doesn’t believe in aging.”
She reached over and touched my arm, “I can’t believe you’re sitting right here. I have so many questions for you. I mean, I’ve read everything of yours I could find.”
I looked at the diamond in her navel. I wanted to fuck her so badly I could barely swallow. But I had Emily, and I couldn’t do that to her. I grabbed a shirt from my suitcase and put it on.
“You can ask me.”
Scab sat down. The phone rang. He held it over to me, “Emily.”
I answered, “Hi, beautiful.”
Samantha smiled. Emily was behind the bar getting ready to open.
“I just got to work. How’s Scab doing?”
“He’s good. I started writing you a letter today.”
“Shit, I have to go. Fuckface just got here.”
“I’ll talk to you.”
We hung up. Fuckface was her boss, the bar manager. His real name was Todd. Todd was a real prick. Emily wouldn’t quit her job. She made good money there. Samantha looked at Scab, “How did you two meet?”
“Grew up together. He went on to become a famous writer and I went on to become a sleeper.”
“Blitz said you played the cello for a living.”
“I scrape by.”
Samantha focused on me again.
“I think your writing is amazing.”
I smiled at her. Scab shook his head, “He’s one of those queers who can’t take a compliment.”
She laughed and squeezed my arm, “Oh, he’s just humble.”
Blitz walked in and shot her a cold stare. She walked over to him. Her jeans were loose and low. Scab and I watched her ass cheeks wobble around her thong. It was torture. She hugged Blitz, “You never told me you knew Henry Struyveint.”
Blitz shot me a bitter nod, “This dude’s a dick.”
I put out my smoke, “Thank you, Blitz.”
Samantha laughed. Scab looked into the newspaper, “He’s just pussyhurt because Henry doesn’t like Wreckedge.”
Samantha cocked her head at me. She was pigeon toed and soaked with sex.
“Why don’t you like it?”
“I have go to take a shower.”
Scab laughed. Blitz shook his head, “Fuck all this. I’m outta here. Sam, you can stay here and suck his dick. I don’t give a fuck. I’m on a mission.”
He grabbed his guitar from the couch and slammed the front door. Scab smiled into the paper. Samantha looked at me, “Are you staying here?”
“Two days.”
“I want to talk to you about your writing. I’ll see you later. Bye, Craig.”
“See you, sweetheart.”
She went after Blitz.
I looked at Scab, “I’ll be hitting the ceiling tonight.”
“Man, fuck that. Emily blows her away.”
“No, she does. And she gives me balance. But still.”
“I hear you.”
“How long has Blitz been here?”
“Oh, fuck. It’s gotta be half a year since he showed up here.”
“Does he have a plan?”
“Never does. He gets to one place then shoots to the next. No roots, no address. I expect no less.”
“He’s changed.”
“He’s changed into a little bitch.”
I laughed. Scab nodded at the counter, “Well, hell, he fits right in here. They think Blitz is a cool nickname he’s earned. They think it’s cool and he lets them think that. I don’t blame him. I wouldn’t want anybody to know that my father was an uber jock and named me after a football play. But he’s let it go to his head.”
I rolled the sheet back through. Scab stretched, “I heard you tell Blitz you were writing a letter to Emily.”
“I was.”
“You’ll be back before she even gets it.”
“I know.”
Scab told me he’d met a girl and he was happy with her. He met her through some personals in a fetish or sex magazine. She was a full-on woman with a cock above her pussy. Scab told me the cock was functional but she couldn’t get off with it, and that he’d fought the notion of being bisexual after the last guy he was with bored him within half an hour. He said he did a week of soul searching and he figured out that he liked the body of a woman, but also a cock, but that having to see a guy’s bare torso or ass to get to the cock was always an obstacle which became too large to hurdle:
“I never thought of myself as bisexual because I never liked to take it up the ass or even give it up the ass. I didn’t even like kissing another guy. I just liked sucking a hard dick. I use to always fantasize that I was sucking some dude’s dick while I fucked his girlfriend or his wife. Now I have it both ways, with the same woman.”
I stared into my cup, “Fucking freaks.”
“You’ll meet her.”
He got up and poured another cup, started a new pot. He sat back down and opened the paper, “Just don’t tell her you know she has a dick. She doesn’t think it’s anybody’s business.”
“Got it.”
“She’s my girlfriend, man. She has a good job with a nice boutique and a good head on her shoulders. I feel ashamed sometimes that I actually had to get intimate with a few guys just to suck their cocks.”
“It’s a rough method.”
I looked around. The place wasn’t all that bad. He didn’t like it. He had a basement and an upstairs. He told me there was a ghost in the apartment, that the ghost mostly hung out at the top of the staircase and it slept in the basement at the base of the stairs. He said when he was in his room on-line he could feel it watching him, but it also liked to stand behind him while he was at his computer. I walked to the window. I saw four black girls playing skip-rope rhymes down on Fitzwater. They were fast and good. I’d never seen it in the flesh. I walked over to the coffee pot, topped him off and emptied it into my cup and started a new pot. It was a small machine. Scab put away three pots every morning.
“What time is it?”
“Almost noon.”
“There goes my shower.”
“What time is the reading?”
“Half an hour.”
“At least it’s close.”
I sat down and opened my briefcase. I pulled out the story I was going to read. It was a 40 page poem about building barns up and down highway 5 when I was 30. I closed the case and drank my coffee. Scab looked at me, “What’s it like?”
“It’s different. It’s smaller than you’d think it would be. I haven’t reached a rock star level yet. It’s inevitable, though. They’ve been pushing me to the teeth. It’s getting to where I hear about my writing everywhere.”
“Any enemies?”
“The usual underground bullshit. Writers who think they’re better, harder. I get love/hate stare-downs in coffee shops. But overall I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I actually like it. I didn’t think I would.”
Scab looked at my wrist. My publisher had sent me a Rolex Presidential. I looked at him, “And if the writing flops I can sell the watch. Fuck it.”
My cell phone rang.
“Yes?”
“Mr. Struyveint ?”
“Yes.”
“This is Dagmar from the Book Cellars. You’re reading here today.”
“Right.”
“Listen, the person reading before you had to cancel. We have a full house here and some people are starting to leave.”
“What happened?”
“Well, Harold Percy, you know who that is?”
“Hairy Pussy. Dark poetry and bad hair.”
She laughed, “Right. He said he had to cancel because he was in the middle of his best work and he didn’t want to break out of his zone to read today.”
“Yet he could break out and call.”
“Well, he’s the local fame around here. I think he’s uncomfortable because he didn’t get to be the featured reader.”
“What’s the crowd like?”
“Most of his camp left. You can imagine them. But now we’re hanging. A lot of people just started coming in. Maybe I panicked.”
“I know an opener. I’ll send him down. He can warm them up with his cello.”
Scab looked at me and shook his head. I smiled at him, “He’s accomplished. His fee is one-hundred dollars per half hour.”
“Awesome. Thank you, Mr. Struyveint.”
I hung up, “Scab, grab your shit and head down there. I’ll meet you.”
“You’re an asshole.”
“Just do it. You’ll make some money.”
He got on the phone and called his girlfriend. She was driving over to get him.
He walked out of his room with his cello and his gear, “You want a ride?”
“I’m walking it. I’ll meet you down there.”

I walked out and made my way up 18th, through Rittenhouse Park. I walked past the freaks and watched a mime. I lit up and walked toward the bookstore. Half an hour had passed. The streets of Philly were dirty and warm. There was an edge to the town that I didn’t like. It wasn’t a refined entitlement like Portland, but there was something like a parade to it, maybe an overdone front. The bookstore was crowded. I tossed my smoke and cracked my neck.

The reading went by. It was the usual bullshit, answer questions and deflect contact. A guy in a wheelchair gave me heavy attitude. He was obsessed with the dead midget from Fantasy Island. He’d written the unauthorized biography. There were a lot of literary Amazonian whores. They wouldn’t give me the time of day if I hadn’t been published. All their men they’d push aside to fuck a rising writer. If it weren’t for Emily I could have them. But it wasn’t on Emily. I shook hands and waited for the remaining shadows to drop away so I could leave by myself. It was cooling off in the park. I dialed the bar back home. The prick was gone, so she had time. I sat on a bench and talked to her. I heard a small engine behind me. It grew louder then stopped. I smelled a clove cigarette. I heard some people walk into the bar. Emily asked me about Scab’s woman. I told her she was normal, even beautiful. I told her I couldn’t get past the cock. She laughed. I hung up with her and lit a smoke. I heard the small engine again. It rolled up to the side of the bench. I put my lighter in my pocket. I didn’t want to look over. I tasted the bitter chalk of the clove. I reached down into my briefcase and pulled out my story. I was trying to look occupied.
“Hey, man,” he was smiling straight ahead. I glanced at him.
“Hey, alright, Eugene. You found me.”
“I wasn’t looking for you. But since we’re both here I thought I’d give this to you.”
He handed me a fat manuscript. I looked at the cover. It said: HERVÉ. I flipped through the pages. It was single spaced and hard to read. The sentences were close together.
“Have you sent this off to anybody?”
“No. I don’t know how to get it started.”
“First of all you, since you’re using a typewriter, you have to double space your lines and space twice after each period.”
“Oh.”
I felt bad, “You’re really into this Hervé guy.”
“He was an unsung hero.”
“How’d you get the chair?”
His eyes lit up, “I was twenty-nine. I drove a disposal truck. I went off the road. It wasn’t my fault. The steering column locked up on me. I got a nice settlement. Not that I wouldn’t rather be walking.”
“Were you wearing your seatbelt?”
“No. If I’d have had it on I wouldn’t have sustained such serious injuries.”
“Sorry.”
“Well, I’m a painter. I was watching the E Channel and they were running a special on Hervé. He committed suicide.”
“I think I remember hearing about it.”
“He was a great French painter, his paintings even hung in the big museums. One night he was drinking and listening to his opera albums and he ran out of booze, so he drank turpentine.”
“Jesus.”
“I know. See, no one took him seriously because he was a midget, well, a dwarf, or in his case whatever it’s called when you just stop growing. Nobody takes midgets seriously.” He tossed his clove, “Anyhow, I’ve always dabbled in writing. I researched Hervé and decided to write that book. The more I learned about him the more I grew to love him. You know, on a purely fan-based level. He was ahead of his time.”
I started to get the creeps. I stood and shook his hand, “Thanks for the book. I’ll get into it on the plane.”
“I wrote my number and contacts on the last page. You taking off?”
“I should go. I have to meet up with my buddy and his lady.”
“You can’t have another smoke with me?”
I looked at his feet on the pedals of his chair. They were pigeon toed and useless. But I thought of Samantha standing in the kitchen.
“One more smoke.”
I sat down. We stared at the same group of women.
“So you can’t have sex anymore?”
He put his hand on his stomach, “There’s nothing from here on down. I have a piss bag attached to my leg. I still think about it once in awhile. I miss the company of a woman, the intimacy. Before this happened I had four going at one time, juggling. I guess it’s some form of payback.”
“You lost all the urges?”
“It happens to most people who lose what I’ve lost.”
“That’s good, then.”
“It’s a blessing. I just sublimated all that energy into my work.”
I thought about it. He looked over at me, “So you promise to read the book?”
“I’ll get into it on the plane.”
“Do you get a lot of people like me, you know, approaching you and handing you unsolicited work?”
“I can safely say I’ve never met anyone like you.”
He laughed. I stood and shook his hand again, “I have to go, Eugene. You take good care.”
He smiled. I walked off a few blocks and threw the book in a waste basket.

Back at the apartment I drank with Scab and Mara. Mara was alright. I liked her hair. When she wasn’t staring at me I glanced to her crotch. I couldn’t see anything. Scab had made a hundred dollars. He ordered a pizza. Mara sat next to me on the couch. She was getting drunk. She put her arm around me and crossed her legs. I scratched my nose and laughed politely. She took my hand into hers, “I want to know where all of that writing comes from.”
I squeezed her hand, freed mine, and patted her on her knee, “It comes from the same place. I really don’t have an answer.”
“Oh, what a load of shit! You’re among friends here. Don’t give me that evasive bullshit.”
Scab smiled and nodded into his drink. She had me cornered. Scab really got off on it. She uncrossed her legs and cleared her throat, then crossed them the other way.
“I mean, you have to have some kind of fucking process with it.”
Scab looked at her and stared at me. I picked up my drink. She made them strong. Blitz walked in with Samantha. He set his guitar case on the floor, “Mara, can I make a couple of drinks for me and Sam?”
“Of course.”
Samantha sat across from us in the chair.
“Hi, Henry.”
“Hi, Samantha.”
Blitz called from the kitchen, his voice heightened to Samantha’s pitch, “Yeah. Hi, Henry!” It was evil and bitter. I raised an eyebrow to the kitchen, “That suits you perfectly, Blitz. Maybe you could make me a drink while your little bitch ass is in there and forward lateral it to me.”
Samantha looked over her shoulder at him, “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Blitz walked in and held the drink to me, “It doesn’t mean anything. Here’s your drink, cocksucker.”
I took the drink and smiled. Scab rubbed his eyes. I saw Blitz again as the same teenage boy who used to hide from himself. He brought Samantha her drink and stood against the doorway from the kitchen. He flashed his eyes on Samantha and stared at me. I let him know that I was backing off. Mara leaned forward and shook my leg, “Look, I don’t write. I don’t even read as much as I used to. Apart from your writing, I don’t buy books. But you’re here and I have questions.”
I took a drink and stared into the kitchen, just over Blitz’s shoulder. Scab finally stepped in, “Jesus Christ, Mara. Give the guy a fucking break. He’s off the clock.”
“No, I’m not trying to interrogate him. If he’s half as instinctive as I think he is then he understands. We buy his work.”
“That’s your fucking choice,” Blitz said.
The little fucker had read my mind. An argument broke out in the apartment between them. Mara threw her hand up, “Oh, forget it!”
Samantha raised her hand, “I have questions!”
Scab and I laughed. Samantha sat forward, “That story you read today, it was a long poem, right?”
“Right.”
“Do you still write poetry? Do you think that novelists are failed poets? Who said that?”
“Faulkner. That’s a bunch of bullshit.”
“Why?”
“How many great poets wrote great novels? Maybe one or two. I don’t get tangled in a certain type of writing. Classification is for people like Harold Percy. I sidestep all of that garbage.”
Mara shook her head, “What about Salinger or Bukowski?”
“What about them?”
“Well, Salinger turned into a recluse, and Bukowski had an open hatred for a lot of his readers.”
“Their problems.”
“But you have to admit money and fame changes people.”
“It changed my life but it didn’t change me. Being poor and stuck doesn’t mean you’re doing something great, and just because you’re talented doesn’t mean you’re special. It means you have to work twice as hard because you exist on two planes, but I’d have to say the writing has gotten better since I’ve been doing it for a living.”
Samantha smiled at Mara. Blitz looked confused. Mara got up and made herself a drink. Scab looked across to me, “Dude, I’m sorry.”
I waved him off, “I don’t give a fuck. She pours a strong one.”
Samantha sipped her drink and smiled at me. Mara sat, looked at me and nodded.
“I’m done.”
Blitz laughed. Scab got up and poured a few more. I lit up and looked at Mara.

We sat in an Irish pub down 18th. I walked out to the mailbox and dropped off Emily’s letter. We had shown up there early but the bar became crowded. We sat at our table and drank. Emily called and told me that she was busted for selling to a minor. She said the kid had a full beard and his license was the best fake she’d ever seen. She said she was taking it to court. Todd let her go that night. She was crying. Todd had been trying to get in her pants since he’d hired her. She told me that the bar was packed and she read the license and made his drink and half a minute later the place was silent and she was fired. It was pure and simple entrapment. I told her to use my credit card and fly up to Philly for a week. We made plans and hung up. I told the table what had happened back home. A guy and his wife walked up with a bar napkin and a pen. He tapped me on the shoulder, “We really hate to do this, but can we have an autograph?”
I took the napkin and signed it. The guy put his hand out, “Thank you so much. We’re big readers.”
I shook his hand. They walked off. Scab looked at me, “So Emily’s flying up?”
“She’ll be here the day after tomorrow.”
We started talking about Arizona, about growing up together, telling Mara and Samantha about Phoenix and the way it was for us. I was getting drunk. A few more people had approached the table with books or notebook paper to be signed. People were sending drinks to the table. We ordered food. I had the New York strip with fries. I grew angry thinking about Emily. She had poured her soul into that place. Emily refused to live off the money from my writing. She wouldn’t let me buy her a car, she wouldn’t let me foot every bill when we went out. She’d been with me long before anything had happened for me, and that made her more than my girl. It made her blood. The more we sat at the table the more people approached us. They were leaving and returning with others. The first couple from earlier came back with a book. I grabbed the pen and started signing it. The pen died on me. I shook it but it was emptied out. Mara reached into her backpack. I grabbed the steak knife from the table, “I got it.”
I poked a hole in my fingertip and let some blood form. I finished it in crimson. I handed it back to them, “Here you go.”
They walked off. I dipped my finger in my drink and sucked the opening clean. I smiled at Scab. Blitz broke out laughing.
“Fucking hardcore, man!”
We closed the bar and walked back. We played music and finished off the rest of the bourbon from earlier. Scab took Mara to his room and Blitz took Samantha to his. I closed my eyes on the couch and spun into sleep, spent the next morning listening to music, eating healthy and sleeping off a good part of the afternoon, only to close the same bar the next night with Scab and Mara and Mara’s constant mouth. Nature did right by making her pussy the dominant of her two sexes.

I slept for maybe five hours. When I drank a lot I usually woke up early and charged. I always figured it was because I had trouble sleeping regularly, and the alcohol sent me into a brief coma. I brewed some coffee and sat behind the typer. I looked at my watch. Just past ten. Philly was bright. I opened the blinds slightly and worked my way into a story. I always felt like writing after a night of hard drinking. It made the other world more clear, it had a way of letting the unimportant drop to the sides. I drank my coffee and lit up. I picked out some Jeff Buckley and played it low next to the machine. A couple of hours passed around me. The cut on my fingertip wasn’t painful but it was aggravated by the keys. I was writing about a labor job I had worked when I was twenty-four. I was cutting wood for an overweight, alcoholic framer. Blitz and Samantha came into the kitchen. Samantha stopped when she saw me. She stood in the doorway and froze there, trying to be quiet. I laughed and stopped the story.
“Morning, you two.”
Blitz poured two coffees.
“Maybe for you. I have to be at work in an hour.”
He handed Samantha a coffee. She walked out the front door to get a pack of smokes for Blitz and a paper for the table. Blitz cracked his back and sat down.
“What are you writing?”
“I’m just fucking around.”
“Man, don’t you feel hungover?”
“Only slightly. One day when you’re a man you’ll be able to deal with a hangover.”
“Why do you always have to give me shit?”
“Why not?”
“Whatever. Fuckin’ dick.”
“Part of the reason I don’t feel sick is because I downed six ibuprofens and a big glass of water before I passed out.”
“That really works?”
“Think about it. Hangovers are the result of dehydration, mostly.”
“See? Why’d you have to tell me to think about it? Why couldn’t you just say it helps with dehydration?”
“Jesus. Somebody’s sensitive this morning.”
I walked over and refilled my cup. Blitz drank his coffee and turned down the music, “You hate Wreckedge yet you listen to this East Village coffee house bullshit.”
I put my arms around him and kissed the top of his greasy head. He tried to wrestle loose but I had him. I let go and sat down. He shook his head at the table, “Fuckin’ fag.”
Samantha walked in with the paper. She sat down and tossed Blitz his smokes. Blitz lit up and looked at me, “When’s your birthday?”
“October. Why?”
“I’m going to buy you a razor.”
I scratched my beard. Samantha laughed at the paper, “Oh my god!”
She turned it to me on the table. It was the photo from the back of my last book, and a write-up about me signing the autograph in blood the night before. The reporter had a good time with it. He interviewed the couple and went on about me being dramatic, how if I couldn’t handle fame then I should get a real job. One like his, maybe. Samantha scowled, “What a bunch of bullshit. You weren’t being dramatic. You were only fucking with them.”
I slid it back over to her. Blitz sat next to her and read the article.
“Dude, this is fucking insane. With all the bullshit happening after dark in Philadelphia, they have to run that shitty story. Never mind all the little girls who were mugged and raped, let’s run a story about a drunken writer cutting loose in an Irish pub.”
I nodded at the paper, “Maybe Saturday Night Live can make a good skit out of it.”
Samantha laughed, “It says that you were unavailable for comment. What an asshole. I’m going to write a letter to this newspaper.”
“Let it go. It’ll be forgotten when everybody has a couple of hours worth of sitcoms in their heads.”
Blitz nodded, “I heard that.”
Samantha looked at the paper, “I mean, I was right there. It was a small deal, and here it is now, larger than life. They’re acting like you burned down a church. The couple even mentioned a lawsuit. They called it a biological attack.”
“Shit, good luck getting one over on my lawyer. He’d love to jump on this. They’ll bail out. It’s sad.”
I took a shower. She took Blitz to work. He’d found a job in a music store. It was perfect for him. He could hob-knob with all the other indie-rock clones trying to break through and get famous. Scab and Mara stumbled downstairs. I had a fresh pot waiting for him. He smiled, “My savior.” He set Mara a cup on the table. She gripped it. Her eyes were red and remorseful.
“Good morning, Henry.”
“Mornin’, sunshine.”
“Henry, listen. About the last two nights, I didn’t mean to give you a lot of shit. I was pretty lit up early on.”
“It’s alright, Mara.”
“I never drink like that, let alone two days’ worth.”
Scab sat down, “Samantha get Blitz to work alright?”
“They left a few minutes ago.”
“You’ve been up for awhile?”
“I’ve been writing.”
Scab flipped through the paper and saw the write-up. He showed Mara. She sneered, “Fucking vultures.”
Scab walked to the fridge and pulled out the eggs, “Omelets?”
“Damned right.”
“Not for me,” Mara said, “the last thing I want right now is food.”
“It’ll sop up your hangover.”
She looked at me, “It’ll make me puke.”
Scab smiled, “You afraid to puke?”
“Who isn’t?”
Mara stretched and yawned. I glanced up her bed shirt, but it was too low on her thighs. Scab poured the eggs.

We spent the day inside, watching movies and drinking coffee. I passed out on the couch a few times. Everybody was back at the apartment. It was a mellow night. I ordered Chinese food for us, then I called Emily. She was flying in the next afternoon. I told her I’d borrow Mara’s car to pick her up, but she wanted to take a cab into the city. She’d never been to the East Coast. We talked about renting a car on Friday, taking a day or two and staying in Manhattan. It was another perk to the job. Having money was still new. I gave her directions to the apartment, hung up and walked with Scab to the store for smokes.

We sat in the same bar. It was just after eight. The bar was dead. I walked the drinks over and sat across from Scab. He used my phone to call the apartment and told Mara we were having a quick drink. He handed it back over. I put the phone in my pocket, “You two are getting pretty serious.”
“We are. We’ve talked about moving in together. She wants to leave her place. There’s plenty of room where I am. Blitz is all for it. Not that I give a flying fuck what he thinks.”
“Does he know about her?”
“Oh, fuck no. You’re the only one who knows. Sometimes I even forget she has a cock. She’s starting to think about getting it removed.”
“How do you feel about it?”
“The more I think about it, the more I like the idea. I think I’m actually over the whole hard cock trip. I wanted it because it seemed so impossible to attain. Fuck, man, I haven’t even touched her cock in weeks. Straight, regular sex. I never would have thought.”
“Can she have children?”
“No, but that’s another reason why I love her. She made her first comments a few days ago in bed about how her cock is getting in the way of a full-on relationship. She has to constantly tuck and tape it, especially when she gets all dolled up.”
“What a pain in the ass.”
My phone rang. I set it on the table and it stopped. It rang back. Scab grabbed it and turned it off. He waved for two more drinks.

We ended up closing the bar and stumbling back into the apartment. Mara was on the couch watching TV. She pointed at me, “You’re a bad influence on my boyfriend. I like it.”
She walked him upstairs. I took the cushions from the couch and made camp in the dark basement. Ghost or no ghost, I was sleeping twelve good goddamned hours.

Emily crawled onto the cushions with me. I had to piss but I slid her clothes off, and had long and tortured sex. I ran upstairs and pissed, then took a fast shower. We ate breakfast. It was good to have her there. She met Mara and Samantha.
“Do all of you live here?”
Scab ran the dishwasher, “We all might as well.”
Samantha and Mara watched Emily flip through the story I had started the day before. She read the pages and tucked her hair behind her ear. She never knew how hot that made me. Or maybe she did.

That night we went out to the pub again. We closed it, and walked back up 18th in our group. Up ahead I saw the wheelchair coming toward us. I laughed, “I know that guy.”
He slowed down and steered off to my left. I felt one freezing slice into my side. The sidewalk came up and hit me on my knees. I heard Emily scream. I fell to my shoulder and saw one of his wheels. Then I felt the weight of his torso and freezing slices into my stomach and ribs. I heard him cursing me. I saw Scab rolling around with him on the sidewalk. I turned on my back and burned there. The wounds were fire now. I couldn’t swallow. The liquor had turned the wounds into hoses. I could feel blood pouring out of me. I saw Blitz wrapping me with his jacket. Emily had my head in her hands. She was telling me to stay with her. I felt the pain leave my body. There was this weird numbness, a calm that hovered over me. I was fully aware of everything going on around me. I looked into Emily’s eyes and stayed there. I heard yelling and sirens. A plastic mouth went over my own and I faded out.

Emily’s bloodshot eyes. She held my hand. I fell back to sleep for awhile, and when I awoke I felt cleaner, like a lot of time had passed me. I looked around the room. Scab and Blitz and Samantha were there. I saw Mara behind them. Everybody except for Emily wore different clothes. It was good there. I was pumped up with a lot of morphine. Eugene had missed most of my major organs. He almost got my heart, but he was drunk and in bad aim. I asked Emily how bad it was. She told me some of my large intestine was gone now. But I was going to make a complete recovery. I found out that Eugene tried to kill me because someone had rescued his manuscript from the trash and mailed it back to him. I should have been less reckless. I spent one week in total at the hospital. This time I made the front page. Back at Scab’s we sat at the table and drank coffee. Eugene was locked down for a long time. I now had an open hatred for one of my readers. Scab brewed a new pot. Samantha had to take Blitz to work in an hour.
#fiction  #prose  #deadbirdshot  #lustforlife  #culture 
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Written by fantastical in portal Horror & Thriller

Last Meals

“Hello, is anyone out here?” a man’s voice called out over the loud thumping of helicopter blades.

I hurt, deeply. I’m tired, beyond reason, and a part of me is afraid to answer the question. A dying part of me - the part that has been chased and hunted down for God knows how long - still believes I should stay quiet and stay hidden. More than anything though, the pain of my hunger supersedes all. It is like a knife slowly carving out my gut; each digestive organ slowly being filleted. I am finally tired of running and hiding. Tired of being in so much physical pain and mental exhaustion. Tired of being all alone. Tired of being so famished that I fear death if I do not eat soon. It is worth the risk if the man calling out is just a perverse trick. I try to answer back to him. It initially comes out what feels like a croak roughly scraping my throat, but sounds like less than a whisper. I try again, this time there is not even a whisper. I try a third time.

I am...here…

Getting out those three words took the energy I use to use running a marathon, which seems like something that happened in another life now. I am completely spent saying those three words. I will either die here overlooked and forgotten, finally taken by those that have been hunting me, or saved by an impossible miracle. It feels like an eternity goes by, listening to the whoosh of the helicoper’s blades. I close my eyes, it takes too much energy to focus. I feel hands suddenly on me. They don’t realize how wounded I am. They don’t realize how much pain their touch causes. My body barely reacts. My soul screams though, just wanting to die and leave this broken body finally behind...and the nightmare that I have been living that broke it behind.

“Sir! Are you ok?...Can you talk?...What is your name?...Can you nod?...Can you blink?”

I blink...just once. It is all I have left. I just want to sleep, or die. I want whatever ending that the current exhaustion that is flooding my senses is reaching for.

“He is alive! Bring the board! He is very banged up.”

I laugh on the inside. “Banged up” is the understatement of the century. My dark-seeded mirth burns up the last of my reserves. I feel everything go black right before I feel like I am floating. I am not sure if I finally died or if the man and his group lifted me off the ground. The last fleeting thought I have is wondering how much of my blood I was leaving behind there and if I ever want to wake back up.

~~~

I jerk awake and instantly regret it. Pain fills my senses and forces me to collapse back to whatever surface I am resting on, although I am certain it is not the rocky ground any longer, even if my sore back wishes it was. The room is bright, my vision is blurry and my head feel fuzzy. I have enough awareness that I am in a hospital room, connected to a few IVs. I had a sense of hunger, but not the nightmare hunger I seemed to wake from.

“Relax. You are ok now. You are safe,” a soft voice tells me, matching her even softer touch trying to calm me, like one would calm a frightened animal. Honestly, it is the nicest human connection I have ever had. It seems like forever since I had any kindness or connection. A feral part of my psyche though is not sure yet how safe I am. I cannot recall the last time I felt safe.

“Where am I? Who are you?” the words left my lips coarsely, they felt dry, brittle, and ancient as if they would crumple at the slightest breeze. “Can I have some water?”

I instantly feel a glass ever so gently pressed against my lips. I sip and the water is the sweetest thing. I want more. “Not too much now. You’re body is still recovering. You’ve been through a lot. You are in Trinity Memorial Hospital. I’m one of your nurses, Janine. Do you know who you are?”

I have to think about it for a moment. It seems like forever since I’ve thought of my name. Seems like even longer since someone asked me for it. Something about the softness of her voice stirred a nearly forgotten memory though.

“David. My name is David Charters.”

“It is nice to finally know your name Mr. Charters. We can stop thinking of you as John Doe now.”

“David, please. Mr. Charters is my father.” My stomach rumbles suddenly, reminding me of a nightmare of starvation. “Can I...have something to eat?”

“I’ll talk to the doctors about seeing if we can get you something to eat. It is a good sign that you want to eat, David. But...you have been through a lot. You were almost dead before you were brought to us. It will probably just be a broth initially.”

“Is any of my family here?”

“No. David, we didn’t know who you were until just now. I would be happy to call someone for you.”

I cannot think of names, I can just see faces. My parents, my brother, my best friend, my fiancee. I can see her smile, but what is her bloody name. Paula? Penny? Patricia? Trisha!

“Trisha! She is my fiancee.”

“What is her number, David?”

“I...can’t remember.”

“Ok...that is ok...what is her last name? Where are you from?”

I think. I can see her. I can recall dancing and laughing and eating with her. Her last name is on the tip of my tongue. Then, I remember her crying and screaming, and me screaming for her to run, to run away before feeling pain. I don’t want to remember the pain.

“I...can’t remember,” I start to weep, wondering if she was with me when I was in whatever hell I got saved from.

“It is ok, David. We have your name, we will try to find some of your loved ones. I’ll go get the doctor to see if we can get you something to eat.”

I almost don’t care about food anymore. I keep trying to reach for Trisha’s last name and my mind keeps on snapping a trap of pain in response, making me mentally run from the memory. I fall asleep hearing Trisha’s scream.

~~~

I slurp down the last of the broth. It is literally the best thing I have ever eaten, even though my stomach is already rebelling for me drinking it too quickly. My memory though tickles another meal that was vast to the point of gluttony. A meal that was meant to be consumed as much for the pleasure of food and drink as for sustaining one’s life. Yet, as my mouth waters at the memory of it, I hear Trisha’s scream in my head again and the memory evaporates like a morning fog. I choke back the bile forming in my throat formed of fear.

“Not so fast, David. You do not want to throw it back up,” Janine warns me. Still, she is smiling softly. Now that my vision has cleared, I can tell she has a face of an angel. She is nothing short of gorgeous. She has been kind, gentle, caring and committed. It seemed like forever since I have known such kindness.

A short, bearded man enters the room and Janine gently squeezes my shoulder. “I’ll check in on you in a while, David. This is Dr. Mansfeld. Remember, just buzz your buzzer if you need anything at all.”

I watch Janine leave and I force down the panic of being left with this stranger.

“So David,” the bearded man says in an unemotional tone, “Can I call you David? I am Dr. Mansfeld and I just want to talk with you for a bit. Just a friendly, little conversation, ok?”

I am wary of this man instantly. There is only one type of doctor that just wants to have friendly conversations. At best he is here to do a psych-eval on me. At worst, he is going to try to pry memories free from behind the nightmare I do not want to revisit.

“David is fine, Dr. Mansfeld, but honestly sir, I am not in the mood to talk.”

“That is understandable, David. I will try my best to keep our initial conversation short, ok?”

“I suppose,” knowing that a conversation is going to happen whether I want to have it or not.

“Great. So, you do not remember where you are from? Do you remember anything? A car you drove? The state you grew up in? The colors of your high school or college? What you do for a career?”

A remember a black Escalade and being in Napa with it. I recall red and blue school colors. I recall looking in an open chest and replacing someone’s heart. Seeing the blood triggers a scream and the need to run, to flee. I think it is Trisha’s scream. The memories I just grabbed shatter.

“I...think I was...am a doctor. A surgeon actually.”

“Nothing else?”

“No,” I semi-lied, just as I try to recall the car and the place I saw in my mind moments before.

“Why were you in that forest, alone? Do you recall how you got there?”

I was in a forest? It felt like hell. “I just...remember that it seemed I was there for a long time. I was...chased...endlessly. There was no food...no time to find food. I don’t believe I was alone, but I don’t recall how I got there.”

“Ok. That is ok. Do you recall being found?”

I can still hear the whoop of the helicopter blades.

“Yes.”

“Do you recall how you came to be stabbed and cut?”

I hear the manic laughter as the spear pierces my back, while I scream “Run, Trisha Run!”

“A...spear,” I whisper.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“And you were alone when you were stabbed...with the spear?”

“No,” my throat is tight, my eyes welling up with tears as I recall telling the woman I love to run as I believe that I am going to be killed, “Trish was with me. I was telling her to keep running. Her green cocktail dress was a ruined mess and her bare feet were bloody things.”

“Do you think it is strange that she was in a cocktail dress and you were what I am guessing a tuxedo as you were being chased in a forest by someone wielding a spear?”

My brain was shutting down, just when for the first time in forever, there was a moment of clarity. I loved Trish in that dress. Spinning her around on the dance floor. Falling in love with her all over again as she laughed her shatter glass laugh.

“Honestly, I don’t recall the tuxedo.”

“Well, to be honest David, the clothes that were left on you when we found you were shreds of their former selves. The labels of your shirt and pants and the quality of the fabrics were the only hints of what they once were.”

“What happened to me doctor?”

“That David, is what we will try to figure out. Together. More tomorrow. Try to rest now and not think about it anymore. Sometimes this form of stress-induced amnesia loosens up better on its own. Don’t worry, we will get there. By chance, do you recall Trish’s last name yet?”

I think about it. All I can see is a torn green cocktail dress, her bloody feet, and an earlier memory of her smiling and laughing in it. “No.”

“Well, we still haven’t been able to figure out where you are from or find any relatives yet. But, we will get there. You are starting to recall. Your mind is starting to face the traumas that you’ve suffered. It is a positive step. Try to rest now, David. I will come back tomorrow.”

I watch Dr. Mansfeld leave and try to go back to sleep being as exhausted that I am. Grabbing at sleep comes with fits and starts though and a memory of Trish screaming as she looks at me the last time while I got stabbed in the back and then finally flees on bare feet covered in blood.

~~~

I am sitting up as Janine is sponging down my back. The look on her face today is not nearly as pained as it has been. The scars and bruises must not be as hideous today. As far as I can tell, I have been here a bit over two weeks. I have made little progress with Dr. Mansfeld in that time, but my strength is slowly returning and every meal has been divine than the previous one. Janine teases me on that fact, because it is just crappy hospital food, but to me, it is so much more.

“Are you ready for today? Are you sure you want to go through it?” Janine asks, with deep concern written on her face.

“Yes, I am tired of not remembering and finally feeling strong enough to face whatever it is I don’t want to remember.”

“Just be careful, ok. And it is ok to change your mind.” With that she kisses me on the cheek and lingers there for longer than a moment, before helping me back into a hospital gown. She gives me a look that was impossible to read before walking out the door. Janine has been my rock and I realize if it wasn’t for her warmth and kindness, I would still be more of a broken mess than I currently am. A different time, I might have gotten the courage to ask if she wanted to have lunch in the cafeteria, to see if there was something more to pursue with her. But, I was engaged to a girl that I barely could remember. And if God was kind, Trish was still alive out there somewhere wondering if I was.

Dr. Mansfeld enters the room a moment later, his emotionless face asking, “So David, are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be I suppose.”

“Good. Once you are under, you will hear my voice, but you will be elsewhere in your mind. Let my voice try to guide you to what you want to find. Ok?”

I do not recall what he said to put me under hypnosis, only that I suddenly felt like I was not in my hospital room any longer.

David, you are dressed up again and Trisha is in her green dress and she is wearing matching heels. You both look immaculate and happy. Where are you?

“We are at the door of some mansion, being invited in. Trish is beaming. She looks utterly excited. Our friends John and Holly are in front of us.”

You have never mentioned John and Holly before. What is their last name?

“Matthews. They had this special invitation to this dinner and invited us to join them.”

Good. Whose mansion was it?

“I do not recall. John and Holly never really said.”

Ok. What happened once you entered?

“It was a party unlike anything I have ever experienced. I felt underdressed compared to most of the people there. We drank, we danced, we feasted. It was literally the first time I ever had a seven course meal before. The food was amazing. The best I ever had. A squash soup flavored with saffron, a seafood pate I can only guess at but could have easily just had that and nothing else. A filet that made me sad that I had never been able to make anything half as good.”

So you like to cook?

“Yes”

What did you have for dessert?

“I...dessert never came. The lights suddenly went off during the entree. Some emergency exit lights came on. As time went by, the murmurs of everyone there became more anxious. People started to get up and head for the exit.”

What did you do?

“I wanted to wait it out. I assumed our host would have mentioned something. Trish, John, and Holly wanted to get outside though.”

Did you leave then?

“I was out numbered. So we got up and followed the others heading toward the exit. We were some of the last ones.”

And you got outside?

“Not at first, the exit lead to a long, narrow hallway. Trish was panicking because she hates being confined in anyway. But, we could see a light at the end of the hallway.

And then you were outside?

“Finally, after an eternity of Trisha panicking. As I was trying to calm her down once we were outside, I heard the doors shut and be locked from the other side. Then a voice called out, ‘Now you will all run for as long as you can, like the swine you are.’”

What voice?

“I...don’t know. Only that everything went crazy after that moment. There were the snap of whips and the prodding of spears wielded by savage-dressed people. They were too...polished...to be true savages though. Initially thought it was some act or something, until people were actually getting whipped and stabbed. Some of us then tried to fight them off initially. Some panicked and started to run down the hill. Those that were fighting were outnumbered greatly though. I fought at first until I claimed a spear then told Trisha and my friends to run. Then the savages chased us.

How long did you run?

“For days. To the point I lost count. Running, hiding, keeping Trish and Holly safe. John was overrun the second day. He bought us time. I cannot recall how many days we went without eating. I recall trying to find food during the nights...No matter which direction we went though, the wilderness seemed to never end. After the third day the only other people we saw again were the savages. Never the other guests.”

How long was it before you got separated from Trisha?

“Days still. We woke one day and Holly was gone. We looked for her for a time, but Trish was having a hard time walking. She had a resigned look to her. She was starting to give up on hope. It was hard to keep her hopeful. We hadn’t seen any of the so-called-savages for days though. We left a cave we were shuttering in. We heard the hoot of savages a few hours later. Minutes after they were upon us. I was stabbed and Trish ran.”

This is important David, what happened after?

“I fell to the ground in pain. I felt kicks and and my back hit with both ends of the spears. Then I heard Trish scream and the savages laugh. Then nothing.”

Was that when you were found?

“No. I woke. I was alone. Left for dead I suppose. I wandered for a while after. I do not know how long. I recall seeing a near full moon that night. Recall the night feeling cold. Days seem to go by because the last night I recall seeing a moon that was a waning into a crescent. Perhaps I was found the next day or the day after.”

When I next say your name, you will wake. Are you ready David?

Suddenly, it is as if a dream cleared. I could see Dr. Mansfeld again for a moment. He asks me a question, but I cannot answer him as I sob uncontrollably. I remember every nuance of the nightmare that was my life after entering that mansion. I recall every moment with Trisha Kowalski and wondering if I will ever see her again and if I do, would she ever forgive me for not being able to protect her well enough.

“Kowalski. Trisha’s last name is Kowalski…” There is more I want to say, but the words can’t overcome the choking sobs.

~~~

I am eating a ham sandwich when Janine enters my room. She looks sad or concerned.

“David. There is a man outside claiming to know you. Are you up to meeting him?”

There was something in her voice. I hint behind the words. She wanted me to say no for some reason. Her vibe reminded me of my old golden retriever, Molly, when Molly didn’t like someone.

“Well, I suppose I should see him then.” I was antsy and was willing to see anyone that knew me at this point.

She nods and gives me a look. A look knowing how I was going to answer yet wishing I didn’t. She squeezes my hand before she leaves. A moment later, a man I have never met walks into the room.

“Hello Mr. Charters. It seems you have been well taken care of. Do you remember me?” The man places a laptop on my table and opens it. I look at him trying to recall if I have ever met this man. I shake my head no. “Just as well. I belong to the...society that was hosting the party you were at. I was at the mansion that night. I am hear to fill in some...gaps...and to answer questions that I am allowed to answer. After, you will either believe your friend John was a good friend or a very, very, bad one.”

I am shocked at his almost flippant candor. I struggle to even respond to that, when the man starts a video on the laptop. The camera is on a disheveled John. A man’s voice starts. John obviously doesn’t realize he is being recorded.

“I am sorry to tell you John, your membership was denied. We are looking for someone…”

“No, you have to let us in. Holly believes we have already been…”

“I am sorry, Mr. Matthews. We only take certain, unique, individuals. You do not qualify…”

“I will do anything. Give me another chance...anything?”

“Anything? Would you bring your two of your closest friends to a gathering? Would you let them experience whatever we decided to do without giving them any hints beforehand? If you were willing to do this, we might reconsider…”

The video goes black and the man pauses it. “Do you want to see more, Mr. Charters or is that enough?”

I have a fury pounding in counter to my heart. John did this to me, to us. “Just tell me, is Trish alive?”

The man wears a pondering look before he responds, “If you want to know the answer, you will need to keep watching. Should I continue it?”

“Won’t I eventually find out if I don’t continue watching?” I feel defiant and angry. I didn’t like this man. I didn’t like being toyed with.

“Perhaps Mr. Charters. How long are you willing to wait to learn of the answer?”

“I don’t like games. I hate being toyed with.”

“All of life is a game, Mr. Charters. There is always someone trying to use us as their own pieces for their own devices. It is up to us to decide when to stop being a piece and instead become a player.”

I weigh what he just said in my head. More, I weigh what has been left unsaid. There was a test to his words. Almost a hint of sympathy; a kindness lurking there right on the edge.

I steel my will because I know the rest is probably going to be worse, and motion to the man to continue the video.

The next scene is at night, with a night-vision look. John is in the shot again, this time fully aware he is being filmed. It is sometime after everyone left the mansion.

“So Mr. Matthews, how is your wife and friends fairing?”

“Not well. Holly…”

“Holly’s membership has been approved, as long as she tells your friends nothing. It is up to you to remind her what is at stake.”

“And me? What about my membership?”

“You will need to play the next scene well. Unfortunately, it has been decided that you will need to be shot tomorrow when your group gets discovered again. You need to play the hero and convince them to leave you behind. You will bleed, [laughs] well more than you already are. Do this, and you will be granted to join. Your actions the last few days have made up for your earlier...failings. Will you do this?”

John didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“Good. Here, eat this. You will need your strength tomorrow. Once you are done, go back to where you were ‘keeping’ watch. We will shoot you with a tranquilizer. We have already tranqed the other three.”

The screen goes blank. The man gives me a questioning look. More? I nod my head.

“Trish, Trish wake up.”

“John! You are alive. Where is Holly?...David! John is here...”

“Trish, he cannot hear you. He has been tranquilized.”

“What? Why? What is going on? Why do you look...ok now?”

“Trish, listen. There is more going on here that I cannot explain. I need you to do me a favor.”

“I am not doing anything until…David! David! Wake up!”

A different voice that is out of frame talks, “Ms. Kowalski. We are here to help you. You and your fiance have been entered into a contest of sorts. You have an amazing fortitude and because of it, you are about to rewarded. Question is, are you willing to leave David behind, for a time?”

“What? What do you mean? Are you not here to rescue us? John, what is going on?”

“Ms. Kowalski. John, is not at liberty to say. Are you not tired? Are you not hungry? How long do you think you can continue running on your wounded feet. It can all end, if you are willing to help.”

“What about David?”

“David cannot know. The savages that you have not seen for days WILL return tomorrow. David still doesn’t know what is going on. He knows none of it makes sense, but he pushes on regardless. We think mostly because of you. You have to leave him, tomorrow. You have to accept his sacrifice for you, that we believe he will make. You have to run.”

“No. I will not do it. He has suffered so. He needs to know this is an...act.”

“That is your choice. But, this is no act. Most of it has been very real. I will concur, a few parts have been ‘adjusted’, and few have been permanently hurt, but this is very real. We will either overwhelm him and then hunt you for sport the rest of the time you can resist. Or...we can almost overwhelm him and you can get away. My associates are willing to make it worth your while if you run.”

“What does that mean?”

“If you run and leave him behind, we will save you. You will get the best of care. We will then send you to France for a time, because we know you have always wanted to go there. And, you will have 50 million dollars in a bank account in your name to do with as you wish.”

“How can I believe you?”

“Because, you know we have to power to do what I just described. Just think of the mansion, the party, and all you have endured since.”

“Will David ever know? He will never forgive me.”

“If he doesn’t forgive you, you will still have 50 million dollars to figure out a way to live without him? Think of all of the times you can start your life over? Perhaps you should see if he loves you enough to make a life altering decision on his behalf? Or, you can stay, and share in this...hell a bit more. You can tell him it is all a game, but will he believe you? Will he trust you? Will he not take the next savage as seriously only for one of them to still run you through? There is a grand reward for the ‘savage’ that gets the last capture or kill.”

“I just want it to end.” But, I could see her mind ponder the possibility to be free of running and suddenly rich because of it.

The screen fades to black. The man shuts the screen.

“David, we all know how the rest of it played out. Trish is very alive in France. Holly and John are alive and properly rewarded as well. You played a good, long game. You hold the record for a hunt. Now I offer you a choice. You can return to your old life. Rekindle things with Trish, enjoy your shared winnings. Or, if you can never forgive her, you can go your own way, we will financially compensate you for your time. Or, you can join us and have the world opened up in ways you could never imagine. You are special Mr. Charters. Let us show you how much. I’ll give you a moment to ponder your answer. As you do though, consider this? Have you ever felt more alive? Have you ever been more aware of the value of your life? Do you cherish it more now?”

The man takes the laptop and leaves the room. I barely understand what I just witnessed. I cannot believe how angry I am. At John, at the man and his group, at Trish, mostly at myself. I feel like a fool, yet it was so real. All of the wounds were definitely real. The never ending fear of the chase was real. The hunger was very real.

Before I could fully ponder the man’s ending questions, Janine walks into the room. She looks...chagrin. Suddenly, I have a sinking feeling that this woman that has taken care of me over the last few weeks, has been a part of...whatever the hell this is. I thought she was my friend and cared. She was my comfort. She was a constant nice thing in a confusing and frightening time.

“What is your part of this, Janine?” I ask somberly.

“I am your nurse, but I am currently their pawn, just like you. David, do not make the mistake I made.”

“Which was?”

“Wanting my old life back. They gave it to me, when I was in a similar situation as you are now. I got pulled into their game unknowingly yet still won it. I was given a choice so I took my old life. They gave it back, then slowly took it all away. Now...now I am paying penance and I want it to end.”

“When does it end?”

She laughs without humor, “Perhaps it never ends. They offered me an ending if I could find a way to seduce you. I wanted to, but not for them, for me. You were alone and I have been so alone. In the end, I couldn’t.”

“Is Trish truly alive?”

“If he said she is, she is. But…”

“But what?”

“They may not want you to be together unless they found her worthy as well. For me, by the time I got back to my own fiance, they made him very rich and gave him such temptations that...well it was easy for him to reconsider how much he loved me.”

I thought about Trish. I thought about her with more wealth than she could imagine just as her guilt clawed at her. How her beauty, guilt, loneliness, wealth and vulnerability would attract all sort of suitors. She would be a goddess to be won. Would she wait? Especially if some secret society with unending resources was stacking the deck against her. The pit in my gut already told me she was gone, in a worse way than when I thought she might be dead.

“I see.”

“I am so sorry, David. You are a good man. You don’t deserve this. I wish…”

“Stop. You were doing what you felt you needed to do. You did help patch me up. And I would like to believe most of the friendship you gave was genuine. So you have reason to believe if I ask to rejoin Trish, she most likely already moved on. If I just take my old life back, they will slowly take it away and make me pay a ‘penance’. So what do you think is behind door #3?”

“I do not know. When I was offered it, I refused it because of my anger and disgust.”

I look at Janine for a long moment. I soak in her loneliness. It is a real, tangible thing. I soak in her self-loathing. She hates herself. She is trapped and doesn’t believe she has a way out.

“Go through it with me.”

“What?” Janine asked, dumbfounded.

“It seems we both lost our old lives. You seem to want to be done with your penance. You may have not seduced me in the terms they wanted, but you have been a friend and suffered something similar, if I am to believe your story, which oddly enough, I do. Go tell the man, I have my answer please.”

~~~

“He is joining us,” said the man standing outside of David’s room to someone on the other line.

“Did he have any conditions?”

“Only one. That Janine’s penance ends.”

“Did she succeed then?”

“I am not sure. I didn’t listen to their entire conversation. She succeeded in convincing him that his old life is not an option anymore.”

“They might make a great match. Let’s see where it goes.”

“Ok sir. What about Ms. Kowalski.”

“Leave her with her new beaus, for the time being anyway.”

“We gave her a lot of money.”

“We will reclaim it over time. And she will not even realize it being done. Regardless, it was a small price to pay for what we got in David Charters.”

“And the Matthews’?”

“Insignificant. As far as they know, they are on the inside looking out now. They are the type that will never realize how many rungs to us there is. They will be content on the lowest one.”

“So, since Janine’s penance finally is to end, am I to tell her just who she is?”

“No. Not yet. I want to see how Mr. Charters and Janine evolve together in their new lives. Does he think of her as an ally or is he using her?”

“I believe an ally. There is a shrewdness to Mr. Charters though. He joins us without pleasure. Will he enjoy being one of us, or will he bide his time for a moment of revenge? I can see both outcomes.”

“Delightful! Do what you can to keep the two of them together moving forward. We have seen the breadth of the man. Now we will see the depth of the man that David Charters is.”

“I will do my best.”

“As you always do.”

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Written by fantastical in portal Horror & Thriller
Last Meals
“Hello, is anyone out here?” a man’s voice called out over the loud thumping of helicopter blades.

I hurt, deeply. I’m tired, beyond reason, and a part of me is afraid to answer the question. A dying part of me - the part that has been chased and hunted down for God knows how long - still believes I should stay quiet and stay hidden. More than anything though, the pain of my hunger supersedes all. It is like a knife slowly carving out my gut; each digestive organ slowly being filleted. I am finally tired of running and hiding. Tired of being in so much physical pain and mental exhaustion. Tired of being all alone. Tired of being so famished that I fear death if I do not eat soon. It is worth the risk if the man calling out is just a perverse trick. I try to answer back to him. It initially comes out what feels like a croak roughly scraping my throat, but sounds like less than a whisper. I try again, this time there is not even a whisper. I try a third time.

I am...here…

Getting out those three words took the energy I use to use running a marathon, which seems like something that happened in another life now. I am completely spent saying those three words. I will either die here overlooked and forgotten, finally taken by those that have been hunting me, or saved by an impossible miracle. It feels like an eternity goes by, listening to the whoosh of the helicoper’s blades. I close my eyes, it takes too much energy to focus. I feel hands suddenly on me. They don’t realize how wounded I am. They don’t realize how much pain their touch causes. My body barely reacts. My soul screams though, just wanting to die and leave this broken body finally behind...and the nightmare that I have been living that broke it behind.

“Sir! Are you ok?...Can you talk?...What is your name?...Can you nod?...Can you blink?”

I blink...just once. It is all I have left. I just want to sleep, or die. I want whatever ending that the current exhaustion that is flooding my senses is reaching for.

“He is alive! Bring the board! He is very banged up.”

I laugh on the inside. “Banged up” is the understatement of the century. My dark-seeded mirth burns up the last of my reserves. I feel everything go black right before I feel like I am floating. I am not sure if I finally died or if the man and his group lifted me off the ground. The last fleeting thought I have is wondering how much of my blood I was leaving behind there and if I ever want to wake back up.

~~~

I jerk awake and instantly regret it. Pain fills my senses and forces me to collapse back to whatever surface I am resting on, although I am certain it is not the rocky ground any longer, even if my sore back wishes it was. The room is bright, my vision is blurry and my head feel fuzzy. I have enough awareness that I am in a hospital room, connected to a few IVs. I had a sense of hunger, but not the nightmare hunger I seemed to wake from.

“Relax. You are ok now. You are safe,” a soft voice tells me, matching her even softer touch trying to calm me, like one would calm a frightened animal. Honestly, it is the nicest human connection I have ever had. It seems like forever since I had any kindness or connection. A feral part of my psyche though is not sure yet how safe I am. I cannot recall the last time I felt safe.

“Where am I? Who are you?” the words left my lips coarsely, they felt dry, brittle, and ancient as if they would crumple at the slightest breeze. “Can I have some water?”

I instantly feel a glass ever so gently pressed against my lips. I sip and the water is the sweetest thing. I want more. “Not too much now. You’re body is still recovering. You’ve been through a lot. You are in Trinity Memorial Hospital. I’m one of your nurses, Janine. Do you know who you are?”

I have to think about it for a moment. It seems like forever since I’ve thought of my name. Seems like even longer since someone asked me for it. Something about the softness of her voice stirred a nearly forgotten memory though.

“David. My name is David Charters.”

“It is nice to finally know your name Mr. Charters. We can stop thinking of you as John Doe now.”

“David, please. Mr. Charters is my father.” My stomach rumbles suddenly, reminding me of a nightmare of starvation. “Can I...have something to eat?”

“I’ll talk to the doctors about seeing if we can get you something to eat. It is a good sign that you want to eat, David. But...you have been through a lot. You were almost dead before you were brought to us. It will probably just be a broth initially.”

“Is any of my family here?”

“No. David, we didn’t know who you were until just now. I would be happy to call someone for you.”

I cannot think of names, I can just see faces. My parents, my brother, my best friend, my fiancee. I can see her smile, but what is her bloody name. Paula? Penny? Patricia? Trisha!

“Trisha! She is my fiancee.”

“What is her number, David?”

“I...can’t remember.”

“Ok...that is ok...what is her last name? Where are you from?”

I think. I can see her. I can recall dancing and laughing and eating with her. Her last name is on the tip of my tongue. Then, I remember her crying and screaming, and me screaming for her to run, to run away before feeling pain. I don’t want to remember the pain.

“I...can’t remember,” I start to weep, wondering if she was with me when I was in whatever hell I got saved from.

“It is ok, David. We have your name, we will try to find some of your loved ones. I’ll go get the doctor to see if we can get you something to eat.”

I almost don’t care about food anymore. I keep trying to reach for Trisha’s last name and my mind keeps on snapping a trap of pain in response, making me mentally run from the memory. I fall asleep hearing Trisha’s scream.

~~~

I slurp down the last of the broth. It is literally the best thing I have ever eaten, even though my stomach is already rebelling for me drinking it too quickly. My memory though tickles another meal that was vast to the point of gluttony. A meal that was meant to be consumed as much for the pleasure of food and drink as for sustaining one’s life. Yet, as my mouth waters at the memory of it, I hear Trisha’s scream in my head again and the memory evaporates like a morning fog. I choke back the bile forming in my throat formed of fear.

“Not so fast, David. You do not want to throw it back up,” Janine warns me. Still, she is smiling softly. Now that my vision has cleared, I can tell she has a face of an angel. She is nothing short of gorgeous. She has been kind, gentle, caring and committed. It seemed like forever since I have known such kindness.

A short, bearded man enters the room and Janine gently squeezes my shoulder. “I’ll check in on you in a while, David. This is Dr. Mansfeld. Remember, just buzz your buzzer if you need anything at all.”

I watch Janine leave and I force down the panic of being left with this stranger.

“So David,” the bearded man says in an unemotional tone, “Can I call you David? I am Dr. Mansfeld and I just want to talk with you for a bit. Just a friendly, little conversation, ok?”

I am wary of this man instantly. There is only one type of doctor that just wants to have friendly conversations. At best he is here to do a psych-eval on me. At worst, he is going to try to pry memories free from behind the nightmare I do not want to revisit.

“David is fine, Dr. Mansfeld, but honestly sir, I am not in the mood to talk.”

“That is understandable, David. I will try my best to keep our initial conversation short, ok?”

“I suppose,” knowing that a conversation is going to happen whether I want to have it or not.

“Great. So, you do not remember where you are from? Do you remember anything? A car you drove? The state you grew up in? The colors of your high school or college? What you do for a career?”

A remember a black Escalade and being in Napa with it. I recall red and blue school colors. I recall looking in an open chest and replacing someone’s heart. Seeing the blood triggers a scream and the need to run, to flee. I think it is Trisha’s scream. The memories I just grabbed shatter.

“I...think I was...am a doctor. A surgeon actually.”

“Nothing else?”

“No,” I semi-lied, just as I try to recall the car and the place I saw in my mind moments before.

“Why were you in that forest, alone? Do you recall how you got there?”

I was in a forest? It felt like hell. “I just...remember that it seemed I was there for a long time. I was...chased...endlessly. There was no food...no time to find food. I don’t believe I was alone, but I don’t recall how I got there.”

“Ok. That is ok. Do you recall being found?”

I can still hear the whoop of the helicopter blades.

“Yes.”

“Do you recall how you came to be stabbed and cut?”

I hear the manic laughter as the spear pierces my back, while I scream “Run, Trisha Run!”

“A...spear,” I whisper.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes.”

“And you were alone when you were stabbed...with the spear?”

“No,” my throat is tight, my eyes welling up with tears as I recall telling the woman I love to run as I believe that I am going to be killed, “Trish was with me. I was telling her to keep running. Her green cocktail dress was a ruined mess and her bare feet were bloody things.”

“Do you think it is strange that she was in a cocktail dress and you were what I am guessing a tuxedo as you were being chased in a forest by someone wielding a spear?”

My brain was shutting down, just when for the first time in forever, there was a moment of clarity. I loved Trish in that dress. Spinning her around on the dance floor. Falling in love with her all over again as she laughed her shatter glass laugh.

“Honestly, I don’t recall the tuxedo.”

“Well, to be honest David, the clothes that were left on you when we found you were shreds of their former selves. The labels of your shirt and pants and the quality of the fabrics were the only hints of what they once were.”

“What happened to me doctor?”

“That David, is what we will try to figure out. Together. More tomorrow. Try to rest now and not think about it anymore. Sometimes this form of stress-induced amnesia loosens up better on its own. Don’t worry, we will get there. By chance, do you recall Trish’s last name yet?”

I think about it. All I can see is a torn green cocktail dress, her bloody feet, and an earlier memory of her smiling and laughing in it. “No.”

“Well, we still haven’t been able to figure out where you are from or find any relatives yet. But, we will get there. You are starting to recall. Your mind is starting to face the traumas that you’ve suffered. It is a positive step. Try to rest now, David. I will come back tomorrow.”

I watch Dr. Mansfeld leave and try to go back to sleep being as exhausted that I am. Grabbing at sleep comes with fits and starts though and a memory of Trish screaming as she looks at me the last time while I got stabbed in the back and then finally flees on bare feet covered in blood.

~~~

I am sitting up as Janine is sponging down my back. The look on her face today is not nearly as pained as it has been. The scars and bruises must not be as hideous today. As far as I can tell, I have been here a bit over two weeks. I have made little progress with Dr. Mansfeld in that time, but my strength is slowly returning and every meal has been divine than the previous one. Janine teases me on that fact, because it is just crappy hospital food, but to me, it is so much more.

“Are you ready for today? Are you sure you want to go through it?” Janine asks, with deep concern written on her face.

“Yes, I am tired of not remembering and finally feeling strong enough to face whatever it is I don’t want to remember.”

“Just be careful, ok. And it is ok to change your mind.” With that she kisses me on the cheek and lingers there for longer than a moment, before helping me back into a hospital gown. She gives me a look that was impossible to read before walking out the door. Janine has been my rock and I realize if it wasn’t for her warmth and kindness, I would still be more of a broken mess than I currently am. A different time, I might have gotten the courage to ask if she wanted to have lunch in the cafeteria, to see if there was something more to pursue with her. But, I was engaged to a girl that I barely could remember. And if God was kind, Trish was still alive out there somewhere wondering if I was.

Dr. Mansfeld enters the room a moment later, his emotionless face asking, “So David, are you ready?”

“As ready as I’ll ever be I suppose.”

“Good. Once you are under, you will hear my voice, but you will be elsewhere in your mind. Let my voice try to guide you to what you want to find. Ok?”

I do not recall what he said to put me under hypnosis, only that I suddenly felt like I was not in my hospital room any longer.

David, you are dressed up again and Trisha is in her green dress and she is wearing matching heels. You both look immaculate and happy. Where are you?

“We are at the door of some mansion, being invited in. Trish is beaming. She looks utterly excited. Our friends John and Holly are in front of us.”

You have never mentioned John and Holly before. What is their last name?

“Matthews. They had this special invitation to this dinner and invited us to join them.”

Good. Whose mansion was it?

“I do not recall. John and Holly never really said.”

Ok. What happened once you entered?

“It was a party unlike anything I have ever experienced. I felt underdressed compared to most of the people there. We drank, we danced, we feasted. It was literally the first time I ever had a seven course meal before. The food was amazing. The best I ever had. A squash soup flavored with saffron, a seafood pate I can only guess at but could have easily just had that and nothing else. A filet that made me sad that I had never been able to make anything half as good.”

So you like to cook?

“Yes”

What did you have for dessert?

“I...dessert never came. The lights suddenly went off during the entree. Some emergency exit lights came on. As time went by, the murmurs of everyone there became more anxious. People started to get up and head for the exit.”

What did you do?

“I wanted to wait it out. I assumed our host would have mentioned something. Trish, John, and Holly wanted to get outside though.”

Did you leave then?

“I was out numbered. So we got up and followed the others heading toward the exit. We were some of the last ones.”

And you got outside?

“Not at first, the exit lead to a long, narrow hallway. Trish was panicking because she hates being confined in anyway. But, we could see a light at the end of the hallway.

And then you were outside?

“Finally, after an eternity of Trisha panicking. As I was trying to calm her down once we were outside, I heard the doors shut and be locked from the other side. Then a voice called out, ‘Now you will all run for as long as you can, like the swine you are.’”

What voice?

“I...don’t know. Only that everything went crazy after that moment. There were the snap of whips and the prodding of spears wielded by savage-dressed people. They were too...polished...to be true savages though. Initially thought it was some act or something, until people were actually getting whipped and stabbed. Some of us then tried to fight them off initially. Some panicked and started to run down the hill. Those that were fighting were outnumbered greatly though. I fought at first until I claimed a spear then told Trisha and my friends to run. Then the savages chased us.

How long did you run?

“For days. To the point I lost count. Running, hiding, keeping Trish and Holly safe. John was overrun the second day. He bought us time. I cannot recall how many days we went without eating. I recall trying to find food during the nights...No matter which direction we went though, the wilderness seemed to never end. After the third day the only other people we saw again were the savages. Never the other guests.”

How long was it before you got separated from Trisha?

“Days still. We woke one day and Holly was gone. We looked for her for a time, but Trish was having a hard time walking. She had a resigned look to her. She was starting to give up on hope. It was hard to keep her hopeful. We hadn’t seen any of the so-called-savages for days though. We left a cave we were shuttering in. We heard the hoot of savages a few hours later. Minutes after they were upon us. I was stabbed and Trish ran.”

This is important David, what happened after?

“I fell to the ground in pain. I felt kicks and and my back hit with both ends of the spears. Then I heard Trish scream and the savages laugh. Then nothing.”

Was that when you were found?

“No. I woke. I was alone. Left for dead I suppose. I wandered for a while after. I do not know how long. I recall seeing a near full moon that night. Recall the night feeling cold. Days seem to go by because the last night I recall seeing a moon that was a waning into a crescent. Perhaps I was found the next day or the day after.”

When I next say your name, you will wake. Are you ready David?

Suddenly, it is as if a dream cleared. I could see Dr. Mansfeld again for a moment. He asks me a question, but I cannot answer him as I sob uncontrollably. I remember every nuance of the nightmare that was my life after entering that mansion. I recall every moment with Trisha Kowalski and wondering if I will ever see her again and if I do, would she ever forgive me for not being able to protect her well enough.

“Kowalski. Trisha’s last name is Kowalski…” There is more I want to say, but the words can’t overcome the choking sobs.

~~~

I am eating a ham sandwich when Janine enters my room. She looks sad or concerned.

“David. There is a man outside claiming to know you. Are you up to meeting him?”

There was something in her voice. I hint behind the words. She wanted me to say no for some reason. Her vibe reminded me of my old golden retriever, Molly, when Molly didn’t like someone.

“Well, I suppose I should see him then.” I was antsy and was willing to see anyone that knew me at this point.

She nods and gives me a look. A look knowing how I was going to answer yet wishing I didn’t. She squeezes my hand before she leaves. A moment later, a man I have never met walks into the room.

“Hello Mr. Charters. It seems you have been well taken care of. Do you remember me?” The man places a laptop on my table and opens it. I look at him trying to recall if I have ever met this man. I shake my head no. “Just as well. I belong to the...society that was hosting the party you were at. I was at the mansion that night. I am hear to fill in some...gaps...and to answer questions that I am allowed to answer. After, you will either believe your friend John was a good friend or a very, very, bad one.”

I am shocked at his almost flippant candor. I struggle to even respond to that, when the man starts a video on the laptop. The camera is on a disheveled John. A man’s voice starts. John obviously doesn’t realize he is being recorded.

“I am sorry to tell you John, your membership was denied. We are looking for someone…”

“No, you have to let us in. Holly believes we have already been…”

“I am sorry, Mr. Matthews. We only take certain, unique, individuals. You do not qualify…”

“I will do anything. Give me another chance...anything?”

“Anything? Would you bring your two of your closest friends to a gathering? Would you let them experience whatever we decided to do without giving them any hints beforehand? If you were willing to do this, we might reconsider…”

The video goes black and the man pauses it. “Do you want to see more, Mr. Charters or is that enough?”

I have a fury pounding in counter to my heart. John did this to me, to us. “Just tell me, is Trish alive?”

The man wears a pondering look before he responds, “If you want to know the answer, you will need to keep watching. Should I continue it?”

“Won’t I eventually find out if I don’t continue watching?” I feel defiant and angry. I didn’t like this man. I didn’t like being toyed with.

“Perhaps Mr. Charters. How long are you willing to wait to learn of the answer?”

“I don’t like games. I hate being toyed with.”

“All of life is a game, Mr. Charters. There is always someone trying to use us as their own pieces for their own devices. It is up to us to decide when to stop being a piece and instead become a player.”

I weigh what he just said in my head. More, I weigh what has been left unsaid. There was a test to his words. Almost a hint of sympathy; a kindness lurking there right on the edge.

I steel my will because I know the rest is probably going to be worse, and motion to the man to continue the video.

The next scene is at night, with a night-vision look. John is in the shot again, this time fully aware he is being filmed. It is sometime after everyone left the mansion.

“So Mr. Matthews, how is your wife and friends fairing?”

“Not well. Holly…”

“Holly’s membership has been approved, as long as she tells your friends nothing. It is up to you to remind her what is at stake.”

“And me? What about my membership?”

“You will need to play the next scene well. Unfortunately, it has been decided that you will need to be shot tomorrow when your group gets discovered again. You need to play the hero and convince them to leave you behind. You will bleed, [laughs] well more than you already are. Do this, and you will be granted to join. Your actions the last few days have made up for your earlier...failings. Will you do this?”

John didn’t hesitate. “Yes.”

“Good. Here, eat this. You will need your strength tomorrow. Once you are done, go back to where you were ‘keeping’ watch. We will shoot you with a tranquilizer. We have already tranqed the other three.”

The screen goes blank. The man gives me a questioning look. More? I nod my head.

“Trish, Trish wake up.”

“John! You are alive. Where is Holly?...David! John is here...”

“Trish, he cannot hear you. He has been tranquilized.”

“What? Why? What is going on? Why do you look...ok now?”

“Trish, listen. There is more going on here that I cannot explain. I need you to do me a favor.”

“I am not doing anything until…David! David! Wake up!”

A different voice that is out of frame talks, “Ms. Kowalski. We are here to help you. You and your fiance have been entered into a contest of sorts. You have an amazing fortitude and because of it, you are about to rewarded. Question is, are you willing to leave David behind, for a time?”

“What? What do you mean? Are you not here to rescue us? John, what is going on?”

“Ms. Kowalski. John, is not at liberty to say. Are you not tired? Are you not hungry? How long do you think you can continue running on your wounded feet. It can all end, if you are willing to help.”

“What about David?”

“David cannot know. The savages that you have not seen for days WILL return tomorrow. David still doesn’t know what is going on. He knows none of it makes sense, but he pushes on regardless. We think mostly because of you. You have to leave him, tomorrow. You have to accept his sacrifice for you, that we believe he will make. You have to run.”

“No. I will not do it. He has suffered so. He needs to know this is an...act.”

“That is your choice. But, this is no act. Most of it has been very real. I will concur, a few parts have been ‘adjusted’, and few have been permanently hurt, but this is very real. We will either overwhelm him and then hunt you for sport the rest of the time you can resist. Or...we can almost overwhelm him and you can get away. My associates are willing to make it worth your while if you run.”

“What does that mean?”

“If you run and leave him behind, we will save you. You will get the best of care. We will then send you to France for a time, because we know you have always wanted to go there. And, you will have 50 million dollars in a bank account in your name to do with as you wish.”

“How can I believe you?”

“Because, you know we have to power to do what I just described. Just think of the mansion, the party, and all you have endured since.”

“Will David ever know? He will never forgive me.”

“If he doesn’t forgive you, you will still have 50 million dollars to figure out a way to live without him? Think of all of the times you can start your life over? Perhaps you should see if he loves you enough to make a life altering decision on his behalf? Or, you can stay, and share in this...hell a bit more. You can tell him it is all a game, but will he believe you? Will he trust you? Will he not take the next savage as seriously only for one of them to still run you through? There is a grand reward for the ‘savage’ that gets the last capture or kill.”

“I just want it to end.” But, I could see her mind ponder the possibility to be free of running and suddenly rich because of it.

The screen fades to black. The man shuts the screen.

“David, we all know how the rest of it played out. Trish is very alive in France. Holly and John are alive and properly rewarded as well. You played a good, long game. You hold the record for a hunt. Now I offer you a choice. You can return to your old life. Rekindle things with Trish, enjoy your shared winnings. Or, if you can never forgive her, you can go your own way, we will financially compensate you for your time. Or, you can join us and have the world opened up in ways you could never imagine. You are special Mr. Charters. Let us show you how much. I’ll give you a moment to ponder your answer. As you do though, consider this? Have you ever felt more alive? Have you ever been more aware of the value of your life? Do you cherish it more now?”

The man takes the laptop and leaves the room. I barely understand what I just witnessed. I cannot believe how angry I am. At John, at the man and his group, at Trish, mostly at myself. I feel like a fool, yet it was so real. All of the wounds were definitely real. The never ending fear of the chase was real. The hunger was very real.

Before I could fully ponder the man’s ending questions, Janine walks into the room. She looks...chagrin. Suddenly, I have a sinking feeling that this woman that has taken care of me over the last few weeks, has been a part of...whatever the hell this is. I thought she was my friend and cared. She was my comfort. She was a constant nice thing in a confusing and frightening time.

“What is your part of this, Janine?” I ask somberly.

“I am your nurse, but I am currently their pawn, just like you. David, do not make the mistake I made.”

“Which was?”

“Wanting my old life back. They gave it to me, when I was in a similar situation as you are now. I got pulled into their game unknowingly yet still won it. I was given a choice so I took my old life. They gave it back, then slowly took it all away. Now...now I am paying penance and I want it to end.”

“When does it end?”

She laughs without humor, “Perhaps it never ends. They offered me an ending if I could find a way to seduce you. I wanted to, but not for them, for me. You were alone and I have been so alone. In the end, I couldn’t.”

“Is Trish truly alive?”

“If he said she is, she is. But…”

“But what?”

“They may not want you to be together unless they found her worthy as well. For me, by the time I got back to my own fiance, they made him very rich and gave him such temptations that...well it was easy for him to reconsider how much he loved me.”

I thought about Trish. I thought about her with more wealth than she could imagine just as her guilt clawed at her. How her beauty, guilt, loneliness, wealth and vulnerability would attract all sort of suitors. She would be a goddess to be won. Would she wait? Especially if some secret society with unending resources was stacking the deck against her. The pit in my gut already told me she was gone, in a worse way than when I thought she might be dead.

“I see.”

“I am so sorry, David. You are a good man. You don’t deserve this. I wish…”

“Stop. You were doing what you felt you needed to do. You did help patch me up. And I would like to believe most of the friendship you gave was genuine. So you have reason to believe if I ask to rejoin Trish, she most likely already moved on. If I just take my old life back, they will slowly take it away and make me pay a ‘penance’. So what do you think is behind door #3?”

“I do not know. When I was offered it, I refused it because of my anger and disgust.”

I look at Janine for a long moment. I soak in her loneliness. It is a real, tangible thing. I soak in her self-loathing. She hates herself. She is trapped and doesn’t believe she has a way out.

“Go through it with me.”

“What?” Janine asked, dumbfounded.

“It seems we both lost our old lives. You seem to want to be done with your penance. You may have not seduced me in the terms they wanted, but you have been a friend and suffered something similar, if I am to believe your story, which oddly enough, I do. Go tell the man, I have my answer please.”

~~~

“He is joining us,” said the man standing outside of David’s room to someone on the other line.

“Did he have any conditions?”

“Only one. That Janine’s penance ends.”

“Did she succeed then?”

“I am not sure. I didn’t listen to their entire conversation. She succeeded in convincing him that his old life is not an option anymore.”

“They might make a great match. Let’s see where it goes.”

“Ok sir. What about Ms. Kowalski.”

“Leave her with her new beaus, for the time being anyway.”

“We gave her a lot of money.”

“We will reclaim it over time. And she will not even realize it being done. Regardless, it was a small price to pay for what we got in David Charters.”

“And the Matthews’?”

“Insignificant. As far as they know, they are on the inside looking out now. They are the type that will never realize how many rungs to us there is. They will be content on the lowest one.”

“So, since Janine’s penance finally is to end, am I to tell her just who she is?”

“No. Not yet. I want to see how Mr. Charters and Janine evolve together in their new lives. Does he think of her as an ally or is he using her?”

“I believe an ally. There is a shrewdness to Mr. Charters though. He joins us without pleasure. Will he enjoy being one of us, or will he bide his time for a moment of revenge? I can see both outcomes.”

“Delightful! Do what you can to keep the two of them together moving forward. We have seen the breadth of the man. Now we will see the depth of the man that David Charters is.”

“I will do my best.”

“As you always do.”

#fiction  #shortstory  #horrorprompt  #consuming 
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