The rules of this exercise were to base a story off of a picture and keep it to 3,000 words or less. The setting of the story was totally up to the writer which made it fun. With these four alone, we have different time periods, points of view, and genres.
An Unexpected Delivery
It gave a sickening crunch and my kids jumped simultaneously. “It’s okay, it’s dead,” I said; and hit it again just in case. My one year old began howling, fat tears running down her scrunchy red face. Jake, slightly older and very slightly wiser, stood on the bench to get a better view of the legs still twitching around the edges of the pan.
“It’s a ‘pider!” he announced with the usual childish gift for understatement.
Sam gave the mature eight-year-old response of an exaggerated oh-yuck face. “Ew, now there’s bug juice all over the place.”
“Squash first, ask questions later,” I said. I scooped Molly out of her highchair and she stopped crying mid-yell, wiping her face on my already stained shoulder.
“Bummer.” Sam poked the dead spider gingerly with his fork. He probably would’ve preferred trapping it in a bucket and feeding it leftovers to see what it ate. I was a terrible mother for not encouraging his curiosity.
“’pider, ‘pider, ‘pider,” Jake recited. “Big ‘pider.”
“Where’d it come from?” Sam wanted to know.
“From the bananas, I guess,” I said.
But we both knew it should’ve be that obvious. Organic cargo underwent mandatory irradiation to get rid of nasty little problems like tarantulas – and anything else standing too close. Off-world colonies hanging on by their teeth in unfriendly ecosystems didn’t like unexpected stowaways.
Slinging Molly onto my hip, I made a dash for the cockpit. “Jem! Cargo scan right away!”
The voice from the wall speakers was even more grouchy than usual. “Why?”
“Sometimes I dream of a respectful interface,” I said, plopping gracelessly into the pilot’s couch.
“Yeah well, shop clearance and you get what you get,” the computer said unsympathetically. “Are you going to keep your young from re-configuring the drives?”
Molly was happily pushing buttons on the main control board. I had them locked and Jem knew it, but she never passed up an opportunity to grouse. “Do a complete cargo scan,” I repeated. “Look for anything alive."
“Mom squashed a really big spider,” Sam said from behind me. “I think it was a tarantula.”
“We don’t have the scanner density to find life-forms that small,” Jem said.
I scratched the back of my leg and snuck a peek at the floor, trying not to imagine something big and hairy with lots of legs crawling around down there. “It wasn’t that small and landfall's in fifteen minutes. We don’t need another surprise.”
There was a burst of static over the speakers - Jem’s version of a sigh. “Fine.”
“Where’s Jake?” I asked Sam.
“Eating the last of my pancakes,” Sam said. “Probably yours too.” He picked up the datapad I’d left on the console and began tapping on it. “If we find another tarantula, can we keep it?”
Just as I suspected. “You realize how much trouble we’d be in if an inspector found one on board?”
“No one would have to know,” he said. “I could keep it under my bunk. Inspectors never look there.”
Probably a good thing, too. Sam always managed to stash a collection of something under there. My favorite was the box of chicken bones he’d been hoping would turn into fossils. Like most eight-year-olds, he wasn’t particularly worried about eau-de-rotting-meat in the pursuit of discovery.
“’Tarantula. Member of the Theraphosidae spider family,’” he read aloud from the pad. “’Mildly toxic. Usually shy and non-aggressive.’” He looked up, white-blond hair falling into his eyes. “I bet Dad would like to see one.”
He was probably right. “Dad would like us to get back without a lawsuit,” I said. “We better hope there isn’t another one for you to catch.”
“There doesn’t seem to be anything in the hold except bananas,” Jem interjected. “Though the scanners—“
“—probably can’t find anything that small,” I finished for her. “Can we tweak them?”
“Not in time,” she said. “Your best bet is to monitor for movement.”
“My best bet?” I raised an eyebrow at the fish-eye lens mounted above the control yoke. “Don’t you mean your best bet?”
“No," she said. “I have a sealed titanium core. Bugs, shmugs."
“Point taken. For the sake of us mere mortals, would a movement scan catch what a life scan can’t?”
“Then do it.” I stood up, Molly squawking in protest as she was deprived of her favorite toys. “We have to pass this inspection.”
“’A tarantula hunts prey instead of spinning webs,’” Sam read. “’It’s appearance is worse than it’s bite, which is similar to a honeybee’s sting.’ They're really not that bad, Mom.”
“If we have tarantulas on board, we have to get rid of them. I’m sorry, buddy.”
He sighed. “If we find one, can I look at it before we squash it?”
“Sure.” I ruffled his hair and took a deep breath, wishing David was here. “I better go see—“
A piercing squeal echoed down the hall.
“Got something,” Jem announced.
A little late, I thought.
Jake was standing on the table, syrup smeared from mouth to hairline. Normally he would’ve been in trouble for both things. Today I was more interested in the second tarantula clinging to the bulkhead above the cooktop. Jake squealed again. “‘pider, Mom, ‘pider!”
I decided there was no way he’d been bitten and maneuvered him back onto the bench. “I see it,” I said, juggling Molly more securely onto my hip. “Where'd it come from, Jem?"
“The exhaust vent over the cooktop,” she answered from the intercom.
“Spiders are cold-blooded,” I said aloud.
“That’s why we haven’t seen them until now,” I said, frowning at the vent. “They've been too cold.”
Space travel was notoriously chilly, especially if you were a cheapskate and kept the heat low. But one of the first signs of approaching planetfall was increased solar gravity causing the warp engines to run hot. Even with state-of-the-art shielding, entering a solar system caused the interstellar drive to shed more heat, especially into the cargo bay. If there were spiders in the bananas, I bet the first thing they’d do once the new heat un-paralyzed them was to search for a warmer climate. The vent ducts would be a perfect destination. Cooking breakfast had probably drawn them like a magnet.
The high-pitched ding of an approach alarm went off. There wasn't time to do any more detective work on this problem. I just needed to take care of it.
“Sorry, Sam,” I said, and picked up the frying pan to commit my second act of arachnicide for the day.
One of the things the first colonists dreamed about when they charged hopefully off into the stars was a Star Trek-like universe populated with “type M” planets just waiting for them to breathe the properly balanced air.
Khendahal was a pretty good example of what they got instead.
It looked warm enough from space, a fairly mid-sized planet a little smaller than Earth-norm characterized by a sort of sand painting effect from various shades of red and yellow patchworking across the continents. But despite the desert colors, the surface temp hovered around twenty-five degrees below zero at the equator and the smallish oceans were continually frozen over. One of the reasons Human life could try colonizing this rocky icefield was the presence of water, frozen or not; but it wasn’t exactly Eden. And the air was definitely not good for your health unless you liked breathing mostly hydrogen.
Harsh surface conditions meant colony life existed mostly underground and the main trade center was no exception. We made landfall near the eastern coast of Serenity Bay, our destination a defunct volcano housing a bustling spaceport in the network of empty lava tubes. We were assigned a berth about fifty miles down…though it might’ve just seemed that long because I hadn’t piloted a big rig in such tight quarters before. Maneuvering into position between a couple of giant tankers reminded me of my grandparents’ reminiscences about parallel parking. With half my brain still watching for spiders, I’d done better touchdowns in my life too.
“If you’d updated my software package I could’ve done that,” was Jem’s ascerbic comment.
I worked my jaw to unclench my teeth. “Noted. Anything on the movement scans?”
“All quiet,” she said. “Except your young. I don’t think they appreciate safety belts.”
“Tough.” I set the boards to standby. “Where are we in the inspection queue?”
“Still waiting assignment.” She was silent a second, probably the time it took to scan hundreds of online news bits. “It might be awhile – there was some kind of local holiday two days ago and stuff stacked up.”
Under normal circumstances I might’ve fretted about the delay with a delicate cargo like fruit. Today I had bigger fish to fry. Spiders to squash. Whatever.
“We need to build an irradiator,” I said.
“You need a radiation source and you can’t even afford a software update.”
I unlocked the overhead bin that housed David’s toolbox. “We’ll use the engine core.”
“You’ll blow us up!”
I tugged the box down and nearly dislocated my shoulder. “Listen Jem,” I said in the tone that made my kids sit up and listen. “I’ve ignored my parents, child protection laws, business licensing requirements, IRS warnings and two lawyers to make this delivery. Spiders aren’t going to stop me either.”
“Are we nuking the bananas, Mom?” Sam asked from the doorway. I realized absently that the sounds of Molly and Jake’s favorite “Tale of Peter Rabbit” cartoon were echoing up from the conversation pit. Sam knew how to play his distraction cards well.
“Unless you can think of another way to get rid of hidden spiders really fast,” I said.
There was a sudden chime from the console. “About that,” Jem said, her tone studiously casual.
I glared at the fish-eye. “What?"
“Inspection notice,” she said. “Someone must really want those bananas. Mr. Gordon Abdullah Jr. will be here in five minutes.”
Barely enough time to brush my teeth, let alone build anything. “Report the airlock’s not working,” I said, unable to think of anything better. “We need at least an hour to fix it.”
“That’s it? That’s your brilliant plan?”
“Got anything better?”
“Yeah, just give the guy your paperwork and move on. It’s not like you skipped the cargo filter.”
“Doesn’t matter. Anything goes wrong, we’re stuck here for a hundred years. Broke.” I brushed past Sam into the corridor. “Send the error report and find me a schematic for a portable irradiator.”
I took a multitool to the hydraulic hoses controlling the airlock mechanism and the whistle of suddenly released pressure was so loud it left my ears ringing. Sam looked dismayed. “Hey Mom…what if we can’t fix that?”
“I’ll worry about it later.” A little voice in the back of my mind pointed out I’d thought that a lot in the past few minutes. I’ll worry about that later too, I told it. “Go check on Molly and Jake. If they’re getting wiggly, give them cookies.”
Sam’s face brightened. “Can I have one too?”
Jem’s voice emerged from the comm speaker next to the airlock door as Sam’s footsteps pounded off across the deck. “You sure we can’t just hand over the paperwork?”
“Positive. Where’s my schematic?”
Her approximated sigh was even buzzier than usual. “On your datapad.”
I pulled it from my pocket and took a quick look. The list of parts seemed endless. “I need an engineering degree to read this.”
“Hey, you asked.”
“Nobody likes a smug computer. Any response to our error report?”
“Inspection’s still scheduled in thirty seconds,” she answered.
I closed my eyes and rested my forehead against the bulkhead with the same kind of helpless sick-in-the-pit-of-my-stomach sensation I’d felt the day the police met David at the landing pad and took him away. A mistake on a tax form and my husband was in jail. Officialdom didn’t have our best interests at heart. And now I might even have something to hide.
At least the hatch was legitimately broken.
Funny, the things a desperate woman could console herself with.
The overhead comm buzzed it’s obnoxious announcement. Someone was at the outer airlock hatch. I swallowed a few times before answering. “Yes?”
“Inspector,” a heavily accented voice responded. I activated the visual control and squinted at the man who thought he’d just pay a friendly little visit the instant we touched ground. Not much to look at: a squat, bald, middle-aged government official like hundreds more I’d met over the years.
“Did you see my error report?” It was never good to antagonize inspectors, but I was beyond small talk. “I can’t get the hatch open. I was counting on at least an hour.”
“Listen, lady, that’s not my problem. You get me in or you’ll have to wait until next month.”
Great. He sounded like his day had been worse than mine. “Is there any way to delay the inspection for just a little while?”
“Sure, you can deny inspection. ‘Course if you do you go to the back of the line. Can’t guarantee where that’ll be.”
Some people delivering that kind of line just looked bored and indifferent. Gordon Abdullah Jr. looked genuinely annoyed. I opened my mouth to respond, but something stopped me from sealing our sit-in-berth-with-cargo-getting-rotten doom.
Someone really wants those bananas.
Jem’s snide little comment took on new life. What if…
“I’m sorry, Inspector,” I said much more politely. “Sometimes the hatch controls just act up and I can fix it fast. I really don’t want to deny inspection.”
He made a show of looking at his watch. He must’ve guessed I had the entrance cam online. “Well, hurry it up. I’ll be back in ten minutes.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, keeping all sarcasm carefully at bay. I released the comm and opened David’s toolbox for the all-purpose repair tape. “New idea, Jem: we’re going to let him in.”
“So I gathered.” Her voice was ironic. Amazing how Human she could sound. “You got a reason or just changed your mind?”
“Yes,” I said, beginning to wrap the damaged hydraulics. “Do you still have the video cache of the cargo loading?”
“For ninety days after delivery notification,” she said. “Why?”
“Find the position of the last crate,” I said, eyeing my patch job dubiously. Jake might’ve done a better job, but it could probably repressurize. “Sam and I are going on a little hunt.”
Mr. Gordon Abdullah Jr.’s mood had not been sweetened by being kept waiting. “Amazing how fast your repairs went.”
Little discoveries could really do wonders for one’s patience, I decided.
“I had incentive,” I said. I handed him the cargo docs and headed aft. “By the way, I met an Abdullah in Ecuador loading this cargo. Guy named George. Relative of yours?”
“It’s a common name,” he said, right on my heels. Obviously not too interested in his inspectorly duties when it came to reading our official paper trail.
Nope. He was probably a lot more interested in what was tagging along. Something I was willing to bet was all Cousin George’s doing. Or maybe it was Uncle George.
I’d always been a little obsessive about keeping the hold neat, even down to sweeping the deck. Everything was in order, which made the one exception stand out like a sore thumb. Abdullah was a little slow. It took him at least thirty seconds to notice it.
He marched down the military-straight row to the crate Sam and I had left artistically askew and stabbed a stubby forefinger at the iridescent band circling the dull gray metal. “Seal’s broken,” he announced ominously. “This one’s confiscated. Everything else has to be verified before offloading.”
No surprise there. “We haven’t stopped since Earth,” I countered, pointing at the pad in his hand. “My buyer’s already planning to sign the waiver for it.”
“Buyer?” Abdullah’s left eye definitely twitched. Buyers had the right to be present when confiscated crates were unloaded at customs. It kept inspectors a little less likely to walk off with expensive goodies like Earth-raised bananas. Or exotic pets. “Who’s your buyer?”
I almost grinned. Abdullah was as guilty as sin. Government jobs must not be paying too well on Kendahal these days. “Pete Graham. Ivory Coast Imports.” My comm buzzed right on cue. “And that’s probably him.”
“You’re never going to get away with this,” Jem said in my ear.
“Yep, inspector’s here,” I said into the comm. “He’s taking the unsealed crate.”
“You’re a terrible actor,” Jem said.
“He just started. If you’re almost here you can talk to him,” I said to Nonexistent Pete. “Five minutes? Great.”
Abdullah had his comm out now and was speaking rapid-fire-something-that-wasn’t-English into it. “This crate is impounded,” he took a brief break to say. “You’ll have to send your buyer to the main office if he wants to witness.”
This time I couldn’t quite stop a small grin. “Yes sir. I’ll let him know.”
It only took two hours to be released from customs. A world record for any world.
I leaned against the conversation pit doorframe, watching Sam blissfully contemplating our newest acquisition. The big blond tarantula didn’t look quite as thrilled, but this high-tech containment bubble was still working and the spider was harmless in spite of it’s threatening posture. I wondered what Mr. Gordon Abdullah Jr. was going to do with his two squashed tarantulas in their deactivated bubbles.
I also wondered what caused the two cages to fail. Maybe Sam really was going to be keeping his temporary new pet in a bucket until we could profitably unload it.
Taking the datapad from my pocket, I finally hit ‘send’ on the message I had written to David as Pete Graham was signing precious credits into our account.
Cargo delivered safely, Dearest. Coming to bail you out.
The Art Gallery - 1,562 Words
I love beautiful things, and that is the reason that I came to the gallery that day. My grandmother wanted to view a fine collection of paintings by some of the famous artists of our time, and while I do not enjoy art for itself, I love beautiful things.
Despite the number of persons filling the long hall there was that sense of awe very high ceilings and muted conversation always give me, and I smiled to be part of it. Smooth wooden floors, still shining gallantly though the number of feet treading them had passed count many years ago, reflected the heavens through the skylights that spanned most of the vaulted ceiling.
Small knots of people drifted from one piece to another along the walls. A couple of Fashionable young ladies squired by one or the other’s beau, whispering and giggling together as if unable to contain their excitement for life; a bespectacled elderly gentleman bending closely as he dared to view brushwork; a matron of eminently respectable proportions sailing slowly and majestically without haste or rest, her hands clasping an exquisite reticule of beadwork so fine it must have taken an exquisitely small needle to apply them. Two small children clung to their mother’s hands and looked about them with round eyes. I had done much the same myself many years ago. Three young men with disarranged hair, loosened collars, dusty boots and brightly colored waistcoats were holding a hushed but animated conversation over one painting in particular about the relative merits of the Avant-Garde versus Classicism. Had I understood enough to join in, I do not believe they would have noticed the lack of introduction but would have enfolded me into their argument and continued on.
Grandmother’s hand tightened on my arm as we gave these gentlemen a wide berth, avoiding gesturing limbs.
“Young people’s fashions are so queer nowadays,” Grandmother whispered, none too quietly. “You might not think it, but a gentleman would have been laughed out of polite society for entering company with his collar undone and his boots dusty in my youth. I must admire such fine waistcoats, however.”
I smiled. A fine waistcoat had redeemed many a young man’s fashion in my grandmother’s eyes.
Her hand felt light on my arm, trembling with the palsy old age had given her and I looked into her face, searching for the tightening of muscles that denoted fatigue. “Which painting shall we make our object today?”
“I am wishful to see ‘The Lady of Shallot’, my dear. Do you know, your grandfather loved that old poem, though I never understood why. I didn’t care for poetry before my Henry; prose was so much more practical, and never inspired me to giggle at some particularly high flight. The sop some of these poets write! He was a romantic young man though few ever knew it. Jack quizzed him terribly for reciting poetry to me at a picnic one day but I did not even wish to.” She pressed one shaky hand to her heart and I suppressed a smile. Images of my grandfather, of whom I had no personal memory, show a short, careworn man with deep creases at the corners of his eyes, lowering eyebrows that would have done a stern judge proud and very little hair at the temples. Not the figure of romance depicted in the painting we paused at.
Portrayed in brilliant, beautiful color was a knight. I had seen other master artist’s work before, but the use of color delighted me and I took in the verdure of the trees, the sigh of the wind passing through the grass and the skirts of the lady on horseback which seemed to ripple, frozen in time. Looking up to the face of the knight I frowned. A second perusal assured me that the figure in armor was indeed male, the lady of the piece (being made obvious by her flowing locks and skirts) seemed to be in the act of making off with his horse despite his look of patent despair, or perhaps it was an extreme case of bunions, it was difficult to say. Ascertaining the name of this pair as ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ I glanced at my companion, but she was lost in a reverie.
“He wasn’t handsome, your grandfather.” The hand on my arm began to pat gently, absently. “It wasn’t a love match, but love matches weren’t common in those days. Not like you youngsters who think of nothing but romantical nonsense!” She pinched my arm and I laughed.
“Must you lump me in with my generation, dear Ma’am?”
Faded brown eyes crinkled up at the corners, the grey ring around the iris almost disappearing. “What am I to do? Do you tell me you have no romantical notions?”
“None whatsoever. Any such tendency was drummed out of me from birth, as you well know madam.”
My own eyes were all grey, but I knew that they crinkled in much the same manner when I smiled back.
The more paintings we viewed, the more I wanted to frown. The artwork was lovely, colors and lines graceful and the figures depicted were much more attractive than are generally to be met with, but the insipidity in face after face gave me a profound disgust for them. If this was the supposed ideal humanity strove for it had a light mind. Painting after painting marched along the wall, masterfully performed, and yet my scorn grew.
‘The Remorse of Nero’, a piece featuring the Emperor after the murder of his maternal parent; portrayed that contrite gentleman reclining upon a couch with an expression reminiscent rather of a person in the advanced stages of boredom than remorse.
Undine the Water sprite, with an overabundance of hair and an underabundance of clothing, and a great many classical persons in disarranged wrappings appeared to make up most of the exhibition.
It did not take us long to arrive at Waterhouse’s ‘the Lady of Shalott’. This principally figured a lachrymose damsel moping in what might have been a small pleasure boat, high prowed and reminiscent of ancient Vikings. Long hair streamed down over silken garments and the petulant expression upon her classical features would have done justice to a fractious child. She had supplemented her last moments with such a number of shawls, candles and religious paraphernalia that it was a wonder there was room for her. I wished she might pull her draperies out of the murky water. More of a waste of lovely fabric I had not seen.
We had come to a halt before the painting and I had turned my head to favor my grandmother with a pithy opinion of the artist’s idea of trandscendency when I abruptly closed my lips upon it for she stood enraptured. There were actual tears in her eyes as she gazed on the figure in the frame before us. I turned back and gazed more closely at the tragic form. It had not changed; I still beheld a vapid countenance which seemed more to murmur against its fate than ride resolute with brave head held high ‘til the end.
“Why did you wish to see this painting, grandmother?” I put a hand over the trembling fingers on my arm.
“It is so beautiful, is it not?” she whispered. “You cannot know, you cannot understand yet how little one changes with time. Some day you too will look in a mirror and realize you are old, and things you love that you do not actually believe are gone are yet gone. Your grandfather was so young when he recited that poem to me, and never again did he do so but I remember almost the whole of it. There are some moments in time you will remember clearly until you are very old and the moment I realized I loved your grandfather was one of those moments. We had been engaged for a month and I knew he was a good man to marry, but I realized in that moment that I was going to be as happy with him as I had ever been before.”
She leaned closer to the painting. “It may perhaps sound silly to you, such a very melodramatic thing and indeed, I am surprised at myself. You know I am not given to romantic flights, yet it was not the poetry that so inspired me. You see, he did not care if Jack laughed, or even if it appeared affected to sit in a garden and recite verse. Your grandfather looked at me and only me in that moment because he truly wanted my thoughts, my affections, the very best for me and it had nothing to do with poetry or gardens but with a human soul.” There was another pat on my arm. “That is what I wish for you, my dear.”
Her eyes turned to mine, the lines and wrinkles drawn into happiness and I realized in that moment that she was the loveliest woman I had ever seen. Her skin showed the ravages of age, her body was slowly crumpling in upon itself and despite all of this I knew an echo of how she might have felt in that moment. Answering tears sprang to my eyes and I smiled."It is indeed a very beautiful painting, Grandmother.” I said.
Her Secret - 2,816
I’ve never told anyone what happened. I keep the reasons to myself. Many people want to know all the details, but there’s no way I’m talking. Even if I could talk about it…what would I say? There’s no way I can think of to describe waking up in the middle of a nightmare.
One minute I was walking down the sidewalk just yards from school, the next in the back of a van knocked unconscious. When the memories of what took place after that try to surface again, I squelch them. The side effects of those flashbacks aren’t pretty, and I won’t do that to the people I love, not any more.
It happened a long time ago, and I’ve healed somewhat from the injuries both physical and mental. I’m almost eighteen now, out of public school, and away from the public spotlight. There are still days when the flashbacks haunt me, but they’re finally beginning to fade. That’s good, really good. But I’m not entirely sure I’ll ever be able to be the same, there’s no going back to who I used to be.
A big crutch that supported me through my recovery is a boy who knows nothing of who I used to be, or what I went through. I met him after I was found and rescued from my abductors, once I changed my name and moved to a new neighborhood.
He’s the only person who understands me, even though he knows none of my past. I think he just sees the broken person inside, not the strong shell I hide behind. He’s someone I can take refuge in because he doesn’t pity me; so many people just pity me. That’s not what I need, and it drives me crazy.
He doesn’t know it, but when I was in captivity I used to see him walking down the sidewalk to school every morning. I coveted the freedom he had, and wished a thousand times I could get a message to him, just so someone would know where I was. But I never got the chance.
The first day back in a school I was shocked to see him again, but I never worked up the courage to tell him.
Maybe someday I’ll tell him the truth, but not today.
Will slipped his phone into his pocket, turned to look at me. “So, what do you want to do?” I looked up at the trees, budding with new life in the soft spring breeze. There weren’t many trees in our suburban neighborhood, but the silver birches were beautiful.
I’d had a flash back just before Will’s arrival at my house, and the adrenaline surge had left me wanting to move, distract myself. “Uh… why don’t we go up to the park?”
Will nodded, pulling car keys from his pocket. “You got it.”
“What was your day like?” I asked him.
He sighed. “A little tiring, lots of busy and cranky customers. Yours?”
I bit the inside of my lip. “Uh…fine.” It wasn’t a good time to mention the plastered on makeup I’d applied to hide the signs of crying.
I saw him staring at me even though I didn’t look back; he knew something was up with me. “You sure?”
I nodded. “Sure.”
Merely remembering that I’d had a flashback was threatening to put me into another one. “Mom and I went shopping with Rory for her prom dress.”
He raised an eyebrow, opened the car door for me. I smiled; always the little things. “How’d that go?”
I slid in, waiting for him to join me. “It was…an adventure,” I said, “Rory and mine’s taste is very different.”
Will started his truck and we started rolling down the street. “I’m guessing you’re still washing off the residual glitter from the dresses she tried on.”
“Yeah.” Reflexively, I brushed at my arms.
Will smiled, turning the corner and the jungle—gyms came into view. I’d whiled away many days reading to distract myself on playgrounds like that one, until I met Will. I’ve learned that being alone is just a breeding ground for the flashbacks, being alone leaves someone to their thoughts and these days my thoughts aren’t used to normal life yet.
The truck stopped and we both got out. It wasn’t long before we were sitting on the usual spot, dangling our feet of the edge of a bridge, hands resting just inches apart. Sometimes I wished he would reach over and touch my hand, other times I dreaded it. Little things like that—unexpected gestures—had sent me into flashbacks before.
I sucked my lip through my teeth; he couldn’t know what I was fighting back at that moment. The dark clouds scuttling across the sky with the threat of rain, the smell of pine mulch that had just been laid, and the chill in the air were all reminding me of a day back in my captivity. Going out that day hadn’t been a good idea after all.
“Talk to me Ray,” Will said, “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said in a voice I thought sounded convincing, “I’m just—tired.” I could feel his sea-gray eyes boring through me as he debated believing me or not. There was no getting around him, he saw right through me…almost.
“You don’t have to tell me,” he said at last, “but I know something’s up.” he left it at that, but changed the subject with effortless ease I admired. “So I’m making dinner tonight, you want to come over?”
“What’cha cookin’?” I asked dubiously.
I gasped. The smell of cooking fish that wasn’t there filled my nostrils. The walls of the room that had confined me rose around me. I was thirteen and starving again, smelling the fish cooking from the kitchen. The burning rings of chaffed skin around my wrists ached anew, my stomach cramped with hunger. I screamed as I felt the terror welling up inside me, stumbled off the edge of my footing and came up hard against something uneven.
He dropped to the ground next to me, only was graceful enough to land on his feet. “Ray, what did I—what happened?” he took my hand, I scrambled back from him. He wasn’t Will anymore, he’d transformed into the pock marked face of my captor; the beady eyes the color of rotting squash, the chronic sneer.
“Please leave me alone! Let me go home!” I screamed. I was trapped in my cell again. The eyes changed, sea-gray. It was Will again, sitting half back on his heels.
I was rocking back and forth, hands cupped over my head. If I was aiming for an on the verge of a mental breakdown image, I’d succeeded brilliantly.
“Ray I’m not going to hurt you. What’s wrong?”
I pulled at the buttons on my collar. I needed air. “Give me a minute.” I scrambled to my feet, paced around the uneven playground. I repeated the words that I’d drilled into myself after many-a flashback;
My name is Ray Bronson. I’m seventeen years old. I live in Bow Washington. I used to live in Seattle. I was kidnapped when I was twelve. I was found after a year. The men who held me are in prison, they will never be released. They can’t hurt me anymore. I am perfectly safe…I’m perfectly safe.
I don’t feel perfectly safe. I added.
Will was standing at the spot I’d fallen when I returned, a somewhat calmer version of the basket case that had parted from him seconds ago. He waited for me to speak, but I could sense his anxiety pulled tight like a bowstring. He’d never seen me like that before, and I hoped he never would again, but he already had and now he wouldn’t forget. There was no skirting my way around what had happened, around the side of me I’d let him see.
“I—“ I stuttered. How would I explain it? When I remained silent for more than a minute Will tentatively reached out, placed a hand on my shoulder. A bit of warmth spread to my shaking shoulders before he withdrew his hand, I wished he wouldn’t have moved away.
“I’m—not what you think I am Will.”
His brows twitched a frown. “I know who you are. Maybe that’s more important.” I stared back at him, my breath beginning to even out.
“You still don’t know what I am, Will.”
“Do I have to know?”
“You should.” he waited as I made up my mind. If he was anyone else I would have felt pressured to talk and break the silence, but not with Will. He was drawing back, giving me space to think. I knew if I decided not to talk he would let it go, but I also knew he’d never forget. The knowledge that he would remember my breaking down would nag at me, and always be a wall between us.
“You’re not going to tell me.”
The name tumbled free of my lips. “Angela Connor.”
Will’s eyes narrowed, he wasn’t seeing the significance of a random name I’d spewed out, or how it related to our conversation. I watched with silent dread as his eyes searched the empty space between us; he recognized the name, and it was only seconds before he placed it.
His head came up. “That was you?”
“Yeah. So now you know.”
Will called my bluff. “You wanted me to know.”
“No I didn’t! I would have told you if I did.” I felt my face heating as my anger rose; he wasn’t making this easy for either of us.
He stepped closer. “Ray, I know you. You wanted me to know, you were just afraid that I’d treat you differently if I knew.”
Tears were streaming down my cheeks, and I sounded twelve years old again when I said, “No…I—I didn’t—want you to—“ the memories of what happened were streaming across my mind, memories I’d worked hard to forget, but he was right and I knew it. He stepped back.
“You’re so stubborn.”
“I’m trying not to be.”
“Changing the subject won’t change anything Ray.”
“I don’t want anything to change between us; I like things how they were.”
Will starred. “Ray, things aren’t ever going to be the same unless you’re honest with me. Don’t you see? I’ll never be able to forget that, I can’t just—un-see what just happened.”
“Try to forget it,” I said, “I want you to.”
“You’re not making this easy.”
“Neither are you.”
“What do you want me to say?”
“I want you to be honest.”
I took a purging breath before speaking. Whenever I was angry I said things without thinking. I didn’t want to make that mistake with Will. “Okay…I don’t want things to be different, I am afraid that you’ll look at me differently.”
“But that’s not the only reason you haven’t told me, is it?”
Why did he have to be so smart?
“No, it’s not.”
I starred at the mulch strewn across the playground, looking anywhere but at Will. “What’s the real reason?” he asked with perfect candor.
I swallowed. “You saw me—back then when I was—“my voice broke off in a vocal spasm. “Every morning when you walked to school with your mom.”
Will just stared at me; any other person would have seen a blank stare, almost bored. But I knew him well enough to see the wheels turning behind his impassive features. “I—don’t remember,” he said, “I would have remembered you.”
“The green colonial.” I told him.
“The dog barked every time you passed by.”
“The German shepherd with three legs?” his voice was almost lighthearted, remembering his childhood. But he hadn’t yet connected the dots to complete the story.
He would soon.
I nodded as the knots tightened in my stomach. “Yeah, that one.”
A smile ghosted across his features. “Yeah, I remember it. I used to practically run by every time, that dog wanted to tear my head off—“ his lips parted, “There was a girl in the window too…I always noticed…she was…”
I didn’t realize tears were flooding down my cheeks until my shirt felt wet. I pulled my knees close to my chest and nodded, but no sound issued from my trembling lips. Unless it was the moan stifled in my jeans.
“No, this is hurting you.”
I shivered. “You wanted to know. Now you’re going to know it all.”
“Then tell me and get it over with.”
“Don’t you get it?” I burst out, “I was the girl in the window. That’s the house my kidnappers…held me…while they…they…”
The color drained from Will’s face. “I saw you…every day.”
“It’s not your fault.”
“I knew there was something wrong with you. I never said anything to anyone.”
“You couldn’t have known.”
Will stood up, pacing without direction. “So—I could have—I could have saved you all those years ago.”
“Don’t do this Will; you’ll just tear yourself up.”
His chest heaved, tears filling his eyes. “How long have you known? That it was me, I mean.”
I scrambled to my feet. Looking up at him like that felt like I was on trial.
“The first day of school, when the teacher introduced me to class. When you said hi to me I was so petrified I didn’t know what to say.”
“I thought you were just nervous.”
I swallowed the growing lump in my throat. “That’s one way to put it. I’d just gotten my life back, and my new identity. When I saw you I was sure you were going to recognize me and undo everything.”
Will shook his head. “I can’t believe I didn’t recognize you.”
We fell into silence that grew uncomfortable.
Not speaking grew to deafening heights.
It was clear Will was struggling with this, and I couldn’t blame him. We’d gone from talking about to dinner to this. Everything he thought he knew about me had just changed, and as much as he wouldn’t admit it…he would never look at me in the same way.
His hand quietly slipped into mine. “I’m sorry I put you through this Ray. It couldn’t have been easy for you; keeping this from me.”
“All these years I tried to tell you a million times. It just never seemed to—“ my words broke off in tears, but this time they were tears of relief not pain.
He finally knew.
“What’s going on in your head?” he asked.
I looked up, blubbering ridiculously. “I don’t know. You?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know either.” His hand around my shoulders drew me close, leading us back toward the car.
“Well, as long as neither of us knows…I guess it’s a good thing we’re in it together.”
I rolled my eyes. “That’s optimistic.”
“Now… we’ll have to have some rules.”
I looked up. “Rules?”
“Yeah, you have to tell me what subjects not to bring up, and what not to do.”
“That could be difficult.” I said.
The reality of my mental instability caused physical pain. “Well—I usually don’t know what sets it off until someone says—or does it.”
“I can see how that might complicate things.” Will admitted.
I laughed vaguely at the delivery.
“Okay, let’s start laying the groundwork.” He said cheerily.
I groaned inside.
“Rule number one…” Will started off, eyes roving this way and that, “okay, rule one; if I start going in a bad direction, you have permission to kick me.”
I guffawed before I had a chance to govern myself. “Me? Kicking? With my balance?”
His features twitched. “Yeah…you have a point there. Well—do you have any ideas?”
I thought a moment, wishing I could match his wit.
Not going to happen.
“How about…” I started, “how about we just take it day by day?” We were at the truck now and he stopped, leaned up against the passenger door.
“Sounds good to me.”
“Am I still invited for dinner?” I asked.
He smiled. “Are you up for the—never mind, I’ll make something else.”
I quailed faintly, but determined I wasn’t going to have the third flashback of the day; I concentrated on all the good things that had happened. I’d tried this practice many times before, without success, but for some reason I couldn’t yet understand…this time it worked.
The good things hadn’t been many, but there were enough.
Every day from then on, the days got better, and the flashbacks fewer.
For a long time we both walked on eggshells, and I won’t try to deny that things were tricky.
Neither one of us had a clue what to do, and made things up as we went.
But somehow we made it through every day, and every day since then.
The Wish - 2,997 words
My prayers haven’t stopped since I slipped out the gate without hearing the warning bell toll. In Stonegate, everyone abides by the rules. Everyone, but me.
A far off rumble sends my heart skittering. I strain to see but the ail berries only provide a small bubble of light. I long for the day, anything but the darkness that’s been my companion for the last several hours.
The normal path through Mason Wood is difficult during the day with its hidden ditches ready to fall out from under foot and the overgrown tree branches reaching to grab unsuspecting travelers.
The road begins an upward curve. Not long now.
A jagged bolt of lightning crosses the sky, illuminating the imposing hill. The castle of St. Johns once brought comfort and hope to the people of Stonegate. Now its foreboding shadow is something whispered of at the pubs and street stalls. Its ancient walls are tainted by Lord Dain’s evil.
I trip on a rock and graze my knuckles against a sturdy oak. The thick tree doesn’t seem to notice the disturbance but my hand doesn’t fair as well. I fish a handkerchief out from my pack. The sloppy bandage will have to do. I’ll need my hands for climbing soon.
A raindrop splashes off the tip of my nose, followed by dozens more. The rainwater streaks down my cheeks like Alea’s tears. She’s probably still crying. She doesn’t think Gavin’s worth the risk.
I tug my hood down further and adjust my quiver before continuing on. The quiver’s an old thing with rotting leather straps that are always slipping from my shoulders but I can’t bring myself to part with the familial comfort.
It’s gotten too steep for walking and I have to maneuver around a boulder to continue. If it were easy, everyone would be collecting the reward promised by the king. A single wish for anything in the kingdom.
As I grip the next rock, a furry creature scurries across my fingers. I bite back a scream. If Gavin were here he’d laugh as he shooed it away. His warm laugh makes my fears easier to bear.
My makeshift bandage is already wet through and the berries are dim from the soaking. The path grows thinner and unkempt from disuse. Mother speaks often of days of old, when a wide road allowed traders to bring their carts to the noble households within the castle.
I use my bow to clear away knotty spider webs tangling blocking my way. Lord Dain doesn’t need a clear path. Rumors say he doesn’t even walk.
There’s a green glow emanating from the castle which brightens as I get closer. I pocket the berries. Clouds fill the sky and the driving rain becomes stronger.
Shrill cries fill the air. I count seven. I drop to a crouch with my back to a boulder and nock an arrow to my bow. It’s too late to turn back. The house of Waysmith aren’t known for cowardice. Our faith has been ridiculed but it remains strong. Lord Dain will never expect a true believer to come. He doesn’t even know we exist anymore.
Glowing eyes appear in front of me. I roll to the side as a creature so black it’s almost invisible dives toward my hiding spot.
It circles around, talons outstretched and beak open in delight. I run from my cover, weaving in and out of the scrubby trees narrowing my path. The gate isn’t far. More birds fall in behind me but I shoot a warning arrow to make them break formation. They cackle, thinking they’ll have an easy meal tonight. Underestimating me is the last thing they’ll do.
I find shelter under a bush with thick branches. I unearth a fistful of ail berries, grateful I packed so many.
The creatures call to each other. They’ve found me. I tense, waiting for my chance to test their weakness.
The leader is almost on top of me when I slide out of the tangled shelter and toss the berries at it. The effect is immediate. It squeals, wings beating the air as it drops back. The others flap in confusion and it gives me the chance I need. I send two arrows into the cluster of dark writhing bodies.
In the confusion, two are downed and their caws go from those of the hunters to the hunted. I take a deep breath. The moment of truth. My father believes it’ll work. There’s no one in Stonegate with as much faith. Unfortunately, his legs would never carry him through Mason Wood.
I run in a half crouch toward the wall with my hand outstretched. I’m stopped hard a few feet before I reach it. The barrier. I press my body against it. The electricity turns sharp and I grit my teeth, refusing to pull away.
The shrieks behind me are deafening. They’ll have me in seconds.
Then I’m through.
Their cries of alarm are muffled beyond the glow surrounding me. They call out their surprise and disapproval but don’t come after me. I’m already moving toward my next challenge.
The castle gate is down but the crumbling wall next to it has several excellent handholds. Coarse black moss creeps through all the gaps in the stones.
The vegetation near the top is the slipperiest. I almost fall twice. The second time, I pause and touch the silver cross lying next to my heart. It once belonged to my great grandfather, a man of courage greater than I could dream of.
My fingers tingle. When I flip it over, green leaves curl out from the middle of my palm. My heart lurches in disbelief.
I put my hand against the wall and the greenery smothers the plants of death. The sturdy new growth is easy to hold onto.
I slide down the other side and drop into the courtyard. Debris from a time long past fill up the space. Rocks and old household items crack underfoot as I move forward. The green glow makes everything appear pitted and in shadow. I don’t want to look at the empty houses, afraid of what I’ll see lurking inside.
A specter slithers out of the path in front of me. Its eye sockets are sunken pits of darkness. A wispy beard winds down its skeletal jaw line to a mouth, yawning open to reveal rotted teeth. I stumble back, the vines moving with me. Cold wind catches the moan escaping its lips a second before the rising mist claims it. The torso disperses across the cobblestones. The eyes are the last to vanish.
More specters appear as I move toward the castle entrance but they’re dissipated out by my vines. I mutter a prayer of thanks for grandfather’s gift.
I keep an eye on the castle turrets as I mount the stairs and try to open the double doors. They don’t budge. Within seconds, vines spread through the hinges and locks. With a resistant groan and a few puffs of red smoke, they open.
The interior glows but it isn’t welcoming. Furniture litters the space like an old graveyard but cobwebs haven’t touched any of it. In the middle of the room stands a figure.
The prince’s pointed features are distorted in the light. His arms are pinned to his sides and he stares through me.
I don’t feel it at first but when it hits, I gasp. Shockwaves buzz to my core as if someone has sliced through my soles. Now adjusted to the light, I see tiny thorns covering the floor. My boots aren’t strong enough to protect me. I freeze as red blossoms against nature’s needles.
Fear as tiny and sharp as the thorns tears at my middle. I have to get to Gavin.
I reach back for the door handle but it’s gone and smoke is rising from the ground. Thick despair threatens to choke me before the smoke can. The leaves by my feet have withered after contact with the thorns and the few left are stained with blood.
Then, I hear singing.
The first notes are so faint, I almost think I’ve imagined them. I strain to hear more. They aren’t part of my imagination. The pain fades a little and a smile tugs at my lips.
The prince’s mouth barely moves as he speaks. The smoke hasn’t disappeared but with the few notes, strength seeps back into me. “And the little faithful girl,” I whisper, “she’s a comin’, she’s a comin’, to keep our lands free…”
The wilting leaves begin to unfold. Then they grow.
“Keeps her courage, won’t lose a fight, because she can see.”
When I step forward, the ground is like a carpet under me.
The prince is at the top stair of the dais. Unlike the village boys I tower over, I’m looking up to him. Many say the royals’ height comes from their bettered nutrition.
The darkness fades, replaced by the shimmery light of the vines. Singing the last verse, I move toe to toe with the prince and put my palm against his chest.
The air comes alive with a terrible scream. The prince trembles but his gaze fixes on me. The noise cuts out and the prince falls against me. We land on the ground and Prince Janis digs his elbow into my side and lets out a whimper.
“Prince Janis. Prince Janis.” I push him off me and onto his side. He’s cut his arm against the sharp stones but the protective vegetation has prevented further injuries. My feet are on fire.
“You…” his eyelids flutter. He’s trying to shake the sleepiness away.
“You must wake up. I’m here to bring you back to your kingdom.”
“How came you by this place? There’s powerful evil surrounding it.” His skin is pale from castle life unlike Gavin’s tanned complexion.
I struggle into a sitting position. “Do you have the strength to stand?”
“I will not go with you.” He scrambles away from me, his hand sliding to his waist where his jeweled dagger should be. “You are another evil being.”
“I’m Gavin’s friend. I will not hurt you.” The song’s gone quiet. Cold fear roots in my stomach. “He sang to guide our way. I must find him.”
“Aria.” The prince focuses on the quiver hanging off my arm. “Gavin spoke of you. He prayed you wouldn’t come here.”
“I must find him.”
Prince Janis’ eyes widen. He’s staring at the leaves curling up my pant legs. “You have the gift.”
“You will be protected if you stay here. I have to find Gavin.”
The singing wouldn’t have reached us from further within the castle. My attention catches on a staircase leading up into a dark turret. The way up is narrow and unsturdy but the vines weave into formation and I limp up safely.
The dank room at the top would be pitch black if not for my vines. Gavin is slumped against the wall, his chin resting against his chest as the muttered words of the song continue to flow from him, almost too quiet to hear.
I drop to my knees by his side. He raises his head with noticeable effort. “Aria.” He coughs. “Why did you come?”
“I did it,” I say breathlessly. “I used my ability. Lord Dain’s spell can be broken.”
The greenery breaks away the shackles on Gavin’s ankles. I wrap my arm around his solid waist. I’m never this close to him. His weight against me is a reminder of how drained he is. My anger at Lord Dain ignites hotter than ever.
“The prince?” he asks.
“He’s safe. Now we need to get home.”
Gavin’s gasps increase as we make our way down the stairs. The prince is where I left him in the next room, perched on the steps and rubbing his face like he’s in a daze. I try not to think of the journey ahead or my seeping feet.
“He knew who I was,” I say as I tighten my grip on Gavin. He brings us to a stop, faltering as he shifts to look at me.
“Dain won’t let this go. He’ll come after us with a vengeance.”
“He took the prince. He’s declared war.”
Gavin’s smile doesn’t reach his eyes. “The king will use your gift to fight him.”
“But it’s worth it.” I can’t contain my excitement. “He’s offered a reward.”
I frown. “He believes a man will come. No, his reward is a wish.”
“Don’t you realize this is the king’s trap? One designed to find a gifted believer?” Gavin’s forehead furrows and his chin tremors. Why is he afraid?
At first I think Gavin is falling but then I’m in his arms. He pushes my head against his tunic, pinning me to him. I try to wriggle away. A water droplet hits my forehead and slips down my cheek and I go still.
“It was foolish, Aria.”
Gavin’s words are stickier than the mud claiming my feet. He looks better today, only bearing a few of the cuts from the previous days rescue.
“You risked too much.” He’s several steps away but neither of us close the distance. I want to tell him I’m alright but the words won’t come.
“I couldn’t forgive myself,” I say finally. “I couldn’t let you die. You would never have left me.”
“If you weren’t strong enough, Lord Dain’s traps would’ve killed you.”
“If you stayed, there’d be no one to care for your family.” I bite my lip. “I won’t let that happen.”
“There are worse things for my brother than taking on my servitude.” Gavin’s jaw tightens. “Though I would not want it on his children.”
“I don’t want it on you!” The wind catches my hair and flame colored curls distort my sight. Gavin moves forward, his fists clenched at his sides. He’s retied my hair hundreds of times. Never again.
“It is not about your wants for me.” Gavin’s mouth tugs up to the side, pulling tight across the scar lining his upper lip. How many injuries has he amassed from rescuing me that I don’t even know about. Back then, I was just a child.
“You always take on the worst.” A warm tear trickles down my cheek. My body always betrays me. “For once, I wanted to protect you.”
“But at what cost? Your family will be cared for but you’ll be nothing better than the puppet of the king. The fighting symbol of his army.”
“It is a cost I will pay.”
He’s closer now. He pushes a square of simple brown fabric into my hand, careful to avoid any touch. “Do not waste your wish. You will be given anything, including freedom from this fight.”
“It would be childish to refuse Prince Janis. It’s a reward I would never have expected, especially after still agreeing to grant my wish.”
“And it would also be childish to believe the king wishes anything but a pawn.” Gavin’s jaw ticks. “I would gladly have taken my end in the evil castle than for this.”
“And I would rather see the end with my family protected and yours freed.” If only my words could give me strength.
“If that is what you truly want,” Gavin replies, a deep sincerity in his gaze which pierces my heart even more, “then you did well.
It’s been hours since Gavin left. I stand in the street, their drabness blinding after my visit to the king’s court. Even so, I would give anything to stay.
I hate Gavin leaving before the sun wakes to fulfill his servitude to the prince. The bargain was his father’s and yet his father passed the summer after, leaving his son to live out the promised sixty years enslaved to the king’s household. Gavin was of noble birth and would be still if not for his father’s debt.
Prince Janis hadn’t shown any reaction when his father announced he’d be marrying his savior. He understood that we were both pawns the same as I.
My wish remained unclaimed. My one chance to escape the marriage. The king wouldn’t dare refuse my request. Gavin and I could remain friends. His days at the castle would grow longer and soon, he’d find a woman to be the companion I longed to be.
“Aria.” Alea appears beside me, a shawl tucked across her frail shoulders. “You’re half frozen. You must come in.”
“You must rest.” She tugs my arm. “You can think in your warm bed by the fire better than here.”
I can’t tear my gaze away from the castle. “I’m going to go.”
She stares. “You...you won’t marry him.”
I don’t wait for her to say more. She calls after me but I’m already running.
I’m brought in right away. The long hall is more frightening than Lord Dain’s castle.
“My child, you’ve returned so quickly.” The king beckons me forward, his expression eager.
“Please grant my wish.”
His brow furrows. “You have decided already. Speak and I will give it.”
“Gavin.” The words are thick in my throat but I choke them out. “I want his freedom. The freedom of his household.”
The king’s heavy silence lasts for several heartbeats. “A kingdom or wealth at your bidding and your request is his freedom?”
My wish involves a man other than his son. I won’t make any excuses. I have no reason to defend what I’ve done.
“Will you grant my request?”
The king moves to raise my chin. There’s a new interest on his face. Perhaps he now finds his weapon of war a bit more fascinating. “It is the wish of my son’s future wife and savior. I will be more than happy to grant it.”
The prince’s wife. I will become his before I feel the summer wind in my hair again.
But Gavin is free. My quest is complete.