Therefore I Am

I haven’t done a Flash Fiction Challenge in a really long time and wanted to get back in the game. We had to choose a random sentence* from a list and use it in a 1,000 word story.

         I tried to hide the revulsion in my eyes as I wiped the dribble of saliva from his chin. Stubble flecked his cheeks where the Carers had missed. I wondered if he was somewhere else in his mind—somewhere nice. Maybe he relived his greatest successes or humble beginnings. I hoped he was staring into the moment where everything ended, the start of my personal hell.

I.

It was supposed to change the world—the sharing of consciousness. A chip implanted behind your ear translated your thoughts into layers of complex code that could be relayed to others. They marketed it as MindMeld and the first ads read like a science-fiction dating app. But popularity grew and the first inklings of the capabilities rippled through the techsphere. MindMeld became the next “it” thing—opening the doors to other technologies powered by your brain. The iCorp conglomerate pounced and soon you could calibrate your mobile devices to MindMeld. The usual anti-tech groups protested—it was turning us into robots, stealing our thoughts, our souls, our individuality. The programmers ignored them, the marketing campaigns mocked them, and soon even they were silenced.

II.

Caleb convinced me to get ours done together. “It’s the future, Macy!”
I asked him if he was worried about not having any secrets—about the total lack of privacy. He took my hands the way he always did when I was nervous and rubbed his thumbs across my knuckles and said I don’t have any secrets from you. It seemed sweet—the tech at the clinic said it was romantic.

III.

With MindMeld, you could shake someone’s hand at a networking event and they could download your resume and work history. It would be stored in the individual’s ThoughtCloud and could be accessed later. There were more intimate uses for it, too—dating profiles or personal ads. The privacy settings were unmatched, they said. You had to have permission to MindMeld with someone through a series of specially tailored, unique thought commands. When the advertising potential was fully realized, there were certain “public” zones where advertisers had limited access. Times Square was one of the best examples—information from billboards downloaded directly to your cloud. They lauded it as the greatest technology invented; its uses were universal: medical, social, financial.

No one knew that our privacy settings were as sturdy as tissue paper in a hurricane. MindMeld underplayed the extent of the breaches—isolated incidents, insufficient caution on the part of the user. We believed it. We didn’t know how to live without the constant, instant exchange of information, thoughts, feelings. The first hackers took the basics—bank information, nude photos, government secrets. Then came the Miners. They took memories, experiences—your fifth birthday, the way a first kiss felt, the sound of your grandmother’s voice. At first they asked ransoms—how much was your memory worth to you? But, once the door was opened, there was no stopping it. They took weeks, months, and years. They took your power of speech, your sense of smell, the ability to see color, and MindMarket was born. Don’t like your past? Change it. Want to replace bad memories with good? Switch them. Memories themselves became currency.

IV.

Caleb and I updated passwords, paid for extra firewalls, but with the same attitude you put up a “Beware of Dog” sign when you only own a cat. We believed that as long as we took the recommended precautions, it wouldn’t happen to us. We enjoyed the ability to communicate just how much we loved each other without words. He loved me like the sunset we’d watched together in Mikonos. I loved him like the feeling of waking up on a Saturday morning with the sunlight streaming.

Have you ever dreamed that someone you loved had amnesia? That they looked at you with blank eyes and had no memory of the years you spent together? When you wake from your nightmare you shake them until their eyes open and, even blurred with sleep, you can see that they know you. Until it takes them a minute to remember you, then ten, then—nothing. This is what happened when the Miners wormed their way in.

V.

It took a month to reduce Caleb to the wide-eyed, slack mouthed shell of the man I loved. He had been “mined”—everything that made him Caleb was gone, lost forever. We were in agreement about what to do if it happened to either one of us. It was easier than I thought to let his body go. I’d already said goodbye to his mind.

VI.

The man in the chair deserved no such release. The Carers thought I was a doting relative or a good friend—the way I sat by him day after day. I needed to know he was still breathing. I needed to know he was still suffering. The tubes and wires that pumped nutrients into his body did their job well. He had standing orders to keep his body alive no matter the circumstances—waiting for his mind to be restored. He was the inventor of the original MindMeld, which he aptly called HiveMind. He was fully aware of its destructive potential from the very beginning. His fingers twitched on the chair and a nearly inaudible groan escaped his lips.

The upload was a simple one, started at the beginning of my visit when I activated the MindDrive in my purse. Caleb is gone; the memory we used to share is no longer coherent. But the new memories I gave to the man in the chair were clear. I’d searched for the most excruciating sensations for years. I had burned, drowned, been torn to pieces, and suffocated. I had felt every way there was to die and none of them hurt as badly as watching the life fade from Caleb’s eyes. As I left the room, I knew the upload was successful. From the sound of his screams, he was living out the hell I’d created just for him.

*”The memory we used to share is no longer coherent”

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Reflect

Friday Fictioneers: One photo, one story of 100 words.

© Janet Webb

© Janet Webb

There are things you know you’ll miss—for me it was cheeseburgers, that particular satisfaction of drinking a cold beer after a long day out on the lake. Then there are the people; the ones who grow old and fade away, leaving you alone like the last skeletal leaf clinging to a tree when the snow starts falling. That part was harder, watching parents and friends wither into nothing, into food for worms. They didn’t tell me I would miss my reflection, that I would slowly forget my own face. Sometimes, I’m not certain I exist. Then, I get thirsty.

In the Cards

Chuck’s Flash Fiction Challenge was to “smash” superhero fiction with another genre. I went with Noir and as for my “hero”, you’ll have to decide for yourself.

         The yellowing glass made the street outside look sepia, like a photograph peeling at the corners. Not that anyone would want to capture this place forever, Cas thought, leaning away from the warped window. The shop of curiosities had a stale smell—like the inside of an old tomb where the bones had crumbled into dust. The old man who ran the shop had inherited it from his father, as his father had before him. For all Cas knew, the curio shop had been there when Haven was founded. The old man was in the back sleeping. He slept a lot these days. After the mugging the only escape from the knifing headaches and waking nightmares was a healthy dose of oxy and sleep. Cas understood a thing or two about nightmares. He touched the thick, ridged scar that ran around his neck, blotched purple and red–angry, like a burn. Knotting his scarf around his neck, he retrieved his hat from the head of a dusty cat statue and stepped out into the street, locking the door behind him. Garbage clumped along the outside of the building. It was too dangerous for the so-called civil servants to make it down to the Point these days.
         Something moved on the corner, just at the edge of his sight and Cas tensed. But it was only a cat, a one eyed, ragged tom whose malevolent yellow eyes watched him as he turned his collar up against the wind. Curtains in the barred windows above twitched occasionally. You’d think everyone in the Point was blind by the way no one ever saw anything when a crime was done, but Cas knew that the Point was one of the few places where people saw everything. Cas glanced around before slipping down the stairs into the subway station. The ammoniac scent of urine made his eyes water and he waited for his eyes to adjust to the intermittent flicker of the fluorescent lights. There was no point in checking his watch. The trains stopped keeping to a schedule when half the stations were closed, the other half barely maintained. The Mayor announced new plans for an above-ground tram that would be the height of innovation and safety—“a shining beacon of what is to come for Haven”—but the rusting iron framework for a station near City Hall was the only sign of progress well into his second term. Cas pulled a deck of cards out of his pocket. He shuffled them, tapped them against his hand, and shuffled them again.
         “Hello, Lee,” he said, not bothering to turn his head.
         “One of these days you’ll tell me how you do that.” Lee’s laugh sounded nervous as he crossed the platform to stand next to Cas.
         “How about today?” Cas didn’t look up from his cards, his hands moving almost too quickly, shuffling, straightening, shuffling.
         “Yeah?” Lee’s hands shook as he lit his cigarette, throwing the spent match onto the dirty tiles where it sputtered out.
         Cas turned, meeting Lee’s eyes for the first time. “I thought we were partners, Lee. The last two guys on the force whose hands were cleaner than our consciences.”
         Lee’s eyes widened and his doughy face paled to gray above the red glow of the cigarette. “I don’t know what you mean. We were—are—what’s this about, buddy?”
         “I’m talking about you and Nico Capello. I’m talking about you and a yacht out in the bay with enough coke to sink the Titanic. I’m talking about the Mayor’s above-ground railway project that just so happens to be the perfect mode of transport for all the pies you’ve got your dirty fingers in.” The sharp snap of the cards in Cas’s hands made Lee flinch. “Drugs, human trafficking, stolen goods. You’re a damn fine cop, Lee Marlowe. The citizens of Haven will sleep soundly in their beds knowing a guy like you’s out there protecting and serving.”
         “Cas, come on,” a wheedling note crept into Lee’s voice. “You know me. You know me.”
         “I do, Lee. I know you.” Cas ran his thumb over the edges of his cards and watched his partner’s big shoulders slump in relief. “Do you know what this is?” Cas held up one of the cards.
150px-RWS_Tarot_12_Hanged_Man
         Lee leaned forward, squinting. Cas smelled the rotten tang of his sweat, his barely restrained fear.
         “It’s one of those tarot cards, yeah?” Lee pronounced it like carrot.
         “Tarot. Yes. This is Le Pendu—the Hanged Man.” Cas returned the card to the deck so quickly that Lee blinked.
         “I didn’t know you were into that, whatchacallit, occult stuff,” Lee said.
         “My mother used to deal the cards and tell fortunes sometimes.” Cas said, remembering the last time she dealt for him, when she dealt the Hanged Man. It could mean anything from sacrifice to inner harmony, but for him it was all too literal.
         “You know how I got this?” Cas tugged the scarf away from his scarred neck. “Some of Nico Capello’s guys strung me up one night, left me hanging from the struts of the new construction of the good Mayor’s new railway.”
         Lee’s cigarette hung from his fleshy lips. “I didn’t…. How’d you get away?”
         “I didn’t.” Cas flipped over the next card in the deck. The skeleton with the scythe: La Mort. “I hung there until it all went dark. But, I came back.”

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         Lee’s mouth still hung open when his body crumpled, cigarette fallen to the ground when the tarot card sliced through his neck.
         “I came back, but you won’t.” Cas flicked another card onto Lee’s body. It fluttered to his chest, just below the gash that leaked black blood out onto the grimy tiles. La Justice.

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         Cas hopped down onto the rails. A tremor in the earth signaled a train approaching. He began to whistle as he walked, cards flickering in the dark. It didn’t matter if the train was on time, he thought. Lee wouldn’t need it.

It’s Good to be King

Friday Fictioneers is short and sweet: one photo plus 100 words equals a complete story. As always, we are led by Rochelle. This week’s photo courtesy of Marie Gail Stratford.

chopsticks

         Chaz lounged in his newly-acquired throne, entirely made of tiny ivory sticks, and watched his subjects clear the battle rubble from the room. One body left a deep red smear across the floor as a white-faced man dragged him out by his feet. Three women began scrubbing at the viscous pool. He looked up at the hulking beast that crouched behind his throne. Its yellow eyes followed the bodies out the door.
         “Go on, then,” Chaz said and the beast rumbled away in the wake of the carrion. It’s good to be the Supreme Emperor, he thought with a grin.

I went a little abstract on this one with the chopsticks and Siracha, and less abstract with the idea of superiority.

Bonus story: a sci-fi short about a rebel alliance planning to rebel against a tyrant.

Dirty Secrets

Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge from last week involved tweeting @YouAreCarrying to receive a list of random inventory. This list of items must be integrated into the story in as literal or abstract a way as you want. As usual, my list will be below the story.

         Cale tried to breathe shallowly as he crouched on a narrow ledge in the mouth of the outflow pipe. Slime coated his boots and even though he felt the fresh air ruffling his hair, it did little to combat the foul smell. A rotting apple bobbed by him in the trickle of oil-slicked water and, despite the surroundings, his stomach rumbled in protest. He had eaten nothing in thirty-six hours—not that he’d been hungry stumbling around in excrement and garbage for thirty-two of those hours. Varren should be here by now, he thought. They were supposed to meet here at sundown. He did not want to spend another night cramped and shivering, watching the unnaturally large rodents and wraithlike inhabitants of the canals skitter by. The canals were no place for updwellers like him. It was the only time he was thankful for the stench of rotting food and human waste mixed with the acrid chemical blend dumped down the sewers to “sterilize” the soupy muck—they hid his scent. A clang and a muffled curse echoed from behind him and he peered into the gloom, reaching for the cudgel hanging at his side.
         “Mary, Jesus and Joseph, I’ll not be taking a job like this again without learning a wee bit more about it.” Varren stumbled into view, panting.
         “Saints, you scared me half to the grave, Varren,” Cale said, reaching a hand to pull the heavier man onto his perch.
         Sweat gleamed on Varren’s bare forehead as he set down his lantern and put his hands on his knees, struggling to catch his breath.
         “Oh good, you’ve held onto your lantern.” Cale eyed the heavy brass-cased light. It was slick with sludge like everything else. “Lost mine when I fell somewhere in the west tunnels. Thought I was like to drown.” He shuddered at the memory. Drowning itself was no way to go, but drowning in shit was the stuff of nightmare.
         “Almost lost that bloody drill bit, though.” Varren patted his various pockets, producing a packet of miraculously dry cigarettes, wrapped in oiled canvas. Varren lit both cigarettes and flicked the glowing match into the mire at their feet where the fire was immediately sucked down into the ooze. The tobacco helped take the edge off Cale’s hunger and he inched to the edge of the drainage pipe and leaned out.
         “Nothing,” he said, scooting back into the gloom. “Bloody abandoned us to this shite-hole most like.”
         “Think your brother’d do that?” Varren asked around his cigarette.
         Cale scuffed the toe of one boot against the side of the other, trying to dislodge some of the filth crusted on the leather. His brother wouldn’t leave them, but not because of any sort of blood loyalty. They needed Cale and Varren—despite what his brother said about them. Dash had laughed when Cale joined the rebel Alliance. “Barely old enough to be in trousers and wanting to join the cause to get away from his mum.”
         He called Varren the Lord of Lard and said that if he didn’t eat himself to death, he’d cough into the grave. Cale resented Dash’s ridicule. They were only four years apart and Dash had been the one saying that the rebellion was a hopeless cause, a dream no more enduring than a ring made of smoke—always blowing out a smoke ring and demolishing it with a wave of his hand to prove his point. Fancy words and parlor tricks, that’s all Dash was. Cale saw through Dash’s arrogant smile and flamboyant Rebel speeches and Dash hated him for it.
         “Hear that?” Varren nudged Cale and stubbed out his cigarette.
         Cale felt the low thrum through his boots and it set his molars buzzing against each other. With one hand on the wall, they made their way down the sloping ledge to the mouth of the outflow pipe, sucking in lungfuls of fresh air when they reached the edge.
         “Hello, comrades,” Dash said cheerfully, grinning up at them from his perch in the stern of the hovercraft. “Get in, get in, but keep your muck to yourselves, if you please.”
         Cale waited until the hovercraft held steady and hopped the gap into the bow, feeling the lightweight craft sway slightly beneath his weight. He moved to the far side and braced himself as Varren boarded. The hovercraft dipped slightly before Dash regained control of the tiller. He sent the craft skipping along the top of the reservoir and as the distance from the sewage output grew, the water became almost clear. Not that any amount of money could persuade Cale to drink it. He pulled off his gloves and stuffed them in his pack before shoving both to the side and sitting down on the narrow bench. Something came flying out of the air from the back of the vessel and he deftly caught the aluminum-wrapped package Dash launched at him.
         “Quick fingers, brov,” Dash said with mock approval.
         Cale ignored him, ripping the package open with his teeth and biting into the crunchy mixture of oats, nuts and honey that was pressure-packed into a brick. A full meal, they claimed. He’d eaten three once and still been hungry. Trying to savor the first sustenance he’d had since they set out on their little mission, he eyed Dash. His older brother lounged back in his seat, boots polished to reflect the clouds scudding above them, immaculate blue jacket buttoned up to his throat. They shared a build—tall and lanky—and the same grey eyes but where Dash’s hair matched the rows of gold buttons on his coat, Cale’s was the color of bootblack.
         “Well? How did it go?” Dash asked after Cale and Varren finished their meal bars and passed Varren’s flask of whisky back and forth a few times.
         “There were guards at the Archive, but I got through all right. The stones are held in by a little glue and coal dust—a good dousing and the passage will be open again. Your boys will be able to get out in a hurry, long as they don’t mind the smell.” Varren took another swig from his flask and smacked his lips.
         “You do both smell rather worse than a privy,” Dash said, wrinkling his nose.
         Cale rolled his eyes. One minute his brother was speaking rebel slang like he’d been born in a blue coat, the next their upbringing would come to the forefront and he’d sound like one of the King’s Men.
         “How did it go with you, then, brother dear?” Dash asked.
         Cale shrugged, then saw that wasn’t answer enough for Dash. “The sewers leading from the cells follow the map—your man had it right the first time.” He didn’t say that he knew his brother sent him to slog through waist-high shit for the fun of it.
         “Must check all possible outcomes, mustn’t we?” Dash said, idly steering the hovercraft with one foot on the tiller.
         “Whatever you say, Captain.” Cale slouched down into his seat and crossed his arms, trying not to breath in the smell coming off his clothes. “I’m going to get some sleep before we get back to the compound.”
         Cale considered it a small miracle that he fell asleep with the way Dash flew. Varren shook him awake when they entered the hangar and Dash powered down the hovercraft, hopping over the side and calling back over his shoulder that he expected to see both of them in Command after they washed. Cale’s eyes felt packed with sand and there was a cramp between his shoulder blades, but he hoisted his pack and walked on leaden legs to the cube of showers. He dropped his damp, stinking clothes into the bucket designated for his laundry, thinking they might be better off in a wastebasket. The five minutes of rationed water felt shorter than usual and the lukewarm trickle turned icy after two minutes. He toweled dry and retrieved his belongings from his pack before dropping the canvas bag on top of his discarded clothes. His bunk was in one of the many cubes that honeycombed the walls, accessible by iron rungs set into the walls. The higher-ranked members of the Alliance got the lowest quarters—less chance of losing someone important to a drunken misstep on the ladders. Cale hauled himself up to his cube and barely resisted sinking onto his narrow bunk and going back to sleep. The narrow closet held two blue coats and the rest of his uniform. He dressed and combed his still-damp hair away from his face, tucking the red scarf into the high collar of his coat. He wondered if the rebels intentionally copied the outdated clothing from the Royalists’ ancient history. One of many questions he dared not ask. His dress boots felt stiff, but his others were still coated with muck and he didn’t have time to clean them. He took extra care descending the ladder since the soles were slick from under-use. Varren met him in the corridor, his coat straining over his chest and belly. For all his size, Varren moved lightly—one of many reasons he’d been chosen for their mission.
         “Could’ve used twice the water ration with all that filth,” he said.
         Cale agreed but didn’t say so aloud. They snapped to attention and stepped to the side to allow one of the Captains to pass with a troop of new recruits. Cale eyed them as they passed.
         “Can’t be much more than fifteen,” he said.
         Varren snorted. “You weren’t even that when you joined up. Fourteen, fifteen—what’s it matter. Alliance will send them all off to get killed one way or another.”
         Cale grabbed Varren by the front of his coat and shoved him against a wall, taking his friend by surprise. “Keep talking like that and they’ll shoot you for treason.”
         Varren shrugged him off and quickened his pace; Cale let him put distance between them before trailing him through the warren of tunnels. It amazed him that the Royalists had no idea there was an entire Rebel compound built into the side of the cliffs and stretching underneath the Capitol. They entered Command to see that everyone else was already seated. There was a palatable hum of tension in the air and Cale slid into an open seat at the far end of the table. Varren took the seat next to him, but avoided his gaze. Cale couldn’t tell his friend that he agreed with him. The Alliance was little better than the Royalists, but it took joining up to find that out. Dash stood and dropped something onto the table. The thud silenced the room as all eyes turned to him.
         “Thanks to our loyal comrades,” his eyes flicked briefly to Cale, “We have recovered one of the personal journals of the Emperor from the year of the Purge. It states that the Emperor released infected vermin into the poor quarters of Capitol—effectively killing thousands of ‘undesirables.’” Dash tapped the cover of the book. “This is all we need to take the Emperor down.”
         Cale’s heart sank. That’s what his brother wanted from the Archives—the evidence to wage war against the Capitol itself, to bring it down in a bloody blaze that would earn him eternal glory. Cale’s foray into the tunnels probably provided Dash a way in. Cale stood, ignoring Dash’s glare.
         “What are you going to do? Wipe out an entire city for the crimes of a few?”
         He knew what Dash thought—they chose to be Royalists, none were innocent. Some of the Council murmured in discomfort but no one spoke. Cale stared at the assembled faces in disbelief. Yanking the red scarf from his neck, he threw it onto the table and unbuttoned his coat so quickly that several buttons popped free.
         “You’re not as bad as the Royalists, you’re worse.”
         Dash’s voice echoed through the corridors, shouting his name, but Cale didn’t look back.

My “inventory” from @YouAreCarrying: an apple, a waste basket, a bar of food, a brass lantern, a book, an outflow pipe, a large drill bit, a smoking gun.

The large drill bit was the hardest to integrate naturally and I used the Emperor’s journal for the figurative smoking gun.

Internship at Wolfram & Hart

One photo + one hundred words = one story for Friday Fictioneers.

If you’re unfamiliar with Wolfram & Hart (or the TV show Angel)…shame on you. For the sake of the story, imagine a law firm that serves the needs of all the creatures that hide in dark corners and under beds and in stories told around campfires and you’re there.

 

Photo by Adam Ikes

Photo by Adam Ikes

         Finn jumped back with a yell, upsetting the box of invoices from 2007.
         “What is it?!” Sara, the other intern, clutched his arm.
         “It’s a ram’s head.” Finn began to breathe normally again.
         “I thought sacrifices were done on level 5?” Sara peered around him.
         “They wouldn’t preserve the head if it was a sacrifice,” Finn said, setting the overturned box upright.
         “Let’s find the box and get out of here,” Sara said.
         Finn quickly agreed–he felt like the severed head was watching–they’d be envying the beast if they didn’t get the box of depositions to the Partners before lunch.

**If you like this check out Betwixt and Between for the beginning, serialized story of my own version of supernatural Attorneys at Law.

That World

Friday Fictioneers. One leader to rule them all, one photo (by Claire Fuller this week) to bind them, one hundred words to lead them all and…what? Oh, wrong challenge. We do have a fearless leader who is more than just a figurehead in Rochelle, who captains our venture as we set stories adrift in our online spaces–one hundred words before the mast. Look at the photo, write a story, link it back, and try to read and comment on some others’ pieces as well!

         “Why do we always come to this beach?” Marina whined. “No one ever comes here. It’s boring.”
         Caly sighed, shifting the beach umbrella on her shoulder. She couldn’t help wishing her daughter inherited more of her father’s temperament. Owen always sat placidly and let the storms of their daughter’s tantrums wash over him. Caly remembered him once telling her that was why he loved them.
         She looked up at the statue, covered in lichen and seagull’s droppings and wondered if this was how her many times great-grandfather once felt. Calypso sighed, thinking: Triton had it easy.

 


I’ve seen a lot of things about fairy tales on different forms of social media today so Little Mermaid popped up as soon as I saw this–the Disney Version, not the depressing original.

Paloma

Chuck’s challenge this week was to pick from a list of cocktails and make that the tile of your story. I ended up with a Paloma (unfortunately not in real life) which is a refreshing drink made of tequila, grapefruit soda (or grapefruit juice and club soda) and lime. Paloma also means “dove” in Spanish and I’ve been teaching bartenders across New England how to make it.

         The air outside hung down like a gray curtain, muting the sounds of the waves in the cocooning mist. Candles scattered around the bungalow fluttered fitfully in errant drafts that were determined to claw through the gaps in the walls. Alec lay on the floor staring up at the thatched ceiling. He’d lain there for hours, taking in the tightly crisscrossed patterns until the intricate weaving blurred before his eyes. A dove roosted somewhere beyond the walls, crooning softly to herself. If the damp had not rolled in, the sun would be setting, he thought, lowering itself into the frothing waves, the color of a freshly-sliced grapefruit. He closed his eyes and heard the whisper as the sea brushed her fingers against the sand outside, letting it pull him down into sleep.
         When he woke, it was night. He lifted himself up onto his elbows and looked around the dark room. Several of the candles had gone out, slumping down into pools of spent wax. Standing, he shook out his loose shirt and trousers and padded barefoot towards the door. The wooden door swung open at the slightest tough and he stepped out onto the little porch, the salt-scoured wood rough beneath his feet. He retrieved the glass bottle out of the basket beside the door, and stepped down into the damp sand. When he reached the water, he pulled the cork out of the bottle with his teeth and spat it to the side. The tequila was distilled by the man who ran the little beach bar and restaurant down the shore. He claimed it was the finest in Mexico. Alec had told him it did the trick, and that was what mattered. The salt on his lips from the sea-spray blended pleasantly with the burn as he took a drink, feeling it shoot into his chest before trickling down into his belly. He did not go into the water, but stood at its edge, watching it leave a tracery of silver, like the remnants of spider webs upon the slate colored sand. The clouds hung low, bruised purple against the navy sky, and the moon struggled to push through them, to gaze down upon Alec and his lonely beach.
         The slightest shifting of sand announced her presence, even as the wind carried the scent of her perfume. Floral and spice.
         “Why did you come?” he asked.
         She didn’t answer, reaching for the bottle and putting it to her lips. He watched the muscles of her throat tense, relax, as she swallowed.
         “You don’t need to be here,” he said.
         “You don’t want me here,” she said.
         “I don’t want you.” He took the bottle back and drank.
         She pushed her hair out of her face, it was silver blonde, now, and hung down her back, bright against her copper skin. The light skirt that hung from her hips was wet at the bottom as though she’d emerged from the ocean. She sat down near his feet, just out of reach of the creeping waves and tugged the bottle out of his hand. He looked down at her for a moment before sitting beside her, near enough to reach the bottle and far enough that nothing but their fingers could touch.
         “I’ve missed you,” she said.
         “You’re drinking all my tequila.” He took the bottle back and shoved it into the sand, away from her.
         She grinned at him then, teeth flashing in the uncertain light. “Are you drinking me away, Alec, mio?”
         “If I keep drinking will you go away?” he asked.
         She leaned over until he felt her breath against the side of his neck, felt the feather-light brush of her lips across his jaw. “I will never go away.”
         “Where were you?” he asked. “Was it so dull that you had to come find me here?”
         “Prague, Venice, a few years in Barcelona—I forget.” She rested her chin on the top of her shoulder and looked at him. “I told you, I missed you.”
         “You weren’t lonely.” The tequila sloshed in the half-empty bottle as he tipped it to his lips.
         “No,” she said. “Why do you drink that swill?”
         “This is the best tequila in Mexico.”
         “It’s still tequila.”
         “Ambrosia’s scarce in this part of the world, or hadn’t you noticed, Val, mia?”
         She flinched at the bite in his tone and he was glad to see the hurt in her dark eyes before she turned away, hair falling between them like a veil. “No one exiled you here, Alec. Don’t blame me for your choice.”
         “My choice,” he laughed harshly, sticking the tequila back in the sand. “What other choice was there? You’ve seen the way things are—the way they have become. There’s no place for me out there.”
         “This is no place for you, Alec! Don’t you remember who we were—who we are?”
         “Of course I remember!” They both paused as his voice echoed down the empty shore. He crossed his arms over his knees and rested his forehead on his wrists, his dark hair tumbling around his ears.
         “Do you?” She reached out and touched his shoulder.
         He lifted his head, “Don’t.”
         She pressed her fingers into his skin for the length of a breath before pulling away again. “What’s changed, Alec? Tell me that.”
         He looked at her mutely.
         “People breed, birth and bleed, just as they always have—just as they always will.” Her eyes narrowed. “And you. You hide away in the middle of the jungle and drink like a fool.”
         “Speaking of fools, how is your husband?” Alec asked.
         “Still forging away.” She smirked, showing how little his jibe affected her. “You know how he is, unbending as steel, that one.”
         “You always did think you were clever,” Alec said, reaching for the tequila again.
         “You thought so too, once.”
         “Once.”
         “What would the others think if they saw you like this?” She tried to take the bottle from him, but he held it out of her reach, feeling petty. “You don’t even care, do you?”
         “Is there not enough mayhem on earth for you, Val? Is that why you’re here?” He held up a hand to silence her. “Don’t say again that you missed me.”
         “Must we always do battle, my love?” She caught his hand in hers and pulled it to her mouth, pressing her lips against his fingertips. Her touch burned against his skin, more potent than the tequila. When he did not resist, she put his palm to her cheek and looked at him, eyes blazing. He kissed her and tasted salt.
         The door to the bungalow banged against the frame, and he stirred. The fresh smell of rain and the drumming of water on the thatch were melodic. He ran a hand down Val’s shoulder, tendrils of her hair spread across his chest. She stirred under his touch and nestled closer to him, tilting her head back to look up at him. He kissed her forehead and her nose.
         “I won’t tell anyone,” she said, laughter in her sleepy voice.
         He kissed her shoulder. “Tell anyone what?”
         “That you’re much better than people give you credit for.”
         He laughed and pulled the disheveled sheets around them before joining her in sleep.

________

         When dawn broke, the rain might have never been except for a few errant clouds dissolving where water met sky. Alec was sitting on the porch, peeling a mango when she emerged, swathed in one of the white bed-sheets. She turned slowly for him.
         “You like?”
         “Reminds me of the old days.” He tugged the hem of the makeshift-toga and she sat down next to him, taking a slice of mango.
         They sat and watched the sun rise, water yellow against the flickering blue sea and pale sky. She nudged him with her bare shoulder.
         “You like it here.”
         “Don’t laugh,” he hesitated, ducking his head. “It’s peaceful.”
         She bit her bottom lip and looked at him, failing to stifle a giggle. “You know that’s ridiculous,” she said.
         “I know.” He turned back to the mango, peeling the mottled green and red skin away from the flesh. “Will you stay? For a time, at least?”
         “Last night you told me you didn’t want me,” she said quietly.
         “I was angry.”
         She tugged one of his curls until he faced her and then pulled his face to hers, the cool, sweet taste of mango on her tongue. “One of the reasons I love you, my fiery one,” she said when she leaned away. “I don’t know if I can call you, Alec, if I stay.”
         “You don’t like it?” He tried to look wounded.
         “Were you trying to be ironic? ‘Protector of Mankind’?”
         “And you think ‘Val’ is better?” He asked.
         “It’s short for Valentine.” She smirked. “Besides, Ares is not such an odd name these days.”
         “No?”
         “No. I actually met quite a few Venuses and Aphrodites along the way.”
         “But there’s only one you,” Ares said.
         Aphrodite smiled back.

Disclaimer, this was not at all where I thought this story would go, and I’m glad it did, but if it reminds you of Jim Jarmusch’s “Only Lovers Left Alive”…well…I won’t argue.

Abscess

Friday Fictioneers. It starts every Wednesday, led by Rochelle of the Purple Fields, and has one picture (by Ted Strutz this week) accompanied by a 100 word story. Like what you see? Click the froggy below to see the other participants’ work and click here to see past entries of mine!

Photo by Ted Strutz

Photo by Ted Strutz


         The tools reminded him of hours spent in the dentist’s chair, unfriendly hands delving into his teeth and gums. He suppressed a shudder and took a deep, cleansing breath to regain the necessary calm. The boat was pulling away, bound for a harbor booze cruise despite the leaden sky.
         He hummed the theme to “Gilligan’s Island” as he cut a circle out of the glass, careful to sever the safety mesh, too. His silenced rifle fit perfectly as he sighted down the barrel, aimed, and squeezed the trigger. The man on the deck staggered and slipped beneath the pewter waves.

Helena will be keeping track of the body count this week. Direct all complaints about bloodshed to her. Jessica B. Bell, on the other hand, likes bloodshed. I suggest you don’t rile her up.

Arising

It’s been a while since I participated in one of Chuck Wendig‘s Friday Flash Fiction Challenges–but Mr. Urban Spaceman himself encouraged me to give this one a shot. It’s not at all what I was thinking during my original brainstorming, but fun nonetheless. I went over a little on word count, but I’ll let it slide if you will. The prompt for this was: phoenix (as in the mythological creature) with as loose a connection as we wanted to make.

         It started with the fires, but no one made the connection until it was too late. Uncle John was the first person I knew to figure it out. He was Grandpop’s little brother and the uncontested eccentric of the family. You name a conspiracy, he had a theory. Hell, he had theories about conspiracies you’d never heard of. The first fire was bad—an entire hotel burned down in Baton Rouge. There was no stopping it; they finally pulled the firefighters out after six of them had to be hospitalized. It burned right through the water hoses, vaporizing the life-saving water into boiling steam. The second one was a theater in downtown San Francisco that went up in the middle of a midnight premiere. The firefighters said they’d never seen anything like it—that like the fire had a mind of its own, fighting against them like a living beast. Fires popped up all over the country. New York and Houston and Miami. The firefighters and emergency crews all said the same—these fires were different.
         I was sitting on the couch in my parents’ house, watching the coverage of the latest fire when Uncle John shambled in. Nothing was left of Michigan Central Station but smoldering embers. The reporters had a panel of experts discussing how a building with a thick marble façade could burn like paper. John was Grandpop’s brother but he was twelve years younger and seemed more like he belonged to my father’s generation.
         “It’s a cleansing,” he said, cracking open a Budweiser.
Dad rolled his eyes, gaze fixed on the television. I decided to humor John, if only to take my mind off the fact that my big brother Jace was at the fire station this week. In a town this small, most of the department were volunteers. The only blaze in Kearney, TX worth noting was when Miz Kay lit her yard on fire trying to fry a turkey—but these days it seemed like everything was combustible.
         “What do you mean?” I asked.
         John wiped his grizzled chin and looked at me. “That hotel in Baton Rouge was known for its hookers. Not only that, but half the city council was seen going in and out at night, which’s why no one did anything about it. And that theater? Their late-late night showings would make the Marquis de Sade blush.”
         I resisted laughing at his pronunciation—Mar-keese day Sad.
         “Same thing in New York, Miami, and Houston—dens of iniquity, Momma would’ve called ‘em.” He half raised his beer to heaven and took a swig.
         From what I knew of my great-grandmother, I didn’t think she’d appreciate the gesture.
         “Coincidence,” Dad said.
         “Who’s doing it, then?” I asked Uncle John before the two started arguing.
         Uncle John looked at me fondly. I always asked questions—even if I thought it was all bullshit. “Well, Lynnie, if I knew that, I’d be claiming the reward money they’re all starting to offer.”
         Only Uncle John and Jace called me Lynnie. “Okay, who do you think did it?”
         He traced the top of his beer with a pinkie, going around the rim until I almost repeated my question. Glancing at my dad, he leaned towards me. “I have no idea.”
         His answer chilled me. Uncle John always had a theory. He enjoyed coming up with answers to questions—even knowing they were ridiculous. Like people who watch Trivial Pursuit every night even though they always guess wrong. The chill tingled at the base of my skull and I reached for my cellphone before it rang. I knew it was Jace before I picked it up.
         “What’s wrong?” I asked.
         “Are you home?” He asked, out of breath.
         “Yeah—with Dad and Uncle John. What’s wrong?” I repeated.
         “Get them and Mom and Grandpop and get out—drive as far as you can.”
         I heard it now, over his breathing—the crackling roar, like the bonfires we used to build out back where we burned more marshmallows than we ate trying to make s’mores. I tasted metal and realized I’d bitten the inside of my cheek.
         “What about you?” I asked.
         “I’ll be fine–just get everyone and go.” There was shouting in the background. “I love y’all, okay? Let me know when you’re safe.” He hung up.
         Dad packed some supplies from the kitchen, the box of photo albums Mom kept beside the bed, their framed wedding certificate. John grabbed the rest of his six pack and his duffle bag—already packed for his visit with us. The retirement community where Grandpop lived was on the way out of town and Mom was there with him. I grabbed my own small suitcase—my things were home in Austin, safe for now.
         “I have to get Cooper,” I said. Jace would never forgive me if we left his dog.
         I threw my things in the back of Jace’s truck, glad he left it here when he went to the firehouse, and peeled out of the driveway, narrowly missing the Harris’ mailbox. I would get Cooper, I told myself, and then do what Jace said—get everyone out. But I saw the oily black clouds that slicked the sky. I drove towards the outskirts, barely glancing at stoplights or aware of angry honks and shouts. The warehouses were out there—places everyone told us not to go, where the few murders and assaults our little town saw always seemed to occur. If Uncle John was right—I couldn’t find any humor in that thought—then that’s exactly where the fire would be. The smoke was so thick that the engine started whining and, for the first time, I was afraid for myself. Emergency lights flashed through the haze, like neon strobes in a laser tag course. I pulled the truck over, bracing myself as I opened the door. The smoke stung my eyes like the time I ate too many stuffed jalapenos on a dare from Jace. Hot wind buffeted me from all sides, lashing grit against my arms and legs. The fire crackled, punctuated by shouting and sprays of water as the firemen tried to tackle the monstrous blaze. I knew which heavy-suited figure was him. He turned before I could yell, a faceless, masked stranger and ran towards me. I doubled over, coughing, the heat on my skin like a sunburn. The whole row of warehouses was blanketed in flames, not the friendly tongues of fire I knew; it looked like lava, so bright it seared my vision.
         “Lynne! You have to get out, you have to get away from here!” Jace pulled his mask free and pressed it against my face, giving me a few moments of clean air.
         “Come with me!” I yelled. The asphalt bubbled beneath our feet, sticking to my shoes.
         He didn’t have time to answer, because we were knocked to the pavement as the whole row of warehouses collapsed, sending the flames shooting out, like a pair of giant wings.