You Can’t Save Me II

Read the beginning of Lara’s story here. This was originally “A Birthday to Forget” but after my dear friend and sometimes-editor made some much-needed suggestions, this is the updated (and improved) version. Thank you to my favourite Dilettante.

         I didn’t know if he was laughing at me, but in spite of myself, I laughed, too. It sounded like I was choking. I couldn’t get the hysterical bubbles of laughter under control. I noticed then the cuts on my knuckles and palms. They must have come from the gravel or the broken bottle. I shoved my hands between my knees and tried to stop the shaking. I stopped laughing. I gasped for air, there wasn’t enough in the RV and the walls seemed to shiver in front of my eyes. I felt hands on my shoulders and wrenched away. I tried to cry out, but the face of my rescuer swam into focus.
         “Sorry, I’m sorry,” he was saying. “God, you’ve really been through something.”
         I was having trouble focusing on his words. I had to watch his lips move, to make an effort not to see the light going out of beastly blue eyes, to not taste the tang of blood.
         “I killed someone. I stabbed him with a beer bottle, there was blood—blood everywhere,” I realized I was rubbing my hands up and down my arms, trying to stop feeling the warm, thick flow of blood running down them. “Oh, god. Oh, god.”
         I breathed hard through my nose, there wasn’t anything left in my stomach to bring up but it heaved all the same.
         “Hey, hey,” he knelt down in front of me—not touching me—but holding out his hands as if he wanted to steady me. “It’s…well, I can see it’s not okay. But, you can trust me—talk to me.”
         I nodded once, making the effort to calm my breathing. I held out my hand and he reached back to retrieve the bottle of whiskey and splashed some into my empty glass. I took it from him and the whiskey sloshed in my quaking hand. I drank a big gulp and didn’t care that I coughed. My eyes watered. I rubbed a hand across them, but there were tears now, too. He looked at me wordlessly, waiting for me to speak. He regarded me like some sort of puzzle, not someone evil—not a murderer. I faltered under that gaze.
         “I should go,” I said, but I didn’t stand up. I was afraid I couldn’t.
         “Go?” his pale brows pulled down over his nose. “You can’t go—look at you!
         “I’m a murderer—I can’t stay here! They’ll find me. Oh god, they’ll find me,” the whiskey spilled over my fingers onto his floor.
         He took the glass from me and I flinched as his fingers brushed mine. He grimaced, but not at me.
         “You didn’t just stab some guy with a beer bottle because he was staring at you funny. He did something. Bastard,” he spat the word out. “Did you know him?”
         I shook my head vehemently. I didn’t want to think about what he looked like, whether he had a name, a family. I didn’t want to think about anything. He stayed crouched in front of me, his brows furrowed, the bottle dangling from his hand. I saw his eyes drifting over the cuts on my hands and I knew there was probably still blood under my fingernails. There was dirt under the blue-eyed boy’s nails. They were long and ragged. I could see them again reaching for my throat.
         “He was stocky with bad skin…greasy hair, I think it was dark, I don’t know. His eyes—his eyes were blue,” the words poured out of me so fast I could barely get my tongue around them. “He was young—twenties, I don’t know. The coffee shop,” I jerked my head up to meet his eyes. “He was at the coffee shop. He saw me—his friend works there. He followed me to the bus stop and—” my words sputtered out like a spent birthday candle.
         His eyes widened briefly and then narrowed, “The filthy son of a bitch. Did he have any tattoos? Scars? Anything unusual?”
         I forced myself to think back to his hands, his neck, his face. Nothing. I shook my head.
         “I can think of a few guys around here that fit the bill,” he said. He must have seen the fear and disgust on my face. “Don’t think about it anymore just now.”
         I buried my face in my hands then put my face on my knees. I couldn’t shut my eyes and black spots were dancing across my vision, like black drops of blood. There was a roaring in my ears; it drowned out my rescuer’s muttered curses. I heard the floor creak as he stood and again as he began to pace. He was talking to himself, but I couldn’t make sense of the words—the noise in my ears was too loud.
         “Hey,” he was crouched in front of me again, his eyes hesitant.
         My mouth felt dry and I wondered if years had passed while I sat with my head on my knees, trying not to be sick. He held out a mug of something that steamed and his lips twitched in a crooked smile. I didn’t hear him cooking, I didn’t even notice the tirade of swearing ceased along with the roaring.
         “It’s just Ramen, but it might be good if you ate something…” He held it out to me, still carefully keeping his distance. “Are you hungry?”
         I realized that I was. Now that the nausea subsided, I was starving, but I was afraid the smell of food might make me sick again. I took the mug with numb, shaking fingers. It had some sort of yellowish broth and a pile of white noodles. I took the fork he offered and tasted it. The saltiness soothed my stomach, and the warmth that leeched into my fingers was heavenly.
         “I’m Jericho,” he said as I took another small bite. “Jericho Lang.”
         “Lara,” I said. “Just Lara.”
         He offered me both his names, trusting a confessed murder. I only had one to offer in return. My spine prickled as I remembered the letter in my knapsack. ,em>Nadia.
         “Now you know why I have to go,” I said.
         He shook his head emphatically, “Now I know more than ever why you should stay.”

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Strangers are not a common sight in Dwyer’s Hollow–unless they’re passing through or attending one of the Hollow’s historic festivals. Once people leave the Hollow, they rarely come back to visit, much less to stay. Read the beginning of Dwyer’s Hollow here.

        Bryony nursed her beer, tracing patterns in the condensation on the chipped Formica counter. She was one of the few people in MacNally’s; the dinner crowd cleared out early. People looking for a real drink usually went to O’Neil’s—the pool hall outside town that sat just off the interstate. Bryony preferred MacNally’s. Since she was eight, she always ordered a burger smothered in ketchup and a side of Mac’s homemade fries. Bryony lingered, not ready to return home. The little bell above the door chimed and someone slid into a seat at the counter a few stools down.
        “What can I getcha?” Mac asked, his voice warming the air.
        “Got anything harder than beer?” he asked and, at Mac’s nod, ordered, “Vodka, straight. No ice.”
        Bryony arched an eyebrow at her beer and took a sip, sneaking a glance at the stranger. It was the man she saw walking that morning—still wearing his plaid shirt. His dark hair was thick, tumbling over his forehead as he stared down at the counter top. Mac brought the glass of vodka and slid it across the counter. The stranger handed over his card and sipped the chilled liquor. Bryony suppressed a shudder.
        “You want to leave this open, Mister…Thorsen?”
Bryony heard the tremor in Mac’s voice and sat up.
        “Aleksander Thorsen?” Mac asked again. “Unusual name.”
Bryony stared at the dark-haired man, searching for something familiar. His nose was slightly crooked and his dark eyebrows were thick and sat low over his eyes. She was almost sure it was him. His eyelashes were longer than she remembered–a cause for envy even at age ten–but the eyes were the same grayish green and the skinny face was an older version of one she remembered vividly. He met her eyes for a long moment and she looked back, frozen. His thin lips gave a little twitch and he turned to Mac.
        “You can close it,” he said.
        Bryony turned back to her beer, hoping the color didn’t rise in her cheeks.
        “Hey,” his greeting surprised her in the act of gnawing her bottom lip. His voice was deeper than she remembered, but she knew it all the same.
        “Hey,” she said back.
        The way she mimicked his tone brought an almost-smile to his face. Bryony finally took a good look at him. He didn’t look well. His skin had always been fair–thanks to his Swedish heritage–and he had always been on the small side, but the way his shirt hung off his shoulders didn’t look healthy. She could see the bones in his wrists.
        “How are you, Zander? It’s been…a while. Sorry, do you still go by Zander?” Bryony cursed her lack of tact; she hadn’t seen him for almost fifteen years.
        “Zander’s fine,” he shrugged, fiddling with a silver ring on his thumb. “You know we moved to Sweden, when we left, I mean.”
        “I remember. How was being back?” Bryony asked, leaning forwards slightly.
        She barely remembered living in England with her parents, although she retained the accent. They lived there for five years before moving to the Hollow. Her parents knew the Thorsens in England—their fathers worked together
        “It was fine; my parents really enjoyed being near family.” His lips twisted. “I don’t know if you’ve heard—they passed last year. A boating accident.”
        “I hadn’t heard, I’m so sorry, Zander,” Bryony almost reached out to touch his hand.
        “Thank you. I know our parents lost touch, but my mother spoke to yours sometimes,” he said, taking another swig of vodka.
“After Mom moved out she went to Oregon—about as far away from here as she could,” Bryony wrapped her fingers around her beer.
        “My mother mentioned something about that. I’m sorry,” he said.
        When her mom finally broke under the strain of small town living and moved to Oregon to live with her boyfriend, Bryony’s dad seemed more determined than ever to stay in the Hollow. Sometimes Bryony wondered if that was why she just couldn’t leave—if he passed that genetically on with his fair hair and eyes.
        “So, you’re back for good?” she broke the silence.
        “Yeah, I just started moving into the Estate,” he stared into his glass.
        “Not Darkmoor?”
        “Know of another Estate around here?” a flash of the smile she remembered so well before the shutters came back down.
        “Well, no, but…”
        “You remember it was the Thorsen family home?”
        Bryony nodded, trying to keep her jaw from dropping open. Again.
        “We never lived there before because it wasn’t Mother’s taste. But the old house sold years ago and I don’t fancy living in what there is to offer these days.”
        She briefly pictured her tiny apartment with a bathroom the size of a broom cupboard and no closet to speak of—above Emmaline’s garage and blushed.
        “It certainly is…roomy,” she fumbled with her warming beer.
        “It is that,” a hint of white teeth again. “Besides, it’s been long enough that the ghosts will have gone to their eternal rest, don’t you think?”
        The clatter as the glass Mac was cleaning slipped from his hands and ricocheted off the side of the sink made them both jump. Mac hurriedly wiped his hands on his greasy apron.
        “Either of you want another? Fixing to close up,” he said.
        Bryony glanced at her watch. It was barely nine o’clock. She drained the rest of her beer and slid the cup across.
        Zander raised a thick, black eyebrow at her before tossing back the rest of his vodka without so much as the flicker of an eyelid.
        “Thanks,” he said, waiting until Mac met his eyes.
        “Goodnight, Mac,” Bryony said, shrugging into her coat as Zander held open the door, setting the bell ringing again.
        She couldn’t help but wonder, as they walked out of the diner and into the clear, crisp night why Mac stood and watched them until they turned the corner and disappeared out of his sight.

Silent Night

***Extreme trigger warning for this post.*** This story begins with Here, There Be Monsters and Do Svidaniya.

          The bus ride into the city was peaceful and I stared out the window at the countryside, one hand over the envelope of cash concealed against my belly. When my stop came, I dragged my sad little knapsack out of the overhead compartment and got off the bus, coughing slightly in the wave of exhaust fumes it left behind. I shivered. First, I needed a coat. I scanned the area around the bus stop and spotted a dingy sign for second-hand clothes. I slogged through the melted slush left over from the week’s snowfall, glad my boots were waterproof. I found a gray men’s jacket that seemed like it would keep me dry and block the wind. It also didn’t smell like smoke as much as the rest of the place. I peeled off two tens in the dressing room and stuffed the envelope back under my sweater.
          I paid the woman and then asked if she knew of any 24-hour coffee shops. She looked at me down her nose, I wondered if she was nearsighted or just judging me. Several moments passed before she directed me to a coffee shop that was “open late.” When I got there, the sign said they closed at 11. I rolled my eyes and checked my watch. It would be getting dark soon; the ride from Cook’s took longer than I thought. There was a dingy motel down the street, its sign blinking dissolutely, but it looked like the kind of place where you rented a room for an hour or two. I walked back over and checked the bus schedule. There was one to New York City at midnight. If I could hole up in the coffee shop until then, I wouldn’t have long to wait.
          The coffee was bitter, but it was hot. We rarely had coffee at Cook’s and I used my spending money as little as possible. I remembered slow weekends at the library. The sun filtered through the thick windows and set the dust motes on fire. It was quiet, for the most part, unless the Story Fairy was reading. Even then, not many kids came. I sometimes wondered if the town around Cook’s would slowly disappear, sinking into the gray snow as all its inhabitants got old and died. Maybe there was something unlucky about raising children near an orphanage. I must have dozed off; my knapsack securely in my lap, because the disconsolate ding of the bell above the door woke me. I scrubbed my eyes and looked at my watch. It was 10:45. The smell of stale cigarettes wafted in with the icy breeze and I looked over my shoulder. A young man stood at the counter, digging some crumpled cash out of his pocket. The barista palmed it and jerked his head towards the other employee’s turned back. I looked back to my now-cold coffee, not wanting to attract attention. My movement must have caught their eye, because there was a flurry of muttered conversation.
          “Hey, we’re about to close,” the nasally voice grated on me.
          I slung my bag over my shoulder and nodded, slipping out the door. The parking lot was deserted and it was a cold, windy walk to the bus stop. The tiny enclosure provided a little shelter from the icy wind, but not much. I blew on my fingers and bounced my knees up and down to keep warm. Only an hour, I told myself. I heard laughter, but kept my head down, ignoring the clink of bottles and more laughter. I recognized the voice of the coffee shop barista and his friend. I scooted to the corner of the bench, hoping to keep my distance if they planned to catch the midnight bus. The footsteps grew fainter until there was no sound but the whoosh of the occasional car and the keening of the wind.
          “Hey.”
          The voice on the other side of the glass startled me and I jerked, seeing the fogged face of the last coffee shop guest through the graffiti-marred glass. He had shaggy hair and bad skin, his face pocked with tiny craters. He smelled like the inside of a bar. He leaned against the edge of the glass, essentially blocking me into the corner. I just looked at him.
          “I said, ‘hey,'” he drew on the cigarette dangling from his lip, setting a cardboard six-pack of beer on the ground.
          “What do you want?” I asked.
          “No need to be like that, lady. You’re not from around here,” a puff of smoke blew towards me and I turned my head. “Want a beer?”
          “No, thanks,” I kept my eyes on the wet asphalt.
          “Not real friendly,” he took a swig of one of the beers, nudging the six-pack with one booted foot.
          “Just waiting for the bus,” I said.
          He nudged the box again, nearer to me. He smiled. His blue eyes were flat. I would remember that look. He wasn’t tall, but he had some muscle, enough that when he grabbed my arm and yanked me to my feet, I couldn’t stop him. I wanted to scream but it caught in my throat, clawing at my esophagus. Instead my demand that he let me go came out breathless, not at all threatening.
          “Aw, don’t be like that,” he laughed but his hand tightened on my arm and he wrenched me around the corner of my little shelter.
          He pressed me up against the side, and my feet fought for purchase on the icy pavement. He spat the cigarette out of his mouth and it glowed angrily for a moment before it sputtered, sputtered, died. My knapsack lay on the ground inside the bus stop, next to his half-empty beer carton. His hand found my throat, his meaty fingers digging into the delicate skin. He leaned slightly, and my windpipe bent. He drained the rest of his beer, watching as my eyes fluttered and my mouth worked helplessly. He dropped the beer bottle to the ground and I felt, more than heard it shatter. I was in a tunnel and all I could see were watery, blue eyes. Like a dead fish. His other hand fumbled at his belt and the roaring in my ears sounded like a train. The ground rose up to meet me as he released his grip on my neck.
          He bent down and I crabbed backwards away from him, gasping, sobbing. My throat burned, raw with trapped screams. I thrust upward with one shaking leg and somehow connected with his knee. He swore and reached down to grab something; the jagged bottle glinted as he raised it. I kicked again, aiming for the patterned fabric spilling from the front of his pants, as his jeans started to slip. I missed this time, he dodged my foot easily and laughed, an ugly sound, but he staggered a bit and the bottle slipped out of his hand, I heard it roll in a jingling circle. I scrabbled on the ground away from him, feeling the rough, gravel-strewn concrete bite into my hands and scrape my back where my coat and shirt rode up. He lunged towards me again, ready to pin me to the ground. My frantically searching hands found something. I gripped it and thrust it up towards him.
          His full weight came down and pushed the jagged edge of the bottle deep into his throat. There was a warm, pulsing, rushing flood running down the bottle and into my eyes.

Welcome to the Hollow

Part of the Dwyer’s Hollow tale—you can find the prequel and synopsis here.

          Bryony swore when she reached the cafe. Ten a.m. and the lights were still off, the sign blatantly flipped to read “Closed.”
          “I’ll kill him,” she muttered as she dug her keys out of her purse.
          Plotting her speech to Connor if he decided to show up to work today lasted until the coffee began to drip and the fresh bagels and pastries finally sat in their crinkled paper beds. By then, her favorite insults and expletives utterly exhausted, she poured herself a cup of coffee and liberally doused it with whipped cream. Connor was Emmaline’s nephew—sent to stay in Dwyer’s for the end of summer as punishment for some sort of adolescent rebellion. At first, Bryony felt sorry for the kid—after all, she grew up here; she knew how it could be for a teenager. But, after months of Connor’s surly attitude and spotty work ethic, her sympathy quickly evaporated.
          The café officially opened at 9 a.m. and served pastries, bagels, and other calorie-stuffed delights until 11 a.m. when Paul staggered in to prepare the greasy diner fare to the late-breakfast through late-lunch crowd. Emmaline, the owner, often popped her well-coiffed head in throughout the day to see how things went and to loudly berate Paul. They closed up by 4 p.m. and then it was lather, rinse, repeat. Bryony shoved her sandy hair back from her face and took another sip of coffee, feeling the cool whipped cream kiss the tip of her nose.
          “Excuse me.”
          The voice made her jump, nearly splattering coffee down her shirt. She hurriedly wiped the whipped cream off the tip of her nose, feeling her face redden.
          “Sorry, how can I help you?” Bryony asked, looking up at the man.
          “What’s your fresh brewed coffee du jour?” he asked, quoting the menu on the back wall.
          Bryony told him and he nodded, continuing to scan the limited menu, which gave Bryony ample time to observe the unfamiliar guest. He was tall and muscular and wore his clearly expensive clothing with ease. His thick, reddish-blonde hair fell across his forehead; it gave him a boyish look, though Bryony put his age around thirty.
          “Sorry, we’re not exactly Starbucks,” she said, guessing that he was passing through on the way to Boston or maybe New York.
          “Don’t worry about it,” he laughed and flashed impossibly white teeth. “I’m Louis Durant.”
          Bryony shook his hand, amused. “New to town?”
          “Just moved here,” he said. “I thought it was time to get out of the big city.”
          “Well, you came to the right place,” Bryony laughed, tucking her hair behind her ear. It was difficult not to stare at Louis. She wasn’t sure she had seen eyes that blue in person.
          “Sure did,” he smiled again.
          His southern accent was smooth and slow, but she couldn’t place it.
          “Where are you from—originally, that is?” she asked.
          “New Orleans.”
          “Is it really like what everyone says?” she bit her lip, aware of how small-town the question sounded. Pull it together, Bryony.
          “That depends on what people say. Sure, Bourbon Street can be like it is in the movies, but it’s not all parties and murders,” Louis said.
          “I hear the food is great,” she said.
          He laughed again, “I’m biased, but I don’t think you’ll find food with that much soul anywhere else in the states. Although,” he looked at the pastry selection, “I will try one of those blueberry muffins and a cup of the daily roast—black.”
          “Sure,” she poured his coffee and wrapped the muffin up.
          He lifted an eyebrow at the price, sliding his credit card across the counter, “You couldn’t get a shot glass of coffee at a Starbucks at these prices.”
          Bryony smiled, “The owner doesn’t believe in ratcheting up price just for profits.”
          “Small town life,” he shook his head. “Thanks. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you.”
          He lifted his coffee in a toast as he pushed through the door, setting the little silver bell dancing.
          “Well, I see this morning is getting better and better,” Emmaline said as she strolled through the back door, keys hanging from her well-manicured fingers. “Who was that?”
          “Louis Durant—he’s new to town,” Bryony said, turning to wipe the spotless counter so Emmaline wouldn’t see the color in her cheeks.
          “Oh he must be the one with the art,” Emmaline’s tone turned dismissive as she helped herself to a cherry-filled Danish.
          “Art?”
          “Mmhmm,” Emmaline talked through her mouthful of pastry. “That new art gallery that just opened up on Main Street.”
          “An art gallery? Here?” as far as Bryony knew, the only art appreciated in the Hollow was the children’s macaroni or some touristy postcard photos of the Darkmoor Estate.
          “Yeah, shame. He probably won’t stay long,” Emmaline finished the pastry, licking cherry preserves off her fingers. “Well, I just stopped by to see Connor. He wasn’t in the back.”
          “He’s not in…yet. I had to open up this morning,” Bryony tried to keep her voice even.
          Emmaline sighed, her plump chest straining at the buttons on her immaculate pastel top, “That sister of mine better pay for all the gray hairs her son is giving me.”
          Bryony refrained from mentioning that Emmaline’s hair was a very determined shade of blonde not found in nature.
          “Well, if you see him, tell him we’ll have words later,” Emmaline flounced out the front door and nearly collided with someone outside.
          He seemed to brush off her apology and continued down the sidewalk, not even glancing inside the café. Bryony caught a glimpse of a tall, thin young man in a dark green-and-blue plaid button down, with black hair—another unfamiliar face. She stared after him; two strangers in the Hollow in one morning—and there wasn’t even a festival. They had a few historic events that weren’t well known but drew a decent crowd. It was no Salem, to be sure, but Dwyer’s Hollow had its own bloody past.

Do Svidaniya

A continuation of the story started in Here, There be Monsters

drawing by me

drawing by me

         “Lara!”
         I heard Jenna call as the girls began to troop to their lessons, the hallways ringing with excitement and grumbling in equal measure. Her shout was the only warning I had before she launched herself into my arms, her head colliding with my chest. I stroked her hair back from her face and bent so that I could look into her eyes.
         “No tears, Jenna. You’re going to live with the Thorsens and they will be your family—a mum and dad, real ones,” the smile on my face felt as stiff as the Head Matron’s.
        “I wish you could come, too,” she said her bottom lip shaking as she tried not to cry.
         I laughed to myself at the thought of tiny blonde Mrs. Thorsen and her husband—both immaculately dressed in pastels every time I saw them—taking home a gangly seventeen year old with hair so dark it was almost black and eyebrows to match it.
         “I know, Jen, but you’re going to be so happy—the three of you. It will be wonderful.”
         “Maybe I can come back and visit?” her eyes looked even bigger, the tears sparkling on her lashes.
         I simply hugged her. If she ever came back—which I doubted to the depth of my being—I would be long gone.
         “Lara, lessons,” Puckett appeared, interrupting our goodbye. “Jenna, the Thorsens will be here any minute. Your things are packed up and waiting in the office,” she held out a dry, white hand.
         I squeezed Jenna tightly for the last time and released her to Puckett, ignoring the way my throat tightened as the little blonde pony tail swayed out the door.

         I was surprised when I received a letter just over a week later—it was from Jenna. She loved her new home and her new parents, they had a cat—a fat gray tabby—and a swimming pool they could heat even in winter. She sounded blissfully happy. I folded up the letter and stuffed it into my knapsack, along with everything else that belonged to me. I wore one of my two pairs of jeans and my only sweater–the marshmallow. My three other shirts, underwear, socks, two books, and my limited toiletries were already packed into the beat up canvas bag. My one good pair of shoes—some old leather combat boots, were already laced. It was convenient that my birthday fell right when lessons broke for Christmas. According to Puckett, anyway. The other girls were downstairs—enjoying their end of term hot chocolate and cookie snack, a very rare treat. I needed the few moments alone. I could count the number of times I had been completely alone over the last eighteen years. I sat with my eyes closed, enjoying the solitude, carefully keeping my mind empty of where I would go from here. The floorboards creaked and I knew, without turning, that it was Puckett.
         “Well,” she said.
         Her voice always reminded me of the sound dead leaves made when you stomped on them.
         I stood and pulled the straps of my knapsack on over my shoulders.
         “Lara, you’ve been with us a long time. You’ve been a good girl and a good worker. I have your wages from the library that become yours when you leave,” she held out a fat envelope to me.
         I took it, not bothering to check the cash inside. I carefully tabulated my hours at the library, so I had a pretty good idea of how much there was. Not nearly enough.
         “And this.”
         As she handed me a second envelope, I saw uncertainty in her face for the first time.
         “You know what time the bus comes?”
         I nodded.
         “Well. Good. We will…miss you, Lara.”
         I knew it was a lie, but I gave her a perfect fake smile that sent her out the door and back to her office. She too would be enjoying hot chocolate, no doubt diluted liberally with peppermint schnapps. The children would think she smelled festive. The scent lingered even as I heard her heavy tread fade. There was a note scrawled across the front of the yellow envelope. “To be given at eighteen.” It was Puckett’s handwriting and I knew it sat in my file since the first day I came here. I took a deep breath and tried to keep my fingers from shaking as I tore down the side of the envelope and slid the folded paper out.

         Dearest Nadia,
         I know they will have given you another name, since I told them you had none. But to me, you are my Nadia, my hope. I know this place is not a home, even though I can read it on the sign outside. I know it will be cold and hard and you will have no mother to comfort you. I also know it is better this way. You may not believe me, dearest Nadia, but it is true. It is one of two truths I can offer you. The first—and most important—is that I love you, my darling, my hope. The second is as I told you, you will never know me and that is the greatest gift I can offer to you. Take them both and live, my darling daughter.

         do svidaniya

         I realized I had been holding my breath, the letter was damp in my hands and I loosened my grip, afraid to tear the age-thinned paper. Nadia. I tried to think of myself as Nadia and shook my head; too late for that, now. The words at the bottom caught my eye. Do svidaniya . I tried it out loud. Russian, I thought. It made sense, with the name “Nadia” as well. I looked back down. The slanting handwriting was delicate, feminine—nothing like my heavy-handed script. I pictured a beautiful woman, with dark hair like mine and a full figure–not like mine—penning these words as I lay sleeping, perhaps only a few hours old. This, this is what she left me? My mother who claimed to love me? A name I did not own, two words in Russian, and a promise that I would never know her.
         The paper crinkled under my fingers as I tried to keep the hot tears running down my nose in check. I stopped myself just short of tearing it to shreds and stuck in back in the envelope, tucking it into an outside pocket of my bad next to Jenna’s letter. I shoved the envelope of money into the front of my jeans, despite the way the paper poked me, and pulled my sweater back over it. I checked the cheap watch on my wrist. The bus would be at the stop down the road in ten minutes. And I would be on it.

Pieces of the Puzzle

Holy Crossover, Batman! It was bound to happen sooner or later, so sooner it is. Our not-so-dynamic duo, Royston and Talan are interrupted by an unexpected and unwelcome guest. To catch up read this, this, and this.

        Royston stared morosely into his nearly-empty pint of beer, counting the rings of foam. His arm burned like the dickens and he kept rubbing it as though it would make the stinging sensation go away.
         “They sent us to the wrong place,” Talan said for the third time, disgusted.
         “Bloody wankers,” Royston agreed, wincing as fresh pain shot up his forearm.
         “Two more,” Talan gestured to the bartender.
         Roy nodded gratefully at the American.
         Once they realized there was no way around the pit in the floor, Royston called his handler. Felix Crowley then informed them that the parchment detailing their task had been mistranslated. Royston’s company mobile was now, for all he knew, still plummeting towards the core of the earth after he flung it into the hole–Crowley’s voice still screaming out of it. They walked back through the doors, which opened at a flash of Royston’s tattoo and, following Talan’s brilliant suggestion, went straight to the nearest pub.
         Royston took a gulp of the new, frothy beer the bartender brought after clinking it dissolutely with Talan’s. The American really wasn’t so bad. The accent, of course, was ridiculous and he had no concept of proper manners, but he did know how to shut up and drink a beer. It was a talent, Royston realized after weeks with Shafer, that not every man possessed.
         “Now what?” Talan asked finally, eyeing the telly in the corner as though he cared about the football match.
         “Well my mobile’s in the pit of the bloody silver pyramid where we were supposed to go and Crowley hasn’t tracked me down yet, so for now, we wait. I’m sure someone’ll turn up to claim me,” Royston said glumly.
         “How can they find you?” Talan turned away from the match, his blonde eyebrows shooting towards his hairline.
         Royston rolled up his sleeve—on the non-tattooed arm—and pointed to the tiny lump just above the crook of his elbow.
         “Tracking device. They can find me anytime, anywhere,” he grinned and swallowed another mouthful of beer.
         “Jesus,” Talan said, impressed. “Did they do that when they decided you were…y’know, him?”
         “No, mate. I’ve had this since I was nineteen, since they first offered me a post. They take their employees seriously, they do.”
         “They should, considering how much it costs to replace one of you,” a new voice interrupted their murmured conversation and both men froze.
         A blonde, Slavic-featured young woman slid herself into the stool next to Royston. She wore a black suit and her shapely legs were covered in black hose. Even Royston could tell it was expensive. A wiff of her perfume floated past him as she caught the bartender’s attention and ordered an extra-dirty martini.
         “Excuse me, miss,” Royston began.
         “It’s Elsa. Elsa Obrecht.”
         Royston blanched. Talan regarded Elsa with undisguised admiration.
         “I see you’ve heard of me,” her red lips curved in a smile and she took a sip of her martini, eyes focused on Royston.
         “I don’t b’lieve I’ve had the pleasure,” the American shouldered Royston to the side as he eagerly reached across him to shake Elsa’s hand.
         “Talan Davies, yes, I know who you are, too,” Elsa delicately took his hand in the briefest possible handshake.
         Talan looked pleased rather than otherwise and Royston dug his elbow into the beefy man’s side before he knocked Royston off his stool.
         “What’re you doing here?” he asked, scooting away from Elsa.
         “I know the Council has been making one mistake after the other and that you’re the fourth al’Uttarak they’ve declared in fifty years. The Firm is…displeased,” Elsa fished an olive out of her martini and rolled it between two scarlet-tipped fingers.
         “Bloody hell,” Royston said faintly.
         Talan jogged his elbow, demanding an explanation. Royston shoved the man back, waving at him to be silent. Had he thought the man wasn’t so bad after all? Wrong. He was an interfering prat.
         “There’s a certain…asset they are rather desperate to get their hands on. They think he can help unravel some of the tangles the Council has put in our plans. He may even be able to confirm whether or not you are the real al’Uttarak, or just another mis-read prophecy,” she smirked.
         “And this bloke, the Firm wants us to find him?” Royston asked, grasping for any crumb that might save him.
         “Oh, we know where he is,” she examined the olive before popping it into her mouth. “But a previous mission to…persuade him to partner with us did not go as planned.”
         “Who is he? The bloody President of the United States?” Royston ignored Talan’s grunt of disapproval.
         “He’s a vampire–” Elsa began.
         “Oh sod off. You come in here, interrupt me and my mate having a well-deserved pint and then say you want us to convince a bleeding mythological creature to partner with the Firm?” Royston laughed. “This is complete bollocks.”
         “You don’t believe in vampires?” Elsa raised one perfectly groomed brow.
         Royston’s laugh faded.
         “You’re not…you’re bloody serious? This is….oh sod it,” Royston put his head down on the sticky bar.
         “This particular vampire, Fritz, has the unique ability to read emotions, and, we believe, auras,” Elsa continued.
         “What does that mean, exactly?” Talan asked, his voice unsteady. “What’s an aura?”
         “Auras are like halos of light and color around people—not everyone can see them, and very few people can interpret them. We believe Fritz can. And, if he can, he can tell if Mr. Humphreys here is the real al’Uttarak or not.”
         Royston lifted his head and drained the rest of his beer, staring at the back of the bar as though facing a firing squad. He could feel Talan and Elsa’s eyes on him as he wiped his mouth on the back of his hand; Talan’s mouth hung open slightly. Royston closed his eyes for a moment and then turned to Elsa, resignedly.
         “Well, looks like we bloody better find this vampire then. What do we need to do?”
         Elsa tossed back her martini and smiled.

Just Add Vermouth

The fantastic and sometimes frustrating Chuck Wendig gifted us with another random plot generator this week*.

         “I don’t even know why I’m telling you,” Elsa popped the olive from her fourth (or was it fifth?) extra dirty martini into her mouth.
         Her companion at the bar simply leaned in closer, inviting her to continue.
         “It’s really embarrassing…” her voice dropped.
         “Go ahead,” he coaxed; his voice was friendly, no mocking undertone.
         “I’ve always wanted to…you know, go home from a bar with a stranger,” Elsa felt warmth suffuse her cheeks and looked down into her empty glass. “I’ve never had a one night stand and…I don’t even know your name.”
         “You don’t really want that.”
         “What?” Elsa dropped the vixen charade and gaped at her companion.
         “I said, ‘you don’t really want that,'” his voice was still light, pleasant.
         “You’re turning me down?” her cheeks flamed.
         “You’re not lonely, you don’t even really want to sleep with someone,” his eyes locked on hers, his head tilted as he observed her. “You’re…determined, yes. But not to take me home.”
         “I don’t…that’s not…” Elsa shoved her empty glass away and stood.
         His hand grasped her elbow, lightly, but with enough force to stop her.
         “Please,” he gestured back to the chair.
         “Why should I stay? I don’t even know what you’re talking about. How do you know that I’m not lonely?” she stated the words baldly, her embarrassment forgotten in her anger.
         “Because, I can sense it,” he released her arm and she reluctantly slid back into her seat.
         “What are you psychic?” Elsa asked; her words were more unsteady than she would have liked.
         “No,” he laughed. “I can neither read your mind nor listen to your thoughts. I do receive…impressions of emotions. If they are particularly strong.”
         “That sounds like almost the same thing,” Elsa countered.
         “Not quite, I assure you,” he said, toying with his beer. “It is a useful little trick, I admit, but it is far from foolproof. I cannot tell the reason behind the emotions necessarily, especially if the reaction is not my doing.”
         “I…see,” Elsa let her confusion color her tone, unable to hide her interest.
         “For instance, I could tell if you were very angry but not why or towards who or what it is directed. Although I have found the strongest impressions usually are those aimed at me.”
         “Are some feelings easier to sense than others?” she asked, leaning forward again, her earlier embarrassment forgotten.
         “Oh yes. And they all have different…” he struggled for a way to explain the indescribable. “Textures. This is not the right word, but I cannot think of a better one. Sadness, for instance, very great sadness feels sort of smothering. It is like suddenly walking through a very thick, very cold fog. Anger is sharp and burns. It always makes me think of hot glass.”
         “Are the bad emotions easier to sense?” she shuddered in sympathy at the thought of feeling stuck in a fog or burned by hot glass all day.
         “No, they are just more common, I’m afraid. The good emotions, the happy ones, are usually more sudden. And like lightning they leave a sort of impression—like a memory. Surprise always reminds me of bubbles for some reason and happiness is like sunlight. So very cliche, I apologize,” he laughed.
         “No, not at all, it’s fascinating,” she looked at him dazzlingly. “So you can read me like a book, then.”
         He shrugged, “I can tell when you’re lying.”
         The sudden change in his tone sent a chill up her arms, making the skin pebble. Gone was the pleasant warmth, the friendly banter. In the dim lights above the bar his eyes looked black. She moved her arm surreptitiously away from his.
         “You’re…hiding something,” he said, his dark eyes narrowing. “And you’re nervous. You weren’t before when you were coming onto me…but now you are.” His words came slowly, considering. Elsa found herself wishing the glass in front of her was not so empty.
         “It’s not every day someone meets a mind reader,” Elsa’s laugh sounded forced even to her.
         He smiled, his teeth looking incredibly white in the half-dark, “No, but it is easier when you’re looking for one.”
         Elsa looked around nervously, noticing suddenly how empty the bar had become; they were practically alone.
         “Elsa, Elsa, Elsa,” he shook his head. “You come looking for me and are surprised to find me? I’ll admit, you were fairly impressive at compartmentalizing your emotions and letting me see only those you wished me to see. You’ve had training; it’s clear to anyone who knows about these kinds of things.”
         “Training?” Elsa said breathlessly. “I don’t know what–”
         “Oh, you can drop the act, Elsa, dear. You’ve put on so many tonight it’s been like a one-woman show. I see why they picked you.”
         Elsa fumbled blindly for her purse, trying to free the strap from the back of the raised chair. She kept her eyes on the man across from her.
         “It’s Fritz, by the way,” he said conversationally, downing the rest of his beer.
         The distraction gave Elsa just long enough to reach inside her bag. When she poked the syringe into his arm, he didn’t even flinch. For a moment, she thought she missed.
         “Let me guess,” he said, setting down the empty bottle and looking at the needle sticking out of his bicep. “Distilled essence of hawthorn, wild rose, and just a touch of garlic in holy water? Wait…and you’ve added mustard seed, too. Covering all your bases, good girl. Is there ground-up crucifix in there as well?” He smiled at her and yanked the spent syringe from his arm, dropping it lightly on the bar. He leaned in to whisper in her ear.”Tell the Firm it will take more than a pretty face and some superstitions.”
         Just before he pulled away, she felt his teeth graze her neck. She felt more than saw him stand and ghost out of the bar.
         “Bartender,” she said, sliding forward her empty glass, “Keep them coming.”

* My scenario: The story starts when your protagonist admits a fantasy. Another character is a vampire who is sensitive to auras.

The Vampires strike again this week.

An Odd Request

Friday Fictioneers is the name, a story inspired by a photo using 100 words is the game. As always, our fearless leader is Rochelle and this week’s photo is from anelephantcant

      He looked at the bicycle, down at the paper in his hand, and then back at the bicycle. It was wedged against a tree; its shabbiness kept it safe from casual thieves. He sighed. Three hundred years should have dulled the edge of embarrassment.
       He pulled the bike away from the tree and glanced up and down the street. No one paid attention to the fair-skinned man in the three-piece suit. He glanced down regretfully at his newly shined leather shoes before getting on the bike. She always did have an odd sense of humor, the vampire thought, pedaling away.

A Cog in the Machine

Chuck Wendig’s instructions this week: Choose one of these last lines submitted (from last week’s challenge) and use it as the first line. Once I chose, I knew I had to revisit our friend from my last Chuck Challenge, read about him here.

          “That plan didn’t fly, superhero, and now we’re short a bazooka.”
          “Yes, thank you very much for that enlightening conclusion,” Royston said through his teeth. “And for chrissakes stop calling me superhero.” Wanker.
          The tall American shrugged and surveyed the portal in front of them. The blast from the bazooka did little more than mar the otherwise flawless sheen of the strange doors. They looked like metal, but Royston never saw metal that black and shining before. His companion pulled out a cigarette and lit it, holding it in the corner of his mouth as he surveyed the damage. Royston glanced at him then back at the spent bazooka lying on the ground. It was worth a shot, he thought.
          “Well, now what?”
          “Will you bloody shut up? I’m trying to think,” Royston said.
          “Can’t think and talk at the same time? I thought the Brits were supposed to be in possession of superior intelligence.”
          It was amazing to Royson that Talan could be such a colossal pain in the arse. It wasn’t just that he was a Yank, or that he was built like Captain America, or that he was arrogant to the bone. It was mainly that he was an incurable prick. Royston took a deep breath, massaging the spot on his wrist where his tattoo still burned.
          “Bloody Council,” he muttered, staring at the doors as though they would reveal their answer.
          “What was that?” Talan asked.
          He looked completely calm, standing there, smoking, while the entire world could go to bits at any moment. Royston wished he’d used the bazooka on Talan instead. He didn’t really think it would open the portal, but it was worth a try.
          “I said, ‘Bloody Council.’ As in bugger the Council and the Councilman and the damned prophecy,” Royston’s voice echoed off the metal walls around them and he winced.
          “Bad week at work?” Talan asked, grinding his cigarette into the floor with his combat boots.
          Royston rolled his eyes. Talan looked like he stepped out of a particularly bad American spy film with his black pants covered in pockets, black boots, and black t-shirt that was strategically several sizes too small. Royston wore what he always wore. He rubbed at his forearm again. The blasted tattoo felt like a nettle sting. Should it still be hurting?
          “What do you think, G.I. Joe? Have you ever been told you’re the second runner up as the bleeding al’Uttarak, the One meant to save the bloody world from disaster? Well?” He shoved up his sleeve and stuck his arm out to Talan. “Have you had some crazy prick with a set of needles tattoo a bloody Sanskrit novella into your arm in the middle of the night after you just watched a bloody wall fall on the first al’Uttarak’s head?”
          Talan looked at him with one blonde brow raised. “What tattoo?”
          “What do you mean what—” Royston looked down at his own arm.
          Just that morning, the words of the prophecy still stood out on his arm in thick, black ink. The skin around the letters was still red and tender and it itched like mad. But now…
          “Well, I’ll be damned,” Talan was looking at the portal now.
          Running across the shining black surface in glowing white letters was the prophecy. Royston looked at his bare arm—bare except for the slight red marks from his itching and then back up at the portal. He gaped at it for a moment before reaching out a trembling hand to touch the word he recognized—the one for al’Uttarak. There was a high-pitched whine of metal against metal that made both men cringe and the doors began to slide open.
          “I don’t bloody believe it,” Royston said faintly.
          Talan let out a low whistle, “Guess this means you’re the real deal then, Roy.”
          “I am not the sodding al’Uttarak. This is some trick of the bleeding Council’s. If Shafer would have been here the same blasted thing would have happened.”
          Talan grunted but did not respond, he pulled his gun from his belt and moved slowly towards the opening.
          “Right, then, now it’s open,” Royston cleared his throat. “So you go in there and—”
          “No way, superhero, you’re coming with me,” Talan reached back and grabbed the collar of Royston’s coat, dragging him through. As Royston crossed the threshold there was a searing pain in his arm and the doors clamped shut again with a screech. He looked at his forearm again. The tattoo was back.
          Talan met his eyes and shrugged, “You’re the brains of this operation.”
          “Well we’re completely buggered then,” Royston said. His heart was hammering, his eyes widening in an effort to soak in any trace of light in the dark room. There was a click and a light flicked on, startling him.
          The flashlight illuminated Talan’s grin. “‘Fraid so.”
          Royston followed the small puddle of bright white as Talan led them down what he could now see was some sort of passageway. The walls were of the same smooth metal-like material as the doors. There were no markings or carvings of any kind.
          “You know, I pictured this being a lot more like Indiana Jones,” Talan said. “Old stone chambers and carvings and booby traps—” he stopped abruptly.
          Royston nearly staggered into him and peered over the big American’s shoulder.
          “Bloody effective, I’d say,” Royston looked down into the gaping hole at their feet.
          Since the floors were shining black, it was hard to see where the abyss began—or where it ended. Royston edged to the side so that he stood next to Talan. It looked like the hole stretched for several yards—too far to jump. Talan was scanning the ceiling and walls—all completely smooth, all devoid of purchase.
          “Oh sod it all,” Royston muttered. “Go to the portal and open it, then all will be revealed,” he mimicked the Chairman’s voice. “Just bloody brilliant.”
          “Don’t know what you’re so upset about, Roy. Our government’s been lying to us for years.”

Holy Goat

Friday Fictioneers with Rochelle, our fearless leader, is here again with a photo by Randy Mazie. No goats were harmed in the making of this post.

goats_and_graves_3_randy_mazie

     “There,” Benjamin stabbed dramatically at the computer screen.
     “I can’t see anything—your finger is in the way,” Zeke muttered.
      Ben scowled, pulling away; Zeke studied the photo.
     “All I see are a bunch of goats and some guy on a wall,” Zeke said.
     “Look at the carving on the headstone,” Ben jabbed the screen again.
     “Stop. Doing. That,” Zeke pulled his laptop away.
      Zeke squinted at the washed-out tombstone in the forefront. Nose inches away from the screen, he gasped.
     “It’s the last marker for the Prophecy, Ezekiel. We found it,” Ben said, voice hushed.
      Zeke dropped the laptop.

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