Featured on 1:1000: Comfort

Screen Shot 2015-06-30 at 10.01.01 AM

One for One Thousand is a collective of writers and photographers creating stories with a single picture and a story of one thousand words. It’s a pleasure to have my writing featured on their site with a hauntingly lovely photo from Daniel Vidal. Click the photo above to read “Comfort” on the site.

If you’re interested in other pieces I’ve written for 1:1000, see Wheels and Fishing Lessons.

Work in Progress: Novel Excerpt

Hi, hello, howdy. It has come to my attention that I’ve accrued some new followers in the past few months of my blog hiatus. Welcome! I originally started this blog as a way to encourage myself to write as well as to get some of my writing read. As I made friends through WordPress, I came to appreciate the interaction between writer and reader that can occur here. So please, if you have something to say, drop me a line in the comments. In the meantime, here is the intro to one of my current WIPs, with the working title Tell No Tales.

Clara’s life is not what one would call luxurious, but it suits her. After escaping the clutches of her power-hungry family at thirteen and living with her maternal grandfather, Clara is content to live out her life in anonymity—with no one the wiser that she is part of the powerful Lacey family. A “chance” meeting at a cemetery disrupts the plans Clara had for her life and she finds herself thrust headfirst into the intrigue and secrecy she fought so hard to escape.

Tell No Tales | Chapter One Excerpt

Clara stood across from the wrought iron gates of Highgate Cemetery finishing a cigarette and wondered if a single smoke really took fifteen minutes off her life. It was sunny enough that her dark sunglasses weren’t out of place and she had the collar of her leather jacket flipped up to help hide her face. She’d watched the exit gates for over half an hour, waiting for the crowd of men and women with cameras and press badges to disperse. There was little chance of being recognized—the last photo most of the tabloids had featured showed her in a sensible tweed suit with dark hair past her shoulders.  She had cut it off and bleached it blonde the year before. Between that and the sunglasses, she was fairly confident they wouldn’t recognize her. She was about to brave the expanse when a long, dark car pulled up and slowed. She squinted at it, but couldn’t see the driver’s face through the tinted windows. The paparazzi noticed as well and started towards it. The momentary distraction was enough. Clara stubbed out her cigarette and ducked her face deeper into her collar, trying to keep her pace casual.

At the gate, she showed her owner’s pass to the guard. He glanced at it and waved her past the queue of tourists waiting at the ticket booth with their cameras and sensible walking shoes and senseless chatter. She followed a group of Americans—two round women and a red-faced man with an assortment of school children–through the entrance. The man clutched a guidebook in one hand and his camera in the other, the three of them engaged in deciphering a map of the famous deceased. Clara skirted them when they paused to take photos of gravestones charmingly draped with ivy and topped with age-softened faces of angels.  She had visited on Grandfather’s birthday and the first anniversary of his death the year before, but the twisting pathways threatened to disorient her. It was something of a surprise when she reached the right plot, in a quiet curve of one of the many labyrinth trails. Squatting down, she brushed some fallen leaves from the top of the stone; its edges were still harsh, not yet weathered. The name–Peter Randolph–was still sharply etched in the granite.

***

It had rained the day they buried him. Clara remembered the sound of water drumming on the tarp that the gravediggers had hastily thrown over the mound of fresh dirt, and how it turned each footprint into a miniature lake. She had stood to one side with her grandfather’s house staff with the cold and damp seeping through her too-tight best shoes. Icy water had dripped down her neck despite the umbrella. Her parents and brothers had arrived just before the priest, black coats flapping in the wind. Their pace was hampered by Cassandra’s heels and the chauffeur that held an umbrella over her, looking miserable as the rain flattened his hair against his bare head. It was the first time she had seen them since the day Grandfather died.  A week prior, she and Cassandra had stared at each other across Grandfather’s motionless body, as the doctors unhooked the life-sustaining IVs he no longer needed. The room had been eerily silent, devoid of the beeping machines that had become so familiar. She remembered feeling like the world had narrowed to the hospital bed, that nothing else existed besides the all too still form.

***

Grandfather had been the most permanent fixture in her life after she began attending a boarding school outside London near his home. She was thirteen and glad to escape the Kensington flat with its stringent code of conduct and icy formality. He had earned his years of quiet but he welcomed her.  He would put away whatever he was reading or writing, listening to her school stories and woes as though they were every bit as interesting as his travels in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

It was strange to think that today was just another set of digits on the calendar to anyone else. Despite knowing that the box beneath the ground held nothing but his shell, Clara felt close to her grandfather here beneath the open sky, breathing in the smell of damp earth and mossy growth. It brought to mind the wide green lawn at the back of his house that stretched down to a bubbling stream and the comforting, woolen forms of sheep in the fields across the narrow road. A world away from the aggressive aromas of silver polish and freshly waxed floors in her childhood home. Clara wrapped her arms around herself as she crouched by the headstone. She heard footsteps behind her. When she turned, expecting to see a photographer or reporter who’d managed to slip past the gates, there was only sun-dappled shade. But she felt suddenly exposed, alone next to the grave of a man two years dead. She noticed a splash of colour behind the headstone and stood to get a better look.

There were pink peonies splayed across the loamy earth. Clara realized she was holding her breath as she stared down at the flowers and reached out to grip the top of the stone. She closed her eyes and counted slowly to twenty, carefully regulating her breath. When she opened her eyes, the flowers were still there. Several had burst as they hit the ground, laying in the ruin of their own rosy petals. She thought she felt eyes on the back of her neck and turned, but the only witnesses were a few birds, flitting in and out of the greenery. He gave her peonies on her birthday each year until he died; they were the only flower she really liked. The air felt oppressive, and the cool, earthy aroma smelled suddenly like rot and decay.

Featured on One for One Thousand: Fishing Lessons

I’m excited to be part of 1:1000 again. If you haven’t found your way to this site, I highly recommend it. Gorgeous photos and lyrical writing pair two of my favorite expressions of art through writing and photography. The writers and photographers are all so talented and an absolute pleasure to work with.

Read it here: Fishing Lessons  (amazing photo courtesy of Blake Bronstad)

My first story on 1:1000 was Wheels (fabulous photo by Emily Blincoe)

Into the Woods

I haven’t participated in Friday Fictioneers in a long time. If you’ve never heard of it, Friday Fictioneers encourages participants to write a 100 word story based on a photo prompt. Click the blue froggy to read the other stories.

© Rachel Bjerke

© Rachel Bjerke

I went to the place where we used to meet, where we shared secrets with sheltering trees. I followed my wandering feet, back to the place where we used to meet. The moss grew thick over the stones and the earth; time thickened air that once was sweet. The well was there, as I knew it would be, the old well in the place where we used to meet. I leaned over the edge and stared into the deep. The water was black and the only face was my own, alone in the place where we used to meet.

You Say You Want a Revolution

feather-boas-thick-coque-chandelle-red-with-black-coque-feathers-3

You may have heard her name whispered in the hushed corners of the halls of commerce, shouted in the seediest bars, and reverentially mentioned by comic book store owner. She is the one, the only, Helena Hann-Basquiat, dilettante extraordinaire. She writes truth wrapped in the feather boa and smoky haze of fiction in the form of the Memoirs of a Dilettante. Volume One was released last year and those of us familiar with it–and with Helena’s writing–have been anxiously awaiting it’s sequel. Lucky for us all, we won’t have to wait much longer. In addition, one of the stories from Volume Two has been adapted into a Shakespearian style tragicomedy called Penelope, Countess of Arcadia. If you like what you see here, both Volume Two and Penelope are available for pre-order on Pubslush! And without any further ado, a sample from Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two and a prequel to Penelope, Countess of Arcadia!

Arcadius Interruptus – The Return of the Revolucionista

Penny was fuming as she related to me the events of the past 48 hours. With each passionately produced profanity (in which Penny is preternaturally proficient), she extracted from me an almost religious fervour for her cause.

“We were betrayed,” the Countess Penelope of Arcadia cried indignantly, channelling her inner bleeding heart poet. “Someone is going to hang for this, mark my words, Helena. Someone is going to fucking swing.”

I watched her pack her bag for school, scrutinizing each item and doing a mental check to see if any could possibly be turned into some sort of incendiary device.

“What are you going to do?” I asked her, the beginnings of a grin on my face.

“It’s not funny, Helena,” she rebuked; so angry she had tears in her eyes. “It’s not fucking funny. You’re going to write this as funny and it’s not. It’s serious. This is… a complete… fucking… breakdown… of the democratic process.”

She punctuated each furious word by throwing another item of clothing or paperwork into her book bag.

“It’s just the way my mind works, darling,” I said, reaching out and stroking her hair. “I want you to storm in there and give them hell – I wish I could come with you, I have a few words for them myself.”

“Well, don’t exaggerate it, okay?” The Countess begged through trembling lips.

I gave her a lopsided grin, and her smile returned.

“Well, not too much, anyway,” she conceded. “Believe me, you won’t have to. I’m going to let them have it with both barrels.”

“Yes, well, just don’t burn any bridges with that fiery temper of yours, Penny.”

She glared at me, and then became eerily calm.

“This isn’t personal, Helena,” she said, affecting a passable Al Pacino as Michael Corleone. “It’s strictly business. I’m out.”

The Countess Penelope of Arcadia (a neighbourhood adjacent to Little Italy, apparently) threw her bag over her shoulder and looked at me with angry resolve.

“Let’s do this.”

*******

Penny had gotten involved in school politics, because she said it made her feel like a human being again. Throwing herself into the social aspects of university life gave her a life outside of home, which prevented her from sitting at home feeling orphaned and overwhelmed. Being part of the Executive Committee for her student society gave her a voice among her peers – at least, among her fellow students – I’m not sure Penny has peers, which might really come in handy for her someday if she’s ever required to be judged by a jury of them.

She’d enjoyed it for the last year or so, until she came home one day looking like her head was going to explode, and I had to talk her down for the rest of the evening.

“It’s bullying, plain and simple!” She declared, and then went on to spout a number of profanities, some involving illegal sex acts involving water buffalo. “They didn’t get what they wanted, and so now they’re going to bully their way to get it.”

“Hey, hey,” I said, trying to calm her down. “Back up, and tell me what’s going on.”

And so she did.

Universities have societies – not just fraternities and sororities – but societies based on department, area of study, different campuses, etc… and Penny is on the Executive Committee for one of these societies – I won’t say which, darlings, because I’m trying to keep this as confidential as possible. What this means is that she is part of a group of people that makes decisions about, among other things, membership in this society. People have to apply for membership, and because they are going to be representatives of the society, and participate in group events throughout the year, the members of this Executive Committee make their choices very carefully, based on various criteria, one of the foremost is the issue of character and integrity. These decisions aren’t made lightly, darlings, and there have been numerous nights when Penny has been gone until the wee hours of the morning because she’s been in session voting and discussing these issues.

She often came home disappointed, especially when she saw the sad fact of politics – that sometimes it’s a popularity contest. But while she didn’t always agree with the choices made, she always respected the democratic process. Whatever was decided as a group was law, and no one person had the power or right to undo those decisions.

Recently, certain applicants, though they had been members of this society the previous year, had been denied re-admittance to the society because of certain accusations brought against them; specifically, their character. There had been accusations of sexual impropriety and underage drinking – things that needed to be taken seriously. The university keeps close watch of these societies, as they are often the public face of the school itself. It is not out of the realm of possibility for the university to order a society disbanded, and its members punished, should they be regarded as an embarrassment to the institution, or in violation of its code of conduct. (In fact, this had happened to another society not that long ago).

The Executive Committee had convened, and after much deliberation, decided not to give these particular students entry into the society. The decision was made as a group, and that should have been the end of it.

Not so, Penny told me that night, trying not to seem as hurt as I could tell she actually was.

“They started a Facebook group,” she told me, rolling her eyes at the immaturity of it all. “A secret group, and aren’t they just oh-so-sneaky?”

She showed me some screenshots she’d been sent by a friend who had been invited to the group, and had joined for the sake of infiltrating their clandestine network and reporting back. Suddenly this was turning into a WWII spy-thriller.

I tried my best to ignore the tears in her eyes as she showed me what people were saying, not just about her, but about the others on the Exec Committee.

Most of it was what you’d expect from this current generation of Internet bullies – cowardly name-calling and mocking, coupled with accusations and threats. I’d been the victim of Internet bullies, or people who hid behind their position to send caustic emails rather than engage in civil conversation, so I knew how much it hurt, and how frustrated and powerless it made you feel.

“Here,” she said, pointing to a picture of a smiling blonde, who had just referred to Penny as a crazy psycho whore who has no business making decisions for anyone. ”I had lunch with her just last week. It’s not like we’re best friends or anything, Helena, but…”

“Fuckers,” I spat.

Fast forward to the revelation of this covert Facebook group, whose goal (other than to gather in the dark and spit venom about their so-called friends) was to overturn the decision to refuse those particular students entry into the society. As if by getting enough members to sign a petition they could force their way in.

The Executive Committee met to discuss how to handle the group – which, by the way, violated so many University codes of conduct that I won’t even go into it here – and decided to withdraw membership of anyone that had taken part in this group. There was harsher talk, Penny told me, and real serious discussion about actions that would have gone on the students’ permanent transcript.

“Do it!” I said, pumping my fist in the air. “String them all up! Every revolution needs its body count to discourage dissenters!”

At this point, Penny and I had begun referring to each other as Comrade and were blasting The Clash’s Sandanista! while tying bullets into each other’s hair.

(Work with me, darlings).

“It won’t stick,” Penny sighed. “Claudia’s too soft-hearted. She won’t see it through.”

Claudia is the President of the society, and while she doesn’t have the power to make the decision on her own, she can certainly influence the ultimate details of the consequences the students involved will face.

“The talk started at expulsion from the University, then softened to revoking their membership in the society with a life-long ban, and then there was some talk of drawing a line in the sand and giving immunity to anyone who would leave the Facebook group by a certain time – it was like we were the U.N. threatening some crackpot tin soldier regime.”

“And did they actually have weapons of mass destruction?” I asked facetiously.

“Exactly,” Penny said, ignoring my question. “And by the time the discussion was done, and we had all voted to take their memberships, there was still some feeling that Claudia thought that was too harsh. The very vague word probation got tossed around a lot.”

“What the hell does that mean?” I asked. “Besides, you all voted to take their memberships, right?”

Penny snorted. “Right.”

*******

A couple of weeks passed, and I’d occasionally get an update from Penny that nothing had been done yet, and that while the Facebook group had been shut down, no public apology had been made, nor had any reprisals or consequences been enacted.

Until two nights ago, when she came home shouting about how she was the big bad wolf and that she was going to blow their house down all around them and laugh at the ruin they’d made of themselves.

I, of course, required a bit of elaboration.

“They betrayed us, Helena! Look at this!” She opened her laptop and showed me an email, sent from Claudia, to the members whose memberships had been revoked, inviting them back.

“What?” I asked. “That doesn’t seem right. How can she…”

“How can she, indeed!” Penny snapped. “She can’t! And what’s worse, she lied – not only to me, but to Angela as well!”

“Angela?” I prompted.

“Angela’s the VP – she had asked Claudia for an update on what precisely was happening with the dishonourably discharged douchebags – oh, sorry, couche-tards – and she was told that by Claudia that the decision was up in the air.”

“I thought it was decided that they were losing their memberships?” I said. “At the very least.”

“It was,” Penny said, teeth clenched. “We decided. As a committee. We fought it out. There were tears, Helena. Tears. But we came to a decision that we all decided was right.”

“And now it seems she’s just undoing all that,” I said, reading the email. Suddenly all my paranoia came flooding back. “Penny – who knows you have these emails – and who is this Deep Throat that’s sending them to you?”

“That’s Angela!” Penny shouted at me, as if I were somehow the source of her rage. “Sorry. That’s how fucking arrogant and/or stupid Claudia is – these emails are a matter of record, which Angela has access to. Everything I need to nail her ass to the wall is right there in black and white.”

“Well, it is right now,” I said, throwing Penny my cell phone. “Call Angela. Tell her to print everything up, right now.”

I felt like those investigative reporters who busted open the Watergate scandal on Nixon. Rocky and Bullwinkle. Or was it Loggins and Messina? Captain and Tennille? (Insert other ‘70s reference here).

Woodward and Bernstein, Helena! It was Woodward and Bernstein!

Yes, thank you, darling – I was being facetious.

Penny made the call to Angela on my cell phone, and while she was on the phone, her bag began to play Spiderwebs by No Doubt.

Sorry I’m not home right now, I’m walking into spiderwebs, so leave a message and I’ll call you back…

I fished her phone out of her bag, and looked at the call display flash the word CLAUDIA at me. I motioned to Penny that I was answering it, and that she should finish up her own call.

“Hello,” I said, doing my very best secretarial voice. “Yes, one moment please. Penelope! Oh, Penelope! Phone’s for you, darling!”

Penny hung up my phone and grabbed her laptop, where a chat window had popped up.

“You’re not going to believe this!” Penny whispered to me, and pointed to her computer.

SHE’S CALLING YOU FROM THE OFFICE, the chat box read. It was Angela. I’M SITTING RIGHT HERE.

“Hello, Claudia,” The Countess Penelope of Arcadia, which is just an eloquent hop, skip and a lady-like jump away from Poughkeepsie, home of Vassar – that is to say, Penny can turn on the charm when she wants to. For this to work, she adopts the occasional dilettante-ism as well: “Oh, I was just thinking of you, darling. How are you?

“Yes, I know I’m strange. I quite enjoy being strange. How strange that you take pleasure in being so strangely ordinary.

“Yes, well. What can I do for you? I’m afraid I’m quite busy. Lots of damage control, you know. Lots of gossip to quell, lots of confidence that needs to be restored, that kind of thing. Lots of hurt feelings.

“Oh you have? You’ve made a decision. That’s odd. I thought that we had made a decision. Together. You, me, the whole Executive Committee.

“Oh I see. So, you want to revisit that decision, then? Discuss it further? And this is what? You inviting me to a meeting so we can discuss this further?

“Oh, okay. Well, that’s a relief.

“No, no, I’m fine with discussing it. I just thought that maybe you were going to tell me that you’d already re-instated the memberships, and that you’d already sent emails inviting these people back to the society.

“No, of course you’d never do that – I was just saying.

“Oh, yes, I’ll be there. You can count on it.”

SHE’S LYING TO YOU, Angela sent. WHY IS SHE LYING TO YOU?

PRINT THOSE EMAILS, Penny replied. PRINT THEM NOW.

*******

“Let’s do this,” The Countess Penelope of Arcadia (a small but proud democratic nation trying to maintain their autonomy. Major exports – feisty women with a hardline on hypocrisy and Sea Monkeys – little known fact) laced up her Doc Martens and threw her bag over her shoulder.

“Are you sure?” I asked, giving her one last exit, which I knew she wouldn’t take. Besides, who was I kidding? I wished I was going with her. This was going to be legendary, and I could only imagine the scene:

Penny sits across the table from the oppressive bourgeois Empress, Claudia the First, and clenches her fists so tightly that she draws blood from eight little crescent moons on her palms. She thinks to herself that there hasn’t been such a blatant disregard for the democratic process since Senator Palpatine dissolved the Imperial Senate and declared himself the first Galactic Emperor. Or perhaps since George W. Bush won the Presidency back in 2000.

“I’ve been thinking,” Empress Claudia declares, and the scribes beside her begin writing down her every syllable with huge feathered pens. Two eunuchs in saffron loincloths stand on either side of her, one holding a tray of chocolate truffles, the other a glass of special wine, made out of the tears of war orphans. “Perhaps we have been too harsh on our fellow classmates.”

Penny knows in her heart that she is not referring to the Committee, but rather, that she is using the royal ‘we’. Bourgeois bitch, Penny thinks, before the end of this day I shall see you locked up in the Château d’If[1] – or hanging from the wall of the Bastille, or poking your pretty corrupt aristo head through La Veuve,[2] if I have my way!

“So I propose that we re-consider our decision to revoke their membership in our society,” the Empress Claudia steps forward, her powdered wig sitting flawlessly atop her conniving head.

“Lies!” Penny screams, and stands up atop the table, black leather boots reaching all the way up to her knees. Her tartan kilt lends some to think that she’s going to launch into a William Wallace-esque diatribe about how she’ll keep fighting until Scotland is free, and how they may take her life, but they’ll never take her freedom – but then they see her black t-shirt with the Ramones logo emblazoned on it with the caption GABBA GABBA HEY! and they start picturing student protests and the summer of ‘77, and they start worrying that she’s going to start singing Don’t Worry About the Government by the Talking Heads, or perhaps I’m So Bored With the U.S.A. by The Clash. Neither song would be recognized in this room full of musical Luddites, though – cookie cutter clones with Pharrell Williams’ Happy on an infinite loop on their iPods – and so Penny gets right down to business, reaching into her bag and pulling out a red beret and a pile of papers.

Donning the red beret, she begins to make her speech.

“She’s lied to you,” she says, looking at her fellow committee members one by one. “She’s lied to you. And you. And you. And you, too, Jar Jar.”[3]

“Empwess didsa lies to Jar Jar?”

“Yes, Jar Jar, I’m afraid so. Claudia has told you that we are here to discuss this matter in a democratic fashion – but I say to you that you have all been lied to! She’s made this decision behind our backs, and I if that’s how we are going to be treated, then I for one want no part of this society anymore. I won’t wear the colours of this corrupt dictatorship one moment longer!”

I imagine at this point, Penny rips off her shirt and throws it in Claudia’s incensed visage. People stare, some blush, poor Jar Jar creams his pants and has to be excused. After a moment or two, Penny remembers that she wasn’t wearing her society shirt, and is, in fact, wearing only a purple push up bra from Victoria’s Secret, and that the room is quite chilly.

“I would never make this decision behind your backs,” The Empress protests, but the Countess, not one to ever be caught with her pants down (her top’s another matter, darlings) starts handing out copies of the email where Claudia did indeed invite the disgraced members back to the society.

Fury rises on the Empress’ face, and she begins to cry, and then to scream madly, calling for Penny’s head, calling for all their heads, and rather than wait for Jaime Lannister (or, you know, some random committee member) to step forward and stab the mad Empress in the back,[4] Penny leaps off the table and grabs the would be dictator by her frilly lace collar and drags her across the room, throwing her on the table in front of the other committee members, all the while screaming Viva La Revolution!

“I want no more part of this, Penny says, and someone throws her back her tattered t-shirt. Instead of using it to cover herself, she holds it high like a flag, looking like Liberty Leading the People from that Eugène Delacroix painting from the French Revolution – you know it, darlings, it’s the cover of Coldplay’s Viva La Vida.

“I won’t be a part of something this weak,” Penny continues, more seriously, now. When she’s serious, when something means this much to her, she can’t help but get teary-eyed. It just ends up adding more credence to her already important words. “We made a decision together – and we made it because we believed in each other, and we stood together and vowed that we weren’t going to be bullied.”

Around the room, committee members hang on her every word. Years from now they will recount this story to their grandchildren, and teach them the song The Ballad of the Penelope, Countess of Arcadia (a catchy little tune, by the way, that spent an unprecedented 68 consecutive weeks at Number 1 on the College Charts) and they will remember that day as the last time that they truly believed in anything.

“If you do this thing – if you just let her give in, you send a message to everyone out there – to every future couche-tard who doesn’t like the way things go for them – that all you have to do is bully the right people, and complain to the right people – and you can get away with anything. That is the world you will create, if you don’t stand up and say that it is not okay. That what they did was wrong; that there are certain inalienable truths that are self-evident; that there is just some shit with which we will not put up!”

At this point, Penny looks around for something, and notices someone spreading Nutella on a piece of bread. She grabs the butter knife out of their hands and holds it to her throat.

“That,” she says, and looks to the ceiling, baring her throat to her captive audience, “that is not a world I want to live in.”

I don’t even want to hazard a guess as to what might happen after that, darlings, but I do hope that Penny speaks her mind. I know that she’s made up her mind that one way or the other, she’s walking away. I’m proud of her. I know that she doesn’t want to be part of something so weak and ineffectual, and if her voice is just going to be ignored or co-opted and vetoed, then it’s more frustration than it’s worth.

*******

Penny got home that night looking more relieved than I’d seen her in a couple weeks. She actually had a smile on her face.

“So,” I asked, “how did it go?”

She shrugged. “About how I expected. The good news is, I now have more spare time to spend with my favourite Aunt.”

“I’m your only Aunt,” I said, “and don’t you have a boyfriend or something?”

She kissed my cheek. “You’re still my favourite. And boys are icky – isn’t that what you told me?”

“Yeah,” I laughed, “when you were seventeen and I was worried about you getting knocked up.”

“No boys right now,” she confided with a sigh.

“Hey, I’m not complaining, darling,” I said, and put my arm around her. “So what do you want to do with all this spare time?”

“Dunno,” she said. “I kinda wanna watch a movie. Maybe something with Hugh Jackman in it.”

“Have you seen Les Mis yet?” I asked.

“No, but if Hugh Jackman’s in it, I’m game.”

“He is,” I said, rubbing my hands together with glee, “and you’re going to love it.”

[1] The inescapable prison from The Count of Monte Cristo

[2] Literally The Window, this was a term for the guillotine.

[3] Continuing on with the evil Galactic Emperor schtick, Jar Jar Binks was the silly character from the Star Wars prequels.

[4] A reference to the character from Game of Thrones, and his infamous actions against the Mad King.

This story is featured in Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two, but also continues in Shakespearean fashion in Penelope, Countess of Arcadia.

If you want to read more, BECOME A FAN at PUBSLUSH and pre-order Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume Two and Penelope, Countess of Arcadia

Available now! image06 JESSICA image07

The one, the only Helena Hann-Basquiat, everyone's favorite dilettanteThe enigmatic Helena Hann-Basquiat dabbles in whatever she can get her hands into just to say that she has.

Some people attribute the invention of the Ampersand to her, but she has never made that claim herself.

Last year, she published Memoirs of a Dilettante Volume One, and is about to release Volume Two, along with a Shakespearean style tragi-comedy, entitled Penelope, Countess of Arcadia.

Helena writes strange, dark fiction under the name Jessica B. Bell. VISCERA, a collection of strange tales, will be published by Sirens Call Publications later this year. Find more of her writing at http://www.helenahb.com or and http://www.whoisjessica.com Connect with her via Twitter @HHBasquiat , and keep up with her ever growing body of work at GOODREADS, or visit her AMAZON PAGE

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”

Waking Nightmares

This is part of an ongoing story that begins with The Initiative

Mina shoved her way through the revolving door and burst out into the street, the wind cool against her blazing cheeks. Damn Delancey St. Clair. Damn him. She hunched her shoulders against the gusts and walked quickly down the street, wanting to put as much distance as possible between herself and Del. It was stupid to meet with him—stupid to put herself this close to Holler, Grim, Alberich & Mors. She had given into a moment of sentimentalism and contacted Delancey when she was a bottle of wine deep and alone in her tiny apartment. Del had no idea she was living in Boston—she was sure of that much. Why would he? She had no doubt he remembered her, but she knew better than to believe he still thought about her. She wished she didn’t still think about him, the arrogant asshole. Mina’s jaw ached and she realized she was grinding her teeth.
She glanced up to see the Boston Public Library looming ahead and walked quickly up the stairs to enter the warmth. The two stone lions at the top of the marble staircase stared impassively at her as she passed them, wandering the marble halls until she came to the Abbey Room, emblazoned with paintings by Edward Abbey depicting the quest and discovery of the Holy Grail. She leaned against the doorway, admiring the vivid works and letting her mind drift.
She had finally begun to feel safe, snug in her creaking, drafty apartment. That was before she saw him—she would recognize that face anywhere. The nightly nightmares kept it fresh, undimmed by time. She heard his name—the name he used in daylight—for the first time as the bartender handed him the bill. She shouldn’t have been in that part of town—but the cobbled streets and gaslights of Beacon Hill drew her in, reminding her of home in that small Russian town, of a simple time before her home meant blood pooling on the wooden floors her mother meticulously mopped and the china from her many times great grandmother’s dowry smashed and smeared with crimson.

The wine bar had seemed cozy, welcoming, and she sat at her corner table letting the flow of conversation around her sweeten her wine. She noticed him after a quarter of an hour, sitting at the end of the bar. His silver hair caught her eye and the expanse of his broad shoulders made her fingers go cold. The slightly crooked nose and pointed chin were unmistakable and the smile that he flashed the bartender almost made her drop her glass. She turned her head to the wall and drank as he got up to leave, scarcely able to breathe until she heard the door shut and saw him walk past the windows as he disappeared into the night. Richard Moretti. The name resonated in her brain. She knew him before only as Sinistrari.
She finished her wine and waited for the tremors in her hands and knees to subside before paying and slipping quietly out of the restaurant and making her way back to her flat. She immediately got out her laptop and searched for Richard Moretti. She had no doubt he would be a man of importance. When she found out the reach of his public influence, however, she was floored. CEO of a large XYZ company, he was known for his generosity and charitable nature. Photo after photo showed him shaking hands with someone and flashing his blazing smile for the camera. She shut the laptop as a wave of nausea rushed over her. It seemed to stretch belief that he could be in the city in which she chose to hide. She did not think he would leave Europe. She cursed herself for not checking—but what would she have used? Perhaps Richard Moretti was one of his many names, just because he originated in Italy did not mean he used his real name. She panicked then and opened her computer again, hammering out an email to Delancey St. Clair—a search for him found his cocky grin smiling up at her from the website of Holler, Grim, Albrecht, & Mors. A name she saw over and over in association with Sinistrari—Moretti. His legal counsel.
Despite that, she clicked on Delancey’s company email and sent him a message from one of her many disposable addresses. It was apparently too much to hope that Del would notice the message within her chosen handle. WilHMurray. Wilhemina Murray. As an alias it was obvious to her eyes, but, apparently not to his. The library suddenly seemed oppressive and she turned away from the intricate Abbey paintings and walked slowly down the stairs and out into the blustery day. She couldn’t believe Del was working for the firm that supported such ilk as Moretti—she had to get used to thinking of him that way. The last thing she needed was to go spill the name Sinistrari to someone. Looking up at the gray sky, all the anger seemed to leech out of her. What right did she have to expect Del’s help? She drug him straight into the middle of her mess ten years ago in Budapest and left him without so much as an explanation. Or a goodbye.

At lunch, she had searched the collected and sophisticated face of the young lawyer in front of her for a sign of the impetuous Delancey—little more than a boy—that she thought she knew. She remembered the last day—the last night. Remembered the chill of the hotel room as she slid out from beneath Delancey’s encircling arm and warm sheets and slipped out of the room. They had gone to the ballet that day—she convinced him and he protested in the Louisiana drawl she found so charming. He hadn’t lost that, at least. He was still charming, of that she was sure. A face like his would win the most stable woman over—and she had been so far from equilibrium. She remembered the faintest taste of his cologne on her lips as she pressed a farewell kiss to his bare shoulder and left when the sun was just peeking over the red roofs of Budapest.
Could she really blame him? She dragged him into a world most people still didn’t know existed outside the annals of fiction. She wouldn’t have believed it herself if she hadn’t seen them herself—jaws unhinging like a snake’s and a double set of sharp teeth descending to tear out the throats of her mother, father, her brother Piotr, her sister Nastia—all snuffed out in gouts of hot crimson.
The certainty she was having a nightmare faded when one of them stepped forward, his teeth receding as his face returning to normal. Normal but for the smears of blood around his face. He bent down towards her, his sharp chin catching the dim light. The strange noises that drew her from her bed had given no warning of this—the floating, nighttime drowsiness only enhanced the nightmare effect. And so, she did not shy away from the man who crouched down in front of her, hands and face dripping with her family’s blood.
He greeted her in Russian. “Hello, little one.”
She stared mutely at him, in dreams, one could not speak.
“What is it Sinistrari?” One of the other men asked, wiping his face with a red handkerchief he pulled from somewhere inside his coat.
“A child, Valac. Only a child.”
“What are you waiting for, then?”
“This one lives.” The man in front of her tilted his silver-haired head to the side and regarded her.
“What?” The one called Valac’s voice dropped to a hiss.
“When she wakes again, this will all be as a dream.” Sinistrari’s voice never broke its deep, gentle cadence.
He leaned towards her and opened his mouth wide again. Mina shut her eyes, certain that there would be a snap of teeth and she would awaken, but there was only a rush of breath across her face—strangely cooler than the warmth of the living room—and smelling of cold earth. She opened her eyes and saw the familiar shapes of her bedroom cast into shadow by her flickering nightlight. It wasn’t until the next morning that she saw the bare, bloodied footprints that streaked her bedroom floor and recognized them as her own. The six year old Mina’s testimony of monsters was discounted with much sympathetic headshaking and murmurs of trauma. Her aunt in St. Petersburg took her in and, once Mina was stirred into the mixture of four cousins, treated her no differently than one of her own.

She walked through the Boston Public Garden—where some of the trees still clung to their colorful autumn crowns—feeling aimless. She didn’t want to return to her apartment. She thought she would meet with Del and have all her problems solved. A completely ridiculous notion–born from some lingering damsel in distress fantasy. If he couldn’t help her, it would be just another disappointment she could pencil into the column reserved for Delancey St. Clair.

<<< Previous

Tools and Weapons

monk22
This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Someone flicked Zion’s forehead and he stifled a yelp, opening his eyes. He had dozed off, soothed by the stillness and the fragrant lavender that hung drying from the ceiling. Solas stood with his arms crossed, a smug smile playing across his lips. Zion noticed his damp hair and the scent of the olive oil soap the Order bought from the bedouins. He wondered if Solas had bathed merely to rinse after the trial or if he was trying to rid himself of the smell of Redheart.
         “Did the Council change their minds?” Zion asked. “Or is it already time for me to be disciplined ?”
         “Get up,” Solas said, ignoring his question.
         Zion held up his ruined shirt. “Will I need clothes?”
         “Garth? Get the boy something to wear.”
         Zion’s fingers moved quickly, telling Garth to forget it. The healer looked between the two, half rising from his chair. Solas’ smile had vanished but Zion stood, pulling on his ripped shirt, and held out his arms to say he was ready as he was. Solas’ fingers twitched once, calling him a name that would bring any other two men to blows. Zion raised his chin slightly, lessening the gap in their heights, and smiled at his mentor. To his surprise, Solas snorted and turned, preceding him out of the room, without saying a word. Solas did not speak as they made their way through the wide halls, giving Zion plenty of time to remember those first brutal years as he struggled against the Brothers, the other novices, and the sinking fear of failure that threatened to engulf him before the trials.

         As they passed various doors, sounds wafted out–mandolin music, singing, voices raised in monotonous repetition. They learned more than killing–more than Zion thought his brain could hold at first. A true assassin must be able to take up any role, any place in society necessary to gain him access to his mark. He winced as he remembered his failed attempts at every musical instrument the Brothers tried. Brother Calver had not been surprised, saying his hands were more fit for casting nets than playing the harp. For once, Zion was only too happy to agree.
         “Well, Brother Solas?” Zion finally broke the silence, knowing it was calculated to make him speak first. “Are you going to take me out in the forest and leave me for a day and a night? I passed that test on my first year. No?” He quickened his pace and turned to walk backwards in front of Solas. “Perhaps three days in the pit? Or was it four? I did not think I would ever be able to straighten again.” He searched Solas’s face for any hint of expression, but the assassin was impassive. Zion let his expression slip into one of barely controlled panic and did a slight jig. “Not dancing lessons, for the love of Avior, don’t say more dancing lessons.”
         Solas’s left hand shot out and gripped the front of Zion’s shirt, pulling him to a clumsy halt. His other fingers pressed against Zion’s windpipe making him gag before he relaxed against the grip, feeling for a moment like the kitten Rael had killed so many years before.
         “Watch your mouth, boy. Do you think the Council is not searching for reasons to cast you out? Do you know how long a lone assassin lasts before the Council decide he is too much of a risk–that he may too easily become a weapon, ready-honed for someone else’s hands?”
         Zion felt a cold tendril wind down his back and instinctively clamped his mind against the tingle of fear. They were told that they could leave at any time in their training, that they would be trusted to keep the secrets of the order, knowing full well the consequences if their lips loosened. But no one left by choice. Solas’s threat was not an empty one. The Order created tools and a tool was only useful so long as it obeyed the hand that wielded it.

         “How long does it take?” Zion asked.
         Solas’s heavy brows lowered and Zion swallowed hard feeling the pressure of Solas’s fingers as his Adam’s apple moved.
         “How long does what take?” Solas growled.
         “How long does it take to forget you are a man with a will of your own?” Zion knew if he looked away, he would never have the courage to question his mentor again, so he stared into Solas’s dark eyes.
         “For some, the first month. For others,” the assassin’s hand tightened briefly around Zion’s throat before releasing him. “Never.”
         Zion waited until Solas had turned away before massaging his throat, aware of how easily the older man could have ended his life.
         “Come on. We don’t have all day,” Solas said over his shoulder.
         Zion padded quietly after his mentor, wondering how long he had before he pushed Solas too far.

Assassins’ Academy II

Aconitum_napellus-6

This is the continuation of an ongoing story. Read from the beginning here.

         Before the week was out, the boys were roused from their beds for the trial, stumbling after the Brothers with sleep-shrouded eyes, the tension was palatable. They never knew exactly what the trial would be until it began–although dark hints from the older boys left even the bravest lying awake into the early hours of the morning. They were all surprised and twice as wary when the Brothers led them into the dining hall. It was cold and lacked the comforting smells of breakfast, as the first meal of the day would not be served for several hours yet, but there was nothing threatening in sight. Instinctively, the boys pressed together, scanning the room. Brother Calver moved to the head table where a large, misshapen mound was covered with fabric. He pulled the cloth aside with more flourish than necessary, Zion noted, keeping slightly to the side of his fellow novices. If there was to be some sort of attack, he did not want to be caught up in the crush of their fearful bodies. For a moment, he was back on the docks, ripped away from the protection of his Mother and sister’s hands and unable to escape the mob. He hoped no one could see the sheen of sweat on his brow as Calver began to speak.
         “There will be no swords, no bows and arrows, and no knives, today.” He waited for the rumble of dissent and confusion to die down. “This is the only weapon you need, boys.” He tapped a finger to his temple. “This is the only thing you will use today.”
         He gestured for them to draw nearer and explained that the thing on the table was a scale model of a city–Nyssa, the fabled city of unbreached walls and towers that stretched beyond the clouds–and that their mark was the Emperor of Nyssa. They must devise a way to kill the Emperor without detection and remain alive themselves. Those were the only two rules.
         “Eliminate your target and stay alive,” Solas repeated, stepping forward from the back of the group. “This is the foundation of your training. Do not forget it.”
         Zion did not turn to face his mentor like the other boys but as the assassin walked towards the front of the room to stand behind the table, he paused imperceptibly and Zion caught the flicker of his fingers, hidden from the others at his side. Luck go with you. Zion stood at the table, scanning the model and the symbols painted on it that represented archers and guards and boiling oil and pitfalls and traps. He had never believed the stories of Nyssa, but looking at it as though he was a raven soaring high above its so-called endless towers, he could see the cleverness of the design. It was diamond shaped and two of the four walls were carved directly into the cliffs behind. The cliffs were made of slate if he understood the symbol correctly–sheer stone that would flake at any attempt to drive in footholds. At the back corner a waterfall tumbled down the black walls.

         Long after the other boys took their seats, sketching and toying with bits of rope and wood, Zion studied the city. He ignored Brother Calver’s sighs and the creaking of the floorboards as he shifted impatiently. When he cleared his throat and announced that they had half an hour remaining, Zion walked over to the table of supplies, mind whirring. He picked up a piece of parchment and several pots of ink and a quill. For the next half hour, he bent over his work, stopping only flex his cramped fingers. He wasn’t certain if they would be given time to explain their methods, so he painstakingly wrote down the steps he would take in addition to his diagram. When Brother Calver announced that their time was concluded Zion put aside his inks and wiped his stained hands on his shirt. Calver and the others stopped at each boy and allowed him to explain his scenario. The Council nodded and shook their heads almost in unison, doling out heavy criticism. A few of the boys received grudging compliments for their innovative thinking, but one by one their plans and mechanisms were torn apart, the gaping flaws pointed out to them.
         When the Council came to Zion, he stepped back to give them a clear view of his work. The painting master, Brother Andrew, made a noise that could have been either a cough or a sign of approval.
         “And what,” asked Brother Calver slowly, “is this?”
         “Monkshood. Or Wolf’s Bane,” Zion said, gesturing to the meticulously painted flower. He had enjoyed leafing through Brother Garth’s herbal on the rare occasions he spent time in the infirmary.
         “What do you hope to accomplish with this?” Brother Mendic asked.
         “The waterfall that runs along the back of the city–it is their main water source.” He pointed to the rough sketch he had made of the city, the way the water disappeared underground to well up again in fountains and cisterns. “Everyone, from the lowliest maid emptying chamber pots to the Emperor of Nyssa himself drinks this water. The forests around Nyssa no doubt contain enough Monkshood to make the water deadly, but an assassin could carry a concentrated supply as well.”
         “But how would you ensure only the Emperor drank the water?” Calver asked. “What about the rest of the city?”
         Zion looked down at his carefully outlined plan, from gathering the plants and distilling their poison to adding it to the water system, how to completely avoid notice from the guards, the townspeople, even the huntsmen and goat herders in the forested hills. He let the silence stretch until he could almost taste Brother Calver’s anticipation of his failure. Then, he raised his head.
         “That wasn’t one of the rules.”

         Two days later, Zion spent his first night in the pit. The pits were small, stone lined holes beneath the foundations of the main buildings. They were damp and cold and there was not enough room to sit or lie down or stand fully upright. A man–or even a boy of fourteen–had to crouch like a beast in agony until everything went numb. Brother Calver said it was for insolence, for other minor infractions that had been overlooked for too long, but Zion had seen the tremor that ran through his hands and the flicker in his eyes at the group trial. Brother Calver was afraid of him.

NEXT>>>

photo