Just Desserts

666 - Route 666

They were somewhere in the desert, the one that spanned Nevada and Arizona but changed names, or spellings anyway, at the state line. Mojave, Mohave, either way it was Mo-freaking-hot-as-hell.

Tracy could even see the heat waves rolling up from the ground, making the endless stretch of empty road look more like rolling sea than a black asphalt river bleeding its way across the parched flesh of the empty land.

Sure, there was another car from time to time, but mostly the only thing that punctuated the monotony was the occasional mournful whistle of a cargo train – they were automated, those things – and over a hundred cars longs – and their whistles made Tracy shiver every time.

“Too much a/c?” Steve asked? The outside temperature gauge read 106 but it was 72 in the car.

“No, just the train whistle.”

“You like trains,” Steve reminded her.

“I like passenger trains,” she said. “These cargo things… they’re more like ghost trains. Sometimes I think maybe it’s just one endless train on a loop, never ending or beginning…”

“Drink some water, babe; you’re dehydrated.”

“I’m not!” she insisted, but she reached for her water bottle anyway, and took a healthy swallow. “How’re we doing on gas?” The design of the dashboard meant she couldn’t read that information from the passenger seat.

“We can make to Flagstaff.”

“Oh. Goo – Shit!” A red sports car had come zooming up beside them in the wrong lane, nearly clipping her mirror. “That wasn’t the same car we saw leaving Vegas?”

“I think it was… ”

Tracy reached out and teased the nape of Steve’s neck. “Crazy.”

“I know.”

They kept on driving, stopped at a couple of truck stops for bathroom breaks and gas. And then, just outside Flagstaff, they turned off the interstate, following suggestions to a tourist destination on the old Route 66. “I-40 parallels it along this stretch,” Steve told her, when Tracy questioned the detour. “There’s a ghost town with a burger joint that supposed to be to die for. They keep it open for tourists.”

“What tourists?” Tracy wanted to know.

“I guess there are more than we think.”

Tracy shrugged. “Sounds fun.” They weren’t in a race, after all.  They were headed to a new life in a community of artists and writers in Taos, New Mexico, but their schedule was their own. So why not enjoy a slight diversion?

Unlike the Interstate, the road they turned onto was faded and crumbling at the shoulders. The paint marking the lanes was barely discernible, but ruts in the road marked the divisions as well, or better.

The burger joint – a roadhouse, really – had a rusty highway sign on the top, Tracy froze looking at it after they got out of the car. “Steve. There are three sixes on that sign.”

“What?” he said. “Baby, we really need to get some protein in you.”

When Tracy looked again, the sign was a normal Route 66 sign.

Inside, the place was full of tourist kitsch. Stuffed jackalopes and Route 66 t-shirts were everywhere, and the song – that song – blared from the speakers.

A tired waitress in a polyester uniform greeted them with a dusty smile. “Welcome to the Roadhouse.” She reeled off a list of specials and left them to decide while she went to get drinks. A few minutes later, they were sipping iced tea and waiting for bacon and cheddar burgers.

“You headed somewhere specific?” the waitress asked, when she brought their food.

“Taos,” Tracy said.

“Nice town,” the other woman answered. “You’ll like it there. Best cheese enchiladas ever come from Gloria’s. Don’t miss them.”

“Thanks for the tip,” Tracy said.

The burgers were wonderful. Steve ate his own and half of hers, but that was typical. She ate all of her own fries, though. They had garlic on them. They watched people come and go as they ate – families mostly, and a few couples like themselves – but then he entered.

Tracy could tell he didn’t fit. Didn’t belong. His teeth were too white. His sunglasses were too expensive. His t-shirt had a logo that meant it had cost more than their typical electric bill.

“Can I get service?” he asked loudly. He’d barely been waiting fifteen seconds.

“I can seat you at the counter,” their waitress offered. “If it’s just you.”

“Fine, I guess. Could you wipe the grease off it first, though?”

Tracy couldn’t see his face, but she could practically hear him rolling his eyes.

“Asshole,” Steve muttered under his breath.

“Bet you anything he’s the guy in that red penis-car that keeps almost killing us,” Tracy whispered back.

In an attempt to wait him out, to not be ahead of him on the road, they decide to order pie and coffee. Tracy went for peach – her favorite – Steve was excited that they offered strawberry-rhubarb. “Good choices,” their waitress approved. “You want a la mode? It’s on me.”

“Because we’re going to Taos?” Tracy asked.

“Sure. That.” The waitress gave asshole-customer a furtive glance. “And because I know you don’t want to be on the road with him. I can tell.”

“He’s… we keep running into him. I guess the upside is that he’s the one who’s been caught in every speed trap since Vegas,” Steve said.

“Don’t doubt it.”

“A la mode sounds fantastic,” Tracy smiled. “It’s summer, after all. Thanks.”

“You bet.”

They finish their dessert, by which time the guy with the attitude has disappeared. “Bet you anything he’s from L.A.,” Tracy said, as they paid the check. “Leave the waitress a generous tip.”

“I left twenty-five percent,” Steve said.

“And that’s why I love you.”

“Not for my hot body?”

“Well, that too.”

They paused for a selfie in front of the roadhouse. It was dark by then, but there was so much lighting in the parking lot that it might as well have been noon. There’s a mark on the ground telling people where to stand so they can guarantee the sign is in the picture.

Back in the car, they headed back to the Interstate, only to be halted by flickering red and blue lights. “Sorry folks,” a highway patrol officer says, coming up to their window. “Gotta redirect you. To get back on Eastbound 40 do this…”

Tracy took down the directions with the “Notes” app on her phone. “Can I ask what happened, Officer?”

“Bad accident,” he said. “Speed demon in a red car wrapped himself around the signpost on the ramp.” He took a beat, then added. “These roads… they may seem flat and empty, but they make you cocky. You drive safe, hear?”

“Sure thing, Officer.” It was Steve who answered.

They follow their detour directions which take them to a ridge on the other side of the Interstate. Looking down, they can see the car that was smashed. No surprise, it was their “friend” from the road. The asshole from the  roadhouse.

“Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy,” Steve said.

“Hush, honey. No one deserves that. Not really.” She paused. “We should go.” But their vantage point also let them glimpse the sign from the roadhouse, and Tracy shivered when she saw it. Checking her phone, she confirms what she’d seen before. The sign on the roof. One side was the normal road sign for America’s most famous highway.

The other? It had three sixes.

Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.
Get your kicks on route sixty-six.

Uneasy Lies the Head

662 - Uneasy Head

“They whisper,” the Crowned one heard her confession. “They whisper all sorts of things to me, and I’m never which advice to follow.”

“Can you be more specific?”

“Big Nose said I should trip Samuel as he was reaching the top of the stairs. I thought he might tumble and slide. I didn’t expect to hear the cracking sound. Or for his head to turn all the way ’round like that.”

The Crowned One frowned. “Samuel died at the bottom?”

“He was very pale… and so quiet. There wasn’t any blood though. I thought there was always blood when people die.”

“Not always, Georgia. Not always. What other whispers have you heard?”

“Twisted Lip said Nanny was plotting against me and I should switch my teacup with hers.”

“And did you?” the Crowned One was concerned as well as curious. What would the child’s answer be?

“Yes, I did. We’re looking for a new Nanny now. Because that Nanny started foaming at the mouth and then went all twitchy and fell off her chair. She’s not dead though, just really sick.”

“I see. It would seem Twisted Lip’s advice was wise, then.”

“Yes, but… I miss Samuel.”

“I am certain that you do. You and he have always been good friends.”

“Except he said that he would ascend to the throne because he’s a boy even though I’m six weeks older,” the little girl announced. “And Mother said those rules don’t matter anymore, because she sits on the throne now, after all.”

“Yes,” the Crowned one confirmed. “Yes, she does. Have you spoken to your mother about these things, Georgia? Told her what the Advisors are whispering to you?”

“I have,” she told him, nodding her head up and down. “She said it’s the way of things. People always try to eliminate the people who have power so they can have power instead. And sometimes we must act to protect our own interests.”

The Crowned One understood his role in Princess Georgia’s life. As a former head of state and current, well, state head, albeit a disembodied one, he was to offer the child as much wisdom and guidance as he could. He had hoped this could have happened without so much intrigue. He had fervently wished for a lot less murder. But it was the way of the world. The other heads – former guards and statesfolk, all – would whisper to the Heir, their advice to be heeded or not, as the child’s will dictated.

But his counsel was given openly.

At that moment, he wished he could give more than counsel. A friendly hug, perhaps. A pat on the head. But the reality was that this small girl was, at ten, already more ruthless than half a dozen mercenaries. She had to be, if she truly meant to take the throne someday.

All he could hope was that his wisdom would temper her more… expedient… choices.

“Dark Eyes also whispers,” the young princess offered, perhaps to assuage his obvious unease. “Dark Eyes says I must remember to be compassionate, when I can.”

“That is wise advice,” the Crowned One said.

“I’ve tried to heed it. Benjamin and I have been playing together since Samuel left us.”

“Since he died, you mean?”

“Yes, that.”

“It’s good that you’ve reached out to his little brother.”

“Benjamin will never sit on the throne.”

“It is highly unlikely that he will.”

“But… he makes me laugh, and when we are together, I don’t focus so much on the whispers I hear from the Heads.”

“It’s good,” the Crowned One said, “that you can still be a child from time to time. Stay young as long as you can, Georgia.”

“I will try.”

“It is late. You should rest.”

“Yes…”  She released the magic holding him in place, and the Crowned One floated up to the Keeper’s Space. “Goodnight, sir.”

“Goodnight, Georgia.”

The little girl was soon asleep. But the Crowned One was still fretting. She was becoming too hard, too cold… he was concerned. A leader must be able to act swiftly and make tough decisions; it was true, but a leader must also be able to be lenient, to know when kindness was the better path. He would speak with Dark Eyes in the morning. They would push Compassion at her a bit more heavily.

A line from Shakespeare went through his brain, and he chuckled softly. Old Will had really nailed it with that one.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”

 

 

 

 

Eternal Companion

656 - Eternal Companion

You’re the same in every city. Every country. Every continent. You have been so ever since Velázquez first used you as the model for one of his gods.

You knew he would.

How could he resist?

Your flowing platinum hair. Your alabaster skin. The faint glow of otherness about you. These things made you compelling to men and women of all walks of life, so why not one of the world’s greatest painters?

But then his vision changed.

Ever the storyteller, Diego chose to tell different stories with his paintings. Instead of capturing encounters between gods and men, he focused on the earthiest of the earthbound. The kind who most people made a point of never seeing: the poor, the ugly, the ill, the malformed.

But you; you were beautiful, and you knew it.

So, you went on a mission to show off your terrible, dangerous beauty.

Killing sprees across every city in Europe. Milan. Paris. London. Madrid. Amsterdam. Rome. Berlin. There was no pattern. You went wherever your bloodlust took you, leaving your crimson stain on the statuary, since you couldn’t leave a tintype or photograph.

And I watched you.

I watched you grow paler and more luminescent as last vestiges of humanity were bitten from the necks of your victims and spit, sizzling, to the ground.

Your humanity, not theirs.

And I began to wonder who the real victim was: those whom you killed; you, who did the killing; or I, who allowed it all to continue.

If I were a stronger person, if my resolve were better fortified, this is the point in which I would inform my readers that I’d left you, or better, that I’d committed the ultimate act of altruism and driven the final stake through your marble-esque chest.

But I am not that strong.

And love can be so weak.

And so, because through it all, my angel, my demon, my eternal companion, I do love you, I offer you my neck, and hope beyond hope that in doing so, some of your madness is abated.

After all, the blood is the life.

 

 

Good Kitty

Like the Prose: Challenge #26 – Find a picture and use it to inspire your story. (My image is from the Flash-Prompt Facebook group.)

Good Kitty

They’d looked at ten other houses, but finally settled on that one. It had everything they needed: three bedrooms, so each of the kids could have their own, two full bathrooms, plus a half-bath downstairs, pool in the fenced-in back yard, even a proper front porch where they could sit and sip morning coffee or evening wine and watch the neighborhood go by.

The mural at the top of the attic stairs didn’t thrill them, but they could always paint over it.

Besides, the price was unbelievable.

“I have to ask,” Karen said, almost afraid of what the realtor would say. “Why is this place so affordable?”

“You do know you’re required to disclose any deaths on the premises,” her husband Chad put in.

The realtor seemed slightly flustered. “There haven’t been any deaths. No injuries either, I promise. But there have been… reports.”

“Reports? Of what?” Karen wanted to know.

“Well, really more like rumors,” the older woman amended.

“I think you’d better explain,” Chad said.

“Previous residents mentioned hearing odd noises in the attic. Some said that their pets were always on alert. No one ever found anything, though. I guess, you might say the house is haunted.”

“Haunted?”

“As I said, it’s just a rumor.”

Karen and Chad consulted for a while, privately. “It’s too good a deal to pass up,” they said. “We’ll take it.”

* * *

“Mommy, why are there eyes at the top of the stairs?” Karen rolled over to find her pajama-clad daughter staring at her with frightened features.

“It’s probably just a reflection. The eyes of the cat in the painting glow in the moonlight. Go back to sleep, sweetie.”

“I can’t go back to my room alone.”

“You want me to walk you back?”

“Uh-huh.”

“Why were you up?”

“I heard purring… and then I had to pee.”

“Purring?”

“Uh-huh.”

“You didn’t bring home another kitten, did you?” The little girl was prone to finding stray animals.

The child shook her head no. “Uh-uh.”

Karen rolled out of bed. “Alright. Let’s get you back to bed.”

Mother and daughter walked hand-in-hand down the dim hallway. The nightlight in the bathroom cast weird shadows that almost seemed to move, but Karen shrugged it off. It was just her daughter’s overactive imagination affecting her perceptions, she was sure.

Still, after she’d tucked her little girl back into bed, Karen paused at the bottom of the attic stairs and peered up into the darkness. She was about to head back to bed when she caught the gleam of something that did, in fact, look like two eyes staring back at her.

Startled, she took a step backwards, her hand colliding with the wall, but that reminded her of the switch that was right there. She flipped it on.

And laughed.

The painting on the wall at the top of the stairs was the image of a cougar in tall grass, it’s green eyes eerily realistic in the light of the single bulb.

Damn, that thing is realistic, she thought.

Shaking her head at her own skittishness, she turned out the light and went back to bed.

* * *

“Did the cougar sneak into your room last night, Scarlet?” Karen’s son teased her daughter at breakfast several days later.

“Marky! That’s not funny!” the little girl protested.

“Mark, I’ve told you not to tease her. You know it’s just a painting.”

“Yeah, but it’s a painting that moves or haven’t you noticed that it’s never in quite the same position, or that the grass keeps extending down the stairs?”

“Mark, that’s enough.” Karen uttered the words in the patented warning tone all mothers have. But secretly, she knew her son was right. There was a patch of jungle at the top of the attic stairs and it was growing closer to the upstairs hallway every day. It was subtle, but it was true.

“Sorry.”

“What are you sorry for?” Karen asked. She and Chad had read in a parenting book years before that generic apologies were meaningless. They had to be specific.

“I’m sorry for scaring you, Scarlet,” Mark said, sounding almost sincere. “And I’m sorry for not listening to you, Mom.”

“Thank you, sweetie. How will you change your behavior?”

“I’ll try not to tease Scarlet and be better about being more responsive.”

“Alright.”

“It’s almost time for the bus,” the boy pointed out.

“Alright then. Your lunches are on the counter. Watch out for your sister.”

Both kids ran from the room.

* * *

Life went on. The grass on the wall crept steadily downward. The cougar sometimes appeared below the top step, as if they’d caught it while on patrol. Scarlet suggested that they make friends with it, and so one night, when Chad was on a business trip, they left a saucer each of milk and leftover hamburger (cooked) on the landing. Just to see what happened.

Both saucers were empty in the morning, and both children swore they hadn’t touched them.

Karen repeated the process every few days… she didn’t want to make offerings every day, she said, because she’d read in a book that wild animals shouldn’t get used to being fed by humans. They had to know how to hunt.

It was about three weeks later that Karen and Chad woke up to find an offering of a dead rat outside their bedroom door.

Chad had never owned pets, but Karen had grown up with cats. She understood. The cougar at the top of the stairs had accepted their offer. They were friends.

* * *

A stormy night. Another business trip for Chad. Like the horror stories Karen and her friends had told at slumber parties when she was a girl, there was an escaped serial killer in their neighborhood. She and the children were a bit spooked, but they’d checked the locks and set the alarm, and her cell phone was charged.

She wasn’t surprised when Scarlet had crept into her bed during the height of the storm. Lightning and thunder were still scary to the little girl.

She was slightly surprised when Mark joined them a bit later, but by then the power had gone out, and even though he was ten, he was, after all, still a little boy. And Mom meant safety. Always.

They heard the rattling at the door at the same time.

Karen reached for her cell, but there was no signal. Stupid storm. She tried to remain calm for the children.

The yowling and screeching came at the same time that the door burst open.

“Jesus, fuck, what kinda creature is that!” they heard a male voice say.

And then there was more yowling. And more screeching, both feline and human.

And then there was silence.

“Stay here,” Karen told her kids. She tip-toed to the bedroom door and cracked it open. The cougar was sitting on a prone human form, licking its chops. It turned its head toward Karen as if to tell her it would keep her safe. Her and her family.

“Good kitty,” she told the creature. “Good kitty.”

The power came back. The police were called. The lock on the door was fixed.

“Good thing you have such a mean cat,” the officers said.

“Yes,” Karen said. “Yes, it is.”  She couldn’t wait to tell Chad all about it when he got home.

 

 

 

 

Buzz

Like the Prose: Challenge #7 – Write about a culture you know nothing about and give your protagonist a profession you’re unfamiliar with. (I confess: I cheated a bit and invented both the culture and the profession.) Photo courtesy of the Facebook FlashPrompt group.

carrier bees

The truth is, Fenella resented that she was required to carry the blade with her. She had never believed the horned buzzers would revolt; she knew they enjoyed the service they provided to their humanoid companions.

And it wasn’t as though they were enslaved.

When her ancestors had come to this world, decades before, fleeing the polluted environment and equally polluted governments of Old Earth, they had taken with them only positive ideals.

Equality. Unity. Socialism where it was necessary, but capitalism where that was more beneficial. A two-tiered financial structure where people bartered where they could and only used credits when bartering wasn’t practical.

You couldn’t really barter a bushel of apples for a new roof, for example; it wasn’t practical.

But you could trade those apples and an equal number of yams, and maybe a monthly supply of field greens for a side of beef.

It wasn’t a perfect system, but it was working so far.

A blend of old and new.

Just like the professions.

Fenella’s parents had wanted her to go into a Traditional Profession. Her mother was a surgeon and her father enjoyed being a greengrocer.

But she was a child of this world and she insisted she wanted to be entirely of it. And when she had met one of the Wranglers outside her school one day, she’d fallen in love. Not with him – he was far too old for her – but his buzzer had let her touch his furred side and, and she’d felt herself in harmony with the great winged creature.

They had smaller buzzers on this world too. The ones bred from Old Earth honeybees. They were pollinators.

But the horned buzzers… they were bred up from carpenter bees, and their mass made them able to carry baskets capable of transporting goods or people across the great continents, or even the oceans (though it required stopovers on small islands en route).

They weren’t entirely sentient. More than a dog or a horse. Less than a human. Easily directed. And they could work in, well, swarms, if a job dictated it.

Still, every so often, they said, a horned buzzer would go rogue. It was pheromones. Or resentment. Or exhaustion. No one was sure. And for that reason, the Wranglers carried the blades.

The first step was to make the blade vibrate and touch it to the buzzer’s horn. It would sort of… reboot its nervous system.

And if that didn’t work, well, there was a reason the blades were sharp.

As a catch-and-release Wrangler, Fenella wasn’t assigned to just one buzzer, and she was glad of it, because if she had a hard time just carrying the blade, how much harder to consider having to put down a creature you worked with every day?

Not that she believed it would happen.

A voice came over her headset. “Five buzzers, income.”

“Catch and release station six, ready,” she responded.

Fenella stood on the cliff watching for the impending arrival. She felt it before she could see it. She could feel their buzz.

 

 

Pelt

0459 - Pelt

The snow was cold beneath the pads of her feet, and there was ice matted between her claws, but she reveled in the bitter cold, the bracing wind. To move on four feet instead of two was to embrace her true self, the one with thick fur that was designed for life in a harsh environment.

She sniffed the air and caught the familiar scents of home and family – her human family. When she’d told them that she needed to go for a walk, her husband had understood what she meant, but her children had not. They didn’t know what she really was.

A rabbit scurried across her path. She considered chasing it, bringing it home for dinner, but she knew what the kids would say… “Rabbit’s gross. It’s so stringy. Mama, we can’t eat Thumper.”

She would never judge them for their human tastes, but sometimes – most times – she missed the chase, the kill, the way fresh venison had that slightly gamey undertone.

A mournful howl cut through the wind. It wasn’t one of her kind, but she answered anyway, her return song one of reassurance. “You will be alright,” she sang. “Winter won’t last forever.”

The sunlight was beginning to fade as she turned for home and she paused at the edge of their property just to look at the cozy house, all aglow with lamplight. Subtle wisps of wood smoke emanated from the chimney. Wood smoke and beef stew. Her husband had been cooking.

Shaking the snow from her back, she climbed the three steps to the back porch. She stepped out of her pelt, as she climbed, laughing as her shadow appeared to have six limbs at one point.

She dressed in the clothes she’d left on top of the bench, and bundled her cast-off fur into a soft, cloth bag.

Her husband was waiting just inside the mud room. “Feel better?” he asked.

“Yes, thank you.” She leaned to nuzzle his neck and then kiss his whiskery cheek. “Here,” she said. “You keep this.”

But her husband shook his head. “You know I can’t accept it. I want you here out of free will, not out of some compulsion.”

They had the same argument every time.

“You’re not taking it from me,” she explained, yet again. “I’m giving it to your care, just as you’ve given me your heart.”

“But I can abuse it,” he said.

“But you won’t,” she countered. “Any more than I would abuse your heart.”

Reluctantly he accepted her offering. “The second you want it back…” he began. But he didn’t finish; she knew what he’d say. Instead he simply asked,”You hungry? Dinner’s ready.”

Sometimes, she thought, a bowl of stew and the smiling faces of a family meant more than any hunt.

 

Fair is Fowl

0456 - Cauldron

“Double, double, toil and trouble,” rasped the feathered being behind her.

The Scottish Play? Really?” Agathe replied as she cracked the egg into the cauldron. Its shell fell away in pieces, dissolving into the concoction she was brewing. Then the yolk plopped in. She stirred gently with a wooden spoon, resisting the urge to taste it. Sure, it looked and smelled like egg drop soup, but there were other… ingredients… that were not so benign.

“You turned me into this half-human, half-bird,” the other replied. “You’re stuck with me until you manage to turn me back.”

“I’ve told you,” Agathe reminded her, “it was an accident. You weren’t supposed to sip the tea from that mug. It was supposed to be sprinkled over the hens’ feed to increase their laying capacity.”

“Because you’re too cheap to build a separate enclosure and buy a second rooster.”

Agathe rolled her eyes, ignoring the other’s comment.

“Admit it! You are; you are!” the other said.

“Maybe I wouldn’t have to be so cautious about spending,” Agathe said, accenting her oblique correction, “if someone I know helped bring in some income.”

“Like this? How could I possibly do that?” the other was incensed.

“I don’t know, give folks rides on your back? Go out on street corners and recite ‘The Raven?'” She turned the flame up under the cauldron, and the contents inside began to hiss and roil.

“Fire burn and cauldron bubble,” came the gravelly commentary from behind her.

“Merlin’s shriveled balls! Must you?” Agathe complained. Then she sighed. “Alright, I need the sword now.”

“Mine,” said the other.

“I know it’s yours. We have to dip it into the soup and then you have to lick it.”

“Lick it?”

“Yes. Lick it. Lick it good.”

“You know, this form isn’t so bad. I mean… I don’t mind it, except the egg-laying thing.”

“The egg-laying thing is what’s going to turn you back,” Agathe said. “The sword please?”

Her temporarily feathered friend relinquished the weapon and watched as the witch dipped it into the soup – spell – concoction – thing. “Do I really have to lick it?”

“If you want to be returned to your original form, yes.”

Warily, the feathered one allowed the sword to be drawn gently – oh, so gently – through its beak. “Well? I don’t feel any different.”

“It takes a minute.”

“Oh.”

They waited.

And waited.

And waited.

And finally, there was a puff of grey and white smoke and the feathered hybrid had disappeared, replaced with a woman who looked like a slightly younger version of Agathe.

“I’m back,” she said. “I’m me! I’m back.” She danced around the room, laughing and crying at once. Then she looked at her sister. “I think you should taste the soup.”

“We don’t know what it will do.”

“Turnabout’s fair play,” the younger woman said.

“Alright, fine.” She dipped her wooden spoon into the mixture, then lifted it out and tasted it.

“Well?”

“Needs salt.”

“But… you’re not changing. Why are you not changing?”

“Oh, the soup had nothing to do with it. I just wanted a recipe to win the tasty treats contest. I could have turned you back any time.”

“But… Agathe. I’m your sister!”

“Yeah, but you stole my favorite pointy-toed boots.”

“You turned me into a bird thing for that?!”

“Well, foul is fair and fair’s fowl.”  She giggled. No. She cackled. Get it? Fowl? F-o-w-l.” She cackled some more.

There was a splash as Agathe’s Exotic Hybrid Egg-drop Soup became Agathe’s New Dress.

The other turned to leave, but her Agathe called her back.  “Doris! Come back here. Doris! I’m sorry.”

But the younger woman just called back over her shoulder. “Nevermore.”

 

 

 

 

 

The Briar Wreath

454 - Wreath

It was a delicate task, and one that was crowned with honor, to gather the wreath that would be displayed above the capitol doors.

In seasons past, Master Gavrel had led his party to the greenwood and the pinewood, selecting individual boughs from the trees there, and then he and the other masters and mistresses (who were also called ‘master’ now, but forgave him for using the old ways because he was old) would weave them into the Great Wreath.

But this year, this year, Master Gavrel wanted something different, something organic. So, he went to the winter wood. He knew that others had gone before him, seeking a wreath from the Order of the Brambles, and that most had come back injured and empty handed, while others had not returned at all.

He had prepared though. He had learned the prayers and practiced the ritual bows and walks. He had brought an offering of fresh soil and nutrient-rich mulch, and not one in his company carried an axe or saw.

Gavrel’s party reached the clearing, and he alone moved forward, through the impaled skeletons of those who had made this attempt, and failed, his movements precise, deliberate.

He spoke the words of the prayers and made his offerings of soil and mulch. He made his bow, and walked in a circle around the offerings, then bowed again.

And then he waited.

He was expecting drama. A sudden storm, perhaps, or trees come to life. But none of that happened.

Instead, there was a rustling sound, then a strong shake, and the suspended wreath dropped to the forest floor. He gestured for his companions to step forward and retrieve it, and then he bowed again and backed out of the clearing.

The wreath, wrapped in white lights, was hung above the capitol doors, and while some people complained that it looked like a bunch of dead sticks, most passersby understood that it was meant to represent the stark beauty of winter, and the idea that death is part of the entire cycle of life.

Master Gavrel stood among the crowd on the last night of the winter festival and smiled.

Better Angels

0439 - Guns and Angels

The humans called them “angels.”

They were meant to be calming figures, feathery beings who provided whispered advice at crucial moments. Their guidance typically came in the form of gut feelings or sudden inklings – those subconscious reactions that cause a right turn rather than a left or staying home rather than going out.

Hovering over the shoulders of humanity, they nudged gently and gave subtle pushes. Nothing overt. Just keeping things on track. That sort of thing.

But little by little, the human world changed. People divided themselves in arbitrary ways that had little to do with geography or culture and everything to do with anger, bitterness, and fear.

The angels’ voices were no longer heeded; their ethereal suggestions went unfelt.

The choir sang to deaf ears, and their enfolding wings were brushed aside by harsh hands, if they were noticed at all.

Humanity was no longer a noble race, full of wonderous creations – art, music, science, technology – and potential.

Instead, it was in danger of destroying itself, and the world it inhabited.

The choir convened.

Discussions were had, and heated debates, and finally a decision was made. They would have to solve the human crisis in a way the bitter, frightened people would comprehend.

They began to appear in selective places. They let their halos show, but they also displayed their weapons: shining, silver-outlined, mostly transparent versions of the projectile weapons the flesh-and-bloods seemed to treasure.

When merely showing up had no effect, they fired booming warning shots that ricocheted across the skies like thunder – only louder, stronger, and more ominous.

And when the warnings failed, they had no choice.

They eradicated humanity for the greater good.

Afterward, their white and silver forms stained red (time would let it fade, they knew), they reconvened at their undetectable headquarters and sang songs of mourning and remembrance, until they could sing no more.

Finally, so much time had passed that the angels were ready to try another experiment. “There is another world with a crop of humanity,” one said. “Let us try again, with them. Perhaps this time, they’ll thrive. The natives call it ‘Earth.'”

And so, they moved their headquarters across the universe to a blue-and-green world with diverse lifeforms and humans who were still receptive to their influence. But they also made a unilateral decision: they would act sooner, more swiftly, and with more surety.

This time, they would not fail.

This time, they would be better angels.

Not Pandora

0447 - Not PandoraShe’s no Pandora, unable to curb her curiosity and inadvertently setting a mass of horrors loose upon the world. Her boxes aren’t metaphors for the trials and tribulations of daily life.

Rather, they’re the memories of all the people she’s loved and lost. Keepsakes and memorabilia, photographs and old letters are all tucked away in cedar-lined darkness, waiting to be acknowledged, accepted, assimilated.

That box represents her grandmother: pearls and rose petals and half-done knitting projects, the needles still attached. And that other one? That’s her grandfather’s collection of old cameras and model trains, seed packets and artisan bread recipes.

Other boxes are smaller. One holds an assortment of dog collars and old chew toys, and vials of the ashes of lost companions. There’s room, yet, in that one. Another protects the tiny clothing never used by the baby who was never born. Tucked inside, a grief counselor’s business card, and the wristband from her hospital stay. (Keep those boxes closed, she reminds herself as she moves through the attic space, squinting her eyes to ward off unbidden tears.)

Cardboard boxes hold traces of old boyfriends, relationships that were fine in the moment, but flickered out, and friendships left hanging as people grew up, moved on. (She really should call her college roommate. It’s been five years since they last spoke… or is it six?)

She freezes when she sees the newest box, its shiny lid cracked open. That one… that one was added just this past summer, and it never will stay closed. It’s got soil samples and pencil stubs, a book on improving your memory (lost for years, found too late). Printouts of emails and silly cards, a brooch she can’t stand to wear right now – copper and brass safari animals dangling from a central ring – but creeps in to pick up and hold. She pushes the lid down, knowing that she’ll have to close it again all too soon, but every time, it stays shut a while longer.

These boxes don’t hold horrors.

If she’s careful lifting the lids, she can slip a smile out. A friendship bracelet made of knotted fairy floss, a sun hat that still has grains of beach sand embedded in the straw.

She tries so hard to be careful.

But memory is fickle, and grief is tricky, coming back day after month after year after decade, usually when she least expects it, and smiles are still smiles, even when they’re tempered with tears, and missing people means you loved them, doesn’t it?

She’s no Pandora, with one box of horrors to share and one bright spark hidden at the bottom, but like that woman from myth and story, she knows that spark, and treasures it.

She moves out of the room by the same route she entered, eddies of dust swirling in the sunshine that drips in through the skylight.

At the attic door, she turns, and addresses the boxes. “All my hopes.”