Like Putrid Fruit (1)

This is a story about the end of your world. My world too, presently at least. I had a good run in it. Try not to worry about the end, it snuck up on almost everyone, myself included, and I was the one with a good seat.

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Two hours past the border gate and we were making good time, ocean on one side, plywood homes on the other. A toll stop choked off the highways quick current, its concrete booths empty and dark. Instead people hovered at lane edge with cardboard box. When I slowed the car, the scratch of Taylor’s nail against her phone screen paused. “Don’t stop.”

I flicked a look over, unsure and braking. Taylor watched the toll-collectors, eyes heavy lidded against the sun streaming in through the passenger window. “Just go.”

A prickle of tightened skin jumped from my tailbone up my spine. When the car ahead of us I pressed my athletic shoe to the gas pedal and lurched the car forward into full speed. The people at the toll booth threw themselves back, flattening to the vertical concrete. We raced away from their cries, escaping the untellable words and unmistakable meaning in the wash of tires and gasoline-soaked air. Taylor kept her laugh behind closed lips, chin down and shoulders shaking, eyes bright as new snow.

I laughed too, shaking my head, chest pressed against the steering wheel for support as my pulse still raced in pace with the car. In these moments, Taylor and I beat in time. She could have been an old river-basin goddess. Electric meanness and petty cruelty lounging golden in the passenger’s seat of the rental car.

“Why didn’t we pay the toll?” I asked once my body could breathe again and we were cruising through what passed for a city here. Plywood and rust, and more litter along the highway, Did people liked their cities this way, its veins choked with greasy paper and plastic like discarded chitin. They must. Where humans gathered, so did their trash.

Taylor let her head fall back, throat presented to the top of the car before she answered me. “There are probably cameras, they’ll catch our license plate and send a ticket back to the rental place.”

“They have your information though.  You hate tickets.” It’d taken me some time to learn the rules, the endless way people kept track of each other now. The databases, endless bits of papers and numerals and pixels. Less time to learn that Taylor, due to her calculating ability to flit between mundane stricture, was easily annoyed by those who managed to pin her to consequences.

“Don’t worry about it.” Taylor began to flick her fingernail against her phone screen again. Music started to play over the car’s stereo. I turned it down before the tinny melody could drown out the peace returning to the car. Taylor snorted very softly and smiled at me. She kept the music down.

This is the first part (of three) that’ll I’ll post over the next week. Parts two and three coming Friday and next Wednesday.  

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Magpies

“One for sorrow, two for mirth.” Vera mouthed the words into the October air. Wings and little bodies hopped between the sparse trees. A third flutter of black and white feathers alighted on bony branches and Vera winced. “Three for a funeral.”

She left the birds chortling to one another on the edge of the field and started back towards the barn. The sky was already turning to rolling grey. They’d have a full storm by tonight. Vera stretched her legs into long strides, breath misting in quick bursts. Her boots kept her from turning an ankle on the rutted ground and she arrived back at the barns open doors with a red nose and sore calves.

Vera darted between the festival goers scanning for a particular mess of russet hair.

“What’s wrong?” Sparrow asked when she found him overseeing the petting zoo in the corner of the barn, fingerless mittens curled around a cup of cider and barking at any child who’s pets turned to pulls or prods. Under her brother’s scowl, the lambs and goats milled about unbothered and bored.

“Its a petting zoo, Sparrow, chill out.” Vera forced a frail smile at the shifting, sniffing parents that had begun to amass around her brother. Not everyone appreciated his shepherd tendencies. “I saw magpies.”

Sparrow’s attention snapped away from his charges, entirely on her. “How many?”

“Three.”

“Oh.” Sparrow took a long breath, his gaze going out over the children chasing chickens, the square dancers, the loud boisterous beer garden patrons. His nostrils flared as if he could smell the sharp smell of the storm past the warm hay and bodies in the packed barn. Sparrow spoke quietly, “so what do we do?”

“Omen’s an omen. We watch.” Vera gave him the answer he already knew and her brother nodded. She squeezed his arm. “More cider?”

“Yah. Thanks.”

Vera dipped back into the harvest festival’s rowdy ebb and flow. When she glanced back, Sparrow had already settled himself cross-legged on a high-stacked hay bale, eyes bright and sweeping the crowd. A shepherd over his flock.

This answers my own prompt I put up for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie. Tune in for first-line prompts every other Friday and more.

Wetly Gleaming

This was the empty city, built upwards in a single constructed spire and hanging over everything around it. Roshan passed through the first gates at a gallop, the gleaming black walls quickly eating up the horizon with every beat of his mount’s hooves. Dark on dark, but wetly gleaming, the bulging edifice still stood out against the dull sky.

He pulled up the reins at the second set of gates. Beyond the wooden, mundane barrier stout trees with heavy bowing branches made up the city’s entrance grove. Here Roshan dismounted and tied up his reins on the gate post. Even if his mount would enter, the tree’s bloated branches were low and treacherous, requiring passage by foot.

Roshan kept his eyes up and through the branches as he ducked and hurried over the dry ground towards the third and final gate. There, within the chitinous bulbs, hollows, and sickly winding staircases of the city, his site waited for him. His site, his discovery, his years of work at the university. The thing that was going to make them pay attention.

They’d come tomorrow themselves, tie up their horses and hunch one by one beneath the branches. A group of faculty, eminent scholars, and researchers, Roshan’s adviser among them, out to tromp into his excavation site to see if there was anything to find, to prove there wasn’t.  Roshan was going to make sure there was.

As always, the city welcomed him with bated nothingness, like a breath held but never released. The shiny black material of its walls and buildings muffled his footfalls as he hurried to the site.

Spiders did not spin their webs here, and rats stayed away, keeping to the bordering towns that the empty city overlooked, but did not touch. Nothing lived here. An anomaly, standing over the university’s walks and meek towers. Roshan, like many others, had given into its taunting shadow and sought to understand it. The university was built close, closer than anything else dared, for that express purpose.

Not that progress had been made. The ancient city kept its secrets locked away in its singular and monstrous formation. Until now, or so Roshan hoped.

His site was set with little yellow flags. They hung, fluttering in the low wind that played through the curved passages. Here they’d burrowed, trying to get deeper into the city. With a deep breath, Roshan ducked beneath the yellow flags and stepped into the darkness, ready to go deeper.

Beach Bodies

Hot sand seared Danika’s feet as she picked a path across the beach. Its flat burn didn’t stop her, nor the blurred bodies down further towards the shore. Danika angled her chin as she worked to keep attention on their flat bronzed flesh, watching for real movement behind the heat waves.

They didn’t do much besides stir, sometimes flopping a bony forearm over eyes, a stretch, a yawn, and the lethargic flip to present belly or curved back to the sky. Lying prone and sun-drunk, they lazily worshiped the always moving surf. Danika did not let them scare her away. She was downwind, and the clink and whisper of her trash-bagged cans would not reach their wave-deafened ears.

Danika sipped water as she sifted through the sand with her leathery toes. Under the sun, with the field of baked sand glittering from below, the heat came from every direction. Danika did not let it settle in and slow her, that would mean sleep, and awaking to circling stares of sea glass and driftwood.

When Danika found a can, or an intact bottle, she shook the sand from inside it and placed the find softly inside her bag. Monday morning after a weekend of bonfires and family events, the beach was empty of guests and hers to pick through provided she didn’t venture too close to the water. Glints of metal, smooth brown and green glass, even the occasional dropped wallet peaked up from the little dunes. These were hers, the bronze bodies near the water had no use for discards unless directly troubled by them. Woe to the discarded thing that interrupted their languid existence.

Good pickings today, Danika thought, and continued to work. A few of the flat bodies near the shore raised their heads, brown, gold, and black. Manes salted by sea spray moving around their faces as the ocean breathed behind them.

The sun arched higher. This far from the water and its salted wind, Danika yawned and extended her speckled limbs. Another few cans carefully stored, and Danika arched her back, arms swinging carelessly at her sides. The flat celadon blue of the sky covered her, baked air pressing down, her body made warm and malleable. Danika shifted her bags, where her skin touched the black plastic she became and warm with quickly evaporated sweat. She groaned, rolling her bags to the sand. It was a hot day, a hotter day, the hottest day, Danika groused beneath her breath.

She closed her eyes. Under her eyelids the sun filtered in red, warm, and veined. The sound of her own heartbeat moved in and out, though, Danika thought, that could just be the waves. Heat embraced her feet, her ankles, begging her body to fold and bake. Danika knew cold, remembered its creep into her sleeping bag, even here where the sun dipped over the sea later each night.

Danika’s nostril’s flared. Brine.

The red-haze of her eyelids yielded to the sharper glint of sky and sand. Danika sat in the sand, staring up at the creatures that circled her, sharp chins tilted, pert noses leading, sniffing. A low rumbling purred in their throats, rolling in and out like their own personal tide. Danika could have rocked herself to sleep to it. Their eyes were beautiful, slitted in the sun, they peered at her. Driftwood brown, sea-glass blue, tiderock black, flat orbs of color without pupil.

Danika’s lower jaw trembled when they eased in, firm torsos bent at sharp hips to sniff closer. Long hungry limbs danged at their bronze sides. One of them, bent close enough for Danika to smell the iron-tang of blood waft from its swaying sand-colored mane. They were curious, Danika realized, none of them had eased back cherry lips from their teeth yet.

Unlike the pasty children and drunk fraternity brothers who littered their beach with the sour smelling cans, Danika was as browned as they were. They slept and waited for their prey, while Danika carefully picked her way through the sands for hers. Different beasts perhaps, but belonging to the same hunting grounds.

One by one they either sniffed a final appraisal or yawned, sleepy so far into the baking sands, and turned back to their shore. Danika watched them go, not rising until the last bronzed body had stretched liquid out on the packed wet sand. Very slowly, Danika picked up her bags and left the beach.

Big White Dress

And my bitches with me pretty, too, they look like bridesmaids
And they all bloody gang so don’t be talkin’ sideways

“That’s kinda –”

“What Madison?” Cassie twisted to wither her bridesmaid with a stare honed with black liner and false eyelashes. Pulsing from the speaker set in the center of the hotel suite, and controlled by Cassie’s phone, the swaggering beat and lyrics strutted over them. Around the room, other young women in the same powder blue dresses milled about searching and grousing for pins, their glass, and cosmetics fallen to the tragedy of the commons.

“I was gonna say intense.” Madison held her mouth tight, jaw pressed forward.

“You have complained about each song I’ve played.” Cassie turned back to the mirror, tilting her chin to cut one way and then the other.   “Besides she’s got a point about you all.”

“That’s because this playlist is just every song that mentions bridesmaids.” Madison sucked in her breath and held it as she misted her loose curls with hairspray, brandishing the can in short angry jerks. “What do you mean a point?” She asked, barely moving her lips, eyes closed against the cloying chemical spray.

“About bridesmaids. Brides started having bridesmaids so any roving bands of bandits and jilted lovers wouldn’t know which fancy, made-up lady was the bride. Ya’ll are here for my protection. My gang.” Cassie spread her painted lips, cocksure from the song’s trailing boasts and the last few metallic notes.

Madison chortled, and went to pour mimosas, bent far away from the hotel desk to protect her powder blue uniform. Two nearly clear mimosas ready at the brim of their cheap flutes, Madison floated them over to Cassie. “Bandits can’t figure out its the bitch in the big white dress?”

Cassie burst a laugh, not taking her drink until she was able to control herself for the sake of her big white dress.

It was my turn to challenge Raw Rambles and I did so with Cardi B’s Money Bag. For every music challenge we write something to or inspired by a song. Check out Raw Rambles blog for the challenges and more. 

Cat Skills

He smuggled the goods in under the cover of nightfall. His backpack shifted lopsided and heavy as picked his way carefully up the oak tree. Catching his breath in the crook of trunk and branch, Aiden eyed the dark window of his bedroom. The downstairs was alight, his uncle probably cooking dinner by now.

Aiden crept along the thick branch on all fours. He was halfway to the roof and his bedroom window when his backpack slid suddenly one way. The sudden movement almost pitched him two stories down and he went belly to branch. Cheek pressed to rough bark, Aiden hugged the branch.

A few shaky breaths and he wobbled his way onto the roof, toe to heel so no one inside the house would hear. The window hinges were well greased and he ducked inside with an unceremonious hop. Aiden exhaled out a huff of breath and carefully took off his backpack.

On the bedspread, he unzipped the backpack and peeled the two sides down. A triangle-eared ball of black fur yowled at him from its cushioned nest. The hefty sized kitten hopped out, landing liquid and wobbly on the floor. Aiden grinned at the stray as it began to explore the corners of his bedroom.

Aiden was half way through assembling its new bed when the smells of cooking hit his nose. He looked up and noticed the door and the kitten sized crack between it and the door frame.

The scramble into the hallway and down the stairs nearly cost him his footing. Aiden stumbled into the kitchen, already thinking up an excuse for a sudden-non-cat-related search of the house.

Both his sister and his uncle turned to him with equally curious looks. The kitten was in his sisters arms, attempting to clumsily chomp on her blonde hair. As Aiden gaped at it, the kitten yawned and began an engine roar of a purr.

Aiden turned his best smile on his uncle. “So how do you feel about cats?”

Most Daring, Least Scrupulous

The little boat slunk beneath the river bridges. With its sharply cut prow, the vessel’s progress was silent and swift. Its occupants held their breath as they passed under any bridge marked with swaying guard lanterns. But the night was deep and those on watch looked towards the roads, not the inky water below them.

As they neared the city and its great, river-made moat, the smugglers shifted their shoulders and bowed over to make themselves small against the curve of their boat. Here, discovery would ensure a short drop and a sudden stop on the nearby gallows, possibly even before the sun rose. The duke’s justice was quick for those that denied him his tariffs and taxes.

But the smugglers did not turn away, and turned their boat to the grates allowing water to flow beneath the streets and the main city squares. As swift as justice was in the city, the rewards came faster, at least for those who knew their way round the trading metropolis’ winding waters.

Gruff whispers were exchanged by the grate and it was opened on well-greased hinges. They entered the city, quiet as a leaf bobbing on a creek’s gentle current.

The dark tunnels of rushing water providing a warren for the smugglers and their ilk, entrepreneurs as much as any of the fancy clothed merchant princes who dined on the bay’s pleasure barges. Here, beneath the street-side markets that pitched gaudy stalls and tents during the day, another market bloomed in the slimy dark.

The smugglers followed the greasy pricks of light that marked the sides of the underground canals, candles set and burning on the melted corpses of their waxy ancestors. The wax growths provided little real light, but guided the most daring and least scrupulous merchants to their night’s business.

When the muggy tunnel opened up to series of wide causeways set over the underground water, each one of the smugglers’ smiles flashed in the low light. Now came the easy part.