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?”

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Overlook: Overwhelmed and Overbearing

“If I catch you dramatically gazing out over the rooftops one more time…” He said, with heavy footsteps on the stone behind her.

Eyes still cast over the metropolis and elbows on the balcony railing, Wren smiled as her father came to stand by her side. Before them the city was coming alight as the sky deepened to dark colors. Smokey arches and squares of light marking the inhabited noble tower and hovel alike.

“You’ll do what?” Wren teased back, smile still active as she took a deep inhale of night air; it was finally cool enough to deaden the acrid smell of her family’s distant factories.

“Tell your mother she is working you too hard.” Her father’s voice was light and flat as fine steel.

It got her to snap her chin to the side, a high pitched noise of protest in the back of her throat. “She’s not. I’m fine.”

“You hide away on balconies when overwhelmed.” He said kindly, now the one smiling out over the city. “Have since you were a girl. During loud parties, when your studies became difficult, to get away from overbearing parents.” Her father quirked the last words.

“Why have a study with a view if I’m not to making use of it?” She said and they shared the next smile. Wren didn’t refute his observation, nor the reasons she occasionally found herself staring out over what was quickly becoming her mother’s city. “I’m fine, really. Please don’t say anything to her.”

Her father paused and Wren watched closely. It wasn’t his place to create trouble between his wife and her heir, at least in regards to the business. However, the family’s well-being was entirely his province. Wren almost groaned when decision stiffened his neck and he nodded to himself. “Not yet,” he said.

Wren rolled her eyes, which earned her another firm look. Wren sighed but smiled when her father settled his large arms on the balcony railing too. Together they watched the city settle into its evening.

Very Blue Eyes

The clock struck twelve, and she awoke screaming. Vera sat up, her fingers clawing the pink bedspread. At eight, she knew what a nightmare was, knew the seeping fear wasn’t real and that she shouldn’t be afraid, but Vera didn’t lie back down.

Nothing moved in her room as she gulped in air. Her Barbies remained lined on the shelves, the stuffed dolphin at her side provided fuzzy comfort.

But then the door moved. Vera yelped.

Mama stuck her head in, frizzy hair a halo around her head. “Vera?”

Vera flopped her head back to the pillow, too old for nightmares, or at least to admit to them. Mama turned on the light, and the heat in Vera’s cheeks banished even the memory of the creeping shadows. “Bad dreams sweetie?” The bed creaked a little as mama sat on its end. “The witch again? Or was it a bad school dream?”

She didn’t answer and mama waited. Vera tried to remember, furrowing her brow and picking through the dream’s hazy remnants. “A man said he knew you. He had very blue eyes,” Vera spoke into the edge of her blanket. “He was here.”

On the edge of the bed, her mother stopped, frozen in time. Just her mouth seemed to work. “Blue eyes?” Mama asked.

Vera nodded, feeling fear hollow her out again. They had been very blue, like the rings of fire summoned on the stove. Brilliant and bright as neon. Mama still didn’t move at the end of her bed, chest beating up and down with each breath, like a rabbit caught in the middle of a trail. “Mama?”

Very slowly mama got up. She pulled the pink covers back and drew Vera up too. Together they went to gather Vera’s brother from the other bedroom, and Mommy from the bed she shared with Mama. Her mothers exchanged very hushed words and then grim nods. They gathered no bags, or photos, or toothbrushes.

Together, Vera’s hand clasped so tightly it hurt in Mama’s, and her brother sagging over Mommy’s shoulder, they locked the front door and piled into their sedan. With her brother yawning in the car seat next to her, Vera twisted to watch their little house get littler and littler. From her shrinking vantage point, Vera imagined him, blue eyes bright in her pink bedroom, waving from the window.

Vera lifted her hand and waved before the car turned and the house went out of sight.

 

A Third Coat of Paint

Judith hovered a cup of coffee close to her lip, eyes locked on the computer screen. She flicked to the next tab and read through it too. Behind Judith’s computer chair, Penny painted on the walls, drawing spotty red lines on the eggshell paint with her stubby fingertip. Judith read the next tab, scrolling jerkily through the list.

Penny, her pink paisley dress stained with as much red as the walls, twisted to show her mother her rusty hands. “Mama, I need more paint.”

Judith gagged on her sob and she turned the computer chair, taking in the ruddy smears over the bottom half of the walls and the mess in her daughters hair. “No, Penny, stop that. Its enough of a mess alread–” she gulped coffee to cover her crisis.

The little girl’s smile persisted, curling her fingers around her skirts as she giggled. Judith returned to her lists with shallow breaths. They all said the same thing: torturing animals, bed wetting, a bad home life, arson. Judith breathed against the coffee cup, an odd calm cold calm settling in her veins. Penny slept with their calico cat Patches each night, she’d been potty trained early. The girl even refused to blow out birthday candles, too scared of the little oval flames…

Judith nodded at her computer screen. That settled it. This was just an accident, children had them all the time. It would be fine as long as no one found out. Fine as long as no one treated her differently, that was when the problems always started with kids.

Breathing easier, Judith set the coffee cup on the desk and stood. “Penny, we’re going to play in the yard for a little while. In the mud, isn’t that fun? Go get the shovels.”

The little girl raised her arms above her head with a shrill and wordless screech of delight. Her little feet pattered away and Judith calculated whether the hedge was high enough to stop the eyes of prying neighbors. It would have to be. Judith sucked in her breath and bent to haul out her daughters handiwork.

*****

“You’re painting the study, again? Its only been three months.” Her husband paused at the door, suit and briefcase in hand. The windows were already dark and the deep crimson paint shown wetly in the artificial ceiling light. Judith put down the paint roller and pushed herself up from the plastic floor coverings.

“Thought it could use a new coat– color I mean.” Judith smile puckered the corners of her lips, overly tight. “White just shows everything, you know? This is better. It’ll hide things.”

Her husband nodded slowly. “Where’s Penny?”

“In bed. She got very muddy in the yard, so bath time was exhausting.” Judith walked over to give him a careful kiss on the cheek. She was smeared with crimson paint and didn’t want to ruin his suit.

He smiled at her. “I’ll just say goodnight to her then. I like the red,” he said with a deciding nod.

Judith breathed out in relief. “Me too.”

This post is part of the Legal Theft Project. I took the line It would be fine as long as no one found out from More than 1/2 Mad for my own nefarious purposes. The original, Hidden Faces is here. 

Campfire Schemes

“Shenanigans needed to be had, for the sake of the group, shenanigans would be had,” the counselor said. She was shiny-faced in the campfire light, stocky and formless in the loose jeans and camp sweatshirt all the counselors wore. She swept the campers through the story of mild yet entertaining deviance.

Most of the campers were content to be drawn along, elbows on knees and chins in hand. The black expanse outside the first trunks of treeline was intimidating enough to limit most alternatives. Even some of the world-weary, forcibly apathetic older teens perked up at the allusions to college romance and darker delights. The counselors were only years ahead of them after all, scouts into the world that existed past eighteenth birthdays.

But at the back of the circle, several log rows from the warmth of the fire, the discontent were cold and unimpressed.

“I doubt real commitment to shenanigans,” Aiden muttered. He kept his voice low enough that only his sister Lara, daintily eating a s’more next to him, would hear. Another few uninspiring details wafted back to them and he rubbed his hands together for warmth. The motion came across laughably sinister, and Lara swallowed her giggle. A year younger than her, Aiden was at the age where he’d take it personally.

“What do you expect?” Lara asked once her mouth wasn’t full.

“Shenanigans. Real ones,” Aiden said, gaze locked and judging on the fire-lit circle of faces surrounding the storyteller. When he flicked a look sideways at her, the beginnings of a scheme was already twitching the corner of his mouth. “The camp across the lake is throwing a party tonight.”

“The rich one?” Lara didn’t ask how he knew this. Knowing the seedy details of any place was her brother’s specialty.

“Yup. A bunch of people are heading over. Stealing a few rowboats, actually having some fun.” Aiden dropped the information as the counselor had told her story, a short pause between each tidbit to bait the listener onward. “We should go too.”

“Whose a bunch?” Lara grated her voice to show how skeptical she was. She didn’t trust many of the campers in a midnight rowboat, much less one with her in it.

Aiden locked her gaze and directed it with his own around the campfire congregation, pointing out each prospective conspirator. A group of giggling girls their age, the shine of the fire in their hair. A rough, glowering teenager who hadn’t spoken much yet except to the sharp-eyed girl he’d arrived with on a rusted bus. And then the contingent of boys towards the front of the circle, broad-shouldered and grinning from the week’s flag-football wins.

“Come on, we’re supposed to be doing normal teenager stuff.” Aiden purred at her left shoulder as Lara lingered her gaze on the boys. Her brother’s soft smile was guileless and accompanied by wide-eyed sincerity. She shoved him a little.

“Laying it on thick there.” Lara halfheartedly critiqued his form.

His real grin came back crooked. “So, that’s a yes on shenanigans?”

Lara snorted but didn’t contradict him. At the center of the circle the counselor had finished her story and was gathering them together. Soon they’d douse the fire, head back to their cabins, and the night could begin.

A thief this week, but one only interested in some benevolent shenanigans. I grabbed the first line from Creatures, Critters and Crawlers as part of the Legal Theft Project. 

Portentous Star

The sun simmered red as it slunk towards the jagged horizon. Tristan opened the morning room window to the sickly gold air and leaned outside. Distant fires turned the treeline to a nebulous grey silhouette and the sun was the worst of it, a hazy swollen orb defying the prospect of rain. He frowned at the ominous star.

Behind him, three books lay open on the settee. All had failed to distract Tristan from the pinched tension between his temples. It was the smoke and ash. Even their monstrous house, impenetrable to ancient armies, civil upheaval, and seemingly time itself, could not keep it out.

An uncannily dry summer had baked the trees brown; now somewhere they burned unseen, belching black smoke into the country air like the worst factories of London. Beneath his annoyance at the ash-laden ache and ugly scenery, Tristan knew that if his neighbors estate could burn, so could his.

At the window, an itch grew in the corners of his eyes. With a fanciful but deeply ground logic, Tristan was hesitant to ignore the red portent hanging over his lands. Fate usually prepared the worst for those who willfully snubbed such signs.

“Tristan.” His name came patiently, but as if it’d been repeated. Tristan turned. Arianne had come into the morning room and stood with her hands clasped in front of her skirts. A fine sheen of sweat made her cheeks shine. All else about his sister was perfectly in place.

Tristan was down to his shirtsleeves. Decorum could only survive so long in this heat. He smiled at her, “I am quite distracted apparently. Sorry.”

Arianne moved to the window and pinched her face against the thick, burnt, air. She hustled him back and snapped the window closed. With the glass between, the haze seemed even thicker, the sun bigger. Arianne went to gather the books he’d carelessly left gaping. “The doctors already been called on account of Sally. We cannot have you falling ill.”

Tristan nodded. She was right. With the fires so close, and the sky imposing down on them, he was probably expected to do… something. He went back to the window, looking out over the alien landscape that he was supposed to be lording over. “Doesn’t it look peculiar? All the strange haze and smoke– like something from Revelation.”

“Do not say such things,” Arianne said without real reproach. From another, it would be crass, from her brother it was fancy. As it always was.

Tristan’s smile acted as apology. He did not say anymore, but as he followed her from the room, his eyes slid distant across the glass of the windows and the simmering crimson sun outside them.

This post is part of the Legal Theft Project (also the Mindlovemisery Menagerie prompt here that I run). Some thieves have stolen my first line to write their own. See if any show up below: 

Summer Ascendant

A sea of faces lit up upon his appearance at the door. Golden in the light from the chandeliers, smooth, and flashing white teeth, they broke into a single swell of wordless greeting. Max didn’t recognize a single one of them.

He showed his own teeth back, smiling, happy. They were here for him, that was enough. The day of his birth commenced, celebrations over several days, summer ascendant. Max stepped into the throng. He drank down the well-wishes, the envy, like champagne in fine crystal.

Painted women laughed into the curve of his side, coiffed men threw arms around his shoulders. Many times he was drawn out onto the dance floor. They celebrated the night Max, by virtue of being born all those twenty-six years ago, had given them. Max was content with that. He basked in the warmth of their once-removed appreciation.

And then a single glass among many that night raised his way. Max watched his father, conservatively tucked amidst a group of similarly somberly dressed men, toast him. His own champagne soured in his stomach. Unbidden thoughts crashed past the adorers’ rabble, had Max laughed too loud, drank too much, smiled too little, forgotten an unforgettable name.

Max pulled at his collar and looked for distraction. But the bright gold of the party reflected his thoughts back, had he acted the fool? Who’d seen him? What would his father do tomorrow about it?  He abandoned his glass on a passing tray and hurried from the center of the sunny crowd.

The dancers shifted to the floor as the opening notes floated from the band. A girl, rust hair in tendrils framing her face, cast him a heavy-lidded look through the golden light as he left. Max pretended not to see the invitation to his invitation and followed a prickle of cold air that might lead him outside. This time he was sitting out. The chill promised a dark sky untainted by sweat, perfume, and judgement.

I have stolen, as I am want to do, a line from a dear friend. I took This time he was sitting out. from a Librarian as part of the Legal Theft project.