The Girl with Thin Fingernails

Dawn cracked ripe and ready for a downpour. Zak eased the front door closed with silent practice. He didn’t mind running in the rain, but it turned the roads to mires and the hillsides to slosh. Better to get his daily circuit in before the skies opened up over the isle.

His route took him from mother’s front door, through the village he’d spent all of his sixteen years racing through, and up along the island cliffs and their winding, overgrown heights. Zak stopped on the main overlook to let his chest swell at the sight of his concave world. Cradled on all sides by jagged obsidian peaks, the wetly green interior and mist-hazy lake still slumbered.

Except… a single light nestled at the back of the manor house. In the dark of the valley, a small lantern gleamed like a dandelion fluff in the wet air. Someone was up early, Zak thought as he stretched.

The distant little light continued to hook his eye between the trees and sharp glassy boulders as he ran. And as he found the valley again with its rolling hills and easy sodden paths, his feet slowed and paused. The village and his morning chores waited on his left, and to his right, a much smaller trail would bring him to the manor house and the dawn-lit lantern.

Zak shook his dribbling hair and started down the smaller trail. He’d not been near the manor house in years, not since cajoled and convinced by other children, he’d stuck close to steal a hanging chime off a window sill. Sick with guilt and fearing the stories of the manor’s occupants, he’d crept back alone to replace the little chime.

Now, with a longer stride and wider shoulders, Zak moved around the exterior of the peculiar house. He slid his eyes along the the strangely peaked roofs and the mismatched doors adorned with fearsome carvings. Around the corner, a clear dirt back yard housed a chicken coop and a single step set below that pale lantern. Bathed in the splash of light, a very young woman sat on the step and stared blankly into the yard. Tears ran freely down her cheeks.

Zak exhaled his held breath, disturbing the cold quiet of the yard and she snapped her head to him. Her sheet of black hair swung around her face so that strands of it stuck to her tear-sodden cheeks. They blinked at each other before Zak thought to ask if she was alright.

She shook her head, eyes lost somewhere far away from him. Zak guessed that’s where her gaze had been when he’d interrupted her, in thoughts worlds apart from the house and their glass-cradled isle. Her thin, uneven nails caught on her finely woven robe as her fingers worried the fabric. It looked like she’d been shredding them.

“Can I make it better?” He spoke the thought aloud as it occurred to him.

He expected to be scoffed at. Zak was well-accustomed to rolled eyes and huffed dismissals whenever he dared speak his mind in the village. But the girl stilled, drawn back to the isle, the kitchen yard, and the stranger offering help he couldn’t possibly understand. Then slowly, she pressed her lips together in a feeble smile and wiped her hair back from her face. “Maybe. Share some breakfast?” She asked in a small rusty voice.

Zak nodded and waited for her to stand. He followed her over the step and into the manor house.

Another Music Challenge. This week I challenged Raw Rambles to write something to or inspired by The Decemberists’ Make You Better and I did the same. I’ll link her’s here when it goes up.  

 

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Beneath The Breastbone.

His skin was freshly washed and it caught on the latex of her gloves as she arranged his limbs. Familiar scents of soap, bleach, and inert flesh permeated her medical mask. A young man, feathery wet hair, flat brown eyes, twenty-seven with lines around his eyes, waited for her. Laid out, bared, she could see his ribs pressing up beneath his skin. She dropped her hand to hover over the waves. The plateau of his chest was firm, all lean muscle. Perhaps not a healthy man in life, but a beautiful one in death.

A hitched breath caved her mask as she leaned over him.  She paused to check its elastic tight against her cheek and the plastic cap covering her hair. The plastic, paper, and latex kept little pieces of herself from betraying them, their time, their togetherness.

She held herself there, parallel over him, feeling the emptiness of the body under her. He was alone now, a mirror to the lonely ache beneath her breastbone. When he had searing skin and a heartbeat, his smile and soft words hadn’t soothed the emptiness in her, they were only hers to borrow. Someday he would have taken his warmth and left. Now, silent and growing cold, they could be alone together.

Until the chime of the phone broke from the purse in the corner of the hotel room. She snapped her head to the side, breath moving the mask in and out with shallow breaths, a paper heart beating at her mouth.

She rose at the waist and picked her way off him, careful where her body weighted the bedspread. Her plastic wrapped feet crinkled on the carpet. A quick snap of latex, a crumple of paper, she freed her hand and mouth and picked up the phone, dangling it next to her ear. “Remy?”

She used her time listening to calm her breath. “You got the right number, sorry I change it so much, its the travel.” Bent at the knees in a crouch, she held very still so her scrubs wouldn’t rustle. The person on the other side of the line continued.

“Brunch, yes, don’t worry about it. We’ll go another time, its really fine. I’m in town for a while.” She smiled, fondness crinkling the corner of her eyes. “Can’t wait to catch up. Bye Remy.”

She left the phone in her bag, found new gloves, reset her mask and bowed to her feet like a dancer. The man still waited on the bed, still and entirely hers. She returned, gliding above him, never touching, just feeling the profound emptiness she could share.

This weeks music challenge is born from Florence + The Machine’s song Hunger. As I was challenged by Raw Rambles make sure to check out her original here.  

Sleep Through The Night

And I look to the west, the moon’s in the sky
I wanna get at least that high

My readied smile slipped away once Nuka’s breathing deepened. Sure that my friend was truly asleep, I worked my jaw like an actor warming lines and slipped out of my bedroll, cautious not to disturb his. The care was not necessary, Nuka’s agitation had run him raw all day and he slept solid. I was surprised he’d made it to his bedroll at all, and not simply collapsed on the road in a scowling heap.

The night air hanging over the bog was thick with croaking frogs, rotting green, and a hint of cold that kept off the worst of the thrumming insects. I took the cotton-bound book from my pack and a leather herb pouch from my discarded coat. With the firebugs bobbing along over the grimy water and the moss softening the trees into hazy watercolor, the night was too alive to waste tossing in a bedroll.

Soon reclining over a precious bit of dry root and stone, I lit the twist of herbs and let the fire shrink my pupils. Everything went dark except the glow, until the smoke hit my tongue and I waved the match out. The night unfurled for me in muted greens and blacks, each darker than the last until I was sure the void itself waited in the trees.

I enjoyed the heaviness settling in my fingers by running my thumb down the book’s spine. I might read a little in the sickly light of the fire bugs, or I might not.

Up in the sky, above the weeping branches, the moon rose in the west, surrounded of course, by stars. I frowned at them both. Someone needed to figure this shit out, I doubted it was going to be me.

Been a long time gone, living out on the coast
It’s a long way back from the edge of the cosmos

Some say soldiers find their beds too soft after they return home. This is something like that. I am not used to her breath on my neck, or her fingers resting on my chest. Curled next to me beneath the covers of our bed, my wife radiates heat like a stoked forge. Usually this lulls me into rest quickly enough.

Not always though. Staring up at the ceiling in the dark, tonight I drew her fingers gently off my chest so I could test the weight there. I clutched a hand over my breastbone and searched beneath my skin for reassurance.

My wife curled around my pillow when I left the bed. Clothes retrieved from the dresser, boots on at the door, I stepped into the yard and hissed. The isle gets cold at night and I’m still not used to it. Far away,  almost hidden by the overgrown hills, I saw the top of the manor house. Light flickered in its windows.

I filled my lungs with the cold and made my way to the forge, certainty growing with every step. No leash, taut or slack, tied me anymore. No distant man, lord, or god held my soul hostage.  Even stuck on an island lost in the sea and assembling a new life from the wreckage of centuries, the only thing coiled angry in my chest was me.

You chained my life to an ancient master
Will the curse be reversed if I say it backwards?   

Purple seeped into the pitch of the night sky. With the glass balcony doors thrown wide, I could see the full canvas, from the tips of the gold-domed city to the black heavens. My tower afforded me an aerial landscape of  city, provided I stood from my desk and wandered out to the balcony to receive it.

Tonight though, the balcony doors were open so the night air could cut the damp warmth of early summer. I had work to do before the sun rose and the empire’s armies began to march. The gods did not concern themselves with train-car capacity, tides, or how many lemons kept mortals from getting scurvy over long voyages. They left that to us, and so we oversaw their soldiers, their worshipers, their cities. And the return for this service, an eternity to do it.

The narrow bed still waited for me in the corner, stuffed unlovingly between two monstrous bookshelves. Sleep was always an intruder here, forestalling breakthroughs and progress with paltry biological demands for rest. I may have welcomed the respite had someone called me to it, perhaps gently or hungrily taken my hand and drawn me down with them, then I would have abandoned my work for the night. But no one would do so tonight, or possibly ever again.

The pages began to blend as my eyes blurred between application, transcript, and docket. Above, the sky lightened and beneath the palace stirred.

[Good Morning, Raven. Have you slept?] The voice touched down in my head. The gods were awake.

You told me you’re never gonna die
How am I supposed to sleep through the night?

Raw Rambles and I are seeing Lord Huron live in only a couple weeks, so our music challenge this week is to the song Secret of Life, off their newest album, Vide Noir. Check out Raw Rambles blog for her post.  

 

Liminal Space

Abbi hunched her shoulders and trudged across the parking lot. In the misty drizzle, the street lamps were dandelions of hazy light. Beneath the glow of the store’s exterior sign clear-paned doors parted before her with a loud swish.

Three in the morning and there wasn’t even a sunken-eyed checkout teenager to greet her. Abbi’s flicked to one side and then the other. No one presented themselves. Abbi set off, trying to keep her wet boots from slipping or squeaking too loudly in the silence. She left a trail of pale brown water on the dingy linoleum as she walked.

A muffled pop song played through the empty air without a discernible source aside from brief fame decades ago. Abbi moved her mouth to it without any real memory of the words. Bright colors advertised first clothes, then food, then toys. Abbi squeaked towards the pharmacy article, breathing out of her mouth and occasionally sniffling to explain her witching hour presence to the unseen employees.

Amidst the off-white aisles, Abbi found the draughts and capsules that promised sleep and relief to the brewing pressure behind her face. She gathered the medicine into her arms and considered her solitude in the long aisle. “Hello?” She asked and regretted it when the word fell flat in the vacant air.

Abbi looked up as if she could find a source of the emptiness. The warehouse stretched upwards like a cathedral, supported with thin triangles of metal, industrial chrome tubes of air, and dotted a the occasional escaped and dying balloon. The pop song, maybe a different one, Abbi couldn’t tell, kept playing just loud enough to cover the thrum of the air system.

Around her the aisles stood tall, separated occasionally by the racks and bundles of folded clothes. Featureless mannequins enticed the absent shopper into the polyester forest with thin alabaster arms.

Abbi took the toy section back to the front, walking quickly past the brilliant pink and blue. Blank matte faces stared out from behind plastic film of the packaging. Painted white teeth and fixed coiled hair, their hands stuck in claws. They were the only faces she’d seen so far.

Abbi hustled herself, growing cold beneath her sweatshirt. She shivered and stopped to check that she’d gotten something for the fever. A tremor skimmed the back of her neck and made her skin jump down her spine. She looked back the way she’d come.  Only the fixed faces stared out in profile from their shelves. Abbi skittishly jogged towards the checkout.

The numbers over the black belts were dull. Abbi waited. She grit her teeth before opening her mouth and again asking “Hello?” of the empty air. The word couldn’t fill the behemoth space over the aisles, racks, and empty faces she’d passed.

The seconds ticked by, no one emerged and Abbi eyed the exit doors. Another whir of air kicked up, Abbi’s arms ached from cradling the unpurchased medicine. She opened her mouth again but before she could speak, something flat slapped the linoleum.

Abbi’s heart jolted and her legs moved. With the squeak of wet rubbed boots Abbi bolted past checkout and out the barely opened automatic doors, clipping her shoulder and losing a pill bottle. That sound had echoed from the toy aisle.

Because its May, Raw Rambles challenged me to write something to NSYNC’s It’s Gonna Be Me.  This is what happened. Check out Raw Rambles blog to see what she did with the now meme’d pop song.  

 

Hidden in History

Like birds flushed to the sky by a hunting horn, whispers swelled as Raven entered Luna’s most prestigious University by the main walk. The muffled discontent followed her sharp footsteps up through its halls.

While some students watched her go with hungry reverence, she preferred those who met her eyes with firm jaws, whose hands slid to hide the spines of the books they carried. Violent books on violent empires, collected essays on breaking gilt cages. They objected to her presence in their halls. Raven did not remind them who’d designed the sweeping staircases, towers, and stained glass displays centuries ago, who eagerly funded their thesis fieldwork on dissent, revolution, and the undersides of history. Instead, Raven maintained the imperious tilt to her chin as she climbed the staircase up to her office. Nothing squashed rebellion more swiftly than official sanction.

Raven was pleased to see no broken glass when she entered her office. It’d been a week since anyone had managed to lob a brick through her window, impressive in itself considering her office was located on the top-most floor of the library.

As much as Raven appreciated student engagement with the current political discourse, the rain from the ruined window had destroyed several borrowed and irreplaceable ancient texts, then open on her desk. Raven had found the pulpy mess a day too late. Their original owner, the University’s true founder and Raven’s master, had responded with predictable fury. Raven winced at the memory as it pulsed anew in her mind.

Rolled within the raging mental onslaught came his demand, do something about the brewing disrespect at the University. Raven was to find the culprits and stamp out any insurrection before more priceless knowledge was lost. Someone was spreading dissent in Luna.

Raven sighed and went to her personal bookshelf, kept in the corner and locked away from the University’s library books and her master’s borrowed texts. This collection was hers. Most were violent books on violent empires, collected essays on breaking gilt cages. She was proud of them, written under different names she’d tried on over the centuries, hoping one replace the one stolen. But among those bold and popular texts, were soft first editions of hidden histories. Understudied and in Raven’s delicate spidery hand, they spoke of bearing tyranny, surviving servitude, and keeping hopelessness at bay with small resistances.

I am obsessed with the song Death of Communication by Company of Thieves, so I challenged myself and Raw Rambles to write something to it. Check out what she did here. 

A Flat Radience

Neveah watched the girl unpack, one hip against the doorpost. Anyone could sling a leather pouch ’round their neck and say the Invisibles spoke to them. Wasn’t a good idea to lie of course, but people did it all the time.

“So, sweetpea, how long you here?” Neveah put her mouth back into a firm line. If this girl was running something, better she know it wasn’t going far. Below them, the music from the bar thrummed the floorboards.

“Its Laney,” the girl said. “How long here or the city?”

Neveah breathed out a snort, it was not Laney. That name belonged to girls who slung their boyfriend’s speed outside the high school.  This girl, whatever her name was, never hunched or simpered her small shoulders, didn’t smile or look through her lashes.

“Both, unless you got somewhere else to stay.” Neveah watched where the girl put the contents of her polyester backpack.  There hadn’t been much in it and the room barely looked filled with them both standing in it. That suited Neveah fine. If the Invisibles were interested in this one, the bar and its upstairs lodgings were going to get crowded anyway.

“I don’t. And I don’t know how long I’m staying.” The girl fixed a honed look on her new landlady. Set in deep-hued skin, the girl’s eyes shone with the flat radiance of looming storm clouds. “He hasn’t told me anything yet.”

“Well, you make sure to pass on what I’m doing here, for you.” Neveah gulped a little air. The words felt too bold under the girl’s odd stare, but they needed saying. She managed a few rooms over a failing bar, not a halfway house.

The girl, who went by Laney, nodded her sharp chin. Neveah sniffed, thinking that even someone so tangled with trouble should muster a yes’m. But Neveah felt no desire to ensnare herself in kind, and left the girl alone in her new room and wanting manners.

Another week, another Music Challenge. This time Raw Rambles charged me with writing something to or inspired by Dr. John’s I Walk On Guilded Splinters. Check out her post here.  

For hours. All day. Just constantly.

“Why does even depressing 80s music sound so happy?” Em bobbled her head as keytar notes filled the antique shop. The ends of her blunt, jagged hair swayed around her cheeks. She dipped, flipping through the other cassettes in the cardboard box tops set near the front door.

“Probably all the cocaine.” Jayden muffled the words through his trimmed beard. He picked the next cassette and popped it into the stereo player. The cases were dull old plastic, but the tapes played flawlessly. It’d been hours and they’d yet to find the crackle of damaged tape.

From punk anthem to pop ballad, they tapped their feet and documented their progress on their feeds. They were well into a hair rock kick when the small tap of heeled boots interrupted the guitar chorus.

“Amazing selection you have here.” Jayden told the girl who manned the cash register as she approached. She’d been camped out at the front desk with a mountain of textbooks. Behind him, Em nodded emphatically.

“Yah, I know.  If you would–” The cashier girl stepped around them both, leaning away from their puffy jackets and unseasonable layers. She unplugged the stereo player and heaved it into her petite arms.

“Um, we were listening to that,” Em said, voice rising with politeness.

“I know. For hours. All day. Just constantly.” The girl ignored their wide eyes and tottered back to the front desk with the heavy stereo player. She placed it behind the counter and hoisted herself back into her chair.

Em and Jayden exchanged looks, huffed, and slunk out of the store. Behind her textbook mountain, in the fresh silence dusty silence of the store, the girl could breath loud with relief.

This was another weird music week but I did my best with Raw Ramble‘s challenge. This week, per the challenge, I wrote something to Jules Shear’s Whispering Your Name.  She wrote something too.