Flash Fiction: Certainly Harmless

Red lantern light and the smell of edelweiss wine. He breathed deep, enjoying the agitation in his chest. The cobblestone remained crimson, stained in the light, and he could taste the putrid sweetness of drink in the air.

Memory is only a distant descendant of occurrence, he suspected time in its irrevocable advance had smoothed out recollections of the mild unpleasantness he’d encountered here. But that was years ago, he was taller now and better dressed.

Most men, however, never changed. And neither did their choice pleasures. A red lantern hung in every window on the narrow street. The street’s patrons, grimy and grinning, loped between the glass ready to empty their purses on the delights within.

Women though, he thought, catching a doxy watching him askance from her doorway. He’d always found them admirably adaptable. When capturing someone’s heart or coin, the right pout and angle of eye were refined tools compared to knife or truncheon.

The mechanics of these minute transformations remained a mystery to him, one that he occasionally mused over in a ludic light. The doxy sniffed, flicking ash from a cheap pipe in his direction. He decided to keep walking. The dismissal was familiar. Perhaps it was the cut of his coat, or the set of his jaw, but something informed these red-lit women he wasn’t interested in the pleasures they offered most men.

A curse at times, so used to being up for sale, they were wary of any not buying.  Not that he blamed them. He adopted a soft smile, not exactly guileless, but certainly harmless. They had their charms, he had his, and it was time to put them to use.

Couldn’t pass up this Wordle Prompt, once again thank you Mindlovesmisery’s Menagerie for supplying. 


Brewing Apocalypses

Sparrow was, not for the first time, annoyed at his friend for being so famous. The current iteration of this feeling came mostly from the security staff’s firm grip on his shoulder, as well as the brewing apocalypse growing beneath their feet.

Struggling against security’s attempts to march him away from the private boxes, Sparrow only succeeded in forcing the large suited gentlemen to sedately drag him. Somewhere in the gilded theater hall Aren was sipping champagne, watching the premiere of some penny-dreadful equivalent, and remaining wholly unaware reality was about to crumble beneath them all. Sparrow was trying to fix that, suspecting that Aren was the only one with the knowledge and resources to do something about the impending devastation.

Unable to fend off security’s hold, Sparrow was quickly shoved stumbling out the theater’s back door and into a crowd of reporters. His arrival elicited a reactive wave of camera flashes. The stelliferous outburst ceased as the paparazzi realized Sparrow wasn’t anyone special, no matter how fancy his borrowed suit was.

This false start seemed to be the death knell to the moribund crowd’s hopes. The cameras and people attached to them dispersed leaving Sparrow alone to stare back at the theater and wonder how much time the city had left.

“How far did you get?”

Sparrow looked to his elbow. Not all the reporters had left. A petite young woman looked up at him, a scuffed camera still ready in her hands. “Not very.” He said.

“It’s impossible to get up the staircases onto the upper floors. They don’t like peasants mixing with the royals.” She looked at him sideways like a bird eyeing a worm. Sparrow felt the urge to wriggle away.

He didn’t have time to discuss this specific episode of systemic classism in the film industry, or to explain he was only attempting to contact a friend who’d turned off their phone. The city was about to collapse under the weight of paranormal cataclysm. For a moment, Sparrow debated the wisdom of enlisting a member of the media for help. Matters of the unnatural were sensitive, and best resolved quietly. Reporters weren’t known for their discretion.

But facing down apocalypse, Sparrow didn’t have much of a choice. “Do you know a way onto the second floor?”

Sparrow looked up when she did. Above them archaic fire escapes dotted the back of the theater. She smiled,”Yes. But I’ll need a boost.”

This piece is written for Mindlovesmisery’s Menagerie’s Wordle Prompt

Contemptuous Waters

The smell wafted up on the tidewaters. It stung Hal’s nose, and he made sure to wrinkle it when Katie was looking.  She stared at him mutely, and then went back to picking careful steps through piles of seaweed. The rotting mounds buzzed with gnats and tiny crabs. Hal watched the creatures climb over the black and green mess, thinking that Katie just might be right. The ocean was sick, heaving its verdant guts all over their pristine beaches.

He called to her, wondering if she could hear him over the waves. Hal hopped a bit, pulling emerald strings off his ankles. Katie didn’t respond. She was calf deep in the water and letting the waves soak the rolled cuffs of her jeans.

Hal reached her side. The breeze had pulled bits of hair from her ponytail. The frizzy little strands framed her face, which was red and tight from the wind. Her windbreaker was an ugly shade of dirty purple. She’d bought it for her research here, replacing the bikinis and bohemian shifts she’d worn to the beach before.

Those clothes were only memories now. Hal remembered when she’d smelled off wisteria and hairspray, instead of brine and rotting seaweed. He’d loved the beach then. They’d met on a beautiful white-sand shore, right next to a cultivated private green. Their parents introduced them on the sand, and Katie had favored him with a small shy smile. He knew now it’d been a fake thing, something demure and softly contemptuous.

He would welcome that sly dislike now. Even it would be better than the blank windswept girl waiting for him in the water. Something had occurred, something here had stolen Katie from him and the perfect white beaches where they’d shared sharp smiles. Hal looked out over the dark grey water, knowing the white capped stretch hid greater expanses beneath. Next to him, Katie also watched the waves, her eyes fixed on whatever penetralia she’d found there.

Chilled fingers found his, clammy and slick. Hal shivered at her touch, and tried to draw her away from the water and back to the stinking shore. She did not move, and would not loose his hand. He pulled at her but the tide tugged back, sucking their feet into the sand as water churned about their legs, rising.

He opened his mouth for some purpose, a demand or curse, but her cold lips found his before words could form. Hal choked as she kissed him, brine rushing into his mouth as the tidewaters claimed them.

Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie provided the Wordle Prompt for this piece. 

Flash Fiction: The Crow’s Mile

Dusk always hits the crow’s mile hard. After the beagles hang up their truncheons and plod home, the stretch from station jail to hangman’s rope forgets the warnings of the day.  A hum builds first, the shuffle of workers off their shift, the yell of school boy, and clatter of late carriages. The decent folk make their escapes behind gate and wall, before, like specters, those that serve the night materialize from alley and dock.

They come and the mile unfurls. Sailor, guttersnipe, and bruiser, anyone with full pockets is welcome. Pub, den, and coffee houses light their windows, casting the cobblestones outside in squares of yellow.  Dollymops hang from the coffee houses singing bawdy choruses, unwashed sirens calling out to cross their threshold.

Brawls divide the night’s revelry into acts, small showings in the tap rooms and dance halls. They build inertia from drink and boast, until something breaks with fists and flying spittle. Such things are brief affairs, squabbles on clear seas.

There is still order in the mile. The barmen and dollymops know it because they see it, and newcomers learn or they don’t. A bad step on the crow’s mile in its golden night, means a long last walk in the pale sunlight the next morning.

It’s been awhile, but Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie gave me a chance to try out some Victorian slang with this Wordle Challenge. 

Marrow and Meat

The faded letters on the street sign were barely legible, faded with age and rain into cryptic symbols. Sparrow looked down the crooked path that supposedly led somewhere. Trees leaned over the pitted dirt, making it difficult to see where any potential town began, if it ever did. Sparrow checked his phone, confirming he was still without service or position. Still he’d found the road and its sign on his own, a town couldn’t be far off.

It was far off. Sparrow walked until dark set it, bringing with it the smell of rain. He almost missed the first house, tucked deep in the treeline with black windows like holes and rotting steps. The second was easier to spot, but only because he searched for the hard silhouettes tucked into the mountain trees. The homes were strung out along the road, set haphazard like mismatched beads on a long chain.

Nestled this deep in the mountains, the place would see few visitors. Now as he leaned forward, searching for a flicker of light in the windows he passed, Sparrow could see why. If anyone lived here, he saw no hospitality.

The first sign of it came with the yellow glow of old electric lights. A lantern post stood at road edge, its dull illumination bright only in the dark. Behind it and down a mottled muddy path Sparrow could make out more light between the tree branches. They were windows. Weariness grew in his legs as the wind picked up, burning his nose as he breathed. Sparrow had lived months on the road at a time, he was no stranger to travel, but the prospect of a bed started a hungry ache in his chest.

Sparrow trudged up the path. The building was larger than the hovels he’d passed by, but made of the same damp wood that leaned and blended into the brush and rock. If not for the lamppost Sparrow might have missed it. He looked up at the words carved above the door. Marrowbone Inn.

He frowned at the antiquated name, but the yellow windows and gentle mutter of voices from within promised comfort. Sparrow knocked before trying the inn’s door. It opened smoothly, and Sparrow was met with a surprising number of curious expressions.

“This is an inn?” Sparrow knew it was, but he felt the question would explain his presence.

“It is. Come in.” He was waived inside by the bent old man tending the fire. Sparrow was greeted with several nods from the patrons already sitting around the single table. He returned them; perhaps this was more of a destination than he’d been told.

“Put your pack down, no rooms open tonight, but we’ll set you here with a cot.” The old man stood and straightened, brushing soot from his hands. Sparrow blinked and leaned back involuntarily. The old man towered over Sparrow’s average frame like one of the trees outside. “Dinner will be out soon.”

Sparrow set his pack by the door and took the open seat. The four other guests smiled, they were all young like him and bore the grime and damp of long travel. The narrow, high walls of the common room seemed claustrophobic after weeks alone on the trails. “Hi. You all arrived today?” Sparrow asked.

A young woman with oily blonde hair nodded. “This evening. They are prepping the rooms, so we haven’t cleaned up yet. I’m Justine.”

“I’m Sparrow.” He supplied the name. Sparrow looked back towards the door the spindly proprietor had left through. “They?”

“The innkeeper and his wife.” The man next to Justine answered. His once fashionable dark mustache had grown out poorly into a scraggly beard. “Justine and I were prepared for at least another week of backpacking. Figured we were miles away from anything until we saw the street sign, and then the lamppost. Looking forward to a bed tonight.” The man laughed, and the others agreed, all grateful they’d seen the sign and lamp during their trek through the mountains.

“We all just found this place?” Sparrow asked the innocent enough question even as he felt and odd shiver prickle along the back of his neck.

“Lucky isn’t it?” Justine smiled at Sparrow.

Sparrow didn’t have a chance to answer, the kitchen door opened and the innkeeper and his wife returned bearing savory smelling bowls of thick stew. Like her husband, the innkeepers wife had to duck slightly under the door, balancing the food between rangy limbs. A murmur of appreciation rose from the table and a bowl was set before each of them.

Steam wisped from the greasy broth before him. Brown stringy pieces rose from the liquid without a potato or carrot in sight. Sparrow leaned back, the bloody scent of meat turning his stomach.

His discomfort did not go unnoticed, the innkeeper stopped. The old man cocked his head, bending down close enough for Sparrow to hear the odd creak of his bones. With long knobbed fingers the innkeeper pushed the bowl closer, as if proximity would entice Sparrow into eating.  “Something wrong? Travelers are a hungry sort.”

The other guests paused their meal, all looking at Sparrow with varying levels of vitriol. It was both rude and stupid to refuse food so far from civilization.

“I’m letting it cool.” Sparrow said, noting the old man’s breath stank like the soup. He smiled weakly, wishing the innkeeper would rise and back away. “Thank you.”

The old man’s mouth tightened, and he hovered long enough for Sparrow’s pulse to quicken. The long moment passed, and the innkeeper and his wife retreated with murmured promises to turn beds and prepare linens.

Sparrow didn’t touch his stew, even after the steam stopped rising. The gesture was enough to earn him terse replies and sideways glances from the rest of the guests until the fire died to embers. One by one they retreated upstairs with cold shoulders, leaving Sparrow to his bedroll in the common room.

He almost left then, chancing the night and rain. But as the storm picked up, the tall trees cradling the inn began to bend, and scratch, drawing their knobbed branches against the walls. Sparrow listened to them whisper, remembering of the spindly creak of the innkeeper.

Sparrow crawled beneath his blanket, settling down for a sleepless night in the common room.

The second half of this story can be found here. This particular piece is in response to Mindlovesmiserys Menagerie’s Wordle Prompt. 

Blood and Brine

The entrance hall stills when you step over the threshold. Your breath no longer appears before you as it did during the trek towards the vaulted silhouette.

A fog lay heavy over your feet as you wandered over the knolls and forgotten hunting paths. It rolls in tempestuous whorls across your way. This country is old and unclaimed, yours just as much as anyone’s. The chill kept you from the night’s plan, the arms of your companion, careless and perhaps fraudulent murmurs into their ear, a bed of wildflowers, and the sky open to stargazing.

The house, bordered by stone and arch, does not beckon. It keeps its vigil alone over the cliffs of the coast, the luster off the black waves turning the windows to silver. You wended the garden’s stone paths, your shoes obscured by the mist from the hills.  Beds of briar and wild blooms spite the efforts of long-gone gardeners. You led your companion to the door.

Now your companion inhales the old air, they hold back even as you take their hand. You smile at them, a challenge or reassurance, they do not know. You start down hallways that crack and sigh upon your passing.

The contents of this spired edifice have been laid to rest under white shrouds. The rooms are foreign, their features and purpose veiled. You glimpse them through half open doors, guessing their nature with names you know from the television. Parlor, billiards, music room, nursery.

At the kitchen your companion’s hand leaves yours. It’s even warmer than the rest of the house, they breathe deeper and open the pantries to find rusted knives and dusty spoons. You lift your head, imagining for a moment the smell of warm bread and then of cold ash.

Bolstered by this echo of inhabitance, the trace that someone once lived and breathed here as you do, you leave the kitchen for the great staircase. Your companion’s footsteps chase yours, too loud and too heavy as you make the landing. Their hand finds yours again.

The library is first. Its towering shelves loom around you, though not unpleasantly. It is a place to hide, you think but do not say. It is a library, one must be quiet. Your companion agrees and says nothing. Through the dust and the scent of mildew, a taste of spice, perhaps cumin or saffron touches your tongue. It is strange; you leave the library quickly.

You continue, though your skin is now cold and your heart beats in your throat. There is a room, a great room with a grand canopied bed and shapes covered in white sheets. Its open windows overlook the garden, bringing the currents of night through the lace curtains. The air fills your throat and it is like breathing for the first time, enough so that you barely notice the stain of laudanum and sickness that hangs about the lace.

Your companion waits at the door, shifting their feet. Their eyes are round and white, they want to go, they want to leave. You do not. You pause at the window and look towards the coastal cliffs, the impression of the road through the fog, and towards the thick forest the half-forgotten path leads to. You taste leather and steel, honey and stone, whiskey and sweet perfume.

A hand takes yours, it is warm and unlike the cold air that tastes of strange things. Your companion draws you away from the window. It is time to go, they say, there is something in the house. You do not answer, but you follow them.

You are in the hallway. There is something on the floor before you. It glimmers bright against wood, yellow as egg yolk. You bend and pick up the gold coin, turning it over so it flashes in the dim. You choke.

There is brine washing over your tongue and blood filling your lungs. It tastes like copper and salt and a deep black you’re never going to claw your way from. It’s killing you, drowning you. There is a hand in yours, someone you don’t know. You are going to die. You drop the coin.

You’re alive. Your companion is confused, it scares them, you scare them, but they draw you to your feet and drag you towards the stairs anyway. You leave the coin and its cloying drowning death where it fell. Your feet touch the downstairs landing, you stumble to the great door and over the threshold into the outside where your breath begins to appear before you.

You run with your companion’s hand in yours through the courtyard, across the cracked garden paths and onto the pitted and half-forgotten road. Your feet beat in time to the pounding in your chest. The house is a silhouette again, keeping its watch over the cliffs, and the forest, and the path you run. You grip your companions hand, they do not let go.

This post is in response to the 100th Wordle prompt by  Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie.  Congrats on the 100th Wordle, I had to oblige. 

Flash Fiction: Wrecker

Another short piece in response to this Wordle Prompt. Check out the talented Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie for more prompts. 

She stalks across the broken asphalt the aftertaste of tobacco in her mouth. Far off, beyond the city’s border, a dusty glow approaches from the east. It thickens the night air and warms the roadside silt. She sips from a plastic water bottle, trying to peel the bitterness from her tongue.

Pausing next to a dark salon, she bends to ease the bite of narrow shoes. One hand against the cement block building, she balances like a desert lizard. Shifting from one foot to the other, she wipes lymph from burst blisters and adheres an uncooperative bandage. Then, stiff legged and deliberate, she picks her steps and continues her hunt, a heron moving through a still pond.

The stillness does not last as morning brings life into the sun-bleached city. Like blood in veins, the streets begin to pulsate. Pumped between lights and signs, the commuters with their rumpled collared shirts do not permit their eyes to linger on her. These men go to work to feed children and wives, to pay off houses and cars, to maintain their place between horizons. The collective memory of her arched back and long bent legs has no place near morning radio and lukewarm coffee.

She’s tasted their coffee. Here it’s bitter black caffeine and chewing tobacco. Miles and decades away it was chili powder and cigar smoke. A century ago, turmeric and opium. She has tasted them all.

Waiting beneath bus stops, women watch her pass. Like their men, they recognize her. Unlike their men, they do not look away. The women admonish her bare shoulders with rigid stares, made brave by their numbers. They watch until she turns the corner, a predator exiled before she upset any carefully laid nests.

The city embraces her unwelcome presence. It stirs as she walks, and quiets upon her passing. She takes comfort in her entropy.