The half time show played out on the field. Cheerleaders bounced in front of a modest marching band while the sky darkened to a deep turquoise. Swarms of flying bugs formed halos around the stadium lights above metal bleachers packed with small families and packs of teenagers. Their conversations fought with the noise from the band. Overall, everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Angela and Kim were trying, their two teenagers less so.

Seated next to her family, Vera hunched over her phone refreshing her apps. Sparrow, their son, looked bemused as the cheerleaders stacked themselves into a pyramid in front of him.

“I thought you wanted to come, sweetie.” Angela asked her daughter after another long minute of Vera’s agitated finger flicks against her phone screen. The teenager paused, like she’d been caught.

“I did.” Vera said the words slowly,  something else waiting on her tongue. Alone. Angela caught Vera’s hungry sideways look towards the groups of chattering adolescents surrounding them.

“Vera wants to be a cheerleader.” Her brother, hunched over crossed arms and still frowning at the field, announced.

“I don’t–shut up Sparrow.” Vera hissed at him.

“You do?” Angela asked. Her wife, Kim, leaned forward to looked puzzled at their daughter. This was the first time they’d heard anything about this.

“No–maybe, its not a big deal. I just wanted to watch the game. I didn’t know you wanted to come too.” Vera flicking her eyes across her assembled family with a guilty look.

“Its a family outing. And these high school games are so popular, we figured…” Kim trailed off and looked around, noting the large standing groups of teenagers and the older couples enjoying thermoses and blankets by themselves. “Sorry sweetie, you can go hang out with your friends. Its okay.” Kim said encouragingly.

Vera made a strangled noise and shook her head. She went back to her phone with determined focus.

The two women exchanged looks, commiserating over their miserable teenagers. This hadn’t been their first choice for a Friday night either, but football, even the high school games, was absurdly popular this far south. The community rallied around the local games, and Angela and Kim wanted to set down roots– for as long as they could at least. If they belonged, it would make it easier for their kids to do the same.

The band started up another song.

“I’m getting a soda.” Vera stood suddenly and hoped down to the next row, her sneakers reverberating the cheap metal. Angela almost said something, but Kim put a gentle hand on her wife’s arm. The three of them watched Vera hustle and duck through the other teenagers.

Sparrow looked at his helpless moms and sighed. “Don’t mention friends. She hasn’t made any yet,” he said, quiet enough under the noise not to be heard by anyone else.

“That’s not–” Angela’s gentle rebuff died on her lips. The siblings were close and Sparrow had yet to develop the mean streak so often characteristic of adolescence. He was probably just telling the truth as he saw it. “We’re still new in town. It takes time.”

Sparrow’s expression creased with deep skepticism even as he turned back to the assembling football players with disinterest.

Kim managed another bated minute before she asked, “What about you? Are you making frien–”

Sparrow snorted loudly. “No. Its okay though. If I made friends I might have to come to more of these.”

Anegla couldn’t help it, she barked a laugh. “Alright then. This is probably our last one then. Lets make it count.” And with that she shared a smile with her son, and leaned comfortably into her wife’s shoulder to watch the second half of the game. Vera would come back soon enough.


Scramble and Gnaw

Branches swaying over him between the red blinds of his eyelids, cool breeze playing over the top of his face. Somewhere to the right of him the burning RV churned out scorching air and dark smoke. He imagined the scene from outside his laid out vantage.

Two men on the small country highway beside an exploded out RV. One lying on the asphalt, soot covering his young skin, threadbare clothes, and messy hair. The other, mildly annoyed, waiting on the first.

“Did you do that on purpose?” Atticus’ footsteps crunched loud next to his ear.

Very slowly, and with strikes of pain up the back of his neck into his temples, he rocked his head to one side and then the other. No. Purpose would imply he’d thought about it, considered his childhood home and his own chances inside it when he flicked his fingers and twisted the gas line all the way open. Purpose had never been his strong suit.

“At best you’d kill yourself. Some think that’s a type of freedom.” Atticus’ bland tone from above him didn’t tell him if Atticus thought that too. You could never tell with Atticus. “Surely you didn’t think that would be enough to get rid of me?”

A slight movement of shoulder. A shrug to indicate there hadn’t been much thinking involved, more just a wild scramble against the bars of a cage, the gnawing of his own arm. A torch to his own field. He winced.  The vague thought occurred he should probably get out– off the road. Sooner or later another car would come, potentially some police or firefighters in response to the burning beacon he’d turned his RV into. There would be questions he could not even begin to answer.

But after he got off the street? Then what– more of this. More of Atticus. The asphalt drove sharp pebbles into the back of his skull as he squinted up at the sky. Everything is temporary, he thought and was comforted. He pushed himself up and swayed to his feet.

“Lets go.” He said.

Atticus nodded.

A Little Angry

Lane stopped her pencil midway through its math problem. Across the kitchen table her foster brother worked on his laptop, fingers hitting keys loud enough that she was worried something was going to break. The yellow light from the ceiling lamps basked everything a warm yellow and turned the dark windows to mirrors. She could see them, her hunched over math worksheets and him looking slightly sick and determined to ignore it. Lane took a breath, and then stated “Cole, you’re allowed to be angry.”

She knew Cole heard her because his jaw clenched into a perfect square. Then after measured beat of silence, he answered not lifting his eyes from the screen. “About what, my essay?”

“No. I mean about Steph—”

Cole froze, and she watched his throat bob with an uneven swallow. The plaintive look Cole then gave her was so wounded she almost backed down. Almost. Lane dropped her pencil and propped her chin in her palm, hooking his gaze so he wouldn’t return to homework. “You haven’t done anything about it. Talked about it. And it was with your best—”

“Lane.” He growled her name, shoulders going tight with control. “I’m fine. I don’t want to talk about it.” His fingers twitched back to the keys.

“Your parents are more worried about you these days then they are me.” Lane said quickly, using the low blow to stall his return to work. It was just guilt over concerned parents, of all things. But if it worked than it worked. They were always worried about Lane.

He did pause. Another swallow. “Its dumb, I’m over it. Sorry if I worried you.” Cole tried to return to his laptop and the essay there, and Lane let him. For another ten minutes or so she stared at her math homework blankly. She really didn’t feel like doing it. Especially with another more important matter sitting across the table from her.

“But you are a little angry, right?”

Lane jumped when he shoved himself back from the table. “Yes. Yes, I am really angry but that doesn’t matter and – “ Cole breathed and noted her slightly stunned lean away from him. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to do –that.”

“Its okay, I just—can I do something? Slash her tires, break her mailbox? We could break her mailbox.” Lane offered.

“Its her parent’s mailbox.” Cole pointed out with a sigh. He reached forward and gently closed the laptop. “No. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to be mad.”

“Why not?” Lane furrowed her brows with the soft question.

“Because…” Cole started slowly as if assembling his thoughts for the first time.  “If I’m mad, then it would mean she deserves it. That they deserve it. That I shouldn’t forgive them and shouldn’t just have everything stay normal. Normal sounds nice at this point. So, not mad would be easier.”

“Is that working?” She asked, incredulous but ready to drop the matter if he gave her another open-wound look.

“It was until my little sister wouldn’t do her math homework,” He said. The slight upward tick at the corners of his mouth eased the twist in Lane’s stomach. Cole sighed again, even louder this time. “Come on, lets go.”

“Mailbox?” Lane asked hopefully. She slide out of the kitchen chair, fully abandoning her work to retrieve her jacket from the coat hanger near the front door.

“No.” Another growl this time, but it came with a roll of his eyes and he jangled his truck keys between them. “We’re just getting pizza. Mom and dad left money for it anyway. But you get to keep me company.”

Lane bit back her normal acerbic reply this time and followed him out the door.


Low Moan, Dial Tone

The fight had left her grasping for something to hurt, and finding no one and nothing that mattered enough in the apartment, she left. The doors in hallway were closed now but she’d heard the chorus of little wooden snaps the second before. She wished them a sliver of her red-soaked mind and slapped feet down the building’s stairs.

The streets outside were empty enough to not grate. Still finding it hard to breathe in the aftermath, the sticky rain didn’t help her swallow gulps of air. She was too warm, too wet with dripping cheeks and hair and skin. Both of her hands shook as she hurried away from the looming damage behind her, not finding places for them, in her pockets, crossed over her stomach, always reaching for the phone in her back pocket.

They’d gone on walks together, addressing the shadows of each other stretched on the asphalt in front of them. The shadows held hands between themselves, swinging interlaced fingers.

She breathed a  low moan and checked her phone, grateful for the clouds and the murky light of mid-afternoon that cast nothing, grateful for her blank screen, or hating it, she didn’t know.  No news, no death knell, no apology either.

Her feet stayed quick and angry while her upper half recanted. Distance let her own words float back, the hair brush she’d thrown, the feeling of her own lips turning into a sneer. This had been the worst one. This had been the one to break them open, strew themselves over the apartment in a way that couldn’t be glued back together, at least without the cracks showing. Her feet were resolute, carrying her farther from the apartment, walking along the brown river that apartment overlooked.

She kept walking.

The real river district was not the one with strawberry-painted verandas and mint balconies. It was long, narrow houses with white trellises to disguise sinking basements, worn streets paved in many patches. Squat churches and little successful business chains until you got off the main road… and she had. Now over the brown water beneath the St. Claude locks, she was in True River, and the little neighborhood welcomed her with foggy-windowed diners and closed liquor markets and other little resolute attempts at self sufficiency.

And there across the wide road filled with growing grey puddles, a soggy hardware store blazed with unnaturally bright windows. Against the grey and green and black of old asphalt its beckon was brilliant. Broken? A sign asked against its window. We fix it.  It promised.

Again her feet, but this time the rest of her, stepped off the curb and walked toe to heel hesitant across the wide road.

Broken. We fix it. 

She felt the corner of her lip tug up, not a sneer this time. It was just funny. She stepped up out of the road onto the sidewalk and into the hardware store.

Music Challenges are back, this time its to Ani DeFranco’s Both Hands. Judd set the challenge, we both rose to it. 

Been Something

Vin had refused to come, and I don’t blame him for it. Hoofslide is a despicable little neighborhood where the city sends its rejects to molder. My brother has enough sense  not to sniff back around.

Nostalgia dropped into my stomach like spoiled meat the moment my boots touched the mud. We’d strutted past these same slouching hovels, Vin and I and any kid we were tolerating that day. Playing cold and defiant under the city wall shadow where only the most unlikable guards were sent to patrol, even then, we barely fooled ourselves with jutting chins and eager fists. Definitely not anyone else.

Unlike the towers, floating plazas, and bridge webs that make up other districts, Hoofslide is set on actual earth. Sloped, graveled, unusable earth between the rest of the city and the main wall, so being in the place has that rock and a hard place feeling. Slightly squished, always a little off balance from the incline, and stinking from the runoff from the better districts, it was a place for those the city could or would not fit elsewhere.

Now there were new kids. A pack of the grime-darkened children watched me from a hovel stoop as I passed into the neighborhood proper. I smiled at them with the quick flash of teeth I’d perfected in these uneven streets. In response, they rose and slunk away. I may dress better now– my coat is soft leather and my shoes steel tipped– but our eyes are the same shape, our hair is fine and black as charcoal. I remember the windblown home they’ll only hear about if their parents get far into their cups.

Not that those memories are any good to me. Barely got to enjoy the feeling of deck beneath my feet before things went belly and the lot of us got shunted to this sticky fold between the city of towers and its wall.

Adults watched from behind laundry lines and porch card games as I went, surely and quiet. Some probably recognized me. Hoofslide isn’t big, and its not a warren the way most of the city’s underside is. There’s the tents and the hovels made from whatever we could steal or salvage at the edges, and then the center blocks lined with squat tenements set with the occasional crumbling plaster tower, pathetic next to the city’s field of bigger and cleaner ones.

I stopped at the edge of the block and stared at the ugly buildings, the shadow from the wall making every window like dark sockets. I sucked in a breath. It was one thing to swagger down a street, another thing entirely to duck under your old transom and ask for help. Didn’t like that best of days, and this wasn’t that.

But Kirra needed some Hoofslide expertise; Vin and I had clawed our way out too long ago to be that. And when a mage says she’ll owe you, you nod nice and rack up that favor, even if it means stomping old ground. I sighed, reminded myself my Da hadn’t been something since the city and drink got its hooks into him, and readied myself to lie  about exactly just that.

Rides and Rain

Rain fell thick in the heavy air outside their windows. Above the road, deep clouds rolled faster than the traffic. Cole gingerly urged his truck around a particularly lagging sedan, chancing the pass on the two lane road. From the passenger seat, his foster sister smirked at him, “you drive like an old man.”

“You don’t drive at all,” Cole responded without the slightest hint of affront. He kept his eyes on the road, hands at ten and two.  The point was taken though, the threadbare seats of the old truck was better than the school bus, and Lane stayed silent at least until the next bend in the road.

“There’s someone walking.” Lane shifted forward leaning against the seat belt, to peer out beyond the windshield.  “See?”

Cole frowned through the watery blur created by the rain. There was someone walking along the side of the road. Half hidden amidst the roadside’s thick brush, Cole still recognized the soft cloud of auburn hair, even dripping in coils from the rain. “That’s Vera,” he said and eased his foot off the gas, letting the truck drift a little to the side.

“The weird girl? The one in your grade?” Lane asked, dividing her attention between the teenager walking through a thunderstorm in the mud, and her brother’s sudden disregard for road safety. Outside Vera walked leisurely, her shoulders back and relaxed, letting the wind push her hair away from her face.

“She’s not weird, just new. Ask if she’d like a ride.” Cole jostled the truck as much as he could to the side of the road. Seemingly unperturbed by the rain, the pedestrian teenager took a few wary steps back from the stopped truck.

“Why me?” Lane hissed, fingers just resting on the window button.

“Because– if I do it, its ….creepy.” Cole flicked his hand in the air between them, “come on Lane. She’s out in the rain.”

Lane groaned but lowered the window. She plastered a slightly forced smile on her face as she leaned out. The wind immediately picked up her long black curls and danced them about. “Vera right? Hi. Do you need a ride?”

Vera relaxed when she recognized the petite underclassman. “Oh hi. Thanks, but I’m fine.”

“Really?” Lane frowned. She could see mud splattered up the length of the girls jeans.

“Yes. Thanks though, that is really nice.” Vera said, flashing a smile. The wind picked up, making her shout the last word.

Now Cole leaned over and Lane collapsed against her seat to make room for their exchange. “Are you sure?” Cole raised his voice against the brewing storm and he sent a quick concerned glance towards the dark sky. “This is a thunderstorm, probably a bad one.”

“Yeah. Probably.” Vera smiled through the wind. “Its okay, really. Thanks for the offer, but I’ll be fine.”

Both siblings inside the truck frowned, but Vera’s smile was resolute. Cole shifted back to his seat with a nod and a small wave. Lane shrugged at the older girl. “Stay out of open fields,” she advised and pressed the window back up.

Cole muscled the car back to the relatively smooth road and they gained speed, leaving Vera to disappear in the truck’s mirrors. Lane waited with pursed lips before Cole rolled his eyes. “Okay, she’s a little weird,” he said lowly.

“Uh huh.” Lane said, smirking again.


Hunting Ground

Unlike those who huddled inside their hovels and homes protecting stuttering candles, Cullen stared out into the wet fog, wondering why its wisps never stroked his windows or crept under his door. It would not even pass his fence.

Cullen frowned out over the softly churning grey waiting for sense to return. No one wandered in a fog; at best you’d lose yourself and find a quick end at the bottom of ravine or below dark ice, much worse you’d fade off chasing something calling your true name.  Cullen knew he should back away inside, stoke his forge awake against the chill, and wait for it to pass as all in the little township did in the repressive weather.

And he almost did retreat. His hand was back on the door handle when the smell hit his nose, sharp and sweet as granny smith apples. It made his mouth twist as the sour flesh broke under his teeth. Summer past nine at night but the sun was still shining orange between blushing clouds. A mother’s laugh, a child’s delighted shriek. The memory was as sharp as the apple on his tongue.

Cullen jerked back towards the fog.  Like a hound to a scent, his muscles tensed at the sight of the shifting shapes forming from the thick mist. There was no apple, no sun, no people save the dead ones in the mist. Even as he shook the unfamiliar voices and things and sour taste off himself, he could feel more waiting just beyond the fog bank.

The ghosts inside the dark mass shrank back from him as he moved forward, but their darting fear spurred him faster. He stopped at the gate, the fog retreating from him like he was the sun burning it away. Cullen’s lip rose, angry with confusion, and suddenly hungry for whatever waited in beyond his yard.

The rusted chain and lock forced him to remember his fingers, and he fumbled with it before throwing open the fence gate. The fog still crept from him, its dark shapes merely suggestions of people deep inside. Cullen licked his lips and plunged into the hunting ground.

Thank you Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie for another wonderful Wordle Prompt.