Her War Heart

She had seven hearts, each in a velvet lined box of hardwood stained the color of clotted blood. She walked among them, fingers tracing the carved lids, and wondered which she would need today. She thought of the witch in the woods, the gnarled crone she had met when she was a little girl, and her sharp knife and promises.

“You will be different. You will be strong. The men will not dare lay their hands on your flesh, or speak promises only to be broken as soon as they are soft.”

The knife glittered in the dark, then slipped between her ribs, opening her like a puzzle box, bone sliding aside, breastbone opening as a lock under a key. Curiously, it did not hurt, and she only watched in dispassion as the old woman took her first heart – her true heart – and lifted it, glistening in the firelight. She placed it in a sack and told Agnes to bury it in the thick peat between the roots of a cypress tree, and when she was finished, to guard its secret well. After, she was to return once a year, for the old woman to give her a new heart, each a distillation of those things that made life worth living.

Seven years, seven hearts, and this year she returned. She never asked the old witch what she wanted in return. Agnes knew already. When she would visit, she would tidy the cabin, brush the old woman’s long hair, still shining a deep gold, and rub the calluses on her feet. She would prepare dinner, and they would sup together, and when they were finished, the old witch – Greta – would disappear into her bedroom while crepuscular light crept in through the windows. She would rummage around for a bit, and when she returned, a new box would be in her hands, the wood stained and polished to a shine.

Now, it was nearly another year, and she had laid out her dress, a light thing printed with flowers, and tall boots, for Greta lived in the forest past the fields, and the mud could creep up your ankles and into your shoes, and if it had been a wet spring, sometimes it climbed to your knees, sucking at your legs like a drunk sucks at a bone, trying to pull the meat and marrow from you.

Agnes wondered which heart to wear – joy, for the laughter she shared with the witch, or stoicism to accept that time was passing, and soon enough even Greta’s time would come to an end. It was something Agnes hadn’t considered when she was younger. The witch of the woods had always seemed immortal, especially when Agnes had been young, Great had still been very old. But the fact was that time crept on, and even the very old and powerful weren’t immune to its ravages.

Maybe sorrow, then? She shook her head. Too much. Too painful. Outside, someone was ringing the warning bell in the square, drawing her from her thoughts. A rabble of voices drifted on the wind, and Agnes peeked her head from a shutter to see what the stir was about. The sky had turned the orange red of a summer storm, and the wind had the tang of ozone. In the square below, someone had gathered a large crowd, and Agnes squinted to see who it was.

Gunter, the town constable, was standing on the platform usually used for mayoral announcements, his bald pate shining in the still sunny day, wisps from the salt and pepper fringe blowing around his scalp. His face was red – redder than the normal flush from drink – and he clutched a burlap sack in one gloved hand. Most of the town was gathered around, summer dress fluttering in the warm zephyr, men with shirts unlaced and hats in hand, some still holding pitchforks and hoes. Agnes frowned. This must have been called in a hurry.

Gunter raised his voice to a stentorian bellow. “There is an abomination in our midst!”

The crowd muttered and shuffled their feet. They’d heard this before, two summers ago when Gunter had been appointed constable, and he was eager to hunt out evil in a town of less than a hundred people. He’d insisted there was a witch in the woods, and that she lured in unsuspecting children, then devoured them whole. Agnes had laughed at the pronouncement, as had most of the village, though her reasons were different. The thought of Greta, a woman who subsisted on bread and roots, eating a lamb shank, let alone a child, was ridiculous.

Gunter had turned a deep red at the scoffing, throwing an accusatory finger in their faces. “You’ll see! When your crops wither and your children grow wan, you’ll see!”

He’d stomped off in a blind fury, and Agnes had crept away that night to tell Greta of his speech. The old woman worked a spell that summer, with sea salt and bread, with bone and earth, that strengthened the crops and made the children hale. When the village saw the opposite of what Gunter claimed, they mocked him in the street, calling him ‘Old Man Wind’, a reference to the storms he would blow but never break.

Now he stood in the town square, and the burlap sack in his hand writhed, and a pit of dread sat in Agnes’s stomach, because she could see the mud on his boots and the scratches on his arms. He glared around at the muttering and reached into the bag, and her stomach clenched even tighter. With a triumphant sound, he pulled his prize free, the crimson muscle still beating in the sunlight. Agnes gasped, echoing the townspeople.

“A witch, I told you! A heartless witch, and if she is bold enough to walk among us with no heart, what must she be planning for your children? Hannah? Your Ruth, is she well? Martin, your Jon, has he not been ill? Look among you!”

They began to glance at one another.

“Who among you is missing? Who among you would not deign to show her face for the good of the village?”

All eyes turned to Agnes’ home, and she blanched, pulling her head back into the room and slamming the shutter closed. Too late though – she knew they had seen her, and now she wondered what was to be next. Outside, the muttering had risen to a clamor, and she bolted downstairs with a jolt of fear, managing to slam the bar across her door as the first stone hit it.

They came in a flurry, a rainstorm of stones slamming into her door, breaking slats from the shutters and rattling against the roof and cupboard. There were shouts for her to come out, for her to make their children well, for her to end her life. She ran upstairs and threw her tiny closet open, looking at each heart in turn. Which could she use? Innocence? They’d never believe it. Joy? She’d appear a lunatic. Sorrow? They’d think her being contrite a false face, and after all, what did she have to be contrite about? Living? She’d never brought them harm.

Smoke trickled between the floorboards, and panic seized her limbs. Leaving the hearts behind, Agnes barreled down the stairs, seeing that the front door had been lit, the walls now smoking too as the townspeople piled brush and lumber against them. She banged on the door and shouted.

“You know me! Harold – I taught your children! Jane – who nursed your little ones when you had the pox?”

No response came, and she tried to kick the door down, to flee, but they had nailed it tight. The fire was under the house now, and the floorboards smoked and spat as the flames took them. She fled up the stairs, thinking to jump from a window, but when she threw the shutter, saw that the townsfolk had surrounded her house, some with their bows, and watched as it burned.

Weeping, she sat on the floor and curled up into a ball. Surely they would relent. Surely they would spare her. This was just a lesson. She had harmed no one. She had done nothi-

The floor collapsed, spilling her into the fire.

*

She had been in the forest. She couldn’t remember why. Her mother had died? Her father? They were both gone now, gone and away, and she was alone, and there was no one to tell her not to play there, so she did. When she found the path, neat and winding between the boles of ancient oaks and maples, she took it, feet crunching on leaves shed the season before. Past another turn, the third in the path, she saw a tidy cottage, small and cozy, smoke rising from the chimney. Being neither warned nor afraid of such things, she knocked. The woman who answered the door was dressed in black, her hair gold, her hands wizened. She smiled, and let the girl in.

“Do I know you?” The woman asked.

Agnes shook her head.

“Would I like to?” The woman asked.

Agnes nodded.

“What is your name, little one?”

“Agnes, but my mother always called me Aggie.”

“Well, then Aggie, come in and sit with an old woman. I am Greta.”

“What will we do?”

“Sup, and talk, and in the end, if you’re very good, I’ll show you a bit of magic.”

Agnes thought she would like that very much, and stepped into the cottage, the door closing behind her.

*

Somehow, she survived. Though, she was burned badly, her skin scorched down to muscle – that didn’t hurt as much – cold numbed those parts of her. In others, great blisters had risen, and her hair had been burned down to stubble. She wept a little when she woke. Part from the pain, part from the loss. She had lost her home, her friends, her hearts. When she was done, she crawled through the rubble until she could see the field behind her house, and beyond that, the forest. She listened, though it was a rest day, and no one toiled in the fields, or walked the streets, and she breathed a sigh of relief. When night fell, she crawled further, into the mud of the field, into the long grasses and stinging insects which stung a little less in comparison to the great ache in her body, and over hard stone, each movement causing her to gasp and writhe. Finally, she made it to the forest, and collapsed under the shade of a massive oak, its branches spread wide.

She lay there, cool leaves and earth pressing into her back, and stared at the stars between the boughs. She wondered if their fire was as hot as the one that had burned her, and found she was glad they were distant. A shadow moved into her line of sight, blocking them, and after a moment, cawed gently at her. She stared at it until it cawed again, fluttered its wings, and hopped to a nearby tree, another soft caw escaping it. I hopped from one foot to another and looked at her expectantly.

With a sigh and a painful heave, Agnes rolled over and crawled along the ground, not trusting her legs yet. She made way in slow movements that drug her skin across broken twigs and raspy leaves until she was under the tree. The bird moved on, waiting. She followed. They did this for some time, night passing into dawn as Agnes moved inch by agonizing inch along the forest floor. Finally, the sun broke the horizon, and she found herself clutching the bottom of Greta’s door. With what strength she had left, she scratched at the wood, hoping the old woman would hear. Then, she went to sleep, satisfied she had come as far as she could, and the night would bear out the rest.

*

When she woke, she was ensconced in Greta’s soft goose down bed, the mattress like a cloud. She looked around the room and saw that it was much like her own. A bed, dresser, nightstand, and a small closet. She wondered at the contents, considered asking now that she was in the woman’s room, but then Greta came in bearing a steaming bowl, and she let it drop. The other woman propped her head up and spooned broth between her lips. It was good, filling, and left a trickle of warmth that grew into a comfortable blanket when she was finished. Her eyelids grew heavy.

“I should have seen this coming,” Greta was saying.

Agnes shook her head weakly. “Not their fault.”

Greta waved that away. “Bah. People are dumb and panicky, and cruel when they believe lies. Sleep now, for a little longer. I have a gift for you.”

Agnes let the lassitude wash over her.

*

When she woke, it was alone. She felt stronger, enough to sit up and look around. In the bed was a box, the top carved with a flame. A note sat beside it.

“This is your war heart,” it read. “It is time you took your own back.”

Agnes opened the box, and inside was a heart the color of fire. It glowed gently, not a peaceful white like joy, or blue like sorrow, but a deep angry red, and when she held it in her hands, it was hot to the touch. It frightened her a little. Still, she opened her chest and placed it within, and when it began to beat, she felt strength flood her limbs, her pain dissipating. She threw off her covers, and opened Greta’s closet. Inside was a cloak and a blade, and she took both. The cloak was black and felt light as shadow, the blade white and bright as the moon. She stalked out of the hut and into the night.

*

She stood at the edge of the village and cried out for Gunter. He came on the third try, his face red, his hair disheveled. In one hand, he held his cutlass. In the other, the burlap sack. He stared at her, recognition not lighting his face. A crowd had begun to gather behind him, and when she swept the hood of the cloak back, they gasped. He stepped back and raised his sword, leaving the heart in the dirt.

“My heart, please.” Moonlight glimmered on her blade.

“Witch!” He spat.

Gunter lunged, his face alight with fanaticism, a fever that refused to break. She stepped out of the way and the war heart surged. Her limbs moved like clockwork, and she swept his head from his shoulders. His corpse tumbled to the ground.

“My heart, please.” She repeated it. A bold farmer, thick with ropy muscle, tried what the older man couldn’t, taking up his blade. Agnes ended him as well, and someone cried out.

“My heart. Please!” It was no longer a request, but a command, and yet no one moved to obey the woman cloaked in shadow.

“My heart!” Rage surged through her. The war heart whispered to her. She was born to kill. She was born to end. She would burn the world. She raised the blade and took a single step forward. The crowd shrank back, and she silently cursed them for cowards.

A voice, small and curious cracked the surface of her rage. “This heart?”

A child, no older than she had been when she’d met Greta held out her heart. Agnes nodded and knelt. From somewhere in the crowd, the girl’s mother wept, but Agnes had no time for her. She took her heart and stood, then leaned in, speaking in the girl’s ear.

“If you need, find me in the woods.”

With that, she stood and left the village in somber silence. Behind her, a choked sob escaped, or a muttered curse, but none reached her ears. She traveled light, and when she entered the tree line, disappeared altogether.

*

In the cabin, she placed her war heart in a chest, and sat beside the old woman who had given it to her, her body still cooling in her chair. She brushed her hair and rubbed her feet, then wrapped her in linens and buried her between the roots of the cypress trees. When she returned to the cabin, she put her old heart in her chest, and her new in the tiny closet, and waited. In time, she would have enough joy and sorrow, love and hate, and all the other things that make life worth living, and she would give them to a young woman to learn their lessons.

Via Dolorosa

Pain can blot out the world, make the details go missing like a cataract occluding vision. Right then, Maria was missing the smell of trash stacked almost waist-high in the alley, the taint of sewage clinging to a brick wall where the grates had belched up steam, and the ripple-rustle sound of rats scurrying through black plastic, their claws opening holes in the bags and spilling milk rings and coffee grounds, apple rinds and eggshells. Instead, she winced and braced herself against a wall that was clear of trash but tagged with paint that had dripped and run, layer on layer marking and demarking ownership, like a map redrawn by a mad cartographer.

There was something wrong with her, something in her guts writhing and drawing her life, feeding on joy and normalcy the way children suckle on mother’s milk. It wasn’t the C-word. Cancer. That’s how she thought of it every time it came up, every time it intruded on memory, a guest waving a cleaver at a tea party. The C-word had taken her mother. It had touched her father near the end, when he had finally decided to give up the cigarillos and the rotgut. Every now and then, she would smell those things – smoke and whiskey – drifting by on a breeze, and she’d think no. No. He was gone, and the specter of the thing that had taken him wouldn’t haunt her for longer than it took to walk away from the scent and think of happier things.

And still the specter lurked. So she had gone to the doctor, with the C-word on her lips, and suffered with patience the seemingly-infinite pinpricks and bone punctures and machines that irradiated you in hopes of finding what it was that was killing you. And it wasn’t. It wasn’t the C-word, and the doctors said it wasn’t killing her, but of course it was. Of course it was. Inch by inch, in tightening bands in her stomach and back that crawled under her skin like a python in her guts. Of course it was.

They’d told her she had other options. They sent her to a pain specialist, and there were pills and electro therapy and physical therapy. But it didn’t matter. The pain ignored it, laughed at it the way you laugh at the blows of an angry child. She had tried homeopathy and naturopathy and acupuncture. Chiropractic therapy and massage. She had seen brujas and witches, Romani women with high cheekbones and dark eyes, Wiccans and Christian Scientists. In the end, the pain remained, and her money didn’t.

She moved from her house to an apartment, and then from the apartment to a rental motel, her belongings piled to the sides of the single room and in the back of her beat-up car like the trash in the alley. She had sold the things she could, and bartered what she couldn’t, and soon even those would be gone as the money went from scarce to extinct, the last wheeze of a desperate life. Work was hard to come by – no one wanted a broken woman who could only make it five, six hours before the pain settled in and took control, forcing her to a halt as she huddled in her threadbare chair and made fists that left her palms sore. She scavenged, finding things in cast-offs from far wealthier homes, and in back alleys like this one, and chuckled when the words Reduce, Reuse, Recycle flitted through her head.

And then she’d found it. Scribbled on the wall of a restroom in a Denny’s. Two words. Brother Pain. She’d sat the toilet, her eyes trying to unfocus with the ache in her guts, and stared. Brother Pain. It seemed like a taunt. Like a promise. She found a pen in her purse, and scribbled beside it Who, then went home and sat in front of the small TV the motel provided, and watched Seinfeld reruns until her eyes grew heavy and her breathing steady.

*

  She found five dollars in her purse the next morning. Enough for a coffee, and she drove to Denny’s, her stomach in turns aching and shivering. She ordered the coffee and sat until the waitress stared, then left the cup and went to the stalls. She opened the door and held her breath, anticipation like a wire under her flesh. She looked. There, beneath Who, were the words the alleys. Disappointment flashed through her, then curiosity. What alleys? Where? She left the stall, and sat in her car for a time. Florence + The Machine played a dirge on the radio. She started the car and drove.

*

That first week was like a scavenger hunt. She would find traces of him on brownstone walls hidden from the sun, on dumpsters scummed over with grease and worse, slicker things. Always but a word or two, always just a glimpse.

NOT HERE

CLOSER

GO BACK

This last scribbled on a rest stop mirror in lipstick once red, now the color of clotted blood. In a stall beneath flickering lights someone shuffled, and she heard the sound of steel on steel. She’d fled into the night and looked elsewhere.

Maria had stumbled through alleys choked with refuse, both garbage and human. Some shouted at her, some groped, gnarled hands digging into flesh, bruising her private self, leaving her skin crawling hours afterward. She dodged a man wielding a broken bottle, an emaciated pitbull at his side. The dog looked at her with sad eyes, as if to say This is where pain ends, this is where pain leads, and she looked away, moving from the man’s small hovel of scrap pressed against the side of a building that looked as if the cost of the fixtures alone could have fed a small army.

And now here, it was the last. It was the last she would – could – check, the pain having moved, grown, staking its claim like a rogue nation annexing its neighbors. It was in her knees, in her shoulders. It stabbed her with unseen claws just below the breastbone. She was ravaged, emaciated. She was cold and aching, and her thoughts flitted from one thing to the next, as though landing on any one topic would give the pain purchase. She gasped, taking her breath back for a moment, and pulled her hand away from the wall. Over all the layers of paint and grime, one word had been scrawled, the hand hard, frantic.

HERE

Her heart skipped a beat, and she held still, fearful that this was the last step. She would find her Brother Pain, and drop at his feet. She swayed, then steadied, and with a gentle sigh, stepped further into the dark.

*

The alley became a chapel. Not in the literal sense. Maria felt the atmosphere clear, a bucolic summer day in winter. The trash that had sculpted the walls of the space into a defile of decay thinned, and then disappeared. Here, men and women still slept or leaned against cool walls, but they seemed content. They nodded as she passed, raised a hand in greeting. And there, at the end, a simple shack built between the buildings, corrugated tin propped against one another into standing walls and a roof, the opening between them draped with a bedsheet that had been printed in crimson and gold paisley. A man stood before it, hands clasped before him.

“A supplicant approaches!” he echoed across the brick, and Maria cringed. The people in the alley echoed. “Be she worthy!”

The man before the door swept the curtain to the side, indicating she was to enter. Maria paused while the pain intensified, as though it knew this place was the last stop, the last terminal on the Underground. A whimper escaped her lips. No one moved to help. This was a test, she knew. Could she meet Brother Pain on her own two feet? Would she be worthy? The pain passed, and she crept toward the door, the man beside it smiling. Gray whiskers lined his cheeks, wiry in the light. He smiled, brown teeth a testament to his vice. She wondered if it had been the C-word for him. What the Brother had done for his grizzled guts. He nodded, and she stepped into the chapel.

Darkness engulfed her for a moment as her eyes adjusted. It crept back in stages – here, a small wooden table, a Coleman lamp sputtering out light. There, a chair draped with a comforter. Here, a bedroll made neat, a ratty pillow at its head. There, a man, sitting, his skin the color of wet earth. He was wrapped in an old army jacket over a gray hooded sweatshirt. He gestured at the chair covered by the comforter, and she sat. He smiled, his eyes rheumy, and reached a hand out, placing it on hers. His skin was nearly feverish, though his touch was dry.

“And at last, you have come. What do you offer?”

Her mind skirled in panic. She stammered. “I- I have nothing.”

He shook his head. “All things in balance, and all things true. You have more than you know.”

She forced her mind to settle, forced herself to take steady, even breaths until the pain dulled to a low roar. She had given her money. She had given her time. She had given her home and her things. She seized upon something.

“I have a car.”

He shook his head.

“I have-“ she rummaged in her purse, came up with ten dollars and a pin her father had given her for her sixteenth birthday. It was a gold hummingbird, tiny rubies for the eyes. They glinted in the light, and she remembered how small it looked in his hands as he held it out for a gift. The last thing he had given her before his blood turned thick, before his eyes yellowed and his breath came in ragged gasps. Tears blurred her vision for a moment. “I have this.”

He shook his head again, and frustration rose in Maria. Of all the things she had given, that was her most precious. Even when she had been forced to wait beside restaurant dumpsters for cast-off food, she hadn’t entertained the idea of parting with it. She opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted, anger making her tongue bitter. He stopped her by touching her stomach, once.

“What can you trade?”

Realization lit her thoughts. “My pain.”

He nodded, and pressed his hand against her stomach. It swirled and growled, and the pain rose, rose, rose to a crescendo, the crashing of a tsunami against her soul. Maria cried out, and her vision doubled, trebled. Brother Pain was saying something, but she just wanted it to end. She wanted it out. She took the pin in her hand and opened it, intending for a single thrust. She raised her hand, and-

It was done.

She lowered the pin, and took a breath. No pain lanced her. No ache tormented her. She looked across at the man in the chair, his eyes closed. A smile trickled across his lips. After a moment, he raised a hand.

“This is a good trade.”

She stood, and made her way from the shack on legs unsteady from newfound relief. She stood in the half-light outside, the men and women in the alley smiling at her. The man beside the door raised a hand.

“Via dolorosa!” he shouted.

“Via dolorosa!” they replied.

Maria found herself repeating it. She stood for another minute, until they brought her a bedroll and a hunk of bread and water. She bedded down as close to the chapel as she could get. The light faded from the day, and she sat alone in the dark for a while. She had given all she could, but would give a little more. She had earned her reprieve, but felt the balance uneven. When she finally drifted to sleep, sweet untroubled sleep, it was with his words on her lips.

“This is a good trade.”

Child of Nod Teaser

Hey all, my novel, Child of Nod, is due out November 7, so in anticipation, here’s the first chapter. It’s a little bit horror, a little bit fairy tale and myth, and a little bit something else. If you’re interested, you can check out the Goodreads page for the full blurb.

 

Child of Nod

Once upon a time, there was a girl who was dead.

She wasn’t a little girl, but she wasn’t a woman yet, though last summer her breasts and legs had grown and now she was taller than her aunt was. She had red hair that flowed from her scalp, cascaded in ringlets over her slender neck and shoulders, and bounced when she ran. Her eyes were a deep green, her skin a milky white, and overall, people who met her would always tell her aunt what a beautiful young woman she would make someday.

Her name was Alice. A minute ago, she wasn’t even sure of that, wasn’t sure of anything in this new place. It had come to her as she’d looked around, as though a patch of fog had lifted from her mind, and the sun had come blazing through. Then the brilliance was gone, receding back behind a patch of gray, and she was left again with tattered mist that drifted between her thoughts, obscuring answers she felt sure she would need.

The next thing that came to Alice was an awareness of her surroundings. It dawned on her as though someone had thrown a switch—one moment, a dreamlike haze swirled around her, filled with blank shapes, the next, the fog was all in sharp focus. She was sitting in a clearing ringed by trees, black in the low light. Their branches reached to the roof of the earthen tunnel that enclosed them, some even digging into the soil above, and disappeared as if they were fingers sunk in loam. Beneath her, leaves long dead and dry rustled with the movement of her skirt.

She struggled with her disorientation, with trying to remember what she had been doing before. This new place felt off to her, as though she were in two places at the same time, but only belonged to one. Peering at the trees and their branches above, hearing the way they sighed and creaked even without a breeze, wherever this was, she was sure this bleak forest wasn’t where she was meant to be. It certainly wasn’t 54th street or the cottage by the sea. Even as she thought of them, the memories flared and settled in her mind. Life comes at you in bits and pieces, her aunt would have said, and she realized the phrase was another thing she remembered, and wondered how long her mind would continue to feed her like a hamster in a cage.

Alice stood, her legs tingling with pins and needles, and took a deep breath. She smelled the earth around her, and the dry scents of trees and leaves, and faint, but still there, the tang of saltwater. It reminded her of her aunt’s cottage by the ocean, and the soft sand that would squish between her toes when the honey-colored grains were wet. She smoothed her skirt, took another breath, and headed toward what she thought might be the end of the tunnel.

Leaves crunched under Alice’s feet, sending up the smells of dirt and autumn trapped in the layers of dead foliage. At first, she had to stop every few feet and disentangle her skirt or her top from clutching tree limbs, as though they were greedy relatives who wanted to monopolize her time, jealous of her youth. The further she went, the less frequent it became, the grasping branches becoming sparser and losing strength against her determination. Eventually, she was able to walk a straight line as the trees and the flotsam and jetsam underfoot thinned out. Down the path, the gray lightened, and unless merely a mirage, a widening to the tunnel loomed ahead.

Alice stopped for a moment and turned around. The trees and the path behind her lay undisturbed, though she could recall breaking a branch off here, and kicking a pile of leaves to the side there. She looked down and noticed the ground had turned to a trail of hard-packed clay, worn smooth by ages of travel. A rustling in the underbrush to either side of the path made her swing back toward the mouth of the tunnel.

Where there was no one before, a dog now lay in her way, and she took an involuntary step back. She hadn’t thought there would be any animals here—the forest seemed devoid of life: no chatter of chipmunks, no scurrying underfoot, no singing birds. She’d stood in a wooded wasteland. The sight of the dog had startled her, and she froze, trying to calm the pounding in her chest. As she watched, it tilted its head, opened its mouth, and a long tongue lolled out as if to say, “Hello.”

Alice glanced over her shoulder, wondering if she could wind back and find a way around, but the walls of the tunnel were far too close yet, and to her surprise, the path had disappeared. Only the scrub brush and leaves littered the fallow ground among the trunks behind her. She looked at the dog again and remembered a trick her aunt had taught her. Memory flared for a moment, bright as starlight, and her mother’s sister hove into view in her mind’s eye—red hair like her own, round glasses, and a generous bosom. She’d taken Alice in when her mother had died, and spent the next years of her life instructing her niece in everything she could. Like the trick with dogs. Alice bent a bit, held out her hand, and tried not to smell like fear.

“Nice doggy… good doggy…”

She repeated it like a mantra as she approached the animal in half-steps. It tilted its head to the side and watched her approach, its eyes a light blue that reminded her of summer skies. When she was less than a foot away, Alice stopped, her hand still out. The dog looked up at her with those blue eyes and seemed to weigh her. She sincerely hoped it wasn’t thinking she would taste good. After a minute, it stretched its neck out, opened its mouth, and licked her palm, its smooth tongue leaving a wet smear on her hand.

A sigh of relief escaped her, and Alice pulled her hand back. She wiped her palm on her skirt as best she could without letting the dog know she was doing it. There was intelligence in its eyes that made her fear it would take something like this as an insult. As if making a decision, the dog stood, and Alice stiffened again, not sure if it had changed its mind. Ah, he. If he had changed his mind.

He glanced at her once more, then turned and padded down the path. A few feet along, he paused and looked back over his shoulder, as if waiting for her. The look made up her mind, and Alice followed, hoping she was taking the right path. The dog started again, and let out a soft snort on the way as if to say, “About time.”

*

By the time Alice caught up with the dog, the tunnel entrance had widened into a wide sky, the hard clay underfoot softening and mixing with sand. The light here was better as well, though she still could not tell where the illumination was coming from. The smell of saltwater was stronger and accompanied the sounds of waves lapping at a shore.

The dog stopped in the middle of the beach, and Alice came to a halt beside him. A wide expanse of water before them disappeared into the distance. A light breeze blew across the surface, sending ripples and waves against the shore. In the low light, the water appeared black, though still clear as glass, and from where she stood, Alice could see the bottom of the lake for several feet out.

Where the water met sand, a small pier made from weathered planks and lashed together with thick cords of rope jutted out into the waves. At its end, a boat of dark lacquered wood with a high prow, a lantern hanging from the bowsprit, and with what looked to be room for two or three people bobbed, tied to the pier.

Sedately, a shadow detached itself from the stern of the boat and debarked. The newcomer was tall, over six feet, and gaunt, even in the folds of the cloak it wore, and Alice couldn’t see the passenger’s face in the depths of his hood. He walked with the aid of a long pole that thumped on the boards of the pier, marking time to his stride, though his footsteps made no sound at all. When he reached the end of the walkway, where the boards met sand, he stopped, and held out a hand, palm up, as though waiting for something.

The dog looked up at her, then at the man on the end of the pier, and back to her. As if waiting for her decision, he let out a huff of air and lay down in the sand. Alice dithered. The man stood there waiting, hand out, as though he could for hours, and never spoke. She checked her gut once, but no internal warning flares soared up from there. Her Uncle Phil, who had been a cop in Chicago, had told her when she wasn’t sure of something, her gut couldn’t lead her wrong. Something about that memory stuck with her, and for a moment, she saw flashing lights and the faint sound of sirens and the steady patter of rain. She shook herself, and it faded.

She considered the boatman for a little while longer, and waited for a hint of anything, but nothing came—no twist in her stomach, like when she had seen the man with the gun—just a quiet expectation in the air. Her stomach dropped out as the world faded again, and she was standing on the subway platform. The man was there, dark eyes and dark clothes, a small black gun in his hand and a sneer on his face. He was pressing against her, forcing her to the edge of the platform. He said something, something she didn’t hear, and then she was falling, and she screamed—

The dog barked once, a sharp warning that snapped her back to her new reality, and she found herself stock still, tears streaming down her cheeks. She drew breath in short painful gasps and her heart pounded, threatening to rise to her throat. She let her lids fall closed and took a deep breath, and forced the fear away, to a place in her mind where she could lock it up until she was ready. After a minute, she opened her eyes. The man on the pier was still there, hand outstretched, unaffected by her episode.

Another minute passed, and Alice crouched down to pet the dog, who laid his head between his paws, and sighed again as she ran her hand through his fur. Her knees were beginning to throb with a dull ache, and Alice let herself down the rest of the way until she was sitting in the sand next to the dog.

Her left hand went on stroking the dog’s fur, and she enjoyed the softness against her palm and the reassuring warmth beneath her skin. She frowned, lost in thought, while her free hand absently dug and sifted through the sand at her side.

“What do you want?” She asked the figure at the end of the pier.

No answer came, and she went back to worrying at the situation like a mouse at a rope. She tried to think of things she had read, stories she had heard before, mentioning a man and a boat. Unfortunately, most of what she knew still seemed shrouded in a gray fog that persisted in her brain. Although, the harder she thought, the more something glimmered in the back of her mind, and she pushed towards it.

She spared a glance at the man, who still had not moved. Something told her maybe he couldn’t go beyond the pier, and as long as she kept her distance, she was fine. The idea flared in her brain again, burning off a bit of the fog, and she grabbed for it.

…turn to page 163, Mythology, and…

Her mind seized on the fragment, and for a moment she was back in Mrs. Rabe’s class, the fragrances of early autumn and late summer drifting in through open windows.

Mrs. Rabe was a short, rotund woman with graying hair, and a stern, grandmotherly air. She was writing something on the blackboard, a name, in flowing script. Calvin, another redhead, sat behind Alice, whispering to a friend. She turned to see who―

Her right hand closed on something hard and cold. And the memory came to her, a flash of light in a dark room. Of course—the dead need pay the ferryman for passage. She looked down, and saw she had been digging a hole in the sand, her right hand caked with soft mud, grains grinding against each other under her fingernails. Something glittered with a dull shine in the dirt in her hand, and she brushed it off, recognizing the shape of a coin. She wondered where hers was, and realized she wouldn’t have had one. They no longer buried the dead with coin. It troubled her, the idea that she could have been trapped on this side with no possible recourse but to swim or languish. For her, it was fortunate that she had come across one someone had lost, though she felt for the poor soul.

And what of the others? Those that had come here in the intervening years and found themselves wandering this endless beach. A second thought occurred to her—how many did actually come here? Surely, those who passed on didn’t all go to the same place. It would be, for the lack of a better term, awkward. If she was dead, that was. She let out a sigh, exasperated with the cloud in her head, and bent to cleaning the coin.

When the disc was as clean as she could get it without walking to the water’s edge and rinsing it, she confirmed it was gold in color, and crudely stamped with a man’s image on both sides. Roman numerals crawled along the outer edges, and beneath the portrait, lettering she couldn’t decipher. While she was looking at it, Dog let out a low warning growl.

Alice followed the direction of his snout and spotted what Dog had already sensed—a naked man sprinting full-tilt down the beach. An idle part of her, the part that remembered old jingles and quotes from TV shows, wondered where his clothes had gone. Then shrugged. Maybe he’d been here so long, they’d simply fallen to tatters. Maybe he was just a loon.

She was frozen momentarily, torn between waiting for him—he was the first human she had encountered since coming to this place, present company, the ferryman, excluded—and running like hell from what appeared to be a madman on a collision course with her.

He drew closer, and opened his mouth, and the words that spilled out made up her mind for her.

“Kill you, kill you, KILL YOU! MY COIN, MY COIN, MYYYY COOOOIIIIINN!”

Alice clambered to her feet and kicked up sand, heading for the ferryman, where he still waited with his palm out. Dog followed, still growling deep in his chest and throat. She reached the cowled figure and slapped the coin into his hand. His fingers closed around it, and he turned, making his way to the boat.

She followed and looked over her shoulder, noting the psycho was closer now, maybe three, four hundred yards away, and still bellowing obscenities at her. She quickened her pace, and a knot of frustration tied itself in her stomach when she realized the tall man in the cloak seemed unhurried and unconcerned.

The dinghy rocked as Alice, Dog, and the boatman stepped in, and he leaned forward to untie the rope and cast off. When finished, he took his place at the back of the boat, slipped his long pole into the water, and pushed off, sending them on their way.

At the same time, the naked man reached the edge of the pier and stopped short, his face, only moments before twisted in rage, collapsing in on itself and giving way to despair. He dropped to his knees and let out a wordless howl. Then the current caught the boat, and he dropped out of sight in a matter of seconds, the only sounds the rush of water against wood, the soft splash of the ferryman’s pole in the water, and Dog’s panting.

Red, A Tale

A short piece I experimented with. I wanted to do Red Riding Hood with a crime twist, and since I rarely write crime, it was a bit of a challenge. It’s not perfect or something I’ll send out, but it was kind of fun to write.

Red, A Tale

“The Red. The flowers. The grandma. Me.” The Wolf took a drag from his smoke, the Marlboro small between his massive fingers. Claws the side of almonds tipped fur-covered digits, his palm easily the size of the Huntsman’s head. They sat in a cinderblock room, a wide metal table between them, a single bulb in a metal cage overhead. It threw stark shadows on the walls. Smoke drifted up to the light and swathed the bulb in an opaque haze. He spoke between teeth the size of most people’s small finger, muscles in his jaw rippling, his voice like ripping cloth.

He pulled the cigarette to his lips again, the chain looped around his wrists and the ring on the table clanging as steel moved against steel. He blew a plume out.

“What do you want to know?”

“Where’s the girl?” The Huntsman wasn’t small by any standard. He stood over six and a half feet and looked like someone had pulled him from the Steeler’s lineup. Calloused hands gripped the table, and though he had to look up at the Wolf, he had the demeanor of a man looking down.

“I told you. I don’t know. Probably fucked off to Aruba. Maybe Cairo. Maybe one of those places with a hard to say name and no extradition treaty.”

“Tell me about the blood.”

“It’s mine. They hit me with something, and when I woke up, you were there.”

“We’ll see. Since we’ve got time, tell me again.”

The Wolf stubbed out his smoke and sighed. He’d told the story three times already. It hadn’t changed, but he knew this was SOP for the Huntsman. He leaned back as far as the chain would allow and began.

*

She wore red. I shouldn’t have cared. Shouldn’t have even noticed, but there’s something about a woman in red. It’s intoxicating. Heartbreaking. Wild. You think it’s only bulls who love that color? They like the movement. It’s all black and white to them. Me, I like the color. The shade, the depth. It’s the color of roses and heart’s blood.

We met in a little bar by the docks – close enough to smell the brine on the air, not so close you couldn’t smell the pines outside town. I think it was called The Path. One of those little dives you see on the news after someone goes and gets lippy, and the next thing you know, the place is busted up, and three guys are sitting on the curb holding towels to their heads while the cops take statements. She was nursing a whiskey – neat, her hair as red as her dress, her head hung over the drink like she could see the future in it. Hell, maybe she could. Come to think of it in retrospect, I wish I’d had one. Maybe I’d seen what was coming.

She looked up when I took the stool next to her. The pig behind the bar nodded, and I ordered an old-fashioned. Thought about a bloody Mary, but stereotypes are a real thing. I watched the pig work. I think his name was Mortimer, or Marty, or something. All I knew for sure was that at one time he was into real estate, and when he cashed out, bought the bar. The other thing I knew was that he made a mean drink. Now and then he’d burn them, and I’d find myself huffin’ and puffin’.

Not that night, though. The old fashioned was sweet and mellow, and I could feel the buzz in my head, like white noise. I finished it and was about to go – one or two is my maximum these days – when she put a hand on my arm. Two things about that. One – nobody really touches me. I mean, who knows what the Wolf’s gonna do, right? Two – her hands were clean, but her nails were ragged, like she’d been chewing them. I looked over at her.

“Have a drink with me,” she said.

That raised an eyebrow, but I nodded. “Okay.”

I ordered another, and we sat in silence, sipping our drinks. She broke it.

“I hear you do things.” It wasn’t a question.

“Used to,” I corrected her.

“Used to is code for I want to, but someone might catch me,” she snarked.

I shrugged. She wasn’t completely wrong. Some days, the need gets to you. You do your best to ignore it, occupy your time with other things. These days, I built models. I was in the middle of a scale USS Nimitz. I hated it a little bit. The damn glue matted my hair.

“I don’t do that anymore,” I repeated.

“What if you did? Would you do it for money?”

I shook my head.

“What about for a good cause, then?”

I started to shake again and stopped. Maybe. She noticed the pause and rushed in to fill the space.

“She hits me.”

I looked over at her and blinked. “Who?”

“My grandmother. She’s a mean drunk. She hits me and throws my food out, and when she’s not trying to beat me with a broom, it’s words.”

“Words are just words,” I growled. I was trying to pull myself from the conversation. She wasn’t having it.

“Are they? Are they just words when every day you’re useless and stupid and a piece of shit?”

“She’s your grandmother. How rough can it be? You can fight off a little old lady, right?”

She shook her head. “She’s only in her fifties, and strong as an ox. Old Russian farmer. Look at me.”

I did. She must have been about a hundred pounds soaking wet. She was shaking, and I could see that I’d been careless again. This really bothered her.

“Look, if it’s money you want, she’s got an insurance policy. Make her disappear, and I’ll split it with you.”

I wrestled with the decision. I looked closer, to see if she was giving anything away, pulling me into a lie. I saw bruises the dim bar had hidden. Black and blue marks on her arms, beside her eye. I growled involuntarily. In my past life, I’d been a dick. A bastard. A cad. I’d wrecked homes and terrorized villages. But I’d never hurt a woman. I sighed and glanced at Marty. He was busy polishing a glass. I leaned in and whispered.

“Fine. Give me the address.”

She pulled a pen from her purse and scribbled something on a napkin, then slid it over to me. I finished my drink, threw a couple dollars on the bar, and grabbed the note. She grabbed my arm on the way out.

“Call the number there when it’s done. Use a pay phone.”

I nodded and left.

*

The Huntsman looked at the Wolf, a hard expression on his face. “You agreed to kill someone for money.”

“Not exactly. I said ‘fine’, not ‘I’ll kill her’. At the time, I was just trying to get out of the bar.”

“But you went to the old lady’s house.”

The Wolf sighed. “Yeah. I had to see.”

“Tell me about it.”

*

The old lady lived on the edge of town, in a nice suburb called Pleasance. I took my time getting there the back way. People tend to notice a wolf in their midst. Granted, the place was crawling with centaur and dryads, but a wolf – that’s a predator. You watch predators.

I pulled onto a side street and walked the rest of the way, through the little clusters of pine that dotted the neighborhood. Lucky enough, they butted right up against Red’s property, and I was able to hunker down and watch the house. It was one of those nice little ranch homes, painted yellow, black shingles. Sliding glass doors looked out on a decent back yard. Someone kept it up. Strung across the yard was a clothesline, clothing hung from wooden pins and flapping in the breeze.

The sliding door opened, and a woman stepped out carrying a basket. She was large, ponderous breasts over an equally ponderous stomach, sturdy legs and arms, and a knot of steel gray hair perched on the top of her head. She wore long skirts and a patterned blouse, and her face was wrinkled, like earth broken with the weight of years. I could smell vodka and sweat on her even from the pines. It burned my nose, and I sneezed once to clear my nostrils. She looked up at the sound, but gave no indication she saw me as she clipped more laundry to the line.

I waited for her to turn her back, and crept from the pines, moving through the grass until I was just on the other side of the clothing. The door slid closed, and I passed the clothesline, pressing myself against the wall. I could hear the sound of the TV inside, and someone yelling. I held my breath and listened.

“”Worthless girl! This is all you bring home?” I heard the sound of a fist striking flesh, and a cry.

I peeked around the corner and could see the big woman hovering over Red, who had fallen to the ground. She had one arm up in defense. My stomach stirred – most out of anger, I think. Grandmother raised her fist again, and Red scooted back.

“Get out! Get out and don’t come back until you have another hundred!”

Red scrambled to her feet and disappeared around a corner. I heard the slam of a door and running feet. I wasn’t sure I should follow. I wasn’t sure I shouldn’t. But a hurt girl, alone – it didn’t seem right. I got to my feet and ran around the side of the building. The old woman was waiting for me. She stood, looking like a wall with arms, balled fists planted on her hips. I skidded to a stop and looked at her.

“What are you doing in my yard?” She asked.

I ignored the question and tried to go around her. She stuck and arm out and hit me in the chest – like you’d push a child. Turns out, she was strong. I flew back about five feet, hitting the grass with a thump, the breath knocked out of me. I wasn’t sure what the deal was, but she was not manhandling the Wolf without repercussions.

I stood and leapt at her, claws out – teeth bared. It’s as much about psychology as it is force. She cringed, and I hit her like a truck. Despite that, she didn’t go down. A part of me realized that she hadn’t moved. Another part of me had ripped a gouge down one side of her, and blood was gouting out. She didn’t make a sound and instead hit me again.

I twisted, taking the blow on my shoulder. Something popped in my arm, and I let out a howl. I hooked my good arm around her throat and dug in, my claws tearing at her carotid. Blood sprayed, and she started to waver. Her fist found my ribs, and I felt three of them shatter. I could see spots, a sign that it was time to finish it or retreat.

I extended my jaws and fit her head in my mouth. I started to eat, the old woman struggling the whole way. She went down like a live fish, her blood spraying my throat. She punched a couple of times on the way down, and I felt something give way.

Finally, she was down, and I sat on the grass, my breath coming hard.

*

“So, you did kill the old lady.”

“I told you this before. It was self-defense.”

“Huh. You know, we went to the address you gave us. The girl wasn’t there.”

“I’m telling you, I had nothing to do with that. I’ll cop to the grandmother, sure.”

“What happened after you ate her?”

“Someone hit me with a pipe. Or a shovel. I don’t know. Just heard a clang, and it was lights out. When I woke up, it was next to a bouquet of flowers and you kicking me in the ribs.”

The Huntsman was quiet for a minute. The Wolf eyed his axe in the corner. It was polished, the head sharp enough to scare him. Finally, the Huntsman sighed.

“Okay. Maybe I buy the self-defense story. Maybe I don’t. But the girl – where is she?”

The Wolf shrugged. “I. Don’t. Know.”

The Huntsman nodded. He stood and went to the door, knocking on it. It opened, and a uniformed cop stepped through.

“Take him back to the cell. Maybe some time will loosen him up.”

The cop eyed the Wolf, and then the Huntsman.

“It’ll be fine. Won’t it, Wolf?”

The Wolf nodded. The cop took him away.

*

Time spent in a cell is time that doesn’t seem to move. They came for him again what felt like hours later, though it could have just as easily been a few minutes. The cop who’d dropped him there led him through a different set of hallways until they came to another room. He led the Wolf in and shut the door behind him. A woman sat there, behind another wide metal table. She was dressed in a black pencil skirt and a no-nonsense blazer, her hair in a tight black bun. Horn-rimmed glasses, the frames the color of blood, perched on her nose. She smiled when he came in.

The Wolf paused and sat down. He took a deep breath.

“Red,” he rumbled.

“Wolf.”

“What now?”

She opened up the briefcase beside her and began to pull out paper. “Now we make things right.”

He smiled, teeth showing like white daggers. The smile turned into a chuckle and soon became a booming roar. The Huntsman heard it in his office and frowned. But that was the way of things. Sometimes justice was served in the strangest ways.

 

Interview

Here’s a short piece I wrote as an exercise in dialogue and scene building. I’m trying to figure out screenplays, and finding I have to learn them the way I learned novels – short stories to long form. It’s been an interesting lesson.

[FADE IN]

INT WAREHOUSE

KINKADE sits on a simple metal chair. A white backdrop hangs behind him. His hair is shoulder-length, hangs in his eyes. Every now and then he shakes his head and sweeps it out of his face. He fiddles with an unlit cigarette. He is tense – everything about him is sharp, all hard angles. He’s a switchblade waiting to spring.

KINKADE
I don’t think anyone thinks “When I grow up, I want to be a villain.” I mean, it’s a learned response.

INTERVIEWER (O.S.)
How so?

K
You know, the usual causes. Your parents were shitty, so you’re angry. Poor impulse control. Economic uncertainty. Make shitty decisions, win a shitty life.

I (O.S.)
Aren’t those just excuses?

Kinkade shrugs, pops the cigarette in his mouth, chews the end.

K
Sure, they could be. Or maybe they’re catalysts.

I (O.S.)
So tell me about yourself.

K
Me? (scoffs) Not a lot to tell. My parents were normal. Mom was a teacher, Dad was a – salesman? Some fucking thing. It was boring. I got average grades. I did average things. Sports, band. You know, the little shit that means a lot then, and nothing later. If kids realized how little all those things mean, we’d have a goddamn revolution on our hands. (laughs) Can you imagine? Che Guevara, ten-year-old.

I
So, what was it for you? You didn’t wake up one day and decide “This is what I’m going to be,” did you?

Kinkade shakes his head, his hair flopping. He scrapes it back, and pulls out a match, flicking it to life with his thumbnail. The head flares, and he sets fire to the smoke. He inhales, and blows out a plume. He raises one eyebrow.

K
You’re not going to tell me I can’t smoke in here?

I
Nope.

K
Huh. Anyway, what was it you asked?

I
How you got to be-

K
Right, why I’m fucked up. Sure.
(leans in)
So, you got your heroes, right?

I
Sure, there’s –

Kinkade waves a hand.

K
No, no need to give them airtime. They get plenty of that. Anyway. Look, these assholes in their suits with all their gadgets – how many people have that kind of money? Where do they get it? You think the city just gets patched up for free after they get into a brawl? You think there aren’t families out there getting hurt?

I got a theory. I think the same pricks who are ‘saving’ us are the same jackasses who make money from the cleanup. Take me, I ain’t got the best education, or a million dollar penthouse. You know I’m not one of them. Bet you can name at least three people who might be, though.

Money does stupid things to people. It makes them mean. It makes them selfish. It makes them weird. Ever ask one of the bystanders or their family if there’s a fund for widows and orphans? Fuck no. But there’s an orphanage. Guess who owns it?

You ever try to get a stable job in this city? Forget security or first responder. Those guys get the twelve-inch. Only real security’s in construction. How many times a week do these guys tear down at least one monument? Fuckin’ assholes. Too much work to go fight in the corn fields.

He takes a deep breath and chews on the end of the cigarette.

I
You mentioned family. Did you know someone who got hurt?

K
I know lots of people who got hurt.

I
You personally, though?

K
Yeah, me personally.

I
Who?

Kincade sits back and eyes the interviewer. His eyes are cold – almost black. The room seethes.

K
Someone important. That’s the last of those questions.

I
(clears throat)
What are you going to do?

K
Hold on. I’m curious. You’re broadcasting this, right?

I
Yes.

K
So, if I tell you, one of those caped idiots is going to swoop in and stop me, don’t you think?

I
I-maybe.

K
Interesting. You know what’s more interesting?

I
No.

K
They won’t do anything if I don’t do anything. Sure, I can say I’ll do something, and they might show up, question me, make my life hard. Maybe they stick me on a psych hold. But most – no, almost all – of them are Boy Scouts. At least until the actual fight. Then all those oaths and mottos and merit badges go out the window in the pursuit of justice.

(he takes a breath)
You ever see someone with a shattered pelvis? You ever see the way they weep?

I
No, I…no.

K
It’s like watching a wounded kitten. Sometimes they try to keep moving, to get away from the thing that hurt them. They cry and they crawl and they drag themselves inch by fucking excruciating inch until they can’t.

I
Did you see this? Is this what happened?

Kinkade ignores the question.

K
The ambulance is too slow. They’re crying – it’s the worst sound you’ve ever heard, a kind of wounded animal that can’t get enough breath.

I
What did you do?

K
What I had to.

There’s silence for several seconds. Kinkade tosses the cigarette away and crushes it out on the floor. He clears his throat, and picks up a bottle of water from off-screen, takes a sip.

I
What did you have to do?

K
That. Yeah. I’ll show you.

Kinkade stands, and moves – fast. The camera tracks him enough to see him wrap an arm around the interviewer’s neck. There’s a twist, and a loud snap, and the interviewer goes limp. Kinkade walks over to the white backdrop and pulls it down, revealing a wall of C-4. He sits down, picks up a detonator and lights a cigarette, then looks in the camera.

K
Come and get me, fuckos.

[FADE OUT]