The Contract

He caught up with her after lunch, outside the restaurant where they’d had their first date. He’d scraped together a little cash–enough for a drink or two–but he was relieved when he didn’t have to spend it. His last job had been a while.

“Well?” he asked.

Kathy shifted her weight. “Well, what?” she said.

“Well, I heard…” He tried not to look at her, not to give her that prying, downward glance that he associated with gossip and old women. “Are you pregnant?”

“About three months.”

“Congratulations.”

He couldn’t think of anything else to say, and maybe that was the right thing. Maybe it wasn’t. There wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm in it. And in other circumstances–in the olden days–people might be congratulating him.

Kathy looped her arm through his, and smiled a little. Cautious. “I’m going to ask Will and Patrick to be the fathers,” she said, as if giving the contract to someone else were nothing. “They’re good with kids.”

“Do you  think they’ll do it?” he asked.

“Probably.” From the tone of her voice, he suspected the thing was done, that the contract was signed, and that Will and Patrick already were the fathers. “They’ve been together for five years. Their careers are going well. Their mothers want grandchildren.”

Responsible and stable. Reliable. A good choice, by any standard. They didn’t smoke, and Patrick didn’t even drink.

He absorbed the information with all the dignity he’d practiced. “What about me?”

Kathy tensed. “You’re not father material.”

“Yeah. I know. But…” He wished he had a cigarette, or maybe something stronger. “It’s my kid.”

“No.” She dug in. “It’s my kid. I’m the one who’s knocked up. I’m making the choices.”

“I know that.”

“I’m not offering you a contract. That was never on the table.” She pulled her hand back, and folded her arms across her stomach. “You’re not going to be a father.”

The way she said it pissed him off, even though he already knew. Maybe she would have told him, before, if she’d had a chance. He’d stood her up twice in the last month. The first time, he was hung over, and the second… he was playing drums in a dive bar for cash under the table. A contract? No.

He didn’t have any qualifications.

And the houseplant she’d given him had been dead for months.

“I like babies,” he said.

“Everyone likes babies.”

“And kids.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I’ll get a job,” he said.

Kathy nodded, but he could tell she didn’t believe him anymore.

“Will and Patrick are a great choice,” he said, after there wasn’t anything left to say.  They kept walking, and eventually, they got back to her office building.

“I’ll need your medical history.”

“Fine.”

Kathy looked at her watch. “I have to go back,” she said. She stood on her tiptoes to kiss him. “You should stop by, sometime. Maybe take the kid to a carnival, or something. Throw some balls. You’d be a pretty good fun uncle.”

He nodded. “I’ll do that.”

He didn’t know when, but he would. It sounded like fun, and maybe the kid would look like him.

True Self

I don’t know why I took the pills.

It wasn’t smart. Just a moment of try-anything desperation, and a gulp of water, and two slightly luminous capsules the size of castor beans went sliding down my throat.

Half a second after I swallowed, I decided to put my finger down my throat. That was the sane thing. The only choice. Throw up. Throw up. THROW UP!

I wasn’t fast enough.

The room didn’t spin, and nothing went black. My vision didn’t even blur.

I was going to puke up those pills, and then, I was on the floor. The cold tile and the sound of lukewarm water still running in the sink. Yeah. I knew the old woman’s promises were lies. I probably knew the pills were a rip-off, too. After all, the damn things glowed like theater props in her hand, and nobody ever said what they were supposed to do. I was hoping for something—anything—but there I was, waking up. Painted horse tranquilizers. Maybe Nimbutal.

Six hundred dollars down the drain, all because some poverty stricken fortune teller reminded me of my grandmother.

I stayed where I was, and listened to the water run.

Thought about calling an ambulance.

But what was I going to say? Passed out for a while. No, I don’t know what I took. Feel better, now. Feel better than I have in a month. But, maybe check my blood pressure?

No.

I got to my feet, and brushed off my bathrobe.

The clock on the counter said a barely-believable number. Time had passed, and lots of it.

If it was already evening, that was bad.

It wasn’t evening. The grinding progress of a garbage truck insisted it was morning.

And that meant I’d been unconscious for at least an entire day.

I’d have to be at work in a few hours, and for the first time in nine years, I wasn’t ready. The project I was working on wasn’t finished—not unless the pills had magical properties even the fortuneteller hadn’t predicted—and the company was relying on me. Failure was—

Not an option.

It was inevitable.

I was going to be fired, and the truth… Maybe the pills were working. Maybe they were–as advertised—resurrecting my true self.

Resurrecting? It had been so long I couldn’t remember for sure what my true self had been in the first place. I know people asked, once… what do you want to be when you grow up, little girl?

And I answered.

I must have answered.

But what I said?

I don’t remember.

My true self. Maybe I would have known, when I was eleven, and maybe… if I could remember… maybe knowing my true self would be enough to make me happy, or at least, to let me know where to look for happy.

I splashed some water on my face, and reached for a towel.

I couldn’t call in hung-over. I’d have to pull it together and make it through the day. I was a grown-up person, with a grown-up job, and after all, not everybody gets to be an astronaut when they grow up. Glowing pills. What was I thinking? I’d never go back to believing I could be a rock star, or a fire woman, or a sea captain. Whatever thing it was, I’d forgotten it for a reason. And a pirate? Why not just dream of being a serial killer? The only difference is a hat.

I threw the towel in the hamper.

Then, I looked in the mirror, and stopped breathing.

I leaned in to look at my own face—at my true self, a voice in the back of my head repeated, not quite mocking— just to be sure I wasn’t leaving for work with the imprint of a shoe or a wrist-watch on my face. The mirror stared back at me.

And there was nothing there.

Nothing left of my true self.

So, there you have it. Something I whipped up for your entertainment. Let me know what you think, and be sure you beat the hell out of those share buttons.

StoryTime Blog Hop: An Invitation

The StoryTime Blog Hop is a hop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Speculative fiction writers to show off their short stories. While it’s not specifically aimed at children, we do avoid adult content for this one. The amazing Juneta Key has been suckered into hosting graciously volunteered to host this month’s hop yet again, and she’s inviting anyone who has a short story that fits the bill to join in.

If you are interested in participating, the rules and deadlines are here: http://www.junetakey.com/posts/rules-guidelines-storytime-blog-hop/

If you’re still not sure what this is all about, I have links to some of the past stories, including my own StoryTime contributions here: StoryTime links so you’ll be able to read what people have done in the past. (It’s possible that needs updating. I’ll look into it.)

We’re also looking into a stand-alone StoryTime website, and some great ideas for promoting and growing the blog hop, so be sure you join in the conversation.

The Short Stories I Didn’t Intend to Write

I’m working on a short story. It’s the kind of thing that’s only very, very vaguely science-fiction, and it’s longer than most of the things I’ve done for the blog. It also has a very different tone.

It’s the kind of year when everything connects to everything else, whether you want it to, or not. Whether you expected it to, or not. I started out with a nice story about llamas eating ice cream, and I wound up with a story about immigrants. What I’m working on now started as a not-so-nice alternate future history… alternate future? Whatever you call it, when it’s a future talking about a history that is past in the future, but still future in the present? And that’s probably about the environment and pipelines.

Maybe if I wrote something unpleasant about politics, I’d wind up with something fanciful and delightful, involving talking frogs, and possibly a dancing unicorn. I don’t know.

Having just updated my progress report for the 52 week challenge, I realize that I am, in fact, only one short-story behind. (plus or minus some editing.) I feel much more behind than that. It is still very possible that I will manage to catch up.

So, I have short stories, and I’m beginning to think about looking for a home for them. I would like to pull in some writing credits–they’re always so shiny–and frankly, I’d like to get paid. So, I’m looking at things that look good on a resume (or query letter) and things that would let me into the professional associations of my dreams. (well, my ego. My dreams are much more interesting than that.)

I’ll post something, when I sell one. You don’t have to read that post; you’ll probably have heard me jumping up and down screaming, anyway. No matter where you live.

 

The Poisoner of Time

Story Time Blog Hop Logo

It was nearly midnight before the first fatal drops splattered from the rattling still.

The old woman checked the door, but she was alone. Her husband was long since in bed, the cat was locked safely in the cellar, and the most lethal poison in the world was gathering in the bottom of one of her grandmother’s rose tea cups. And her other self? The harried young woman she’d been all those years ago? She wouldn’t be there. That was certain. The old woman no longer remembered exactly where she had been that week, but somewhere else. A business trip, probably. There had been so many of those, and always, the promise was later… always, later…

The old woman scoffed, and adjusted the fire under the still.

Later. When? After she got pregnant, she’d worked even harder. A baby to support. A new house. A newer, safer car. They’d both worked harder, and they told each other they’d relax later. In time, when things would be better, and they’d all be secure. The baby was born, they hired a sitter, and kept working.

The baby grew, and changed, and said his first words. The sitter took video.

By then, she’d regretted all those days and nights she spent working.

The sitter went home. The baby got sick. The husband packed him into a warm car on a cold, winter night, and disappeared too fast down a too icy road.

And then, Time. Tick by tick, second by second, she moved further and further away from them. The love of her life—she’d always taken him for granted—and their child—more and more Time between them.

She learned to fight her way backward through time, like running the wrong way up an escalator. She could get close – now and then, she could see them on the other side of the years and decades.

And then, she slipped back. The currents carried her away again and again.

She was still young, when the first strange optimism entered her mind: Time separated them. Time, and only Time. And if Time could be destroyed… if she could end Time… or even just wound Him, there would be nothing left to keep them apart. She could be with her family again.

She plotted—how to reach Time, how to brew poison strong enough to kill Time, itself, how to sneak into the palaces of eternity unnoticed.

And after she made her plans, she’d waited longer. No one would suspect a gray old woman of carrying poison in her tea. No one would suspect a single thing.

She walked deliberately, so slowly, that at times, she believed she would die before she ever reached Time. Step by step, carefully… if she splashed—if she spilled a single drop–the poison that was brewed to kill an immortal could overcome a thousand, a million aging mortals like her.

She teetered down to the end of the corridor, pushed open the last door, and stepped inside the dimly lit room.

And then, there was Time.

He lay, half-exhausted on a feather bed. Slender, almost delicate, though the lithe muscles in his legs and back suggested a runner’s strength.

He looked—she thought, just for a moment—like her own baby might have looked at twenty or twenty-five, if he had lived long enough to grow so tall and strong.

She pushed the thought out of her mind. The poison trembled in her cup: another second longer, and her own strength might vanish; she could collapse and spill the poison on herself. She inhaled, lifted the cup, as if she were about to drink, and then flung the liquid, cup and all, across the empty space between them.

The poison splashed across Time’s back, and seared the flesh it touched; the cup bounced on the mattress, and then rolled over the edge. It fell fast, but, just before it should have hit the marble floor, it stopped falling. It stopped falling. Everything stopped.

In the motionless silence that followed, the old woman laughed; her enemy was dead. There wasn’t a second of Time between herself and… Her family, her husband, her baby… They were all in that one, single Now. Now was all… the teacup was floating in air. Not falling. There was no Time for anything to fall. Not anymore. Time was dead.

She laughed again.

Running footsteps on the floor behind her. A man or a god swept her out of the way. Before she could say anything, he rolled the corpse onto its back, and pounded on Time’s chest with his fists. He pressed his mouth to Time’s lips. A kiss, perhaps, or maybe resuscitation. She knew the effort wouldn’t work; the new god was already kneeling in her poison.

“Mortal, you fool!” He compressed Time’s chest again, and again, nothing. Nothing, and the teacup didn’t fall an inch. “You fool. Don’t you know what you’re made of? What they’re all made of?”

“Flimsy things, I know.” She took a step backward. “And yet, here you are. Take him, Death.”

“Death?” The god’s voice was thinner than before, and a cold sparkle In his eyes was already fading. He sank onto the pillows, and let his eyelids close. “No, woman. I wasn’t Death. I was Memory.”


The elegant room faded into white tile and florescent lights, and then, it slipped away all together.

She’d been somewhere else.

She knew she—

Somewhere… hadn’t she just been somewhere else?

She tried to get up. Tried to find someone she didn’t see. She couldn’t remember who.

And then, a bland young woman in a too-cheerful set of hospital scrubs was there beside her, coaxing her back into the chair she’d just left.

“That cup never broke,” the old woman said, and smiled. She knew that much, at least. That was the important part of the thing. “You know that old rose tea cup? The antique one? It–

“Your cup is perfectly safe,” the bland woman said, and patted her hand.

 

 

Be sure you visit the other writers in the StoryTime Blog Hop for more stories!

New Stork Inc. by Katharina Gerlach
The Thief & The Pocket Heart by Juneta Key
Hello Again! by J. Q. Rose
Reflected by Elizabeth McCleary
Veronica by Jessica Kruppa
Last Stop by Erica Damon
Jesse and Tyler by Bill Bush

Things to See and Do in the Cybersphere

Holly Lisle is bringing back her  How To Think Sideways course, starting right now. It’s a comprehensive course on how to write a novel, from the idea to–well, dropping it in the mailbox, if you’re publishing traditionally, and publishing, if you’re going the indie route. It also–and this was the tipping point for me–comes with access to Holly’s forums, which are some of the nicest, most supportive, and stable writers’ forums I’ve come across. It’s a good community.

I happen to be a moderator over there, so be sure you say hi, when you’re there. Yeah, mostly, it means I answer questions, but sometimes I also get to be moderate.

This month, Juneta Key is hosting the StoryTime Blog Hop. The basic rules are:

 

  • Short Story/Flash Fiction up 1000 words
  • (PG RATED–No Violence, Erotica or Foul Language)
  • Genre:      GENERAL Speculative Fiction
  • DEADLINE JANUARY 20TH, 2017 (Get your links to Juneta by then.)
  • MUST DO:  Pre-schedule post to Go Live with other participants.  Failure to do this may cause your link to be removed from the lineup of story participants when the rest of the links are live on the day.  Info for pre-scheduling here (required). 

The stories don’t have to be for children, but as a general rule of thumb, you shouldn’t use anything that will make the children’s authors in the hop put a bag over their heads.

I’m still chugging away at the 52 Week Writing Challenge.  One of my good influences just dropped out because of a family thing, though, so if you wanna join in, and be my new icon of writerly virtue, there’s an opening. Or, you know, if you want to join in and be a bad influence, or just write quietly in the corner. Plenty of space for everyone, and only a week in.

 

 

Today Is My Day!!!

For the last couple of years, I’ve participated in the Independent Bookworm Advent Calendar. It’s a literary countdown to Christmas, and every day, there’s a different short-story. I think it leans toward the Sci-Fi Fantasy end of the spectrum, but I’ve never really done the math.

Today is my day.

The door opened, and there I am. Me and my short story about a nose hair trimmer. If you subscribed to the newsletter at the beginning of the month, you also got my fabulous recipe for puppy poop cookies with flies. Yes, I know that’s disgusting. But it keeps the children busy, and it also has butterscotch and chocolate.

I got a real kick out of doing it, and it sounds like people are actually enjoying the story.

If you haven’t already, head over there and check out the calendar, and if nose hair trimmers aren’t to your taste, there are plenty of stories that don’t have them.

Let me know what you think.

The Waves At Midnight

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The screams died down faster than you would think; the icy water took most of our sacrifices before the drowsy demons woke to notice the men struggling against the tide. Here and there, a marked warrior swam back toward the ship, but none reached it, and the priests did not have to scrape their clawing hands off the timbers.

When the demons did come, the sea boiled gently, and the few survivors were brave. The demons dragged them fast and deep. Afterward, the Death Lamp caught just a trace of blood on the waves.

It was a good sacrifice, and by every known portent, it seemed to be accepted. The priest declared the blood valid quickly, and the sailors weighed anchor almost before the words were out of his mouth.

We had turned back.

We should have made it to port before the bars stopped serving, and we would have celebrated with abandon. A good sacrifice, and another year of calm waves and sleeping demons.

The cabin boy laughed, and no one noticed.

The cabin boy laughed. A simpleton, admiring the trail of bubbles in the ship’s wake.

A simpleton, who fell overboard, reaching for the moon’s reflection on the water.

By the demons’ breath, the fool kept laughing, until the water around him boiled. The demons were on him in a second, but half satiated from the sacrifice, the monsters toyed with him.

On board, the priests and augurs scurried to dream up answers. The portents had been so clear… so positive. The demons had taken the sacrifice. The transaction was complete.

Surely, what happened–what was happening–to the cabin boy was a misunderstanding. Perhaps, they thought, the sea-demons thought the simpleton was one final offering. He certainly thrashed enough.

Again, the ship sailed homeward. This time, there was no celebration, and the high Priest stood beside the Death Lamp, searching the water behind us for the demons, or their boiling breath.

Time stopped, or time sped faster, and the assembled priests and the silent crew barely breathed in the darkness. No one could see the ocean outside the light’s narrow beam, but we could all hear the waves whispering against our fragile ship. We could hear the splashes, and the ripples. We listened for what we could not see, and imagined what we already had seen.

Every man on board counted heartbeats. How long had it been? How far had we gone? How much further to land and the safety of home?

They counted.

And the wordless night held them. That was not a bubble. Just a splash. Not a bubble. No. Just the ship cutting through the waves. Just…

A slithering, leathery body, sliding, slithering along the hull.

A second, screeching, not loud, but indescribably shrill, and yet watery, like a razor blade being sharpened on an endless and grainy strop.

The Priest made his decision, and fast. “Throw them overboard.” He gestured to the cluster of sailors closest to the edge.

The captain raised his revolver… cocked it… aimed.

And the men did not move. Better a bullet than boiling in the waves.

But the Captain could not shoot; the demons demanded a healthy sacrifice. The sailors knew that.

“They’ll follow the ship. They’ll hound us all. And the blood won’t stop. Not without a clean sacrifice.” The Priest rallied and coaxed, but the men stood firm. “Don’t you have wives? Children? ”

“Cowards!” The Captain bellowed, but he didn’t move.

The demons would have taken any of us, or all of us, and maybe they would have been content, but no one moved. No one thought about moving.

The ocean all around the ship was boiling. No one could mistake the bubbles for anything else. And the demons’ scales raked across the ship’s sides. We only had one thought between us: how many? How many? There could be one, or thousands.

A moment of distraction. The Captain forgot the helm, and the ship split open on the forgotten rocks. The force threw men and priests off the deck and into the water; it threw me hard against the crags.

The demons had their sacrifice. I dropped my head, and uttered the true sigh of relief: It wasn’t me. Chance had me on solid ground.

I stayed there, until morning, relieved and exhausted, and ashamed to be alive.

And in the darkness, I heard a new sound. Quiet, next to the men’s screams, and even calm, against their thrashing, but getting closer I heard the splashing of demons at play. As gleeful as the dancing of water sprites, and as terrible as death. And something else, that could only be described as laughter.

The demons were laughing.

I trembled in terror and understanding. Whatever happened there, that night, the demons liked it.

With my compatriots dead, I watched the last of the demons frolic in the surf just off shore. Now, and then, their scales caught the beam from the light house above the rocks. And for a while, they seemed to move steadily along a course that would take them out to sea. Then, one of them turned back, rose up onto the land, and lumbered toward the lights of the village.

PARTICIPANTS:

You are Here–> Karen Lynn The Waves at Midnight

Sherri Conway Ants

Elizabeth McCleary Over James Henry Wilcox Dead Body

Canis Lupus The Picture

Peg Fisher All In the Fall, a Fractured Fairytale

Bill Bush Trapped

Benjamin Thomas Autumn Cascade

Crystal Collier Emily’s Ghost

Viola Fury 911

Juneta Key All Hallows’ Eve

C. Lee McKenzie Beautiful

Erica Damon Penance’

J. Q. Rose Sorry

Elise VanCise Lady In The Woods

Barbara Lund Spooky Space

Angela Wooldridge Quiet Neighbours

Katharina Gerlach Australian Dream

And Approaching That Last Minute

Today, I finally got a serious start on the short story I’m working on for the blog hop. I hate to say I’m pushing the last minute here, but it’s been one of those weeks/months/years. I’ll probably finish the story during my early-morning writing session tomorrow, and throw a little spit-polish on before I post it.

Actually, this is the second story I’ve gotten out of the current blog hop, so I’m not doing too badly. If you want to read a different Halloween story, Mrs. Willoughby’s Heart is up, right now.

Oh, yeah… and in case I haven’t mentioned it, lately. Story Time Blog Hop on the 27th of October with the amazing and ingenious Juneta Key hosting. We have a great lineup of writers, this time around, so be sure you drop by to read the stories for the Halloween edition. They’re free… for now, anyway.

I think you’ll find mine is particularly terrifying. I was working on it at a new coffee house, where the barista scammed me into drinking a cup of something with “Earthy undertones.”

As it turns out, “Earthy Undertones” is posh for “Tastes Like Dirt.”

My characters suffered for that one.

Mrs. Willoughby’s Heart

There were still a few pieces of Mrs. Willoughby on the slab, after the master finished his do-it-yourself project. All of the intestines. A bladder. No one wants the hassle of taking a monster to the toilet, after all. And there were other things. Odds and ends the monster wouldn’t need. A pair of emerald-green, sling-back pumps. Her right hand, still clutching a worthless can of pepper spray. The master had replaced that with spare parts from his Jeep. And Mrs. Willoughby’s heart.

The monster, you see, ran on propane and electricity, and a beating heart was just a relic.

Igor was supposed to clean up.

He was supposed to sweep the leftovers into the bin, and carry them down to the incinerator. He was supposed to hose down the lab, and empty the filters on the floor drains.

But the whole process had been horrific.

Mrs. Willoughby didn’t want to be a monster. She wanted to be a second grade teacher. And when Igor finally did get her back to the lab, it turned out the master didn’t want a second grade teacher. He wanted a Woman. Not a woman. A Woman. Not a woman. The master repeated himself with curse-words and fury, and in the end, Igor pretended to understand.

Then, there was the dissection.

Igor threw up four times before the master threatened to dissect him.

By the time they got to the electro-ressurrection, Igor was a little dizzy. He could barely stand up, and he would have gone home, if he had any sick-time left. He didn’t have any sick time left, though, so he pushed himself forward. Willed himself to keep going. He was careful. Slow and careful, and if he took his time–
The master threw the switch.
Mrs. Willoughby’s body convulsed. All at once, her muscles contracted, and then… The master cut the electricity. Mrs. Willoughby’s fist shot out, and hit Igor in the face.

And the Master threw the switch again.

And again.

And again.

Igor was black and blue before the thing that had been Mrs. Willoughby sat up and started to recite the times table.

By the time the monster got to thrice eight, the master cut out its vocal cords, and there was silence. Then, the monster began calisthenics. And the monster wasn’t content to do calisthenics alone. Oh, no. It grabbed Igor by the ear, and made him touch his toes.

The master just laughed and watched, and by the time calisthenics were over, Igor was black and blue, and out of breath, and exhausted. None of the other monsters had been that much trouble.

Then, the master took his new monster and left to do whatever peasant-chasing, village-burning things mad scientists and monsters did together.

Igor did intend to clean up. He intended to put things away, and tidy up the lab, but he dozed off.

Mrs. Willoughby’s heart was the first thing he saw, when he opened his eyes. She had a beautiful heart. It was perfect. Big, and warm. And it was his favorite shade of red. It quivered a little, as if it had been crying, and didn’t want him to  know.

He still knew. He could feel the heart sobbing in his brain. And he knew why, too: Mrs Willoughby didn’t want to be a monster, and her heart didn’t want to go in the bin.

The mess was still there, too, but the master could clean it up, himself.

And while he was at it, the master could get his own Women. He didn’t like the way Igor did it, anyway.

Igor put the heart in his knapsack and hefted it over one shoulder.

He was leaving. Mrs. Willoughby didn’t want to be a monster. Her heart didn’t want to go in the bin. And he didn’t want to be a laboratory goon.

On the climb down the mountain, Mrs. Willoughby’s heart chirped encouragement. Sometimes, the sound was lost in the waking songs of birds. And sometimes, he got distracted by flowers, or the rising sun. But by the time he made it back to the village, he knew what to do.

He was going to teach second grade.