deadlyeverafter

The Writing Adventures of The Undead Duo–Julie Hutchings and Kristen Strassel

March Madness Flash Fiction: SCAVENGERS by Christi Frey

TODAY’S BREW: Macadamia nut something

By Julie

This is it! The last day of March and the last story of our flash fiction challenge! And this one is a whopper. I grinned like an idiot when I read it. It’s by the mastermind Christi Frey, who never ceases to amaze me with how much and what she can do. Check Christi out on Twitter http://t.co/778R9jx0LX and http://t.co/778R9jx0LX.

 SCAVENGERS

by Christi Frey

Scavengers, I thought scathingly.

“Go away,” I told them. “I don’t have anything what you’re looking for.”

Bits of string. A couple of metal rings about an inch in diameter. Some ocular glass for an old telescope whose casing had long since rotted away. A dozen odd sized screws from the heaps. And the one thing I hid from everyone. Those were the things I carried.

The first of the scavengers showed up yesterday. Then another. Then a few more over night, until I figured there were a few dozen all told. Flitting through the heaps. Watching. Waiting.

I thought I was safe enough, at the time. Didn’t think scavengers would jump unless they saw you were crippled. I was wrong. And I’d never been that deep in the heaps before. It was too late to get out.

They gathered round, eyes unblinking, persistent as a herd of pigeons. As a flock of rats. One from behind jumped and pecked at my old leather satchel. I whirled and kicked at it, missed. The next one bit my ankle – I caught it with a boot and it flew out of the circle, scrabbled to its feet and came again with all the others.

I hit at them with the bag, battered three at a swing but they were leaping, pecking, little claws gouging, the bony weight of all of them pulling me down.

I panicked. I mean, some part of me panicked. The other part just watched. It knew what was coming next. That other part – the part where all the feelings died – it takes care of you, in times like these. It steps in. It says, Go home. Don’t watch. I’ll take over now.

I saw it happen as though from a great height. The skittering herd. The blasted wasteland. The slag heaps. The small, lonely figure lashing out as it disappeared beneath a furry grey boil. The mad search for something.

*   *   *

When I came to I was flat on my back, with that puke-it-up feeling you get when it seems the earth might actually be up, the sky down, and somehow you’re pressed against the ceiling. White light searing on cement-baked ground. The world’s worst hangover. You press your palms into the gravel and wait for it to stop spinning. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it doesn’t. You roll over and slowly put your head up anyway.

Little roast carcasses littered the ground. There was a blast circle of scorched earth, and I was at the center of it. Scattered bits of fur and feathers. A bloody beak here, an unblinking eye there. My bag was gone.

I groped at my neck. The string – still there. The little pouch I’d dropped beneath my shirt, a single bit of rolled paper inside. I pulled it out.

Not a map. Not even a picture. But the only thing I’d ever found in this godforsaken heap that contained a real, living memory. The only thing that ever pulled me back from the madness. The thing that no one else could have: a childish scrawl of red crayon on a piece of faded paper.

All it said was “HOME”.

March Madness Flash Fiction: CRUSH DEPTH by Mairi Kilaine

TODAY’S BREW: So much.

By Julie

Mairi Kilaine is such a comfort of a person. I get warm all over when I talk to her. Not like that. Good lord, you guys. But she’s reassured me more times than I can count, and been a backbone for me when I needed one. You can pick up the anthology CHRISTMAS NOOKIES (Best title ever) to see some of her work! http://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Nookies-Holiday-Reads-Book-ebook/dp/B00Q80PRSQ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1424718727&sr=1-1&keywords=christmas+nookies but find her budding blog here http://www.mairikilaine.wordpress.com/ and definitely find her on twitter https://twitter.com/Mairvin. Love you Mairi.

CRUSH DEPTH

 by Mairi Kilaine

   crush depth: the depth at which a submarine’s hull collapses due to pressure

As a child, my greatest fear was immaculate conception. My family isn’t religious, so I’m not sure where this came from. Even at the naive age of 8, I thought that sharing my fear with my parents would be akin to preemptively covering my tracks. I spent hours figuring out how to explain to my parents that I’d been spiritually knocked up. Perhaps if I’d had a personal relationship with God, He could let them know it was all cool.

As a teenager, I laughingly explained my childhood fear to my dad, though a tiny part of me still cringed when I thought of it. My dad, the scholar, explained that it was impossible. Not because God didn’t exist, but because The Immaculate Conception is a term that can only be ascribed to Mary and her status as a woman without sin. If I were to become inexplicably pregnant, it would be parthenogenesis. I would like to say this was comforting, but it only served to create a parallel phobia of scientifically impossible and spiritual pregnancies. How would I be able to tell the two apart? I shoplifted some gum, just in case.

I’m not pregnant and never have been. This isn’t the story of how I brought forth a demigod or defied science by naturally producing a clone of myself. I’d also like to point out that I’m not afraid of a naturally occurring pregnancy. I feel like you need to know this about me to truly understand what was going through my mind when my period stopped, my guts went haywire, and my abdomen swelled while on a four-month journey with an all-female crew, having crossed however many leagues beneath the sea.

I didn’t tell Doc what I really suspected. I played it cool and lobbed out less terrifying suspicions like a massive uterine tumor or acute liver disease. It didn’t help that she was stumped. Her testing capabilities were limited and we wouldn’t surface for another three days.

“Do you have a history of anxiety?”

“No,” I said. “Should I not be anxious about this? Because it feels like I should be anxious.”

“I was thinking it might be psychosomatic, like a hysterical pregnancy. I don’t know.”

“You don’t know?”

“Sorry. I really hated my Psych rotation. Between you and me and the deep blue sea, I barely passed that shelf exam. A six week rotation at the VA would drive anybody crazy.”

Doc was great. I don’t want to give the impression that she was unpleasant or bad at her job, but she wasn’t a psychologist. We were all restricted to the very specific jobs we’d been trained to do, but just enough to pass our tests. None of us had active experience.

We weren’t analyzing data or tracking enemy vessels or observing the effects of deep sea diving on hamsters. If anything, we were the guinea pigs, an all-female crew, test subjects for new air circulators in the racks where we slept. Still, I felt lucky for the opportunity. I didn’t want to jeopardize my chances for future missions.

I kept it between Doc and me.

#

Everyone had put on some weight, but I was getting self-conscious about my belly. I started doing crunches in between racks while DeMello was on watch. I was on my sixth rep when DeMello burst into our berthing compartment and slammed the hatch. Her hand was clamped against her mouth. She shook her head at the sight of me.

“What’s wrong? Are you ok?”

I scrambled up to sweep the dark curls from her face. Her normally warm brown skin was ashen and she pleaded for help with her eyes. I eased her fingers from her lips, revealing her teeth, which hung loosely like chimes dangling in the breeze.

“Want me to get Doc?”

She nodded, tears pouring down her cheeks, dotting her blue coveralls.

It took me longer than expected to track down the good doctor. She was sequestered in Captain Marksman’s stateroom and you don’t just enter the Captain’s closed stateroom. The thought of DeMello’s pendulous teeth prodded me along and I knocked, opening a crack as I did. “Excuse me, Ma’am. It’s an emergency. DeMello is-”

The Captain was laid out, pant legs pushed up as high as they could go. Her face was hard, but tear tracks were still visible on her cheeks. Doc hunched over her knees. I say, ‘her knees,’ but in reality it was where her knees should have been. Her kneecaps had slid out of place, one down her shin and the other drooping to the side. Sweat drenched Doc’s collar.

“We’ve had quite a few of those. I’ll see her in a moment. Gather available crew in the crew’s mess.”

#

“At least twelve of our eighty-eight submariners have experienced fear-based medical anomalies. At this point, I think it’s fair to suspect that we are the ones being monitored, not the circulation machines.”

“This is stupid.” Chief Machinist’s Mate Moser, lead tech for all those machines, rose from her bench seat, rattling the table as she stalked out of the mess. Doc eyed Moser who wiped sweat from her brow as she fled.

“Anyone else-” Doc started.

“Yes!” Cookie yelped. She leapt up from behind the mess counter, pushing through the crowd and opening her coveralls. Her normally smooth, ochre stomach was marred by an outcropping of small, bloodless holes.

Doc rose suddenly and tore out of the mess. I jumped to follow, hand instinctively on my swollen belly. I caught only the tail end of their argument up above before Doc came crashing down the ladder from the upper deck. Moser stumbled down after and checked her vitals, but it was too late. Doc was gone. Moser’s whole body convulsed as she let out a keening wail.

“Please don’t send me to the brig!”

I couldn’t breathe. Three more days until surfacing.

March Madness Flash Fiction: EMILY by Jolene Haley

TODAY’S BREW: Fancee Mistobox coffee

By Julie

I can’t trust myself not to go on and on about Jolene Haley because my heart bursts with love for the girl. When I was having my roughest time she got a bunch of folks to write what they love about me and made an entire Friday event out of it. She’s there for all of us, whenever we need it, but without that do-gooder vibe that makes a person run, you know? And her jokes are the dirtiest. The DIRTIEST. And there is nothing she doesn’t do. The girl is a miracle. And then she goes and writes stuff like this. Raw, but polished and frightening and heavy-hearted. Beautiful.

EMILY

by Jolene Haley

Crazy.

It’s whispered behind my back. It’s written on my charts. It’s murmured from professional to professional as they discuss me.

I don’t feel crazy.

I don’t look crazy. I‘m just an average teenage girl. Long blond hair. Brown eyes. Freckle-faced.

I’m not like the rest of the people locked away in Friendly Hills Mental Institution. For one, I don’t walk around drooling or screaming.

One of my favorite authors wrote something that fits these people perfectly. They’re “like haunted houses. The lights were on but no one was home.” That’s what it’s like here. I’m stuck in a house of horrors, complete with wailing.

I’m not dangerous like they say. It’s all a misunderstanding. If they ask Emily, she’ll tell you.

“Layla,” a soothing voice says.  “Ready for your three o’clock?”

Every Tuesday and Thursday at three o’clock sharp I see Dr. Novak, the resident psychologist.

No. I’m not ready.

I hate the doctor. He isn’t making me better. He makes everything worse.

Everyone at Friendly Hills knows that you have to go willingly. If you don’t, you still go. But with a new syringe mark in your flesh.

I slide the paperback back on to the shelf. I’ve read every book in the building three times. Maybe four.

“Sure,” I say, forcing a smile. “I’m ready.”

I know where the psychologist’s office is but the nurse escorts me anyways. The white walls and white floor are accented by white, tattered curtains moving gently in recycled air.

Before I know it, I’m outside the office. The blond woman in scrubs opens the heavy metal door.

I slip through the entrance, letting the door thud close behind me. This entire place smells like burst water pipes and mold.

An empty desk and rusty folding chairs are scattered around the waiting room. There’s another door to the left. This one is propped open. It’s the doctor’s office, so I walk in.

The round, middle aged man stands when I appear.

“Ah, Ms. Barnes,” the man says. Like he didn’t know that I’d be here. Like it’s some sort of pleasant surprise. But it’s Thursday, at 3:00. We both know better. We’ve had this schedule for the last six months.

“Dr. Novak.”

“How are you doing today?” he asks, almost like he genuinely cares. A warm smile spreads across his rosy cheeks. I want to cringe. I want to scream.

Instead I bite my cheeks and reply. “Great.”

He sits back in his seat, his large belly extending over his khaki pants.

“Well, you’re certainly looking well.” Dr. Novak’s eyes travel from my face downward. A shiver runs up my spine. Dr. Novak grins, his lips pulling up at the sides, displaying his yellow teeth.

My eyes slide over his desk. Messy stacks of paper, Bent manila folders full of secrets, stories. I hate that my entire life boils down to one fucking folder, strewn on his desk.

“Why don’t you shut the door,” the doctor suggests.

I didn’t like shutting that door. Nothing good comes after the door is shut.

“No,” I tell him.

A smile spreads on his face in such a strange way, it looks like a snarl. “I can help make you better, Layla. I can fix you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with me.” I’ve told him that since the day I arrived.

“Your family doesn’t see it that way,” the doctor says matter-of-factly. “After all, it’s my report that can get you out of here. Don’t you want a good report?”

Movement catches my attention. We aren’t alone. Emily is here too, peeking out from behind the curtains. How did she sneak in without getting caught? Emily is great at sneaking.

Her long brown hair is stringy and she looks pale. Her hospital gown sags on her shoulders but it doesn’t matter. She’s my best friend. I love her. She won’t let the doctor hurt me.

“I said, shut the door Layla,” Dr. Novak repeats. He’s growing impatient.

I nod and pad over to the wooden door. I peek my head out. My heart sinks. The waiting room is still empty. There’s no one around to help me if I need it. I close the door behind me.

“Pull down the shade,” Dr. Novak instructs me.

I pull it down and turn, leaning against the door. My heart is racing.

Emily gifts me an encouraging smile. One that is wordless but says everything. I’ll protect you. Just like I always do.

“Come here,” the doctor orders.

I want to throw up. Every bone in my body screams for me to run. But where? Every white corridor only leads to three more. Every door is locked. Every window has bars.

“Come here girl,” the doctor orders. “You don’t want me to tell your family that you’ve sunken worse into your madness, do you? Come.”

Come, I think bitterly. Like a dog. Like an obedient pet. I am to come, stay, sit, and roll over whenever he commands.

My gaze travels above the doctor’s head and they’re met by warm brown eyes. Emily moves out from behind the curtain, beckoning me closer.

I take a step towards them both. Then another.

The doctor narrows his eyes at me. “What are you looking at?” He sits up in his chair and turns. I’m afraid that he’ll see her, that we’ll be caught. I don’t want Emily to get in trouble.

Dr. Novak’s gaze moves straight past her, before turning back to me with a look of confusion.

For an all-seeing doctor, he sure is blind. Emily’s right there. Right behind him. And she doesn’t look happy.

Emily lifts her arm and brings it to her neck, dragging her finger across her throat. Then she points at Dr. Novak.

I shake my head. I hate the doctor. But that doesn’t mean I want him dead. Or maybe I just don’t want to be the one to kill him.

Emily won’t understand. She doesn’t forgive. She doesn’t forget. And Emily wants Dr. Novak dead.

Emily points to the doctor’s desk.

My eyes wander over the mess. Amongst the files and papers there is one thing that catches my attention: a pair of large, sharp scissors.

“Layla, come here now,” the doctor demands, frustrated. “You’re being naughty. You ought to listen to your doctor. I know best.”

Dr. Novak settles back in his chair, tilting it so far backwards that for a moment I’m afraid that he’ll topple over into Emily.

I tiptoe to the edge of his desk, a scream settling in my throat. After all, who will hear? It’s no use. I don’t like to fight it. The doctor likes a struggle.

I run my fingers along the desk. The scissors are close. Very close. I can have them in my hands in a matter of seconds.

Emily nods encouragingly. Her nod says it for her, “Do it. End him. He doesn’t deserve to live.”

I don’t want to hurt anyone. Just like I didn’t want to hurt anyone last time. But Emily is never wrong.

“That’s it, girl,” Dr. Novak murmurs. “Just a little closer so we can begin our session.” He chuckles. I grimace.

“Do it,” Emily whispers. Dr. Novak doesn’t seem to notice.

I step around the desk stopping inches from his chair. He clasps his sweaty hand around my wrist. “Thata girl,” Dr. Novak coos.

“If you don’t, I will,” Emily warns me, standing right behind him. “And I’ll make him suffer.”

My eyes travel back to the scissors. They’ll do the job nicely.

Dr. Novak places one of my hands on his knee.

“He deserves it! He hurt me too. Don’t let him get away with it!” Emily’s shouting now. Her brown eyes are darker, cold. Her wispy hair is swaying, like there’s a draft in this windowless room. “Do it! Kill him!” she screams.

Emily’s right. He deserves it.

The doctor chuckles, grabbing my hand and inching it down his thigh. Then, he releases me, wrapping his hands around the back of his neck. He trusts me to keep going. He knows that I don’t want a bad report.

“Now!” Emily screams. Her dark eyes gleaming with bloodlust. “Just there,” she points to the doctor’s neck. “Jam them right in and twist.”

I keep my right hand on the doctor’s leg and with my left, I grab the scissors.

I stare at his neck, covered tightly with a stained button-down shirt and tie. The veins in his neck are crimson streams that soon will be set free.

I raise my hand, the shining scissors clasped tightly.

This is for Emily.

Emily dances with glee behind the doctor, waiting for the moment to come. She’s enjoying this. She always does.

“Doctor,” I say quietly, so not to alarm him.

“Yes?” he asks. His eyes are still shut. A smug smile is plastered on his face.

I clear my throat and perfect my aim. “I think my madness is getting worse.”

Emily rears her head back, screaming in laughter. She knows I’m not crazy. She knows that he deserves this.

The doctor’s eyes snap and land on the scissors pointed at his neck.

Before he has time to react, Emily grabs my hand. Just like last time. Just like all the other times. Before I can blink, the scissors are in his neck. Twisting. Turning. Setting his sin free, which comes out in squirts.

Emily’s hand is still on mine, pushing the scissors deeper.

“Oh yes,” she laughs. “Your madness is much worse.”

She giggles so loud it muffles the other sounds. The drips. Gurgles. Murmurs. Pleas.

I realize Emily isn’t the only one laughing. I am too. Giggling. Dancing.

Emily and I whirl around, holding the scissors in the air like a treasured pet.

The door opens, the blond nurse from earlier gasps. Her face twists up in horror and fear. She plasters herself against the office door. She screams.

I look over at Emily. Maybe she has an escape plan. But there, just where she was a moment before, she is gone.

Emily is gone.

Jolene Haley is an author and the curator of the best-selling horror anthology The Dark Carnival through Pen & Muse Press. She also runs a YA horror blog The Midnight Society and the author resource site Pen & Muse.. She writes every genre under the sun, but prefers horror. When she’s not writing she can be found cuddling her two dogs and enjoying the beach, where she lives.

Founder of The Midnight Society  |   Co-founder of Pen & Muse
Also hangs at JoleneHaley.com    |   Moonbeams & Mischief 
Tweet me!  @JoleneHaley 

March Madness Flash Fiction: (A CONVERSATION) by @medicmsh

TODAY’S BREW: The Vanilla of France

By Julie

Mark is elusive as hell but find him https://twitter.com/medicmsh. He’s a phenomenal supporter of my lizard keeping habits.

 (A CONVERSATION)

by the Elusive Mark

Well, hello there!  This is a nice surprise.  Did you come here on purpose, or is this just a happy accident?

Mmm.  Well, that’s unexpected.  To be honest I may have to address that eventually.

Well, can I interest you in a cup of tea?

Ah.

Well, I’ll do my best to explain.

Simple question: what kind of rig do you use?

Full-immersion!  Nice!  I was an early-adopter for the direct neural set myself.  Those things itched after a couple of days of continuous play, though.

Yes.

Ah, NO.

Well, of course I’m dead!  Physically, anyway.  At least as far as I know.

How should I know?  You want me to check your pulse?

Take your time; I’m not going anywhere.

So, were you able to clear that up “am I dead” issue to your satisfaction?

Um, “I’m very happy for you?”

It’s just that from my perspective, it’s a fairly fine distinction.  Technically, you’re alive, and I’m dead, but to all practical purposes, by which I mean “in here,” who can tell the difference?

Well, I can’t create new program elements – no new scenery, if you want to look at it that way.  But I can meander here and there pretty comfortably, and there’s a certain amount of behind-the-scenes freedom too.  You know, all the little Easter eggs and accidental spaces.

Be my guest!  Take a seat, pull up a chair, whatever.

Oh, for the love of…  I don’t know!  This isn’t the Land of Faerie; it’s just a very well written program.   You…

Look, sit down, or not; have a cup of tea and a wheel of cheese, or not.  I honestly don’t know if it’ll have any effect on you out-of-game.  I don’t exactly have the ability to do field research on this stuff.  I am, as far as I know, a statistical sample of exactly one.  With a corresponding predictive utility of precisely zero.

Well, I suspect that whatever happened was almost instantaneous, but I simply don’t know.  There’s a bit of a blank space.  I was doing my dailies, some farming, a little bit of exploring, chatting with other players, and then, there was – well, just way too much of everything.  Color, sound, pressure, everything you get through the rig, but all at once. Maybe I got electrocuted?

Yes, I really am pretty confident that I am very much dead.  You see, I can’t log off.  I can’t exit.  I’m not uncomfortable, I’m not inconvenienced, I just can’t get out of the game.

It’s surprisingly comfortable.  Lots to see; plenty of people to visit with.  I didn’t used to do battlegrounds, but I’ve gotten reasonably proficient at those, even though there’s still always some idiot who thinks the key to victory is controlling all of the roads…

Well, if you prefer to stand, then by all means, stand.  As for me, I’m sitting down, and having tea.

Do I worry about death?  News flash: to the best of my knowledge, I’m already dead.  I think re-killing me would take a surprising amount of effort in real life.

Well of course I “could” get unplugged, or deleted, or disconnected, or whatever.  Then again, before, I could get hit by a bus, catch some rapidly progressive form of encephalitis, or be eaten by an escaped zebra.  Or hippo.  Whatever.  The point is, existence is inherently risky.  There’s not much point in fretting about it.

Yes, but all my bills are set up on auto-pay, and I’ve not only got money in the bank, but I’ve got a surprisingly high credit limit on my primary card.  I don’t think anyone’s going to go to the trouble of cancelling this service unless the charges get declined.  And at fifteen a month, it’ll take a good long time to get there.   Could be years before whatever-it-was gets sorted out.

Yes, I suppose I will get shut down eventually.  Nobody lives forever.

Why would you want to do that?

Well, that’s, friendly, I suppose.   Somewhat bizarre.  I mean, how do you know this isn’t the world’s most complicated reverse-Nigerian-prince scam, designed to play on your sympathies precisely so that you’ll offer to pay my monthly account fees?

Oh.  Well in that case, fire away!  I’ll look on it as having acquired a patron.  Frankly I’ve always wanted one of those.  Never did sign up for that online thing though.  But if you find all this interesting enough to fund me at the low low rate of fifteen a month, who am I to…

Wait a bit.

Now here’s what’s got me wondering.  You certainly don’t know who I am – but by the same token, I don’t know who you are.  “Can’t hurt a dead man,” as the saying goes – but passing over my account name and password pretty much puts you in a position to kill a dead man, if you were so inclined.  At least, I think it does.  Because as friendly as your autopay offer is, I suspect that if you were to actually log on, I’d be…  Well, I don’t really know where I’d be.

That’s a reasonable guess, but neither one of us is sure, and I’m the one taking the bigger risk, wouldn’t you say?

Well, death by annihilation, if you log in, whether by accident or intent, or if you delete my account.

So, perpetual slavery, if you decide you want me to start fetching things for you in-game?  Make me an undead gold farmer?  That’s your plan!  You chat me up, gain my trust, I give up my account information, and you own me, don’t you?  “Go farm this mount.”  “Go fetch those raw materials.”  “Go sell all your gear, mail me the gold, and go out and start ALL OVER AGAIN.”  You know what, I’m on to you!

Oh, you think being dead puts me at a disadvantage?

{…Color. Sound. Pressure.  Everything.  All at once…}

Hm.  Odd.  I feel like I was talking to somebody, but there’s nobody here but me.

Well, teatime…

March Madness Flash Fiction: BREAKING POINTE by Jamie Adams

TODAY’S BREW: Diner coffee. BECAUSE IT’S KRISTEN’S BIRTHDAY AND WE’RE GOING TO BREAKFAST. HAPPY BIRTHDAY, MY HETEROSEXUAL LIFE PARTNER!

By Julie

Jamie Adams is very special to me. She’s a ferociously loveable friend, one whose love I can feel from across the internet. She’s been there for me when I needed her most, and to top off what a selfless, utterly wonderful person she is, she wrote this story that tore me in half. I could not love it more. You need to follow Jamie https://twitter.com/Jamie_Adams22 and find her blog at http://t.co/d47wADtG3O. She’s also a contributor https://twitter.com/yagabonds because she has nothing to do.

BREAKING POINTE

by Jamie Adams

The bruises are forming fast today, dark constellations like stars of blue and gray across her pale skin. A cluster of them is angled behind her knee and a bouquet sits lengthwise on the inside of her upper right arm, but it’s the spatter of darkness coagulating over the ridges of her flat torso that concerns her.

They’re so much darker. Fresher. Blossoming up even as she watches.

Normally they wait until she’s not looking to appear.

Kerryn lifts her wet hair away from her face and studies the wine-colored stain that mirrors her jugular. The towel wrapped securely around her body doesn’t begin to cover all the marks across her skin and there isn’t enough foundation left to do the job either.

It would be better to stay, anyways. The bathroom is a warm, steam-shrouded cocoon, and even though the bruises can find her here, it’s quiet and time can’t reach her.

She’s always been adverse to time, the arbitrary assignation of numbers and values to something so fleeting, an element impossible to truly pin down. It’s never been very fond of her either, slipping away every time she’s tried to capture it and dodging every one of her efforts to make it conform the way everyone else always seems to.

Three taps on the door. “Kerryn? We have to go. If you’re late to one more rehearsal, Wheeler says he’s demoting you to demi-soloist. Neither of us want that to happen.”

It’s easy for Leena to still be worried about ballet. She’s not standing naked in front of the mirror, towel puddled around her ankles, watching a faintly pulsing pool of marbled indigo and charcoal spread slowly across her right ribcage.

Kerryn used to worry about ballet too, sometimes she still does. When she’s made it past the bathroom threshold, through the living room with its rough shag carpet and the awkward seventies colors Leena’s tried to disguise with all her paintings and throw pillows and Portuguese trinkets. When she’s made it to the street and walked several blocks, when there’s a chai tea latte in her hand and she’s entering the squat brick studio, such a far cry from the old Hollywood glamor of the theatre it abuts, that’s when she worries about ballet and the fluidity of her arms and the angle of her pointe. Not now. Not here, in the oppressive sauna she’s created with the shower steam and her own fright.

More knocks. “Kerryn. For the love of all things, hurry up. If you’re not out in three minutes, I’m coming in. I’m not risking my job for you but I’m also not living with you if you lose yours. And I like this place.”

Kerryn pulls on her tights slowly, pressing hard against the skin of her thighs and hips as she does. No bruises form in response. She’s tried everything – running into the corners of tables, having her blood levels checked, changing how she eats and when she sleeps and how often she gets fresh air. Nothing has had an effect on the bruises, except that they form faster and wider and more.

The straps of her leotard are barely in place when the door creaks open. Cold air slithers over her skin as Leena tosses in the heather gray sweatshirt Kerryn always wears when time is being the most difficult.

Leena’s tried a hundred times over the past three years to be an intercessor between them, Kerryn and time. She’s tried clocks and alarms and ringing phones, post-it’s on the fridge and butcher paper the length of the hallway. Nothing helps, and she’s figured out now that to make herself happy, she needs Kerryn to be happy, and for that to happen, she’s got to personally intervene when it seems time is getting the better of her roommate.

“I will literally kill someone if we don’t leave in the next five minutes because we won’t have time for coffee and if I don’t have coffee before I let Benji fumble the lift twenty times I will rip his head off and use it for a chair.”

Kerryn waits for her to notice. The edges of a bruise the color of winter midnight are leaking out along the strap of her leotard, and though she pulls on her sweatshirt, the neck gapes and leaves the widening bruise exposed.  They’re clear right through Kerryn’s tights, spattered like paint across the back of her left leg and clustered across the top of her foot.

Even as she watches in the mirror another one comes alive, growing swiftly and darkening along her jaw line, up across the clear stretch of her cheek and the sharp jutting pinnacle of her cheekbone, shades of plum and mahogany. She panics, grabbing her foundation and wiping futilely at the tender skin. It’s a disease and it’s consuming her, and how can anyone worry about time or ballet when she’s so clearly dying as she stands there?

“Well.” Leena tilts her head impatiently. “Do you want me to rip off your head instead, or are we going?”

Leena stares right at Kerryn and she doesn’t blink or sigh or reach to touch the stains that cover Kerryn’s body. Something rises in Kerryn’s throat, something choking and dark, a bruise moving inward instead of out, consuming her.

“Let’s. Go.” Leena marches out the bathroom door, mumbling in Portuguese under her breath.

Kerryn turns back to the mirror. The bruise has consumed half her face and she can hardly breathe. She presses a hand against the glass.

It’s time, it must be time. Playing tricks on her again. Breaking her down.

Her eyes flutter shut and when they open, her skin is clear and her body unmarred. The bruises sink into her bloodstream again. Poison. It’s only a matter of time.

March Madness Flash Fiction: NOT-ON-THE-FIRST-DATE CATE by Shawn Anderson

TODAY’S BREW: Whatever will fit in this bathtub

By Julie

Shawn Anderson is one of the people that I don’t even talk to every day, but he affects me every day. Just his simple tweets and his smiling face make me happy no matter what else is happening. I’m lucky he’s my friend. I’m lucky he considers me one. And you’re lucky to read this story because it is one of the most unique ones I’ve come across in these flash fiction series that we do.

NOT-ON-THE-FIRST-DATE CATE

by Shawn Thomas Anderson

My khakis. Pressed to impress.

New chambray shirt—sleeves rolled to the elbow. Handsome, yet casual.

Lucky Valentine’s Day socks—the ones with the big red hearts on the ankles. No action in February, but still relevant in March.

 I stuck my nose inside the collar of my shirt to make sure my cologne wasn’t too overpowering. Patting my pants pocket, the rattling of the breath mints in their plastic container reassured me that they were there. All systems go.

Singing every word of her Match.com bio in my head to the tune of a Taylor Swift song, I googled her one last time on my phone. No telltale mug shots, hostile Twitter rants, or any other red flags to indicate that she was a bunny-boiling psycho. This had to be the one.

The bistro where she chose to meet me was the exact one I was going to suggest. The place was abuzz with conversation and clattering dishes. A man stumbled onto the stage with his acoustic guitar and set up to perform. Live-music ‘80s night. Romantic.

I ordered a latte to hold the table, and as I waited, I glanced at my watch. Of course, she was going to be late. I just knew it—she was one of those people. But right as the hands hit seven o’clock, the girl with crimson hair was standing over me. Perfect timing. The perfect girl.

“Hello. Ian?” Her plump lips breathed my name as the performer hit the first chord from his rendition of Love Will Tear Us Apart.

Like a choir of angles, strumming harps.

“Old-school Joy Division. Cool,” she said.

“Abigail?” I stood up to shake her hand, but missed her fingers and shook her arm. Creepy, awkward… Don’t blow this, you dummy. “So nice to meet you.”

“Thanks for meeting me here. This is one of my favorite spots.” She didn’t seem to mind the shaking. “It reminds me of Middle-earth.”

I looked around at the dark woodwork, painted trees, and the group of hobbit-like hipsters drinking coffee and bobbing to the music. “Middle-earth?”

“Why, yes. Are you a Tolkien fan?” She slid into the seat next to me, disregarding the place setting arranged across the table.

“Since I was young,” I said and sat back down.

Her handbag thumped on the floor as if it were weighted by an anchor. It reminded me and I kicked the duffle bag, resting between my feet to make sure it was still there.

“I don’t usually do this on the first date, but I feel like we already know each other so well.” She bit her lip and smiled, revealing a bright smear of lipstick across her pearly whites. “I want you to meet Paul.”

Who the hell was Paul? Her husband? Her lover? “Paul?” I gave a hard swallow, choking on my chances and the thought of competing with another guy.

“He’s just someone I met in a cemetery a long, long time ago,” Abigail said, taking a sip from my coffee cup. “He’s the one I measure all my dates up to. Your resemblance to him is uncanny.”

Ah, maybe he was a father figure… I was good with fathers. “Sure, I guess. Is he meeting us here?”

“Oh, he’s already here.” A glint of mischief flashed in her eyes.

My eyes darted around the room. Had he been watching me this whole time?

“He’s right here.” She flopped her handbag onto the table, rocking the water glasses and my coffee mug to the point of almost spilling.

Oh God, was he in the bag? I took a loud gulp as the song ended, and felt like the whole place was staring at me. “What’s in the bag?” I chuckled a little, trying to stay calm, but my voice cracked.

“We met night after night in the moonlight until I just couldn’t resist anymore, and I had to take him home with me.” She fumbled with the zipper as she told her story. “Finally, one night I crept up behind him and BLAM-O!

BLAM-O?

“I took his head clean off his shoulders with a baseball bat.”

There was a head in that bag—a severed human head! Check please. My mouth went dry, but I wasn’t sure if she was going to whack me if I made any movement to leave or toward my water glass.

She undid the zipper the rest of the way and pulled out a stone head, placing it on the table between her palms so it was staring at me. “Meet my Paul. Isn’t he perfect?”

The next song started, a folksy version of Depeche Mode’s Strange Love, but I was sure all eyes in the place were still on me.

“So, does he approve?” Not knowing what to do, I reached forward and patted the statue head. “Nice to meet you, Paul.”

“Of course,” she said and rested her hand on mine. “You have his cheek bones and his nose. I usually don’t run around vandalizing cemeteries, but the statue was so beautiful, just like you.”

My cheeks felt warm.  “Funny you should bring Paul, because I also have someone that I never introduce to first dates.” I reached under the table and tugged my duffle up into my lap. “This is my Cate.” I pulled the marble bust of Catherine the Great from the bag and placed it next to Paul.

Abigail squealed with excitement and her knee hit the table. Both Cate and Paul toppled over, their faces rolling together, lips touching.

My hand snaked across the table and found hers.

She laced her fingers with mine as the performer started strumming and singing the next song, I’ll Stop the World and Melt with You. “Modern English… I love this song.” Abigail swayed to the beat and looked deep into my eyes.

“So do I.” Check please.

Shawn Thomas Anderson is a copywriter, branding specialist, and writer of Middle Grade and Young Adult fantasy and science fiction—plus a little horror from time to time. He lives in a far-flung corner of New England, splitting his time between Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom and the White Mountains of New Hampshire. It’s a magical place where moose, bear, and deer wander through your backyard and everyone rocks flannel. He currently coauthors the Splinter steampunk-adventure web serial with Summer Wier.

Follow Shawn and his writing adventures on Twitter @ShawnTWrites or visit his website and blog at www.shawnthomasanderson.com, coming soon.

March Madness Flash Fiction: SUBJECT TWELVE by Robert McKay

TODAY’S BREW: French Vanilla from a RUNNING HOME mug. Because I’m just self-important enough to have one.

By Julie

I’m so happy to show you Rob McKay’s work today. This story kept me guessing until the very last line, and its inventiveness is incredible. I need to see a Rob McKay book on my book shelf. Check out Rob’s blog http://t.co/oNs3WtYXHS and find him where I did, on Twitter https://twitter.com/robertmckay. He’s probably the sweetest person ever.

SUBJECT TWELVE

by Robert McKay

I paced back and forth in front of Dr. Naughton’s office and considered bolting back to the lab. It was pointless though, his secretary had already announced that I was waiting to see him. If I left, I would have interrupted him for no reason. Besides, he’d asked to be apprised of any significant changes in behavior. He just always managed to make me feel stupid like nobody but my mother could. I had just as many doctorates as he had; three, if anybody was counting. He was only heading the project because he was a few years older and the program director liked him. God only knew why.

The office door clicked open. His welcome grunt was barely audible. He didn’t even try to hide the way he stared at his secretary’s legs. Her dress covered most of them and the awkward twitch of her perfect, flat nose told me she’d noticed far too many times. “Come in Casey,” he called, waving me past him. It irritated me that he used my first name. If I did the same, he’d glare at me until I corrected myself, the pompous ass.

He walked by me and took a seat behind his desk, looking up expectantly. He didn’t offer me a seat, or even ask me what I was there for. Just waited for me to dance like I was the evening’s entertainment.

“Subject twelve is exhibiting signs of distress,” I said, when the silence had drawn out long enough to be awkward.

“What sort of signs of distress?” asked Dr. Naughton, letting out a small squeal of surprise.

“He’s just sitting in the corner of his cage and staring off into the distance, sir,” I said.

Dr. Naughton let out a long, grunting groan. “You took me away from my important research because subject twelve is doing nothing?”

“Well, sir,” I continued nervously, silently berating myself for letting the man get to me, “George is also sighing loudly and gripping one hand in the other, mimicking the way he used to hold han–”

“That’s enough!” shouted Dr. Naughton, rising to his feet and slamming his hands on the desk. “You sound like an idiot child. These subjects don’t have hands, they have paws. Only people have hands. And as has been highly documented, the subjects only join paws in an effort to appear larger to prey animals in an attempt to scare them away. If you are trying to imply otherwise, I’ll have you summarily dismissed from this project on grounds of mental instability.”

He stared at me as if daring me to contradict him. I didn’t agree with a single thing he’d just said, but a lot of scientists more eminent than I was did and I wasn’t about to lose this assignment over a theory that I hadn’t had a chance to properly test. Still, that didn’t mean he wasn’t an asshole and that I wasn’t right about the distress. “He’s also stopped eating, sir,” I said through clenched teeth.

Dr. Naughton’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. “Why didn’t you lead with that, Casey? It’s probably some sort of gastronomic issue. Put him on a bland diet, force feed him if you have to. I’m sure it will clear up in a few days.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, keeping a tight reign on the words bouncing around in my head.

“Is that all, Casey?”

I nodded, not trusting my tongue further.

“Dismissed.” He waved vaguely toward the door, already rooting around in his desk, probably for something to eat.

I stomped out of his office and shut the door as hard as I thought I could get away with. I was still huffing and puffing when I made it back to the lab.

“I would ask you how it went, but I think that might make your head explode,” said Gayle, trying her best to hide a smirk.

“I went in there expecting to get fired, so in my book, it counts as a win. We’ve fulfilled our duties and reported the behavior. Now we can proceed in the way we think is best.” Her smirk, whether it was at my expense or not, was cute, and it had helped calm me down.

“What did he suggest, anyway?” asked Gayle, reaching over and straightening my ruffled hair.

I pulled her hand away gently and sighed. “Bland diet.” Gayle groaned. “And don’t groom me here, public displays of affection might be enough to get me fired now.”

“Alright, let’s take care of George. I’ll bring in Ursula.”

“I’m still not sure we’re right about their feelings. Ursula doesn’t seem to be bothered like George is.”

“We’re right, and she’s not bothered because she knows she’s right.” Gayle smiled and walked out of the room.

A minute later Ursula stepped into the observation room, her eyes scanning for George. She studied him briefly and then turned away, crossing her arms. He ran over and threw his arm around her, gibbering in higher pitched tones and pressing his mouth against her skin. It was a peculiar habit that seemed at times amorous, and other times, apologetic. Ursula held her ground for a moment, her back stiff, and then relented and slumped into George’s arms. He sniffed her hair, again making me wonder how they smelled anything with down-turned noses.

“See,” said Gayle, stepping up behind Casey and observing the humans through the glass. “He  apologized and she forgave him. He knew he was wrong. That’s why he was sad.”

“And maybe he missed her.”

“That, too.”

I leaned my head against hers. “We’re going to be laughed out of academia when we publish our paper saying humans are capable of love, you know.”

“No we’re not. We are two of the most respected scientists porcinekind has ever known. We’ll be hailed as revolutionary.”

“Or completely mad,” I said.

“Or completely mad,” she agreed, favoring me with her sweetest smile.

March Madness Flash Fiction: WE SEE MADNESS by Ruzzel Zullo

TODAY’S BREW: Starbuck’s autumn roast, semi-fancy clearance coffee

By Julie

Ruzzel and I found each other recently on, you guessed it, Twitter, and now I’m just so damn pleased. You find him there, too. https://twitter.com/rmzullo and here http://facebook.com/therzp and also here  http://ruzzelsblogspace.blogspot.com/.

We See Madness

By: Ruzzel Zullo

     Norman sat cross-legged in the middle of a completely white room. The only thing that adorned the empty room’s walls was a broken clock.

     “I see it now,” Norman said out loud to himself.

     Ticking filled the otherwise silent room as the clock sprang to life. With each tick, a number fell off the clock face until all that was left was its spinning hands.

     “Do you still see it?” A voice asked, filing the room.

     Norman looked to the pile of numbers on the ground as they slowly melted into a puddle of ink.

     The puddle trickled its way toward Norman as he got up and backed into the far corner of the room. As the ink completely covered the floor, a ball formed in the center, levitating a few inches off the ground.

     “How about now?” The voice continued. “What do you see?”

     On the face of the ball the geography of the world began to take shape.

     Trying to move, Norman realized that what was previously ink was now tar.

     “I see it!”
“Are you sure?”

     The hands of time began to spin faster on the clock. A whirlwind began to grow, devouring all in its path.

     The room began to move.

     The tar began to ripple.

     Before long, Norman’s feet were finally free, and on the ground in front of him lay a hammer uncovered by the tar.

     “I see it!” Norman yelled as he picked up the tool.

     Falling toward the growing cyclone, Norman swung the hammer and hit the black globe, sending an echoing crash around the room, not unlike a bell.

     “Stop.” The voice said. Everything stood captured in motion. “What do you see?”

     “Imagination.” Norman answered.

     Norman blinked. He was staring at a broken clock. He couldn’t feel his legs. Looking down, he was sitting in a wheelchair.

     A single drop of ink stained his shirt.

March Madness Flash Fiction: PURIFICATION by Heather Wheat

TODAY’S BREW: All of it.

By Julie

Today’s flash fiction piece is from the wildly and unnecessarily nervous Heather Wheat, who puts a smile on my face every day. She’s the coolest high school English teacher I know, and I know a lot of them. Go find my darling on Twitter https://twitter.com/hwheaties and https://twitter.com/bookofthemonth. Check out her blog http://t.co/iMAb6hVL6y, but first, read this story which I am obsessed with.

PURIFICATION

by Heather Wheat

I’d thought about burning down my high school a year or so before my best friend Will and I figured out how to do it. I had always hated the place, with its over-privileged students—none of them worthy of what they had—and those who had nothing, well, we weren’t worthy of anything.

I hated the way they looked at me, and the other people who they didn’t think fell into their special groups. There were the nouveau holier-than-thou skaters, the princesses who went to dance classes, the clergy kids, the bad girls and boys, and of course the so-very-not-fun geeky kids.

That wasn’t it, though; there were the teachers. They preached self-righteousness, purity, and all of the things they were supposed to, but you could see that maybe only two of them really believed their own bullshit.

The Bible teacher, a converted Jew, had the philosophy that it was his way or the highway. I argued with him on a regular basis only to find myself on the hard linoleum floor outside his room. Clearly religion class was no place for disagreements.

The French teacher and the Anatomy teacher couldn’t have truly believed, though, looking at them was always too sad. I could see in their eyes they were pining for real lives, mourning that they were getting old and spinsterish and wishing they could have had some wild sex when they were younger; instead they had somehow gotten caught up in religion. By the time they realized the hypocrisy of the shit, though, it was too late. They were trapped in fat bodies and ill-fitting pants or dresses, destined for nights in muumuus, looking longingly at young, strapping men they maybe could have made it with once.

These people—most of all the teachers and administrators, and how they were trapped in their pitiful lives–disgusted me. They swore an oath to be Christian, and to teach us to be good, Christian kids.

It was maddening.

But then there were people like Will and me. He was my best friend. We were normal. We worked hard for everything we had. We had learned very early in life what and how people really could be. Friends since the age of eleven, it never mattered to us which group we fell into, because we didn’t want to belong in any of them.

So when I decided, as a ritual of cleansing and renewal, to burn down the school from which we had both graduated, Will was there for me. I needed to purge my memories of the place, purge the damage it had done to me, purge the hate I carried for everyone and everything there. There were no security cameras, and my dad worked at the school as a sort of maintenance person, so it was simple enough to get keys.

They really made it all too easy.

Will and I walked through the school, spraying lighter fluid up and down every bank of lockers, into every doorway, every classroom, over every chair, desk, and bookshelf. We stopped in front of the doors to the gymnasium, over which someone had hung a banner that said, “Blessed are all who enter here.”  I looked at Will, and he looked back at me.

“That’s where we’ll light it,” I said. “That banner. They have no right to say who is blessed and who isn’t.”

Will rolled his eyes. “Please remember that my dad is a pastor. And remember I still go to church.” He looked at me expectantly.

“Sure,” I said, pointing my bottle of lighter fluid at the banner. “The difference, Will, is that your dad isn’t a self-righteous piece of shit.”

Finally, everything was drenched, with the exception of our path to the door. I turned and looked at Will.

“Ready?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“Of course you do. You had a choice to tell me I was fucking crazy the moment I called you and told you I wanted to do this. You had the choice not to let me stay at your house. You had lots of choices. You chose this.”

“You have a point.”

“Don’t I always?”

I took one last look around before pulling a box of matches from my pocket.

“Here we go, then.” I stopped for a second and then looked at Will and laughed—a laugh of good, true, and pure release. I lit a match from the pack, and tossed it up toward the banner over the gymnasium doors. Flames instantly covered the lettering, and the words on the vinyl sign disappeared into orange, yellow, blue, and then white-hot flames.

Will and I locked eyes as the flames started to flare up around us, the only open space our path to the door.

“Well, that’s it then,” said Will, and we turned and raced the flames to the entrance.

Happy Book Birthday to ALPHAS GONE WILD!

I have a story in this great new box set.  If you like Leo and Daphne in Lion and the Doe, Wild for the Lion bridges what happens after that….leading into the events of Cougar and the Lion.  This is 99 cents for a limited time, so pick up your copy now!!

Alphas Gone Wild3d

 

Some alphas are too wild to tame, but our sassy heroines enjoy a beast in the sheets. It’s feminine wiles and wanton shenanigans as each of these ladies comes up against the man of her dreams.

Alphas Gone Wild features 11 sizzling hot tales of shapeshifter romance from NY Times and USA Today best selling authors.

Touch of Alpha by Catherine Vale
When Denver is given the chance to become Alpha of his clan he must choose a mate. Unfortunately, the obvious choice isn’t the one his heart agrees with.

Pack Justice by Michelle Fox
Sabrina’s been a naughty werewolf, two-timing alphas from different packs. When her lovers find out the truth, they arrange for a little pack justice.

A Cat’s Tale by Melissa Snark
Alpha werewolf Jared wakes up in a vampire’s dungeon, swearing revenge upon the wily Siamese werecat who lured him there. To escape, he seduces the skittish puss and teaches her a hot, hard lesson.

Wild for the Lion by Kristen Strassel
After she’s claimed by a lion, Daphne must learn to embrace her wild side if she wants to survive as the only weredeer against Soldier Mountain’s jealous pride.

Masked Desire by Crystal Dawn
Heart-broken over his soul mate’s unwillingness to mate with him, Luke plans to lure her into spending a night of passion to change her mind.

Dragon’s Dewdrop by Ruby Glass
When Rochelle discovers jewels scattered like dewdrops over her gorgeous employer’s lawn, she plans to profit. In fact, the gems are a sign that he’s a dragon shifter – and that he’ll need her help…

Cat Lover by Selena Kitt
Sebastian and Katie are having relationship issues when her ex shows up to complicate things, but that’s the least of their worries, because Katie is finally changing—into something not quite human.

Ravished by The Ice Palace Pack by Ariana Hawkes
The Ice Palace Pack capture a young were-female as part of their winter mating rites. Delilah’s never been mated before, but soon learns the pleasures of being shared between so many smoking-hot males

Harvest Moon by Tabitha Conall
In a world where werewolves mate in threes, wolves Donovan and Eli find their mate in Maddy. But a mad wolf wants Maddy for his own. Can her mates keep her safe before she disappears forever?

Getting Bear by Ever Coming
Getting Bear is a stand alone erotic romance featuring a sexy werebear shifter determined to claim his curvy mate before her time in Greenville is over.

Torment by Alisa Woods
Jak’s heart belongs to a female shifter who’s already mated. Arianna was captured and mated to a dark wolf. Is love stronger than magic? Or will breaking an unbreakable bond destroy them both?

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