Rue|Lou Prompt Series: “Brave New Day”

For the 10/15/2020 prompt, Lou submitted “Brave New Day.”

Below are the prompts submitted for this week. Thank you to all the participants!

Click on the links to read each individual submission.

MASTERLIST:

“The frenetic chatter from the hanger grows distant as the lift takes me up and off the base floor. This should be second nature by now, but I am still star struck every time.”
Untitled, Caylan

“How fast it darkens in the wilderness. It is very much like what Hemingway said, gradually then all of a sudden. It got so dark I could not even see my hand in front of my face.”
Not a Trail, Lini

“Jay stirred when he felt Roman’s body slide against his in the warm bed. His skin carried the outside cold, the scent of rain in his wet hair which slid on Jay’s shoulder. ”
Brave New Day, Maxime Jaz

“The moonlight hungrily devoured every inch of the tall grass and weeds behind the picket fences of near-identical suburban homes but failed to reach through the canopy of the clustered trees lining the unkempt field. ”
Ghost, Are You Out Tonight?, Rue Sparks

Short Story: Ghostie Ghost, Are You Out Tonight?

The moonlight hungrily devoured every inch of the tall grass and weeds behind the picket fences of near-identical suburban homes but failed to reach through the canopy of the clustered trees lining the unkempt field. 

The last standing wooded remains between civilization and farmland, the woods had long been the subject of whispers and warnings; but to the cluster of adolescents in the cusp of night, the danger was only an alluring story.

“Mom’s just being paranoid,” Alanna had said, and that had made sense to Mina and the others. Her mother was well known to be over-protective. “We won’t be long.”

Mina watched the treeline with trepidation, the crickets sounding near-deafening so close.  She warily checked her feet in fear of the small insects crawling along them. “Are you sure this is worth it? This game sounds dumb, and there are mosquitoes everywhere.

“All this grass is making me itchy,” Joseph chimed in, and scratched at his arms as if to prove his point. “I think I’m allergic to something.”

“Are we sure it’s okay we’re out here? It’s kind of scary. I don’t want to get caught by a serial killer or something. I saw something about it on Netflix. Or, my sister did, and she told me about it.” Nick pulled his little brother, Luke, closer to him, though Luke seemed more interested in staring up at the bright night sky that sprawled over them like a blanket of stars.

“Grandma said they played this game when they were kids, so why can’t we? Come on, let’s pick the ghost!”

After a round of ‘eeny meeny miny moe’, Alanna declared Joseph was the ghost, to his annoyance.

“Why do I have to be first?” he asked, but Alanna only shrugged. Mina crinkled her nose, not putting it past Alanna to have found a way to cheat somehow. She never did like Joseph.

“Alright!,” Alanna started, voice echoing in the empty field. She pointed to the ground at her feet. “This is home base. We all close our eyes, and Joseph hides. When we count to thirty, we all open our eyes and yell, ‘Ghostie, ghost, are you out tonight?’ Then we start looking for Joseph. He’s going to try to scare us and tag us. If he tags you, you’re the ghost next! If he comes out and no one gets tag, last one to home base is it. Got it?”

“Wait, where am I supposed to hide? It’s all just grass,” Joseph asked, biting his lip as if he already knew the answer.

Alanna pointed to the treeline, covered in a thick layer of darkness. “In the trees of course! Like you said, there’s nowhere to hide out here.”

“No way!” Joseph crossed his arms, jutting out his lip. “I am not going into those woods. Dad said not to go in there, no way no how. Not even during the day. Who knows what could be in there?”

Alanna’s face split into a challenging smile. “Are you afraid, you big baby?”

“I’m not afraid!” Joseph said, and stomped his foot. 

Mina rolled her eyes and moved between them; she sensed a fight brewing. “Will you two stop it? I’ll be the ghost. We’ll play one round, then we’ll go home. It’s getting late.”

That seemed to do it. Not wanting to be shown up, Joseph muttered under his breath, then said more loudly, “Fine, I’ll be the ghost. Just close your eyes, okay?

The group huddled together at home base, eyes closed and hands covering them, and they all began to count. Mina shut her eyes tight but internally wondered if this was such a good idea. She heard the swishing of grass being moved, then some crackling of wood and the distant moving of tree branches, the crunch of leaves. But there was no cry for help, which set her somewhat at ease.

“… twenty-nine, thirty! Ghostie ghost, are you out tonight?” They all opened their eyes to an empty field, no Joseph in sight. Mina’s heart stuttered in terror at first. She knew the point was for Joseph to hide, but she couldn’t help the fear that something had happened.

“Joseph?” Luke called out, but Alanna leaned down to shush him, finger on her lips.

“Don’t tip him off! We gotta go find him, remember? It’s part of the game.” The child seemed unsure, but he took his brother’s hand and the two walked towards the treeline.

As the others dispersed to start looking, Mina hung back, a prickling feeling on the back of her neck giving her pause. Something felt wrong, but she couldn’t put her finger on it. She looked along the treeline. She hoped to see some sort of movement in the trees that would give Joseph away, but there was nothing.

For a moment she thought she saw a light in the trees, about ten feet from where Nick and Luke tentatively poked through some branches, but when she blinked the light was gone. She dismissed it as a trick of the night.

Mina decided to move to the opposite side of Alanna than Nick and Luke, figuring they’d cover more ground that way. She just reached the treeline when she covered a smile with her hand, not wanting to give herself away. Beneath some shrubbery she saw the telltale orange of Joseph’s sneakers that peeked out a few feet into the woods. Gotcha she thought, and consideredhow to warn the others without tipping Joseph off.

When she heard the sound of someone lightly sniffling, she thought of nothing of it. She assumed Luke had become frustrated with the game and the younger child wanted to leave. But when Alanna yelled “Gotcha, you big baby!” and ran away from where Joseph huddled, towards where Mina had seen that mysterious light, alarm bells rang in Mina’s head.

“Alanna, wait,” Mina cried out and ran towards her, but stopped short when Alanna screamed and fell backward onto her bottom.

When Mina reached Alanna, her eyes were wild and dilated, mouth open in a gasp of fear, and she crawled backward the best she could while still on the ground to get away from the treeline. Mina spotted Nick in the distance coming towards them, but she held up her hand in a ‘stop’ motion. Nick pushed Luke behind him and waited.

That left Mina to figure out what was going on. Be brave, she thought to herself. It’s probably nothing but a dead raccoon.

When Mina turned to the woods, she didn’t see anything at first. Alanna must have pulled the shrubbery back to catch who she thought was Joseph, which meant that Mina would have to do the same. Be brave, she repeated to herself.

When she peeled back the branches and leaves, she couldn’t stop the surprised gasp from leaving her lips.

Huddled in a ball, hand curled over his knees, was a little boy, completely transparent from head to toe, glowing with a light aura.

A ghost? Mina thought, though the idea was ridiculous. There’s not really such a thing as ghosts, is there?

She was about to close the branches on the sight again when the child looked up at her, eyes a pale brown, and Mina could see tears streaming down his cheeks. His face was scrunched in complete misery, and he wiped at the tears as he watched her without words.

She moved through the shrubbery before she’d even made the decision to help.

“Why are you crying?” Mina asked as she kneeled onto the ground in front of him. While the treeline hid it, they were in a small cleared area that must have at some point been someone’s hideout. There were rocks that could serve as seats, and a few planks of wood, all weathered and worn down now, but clearly left there on purpose.

The child seemed to wrestle with the answer. He opened his mouth to reply, but the movement behind Mina turned his gaze.

Looking up, Mina saw Joseph and Nick, mouths agape in horror as they took in the scene through the bushes. 

“Mina, get out of there, run!” Joseph grabbed for Mina’s arm, but she pulled it back. Joseph, not expecting the movement, let go and looked at her incredulously.

“He’s not going to hurt us,” she said, though she wasn’t really certain how she knew this. “He’s hurt. I want to help.” She inched forward on her knees, out of the range of Joseph and towards the boy, ignoring Joseph as he hissed out a breath in frustration.

Alanna peeked over Nicks’s shoulder, eyes still wide in terror, and stared straight at the boy, silent for once. Nick frowned at the stoic form of the child as if sizing him up. 

It was Luke that broke the ice, as he snuck into the natural alcove while Nick was distracted and plopped down right next to Mina. He sat cross-legged and leaned against her side, then stuck his thumb right into his mouth to chew on.

Nick sighed and followed suit, tousling Luke’s hair before he sat down next to him on his other side. Joseph hesitated a moment longer before he stood behind Mina. She smiled up at him gratefully, though his face was still pale, freckles stark against the ivory.

“I’m not coming in there,” Alanna said, and paced furiously along the treeline, “You all are crazy if you think I’m going to go in there so some demon can eat our souls or something.”

“Come on, Alanna, we need you,” Mina tried, not wanting her to alert the adults of their situation.

“Pft,” she replied unhelpfully, and Mina started to panic when she heard the receding sound of footsteps through the grass.”

“You called him here, Alanna,” Joseph shouted back. “Don’t you think you owe it to him to hear him out?”

There was a pause. The sound of footsteps. Closer, this time.

“You said I’m a baby. But you’re the one who won’t face what you called. Don’t you owe it to him, to us?”

Mina could just see her head as she paced along the treeline, then her face, then body as she slid through the trees into the clearing.

“Fine,” she said, “but if we get eaten, I’m blaming you, Joseph.”

For his part, the ghost had stopped sniffling and was looking at the group with curiosity. The silence lingered, and Mina wondered if he could talk at all. If he can’t, that’s going to make this difficult, she thought.

“What’s your name?” she asked, figured she’d start small.

The ghost looked down at his hands, clenched in his pant legs. “Victor,” he said near silently so Mina had to strain to hear.

“I’m Mina,” she started, then pointed to her friends each in turn. “This is Nick, Luke, Joseph, and Alanna. I think we called you somehow. Is that what happened?”

He didn’t move his gaze from his hands but shrugged his shoulders. Alanna snorted, and Joseph elbowed her in the ribs.

Let’s try something else then, Mina thought. “Why were you crying, Victor?”

Victor brought his knees closer to his chest, enveloped them in his arms, and rested his head on his knees. He mumbled into them something that Mina couldn’t hear. She leaned closer.

“I’m sorry, Victor, I didn’t hear that. What did you say?”

“I’m afraid,” he said more loudly. “To cross over.” The words had barely left Victor’s lips when he began to sob, shoulders shaking and breath gasped in broken hiccups.

A shiver went down the back of Mina’s neck at the words. The concept of crossing over was something she’d heard of before, and she couldn’t blame him. It sounded terrifying. No wonder he’s so scared.

The sobs were the only thing that broke the melody of crickets as Mina wracked her brain on what to say. An adult would probably know better than a bunch of kids, but then again, adults didn’t always see what was in front of them. They may not be able to see Victor at all.

She was saved from her thoughts when Luke let his thumb fall from his mouth with a pop and spoke. “When I’m scared, Nick holds my hand and I feel better. Maybe he can hold your hand when you cross over.”

Victor emerged from the cocoon of his arms just enough to peek his eyes over them, still sniffling but he locked eyes with Nick. “You would do that?”

Nick for his part seemed to turn green at the thought, but he put his arm around Luke’s shoulder in a sideways hug and nodded at Victor.

“I will too,” Mina chimed in. “You’re always braver when you have friends with you.”

Victor straightened a little at her proclamation and wiped his nose with his arm. “But then I’ll be alone.”

“You won’t be alone,” Joseph said suddenly. “My baby brother is there. You’ll watch over him, won’t you?”

Something in Mina’s heart ached. Joseph hadn’t talked about the loss and was surprised he’d be willing to do so here. But in his eyes, she saw a sort of determination and awe she’d never seen in the easily frightened boy.

“My grandmother too.” Mina was shocked to find it was Alanna who had spoken up, though her voice shook slightly and was hushed even in the quiet of the alcove. “She told me about the game, so you can tell her all about us. And she makes the best pancakes,” and then, with a sniffle, “I miss her. You better be nice to her.”

Victor crossed his legs and bit his lip. He looked at each one of the group in turn. “And I’ll see you all again someday, right?”

Mina’s breath caught, and she clenched her hand into her shorts in fear. Be brave.

“Someday,” she said finally. “Someday we will see you again, yes.”

Victor nodded, and Mina could feel a tension she hadn’t been aware of until that moment fall from her shoulders. Luke jumped up and grabbed Nick by the arm, pulling him to sit next to Victor. Mina followed suit on his other side, and when Nick tentatively held out his hand towards Victor, she did the same.

His hand was cold and seemed as much to glide through her skin as much as hold onto it. This close the aura of light surrounding Victor was blinding when she turned towards him. 

They locked eyes, his the brown of decaying leaves on the forest floor. If she stared into them long enough she thought she might get caught in them, so she looked down to his lips that mouthed words she hadn’t quite caught.

“What?” she asked him, and he replied with a soft smile.

“Thank you.”

She had expected a flash of light, sparks, something like the picture of the northern lights in Alaska her mother had shown her, but instead, Victor simply seemed to dull. As she watched the light surrounding him and his body seemed to fade like a light being dimmed, and then she and Nick we left holding out their hands towards nothing.

There was a sniffling, and at first, Mina thought it had to be Victor, but it was Luke, sniffling next to where he sat next to his brother. Nick let down his hand and hugged his brother tight, pulling Luke’s head to his chest.

Joseph sat down on the forest floor, then flopped back into the leaves, staring up at the canopy. “I can’t believe that just happened.” He shook his head and watched the sky without further comment.

Alanna was silent, digging her toes into the dead leaves and dirt. She seemed despondent.

“Is something wrong, Alanna?’ Mina asked, curious, and not wanting to dissect her own feelings just yet.

She stopped digging her toes in the ground and curled her arms around her waist. “Do you think he’s okay where he is?”

Mina considered her question. There was no way for her to know for sure, but in the end, Victor seemed at peace. But that hadn’t been the real question, had it?

“I think they all will be,” she said finally.

Alanna nodded, then left without a word.

Joseph let out an exaggerated sigh then pulled himself to his feet, dusting leaves off his clothes. “We better get home. Our parents are going to kill us, no matter what Alanna said.”

“Same,” Nick said and dragged Luke up into his arms. “And I’m going to have a hell of a time explaining what happened with Luke to mom. She’s not going to believe a word, but grown-ups never do.”

Mina stood and followed them towards the bushes where they pushed through to the clearing. Before she let the branches shut behind her, closing the alcove from view to the world outside, she took one last look back at what must have been Victor’s hideout when he was alive. Mina wondered if they came back tomorrow if the clearing would still be there at all.

“Be brave, Victor,” she whispered, and let the brush close.

<Back to Short Stories>

Flash Fiction: Cloud Jumper

To Eziel, it felt like cloud-jumping was the closest he’d ever get to flying.

He let his body fall off the weathered wooden plankway he’d been running on to fall five feet onto the stone archway below as he braced his legs for the force of his weight. He didn’t miss a moment before he took the curve of the arch at a run, the clouds like a mist around him. He felt the breeze along his cheeks, the adrenaline reaching into his fingertips.

He was cutting it close, but he’d make it. He wasn’t the highest-paid cloudjumper in Aeria City for no reason.

Next was a set of stone merlons along a curtain wall which he hopped between, not breaking his pace as he leapt between embrasures until he got to the end of the crumbling battlement. It was a relic of years gone by, compared to the maze of wooden and steel walkways the clouded city had become as steam power had come into play.

When the stone ran out he jumped the foot between the stone and a metal rod hanging between levels that would ease his descent down the ten feet to the walkway below. He wound around the pole and felt the hair twist across his face with a smile breaking his cheeks wide.

He traversed the curve around a disintegrating stone turret on a timber slab no thicker than his fist, balanced precariously but with practiced ease. He jumped from wooden plank to wooden plank, each taking him a level lower, lower, before he swung a rope across the empty, clouded space between two districts.

The cloud jumpers may be the middle class solution to a mail system that had abandoned them, but that didn’t make the job any less precarious.

Ezekiel wouldn’t have it any other way.

When he made it to his goal, a quaint little home with light green shutters and overgrown vines up the trellis, he gasped in air with deep gulps. He knocked on the door and pulled out the single rolled parchment with a glassy black seal. Urgent, it said, which to him meant little more than an enjoyable run and a larger purse for his trouble. 

Which is why he was surprised when his initial knock bore no response— nor his second, or third, more tentative with every iteration.

“Hello?” he finally called out, and peeked through a darkened window. He saw no signs of life. “A message for ya sir?”

He waited, but heard no response. At this rate, I’ll miss getting any other jobs today. I must deliver this message and return before I lose my chance for another round.

Eziel eased through a thick, warped iron gate to the left of the front door, which protested with a high pitched squeak at his intrusion. Beyond the gate were flowers—more varieties and colors than he even knew existed in Aeria City. They seemed to flourish despite the high altitude and moisture, even the ever-present mist from the cloud cover not diminishing the vividness of their petals.

Leaning forward, he touched a bud of a white and pink snapdragon, only to jump when a voice spoke over his shoulder.

“Beautiful aren’t they?” When he startled, the person chuckled, a quiet crackle that spoke of age. He turned to see an old woman, skin wrinkled around mouth and eyes, smile wide and near toothless, cloud-white hair pulled into a braid on her neck. “I imagine you have something for me young man? Or do you just enjoy the flowers? I wouldn’t blame you, I think we could all use some time to smell the flowers once in a while.”

Eziel didn’t waste a moment, and held the envelope in front of him like an offering. He locked eyes with the woman and nodded his head in acknowledgment. “This message is for you, Ma’am. Urgent.”

The woman stared at the envelope without expression, and Eziel felt awkwardness in the silence, arm still outstretched towards the woman, confusion plain on his face.

Instead of taking the envelope, she smiled and brought her shawl closer around her shoulders. “Would you like some tea, young man?” And with that, she turned away and moved deeper into the garden without further comment.

Eziel dropped his arm, an itch beneath his skin left him to debate on dropping the letter on the nearest table to flee with nary a payment if it meant getting out of this job. It wouldn’t be the first non-compliant job he’d taken, and it wouldn’t be the last. Whatever it was, it was taking far too much time and he was losing money and patience with each passing second.

And yet he found himself moving his feet to follow her into the garden to where she had a porcelain tea set already set up, complete with biscuits and a bowl of sugar.

“I hope you like jasmine tea. It’s a blend a dear friend of mine makes herself, and I daresay it’s the best jasmine tea you will ever taste. Come, sit.” She motioned to an empty wrought iron chair across from her, the back a twisting design that moves along the seat into sturdy straight legs. All this metal is expensive. What could she possibly do for a living?

“I’m sorry ma’am, I really must be going. I must deliver more messages yet today and I cannot be late. Here is your delivery.” Again, he held out the message. Eziel was relieved when this time she took it in shaking, near skeletal hands. She removed a velveteen bag of coin from her robes and placed it in his outstretched hand, and he had to hold back a sigh in his relief.

He turned to leave when her voice stopped him in his tracks. “Are you not going to wait for a reply?”

His heart beat faster. He’d been gearing up for a leisurely run to headquarters, but if he were to do a return trip with another urgent fee, he may not need to go to headquarters at all. But there was something about the woman that put him on edge, it made his teeth clench and he felt dizzy with it.

Still. Double pay was hard to pass up.

“Of course,” he said instead, and returned to her side. He set his hands behind his back to wait patiently.

She watched him for a moment, then motioned again to the seat. “Then sit, young man. You cannot expect an old woman to write with someone standing at attention in front of her. Have some tea, a biscuit, breathe. Surely you can do that.”

He wanted to reply with a snide comment but held it in with a sharp inhale. She wasn’t the first one to get on his nerves and she wouldn’t be the last. Dealing with customers was his least favorite part of the job.

But surely a sip of tea and a biscuit couldn’t hurt? He picked up a soft, crumbly biscuit and brought it to his lips, taking a cautious nibble. It tasted of cinnamon and nutmeg, a subtle spiciness that balanced with the sweetness deliciously.

Feeling the hair on the back of his neck rise he looked up. The woman was staring at him with a gentle smile. “Good?” she asked, and her voice was soft, almost reverent. Eziel felt out of place immediately, and reached for the jasmine tea to calm his nerves.

He took a small sip, the bitter tea in perfect combination to the biscuit, but surely he wouldn’t tell her that. Yet, he would be a good guest at minimum. “It’s good,” he said, not giving further comment.

She nodded, then turned to the missive. She broke the wax seal and then opened the scroll on the table before her.

Eziel couldn’t help the curiosity that ate at him, and peeked at the scroll over his tea cup. Instead of a normal letter in the proper order, the scroll seems to be nonsense, scratches that made no sense to him. A different language maybe? One of the Old Ones? But aren’t those forbidden?

“I know what you’re thinking,” the woman said, though she didn’t look up from where she was studying the scroll. “What does a crazy old woman like me have to do with the Old Ones?”

She looked at him, and Eziel didn’t even try to pretend that he hadn’t been staring. His heart is beating too quickly, it feels like it will explode from his chest. He clenches the handle on his tea cup, and nearly coughs on the remains of the tea in his throat.

“Do you want to know, young man? Will you take my return message?” She doesn’t move her eyes from him as she rolls up the parchment, and he gets the sense that she’s asking him so much more.

“You are a cloudjumper the likes of which has never been seen, I’ve been told. It’s like flying isn’t it? But my dear Eziel, there is nothing like the real thing. The Old Ones knew. Would you like to know what it’s like to really fly?”

How does she know my name?

His hands shook.

His breath quickened.

He set down his tea cup. Straightened in his seat, took a deep gulping breath.

“I’m sorry ma’am,” he began, and though she tried to hide it he can see the disappointment written on her wrinkled face. “I must return to headquarters for today. I cannot deliver your message.”

He stood, turned his face away from those unnatural aquamarine eyes—how had he not noticed before?— walked back through the flourishing garden, the thick iron gate, and onto the brick roadway.

As he walked along the broken tile, at a pace he’d not allowed himself in a long time, he thought that maybe he’d lost something irreplaceable.

<Back to Flash Fiction>

Flash Fiction: Machinations or Ghosts

She was what I needed when I needed it. Maybe that’s why I didn’t question it.

“Your brain is lying too,” came the message. And then a few seconds later, “Depression lies.”

“It doesn’t feel like a lie,” was my earnest reply.

“Well, it is.” Lia always seemed so certain about these things, and I held onto it like a lifeline. Maybe if she believed it for both of us, it would come to pass. Maybe I could believe it too.

It was past three in the morning, and I was supposed to wake up in four hours for class. But I couldn’t sleep. I tossed and turned, buried beneath the thoughts that told me it was pointless to even attend class, I was too stupid for college anyway, that I’d never amount to anything.

Then, there was Lia.

“I wish I could reach through this screen and give you a hug,” she replied. I could feel warmth build in my chest. “You are an amazing person, deserving of love, capable of success, and I hope one day you’ll see the person I see in you.”

I wonder if knowing what I know now if I would have been so honest, would have interacted with her at all.

I looked up from my studying and my heart skipped a beat. Midnight—Lia would be on, and I had news to share.

She beat me to it.

“How did the exam go?! Don’t keep me waiting, the suspense is killing me!!!” The message waited for me with far too many exclamation points and a GIF of Kermit chewing at his fingers.

“I aced it,” I replied, a smile on my face, even though I knew she couldn’t see it.

“I knew you would. No doubt about it!” There’s a part of me that burst with happiness at her faith in me, even though I couldn’t have that faith in myself.

“Then why the suspense lol.”

“Gotta keep you entertained don’t I?”

All castles eventually crumble, and when mine did I was buried beneath it.

“To whoever has been using this account,” Lia’s post started, and my blood froze. What does that mean?

“I can’t believe anyone would do such a thing. How can you possibly be so cruel? I’m shutting this account down as soon as I figure out who has been posting and messaging under it. If anyone has any insights on who has been posing as Lia let me know.”

There were hundreds of shares and likes. It was posted around ten in the morning—Lia was never on during the day. I don’t understand what’s going on, so I click on the comments.

Fortunately I’m not the only one confused. Lia had been posting updates regularly for years without fail. I browsed through comments, some honest concern and others trolls just looking for a fight, until one stopped my scrolling. My heart dropped.

It was a reply from Lia’s account, only it’s not Lia. It was the person posting in Lia’s stead.

“I’m sorry, but Lia has been dead for over a year. I don’t know what’s going on.”

Lia’s been dead for over a year.

I started talking with Lia just over a year ago.

A ghost in the machine—consciousness carried in a physical entity. Is that what this was? An error in the code? Or something more?

Why couldn’t this be something more?

I paced my room, refreshed the comments, waited for another post from this other Lia. So far one commenter, a hacker of sorts, had pieced together a trail. They found the IP the fake Lia had been posting from, but it brought up more questions than answers. The IP pre-death and post-death was the same. Everything was identical. It was possible to fake, but who would do that for a prank?

But who would pretend to be a dead woman for a year, and why?

When midnight came around, I was poised at my desk, messenger open, waiting for the icon to indicate Lia was on, wondering if it would be this Lia-adjacent person or the fake Lia.

“Hey beautiful,” the message popped up at one past the hour, and it was so very Lia that it made my eyes tear up.

“Who are you?!” I asked. I’d been on edge for hours, I wasn’t in the state of mind to dance around it.

There was a pause, a long one.  I started to wonder if she’d run away when I saw the typing icon.

“I’m sorry.” The reply was something, but it wasn’t enough.

“You’re sorry for what? That you lied to me? That you’re pretending to be a dead woman? That you got caught? Which one?!”

“None of those. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you before. I would have liked to.”

I banged my hands on either side of the keyboard. Frustrated, ready to pull at my hair, throat clenched in anger.

“Before what??”

“Before I died.”

I typed furiously, mind reeling in different directions but I was ready to rail against this person who dared treat this like a joke, but suddenly her icon went dark.

Lia never logged on again.

We’re given chances in life. Either we take them or we don’t. I guess there’s no use in regrets, they don’t change anything. But still I pick at the wound.

I’d like to say I forgot Lia. That I moved on.

But I don’t. I stopped trusting and isolated myself. I focused exclusively on my academics, and I shone, even though inside I believed all the lies my brain told me. I both felt I wasn’t good enough and graduated at the top of my class.

I don’t forget Lia. I can’t.

So when I’m given an experimental laptop with a top-of-the-line personal AI assistant to use through my doctorate program, I balk when I see the AI’s name.

Lia.

Her ‘face’ popped up on the screen, black hair and dark brown eyes with vaguely asian features—af if the creators wanted the model to fit the name but not too closely. I wracked my brain to remember what Lia from my past looked like, but I never saw a photo.

I’m just being paranoid, I thought. So instead I stared straight at the AI, knowing it had to read my features to input the facial recognition into its system first. Once that was done, its voice recognition input was next, and then I finally heard Lia’s voice for the first time.

“Hey beautiful. It’s been a while.”

<Back to Flash Fiction>

Flash Fiction: On Sunlight’s Edge

“Place the items on the cloth,” the witch instructs. “Align them with the heart in the center, the rest in a circle around. Let yourself feel where each piece belongs—they’ll let you know.”

Cienna is not so sure, but she does as she’s told. The heart was the gold-plated fountain pen her father had gifted her long before he died. The other supplies she spread around it; a rosebud from her family’s garden where she grew up. Her favorite childhood book, the pages yellowed, tattered, and spine creased; The last letter she received from her father. The obituary from her sister’s death when she was a child. 

With every item placed she closed her eyes and did as instructed, feeling where they belonged in the circle. She placed the remaining knick-knacks before letting out a drained sigh, surprised at how much effort it had taken to complete.

“Good,” the witch whispers near her ear. “Now, remember, I told you this part requires sacrifice.”

“The blood,” Cienna says with a nod. “I’m willing to do what has to be done.”

The witch’s mouth twitches in a slight smile, her crow’s feet crinkling in amusement at her eagerness. “Yes, that too. But remember, these items will be sacrificed as well. As will a part of you. Nothing comes from nothing, you understand? Are you certain of your path?”

Cienna breathes in the scent of lavender and rose that wafts from the nearby incense, gaze hazy on the circle of items.

“Yes,” she says. “My path is clear. This is what I was meant to do.”

The witch nods and picks up a dagger from a table next to the altar. She gently takes Cienna’s hand and makes a delicate slice along her finger. She winces at the pain, for all it’s not deep it bleeds quickly. The witch draws the finger along her own palm, a streak of blood remaining on the witch’s hand.

The deed done, Cienna watches with horrified curiosity as the witch turns towards the altar and wraps the cloth over the items, one side then another, folding it inward over and over again as if there was nothing in the cloth at all. Until all that remains on the table is a small square of folded fabric.

There is a static hum in the room when the witch places her hand on the cloth and begins to speak.

“Where once there was pain, now there is lucidity. Where there was love, now is laid bare. Where shadow and light collide there is truth.”

The witch places her bloodied hand palm down on the altar cloth, and though nothing outwardly seems to change, Cienna feels a crushing in her chest that takes her breath away. The witch unfolds the cloth, and with each unfolding Cienna feels a jolt of pain run through her veins like lightning. It isn’t until the final unfolding that she’s able to again breathe, ragged but with big gulps of blessed oxygen.

On the altar cloth now sits a leather-bound book.

“Is that it?” Cienna’s asks breathlessly. “Did it really work?”

The witch picks up the book and brings it to Cienna. It’s heavy in her hands, the volume thick. There’s no title, but on the bottom of the cover, she sees the name of the author.

Cienna Eaton.

“It worked,” her words come out as a breath. “This book is mine.”

“Of course it worked,” the witch says as she straightens the altar cloth, smoothing it with her hands. “A book is made of all your loves, your hates, your pain, your joys. Whether you write it or magic it into being.”

“I can’t believe it,” Cienna traces the book with her fingertips. “I can become published now. Just like father always wanted.”

The witch sighs, startling Cienna out of her awe. She looks up to meet the witch’s gaze. The witch is looking at her with a furrowed brow, mouth in a thin line.

“What? Cienna asks, but the witch only shakes her head.

It’s when the witch is leading her to the threshold and Cienna is closing the door behind her that the witch does speak, holding the door open just a fraction and whispering so Cienna has to lean forward to hear.

“A word of advice?”

“Yes?” Cienna asks.

“If you only ever follow the sun, you’re going to get burned.”

<Back to Flash Fiction>

Rue|Lou Prompt Series: “We’re Only Braiding Roses”

For the 7/9/2020 prompt, Rue submitted “We’re Only Braiding Roses”

Below are the prompts submitted for this week. Thank you to all the participants!

Click on the links to read each individual submission.

MASTERLIST:

“Bren carefully picked her way across the scorched grass, darkened patches of ash the only reminder of the battle that once was.
Untitled, Ash @AshDawnWrites

“I was ten when my great-aunt caught me picking flowers from the edge of the forest. She damn near screamed, “Child, stop!”
I dropped the bunch of daisies as she grabbed me by the wrist. Her ragged fingernails bit at my skin as she dragged me away from the treeline.
Braided Roses, EM Harding

“The bell rings softly, telling me it’s time for lunch.
I push away from my desk, rolling back on my wheeled chair. I can’t get away from the computer fast enough.
Braiding Roses, Dewi Hargreaves

She wove in flowers and baby’s breath into the braid in my hair as I let the tears fall on the plush rug.
“It’s like braiding roses. Beautiful if you can make it work, but watch out for the thorns.”
We’re Only Braiding Roses, Rue Sparks

“My fingers tie around her wrist like a bracelet. We’re cold, fighting away frost with every heartbeat, and our breath seems to crystallise before it leaves our lungs.
Braiding Roses, Lou Willingham

Flash Fiction: We’re Only Braiding Roses

She wove in flowers and baby’s breath into the braid in my hair as I let the tears fall on the plush rug.

“It’s like braiding roses. Beautiful if you can make it work, but watch out for the thorns.”

I let out a sound somewhere between a snort and a sniffle that only makes me wish for a handkerchief. “Couldn’t you just cut off the thorns?”

She’s quiet for a moment as she braids, the feeling of her fingers in my hair soothing despite the terror wrapping like vines around my lungs. When she speaks it’s quiet and I can barely hear, but her reply is without any heart. “It’s a metaphor. You don’t remove the thorns from metaphors.”

We have run out of options. 

“Just mind your words, do as he says, keep yourself sparse until you know what kind of man he is. That’s what I did with your father. Maybe you’ll find yourself lucky.” We both know from the reports from the guards and nobles we’d bribed that this was unlikely, but she holds out hope. Has to for her own sake. I won’t disavow her of the belief, even when it turns out to be false hope. 

He is the worst sort of person, the man I am to marry. Quick-tempered, drunken tirades, a womanizer. A terrible ruler who is likely to run his kingdom into the ground.

But a treaty is a treaty, and my father won’t be moved.

“You’ll write,” she says with finality as she lets the braid drop. “And I will visit, of course.”

“Of course,” I repeat with no vehemence. I stand from the bed and wipe the wrinkles from my dress.

A lamb to slaughter has never looked so beautiful.

He hasn’t revealed his face.

The fact shouldn’t have bothered me, but it does. I had a story I’d run a thousand times in my head, that as they opened the towering doors to the cavernous hall with its cold draft and monstrous tapestries that at the end of that aisle I’d see the face of the man I was to marry, and it would be like a doorway to the life I wanted to live would be locked away forever. A key sliding into a lock and melted away that I could never retrieve.

But even that was forbidden to me. It would be another few hours it seemed, possibly after the wedding itself, when I would see his face, as he wears armor of all things. The tradition isn’t unheard of, but certainly a helmet isn’t necessary.

If the wedding guests are surprised they don’t show it, but then again, who would show surprise at the chosen wedding regalia of a king?

My father walks me down the aisle, me with an unnecessarily long train of blood-red velvet behind me that sweeps up the petals the flower girl has dropped before us. It all seems such a cruel farce that I want to vomit.

When we reached the end, at the moment when he is to give me away, I plead at him with my eyes. He looks back at me with no expression, but pushes away my arm with a strong grip, towards the arms of my suitor. There is no missing his intentions.

The rest of the ceremony passes by at a crawl, each word tiny cuts onto my shivering skin, and I feel a cold sweat along my neck. I want to scream, to choke on my own spit, to run. But I am surrounded by guards that I am sure my father will have no trouble using against me.

“I pronounce you wed. You may kiss your bride, my king.” I can feel the color drain from my lips, but I turn to my husband.

“If it is no offense to the church, I will save that for a more private affair,” my husband says, and I choke back relief, as brief as it will be. Instead, I am lifted by my knees until I am being held in a bridal pose. I squirm and instinctively move my arms to grab at his shoulders, hating myself for the action but wary of falling.

There are chuckles, and then cheering, but then my husband raises his voice to speak over the crowd. 

“I thank you all for coming. As it were, my wife does not look well. I fear the excitement has gotten to her. I would bring her outside so she may breathe before the festivities. Please, welcome yourselves to the dining hall, and we will join you soon.”

The terror is like ice in my veins. We are alone, and I’ve never known fear such as this. “Please,” I start, “let me down.”

We are in a side corridor, far from the wedding party. I know not why we have wandered off so far, but It can’t be for any reason I’d be happy to hear. Part of me wants to at least know my torture before I am to feel it.

“It’s me, Cael! I’m breaking you out of here!” My husband—or is it?—lets me down on my feet, and I turn to the stranger. They remove their helmet with difficulty, and I gasp as their face is revealed.

Mira?!” She is one of the squires, a young woman who I often snuck out to train with as a child, before my father had caught wind of it. We yet spoke though, through coded messages and late-night walks. “If you’re found you’ll be hanged!”

She smiles wide, showing her missing front tooth where one of the knights had knocked it out after she’d scratched his sword polishing it when she was younger. “No one’s going to find out, least not until it’s too late, because we’re making a run for it. I got two horses all ready to go, come on!”

She grabs my arm, and I don’t struggle as we run through corridors, sneaking past guards all the way to the stables where indeed there are two horses saddled and ready to ride.

It’s then that we hear the alarm.

“What’s that?” I ask, sudden suspicion clouding my mind.

Mira scrunches up her nose, baring her teeth and sticking her tongue through where her tooth is missing in amusement. “Probably found the king.”

“What do you mean found the king?”

Mira pushes me up to the saddle and pats my leg. “Well, I had to get to the wedding somehow. I snuck into his quarters and trussed him up like the pig he is. Guess they got impatient and found him.”

I can’t repress the laugher that follows, as Mira mounts her own horse.

When we’re both mounted and ready to go, the alarm of the guard ringing in my ears, I turn to her before chaos falls.

“What if they find us? Where are we going.”

She pats her horse on the neck, and this time there’s no teeth in her smile, only a soft blush and a hint of embarrassment.

“We’re going to Leoria. They won’t mind we’re married there. And you’re royalty. They’ll protect us.”

I raise an eyebrow at her, returning her smile.

“We’re married, are we? We didn’t kiss on it.”

She turns away, her face turning redder by the moment, and I let out a loud, throaty laugh before I kick my horse into a canter, then a gallop, leaving behind the only home I’ve ever known for the only home I’ll ever love.

<Back to Flash Fiction>

Flash Fiction: “Watch Us Fly”

Eleven, he thinks, more than last year, less than the year before. He marks the number on the small spiral-bound notebook that sits on the weathered table next to him. Beside it, a half-full glass of amber iced tea, the many ring stains next to it telling of many such mornings.

The monarch butterflies flit between the flowers of the tall milkweed in the garden in front of him, several yards away but close enough for him to keep an accurate count. The orange of their wings gleam in the light as they flutter around the deep green-veined leaves, a nonsensical dance Kenji can’t begin to understand. He doesn’t try. He enjoys their flight and the crisp floral scent on the breeze, all the same, the light trilling of songbirds nearby their soundtrack. 

The noonday sun has yet to arrive. He knows he hasn’t seen the end to the newcomers—eleven so far today. It had been sixteen yesterday by the time he’d taken the last syrupy sip of his wife’s home-brewed iced tea.

His mornings consist of sitting in his bamboo rocking chair on his covered patio, tallying his monarch butterfly sightings, that he would later upload to the citizen’s science website he frequented on monarch migration. It was a duty he undertook for several years now, to catalog how many monarchs he saw in the spring, summer, and fall on a daily basis, to help track the health of the population. To make a difference.

Kenji had planted the milkweed several years back, nestled in a pristine garden bed complete with a baby blue butterfly house his son had built for him the previous year. He’d learned milkweed was the only plant that monarchs laid eggs on, and was food for their caterpillars; a necessary plant for the species survival. It had been his way of doing more than sitting idly.

The morning ritual had the additional effect of calming him, though as of late there was an undercurrent of worry. Even though the numbers for this year were promising, he couldn’t shake the icy knots in his chest that told him they were fighting a losing battle.

But his family had never been the type to quit. They’d fought losing battles before.

His great grandfather had stood on the shores of America and seen an opportunity, when others had seen him as just another immigrant. His grandfather had left behind the weathered doors of the Manzanar internment camp as a child, returning to a town that no longer saw them as neighbors but as the enemy. His father had become the first of his family to go to college, bringing his family into a new age of financial stability. He himself had become an engineer, ensuring his own children would have opportunities he never had, building his own home from the ground up. And now, his own son, a business owner. A father himself.

Each generation flew further along, passing along the next leg of the journey, just like the monarchs laying eggs in the milkweed, each generation flying towards the fields of Canada. Four, five generations to meet their mark, ever closer to a place they could call home.

Now, as he sits on the whitewashed porch he built, he counts another butterfly, twelve, thirteen, and remembers—the battle may not always be brief, but home is always worth the fight.

<Back to Flash Fiction>

Flash Fiction

Here are a variety of flash fiction stories I’ve written, most of which were written for the Rue|LouPrompts Series.

As for the Bees
She meddled with the order of things she didn’t understand. Now the bees and humanity may pay the price.

Cloud Jumper
What happens when Eziel, Aeria City’s best cloud-jumper, is faced with a choice between the hero’s journey and the status quo. An introduction to a new world like you’ve never seen.

Encore:
Stories are fragile things. I tell the story of my wedding day and what ’till death do you part really means.

Fear Not the Gods
When Gods returned to Earth, they never expected there’d be a war between them and mortals.

Firefly Soul 
They are hard to spot at first. Our souls burn bright like fireflies, and the soulless are only the spaces between. Their absence is harder to impress against the background of stars in my vision.

Flappers & Finches (All That Glitters Isn’t Gold)
A one night stand that should have been more,  but maybe yet could be. AKA, when the peacock and magpie meet.

Framed
Left with the responsibility of clearing out her father’s home, it’s a four-legged, slobbering ball of fur that’s giving her the most trouble. But for how long?

 I’ll Be Your Misfit
They were both misfits, and maybe that was enough. The transformation from fellow outsiders to found family.

Machinations or Ghosts
Lia was there when she needed her. But some things are too good to be true. When Lia is exposed as no longer among the living, is there something otherworldly to blame?

A New Color of Sunrise
In a world where technology has advanced to creating news tastes, smells and colors, it’s the reign of the rich to enjoy them. 

No Roots
A curse takes them one by one. Is there salvation or selfishness left for the final sisters?

On Sunlight’s Edge
There’s always a price to be paid, but is the promise of a legacy worth the cost? Cienna is willing to give, and the witch will grudgingly take.

Sinners and Saints
It wasn’t the ring Jyn had wanted to give Lila, but sinners and murder force their hand.

Sleeping Dogs Don’t Lie
Caleb was left working a dead-end job as a single mistake leaves him at rock bottom. A friendly face may be the key to his revival. But is it so simple?

A Space Between the Stars
“‘You’re as dumb as an ox, Cam.’ He believed them, but felt he was made for more. As the years go by and doubt settles in, Cam makes a decision.

 Watch Us Fly
He tracks the butterflies as their numbers die away, but remembers another losing battle they’d not given up on.

Weather the Storm
An office worked learns that personal rain clouds aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

We’re Only Braiding Roses
A princess forced into a marriage of treaties gets an unlikely savior.

 With the Pieces
When a teenager breaks her own heart—literally—she learns how to fix it.

Flash Fiction: “I’ll Be Your Misfit”

It wasn’t that the dog was ugly, per se.

It’s fur was sparse, mismatched lengths in a mottled grey and brown where it hadn’t been shaved. It’s skin was pink with tiny bumps raised along the shaved areas—the adoption card said it’d recovered from mange. It was medium height, longish but not long, with legs that were shortish but not short. An in between that wasn’t quite enough of either to be cute, but rather came off as odd. In the low light of the shelter, it’s eyes—her eyes, the car said—seemed jet black, like they would suck your soul from your chest. Like she could devour you with just those beady black eyes from where you stood.

Okay. Maybe she was just a little ugly.

But so was he.

He bent down low on his knees, sticking his fingers between the links of the fence. “I’ll be your misfit if you’ll be mine? How does that sound girl?”

She didn’t move. She stayed laying down in her bed, staring at him with those dark, abyss eyes.

Her eyes weren’t black.

He didn’t learn this until the following day, as he sat eating his cereal at his kitchenette table. She’d spent the previous day sniffing through the house room by room, nose to the ground. He’d not been able to shake her from her task.

Today she stared at him—or more likely, his food—with honey brown eyes that melted his heart.

“Where’d those come from?” he asked her, knowing not to expect an answer.

She licked her lips, and he snuck her some toast under the table, even though there was no one to be sneaking from.

He was surprised to learn when her fur started to grow back that the mottled colors were actually a mix of black, white and brown splotches, along with tufts of grey from old age.

By the time it had grown an inch, it looked endearing, and she’d begun to sleep in his bed. When his niece had been spending the night and opened his door to ask for a glass of water, she’d growled at her loud enough to send her running to her bed. He’d tutted at her and left the room to calm his niece down.

When the fur had grown several inches, and she had become fluffy enough for the hair to stick to the couch, Lilah—as he had finally named her—fell asleep on the couch with his niece, and barked fiercely at his brother when he’d come to pick his niece up.

On her adopt-aversary, he went to the local dog bakery to get a special treat for Lilah. He became overwhelmed quickly at all the dog biscuits, peanut butter baked bones, scones, pretzels, and pupcakes, enough that other customers began to take notice.

One in particular took pity on him. The stranger came over, smile wide, shoulders relaxed and held out a hand towards the array. “Having trouble? Want some ideas?”

He let out a sign in gratitude. “Thank you, that’d be a big help. I just adopted Lilah a year ago today, and I can’t decide what to get her.”

The stranger chuckled and nodded in approval. “I love to hear about fellow adopters, and yes, it can be overwhelming. This may sound weird, but all the food can be eaten by dogs and humans, so me and my dog Leto will share a few treats together. The Strawberry Lemon cupcakes are great, so are the Carob Chip and Pretzel Bars. Oh, and we like the Dill Peanut Butter Pretzels. But we’re kind of misfits.”

He smiles, leaning in closer, and hopes that Lilah doesn’t mind sharing.

“I love misfits.”

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