Every now and then, I’m struck with an idea that refuses to expand into a full length tale or go away completely. Many of these short pieces were inspired by flash fiction prompts, others for contests I entered. It only seemed fair to share them and hope they might inspire someone else to start something new.
His news hits me like a brick. I try to lift the cardboard cup to my lips, but my hands tremble. I set it back down so the tea doesn’t slosh over the sides and burn my fingers.
“We both knew this was coming,” Sam says, spinning the coarse material of his hat through his fingers. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise.”
“I know,” I reply. And in a way it doesn’t. It’s expected, and a complete shock all at the same time. Work had kept him from home so often the last couple of weeks. Meetings that ran into the early hours of the morning, weeks of training exercises. It all should have prepared me for this, but I was happy to stick my head in the sand and stay safe behind my wall of denial. “I just didn’t realise it would be so soon.”
We’re sitting in a coffee shop; it’s the middle of a Saturday afternoon and the cafe is busy. Families coming in from the cinema across the parking lot, young couples passing time until the evening show. People whose lives are the same now as when they woke up this morning. Unlike mine, which has now been turned on its head.
I know now why Sam asked me to lunch today. He wanted to tell me the news in public. To make it harder for me to make a scene. Or if I did make a scene, it would be a cardboard cup I threw instead of one of the bone china mugs his mother had bought us as a wedding present four years ago. But I do my best to hide my emotions, still a little numb from the sudden delivery.
“I’m sorry,” he says, as if that will make it better.
My throat closes up and I release a little cough to clear it, swirling my tea in my cup. “How–” My voice cracks and I try again. “How long have you known?”
Sam continues to play with his hat. Under the table his leg jogs up and down, making the surface shake and the contents of my cup ripple. “Since Wednesday.”
This surprises me. Hurts a little bit. For seventy two hours he knew what my future would be before I did. He’d had time to process. To work up the courage to sit me down and break my heart. I didn’t have the luxury of preparation. Anger flares up inside of me and just as quickly fizzes out as I accept his task isn’t an easy one. But it’s kind of nice while it lasts, that anger. A way to start breaking through the numbness that blanketed me up until then.
He reads my reaction, starts to reach for my hand and then pulls back, flexes his fingers around the small brim of his hat. He knows well enough that the smallest act of kindness will break through my weak armour. “I probably should have told you sooner, but–” he swore under his breath, conscious of the children at the table beside us, “I didn’t know how.”
I nod, letting him know that I understand. I don’t know that I do, yet, but I will. I’m sure I will.
“When do you leave?” I ask. The question is so difficult that it sticks in my throat. The idea of him packing his things and walking out—I push the thought from my mind and focus harder on my cardboard cup, forcing myself to release my grip before I bend the cup and splash the scalding contents over my lap. Physical pain to accompany the emotional.
“Tomorrow, I think.”
A small sound escapes my lips before I can prevent it and I have to blink a few times to clear my vision. “That’s soon.”
“I think it’s for the best. Maybe make it a little easier for you.”
I want to scream that nothing will make this easier. That him to stay is what I want. But I bite my tongue and nod again, picturing him alone in a hotel while I take up the whole space of the queen size bed. Horrible for both of us.
“Do your parents know?” I ask. I have to focus on the practicalities. It’s the only way to get through this moment, the hardest part. It will get easier.
He chews on his cheek, shaking his head. “Not yet. Dad suspects. We were talking last night and I gave him a bit of a head’s up. Just so he can prepare Mum.”
“That’s probably smart.”
“I think she’d like it if you kept in touch. She’ll be worried about you.”
I try to force a smile, but I don’t know how successful it is. I can feel my lips shaking as my chin quivers. Trying to hide the unsightly expression, I hide my face with a sip of tea. The warm liquid courses down my throat, down into my belly, staving off the coldness that’s suddenly come over me in spite of the winter sun coursing through the windows beside us, and the masses of people in the closed-in cafe.
“But hey,” Sam pushes out a cheerful tone of voice. “This isn’t forever. I’ll be back before you know it.”
Trust Sam to find try and find the positive of any situation. That’s one of the reasons I fell in love with him. I try my best to match his feigned cheer and again twist my lips into a smile.
“Nine months,” he continues, “and you’ll be back telling me to get my feet off the coffee table and put the clothes away.”
I nod, knowing–hoping–he’s right.
Finally he reaches out and takes my hand. The intimate gesture almost pushes me over the edge, but I won’t cry. Not here. The tears will come later when I’m alone in the house, adjusting to the silence.
“I love you, Liz,” he says.
“Love you, too,” I reply. The words sound stiff, no matter how much I mean them.
At the table next to us, someone’s watch beeps the hour and Sam’s fingers tighten around mine. He glances down at his own watch and I see a glimmer of panic that makes my heart speed up and I hold tighter onto the security blanket that is my tea cup.
“I should go,” he says, although I can see he really doesn’t want to. “We have a briefing this afternoon.”
Another flare of anger twists my guts and threatens to push my misery closer to the surface. Such little time left and they’re stealing precious hours away from me.
“Are you going to be all right?” he asks, setting the olive and brown army cap over his short brown hair.
“Of course,” I manage. “Aren’t I always?”
He smiles and lifts my hand to kiss the back of it. And then he’s gone, and I realise that tomorrow it will be for good. He’ll leave and I will have to find a way to cope. He’ll go off to war and serve his country, and I will smile proudly and watch him go. I’ll stand strong so he can be strong. Because that’s what army spouses do. And sometimes I think that’s the harder job of the two.
Sometimes these short pieces do become something more, but it’s fun to keep their humble beginnings..
Jeff opened his eyes and blinked a few times to clear the crustiness. With a sleep-addled brain he took in his surroundings, and it was only after the third pass over the walls and furniture that he realised he was not in the room where he’d gone to bed.
“What the…” he murmured.
“Ah, so he finally wakes,” a bemused male voice spoke on his left.
“About time,” a female voice added on his right.
Jeff blinked again and turned his head first to one, and then the other. Both shared the same blond hair and green eyes, both with the same dry expression. She was leaning back against the wall in a green dress belted at the waist, spinning a knife in her hands; he was standing with his arms crossed in matching tunic and hose. They both look very familiar, but he had no idea who they were.
“Oh look, he’s confused,” the woman said.
“Shocking,” the man answered.
“Who are you?” Jeff demanded, sitting up and pulling the sheets to his chest as if they would protect him.
“I’m not sure whether we should be offended or unsurprised that you don’t recognize us,” the man said.
“Obviously, though, we’ve found the problem,” the woman grimaced. “After all, no one should know us better than you, Jeff.”
“What problem? What are you talking about? Who are you people?”
The other two exchanged a glance and stared back at him, resignation on their faces, predicting his reaction. “Jasmine and Jared of House Feldall,” the woman answered.
Jeff laughed. “Nice. I don’t know who planned this, but they cast you well.” Some practical joke. Was it April Fools? He threw back the covers and his feet hit dirt floor. He frowned. The joke should have ended at these two, but…he turned to inspect the bedframe.
“Walnut with painted ivy engraving,” Jared said, bored. “We don’t have time for you to figure it out. We need to talk.”
“Impossible. We get it,” Jasmine finished.
“Your characters, we know. You are in Andvell. No, this is not a dream. No, you’re not crazy. Maggie summoned you and we were asked to talk to you.”
“Maggie,” Jeff mumbled, picturing the wizened crone he had created who served as the House’s enchantress. He dropped back on the bed. This was insane. But the ewer on the dresser with the braided pattern, just as he described it. This was too elaborate for a joke – the entire scene was the guest bedroom of Evensong. “Let’s pretend for a moment I buy this. What did you want to talk about? Rafe giving you trouble?” He posed the question with a laugh, but Jasmine’s reaction cut the smile from his face.
“Rafe is hardly the problem,” Jasmine replied, cutting to the heart of the matter. She pushed away from the wall and pulled up a chair. “The problem is your plot. It makes no sense. A year ago, Jared and I killed Raul and the whole village celebrated that he was gone for good. Now he suddenly has a son we need to contend with? He never had a son.”
“And now we’re being pushed to kill this boy, but so far Rafe has done nothing but pace around Fort Artura. What is our motivation other than his blood?”
“Then there’s Christoph. The blacksmith? He woke up the other day with complete archery training and wants to know why he needs a bow.”
Jasmine caught Jeff’s eye. “Look, we know you’re trying hard, but this isn’t going well. It’s like you’re making things up as they go along without any reference to what came before. We’ve put up with the story so far, but you crossed the line with my marrying Corey. Four months ago I was engaged to Brady. I like Brady. Corey smells of cheese. You said that.”
Jeff gathered his thoughts, overwhelmed. “I was writing based on reader suggestion. They wanted a little more drama, more twists and surprises. They liked Raul as a villain and were upset when he died.” Frustration and irritation bubbled in Jeff’s chest. How dare his own characters argue with him?
“Readers will only get you so far, Jeff,” Jasmine soothed. “All of them want something different. All we want is for our lives to be consistent. We don’t enjoy surprises that come out of nowhere.”
Jeff’s shoulders slumped. He’d been stuck for a few days on a reason for the Feldall siblings to go after Rafe, so he knew these two were right.
“We’re only trying to help,” Jared said. “But if you could throw me Tania’s way….And I wouldn’t mind a new sword.”
“Don’t be greedy,” Jasmine scolded her brother. “I’d be happy if our enemy was someone worth fighting. And if I didn’t have to marry Corey.”
Jeff ran his hand through his hair, thinking. “Maybe Rafe could be Raul’s…disciple? Someone he mentored? Either out for revenge or to fill the power vacuum?”
“Better,” Jared nodded.
“And maybe you marry Corey, but since you’re away from home most of the time…” Jeff continued, encouraged.
“No.” Jasmine left no room for discussion.
Jeff sighed and rubbed his eyes. “Fine. I’ll figure something out.”
“Good,” Jared approved. “Now come on. Tania cooked up some venison this morning.”
Jeff’s eyebrows rose. “Tania cooks?”
Jared’s eyebrow rose. “She’s only the best in the province.”
Jeff shook his head again. How was there so much he didn’t know about the people he had created? Inwardly he groaned. This would mean rewrites.
FELDALL FAMILY FESTIVAL
Forget how EVENTIDE ends. Forget the mayhem in the first two books. Just as Jeff was surprised to learn that his characters acted out of standard from how he’d written them, so the Feldall crew are with me. This story has no bearing on what’s to come – it’s just a spot of fun for my readers — and theirs.
Jeff Powell leaned back on the sofa and sipped his Feldallian eggnog, which tasted nothing like the brews back home, full of flavours and spices that didn’t exist in his world.
Maggie Stanwell had cast the Meratis incantation early that morning to summon him, Cassie Murphy, and Venn Connell to Andvell to celebrate House Feldall’s seasonal Festival. He and Cassie had already been down to the stables to see Swish and offer him a bushel of apples as a gift, and Cassie had woven red ribbons in his hair, giggling as Jeff and the bay gelding exchanged bemused glances.
Now he sat with his arm around her shoulder as she rattled a box in her hands.
“What is it?” she asked. “Can I open it?”
Jasmine Feldall laughed. “Of course. That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?”
Jeff glanced around the drawing room, appreciating the tree that reached the ceiling, covered with ribbons and bows and what looked like little glittering marmishes, courtesy of Maggie he suspected. Under the tree sat a mountain of gifts in brown paper—one for every resident of Feldall’s Keep.
“It’s so nice to be with family for the holidays,” he said.
Cassie snuck him a look as she slid Jasmine’s knife under the tied string. “What about your parents?”
“Oh, this is much nicer than being with them.”
He laughed and drank more eggnog.
Three of Maggie’s children—Joseph, Bess, and Thomas, Jeff recalled—chased each other into the room, their shrieks of joy drowning out the horns and strings of the band playing in the corner.
“Jasmine, I love it!” Cassie exclaimed, holding up a needlepoint portrait of the Keep.
“It’s not just me. Maggie had a hand in it as well.”
Cassie went to give hugs, and Jayden Feldall took her place on the sofa. “I didn’t stitch anything for you, Author.”
“Thank you,” said Jeff.
“But here. Me, Brady, and Conrad pitched in to get you this.”
He handed over a small box, and Jeff tore into it with enthusiasm, rolling his eyes when he found a codpiece within.
Jayden nudged his shoulder. “So you’re prepared for your next fight.”
“Thank you,” Jeff repeated, his tone dry.
Brady smiled. “That’s not your real gift.”
He passed over another box, which Jeff opened with less curiosity, although the contents were much more appealing.
The History of House Feldall, by Brady Reed.
Jeff’s eyebrows rose in surprise, and Brady flushed. “I thought I’d try my hand at word dabbling. I hope you like it.”
Before Jeff could express the depth of his gratitude, a cry from Maggie cut through the room.
“Conrad, I love it! You knew I wanted one. Thank you, love, it’s precious!”
The three men looked over to see the enchantress cuddling a pygmy goat, her daughter Bri reaching out to give it a tentative pat.
“It’s not as cute a gift, but I got you something as well,” Brady said to Jasmine, taking her hand. He dropped a key into her palm, and she stared up at him in confusion until he explained, “It’s for the new desk in your office. I know you needed one.”
Jasmine’s face lit up, and she threw her arms around Brady’s neck. Jeff watched on with smug satisfaction.
“The past can make one believe
His actions were justified. Be wary
Of your confidence in dabbling.”
The woman’s voice came over Jeff’s shoulder, and he jumped to see Kay on her own, the first time he’d heard one of the Sisters speak so much at once, even though she kept the rhythmic cadence.
She smiled, winked an emerald-hued eye, and disappeared.
Jeff shook his head, thinking he’d had too much eggnog, but when he turned to set the cup down on the end table, he found Aya sitting there, dressed in silver instead of her usual blue. Her white hair had red ribbons to match the tree, striking against her ebony skin.
“Your present is full of friendship,
And joy. Be grateful for what
You find yourself surrounded by.”
Before Jeff could answer, she faded away as well.
One more to go, he thought, rising to his feet to wait for her.
“What are they up to now?” Venn asked, coming to stand beside him. “Don’t worry, Jayden and Jasmine got me these sweet new daggers, so whatever they throw at us, we can take them.”
She held up the gifts, showing off the balance by resting one on the tip of her finger.
It rose into the air, seemingly on its own, and hovered until a shape took form and a hand appeared around the grip of the blade.
Lan smiled, looking more stunning than ever in a red dress instead of yellow.
“Be not too quick to rush to threats.
The time will come when diplomacy
Is your best recourse.”
Jeff huffed. “You know what, that’s it. Kay, Aya, get back here.”
With tinkling laughter, the other two appeared. Seeing Kay, Jeff noticed her usual light green silk had darkened to a richer shade that matched the tree and caught the copper of her hair. All three Sisters, decked out for the holidays.
“All right, Past, Present, and Future, how about we put you to use for a change. Follow me.”
He led them over to the band, gave a few instructions, and before too long, their sing-song voices filled the room.
“Deck the halls with,” sang Kay.
“Boughs of holly,” continued Aya. “Fa la-la,”
“La-la, la-la, la-la,” Lan took up.
“There,” said Jeff, returning to the sofa with a nod of satisfaction. “That should keep them out of our hair for a while.”
“I’m hungry!” Joseph spoke up. “When’s food?”
“Keep the voice down, little man,” said William, Maggie’s eldest. “The feast will begin shortly, never fear.”
“And what a feast,” said Jasmine. “You should see the roast Jayden went out to get.”
“Me?” asked Jayden, freezing on his way to pour more eggnog. “I asked Conrad to see to it.”
He looked to Maggie’s husband, and the blacksmith shook his head. “You put me in charge of the tree.”
Jasmine’s eyebrow quirked. “You mean there’s no dinner?”
A moment of silence fell on the group that threatened to devolve into chaos, but was interrupted by a timid knock at the door.
“Come in,” said Cassie when no one else spoke.
A white-faced, trembling Tanya poked her head into the room. “Sorry to bother you, but there’s someone at the door. I don’t know – you’ll never guess –”
“Best you let me announce myself then, my dear,” came a voice that left everyone stunned.
Terror filled Jeff’s chest, and in a moment everyone was on their feet, weapons ready. The Sisters vanished, and Maggie clutched her children.
Raul stood in the doorway, his dark attire and courteous smile even more unsettling when contrasted with the cheer of the season.
“I see I’ve surprised you. Good! How could I think about you all here in one room enjoying yourselves and not stop in to say hello and Happy Festival?”
“What do you want?” Jayden demanded.
“Isn’t it obvious?” asked Raul. “I’m here to join the fun!” He pulled off his coat to reveal a bright and colourful sweater, patterned with a warbear in a red hat. “I hope you don’t mind I brought a few things.”
He waved his hand and a line of servants came in with the fixings of a full feast.
“Food!” cried Joseph, breaking free of his mother’s grasp.
Too shocked to react, the entire Feldall clan, including the Sisters who had returned once there proved to be no threat, found themselves swept into the dining room where the table groaned under the weight of the meal.
The silence remained until the children, too young to understand the miracle that had occurred, dug into the feast, Joseph climbing up into Raul’s lap. In the face of the Festival, joy pervaded, and laughter and glee filled the air.
Outside the window, a burst of colour, reds and oranges, filled the sky and then a flash of green as Talfyr circled in the sky.
Raul chuckled. “Now this, my friends, is a Festival.” He raised his glass. “And here’s to the New Year.”
LEAD US NOT
Fever raged. Ice and fire, both burned through her blood until her screams ran out and she could do nothing but lie still, exhausted.
Rayne had no idea how long she’d endured this agony. Time had no measure, day and night no distinction. All she hoped for were those moments of reprieve. They happened on no set schedule, but without warning the pain would ease.
No sound penetrated the empty cabin except for her laboured breathing. And then the voice came.
Your pain can end. Every moment you suffer is your choice. Give in to what we offer and you will be free.
It was a woman’s voice, soft and soothing. Hearing her offer, Rayne knew she preferred the pain. She refused to give in. Her nature demanded she struggle to overcome. Everything she was, everything she hoped to be and achieve-none of it would allow her to succumb to the voice’s wishes.
An angel could not give into temptation.
Foolish child, the voice continued, her tone still smooth and reassuring. How do you see this ending? Do you believe I will release my claim on you in the face of your stubbornness? Your stubbornness is one of the reasons I’m here.
Rayne screamed again, this time out of frustration and not pain. Her will would not be broken with such simple arguments.
Anger fuels you to resist. It makes you strong. Imagine the strength you’ll have once you embrace it completely. Such base emotions were not meant to be denied, to be buried under silly ideals of altruism and kindness. To give to others is to deny yourself and no one should be selfish enough to require that of you.
“It’s my choice,” Rayne mumbled. The fever made it difficult to speak, but the need to say the words aloud helped her push through. “To face you so others don’t have to.”
A hint of the pain returned and Rayne gasped, her fingers gripping the edges of the bed until her knuckles cramped.
The voice laughed. We are everywhere. You think by accepting this trial you suffer alone? You are naive.
“No. I am doing what I was made to do.”
The burning in her veins subsided again and Rayne panted in relief. The voice was silent and for one brief, blissful moment, Rayne wondered if she’d won. Had her words broken the spell of the demon’s influence?
Sweat trickled down her brow and her vision cleared, the room creeping back into view. Through the window on her right, a full moon poured its light over her, a healing light that cooled her skin and made it possible to breathe.
The truth is not yet clear to you, young one, the voice returned. Rayne froze and fought the fear that threatened to clench her heart.
You do not ask how I reached you. For one such as yourself, it should not be so easy to penetrate your mind. Are you not curious?
The fever continued to ebb and Rayne carefully sat up. “I didn’t want to indulge you by asking questions. It doesn’t matter how you got to me, only that I did not give in.”
Your Father gives you many great gifts. Love, protection and the strength to fight darkness from creeping in. So how does such darkness enter your blood so quickly? Do you not see?
“I am being tested, but my will prevails.”
For now, the woman conceded, humour in her words. But do not think I’ve given up. You’ve chosen your Father today, but how long can you deny the wishes of your Mother?
Tomorrow would mark two years since he killed her.
On some days she felt like no time had passed; other days stretched out like decades until she couldn’t look in a mirror without expecting to see age catch up with her.
She looked on tomorrow as a cause for celebration, embracing the hope that the third year would be easier, more endurable. But as much as she clung to wishes, she couldn’t deny the truth – that every day the poison in her heart spread further, consuming more soft tissue in its solidifying power. She could feel the weight in her chest growing heavier, little by little.
Had she known what would happen when he stabbed her with that blade, she would have begged him to make it fast, to end her life outright instead of this slow wither, an existence hardly called living. After the initial shock passed and the bone-deep agony subsided, she had escaped to the Chateau Solitaire – a single tower in the midst of a barren wasteland – to await her future. Only there, miles away from the nearest human being, did she feel connected to the world.
Not that she was alone in her isolation. She had the birds. They flocked to her as if sensing that the healthy flesh on her bones actually concealed something rotting and delicious. Night-black feathers coated the window sills and the stone floors. Their cries, those foreboding quarks and caws, became the sweetest music in her loneliness, driving her closer to madness and holding her back from the brink.
Her empty days consisted of small routines. A morning and evening walk across the cracked and hardened grounds outside the castle, a period of time picking at food she never wanted to eat, and the rest of the time losing herself in the sparkle and flash of the rubies.
Red gems encrusted everything in Chateau Solitaire. Engraved into the furniture, framed in her jewelery, embroidered into her clothes. She had come here with a single stone, one pendant that hugged her neck and served as a constant reminder of everything she had and lost. The birds brought her the rest. As if they understood the comforting heat of the ruby’s inner fire, the flap of raven wings always meant more stones – tribute to her status as their future meal. Carried in beak and talon, they piled their gifts for her inspection and approval, taking away those she discarded for their own nests, as drawn to the glitter as she. The ones she accepted, the ones with the right hue and depth, she scattered about the castle, the confetti of her black and dreary life.
He had promised a world of colour – emeralds and diamonds and sapphires. He spoke of countries where flowers blossomed no matter the season, of years spent together exploring the secret places of the world. She didn’t believe he lied. And maybe that was worse. He meant every single word. Meant them right up until the day he stole his promises back, slid the blade up between her ribs, and cursed her to this living death.
She remembered the pain, remembered thinking her life was over. Then the wise women had told her the horrible truth: her body would heal. And as it did, her heart would gradually turn to stone. She would lose the warmth of blood in her veins, lose her ability to feel.
“You’ll be nothing more than a walking statue, the stone flaking away over time until nothing is left,” they said.
To this Fate he had abandoned her.
Yet she found the pain becoming less intolerable. As she lost the ability to cry, the teardrop gems became her tears; as she lost the ability to feel emotion, their fiery glow became her passion. He had turned her heart to stone. She would replace it with a ruby – something stronger than what she had before, something not so easily destroyed. She would find a way to move on without him.
Written a good many, many years before Frozen came out…
Bianca stared morosely out of her Ice Tower to the fields of snow that stretched out beneath her.
It wasn’t fair. Blue tinged lips twisted into a frown. On paper it had seemed a fair divide in inheritance, yet as another reign approached she felt the looming dread from her people. Not that she didn’t try, but hard as she might it was always her sister receiving the accolades. Why did Vera get all the glory? Everyone loved her, praised her, and complained when she left. No one ever celebrated Bianca’s presence.
It used to be that Bianca was the stunning blonde with sparkling blue eyes, while Vera had been pretty in her own way, with her earthy curls and eyes of mossy green. Then Vera had received her delicate circlet of flourishing vine and become everyone’s best friend, while Bianca’s crown had sparkled and glittered in the sunlight as though covered in diamonds, and everyone had turned saying the glare hurt their eyes.
“My Queen,” Randolph spoke up, interrupting her memories. His voice was rough and husky – the growl of a bear.
“What?” she demanded. Long silver-painted nails gripped the slick cold edge of her window.
“Your troops, my lady, they’re ready.”
Her hands relaxed and a soft smile played on her frozen face. “Good,” she approved and turned to look at her most faithful servant.
His shaggy white coat and matching beard had been swiftly brushed before entering her presence, but still glistened with fresh frost.
“Will I be leading them?” he asked, broad shoulders straightening in his monarch’s freezing gaze.
“No, Randolph, you’ll stay with me. I don’t want to watch my triumph alone.”
He grunted his acknowledgement and approached the window at her gesture. Together they stared down as the heavy gate to the castle swung open, ice cracking off hinges that hadn’t moved in some time.
A smile as bright as sun on snow blossomed on the Queen’s face. Now she would earn respect. Now her sister would see that although she was the favourite, Bianca was the more powerful.
She gave Randolph the nod of command and he lifted his hand from the window to signal the march.
Trumpets blared and the ranks moved out – rows and rows of frostbears, snowsnakes, wolves, and men built of snow, armed with weapons of ice – taking their war south, withering the lush green scene as they passed.
Success was sweet and sharp on her tongue as the Winter Queen watched the masses leave. It would be a long, cold season, hitting early and staying long. Let Vera do what she wanted next summer; this winter would be talked of for centuries.
Now this one…this one might still spark something more one day.
I heard the sound of tape being pulled from skin before the pain set in and my cheeks prickled with the fire of it. I rushed to take in the breath I’d been denied for hours, air rushing into my lungs with panicked gulps as my mind struggled to escape. More tape cut into my wrists and ankles, my fingers and feet long past numb. My eyes were covered as well and I prayed to all the gods I didn’t believe in that he had used something other than tape as a blindfold. Even the thought of it made me want to scream.
So I did.
“Shut up,” he grumbled, closer than I realised or wanted. His breath was wet and hot on my cheek and I turned my head to escape it. The surface under me was hard and cold, cement, and my hands dug into the base of my spine. I rolled away, trying to get relief, to feel something I might manoeuvre to grab, but his hand grabbed my shoulder and pulled me back.
“You know why you’re here. Just give us what we want and you can go,” he said.
“Bullshit,” I answered, and spat on him. He’d made the decision to free my mouth – he’d have to live with the consequences. I heard the rustle of his coat as he wiped his face with his sleeve.
My heart fought against my chest and sweat pooled in my back. I forced my breath into a calming pattern, something that would limit the symptoms of my concern. I was not in a good place, but like hell if I was going to let them see anything other than a woman ready to kick their asses.
I braced myself for retaliation about my behaviour, but he only heaved a sigh and got to his feet, the soles of his shoes scraping against the floor. I turned my head to the side to hear anything else in the room, but there was nothing. It was just him and me. My breath came a little easier. I could deal with one of them. There was the scrape of chair legs on the floor and then his hands were under my elbows, grabbing my waist, lifting me over his shoulder. I thrashed as best I could, but under the bindings there was little effect other than to make me look like a fish. He dumped me onto the chair. It was better than the floor, but my hands still dug into my back.
“Think you could help me out here? Maybe I wouldn’t be so cranky if I was comfortable.”
He laughed. “You’d be cranky if you had a fucking bed of clouds and a Grecian boy feeding you grapes. You can stay the way you are.” Despite his words he came over and yanked the blindfold off. My relief at not feeling tape strip off my hair was only slightly outweighed by the whiplash of the pull.
“Hi John,” I greeted, able to put the face to the voice. His salt and pepper hair curled over his collar, black-framed glasses giving him a more academic look. It wasn’t feigned. He was stupidly smart. And a greedy son of a bitch. “Long time no see.”
“I’m sure you’ve been really broken up about that,” he said and grabbed another chair, flipping it around so he straddled it, arms crossed over the back.
“You and I always got along well enough,” I shrugged. “That time you chased me through the woods with your hunting rifle? That was good times. Almost as good as when you killed your best friend for some stupid relic. Remember that? Fun as a fourth of July barbeque.”
“You made this a lot more difficult than it had to be, Annabel. It’s not like you can get the relic now without me tracking you down. And it’s definitely not like Eddie’s coming back from the grave to claim it. Why not just tell me where he hid it?”
“Sure,” I said. “You caught me, I guess it’s only fair that you win everything. Then I’ll just get a job at Starbucks and think of you on your eighty foot yacht, while I don’t even have a husband because you took him from me, too. Yeah, I don’t think so, Johnny. You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?”
John shook his head. He took off his coat, folded it and leaned over to set it on the stainless steel table. Then he set to work rolling up his shirt sleeves.
“And what did you think, Annie? That you’d just spit on me and refuse to talk and I’d give up and let you go?” He stood and walked around me, leaned into my ear and whispered. “You think Eddie didn’t try that?” My throat clenched and I swallowed hard, holding tightly onto the rage that had kept me going for the past three months. “Now, I’m curious. Maybe the truth is that Eddie didn’t tell you anything, either. Which makes me wonder – was he trying to protect you? Or did he not trust you?”
We all knew what was coming; the signs were everywhere. The wingless creatures had disappeared days ago, bothered by the tingle of energy, the static before the storm, and the air had become so dry it was difficult to breathe, my skin coarse and flaky. And then, of course, there was the dream. We had all shared it the past few nights, the details described as whispers, soft as breezes. Lush fertile grass against a rough discoloured sky, clouds of black birds fleeing, blocking out the sun – and always the sense of someone watching, something we could not escape.
Some of my neighbours were afraid, trembling in their desire to flee, panicked that they could not escape. I stood strong and was not afraid. It ran through our veins, the knowledge that this could happen. No one knew when – decades or centuries might pass before it recurred – but there was no way to avoid it.
“A natural cycle,” Grandmother Birch had whispered, her fingers reaching out to stroke mine. “A change to be embraced.”
Her parents had grown out of the wreckage of last time, and it gave me hope that no matter what happened, it would not be the end but the start of something greater. Something strong and lasting like Grandmother Birch. Part of me was almost excited – not for what would happen to me, but what it would mean for the future. I could let myself ease into the wind and imagine, a hundred years from now, how perfect everything would be. So I braced myself.
The first rumble of thunder rolled across the sky, and prickles ran across the dryness of my skin. Lightning struck a few yards away and I felt ground buzz at my feet. The air took on a tanginess, like fruit without the sweetness. Despite my intention to be strong, my limbs trembled. Grandmother swayed closer with the wind to soothe me.
“Be not afraid, my seedling,” she said, a name she had called me all my days. “It’s all part of Her cycle.”
Another lightning strike and Grandmother Birch was no more than a blackened husk, her roots crackling with the glow of fire. Above my head, the birds took flight and rose like feathered clouds to black out the sun. I reached my limbs up to follow them, my last grasp of freedom before the flames licked across the brush and swallowed my roots, climbing my trunk to consume me. Around me my whole world burst into light, and the cycle came to a close. But it would restart, rejuvenated with what we left behind, and the forest would revive, new and whole.
Foster kids took a whole different kind of guardianship, and I’d been assigned to this home for almost seventeen years. Ten years spent observing, learning, and another seven spent watching over every kid who came through the front door. Orphaned, diseased, homeless, drugged out, there was nothing I hadn’t seen or done my best to help them through. Not all of them were a success, and the failures lived heavy in my heart, but the ones that made it – they were what made it worthwhile. Used to make it worthwhile. I was burned out, exhausted, didn’t care if the next kid went off to a happy home or disappeared to get hooked on the next big social drug. Nope, by the time Roxie walked through the front door, I’d had enough.
And God knows she didn’t make it easy for me. That Roxie was a hellion and a half for all her eight years, the soft brown pigtails and bright smile full of sweet innocence – all lies. I knew she would be my responsibility the first time she threw a spoonful of mashed potatoes across the table and tried to blame it on the cat. I always got stuck watching out for those kinds of kids. The real troubled ones. The ones that needed my help more.
And she attached herself to me. Travis, the big brother who didn’t care if she brushed her teeth or made her bed. She made my life Hell on Earth and I didn’t have the energy to make behave. She was a stubborn little brat, always ready to stamp her foot and put on the crocodile tears. I found it easier to let her do what she wanted. Her and this ratty teddy bear she always carried around. Its name was Teddy.
“Teddy’s kind of a common name, isn’t it?” I asked her one day. We were sitting out on the front yard in the shade of a big tree. She wanted to go to the park, but I wasn’t in the mood to take her. “Shouldn’t you think of something a little more creative?”
She swung Teddy at my head. “I didn’t choose it. Teddy’s his name.”
“Whatever,” I replied.
“Let’s go to the park,” she insisted, pulling on my arm.
“You can go,” I said, pulling my arm back.
“I don’t want to go by myself. I need you to push me on the swing.” She pulled again.
“You have legs. Push yourself.”
“Please?” she begged, and hugged Teddy close to her chest, staring up at me with large brown eyes that seemed to express all of the pain a wounded child could muster. It was a look I’d seen more than enough times, yet somehow it still worked.
“Fine,” I gave in and got to my feet. “Twenty minutes and then we’re back here, you understand?”
She gave an emphatic nod and ran ahead. I wasn’t worried. She was easy to keep in sight and the park was only a few blocks away. When she got close to the corner I called for her to stop and wait. She didn’t listen, caught up in her skipping steps.
“Roxie, get back here!” I shouted. She heard me, I know she did because she turned back to look at me with that grin on her face before she continued on.
The light turned green and I picked up the pace, wanting to yank her out of the road and threaten to take her back home unless she followed instructions. She was in the middle of the street now and my heartbeat quickened. With irritation, I told myself. She knew she was supposed to come back.
As I watched she tripped and her bear fell to the ground. She stopped to pick him up and I saw the SUV come around the corner. The light was still green and the car wasn’t slowing down.
“Roxie, get off the road! Come here!” I yelled as I started to run. She didn’t react quickly enough to my warning, slowly straightening up and looking over her shoulder. She screamed and I barrelled into her, throwing Roxie, Teddy and myself clear of the road as the SUV sped by, horn blaring. I held the girl and the bear tightly in my arms as I gave my blood a chance to settle. Tears pooled in my eyes and I used my shoulder to wipe them away.
Roxie stood up and stared down at me, but I hung on to her, hands gripping her arms. “That’s why you’re supposed to listen to me. You scared me half to death. What were you trying to do, Roxie?”
And suddenly looking at me through Roxie’s eyes was someone entirely different. Someone so much older, so much other. “What I came here to do, Travis. To remind you how much you care.” She leaned in to kiss my cheek.
The ground under my paws is cold and hard, but I stop myself from shifting my weight and hunker down in the soft green leaves that hang heavily from the grey vine. I am unseen as I watch my prey – a black shadow that stalks and hides in plain view. The beast is too distracted by its washing to notice me, and I can afford to be patient. My stomach tells me I’m hungry, but I’m not desperate. This meal will be too sweet to rush.
Finally it’s done and the long-legged creature steps out of the water, shaking to dry itself. I shy away from the spray but refrain from cleaning the damp spots on my fur. This close, I don’t want to give myself away. The beast preens itself, unmatting its fur, making strange noises in its throat that soothe and frustrate me. I need to concentrate. I wait until it’s finished and begins to walk away. It thinks its safe as it walks towards its nightly resting place, but then I pounce, aim for the ankles. My teeth sink into the creature’s leg, my paws gripping tightly to make sure it can’t escape. But it’s stronger than I think. It screams and struggles and I lose my grip. I prepare to strike again and then I’m not on the ground anymore, but hanging in the air, looking down on the beast, my dinner.
“Oh, you crazy cat,” my human says and lets air out loudly from her throat. She carries me towards her resting place and climbs inside the soft cave until only her head and arms show. She holds me tightly against her stomach.
“My sneaky panther,” she says quietly and a satisfied purr builds in my chest. I nestle down and close my eyes. That’s right, I am Panther.
RANT FOR THE UNREQUITED
The longing tears you apart like glass. It works its way into you until you can’t breathe and your very muscles ache with what you can’t have. The loneliness seeps into your skin like dampness until you shiver and shake. The arms that should be around you but aren’t, you feel them like a burn that makes you want to scream and tear your hair – but what can you do? They tell you “you can do anything you want”, but it’s a lie. You can’t force other people to want you, to love you, to be there for you when all you want to do is hold them. Other people are not tasks, they’re not goals. You’re just stuck wanting them. How can so much pain not leave visible scars? It should. It should make you bleed from the eyes and the ears and leave gaping holes in your chest and gut – since that’s where you feel it the most. But to look at you, no one would know that you’re plagued by this pain. That the fingers of desire keep niggling in your brain until you can’t focus on anything else. So why do we do this to ourselves? Why bother with the pain when we could shut ourselves off and be safe from it? The horrible truth is that we do it because it feels good. Because despite all of the hurt, and despair, and clumps of hair being pulled out, there’s a sense of euphoria that it COULD happen. The hope that drives us that the possibility is out there, all that’s waiting is the opportunity. Because all you need is that one moment – that right moment that changes your life and turns it from something black and dreary and full of echoes of your own heart bleeding – into something beautiful and whole.
“The night Santa went crazy, the night Kris Kringle went nuts…” The kids screamed Weird Al from the backseat and Carole did her best to smile and bop her head along to the music with them.
It had been a long drive, but Gammy Muriel’s house was finally in sight and soon Carole would be able to deliver her sweet precious monsters to her parents and break open a bottle of wine.
The SUV slid into the immaculately shovelled laneway and Molly and Brad, ages six and ten, didn’t even wait until the engine shut off before jumping out and running to the front door.
“Gammy! Gammy!” they shouted, and barrelled against the welcoming legs of their grandmother who stood waiting for them in the doorway.
“Look at you both! You’re huge! Come on inside, there’s cookies and a big glass of milk waiting for you on the table.”
The kids whooped and disappeared in the warmth of the house while Carole unloaded suitcases from the trunk. Muriel stepped around the back to help her, her sweater wrapped close around her.
“Brr,” she shivered. “How was the drive?”
“Long,” Carole sighed and gave her mom a tight hug.
“And how are you?”
Carole shrugged and focused once more on unpacking the vehicle, piling backpacks and tote bags on her arms. Muriel grabbed the remaining Dora the Explorer and Spiderman suitcases and wheeled them to the front of the house.
“Well you’re not allowed to be depressed in my home. It’s been a year, it’s Christmas Eve, and you’re surrounded by people who love you. Think you can crack a smile for that?” Her mother’s words were harsh, but her eyes belied the lecture. Carole gave a pathetic attempt at a grin and Muriel rolled her eyes, pushing her inside.
“Go eat some cookies.”
That night around midnight, Carole woke up. She wasn’t sure what had woken her – there were no children to be seen or heard and she couldn’t remember any bad dreams. For a moment she lay in the darkness and felt tears trickle out the corners of her eyes. Every day since Tom left had been hard, but Christmas was proving even more so.
She heard a noise from downstairs, the sound of tree ornaments shaking. Is that what had pulled her out of her sleep? She frowned. It was probably Brad trying to sneak a peek at his presents. Hopefully he hadn’t corrupted Molly, too.
Carole pushed the covers off, pulled on her robe and went downstairs to the living room – to see a man in a red suit dancing with their tree.
“Excuse me?” she asked, fear struck in her heart. Was he trying to steal it? Some thief dressed as Santa?
“Huh?” the man turned around, staggering on unsteady feet. “Who’re you?”
Nope, just a drunk in the wrong house. “I think you may have gone through the wrong front door, buddy. This is Muriel and Kevin’s home.”
“Oh! Muriel, I like Muriel, she makes good cookies. Who’re you?” It was a trifle difficult to understand him through his slurry words.
“Carole,” Carole replied, her mouth a thin line. She wanted him to leave before he woke up the kids.
“Carole, hi, I’m Dan. Sing with me, Carole. Your sister can sing too, I like twins.” He grabbed her hand and spun her around in a stumbling waltz. Carole tried to push him away, but not too hard. Her goal was get him gone, not angry. “Rudorf the lead-nosed reindog,” he sang. “Tha’s not right, does that sound right to you?”
“Not exactly,” Carole agreed.
“Wait – who’re you? This isn’ my house. Oops.” He let go of her and scrubbed at his fake Santa beard. “You’re a good dancer and pretty.”
“Thank you,” Carole played along. “Now how about you go home and sleep this off?”
“Yeah, tha’s a good idea. Nice to meet you, Annie.”
He shuffled to the front door and out into the snow. Carole watched him leave with a shake of her head and shut the door behind him.
“I can’t believe it,” Muriel sputtered over her coffee the next morning. Molly was entertained by her new plastic ponies and Brad by his army men. Kevin sat reading yesterday’s paper and Carole sat with her mother at the kitchen table. “Dan Sutherland, our neighbour. He was playing Santa at the hospital charity party last night. Apparently he got so drunk he stepped on the fake presents, tripped on a child, kissed a nurse and walked all the way home from the hospital. It’s strange, he’s always been so polite – and chairman of the Board at the hospital!”
A laugh burst through Carole’s lips – a full, deep refreshing laugh at the reminder of last night’s visitor.
“Mom? What’s so funny?” Molly asked. She couldn’t remember seeing her mother laugh that way before.
“Nothing, honey,” Carole grinned. She leaned back in her chair and began to sing softly to herself, “The night Santa went crazy; the night Kris Kringle went nuts…”