Challenge (Are You Game?)

A teacher friend of mine, the very talented Katlyn, wrote this wonderful flash fiction piece as a response to a picture prompt. As soon as I heard her read it I knew I had to post it here. So very appropriate for a romance writer’s blog. But let’s turn it into a challenge of sorts. Read her wonderful, spicy story and finish it. No longer than one thousand words and keep it clean(ish). You can post it in the comment section or link it to your own blog. Your choice.

The picture prompt was Norman Rockwell’s “At  the Breakfast Table” . Thank you Katlyn  for allowing me to share it. Enjoy (I know I did).

Breakfast by Rockwell

The restaurant was more crowded than he would have hoped. “Drat,” he mumbled as he waited, cursing his decision to meet here. He knew she would be looking for a man with a hat and a copy of yesterday’s edition of The Post, but he guessed she would not expect him to be fully hidden by it. Oh well, desperate times and all.

He attempted to read, but was too distracted by the bustle of the cafe and his anticipation of what was to come.

Soon he felt a presence, and was torn between remaining fully camouflaged by the paper and sneaking a glance around it. He opted for the safe alternative- a glance downward.

He noticed  the billowing of a floral dress, a pair of black stiletto heels approaching him at a somewhat alarming rate. The chair across from him moved and then settled. Her leg tapped his underneath the table. He blushed.

He could feel her leaning in. She whispered  through the still expanded paper, “Having second thoughts?”

He tried to stop his hands from trembling. Discretion was his first priority, and a shaking newspaper was far from silent. “Only about the location,” he whispered back. His necktie felt suddenly tighter. He loosened it. Then, with a sudden bout of bravado, he breathed, “Where can we go?”

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Fourth of July Giggles (or Chuckles)

A fellow writer posted a seriously amusing short piece on the NaNoWriMo facebook page and I just thought it was too good not to be shared. So with his kind permission, here it is (I gave it a title because I’m a little OCD about that–I hope  you don’t mind):

A Fourth Re-Enactment

by Joseph Kennedy

Boston_Tea_Party_w

“Kids, it’s July 4th. You know what to do.”

“Fill the bathtub, and dump the tea in there.”

“Yep. Let’s get on with it.”

“Dad, you know mom gets pissed when we do this.”

“Recognizing our heritage is important. I’ll make it up to her.”

“The tea party took place in December. How about we leave her the ginseng?”

“All the tea.”

“It’s from Korea!”

“Okay. But then we’re adding the English muffins. Run down to the kitchen and get them.”

“Mom’s in the Kitchen with your six pack of Samuel Smith’s, a bottle opener, and standing next to the sink. She said it’s your move.”

“Damn. Okay kids. The Tea party is off.”

“Dad, the founding fathers wouldn’t have given in so easily.”

“Sam Adams had his own brewery.”

Metaphor

The darkness was thick around her. In her small cocoon of candlelight, she sat on the cold hard floor, eyes lost in thought staring blindly at the candle. The wax oozed and pooled in the palm of her hand singeing her skin and yet, she didn’t blink, didn’t stir; it was the pain inside of her she felt, not the puny sting of hot wax in the sensitive skin of her fingers.

Her mind was in such turmoil, she couldn’t tell where the pain started and she ended. It was all entwined, pain enmeshed in her awareness, in a big ball of barbed wire, scraping and pulling at the edges of her sanity.

In her state of numbness (madness?) she looked at the melting candle and saw meanings, symbols for everything she was feeling, all that had somehow become her life. The darkness that surrounded her in itself held an ominous meaning, akin to the darkness in her heart at that moment, the bitterness that soured her thoughts, the desperation that caused her frightening thoughts and desires.

Where had everything gone wrong? She had been happy, really happy. From the depths of her aching heart she dug up memories of the happy child she had once been, loved and protected, full of dreams and hopes; memories of her as a young woman still innocent enough to believe that love healed all, that with the right attitude anything could be achieved, that happiness was a choice. Where had that woman go? Why hadn’t she taken her with her?

The pool of melted wax in her hand reminded her too much of all her own crushed dreams, her obliterated hopes; a giant blob of shapeless, useless matter lingering around and crusting over as it settled into its new shape. She felt a sob climbing up from deep within her.

`The candle was shriveling to a stub, an insignificant nothing much like her. She had wanted to be someone; not a star, not rich. Someone who made a difference in the world, however small. Someone respected and acknowledged. Yet, here she was much like the candle, small and inconsequential. Nothing she touched seemed to have left a mark of any significance. Her marriage had been a failure. Her career a disaster. Her children had grown up to be exactly the opposite of what she had hoped and strived for.

Memories took her back to high school, the least happy time in her childhood. There, she had been either bullied or invisible.  Sometimes both at the same time. She had thought – hoped- her adult years would be different. But the bullying never really stopped, it just changed its form. As an professional adult she was bullied by her boss and her colleagues. As a wife and a mother she was bullied and ignored by her spouse and her kids. Then bullied by those who are quick to dish out judgement. Even her friends bullied her one way or another. Nobody respected a doormat and that’s exactly what she had become. Her need to please and keep the peace was more often than not misconstrued as a weakness. Her friends thought her to be week and pliant and, in spite of often taking advantage of those characteristics themselves, dismissed her as a push-over.

The silence brought on for the lack of electricity was oppressive. As oppressive as her sense of isolation and loneliness. No-one really understood. No-one really cared.

Amidst it all, she was starting to believe it; she was beginning to think that she was indeed a weakling, a characterless human form that served no purpose, an extraneous existence. The candle in her hands wavered and danced. She longed to snuff it out, to snuff all of it out. To allow the darkness to take over everything, to take over her for good. End of story.

The lights flickered into existence again at that moment, inundating the space around her with brightness and color, snapping her off her dark reverie. The sob stuck somewhere in her chest was swallowed. She blinked, allowing her eyes to adjust to the sudden brightness and then she snuffed the flame out. Only the candle. This time.

The Garden

The garden was overgrown now. What had once been tidy and organized was now a mess of greenery and flowers growing in every direction, crawling up trees and stone walls, creeping along and across the pebble path, and sticking out from crevices and holes. It was chaotic and beautiful. Paradoxically, her penchant for order loved this garden and all its chaotic beauty.  The part of her personality that did not allow her the freedom to just let go had no control over the way the ivy invaded the garden or the way the purple thyme spread on the lawn wafting a delicious scent that mingled with the confusion of other wild perfumes in the air. And that suited her just fine!

She loved the lizards that skittered along the grass, fast as bullets, and the toads that sang in their deep voices under the shadow of the daisies and the gardenias; the magic flight of the butterflies sipping from the Princess Earring flowers like dancing fairies and the quiet buzzing of ladybugs’  fluttering wings. Sometimes a bunny or two would hop from behind the overgrown bushes with their tiny pink twitching noses. This was a magic world that was only hers and yet, did not belong to her at all, tangible and elusive all at the same time. That garden was like an extension of herself, a side of her that would not be controlled by her need for order and, therefore, a part of her that was at peace with the world.

At first, it had bothered her as she lost control of the weedy flowers and the rebellious creepers. But now sitting there in the middle of all confusion she was at peace. The garden spoke to her in a way that almost made her believe in a better world, a world of beauty and quietness, a world where all her worries and strife dissipated.  Her mind relaxed, her muscles softened and her life became bearable again. Hope flooded her whole being and for this alone she loved her overgrown garden, her refuge, her haven.

Sir Lancelot and the Big Heist

I started writing this as a response to one of Chuck Wendig’s challenges; a genre mash-up. I rolled a “caper” and “Arthurian legend”. I had fun with this piece until I got stuck with the ending. I think I finally came up with a reasonably acceptable ending (can you tell I am still not 100% happy with it?). Here it is with all its flaws. A just-for-fun piece of flash fiction. I hope you enjoy it at least a little bit.

************

Sir Lancelot was livid. How could such worthy Knights of the Round Table be so dumb? Glancing over the line of disheveled men in various stages of dishabille, Lancelot dropped his arms alongside his body and sighed deeply. Then, he closed his eyes as if he had a headache and remained quiet for a few seconds longer.

The Knights shifted their weight from one leg to another in anxiety as they exchanged worried looks. “Does anyone care to explain to me what the hell went wrong?” Lancelot’s fine modulated voice was heard. The Knights all stood at attention trying to avoid the famous Knight’s eyes.

Sir Erec stepped forward hesitantly. “Well, we did what you asked us to do…” A couple of the other men were waving their heads in warning.

Lancelot closed the distance between them in a wink of a eye and with his face right next to Sir Erec’s face yelled, “What I told you to do? Really??? I don’t remember telling you to botch the whole mission.”

“Things just went seriously wrong, Sir Lancelot” the other knight whimpered. “It wasn’t our fault.”

“Now, you are going to whine like a little baby and blame your failure on something else?” Lancelot yelled, spittle flying from his mouth. “What kind of knight are you?”

Palamedes’ dark figure stepped forward. “Sir Knight, there is a perfectly good explanation for what happened, I assure you.”

Eyes like daggers, Lancelot turned his attention to the tall Saracen. “I can’t wait to hear it,” he growled. “Tell me!”

There was no getting around the fact that things had gone terribly wrong. It had started with a silly idea and gone downhill from there. Sir Lancelot had dreamed that the magic sword, Excalibur, had been brought back from the depths of the lake to him. Arthur himself had appeared to him in this dream and told him he was destined to follow in his footsteps and be the one saving Camelot from total ruin. That’s when he decided to send his fellow knights to retrieve the fabled sword. In retrospect, it had been a bad idea from the get-go. What had made any of them think stealing Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake was a good idea?

Several of the Knights of the Round Table gathered by Sir Lancelot’s house in armor and carrying their most trusted swords that very day. The famous group of valiant warriors left at a gallop leaving a trail of dust behind them. Their banners flapped in the wind and their beautiful regal horses seemed to fly rather than trot through the forest that stood between them and their destination. They hadn’t been on a quest in a long while. In fact, after King Arthur passed their adventures had dwindled to practically nothing and they missed the rush of the battle and the pins-and-needles of the unknown. This new quest was a heaven-sent. Or so they thought in the beginning.

Once they arrived to the bank of the lake, one thing became immediately apparent; how in heaven’s name were they to accomplish their mission? The sword was well-guarded under the waters. Protected by magic, Excalibur would not be easy to retrieve even under the best conditions. Underwater even worse.

“One of us has to dive in,” Palamedes suggested glancing at his companions. “I can’t swim.”

The only knight who could at least stay afloat was Erec. In spite of his reluctance, he was therefore voted to be the one diving head-first into the murky waters of the magic lake. Unfortunately, neither the knight in question nor the others thought the action through and Erec jumped in the lake fully armored. Chaos ensued as the poor knight, heavy with metal, started immediately to sink. Sir Palamedes realizing that if nothing was done, his companion would perish under those waters, stripped all his metal wear and jumped in to help the unfortunate warrior struggling to keep his nose out of the water.

“Hey, I thought you said you couldn’t swim!” One knight exclaimed in surprise.

“I just didn’t want to go into this freezing water,” Sir  Palamedes confessed paddling himself closed to the troubled knight and grabbing hold of his breastplate, pulled him as hard as he could toward the bank. The two knights cold and out of breath pulled themselves into solid ground and laid there exhausted.

What could they do now? They realized they had no real plan and thus, they must come up with something on the fly. One knight suggested to fill the lake with stones until it was so full, the sword would most likely surface. This idea was quickly discarded. Another knight thought that maybe they should call to the Lady of the Lake and when she surfaced, grab the sword and run. Someone else pointed out that considering the Lady was a powerful magical being, this may not be the wisest thing to do.

They stood by the lake for a few hours mostly scratching their heads and trying to make sense of a situation that seemed hopeless. Until one of them exclaimed, “Merlin!”

They all stared at the knight who had uttered those words and silence descended upon them for a few moments. Then, Sir Percival threw his arms up in the air and exclaimed, “That is pure genius! Of course, why didn’t we think of this before? Merlin is all-powerful. He can easily get Excalibur for us.”

The whole forest was abuzz with excitement. They would call for Merlin, the powerful wizard who had been the King’s friend and advisor all those years ago. He would certainly see the value of Lancelot’s vision (because surely that dream was not a mere fancy of the sleeping mind) and help them retrieve the magic sword.

Two of the knights left shortly after to seek the mage while the others put up camp close to the lake and prepared to stay the night. They waited for a whole week and then another. The knights never returned. Despondent and desperate, the knights decided to do the unthinkable; call for the Lady and demand she give them the sword.

The awesome Lady of the Lake surfaced with a great splash of waters, creating waves and rivulets. She looked around her with eyes full of annoyance and found the disgruntled band of knights. “How dare you, lowly knaves to disturb my winter nap?” she boomed.

Shaken by her sudden and no-so-happy appearance, the knights stood shaking in their armor not quite sure of what to do next. Sir Erec took a step forward and said, “Forgive us O great Lady of the Lake. We came to besiege you to hand us Excalibur to take to Sir Lancelot.”

The magic woman had no reaction at first but a few moments later she roared with laughter. “Give you Excalibur? Why would I ever do that?”

“Sir Lancelot had a vision, milady,” the Saracen ventured in turn, “King Arthur spoke to him and told him to take the sword and put Camelot together again.”

The laughter ceased but the look on her face spoke volumes of her obvious amusement. “Vision you say? Or wishful dream?” she said in a dangerously low voice. “King Arthur is dead and dead men do not speak. He entrusted me with Excalibur and no-one will take it from me.”

“But…” Sir Erec began but never finished. The Lady waved her hand above her head and produced a huge wave that swiftly rolled toward the knights’ like a bowling bowl toward the pins.

“Begone!” she yelled in a booming voice before diving into the deep waters of the lake and right before the wave exploded above the knights’ heads leaving them soaked and shivering.

Thus, the bedraggled knights in not-so-shinning armor returned to their master to deliver the news of their doomed mission. A low rumbling laughter echoed through the air reaching and following the disgraced knights all the way home, their dreams of glory crushed and their egos humiliated.

Now, faced with an enraged and disappointed master they felt their shame burrow into their chests like a sharp dagger. Heads hanging down, hands clumsily clutched behind their backs, feet shifting nervously under the weight of their rusted armor the knight weathered the noble knight’s rage and flying spittle. A prolonged silence embolden them enough for a quick peek; Sir Lancelot’s anger seemed to be finally sated as he stood before them. “Why are you looking so distressed?” he asked them. “Nothing happened that won’t be fixed by a night of drinking and wenching. So what are you waiting for men? Let’s go!”

With those words, Sir Lancelot’s prophetic vision joined ranks with all of the other misconstrued dreams of the world’s great men and was forever forgotten both by the great knight himself and the rest of humanity.

The Artist (Flash Fiction)

The ceiling plaster peeled like it had been sunburned and great gaping holes appeared to spread along the surface as mold on old cheese. Rusted chairs collapsed on their sides and the once magnificent figures in the murals along the bottom of the stage were marred beyond recognition by the merciless passing of time. The curtains on the rotting wooden stage, threadbare and frayed, were faded to a non-descript hue and looked like they would vanish in a big poof of dust should anyone touch them.

The artist, standing in the back of the theater, didn’t see the ugliness that others saw. As his eyes roamed toward the ceilings, the frescoes of gods and goddesses of old mythology looked back at him with the haughty stance of the immortal. Exquisite chandeliers hung from the ceilings, a glorious shower of crystal, gold leaf, and glittering silver over opulent scarlet velvet seats standing straight and tall like royal members of the audience.

The artist’s eyes saw murals of vibrant color and unpaired beauty adorning the low wall along the stage and shiny hard wood flooring, rich and warm in color, sleek to the touch of the tiny ballerina feet that had once graced it with their pointes. The curtain fell toward the stage floor in a grand cascade of ruby red velvet, an artificial but enchanting night sky studded with sparkling man-made stars.

He walked slowly across the theater of his dreams, his work of art, his masterpiece. Hands brushing the backs of the chairs in a gentle caress, the artist reveled in the familiarity and intimacy of that touch, the memories it stirred, the feelings it inspired. Slowly as in a trance, the artist climbed the stage steps and came to rest center stage, staring blindly into the ghost audience of bygone days. There he stood for a few minutes, motionless and silent as if channeling the spirits of the past.

Like a wisp of smoke, he suddenly slumped to the floor and curling himself into a ball, the artist wept. Life had gone by so fast, he had barely had time to live, shoved from one day to another by a torrent of events he could not control any more that he could control the earth’s movements. He was not afraid of dying but terror filled his heart at the thought of leaving this world without having made his mark; something left behind to remind the world of his existence however brief, a memoir of his talents however fleeting. His then young skillful hands had painted those walls and adorned the arched ceilings with loving attention and infinite patience; innocently believing it would outlast him and others after him. Believing it would give him immortality.

But here he was now, old and pathetic, fingers deformed by arthritis, spirit broken by the knowledge he was to be forgotten as soon as his heart stopped beating. Nothing left to remind the world he had once sat in that theater amongst his own works of beauty, passion galloping through his veins, dreams of immortality dancing in his head. Now he writhed on that rotted and splintered floor, sobbing amongst eternity lost. Life was gone, snuffed away like a candle, remorseless and cruel. No one would ever remember his name.

Confession- Flash Fiction

How could he? How could he ever have done what he did and live to talk about it? Or not talk about it as it was the case. He had never meant to hurt her in any way. Hell, he didn’t even know of her existence when it all went down. Maybe it would be better to leave things the way they were. Ignorance is bliss people say; maybe he should just keep on not-talking about it. She would never know and he- well, he would feel remorse eating him from the inside out for the rest of his life every time he looked at her beautiful trusting face. He did not want to mar that innocence, break that fragile veneer of trust she carried in her heart. On the other hand, what kind of man would he be allowing her to love someone whom she most likely would hate if truth be known? He had a list of things he needed to do. The very first thing was always “confess”. Every day it went unchecked. He just couldn’t make himself do it.

Most of the items in the list had been checked quickly. Establish a fund for the child, checked! Quit drinking, checked! Get a solid job, checked! But confess? That was by far the hardest. Quitting his drinking habit hadn’t been so tough. He was not really an alcoholic. Not yet anyway. He did not depend on the drug and didn’t even crave it.  Some people ate comfort food or indulged on ice cream to make themselves feel better. He drank. But he didn’t miss it enough to drive him crazy. Alcohol had got him into this mess and he sure wasn’t going to allow a substance to mess with his life again. The job was a little harder considering his criminal record. Even a misdemeanor was frown upon by most employers and having a master’s degree did not hold a candle to the fact he had spent a few months in the clink. It didn’t matter he was innocent –well, mostly. Eventually he did get a good job, a job that against all odds not only paid well but one he thoroughly enjoyed. The child fund had been easy to set up once he was actually making money. A good chunk of his wages went straight to the fund. No questions asked.

Confessing was so much more complicated. He didn’t expect her to be this amazing; a creature of beauty inside and out. A heart of gold, generous to a fault, Layla was so much better than him. If humans were sorted by value, he would be on the very bottom with the grubs while she would be up with the angels. Best of all, and for reasons he himself couldn’t explain, she loved him. And he loved her for it. He loved her with a passion and a depth he didn’t know he was capable of. Everything that was him belonged to her now. Not because she asked but because he couldn’t help himself. Body and soul, he belonged to her and just like the air he breathed, he needed her. Layla made him a better man, one he could actually respect… but the secret lurked around every smile, every moment of tenderness. He knew he had to confess but didn’t know how.

How would he tell her without snuffing that brilliant light shining from within her? The darkness in his heart was for him to carry alone. And yet, he must share some of his demons with her if he was to confess. No matter what path he took, she would be hurt one way or another… and so would he. His heart bled just thinking of it, a deep seethed throbbing pain that grew in intensity every time she was near. Every time he thought of telling her about that night. The night he had unwittingly played a major role in the death of her fiancée.

He had been drunk. Stupid drunk. Joe was our designated driver for the night. He had volunteered because he had an early morning appointment with the priest who was going to marry him and his childhood sweetheart, Layla. They hadn’t been friends very long. Having moved to the area recently, he had been more than happy to accept Joe as a friend, something he quite lacked those days. Their mutual interests pulled them together and even though they had known each other for such a short time, their friendship had quickly flourished. Joe often talked about his girl, the love of his life as he always referred to her.

If truth be told, he was so drunk he had only a very sketchy memory of what had happened that night. When it was time to go home, Joe had tried to get behind the wheel but he had, in the way the very sloshed often do, insisted on driving himself. It did not end well. By morning, he had woken up in the ER, bleeding and bruised after being rescued from something that no longer resembled a car. “You were lucky you survived,” the staff at the hospital told him. He did not feel lucky. He felt stupid. And soon he would feel something that defied explanation; the pain and the remorse you feel when you find out you have been the cause of someone else’s death.

He had never understood why the police had not charged him with involuntary manslaughter that day. He had got away with just a DUI charge that landed him in prison for a few days and off the roads for over a year. Yet, he convicted himself of murder and he was to spend the next couple years trying to make up for it with little success. People at the hospital, not knowing he had been the one behind the wheel had described Joe as barely alive on arrival. “He was so badly hurt,” a nurse had told him, “it was hard to recognize him as a human being.” Joe had never made it to his wedding appointment and his pregnant fiancée was to be a widow before she was a wife. Worst of all, he was the one responsible.

Now, he had to tell Layla her gentle love had been wasted on a monster for the past few months. That the man who had so many times professed his love for her had been the one responsible for the death of her child’s father. That his irresponsible move that night had irreversibly changed the course of her life. He could already see in his mind the expression on her lovely face and eyes quickly changing to red hot hate; her hand swatting him angrily across the face, despise pouring out with each hateful word, betrayal reflected in her tearful eyes. He hated himself but today was the day he checked that item off his list. It was time.

That morning, after they had their usual cup of coffee in a local coffee shop, he told her; the whole sordid story. His eyes did not have the courage he had somehow found in his heart to do this and they cowardly hid beneath half-closed lids. Eventually he had to look at her, to check for her dreaded reaction, to be able to say I’m sorry and goodbye, to accept whatever she threw his way because he deserved it. He deserved every bit of anger, every bit of hate she would undoubtedly shower him with. To his utter surprise his eyes met not an angry face but a compassionate one. Even in her anger, she was merciful.

“I’m so sorry,” he said feebly, feeling the apology was totally inadequate to cover for all he had done. But what other words were there? “I am so, so sorry Layla. I will understand if you never forgive me.”

She smiled, a gentle sad little smile. “I forgive you for waiting this long to tell me,” she admitted. “But I can’t forgive you for something you really didn’t do.”

His mouth slackened at her statement. “I killed your fiancée. What do you mean?”

“You didn’t kill him,” she said, reaching for his hand across the table. “He was not in the car with you when you crashed.”

“Of course he was!” he protested, confused by her. “People told me he had died that morning from his injuries. I saw his mom and dad crying in the waiting room.”

Her thumb caressed his hand absentmindedly. “Yes, he died that morning,” she agreed. “But he was not with you. You drove away alone that night. Joe was hit by a truck that morning crossing the road from the parking lot to the church where he was meeting me.”

The shock of this revelation hit him so hard he was having trouble catching his breath. “What? Joe was not with me in the car? He died in an unrelated accident?” he exclaimed, surprise, relief, shock all tangled up inside his chest. It all made sense now; he had never been charged for his death because he had had nothing to do with it. He had hurt no-one but himself that night. Relief washed over him like a wave of fresh water. The breath he has unconsciously been holding for the last minutes rushed out and tears –of happiness or pain, he was not certain – rolled freely down his face.

Layla stood up and came to sit next to him. “My sweet silly love,” she cooed, holding him in her arms, “You have been holding this painful secret all this time? I can’t imagine the weight of all that guilt. You should have told me sooner.”

“I was afraid you would hate me, not that I would blame you,” he confessed, lifting his face from her shoulder to look into her eyes. “But I couldn’t bear just thinking about it. I love you so much.”

“I love you, too,” she whispered before kissing him.

Before they left the coffee house, his hand dug inside his pocket and pulled a ratty, half-torn piece of paper. “There is something I need to do,” he said, unfolding it. The paper held his list of things to do. Everything had been checked except the first item. He reached for the pen on top of the table and without delay proceeded to check it. Then, he rolled the paper into a ball and threw it across the room into the waste basket. “Now, my life begins.”

Art credits: Guilt by Mark Nickels

http://www.marknickels.com/large-single-view/More…../176148-8-14585/Painting/Oil.html

Fun House (Flash Fiction)

How can something that brought so much happiness to people also bring so much pain and sorrow? Such was the peculiar fate of the Fun House in Hallow Woods. Once a place bubbling with joy and laughter, it was now a silent reminder of a terrible tragedy. Everybody in Hallow Woods shivered at the memory and anyone who had been in the area at the time of the accident avoided the house at any cost. People claimed the place was haunted. It wasn’t possible, they said, that a place witness to such violence and horror would not be haunted by the tortured souls of its victims.

Sam had just arrived in town and remained –as often happens to those blissfully ignorant- oblivious to any such superstitions or fears. So, when someone dared him to go to the Fun House and fetch a “souvenir” as proof, he didn’t even think to hesitate. Janet, who had a bit of a crush on him, had whispered to him in a panic, “The place is haunted.” Sam laughed it off as it only added to his sense of adventure and vowed to bring back something from the wreck of the house.

The day had risen moody and full of gloom. The sun struggled to make its way through the clouds to no avail. Grey clouds and heavy fog blanketed the skies of Hallow Woods and even the buildings in town seemed to tremble in apprehension. Sam seemed untouched by this bleak atmospheric mood. At 10 am sharp, carrying his backpack (where he had stuffed a myriad of snacks and beverages) and little else, he set out to find this spooky old house and whatever surprises may come with it. In spite of his nonchalant attitude, Sam was a little taken aback at the first sighting of the Fun House. He didn’t expect it to be so- together and yet, so destroyed. The house façade was well preserved down to the colorful letters over the front doors and pigmented tin stars that speckled the entire outside wall.  Even the lively tin banner that edged the roof seemed newly painted and not at all what you would expect it to look like after 10 years of exposure and abandonment. However, even from a distance, he could guess the destruction inside. Through the broken windows, Sam could see what remained of the collapsed roof and was now nothing but a pile of broken wood.

Regardless of his surprise, Sam was determined to accomplish what he saw now as his “mission” and after a few moments of contemplation, he marched forth. He had not taken ten steps when something caught his attention and made him abruptly stop. Was there someone in the house? Another adventure-seeking fool like him searching for tokens of their bravery? Maybe it was just an animal – of which there were plenty in these woods, he heard- moving around the inside. As he, now more cautiously, approached he realized that there was no inside.  What he previously thought was the inside of the house had long blended in with the outside. The structure was a perfect rendition of a dollhouse; all front façade and sides but no back or roof to speak of. Taking another couple steps towards the front door, Sam had to stop again. The ground in front of him was boiling like lava in a volcano, thick, red, and dangerous. It took him a few moments to figure out that the moving ground was not really moving. In front of him a bed of red, dangerous looking slithering snakes blocked the entrance. His feet moved of their own accord and he stepped backwards a few feet. He hated snakes! He had once dreamed of falling into a pit of red snakes just like those and he had woken up shivering in a pool of his own sweat. How strange that those were also red snakes, something he had always thought to be the product of his over-active imagination.

Well, he told himself, he had to circumvent the snakes somehow. Since the house had no back wall, he might as well just go around the back. Walking a bit more gingerly than before, Sam gave the front of the house a wide berth and circled around the grounds into the back of the house. That’s when he saw it again; a movement caught just on the edge of his sight. He turned his head sharply toward it but it was gone. All was quiet and still again. Must have been a bird, he told himself, or a big bug. He continued walking around the side. The place was a wreck. There was so much broken and rotted wood jammed into what used to be the inside of the house, that Sam wondered for a moment how he was going to actually get in and look for something to prove he had been there. It looked like the hair of a giant who had just woken up from a fitful sleep, all tangles and knots.

Then, he saw it; the perfect souvenir. Under a jumble of wood and iron, something pasty white stuck out. If he was lucky it may be the bone of an animal. He could really sell it as a human bone left in the wreckage all these years. If that didn’t make him famous in town, he didn’t know what would. Briefly forgetting about the snakes, he took a couple long strides toward it. Something caught on his right foot and he was sent headfirst into the ground. Momentarily dazed by the fall, Sam shook his head and started to pull himself up. The movement was so swift and so covert, Sam almost missed it. But there was no denying. There was something or someone in there with him. The fog, which had been increasingly becoming thicker, made it very hard to see things clearly but Sam thought he had spied something just a few yards in front of him hiding behind a particularly tangled mess of wood. Maybe the other locals were trying to scare him off his quest and make him look like a weakling fool.

The plan was to pretend to be hurt and then, jump and surprise whoever was hiding there. He braced himself with his arms, ready to push himself off the ground, took a deep breath and counted to ten. In a giant strong leap, Sam pounced forward faster than even he thought himself capable of. In less than a couple seconds he was face to face with what was hiding behind the giant pile of rubble. Sam was never to really see what he was facing because a thick murky mist suddenly rose from the rubble and enveloped him in its cold creepy arms. Darkness fell over his eyes and he collapsed in a puddle of his own body and there he remained for some time.

People in town saw him emerge from the woods later that day, empty-eyed and voiceless, staggering aimlessly around town wearing a sign around his neck written in blood-red ink that said, “Let the dead lie in peace unless you want to join us.” Red snakes crawled out of his pockets and a great big white bone stuck out from his backpack. People stayed away from him for days until finally Janet’s fondness of him won over her fear. She took him home and tried to mend him. But Sam never spoke again and was given to wonder the streets with hollowed eyes or curling up into a whimpering ball when the sun set in the evening. The Fun House still stands in Hallow Woods, undisturbed and silent, holding its tortured souls and their secrets inside and keeping the living out.

The Angel

The rain fell incessantly over the land as if trying to wash away all the sin and pain in the world. People walked under umbrellas and ducked under trees trying to stay dry as they visited the gravesites of their departed loved ones. Some had tears that rolled down their cheeks and mixed with the water from the skies above. Others kept their eyes on the ground as if afraid to face the harsh reality of a lost loved one. Still others chatted amiably but quietly as they avoided mud and puddles on the saturated grounds. Flowers adorned the arms of some, others walked empty-handed. One carried a teddy bear and a heart-shaped cushion. Those would be soaked before the turn of the hour, she noted with a heavy heart. Death was not kind for the living or the inanimate objects that adorned their tombstones. Even flowers lost their petals and drooped piteously like overwrought souls pining for the dead.

Gracefully and serene she sat, a faint smile on her lips, a slight tilt of the head. The rain didn’t bother her even though she hoped, for the sake of the living, that it would stop. Her white dress fell to the ground in a cascade of folds, forever frozen in time, wet but never soaked, lifelike but not alive. Her right hand held a bouquet of blushing roses to her lap and the left touched the black cold stone with such tenderness those who walked by had to look twice to make sure they had not seen her move. Behind her two white wings unfolded, sheltering her body from the wind and framing her beauty with haunting grace. The Angel – for so was she known to all who visited the graveyard – had not been there long but she reigned over the quiet bleakness of the place and there was not a single patron that wouldn’t stop for a minute or two to admire the beauty of her lines, the serenity she inspired. A tragedy had summoned her there, commissioned by the surviving members of a family decimated in a terrible fire. Now, she sat on their graves, guarding them and offering them the company the living couldn’t afford to give.

Passersby think of her a stone monument to the love a family felt for those who had so tragically lost their lives; but she was so much more. For beneath all that pristine white and coldness of stone, there was a heart beating; a heart that beat to the sound of grieving humans and restless souls; a heart so full of love, she was willing to waste away her days watching over the dead. Death was lonely at first. As loved ones stream away from the burial site, there is a moment when heart-wrenching loneliness strikes. For those single moments the Angel waits, ready to comfort both those who leave and those who can’t. One day her spirit will leave that body of stone and alight somewhere else where she will once again comfort the dead and the living.

As the sun goes down on a dreary day and the mourners hurry to leave the realm of the dead into their brighter side of life, there she remains quiet and beautiful watching over those who are left behind.

FLASH FICTION CHALLENGE: THE FOUR-PART STORY- The Hand That Wields part 2

This flash fiction piece was written in response to a four-part challenge placed by Chuck Wendig. Matthew Gomez wrote part 1 and you can find it here https://mxgomez.wordpress.com/2015/02/10/the-hand-that-wields-a-chuck-wendig-challenge-in-four-parts/

For ease of read, I have copied and pasted his part of the story here.

The Hand That Wields

By Matthew Gomez

“Wake up Otto! Visitor here to see you.”

Otto rolled over on his pallet, cracking one reddened eye open. “Why would anyone come see me?” he mumbled, his tongue heavy from sleep. Sitting up, he opened his other eye and scratched at his tangled beard.

The guard shrugged. “They don’t tell me these things. All I know is the magistrate said to let them see you. So I’m letting them.”

Otto grinned through the iron bars of his cell, revealing teeth filed to points. “Some days I’m surprised to find anyone even remembers I’m down here.”

“Yes, well.” The guard shifted from one foot to the other, his hand dropping to the cudgel slipped through his belt. Someone that Otto couldn’t see cleared their throat. “Ah, right. This is the prisoner you wanted to see.”

Otto didn’t recognize the people once they came into the torch light, but from their fine, rich clothes and the way they held bits of cloth up to their nose to block out the stench, he figured they must be important somehow.

“This is the prisoner, then?” The speaker was older, and Otto could tell he used to be large and muscular, but too many soft years had turned muscle to flab. His eyes though were cold and blue as an iceberg. His companion was younger, his daughter maybe, and her hair was red-gold in the torchlight. Otto felt a familiar stir under his ratty pants. It had been a long time since he’d seen a woman.

Otto looked around dramatically. “Who me? No, I’m the King of Rats. Welcome to my kingdom!” He chuckled. “Yes, I’m the prisoner. Excuse me if I don’t rise to my feet.”

“Do you know who I am?” the man asked.

Otto shook his head. “Someone important. More important than the magistrate at any rate.” He cocked his head to one side. “You want something done, but you can’t be seen doing it, isn’t that right?” He scratched at his head, and finding a louse, squeezed it between his finger and thumb. “I’m not sure how much I can help you down here.” Otto sprang up, and grasped the bars in his hands, straining against them until the veins in arms popped, his eyes wide. “As you can see, they’ve made sure I’m not going anywhere.” As he sat down, he made sure to rattle the chain attached to his ankle.

“What if I told you that I could have you released?”

“You’d have to be the Jarl himself to make that happen.” Otto sighed and lay back down on his pallet, rolling so his back was to his visitors. “Now if there isn’t anything else, you’re interrupting my morning nap.”

“Not the Jarl.”

Otto cracked his eyes back open. The girl had spoken, her voice soft as velvet. “Who then?”

“His daughter.”

Otto grunted. “There’d be trouble for her if the Jarl found out she was the one that let me go.”

The girl sniffed. “If my father cared, I wouldn’t have to be down here in the first place.”

“Carolina, this man is no more than a beast, we should-”

“Who do you want killed?” Otto sat up, hands on his knees. His eyes were bright and alert, and a predatory grin split his mouth like a cut from an axe.

The chaperone stepped forward. “That is none of your concern-”

“My betrothed,” Carolina replied. “No, that’s not right. The man who was to be my husband. He broke off the betrayal, shaming me and my family. Only his family is too important, and has too many allies, so my father refuses to go to war on my behalf. And if my father was to be found to have anything to do with his death…”

“You’d be stomped back into the mud,” Otto finished for her. “So you came all the way down here to look for me? I’m flattered. What’s to say though that I don’t disappear as soon as I’m out of this cell? Are you sure you can trust me?” Otto’s grin grew wider.

“No,” Carolina replied. “You’d disappear into the woodwork like the rat you are. That’s why he has accompanied me.”

Otto narrowed his eyes and looked closer at Carolina’s chaperone. Despite his finery, he looked harder than most of the nobility Otto had dealt with. Deep creases lined his face, and Otto would bet good coin there were the callouses of a fighter on his hands. “He’s to accompany me?”

Carolina nodded once, a short sharp gesture that reminded Otto of a bird. “That’s right. Bjorn will make sure you don’t stray from your path.”

Otto leaned back, the grin vanishing all together. “Assuming I agree, there are a few things I’ll be needing.”

“We already have your belongings gathered,” Bjorn said. “A well-worn axe, a suit of mended mail, three daggers, a silver chain, and a satchel filled with various herbs. Do you require anything else?”

Otto shook his head, his eyes bright. “So what’s the name of the soon to be deceased?”

Part II

 His name was Rattenberg,  Egil Rattenberg. Otto had been in that hole for a long time now but even he knew who that was. Or at least, whose family he was connected to. The Rattenbergs were the oldest, most powerful family in the Kingdom; more powerful that the Jarl himself. It was no wonder the Great Baron did not wish to ruffle their feathers. If suitably provoked, the Rattenbergs could squash the ruling family and its patriarch like bugs.  Otto looked at the girl, a reluctant sense of respect gnawing at him. Damn! Pretty ballsy of such a willow of a girl, he thought, to go after the two most powerful families in the land.

“When do we leave?” he asked, eyeing his belongings through the prison bars with longing.

“Right now!” the girl said, her voice incongruously authoritarian for such a young one. “Will you accept the mission?”

Otto threw his head back in laughter. “No, I prefer to lay here with the rats. Of course, I will take it.”

The odd pair took Otto to a hovel on the edge of town where they obviously expected him to set up shop. “Hell, no palace for me then?” he quipped, dropping his few belonging on the dirt floor by the door.

“This will be your home until such time you have completed your task,” Carolina explained, holding her kerchief to her nose in distaste. “Bjorn will stay with you through the whole thing. Don’t stray and do not betray us or he will make sure you sorely regret it.” Otto did not doubt for a moment that she meant it. There was something almost sinister about that girl. Coming from someone like him this was high praise indeed.

Left alone with Bjorn, who immediately started cleaning up a corner for his own use, Otto opened his satchel and scanned its contents. His yellowish bark-like face lit up at the discovery of an old friend; he rolled the herb in his fingers, stuffed it into the mouth of an old wooden pipe and lit it up with a great puff. His body slid down the wall until his legs were stretched out in front of him as the effects of the hallucinogenic herb took control of his body in waves of pleasure. It’s been too long.

Sometime during his drug-induced stupor, Otto watched Bjorn as he transformed from an obviously rich nobleman to a non-descript street bum; no-one would give him the benefit of a second-look now. Brilliant, Otto thought before drifting off again.

By the time, the drug effects had made their way through and out of his body and mind, his chaperone was waiting, non too-patiently, a mean looking dagger in his hand and a scowl on his face. “Are you done?” he asked, not really expecting or wanting an answer. “It’s dark outside. We have to go.”

Otto shook himself like a wet dog, slipped the mail suit over his head, and examined his battle-axe. The last one was a mere precaution; not exactly what he liked to use in his victims. He was a more hands-on type of criminal, literally. Weapons were all nice and dandy but there was nothing like a kill brought on by your own hands, tasted in your tongue… Otto shivered in anticipation. Killing made him feel alive.  As he walked through the filthy town streets heading toward the Rattenberg’s house, no attempt at conversation was made from him or his partner-in-crime.

The Rattenberg’s family house was a fortified manor, strategically built hovering over the highest hill in town like a giant crow hovering over the carcass of a dead animal. Otto had the nagging suspicion that his usual way of gaining access to people’s houses was not going to work here. Even from a distance he could guess several armed guards keeping watch from different spots behind the battlements. They would be soon spotted if they didn’t take some kind of evasive moves. Surveying the ground around him, Otto found a ditch of some kind that ran almost all the way up the hill. Closely followed by Bjorn, he sprinted to the edge to examine it closer. It was about five feet deep even though there was no way of knowing for sure. The bottom was covered in a murky foul smelling mud that may or may not be camouflaging a much deeper dip.

Not stopping to analyze the situation to deeply, Otto jumped in. The murk came up to his shins, adding another foot to his original estimate, an unexpected boon to better hide their approach. After waving the other man in, he started making his way up the hill. The ditch meandered up and down the hill, which was frustrating but they made their way up steadily and unobserved. The path ended just a few yards away from one of the side walls. Climbing out of it, they both stooped and ran silently until they could count on the solid protection of the wall. There, there rested for a few minutes, winded and thirsty.

“How are we getting in?” Bjorn finally whispered, curiosity winning over the fear of detection earning a look of disapproval from his partner.

Otto nodded his head toward the right where a small gate broke the monotony of the dark stone wall. It was most certainly the kitchen door and at this time of night, there shouldn’t be too many creatures stirring in there. They moved, their bodies hugging the wall, until they were right by the wooden entry. Surprising the harden criminal, Bjorn fiddled with the lock and was able to open it without as much as a squeak. As Otto had predicted no one was moving in the kitchen. A few sleeping figures punctuated the hay-covered floor here and there but they were able to enter the manor unchallenged. It didn’t take long to make their silent way to the upper floor and Egil’s private quarters.

“You stay here and guard the door while I take care of our man,” Otto muttered. In reality, he had quite an intricate plan in mind as to how to take care of him. Much like an artist, Otto took great pleasure in a job well-done and took great care with details, liking his killings to be slow and painful. Bjorn would probably not approve of his methods so it was best if he didn’t get to watch.

The other man picked the lock with amazing ease, again and Otto slipped inside being careful to close the door behind him. The only light in the room emanated from the great fire in the hearth. Otto felt his pointy teeth with his tongue in anticipation of the kill and scanned the room for the nobleman. The bed was empty and it took him another scan to realize that someone was sitting in front of the fire.

“So you found me,” he heard a male voice say from the chair. “Sit yourself down. You may want to hear what I have to tell you.”