short stories

Unmoored by Justine Alley Dowsett – Part 5 of 6

Find Part 1 here

Sure enough, there was a brawl on the street ahead of him. Patrons of The Crow’s Nest, including his friend Dagan, were out on the street en masse, caught in a one-sided fist fight with a bunch of armed soldiers. The fight was one-sided only because the other side was using swords, not fists.

Renaud grabbed the nearest soldier to him by the plume on his ridiculous-looking helmet. Catching the man completely off guard, Renaud was able to knock him over and relieve him of his pointy metal stick. Launching himself onto the next man, he pummeled that one with his fists, striking any place he could reach.

It didn’t take long for the invading army to realize they had a madman in their midst. Renaud fought with abandon, breaking noses, biting fingers, and kneeing the stupidest of men in the balls. Didn’t your fathers ever teach you to guard your stones? He made a mental note to teach his own son that very lesson as soon as he got home.

Renaud was an unstoppable force, until several of his victims began to recover and he found himself in the middle of a pile-up. He took a foot to his ribcage, a knee to his left kidney, and an elbow in the eye before Dagan and some of the others were able to come to his rescue, pulling him free of his attackers and leaving them to wrestle one another.

“Thanks, man.” Renaud clapped Dagan on the shoulder. “I owe you one.”

Dagan grinned, one of his front teeth missing. “How ‘bout you give me a posting on that new ship of yours and we’ll call it even?”

My ship! He belatedly recalled that he was Captain of his own ship now. That’s right! I don’t have to stay for this. I can be out on the water and away from Ismera before this civil war, or whatever this is, gets any worse.

Though something about what was happening rubbed Renaud the wrong way. Turrellin declared itself as neutral in the conflict between the King and those who want to dethrone him. Why would Vance Chappelle attack his own people?

Suddenly eager to return to his ship and sail home to Saegard, where the world made sense, Renaud found himself looking back toward The Crow’s Nest. He watched as the barkeep, Ginny, tossed a pot full of boiling hot stew in the face of one soldier before retreating within the inn and shutting the solid oak door tightly behind her. She’ll be okay, Renaud realized, and I’m right, this isn’t my fight.

“Dagan,” he held a hand out to his red-headed friend, “you’ve got yourself a deal. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

“Aye, aye, Captain!”

Renaud and Dagan made their way down the hill much faster than Renaud had initially run up it, despite the stitch in Renaud’s side and his rapidly swelling eye. Once his feet were firmly on the docks, though, Renaud felt his pain and worry melt away to be replaced with a sense of duty and purpose. He was a Captain now, and his ship and crew were waiting for him to lead them safely out of here.

He was within shouting distance of The Clover when his eyes happened to notice something out of place on the lift, way up at the top of the cliff edge. Is that a person?

“Why are you stopping?” Dagan demanded. “That’s yours there, with the four-leaf clover, right?”

“Yeah,” Renaud answered somewhat distractedly. “You go on. I’ll catch up.”

Dagan shrugged and resumed his forward motion, but Renaud’s eyes were glued on the lift far above. At this distance and in the failing light the form he saw was a small lump. It could be a pile of supplies with a tarp over it, but when it moved Renaud knew better. It’s a child, he realized with a sharp intake of breath.

He watched as a small white hand, stark against the dark fabric of the cloak the child was wearing, darted out to grip the lever that would activate the lift. Renaud’s breath caught in his throat. The lift usually has operators to run and monitor it. What is she doing?

Renaud couldn’t explain how he knew, but he had a sinking feeling in his gut that told him the small child who now had both hands on the lever and was pulling as hard as she could was the girl he’d seen this morning; the one with the bouncy dark hair and perfect young, happy parents.

As he watched, the lift mechanism gave way and the lift plummeted.

***

Subscribe or come back next week for the final installment of this short story!! 

Advertisements

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 7 (of 8)

Have you been keeping up with this serial short story? If you’re just getting started, Part 1 is here. If you want to learn more about Sharon Ledwith, here’s her website. Sharon Ledwith has two great series worth checking out. This short story is a prequel of sorts to her The Last Timekeepers time travel series. The character of Shu-tu reappears in Legends of the Timekeepers.

Amiee rushed after Shu-Tu, tackled her to the stone floor, and then straddled her thin body. Shu-Tu hit the back of her head, yet still held the firestone tightly to her chest. A sharp pain went up her neck while Amiee tried to wrestle the six-sided crystal away from her, bashing her back against the cool, hard stone floor. Suddenly, Shu-Tu lost her grip and the firestone was in Amiee’s possession.

“I…I saved you from the wyvern, and this…this is how you repay me?” Shu-Tu wiped away her tears. “How…how could I have been so blind not to see this side of you or Segferd?”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, Shu-Tu.” Amiee smirked wickedly. “In a moment, you won’t be able to see anything.”

Amiee raised the firestone over her head and whacked Shu-Tu in the middle of the forehead. A pain she had never known before seared through her eyes to the back of skull and down her spine. Shu-Tu started twitching as soon as Amiee got off her. Suddenly, she felt her eyes move around and around, as if they were immersed in a goblet of water. Warm liquid, she knew was her own blood, dripped down the sides of her face. Panicking, Shu-Tu slapped the cool stone floor repeatedly, trying to fight off the pain, trying to understand what was happening to her. She sat up, roughly wiped away the blood from her face, and placed both hands over her eyes. Shu-Tu’s skin tingled all over. She could feel her eyes moving quickly, spinning around in their sockets, juggling and bouncing, until they both crossed. Her purpose, the reason why she had been born, everything became crystal clear. Her sight became her insight, her sacrifice became her gift.

Shu-Tu inhaled deeply, and pointed at Amiee. “You will bear a dark-hearted son named Belial who will teach Atlantis to worship pleasure and ease over love and respect. Unfortunately, Amiee, you die during childbirth, and will never know him. And you—” she pointed to Segferd, her eyes spun around and around “—were responsible for preparing a tainted crystal pellet to give to your father to poison the water my father drank. That is the reason why you away from class last week. You, Segferd, will be swallowed by the earth by the next full moon.”

“Have you gone mad, Shu-Tu?” Segferd asked, squeezing the rod.

“By the looks of her spinning eyeballs, I’d say she’s half-way there,” Amiee said, snickering. “Maybe you should put the poor child out of her misery, Segferd.”

He nodded sharply just as the ground started to shake again. The crystals above vibrated to such a degree of high intensity, Shu-Tu swore a chorus of the best singers in Atlantis were in the room with them. She reached out to stop herself from shaking. Surprisingly, she wasn’t afraid.

“If you both want to live to use the firestone for your noble acts, I suggest you leave now,” Khem said calmly. “I will take care of Shu-Tu for you. After all, hybrids are here to serve.”

Segferd shoved the rod’s forked end under Khem’s throat. “Now you’re getting the idea, baboon-breath. Kill the girl with this rod and leave no trace of us being here, or you’ll wish you were never created.”

Khem put his hands together. “As you wish.”

Segferd sneered, then tossed the baboon-headed rod at Khem’s feet. Shu-Tu jerked at the metallic clanging sound.

“Come on, Segferd!” Amiee yelled from the bottom of the stairs. “Let’s get out of here before the chamber caves in!”

The last thing Shu-Tu heard was the sound of hurried footsteps running up the granite stairs before the world as she knew it turned pitch black.

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 6

Here’s part one. Here’s Sharon Ledwith. Then, keep reading…

Shu-tu’s throat tightened. “H-How do you know me?”

Segferd stepped in front of her. “What trick are you playing here, hybrid? We don’t know you, and you don’t know us!”

“Don’t I, Segferd?” Khem asked, smiling and exposing a fang.

“Listen, hybrid, you better not be threatening us,” Amiee said, clenching her fists. “My brother and I are from the House of—”

“Beliar,” Khem cut in. “Yes, yes, I know. Is that supposed to impress me, Amiee?”

Amiee’s fair face turned ashen. Khem dipped his human hand into his pouch and pulled out a glittering six-sided crystal, the likes Shu-Tu had never seen before. The rainbow colored crystal, about the size of a small pomegranate lit up Khem’s features, making him look more human, than baboon.

“This is my price,” Khem said, holding up the six-sided crystal. “The only price you will pay is the consequences of your actions. The rule of the game is simple. I get to ask each of you the same question, and whoever has the best answer gets to keep this firestone.”

Amiee gasped. “A-A firestone?”

“How do we know it’s real?” Segferd asked, his mouth falling open.

“You’ll have to take the word of a hybrid, I guess,” Khem replied, shrugging. “But then again, seeing is believing for you humans. Here, hold my rod, Amiee, and I’ll prove that I’m telling the truth.”

Without the staff she threw at Khem, Shu-Tu watched Amiee limp over to grasp the golden rod. A sheen of sweat on her forehead attested to her pain. Amiee grimaced as she gripped the rod, and leaned against it for support. The forked end of the rod scraped against the rock and sent shivers up Shu-Tu’s spine. Khem waved the firestone over her ankle, and chanted an old Atlantean prayer nine times before he stopped.

“Walk,” Khem commanded.

Amiee grunted. “This is ridiculous, I—” She paused, putting weight on her foot. “T-There’s no pain anymore. It’s like I never twisted my ankle.”

Khem nodded. “The curative powers of the firestone have restored your body.”

Amiee glanced at Segferd, then back at Khem. “I’m in for the game.”

“Me too,” Segferd said, nodding.

Shu-Tu’s heart raced. “What else can the firestone do?”

Khem puckered his baboon lips, twisting them one way, then the other before he said, “Whatever you wish. It was one of six harvested from the mighty crystal. Very rare. Very special.”

“Go on then,” Amiee said with urgency. “Ask your silly question.”

“Very well, I’ll start with you, Amiee,” Khem replied, strumming human fingers against his chest. “For what purpose would you use this firestone?”

Amiee licked her lips. “I would use the firestone to benefit all Atlanteans by surrendering it to the high priests and priestesses of the Temple of Poseidon to help promote divine knowledge.”

Khem scratched his hairy chin. “How very noble. What about you, Segferd?”

Segferd straightened. “I would use the firestone to harness the forces of nature and put a stop to the earthquakes that have plagued our country for thousands of years.”

“Now that’s what I’m talking about!” Khem snapped his fingers. “Shu-Tu, your response better top Amiee and Segferd’s answers.”

Shu-Tu swallowed hard, and said, “I…I would use the firestone to bring my father back to life.”

She swore she heard Amiee titter. Segferd coughed.

Khem frowned. “I see. You know what you want to use this firestone for goes against the Law of One’s plan, don’t you, Shu-Tu?”

She hung her head, her eyes began to well. “I told you the truth. That’s how I would use the firestone.”

“So, which one of us wins the game?” Amiee asked, banging the rod against the stone floor.

Segferd rubbed his hands together. “Yes, who is your choice, hybrid?”

“Very well, you all played my game fairly, so I must choose a winner.” Khem held out the firestone to Shu-Tu. “It’s all yours, Shu-Tu.”

“What!” Amiee screamed. “Y-You can’t be serious! You said it yourself, hybrid, no one must tamper with the will of the Law of One’s plan!”

“Oh, a sore loser, I see,” Khem replied. “You played the game, you lost. I liked Shu-Tu’s answer the best.”

“But…my answer would have saved so many people,” Segferd blurted. “Shu-Tu only wants one life saved.”

Khem shrugged. “A life that matters to her, one she loves unconditionally.”

Shu-Tu stared at the beautiful firestone in her hands. Rainbow swirls of light danced off of it, warming her body through to the core. Khem reached out to touch her cheek, and she shivered. “Your father awaits you,” he said, pointing toward the altar.

Shu-Tu’s jaw dropped. “M-My father is the body under the shroud?”

“Something is wrong here,” Segferd said, scratching his head. “Why would a hybrid have your father’s body?”

“This is all Thoth’s doing isn’t it?” Amiee asked, pointing the forked end of the rod at Khem’s throat. “Tell us where he is or I’ll spear you!”

“No, Amiee!” Shu-Tu yelled, clutching the firestone to her chest. “Wait until I revive Father!”

“You’re father is dead, and he’s not coming back,” Segferd said, his voice void of emotion. “Give us the firestone. The House of Beliar will use it for the highest good of Atlantis.”

Khem clapped. “Now this is getting interesting!”

Shu-Tu backed up toward her father’s body. “No. I won fair and square. I will use the firestone as I see fit.”

Amiee tossed the rod to her brother. “Watch the hybrid! I’m taking that firestone!”

Shu-Tu’s eyes widened as Segferd grabbed the rod in mid-air and pointed it at Khem. “Go make father proud, sis.”

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 4

Sharon Ledwith’s short story continues! If you missed part 1, here it is. If you want to learn more about the author and her books, check out her website. Then, keep reading!

 

“Where is he?” Shu-Tu asked, surveying the manicured grounds outside Thoth’s private grotto.

Under the light of the half moon and stars, she could make out a giant circular garden, all the flowers closed and bowing in deep contemplation. A bubbling spring on her right gave off enough steam to dampened the air and make her unbound hair frizz. She licked her lips, tasting the saltiness in the air from being so close to the ocean. Shu-Tu’s skin tingled. Her thin, sleeveless dress stuck to her body. Perhaps this is a mistake.

“Thoth said he’d meet us here, and his word is true,” Amiee replied, glancing around.

“True or not, Thoth better show his face soon,” Segferd said, hiking up his silk trousers to sit on a gleaming granite bench. “I’m not accustomed to be kept waiting.”

“Honestly, sometimes I think we came from different mothers, Segferd,” Amiee said.

“That would explain many things,” Segferd said, grinning. “Like your gigantic feet and monkey-like hands.”

Aimee snorted. “Or your tiny ears and bird-beak nose.” She glanced at her palms.

Shu-Tu rolled her eyes. She rubbed her arms briskly just as she heard a thunderous crack behind them. A dark green creature double the size of full grown horse charged out of the thicket. The creature screeched, the sound going through Shu-Tu like shards of glass, and then snapped its reptilian jaws. The moonlight caught a forked-tongue slithering out of its mouth, lapping the air in search of fresh blood.

“Oh Poseidon, a wyvern!” Amiee shrieked. “It must have escaped from its breeder!”

“Quick, into the grotto and down the stairs!” Segferd picked up a chunk of rough-cut quartz crystal. “It’s too big to follow us!”

Segferd hurled the quartz at the wyvern’s bulbous serpent head. It snapped at the crystal in mid-air and spit it out. Translucent wings beat a path toward them while the wyvern’s hawk-like feet curled up into its leathery body. A long tail with a barbed end—poisonous to the touch—swished furiously as the wyvern got closer to the three classmates.

“Move, now!” Segferd shouted, leading the way.

Stumbling, Amiee tripped over her bejeweled sandaled feet at the mouth of the grotto.

“Amiee!” Shu-Tu screamed. She stopped to help her friend up, and dragged Amiee inside.

Hot, rancid breath from the wyvern’s open mouth rolled across the back of Shu-Tu’s neck and arms. The wyvern screeched and snapped its powerful jaws, its tongue desperately trying to reach her, taste her, but the wyvern couldn’t fit in any farther. Shu-Tu shivered just as the ground tremored. Her eyes widened. An earthquake! Oh please, Poseidon, have mercy! Holding onto Amiee, Shu-Tu reached out to grab a statue of Poseidon’s mortal wife Cleito sculpted from the rock above them. The wyvern retreated as fast as it had attacked, the beating of its wings signaling the creature’s departure. Falling pieces of rock and crystal filled the entranceway, and snuffed out the moonlight. Shu-Tu’s throat tightened. There was no way out. Suddenly, the earth ceased shaking. Shu-Tu blew a sigh of relief. At least the quake only lasted three short breaths.

“Shu-Tu? Amiee? Are you okay?” Segferd asked from the bottom of the rock-cut stairs.

Shu-Tu coughed. “I’m fine.” She released the smooth, stone statue and blinked a few times to adjust her eyes to the darkness.

“I…I think I’ve twisted my ankle,” Amiee said.

Groping in the dark, Shu-Tu bent down, and brushed away Aimee’s soft gown. She placed her hand over Aimee’s foot. “She’s right. Her ankle is starting to swell.”

Aimee growled. “This…this is all your fault, Segferd!”

“My fault?” he asked, his voice echoing. “How so?”

“You attacked the wyvern first!” she snapped. “Who in their right mind does that?”

Shu-Tu used the cool, granite wall as a guide to stand. “It’s all right, Amiee, your brother did his best to protect us.”

“You must learn to stop sticking up for him,” Amiee said, grunting to stand. She squeezed Shu-Tu’s hand. “T-Thank you for…saving me.”

Shu-Tu shrugged. “You would have done the same for me. Can you walk?”

“I…I think so.”

“Here.” Segferd passed a wooden staff topped with a glowing crystal to Shu-Tu and Amiee. “This will help Amiee walk and give us enough light to navigate the pathways to find another way out.”

“Where’d you get these staffs?” Shu-Tu asked, the orange glowing end illuminating her features.

“They were leaning against the wall at the bottom of the stairs,” Segferd replied, holding out his hand to his sister. “It’s like someone left them there for us to find.”

Amiee swatted his hand away. “No thanks, I can manage without your help.”

As they made their way deeper into the grotto, the only light source, other than the glimmering crystals on the staffs Segferd found, came from the effervescent springs swirling below them. The damp, pungent air inside the grotto was a welcome relief from the humidity above. The smooth passage led them down and around, down and around, like the actions of a perfect spiral.

“Where do you suppose this goes?” Amiee asked, limping.

“There’s talk among our servant hybrids of a secret natural labyrinth called the Hall of Illumination,” Segferd said, holding out his staff. “Initiations for the highest order of magi are held at the far end of the hall. I wonder if this is the place they were speaking about?”

“I don’t think such a hall truly exists,” Amiee replied, grunting. “Hybrids have a tendency to fabricate things. Besides, those half-breed creatures were created to serve us, not teach us.”

“But, Amiee, what about what Thoth has taught us?” Shu-Tu asked, wiping damp hair off her forehead. “That everyone, and everything has a purpose here. That we are all an inseparable part of one Whole.”

Amiee snorted in laugher. “If you to choose to believe that you’re one with a hybrid, Shu-Tu, then as Poseidon is my witness, I’ll throw you into the churning springs below us.”

“Wait, do you two hear that?” Segferd stopped. “It sounds like chanting.”

Shu-Tu listened. A steady, monotonic mantra lulled her, invited her to come closer like an invisible wagging finger. She smiled. “Reminds me of a verse Father would chant.”

“Whoever it is must know a way out,” Amiee said.

“Agreed.” Segferd pulled at his silk tunic. “Come on, it’s not too much farther.”

The Terrible, Mighty Crystal by Sharon Ledwith – Part 1

You are in for a treat! While we read through submissions, you get to read a short story in roughly 10 parts by the talented and prolific Sharon Ledwith, author of The Last Timekeepers series and now the Mysterious Tales from Fairy Falls series. This short story is a prequel to her fantastic time travel series and we’re sure you’re going to love it! Here’s part one:

 

“Please, children, don’t stand too close. The frequency will be too much for your young minds to handle,” Thoth said, waving a long, golden rod topped with a fashioned baboon head.

Shu-Tu stood at the back on her tippy-toes behind her classmates, trying to catch a glimpse of the large six-sided figure known to her people as the mighty crystal. All around them a sparkling metal—the color of storm clouds—lined the walls of the massive domed building to protect and ensure Atlantis’s safety from the crystal’s unpredictable vibratory forces. But even knowing this, Shu-Tu’s scalp prickled incessantly. She craned her neck. Heads—some the size of melons—bobbed up and down in front of her, obscuring her vision. She set her jaw, reached out and grabbed a fistful of red hair belonging to a tall girl with hunched shoulders, standing in the front row. Shu-Tu yanked hard.

“Ouch! Let go, let go!” the girl yelled, stumbling back.

“What goes on here?” a human-animal hybrid with the head of an ibis demanded. “The Crystal Dome is a place of respect!”

Shu-Tu pursed her full lips to one side. Her green eyes swept over the lowly hybrid—a servant of their teacher, Thoth. The hybrid’s long, hooked beak, beady yellow eyes, and s-shaped white-feathered neck moved back and forth in vigilance. Human hands gripped the looped end of a crossed-shaped ankh made of pure orichalcum—the sparkling copper-colored precious metal mined only in Atlantis. The hybrid ruffled his neck feathers, and made a severe clicking sound with his beak.

Shu-Tu shook her head. Her ivory tendrils swept across the back of her neck as she said, “I’m well aware of that. I couldn’t see, so I took care of the problem. There is no disrespect in trying to see my teacher.”

“See, no. But causing harm to others is not respectful, Shu-Tu,” Thoth said, moving through the group of parting students. “And what you give out, you get back, so in essence you are disrespecting yourself, young lady.”

“But…Shu-Tu has a point, Thoth. I couldn’t see either,” the brown-haired girl next to Shu-Tu blurted. “Someone had to move that red-headed giant out of the way.”

Few students giggled, but most remained silent.

“I was not speaking to you, Amiee.” Thoth wagged his rod at her.

“Shall I escort these two trouble-makers outside, Master?” the ibis-headed hybrid asked, bowing.

Thoth turned, making his dark, red robe swirl around his towering frame. “That won’t be necessary, Djeuti, unless…”

“Unless, what?” Shu-Tu interrupted, inclining her head.

“I do not hear an apology coming out of both your mouths,” Thoth replied, his sapphire eyes staring down at them.

 

Death Takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 6

My apologies for this being the only post this week. I’m just recovering from a short illness. As always, you can find part 1 of this short story here. Or if you like David McLain’s style, please consider his hilarious time travel fantasy, The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum

Then, keep reading… 

They stopped for dinner in Gary, Indiana, at a place that specialized in Fried Chicken. William felt better than he had in weeks. Checking his reflection in the bathroom mirror, he noticed that his eyes were clearer looking, and that his shoulders looked a little broader. His hands were distinctly less gnarled, and his fingernails didn’t have that yellow quality that they’d had in recent years. He looked like a man of seventy, maybe sixty five. Death looked better too. They looked less like two men at the end of their lives, and more like two guys in their golden years who were enjoying life. There was no doubt about it, the car might be going forward, but the miles were rolling back.

“Where are we staying tonight?” William asked.

“We’re near the city,” Death said. “I thought we’d find someplace nice.”

They stayed in a beautiful hotel in Downtown Chicago, where their room had a giant flat screened television and a little kitchen. They had a few drinks and some dessert in the hotel restaurant before heading upstairs. A young waitress with crooked teeth took their order, and was very nice to them. William found himself in a good mood.

“You’re a good guy,” he said to Death after his second drink.

“Thanks,” Death said.

“Most people don’t like you,” he added. He probably shouldn’t have said this, but it seemed like a fairly obvious point.

“It’s never a good day when I come around,” Death said. “But that isn’t my fault.”

“Is this just what we do now?” William asked. “Drive around from place to place, having a good time?”

“No,” Death said, and he had a serious look on his face. “This is merely the journey.”

This sobered William up a little. “Then what comes next?” he asked.

“You’ll see,” Death said.

In the morning William was pleased to see that some of the hair had filled in on the top of his head. It wasn’t so much that you’d notice, or really care, but it was nice to see. Some of it, he noticed, was brown instead of gray. The veins which had seemed so close to the surface in his hands and his feet seemed more subdued.  Death was still getting younger too. They got up early, had breakfast in the hotel, and headed for downtown Chicago.

Death was clear that they didn’t have a lot of time to waste, but Chicago is a beautiful city, so they stopped and went to the art museum. William had never been there before, and he enjoyed wandering around, looking at priceless works of art. Somewhere in between an Edward Hopper painting and a Suerat, William thought of something.

“All these painters,” he whispered so that only Death could hear. “They’re all dead?”

“Yes,” Death said, “I suppose that they are.”

“So you met them all?”

“At one point or another,” Death reflected.

“How’d they take it?” William asked.

Death considered this. “Most came quietly. A few fought tooth and nail. One or two grinned at me like I was a long lost relative. I tell you one thing though- none of them seemed surprised.”

“Is that so?”

“Not even the ones I had to drag out of bars,” Death said. “Although I suppose if you spent that much time in bars, you shouldn’t be surprised.”

They spent the morning looking at paintings, then had lunch at a tapas restaurant downtown. William had never had tapas before. It was nice. After that, they headed south, toward Saint Louis.

Death takes the Highway by David McLain – Part 4

The story continues… (You can find Part 1 here if you missed it.)

It was an Indian Casino. Not a very big one, nor very prosperous, but it was big enough to have a nice buffet restaurant attached to it, where a waitress sat William and Death down at a table in the corner, and invited them to help themselves to fried chicken, and macaroni and cheese. She didn’t seem to know or care that William was dead, or that he was being accompanied by Death itself. In fact, they seem to fit in pretty well with the casino’s clientèle. Most of the gamblers looked like they were in their late sixties and early seventies- some even looked older than William was. They ate mostly in silence. Death didn’t seem like much of a talker.

“How do you feel?” Death asked.

“Better than I have in weeks, maybe months,” William admitted.

“That’s usually the way,” Death said. “Once you get used to it, most people feel better.”

“They feel better dead?” William asked.

“I’m not saying you won’t miss things,” Death said. “There’s a lot you’re leaving behind. Usually though, at some point, most people say to themselves ‘O.K. I’ve had enough.’ That’s when it’s time to move on.

“It doesn’t feel real,” William admitted.

“It won’t,” Death said. “Not at first,” he paid the bill with a credit card. William wondered if it would be an all black Mastercard or have ‘666’ as the card number or something, but it was a perfectly ordinary bank card. So far, Death seemed almost pedestrian.

“Let’s go,” Death said.

They got back in the car, heading west again. It was still colder than blazes, although William had gotten used to the stick shift. It was strange, driving such a tiny car. In another life William might have expressed concern about driving something so small on the highway, but what did it matter now? It wasn’t like being jack-knifed by an eighteen wheeler would kill him. (In fact, he wasn’t sure what it would do. Leave him like some sort of zombie maybe? He didn’t want to ask.) He drove cautiously, in the left lane, till a little after dark, when Death finally told him to pull over.

“Right here? By the side of the road?” William asked.

“No, no. At the next exit. There’s a Super 8 just off the highway. We’ll get a room. I don’t like driving at night in the winter, unless I have to.”

They pulled over and parked in front of the motel. They were somewhere near the Pennsylvania border, but where exactly William wasn’t sure. The hotel was manned by an enormous man in a polyester shirt, who looked simultaneously tired and dull, as if being forced to wear a polo with his company logo on it and having to smile at strangers was a form of brain death. They took a double room on the first floor with a window facing the dumpster of a neglected Chinese food restaurant.

“You want Chinese for dinner?” Death asked.

William thought about it. Then he did something that he thought he would never do again- he made a choice. “I saw a diner down the road a little bit. Let’s go there.”

So they did. William ordered the turkey club, and Death had a steak, extra rare. The waitress, like everyone else, didn’t seem to think there was anything strange about them, although come to think of it, she didn’t give them much of a look either. It was shortly after they ate their food that William started asking questions.

“So I’m dead?” he asked. He looked around as he said it, like he was talking about committing a crime. The diner was almost empty and the waitress didn’t seem like she would care if he lit his pants on fire. Still, it didn’t seem like the kind of thing you wanted to announce to just anyone.

“Yes,” Death said.

“I don’t feel different,” Will admitted, although on reflection, that wasn’t true. He definitely didn’t feel like he did when he was dying. That was awful.

“You won’t, at first,” Death said. “It’s a lot to take in all at once.”

“There were a lot of things I wanted to do before I died,” William said. “Things I wanted to do, and say.”

“I know,” Death said. “There always are.”

“I guess that’s the way things work,” Will said. Truth be told, he usually had a hundred different things that he wanted to on a weekend that didn’t get done, there didn’t seem to be any reason that dying wasn’t going to be any different. “It’s just hard to believe,” he added.

“I’m sure,” Death said.

“I worked hard, all my life,” Will said. “Some years were good. Some were bad. I left my daughter a little bit of money. That was good, right?”

Death said “That was good,” but he didn’t look like he felt anything about it, one way or the other.

“If my life was about work, and progress, and family,” William said. “Then what is this about?”

“Moving on,” Death said.

Death Takes the Highway by David McLain – Part One

You may recall us featuring some short stories. Here’s a quick list to where you can find them:

The Hunting Dog by Rita Monette
The Queen’s Intent by Justine Alley Dowsett
The Arranged Marriage by Justine Alley Dowsett
The Eye of the Storm by Justine Dowsett

And now, we bring you Death takes the Highway by David McLain, author of The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

-Emily Dickinson

Although no one knew it, William Hershel was going to die at three fifty-eight on January the thirteenth, at Wilson Hospital in Johnson City, New York, just after his daughter stepped out of the room for a minute to go to the bathroom and freshen up a little. The hospice nurse would tell her that this was very common. In as much as people had a choice, and it wasn’t really clear that they did, they seemed to choose to die when their relatives were out of the room, even if there had been someone with them all day, and they had only been left alone for a few seconds. It wasn’t clear why they did that, but the nurse said she had seen it time and time again.

If anyone had asked William Hershel, at say, three fifty four on that same day, why people choose to die during that one moment when they were alone, he would have been glad to tell them. It was for the same reason that you closed the door when you were going to the bathroom, or taking a shower, or making love. When we are forced to show our biological side, we prefer to be alone. Since the age of fourteen, William Hershel’s daughter had closed the door while brushing her teeth, she could hardly expect William to shuffle off his mortal coil while she watched, for goodness sake. If his wife had been there, that might have been different, but William Hershel had no wife. He’d been married once, but that had been over for almost a decade, and his ex-wife had declined to visit him, which was just as well. That left him dying, at three fifty-fifty eight on January the Thirteenth, exactly two weeks shy of his eighty-first birthday.

To look at him was less like looking at a man, and more like staring at an empty husk. His body was broken, his bones were gnarled, his hair was gone. His teeth were rotten, and his organs were failing quickly. There were tubes coming out of every conceivable part of him, and he smelled terrible. Dignity had been the last thing to go, but when it had gone, it had left completely. All you had to do was take one look at him, and you knew it was time. He had heard his daughter making the sorts of plans that you didn’t want to here being made about yourself. He knew that she had been in touch with a funeral home, that she’d talked to the hospice nurse about what would happen next. He’d heard her say something about how he’d worked hard, so very hard, all his life.  He knew that she had her own life and she wanted to get back to it. He felt bad that he had taken up so much of her time these past few years.

In real life, last words are rarely significant in any way whatsoever. In fact, in modern medical terms, just being able to say last words often meant that you were not really ready to die just yet. The closest thing William Hershel had to last words was an unheard gurgle at roughly three fifty-five. It was indicative of a small amount of air leaving his lungs as his organs shut down.     

     ‘I’m still here,’ William thought. ‘I’m still here.’

It is, or at any rate, it should be, a great privilege to be coherent during the last few minutes of your life, and, technically, William Hershel was. He hadn’t opened his eyes for three days, but nonetheless, his thoughts were still there. When his daughter had held his hand and cried earlier that day, he’d felt it and he’d heard it and he knew what was happening. Three fifty-six came and went without as much as a flicker. That left three fifty-seven. What do you do with your penultimate minute on earth? It turned out William Hershel celebrated by feeling his heart stop beating. It was the strangest feeling, a little bit like holding your breath, only much, much worse. His daughter would be on her way back to the room in just another minute or so, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t going to wait that long.

William Hershel, born in San Clemente, California, died at three fifty-eight, almost exactly, but this was just the beginning.

david-mclain.jpg.jpeg

Join us next week, or subscribe for the rest of this short serial fiction!!

David McLain is the author of the novel Dragonbait and The Time Traveller’s Resort and Museum. He grew up New York, California,  Transylvania, and France. He studied writing at The University of Massachusetts and at Purchase College, where he also directed a production of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest. He lives in New York with a female painter and a small dog.

The Arranged Marriage – Part 6

Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5. Unintended, Uncharted.

***

Cielle saw less and less of Branton’s hairy chest as he advanced on Larissa. His heavy black-booted feet stopped just shy of her friend’s toes and a moment later his billowy white dress shirt hit the floor beside them both. Cielle’s breath caught in her throat at the sight.

Oh crap! What am I doing here?! Cielle immediately panicked at the gravity of the situation she found herself in. I’m under the bed… if I don’t stop this… She had to stop herself from following that line of thought. No! I’ll just have to stop it before it happens! I won’t let Larissa… or me for that matter… be subjected to that… that…. man!

She returned her focus to the situation at hand just as a heavy leather belt clasp jangled and then joined the white fabric on the floor. Cielle fought back her fear and dread and forced herself to keep watching, keep listening, for Larissa’s sake.

Larissa’s toes curled and she rubbed them together. Cielle could just make out the breathy almost panicked quality of her friend’s breathing. Hold on, Larissa. I’ll get you out of this, I promise.

“Why don’t you make yourself comfortable?” Branton suggested, his thick Italian accent slurring, and even from where she lay, Cielle could smell the sour wine wafting from his breath.

Larissa’s ankles got slowly and hesitantly closer to where Cielle hid, until she was near enough that Cielle could reach out and touch her if she chose. She fought the temptation to do so. Alerting Larissa to her presence now would only frighten her more. Larissa sat so gingerly on the edge of the tall mattress that Cielle neither felt nor heard any protest from the bed frame.

“That’s better.” Cielle could hear Branton’s smile as he advanced and Cielle clenched her eyes shut, not wanting to watch the heavy boots place themselves between Larissa’s dainty legs.

It wasn’t long before she felt the oppressive weight of the oversized muscular Lord on the bed above her. This time the bedframe around her did protest and she heard the thick wood creak. Cielle withdrew within herself, horrified by what she was about to bear witness to, even if she couldn’t see it. Perhaps, hearing it from the isolation of beneath the bed was almost worse.

With every shift of the Lord’s weight the bed frame creaked and Cielle withdrew further wishing fervently that she’d never come to Welland at all, never attended Larissa’s wedding and never plotted this doomed rescue attempt. Heavy breathing above her filled the air with the sour stench of wine and she choked on the smell, knowing that however bad it was for her here, was nothing compared to how terrible it was for Larissa…

A soft choking sob broke through all the other sounds assaulting her senses. Larissa!

***

Thanks for reading! Check back or subscribe to this blog for next week’s finale!

The Arranged Marriage – Part 5

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4. The novels: Unintended and Uncharted.

***

In the end, the Lord’s room was easy enough to find. It was the largest and highest room in the castle, except for maybe a small tower or two, there was nothing above it. Extra careful not to make too much noise in case of a stray servant or guard, Cielle let herself in through the massive double doors, and shut them softly behind her.

The room was garishly decorated in reds and golds with accents of green. She fought back a wave of nausea that was either caused by the effect of the colours on her senses or the fear caused by what she was about to do. I have to do something! Cielle affirmed silently. I know Larissa doesn’t want to be married to this old man, no matter how rich he is… The Arbors are forcing her because it’s the only way they can keep people thinking that their House is still as strong as it once was. She shouldn’t have to suffer for her family’s greed and ambition, it’s not fair!

Feeling determined now, Cielle set about setting up her plan and then slid herself underneath the gigantic four-poster bed, making sure to position herself so that she could see out a slit in the bed skirt. She managed to lay there motionless for a time, but eventually the boredom, or the long day she’d had, began to take its toll on her and she drifted off to thoughts of Larissa floating on a cloud, draped in white lace and nothing else.  

She awoke with a start to the sound of many slippered feet sweeping from the room. Peering into the now dim light of the bedroom, Cielle could just make out a billow of white fabric where it lay draped over the dressing screen and though the many pairs of slippered feet she’d heard were now gone, there was still one pair of feet in the room and those were bare.

I’d recognize those feet anywhere! Cielle’s mind jolted even more firmly awake as she saw the opportunity she’d been waiting for. She began to wriggle herself free from her hiding place when the double doors opened without warning admitting a very large, very muscular and very drunk Lord.

Cielle immediately retreated back into the dark confines of the underside of the bed, feeling her heartbeat quicken with fear and dread combined. No, no, no!

“Larissa!” The Lord slurred loudly, looking over his new bride. Cielle could just make out Branton’s upper body from her vantage point. His shirt was mostly open revealing a thick coat of dark curly hair and his arms were spread wide as if he expected Larissa to run straight into them.

“My lord husband,” Cielle heard her friend intone without much inflection and the dainty nude feet stayed exactly where they were. She’s saying that because he expects her to. Her heart went out to Larissa. She must be so scared right now.

Cielle fought her desire to run out in defence of her friend. If I expose myself now, I’ll just get kicked out and then I’ll lose the only chance I have to stop this marriage from being consummated. She gagged on the word. And I must do that at all costs!

***

Thanks for reading! Leave your thoughts below and subscribe or check back for parts 6 and 7!