Category Archives: Short Story

Under Your Skin

This one is a response to Mr. Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge (found here), in which my goal (after random selection, of course) was to combine the thematic/stylistic elements of Pride and Prejudice and Planet of the Apes. So yeah. This is what happened when I tried to do that. And I’m still not sure how I feel about it so feel free to let me know what you think.

*******

The sun rose, scorching and naked, as usual. It was another day, like any other. Life in this frontier town had turned out not to be as glamorous as Emily had imagined it, but now she was stuck here. Stuck. Stuck like her father had been stuck as a farmer, stuck like her mother had been stuck as his wife, stuck like the sun was stuck setting in the west. People get stuck. But she wasn’t going to stay that way. She had plans. First, though, she needed to get cleaned up. She stood, glanced down at her blood-spattered body, and started to walk back to the saloon. She needed to clean up and get everything ready for tonight’s show. Mr. Harkness was going to be there.

While Emily Harris made her way back to the saloon, Caleb Coburn made his way to the sheriff’s office. He was missing more cattle.

“You knew what you were gettin’ into when you settled here,” the sheriff said.

“I know, I know, but . . .”

“There ain’t no buts about it, Mr. Coburn. If it’s a problem, then go. Ain’t nothin’ keepin’ you here.”

It was a dismissal, plain and simple. Caleb stepped outside, his face expressionless, his fingers clenched. These people, this town. It got under your skin, but not in the way that made you one of them, in his case. In his case . . . well, things were different. And everyone knew it.

He walked down the road, the mud left by the storm last night half dried already, though it was barely eleven in the morning. There were the shoeprints, hoofprints, pawprints. And a whole mess of footprints left by bare feet. There was a train coming in at noon, as long as it kept to its schedule, so Caleb decided to grab an early lunch at the boarding house. It was getting too hot out in the sun, anyway.

Darlene Sharrock’s Boarding House was the finest eatery in town, mainly because the only other one was (technically) the Golden Spur saloon, which served simple fare, composed with all the care and technique of a mud pie.

The boarding house’s dining room was furnished simply, clean gingham tablecloths on the tables, polished (if scratched and nicked) silverware. Caleb walked in and sat himself down at a table facing the window. That’s when he saw his that his horse wasn’t tethered in front of the mercantile anymore. In fact, as he hurried outside, he saw it galloping out of town, in the general direction of Caleb’s ranch. He let a few coarse syllables fly out of his mouth. They’d done this.

He shouldn’t have been surprised; not really. People don’t like different; they want sameness. And Caleb was different.

The rest of the day went by in a mundane blur. The train came in, the passengers got off, crowded into the boarding house or trundled down to the saloon or headed home, carts drove through town, the blacksmith’s hammer rang with the rhythm of a broken metronome, and children roamed the streets like packs of wild dogs.

Night fell, and after numerous attempts to borrow a horse, buy a horse, covertly steal a horse, Caleb gave up and decided it was time for a strong drink.

Emily was singing beside the piano, every now and then glancing back at the door, waiting for Mr. Harkness to come through. Instead, she saw Caleb. She knew him when she set eyes on him, though she’d never met him before. Everyone in town knew him, the Son of Silver. She’d heard about how young John Thatch and his friends had scared his horse out of town; a joke in bad taste. He hadn’t done anything to deserve such treatment. She watched as he chose a seat at the bar. Bill ignored him, stayed at the other end of the bar and organized glasses that didn’t need organizing.

The singer finished her song, accepted the half-drunken appreciation of her listeners, and made her way to Caleb’s side. She caught Bill’s eye, ordered two whiskeys, and pushed one of them toward Caleb. He looked up at her. She smiled.

“Cheers,” she said, and downed the bronze liquid in a single, large gulp.

“Cheers,” he answered. He stared at her, confused and waiting for the other shoe to drop. To him, her niceness was the sugar glaze on the poisoned apple.

“I know what you are, beneath your skin,” he said. His voice radiated hostility.

“And I know what you aren’t beneath yours, Mr. Coburn, but you don’t see me treating you with contempt for it.”

She turned and went backstage to prepare for her next number, and did not see the surprise, consternation, and, finally, appreciation that flowered on his face as he watched her go.

“Mr. Harkness is out there.”

“Is he?”

“Well aren’t ya excited? You know he’s had his eye on you for months, Em.”

She nodded, her mind somewhere else.

The number was over, the night was winding down, there were only the town drunks and the poker players left. And Mr. Coburn. To all appearances, he was still holding the same whiskey that Emily had gotten for him. He watched as she walked to the bar, ordered another whiskey; only one this time. She watched him peripherally.

He walked to her. “Sorry. About earlier.”

“Maybe it’s not your fault.”

“You’re the first nice person I’ve met here. It threw me.”

“I just don’t see why we should treat you differently.”

“Well I’m thinking it’s for the best. I’m going to leave, find a place. Can’t raise cattle here anyway, you all just eat them.”

She was silent.

“You could . . . you could come with me.”

“I could,” she agreed.

Years later, she’d wonder what would have happened, if she’d gone with him instead of following her plan, which didn’t turn out anyway. If she’d gotten out of this werewolf town.

You’ve Got to Eat Them

Again, this one turned out a little dark. I blame it on watching too much “Hannibal,” but I won’t apologize because it’s a brilliant show, if somewhat disturbing. I’ll just say, one of the most disturbing images from it (that I’ve seen so far) has been Dr. Lecter’s recipe box, especially when seen in conjunction with his rolodex of business cards. Back to the story, though. It’s based on an idea that I got from my friend, Nick, who has this awesome blog. It was also kind of inspired by Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction Challenge (surprise!), over here. (In case you’re wondering, I got the words: moon, tongue, and legend.) So, without further ado, my story:

*******

Pancakes are simple. Flour, baking powder, egg, milk, butter, mixed together in the right proportions, cooked at the right temperature, for the right amount of time, and you’re rewarded with exactly what you wanted: flat, fluffy moons of baked batter, ready and waiting for a generous topping of maple syrup. You see, pancakes are like people. Once you get down to the core of them, their most basic elements, once you get what makes them tick, they’re yours.

These are the kinds of thoughts that go through my head when I have writing on my mind. I sat down to my computer, plate of pancakes in hand, glasses on my face, and opened a new document.

Four hours later, I took off my glasses and massaged the bridge of my nose where they’d left their crescent moon indentations. I didn’t know what was supposed to come next for my story. I felt like an adventurer following a treasure map, but, being unfamiliar with the cartographer’s notations and glyphs, I was forced to reference the accompanying legend rather than continue on with confidence.

I couldn’t work like this. In my experience, the essence of good writing was intuitive, not faltering. Sure, what is written intuitively might need a good polish and paring later, in the editing process. But its essence remains. What I lacked was that essence.

I went for a drive, to clear my head and get some smokes. I saw her in the liquor store. I knew her as soon as I saw her move, heard her speak. It was her that I was trying to put on the page so flounderingly. I felt as if I’d just spotted a Unicorn. And so, true to her legend, I pursued her.

Now that I’d seen her, all sorts of little details that had eluded me before began to come into focus. I could almost taste them on my tongue, like a connoisseur swishing a sip of wine in his mouth. Her name should be . . . Blanche, and she was a middle-school teacher, or maybe a secretary. But the deeper, more important details . . . I couldn’t taste them yet.

She drove to another store. I parked a discreet distance away and had a smoke. Sooner or later she would return home, and I had to at least see where she lived; it was an important detail. A person’s home can tell you a lot about them, details that might not be clear from simply observing them. People are more themselves at home; they let their essence peek through in places they live, because it’s a place that gives a false impression of control to its owner. Everyone is a sort of god unto themselves, in their own space: some beneficent, some tyrannical, some indifferent. But it wasn’t something that would become clear without seeing it.

The sun was shining in that happy, everything’s-coming-up-roses kind of way. I sat myself back down in front of the computer, fingers poised to let loose whatever garden hose of inspiration that the Muse would surely un-kink.

I typed a few sentences.

Stared at them.

Erased them.

Typed another.

Erased it.

My brow crinkled like bacon in the pan. I didn’t understand her yet, my Blanche. I didn’t understand her, and I needed to. The sun now seemed to mock me, laughing behind handkerchief clouds at my imagination’s infertility. I pushed back from the desk, paced the length and width and perimeter and square footage of the room, and the next time I noticed the outdoors, the sun had been usurped by the moon.

I was hungry, and I found myself wishing, strangely, that, like a werewolf from legend, I could cast off my cloak of humanity and pursue what prey I saw fit. Instead, I went to bed.

I’d say I went to sleep, but that would be less accurate. I had dreams. No, nightmares. Well, they should have been nightmares. They would have been nightmares to other people, I’m sure. There was far too much blood for them to be anything other than that. And yet, I found them almost . . . well, something else. They seemed to promise something, something satisfying, as sure as the moon promised sunrise.

I woke in the warmth of the same cheery sun from yesterday, but I barely noticed it. I grabbed a glass of water and headed to my computer, and as it wheezed into life, my fingertips did a rapid dance across the keyboard, tossing words onto the screen with an unthinking confidence that I hardly had time to second-guess. It felt right, what was on the page. The story was almost building itself.

I understood her.

Shocked by this realization, I leaned back in my chair, ran my fingers through my hair. A smile spread across my face, rivaling the sun in the sky for radiance. In celebration, I decided to make pancakes again, but with chocolate chips this time. I found myself reprising my thought from yesterday, which the same activity had sparked into existence.

Following the same track of mind, however, I ended up at a different location. For though you might think you know how something works, what makes it tick, you’ll never completely understand what a pancake is until you eat one, taste it on your tongue. You might be able to cook them to perfection, and know their scent like you know your own, but you’ll never get them.

Not really.

So you’ve got to eat them.

Helping Hand

It’s been a while since I’ve written content specifically for this blog, it’s true. But I’m a college grad now (made Dean’s List my final semester!), so that means, in between job-hunting and re-acclimating to home life, I will (hopefully) have more time to write! Anyway, this piece is a response to Chuck Wendig’s latest Flash Fiction Challenge (Warning: language), in which it was required that the story include a psychic power. My randomly selected option (out of the 20 listed) was Divination, and the rest is, as they say, the product of too-little sleep and an imagination getting used to being able to stretch and fly again. They say that, right?

[Editor’s Note: this story turned out a bit, erm, darker than I’d anticipated. Do with that what you will.]

*******

The signs were all wrong; I could feel it in my bones. Which was ironic, given that the signs I was reading were, in fact, in some bones. Rabbit, in case you were wondering. I didn’t kill it, though. I’m actually not sure who did, or if perhaps it simply expired in the middle of spawning its nineteenth litter of hairless, carrot-consuming Thumper’s, and was found later by some local shaman. Whatever the case, they were old by the time they ended up in my hands and helped me look into Fate’s inscrutable ways.

“What does it mean?” she asked.

“A lot of things,” I said. I didn’t want to tell her what I saw. Especially with all this intuitive static confusing the message.

“You’re not saying anything,” she said after a too-long pause. “That must mean it’s….” She trailed off. “How bad?”

I mumbled incoherently. She crossed her arms. “That’s not a word, Marc.”

I sighed. “Apocalypse. Or something close to it. You’re going to cause it, sometime in the next week or so.”

“Well that’s a bit more dramatic than I’d expected.” She leaned back in her chair.

“Me too.”

“I thought you were just gonna say you saw me dying again.”

You may be wondering why Em was taking what I said so seriously. After all, it was just a bunch of old rabbit bones, fallen in some random pattern dictated by their unique shape, the surface of the table, and friction. What did that have to do with the apocalypse?

The short story is, a few years back I saved Emily Harris’s life after seeing her die in one of my dreams/visions/whatever-you-want-to-call-things-you-see-in-your-sleep-that-foretell-the-future. You know, the normal kind of thing you build a friendship on.

“I wish it had been that simple. No offense,” I added as an afterthought. She shrugged. We’d known each other for six years now, so she’d had time to decipher what I meant and what I didn’t. “The thing is,” I continued, “the signs from the bones don’t line up with the dream I had last night. They’re kind of opposites, actually.”

“What do you mean?”

I cleared my throat. “I mean, the bones say you’re gonna cause the end of the world, but my dream said you were up for a big promotion at work, and your life was about to take a lot of really good turns. And I don’t know about you, but causing the apocalypse doesn’t sound like everything’s on the up and up.”

“A bit of an understatement, but I won’t disagree.” She shook her head, bewilderment and confusion playing tug-of-war on her face.

“I’ll get you some tea,” I said. I was getting all twitchy just sitting there, talking about this stuff. Nothing like it had ever happened to me before, and I’d never heard of it happening to other soothsayers (or whatever you call us) before. I put the kettle on the stove (always the traditionalist, where tea is concerned), and rummaged through the cupboard to see if I had any of Em’s favorite chamomile left. That’s when I heard the voices.

“…didn’t tell him anything, but…only guess he’ll suspect….”

Who was she talking to? I was about to go into the room and see if she was on the phone, when I heard a response. I’d never heard anything like it. It was…deadly and delicate, infernal and intricate. Hearing it was like seeing the most beautiful, angelic person you’ve ever seen, and realizing that the axe in their hands was swinging at your throat, a wicked spark of glee in their eyes. And though it spoke even more softly than Em had, I heard it speak my name.

“Marcus Clevenger must die.”

I stood, the strangling fingers of shock encasing my body. It (I refused to believe that that voice belonged to a human being) had known my name. It had decreed my death. And, judging by the footsteps coming my way, Em was on her way to deliver my sentence.

She was smiling. I couldn’t say anything.

“I suppose it all makes sense now,” she said as she made her way to the block of knives, her fingers skating along the counter top. I shook my head. She removed my favorite fillet knife, the one I kept sharper than a northern winter wind. Of course she picked that one. “Your vision and the signs in the bones…they were both right. My Master just promoted me, and, after I’ve gotten rid of you, I can move on to take my place at his side. And all the world will bow before us.”

“I…I saved you,” I said, trying to make sense of the senseless.

She moved closer to me, and as she pressed the blade between my ribs, she whispered into my ear, “And aren’t you glad you did?”

Death’s Rose

It was a bright clear day, the day that Death came to collect Rose’s soul. He appeared behind her as she was sitting on a cliff, overlooking the sea. She was unafraid, dangling her legs over a long drop into the pounding surf that broke and re-formed and broke again on jagged, unfriendly rocks. But there she sat, bright red hair dancing in the wind as she leaned slightly forward, enjoying the brush of the sea-salt breeze on her freckle-dusted face. For a moment, he paused. It wasn’t often that he had to collect someone so in love with life.

With the ease that repetition gives, he whispered to the rock slab she sat upon. She hardly noticed the slight crack as a fault in the rock seemed to suddenly recognize the strength of gravity. It snapped, and she was thrown from her perch, but not before securing a handhold. Her wide eyes were green, he saw, as he stood and looked down at her. Suddenly she was just like the millions of others he’d seen: frightened, desperate, clutching at the last remnants of existence that he was about to rip away from their scrambling fingers. She was just another human.

“Who are you?”

He was taken aback; dumbfounded.

“I’m . . . I’m Death.”

“Well be a dear and help me up, will you?”

“You want to feel the touch of Death?”

“Well I just looked him in the face, so I don’t see how his touch could be much worse,” she grunted as she brought her elbow up over the edge.

Wordlessly, he reached down and pulled her up. Her face went pale, and she fell in a heap at his feet.

“Thanks,” she gasped. It took a while for her color to come back.

Death sat down on the rock and looked at her.

“So you’re Death, huh? That must be a sucky job.”

“Aren’t you frightened?”

“Why? I knew you would come sooner or later. Is it time to go?”

He paused. “No. I’ll come back . . . . Later.”

She nodded. “Do you eat? Can I get you something to drink? Play some chess?”

He cocked his head, paused, and disappeared.

******

The next day, Death returned. Rose was sitting on the beach.

“It’s funny,” she said, not turning around. “I can feel when you get close.”

He sat down next to her. “It tends to happen once I’ve met someone.” The fresh ocean waves rumbled before them, tumbling over one another in their eagerness to get to shore, only to slink back and trip their brothers.

“What did you do with your extra day?”

“Wrote a few letters, watched the sun rise, ate a lot of chocolate.” Her laugh sparkled like a brook in the afternoon sun. “You know,” she continued, “when you came for me yesterday, your presence felt . . . familiar. And then I remembered. When I was six, I got really sick. They took me to the hospital, and I thought I saw your shadow in the corner. I could almost understand who you were, but my parents said it was just a nightmare, and then the doctors changed my medication and I slept a lot more.”

“I remember,” he said. “I almost took you that night, but it wasn’t yet time.”

She smiled. “Will you dance with me?”

They did not speak, but he held her warm hands, and they danced through the sand and the breeze and the sunlight.

“You’ve always been here, haven’t you?” she murmured as he gently placed her pale body on the white sand, her breath coming shallow and weak, like it had to travel farther than usual.

“Yes.”

“Do you ever change? Do you ever . . . get older?”

“I am old as the first sin. But I do not age, and I do not change, anymore.”

“Will it be that way for me?”

“I don’t know. I only take you to the door; I haven’t seen the other side.”

“They say that even you will die, one day. Does that mean I’ll see you again?”

“I don’t know.”

“Well I hope I do.”

******

They found her body in the afternoon. Her lips were turned up in a little smile, as peaceful as if she’d fallen asleep in the arms of an old friend.