Flash Fiction Friday: “Blood and Bells” by S.C. Jensen

This piece was written for the 12ShortStories.com prompt for April 2018, “Buy or Sell.” The challenge was to write a flash fiction story exactly 750 words. Here’s my take! Please leave your feedback in the comments. Enjoy!

“Blood and Bells”
by S.C. Jensen
750 words (exactly!)

Kelda hunkered low on the slushy bank and scrubbed at the blood on her nightdress. She pounded the pink-stained fabric against the frozen rocks like a lump of butchers’ meat that needed tendering. Blood leached into the icy water of the river and the fabric whitened, but her flesh grew red and chapped.

Late winter hung like a dingy grey sheet from the sky. Kelda squinted at the painful light of the horizon, dull and blinding. A cart clattered up the road next to the river. Kelda wrung out her gown and dashed up the road ahead of the traveller. Mother would be angry enough about the soiled clothing without her speaking to the Lost Folk.

The faint tinkling of bells followed as Kelda’s feet tripped across the hoary path. Winter’s innards broke through the surface and spilled out in wet, black gushes of icy muck. It slashed across the crust of snow like dried blood.

♦♦♦♦♦

“Where have you been, girl?” Mother loomed in the doorway at the back of the apartment.

Kelda slipped past the statuesque woman and into the kitchen. “Sorry, Mother.”

“There’s work to do.” Mother’s red face pinched downward. “No time for messing about.”

“Yes, Mother.” Kelda balled up the damp nightdress in her raw fingers and ran for the stairs. “I’ll be right down.”

“What do you have there?” The woman’s voice sunk between Kelda’s shoulder blades and snapped her to a stop. “Show me.”

Kelda turned and, fingers trembling, held out the soiled linen. “I cleaned it as best I could.”

“Blood?” Mother snatched the gown from Kelda’s cold-cracked hands. “A skinny little thing like you?”

“I found some rags so I don’t mess my dresses.”

“I thought I’d get a few years out of you yet.”

Kelda wanted to sink into the floor, far away from the woman’s gaze. Mother’s grimace turned up at the corners. The joyless smile was more frightening than anger.

“You’re a woman now, though.”

A noise from the parlor window saved Kelda from further scrutiny.

“Never mind then.” Mother shoved the nightdress against Kelda’s chest and peered into the street. “Hang it up. We’ll talk more tonight.”

♦♦♦♦♦

Downstairs, the front door slammed. The window rattled in its warped frame. Kelda watched the woman through the frosty glass as she bustled across the sodden street toward the market. The Inn rose above the stalls there, a queen upon her dais. Mother wasn’t going about the laundry.

A bitter taste flooded Kelda’s mouth. Her lip throbbed the girl realized she’d been biting it. She wiped at it with the back of her hand. More blood.

Farther up the road, the strange cart clattered through semi-frozen potholes, splashing black water into the air. Tiny silver bells jangled up from the street. Kelda tried not to fog the glass with her breath as she leaned closer.

♦♦♦♦♦

Kelda finished ironing the pile of towels and bed linens from the Inn and began repairing the lacework on one of the girls’ dresses. The Madame hadn’t paid for a wash, just the stitching. A sour, yeasty smell rose from the garish purple fabric. Kelda’s tongue was like sackcloth in her mouth. She’d die before she’d pull that dress over her own head.

Daylight waned before Mother opened the door to the parlor. She pushed a scrawny, scabby-looking girl before her. “Show the child to your old room.”

The woman’s voice was as thin as her smile. The girl stared at Kelda with wide, glistening eyes.

“Mother—”

“That’s Ma’am to you, now.” A heavy pouch clinked against her thigh when she leaned down to inspect Kelda’s lace. “You do good work, though. Pity for you there wasn’t a man to take you off my hands.”

“Who is taking me?” Kelda’s lips stuck to her teeth. She swallowed. “Ma’am.”

“You’ll deliver the Madame’s order tonight.” The woman wrapped a hand protectively around her purse. “Take your things with you.”

♦♦♦♦♦

Long purple shadows tugged at Kelda as she walked toward the market. Toward Madame’s Inn. She carried the linens in a gunny sack over her back. The weight of it pinched her flesh and pulled at her dress like greedy fingers. Kelda’s eyes searched the darkened stalls of the market, hoping.

Nothing.

Then a breeze blew through the town from the west, and on it the sound of her freedom. Kelda dropped the sack into the muck and ran. She ran from town, away from the Inn, away from Madame.

She ran toward the jingling of bells.

 

Advertisements

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Update

SC2016_EventBriteHeader01

I’ve been meaning to update you all on my first round of the NYC Midnight Short Story Contest ever since we got the feedback back a few weeks ago. So here it is!

Some of you may have read my submission already. You can find it here, if you’re interested. I was really excited for my submission this time. I got a prompt that was right up my alley and I was quite happy with what I produced. So I had been awaiting the results of the first round with bated breath!

Unfortunately, the judges were not quite as enamored with my story as I was, haha. They actually prefaced this round with a note that competition was very stiff, and not to feel badly if we didn’t score as well as we’d like. That didn’t happen during any of the three rounds I participated in for the Flash Fiction contest, so I guess I’ll believe them.

Alas, I didn’t even place in the top ten for the first round! But all is not lost. The feedback was actually quite encouraging, and it gives me some direction for what to do with this piece before I start submitting it elsewhere.

Here is what the judges had to say:

Feedback for “Tongue Tied” by Sarah Jensen

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1737}  Your narrative was complex, but perfectly executed. Your ideas were dynamic, but comprehensible. Your narrative landscape was intriguing!

{1772}  Suki has a clear outer goal that she pursues over the course of the story. The premise is original and keeps the reader engaged.

{1636}  The severity of the stakes is never lost, and even before clear conflicts arise, the tones does a good amount of work in terms of demonstrating the nature of the story ahead.  The world-building is also impressively done, especially in the early pages.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1737}  Try to maintain the clarity of some of your more thoughtful or intelligible ideas.

{1772}  Suki’s inner needs should be developed more. She has a clear outer goal to save her career and patients, but what about her inner drive? By giving her something to long for (for example, she needs to prove herself to the world) and an inner conflict to deal with (her desire to punish Meeker vs needing him), the story will make a greater impact on the reader.

{1636}  The dialogue can be a bit stilted at tomes, and at others, overly expositional.  Additionally, much of the language (dialogic or not) is so internal and specific to the world being created here that it might be off-putting to readers. An example: “You know Blastocorp produces only the highest quality pluripotent cells from synthetic lab-engineered blastocyst embryos.”

So, what do you think? If you haven’t read it yet, head over to my Flash Fiction Friday section and give “Tongue Tied” a read. Let me know if you agree or disagree with the judges, and if there is anything you would add! I will be submitting this piece somewhere, sometime before summer hits. All critique is welcome!

Indie Comic Review: RAGS

So, this is new for me. I’ve never reviewed a comic before. I don’t actually read a lot of comics, to be honest. I’m not sure why that is. I love art and I love a good story. I guess I’ve always been a bit intimidated by the sheer scale of the medium and the ferocity of the fandoms. It’s not a place for dabblers, or so I have told myself. Which was probably for the best, because I can see how easy it would be to fall down the rabbit hole…

Just call me Alice.

I “discovered” RAGS in a round about kind of way, when I met one of the co-creators–Brian Ball–in an online writing group. Initially, we discussed our frustrations with traditional publishing and ways that writers/artists can support one another get more exposure in a super-saturated indie market.

When I realized Ball was a comic writer, I was pretty excited. I know lots of writers, but I had never met anyone who wrote comics. In my naivety, I never actually realized that comics had writers at all. I always imagined the artist was also the one who wrote the story (and maybe that’s true in some cases). Thus my education in comic production began. I’d love to ramble on that; I find it fascinating. But I’ll save that for an interview with the RAGS team sometime in the future.

You’re here for the review…

I was a little nervous when I downloaded the teaser. Although RAGS: Prologue won the 2017 “Best Overall Comic” award from ComixCentral, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it. That might sound silly, but when you hit it off with a potential future collaborator there’s a bit of pressure to actually like one another’s work. At first glance, the premise of RAGS is really not my cup of tea. It’s about a half-naked woman running around trying to find pants during the zombie apocalypse. Trite, right?

Wrong.

RAGS is the story of Regina Ragowski, a veteran of the US Marine Corps, who finds herself running from a hoard of zombies, through a ransacked podunk town, wearing nothing but a bikini. How did this come about? Issue 1 begins to untangle the threads of Regina’s tale as she begins the hunt for something–anything!–to wear.

Some critics have gotten hung up on what it looks like this story is about, to wit: tits, ass, guns, and zombies. To be fair, there is a healthy dose of all of the above. Ball himself jokes that it is “the dumbest thing ever written.” However, this is not what RAGS is about and the story is anything but dumb.

There’s a lot of skin in RAGS, but the absurdity is superficial. I would even argue it is necessary. RAGS needs that little bit of kitsch to rescue it from being too dark. Peel back the bikini, and there’s a really raw, gritty story being uncovered.

So let me tell you why I like this comic.

First of all, the art is incredible. Luigi Tuerel has an undeniable gift. In particular, his ability to use facial expressions and body language to move the story. There is a physicality to the artwork, and I don’t just mean nudity, that transforms the reading experience. Regina Ragowski is portrayed as physically powerful and emotionally vulnerable. I absolutely love the way she moves through the panels. She is a force. Just look at this!

Yes, she’s beautiful. And yes, she’s naked. But Tuerel’s treatment of her is almost visceral. It’s sensual without being sexual. The nudity is somewhat ironic, too. RAGS uses the trope knowingly, having a laugh at the way women are often portrayed in comics and movies, while simultaneously exploiting the “sex sells” adage. Not only that, but it’s a nod to some of the ridiculous situations men and women in the military often find themselves in during combat. Ball writes from experience, too, with twelve years active service in the US Army and four years in the National Guard.

Come on. Just look at these facial expressions. The art is SO GOOD!

And it’s in the art that we get glimpses of the “real” story going on underneath the surface. It would be easy to read RAGS and see Regina as a bit of a bitch. The other characters certainly see her that way. A lot of critics have, too. I think these reviewers missed the complex interplay between the dialogue and the art in RAGS, though. As with all good writing, the story isn’t being handed to you in a neat little package. The characters say one thing, and the imagery says something else. There’s so much tension between the lines it’s almost painful to read. As a reader, to really get the full experience, you have to do some work to unpack the truth.

And it’s well worth the effort. The scene between Regina and her fiance, Sean, with its hints at her backstory, is heartbreaking. On the surface, it’s a couple having an argument and generally being awful to each other. Dig a little deeper and you see that Regina is struggling with PTSD and Sean is struggling with how to support her. This adds a depth to her character that is only beginning to be explored in the first issue. I’ve been privileged enough to read some of the upcoming story, and I am confident in saying that this is a comic worth following.

I highly, highly recommend becoming a Patreon patron for this project, not just because I think RAGS is great and I really want to see this team succeed, but because becoming a patron gives you access to loads of additional content and backstory that really enhance the reading experience. I have said that RAGS is sensual without being sexual, but the bonus content is definitely sexy!

RAGS has just been picked up by Antarctic Press which will help with distribution in the future. But the project is still funded out of pocket by Ball and his team. So if you are even remotely curious, please download the digital copy (it’s only $1.00). If, like me, you fall in love with Regina–boobs, bad attitude, and all–you can get some pretty cool gear from the RAGS Swag store at TeePublic, too!

Once you have a read, let me know what you think in the comments!

Fantasy Review: My Soul to Keep by Tananarive Due

41536

I just finished reading My Soul to Keep, a supernatural suspense novel from 1997, written by Tananarive Due. I had never heard of Due or her African Immortals series until stumbling upon a suggestion from a “Women of Horror” reading recommendations list. My Soul to Keep is not what I would call a horror novel, exactly. It is pretty scary, but not in a gory gross-out kind of way. Due masterfully integrates the supernatural into a vividly realistic story about Jessica and David, a seemingly perfect middle class African American family with a 5 year old daughter, as they navigate successful careers, marital bliss, and a series of devastating losses.

I’m torn on how I feel about this novel, and I think I’ll have to continue in the series to decide for sure. On one hand, I love Due’s take on the theme of immortality that has been so popular for the last twenty years. If you love vampire books but are tired of vampires, this is a great place to start. Due also tackles some interesting aspects of human history that most popular titles gloss over or avoid entirely, with a focus on African and Middle Eastern history rather than European.

However, the focus of the novel seemed to be on the inexplicable love between Jessica and David, which I just could not get into. From the very beginning, David’s character really rubbed me the wrong way. He’s controlling, condescending, and emotionally manipulative. Jessica is a bright, driven young woman who seems to have fallen for a guy because he’s good looking and good in bed (which–SPOILER ALERT!–he should be after 500 years experience).

The true horror of this novel is their relationship, and I’m not sure yet whether or not that was Due’s intent. I’m a bit cynical after the barrage of novels that romanticize abusive relationships in recent years (and, lets face it, these kinds of stories have a long history–from Wuthering Heights to Twilight and on). As the novel progresses, David gets more and more abusive, and it gets harder and harder to understand why Jessica puts up with it. But we all know people in relationships like this; Due’s story is frustratingly believable. What makes me uneasy is that, even by the end of the novel, it’s not clear whether or not we are supposed to love David like Jessica does or if their love is the horror of the novel.

It wasn’t until the very end of the novel that I could say whether or not I liked it. Due’s writing is lush, and often brilliant. Her characters certainly evoke an emotional response. But when the novel ended, I was still angry. I wanted redemption for Jessica and some kind of punishment for David, and while Due hints that this is where the series is going, you have to read on to find out for sure. But there was enough resolution that I did end feeling like there was hope, and this makes me want to read at least the next book in the series.

I suspect that Due intended for Jessica and David’s relationship to be unsettling. If she did, she executed it beautifully, and my own discomfort is testimony to that. Her depiction of David from his own POV is unequivocally selfish and greedy even as he is professing his love (obsession) for Jessica. I doubt very much that a writer of Due’s skill would make this mistake. But we never really learn how much of this Jessica sees for herself by the end of the novel, and so the emotional arc of Book One feels incomplete.

I’ll definitely read on, though. And I think I can recommend it to anyone who enjoys urban fantasy, supernatural suspense, paranormal thrillers, and yes, paranormal romance. Have you read it? What did you think? How about the rest of the series? Let me know in the comments!