NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: Update

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge: Update

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The results are in for round three of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction challenge. After scoring first in round one and third in round two, I was feeling pretty confident about round three. I was a little nervous, because I knew competition would be stiff. But the assignment that I received was right up my alley with Genre: Thriller–Location: a radio tower–Object: ice skates. The piece I wrote was my favourite of the three, by far. It was the most “me.” I was totally in my element.

And guess what?

I didn’t even place in the top half of my group! That’s right. Not even an honourable mentions, when I was pretty sure that I had one of those coveted top four spots in the bag, haha.

We don’t get to read the other entries, but they did post the synopses of the top eight pieces for each group. I’m not entirely sure where I went wrong. Based on the synopses of the higher scoring pieces, I may have been slightly off genre. Or perhaps I didn’t do anything wrong, and the competition was just that much steeper in round three.

Either way, I still had a blast with this challenge. Now I get to enjoy a bit of a break before the NYC Short Story Challenge starts in January 2018. I thought I’d share my not-so-winning piece with you here, as I still quite like it. Let me know what you think! Where would you like to see me go with this character? What improvements would you make? (UPDATE: Judges feedback below the story!).

Here is the NYC Midnight’s genre definition for Thriller:

Thriller

A fast-paced, gripping, plot-centered story that invokes an emotional thrill by mixing intense fear and excitement. Usually the protagonist is in danger from the outset. These fast-paced stories typically involve major threats to the main character and/or wider society and the attempts to prevent something from occurring. Common elements: faster pace, action scenes, plot twists, prominent villain, “ticking clock” timing. Thriller books include Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl. Thriller films include Se7en (1995), Mission: Impossible (1996) , and Black Swan (2010).

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen
Words: 977

“Kneel.” A voice grated in Ev’s ear like rusted metal. The man dug his boot into the back of her knee and forced her to the ground. A guttural scream penetrated the heavy wooden door before her, low and barking. A woman. The flesh at her wrists tore as Ev fought against her restraints.

Cold, hard metal pressed against the base of her skull. “Don’t make me shoot you.”

“If you kill me, she’s going to die.”

“She’s going to die anyway.” The man’s mouth twisted into a jagged-toothed sneer. “It’s the whelp we want.”

He kept his pistol trained on her and unlocked the door. Ev stared past the man at the scene beyond. Blood. Too much blood. Another scream rose up from the fathoms, rising and cresting to crash against the woman’s body. She shook with it.

A priest in dark robes bent his head to speak with the soldier. His eyes met Ev’s, piercing. He nodded. The soldier hauled her to her feet and shoved her inside. The sweltering air stank of shit and iron and sweat. Beads of moisture oozed out of Ev’s skin and burned her eyes.

“Untie her.” The robed man turned his gaze back to the tortured woman, his face relaxed into a subtle smile. Ev wanted to grind his face into the blood-soaked mattress and watch him suffocate. The soldier wrenched her shoulders in their sockets and cut the rope. Another wail from the woman filled the room.

“It’s time.” An ancient looking radio transceiver blinked on the wall behind the man. “You know why you’re here.”

“I need my kit.” Ev rolled her sleeves up to her elbows and rubbed her wrists. Sweat prickled Ev’s neck and rolled between her shoulder blades. Prisoner or not, she had a job to do. “Some water.”

“You need a knife.” The priest indicated a tray next to the bed. Three makeshift blades flickered in the orange light from the woodstove on the back wall. Dirty white leather wrapped around the stainless steel shafts. This wasn’t a delivery room; it was a butchery. One blade had what appeared to be tiny teeth at the tip. A wave of nostalgia flooded through Ev. She wondered if the woman enjoyed skating as a child, before the black robes came. Before the war.

“I’m not doing surgery with a shiv.”

“No.” The priest blinked. “You’re not doing surgery.”

The woman rocked on her hands and knees. The crimson stain on the back of her dress spread like the petals of a gruesome flower. Her screams gave way to a primal growl that tore out of her body like it could carry the baby with it. She was in traction.

“I’m sorry,” Ev said. The woman groaned on, unhearing. Bile burned the back of Ev’s throat when she grasped the grimy leather hilt of the longest blade. Ev motioned to the soldier. “Hold her down.”

The priest nodded and the soldier strode to the head of the bed. He flipped the woman onto her back and put his weight into her body, muscles tensed. The woman’s eyes lolled in their sockets, the surrounding flesh so pale it tinged green. If she died before delivery, the child might, too.

Ev slipped the knife into the woman’s dress and tore the fabric away from her bulging stomach. A lump protruded from one side, above her hip bone. The baby’s head. It’s a mercy, she told herself. Ev pressed the skate blade against the woman’s abdomen and closed her eyes.

“Forgive me.”

Ev plunged the knife into the woman’s womb, braced herself against the bed, and tugged downward. The woman’s body convulsed and she writhed against the soldier. A gurgle escaped her throat and her eyes bulged. Blood and amniotic fluid surged out of the wound, and the last of the woman’s life went with it.

Ev reached inside the cavity. Her fingers found an arm or a leg. She wrapped her hand around the baby’s body and pulled. Hot and wet and screaming the baby came into the world and Ev’s heart nearly burst. She ripped the woman’s dress away from her breasts and placed the baby on her still-warm chest. The infant rooted and latched.

“My daughter.” The priest’s voice cut through Ev’s relief. Acid burned her esophagus and she shuddered.

The soldier relaxed his grip but she stopped him with a word. “No. We’re not finished yet.”

He paused, and that was enough. Ev gripped her blade tightly and slashed upward. The soldier’s throat opened with a hissing spray of more blood. Ev spun and drove the knife into his side. Despite his armour, the blade slid into his flesh more easily than it had the woman’s. She wrenched the blade free and stabbed him again.

The priest shouted and lunged for the transceiver. He wasn’t fast enough. Ev aimed the dead soldier’s pistol at his back. “Don’t fucking move.”

She placed a sodden blanket over the infant and stepped around the bed. She kept the gun on the robed man and grabbed the toothed blade from the table. The man stared at her, wild-eyed. He wasn’t smiling anymore. “Patch me in.”

The man fumbled with the transceiver, flipping switches with trembling hands. Static filled the air in place of the woman’s screams. He held the mouthpiece toward her and pressed the call button.

“Mobile Tactical Surgical Hospital zero zero one,” Ev said. “This is Unit Seven. Do you copy?”

“Mitch one here, Unit Seven,” a voice crackled on the other end. “We copy.”

“The women are being held under the radio tower,” Ev said. “Proceed with caution.”

“Roger that, moving in,” the MTSH operator said. “What took you so long, Seven?”

Ev pulled the trigger and the priest crumpled at her feet. She picked up the receiver and said, “I had to deliver a baby.”

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

So there you have it! Let me know what you think!

UPDATE: Here is the feedback I received from the judges. Looks like there were some issues with clarity, and they felt that the “ice skate” usage was too vague. We also wondered (though the judges didn’t mention it) if this was crossing over into the Horror genre by definition, which may also have affected my score.

”The Midwife” by Sarah Jensen –   WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY –

{1795}  This religious takeover in the minds of writers today seems to be a recurring theme. Thankfully each look at this supremacy is different, but still, it’s very interesting to note. I love the conflict within Ev while she’s forced in to do this work and has to sacrifice the woman to save the baby and give her time to kill the men and deliver her message.

{1651}  The story feels high stakes with many suspenseful moment.

{1689}  I love how Ev’s actions reveal her inner character. The reveal that the pregnant mother so meaningless to the priest and the soldier is equally maddening and chilling. Ev’s swift action to save mother—and child indirectly—is breath-taking.

WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK –

{1795}  When describing the blades, I would actually mention that one of them is a skating blade. When you talk about the one with tiny teeth at the tip and then talk about skating, we think you’re still talking about that particular blade. But then suddenly Ev is cutting the woman open with a skating blade, and then later grabs the toothed blade to threaten the priest. A bit more clarity with regards to what and where the blades are might clear this up.

{1651}  There’s some spots I don’t understand. Did they kidnap Seven to deliver a baby and if so, how does her team know she’s there? How can Seven hold a knife and hold a pistol while breastfeeding a baby? Why didn’t she try to save the mother?

{1689}  Pull back at some point and give us some context. I don’t think that will undermine Ev’s identity or role. But we do need a better sense of what this is all about so that we are not distracted by trying to figure it out.

Looks a bit like judge 1651 wasn’t a fan, haha. Oh well, live and learn. I still like the piece.

Here’s the definition of Horror, as well, to give you some perspective:

Horror

A story intended to provoke an emotional, psychological, or physical fear response in the audience. Horror stories frequently contain supernatural elements, though not always, and the central menace may serve as a metaphor for the fears of society. Common elements: eerie atmosphere, morbid themes, heightened suspense, focus on death and evil, uncanny situations and persons. Horror books include Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Stephen King’s It. Horror films include The Exorcist (1973) and Poltergeist (1982).

 

 

 

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Flash Fiction Friday: “Hagfire” by S.C. Jensen

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The lineup to get into Hominids spilled into the street and curled back onto itself, a coil of black, twitching entrails. The hopeful clubbers huddled together in the cold-air burn, shifting and twisting impatiently as they waited for their turn. The shadowy tower at the core loomed above them; throbbing bass shook the blackened windows. Outside, the queue pulsed in response. Half-clothed and shuffling, dancers let the music move them closer to the centre. Hominids was always worth the wait.

“We’re not getting in.” Min blew smoke through her cupped fists. The streams jettisoned between her fingers in thick tendrils. She leaned into Viki to take another drag. “Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck.” Skanky smelling puffs of air burst above their heads as she cursed.

“We’ll get in.” Viki pulled Min’s icy, bare arms into a tight hug. “I told you we’ll get in. And when we’re in, I’m buying.”

“I need it, Vik.” Min’s body shivered. It wasn’t the cold that shook her. “I shouldn’t have waited this long. I thought I was chill. I’m not fucking chill.”

“Yeah. I know, benni.” The skin around Viki’s drug port crawled up her arm. She kept checking to make sure it wasn’t really moving. “The skad is blacker than I thought it would be.”

“So black.” Min rubbed her arm against the faux-leather straps on her bondage dress, itching. They had planned on hitting the 80s floor. Min loved the goth lounge, Bauhaus Bitch. Synth keyboards blaring and boys in dripping eyeliner. Viki didn’t mind as long as Min still came home with her. “No going back, say?”

“No going back.”

The line-up lurched and shifted closer to the doors as another group of hopefuls were turned away. This better work. Viki’s neck twitched like horseflesh. The bugs were at her now.  Hominids towered upward, a shadow against the starlit sky above them. Green tinged auroras danced with them, flickering in the magnetosphere. Min watched the lights, rocking on her heels. Viki held her close.

The meatsacks at the door thumbed away a group of neon bedazzled ravers ahead of them to a chorus of cursing. They stumbled their way to some other club in the strip, lighting up the night with pink and yellow glowsticks and shooting ecstasy mocks. They’d find a home. Rave-play was all-benni this year. Viki stepped up to take their place on the chopping block, Min tucked under her arm protectively. She flicked the butt of her joint into the gutter.

“Bauhaus is at capacity,” the meat on the left said and made to shove them off.

“Fuck. Knew it.” Min stiffened against her.

“Not Bauhaus,” Viki said. She caught him by the eyeball and held him there. “Hagfire.”

“Where’d a tart like you hear a word like that?” The meat smirked at his partner. “What do you want with Hagfire?”

“None of your fucking business.” Viki snapped her eyes to the other guy. He appraised her, silently. “But we’ve got business.”

An arm shot out from the quiet one.

“Hey!” Fat sausage fingers closed on Viki’s forearm like a vice. She pulled back, but it was like trying to move stone. “What the fuck?”

“Just a civvy?” The man’s voice was low and soft, gentle almost. He inspected the drug port at her wrist, a hack civilian job, but it did the trick. His eyes lingered at the raw, scarlet line inching away from the tube and up her arm.

“Not a fucking soldier, say.”

“How long since she hit?” The meat nodded at Min. She still rocked on her heels and stared at the northern lights, fading fast. Viki felt the fear creeping in. The oh-shit-we-went-too-far fear. Edge-of-the-abyss fear. Blackest skad.

“Night before last.”

“Benni.” He dropped her arm and stood back in his shadow. “Let them in.”

“You know where you’re going?” Other meat pushed open the heavy metal door. Behind them, the crowd stirred. Whispered.

“All-benni.” I think. Viki pulled Min through the door and into the pitch beyond. “You still with me?”

“I’m here.” Min’s voice vibrated, half-pitched and off-kilter. “Where are we?”

Not good.

Viki didn’t bother to reply. She twined her fingers into Min’s and led her into the belly of Hominids. The main floor was always dark and always deserted. Above them, each floor was dedicated to a decade in pop music history. It was kitsch and superficial and wildly popular, the heart of the city. She and Min had worked their way through every floor, every room. Getting in the elevator was like time travel.

Vik wished they were going up.

The only lights on main floor were on the elevator wall. They danced along the chicklet markers that topped each set of doors, blinking and shifting across the floors, ‘M’ through twenty. Five lifts moved constantly, but the sixth lift was lights out. It always was, as long as Viki had been coming to Hominids. A maintenance elevator, she had assumed. The only one with an extra marker. ‘B.’

“I’m cold, benni.” Min tucked into her, eyelids drooping. The port-arm still rubbed against her dress, faster now. It was like all Min’s life and vitality were being pulled into that limb. It flipped and twitched and made Viki’s skin crawl in sympathy.

I’m not that far behind her.

Viki pushed the unlit arrow on the dead lift. Down. Downdowndowndowndown. She watched the lights flitting above the other five elevators. Still nothing on hers. C’mon. All-benni. Work, say?

The doors rocketed open, shakily, like the thing was rusty. The shuddering sound made Viki’s guts lurch, but she stepped inside and pulled Min in with her. The doors hammered closed, shutting off what little light had spilled in from the elevator lounge. The lift was pitched.

Viki blinked away the amoebas that floated in her eyes. Her eyes adjusted and one of the floaters solidified. A soft, green chicklet of light. Phosphorescent green. ‘B’ for benni. All-benni. She pushed the button with a hangnailed finger.

Nothing happened.

Viki jammed it again. And again. Counting. Onetwothreefourfive. Onetwothreefourfive. Fucksake. Work, say? Onetwothreefourfive.

“Easy, say?” A voice crackled overhead. “You chill?”

“Yeah.” Viki talked to the ceiling. “Yeah. I’m chill. For now. But my friend—”

“You’re in the wrong lift, benni.”

“Hag—” Viki’s voice caught and cracked. She coughed and spat. “Hagfire. Please.”

Silence.

“We can pay. I can pay. I have cash.”

Silence.

“She’s not chill, say? She’s not chill and I’m blacking. Fucking Hagfire. Benni, please.”

Silence.

Viki’s stomach hit her throat. The lift dropped so fast she thought they were crashing. But the doors shuddered open and someone grabbed her by the wrist again. Min was wrenched from her grasp. A woman with a cigarette stuck to her lip grinned at her.

“Civvys, yeah?” She checked Min’s pupils and pressed at the now-raw drug port in her twitching arm.

“Yeah.” Viki winced. Min didn’t even register.

“When did you hit?”

“Thirty hours, maybe.”

The woman whistled.

“Who keyed you? Who locked you up?”

“We were chill.” Viki’s arm was doing the twitch thing now, too. The bug were under her skin now. Picking at her.

“All-benni, say? Thirty fucking hours?”

“I have cash.”

The woman turned on her heel and walked down the concrete hallway. Lights buzzed and flickered on the walls. Their yellow glow made the woman’s skin golden brown and her white sleeveless top dirty. Min trailed behind the woman, a sleepwalker. Viki followed, her eyes taking in the narrow waist and muscled back and heavy steps.

Militia, then.

The edge-of-the-abyss fear was back. Viki was teetering, vertigo slamming in her chest like a heart. The woman led them into a room full of people and Viki fell off the edge. Panic kicked her in the ribs and pumped her lungs. The room was full of other women, hard glassy eyes blinking at the newcomers. White tanks and brown slacks and black boots. They sat or sprawled across the ragged chairs and sofas that made up the waiting room. Waiting for what?

“These your freshies, Banks?” A blonde buzz-cut head lifted up. Red lips flashed.

“Shit. I thought you were dead, say?” Viki recognized the woman who’d given them the hit in Bauhaus Bitch two nights ago. Her cold blue eyes knocked over Min and landed on Viki. “You still chill?”

“Black fucking skad, benni. I’m blacking.”

“You’d better be. That one’s gone.” Banks stood up and kicked the boots of the woman next to her. “Hit her before she gets ugly.”

“Round two?”

Banks nodded the other woman led Min into another room.

“Where are you taking her?”

“She’ll be okay.”

“I want to go with her.”

“Do you, say?” Banks held out a vial of crystalline red fluid. Hagfire, she had called it that night. All-benni. Cutting-edge high. And the edge was cutting, alright. Viki felt it in her guts like a knife. She forgot Min. Banks pulled her hand away. “Most people don’t make it past twenty-four hours before they’re knocking on our door.”

“I have cash. Three hundred. For both of us.”

“Thirty fucking hours later, you waltz in. Still chill.”

“Not for long, benni. Please.” Viki thrust the green roll of twenties at the woman.

“Keep your money, say.”

“I need a fucking hit.” Hit’ echoed off the concrete walls. Viki winced. The soldiers were watching her. Blink. Her arm twitched and she rubbed it into her side to kill the bugs.

“You don’t know how true that is, benni.” Banks grabbed her arm and jammed her thumb against the port, opening the little mouth to her veins. Viki ribcage hummed. She couldn’t tear her eyes off the vial as Banks gave her the hit. Half a hit. A fraction of a hit. Just enough that the bugs dropped off her flesh and she could pull herself out of the abyss, back to the safety of the edge.

“Where’s Min?” Banks dropped Viki’s arm and stepped aside. Viki stepped a little closer to the edge. She pushed her way through the women and into the doorway Min had been taken to.

The room had six beds. Four of them were empty. One had the sheet pulled up and over, like a shroud.

One had Min. Pink froth frosted her black painted lips. Her dark green eyeliner left trails where it ran and pooled in her ears.

“Min? Benni?” Viki fell to her knees next to the cot. The fingers on Min’s right hand were sticky and red. A ragged hole in her wrist was all that was left of the drug port. But the blood wasn’t pumping anymore. “No going back, say?”

“No going back.” Banks spoke from the doorway.

“Fuck you!” Viki reeled on the woman. “What the fuck did you do to her?”

“Me, say? I didn’t do anything to her. What did you do?”

“What is this skad? She’s dead. She’s fucking dead, say?”

“The ones who make it to Hagfire are already dead, benni.” Banks wrapped a strong arm around Viki’s shoulders and picked her up off the floor. The shockwave hit her before the heat as the drug fired into her veins. “Right now, it’s the only thing keeping you alive.”

“Why?” Viki could barely move her lips to form the word. She drifted away from the edge, floating above the abyss, invincible.

“Because desperate people make good soldiers.” Banks half-dragged, half-carried Viki back out to the main room. “And we are in desperate need of good soldiers.”

Banks spun Viki into the small, dark-skinned woman who had led Min to the infirmary. Viki blinked her eyes and wrapped her arms around the bundle of clothes the woman pressed to her chest. She watched herself from a distance, feeling full and empty.

“All-benni, girls,” Banks shouted. “Say hello to the new recruit.”

The women stomped their feet in unison and pounded her on the back as Viki float-walked to the back of the room, following her keeper.

“Hagfire!” They shouted when she made it out the other side. “Hagfire!”

“Hagfire,” Viki said, with them. The word fell from her lips and plummeted into the abyss.

Horror Review: “Let’s Play White” by Chesya Burke

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Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke was one of the short horror/dark fantasy collections I grabbed after researching Black Speculative Fiction Month last October.

From the publisher, Apex Book Company:

Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke builds dark fantasy and horror short stories on African and African American history and legend, playing with what it means to be human.

White brings with it dreams of respect, of wealth, of simply being treated as a human being. It’s the one thing Walter will never be. But what if he could play white, the way so many others seem to do? Would it bring him privilege or simply deny the pain? The title story in this collection asks those questions, and then moves on to challenge notions of race, privilege, personal choice, and even life and death with equal vigor.

From the spectrum spanning despair and hope in “What She Saw When They Flew Away” to the stark weave of personal struggles in “Chocolate Park,” Let’s Play White speaks with the voices of the overlooked and unheard. “I Make People Do Bad Things” shines a metaphysical light on Harlem’s most notorious historical madame, and then, with a deft twist into melancholic humor, “Cue: Change” brings a zombie-esque apocalypse, possibly for the betterment of all mankind.

Gritty and sublime, the stories of Let’s Play White feature real people facing the worlds they’re given, bringing out the best and the worst of what it means to be human. If you’re ready to slip into someone else’s skin for a while, then it’s time to come play white.

 

And it is all it is cracked up to be. I enjoyed Let’s Play White so much that I couldn’t put it down, even when I knew it meant I wasn’t going to sleep. None of these stories is scary in a gory or violent kind of way, not really, although there is some of each peppered through the pages. What makes Burke’s collection so frightening is how human it is. The scariest parts of these stories are not the supernatural elements, but the human reactions to the supernatural. If you’ve ever wondered who you can trust in a changing world, the answer in Burke’s world is no one, except yourself, and even then you must be careful.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the nature of horror, and what makes a story scary, ever since I started reading the genre in earnest. And I think there is something about being “The Other” that is terrifying, on an existential level. This is why, I feel, the best horror of our generation is being written by Othered people: women, people of colour, LGBTQ writers, etc. People who write from the fringes of their society (this shifts depending on the society, of course) Burke does a wonderful job of illustrating this kind of fear, what I consider the real horror of the human condition, in her collection of short stories.

All of this comes to a head in the finale story, “The Teachings and Redemption of Ms. Fannie Lou Mason,” the longest in the book, and certainly the most haunting. “The Teachings…” follows the titular character, a Hoo Doo woman who finds her way to Colored Town, Kentucky to save two young girls that might follow in her footsteps. The horror of “modern day” Colored Town in contrast to the Underground Railroad of slavery from a few generations earlier is an excellent reflection on the vulnerability of marginalized people in North America today. And you won’t be able to shake some of these images, I promise you.

Chesya Burke is a writer to follow, not just for the horror/dark fantasy crowds, but for anyone looking to slip into another person’s skin (and for some, to really feel what it is to be The Other) even for a little while. Her characters are deep, true, and wonderfully, unapologetically  human. She’s written some of my favourite women protagonists in a long time. Check her out!

SF Review: “Chinatown” by Chris Reynolds

SF Review: “Chinatown” by Chris Reynolds

Chinatown

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I recently downloaded the entire Monolith catalogue from Crushpop Productions. CPOP is a Los Angeles based indie gaming company that produces tabletop and card games . The Monolith is an indie publishing company that sprang from the CPOP game worlds; it boasts a collection of post-apocalyptic fiction serials and mini-series’ set in the Goremageddon universe, as well as some other unique fiction independent of the CPOP brands. Chinatown by Chris Reynolds is the second series released in this world (sorry, I read them out of order! The first series, Absolute Valentine is next on my list…) I will be reviewing each series and mini-series as I read them, as well as the Monolith debut Ling Ling Conquers GRAXXand I will be doing an interview with Neuicon, the founder and curator of the Monolith catalogue later this month. Yay!

I’ve been meaning to read Chinatown for a long time. I collaborated with author Chris Reynolds on another project and really enjoy his work. You’ll be seeing more from him here once I start posting his “Combat Clinic For Writers” series as well as, hopefully, the release of our co-written novella once we finish that up.

Now, serialized fiction is a thing I’ve become interested in recently, both as something I’d like to try writing and a fun new medium to read in. My tastes in fiction have shifted over the last few years to include a lot more short fiction, flash fiction, novellas, etc. as kids and career obligations have eaten into my precious free time. I even attempted to release my NaNoWriMo progress in a serial style last month (with marginal success). But Chinatown is the first time I’ve ever actually read modern serialized fiction.

I’ve gotta admit, I’m hooked. The episodes are bite-sized enough that you can just read one when you have a spare half-hour or so, and addicting enough that you can binge-read an entire season a sitting or two (kind of like the readers’ equivalent to Netflix). Chinatown is the perfect introduction to the Goremageddon universe, too. It’s a fantastic genre-blending mashup that will appeal to a wide audience, and you don’t have to have a deep understanding of the world to follow the story.

Chinatown is part post-apocalyptic sci-fi thriller and part hard-boiled detective fiction. Episode One introduces us to Slade Tatum, a gritty police detective with the Chinatown Free Citizens Police Department, in a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles safe-zone. The first season follows Tatum as he begins what appears to be an unusually straight-forward missing persons case, and ends up being the most dangerous assignment of his career.

The world that Tatum lives and works in is familiar, but the PA twist will keep you guessing. There are cyborgs, high-tech weapons, complex political machinations, explosions and firefights–not to mention the pithy dialogue and bad-ass characters you’d expect from post-apocalyptic ds320237970922626399_p79_i3_w640etective story–to keep you clicking your way through to the end.

But the best part is, it doesn’t end. Not yet! There are 13 episodes in season 1 so far, plus a bonus story in the Monolith’s annual Halloween release Corrogatio III (which is free! Download it here).  So treat yourself to a new writer, a new genre, a new medium, a new world. Give Chinatown a try!

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” UPDATE

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Since it’s now December 4th, I should probably give a final update on my 2nd attempt at NaNoWriMo and my project “The Hunger.”

Last year, for NaNo 2016, I managed to get just over 3000 words into my project before I gave up and decided that writing 1666 words a day was basically impossible. But I plowed ahead with my writing, joined some online writing groups, dove into flash fiction and short fiction, and continued to focus on honing my craft.

This year, encouraged by some fellow writers and emboldened by my development as a short fiction and flash fiction writer, I decided that maybe–just maybe–I could do this NaNo thing. 1666 words was still more than I was usually writing in a day. But I was also having days where I wrote 2-3K, and I thought I could balance it out in the end. 50,000 words in one month is huge, but I thought I might be able to do it.

NaNo 2017 started really strong for me, you can read some of my progress here (Part One, Part Two, Part Three). I had a couple of challenges that I didn’t plan for right off the starting mark–friends of ours were in a very serious car accident at the beginning of the month and it was very hard to focus on anything for a while (it still is some days). I pushed hard for the first two weeks and managed over 25K, and also was able to complete my third round of the NYC Flash Fiction Challenge. Then I hit a wall.

The wall was about 2/3 emotional exhaustion and 1/3 poor planning. What I discovered with my NaNo 2017 attempt is two fold. First, 1666 words a day is totally doable. In fact, I usually exceeded that goal if I was able to put my ass in the chair and turn my phone off for a could of hours. If I wanted to push myself even harder, pairing up with another writer for a series of short (half-hour) sprints could easily yield 2-3K in a mere 1.5 of actual writing time–it’s amazing what a little timer and good-natured competition can do for silencing self-doubt. The word count, for me was not the biggest challenge. The biggest challenge was keeping it a daily habit, once you miss one day it snowballs pretty quickly and once you’re behind it’s easy to talk yourself into quitting.

The second thing I really learned with this attempt is that I NEED TO PLAN MORE! I’ve always been a pretty proud pantser, and I’ve resisted planning, outlining, etc. pretty hard over the years. And that works fine if you’re just weaving your way around, rewriting scenes, and editing as you go (like I did when I was writing The Timekeepers’ War) However, when you need to just plow forward and get your basic plotline down, it pays to stick to your outline! I missed a scene, and ended up writing a complete different story than I intended because of it. The good news is, I like my new version better. The bad news is, I had to go back and add scenes, kill a couple of characters, and rethink a lot of what I had originally written. And I stalled out. I couldn’t just ignore those issues and keep writing, knowing that I hadn’t set the stage for them. I don’t know if that is something I will ever be able to train myself to do–I hope I can–but that played a big part in my slow decline at the end of the month.

So I didn’t “win” NaNo 2017. But I’m still very glad that I did it, and I’m exceedingly happy with the half-novel I wrote in a mere 2.5 weeks. I’m going to continue with this project, and plan to self publish the results early next year. Thank you all for your support along the way. I’ll be getting back to my regular blogging schedule this week with reviews, thoughts, and flash fiction. Thanks again!

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2017

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One of the things I’ve always been leery of as a writer are paid writing competitions. It is hard to find competitions that are vetted by professionals and which offer something in return beyond “a chance” to win–whatever the actual prize may be, recognition, cash, publication. The return I’m talking about is that elusive and invaluable thing writers around the world are desperately seeking: FEEDBACK.

When I first heard about the NYC Midnight Challenges, I was curious. The set up appeals to me, for sure. You receive your assignment and then have 48 hours to complete it, eliminating the sense I always have that to enter a competition you must slave over a piece for weeks or months, hire a professional editor, and finally submit your 50th draft. Hey, if it costs $50 to enter, you want to make sure you’re putting your best foot forward, right?

The appeal of the limited time-frame for the NYC Challenges is that everyone has the same amount of time, limited ability to get outside help, and that you never know what you are going to have to write when you sign up. This evens the playing field, and also presents a different set of challenges from many competitions. Great. But what is even better is the guarantee that everyone will sit at least two challenges (in the Flash Fiction competition, other challenges have different structures) and that you will receive positive and constructive feedback on every round you complete.

So I took the plunge this year. My first ever paid writing competition. How did I do? Well, I’ll let you know when I finish. But I’m thrilled to announce that I have made it to Round 3 after placing first and third, respectively, in my group for the first two challenges. There were nearly 2500 participants for the Flash Fiction challenge this year, which is huge! Rounds 1 and 2 participants competed against 31 other people, each group received an assignment of Genre-Location-Object.

The scores from Rounds 1 and 2 were combined, and the top five participants from each group have moved on to Round 3. We have been assigned new, smaller groups (about 25 each, by my calculations) and each group has a new Genre-Location-Object assignment. Once we finish (yes, I’m supposed to be writing right now) and the results are in, the top four scoring participants from each group will move on to the 4th and final round. Yes, there are cash prizes for the top three in the final round. But by this point I will have completed at least three rounds, with three sets of feedback, and even if I don’t make it to the next round, I feel I’ve gotten my money’s worth. And I would have felt that way after the feedback on Rounds 1 and 2, too. Round 3 is a wonderful bonus!

But in case you’re curious, I thought I’d show you what my assignments, stories, and feedback have been so far just to give you an idea of what these challenges are like. Have a read and let me know what you think!

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Challenge 1: Genre- Action/Adventure, Location- a high-speed train, Object- a calendar

My submission: “Splitter” by S.C. Jensen

***A young girl travels through layers of time to stop a man whose existence is a threat to time itself. ***

It was wrong. All wrong. Ren spun the outer dial of her splitter, round and round and round and click!

 

“What are you playing with, child?” The passenger next to Ren smiled kindly down at her. He wasn’t supposed to see her. He never saw her. His voice, speaking to her, made her guts spin. She felt it the moment she slipped in beside him. Something was wrong in this lamina.

 

“Time.” Her voice came out like a tiny, broken thing. Ren liked to tell the truth, even when people didn’t understand her. But now she felt cold. Wrong answer.

 

“Oh?” The man studied her face for a moment, then dropped his eyes to the brassy disk in her hands. A glimmer of recognition flickered through the air toward her. The man’s hands trembled the way the hands on a pocket watch do when it needs to be wound, as if he wanted to reach out to her but was too tired.

 

He was going to die; everyone on the train was. Ren spun another dial on the splitter and checked the clock. Thirteen minutes, give or take. The train hurtled them toward their deaths. Round and round and round and click!

 

“A mechanical calendar.” His voice was all wound up. Tense. The splitter’s little internal mechanisms delicately ticked away the seconds. He watched her too closely. “What a fascinating piece of machinery.”

 

Ren didn’t want to think about what would happen once she was gone. Twisting, shrieking metal and twisted, shrieking bodies. It made her want to smother the clockwork heart of the splitter. She tried not to think too much about death. All of those lives, all of those souls fractured and split and sloughing off across infinite layers of time. Each one, spread thinner and thinner and thinner until it seemed they should simply cease to exist.

“Yes.” Ren spun the final dial and felt the splitter’s clockwork heart kick again. Maybe it would still work. Maybe she could still do it. “I collect them.”

 

“That’s an unusual hobby for a young lady,” he said.

 

The man was an anomaly. His iterations fluttered randomly throughout time, disrupting patterns and weakening the thresholds between lamina. It was her job to follow. To stop him. He never knew she was coming. He never saw her.

 

Ren watched a raindrop cut a jagged path across her window, one of many stacked upon one another like striations in ice. She imagined the raindrop’s path stretching out across time, limitless. Just like the train hurtled over the tracks, speeding, inevitably, toward the end, every lamina of time infinite and identical. Death upon death upon death. Ten more minutes.

 

“I’m not that young.”

 

“No.” The word dropped on her like a bucket of ice water. He knew. He knew she knew. Ren slipped the splitter inside her jacket, where it ticked away next to the throbbing, twisting muscle in her chest.

 

It had to happen. Now.

 

“Now!” Inexplicably, she heard the word burst from his mouth as she thought it. A passenger three rows ahead stood and turned.

 

It was him. The man, again.

 

She froze, her body all coiled up like a spring. To her left another passenger stood. Him. Him. Him. Impossible! There should never be more than one of any iteration in a single lamina.

 

Everything was wrong.

 

Ren launched herself over the man beside her—the first iteration—and into the aisle. He lurched behind her, his fingers grasping at the child’s body she wore. A woman screamed and Ren bolted.

 

From the back of the train car, two more dupes came toward her. Ren did something she had never done before. She drew the tiny pistol from the holster hidden in the fabric of her childish, flowered skirt. And she fired. Another flower, a great red one, bloomed on the closest man’s chest. One down.

 

The second dupe grabbed another passenger and backed up slowly. Ren wanted to hesitate; she wished she did. But it didn’t matter. They were all going to die, one way or another. Ren shot the passenger, and then she shot the second dupe. Now everyone was screaming.

 

Ren’s head snapped back and a hand plunged inside her jacket. The man’s thick fingers wrapped in her hair, tearing at her scalp. She twisted in his grasp. Her body was too small to fight him, but if she could just—

 

“Get off her!” The spine of a book cracked on top of the man’s skull and he dropped Ren in surprise. The woman from the seat behind cracked him again. “Get off, you pervert!”

 

Ren scrabbled back and kicked upward, driving her hard-heeled shoe into the man’s knee. His face curled up and he snarled, lunging at her again. Another passenger joined the woman’s assault. The man collapsed under the weight of them but his eyes followed Ren. She pushed herself back down the aisle, eyes locked on the man’s, and reached inside her jacket for the splitter.

 

“Don’t do it!” The man screamed and contorted himself beneath the pile of bodies. “Don’t!”

 

Another dupe crawled over the seats, skirting the mob, panicked eyes fixed on her. She had to act quickly.

 

“All of these people!” The man was crying now. “You’re a monster.”

 

Ren ran her fingers around the dials, not moving them but imagining their infinite possibility. She let the weight of the splitter drag her deeper into herself.

 

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she flipped the switch.

 

Time stretched itself limitlessly. She could see each strata as its own unique layer. She felt them with her mind, corrugated ridges that tickled her brain like the tingle of static.

 

“No!” The man’s voice followed her, along with the final click of the splitter. She peeled herself out of the lamina, imagining she could feel the heat from the blast as the train ripped apart. Tears sprung up and stung her eyes.

 

Everything was right again.

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1499}  Loved this story, and it had great suspense, characters, and action. The decision she has to make has real stakes, especially after a passenger assists her. That “everything was right again” has great irony attached to it.  {1749}  Though I was a bit confused by your story, you created good action in your story.  The theme was unique and very clever.  {1793}  The ending is solid. Rem’s inner-conflict is a good tool to keep the suspense going.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1499}  Not exactly sure why this time was so different, why the man had more power/visibility than he had before. That part confused me a bit. Where did he get these additional powers?  {1749}  I wasn’t certain what Ren’s purpose was on the train.  Was she simply there to make sure the train exploded?  Were the “bad guys” really good guys trying to stop the train from blowing up?  It was a bit confusing. Also, I would suggest using a more common term than “lamina,” since the last thing you want to have the reader have to do is either gloss over it and have to stop and look up its meaning.  {1793}  The story might be improved with a quick explanation by Rem of why she is actually on the train. She might want to catch the dupe, and it might be revealed that she is the only one intending to crash the train, and trying to thwart any would-be heroes. A quick description, even a false one, might help to deepen the sense of conflict.

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Challenge 2: Genre – Fairy Tale, Location – a hot tub, Object – a pair of gloves

My submission: “Making Suds” by S.C. Jensen

***A soap-makers’ daughter takes on the family business when her parents become enchanted by a new baby. But she has some competition from a local river spirit, the Nixe.***

Once upon a time, when stories flowed like rivers and rivers were never what they seemed, there was a girl. Her name was Suds. It wasn’t her real name, but her parents were soap-makers and they thought themselves very clever.

 

They were also very sad. Suds’ parents longed for another child. In fact, the soap-makers whispered that they were cursed.

 

Suds knew that was nonsense. But that was the way of grown-ups, she thought, always wishing for more and forgetting what they’ve got.

 

 

Then, when Suds was twelve years old, her mother gave birth to a baby boy. Suds loved her brother. Everyone was very happy.

 

 

With her parents so distracted, Suds enjoyed her freedom. She roamed the woods outside their village, picked berries, snared rabbits, chased pheasants, and never once thought about making soap.

 

The weeks turned into months, and her parents’ infatuation with the new baby grew. The family needed money. But neither the mother nor the father could bear to leave the boy, not for a moment.

 

“Suds, we need you to go down to the river today,” her mother said one morning. She rocked the baby boy and cooed.

 

“For what?” Suds asked.

 

“You must leach the lye and make the soap,” her father explained. “Or soon we will starve.”

 

“Alone?”

 

“Your brother needs us,” her parents said. “We need you. Please go to the river today.”
Suds collected her tools and glared at the soap-makers.

 

“Don’t forget your gloves,” her mother said, looking at the baby. “And don’t talk to the Nixe.”

 

Down at the river, Suds built up a fire. She hauled the great iron tub up over the coals, filled it with water, and waited for the water to boil.

 

All the while, a creature watched her from the bank. Suds never looked directly at it. If she did, it was sure to start talking to her. River spirits loved to talk to children, especially children who were not with their parents. The thing crept closer. It smelled of rotting fish.

 

“What are you doing, child?”

 

Suds ignored the Nixe and stirred the water in the tub. She hummed quietly to herself and waited for the water to boil.

 

“Where are the grown ones, girl?”

 

Suds ignored the Nixe and watched the bubbles begin to rise from the bottom of the iron tub. She hummed quietly to herself and shovelled some ashes into the boiling water.

 

“Let me try, will you?”

 

At this, Suds looked up. The Nixe cocked its head. Milk-white eyes rolled in sockets of water-logged flesh. The fish smell was much worse up close. Suds knew better than to make a deal with a river spirit. But she longed to go exploring in the forest.

 

So Suds showed the Nixe how to keep the fire hot, boil the water, scoop the ashes, and skim the lye. And, most importantly, she showed the creature how to protect its delicate skin from burning with the heavy leather gloves. Soon, the creature was doing all the work for her.

 

“Delightful!” The spirit’s black tongue flashed out between its lips and it tugged at the gloves. “But this soap-making is giving me an appetite. Let us make a deal. I will do your work for you if you bring me something to eat.”

 

“I can fish,” Suds replied warily.

 

“I hate fish. All I eat is fish. Cold and slimy and flip-flopping,” the creature said. “No. Bring me a basket of berries from the forest and I will make fifty bars of soap.”

 

Fifty bars of soap was twice as many as Suds could make in a day. It was a deal worth taking. So she went off to gather berries and enjoy a day in the forest.

 

When she returned with the berries, the Nixe bared its sharp teeth in a smile. It gobbled the berries up, presented the pile of soaps, and leapt into the river with a splash. Suds carried the soaps home to her parents.

 

The soap-makers were thrilled. They hugged Suds and praised her and wondered how they had been blessed with such a wonderful daughter. Suds basked in their love and privately vowed to make a deal with the river spirit again tomorrow.

 

“I will make one hundred bars of soap for you,” the Nixe said the next morning. “If you bring three plump, juicy rabbits to fill my belly.”

 

Suds knew her snares were full and she looked forward to another day in the woods. She took that bargain, too. And when she returned, the Nixe had all of her soaps prepared. Again, she returned a hero to her parents. The next day the price was six pheasants. Suds thought herself very lucky.

 

But on the fourth day, the Nixe was harder to please.

 

“I am very, very hungry,” the river spirit said. “Today I need something more.”

 

“What is your price?” asked Suds.

 

“I will make your soaps for the rest of your life,” the Nixe fluttered its gills and sniffed. “But you must bring me the baby.”

 

“That,” said Suds, “is something I will not do.”

 

“You will,” said the Nixe. “Or I will have you instead. I am very, very hungry.”

 

“No!” Suds lunged at the Nixe, but it was a slippery creature and much wilier than the girl. The river spirit slipped right out of Suds arms and it shoved her into the hot tub of lye.

 

The Nixe knew just what to do. It pulled on the protective gloves, and stirred the pot. When Suds’ bones had dissolved, it made the broth into soap.

 

Then, the river spirit drew upon its glamour. It turned itself into a girl, very like Suds, but for the wet hem of its dress and the rumbling of its stomach. And it brought the bars of soap to the grateful mother and father.

 

And everyone lived happily ever after. Except, of course, the soap-makers.

Judges Feedback:

WHAT THE JUDGES LIKED ABOUT YOUR STORY – {1651}  This has all of the elements of a classic fairytale. We gets a strong sense of Suds and that she would rather play in the forest than make soaps.  {1597}  I really enjoyed the classic fairy tale structure you used, complete with negligent parents and children who just want to wander in the woods. The kind of Faustian deal with the Nixe was fun to read about. The ending is dark but satisfying.  {1739}  In the beginning, Suds seems to be clever and her deals are basically made in the hopes of her parents’ adoration. The anticipation built as we work toward the payoff is well paced.  WHAT THE JUDGES FEEL NEEDS WORK – {1651}  If a creature told you that it was going to eat you, why would you lunge for it? Instinctually, it does not make sense. I also didn’t understand the ending; why did the soapmakers not live happily ever after? For all they know, they still have their two children and all the soaps they can sell.  {1597}  One flag that was raised for me is that since the parents are aware of the Nixe and warn her not to speak to it, they would probably be suspicious when she comes home with 50 perfect soaps on her first day. It seems strange they wouldn’t have suspected and put a stop to it. Also, I wasn’t sure I believed Suds would be reluctant to sacrifice her baby brother. I’m not sure if you need that last line.  {1739}  If the Nixe has the ability to ‘glamour’ why hasn’t it done this already and worked its way into a home? Why would a river sprite be able to live in disguise as a human? Suds doesn’t display any love for her brother. Why wouldn’t she agree to hand him over?

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 3

23222902_2135986889961848_997101601_oIn an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory! This is Part 3 of my progress.

I figure NaNoWriMo is a lot like writing a serialized novel; you have a rigorous pace to keep and no time to go back and change things or fuss around with word choices. This is a first draft habit I struggle with and really need to improve upon. So I’m committing to writing 50K words this month, and sharing with you as I go. I hope you will read along, toss me the occasional word of encouragement, and inspire me with ideas for what should happen next. The working title for this piece is “The Hunger” and it is a supernatural thriller about a family canoe trip that goes horribly, horribly wrong. Enjoy!

Click here for Part 1: Chapters 1-3

Click here for Part 2: Chapters 4-8

Chapter Nine

“Well,” Frank said. He stood before the boarded up entrance of the tunnel and scratched his head. “I guess we can’t argue with our own eyes.”

Margaret thought that was rich after he’d spent forty-five minutes arguing with Margaret and Robert about what they’d seen with their eyes. The entrance to the mine wasn’t visible from their campsite. Frank had been convinced that his map was right and Margaret and Robert were having some kind of joint hallucination. Brian was convinced they were trying to play a joke on the rest of the group. It was Ellie who said, “Let’s go check it out, then.”

The trip through the forest toward the bottom of the cliff went pretty well. Margaret felt the oppressiveness of the trees around them, like an endless pressure. But in reality, the trees grew with quite a bit of distance between them and the underbrush was minimal. The dry crunch of pine needles below their feet was the only sound as the group hiked on in silence.

The silence itself was unsettling. Not that Margaret wanted to listen to a bunch of know-it-all chatter from the Swains. But without their voices to distract her, Margaret became very aware of the actual silence. The forest was too quiet. There were no birds. No leaves rustling. Just the dead crunch of pine needles under their feet. It was unnatural.

That feeling didn’t go away once they stood in front of the mine entrance. The Swains didn’t seem to notice. But Ellie and Mom shifted from foot to foot and scanned the trees the same way Margaret was. Robert stood stiffly next to her.

“Fascinating!” Gerald walked around the entrance to the mine, kicking at ancient debris with his toes. “Even if this isn’t Drake Mine, it definitely looks like someone was mining here. What is it they were looking for around here?”

“Copper, mostly,” Frank answered. “But Drake Mine is the only one legally registered in the area. It’s possible this is an offshoot passage from one of the main drilling chambers, though. Like and emergency exit.”

“When do we go in?” Brian’s eyes glinted with excitement.

“Shouldn’t we check up lake to see if there’s another main entrance?” Margaret asked. She wasn’t keen on the idea of them exploring the mine at all. Further exploration would at least delay the inevitable. Maybe they’d get weathered out before anyone went underground. She didn’t know why, but the idea of anyone going inside the abandoned mine bothered her worse than any of it. It just felt wrong, like an intrusion.

Hell, even Charles Thomas hadn’t wanted to go near the mine.

“Well it’s definitely Drake,” Frank said. He picked up picked up an old, gray board stamped with black letters: DRAKE. “One shaft is much like the others. We could go in here.”

“Unless you wanted to check for bones,” Brian joked. “With tooth marks.”

Mom’s eyes focussed on the boarded up entrance, drawn to the darkness beyond. “Bill Williams said they burned the bodies,”

“’Bill Williams’ said whatever he thought he could say to get a rise out of you girls,” Brian said, carefully including Robert in his pointed gaze.

“Well I, for one, would love to go check it out.” Gerald proudly slapped Frank on the back. “Let’s have a look at the old profession, shall we?”

“We can discuss our options back at camp,” Frank said. “I’m starving.”

“Just as long as I’m not on the menu, bro.”

“Not yet,” Robert said. “But I suppose if we were desperate enough…”

“Don’t get his hopes up, Bobby,” Ellie said. “Things will have to be more than desperate before anyone eats Brian.”

“Fuck off,” Brian said.

But they followed Frank’s advice and ended up back at the camp. Frank was full of enthusiasm for the next few days’ exploration.

“We’ll go into the first shaft initially. If this is the main Drake shaft we’ll have lots to explore,” he said. “If not, we’ll get in a little ways and reassess.”

“You make it sound so easy,” Margaret said.

“It is easy,” Frank said. “Why wouldn’t it be?“

“You’re a few decades off the rescue mission,” Ellie said. “For one thing.”

“Look, Drake Mine is nothing to be afraid of,” Frank said. “Yes, there is some awful history. But as Dad can tell you, history doesn’t make the place.”

“It’s true,” Gerald said. “There are lots of places in Canadian history with horrific pasts.”

“And, what,” Ellie asled. “We just forget about it now? I’m sure that’s exactly what our ancestors wanted.”

“Your ancestors sold the land to government officials,” Frank said. “They knew full well what they were doing.”

“Have fun down there, then,” Robert said. “But I’m not going in and I’m not supporting this foolishness.”

‘Surprise, surprise,” Brian said. “Bobby Is afraid.”

“Bobby’s not a fucking moron,” Ellie snapped.

“Ellie, please.” Mom’ had her warning voice on again.

“Look, you guys do what you want tomorrow,” Margaret said in an attempt to keep the peace. “I’d like to see if we can find the main shaft further up the lake. Anyone want to come?”

“You can’t make it all the way up there and back in a day,” Frank said. But he sounded somewhat appeased by Margaret’s admitting his map might still be right.

“Unloaded, with three paddlers, we should be able to do eight kilometers an hour,” Margaret said. “As long as the weather holds. It’s only 25 kilometres to the mine. We’ll be able to check it out and be back before supper.”

Brian scoffed as if he didn’t believe it. Margaret thought if she paddled like Brian did she wouldn’t believe it either. But she knew they could make it easily, as long as the winds stayed like they had this morning. And so far the sky was clear, with no hint of the winds that had tormented them the night before.

“I’m game,” Robert said.

“You okay with that, Mom?” Ellie asked.

“Sure,” Mom replied. “I’ll hold down the fort here. These fools still need someone to make lunch, I guess.”

“Come on, Grace,” Frank said disapprovingly. “You know I want you to come with us.”

“Really, dear,” Mom said. “I’d rather not. I thought I might when we talked about it in town, but after seeing the thing I really have no interest in going in there. I’ll take lunch duty.”

“It’s settled then,” Gerald said. “Now when’s this food going to be ready? I’ll make us some drinks.”

Gerald seemed to come with an endless supply of whisky wherever he went. The man never appeared to be drunk, but he also never stopped drinking, so who knew. He rustled off into his tent to find whatever he needed to play bartender.

“You guys really don’t want to explore the mine?” Brian asked. He seemed genuinely baffled. “I’ve got my med kit and we brought climbing gear. It’s totally safe. Grace?”

“Who’s going to make your grilled cheese sandwiches if I get stuck under a rock?”

“Alright folks, drinks up.” Gerald came out of his tent shaking a novelty rugged-style martini shaker with a stack of stainless steel cups in his left hand. “Tomorrow is a big day.”

Robert laughed. As much as he hated the Swains, Robert had a soft spot for Gerald’s old lush persona. He stared into the cup Gerald offered him. “What the hell is this? A cherry?”

“You can’t have a proper Manhattan without a cherry,” Gerald winked. “Of course, to be a proper Manhattan I’d have to stir them. But I’m a practical man.”

“Says the man who brought vermouth and bitters on a canoe expedition,” Mom laughed.

Margaret sipped her cocktail and bit into the bright red marichino cherry. “How civilized,” she said.

 

 

Chapter Ten

Maybe it was the Manhattans—she’d had four—but Maragaret slept better that night. It helped that Brian stayed in his own tent and didn’t bother with the screaming and the shaking. But overall, Margaret felt better, better about everything.

The Swains would do their urban explorer thing; Brian would probably videotape the whole thing and have it uploaded on some website within moments of getting back to a wifi signal. Mom was going to stay back and tend camp. And Ellie, Robert, and she could escape, even if it was just for an afternoon.

She felt good.

When Robert stumbled into the tent a few hours afterward, she rolled over and pressed her ass against his crotch. Robert grunted appreciatively, slid a hand into her fleece pyjama pants, and slipped them down around her hips. Ellie snored on the other side of the tent.

Maybe this trip wouldn’t be so bad.

Even Margaret could admit that her reservations about coming to Drake Mine had never been based on anything concrete. For some reason, when Frank brought the idea up a few weeks ago, Margaret reacted with the same gut-wrenching refusal that she felt for anything Frank suggested. No, no, no, hell no. Maybe that was all it was.

At the time it had felt like more. It had felt like fear. But she had no reason to be afraid. She’d heard the history—they learned it in sixth grade Social Studies—but it had never really resonated with her. When they were growing up, Margaret and Ellie spent most of their free hours in the bush. Her sister gave her a hard time for taking local myths too seriously, but Margaret knew some of the stories held more weight than others.

Her concerns about Drake Mine were more practical than residual school-girl nerves about spirits. She was worried that Frank would get hurt. Or worse. And that, for all that she hated the man sometimes, her mother would be alone again.

Frank wasn’t so bad, when she really thought about it.

A few hours after Robert had finished, Margaret woke again. She shifted out of the cold, wet spot she lay in and pulled up her pyjamas. The night was quiet. The only sound was the wind sighing through the trees, obviously much more content with their presence than the first night.

Brian probably had too much to drink and passed out before he could continue the prank. Good, Margaret thought, because if he tried it tonight Ellie probably would beat him with the paddle. Then they’d have to hide the body. Margaret giggled to herself.

It was strange, she thought as she drifted off again, how much the trees sounded like whispers. Like voices chattering around the tent. She wasn’t supposed to acknowledge any ‘superstitious nonsense’ when they were out in the wild, Ellie and she both knew how easily fear could take hold and make you think the strangest things were true. But tonight, Margaret didn’t feel afraid. She listened to the trees whispering to one another and wondered, vaguely, if they were talking about them. The motley crew that had turned up to explore this mine that shouldn’t even be here.

 

 

Chapter Eleven

They got an early start in the morning. Margaret wanted to take advantage of the same calm they’d had yesterday morning. She wanted to make it up to the mine and back in record time, just to drive home the point to Frank about what shitty paddlers he and his brother were. She wasn’t sure why, but she’d woken up feeling antagonistic again.

Luckily, neither Ellie nor Robert seemed very enthusiastic about lingering at breakfast. They both powered through their coffees, mostly ignored the Swain’s explorer talk, packed some snacks, and were ready to go.

“You sure you don’t want to come, Mom?” Ellie asked as they loaded up the canoe with their day packs and water bottles. “We could squeeze you in here.”

“Thanks, Ellie,” Mom said. “I know. But my knees aren’t too thrilled with the idea of more paddling. I’m looking forward to a day by the campfire with my book, actually. I’m not as young as I once was.”

“But you’re as young now as you’ll ever be,” Robert chimed in.

“What did I tell you about country music?” Ellie tossed a paddle at him. “You want to go swimming today?”

“I’ll make the curried chicken for supper tonight,” Mom said. “I’m sure you’ll all have an appetite.”

“Sounds good, Ms. Churchill,” Robert climbed into the canoe. “Don’t let those silly Swains lure you into the underground.”

“Not much chance of that,” Mom said. “I don’t fancy myself a canary, thank you.”

“See you soon, Mom.” Margaret said from the bow. “Love you.”

“Love you too, girls,” Mom said. “And you, Bobby. Have fun out there!”

###

That morning on the lake was a totally different experience from the morning before. The early morning mists still curled around the trees on the shore, and the gentle breaths of wind still stirred them across the lake. But the day felt much less ominous that yesterday, Margaret thought.

It seemed everyone was on the same page about showing up the Swains paddling skills, because Robert and Ellie drove them forward with record speeds. So much that Margaret struggled to keep up with their pace and find her place in the rhythm of the strokes.

The fat white canoe cut through the water like a schooner, skimming across the top of the lake as if they were weightless. Margaret revelled in the feeling of real paddling. This was what she missed. This is what she longed for when she was out in the bush.

Margaret watched the water break and spray off the front of the canoe. The two waves the slid next to the hull churned up the water right where she dug her paddle in. In that moment she felt one with Reyer Lake, like their presence had a purpose beyond fulfilling some macho dream of Frank Swains.

“Do you think we’ll find anything at the end of the lake?” Ellie wondered, slightly breathless from the rigorous pace. “What are the chances that there are two entrances to the same mine?”

“Pretty good, actually,” Robert said. “I didn’t want to say anything to the all-knowing Swains. But my Gramps mentioned lots of little ins and outs in the area. Some of these old mines are huge, it would be ridiculous to only have one entrance or exit.”

“So why did the Swine have such a hard time wrapping his head around the idea?”

“Well, first of all, because I am the one who told him,” Margaret said. “And I’m known to be ‘unreliable’ and ‘skittish.’”

“Mostly that,” Robert said. “Plus, for all Frank wants to be the expert, the mining industry today is very different from back in Gramps’ day. Those were the Wild West years. Wild north, I guess.”

“Bascically Frank is a prejudiced old wannabe,” Ellie said. “Yeah. Okay, I’ll buy that.”

They kept paddling without talking for most of the morning, just enjoying the calm waters and the warmth of the sunshine. As the heat of the day burned off the fog, the trees looked quite beautiful to Margaret. The evergreens were brilliant in their various shades of blue and green. And the few deciduous trees that retained their leaves after the first frost offered a shot of yellow and orange to brighten up the landscape that matched the neon-coloured lichen that seemed to cover every rock that inched toward the water.

Margaret didn’t know what it was, but there was something that was just right about the north. It had that fresh, unlived-in feel that she had never experienced anywhere else—not that she’d been so many places. But Margaret had a feeling that if all the people on earth just evaporated someday, that in a few years the planet would look a lot more like this—like the north and its trees and its lichen and the cool breeze that braced itself across the lake. The cool breeze that had a hint of winter in its breath.

“It’s getting cold,” Ellie said.

“Yeah,” Margaret replied. “Definitely turning over to winter at this point. I hope we don’t see any snow in the next couple of days.”

“Maybe being able to explore a little closer to the mainland will get us off Reyer more quickly,” Robert said from the back of the boat. “I wouldn’t be sad if we hit the road before temperatures drop below zero.”

“End of the line up there,” Margaret said. “You see anything that screams ‘mineshaft’ up ahead?”

“Hard to say,” Ellie said. “Let’s get out and walk around anyway. My knees are getting stiff.”

They pulled up to the far shore just after noon, dragged the canoe out of the water, and Margaret unpacked some of the sandwiches she’d made that morning. Neither she nor Ellie mentioned it when Robert tied the canoe to a thick tree and double checked the knot despite the fact that the air was dead calm. Not a ripple touched the surface of the lake right now. This was one of those things they agreed not to talk about.

Margaret had a closer look at the map and scanned the rocky hillside that crept up away from the waters of Reyer. The mine looked to be just up from the little inlet to her left, not quite as far up as the one near their campsite was. From their picnic spot, she couldn’t see anything like the great gaping hole she was expecting to see. The gray rocks just piled up behind her, sparse trees jutted up between them at random intervals, giving the landscape a somewhat bare and desolate look.

When they had finished their sandwiches, Margaret, Ellie, and Robert began to pick their way up the hillside toward where the minesite should be. While they didn’t see anything promising right off the bat, Margaret did notice some bits of rusted metal here and there between the stones at her feet that hinted they must be in the right area.

After they had climbed a good ways up the hill, Robert stopped and put his hand up to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. In the bright afternoon light, the gray of the rocks became a pale wall that obscured their path and made Margaret’s eyes ache.

“What’s that?” Robert said. “Looks like some old boards behind that little patch of spruce trees.”

He was right. There behind the trees was a pile of boards as gray and bleached as the stones around it. They were placed haphazardly across a narrow hole in the cliff face. Thin rusty streaks bled into the wood grain from where the boards had been nailed to one another decades ago. The nails themselves had rotted through, and left the boards dangling like a makeshift door, rather than a barrier.

“It looks so old,” Ellie said.

Margaret felt a chill creep up her spine. It did look old. And it should. Drake Mine was deactivated and abandoned almost eighty years ago. It was a wonder there was anything left of the mine site at all with the kind of harsh weather Reyer Lake must see every spring and winter. This was definitely the entrance to Drake Mine.

And it looked much older than the entrance near their campsite.

Robert approached the shaft and pulled a Maglite out of his jacket. He shone the beam of the flashlight into the darkness beyond the boards, but stayed well back from the entrance. Margaret was relieved at that. She didn’t like the ideas of the network of tunnels beneath their feet. She imagined it like an ant farm that might collapse under them at any moment. The entrance seemed particularly vulnerable to falling into itself.

“Goes pretty much straight down, I think,” Robert said. “I can’t see anything past the first couple of metres.”

“Well we don’t really need to check it out that closely,” Margaret said. “We just wanted to see if it was here, right?”

Robert stepped away from the shaft gratefully. He looked around the area. “See that clearing over there?”

“Yeah, I guess,” Ellie said. “The flat spot?”

“I think that’s where the lodgings were,” Robert said. “Gramps said there was a long house of some kind that the miners slept in when they weren’t working.”

“You can see part of the old foundation on the left,” Margaret said. Ancient logs had been secured to the rocks with long iron spikes. Most of the logs had rotted away, but there was a hint of them along the hillside, bits of disintegrated wood and rusty leeching on the rocks.

“I didn’t notice anything like this around the campsite,” Ellie said.

“I guess they didn’t stay there overnight,” Robert said. “Maybe it was just an emergency exit?”

“I don’t think that’s it,” Margaret said. There was something about seeing the original Drake Mine site that had her thinking. “Did you look inside the other shaft? Back at camp?”

“Naw, I let old Frank do the inspecting.”

“I’ll be curious what the find in that one,” Margaret said.

Ellie raised an eyebrow at her. “Not curious enough to go check it out yourself, I suppose.”

“Hell no,” Margaret laughed. “But I think that’s a newer site. I wonder if someone has been digging illegally up there.”

“Maybe that’s why Frank actually brought us up here?”

“There gold in them thar hills!” Robert shouted and ran back down the path toward the shore. Ellie laughed and followed him.

Margaret scanned the mine site one more time, committing it to memory. There was something here that she needed to remember. She just couldn’t think of what.

Eventually she, too, climbed down the rocks. Margaret didn’t like the feeling of having Drake Mine at her back. Her ankle was still sore from where she’d twisted it the day before, so she didn’t run. But she hopped as quickly as she could down the hillside, following Robert and Ellie’s laughter like a beacon.

Robert already had the canoe in the water when she got to the bottom. Ellie tossed their bags into the boat and stood waiting for Margaret to get there.

“After you, sister dearest!”

“You don’t want to take the bow this time, Ellie?”

Ellie looked horrified. “Then I’d actually have to paddle!”

Margaret rolled her eyes and hopped into the canoe. Ellie followed her, settling on the middle of the boat. Robert pushed them out onto the open water and they were on their way.

The winds seemed to favour them on their way back to camp. Still barely more than a gentle breeze most of the time, but is guided them ever so insistently back down the lake so that each stoke of the paddle seemed to do the work of two.

“I can’t wait for your mom’s chicken curry,” Robert said. “What did we ever do without dehydrators?”

“Your ancestors are ashamed, Robert.”

“What?”

But when they pulled up to camp, Mom wasn’t there. Neither was anyone else. The breakfast dishes were stacked but not washed, next to the campfire. The campfire itself was cold.

“Maybe she went up to supervise after all?”

“I’m starving,” Ellie said. “Can we eat and then socialize? Please?”

“You get the fire going and I can be convinced of anything. My hands are freezing.”

“The wind is picking up again,” Robert said. “Good thing we left when we did or we might have sailed right past and landed on Bill Williams’ doorstep.”

“I’d prefer his company to the Swine brothers,” Ellie said, bitterly.

The rehydrated a shrink wrapped package of chicken meat and sauce and some instant rice. Margaret put on some extra water for tea. “What the hell is taking them so long?”

“Cover the pot,” Ellie said. “We should go check on them before it gets dark.”

“Ugh. Fine. I guess we can reheat the tea, too.”

They made their way up the hill toward the mine entrance. As the approached the hole in the cliff, twilight was falling around them. The wooden boards that had been blocking up the entrance were pulled aside and stacked neatly on the ground, making the door look like a great yawning mouth in the rock. It was pitch black inside. There was no sign of Mom or the Swains.

Margaret felt her anxiety kicking in again. “Robert, shine that light in there. Where the hell are they?”

“Hello?” Ellie called into the pitch while Robert fumbled for his Maglite. “Supper is ready!”

Her own voice echoed back at the group, but no one replied. Finally Robert got his flashlight out and shone the beam into the hole. A small room was illuminated in the yellow light of his flashlight. But there didn’t seem to be any tunnel leading further into the cliff. No shaft plunging underground. Just a small room, with a silver pot, a cook stove, and a sleeping bag.

“What the fuck?”

“Are the other canoes still here?” Ellie asked. “Are they fucking with us again?”

“I’m going to be so pissed if Mom is in on this too,” Margaret said. “This is beyond childish.”

“I’m going to drink my damned tea and go to bed,” Ellie said. “Those jerks can freeze out here playing their games for all I care.”

Margaret knew she wasn’t allowed to say anything without breaking her pact with Ellie. But she couldn’t help but wonder who had been sleeping in the hole. And how long it had been since they were at home.

 

 

 

Chapter Twelve

They finished their tea and washed up the supper dishes as the sun settled in behind the trees. Long shadows stretched down the hill toward them, black fingers that seemed to be reaching past them to touch the icy black waters of Reyer Lake. The loons were at it again, ululating laugher swelling and bouncing off the trees and rocks so that it was impossible to tell what was real and what was an echo. Margaret felt as if she were slowly going insane with the loons’ mad laughter.

But there were no other noises in the forest around them. No human laugher signalling a joke gone too far. The red canoes were where they had left them after the rescue mission the other day. Margaret knew they had to be here somewhere. She wondered if Brian would have planned this prank far enough in advance to have packed an extra tent for them to sleep in. But that seemed extreme.

It was going to be cold that night. She hoped against hope that there was a mineshaft they had missed behind the door in the cliff. Some other place that Mom and the Swains could be that would make sense. At and least underground they would be a little bit warmer. They could even make a fire.

Or maybe Bill Williams had swung by in a motor boat and taken them back to Moose Lips Lodge for drinks and conversation. That would be okay, too.

Either way, why hadn’t Mom left a note?

“Let’s get some sleep,” Robert said. The light from the campfire flickered over his face, casting an orange glow on against his umber complexion. The shadows under his eyes had deepened significantly over the course of the day. “We’ll find where they’re hiding in the morning.”

“This game is ridiculous,” Ellie said. “What could they possibly have to gain by trying to scare us?”

“Who knows,” Margaret said. “Not like Brian has ever needed a reason to torment us. It was his favourite thing to do, growing up.”

“This is extreme,” Ellie said. “Even for him.”

Robert spread the coals out so they would cool off more quickly. They stayed just long enough to be sure no other branches were going to flare up. Then Robert said,” Come on. Time for bed.”

The campsite was eerily quiet without the shuffling noises from the neighbouring tents. Margaret would have given anything to hear her mother setting in next to Frank, the hushed sound of their voices as he educated her about some insignificant detail. Her polite listening noises as she snuggled into her bag and enjoyed the company of a man who didn’t beat her and scream abuses and threaten her children. Even if he was an asshole, Frank wasn’t that bad.

Brian wasn’t either. This was utterly bizarre behaviour from both of them. And why would Mom and Gerald go along with it? There was no other explanation, though. Unless they’d find another way into the mine and couldn’t get back out again. The thought gave Margaret chills.

“I hope they aren’t trapped somewhere,” Ellie said, as she wrapped herself in her own blanked, echoing Margaret’s feelings. “It’s going to be cold tonight.”

“Try to sleep,” Robert said. “Both of you. We’ll look tomorrow. They’ll be alright for one night.”

“Until we find them,” Ellie said. “And I kill them.”

“That’s the spirit,” Robert said.

Then they were quiet. Margaret listened to the sound of Robert and Ellie breathing. She tried her time her own breaths to land seamlessly between theirs, creating a soft rhythm of exhalations. It was a calming trick she had developed as a child and she and Ellie were often curled together in her bed, under the blanket, waiting for the yelling to stop. Eventually, she always managed to sleep.

And it worked this night, too. So softly that she didn’t realize it was happening, sleep crept up and claimed Margaret. At least, she thought it had. Her body felt leaden and her thoughts were fuzzy, like she was thinking through cotton balls. No. That didn’t make any sense. But she hovered there on the edge of sleep, not quite in this world and not quiet dreaming. She was warm between the bodies of Ellie and Robert. Comfortable.

Then she heard the footsteps.

Margaret tried to sit up, but felt like there was something sitting on her chest, pinning her to the air mattress. She couldn’t move. Her eyes roamed around, trying to catch some shadow or some flash of movement from outside. But it was too dark. She could see nothing. All she could hear was the breathing of Ellie and Robert, and the shuffling footsteps outside their tent.

Panic gripped Margaret. Why couldn’t she move? Was that Brian outside again? Was he going to start shaking the tent?

Ragged breathing from outside joined the chorus that Margaret had tried so hard to create. Ragged breath and shuffling steps, coming closer. Margaret’s heart hammered so hard in her chest, she thought it would wake the others.

But they didn’t wake. They didn’t seem to hear anything going on outside.

Sleep paralysis, Margarget thought. Maybe she was dreaming. She had heard of people suffering from sleep paralysis, a strange dream state where you think you are awake but you can’t move. The stuff of nightmares.

Ellie shot upright suddenly, eyes wide. She heard it, too, Margaret thought. It didn’t relieve her. Ellie said, “Where are the dogs?”

“What dogs?” Robert asked sleepily. Then Margaret could move again. She could hear nothing from outside the tent.

“The dogs are gone,” Ellie said.

“I don’t like them either,” Robert said. “But don’t call them names until we’re sure they aren’t lost somewhere.”

“Hmm,” Ellie grunted, and fell back down to sleep. She rolled over and instantly started snoring. Robert fell back asleep quickly, too. Margaret’s heart slowly went back to normal as she listened to the wind in the trees outside. There were no more footsteps. No more ragged breathing.

I must have been dreaming, Margaret thought. She pressed herself into Robert, felt his chest rise and fall against her back, and closed her eyes.

The trees sighed around them, but Margaret didn’t hear any voices, this time. She wondered, just before she fell asleep, if perhaps she was losing her mind.

 

Chapter Thirteen

“I had the strangest dreams last night,” Ellie said when they sat around the campfire the next morning. It was early, yet. The sun was just starting to peak out from between the trees with a soft pink glow. Their breath smoked around their faces as they sipped their coffee. There had been a frost that night.

“About dogs,” Margaret said. Ellie looked at her strangely. “You were talking in your sleep.”

“Yes,” Ellie said. She stared at the flames. “I had forgotten that part.”

“Who’s up for oatmeal?” Robert asked, stirring a steaming pot of thick gray gruel in a stainless steel pot. “Breakfast of champions.”

“Yeah, dish me up,” Margaret said. “I’m just going to go make some room.”

“Classy,” Ellie said and tossed her the toiletries bag.

“Your coffee is a little too good at its job,” Margaret said. “I shouldn’t have had the third cup.”

“Three cups?” Robert laughed. “You’ll be shitting through the eye of a needle.”

“Thanks for the moral support.”

Margaret stretched and made her way into the woods behind their campsite. They’d been using a spot not too far from the edge of the exposed rocks. No one wanted to admit it, but going too far into the pines, even if it was for the purpose of privacy, wasn’t going to happen. There were some things that just didn’t rate too high on the priority list when you were out in the bush and things started getting strange.

Margaret crouched behind a fallen tree and put a hand on one of the outstretched branches for balance. The bark had fallen away in large chunks, revealing smooth, yellowing worm-eaten wood beneath. Spots that had been exposed longer than others were gray. The shadowed side was thick with early winter frost, but the morning sun was quickly burning off the crystals and leaving droplets behind. Except…

“Guys!” she shouted, pulling up her pants and spinning around to search the trees behind her. “Come quick!”

“I really don’t need to see it,” Ellie called back.

But Robert heard the urgency in her voice. “What is it?”

Margaret stared at the log she had been holding on to. Her handprint was just starting to fade as the sun burned up the layer of frost on the dark side. And beside it, there was another print. Longer, thinner fingers had wrapped over the log in the moments before she had come back here. Margaret scanned the ground around her.

“There are footprints in the frost,” she said. Robert stood by the tents searching the ground, but the sun had already kissed away the evidence. “There was a handprint on the log next to mine.”

Her heart sank as she looked at the log. It was covered in dew now, the imprint had dissolved back into the smooth bark as if it had never been there. Maybe it never had.

“Are you sure?” Robert said. “Maybe they were your own prints.”

“No.” Margaret shook her head emphatically and kept her eye on the trees. Someone was definitely out there. “They couldn’t have been mine. The handprint was too big, and It was pointed the wrong way. And the footprints…”

“Are nowhere to be found” Ellie said. Her eyes tightened at the corners. Margaret knew she was breaching their contract by speaking of this. But this wasn’t just her imagination. She had seen the prints. “They were probably yours, Maggie.”

But she had to say something. If she didn’t tell someone she was going to go insane thinking about it. Wondering. No. It hadn’t been her imagination. “Whoever made them was barefoot,” Margaret said.

###

After they had finished breakfast, Robert packed day bags for each of them. Ellie cleaned up the coffee and oatmeal dishes. Margaret just stared into the fire. Nobody spoke. She knew it sounded crazy. She knew she had a history of thinking and saying crazy things. But Ellie and Robert had always been the ones who believed her, no matter what.

Now they just seemed angry. Silently refusing to acknowledge what she had told them. Angry that she had said words like that out lout and allowed the fear to creep into them as well.

That was what the pact was all about. When you’re out in the wild, sometimes you get scared. Sometimes you think you see things and hear things. In the city, you can talk about it and laugh it off and reassure one another that there is nothing the matter. Out here, in the bush, it didn’t work like that.

Fear was contagious out here. The forest plays tricks on you. It tries to get you to believe your own fears, believe in the things your imagination twists out of rocks and shadows and long, finger-like branches. And when you spoke about the out loud, out here, they didn’t go away. Speaking about them made them real. Not just for yourself. It became real for everyone else, too.

She shouldn’t have broken the pact. Now Ellie and Robert had that sinking feeling in their stomachs as well. That feeling like they were at the top of the rollercoaster, just hovering on the edge of the drop. But there was no giggling carnie at the end of this ride, no safe delivery home. There was just the plunge into darkness, into the wild, where it was just going to get worse and worse.

Margaret knew. This was how it always started. And how, before she and Ellie had come up with the pact, she and her sister had almost ended up killing one another trying to fight of some imaginary enemy that had grown so real in their minds that they didn’t even believe in themselves anymore.

This wasn’t the first time Margaret and Ellie had been trapped in the north.

When the RCMP officers found the girls, fourteen and twelve years old, half-starved and more than a little crazed, they had scared one another so badly with imagined noises and shadows that they were ready to turn on one another.

They boy who had been with them, Cameron Charles, hadn’t fared so well.

They refused to speak, for weeks, after the police had found them and brought them back to La Crosse. They didn’t know what had happened to Cameron. They had lost track of everything except this mad idea that they needed to watch the other one.

When Cameron’s body was found, miles from their campsite, it appeared he had been running, and tripped. He fell down a steep, rocky embankment, and hit his head. It was hard to tell, since wild animals had been after him. But the police never suspected foul play.  Neither of the girls was ever charged with anything.

Margaret and Ellie came up with the pact, then. When your mind starts playing tricks on you out in the woods, you keep it to yourself. Act normal, and everything will be normal. Act afraid, and you will find things to be afraid of. Or they will find you.

Margaret only hoped that it wasn’t too late to keep her superstitious nonsense to herself.

###

“Ready to explore?” Robert asked. His tight smile suggested that he wasn’t feeling his usual relaxed, carefree self. “I’ll be you my peanut butter granola bar we find them before lunch, laughing it up just inside the mineshaft.”

“There was no inside to that mineshaft,” Ellie said. “It was just a room.”

One room. With stuff for one person. On person who could be living there, just up the hill from their campsite, untying canoes and creeping around their tent at night—

“That was yesterday. Today is today,” Robert said. “They probably hid the entrance. That’s what I would do.”

“You would never do something like this,” Margaret said.

Robert didn’t answer.

“I’ll go in,” Margaret said, suddenly. As if she could take back her words by doing something she really didn’t want to do. She didn’t want to have anything to do with Drake Mine. “I should be the one to go in first.”

“We’ll go in together,” Robert said, sensibly.

But she didn’t want him to, she found. Normally, Margaret loved Robert’s quiet chivalry. The way he supported her without even needing to be celebrated or acknowledged for it. He did it as naturally as he breathed. But she didn’t want him to. Not now.

“No,” she said. “What if there’s a hole or something, what if they fell?” She avoided the word ‘trap.’

“We all need to be looking out for anything strange,” Ellie said. “I’m with Robert. We all go in together, or none of us go in.”

Margaret didn’t reply. She just kept climbing up the rocks, gaining steadily on the door in the cliff side. The emergency exit. The shanty. Whatever it was.

It was early now, and they had lots of bright, direct sunlight. Margaret kept her eyes peeled for signs that there was more to this mine site than just a hole-in-the-wall. Her eyes scanned the underbrush for bits of ancient foundations like had been visible at the north end of the lake. Or the bits of rust that tinged the rocks where old tools weathered away and disintegrated into iron flecks that bled into the stones.

But so far she saw nothing.

It bothered Margaret that the wood that boarded up this supposed mine entrance was so new. Perhaps it was, once, a part of the original Drake expedition. But there was no question in her mind that there had been someone using it. Someone, she thought, who could be creeping around, untying canoes in the dark, and whispering in the night. Someone who was trying to unsettle them.

To what end, though?

Had Frank known about all of this ahead of time? Maybe he had a friend up in these parts. Maybe he was trying to teach Margaret a lesson about “reality” as he so often put it. Would Mom go along with that?

“Alright,” Ellie said. They approached the entrance to the little hovel. “Let’s do this. Who’s first?”

Margaret approached the rough doorway and pulled aside the too-new boards that covered it. The pale morning light seeped in through the opening she made, illuminating the darkness in watery streaks of gray. Her eyes took in the living space slowly. The room was tiny, mostly bare, cut directly from the granite of the shield. A pile thin twigs, dried moss, and torn fabric lay balled-up in one corner. Tinder, maybe? Or maybe mice were the most recent occupants here, and Margaret had nothing to worry about.

The stone floor didn’t leave much room for evidence like footprints. But Margaret couldn’t shake the feeling that someone had been here. Had Frank and crew disturbed it when they were investigating yesterday? Would they have broken down the door, peeked inside, and decided to look further up the cliff? Or had they crossed the threshold, as she was about to do now.

Margaret stepped into the cave. That’s what it was, a cave. The cool granite seemed to reflect her body heat back at her, making the little room slightly warmer than it had been, outside in the morning air. She crouched next to the little camp stove. There was no accompanying bottle of propane or white gas. Whoever had been using it wasn’t using it anymore. The hinges were so rusted that Margaret doubted the lid would open anymore.

The sleeping bag was in a similar state of disuse. It was flattened by age and deflated by mice. Tiny tears in the side showed where rodents had pulled the stuffing out and made off with their treasure. There wouldn’t be much warmth offered from a bag like that. Maybe she was being paranoid after all.

A draft of warm air swirled around her. Robert stood behind her and shone his flashlight along the walls. “I don’t think this is connected to anything.”

“No,” Ellie said. “It’s just a room.”

The draft stirred again. Margaret looked around the walls for a crack or a seam, somewhere the air could be coming from. “Do you guys feel that?”

“Feel what?”

“The air,” Margaret said. “It’s moving. And it’s warm. Crouch down here.”

The three of them knelt on the stone floor, their hands held out before them like dousing rods. Cool air from outside sucked past their hands, through their fingers. Toward the sleeping bag, Margaret thought.

Robert seemed to have the same idea. He extended his flashlight hand and flicked back the deflated bag using the end of the Maglite. Margaret sucked in a breath so sharply it hurt her teeth. There, beneath the ratty old military surplus sack, was a trap door.

“I think we know where they’re hiding,” Robert said.

Ellie held a hand up to the edge of the door. “There’s definitely warm air coming from down there. Why is it warm, though?”

“Probably goes below the frost line,” Margaret said. “This time of year, it’s warmed below ground than above.”

“They’ve probably got a fire going,” Robert added.

Suddenly Ellie pulled her hand back. She scrambled backwards out of the cave and into the sunlight. Margaret followed her, her unease magnified by her sister’s stiff posture. “What’s wrong?”

Ellie didn’t answer. She stared into the trees, the corners of her eyes pinched in concentration. It was as if she was counting the trees, cataloging them, making sure every one of them was present and accounted for. Or perhaps, that there were no extras.

Robert stumbled out after them. He tripped on the lip of the cave and banged his shin on one of the protruding boards. “Shit.”

“You okay?”

There was a gouge in the fabric of his pants, and a deep stain bloomed out below the tear. Margaret saw the bent nail sticking out of the board he’d collided with.

“For fuckssake,” Robert said. “Now I’m going to get tetanus.”

“You aren’t up on your vaccinations?”

“I don’t vaccinate,” Robert said. “I don’t want adult-onset autism.”

“Shut up,” Margaret said. “Don’t you need to have your shots up to date for work?”

“I’ll probably be fine,” Robert said. “Hurts like a mother, though.”

“Do you really think they’re down there?” Ellie asked suddenly.

“Thanks for your concern,” Robert said. “Both of you. Real sweet.”

Ellie ignored him, eyes still intent on the trees. “Just think about it.”

“Where else would they be, Ell?” Margaret felt another wave of panic cresting inside her. The undertow of questions the flooded out of her mind in the face of primal, animal fear.

Ellie fought with herself. Margaret could see the same fear mirrored in her sister. She wanted to say something. Margaret knew that feeling. She wanted to say something, but she didn’t want to break the rules. She didn’t want to make things worse with speculation. But Margaret had already broken the pact. She had already opened the door to panic. To hysteria.

“The sleeping bag,” Ellie said finally.

“Yeah,” Robert said. “Clever.”

“We had to move it to get to the door,” Ellie said.

Then Margaret understood. All the hairs on her body stood on end, then. She said, “Then somebody had to put it back.”