“Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Here it is! This is my draft for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Subject: Superhuman, Character: a cheesemaker. Word limit is 2500 words.

Here is their genre description for a Fairy Tale as per the contest guidelines:

A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).

I’d love your feedback on the story, how well it works with my assignment elements, and any other considerations. I still have three days to submit it, so I have time to apply any changes I need to! Without further ado, here it is:

Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen
2496 words

Once upon a stormy night a witch stirred up a foul smelling concoction in a cauldron as black as mould. Thunder rattled the tiny windows of her cottage in the woods and the wind outside howled. Inside the kitchen a fire crackled and, to anyone left out in the gale, its blaze would have appeared like the glowing red eyes of the devil herself flashing in the pitch. There was no one outside, though. The witch had even brought in her cow, Etheldred, who stood next to the wash basin contentedly chewing her cud and watching the fuss.

“That’s three turns widdershins,” Etheldred said, for she was a magical cow and never could keep her opinions to herself. “With the wooden spoon, not the iron. Do you want to spoil the whole batch?”

“I know that,” the witch snapped and quickly dropped the iron poker she’d been about to thrust into the brew. “What do you care if I spoil it, anyway?”

“Whose teats did you squeeze with your clammy hands to fill that crock, you half-witted hag?”

“Half-wit, am I?” Flames licked up around the fat belly of the pot as the witch muttered over her potion. “Managed to get the best of you, didn’t I?”

A gobbet of twice digested grass hung from Ethelred’s mouth. “I happen to like being a cow,” she lied.

“It certainly suits you. Saggy teats and all.”

“They were good enough for your husband, Frances Stein.” The cow licked her lips lasciviously and let a steaming pile of dung fall to the kitchen floor.

“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes.” Witch Stein poured a vial of alarmingly yellow liquid into the cauldron. “Anyway, you can have him once this spell is finished. I’m making myself a new husband.”

“That,” the cow said, “was Bile of Basilisk.”

“That’s what you said to use!” The witch gave a horrified look at the evil-looking liquid. “Who’s the cheese expert here?”

If a cow could grin, then Etheldred was grinning. “Banshee would have been better.”

“You baggy bovine!” the witch glowered. “You’re trying to sabotage me.”

“You did turn me into a cow.”

“If this doesn’t work,” the witch said, waving the wooden spoon at her companion, “you’re going to stay that way for the rest of your udder-lugging life.”

“Relax,” Etheldred said. “It’s curdling isn’t it?”

“Milk thistle to thicken,” the witch held up another vial. Then her eyes flashed with menace. “Unless you have another suggestion? I hear cows’ stomachs produce excellent rennet.”

“Rennet is terribly old-fashioned,” the cow blinked lazily, not in the least worried by the witch’s threats. “Besides, I’m using all of my stomachs.”

Witch Stein poured the milk thistle into the pot and watched the mixture coagulate. After a time, she prodded the jellied mass with her spoon and said, “Looks about right.”

“Get on with it, then,” the cow chided. “This weather isn’t going to last all night.”

“You mind your own magic,” the witch said.  With leather mitted hands she heaved the stinking cauldron over to the kitchen table and dumped its contents without ceremony. “This bit is mine.”

Slowly, surely, the witch began to mould and sculpt the mass of fresh cheese. After a time, the shape on the table took a new form. The cheese became a large, slightly misshapen man. Once she was satisfied, Witch Stein hauled out a coil of fine, hair-like metal fibers and used them to pierce the body in a few vital locations: the head, the heart, the belly, and the groin.

“What are you stabbing it for?” the cow brayed. “This isn’t one of those black magic dolls, is it? You said I could have Ralphie and I want him in one piece!”

It was Witch Stein’s turn to say, “Relax.”

She uncoiled the wires and attached them to a strange looking harness over the fireplace. More wires climbed from the harness, up the chimney, and onto the roof. The witch rubbed her hands together and looked out the window at the roiling storm. “Now, we wait.”

No sooner had she said that, then the air of the room fizzed and crackled and a smell like old coins replaced the stink of the cheese. Forks of hot white light shot from the wires on the chimney and sparked around the body of the cheese man. Etheldred mooed in alarm as a finger of lightening got too close for comfort.

“My tail is on fire,” she bellowed.

But the witch wasn’t paying the cow any attention. The creature on the table was moving its great lumpy limbs. She clapped her hands ecstatically. “It worked!”

The cheese man sat up and shook its fat, misshapen head.

“It’s alive!” Witch Stein shrieked and she did a little jig. “You thought I couldn’t do it, admit it!”

“Well,” said the cow as she gingerly dipped her tail in her water bucket. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”

“Neither is Ralphie,” the witch snapped. “I don’t need him to be handsome, I just need him to be big and strong and to follow my every command.”

“He’s certainly big,” the cow said. The cheese man’s head seemed to be growing closer to the thatched roof. “And with that recipe, he’ll be stronger than any human man. So that’s my end of the bargain. Now change me back!”

But the witch was too busy admiring her handiwork to worry about Etheldred. The cheese man tore the mess of metal wires away and stood almost to his full height. His neck bent awkwardly and his shoulders pressed against the ceiling. He looked at the witch with eyes of dry curd, and he spoke.

“Mama?” The cheese man’s voice belched out in a cloud of air that reeked like rancid feet.

Etheldred cackled as well as she could with her cow’s mouth and dropped another pile of dung.

“I’m not your mother, you oaf.” The witch poked him in the belly with her wooden spoon. “I’m your wife, Frances. Now quit lazing about, we’ve got work to do!”

“Hungry!” the cheese man grunted. And with that, he reached out his huge, lumpy hand, grabbed Etheldred the cow, and gobbled her all up.

The witch said, “Huh.”

The cheese man suddenly doubled in size, stood up to his full height, and crashed through the wall of Frances Stein’s kitchen. He lumbered into the night wearing the thatched roof like a hat, eating rocks and trees and whatever wild animals he scared up along the way.

“That’s a shame,” said the witch. She hitched her sleeves up to her elbows, grabbed her broom, and followed after her cheese husband.

The storm had abated and dawn was breaking by the time Witch Stein caught up with the cheese man. He moved quickly on legs that were growing longer every second, but he left a path of ruin that was easy enough to follow. The witch found him sitting on his huge, bumpy bottom in the middle of town, plucking the roofs of houses and snacking on the terrified villagers inside.

“Stop that this instant!” The witch flew her broom up to the cheese man’s head and buzzed around him like an angry bee. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”

The cheese man swatted at her clumsily. “Hungry,” he moaned.

“I’ll get you some food,” the witch promised, an idea brewing in her brain. “But first, you have to give me back that cow.” 

The cheese man blinked his curd eyes at her.

“The one you ate in my kitchen,” she prompted.

The cheese man opened his cavernous mouth, reached a hand down his throat, and pulled out Etheldred. He plunked her on the ground, sodden and stinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet, now the size of schooners, and lumbered in the direction of the next town eating everything in his path.

“Disgusting,” the cow said.

“Quit your whining,” the witch said. “I need one of your food spells.”

“What I need is a washing-up spell,” Etheldred replied, dripping with whey and misery. “I’ll never get this smell out.”

“Can you do a never-ending bread loaf?”

“Bread loafs, salt pots, cheese wheels, you name it.” Even in her soggy state, the cow wasn’t above a little bragging. “If you can eat it, I can make it last forever.”

“I’m going to change you back,” the witch said begrudgingly. “But I need your help.”

“I suppose I’m in no position to bargain,” the cow said.

Witch Stein snapped her fingers and lifted the curse. Etheldred, still dripping but looking slightly more human, stretched her back and thrust out her buxom bosom. “That’s better,” she said. “Now what’s on the menu?”

The two witches went to work scouring the town for oats, molasses, and flour. Etheldred was as good as her word, and in a few hours they had an enchanted loaf of bread the size of a cart horse.

“Big and dense,” the kitchen witch declared. “Just like your cheese husband.”

“And Ralphie, too, while we’re on the subject.” Witch Stein rapped Etheldred on the head with her broom. “Now shut your gob and help me carry this thing.”

The witches wrapped the loaf up with thick ropes, strung it between two broomsticks, and flew—a little wobbly and with a lilt to the left—after the cheese man. They followed the path of broken trees, flattened cottages, and absent livestock all the way to a river. The cheese man, who was now the size of a large hillock, knelt on the ground beside the water guzzling for all he was worth.

“What are you doing now, you great galumph,” Witch Stein bellowed at her cheese husband. “I brought you food that will never run out. Now it’s time for you to get to work!”

The cheese man peered at her with his curd eyes and blinked. He snatched the loaf of bread from between the witches’ brooms, nearly spilling them both into the river, and took a colossal bite. Before he finished chewing, the loaf sprang back to its original size with a pop. The cheese man took another bite, watched the loaf grow back again, and grinned a cheesy grin.

Then he tossed the loaf aside and guzzled at the river again. Witch Stein and Etheldred looked at one another and shrugged.

Soon, the raging river became a babbling brook, the brook became a trickle, and then the trickle dried up completely. He’d guzzled up all of the water for miles and miles. The cheese man sat up and coughed out a cloud of dust.

“Thirsty,” he said and made like he was going to lumber off again in search of more water.

“Don’t you dare!” Witch Stein flew up and buzzed in his ear like a gnat. “You stay right where you are. Etheldred, can you do that trick with water, too?”

“Water, milk, ale,” Etheldred puffed out her chest. “If you can drink it, I can—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Witch Stein landed her broom and hitched up her skirts. “What do we need?”

“Why should I help you again?” Etheldred put her hands on her hips and blew a strand of whey soaked hair off of her large, crooked nose. “I kept my side of the bargain. The deal is done.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find Ralphie and turn him into the toad he is!”

Etheldred landed beside Witch Stein and muttered, “I’m starting to think that Ralphie is more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Well, at least you didn’t have to marry him to figure that out,” snapped Frances. “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“We’re going to need a big pot,” Etheldred said. “A really big pot. And after this, you’re going to owe me one.”

“You heard the woman!” Witch Stein clapped her hands at the cheese man. “Go fetch us the biggest pot you can find. And be quick about it!”

The cheese giant picked up his loaf of bread and lumbered off into the distance, munching away, and leaving slightly less devastation in his wake. It took three whole weeks for him to return, by which time Etheldred and Frances had put aside their differences and more or less become friends.

“Now that’s a cauldron!” Etheldred said when the cheese man trundled up to them with a vessel the size of a house. “Where did you find that?”

“Giants,” said the cheese man, and that was all they got out of him on the matter. But Witch Stein heard, a few years later, about a stone giant named Hymir who had developed a sudden, and rather ferocious, aversion to dairy products.

“What’ll it be,” Etheldred asked, pulling herself up onto the lip of the cauldron. “Water, milk, tea?”

Witch Stein looked up at her mountain of a husband and shook her head. “Better make it wine,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman, Frankie!” Etheldred cackled and she waved her hands over the pot, reciting a complicated incantation that involved a little too much hip wiggling and bosom shimmying for Frances’s taste.

Soon the cauldron was brimming with a fragrant, dark red vintage.

“My best merlot,” Etheldred winked. “It pairs very well with cheese.”

The cheese giant picked up the cauldron and drank. He drank and he drank but, just as the kitchen witch promised, the cauldron never emptied. Then, with a belch that shook the birds out of the sky, he smiled. “Good.”

“Finally!” Witch Stein threw her hands up in the air. She pulled a roll of parchment out of her bosom and thrust it at her cheese husband. “Gather these materials, Cheese-Head. We have to build a bigger house before we do anything else.”

“Wow!” Etheldred exclaimed as the cheese man lurched away on his first mission, carrying the over-sized wine flask and bread loaf with him. “He can read?”

“Grab your broom, woman.” Frankie Stein launched herself into the air. “We’re going to find a nice secluded spot in the mountains. I need space for my laboratory and the hard-to-find magical elements Goudard is going to collect for me. I have hypotheses to test!”

“Goudard?”

“Well I have to call him something besides Cheese-Head.”

“Wait just a minute,” Etheldred said. “You still owe me a favour.”

Frankie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise not to turn Ralph into a toad.”

“Forget Ralph.” Etheldred hopped on her broomstick. The witches zipped over barren fields and flattened forests toward the mountains. A bovine bellow could be heard for miles around, “I want a cheese husband!”

And they would all have lived happily ever after except that Goudard, it turns out, didn’t like being berated and bossed any more than Ralphie had. So he joined the circus, and Frankie Stein had to do her own ingredient collecting. That didn’t stop her from trying to create new husbands, though. Once, she even dug up a cemetery for parts… But that’s another story for another time.

“The Midwife” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here. 

“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.”

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“The Midwife” was my submission for Round Three of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Thriller, Location: a radio tower, Object: ice skates. I didn’t place in the top ten of this round. The judges feedback is below:

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.

“Making Suds” by S.C. Jensen: 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition

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Note: This is a re-post in order to make my short stories easier to find. You can read the original here.

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.

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“Making Suds” was my submission for Round Two of the 2017 NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Location: a hot tub, Object: a pair of gloves. I placed third overall in my group. The judges feedback is below:

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?

“The Hollow” by S.C. Jensen

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The lifeless eyes hung level with Ginny’s gaze. Blue nylon cord twisted around the thing’s naked body, diving in and out of the flesh like a hungry worm, so that she couldn’t see where it was tied. A mask of blood matted the fur on the tiny face and pooled in its ears. The rest of it was hairless. It looked a bit like a cat, but Ginny couldn’t see a tail.

Behind her, Bea made a sound in her throat almost like a laugh.

“I told you,” Ginny said. “I told you something like this would happen.”

The fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Bea blew out a cloud of steam in the crisp autumn air. It hung like a ghost between them. “This is bad, Gin.”

The sun sank into the trees behind their house. Rose-gold spears of evening light broke through the remaining leaves of the season and cast an otherworldly glow over the macabre scene.

Ginny reached out a tentative hand and recoiled quickly. The body was still warm. “I don’t what to do anymore, Bea.”

“Well, we can’t tell anyone.” Bea cupped her hands around her mouth and blew into them, trying to stay warm. “That’s for sure.”

“I didn’t do it,” Ginny said. She rubbed her fingers against her pants. A smear of blood stained the denim. “You believe me, don’t you?”

“They’re going to take you away, Ginny. You’re going to celebrate your sixteenth birthday in a straight-jacket.”

Silence fell between the girls until the air quivered with it. Ginny’s body shook with more than the cold; her heart hammered painfully against her chest. Spots swam at the edges of her vision, like ghost-lights. Will-o-the-wisps. An aura of light seemed to swell around her sister’s face. Ginny was afraid she would pass out if Bea didn’t say something soon.

“Go get the shovel.” Bea turned toward the tree. “I’ll cut it down. Mom’s going to be home soon.”

Ginny walked to the garden shed on legs like sandbags. She kicked each step forward, feeling the impossible weight of her body with every step. Bea was right. No one could know about this. They were just waiting for an excuse to lock her up. Voices rose, unbidden, to whisper in her ears. Maladjusted, delusional, unstable…

Her therapists and social workers said they were on her side, but she could hear the excitement in their voices when they talked to her mother. A very unusual case. Like her mental health was a sideshow they could observe from the front row, munching on popcorn and planning their next sabbatical project.

She heard the kids at school, too. Freak, psycho, bitch… Sure, she threatened to cut Bradley Schaeffer’s pecker off with a pair of sewing shears in home-ec. But Bradley had started to look at Bea the way he used to look at her. The way he looked at her before that night. Slut. Ginny wasn’t going to let that happen again. Not to Bea. Bradley would stay away from both of them from now on.

Ginny’s hand pressed against the weather beaten door of the shed. Her coat sleeve fell back to reveal a cross-hatch of raised silver flesh on her wrist. Ginny didn’t like to look at her wrists. Her limbs felt like they belonged to someone else, dull, heavy things she had to lug through life. The ghostly chains of her sins, hanging off of her, dragging her down. She pushed the door open with her hip and stepped into the frigid darkness inside. The shovel was there, just as she’d left it.

The thing was on the ground when Ginny came back. The frayed cord lay in a tangle at Bea’s feet, electric blue and unnaturally vivid against the dead flesh and dead leaves. Bea said, “Give me that.”

The girls trudged through the forest behind their house, single file. Bea held the shovel against her shoulder, like a rifle, and led the way to the Hollow. Ginny dragged the mess of meat and twine behind her. The creature deserved better, but she couldn’t stand to carry the body in her arms. The skinny limbs, red and wet and going cold. It was too much like—

“Here.” Bea stopped abruptly and stuck the blade of the shovel into a patch of churned up earth. “Put it next to the other one.”

Ginny released her grip on the nylon rope and took the spade from her sister. She pressed her foot into the top of the blade until she could feel the edge cutting into her foot through the sole of her shoe. She pressed until it hurt, but the blade wouldn’t pierce the frozen soil.

“Hurry up,” Bea said. “Mom’s going to be home any minute now.”

“I can’t.” Ginny threw all of her weight on top of the shovel. The handle dug into her ribs. “It’s rock hard.”

“Well put it in with the others.” Bea’s exasperated voice burst out in another cloud of steam. “You’re really cutting it close this time.”

Ginny eyed the fallen leaves at their feet. If you didn’t know to look for them, no one would ever know they were there. Little mounds arranged in a pyramid. The original on top and, supporting it—or maybe keeping it company—the tributes. Servants in the afterlife.

“The big one,” Bea said, suddenly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “It’s the freshest.”

Ginny’s heartbeat slowed. It struck with the great, anvil-clanging blows of a blacksmith. She forced her eyes to see the other grave. This one was easier to spot, even if you didn’t know to look for it. But after another good wind the raised earth would be completely camouflaged by the last of the leaves. With any luck, it would stay hidden until spring.

“Or do want Mom to find you like this?” Bea whispered. Something like glee tainted her voice. “She’d lose it. You two can be roomies in the nut house.”

Ginny pushed the shovel into the softened soil of the largest mound and flicked it aside. Something had gotten to the body, already, cold as it was. Black holes stared up at her from where the eyes should have been. Greying flesh sunk into the bones beneath the sockets. Teeth smiled up at her, liplessly. Ginny held her breath.

Like she was proving a point, Bea said, “There.”

Bradley Schaeffer’s face, what was left of it, glared up at Ginny accusingly. “I didn’t do it, Bea. I swear I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Bea’s voice dripped with scorn. “You never stand up for yourself, do you? That’s why I’m here.”

Ginny’s limbs began to weigh on her again. It wasn’t possible. Not this. “Bea?”

“Come on,” Bea said. “Tuck it in with him nice and tight.”

As if being moved by something outside herself, Ginny crouched next to the shallow grave. She tugged the mass of meat and twine through the leaves and, lifting it by the rope, lowered the thing onto Bradley’s chest. Bea was right. It suited him. She dropped the twine and the raw, naked body rolled. It caught in the crook of Bradley’s arm, like—

“Just like a baby,” Bea said.

Ginny’s legs began to cramp and she stood slowly. Without taking her eyes off the bodies, she dragged the shovel through the leaves and dirt she’d churned up. She pulled it over the pair like a blanket, gently. Tears stung her eyes and burned her cold cheeks.

“Good.” Bea’s voice cracked like a twig. “Now let’s go. The last thing we need is for mom to see you out here. They’ll put you away for sure, even if they don’t find this mess.”

“Stop saying that!”

“Come on, Gin. Wandering around the forest with a shovel, crying and talking to yourself. You look like a bloody lunatic,” Bea looked pointedly at the stains on Ginny’s clothes. “No pun intended.”

“I’m not crazy! You know I’m not. You’re just trying to upset me.”

“Upset you?” Bea’s mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. “That implies that you were settled in the first place. We both know you’re off your rocker.”

“Don’t you turn on me, too” Ginny whispered. “I need you.”

“I,” Bea said, “am not going anywhere. That’s your problem.”

“Tell them we were just out for a walk,” Ginny begged. “They’ll believe you.”

“Me?” Bea laughed, then. The harsh, joyless bark of sound shook the leaves off the trees. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

Bea’s face flickered in the waning twilight. Ginny had to concentrate to focus on her, like looking through murky water at a mirror. Bea had her dishevelled hair, her tear-streaked cheeks, her blood-stained clothes. They were identical, except for Bea’s cruel smile.

Then the cruel smile softened. Bea reached out and took Ginny’s hand, her damp fingers like ice, and led her back to the house. She said, not unkindly, “You really are crazy, you know.”

Ginny knew.
*********************************************************************************

This is my piece for the January prompt for 12 Short Stories. The prompt was “No one can know” at 1500 words. “The Hollow” came in just shy at 1498. I don’t technically submit this one until the 30th, so if you leave comments and feedback, I have time to apply it before the official due date! Please do. I am now awaiting my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, which will be arriving at midnight EST. I wanted to get this one out of the way so I can focus one NYC Midnight next week. Stay tuned for that one, too! As always, thanks for reading.

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Flash Fiction Friday: “Park Date” by S.C. Jensen

Late again! This is my July assignment for the 12 Short Stories competition. This month, the prompt was “Cats and Dogs” at 300 words exactly. I managed to tweak this one to 300 words on the nose, but I’m not sure if it meets the requirements for a flash fiction piece. Is there enough of a conflict? Enough of a resolution? What would you like to see me do differently? Let me know in the comments!

“Park Date” by S.C. Jensen
Word count: 300
Genre: Fiction

Amy peeled a leg off the metal park bench and crossed it over her knee. A film of sweat sprang up between her thighs to lubricate the transition. How disgustingly efficient, she thought.

“Why did I agree to this?”

The trees sighed above her with thick, humid breath. She pictured stamens spewing pollen and the eager ovaries waiting to receive it. Bursting and gaping, the lurid eroticism of trees. Her nose itched.

Amy inhaled deeply and wondered if all that sweat was making her stink. She watched the people strolling through the park or, some inhuman things, actually jogging. Blonde hair, no. Green shirt, no. Girlfriend, definitely no.

Oh.

Oh no.

Short brown hair, check. Black sleeveless shirt, check. Great, slobbering ball of fur? He hadn’t mentioned that. And yet, he was slowing his pace, glancing in her direction.

“Amy?”

She thought, I never should have come here.

“That’s me.” She stood, wanting nothing more than to give her thighs a little fresh air. “You must be Brian. Who’s this?”

The furball oozed affection. And drool. Amy took a step back.

“Oh, this is Duke,” the guy smiled. It was a nice enough smile. “Don’t you like dogs?”

“I’m more of a cat person.”

“Sorry,” Brian said. He seemed earnest. “He’s not mine. I just thought—”

“Great way to meet chicks, right?”

Brian’s dark skin flushed darker. “Something like that.”

“I’m allergic,” Amy said. “Trees, too.”

Brian said, “Well, this was a bust.”

“Sorry.” Amy turned. “This was a bad idea.”

“Wait!” Duke sat at Brian’s feet and scratched behind an ear. “Let’s try again. You choose, this time.”

Amy smiled in spite of herself. “Meet me at the library, five o’clock.”

Then she left the heat, and the trees, and the dog behind her and turned toward home.

 

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

 

Better late than never! This is my June assignment for the 12 Short Stories challenge, which I had finished in time but completely forgot to upload to their website. I haven’t gotten any feedback on this one yet, but prompt was “Forbidden Places” at 1800 words exactly. I’m a little under the word count, and I think I could tighten things up a bit and use the extra words to add some detail. So tell me which bits need clarification, or which images you’d like to dwell on a little longer. Thank you for reading and commenting!

“Mycelium” by S.C. Jensen
Word count: 1790
Genre: Literary Fiction

Everything was green. Even the air was thick with it, somehow; the colour smothered all of Alse’s other senses. Between the leaves she caught glimpses of fleshy pink and bloody red. These raw patches oozed a sickly floral scent whose sweetness mixed with—rather than covering—the damp smell of rot that filled the place. None of it withstood the oppressive green surrounding her.

The only thing that wasn’t green was the sky. If Alse craned her neck and stared straight above her head she was equally overwhelmed by a dull and blinding sheet of white that radiated the heat and moisture of the plants back down on her. It made her want to dig in her heels, push through the earth to get away.

Your feet would become roots, she thought. You’d be stuck here. Sweat caught in her eyebrows, and one or two drops clung to her lashes. She blinked them away and shuddered.

“It’s hot,” she said.

“That’s how the plants like it,” Aunt Mae said. “If you’re too warm you can wait outside.”

“Why is it so bright in here?” She didn’t want to go outside. Aunt Mae would think she was weak. She wasn’t weak. “The plants in the garden don’t need it to be this hot.”

“These plants aren’t from here.” Aunt Mae poured a mixture of water and odd-smelling fertilizer onto a leather-leafed plant with waxy orange flowers shaped like upside-down trumpets. “It is bright, though, isn’t it?”

It wasn’t a question. Alse didn’t answer. She pinched a fat orange petal between her fingers and pulled the trumpet down to smell it.

Aunt Mae slapped her hand away with a rubbery gardening glove. “Not that one, dear.”

“What?”

“Don’t smell it, don’t touch it.”

Alse withdrew her hand. “Everything smells weird in here anyway.”

“I’m sorry, Alse.” Aunt Mae’s voice softened. “It’s just that’s a particularly nasty one.”

Alse looked up at Aunt Mae’s brown, creased face. She didn’t seem angry. “Why do you grow the nasty ones?”

“Even the nasty ones have their uses, dear.”

“It’s still too hot in here.”

Aunt Mae smiled, her old flesh pulling and piling into mountains and valleys of wrinkles. Alse’s mother would never have let her skin get so brown and spotted. “Maybe you’re a mushroom.”

Alse thought about that. She was certainly nothing like the garish blooms sweltering luxuriously in the greenhouse heat. She was nothing to do with green or red or heady perfumed pink. Her mother had been a delicate thing, a primula, perfectly pretty as long as it’s doted upon. Neglected, she faded quickly. Even the perception of neglect had been enough to weaken her until—

Actually, Aunt Mae looked a bit like a mushroom herself. Lines radiated around her eyes and mouth like the deep earthy underside gills of fungi. Her flesh, soft and spongey in places and speckled with age, gave off a smell like the cool, damp soil beneath big stones or rotten logs. She was a dark thing, full of wriggling life.

“I think that does it,” Aunt Mae said. “Thank you for your help this afternoon.”

Alse took the watering can from her Aunt and placed it on the narrow bench along the back wall of the greenhouse, with all the neatly organized gardening tools—cutters, choppers, slicers, pinchers, and other torture devices. Alse hated the look of them. Next to the bench, a square of damp wood seemed to grow out of the dirt floor like the wide, flat crown of a lichen. Alse joked half-heartedly, “Who do you keep down there?”

“I’m hungry,” her Aunt said. She slapped a pair of rubbery gloves into the palm of her hand. The sound echoed off the greenhouse walls and roof like a gunshot. “Let’s get something to eat.”

###

“Why do you do it?” Alse asked at supper time. A plate of vegetables and herbs steamed toward her. There were none of the bright flowers here. Aunt Mae’s house was earthy and neutral, cool and comfortable. She served a piece of soft pink flesh not unlike the blooms, except it smelled of fish. “Grow all these plants that don’t grow here.”

“Someday,” Aunt Mae said, “we won’t be able to grow any plants without greenhouses. It will be hot and dry everywhere.”

“Do you really believe that? The outside plants will die?”

“Most of them.”

Alse piled dark green vegetables on top of her fish, watched the oil slide off of each in a puddle on her plate. She took a bite. “Even the mushrooms?”

Aunt Mae smiled again. She sipped at a glass of wine that glinted barely yellow, collecting bubbles against the side of the flute. “Mushrooms have a way of surviving.”

“It’s a lost cause, though,” Alse said.

Her aunt watched her carefully from across the table. “Is it?”

“When you put so much energy and effort into catering to a thing that can’t survive without you,” Alse explained. She crushed a piece of salmon between her teeth, savoured a burst of lemon balm. “Doesn’t that just encourage it to be weak?”

“Perhaps. But weak things have their uses.” Aunt Mae’s eyes hardened. “Some of them.”

Alse felt the ghost of a slap across her cheek; old memories still held weight. Even her mother’s anger had been a delicate thing. It stung, not from force, but from what it withheld. Alse put a hand up against her face and tried not to cry. And what had been the use of that, she wanted to ask.

But she said, “Like nasty things.”

“Often the weak and the nasty are one in the same,” Aunt Mae said.

“What about the mushrooms, then?”

Her Aunt smiled again, dark pink gums sprouting off-white toothy mounds. “What about them?”

“Do you just leave them to their own devices while you coddle those bright, smelly flowers from the other side of the world?”

“In a way.”

“But that’s not fair!”

Aunt Mae put her elbows on the table and leaned toward Alse as if measuring her against an invisible scale. The closer she leaned, the more her body swelled. If she leaned too far Aunt Mae might burst into a puff of dirt and dust and spores. But she didn’t burst. Aunt Mae said, “Some things don’t need to be coddled, Alse.”

###

Aunt Mae tended to the trumpet shaped flowers, tapping their drooping stamens into a long clear vial. Alse wandered between the rows of lush vegetation, hating the white light and unrepentant green of the place. The plants breathed their hot breath against her cheeks, like someone standing too close that might want to grab at you as soon as you turned your back.

None of you should be alive, she thought.

At the tool bench, Alse crouched on the dirt floor. She sank onto her haunches, her bare knees pressed against her ears, and reached out to touch the trapdoor. Alse could breathe down here without the feeling of leaves trying to cover her mouth, slap her cheeks, or grab at her clothing. The wood was cool beneath her fingers, smooth and slightly tacky, like it had absorbed the moisture of the earth rather than the hot greenhouse air.

Alse ran her fingers along the edge of the door, prying gently, hoping for the gentle suck and pop of a seal breaking. Her fingers made a strange, muffled shuffling noise against the wood, like the footsteps of a tentative explorer. Alse hoped the door would open and she would be sucked into the blackness below. But she was stuck above, fingers creeping over the damp wood, prodding and shuffling. With her head pressed between her knees, the shuffling noise seemed to echo in her ears. There was the Alse above stroking the surface of the door, and the one below, trying to open it from the other side.

“Open it,” the other Alse whispered up at her.

She stumbled back on her heels and fell with her bottom in the cold, black dirt. The dream voice was so real, so like her own, that Alse thought she had spoken aloud. She looked up to see Aunt Mae, whose stringy brown legs grew up from the floor and into the soft beige ring of her shorts, watching her.

“Is this where you grow the mushrooms?” Alse asked.

The gills on her Aunt’s brown face wavered slightly. “I just give them a place to live.”

###

“I never liked your mother,” Aunt Mae said.

Night fell around Alse like mounds of rich, loamy earth. The weathered grey boards of the porch creaked beneath her weight, collecting the first dewy drops of moisture from the cool black air. Tentatively, Alse rooted herself there, delicate mycelium reaching for something to stick to.

“Sometimes I think I should write to her,” Alse said. It was safe to say things like that in the darkness. She felt Aunt Mae blink.

“Do you miss her?”

“I miss Father.” That wasn’t right. Father was at the core of her, the place she sprouted from. Even when they got the letter, the little silver cross to remember him by, he was a part of her. It was her mother she was missing. “She never loved me.”

“She never loved anyone but herself,” Aunt Mae said. “Even her grief was self-indulgent.”

Alse closed her eyes and reached out for her Aunt’s hand. The fingers were cool and damp, like they’d been digging in the dirt. So unlike the useless clamminess of her mother’s hands, flowers wilting upon themselves as if trying desperately to signal the sickliness of the plant. Weak and nasty.

“Still,” Aunt Mae’s voice was spongy, a sound without edges, “she helped make you.”

“Mushrooms grow in unlikely places,” Alse said.

“When they sent her to me I tried to tell them I had no time to fuss over a thing that had no will to live.”

The night came closer, mounds of earth packing in between Alse’s fingers and toes, into her ears. She licked her lips and tasted dirt there, too. The imagined blackness beneath the trapdoor clung to her, tugged her down. She dug her fingernails into the damp porch boards. Rotted slivers pulled up easily and Alse’s roots spread deeper.  “They sent her to you?”

“It’s like you said, dear. A lost cause.”

The sound like muffled footsteps echoed in Alse’s ears again. Her fingers shuffled across the porch, scraping and digging. A dull grating noise came from the greenhouse. It swelled invisibly in the darkness, a dry puffy thing that might explode any minute. “Where is she now, Aunt Mae?”

“Don’t worry yourself about it, dear.” Aunt Mae squeezed Alse’s fingers tightly. “Your mother doesn’t need any more coddling.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a woman now, though.”

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

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

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

“Mother—”

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

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

Nothing.

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

She ran toward the jingling of bells.

 

Flash Fiction Friday: “Tongue Tied” by S.C. Jensen

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I’m participating in the NYC Midnight Short Story challenge this year, and this is the piece I came up with for my first prompt. I’m still awaiting the results of this round, and I’ll update when I know whether I’ll be moving on in the competition, but I’d like to share the story either way. If you’ve followed my previous posts you know each round of the NYC Midnight challenge writers are placed into groups and assigned a genre, topic/setting, and character/object to write about within a set number of words. For this round I was assigned Genre – Science Fiction, Topic – plastic surgery, Character – a comatose patient. So this is what I did. Let me know what you think before the judges do!

“Tongue Tied” by S.C. Jensen
2485 words
Science Fiction

“Good afternoon and thank you for contacting Blastocorp.” A customer service nod appeared on Dr. Kaur’s screen and greeted her with a beatific smile. Its wide amber eyes, impossibly smooth skin, and fashionable androgyny suggested state-of-the-art android tech. Kaur, of all people, knew how deceptive appearances could be. Still, she admired the work that went into the fluid facial movements and liquid voice; AI or advanced empathy training, this nod was high-end. “Please listen carefully, for our menu options have changed.”

The tension in Kaur’s neck and shoulders melted into the contralto waves of the nod’s voice as it listed Blastocorp’s seemingly infinite departments. Her tapping fingers relaxed. “—If you are a medical professional, please have your identification keys ready for security—” If Meeker dared ask for her keys she’d string him up in front of the Medical Investigations Bureau and beat him with his own phony distribution license. A smile almost as serene as the nod’s warmed the muscles of Kaur’s face and she rolled her head from side to side, waiting. “—If you know the extension of the person you are trying to reach, please—”

“840429.” Kaur let the nod’s tranquil tone flow into her own voice. “Meeker.”

A flicker, then. Barely noticeable to the untrained eye, but Kaur caught it. Android. “Dr. Aloysius Meeker. I will connect you promptly. Thank you for your patience.”

 It paid to be patient when dealing with Blastocorp. Ever since Meeker and his team hit it big with synthetic stem cell production, it had become increasingly difficult to speak with a real person inside the corporation. Advanced voice and facial recognition software scanned all incoming calls, filtering out the crazies before they bothered anyone important. Even colleagues had to watch themselves. Kaur had learned early on that a grimace or an eye-twitch could relegate a person to an endless cycle of irritatingly calm CS nods wishing one a pleasant day as they transferred you further and further into the auto-service abyss.

“Ah, Suki!” Dr. Meeker beamed at Kaur from the screen mounted above her laboratory workstation. “You are looking positively radiant today. Have you been sampling your latest Blastocorp purchase?”

Thankfully not, Kaur thought. But the botu-plasma injections she had applied prior to the call kept her face neutral. A practiced grin drew her lips into a reassuringly toothy display of camaraderie. “Not yet, Ali. But that is why I’m calling.”

“You don’t need more, already?” Meeker’s own smile looked a little strained. Blastocorp employees obviously didn’t have to worry about mood-analysis scans. “I’m afraid the next batch—”

“I have a proposition for you, Ali.” Dr. Suki Kaur purred with a voice that could put the best android nods out of business. “But I need this call to be unmonitored.”

Meeker’s eyes contracted warily, but Kaur saw a glint of greed flash in his silver irises, too. He shifted toward the terminal to his left and his fingers flew across the display of an off-screen monitor. Kaur watched the notifications blip across her own screen as he disabled bots and scanners, warning her of the ‘unsecured’ line.

“Okay.” Ali Meeker faced her again. “Now what did you—“

“Bio-tracking too,” Kaur said.

One last alarm flashed for Kaur’s approval. She keyed her override and ran the code for her own security software. When the bar across the top of her display screen glowed a soothing green, she knew the line was safe.

“Satisfied?”

Kaur’s jaw clenched against the torrent of fury she had been withholding since the CS nod first greeted her with its inhumanly perfect voice. She probably paid for that luxury android answering service with her last order. Kaur took a deep breath and bared her teeth. Meeker recoiled. But when she spoke, Kaur’s voice maintained its dangerously soothing tone. “Just what the hell do you think you’re playing at, Ali?”

“Excuse me?” Meeker blinked. “You said you had a prop—”

“Yes. How rude of me. This is my offer.” Kaur held up a small cryo-container bearing the Blastocorp logo and batch serial number. “You tell me what the fuck I bought and I might not drag your ass to the MIB.”

Dr. Aloysius Meeker’s eyes swelled in their sockets and his papery white flesh flushed. “How dare you—”

“Batch 1573, specifically.”

“You know Blastocorp produces only the highest quality pluripotent cells from synthetic lab-engineered blastocyst embryos.”

“Right out of the sales brochure. Do you practice that line in your sleep?”

“I—”

“What I know is this: the ethics tribunal that certified Blastocorp’s product fudged so many papers they’ll be shitting chocolate for the next decade.”

“Your practice has bought more of our stem cells than the next three combined. If you think you can threaten—”

“I never bought the synthetic sales pitch, Ali. That didn’t stop me from buying your cells. I don’t care about that. But we have a serious problem on our hands.” Kaur keyed up a series of images that flashed across their screens. Bodies on sterile white beds, covered in sterile white sheets. Seven. Eight. Nine—

“Dead?” Meeker cut the image feed. Sweat glistened on his purpling face. His eyes still bulged, but with fear now. “Not dead, please God.”

“Three dead. Nine comatose. Patients ranging in age from seven to seventy; skin grafts, diabetic foot, big fake titties, we were even re-growing one poor bastard’s arm.” Kaur shook the little cryo-tube at the screen. “Only thing these people have in common is batch 1573.”

“A coincidence, I’m sure.” Dr. Meeker’s gaze flickered off-screen. “But if it would make you feel better, I’m sure I can come by for a consultation next week…”

“There’s a car waiting for you outside.”

“Suki, I can’t just—“

“You can’t just run away.” Kaur enjoyed the growing look of panic on Meeker’s face. “Because if I go down, I’m taking you for a landing pad.”

“Okay, okay.” Meeker swept an arm across his forehead. “Just let me get my things.”

“I’ll see you soon. And Ali?”

Aloysius Meeker looked up. He had aged ten years in the last ten minutes. I’ve got a treatment for that, Kaur thought acidly. She said, “Don’t call me Suki.”

 

The nurse stood in the decontamination corridor with her arms out and legs apart like a mint green starfish. Dr. Kaur watched the process and tried to control her breathing. She flexed her quads and curled her toes, fighting against the urge to pace. She knew what the nurse was going to say. All her computer readouts said the same damned thing. But Kaur had sent the nurse in to check because she couldn’t believe it.

The airlock hissed and wafted antiseptic smelling air into the main observation chamber. Nurse Chandler approached unsteadily. Under the fluorescent lights, her usually brown skin took on a greenish tinge that matched her scrubs. Chandler didn’t say anything, she just nodded.

Kaur cursed. She stared through the observation glass at the young man on the other side. His chest rose and fell with a machine-like rhythm beneath the crisp white hospital linens. Only Michael Bailey’s face and left arm were exposed, but the world-famous media shark and netstar—whom Kaur had taken to thinking of as Patient Zero—was unmistakable. She could imagine him live-streaming the ordeal, racking up billions of views, while Kaur’s reputation disintegrated with each click.

The arm, or what remained of it, stretched inside a kind of incubator where thousands of microbots swarmed with carefully choreographed precision. The bots applied tiny electrical pulses to the muscle tissues growing under their care, building up what a drunken car accident had torn away. The procedure was Kaur’s claim to fame, reconstructive surgery meets 3D printing. And, as much as she hated to admit it, she couldn’t have done it without Dr. Meeker’s pseudo-synthetic stem cells.

Kaur meant what she’d said to Meeker on the video call. She didn’t care whether Blastocorp’s cells were lab-grown or harvested from back alley dumpsters behind shady coat-hanger clinics. She was saving lives. Despite the horror of the last three weeks, Kaur held onto the fragile hope that Bailey’s recovery would be the crown jewel of her career. Sure, he was in a coma, but the arm was coming along swimmingly. Speaking of swimming, have you ever heard of Cymothoa exigua?

“—Dr. Kaur?”

“Sorry, Chrissy, I was thinking.”

“I said, Dr. Meeker is here.” The nurse’s voice wavered. “And I think I’m going to take my break now, if that’s okay.”

“Yes.” Kaur snapped back to the present. “God, yes. I’m sorry. Try to get some rest. I’ll see to Meeker.”

“Don’t kill him, Suki.” Chrissy Chandler flashed a watery smile and slipped out of the room before Kaur could change her mind.

 

Vacuum chambers bracketed the decontamination corridor that led into the quarantine wing. Kaur felt the familiar hitch in her chest as the air sucked in and out. Dr. Meeker followed her through the airlocks, more composed than when they had spoken an hour ago, but he jumped with each hydraulic hiss.

Their footsteps echoed dully in the empty passage connecting the observation rooms. Kaur led Meeker past a series of rooms occupied by flickering, beeping machines and lone, unmoving bodies. Three of the rooms were dark and quiet now. Meeker’s eyes lingered on these and he paled. Their beds were not empty.

“Two weeks, twelve procedures, each utilizing the latest and greatest product from Blastocorp’s labs.” Kaur stopped in front of Michael Bailey’s room. “This is Patient Zero. He was not the first patient to receive cells from batch 1573, but he was the first to go into shock.”

Meeker had the good sense to look impressed as he surveyed the continuing work of the microbots. “The extent of the damage here… He must have received—”

“Nearly three times the cells any of the others required. Very good.”

“But you were able to stabilize him?”

“He’s stable. All the survivors are.”

“And the others?” Meeker had the rictus look of a man who didn’t want to hear the answer.

“Choked to death.”

His jaw worked like the word stuck in his throat. “Choked?”

“Do you like scuba diving, Ali?”

“I—I’m sorry?”

“Because my head nurse, Chrissy Chandler, she does.”

Sweat broke out across Dr. Meeker’s brow and his bulging eyes rolled from Patient Zero to the darkened pane next door. Kaur pressed a switch next to the observation window, turning the one-way glass into a touchscreen display. She flicked through Bailey’s charts and medical info and pulled up a secure browser. In the search bar she keyed the words Cymothoa exigua.

Kaur brought up an image of a red snapper. The fish stared gape-mouthed at the camera. Its tongue lolled grotesquely to one side. Except the tongue appeared to have tiny, insect-like legs and a gaping mouth of its own. “I give you the tongue-eating louse. This delightful little creature consumes and replaces the tongue of its host, happily sharing meals until the fish dies of malnourishment. Chrissy came across one of these charmers when she was diving off the coast of California last year. Fortunate, because—”

“No.” Meeker’s head shook but his gaze remained locked on the screen. “It’s impossible.”

“—I had never heard of such a thing. So when we found the first dead patient—”

“…choked…”

“—On her own blood, yes. And what do you think we found staring up at us out of the mess that was once her tongue, eh, Meeker?”

Dr. Meeker put a hand against the glass to stabilize himself, sending the screen into a frenzy of opening and closing windows. Kaur switched the display off. “Don’t worry, we saved one for you.”

“But this man, Bailey, he—”

“He survived because he was already intubated. And we were clever enough to get tubes into the others before they started hemorrhaging, too. Where the fuck did you get those pluripotent cells, Meeker?”

“We grew them—” Meeker put a hand up to stop Kaur’s interruption. “No. We did. The blastocysts were completely synthetic. Well, almost…”

“I want the truth, ‘doctor.’ We need to figure out how to save these people and, more importantly, my practice. If you can’t help me do that I’ll figure it out myself, and you’ll be my first test subject.”

Meeker sat in a courtesy chair left for friends and family that Kaur was not allowing anywhere near her patients. He covered his face and spoke through his fingers. “We introduced something to help speed up the duplication process; after we announced the success of the synthetic cell trials we couldn’t keep up with demand. We used cells from a host-mimicking parasite… not C. exigua but a similar human-feeding animal. The mimicking properties masked the organic contamination, and the reproductive speed of the parasite doubled our production capacities.”

“So your stem cells hijacked my reconstructive therapies? How in the hell—”

“It shouldn’t be possible; we tested them repeatedly. The stem cells are safe, Dr. Kaur.”

“That is not what the evidence suggests, Meeker.” Kaur grabbed her colleague by the scrubs and shook him. “What kind of tests did you run? Do you know what I did with—”

“Dr. Kaur,” Nurse Chandler’s voice crackled over the intercom and Meeker flinched out of her grasp. An alarm whined from somewhere down the hallway. “Patient in room four is awake, and… you’ve got to see this.”

 

The young woman in room four paced the perimeter, dragging life support machines behind her like a school of deranged deep-water fish. The terminals still blinked and beeped, sending their readings to the main diagnostics hub, but whatever they were saying wasn’t nearly as strange as what Kaur saw.

The woman’s enormously swollen breasts held her hospital gown away from her body at an obscene angle and her gauzy hospital underpants stretched askew, but modesty was the last thing Kitty Donahue appeared to be concerned with. She was chewing on her pillowcase.

“I didn’t want to go in,” Chandler said. Kaur couldn’t blame her.

On the woman’s third pass around the room, she stopped in front of the observation window. She couldn’t see them, but some instinct seemed to tell her she was being watched. The remains of the bed linens in her fist were flecked with blood.

“Ith thombody there?” Kitty struggled with the words. “Doctorth?”

Kaur stared at the woman through the one-way glass. The thing in her mouth appeared to be moving against Kitty’s will.

“Pleath. I’m tho hungee!”

Meeker, faced with the demon of his own creation, found his voice. For the first time since her phone call, he looked determined. “I’ll figure out how to kill the things, Kaur. If you can grow some new tongues.”

“Let’s do it.” Kaur smiled, hope bubbling inside her again. Another alarm sounded. “Before Bailey wants to schedule an interview.”

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Flash Fiction Friday: “Children of the Veil” by S.C. Jensen

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As I mentioned in my previous FFF post, I’m participating in the story a month challenge at 12ShortStories.com this year. The January prompt was “The Bridge” with a 1200 word limit, exactly. I squeaked by at 1201 words, but I think that’s within the allowable limits. I hope you enjoy reading this one as much as I did writing it! Most of the feedback I’ve gotten so far is that people wish it was longer. What do you think? Would you like to see me work this into a longer short story? A novella? Maybe a full-length novel?

“Children of the Veil” by S.C. Jensen
1201 words
Fantasy

They had been hiking into the coastal forest for a week when they finally found the Fjording. Gar was the first to see the slash of shimmering air above them. Up, up, up. Her guts writhed like eels in her belly and she pointed.

The young girl shielded her eyes to look. She stared into the air where it swirled and churned near the treetops. “What now?”

Gar watched the eddies of air above them, thick and swirling the way fresh water pours into a salty sea. Ambivalence, hopeful and heartsick, tugged at her. The old sea-hag had never seen a Fjording like this before, so far from the summoning rings.

Perhaps that’s why the Sealers had overlooked it as they scoured the land, closing all the paths into the Vale. In their haste, they had missed a scarce handful. Gar could taste them when the wind was right, the doorways. She hung onto the familiar scent, even as the Fjordings faded from her memory. She had known someday the girl would come. Now that the time was nigh, the old witch wondered if she was ready.

“I’ll have to call it.”

“Can you do that?” The girl eyed Gar warily.

“It has been so long.” Excitement pulsed through Gar’s limbs, electrifying. The eels danced. “I am not young anymore.”

“What do you need?” The girl dropped her bag and dug her hands inside. Her swollen belly bulged between her knees. “I’ll start a fire.”

“You should rest, Liv.” A young man spoke from the shadows amid the trees. “I’ll start the fire.”

Liv’s lips tightened but she allowed Silvan to lead her to a patch of mossy ground between the surrounding evergreens. “I could manage.”

“You don’t need to while I’m here,” he said. “It’s my child, too.”

“If it survives long enough to open its eyes in this world, it will be.” Liv drew up her spine and pushed out her engorged breasts like a fertility statue. Gar’s lips curled in spite of herself. “Until then it is mine alone.”

The girl had spirit all right.

Silvan’s eyebrows knit together as if Liv had stitched them with bait line. He busied himself with collecting twigs like fish-bones from the forest floor. “With luck, it will not be this world that our child first sees.”

“It’s not luck that we need, boy,” Gar said. “Build me that fire. I will gather the stones.”

Liv sat in silence for a time while Gar and Silvan worked. She rubbed her belly in a large circular motion and rocked on her hipbones with the rhythm of a woman whose time was coming near. “Maya Gar, have you ever done this before?”

“I’m no amateur.” The old hag gripped a stone the size of her head with puff-jointed fingers. Pain seared her tendons, but she rolled it awkwardly into the clearing.

Silvan’s face flickered orange as tiny flames licked at his fish-bone kindling. His eyes remained dark, though, the corners pulled tight by a frown that got eaten up at his cheekbones and never made it to his mouth. “For someone like her?”

Gar dropped the stone and let it settle next to another of similar size and enclosed the summoning circle around Silvan and the fire. “You mean a Valeling.”

The sea-hag stretched her crooked back and relished the fluid rushing and popping between her bones. She had started down this path forty years earlier and each year hung off her body like a weights on a fishnet, dragging her down. When the Sealers had come to their island back then, Gar had thought the old ways were finished. But old Maya Ula trained her in secret, as if the Sealers weren’t shutting up all the doorways to the Vale, as if they weren’t hunting down anyone with a talent for opening the Fjordings and bridging the gap between worlds—

“You know what I mean.” Silvan’s dark eyes peered at Gar through the growing flames. Then they wavered toward Liv and her grotesquely distended abdomen. Motherhood looked like a mistake of nature on her tiny frame.

“How old are you, Elivia?” Gar sucked her teeth. “How many years since you came over from the Vale?”

The girl clenched her jaw so hard the tendons on her neck stuck out like anchor ropes. Beads of sweat glistened on her brown forehead. She took a deep breath and answered, “Fourteen.”

“And you, Silvan?”

“I am not from the Vale.”

Gar squinted at him and he flinched.

“Sixteen,” he said.

“Precocious youth.” The old hag cackled and both children tensed. “And great fortune for all of us that you are.”

“How is this good fortune?” Silvan’s features hardened into golden stone in the firelight, carved by shadows. “They would kill her if they knew. They would kill our baby.”

“But they don’t know. I have protected her.” Maya Gar, the sea hag, tossed an herb bundle into the fire Silvan built. The flames hissed and flickered green and blue before settling back into their warmer hues. But the smoke that issued from the pyre stayed blue. It’s sweetness fell heavily upon the trio. Liv closed her eyes. “And I will continue to protect all of you until I die.”

Maya Gar reached up toward the stars, now winking at her from the blackness above. The horizon still bore the purplish-red colour of a woman’s swollen labia as the sun set itself upon a sea they could not see. She inhaled deeply of the herbal fumes and stroked the sky with her arthritic hands, like an ancient lover.

She almost missed the catch. Her fingers snagged upon an invisible zipper in the air above them, exactly centred upon the summoning circle and the fire they had built. Gar closed her eyes and felt that little snag once more, the tiny nub, a hardening of the air, to be caressed. She stroke downwards, tugging the invisible flesh, warming the hidden core of the Vale with her ancient hands.

Then she pulled, and—

“Oh my gods,” Liv gasped abruptly. “I can see it!”

“The waters! Liv, are you ready? Are you certain?” Silvan’s voice rushed forward like those waves, the tug of the Vale poured through him.

“She will be fine.” Maya Gar spread the Fjording with her palms. Heat radiated from the Vale, down her arms, and into her heart. It has been so long!

“Go!” Silvan urged. “Go now, before it closes. This is what we must do!”

“But—” Liv balked, seeing the slit for what it was. The old woman stretched between the fire and the sky, but to Liv, who may never see this land again, the distance seemed much further.

“Go, child.” The energy of the Fjording shook Maya Gar’s body like a thousand electric eels. “This is your last chance. This is my last chance to help…”

“Elivia, now!” Silvan pulled the swollen child off her haunches and lifted her toward the opening in the sky. “Stand on my shoulders. You must save our child.”

Liv stretched herself toward the Vale like a flower to the sun. Maya Gar and Silvan pushed her upwards. Away. Safe.

“My child,” Liv said, and disappeared.

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“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

Here is one of the first short fiction pieces I ever attempted. I wrote this about a year ago and haven’t done anything with it, though I am still kind of interested in making this fit with my Cold Metal War world if I can. In an effort to show more of my work, though, I give it to you. Let me know what you think!

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Quiet now.

A dry wind pushes the reluctant prairie grasses in a frantic dance. Bending and swaying. Shushing and sighing. The hot breath of a mother soothing her exhausted child. Singing.

Everything else is quiet now.

My heart beats. Of course it beats. I’m still alive. My heart beats with the arrhythmic song of trees and insects. Of hot mother’s breath and colic.

I’m still alive.

The copse of poplars trembles around me, a shiver of leaves that runs up my spine and out the top of my head into the clear blue skies above. Boney white trunks shift and creak in the breeze. Sweat beads on my sunburnt forehead. A salty river runs from my temple, down my neck, and between my breasts. Pooling there.

I shift the weight on my shoulder. The thin nylon rope wasn’t designed for this. The skin beneath my shirt is raw and red where the makeshift rifle strap digs into my flesh. I can’t put it down.

Scan the horizon. My eyes are gritty and it is impossible to focus. Keep them open. I try to relax my mind. I don’t need detail. I will be able to sense if they are still following me; the things lack subtlety. I’ll be safe. I just need to keep a clear view of the horizon. The grid breaks through the sea of native grasses like an old grey scar. Nothing grows there. They don’t stray far from the gravel these days.

Vigilance is key. What they lack in sophistication, they make up for in numbers. Besides, they don’t want to kill me. Not yet.

Though that’s much worse.

The little grove of trees around me is the last cover available until I get to the water tower. It crouches on the horizon, one spindly leg sagging. The white of its body heavy and swollen atop delicate limbs. Daddy Longlegs. An injured thing. Only the desperate seek the protection of the dying. I can make it. As soon as I know the road is clear, I’ll take my chance.

I close my eyes and fill my lungs with the dry, herbal scented air. Pasture sage and yarrow. Listening to the sounds of the prairie I am transported to an earlier time. A time before the fear and loneliness set in. Before friends became enemies and families tore themselves apart.

As a child, I wandered these fields with lunch in my knapsack and a peashooter on my back. Gophers didn’t stand a chance against my old Red Ryder. Dad had gotten me the pink one, proving once again that he was more interested in the idea of his daughter than his actual daughter. I loved it all the same. I wrapped electrical tape around the pastel coloured stock and took secret pleasure in the way dirt and grass stuck to it, how my hands never quite felt clean after an afternoon of hunting.

A twig breaks behind me, and I drop. My heart hammers in my chest. All I can hear is the roar of blood in my ears. I struggle to roll onto my side, tugging at the gun and hoping to hell they are as surprised as I am. Idiot! My family will kill me yet, even if it’s just the memory of them. Get yourself caught this close to the finish line. Sentimental idiot!

I get the butt of the rifle tight against my shoulder and I try to focus. A blur of movement to my left makes me flinch. The thing rushes at me and I shoot blindly, a crack in the air that knocks the leaves off the trees. The butt kicks back, biting my collarbone; my grip was off. Not a fucking peashooter. I know I missed. I curl against myself protectively, waiting for it to hit me. I flinch again as I feel the weight of the thing soaring over me. Its shadow darkens the splotchy red light behind my tightly closed eyes. It lands next to me. I brace myself.

But it doesn’t strike. It runs. I hear it crash through the shrubs at the edge of the poplar stand, and then almost silently into the grasses beyond. What the fuck?

I roll again, getting my knees under me. I glance warily over my shoulder, leery of the trees now. If they can hide me, they can hide other things. But there is nothing. I turn to the field, my heart thumping so hard I think I might pass out. Bile rises in my throat. Nothing.

No. Not nothing. Cresting the waves of late summer prairie grass is a beautiful sight. The arching back and graceful legs of a white-tailed doe flash above the grasses and disappear again. She bounds left and dekes right, and in a few long leaps is gone.

Relief floods over me. My breathing steadies. The stars dancing before my eyes begin to dissipate as my heartbeat slows. I’m still alive.

But I fired my rifle. I might as well have lit a flare and signaled my pursuers. It’s time to move. I swing the rifle onto my back again, wincing as the rope burns its way into place. The pain keeps me present. I can’t afford to wait. I push into the sagebrush and don’t look back.

Grasshoppers leap against me as I press through the grasses. The soft flickers as they hit my legs and chest go mostly unnoticed, but when they hit my neck and face I feel the sharp thwack of their bodies colliding with mine. Hard reminders that everything is the same. Everything except us. Mother Nature goes on her merry way as the parasites destroy themselves. I hope, vaguely, that in a hundred years there are scientists left to write about this.

Will they be Carriers, too? Most of us will be dead. Maybe all. Carriers and Hosts. We’re all doomed. The only hope is that there are enough of us left to rebuild someday.

Tall prairie grasses scratch my neck and cheeks. Native grassland. It comforts me to know there will be so much left when we’re gone. Not human but enough. Better that it’s not human. The parasites. Worms that eat the dead. Monsters.

Carriers.

They said we were the monsters. Not like we chose this path. One day we’re all brothers and sisters. The Human Fucking Race. Next we’re Carriers and Hosts. We’re disease ridden and diseased. We’re the living and the dead. Or soon to be.

But we didn’t choose to be this way. I watched my mother die in my arms, flesh marred by fowlpox—scales like an alligator across her skin. Flakey white scabs for eyes, a moulting snake between Egyptian cotton sheets; 400 thread count, a luxurious death bed. You think I wanted that?

Even before the milk had taken her eyes. Hardened to a crust. Before that, when she stared at me with cold hatred, as if I was the reason Marcus had died. As if I would kill my baby brother. As if I wanted any of this.

Daddy at least took pity on me.

He gave me the .30-06. He gave me my knapsack filled with food and hand-loaded rounds. He gave me a hard hug and pushed me into the night.

Don’t come back, sweetie.

And the grasshoppers hit my throat and my eyes. They get stuck in my hair. They remind me of those fleeting embraces. Those moments before I was just a Carrier. I love you, baby. Gimme a hug. Back when I was a woman. A daughter. A person, not a death sentence.

Suddenly I’m standing beneath the water tower. The old beast creaks and sways above me in the wind. I wonder if she’ll fall. All this way and the ancient wooden structure could just collapse and obliterate me. Put me out of my misery.

Quit feeling sorry for yourself, girl. I need to get higher before I set the signal. This is about more than just you. I circle the water tower, looking for a way up. There. On the broken leg. Of course. The ladder is as brittle looking as the limb it’s attached to. But I don’t have much choice. I need to be above the tree line for the fucking contraption to work.

If it works.

Stop it.

I grab the rung above my head and haul my weight onto the first step. The ladder is metal, rusty and corroded where the white paint blisters and peels away. It’s like their skin, pale and bumpy on the outside and sickly, infected red underneath. Don’t think about it. Just climb.

Hand over hand. Pull. Step. Hand over hand. Pull. Step. I give each bar a good yank before taking my foot off its current purchase. I don’t like the look of those rusty old welds, and I’m too close to my goal to die now. Half way up the tower my precaution pays off. A rung shifts beneath my hand and tears away with the gentlest of encouragement. I throw the thing down, elated and angry. See? You’re not so fucking dumb, are you? Might survive this yet.

I’m so focussed on the ladder that I don’t pay much attention to the platform above me. When I get there, finally, my heart pounding and my breath coming in winded gasps, I take a moment before hoisting myself to safety. For a dizzying moment I allow myself a look down.

Below me the grasses spin and swirl in the wind. From here, they look more like golden-green waves crashing against the shores of poplar stands and rock piles, farmers’ great monuments dedicated to cleared fields. Progress.

No one would be farming these fields again. The cattle and horses that once grazed here would be dead soon. Neglected. Starved. Maybe eaten. The crops would never be planted again. The only sign that we’d ever been here would be those rock piles, the tenacious alfalfa that would try to overtake the native grasses, and the grid roads cutting through the landscape like surgical scars.

No one is following. I’m going to make it after all. I reach up and grasp the handle of the railing. It passes the tug test and I throw my weight into the last big step up. The railing moves a bit under my weight, but it’s relatively solid. I put my foot down on the braided steel platform and look up.

“Shit!”

The shock almost sends me back through the rail opening. A foot from my face are the gaping twin mouths of a shotgun. I don’t try to get my rifle. I’m fucked. I know it. It’s an ambush. Instinctively I put my hands up. Even as I do it I wish I hadn’t. I wish I wasn’t giving them the satisfaction of my cooperation. How did they know to wait here?

“How did you know I was here?” A voice echoes my thought. I might be wrong, but I think there is a tremor there.

“I didn’t,” I say, thickly. These are the first words I’ve spoken aloud in weeks. I clear my throat. “Did you know I was coming?”

“Are you one of them?” she asks, ignoring my question. It’s a woman. A girl, maybe. I can’t focus past the double-barreled threat in my face. But her voice gives me hope. More women are Carriers than men. My odds just got a little better.

“One of who?” Whom. The mental correction is absurd. A relic of my past life. I almost laugh. “I’m not here to hurt anyone.”

“One of them. The sick ones. The god-damned Host,” she pushes the firearm closer to my face. Not funny. Not fucking funny.

“No.” I keep my eyes down. I can see the grass twisting and turning beneath me, through the gridwalk. “No. I’m clean.”

“Show me.” The shotgun lowers a few inches. I can see past it to her face. She’s scared, yes. She’s scared and she’s angry. She’s like me.

I move slowly, fully aware that she could punch a hole in my chest big enough to let the light in. What light? But I pull up the sleeves of my button-down canvas blouse, exposing my wrists. I undo the buttons at my neck to show her my chest. I start to take off my boots, army surplus infantry grade combats, to show my ankles. She stops me.

“Okay.” The gun lowers and I allow myself a deep breath. “Fuck. Okay. I’m sorry. It’s just—”

“I know,” I assure her. Then I do laugh. “Don’t I know? Jesus.”

“Do you have a beacon?”

I stop. The woman stares at me. Into me. Her dark eyes pierce my flesh, protruding from her sunken face like daggers. Desperate. Is this my face?

“Do you have a fucking beacon?” Her voice rises in agitation. “Answer me or I’ll fucking shoot you and check your fucking pockets.”

She swears like someone who doesn’t swear. It’s both endearing and terrifying. Desperate.

“I have one.”

“Thank god.” Her shoulders sag visibly. “Thank god. Thank god.”

“Do you?” I ask. “Why are you up here?”

The woman’s eyes flash again. Daggers. She turns her back on me and walks to the west side of the tower. I wait a moment, then follow. She crouches and I see what she’s hiding. A white-painted piece of plywood leans against the belly of the water tower. There is a mewling noise coming from inside the makeshift shelter. She drops to all fours and crawls inside, motioning me in behind her. I follow.

Inside the shelter, she picks up a bundle of rags. The mewling thing. And she shows me. It’s a baby. Newborn. Less than two months old. But there are already blisters on its face. The mouth is a raw, red wound. It cries like it has no energy for crying. The woman shushes it, her soft voice like wind in the grass. Its tiny voice like the whining of black flies and mosquitos.

“I had one,” she whispers. The sound melds into her noises of comfort. “I had one, but I lost it when we ran.”

“Why are you here?”

“I came anyway.” She smiles sadly. “That was before I knew he was one of them. I came and I hoped someone else would come.”

I turn my eyes to the horizon, again. Peering into the bright triangle of light beyond the shelter. Movement. There on the grid. They are coming.

“I have one,” I say.

“Okay.” She pulls the infant to her breast and the gaping red wound begins to suckle. “Okay. You can use it.”

“But we can’t take him.” I know it. She knows it. I don’t know why I say it.

“No.”

I take the thing out of my pocket. A small, metal disc. Easy to conceal. The man who gave it to me made me promise, promise to make it here. Promise to start the signal. I hold it in the palm of my hand, watching the movement on the road.

“You know what’s inside?” she asks. I look at her narrow face again, the taught skin and hard bones. “What you get when you push that button?”

“I know.”

“Can I have it?”

“You don’t need it,” I say. “You’re healthy. You’re going to be fine.”

“Maybe,” she smiles at the nursing boy. That tiny thing with so much life. He’s trying. But it’s not enough. “You know, they told me he would be okay. He would be okay because I was okay.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Me too.” The babe suckles half-heartedly and falls asleep at her breast. “But if you can, please let me have it. When you set the beacon. Please.”

“Will you wait? Will you wait to see if they come?” Different they. Good they. Savior they.

“No,” she says, still rocking her son. “It doesn’t matter if they come. I’ll give him enough and I’ll take the rest. I’ll be dead when they come for you.”

I look at my rifle, and at her shotgun. I can’t blame her for wanting to take the easy way out. What if they don’t come? But she can have them. I’m not going to go that easily, even if the beacon fails and the military can’t get to us here. I’ve done what I can.

“Okay,” I say. And I push the button. A tiny red light blinks at me from the surface of the beacon. It works. The centre lifts to reveal a single white pill. It’s meant for Carriers to take if they are discovered before help arrives. If the Host captures us. It is meant to save us from the torture of experimentation. I hope it works

I give her the little white pill, and I keep my eyes on the horizon. She puts the drug in her mouth without hesitating, and chews. With her index finger, she swipes a paste from the tip of her tongue and puts her finger in the baby’s mouth. He sucks, and shivers, and is still.

“Thank you,” she says, relaxing finally. Her eyes look glassy in the half-light of the shelter. “Thank you.”

I’m not going without a fight. I pull the woman’s shotgun closer to me with my foot. I check the chamber and see two dull, brassy eyes peering back. No other shells are in sight. But I have a pocket full of cartridges and plenty of time. I’m still a good shot. I feel the woman’s body relax beside me. A thick ammonia scent hangs in the air as the pill takes effect. I have nothing but time. I’m still alive.