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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No going back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An arm shot out from the quiet one.

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

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

“Not a fucking soldier, say.”

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

“Night before last.”

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

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

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

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

Not good.

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

Vik wished they were going up.

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

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

I’m not that far behind her.

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

“You’re in the wrong lift, benni.”

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

Silence.

“We can pay. I can pay. I have cash.”

Silence.

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

Silence.

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

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

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

“When did you hit?”

“Thirty hours, maybe.”

The woman whistled.

“Who keyed you? Who locked you up?”

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

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

“I have cash.”

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

Militia, then.

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

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

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

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

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

“Round two?”

Banks nodded the other woman led Min into another room.

“Where are you taking her?”

“She’ll be okay.”

“I want to go with her.”

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

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

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

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

“Keep your money, say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the publisher, Apex Book Company:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

SF Review: “Chinatown” by Chris Reynolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” UPDATE

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I’m not that young.”

 

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

 

It had to happen. Now.

 

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

 

It was him. The man, again.

 

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

 

Everything was wrong.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Everything was right again.

Judges Feedback:

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“For what?” Suds asked.

 

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

 

“Alone?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What are you doing, child?”

 

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

 

“Where are the grown ones, girl?”

 

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

 

“Let me try, will you?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“I can fish,” Suds replied warily.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“What is your price?” asked Suds.

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

Judges Feedback:

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

NaNoWriMo: “The Hunger” by S.C. Jensen PART 2

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In an effort to keep myself motivated to stay the NaNoWriMo course this year, I’ve decided to post my progress here once or twice a week. No, I don’t mean I’ll tell you whether or not I met my word count goals every day. I mean I’m going to share my actual NaNo draft with you in all its ugly, unfinished glory! This is Part 2 of my progress. You can find Part 1 here.

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

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Chapter Four

Margaret settled her knees into the bow of the canoe, dug her paddle into the rocky ground beneath them, and pushed off. The scrape of the hull against the shore reverberated through the boat and into Margaret’s belly. It was a warm, comfortable feeling despite the chill in the air. With the waters of Reyer Lake lapping against the canoes, Margaret finally started to relax.

The boat rocked gently when Robert hopped into the stern. Then all of their movements seemed to soften, to melt into the cold gray waters of Reyer. The weightlessness of the canoe lifted Margaret’s spirits. She dipped her paddle into the lake, and felt the familiar tug of the north drawing her onto the water.

Those first moments of calm silence on the lake were like a drug slipping into Margaret’s veins. It would be wrong to break it. A disruption. Already, Margaret had that otherworldly feeling that crept over her at the beginning of a journey. Passing onto the lake was like crossing a threshold into otherness. She was a stranger here. A trespasser.

“Did you get a copy of the map?” Ellie sat behind Margaret, in the middle of the laden canoe. “Or are we following the Swine brothers?”

Margaret kept her voice low. “I have one.”

The chatter from the other boats grated on Margaret’s nerves. She dug into the water. The satisfying burn of warming muscles spread down her back and across her shoulders. The sound of water dripping from her paddle was rhythmic and soothing. She wanted to put some distance between their canoe and the others. She wanted, as much as possible, to be alone.

Margaret looked back over her shoulder to make sure the red canoes were still upright. She felt a little guilty leaving Mom behind with the Swains like that, but right now she didn’t want to listen to Frank lecturing about how old the rocky outcroppings were, or what minerals made up the multi-coloured striations in the granite, or what temperature water trout preferred to breed in. She wanted the silence of the lake, uninterrupted.

Instead of the canoes, though, Margaret’s gaze found the cabin on the shore. The stand of birch trees closed in around it as they glided farther away. The sandy parking area was nothing but a dirty yellow smear against the edge of the lake. The figure of Bill Williams was just visible against it, a dark thing standing perfectly still. One arm stretched up above his head. Waving, maybe. The gesture elongated his body. The man stretched and distended until he was one with the tall, thin trunks of the trees behind him and Margaret couldn’t see him anymore.

Everything this far north became long and thin. Down around La Crosse, the forest was thick and green year round. The undergrowth was rich with berry bushes and lush mosses. The trees were the same as on Reyer Lake, black spruce and jack pines. But here, the trees were fewer and farther between. The branches were fewer and farther between. The needles. The trees were sparse in every sense of the word. It was colder. Roots were deeper. Food was scarcer. Between the trees was a blanket of rock and dried needles, a few low bushes and lichens were the only things that wanted to grow. The forest was hungry up here.

“You know where you’re going?” Frank called out across the water. Margaret flinched. “Ten clicks up, east shore. We should be able to reach it before dark.”

“Not the way you paddle,” Ellie muttered. “Are there any closer spots?”

It had been an early morning, and an eight hour drive to get to Moose Lips. The sun was already sinking against the blackened tips of the pines ahead. Margaret braced her paddle against the gunnel and pulled the collar of her jacket tighter. While the days were crisp and sunny in the early autumn, the evening air was sharper. A cold wind sighed down the length of the lake toward them, licking at the top of the water, and making little ridges on the glassy surface. “We’ll find something.”

Any flattish spot would do, really. Margaret wasn’t worried about finding a place to camp. Now that they were out on the water she was surprised that she wasn’t really worried about much at all. The fears that had crept up on her when Frank first suggested the trip out to Drake Mine diminished with each stroke of her paddle.

Trips into the bush often had this effect on Margaret. There was something relaxing about being outside, away from the buzz of civilization. The rules were simpler out here. Even the tiny village of La Crosse could be overwhelming sometimes. Margaret didn’t even like to think about the city. The city was for the Swains of the world. Not Margaret.

So much of her life seemed to suffocate but here, out on the water, Margaret could breath. She’d fought black waves of depression and electric shocks of anxiety her entire life, as far back as she could remember. The fluctuations of her moods were like echoes of memories of her father. Dullness punctuated with bursts of dark anger and flashes of white hot panic. The obsessiveness that came with a desperate need to seek control in a world that seemed to swim around her, ever-faster, until she was swept up in a tidal pool of emotions, and sensations, and thoughts that were hers-but-not-quite-hers.

It’s no wonder Frank got frustrated with her. He was a straight edge, perfectly linear in thought and action. Ever since Frank had moved in with Mom, Margaret had been a storm battering at his walls. The perfectly straight walls of logic, and progress, and common-sense. Frank was sensible. Margaret was sensitive. That was the line he used to divide them.

Why couldn’t she like Frank? He was doing the best he could, even if he was an arrogant prick sometimes. But the feeling would never go away. Frank was a stranger, even though she’d known him for years. Maybe this trip would help.

In spite of her resentment towards Frank, Margaret really did want them to feel like a family. She wanted her mother to be happy. She was determined to make this trip work.

Margaret took a deep, cool breath and let herself sink into the feeling of paddling. She hadn’t been out since spring, and she’d missed it. The rhythmic tug of each slice through the water, the warmth in her muscles in contrast to the cold air, the sound of water dripping, water lapping, water slipping away from the hull of the boat. It was her lullaby. Ellie and Robert kept their thoughts to themselves, each enjoying a private moment with the lake. Good paddling partners made all the difference.

The big white canoe easily outstripped the little red ones, even loaded as heavily as they were. They had three experienced paddlers and momentum on their side. Margaret made a mental note not to let themselves get too far ahead. But they picked up speed effortlessly, gliding through the water like a great white fish. It was almost impossible to slow down once they got into that rhythm. Margaret lost herself in the paddling. The water seemed to pull them along at its own pace, they were merely passengers.

“Wind’s picking up,” Robert said.

How long had it been? Margaret’s shoulders burned. The little surface ridges had become small white caps. The exposed skin on her cheeks felt icy and damp. The joints in her hands were stiff and achey, the skin raw with cold. “Let’s pull in toward the shore. Can you see the others?”

Reyer Lake curved slightly east, then west again. On the map it looked a bit like a weasel, twisting its way across the terrain. They followed the eastern shore, since that was where the campsites were marked. As they got off the open water and closer to the trees, the line of sight back towards Moose Lips Lodge was broken. Bill Williams, if he was still standing on the shore, wouldn’t be able to see them anymore.

Margaret couldn’t see the little red canoes, either. She stuck her paddle into the water, the flat blade breaking against the waves to slow them down. Reyer Lake was restless against the early evening light. The sun went down and seemed to take all the colour with it. The blue sky had become pale and gray, the evergreens blackened, the water teamed against their canoe. Margaret scanned the lake for the other boats.

A loon called out, signalling the end of the day. Its throaty laugh trembled, rising and falling with the waves. Another loon joined in. Margaret couldn’t see the loons or the canoes. But the sound of laughter built up to a crescendo around them, echoing off the shoreline and escalating to a fever pitch as it swept across the lake. The hairs on Margaret’s neck stood up and pressed against her jacket almost painfully.

“There they are,” Robert said. Just then, the monotonous gray water was broken by two slashes of red. The setting sun cast one last of beam of golden yellow light toward the canoes. Water glinted off their paddles, flashing and sparkling in the falling dusk. When the sun disappeared into the pines for good, the boats became nothing more than shadows.

“Okay, let’s slow down. We need to find a spot to camp.”

Margaret and Ellie paddled gently while Robert guided them in toward the rocky shoreline. Margaret watched the darkening waters carefully. Rock shelves could pop up anywhere in these northern lakes, but they were especially hazardous closer to shore.

It wasn’t long before a pale finger of rock reached out of the darkness and beckoned them in to shore. The smooth gray stone stretched out of the forest, low and flat. It would be easy to haul the boats onto. As they approached the little peninsula, Margaret could see the shape of a campfire ring nestled closer to the trees. She swept her paddle out of the water. “Over there.”

Their canoe slid closer to shore and the lengthening shadows stretched out to meet them. The trees were thicker here than they had been at Williams’ place. Or maybe it just looked that way in the waning light, shadows thickening the underbrush, fleshing out the trees. Bare birch branches creaked in the wind and pine needles sighed. Margaret’s face ached. But they were almost there.

The hairs on her neck prickled again.  Margaret didn’t like approaching a campsite in the darkness.  But the stirrings of panic swirled in her chest like the little whirlpools that twisted off the blade of her paddle. She felt exposed, suddenly, out on the water like this. She felt like they were being watched.

Trees don’t have eyes, Maggie, she chastised herself in Frank’s voice. Don’t let your imagination run away…

The scrape of rock against their hull startled Margaret out of her reverie. “Shit! Sorry guys. Didn’t see that one.”

Robert steered them in against the shore, swinging the back of the canoe towards the finger-like outcropping. “Heads up!”

Margaret reached out to the rock with her paddle, tucked the blade into a crevice, leveraged her weight against the shaft, and pulled them in closer. Ellie braced the canoe with her own paddle and Margaret hopped out onto the rock. “Got it.”

With her feet planted on solid ground, Margaret felt suddenly heavy. Tired. The hours of the day caught up to her in a rush. They unloaded the canoe quickly, without speaking. Robert scouted out a flat spot for the tent and set it up. Ellie gathered kindling and got a fire started. Margaret unpacked the cooler and put a pot of water on to boil. She kept half an eye on the red boats as they fought their way toward the shore against the growing waves.

“This isn’t the spot,” Frank called out once they were within shouting distance.

“You want to keep going in this?” Robert called back. “It’s going to be pitch black soon, and the waves are getting worse.”

“We’ll have to make up the distance tomorrow,” Frank said as they got closer. He didn’t want to give in, but he didn’t want to keep paddling, either. Margaret knew. “I hope you’re ready to wake up early.”

There was a flurry of activity when the other two boats landed. Margaret rehydrated some moose meat stew and boiled more water for tea. Two more tents went up with relatively little fuss. Brian might be a pain in the ass, but he knew how to set up camp quickly. Frank dragged the boats up onto the shore and tied them down. Margaret didn’t say anything, but she watched Robert wander over and inspect the knots on his way to bush to pee. She loved that man.

“We should be able to get to Drake tomorrow if we’re up early and paddle hard,” Frank said when they were finally all settled in around the campfire. Margaret sighed but she didn’t have the energy to argue. A belly full of stew and hot, sweet tea to wash it down, the flicker of light from the campfire dancing around them in the dark. This was just about perfect, in Margaret’s books. She’d be happy if they just stayed here and did a couple of day trips to explore the area. Forget about Drake Mine and Frank’s expedition.

Margaret shifted closer to the fire and leaned back against Robert’s legs. He rested his mug of tea on her shoulder and rubbed her neck with one hand. The warmth from the cup kissed her cheek and reminded her that this was a vacation. She let herself relax.

Margaret looked up at the night sky, the little pinpricks of light against the pitch black blanket of space. She tried to discern the outline of the trees against the darkness, but they seem to stretch into the void infinitely. Rocks and trees and sky became one as night fell in earnest around them. No one had energy to speak, it seemed. The group fell into a comfortable, exhausted silence. The only sounds were the crackling of the logs on the fire, the sighing of wind through the trees, and the soft lapping of waves against the shore.

In that moment, Margaret did feel at home on Reyer Lake.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Five

That night the wind howled through their camp like a thing, enraged. Branches battered their tents. The surrounding trees fought the restraint of their skeletal forms, thrashing like madmen. They stretched farther than they ought to be able to just, it seemed to Margaret, so they could whip at the campers. Snapping and cracking, limbs crashed to the forest floor around them and scraped across the granite shore.

“This is wild.” Ellie sat up, wide-eyed and cross-legged, leaning toward the centre of the tent. Margaret and Robert huddled in close. No one wanted to be near the shaking walls in case a branch landed on them. “This is fucking wild.”

Robert nodded silently. There was nothing to say. They just huddled next to one another and listened to the raging of the storm. Margaret strained her ears, trying to determine the source of the noises. Hollow thumping from the boats, the clash and clatter of metal cookware rolling across the rocks, shrieks of wind that sounded like human voices. Margaret listened, but there was nothing to say.

Panic boiled and twisted inside her brain. Margaret sensed the ramping up of anxiety, the wave-like rush of pure fear that could sweep her over the edge at any minute. She thought she’d left this ride at home. She thought she’d left it behind. But Margaret was strapped in as tight as she ever was, and she braced herself for the inevitable chaos of emotion and hyper-sensitivity that came with a high. The high and the mad dash into hopelessness that would follow.

Robert grabbed her hand. Light from the little battery operated camping lantern illuminated his face in a blue glow. His eyes flashed, little glinting shards of glass in blackened sockets. But his mouth was his, wide soft lips and always that hint of a smile. He squeezed her fingers between his. The heat of his hand pulled her back down, back out of her head and into her body. “Stay with me,” he said.

“We shouldn’t have come here,” Margaret said.

“This is wild,” Ellie said again. She rocked in and out of the light from the lantern, just slightly. The motion cast dizzying shadows against the walls of the tent. Margaret put a hand on her arm to stay her; Ellie was shaking. Margaret closed her eyes.

The wind roared in and out of the camp, ceaselessly. It seemed to go on forever, increasing steadily. Impossibly loud. Then a gasp, a pause between gusts.

Another noise pierced the darkness.

“Is that Mom?” Ellie’s arm tensed beneath Margaret’s hand. “Mom’s crying.”

Margaret’s eyes shot open and she reached for the zipper. “We should check.”

Robert yanked hard on her arm and Margaret fell backwards. “Stay in the fucking tent.”

His voice shocked Margaret more than pain in her arm. Robert had never raised his voice for as long as she’d known him. She pulled her arm out of his grasp and stared at him. The wind howled again, obscuring the crying sound. Sweat beaded on Roberts forehead and his eyes flashed again. “Please. You could get hurt. I’m sorry.”

“But Mom—”

“She’s fine. Scared probably. But she’s fine. Frank is with her.”

Ellie stared at the tent door. The wind sucked it in and out violently. The whole tent moved like someone was shaking it from the outside. Horror drained the colour from Ellie’s face. This was more than wild. “Don’t go out there, Mags.”

The three of them huddled in the centre of the tent, keeping as far from the sides as possible. They wrapped the sleeping bags around their bodies, cocooning themselves against the storm. The pounding of Margaret’s heart was loud enough to drown out the sound of the storm. Eventually, she fell into a fitful sleep.

Chapter Six

When they crawled out of the tent the next morning, Margaret couldn’t believe their gear had survived. But for all the violence of the storm, most of their belongings were where they’d left them. The cooler had tipped over, and a couple of tin mugs had to be retrieved from the bushes. But the camp was more or less the way they’d left it.

Margaret gathered up some of the deadfall that broke off in the winds, but there wasn’t much. A few old, dry branches had come down, and the rest was barely big enough for kindling. She shook her head in wonder as she walked around the tents. A snore shook the side of Brian and Gerald’s tent and Margaret burst out laughing, nearly mad with relief.

Despite his threats for an early start, Frank and the others didn’t drag themselves into the morning air until Ellie was making the second pot of coffee. Mom emerged, braiding her long black hair in a thick rope over her shoulder. She stretched like a cat and grinned at Margaret.

“Good morning, sweetie.”

Ellie brought her a cup of coffee. “Are you okay, Mom?”

“I slept like a baby.” Mom held the coffee up to her face and took a deep breath. “How about you?”

Ellie’s eyes swept over to Margaret. She frowned. “How the hell did you manage to sleep through that storm?”

“What storm?” Frank stumbled out of the tent and began rummaging through the cooler. “That bit of wind, you mean?”

“Bit of wind?” Robert looked up in disbelief. “I’m pretty sure old man winter tried to blow us into the lake.”

“Maybe you should have brought your teddy bear,” Brian scoffed. “Keep the bogey men away.”

“Maybe you should keep your mouth shut.” Margaret poured herself the last cup of coffee before Brian could reach the pot.

“Hey!”

Ellie tossed him the beans. “Make your own, slacker.”

“You know how it is,” Frank said. “Things always sound worse from inside the tent. Noises get amplified. One time I was doing exploration up by the Cigar site, I was sure there was a bear outside my tent. Woke up in the morning, nothing but rabbit tracks.”

“Might have been something else,” Ellie said.

Margaret shot her a look. “Don’t.”

“Well, I want to know who’s holding out,” Robert said. “C’mon. Who brought the booze? I could use a little Irish in my coffee after a night like that.”

“Guilty as charged.” Gerald pulled a silver flask from inside his Gore-Tex jacket. Typical city slicker, the cost of his gear was inversely proportionate to the number of times he ever used it.

“You’re a good man, Gerry.” Robert held out his cup. “Top her up. I’m going to go let a little out of the tank.”

Not a minute later, Robert was back. He walked stiffly up to the campfire, his face ashen. The pounding started in Margaret’s ears again. “What is it, Bobby?”

Robert didn’t look at her. He didn’t take the coffee cup that Gerald held out to him. He said, “The canoes are gone.”

 

 

Chapter Seven

“I don’t understand,” Frank said. He held a piece of nylon rope in his hand. It was still secured to the tree he’d tied it to. The ends kinked from where he’d knotted them, but the knot had not held. “I tied them up last night.”

“I know,” Robert said. “I checked your knots.”

“What, you don’t trust me to tie a damned boat?”

“We spent eight hours yesterday taking bets on which bump was going to send a canoe through our windshield,” Ellie snapped. “I don’t blame him.”

“What the hell is—”

“The fucking boats are gone, Frank!” Margaret cut him off, her voice rising as another wave of anxiety pitched her forward. “Do you need more evidence than that?”

“They were fine, though,” Robert interrupted. “The knots were sound. The ropes are still holding the shape for fuckssake. They were tight.”

“It’s almost like someone untied them,” Brian inspected the yellow fibers. “There’s no damage. Even in strong winds this shouldn’t have happened. Knots get tighter when you pull on them.”

“Good knots…”

“That’s not helpful, Ellie.” Mom’s voice was dangerously calm.

“Maybe old Bill Williams is fucking with us,” Brian said.

“Could be,” Frank said. “I don’t trust him. Ghost stories. Fake name.”

“Wait,” Margaret said. “Fake names?”

“C’mon, Bill Williams?” Brian said. “I didn’t buy it either.”

“Now who’s being paranoid?” Ellie laughed without humour. “You gave Maggie such a hard time for not wanting to come up here at the end of October to go spelunking in a fucking mineshaft because that’s ‘dramatic.’ But you’re willing to believe than an old man canoed across the lake in the middle of a storm just to add credibility to his fake ghost story? Are you fucking kidding me?”

“I think everybody needs to take a deep breath and a swig of the sauce,” Gerald said, suddenly the voice of reason.

“Gerry’s right.” Robert took the proferred flask. Foregoing the coffee, he took a long pull. He stared dully across the waters of Reyer. “It doesn’t matter if it was the wind or a man. We need to find those boats.”

“Why are you even entertaining the idea that Williams had—”

“Can it, Ellie.” Mom took the flask from Robert and shoved it at her younger daughter. “It doesn’t matter. We need a plan.”

Ellie’s eyes flashed over the rim of the flask, but she drank. Margaret could see the line connecting their eyes, Mom’s silent fight for control and Ellie’s willful defiance. Finally, Ellie broke. She took a sip and spat. “I’m going for a walk.”

Margaret broke from the group and followed her sister into the trees. She appreciated that Ellie stood up for her back there. And Margaret didn’t think it likely that Williams had anything to do with the missing canoes. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was seriously wrong here. Yes, she often felt that way for ‘no reason.’ But her imagination hadn’t untied the canoes last night. And someone had been crying last night. She was sure of that. “Ellie, wait!”

Ellie spun and faced her. Her cheeks were splotchy with cold and fighting back uncharacteristic tears. “You were right, Mags. We shouldn’t have come here.”

“Don’t let them get to you, Ellie.”

“It’s not that, it’s—” She ran her hands through her hair and pulled her hood up to cover her face. Ellie hated getting emotional. Margaret was the basket case in the family. “Ugh. Okay. They are getting to me.”

“You hear the wind last night,” Margaret said. “I know Robert checked Frank’s knots but—”

“Yeah. I know.” Ellie turned away and stared into the trees. “But this place is weirding me out.”

“Let’s go back,” Margaret urged. The trees were starting to make her feel claustrophobic. They seemed to multiply, filling in the spaces between them the longer she looked at them. Margaret and Ellie had a rule when they were out in the bush. Don’t talk about strange things. Don’t talk about strange feelings. Don’t draw attention to your fears. “Let’s just go back.”

“Alright.” Ellie wiped her eyes and turned around. Then she froze. “Shit. That little fucking shit.”

“What are you—?” Margaret spun. She saw it too.

Their canoe. The white one, stuck out of the bushes a few meters from where they stood. A few loose branches lay on top of it, but it was otherwise fine. A dark line in the undergrowth led away from the canoe back toward the camp, like it had been dragged. Realization dawned on Margaret.

“Brian.” Ellie said, echoing Margaret’s thoughts. “He was pretty fucking quick to point the finger at Bill Williams.”

“You think he’s trying to scare us?”

“Oh come on,” Ellie sneered. “He’d love that. Teasing us for listening to Williams’ story, being nervous about the mine. This is exactly the kind of thing he would do.”

“Kind of a dick move, even for Brian.”

“Think about it. The storm? Everyone else sleeps through a ‘bit of wind.’ Our tent was shaking like someone grabbed it from the outside—”

“—and the crying noises,” Margaret said. A wave of embarrassment rushed over her. They had been terrified last night. Brian had probably been laughing to himself until morning. No wonder he’d slept in. “Asshole. I bet he loved that.”

“So what are we going to do?”

“Let’s have a look for the other canoes, first. They must be somewhere around here.”

“No. What are we going to do to him,” Ellie’s eyes flashed dangerously. “We can’t let him get away with this.”

“We can let him think he’s getting away with it,” Margaret said. “We can play along.”

Ellie grinned and slapped her sister on the back. “Yes!”

“We’ll beat him at his own game,” Margaret said.

Ellie said, “And then I’m going to beat him with a paddle.”

 

 

Chapter Eight

But they didn’t find the other boats amongst the trees.

Margaret and Ellie walked back to the camp with the white canoe on their shoulders. The paddles were still lashed inside. When they swung it down onto the rocks beside the tents the rest of the group erupted in applause.

“Where the hell was that?” Robert asked.

“Where are the other two?” Margaret asked. She looked at Brian as she said it, but didn’t linger. She didn’t want to think so, but he seemed genuinely relieved to see them.

Robert pointed out across the water. Two little dots of red were barely visible against the far shore of Reyer Lake.

“Well that’s a bit extreme,” Ellie muttered behind Margaret.

“What the actual fuck,” Margaret said.

“Well don’t look like that,” Brian said. “At least we have one canoe. I thought Robert was going to have to go swimming.”

“Yeah.” Margaret said. “Right.”

“Fuel up, Mags.” Robert passed her a tin bowl full of steaming hot oatmeal. “We’re going to get our exercise this morning.”

“Are you done eating?” Margaret asked. “I’m not hungry.”

“Let’s go then,” Robert said. Margaret saw that is own bowl was untouched as well. “Ellie?”

“I’m going to stay here.” Ellie caught Margaret’s gaze meaningfully. “Keep an eye on the riff raff.”

“We’re the riff raff,” Robert said. “Tally ho, Maggie!”

###

When they were a safe distance onto the lake Margaret told Robert about her and Ellie’s suspicions. Robert didn’t say much. When Margaret looked back over her shoulder at him she saw his face was frozen in a look of deep concentration. His eyes focussed unwaveringly on the red canoes, as if he didn’t want to let them out of his sight again.

“I’ve never liked Brian,” he said, finally. “You know that.”

“I know.”

“He was piss scared when you two were gone.” Robert dug deep into the water and propelled them forward with a powerful stroke. “I thought he was, anyway. You think they teach acting in the army?”

“He probably thought we’d make him go swimming when we found out,” Margaret laughed. “Put those macho military skills to work.”

“Fucking prick.”

“Ellie wants to beat him with a paddle.”

“Maybe he’ll do us all a favour and fall down the mineshaft.”

Margaret was quiet for a bit. “Just don’t push him, okay?”

They paddled in silence for a while. The sun was up, reflecting in bright slashes across the water. The morning chill was burning off in a thin fog around the edges of the lake. The wind from last night had died completely, but an occasional stirring sent swirls of steam up like puffs of breath from the trees.

The canoes had landed about a kilometre down the lake, towards Bill Williams’ cabin. Brian might have been messing with them last night, but Margaret could see they’d gotten more than ‘a bit of wind.’ The red hulls of the boats could be seen from their campsite because they had been tossed up on the bank, meters from the shoreline. “Must have been some storm.”

Robert kept paddling. “Yeah.”

Even in the calm morning waters it seemed to take forever to get to the boats. Then again, Margaret didn’t feel the usual muscle burn from paddling. Robert’s sense of urgency had died about halfway across the lake, too. Like they were just killing time. Subconsciously, Margaret wondered if she was stalling. The longer it took them to get the boats, the less likely it was that they’d get back in time to pack up and up the lake to their next spot. Last night hadn’t been fun, and if Brian was going to keep playing stupid pranks she didn’t really want to be three days from the nearest road and satellite radio when Ellie or Robert decided to take things into their own hands. Beating him at his own game was a great idea, in theory, but Margaret would rather not have to play at all.

“I don’t even want to get the canoes,” Robert said, echoing her thoughts.

After forty-five minutes of leisurely padding, the hull of their own canoe bumped up against the steep, rocky shoreline. This wasn’t a camper-friendly landing. The granite poking through the trees and scrubby bushes fell toward the waters of Reyer at a sixty degree angle. The red boats were wedged up between some lichened rocks out of Margaret’s reach.

“I’m going to have to get out and push them in from up there,” she said.

Robert steadied the boat for her and Margaret hopped out onto the rocks. The bank was steep enough that she needed to put both hands down to pull herself up toward the red canoes. When she reached them, Margaret was surprised to see all four paddles set neatly next to the boats. “Look at this.”

“Convenient,” Robert said. “Or someone is fucking with us.”

“Shut up and grab this thing, would you?” Margaret pushed the first canoe up over the rock it was nestled against the rocks and pushed it toward the water.

Something across the water caught her eye. A dark spot in the scraggly gray trees, just up the hill from where they had set up camp. From her vantage point on the far shore, Margaret could see the way the ground sloped upward and the forest became thicker. Evergreen covered hills rolled in the distance.

“Okay, okay, I take it back!” Robert shouted. The red canoe knocked theirs sideways and he scrambled to steady himself against the rocks with an outstretched arm. “You don’t have to try to drown me.”

“What the fuck is that?” Margaret pointed.

“What are you—?” Robert looked up across the lake. “—oh. What?”

“It’s like a door in the Cliffside,” Margaret said. “Is that the mine?”

“I thought it was at the north end of the lake?” Robert said. “We’re at least twenty kilometers from Frank’s x on this map.”

“Maybe the map’s wrong?” Margaret said. “It wouldn’t be the first thing Frank screwed up this trip.”

“Come one, toss me that other boat,” Robert said. “Not on my head this time. Let’s get back and check it out.”

Margaret grabbed the second canoe by the gunwales and pushed it down the embankment, careful to ease it in next to Robert this time. He flipped it expertly into the water beside him and secured both smaller boats to the larger white one. “Okay, ready set. Where do you want me to pull up?”

But when Robert looked up at Margaret, his eyes seemed to slide right off as if tugged toward the trees behind her. All of the hairs on Margaret’s body stood on end. She felt it, too. It was as if the trees had been creeping up toward her while she struggled with the boats. Now the stirring of the leaves in the gentle morning breeze sounded too loud in her ears. Like the birch branches were shaking right behind her head, as if they were reaching out to touch her. If she just stayed there, she would feel the cold scratching fingers of—

“Hey, earth to Maggie.” Robert clapped his hand and waved. “Where do you want me?”

He was looking at her again, actually at her. But his expression was odd. Looked at the door in the cliff across the lake one last time. “You’re fine there.”

She tried to climb down the rocks as carefully as she could, but her legs felt like jelly. It was that awful dream sensation where you try so hard to run and feel like you’re swimming through molasses. A patch of electric orange lichen sloughed off beneath her foot and Margaret slid into a crack between stones, twisting her ankle. “Shit.”

“You okay?” Robert swung the blade of his paddle toward her and wedged it into the rocks. “Here, brace yourself.”

Margret grasped the shaft and pulled herself out from between the rocks. Whatever had been weighing on her disappeared as she stepped lightly into the boat, kneeled, and grabbed her own paddle. “Got it. Thanks.”

When they were out on the lake, the two smaller canoes trailing behind them, Robert spoke. “I need to sleep tonight.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “I’m tired, too.”

“You’re tired,” he said. “I’m hallucinating.”

“What do you mean?”

“I keep feeling like the trees are moving,” Robert said. “Here and at camp. Like they’re stepping closer.”

Margaret felt that tingle o the surface of her skin as the hairs rose up again. But she followed her and Ellie’s pact. “You do need sleep,” she said.

“What’s up with the mine, though,” he asked. “You’ve been around here before. Are there other entrances to Drake that you know of?”

She’d been up here before. Yes. She didn’t want to talk about it. “I don’t know. I didn’t really pay attention. I think that’s pretty normal, though.”

“That far away?”

“I don’t know.” Margaret really didn’t want to talk about it. “Like you said, maybe the map is wrong. We didn’t go to Drake Mine when I was here last. We weren’t stupid.”

“Well, I think Frank has the stupid covered,” Robert said. “That man is so white he doesn’t have a shadow.”

“Maybe he’s a vampire.”

“Even vampires have shadows.” Robert said. “They just don’t have reflections.”

“You’re the expert.”

“What are you implying, my dear?” Robert flung a cascade of freezing water droplets against Margaret’s jacket. They rolled down her neck and made her shiver. “That I vant to suck your blood?”

“You know the rules, Vlad.” Margaret splashed back at him. “No ‘superstitious nonsense’ until we’re back in civilization.”

“Civilization. Where ‘superstitious nonsense’ gets you a psych appointment and stern talking-to by Frank the Swine?” Robert’s tone was unexpectedly bitter.

Margaret said nothing. Robert had always supported Margaret, and backed her up with Frank thought she was ‘crazy.’ But he’d never been openly hostile toward the man. She could admit, to herself, that she often hated Frank. Brian, too. And the thing with Brian and the storm and the canoes was pushing her towards a line she didn’t really want to cross. Not yet. But in the back of her mind, Margaret thought something had to be done.

“Sorry,” Robert said.

“Don’t be sorry.”

“The guy’s a dick, though.” Robert said. He drove them back toward the camp with strong, steady strokes. “He should have listened to you.”

“Yeah,” Margaret said. “He should have.”

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday: “Cthulhu Rising” by S.C. Jensen

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This week’s Flash Fiction Friday piece is one of my own. I dedicate this to the Old Ones. Enjoy!

“Cthulhu Rising” by S.C. Jensen

Jake grabbed a hot cup of piss flavoured coffee from the trendy little wharf kiosk and hit the strip. End-of-season stragglers wove their way between mostly closed-up shops looking for desperate vendors with bargain bin prices on their cheap tourist crap. Even the sky was depressed, grey and swollen with inky clots of cloud that threatened to spill their guts across the pier. End of bender clouds. Barf-the-wharf. Jake sipped his hot piss and wished he had a beer.

 

He kept half an eye out for the punter who’d called him in to this shit hole. Probably wearing a bad Hawaiian button down, unbuttoned. Khaki’s. Birkenstocks with socks. Fuck-off huge sunglasses or whatever. They were all the same. Burnouts. Skids. Paranoid schizophrenics. Why did they all shop at the same freakshow store? Freaks-R-Us. Buy one, get one tinfoil hats.

 

“Jake Radcliffe?” Gut punch. The voice pierced his eardrums like a siren. Siren song. His intestines coiled up like spaghetti on a fucking fork. Done for. “Sir?”

 

Of course she was gorgeous. The voice already told him that, all husky, like she’d been screaming all night. But he wasn’t prepared for how gorgeous. Black hair, black eyes, red lips, cheekbones that could cut a steak.

 

“Uh…  Jimmy Park?”

 

“No.” But she held her hand out brusquely. “Jimin Pak. I’m the one who called you.”

 

“My receptionist must have written it down wrong—”

 

“I spoke to you, Mr. Radcliffe.” She withdrew her hand with a whiplike snap.

 

“I was expecting someone less…”

 

“Female? Asian?” She stepped back. “Normal?””

 

“You’re like a china doll.” Jake tossed the piss coffee into the nearest bin and popped piece of wintergreen into his mouth. “If china dolls were sexy as fu—”

 

“I’m Korean, actually.” Pak walked ahead of him, her hips swaying with a metronomic precision. BOOM-boom-BOOM-boom. “And I’m not crazy. I hope you brought your notebook.”

 

“Voice notes.” Jake pulled out his smartphone.

 

“Whatever.” BOOM-boom. “This way to the beach.”

 

“I think you’re supposed to flex when you say that.”

 

“What?”

 

“Nevermind.” Jake took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. He’d been doing the show for five years and he’d never gotten a serious call. Sure, callers thought they were serious. But they were fucking nutjobs. Jimin Pak was not a nutjob. He could smell it. Or maybe it was the Gucci II. Addled the brain, the good stuff. “Are you the one who discovered the—”

 

“Yes.” Pak looked over her shoulder at him. Her hair crashed like a wave over her back; the sea breeze whipped up a froth of flyaways. Goddamn she was gorgeous. “I like to run on the beach in the mornings, before work.”

 

“What do you do, again?”

 

“I’m an attorney, Mr. Radcliffe.” She hopped off the pier and into the sand. She kicked off her hot pink flip flops and tossed her messenger bag to the ground. Jake watched the wet sand squish between her toes and felt weak in the knees. “It’s not far from here.”

 

Pak jogged up the beach, sand spraying behind her. She made it look easy. Jake’s lungs burned and he cursed the joint he’d hotboxed the black Subaru WRX with in the wharf parking lot. He straggled behind her, pretending not to be in a hurry. She was waiting for him when he finally pulled up, gasping.

 

“It’s between those rocks.” She balanced delicately atop a barnacled boulder and pointed into the seaweedy tidepools beyond. “You’ll see it.”

 

Jake did see it. A roiling mass of purple tentacles, too may for an octopus or squid. Too huge to be either, too. The great, suckerless limbs writhed and curled in the low-tide froth, the bloated body swelled with sea-air. The stink was otherworldly.

 

“And you think this is—” Jake didn’t want to put words in the woman’s mouth. The crazies always had plenty of their own. Not that he thought she was a crazy. This thing was real, whatever it was.

 

“A mystery, Jake Radcliffe.” Jimin Pak looked at him with eyes like black holes. “As in, Jake Radcliffe’s Mysteries: Unravelled. That’s why I called you.”

 

Jake filmed the monstrosity with is smartphone, making pointless voice notes just to sound like he knew what he was doing. Inside he was stewing. This was real. This was real as fuck. He needed a crew here, ASAP. This might be his big break into real journalism.

 

“I’ll be right back,” he said. No more myth-busting for Jake Radcliffe. This was scientific shit. Breaking. “I need to call some people.”

 

Jimin Pak watched him stagger up the beach. A great purple tentacle coiled around her calf and brushed her thigh. “Soon, Master. The time of the Old Ones is nigh.”

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