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.

 

 

 

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.

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!

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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