“Queen of the Castle” by S.C. Jensen

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Construction equipment lurked along the gravel road, heavy metal appendages folded in on themselves, like an invading army of robotic insects. A man in a white hardhat wandered between them, yelling something into his cell phone. Most of the crew pickups had taken off, and the machines were silent. Missy drove her van past the foreman, up the two-track driveway, and through the property gate, where an old farm house patiently awaited its fate.

Periwinkle flax and alfalfa flourished at the edges of the property in a tranquil sea of blossoms, barely stirring in the heavy midsummer heat. The villa stood, queen-like, before the surrounding fields where colourful bee-boxes peeked through here and there like bashful ladies in waiting. A delicate lacework peeled away from her yellow gown and her shoulders slumped slightly, but she held her crown of terraces high. Tired, not defeated.

Missy parked her van next to another, identical vehicle, in a patch of flattened weeds and cracked earth that may once have been a garden.

“Rise and shine, boss.” She elbowed her passenger awake. “Looks like Ben is still here.”

Keith Weiland stretched and peered blearily through the window at the other Ace Pest Control van. “That bastard.”

They got out. Heat enveloped Missy’s air-conditioned flesh like liquid honey, leaving her instantly sticky. The scent of burnt oil and dead bugs wafted up from the grill and the engine ticked as it cooled. Wasps droned around the front of the van, drawn to the carnage.

“Suit up,” Keith said and flung open the van’s service door. Then he cursed, rubbing the back of his neck. “Fuckers are stinging already.”

Missy rummaged through the gear and found her uniform. Keith twitched and swatted beside her, drawing the attention of the bugs. A red welt had erupted on the skin above his collar. He swore again. Boss, maybe, but Keith wasn’t made for fieldwork.

Missy donned the equipment unhurriedly, almost reverently. She felt as if she were a priestess preparing to perform an ancient sacrificial rite. A curious insect buzzed around her, landing briefly on her forearm. She kept still. It tickled, but didn’t sting, then flew off to deliver news of its discovery to the rest of the colony. Missy finished dressing.

A truck tore up the driveway and came to a gravel-grinding stop next to the vans. The foreman rolled down his window a crack and shouted, “It’s about goddamned time you got here!”

Keith zipped his mesh helmet closed and sauntered toward the pickup. “Has the van been here all weekend?”

“It was here on Friday,” the foreman said. “It’s still here today. So are the fucking bugs. No sign of your guy.”

“He’s not answering his phone,” Keith said. “Did anyone check inside the house?”

“Are you kidding?” The man’s eyes bugged out until he looked insect-like himself. “We can’t get anywhere near the place. We stirred up a whole shit-storm of the things when we started clearing.”

The regal structure seemed to stare down at them with wide, unblinking eyes. Something flickered in the upstairs window like a draft had stirred the curtains. “Why are you tearing it down?” Missy asked.

A wasp crawled up the driver’s side window and the foreman eyed it warily. He quickly rolled it up just as the wasp slipped an exploratory antennae over the edge. The insect struggled, trapped against the weather-stripping.

“Just get rid of them,” the foreman shouted through the glass. He sped off down the driveway and back toward town. Missy stared after him. Fury crawled up from her belly and into her throat. It struggled there, and died. Inside the suit her skin felt cool and clammy. She wanted to tear it off.

“After you,” Keith said. Wasps crawled all over his white safety-suit, burrowing at the seams and zippers. He swatted at them fruitlessly. “Are they always like this?”

Missy led the boss up the sunken steps and through the front door. She breathed in the dusty air of the old house. The tang of mouse piss and something else, sweet and a little bit gamey, wafted toward her. A trickle of cold sweat ran down her spine. The insects left her alone, but her skin rippled as if they were crawling on her, too. She placed a tentative foot on the staircase.

“Shouldn’t we check around down here, first?”

“The main nest will be upstairs, on the south side of the house,” she explained patiently. “Wasps love sunlight.”

“I mean shouldn’t we check for Ben?”

“Ben knows about wasps.” She climbed upwards, rising like the heat of the day into the dust speckled beams of light coming from the second floor windows. “He’ll have gone upstairs.”

Keith trailed after her, slapping at his arms and legs. The insects hummed around both of them, thicker now. To Missy, the noise was like the susurrus of tiny voices all speaking at once. They didn’t land on her, but they seemed to whisper, “This way.”

She followed.

The noise was much louder on the landing, as if the entire building was vibrating with winged creatures. It almost seemed to come from inside her head, buzzing her vision and making the walls shake. Missy’s eyes locked onto a door at the far end of the corridor. Wasps swarmed out from the cracks on all sides and a grey, papery film seemed to grow from the door jamb.

“Holy shit.” Keith exhaled in a staccato burst. “Is that normal?”

Keith hovered near her elbow as she reached for the doorknob, as if she could protect him from the millions of creatures that inhabited the house. The door moaned. Missy pushed it open and stepped inside, and Keith tumbled in after her.

“Oh god,” he said.

Ben’s white safety-suit lay, discarded, next to a mound of pale, hairless flesh. Tiny larvae wriggled contentedly at the raw edges where something big had burst out. The rest of it disappeared into the papery layers of a hive that filled the room. An itching need to take off her own suit pulsed through Missy’s body. She closed the door.

“Yes.” The wasps droned in her ears and she began to disrobe. “Yes. He said she would come.”

“Oh god,” Keith said.

Missy’s skin writhed and twitched as she peeled off layer after layer. She dug her fingernails into her convulsing chest, tearing, desperate to be free of the pupal shell she had been trapped in all summer. A sound like the ripping of wet fabric rent the air. Missy burst free of her prison and shook the thick red fluid from her newly formed wings. A beam of sunshine pierced through the cloud of insects. She stretched into it to dry off.

“Yes.” The colony trilled in excitement. “A new queen.”

Wasps swarmed out of the walls, floor and ceiling. Keith Weiland, proud owner of Ace Pest Control, fell to his knees and screamed.

“And a feast,” she hummed, looking up at the fractured, prismatic image of her erstwhile employer, “fit for a queen.”

And before long all that could be heard in the regal house among the flax and alfalfa, was the lazy buzzing of insects.

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This is what I’m working on for the February’s 12 Short Stories Challenge. The prompt was “New Me” at 1200 words. Let me know what you think! I have the rest of the month to make changes before I submit it to the forum.

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“Showstopper” by S.C. Jensen

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Mike Zeilinski had been dead for seventeen days when his eyes shot open and he lurched down the stairs and out his back door. He collapsed on the lawn of his silver-ribbon award-winning garden in the bright midday sun. He knew it was seventeen days because the man on the radio had said it was July 23 and the last thing he remembered was dragging himself home from the clinic, taking three ibuprofen, and laying down to sleep off the skull-splitting pain in his forehead. A note on the table, next to the telephone, read “Dr. Novak July 6 @ 1400.”

But that realization came later.

First, he lay in the sunlight, hardly remembering to breathe for joy of the sun’s warmth on his face and arms. After a moment he stripped off his damp, stinking, oddly blackened clothes, and bared the rest of his skin to the blissful rays. He didn’t know how long he lay there before a sudden, dreadful thirst forced him back into the house, to the kitchen, where he stuck his face straight under the tap and drank until he thought his stomach would burst.

Then Mike planted himself at the dinette table, sat directly in a beam of afternoon light, and read the note.

Seventeen days.

Perhaps it was a stretch to assume that he was dead, but Mike could remember nothing that happened in the time between lying down and waking up. When he went back upstairs to check his bedroom for signs that he’d fed and watered himself over the course of past two and a half weeks, he found none. As far as Mike knew, it was basically impossible to survive that length of time without food and drink. And, besides that, he distinctly remembered his last thoughts before losing consciousness. It had been like something was tunnelling into his brain. Through the twisting, burning agony he had thought, “I’m going to die.”

It didn’t matter, though. Mike felt more or less unmoved by the fact of his death and rebirth. What he was fascinated by was his bed. Mounds of black soil covered the mattress. A single set of foot prints made a path from the bed, out the bedroom, and down the stairs. His own.

Mike swallowed. His tongue was thick and waxy in his mouth. It seemed to coil around itself, tightly. He fought an urge to lay on the bed and dig his hands and feet into the muck. He decided, instead, to get another drink of water and sit in the sunshine outside.

It wasn’t until he was planted on the back step, looking out at his garden with a glass of water in his hand, that he noticed his fingers. Long, hair-like fibers dangled from his fingertips. From his toes, too, he realized once he looked down. And underneath the skin on his arms and legs, lumps wound their way up his limbs where they seemed to disappear into his muscles. Every now and then, the lumps pulsed and coiled like worms burrowing through compost.

Compost.

He had been working in the garden when the headache started, applying compost to the central flower bed. It was a new arrangement. The special order bulbs he’d planted that spring were coming in in great verdant bursts. Mike remembered fingering the delicate pink buds that were beginning to show within the clusters of spikey leaves. Excitement had thrummed through his body like electricity. A showstopper, the catalogue had said, guaranteed. Mike had never heard of the strain before and, he hoped, the judges of this years’ Amateur Horticulturalist Society competition hadn’t either. This was his year. He was going to win it, for sure. Not second best to Mrs. Evelyn Brown’s roses, again. He was going for the gold.

He’d lost seventeen days, though. It was time to get to work. He didn’t understand what had happened to him, but that didn’t matter. More than anything, Mike needed to tend to his garden. He heaved himself off the porch, wrapped his fibrous fingers around the handles of his wheelbarrow, and humped his way over to the fertilizer.

Flies buzzed like tiny black drones around the heap of rotting leaves and kitchen compost. The air around the pile was heavier and hotter than in the rest of the garden, rich with the promise of life-giving nutrient matter. His limbs moved sluggishly as he shoveled scoop after scoop into the bucket of the wheelbarrow, but Mike felt fine. Better than fine, he was invigorated.

When the bucket was full, he rolled it over to his central plot and dumped the stinking stuff right in the middle. This was where his best plants were. This was where the winners grew. Mike covered them with a thick blanket of compost. He knelt and pushed the mixture into the soil with his bare hands, and he felt that same jolt of electricity flow through him. As he kneaded the earth around his prize plants the lumps in his arms began to churn with him. The writhing shapes swelled as he worked, swelled until skin began to burst like the flesh of an overripe peach.

But Mike felt fine.

He dug deeper and deeper into the plot, working his limbs in slowly until, at last, he was ready to rest. This time, when Mike turned his face up to the late afternoon sun and closed his eyes, he knew he wouldn’t open them again.

Five days later, when the judges arrived from the AHS competition, they found the most extraordinary sight. A flower of prehistoric proportions dominated the garden. Petals, like folds of sunburned flesh, spilled out of the central plot, piled upon themselves with almost grotesque abundance. No one had seen anything like it.

Mr. Zeilinski, unfortunately, could not be found to answer for the unusual specimen or to accept his prize. So the gold, once again, went to Mrs. Brown’s roses.

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989 Words

This piece was inspired by the January prompt “Flower” at BlogBattle! Thank you so much to Simon from Planet Simon for the suggestion to try this challenge as well as the others I’ve got going this month. I had a lot of fun with it. Can you tell? What did you think? As always, thanks for reading!

Flash Fiction Friday: “The Foxhole” by S.C. Jensen

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Genre: Horror
Wordcount: 1154

Tobi crouched in the tall grasses that had grown up next to the old barn. The dun-coloured spears rustled in front of his face. He peered through them like a wary fox. A chicken feather, stuck to one of the strands, tickled his nose. Twenty feet away, more feathers littered the ground around the old well, like delicate white petals around an altar.

“I don’t see anything,” his sister whispered beside him. Her voice was as scratchy as the grasses, irritated. Irritating. He wanted to sneeze.

Tobi’s eyes fixed on the lip of the well. A sheet of splintered grey plywood lay propped across the mouth of the cistern. A chunk of ancient concrete weighted it down. To keep children and animals out; that’s what Mama said. Tobi had other ideas.

The plywood hadn’t moved. He was sure of that. A rusted twist of rebar, exposed by decades of prairie winds blasting against the concrete wall, made a perfect T with the edge of the wooden lid. It hadn’t budged an inch.

And yet something was different.

A dark patch blossomed against the light grey stone. Strands, like fingers, crept out from beneath the plywood cover. Tobi was sure it hadn’t been there before. The sun peeked out from behind a cloud and shifted the light with it. The dark patch glistened.

“There. Do you see it?”

Tina rocked back on her heels. “It’s wet.”

“Told you.”

“So what,” his sister said. A born skeptic, Mama called her. Typical first born. The pride in Mama’s voice came through in Tina’s confidence. “That doesn’t prove anything. It’s probably just condensation.”

Know it all, he thought. “Something is in there,” he said. “I’m telling you.”

“This is ridiculous.” She stood abruptly, breaking their cover and knocking Tobi on his ass in the process. She glared down at him like he was roadkill or something. Disgusted, the way only a teenage girl can be. “Why don’t you just admit that you left the gate open?”

“I didn’t!” He could hear the wheedling in his voice and he hated himself for it. “I swept the coop out, fed and watered them, collected the eggs, and I closed the gate, Tee. I swear I did.”

“Mama’s going to be pissed either way. You might as well fess up.”

Tina was probably right. He would be grounded until school started. Mama would never trust him with anything important ever again. It wasn’t fair. “Nobody ever believes me about anything.”

“Because you are a liar. You lie all the time.”

A born trickster; that was according to Mama, too. Just like your Daddy. Daddy, the good-for-nothing, layabout, joker. The story-teller. Capital L-i-a-r, Liar. “You can’t still be sore about your stupid doll.”

“You cut her eyes out and hung her in the cellar! Daddy gave me that doll.”

“I told you, that wasn’t me. Besides, it’s not fair. He never gave me anything before he left.”

“Is that why you did it?” The disgust in her eyes swelled and spilled out over the rest of her face. She hated him. Tobi had suspected so before, but now he was certain. “What’s your excuse for all the other stupid pranks and stories, then? I’m sick of it!”

It’s not my fault he left, he wanted to scream. But somehow the words wouldn’t come, because no matter how hard he tried he didn’t believe it. Tina backed away from him, stumbling toward the well as if whatever was wrong with him might be contagious. You fucking liar! Like father like son. Maybe it was contagious. Maybe it was a sickness. Because Daddy had always believed him.

…I heard a weird noise last night. I did too. There were green lights in the yard. I know, I saw them. I had the strangest dream. It wasn’t a dream, Tobi. Something bad is going to happen. It’s not safe for me here anymore…

There’s something in the well. I’m going away for a while…

Tobi stared at the dark patch of concrete. A downy white speck fluttered in the breeze where a feather had stuck in the liquid as it dried. The sharp white crescents of light reflected on the wet patch flattened and dulled. The patch didn’t disappear like it should. Instead of fading back into the light grey of dry concrete, the spot turned a dark, rusty red.

“Did you even actually forget the gate open?” Tina’s disgust escalated into rage. “Maybe that’s giving you too much credit. You probably let the chickens out on purpose just so you could—”

His sister’s voice faded into the background as he focused on the stain. The shape of a hand revealed itself on the surface of well with long fingertips trailing backwards, into its depths. If she would just turn around, Tina would see.

“—she’s got enough to worry about!” Tina was still going. “And you know we can’t afford to—”

“Tee,” Tobi said. “Stop.”

Tina stood in the midst of the feathers, her back to the well. Tears streamed down her face now. A rivulet of snot ran, like a tributary, into the tears and over her chin. Her angry eyes narrowed into swollen, red slits. “What?”

“I know you’re mad, but—”

“Stop looking at me like that,” she sniffed suspiciously.

“Just look behind you.”

“Don’t you try to scare me!” Her calf almost touched the well, but she couldn’t see. “I’m not falling for it again. I’m done with your stories, Tobi. Lying isn’t going to bring him back!”

The concrete block wobbled slightly. If Tina wasn’t crying so loudly, she would have heard it. She would have looked. The block jumped again and Tobi saw four raw, red fingers slide out from beneath the lid.

Tobi lunged for his sister.

So did the thing in the well. The plywood lid flipped back and, like a trapdoor spider, its red-streaked limbs shot out at them. Tobi jumped backward, staring in horror as the thing wrapped itself around Tina’s torso and yanked her over the edge. She didn’t have time to scream.

Tobi did.

Mama came running when she heard the commotion. She found Tobi standing behind the barn, surrounded by a flurry of feathers, like a fox in a henhouse. Speaking of which, the gate to theirs flapped against the barn door, for all the cats and coyotes and, yes, foxes, to waltz right through. And the lid of the well lay cocked into the grass; the old concrete block sat like a huge misshapen head beside it.

“Tobi, what’s going on?” she placed a hand on her son’s cold, rigid shoulder.

“You’ll never believe me,” he said.

Then Mama saw the blood; the cold seemed to seep out of his skin and into hers. “What have you done?”

Tobi’s hand absentmindedly floated before his face and he plucked a feather from his lip. He said, “I found Daddy.”

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Thanks for reading! Please leave your feedback, comments, and questions below.

 

 

 

Challenge(s) Accepted!

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My writing space looks nothing like this but I love stock photos and it’s fun to pretend.

Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be January without a flood of blog posts and news articles about New Year Resolutions. I’ve never been the resolution type. I don’t think I’ve ever even halfheartedly made a New Years Resolution unless the timing was just coincidental (I do occasionally resolve to be better at things, and sometimes that happens in January…)

One thing January is especially good for, though, is that there are a surplus of writing challenges going around right now! With the holidays winding down and real life starting back up on Monday, I’m ready to get settled back into a regular writing habit. Not all of it will show up here, although I have decided that I’m going to push myself to blog more. But January brings a few opportunities that I will be jumping into.

NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge: Round One kicks off January 18th. I have done two Flash Fiction Challenges with NYC Midnight, and this will be my second Short Story Challenge. It’s a really fun and exciting competition for a relatively affordable entry fee. I only do the two each year, so I might have a different idea of affordable compared to someone who participates in more challenges/competitions. But the feedback is quite good, and I love the random assignment format. It really pushes me outside my comfort zone!

12 Short Stories Challenge: I participated in this last year, and I think I made it through half the year before I got side-tracked. This year, I’ve signed up for the the paid membership for some added accountability. I really loved the community when I participated last year, and the feedback was really excellent. I’ll be using these entries as my Flash Fiction Friday pieces for the first of Friday of every month (starting February as our first prompt comes Jan. 9th and is due on the 31st to 12SS). If (when!) I complete all 12 assignments on time, there is a competition at the end of the year with prizes, and that’s my goal this time. I vow to submit something every month, even if it’s not my best work.

Jeff Goins’ “My 500 Words” Challenge: Jeff Goins is a writer that I have followed off and on since I was more active in the world of Facebook writing groups. I don’t Facebook anymore. But I do still open most of the emails I get from Goins’ page, and one of the ones I read was an invitation to participate in the “My 500 Words” Challenge. I understand that this Challenge runs year round, basically a challenge to write 500 words every day for 31 days straight. There are prompts if you like, and email reminders. I mentally committed to this project a couple of days ago (and I’ve completed my 500 words for three days in a row now!) But this is my official acceptance of the challenge. I’ll be posting my blog in the participants section, and following some other writers doing the challenge.

Linda G. Hill’s “Just Jot it January” Challenge: I stumbled upon this challenge when (finally) going through my WordPress reader and catching up with what my favourite blogs are up to. I haven’t been a follower of Linda G. Hill, but I like the looks of her challenge, so I’ll be doing some of these ones, too. I like the idea of “Stream of Consciousness Saturday.” I might not post all of my submissions, but I’d like to add weekly stream of consciousness exercises to my writing habits. So I’ll give SoSC a try at the very least.

So that’s what’s going on with me. Are there any other writing challenges, competitions, or blogs that you think I would enjoy? Please share what you’re up to in the comments!

 

 

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

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

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

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

“Why did I agree to this?”

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

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

Oh.

Oh no.

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

“Amy?”

She thought, I never should have come here.

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

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

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

“I’m more of a cat person.”

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

“Great way to meet chicks, right?”

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

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

Brian said, “Well, this was a bust.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s hot,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Don’t smell it, don’t touch it.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s still too hot in here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Most of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she said, “Like nasty things.”

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

“What about the mushrooms, then?”

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

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

“In a way.”

“But that’s not fair!”

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

###

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

None of you should be alive, she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

“Do you miss her?”

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

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

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

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

“Mushrooms grow in unlikely places,” Alse said.

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

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

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

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

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

Flash Fiction Friday: “Castles on the Strand” by S.C. Jensen

I’ve been sharing my submissions for the 12 Short Stories challenge here, and this is what I came up with for the May challenge. Our prompt was “Distinctive Markings” with a 1200 (exactly) word count. I’m a little over this month, at 1220, but I still think it’s a pretty solid piece. I’m posting the revised version after already receiving some feedback from the 12 Short Stories crew. But please feel free to add you thoughts and opinions. What do you think? How can I make this better?

“Castles on the Strand”
by S.C. Jensen
1220 words
Genre:

The wind howled up the beach like a toddler throwing a tantrum. It flung salt and sand at Peter, even a piece of driftwood, but he paid the weather no mind. Peter’s feet stepped nimbly over the wet rocks on the path down to the water; they knew the way. He wondered, vaguely, what would happen if he decided to stop coming to the strand.

But that was foolish.

This was the only thing Peter had left, the only thing tying him to his old life—or any life at all. If he fought the pull of the ocean, Peter would drown, gasping dry air like a fish out of water. Even in his dreams he ended up here, the waves crashing around him but never quite touching him as he built castles in the sand.

Peter’s face stung as he stepped out of the trees and into the full force of the autumn wind. Icy air soothed his raw cheeks even as the salt and sand scraped at him. The push and pull of the place never stopped. The ocean wanted Peter, but the beach despised him.  Day after day, week after week, Peter put all of his sorrow and anger into the sand, building it up and wishing for the ocean to take it away.

Instead, it grew.

“What are you waiting for?” Peter wanted to scream when he saw his castle, massive now, stretched along the beach like a sleeping beast. But the words tangled up in his throat like seaweed and the only sound he made was a strangled cry. Great spires jutted from the thing’s back, spiny scales that distorted the smooth, tranquil nature of the strand into the spiny, raging creature in Peter’s heart.

His grief was corrupting the place. This, Margaret’s favourite place in the entire world, the only place that Peter could still feel her presence; he was destroying it.

Maggie had dragged him here for their first date. They drank cheap wine out of plastic glasses and built a castle in the sand—their first—knowing they would build a life together, too. He proposed to her here, wrapping a thin piece of seaweed around her finger while she laughed and laughed. When she finally said yes he gave her the real ring, mother-of-pearl and diamond wrapped together infinitely. It was here that she told him that she was carrying his child—they build a castle that day, too, embellished with seashells.

The ocean came and flattened that one.

“What are you waiting for?” Peter whispered to the waves. Unlike each fragile hope he’d created with Margaret, life’s flotsam dashed apart on the rocks, this miscreation on the beach was the only thing born of his love which stubbornly withstood the cruelty of nature. Even his footprints from the day before had been erased; only the castle remained.

The castle and the curious markings around it.

He’d noticed them before, fat snake-like slitherings punctuated by gouges made by some clawed thing. The marks circled Peter’s castle as if made by some monstrous sentry, guarding his grief and rage against the sea.

The first time he saw the markings was the day after the funeral. He’d left the service early to come down to Margaret’s strand. It seemed like a better place to say goodbye. If she’d asked, he would have gone with her. But that was Margaret, always taking the blame for things no one could control. As much as he wished she’d chosen to stay with him, he still wanted to say goodbye. He built a castle for her to live in and waited for the ocean to take it to her.

But the next day, it was still there. The castle seemed taller and stronger when Peter returned to the beach. Only the slithers and gouges in the sand marked anything unusual happening on the strand. So Peter added to the castle, stretching farther into the high-tide line.

Each day Peter returned, and his sculpture was still there. He poured his sorrow into the castle, building wings for each of his unborn daughters—he always imagined his children to be daughters—spiralling out of the centre of Maggie’s castle. And each day, the mysterious sentry protected his creation from the waves.

They were waiting for something.

But who? Margaret? The babies they had lost? Maybe it was him. Maybe Maggie was waiting for him just beyond the waves. All he needed to do was walk into the cold, salty blue and say goodbye to everything else.

But why, then, had she left him in the first place?

So the sand castle grew. Peter poured his grief into the sand. The beach grew angry with him, provoked by his constant assaults upon her tranquility. But there was something Peter needed to do, something he needed to finish before they—Peter and the strand—could go back to the what they were.

Today, the markings were different. Peter patrolled his creation, marvelling at the way his presence had been erased by the monstrous sentry. The tracks circled the castle but, this time, dragged themselves toward the rocks at the north end of the beach.

As Peter approached the castle a glint of something soft and white caught his eye. Within the fortress he had built, a fat ocean pearl stared out from Maggie’s balcony, embedded in the sand. Peter walked around the spired, spiny structure, and found other pearls—one in each wing that he’d built for his unborn daughters. Shells embellished arches and reinforced bridges. The effect softened the monster Peter had built, and the hurt and anger he had felt at losing Maggie and the girls.

Peter’s eyes followed the serpentine path toward the rocks. “Hello?”

A thick, lumbering body lunged at him. The thing’s hair, the black-green of wet weeds, trailed behind it as is hauled its bulk over the rocks and rushed at Peter. The top of its body had skin like a fishbelly or the thick whitish flesh of a drowned man. Pendulous breasts hung off the creature—a woman, then—rocking to and fro as the thing dragged itself toward Peter.

But her face. He recognized that face.

Maggie stared up at him with sea-green eyes and spongey flesh. Dark hair coiled around her face like dead eels. And Peter yearned for her, still. Monstrous, but his.

The thing beckoned. Peter could let Maggie go. He could take the creature’s hand and disappear into the ocean. In this other life, they would have their daughters. One, at least. Her name would be Pearl. The creature smiled; teeth like knives flashed, shell-white. Hunger glinted in her eyes.

Peter screamed. This wasn’t Maggie. It was the thing that ate their unborn children, consumed his wife; this thing destroyed everything he loved.

He unleashed his fear and fury on the castle, stomped on the rooms he’d built for nameless daughters, for his dead wife. He crushed the seashells and pearls beneath his heel and he screamed. “What are you waiting for?”

At last the waves crashed in against the strand. The creature and the remains of the castle dissolved in a volley of froth and grit. The beach, restored to its former tranquility, wrapped its smooth expanses around Peter while he wept, on his knees, in the sand.