“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.

Temporary Tales #1

There was a story draft here, once. But I’m currently reworking it in order to submit to some magazines. Thank you to everyone for your feedback!

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: “Park Date” by S.C. Jensen

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

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

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

“Why did I agree to this?”

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

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

Oh.

Oh no.

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

“Amy?”

She thought, I never should have come here.

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

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

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

“I’m more of a cat person.”

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

“Great way to meet chicks, right?”

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

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

Brian said, “Well, this was a bust.”

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s hot,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Don’t smell it, don’t touch it.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s still too hot in here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

“Most of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she said, “Like nasty things.”

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

“What about the mushrooms, then?”

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

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

“In a way.”

“But that’s not fair!”

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

###

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

None of you should be alive, she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

“Do you miss her?”

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

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

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

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

“Mushrooms grow in unlikely places,” Alse said.

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

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

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

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

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

Flash Fiction Friday: “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.

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

Okay, this isn’t really flash fiction, but this is a story I wrote for a submission call earlier this year and I didn’t make the cut. So, hit me with your feedback! The good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t worry, I can handle it!

“The Ferryman”
S.C. Jensen
2968 words
Genre: Paranormal

Waves chopped up the surface of Wailing Lake like teeth. A gibbous moon, ruddy from the harvest, hung low over the water. It cast a shadow there, a gaping black maw. Alma imagined the waves spilling from its centre, tiny and hungry, swelling as they rushed at the shore where they fell upon the rocks in a frenzy. The lake gnashed at her; spittle sprayed her face. But Alma stood just out of reach.

“Maybe next time, old girl.” Alma sucked a lungful of crisp autumn air through her cigarette and flicked the butt into the water. “Break time is over.”

Alma scrambled back up the narrow path through the pines to the parking lot. She opened her car door and the CB radio crackled.

She had known it would.

Alma floated through life on an invisible string that seemed to tug her where she needed to be. Lately, the line had sunk itself deep in the middle of Wailing Lake. She woke, like a somnambulist, upon its shore, toes flirting with the waves; she never remembered how she got there. Her mother—a great lover of metaphysical mumbo-jumbo—had called her a Wayfinder. Alma felt more like a Stumbler, yanked from place to place with no idea where she was going or why she was going there.

She never missed a call from dispatch, though.

The radio crackled again and she grabbed the handset. “Got a fare for me, Ralphie?”

“Alma, Queen of the Night, I knew you’d come through for me.” Ralph’s voice broke over the patchy connection. “Taking a smoke break by the lake?”

“You’re a magician.” Alma pulled out of the rest area and onto the gravel service road that would take her back to the highway. “How’d you guess?”

“The connection is shit. And you’re the only one crazy enough to be out in the sticks on the graveyard shift.”

“What can I say? It’s my favourite haunt.”

“That place is haunted. You wouldn’t catch me out there for a picnic.”

Alma let instinct guide her as she turned onto the pavement. She headed, with mild surprise, not toward town but up into the pass. “Gimme that fare, Ralphie.”

“You’re most of the way there, already. Foothills Inn.”

That was fifty clicks out of the normal service range for Ferryman Taxi. “That faux-chalet thing at Eagle Peak?”

“Don’t forget to nail him with the mileage surcharge.”

Alma cracked the window and lit another cigarette. “Of course, Ralphie. Everyone’s gotta pay the Ferryman.”

“See, you get it.” Ralph laughed. She pictured his face crinkling up, the way it did. She pictured the patterns that would etch his skin when he was an old man. If he made it that far. “That’s why I love you.”

“You love me because I take the shifts no one else wants.”

“I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t true, my Queen of the Night.”

“You don’t want me for your Queen.” She took a deep drag and smiled. “I’d take years off your life.”

“Doesn’t stop you from smoking.”

Alma hung up the handset. She liked Ralph, but a vague sense of unease disturbed the warm-and-fuzzies. Maybe she was ready to try again? She felt like she was. But what if she was wrong? What if Ralph ended up like her last—

No sense dwelling on it. If experience had taught Alma anything it was that dwelling on the past was like dragging an anchor behind you. You never got where you were going to and, worst of all, you could never get back.

Alma turned up the radio and punched the old taxi into a higher gear. She let the hum of the engine pull her away from her thoughts, back into herself. The fare was unusual but that didn’t matter. There was nothing Alma loved better than knowing where she was going.

###

It was different when she was a kid. Back then, Alma had a knack for being where she wanted to be. She’d show up right before her mom’s cookies came out of the oven, or when a pick-up Frisbee game needed one more player, or when the fireworks were about to start. Things happened when Alma was around. Even the other kids noticed it. In school, her nickname was Lucky.

Everyone wanted to be her friend.

Alma had luck, it was true. But there was good luck and bad luck. As she got older, she realized that Fate didn’t discriminate.

Alma imagined great balances, like the Scales of Justice, weighing and measuring her fortune. If everyone was to come out neutral in the end, Alma used up her good luck before puberty.

Maybe luck had nothing to do with balance. Maybe Alma always got what she needed. Maybe as you got older what you want and what you need is worlds apart. Either way, things took a definite downturn after her first cycle. That was the day her mother openly acknowledged her gift.

“You’re a Wayfinder, Alma.”

“What am I supposed to find my way to?” Abdominal cramps and fear consumed every drop of patience she might have had. “The tampon aisle?”

“I don’t know.” Her mother seemed to absorb all the patience Alma was losing, the maternal sponge. “We won’t know until you are claimed.”

“This is not the time for the sex talk, mom. Really.”

“No matter what, you will find your way, Alma.” Her mother stroked her hair and, for once, the gesture didn’t irritate her. The warmth of her mother’s touch reach from her roots all the way through her body, like electricity. “But we don’t know what your way is. Now that you are a woman, things will change.”

“I used to be lucky,” Alma said. “Now I feel like I’ve been cursed.”

Her mother’s fingers massaged her scalp, releasing some pent-up energy she didn’t know was stored there. Jolts of it shot through her limbs, making her feel more alive. And more afraid.

Her mother said, “Sometimes luck is a curse.”

###

Alma flew up the highway toward the pass. The taxi soared silently up the ever-increasing grade, wraithlike. The humming engine and thrumming tires lulled her into a meditative state. The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” came on the oldies station and Alma cranked her radio. The time it took to get to the Eagle Peak turn off evaporated into Ray Manzarek’s eerie keyboarding.

There’s a killer on the road.

The tiny hairs at the back of her neck stood and reached up as if the air really were charged with electricity from a storm. The ones on her forearms ached against the heavy sleeves of her leather jacket. Even the stubble on her shins pulled away from her skin. Alma shivered.

His brain is squirming like a toad.

She knew the killer wasn’t human. The killer was Death; stalking every one of them until the time was right. Stalking Alma in particular, it seemed. Or at least the ones she loved. Her mother had been right. Things had changed that day. Ever since her first cycle, Alma became a magnet for sickness and disaster. Death.

Girl, you’ve gotta love your man.

Hadn’t she?

It wasn’t enough.

Girl, you’ve gotta love your man.

Alma turned off onto the service road just before the summit. The gravel ground beneath her tires and the headlights cast a strange white glow upon the unlit surface. She slowed, expecting that the road wouldn’t be well maintained in the off season. But the gravel, illuminated by her moonlight-white high beams, stretched smoothly into the darkness beyond. A figure materialized on the side of the road.

Take him by the hand.

Alma slowed as she passed him. Pedestrians weren’t unusual this close to the flats. Still, she stared as she crept past. The man was thin, his shadowed face gaunt and drawn. He walked slowly, like he had nowhere in particular to go. Alma wondered which way he would turn when he reached the highway.

Make him understand.

The taxi coasted past the guy and up toward the Foothills Inn. She wanted to stop and ask if he was okay. The fullness of autumn wasn’t yet upon them but the air had a bite to it. Alma tried to catch a glimpse of him in her rear-view mirror but the darkness had swallowed him whole.

The man would be cold tonight.

A chalet style building loomed above her at the peak, a gothic ski-bunny haven. Huge peaked windows stared down on her, black but for the reflection of her headlights dancing against their panes. The place was hollow. Empty. She sensed it long before she pulled up to the deserted valet station, before she knocked on the darkened glass of the entrance.

“Closed for the season,” a small sign inside the window proclaimed.

Obviously, Alma thought. But who had called Ralph for pick up? She slammed the car door and lit another cigarette.

The hitchhiker.

The world on you depends.

No, he wasn’t a hitchhiker, thumb out for any ride. That had been her fare wandering toward the highway. Why hadn’t she stopped? So much for knowing where she was going. Alma cursed herself and peeled out of the parking lot, back toward her fare. Hopefully he wouldn’t be too pissed off that she’d missed him the first time.

Our life will never end.

When Alma’s headlights found the man this time he stood still, waiting. She rolled up next to him, and he climbed into the back seat.

“Sorry about that, buddy.”

He said nothing. Alma met the man’s eyes in the mirror. His skin was thin and sallow; his eyes as black and empty as the windows of the Inn. “Where do you need to go?”

He didn’t even blink.

Gotta love your man.

Alma put the taxi back into gear and rolled down the service road. She knew where to take him.

###

It didn’t take the kids long to stop calling her Lucky. Alma’s thirteenth year was a turning point in her young life. Over the next five years, friends, once drawn to Alma like flies to honey, now dropped like them. Everyone that Alma loved was torn from her, ruthlessly. She went from always being in the right place at the right time, to being a harbinger of doom.

It wasn’t that Alma was ever the cause of Death. Yet she was always there when tragedy struck. She called the ambulance when Peter—her best friend since kindergarten—had an asthma attack at summer camp when they were fourteen. Six months after that, her cousin Lilijana took a line drive to the face pitching fast ball and died before help could arrive. The doctors said it was a freak accident, no one’s fault. Alma never believed it; if she hadn’t been there, she knew, Lily would have lived. The year after that, Alma’s friend Paula was badly injured in a house fire. Alma visited the hospital moments before Paula succumbed to the infection that weakened her burn-ravaged body; even Paula’s mother said it was as if the girl had been waiting for Alma to say goodbye.

Alma tried not to visit the hospital after that. No one blamed her, but Alma knew something wasn’t right.

Still, even when she tried to stay away, sometimes she opened her eyes and she was standing before someone who was hurt or sick, not knowing how she got there, but knowing that if she was there it was to say goodbye. Just like she now found herself standing on the shores of Wailing Lake, staring at the churning waters, as if there was something she was forgetting to do.

Her mother was the last one before Alma ran away.

Cancer. Alma knew her mother was sick. Alma knew she was dying. But she thought if she just stayed away from the hospital, somehow, her mother would keep living.

She couldn’t, though.

Alma couldn’t stay away and her mother couldn’t keep living.

“I knew you would come.”

“Please don’t leave me, Mama.” Alma cried into her mother’s hand knowing that she was, somehow, killing her. “I need you.”

“You don’t need me,” her mother had said. “You have been claimed.”

###

Into this house we’re born.

The song had ended ages ago but the lyrics still rang in Alma’s head. She accelerated through the curves that led out of the pass and back toward the flats. The almost-full-moon hung higher now. It had lost the bloody sheen of early evening but still looked hungry.

Is this what I am? Alma thought.

The man in the back seat stared straight ahead. He knew where he was going. Alma knew, too. The familiar tug in her guts told her where to go, even without his direction. His glassy black stare was focussed somewhere far beyond what Alma could see.

Far beyond what she would ever see, if she was right.

Into this world we’re thrown.

“You have been claimed,” her mother said. Only now did she believe it. Only now did Alma understand.

###

When she was eighteen, Alma ran. She thought if she could get far enough away, her path would change. There was no one left to hold her to her home. Everyone she loved was dead.

But she hadn’t run far enough.

The same pattern started again. Everywhere Alma went, went Death.

She cut herself off. She isolated herself from people, just the bare minimum social contact to get through life. That’s when Alma had taken to the night shift, though back then it was restocking shelves at a tech warehouse. Still, she couldn’t get away.

Still, she found Jared.

Jared, the tortured scholar, had too many lifetimes living inside him. Too many souls. They fought and he was miserable. He was magnetic. Alma was drawn to him, helplessly. She woke on his shores, blinking, wondering how it had happened. For a little while, they were there, together.

She loved him.

And then she killed him.

###

Riders on the storm.

Alma pulled back into the Wailing Lake rest area, and this time she wasn’t even surprised. This was where the man needed to be. This was where she would always end up. It only made sense.

The man opened the back door of her cab and closed it resolutely. He didn’t pay her. Alma had expected that. She knew Ralph would be pissed; missing the fare and the mileage surcharge. But this was not a normal fare.

The man lingered outside her window.

Alma cranked it down and lit a cigarette. His dead eyes stared through her. But he looked like he wanted to say something. His eyes sat like dull black stones in his sockets. His cheeks sunk deeper into his skull.

“Go on, then.” Alma sucked on the filter, relished the burn in her lungs. “This is the place, isn’t it?”

The man’s lips, thin and colourless, parted. But instead of words, something else fell out. Alma caught it. A thick gold coin landed in her open palm.

Riders on the storm.

###

The night shift hadn’t saved her. Alma might be Queen of the Night at Ferryman Taxi, but she felt like Queen of Nothing. She walked through her life with blinders, hoping no one would notice her. Hoping she would notice no one.

Now there was Ralph.

Before that, Jared.

You’ve gotta love your man.

The last time she had seen Jared it was at his apartment. He hadn’t called but she wanted to see him. When she opened the front door she knew why.

The Doors played on living room stereo. Water ran at the back of the apartment.

Alma opened the door to the bathroom. Pink tinged water overflowed the bathtub and lapped at her feet. Jared lay, wrists up, in the tepid pool. One arm was cut through, wrist to elbow. The other had a jagged gash near the palm but the wound had dissolved.

Unfinished.

“Help me,” Jared had said.

Alma grabbed her phone and dialed. But Jared said, “No!”

She stared at him, naked and vulnerable in the tub. His genitals floated on the surface of the water like a strange flower, a grotesque imitation of life. He said, “Help me.”

Alma helped him. She picked up the razorblade left by Jared’s weakened hand and dragged it through the vein. She guided him from this world into the next.

That was what she was supposed to do, right?

You’ve gotta love your man.

When the ambulance arrived there was nothing they could do for Jared.

Alma ran again.

###

Alma held the coin in her hand and watched the man disappear into the darkness of the trailhead. She closed the taxi door and followed.

At the shore the man hesitated. He let the waves of Wailing Lake kiss his toes. Then, slowly, he stepped into her waters. The man walked forward, deeper and deeper into her, until she lapped at his ribs, his shoulders, his throat.

Then he stopped and looked back at Alma. Those black eyes told her everything she needed to know. He walked into the waves like a thing that belonged. Alma felt peace descended upon her in the first time for years.

###

Alma sat in the driver’s seat of the Ferryman Taxi, waiting for the next call. She sucked on a cigarette and tried not to think too much about the man in the lake.

“Queen of the Night.” Ralph’s voice crackled through the speaker. “I have a pick-up for you.”

“Just as long as it isn’t you, Ralphie,” she said. Alma flicked the butt of her cigarette toward the waters of Wailing Lake. She knew where Ralph was going to send her.

There was nothing Alma loved more than knowing where she was going.

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

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

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

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

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re a woman now, though.”

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

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

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

“Mother—”

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

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

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

♦♦♦♦♦

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

Nothing.

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

She ran toward the jingling of bells.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bio-tracking too,” Kaur said.

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

“Satisfied?”

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

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

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

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

“Batch 1573, specifically.”

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suki, I can’t just—“

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

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

“I’ll see you soon. And Ali?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“—Dr. Kaur?”

“Sorry, Chrissy, I was thinking.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“But you were able to stabilize him?”

“He’s stable. All the survivors are.”

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

“Choked to death.”

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

“Do you like scuba diving, Ali?”

“I—I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

“…choked…”

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

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

“But this man, Bailey, he—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleath. I’m tho hungee!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll have to call it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl had spirit all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you, Silvan?”

“I am not from the Vale.”

Gar squinted at him and he flinched.

“Sixteen,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she pulled, and—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My child,” Liv said, and disappeared.

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“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

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

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Quiet now.

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

Everything else is quiet now.

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

I’m still alive.

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

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

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

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

Though that’s much worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carriers.

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

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

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

Daddy at least took pity on me.

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

Don’t come back, sweetie.

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

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

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

If it works.

Stop it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a beacon?”

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

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

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

“I have one.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?”

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

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

“I have one,” I say.

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“I know.”

“Can I have it?”

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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