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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bio-tracking too,” Kaur said.

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

“Satisfied?”

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

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

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

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

“Batch 1573, specifically.”

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

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

“I—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Suki, I can’t just—“

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

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

“I’ll see you soon. And Ali?”

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“—Dr. Kaur?”

“Sorry, Chrissy, I was thinking.”

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“But you were able to stabilize him?”

“He’s stable. All the survivors are.”

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

“Choked to death.”

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

“Do you like scuba diving, Ali?”

“I—I’m sorry?”

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

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

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

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

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

“…choked…”

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

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

“But this man, Bailey, he—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Pleath. I’m tho hungee!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I’ll have to call it.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The girl had spirit all right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And you, Silvan?”

“I am not from the Vale.”

Gar squinted at him and he flinched.

“Sixteen,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

Then she pulled, and—

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My child,” Liv said, and disappeared.

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“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

“The Water Tower” by S.C. Jensen

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

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Quiet now.

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

Everything else is quiet now.

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

I’m still alive.

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

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

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

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

Though that’s much worse.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Carriers.

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

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

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

Daddy at least took pity on me.

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

Don’t come back, sweetie.

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

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

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

If it works.

Stop it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Shit!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you have a beacon?”

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

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

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

“I have one.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Why are you here?”

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

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

“I have one,” I say.

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

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

“No.”

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

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

“I know.”

“Can I have it?”

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

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

“I’m sorry.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No going back.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An arm shot out from the quiet one.

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

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

“Not a fucking soldier, say.”

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

“Night before last.”

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

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

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

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

Not good.

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

Vik wished they were going up.

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

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

I’m not that far behind her.

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

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

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

Nothing happened.

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

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

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

“You’re in the wrong lift, benni.”

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

Silence.

“We can pay. I can pay. I have cash.”

Silence.

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

Silence.

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

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

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

“When did you hit?”

“Thirty hours, maybe.”

The woman whistled.

“Who keyed you? Who locked you up?”

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

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

“I have cash.”

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

Militia, then.

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

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

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

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

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

“Round two?”

Banks nodded the other woman led Min into another room.

“Where are you taking her?”

“She’ll be okay.”

“I want to go with her.”

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

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

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

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

“Keep your money, say.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From the publisher, Apex Book Company:

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Cthulhu Rising” by S.C. Jensen

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Uh…  Jimmy Park?”

 

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

 

“My receptionist must have written it down wrong—”

 

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

 

“I was expecting someone less…”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

“Voice notes.” Jake pulled out his smartphone.

 

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

 

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

 

“What?”

 

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

 

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

 

“What do you do, again?”

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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13 Tales of Ghost, Ghouls, and Human Horrors

13 Tales of Ghost, Ghouls, and Human Horrors

Welcome to the first ever Halloween Short Story collection on Sarah Does Sci-Fi! I’ve gathered some ghastly tales from some of my favourite new and upcoming writers from around the world. Please give these a read, and be sure to “like” and “follow” the writers that speak to you!

Now, because there are so many stories I’m going to try something a little different. I’ll post an excerpt here with a link to the full story, so you can comment on each one separately. And please do comment! We writers love feedback…

Here goes!

“The City of the Dead” by David Brennan

Whispers.

They began in the schoolyard, scattering across games of Kick-the-Can like the wind through Autumn leaves. Friends told friends, who conspired with brothers, sisters, cousins and neighbours. One subject lingered as thick as the industrial smog drifting from the chimney stacks of the shipyards. By lunch, most of the school whispered tales of a monster. >> Click to read more >>

“Bone Cake” by Wendy Moore

“She’s still not speaking, you know,” said Merle, her voice raised over the grinding of the food mill.

“Who?”

“The little girl. She hasn’t said a word since last Tuesday, Bart.”

“I’m not surprised. Her whole family was murdered and she saw it happen.” Bart shook his head and pursed his lips, his razor sharp knife beating a tattoo on the chopping board. >> Click to read more. >>


“Keep it Short” by Chris Reynolds

The path led through the abandoned carnival. Despite the cliché, the place was nothing more than a sad marker of the past. Everyone in the small party knew the place intimately- they remembered it from their childhood, if nothing else. The older ones had been back with their own children as well, reliving the memories. All of us, however, had also left something behind.

Perhaps carnival was the wrong word. This one was more a permanent attraction, sort of a ‘home base’ for the portable rides. Not quite a theme park, but not a transient camp of tents and caravans. The pathways between the rusting hulks of rides were gravel, with strips of concrete or asphalt decaying here and there. >> Click to read more.>>

“The Haunted Oak” by Harvey L. Covey, Jr.

The great oak bent its crown against the oncoming weather. A late-autumn quarter moon, wearing a wisp of dark cloud around its waist cast a baleful glare on the old tree as the wind whistled through its nearly bare boughs. The leaves that were left were carelessly flung away to litter the ground below. The northwestern gale carried the promise of rain and a chilling hint of an early winter to come.

We were out alone, Mae and I. She was new in town but somehow knew her way around as easily as any other local. Her ebony eyes, silky raven hair and mocha skin had drawn my attention the first day I laid eyes on her. Her perfume fogged my mind and the music of her voice stole my heart. I wasted no time in introducing myself and asking her to the Harvest Moon dance. It never occurred to me that no one else ever spoke to her. >>Click to read more.>>

“La India” by Sera Taíno

Today, my aunt tried to convince me that I had a guardian spirit.

“She’s an India with long, black hair. Brown eyes. Dark skin…”

Mami?” I asked, my usual skepticism shattering as if I had ripped the string holding the rosary beads together.

“Your mother? No, no. Not her. Nydia doesn’t follow you anymore.” She pursed her lips around the yellow cigarette filter, shaking her head as she inhaled. When she spoke, smoke slithered from her nose and lips. “She only appears in my dreams now.”  >>Click to read more.>>

“A Just World” by Darren deToni

“Has my driver been in touch?” said Neame, propping up the far-right corner of the Buffett Bar.

It was the Playman Club of London’s annual Halloween party and the night’s festivities were beginning to bubble. Playgirls in black and orange wandered in twos, and the sound of an 80s horror soundtrack mingled with the chatter of the early birds. Sir Rex Neame was making a call whilst checking himself in the mirror, screwed to the wall behind a row of optics.

“What was that? He’s not interested? Get him here now and make sure that piece of,” Neame checked around him and then continued in a lowered tone, “filth doesn’t kick up a fuss outside… 10 minutes is good, and make sure he has a drink. Goodbye.” >>Click to read more. WARNING: This story contains graphic sexual content that may be disturbing to some readers.>>

“Made for Each Other” by AlienRedQueen

Marisol stared at the dirty plate and single set of flatware in the sink. Yesterday had been Jerry and her first anniversary, one year married after a whirlwind six month romance. Her friends said they made a perfect couple, no doubt secretly cattily dismayed by the brevity of the courtship. Her mother was ecstatic, no doubt secretly relieved of the fear of having her only daughter turn into a lonely old spinster because she was too busy wasting her youth on a pesky career to find a man. Marisol was happy.

Yet while she couldn’t exactly say the honeymoon was over, that plate grated on her nerves. She had made Jerry an elaborate and romantic dinner the evening before, complete with candles and a cheap bottle of wine she’d picked up on a last minute’s inspiration, from the convenience store down the street. Jerry hadn’t drunk any of it, but he seemed pleased enough with his meal, and afterward, she had cleaned up, done the dishes, and they cuddled on the sofa for a bit. Then a quickie, and off to bed. Thank you, ma’am. >>Click to read more.>>

“Neighbourhood Soiree” by Bobby Salomon
He has a phone – with a cord. I’m glad he has one. Some would say it’s old-fashioned. But I like it. Of course a cellular phone is a phone too but they’re so impersonal. There is only air between and no cord to connect you to the other. You’d have to shove it down someone’s throat before you get that same kind of connection. But that’d take so long. With a cord, it’s different, you can feel it. I can feel it right now.

I can feel the pulse of his heart beat through the cord. I pull it tighter around his neck. The cord makes a noise, it’s under great tension. That’s the great thing, they don’t snap, I do.

A sound escapes his throat, it sounds like a rubber chicken toy for dogs. It makes me smile. I like dogs.

“Shhh. Shhh.” I whisper, “Let it go, Joseph. Let it go.”  I can hear his nails scrape over the cheap Ikea carpet on the floor. He’s still struggling to live. >>Click to read more.>>

“Deja Vu” by Nerisha Kemraj

“Objective completed. Well done, Ann Smith”

My hands reach the back of my throbbing neck, instinctively. Where did that voice come from? I squint, there’s no one else around. My nostrils burn with the smell of iron from my wet hands, i look to find them covered in crimson liquid – blood. My chest constricts and I’m unable to breathe. The bright lights of the kitchen add to my headache.

Startled by the oven-bell, I stumble over something, while glancing blinking numbers on the oven clock. It is 18:30. Raising myself from the floor I realise with horror it’s mom’s lifeless body sprawled across the floor. A blood-curdling scream fills the air and I slump to the ground falling into the pool of blood resulting from her stab wounds. >>Click to read more.>>

“QUENCHED” by Aliya Jabrailova

“What’re you looking at?” Luc embraces me from the back.

I want to tell him. Tell him and drink the shock from his eyes.

“The Fort. I saw a monkey on its wall yesterday.”

Un singe? Pas possible! There’re no monkeys here, ma chérie!”

He plants hot, half-sucking kisses on the nape of my neck, enveloping me in a cloud of Chanel Egoiste. The perfume resists weekly dry-cleanings. Luc’s skin succumbed to it, as though his mother fed it to him through umbilical cord in her womb.

I crave another smell altogether, not the one suckled with my mother’s milk. It’s the kind that takes root and sprawls inside of a corrupted mind. It’s the kind that lies atop your chest when you sleep at night.

My eyes glued to the rock structure jutting into the water, I reach for his groin.

The Tower. He must be there. >>Click to read more.>>

“Singed” by S.C. Jensen

“I don’t think we should go in.” Din’s feet scrabbled for purchase on the sandy embankment. He dropped to his belly and pulled the scrubby brush aside, squinting at the ruins. The cool, white light of the moon kissed the edges of the ancient plaster buildings. The rest of the city was cloaked in darkness. Sunken roofs, like gaping mouths, waited to swallow the night.

“Do you think this is it?” The priestess, Mare, crouched low against the bank. Her bare toes clung to the exposed roots as she flattened herself beside Din.

“Do I dare hope not?” Din’s voice was like a gnat in the dark; Mare swatted at him. She heaved herself onto the grassy ledge and ran her thumbs under the straps of her travel bag. Mare held out her hand. Din sucked in through his teeth with a dry hiss, but he took it. He always would.

“They are cursed.” Din stared at the dirty white walls with dread in his belly. “The Rasha was right about that.” >>Click to read more.>>

The TBR Pile: Black Speculative Fiction Month Edition

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The month is almost over, and I’m just getting back into this whole blogging thing. But I just found out that October is Black Speculative Fiction Month! So, I will be dedicating the rest of my posts this month to black SF writers/creators and books with black protagonists. For now, I’d like to drop some links for further reading while I catch up on all the stuff that’s been going on this month!

Chronicles of Harriet has a great explanation of what BSFM is all about, plus a reading list that will keep you busy until next October!

Troy L. Wiggins has a post on “Six Essential Fantasy and Science Fiction Books Written by Black Authors” which features two of my favourite SF writers of all time: Octavia E. Butler (If you haven’t read Lilith’s Brood yet, you absolutely must!) and N.K. Jemisin (I wrote about Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms HERE)

NPR has an excellent article on the importance of Black SF by author by Alaya Dawn Johnson that is full of industry insights and reading recommendations, “Black Sci-Fi Writers Look to the Future.”

And Grey Dog Tales will tell you why you should care about Black Speculative Fiction Month, “even if you’re as white as a recently-scrubbed albino sheep in a Yorkshire snowdrift.” This article is thought provoking and full of suggestions for further reading—blogs, articles, and recommendations abound!

Or if you just want to check out some new books, here are some that I’ve read or have in my TBR pile. Let’s celebrate BSFM with new books to read! Ask your local bookstore to stock these authors, make a request at your library, buy your own copy, write a review, dive in and ENJOY!

41tfeLyYimLDhalgren by Samuel R. Delany:

Nebula Award Finalist: Reality has come unglued and a mad civilization takes root in Bellona, in this science fiction classic.

A young half–Native American known as the Kid has hitchhiked from Mexico to the midwestern city Bellona—only something is wrong there . . . In Bellona, the shattered city, a nameless cataclysm has left reality unhinged. Into this desperate metropolis steps the Kid, his fist wrapped in razor-sharp knives, to write, to love, to wound.

So begins Dhalgren, Samuel R. Delany’s masterwork, which in 1975 opened a new door for what science fiction could mean. A labyrinth of a novel, it raises questions about race, sexuality, identity, and art, but gives no easy answers, in a city that reshapes itself with each step you take . . .

This ebook features an illustrated biography of Samuel R. Delany including rare images from his early career.

61PCeRgmQAL._SY346_The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K Jemisin:

A REALM OF GODS AND MORTALS.

Yeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky. There, to her shock, Yeine is named an heiress to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle.

51ucq60C9zL.jpgLilith’s Brood by Octavia E. Butler: Three novels in one volume: the acclaimed science fiction trilogy about an alien species that could save humanity after nuclear apocalypse—or destroy it.

The newest stage in human evolution begins in outer space. Survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear war awake to find themselves being studied by the Oankali, tentacle-covered galactic travelers whose benevolent appearance hides their surprising plan for the future of mankind. The Oankali arrive not just to save humanity, but to bond with it—crossbreeding to form a hybrid species that can survive in the place of its human forebears, who were so intent on self-destruction. Some people resist, forming pocket communities of purebred rebellion, but many realize they have no choice. The human species inevitably expands into something stranger, stronger, and undeniably alien.

From Hugo and Nebula award–winning author Octavia Butler,Lilith’s Brood is both a thrilling, epic adventure of man’s struggle to survive after Earth’s destruction, and a provocative meditation on what it means to be human.

51maU6K7HAL._SY346_.jpgWill Do Magic for Small Change By Andrea Hairston:

Cinnamon Jones dreams of stepping on stage and acting her heart out like her famous grandparents, Redwood and Wildfire. But at 5’10’’ and 180 pounds, she’s theatrically challenged. Her family life is a tangle of mystery and deadly secrets, and nobody is telling Cinnamon the whole truth. Before her older brother died, he gave Cinnamon The Chronicles of the Great Wanderer, a tale of a Dahomean warrior woman and an alien from another dimension who perform in Paris and at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The Chronicles may be magic or alien science, but the story is definitely connected to Cinnamon’s family secrets. When an act of violence wounds her family, Cinnamon and her theatre squad determine to solve the mysteries and bring her worlds together.

41Ybzx4ZG9L.jpgDark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora edited by Sheree R. Thomas:

This volume introduces black science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction writers to the generations of readers who have not had the chance to explore the scope and diversity among African-American writers.

51Uy-XHYgiLElysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett:

Received the 2014 Philip K. Dick Award Special Citation
A Finalist for the 2015 Locus Award for Best First Novel

A computer program etched into the atmosphere has a story to tell, the story of two people, of a city lost to chaos, of survival and love. The program’s data, however, has been corrupted. As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

61y7w-c2dFL.jpgThe Alchemists of Kush By Minister Faust:

Two Sudanese “lost boys.” Both fathers murdered during civil war. Both mothers forced into exile where the only law was violence. To survive, the boys became ruthless loners and child soldiers, until they found mystic mentors who transformed them into their true destinies.

One: known to the streets as the Supreme Raptor; the other: known to the Greeks as Horus, son of Osiris. Separated by seven thousand years, and yet connected by immortal truth.

Born in fire. Baptized in blood. Brutalized by the wicked. Sworn to transform the world and themselves. They are the Alchemists of Kush.

41eUhJG7m5L._SY346_Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor:

In a post-apocalyptic Africa, the world has changed in many ways; yet in one region genocide between tribes still bloodies the land. A woman who has survived the annihilation of her village and a terrible rape by an enemy general wanders into the desert, hoping to die. Instead, she gives birth to an angry baby girl with hair and skin the color of sand. Gripped by the certainty that her daughter is different—special—she names her Onyesonwu, which means “Who fears death?” in an ancient language.

It doesn’t take long for Onye to understand that she is physically and socially marked by the circumstances of her conception. She is Ewu—a child of rape who is expected to live a life of violence, a half-breed rejected by her community. But Onye is not the average Ewu. Even as a child, she manifests the beginnings of a remarkable and unique magic. As she grows, so do her abilities, and during an inadvertent visit to the spirit realm, she learns something terrifying: someone powerful is trying to kill her.

Desperate to elude her would-be murderer and to understand her own nature, she embarks on a journey in which she grapples with nature, tradition, history, true love, and the spiritual mysteries of her culture, and ultimately learns why she was given the name she bears: Who Fears Death.

41tWRPpGRgL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgCrystal Rain By Tobias S. Buckell

The is much-anticipated debut novel by Tobias S. Buckell, one of science fiction’s newest and most promising talents.

Long ago, so the stories say, the old-fathers came to Nanagada through a worm’s hole in the sky. Looking for a new world to call their own, they brought with them a rich mélange of cultures, religions, and dialects from a far-off planet called Earth. Mighty were the old-fathers, with the power to shape the world to their liking—but that was many generations ago, and what was once known has long been lost. Steamboats and gas-filled blimps now traverse the planet, where people once looked up to see great silver cities in the sky.

Like his world, John deBrun has forgotten more than he remembers. Twenty-seven years ago, he washed up onto the shore of Nanagada with no memory of his past. Although he has made a new life for himself among the peaceful islanders, his soul remains haunted by unanswered questions about his own identity.

These mysteries take on new urgency when the fearsome Azteca storm over the Wicked High Mountains in search of fresh blood and hearts to feed their cruel, inhuman gods. Nanagada’s only hope lies in a mythical artifact, the Ma Wi Jung, said to be hidden somewhere in the frozen north. And only John deBrun knows the device’s secrets, even if he can’t remember why or how!

51SpLP8SExL.jpgBrown Girl in the Ring by Nalo Hopkinson The rich and privileged have fled the city, barricaded it behind roadblocks, and left it to crumble. The inner city has had to rediscover old ways–farming, barter, herb lore. But now the monied need a harvest of bodies, and so they prey upon the helpless of the streets. With nowhere to turn, a young woman must open herself to ancient truths, eternal powers, and the tragic mystery surrounding her mother and grandmother. She must bargain with gods, and give birth to new legends.

41w7GPKYewLFlygirl By Sherri L. Smith

Ida Mae Jones dreams of flight. Her daddy was a pilot and being black didn’t stop him from fulfilling his dreams. But her daddy’s gone now, and being a woman, and being black, are two strikes against her.

When America enters the war with Germany and Japan, the Army creates the WASP, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots—and Ida suddenly sees a way to fly as well as do something significant to help her brother stationed in the Pacific. But even the WASP won’t accept her as a black woman, forcing Ida Mae to make a difficult choice of “passing,” of pretending to be white to be accepted into the program. Hiding one’s racial heritage, denying one’s family, denying one’s self is a heavy burden. And while Ida Mae chases her dream, she must also decide who it is she really wants to be.

51V7WWg9EzL._SY346_.jpgLove is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson

A heart-stopping story of love, death, technology, and art set amid the tropics of a futuristic Brazil.

The lush city of Palmares Tres shimmers with tech and tradition, with screaming gossip casters and practiced politicians. In the midst of this vibrant metropolis, June Costa creates art that’s sure to make her legendary. But her dreams of fame become something more when she meets Enki, the bold new Summer King. The whole city falls in love with him (including June’s best friend, Gil). But June sees more to Enki than amber eyes and a lethal samba. She sees a fellow artist.

Together, June and Enki will stage explosive, dramatic projects that Palmares Tres will never forget. They will add fuel to a growing rebellion against the government’s strict limits on new tech. And June will fall deeply, unfortunately in love with Enki. Because like all Summer Kings before him, Enki is destined to die.

Pulsing with the beat of futuristic Brazil, burning with the passions of its characters, and overflowing with ideas, this fiery novel will leave you eager for more from Alaya Dawn Johnson.

Amateurs Unite! A Call to Action

 

 

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You can find me on instagram, too @sarahdoesscifi

I just read Austin Kleon’s Show Your Work: 10 Ways to Share your Creativity and Get Discovered after a wonderful friend shipped me her copy, complete with underlines and notes (which makes it even better!). I devoured it. In one sitting, just a couple of hours, I read it all. And ya, I’m going to be talking about this for a while.

I haven’t read Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist yet, but I’ve heard tons of great things about it and its definitely on my list now. To call this a timely read would be a massive understatement. I feel like Show Your Work has just solidified a bunch of little inklings and nudges and feelings I’ve been having about my career as a writer. I think now I get what I’m supposed to be doing.

Not surprisingly, that thing I’m supposed to be doing is literally showing my work. I need to be sharing my process with you, for the mutual benefit of us all.

I’m a natural collaborator. There is nothing I love more than sitting down with other like-minded people and hashing out ideas, asking and answering thoughtful questions, and being inspired by my friends and peers to create MORE and to create BETTER.

Yet, somewhere along the line, I bought into the idea that being a writer is a solitary endeavour. That in order to create I must isolate myself from the world, poke at my demons, and the struggle silently until I have a piece of literary genius that is ready to share with the world. I have been stingy with who I submit my work to, who I ask for feedback from, who I let behind the veil. And I’ve suffered for it.

My blog has suffered. I have believed I need to be some kind of expert in order to have anything of interest to say. Even when I was shared some of my publishing journey with you all, it was with the nagging feeling that someone out there was surely doing it better and that my contributions were pointless. And so a started and faltered, over and over.

My writing has suffered. My finished products have been waiting for “acceptance” to be seen, and my unfinished products were lingering in limbo somewhere because I’ve hit a wall I just can’t get over by myself.

My audience has suffered. Because while I’m sitting here waiting for everything to perfect, you are left with nothing but the occasional assurance on my half-assed blog that I am, indeed, still writing.

Worse, I’ve snubbed myself into a corner. I was terrified to share on new sites, or jump into unknown projects, and work with other nobodies. In my addled mind, I believed that I should only associate with people who were where I wanted to be, rather than where I was, in order to climb up in this industry.

NO MORE!

I’m going to embrace being an amateur. At some point we have come to believe that an amateur is someone who is less skilled than a professional. The word is spat at wannabes and shouldabeens in derisive tones. In reality, the word means “lover.” An amateur is someone who does something purely for the love of it. They may get paid, and they may not. But they will do it anyway. I encourage all of you to find something you love and wholeheartedly become an AMATEUR!

Enough of us enthusiastic nobodies, together, make a “Scenius.”

This is a term Kleon uses (coined by musician Brian Eno) in Show Your Work. “Under this model,” Kleon says, “great ideas are often birthed by a group of creative individuals—artists, curators, thinkers, theorists, and other tastemakes—who make up and “ecology of talent.”” (Kleon, Show Your Work, p10-11)

I wrote a short post the other day called “Moving Forward, Together.” It was actually just before I read Show Your Work but it is indicative of the way I was leaning already. I want Sarah Does Sci-Fi to be a collaborative effort. I’ve met so many wonderful writers and artists and enthusiasts in my publishing journey, and I want to share this space with you.

I’m going to keep showing my work, and I’d love it if I could show yours too.

 

How can you share? Drop a link in the comments, send me a message or an email. Tell me what you love and show me what you’re doing about it!

 

Amateurs Unite!

“To Catch a Crow” by S.C. Jensen

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Welcome to Flash Fiction Friday!

This is a new feature I’m experimenting with to encourage readers to get into flash and short fiction. I’ll be using Flash Fiction Friday to share some of my own short stories, and also to highlight the writing of other authors, new and established, who are looking to expand their audience. If you are a reader, please leave feedback! If you are an author, please contact me if you have a piece of flash (under 1000 words) or short (under 2500 words) fiction you’d like to see on “Sarah Does Sci-Fi.”

“To Catch a Crow” by S.C. Jensen
Genre: Magical Realism

Ruth peers at the crows with her eyes half-closed. They land on the grass at the edge of the yard, sharp black eyes watching. Three of them. It’s probably a coincidence. Still, Ruth’s flesh prickles. She wishes she’d brought a coverup. Not that she could put it on now; she’s pretending to be asleep.

You can’t trick a crow. But she continues to lay in wait. She has to. Desperate times call for desperate measures. It’s a fool’s errand.

Fishing line bites into her flesh; the connection between Ruth and her wedding ring is nearly invisible. The strand glistens in the sunlight, like spider silk. The thin golden band glitters enticingly on the garden path. Crows love shiny things.

I don’t know why I need to catch the damned thing myself. But Madame Esme had been adamant on that point.

“Three feathers,” she had said, crow’s feet twitching. “Plucked, not found. Not bought.”

For strong magic the feathers must be fresh. And for the strongest magic the caster has to pluck them. Madame knows what she knows; Ruth isn’t going to argue. This is an exorcism, after all. She doesn’t want to muck it up.

But I don’t have to like it. She glares at the crows through the twitchy black legs of her false eyelashes.

The big one keeps his body sideways, puffs up his chest. Typical. Ruth shifts her weight on the patio lounger. The crow hops back and forth like a boxer, glittering eyes focussed on her. She peels an ass cheek off the vinyl mesh and curses the cheapskate husband who refused to spring for the fabric covers. The big crow moves in closer.

That was the first one. The cheapskate. They had been married for ten years when Ruth started adding arsenic to his coffee.

Husband number two was a bore and insufferably needy. He didn’t last three years.

It was husband number three who gave her trouble. Mr. Big Britches. He was immense and loud and had an uncanny tolerance for ingesting household cleaning products. And now that he’s finally kicked off, the fat bastard is haunting her. Slamming doors and leaving mud everywhere, just like the oaf did when he was alive. The morning Ruth walked into the open cutlery drawer she knew exactly what was happening. Mr. Big Britches is lingering.

In my own house! Ruth grinds her teeth silently. The nerve. That’s when the crows started hanging about, too. Ruth can’t help but feel it is connected. She looks forward to plucking a few tail feathers, actually. Madame Esme’s task might be cathartic in more ways than one.

The big crow struts casually up the garden path, pretending not to look at the ring. His cronies hop in unison at his flanks. Ruth tightens her grip on the fishing line. Her pale goosefleshy limbs tense. She doesn’t move. Like one of the great white garden spiders that hang between the lilies, she waits. The lounger creaks.

Then the big crow lunges.

“Gotcha!” Ruth flies to her feet and yanks the fishing line. The crow leaps forward as she pulls and the line goes slack. The ring glitters in his beak. Ruth scrambles with her trap, hand over hand. This isn’t going to work.

“Caw!” says one of the cronies. “Caw! Caw!”

“Oh, stuff it!” The big crow still has the ring. But unless he swallows the cursed thing she’s not going to be able to reel him in. Stupid!

“Crrrrrrraaawk!”

Ruth drops the line and picks up the nearest object at hand. She hurls a bottle of suntan lotion at the big bird. He watches it sail past and land in the lilies, his beady little eyes twinkling.

“Sod off then, you mongrels!”

The big crow flies a victory lap around the garden, ring glinting in the sun. The fishing line trails behind him. He swoops toward her. Ruth makes a last ditch grab for her thread. But the cronies are ready.

“Crrrrraaaaaaaawk!” The two smaller crows swoop and dive, claws out, black beaks flashing. “Caaaaawwrr!”

“Oh!” Ruth stumbles backward. The lounger is waiting. With an enormous shriek the maligned patio chair wraps its metal limbs around her. The cronies cackle.

The big crow drops to the grass. He holds his wings out from his body and sidles toward her like a gunslinger. He dares her to draw. He stops just out of her reach, the ring held tightly in his beak. Ruth pats the grass desperately, but there is nothing left to throw.

“Fine,” Ruth says. I should have poisoned the feeders. “You just stay off my side of the bed, Mr. Big Britches.”

 

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