“Queen of the Castle” by S.C. Jensen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I mean shouldn’t we check for Ben?”

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

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

She followed.

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

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

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

“Oh god,” he said.

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

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

“Oh god,” Keith said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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“Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen: 2019 NYC Midnight Short Story Competition

Here it is! This is my draft for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition. My assignment was Genre: Fairy Tale, Subject: Superhuman, Character: a cheesemaker. Word limit is 2500 words.

Here is their genre description for a Fairy Tale as per the contest guidelines:

A narrative that often features folkloric characters such as fairies, elves, trolls, or witches engaged in fantastic or magical events that illuminate universal truths. Fairy tales usually exist in a time-suspended context, with minimal references to actual events, people, and places. They are often short and intended for children, although there are exceptions to that rule. Common elements: conflict between good and evil, talking animals, royalty, archetypes, use of traditional beginnings and endings, i.e., “Once upon a time…” and “…happily ever after.” Fairy Tale books include Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm’s Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making. Fairy tale films include Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and The Princess Bride (1987).

I’d love your feedback on the story, how well it works with my assignment elements, and any other considerations. I still have three days to submit it, so I have time to apply any changes I need to! Without further ado, here it is:

Cheese-Head” by S.C. Jensen
2496 words

Once upon a stormy night a witch stirred up a foul smelling concoction in a cauldron as black as mould. Thunder rattled the tiny windows of her cottage in the woods and the wind outside howled. Inside the kitchen a fire crackled and, to anyone left out in the gale, its blaze would have appeared like the glowing red eyes of the devil herself flashing in the pitch. There was no one outside, though. The witch had even brought in her cow, Etheldred, who stood next to the wash basin contentedly chewing her cud and watching the fuss.

“That’s three turns widdershins,” Etheldred said, for she was a magical cow and never could keep her opinions to herself. “With the wooden spoon, not the iron. Do you want to spoil the whole batch?”

“I know that,” the witch snapped and quickly dropped the iron poker she’d been about to thrust into the brew. “What do you care if I spoil it, anyway?”

“Whose teats did you squeeze with your clammy hands to fill that crock, you half-witted hag?”

“Half-wit, am I?” Flames licked up around the fat belly of the pot as the witch muttered over her potion. “Managed to get the best of you, didn’t I?”

A gobbet of twice digested grass hung from Ethelred’s mouth. “I happen to like being a cow,” she lied.

“It certainly suits you. Saggy teats and all.”

“They were good enough for your husband, Frances Stein.” The cow licked her lips lasciviously and let a steaming pile of dung fall to the kitchen floor.

“Well, there’s no accounting for tastes.” Witch Stein poured a vial of alarmingly yellow liquid into the cauldron. “Anyway, you can have him once this spell is finished. I’m making myself a new husband.”

“That,” the cow said, “was Bile of Basilisk.”

“That’s what you said to use!” The witch gave a horrified look at the evil-looking liquid. “Who’s the cheese expert here?”

If a cow could grin, then Etheldred was grinning. “Banshee would have been better.”

“You baggy bovine!” the witch glowered. “You’re trying to sabotage me.”

“You did turn me into a cow.”

“If this doesn’t work,” the witch said, waving the wooden spoon at her companion, “you’re going to stay that way for the rest of your udder-lugging life.”

“Relax,” Etheldred said. “It’s curdling isn’t it?”

“Milk thistle to thicken,” the witch held up another vial. Then her eyes flashed with menace. “Unless you have another suggestion? I hear cows’ stomachs produce excellent rennet.”

“Rennet is terribly old-fashioned,” the cow blinked lazily, not in the least worried by the witch’s threats. “Besides, I’m using all of my stomachs.”

Witch Stein poured the milk thistle into the pot and watched the mixture coagulate. After a time, she prodded the jellied mass with her spoon and said, “Looks about right.”

“Get on with it, then,” the cow chided. “This weather isn’t going to last all night.”

“You mind your own magic,” the witch said.  With leather mitted hands she heaved the stinking cauldron over to the kitchen table and dumped its contents without ceremony. “This bit is mine.”

Slowly, surely, the witch began to mould and sculpt the mass of fresh cheese. After a time, the shape on the table took a new form. The cheese became a large, slightly misshapen man. Once she was satisfied, Witch Stein hauled out a coil of fine, hair-like metal fibers and used them to pierce the body in a few vital locations: the head, the heart, the belly, and the groin.

“What are you stabbing it for?” the cow brayed. “This isn’t one of those black magic dolls, is it? You said I could have Ralphie and I want him in one piece!”

It was Witch Stein’s turn to say, “Relax.”

She uncoiled the wires and attached them to a strange looking harness over the fireplace. More wires climbed from the harness, up the chimney, and onto the roof. The witch rubbed her hands together and looked out the window at the roiling storm. “Now, we wait.”

No sooner had she said that, then the air of the room fizzed and crackled and a smell like old coins replaced the stink of the cheese. Forks of hot white light shot from the wires on the chimney and sparked around the body of the cheese man. Etheldred mooed in alarm as a finger of lightening got too close for comfort.

“My tail is on fire,” she bellowed.

But the witch wasn’t paying the cow any attention. The creature on the table was moving its great lumpy limbs. She clapped her hands ecstatically. “It worked!”

The cheese man sat up and shook its fat, misshapen head.

“It’s alive!” Witch Stein shrieked and she did a little jig. “You thought I couldn’t do it, admit it!”

“Well,” said the cow as she gingerly dipped her tail in her water bucket. “He’s not much to look at, is he?”

“Neither is Ralphie,” the witch snapped. “I don’t need him to be handsome, I just need him to be big and strong and to follow my every command.”

“He’s certainly big,” the cow said. The cheese man’s head seemed to be growing closer to the thatched roof. “And with that recipe, he’ll be stronger than any human man. So that’s my end of the bargain. Now change me back!”

But the witch was too busy admiring her handiwork to worry about Etheldred. The cheese man tore the mess of metal wires away and stood almost to his full height. His neck bent awkwardly and his shoulders pressed against the ceiling. He looked at the witch with eyes of dry curd, and he spoke.

“Mama?” The cheese man’s voice belched out in a cloud of air that reeked like rancid feet.

Etheldred cackled as well as she could with her cow’s mouth and dropped another pile of dung.

“I’m not your mother, you oaf.” The witch poked him in the belly with her wooden spoon. “I’m your wife, Frances. Now quit lazing about, we’ve got work to do!”

“Hungry!” the cheese man grunted. And with that, he reached out his huge, lumpy hand, grabbed Etheldred the cow, and gobbled her all up.

The witch said, “Huh.”

The cheese man suddenly doubled in size, stood up to his full height, and crashed through the wall of Frances Stein’s kitchen. He lumbered into the night wearing the thatched roof like a hat, eating rocks and trees and whatever wild animals he scared up along the way.

“That’s a shame,” said the witch. She hitched her sleeves up to her elbows, grabbed her broom, and followed after her cheese husband.

The storm had abated and dawn was breaking by the time Witch Stein caught up with the cheese man. He moved quickly on legs that were growing longer every second, but he left a path of ruin that was easy enough to follow. The witch found him sitting on his huge, bumpy bottom in the middle of town, plucking the roofs of houses and snacking on the terrified villagers inside.

“Stop that this instant!” The witch flew her broom up to the cheese man’s head and buzzed around him like an angry bee. “We don’t have time for this nonsense.”

The cheese man swatted at her clumsily. “Hungry,” he moaned.

“I’ll get you some food,” the witch promised, an idea brewing in her brain. “But first, you have to give me back that cow.” 

The cheese man blinked his curd eyes at her.

“The one you ate in my kitchen,” she prompted.

The cheese man opened his cavernous mouth, reached a hand down his throat, and pulled out Etheldred. He plunked her on the ground, sodden and stinking. Then he heaved himself to his feet, now the size of schooners, and lumbered in the direction of the next town eating everything in his path.

“Disgusting,” the cow said.

“Quit your whining,” the witch said. “I need one of your food spells.”

“What I need is a washing-up spell,” Etheldred replied, dripping with whey and misery. “I’ll never get this smell out.”

“Can you do a never-ending bread loaf?”

“Bread loafs, salt pots, cheese wheels, you name it.” Even in her soggy state, the cow wasn’t above a little bragging. “If you can eat it, I can make it last forever.”

“I’m going to change you back,” the witch said begrudgingly. “But I need your help.”

“I suppose I’m in no position to bargain,” the cow said.

Witch Stein snapped her fingers and lifted the curse. Etheldred, still dripping but looking slightly more human, stretched her back and thrust out her buxom bosom. “That’s better,” she said. “Now what’s on the menu?”

The two witches went to work scouring the town for oats, molasses, and flour. Etheldred was as good as her word, and in a few hours they had an enchanted loaf of bread the size of a cart horse.

“Big and dense,” the kitchen witch declared. “Just like your cheese husband.”

“And Ralphie, too, while we’re on the subject.” Witch Stein rapped Etheldred on the head with her broom. “Now shut your gob and help me carry this thing.”

The witches wrapped the loaf up with thick ropes, strung it between two broomsticks, and flew—a little wobbly and with a lilt to the left—after the cheese man. They followed the path of broken trees, flattened cottages, and absent livestock all the way to a river. The cheese man, who was now the size of a large hillock, knelt on the ground beside the water guzzling for all he was worth.

“What are you doing now, you great galumph,” Witch Stein bellowed at her cheese husband. “I brought you food that will never run out. Now it’s time for you to get to work!”

The cheese man peered at her with his curd eyes and blinked. He snatched the loaf of bread from between the witches’ brooms, nearly spilling them both into the river, and took a colossal bite. Before he finished chewing, the loaf sprang back to its original size with a pop. The cheese man took another bite, watched the loaf grow back again, and grinned a cheesy grin.

Then he tossed the loaf aside and guzzled at the river again. Witch Stein and Etheldred looked at one another and shrugged.

Soon, the raging river became a babbling brook, the brook became a trickle, and then the trickle dried up completely. He’d guzzled up all of the water for miles and miles. The cheese man sat up and coughed out a cloud of dust.

“Thirsty,” he said and made like he was going to lumber off again in search of more water.

“Don’t you dare!” Witch Stein flew up and buzzed in his ear like a gnat. “You stay right where you are. Etheldred, can you do that trick with water, too?”

“Water, milk, ale,” Etheldred puffed out her chest. “If you can drink it, I can—”

“Yeah, yeah.” Witch Stein landed her broom and hitched up her skirts. “What do we need?”

“Why should I help you again?” Etheldred put her hands on her hips and blew a strand of whey soaked hair off of her large, crooked nose. “I kept my side of the bargain. The deal is done.”

“If you don’t, I’ll find Ralphie and turn him into the toad he is!”

Etheldred landed beside Witch Stein and muttered, “I’m starting to think that Ralphie is more trouble than he’s worth.”

“Well, at least you didn’t have to marry him to figure that out,” snapped Frances. “Are you going to help me, or not?”

“We’re going to need a big pot,” Etheldred said. “A really big pot. And after this, you’re going to owe me one.”

“You heard the woman!” Witch Stein clapped her hands at the cheese man. “Go fetch us the biggest pot you can find. And be quick about it!”

The cheese giant picked up his loaf of bread and lumbered off into the distance, munching away, and leaving slightly less devastation in his wake. It took three whole weeks for him to return, by which time Etheldred and Frances had put aside their differences and more or less become friends.

“Now that’s a cauldron!” Etheldred said when the cheese man trundled up to them with a vessel the size of a house. “Where did you find that?”

“Giants,” said the cheese man, and that was all they got out of him on the matter. But Witch Stein heard, a few years later, about a stone giant named Hymir who had developed a sudden, and rather ferocious, aversion to dairy products.

“What’ll it be,” Etheldred asked, pulling herself up onto the lip of the cauldron. “Water, milk, tea?”

Witch Stein looked up at her mountain of a husband and shook her head. “Better make it wine,” she said.

“You’re my kind of woman, Frankie!” Etheldred cackled and she waved her hands over the pot, reciting a complicated incantation that involved a little too much hip wiggling and bosom shimmying for Frances’s taste.

Soon the cauldron was brimming with a fragrant, dark red vintage.

“My best merlot,” Etheldred winked. “It pairs very well with cheese.”

The cheese giant picked up the cauldron and drank. He drank and he drank but, just as the kitchen witch promised, the cauldron never emptied. Then, with a belch that shook the birds out of the sky, he smiled. “Good.”

“Finally!” Witch Stein threw her hands up in the air. She pulled a roll of parchment out of her bosom and thrust it at her cheese husband. “Gather these materials, Cheese-Head. We have to build a bigger house before we do anything else.”

“Wow!” Etheldred exclaimed as the cheese man lurched away on his first mission, carrying the over-sized wine flask and bread loaf with him. “He can read?”

“Grab your broom, woman.” Frankie Stein launched herself into the air. “We’re going to find a nice secluded spot in the mountains. I need space for my laboratory and the hard-to-find magical elements Goudard is going to collect for me. I have hypotheses to test!”

“Goudard?”

“Well I have to call him something besides Cheese-Head.”

“Wait just a minute,” Etheldred said. “You still owe me a favour.”

Frankie rolled her eyes heavenward. “I promise not to turn Ralph into a toad.”

“Forget Ralph.” Etheldred hopped on her broomstick. The witches zipped over barren fields and flattened forests toward the mountains. A bovine bellow could be heard for miles around, “I want a cheese husband!”

And they would all have lived happily ever after except that Goudard, it turns out, didn’t like being berated and bossed any more than Ralphie had. So he joined the circus, and Frankie Stein had to do her own ingredient collecting. That didn’t stop her from trying to create new husbands, though. Once, she even dug up a cemetery for parts… But that’s another story for another time.

“The Hollow” by S.C. Jensen

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The lifeless eyes hung level with Ginny’s gaze. Blue nylon cord twisted around the thing’s naked body, diving in and out of the flesh like a hungry worm, so that she couldn’t see where it was tied. A mask of blood matted the fur on the tiny face and pooled in its ears. The rest of it was hairless. It looked a bit like a cat, but Ginny couldn’t see a tail.

Behind her, Bea made a sound in her throat almost like a laugh.

“I told you,” Ginny said. “I told you something like this would happen.”

The fallen leaves crunched beneath their feet. Bea blew out a cloud of steam in the crisp autumn air. It hung like a ghost between them. “This is bad, Gin.”

The sun sank into the trees behind their house. Rose-gold spears of evening light broke through the remaining leaves of the season and cast an otherworldly glow over the macabre scene.

Ginny reached out a tentative hand and recoiled quickly. The body was still warm. “I don’t what to do anymore, Bea.”

“Well, we can’t tell anyone.” Bea cupped her hands around her mouth and blew into them, trying to stay warm. “That’s for sure.”

“I didn’t do it,” Ginny said. She rubbed her fingers against her pants. A smear of blood stained the denim. “You believe me, don’t you?”

“They’re going to take you away, Ginny. You’re going to celebrate your sixteenth birthday in a straight-jacket.”

Silence fell between the girls until the air quivered with it. Ginny’s body shook with more than the cold; her heart hammered painfully against her chest. Spots swam at the edges of her vision, like ghost-lights. Will-o-the-wisps. An aura of light seemed to swell around her sister’s face. Ginny was afraid she would pass out if Bea didn’t say something soon.

“Go get the shovel.” Bea turned toward the tree. “I’ll cut it down. Mom’s going to be home soon.”

Ginny walked to the garden shed on legs like sandbags. She kicked each step forward, feeling the impossible weight of her body with every step. Bea was right. No one could know about this. They were just waiting for an excuse to lock her up. Voices rose, unbidden, to whisper in her ears. Maladjusted, delusional, unstable…

Her therapists and social workers said they were on her side, but she could hear the excitement in their voices when they talked to her mother. A very unusual case. Like her mental health was a sideshow they could observe from the front row, munching on popcorn and planning their next sabbatical project.

She heard the kids at school, too. Freak, psycho, bitch… Sure, she threatened to cut Bradley Schaeffer’s pecker off with a pair of sewing shears in home-ec. But Bradley had started to look at Bea the way he used to look at her. The way he looked at her before that night. Slut. Ginny wasn’t going to let that happen again. Not to Bea. Bradley would stay away from both of them from now on.

Ginny’s hand pressed against the weather beaten door of the shed. Her coat sleeve fell back to reveal a cross-hatch of raised silver flesh on her wrist. Ginny didn’t like to look at her wrists. Her limbs felt like they belonged to someone else, dull, heavy things she had to lug through life. The ghostly chains of her sins, hanging off of her, dragging her down. She pushed the door open with her hip and stepped into the frigid darkness inside. The shovel was there, just as she’d left it.

The thing was on the ground when Ginny came back. The frayed cord lay in a tangle at Bea’s feet, electric blue and unnaturally vivid against the dead flesh and dead leaves. Bea said, “Give me that.”

The girls trudged through the forest behind their house, single file. Bea held the shovel against her shoulder, like a rifle, and led the way to the Hollow. Ginny dragged the mess of meat and twine behind her. The creature deserved better, but she couldn’t stand to carry the body in her arms. The skinny limbs, red and wet and going cold. It was too much like—

“Here.” Bea stopped abruptly and stuck the blade of the shovel into a patch of churned up earth. “Put it next to the other one.”

Ginny released her grip on the nylon rope and took the spade from her sister. She pressed her foot into the top of the blade until she could feel the edge cutting into her foot through the sole of her shoe. She pressed until it hurt, but the blade wouldn’t pierce the frozen soil.

“Hurry up,” Bea said. “Mom’s going to be home any minute now.”

“I can’t.” Ginny threw all of her weight on top of the shovel. The handle dug into her ribs. “It’s rock hard.”

“Well put it in with the others.” Bea’s exasperated voice burst out in another cloud of steam. “You’re really cutting it close this time.”

Ginny eyed the fallen leaves at their feet. If you didn’t know to look for them, no one would ever know they were there. Little mounds arranged in a pyramid. The original on top and, supporting it—or maybe keeping it company—the tributes. Servants in the afterlife.

“The big one,” Bea said, suddenly. The ghost of a smile touched her lips. “It’s the freshest.”

Ginny’s heartbeat slowed. It struck with the great, anvil-clanging blows of a blacksmith. She forced her eyes to see the other grave. This one was easier to spot, even if you didn’t know to look for it. But after another good wind the raised earth would be completely camouflaged by the last of the leaves. With any luck, it would stay hidden until spring.

“Or do want Mom to find you like this?” Bea whispered. Something like glee tainted her voice. “She’d lose it. You two can be roomies in the nut house.”

Ginny pushed the shovel into the softened soil of the largest mound and flicked it aside. Something had gotten to the body, already, cold as it was. Black holes stared up at her from where the eyes should have been. Greying flesh sunk into the bones beneath the sockets. Teeth smiled up at her, liplessly. Ginny held her breath.

Like she was proving a point, Bea said, “There.”

Bradley Schaeffer’s face, what was left of it, glared up at Ginny accusingly. “I didn’t do it, Bea. I swear I didn’t.”

“Of course you didn’t.” Bea’s voice dripped with scorn. “You never stand up for yourself, do you? That’s why I’m here.”

Ginny’s limbs began to weigh on her again. It wasn’t possible. Not this. “Bea?”

“Come on,” Bea said. “Tuck it in with him nice and tight.”

As if being moved by something outside herself, Ginny crouched next to the shallow grave. She tugged the mass of meat and twine through the leaves and, lifting it by the rope, lowered the thing onto Bradley’s chest. Bea was right. It suited him. She dropped the twine and the raw, naked body rolled. It caught in the crook of Bradley’s arm, like—

“Just like a baby,” Bea said.

Ginny’s legs began to cramp and she stood slowly. Without taking her eyes off the bodies, she dragged the shovel through the leaves and dirt she’d churned up. She pulled it over the pair like a blanket, gently. Tears stung her eyes and burned her cold cheeks.

“Good.” Bea’s voice cracked like a twig. “Now let’s go. The last thing we need is for mom to see you out here. They’ll put you away for sure, even if they don’t find this mess.”

“Stop saying that!”

“Come on, Gin. Wandering around the forest with a shovel, crying and talking to yourself. You look like a bloody lunatic,” Bea looked pointedly at the stains on Ginny’s clothes. “No pun intended.”

“I’m not crazy! You know I’m not. You’re just trying to upset me.”

“Upset you?” Bea’s mouth twisted into a cruel sneer. “That implies that you were settled in the first place. We both know you’re off your rocker.”

“Don’t you turn on me, too” Ginny whispered. “I need you.”

“I,” Bea said, “am not going anywhere. That’s your problem.”

“Tell them we were just out for a walk,” Ginny begged. “They’ll believe you.”

“Me?” Bea laughed, then. The harsh, joyless bark of sound shook the leaves off the trees. “Who exactly do you think I am?”

Bea’s face flickered in the waning twilight. Ginny had to concentrate to focus on her, like looking through murky water at a mirror. Bea had her dishevelled hair, her tear-streaked cheeks, her blood-stained clothes. They were identical, except for Bea’s cruel smile.

Then the cruel smile softened. Bea reached out and took Ginny’s hand, her damp fingers like ice, and led her back to the house. She said, not unkindly, “You really are crazy, you know.”

Ginny knew.
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This is my piece for the January prompt for 12 Short Stories. The prompt was “No one can know” at 1500 words. “The Hollow” came in just shy at 1498. I don’t technically submit this one until the 30th, so if you leave comments and feedback, I have time to apply it before the official due date! Please do. I am now awaiting my assignment for the NYC Midnight Short Story competition, which will be arriving at midnight EST. I wanted to get this one out of the way so I can focus one NYC Midnight next week. Stay tuned for that one, too! As always, thanks for reading.

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“Showstopper” by S.C. Jensen

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

But that realization came later.

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

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

Seventeen days.

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

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

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

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

Compost.

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

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

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

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

But Mike felt fine.

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

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

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

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989 Words

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

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

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Genre: Horror
Wordcount: 1154

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

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

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

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

And yet something was different.

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

“There. Do you see it?”

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

“Told you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Tee,” Tobi said. “Stop.”

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

“I know you’re mad, but—”

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

“Just look behind you.”

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

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

Tobi lunged for his sister.

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

Tobi did.

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

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

“You’ll never believe me,” he said.

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

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

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

 

 

 

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: “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.