“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.

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“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.”

***********************************************************************************

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

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s hot,” she said.

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

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

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

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

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

“What?”

“Don’t smell it, don’t touch it.”

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

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

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

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

“It’s still too hot in here.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

“Most of them.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But she said, “Like nasty things.”

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

“What about the mushrooms, then?”

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

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

“In a way.”

“But that’s not fair!”

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

###

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

None of you should be alive, she thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

###

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

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

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

“Do you miss her?”

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

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

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

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

“Mushrooms grow in unlikely places,” Alse said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that was foolish.

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

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

Instead, it grew.

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

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

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

The ocean came and flattened that one.

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

The castle and the curious markings around it.

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

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

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

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

They were waiting for something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But her face. He recognized that face.

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

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

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

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

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

“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.