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Flash Fiction: To Infinity and Beyond

This week’s flash fiction challenge on TerribleMinds is to write a 1000 word story where time travel is a prominent feature. I had a great time with this challenge, and really hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

I’d like to dedicate this story to my friend Pete, who assisted me with some of the technical details. Thanks, Pete, for answering my odd questions in the middle of the night, without even asking for reasons or context!

To Infinity and Beyond

The place is just the way William remembers it – a crappy wooden shack with holes in the roof, snakes under the floorboards and enough weed in the garden to keep him and Theo toasted every day of high school and beyond. It’s quiet, but he knows what he’ll find inside. He’s been here before.

He slides his hand into the deep pocket of his trench and feels the comforting weight of his Colt Anaconda. He closes his hand around it then walks up the garden path to the gaping doorway. He pauses outside and listens. He wants to wait for the right moment.

“No, man, first we go to one of them hippy festivals in the sixties. All the chicks were easy back then.”

“Yeah! Yeah, man. That’s, like, sick.”

“Yeah… And then, right, then we, like, go back to when Kurt Cobain was about to shoot himself and we, like, save him. And then we totally rock out with Nirvana.”

 “That would be, like, so cool!”

“I know, right? We could be, like, gods. You know? Like, saving some people and killing other people and shit.”

Another pause. “You know what we should do first?”

“What?”

“Right, the first thing we do when we invent a time machine is… we come back here… and we, like, tell ourselves that we invented a time machine.”

William ducks his head and walks into the ramshackle hut. That’s his cue. “Hello, boys.”

The two teenagers leap to their feet and away from him, immediately protesting their innocence. 

“We weren’t really…”

“Didn’t know that it was…”

William holds up his left hand and smiles. “Relax,” he says. “Theo. William. I’m from the future.”

They both stare at him, eyes like saucers. “Woah,” says Theo. “We totally, like, did it. Do it. Done it.” He pauses, looks confused, then tries again. “We totally made a time machine. Didn’t we?”

“Yes,” William says with a smile. “William, I’m future you.”

Past-William’s eyes widen. “Oh man. Are you, like, here to warn me about the future? Does some robot, like, come back and try to kill me?”

“Yes. And no.” William steps further into the cabin, advancing on the boys. “You remember Laura Mackenzie?”

Past-William smirks. “Aw, yeah. I know her.”  The two boys snicker and high five each other. “She’s smokin’.”

“Yeah, she is,” says William. Had he really been such a loser as a teenager? What the hell had Laura even seen in him? He cuts that thought off quickly and refocuses on the kids. “She’s smart and funny and sexy as hell,” he says. “And you fall in love with her.”

Theo sniggers. “Dude! You fall in love…”

“Shut. Up.” William pulls his right hand out of his pocket and points the gun at Theo’s head. Then he keeps talking to Past-William. “You go out of town to college, but you and her stay in touch. When you come back, you propose to her. You get married. It’s the happiest day of your life.”

Past-William’s eyes are huge. “Wow. That’s awesome. But… why am I telling myself this?”

William continues, “You work hard. You do everything for her. She’s your life. Then you have a baby. A little boy. You name him Theodore. Everything is perfect.” He spits the word out a second time. “Fucking perfect.”

His right hand is shaking a bit, but he keeps going. “Then one day you find out the truth. You catch them together. You find out that your son isn’t really your son. You find out that your wife has been screwing your best friend for your whole fucking marriage. Ever since college. No, ever since fucking high school.”

“Man, that’s fucked up,” says Past-William. “What do I do then?”

“You take the time machine you and Theo built and you go back and make sure it never happened,” says William. He looks at Theo and tightens his finger on the trigger.

“Thought I’d find you here,” says a voice from behind him.

William spins around, releasing the trigger. There’s Theo, leaning against the rotten doorframe with a gun in his hand.

“I’m going to kill you,” says William. “I’m going to kill you in the past so Laura will never be yours. The minute I pull this trigger, you will have been dead for fifteen years.”

Theo just smiles. “You think I didn’t think of that, Billy-boy?”

A second Theo walks through the open doorway. This one has his gun pointed at Past-William. “You shoot Past-Me, and Other-Me shoots Past-You before he has time to die.” First-Theo smirks. “Or maybe I’ll shoot Past-You first. Save us both some time.”

Second-William walks in, his gun pointed at Second-Theo. “Two can play that game,” First-William says. “When I kill Past-You and the you cease to exist, I’ll go back to the future and come back enough times to stop you stopping me.”

“Wrong,” says First-Theo. “By the time this is over, you’ll be dead. So when I get back to the future, I’ll keep coming back enough times to stop you killing Past-Me. Then I’ll kill Past-You and Laura won’t even remember your name.”

The two ex-friends stare at each other. Another Theo walks in, gun raised.

Then another William. Then Theo. William. Theo.

“Dude,” whispers Past-William. “This is whack. We’re gonna kill each other. But… If one of us is dead, only one of us can go to the future and set stuff up for when we come back to the past.”

“Dude,” whispers Past-Theo. “We’re, like, so baked.”

William. Theo. William. Theo.

The cabin is overflowing. Future selves spill out into the clearing.

William. Theo. William. Theo.

The clearing is full. The woods teem with Williams and Theos.

A voice. Disembodied. Androgynous.

“Memory full. Infinite loop detected. Reality will restart in 5…”

Williams and Theos look at each other.

“4…”

“Dude!” Past-William says.

“Dude!” Past-Theo says.

“3…”

“2…”

“Fuck,” say Theos.

“1…”

Williams pull the trigger.

 

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Flash Fiction: It Takes Two

The flash fiction challenge at TerribleMinds this week was a tricky one. A really tricky one. Mr Wendig gave us the opening line of the story and left the rest to us. The opening line provided was: “The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber.”

Really tricky. But I came up with something, and I hope you like it!

It Takes Two

“The noticed android walks past a wondering chamber.” Charles spoke slowly, being sure to enunciate each and every word.

“What?”

Charles leaned closer and repeated the phrase. With the heavy beat of the music reverberating around them, it was a miracle the woman heard him at all.

She sneered and muttered, “Fuck off.” Then she turned her back on him and walked toward the bar. He watched her go, a look of confusion on his face. This was followed in quick succession by embarrassment and resignation.

I watched the exchange with some amusement. Poor Charles. It can’t be easy being a virgin at his age. I almost felt bad for setting him up.

A minute later he was approached by a tall blonde woman wearing a black dress that was barely more than a promise, and a killer smile.  She stood way too close to him, breathing in his scent. It was a miracle she’d resisted him for this long.  “Hey, stranger,” she said. Her voice was low and husky. I could barely hear her, even with my hearing cranked. “What’s your name?”

“Uh… Charles.”

Poor, clueless Charles.

Blondie leaned forward and whispered something in his ear. I didn’t hear what it was, but the starry-eyed look on Charles’s face told me enough. “Sure,” he said, the word sounding slurred and distant.

Blondie slid her arm through his and led him to the bar. I adjusted the controls on my VampAmp 7 (Patent Pending) hearing augmentation and waited. Blondie had Charles right where she wanted him – pushed up against the bar, her tongue in his mouth. Charles looked awkward about the whole thing. I didn’t blame him. Now I just had to stop him turning into a corpse.

Five minutes. It took five minutes for Charles to agree to go home with her. I didn’t know if that was a mark of her prowess with the tongue hockey or of his desperation. Either way, I was happy. Maybe I’d get home in time to watch Supernatural after all.

They walked out together, his arm placed carefully around her shoulders and her hand jammed into the back pocket of his jeans. I followed.

I switched off the VampAmp 7 (Patent Pending) when we hit the street.  Then I followed, waiting to see what kind of car Blondie had. I bet myself it would be a sleek, black Jag.

I was wrong. She didn’t have a car. She led him into an alley. Seriously, an alley? I sighed and followed, chalking it up as yet another reason she needed to die. A fatal lack of class.

When I caught up with them, Blondie had him pushed up against the wall. Her mouth was pressed against his, her fingers unbuckling his belt.

“Hey, Blondie,” I called. “Hands off. He’s mine.”

Blondie’s head whipped around, her eyes glowing red. “Leave us,” she said.

“Don’t think so, Vampgirl,” I said. I drew my silver blade with my right hand and my stake with my left.

She was quicker than I expected. Much quicker. So quick that she’d knocked the stake out of my hand and slammed me into the opposite wall before I could react. She leaned against me, her fangs mere inches from my throat. “You smell like food,” she hissed.

“Wait. Who’s that?” Charles. Poor, stupid Charles.

His voice broke Blondie’s concentration for a fraction of a second. I used that time to slam my knee into her groin. Her grip loosened and I pushed away, raising the silver weapon between us. Charles was watching, his eyes wide and scared, his hands desperately trying to tuck his shirt back into his trousers. “What— What’s happening?”

I didn’t answer. It was a stupid question. Blondie had fangs and glowing red eyes. I had a wooden steak and a short sword. What did he think was happening? Instead, I kept my gaze on Blondie and said, “You’re CharlieBear69. I’m BuffyGirl42. Nice to meet you.”

“Judy?” he asked. The he broke into our pre-arranged code. “The noticed android—”

“Yeah, yeah, wondering chamber, blah blah blah,” I interrupted. “Little busy right now.”

Blondie attacked. I was expecting it. I’d been fighting vampires since my Dad took me on as his apprentice when I was twelve. I knew all their tricks.

Except this one.

She leapt at me, fangs extended, claws outstretched. I raised my blade, aiming at the void where her heart should be. Then she disappeared. Vanished. I stumbled forward, the unchecked strike throwing me off balance.

That’s when she grabbed me from behind.

Her breath was cold on my neck. Her fangs were sharp.

I did not want to be killed by a vampire. But I’d rather that than be Turned by one. I saw what happened to Dad when they got to him. It took four of us to take him down.

A cloud of ash exploded behind me, covering me in the sooty, smoky smell of dead vampire. I clapped my hand to the side of my neck and spun around. Charles looked at me, eyes wide, dead vampire in his hair and a wooden stake in his hand.

“That was a vampire,” he said.

“Yes.”

“She tried to kill you.”

“Yes.”

“She almost… I almost…”

“Yes.”

He looked at me, then at the stake, then back at me. “So… Are we still on for that date?”

I considered him for a minute. “Yes,” I said. “But first we collect the fangs. Ain’t no bounties paid on promises.”

He smiled uncertainly and watched me dig around on the ground until I found two sharp, white teeth. I took a silver box out of my pocket and put the fangs inside. Then I stood up and took Charles’s hand. “Ever want to be a vampire hunter, Charles? You may have a natural talent for it.”

“That would be… cool,” he said.

I smiled. “Great. There’s only one catch.”

“What’s that?”

“How do you feel about staying a virgin?”

 Those of you who’ve been around for a while may remember Judy from a previous flash fiction. You can check out Touched for the Very First Time if you’d like to read Judy’s previous adventure — and find out why she was looking for a virgin.

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Flash Fiction: Charlene

This week’s challenge at TerribleMinds was to write a 1000 word flash fiction based on a fairy tale. Specifically, to take a fairy tale — any fairy tale at all — and rewrite it in a modern context.

I played around with at least half a dozen ideas before finally settling on the one below. Hopefully the fairy tale it’s based on is obvious when you read it. Enjoy! And remember to hit me up in the comments to tell me what you did and didn’t like. I thrive on comment-love.

Charlene

“She’s green.”

“No she’s not. Well, maybe a little… chartreuse.”

There were three people talking. The man in the white coat was familiar. The other two were new.

“Chartreuse?” one said. The voice was harsh and loud. “She’s green! I paid you good money and I expect a quality product!”

“Oh Chris,” the second stranger said. This one sounded softer. “It doesn’t matter if she’s a little green—“

“Chartreuse.”

“—chartreuse. She’s beautiful. She’s the daughter we’ve always wanted.”

“But she’s—” the loud one said.

“She’s ours.”

White Coat spoke again. “Don’t worry, the chartreuse tint is just a reaction to the chlorophyll used in the procedure. She’ll probably grow out of it.”

“What’s her name?”

“Well, that’s up to you,” said White Coat. ”She’s your daughter.”

The soft one looked me up and down and smiled. “We’ll call her Charlene. Our chartreuse girl.”

White Coat turned back to me. “Congratulations, Charlene. This is your mother and father.”

 ###

“Oh, Mum,” I sobbed, resting my face against her shoulder. “I’m so ugly. It’s not fair.”

“You’re not ugly,” Mum said. She stroked my hair. “You’re beautiful, Charlene.”

“I’m not,” I sobbed. “I’m ugly and hideous and everyone hates me.”

“No one hates you, Charlene.”

I lifted my head and stared at her. She didn’t understand. She was so beautiful, with her soft round face and her brown eyes and blonde hair. How could she possibly understand?  “They do, Mum. They really do.”

“Well, what about Lance? You were so excited when he asked you to Prom.”

My eyes burned. “It was a joke,” I said. “Just a stupid joke. They threw… They threw salad at me. Called me Queen Lettuce. Then Cindy,” the bitch who had tormented me for the last four years, “and Lance were named Prom King and Queen.”

“Oh, Baby. I’m sorry,” Mum said. She hugged me again, and wiped at my tears. “I’m sorry it didn’t work out. But you just wait, in a few years you’ll look back on this and laugh. You’ll see.”

Eventually Mum went away. I washed my face, put on my pyjamas and climbed into bed.

I was woken by muffled voices outside my bedroom door. It was probably Mum. Not wanting another speech about how things were going to be fine, I closed my eyes and feigned sleep. 

The door opened. “There she is,” Dad whispered. “Just like I promised.”

An unfamiliar voice answered. “I’ll take her. She’ll be perfect for my son. Are you sure your wife won’t mind?”

A damp cloth covered my face and I struggled; tried to scream. Then the world faded and my father’s voice was a million miles away. “She’ll get over it. And we can always make a new one.”

 ###

 His bloated body was covered in warts and bed sores and his face looked like something from beyond the grave. He was lying on a dirty mattress on the floor. I could smell him from where I’d woken up on the other side of the room.

“Come closer, my dear,” he said. “There’s no need to be shy. By tonight, you’ll be my wife.”

I didn’t answer. I didn’t know what to say. Then the door opened and a woman came in. “Good, you’re awake,” she said.

I knew that voice. It was the one I’d heard in my bedroom right before my father drugged me.

I lurched to my feet and charged at the old woman. My shoulder hit her in the chest and she fell, flailing wildly. Then I was out the door and into a dirty hallway. I barreled along it until I slammed into another door. I fumbled with the door handle and deadbolt, hoping it hadn’t been key-locked.

I was in luck.

A minute later I escaped into an unfamiliar street and slammed the door behind me. Then I kept running.

 ###

“Living on the streets is hard,” the reporter said, “whether you’re an old hand,” the camera panned to a man in his sixties, “or a stripling of a girl like Charlene.”

The camera focused on me and I tried to smile. I never should have agreed to the interview but the reporter, Regina Swallow, had promised me twenty bucks.

“How long have you been sleeping rough, Charlene?”

 I shrugged and pulled my tattered coat tighter around my shoulders. “About five months,” I said. “I think. It’s hard to keep track.”

“And how did you end up on the street?”

I answered a few more questions, not giving away too much. Then the interview was over and Regina handed me a twenty while the cameraman packed his equipment.

“Have you got somewhere to go?” she asked.

 “There’s a woman I know,” I said. “She lets me sleep in her garage when I do her housework. And there’s a man who wants me to move in. He’s got cataracts. I don’t think he knows about my…” I trailed off. “I’ll be fine.”

Regina frowned at me. “You don’t keep up with the news much, do you?” she asked. I looked at her blankly. “Come with me. There’s someone you should meet.”

 ###

It was like any other new development – houses and half-finished landscaping – except for the military-style checkpoints around it. We left the news van outside and entered on foot.

There was no sign of any guards. There was no sign of any people, either. Everything was quiet.

“Back again, Regina?” called a male voice from behind us.

I turned.Regina said something but I didn’t hear her. I was busy staring.

He was tall and handsome and muscular and had the greenest skin I’d seen outside a mirror. His dark green hair hung to his shoulders. His eyes were sea-green. He was gorgeous.

“Welcome to Chloroville, Charlene. I’m Michael Prince.”

It wasn’t love at first sight. That only happens in fairy tales.

But exactly one year later we wed.

 

EDIT: I was fairly convinced that the fairy tale I based this story on would be so obvious that no one would bother reading through to the end. As it turns out, it’s easier to see the plot similarities if you’re the one who wrote the story. 🙂 So, for those who are interested, this is a modernisation of the story of Thumbelina.

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Flash Fiction: The Brains for Fame

It’s over three months since I last participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s weekly flash fiction challenges. To be honest, I was a little worried I’d lost the groove. But then I saw his challenge for the week and I was immediately inspired.

That’s My New Band Name: Write a story about a band.The name of that band? Well, click here to choose one. There you’ll get a buncha random band  names. Choose one. That’s the band. You’ve got up to 1000 words.

So, here goes. Hit me up in the comments and let me know what you think!

The Brains for Fame

“We’re Nerve Complaint, and that was Ain’t Gonna Drag Us Down.”

The lights in the studio snapped on and Jimmy and the rest of the band squinted. “Jimmy! Baby!” a booming  voice exclaimed. “You’re good, you know that. You’re outta this world.”

“Thanks, Charles,” Jimmy said, focusing on the newcomer. “We’ve been practicing, and—”

“And nothing!” Charles waddled across the studio and stood in front of Jimmy. “You’re good, but you’re not listening,” he said, emphasising the last word by tapping a meaty finger against Jimmy’s ear.

Charles looked at the rest of the band – Mick on lead guitar, Jenny on bass, and Chaz on drums – and Jimmy followed his gaze. “You have a great sound, Kids. But you just don’t have… It.”

“It,” repeated Mick.

“Yeah, It,” said Charles. “A thing. Something we can sell. A gimmick.”

“We don’t need a gimmick,” said Mick. “We’re the real deal.”

“Ha!” said Charles. “You know how many “real deal” musicians starve to death? Alone and unknown? A lot. If you—”

He was interrupted by blaring sirens and flashing red and white lights.

“What the fuck is that?” Jenny demanded.

Charles waved a hand. “Zombie alarm. They attack this time every day. Something about sound waves and vibrations and… Whatever.”

Chaz ran a hand through his long hair and peered around the room nervously. “Shouldn’t we, like, get out of here, man? Zombies are, like, bad news.”

“Nah, we’re on the third floor.”

Chaz looked blank. Jenny had unslung her guitar and was digging through her bag. A moment later she stood up, a blood-stained baseball bat in her hand and a grin on her face. Mick and Jimmy exchanged looks.

“You have a back way out?” Mick asked. Dragging Jenny away from a fight wasn’t easy, but they’d had plenty of practice over the last few months.

“Don’t worry,” Charles said. “Zombies don’t do stairs. Trust me, Kids, we’re perfectly safe. Security turns off the escalators when they attack. They just wander around the ground floor for a while and then leave.” He paused to smile. “Now, let’s talk about you.”

#####

Three hours and two minor skirmishes with zombie packs later, Nerve Complaint sat around the shabby lounge room of their even shabbier apartment, eating take-away Chinese. The rest of the meeting with Charles Ledder, VP of BrainMush Records, had gone as expected. He was insistent they needed a marketing edge before he’d sign them.

“I know we always said we’d do it our way,” said Jimmy, “but maybe he’s got a point. I mean, look at Blood Night. They’ve got that whole vampire thing going on, and—”

“—and that’s all they’ve got,” interrupted Mick. “Without their fake fangs and capes, they’d be nothing.”

“Have you heard them play?” Jenny asked, pausing to light a cigarette and take a drag. “They’re fucking awful.”

“I know, but—” Jimmy began.

“But nothing,” said Mick firmly. “We don’t need a gimmick.”

“Hey,” said Chaz. “Could you turn zombie meat into curry? Would it taste like chicken?” He broke into giggles, staring down at the curried whatever in his take-out box.

Everyone lost interest in food after that.

One by one, they went to bed. All except Jimmy. He sat on the floor thinking about Charles and Mick and the desperate clawing need in his belly. The need for money and success and, above all else, fame.

After a while he turned on the dodgy TV in the corner of the room. They’d picked it up at a garage sale a few months earlier, thinking it would come in handy. They only got one channel, but it was better than nothing.

“…would have guessed they would be useful?” a reporter was saying, the scene behind him a familiar one—zombies assembling cars on a production line. “But as long as they’re kept well fed, many zombies can keep doing the same work they did when they were alive. Scientists can’t explain why some people react better to zombification than others, but one thing’s for sure: Undeath isn’t the death sentence it used to be.”

The picture cut to the pretty, smiling anchorwoman. “Thank you, Ken. Well, after their whirlwind success and world tour, local band Blood Night is back in town. And tonight, they’re performing live in the studio. Let’s hear it for Blood Night!”

Jimmy hit the off switch as the familiar riff of Mine for the Night began to play. Jenny was right: Blood Night were terrible. But they were rich. And they were famous.

And suddenly Jimmy knew what to do.

#####

It took some convincing. Mick, especially, wasn’t keen to go back to BrainMush Records. But Jimmy promised this would be the last time, and Jenny cursed and said they had nothing to lose, and Chaz said he’d forgotten his drumsticks yesterday, so Mick was out-voted.

They arrived just before dark. The receptionist gave Jimmy a wink and said, “Mr Ledder says he’ll meet you in Studio 1.”

“Huh,” said Mick. “We’re usually in Studio 3.”

Jimmy shrugged. “Guess it’s busy.” He led the way across the foyer to the ground floor studio, and pushed open the door. Inside, it looked much like any other studio. Except for the four, seven-foot tall cages arrayed around the room. Three were closed, the heavy metal doors bolted shut. One stood open.

“What the fuck?” Jenny said. “Aren’t they zombie cages?”

Jimmy didn’t answer. He just walked into the open cage, and pulled the door closed behind him.

“Hey, man, what’s happening?”

“What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Sellout.”

Jimmy wasn’t listening.

He didn’t hear the zombie alarm as it started to wail.

He didn’t hear the cries of panic from his friends.

He didn’t hear the sounds of combat.

All Jimmy could hear was the sounds in his head: the cheering of his fans, the acclaim of his peers, and a pretty anchorwoman saying, “Let’s hear it for Jimmy Lister and his all-zombie band, Nerve Complaint!”

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Flash Fiction: The Unexplainable Photo

It’s a while since I’ve participated in one of Chuck Wendig’s Friday Flash Fiction challenges. Sorry. The challenge this week was to choose one of fifty unexplainable black and white photos and use it as inspiration for a 1000-word story. (My picture is below.) I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Oh, and make sure you pop over and read the other entries, too.

Solstice Magic

The kid was sucking on a cancer stick when he walked into the office. I stared at him for a bit, the way you do, and he stared right back at me. He couldn’t have been a day over nine.

“Those things’ll stunt your growth,” I said by way of greeting.

He gave me the bird. Then he sat himself up on the recliner. “I’m here to hire you.”

“Right,” I said. I opened the top drawer and dug around for a cigarette. I wouldn’t normally smoke in front of a kid, but he started it. “You’re the Winter boy, aren’t you?”

“My name is Colin,” he said. “Charles Winter is my father.”

“And is he paying for this… whatever it is? You lose a toy or something? Your dog run away from home?”

I’d been glared at by grown men who had nothing on this kid. He didn’t speak for a full minute. I lit my cigarette and puffed on it a few times while I waited.

Finally, he opened the bag he’d been carrying – plain white, just like the rest of his outfit – and took out a small bottle. “I can pay,” he said. “This doesn’t involve my father.” He stood up to reach the desk, and slid the bottle toward me.

“You’re paying me in bad booze?” I asked, amused.

“It’s good booze.” He dropped the butt of his cigarette in the ashtray on my desk, then climbed back on to the recliner. “And there’s this.”

He reached into his bag again and pulled out a handful of black fabric. I watched him unfold and spread it out until it took on a familiar shape.

“A hat?”

He nodded. “A silk hat.”

I raised my cig to my mouth and inhaled deeply while I considered the boy in white with the black hat in his lap. “And what do you want me to do for this…” I paused to glance at the label on the bottle. “…fine scotch whiskey and that tattered silk hat?”

“I want you to dig up a body.”

“What?”

“I want you to dig up a body,” Colin repeated. Calmly.

A host of questions sprang to mind. After a moment’s pause I went with a simple, “Why?”

“Do you read?” he asked.

“Do you?” I countered.

He reached into his bag a third time, and this time drew out a faded square of paper. A newspaper clipping. Without a word, he climbed down and placed it on the desk. Then he returned to his seat while I picked it up and scanned it.

Under the headline was a photo of children standing in a snow-covered field. “I remember this,” I said. “It was a couple of years ago. A group of rich kids said their snowman came to life and danced away.” I glanced at the boy. “You one of them?”

He nodded. “Yes. It really happened. The hat brought him to life.”

“The hat?”

“The hat.”

“That hat?”

He nodded, and lifted the black silk hat up for me to see. “This hat.”

I didn’t say anything, just finished my smoke.

“There’s magic in it,” he said. “It brought the snowman to life. It can bring other things to life. It can bring the dead back to life.”

“Right,” I said. “So you want me to dig up a body for you to experiment on. Is that it?” The kid was starting to give me the creeps.

“No,” said Colin. “I’ve already done the experiments.”

I licked my lips. “What do you mean?”

“The hat can bring things to life, but not all the time. It only works on the Winter Solstice.” He stared at me for a long moment. Waiting.  “Tonight,” he added.

“And you know this because…”

“I experimented,” he said again. I must not have looked convinced, because he kept talking. “There are a lot of dogs on my father’s property.” He smiled. “There used to be. I had to find out when the magic would work, so I killed one and tried the hat each day. When the body started to smell, I killed another one and started again. Last year, on the Winter Solstice, it brought the dog back to life.” He paused a moment, then looked me in the eyes and said, “I need the body tonight.”

He needed a body. I needed a drink.

I grabbed the bottle he’d put on the desk and said, “And in return, you’ll give me a bottle of whiskey?”

He shook his head. “No. You can have the booze anyway. If you help me, you get the hat. After I’m finished with it.”

“Won’t you need it?” I asked.

He shook his head. “No. Not after tonight.”

I opened the bottle and tipped a measure into my mouth. Colin was right. It was good stuff. “Whose body?”

“My mother’s,” he said.

And just like that, it all came back to me. Two and a half years ago, the police were called to a disturbance at the Winter house. By the time they got there, Mrs Winter was dead. There’d been suspicions of foul play, but it was eventually ruled an accident. Mr Winter was too rich to be a murder suspect.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll help you.”

And I did. I dug up his mother, and he put the hat on her head just as the town clock struck midnight.

That was a year ago. There’s no need to ask if it worked.

If it hadn’t, he wouldn’t have given me the hat. And you’d still be a corpse.

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Flash Fiction: That poor, poor protagonist

This is yet another Chuck Wendig-inspired flash fiction. The theme this time was ‘that poor, poor protagonist’, and the idea was to torture your protagonist mercilessly. In the first draft of this story, the protagonist died at the end. It was a bit too much of a downer for my sensibilities. So I hope you enjoy this not-quote-so-merciless version.

No Mercy

James opened the front door, a bouquet of roses in his hand. “Suzy,” he called. “I’m home.”

There was no answer. ”Suzy? Are you okay? Remember we’ve got dinner reservations tonight. How are you feeling?”

His wife was seven months pregnant, and her mood was impossible to predict. Sometimes she was thrilled to see him, but often she was distant and cold. James blamed the pregnancy hormones and did his best to give her the space she needed.

James carefully lay the roses on a table near the front door and flicked through the day’s mail. He picked up the envelope addressed to him, his name hand-written in red ink, and peered up the stairs again. “Gangleri summoned me today,” he called. “He promoted me. I answer directly to him, now.”

Still no answer.

 

“Hi, James.”

James whirled around, his heart pounding. He hadn’t closed the front door.

He was both relieved and angry to see his neighbour standing in the doorway. He was getting to be a regular visitor, and one James could do without. “Chet,” he said. “You scared me.”

Chet looked at him blankly. “Sorry. Nice flowers. Where’s Suzy?”

James frowned. “Upstairs,” he said. “Why?”

“No reason.”

James sighed. “What do you want, Chet?”

“Nothin’,” Chet said.

James looked at the flowers and then the stairs, hoping Chet would get the message. When he didn’t, James said, “Well, it’s been great to—”

“What’s that?” Chet asked, gesturing to the envelope in James’s hand.

“I don’t know,” James said. “A letter?”

Chet kept staring, so James ripped open the envelope and pulled out the sheet of paper inside.

I have your wife. Do not call the police. Meet me at the pier.

James didn’t hesitate. He grabbed his car keys and bolted out the door. Then something hit him across the back of the head, and all the stars of the Milky Way took up residence behind his eyelids.

#

Darkness. The smell of dirt and water and blood. Cold concrete. The back of his head felt like someone had attacked it with a hammer. He touched the area with his fingers. His hair was matted and sticky. Where the hell was he? What had happened?

The note. Suzy. He struggled to his feet.

A dim light flickered on overhead, revealing concrete walls and a dirty concrete floor. A figure stood at the edge of the darkness. “Going somewhere?”

James squinted. “Chet?”

Chet stepped into the light. “Surprised to see me?”

James shook his head and winced at the pain. “Not really. Where’s Suzy?”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about her,” Chet said. “She’s waiting upstairs. I’ll take care of her after I finish with you.”

James threw himself forward, fist flying.

He didn’t make it.

Pain shot through his body. The muscles of his neck and back froze and then convulsed. His heart pounded hard enough to burst. He fell to the ground, his body writhing as waves of fire flowed through his veins. And then stopped. The pain faded. The muscles around his neck relaxed, and a scream burst from his throat.

“Shut up,” Chet said from above him. A booted foot connected with his ribs. Something cracked. He screamed again. He tried to curl into a ball, but his body wouldn’t obey.

“You stupid, arrogant fuck. You think I’m dumb enough to let you hit me?” Chet’s boot lashed out again, this time connecting with James’s shoulder. “Try it again, and I’ll amp up the power on this baby,” he said, holding up a small control box. “Then we can see what a real shock does to you.”

James choked back a sob. “Why are you doing this?”

Chet stepped back. “Remember when I wanted to borrow your mower, but you said it was busted? Yeah, you lied. You were just too fuckin’ fancy to loan me your stuff.” He shrugged. “So I borrowed your wife instead. That baby? It’s mine.”

“You’re lying,” James groaned. But Suzy was so distant. And Chet was always nearby.

Chet laughed. “You know I’m not.”

James let his head rest against the cold concrete and closed his eyes. “What do you want?”

“What I want,” Chet said, “is Suzy. Stupid bitch knows it’s my baby, but doesn’t want to leave you. Something about love.” He kicked James again, this time in the back.

Pain. Sweet, agonising pain. Nothing else existed for a few seconds. When it faded, Chet was crouched next to him, looking him in the eye. “Because I like you, I’ll give you a choice. You can leave her, or I can kill you.”

He shook his head in denial. And then he remembered… He twisted and slid his hand into the coin pocket of his trousers. If he could just find—

“Looking for this?” Chet asked. He held up a silver coin emblazoned with a black raven. “Whatever it is, it’s not gonna help you.” He dropped the token and held up the remote control. “Make your choice.”

The token fell to the ground and landed on its edge. Then it started to spin.

James stared at it. He focused on the image of the Raven, the symbol of Gangleri, the High One, the Alfather, Odin. He thought about the man, the God, who had gifted him the token. And then he summoned the berserkergang.

The fury of battle washed over him. Laughter rang in his head. He rose and advanced on his captor. No mercy.

Chet held the small, black box like a talisman, his fingers pushing desperately at the buttons. But in the throes of berserkergang, James was immune to the touch of flame — even flame delivered by electric shock.

Chet was sobbing when James grabbed him by the throat.

He was silent when James released him.

The fury drained away. James fell to the floor. He needed to find Suzy. He needed to know the truth. And he would. But first, the raven’s wings fluttered and darkness pulled him into its embrace.

 

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