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Bite-Sized Stories

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Bite-Sized Stories

A Multi-Genre Flash Fiction Anthology

George Donnelly

Cheverer

Contents

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Science Fiction

1. I Shouldn’t Have Eaten the Space Crab

2. The Price

3. Raven 9

4. A Report To The Commissioner

5. No Rest for the Reannotated

6. Shutdown Triggers

7. Slamming On The Brakes

8. Problem Solving

9. Doubleplusunhate

Fantasy

1. The Silent Princess

2. Octopus

3. A Question of Blood

4. A Father’s Mercy

5. Dark Dealings

6. Death Or Eternity

7. Blood of Harrodarr

8. Hair of the Dog

9. Surge

10. The Weeds within the Rulership

11. The First Dragon Charmer

Horror

1. The Highwayman

2. 8N

3. Afternoon Tea And Tentacles

4. Echoes in the Ether

5. Tiny Trophies

6. All Clear

7. Aunt Ruby’s Jam Cake

8. Heartland Hike

9. The Infected

Mystery

1. FTS

2. Murder in the Neighborhood

Romance

1. The Bull Rider’s Proposal

Literary

1. The Poet in the Park

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Acknowledgments

About the Editor

Also by the Authors

Bite-Sized Stories

George Donnelly, Editor

***

Copyright 2016 George Donnelly

Shakespir Edition

***

Shakespir Edition, License Notes:

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com or your favorite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author. But, seriously, please share this book with your friends.

ISBN: 978-1-941939-10-9

From a creepypasta horror farm to a bullish love tale and from the bloody metal deck of the ESS Arclight to superhero octopus food trucks, you can transform your shortest stolen moments into utter delights with this diverse collection of 33 flash fiction stories.

Commuting to work? Grabbing a quick coffee? Each story tells a complete tale in but a few short minutes with the added promise of a lifelong introduction to new indie writers.

You never know, you might just find your next favorite author.

This collection, the first in the Flash Flood series, is a special selection of master works with a variety of genres and voices guaranteed to keep you engaged. Sign up now for future flash fiction anthologies themed for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, May the 4th and Independence Day.

I Shouldn’t Have Eaten the Space Crab © 2016 Phronk

The Price © 2016 Adan Ramie

Raven9 © 2016 George Donnelly (CC-BY-SA)

A Report To The Commissioner © 2016 Griffin Carmichael

No Rest for the Reannotated © 2016 George Saoulidis

Shutdown Triggers © 2016 K. D. McAdams

Slamming On The Brakes © 2016 Michael Barbato-Dunn

Problem Solving © 2016 Tom Germann

Doubleplusunhate © 2014 George Donnelly (CC-BY-SA)

The Silent Princess © 2014 Emily Martha Sorensen

Octopus © 2016 Karen Diem

A Question of Blood © 2016 Raquel Lyon

A Father’s Mercy © 2016 J.T. Williams

Dark Dealings, a Moonlight Dragon Series Flash Fic © 2016 Tricia Owens

Death Or Eternity © 2016 Lynda Belle

Blood of Harrodarr © 2016 J.T. Williams

Hair of the Dog © 2016 Connie B. Dowell

Surge © 2016 Brian Manning

The Weeds within the Rulership © 2016 Emily Martha Sorensen

The First Dragon Charmer © 2016 JC Kang

The Highwayman © 2016 Jessie Thomas

8N © 2016 Adam Hughes

Afternoon Tea And Tentacles © 2016 Griffin Carmichael

Echoes in the Ether © 2016 George Donnelly (CC-BY-SA)

Tiny Trophies © 2011 Adam Hughes

All Clear © 2016 Brian Manning

Aunt Ruby’s Jam Cake © 2016 Jaleta Clegg

Heartland Hike © 2014 Adam Hughes

The Infected © 2015 Marilyn Vix

FTS © 2016 J. David Core

Murder in the Neighborhood © 2015 Jamie Campbell

The Bull Rider’s Proposal aka The Longest Eight Seconds in The History of the World © 2016 Jennifer Lewis

The Poet in the Park © 2016 Andrew K. Lawston

***

Cover created and donated by Jes Richardson of Cover Bistro.

***

These are works of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the authors’ imaginations or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

***

All Rights Reserved, but please share this with a friend.

Copyright 2016 George Donnelly, Editor

Co-editors: Raquel Lyon & J. David Core

ISBN: 978-1-941939-10-9

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If you liked Bite-Sized Stories, you’ll LOVE Ghouls, Goblins and Zombies, the second book in the Flash Flood anthology series, due out October 17, 2016.

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Thank you for reading!

To the readers of indie authors, thank you!

Part I

Science Fiction

1

I Shouldn’t Have Eaten the Space Crab

Phronk – Bizarro Fiction

My uncle is real smart, and he always says it. He says, “You are what you eat.” I just ate a cheeseburger and I been on the front lawn mooin’ at the top of my lungs for an hour.

“Mooo!” I holler, and the fella across the street slams his window closed.

Maybe I oughta be more hush-hush. I munch on some grass and think about what could’ve caused this. The wife says gluten is genitally engineered by Monsanto so it fucks you up real good, but I never heard about it doing this. My uncle says all the bees are dying and nobody knows why, but I don’t feel like I’m dying. I just feel like I’m a cow since I ate that burger.

Maybe it was the space crab.

Was just the other night I found it near the creek. Money been tight, so I ain’t above grilling some roadkill on the BBQ, and I don’t see no difference between something that died by the road and something that died by the creek. Its shell looked shimmery when I found it, but as I dragged it home it got brown like the dirt path. When I hefted it on the BBQ, I swear it turned skin-pink when I picked it up, then it got a perfect grill pattern on top before I even flipped it.

As I cooked it, it stopped going all Karma Chameleon, so I figured it was my imagination. But the wife refused to eat it ‘cause she saw lights in the sky the night before, and the meat did taste real weird. So I called it my space crab. Maybe I shouldn’t have eaten it.

I swallow a mouthful of grass and go inside. The baby is howlin’, but the wife knows how to handle the fussy monster. Me, I get frustrated trying out every different baby formula until one of them shuts him up.

My reflection looks a bit green. From eating so much grass, I guess, though I also ain’t feeling all that good. Since the kid was born, I feel so old and tired. The wife screeches above the baby’s cries. “We need more formula. If you’re done hollerin’ can you go down ’n get some?”

I moo approval. But first I grab a slice of pizza from the fridge. Chicken and onions. Maybe it’ll settle my stomach.

I’m a chicken now. I’m flying across the land like them crazy birds do. The onions are having an effect on me too: my legs feel like roots, pressing deep down in the earth. Deep down, pushing on the gas pedal as I fly to the market.

A little turbulence. Gosh damn, was that a squirrel I just flittered on over? I’ll have to go back ’n shovel it up for the BBQ later. I remind myself to pick up some nuts at the store, too. I’ll need ‘em later if I’m gonna become a squirrel.

I stop at the hippy market instead of the usual deep discount grocery store. Here, there are more things to try out my newfound you-are-what-you-eat superpowers on, even though it’s expensive as shit. Plus, they got free samples!

A lady hands me a tiny paper cup full of broccoli salad. Almost immediately, I feel my face turn green, and the top of my head tingles with bumpiness.

“I’m a broccoli tree!” I say. The sample lady looks around like she forgot something. Still feeling the effects of the chicken, I flap my wings on over to the next free sample. “I’m a tree and I can fly,” I say.

“Oookay,” says an ugly teenager, who hands me a wad on a toothpick that she says is bacon-wrapped goat cheese. I eat it in one gulp.

“Heeehaaaw!” I scream. I guess that’s the sound a goat makes. My nose feels like it’s gettin’ big and squished flat, like a pig’s. From eating the bacon, see? Suddenly I can smell everything. The strongest smell is coming from the back of the fancy market.

I head back there to see what else I can eat. What else I can become. My stomach is grumblin’, probably because I’ve become part goat, and goats will eat anything. Then I see it, there in the fish section. This is what I’m going to go home and BBQ.

The checkout lady looks all nervously at me as I pay. Probably thinks I can’t afford it, which is true. I won’t be able to pay rent now. I wish I was smart like my uncle. He makes good money using that fast-thinkin’ brain of his. Being a tired adult with all these bills and responsibilities is so stupid.

Back at home, the wife is natterin’ something about baby formula, but I’m a starving little goat. Straight to the back yard BBQ I go, along with my catch: a slab wrapped in butcher’s paper labelled shark steak.

&“You’re looking great&!” he says to me. He says, “You been using some sort of skin cream? You look twenty years younger!” He actually sounds confused.

I giggle, and my voice comes out real high-pitched. “Just eating right,” I say.

He comes ‘round back and I show him my BBQ. My eyes are wide and bulging like I’m seeing everything for the first time. So I notice him sweating, looking around all nervous-like. His nose twitches as he sniffs the funny meat that’s on the grill. His mouth curves into a frown when he looks at the splotch of red across my chest. My stained, triangular teeth. The knife in my hand.

He’s figured out that something ain’t right. My uncle is real smart. I always wanted to be smart.

***

[&Phronk’s stories& involve things that don’t exist, things that might exist, and things that shouldn’t exist. He got a PhD in psychology after writing a dissertation about what makes horror films frightening. So yeah, he wrote the book on horror, and continues to write horrific things by cover of night. Phronk is also the creator of _]Putting Weird Things in Coffee[, which is a blog about putting weird things in coffee. He lives in London, Ontario, and has an unhealthy relationship with chocolate. Find his books and get on his mailing list at ForestCityPulp.com._]

2

The Price

Adan Ramie – Dystopian

The last year the river ran red with the blood of children, I was seven years old, fearless, and the child of a mother whose only concern was that we be seen, not heard. My mother saw children as little more than mouths to feed that only kept growing and multiplying; she was as glad to see us leave as she was to give birth to a child not breathing.

You can’t judge my mother too harshly, though, for she was alone in a world that saw her as a blight and us as her punishment. She was only a child when the ban started, with no way of knowing that the law would set the course of her life on a track without rails or handlebars.

Before she was aware of what was happening, she had been sold by my grandparents into the employ of a woman who promised to keep her safe: she would feed, clothe, house, and hide my child mother in exchange for help on her farm. My grandparents considered this a blessing, and in a way, it was.

After all, when the troopers came to take away my infant uncle, as per the ban, my grandmother fought with her claws and teeth. She was struck, or so the story is told, and my grandfather defended the honor of his wife. In the tussle, most of my family was killed. They left only my six-year-old uncle, who remembers hiding in his mother’s ripped open belly for warmth as a nightmare of a blizzard raged outside the doors the troopers kicked off their hinges.

“How do you remember something from so long ago?” I asked him once.

He looked at me like I had opened up my mouth and puked on him rather than ask a stupid question. “You don’t forget being the only one left alive in a house of six.”

My uncle died not long after his confession, but I kept his words with me like a comforting blanket. No matter what happened, my mother wouldn’t have to fight the troopers. She would hand over the new baby, dead or alive, like it was a carton of spoiled eggs. Then she would go on about her business and welcome in the next customer.

I knew my mother’s customers were men who engaged in practices that played fast and loose with the rules of the baby ban, as it was called, but it was her livelihood. It kept food on our table just as it had for years before she had been taken in by the woman known only as Venus.

Venus was a rebel. She hated the ban, hated the men who chose it over better options, and hated herself for playing into the system like a pawn. Venus drank hard, bought girls from all over the country, and ran her farm like a gentle but firm taskmaster. She was, my mother said, a wonderful woman with hair like wheat, eyes like copper, and a mouth that could as easily talk herself out of trouble as it could yell herself into it.

For her credit, she didn’t put my mother to work on the front lines until she was ten. For those first five years, she was a student. She changed sheets, ran baths, prepared appetizers, and helped Venus and the front line girls into and out of their clothes.

Their customers could look at my mother in her frock that hung low in the front but was cut high in the back, could slobber over her smooth, exposed skin, but were never permitted to touch her. Anyone who tried was shown the door by a couple of women who had graduated from the front line to what Venus called “taking out the trash.”

When it was time for my mother to move on to the front line, Venus guided her gently. She taught her the ways of seduction, how to give the most pleasure with the least touch, and how to keep herself calm while the customers plucked the innocence from her piece by piece.

My mother was strong. She saw the animal lust in the customers’ eyes as they watched her slip the bodices from the bodies of girls with glazed eyes and bruises dappling their flesh like spots on a banana, but when it was time for her to work, she consoled herself that she was relieving an older girl of her duty and leaving a spot open for a younger girl to be safe from the front line.

“Go out and play while I work,” my mother always told me when a man showed up on her doorstep with a wad of money and a lump in his pants.

She would guide his face to her body and away from those of my sister and I, and wave us off with her free hand. Our brother would already be at the river, throwing rocks at the bodies, trying to weigh them down so they would sink to the bottom. He hated seeing them. He knew that we were only safe from the same fate as long as our mother ran her business and satisfied those men whose wallets were lined by her toil and the toil of others who worked desperately to comply with the terms of the ban.

A woman is allowed only one child unless she is willing to pay the price for more. My mother paid the toll with her body so that we didn’t have to.

***

[&Adan Ramie is& the genre-stomping author of the _]Deviant Behaviors[ series, as well as dozens of horror, speculative, science fiction, LGBT, and romance stories. She lives in a small town in Texas not unlike Andy Griffith’s Mayberry with her crazy kids and amazing, supportive wife. Find her books and get on her mailing list at AdanRamie.com._]

3

Raven 9

George Donnelly – Science Fiction

Raven Number 9. My streets, my city, my prey. Mine. I alone defend it now. For the ancestors!

&“It was all black&!” Rona pushed herself against the wall behind a dusty, bannerless stairwell and sobbed.

“Relax.” Dane tapped his ear. “Wolf to Roundhouse. Come in.” He paused but no answer came back.

The deep guttural throom of the floating vehicle zoomed toward them.

Rona threw herself into Dane. “You said it would be in and out. You said—”

Dane pushed her back into the corner behind the stairwell and grimaced. He charged his weapon. “I’ll take care of it.”

&I bear& the mission of the ancestors. Will defend, destroy, wipe out. Do you approve, ancestors? Respond.

&After the noise stopped&, Rona peeked an eye out from behind the staircase. Dane’s body lay in the debris-strewn street like a flat tire, its legs folded back on themselves, its face a rubber mask of anguish, black tire treads running across the forehead and cheeks. Puddles of goo oozed from razed eye sockets. She recoiled deeper into her hiding place.

You’re gonna die here!

Her hands jittered. She stood up, her balance precarious, and walked the few steps to the edge of the darkening street. “You worthless heap of scrap! He was a good man! They all were. You’re evil! Bad! Wrong!“

&Raven9 requires guidance&. Destroyed invaders per orders. Told did wrong, was bad. Need instructions, confirmation. Ancestors?

&Rona looked around the corner&. The sleek black beast hung millimeters above the rubbly ground, still and silent. She stuck her arm out and waved. No response. Her heart fluttered.

You’re going to get yourself killed!

The short, busty scientist burst out of her hiding spot and ran towards the beta site. She tapped her chest. “Rona to Arclight. I need transport!”

Her chest rose and fell. Fetid dust permeated her mouth and desperate breath burned her throat.

A circular pool of air shimmered ahead of her. Her energy flagged, legs heavier, lungs aching. She urged her short limbs on.

The atmosphere rattled around her. Dust flew and the planet spun. All feeling lost, her mind struggled to assign meaning to the black four-legged thing entering the shimmering pool.

&Lights&. Too much. Hurt. No sky, hard cage. Not the ancestors. Hate me. Destroy them. Consume. Kill and destroy.

&Rona spit dust& from her mouth. She moved her knee to stand and a cacophony of pain erupted from all parts. The portal. My team. My God!

It sparkled not ten meters from her. She jerked her hand forward into a pile of powdery rubble. A shining disk reflected the light of Beta Persei into her eye and she flinched.

She crawled forward. The thick, heavy disk filled the palm of her hand. The beast, its four legs fully extended, its head upright and proud, occupied the center in relief. Squiggles surrounded it.

The dark giant of the binary system passed in front of its smaller blue brother. Night fell over the street, shadows reaching their misshapen arms to grasp her.

Rona bit into the pain, limped forward and threw herself through the portal.

&Done&, masters. Enemies dead. What’s this? Another? Again? Destroy. Con—

&The beast flew& at Rona from across the bridge, its deep throom vibrating, a solid, rectangular block of glowing pitch blackness.

Her teeth clacked. The sound seemed to come from inside her now.

Her palm faced outward at the dog, her fingers grasping the heavy disk.

The beast smoothed now. Curves emerged. A thin rectangle cropped up out of the front of its snaky torso. Four legs extended down and alighted on the bloody metal deck of the ESS Arclight.

A wave of nausea blew up inside of Rona and she crashed to the floor.

Master?

The words intruded on her mind. At rest. The thought popped into her awareness and she willed it at the beast.

Its legs retracted. The torso descended to the floor. The stick-like head remained attentive.

Rona grinned. She lifted the disk to her face. The beast’s head followed.

&Ancestors returned&! New master. Serve you. Yours. Love you, worship you. Do what you say. Only you. Forever. Beautiful. What now? What now? What now?

&Adventure coming&. Rona directed the thought at the prostrate beast.

Its torso rose slightly and its head quivered.

She stepped over Offner, the navigator. Dead, his neck ripped open and crushed. Blood still trickled from the gaping wound. She punched up the navigation charts, her back turned to the creature.

A chill breeze hit her from behind and she froze. Is this it? It glided past her and took up station again in front of her, waiting, guarding.

Is it living? Machine? Does it have feelings? Rona set those worries aside. Only one course now. She found the planet, programmed the Navcomp and engaged.

A shower of sparks erupted on the viewscreen, then the cloudless, empty brown surface of MZ458-C.

Rona glanced at the beast. Master. What now? Its words and frenetic emotions beat like a drum under her temples.

She opened a portal, the air shimmering behind the beast, a dry heat searing her eyes.

Go through. Check for enemies. Will follow. She willed the words to it. Her stomach throbbed and her hands shook.

The beast rose, its legs hit the floor and its head took a proud angle. Will protect Master. Love Master. Alone no more. It turned and jumped through the opening without hesitation.

Rona’s relief mixed with the creature’s transferred joy. She tapped the nav panel, then collapsed next to it.

&Raven9 analyzed the blue star&. It was hotter than the previous one. He adjusted his operating parameters to maintain a safe internal temperature.

Master? He sat and awaited her arrival. He had a good feeling about this one. He’d already proven his worth. She was different.

The shimmering circle closed, disappeared. Far above him, sparks exploded.

Master?

***

&George Donnelly is& the author of space opera, robot apocalypse and dystopian science fiction series. A rebel and unreformed idealist, he believes equally in human rights and abundant hugs before bedtime. Get a new free short story every month at GeorgeDonnelly.com.

4

A Report To The Commissioner

Griffin Carmichael – Science Fiction

The small interstellar scout craft arrived unnoticed at the system’s outer planet, and took up a standard close-observation position. The unexpectedly easy transition from hyperspace after the troubled journey led to much celebration. At last they had arrived!

The mission’s leader called the crew together for a meal, proudly wearing the tunic and badges that announced his new duties. He waved the rowdy crew to silence and stood up for a speech.

“My fellow—” He had to pound his digits on the table for a moment before anyone paid any attention to him. “Please, please. Attend to me, I have something to say.”

The noise finally settled to a dull rumble, accompanied by the slurping sounds of those who continued to eat, uninterested in what the mission leader had to say.

There are some on every mission.

Gradzingsk Oll tugged his tunic and patted himself smooth. This was his first official act as mission commander, due to the untimely transition of the former commander, which arrived unscheduled and somewhat unexpectedly. Good for Oll, of course, but a blot on the former commander’s record. It would be duly included in the report, of course.

“Now that we have safely arrived at our destination, despite everything the Universe has thrown in our way, we must make sure that all goes according to plan, without any further errors or delays.”

Several of the crew snorted, some nodded their heads in agreement, and the others continued to eat heartily. Only about two-thirds of the crew was present, due to several incidences of gender shift and the accompanying mating directive. Normally this sort of thing wouldn’t happen, all crew being carefully screened to prevent those close to their shift from being selected.

But there had been nothing approaching normal on this mission. Oll cringed as he recalled the first sign the voyage was going to be troubled. All communications had failed, followed shortly by issues with the FTL drive. All serving to delay the arrival at their target by several years. With no way to communicate, and no chance to return to home base, the first mission leader had ordered the ship to continue to their destination. Something could be salvaged from this mission, or he’d know the reason why, he’d screamed.

The first mission leader was now in hastily constructed family quarters, nursing a fine litter, which she was more than want to declare to any who would still listen.

Three mission leaders later, Gradzingsk Oll was the last qualified person to be promoted, and the sight of their destination shining brightly only a short distance away, relatively speaking, had brightened his mood. He hoped that the mission could be completed, and the ship turned towards home before any more crew shifted genders and began exhibiting the mating urge.

His hopes were dashed the morning after the celebratory meal. A crew member, in charge of the communications study of the designated planet, bowed and stumbled his way before Oll. Oll took one look at him and put both limbs out, digits trembling.

“Don’t say it. Don’t. I will not hear of another system failure, nor any rumors of gender shifting and unauthorized mating rituals.”

“But, Fine Sir, I simply must report this issue at once! It’s my duty, and on my life I will not fail to deliver my report.”

Oll groaned. “Stop the dramatics. I’d think we’d all had enough of those these last centuries.”

The crewman nodded. There had been quite a lot of dramatic and even hysterical behavior aboard the ship, and with half the crew out of sorts and whelping in every available corner, he wasn’t pleased to have to upset his commanding officer. But, duty must be performed, or shame taken on.

After a few minutes pretending to ignore the crewman, Oll knew he had to take the report, no matter how terrible it would be. He sighed deeply and motioned the crewman to come before him. The crewman dragged his lower limbs, flexible digits almost digging into the craft’s flooring in his reluctance to advance.

Now Oll was impatient to hear the report. “Stop delaying and just eject the words! I assure you, I can handle whatever it is you’ve found.”

The crewman swallowed, his lips pinched, nose slits narrowed. He had to force himself to stand straight and look directly at the mission leader.

“We’ve finally managed to retrieve and process the signals coming from the target planet, Fine Sir. But, we find ourselves at a loss to understand what’s happened. Perhaps we’ve arrived at the target too late, due to our unfortunate circumstances…”

“By the Seven Stones, man! Spit it out! Or you might wish having taken the gender shift with your creche mates.”

That only made it harder to get the report out, though the crewman admirably pushed it past his thin lips.

“The images we’ve seen are not what was supposed to be possible. When the first crews left this world, a humanoid species had begun to advance, and it was believed they would soon have a society built that was advanced enough to interact with.

“The society is certainly of a level we anticipated, but unless something dramatic happened during the species’ evolution, well— I can only explain it by theorizing that somehow another humanoid species leaped over the one we’d made contact with.”

Oll had been staring at the crewman, eyes even larger than normal. He was feeling an unpleasant tingling in his extremities, and there was a distinct ringing in his auditory system.

“Show me,” he ordered, his voice rising into a higher register.

What he saw on the captured broadcasts made him ill. It was all he could do to look at the lean, sharp features of the humanoids on his screen. Long, straight noses, pale skin, nearly hairless bodies. It wasn’t right at all. Where were the heavy jaws, the thick brow bones? The strong teeth, superior physiques?

Oh, this was terrible. Oll dropped his head into the hot embrace of his trembling digits. This mission had been a disaster since the ship left the home system. Whatever had happened during their journey, it bode ill for the entire crew.

The last clear thought he had as the gender shift took him was one of jubilation. He surrendered himself to the call of the mating urge as the other crew watched numbly.

At least I won’t have to write this report to the Commissioner!

***

[&Griffin Carmichael writes speculative fiction& — which includes science fiction, fantasy and horror — from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Southeastern United States. Various children, animals and species of plant life run rampant everywhere. Previously published work includes two short story collections, _]Zombie Town[ and ]Daily Life[, and a novella, ]Zombie Maneuvers[. Griffin has had stories published in two charity anthologies, as well as in ]Stories on the Go[, a collection of flash fiction by various authors. ]Zombie Maneuvers[ is also in the multi-author box set ]Apocalyptic Fears II[. Find his books and get on his mailing list at GriffinCarmichael.com._]

5

No Rest for the Reannotated

George Saoulidis – Science Fiction

Einstein flew in pure bliss. He was in a perfectly structured, three-dimensional grid of spacetime with neat lines and clear rules. Some of the heavier objects distorted this perfect structure, but it was all according to nice little equations that he liked.

Heck, he had even made up most of them.

And then the anomaly appeared.

“Oh no, not you again,” he sighed and flew away. The anomaly followed him despite his immense speed.

Einstein accelerated, going faster and faster until all he could see was compressed in a dot in front of him and then he accelerated some more, and he was squished and almost, almost broke the light barrier.

But the anomaly followed just behind him, as if she didn’t care of such frivolities.

“NO!” Einstein screamed and turned around to face it.

The anomaly pulsed, a quantum foam that distorted and formed and reflected light and became opaque and… “Your expertise is required, Reannotated One.”

Einstein waved away, “I don’t care. Leave me alone.“

“Please, esteemed thinker. The situation is dire. The Corlons have brought back the Turbicularity Engine with them and if they are not stopped—”

“Alright! Stop with the jabbering. I’m coming, but this time for 24 hours only,” Einstein muttered.

The anomaly fluttered and folded into itself. Einstein sighed and shut his eyes. He hated that part.

&Tesla opened& his eyes and choked on the primordial soup he had been born out of. He wiped the sludge off his face with disgust and stood up, naked. A metal man stood there, ready to wipe him down with a towel. Then he pointed to a neat tailored suit and underpants. Tesla moved to put them on, but the metal man stopped him. The suit melted into gray goo and slithered up his leg, covering his entire body and reforming into the fabric again.

Tesla shivered.

“The team is assembled Reannotated One,” the metal man said and escorted him to the main room.

It was a floating bubble in space, and it was a bubble because Tesla touched it with his hand and it rippled. “But how is this possible? Where does the inside pressure go?”

The room was already filled with people who were disagreeing on all matters.

A man came into the room and spoke with authority. Literally, he had the word ‘authority’ written with fiery letters over his head and everyone was suddenly unable to speak.

“Reannotated Ones! We have gathered you here, because humanity faces extinction. The Corlons are at the doorstep to our planets, a mere two million light years away.”

&Einstein was going red& with fury, struggling to speak but no sound came out. “Yes,” the Authority gave permission and waved his hand like a magician.

“This is preposterous! How could you possibly have obtained that information, since their relative timeframe is—”

“Yes yes. That is… elementary. No Sirs and Madam, we are not here to educate you on scientific advances. You are all here, for this,“ he said and light swirled in fractals in the middle of the room. In its center appeared what seemed to be a designer’s wet dream of an engine. It floated of course.

Tesla immediately went close and began tinkering with it. “This is madness. There is no energy supply coming in here. Madness.”

The Authority sighed. “Reannotated One, the energy it uses is taken from the Grid. Nevermind that. The problem is that unless we find out a way to disable it, humanity is gone.”

Einstein eyed the machine with interest, rubbing his chin. All the people huddled around it.

The Authority rushed the whole thing. “Come on people, brainstorm away. This is a safe place. No idea is too stupid. Spit it out as it comes.”

“What’s the object’s mass?” Einstein asked.

“Good question Reannotated One! Equivalent to five pulsar stars.“

“Impossible!” Einstein spat out.

The Authority sighed. “Next one, come on people, we only have two standard days to figure this out.”

Dyson scratched the surface. “How about entangling this one to the incoming one?”

“Grrreat idea, but unfortunately the shielding is 4 to the power of i dimensional.”

They all stared blankly.

“It won’t work.”

“How do you expect us to figure this out? Every time you people, you just bring us back and taunt us with these unfathomable contraptions, never explaining what they are and how they work!“ Tesla protested slapping the Turbicularity Engine duplicate. “Are you mocking us?”

The Authority sighed again. “No, I just need some people to brainstorm.“ He nodded furiously. “Come on, give me something.”

“Blast it with radiation,” Curie said.

“That’s your solution to everything, isn’t it? Unfortunately, base reality folds in a way that radiation ignores it completely.”

“Impossible!”

“Yeah, yeah, next!”

“Reverse the polarity!”

“What? Why are you even here? I didn’t ask for… Oh nevermind, at this point I’ll take anything. Come on, talk crazy to me.”

Einstein babbled to get the word out. “Um… Move the spacetime to one of the i dimensions you spoke of, those fancies.”

“Nah it— Hey wait! That’s good! That’s real good Reannotated One! We can just change the angle of muons only in this area of space, and then…” the Authority mumbled and whipped out a tiny version of him, who wrote down the ideas as he dictated.

The geniuses knew not to interrupt one who was having a Eureka moment. They may not be able to grasp the proposed solution, heck they may not even grasp the extent of the danger present. But they knew, you do not interrupt a mumbling genius.

“Yes! Yes! This is it,” The Authority said and danced around the geniuses.

“Yes, well, are we done here?” Einstein asked annoyed.

“Sure, you can go back to your deaths, whatever.”

&Einstein flew& in his perfect world. He understood that world. Hopefully, it would be millennia before someone tried to resurrect him again and enlist his aid in some preposterous science emergency. He pushed a planet in a nice, predictable orbit and smiled.

***

&George Saoulidis is& a writer and director. He enjoys taking ancient Greek myths and turning them into modern sci-fi spooky versions. He also likes to write romantic comedies, and people seem to go “Awww!“ over them, so why not? Find his books and get on his mailing list at MythographyStudios.com.

6

Shutdown Triggers

K. D. McAdams – Science Fiction

“Mom’s gonna send me away forever.” Every optic aid Garrit Lewis ever knew — colors, textures, readouts and menus — disappeared in a blink.

His body trembled as he closed the book and found its place on the shelf. Nervous fingers brushed the dust around to make it look like he had just been flowing with a memory load. “Mom!”

A tear ran down his cheek.

“Mom!” He screamed again, realizing it was barely audible. Auditory tech was out too.

People told horror stories about kids throwing their tech. Without it, he couldn’t function in this world. Hospitals in the countryside were more like prisons — but absolutely necessary to keep the incompatible from harming themselves over what they’d lost. Was his tech really gone?

No. He hoped his mother would reassure him. Every year the number of people who rejected their tech decreased. The majority of incidents were easily correlated to physical events. A bumped head, a fall down the stairs, or a feat of daring gone wrong — these explained away all but the rarest cases of rejection.

“Mom!” he screamed louder. This time it registered and even hurt his ears a little.

Unsteady, Garrit got to his feet and surveyed the room.

Where was the Renoir? Why were the windows painted over with grey? These walls were bland and colorless. Maybe he was already at the hospital?

“Mom!” He carefully walked to the door, tears flowing.

The layout of the house was a mystery. His proximity sensors always directed him to his mother or father using the best route. Why wasn’t someone coming to help him?

At the foot of a stairway he paused. What was the rise of each step? How was he supposed to know how high to lift his foot and where to place it for maximum safety?

In his mind, Garrit looked up and to the left where the home menu icon normally lived. Maybe he could restart the tech on his own? Even if he could only run diagnostics, it would show the docents that he was functioning and worth troubleshooting.

Nothing.

Gripping the railing with all of his might, he exaggerated the lift of his leg. He placed his foot gently on the first step and pulled his weight up. His muscles responded well. He’d climbed these stairs almost every day since he learned to walk. But, without his readouts, it was like he was living the high-wire memory load he’d found a few months ago.

Sweat beaded on his forehead at the top of the stairs. He faced three doors. A dream, like a memory of walking straight ahead and finding his mother, came to him.

Shuffling forward, he opened the door and called out again, “Mom!”

From a large, contoured recliner in the corner of the otherwise empty room his mother turned to him and her mouth moved.

“Mom, why are you whispering, I can’t hear you, my—” Garrit stopped.

What was he going to tell her? That he had been looking at a book? A real, physical book and then he blinked and his tech was gone? Everyone already thought he was strange. This would only make it worse.

His mother rose from her chair and approached him. Her mouth moved again but he still could not hear her. She paused to blink and started over.

“Why are you screaming? My location beacon is active and I opened a direct channel for audio communication.” Her voice floated just above a whisper.

“My tech crashed.” His voice trembled.

Another blink and his mother spoke again.

“What menus do you have?” Her volume finally approached normal.

“None. No readouts, no memory loads, and no menus.” He sobbed.

“I’ll find a docent. What were you doing when it failed?” Her eyes closed.

Garrit hoped there was a local docent with reboot authority.

“Nothing. I was downstairs with a tropical island memory load, it might have been a beta, but I thought I checked before approving the install.” Relying on his biological memory to piece together events was hard work. In addition to being jumbled and confused, it was imprecise.

“Alexa is on her way.” She opened her eyes again. “You’re sure you didn’t hit your head? Maybe there was an olfactory component you still haven’t programmed and it caused you to sneeze violently?”

“I don’t know, Mom.” The young man slumped to the floor. “What’s going to happen if she can’t help me reboot?”

“I assume they will try the debugging process.” She patted her son once on the head and then closed her eyes.

After several minutes of silence, the door opened.

“I’m Alexa.” Garrit read her lips.

Several seconds, maybe even a minute, passed in silence. Based on the movement of her mouth, he assumed Alexa was communicating with his mother.

A large plastic ring emerged from the messenger bag at Alexa’s side. She undid a hidden clasp and opened it while she stepped towards Garrit. When the dark plastic approached his eyes, he could see a display screen on the inside.

“I’m going to fasten this around your head,” she spoke audibly. “Please do your best to keep your eyes open and follow the instructions on the screen.”

Several strange images flashed in front of his eyes, but he did not blink.

“BLINK ONCE.” Large white letters on a black background filled the screen and he followed the instructions.

“Read your system messages. Focus on the one word from that file.” The instructions on the screen were still in white text and there were three words below them: “FATAL DEBUG REBOOT.”

His system messages file was there! It contained a single file with a single word: “REBOOT.”

Garrit Lewis focused on the word REBOOT.

“BLINK ONCE.” The large white letters were back.

He complied and when his eyes opened all his readouts were back.

“How’s that? Better?” Alexa asked as she removed the ring from his head.

“YES!” He looked around the well-appointed office he was used to. “But what happened?”

“I don’t know. I can look through your logs, but it looks like your tech just shut down: no failures or errors. It’s rare but not unheard of. If I were you I’d skip the tropical memory loads for a while though.” Alexa smiled and turned to leave.

“Thank you.” Fiona called after her.

Garrit blinked and composed a quick message of thanks that included gratitude emojis. It was sent and delivered before Alexa was down the stairs.

“I have to go back to work. Lay off the tropics for a while?” His mother patted him on the head and went back to her lounger.

“And books,” he thought to himself.

***

[&K. D. McAdams& writes sci-fi, dystopian, and thriller novels out of his home in New Hampshire. His first series, _]The Seamus Chronicles[, follows a teen genius from the dawn of the apocalypse through colonizing a distant planet. Other series include the ]Dylan Cold[ thrillers and the ]Metropolitan Zombie Survivors[. With characters who struggle to choose between what they have been taught and what comes naturally, K. D.’s stories are page turners that will make you think. K. D. McAdams works can be found on all major ebook platforms with select titles also available in print. When not writing, revising or reading a book he can be found tending the chickens, working in the yard or providing taxi services for his three children. Find his books and get on his mailing list at KD-McAdams.com._]

7

Slamming On The Brakes

Michael Barbato-Dunn – Science Fiction

When the aliens abducted him, Josh Brenningham had been just a few days shy of his 16th birthday. More importantly, he was just a few days shy of getting his learner’s permit.

Of course he missed his parents and (to a degree) his snippy younger sister, Marna. He yearned even more for his closest friends, Todd and Justin, and the nasty but hilarious text messages they’d exchange. He longed to play his main and five or six alts on World of Warcraft. And to see the fleeting, surreptitious glances from Celeste in his physics class.

But nothing pained him quite so much as not having the chance to learn to drive. He’d imagined it since he was five, bashing into friends in go-carts at the St. Lucius summer carnival. At first, racecar drivers fascinated him. Eventually, though, Josh’s daydreams were more of the ordinary sort: upright at the wheel of his father’s SUV, steering in and out of slower cars, running through yellows and the occasional red. He saw himself heading to the mall and to Scoop’s for ice cream. Better yet, to school in the morning — friends stepping off buses would watch in envy as he pulled into the lot. He pictured himself taking Celeste to an after-party in Farmington Woods, accelerating over Halston Road late at night, gliding through its sharp curves and steep inclines, then slamming on the brakes when they arrived.

Now, three years after Josh was snatched away (perhaps it was thirty; the space-time continuum perplexed him), his disappointment was tempered by the irony that he was traveling infinitely faster, and far greater distances, by piloting the sturdy shuttle he’d stolen from his captors.

To call this “driving” was perhaps a stretch. There was no steering wheel, and the controls in the cockpit made little sense. Yet the auto-navigator readily comprehended his language and responded precisely to his commands, and Josh thrilled in ordering the craft to swoosh and swoop and glide from system to system. The array of screens that surrounded him mimicked a front windshield, and the stars passed by in thin white bursts. When Josh entered a star system, the shuttle slowed to sub-light, but even then the planets passed in an eye-blink. Fast. Very fast.

Yes, this was so much more than mere driving: he was at once a starfarer, an explorer, a commander. The first human to traverse the galaxy.

And all without a learner’s permit.

&The aliens were& broad-shouldered with gray, wrinkled skin and tufts of white hair on pointed chins. Their pink eyes were masked by looping lids. Narrow hips and tiny sticks of legs framed the inverted triangles of their bodies. At night they sang screeching ballads and drank thick vials of an orange-red liquid that made them intoxicated. They smelled wretched.

Clearly, they were not scientists. Josh had faced no examinations, no poking or prodding, nor had he been confined to a room or cell. He reasoned they were traders or pirates, and that their sole reason for abducting him was profit. He called them Click-Clacks, a name that captured the odd sounds of their staccato speech.

Whatever their intent, the aliens treated Josh as a curious animal, as humans might treat a newly discovered breed of dog. They allowed him the run of the dim, dank ship, and they would cackle uproariously as he darted throughout the corridors and cabins. He was, it seemed, simply an object of intense amusement.

Josh worked hard to perpetuate the clownish impression, all the while studying the ship and its workings. Early on he had found the shuttle bay unlocked, and none of the Click-Clacks seemed aware of how much time he spent in that chamber. Or that he was devising a plan.

Then one night, as his captors slept off their drunkenness, Josh escaped into the silence of deep space.

&He slumped back& in one of the awkward cockpit seats and closed his eyes. His departure had been weeks ago (or years — he couldn’t be sure; space-time, and all that) and he fought exhaustion. Steady beeping from the center array of controls signaled his arrival in yet another star system.

He had traveled through hundreds since fleeing his captors, usually three in a single day-night cycle. He kept track by scratching marks in the cockpit wall with a wrench-like device he’d found in the cabin. The lines covered an entire bulkhead panel.

The auto-navigator began what was now its regular routine: a swing by the first planet, close enough to the star to scoop an abundance of plasma fuel, then outward at a steady clip past the second planet and toward the true goal — the third.

“Faster,” he commanded. He needed to rest and to eat another bowl of the Click-Clack’s sickly paste-gruel, so he had little desire to inspect this system at a measured pace. And he had little desire to bear another round of disappointment.

In moments Planet B appeared, a brown-red dot on the center screen that quickly shot off the far edge of the right monitor. Josh cursed his own impatience. He should slow down the craft. He should take his time. He should—

Planet C was suddenly upon him. Josh leaned forward and squinted. A smudge of blue-green with swirling patches of white, blurry as the stars themselves. Then it was past him, off the edge of the left monitor, gone from view.

It didn’t matter. He didn’t need to order a replay of the fly-by. He knew.

Home.

And in that instant — not with his foot on a pedal, but with a plaintive command shouted to an alien circuit board — Josh Brenningham slammed on the brakes.

***

[&Michael Barbato-Dunn& worked for many years as a City Hall reporter for an all-news radio station. His passions include fantasy baseball and science fiction, and he managed to combine both in his first novel, _]Lord Bart and the Leagues of SIP and ALE[. He lives with his wife and daughter in Philadelphia. Find his books and get on his mailing list at MichaelBarbatoDunn.com._]

8

Problem Solving

Tom Germann – Science Fiction

The cab pulled up outside the Glentol Corporation office building. The huge G at the top shined like a beacon in the night letting everyone know, ‘We are here!’

The night was cooler and the exhaust left a cloud behind the vehicle as the fare paid the driver with cash. She opened her door and stepped out carefully, closing the door behind her. She paused, making minute adjustments to her clothes before she strode toward the foyer of the building.

The front desk security was well paid and professional. They were usually ex-military or had international service in hotspots around the world. The Glentol Corporation expected trouble. The largest corporation in the world could expect nothing less.

The two fit men in their early thirties looked up from the desk as the door opened. They maintained their fixed professional expressions while they evaluated the attractive young woman walking toward them.

Both men saw the same thing: a very attractive, fit young woman that clearly exercised and was likely all natural. Their estimate continued. She stood approximately five foot nine, with long raven black hair that was pulled back in a ponytail. She was wearing a fedora, which was becoming a fashion statement with women. Not a lot of makeup, but ruby red lipstick on a fashionably pale face. Her glittering red top was tiny, revealing well-developed abs and cleavage pushed up by a matching red bra. Over that was a black metallic mesh vest.

Her grey eyes were striking.

Her short black skirt was longer than was fashionable, as it went halfway to her knees; the black stockings accentuated the muscles in her legs. She wore a heeled shoe that was less than two inches in height.

Both men thought the same thing: well dressed, classy, young, and all natural. Not a working girl. The next thought that went through their minds was that some high-ranking executive was very lucky.

The first security guard put his professional smile on when she walked up to the desk. “Good evening, miss. May we be of assistance?”

She smiled self-confidently. “Good evening, gentlemen, my name is Theresa O’Leary. I’m here to see Mr. Michael Smythe.”

The guard picked up an old-style telephone with a cord attached to it and pushed a sequence of buttons. After a second he spoke. “Good evening, sir, there is a Miss O’Leary here to see you… Yes sir, we’ll send her right up.”

The guard returned the phone to its cradle and smiled at the woman. “He’s in his office. The elevator will take you right there, miss.”

She stepped through the security gate slowly and looked inquiringly at the guards. The one that had spoken to her smiled encouragingly. “It’s all right, miss, you’re cleared to go up.”

She smiled as she continued more confidently to the elevator, which opened as she walked up to it.

The door sealed silently; the ride up was quiet. The door opened onto a large foyer. There were double doors across the room and one was open. The lights were on.

Terry walked toward the door and Michael Smythe met her there.

He was a tall, formidable-looking man with dark hair and a strong face. “My dear, I am so sorry that you had to come here instead of meeting me at the restaurant. I could have dinner delivered? Perhaps some business and pleasure together?”

He stepped back and let her enter, closing the door after her.

She turned to him and smiled; it was obvious that Smythe was ogling her and had only one thing on his mind. But that wasn’t how this game was to be played.

She struck a pose that stressed her cleavage and sighed deeply. The man couldn’t take his eyes off of her. Of course he knew that a man in his position should have a mistress.

“Now Michael, you promised me a nice dinner, not some take-out from the corporate canteen. Why don’t you wrap up your work?” She noticed a small bar to the side of the room. “You finish up and I’ll whip up a small drink. Something to help break the ice?”

Smythe frowned for an instant and then banished his show of displeasure. “Of course, my dear, I apologise. Just let me send this message and then we can go for that dinner and possibly dancing after? I would love a Scotch.”

He walked back over to his desk, while Terry stood and assembled the two drinks.

She walked behind the desk and placed Smythe’s drink in easy reach, then looked at the message that he was just sending off. She leaned forward, pressing the side of her breast against his head.

“Oh, goodie! You’re done! Now we can just finish off these drinks and go out. It could be a late night depending where we end up.”

He grabbed his drink and threw it back.

She took the glass as he slumped to the side. A mess wouldn’t fit what the investigator’s would be looking for.

She calmly took off her mesh top and, with a few snaps, turned it into a very long wire cord. She quickly worked up the noose and found the structural connector in the lowered ceiling. She had the entire arrangement assembled in seconds.

All while Smythe was slumped over in his chair watching her with desperate eyes.

She wheeled him under the spot and put the noose around his neck. Then she carefully lifted him up.

She was much stronger than she looked and it only took her seconds to lift him well off the floor. She left him hanging there and kicked his office chair over onto its back.

There, all done! she thought.

It would take some time, but the end result was the same. He may have lasted as long as five minutes but the agent that she had used would shorten that up.

She walked over to the bar and put her empty glass down. She had never prepared herself a drink.

Suicide for one meant no witnesses.

She turned and looked at him hanging there.

“Mr. Smythe, I just wanted to let you know that there are a great number of people here on Earth who have long memories and quite dislike traitors. Especially traitors to humanity. From them to you, have a miserable death and afterlife.”

The woman walked to the door, adjusting her clothes as she went. She checked herself in the mirror behind the door. She adjusted the fedora — there! Perfect, she thought. It was so important to look good. People always judged you on appearances.

She could see Smythe swinging by the neck. It would take a bit longer before he passed. It had been difficult to tie the knot so that it looked like an amateur did it. But she had managed it. Appearance was everything.

She didn’t turn back, but sighed and looked at the man’s face in the mirror. “Really, Smythe, you should never have blocked out the AI. It would have been harder to hide what you did, but then I couldn’t have done this here.”

She frowned as she opened the door and walked out without looking back.

Pressing the elevator call button, Terry sniffled as if she was upset.

Then she glared at the communications screen. “I hope not all of your senior personnel are so selfish and sexist!”

The elevator door ‘pinged!’ open and she entered. She pressed the ‘close’ button and then swiped a small fob across a reader on the panel. She pressed the button for the basement garage. She sniffed several times on the way down.

Exiting the elevator, she entered a waiting vehicle. As soon as she had closed her door the vehicle pulled away and slowly drove out of the garage and into the night.

The vehicle left without notice.

The next day on a plane heading to Europe, the attractive young lady had just come back from the washroom to her luxurious seat in business class. She had just adjusted her short blonde hair, touching up her lipstick and putting drops in her eyes. Her dark blue eyes had been irritated by the coloured contacts.

She smiled politely at the steward who delivered her fruit juice and then pulled out her pad to review the day’s news.

She skipped over the article on a manager’s suicide and instead settled on an announcement by the Glentol Corporation that they were expanding the project on the planet Ipswith. Her smile widened when she read the final line: “This may well be Earth’s first true extra-solar colony one day.”

***

&Tom Germann is a dad&, husband, reservist, realtor, and author. Life is busy. Stay positive and enjoy! Find his books and get on his mailing list at tgermann-sf-guy.com.

9

Doubleplusunhate

George Donnelly – Science Fiction

“I love you, Dad.”

Marshal turned from his portscreen and looked at the boy. Unspeak. The rigid seat back pushed the thin slice of metal into his buttock. He pulled himself up from a slouch and looked back to his portscreen.

The boy climbed onto Marshal’s lap. He knocked the portscreen from Marshal’s hands and it clattered to the bare cement floor. Anger rose within him. “Doubleplusungood!”

The boy stared up at Marshal. His smile was wide and mischievous. Marshal studied his face. The deep blue eyes, the round face, the wide smile— Liker. Like… me.

Marshal jerked his head back as the realization struck him. “Doubleplusunhate. Doubleplusunhate Jak.” He grabbed the boy and hugged him tight. Jak wrapped his thin sticks of arms around his father’s neck. A jumble of emotions stirred in Marshal’s gut but one word percolated to the top: defense.

&“Jak forgetted goodpharm morewise&. Ungood!” The woman smacked the back of her hand across Jak’s face. Behind them was a gray wall. A small window provided limited access to the steel city behind them. The buildings followed one another in silence, none reaching higher than the other.

Jake’s face turned red. He tilted his head to one side and swallowed. He looked at Marshal. Marshal sat against the wall at the tiny kitchen table. He faced the window but kept his eyes to his portscreen.

“Hate!” yelled Jak. “Hate! Doubleplushate! Goodpharm ungood. Kill me, inner me. No! No morewise.” He turned to his father. “Dad. Tell her.”

His mother grabbed the boy by the shoulders and twisted him until he stood with his back to her. She pushed him towards the door. “Learnplace unlater, Jak! Go!”

“Dad,” said Jak. His face fell and the beginnings of a frown formed around his mouth and eyes.

His mother glanced at Marshal. Her eyes were red and swollen. Her hands shook. She cleared her throat, grabbed Jak’s bag from the floor and jammed it into his chest. She pushed him and he fell to the ground.

“Dad, please.” Jak looked up at him from the floor. Water welled up and over his eyelids.

Marshal sighed. He put down the portscreen. The memory flashed in his mind. Jak’s eyes. Unhateful. Knowwantingful. Unfrowning. Goodpharm ungave it. Goodpharm unlived Jak’s… Marshal searched for the word. He imagined a ball of swirling, cereal-colored light inside of Jak. Soul. The Oldspeak came to him. His eyes darted from side to side and his forehead broke out in a sweat.

“Hate uncontrolled Jak! Hate Oldspeak!” yelled Jak’s mother. She looked at Marshal. Her face was taut. She raised her chin and sneered. “Marshal crimethink.” She nodded to herself. “Marshal unperson. Ownlife ungood. Oldspeak forbidded.” She arched an eyebrow and took a step towards the door.

Time stopped for Marshal. He planned this day. He didn’t want it but he expected it. He loved Johness. She once had Jak’s same smile. But he loved Jak more. Why did I have to teach Jak Oldspeak? The feeling of the archaic language in his mind shocked him but he knew the answer.

“Joycamp fixwill Jak,” said Johness. “Fixwill.” She laid her hand on the doorknob.

Marshal stood up and threw his portscreen at the wall next to Johness. He was behind her. Marshal pulled the hunk of pointed metal from his back pocket and pushed it into the side of her neck. He stepped away from her and she fell backwards to the floor. Crimson liquid pooled on the gray floor next to her wriggling body.

Marshal thought back five years ago to when he first encountered the Oldpseak book in the domicile of a prole unperson. “Dictionary,” it said in silver letters against a navy blue cover. The sharp, dry pages of forgotten words stirred an unexpected need in him. He steeled his resolve. Doubleplushate crimethink ungood. Ownlife. An ugly word. He translated it into Oldspeak. My own life. Jak’s own life. He took in a rapid breath as the image of a tree sparked in his mind.

“We go.” He pulled the boy up from the floor.

Jak’s chest convulsed. “Mom,” he whispered. Her body was still. He leaned down and caressed her cheek. “I love you.”

A man scowled at them in the doorway. Jak startled and the man saw Johness’s body. His eyes went big and he took a step back.

Marshal kneeled down next to his wife’s dead body. He extracted the makeshift knife. He ran to the door and forced the shiny metal deep into the man’s chest. The man fell back into the corner and stared at the floor. Marshal reached for Jak’s hand.

Jak took a step back. His mouth hung open and he shook his head.

Marshal grabbed Jak’s upper arm and looked him in the eye. “Freedom, Jak. Freedom! Forest. New life. Unforget!”

&“Slowful walk&. Unfacecrime. Inair.” Marshal smoothed out the wrinkles in Jak’s shirt and pushed his hair to one side. “Untense.” The sidewalk was crowded.

Jak nodded and let his breath out fast. His pace accelerated.

“Slowful.” Marshal scrunched up his face then let the muscles fall. Freedom. He stared straight ahead and made for the movestop in lockstep with Jak.

At the movestop, a group gathered. People and transports streamed in all directions. Crowds gathered for the quick morning ration in a sprawling square cornerwise from him. Big Brother’s cartoonish visage streamed from building to building in a digital display of omnipresence. People dressed in white, silver, tan and sky blue laid eyes on him. Facecrime! He raged at himself for his lapse.

The white transport eased to a stop in front of them. The doors slid open. Marshal redoubled his grip on Jak’s small hand. His heart leapt with joy and he struggled to contain his ungood emotion.

“Killer!” The ragged voice came from behind him. “Unproceed killer Marshal.”

Marshal froze. Jak’s grip tightened and trembled. Marshal sneered at his own incompetence.

“Killer unproceed. Thinkpol come,” said the neighbor. The giant screens on the buildings changed. Big Brother’s face appeared larger now. His eyes raged and a giant finger pointed down at Marshal.

The crowd formed into lines and moved away from the pair. The square fell silent. Passengers filed out of the back door of the transport. The front doors closed mere centimeters from Marshal’s nose.

“Dad. I love you.”

Marshal didn’t want to look down at his boy but he steeled himself. His heart crushed. Gravity pulled hard at the boy’s eyes and mouth. I doed crimethink. I doed … did this. He imagined the boy in joycamp.

No. The thought catalyzed a chain reaction of decision within him. Marshal whipped around and shook a finger at his accuser. “Oldthinker!” he yelled. He narrowed his eyes and strode towards the older man. “Blackwhite ungoodpharm oldthinker bewill unperson!”

The man staggered back, his eyes wide. “No,” he whispered. “Doubleplusgood duckspeaker. Ingsoc bellyfeel.”

Marshal turned and ran down the block. They turned left, ran down another block and the crowds were there again. They boarded a transport and stared straight ahead. Marshal rubbed his thumb into the palm of Jak’s hand. Bewill good. Bewill good.

***

&George Donnelly is& the author of space opera, robot apocalypse and dystopian science fiction series. A rebel and unreformed idealist, he believes equally in human rights and abundant hugs before bedtime. Get a new free short story every month at GeorgeDonnelly.com.

Part II

Fantasy

1

The Silent Princess

Emily Martha Sorensen – Comedic Fantasy

Selenna stood on her tiptoes, staring with anguish down into the moat. She hadn’t meant to toss her golden ball down there. It was a family heirloom. What was she going to do?

A bubble of slime burst from the water, and a frog sprang up. It gestured wildly at the bottom of the moat.

Selenna squinted, trying to figure out what it was doing. Was it saying it could get the ball for her? Hopefully, she nodded.

The frog plopped down into the wet, stinky hole. She watched with baited breath. A moment later, it reappeared, clutching her golden ball in its slippery hands.

Hurray! Selenna beamed and grabbed it. Then she fled back to the castle.

&Only two hours later&, Selenna was savoring dinner when she saw her father jump, as if startled. A footman kicked the door open and carried that frog in.

Selenna smiled and waved. The frog turned its back and hopped over to her father. There were several long minutes of waved arms and mouth movements. Bored, Selenna helped herself to an extra roll from the platter and spread jelly on it.

She stopped when she felt her father’s hand on hers. She looked up. He slid a piece of paper over to her.

Did you make this frog promises you didn’t keep? it said.

Selenna stared at that in bafflement. Promises? What was he talking about?

No, she wrote, confused.

The king scratched his beard, looking uncertain. Then he wrote, The frog is claiming you promised to love him, and let him eat from your plate, and let him sleep in your bed. Did you?

NO! she wrote indignantly.

The king rubbed his forehead. He went back over to the frog. Their mouths moved for a long time, and their arms were waving back and forth. Selenna squinted, trying to figure out what the problem was.

Her father stomped back, and slid another piece of paper at her.

The frog claims you made the bargain with him. He is calling on the ancient laws of hospitality. He claims it does not matter if you did not understand. I think we have to do what he says.

Selenna’s mouth opened in indignation. She glared at him. She grabbed the first paper he’d written on, and jabbed eat from your plate and sleep in your bed over and over again, shaking her head vehemently.

The king looked weary. He took his second note and underlined the ancient laws of hospitality and have to do what he says.

Selenna glared in fury.

&The frog was revolting&. It left slime all over everything it touched, and she kept finding bits of fly in her jam and potatoes. At last, Selenna resorted to skipping dinner, resolving to wake up early and sneak a huge breakfast alone.

Letting it sleep in her bed was even worse. When she woke up, the creature had left damp slime all over her pillow. Furious, she scrubbed her hair for two hours in the bathtub. Some things were more important than breakfast.

When she came out, the frog leapt in the air and attached itself to her face. That was the last straw! She wrenched it off her chin and flung it at the wall in fury.

As soon as it hit the wall, the frog transformed into a human man. Selenna blinked, confused and rather frightened. What in the world…?

The man waved his arms and moved his mouth, taking a deep bow in an extremely pompous way. Selenna grabbed her pillow and threw it right in his face.

It knocked him over. He fell down and rubbed his head. He glared at her, then hunted around for a piece of paper. He found a pile by the door, retrieved the quill, and scribbled something on the top piece. Then he tossed it to her.

Keeping one eye on the suspicious individual, Selenna read it.

I’m a prince, it said. A cruel fairy enchanted me. By fulfilling the terms of the bargain, you set me free. But you also have to love me, or I’ll revert to a frog again. Will you consent to marry me?

Selenna read this note, then reread it. She stared at it incredulously. Then she snatched the quill and wrote on the other side.

If you wanted me to love you, you should have acted with manners. Of course not! Are you out of your mind?

She shoved it in his face until he’d read it. His eyes widened with horror as his skin began to melt. A moment later, he was a slimy frog again.

Selenna picked it up by the leg and dropped it out the window, into the moat.

***

[&Emily Martha Sorensen& is the author of The Keeper and the Rulership, _]Black Magic Academy[, the ]Fairy Senses[ series, and the ]Dragon Eggs[ series. She also draws a webcomic named ]To Prevent World Peace[. She writes clean fantasy for all age levels, from young adults to children to adults. Her work is noblebright (the opposite of grimdark), optimistic, and often funny. Find her books and get on her mailing list at EmilyMarthaSorensen.com._]

2

Octopus

Karen Diem – Superhero Urban Fantasy

After a grueling twelve-hour day translating tax documents without a lunch break, all Zita Garcia really wanted was some fucking char-grilled octopus. With sides, baklava, and extra sauce.

As she hustled toward the plaza where the food trucks parked, Zita didn’t care that the record-breaking high temperatures, looming rain clouds, and incipient sunset left the streets darker and emptier than usual. More important than the unpleasant weather or the risk of missing her bus was the fact that the food truck would leave in fifteen minutes. Judicious trespassing cut a block off her journey and let her emerge from a thick clump of bushes near her favorite vehicle’s usual spot in the shade of some lovely old oaks. After all, the food truck needed her help; they had an excess of octopus that was calling her name, or waving tentacles in her direction, one of the two.

Confident dinner was near, Zita extricated herself from the shrubbery, brushing leaf bits out of her short, uneven hair. She stopped and gawked. Happy seafood thoughts fled, much to her stomach’s dismay. “Carajo!”

The Greek food truck was literally waving at her. A horde of tiny octopuses climbed over the truck, flailing minuscule arms and clicking their beaks. They seemed more like swarming ants than not. Larger octopus arms, six feet long, snaked out of the open door and window. Oddly, none of the octopuses had shadows.

Besides Zita, four people remained in the plaza. The familiar rounded forms of Eleni and her brother Giorgio, both still in hair nets and aprons, huddled together not far from their vehicle. He gripped a massive metal spatula in one fist and wore a spooked expression. His sister hugged a big plastic bottle of a yellow liquid as if restraining herself from killing someone. Her dark eyes glared at a gaunt stranger — a man gesturing manically with a knife and laughing. A skeletal woman in a faded blue dress completed the odd quartet. She leaned against a tree with her gaze transfixed on the truck, her body trembling, and one hand brushing her arm as if to dislodge something.

Zita dove back into the bushes. People’s safety — and her dinner — were on the line. However, since she had no intention of sticking around to deal with any aftermath, a change was required. With a growl, Zita stripped off her distinctive chartreuse blouse and magenta pants, leaving herself in mostly black — a sports bra, spandex shorts, and rainbow bejeweled sneakers (her fancy dress shoes). Shapeshifting was hard on a wardrobe, especially when money was tight. If she ruined more clothes because some morons thought a mobile Greek diner was getting rich off gyros and soda, she would be pissed. She closed her eyes and shifted. Her face, hair, ears, and hands now matched the disguise she had used in previous acts of almost-lawful kindness — the ones the news called vigilantism. After tucking her clothing behind the bushes, she strode out of her refuge, turned the corner, and advanced on the people gathered there.

They didn’t notice her until she was close.

Zita spoke, her voice thick with a fake Mexican accent, her only sign of nerves. “Seriously? Of all the things you could do, you rob a food truck? Who does that? They perform an invaluable service, feeding the hungry and cranky before the commute home. Have you somehow missed the nightmare that is rush hour?” With a frown at the robber, she marched to Eleni and Giorgio. She held out her hands to the siblings. “Mind if I borrow those?”

When her query met only silence, Giorgio elbowed his sister.

“No?” Eleni answered.

Zita’s stomach gurgled.

The man with the knife laughed, his voice high and wild. “All the money, now!” he giggled, “Or we’ll feed you to the octopus. Octopuses. Octopuseses.”

“Excellent. I love fresh seafood.” Zita claimed the bottle and the spatula. With a wary eye on the knife-wielder, she sauntered up to the shivering woman. One side of the woman’s face drooped, and she mumbled to herself, the words slurred and unintelligible.

Zita squirted a stream of the liquid into her face. By the scent, lemon juice.

The woman shrieked, revealing blackened teeth, and raised one hand to her face. Her other one twitched, but hung useless at her side. She sputtered, coughed, and sank to her knees. On the food truck, all the cephalopods disappeared.

Giorgio cheered.

With an angry expression, the male robber turned toward Zita. “What have you done? All we wanted was the money!”

Zita shot his face with the lemon juice, too.

He choked on the liquid even as he slashed at her.

She blocked with the spatula. Steel clanged as the blade met professional-grade kitchen utensil. Lashing out with a foot, Zita kicked the knife out of his hand and readied herself for another strike.

From behind, Eleni launched herself at the robber, sinking her hands into his wispy hair and tearing out a chunk. He howled and tried to grab the curvy Greek girl, but Eleni jumped on his back, her greater weight driving him to the ground.

Giorgio set his hand on his sister’s shoulder. She rose, stepping aside. Pinning the gaunt man’s arms behind his back, Giorgio settled into a wrestling hold atop him.

Zita blinked. She relaxed out of her fighting stance and grimaced. “Well. That… worked. You guys got this. Call the cops and don’t hurt these two, sí? The woman needs an ambulance — now.”

Giorgio nodded. After a hard glower from her brother, Eleni grunted agreement and dialed her phone.

Zita cast a wistful look at the food truck and trudged back to where her clothing waited under a bush. “At least I’ll always have rice and beans.”

***

&Karen Diem is& a bibliophile and fan girl who writes light-hearted superhero urban fantasy. It’s all about the books, baby. And RPGs. Oh, right, and family. Animals and music are cool too. She’s married and lives tucked away with her family somewhere, where they subsist on peanut butter sandwiches far more often than may be healthy. In her previous life, Karen was a nonfiction author and a number of less interesting things. Find her books and get on her mailing list at KarenDiem.com.

3

A Question of Blood

Raquel Lyon – Paranormal Fantasy

She hadn’t looked anything like I expected. The pull of her presence had drawn me to her, but I was convinced I’d made a mistake. She didn’t belong. Not with me. I could snap her slight frame in two, with one hand if I so desired. How could she could be the one to break me?

My father had told me I would know — that when the right girl came along, I would feel it and she would feel it, too. There would be no denying it, no fighting it. That was the way. I hadn’t believed him, but he was right. And when I saw her, I did feel something — a loss of control — and I didn’t like it. For someone like me, control is everything. Losing it is not an option. Discovering one small woman held that kind of power angered and confused me. I walked away intending never to return, but her intoxicating scent stayed with me; her image burned in my mind until she was all I could think about. Like it or not, I had to have her.

At first, she spurned my advances, but driven by a force older than time, I ignored her protests and continued to pursue her, grinding her down until she, too, could no longer avoid the inevitable. It may be her downfall; it may be mine. I do not know. All I know is, it takes a certain kind of woman to deal with the life I lead, and one fact is undeniable: our paths have entwined and our destinies cannot be broken.

‘Til death us do part.

I waited for the right moment to tell her, knowing the truth might scare her away, but she took the news well — or appears to have. Maybe she’s hiding her true self the way I hide mine? It matters not. What matters is that she’s here, and that fate stepped in to keep her here, covering her exit with a blanket of snow when she wanted to leave. She doesn’t need to know I could free her, navigate the icy terrain with ease, were I not determined she stay close to me, here, in my room, and in my bed. I need her here. It’s where she belongs, if only for the briefest of moments.

I drift to sleep listening to her gentle breaths, warm air escaping her lips and caressing my cheek. How easy it would be to go that extra inch and claim her mouth for my own. But I have made a promise, and it is one I intend to keep… at least for now.

When I awaken, her fingers are softly tracing down my side. She is toying with me, as I usually toy with my prey, and I can’t help but wonder who the prey is today. I roll over and meet her eyes. There’s a twinkle of silent longing in their depths that tells me the time has come.

She pulls up the sheet, attempting to cover her curves, but there’s no place for modesty between us now. Her fingers have awakened a fire, and her body is warm and inviting. If I so desire, my eyes will feast upon every inch of her as I make her mine. I take hold of her hands, stopping them in their tracks, and search her eyes again, just to be sure.

She doesn’t need to speak.

Listening to her tiny sighs and moans, I dip my head to the rise of her breasts and taste my way up her creamy neck, noting the quickening beat of her pulse. There’s no denying the truth. I hear her blood rushing through her veins and smell her hunger. She desires me as much as I desire her.

Her lips part and I devour them fiercely, shocked when she responds with an eagerness belying her frame. Her body quivers and she curves into me, eager for more. She could be the one, after all.

As strange as it is, I already love her, but she doesn’t deserve me. A life with me will bring heartache and pain, darkness and solitude. She would be better off without me. I should end it, but I can’t let her go.

My lips trail back to her neck, and I brush my teeth over her smooth skin as their animal cousins strain to burst from my jaw. Now is the time to decide.

Do I ravish her… or rip her throat out?

***

&Raquel Lyon lives in England&, up north where it’s very cold and usually raining, and some of her favourite places in and around Pendle Hill have been the inspiration for her books’ settings. She comes from an arty family of painters and musicians, although her tendency always ran towards patchwork and flower arranging. Now she makes up stories. She writes YA fantasy and NA contemporary romance. Her heroines are kinda kooky, her heroes slightly devilish, and her romance a bit on the raunchy side. If the sun is out, so is she. She has a crazy sugar addiction and eats ice cubes as if they’re going out of fashion. Find her books and get on her mailing list at foxifae.wixsite.com.

4

A Father’s Mercy

J.T. Williams – Fantasy

“Tell me, daddy. Tell me about before it came.”

The father had led the young girl to a trickling stream. She had always loved the river. It was on the edge of their land and a spot where they could see the stars. He started a small fire and laid her down to where she could just touch the water rolling over the rocks.

“Before? How long before, dear child?”

She smiled and looked up at the starry sky.

“At the beginning, before we went to the trees!”

Her father began to light a fire with the small amount of kindling he had brought with them. He stacked wood and after the flames caught, tossed other sticks on top of it.

“It was a grand time. The gods were within the world. We were new to it as well. Magic was alive and strong, flowing through the air like fairies do near our home.”

The little girl smiled as her father paused.

“Keep going!” she begged.

He set a pot of water with several herbs on the burning wood. The fire was not large, but they did not have much time. He had to be sure the fire was hot enough to infuse the water. He had picked a lovely bouquet of chamomile earlier in the evening. His daughter loved chamomile. He had ginger from the woods near the old city and fairy dust that remained as the last fairies disappeared. He also had some extra herbs, he hid those from his daughter. They liked to play a game where she guessed what kind of tea and he would make tonight no different.

“Daddy! What other stories can you tell me about then?”

He pondered for a moment, staring into the slowly bubbling pot.

“Before it came, your mother use to take you to the fields near the glowing trees. It was nights just liked this, where the summer wind blew through her hair and your giggles filled the air, we would spend time beneath the heavens.”

“I remember that! I remember the moon being so bright!”

The world had become less of a place since then. It was dangerous to be out at night, especially, on nights with moons like this. They were always looking for their kind of people. They were always hunting for elves.

“Daddy, daddy, what else can you tell me?”

The tea was done. He had two wooden cups that he poured the herbal tea into before sweetening with a dab of honey.

“I will tell you, I wish you to drink my tea and for us to play our favorite game.”

“I know what you want and I saw you sneak in ingredients! I can still guess it!”

He smiled at her as she sipped it. She took one sip and grinned.

“Chamomile! My favorite!”

He laughed, “Very good, my child.”

She took another sip and he forced a smile, holding back his own tears. Her back was to the fires that had begun in the distance.

“Ginger root!”

He laughed and then gulped, “Very good.”

The fires spread quickly. The elven homes built into the great woods were burning. They would soon come towards them.

His daughter began to sit up but he placed his fingers to her lips and shook his head.

“Drink more and tell me what you taste.”

She took another large sip.

“Honey and… daddy?”

She had laid back flat and turned towards the river. She reached out to the stream.

“Yes, my child?”

“I can feel something, something inside me. I will never grow as others. I feel… do… do I… go to… mommy… now?”

He placed his hands on hers. It had taken hold in her some time ago. The sickness. the plaque of their people that had already claimed so many. But it was not what took her now. He feared those that hunted them. They were coming. They had come for so many of them already. The two elves could not escape the horrid genocide against their kind.

“Yes, we both go to mommy.”

He took a large gulp of his tea as he watched his daughter’s hand fall into the water as her other released her cup, spilling her tainted tea on the ground.

She had always loved the river. He made sure she was near it when they were both to see their last.

He laid his head on her chest as he saw them staring at them. His vision faded.

A stout legionnaire stood above the father and daughter. He sheathed his sword.

“These elves are already dead. Move to the next village and for the glory of men, we will destroy all of them before their sickness spreads. The gods be with us. We kill them to protect our own.”

The legionnaires left the two elves. Heading further into the lands to seek out the last of those they deemed evil.

The magic in the world was fading and would soon be gone. The race of men had used the perfect poison and many more would die before the end.

***

[&J.T&. Williams is the author of the _]Saints of Wura[ trilogy and the ]Half-Elf Chronicles[. When he isn’t writing, he wages war in his backyard with his children having make-believe battles against the orcs invading from next door. He is married and has five little orc slayers. As a longtime lover of fantasy and the surreal, he hopes you enjoy his contributions to the world of fantasy and magic. Find his books and get on his mailing list at AuthorJTWilliams.com._]

5

Dark Dealings

Tricia Owens – Urban Fantasy

“I need to sell this immediately!”

While I’d heard my share of sales pitches from people trying to pawn or sell me complete junk, I’d never had someone put a rush order on it.

What’s the worst it could be, Anne? An Egyptian death curse? The Black Plague in a perfume bottle?

Could have been all of the above, actually. Las Vegas attracted some pretty dodgy magickal beings, and they often gravitated to my shop, Moonlight Pawn.

“Let me see what you’ve got,” I said to the big man who’d come in.

He wore a black Metallica shirt as large as my bedspread, ratty cargo shorts, and the obligatory socks with Crocs. His eyes were red-rimmed and heavy lidded. He looked about ready to pass out. Maybe the guy’s just eager to return to his hotel and take a nap.

Yeah, right. And I wasn’t a dragon sorceress with the world’s worst luck when it came to black magick.

Mr. Sleepy pulled something out of a wallet that was attached to his shorts by a chain. He slid what looked like a trading card onto the glass case between us.

It wasn’t covered by a protective sleeve and I could tell this thing had seen some use and been passed around for a while. The card’s corners were bent and frayed and a crease ran up the center of it lengthwise, as though someone had folded it in half at one point.

But let’s face it: who cared what condition it was in? It was what was printed on the card that caused me to hastily back away from it.

“Where did you get that?” I demanded.

Sleepy looked at me with a fearful look on his face. “Someone gave it to me. I thought they were a friend, but…”

I called up my magick, which took the form of a Chinese dragon I called Lucky. His golden serpentine form flew a slow circle through the shop behind my would-be customer, trailing cold air in his wake.

I eyed the guy with suspicion. “What are you?”

Sometimes you could tell what kind of magick a person wielded, though not often. My best friend Melanie was a monkey shifter, and unless you were trapped in an elevator with her for ten minutes you never would have guessed it; you’d just think she needed to cut back on her sugar consumption. My boyfriend Vale was a gargoyle, and in fact was sitting on the shelf behind me in his stone statue form. But he looked like any other cheap resin D&D statue (sorry, Vale).

“What are you?!” I demanded again.

The guy held up his hands. “I don’t know what you’re talking about, lady.” He pointed at the card. “I have to get rid of it. I think — I think it’s been bringing me bad luck. I don’t want it anywhere near me!”

“No kidding,” I snapped, exasperated. I was sweating. I told myself to calm down. I was a powerful sorceress. I’d fought off two warlocks by myself. I’d recently defeated the demon Aglasis, who was no slob in the demon department. Surely I could handle this.

But my gaze slid uneasily to the card and I couldn’t suppress a shiver. This was some bad mojo.

“Will you buy it?” the guy asked, his voice cracking. “I asked around and someone told me that this sort of thing — you’re not supposed to give it away. That just makes it stronger and more evil. Whoever takes it has to want it. They have to be willing. I thought… you buy all sorts of things. Maybe you want this.”

“Are you crazy? Who the hell would I sell it to? I’d never inflict that on someone.” I ran a shaky hand across my mouth. “Listen, you need to take that out of here. You need to find someone who specializes in black magick. Someone who can send this thing back to Hell where it belongs.

“Black magick?” Sleepy’s eyes finally reached their full size as he gaped at me. It made me begin to suspect that he wasn’t a magickal being.

He was just stupid.

“P-Please,” he stammered. “You gotta take it from me. My life hasn’t been the same since I got it.” He blinked at me hopefully. “Someone told me you can handle things like this. That this place is…special. And so are you.”

Nice try with the flattery, buddy.

But the truth was he was right. If he wasn’t a member of the magickal community then he’d have no idea how to deal with this. Bad luck would hound him. Next, he’d be run over by a taxi or beaten unconscious by little kids in the Circus Circus mezzanine.

“Fine,” I bit out. “I’ll take it.” I punched open the register and yanked out a dollar. “Free and clear, so we cover any curse that’s on it.”

And it was definitely cursed. I didn’t need to touch the thing to know it was absolutely seething with bad energy.

“Oh, thank you! Thank you so much!” The guy, clutching the dollar, lumbered out, leaving me alone in a cursed pawn shop with that thing lying on the counter in front of me.

I called Lucky over. My magick dragon reared up over the card, spitting sparks in anticipation of action.

“Okay, Lucky. We’re going to blast the hell out of this thing, you got that?”

Before we could do it, the door of the shop opened and Celestina, who ran the fortune telling shop next door, stepped inside.

“Be careful!” I shrieked at her.

She frowned at my expression and at the sight of Lucky hovering in the air. She approached the counter cautiously. She gasped when she saw the card lying on the counter.

“Anne, do you know what that is?!”

I blinked sweat out of my eyes. “It’s okay. I’m about to incinerate it.”

“It’s the Limited Edition Baywatch card featuring David Hasselhoff!” She snatched it up. “It’s worth a fortune even in poor condition!”

I looked at the card. I looked at her.

“You can have it for a thousand.”

***

[&Tricia Owens is& the author of the _]Moonlight Dragon[ urban fantasy series and the ]Death Rose[ paranormal romance series. She lives in Las Vegas. Find her books and get on her mailing list at TriciaOwensBooks.com._]

6

Death Or Eternity

Lynda Belle – Paranormal Fantasy

June 26

To whomever finds this,

I fell in love with a vampire, and that was a mistake. I admit it now. There’s only one outcome that can come of it. OK, there are two: death or eternity. I never thought Quinn would allow anything else. In the end, I had the choice.

He showed up after our night at the vampire brothel, the Bordello of Vampire Pleasure. He’d promised after our night together that he wanted to see me again. My friends told him my address. Seeing Quinn standing in my doorway was a shock and a relief at the same time.

I gave him permission to enter. It was very old-school [_Buffy the Vampire Slayer _]stuff, but some of that stuff is true, especially since vampires came out of the paranormal closet fifteen years ago. It made them a minority fighting for their rights in today’s society. One night in a vampire brothel had taught me they were more than just human.

Quinn picked me up and carried me to the bedroom. I could get lost in the blue depths of his eyes. His light brown hair and hard body made my insides quiver. I had all these questions as he lowered me to the bed.

His plump and kissable lips called to mine. I couldn’t help but feel the pull between us. The weight of his body pinned me to the bed. I wanted it to go on forever.

“You have a choice to make.“ Quinn’s voice drove shivers through my limbs as his lips caressed my mouth.

“And that would be?“

He lowered himself down on his elbows. Balancing above me, he stroked my cheek. “Do you want to be with me for eternity?“

“Do I have time to think about it?“

“It’s best not to.“

“But it’s such a big decision. Much bigger than something permanent like a tattoo.“

He kissed me again. “Do you want to be with me forever?“

“You’re making it hard to think.“

“You know what I want.” His kiss shot jolts through my body.

I reached up to him, and caressed his face. It was cold and hard. Did I want to be like that forever? “What would happen to me if I decide no?“

He caressed his lips against my neck. I felt an electric jolt shoot up my spine. “You don’t want to say no, Sasha.“

I arched my back, leaning my head back into the pillows as his kiss moved down my neck to my shoulder. He started to move back the material of my blouse. He undid a button.

I stopped him by holding his hand. “We could be together. I could remain human.“

He grabbed my hand, and kissed the fingertips. “I can’t risk killing another human. If you remain how you are,“ his teeth pressed into the palm of my hand, “the years will eventually be your death. If you choose now, I’ll seal your beauty and youth.” He eased over the top of my body. “You’d have it forever.” He looked into my eyes. “Don’t make the mistake of waiting.“

I licked my lips trying to think. “How old are you, Quinn?“

“I’ve lived long enough to see that waiting is a mistake.“

His eyes filled with longing. Dying in his arms would be worth it. Living would be a challenge. Was I up to it?

I wrapped my arms around his neck, pulling him towards me. “Does it hurt much?“

He whispered, “No. Dying is the easy part. I’ll help you with the rest.“

His lips danced over mine. His breath hit my face, spilling a spicy scent that revved my body into a decision. “Is it fast or slow?“

“I know how to make it glorious. The transformation can be an event all in itself.“

Our bodies cradled in unison. He waited patiently over me. I closed my eyes. I could feel him above me, death or eternity lingering, waiting for an answer. “I choose to be with you, Quinn. Forever.“

He bit into my neck so fast that there wasn’t time for second thoughts. Each pull of his mouth brought shudders through my body. I swooned as his hands wrapped around me. Our embrace spelled my death. I tried to hold on to any of my memories as he took my life. Nothing would stay. My mind emptied with my blood until I drifted towards darkness.

I started to hear a voice. I felt like I was falling, and landed somewhere. My limbs were heavy. The fog in my mind was so heavy that I wanted to just drift away to nothing. Be nothing. Stay in this peace.

“Sasha, come back to me. Drink.“

A flash of light hit my eyes, and I felt a rush of energy flood my body. My tongue tasted the metallic blood.

“That’s it. Taste my blood. You must take it from me now.“

Something was pushed against my mouth. I sucked at the source, pulling deep from it. Each pull brought clarity to my mind. My eyes opened. I was sucking from Quinn’s arm. The room was dancing with lights around me, assaulting my senses of sight and smell. I could detect his musky scent. I wanted to drink him up.

Salt, wine, and the taste of all my favorite foods combined in Quinn’s blood. Nothing had tasted like it. We were locked in an embrace of two vampires. All I could think of was blood. And more blood. And more.

“That’s enough. You’ve got to stop when drinking from a vampire.“ He pulled his arm away from me, and I tried to grab it.

“I want more.“

“Of course you do. It’s what every fledgling craves. You’ll be greedy for it like this for years. The thirst for blood will take up residence, and you’ll know the full pleasures of being a vampire.“

“How long will it take?“

“Amazingly, not long.“ He kissed me, and my lips caressed his slowly. I could feel the individual movement of his skin cells caressing over me. My nerves were so sensitive, they echoed the feeling of him caressing my face and holding me after the kiss. Everything seemed to slow down and turn into a microenvironment for me to explore. I could hear the movement of his hair as he moved to lean down next to me.

“What is happening?“

“Your senses are adjusting to your new body’s abilities. It might take a while for it to take over your whole body. The blood is still working its way through you. Give it a little more time, and it should stop. It’s your human side in its death throes as your vampire side consumes it.“

“Consumes?“

“Eats away all your humanity.“

He pulled me towards him and kissed my forehead. My hands moved behind him as he slipped his hands underneath my robe. They eased up my back pulling me closer to him. I snuggled in his embrace. His presence eased my cravings for blood.

“Now what happens?“ I stared into his eyes. The pull I felt was erasing all doubt about my decision.

“We make love for eternity.“

“Besides that.“ The thought was making me smile.

He kissed me one more time, sealing our union. Sealing my servitude. “You become mine forever.“

That was the part I didn’t count on. I didn’t know I’d be his forever, bound. Forever is a very long time. To be honest, you think you do stupid things when you’re young. A tattoo can be removed. But being a vampire is forever.

So, to all those out there thinking that this is the choice for you now that vampires have arrived on the scene, you know what to expect. Make sure it is the right person that you give yourself to, because there isn’t a second chance.

—Sasha Benedict, new Vampire Bordello worker

***

&Lynda Belle writes& steamy romances for women that want to forget reality and explore their secret, dirty love. From hot rock stars to strapping highlanders, she pushes your emotions while stimulating your naughty bits. When not writing, Lynda participates in renaissance fairs throughout Northern California. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband. Find her books and get on her mailing list at LyndaBelle.com.

7

Blood of Harrodarr

J.T. Williams – Fantasy

I hear the crunch of boots trudging through the snow. My friend is coming. I push the lock bar to the side and open the gate. At least there will be one that will share this place with me until the end.

In the middle of the road appears a stout dwarf, a proud warrior and veteran of many battles.

My friend. One of my last friends. I hear the snap of bowstrings.

“Gimror!“

He is tired. He begins to run, blood already running down his face and a steady stream rolling off his arm. Three arrows slam into his back and he stumbles and falls just before that gate. I reach down and grab him under his armor. When I go to pull him into the gateway, he slaps me.

“No! Shut the damn gates! We have the lower traps set and the doors to the keep are sealed! It is done.“

Gimror draws a small ax and smiles, “Let the bastards come for me. I will split their pretty faces!“

I release my grip and nod to him, “Fight well, brother.“

“I will. Try not to die before me!“

I close the gate and lock it back. Gimror shouts from the other side of the gateway and then I hear several thuds as more arrows strike my friend.

Goodbye, Gimror.

I stand upon the upper summit of the great dwarf city of Harrodarr. This is the last tower. The perimeter defense in the mountains where our war-drums vibrated into the rocks beneath my feet ended only a few hours ago. Those dwarves were the last upon the stairs to the mountain pass. The enemy cannot yet reach my spot. But when they do, I will do what is necessary.

We last defenders are the Hammersong. The Dwarven High Guard. Our home has been under siege and now the wretched forces of men have assailed our holiest grounds. My only happiness is that some time ago those unable to fight fled this place. Many went with them but we could not leave our sacred city to burn without dwarf blood to flow into the halls as a last defense.

For five nights we fought to hold the lower stairwells and now the gateway is all that remains. Some remain within the inner sanctums but I cannot say for how long. I have command of the outward traps. A duty I shall fulfill. The last duty of my life.

Horns sound in the deep and I hear the scalding flames of the forge fires rush down the northern cliffs burning those that tried that doorway. That was Rufidor, my second cousin. If I know it, he barreled hammer first into the shield line after switching the release valves of our molten smithing rivers. He joins his brothers and children that died yesterday.

The northern way into the mountain is now sealed under hardening rock.

I see their banners cresting near the convergence of the rivers. They come. All the snarling chest suckers. I must release the first traps.

With switch in hand, I twist the knob. A rope snaps on a distant hill and a trio of boulders drops springing down the mountain. The entire attacking force halts for a moment. They are like ants frozen by an object in its path.

Hacking. I hear hacking. I look over to the doorway and see the wood shaking. Someone is trying to get in.

The legions of men are at it again. They are now halfway up the stairwells. I flip another switch and the Dragonfires ignite. A boiling blast of arcane fire, mixed by our very own Dwarf-Wizard Rumthul! The smoke rises and I smile. I swear I can hear the sizzle of their flesh!

The hacking continues.

As the legions are forced to wade through the slurry of burning bodies, I prepare for another trap. We had saved this one. It is the Crystal Guardians of Harrodarr! The men reach the upper level of the stairwells now. There are so many but it is the last of the magic in the mountain that shall play against them. In an electrifying brilliance, the storms of the dwarves shoot out from carved crystals and take down wave after wave of men.

But it is not enough.

They still come for we… are evil. Or so has the hammer been measured to us in their eyes.

The hacking continues. I see a man’s face through the splintered wood. Looking back over the walls to the stairwells, I know they’ve reached the gates. I wonder how long they will hold?

I take a small ax in hand. They are still hacking their way in, but I am ready. As the gate frame shudders and falls, I take a breath ready to fight them. But it is not yet time.

A flurry of arrow fire strikes the doorway. I glance to my left and see Eriva, one of the elves from the south. She releases a continual barrage taking down each of the attackers until at last they are all dead.

In that moment, she pauses. Lowering her bow, I catch the light of a smoke hazed moon pierce through her hair and forget all the past sins of our two races. She is truly beautiful. I remember all the fighting between dwarves and elves. Why had we wasted so much life at war against one another? I spot blood and see a horrid gash on her lower leg.

“Eriva? You have been struck.”

“I have but the halls of Harrodarr are ready. The vines of my people guard the inner sanctum. None of men shall defile this place for some time.”

The elves and dwarves had fought for years but as men deemed our use of magic as reasons for the problems of the world. We became evil. We were dragged into the streets and tortured. Our paraded bodies taken to the capital cities and spat upon. Many have died but some have escaped to a sacred Snow Dwarf refuge. A place for all peoples. A place I hope my son has reached.

Dear Slatnichor, how I will miss you.

“They are coming,” Eriva says. Her bow is taut and I take a second ax in hand.

This path to our hold is not easy to reach. Up the mountains, a perilous journey made worse by coarse icy winds and avalanches. These warriors that approach were sent for one purpose, to destroy us. They cannot get down through this way. We are the last defenders.

The elf releases her shot. I throw my axes. Three men fall and I take my double-headed ax in hand. Its name is Blackblood, named for the orcs that it was forged to fight. Now it will be bathed in the red blood of men. A spear pierces Eriva and she falls stammering towards the enemy as she draws her own blade. She rises to continue forwards when an arrow pierces her eye.

Hammersong strong, I die for my people, her people, and all of magic that have been persecuted to this end. May our descendants avenge us.

I burst into a sprint and lift my ax above me. This is the end of my story.

“I am Rornichor, last of the Hammersong. May I be avenged!”

***

[&J.T&. Williams is the author of the _]Saints of Wura[ trilogy and the ]Half-Elf Chronicles[. When he isn’t writing, he wages war in his backyard with his children having make-believe battles against the orcs invading from next door. He is married and has five little orc slayers. As a longtime lover of fantasy and the surreal, he hopes you enjoy his contributions to the world of fantasy and magic. Find his books and get on his mailing list at AuthorJTWilliams.com._]

8

Hair of the Dog

Connie B. Dowell – Fantasy

I’d injured both thumbs and my left pinkie installing the camera, but it was all going to be worth it for Squibbles and Floopsie and my peace of mind. I opened the app.

“Guys, come look.” I waved to them across the deck. “This is what I was talking about, the doggy cam.”

Rita, Ned, and Carla turned from the railing where they’d been watching the light dim on the beach below.

“A camera?” asked Ned. “Aren’t you just going to go home in an hour or two?” Rita nudged him in the ribs.

Carla trotted across the deck and peered over my shoulder. “Let’s have a look.”

“It’s in night vision now,” I explained as I zoomed in. Rita appeared at my other side, with Ned standing a little way off. “Look, you can see one of them moved that big bone into the living room and there’s… no— no— yes— there’s Floopsie curled in a corner.”

“Where?” Carla leaned in, squinting.

“Right there.” I pointed. “Oh and there’s Squibbles too.” My two corgis were mere lumps on the screen at first. Only when they moved could I make out their forms.

“Nice,” Carla muttered. She took my hand. “Come over to the railing.” I shook my head. Rita made an indistinct noise. They all moved away. I heard Ned under his breath, “Is he going to run home if they chew on a couch?”

I rolled my eyes and smiled at the two corgi lumps on the screen. Just because I wanted to check on them didn’t mean I’d run off at the littlest thing. I took a sip of my Scotch. The full moon glinted on the surface of the amber liquid.

Something changed. The lumps leapt from their cozy blankets and began writhing on the ground. I straightened in my chair. The moonlight fell on the dogs’ wriggling forms and something happened I could not interpret. It seemed their legs were…extending. But that couldn’t be right.

“I gotta go!” I leapt from my chair.

I heard Ned mutter “Typical” as I raced to my car.

The drive home was excruciatingly slow. My poor, poor puppies. Could they be having a seizure? Tainted dog food, perhaps?

I certainly wasn’t prepared for the scene when I arrived. Cars all over the lawn. An SUV even parked right in my begonias. And people — young and loud — college kids everywhere, plastic cups in hand. They must have broken into my house, poisoned my dogs, and had a party to celebrate. The only explanation.

I pushed through the beer-swilling crowd and threw the door open.

“Dude, you made it!” I’d never seen the young man before me but he had a familiarity. It wasn’t the messy, blonde hair, nor the acne-speckled face, but those brown eyes. I spotted his odd bracelet. A red collar wrapped around his wrist.

“Floopsie?” I breathed.

“Yeah, dude.” He chuckled. “Of course it’s me. Party time.” He grabbed my arm and pulled me forward.

I must admit, even underneath my utter wonder at Floopsie’s new form, I had a strong desire to shout and/or call the cops as I witnessed the chaos in my home. Partygoers reclined on countertops and tugged at cabinet doors. A keg sat in a bucket of ice on my newly installed carpet, not the tile floor of the kitchen mere steps away. To top it all, two young ladies eyed my chandelier, wondering audibly whether it was real crystal and whether the taller of the two would be able to touch it if she jumped with all her might.

“Don’t drag your feet, bro.” Floopsie tugged my wrist. “Squibbles is waiting on us.”

We wended our way out the back door to the deck. I scanned the crowd, the faces, sparsely lit by tiki torches and somewhat obscured by smoke.

“He’s kinda nervous,” said Floopsie, “but I told him you’d be cool about it.” He cleared his throat. “Squibbles!” he called. “It’s okay.”

The young man stood up straighter. It was unmistakably Squibbles. He was much taller and broader of shoulder than Floopsie. Dark haired, and wide jawed, and… handsome. I shook my head. It seemed wrong to think that about my own dog, but it was true. The eyes of several girls — and even a few guys — on the deck were drawn to him as soon as he stepped into the light.

Squibbles’ eyes met mine and he hunched over. If he’d still had a tail, he’d have put it between his legs. He’d always been the more timid of the two, running away at the sound of the doorbell.

“Aw, dude, it’s cool, Squibbles.” Floopsie motioned for him to come closer. “What’d I tell you?”

“Is…” He took a tiny step forward. “Is it really okay?”

“Of course!” Floopsie turned to me. “Right, bro?”

“Um…” I looked at the noisy crowd, dropping plastic cups and spilling beer. I stared into the dogs’ eyes. Big. Brown. Eyes. Squibbles made a squeak and backed up a step. “I guess I’d have rather you told me first, but… it’s all right.”

“R-really?” Squibbles whispered.

“Really.” I put on a smile. “It’s party time.”

&And I did not regret& that “really,” even when someone vomited on the leather couch, for this was unlike any party I had ever attended. As the night wore on, chew toys were passed around, and sometimes fought over, loudly. Beer pong became more interesting as the onlookers couldn’t always resist the temptation to chase and catch the balls. Occasionally, when a car drove past, a guest sprinted after it, yelling “Car-car-car!” Perhaps the only real blot on the evening was that I had to clean the vomit very quickly to prevent others from consuming it.

I tried calling Carla, but she never picked up. Her loss. I would never have traded watching Squibbles get tipsy enough to forget everyone was watching and clumsily half sing-half hum through karaoke.

All night, Floopsie slapped me on the back and congratulated me on “being so cool, man.” He continually reassured me, “We’ve got something really special for you tomorrow, dude. A thank you present. Really nice.” In truth, for all the people were rowdy, they weren’t intentionally destructive. I checked on my cabinet of nice Scotch multiple times. They never touched it.

&The warm glow& of morning nudged my eyelids open. Floopsie and Squibbles, corgis once more, lay curled in their doggie beds on the floor. I climbed out of bed and Floopsie leapt up, barking.

“I’ll let you guys outside, don’t worry.”

But Floopsie, with Squibbles trailing behind him, didn’t run to the door but to the closet. I blinked for a moment. They nosed the closet door. I opened it.

Nestled among the shoes was a shiny, wrapped package. The present. The dogs barked and hopped around my legs. I tore the paper and opened the box. A bottle. Scotch. They remembered.

“Thanks, guys,” I muttered and made to set the bottle down, but Floopsie barked.

“Well, all right. Hair of the dog.” I took the bottle downstairs, dogs following, pulled a glass from the cabinet and poured… a glass full of dog treats.

My gaze shifted from the glass to the corgis, their wagging tails, flopping tongues, and brown eyes. I wanted to push it away, but… Big. Brown. Eyes.

I closed my eyes and took the shot.

***

[&Connie B. Dowell& is an author of fiction and nonfiction for teens and adults and a cover designer for independent authors. She and her husband Stephen host a history podcast, _]One Hundred Centuries[. She is also the host of an audio fiction podcast, ]Book Echoes[. Her latest writing projects include ]The Poison in All of Us[ (the first installment of the ]Emmie McAllister Mysteries[, a young adult historical series set in the late 1910s and the 1920s) and Ian and Darlene (a serialized crime fiction/comedy novella). A former university writing center coordinator, she also authored ]You Can Love Writing: A Guide to Get through Your College Papers and Like It[. Connie lives in central Virginia with her husband and son, where both adults drink far more coffee than is probably wise. Find her books and get on her mailing list at ConnieBDowell.com._]

9

Surge

Brian Manning – Superhero Fantasy

Roger sat at his desk in the far corner of the floor for accounting, watching three figures moving through the shadows. Even in the dim light, he could see that they were all wearing some kind of tactical gear. Law enforcement? Military?

The three men stacked up outside the office of the company vice president, Shannon. Was this a hit? Corporate warfare? Their uniforms and metal faceplates made it pretty clear it wasn’t a raid by the SEC about insider trading.

Roger was just trying to put in a few extra hours each night to hit a quota, and now found himself watching a group of mercenaries, clad in full body armor and armed with military-grade weapons, getting ready to storm Shannon’s office. As executives go, he didn’t mind Shannon. She wasn’t pushy with the cubicle drones, like Roger.

The point man counted down with his fingers, preparing to enter the room. Roger felt the seams of his shirt straining against his muscles, as his shoulders broadened and rolled forward. He barely noticed as his arms and legs started tingling.

Three.

Roger’s hands shook, forcing him to clench his fists and jaw.

Two.

His vision pulsed in and out of focus, synced to his racing heartbeat.

One.

The second mercenary kicked the door open splintering the frame as the third tossed a metal cylinder into the room.

Roger’s vision snapped into focus. He let out a guttural growl, plucked his clip-on tie free with his left hand and threw his office chair at the mercenaries with his right. His battle cry caught their attention, giving them enough time to drop as the ergonomic office chair crashed through the 12th floor window. All three men were back up in an instant, aiming their MP5 submachine guns at the new threat dashing towards them.

From inside Shannon’s office, there was a blinding flash and deafening crack. Roger, and two of the mercenaries flinched at the flash bang tossed into the office seconds earlier. The leader, unfazed by the thunder and lightning from the VP’s office, fired two bursts. Six tightly grouped rounds struck Roger’s torso.

He fell face first, sliding along the abrasive office carpeting. Several voices competed for attention in Roger’s mind. He heard two men shouting, as well as Shannon’s cries, distressed and confused. The leader’s voice pierced the cacophony like a dagger.

“Don’t let him up. I’ll grab the woman.”

This wasn’t an assassination, it was a kidnapping. Roger pushed himself up to his knees. His chest was burning. One of the mercenaries booted Roger in the sternum, knocking him back down. The man brought his weapon up and fired. That close, the bright white muzzle flash and barking report of the weapon was overwhelming.

Roger shielded his face with his arms. Every bullet struck his body, sending a ripple from the point of impact across his flesh. His joints ached, and his head was pounding. The staccato popping from the mercenary’s firearm became muffled, as the rush of his own blood coursing through his veins filled his ears.

The shooting stopped, and the man’s frantic voice took over. “What the hell are you!?” The empty magazine dropped from his weapon as he seated a fresh one in.

Roger scrambled to his feet, noticing that the ceiling was much closer to his head than normal. With every movement his joints cracked and popped, seating into place. His whole body shook and vibrated.

The submachine gun’s charging handle snapped forward as Roger’s large, bony mitt wrapped around it. With little effort, he snatched the weapon free and palmed the man’s head. The crackling of a second weapon pulled Roger’s focus to his left, as round after round drummed up his rib cage and back. A quick backhand toss sent the first mercenary flying into the second. The two collided and slammed into a filing cabinet.

Roger’s body itched. Frequent spasms washed over him. He couldn’t concentrate. Every muscle in his body was dying to be used. Roger was losing control. Roger wanted to lose control. The surge of energy begged to be spent.

The leader pulled Shannon out of the office. She was gagged with her hands behind her back. The man’s left arm wrapped around her neck, as he aimed a pistol at Roger’s head.

He eyed the man’s gun and sneered. “You think that’ll stop me from ripping you apart? Your buddies didn’t do much with their toys.”

“Rubber bullets, tough guy. These are jacketed hollow points. They’ll do more than leave little red welts.”

Roger’s limbs twitched. Fear and doubt almost took over. He wasn’t afraid of the gun. Roger knew he could take a few shots from close range. His biggest concern was saving Shannon and still having a job tomorrow.

The leader tugged at Shannon’s neck as he moved toward the elevators. He called back to the other two mercenaries. “Get up. We’re leaving.” He looked at Roger. “And you… why don’t you just take a deep breath and—”

Roger lunged forward. The gun went off. He swatted it free from the man’s grasp. Roger grabbed the arm and hand around Shannon’s neck. All the small bones and joints in the man’s hand balled up like copy paper as Roger clenched his oversized fist. Shannon scrambled to one of the cubicles and rolled under a desk. Hauling the leader up by his tactical harness, Roger turned to face the other two.

The terror in their eyes was clear. They stood face to face with an 8 foot tall twitching and salivating beast of a man, barely able to hold still. They watched the monster take a .45 caliber bullet to the neck, and still get his hands on their leader. And then the thing spoke in a low thundering voice.

“Two choices…elevator, or…” Roger casually glanced toward the shattered window.

They tossed their remaining weapons away, and dropped to their knees.

Maybe I can give this hero thing another shot, Roger mused.

***

&Brian grew& up in Las Vegas, loving comic books, science fiction movies/TV, video games, ninja/samurai stuff, cartoons, and any other kind of “pop culture“ media a kid could get their hands on in the 80s. He started to truly enjoy reading after graduating from high school. Mostly genre fiction, with the majority of it being science fiction. His writing is inspired by reading comic books, and honed by playing/running role-playing game campaigns. Find his books and get on his mailing list at eviltwinbrian.com.

10

The Weeds within the Rulership

Emily Martha Sorensen – Fantasy

“Your parents said you were sick,” Jontan said to me, holding out a shabby bouquet through the doorway. His fingers clutched around the stems so tightly that they were bending. “I brought you some flowers.”

I stared at him dispiritedly from my bed. I had been hiding in my room for two weeks, not staying here because I was still sick, although that was what I had told everybody. I’d had a fever for three weeks, so that had been a convenient excuse. But no. I didn’t want to see people because I was terrified they’d notice that I’d started growing magic.

“Thanks, Jontan,” I said, trying to sound glad to see him. He was a friend, after all. “You can leave them on my dresser.”

He tiptoed into my room, laid the wilting flowers across the top of the piece of furniture, and then leapt back to the doorway as if burned.

I barely kept from rolling my eyes. “You’ve been in here before,” I told him.

“It’s not proper without a chaperone now,” he insisted.

Honestly. Jontan took the rules of propriety seriously, it seemed. We were both twelve years old, we’d just [_barely _]taken the oath of childhood, and it wasn’t even like he was courting me. If he started acting all formal now, it was going to drive me crazy.

“Are you going to look at the flowers?” he asked anxiously.

With a sigh of annoyance, because after all I was supposed to be sick, I angled myself out of bed and shuffled over to the dresser. The row of wilted flowers stared up at me.

There were filias in it. Yech. They were such an ugly color, all purple-blue, and they meant “loyalty to the Rulership,” so using them was like showing off. Jontan loved the flowers, though, so he had probably included them just because he thought they were pretty. The rest were inna blossoms, which I’d forgotten the meaning of, and torron stalks, which meant “get well soon.”

Jontan hovered in the doorway, as if waiting for me to say something.

“Uh, thanks,” I said. “I hope I get well soon, too.”

He kept on hovering.

Oh no! What if he’d noticed some magic I’d used accidentally? Jontan was a stickler for the rules, and landowner use of magic was more than just a rule: it was a law. If I got caught, I could be killed.

“Ohhh, I have a headache,” I moaned, saying the first thing that came to mind. “I have to be alone now. Can you leave me?”

“Oh! Oh, sorry!” Jontan jumped back. “Can I… can I come back later?”

“Sure,” I said. Of course he could come back later. Why was he even asking? His family’s land was right next to ours. We saw each other all the time.

Jontan looked a mixture of scared and relieved, and hurriedly waved goodbye and scuttled down the hallway. I heard his feet pound on the way down the stairs.

I shuffled back to bed and put the sheet over my head. I didn’t want to get out of bed. I didn’t want to see anyone else today. A spark of magic lurched out of my elbow and made the pillow underneath my head more thin and lumpy.

Argh! I spun around to try to get comfortable again. Horrible magic! It was ruining everything!

The slight scent of innas, torron stalks, and filias drifted through the air. Something tingled in my nose, and I sneezed.

Suddenly the odor was overpowering. The fresh smell of the torron stalks was like a whole field during harvest, the perfume of the filias dug underneath it with pugnacious grandeur, and the inna scent was now so spicy that it made my eyes burn. There was something else as well, something like ash or burning…

I gasped and flung the blanket off my head. I hadn’t set something on fire, had I?!

No. My bedroom looked the same as it ever had. But the bouquet now had a flower I hadn’t noticed before. Something grey, and blobby.

Oh, gross, I thought with disgust. A groverweed. Jontan didn’t watch what he was picking, and picked a groverweed.

I got up out of bed and picked up the whole bouquet to throw it out the window. Maybe the wind could carry the appallingly strong odor away. As soon as my fingers touched the stalks, the flowers shrank.

Argh! I screamed silently.

Wait… why were the other flowers smaller, but the groverweed bigger?

I stared at the bouquet for a moment, confused. As my thoughts raced, magic surged from my hand again, and the odor of the other flowers shrank to nothing. The blobby grey flower’s persistent ash scent remained the same.

Slowly, I separated the one ugly grey flower from the rest. Had it grown because I’d accidentally used magic on it? Did groverweed grow whenever you threw magic at it?

Nervously, because I’d never tried using magic on purpose before, I tried pushing magic into the groverweed. It unfurled a leaf, and then put forth a petal. The tingling in my arms ceased.

I concentrated harder, and shoved even more into it. Within just a few minutes, the stalk held a long, straggly clump of roots, black petals ringing a head of seeds, and two more buds growing. For the first time in weeks, I felt satisfyingly hollow and empty.

I drew a breath in wonder. All these weeks of misery, all this time of feeling sick, and all I’d needed to do was… that?

I spun around and thumped my hand into my pillow. I tried to make it soft and fluffy, and nothing happened. Not even the wrong thing. It just lay there inertly.

I danced around the room in excitement. I was free! I was free!

My bedroom door opened, and Mother came in.

“Did you accept Jontan’s invitation?” she asked.

I froze from dancing around the room, and quickly spun the bouquet around to cover the groverweed.

“Wh-what invitation?” I stammered, nervous that she had seen it.

“The inna,” Mother said. “That means he likes you. He said he was going to ask you to the social event that’s happening at the Brushflower land next week. Did he?”

I froze. I stared down at the bouquet. I knew I was old enough to be courted now, but…

This was an invitation?

“I… I… I’m feeling much better now,” I stumbled. “Excuse me!”

I shoved on my shoes, raced out of the room, and pounded down the stairs, carrying the flowers tightly in my hand.

“Raneh!” Mother shouted behind me. “You’re twelve years old! You have to wear your hair up in public!”

I paid her no heed. I flung open the front door and thundered down the dirt road that connected our families’ lands.

“Jontan!” I shouted. “Jontan, wait!”

He paused, and I caught up to him.

“I didn’t realize what you were asking me,” I said, panting. “Yes! Yes, I’ll go with you!”

Jontan’s eyes widened. “Really?”

“Yeah! Yeah, of course I will!”

We stood there, beaming at each other, both of us embarrassed.

“Thanks for the flowers,” I added awkwardly. “They were really great.”

He ducked his head, and I felt a surge of giddiness. I was going to go to my first social event with a suitor! And I didn’t have to worry about magic! And I was safe!

As soon as I got back home, I was going to plant some groverweed in my garden. It was now my favorite flower in the whole Rulership.

***

[&Emily Martha Sorensen& is the author of The Keeper and the Rulership, _]Black Magic Academy[, the ]Fairy Senses[ series, and the ]Dragon Eggs[ series. She also draws a webcomic named ]To Prevent World Peace[. She writes clean fantasy for all age levels, from young adults to children to adults. Her work is noblebright (the opposite of grimdark), optimistic, and often funny. Find her books and get on her mailing list at EmilyMarthaSorensen.com._]

11

The First Dragon Charmer

JC Kang – Fantasy

Yanyan might have enjoyed flying if she weren’t enveloped in a dragon’s foreclaw. With trembling arms, she hugged shaking knees to her chest. Sweat gathered on her brow as she panted the oppressively hot air.

Careful to avoid the razor tips, each as large as her torso and sharp as an orc sword, she nudged her face out between iron-scaled fingers. The cold wind roared in her ears and whipped through her hair.

She squinted as freezing air pricked at her eyes. Far below, the hills, rivers, and forests drifted by. Maybe it would be her last sight. Unlike her homeland’s mythical dragon guardian, the Last Dragon was far from benevolent. Legends of its appetite for young women abounded.

To think she’d volunteered for this.

Yanyan retreated into the confines of its claws. It must’ve been the rush of wind in her eyes that coaxed the tears out. Not the fear of being torn limb from limb and devoured. If she were just a snack, he would’ve eaten her by now.

Not like she, all skin and bones from a life of hard labor, could even begin to sate the appetite of such an immense creature.

Yanyan suppressed a wry laugh. Only she would think of such a silly notion. She closed her eyes and listened.

The dragon’s gem pulsated from deep within its body, just as the elf angel Aralas said it would. Rapid as a dragonfly’s wings, violent as a summer thunderstorm, it was the dragon’s source of energy. The key to vanquishing it.

Her stomach lurched into her throat. Blood rushed from her head. Her ears clogged, sounds muffled. With a hard swallow, her hearing cleared. Braving the wind and cold, she peeked out again.

They now descended in lazy circles toward a lone mountain. The rocky crag jutted up from vast plains, the likes of which she had never seen before. Villages dotted the expanse, each supposedly home to people with round eyes and walnut-toned skin. Like her own people, they were slaves to the orcs.

That’s what Aralas had said. Would these strangers join in the effort to overthrow humanity’s orc masters? Her well-travelled lover believed they would. He’d taught them martial magic in hopes they’d join in the worldwide slave revolt.

But first, she had to subdue the dragon, to prevent it from interfering.

A poof of air, like the whipping of gigantic sheets, roared in her ears. Her heart sank into her stomach at the sudden deceleration.

Despite its enormity, the dragon landed lightly near the top of the peak, close to a gaping hole in the rock. It crawled inside, plunging her into darkness.

Yanyan’s heart jittered as she listened. With each of the dragon’s quaking steps, the floor jingled and clinked. From somewhere deep within the mountain, a rapid vibration hummed.

The dragon opened its foreclaw. She tumbled out and fell to her side on the cool, shifting ground. Heart racing faster, she patted around for a solid surface.

It uttered one guttural word, its breath reeking of burnt flesh. The cavern flared into brightness.

Mounds of gold, silver, and jewels sparkled. So much treasure, creating a priceless landscape across the enormous cavern. She gasped. It was enough to gild a dozen of the orc gods’ enormous flaming chariots.

The dragon loomed above. Red like cinnabar, it marred the cave’s glittering beauty. It bared its fangs, each as long as she was tall. Its glowing blue eyes bored into her.

Yanyan scuttled back several steps. Her chest constricted, forcing short breaths.

Its laugh shook the cave.

“Strip,” it said.

Strip? What, did it not want to taste her roughspun shift when it ate her? Hands trembling, Yanyan pulled her dress tighter around her shoulders.

The dragon’s hideous form shimmered and shrunk. Its wings disappeared into its body, and its limbs shortened and thinned. Now standing bipedal at twice her height, it looked almost human, save for the scarlet scales and horned reptilian head.

And the spade-tipped tail, which whipped out and entangled her ankle.

With a single tug, the dragon-thing dragged her closer. Its hand seized both her wrists. The vice grip chaffed as it yanked her arms above her head and jerked her to her feet. He pressed his scaly face to hers.

The stench of immolating death filled Yanyan’s nose. Her heart pounded in her ears, drowning out any coherent thought. There was no escape, unless she regained her wits. Using the breathing techniques Aralas taught her, she closed her eyes and inhaled a slow draught of air.

Her heart slowed and coolness washed over her.

There it was, the torrential vibrations from the dragon-thing’s gem ringing in her ears, as strong and rapid as when it was still a dragon.

“You will entertain me,” it said with a malevolent grin.

It extended a finger to her shift and drew the talon down. It sliced the fabric with a slow rasp, tearing down to the swell of her chest.

Her voice trembled. “Let me sing for you.”

The dragonman’s hand withdrew. It cocked its head. “Sing?”

She nodded. “A song like you’ve never heard before.” Or hear again, if she succeeded.

It loosened its grip on her wrists. Pins and needles flared in her arms as Yanyan lowered them. She grabbed the savaged neckline of her dress and pulled the severed flaps together. Such a perfect cut, not a single frayed thread. Those claws could do the same to her flesh.

“Well?” Its luminous blue eyes entangled her reflection, magnifying and distorting her trembling lips.

An icy tendril crawled up her spine. No way to draw a breath, let alone sing. She was doomed to a slow and tortuous death. Tears blurred her vision.

No. Aralas had descended from the heavens and come to her. Taught her. The fate of humanity depended on her.

Yanyan blinked away the tears. Sinking to her knees, she pressed her forehead to the ground, just as she would to one of the orc overseers. “Glorious Avarax, you honor me by hearing my song.”

“Rise.” Its voice echoed into her, the vibrations of its gemstone bending the frequency of her heartbeat.

Compelled, she rose to her feet like a puppet pulled by its master. Undoubtedly the effect of a command, just as Aralas had taught her, to use on it.

The gemstone buzzed like an angry swarm of bees, barely perceptible to her exceptional hearing. Just like Aralas said.

She sung, enunciating dozens of notes in rapid succession, tying her voice to its gemstone. With each verse, she slowed her cadence just a little, lulling river torrents into a meandering stream. Just as Aralas had instructed her.

On quivering legs, its eyelids drooped. Its breath lightened. Aralas had been right. Of course it would work. Soon, very soon, they would be together ag—

Avarax’s eyes flared open, then narrowed. Its gemstone’s pulsations quickened.

No! She couldn’t let the power slip away. She raised her voice.

The gemstone vibrated faster. The dragon’s forked tongue darted over jagged teeth.

She’d followed Aralas’ instructions exactly. Sung the music he’d taught. How could it go wrong? He was an angel, a servant of the true gods. Infallible.

Yet his song failed her. Nothing could save her now.

Except her own wits.

Listen, Aralas had said.

Still singing, she closed her eyes. Each note she sang reverberated into Avarax’s gemstone. Making the vibrations stronger. The opposite of when he’d compelled her to stand.

Yanyan abandoned the elf angel’s song, subtly transitioning to a lullaby her mother taught her. Sweet. Heartfelt. Lulling.

Its gemstone responded. Avarax’s eyes sagged again, its upright frame slouched over. Note by note, she unwound the dragonman’s vibrations and bound them up with her own. Slower and slower, weaker and weaker.

Its eyes fluttered again.

Its legs buckled. Shoulders slumping, it crashed to the floor, sending coins and jewels jingling. Motionless.

Yanyan blew out a breath. Heavens, it had worked.

For now.

She turned and fled toward the cave entrance. “Aralas,” she screamed.

With a pop, the elf angel materialized out of thin air.

“Your song didn’t work!” She shoved his slim shoulders.

It did little more than send a ripple through his golden locks. A smile brightened his beautiful features.

How could she stay angry, with her heart fluttering like butterfly wings?

“You succeeded where I would’ve failed.” His violet eyes tilted toward the cave. Then, he pointed up, to where an orc god chariot blazed across the sky. “When the history of the rebellion is written, they will say it started here, when the Dragon Charmer sang Avarax to sleep.”

***

[&JC Kang’s& unhealthy obsession with fantasy and science fiction began at an early age when his brother introduced him to _]The Chronicles of Narnia[, ]The Hobbit[, ]Star Trek[ and ]Star Wars[. As an adult, he combines his geek roots with his professional experiences as a Chinese Medicine doctor, martial arts instructor and technical writer to pen multicultural epic fantasy stories. Find his books and get on his mailing list at JCKang.info._]

Part III

Horror

1

The Highwayman

Jessie Thomas – Horror

Eliana’s tires bounced along the bike trail as she wove through the uneven terrain, spraying dirt and gravel in her wake. A swath of blinding light from her bike’s headlamp illuminated the thick coils of New England fog. If Eliana hadn’t been used to the pervasive, heavy mist on Windhaven, she might have wondered if the forest was burning.

The heart of the island was beautiful and mysterious in equal measure — a long stretch of dense forest populated by rich, vibrant tangles of indigenous flora. Night made it impossible to distinguish between colors, while the clouds of mist obscured everything else. Eliana felt trapped, like the loneliest part of the island would swallow her whole and keep her locked inside forever.

She pedaled faster, dark ponytail bobbing back and forth between her tanned shoulders, sweat collecting at the small of her back. The humidity caused her tank top to cling uncomfortably to her skin, and the chill brought on by the haze provoked a few shivers. Eliana wanted to get home before the night became any darker. Her parents, who considered her responsible for a fifteen-year-old, trusted her to get home at a reasonable hour. She didn’t want to give them a reason to renege.

Eliana wasn’t interested in lingering outside at night, either. The stories were more ubiquitous than the fog. They — and she didn’t know who “they” were, but she believed them — said that Windhaven had more ghosts than living residents. The island’s history was soaked in blood, running wild with tales of murder and war and betrayal. It seemed like everyone except Eliana had a story, from brief sightings to full conversations with Windhaven’s otherworldly inhabitants.

And it looked like her luck was going to run out.

Shapes were moving in the fog. Squinting, she found the outline of a man, then another, and then a third. They were walking swiftly toward her, a line of bright red emerging from the tendrils of mist.

“Halt!” a strident voice called out.

Eliana’s brakes wailed when she slammed on them. The three men crossed into the beam of light. It blinked erratically, but the shadows claimed it. Her pulse drummed in her ears as the three of them approached; they looked like they had just stepped out of her American History textbook. Dressed in crisp, white breeches and red coats, all three were toting muskets. They looked real enough. Eliana didn’t want to risk it.

She held up her hands in front of her, rising from the seat of her bike. “Please, I just want to get home, I—”

“What business do you have out here? The hour is late,” the middle soldier said. He stood taller than the other two, golden hair neatly coiffed and tied back with a black ribbon.

“N-Nothing,” Eliana replied. “I promise, I’m just going home. That’s all.”

“You have no regard for the curfew in place, then?” the soldier on the left asked. A scar split his bottom lip in two.

“Curfew?” she scoffed, throwing them an incredulous look. “I’m not — let me through, please. I’m not in the mood for this tonight. There is no curfew. Hate to break it to you, but you guys lost the war.”

The three of them laughed at her. Eliana frowned, inching forward on her bike, hoping to nudge past them. The third soldier, standing to the right, lifted his musket; the bayonet attached to the end was suddenly pointed at her face. She held her breath, every muscle tensed. Eliana didn’t know if it was real enough to hurt her, but she didn’t want to find out.

“Take her,” the tall one ordered. “Teach her to keep that disrespectful mouth of hers in line.”

In the next instant, the soldier to his left grabbed Eliana around the shoulders, dragging her off the seat of her bike. Eliana fought. The heavy-set Redcoat hissed, infuriated when her heel connected with his kneecap. He pinned her arms to her sides, holding her tight to his chest.

“Let me go!” she hollered. “You can’t do this!”

The bayonet remained on her, the soldier ready to strike, when the sound of hooves came pounding against the earth. Eliana looked toward the noise to see a horse break through the trees with a tall, broad-chested figure astride. The man was clad in black, a neckerchief obscuring the lower half of his face so that only his eyes were visible. He held the reins in one gloved fist and a pistol in the other.

A sharp crack rang out and the air exploded in a plume of smoke. The tall soldier yelled as the bullet hit. Wide-eyed, she watched him evaporate into the night. The soldier holding her captive let Eliana drop to the dirt. From her view, she saw something arc through the air and land in the center of the scarred soldier’s chest. He, too, disappeared. The burly soldier rushed at the highwayman, firing, causing him to be shaken from his horse. He tumbled to the ground, throwing a glance at Eliana before he pulled a second pistol from his belt.

The gun misfired.

With an annoyed grunt the highwayman disposed of the weapon, charging toward the last soldier. He grappled with him, his fists connecting with the soldier’s face, knocking the hat off his head. The soldier got in a lucky punch that collided with the man’s jaw and he swayed on his feet. Eliana got up quickly and prepared to run. The highwayman elbowed the soldier hard in the gut, loosening the Redcoat’s grip on the musket enough for him to grab it. Before the soldier could regain it, the highwayman skewered him with the bayonet. Eliana cringed as another lunge caused the soldier to dissipate, taking the musket with him.

Shocked, Eliana stood there trembling. Was she next?

But the highwayman merely tipped his tricorn hat at her and mounted his horse. She heard him whistling “Yankee Doodle” as he rode away, vanishing into the fog.

***

[&Jessie Thomas is& a writer of young adult and new adult fiction from Buffalo, New York. She graduated from SUNY Buffalo State with a B.A. in Television and Film Arts, where she wrote a feature-length screenplay that was nominated for the Michael Collyer Fellowship Award in Screenwriting from the Writer’s Guild of America, East. She enjoys weaving stories that blend fantasy or paranormal elements with some kind of historical twist. Currently, her muses are traipsing around revolutionary war-era America. Jessie has a short story, _]Noontide Sun[, now available. If you would like to chat with Jessie or trade interesting facts about the founding fathers, you can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr. Links can be found on her website. Find her books and get on her mailing list at JessieMThomas.wordpress.com._]

2

8N

Adam Hughes – Creepypasta Horror

Teddy Vaughn vanished on a Friday morning in October, but no one knew it until his son Tom found the family tractor broken down in the barn after school.

According to the story in the Brookville Banner, Tom said Teddy had blown the engine in his ancient International that spring just after he finished planting, and the old man hadn’t been able to get it going again. That’s why Tom was so surprised to see the corn field halfway harvested when he jumped off the bus that afternoon.

He could hear a tractor engine off in the distance and he swore he saw the next row of corn disappear as if it were being harvested by “a ghost.”

That was crazy talk, of course, and I chalked it up to both the boy’s age — he’s just 12 — and the stress of losing his father, especially when things are rough everywhere. The Vaughns live in the northwestern corner of Pickens county, and none of my friends or family know any of them. But their story is pretty much the same as everyone else’s this year: no jobs, no rain since June, no idea how we’re going to pay the bills for the rest of the fall and winter.

Almost a month later, they still haven’t found Teddy. The rumor is, though, that Sara Vaughn found something else: a silo full of corn and blood dripping from the tin roof. Janie Evens told me that a drop of it hit Sara on the head when she was feeding their mule the next morning.

Anyway, Teddy’s disappearance was the first in a string of incidents the old folks attribute to the “phantom harvester,” the ghost of an aging farmer who lived in this area back in the 1950s. Supposedly, the man stopped home for lunch in the middle of harvest season one fall and found his wife dead, the telephone receiver clutched in her hand. He placed the receiver to his ear to find that the caller was still on the line. It was the US Army, and they were sorry, but the couple’s son had been killed in Korea.

The old man hung up the phone, kissed his wife on her cold, blue lips, and went back outside. He climbed on his 1948 Ford 8N tractor and finished the harvest, then filled his neighbors’ silos with grain. When he was done, the farmer drove his tractor into the stock pond, where he drowned.

Since then, the story goes, the phantom farmer shows up again when times are tough. He helps the landowners of Pickens county through their troubles, but there is always a price to pay.

Of course, I don’t believe in ghosts or phantom tractors, but I do believe in hard times.

Just this fall, Sally Fisher ran off with who knows who, leaving her husband James behind to take care of their baby girl and to figure out how to manage the farm alone. And Ed Shelton turned up dead in his barn right after his wife Norma was diagnosed with breast cancer last month. Or at least everyone assumes he’s dead, considering the amount of blood Norma said she found next to their tractor, which Ed was trying to repair.

We’ve had our share of hardships, too, and the last two years have been worse than most. Last year, for the first time, we didn’t make enough from the crops to pay our mortgage, and Samuel went to work at the factory. Holding down a full-time job and tending to the farm might have killed a lesser man, but we managed, together.

This year, Samuel got laid off, and the drought wiped out half our beans and a third of the corn. It’s almost November, and now our tractor is broken down. We can’t afford to fix it, and we can’t afford not to fix it, either.

And I’m pregnant again. How can I tell Samuel? With three kids already, there are days when he doesn’t eat at all. What’s going to happen when we have one more mouth to feed?

Before I worry about any of that, though, I need to find out who is messing around in our fields. I walked to Janie’s house for lunch and, when I got back, I could hear a motor out behind the barn. I thought maybe Samuel had been able to fix the old John Deere, but it’s still jacked up, rusting, in front of the silo.

He must have been working on it, though, because I can see that he busted open his knuckle again and dribbled blood on the crankcase and front tires. He cut that hand last week, on a thorn bush he said, after we fought about money again.

I can also see that the corn is… moving… in the field. Well, really, I guess it’s not moving so much as it’s… oh God!

It’s disappearing.

***

&Adam Hughes is& a chemist and mathematician by training, an IT professional by trade, and an author at heart. He lives on a small farm in central Indiana and frequently works Hoosier climes into his stories. His stories range from sports to horror to sappy family fare, though most tend toward darker themes at least some of the time. When he’s not writing or working his day job, Adam is usually trying to keep up with his teenage son, thinking or blogging about baseball cards, or hanging out at the library with his wife. Find his books and get on his mailing list at AdamHughesWriter.com.

3

Afternoon Tea And Tentacles

Griffin Carmichael – Horror

It came lumbering up the street in broad daylight. People screamed, horrified by the malodorous, decayed creature.

One could hardly blame them, though I suspect more than a few took advantage of the commotion to evade paying for lunch, or the contents of their clutching hands. A wonder indeed how tight the grip when the object is an over-priced gadget or popular hat style.

At any rate, the creature came on, scattering people before it could manage to wrap rotting tentacles around anyone.

I finished my tea, ignoring the distressing level of noise that accompanies such events as best I could. I’d waited all day for a cup, and no vile creature from places best left undisturbed was going to deny me my one vice.

I closed my eyes with a sigh of contentment. This little cafe served the best tea, in fact had the tastiest afternoon repast I’d ever found. The few tables crowded into the small, walled patio were always full, though now I found myself alone, in the direct line of the creature’s advancement.

Well, almost alone. Sitting directly across from me was a woman in elegant day attire, a small hat with a respectable veil perched atop her well-coiffed head. She was unaccompanied, only slightly shocking in this day and age. I feared her lack of male companionship would be her doom, but I had more pressing matters to attend to than worrying about forward women being molested by beastly invaders.

The beast in question was nearly upon us. I stood and tipped my hat to the lady, a silent apology in advance for leaving her delicate person to whatever fate befell her. She gave me a tiny dip of the head and reached for her parasol, which had been hanging on the table’s edge.

I turned my attention from her without further thought. My cane was always by my side, and I took a moment before the creature arrived to release the sword inside the shaft. I tossed the ebony sheath aside and brought the sword up in a defensive position. A sane creature would pause upon sighting the blade’s keen edge.

This was no sane beast, but a maddened collection of moldy flesh dripping with the ichor of its hellish home in the depths. It waved rotting tentacles that ringed its core and came at me. Before I knew it, I was in the fight of my life, slashing and cutting at what seemed to be an endless supply of writhing limbs.

I was breathing heavily, intent on the object of my swordsmanship. Would nothing stop this vile monster? As quickly as I severed one tentacle it seemed another grew in its place. I risked a look to see if any help was forthcoming, but it seemed I must face my opponent alone. Where were the gentlemen sworn to defend our fair village from such incursions? Had everyone forsaken me?

My arm tired with the constant thrusts and slashes, my lungs struggled to take in enough of the foul-smelling air. I fell back towards the cafe entrance, hoping the owner would take pity and allow me entrance, if I could only hold the behemoth off long enough.

I missed my aim and danced quickly back to avoid a thick tentacle that darted towards my face. I knew as soon as I moved that I wouldn’t be fast enough, that the creature was going to wrap its foul appendages around me, and resigned myself to my fate.

There was a flash before my face and the tentacle fell to the ground, steaming as it dissolved on the cobbles. While I rallied and resumed my attack, another sword had joined mine and we soon made short work of the thing.

When it was little more than smoking sludge upon the paving, I turned to extend my gratitude towards the man who had belatedly come to my aid. Imagine my shock when I beheld not a strong-armed man of good character, but the lady who had shared the dining area just moments before.

I had assumed she had fled with the other citizens, but it seemed she had not. The finely-worked fabric of her parasol lay discarded behind her, and in her hand she held a thin rapier of steel.

I was speechless, and stood watching her as she cleaned to her satisfaction with a square of fine linen. She placed the soiled cloth in the reticule that still swung from her dainty wrist. She behaved as if her actions were not unusual, but were in fact the normal behavior for ladies of a certain station. I’d heard of women in the lower classes fighting monsters along side their menfolk, but never had I witnessed such actions among my own kind.

As the woman turned to retrieve the cover for her parasol, I found my voice at last.

“Madam, may I say, thank you for coming to my aid? I’d thought myself a goner, for certain.”

She simply shrugged and reinserted her sword into the casing of her frilly gewgaw.

I wanted to ask her to join me in a stiff drink, or perhaps a more dainty and appropriate jot of sherry, but that wouldn’t do. Single gentlemen and ladies unknown to them didn’t associate in such a manner, despite having just participated in joint demon-slaying.

No matter, as she wasn’t waiting for any further conversation, but was preparing to leave. She gave me an arch look, glancing at my sword.

“I find Damascus steel to be superior in these situations.”

I looked down at my own blade, forged of good iron for an ancestor long dead. It had proved itself in many situations, but perhaps I should exchange my old companion for something more suitable for rending the flesh of occult horrors.

When I looked up again, the lady had vanished. I fought many other monsters over the years, but I never saw her again.

***

[&Griffin Carmichael writes speculative fiction& — which includes science fiction, fantasy and horror — from an undisclosed location somewhere in the Southeastern United States. Various children, animals and species of plant life run rampant everywhere. Previously published work includes two short story collections, _]Zombie Town[ and ]Daily Life[, and a novella, ]Zombie Maneuvers[. Griffin has had stories published in two charity anthologies, as well as in ]Stories on the Go[, a collection of flash fiction by various authors. ]Zombie Maneuvers[ is also in the multi-author box set ]Apocalyptic Fears II[. Find his books and get on his mailing list at GriffinCarmichael.com._]

4

Echoes in the Ether

George Donnelly – Horror

“Stop, please!” Leather cracked against bare flesh once more and I cringed.

“Enough of that.” The metal belt buckle clanked to the floor. The father grunted and air burst in a gaping gulp from the boy’s mouth.

“Dad, I can’t breathe.” I tried to guess his age. Not more than twelve, I thought.

“You’re shit. You’re not qualified to wipe your own ass. You’ll never amount to anything. I should just end—”

A sharp knock sounded at the door and Dr. Herzweil sauntered into my office.

I paused the audio stream.

“Jerry? On break again? We’re all waiting on you in the staff meeting right now.”

“I found it again, boss,” I said.

Dr. Herzweil paused in the doorway, his fingerprints fogging the glass window next to it. “I thought I was clear. The voice recordings from our apps are only appropriate for machine learning and analysis. You’re breaking our terms right now.”

“They agreed to the terms. The app is always listening. That’s how the voice search works.”

Dr. Herzweil threw up his hands. “Billions of terabytes of recordings and you found just one that… what? What’s—”

“It’s child abuse, Ted!” I jumped up from my chair and strode over to him, my chest and gut still aching from last week. “This is a kid, suffering. They are beating on him, with their fists, telling him— They might kill him! This is corporate eavesdropping and what are we doing it for if not to—”

“Delete it. Bury it. Forget about it. And get into the group meeting. Now!”

Somebody screamed. I looked down at my hands. Blood. I pulled chunks of glass from my knuckles and more tinkled to the floor. Dr. Herzweil disappeared.

&“Lincoln Park& and straight down the Kennedy. I’m from Chicago so I know where I’m going.”

“Lincoln Park, yes, sir. I take you there, no problem.” The cabdriver hit the ignition button and we floated as if on a cloud out of O’Hare and into the midnight traffic. The skyscrapers loomed there above the highway like so many metal monsters — I knew it, but the gloom and the rain kept me from seeing the truth for myself.

My ear buzzed. I answered, and immediately regretted it.

“You’re in Chicago and you’d better be coming to see me,” Mom screeched.

I searched for the off button. How the hell did she find out?

“I’m waiting up, you know. I’m keeping supper warm in the oven and your father is expecting you tomorrow for Thanksgiving dinner!”

“I’m busy, Mother. And my flight back to SFO is early, so, no.”

“Why don’t you talk to your father anymore?” she whispered.

“I just don’t want—”

“You’re breaking our hearts, Gerald.” Her voice cracked.

The driver turned up his steel drum music and flew right by the Diversey exit.

“I wanted to get off there!”

“Don’t yell! Why do you hate us? We fed you, educated you. We raised you with proper discipline and morals for eighteen years!”

“Sixteen. I left early. Remember, Mom?”

“You owe us, you nasty little brat. You never would have amounted to a damned thing without us wiping your snotty nose and keeping you on the straight—”

“Take Fullerton!” The cab swerved just ahead of the divider and we jetted down the off-ramp towards a yellow light.

“Mom, this is not a good time—”

“You won’t get anywhere without us. You’re nothing, you’re shit. You think you’re so good, don’t you? Your little job with your pathetic doctor? We can take that from you anytime we please. So get your rear-end over here, young man, otherwise we’ll have another little chat with Teddy Herzweil.”

The connection died and I jabbed at the phone controls.

“Hello?” The old man sounded friendly, familiar, too calm.

“Who’s this?”

“Gerry? Dr. Herzweil here. I’m worried about you, young man.”

“I’m—”

“Come on back, you’ll be much safer in our little ivory tower here. Sorry I spoke to your parents but you forced my hand.”

“Dr.—”

“See you soon.”

The line crackled. “To listen to this message again—”

&I rubbed& the two sides of the folded pink post-it against each other in my pocket. I finally had it. Yeah, I lied to the cable company. Told them I was a cop. It’s not important. Now just a quick stop and then back to work in Mountain View.

I replayed the audio in my earbuds and hugged my arms tighter to my chest. So much violence in this world, sometimes I wish I could just be someone else, in another city, on another planet with another name.

The icy Chicago wind tore through my pants and licked at my legs. Stupid of me to not bring a jacket but who needs one in California? This was my last time in Chicago. Too many bad memories here.

I pushed through the police station doors. Heat. The dry air scorched my throat.

“Yes, sir.” The police lady narrowed her eyes at me.

I slapped the post-it note onto her high desk. “There is a little boy being abused at this address. You need to do something about it. The parents have threatened to kill him. I was never here.” I took a step back.

The woman stood up, her grandmotherly voice holding me. “Wait just a minute, sir.”

I tapped my wrist. “I’ve got a flight, sorry! I did my part. Now you do yours. That little boy is waiting.”

“Sir!”

I turned and crashed headfirst into a barrel-chest with a Bears beanie. “Oh, sorry.” I stepped to the right and he moved into my path. I laughed, moved left and he blocked me again. “Excuse me!”

The woman appeared next to me, holding the pink note between two rainbow-colored fingernails. “How did you obtain this information, sir? Did you obtain it legally?”

“Just forget I was here!” I jammed my hands into barrel-chest. The exit doors came into view.

Meaty fingers clapped down on my neck and turned me around.

“I know my rights! You can’t detain me without probable—”

Barrel-chest tapped his ear. “Hospital gown, bloody hand, dark hair, blue eyes? Yeah, we’ve got your schizo here. You coming down for him or what?”

The wind whipped through my legs. Too cold. I looked down. Blood caked on my right hand. A blue and white hospital gown flapped above my knees. What the hell?

The grandmotherly cop shoved the post-it note in front of my nose. “2536 North Diversey. Isn’t that your address? Where you live with your parents?”

I stared at the note. 2536 Diversey. That’s where my parents live.

“Bruises. All over him,” someone said from behind me.

“Yeah, about about all these bruises and cuts? Maybe even a cracked rib?” Barrel-chest raised an eyebrow at me. “Did it to himself? Alright. A minor? Okay. His dad’s coming for him. Got it. He’ll be here.”

A chill ran down my spine and my knees buckled. My dad? No!

***

&George Donnelly is& the author of space opera, robot apocalypse and dystopian science fiction series. A rebel and unreformed idealist, he believes equally in human rights and abundant hugs before bedtime. Get a new free short story every month at GeorgeDonnelly.com.

5

Tiny Trophies

Adam Hughes – Horror

I really wish that Mommy would let me go hunting with Daddy sometimes. Every fall, when the weather gets cold, it seems like he spends all of his nights in the woods with his friends, and I really miss him. But my mom says I’m too young and might get hurt. She also says that I’m hyper and might get overstimulated and hurt someone else.   I think that’s silly, and I think that Daddy thinks it’s silly, too, because he just rolls his eyes when Mommy talks like that. Even so, he doesn’t try to make her let me go. He just leaves.

I think my dad must be just about the best hunter in the whole county, because he almost always comes home with a deer.  And he’s proud of his kills, too. He’ll drag that dead deer out into the little grassy area behind the barn and whack cut its head off with one swing of Pappaw’s old machete. Daddy mounts those heads on boards and hangs them in the house, and they look really pretty. He butchers the body, and we eat the meat all winter long. I want to be just like my dad.

Mommy and Daddy don’t know it, but I’ve found a way to hunt, too. I may not be able to go out deep into the woods, but I can go into Sara’s room when she’s not around. Sara is my big sister, and she loves to collect these pretty little dolls that look just like the beautiful women on TV, except they’re toys. I like to pretend that I’m a mighty hunter like my dad, so I sometimes sneak through Sara’s door after school and tiptoe up to the dresser drawer where she keeps her dolls. When they least expect it, I pull the drawer open, jam in the knife that I took from the kitchen last year (my parents don’t know about that, either), and pull out the “deer” that I’ve caught.

Just like Daddy, I drag my kill out behind the barn and lop its head off with the old machete. I’ve cut myself a few times, but not so bad that I had to tell Mommy about it. After that, I just throw the body in the big trash can that sits out in the field. Daddy burns our trash out there, and I don’t think he’s ever seen the doll bodies. At least, he hasn’t said anything to me about it.

I haven’t quite figured out how to mount the doll heads, but I keep them as my tiny trophies, just like Daddy does with the deer heads. So, when I’m done cutting things up, I come back into my room, pull out the little shoe box from under my bed, and drop in the newest head. Someday, I’ll get them all mounted and hung on my wall, just like Daddy does with his deer heads.

I have about 20 doll heads now, and Sara has started to notice that her collection is getting smaller. In fact, she told our parents that I was taking them, but they didn’t believe her. After all, what would I want with her stupid old dolls, and where would I put them? I’m not sure they even believed her about some of the dolls being gone, but they bought her new ones anyway.

This year, Sara is in the sixth grade, and she’s been staying late after school a few times a week to practice for the spelling team. That means that I can wait until it’s nearly night time to make my kill, and I feel more like a real hunter than ever sneaking around in Sara’s dark room. I guess I pushed it a little too late tonight, though, because Sara caught me just as I was sliding along the wall and through her door.

Even though she told me to stop, I already had my sights set on the kill, and I had to get my next doll, and I did. Sara made a lot of noise about it, though. I guess I didn’t get in trouble because Daddy was out on a [_real _]hunt and Mommy went across the road to visit with Mrs. Thompson, who will be my teacher next year. Nobody heard her, but when Sara was yelling, I noticed, for the first time, that she is starting to look like one of those beautiful women, too.

&I actually think& that Mommy found the doll body in the trash can this time. I heard her come in the house and then call for Sara. Sara must have told Mommy about the doll, because Mommy went outside and then started screaming. I can’t believe that a little doll body made her that upset. She must be really mad, though, because she called Daddy on his cell phone, and he came home from the woods. It’s funny, but I think I hear sirens, too.

I think I may get into trouble for this one. That’s why I’m hiding under my bed with my little box of doll heads. I really don’t want my parents to take them away from me. I finally did figure out how to mount the heads, though. The coat hook on the back of my door was the perfect spot for Sara. She really [_does _]look like one of those beautiful women on the television, and she’s almost as pretty as one of Daddy’s deer.

***

&Adam Hughes is& a chemist and mathematician by training, an IT professional by trade, and an author at heart. He lives on a small farm in central Indiana and frequently works Hoosier climes into his stories. His stories range from sports to horror to sappy family fare, though most tend toward darker themes at least some of the time. When he’s not writing or working his day job, Adam is usually trying to keep up with his teenage son, thinking or blogging about baseball cards, or hanging out at the library with his wife. Find his books and get on his mailing list at AdamHughesWriter.com.

6

All Clear

Brian Manning – Zombie Horror

Caitlin and Kyle looked up at the tattered orange cloth on the central watch tower. It was their signal to take the perch at the south gate, just outside of the perimeter. An elevated platform, about five feet above the ground, giving them good field of view. At 16 years old, they were allowed to work the perch as a team.

Kyle pulled out his vintage Bushnell binoculars taking his position as the spotter. He didn’t need them once the undead reached the kill radius, but it made him feel safe spotting the threats as soon as they broke the tree line.

Caitlin kneeled on the platform and unzipped a soft fabric case, pulling out the components for her takedown recurve bow. Her fingers worked on instinct, snapping the fiberglass limbs into the central riser while watching Kyle scan the far edge of the perimeter. Caitlin stood to string her bow. With a draw weight of 35 pounds, it was enough to get the job done, but not too much for extended clearing missions.

“Good to go.” She nudged Kyle with the toe of her boot and tied her chestnut brown hair back into ponytail.

Kyle lowered the binoculars and nodded, letting them hang by the strap. He turned and dropped to his knee, opening a large plastic case, giving him quick access to his modern “out of the box” compound bow. Kyle was the spotter today, but he felt safer having it for backup.

A pair of zombies broke cover, shambling across the open field.

“We’ve got a couple Zs headed our way,” Kyle said, watching through his binoculars.

Caitlin took a sip from a plastic water bottle. The label had long worn off from repeated refills in the nearby creek. The crinkling of the soft plastic calmed her, as she twisted the cap back on. She pulled an arrow, a carbon shaft with feather fletching, from the quiver, seating the nock on the string with a faint plastic click.

“40 yards out,” Kyle said.

With her left shoulder facing the kill zone, Caitlin placed three fingers underneath the nock of the arrow. She straightened her body, raised the bow, and drew her arm back. She held the bow’s riser in a gentle grip, as her right index finger touched the corner of her mouth, her anchor point, signaling a consistent draw. Caitlin was anxious, struggling to control her breathing. She relaxed, exhaling slowly, and eased the tension in her fingers, letting the arrow slip into its flight path.

The bow’s fiberglass limbs hummed and rattled. The arrow sank deep into the lead zombie’s eye socket. The creature collapsed in an instant, its viral marionette strings severed.

“Nice shot,” Kyle said, lowering his binoculars. “But chill. Let the second get closer.”

Caitlin shook the nervous energy from her arms. A slight tremor in her bow arm pulled the next shot left, carving a deep gouge into the flesh of the zombie’s cheekbone. She wiped the back of her hand across her brow and pulled another arrow.

Caitlin knelt, canting the bow and aiming between the platform’s railing. Thwip. Twang. The shot struck the creature below its left eye. She smiled at Kyle, placed her recurve bow on the platform and slid underneath the railing.

“Where are you going?”

“Never seen one up close,” Caitlin said. “Gotta get over my fears.”

The creature lay still on its side, its milky eyes were unfocused. Even with most of its lean mass rotted away, it was still a big walker, built like a truck. She crouched, leaning forward and breathing through her mouth. Is that deep enough for a kill shot? Caitlin placed a hand on the zombie’s forehead and grasped the arrow with the other. She pulled the steel tip free, just as a bony claw shot out and grabbed her ponytail. Caitlin braced both hands on the ghoul’s chest, pinning it to the ground. Her left arm collapsed, slamming her elbow into the zombie’s jaw, sending a sharp burning pain through her body. Kyle’s arrow appeared in the zombie’s temple, just as the sound of a wet thunk registered, sapping the strength from the creature’s body.

“Are you alright?” Kyle’s voice had a bit of a tremble.

Caitlin pulled her hair free and stood, turning to face him. She could see the color drained from his face. He wasn’t looking Caitlin in the eye, Kyle was looking at her arm. Caitlin dropped her gaze, once again aware of the sharp sting above her left elbow. The sleeve of her flannel shirt was torn, the fabric was stained red with blood.

“I think you nicked me with that last shot,” Caitlin said. When she looked back up, she saw Kyle nocking an arrow.

“You were bitten, weren’t you, Cait?” Kyle said.

“No.” Caitlin’s voice was low. “It was probably from my arrow when I pulled it out.” She placed a hand over the wound and approached the perch.

Kyle aimed his bow at her chest. If Caitlin was bitten, she knew he couldn’t let her back into the camp. He would be putting dozens of lives at risk.

Caitlin reached the platform and climbed back up, under the railing. The point of Kyle’s arrow tracked her movement. Caitlin kept her eyes low and braced the bow, bending it over her leg to unstring it. She looked up into Kyle’s eyes, wiping away a tear with the sleeve her her shirt.

Kyle relaxed and, lowered his bow. He dropped it onto the metal grate and fell to his knees, a tear streaming down his face. Caitlin pulled the camp’s outer door open as a Kyle’s radio crackled to life.

“South gate, what’s your status?”

He plucked the radio from his belt, and held it up to his mouth, locking eyes with Caitlin. After several deep breaths the voice on the radio asked again. He wet his lips with his tongue and took another breath.

Caitlin shook her head.

“South gate…all clear.”

***

&Brian grew& up in Las Vegas, loving comic books, science fiction movies/TV, video games, ninja/samurai stuff, cartoons, and any other kind of “pop culture“ media a kid could get their hands on in the 80s. He started to truly enjoy reading after graduating from high school. Mostly genre fiction, with the majority of it being science fiction. His writing is inspired by reading comic books, and honed by playing/running role-playing game campaigns. Find his books and get on his mailing list at eviltwinbrian.com.

7

Aunt Ruby’s Jam Cake

Jaleta Clegg – Horror

“Whip that a little longer, sweetie.“ Aunt Ruby hovered behind me, her lilac-scented bosom bobbing with every breath. I was twelve that summer, when I learned her secret to making perfect jam cake.

I watched the butter and sugar whirl under the beaters of her ancient stand mixer. The heavy bowl jiggled with the beating. The scent of vanilla and roses hung heavy in the June air of her outdoor kitchen.

“You want that so light an angel could dance on top without leaving footprints.“ Her cotton dress, a shapeless bag given life and movement by her stout body, swung with each step. Her voice dropped to a scratchy whisper. “Or a fairy.“

Her hand whisked past my head, snatching something fluttery from the roses that draped the arbor shading us from the summer sun.

“Can you add the eggs like I showed you? One at a time, and slowly, child.“ She moved to the far side of the kitchen, to the long table covered in old formica, nicked and scarred by years of duty.

“Yes’m.“ I straightened with pride. Adding eggs was a grown-up responsibility, only for seasoned cooks to attempt. I carefully cracked an egg into a small earthenware bowl, then picked out the shell fragments. I slid the gooey mass into the mixer. The beaters slammed into it, mixing it into the fluffy mass of butter and sugar.

Thwack!

I jumped at the sharp noise of a knife hitting wood. An egg rolled towards the edge of the counter. I grabbed it barely in time.

“Never you mind me, child, keep your mind on your task. That’s the secret to good cooking. Always keep your attention on your task.“ The knife slammed down again.

Something tiny screamed, high and whining like a desperate mosquito.

I added another egg to the mix. The knife hit the chopping board again, and again. The screams stopped.

“One more should be enough,“ Aunt Ruby muttered.

I dutifully kept my eyes on the mixing bowl as I added another egg. I slid my gaze to the side as Aunt Ruby crossed near me. She reached into the roses, flicking petals to the side as she searched among the blossoms. Her flabby biceps quivered with each movement.[_ Church lady arms_], my mother called them. She swore she’d never get old and fat and have flabby arms that jiggled and shifted as she waved. I watched as Aunt Ruby’s church lady arms jabbed into the bushes. She pulled them back. Something tiny pinched between her fat fingers. It screamed, like the other one, as she carried it across to the chopping block.

“What’s that, Aunt Ruby?“ I ventured to ask. The last egg was whirling under the beater.

“My special ingredient.“ Her back blocked my view of the counter. The knife glittered in her fist.

“I thought rose jelly was the special ingredient, along with the raspberry jam.“

Aunt Ruby turned toward me. Her mouth curved in a smile I’d earlier thought was sweet like a rosebud. Now it seemed cruel, pinched and tight. “You’re a sweet child, but it’s time you learned that sweetness comes at a price. Turn off that mixer and come here.“

I didn’t dare disobey, not with that knife in her hand. I flipped the switch. The buzzing of the mixer died with a clatter of beaters on the bowl. The three steps across the cracked cement felt as long as a country mile.

Aunt Ruby stepped away from the counter, stretching her arm to keep something pinned to the chopping block. I moved closer, curiosity stirred despite the strangeness of my great-aunt. Her lilac scent enveloped me in a cloying blanket. I leaned over the wooden board.

She had a tiny person trapped under her fingers. The person glowed bright pink. Delicate wings fluttered, their edges torn by my aunt’s cruel grip. The face turned to me with a desperate look. Help me, the mouth seemed to say.

“Let it go,“ I begged. “It’s a fairy.“

Ruby shook her head. “They’re like weeds. Let one go and you’ll have hundreds of the things.“

I stared at the delicate creature. “What harm could they do?“

“You believe those stories, child?“ Ruby leaned close, her beady eyes hard like marbles in her puffy face. I couldn’t hold her gaze. Mine slid upwards to where her gray hair stood in wild curls. “Fairies are worse than aphids. They suck the life from your roses.“

Thwack!

I jumped as the knife neatly severed the fairy’s head. The body oozed what looked like honey. Aunt Ruby’s knife smacked down again, crushing the fairy into a paste. She scraped it into a bowl.

“They steal honey, too. I can’t have them bothering my bees. Or the chickens.“ She set the knife down. The blade dripped golden liquid onto the counter. “I can’t abide them in the roses. Now go add that to the mixer.“

I numbly took the bowl as ordered. The fairy slime oozed into the sugary mass. It sparkled as the beaters whirled. Aunt Ruby doled out the flour and spices and buttermilk, watching as each addition joined the batter. A tear slipped down my cheek and splashed into the bowl.

“Now there, child, don’t you fret. Fairies are like anything else in my garden. Meant to be used.“ She gently stirred chopped pecans into the mass. “Go fetch the jams now. It’s time.“

I handed her the glass jars, neatly labeled in her curly handwriting. Blushing pink rose jelly and deep red raspberry jam slid into the bowl, like blood. Except the fairy had bled gold. I closed my eyes, breathing deep.

Lilac, spice, rose, vanilla, and something glittery filled my nose.

“Perfect,“ Aunt Ruby announced as she spooned the batter into the heavy baking pan. She handed me the spoon to lick as she slid them into her oven.

I swallowed hard, my stomach churning at the thought of smashed fairy. The blushing golden batter oozed onto my finger. I couldn’t stop the tears.

“Hush, child. It’s the way of life.“ Aunt Ruby folded me into her ample bosom and let me cry. “Now lick your finger and tell me if that isn’t the best jam cake you ever tasted.“

I licked the spoon. It was heavenly. I’ve made jam cake many times in the years since that summer, but I’ve never had the heart to add Aunt Ruby’s special ingredient.

***

&Jaleta Clegg loves spinning& tales of magic and monsters, aliens and starships, heroes and villains. Her short stories tend to be bizarre and creepy, her novels more adventuresome. She writes science fiction, fantasy, and silly horror. Find her books and get on her mailing list at jaletac.com.

8

Heartland Hike

Adam Hughes – Zombie Horror

I almost didn’t see the old coot standing there by the side of the road, and now I wish that I hadn’t. Coming out of a sharp curve, my headlights gleamed against the metal rim of his glasses, and I caught a flash of his full figure: overalls, straw hat, something long and thin in his left hand, and, unbelievably, what looked like a corn-cob pipe dangling from his mouth. He was also moving his craggy right hand above his head in a slow and swooning “Hey, Jude“ wave that seemed to indicate he was looking for help.

Normally, I don’t pick up hitchhikers, not only because the risk is large, but also because they’re generally boring and smelly. People with interesting lives don’t usually leave them behind to thumb a ride, and a long stretch on the road doesn’t do much for personal hygiene. The sight of this guy, though, took me back to my childhood in rural Indiana, where farmers spent long days building up the dirt on their bodies but always seemed clean somehow. They were gruff in their manner and harsh with their words, but they had hearts of gold, and they fed the world and their communities. How many summer meals of fresh corn on the cob and beef roast and soft, warm rolls had I eaten as a kid, either at a farmer’s table or thanks to a farmer’s generosity? My stomach suddenly rumbled as I remembered all the help that these salt-of-the-earth types had given my family so many years ago. In other words, the old man in front of me was getting a ride.

&Jackson was his name&, he said, Jackson Todd, and he’d driven out to Stiper early in the morning to buy another old tractor to help with some of the basic chores around the farm. He’d decided to come home through the country because his loaded trailer was precarious, and, armed with an ancient army compass in lieu of a map, he’d gotten lost. As the daylight waned, his old truck started to shimmy and then something popped under the hood and steam rolled out as Jackson jerked it over to the berm. He poked around the engine for awhile and decided that he’d likely blown a head gasket. Not fixable from the side of the road, in other words.

Now, Mr. Todd didn’t know exactly where he was, but he did know that this part of northwestern Kansas was sparsely traveled on a Sunday evening and that he didn’t have a cell phone. These circumstances meant that he would have to hoof it home, and I certainly wouldn’t have bet against him, because he was fit for his age and had that hard-as-nails look that I remember so well from my youth. He didn’t want to leave himself completely susceptible to varmints or “muggers,“ as he called them, so he grabbed his rusty wrench for protection and hit the road.

By the time I came around that bend and stopped to pick him up, Jackson estimated that he’d been walking for more than four hours and didn’t really know how far he’d come. Amazingly, mine was the first vehicle to cross his path in that whole time, so he decided to wave me down, against his better judgement. He, apparently, was wary of the whole hitching scene, as well.

As we sat talking in the bucket seats of my stylish little sportster, heading in the direction of his hometown, I grew uneasy. Looking at the wrench clutched tightly in Mr. Todd’s hand, smelling the stench of the day on his body, and listening to his unlikely story of endurance, I began to feel queasy. I’m not sure why — maybe my blood sugar was crashing, maybe the desolation of the road was goading my imagination — but my mood darkened, and I knew that I had to end this ride before something bad happened. I didn’t act fast enough.

&Not everyone believes in zombies&. Those that do have varying opinions about how the undead behave and what they look like. Some say that zombies come out at night and “sleep” in graves during the day. Some say that they eat human brains and walk slowly with their super-strong arms extended straight ahead of them. The stories go on forever.

As for me, I [_know _]that zombies exist, but they’re not as easy to identify as Hollywood would have you believe.  Sometimes, they are your next-door neighbors, the same ones who blow their leaves onto your lawn in the fall. Sometimes, they are people who run those convenience stores that you occasionally visit in the middle of the night to get milk or diapers when the baby won’t stop crying. Sometimes, they are the little old men who hitch along the side of the road.  And there is always a transformation.

Tonight, when Mr. Todd looked up from the floor mat in front of his seat, with its simple Mercedes emblem which he seemed to be studying intently, that transformation was abrupt: eyes glazing over, a pallor coming over the skin, muscles first tensing and then spasming. His wild gaze was surely matched by my own as a terrible rumble grew into an animal growl. And then it was over.

&I’m pretty& sure that Jackson Todd believes in zombies, too. Or, I should say that I’m sure he [_did _]believe in zombies for those last few fleeting seconds of his life. In fact, he could have had no doubt. As for me, I’m still driving along this lonely road, wiping the last bits of brain from the corners of my mouth. My gut is already starting to cramp and now, too late, I remember that grain-fed animals always give me diarrhea.

I really wish I’d never seen that old man at the side of the road tonight.

***

&Adam Hughes is& a chemist and mathematician by training, an IT professional by trade, and an author at heart. He lives on a small farm in central Indiana and frequently works Hoosier climes into his stories. His stories range from sports to horror to sappy family fare, though most tend toward darker themes at least some of the time. When he’s not writing or working his day job, Adam is usually trying to keep up with his teenage son, thinking or blogging about baseball cards, or hanging out at the library with his wife. Find his books and get on his mailing list at AdamHughesWriter.com.

9

The Infected

Marilyn Vix – Zombie Horror

It had taken a long time to find this apartment. I was proud of the high warehouse windows that made the loft homey. A picture from my photo shoots decorated the blinds. I wanted to create change by showing people the problems in society. Pictures of the homeless and poor surrounded me on the walls.

That day, I basked in the glory of finally having my own loft studio. Hands on my hips, I stood back to look at the art deco furniture that was my answer to style.

White couches and a glass coffee table outlined my living room area. The kitchenette was to the side of my studio set up as a refreshment area. It would come in handy. I never liked to cook, and didn’t need to. We were even lucky to have an Italian place below me, though fat was my enemy then.

Everyone would be over to celebrate soon. Bobby was coming. He was the bonus for working with top models. Diane and Mark were coming too. She’d be thrilled to know I was having it all delivered from the Italian restaurant. My friends knew my bad-cooking gene.

I headed over to the wine rack when the elevator loft started to move. No one had buzzed. Its recognizable whine directed me to look at the elevator cam. A guy with a blue baseball cap holding bags of Styrofoam containers rode up with a dazed look. The whine stopped, and I saw the door move open.

“Hi. That was really fast service. Can you put the food over in the kitchen? Thanks.”

He didn’t say a word, but staggered as he followed my orders. I walked over. “So, how much is it?” I reached for my purse on the counter.

He stared at me holding the containers.

“If you put the bags on the counter, that would be great?.

There was a pause as if he was thinking about it. Slowly, he followed my directions. I repeated, “So, how much?”

Still, no answer. That’s when I noticed the bite mark on his neck. Blood was trickling down his t-shirt. He was looking at me, and not in a good way. The elevator started again. When I looked over at the doors, he rushed me. Grabbing my arms, he tried to bite my shoulder. My self-defense classes came back to me in a blinding flash, and I pulled a move that kicked him back.

The doors of the elevator opened, and my friend Mike yelled, “Robin, get back. He’s infected.”

I moved backwards keeping my eye on the distressed delivery boy. His eyes moved back and forth to me then Mike.

“Robin, move behind me. They can’t move fast once they’ve been bitten.”

I followed Mike’s instructions. He pulled a baseball bat from behind his back. “I’m sorry Robin. But this is going to get messy.”

He rushed the delivery boy and swung at his head. The crack of the boy’s skull ripped through the room as blood spattered all over my new marble counter. There was a growl from the boy as he staggered to rise. But Mike didn’t give him a chance as he swung down, and beat the top of his head in. The kitchenette was a tomb.

“Mike, what the hell is going on?” I was expecting the knight-in-shining-armor save. Not full-out murder.

“He’s infected Robin. Have you turned on your TV?”

“No, I’ve been working on my latest project all day and getting things sorted for my dinner party tonight. You said you couldn’t make it. What changed your mind?” I was trying to make light of the situation. But I was still grossed out by the spattered brains all around my sink.

“Just turn on your TV.” Mike slumped onto the couch.

I grabbed the remote and saw the ticket tape usually reserved for emergencies. Scrolling at the bottom of the screen was the message: “Stay in your homes. Infectious disease is spreading from an unknown source. Lock all doors and windows.”

“…And it appears that the spread occurs by just one bite from a victim.” The news anchor continued in an anxious monotone. “News of the disease is still being reported, but most victims cannot speak or communicate. They will viciously attack and bite. Board up windows or doors and stay in your home.” The screen cut to a picture of a victim coming at a person recording on their phone. The same vacant stare beckoned as they reached out towards the person. The struggle ends with the phone being dropped and the sound of screaming. “Stop biting me. Hell, what the….”

“Oh, just turn it off Robin. That’s enough. You should believe me now.”

I hit the remote. “So, why did you have to beat his head in Mike?” I tried not to let the iron smell of blood get to me.

“It’s the only way to stop them once they’re inside. They get out of rooms, come at you. And they’re strong. It’s not the only time I’ve done this today.”

&Now&, I had a bat in my hand and was hidden behind a barrier of furniture waiting to take out whatever diseased people came our way. We called them “The Infected.” We had to fight to not get bitten. And it came at a price. We’d already lost my friend Mike today.

Sometimes, I wish I were back in that loft, dressed warmly and feeling sane. I couldn’t go back. I looked at the single photo I had left from the wall of honor back in my old loft. It was a picture of a New York street before the infection spread. I smiled at the memory, and threw it on the fire for warmth. After all, it was a long time ago.

***

&Marilyn Vix writes& paranormal romances for women that want to forget the real world and find their new alpha boyfriend made to order from their deepest desires. She believes witches, vampires, and zombies are human at their core. Using this idea, she weaves a secret world into the depths of her stories with a splash of romance. Come play in Marilyn’s worlds at MarilynVix.com.

Part IV

Mystery

1

FTS

J. David Core – Mystery

Lupa Schwartz is an ass, but he’s an effective ass. I’ve seen him hold back just enough information on a witness stand to coerce a confession from the accused, all without perjuring himself. I’ve seen him read a newspaper article and instantly solve a cold case over 2,000 miles away. I’ve even seen him trick an assassin into murdering his own partner. He’s smart, calculating, and absolutely unconcerned with how others view him. But that’s what makes him so good I guess.

Schwartz conducts business in his home, a large Victorian in Pittsburgh’s Squirrel Hill where I’ve worked as his personal biographer ever since leaving Cleveland after the death of my ex-husband. That’s our deal; he gives me fodder for the magazine I write for, and I give him publicity. More often than not, I also give him cover, coloring him in a favorable light that hides his blemishes.

Schwartz sees clients in his study which one enters to the left off the great hall. On the right, his large teak desk abuts and sits perpendicular to the near wall. Running the length of the wall beyond the desk is a small computer stand. On that stand sits a softball-sized globe concealing a webcam. If the globe is turned so that the visitor is facing Antarctica, it means Schwartz is recording their session without their knowledge. The lens is in the South Pole.

My seat is always to the left of the entrance on a small bench under the hanging fern. It was from that vantage that I watched a Mr. Kurutty speaking to Schwartz and unwittingly to Robert Byrd. As their meeting concluded and Mr. Kurutty drove away, Schwartz loaded the video file to a jump drive; then he and I rushed to police headquarters to prevent a murder. On our way, Schwartz had me phone and insist that the autopsy of Kurutty’s wife be halted.

&There were& three of us gathered around the monitor at Detective Trevor John’s work-station watching the interview for the second time. The first viewing had been for continuity and context. The second was so that Schwartz could parse the facts. Trevor was a good man, smart enough to know what he didn’t know, and he trusted Schwartz’s talents. This was why Schwartz preferred dealing with him over all the other members of the force. I had other reasons to prefer working with him, not the least of which was how sexy he was when he played clarinet in his off hours.

As the video played through we watched Kurutty explain his situation. Somebody — he claimed — had strangled his wife earlier that morning and the police were going to probably charge him with the deed. He wanted to pay Schwartz a $10,000 retainer to find evidence and — if needed — offer testimony absolving him of the crime.

“Why do the police think you did it?” Schwartz asked.

“They always suspect the husband.”

“Do they have any actual evidence?”

“I can’t provide an alibi. We were going through a divorce.”

“That’s not evidence; it’s motive and maybe opportunity. How was she strangled?”

“Somebody used the tubing from one of my aquariums to make a noose and they twisted it from behind like a Gravatt.”

“You know a lot of assassin’s terms.”

Kurutty sneered. “Doesn’t make me a killer.”

“What kind of fish do you keep?”

“I don’t. I keep amphibians.”

Schwartz nodded. “Herpatologist?”

“Batrachologist.”

“So just amphibians? No snakes, lizards, turtles?”

“That’s right.”

“Frogs, toads, salamanders?”

“Yes.”

“Is that why your wife was leaving you?”

“I was leaving her,” Kurutty said with a confident squint. “If you must know I have a girlfriend.”

“Somebody you work with?” Schwartz asked, “A fellow herper?”

“Actually, she’s a pharmacologist, but we do work at the same university.”

“How long have you and the toxicologist been seeing each other?”

“Six months,” Kurutty said — then as an afterthought, “and she’s a pharmacologist.”

Schwartz reached forward and stopped the video. “Did you catch it?” he asked.

Trevor shifted his eyes between Schwartz and me, but I was as clueless as he was. “Catch what?” he finally asked.

“Start the video again,” Schwartz said. “I have a story to tell.”

&“That was amazing&,” I said as Schwartz and I drove home from the station.

“Not really,” he said. “Everybody knows that certain toads have toxins in their skins.”

“Yes,” I agreed, “but you knew that his wife wasn’t dead and that he wanted to be accused of strangling her.”

“Well that was obvious,” Schwartz said.

“Not to me.”

“It should have been,” Schwartz insisted. “Think about it. He carefully laid out a scenario where my investigation could only lead to the conclusion that he had murdered his wife. I would then have to return his retainer and the state would subpoena me as a witness against him. Then once he was convicted, he could easily provide evidence that his wife was not dead when she was autopsied but was under the effects of a bufotoxin derived from amphibian glands which gave the appearance of death, but that she’d actually died when the coroner drained her blood. He’d have to be freed because double jeopardy would apply since he’d been convicted of spousal strangulation, a murder he didn’t commit.”

“And you knew that because he corrected you when you called his girlfriend a toxicologist?”

“She is a toxicologist,” Schwartz said. “He used her to learn dosages and distillation. He called her a pharmacologist to distract from her specialty. But his own specialty was something he insisted upon.”

“So his vanity did him in?” I asked.

Schwartz nodded.

“But now he’s going away for attempted murder, and his wife is going to be fine in the long run.”

“Precisely.”

“A perfect ending,” I said with a flourish.

“Do you know what the best part is?” Schwartz asked. I shrugged. “I proved he didn’t strangle his wife. I get to keep the $10,000.”

Like I said, he’s an ass.

***

[&With a profound interest in religion&, liberal politics and humor, Dave began writing in high school and has not given up on it since. His first professional writing jobs came while attending the Art Institute of Pittsburgh when he was hired to create political cartoons for the _]Pitt News[ and to write humor pieces for ]Smile Magazine[. Dave has worked in the newspaper industry as a photographer, in the online publishing industry as a weekly contributor to ]Streetmail.com[, and was a contributing writer to the ]Buzz On[ series of informational books and to the Western online anthology, ]Elbow Creek[. Dave’s science fiction novel, ]Synthetic Blood and Mixed Emotions[, is available from writewordsinc.com. He currently resides in his childhood home in Toronto, Ohio with his beautiful girlfriend and his teenage daughter. He enjoys participating in local community events and visiting with his two adult children and his grandkids. Find his books and get on his mailing list at lupamysteries.blogspot.com._]

2

Murder in the Neighborhood

Jamie Campbell – Mystery

It was easy babysitting for the Murrays. Their ten-month-old was a great sleeper, easily drifting off before I laid him down in his cradle.

Grabbing the baby monitor, I flicked off the light and headed back to the mountain of homework I needed to work through during the night.

It was my senior year, which seemed to translate to so much homework I didn’t have time for a social life. Babysitting little Liam was about as exciting as it got.

I placed the baby monitor on the table and settled in for a night of Calculus. What did they say? Time flies when you’re having fun? My night was going to be really, really long.

After the first assignment, I was ready for a snack. Just as I was about to get up, a bloodcurdling scream shot through the baby monitor, quickly followed by the sound of gunshots. My blood turned to ice before melting into sheer panic.

I ran for Liam’s room, barging in through the door and expecting to see something awful. I mentally prepared myself for it with no real plan ready in my head.

But there was nothing.

Liam was still sound asleep in his cradle, his little eyelids fluttering with whatever babies dream about. He was breathing, he was completely fine.

My gaze travelled from him to the slightly-open window. If the scream wasn’t coming from the room, it had to be coming from something outside. The monitor had a good range on it. It could have easily picked up something else in hearing distance.

I didn’t want to go outside and follow the sound of the scream. Not to mention the gunshots. What I really wanted was for the Murrays to come home so I could get the hell out of there.

But someone had screamed, a gun had fired, and they would definitely need help. I grabbed my cell phone, the monitor receiver, and crept outside.

The moon was perched high in the sky, the light casting long shadows over the yard. Everything looked creepy in the darkness, making every hair on my neck stand on end. All my instincts told me to turn around and let the police discover what was going on.

But what would I say to the 911 operator? That someone screamed and I didn’t know why or where? They’d laugh at me and probably issue a fine for being a paranoid pest.

The sound of the scream still echoed in my head. It was so painful and desperate. Someone needed help out here and I needed to locate them. Hopefully I would find them before I found a serial killer.

I headed for the window outside of Liam’s room. It was open, just like his was. I didn’t know anything about the Murray’s neighbors. Mrs. Murray often referred to them as the Sinclairs. I’d seen them once or twice in passing but they didn’t look friendly enough to speak with.

Had Mr. Sinclair shot his wife? Was it her that screamed so loudly it could have woken the dead?

I crouched underneath their window, too scared to look inside yet. Once I saw what was inside, I wouldn’t be able to un-see it. The scene would be burned into my corneas for the rest of my life.

I’d never seen a dead body before. Would Mrs. Sinclair be stretched out on the floor with her brains smattered against the wall behind her? Would Mr. Sinclair be staring back me, ready to eliminate any witnesses?

My stomach churned with all the different scenarios that could play out before me. Everything could go so horribly wrong that I was frozen with fear.

I needed a plan.

All I had to do was take a quick peek and make sure I wasn’t imagining things. Then I could call the police and they would take care of everything. I could lock myself in the house and pretend I hadn’t seen a thing. Mr. Sinclair would never have to know it was me that ratted him out.

Or I could peek and the owner of the gun could see me and start sending bullets my way.

I felt sick with it all. To end my misery I needed to peer into the window. Once done, then I could take the appropriate action. If that meant running to save my life, I would have to do it.

Maybe I should have called the police? It was better to be safe than sorry, right? Would they take me seriously? I could imagine the conversation in my head and it always ended with a stern lecture about wasting their time.

There was nothing more I could do. My time had run out, I couldn’t sit there all night. I kneeled, preparing myself for a quick peek and then a fast run.

I rose slowly, my eyes finally reaching the windowsill.

And then I saw it all.

Mrs. Sinclair.

Mr. Sinclair.

They were watching Law and Order on television, intent on the murder being solved before their very eyes. They both faced the screen so I could see the backs of their heads clearly.

Relief flooded through me.

It was a fictitious murder I had heard, an actress screamed as fake bullets hit her. Thank goodness I hadn’t called the police, I would have been a laughing stock.

I returned to the house, checking in on Liam again before getting back to my homework. I never gave the Sinclairs another thought until a few hours later when I heard another noise.

Creeping to the window that overlooked their yard, I saw a figure moving. It was the stocky, overweight figure of Mr. Sinclair.

He was carrying a shovel, on the ground was a blanket wrapped around something large. He placed a lantern next to him, giving him enough light in the darkness.

He started digging.

It was a funny time for gardening.

***

&Jamie Campbell discovered& her love for writing when her school ‘What I did on the Weekend’ stories contained monsters and princesses — because what went on in her imagination was always more fun than boring reality. Primarily writing young adult romances of all kinds, Jamie also delves into murder mysteries and ghost stories. Basically, whatever takes her fancy — she lets the characters decide. Living on the Gold Coast in sunny Queensland, Australia, Jamie is constantly bossed around by her dog Claude who is a very hard taskmaster. Find her books and get on her mailing list at JamieCampbell.com.au.

Part V

Romance

1

The Bull Rider’s Proposal

Jennifer Lewis – Romance

I’ve lived my life eight seconds at a time. I can count those seconds out in my head with accuracy that would impress a NASA scientist. From the moment the whistle blows to the sound of the final buzzer, I have only one thought in my mind — hang in there. The rest is up to the bull.

This time there’s no bull to blame if things don’t go my way.

“Lucy.” My heart starts to pound and I picture myself wrapping the rope around my hand, tying myself on to sixteen hundred pounds of angry muscle.

“Hey Bowie.” She’s grooming a palomino horse, sweeping long strokes across his back while he snoozes on the crossties. Doesn’t even turn. “How’s it going?”

“Great.” My gut clenches and I get ready to take this bull by the horns. “I have something to ask you.”

Smooth, dude. Real smooth. She’ll think I want to borrow her truck.

“What’s that?” Still not even a glance.

Maybe now isn’t the right time.

The ring box in my back pocket is pressing into my butt. Ask her.

In my head the buzzer sounds and the gate opens. I step toward her. “Lucy…”

Now she turns, hearing something in my voice — an undercurrent of panic.

As our eyes meet, I’m struck by the force of my love for her. Warmth and compassion fill her soft brown gaze. She blows away that familiar stray lock that always wants to dance across her face, then her pretty smile starts to sneak across her mouth.

She knows something’s up.

But I really, truly don’t know how she’s going to respond.

It was only meant to be a one-night stand.

“I love you.” The words burst out of my mouth as emotions buck hard inside me.

Surprise lifts her brows a little. I’ve never told her I love her before. I’ve never told anyone that.

Never felt it, either.

But with Lucy…

My heart spins as I watch her face. Is she trying to decide whether she loves me, too, and whether she dares to admit it?

Or is she trying to figure out how to let me down gently?

I reach into my back pocket and put my hand on the ring box.

She wasn’t supposed to get pregnant.

That kind of news could make a guy run for the fence.

She cocks her head. “You love me? I bet you say that to all the girls.”

The defensive play. My reputation does precede me and she doesn’t want to be one in a long line of buckle bunnies.

“I’ve never said it in my life before,” I confess. “And I’ve never said this, either.”

[_Now or never. _]I pull the ring box out of my pocket and watch her eyes widen.

Excitement or horror?

Hold on tight and don’t let go. “Lucy, will you marry me?”

She blinks, and her lips move, but no words come out. ONE!

Then she bites her lip in that way that sends a rush of heat straight to my groin. TWO!

My stomach somersaults and I shift my weight in my boots feeling like a strong gust could blow me over. THREE!

I never knew I could have such strong feelings for any human on this earth. The prospect of a life without Lucy in it scares the heck out of me . FOUR!

Why won’t she answer? FIVE!

Panic rips through me and my heart starts pounding like a busted engine. SIX!

Should I ask again? SEVEN!

My whole life flashes before my eyes. Not the part I’ve already lived but the part I want to live with Lucy: building our home together; the birth of our child; sleeping together every night and waking together every sunrise, laughing over the things that go wrong and sighing over the things that go right—

What will I do if none of that ever happens?

Just as my hopes are about to hit the floor with a dull thud, she looks up. “I love you, too,” she says softly. “And yes, I will marry you.”

Something roars through me — the thrill of victory — and a triumphant war cry of joy rips from my throat.

Her sweet smile spreads across her face as I pull the ring from its velvet cocoon and slip it onto her soft finger. It fits perfectly — as well it should since I secretly borrowed one of her other rings to get the size just right.

“I wasn’t sure you were going to say yes.” The confession rushed out of me. I try to act pretty cool most of the time but around Lucy I can just be myself and say what’s on my mind. I love that about her.

Her grin reaches into that cute dimple in her cheek. “I wasn’t sure I would either. You’re a lot of man to handle.”

I try to look rueful. “I’m well broke. I just need finishing.”

“I’ve got my hands full with half-broke horses.” She shrugged, her smile shining in her eyes. “So what’s one more challenge?”

I slide my arms around her waist and my chest swells with joy. Our lips meet and the honeyed taste of her fills my senses. “I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you.”

“Impatient, aren’t you?” she teases.

“Okay, maybe I can wait.” I sigh, and try to pay attention to every awesome thing that’s happening right now — Lucy here in my arms, our baby in her belly between us, the sun behind the barn and her palomino mare getting ornery and stamping her foot. “I’ll try to take life eight seconds at a time. Starting right—”

“Now.” She kisses me so long and hard my breath gets lost somewhere and I have to gasp when she finally pulls back. “And don’t fall off, cowboy.”

***

[&Jennifer Lewis loves& heat in all its forms including spicy food, steamy temperatures and smoking hot heroes. Her romances have hit the _]USA Today[ bestseller list and have been translated into more than twenty languages — she especially enjoys seeing them in unfamiliar alphabets where she can’t even tell her name from the title. She lives in sunny South Florida where she loves walking her greyhound on the beach. You can read more of Bowie and Lucy’s story in the novel, ]His Fearless Heart[ , in her ]Men of the West[ series (which is not written in first person, present tense!). Find her books and get on her mailing list at JenLewis.com._]

Part VI

Literary

1

The Poet in the Park

Andrew K. Lawston – Literary Fiction

The poet sat on his favourite bench, surveying the well-tended gardens happily. It was not a warm day, and there were not many people. It didn’t matter. This place was his muse, and the people around him would form the stanzas of his masterpiece.

That couple over there, for example: standing a few feet apart and shouting, waving their arms in intricate patterns.

Their argument over, the couple left the park, keeping close. Reconciled, or just resigned? The poet didn’t know, and he didn’t really care. It was emotion that had enthralled him. Repressed, simmering frustration that had finally erupted into the torrent of rage that had almost shattered the park’s serenity. Yes, this was excellent material!

But it wasn’t just the people that were captivating, the poet reflected as he gazed at his other revelations.

The pigeons were on fine form. Twenty or thirty of the demented birds pottered around, bullying sparrows. Occasionally, one would struggle into the air for a determined wobbly flight to the next piece of ground that appealed to its mystifying priorities.

Daft bloody pigeons, the poet thought, chuckling. But they were canny little things. He watched, spellbound, as the gibbering flock converged on a single bench. A little old lady had just sat down, and her gnarled hand was reaching towards a brightly-coloured plastic bag. You know what’s coming, thought the poet as the birds shuffled into an expectant throng.

The old lady took out her knitting and continued working on a straggly scarf, oblivious to the indignant rage she had provoked around her feet. The poet, however, had been concentrating so entirely on the birds that their disappointment struck him like a palpable blow. For one wild second, he shared the pigeons’ impulse to peck the old hag’s toes. The pigeons considered it longer than he, but eventually dispersed grumpily. How dare a daft old woman come and sit in their park without bringing bread? It was a disgrace!

Serves you right, decided the poet, for judging by appearances. Something in that banal observation struck a sad chord within him, and he glowered at the nearest pigeon until it waddled away.

He was distracted again within a minute. Another arguing couple, perfect! All human life is here, reflected the poet happily, all pigeon life quite forgotten for the moment, and his heart leaped still further when he realised that their angry path would take them past his bench!

These two seemed angrier than the previous quarrelling lovers, but their rage was expressed with restraint. They hissed and snarled rather than yelling outright.

Closer they came, and the poet began to catch the occasional phrase. Something to do with their car. Then, as they were almost level with the poet’s bench, the voices stopped. Puzzled, the poet raised his head.

He recoiled with dismay from the accusing glares that the couple directed at him as they stalked past in silence. They had noticed his scrutiny, evidently.

The poet cursed softly as they wandered away. Was it Heidelberg who said it was impossible to observe something without changing it? He had to relax, to become one with the little park, if he wished to learn its deepest secrets.

The poet slouched lower in his seat, closed his eyes, and listened with an intensity that surprised even him. He was quickly rewarded.

A teenage girl sat on another bench near him. She was wearing dull clothes and a sad frown. She clutched half a loaf of sliced bread. But the pigeons didn’t care. She was between the ages of seven and seventy: pigeon logic put her bread-bearing potential at negligible; there was no room for her in their world.

The poet watched, moved in spite of himself, as the girl desperately threw a few dry crusts on to the path. They lay there, ignored. Snubbed by a damn pigeon, how wretched must that feel? The girl started to cry.

It was as though the whole park had sensed her misery, and the poet gasped as a sparrow darted from beyond the distant fountains, homing in on the crusty wholemeal snack decorating the pathway.

And of course, if there’s one thing pigeons hate more than tight-fisted grannies, it’s sparrows getting a lucky break.

Within a minute, the ground around the girl was boiling with the squabbling birds. The poet started to chuckle as he felt the girl’s spirits rising with all the simple attention she was receiving. Wouldn’t this make the perfect crescendo?

The poet’s mood soured, and he looked away from the happy scene. It was too contrived, too saccharine. He wanted nothing to do with it. He looked instead at the small child that was dashing towards him, desperate to show the poet the four-leaf clover he had plucked from the lawns with his chubby hands.

The poet didn’t want to get involved with his poem’s subjects, but he smiled at the excited little boy in any case. Then he heard the mother’s voice, careworn and shrill.

“James! Be a good boy. Don’t bother the man!”

The poet nodded at James to indicate that he should probably listen to his mother. Then he nodded at the lady in question before forgetting them both. He settled back to ponder an interesting rhyme scheme that had just occurred…

&The mother took& James by the hand and led him back towards the sandpit. She would have to tell him off, later. She had warned him not to talk to strangers.

And he had to pick the strangest, she thought as she glanced back.

His hair lank, his clothes mud-stained, the drunk sprawled over the bench.

“Eee… Ohh… Eee… Ay…” he chanted softly, his bloodshot eyes staring into space.

***

[&Andrew K. Lawston& grew up in England’s New Forest, before studying French, Philosophy, and Film at the universities of Bordeaux and Birmingham. Initially training as a French teacher, Andrew lasted six months before running away to London to work on magazines. Twelve years later, Andrew works as a publishing professional, and lives with his lovely wife, an excitable puppy, and an aloof black cat. In his spare time, when not writing quirky short story collections such as _]Something Nice[ or French translations like ]Story Of My Escape[, Andrew acts in local theatre productions for charity, watches ]Doctor Who[, and cooks curries. Find his books and get on his mailing list at AndrewLawston.blogspot.co.uk._]

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Acknowledgments

Andrew Ashling kicked off this project with his Stories on the Go anthology in 2014. Bite-Sized Stories is Stories on the Go #2 and we thank Andrew for his hard work.

Fellow author Alasdair C. Shaw suggested the name of our series: Flash Flood.

A big thanks to KBoards, where the 24 authors behind Bite-Sized Stories planned this work.

Cover artist Jes Richardson at Cover Bistro volunteered to make the Bite-Sized Stories cover and donated the final result.

My personal thanks to my co-editors Raquel Lyon and J. David Core.

Our greatest appreciation goes to you, dear reader, for giving these stories a few moments of your time, and hopefully, leaving us a short review to let us know if you liked them or not.

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About the Editor

Former altar boy turned truancy fugitive, George Donnelly is an expat vagabond who prefers zombies to aliens but is primed for any meatspace apocalypse minus grey goo.

George discovered science fiction on July 4, 1980 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, Welsh Road Branch, when his dad got him an adult library card. Now a single dad with one son and two rescued cats, he’s currently working on the next books in the Rork Sollix series.

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Bite-Sized Stories

From a creepypasta horror farm to a bullish love tale and from the bloody metal deck of the ESS Arclight to superhero octopus food trucks, you can transform your shortest stolen moments into utter delights with this diverse collection of 33 flash fiction stories. Commuting to work? Grabbing a quick coffee? Each story tells a complete tale in but a few short minutes with the added promise of a lifelong introduction to new indie writers. You never know, you might just find your next favorite author. This collection, the first in the Flash Flood series, is a special selection of master works with a variety of genres and voices guaranteed to keep you engaged. Sign up now (see inside the book) for future flash fiction anthologies themed for Halloween, Christmas, Valentine's Day, May the 4th and Independence Day.

  • ISBN: 9781941939109
  • Author: George Donnelly
  • Published: 2016-09-23 18:50:27
  • Words: 38667
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