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Journey From My Attic: An Eclectic Collection of Short Stories

JOURNEY FROM MY ATTIC

An Eclectic Collection of Short Stories

 

by Heidi Bromund

 

 

Copyright 2016 Heidi Y Bromund

All Rights Reserved

 

First Shakespir Edition

ISBN: 9781370912292

 

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 your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Table of Contents

Introduction

Preserved Treasure

The Way We Were

Murder at Midnight

Subject 259

When the Red Rose Bloomed

The Road to Hades

Dancing With Myself

Apartment 4B

Revolution Ignited

Love to Live

Devil’s Peak

About the Author

 

 

Introduction

 

Journey From My Attic is a collection of short stories written while studying the craft of writing. As a result, the stories vary widely from tragedy to comedy, science fiction to dystopian, covering a wide range of styles and genres.

 

Preserved Treasure: Fiction

A fortune lies at the bottom of the Baltic Sea and one man’s greed will do anything to obtain it.

 

The Way We Were: Fiction

How do you walk away gracefully from a marriage falling apart?

 

Murder at Midnight: Mystery

A detective must work quickly to solve the case before his client is murdered.

 

Subject 259: Science Fiction

A soldier finds himself trapped in an unusual maze.

 

When the Red Rose Bloomed: Tragedy

There is no furry like a woman scorned.

 

The Road to Hades: Tragedy

A drug addict faces a final confrontation with her addiction.

 

Dancing With Myself: Comedy

A drug addict struggles to break away from her addiction.

 

Apartment 4B: Science Fiction

A mysterious message leads a young cadet to apartment 4B but will it be the salvation from those who stalk him or his final doom?

 

Revolution Ignited: Dystopian

An explosion leads a young woman to a face to face confrontation with the leader of the revolution.

 

Love to Live: An index story

A young man faces love, death, and life.

 

Devil’s Peak: Fantasy

A young woman finds herself trapped within the mysterious Devil’s Peak. Will the king of the mountain ever let her leave?

 

 

Preserved Treasure

 

“You can’t sell those treasures. They belong to everyone.” Dr. Edvin Magnusson, Head Archeologist of the Sweden Maritime museum wiped the sweat off his brow with the back of his hand despite the arctic blast from the overhead vents.

“Save me the sob story,” Viggo said, pushing the muzzle of the revolver against the back of Edvin’s head. At six feet in height, he towered over the diminutive doctor. The late hour insured no one would stumble upon them. “Get me the map. There’s a fortune to be had at the bottom of the Baltic.”

Keys rattled in Edvin’s hands as he sought the correct one for the cabinet. The top drawer rolled open revealing the only document housed inside. With trembling hands, Edvin pulled it out. Red marked the locations of the wrecks.

“Don’t get any ideas,” Viggo said, grabbing the map.

“How did you learn about the Johanna?” Edvin asked. He took a few steps back as if distancing himself would save him from the gun. “No one is supposed to know about it yet.”

“Let’s just say a mutual friend decided he could make more money helping me than working under you.”

Edvin’s fists clenched. “Otto.”

“That’s right.” Viggo chuckled, looking up from the map. “He was a wealth of information. It’s going to be as big a find as the Vasa, right?

“Where is he?”

Viggo shrugged. “He was supposed to meet me earlier but never showed. More money for me.” Viggo looked back at the map, his eyes searching the locations. “So what would you say the value of the objects down in her hold are worth?”

“They’ll be worth nothing if brought up improperly. “ Ignoring the gun, Edvin stalked forward. “The Baltic is a natural preserver. If you don’t respect that you’ll destroy the artifacts.”

Viggo raised the gun. “That, my good doctor, is where you come in. Otto was going to assist but since he’s run off, well, you’ll have to do.”

“What make you think I would help you steal our national treasures?”

Viggo extended the arm holding the gun. “If you don’t I’ll kill you right now.”

Edvin frowned, his eyes darting around the room. “I can’t just disappear. It would be reported.”

“The director will find your letter in the morning.”

“What letter?”

“The one explaining how you received an emergency call to assist the Odyssey Marine Exploration Company in the North Atlantic with their find. What I wouldn’t give to get my hands on all that silver but I’ll take my treasure where I can find it.”

Edvin turned away, his hands tugging at his hair.

“What will they find tomorrow, Doctor? Your letter or your body?”

Edvin dropped his hands, a sigh of resignation leaving his lungs. “I will assist you.”

 

The dark waves lapped against the hull of Viggo’s boat. A chill breeze brought a whisper of fog to swirl about. Edvin sorted equipment on the deck. He hated to admit it but the treasure hunter was well prepared.

Footsteps creaked against the wooden planks as Viggo came down from the pilothouse. “As long as your coordinates are correct we’ll make our first dive at dawn.” Viggo draped a heavy arm over Edvin’s shoulders. “If they’re not correct then you and I will be dissolving our partnership early and the fish will find themselves with something new to eat.”

Edvin shrugged out from Viggo’s grip. “If you want the safety precautions in place by dawn then stay out of my way.”

“Careful, Doctor. You might make me think you don’t want to be here.”

“The only reason I’m here is to protect the artifacts at the bottom of this sea from soul sucking rats like you who only care about monetary value of treasures and not the history they can show us ”

“Aww, you’re making me blush.” Vigo grinned, leaning back against the railing. His foot knocked into one of the bags Edvin brought aboard, the clink of glass sounding a musical note. Vigo reached in and pulled out a bottle of vodka. “Why, Doc, you’ve been holding out on me.”

Edvin glared. “That’s mine.”

“You can share.” Viggo tipped his head back, downing half the bottle. “You know what your problem is? You let your principles get in the way. Life isn’t just about research and studying facts.”

“Do enlighten me.”

Viggo took another swig. “Life is about mon…”

The bottle slipped, shattering on the deck. Gasping, Viggo’s hands gripped his throat. His eyes bugged while his lips turned blue.

Glass crunched under Edvin’s shoes as he crouched. “Let me enlighten you as you seem to not have anything to say at the moment. History and facts are what defines us. Research can save lives. For instance, if you’d done some research you would know there is no such wreck as the Johanna. Do you think you are the first treasure hunter to try to bribe or force me to give up valuable information? I will do whatever it takes to protect these treasures.”

Viggo wheezed. “Otto—“

“Is still my loyal assistant. He’ll be along shortly. You’ll join the others I’ve deterred at the bottom of the Baltic. Who knows, some day a treasure hunter may discover you and try to sell you for profit.”

Glass cut Viggo’s face as he slumped to the deck. One more breath wheezed from his body, the sound of a motorboat the last thing he heard.

“Ahh, Otto, right on time.”

 

 

The Way We Were

 

The sultry tropic air swirled in through the opened patio door.

“Talk to me, baby,” Dan said. The bed he sat on sagged with his weight, the mattress long past its expiration date like everything else in the hotel room.

“You know I don’t like it when you call me baby.” Gloria leaned against the doorframe, looking out into the Miami night.

“You used to.”

Gloria sighed. “That was a long time ago.”

Dan ran his hand through the short strands of his hair as he looked at the ground. “This only works if you talk to me.”

Gloria twisted her wedding ring around her finger. “What more is there to say? We came here to try to rekindle something, but it’s not working. “

“I thought since we spent our honeymoon here that maybe…“

“That maybe what?” Gloria turned to face him, her eyes narrowed as she took in his slumped posture. “This place has turned into what we are- old and rundown.”

“I don’t want to lose you.”

“You have a funny way of showing it.”

Dan jumped to his feet. “I show you every day. I’ve provided you and the kids a terrific house in the best neighborhood. The kids attend the highest rated schools. You have every luxury I can give. What more do you want?”

“Do you really want to know? I want-“

Dan’s cell phone buzzed on the nightstand. He checked the caller ID before bringing it to his ear. “Can this wait?” He glanced at Gloria and held up his finger.

Gloria rolled her eyes and turned back to the night, tuning out the one-sided conversation in the room. When she heard Dan click the phone shut she crossed her arms and looked at him over her shoulder. “There’s your answer.”

“To what?”

“To why this marriage isn’t working. It’s too crowded.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“You really don’t get it? We are supposed to be on a second honeymoon, but you brought the whole office with you.”

“They only call me when there’s an emergency.”

“Well, that whole place must be full of morons since they seem to have an emergency ten times a day. Heaven help them if you ever quit. The whole business would crash to the ground.”

“Very funny. What do you expect me to do? Business doesn’t stop just because I leave for a week.”

“Well, life doesn’t stop because you can’t step away from the office.”

“I’m doing the best I can.”

Gloria slashed her hand down. “It’s not good enough. The kids deserve more than a part-time father and I deserve more than a part-time husband.”

“I’m more-“ The cellphone’s ringing cut him off.

Gloria threw up her hands as he answered. As he argued with the person on the other end of the line she went to the closet, pulled out her suitcase and tossed it on the bed. Without bothering to fold her clothes she dropped them in the luggage, moving to the dresser once the closet was clear.

“What are you doing?” Dan asked, placing his hand on the drawer, preventing her from opening it.

“What does it look like? I’m packing. There’s no point in me staying.” She tried tugging the drawer open again but he wouldn’t move his hand. “Let go.”

“Stop. Let’s talk about this for a minute.”

“I’m done talking. We’ve been talking all week. It’s time to face facts.”

He grabbed her shoulders, yanking her to face him. “I don’t want to lose you. I love you.” Sweat poured down his creased face.

She raised her hand to his cheek. “Love just isn’t enough anymore. The way we were is no longer enough.“

“What about the kids? We can’t-“

“The kids will be fine. It will be an adjustment but they’re not benefitting from us arguing all the time. In the long run, we’ll both be happier.”

“Please.” His voice was just a whisper as he leaned into her hand, his eyes wide as a tear traced a trail down his cheek. “I-“

The phone buzzed for attention. They both froze, staring into each other’s eyes, a thousand words passing unsaid.

The corner of Gloria’s mouth twitched. Pushing up on her toes, she pressed her lips against his for a moment. Tears gushed from his eyes but hers remained dry as she pulled back from his grip. “It’s okay. It will all be okay. The office needs you.”

“But you don’t.” He closed his eyes, lowering his chin to his chest. The phone fell silent.

She placed her forehead on his. “I’m going to try to catch a flight home tonight. We’ll make some arrangements and then talk to the kids next week.” She moved away, pulled the dresser drawer open and placed the last of her clothes in the suitcase.

“Gloria, I’m sorry.”

She glanced up at him, a sad smile on her face. “I know.”

He opened his mouth to speak but the phone reminded them of its presence.

“You’d better get that. It’s probably important.”

The phone jumped on the bed, demanding his attention. He moved to grab it, walking like a man thirty years older. “Yes,” he said into the mouthpiece, sitting on the edge of the bed with his back to Gloria. “No, we discussed that last week.”

The click of the door made him flinch. He lowered his hand from his ear, the voice of the caller fading away. He stared out the open patio door, the sultry tropic air swirling around him.

 

 

Murder at Midnight

 

Darkness shrouded the street of warehouse row. Huddled in my ancient Cadillac, I desperately wanted to turn the heat on, but couldn’t give away I was here. One street lamp flickered its pale light, but my car kept in the shadows; where I operated best.

My name is Michael McCormick, Private Investigator.

My coffee had become room temperature, which meant it was only slightly better than Lake Michigan in January. My breath fogged the air as I struggled to read my watch in the dim light. 11:53. According to the call I received earlier the evidence I sought would happen at midnight.

Headlights flashed behind me and I ducked lower in my seat. A black BMW drove past, and even though it slowed, I didn’t think anyone noticed me. My gut sent warning signals again when I recognized the license plate. Mr. Thwarp’s car. The windows were too dark for me to see the driver, but my investigation revealed he didn’t let anyone else touch his baby. The rumble of the engine faded as the car turned the corner, heading down the street that dead-ended at the warehouse. Giving Mr. Thwarp a few minutes to make it inside, I inched out of my car, wincing when the door squeaked.

 

 

The day Amanda Thwarp walked into my postage stamp office, trailing CHANEL No 5 behind her, was the day I did what I promised I never would; I let emotion lead my decision to take a case. Petite and elfin, honey blond curls framed a porcelain, heart shaped face. She’d removed large shades revealing red-rimmed eyes, the left one surrounded in a swirl of sick greens and dark blues. “Please help me,” she’d said, a tear sliding down her cheek. “My husband wants to kill me.”

 

 

A gunshot came from inside the warehouse.

I rounded the corner, my feet pounding my location. Light burst from the dead end street, catching me like a cockroach. I froze as a car engine revved.

The BMW sped towards me. Flying through the air on impact didn’t erase my carelessness in rushing head first into danger. The only consolation I had as I bounced on the cracked asphalt was I’d logged the phone call and location into my secret file.

 

 

A week after Amanda walked into my office the first phone call came. It was a muffled voice warning me to back off. Every few days the conversation repeated. A trace confirmed the calls came from the Mr. Thwarp’s office. His office building was large enough that a good lawyer could argue that it was purely circumstantial, but I religiously recorded each call and logged it, updating my secret files. My secretary was the only other person who knew about them. If anything happened to me, I wanted a trail to point toward the most likely suspect.

 

 

The squeal of brakes and the opening of a car door were faint over the wheezing of my lungs. Footsteps drummed out my requiem. A blond angel in a trench coat crouched beside me

“Amanda?” My voice was only a whisper. “Run before he gets you, too.”

Amanda brushed a strand of hair off my forehead. “You really are a shining knight, Mr. McCormick. Thank you, for getting me the last bit of proof I need,” she said.

“What?”

It was then the gun in her gloved hand came into focus, the barrel pointed at my head.

“You found every bit of planted evidence.” She huffed. “You almost made it too easy.”

“Wha… what are you talking about?”

“Did you really think the great Mr. Thwarp would stoop to murder to get rid of me?”

“The pre-nup-“

“Protects him. He would grant me a divorce in a heartbeat, but then I would be left with nothing.”

“But, your family money.”

She laughed. “You should have dug deeper. There is no great family fortune. I was a nobody when I married him and I refuse to become that again. You are the final piece to ensure that doesn’t happen.”

I coughed, feeling a trickle of blood run down my chin. “How?”

“When your body is discovered, along with my husband’s registered gun he carelessly left beside it,” she tisked, “the threatening phone calls you documented and your blood on his bumper will insure he goes away for your murder. Prison is such a dangerous place. Pre-nups don’t apply when people are dead.”

The clues clicked into place. “Was any of it true?”

“My marriage is on the rocks, if that makes you feel better.” She stood, taking a few steps back.

I inched a hand out to her. “Wait. You don’t have to do this. We can work something out.”

She shook her head. “If only that were true. Unfortunately that honor code that made you jump on my case won’t let you dismiss what you learned tonight.”

I pushed up on my elbows, gasping from the pain in my ribs. “They’ll investigate. They’ll see I what I found on your husband, know it’s false and they’ll start to suspect you.”

“Don’t worry, it’s been covered. You’re secretary, Barbara isn’t it, will live long enough to get the files. Most will be destroyed, but just enough will be missed to get the ball rolling. It will take a few months before my husband finds himself behind bars, but I’m a very patient woman.”

I surged up, collapsing back to the ground just as fast. “Leave Barbara out of this. I’ll tell you how to find the files.”

She smiled. “Chivalrous till the end. Plans have already been made. I’m afraid it’s too late to change them.”

“Please don’t.” My voice was barely a whisper.

Footstep approached from the warehouse, a dark shape silhouetted in the streetlamp. “The shells are cleaned up. No evidence will be found in the factory,” the newcomer said. “Want me to finish him?”

“No, I’ve got this one,” Amanda said. “Goodbye Mr. McCormick. Your services are no longer needed.”

 

 

 

 

Subject 259

 

Lt. …ler, respond….ease. …ome in. Confi… sight… Rep… cord… Co…

Static hissed by Lt. Gabriel Miller’s ear. Unable to open his eyes, he struggled to remember what happened.

He’d been on a training exercise in the middle of the Nevada dessert.

One of the privates had noticed a large, cylindrical object.

A sergeant had shouted “incoming AGM.”

Gabriel ran even though he knew he wouldn’t escape the kill zone.

There was a flash of light.

He was airborne.

Darkness.

Another hiss of static pulled him from his memories. The ache in his body told him he wasn’t zapped. If he was dead then he wanted a refund. Pain wasn’t supposed to be part of that deal.

He groaned as he stretched out a hand. Cold metal provided a hard resting place. A slight vibration rattled through the metal.

“Pull it together, Miller,” he said softly. “You’re just in a meat wagon.”

Static hissed again.

“You going to get that?” Miller asked the medic he assumed was in the ambulance with him.

There was no reply.

Taking a deep breath, he forced his eyes open.

“What the…?” he said, jerking upright. He braced a hand against the ground as the metal box spun around him, or was it his head spinning?

Blinking a few times he took another deep breath. When everything was still he struggled to his feet. Metal surrounded him on all sides, no doors or windows visible. The plates beneath his feet still vibrated.

“Hello?” he said, looking for cameras. “My name is Lt. Gabriele Miller. Service number—“

A panel slid up on the wall to his left.

Moving silently, Gabriel went through the opening. A corridor stretched into the distance. The back of his neck tingled as if eyes watched him, but he still saw no sign of cameras.

“All right, soldier, time to use the training Uncle Sam gave you. If you were brought in, there’s a way out.” With a quick glance over his shoulder, he worked his way down the hall.

Two hundred steps later another panel slid up to his right. A round table sat in the center of the small space. On the table were stacks of green bills.

Gabriel narrowed his eyes. Who would leave a pile of money on a table?

A swish sounded behind him. On the opposite side of the hall another door opened. Glancing in the new room he saw another table, a familiar looking knife in a leather case resting on it. Stepping into the new room, he picked up the case. Turning it over he found G. Miller burned into the dark brown leather.

Pulling the hunting knife from the holder he watched the light dance off the blade he knew was razor sharp. “How did you get here?” He’d left the knife back in his barracks since regulations frowned on him bringing a personal weapon to the training exercise.

A light hiss reached his ears. The door was slowly closing. He darted through the opening back into the hall with just seconds to spare. The room with the money was already sealed. Strapping the holster to his thigh, he moved further down the hall, his steps more confident.

Finally reaching the end of the hall, two new corridors branched off to either side. Both looked exactly the same. “I guess it comes down to eenie, meenie, minie, moe,” he said under his breath.

Something tinkled in the distance. He paused, straining his ears. From the corridor to his right, the soft strain of music grew in volume. Voices, though indistinct, gave the impression of a large gathering. The tinkling sound repeated as if crystal glasses were bumping against each other. A burst of laughter rushed towards him.

About to step towards what sounded like quite a party, he glanced down the left hallway. Light illuminated about ten feet of it. Staring into the darkness his instincts put him on alert. A distant pop, pop fought to be heard over the celebration behind him.

Moving towards the darkness of the left hall, the popping repeated. He knew that sound. The gunfire increased, accompanied by a distant scream.

“This is…ph…ny. We… inned. Send back…p”

Gabriel was running before he’d fully distinguished the words. Soldiers were in trouble.

The sound of battle magnified. Explosions rocked the corridor around him. Dim light strips along the floor gave just enough visibility to keep him from colliding into a wall.

He reached the end of the hall, crashing into a solid barrier. He banged his fist against it. The screams of dying men reverberated through the wall. Running his hands along the paneling, he searched for a button to activate what he hoped was an invisible opening, like the other doors.

“Let me in,” he shouted, kicking the wall. He turned; ready to run back down the hall to search for anther way around when he heard the swish. Darting through the opening, it took him a moment to realize the sounds of battles had ceased.

“Help me,” a small voice called.

Glancing to his right he stiffened. A small girl stood on a platform. Just behind her, a man stood. “Thug” was the first descriptor that came to Gabriel’s mind. The thug pointed a handgun at the little girls head.

“Just walk away,” the thug said. “This doesn’t concern you.”

“Let her go,” Gabriel said, taking a step forward.

“Stop. I’ll pull this trigger right now.

Gabriel froze. “She’s just a child.”

“And her deadbeat of a dad owes me money. If he doesn’t pay in the next few minutes her blood will cancel his debt.”

Gabriel glanced around, searching for anything to end the standoff. A computer panel was just to his side. “How will you know if he pays the debt?” he asked, studying the panel.

“My associates will send a message to the computer there.”

Two raised buttons were on the panel, a red circle, and blue square. The platform the little girl stood on was a red circle. The thug shuffled his feet on a blue square painted on the floor. Gabriel looked back at the panel.

“Thirty seconds,” the thug said, pressing the barrel against the little girls head.

“Choose,” a deep voice echoed from hidden speakers.

“What’s that?” the thug asked.

Gabriel spun around. “Choose?”

The buttons lit up. “One must die.”

“I’m not dying!” the thug shouted. “This little brat will go before me.”

Gabriel dove towards the panel, pressing the blue square just as the gun went off.

The little girl screamed. Gabriel looked up. The girl was huddled up in a ball, lying on the ground. The thug was gone, a hole where the blue square had been.

Gabriel ran over to the child. She screamed again as he pulled her to him. “Shh, sweetie. It’s okay I’ve got you. Are you hurt?”

The girl lifted her head tears streaming down her cheeks. Glancing around she trembled.

“He’s gone,” Gabriel said.

The girl threw her arms around his neck, burying her face into his shoulder.

Gabriel ran a hand down her hair. “You’re safe now. What’s your name?”

“Amber,” the girl said.

“Amber, how did you get here?”

Amber pulled back to see Gabriel’s face. “I, I was in the park. There was a light and then that man was pointing the gun at me.”

“How old are you?”

Amber sniffed, running a hand under her nose. “Seven. I want to go home now.”

“I’ll get you home. I promise. “

Gabriel stood, pulling Amber to her feet. He heard the familiar swish and a panel opened in the far wall. “Let’s go.”

They traveled another corridor.

“How much further?” Amber asked in a whisper.

“I’m not sure,” Gabriel said.

A bright light flashed. Light poured into the hall, the edges of a new opening just visible if Gabriel squinted.

“That’s the park,” Amber said, excitement on her face. She started to run for the door, but Gabriel held her back.

“Hold on a minute,” Gabriel said. He inched towards the door, more details revealed the closer he got. Trees edged around a swing set and monkey bars. A fresh breeze poured towards them, the scent of pine and cedar chips carried on the wind. “I guess this is the way out.”

Amber screamed.

Gabriel spun around. Amber was held in the arms of the strangest creature he’d ever seen. The creature stood seven feet high. The torso and head were humanoid but the rest of the body reminded him of a praying mantis. Stick like arms with three fingers gripped Amber so tightly that drops of blood were streaking down her arms.

Gabriel had never believed in aliens, but he had no other explanation for what stood in front of him. “Let her go,” Gabriel said, inching his hand towards the knife strapped to his leg.

“You can go, human,” the alien said, sounding as if he spoke with several rocks in his mouth. “The young one stays.”

“I don’t think so.” Gabriel drew his knife and threw it at the head of the creature.

The alien ducked so the knife missed, but it was enough of a distraction that it lost its grip on Amber. She wiggled free, racing towards Gabriel.

A shadow passed over them and Gabriel saw the outer door beginning to close. “Run,” he said to Amber.

“What about you?” Amber asked.

“I’ll be right behind you, just go.”

The alien roared and charged towards them.

“Go now!” Gabriel said, pushing Amber towards the door then turning to face the alien.

Gabriel rushed towards the alien, managing to throw it off balance for a moment as they crashed together. Landing a few punches to the alien’s head, Gabriel fought with every ounce of training he had. Purple blood poured from the creatures nose and it hissed in anger.

Before Gabriel could land another blow, the claws of the alien wrapped around his arms and threw him to the floor. Gabriel landed on his stomach. He tried to push himself up, but the alien’s foot slammed him back to the ground.

Claws gripped the side of his face, squeezing till Gabriel felt warm liquid running down his chin. His head was yanked back. He saw Amber run through the door just before it closed.

“She got away,” Gabriel said. His head was jerked to the side, the crack from his neck echoing in the hall. As darkness returned, he smiled. “She got away.”

 

A shrill whistle blared from the console in the control panel till the clawed hand of Head Researcher Manthos turned it off. “Subject 259 is expired.”

“It appears it doesn’t matter if the child is male or female,” his assistant said. “The soldiers will defend the small ones.”

“Prepare to transport his body back to the site of the explosion.”

“The human authorities have already retrieved the other bodies,” another subordinate said.

“I know these humans. They’ll search again till they find all the dead. Make sure he looks like he was destroyed in the blast.”

“How much longer for these pointless tests?” Another voice asked.

“Pointless, General?” Manthos turned towards the head of the military. “If we are to find the most passive way to conquer the humans then my research is necessary.”

“How so?”

“Coming at them head on will only cause them to defend themselves, risking an unnecessary loss to your troops as we’ve seen time and time again with the soldier units. We must find a way to distract them so they don’t see our true intentions until we are ready.”

“Subject 260 is prepped to enter the maze,” the assistant said.

“Excellent,” Manthos said, turning back to the console. “What are the stats on this unit?”

“260 is male, a worker at a street named Wall. These units are reported to value material items.”

“Interesting. Set up the Amber child against the green paper in the shredder room. Let’s see which one he chooses to save.”

 

 

When the Red Roses Bloom

 

He brought me roses to show his love. Every weekend for over a year and each dried petal I kept in a cedar box. When the roses stopped I clutched the dead promises. He’d left me, but roses would bloom again tonight.

When I stepped from shadow he flinched, and his gaze locked on aimed cold steel, the trigger burning beneath my finger and weighty as the question I must ask.

“Why don’t you love me?”

My hand shook, trembling like my heart when he’d left and given his pledge to another’s soul.

Words poured from his lips in a broken stream: Don’t. Wait. Darling. Please.

My finger slipped when he grabbed for the gun and his words, silenced in fire…

On his chest, a red rose bloomed as he dropped upon a concrete field that sucked warmth from his body. I fell upon his chest and my tears watered the growing rose. We were meant to have a lifetime, but only memories were left, and scattered petals from a broken cedar box.

One option, as voices shouted and sirens played his requiem. The roses had always connected us and would again. The barrel pressed against me, my own red rose bloomed on my chest.

 

 

The Road to Hades

 

The shaking started in her hands.

“Kore.” Soft as butterfly’s wings his voice eased into her mind.

With a muttered curse she stumbled from the bed, her tank top and shorts strangling her body. “Not real, not real.” If she repeated it enough times she might believe it.

Threadbare curtains whispered against her fingers as she parted them, hoping the view would distract her. Caked on dirt blocked any chance. Ice met her forehead, her breath fogging the glass. There was nothing to see anyway, only one lonely streetlamp that barely illuminated the circle of sidewalk below it.

“Kore come back. I miss you.”

Ghostly fingers brushed against her neck, making her jump.

“Kore—“

“Shut up, Adam!” The voice always sounded masculine to her. Like Rumpelstiltskin, she thought naming him would make him go away. “You’re not real.”

She yanked the curtains closed, stalking towards the kitchenette. If she couldn’t sleep maybe she could force down a few bites of toast. Flipping on the light scattered the roaches. If only she could banish Adam as easily.

She picked up the loaf of bread, staring at it. The thought of opening the bag made her stomach roll. With a shriek, she threw it towards the sink. It bounced off the counter, knocking over the Styrofoam pyramid of to go boxes and scattering the food in varying stages of decay contained within. She swallowed her gag as the rot filled her nostrils and stung her eyes.

She paced back towards the bed, tugging the roots of her shorn hair. Nerves in her arms and thighs jumped as if someone plucked them like guitar strings. Her feet tangled in the dirty clothes carpeting the floor, the ground rushing up towards her face. Her hands slammed against the dresser, breaking her fall but not preventing her knee from cracking against the opened middle drawer. She struggled to breathe past the throbbing radiating up her leg.

“I can make it better.”

Kore’s head snapped up, meeting her reflection in the mirror above the dresser. Shadowed eyes gazed back, sunken cheeks drained of color outlined her emaciated face. She looked deeper into the mirror, trying to locate her soul and claim it back. “Please go away.”

“You don’t want me to.”

There were times she could see Adam as a blurry shape. She would catch him out of the corner of her eye but if she looked dead on he would disappear back into the imagination that conjured him.

Like a persistent lover set on seduction, Adam eased up behind her left shoulder. “Come on, Kore. A taste of butterfly’s wings and you’ll soar again.” His shadow darted down.

Her eyes followed him, coming to rest on the brightly colored tablets nestled within the sandwich baggie. The imprint of a butterfly marked each one. She blinked at them, wondering how he’d pulled the stash from its hiding place at the back of the middle drawer. Her hand reached for the baggie.

“No,” she yelled, turning away and sinking to the floor.

His breath tingled her right ear. “From the first moment, I saw you I knew I had to have you. Remember how Z arranged for me to steal you?”

Her hands covered her ears even though she knew it wouldn’t block him just like it didn’t stop the memories of her first and last frat party two years ago. The house had been pulsing with a beat. A strobe light flashed, creating one shapeless mass of dancers. The sickly sweet scent of alcohol filled her oversensitive nose. She’d retreated to the kitchen to hear her own thoughts.

She wasn’t alone. One of the fraternity brothers, who introduced himself only as Z, asked if she liked to play pool and offered to show her the basement. Like a naïve puppy, she’d followed him downstairs, eagerly taking the wine cooler he handed her. Thirty minutes later when the Ecstasy kicked in she quit wondering why a cot was opened next to the washer and dryer. When he pulled her to the cot, removing clothes along the way, the part of her that wanted to object no longer had a voice.

“You stayed with me for two days, everything I hoped you’d be, but then you wanted to leave.” Adam sulked for a moment. “As much as I hated it I would have let you go, but then you couldn’t resist tasting some of my beans.” Pleasure rang in his voice.

“The first ones were free.” Tears slid down her cheeks. Humiliated and craving the high she’d experienced, she was easy prey for the dealer in the club. Promising it would just be the one time, she’d swallowed the pills, not realizing she would be forced to return again and again.

“And now you’re mine.” Phantom hands settled on her shoulders.

She surged up, clenching her teeth. “Not. This. Time.” She stumbled to her feet, determined to grab the pills and flush them away. Spasms in her legs caused her to crash back to the floor with a yelp.

Her hair fluttered back. “You’re in pain. It’s getting worse and I can’t stand to see you so sad.”

A sob worked up her chest. “No… I can’t. Please, just—“

“One pill to take the edge off.” As conniving as a snake and just as deadly he pledged to help her.

Kore crawled to her bed, the pill bag she didn’t remember grabbing clutched in her hand.

“Just one more and then I’ll leave you alone,” he promised.

“You’ve said that before.” She slowly opened the baggie. “But I know how to get rid of you for good.”

She sensed his confusion. With a quick jerk of her wrist, all the pills landed in her hand. She swallowed before he could object. As one last chilled breath rattled in her lungs she smiled. “Goodbye, Adam.”

 

 

Dancing with Myself

 

I spun around in a circle, humming a cheesy song. Dust swirled up from the carpet. I really should vacuum, but I liked how the specks floated around me, as if I was in an enchanted fairytale, just waiting for my prince charming to show up.

My prince charming for the past two years is named Adam. He is what you call a figment of my imagination, a psychosis induced side effect of the Ecstasy I’ve taken on a daily basis, but hey, he makes me laugh. However, every good fairy tale has to end and it’s time for mine to change. Now I just have to find a way to tell Adam that.

Hello Kore, may I cut in?

I smiled and let Adam take me in his arms. “What took you so long?”

Traffic.

I giggled. “It’s after midnight and you don’t drive.”

What can I say; it’s been a busy night.

“Don’t play innocent with me. I know how you operate.”

His ghostly fingers brushed against my forehead. And how is that, baby?

“Don’t try to sweet-talk me, either.”

But I like talking sweet things to you. It’s why I’ll always come back.

“Adam—”

I remember when you first started calling me that.

“I thought figuring out your name would make you go away.”

Just like Rumpelstiltskin.

“I didn’t like you very much then.”

No, but I grew on you. What have you been up to?

“Z came to see me.”

I always liked Z. Remember when he introduced us?

I thought back to the frat party two years ago. The pulsing music could be heard down the block. I’d found Z in the kitchen, mixing drinks. He’d offered me a wine cooler and showed me to the basement so we could talk.

Sitting on a cot set up in front of a washing machine, I cracked the seal on the wine cooler, my foot tapping out a nervous beat. Z asked if I would like to try something to help me relax. At my shy nod, he dropped a little tablet into my drink. Thirty minutes later I’d had my first introduction to Adam.

So where has Z been keeping himself? I haven’t seen him in awhile.

“He cleaned himself up a year ago.” I started twirling.

You’re full of energy tonight.

I backed towards the kitchen. “I have discovered coffee. I can’t get enough of it. Did you know that little all night shop down the street has over eighty different varieties? There are twelve blends dedicated to chocolate alone.”

Can’t say I’ve seen it. I may be jealous. I thought you were only addicted to me?

I flipped the light switch to the kitchen. “Coffee is amazing.”

Adam chuckled. I love what you’ve done with the place.

I glanced at the pyramid of decorated coffee cups covering the counter. “I’ve tried fifty-nine varieties so far.”

As well as found a use for the leftover cups.

“I’m planning on building the Leaning Tower of Pisa next. I’ll call it the Tower of Beensa. I’ll need to invest is some good glue. Do you think the Cairo museum would like a picture of my pyramid replica?”

The roaches seem to love it.

I laughed as several of the critters crawled over the precariously balanced structure. “I thought they could use a more stylish motel. Z tried to demolish it earlier, but I stopped him.”

Where is he now?

“He thinks I need to switch to decaf. He should be back soon.”

The front door opened and Z walked in. “Alright Kore, I found some low caffeine blends. I even picked up some more cups so you can continue your germ infested skyscraper.”

I bounced out of the kitchen. “Hey Z, and it will be the Tower of Beensa, not a skyscraper.”

The bags dropped from Z’s hands. “What did you do to your hair?”

Adams’ fingers grazed my scalp. I was curious about your hairstylist as well.

I tugged on the ends of my shorn hair. “Do you like it? It’s called the I-have-an-old-pair-of-scissors-and-couldn’t-take-the-ends-of-my-hair-brushing-my-neck look.”

Z took slow steps towards me. “I was gone for thirty minutes.”

Adam huffed. It suits you, love.

I smiled. “Adam likes it.”

“Adam’s here?” Z didn’t bother glancing around. “Great.”

Adam snorted. He used to be fun.

“Boys, don’t fight,” I said, heading toward the dresser and the mirror above it.

My knee cracked against an open drawer. “Oww. Z, did you have to leave the drawers open?”

“You could have closed them,” Z said at the same time Adam asked why did he open all the drawers?

“He was looking for all my hiding places,” I said.

Z put his hands on his hips. “It’s for the best, you know that.”

What’s going on, Kore? Adam asked.

“You can’t keep living like this.”

You’re scaring me, love.

“Once you get him out of your system, you’ll be much happier.”

We have a good thing

I threw my hands over my ears. “Shut up!”

“Are you talking to him or me?” Z asked.

“Both of you.”

“Kore, you know he’s not—“

“Don’t say it. Just…butt out for a minute, Z. I need to talk to Adam.”

“Fine. I’ll put this stuff away.” Z picked up the bags he’d left by the front door.

“Don’t knock down my pyramid,” I shouted.

“I wouldn’t dare,” Z called back.

I took a deep breath as I felt Adam’s warmth by my shoulder. “Adam, we have to break up.”

What?

“You’re no good for me.”

I’m perfect for you.

“Z says you’re holding me back. I think he’s right.”

That’s just great. After all that I’ve done for you.

I turned so that I was leaning back against the dresser. “I was going somewhere before you. All I do now is wait for you to show up.”

His voice went low, working his soft seduction. You won’t be able to stay away. Give it a day and you’ll want a taste of butterfly’s wings. You want one now.

“Z dumped my stash. He knew all my hiding places.”

Not all of them. Look.”

I felt his hand on mine as I pulled it out of the drawer I’d stuck it in. A baggie filled with a few bright tablets was clutched tightly in my fingers.

Go on, he whispered in my ear. It will be just like old times.

“No!” I shoved away from the dresser. “I can’t keep doing this.”

“Kore, what’s… where did you get that?” Z stood in the doorway.

You missed one, dingbat, Adam said.

“Adam,” I said in warning.

“Adam gave it to you? I don’t think so. Hand them over,” Z said, moving towards me.

Adam’s hands shoved against my shoulders. Kore, hide in the bathroom.

I ran into the bathroom, slamming the door just as Z got there.

Z pounded on the door. “Open the door, Kore. You’ve gone a week already. Don’t blow it now.”

Adam’s hand brushed over my hair. Take one. It’s much better than coffee and way more fun than building replicas from empty cups.

“Z’s going to take me to a place that will help me get over you.”

And after, when you’re all alone again?

“He’ll be there for me.”

How about one last time?

“Adam.”

I just want one last dance with you.

I looked at the baggie clutched in my hand.

One last goodbye.

I pulled a tablet from the baggie, balancing it on my finger.

Go on, Adam whispered

“Kore, don’t do this,” Z said, his voice coming from the crack beneath the door. “Just let him go. I promise to catch you, just make the choice.”

Don’t listen to him. He’ll leave you, just like all the others. I’m the only one you can depend on. I’m all you have.

“Shut up. I can be free of you. Leave me alone.” I dove towards the toilet, dumping the pills and flushing them away. I jumped to my feet, spinning around. My chest heaved as my gaze darted from corner to corner. “Adam?”

The door slammed open. Z lowered his foot, looking from me to the toilet, and then the empty baggie.

“He’s gone,” I whispered. “He’s gone for good.”

Z held his arms open and I ran into them.

“I’m so proud of you,” Z said against my hair. “Come on, let’s celebrate. We can go get flavors sixty through seventy from the shop and we can add some new structures to your roach palace.”

I laughed. “But you said I needed decaf.”

“I’ve changed my mind. A little caffeine never hurt anyone.”

 

 

Apartment 4B

 

“If you want the truth, come alone.”

I’d found the note this morning. For five years I’d survived the games. How ironic that on the day of my twenty-third birthday, it all might just come to an end.

For weeks, the tingles had been going down my spine. Hidden gazes followed my every move. Whispered conversations silenced when I drew near. I knew I had to go on the offense. It would take all the training I’d received at the academy and I was top of my class.

I quietly began poking around, shaking down a few informants. The note was my first break.

I slid into an empty booth, filling a cup with sugar and cream before a worn out waitress arrived with a bitter brew that had probably been in the pot for hours. High backs allowed some semblance of privacy. I wasn’t sure which of my contacts would come through or how long I would wait. Patience was a big part of the game.

“I hear you’re looking for information.”

I straightened in the booth. I couldn’t place the scratchy voice coming from behind me.

“Who are you?” I asked, taking a sip of joe and darting my gaze around the diner.

“Doesn’t matter. What’s it worth to you?”

“I can give you five if you have what I need.”

“Oh, I do. Place it in a napkin and slide it back.”

I did as asked, feeling another hand brush mine as the napkin was slipped from my grip.

“Well?” I asked when a few moments had passed.

“Wait two minutes,” the voice whispered.

“And then what?”

Silence was my only answer. I sprung out of my booth, but there was no one. I looked down at the other table. Written out in coffee was 4B. Only one apartment building in town had four floors.

 

I spotted the lookouts easily. A first-year cadet could have.

Sloppy.

Slipping by the guards I darted inside the building and worked my way to the fourth floor. I pulled my weapon, peaking carefully around a corner. One guard stood outside of 4B. I had to get him away from the door.

A few bottles littered the floor beside me. I kicked one over and crouched low. Footsteps stomped towards me. The big oaf paused a moment just out of sight. When his hand reached around the corner I grabbed it, throwing him to the floor. Before he could let out a yell I had him gagged and his hands cuffed behind his back.

I raced to 4B. Taking a deep breath, I checked my weapon and kicked in the door.

“Happy Birthday!” was shouted at me.

I jumped, several Nerf darts shooting from my gun, one sticking to the glasses of my best friend Kyle.

“I’m glad that wasn’t a real gun,” Kyle said. “I finally got you!”

I laughed. “Someone should probably go untie Matt.”

Kyle raised a glass. “To the Academy class of 16.”

 

 

Revolution Ignited

 

I can’t feel my legs. The thought trickles from the darkness my mind is in.

Acrid smoke fills my lungs. Wracking coughs bringing the taste of bile and ash.

The pungent scent of charred meat activates my gag reflex.

Screams for help reverberate in my ears.

Blood drips down my face, each drop heightening the pounding in my head.

Why is it so dark? Where am I?

My eyes snap open and refuse to close again no matter how much I will it. One of Dante’s nine circles greets me.

Fires blaze in piles of rubble, the flames roaring like a ravenous beast seeking its next victim. Smoke billows in dark red columns, making twilight of what had once been an ideal spring morning.

To my right, a giant lays on his side, his eyes wide and unseeing. His entire body is scorched black. The beast must have already licked his body. Cracks bisect his chest. His arm is in pieces beside him, a jagged stump by his shoulder.

“It’s a statue,” I say, my voice horse.

Memory stabs behind my eyes. I’d looked at the obsidian statue of President Calloon of New Earth as I walked in the lobby of the Central Government annex. I stopped by its base to calm my racing heart. Red and orange lightning flashed, and thunder louder than the cannons they fire on New Order Day pierced my ears. My feet left the ground, then the darkness.

I look at what I can see of the lobby’s remains. The once proud pinnacle of glass and steel lies in ruin, twisted abstract beams mocking the symmetry and order the building represents. It reminds me of photos of the wreckage left behind after World War IV. It had taken twenty years for the world to recover.

This must be what Dante imagined when describing the City of Dis. I am in my own personal Inferno. I squint my eyes, seeing twisted black forms moving through the smoke.

Demons!

Fire sparks from their hands, the sound of popping corn following the sparks. One by one, the screams fall silent.

The crunching of stones makes me turn my head. A demon looms over me, darkness where his face should be.

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here,” I quote, and the demon cocks his head.

“Apt words for this place.” The muffled voice comes from the figure beside me.

“Are you a demon?”

He snorts. “There are those in the government who think I am, but no.”

“Are you Charon?”

The figure looks around then crouches by my side. “Do I look like a ferryman? Though to be fair there are those I’ve helped send on their journey to Hell.”

I look at the assault rifle in his hands. “Are you going to kill me?” I swallow, holding my breath.

“Should I?”

I look up to where I think his eyes should be. “I’d rather you didn’t.”

Rich laughter booms from his chest. He reaches up, pulling a hood off to reveal a man in his early thirty’s. “I’ll reserve my decision for later, then. You look banged up enough already.” He brushes his fingers over my forehead and I wince as his feathery touch skims an especially tender spot.

“Did you do this?” I ask, tilting my head to the destruction.

The man blinks, holding my gaze. “I had a hand in it.”

“Why?”

He looks down. “So it is wanted there where the power lies.”

I recognize the line. “You’ve read Dante.”

“Don’t look so surprised.”

“You think you’re on a divine mission?”

His lips twitch as he looks up. “More like guiding one.”

“So you’re Virgil then?”

“Not quite. My name is Mattus Quinn.”

My eyes go wide. “The rebel leader.”

“I prefer freedom fighter, but close enough.” His eyes narrow as he studies me. “Who are you?” His finger plucks the sleeve of my shirt. “No uniform so you’re not a government worker and anyone who can cite Dante Alighieri is not a meek little brainwashed citizen, especially since I would wager the book was banned long before you were born.”

“I’m Leilla Dalreen.”

He stills. “Was your father Cadim Dalreen?”

I nod, feeling lightheaded.

He gasps. “No wonder. You must have had access to thousands of contraband books at the university.”

“My father believed that knowledge should never be hidden.”

“I’m sorry they killed him for it. What are you doing here?”

“Hoping my permit to leave the city would be approved. Fourth times a charm, right?” I try to smile but hiss when something pulls in my cheek.

Mattus frowns. “You know they’ll never approve it. Being the daughter of a convicted radical means you’re one mistake away from being killed yourself. Talking to me won’t help your case, either.”

I blink rapidly, feeling weakness spread, my breathing growing shallow. “I have to try.” Darkness creeps across my vision, but not before I see another black-clad fighter run up, his gun pointed at my head.

“Stop!” Mattus holds up his hand just as my body goes limp, my eyes closing.

Strong arms lift me into the air.

“What are you doing?” the second fighter asks. “She should be killed like the others.”

“We don’t kill the innocent. If we leave her here, the inquisitor will have her executed because we left her alive.”

“Look at her. With that much blood loss, she’ll die anyway.”

“Not if I can help it.”

My consciousness flees before I hear anything else.

 

An annoying beeping pulls me back from the dead. The sharp tang of antiseptic tickles my nose. A soft surface is beneath me. I suspect I’m in a bed. I force my eyes to open, seeing a standard medical room, though the equipment looks outdated.

There is a scrape of a chair leg against the tile and I turn my head to see Mattus sitting beside my bed.

He smiles. “You’re back.”

“Where…” My voice is raspy.

“Welcome to the revolution.”

 

Love to Live

 

I remember

 

I remember the first time I saw you, the rose in your dark hair. The silk of your red dress hugged your hips, flaring around your knees as you twirled.

 

I remember your shyness when you said yes to the first date. Your cheeks blushed and I almost didn’t hear the answer, your voice was so soft.

 

I remember that little black number you wore on our first anniversary. Every guy in the club watched you. You could have gone off with anyone, but you chose to stay with me.

 

I dreamed

 

I dreamed of you every night. Your smile lit my world. Your laughter was the soundtrack accompanying every fantasy.

 

I dreamed of taking you to Ireland after our debate. I wanted to see if the clover really was as green as your eyes.

 

I dreamed of the day I would ask you to be mine; how my ring would look on your finger.

 

I danced

 

I danced with you on the beach, the waves our orchestra.

 

I danced with you in my apartment, laughing with you when we knocked over the lamp. My downstairs neighbor thumped on the ceiling. It only made us dance more, his thumps how we kept rhythm.

 

I danced with you at the fair. The local band never made it beyond their fifteen minutes of fame, but I would hire them in an instant just to dance with you again.

 

I smelled

 

I smelled the warm summer day as we lay on a blanket in the park. The grass had been freshly cut, fresh soil added around the flowerbeds, and a cashew vendor roasted nuts nearby.

 

I smelled the peaches in your hair. The sweet scent burst from every lock. Any time you wore it down I grabbed a bit so I could bring it to my nose. I know you grew frustrated with me at times for the action, but I couldn’t help myself.

 

I smelled the warm vanilla in your skin. Combined with your hair I started calling you my Little Dessert. You asked why and I said how you reminded me of peaches and cream. You laughed, but I saw a warm spark in you every time I said it.

 

I touched

 

I touched your hips when you wore the red dress again just for me. You wanted to cook a home meal. The meal had burned and you cried. I came up behind you, pulled you back against me and murmured it was all right.

 

I touched your arm. It was so soft as my fingers ran up it. I turned you away from the stove, pulling you into my arms for a dance.

 

I touched my lips to yours. We’d kissed before, but this one had more heat, more promise. We’d dated for a year and never moved beyond a kiss, but I didn’t mind. I enjoyed the journey with you too much.

 

I touched your hair; my fingers tangling in the long length as I pulled it from the style you’d confined it in. Your hair should always be free.

 

I touched your cheek, looking into your soul. I half expected you to slap me as I whispered we should skip dinner and just go straight to dessert. Instead, you smiled and took the lead in our dance, guiding us to the bedroom.

 

I tasted

 

I tasted spice on your tongue. You had sampled the sauce before adding it to the beef. The spice heated my blood.

 

I tasted your skin. My lips followed the zipper of your dress down, moving back to your neck as I pushed the silk off your shoulders.

 

I tasted the saltiness of your tears, as we lay wrapped in each other’s arms hours later. You promised they were happy tears. To prove it you tugged me over you and we explored each other again.

 

I saw

 

I saw the sunrise, bathing your skin in a warm glow. Highlights shown in your hair as it draped over your shoulder and down your back.

 

I saw your chest rise in slow, even breaths. You looked like an angel, so peaceful in your sleep.

 

I saw your eyelids flutter as you chased dreams and I wondered if you dreamed of me.

 

I saw your sleepy smile as I kissed your cheek. You turned toward me snuggling into my chest and telling me it was too early.

 

I said

 

I said you were beautiful. You huffed, saying I must be half blind, no one looked beautiful before the first cup of coffee. I said you did.

 

I said I love you for the first time. Your eyes flew open and your jaw dropped. I teased that flies would get in if you weren’t careful, but really I was terrified I’d said it too soon.

 

I said I was born under a lucky star when you said you loved me, too.

 

I asked

 

I asked if you would join me for dinner. I had reservations for Mauricio’s. You promised to wear the red dress again.

 

I asked your dad for his blessing.

 

I asked you for your hand.

 

I heard

 

I heard you gasp, the other sounds in the restaurant fading as I waited for your answer.

 

I heard you say yes, well, shouted more like. Applause filled the room as you jumped into my arms.

 

I heard the plans you and your girlfriends made, not realizing I’d come into the house. I never knew so much planning went into one event. I shook my head, wondering where you would find a dozen doves, but I never doubted you would pull everything off.

 

I heard the phone call that changed our entire lives.

 

I cried

 

I cried with you as you sobbed in my arms. Cancer. The silent killer was working its way through your body.

 

I cried into my pillow at night, knowing you weren’t there to see me. I tried so hard to stay strong for you.

 

I cried with you when your hair fell out after the weeks of chemo. You knew how much I loved your long hair. You asked how I could stay with you. I asked your dad to help me a moment as we disappeared into the upstairs bathroom. We both came back out with our hair shaved off. It was the first time I’d seen you laugh in weeks.

 

I promised

 

I promised that we would beat the cancer together.

 

I promised our wedding would still take place, and we would take our honeymoon in Ireland. I still wanted to see which was greener, the clover or your eyes.

 

I promised I still loved you and always would.

 

I smiled

 

I smiled when you called to say the round of treatment was done.

 

I smiled, as you grew excited once again for our upcoming day. It wouldn’t be as grand as before, but as long as you became mine in the end we could have held the wedding in the backyard.

 

I smiled to think it was only a month away.

 

I died

 

I died when your father called me. At first, I couldn’t understand what he was saying. He’d had a funny feeling and checked on you in the night. The ambulance was too late.

 

I died when asked my opinion on what should be sent to the morgue for you to be dressed in. The red dress was all I could say.

 

I died as I stood by your graveside. I stayed as they lowered your casket in the ground. I listened to the platitudes that at least you were no longer suffering. I kept my anger inside. How would they know? How dare they say something so inane?

 

I died even more at your wake. People said they understood how I felt. Again I bottled the rage. The only other person who could claim that was your dad. I left early, no longer able to stay.

 

I mourned

 

I mourned when our wedding day came. Jack Daniels was my only companion.

 

I mourned anytime I heard music, saw a carnival, or a couple dancing. The pain sliced through my heart.

 

I mourned my way out of life. For a year I let the depression take me, refusing to see friends, barely functioning at work.

 

I mourned till your dad came to see me. His words that day were harsh, but out of love. He said you would be ashamed of me. You lived life to the fullest and I was just letting the gift of mine drift away.

 

I traveled

 

I traveled to your grave. I hadn’t been there since the day they buried you. I begged your forgiveness, for not being the person you expected me to be.

 

I traveled to Ireland and saw all the things we’d planned to see. The clover was a pale second to your eyes.

 

I traveled to other parts of the world, sometimes convincing your dad to come with me.

 

I lived

 

 

Devil’s Peak

 

Julian, the Mountain King, sat beside the unconscious girl lying in his bed, willing her eyes to open. His heart still raced, though less fiercely as when he watched her fall from the land bridge into the swirling whirlpool fed by the force of three rivers converging. It was only because the shadow of his mountain was cast over the glen edging the whirlpool that he’d been able to pull her free before she drowned.

The curse placed on his people only let him move with in the mountain, which fortunately included its shadow, and even with that much freedom he couldn’t cross the boundary of water. Intense pain racked his body if he tried and his arm had burned like fire raced over it when he stretched out his hand in a desperate grab for her arm.

Julian brushed his fingertips over her forehead, the chill coming off her skin numbing his fingers. He tucked the blankets tighter around her body. A fire roared in a hearth nearby, but its heat did little to combat the cold beneath the rock.

“Please, Talea, wake up,” he said, once more stroking her skin.

Though never meeting face to face before now, Julian felt as if he knew this girl better than some of his own people. Magic filled the mountain and one of the peculiarities when he became king was he could read the thoughts of the outsiders when their minds drifted to the peak. Considered haunted, the mountain instilled fear in the hearts of the dwellers in the nearby village of Setlin. They’d named it Devil’s Peak and wouldn’t even stand in its shadow if they could help it.

Talea was an exception. Instead of being frightened, she was fascinated. Several times a day, despite multiple admonishments from her mother to stop daydreaming, her thoughts drifted to the mountain, filled with curiosity about the ghost he was supposed to be. He was able to rifle through her mind, learning her name, and her fantasies about exploring the mountain. She was bored with her lot. A farmer’s daughter didn’t have much opportunity for adventure.

“Mhmm.” Talea’s head shifted from side to side.

“Talea?” Julian leaned closer, holding his breath.

“Where am I?” Her voice rasped and her eyes remained closed.

“You are inside the mountain.”

Her eyes went wide and she tried to sit up. Coughing racked her body and she collapsed back against the pillows.

“Easy,” Julian said, his hands pressing against her shoulders. “You’ve been unconscious for a few hours. What do you remember?” he asked once her coughing subsided.

“I was riding to the village, delivering Kayus plants. There’s an outbreak of Shims and the doctor needs them.”

“You stopped on the bridge.”

Her eyes clouded for a moment, her brow furrowing. “Yes, I usually don’t get a chance to see the mountain so close. I couldn’t help myself. I was beside my horse. I…how did I end up here?”

“A group of riders raced by from the other direction and your horse reared up. He knocked you into the whirlpool.”

“Is he alright?” She tried to sit up again, but Julian held her down.

“He’s fine. He ran back towards your farm.”

“My satchel! I have to…”

“Your satchel is here and you need to rest,” Julian said firmly. “You nearly drowned. If I hadn’t been watching, you would have. As it was, I barely grabbed you in time. You passed out as soon as I got you on dry land.”

Her mouth parted on a gasp. “You’re him, aren’t you?”

“Hmmm?”

“You’re the Mountain King.”

He gave a slight bow. “Julian, at your service.”

She tugged her arm from beneath the covers and poked Julian’s shoulder. She glanced to his face, back to his arm, then back up to his face. “You’re not a ghost.”

He chuckled. “No, I’m as real as you are.”

“How, I mean why… Where did you come from?”

His eyes crinkled and his lips twitched. “Well, many years ago my parents were married and about a year later—”

“That’s not what I meant,” she said, frowning.

He fought to remove the smile from his face. ”The reports of my people’s demise were a little exaggerated.”

“You mean there’s no curse?”

His posture stiffened and darkness seemed to rush in from the corners. “Oh, there’s a curse.”

“Sorry,” she said quickly, her breath quickening.

He took a deep breath, smoothing his features. “Not your fault.”

The crackle of the fire filled in the silence.

“Thank you for saving my life.” Talea gave him a tentative smile.

Julian returned the smile. “It was my extreme pleasure.” He traced her lips with his fingertips. “So lovely.”

She jerked her head to the side, trying to inch back from the tight bind of the covers. “I… I should get up.”

He tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, catching a scent of roses mixed with river water. “I’ll get one of our healers and if he says you are well enough, I’ll show you around my mountain.”

“No, I mean thank you for the offer, but I need to get home. My family will be looking for me.”

He picked up her hand, sandwiching hers between his, and looked at her with an apologetic smile. “I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Once you enter the mountain you can never leave.”

#

Julian slumped on his throne. He hated to leave Talea alone so soon after dropping the rockslide of news she couldn’t leave on her head, but the healers said the news was urgent.

The plague was growing worse.

Already dangerously low in numbers, the plague was decimating the population left in the trap with him. It had claimed his sister and brother-in-law only a month earlier, leaving their five-year-old daughter Emaline in his care. And now his niece was showing the initial signs of the illness. The last surviving member of his family, Emaline meant the world to him. He couldn’t lose her too.

“What about the girl, Sire?” Hedrid, head of the counsel, interrupted the king’s thoughts.

Julian glared at the old man, for the thousandth time wondering why the plague had taken so many good men and left the old thorn-in-his-side alive. “What of her?”

“Shouldn’t she be down in the mines with all the other trespassers?”

“She did not trespass on our mountain looking for our moonstones. I brought her here.”

“Be that as it may, the law states—“

“That the punishment shall match the crime,” Julian interrupted before the old windbag could get started. “She has committed none. I have other plans for her.”

“Such as my Liege?”

Julian sighed. “Our kingdom is in need of a queen as you have so frequently reminded me.”

Gasps escaped the throats of the other council members. Julian glanced around. Only the guards’ faces maintained their neutral expression.

“You would put an outsider on the throne?” Hedrid asked.

“I would insert new blood into a dying people,” Julian said. “Talea is full of fire. I have seen her mind. She will bring a new vitality to our kingdom as my wife and hopefully, within a short amount of time, a new heir.”

“But what if she should escape?”

“Then I’ll have another problem to deal with. Now if you will stop pestering me about what ifs, I believe we gathered to discuss the healers latest findings.”

Julian barely kept the glee in his mind from showing on his face when Hedrid’s lips thinned. He refused to be dictated to in the matter of a wife. Though it hadn’t been his initial plan that Talea would fill the roll, her timely arrival had given him the perfect solution. Part of him did feel bad she would never again see her family, however in time she would come to accept her place. He was fulfilling one of her many fantasies after all.

As the healers went on about the latest failed attempts at treating the plague, Julian sought out Talea’s thoughts. He’d been impressed at her lack of hysterics when told she was now trapped, more proof in his mind that she was meant to come to him. Her quiet insistence that she would find a way out only made him smile at her much as a parent smiles at a child who insists she will one day fly.

Julian frowned. Talea’s thoughts were not where she should be. The chatter around him faded as he focused on locating where she was. He swore when he located her.

“Sire?” The head healer asked.

Rising to his feet, Julian said, “We’ll continue this later.”

 

 

“Leaving my hospitality so soon?”

Talea spun on her heal in the moonstone lit hallway, almost falling. Julian leaned against one of the pillars holding up the ceiling, his arms crossed.

“Where did you come from?” Talea asked.

Julian’s lips twitched. “This is my home. I know more ways around than you’ll ever discover.” He kept his stance relaxed. Inside his emotions churned. She should not have been able to move so close to the main gates without being detected.

Talea straightened her spine, taking a deep breath. “I won’t stay. You can’t keep me prisoner.”

Julian narrowed his eyes, pushing away from the column and stopping an arm’s length away from her. “Can’t I, little girl? I am king here. My word is law and if I say you will stay, then by rock and sky you will stay.”

“You don’t know what this will do to my family. My father—“

“Should not have been so foolish as to let you wander around alone. It’s a long road through deserted woods. Anything could have happened to you on all those trips you took to the village.”

“How do you know about my trips?”

“I’ve watched you for years, ever since I became king. Every time you dreamed about my mountain, you grabbed my attention.”

“Then you know how much my family depends on me. Please, this will destroy them if I just disappear.”

He moved closer into her space, once more impressed with her courage when her flinch did not cause her to step back. “Don’t you understand? I am granting you your dreams. I didn’t bring you here to be cruel. You are going to rule by my side.”

“What?” Surprise made her step back where fear hadn’t moved her.

He grabbed a lock of her hair, rubbing it between his fingers. “You are going to be my wife and eventually, mother to the new king.”

For a moment it seemed she had been turned into the stone that surrounded them. When she started to sway Julian tapped her cheek. “Breathe, love, or you’ll pass out.”

Talea gasped in a breath. Blinking a few times, she focused on him. “No,” she said in a whisper, the cavern echoing the word despite her lack of volume.

Julian cocked his head. “What was that?”

“I can’t marry you. I won’t.”

“You. Won’t.” He stepped back, clenching his hands into fists.

She took rapid breaths, her pulse visible on the side of her throat. “Please, it’s not that I don’t appreciate the offer, but I want—“

“I do not care what you want!”

She covered her ears, cowering down as if that would protect her from his fury.

“You are mine,” Julian said, leaning down, “and your wants no longer matter. You will do exactly as I say, whenever I say.”

He reached for her arm. She tried twisting away, but Julian was quicker. Talea cried out as Julian grabbed her hair, jerking her head back. His other hand gripped her chin, his fingers digging into her cheeks. “You dare try to run from me? I offer you a kingdom and you throw it back in my face?”

“Please.” She sobbed, choking out her words. “My family.”

“No longer exists. Perhaps I should take the advice of my council members and throw you down in the mines with all the others who trespass into my kingdom. After a season of mining moonstones, you might better appreciate what it is I am giving you.”

“How can you be so heartless?”

“I do what’s best for my people. You will come to accept this in time.”

Talea trembled, but her expression turned mutinous. “I will never accept it. You may hold me prisoner, but you will never own me.”

He glared down at her. “Fortunately I possess the part of you I need. You will be marrying me within the week, willing or not.”

Footsteps echoed as a guard raced toward them.

“What is it?” Julian demanded.

“It’s Emaline, Sire,” the guard said, gasping to catch his breath. “She’s collapsed.”

All emotion fell from Julian’s face, chasing the blood from his cheeks. “Where is she?”

“Her quarters. The head healer and her nanny are with her.”

Shoving Talea into the guard’s arms, Julian sprinted down the corridor. “Bring her,” he called over his shoulder. “I don’t trust her out of my sight.”

 

 

Julian heard the door open into Emaline’s room. He sat holding the little girl’s hand as she gasped for each breath. The scent of death permeated the room along with the acrid smell that lingered after Emaline threw up the last effort medicine the healer had forced down her throat.

The healer stood off to the side, out of reach of Julian’s fists. The man had told Julian to prepare to say goodbye and Julian had barely restrained himself from choking the life from the healer. A single tear worked its way from the corner of the king’s eye, down his cheek and dripped from the end of his chin to drop on the bright blankets covering his shivering niece.

“What’s wrong with her?” Talea’s asked softly.

“It’s the plague,” the healer said. “It takes the young so much quicker. I’m afraid she’s…”

The healer’s voice trailed off and Julian could feel the man’s eyes on him. Wise of him to fall silent.

“Plague?” Talea asked.

“It started a few months back,” the healer said. “It begins with fever and a sore throat and ends with what you see before you. In fact, I highly recommend you leave the room. It’s proven contagious.”

“I’ve been ordered to stay.”

“As you wish.”

Talea snorted. “What I wish? I didn’t know that was an option.”

Julian’s jaw clenched.

“Uncle Julian?” Emaline’s thin voice rasped.

“Hey, Bug,” Julian said softly.

“Who’s that?”

Julian glanced towards the door.

“I’m Tale…” Talea tried to take a step forward but was stopped by the guard. “Let go of my arm, please. I’m not likely to try and run from the room with you glaring at me. And as much as I would like to stab your king, I seem to have left my knife in my other dress.”

Julian nodded his head and the guard released Talea.

Talea’s glanced at Julian then back to the little girl, walking to stand beside him. “I’m Talea.”

“Why do you want to hurt my uncle?” A deep cough worked from Emaline’s chest.

“Don’t try to talk, Bug,” Julian said, keeping his voice even with effort.

“I don’t really want to hurt him,” Talea said softly. “We’re just having a difference of opinion.”

“He and mommy did that a lot.” Emaline smiled.

Talea laughed softly. “I think a lot of people have that problem.”

“I don’t feel so good. Mommy didn’t feel good and then she went away.”

Talea blinked her eyes then brushed a hand over the little girl’s forehead. “Sometimes people have to leave, even though they don’t want to.”

“I don’t want to leave Uncle. If I do, he’ll be all alone.”

Julian turned away, but Talea saw his silent tears. “Oh, sweetness. You’ll never truly leave him. Just like…” Talea’s voice trailed off. Her hand brushed the hair off of Emaline’s forehead, revealing several sores. “What’s this?”

“The plague causes spots that grow and burst in the final stages,” the healer said.

“They itch like crazy.” Emaline raised her hand, trying to scratch.

“Don’t do that, sweetness.” Talea grabbed the little girl’s hand to stop her, noticing the spots on her arm. “These sores look like Shims spots.”

“Shims?” the healer asked.

“It’s a childhood disease. It’s hitting Setlin right now.”

“So this plagues is caused by the outsiders.” The healer’s voice grew louder. “Isn’t it enough we were cursed by them, now they have to kill us off.”

“It shouldn’t be fatal if treated. I had it when I was four.”

“This plague resists all cures. It’s obviously not the same thing.”

“It is,” Talea said, turning towards the man.

The healer huffed. “And I suppose you just happen to have this magical cure up your sleeve?”

Talea narrowed her eyes then widened as she turned to Julian. “Where’s my satchel.”

“What?” Julian asked.

“My satchel. The one I had on me.” Talea grabbed his shoulder. “I was delivering Kayus to Setlin. It’s what we use to treat Shims. Brew the leaves in some tea and give it to Emaline.”

Hope filled Julian’s face as he stood.

“Your Highness, I strongly advise against this. We don’t know what unknown plants will do to her.” The healer stepped forward.

“What have you got to lose?” Talea asked. “You said yourself you tried everything. If it’s not Shims, Kayus won’t cause her any more harm.”

“I don’t trust her, Sire. She’s an outsider, possibly sent—“

Julian’s hand closed around the healer’s throat, cutting him off. “You’ve already given up and she gains nothing by hurting my niece. The satchel is in my room,” Julian said to the guard. “Have the leaves brewed immediately.”

 

 

Talea stood on the small footbridge in the Crystal Grotto, Julian’s private garden. She didn’t seem to be aware of his presence as her gaze watched the water flowing beneath the bridge. The water flowed from a spring in the middle of the garden, then out the side of the mountain in thirty-foot falls to form the King River. Moonlight streamed in through a natural chimney, lighting the crystals that were so prized by the outsiders and renewing the magic in the mountain.

The blue glow of the gems highlighted Talea’s skin. As Julian watched, a crystal formed on her cheek then rolled down off her face. He let his feet crunch against the gravel on the path so he wouldn’t startle her.

Talea quickly wiped her cheek, turning towards him. “I thought you were one of the guards.”

“I dismissed them,” Julian said, stopping beside her with his hands behind his back.

“How’s Emaline?”

“Resting. The spots are already fading and she’s starting to drive her nanny crazy by wanting to jump on her bed.”

Talea laughed. “I drove my mother nuts the same way. Kayus has the unfortunate side effect of causing too much energy.”

Talea’s smile dropped and Julian guessed her thoughts lingered on her mother. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “You saved my niece’s life and the others who have fallen ill. That particular plant doesn’t grow on this side of the rivers.”

“I’ve only ever seen it growing along the Mason River. We’ve tried to cultivate it in greenhouses, but something about the flowing water is needed for it to grow.”

She turned to stare again at the stream.

“Talea.” Julian paused. “Did you know that means dew in the old tongue?”

“My father said something about it once.” She blinked her eyes furiously. “I know it’s only been a day, but I miss him.” She sniffed, then forced a smile. “This place is beautiful.”

“This could become your sanctuary like it is mine. Nowhere in the mountain will be denied you.”

Talea glanced around, taking a deep breath before returning her gaze to Julian. “This place is amazing, but it’s not home. You have the magic of the moon but I need sunlight.”

Julian dropped his head. “You’ve dreamed of my mountain so much I thought…”

Talea placed her hand alongside his face. “Dreams sometimes come with too high a price. I didn’t realize the cost of mine would be my family. Imagine if you were told you could never see Emaline again.”

Julian locked his eyes on hers, pulling her hand from his cheek to be held in his own. “I said some things to you earlier that weren’t very kind. I made you feel you weren’t important, that your wants were beneath consideration. If any man were to do that to Emaline, I would toss him from the highest peak.” He reached into his pocket, pulling out a round moonstone the size of his thumb strung on a thin chain. “I offer my humblest apologies for my behavior and ask you accept this token of my highest regard.”

“It’s lovely.”

Julian latched the necklace around her. “The moonstone has been prized by the outsiders, not just for its beauty when cut, but for the magic it holds.” He brushed his fingers over the stone where it rested against her chest. “We protect the secrets of our mountain to keep the magic from falling into the wrong hands.”

He closed his eyes, taking a deep breath through his nose. “In spite of the pain it’s caused you, I can’t say I’m sorry I brought you here.”

“Julian, I—“

She was cut off when his lips descended on hers. She gasped as he pulled her tight and he took the opportunity to deepen the kiss. When she grew limp in his arms, he moved his lips to her ear. “If you ever find yourself in my domain again, I will not let you go a second time.”

With a quick shove, he sent her into the stream. The deep water quickly grabbed her, sending her hurtling over the falls. Her scream quickly died. Following her thoughts, he felt her terror change to wonder as he directed the magic of the moonstone to lower her slowly to the river below.

With eyes closed, he kept track of her path through the river. When she hit the whirlpool, he made sure she drifted safely into the Mason River, contrary to the currents direction. A hand grabbed hers and he was surprised to catch a hint of disappointment when it was her father who pulled her free of the water’s grip. It was quickly quelled by happiness.

Julian sighed as he stepped off the bridge and collapsed on a bench. He knew he would soon be hearing grievances from the council members, but he’d commanded the magic to fade her memory of her time in the mountain. Soon it would seem like only a dream.

He would continue to watch over Talea for as long as she dreamed of the mountain. In time he hoped the ache in his heart would heal. He smiled as he heard her father tease her that she was lucky the Mountain King hadn’t found her. He would keep her memory close, his little drop of dew.

Julain raised his head when he heard, “thank you,” whispered in his mind.

“Goodbye, love,” he said softly, though she wouldn’t hear. “Dream of me.”

 

 

About the Author

 

 

Heidi Bromund is a computer animator and teacher at Full Sail University in the Computer Animation department. She received her Bachelor of Science in Computer Animation from Full Sail University. Knowing great animators are also great storytellers, she returned to an early childhood dream and will complete her bachelor’s in Creative Writing in December of 2016. Her favorite genres to work in are fantasy and Christian romance. Her short fiction story “Preserved Treasure” was published in Page & Spine on January, 2016. She is also a member of the non-profit group L.A.N.C.E. Orlando, a stage combat group that focuses on medieval and pirate style shows. You can connect with her on LinkedIn under the name Heidi Bromund or by email at [email protected]

 


Journey From My Attic: An Eclectic Collection of Short Stories

It's not the destination but the journey... JOURNEY FROM MY ATTIC will take you through an eclectic variety of worlds that will spark the imagination. From danger surrounding the Baltic Sea to the fantastical mystery of Devil's Peak, you never know where the path might lead. Covering mystery, comedy, tragedy, fantasy, science fiction, and dystopian tales, these flash-fiction and short stories will take you on an emotional ride. Exploring greed, loss, love, drug addiction, war, triumph, and an alien or two, the endings aren't always happy but the journey well worth it.

  • ISBN: 9781370912292
  • Author: Heidi Bromund
  • Published: 2016-09-23 04:05:17
  • Words: 14883
Journey From My Attic: An Eclectic Collection of Short Stories Journey From My Attic: An Eclectic Collection of Short Stories