Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Taste of Fear

Author’s Note – This is another little fiction from a one word prompt over on Instagram. The word was taste. I saw a lot of responses that were either foodie or sexy. And I was tempted. But Ben was feeling chatty. He shared a dream with me. He does that. Let’s me have his nightmares sometimes. So this is what we got instead. The Taste of Fear. ~ J

Copy of Taste

The blackness was total.

It went past mere idea or circumstance.

It was physical.

First it was an enemy. It left him flailing, yelling, then finally panting and sweating.

After a while when it was all there was, he tired of that.

Then the dark around him, so smooth, so complete, so constant, was almost a friend. But the kind you knew would stab you in the back eventually. You just couldn’t prove it.

He didn’t remember it, but they must have grabbed him at that last stop.

Why leave him like this? If he was caught, why not just get it over with? 

He shivered. 

Over probably wasn’t on the docket. Not any time soon. But even torture might be preferable to this unending, muffling, blanket of dark silence. 

Okay, maybe not. 

But the nothingness was a torture of its own.

He wasn’t restrained or hurt. He felt around carefully. Nothing near him but the ground beneath him. So smooth, he wasn’t sure what it might be. Not earth, not pavement. It was strange but it was solid. Probably.

Stay calm. You have nothing to gain by losing your shit right now.

He rose carefully. One hand above him in case there was a low ceiling, the other protectively in front of him, for no particular reason other than reflex. Once he was upright, he reached out to explore, slowly at first. It seemed there was truly nothing around him. 

“Hello?”

Not even an echo. His voice sounded like something meant to be experienced in three dimensions squashed onto a piece of paper.

He swallowed hard. 

Oblivion.

This is oblivion.

They found you.

And instead of revenge or torment, they put an end to you. 

That’s why I don’t remember anything.

The final death.

But it’s even worse than you thought.

Because I’m still here.

In the dark.

Alone.

Forever.

An insidious, familiar, unwelcome, long despised voice whispered in his ear, “I can taste your fear.”

Panic came then. 

Ben bolted upright in bed, half falling out of it before Mal caught his arm. “Hey, hey, it’s okay,” she soothed in familiar tones, gathering him close. “You’re okay. Just another dream.”

Ben lay back down next to her for a while, letting his breathing return to normal, appreciating that she didn’t ask about his nightmares.

When faint grey light peeked in the curtains, he leaned in and kissed her cheek. She was almost back asleep. “I’m going for a run.”

“‘Kay,” she murmured.

Ben got a couple of miles in before he had to stop, leaning against a tree, gasping.

Almost like it was real, he heard the voice in his ear again.

“You’ll never be able to stop running.”

Ben gasped and looked around. There was no one there.

Still, the whisper came again.

“And I can still taste your fear.”

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Home

Author’s Note – Here’s another little ficlet inspired by a one word prompt challenge on our Instagram. This could fit into Book II. The word was home. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if you’ve read Always Darkest, that our heroes are far from theirs.

pizzeria-345864_640

“Oh man, this is awesome,” Ben sighed happily around a huge bite of flatbread pizza covered with an unconscionable amount of pulled pork, olives, and pineapple. “Tastes like home.”

Chris nodded, chasing his bite of calzone with a satisfying overproofed west coast style IPA. “It does, doesn’t it?”

Aife, Ted, and Petra all agreed.

Chris added. “If the local brew were just a hair better, I could almost convince myself we were back on Saint Paul Street.”

Ben grinned around his beer.

“How’s yours, Mal?” Teddy asked, not missing the approving looks everyone was giving him for stuffing his face here. He actually felt halfway decent today and he knew it showed in his appetite. It didn’t hurt that this place really did feel like home. And that, for a change, that felt pretty good.

“Mmmm?”

Mal looked around the table like maybe she hadn’t actually heard the question and was trying to figure it out from the looks on their faces.

Okay, just the food. That’s all.

She took another bite of pizza.

Say something.

“It’s good.”

She’d been fine when the decided to stop here, but Mal had grown a little distant as they’d sat waiting for their order. She drove all day, Ben reasoned, maybe she’s just tiredOr maybe she needs a chance to blow off some steam. “After we finish dinner, you wanna watch me be shitty at pinball? Then you can totally grab yet another high score on the Mal Sinclair All-American Pinball Wizard Tour.”

She smiled. “Sure. Can’t pass up handing your ass to you with a pinball machine right in front of us.”

Ben flashed a smile of his own. Mal dug back into her pizza. Reasonably certain all was well, Ben and Chris resumed their conversation about which campground would be more appropriate for the weekend. It was going to be crowded no matter where they went. If not for the mellowing influence of good beer, the conversation might have turned into an argument.

It had been twenty minutes or so when they finally reached a tenuous agreement and came up for air. Ben glanced to his side, then around the table. “Where’s Mal?”

Petra shrugged. “Bathroom, I think.”

Aife frowned. “She has been gone for a while though.”

Ben hesitated, then stood. “I’m gonna go grab us another pitcher.”

Petra rolled her eyes. “After you check on Mal.”

Ben’s grin was appropriately sheepish. “Yeah. After that.” 

He walked away from the table, not even pretending to go order more drinks.

Ben finally found her outside on a park bench. Her face was in her hands. “Mal?”

She didn’t look up. “I’m fine,” she said through her fingers.

He sat down. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re damned fine, gorgeous even,” he said, voice purposely light. 

She sniffed. “Thanks.”

He put a hand on her back. “Can I help?”

She shook her head, still not looking up. “I’m sorry. I just couldn’t stay at the table. It reminded me so much of home and…” Her voice broke.

“You wish you were there.” He wrapped her in his arms and she leaned into his chest. She hadn’t been about to ask for comfort, but she wasn’t about to turn it down either. 

“I wish all of us were.” She turned into his offered arms. “Safe.”

He rested his cheek on her head and pulled her close.

“Me, too.”

*****

Image by Karsten Paulick from Pixabay

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Musical Moment

Author’s Note – Just another little moment that could appear in Book II. Because I was feeling shippy. ~ J

pillows-820149_640

She shifted carefully, trying to make her head light since it was resting in the middle of his belly. 

He reached out and smoothed her hair. “Do you need to move?”

“No, I like you being a pillow.” She turned on her side to face him and he squirmed almost imperceptibly. “Am I tickling?” she asked, purposely talking close to his skin.

He adjusted himself under her again and smirked. “Only when you’re trying.”

“Hey, turn that up.”

Ben grinned. “You like Social Distortion?”

“Is that who this is? I … I like the words.”

They listened quietly for a few moments.

How many times have you asked yourself?

Is this the hand of fate now that I’ve been dealt?

You’re so disillusioned this can’t be real

And you can’t stand now the way you feel

I don’t care about what they say

I won’t live or die that way

Tired of figuring out things on my own

Angel’s wings won’t you carry me home?

She sighed. “I feel like this guy must know you.”

Ben smiled down at her. She was achingly lovely with her curly hair spilled over his bare stomach. It was so nice to be alone for a few hours. “I guess maybe he does. After a fashion. That dude. His name’s Mike Ness. We’ve both been through some shit. I like him. I visited him sometimes, back when I could just be a spirit.”

“Does he know that?”

Ben blushed. “Of course not. I don’t … Not unless somebody summons me. His music though … You’re right. I feel like he knows me.”

I triumphed in the face of adversity

And I became the man I never thought I’d be

And now my biggest challenge, a thing called love

I guess I’m not as tough as I thought I was

I don’t care about what they say

I wanna marry you someday

When I wake up, it’s a brand new day

Angel’s wings gonna carry us away

“Even that stuff?” she smiled. He was blushing furiously.

He swallowed hard. That was a direct question and it wasn’t one he could deflect. It cut him too deeply. “Especially that stuff.”

“You’d marry me if you could?” 

“In a heartbeat,” His face was so hot it hurt. “I really would.”

She clasped his hand, the ring he’d made for her birthday, his promise for their page in that long boring book they’d first claimed on prom night, highly visible.

“Me, too.”

*****

All lyrics belong to the unbelievably talented band Social Distortion and if you don’t already listen to them, go do it, now. Ben says so.

Image by JayMantri from Pixabay

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Dirty

Author’s Note – Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that comes from an Instagram one word challenge. This one could fit just about anywhere mid-Book II, Before the Dawn (coming soon, I promise). The word was ‘Dirty’. I had fun with this one. ~ J

Dirty

“Hold still,” she grumped, taking his arm and turning it over for the third time.

“Mal, I’m fine.” Ben tried to pull his arm away from her again, but her hold on his wrist was too firm. “It’s just a scrape.”

She rolled her eyes. “This is not a scrape.”

He shrugged, not exactly interested in looking at it all that closely anyway. He tried a charming grin. “Well … That’s what I get for showing off by climbing ledges to impress a girl I already know is going to sleep with me.”

He tugged at his arm again.

She adjusted her grip and went back to work. “Quit being a baby and let me clean this up.”

“Mal, come on. Just do your healing power magic thingy. I rinsed it off already in the…”

“Filthy stream next to the road? Yeah, I know. I was there.” She sounded just a little pissed off.

“Ow!” He jumped a little. “Take it easy!” he groused, trying once again, unsuccessfully, to reclaim his injured arm. 

“I’m sorry.” She stopped trying to pick gravel out of the gash. “But Ben, this is really dirty. I need to clean it up before I can try healing it.”

“I don’t see why.”

“It’d be pretty gross if I magiced you into an arm full of pebbles and leaves because I was careless and closed it all up in there.”

He wrinkled his nose. “I guess that would be kind of gross. But it’s not like it can get infected or anything … I mean I did all those spells to protect …”

“You had an Archangel tell you you could basically pass for human these days. Who knows what Uncle Davi’s spell did to all those protections.”

Ben stopped squirming. “Christ. I never thought about that.” He started chewing his lip.

She looked up at him again with concern. “Am I really hurting you?”

“No … Um … I mean, a little, but it’s okay. I was just …”

“What’s the matter, Ben?”

“Suddenly feeling a little worried about my not-deal-with-human-stuff magic maybe not being foolproof, I guess.”

Tan as he was, she almost thought he looked a little pale. “Well, I mean, obviously you still have powers and everything. I wasn’t about to drag you into town for a tetanus shot or anything.”

He rolled his eyes. “Not what I was thinking about. But good. Because gross.”

Oh. She smirked. “I’m still on the Pill, if that makes you feel any better.”

He laughed, flushing just a little. “It does, actually.”

He let her just finish what she was doing and when she closed her eyes to use her healing powers, he closed his too. Watching her do that made him feel weirdly self conscious. After a minute or two, she released his arm.

“There. All better.”

He opened his eyes and grinned at her. “Thanks.”

“The rest of you is still all grubby from wiping out.”

“Yeah. I’m pretty filthy.”

“Shower?”

“When do I ever say no to that?”

*****

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Lucky 13

Author’s note – Here’s another little piece inspired by our Instagram for Friday the 13th. It features Caleb Saint Claire, of the Order of the Temple of Solomon, whom you may have met in The Twelve Days of Fic-Mas. We never meant to have him turn into a series regular, so to speak, but he’s just too much fun to not keep having back.

street-4448517_640

Caleb skidded around the corner on wet pavement, almost wiping out. He’d lost his partner a couple of blocks ago. Damned rookie was going to be getting up and hitting the hills with a training unit every morning for the next month if Caleb had anything to say about it. And he did. You don’t get to call yourself a Knight of the Order if you crap out after chasing a homicidal demon eight blocks.

That said, Caleb was starting to lose steam, himself. Of course, he had the excuse of bleeding freely from several deep scratches. He was also pretty sure this bastard’s claws were venomous, because he had started to feel a little woozy, too. 

At least they weren’t far from the local safe house. Once the threat was neutralized, could have the counter-potion in less than ten minutes. Or sooner. He remembered his ability to call them it. It was kind of nice to not be all on your own occasionally. He ducked down an alley and reached for his radio to call for some assistance. 

His next breath was crushed out of him as he slammed with unsurprising supernatural force against the wet brick wall. Two of the creatures four arms pinned him while the others went through his pockets. 

“Hey, there, Ormru,” Caleb said wryly, wanting to see the demon flinch at hearing its name.

He wasn’t disappointed. The distraction did allow him to start to wriggle free, just a bit. But it’s hot breath in his face made him cringe a second later. “Caleb Saint Claire.”

It knew him, too. Great.

“Taking out a member of the Order is an eternity long dream of mine. The fact that it’s you will be quite a feather in my cap.”

Caleb flashed a tight smile. “I imagine it would be.”

“Doing it on Friday the 13th will be the coup of the week. I’ve always thought that unlucky slaughter worth duplicating.”

Caleb finally got his left hand around to the small of his back where he’d been inching toward. He thrust the ceremonial dagger into the demon’s middle with a grunt. Ormru crumpled to the ground, smoking already.

“That’s a myth.” Caleb walked away, cleaning his blade on the handkerchief he kept in his pocket for that purpose. 

He reached the street and Novice Helms ran up to him. “Back-up’s on its way, and I told them to bring a Healer.”

“Good.” Maybe he wouldn’t have to run the kid ragged after all. He’d have a chat with him about separating from his partner without a word, but at least the kid’s head had been in the game.

As though reading Caleb’s mind, Helms assured him, “I was right behind you, but I found a nest.”

Caleb’s eyebrows went up, impressed. “Where?”

Helms pointed at a crumbling apartment building back up the street.

Caleb grinned. “Well, isn’t this just our lucky day.”

 

Image by Daniel Dino-Slofer from Pixabay

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Please

Author’s Note – Here’s another little scene that doesn’t physically appear in The Arbitratus Trilogy, but it could. It fits into Always Darkest, or Before the Dawn. Mal spends a lot of time worrying about Ben, about their future. This is just a moment of real vulnerability that she tries to keep to herself. 

woman-1006100_640

Mal came back to bed quietly. She didn’t want to wake him, but she didn’t think she could go back to sleep. At least they both preferred sleeping with the light on lately. So, that wouldn’t disturb him.

She chewed her lip for a few minutes, staring off into space. Nope, definitely not sleepy anymore. And no wonder, after the dream she’d had. 

She wouldn’t let herself focus on or recall any of the details too vividly. 

All she knew was that they’d been in danger and Ben put himself in the way of devils and angels in a place of almost total darkness and that some great Being who she thought must have been God showed up and instead of helping, instead of saving Ben, He’d turned away indifferently. 

Ben had looked at her with eyes like hot coals. He was burning from the inside. 

He couldn’t even cry out. 

He wasn’t being consumed by fire, he was becoming it. 

She fell to her knees and he just started disappearing, flaking away like paper in a hot stove. 

She screamed.

She’d woken up so sweaty and shaky, she’d needed to change her clothes and go get a cup of tea. The idea of losing him to Hell, or any other power, plagued her more and more these days. Now, she felt tremors still coursing up and down her arms. 

Maybe a distraction would help. 

Now was as good a time as any to use her journal, she supposed. She reached for it, balanced on the edge of her nightstand.Pen in hand, she stared at a blank page for a long time. 

A tear struck the empty space and made a bright purple blotch on the pale lavender paper. 

She blinked and it was joined by more. She set it aside and hugged her knees, burying her face and trying to keep her sobs quiet. 

“Please,” she whispered. 

She hadn’t prayed in a long time. And it didn’t get any more articulate than that. But she thought. Hoped. Believed. That if anyone was listening, He’d know what her desperate plea meant.

“Just please.”

*****

Image by Ulrike Mai from Pixabay

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Fire

Author’s Note: Here’s another little Arbitratus Trilogy Fanfic that resulted from a one word prompt challenge over on IG. It’s something that doesn’t happen in Book II, Before the Dawn. But like so many of these little fictions, it could. 

fire-2146343_640

Their after dinner walk had gone on for longer than was probably smart. The temperature was dropping rapidly as the sun sank behind the mountains. The breeze rustled the frost stiffened trees. It was nice to be away from populations centers. There was less to worry about in terms of getting noticed, getting recognized, getting caught. But maybe they should head south again. It was too damned cold around here.

Mal untwined her fingers from Ben’s. “Sorry. I need my gloves.”

Ben was already pulling on the lopsided mittens she’d knitted him. “Same. We should head back anyway. It’s getting dark.”

They decided to cut across a couple of back yards to get back to the campground faster. “What is that?” Mal asked cocking her head.

Ben paused and listened, spending the energy on magically enhancing his hearing.

“Fire,” he said quietly.

“Where?”

He listened again then pointed. “There.”

They took off running and skidded to a stop in the yard of a large farmhouse already well on its way to burning down. Shouts and pleas for help came from inside. “Stay here,” he said firmly. “Call 911.”

“You’re not going in there!”

“Official help is pretty far out. And … there’s kids in there. I can hear them.”

She sighed and wrapped her fingers around the fabric of his sleeve. “Why do you have to be such a big damned hero all the time?!?”

“Well, you’ve got the damned part right.” He smirked and squeezed her hand, gently encouraging her to release his jacket. “I’m a demon, not a hero.”

She grabbed him by the back of his neck and kissed him quickly, then gave him a light shove toward the building. As he ran toward the calls for help she sighed again. “Pretty sure you can be both.”

She got out her phone and made the call to emergency services.

~~~~~

In bed, later that night, whispering so as not to disturb the others in the camper who were already asleep, Mal brushed his slightly singed bangs off his forehead. “How are you feeling now?”

“I’m good.”

“You really don’t hurt anymore?” He huffed a little sigh that told her he thought she was fussing unnecessarily but he didn’t want to call her out for it. “I know the burns look okay now, but I’m never sure about this magic stuff. Like what do I know about healing nerves and stuff?”

“All better. I promise.” Then he reached up, more to prove he really wasn’t in pain than anything else, and plucked at his uneven hair. “Just wish your healing powers included cosmetic repairs.”

She snorted laughter. “It doesn’t look bad. Your hands did though. I’m glad I could fix them.”

“Me, too. Burns really hurt,” he admitted. “Thanks.”

“And I’m glad you were a big hero for those kids.”

“I’m not…”

“Don’t argue. Or I’ll take back the healing stuff.”

“Pretty sure that’s not how those powers work.” Then he frowned. “Right?”

“Probably. But still.”

He laughed. “Not a hero.”

“If you can’t admit to being one in general, will you accept being my hero then?” She put her head against his chest.

“I can live with that.”

He was still smiling when he dozed off a while later.

*****

Image by Simon Matzinger from Pixabay

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Silence

Author’s Note – Here’s another little fanfic of mine from a one word IG prompt. This scene doesn’t appear in Always Darkest, but it could.

lake-champlain-348315_640

It was quiet other than the patter of rain and snow on the porch roof. Mal warmed her hands around her coffee cup, smiling faintly at the one tree in their yard still stubbornly holding on to its autumn leaves in the face of impending winter. 

The swing creaked and a blanket dropped over her shoulders.

She didn’t even have to look. “Morning, Dad.”

She glanced his way.

He was smiling, but it was a speculative questioning sort of smile. “You’re up early.”

She shrugged. “I guess. Bad dreams.”

“Again, huh?” He squeezed her hand.

She sighed. “Yeah. It’s been a rough week.”

“I’m sorry, honey. I wish I could help.”

She shrugged again. “At least break is starting soon. Then it doesn’t matter so much how I sleep.”

Ari put an arm around her. “Are you looking forward to a little vacation?”

“Yeah, I am. Teddy’s not gonna be around, but I’ve got plans with Petra, and Ben …” she trailed off.

“So his name’s Ben, huh?”

She blushed. “Yeah. Um … Ben Brody.” She didn’t know why she hadn’t said anything before now. It’s not like she hadn’t dated before. But Ben was different.

He smiled fondly. “The color in your cheeks is more than the cold. Maybe this is a more than friends boy?”

She turned toward him, her face splitting into a real smile, sleepy brain cobwebs be damned. “I think he really is.”

She told Ari about Ben then. She’d gone from feeling weirdly protective of her budding relationship to wanting her dad to know everything.

Ari chuckled. “He sounds like a great guy. And he must be if you’re this fascinated by him.”

“He is. I … I really like him.”

“Would you like to invite him?”

“Huh?”

“For Christmas? You said he can’t go home to his own family.”

She grew thoughtful. “It wouldn’t be weird?”

“Depends on how shy he is, I suppose. But I don’t think I’m all that intimidating,” he grinned.

“What about Uncle Davi?”

“I’m sure he’ll like your Ben just fine.”

Her Ben. She really liked the sound of that.

“I’ll ask him,” she said finally.

“Good.” Ari squeezed her shoulders and they sat looking out at the lake as the mix changed over to more serious snow.

It was a comfortable, homey silence.

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fan Fic For Fun Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

School

Author’s note – I’ve been playing around with some little one word prompts over on our Instagram. For those of you that don’t goof off over on IG, I figured I’d share the little flash fan fictions for our Arbitratus Trilogy characters here. Here’s a little imagined scene from our Work In Progress (which is basically done – it’s all over but the final editing) Before the Dawn, aka Book II.

This isn’t necessarily canon, of course. But it could be.

If you do enjoy ‘gramming a little, you can follow us at Demons Run Lit.

SCHOOL

Mal had been quiet all morning.

When Ben suggested a walk, it was more because he thought she might talk if they were away from the others. It was cold this morning. Again. But the view was breathtaking.

They’d been sitting on the rough hewn bench for a while in silence and Ben was ready to give up. But he was pretty sure she was crying and trying to hide it.

One more try, he thought.

He pulled her in closer. “Mal … what is it?”

She sniffed, staring off down the road. “It’s nothing.”

He slid both arms around her. “It doesn’t sound like nothing.” He didn’t point out the tear trailing down her cheek, visible when she tilted her head against him, but he reached up and brushed it away with his thumb.

She looked up at him. “I’m starting to wish you weren’t so goddamned observant.”

“Now you know how I feel, literally half the time.” He let her have the small crooked grin he knew she liked to see. “C’mon, tell me. you never let me get away with keeping what’s bothering me to myself.”

“It’s stupid.”

He shook his head. “Not even possible. Have you met you?”

She gave him a watery smile. “Today would have been the start of semester break. I’d have been halfway through Freshman year today. One step close to being Dr. Sinclair.”

Oh.

“Oh.” He chewed his lip. “Wanna go hang out at the college library in town?”

“What for?”

He shrugged. “I dunno. We could just … pretend to be normal for awhile. Forget we’re not just at school.”

She smiled more genuinely. “That’s silly.”

“I could buy you a new gross medical textbook…” he offered.

“We don’t have any money, Ben.” She leaned into his side.

“Hey, I’m a demon. I’m not above picking someone’s pocket.”

She shook her head with an affectionate exasperation. He always tried. “Okay. Let’s. Not pick pockets, but you know, hang out in the library. At least it’ll be warm.”

“And we’ll be together reading about something other than the prophecy.”

“Together is good.”

“Always.”

Categories
Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Bourdain Day

bar-blue-chairs-533347

Authors’ Note – Anthony Bourdain was a huge source of inspiration for both of us. He was important to Keith as a chef and we both loved his books and shows. His work made me want to start writing again after decades of denying myself that pleasure.

Today would have been Tony’s 63rd birthday.

Chefs Eric Rippert and  José Andrés have declared today Bourdain Day. The story below came out of a writing contest we participated in only a few short weeks after Tony’s death. It was, and is, meant as a tribute. Mark was, of course, based on Tony. I’ll let you guess who Mark’s nemesis is modeled after.

We hope you can hear a little bit of his voice. We hope you like the story.

I think Tony would have laughed his ass off. ~ J

Like revenge, Vichyssoise is a dish best served cold.

A former celebrity chef finally reaches his breaking point

and serves up a recipe that’s a real killer.

Just Desserts

I wish I knew what the fuck went wrong.

I wish I could remember the perfect joy, the sense of adventure, a taste of some new delicacy could convey when I was taking my first steps toward what would become a culinary career. But publishing Cooks’ Confessional took me off the map of my personal paradise and into some concentric circle of Dante’s Inferno.

I stared at the assignment. The Network had just signed another major deal with some Mega-global Foodzilla. So, the memo on the counter of my very own Purgatory, the test kitchen of Fifteen or Less and none other than Satan herself, Thalia Day, proclaimed the new episode’s theme: Insta Magic with Instadspuds. Just add water, 86 all that’s good and pure. Oh, and while you’re at it, throw in the last shred of my soul.

Meatless Monday Magic. Mock Shepherd’s’ Pie, heavy on the mock.

What fresh hell is this?

A chill warning of the presence of evil ran down my spine.

“Can’t wait to see what you come up with, Markie.”

And there it is.

“Yeah, this’ll be swell,” I bit out through a rigid smile, refraining from reminding her I don’t do nicknames.

Her shark teeth flashed in return. I think she smiled so much around me just to see if I’d say anything. That big fake grin had figured prominently in Confessional. My thinly veiled references to She Who Cannot Be Named peppered the later chapters. She might not have known, but I slipped in a few of her catch phrases, so there was no doubt.

“Oh, one thing …  Our sponsor wants us to use this new spread, so no butter … and let’s shake it up a bit for the live special. Maybe do an appetizer? How about vichyssoise?”

“Are you serious? That’s impossible in under fifteen minutes.”

“How hard can it be? Instant mash, a dash of EVOO, powdered cream base, some dry spices and veg, a can of chicken broth … Throw it in a blender and boom, it’ll be delish.”

A pregnant pause.

I bit my tongue to keep quiet.

Literally.

“Hard to believe you’re a better chef than you were a writer,” Thalia said as she breezed off.

Ouch.

Okay, in Confessional, I maybe said some not very nice things about the inspired paragon of selling out who currently employed me. Doesn’t mean they weren’t true. She hired me when my career tanked so she could appear the bigger person. She never missed an opportunity to needle me in her faux-wholesome, smarmy way.

Fuuuuuuck! I’ve done very little to be proud of since my fall from grace, and especially these last few months. Thalia made it clear from word one; I’m not here for ideas. I’m here to make her, and the corporate jackwagons ruining food for millions and pretending it’s a favor, look good.

I went from the top of my craft to another soulless master of compromise, whoring myself for an admittedly not inconsiderable paycheck. It feels dirty, but in an I-can-pay-my-rent-and-not-drown-in-debt kind of dirty. Like a blowjob in a barroom bathroom stall.

Sure, it’s morally questionable, but there’s something about it that feels oh so right.

God damn her. Instant vichyssoise? One of my fondest early memories of the slow seduction food wrought on my tender young soul and she’s fucked that up, too.

Brother, I’m no saint. Hell, my ex thinks I’m the devil, but even I have limits (bathroom blowjobs notwithstanding), and this … No. Just no.

My rage-wrinkled brain ran through some ideas. The old standbys; hot pepper extract, bittering agents in the base, spite spitting. Not good enough. I needed to make my stand. And I wanted to do it in a manner consistent with my style. She was always telling me what a prick I could be. This time I wanted to prove her right.

Wait.

A shit-eating grin stretched my face. I decided to make her nightmare come true and humiliate her on live TV. I mean, I’d lose my job. And forget about working in my field in a way that didn’t involve a paper hat and a dirty griddle in some backwater truck stop, living under the name Cletus, or maybe Bubba.

Shit, I could do time. Better make it worth the trouble.

“You okay, jefe?” Juan, my sous chef, asked with concern.

I shrugged and shared the news of what Ms. Delish had in store for us.

“Another day in paradise,” he smiled. “Give me ten and we’ll suffer together.” He snagged a smoke out of my pack on his way by.

I rubbed my temples as I pictured her fake smile with her fake perfect teeth.

Oh, no. I couldn’t … I really shouldn’t … I knew I still had some enzyme glue kicking around from my last foray into food photography.

Enzyme glue bonds proteins to porcelain, to keep food stationary for pictures. Adding some to the soup base would bond with her high-end dentures, gluing her mouth shut in front of her adoring mindless masses. On live television.

It took some planning, some sneaking around. Then, on the day of the show, I did the unthinkable. I stood in the wings to watch. I’ve always had a voyeuristic streak. You can ask any prostitute on the Upper East Side. Thalia took it as a sign of me getting with the program and showing some support for a change. I think. She looked pleased as anything. A blood-swollen tick feasting on the flesh of a job I used to love.

I had the decency to cringe as I watched her give birth to the culinary abomination I fertilized in her test kitchen. Hamming for the camera, she picked up the cutesy little shot glass she’d chosen as a serving dish.

Her smile faded as the glue set up. Teeth cemented shut, she panicked. Muffled screams ensued. At some point she puked. And that glue holds on tight. It was all over then.

For the record, I didn’t want her to die.

Well, not like that. Drowning in adhesive potatoes and stomach acid.

I took in the chaos. This was the bathroom blowjob, except the girl is dating the bouncer, a jealous ex-con type, who’s just opened the stall door.

I lit a cigarette and breathed deep.

“No smoking! It’s in the employee handbook!” some pointless production toady chided.

“Buddy, I don’t work here,” I said with actual relief.

I blew smoke in his face as I shouldered past.

“But hey, if you’re ever in East Cousinfuck, West Deliverance County, look me up.”

“Huh?”

“Just ask for Cletus.”

~ End~