Shaken By A Strong Wind

The dream had been plaguing me for days. I’d go to bed determined that this night would be different, that I’d break the cycle. But I couldn’t.

 

I should have paid more attention to what the dream was trying to tell me.

 

I’m in bed, and at first, I think I’m just waking up in the random way people do where we sigh and roll over and drift right back off. Then I realize that it’s cold.

 

My bedroom is never cold.

 

The heat must be broken. I reach over and shake my husband’s arm. “Joshua,” I whisper, not wanting to wake the girls sleeping next door. “The fire’s gone out again.”

Josh mumbles something unintelligible and throws an arm up over his face.

 

He’s been working so much. I decide I’ll just take care of it. I always get splinters when I fill the stove, but there are worse things.

 

I get up and slide on my robe. I tiptoe past the girls’ room and out into the living room to take care of the fire.

 

It’s too bright out there, but not because there are any lights on. The moon must be full, I think absently.

 

I nearly jump when I start to walk past the bay window and Rachel’s bell clear, but startlingly inflectionless, voice says, “Mamma, the stars went out.”

 

It takes a split second before I can breathe again. Then I answer. “Sweetie, you scared me half to death! What are you doing out of bed?”

 

Carolyn speaks then, sounding, as always, exactly like her twin. “The stars went out, and now they’re falling. We want to watch them burn it all up.”

 

Gooseflesh zings up and down my arms, my spine. I look out the window, past their identical white blonde heads stained lavender by the strange light pouring in the picture window.

And they’re right.

 

The stars are indeed falling from a sky that looks nothing like it could possibly belong to Earth.

 

The girls turn toward me then, and their light blue eyes are gone. All that’s left are puckering holes filled with the light from that alien sky.

 

It woke me up screaming every day for a week. Once I could breathe again, once I could stop sobbing in terror, I’d go make my coffee, regardless of the hour and be up for the day.

 

Why didn’t I seek comfort from Josh, or go check on my girls?

 

Because they don’t exist. And they never have.

 

I’ve never married, and I don’t intend to. I’ve certainly never had children. I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t think I’d want them.

 

Especially now.

 

Now that I know.

 

When the dream came to me again this morning, instead of getting up and making coffee, I lay in bed for a long time.

 

Thinking.

 

I finally got up a couple of hours later and dressed for a long hike. I even packed my backpack for one.

 

I walked straight through my silent living room, not looking left or right. I especially avoided looking at my bay window. It was no longer stacked with pillows as a reading nook. As the dream persisted, I started filling that shelf up with everything I could that would prevent anyone, including eyeless dream offspring, from sitting on it.

 

I walked out my front door, not bothering to lock it behind me. I knew with eerie certainty that locks stopped mattering sometime between the dark and the dawn.

 

I looked up and saw what I’d been both dreading and expecting.

 

The sky has gone purple.

 

The same purple as the eyes my twins didn’t have. My twins that don’t exist.

 

The stars aren’t falling yet. But I know they will.

 

I feel it.

 

Deep in my chest.

 

But I feel something else, too.

 

We might be able to stop it.

 

 

 

I’m sure as Hell going to try.

 

The Mirror ~ J

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I’m at my desk, obsessively proofreading, like any other morning. I notice I’ve accidentally used ‘their’ instead of ‘they’re’. Hell and damn. I guess that’s what you get for writing half asleep. I reach for my mouse to eradicate this grammatical travesty, instead coffee sloshes on my hand.

“Huh.”

It’s a surprised sort of sound.

I’d lost track of my surroundings. I glance down, admonishing myself to be more careful, and my stomach drops. Everything on my desk is reversed.

Not just out of place. A mirror image of what I’d sat down to.

I’m breathing faster, feeling panicky nervous sweat between my shoulder blades. I want to act, but I’m momentarily frozen.

What do you even do in this situation?

Then I start to calm down. Obviously I call 911 because clearly I’m having a stroke. Or maybe the day job finally caused that nervous breakdown I’m always joking about, haha. I get up slowly. The cat perched on the back of my chair is white with pink eyes.

My breathing picks up again.

Not hyperventilating, but damned close.

Then I see her.

In the mirror hanging on the wall opposite my writing desk, there is another me, sitting in my chair with everything looking the way it should. She glances over her shoulder, and meets my eyes. For a moment blue meets blue, then hers flash dangerous red. Through the glass I can make out the sounds of my family coming downstairs.

She smiles.

I see her teeth.

The Fall of Terra By Jess & Keith Flaherty

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Eyes downcast, hands folded, she always acted like a piece of furniture unless summoned. But that didn’t mean she wasn’t busy. When Master Den mentioned Kapteyn-6 she took an almost motionless step forward, seeming only to fidget as she adjusted the recording devices hidden in her prosthetic arm. She wasn’t worried anyone would notice.

She was hard to look at. Her robotic eye and the laser-burn scars that necessitated both devices running from the middle of her half-shaved head down her body made people uncomfortable. Den thought her ability to perceive more than the visual spectrum and her enhanced strength and dexterity made her excellent security material.

What he didn’t know was every image and sound was constantly recorded and transmitted to the Order’s base on Satellite 9. She was meant only to observe and transmit, allowing the order to use the information to weaken the Council of Seven and their organization. Once they had what they needed, she had her own plans.

Augments were highly sought after on the black market. She’d been captured trying to blow one of Den’s pipelines when she was fourteen. Her impassive face almost cracked into a smile. She’d let them catch her. Den Mirahz had always been her target. She’d pay him back for what his greed had done to her parents, to their small town, to her own fragile nine-year-old body. He had been her focus since she’d recovered.

Months of torture told him only that she was bright, had useful, if unattractive augs, and had been brainwashed by those intergalactic pains in the ass, the Green Order. Den thought her worth retraining. She’d been difficult to mold, but when he broke her she became one of his most loyal possessions, or so it seemed. She had never broken, only become bored with his game, ready to play her real hand. Fifteen years later, she was finally where she’d hoped to be, at the Hunter’s Lodge, the almost mythical gathering place of the Council, where Den and the rest manipulated the Interplanetary Federal Alliance.

“Terra! Stoke the fire,” called out the shimmering blue Proximalian, probably the nearest thing her master had to a friend at the table.

She bowed and moved down the mahogany table toward the cavernous fireplace. She looked around at the mounted trophies taken by the members of this destructive club from all over the galaxy on and around the hearth and the room’s exposed beams. Den had an impressive collection of animal teeth here, many of which were obviously human. She was glad she’d never been here with him before or she might have blown him to kingdom come years ago, promises be damned.

She used her hidden scanner on the blueprints next to the enormous red-scaled Gleisien, known as the Capo, the merciless figurehead of this council, as she reached out to stir the fire before adding more fuel cubes. It appeared to be a supply ship, meant to aid the survey of Kapteyn, but the diagrams revealed compartments perfect for smuggling. The primary cargo would be slaves like her, minimal survival gear, and an insulated pod for an atmospheric seeding medium and something called tanantobacter z-terranomica. She hoped the Order was receiving and could use this, because she wasn’t sure how much longer she could conceal her clandestine tech in this place.

Den gave her a hard look so she hurried back into position. “We’ll launch the bacterium, followed by the atmospheric seeding.”

The Capo asked, “Won’t that make the news cycle?”

“We’ll say a part broke off. That’ll explain the crash when Icarus falls out of orbit,” sniffed the furry Breeneen, Zalna, who Terra thought might be female. It certainly had enough breasts.

“What of the slaves?” asked the lizard-like Bavnial.

Den gave his sharks smile, “We’ll say they were crew. Anyone who matters wants a breeding colony as much as we do. The slaving ban is nominal and bound to end within a cycle or two. We need a decent supply chain.”

There were murmurs of agreement.

“Besides, we need labor for extraction. Robots aren’t equipped for the terrain or the extreme cold of the ice age on K-6.”

Zalna nodded, “It’ll save wear and tear on more worthwhile equipment for analyzing the minerals.”

Terra gritted her teeth as she transmitted this snippet. Populations were nothing more than another resource for The Seven to exploit for their friends. She took a careful breath, determined to slow her heartbeat. She was more nervous about being here than she’d expected. She’d never had to deal with the trappings of so many powerful people. She was starting to get strange glances from a number of other security personnel. A Kelparian guard slithered out of the shadows near the head of the table.

“Councilmembers, I’ve intercepted a transmission.”

“Yes?” the Capo snapped.

“The blueprints as well as your conversation have been broadcast to an outpost on Satellite 9.”

“From where?” the Gleisien shouted.

“Behind Master Mirahz, Capo.”

Den was on his feet, glaring. He’d been so sure she was his. His sense of betrayal hissed out, “You’ll wish you were in Hell long before I send you there.”

That voice always menaced slaves into cowering compliance. Now she gave him a cool, satisfied smile. She’d waited for this for over a decade, and she’d served the Order as promised today, finally delivered the evidence of collusion needed to loosen the Council’s grip. Terra held out her hand to display the dim red pulse of the micro-fusion explosive she designed and buried in her artificial flesh.

“Why don’t we go together?”

With a snap of her fingers, they did.

The fire took days to extinguish and the smoke created months of stunning sunsets. That was the end of Terra. But it was also the beginning of the end of the Council’s influence. The Terra she truly loved, her shining blue Earth, and other planets like it, now had a fighting chance.

One Terra fell, so the other could rise.

~ End ~

Nightmare

Another writing challenge prompt inspired me. This one happens in the universe of Always Darkest, sometime in the late spring.

Think of a word (any word you want) and search it on google images. Write something inspired by the 7th image. The word I chose was ‘nightmare’. This was the seventh image.

nightmare

He woke in the total dark of his bedroom and puffed out a sigh. He was probably up for the day now, if how heavily his heart was hammering away was any indication. The last wisps of the half-remembered nightmare still vying for his attention kept him from realizing how cold it was for a moment or two. Then, as he came more fully awake he shivered.

His blankets were probably all on the floor again. Thrashing himself into a state of no blankets had become all too common in the last few months. This had been one hell of a bad dream, too. At least the little flashes still dancing behind his closed eyes told him it must have been. He’d have to find his blankets and knew once he turned on the light, sleep was all over. He sighed again.

He rolled onto his back, pried his eyes open, and froze in instant horror.

His room was pitch black, not even the sparest light from the nightlight Chris always left on in the bathroom was cutting the velvety blackness around him. It was, however, being pierced by two laser points of reddish yellow light. They were unmistakably (to someone who had spent two thousand years in Hell anyway) the glowing eyes of an Ahemait.

The Ahemait were like the hunting dogs of Hell, seeking out and devouring those with hearts deemed unworthy. Ben was never sure who got to make that particular call, but to him it always seemed the Ahemait went after souls who were just trying to be decent in spite of being condemned to Hell. He’d worried they’d send one after him at some point for a while now.

He’d told himself a hundred times that the fear was ridiculous, that as far as Hell knew he was still their loyal soldier, sworn to execute his assigned duties to grow Hell’s numbers, and more recently to chase down the subject of the prophecy. But … But, but, but … He knew Bhaal suspected him. And it wasn’t below the god to go behind Lucifer’s back to rid himself of an annoyance.

He had a split second where he was glad that tonight was not one of the nights Mal had decided to stay. At least she was safe, in her bed, miles away.

When his eyes locked with the creature’s, it started to glow faintly. That’s when he could see it’s teeth for the first time. His hammering heart seemed to seize in his chest and he couldn’t catch his breath. He wondered if the dagger sitting on his nightstand would have any effect on this beast, wondered if it was possible to fight his way out. But at that moment he didn’t really believe he could move.

The beast took a lumbering step closer to the foot of his bed and blistering hot saliva dripped onto Ben’s exposed foot. The sizzle and immediate stinging pain was enough to break his paralysis and he reached out blindly in the dark, his hand closing over the cold handle almost instantly.

Unfortunately, even his demonically enhanced reflexes were tempered by his human form and the beast was on him before he could turn the knife toward it. He realized as its teeth tore into his flesh that it wasn’t here to extinguish him. It would keep him alive in the agony of being consumed for as long as it entertained it. After a while his own screams faded into the pain and even sound was just part of the tapestry of agony that could go on forever.

Ben bolted upright in bed, gasping. He realized he was in the larger bed they’d been sharing at Mal’s house. Then the rest of the evening came back to him and drove back the dream a little, let him start to catch his breath. Mal shifted next to him.

“Hey, are you okay?”

She was wide awake. He swallowed, feeling badly. She was already used to his nightmares disrupting her sleep and they hadn’t even been sharing a bed for all that long. “Mmmhmm,” he said, not trusting his voice to convince her it was true.

She sat up and turned on her light. “Nice try.”

He managed a slightly sheepish grin. “Okay … How about, I will be in a minute?”

She moved closer to him and put and arm around him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Mostly honest, I guess. I like Honest Ben.” She paused for a second. “What was this one about?”

He shivered. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

She nodded. “Okay. Do you want to go downstairs, and I’ll start the coffee, or do you want to try to go back to sleep?”

Ben glanced across the room at his phone on the charging station on Mal’s dresser. It was only about 3 a.m. “We can go back to sleep.” he said. “I’m fine,” he added sounding less certain than he would have liked.

She pulled away a little so she could look at his face and gave him a small smile.

“I doubt it,” she said. Then she echoed his words back to him. “But you will be in a minute.”

She got up and got the extra quilt off the chest at the foot of her bed and spread it over Ben, then climbed back in and waited until he lay back down, finally smiling a little as he looked up at her. She snuggled as close as it was physically possible to be and wrapped an arm around him, resting her head against the shoulder of the arm he slid underneath her.

“You don’t have to leave the light on.”

“I know … But sometimes it’s better when I do.”

He kissed the top of her head.

She knew.

She always knew when to leave the light on. He said so and she squeezed him tight. He was never going to have to deal with the dark alone again. Not if she had anything to say about it. She was going to say so, but she realized from the softening of his breath that he had already started to doze off.

“I love you,” she whispered.

She didn’t see it, because her face was pressed against his chest, but even in his sleep, even after the terror of that dream, those words made him smile.

~ End ~

 

For more of Mal and Ben, click here.

Search and Rescue

Author’s note: Prompt in a writing challenge I’m doing – “Imagine that you are unable to leave the room that you’re in for the next 7 days. Chronicle each of the seven days using only 50 words each.”

That sounded boring, so I went fictional. ~ J

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Day One

Don’t know what happened. Maybe an earthquake or a bomb. I remember a loud noise and then jolting, slipping. If anyone else is still alive here I can’t hear them. It was late; people were starting to head home so maybe they all made it. My head hurts and I…

Day Two

This is the second day since whatever happened. I think. I might have passed out when I tried to write things down last time, pretty sure. I remembered people screaming at first. I found the vending machine. The glass was broken. The water fountain is only dripping. I’m so thirsty.

Day Three

Remembered the LED on keychain. Found water cooler. Not full, but better than drips. Head still hurts. Found baby wipes in Marci’s desk. Happy to wipe off blood. Remembered the daycare is down a floor. Sick. Can’t get into bathroom. Emptied a file cabinet for… Think maybe I hear scratching.

Day Four

There’re digging sounds over my head. Building must have collapsed. That was the slipping I felt. At least someone’s trying to find me. I’m so glad I found water. There’s not a lot of real food in the machine, but it’ll probably keep me alive. I hear the scratching again.

Day Five

The digging sounds are closer. If I hold my breath I can almost hear rescue workers shouting to each other between my heartbeats. The water is getting low, so I’m glad they’re getting closer … Something happened. I think it’s the same day. Part of this room collapsed. Vending machine was there.

Day Six

I still have water. Put trashcan under water fountain to collect drips. Working so far. I’ll be okay if I run out of the other. So hungry. They sound closer. I hope. Help coming soon. LED looks dimmer. Don’t want to waste it looking for food unless I get desperate.

Day Seven

Digging has stopped. LED died last night. Found something squishy in a desk. I ate it anyway. Didn’t throw up. Water cooler empty, but trashcan full. Scratching sounds started again. Louder. If I listen I can hear the others.

They’re looking for me.

But I don’t think they are alive.

On the sixth day of Fic-mas, we meet a man alone, traveling to fight the darkness far from home …

That the Lord May Love Thee

No one seemed particularly inclined to worry about the conditions out here. He hadn’t seen a single plow or salt truck on his long drive back. Maybe they were over budget, he thought. The snow had fallen all afternoon in that soft gently lulling way that could make you forget the hazards of commuting in an area prone to inclement weather. Until a dog ran out in front of you and you tapped your breaks anyway.

The fishtailing of the old sedan made the driver realize that he was, perhaps, still a little too focused on how he had spent his day rather than attending to the basic tasks of survival. Speaking of survival, he was really pretty hungry. And damned if he couldn’t use a drink.

Caleb eased into a semi-snow free space close to his motel room door. At least it looked like someone did snow removal for the fleabag he was staying in. So, he could probably get out in the morning.

He glanced at the interview notes on the passenger seat. Reviewing and writing up the report promised to take up most of his evening. His first solo mission had him excited enough that he didn’t even mind that it was Christmas Eve, or that what he was being asked to do was pretty low stakes. It was almost make-work in the grand scheme of the things the Order typically concerned themselves with, but it was his.

He knew that everyone assigned to the Direct Action Corps of the Templars started out like this. It was a proving ground, he supposed. But given the level of training Knights like him received, before they were even allowed to take the Holy Orders of the Warrior Priest, it was a relatively safe one. Investigate suspicious activity. Observe and report. It was, for all intents and purposes, a low-level demon stakeout.

Caleb, at twenty-two, was the youngest ever to take the Oath, and was known to be bright, inventive, and ambitious. He had a tendency to throw himself completely into the task at hand, frequently disregarding his own best interests. Father-Captain Michaels had gone out of his way to remind him that, in the heat of battle that was a good thing, but going about your day to day living, or even completing a less obviously dangerous assignment, it was a tendency he might want to work on curtailing a bit.

He was reminded of that light bit of lecturing as he set down his notes on the small cluttered desk in his room. His stomach grumbled obstinately, drawing attention to the fact that he’d been so passionately pursuing his mission, he hadn’t eaten since … lunch yesterday, was it? Damn.

Caleb reasoned that his formal reports could wait for a bit while he went and grabbed a bite. Loren Michaels, the de facto father figure to most of the young men and women in his unit, had been very clear. He had said in so many words, “Yes, I want you to accomplish your basic assignment, but I also want you to remember that disregarding your own safety can make a poor soldier of you. You have to be not just alive, but alert, and in good health, to keep up the work of the Order.”

Caleb organized his notes, then grabbed a shower. He felt like maybe he was done leaving the room for the night and just slipped into his bathrobe. He hunted around for the take-out menus he’d picked up over the course of the week, but found none. Housekeeping must have been a little too thorough. He supposed he’d have to go out. He changed back into his work clothes, since he hadn’t even emptied the pockets yet, and prepared to find some place that was open this evening.

Fishing his phone out of his pocket, he dialed, and tucked it between his ear and his shoulder, so he could speak while he locked up his room. Caleb was never late with his check-in.

As he headed back out into the increasingly bitter cold, he fished for his car keys. “Good evening,” he said with polite formality. “This is Caleb. Five-two-seven.”

“Five-two-seven, acknowledged. Hold please.”

Caleb fumbled around for the key to the sedan.

“Five-two-seven, this is Control. Status report.”

“Interviews completed at fifteen hundred hours. All the effected cattle had their left eyes, tongues, and hearts removed with surgical precision. The night following the organ harvest incident, the ranchers all reported strange lights, specifically like lighting in a clear sky.”

“Preliminary findings, Five-two-seven?”

“Preliminaries confirm demon activity. Probable summoning gate activation. Full report with recommendations will be submitted in the a.m. Oh-six-hundred at the latest.”

“Take your time, Five-two-seven,” Control’s Operator of the Watch said, her voice lightly amused. The young ones were always so gung-ho. “No one will be here to read mission reports tomorrow. It’s Christmas Day.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose it is,” he agreed distractedly, trying to remember what places he’d seen on his way back that might offer a meal this late on a holiday.

“However, I can tell you that based on your preliminary report, Control will record the confirmation and mobilize a ground team to sanitize the area.”

Not bad. Not bad at all, first time out. A mobilization based on his intel. That might grease the wheels for something more engaging in his near future. His broad grin was in his voice when he replied, “Very good, Control. Have a good night.”

“You, too, Five-two-seven. And Merry Christmas to you.”

“Merry Christmas.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket with a satisfied nod to himself. With a ground team activated, his work here was done. He’d still file his report tomorrow and brief the team, but he could count on orders to move to another town coming down the pike in the next forty-eight hours. And, he was hopeful, it would be something more interesting.

“Shit,” Caleb grumbled as his cold hands let his keys drop into a pile of snow. For the first time since closing the door of his motel room, he really took in the state of the parking lot.

It was snowing again, and getting pretty serious about it. He’d been in his room less than an hour and better than an inch had already collected. It was the icy mealy sort of precipitation that made driving particularly treacherous.

He stooped and fished his keys out of the snow, grumbling to himself. His best friend in the Order, and bunkmate from their training days, was looking at a series of animal mutilations, too. In Hawaii.

Caleb sighed. Of course he’d scored the assignment in the northern sector of God’s Half-Acre. He detested the cold. But he supposed the point of early assignments being a bit of a slog was to help a Knight develop some grit.

As he stood, he nearly slipped and went over backwards in the icy parking lot. Well, that made the decision of where to go for dinner and easy one. The seedy looking bar across the street served food. It was bound to be mostly fried crap, but he could tell from the lights and sounds traveling across the deserted road that it was open for business.

As depressing as he expected spending Christmas Eve in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere to be, it felt like a better, smarter option than driving the twenty miles to the closest Denny’s, which was about the only other place his brain had been able to come up with as an option.

The appearance of the bar lent itself to one of those colorful honkytonk stomping ground-worthy names like The Bull Run (a place he’d actually been to in western Texas not two weeks before, and there’d been actual sawdust on the floor and a mechanical bull off to one side).

All that advertised any identity for this establishment was a flickering neon sign that said simply ‘Bar’ and cast a sickly red light over the snow. Under it, a pink sign rhythmically blinked ‘Eats’.

Caleb shrugged. “Simple. Tells the story,” he whispered to himself as he headed up the slippery walkway and pulled open the grimy door.

The place was surprisingly full, considering the weather and the lack of cars in the poorly maintained parking lot. No one paid him any mind as the door banged closed behind him. The only one who seemed to notice him at all was the no-necked chuck of muscle standing by the door.

Must be the bouncer, Caleb thought. The guy looked more than up to the task of tossing out a drunk, or, you know, fifty. Caleb looked back impassively as the guy eyed him up and down. After a few seconds, the big dude tipped his chin in the direction of the woman standing behind the bar.

He looked around for a moment. The other guests filled the noisy establishment in the booths that lined the walls or by monopolizing the two pool tables and several dart boards. The bartender smiled and motioned him over to the mostly empty highly polished counter. “Come on over, Slick. Take a load off.”

Caleb walked over to the bar, sliding onto one of its high stools and resting his heels on the crossbar near the floor. “Nice place,” he said pleasantly, giving the bartender a worldly smile that he would never admit to having practiced in front of the mirror. Sometimes his age made this job a little more challenging than it was for someone with a few years on him.

The woman behind the bar tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in speculation. “Evening, young fella. I’m Mandi.” He just nodded in response. “And as the proprietor of this establishment, I have to ask … Why you packing? You a cop?”

Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I

The Bar*****

On the fourth day of Fic-mas, we look to the new year, and find something not quite new to fear …

Out With The Old

“Mikey, I said no more cookies,” Mary Davies called out to her son, who was in the kitchen, ostensibly to get the wine glasses for the table.

“Um … Sorry!” drifted back through the swinging door.

“Were those sleigh bells I heard in there,” her husband Clark asked with a smile, as her finished setting out the silverware.

His wife grinned. “I may have hot glued some to the inside of the cookie jar lid. You know, for enhanced security purposes.”

He chuckled. “That is positively diabolical and makes me glad that I’m on your side,” Clark said, leaning in for a kiss.

“Ew, get a room you guys,” Mikey groaned as he came back from his assigned task, bereft of cookies. He began setting the glasses around the table. “Also, very funny, Mom. Like haha. I didn’t know you worked for the cookie CIA or something.”

She smirked, her eyes glittering with mischievous good humor. “I’m more the private security type, but my methods are, nonetheless, highly effective.”

Mikey rolled his eyes, and leaned against the table, his last pointless task for the evening completed. “Why are we doing this whole thing?”

“It’s all you this round, babe,” Mary said as she headed into the kitchen. “Maybe he’ll get it if you explain it to him.”

She tossed a reproving look at her son and exchanged a sympathetic glance with her husband. The tween years had been rough, and now Mickey was going from an only child, an only child who would be thirteen come May 4th, to a big brother. As signs of the impending arrival of the youngest member of the Davies clan compounded, Mikey got exponentially surlier with his parents.

His father took a deep breath and tried again. “It’s Christmas Eve, son. And when I became a deacon of the church, well, I agreed to observe their traditions.”

Mickey tried unsuccessfully to conceal a roll of his eyes. His father went on smoothly, pretending he hadn’t noticed.

“One of those traditions is hosting an elder of the flock, who for whatever reason is alone this time of year. Mr. Morrow hasn’t been here for very long and has no one to share the holiday with … So, I offered for him to come here.”

This time Mikey rolled his eyes openly. “Lame.”

His father puffed a frustrated breath through his nose. “You know what, Michael? I’m done with your attitude. When our guest arrives, you will be polite, cordial, friendly, and not the sullen spoiled brat you keep showing your mother and I lately! Do I make myself clear?” he asked.

Michael thought one thing was very clear. He’d pushed a little too much today. Better to just suck it up, get this dinner over with, and head up to his room. He could turn the light off, pretend he was sleeping, and just go online. “Yes, sir,” he said, only sounding about half as sullen as he felt.

A chime sounded from the living room. “There’s the doorbell, now,” Clark said. “Why don’t you go let our guest in, Michael?”

He gave his son a hard look. His father was sticking to his full name, a good indication that he better play nice or the Wi-Fi password would get changed.

Mickey opened the door, and took an instinctive step toward the man on the welcome mat, almost reaching out a hand to steady the old fellow’s elbow, hardly recognizing him from church, where they’d met last week.

“Are you okay, Mr. Morrow?” Mikey asked, skipping over the normal ‘good evening’.

Before him stood, or more accurately stooped over a cane, what could best be described as a memory of a man. Wispy and frayed around the edges. A wheezy laugh escaped Mr. Morrow on a zephyr’s breath.

“That bad, huh, kid?” he asked with amusement.

With surprising agility and grace, the old man slipped around Michael and into the house.

“C … c …. Can I take your coat?” Mickey squeaked, caught entirely by surprise.

“Why, thank you, young man,” Mr. Morrow croaked.

If Mickey had thought the man appeared frail while wearing his coat, without it, their ancient dinner companion seemed like he might just blow away. He looked about as substantial as a paper snowflake.

A shiver rippled up and down Mickey’s back as Mr. Morrow’s eyes pierced him. Mikey thought a smirk might have passed over the old man’s face, but he was so wrinkled and dusty looking it was hard to tell. Mickey shivered again, this one shaking his whole body a little.

“Never seen a walking cadaver before, have you, boy. Hehehe,” he chuckled, then the strange hollow laugh turned into a body-wracking cough. His ribs were visible through his threadbare dress shirt. Mikey offered an arm to help steady his guest, feeling a strange mix of pity and revulsion when Mr. Morrow gratefully accepted.

“Mr. Morrow, are you alright?” Clark asked, coming into the foyer, having been alerted to the difficulty by the noise.

Wiping his mouth with a faded handkerchief, he showed his hosts a toothless grin. “Well, I thought I was, but I guess I’m in the minority. No matter. I’ve caught my breath now. I would like a seat though.”

“This way, sir,” Mikey said, leading his guest into the dining room and helping him into a chair as quickly as the old man’s labored movements would allow. Mikey had a strong, inexplicable urge to no longer be touching him.

“There’s a good lad,” Mr. Morrow said with genuine admiration, though for what, Mickey couldn’t know. The man patted his hand and made momentary eye contact, his expression grateful.

Mikey suppressed a shudder when those blue eyes met his brown ones. There was something off about the man’s gaze. His eyes just weren’t right. It was like they didn’t fit his face, like they didn’t get that they were old, or something.

Mary came into the room and offered, “Dinner isn’t quite ready, Mr. Morrow. If you’d like we could move into the other room to wait where the furniture is a little more comfortable.

He looked at her with something like understanding. “No, thank you kindly, all the same though. But you look like getting up and down from these low chairs is about as much fun for you as it is for me.”

He nodded at her very obvious baby bump. She smiled at his thoughtfulness. That had been almost exactly what she’d been thinking.

Mr. Morrow suggested, “Why don’t we stay right here? I’d prefer it, if it’s all the same to you. I like sitting around a nice table. It’s more personal, intimate. You can talk and really look people in the eye.”

When he said the words, he gave Michael another look and a nod. The boy tried not to fidget, but he felt himself squirm under Mr. Morrow’s scrutiny.

Mr. Morrow smiled his strange old wrinkly smile with nothing of it to sparkle but shiny pink gums and offered, “How about a story to pass the time? I know some good ones.”

“Sounds like fun,” Clark answered for the group.

The evening passed pleasantly. Mr. Morrow did know some truly wonderful stories. Mary was an excellent cook, and Clark a terrific baker, but dinner a dessert played a definite second fiddle to Mr. Morrow’s tales. Both the real historical accounts and what sounded like outrageous swashbuckling fiction enthralled the family.

It was like Mr. Morrow had been born with many lifetimes worth of firsthand knowledge, and that he was somehow passing it off into this room, into this gathering we nothing more than the gift of shared time and a few words.

Mr. Morrow was just concluding a harrowing tale of near death and shocking bravery from the French and Indian War, when he paused to look at the clock as it began to chime softly.

“Well, look at the time. Merry Christmas, one and all.”

Mikey let out a soft sigh of relief. That meant Mr. Morrow would be leaving soon, no doubt. And good stories or not, the guy just gave him the creeps something awful.

“Don’t look so disappointed, son,” he father said. “I’m sure we’ll do this again.”

Good old Clark, Mikey thought. Missing the general mood as usual.

“No,” the old man said, with an almost sad shake of his head, his silver hair looking too much like spider webs in the sun for Mikey’s liking. “Most likely not,” he continued. “I’ve much to do and prepare between now the new year.”

“Maybe after the holidays, then?” Clark asked. “I mean, really, Mr. Morrow, I truly enjoyed this evening.”

“As did I, Clark; as did I.”

The old man paused and looked around the table, eyes grazing Mikey again, asking him something, it seemed. The boy had an inexplicable urge to either be sick or to shout at his father to put the old man out on the mat, now. To not say what he was going to say next. But his silent scream didn’t stop his father’s words.

“Well, I invite you to join our family, any time.”

Mikey actual had to swallow to keep his dinner from coming right back up onto the table at the little flash in Mr. Morrow’s eyes just then. Then the old man spoke again, and the boy felt strangely faint.

“Thank you kindly, Clark. In that case … I do believe we’ll be seeing each other again. Very soon.”

“I … um … I’m not feeling very well,” Mikey blurted. “May I please be excused?”

He looked everywhere but at Mr. Morrow as his mother rose and came over to where he was sitting, laying her bare wrist against his forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever … But this is awfully late for you. Why don’t you go get some rest?”

“Thanks, Mom!” he practically yelled.

Then he said quick perfunctory good nights all around and disappeared upstairs, climbing into his bed and pulling the covers over his head, and dozing into strange dark dreams before the adults had even pushed away from the table.

After an after-dinner drink, in no particular hurry for the evening to be over, the Davies showed Mr. Morrow to the foyer.

“Thank you for coming,” Mary said as she opened the door while Clark helped the old man with his coat.

Mr. Morrow stopped at the door, turning to face Mary. “You, dear lady, are a wonderful host.” She was going to thank him for the kind remark, but he reached out and put his gnarled, blue-tinged hand against her swollen belly.

A cold chill raced through her body, that her sleeping son, who was now moaning softly with a terrible dream above their heads, would have recognized.

Mr. Morrow spoke softly, gazing into her face with an unwavering assurance. “A New Years’ baby, I should think. Much like our meeting …” He paused, and the Davies both thought he might have just lost the thread of his thought. But then he looked at them both very seriously. “Both a blessing, and a curse.” That hung in the air for a moment. “Good night.”

Mary and Clark both found themselves oddly unsettled. Mr. Morrow turned to them as he reached the end of the walk. “I’m sorry. I really am just so, so sorry.”

He walked off into the chilly dark, leaving them speechless.

Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I

Baby new year

*****

Out of the Blue

“What was that?”

“What was what?” Jason, spoke around the screws he was holding in his teeth, didn’t even look up. Tally had been twitchy since they’d cleared the Ort Cloud.

“That sound,” Natalia’s head tilted sideways, as though listening more intently could actually allow her to hear a sound that couldn’t exist in the empty vacuum of space all around them.

Jase carefully screwed the cover panel back over the sensor array access and slid the screwdriver into its pocket in the front of his blue coveralls. Tally’s eyes were too round and she was carefully concealing an all over sort of trembling that looked like perhaps their climate controlled compartment had suddenly gotten cold. Maybe she was getting sick. It wouldn’t be the first time one of them came down with some inexplicable illness out here on the edge of known space. He should probably go wake one of the team docs and he was trying to remember if Desta or Hai had more sleep to go on at the moment and was about to head to the crew quarters when Natalia yelped.

He slid away from the panel over to where she was hovering by the small window, staring out into the strangely bright dark. He reached out to lay a hand on her shoulder, but she whipped around and shoved off from the wall to get away from him. They all joked about space dementia, but Captain Ross was starting to find it less and less funny. They lost Kolya back just after Pluto to some strange bout of madness and fever, then Buzz (because of course the Aldrin descendent had to go by Buzz out here) when they’d approached the Barrier. And Tally had been worrying him for days, jumping at every noise, eating poorly, and getting increasingly paranoid. It was actually why he’d relieved Marsh to work on the array problem. As the commander, he wanted eyes on struggling crew.

“Tal, what is it?” She shook her head and closed her eyes tight. “Natalia?”

“It’s the screaming, Jason. I know you can’t hear it. When Nikolai told me I thought it was delirium.” She shook her head and gave a little hopeless sigh. He started toward her again, but she put up her hand. “No, Jase, don’t. Maybe it won’t get you; maybe you won’t hear it.”

“Natalia, I’m responsible for this ship and everything on it. Tell me, so I can help.”

She sunk slowly to the floor, as though she’d found a tiny pocket of gravity that only effected her. She spoke, but there was a quality to her voice that made Jason’s blood run cold. “When you look into the Abyss, the Abyss looks into you.”

Instinctively, Jason was using his hands on the console to make his way toward the hatch dividing this room from the command console. Wanting to keep her talking, he ventured, “What’s the screaming? What do you keep hearing?”

Her head came up; her smile was sharp and perfect. “It’s Natalia’s. She doesn’t like us inside.”

Jason to a slow breath. It had never been this bad, gotten this scary with Buzz or Kolya. He was about to thumb the catch and leave to get help when the eyes that had once belonged to Natalia Ross, his sweetheart since grad school, opened and bored into his. They were liquid black and in them he could see distant invisible stars. She rose and glided toward him, free from her own gravity once again. She pressed her body against his and looked into his soft azure eyes and was gratified to see the instant shift in color and his hands rising toward his ears to block out the sound.

“You always wanted to be the one to make contact, Captain Ross. How do you like it?”

It wasn’t long before the pair walked heavily down the hall to introduce the rest of the crew to life in the Black.

July 8, 2016 ~ JF

“Imagine that you are unable to leave the room that you’re in for the next 7 days. Chronicle each of the seven days using only 50 words each.”

Day One

Don’t know what happened. Maybe an earthquake or a bomb. I remember a loud noise and then jolting, slipping. If anyone else is still alive here I can’t hear them. It was late; people were starting to head home so maybe they all made it. My head hurts and I…

Day Two

This is the second day since whatever happened. I think. I might have passed out when I tried to write things down last time, pretty sure. I remembered people screaming at first. I found the vending machine. The glass was broken. The water fountain is only dripping. I’m so thirsty.

Day Three

Remembered the LED on keychain. Found water cooler. Not full, but better than drips. Head still hurts. Found baby wipes in Marci’s desk. Happy to wipe off blood. Remembered the daycare is down a floor. Sick. Can’t get into bathroom. Emptied a file cabinet for… Think maybe I hear scratching.

Day Four

There’re digging sounds over my head. Building must have collapsed. That was the slipping I felt. At least someone’s trying to find me. I’m so glad I found water. There’s not a lot of real food in the machine, but it’ll probably keep me alive. I hear the scratching again.

Day Five

The digging sounds are closer. If I hold my breath I can almost hear rescue workers shouting to each other between my heartbeats. The water is getting low, so I’m glad they’re getting closer…Something happened. I think it’s the same day. Part of this room collapsed. Vending machine was there.

Day Six

I still have water. Put trashcan under water fountain to collect drips. Working so far. I’ll be okay if I run out of the other. So hungry. They sound closer. I hope. Help coming soon. LED looks dimmer. Don’t want to waste it looking for food unless I get desperate.

Day Seven

Digging has stopped. LED died last night. Found something squishy in a desk. I ate it anyway. Didn’t throw up. Water cooler empty, but trashcan full. Scratching sounds started again. Louder. If I listen I can hear the others. They’re looking for me. But I don’t think they are alive.