Strongly Worded Women: Cover Reveal and Pre-Order Announcement

It’s here! The cover reveal for Strongly Worded Women: The Best of the Year of Publishing Women: An Anthology:

 Cover by Sydney Culpepper

Cover by Sydney Culpepper

Back in 2015, Not a Pipe Publishing announced we were accepting author Kamila Shamsie’s challenge to the publishing industry to only publish women authors in 2018. Now, after publishing eight novels by seven authors, they are capping off their Year of Publishing Women with an anthology of 18 short stories by women authors from across the country.

The anthology will be available online and in bookstores on November 20th so it can be available for Black Friday shoppers, but you can pre-order it now to make sure you get your copy!

Amazon:

Hardcover: HERE

Trade Paperback: HERE

Kindle: HERE

Barnes and Noble and Nook: HERE

Apple Books: HERE

Inclusion in the anthology has meant a lot to the writers. Tonya Lippert, author of “Misreadings,” says, “It means joining a community of writers. I feel joined to Not a PIpe Publishing and the other writers whose work will be part of the anthology. We all will be working to spread the word and get the collection of stories to readers. Our lives are now intertwined.” Taylor Buccello, author of “The Becoming,” says, "Ever since I was little, I've loved writing and dreamed of having my work published. It still feels surreal to be getting this opportunity, but I'm so glad to be part it (and to be alongside some amazing women, at that) and to have a taste at the published world." Laura Hazan, author of “The Breakout,” concurs. “Having this story published in the Year of Publishing Women anthology is like a crowning - I've finally made it, despite the critics, including the one in my own head.” Rosie Bueford, author of “Woman by the Window,” sees it as a part of something larger: “I have long admired the work and social activism/awareness of Not A Pipe Publishing company and its founders. To be included in this project has been equally humbling and inspiring. As a woman and a social work student, I am honored to be a part of a literary project designed to empower women in the industry and in our country during such a tumultuous time. ... I feel this project has done a beautiful thing to bring about mindful awareness of what is happening within ourselves and all around us.”

Heather S. Ransom, author of “Eyes” and the novels Going Green and Greener, thinks of this anthology as a mechanism to mentor young women. “Today, more than ever, girls desperate to find their place in a society constantly changing around them need a wide variety of incredible females as role models. Strong, confident, inspiring women to show them that their future can be anything they choose, if they are willing to work for it. … I believe that young women today need strong female voices to guide them on their journey not only of survival but of self-discovery, appreciation, acceptance, and love.” For Lizzy Carney, author of “Mother Nature … Mother Nurture,” it’s far more personal. “Love for my mom is etched in my heart…putting words on a page was an action of describing that love. Just when I thought I would give up my pen for knitting needles, the opportunity of submitting Mother Nature Mother Nurture was literally handed to me. On a whim. I pushed send. Ma was a woman of grit and grace.  She loved to read and pitied those without an imagination. Having a piece of her story included in the Year of Publishing Women Short Story Anthology surrounded by stories written by women is incredible. Ma would be happy surrounded by creative women’s words. She made me promise I would keep writing. I will forget about knitting and keep my promise. Being included in this project, and having my story of Ma and her journey with Alzheimer’s published, is an amazing honor.”

LeeAnn Mclennan, author of “Zombie Apocalypse Rescue Agency” and The Supernormal Legacy trilogy, says, “I’m honored to be a part of Not a Pipe’s Year of Publishing Women short story project. The project celebrates women authors crafting the stories they want to write about the world they inhabit. It’s our chance provide even more evidence of the quality of writing women bring to the page. “ Karen Eisenbrey, author of “Crane’s Fire” and the novels Daughter of Magic and The Gospel According to St. Rage, shares McLennan’s view about quality and also highlights the community building. "The Year of Publishing Women has released a wide variety of great novels and short stories into the world, but it has been about so much more than that: it has brought together authors to learn from and support each other, and to amplify each other's voices." Maren Anderson, author of “Getting Pregnant on the Back of a Motorcycle” and the novels Closing the Store and Fuzzy Logic, agrees. “It's awesome to be bound together (literally) with so many talented women.”

We’re having a launch party at Another Read Through in Portland on November 30th from 7:00 to 8:00. Come hear many of these talented authors read from their stories, and get your copy signed.


#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Mother Nature…Mother Nurture" by Lizzy Carney

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!


I don't believe I have the words to accurately describe this beautiful piece. This memoir is an homage to the author's mother, and the imagery and poeticism of the writing evoke such strong and yet delicate emotions in the reader. I can tell this will be a story I will return to again and again to revisit the pure emotion and heart I experienced when reading. -Sydney Culpepper, Anthology Editor



Mother Nature…Mother Nurture

by Lizzy Carney

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I am losing my mother in pieces. She is like an autumn tree:  beautiful, colorful, yet dying. The breeze of Alzheimer’s whispers through the branches while her memory drops off with the leaves.

One day when her tree is finally bare, I will hold a memory of her blooming strength. She weathered the storms and provided me with shelter.  I will be strong and remain hopeful because of her. For now, I will hope for spring to come, so together we may see the blossoms and green growth of love.

On a September drive through the Oregon wine country, Mom asked me, “What will we see once the leaves have all fallen?” She answered her own question. “Skeleton trees?”

I gather what is falling: her stories, her looks, her insights, and her love. Nature’s beauty is my rake. I rake these moments we share, embracing them as simple gifts of beauty.

Another day she smiles and says, “Oh, the little fast birds are here.” I look up to the fuchsia hanging in the window and see the swift messengers of love and joy. Hummingbirds never seem to stop, never glide. I will them to linger. I will life to linger, to be savored, so that we can take our time and drink the nectar. I know that hummingbirds symbolize immortality, bravery, joy, and perseverance. I wonder if their flight of infinity would journey into our house and allow me to have my mom a little longer. These tiny creatures delight her with their fleeting visits and provide me with a sense of peace, knowing that I will never stop savoring the nectar of my mom’s sweetness.

We rest on her bed with eyes wide and focused out the window and on the sky. The clouds drift. Mom comments that the sun is warm and melting the clouds. She asks what I see… I say I see a cloud passing as a caterpillar. “No,” she says, “it is God reaching out to us.” We are quiet as the view changes. She pities the person without imagination. The sky’s stage provides for an ensemble of characters: herds of wild animals stampede across the horizon. Musical instruments silently blow to the west. Stout kings float by followed by soaring chubby cherubs. “The clouds are heavy,” she remarks. “It will rain and they will be lighter.” I feel her love and bask in the slow motion of the moment. The clouds are dark and threatening. Mom dozes; I keep my eye on the clouds, waiting for one to pass and offer me a silver lining. I will be patient.

“How many sunsets have we watched together?” Mom asks me. Before I can respond, she muses that “the sky is a Van Gogh painting, only more beautiful.” She holds my hand while we wait and watch colors transform the sky into impressionistic images.  Sunset … a day’s end, bringing breathtaking moments of change in us, entwined with nature.

The sun is setting on my mother.  The hues and tones of her life dim quietly as the dusk of the disease sets in on her memories.  I cling to the colors of our time now. I embrace the brush strokes of the afterglow and realize that twilight is approaching and then will come darkness.

Magically, clouds part for the moon. The fuzziness of the veiled moon has cleared and so a bright glow streams down upon us as our night light.  We watch the moon rise while the stars decorate the sky. We talk as if we are young girls on a sleepover.

Mom wonders if Ireland has a moon. She did not see it when we were there last. I assure her Ireland has a moon and it is the same one we are viewing this night. We tease about shooting for the moon and that if we miss, we will hit a star. Together we count and wish and wonder.

One day I will look at the world for both of us: capturing the beauty in my heart, wishing on the giggling stars, watching the sun playing “sneak and peek.” My heart is broken as I lose my mother in pieces, watching the woman who was my mother disappearing leaf by leaf. It is broken open with love. I smile, stirring up memories of the joys we share overseeing the birds, sunsets and the night skies together, embracing Mother Nature. Smiling for the many joys we have had together.

Grief changes us forever. There is never ‘normal’ again. But my sorrowful and changed spirit will remember that I carry within me the beauty of my mother. She will be with me always, and I will be healed by the memories of ordinary and extraordinary moments we shared with nature. Mom will always nurture me. The moon will trade places with the sun and in my darkness I know morning will come.

I recall Carl Sandburg’s line, “The moon is a friend for the lonesome to talk to.” My mother’s moon and I will be having many conversations.


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Writer, educator, reader, gardener, and traveler describe Lizzy Carney’s interests and pursuits. Her journey is a lifelong learning expedition and she has discovered the value of detours.

Ms. Carney holds a Master of Arts in Education from Antioch University and a Bachelor of Education in Special Education from Gonzaga University.
For seventeen years, she had the opportunity to teach special education students at the elementary, middle and high school levels and mainstream middle school Language Arts and Social Studies. As an adjunct professor at Antioch University, her teaching focused in mentoring adults studying to earn a special education endorsement or complete their Master’s degrees. Additionally, through the Heritage Institute, she offered classes designed to assist teachers to use children’s picture books to enhance instruction in writing and the content areas.
Currently, she is the full time caregiver to her elderly father.


Ms. Carney is a member of Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and The Willamette Writers. She belongs to two critique groups and attends regional writer conferences. She enjoys writing in a variety of genres. Her essay “Death Stalks My Mother” was published as part of the anthology Upon Arrival of Illness: Coming to Terms with the Dark Companion (Savage Press 2012). Presently, she is working on picture book manuscripts and a book for Alzheimer’s caregivers. The working title is: Beyond Pee, Poop and Pills. The Life of an Alzheimer’s Caregiver.

Author Debby Dodds reads from Amish Guys Don't Call

Author Debby Dodds reads from her hilarious YA novel Amish Guys Don't Call at the Words and Pictures Festival in Vancouver, Washington. Amish Guys Don’t Call isn’t one of Not a Pipe Publishing’s novels, but Debby is a great friend of Not a Pipe Publishing, and it’s a great book, so we want to recommend it to you. The picture quality is terrible, but you can hear her reading clearly. Get your copy of Amish Guys Don't Call here: https://www.amazon.com/Amish-Guys-Dont-Debby-Dodds/dp/1988279437

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Guard Crow" by Zoe Brook

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!


This story weaves fantasticism with harsh reality. It depicts a little girl with a mysterious background who becomes friends with a crow. Solace from tragedy can be found in the strangest of places, and justice can be delivered in the most unexpected ways. These are the lessons I learned from this beautiful story. -Sydney Culpepper, Anthology Editor

Guard Crow

by Zoe Brook

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The little girl is running; she's out of breath and stumbles as she stops at the corner of the lot. She stands still for a moment, then as her breathing evens out, she looks over her shoulder, all around her. There's fear on her face, but it's almost a resigned fear. As if she's used to whatever she's afraid of. It fades as she turns to the chain link fence she stopped next to. Curiosity sparks, and a second later she's pushing through the loose fencing at the corner post.

She pulls the ends of her light pink sleeves down over her hands to protect against the sharp points of fence and crouches close to the ground to scramble under and through. There's a plaque on the fence at the same corner, marking the lot as under the protection of Ye Olde Watch Services.

There are a few trees on the far side of the lot, but most of the place is dusty bare ground piled with lumber, some crates, and various other building supplies. It's flat and open, but in this early night darkness, a little girl, even a little girl in pink and purple, can easily be lost within the strange shapes and shadows. She creeps further around a giant crate, as high as the refrigerator box her mommy used to let her play in. Growing out of the ground just past the crate are the bones of a structure. The darkness warps the lines, but to the little girl it looks like an adventure waiting to be created. Maybe an abandoned pirate keep, or where villagers started rebuilding after the last dragon attack.

She smiles, half skipping toward the skewed lines and oddly placed shapes. She's clambering over the pile of various shaped lumber when she spots the dark bird at the top of the structure. It's watching her steadily as she scrambles. When her feet touch the ground, she stops and leans against the pile to stare back at the bird. Her smile is open and expectant. The bird still regards her, even in her flurries of awkward motion, it has not shifted or seemed nervous. It's made no move to fly away.

“How do you do, Mr. Crow?” The little girl's voice is soft, playful. The bird tilts its head. The girl holds up an arm and points to the sleeve. “Do you like pink?”

The bird's feathers are shiny black. Even in the gloom they shine, and his eyes are intelligent and watchful. Blending into the night, but holding itself aloof.

The girl scuffs her untied shoes against the dirt, tracing a pattern in the dust. “I think pink is okay. I think I like dark green best. My favorite tree is dark green.”

The crow's wings swing out and he's airborne in a moment, swooping down to a corner of lumber only a little bit away from the little girl. He lands softly, his entire movement nearly silent. He regards her again; the little girl hasn't jumped, only continued to watch him, turning to face him straight on. Pink is a fine color, miss.

The girl beams. “My name is Fiona. What's your name, Mr. Crow?”

It is lovely to meet you, Fiona. I am called Sebastian.

The girl giggles. “That's a funny name!”

Heh, I suppose it is.

“The funniest names I've heard are always rich people's names. Are you rich, Sebastian?”

What is rich?

She shrugs, suddenly looking down at her shoes and frowning. “I dunno. My uncle doesn't like the rich, but they all seem nice enough.”

I see.

“Sebastian?”

Sebastian's head tilts. Yes, Fiona?

“Do you want to be my friend?”

It would be my utmost pleasure to be called friend of yours.

The girl's sad face brightens, a smile flashing across her face. “Awesome!”

What is your favorite tree, Fiona? You mentioned it was green?

She nods emphatically, hopping on the tips of her toes. “It's this huge, dark green tree. It lived in my old backyard. I think mommy told me it was called cedar. I named it Toby though. We were best of friends.”

Sounds like a very worthy tree indeed, my friend.

She nods. “Yes! Toby was the bestest.”

Fiona, have you ever been afraid of the dark?

She shakes her head. “No. Not really. Mommy used to say that the monsters didn't live in the dark. But I don't think she knew I was listening.”

Your mommy sounds very wise.

“Yep!” She bounces on the slightly springy lumber, staring absently at the strange structure. “Why are you here, Mr. Sebastian Crow?”

I guard this place. Why are you here, Miss Fiona?

“Cause this place looks like fun.”

Why were you running, Miss Fiona?

She makes a face and hops to her feet. “Nevermind that! Do you want to play adventure?”

Sebastian's eye follows her, contemplative. He finally blinks, his head bobs slightly. I would like to very much. How do we play?

It would be a very strange sight to anyone watching. A girl running and jumping across lumber and half built concrete platforms. Brandishing imaginary swords and speaking with great seriousness, as if to nobility, in turn. A crow flying around her during the fighting, patiently perching in response to her diplomatic talk. Sometimes resting on her shoulder or raising a foot to shake her hand. Her play voices, and his playful caws, carry in the night. But no one is there to see. No one is there to hear them playing.

***


Fiona flops down on a tiny patch of grass, panting, and Sebastian alights beside her. “You're excellent at adventure!”

Adventure is excellent. I am glad you showed it to me.

“There's adventure everywhere! You just have to look.”

Does your mother know where to find your adventures?

She shakes her head, looking a little sad. “Mommy died a month ago. She told me there was something eating her insides, and she couldn't stop it. She made me promise to find adventures for myself, ‘cause she wanted to see me happy when she looks down from the cloud windows.” She smiles, faintly. “I think mommy would've liked you.”

Oh Fiona, I think I would have liked to know your mother, too.

Sebastian pushes underneath one of Fiona's small arms, and looks up at her, his eyes warm. Fiona hugs him back.

“I should probably go home, Sebastian. Will I see you again?”

Fiona, child, I'd like that.

“Are you always here?”

Yes, I will be here until the fence is gone.

“I'll come visit you all the time!”

I look forward to seeing you. Please be safe on your way home.

Fiona nods and waves as she pushes through the fence and runs in the same direction that she came from. Calling over her shoulder that she'd see Sebastian the next night.

***


She did see Sebastian the next night, and every night that week. Pushing through the sharp fence and meeting him in the ever-changing piles of lumber and progressing building. She tells him how she felt about the color of her shirt each night, and they play adventure together. Sometimes she tells him something about her mother, or about something simple and innocuous she'd done that day. Somedays when she comes to the fence, she is running. She pushes through the fence faster, sometime scraping the edge of her arm, and crouches down behind one of the huge crates. Sebastian sits with her, but after a while, when she is satisfied that what she watched for isn't coming, she smiles and they play.

Tonight is the last night of the week, and they are sitting together on a stump, after having played adventuring pirates. She's fiddling with the edge of her orange shirt sleeve, around her wrist. Every few moments, her knuckles would rub against the skin underneath and she'd wince.

Does your wrist hurt?

“No, not really.” She shrugs. “Sometimes.”

Why does it hurt Fiona?

She turns to face him fully, her face faintly illuminated in moonlight and her expression is utterly serious. Much more serious than even her most important diplomatic talks. “Can I show you something, Sebastian?”

Of course, you can show me anything, Fiona.

She pulls the edge of her sleeve up carefully, revealing a bruise just above her wrist. She twists her wrist, the bruise wrapping all the way around her arm. In places it looks like the shadow of fingers digging in.

Sebastian's feathers puffed out angrily, his eyes sharp and flashing. Who did this to you, Fiona?

She pulls down the sleeve. “It doesn't really matter. This one doesn't hurt as much as the others have. I just wanted to show someone.”

Fiona, who did this to you? This is important.

There's fear in her eyes again and she shifts down closer to the ground, listening carefully. Looking intensely at Sebastian. “Promise, Sebastian, don't tell anyone, please!”

I can't make that promise. Fiona, what's wrong?

It happens so fast, neither of them has quite enough time to react. There's a sharp shout from the front of the lot and the sound of a gate opening in the fence. Flashlight beams streak across the ground in switching patterns and half angry voices yell to each other.

Fiona grabs Sebastian and shoves him away from her, half behind a pile of small crates. “Hide, Sebastian!” she hisses,

Fiona – !

The men's lights have landed on Fiona and they're surrounding her. She's cowering against the crate, her arms thrown up against the bright lights. “Is this her, Mister?”

“Yes, that's her. About time! Young lady what do you think you're doing here? We're going home!”

Fiona stands and shouts angrily at them, the man in normal clothes and the three men in their dark blue uniforms and funny square hats. “NO! GO AWAY!”

The man in normal clothes grabs her arm and yanks her toward him as they all stomp toward the road. Fiona yelps at the man's touch and when she looks over her shoulder, the fear in her eyes is sharp and bright. She's searching for Sebastian's calm eyes. “Sebastian, the monsters live in the daylight! Sebastian!”

The crow hops toward her, but the men are walking away too quickly. As they move past the next building, Sebastian spreads his wings and flies.


***


The couple is walking past the nearly completed construction site, its fence halfway gone. The woman listens intently as the man gestures and shakes his head, explaining something to her.

“It was the damnedest thing I've ever seen! No one would ever believe me. Old man Grant, he was up on the roof. Must've been trying to fix the leak. His wife's always on him about getting it fixed, especially since they got her sister's kid, but the cheap sonofabitch, I guess he didn't want to pay anyone. Anyway, he was up there doing god knows what, and this slick black bird's just there out of nowhere, diving on him, attacking him. Scratching him and cawing somethin’ fierce, knocks the fucker off the damn roof. His eyes were messed up, his hands too! Scariest shit I've ever seen. Time the ambulance got there, he was gone. Hit his head in the fall, I think. Bird's nowhere to be seen. I can't explain that shit to the cops, y'know?” He runs a hand through his hair. “One of ‘em looked like he'd seen a damn ghost though, muttered to his partner something about 'remember the other night? Remember that?' I think he was starting to say bird, but the other guy shushed him so fast, it was real freaky.”

The woman shudders. “I'm just glad the kid wasn't home. She's been through enough, what with her mama dying with that awful cancer? I'm sure glad she wasn't home.”

***

It's almost a week later, and Fiona's walking past the site, holding a woman's hand and smiling up at her. The day is bright and cheerful. As they walk past, Fiona looks into the site, the house inside already taken shape, albeit a crooked one, and the fence is gone. But she still looks, as if searching for someone. The woman stops to talk with a man on the sidewalk and Fiona lets go of her hand and slips into the lot, looking around the corner of the house.

“Sebastian?” she murmurs.

The crow is sitting on an upturned barrel, cleaning its feathers. At the sound of her voice, the crow looks up and meets her eyes straight on, half flying half hopping over to where she stands at the corner. Fiona!

The girl laughs and flops down to her knees. “I thought I wouldn't get to say goodbye before you left! I'm so glad to see you!”

And I you, Fiona. Are you alright?

She nods. “Aunty Agnes is going to take care of me still. It's been so strange, she seems so much happier now that Uncle Grant is gone. She's talking to me, telling me all kinds of things and saying she was wrong about Grant, and so many things. She sounds so much more like mommy now. She wants me to tell her all about mommy. She says they were sisters, but she didn't get to talk much cause of Grant.”

I am so glad to hear that, Fiona.

“I think you're my best friend, Sebastian.”

The crow presses its head into the little girl’s hand. You are the best friend I have had in a long time, Fiona. I would have made sure to say goodbye.

The girl presses her cheek against the bird's head. “I wish you could stay.”

I will be, Fiona. The man who will live here now, he has hired me to guard his house. I will be here whenever you need me. But Fiona, promise me you will find adventures with other kids your age too?

She smiles. “You're staying! This is the best news. And I will always find adventure!”

Thank you for being my friend Fiona.

***

For years, the slightly strange man wonders why little Fiona always waves at his house when she passes by every day. She isn't quite waving at him, but she always waves, smiling and laughing. When he once asks her aunt, she doesn’t know why either.

He is glad though, that he isn't the only eccentric element in the neighborhood. Instead of being the weird half-pirate neighbor, he is but one of the slightly strange occurrences in the slightly strange neighborhood, that no one ever really talks about, but everyone sees. The little girl who waves at his house every day, even when she is grown. The retired cops that seem afraid of crows. The neighbors that whisper to themselves that anyone who hurts children gets fiercely punished.

And then there is the neighborhood crow. It must be a different crow, sometimes. But it didn't entirely seem different. More always present and watchful. As if it is guarding something. These crows that look like the same crow, like his house the best. Whenever the crow is there, it is on his house.

And he loves this weird neighborhood where he fits in, where he falls in love with Fiona's aunt a little more each year. Where he can delight the kids at the library story time with the stories of his adventures on the sea.

He chuckles to himself, holding the curtain back slightly, watching the all grown up Fiona walk past his house with her fiance, and even now, she turns to his house, smiles, and waves.


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Zoe Brook lives in the Pacific Northwest near Seattle, where she works as a stagehand. She graduated from The Evergreen State College after studying the interactions of social movements, queer history, literature, and sexuality. She continues to follow her passion for learning and writing as she focuses on her novels and begins her career.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Getting Pregnant on the Back of a Motorcycle" by Maren Bradley Anderson

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!


Another mesmerizing story from Maren Bradley Anderson! Her writing effortlessly transports the reader to one of the nameless small towns that are spread all throughout the country. This is a story of nostalgia and guilty pleasures and how you can be addicted to a person. As I read, I wondered, does the past ever really leave us? And can we ever really leave it behind? -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Getting Pregnant on the Back of a Motorcycle

by Maren Bradley Anderson

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I never figured out how Ellen and Eddy got together. My last trip home I saw them sitting on the back of his bike eating ice cream at the Freezee drive-in. How lame is it to be eating ice-cream at the Freezee when you're, like, 28? I was home visiting Mom, building her a porch, instead of taking a real vacation somewhere that wasn’t my shitty home town.

Ellen had grown her hair longer, so the curls sprung in ten directions, but otherwise, she was as luscious as she had been at graduation. And she licked that cone like she wanted to have its babies.

Eddy ate his ice cream like he didn’t trust it.

I nearly crashed Mom’s Passat into the car in front of me watching Ellen eat. Genius. Then I flipped a bitch into the Freezee parking lot and pulled in next to them. Double Genius.

But she was mine first. Those blue eyes and that curly black hair? Mine. Crooked front tooth? Mine. Diabolical mind? On my side first.

Eddy is a whiny little shit with money and no spine. He tries to make up for it by riding a very loud motorcycle. It’s not a Harley--he’s not that cool--just a knock-off rice grinder. I’d kicked his ass a couple times when we were kids for being a snotty little shit. Maybe that’s why he’s always been a dick to me. Maybe he’s just an asshat.

I don’t know what I expected when I opened the door, but I didn’t expect the blank look under Ellen’s precisely arched brows. Like hunting bows.

I wasn’t surprised by Eddy’s reaction, though.

“Hey, asshole. What do you want?”

“Ice cream.” Then I said, “Ellen? You don’t remember me.”

She made a show of squinting at me and then threw back her head and laughed just the way she used to in high school when we’d talk about someone she didn’t like.

“Justus!” she cried, with a half smile. “How the hell are you?”

I should have said, “Fine,” and walked away. I knew that look. At least, I did at one time.

Instead, I said, “I’m great. How the hell are you?”

She tossed her head again, her hair flying and a chain on her motorcycle jacket jangling. “Oh, you know. Still stuck in this town. Working. Having fun.” She nudged Eddy with an elbow.

“What do you want, Justus?” Eddy slid an arm around Ellen’s waist, and she wiggled closer to him.

But she locked eyes with me and took a huge bite of ice cream, leading with her teeth. Her crooked tooth made my toes tingle.

“Just to say hi,” I said. “In town at my mom’s. Thought I’d see some friends.”

“Wanna come out with us tonight?” Ellen asked.

“What?” Eddy and I both asked.

“Why not?” she said. “Catch up on old times, right?” She bit the cone again and wagged her eyelashes first at me, then at Eddy.

Eddy was glaring at me, trying to intimidate me, I suppose, but I wasn’t paying attention. Why would I? I had held him face-down in a muddy puddle, and my former girlfriend was giving me come-hither eyes.

“Sounds good,” I said. “I’m game for anything.”

Maybe this is a good time to state that I did have my reservations about actually meeting up with them. I’m not the most wholesome person in the world, but Ellen...Ellen is what her closest friends call “a piece of work.” I reminded myself that Ellen’s idea of comeuppance for the boyfriend before me was to steal his truck’s distributor cap and then spread the rumor that his penis was three inches long. His sin? He couldn’t make the prom because his grandmother’s funeral was the same day.

Our relationship didn’t end well, either. Senior year, I got an acceptance letter to an out-of-state college, and she didn’t. Somehow that was my fault. One summer and two sets of slashed tires later, I went to school and she stayed here.

Still, after a day of rebuilding Mom’s porch, I showered, shaved, and drove to the Alibi, the bar we used to sneak into with our fake ID’s. The place still held an element of danger for me. The fact that Ellen suggested the Alibi made the “you’re getting away with something” vibe even stronger.

It is one of those bars that never changes. In the 1970’s someone decided it would be groovy to tile every vertical surface with colored, mirrored glass. The shadowbox was mirrored, too, and all the horizontal lines--bar top, stools, tables--were painted black. Very psychedelic. Very dated. Awesomely Retro, or cheap, depending on your perspective. It was where I’d go when I was in town to act out with my friends, even though the ‘Niner’s posters were peeling off the walls and the black naugahyde on the stools was wearing thin.

It was Thursday, and kids from Humboldt State were there. I wasn’t surprised when I didn’t recognize the bartender, but she’d been working there long enough to know that a plunging neckline brings bigger tips. She told me she hadn’t seen Ellen yet, but she knew her. I was awarded a wink with my beer. “Where’d you meet Ellen?”

“High school.”

“So, I don’t need to warn you?”

I grinned and turned my beer around slowly on the coaster. “I probably need a refresher.”

“She’s trouble.”

“Yes, she is.” I looked up at her. “What kind of trouble do you mean?”

“I mean the kind of trouble cute boys like you don’t want to be part of.”

I laughed. “You don’t know me very well, Miss.”

“No,” she said, drawing the “O” out with a puckered lip. “I don’t, do I?”

Then, for some reason, she stroked my hand and walked to the other end of the bar.

A few minutes later she caught my eye and pointed to the door. Ellen’s graceful silhouette was in the doorway peering into the shadows. She was looking for me. I reveled in this knowledge for a moment before waving to her.

She smiled and walked towards me, alone.

“Hi!” She threw her arms around my neck, rubbing every part of her against me.

“Where’s Eddy?” I asked her hair.

“Who cares?” she said, arranging herself onto a stool.

The bartender set a napkin in front of Ellen, but looked at me. “What are you drinking, El?”

“Usual, Bev.” Ellen didn’t take her eyes off me, either.

A moment later, Bev slid a tall drink across the bar, and I slid a ten back. “Keep it.”

Bev put a finger on the back of my hand as she took the bill so I would look up at her. She smiled and tucked a napkin under my palm. I wadded it up with one hand, and she moved away.

“Do you know her?” Ellen asked.

Did she see anything more than a meaningful look? I said, “No. Cute, huh?”

Ellen narrowed her eyes.

“Gotcha,” I said.

She laughed without preamble, and I did, too. “You still like teasing the tiger. You always did.” She purred and dragged a fingernail up my thigh.

I took her hand. It was cold. I almost put it down again.

“How many years has it been?” I asked.

She shrugged. “Too many.” She touched my face with her other hand and looked in my eyes. “You haven’t changed at all.”

“You’re more beautiful.”

She smiled. “Let’s go somewhere.”

“Don’t you want to ‘catch up’?”

She snorted, an unpleasant habit I remembered from high school. “Talk. Talk is cheap.”

“Still,” I said. “Talk to me.”

She grumbled and fidgeted, using that lickable lower lip of hers to pout.

“What are you doing nowadays?” I asked.

She sat back and crossed her arms. Then she uncrossed them and took a long draw from her drink. “Let’s catch you up,” she said. “I dropped out of junior college sophomore year. Got pregnant on the back of a motorcycle. Had a baby. Did some time for DUI. Lost the baby to the state. Now I shuffle paper at a veterinary clinic. It’s a promotion from cleaning the cages. So, how’s your life been?”

“Jesus, I’m sorry,” I said.

“Yeah, me, too.” She pulled a cigarette out of my shirt pocket and lit up with her own lighter. The bartender simply put an ashtray in front of her. I eyed the “No Smoking” sign, and then pulled a smoke out for myself.

“On the back of a motorcycle?” I asked. My mind instantly flickered to Eddy’s bike.

Ellen was watching me. “Yeah.”

“That must have been tricky.”

“You want me to draw you a diagram?”

“I’ll just let my imagination run wild, if you don’t mind.” We grinned at each other.

“So?”

“Oh, my life. Umm. Wife and three kids. I like my job...”

“What do you do?”

“Astronaut.” I laughed when she choked on her drink. “Just fucking with you. I do boring office shit that no one finds interesting except me.”

“Three kids?” It was dark, but her face looked a little softer, maybe.

“Joey, Ashley, Ben.”

“Lucky bastard.” She stabbed out her half-smoked cigarette. “Three kids?”

“Yeah.” I took her hand again.

She looked at me. I watched as the soft look took on familiar hard corners.  Her hand was still cold.

“Are we done catching up, yet?” she asked.

“I think so.”

As we stood up, Eddy walked through the door and squinted into the dark.

**

I didn’t know where we were going. I was just following the loud growling of the bike and its single tail light because just above it was Ellen’s perfect ass. Eddy was in as foul a mood as before, but he let her lead him to his bike and tell him where to go. I followed in Mom’s robin's-egg Passat down deserted roads that were hauntingly familiar in the dark. Whispers of things I did in the woods back in high school tickled the back of my head.

I had time to reflect on our conversation. The “three kids” lie was almost as outrageous as the astronaut story. To have a wife and three kids would almost necessitate my having married someone. So far, marriage was as unlikely as my getting into the NASA training program. Well, maybe not that unlikely. I pulled out the wadded napkin and read Bev’s number again. She wasn’t as cute as Ellen, but few people were. However, Bev was probably not Ellen’s equal in a lot of respects, which was a good thing. I put the number face down on the dash and set Mom’s box of tissues on top of it. I’d learned long ago not to assume stuff in my wallet was safe from Ellen.

I also learned long ago not to trust Ellen’s stories. For example: no one gets pregnant on the back of a motorcycle. That was a totally Ellen-esque invention. I admired the quality of her lie, though; I had instantly wondered if Eddy were the father and felt the intended flare of jealousy. Now I wondered if there even was a baby. I hadn’t heard that she’d had a kid from any of my high school friends, and news like that would have found its way to me.

The single tail light slowed and turned into a pull-out. Soon, I stood at the head of a trail that led down a hill listening to a river rush far below. Ellen came to stand next to me grinning like a shark and then plunged into the darkness. “Stay on the path!” she called over her shoulder.

Eddy shoved past me, so I followed, overcoming my urge to push him into the dirt at the bottom of the hill.

It was so dark I couldn’t see them ahead of me, though I could hear their footsteps and Eddy cursing when a branch swatted his face. I realized the water I had heard was the Mad river which skirted the edge of town. Ellen and Eddy were crashing through the forest, her laugh dancing around the trunks of the trees, but I could still hear the spring peepers--tiny frogs--and an owl above their din. There was a smell, too, mixed in with the forest scent of earth and fir. I couldn’t quite place it, but it was sticky-sweet and green.

Eventually, there was a light ahead. As I got closer, I saw it was a tiny shack with one glowing window. I opened the door and was bathed in warm light bouncing off of a copper still. In the rafters stalks of pot were drying. The smell—green, sweet, sticky—hit me again. I grinned.

Ellen was on a tattered mattress in the corner, holding a jar of clear liquid and taking a hit off of a newly-lit joint. Eddy pulled off his shirt -- man, he was pasty and hairy -- and then turned to the still. I closed the door.

“Here.” Eddy shoved a jar into my hands.

I sniffed it. “Moonshine?”

“White dog whiskey, asshole,” he said. “It’s a new thing.”

“It’s not going to make me go blind, is it?”

Ellen laughed and made a show of downing the rest of her jar. “See? Good stuff,” she said between coughing spasms. She held her arm high above her to keep the smoking joint safe.

The moonshine burned my throat in a bad way. I shook my head and whooped. “I like how you kids party around here.”

Eddy actually smiled. “Granddad’s still. I’ve been perfecting the mash for years.” He took the joint from Ellen, took a long drag, then handed it to me.

“Perfect,” I said.

I looked at Ellen over the good, sweet smoke. She met my eyes and pulled off her shirt and bra in one movement. Eddy downed the rest of his mason jar and flopped next to her on the mattress.

“Dude,” he said. “No Bogarting.”

Well, what was I going to do? I knocked back the rest of the moonshine, put the joint in my teeth, and unbuttoned my shirt. I wasn’t nearly drunk or high enough to feel good about this decision, but I wasn’t leaving, and watching was not an option. That only left one thing to do. I sat next to them on the mattress and gave Ellen the joint.

“You haven’t changed since high school, have you?” Ellen purred. Eddy set his glasses on a windowsill and then kissed her neck, ignoring me. Ellen dropped the joint into an ashtray while she slid her other hand under my open shirt and smiled. Eddy bit her and she yelped and giggled.

She pulled me down and shoved Eddy to the side. Her taste brought back all those feelings: anger, rebellion, lust, danger. I slid my tongue over her tooth and moaned. Her fingers in my hair, wringing something from my head. She pulled me back and looked me in the eye. Maybe it was the pot or the moonshine, but her face smeared in front of me.

Then, I was in the backseat of my beloved '69 Mustang with her, eighteen, trying to explain why I was leaving town even while fresh hickeys stung on our necks.

"College," I said. "So I can get out of here. So I don't have to work at the mill."

"My daddy and uncle work at the mill," she sniffed.

"I don't want to," I said. "I want a real job. In an office."

"Don’t you want me?"

"Yes, but..."

"'Cause, I'm not leaving."

"I'll come back."

"You won't," she said. "No one does."

I couldn't deny that I wanted to look out a window and see something other than the mill pouring noxious white smoke into the sky. I wanted to forget the shrill whistle that called the workers like cattle to their slots in the factory. I couldn't tell her what she wanted to hear, so I didn't say anything.

"You'll go somewhere else, get married, and whatever," she said. "But you'll always be fucking Justus!"

She slammed the door so hard the glass rattled in the jamb.

On the mattress in the shack, she pressed her nails into my scalp, and I wondered if she was trying to draw blood.  

There was something very ugly in her look. Destructive. Inviting, but not wholesome. She was so incredibly sexy.

She knew it. Her lips parted, and I could see her pink tongue and crooked tooth, and I almost dove in again. I knew, I remembered the darkness, I would willingly sink into that well. It was familiar, but...

What does she want?

“I’m glad you’re here, Mr. ‘Three kids and a wife.’”

Oh. Right. Revenge.

I stood and had almost buttoned my shirt before Ellen said my name. “Justus?”

I glanced back from the door. Eddy was on top of her now, one hand over her mouth, another cupping a breast, and he squinted at me with a sloppy grin. Ellen was watching me, not fighting him. I wondered how far she would have gone this time if I had stayed. I closed the door.

I walked back more slowly, not thinking about where to go, just going. I stepped carefully around the pot plants I had crashed through before. I listened to the little frogs and the crickets. I watched the treetops catch the thin, lacy clouds that held the moonlight and kept it from reaching me down on the ground. I knew enough to stay on the path; Eddy was the kind of fuckhead who would booby-trap a marijuana patch.

At the foot of the hill below the road, I sat and looked back toward the sound of the stony river. I thought of Bev’s number on the dashboard and allowed myself the fantasy of calling her now and taking her somewhere private where she’d screw my brains out and make me forget the picture of Ellen looking at me with Eddy’s hand over her face. I imagined myself marrying the flirty bartender in Barbados and not inviting anyone from this town.

I looked at the motorcycle when I got to the top of the hill. I leaned against my mother’s car, smoked a cigarette, and really looked at that machine. I imagined the two of them walking back to town in the morning, him pushing while she complained. It was a very good picture.

But what would I be paying them back for? Him for being with Ellen, the girl who taught me self-loathing and who made all successive women sweet and charming by comparison? Her for trying to break up my fictional family?

No. They both deserved to suffer for reminding me.

Fictional kids and wife and astronaut job notwithstanding, I am, really, no better than either of them. That’s why I took the spark plugs.

I let the air out of the tires because sometimes I’m just a mean little fuck.


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Maren Bradley Anderson is a writer, teacher, and alpaca rancher in Oregon. She teaches English at Western Oregon University. She fills her days caring for alpacas, playing with her kids, and reading books that make her laugh. She has written two plays for the Apple Box Children’s Theater, and her writing has appeared in The Timberline Review, Alpacas Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor. Her novels Fuzzy Logic and Closing the Store are available online and through your local bookstore—just ask them to order them for you. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or her website.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: The Becoming by Taylor Buccello

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!


What if the gods were like a disease? This is a riveting, original story which tells the tale of a world where the gods choose a human to bond with, which is no easy thing. The story takes you through The Becoming--the agonizing, twenty-four hour process it takes to Become worthy of being chosen by a god. This is a fantastically dark fantasy story, and I would love to see more from this author and this world. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

The Becoming

By Taylor Buccello

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Humans don't remember every second of the day. It's not something the consciousness can handle. Now, The Chosen, they’re different. The Becoming gives them one day to remember everything, yet wish they’d experienced nothing.

On whatever day your god chooses, you wake to the zero hour bells. Because of the aching deep in your joints and muscles, you give up on trying to fall back to sleep. By the third hour, you’re completely awake.

No matter how much you stretch or walk or run, no matter how many hot baths or concoctions you take, the aches persist, getting worse until the mere thought of breathing makes your chest hurt.

Aches and pains, now those can be hidden, can be written off as being tired or slipping into some sickness. Seizures can’t. They’re a statement. Gods love attention, they crave it. The shrines, the thunderstorms, the sacrifices—they thrive off it. They’d die without it.

The eighth hour: school time or work for the lucky ones and the opening of the market for the rest. The eighth hour is when you can no longer deny you have been Chosen.

The shaking begins with gentle tremors, like you’re stuck in one of the cold Districts without a cloak or a shawl. Then, your legs and arms and entire being begin to shake so badly the world blurs—colors bleeding together and faces smearing across your vision.

By the ninth hour, your muscles start to calm, but not because of whatever the doctor or apothecary has forced down your throat or into your blood. Medicine doesn’t do anything to ease The Becoming. Priests can do nothing. Prayers and sacrifices are worthless. Mortal attempts to relieve suffering are no match against the plans of the gods.

The ninth hour is bliss compared to what came before, compared to what is coming.

The pain recedes—still there, but less. A pot near boiling with bubbles trapped on the bottom of the bowl, not yet shaking the water or smothering the air above with steam. Not yet choking the water with heat, but slowly building the temperature.

Slowly—oh, so, slowly building the agony. Building until your heart is pounding and frantic, your breathing heavy and strained. Until you’re soaked in a cold sweat and the sheets of the clinic bed are stuck to your skin and your hair is matted across your head. And you’re cold. You’re so cold, the shaking comes back. Not caused by the gods, not this time, but by your own body fighting against the frost creeping up your fingers and toes.

At the eleventh hour, a wheel spoke drives itself into your head. Not literally. It only feels literal, as though your fingers would come back sticky with blood if you were to touch a hand to your head.

Every heartbeat, every breath, every footfall or spoken word—it all worms into your mind and rattles around. It’s a game of Lines, except, instead of shaking a dozen marbles in your hands, you’re shaking shards of glass in your head.

The twelfth hour is the worst.

When the bells of the twelfth hour near, you’re afraid. You’re so utterly fearful that the sound of bronze rod striking bronze bell will finally crack your skull open. The anxious tension in your chest become so tight you begin to believe your heart will stop under the pressure, blood stilling in your veins as you wait for the end. Stilling, sitting, rotting.

When the bells finally ring, the headache vanishes and takes your vision with it.

Blind, you can’t see the panic of those around you when they watch your eyes drain of all normal color. Every part fills with a red so deep that, before we knew about The Becoming, the doctors thought The Chosen were bleeding in their minds and had no hope left. Granted, at this hour, The Chosen have forsaken any hope of survival and traded it for the hope of death and the peace it ought to bring. Life in The Underworld must be better than The Becoming. Anything must be better.

Those who fail to meet the standards of the gods, their eyes don’t turn back. The Cursed Ones, they’re called. Their sight never returns, their voice soon following. Their sanity, too, in some cases. Living in utter darkness with no ability to express themselves, it’s hard for them to make it back to reality.

With sight cut out of your world, the rest of reality begins to slip away to join it buried in the back of your mind. Buried underneath the visions, underneath the voices, the delusions.

It’s hard to know when the hallucinations begin. The Chosen are too far from the rest of the world to ask about a sundial or candle to tell how much time as passed. The screaming usually begins near the thirteenth hour.

The visions are different for each person. They’re for understanding, I’ve been told. Understanding the life of the god that chose you—because there can't be anything worse than a Chosen who doesn't value the power of their god.

Minan's Chosen thrashed in his bed for hours as the goddess of war showed him battle after battle after battle. The Chosen for Sofiia, goddess of beauty and education, surfaced from The Becoming in tears over the dangers of ignorance. The god of love and dreams, Lazari, drowned his Chosen in stories of great and terrible romances, of dreams that flourish and dreams that collapse and take their dreamers down with.

I was shown thousands of deaths and grieving families and rewards and punishments. No living human knows what The Underworld is like. I was given a tour by the goddess of death, afterlife herself.

None of the visions are pleasant. The lives and duties of the gods are never pleasant, not to humans who don't have the same abilities of apathy and strength. For weeks, the visions linger, piecing themselves into your life. When you're living lives thousands of years longer than your own, only so much can fit into half a day. The rest have to come in the form of phantom voices and all-consuming flashbacks.

It all feels so real—the feelings are so real. The sensations are so lifelike you begin to feel as though you’ve been completely removed from your real life. You begin to convince yourself your real life was the dream, the hallucination, and this one, this dark and cold and lonely life is what is yours. It takes a lot to hold on to yourself during those hours.

The fever hits during the twentieth hour. If The Chosen weren't protected by the gods, their minds would melt from the heat.

The bleeding begins at the twenty-third hour and doesn't stop until the day’s candles have nearly melted down to nothing. The best move on the part of doctors is to put The Chosen in the bath when the fever hits and not to take them out until the day is over. Otherwise, the blood leaking from their mouths and noses and eyes and ears will soak through their bed sheets and into the mattress.

The Chosen wake from their nightmare when the candles are nothing more than a thin film, translucent over the metal base. They wake for long enough to throw up the contents of their stomach, drink a cup of water, and smile to their mother, if they're fortunate enough to still have her around.

Then, when the zero hour bells chime, they collapse, falling into a sleep that lasts the next three days. When they wake, everything from that day has disappeared. The only sign any of it happened comes from the memory of those around them and The Mark.

Like the visions, The Mark is different for each person. For some, it's small, nothing more than a flower the size of a fingernail on their collarbone. For others, they wake up with intricate wings stained into their back and shoulders. With the outline of a lily flower drenched in red and its black leaves framing my right eye, I have no chance of forgetting or pretending not to be Chosen.

It's a damned infestation, if you ask me. The gods check to see if you're a worthy host, one capable of keeping them alive, then take over and start cleaning out their new home. It's an epidemic of gods moving in. I see at least three a week being brought into Dr. Nal’s shop. Gods that haven't been seen in years are showing up and claiming their—

I'm hungry.

I sigh, shaking my head to draw back my focus. Having a voice in your mind that isn't yours could be quite distracting.

You're hungry, too. I know you are.”

I have yet to find a way to drown out Runa’s voice. Something about her being a goddess made it so nothing could outshine her when she didn't want it to.

Come on, Vae. Let's take a break and go get some of that...whatever you call it, the sweet thing, from the market.”

I pick up the washing bucket and set it on the floor. Grabbing a rag, I start drying off the surgical tools on the counter.

Vaera. Vaera. Vae. Vae. Vae. Come on. Vae.”

I slam down the scalpel in my hands. “I can't take a break whenever you want pastries! That's not how it works here!”

The head nurse, Josef, raises an eyebrow from his desk on the other side of the room.

“Sorry,” I say, ducking my head and going back to drying the tools I had just washed.

People are staring. They think you're crazed,” Runa says. “They won't let you work if you're insane. Come on, let's go get pahsterees.”

I squeeze my eyes shut, taking a breath. Throwing the tools into their bin, I set it back in the cabinet and rest my forehead on the cool wood of the door.

For The Chosen, The Becoming may only last a day, but the gods, they never go away.


Taylor Buccello is a senior at Central High School. She lives in Monmouth, Oregon with her parents, two dogs, a cat, a coatimundi, a lemur, and two tortoises. She mostly writes action, fantasy, and horror YA stories. She is currently writing the third draft of an assassin novel she hopes to have finished before attending Oregon State University in the fall of 2019. She aspires to be a published author and forensic pathologist.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: Zombie Apocalypse Rescue Agency by LeeAnn McLennan

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the eight (eight!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. The deadline for submitting to the anthology has passed, but you can still submit and maybe have your story published this year!


While I eagerly await the release of McLennan's conclusion to The Supernormal Legacy, Emerge, I happily devoured this smart, exciting tale of a zombie outbreak. I'm not usually one for zombie stories - too many heebie jeebies - but this story fully captured my attention. Set years after a viral outbreak that makes people mad, we see a zombie-ravaged Portland and two employees trying their best to save the people they can. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Zombie Apocalypse Rescue Agency

by LeeAnn McLennan

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“Oh man.” Lark punched the red button to silence the alarm echoing through the office. She hated the bleeping noise almost more than the ever lurking zombies. “We got another shiver requesting a pickup.”

Lark managed to hide most of her sneer but her co-worker, Tony, frowned at her while reaching for olive green Kevlar coverall sporting the logo identifying them as employees of the Zombie Apocalypse Rescue Agency, ZARA, for short.

“Don’t call them shivers.” Tony zipped up his coverall and began pulling out his weapons from his locker.

Lark shrugged into her own coverall, made of a slick bite-repelling fabric. “Why not? It’s what they want, to get picked up so they can sit in a bunker and shiver in fear.” She checked her own weapons. “They’ve had enough of waiting for the zombie freaks to die off or disappear or whatever sad belief they follow. So they call us. We pick them up, take them to a safe bunker, they hide out, all safe and sound, but shivering.”

“They pay the company a large sum of money for our services.” If it was possible to look prim while checking his automatic, Tony did.

Lark strapped on her gun belt and added a gun to each holster. She missed Jake, her old partner, but Jake got himself munched a few runs ago when they'd gone out to pick up a local TV star. Jake had gotten flirty with the barely legal girl and didn’t see the cluster of zombies, maybe an old fan club, converging on them. Lark managed to get the shivering starlet into the armored truck but the last she’d seen of Jake was his legs twitching as the brain eaters chomped on him.

Lark hoped Jake was dead. She didn’t relish giving her old friend a head shot should they meet again. She’d do it, of course, but she would feel bad.

“Ready?” Tony was done with his weapons check, loaded for bear, and waited by the door. Lark tucked a knife in her boot and followed Tony out of the control room. Jack and Ryan, their replacements, passed them going in.

Big Bessie sat in the garage with all the other armored trucks. Modified from the design used for armored vans, ZARA’s trucks had solid, steel plated exteriors, with guns mounted on top, front, sides, and back. The driver sat in the front cab, the gunner sat in the back – a steel wall with a door set between the driver’s and passenger’s seats separated the front from the back. During pickup runs the gunner locked himself in the back. Once they got to the shiver, the driver retrieved and handed the shiver off to the gunner. The shiver and the gunner stayed locked in the back until they got back to HQ. If the driver was compromised, the gunner and the shiver could hold out in the back of the truck until help came. Lark had only needed to do that once; she still had nightmares about spending three hours with a hysterical middle-aged trust fund guy. The shiver had yelled and threatened to sue the company for failing to provide better service. After an hour, Lark was ready to shove the guy outside to take his chances. Only the camera recording the van stopped her. The punishment for deliberately endangering a client was to get put on foot patrol around the boundaries of North Portland, now called Z-town, where the zombies were the heaviest.

When she was the shooter on a pickup run, Lark controlled the many guns bristling around the exterior using a system modified from old game controllers. She could pop off zombies from all sides without ever leaving the safety of Big Bessie. Just like playing first person shooter games as a teenager.

Usually the sight of Big Bessie made Lark feel safe and smug, but lately…no, she wasn’t turning into a shiver, not her. She reached inside her unzipped coverall and pulled out a quarter, a currency useless now except for wishing wells or coin tosses. “Heads, I’m shooter.”

Tony gave an irritated jerk of his head. He didn’t approve of Lark’s method of determining who drove and who shot. Tony preferred they alternate between roles, but that was boring to Lark.

“Ha!” Lark grinned when the quarter landed heads up. Tony just sighed and got into the driver’s side.

Lark climbed into the back via the door between the passenger’s and driver’s seats. She settled into the gunner’s seat, zipped up her coverall, and pulled up the gun controller system to run the standard pre-run systems diagnostics.

While the diagnostics ran, Lark leaned through the still open door. “Hey Tony, who’s our shiver?”

Tony switched on Big Bessie’s ignition to warm up the truck. “Our customer is named Bailey Johnson.” Tony peered at his monitor as the coordinates for their destination came up. “Uh, okay, that’s unusual. He lives in Buckman.”

In the act of buckling in, Lark stopped and stared at the monitor certain Tony had made a mistake, an unprecedented event to be sure but there was always a first time. But the blinking red dot signaling their pickup was firmly in the Buckman neighborhood.

“That doesn’t make any sense.” Lark closed her eyes tight then opened them wide. “No one in that neighborhood has the money to buy ZARA”

The company’s services were crazy expensive; only the filthy rich could manage the cost, though some people managed to negotiate the service into their job contracts in lieu of bonuses. Most pickups were in the fortified neighborhoods in the ‘burbs or in some of the fancy protected condos along the waterfront.

Ten years ago, the zombies started showing up, seemingly out of nowhere. One day there were a few zombies shuffling around; most people thought it was a typical Portland event – a zombie walk or something. That is, until the creatures started munching on people. Then it got real, real fast.

Even then it took a few years before the creatures became a true national menace. Some scientists studied them and declared that even though zombies were dangerous because they wanted to chomp your brains – earning them the nickname brain munchers – it was actually quite rare for the virus that made them to be transferred. People infected with it usually died.

The term ‘zombies’ wasn’t even the correct name since the creatures weren’t really back from the dead; the virus simply gave them the characteristics usually associated with zombies. People still called them zombies, though. Zombies were treated sort of like violent meth heads – best to be avoided but not about to take over. Some labs on the East Coast devoted their time to studying them, looking for a cure.

At least, that’s how it started. In the past few years the virus had gotten stronger. Now if you got bit it was a 9 out of 10 chance you’d Z’out. So people started taking precautions. If you were lucky enough to sell armored trucks, guns, ammo, you got rich overnight. Knowing how to zombie-proof a house became a top profession. Most companies enforced a work-from home policy. Delivery services blossomed overnight and delivery people were acclaimed for their bravery or stupidity, depending who you asked. People became less and less willing to go out to concerts, movie theatres, anywhere there might be crowds hiding zombies. Most events were held via Internet streaming now.

Lark hadn’t been across the Willamette River to the eastside of Portland in about eight years. She still missed the cozy craftsman home she’d grown up in but it wasn’t fortified. And, anyway, her mother had been killed in the kitchen by a neighbor who’d Z’ed out in front them, so Lark didn’t want to go back.

For some reason, in Portland the brain munchers proliferated the eastside across the river from downtown. No one knew why, or if they did, they hadn’t told Lark. All she knew was no one went across the river unless they had a good reason. And most people didn’t have a good reason. Only two of the seven bridges spanning the Willamette remained – the Marquam and the Burnside Bridges. Luckily the Burnside would take them near enough to the Buckman neighborhood, but it was still riskier than a west side pickup. Lark had heard the industrial area just across the bridge was majorly infested. Thank goodness zombies couldn’t swim.

None of those facts changed how unusual it was to get a pickup on the eastside of Portland. Lark hadn’t heard of one in years and that pickup had been a disaster – ending with the pickup guys and the shiver all getting Z’ed out.

“Well damn.” Lark reached for the helmet she didn’t always bother wearing when she was the gunner on a run. “I guess we’d better get this over with.”

Tony had already fastened his helmet with its fitted collar around his neck. He hadn’t lowered the face plate and Lark could see the sweat on his upper lip. “Ready?”

Lark nodded and reached for the heavy door between the front cab and the back of the truck. She hesitated before saying the benediction she used to give Jake when he drove while Lark literally rode shotgun. “Safe driving, clear roads.”

Tony put his hand on his face shield, his eyes meeting Lark’s in the mirror. “Good shooting.” Tony flipped his face shield down as Lark secured the door, locking herself in the back. She shifted in her seat as Big Bessie started moving out of the underground garage, up the five levels to the heavily guarded entrance of the downtown high-rise/underground bunker that was ZARA’s headquarters. All employees lived and worked in the well protected building which included a dining and shopping district spanning several floors.

Lark heard Tony radioing the guards and telling them to expect an authorized exit. Lark switched on the three monitors; one showing the back of Tony’s head in the cab, one showing alternating exterior views, and the last one showing nothing of interest…yet. All too soon that monitor would show the weird zombie heat signature indicating where to shoot.

Lark felt Big Bessie rumble over the metal grating near the exit gate. She watched the monitors as the guard waved them out into the deserted streets. Rain gleamed off the pavement; it was nighttime, only a few diehards would be outside trying to prove how badass they were – no cowering inside away from the dark streets for them. That is, until one of their buddies got munched. That usually converted them to escapism inside. Occasionally, the experience had the opposite effect – turning the witness into a vigilante who spent nights offing zombies; usually getting offed instead sooner or later.

In Lark’s opinion, most people should just make the best of life while waiting for the frequently promised cure. Not that she really believed in a cure. No, Lark believed in Big Bessie and her guns, that was pretty much it.

Lark felt the truck lurch. She automatically checked the heat sig monitor before Tony radioed back. “Bunch of zombies. Gear up.”

Lark wrapped her hands around the gun controller, “Yeah, ok. On it.”

Lark felt so freaking powerful as she blasted the brain munchers into bloody bits, though a tiny part whispered that it would be more visceral to make the kill shots in the open air. She steadfastly ignored the voice; she was safer inside Big Bessie. And the goal was the pickup, not killing zombies. That was someone else’s job.

“Heading over the Burnside Bridge.” Tony announced.

Lark shifted in her seat, her shoulders tightening, anticipating many zombies ahead.

Tony exchanged words with the ever-present bridge guards. One of them said. “Man, that sucks. We’re hearing reports it’s getting worse over there. You know we’ll have to test you when you come back.”

Lark mentally seconded Tony’s surprised, “What?” The test was a quick skin prick, like the TB test. It only took twenty seconds to confirm non-zombie status but it was a long-ass twenty seconds. Lark didn’t know things had gotten so bad that the bridge guards were administering the test. As employees of ZARA, they were always tested after a shiver run so she was used to it, the cold prick, the waiting, the relief...so far. Still, it was unsettling knowing the bridge guards found it necessary for all eastside excursions now.

As Big Bessie rolled across the Burnside Bridge, Lark found herself wishing she was driving so she could see the terrain with her own eyes, not through the monitors. She remembered how pretty the city had looked at night…before. Light from buildings and bridges reflecting off the water; people walking and biking through the streets; cars with windows open taking people to dinner or the movies, somewhere fun and carefree. On second thought, she was glad the monitors didn’t show great detail. She liked her memories better.

“We’re over.” Tony’s announcement made Lark’s stomach twist. “Over the bridge, turning right on MLK. Not much activity but stay alert.”

Lark snorted. Like she was napping back here. She scanned the area with the heat sig monitor while keeping an eye on the exterior cameras. Tony was right, not many zombies showed on the heat sig scan. And those that did shambled along in the direction Tony drove. Lark blasted them, proving to Tony she was vigilant.

Big Bessie maneuvered past abandoned cars, around huge potholes, over a fallen telephone pole. The old Subaru dealership where she’d bought her first new car was torn all to hell – cars with busted windows rusting in the rain.

Lark leaned back, stretching her already stiff arms, when Big Bessie slammed to a stop. Lark was thrown forward, the straps of her seat belt biting into her chest, whacking her head on the wall in front of her.

“Tony, what the hell?”

“Shut up and look.” Tony’s voice shook, freaking Lark out more than the sudden stop.

Lark jerked the heat sig monitor closer and stared at it. “Holy hell, there must be hundreds of them.” Ahead of them on MLK the heat sig was a solid mass of teeming red. It looked like they were all moving in fits and starts down MLK in the direction of Stark. Pretty much right in the path Big Bessie needed to go. The pickup destination was up Stark about fifteen blocks, near the Lone Fir Cemetery around 20th.

Lark’s mind shrank away from the idea of busting through the seething mob, even in Big Bessie with her guns blasting away front, back, and sideways. To get through all of that mess they needed a convoy of Big Bessies.

If it was like this all the way to the shiver’s place then Lark actually felt some sympathy for the poor soul.

“What do you think?” Lark asked Tony. They didn’t have the option of turning back; it was against company policy. They had to get to the shiver – it was a matter of doing it alone or waiting for reinforcements. No one had ever called for backup; Lark really didn’t want to be the first but then, to her knowledge, no one had ever faced this many zombies at once. Still, it sucked; she’d never hear the end of it back at the tower.

“I’ll call HQ. At least they can find out how deep the infestation is.” Headquarters had wider range scanners than the trucks. “See if there’s a better route.”

“Good plan,. Get on it.” Lark focused on the heat sig monitor, any moment expecting the hoard to turn on Big Bessie, but the mass kept moving towards Stark. It looked like more zombies were joining the slow march. Lark had never seen brain eaters organize like this. She really hoped the creatures weren’t getting smart.

Tony spoke up, sounding a little bit calmer. “OK, they’re running a wide scan.” ZARA had set up sensors all around Portland, partnering with some of the security companies. “Looks like the zombies are mostly heading up Stark. Not sure why. It looks like we can detour around the main group if we head up MLK to Hawthorne.” He paused as if listening. “And come in down 20th. HQ says we’ll have to go through some clumps but not like this. They don’t think we need any reinforcements. Ready?”

Tony didn’t wait for Lark’s reply before backing up and roaring down MLK. Lark tightened her seatbelt with one hand while watching the monitors. The truck leapt into the air, dropping back the ground hard enough to jar Lark to her teeth.

“Hang on, just had to drive over a few.” Tony said. “Get ready, more coming up.”

Lark rolled her eyes. She knew there were zombies coming their way; they popped up on the monitor. She aimed the guns and blew them to pieces. The rapid rat-tat of her guns relaxed her. She was back in control.

Big Bessie barreled up the ramp from MLK to Hawthorne, Lark popping off zombies as quickly as possible. In her hearts of hearts she was glad she couldn’t make out their faces. One of her recurring nightmares was of offing a friend or family member. After all, she had no clue what happened to her junkie father. She figured if she had to shoot her dad or worse, her old partner Jake, she’d rather not know. One less zombie was the point; it wasn’t like she could help her Dad if the old guy had been Z’ed.

Lark swayed with Big Bessie as Tony swerved onto 20th. For the moment it was quiet. Lark tensed. This was usually when things tipped over into crazy. Quiet before the storm, kinda thing. The chest strap of her seatbelt cut into her chest and she realized she was straining forward as if she could see through the steel door. She gave a half laugh and leaned back. She wasn’t the one in this truck who should fret. Tony was more vulnerable; no matter how glass was treated it was never going to be stronger than steel.

She settled back, checking the monitors – still clear, completely clear, crazy unusual. Normally a run was a steady series of popping off zombies in ones and twos. This run was feast or famine. Lark chuckled at her gruesome joke.

“Tony, how ya doing up there?” Lark didn’t want Tony to get too relaxed. Though Tony was wound pretty tight, so it might be an improvement.

“Yeah, I’m good. Weird run, huh?”

“Too right. Stay sharp.”

Tony just grunted in response. Big Bessie rumbled up 20th, slowing as they neared Belmont. “Lark, do you see this?”

Lark nodded even though Tony couldn’t see her. She wasn’t sure she could speak – the spit in her mouth had dried up. According to her monitors, 20th from Belmont to Stark was teeming with zombies. “Holy crap.” Lark managed, gripping the gun controller.

Tony’s voice shook through the radio. “I’m going up Belmont and come in from the east – keep an eye on the monitors.”

“Yeah.” Lark didn’t need to be told twice, though Tony probably would tell her again.

Big Bessie started moving again. Lark understood what Tony was attempting. He was assuming the zombies were only massing from the direction of the waterfront. It was a decent plan – a lot of zombies lurked down around the old warehouses.

Lark barely had time to really ponder what the hell would make the zombies behave this way when a scattering of heat sigs appeared on the screen. The zombies were coming down 28th on a collision course with Big Bessie.

“Incoming. I’m taking them out.” Lark advised Tony. She aimed, fired the driver’s side guns as they passed 28th. More blips showed up on the screen and Lark kept up a constant rat-tat of gunfire. Tony turned onto 33rd. More zombies, more shooting. They turned onto Belmont. More zombies. Lark kept shooting. They were about eight blocks from the shiver’s place.

For a moment Lark thought Tony’s gamble had worked – there were only a few zombies, the normal amount, scattered along Belmont. Most were drifting slowly in the same direction as Big Bessie – towards the shiver’s house. Lark kept shooting while watching the monitor. Even blasting every zombie in sight wasn’t having the usual effect of relieving her anxiety. She was pretty sure all those brain munchers were heading for the shiver’s place. She couldn’t say how she knew, just that she was certain down to her bones. Of course the why remained to be answered – she’d heard of zombies swarming in a feeding frenzy, but these zombies weren’t frenzied. If anything they were focused, if that was even possible for a brain muncher.

There! Just what she’s been dreading – a mass of heat sigs on the monitor and, yep, the red blinking light showing their destination was right in the thick of them.

Tony piped up. “Lark, what do you think we should do?”

Dude must be terrified if he was conceding Lark could have superior knowledge.

“Looks pretty solid on the heat sig.” Lark tapped her fingers on the side of the monitor, considering their best move. Not completing the pickup wasn’t an option even in this situation. The company guaranteed the client would be retrieved, no matter what. Not for the first time Lark wished for the fancy helicopters like they had at the L.A. branch. But it was a fact that the L.A. wealthy outnumbered the Portland wealthy, impacting local profit margins and resources.

She shoved those dreams to the same place her dreams of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail lived. OK, focus, lots of zombies in a seething mass, surrounding the shiver’s home. Something pinged in her subconscious. Weren’t they near…? “Hey Tony, am I crazy or is the shiver holed up in Portland Catholic High?”

Tony gave a short, mirthless laugh. “Yeah, you’re crazy, but this isn’t a symptom.”

“Well, damn. The shiver could be anywhere inside the school building.” Lark shot a couple of zombie who meandered by Big Bessie.

“You didn’t read the message, did you? The shiv...client is in the back, in the science labs, off the outdoor basketball courts.” Derision over Lark’s lack of preparedness seemed to balance Tony, because he sounded calmer.

Lark ignored the tone; it was the driver’s job to know such facts, since the driver was the retriever. “OK, so around back.” She pressed a few buttons widening the area the monitor scanned. “Crap, there’s just as many in our way. Well, I guess using Big Bessie as a battering ram is our only way in.”

“Crap.” Tony echoed. “I was afraid you’d say that.” He grunted and Lark heard the distinctive snap of the special webbed harness drivers wore when plowing into a hoard. Lark knew Tony would be checking the doors and windows, confirming all were secure. Lark didn’t really like the guy, but she felt a little bad that Tony was at risk while she was relatively safe in the steel box. If everything went as planned Lark would only unlock the door after Tony had retrieved and scanned the shiver for the zombie virus. Then Lark would open the door just wide enough to yank the guy inside. If, as was becoming likely, things went south and Tony was compromised, the politically correct word for munched, then Lark had to finish the pickup. Her stomach clenched at the thought.

Tony gunned Big Bessie’s engine as if ready for a drag race. Big Bessie shot forward at a speed that belied the truck’s large size. Lark gripped the gun controller, shooting in every direction. No need to aim, the brain munchers were so thick. Tony yelled as they rammed into the first wave of bodies. Through the monitors Lark saw bodies exploding from her gunfire, she felt the bumps from hitting bodies, and heard the thuds of bodies hitting the truck. Gore, guts, wet splatting sounds. Thump, slap, bump. Thump, slap, thump. Zombies don’t scream, just make weird grunting sounds. The voiceless carnage continued as Big Bessie muscled her way through until they were in the middle of the basketball court –completely surrounded by zombies, all scrabbling to get inside to eat Tony and Lark’s delectable brains.

Tony stopped so suddenly that Lark gasped; they were near the door to the labs.

“Lark.” Tony panted as if he’d been running uphill. “I don’t see a way to get out of the truck here, not with so many zombies. Looks like there’s a sort of foyer area between the door and the labs. I’m going to ram through the door and hope Big Bessie blocks off the zombies while I make the run. Can you to aim to the sides and back and try to keep them off us? Hopefully the client knows we’re here.”

Lark bit her cheeks, fending off hysterical laughter. “If he doesn’t know we’re here then he’s deaf and we’ve got bigger problems.” Banging against Big Bessie’s sides punctuated her declaration.

Tony punched the accelerator and managed to find more speed in Big Bessie’s engine. He growled over the radio. “Brace for impact.”

Lark realigned the guns. Wouldn’t do to shoot front. Bad form, killing a customer. Aim for the back and sides. Tony accelerated; Big Bessie plowed through something hard. The door. Lark jerked back and forth in her seat. The truck rocked to a stop, obstructing the hole it had created in the school building’s wall.

All was quiet. Until the pounding began at the back of the truck. Through the sounds of beating Lark heard Tony. “You okay?”

“Yeah, you?”

“Yeah.” Tony paused and then continued. “OK, I see our client waving from a window in the lab.” His voice trailed off.

“Tony, what’s up?” Lark focused one of her cameras towards the lab but the picture wasn’t the best and she could only see a vague shape in the lab window.

Tony cleared his throat, gave a short laugh. “Bailey Woodson is, um, a she. Mid- 60s, short.”

Lark didn’t see why that mattered. “Well, go get her.” She didn’t care if the shiver was a mewling baby; she just wanted to get out of there. There was a beer, check that, many beers, waiting for her at in her tiny apartment back at HQ.

“Yes, yes, of course.” In the monitor aimed at the driver’s seat, Tony’s head disappeared and reappeared. Lark watched as her partner hoisted the AK-47, wearing his protective gloves and helmet. “Right, you know the drill. I go get her, test her, she passes the test, we get back here, and you take her in back.” Tony swallowed audibly. “We go home.”

“Roger that.” Lark said fervently, her palms were sweating and she wiped them on the slick fabric of her coverall.

Tony huffed out a breath, opened the door and ran like hell through the zombie free hallway to the lab. Lark focused on killing as many of zombies surrounding the back of the truck as she could. It should have been easy, they were packed in thickly, but they were coming so rapidly that for every one that she killed two more took its place. She watched the monitor for any blips in Tony’s path; a sign that zombies had infiltrated the hallway. So far, no zombies had slipped through to gaps between Big Bessie and the wall. The pounding on the back had become more of a constant thumping, less like a fist hitting the metal and more like bodies.

While her eyes and hands focused on killing zombies, Lark kept her ears tuned to the radio where Tony kept up a running monologue.

“OK, Lark, the shiver is holed up in one of the labs, like we thought. I can see her through the glass, looks like she normally has metal shutters over them, but she’s got the ones near the door open.” She paused and Lark heard gunfire. “Looks like we got an incursion – can you…”

Lark was already shooting the zombies coming down the hallway. Where had they come from?

“Thanks. I’m almost there. Damn, she’s equipped – guns around the door, along the walls, the shutters, metal doors. I can see supplies through the window. Not sure why she’d need to leave really. Weird, she’s got a bunch of rats and monkeys in cages.”

Lark snorted.

Tony said. “OK, yeah, but she’s really calm. Got a backpack on, just watching me. It’s a creepy.”

Lark didn’t see how any shiver could be creepier than the brain munchers surrounding them but whatever.

Tony announced. “I’m at the door.” Lark heard the sound of a fist banging against metal. “Ma’am, can you let me in?”

Lark noticed more zombies coming down the hallway. She aimed, she shot. “Hey Tony, looks like they’re getting thick, not sure how they’re getting in, but hurry up.”

“Yeah. We’re on our way, she was all set. Just need to give her the test. Pricking her now.”

Lark began the 20 second countdown. 20 – Lark rattled off a round of gunfire in the back. 17 –zombies completely filled the basketball court. 15- Lark took out a couple trying to slip past the truck. 13 – Lark mowed down about a hundred of them, guessing they’d have to drive over the bodies. 10 – for the first time she really worried about running out of ammo. 8 – Crap, a whole herd of them was heading down the hallway straight into Tony’s path back to the truck. 6 – Lark blasted the herd to pieces. 5 –where were they coming from? 4 – Lark shoved her hair off her sweaty forehead. 3 – more filled the hallway. 2 – how were they getting in? 1 –

“She’s clean.” Tony reported.

“Good. We’ve got a big problem.”

“Yeah, I know.”

A new voice, the shiver’s strong, rough tones commanding the situation. “They are coming in from the gym. Sorry about that, folks. I know this is a tough one. The zombies clearly have an affinity for me.” That was new, a shiver acknowledging the difficulties in retrieval. “I’ve got an idea. You, in the truck, you’re not allowed to leave unless your partner is compromised, correct?”

“Yeah, I mean yes ma’am.” Lark resisted the urge to salute. Who was this lady, this Bailey Johnson?

“Glad to know Steve is still using the protocol we set up.” Lark was shocked to hear the woman refer to ZARA’s CEO so casually. Before she could comment Bailey continued. “Here’s the plan: You in the truck, lay down suppressing fire along your left while this young man and I run like hell for the truck.”

Pretty obvious plan but Lark didn’t argue – just started shooting. Over the noise of gunfire she heard Tony and Bailey breathing heavily as they ran.

Tony gasped out. “Almost there.”

Lark started to cheer but the sound died in her throat. Zombies were coming around Big Bessie on the driver’s side. In her focus on the hallway Lark had lost track of the zombies in the court. “Tony, Tony, watch out, on your right.”

Lark jerked when Tony screamed and Bailey swore. The truck rocked and through the camera aimed at the driver’s seat Lark saw Tony’s hand grasping for the steering wheel only to be yanked away. She gripped the gun controller but was unable to shoot into the mass for fear of hitting Tony and Bailey. It looked like the zombies weren’t attacking Bailey – more oddness. Even though Tony was wearing his protective gear, it was mostly a delay of the inevitable in a horde. Zombies were really good at finding exposed skin given enough time.

Tony’s screams ended in a horrible gurgle. Lark froze when the shiver, Bailey, snapped at her over the radio. “Let me in. Now!”

Lark pulled herself together enough to see she was in the cab, perched on the side of the passenger’s seat. She was tiny, elf-like, with short hair and bright eyes. Her eyes focused on the camera as she spoke to her.

Lark swallowed, she really hated this part so freakin’ much. “You might be bit. I gotta come out and test you again first.” Her bowels threatened to betray her but she forced himself to clench. Her subconscious and, frankly, her conscious screamed at her not to go out. They were completely surrounded and Big Bessie rocked like two teenagers were making out in the back. But if Bailey was bit and Lark let her into the back, she was risking her own death. If she left Bailey in the cab to fend for herself Lark was dead for sure because the company would come after her. It was best to follow procedure – test the shiver again then, if she wasn’t infected, let her in back so they could call for help.

“OK, hurry up then.” Bailey spoke briskly, shifting out of the way of the door.

Lark didn’t let herself think; she just opened the door and kneeled in the spot Bailey had just vacated. She left the door open but blocked the entrance with her body. Bailey held out her arm and Lark pricked it just below the elbow, mentally beginning the count as the horde howled outside the truck. They didn’t speak; both stared at her arm, waiting for the betraying bumps to appear.

Ten seconds left. So far her skin was clear; Lark realized she was holding her breath and she let it out slowly, almost swallowing her tongue when the crash of breaking glass sounded from the driver’s seat window. Training took over and she jumped in front of the shiver, throwing up her arm in automatic defense of the attacking zombie. Too late she realized she’d forgotten her protective gloves as the gripping teeth from a zombie clamped down on her wrist.

Lark screamed in fury and fear. She jerked her arm away, horrified as her skin tore off; left hanging from the creature’s rotting lips. Stupid, stupid, not to be holding a gun or a knife. More zombies tried forced their way into the cab, fighting to get past the zombie blocking the narrow opening.

“Not again!” Bailey sounded more annoyed than afraid. “Come on.”

Lark was in shock. She felt her thoughts, her memories, what made her who she was, draining from her mind. She retained enough awareness to know Bailey quickly climbed over her body into the back of the truck. She thought, Good she’ll lock herself in and wait for help. When Bailey grabbed Lark’s shaking body under her arms and started hauling her into the back, Lark tried to pull away. “No, no.” Was the old lady crazy?

“Come on. It’ll be ok.” Bailey shushed her.

Was the shiver stupid? Any minute now Lark would Z’out and start attacking. Jesus, the lady was strong though. Bailey dragged her to the side of the truck, pulled Lark’s unresisting arms up and locked them into the cuffs designed to hold zombies caught for testing – the kind of pickup Lark had never done or wanted to do.

All the while Bailey muttered. “It’ll be ok. This is a good spot of luck for you. It’ll be ok. You’re lucky.” Was she talking to Lark? Lark no longer seemed to have the power of speech to ask, her tongue felt thick. “You’ll be –“

The woman’s words faded into gibberish. Lark’s mind went black along with the world around her; her last aware thought was “ouch” when a sharp stab went up her arm.

Thud! Lark jerked forward, only stopping because of the chains holding her arms. Blinking against the light, she stared around.

She was still in the truck, zombies still raged outside, and Bailey sat in the gunner’s seat holding a rifle watching her avidly. Lark’s thoughts were clear again, she knew himself, and she didn’t want to eat anyone’s brains. Her mouth was dry, roughening her words. “What,” she cleared her throat, “happened?”

Bailey smiled, looking like a happy elf. “Welcome back.”

“What happened?”” Lark rattled her chains. “I was a bitten, I was Z’ing out. No one comes back from that.”

Bailey got up, set the rifle down and walked over to take her pulse. With a satisfied nod of her head, she began unlocking the cuffs. Lark tried to pull away but she put a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Congratulations, you’re the first human to be cured of the zombie virus.”

Lark gaped at her while Bailey finished removing the cuff and pushed the chains aside. Lark didn’t move. “No one has a cure. There isn’t a cure.” She reached for the chains and cuffs, intending to put them back on.

Bailey sighed, sitting back on her heels. “No one until now.”

“Who are you?” Lark was afraid to stand, afraid it was a dream brought on by Z’ing out. Any minute it would fade and she would be out there mindlessly shuffling and chomping.

Bailey settled back with a bitter smile. “I’m one of the people who created this whole mess. We were trying to find a cure for mad cow disease and it all went wrong.” She winced when Lark surged to her feet. “Yes, I understand you’re angry. It seems only right I find the cure – which is why I called for pickup. I just wish it hadn’t taken me ten years. I had to hide out; people were trying to kill me. I managed to set up a lab here, though it wasn’t easy.” She frowned at the walls around vibrating with zombie fists. “I think they know, the zombies, not sure how, but more have congregated here in the past day.”

Lark didn’t care anymore why the brain munchers were so thick here. She was still reeling from her announcement. The shiver was the architect of the horror they’d been living with of the past ten years? She should throw Bailey outside with her creations. From Bailey’s expression, she knew what Lark was thinking, but she didn’t move. Just watched Lark with a wary yet wry expression.

Lark stepped forward, grabbed Bailey’s arm and dragged her to her feet. She reached for the door handle, the action causing her torn sleeve to fall away from her arm. Her wrist was still bleeding from the zombie bite, the impression of teeth marring her skin. But her head was clear and she knew she was ok, just like she’d promised. She was still human because of this woman. She met Bailey’s eyes. “You have a cure? For all zombies?”

“Yes. Before I used it on you I tested a few zombies. They were cured of being zombies but sadly too far gone physically to live much longer. If I’d had a better lab I could have helped them more.” Bailey kept her gaze on her. “Once I get it to the labs at ZARA, we can begin making more, enough to get started.”

Lark blew out her breath, let go of Bailey’s arm, and picked up the panic button. “Well then, let’s get out of this crap so you can save the world.” She kept her eyes on Bailey’s as she radioed. “HQ, I’ve got a two person emergency pickup. Send reinforcements. Now!”


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LeeAnn Elwood McLennan is the author of The Supernormal Legacy, Book 1: Dormant, and The Supernormal Legacy, Book 2, Root. The third book in the trilogy, The Supernormal Legacy, Book 3, Emerge, will come out next year. Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, she was always looking for any opportunity to read - under the covers in bed, in the car, and in class using the book hidden in the textbook trick. When her father introduced her to sci-fi/fantasy through a book of short stories from Astounding Stories, she was captivated by the possibilities in every word, and her daydreams involved other worlds, magical powers, and time travel. Despite graduating from Clemson University with a degree in English, LeeAnn has spent her career working in computer engineering related fields. She lives in Portland, OR with her husband, Andy, and three cats (number of cats subject to change at any moment).




#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Not a Moment Too Soon" by Jacqueline Marie Briggs

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, and editor Sydney Culpepper has set the deadline at September 15th, so get your story in quickly!


This is a short, beautiful story that shows just how much a single, inconspicuous moment can change someone's life. Parents usually do the best they can in raising their children, though in doing so they may try to make their children too much like them. With gentle, evocative prose that brings all sorts of emotions to light, this story will find a place in your heart. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Not a Moment Too Soon

by Jacqueline Marie Briggs

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It was only two years after the First World War ended, when people still could not imagine there ever being another one. My father took me to see a friend of his; a woman. She lived in a pale yellow house with a roof that flowed down, not ending in the abrupt, sharp way of the thick Spanish tiles and waterspouts I was accustomed to. Her roof curved down and under like a wave. There were deep-set window frames painted this lovely shade of early twilight blue. And there was a wide verandah that wrapped all around the cottage with chairs and giant pots of mint and strawberries scattered all about.

It struck me that my father didn’t knock and I thought it rude when he just strode through the unlocked door. He must have sensed my discomfort because he turned to me and explained in the serious adult tone he used with me that his friend always knew when guests were close at hand and that she was always ready with tea the moment they arrived.

As we walked through the soft light infused parlor and into the open airy kitchen, I noticed small oddly beautiful treasures in every corner, nook, and cranny. In the picture window at the front of the house there were three small prisms like the ones that hung from our entrance hall chandelier. They were hanging from lavender ribbons of differing lengths, catching the morning light and bouncing rainbows onto the far wall. There was a tall blue bottle in the kitchen windowsill with small surf-polished stones and sea glass scattered around it.

There was no dining room, but a huge bouquet of what my mother would have called weeds ruled the center of a massive kitchen table. It was such a force of color I stopped and stuck out my tongue. I remember thinking I might be able to taste the reds and yellows and purples in the air. It confused me for a moment, how something my mother took such pains training me to reject, how those very same things could be so beautiful to me here. And then she swirled in.

She was beautiful, although maybe slightly older than my mother. What I remember most was that her hair wasn’t pinned or tied up. It was loose like my mother’s when she was getting ready for bed. We sat at the kitchen table and she brought us tea and lovely lemon scones and strawberries. Each cup, each saucer, each plate was a different design, different color, different shape.

I remember how my heart felt like it split open. It was a rush of blood and salt, of bottle-blue water and of this joyous sense of relief. That is when I committed the unpardonable sin of knowing, without question, that my mother was wrong. Her ordered beauty was weak and bloodless and I was free of it.

I was only six years old, and if my father had waited another year, another season, maybe even another month before bringing me to this place, it would have been too late. I would have been formed in the image of my mother. If my father had waited I am convinced I would only have seen the disarray and jumble of unmatched crockery. I would have been polite but my newly cemented sensibilities would have scorned this woman as poor and tasteless.

I will never know what kind of relationship my father had with this woman. It was never something I asked him about. Nothing a daughter should ever be told. He took me there, I think, because the qualities he admired in her, he recognized in me.

I used to hear Mother and Father argue over the proper way to raise me and he once vowed to me, as we watched mother push the gardener aside and get down on her knees and begin to weed madly, that he would not allow my uniqueness to be pulled up, ripped out like weeds mother tossed away in the dark, far corner of the garden.

I returned to the cottage many times where I learned to cultivate the art of existing in every moment. Of being there. Completely. Without fear. Without hesitation or reservation. She taught me to listen to pain with warm hands, to breathe in the hurt and exhale the suffering, to rock the monsters to sleep so they awakened transformed as the teachers they really are. That is when I knew I would be a physician. I knew by the time I was ten that I would not be able to completely chase away all the pain of every broken winged bird or every child I would minister to, but I hoped, and still hope, I could at least smooth the sharp, cutting edges.


Jacqueline Marie Briggs was born in Elkhart, Indiana, in 1954, the daughter and granddaughter of railroad engineers. She married at 17 and moved to central British Columbia and 160 acres of wilderness but later returned to the United States and completed a bachelor’s degree in History.

She lived and worked in Zimbabwe as a diplomatic spouse and Peace Corps Administrator for three years (1991 -1993) and have travelled extensively throughout southern Africa. She later moved to Germany before leaving the diplomatic life for Portland, Oregon. For the past twelve years she has lived in Portland, working as a teacher, a data and business systems analyst, and an Information technology supervisor.

Jacqueline has been involved in a writing community around the world, studying with Thom De Fesi in Bonn, Germany, Diana Abu-Jaber (Writer-in-Residence at Portland State University) and Merrdawn Duckler (Senior Fellow at Portland’s Attic Institute of Arts and Letters).

She is a member of the Willamette Writers Association and has an excerpt of her as-of-yet unpublished novel, The Crooked Boy, in the latest issue of the Timberline Review (Issue 7).

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Leaded" by Maren Bradley Anderson

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, and editor Sydney Culpepper has set the deadline at September 15th, so get your story in quickly!


"Leaded" is a fun, snarky story filled with relatable moments. The main character is a self-possessed woman adapting to a new job with an overbearing supervisor. Seeing her take on her circumstances with the help of a new, special friend made for a truly enjoyable read. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Leaded

by Maren Bradley Anderson

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I could feel her eyes on me. I finished filling the mugs of people who didn’t even look up at me, and sure enough, Ruby was glaring at me from beside the cash register. She jerked her thumb over her shoulder at a new table in my section—as if I hadn’t seen them come in and sit down. Why did she think I was putting the coffee away? I’d only worked at Bertie's for two weeks, but that didn't make me a novice. I'd waited tables lots of other places.

Still, I made double-damned sure that that I put the pots in the correct slots—black in regular, orange in decaf—and resisted the urge to smack Ruby before I went to take the order.  I needed this job.

“All set?” I asked. I had on my best eager-beaver smile, pad at the ready.

“Umm.”

I willed myself not to tap my pen on the pad. It wasn't the customers' fault the menu was four pages long. Really, who gives people five choices of fried appetizers?

Actually, it wasn't their faults at all. I was already so, so tired of Ruby's bullshit, but, given the circumstances, there was no way to make her stop. Ruby was keeping an eye on me because she felt I deserved it.

But then. But then, out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ruby glide by the coffee maker, stealthy, double-checking my double-checked pot placement.

Shit. You mess up one freaking time, serve one guy regular from the orange pot, and nobody lets you forget it. Certainly not Ruby. I kept telling myself that his heart attack was probably caused by the gigantic plate of steak and eggs he was eating, or his fat gut, or his labored breathing, not the caffeine. There was no way it was my fault.

“So, are you all set?” I asked again through my teeth. I hoped I sounded perky and not pissed. I could hear Ruby’s condescending voice in my head: “Perky gets bigger tips.” I needed to calm down, so I focused on the customers.

The table was obviously a work lunch. This is a wide-spot-in-the-road kind of town, so Bertie’s is the only place for lunch that's not fast food. These people worked in some office, maybe the bank or real estate, where the ladies were expected to wear pantyhose, even on a cold-ass day like today when even the fog was freezing, making a bottle brush on my car antennae. One of the ladies had her ankles crossed under her chair, high heels on her feet. I was wearing calf-high fleece boots, despite Ruby’s “suggestion” that we wear black flats to work. In an ice storm? I don’t think so.  The skirt-slash-apron uniform was humiliating enough.

I knew their orders before they did. The ladies each had a salad with ironically high-calorie dressing, and the men had a burger or Rueben, one with smothered fries. Diet Cokes all around, like they would help the winter spread I saw before me. As I collected the menus, they forgot I was there and began talking again.

“Isn't this the place where Jerry Duncan had his heart attack?” asked Crossed-ankles.

“I think so,” said Un-done Necktie. He reminded me of my Pops, fat and happy. “That SOB should have known better than to have coffee at a place like this.” He didn't sound like my Pops, though. Pops had class.

“I thought he got real coffee by mistake,” whispered Miss Priss whose hair was in a bun so tight her eyebrows met in the back. “You never know what you’re getting at places like this.”

“Then he shouldn't have had coffee at all,” I heard myself saying. “But, honestly, I think it was the double order of smothered French fries that got him.”

I slammed the menus onto the table and stomped to the bathroom.

Ruby was standing outside the door when I opened it.

“What was that all about?” she asked even though she knew exactly what it was all about.

“Nothing. I'm just having a bad week.”

This is where a decent human being would have offered a word of pity or compassion or something. But Ruby said, “Well, get out of here, and don't come back until you get your act together. You can't cause a heart attack one day and then turn around and insult a tableful of customers another. One more screw up like this, and you’re gone.” She lifted her chin so she could sneer and look down her crooked nose at me at the same time. “Plus, I know you’re cheating the tip pool.”

I put in every cent I was supposed to into the pool, but I could see no use in denying it. Ruby didn’t care if it were true or not. It’s not like it could be proven one way or another.

So I nodded and bit my tongue so hard I could taste blood.

***

The Raven, the bar across the street from Bertie's, was open at ten after noon, exactly eleven minutes after Ruby met me outside the john.  I didn't care if she was watching from the window (she was) as I dodged traffic across the slippery highway that cut through town. What the hell did I care if she thought I was going to go drink in the afternoon? I was—perhaps not for the first time ever—and it was her fault.

I stepped into the murky bar and promptly tripped over a black chair before the door had even swung shut.

“Hello,” called a voice from the blackness. “I'm in the back. Be right there.”

Suddenly, it was real important that I was at the bar and not standing, blind, at the edge of the room. I set the chair up and found my way to the empty bar. I sat just as the bartender emerged with two bags of lemons and limes.

“Hiya. Let me put these down, and I'll set you up.”

She set the red mesh bags onto the counter next to her sink and then stepped up on a rolling stool. She was the smallest person I had ever seen. She wiped her hands on her petit black apron and smiled up at me.

I almost smiled back.

“How about you move down here next to the waitress station so we can chat while I prep?”

Chat?

After a deep breath, I picked up my purse and moved to a stool across from her. “Can I have a whiskey and Coke?” I asked as I balanced my heavy coat on the slippery stool next to me.

“Sure thing.” She poured from a bottle out of the well and finished the drink with a shot from the beverage gun. She slid the glass to me on a white paper napkin—a pro.

“There you go.”

I sipped. The drink stung my throat, the taste of burnt wood so strong I made a face. “Why do I drink this shit?”

“I dunno,” said the bartender. “Wanna try something different?” She turned to look at the shadow box.

“I can't afford fancy drinks.”

“Don't worry about it,” said Tiny-perky. “It's real slow. Let's play.”

She hopped to the shadowbox and somehow carried five odd-shaped bottles over to the bar in one trip, leaping from one stool to the other like some kind of gazelle or mountain goat.

She set them down and poured two big glasses of water and then two tiny shots--one set was for her. “This one's kind of like the stuff you've got there, but better.”

She was right. Though it still burned enough to make my eyes water, the dead tree taste was better. Different, anyway.

***

Her name was Bea—a name as short as she was—and she was now part-owner of the Raven. She kept pouring these tiny shots of whiskey and bourbon, and honestly, after the third one, I couldn't tell the difference. They were all smoky and alcohol-y, and good. After twenty minutes, I was sufficiently buzzed to have forgotten the greasy spoon across the street. I even allowed myself to laugh when Bea suggested we move on to tasting Tequilas.

“Not for me, thanks.”

“Why not?” she asked. Then her eyes grew wide. “You don't have to go back to work, do you?”

I pressed my lips into a line. “Not me. Not today.”

“Oh, sorry. Bad day?”

“Bad week. I don't want to talk about it.”

“Of course.” She paused a moment. “Once,” she said, “I had this customer...a real asshole. He was buying tequila shots for his buddies and being loud. He started stealing kisses from the girls...some at the bar, some of the waitresses. He was, like, six shots in, so I wasn't surprised.”

“I've met guys like that.”

Bea nodded. “Chelsea, my Friday waitress, said that he groped her, so I waved to the bouncer. The asshole saw me do it, and tried to grab me across the bar.” Bea made a show of drawing her white-handled knife across a lime’s skin before pushing down, cleaving it in half. A grin seeped across her face. “I gave him a shiner. I would have paid to have seen him explain that in the morning!”

I laughed. The image of four-foot-something Bea hitting a drunk guy in the eye made the world better.

“I wait tables,” I said. “I can't tell you how many times I've wanted to sock someone.”

“This job would be great if it weren't for the customers,” Bea said. She poured a shot of bourbon from the nice bottle for the both of us...a full one. “To not going back to work today!”

We clinked and downed our shots.

***

Okay, I honestly don't remember the exact chain of events here. I remember telling Bea the story of Mr. Heart Attack, and for some reason, she agreed with me.

“A lard-ass like that totally shouldn't have any coffee,” she said leaning her hip on the bar, balancing carefully so the stool didn't scoot out from under her again. “Really, the coffee you gave him is, like, the least likely reason.”

Those words pulled a curtain from my brain, lifted me, wrapped me in a soft love for the world—love for everyone except for my usual list of people to hate. Maybe it was the liquor, but I remember thinking, Here is someone who gets it. I definitely thought Bea was the best person in the universe.

That's probably what led to the two of us standing at the reception desk of the hospital, too hot in our overcoats, with Bea asking for Mr. Duncan's room. I did not understand why Bea locked up the Raven and drove me across town in her frozen white Jeep. I did have a faint hope, though, which caught itself in my back teeth.

The car was so big that she had the seat all the way forward to reach the pedals. I saw her from a little bit behind. Her blonde ponytail was pressed between her neck and her chunky hat’s brim, her eyelashes squinted together against the snow glare outside which haloed around her like an over-exposed photograph. The world could have been sepia-toned, and I wouldn’t have questioned it.

Bea plowed through the slushy streets, fishtailing a little around the corners. The heater was cranked to full, but my teeth chattered, anyway, because the hellish hot air never made it all the way to my body.

She kept saying over and over, “You gotta talk to this guy. C'mon! Apologize, tell him it's not your fault, show him you care. Something!”

“W-w-why?” I didn't know I was shivering until I tried to talk.

“You just do.”

Maybe she was drunk, too.

A nurse in white shoes and scrubs printed with happy cartoon animals told us where to find him. We unzipped our coats and checked room numbers until we stood in an overly warm, overly dark room, curtains drawn, television flickering to itself, muted. Mr. Duncan was asleep.

I didn't know him. He was a round man, but no worse than anyone who wears a Santa suit at the mall. He snored. His heart monitor ticked the seconds like a hypnotist's watch.

“Let's go,” I whispered.

Bea blinked out of her own trance. “Not a chance,” she hissed and grabbed my hand. She pulled me the last three steps to Mr. “IShouldntDrinkCoffee.” She was weirdly strong, like a low-slung sled dog. “Look at him at least.”

“But…”

She squeezed my hand, hard, and I shut up. I looked at him.

He wasn't dead. For some reason, that was really important to me. Well, the reason it was important to me was that the other times I’ve visited hospitals, people died. When I was little, I thought I was a jinx. I went to visit Granny in a strange green room, and then saw her next at her funeral. Same for Pops and Auntie Ruth. Hospitals are places where people go to have their clothes stolen, tubes pulled out of their arms and up their noses, and then to die. I held my breath and crossed my fingers whenever I passed a hospital until I was in high school. Honestly, I still hold my breath.

Unwashed graying hair curled around Mr. Duncan’s forehead. He hadn't shaved for the three days he'd been at the hospital, either, so his face was forested by black and white. Tubes sprang from both of his wrists, tethered him to the bed. His thin hospital-green blanket stretched, straining to keep him from ballooning more and floating away. I couldn’t help thinking as I looked at Jerry Duncan that he was going to die, and that this time, it probably was my fault.

Pop, Wheeze, went his nose.

“I need air,” I said, but Bea's grip was firm. How was she so strong? Still, I was bigger, so I just dragged her out of the room. She stopped me in the hall.

“You were supposed to talk to him!”

“Why do you care?” I yanked my hand out of hers and instantly yearned to slip my fingers back into her firm, confident palm. I couldn’t think how to do that, so I stood there not breathing, after all.

She glared at me, crossed her arms, and fused her pale eyebrows into one angry wave. “You need…People need to see that things after…are the same. Even if they aren’t.”

“What the hell are you talking about?”

“This isn’t the end of the world!” she hissed. “Life goes on! Even, even….”

She wiped her eyes with the heels of her hands. “Even assholes deserve a chance to say ‘I’m sorry.’”

“What asshole are you talking about?”

She took my hand, and I breathed again.

“Nothing.”

“No, not nothing,” I said.

She fiddled with the ring on my finger, the one I bought for myself at the craft fair, a little silver thing with a flying bird holding a crystal in its beak. She turned it round and round, and didn’t look at me. I remembered her eyes were a dusty sage.

“I had a friend. She was little, like me, so they used to throw us in the air in cheer—you know, cheerleading. We were a pretty competitive team. But she had an accident at a game. They didn’t catch her right. It was awful. I quit the team, but I couldn’t make myself go see her in the hospital. So she was a hero on crutches when she came back, but I was a quitter.”

“Did you miss the catch?”

“No.”

“Wasn’t your fault, then. You didn’t have to go see her.”

“Yes, I did.” Finally, she looked at me. “She was my first kiss. I should have been braver.”

Then a very good picture of Bea kissing her cheerleader girlfriend was in my head. But not for long. Her look took a firm edge.

“But you can't chicken out because I won’t let you.”

***

That’s when the newspaper photographer found us. He’d been down the hall taking pictures of the Benson Triplets, and happened upon Bea and me debating outside Mr. Duncan’s door.

He stopped to hit on us. “What are a couple pretty little ladies like you doing here?”

Bea told him her revised version of the story. “My friend here is checking up on the guy who had a heart attack at the café where she works.”

I almost stomped on her foot to shut her up, but it was too late. He escorted us into the room, and then he shook Mr. Duncan awake, making jiggly waves under the blanket. “Hey, can I have a picture of you and your hero?”

“Hero?” He pushed a button on the bed, and it hoisted him up. He squinted at me. His head wobbled like it was balanced on ball bearings. His eyes didn't focus for a minute, and never opened all the way because the bags over his eyes sagged like wet tissue paper. Aunt Ruth had bags like those after they pumped her full of IV fluids.

He pointed at me. “That’s a waitress.”

“No, she’s a hero,” the photographer insisted. “She’s the one who saved you in the restaurant.” He shoved me next to him. “I’ll just take a few pictures for the paper. Put your arm around her.”

“I’m not a hero,” I said above the clatter of the digital camera’s fake shutter. Mr. Duncan slung his heavy arm around me and squeezed obediently.

“You’re a good kid,” he said and beamed at me. “You remind me of Annette Funicello. Remember her? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E. You’re such a pretty girl, Annette.”

It smelled like Mr. Duncan had not brushed his teeth in three days, either. I pulled as far from him as I could, my heart banging. I couldn’t breathe again.

“Come on, Annette, give him a kiss,” the photographer said.

Funny thing, that's what my mom said each time she brought me to see someone in the hospital. And I did, every time. I put my lips on their nearly-dead faces and let them hug me in their nearly-dead arms. I wasn't doing it this time.

Also, Mr. Duncan’s meaty, hairy-knuckled hand was sliding under my coat. I tried squirming away, but he was suddenly strong. Then he was cupping my breast through my cotton-polyester uniform. His thumb flicked my nipple.

I tore away from his grip and headed for the door. I crashed into a nurse who was coming in with a tray of medication.

“Who the hell are you people? This patient needs to rest.” She was such a pillar of authority that not even the photographer argued. We all stepped into the hall, and he slid away down the hallway, poking his head into every room he passed.

I watched him round a corner feeling woozy and manhandled and shaky. I could still hear Mr. Duncan breathing, and I realized that five minutes ago, I had felt sorry for him alone in his dark room with his wheeze and his tubes and his unwashed hair. I did not feel sorry for him anymore.

“Feel better?” Bea asked.

No! I thought. Because of me, that asshole is going to die thinking he’s felt up a Mouseketeer.

But Bea was smiling, her eyes tight, her face struggling not to pucker up with anxiety.

“Yes,” I said to her. “You were right.”

The tension melted, and her face pinked. She took my hands in hers. “I’m so glad.”

***

So, you see that the picture in the newspaper article taped to the white board in Bertie’s break-room is misleading. Jeff, the cook, stuck it on the board next to his shopping list and Ruby’s snide little notes to the waitresses.

The picture shows Mr. Duncan in his hospital bed, arm slung around me, smiling. I look like a trapped squirrel. Bea is grinning like she’s just won the lottery. In the caption, she’s identified as my “friend.”

I’m identified as a “hero.”

The picture made me smile later that week as I shrugged into my coat at the end of my morning shift. Ruby was still flustered by it all; Jeff had told her to give me more work and better tables because all the publicity had brought in more customers.

I stepped out into the cold day. I liked the way the afternoon sun sparkled on the snow as I crossed the slick street and stood at the front door of the Raven.

On the drive home from the hospital, Bea had made sure I knew when she was working this week. “I'm opening Wednesday,” she had said. “That is, if the barflies waiting now don't lynch me. Maybe you'll drop by?”

Her Jeep sat in the side parking lot, twinkling with frost all along its fenders. But I stood out there in the diamond-spangled day that was a rainbow short of being too beautiful to be just a Wednesday. It's freezing, I told myself. Go home, idiot. Go home before you screw this up, too.

Still, I stood there.

I had been thinking all morning of this book I read in high school. The only thing I remember about it is the end where the guy sits outside his former lover's window. They had been apart for twenty years and could finally be together, all he had to do is go upstairs, but he decides to leave without seeing her. I remember being really pissed at him for wasting her like that.

But I just stood there staring at the Raven's heavy wood door, examining the windowless panels.

Then I remembered that I was across the street from Bertie's. I spun around, and, sure enough, there was Ruby framed in the window, arms crossed, scowling. Ruby, who follows me around, counting my infractions like a bored meter-maid.

I resisted the urge to flip her off as I stepped into the warm, dark bar.

Bea's bouncy greeting reminded me of the cheerleader story, and I smiled.

Later, I settled in to my second hot toddy. I had asked Bea to make me her signature drink, and this was perfect, just like her: warm and fuzzy, but with plenty of kick.

“You know,” she said. “You could come work for me. I need a good manager.”

She glanced at me, almost shy, from under her long blonde lashes.

I smiled.

“I tend to have antagonistic relationships with my bosses,” I said. I waited to see if she caught that I wanted to have different kind of relationship with her.

After a beat, Bea said, “What do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing,” I said.

“Ruby's a bitch.”

I smiled. “True,” I said. Then I leaned over the bar and stage-whispered to her. “Today I waited until Ruby slithered back into the kitchen for something. Then I put caffeinated coffee in both machines. The orange and the black.”

Bea's eyes grew wide, and she put her hand to her mouth, laughing.

“Why?” she managed to say between giggles.

“I think perky customers are the key to better tips, not perky waitresses,” I said.

She kissed me first, I swear.


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Maren Bradley Anderson is a writer, teacher, and alpaca rancher in Oregon. She teaches English at Western Oregon University. She fills her days caring for alpacas, playing with her kids, and reading books that make her laugh. She has written two plays for the Apple Box Children’s Theater, and her writing has appeared in The Timberline Review, Alpacas Magazine, and The Christian Science Monitor. Her novels Fuzzy Logic and Closing the Store are available online and through your local bookstore—just ask them to order them for you.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "The Songstress" by Johanna Nield

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, so this is your last week to submit!


This is a touching, gentle story that's also filled with fire and fury. I quickly fell in love with the main characters and was impressed with how much Nield shows without saying. Nield's writing is clear and precise, and she paints a vivid picture of a fantastical world that I would love to explore more. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

The Songstress

by Johanna Nield

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“Sing, my little sereine! Sing!”        

King Elred’s command boomed across the noisy hall, magnified by the thick stone walls. Shouts and laughter subsided and heads turned in his direction.

“Let your soothing songs calm these raucous dogs, Mera.”

Another ripple of laughter faded into murmurs as Mera rose from her low wooden stool beside the great fire. She glanced at the king, then stepped up onto the stool, her bare feet relishing the fleeting warmth of the wood. She didn’t wait for silence; it never came. Instead, she looked up to the circle of torches suspended above the middle of the great hall and began to softly sing her favourite song.

Across the hall, three of the king’s soldiers were still tormenting their latest prisoner. Injured from that day’s battle, he’d been dragged into the hall as the food arrived, receiving as great a cheer as the two roast boars that preceded him. Soldiers had pushed him around for a while, yanking the chains that bound his wrists and ankles, thumping and kicking him when he tried to defend himself. He’d taken a severe beating by the time the king had intervened, and was now being subjected to merciless tugs on his long red hair.

Mera concentrated on her song. Singing in her native tongue calmed her and took her mind away from the coarse and brutal behaviour of the castle’s inhabitants. At seventeen, she could now sing the entire song without shedding tears of loss and longing, but she knew the tremble in her voice added a melancholic tone that still discomfited the king. There was no applause; the king simply nodded for her to sing something else and she continued until he decided it was time to eat.

As the feasting began, Mera slipped out of the hall and hurried to the kitchen. Flushed and grim-faced, the cook wiped her forehead with the back of her plump hand, then ladled steaming liquid into a battered metal dish and handed it to Mera. Mera curtseyed quickly before devouring the scraps of undercooked or burnt flesh that swam in a puddle of hot brine, watching as the cook divided what little was left between four small bowls. Mera and one of the kitchen girls picked up two bowls each and reluctantly left the heat of the kitchen.

“See you bring them back,” the cook grumbled as they turned into the narrow passageway that led towards the steps down to the dungeons.

It was an unspoken rule that Mera would take food, such as it was, to any new prisoners. Elin, the kitchen girl, was terrified of them all and would wait to see how Mera fared with new arrivals before venturing anywhere near their cells, even though all prisoners were restrained by chains beyond the heavily locked cell gates.

Mera stooped to put one bowl through a lower gap in the iron gate, laying it on the damp soil beyond. A shadowed shape grunted, and she moved to the next cell. The red-haired prisoner stood in the centre of his cell, head bowed. In the dim light from the passageway torches, Mera could see that he was trembling. She placed the second bowl on the soil just inside the gate and turned to follow Elin back to the steps, where they would wait before collecting the empty bowls.

“Your songs are too beautiful for such a place.”

The whisper barely reached her ears, but it left a smile on her lips.

* * *

Night after night, soldiers dragged Thalo up to the great hall and tormented him with kicks, stabs and beatings. They roared victoriously when he snarled in anger and stepped back momentarily when fire flickered in his eyes, then pounced with harsher violence than before. They pulled mercilessly at his long red hair, set it alight several times, and revelled in Thalo’s growls of pain, frustration and anger. Each night he savoured a short reprieve while Mera sang her songs, before being grudgingly dumped back in his cell. Each night, when she brought him food, he complimented her songs but received no reply.

On the sixth night, a small shaking hand clumsily placed the bowl inside his cell. Thalo recognized the skinny child who accompanied Mera, but she scurried away before the bowl had settled. On the seventh and eighth nights, he asked where the singer had gone; Elin said nothing.

“Please tell me,” he said softly on the ninth night; his face was so swollen he could barely speak.

“She is at the water,” Elin whispered, fearfully scuttling away.

Thalo slept fitfully, troubled by pain and the mystery of Mera’s disappearance, and was ill-prepared for the pre-dawn arrival of his persecutors. He was once more dragged up the winding stone steps but this time they took him outside, where the weak flicker of dawn stung his eyes. Exhausted, he gave little thought to where they were going until they entered the jousting field just beyond the castle gate. The chains at his ankles were secured to the ground with iron stakes, and the five soldiers walked away. Thalo watched them go, then nodded with resigned acceptance as they returned on horseback, galloping towards him with jousting poles aimed at his chest.

It took only four vicious jabs, in quick succession, to unlock Thalo’s control and the soldiers’ triumphant cheers switched to cries of disbelief and horror. From hunched shoulders, Thalo spread his arms as wide as the chains would allow and surrendered to the fiery power within. Bruised arms transformed into scaled wings, rupturing the iron shackles at his wrists. Thalo, the battered warrior, raised his head and shifted into his true form, snarling fire at the terrified men and horses.

The nearest horse and rider were instantly scorched, both screaming into a blistering death. The others, startled and afraid, turned to flee but Thalo, bursting free from the chains at his ankles, unleashed a furious firestorm as he flew above them. Swooping to pursue his tormentors, Thalo neither saw nor heard the king, who led a stream of soldiers into the jousting field. A volley of arrows pierced Thalo’s wings and body, and a large net of heavy rope brought him crashing to the dusty ground; he’d fallen this way before. As the king and his men approached, Thalo painfully shed his dragon form and hoped for a quick death.

* * *

Mera wept as she slowly stepped onto the shore, looking back at the moon’s reflection on the calm surface of the lake. Leaving the water always filled her with sorrow and frustration. Her guard watched her shamelessly, giving her no hiding place as she fumbled into her clothes. He’d watched her every movement during the last five days, even though she was unable to undo the thin chain that had tethered her to his boat. When he finally unleashed her, they were too near the castle for her to escape. Besides, she had never been allowed to swim far enough to discover the way from lake to sea, and this kept her trapped as much as the constant watch on her. The guard escorted Mera in silence to the great hall, where he joined his colleagues at one of the long tables while Mera took her place beside the fire.

“Ah, Mera,” King Elred greeted her loudly, a cruel smile on his lips. “How sad your songs will be tonight!”

At his nod, Mera rose and stepped up onto her stool to sing.

She noticed that some of the king’s soldiers were missing, and wondered if they were engaged in another battle. She overheard talk of a monster, and a terrible fight, but paid little attention until entering the kitchen where Elin and two other kitchen girls were engaged in similar chatter and arguing over who would feed the long-haired prisoner.

“Did you not feed him while I was gone?” Mera asked, puzzled.

“We did not dare,” Elin answered, the gray circles around her large brown eyes darker than ever.

“The King will know of it,” cook warned, although she seemed unperturbed as she ladled slop into four small bowls. “Monster or not, he must be kept alive for some sport or other.”

“Only one feeding was missed,” Elin assured her. “We put it back in the pot.”

“He speaks so softly,” Mera said. “How can you think him a monster?”

“He breathes fire and has wings,” Elin told her, clearly horrified. “He killed three soldiers, and others are maimed.”

Mera knew that Elin was only nine, but she had never known the girl to make up stories.

“Get down there!”

At the cook’s bark, Mera and Elin took two bowls each and headed for the dungeons.

“Welcome back.”

The soft voice sounded different, and the prisoner remained hunched in the shadows as Mera placed the bowl just inside the gate.

“I have … missed … your songs.”

Mera peered into the gloomy cell but could see only shades of darkness.

“The girls talk of a fight, and a winged monster,” she said quietly. “Were you -”

“I am not a monster.”

“- hurt?”

“Mera!” Elin hissed from the far end of the passage. “Take care! He breathes fire!”

Mera smiled, peering again into the cell.

“Our elders would warn us of fire-breathing monsters,” she said, half to herself. “My parents said that would be my fate, if I strayed too far on the shore.”

“Did you believe –?”

“I was six. They should have told me to fear men.”

“Your songs … the words are strange. You sing of the sea, and creatures –”

“No-one knows my words!” Mera stepped back. “How do you – ?”

“I knew someone, once, who spoke –”

“Mera! Elin!” The cook’s voice echoed down the stone stairwell and along the passage.

Mera frowned into the darkness, then hurried away.

* * *

Thalo listened as the songstress retreated, then carefully edged forward to pick up the bowl. The contents had cooled and congealed but were still salty enough to sting his split lips. He closed his eyes and saw the strange girl standing in the faint light beyond his cell, her straight flaxen hair and pale blue eyes marking her as so very different from everyone at the castle. And her songs: Thalo knew that Mera spoke a language that was foreign to the castle dwellers, yet he could not place its origin. A friend had spoken, long ago, of a young woman who sang similar songs; the friend had been enamoured, and knew nothing of the woman’s tribe or dwelling, but Thalo felt sure that Mera was the same kind.

“Our elders warned us of fire-breathing monsters.”

Thalo sighed. The girl was beautiful and seemed out of place. An air of sadness surrounded her, although she was rarely without a smile. If they had met elsewhere, under different circumstances, he would have entertained the notion of wooing her. He shook his head, catching a whiff of charred hair. She had been brought up to fear dragons; even if he were to escape, he could never reveal his true identity to her, for fear of frightening her away. Thalo threw the empty bowl out into the passageway, where it bounced and rattled out of sight.

He remained in the shadows the following evening. Mera brought his food and told him she’d remembered picking flowers with her sister and wishing she could have taken them home. His silence unnerved or upset her, if he interpreted her expression correctly, but he could not risk allowing himself to become any more attracted to her. After a third night of silence, Mera stared for a long time into the dark cell. She could not know that they were looking directly at each other, but Thalo drank in the sight of her and held his resolve.

The following night, Thalo was once more dragged up to the great hall. His wounds were not healed, and all movement was agony, but he held his head high as he was pulled towards the king and a large bearded man in fine robes. Mera was seated by the fire, and he saw her gasp at the sight of him as he was pushed to his knees, but he did not acknowledge her presence.

“Nolan of Enskland, this is the mighty warrior Thalo.”

King Elred regarded Thalo with what looked like admiration and disgust. Thalo stared defiantly at him. The bearded man, Nolan, walked around Thalo as if appraising a horse.

“I see nothing mighty here,” Nolan sniffed.

“You know his true form,” the king reminded him. “A beast such as this is surely worth -”

“It is not the one I seek,” Nolan cut in, waving a hand dismissively. “This creature is of weak stock. I captured its mother six days ago. She lasted less than three hours.”

Thalo roared. As his transformation began, he saw Mera’s eyes widen and for a moment his heart hesitated. Then fire and fury were all he knew.

* * *

Mera was trapped between the fireplace and a wall of weapon-wielding soldiers who were turning over tables in their attempts to surround the dragon. The king and Nolan had run from the hall at the first hint of fire and scales, and now Thalo towered over sixty or more ill-equipped soldiers. As the men inched forward, Mera took the opportunity to edge towards the door, watching the dragon with awe as it snorted flames and stamped its clawed feet to keep the soldiers at bay. The soldiers lurched forward as one, their cries drowned out by the dragon’s enraged roar, and Mera fled with the sounds of battle bouncing off the walls behind her.

More soldiers ran towards and past her as she hurried through the dark passages, surrounded by panic-stricken servants, courtiers and nobles who were instinctively heading for the tower – it was their main stronghold, the place of safety when under attack. It was also adjacent to the castle gate.

A child wailed, and the agitated throng stopped abruptly; someone had fallen, blocking the way into the tower. Glad of the distraction, Mera slipped into the empty guards’ chamber. She waited a moment to ensure no-one had seen or followed her, then nimbly crossed the room and let herself into the gatehouse. She had no idea how to operate the drawbridge, but she knew that a smaller door opened onto the moat-side of the castle; she had seen it many times on her monthly return from the lake. She struggled to lift the heavy oak latch, her anxious hands unable to find purchase. A discarded rag provided the necessary grip, and she stepped out into the warm night air.

A short swim took her across the moat, and Mera followed the track towards the lake, her sanctuary. A sudden gust of wind whipped at her hair as the dragon swooped above the trees to her right.

“Thalo!”

She dared not shout too loudly, in case her voice carried back to the castle, and she did not break stride but kept her eyes on the dragon as she neared the water’s edge. She called his name again as the cool water caressed her feet, but he was flying away from her now. Disheartened, she shed her clothes and stepped further into the lake, ready to plunge into its welcoming depths.

The dragon had turned, and now swept low in front of her, rippling the water’s still surface.

“I am not afraid,” Mera called out to him. “Not of you. But I must leave.”

She dived into the water, thrilling at the familiar sensation of legs merging into tail, then surfaced several yards from the shore.

She turned at a sound behind her; Thalo stood at the water’s edge.

“Can you see the sea from up there?” she asked.

“No,” Thalo answered, his breath ragged. “But I know where it is.”

Shouts from the path startled them both.

“Will you come with me?” Thalo asked, hunching his shoulders and stretching out his arms.

Mera plunged into the water, her iridescent tail flicking a small splash behind her, then rose and walked naked to the shore. She gently touched the claws that were replacing Thalo’s hand, then stepped back as he changed once more. Arrows fell inches away as Mera gracefully climbed onto the dragon’s back, and she soared into the night with him, towards the sea.


Johanna Nield.jpg

Johanna Nield is a Welsh granny, mum (etc.), author, Open Uni graduate, grammar geek, bibliophile, and Doctor Who fan. She works full-time for an international healthcare company and has recently completed six years' part-time study to gain a First Class Honours degree in English Literature with Creative Writing. She's been writing since childhood, but publicly sharing her work has been a relatively recent endeavour.

Cover Reveal and Pre-Order Announcement for Heather S. Ransom's Greener, Sequel to Going Green!

Greener, the sequel to Heather S. Ransom's YA science fiction dystopia Going Green, will hit store shelves on September 10th, but you can pre-order now! Check out this beautiful cover by Randy Kintz, coloring by Marcus Odom, and lettering by Kevin Snyder!

 cover by Randy Kintz, coloring by Marcus Odom, and lettering by Kevin Snyder

cover by Randy Kintz, coloring by Marcus Odom, and lettering by Kevin Snyder

Calyssa’s new life seems to be everything she could hope for. She got the surgery to Go Green, got into the University of SciCity, and got the internship at her father’s genetic engineering corporation. She should be happy.

But Lyssa can’t forget what she witnessed last spring, and investigating the cover-up risks it all. When tragedy strikes, it tests her belief in her family, friends, and society.

When it really counts, who is Lyssa going to choose to be?

You can pre-order your copy here:

Oregon Books and Games, Grants Pass: HERE

Barnes & Noble: hardcover HERE, trade paperback HERE

Amazon: hardcover HERE, trade paperback, HERE

Kindle: HERE

 

“Back in the Green world and immediately thrust on an emotional rollercoaster, I couldn't put this book down. Intense and addictive ... the shocks and twists just keep coming!”
 -Tyler Durman, author of Counterintuitive, What 4 Million Teenagers Wish We Knew and Birthday Suit
 
Greener is a rare treat, a sequel that surpasses the first book and leaves you wanting more.”
-Karen Eisenbrey, author of Daughter of Magic and The Gospel According to St. Rage
 
“A masterpiece of love and loss, friendship and betrayal in a tense, fast-paced and twisting story that challenges the prejudices between nature and science, and the tragic consequences of fanaticism on both sides. Brilliantly written, this story made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think.”
-Mikko Azul, author of The Staff of Fire and Bone
 
"The future may not be so bright for the citizens of Sci City - more like the school of hard knocks. Our genetically modified heroine isn't sure who she can trust in this, another nail-biter from Heather Ransom. "
- Micayla Lally, author of A Work Of Art

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: The Breakout by Laura Hazan

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, so get your story in now!


Hazan's story, set primarily in a small-town jail in the South, comes to life with its unique characters and shocking premise. This is clearly a tight-knit community where everybody knows everybody, and it has been rocked by a tragedy. As Cora spirals and justice prevails, the story makes you question the system and whether the true criminals are on the inside or out. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

The Breakout

by Laura Hazan

outdoor-patio-dining-sets-with-rocking-chairs-front-porch-rockers-wicker-glider-rocker-swivel-rustic-green-target-chair-cedar-wi.jpg

No one in Leonardtown wanted Cora convicted, but there she was, in the cell on my right. Cora cared for most of the babies in our part of the county. She’d been doing it for 50 years or more without any trouble. Several months ago she turned her back from a bath for just a minute too long and Janey Miller drowned.

Mr. Miller, both the local prosecutor and Janey’s grand pappy, arrested Cora. Janey’s parents saw it as a tragic accident, but Miller charged Cora anyway. A swift trial with a jury of his peers found her guilty, and the judge sentenced her to ten years with us in the women’s county jail.

Rumor said Cora hadn’t slept since the day of the accident. It seemed to be true. She prayed while she paced, only stopped to take some food, and never left her cell.

“Maybe we should encourage her to join us,” I asked the others one afternoon.

“Leave her be, Genie,” Luscious McGee said. “She’ll get tired soon enough.”

Cora had no contact from the outside. Folks tried to see her in those first few weeks, but she refused to leave her cell. I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t want a visit; I delighted in every one.

I’d been trouble since the day I was born, came into this world breech, but not feet first like most breech babies. No, I came out butt first. My daddy said it’s my best joke so far. He just loved that I mooned the old uppity doctor. I craved the thrill of daring deeds from that day forward. Harmless stuff like running naked out in the yard as a little tike progressed to dangerous stuff like setting off fireworks during a basketball game. Then I turned to crime. Minor crimes, mind you, but there I was nonetheless, housed between an elderly black woman who drowned a baby and the local madame who didn’t pay the sheriff enough for protection. I wonder if Cora will remember being at my birth; Daddy said she laughed louder than anyone.

#

Weeks passed and Cora did not leave her cell. The rest of us gathered in the common area and played crazy eights or read magazines. Henry Adams, the morning guard, always brought us his wife’s Ladies Home Journal and Life.

“Cora must be resting when we’re not looking,” Little Marie said as she shuffled the cards.

Little Marie, only four foot eleven, had a big habit of shoplifting. She mostly stole so her siblings could eat, but then she tried to steal a record player and a case of Elvis records from Kresge’s.

“I think she goes to sleep after we do and wakes before us,” Ally said when she looked up from her magazine. Ally kited checks. She didn’t need the money, her daddy ran the largest crab packing factory in this part of the state, she just liked to steal – she and I shared that trait.

I picked up the cards Little Marie dealt. “Nope, neither of you is right. I’ve watched her closely. And she just don’t, not the night I watched her anyway.”

“Well if she don’t stop that praying I’m liable to drown someone myself,” Luscious McGee said.

Ally scowled. “You need to have some compassion, Luscious. Just like it suggests in this month’s Ladies Home Journal.”

Luscious McGee slammed her cards on the table. “You can take that god damn magazine and…”

I reached over, picked up the cards and handed them back to her with a nod. I seemed the only one able to calm Luscious.

“What’s she mumbling about over there all night?” Luscious asked.

“She’s saying that she needs to get out of here and make it up to the baby. That she wants to pray over her grave, grieve with her momma, and care for her kin. It’s the same thing over and over,” I said.

“It’s a mantra,” the Beatnik said. The Beatnik’s real name was Anne, but she didn’t mind that we called her the Beatnik. On the outside she wore a lot of black and read a lot of poetry. She also supplied little funny cigarettes to those in need. She said it wasn’t right to charge for something that opened the mind, but they convicted her anyway. The Beatnik put a bookmark in her New Yorker and said, “It’s what Buddhist monks say while meditating.”

Henry, too old at sixty-five to still be a prison guard, walked in with a pot. “What are you chickens clucking about now?”

“Cora,” I replied.

Henry shook his head. “You girls ought not mess with that one. She’s upset a lot of important men in this town. No need getting involved.”

“We feel badly for her, Henry. She didn’t do no intentional harm,” I said.

“And that’s why she’s here instead of the state pen. Though I wish she were. Some silly folk have started a protest out front. Pains in my ass.”  Henry put the pot down on the dining table. “Cooper’s missus fixed a mighty nice oyster stew today. I’ll see ya’ll tomorrow.”

Jackson Cooper was only a few years younger than Henry. All the guards in our jail were close to retirement. We liked the old guys, and they liked us. Cooper’s wife made our lunch every day except Sunday, and her meals were some of the best I’d ever tasted.

#

Several mornings later I tried to coax Cora out of her cell. From outside her door, I told her, “Janey’s in heaven now, and she wouldn’t want you suffering for your mistake.” I paused and got no response. “Janey’s parents hadn’t even wanted a trial – they’re moving down the road to forgiveness.”

Cora kept right on pacing and chanting. I decided to recite the name of every person I knew that Cora had cared for or helped bring into this world. After the first five names she stopped praying, but kept pacing. By now Little Marie and Ally stood behind me. “Keep at it, Genie, she seems to be listening,” Ally whispered.

I listed ten more names and she stopped pacing. “Charles Monroe, my momma’s 2nd cousin. Betty Anne Monroe, his sister. Louisa Monroe, their baby sister.”  I pruned every branch of my family tree and then went to names of friends and neighbors. Cora finally sat down on her cot.

Little Marie clapped her hands like Cora just performed under the big top. “That’s right, Cora, take a load off; rest your eyes even, if they’re feeling heavy.”

Almost out of names, I signaled Ally to take over. She ran off and came back with some of the flowery stationary she saved for her beaux and a fountain pen with scented ink. She wrote names and I read them.

“Lloyd B. Wilson, Lydia B. Wilson, Lyle B. Wilson, Lauren B. Wilson…”

Cora put her feet up and then pulled her knees to her chest. She rocked back and forth in rhythm to my voice. “Patricia Hatcher, Eric Hatcher, Madeline Hatcher, Clare Hatcher, Karen James, John James…”  I thanked God Ally had a large clan.

Little Marie grabbed some paper and a pen from my cell and wrote names too. I read from one list and then the other. Luscious McGee joined us. “Just lay back now, Cora. You need rest. We’re here to take over, don’t you fret no more about that baby.”

“The baby.”  The first words Cora seemed to direct at us since she arrived. Then she started to sing a lullaby.

“Aloysius Richard…” I began, but before I could get the next two names out, Cora was back on her feet. I looked down at Ally’s list and recited the next few names, but within minutes Cora stopped the song and started to pray again.

Luscious McGee yanked on my braid. “Damn it Genie, Keep going.”

“Why’d you bring up the baby?” I shouted back. “She seemed like she might actually lie down for some rest until you came over.”

Ally and Little Marie tossed in their feelings, and the caterwauling followed.

Luscious pointed at us. “Stupid girls, why do you care what happens to some old nurse maid? Ya’ll act like she’s the only decent person in the whole God damned town.”

“Enough!”  Cora shouted above us. We’d been so absorbed in our own anger none of us noticed Cora step out of her cell. She started to pace again, but this time she directed her rant toward us. “Luscious McGee got one thing right; there ain’t a decent person in this whole town. I kept bringing child after child into this world in hopes one of ‘em would be good. God fearing. Responsible,” she shouted. “Baby Janey was supposed to be the last one, the one I was gonna stick with till I knew she was loving, respectable. I’m an old woman, I want to pass on knowing I done some good.”  She circled the common room dining table.

I tried to calm Cora before Henry came in. “You’ve done lots of good, Cora. But, you need to stop shouting before Henry comes in here. Why don’t you sit down?”

“Henry Adams been mean to me since we was kids. Nothing he can do to me that ain’t already been done. Those names, nearly every name you said has caused my heart to break. Not a decent person in the whole town.”

I looked at the others; they’d all stepped back toward their cells. My mouth was dry and filled with regret. Cora had spittle on her chin and sweat on her brow. She reminded me of a traveling preacher I saw once; he shouted angry words from the pulpit, yet promised goodness and hope with the Lord.

She stopped circling the table and pounded on it with both fists. “I need to get out of here. I need to make it up to the baby. I need to pray over her grave. I need to grieve with her momma. I need to care for her kin.”

I walked nearer. “Cora, you need to calm down. You’re going to break a hand.”

The Beatnik came up next to me. “She’s in a trance; she’s not going to hear you. It’s best to let her be.”

“But she’s going to hurt herself.”

“She can’t feel the pain. It’s like the ancient Indian art of walking over hot coals. She’s out of her body right now.”

“Beatnik, you are so full of it,” I finally replied.

With every sentence Cora’s hands started up near her face and ended down on the table. Her knuckles began to bleed.

Henry walked in with a tray of tableware in preparation for lunch. “What in blue blazes is going on in here?” Henry shouted over Cora’s mantra. “Cora, quit punching that table.”  He moved toward her.

“I wouldn’t go near her, Henry,” The Beatnik warned. “She is not herself.”

Henry paid no mind, “Go back to your cell, both of you, and stay there.”  He put the tray down. “Cooper will be here any minute, Cora, with a nice hot meal. Let’s just sit down and wait for him, quietly.”  He put his hand on her left forearm.

Without hesitation, she grabbed him and pulled him into a head lock. A powerful woman with a half foot advantage over Henry, he could not fend her off. She grabbed a butter knife from the tray and held it up to his throat. Those knives didn’t cut through boiled potatoes, but in Cora’s strong hand it was sharper than a tanner’s blade.

Luscious McGee ran over to the table. “Cora, you’re not in your right mind.”

“Luscious McGee,” Cora replied as if on an afternoon stroll, “You’ve always talked more than anyone I know. I’m getting out of here. I need to make it up to the baby. I’m going to pray over her grave. I’m going to grieve with her momma. I need to care for her kin. Henry’s going to help me get out of here. Maybe you should too.”

“Cora, no one’s going anywhere,” Luscious McGee said. Ally, Little Marie, The Beatnik and I gathered behind Luscious.

Little Marie jumped up and down behind me. “What’s she saying? I can’t see; what’s she doing now?”

“She’s just stopped,” I replied. “Quit jumping on me. She says we need to go with her.”

“I’m not up to a jail break,” Little Marie replied. “That’s too dangerous.”

Luscious McGee turned to us. “Will you all hush!  No one’s leaving this jail.”

The Beatnik grinned. “She’s already gone. ‘My prison walls cannot control/the flight, the freedom of the soul.’ I’m going with her.”

I didn’t understand half of what The Beatnik usually said, but this time she made sense. “Me too.”

Ally nodded. “I’m in.”

The three of us linked arms, pushed passed Luscious McGee. Cora kept repeating, “I’m getting out of here. Henry’s helping me get out of here.” Then, clear as day, she said something I’ll never forget. “I need a gun.”  She looked around and walked over to the desk, pulled Henry along with her.

“Cora, a gun’s a very bad idea, very bad. You’re going to do hard time for this,” Luscious said. “You girls need to get back.”

I took two steps back, but Ally and The Beatnik held firm. “She ain’t leaving alone,” I replied as I stepped back in line.

Cora put down the knife and grabbed a handgun from a holster slung over the back of the desk chair. She pointed the gun at Henry’s head. “Okay, Henry, we’re going outside now.”

Henry squirmed. “Cora, please just leave me be. Go out the door, I don’t care, but leave me here.”

I heard Little Marie start to cry. Luscious stepped in front of the door to the outside. The Beatnik, Ally and I drew closer together and got right behind Cora and Henry.

“Luscious McGee, you best move out of the way. I don’t plan on hurting no one, but I won’t let you get in my way neither,” Cora said as she got almost nose to nose with Luscious.

“This is craziness Cora,” Luscious replied. I saw her wrinkle her nose as the bitter odor of fear invaded the space. Luscious waved, “Come over here, Little Marie. You and I are the only sane people in this place right now so we best go with them to make sure no one gets hurt.”

Little Marie stood next to Luscious but kept on crying. She whispered something to Luscious, who put her arm around Little Marie and said, “I’ve been around long enough to know best. I’m going to open the door and walk out with Little Marie. Then I want the three stooges over there to join us. You come out with Henry and we’ll circle up around you. That should prevent you from trying to shoot Henry, in thoughts of hitting one of us, and prevent the police from shooting you.”

“You ain’t in charge here Luscious McGee. This is my escape,” Cora replied.

Luscious McGee took her arm from round Little Marie’s shoulders and crossed it with her other over her ample bosom. “You ain’t got no choice right now, Cora. You do it my way, or you go through me.”

I thought back to the easy comfort of the common area and cursed myself for ever starting this.

Cora shifted from one foot and then the other. “Fine, we can do it your way. Go on then. Open the door.”

#

One by one, we stepped out into the glare. It was quiet in the parking lot, only the crunch of the oyster shells underfoot accompanied our escape. Cora and Henry came out of the building last and we formed a human chain around them just as Luscious described. I held hands with the Beatnik and Ally, Little Marie took Ally’s hand on her other side, and Luscious closed the circle once Cora and Henry entered. We inched our way across the small parking lot until we reached the main road.

A quarter mile down we passed the protesters. Three college students from Baltimore and Mrs. Meriwether erected “Free Cora” signs just down from the main gates of the old jail on the road to town.

Mrs. Meriwether ran up next to us. “Y’all supposed to be locked up?”

“We just going to visit with Janey’s momma,” Cora replied.

Mrs. Meriwether straightened her hat and smiled. “Well, I’ll be damned. You girls got her out.”

The Beatnik grinned too. “She got herself out, we’re just assisting.”

“I’m gonna make a new sign and walk along with y’all if you don’t mind.”

“Suit yourself,” Cora said.

Within five minutes, Mrs. Meriwether and the college students marched behind us and sang “Let My People Go.”  The Beatnik sang along.

We saw Cooper’s truck on the horizon. “Thank the Lord,” Henry muttered.

Little Marie howled, “I don’t want to die!”

“We’re not going to die,” I said. “Everyone just keep walking.”

Cooper pulled up beside us in his rusty pick up. “You girls ain’t supposed to be out for a stroll. Just turn yourselves around now and no one will get in trouble.”

“Can’t do that,” Cora said. “I’m going to grieve with the baby’s momma.”

“Cora, you need to let Henry go now,” Cooper shouted through the cloud of dust we created.

“Going to see Baby Janey’s momma. Henry’s helping me,” Cora shouted back.

Several police cars greeted us at the foot of Main Street. Cooper stopped his truck and joined behind us, rifle in hand. As we crested the first rise of the hilly street, I heard a cheer go out. Dozens of townsfolk lined the busy thoroughfare, and we each smiled at the encouragement, even Little Marie managed a smirk.

Cora looked left and right at the many faces gathered to watch her escape. Then she pulled the gun from Henry’s temple and fired a shot between Ally and me into the crowd.

“Damn, Cora, this is a peaceful break,” I shouted.

Cora moved the gun back to the indentation on Henry’s head. “Jimmy Russell. Beats his wife. Why isn’t he in jail?”

We all knew she was right, and apparently so did the rest of the town. No one rushed us, and no one moved to help him. They just stepped over him and started to follow us. It made me think of that disturbing story “The Lottery” The Beatnik read to us from her New Yorker some months back.

“What’s with these people?” Luscious McGee asked.

Then BANG. “William Tyler - pesters children,” Cora said.

Cora continued to dispense justice the entire half mile up the hill. In less than three blocks she shot five people. Every one known for the crimes they committed but for which they were never punished.

We finally stopped in front of Baby Janey’s house. The front door was closed; the shades were drawn and faded black bunting still hung from the porch rails. Luscious McGee broke the circle, and Cora stepped out of the halo of protection. She released Henry, handed me the gun, and started up the porch steps.

She turned to us as she reached the top step and said, “I believe justice has been served today. You ladies better head on back to jail. I’m going to rest now while I wait for Janey’s momma to join me.”

Cora walked over to one of the ladder-backed rockers on Janey’s porch and sat down. She closed her eyes and started humming a lullaby. Within minutes she was sound asleep. Rumor has it she never woke.


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Laura Hazan is a librarian with the Enoch Pratt Free Library where she runs the bimonthly Light Street Writers Exchange. She completed her first novel, Little Boxes, and is still seeking representation for publication. She has a B.A. in communications from American University, a M.L.S. in Library Science from the University of Maryland, and attended the “Your Novel Year” program at Arizona State University’s Piper Writing Center. In addition, her work has been published in Natural Bridge, Kirkwood Patch and Sauce Magazine. She is a resident of Baltimore and lives with her son, her husband and their one-eyed dog named, what else, Boh.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Maiden Voyage of the Fearless" by Claudine Griggs

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, so get your story in now!


"Maiden Voyage of the Fearless" will take you on a voyage of emotions. I felt saddened and inspired and terrified in the brief span of the story. With a fittingly clinical narrative voice, Griggs' story introduces a lot of big concepts, such as the challenges of living with mental illness, the unknowable landscape of the brain, and the risks we take for quality of life. I know this is a story that will have a lasting effect on me, and I believe it will affect others just as deeply. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

 

Maiden Voyage of the Fearless

Claudine Griggs

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“Bite down hard,” said the nurse.

Antoinette felt almost insulted.  “I’ve done this before,” she said, neither worried nor happy about the procedure.  Despite her severe anxiety disorder, which was why she was here, the treatments were routine, and Antoinette liked routine. The nurse spread conductive gel on Antoinette’s temples.  The doctor positioned the electrode paddles. “Ready,” he said, more out of habit than necessity, and stepped on the foot pedal to administer electroshock therapy to his patient.

Because the treatments were moderately helpful, Antoinette Rodriguez and her parents requested they be administered twice per year in addition to the usual medications for stress and depression.  At age 34, Antoinette still lived with her parents, typically left her bedroom only for specially prepared meals, and almost never ventured outside the Rodriguez residence except to the hospital for biannual “electroconvulsive therapy.”

ECT was rarely used because many medical practitioners considered it barbaric.  The procedure certainly looked barbaric with its purposefully induced seizures by shooting electricity into the brain while restraining the patient on a table.  The nurses, especially young women new to the profession, typically found it more distasteful than the doctors, but everyone who had worked with Antoinette during two decades of psychiatric care agreed.  She needed these treatments. Pharmaceuticals, hypnosis, and counseling could do only so much, and even with enhanced anxiety medications, Antoinette was a curious case: acute agoraphobia compounded by depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other issues that could not be precisely labeled.  Off the record, people said, “The woman’s terrified of everything.” Antoinette even worried about the day when her loving parents might abandon her, or die, or murder her and stuff the body into an industrial meat grinder to dispose of the evidence.

Antoinette understood that there were no rational bases for most of her fears, but by age 14 she had begun to have severe social difficulties.  Too many people on campus. Too many at the shopping mall. Too many strangers. In fifth-period history class at Brookline High, Massachusetts, she started answering questions that had not been asked, and the teacher informed her parents.  By age 15, with so many people “thinking bad thoughts,” with so much danger everywhere, Antoinette refused to leave her bedroom.

To the relief of school authorities, the doctor transferred her to a psychiatric hospital in Belmont where she screamed hysterically about people trying to kill her, and then she cowered in a corner whenever left alone.  Too many lab coats. Too much stimulation. Too much terror.

After four months of observation, medications, and electroconvulsive therapy, a psychiatric panel agreed that Antoinette Rodriguez was permanently disabled by mental illness.  She would probably never be able to work, buy groceries, establish social relationships, or care for herself. She even had difficulty sleeping because dreams frightened her (insomnia added to the neurological troubles) and resisted exercise because the strain might induce a heart attack.  Antoinette wondered whether even her shadow, which occasionally tried to console her, might turn malicious. A strong anti-anxiety and anti-depressant compound helped, but despite knowledgeable and compassionate doctors, Antoinette pleaded for the security of her own room.

“Like chicken soup,” said Dr. William Crawford to her parents, “homecare couldn’t hurt.  And it might even help as we try different therapies.”

So Antoinette returned to her familiar bedroom with a prescription, regular nursing visits, and bi-annual electroshock therapy.  ECT worked better than anything else at temporarily calming the patient—enough, at least, so that Antoinette could function with in-house supervision of her parents.  The insurance company supported the plan, as well, because it cost significantly less than inpatient hospital care.

Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez worried what might happen to Antoinette should one or both of them die.  They languished over grandchildren that would never be. They prayed that Antoinette would get better but, especially, not get worse.  And the deeply religious Rodriguezes accepted God’s purpose, whatever it may be, in the special care required of their daughter.

***

      Thus, from age 15, Antoinette lived in her small bedroom with adjoining bath for the better part of 18 years, cleaning and sanitizing her living space every Wednesday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.  She had a desk, computer, and on-line access that included free library accounts and streaming via Netflix, Amazon, and HBO. There was no phone because Antoinette feared direct calls; thus, all communications from the doctors or would-be friends passed through Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez, who talked through the door or passed notes under it.  Antoinette generally accepted instructions from her mother or father as long as the messages were handwritten with a designated code number penned at the bottom. The code changed weekly. Her bedroom door remained locked at all times, though Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez had a key, and Antoinette emerged for meals when summoned by the signal knock—dot, dot, dash, dash, dot, dot—followed by the words “Edgar’s raven is not flitting.”  Antoinette trusted her parents as long as the codes and signals matched. Someone could impersonate them, and impersonators would be bad.

Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez consented to all of Antoinette’s requests. They had once considered corporeal punishment to pressure their daughter’s socialization, which was strongly recommended by a family friend from Tennessee, but the Rodriguezes trusted in the therapeutic value of love.  Besides, the medications and electroconvulsive treatments seemed violent enough. What could coercion accomplish for Antoinette? And more to the point, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez absolutely cherished their daughter, and they would wait patiently for a medical miracle to come along—and they believed it would come.

God was good.  God was merciful.

***

The miracle came.  Pharmaceutical researchers developed what was informally called “courage in a bottle”; and the first-stage animal trials had remarkably decreased anxiety in some of the most timid creatures imaginable. A cat that cowered under the sofa when any stranger arrived suddenly became a lap kitty for all comers.  A subordinate capuchin monkey turned calm, grew back its full body hair, and, when threatened, seemed almost anxious to fight other capuchins; however, the smaller (medicated) monkey did not become aggressive unless provoked. A mixed-breed shelter dog that had never lifted its tail from between its legs could suddenly trust humans, wag its whole body from tip to stern, tug on its leash to explore new territories, and appear ecstatic about everything it met.  The previously abandoned animal was adopted by a research technician who noted that the Ferralyxis-infused pooch could sometimes be too happy to control.

***

Doctors and researchers quickly targeted Antoinette Rodriguez as a prime candidate for the human trials of Ferralyxis.  She had spent 18 years in self-exile, essentially leaving home only for electroconvulsive therapy. Antoinette’s parents were eager to test the medication on their daughter, hoping it might be the long-solicited miracle from heaven.  Antoinette, however, resisted all persuasive efforts, for she long ago surrendered to the anxieties that were much stronger than she could ever be. She had grown comfortable in her protected life with a computer window to the external world.

“Happiness is a locked room,” thought Antoinette.  But while she sought security now and forever, her parents worried about a dark future where trees fell in the forest and made no sound because their daughter would never even attempt to hear them.  After praying on the matter, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez signed consent forms to begin Antoinette’s treatment with Ferralyxis.

Dr. Crawford (Antoinette’s psychiatrist) and Dr. Kovack (pharmaceutical executive) visited Antoinette at home for the first therapeutic injection, which could not be administered because the patient barricaded her bedroom door when she heard their car pull into the driveway.  This was not completely unexpected. Antoinette defended herself thusly against all intruders. Even Dr. Crawford, whom she trusted as much as she could anyone beyond her parents, failed to persuade her out of the bedroom for treatment. Irrational fear is its own defense, and since age 15, Antoinette’s had been nearly insurmountable.

“It’s all right, Antoinette,” said Dr. Crawford through the door.  “We won’t force our way. I’ll come back alone and talk with you another time.”

The doctors both knew that Antoinette’s regular ECT was set for 11:00 a.m. the following Thursday.  They would simply administer the Ferralyxis then.

Antoinette always kept those appointments.  She was afraid not to.

***

Antoinette’s 32nd electroconvulsive therapy session proceeded much like all the others she had endured, almost enjoyed.  They provided a degree of relaxation that could be counted on. Not a cure, but a change of pace, a different drummer. Combined with the sedative after Antoinette regained consciousness, ECT was similar to what other folks might feel when visiting a bar for whiskey and companionship.  Something to do. Something to buzz the brain and body. But today, along with Antoinette’s regular treatment, she unknowingly received a first dose of Ferralyxis before returning to the warm embrace of her bedroom.

Her parents had hope.  Antoinette did not possess the knowledge to have hope.

***

The doctors provided Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez with liquid Ferralyxis and instructed them to add five drops to Antoinette’s lunchtime Kool-Aid, her favorite beverage, though she heated it to 182 degrees in a large coffee mug to destroy any lurking bacteria.  At dinner, she preferred cherry flavored sparkling water straight from the bottle after washing the neck with disinfectant and then rinsing with distilled water, a ritual that had continued for 18 years. Antoinette’s food was likewise scrutinized, and Mrs. Rodriguez had long ago learned to prepare nutritious meals that were satisfactory to her daughter, though Mrs. Rodriguez waited for a day when the meticulous routines might change.

That time, hopefully, had come.  Medical professionals advised Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez that Ferralyxis would probably require weeks or months to accumulate in Antoinette’s brain with noticeable effects, but since she was the first human patient, precise effects could be neither predicted nor guaranteed.  The initial dosage was minimal, based on animal tests, and would be gradually increased according to Antoinette’s progress. The possibility remained that Ferralyxis would not benefit humans, so expectations should be curtailed until outcomes were confirmed and calibrated.  Medical science worked this way.

Antoinette’s parents did not care to think about failure.  Their daughter presently clung to the bottom rung of Jacob’s ladder.

“Nothing to lose,” they agreed.  “Everything to gain.”

The first Ferralyxis Kool-Aid was repeated day by day, but for Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez, that initial dose marked the beginning toward a new world.  Similar optimism resided in the doctors and nurses, parents and friends, and pharmaceutical investors—everyone but Antoinette, who remained strategically unaware of the miracle drug pulsing through her body.

***

Antoinette responded quickly to treatment and within three weeks took her lunch beverage over ice.  She likewise began to spend a few afternoons in the living room, watching TV and talking with her mother about places and things she had read about online.  The fifth week, Antoinette greeted her father upon his return from work and hugged him, something she had not done since age 12—and this hug proved noticeably more convincing.

Mr. Rodriguez treasured the surprise embrace of his daughter but asked, “Aren’t you afraid of germs?” immediately wishing he hadn’t.

Antoinette giggled and squeezed him even tighter.  “You’re worth the risk, Poppy.”

After seven weeks, Antoinette visited a local park with both parents, climbed on a swing, and laughed out loud as she re-learned how to make it go.  Later they all went to a burger restaurant for lunch. Antoinette ordered her sandwich well-done, which still seemed sensible, but used ketchup from the table on her fries.  She also tasted beer for the first time in her life. Through years of reading she could describe hundreds of varieties, how they were brewed, differences in color and clarity and effervescence, but having missed the actual experience of taste, she could not know the bubbled flavor of 34-degree Budweiser from a frosted mug.

Antoinette grimaced on the first sip and pushed the pint toward her father.  “I think this will be an acquired taste!”

She then ventured sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh lime.  “Now that’s good!” she said after downing half the bottle without sterilizing the neck.  Tears began to flow as she added, “But the best part is where I am…out in the world with my parents…who always stood by me.”  She paused and kissed her father and mother on each cheek. “How could you love such a pathetic daughter all those years?”

Antoinette did not expect an answer, and her mother began to cry, too.

“How could we not?” said Mrs. Rodriguez.

Antoinette knew a lot about love and hardship and sacrifice.  She’d read millions of words on many subjects. But like the taste of alcohol, there was no way to measure emotional flavors without relevant experience.  How could she possibly grasp her parents’ devotion? To Antoinette, heartfelt family bonds seemed as illogical as they were beautiful.

***

A year later Antoinette could not be contained.  After 19 years of seclusion, she became a runner, backpacker, and climber.  Her goals included visiting every U.S. National Park that she’d read about from her bedroom computer.  After that, she’d explore South America, Europe, Asia, Australia, Africa, and the moon if it ever opened to tourism.  Her ambitions became imperatives (a new kind of anxiety) because she’d missed almost half a lifetime of mental incapacitation.  “Fear,” she decided, “is a vampire on the human spirit.” Antoinette would abide no more of that, and she would account for every drop of embezzled lifeblood.

Fortunately, Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez could afford Antoinette’s adventures and willingly provided leeway in their daughter’s extraordinary rehabilitative passions.  However, they became moderately concerned 36 weeks into treatment when Antoinette, during a gymnasium workout, confronted a “bully” (Antoinette’s term) who proved reluctant to share the free weights with women.

“It seems,” said the 145-pound Antoinette to the man, “that you have a certain possessiveness about our workout space.”  She had limited social skills and sounded more hostile than intended.

“What’s that to you?” asked the 210-pound, heavily muscled, 6-foot-2 Adonis wannabe.

Antoinette didn’t get angry immediately.  This seemed like a straightforward question.  “Well,” she responded, “everyone pays for membership and should qualify for equal access and all that.”

“How about I give you equal access to mops and buckets to clean the bathrooms, Brown Sugar.  Why don’t you get at it?”

Even Antoinette recognized this slander to women and Hispanics.  Still, she spoke calmly. “Instead, how about I shove the handle end of a mop up your ass.  Or maybe the bucket upside your head.”

The man slapped Antoinette hard across the jaw.  Her face felt like it exploded, but she stood straight and smiled, a small trickle of blood leaking from the side of her lip.

“Thank you,” she began with a slow, calculated pace.  “No one has hit ever me. It’s much more educational than reading about misogynistic violence on my computer.”

The man pondered her response, suspected that Antoinette might be mentally deficient, and made a half-witted apology.  “Maybe that’ll learn you some manners, honey. I don’t like hitting a woman even when she deserves it.”

Antoinette glanced downward and turned sideways to relax the man’s guard.  Then she tore into his 210-pound frame without restraint. She knew every point of anatomy and slammed the side of her palm hard against his larynx.  As he began to choke and reflexively clutched his throat with both hands, she squared her body and lifted a knee into his groin with a bountiful squish.  Adonis went down and stayed down.

Paramedics barely saved the man’s life with an on-site tracheotomy.  Patrons defended Antoinette’s actions as self-defense—no one much liked Adonis anyway—but her gym membership was revoked.  She didn’t care. There were many fitness centers, and the righteous warmth from crushing an aggressor agreed with her.

Dr. Crawford reduced Antoinette’s Ferralyxis prescription in response to the incident.  “Such is the nature of human trials,” he told Mr. and Mrs. Rodriguez. “No one yet knows a therapeutic level from an overdose.”  He did not say that surplus courage with deficit fear could be dangerous. Besides, as Antoinette grew stronger and happier month by month, the medication seemed a modern miracle.

***

Antoinette began to march up Yosemite Falls trail at 6:05 a.m. sharp.  Her goals included a conditioning climb to the upper falls, allowing 19 minutes for rest breaks and snacks. Then she would hike to the edge of El Capitan and ultimately retrace her steps to the valley floor before dark.  Early October would offer gentle weather and only a small trickle from Yosemite Creek. And as luck would have it, the day’s forecast was 72 degrees with scattered white clouds and a soft breeze. Perfect.

As usual, Antoinette hiked alone with a well-equipped daypack that included the 10 essentials in case of emergency.  Solitary ventures suited her best. She could ascend and descend without delays inflicted by an out-of-shape or under-motivated partner.  Further, the Yosemite trails were well traveled, and if needed, assistance would be available and cellphone service at the summit registered three bars.  Antoinette worried more about her training and conditioning than injury.

She loved the national parks, especially Yosemite and Zion.  Her rock climbing skills were improving, and today’s trail trek preceded a planned assault on El Capitan’s face in five months.  This would require more technical practice and a likely partner, but the problem for Antoinette remained that most climbers were cowards who couldn’t meet her rigid standards.  The goal was everything. And she had already missed out on too much life to hold back on account of nervous fools.

Still, Antoinette watched for telltale signs of human courage and determination.  If she had been cured with Ferralyxis, others would inevitably follow. Then she might find a worthy partner.  In the meantime, she must tolerate weakling peasants.

Antoinette’s quadriceps already burned from exertion-induced lactate.  She increased the pace.

***

Antoinette Rodriguez conquered the trail in 7 hours and 48 minutes.  Not as fast as she would have liked, but respectable.

She stood at the rim of El Capitan, her boots four inches from the edge, and looked across Yosemite Valley.  A stiff breeze raced up the cliff and brought water to her eyes. She wondered how she had ever lived in a tiny bedroom, in her tiny mind, afraid of places and feelings such as these.

Antoinette checked her Marathon watch and set the chronometer.  She would allow 21 minutes to enjoy the view, snack on a protein-and-carb trail mix, rehydrate, and begin retracing her route to the valley floor.  That was the plan, anyway. But as she marveled at Yosemite with Ferralyxis enhanced emotion, as often happens in California, a small earthquake rattled the ground along a minor slip-strike fault.  This was not a temblor that would make news beyond professional geologists—a 2.8 on the Richter scale, centered 3 miles north of El Capitan, and barely noticeable. But Antoinette noticed. A soft roll and a rumble.

Standing several feet away stood a rugged, handsome looking man with his German shepherd on a sturdy leather leash.  The dog apparently also heard the temblor and growled toward nothing in particular. Antoinette disliked the throaty sound, though a dog might be forgiven for primitive instincts and lack of human intelligence, but she slipped the backpack from her shoulders and discretely removed a combat-ready Buck Knife.  She opened the freshly honed blade and firmed her stance. Even as she consciously tried to calm her adrenaline response, she figured it couldn’t hurt to be prepared.

Antoinette held silent for several seconds but finally said to the young man, “I’m sorry, but don’t like threats, even from an animal.  They make me edgy.”

“Oh,” said the kind-hearted man, “please forgive us.  My dog’s name is Questor, and we love hiking together.  I’m sure the growl wasn’t at you. He’s loved everybody since he was a pup.  Guess he’s a little edgy, too.” Trying to assure her further he added, “I’m actually surprised by this behavior. But don’t worry.  I’ve a firm grip on the leash.”

However, as often happens after movement along a fault, there soon followed a mild aftershock just as Antoinette tried to calm herself in measure of the man’s response.  The time, the dog flinched and barked at the sky.

Antoinette vaulted toward Questor, grabbed his collar, and both went over the side of El Capitan.  The young man followed because he tried to save his dog by holding onto the leather strap. He was strong, but not strong enough for the combined weight of a German shepherd and muscular woman propelled into thin air.

Antoinette had intended to jam her blade into Questor’s ribs, but she immediately released the animal’s collar as they plummeted.

“This is glorious!” she thought.  “To free fall through space. To live without fear.  To embrace every challenge.” A spectacular moment in a spectacular life.

The valley floor approached very fast.  The air burned Antoinette’s skin and tore at her deep brown eyes, which remained strong and beautiful and unblinking.  Questor’s threat was now completely forgotten as a new enemy approached—just seconds away—an enemy that could not be defeated but could still be opposed.

Antoinette flashed a smile as she had done with the gymnasium Adonis.  Her last bit of glory in a single instant of battle against the Earth. She prepared for a knife trust into the ground.  She would show no mercy.

***

The Boston Globe reported:  “Antoinette Rodriguez of Brookline, Massachusetts, Jonathan Krieger of Thousand Oaks, California, and his beloved dog Questor slipped to their deaths yesterday from Yosemite’s El Capitan.

“Sadly, according to witnesses, the dog became agitated after a small earthquake and may have pulled against his leash, causing Krieger to lose balance.  It is believed that Antoinette Rodriguez tried to grab Questor in an attempt to prevent their fall. But unfortunately, all three tumbled over the edge.

“Doctors stated that Rodriguez had once suffered from extreme anxiety disorder, but treatment with a miraculous new drug enabled her to begin life as a vibrant and adventurous young woman.  The clinical trials with Ferralyxis exceeded all expectations, and her recovery had been widely documented in leading medical journals. Unfortunately, as this new Wonder Woman stood on top of El Capitan, celebrating a vigorous morning hike, she lost her life trying to save others.  This was a great tragedy not only for Rodriguez, Krieger, Questor, and their families, but for medical research as well. Still, doctors want to assure people suffering from acute anxiety that testing of Ferralyxis will continue and the miracle drug should soon be FDA approved for general psychiatric prescriptions.

“According to Dr. William Crawford, her treating physician, ‘Antoinette Rodriguez did not live or die in vain because many others will someday replicate her triumph over mental illness.’”


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Claudine Griggs is the Writing Center Director at Rhode Island College, and her publications include three nonfiction books about transsexuals along with a couple dozen articles on writing, teaching, and other topics. She also writes fiction and science fiction, her first-love genre as a teenager. Griggs earned her BA and MA in English at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
 

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Pack Mentality" by Sydney Culpepper

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE. Selections for the anthology will be made in September, so get your story in now!


Sydney's story is a new and interesting take on the world of the supernatural, where "mythic-humanoids" must suppress their true selves in order to remain in society. And despite these efforts, they are still ostracized for who they are. This story was very fun to read; I hope that Sydney will continue the story and turn it into a novel. -Paige Gorman, Co-Publisher, Not a Pipe Publishing


Pack Mentality

by Sydney Culpepper

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The flier screamed in tall red letters, “END THE OPPRESSION – HUMANOIDS ARE PEOPLE TOO!”

Anita’s mouth turned down in a frown as she retracted her hand from the box of pasta. She sighed and tried again, reaching for the box behind the first one, but it too had one of the rally fliers taped to the front of it. A quick scan revealed that all the other boxes had fliers taped to them as well. She turned and retreated down the aisle to leave the store, too annoyed to simply pull off a flier and buy the pasta.

She made her way to the front of the store, pushing her way past a vampire with a basket full of vamp-grade sunscreen and vegan blood packets. She turned the collar of her jacket up against the biting autumn wind that greeted her as she walked out of the automatic doors. Flares of annoyance shot up inside her as she crossed through the parking lot to the busy street the store faced. All she’d wanted to do was take a simple trip down the street to the Weremart (Your One Stop Shop For All Your Super Natural Needs!) to pick up some pasta for dinner, but she couldn’t even manage that without running into more propaganda.

The mythic-humanoids’ rights movement had really picked up speed these past few months ever since Senator Cordelia Irving came out as a selkie. Every news outlet covered the scandal for weeks afterwards. Despite calls for her resignation from the conservatives, Senator Irving began actively backing the then feeble movement. In an effort to seem “in with the times,” other politicians also joined the movement. This unprecedented amount of support for humanoids had been spurring rallies and marches to pop up all over the country, much like the one that was being advertised all over every inch of this city—including the pasta boxes.

Anita’s feelings toward the movement were conflicted for a number of reasons. The first was that she wasn’t particularly fond of humanoids seeing as her whole family was murdered by a werewolf when she was six. Another reason was that the rational side of her recognized that most humanoids weren’t violent in nature and just wanted to have basic rights. Like elves, for instance. Most of them either wanted to live in the woods and be left alone or open eclectic jewelry and clothing shops.

It was the dangerous humanoids that gave her caution, such as vampires, werewolves, and shape shifters. Most of the oppressive laws that were currently in existence had been created to keep the general human population safe. Still, many of the laws were unfair and invasive, and Anita was sympathetic to the humanoids that resisted their violent nature, but, at the same time, she knew firsthand how monstrous they could be. She was, after all, a werewolf herself.

Anita joined the crowd that stood at the street corner waiting for the lights to change. The cold air bit at her nose and burned her throat whenever she breathed in. She could feel the wolf inside her as it shivered and curled its tail more tightly around itself. Then it perked its ears and sniffed. Anita’s stomach grumbled as the smell of a hot dog cart three blocks up and two blocks right reached her nose. She thought back to the pasta she didn’t buy and sighed.

The lights turned, the traffic stopped, and she moved forward with the rest of the crowd.

Her being a werewolf added yet another layer of complication to her feelings about the movement. The werewolf that had killed her father, mother, and older brother had also tried to kill her, clawing her chest so deeply she had almost died. Instead, though, she was turned into a werewolf and bore the scars from the attack on her chest like a sigil. Thus, having been a werewolf from the age of six, Anita had spent nearly her entire life being the subject of ridicule and hatred. All humanoids had to register their “condition” with the government so proper precautions could be made. In Anita’s case, this meant daily dosages of the wolfsbane elixir that would keep the wolf inside her dormant. For all humanoids, it meant that anyone they worked with—teachers, bosses, landlords—had to be informed of their condition, or the humanoid would face legal consequences and charges of malintent. This ensured that everyone saw Anita first as a wolf, not a girl, and they’d never see her as anything else.

As a child, Anita was bullied often for being a werewolf. Every year her identity was announced to the class so other students could “keep themselves safe,” and it always ostracized her from anyone who could have been her friend if she hadn’t been a werewolf. Kids were cruel and called her “beast” and “wolfie,” and she was always picked last for teams. She’d been beaten up on numerous occasions, and not a single person had done anything to help her, not even her grandfather, who’d taken her in after the attack and raised her. He especially resented her for being a werewolf. She often thought that it stemmed from his hatred of the werewolf who had turned her, the one who had killed his only daughter.

Anita and her grandfather had moved almost every year due to her being a werewolf. The bullying would inevitably reach a high point, and she and her grandfather would be forced to move cities again. The reasons varied—a student would claim Anita threatened to bite them, parents would stage a protest against Anita’s presence in school, a teacher would fail her on purpose—but the result was always the same. Finally, she graduated high school and moved to this city for a fresh start, but life didn’t get better from there. It was hard to find anywhere that would hire a werewolf, and even harder to find a place that would keep her on longer than a few weeks. She had to endure glares and shifty looks from her neighbors, and she had to accept that there was nothing she could do about the fact that her landlord owned a gun loaded with the fatal silver bullets, and that he carried it whenever he had to interact with her. Still, she’d been here for nearly two years, which was the longest she’d ever stayed in one place since before the attack.

One would think that fellow humanoids would find support in each other, but that wasn’t the case. She certainly hadn’t been the only humanoid in the many schools she’d gone to as a child and a teenager, but humanoids that associated with each other were met with even more suspicion and hatred than lone humanoids. The most support they ever gave each other was perhaps a passing glance in the hall, and sometimes the understanding in the other humanoid’s eyes would be enough to get her through the day. It made her feel like she perhaps wasn’t as alone as she thought.

That isolation, however, was beginning to change. Now, humanoids stood together as a single group, not various races or individuals. It didn’t matter anymore if they were vampires, dwarves, elves, or centaurs. They were united under oppression, which was ironically one of the things the humans had been trying to prevent with the oppressive laws.

The wolf pricked its ears, and Anita lifted her eyes at the sound of people shouting up ahead of her. She saw a small group of people with signs and fliers that were advertising the rally that was taking place tomorrow. Senator Irving’s face was plastered on several signs, and one said that she was going to be the keynote speaker at the rally.

“Help us fight for our rights!” she heard one of the activists shout. “Come to our rally tomorrow night!”

“Go to hell!” a man yelled from across the street.

Anita slowed as she approached the group of activists. She really didn’t want to deal with more propaganda, but her apartment was just a couple blocks further. With a resigned sigh, she moved forward and hunched her shoulders, hoping she gave off a “Don’t bother me!” vibe.

Apparently she didn’t.

“Humanoids have the same wants and needs as humans do,” a girl said, stepping directly into Anita’s path. “Job security, insurance, marriage—help us fight for our rights!”
The fliers clutched in her hand declared, “WE DESERVE EQUALITY!”

Anita’s insides twisted uncomfortably, and she was about to offer a halfhearted excuse when the girl sniffed the crisp air and leaned in close to Anita.

“You might want to stay more hydrated,” she whispered, her eyes knowing and kind.

Anita cringed in shame and embarrassment at the familiar euphemism. The girl must be werewolf too if she could pick up on Anita’s wolf scent. Normally, her scent was suppressed by the elixir, but recently the drink had started wearing off sooner and sooner despite her taking the same dosage she had been for the past fourteen years. Not only did it mean that she was more susceptible to the wolf inside her, but government officials often performed surprise blood tests on registered werewolves to make sure they were taking their wolfsbane, and if she was caught with not enough elixir in her system…

“Thanks,” Anita mumbled, starting to move past.

“Wait,” the girl said, pinching Anita’s jacket sleeve. “If you’re alone, my friends and I have this place downtown. You could come by if you wanted.”

The girl’s smile was gentle, and it broke Anita’s heart. She was extending an offer for Anita to join her pack. The wolf pined for the companionship that a pack offered, but Anita couldn’t let it happen. There was a dark, secret part of her that wanted to accept the wolf and be part of a pack, but she was too afraid of what could happen if she did, too afraid of the wolf.

“I can’t, sorry,” Anita said, tugging her jacket out of the girl’s grip. She shouldered past the other activists and half-jogged down the sidewalk before darting into the closest alley.

Anita unzipped her jacket and reached into the inside pocket, pulling out a slim flask. Her nose wrinkled in distaste as she unscrewed the lid. The liquid inside was a deep violet color, and though it had no smell, she knew the taste was deeply bitter. It was the wolfsbane elixir she drank every day. Aconite, more commonly known as wolfsbane, was fatally toxic to everyone except werewolves, but on werewolves it still had an incredibly negative effect. If taken in too high a dosage, it could kill the werewolf. Anita took just enough to keep herself human, but it always left her feeling nauseous, tired, and had her mouth and throat tingling.

Unlike the stories people told decades ago, when creatures and humanoids were still thought of as myths and legends, werewolves didn’t only transform on the full moon. The urge to transform was much stronger during the full moon, for unknown yet probably magical reasons, but it could be resisted with the help of wolfsbane or with years of practiced control. But even with control, werewolves were always on the verge of slipping into the monster, and that was what made them dangerous.

Another thing that the stories got wrong was the idea that werewolves were mindless, murderous monsters when they were in their wolf form. If the change was provoked by anger or perception of danger, then they could certainly behave that way. If the werewolf chose to change, however, they remained largely in control. The thing that made transformed werewolves hazardous was that they had little to no concept of morality, no sense of what was right or wrong. There was only desire, and sometimes that desire would be to kill.

That was where packs came in handy. Packs had a strict hierarchy mirroring that of regular wolves, with alphas in charge of the pack. Alpha wolves had the ability to influence their pack members’ decisions, and could even force them out of transformation if necessary. Packs also offered support that werewolves didn’t get on their own, such as experienced wolves that could teach control. And more than that, they provided protection and a family.

For all of these reasons, werewolf packs were strictly illegal. There was no way for the government to be able to control alpha wolves and their packs, and they didn’t want werewolves learning how to control the transformation. They wanted werewolves to drink wolfsbane and stay as human as possible to make them less of a threat. 

And if a werewolf didn’t conform to this, they would be eliminated. Anita had grown up hearing horror stories from her grandfather of werewolves going out one night and never returning. She’d seen news stories of werewolves strung up in trees and hunted like animals. She’d received threats of the same from classmates and neighbors, and even teachers on occasion. So she had to be human, or she would be dead.

After a deep breath, Anita steeled her resolve and took a swig of the awful drink. It burned as it went down, and she refrained from gagging on it only due to years of taking it. 

Already, she could feel her senses dimming and returning to a more human level. The miniscule cracks and grains in the bricks in front of her blurred away. The woman chatting on a cellphone to her divorce attorney three blocks left faded into the typical city atmosphere. The hot dog cart she smelled earlier blended back into the overbearing scent of car exhaust and city grime. The wolf inside drowsed and curled up to sleep.

Once Anita was sure she wasn’t going to vomit, she slipped the flask back into her jacket and decided to head back out into the busy sidewalk. She knew the flier girl wouldn’t follow her or point her out; there was a sort of unspoken code that humanoids didn’t out other humanoids. Because of the stereotypes and negativity surrounding their kind, many tried to keep their true identities secret from people who didn’t have to know. Werewolves and elves had it easiest, since they looked human most of the time. Others, like nymphs and centaurs, didn’t have the ability to hide their identities since their physicality revealed them. They were always exposed.

Five minutes later, Anita was putting her key into her apartment door. The door across the hall opened a crack and old Mrs. Nedder glared her beady eyes at Anita, then scoffed and closed her door again. The snitch of locks latching was loud and purposeful, but Anita was used to Mrs. Nedder’s daily ritual of disapproval and paid it no mind. Mrs. Nedder she could deal with. She was just glad she didn’t run into Jeremy, the fifth grader that lived below her, who always tried to push her down the stairs while his mother laughed about how “boys will be boys,” or any of the other residents in the apartment building for that matter.

Anita closed the door behind her and walked into her tiny studio apartment. She paused in concern as she dropped her keys on the grimy kitchen counter. Something was off. The air smelled of mold and plaster, which was the apartment, and of dark spices, which was her scent, but somehow the spice scent was different, sharper.

A cold breeze washed over her and brought with it the smell of the city outside. The sounds of traffic on the street below met her ears, and she realized that she must have left the window open when she left. That was probably the source of the strange smell; it was the city bleeding into her apartment. She walked to the other side of the apartment, through the small living room with the bathroom on the left and her bed around the corner. She closed the window and sighed, then turned to face her bed but saw that someone was already on it.

“Hello, Anita,” the man said.

She inhaled, ready to scream, but he moved quickly off her bed and covered her mouth before she had the chance to.

“Don’t. Scream,” he said tersely, his lip curling.

The scream died in her throat but left her vocal cords tight with anxiety. She nodded dumbly, and the invader let her go and took a couple steps back from her. He was broad-shouldered and taller than her by several inches. His angular jaw was covered in stubble, and a long nose sat beneath deep set blue eyes that watched her sardonically. A smirk played at the edge of his lips, and a fang earring dangled from his left ear.

“You’re quite difficult to track down, did you know that?” the man said casually, as if this were all normal and he hadn’t broken into her apartment and told her not to scream.

“Who are you?” she asked through gritted teeth, clenching her fists at her sides and glancing around for anything she could possibly use as a weapon.

“Elijah Bennett,” he replied, watching her glance around. “Looking for something to fight me off with?”

She ignored the question, though her face burned with embarrassment.

“You don’t need to, you know. I’m not here to hurt you, Anita,” he said.

“How do you know my name?” she asked, feeling alarmed. After her grandfather had taken custody of her, they’d been put in a program similar to witness protection but was designed for survivors of creature attacks, and every time they moved they had to change identities. She’d been Maritza Atwell and Regina Caplin and Valeria May and many others, but she hadn’t been Anita Doyle in a very long time.

“We’re old friends,” Bennett said sarcastically. “We go way back. About fourteen years, in fact.”

Fourteen years. That was when—

“You—it’s you!” she shrieked, backing up a few steps. The strange scent in the air finally made sense: he was a werewolf too. “You killed my family! You turned me!” she shouted, terror and rage forming a dangerous cocktail. She could feel the wolf start to claw her insides, but that wasn’t right. She’d just taken the elixir; it shouldn’t be stirring for at least half a day.

“Wrong and wrong,” he replied with an impatient roll of his eyes. “I didn’t kill your family, and I didn’t turn you.”

“But—” Her fingers fumbled at her chest, feeling for the thick white scars that laid there.

“I am the one that clawed you, but you can’t be turned from a clawing,” he said tiredly. “Come on, tell me: how does the werewolf virus get spread?”

“Blood and saliva,” she answered robotically. It was a subject covered every year in school from kindergarten to senior year of high school: how to identify humanoids, and how to avoid becoming one if the state was transferable, like with werewolves and vampires.

“That’s right. It’s a blood disease, mutates your genetics, makes you a monster,” Bennett said with a derisive sneer. “Now tell me, how does blood or saliva come from claws?”

The look he was giving her was one of extreme condescension, and one she had encountered far too much while growing up. It had always been a longshot that she was changed by claws. The police had speculated that drool had accidentally gotten in her wound, or perhaps the werewolf had purposefully mingled its blood with hers, but that was unlikely as it had nearly clawed her to death. In the end, they concluded it was a freak accident, emphasis on the freak.

“It doesn’t,” she snapped through gritted teeth. “But then, how am I—”

“You were born a werewolf, like me,” he said grimly, “because you’re my daughter.”

Her mind hit a wall with that information. Even the wolf was stunned into immobility. She jumped instantly to the conclusion that he was lying; it was the only thing that made sense.

“You’re crazy,” she hissed.

“Perhaps,” he allowed, “but it’s true nonetheless.”

Anita shook her head in denial. “Why were you there that night?” she asked angrily.

“To take you back,” he said firmly, jaw clenched. “Your bitch mother was a standard one night only while I was travelling cross-country. Six years later, I ran into her again by chance. Tried to hit her up for another round, but she refused ‘cause apparently I got her knocked up the last time, and she had to give up the thing to a nice family across town. Poor girl had no idea what I was, or what you might be.”

The gears in her mind were turning agonizingly slowly. Her mouth was agape.

“You think you’re surprised?” he said. “Imagine how I felt finding out I had pup.”

“What, you never dreamed of having kids?” she asked sarcastically.

“Hell no,” he said, wrinkling his nose in disgust. “Do I look like daddy material?”

“Then why come for me?” she exclaimed. “It had been six years. You could’ve let me be! Why did you track me down if you didn’t want me?!”

“Because we are pack,” Bennett said, a righteous fire flaring in his pale eyes. “Wolves stick together, and I had to know if my mutation passed on to you. Us born wolves are different; the change comes at a different time for each of us. At the latest, the wolf awakens at puberty, but it can wake in times of danger and high stress. Your so-called family wouldn’t have been able to teach you control once you first transformed. They’d have shot you up full of the ‘bane and kicked you to the curb.”

“That’s not true,” she said, although that was almost exactly what her grandfather did.

“It is true,” he insisted. “It happens all the time. It happened to me after my first change, it would’ve happened to you. It happens to the bitten, too. Sooner or later, you gotta learn that the only people who care about werewolves are other werewolves. That’s why we have to stick together. That’s why I came for you, why I’ve been trying to find you since then.” He stared at her and she tried not to shrink under his intense gaze. “I want you to come with me.”

“So we can, what, form some sort of pack?” she asked, disgust squashing down the yearning that the wolf felt.

“I can help you,” Bennett said, taking a step toward her. “I can teach you control. The wolfsbane is a band aid, a crutch. It’s either going to stop working, or it’s going to kill you.”

The wolf paced circles inside her, and never before had she hated it so much.

His eyebrows raised. “It’s already stopped working, hasn’t it?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” she said quickly, her voice shooting up an octave.

“One of these days, they’re going to do a test on you, and you’re going to have too little of the drug in your system, and they’re going to drag you away, and nobody will ever hear from you again,” Bennett said, his voice dark and bitter. “There’s a reason werewolves are only expected to live a max of twenty years after their first change. But if you come with me, you have a chance. You can be a werewolf, Anita, not just a wolf in human’s clothing.”

“No. No way,” she said, shaking her head. “You’re lying, about everything. You were there that night. You killed my family, and you tried to kill me.”

“I didn’t kill your family,” he said impatiently, pinching the bridge of his nose.

“But you did try to kill me,” she said almost triumphantly, glad that she had at least one detail right. That was, if he was telling the truth, which he probably wasn’t.

“I was trying to stop you,” he replied.

“Stop me?” she repeated. “From what?”

“From killing me, too.”

“Too?” Her brow furrowed, and then understanding oozed through her body like a sick poison, locking her limbs and stopping her heart.

“You think I killed my family,” she whispered, appalled at the mere thought.

For the first time, something like pity entered Bennett’s blue eyes.

“I watched you kill your family,” he responded.

She took stumbling steps away from him, tripped on the edge of the rug, and fell to her knees. Bennett made no move to help her, only watched. She was glad he stayed away; she didn’t know what she would do if he tried approaching her right now. The wolf was bristling, its hackles raised.

“Your emotions are pretty high right now; I could probably smell your anxiety from two blocks away,” he said, slowly backing away from her. “So I’m gonna give you a chance to calm down and think rationally about joining me. I’m heading out of town tomorrow. Gonna stop by that rally before I go. If you’re in, if you want to stop playing human, then come find me, and we’ll go together. If you don’t find me, well…” He sighed. “See you around, kid.”

Bennett turned and headed toward the front door. She’d half-expected him to go through the window again. He paused and looked back at her. “You know, lone wolves are always the first ones to get picked off by the hunters.”

“Then why are you alone?” she growled at him. “Where’s your pack?”

He gave her a long, hard look, then opened the door and left.

The door clicked closed and exhaustion hit her like a ton of bricks. She stayed down on the floor, overcome with thoughts and the struggle to keep the bile from rising in her throat. Standing would be too much of an effort right now.

Whenever Anita had heard others talk about traumatic events, they always said they could remember it so clearly, as if it had happened yesterday. Now more than ever, Anita wished that she could remember exactly what had happened. But it was like somebody had written her early memories down on a white board and then shoddily erased them, leaving only bits and pieces.

The only solid details were that it was night, and her family had been gathered in the living room, about to watch a movie. Her parents were snuggled on the couch, her older brother Teo sitting beside them, while Anita sat on the floor in a nest of blankets. Teo kept stealing handfuls of her popcorn despite having his own bowl. She couldn’t remember the name of the movie or even what it was about, and for some reason that little detail drove her crazy, because there was nobody to ask. The only people who knew were six feet under in a plot two states over. They’d just started the movie, whatever it was, when the doorbell rang.

After that, Anita’s memories were as jumbled and fragmented as a kaleidoscope. There was Papa’s scream. A horrible gurgle. Mama’s dead eyes. Red and blue lights flashing outside the window. Teo crumpled on the floor beside blood-speckled popcorn. The dark smell of musk. Spit dribbling down Anita’s chin, her mouth stretched wide and screaming. A voice like bitter dark chocolate saying, “Hush, Anita,” and then a terrible pain before it all went black.

A chill crept over her like a sweeping mist when she realized that the voice in her memories was the same as the voice that belonged to Bennett.

Anita got slowly to her feet and went over to her desk. She wrenched open the bottom drawer and pulled out a bunch of papers and newspaper clippings. Familiar headlines stared up at her: Vicious Werewolf Attack Leaves Three Dead, Daughter Orphaned; Doyle Daughter Turned by Family’s Killer; Doyle Homicide Investigations Cease as Case Turns Cold. The trail for the murderer had gone dead quick, as there was no motive for any werewolves to target the Doyles, and there wasn’t any evidence that pointed to a culprit. The only quirk about the case was that the claw marks on Anita’s chest were deep, but the claw marks on the rest of the family were much smaller…

Nausea wrapped its fingers around Anita’s throat, and she was forced to sit down again. The wolf was pacing circles inside of her, but she couldn’t even imagine taking more wolfsbane right now with how queasy she already felt. A headache raged at her temples, shouting out all the questions she had, but there was nobody to answer them.

Her breath caught in her throat as she remembered the one person who might possibly know something: her grandfather.

Anita shifted her weight and pulled her cellphone out of her back jeans pocket. Her fingers trembled slightly over the touch screen, which mocked her indecision by reflecting her conflicted face in its blackness. She swallowed down her nerves and called her grandfather.

She waited with bated breath to see if he would pick up. The wolf perked its ears in anticipation. Each ring drove another nail into her skull, further enraging her already furious headache. She’d regretted calling him the moment she’d pressed the button, not wanting to face his quiet disappointment even just through a speaker, but her call would have already registered in his phone, so there was no going back.

By the fifth ring, she was beginning to hope she would only have to leave a voicemail, but, because this was her life and nothing ever went right, he picked up.

¿Qué quieres?” her grandfather growled.

Ramiro Moralez had wanted nothing to do with his only daughter Daria once she’d performed her final disobedience against him and ran off with Keelan Doyle. The minute they’d eloped, he cut all contact, so one could imagine his surprise when the police contacted him ten years later and said he had to take custody of his granddaughter since a werewolf had killed her parents and brother, and she had no other kin.

¿Qué?” he barked again. “What?”

“I…I’m coming over,” she said, suddenly having an urge to not have this conversation over the phone. “I need to talk to you.”

There was a weighty pause, and then he grunted, followed by the click of hanging up.

Anita let out a breath and sagged for a moment before getting up from the floor. She grabbed her keys and walked down to the parking garage to drive out to her grandfather’s house.

Life with her grandfather had been complicated to say the least. She’d never felt settled due to the constant moving around, and she had no support from him or anyone in her life. He’d always kept her at a distance despite her desire for some form of affection. He hated the fact that she was a werewolf, and, aside from when he was monitoring her wolfsbane intake, pretended that she was fully human. The way he had raised her was more like a warden than a grandfather, but she had to be grateful to him. If he hadn’t taken her in, she could’ve gone into the foster system, and that was bad enough for human children. She often thought that the only reason he took her in was because she reminded him of her mother, but he rarely, if ever, talked about her. From what she could gather, their relationship had been tumultuous, since she had been a free spirit, and he was rather strict. Still, Anita had always been jealous of her classmates and their happy, loving human families. There was nothing she wanted more than that.

The drive to her grandfather’s house was only half an hour long, since he lived just on the outskirts of the city in order to keep an eye on her, but her anticipation made the minutes drag on. Despite the close proximity, they hardly had any contact. He called randomly every few months or so to check if she’d been taking the elixir, but that was about it. For her to call him, let alone to drive over, was unprecedented, and Anita was very nervous about it. She hadn’t seen her grandfather in person in over a year.

By the time she finally pulled into the short driveway of her grandfather’s house, it felt like almost an entire day had passed. She stepped out of the car into the evening air, took a swig of wolfsbane to be sure, and let herself in to the one story house with the quaint garden in front.

¿Abuelo?” she called shakily as she closed the door behind her, her voice slightly higher than usual.

“Living room,” his gruff voice replied.

Her heart beat steadily increased in tempo with every step she took down the seemingly endless hall that led to the living room.

“Hello,” she said shakily.

Her grandfather looked up at her from where he sat in his armchair. The skin on his grizzled face had started to sag more in the months that she hadn’t seen him, but his eyes still held the same calculated disappointment that they always had. She swallowed resolutely and tried not to feel like she was eight years old again.

“Have you been taking your elixir?” he asked predictably.

Anita repressed a sigh. “Yes.”

Bueno. What did you need to talk about?”

“Am I adopted?” she blurted.

What she’d meant to ask first was how much he knew about the night of the attack, how much he knew about the mysterious werewolf that had killed her family, but this turned out to be the question at the front of her mind.

The corners of his thin mouth turned down in suspicion. “Sí.”

The urge to vomit returned as her thoughts spun dizzily in her head. Bennett had at least been telling the truth about that. If she truly was adopted, then maybe she really was his daughter, and maybe he was telling the truth about what—

“I found out when I received your records after assuming custody. I chose not to tell you in an effort to not take away the family you had already lost,” her grandfather elaborated. “How did you find out?”

Bennett’s face flashed in her mind’s eye.

“Did you ever try to track down my birth parents?” she asked instead of answering.

He sighed. “Sí.

Her heart pounded heavily. “And?”

“I found your birth mother,” he replied. “She lived across town, worked as a waitress. The father was never in the picture. She only knew his first name, Eli. You were an accident.”

Worry tangled itself in her stomach. Eli could have been short for Elijah, an alias to keep his identity private.

¿Abuelo,” she said, “how was I turned?”

His eyes darkened the way they always did when she brought up her being a werewolf. The topic had always been forbidden in their household, aside from when he was asking about the wolfsbane or lecturing her about werewolves gone astray.

“The werewolf who killed your family clawed and turned you,” he said, just as he had all her life.

“Except you don’t believe that,” she said slowly, amazed at her daring, “do you?”

His eyes narrowed. “What are you getting at?”

“Is it possible that I was born a werewolf?” she asked.

“I suppose,” he answered.

“Am I…am I the one?” she asked, her throat seizing up. “The one who—”

Her grandfather’s eyes watched her for a very long time. Anita could remember looking into those eyes and waiting to see a smile in them, waiting for some form of caring.

Creo que sí,” he said finally. "I believe so."

Her heart dropped into her stomach, and the wolf sat up. Tears burned in her eyes and she raised shaking hands to her head, pressing at her temples in an effort to try to regain some focus.

“You knew—you knew—” she stammered, swaying heavily on her feet.

“I had my suspicions,” he corrected, watching her carefully, “but there was no way to be sure. So I made it my mission to eradicate the wolf inside you. I tried to make you human, so you would never kill again—”

“But I’m not human!” she screamed. “You can’t kill the wolf! Wolfsbane isn’t a cure, it’s a band aid!” Dimly, she realized she was echoing Bennett’s words.

“Where is this coming from?” he demanded angrily as he rose to his feet. “What’s gotten into you?”

“You were so unfair to me,” she hissed, “expecting me to be something I couldn’t. Why couldn’t you accept me as I was?”

“Accept you? You, la niña del diablo?” he snarled, disgust curling his lip as he used his favorite nickname for her. “You are una monstruo! You killed your own family, my only daughter! I tried to save you, tried to—”

“There’s no saving me!” she exclaimed, her voice shrill. “There’s no changing what I am, Abuelo!”

The wolf was growling, pawing the edges, waiting to be released. Anita could feel bloodlust humming in her fingertips, fueled by all this resentment she’d held in for years. She felt the desire to crush her grandfather’s skull and see his blood soak the carpet.

She wrenched herself out of that mindset, shocked at herself.

“I-I need to go,” she said quickly, then turned and ran.

“Anita, get back here!” he shouted, moving after her. “Anita!”

Anita threw the front door open and jumped into her car, fingers fumbling with getting the key in the ignition. The wolf snarled and barked, mad and foaming with violent rage, and she could feel it scratching at the surface.

“Anita, stop! ¡Para!” her grandfather yelled, approaching her car.

She finally started the car and peeled out of the driveway, speeding down the street and around the corner back toward the heart of the city. The wolf was howling furiously now, and she could feel the control slipping from her. Her vision was going fuzzy at the edges, and her skin kept itching like it was about to sprout fur. Hurriedly, she wrenched the steering wheel and pulled over to the side of the road. With shaking fingers she grabbed her flask and guzzled the rest of the elixir that was in it.

Anita pressed her forehead against the steering wheel and squeezed her eyes shut, then focused on breathing slowly and calming her emotions down as the wolfsbane coursed through her system. The anger disappeared more quickly than she thought it would, and it left her exhausted and weak. The wolf curled up reluctantly, but its ears were still perked.

Bennett was right: the wolfsbane wasn’t working anymore, and Anita was terrified to imagine what would happen the next time she got angry. She had just been on the verge of killing her own grandfather. If she could do that, what else was she capable of? Who else would she hurt? Who else would she kill?

Hot tears slid down her cheeks. She had to learn control, but how? From Bennett? And what if she was never able to learn control? What if the wolf—the monster—was untamable?

Anita sat in her car and cried until the last rays of sunlight left the sky. Numbly, she started the car again and drove the rest of the way back, but when she arrived in the parking garage, she couldn’t even remember the drive. Her mind was so frazzled from everything that had happened that day that it couldn’t focus on anything. A tightness had spread through her body, making it hard to move and breathe, let alone think. How had it only been mere hours since Bennett showed up in her apartment?

When she finally managed to drag her weary feet up the stairs to her apartment, she spied something stuck to her door.

It was a rally flier, declaring that “WE ARE ALL EQUAL.”

She ripped it off and crumpled it into a ball, then slammed her door behind her.

Anita spent the rest of the night and most of the next day curled up in a lump on her bed. She drifted in and out of consciousness, lost in a haze of confusion. Dreams were interspersed throughout the blackness, scattered memories of the night of her family’s murder coming back to her. There was a pair of hands on each of her arms, pulling her in two different directions. Bennett standing in the living room, purple with rage and yelling in Papa’s face. Mama on the floor, staring up in horror, with Teo’s body lying next to her. A reflection in the polished wood of their piano of a small werewolf with bloodied claws—

Anita woke in a cold sweat, sitting up instantly. There were dried tear tracks on her puffy face, and she felt utterly ragged, like fabric that had been stretched too thin. A glance at the clock on her bedside table told her it was almost eight at night. The rally would be starting soon.

She pressed the heels of her hands into her eyes and tried not to panic at the choice that was now looming directly before her. Would she go to the rally and go with Bennett? Or would she stay and let him leave without her?

She took a breath. She let it out. She got out of bed.

Ten minutes later, Anita’s breath formed clouds in front of her face and she found herself approaching the city square that sat directly in front of the city hall building. It was a large square, the size of two city blocks, with a playground and a grassy area specifically for dogs. The center of it was wide and paved and lined with trees. A stage was set up at the far end with City Hall behind it, the domed stone building making an impressive backdrop. Two tall banners with Senator Irving’s face and the saying “EQUALITY NOW” were on either side of the stage, and a podium sat in the middle. Floodlights cast a harsh light into the autumn darkness.

The crowd was impressively large, and the atmosphere felt tense and full of fervent activism. Anita briefly wondered what would happen if that tension spilled over. She’d never seen so many humanoids gathered in one place before. The scent of werewolves was heavy on the air, making it impossible for Anita to pick out Bennett. A small coven of vampires stood together holding a sign that said “We don’t suck – YOU do.” She spied a group of wood nymphs that had gathered together, their skin like tree bark. There were several centaurs that stood on the edge of the crowd, pawing nervously at the ground. Anita hadn’t seen a centaur since she’d gone to the fair when she was nine and there was one forced into giving “pony rides.” Sprites glittered in the air like multicolored fireflies. Every now and then they spelled out words like “equality” or “rights for all.” All these and more were gathered tonight.

The bell tower in City Hall chimed eight, and Senator Irving stepped onto the stage.

As Irving walked up to the podium everybody started screaming and clapping and stomping their excitement. Several different chants started up, the conflicting beats and words creating nothing but chaotic shouting.

“Quite the commotion here, isn’t it?”

Anita whirled around in terror and found Bennett standing behind her, his mouth twisted in a wolfish grin. Irving raised her hand to silence the crowd, and then her voice floated over the crowd.

“Never before has our kind been so united!” Irving declared. “I don’t see vampires, selkies, and fairies out here tonight. I see my siblings who have struggled alongside me under the humans’ oppression!”

The crowd gave a mighty cheer, and Bennett rolled his eyes. Anita was too panicked and conflicted to pay attention to the speech.

“So, do you wanna stick around for the rest of this or skip out now?” Bennett asked. “Probably best if we go now. Beat the traffic and all.”

“I-I’m not going with you,” she said, clenching her fists.

Bennett raised his eyebrows.

“I was five years old when my seal skin was stolen from me,” Irving continued over them, “preventing me from ever returning to the ocean I called home…”

“Then why come?” he asked. “Unless you really wanted to hear the speech.”

“I wanted to see you one last time,” she replied. She licked her lips and swallowed. “For, uh, closure and all that. To…to look you in the face and tell you no.”

“Too long have we been hated for what we cannot control, generalized and grouped under the label “dangerous”!” Irving shouted, and resounding cheers came up from the crowd.
Bennett nodded slowly. “Right. You want to know what I think?”

She shook her head fearfully.

“I think you really do want to come with me,” he said. “You’re just too scared.”

Alarm gripped her as denial flooded her senses. “No, no, that’s not—”

“This is for the sirens, with their vocal cords removed! For the werewolves, forced to drink their poison! For the fairies, shackled in iron! For the centaurs, treated as cattle! This is for all of us! We will be silent no more! You will hear us! You will know us!”

“Anita, you have to understand,” Bennett said. “Control isn’t an option, it’s a necessity.”

“I’ve been managing fine,” she replied shakily, but the wolf was grinning.

“We demand equality!” Irving bellowed.

The crowd started chanting. “Equality! Equality! Equality!”

Bennett opened his mouth to speak, but was drowned out by police sirens.

“This is the city police!” said a voice on a megaphone. “Disband and go home immediately or face legal consequences.”

A wall of police officers with riot shields started to surround the crowd.

“We are here peacefully protesting,” Irving said tersely into the microphone.

Anita couldn’t tell if she was upset that the police were here or upset that they had interrupted her speech.

“You are ordered to leave now,” the voice replied.

Suddenly, the line of police started charging the crowd. The centaurs scattered in terror, and people scrambled to get out of their way and to escape the approaching police force. The pushing and shoving caused people to fall to the ground and get trampled. Anita’s heart jumped in her throat as she was shoved to the side into more passing bodies, and the wolf tensed its muscles. She had no choice but to move with the crowd.

People started screaming in terrible pain, and Anita strained her neck to see the cause. The police were armed with what looked like iron and silver batons. She saw one threatening a vampire with a wooden stake. Handcuffs glinted all over the place as people were dragged off. One centaur was on its back and hogtied. Something exploded in the air, and from the taste and lack of smell, Anita could tell it was an aconite gas bomb.

“Anita!” Bennett called, pushing his way toward her. “Let’s—”

The people near her scattered, and she ran into a hard body. She looked up and met the hateful eyes of one of the police officers. He grabbed her roughly.

“You’re under arrest for unlawful assembly and interference with police authority,” he announced.

“Get off of me!” Anita shouted, pulling herself out of his grip.

The officer raised his baton—she recognized it as silver—and struck her across the face with it. The silver burned her skin in addition to the crushing pain of the blow, and without warning, the wolf exploded out of her. Fur burst up along her arms and her clothes ripped as her body morphed. Pain lit her up from the inside out, and her bones snapped and grew.

Werewolves were much larger than regular wolves, standing close to seven feet tall when on their hind legs. Everything was longer and sharper and deadlier. Their fangs and claws were inches long and sharper than knives. Strength poured from every tensed muscle. Senses were tripled from sharp eyes, sharp ears, and an even sharper nose.

Anita’s mind went blank as the wolf took over, seething with fury. She faced the man, who was cowering before her, holding the silver baton above his head in fear.

She took a breath and roared in his face, spittle flying from her gums. Her vision was tinged red, and she raised her paw to strike him like he’d struck her—

Suddenly, the present left her. She was six years old and her parents were about to watch a movie. The Wizard of Oz, the television screen read. Bennett was there, barging into the living room. He grabbed Anita by the arm and tried dragging her out of the house, but her dad grabbed her too. Something in her was scratching its way out, and she had no way to stop it. It got the better of her and jumped out, then—

Anita gasped and wrenched her body back away from the police officer. The wolf whined in disgruntled surprise and immediately tried to resume control. She stumbled away, breathing heavily, trying to fight the desire to tear something’s throat out.

“No!” Bennett shouted suddenly.

A shot went off, and two bodies hit the ground as screams went up all around them. Anita turned, her werewolf eyes allowing her to easily see what was happening in the night air. Bennett was on top of the officer, wrestling the man’s gun out of his hands. He punched the man hard, and the officer went still. Bennett thrust the gun into his jeans and got up, approaching Anita slowly.

She growled instinctively, but he reached up and grabbed her muzzle, baring his human teeth at her. The wolf struggled for a moment, then met Bennett’s eyes and started to calm down. The transformation released her, and she was human again in moments.

“Come on,” Bennett said. He grabbed her arm and began shoving his way through the still panicking though severely diminished crowd. Anita was too dizzy and drained from her recent transformation to do anything but clutch her torn clothes and run.

A few blocks later they spun around a corner and into the doorway of an abandoned hotel. Together they crouched in their hiding place, trying to catch their breath.

“You were going to kill that man,” Bennett said after a moment.

Anita flinched, and shame burned a hole in her chest. She put her head down and wrapped her arms around her knees. She felt a jacket settle around her shoulders and a hand press lightly on her arm.

“You were going to kill him, but you didn’t,” he amended. “You stopped yourself.”

“Barely,” she gasped, heaving sobs shaking her body. “I…I remembered that n-night, I remembered…I-I remember the g-goddamn movie…,” she cried. “I remember w-wanting to kill my f-family, just like I wanted to k-kill that officer.”

“You didn’t want to kill that man,” he said, “the wolf did.”

“What’s the difference?” she snapped, raising her head to glare tearfully at him.

“It’s all the difference in the world,” he replied firmly. “That’s what the humans don’t understand about us. Control isn’t about choosing the human over the wolf. It’s about accepting both, about finding the balance between them.”

“But it’s a monster,” she countered, shaking her head. “I’m a monster.”

“We’re all capable of being monsters,” he declared, eyes flashing. “Even the humans. Especially the humans. The wolf isn’t a monster, Anita. It’s just a wolf.”

She looked up at him.

He watched her steadily. “And I can help you to control it. You don’t need to be scared of it anymore.”

Anita closed her eyes and pursed her lips. She thought of all the years she’d lived in fear. Fear of being killed, fear of killing, fear of the monster that lived inside her. Fear was no way to live, and she was more terrified now than she ever had been. And it seemed the only solution was the brusque man that was sitting before her. She could either stay in the city downing wolfsbane till she died or the government took her, or she could leave with Bennett and have a chance at finally controlling the wolf. And if there was any chance at all, even a slim one, didn’t she have to take it?

A memory came back to her, a long-forgotten dream of what it would be like to run wild and free. She wondered what it would be like to live without fear of others, without fear of herself. She dreamed of meeting other werewolves and forming a pack. She would be loved and accepted for who she was—wolf and all—but that dream had long since been discarded.

Except…

Bennett sighed in frustrated aggravation at her silence. “Dammit! I’m not good at this stuff, but I’m your fucking father, Anita, and I’m not going to let you keep living like this! I know you’re scared right now, but learning control is worth it. It’s the only way. Listen, we can stay in the city if you want, but it’ll be easier if we’re isolated. Less people to possibly hurt. We could live in the woods, or I can track down the pack that taught me, or—”

“Okay.”

He paused. “What?”

“Okay,” she repeated, looking up. She took a deep breath. “I’ll go with you.”

Bennett sagged with relief and his grin was back. “Good. We should—”

“I’ll go with you, but you’re not my father,” she said firmly. “My…my father was Keelan Doyle, not you.”

“That’s fine,” he replied, nodding. “But we are blood.”

She raised her chin, and he leaned forward, moonlight hitting the side of his pale face.

“We are pack.”

There was something about the way he said it that made her shiver. It sounded like something sacred.

Pack. The word entered her chest and settled heavily in her stomach, sending warmth throughout her body. It gave her a sense of grounding she’d never felt before. The wolf rose to its feet, and for the first time, she didn’t feel as if it were working against her. Anita sat up a little taller and looked Bennett straight in the eye.

She nodded. “We are pack.”

The wolf tipped its head back and howled.


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Sydney Culpepper self-published her first novel, Pagetown, as part of her high school senior project. She is a recent graduate of Western Oregon University and spends her days trying to balance her many passions and hobbies, including working on her next book. She' also does marvelous work as an editor for Not a Pipe Publishing and will be compiling the anthology of women's short stories due to hit shelves in December! 

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Beast" by Debby Dodds

During 2018, Not a Pipe Publishing has accepted Kamila Shamsie's challenge to only publish women for one year. Beyond the nine (nine!) novels we'll be publishing, we'd also like to promote even more women's voices, so we'll be publishing short fiction here. If you would like to submit, check out the information HERE.


Our main character is the guy you love to hate, the guy who's so confident and self-assured that you either want to be him or punch him. Dodds' skill in crafting a strong narrative voice is proven in the very first sentence, letting us know exactly who we're dealing with from the get-go. The story continues and is so compelling that, even when you want to roll your eyes at Dan, you can't look away until he finally gets what he deserves. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Beast

by Debby Dodds

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Washing mud out of my pubic hair had to be the worst part of this Renaissance Faire gig. But as mud-beggars, our fringe benefits rocked. We got a regular paycheck, but our contract with the Faire producers also allowed us to beseech money directly from the patrons. It was all part of setting the authentic “interactive improvisation” atmosphere, so that over-fed, under-educated, middle-American losers could feel like they’d “stepped back in time for a day to a day in 1589 in a small shire in Merry ‘ole England.”

   Usually after our four daily mud-shows, with titles like A Mud-summer’s Night Dream, The Duchess of Mudpies, and The Muddy Wives of Windsor, the three of us mud-beggars pulled in close to an extra $200 a day each from audience tips. Most of the other actors in the cast of the Ren Faire were jealous of us. Sometimes I wasn’t sure the extra money was really worth it. I think I’d have been happier playing a Pirate or Jester or a Lord of something. It was harder to flirt with the hot chicks when covered with mud. The royal fruity bastards who were part of the Queen’s Court had all the gorgeous babes falling all over themselves to snuggle close for pictures. Not me. I had to take lots of pictures with snotty little kids and smelly old people. By the end of the summer, I tried to avoid getting my face muddy as long as I could, so I could still woo the lady patrons who were worth wooing. Putting our faces in the mud always generated more tips, so my fellow mud-beggars made more green than I did those days. But there are more important things than money. Like sex. Besides, I’d saved up plenty of money.

   I didn’t live extravagantly over the summer like some actors did with their daytrips to Hershey Park to ride the roller coasters or midweek vacations to the shore to scarf the saltwater taffy. I always preferred riding women to riding machines and eating bearded clams to eating fried clams, anyway. Because of my smart choices, I’d saved enough to pay for my first few months’s rent in an apartment in New York City while I looked for a job. Not that I cared, but my cold bitch of a mom would have approved of my thriftiness that summer. Unlike my dad, who used to pay for every round at the local bar, I made sure to be scarce when any check came. My dad had too a big heart and where did that get him? Dead from a heart attack. I was pretty sure I inherited my lack of capacity for generosity and kindness from my mom. But I figured maybe I’d live a little longer because I was stingy like her.

   As the summer drew to a close, my biggest problem was that the apartment I was planning on moving to next week had disappeared. Well, it was not exactly gone, but the asshole that I was going to move in with took back his offer. Turns out this guy’s sister knew one of the actresses at the Faire that I got down and dirty with – this dancer chick with the ability to put her ankles behind her ears. We had a fun two weeks but then she couldn’t get over our break-up when her turn with me was up. Sorry, but it’s not in my nature to nurture. So she whined to her friend, who put the screws to her brother to dump me. So now I was shit out of luck with my housing situation. Great.    

   I looked over at the cheap fake monkey paw talisman lying on my dresser. The fortune teller at the Faire had given me as a thank you gift after I’d had an impromptu threesome with her and the lady who sold the turkey legs. She’d told me it would grant wishes. I wasn’t superstitious; I made my own luck. But what the hell, Why not? I grabbed it and wished that I’d find a roommate in New York City with a to-die-for apartment. Then I threw my little good luck charm into the duffle I’d been packing.

   I knew I wasn’t staying any longer than I had to in this crappy town of Lititz, Pennsylvania, even if it did boast having the first pretzel factory in America. I certainly wasn’t going back to boring Liverpool, in upstate New York where my mom lived and I’d attempted a few semesters at Syracuse University before deciding college was a dead end for losers. I’d been desperately scanning Craig’s List and other free rental sites for the Big Apple with no luck. I needed to find a place there. All professional actors should live in New York City if they’re serious about pursuing a career in show business. And I was. I was destined for bigger things, I could just feel it.

   I was going to be legendary.

   Just then, the most unexpected thing happened. My arch nemesis of all my castmates, Rebecca, sauntered into my room. All of us Ren Faire actors bunked together in a converted church that had been made into a dorm. I think my tiny room had once been a closet. Lots of people had bigger rooms, with two or three roommates. But I preferred being alone. Most people just irritated me with their stupid chatter. So I’d jumped on this small but private space when rooms were chosen the first day.

   Rebecca was the one girl in the company who took every opportunity, at every turn this summer, to bust my game. The quintessential cock-blocker. She’d gossiped to other girls about my private nighttime maneuvers, dissuaded girls from hanging out with me, and made snide remarks about my lame abilities in the sack. That last thing had really burned me. Say what you wanted to about my fickleness, I was well-equipped and possessed a talented tongue. I’m not bragging, either. Lots of wenches had told me I was their best. I prided myself on never being a selfish lover. Girls always got their “cookies” first with me, and I often gave them multiples to enjoy during one of our sessions before I even had my first. So was it my fault if there were chicks who just assumed they were so awesome they’d make me want to hang around? Nope. Sorry, not sorry. It was hubris on their parts, I guess.  Fidelity wasn’t in my makeup. I never made any promises so I never had any obligations. That’s the way I rolled, no commitments.

   But that didn’t mean I didn’t have goals, things I desired to possess, objectives I wanted to achieve. Like many seemingly unobtainable things, Rebecca intrigued me. Truth be told, her being a harpy, pain-in-the-ass bitch just made me lust for her all the more. I’d always liked gingers, too. Especially when the carpet matched the drapes. And now here she was, standing so close to my bed she could reach out and touch it.

   “What’s up Dan?” She leaned against my dresser and watched me as I zipped up my Pittsburgh Pirates duffle bag. I decided to play it cool, so I turned then kept my back to her and rolled up my jeans to pack, waiting for a few beats before answering.

   “Not much, what’s your deal?” I sat on my bed and looked her up and down. Maybe she’d been fighting an attraction to me all summer and that’s why she’d been such a raging shrew. Maybe the whole thing about her warning other girls off of me was because she wanted me all to herself. I wondered if I should tell her, “Fear not, there’s enough of the Dan-Man to go around.” Probably she’d finally realized it was her last chance, so she was making her play for me. Her eyes looked hungry.

   “I heard from Quentin that your plans for a place in New York fell through.” She ran her finger up and down her neck.

   Quentin was probably gloating to everyone who’d listen to his sorry ass. I wanted to tell him, Well, have at it, you cuckolded bastard. I know you found out I got a great hummer from your girlfriend Sara a couple of weeks ago in the church vestibule and that’s why you’re so pissed off. Idiot. But my attention could never stay on men like Quentin when I had a hot firecracker like Rebecca standing right in front of me. Her ice blue eyes twinkled. I’d never noticed how piercing they were.

   “Yeah, well. Something will come up for me. It always does.” I subtly drew my eyes down to my own crotch, hoping she’d get my powerful subliminal body language.

   “Well, my roommate Carine is out of town for the next six weeks and I was looking for someone to sublet her room…” She bit her juicy lower lip. Score another for the master.

   “Now, that sounds like an offer I can’t refuse,” I smiled.

   “I was hoping you’d say that,” Rebecca grinned. She rarely did that. It made her even more beautiful. Softened her somehow. Maybe it drew attention away from her angular chin and her nose that was just a bit too large. “My place is on the Upper West Side. Our roost is way up on the top floor, the twenty-ninth, so you can see the park from the balcony.”

   I could see where that might appeal to some people but I wasn’t so crazy about heights. Not that I was going to share that phobia with Rebecca. I didn’t want her to think anything about me was chickenshit in any way. So I just nodded.

   “Does the building have a weight room?” I asked. “Not that it’s a deal-breaker but I do like to keep myself in shape…”

   “Yes, I can see that,” she pursed her lips slightly. “It does. And the building also has a game room. If you like games…I love them.”

   “Oh, I like games,” I smiled back, enjoying her innuendo. Often, having a bad relationship with someone at first, made the sex that much hotter later. I was starting to really look forward to this.

   “Great. I’m taking the train back tomorrow to get the place ready, to tie things up and stuff. Why don’t you hang out here for an extra day? I’ll see you there on Tuesday.”

   “Sure,” I said. I had nothing to keep me here but the Faire producers had announced we could stay here for a few days if we needed to. And I figured Rebecca needed to get herself ready. Maybe get a waxing, or something.

   I doubted I’d be hanging around as long as she’d want me to, rooming with her for the whole six weeks. Banging the same chick for that long would get old no matter how good she was in the sack. I mean, there were only so many positions, right? But I knew having a place in the city while I searched for an apartment for the winter would make everything much easier.

   The next day I wasted time drinking in a local hole in the wall, and whacked off twice thinking about Rebecca. Tuesday, I took a morning train out of downtown Lancaster to NY Penn Station. It was easy to find Rebecca’s building and since she’d given me a key and there was no doorman, I just made my way up to the twenty-ninth floor.

   Even I, with my particularly kinky imagination, couldn’t have begun to picture what awaited me inside. The living room was ordinary looking enough. In fact, it was so bland and impersonal, it looked like it had been ripped from the pages of an Ikea magazine. But I saw right away that the door to the bedroom in the back was slightly cracked. I also noticed that the apartment seemed only to be a one-bedroom versus the two-bedroom she’d claimed it was. Oh, Rebecca, you must have wanted me so bad you resorted to a lie. I chuckled a bit to myself. Well, I wasn’t about to disappoint her. It was nice to see there’d be no wasting time with some silly flirting and courting ritual. We’d just get right down to doing the nasty. Making the beast with two backs. That was just how I liked it.

   “Anybody there?” I called out. From somewhere, music softly played. “Free Bird” by Lynyrd Skynyrd. I was more of a Flo-rida and Pitbull fan myself, but I’d mash uglies to Celine Dion singing in the background if that’s what a bad kitty wanted.

   “Why don’t you come in here?” I heard from the bedroom. I was happy to oblige.

   When I opened the door, I felt like I’d stepped back in time. This room felt pre-Renaissance, more like the Middle Ages. There were whips, handcuffs, feathers, candelabras, and various potion bottles full of God-knows-what jewel-hued liquids. The walls of the room seemed to be covered in ancient tapestries. In the center was a large bed with full canopy and ornate gold metal head and footboards. Through the translucent curtains, I could see what I assumed was Rebecca’s bare form.

   “Wow, you are one sexy creature,” I said parting the curtains. Rebecca was wearing a black Merry-Widow, her red hair cascading down her shoulders. She didn’t even look like the same uptight bitch from the Ren Faire who, when not in costume, always wore loose clothes and a tightly drawn pony-tail or bun. Her body was sinewy, and though she was a bit flat-chested, and she had a tight ass complimented by long legs and a short trim torso.

   “Close the door, take off your clothes and lie down,” she ordered and stood up. Her eyes glinted as she nodded to the handcuffs and ankle cuffs attached to the top and bottom of the bed.

   While I’ve always enjoyed a bit of light S&M, I’ve always been the Dom. I wasn’t sure how I’d like being the Sub. But because I was Rebecca’s guest, I figured it was only polite to try this out. Besides, at that moment, I was as hard and pointy as the fake spear she had propped in the corner so I wasn’t about to risk her getting ticked off at me.      

   “Sure, whatever you want.” I shucked off my clothes as quickly as I could and tried not to gloat when I noticed her taking in the magnificent view that was me. I positioned myself with my hands and feet spread and heard her click the handcuffs above my head and then watched her secure my ankle cuffs.

   Then she did something odd. She laughed.

   For a split second, I wondered if she knew what a boner-shrinker her laugh was. But then I didn’t have time to wonder anything anymore. I was too busy screaming at the horror I was witnessing: Rebecca was sprouting wings and claws.

   Her face stayed the same but her body was turning into that of a monstrous bird. A giant vulture. Her laugh became a shrill cackle. She perched over me clearly enjoying my reaction. Then I stopped screaming and almost swallowed my own tongue when my mind finally processed what was happening.

   She was a Siren. This was no sexy Disney-fied pretty fish lady. Not a mermaid. An authentic Siren. This was the real deal. Half-bird, half-woman. And very dangerous.

   The bedroom contained an entity not from the European Renaissance or from the Middle Ages but from the Greek Dark Age. I’d read tons of Greek mythology when I was younger ‘cause I loved all the stories of the gods getting it on with each other and tricking unsuspecting mortals into sex. Zeus was a role model, my idol. But with all my fantasizing, I’d just never expected to actually be in one of the stories.

   “Go ahead, tell me to ‘eat you,’” she taunted. “Or to ‘swallow you whole,’ or to ‘suck it down like a good girl.’”

   “No, please, no, just let me go…” I whimpered and then I felt the warmth spread. How could I have…? I was so NOT turned on anymore. She still had her face but she had a freakin’ bird body! Then I realized, I’d just peed myself.

   “We Sirens are still around because men like you give us reason to be. So, I guess I should be thanking you.” Her lips stretched into a too-wide grimace covering most of her lower face. “So many monsters, hybrids, and even full gods have faded because they’re irrelevant; nobody feeds energy into their purpose for being. But not us. Sirens are still going as strong as ever.” For a split second she seemed to be sad, I thought I had a chance, that maybe she was going to let me go with a harsh warning. “I do especially miss the Kraken. But with no gods to require vengeance for perceived disrespect, no need exists for a Kraken.’ She scratched at the bed with her claws, shredding the sheets. “But it seems there are still many women who long for reprisal against a certain type of man.” Then her face started to elongate, her nose and capacious mouth forming a beak. A beak that hovered over my liver, teasingly, before plunging into me.

   Every morning I wake, alive again and whole, but still chained to this bed. And every evening, she comes again to rip me apart. I’ve been here so long that I’ve lost track of time.

   It’s the first long-term relationship I’ve ever had.

   And just as I suspected, it sucks.


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Debby Dodds is the author of the novel Amish Guys Don't Call (Blue Moon, June 2017) which was awarded “One of the Best YA of 2017” by Powell’s Books. She has stories in ten anthologies, including the NY Times best-selling My Little Red Book (Hachette) and The Things That You Would Have Said (Penguin) as well as: The Sun, Salon.com, xoJane, The Living Dead Magazine, Portland Family Magazine, Manifest-Station.com, and Hip Mama, and she won Portland’s Wizard World 2017 Fiction Contest. She used to be known for her screams in horror movies and her "melting routine" onstage at Disney World.