#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.


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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

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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.


Sydney Culpepper 2.jpg

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.


Debby-Dodds-author.jpg

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.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Wizards Can't Go Home" by Karen Eisenbrey

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.


Fans of Daughter of Magic, rejoice! "Wizards Can't Go Home," like Eisenbrey's other short story "Crane's Fire," takes another step into the past--this time, showing us how Stell and Old Crane first met. The story provides a deeper backstory for one of the most pivotal historical moments of the book and also shows us the beginning of a beautiful love story. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Wizards Can't Go Home

by Karen Eisenbrey

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“Wizards can’t go home.”

When Master Ordahn spoke those words, his apprentice thought he meant home would feel too tame, or the wizard would be too changed for home to seem like home anymore.

He didn’t know it meant home would cease to exist.

The young wizard glanced at the dripping sky, then pulled his hood forward and sank onto a fallen log with a dejected sigh. “Now what?”

He called himself The Crane, a name he’d given himself as a boy—the last of many. He didn’t remember what his mother called him. Both his parents had died when he was very small. They had died here. He wasn’t sure he could even find their graves.

It had been easy to find the swamp. Its tall poplars towered over the mostly treeless prairie, marking the spot where the river overflowed its low banks and spread out into the dry land. No cranes were visible, but ducks paddled in the swamp’s meandering channels. If they heard the wizard’s question, they didn’t answer. He shivered. Winter was mostly past, but it would be weeks before spring brought any warmth. For now, all it brought was damp. The poplars didn’t offer much shelter, and the shack was gone. Only the chimney remained to mark the place where it once stood.

The Crane roused himself and stood. He picked his way across the little island. His wizard’s staff helped him avoid mud holes and vault across the wider channels. When he was a boy, mud and water had been his chief playthings. He spent many happy hours damming and diverting small streams until they dried up in summer’s heat. At this time of year, the channels were full, and the ground saturated. He wasn’t inclined to play.

He crossed the last channel and searched the high ground to the west until he found the graves. The markers had sunk almost out of sight, and tall, dead grass lay over them. There were still only two graves; his uncle did not lie here with his parents.

The Crane’s Uncle Soorhi was all the family he’d ever known, the shack in this swamp his only home. Now both were gone. Weariness and melancholy oppressed the young man. He’d been called the greatest wizard of his generation, but he felt like a lost little boy. He’d come here with no plan other than to return home and start again.

The Crane had left home fourteen years before, a ten-year-old apprentice to Master Ordahn, an itinerant wizard who found their hidden shack. Soorhi had known Ordahn years before and trusted him to take the boy to a better life. He fulfilled that promise. The Crane learned magic and saw more of the world than he ever dreamed existed. It was a hard life, but better. He had power and the skill to use it, along with a reputation for good works. He’d been on his own for six years now, and he could count on a welcome anywhere he went. His name was as good as a pocketful of coins.

He’d made that name with dramatic feats of magic—extinguishing burning houses or barns, healing when all hope was lost. Sometimes he even had visions of the future. But fame and power alone soon grew empty. Cheers and praise energized him, but they didn’t last. He traveled alone, worked alone, slept alone.

He wanted to change that, but he didn’t know how. The Crane’s isolated upbringing hadn’t prepared him for the world of men and women. He could do great things, but he was lost when he had to talk to someone other than Master Ordahn. He wanted a new beginning, and the place to make it seemed obvious: the house where he was born. He wanted to hear Soorhi’s voice again, and ask him more about his mother’s people, the Mountain Folk. He had traveled for days with mounting anticipation, only to discover there was no answer there. No house. No uncle.

It wouldn’t do to stay. Daylight was fading, and if anything, the rain was coming down harder. He knew of a village nearby, a place called Deep River. He’d never been there. He didn’t understand why, but his uncle had insisted that no one should know about them—something to do with a promise Soorhi had made The Crane’s father before he died. Only one person from Deep River knew about them, a healer called Elika, and she kept their secret.

This village was the most likely place to find a meal and a bed for the night. That would require going among people, but maybe that was the way to start his new life. He would present himself as only a hungry traveler, nothing more. He didn’t have to stay longer than one night.

He could have transformed and flown there in next to no time, if he weren’t already exhausted. As it was, it would be hard enough to walk. He wiped the rain and tears from his face, stood up straight, and took one step, then another. He followed the river upstream through open grassland and brush. With the heavy cloud cover, dark came early, but he listened to the river’s voice and used his staff to keep from falling in. By the time he reached the village, the rain poured down. But a delicious aroma drew him onward to the inn, a place called The Blue Heron.

He grasped the door handle, then drew back as if burned. The vision was brief, but certain—he would die in this house.

Better to die with a full stomach than to starve out here in the rain. He opened the door.

 

* * *

 

Stell persuaded her father to take one more spoonful of broth before he lapsed into the stupor that passed for sleep. He was propped upright to allow even that rest. He’d been in poor health for years, short of breath and tired, but this was the worst she’d seen. He hadn’t left his bed for almost a week. Elika said his heart was failing. She’d done everything she knew, but admitted the man would probably die soon.

Please, not yet, Stell thought. I’m not ready to be alone.

“Good night, Papa.” She kissed his forehead and left the room. She still had an inn to run. She forced a smile onto her face. There was a good crowd on this wet night, all locals. That was a relief; in her father’s absence, Stell felt safer around people she knew.

She served mugs of ale and plates of stew to her guests, smiling and making small talk while her heart ached. Papa wasn’t an old man; he couldn’t die and leave her alone. If only he’d let her marry. There would at least be some solace in a family of her own. But he’d insisted she wait until she was eighteen, and now he was too sick to think about it. Meanwhile, all her friends were getting married, some to men Stell would have considered if Papa had let her. Soon there’d be no one left. Then she’d really be alone.

She shook her head and smiled without much humor. Here she was, in a room full of men, thinking about being alone. But it wasn’t the same. She wanted—something. She was waiting for—something. Someone.

Stell gathered a stack of dirty dishes. As she made her way to the kitchen, the front door opened and someone took a hesitant step inside. She didn’t need to see his face to know him for a stranger—he was at least a head taller than anyone she knew. He leaned on a walking stick, and his long cloak dripped onto the floor.

“Welcome to the Blue Heron,” she said. “Come in out of the wet.”

The stranger pushed back his hood to reveal a dark face topped with curly black hair. His chin bristled with a few days’ growth of beard. Stell caught herself staring, and glanced away. He was young, and handsome, with the most beautiful dark blue eyes she had ever seen.

“Thank you. Might a poor traveler find shelter here?” The stranger’s voice, though quiet, rang like a deep-toned bell. Stell felt it as much as heard it.

“Shelter, hot food, and a warm bed,” she promised.

“I haven’t much money.”

“I’m sure it will be enough. You’re soaked—hang your cloak on that peg, and then sit anywhere there’s space. I’ll bring you a dish of stew.”

He glanced around the room. “You—have your hands full. Are you sure it’s no trouble?”

“I have more work since Papa’s been sick,” she allowed. “But it’s our business, so no trouble at all.”

“Your father’s ill?”

“It’s not catching, if that worries you.”

She hurried away to the kitchen before he could answer, and set the plates in the dishpan. Her heart pounded. A stranger should have worried her, but this one didn’t. He was so—beautiful. His voice thrilled her, and his shyness made her want to draw him out. She hoped there’d be a moment to talk more before time for stories.

 

* * *

 

The Crane hung up his dripping cloak and stared after the girl. He’d seen a lot of girls, but he rarely got to talk to them. When he did, he never knew what to say. It helped to have some kind of business to discuss. And, though she was pretty, with her honey-gold curls and large, gentle eyes, somehow she wasn’t as intimidating as most of them. Her kindness seemed genuine. He wanted to earn it. But that was his old habit. He wasn’t here to do great deeds. But if she didn’t know—

He did a quick survey. A number of men ate and drank around two large common tables, as well as few smaller tables under the front windows. On the other side of this common room, a steep open stair led to a narrow gallery. The doors from this gallery must lead into the guest rooms. The Crane doubted he could afford a whole room, but perhaps he could sleep down here, or in the stable; anywhere out of the rain.

But the girl had glanced at a downstairs door when she spoke of her father, and even if she hadn’t, any wizard worth the name could sense illness. While she was in the kitchen, he crossed the room. It was no trouble to deflect the attention of the other guests. They would never notice a stranger entering the innkeeper’s bedroom. He went in and closed the door behind him. A man lay propped up, his breathing labored. He slept, but not restfully.

The Crane considered. A healing of this magnitude required a lot of power, and he was tired and hungry. But if he wanted to do it in secret, he had to do it now. The girl had promised food and bed. He could recover his strength soon enough.

“Good evening, sir,” the wizard whispered.

The man stirred a little, but it was impossible to tell whether he woke or slept. The Crane laid both hands on the sick man’s chest and intoned a spell to strengthen his heart and lungs. The damage was great, but he might gain a few years—enough to let his daughter start her own family. Power flowed out of The Crane. He sank to his knees with fatigue, but finished the spell. The man breathed easier and slept more comfortably. The wizard smiled. Now he was really exhausted, but happier than he’d been in years. He tiptoed out of the room and closed the door behind him. No one glanced his way, but not because of his spell. All the guests focused on the girl, who sat by the fire, telling stories. The Crane leaned his staff against the wall next to the stairs and sat on the bottom step. Her voice worked on him like a spell.

 

* * *

 

Stell dished up stew for the stranger. When she returned to the common room, he was nowhere in sight. The door opened again and her heart soared, but it was only Briato.

He grinned and glanced at the dish in her hands. “Is that for me?”

“What? Oh, yes, of course. There’s a seat over there, by Yshna.”

Stell hid her disappointment and set the plate in front of Briato. Not so long ago, she had hoped Briato might court her, but now he was betrothed to Keena. Yshna had seemed interested, too, but lately, he’d been walking out with Sullea every evening.

Now that everyone had been fed, she had one more duty to perform. Even as a child, Stell had spent nearly every evening telling stories by the fire. The old tales came alive, and she spun new ones almost as easily as breathing. Nobody left early who didn’t have to.

She ended with an old favorite, about a wizard and a dragon, then began cleaning up while her guests headed for home.

“Good night, Stell. Hope your father’s better soon,” Briato called.

“Thank you. I’ll tell him.”

As the room emptied, she turned toward the stairs and nearly dropped a stack of plates. The stranger sat there, gazing at her with his strange, beautiful eyes.

“How—how long were you listening there?”

“Long enough. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard a tale so well told. So—you said something about hot food?”

“Come into the kitchen and keep me company while I wash up.”

She seated him at the kitchen table and gave him a dish of stew. It was gone almost instantly; she refilled it without being asked. “So, where did you come from?”

He chewed and swallowed a mouthful. “I’m—not sure.”

She laughed. “I didn’t realize it was a difficult question! Home is so hard to remember?”

He looked down at his plate. “No, but I don’t really have a permanent home. I see so many places, it’s hard to keep track.” He furrowed his brow. “I was in a place called West Bay recently.”

“Where’s that?”

“On the coast.”

She stared at him. “You’ve seen the ocean? What was it like?”

“Cold, wet, and salty. And gray as far as you can see.”

“The maps show it blue.”

He chuckled. “Maybe in summer. I’ve only seen it in winter.”

“I don’t think you came straight here from there.”

“No, but there are so many little villages out here that I can’t keep track of them.”

“Do you know Bitter Springs?”

He shrugged and shook his head.

“I only ask because I’ve been there for the dances, and once I went to Oxbow with Papa to pick up the mail. What do you do in all these little villages?”

He hesitated. “Lots of things. Whatever needs doing.”

“That must be useful, having a lot of skills. Now, me, I pretty much stay in this one place and do this one thing.” She looked around the kitchen.

“I’d say you do a lot more than one thing,” the stranger said. “You cook, you tell stories, you keep a tidy house, you look after your father—”

Stell blushed and returned to the dishpan. “I guess. I can’t imagine it seems very exciting to someone like you. You’ve probably seen all kinds of things. Magic, even.”

“Do you—get many magic folk through here?”

“No. Deep River isn’t on the way to anywhere important. We had a wizard living here once, but that was before my time. We have a healer, though—Elika.” The stranger dropped his spoon with a clatter. Stell smiled at his empty plate and refilled it once again. “She’s my friend’s mother, so she’s kind of a mother to me, too, especially after Mama passed.”

“I’m sorry. I—lost my parents, too.”

“That’s a shame. Recently?”

“No. A long time ago. My uncle brought me up. He’s gone now, too, but he made sure I knew something of where I came from.”

“I’m glad to hear that. Family is important.” She swallowed hard and glanced toward her father’s door.

The stranger smiled. It was a sad smile, filled with poignant sweetness. “I’m sure he’ll be all right soon. He’ll want to find you a good husband.”

She laughed about that and shook her head. “I don’t think he wants to let me go. So, have you met a lot of magic folk in your travels? Greater than healers, I’ll bet.”

“Healers do important work,” he said. “I was in a town once where a single wizard healed an entire family that was down with a dangerous fever, all at once. And in another place, I saw a man extinguish a blazing barn with just a word.” He smiled a little and shook his head as if he couldn’t believe he’d seen such wonders.

Stell sighed. “I wish I got to see things like that.”

The stranger looked up and met her gaze for a long moment. He blinked and looked away. “Thank you for supper; it was just what I needed. What do I owe you?”

“Five duleens for the supper, but you can pay in the morning; for one dul you’ll get a room and breakfast, too.”

“No, I really should be going.” He fumbled with his moneybag.

She grabbed his hand. “If you don’t know where you came from, I can’t believe you know where you’re going.”

“I’m—going to the mountains. To find my mother’s people.”

“Still, you must be exhausted. You don’t want to go back out on a night like this.”

“But—”

“Bring that lamp; I’ll show you your room.” She had no other guests that night. She filled a water jug and led him upstairs to the best room. “Set the lamp on the mantle. I think you’ll appreciate the fire tonight—even I don’t have one, just the back of the oven to warm my room.”

He stared open-mouthed at the big bedstead with its featherbed and quilts; at the comfortable armchair; at the hearth with firewood already laid. “No, I’m sorry, I can’t afford this. I’m not sure I have money enough for even a pallet on the floor.”

She gave him a stern look that silenced him, though he towered over her. “I want you to have it. If you can’t pay, you can work. There’s always plenty to do.”

“Thank you. It’s a beautiful room. I’m not sure I’ve ever had nicer.”

She smiled and turned to fill the basin in the corner between the windows. “I’m sure you’ll want to clean up after your travels.” After a moment, he joined her and looked out, though it was too dark to see anything. “If it’s clear tomorrow, you’ll have a nice view of the Mountain,” she said. “Now I’ll just light the—” She turned and stared at the cheerful blaze already crackling in the hearth. “I suppose someone who travels as much as you do would know how to light his own fire. I’ll bid you good night, then.”

He turned from the window. “Please don’t go yet.”

She heard in his deep, ringing voice an ache of loneliness that almost brought her to tears. He didn’t know where he came from or where he was going, and it seemed he had no one. He was lost.

“I can stay awhile. What’s your name? I don’t know what to call you.”

“Some call me The Crane. That will do.”

The name sounded familiar, but she couldn’t place it. It was like a name in a story, for a dashing highwayman or masked hero. She held out her hand. “Glad to meet you. I’m Stell.”

He took her hand and she felt tingly all over. On impulse, she reached her other hand behind his head, drew it down to her level, and kissed him. He wrapped his arms around her and held her close while they kissed. Her heart thundered and she felt warm inside. This was what she wanted—who she was waiting for.

She fell onto the bed and drew him down with her. She opened herself to him, and then there was no turning back. The pain was shocking, but short-lived; the pleasure almost equally so. She tried not to cry out. She wanted to say, “Stay with me,” or else, “Take me with you.” But she didn’t get to say anything.

 

* * *

 

The Crane had never been with a woman. When he asked Stell not to go, it was only to avoid being alone a little longer. But when she took his hand and kissed him, his desire for her was sudden and surprising. And personal. He hadn’t done anything impressive to earn her kindness or regard. She was friendly and caring to the man, not the wizard. In return, he longed to give her all the pent-up love in his heart.

She fell onto the bed, and he landed on top of her. He didn’t know what he was doing, but his body seemed to. She didn’t resist; perhaps she was too surprised. His first thrust brought unspeakable pleasure. She cried out a little, then bit her lip. He felt a moment of horror at what he’d done. But it was too late—it was over. Tears leaked from her eyes, and he expected her to call for help. He kissed her to keep her silent while he laid a sleep charm on her. She wouldn’t wake till morning.

He sat in the armchair with his head in his hands. The first person to show him unearned hospitality, and how did he thank her? But they had been getting along well. Maybe he could stay the night, talk to her in the morning, try to make things right. Or make his escape now while he had the chance. Her father would be well enough in the morning to kill him. Was that what the vision meant?

Best to get away under cover of darkness. And leave no evidence of his visit. He emptied the basin out the window and set it back on its stand. He knew a spell to remove the spots of blood from her dress and the quilt. He couldn’t make her a virgin again, but he could relieve the pain. If she woke in her own room, she might think it had all been a dream. A nightmare, perhaps, but what a relief to wake.

He extinguished the lamp and fire, then slung Stell over his shoulder and carried her carefully down the stairs. He stopped long enough to collect his staff, then took her into her room and laid her on the bed. He bolted the door so she’d believe she’d been alone all night. He could leave by the window. He didn’t dare undress her, but drew the quilt over her and kissed her once more; he couldn’t resist. And had another vision. Something had started that was not his to stop.

The Crane opened the window and climbed up onto the sill. The rain had let up. He didn’t have his cloak, but it was probably wet and clammy, anyway. He gripped his staff, dropped to the ground, and pushed the window closed. Then he changed into an owl, and flew away.

 

* * *

 

Stell woke refreshed from a dream so vivid and delightful that she could hardly believe she was in her own bed, alone. She sighed happily. Even if it was only a dream, now she knew how it felt to be in love. The dream didn’t scatter the way dreams usually did; she could still feel the warmth and thrill of her lover’s embrace. But not the pain. That was gone, so it couldn’t have been real.

She was still in her clothes, but that wasn’t so unusual. She often dropped into bed fully dressed after a long night. She got out of bed and tapped on Papa’s door. She didn’t expect an answer, but it wasn’t polite to just walk in unannounced.

“Give me a moment to finish dressing,” he called. He sounded alert and strong.

“Papa? Are you well?”

He opened the door and grinned at her. “Better than I’ve been in years. Elika finally hit on the right cure.”

Stell threw her arms around her father and wept for joy. “I thought you were dying.”

He chuckled and stroked her hair. “Not until I’ve found you a good husband.” She laughed with him, though she wasn’t as interested in a husband as she had been the day before. At least, not in a Deep River fellow. “Now, run along to the kitchen. When I get back from the privy, I’m going to want enough breakfast for three!”

Walking to the kitchen felt like flying. It was a miracle! Elika didn’t give herself enough credit. She—

A worn traveling cloak hung by the door. Stell felt it; it was still damp from the night’s downpour. A stranger really had walked in out of the rain. He'd sat in her kitchen and talked half the night. Even if their encounter in the best room was only a dream, perhaps the love she felt was real. She hurried upstairs to find out.

She tapped at the door and got no answer, so she opened it and peeped in. The room was empty. The bed had not been slept in, the basin was empty, the hearth cold. Disappointed, she returned to the kitchen, where her father waited for his breakfast.

“It looks like you managed without me,” he said.

“Everybody missed you, though. Briato wished you well.”

“I didn’t expect our local boys to give you any trouble, but I have to admit I wasn’t easy about you serving strangers on your own.”

She smiled. “We didn’t see many. There was a traveler last night, but he didn’t stay.”

“Is that who left that mangy old cloak?”

“I—think so. When it’s dry, I’ll put it away, in case he comes back for it.”

“You think anyone would come back for that ragged thing? Throw it out.”

Stell nodded, but she’d already made up her mind. He might not come back for the old cloak. But he might come back for her.

 

* * *


 

The Crane rested in a stand of pine a little distance from Deep River. He wished to be farther away, but transformation required a great deal of power and physical strength. Better to rest before he was completely exhausted. It was a good thing he had eaten so much in Stell’s kitchen. He had no food with him, and wasn’t sure when or where he might find more.

His heart ached at the thought of Stell. He wanted to go back, to explain, to apologize, to make love to her the way she deserved—gently, tenderly, every night, forever. But no. That couldn’t be. If he went back, he would die in that house. It was all he deserved, but he wasn’t ready for that yet.

He couldn’t go back, and he couldn’t bring himself to go on. Even after his strength was restored, he paced among the pines and scrub oaks, restless and angry. He had made a foolish mistake, and for all his power, he couldn’t unmake it. Soon enough, Stell would know that something had happened—that it wasn’t only a dream. She would demand justice. If anyone came looking for him, they wouldn’t be likely to listen to explanations. They couldn’t make him go anywhere if he didn’t want to go, but he didn’t want a fight. He’d already hurt one person too many.

With luck, she would marry soon. She might not even realize the child wasn’t her husband’s. But The Crane felt sick with jealousy at the thought of another man holding Stell in his arms, sharing her bed and her life. It was the best outcome for everyone, but he couldn’t bring himself to wish it.

As he paced in the pre-dawn darkness, The Crane began to listen to the river, as if it could give him advice. Down in the village, it murmured; here, it shouted and sang. The sun rose in a sky scrubbed of clouds. The new light revealed a little waterfall where the river dropped down from the wooded hills into the rolling prairie below. A long ridge rose to the south of the river, then dropped away again to another broad valley. Past floods had worn a secondary channel into this other valley. The river surged and danced; even now, intermittent splashes fed that stream.

The Crane idly flicked a twig into the water. It shot over the falls, disappeared into the roil, then popped up and spun downstream. He flicked another. This lively, active river hardly seemed like the same stream that wandered lazily into the fetid swamp where he had spent his childhood. Where his mother had died of swamp fever.

He started his task without much plan, but as he worked, he became caught up in the details. It required little power to deepen and widen the secondary channel. He began shaping a dam from mud and branches and magic. The river backed up into a pool. Some water spilled into the new channel, some over and around the dam. The Crane widened the dam and built it higher. More water found the new channel, until the whole river had changed course. It flowed around the other side of the hill, far from its old channel. When summer came, the swamp would dry up—and stay that way.

Using magic cheered The Crane. And he began to see a way out of his difficulties. He couldn’t prevent Stell from remembering him. He wasn’t sure he wanted to. But he could prevent anyone else from wondering, or searching.

He began with a general, wide-spread enchantment. It would stop anyone in Deep River from wondering about the father of Stell’s child—who he was or where he’d gone. They would be disinclined to mount any kind of search—or leave the area at all. After some thought, he added a layer of magic to keep them from wondering why they couldn’t leave.

Stell could wonder, if she wanted to. She could even speak, though perhaps no one would listen. He’d done enough to her. But he could do something for her. Her father, though better, was not cured. He had maybe five years left. The Crane wove another strand into the enchantment, to keep strangers away from Deep River. She’d be safer with the locals who’d known her all her life. They would take care of her.

Then he strengthened the spell especially to keep wizards away. All but The Crane, of course. He might want to come back. The child was likely to inherit a share of his or her father’s power. No, his—he was nearly certain of that. The Crane didn’t like to think of Stell losing her son too soon to a wandering wizard. Maybe the child could have a normal life if he didn’t know of his gifts. Or maybe he would seek his father to oversee his training.

“I’ll send him clues, when the time is right,” The Crane decided. “If he wants to find me, I won’t hide from him. But if he hasn’t come looking by the time he’s eighteen, I’ll get out of his life. The enchantment will end, and he can do what he wants.”

The dam-building and spell-casting took all morning. The enchantment hung like a luminous net over Deep River and the surrounding countryside, invisible to all but magical eyes. The Crane rested, then caught a fish from the river for his lunch. He felt better, but knew one thing for certain—he would never have a place among other people. Wherever he ended up, he would have to keep them away. But under a new name. The Crane’s good reputation was safe. He would vanish, while a new wizard of evil renown would appear. He wouldn’t even have to do the deeds; it would be a simple matter to start a few rumors, sow a few nightmares, and let busy tongues do the rest.

He would go into the mountains, to his mother’s people. He’d always wanted to learn their ways. Perhaps they knew a place where he could be alone and do no harm. He would settle down at last. But it wouldn’t be a home. Wizards can’t go home.

THE END


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Karen Eisenbrey is the author of Daughter of Magic (Not a Pipe Publishing, 2018) and The Gospel According to St. Rage (Pankhearst, 2016). She lives in Seattle, WA, where she leads a quiet, orderly life and invents stories to make up for it. Although she intended to be a writer from an early age, until her mid-30s she had nothing to say. A little bit of free time and a vivid dream about a wizard changed all that. Karen writes fantasy and science fiction novels, as well as short fiction in a variety of genres and the occasional song or poem if it insists. She also sings in a church choir and plays drums in a garage band. She shares her life with her husband, two young adult sons, and two mature adult cats.

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#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "The Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek" by Elizabeth Beechwood

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.


This is an incredibly touching story. Told in a strong voice with a Southern twang, Beechwood effortlessly weaves magic and myth into the tale. The Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek is all at once grounded, breathtaking, and full of heart. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

The Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek

by Elizabeth Beechwood

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Every now and again, the men of Carbondale, when they got themselves all riled up and drunk, would declare that they was goin’ out and getting’ themselves a Painted Pony. They’d clamber up on their horses and shoot up the moon, and thunder off into the desert, nearly falling out of their saddles. In the morning they’d come crawling back with headaches and stories ‘bout seeing the sparks of silver hooves in the dark, and swearin’ they’d heard laughter and piano music echoing through the canyons. Once, Three-Toed Joe woke up in the middle of town with a hoof print on his forehead and no memories of the past three days as proof of such things.

On those mornings, Madame Pearl Wiley would stand on the balcony of her fine establishment on Main Street, on the opposite end of town from the First Church of Christ the Cowboy, and watch the men crawl off to their beds. She’d shake her head, then shake out the sheets, clean out the secrets and lies, and give her gals the afternoon off. She’d harness her fine bay filly to her fine black carriage and drive on out to her place—a five hundred acre spread that many a man had offered to marry her for. Pearl Wiley had no use for men, in general, discovering long ago that taking her own needs in hand was far cheaper than taking another husband. Her first and only husband, God rest his soul, had had the good sense to die quickly in a duel over something stupid. She, being the sole inheritor, had liquefied his assets and headed off toward the setting sun.

* * *

“Can you smell it, Bunny?” The words tore out of Clara’s throat like a cactus paddle. “Can you smell the water?”

Clara dug her elbow into the sandstone dust and wrenched around to find Bunny. But her little grey mare wasn’t there. She hadn’t been for three days now. Clara kept forgetting that.

      They were supposed to be going to California together. To be a gentleman rancher and his retired cowpony. There wasn’t much point in crawling any further without Bunny. But the desire to survive wasn’t letting go of Clara so easily. She hauled herself up the bluff with fingernails bleeding and skin scraping dirt and rock. Her clothes had shredded some time during the past two days but, luckily, the thick cotton bandages that bound her breasts were fairly intact. Clara figured it was only fitting that the fabric that hid her unfortunate sex would also provide some protection.

      The sun was dropping toward late afternoon. Soon night would bring some relief from the heat. But then the cold would come descending like a mountain lion. Clara groaned deep in her heart and pulled herself up to the edge of the bluff.

      What she saw surely could not exist.

      Perhaps she was delirious with thirst.

      Before her lay a long valley, appearing out of nowhere in the south and disappearing into buttes in the north. It was narrow, only an hour’s ride across on a good pony. But it wasn’t the valley itself that seemed unreal. Clara’d ridden through plenty of them in her ten years moving cattle. This valley had a stripe of green grass running down its middle, like the line down a burro’s back. There were even a few cottonwoods standing in a crooked line.

      “There’s a creek down there,” she told Bunny. She said ‘creek’ like her mama had taught her, back when she was little Clarabelle Cariveau, living in Boston. Not ‘crick’ like she’d come to say as Clark Smith. Mama’d be proud. Maybe. Her mother was a dream, a wish. Bunny, poor Bunny with buzzards tearing out her insides because Clara had thought they could outrun a damn sandstorm, was more real to her than her mother. She ran her arm across her forehead, swiping at sweat, flies, and memories.

      There was a nicker. Then a whinny. Then the mighty thunder of hooves shook the ground. Clara turned quick as her poor body could manage as the ponies came on her. No blacks or browns or greys among them—in skins of cobalt, orange, chartreuse, emerald, yellow, they pirouetted between rattlesnakes and gopher holes on gold and silver hooves. Their manes and tails flew like standards declaring freedom. They were as beautiful and tough as desert flowers and led by a stocky scarlet mare with bells jingling in her mane. And they were all running straight at Clara.

      Startled that her death would come so quickly after so much suffering, Clara rolled to her stomach, covered her head with her arms, and counted down how much longer she had … three … two … one …

But instead of trampling her, the lead mare dodged right at the last minute and the river of ponies flowed around her, leaping over the edge of the butte. After the last pony passed her by, she looked down into the valley where the ponies danced in the green grass.

Their story was told around every campfire from Alberta to Abilene. The details changed some, depending on the teller, but one fact remained unchanged—the Painted Ponies danced along Wiley Creek.

The lead mare broke away from the herd and stared up at Clara. Clara’s fingers twitched with the urge to grab a rope and lasso the mare, to climb onto her back and ride all the way to California. Or at least let the mare drag her to the creek hidden somewhere in the grass. The mare scratched at the ground with a silver hoof. She lowered her head and snorted. Clara heard the challenge as if the mare had spoken to her—Catch me if you can!

      “You’re a sly one,” Clara croaked. “Even if I did have my rope, you know I don’t have the strength to catch you.”

The lead mare tossed her head. Yes, she surely knew.

      Clara screamed, low and loud, as she hauled herself up and over, slid down, and tumbled to the valley floor. She crawled until her fingers sank into damp ground and her belly was stained green, until her short brown hair was slick with water. She sucked Wiley Creek down her throat.

The cold settled in and Clara’s teeth began to chatter.

Maybe the night would accomplish what the blazing day could not.

“Oh, fuck me,” Clara said as that last bit of struggling to survive whispered away. They were coarse last words, to be sure, but they seemed appropriate.

There was a rustle in the grasses. Too small to be a pony. A coyote or wolf then. Life was full of surprises.

Then a woman’s voice drawled, “What do you have, Poppy?”

A face appeared above Clara: silver hair, crystal blue eyes, skin impossibly white in this desert—maybe it had been darker once and the sun had bleached it like Bunny’s bones. She couldn’t figure the woman’s age. Old enough to be her sister? Mother? Grandmother?

The mare snorted. The woman looked Clara in the eye, looked clear down into her soul. “I guess I better get you back to the house.”

* * *

Clara stood in the yellowing grass of Wiley Creek. It had become her custom to watch for the painted ponies each evening, between supper and driving Pearl into town. She never witnessed their dancing and cavorting again, however.

Pearl called out from the barn, “It’s getting late.”

Clara turned away from the promise of ponies. She was disappointed and told Pearl so.

“They show up when they’re needed,” was Pearl’s answer. Clara didn’t know what that meant as the ponies seemed to serve no true purpose, but asking Pearl questions was useless. Pearl was an odd one and didn’t have a lot to say about anything.

Clara led Lulu, Pearl’s brown filly, out of the barn already hitched up to Pearl’s smart black rig. Pearl stepped aboard. Clara took up the reins. Lulu, with a jaunty little high step, brought them into Carbondale, to Pearl’s business enterprise, the Carbondale Grand Lodge and Saloon. Pearl took in desperate women and made money off of them. Clara didn’t understand how Pearl could render assistance in the form of shelter, food, and wages and yet profit from their whoring. But asking questions on this matter proved useless as well.

At midnight, Clara handed over the stable duties to Dimwit Jericho Stutts, the only male in Pearl’s employ. She went round to the back entrance, through the kitchen where Cookie always had a little something set aside for her, and headed into the saloon to buy herself a whiskey.

Gloria was at the piano, playing something rousing to promote drinking, gambling, and whoring. The saloon was full of cigar smoke, the smell of liquor, and men. Minnie appeared at the top of the stairs, adjusting her skirt. The wood creaked and complained as she eased her two-hundred-plus pounds down to the main room. A bold purple eye-patch covered her right eye and, as she descended, Minnie lifted the patch slightly and winked at Clara with her good right eye. “You gonna buy me a drink, Clark Smith?”

Clara saluted with her whiskey.

One of the miners playing poker leapt out his seat, shoutin’ that the fuckin’ Eye-talian across the table was a damn cheat. The piano notes spun off-kilter as Gloria ducked under her instrument. The suspected cheater pulled a gun and took a wild shot. There was a moment of thundering silence, then the crash of Minnie tumbling down the stairs, a trail of red in her wake.

All hell broke loose then, with the men fighting and blaming. Clara crawled toward Minnie while shots whizzed overhead. Then silence again as Pearl waded into the middle of the mayhem, shut down the place, and assured Sheriff Buckholzer that everything was fine, just fine, and she’d take care of everything. Sheriff Buckholzer hauled off the miners, probably to sleep it off in the jail and be released to go back to work in the morning.

Gloria returned to her piano, her fingers shaking. She closed the key cover.

“Get Lulu hitched up,” Pearl told Clara. “I’m taking Minnie to the ranch.”

“What the hell for? She’s dead,” Clara spit. Minnie’s head was cradled in her lap. Minnie had a little boy somewhere back East, a fine son who lived in a cottage by the sea. That’s what Minnie had claimed, anyway. Who was going to tell him his mama’d been shot over a damn card game? “You’re not going to do anything about this? You know those miners won’t spend one day in prison for killing her. Nobody gives a damn about a whore, ain’t that right? Not even you?”

“Get the rig,” was all Pearl said over her shoulder as she climbed the stairs.

Clara stomped and cussed her way back to the stables. Sure, her wages came from the whores, too. She was a damn hypocrite talking about the money they brought in and then taking it herself. But it just wasn’t right how Pearl was handling Minnie’s death. With a heavy heart and conflicted mind, Clara harnessed Lulu up and drove the rig around to the back door of the saloon. Cookie opened the door and Pearl hauled out a rolled-up carpet. It was surely too heavy for Pearl but there she was, hefting the bloated carpet into the back of the rig like Clara flung bales of hay over her shoulder.

Pearl stepped up next to Clara and looked clear down into her soul.

And Clara realized, like being kicked by a longhorn in the gut, that she wanted Pearl to see clear on down to Clarabelle.

They rode home in silence.

At the ranch, Pearl hefted the bundle and started walking.  Clara followed across the dirt yard, past the barn and garden, past the farmyard, down through yellowing grass and wet of Wiley Creek. They walked past one, two, three cottonwoods stripped of leaves.  Pearl nodded for Clara to stay put. She walked a bit further, then laid Minnie down and unrolled her carpet shroud. Tears gathered in Clara’s eyes. Minnie used to tease her, ‘How about a free ride, Clark?’. Clara would always laugh and toss back a whiskey because neither men nor women had ever much appealed to her and Minnie hadn’t cared about that one bit.

The sound of bells came gently from the East, just a sense of jingling at first, just a suggestion, then more and louder until there was no mistaking them. Clara turned and there they were –the Painted Ponies running, jumping, dancing across the desert, through the sage and bitterbrush. They came as if bidden by Pearl. But that thinking was wrong. It’s wasn’t Pearl that drew them.

The lead mare approached with don’t-mess-with-me steps, always wary, always suspicious, always protecting. She sniffed the fabric smudged with blood and the stained lace that lifted like worn daisy petals in the breeze. The scent of roses and carbolic acid rose up. The mare’s teeth chomped. Her ears flicked. She stomped her foot and the bells jangled.

The fabric jerked.

A low nicker—a foal’s call—then a hoof, golden and sharp, kicked out from under the dirty petticoat. The herd paced. There was a scrambling, then another foal-call to the lead mare, who offered up a mare-call. The fabric fell away as a plum-colored filly with a white spot around her right eye shook off fabric and lace, left boots behind, and struggled on her new thin legs. The filly staggered, tripped, kicked up her heels, twirled and rolled in the muck of the creek. The other ponies nuzzled and nosed her, committed her scent to memory. Then the lead mare guided the painted ponies back up the arroyo, never looking back at Pearl or Clara or the blood and stench of the brothels.

* * *

“Clark?” The male voice was coarse from trail dust and saloon smoke. “I’ll be damned, it is you.”

Clara pulled her persona tight as a corset and turned to face the old man in the livery doorway. She tried to remember how men talked to each other. The words. The tone. She had to dig deep to remember. “How the hell are ya, Franklin?”

“Good. Good.”

Franklin’s mule, Matilda, stood behind him staring blankly out to some unknown horizon. She did that sometimes. Clark always wondered what she was looking at but never did figure it out. Bunny had loved Matilda and the feeling had seemed mutual. Whenever Franklin joined them on the trail—Matilda hauling the supply wagon—Bunny’d prefer to be with the mule at the end of the day than with the other horses. They’d murmur to each other in the dark and sleep side by side.

For a moment, Clark felt the presence of the little grey mare. But she was gone, he reminded himself. The thought of seeing the blank space where Bunny shoulda been kept him from looking back. It still hurt. If only he hadn’t …

Franklin stroked his yellowing beard. “Heard you was goin’ west to California to breed horses or some such nonsense.”

“That’s the plan.”

“Not surprised. Sure, you always did have a way with the ponies. Looks like you didn’t get far.”

“Winter came on me.”

Franklin nodded and spit on the ground between them. It left a nasty blotch in the dirt. “Plenty warm enough now. Me and Matilda are going to Frisco. Got a cousin lives out there. He needs strong men to work the docks. We should travel together. Where’s your pony? Rabbit was it?”

      “Bunny.”

      “Yeah, that’s right. What grown man calls his pony Bunny?” He spit again.

      “She died.”

      “Ah, well, I’m sorry ‘bout that.” He removed his hat for a moment. There was a second of silence. The loss of a good trail horse, one that had served well, was always respected by the men even after they drove their horses to that death. It was strange. Franklin replaced his hat and handed over Matilda’s reins. “If you’re comin’ be ready in the morning. Be good to have an extra set of eyes looking out for danger. But for now,” Franklin made a show of winking. “A hot bath and a whore’ll fix me up right before that last push to the Pacific.”

      “I’ll think on it.”

Franklin walked off to the saloon, leaving Clark with Matilda and a decision to make.

Franklin was right, traveling together would be safer. But the thought of going west … it just didn’t set as well as it had under last summer’s sun. As he lead Matilda to an empty stall, the old mule laid her jaw over his shoulder and blew out a breath. Bunny’d always done the same. Then Matilda stumbled, caught herself, and plodded forward, never losing that blank stare. The poor mule would never see Frisco. She deserved to die in a thick bed of hay, not on the trail where she’d end up no better than Bunny. Clark’s mind turned the thoughts over. Franklin was shrewd when it came to taking advantage of a situation. He’d hold out until Clark offered enough to buy a sturdy trail horse to replace the old mule. Clark had a little money stashed away. Whore money. To buy the freedom of an old mule. He wondered what Minnie would think of it. And if he left in the morning with Franklin, he’d need a horse of his own. He added up the money he’d saved. It might work. Then he’d leave Matilda with Pearl. Surely she had enough room for one more. And head West to that dream he’d had since he was Clarabelle, following her daddy around the stables.

At midnight, Clark handed over the stable duties to Jericho and headed into the saloon for a word with Pearl. But when Clark got to Pearl’s office on the second floor, she was face down at her desk, columns of numbers crawling like ants beneath her cheek. At first, Clark thought she was asleep. One touch to her cheek proved Clark wrong.

At the ranch, Clara hefted the rolled up carpet that contained Pearl Wiley up onto her shoulder and walked across the dirt yard, past the barn and garden, through the new green grass and wet of Wiley Creek. She walked past one, two, three cottonwoods with hopeful budding leaves. She walked a bit further and laid Pearl down.

The sound of bells came gently from the East, just a sense of jingling at first, just a suggestion, then more and louder until there was no mistaking them. There was the unfurling of the carpet, the nickering and whinnying, the rustle of fabric. A silver filly, pale as the moon danced as lithe and strong as a prima ballerina. Then all the Painted Ponies looked clear on down into her soul.

And Clara realized that they could see clear on down to Clarabelle Cariveau.

“I guess I’ll be staying here.”       

The lead mare snorted and tossed her head, then spun and lead them all back up the arroyo, never looking back, the new silver filly glowing like moonlight.

As Clara turned to leave, a flash of white caught her attention. She leaned over the slow water of Wiley Creek. Pearl’s face gazed back at her, silver hair and clear eyes and skin as white as bones bleached by the sun. Bunny laid her jaw across Clara’s shoulder and blew out a breath.

“Ain’t life full of surprises?” Clara asked her little grey pony. “It’s kind of like raising up horses. Don’t you think?”

* * *

Every now and again, the teenaged boys of Carbondale, when they got themselves all riled up and drunk, would declare that they was goin’ out and getting’ themselves a Painted Pony. They’d clamber into jacked-up pickups and crank up the radio, and thunder off into the desert, nearly falling out of the truck beds.  In the morning they’d come crawling back with headaches and stories ‘bout seeing the sparks of silver hooves in the dark, and swearin’ they’d heard laughter and piano music echoing through the canyons. Once, Chad Bradley woke up in the middle of the football field with a hoof print on his forehead and no memories of the past three days as proof of such things.

On those mornings, Ms. Pearl Wiley would emerge from the office of her fine establishment on Main Street, on the opposite end of town from the First Church of Christ Our Savior, and grab a latte at the Starbucks on the corner. She’d shake her head, then shake the hand of her financial advisor, review the income and expenses, and hire more staff at a livable wage. She’d fire up her candy apple red 1969 Corvette and drive on out to her place—a five hundred acre spread that many a man had offered to buy for oil drilling or data storage. Pearl Wiley had no use for the money they threw at her, discovering long ago that women would always come to the Carbondale Lodge & Spa looking for a new life. She, being the sole proprietor, kept her properties intact and, when the time was right, watched for the Painted Ponies of Wiley Creek.

 


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Elizabeth Beechwood is your typical Subaru-driving, scarf-knitting, bird-feeding tree hugger who lives on the fringes of Portland, Oregon. When she writes, she begins by focusing on regular people with regular lives … but then something strange happens. She earned an MFA in Popular Fiction at the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast program and fiction has been featured in Crossed Genres and Every Day Fiction. She is a member of Willamette Writers, PNWA, and is the founder and facilitator of Washington County Writers Forum.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "All Is Revealed" by Chloe Hagerman

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.


Hagerman is clearly a skillful writer of mystery and intrigue. The story begins wrapped in dreamlike confusion, drawing the reader into the mystery. It becomes clear all is not as it seems, and I became shocked and enraptured as all was revealed. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

All Is Revealed

by Chloe Hagerman

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The first thing I’m aware of is that I’m still in my pajamas. I can feel goosebumps prickling up my arms and legs, and a shudder tears through my body. I can feel a rough carpet under my bare feet. It’s worn out and slightly sticky; something that I probably would not choose to be walking on barefoot if I had the choice. That’s when it hits me: I’m not in my room. My bedroom is hardwood without any rugs or carpeting.

      At this moment my surroundings become visible to me, as if they were waiting for me to come to this realization. I’m standing at the beginning of a long hall, surrounded on both sides by towering bookshelves. The dark red carpet stretches out into darkness. Turning around, I see a wall of books behind me, preventing me from going back. I crane my neck to look up. I’m just an inch under six feet, but even so it looks like it would take at least three of me standing on each other’s shoulders to reach the books at the very top. Above the shelves, green stained glass lamps are throwing an eerie light, but beyond that there is only blackness. I can’t see the ceiling; I can’t even tell what the lamps are suspended from. They might be floating, for all I know. They probably are. Nothing needs to make sense. This is obviously a dream, after all.

      I’ve had dreams before – who hasn’t? – but I’ve never been certain they were dreams until my eyes open in the morning. I’ve never had a dream that took me to a fantastical world or allowed me to do improbable things. As boring as that sounds, my dreams have always had at least a foot and a half firmly planted in reality.  I’ve had nightmares that caused me to wake up in a sweat in the middle of the night, but they are something along the lines of being held at gunpoint on a street in my hometown. I was never chased or devoured by ghosts or monsters. So I had no reason to question my surroundings until I woke up to the glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling. Until getting to this … library. It doesn’t remind me of any library I’ve ever seen before, but I can easily see where I might have gotten inspiration from real life to amalgamate into this place. This is definitely the first time I can say, OK, you’re clearly dreaming. Now the question is what are you going to do about it?

      The first thought that comes to my head is of a book I read years ago in college. Journey to Ixtlan. The writer is studying under a shaman, who presents him with the challenge of learning to control his dreams. The first test is to look down at his hand during a dream. Instinctively I do the same. I look down at my right hand, seeing my silver thumb ring and the blue woven friendship bracelet around my wrist. My skin is red and cracked; I haven’t been putting on moisturizing lotion as regularly as I should. But my hand doesn’t hurt at all. Of course it wouldn’t in a dream. OK. So I looked at my hand. That was easy. I’ll be a regular Dream Master in no time.

      I set myself my own challenge: take a step. I raise my foot and place it down again as easily as if I was walking in the real world. The carpet where I’ve put my foot down doesn’t feel as sticky now. I look down at where I was standing before and see that that small section of the rug, right back near the end of the aisle, is so worn down I can almost see the floor through it. How long have I been standing there? Slowly, cautiously, I take a few more steps, and then my stride becomes longer and more confident. But the horizon isn’t changing. Out of the blackness come only more shelves. The carpet stretches out in front of me like a long tongue, and I can’t see where it goes. I can’t tell if I’m headed into or out of the maw. I start jogging, but more of the same just keeps coming at me, on and on and on. I get more and more confused. Am I supposed to take this as a metaphor for my life or something? Is this supposed to give me insight into the human condition? We keep moving, keep running, and end up going nowhere? Wow. Deep. This is becoming the first dream that could actually do me in with boredom before anything else. At least if there was someone else to talk to, it might be more interesting here.

      After what feels like at least a few minutes of walking, I pause and take a closer look at some of the books on the shelves around me. There’s some titles in English that I can read, such as Jack the Ripper Revealed or Complete Chronology of the Battle of Bunker Hill, but others are in strange symbols or in languages I can’t understand. What strikes me, however, is that all of the volumes appear to be in excellent condition. There’s no sign of wear on the spines, no threads out of place on the woven covers. There’s no layer of dust to take away from any of the colors. There’s no scent of dust in the air. In fact, there’s no smell at all. The books don’t smell like they’re new, and yet they are immaculate. I tip one book halfway out of its place on the shelf and examine the pages. No sign of dog ears or tears. As lonely as this library is, it’s definitely got the best quality control of any I’ve ever seen.

      However, I’d much rather have some company, all things being equal. Staring at the hallway stretching before me, ending in darkness, I yell, “Hello?” My voice resonates in the air around me, traveling away until it is swallowed up into the black air. No response. Slightly irritated now, I begin walking. As soon as I take another step, the scenery in front of me changes. I can see a larger room up ahead. Unable to help myself, I break into a run until I am there, halting just at the edge.

      It’s a circular room lined with bookshelves like the ones in the hall behind me, with a large crystal chandelier hovering over everything. There are tables surrounded by plush brown armchairs, sporting amber lamps. But, most importantly, across the room from me I can see someone taking books off the shelves. It’s an older, gray-haired man in a green sweater and khaki pants. I weave my way through the tables and call out, “It’s so good to see someone here.”

      The man turns around. He’s got a huge stack of books of various sizes in his hands, and is wearing glasses with thick lenses. As soon as he sees me, his mouth turns down at the corners, his lip trembles, and his eyes go extra shiny. He looks like he’s about to cry. I stop dead in my tracks, staring back at him.

      “Welcome to the library,” he says. I can hear the tears in his voice even if they haven’t fallen from his eyes yet.

      Instinctively I cross my arms over my chest. I’ve only got a thin pink silk top and blue short shorts on. Hardly conventional library attire. But his eyes never leave my face. My clothes couldn’t matter less to him; all I know is that he wishes I weren’t here. This is fast becoming the oddest dream I’ve ever had. But I don’t want to stay in this position forever before I wake up, so I ask, “Can I read any of these books?”

      The man sniffs and nods. “Yes. Anything here is open to you. Most people your age prefer to start off in the video section.” He points to a hallway off to his right, which again heads off into blackness. “Enjoy your stay,” he says before turning back to the shelves.

      I turn in the direction he is pointing and start heading off. Am I really going to spend the rest of this dream watching a movie? I shake my head at the idea. As I leave the circular section and the librarian behind, I don’t know how long this walk is going to take, so I start running through tomorrow’s activities in my head. My little sister and I are taking care of our parents’ house while they’re off on a long cruise, and they’re due back in just a few days. We need to get the house cleaned and the garden weeded before they get back. Our parents are avid gardeners, so the outdoor tasks are definitely going to be more time-consuming. Maybe I can foist that off on my sister by convincing her the house will be harder … I can do a quick dust over every room and pull out the vacuum cleaner … maybe get the floors mopped too, if I really feel like going the extra mile …

      This mental checklist must have taken up more time than I realized, because the next thing I know I’m glancing at a shelf and seeing that the books have been replaced by plastic DVD cases. They look just as clean and new as the covers of the books did. I stop and take a look at the titles. Jimmy Hoffa’s Grave Revealed. Amelia Earhart’s Disappearance Revealed. Zodiac Killer Revealed. I remember seeing similar titles on some of the books back in the original hallway. This gives me pause. “Revealed?” What is this, some kind of trashy conspiracy theory collection? My opinion of this library’s quality is plummeting.

      Rolling my eyes, I continue forward and come upon a space that looks like a video section in a regular library. Monitors are placed on long desks and big black dividers are placed between them, allowing viewers some privacy. There are in fact a few other people here with me, but they are all wearing headphones and staring enraptured at their TV sets. One boy who looks like he’s still in middle school is watching his video with wide, round eyes. An older woman has tears rolling down her eyes as she stares at her screen. I take a quick glance over her shoulder and see that she is watching two large airplanes collide on an airport runway. The impact and ensuing fireball make me shudder and shrink away. I decide not to disturb her and browse one of the surrounding shelves. I see more and more titles about something or other being revealed and think that I’m in this library’s crazy idea of a history section. I’ve never been much of a history buff, so I decide to see if I can find a section on current events. In the middle of one shelf, a title catches my eye. Crescent City Killer Revealed. This gives me pause. Crescent City is where my family lives.

      I take the DVD off the shelf and turn it over to see if there’s any more information on the back. Nothing. No dates or anything. This might just be something like a soap opera or propaganda of some sort. Then an idea hits me. What if it’s not? Older stuff like Jack the Ripper and Amelia Earhart are glimpses into the past. Maybe this is a glimpse into the future? If it is, and I watch this video and learn the killer’s identity before he strikes, I might be able to save someone’s life. I could save multiple lives. The idea excites me so much that I start to shake a little bit. I can watch this video and learn this sicko’s identity, and when I wake up in the morning I can go to the police and stop him before he has a chance to get started. Yes. I have to watch this.

      I turn around and see that there is an available monitor right behind me. Plopping down on the chair, I pop the DVD into the tray and slip a pair of earphones over my head. They are very comfortable, and they completely block out every sound except the faint buzz from the TV. No wonder everyone else in here was so fixated on what they were seeing on the screen; it’s like these headphones shut out the rest of the world. I take a quick glance both ways to see if anyone is watching me, and when I see that no one is, I prop my feet up on the desk. Concentrate, I tell myself as the screen boots up. Study everything closely. You’re going to get this guy.

      The movie – or documentary, whatever it is – doesn’t bother with opening credits or a title or anything. It just goes right into the action. There’s a tall man dressed in black creeping through a dark house in the middle of the night. I study his face. Short brown hair; long nose; a mole on his left cheek. I don’t recognize him. His hands are covered with purple latex gloves. The small knife in his right hand glints menacingly as he turns. It looks just slightly smaller than a switchblade. He finds the staircase to the second floor and starts ascending. He goes slowly and carefully, testing each individual step, checking for the possibility of a loud creak. Every so often he will glance back over his shoulder, and then focus on the climb in front of him again. OK, if you don’t know this guy, study the house. Maybe you’ll recognize the place and you can warn whoever’s inside. He pauses to observe a picture on the wall near the top of the staircase, and even in the dim light of the video I notice something that gives me pause.

      I remove my legs from the table so that I can lean forward and study the images better. The figures in the picture look eerily familiar. Peering closer, I stop breathing as I recognize one of my family’s portraits from years ago. My parents, my sister and I are all sitting on the floor around our old dog, a bloodhound named Westin who died five years ago. I may not recognize the killer, but I recognize the house all too well.

      Calm down, I tell myself. Remember, this is the future you’re looking at. Your dream is giving you a chance to catch this guy. Look at him again. I peer closely at his face. I still don’t think I’ve ever seen him before, but maybe he’s someone my parents know. I can try calling or emailing them when I get up in the morning. If they give me something to go on, then I can take the information to the police.

      Now the man is creeping down the upstairs hallway. He stops at the first door on the right and slowly edges it open, again not wanting to run the risk of a creak. I suck in my breath as I realize which room he’s going into.

      The windows are open in the bedroom. A fan buzzes in the corner. It’s a hot summer night, so I’m sprawled out on the bed. The covers are thrown back, and there’s a white sheet tangled around my legs. My head is turned to the wall away from the door, and my hair is covering my face. The man pauses over my bed, staring silently down at me. I concentrate as hard as I can, trying to pull something from this video that will give me a name or a place I might have seen this guy before. He’s looking down at me like he knows me. Or it could just be association with my family. Then I notice something else that gives me pause; the clothes I am wearing. Pink silk top. Blue short shorts. I glance down at my lap, take in my familiar clothes, and a cold wave of doubt starts to gnaw at me.

      Did I leave the windows open in my room before I went to sleep tonight? I know I turned the fan on. The sound of it running created a kind of white noise that helped me drift off. But did I open the windows? I can’t remember. But this is still the future … it has to be.

      Slowly, ever so slowly, the man reaches out his left hand and tilts my head to stare up at the ceiling. There’s not a flinch or so much as a tick from my face; I’m completely out, sleeping much more soundly than I usually do when it’s hot. I’m torn right now. Part of me is wishing desperately that I could wake up this instant just to make sure I’m all right, but the other half of me thinks that if I were to do that, this man standing over me with a knife is exactly what I would see.

      The man has been so slow and methodical up until this moment that I almost miss his next actions. I wish that I had.

      He clamps his left hand over my mouth, and with his right hand he brings the blade across my throat.       

      I clap both hands over my mouth to hold back my scream. I fancy I can feel a light line drawn across my neck, almost like a tickle. My hands go to my throat, expecting to feel the cut, expecting to feel hot slimy blood cascading down my chest. Instead I can only feel my own clammy hands. Did that really just happen? No, this is the future. You wear those pajamas all the time in the summer. Keep concentrating. Look for clues.

      Then I remember the titles of all the DVDs and books I saw. Jack the Ripper Revealed. Amelia Earhart Revealed. “Revealed.” Answers to questions no one was able to answer in life. If this killer is “revealed” … does that mean that nobody ever catches him?

      It takes me a second to realize that the film is still going. The man has now left my body behind without a second thought and is making his way back into the hallway. There is another door directly across from him.

      “No,” I croak. After seeing my own throat cut, I’m amazed that I still have a voice. But it’s still there, and it’s rapidly gaining steam. This nagging doubt in my mind is getting stronger by the second.  I lean forward until my nose is practically touching the TV screen. “No, no, no. No.”

      The Crescent City Killer edges the other door open just as slowly and cautiously as he did mine. He creeps into the second bedroom. The bed he approaches is smaller – just a single – against the far wall. There, lying prone under a canopy of sheets with stars and galaxies printed on them is my little sister. Much as he did with me, the killer stands over her for a few moments, staring down at her, undoubtedly relishing what he’s about to do.

      “No, no, no! Wake up! Wake up! Get out of there!” I’m yelling.

      He plants his left hand over her mouth, raises the knife-

      “NO-!”

      A hand clamps down on my shoulder, making me jump. I spin around and gasp in horror and despair as I stare up into my sister’s confused face.


chloe-home.jpg

Chloe Hagerman was born in Portland in 1989, and although she attended Knox College in Illinois and has lived and traveled around the world, she still calls Portland her home. She has been writing since she was 11, and has always striven to better her works with the help and support of friends and family. She prefers writing fiction, from short stories to plays to full-length novels. Her story "Warriors of Sukra" is available on Amazon HERE

Cover Reveal and Giveaway Announcement for The Supernormal Legacy!

The Supernormal Legacy, Book 2: Root by the amazing LeeAnn McLennan hits store shelves on July 17th, and it's available for pre-order starting today! Check out this fantastic cover by artists Randy Kintz and Marcus Odoms!

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We're so excited about the release of this thrilling sequel, we're giving away 100 copies of Book 1: Dormant for Kindle so you can catch up with the story. Enter here:

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The Supernormal Legacy  by LeeAnn McLennan

The Supernormal Legacy

by LeeAnn McLennan

Giveaway ends July 17, 2018.

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Dormant fans, you can pre-order Book 2: Root from your favorite independent bookstore by asking for it at the front counter, or you can order it from one of these fine online booksellers:

Barnes & Noble: HERE

Amazon: (Hardcover) HERE, (trade paperback) HERE

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"An action-packed super-sequel that can't stay out of trouble!”

-Karen Eisenbrey, author of Daughter of Magic

“Root is a fast-paced adrenaline ride through the intricately twisted and shadowed world of the supernormals!”

-Mikko Azul, author of The Staff of Fire and Bone

“I loved Book 1: Dormant. Book 2: Root is even better. I can’t imagine how amazing Book 3 is going to be – and imagining is my superpower!”

-Benjamin Gorman, author of Corporate High School and The Digital Storm

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The Staff of Fire and Bone by Mikko Azul

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#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Crane's Fire" by Karen Eisenbrey

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.


Can't get enough of Karen Eisenbrey's Daughter of Magic? Me neither! In this story we get to see Crane, Luskell's father, in his youth in Deep River. Eisenbrey continues to prove her ability to craft memorable characters and stories. "Crane's Fire" has the same spirit of youthful curiosity and fun that makes Daughter of Magic so enjoyable.  -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

Crane's Fire

by Karen Eisenbrey

Hand-on-Fire-Wallpaper-For-Free.jpg

Crane was bursting to tell, but he couldn’t. Not while Soorhi watched. The teacher might have been old as dirt, but he didn’t miss much. Crane fidgeted. A breeze blew through the open windows. It smelled like apple blossoms. Like spring. Why were they inside on such a day? The eastern window framed a view of open country—grassland and rippling green wheat fields, broken here and there by splotches of purple or yellow where wildflowers bloomed. To the west lay the village of Deep River, though Crane could see only one house and part of another, built of gray river rock like the schoolhouse. Between them, he caught glimpses of a distant snow-capped mountain, and the dry gully that gave Deep River its name.

That was his whole world. Even on a beautiful day, it could not distract from what Crane had to tell. The first chance he got, he would prove himself, and the others would have to accept him. Finally, he would belong. He drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting ...

The previous day, the big boys had lingered after school. They were old enough to have some responsibility now—chores and apprenticeships—but it was the first really warm day that spring. There had to be a better way to spend it. Rovhi, seventeen and done with school, had come on horseback to collect his younger brother, Huvro. They had farm work to do at home, but got drawn into the huddle outside the school. Crane was part of the circle, yet outside it. At twelve, he was the youngest of this group, but already near in height to Rovhi.

“Let’s do something!” Elic exclaimed. He raked his fingers through his curly brown hair, standing it up.

“Like what?” Breff asked. He was fourteen, a year older than Elic, but still deferred to him, as they all did—even Rovhi. They would do whatever he said. Even tolerate Crane.

“I don’t know,” Elic said. “No, wait, I do, too. Dares.” He grinned.

The others welcomed this suggestion, but Crane almost left the group. He hated dares. On the rare occasion when he accepted a challenge, he failed, but he usually took the cowardly way out and refused the dare. Humiliating, either way.

Elic met his gaze and gave him a little smile that said, “Don’t worry.” It was always like that. Elic protected him and tried to build his confidence. Maybe someday, it would work.

“Who’s first?” Elic asked, but he’d already chosen. “Rovhi, you’re oldest—show us how it’s done.” Rovhi nodded his assent. He stood tall and straightened his muscular shoulders. “Climb to the roof of the Village Hall and walk the length of the ridge.”

“What, now?” Rovhi’s face paled and his eyes darted nervously. He smoothed back his dark blond hair. For a moment, he looked like a young boy, in spite of his broad shoulders and sprouting beard.

“When I’ve finished all the challenges, we’ll watch you,” Elic replied. “Huvro, is there a bull in your pasture this spring?”

“Yes, a real snorter.”

“Your challenge is to cross the bull’s pasture … and he has to be in it.”

Huvro swallowed visibly, but nodded. He resembled his older brother, but managed to respond more bravely to the dare. By this time, Rovhi had recovered himself. He laid a hand on Huvro’s shoulder and grinned at Elic. “I’ll make sure he does it.”

“What about me?” Breff asked. He was a stocky, pale-haired farm boy, not a talker like Elic, but good-natured and up for anything.

“Yes, what about you?” Elic studied him. “I know. You will walk a girl home after school. Not a little girl; it has to be one our age, and she has to know you’re walking her home. No following.”

Breff blushed and grinned. “How—how will you know I did it?” he asked. Crane wondered about that, too. The girls attended school in the afternoon, when the boys would be with their masters or at work in the fields.

“Believe me, I’ll know,” Elic replied. They all laughed. Elic was close to Sunnea, a girl their age. If he asked, she would pass along news of anything that happened to any other girl in Deep River.

“Fine, I accept,” Breff said. “But I get to give you yours: go inside the haunted house!”

“But that’s not—” Crane began.

“I accept.” Elic shot Crane a look that kept him quiet. “So, Rovhi?”

Crane couldn’t believe his luck. Maybe he would get away without taking a challenge this time ...

“What about Crane?” Huvro asked.

Elic looked at Crane and shrugged. Crane stared back, only hoping that his friend would give him something that wasn’t too humiliating. “I haven’t forgotten,” he said. “Crane gets the hardest one.”

“What?” Crane protested.

Elic carried on as if he hadn’t heard. “Crane, your challenge is to sneak into the Village Hall, into Jelf’s library, and read some magic out of a spell-book.”

The other boys gasped and stared at Crane, but he felt strangely calm. That didn’t sound so hard, assuming the spell-books even existed. They were objects of mystery and dread, but Crane had never seen them; none of the boys had. Why there would be spell-books in Deep River—a place where nothing happened, let alone magic—was beyond Crane’s imagining. But everyone knew they were there.

“I’ll do it,” Crane said. “But how will you know I succeeded?”

“Memorize a short spell and tell it to us tomorrow.”

“What’ll that prove?” Breff objected. “He should have to bring the book.”

“I’m not stealing anything,” Crane said.

“And we’re not asking you to,” Elic assured him. “Just tell us the spell. I doubt it will sound like anything we’ve heard before. Or that you could make up.” He grinned at Crane. “Now, Rovhi, you have a challenge to meet.”

They all accompanied Rovhi to the Village Hall, a long, low, building with walls of mortared river rock. Rovhi climbed at the nearest corner, using the many stones as hand- and foot-holds. It was an easier climb than Crane would have predicted. Once on the roof, Rovhi scrabbled on all fours up to the peak. The roof slates clanked and rattled under him. At the top, he stood. Crane held his breath, and suspected he wasn’t the only one. He had climbed the cottonwood tree behind the inn, but he’d never been on a rooftop. It must be like flying. Crane could fly … in his dreams. The dreams had begun recently, the best dreams he’d ever had. He hadn’t shared them with anyone, not even Elic.

Rovhi took one slow, careful step after another, keeping his eyes fixed ahead of him. He never looked down. He wavered once or twice, but didn’t fall. When he reached the other end, he half-climbed, half-slid down the roof, then gripped the edge and swung down. He sank to his knees and rested his hands on the grass, pale and trembling.

At that moment, Jelf emerged from the Hall. He was a small man with thin brown hair going gray. Crane was surprised to see him, and from the look on his face, so was Elic. Jelf kept the village records, but didn’t usually start his work at the Hall until after lunch. It figured he’d have his meal early the one day he might get them into trouble. And it was only the first dare!

Jelf frowned at the boys. “Who’s been on my roof?” he asked. He was not usually an intimidating figure, but today, he looked like a thunderhead. “I heard an awful racket up there just now.”

“We didn’t see anything. It must have been birds,” Elic improvised.

“I didn’t know birds could be that big and clumsy,” Jelf said, eyeing Rovhi, who scrambled to his feet and joined the other boys. “I’m surprised none of you noticed them.”

Crane, like the others, tried his best to look innocent. He wished he didn’t have to lie to Jelf. He liked the old Keeper. It was bad enough that his own dare involved sneaking into the library.

“Well, don’t you young men have anything better to do than stand in the road?” Jelf asked. “Get along!” He returned to the Hall without another word.

That was one dare down, and they weren’t in trouble yet.

“That was close, huh?” Breff muttered to Crane, and grinned. “Good luck with yours.”

Crane supposed it was only because he was closest, but for once, he felt really included. He smiled in agreement. With a wave of his hand, Breff set out on foot for home, a farm not far from town.

“Don’t forget, you have to walk a girl home!” Elic called after him.

“I won’t forget,” he promised.

Rovhi and Huvro returned to the school and mounted the bay horse Rovhi had left tied there. They trotted past Crane and Elic. “I did it! Hoo-hoo!” Rovhi shouted. Huvro did not appear quite so lighthearted.

“That went well,” Elic chuckled.

“What did you mean my dare was the hardest?” Crane asked.

“I thought it might get you some respect.”

“So you lied?”

“Maybe not. You think any of them could do it? They’re afraid of magic, but you’ve got more sense than that.”

“It’s not magic, it’s books,” Crane said. “So, no, I’m not afraid. But I could have done Rovhi’s dare.”

Elic chuckled. “I know. It would have been too easy for you. You’d have done it at a run! Rovhi’s afraid of heights, but he’ll do anything to save face. And Breff’s shy, but he really does like girls, so his dare is just what he needs.”

“Well, what if I like girls?” Crane asked.

“They won’t speak to you,” Elic said. “I can’t change that.”

That was true, though Crane didn’t know why. Was it his freakish height? His dark skin? His straight black hair? All weak reasons, but what else was there? Maybe it was because the sky looked red to him, though he wasn’t sure who knew about that. He hadn’t mentioned it in a long time, since he saw how it upset his mother.

“Who wants to talk to girls, anyway?” he said. “They’re stupid.”

“Right,” Elic agreed. “Stupid.”

Elic didn’t really think that, but it was nice to have his support. “What about yours?” Crane asked. “We both know that house isn’t really haunted.”

Elic shrugged. “Can I help it if Breff isn’t as good at the game? Anyway, that makes it easier for me to help you.”

“What makes you think I need help?”

“Not with your dare,” Elic explained. “I’ll just make sure you get inside.”

“Jelf already suspects something,” Crane said.

“Leave it to me.” Elic grinned. He always relished a good trick. “Meet me at the Hall before sundown.”

They parted at the Blue Heron Inn, Crane’s home. Elic’s family lived across the road, and was like family to Crane. He called Elic’s mother Aunt Sudi and Elic called Crane’s mother Auntie Stell. Elic was his father’s apprentice, though he had no particular aptitude for a blacksmith’s work. Crane helped his mother with the inn, and expected to take it over someday. It wasn’t a future he looked forward to, but it was the only one he had.

“Hello, Crane,” she greeted him, peeking out of the kitchen. “How was school?”

“Same as always.”

Mama was a small, pretty woman. She had wavy golden hair and a ready smile. She and Crane shared the same hazel eye color, but there the resemblance ended. Crane had often wondered about that. Everyone he knew looked like their parents or other relatives. If he didn’t look like his mother, then he must look like his father—whoever that was. Like wings, a father was something he had only in dreams.

They sat down to lunch. Crane ate a few bites of his bean soup, then put down his spoon. “Who was my father?”

Mama stared at him and didn’t answer right away. “Haven’t you learned, there’s nothing to be gained in asking that?” she said at last. “He’s gone far away, and he won’t be back.”

When Crane was younger and asked that question, she told stories. They didn’t answer his question, but he liked hearing them. He waited, but she said no more. They both ate lunch in silence. He’s gone far away, and he won’t be back. Did that mean he was dead? There was no other way to be so sure he wouldn’t return. His father was dead, and Crane would never know any more about him.

Chores filled the afternoon, and Crane soon forgot his question. He pumped water, weeded the vegetable garden, fed the chickens, and cleaned the upstairs rooms. He tried to remember the last time someone had come to stay. He couldn’t, but Mama insisted the rooms be clean, just in case.

Although the sleeping rooms remained empty, they could be sure the common room wouldn’t. Most of the men in Deep River and from the surrounding farms liked to enjoy a mug of ale and a few stories at the Blue Heron at least once of week. The unmarried men took most of their suppers there. Crane ate his own supper early so he could help serve, but kept an eye on the waning daylight.

“I have to meet Elic for a little while,” he said.

“Now? What for?” Mama asked.

“It’s—for school,” he replied. “We have to talk to Jelf at the Hall.”

“Why didn’t you do it right after school?”

“Elic couldn’t stay,” Crane said. “It shouldn’t take long. I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He whisked out the door before she could say anything more. He hadn’t quite lied, and if they didn’t get caught, he wouldn’t have to.

With the low sun behind him, Crane’s shadow stretched out in front of him halfway to the Village Hall. The sunset seemed to fill the whole sky. Even the east was tinted purple and dark red. Crane liked the light of sunrise and sunset best, when the sky really was red. Then he didn’t have to work to see the blue beyond the shimmering red net no one else could see.

As Crane approached the Hall, Elic emerged from the shadows at the far end and beckoned to him.

“You wait here, out of sight,” he whispered. “I’ll try to distract Jelf before he locks up. Slip in as soon as you can.”

Crane crouched in the shadows and watched Elic trot up the road toward the school and Soorhi’s house. He circled around and walked back. When the door of the Hall opened, he broke into a run.

“Jelf! I’m glad I caught you,” he called.

The old man turned toward him, the key in his hand. “Elic? What is it?”

“A strange plant sprouted in Soorhi’s garden,” Elic said. “Soorhi says it’s edible, but Mam says it’s poisonous. Soorhi wants your opinion.”

Jelf chuckled. “I don’t know what I can add to their knowledge, but I’ll take a look. Lead on!”

Elic and Jelf headed back toward Soorhi’s. Crane shrank further into the shadows, though Elic’s description of the mystery plant held Jelf’s attention as they passed. As soon as it seemed safe, he darted out of hiding and up to the door. He pushed and it opened—still unlocked. He closed it behind him.

He paused in the dim Hall to let his eyes adjust, then crept past the long meeting table and chairs, toward a smaller room at the end. This door didn’t have a lock. He pushed in and approached the shelves. The upper shelves held logs and registers, in which Jelf kept track of village events. The bottom shelf was in shadow.

He crouched down. He could discern a row of books—four thick ones with dark covers, along with a few thinner volumes. They were all coated in dust, and in the poor light, Crane couldn’t tell whether or not there were any words on the spines. The last of the sunset light filtered in through the closed shutters. Crane didn’t know how he would manage to read anything, but he didn’t dare light a lamp and give himself away. He would just have to hurry and finish the job before the light failed completely.

He grabbed one of the big books at random. His whole arm tingled as if he’d banged his elbow, and he dropped the book. Dust puffed in his face, and he sneezed twice. He froze, certain the whole village had heard. But the evening quiet went on, undisturbed. He picked up the book. This time, his arm did not tingle, but he had a brief impression of a pale, dark-haired man with a fierce expression. Maybe there was something magical about the book. He carried it to Jelf’s desk, where the light was a little better. The dark red leather binding bore no words or marks of any kind.

Crane let the book fall open and stared at the yellowed page. Disappointment rose like bile in his throat. He couldn’t read it. There were letters and even syllables that looked familiar, but nothing on the page made sense. He was about to close the book and give up, when the letters and syllables flickered like candlelight before his eyes, and rearranged themselves. They still didn’t look like familiar words, but he knew they had meaning.

Crane chose a short, two-word spell—he hoped it was a spell—and committed it to memory. It felt strange to memorize something he didn’t understand. He had to guess at the pronunciation, though he didn’t dare speak aloud in case anyone should hear. But none of the other boys would be able to correct him, so perhaps it didn’t matter how he pronounced the words, as long as he told them something.

As he returned the book to its place on the shelf, he froze at the sound of voices.

“I don’t know what you were thinking, bothering me about a potato plant!” Jelf said.

“I didn’t know that’s what it was,” Elic replied. “I never saw the plant before, just the spud.”

The voices drew nearer, and Crane feared Jelf would come into the Hall. Or what if he locked the door, with Crane still inside?

“Perhaps Soorhi and your mother have played a joke on you, then. It’s no more than you deserve, after all your tricks.”

“That must be it. You’re not angry, are you?”

It sounded like they’d stopped at the corner of the Hall, where the path to Jelf’s house met the road. Crane relaxed. Maybe he wouldn’t get caught, after all.

“Of course not,” Jelf said. “Sometimes doing something foolish is the only way to learn. Good night, Elic.”

Elic’s laughter rang through the village. “Good night, Jelf!”

Crane waited a moment longer to give Jelf time to reach home, then scurried out of the Village Hall and back to the inn. He’d done something right! He’d accepted and fulfilled a dare. But there was no time to celebrate now. It was suppertime at the Blue Heron, and Mama needed his help. He took a deep breath to calm himself and pushed open the door. The common room was bright with lamplight and noisy with supper guests.

“That didn’t take long,” Mama said. She handed him his apron.

“It didn’t?” It seemed an age had passed since he left for the Hall. “No, I guess it didn’t.”

“Did you find what you needed?”

“Um—yes,” he replied, tying the apron. “So, what needs doing?”

***

Crane hurried to school in the morning, excited to prove his daring. Elic was already there ahead of him, waiting outside.

“Did you do it?” he asked.

“Yes!” Crane exclaimed. “The books are really there. I—”

Rovhi and Huvro arrived then, interrupting Crane. Huvro slid off the horse to join them.

“Huvro’s braver than I thought,” Rovhi called down. “He did exactly what you asked and lived to tell about it.”

“That bull knows me,” Huvro whispered to Elic.

“It doesn’t matter. You fulfilled the dare.”

As Rovhi rode away, Breff joined them, pink in the face from his long walk. “I did it!” he announced. “I waited for the girls to get out of school, and asked Kiat if I could walk her home!”

“And what did she say?” Elic asked.

Breff turned a brighter pink. “She told me to jump in the river.”

They all laughed. Anyone who jumped in that dry gully was more likely to break a leg than drown. Crane had often wondered why they still called it a river, when it had been dry since before he was born, but no one else seemed to give it much thought.

“That doesn’t sound like a very promising conversation,” Elic observed.

“No, not really,” Breff admitted. “Except then, Tiek said I could walk her home.” He grinned. Tiek was Kiat’s twin sister. They looked similar, but they couldn’t have been more different in temperament.

“Well done, Breff! That’s three completed,” Elic said. “I haven’t done mine yet. We should all go to the haunted house right after school.”

“What about Crane?” Breff asked.

Before he could answer, Soorhi came outside. The morning sun lit his white hair like a bright cloud. “I don’t see what’s so amusing out here,” he said, “but it’s time to come inside.”

They filed in and took their places. Crane had the middle seat, with Elic on his right and Breff on his left. Huvro sat behind Breff, while the ten-year-olds Lafa and Alryg sat in the front row. Crane was bursting to tell about his dare, but he couldn’t while Soorhi watched. The first chance he got, he would prove that he’d fulfilled the challenge, and they’d have to accept him fully. He drummed his fingers on the desk, waiting.

As soon as Soorhi’s back was turned, Elic and Breff leaned in. “Tell us!” they whispered. Huvro half stood to get into the conversation.

Crane balled his hands into fists. He couldn’t afford to forget what he’d read. He closed his eyes and the page appeared in memory, flickering like candlelight. He took a deep breath and whispered the words, reading them off the imagined page. There was no question now about pronunciation. His voice sounded strange to him, crackling with a new energy.

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Elic yelled, and from the thud, it sounded like Breff had fallen out of his seat. Crane opened his eyes. His right hand was in flames. He stared at it, unable to make a sound. The other boys drew back, horror-stricken. Only Elic stayed close. “It wasn’t supposed to do anything,” he whispered.

Through the flames, Crane saw Soorhi vault over his desk with the energy of a man a quarter his age. The teacher came straight to Crane and smothered the flames with his bare hands.

The whole event took only a moment. Now that the panic was over, Crane expected they would all take their seats again and go on with class as usual. He would never hear the end of this! Then the pain struck him. He thought his hand must have burned off, except that he could feel each finger alive with agony. He didn’t dare look. He fainted.

He had no idea how much time had passed when he came to. Probably not much—it was still daylight. Or had days passed? He lay in his own bed. Someone had bandaged his hand. It rested on a pillow on top of the covers. The pain was a little less, though still enough to bring tears to his eyes. He thought he might faint again—he wished he could—but remained conscious. Several people stood just inside his room, talking together in low tones: his mother, Aunt Sudi, and Soorhi.

“I put a salve on it, but it’s going to scar,” Sudi said.

“Badly?” Mama asked.

“I can’t tell yet,” Sudi said. “It could be pretty bad. From what Soorhi tells me, we’re lucky he didn’t lose his whole hand.”

Mama sobbed once, then controlled herself. “How did it happen?”

“I think he said a fire spell, but how could he have learned such a thing?” Soorhi said.

“A fire spell?” Mama repeated. “You mean, magic?”

“Yes,” Soorhi said. “You have a budding wizard on your hands.”

“He chose a fine way to let us know,” Sudi snapped.

“I don’t think he had any idea,” Soorhi said. “But where did he learn the spell?”

“Doesn’t Jelf have some old spell-books at the Village Hall?” Sudi asked. “You remember, that some old wizard left behind?”

Soorhi was silent a moment. “Lok’s books. Yes. Could Crane have seen them?”

“He said he was meeting Elic at the Hall last night,” Mama said. “I shouldn’t have let him go!”

“It wasn’t your fault,” Soorhi assured her. “I’m going to see if Jelf knows anything about this. It might be best to let Crane study those books openly. Otherwise, he could be a danger to himself or others.”

Crane heard one set of footsteps cross the common room and leave the inn. Had he heard right? A danger? To himself, certainly. But to others? He wouldn’t let that happen. They had nothing to fear from him. But he remembered how the other boys had drawn away from him.

“Will he be able to use that hand?” Mama asked. “Are you sure it won’t heal without scarring?”

“I’m sorry, Stell,” Sudi said. “There’s only so much I can do.”

Mama moved to the bedside. Crane closed his eyes, feigning sleep. “If only his father would come,” she whispered, so low that Crane doubted Sudi had heard. It seemed an odd thing to say. Wasn’t his father dead? Did she think Crane was going to die? But he was more interested in what Soorhi had said. He could be a wizard! He didn’t have to be an innkeeper. He could study the magic in those books, and find something he was actually good at. Was that what the red sky meant? That there was magic in Deep River; in him? If he could make fire, then he could do anything—bring rain, cure sickness, change his own form. Fly. His hand throbbed, but it was worth it. It would be easy. He drifted off to sleep and dreamed he had wings.

THE END


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Karen Eisenbrey is the author of Daughter of Magic (Not a Pipe Publishing, 2018) and The Gospel According to St. Rage (Pankhearst, 2016). She lives in Seattle, WA, where she leads a quiet, orderly life and invents stories to make up for it. Although she intended to be a writer from an early age, until her mid-30s she had nothing to say. A little bit of free time and a vivid dream about a wizard changed all that. Karen writes fantasy and science fiction novels, as well as short fiction in a variety of genres and the occasional song or poem if it insists. She also sings in a church choir and plays drums in a garage band. She shares her life with her husband, two young adult sons, and two mature adult cats.

Join us for an online launch party for Daughter of Magic and win!

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On Saturday, May 26th from 4pm to 7pm Eastern (1pm to 4pm Pacific), there will be an online party to celebrate the release of Karen Eisenbrey's Daughter of Magic, and you are invited! Just click here and click on the "Going" button. 

But wait, there's more! A bunch of the attendees are other Not a Pipe Publishing authors, and they have agreed to give out copies of their books as party favors. (A huge thanks to all our Not a Pipe Publishing authors for being so supportive of one another!) We'll announce the winners live during the party. Must be present to win! If you would like to win a copy, just enter your name, email address where the Amazon copy will be sent, and your first choice below. If you don't win your first choice, your name will stay in the hat for the remaining books, with the grand prize being a copy of Karen Eisbrey's brand new Daughter of Magic! 

Not sure which book you'd most like to win? Check them all out HERE

Name *
Name
Choose the one you'd most like to win.
(And remember, eveyone who doesn't win their first choice will be entered to win the Grand Prize, a copy of Karen Eisenbrey's brand new novel Daughter of Magic!

The Cover Reveal, Pre-order, and a HUGE Announcement for Daughter of Magic by Karen Eisenbrey

You can pre-order Karen Eisenbrey's Daughter of Magic now! The novel will be available on May 22nd, but you can reserve your copy in hardcover, trade paperback, or Kindle, and get it right away when it's available! Just click one of the links below. And there's an even more exciting bit of news, but first, check out this cover:

 (Cover by Benjamin Gorman)

(Cover by Benjamin Gorman)

And check out the dust jacket for the hardcover:

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Daughter of Magic tells the story of Luskell. She's been dreaming about dead people.

Her parents may be two most powerful wizards in the country, but Luskell doesn't have any magic of her own, so she's stuck spending a summer with her grandmother in the small town of Deep River where her father is the hometown hero. Then the dead start to visit her dreams with mysterious messages. In a secret pact with her friends Jagryn and Laki, Luskell begins to teach herself magic and discovers an apparently bottomless well of untapped power. But before she has control over this ability, her dead grandfather appears with a dire warning. With no way to send word to her parents, Luskell and her friends mount a daring rescue. Can they get to the capital in time to save the country ... and her parents' lives?

“Beautiful yet thrilling ...Brilliant!”
-Heather S. Ransom, author of Going Green
 
“An impressive fantasy. If the love child of JK Rowling and Tom Clancy were raised by Leslie Marmin Silko, she would grow up to be something like this book.”
-Jason Brick, author of Wrestling Demons
 
“Touching, tender, and blazing with brilliance, Daughter of Magic is a coming-of-age story that fans of Carol Berg's The Bridge of D'Arnath series will adore."
-M. K. Martin, author of Survivors’ Club
 
“‘Tonight we’ll fly and be heroes.’ Daughter of Magic is a wonderful tale of power, secret and exposed, set against a rich landscape in a world were the past rises up to overwhelm the present.”
-LeeAnn McLennan, author of The Supernormal Legacy series
 
Daughter of Magic is a heart-wrenching tale of loss and betrayal, filled with compelling characters who must cooperate and embrace the terrifying truth of who they are or face the destruction of the world and peoples they cherish.
“In a world where magic is rare and regulated, there are high expectations for Luskell, the daughter of two powerful wizards. Turning her back on her heritage and the city full of intrigue, Luskell finds temporary tranquility in the gentle land of her childhood. Her peace is shattered when she discovers the plot to kill her parents and destroy the hard-won harmony between the different peoples. Racing against time and the looming specter of death, Luskell must embrace her talents and work with the budding magicians of other lands to save her parents and their world or risk the annihilation of everything she holds dear.”
-Mikko Azul, author of The Staff of Fire and Bone

Pre-order your copy from your favorite independent bookstore by asking for it at the front counter, or order it from one of these fine online booksellers:

Barnes & Noble: HERE

Amazon: HERE

Kindle: HERE

And it gets even more exciting! What would be the absolute perfect location for the launch of a young adult fantasy novel by the drummer of a Seattle garage band? MoPop, the Museum of Pop Culture, formerly the Experience Music Project. That would be too much to ask for, right? Nope! Karen Eisenbrey and some other Not a Pipe Publishing authors will be celebrating the release of Daughter of Magic at MoPop from 11:00 to 3:00 on Saturday the 19th of May, three days BEFORE Eisenbrey's Daughter of Magic hits bookstore shelves, as part of MoPop's Write Out Of This World celebration of the winners of their short story competition for young writers. So if you can make it to MoPop, come get your signed copy and help Not a Pipe Publishing celebrate the release of this wonderful young adult fantasy novel while we also encourage young writers at their breakout party.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "The Old Ways" by M. K. Martin

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.


The Old Ways

by M. K. Martin

Laced with magic and mysticism, this story will suck you in completely. Martin has a way of making the impossible real with her words as she effortlessly weaves together mood, character, tension, and more. This I know all too well, having read her debut novel, Survivors' Club. "The Old Ways" is just a sampling of what this writer can do.  -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

 

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“Rome was the world's most powerful empire. At its height, it even reached our shores. I hope all of you take time, when we stop in Bowness-on-Solway, to see the end of the Roman Wall. Imagine how different Britain would be if the sun had never set on the Roman Empire.” The tour guide bubbled on like a runaway stream after a heavy downpour. Deitra leaned her head against the cool glass of the bus window as it finally pulled into the Twisted Tree Inn parking lot. Outside it was raining. Again. Ever since she'd arrived it had rained.

Somehow the travel agent had convinced Deitra all those rainy scenes took place during the spring. The rest of the time it's so lovely, the woman had cooed. Lovely, indeed!

Lovely, like her relationship with Jerrold. She signed. She'd come to England to get over him, not spend the whole trip pining.

Still, it was hard to just put him out of her mind. She'd thought he was The One, her Mr. Right. They'd met when he was at his family's summerhouse near Nag's Head. She'd dropped out of college, moved back home and resigned herself to a Cinderella life of waitressing at her family's restaurant when Jerrold had shown up and swept her off her feet.

Their dating had been a blur of D.C.'s finest galleries, museums, restaurants, wineries, plays and concerts. Soon Jerrold asked her to move in. Life was perfect! She had planned her response when he popped the question, planned their wedding, followed by an English honeymoon. She quietly set aside money and gathered travel brochures.

As it turned out, Deitra wasn't the only one quietly working on a project. Jerrold's project was Tiffany, a work colleague. Deitra had met her at a few parties and plays. Jerrold met her at hotels. When Deitra found the receipts, he didn't bother to lie. It was better she knew, he'd said. They were tired of hiding. She moved back home that night.

On her mother's advice, she'd taken this trip sans Jerrold.

She hadn't anticipated the constant rain or that her bus tour would be made up of nothing but happy couples. By day four, she hated England.

“...a quaint, charming little inn and pub. I have everyone's room keys.” The guide held up a large, ancient brass key. It looked like a prop in a documentary on Merry Ole England.

To an optimistic person, the inn was quaint, even charming. It was definitely old. The Romans had built the original structure over a pagan barrow to claim the land and make a statement. Over the centuries, the rest of the inn had grown around the Roman building. The end result was an architectural crazy quilt of various designs, all sagging toward the low midsection, the pub itself.

Inside smelled of pipe smoke, spilled ale, old polish, and some indefinable but distinct odor Deitra could only think of as 'long history'. A comforting fire snapped and crackled in the wide native stone hearth, located against one wall of the pub. A small stage of ancient planks, shiny from years of scrubbing, sanding and thousands of feet, nestled against the wall opposite the hearth.

After a bath and a change of clothes, Deitra rejoined the tour group in the pub. She found a lonely perch at the bar, atop a wide, old oaken stool and ordered a pork pie and a pint.

“Do you like this?”

Deitra jumped. A boyishly handsome man had slid onto the stool next to hers. His hair was a short, sandy blonde bristle. He wore a leather jacket that looked both casual and expensive. His dimpled smile was cocksure and reminded her too much of Jerrold. As if any woman was his to claim. Deitra glared at him and focused on her pie.

“Scusi, so sorry, my English...I am hoping you are not angry, bella,” the blonde man said. His Italian accent, like warm honey, caressed her ears. His face was a picture of sincerity. Deitra felt embarrassed. Poor guy. Not every man was Jerrold.

“No, it's fine. Sorry. I'm just tired,” she said.

“Vittore Romano, incantato.” He offered a warm, smooth hand.

“I'm Deitra.” She shook. “Pleased to meet you.” He smiled, his blue eyes direct and a bit too intimate. Stop that! He's Italian, they're like that. Don't be the ugly American, she admonished herself. “So,” she said, “um, are you here on vacation?” Idiot! Obviously.

“Business.” His face hardened a little, his eye scanning the room, then back to her. “But not tonight, I think.”

“Oh.” Deitra toyed with her food.

“Sorry,” Vittore said. “This rain, this food, this place it's...” He searched for words then stuck out his tongue and wrinkled his nose.

“Exactly,” Deitra smiled.

Vittore chuckled, “Why have you traveled so far for so little?” He waved at the pub. With a hot meal, a cold pint and a roaring fire, the pub seemed more homey. Overhead the old boards creaked and groaned softly, the wind sighing through the numerous eves. Outside darkness had fallen, and the rain gently drummed on the roof. All things considered, England didn't seem quite as wretched.

“It's more what I was traveling from than to,” she said. “A great big from.”

Vittore gave her the uncomprehending, hopeful smile common to travelers across every land; the one that says, 'I have no idea what you're saying, but go on'.

The door crashed open. Wind and rain blew in, sending a soggy chill through the pub. Every head turned to stare at the three dripping figures in the doorway. At first, Deitra wasn't sure who the strangers might be, but as they peeled off their outer layers, she realized they were musicians.

First in the door was a large ruddy man, a dark woolen watchcap snugged down on his head. Between the hat and his enormously fluffy dark red beard, it was hard to make out any facial features apart from the flash of a broad grin and the twinkle of dark eyes. He had a battered guitar case stuffed under his pea coat. A petite, dark haired women, dressed in a bright red blouse and swirling peasant skirts, followed the redhead in. She carried a flute case and a small flat drum wrapped in waterproof cloth. The last member of the group paused in the door.

For an instant, as the flickering light of the hearth fire hit his eyes, Deitra could have sworn they glowed, flashing gold. She gasped and Vittore followed her gaze. The stranger stepped into the room. Unlike his companions, he did not rush in out of the wet. His long dark hair was mostly pushed back, although a few wild strands hung forward, tickling his high cheekbones. The dark man's eyes swept the room, cautious, watchful.

When his eyes met Vittore's both men stiffened. A slow smile spread across Vittore's face. The dark man nodded a curt salute. He produced a fiddle seemingly out of nowhere and sauntered across to join his fellows. His movements were powerful, yet graceful. He reminded Deitra of panthers she'd seen at the zoo, prowling their enclosures, dreaming their wild, bloody dreams.

The dark haired woman pulled three chairs up on stage, the silver bangles on her arms tinkling as she moved. The trio spent a few minutes ensuring their instruments had taken no hurt from the damp and tuning up. The big redheaded man took a position with a foot on one of the chairs, balancing his guitar with its strangely fat bottom across his knee. If Deitra remembered correctly, that was called a bouzouki. The dark haired woman sat down, arranged her shirts, lifted the small drum, the bohdran, and smiled warmly at the audience.

The dark stranger strode to the edge of the stage and stood, thumbs hooked in the pockets of his worn jeans. He said nothing, his bright eyes dancing over the room. A hush fell as one by one people met his gaze. Still he said nothing. Deitra found herself holding her breath.

Suddenly the dark stranger's face broke into an impish grin.

“That's right,” he said, his voice rich and low, pitched to catch each ear personally. “We're back. I know some a yous and for the rest, get ready to dance. I'm Brayden. I lead this merry band. Salix.” The woman waved. “And Fáthach,” The large man nodded.

“We are Tuatha Dé Danann.” He bowed dramatically, sweeping up, the fiddle already in the crook of his neck.

The music burst to life with an nearly impossible wail from the fiddle, joined by the drum and held together by the melody of the bouzouki. The tune was a wild reel, each round moving faster and faster seeming on the verge of collapsing into chaotic madness, but always returning to the core melody, a deeply stirring sound. It was like a storm, a whirlwind of sound rising, building, crashing and then, with one final mighty flourish of the fiddle, it stopped.

No one moved. No one even breathed. Slowly Brayden opened his eyes. For just an instant, Deitra again saw the flash of gold as if his eyes burned with mystical inner fire.

“Sláinte!” cried the bartender, raising his mug to the musicians. The crowd burst into raucous applause. A grinning waitress hurried over with a tray of drinks. “On the house,” she said.

Brayden squatted down, so they were face to face. “Go raibh maith agat,” he murmured, his voice just on the decent side of 'in public'. Straightening he held his mug aloft. “To yous, good people the lot!” He winked at the waitress. “And to women who know how to make a man smile.” The waitress blushed and scurried for the safety of the bar. Deitra wished she were a waitress.

“Cretins,” muttered Vittore.

“You don't like the local color?” Deitra asked, eyebrow raised.

“Pale shadows.” He waved dismissively as the little band struck up a soft, lamenting ballad. Brayden's singing voice was every bit as enchanting as his speaking voice, low, deep, steady and thrilling – thrilling in ways Jerrold had never thrilled her.

“Their time is long past and see! They dance on. They should give up, admit defeat with dignity,” Vittore said.

“Umm, it's a band,” Deitra said. “Not a war.”

“Certo.” Vittore nodded reluctantly. “Of course. The lady is right. Come.” He held out a hand. “Let's get away from this...how do you say? Racket, yes?”

Deitra looked up, meeting his beautiful blue eyes, his boyish smile. So sure all he had to do was hold out his hand and she'd swoon into his arms.

She'd made her share of mistakes from dropping out of school, to moving to D.C. Probably coming to England, too.

She looked into Vittore's eyes and saw another mistake waiting.

“I'm fine here,” Deitra said.

A frown creased Vittore's brow. “Scusi. You didn't understand. Is no problem. We will have dinner in the restaurant. This,” he shot a dark look at the band, “is not a place for such a belladonna.” He took her by the arm to escort her into the small, adjacent dining area.

“No.” Deitra wrenched her arm away more forcefully than she intended. She could see the shock, the slow comprehension. It felt good, powerful.

“I'll stay. Thanks.” She turned away from him, back to the stage. Brayden's eyes were on her. He inclined his head to her gravely, but his eyes twinkled. It wasn't her imagination. His eyes were golden.

Deitra ignored the rustle of cloth, the quick, angry stomp of feet as Vittore departed. She focused on the band. Several of the tour group couples were dancing. They looked awkward and silly, their bright American clothes standing out like disoriented tropical birds in Antarctica, but they were having a marvelous time. Whenever someone seemed to flag or become self-conscious, Brayden's eyes were on them, encouraging them, urging them on, making it all right to let go, to just dance.

“Miss?” The bartender held out a hand.

Deitra gulped down the rest of her beer and took the man's rough, weathered hand. “Why the hell not?” She hopped off the stool, lost her footing and fell laughing into the bartender's arms.

“Steady on, miss,” he said. “Had a wee bit too much, then?”

“Nah,” Deitra giggled. “I'm fine. Dance me!” The bartender chuckled and spun her out onto the floor. She had no idea what she was doing. It didn't matter.

She twirled and whirled from one partner to the next and drank several pints of dark, bitter beer. Somewhere among the jigs, the stathspeys, waltzes and reels Deitra forgot that she hated Britain, forgot that she was the lone lonelyheart in a tour group full of lovey-dovey couples. She forgot the sting of Jerrold's smug face when she handed back her keys to his apartment.

It seemed only moments later when Deitra found herself outside. Rather than seeming soggy and depressing, the chill night air revived her. The wind rattled through the trees, sending spatters of rain down. Overhead the dissipating clouds scudded across the sky. The moon, a silvery blue orb, nestled low in the hills, as if it too were exhausted by a night of dancing.

Deitra lifted loose strands of sweaty hair from her neck. She shuddered at the cold wind's kiss, goosebumps sprang up along her arms. A mist was rolling in from the sea. Its ghostly white fingers reached into every hollow and nook, sliding along the low ground, filling it, enfolding the world in white.

“You know, they say on nights like this, the fey can come through the mists.”

Deitra jumped. She hadn't even heard the heavy door swing on its ancient hinges.

Brayden stood next to her, his pale skin seemed to glow in the faint moonlight; a stark contrast to his dark hair and bright gold eyes. He smiled wistful. “They say once the fey ruled all these lands. They were so full o' life then. Wise animals, ancient trees, less rain.” He winked at her.

“Fey, like fairies?” Deitra asked. Stupid question! But Brayden didn't laugh, didn't even smirk.

“A bit. Fairies, wee flying folk, they're pixies. Nah, fey are like...” He searched for words. “What you call elves, then. Taller than men and fair. All sorts a mysteries in these isles even still. They never could drive out all magic.” He stared down toward the sea. His bright eyes searched the darkness, almost as if he expected something to come out of the mists. As if he longed for it.

Up close, he was even more captivating. The wind ruffled his dark hair, tugging at loose strands to play along the curve of his neck, his strong jaw. His lips were full and inviting. Kissable lips. Kissable? Stop acting like a drunk groupie!

Deitra tore her eyes from his handsome face to follow his gaze. She half expected to see something moving in the mist, half expected to see...what? A fey. She giggled at the thought. Brayden turned back to her, a smile on his face, but lacking its earlier spark. The show smile of the consummate performer. She could see in his eyes the flash of disappointment, resignation.

“Come on then,” he said. “Some say it's bad luck to be out alone on Samhain.”

“Samhain?” Deitra echoed.

“In America, Halloween, yah?” Brayden tipped his head at the wispy clouds and thickening mist. “They dead return to settle themselves, to say farewell afore moving along. That's why we came, then. Tonight the doors between here and there are open.”

“Huh?” She couldn't make sense of his words. Maybe she was too drunk. Or maybe he's not making sense, she thought. She didn't care if he made sense or not. His voice was gentle, patient, yet strong and sure. He didn't treat her like she was stupid because she didn't understand. Encouraged, she pressed on. “Like ghosts?”

“Aye, ghosts, fetches, wraiths, haunts, geists, all of them.” Brayden grinned, the mischievous spark back in his eye. “D'you want to see 'em?”

Deitra grinned back gamely. “Sure, okay. Show me your scary ghosts.”

“Right.” Brayden stuck out a strong, calloused hand. “Brayden,” he said.

“I know,” Deitra said. “I saw you come in.”

“I know,” he said. “I saw you.” He let the thought hang between them and she hung a hundred wild implications on it.

“D'you have a name or should I just call you a store?”

“A store?”

He laughed, a completely unselfconscious sound. Deitra's heart surged. She longed to make him laugh again.

“No, not a store, silly girl. A stòr. It means 'precious'.”

“Deitra's fine.” She ducked her head, hoping he'd chalk the bloom in her cheeks to the drink.

“Deitra.” He rolled her name. God, but she loved his lilting accent.

“That's a fine, old name,” Brayden said.

He led the way around the inn. Deitra let herself be guided through a world of fog and indistinct shadows, descending a winding goat trail, her heart hammering. Below the sound of crashing surf echoed, booming against the cliffs, reverberating through sea caves. The scents of the sea, salt, fish, the cold waters of the Irish Sea, mingled with the scents of heather, damp earth, dead leaves, and wood smoke from the inn.

Deitra shivered with cold. She was ready to return to the warm safety of the inn when Brayden stopped. Deitra stumbled and he steadied her easily. He tipped his chin towards a large lumpy shape, rising out of the fog, like the prow of a ghost ship.

“A cairn,” Brayden said. His voice low and reverent, breath warm against her neck. Again, gooseflesh prickled her arms, but not from the temperature. Deitra took a deep breath and stepped forward. The stacked rocks seemed to float, an island in a sea of rolling mist. A stone wall ringed the graveyard, an empty archway provided access. Worn headstones marked the graves of the long dead. Ahead, barely outlined by the dim moonlight, the remains of a small, tumbled down church hunkered at the far edge of the graveyard.

From inside the church, a light flared. Brayden stiffened, his grip on her hand tightening.

“Finally found the courage and ventured from your hole?” said a familiar voice. Vittore stood in the doorway of the church, his face illuminated by the orange glow of his cigarette. He smiled contemptuously at Brayden.

“Why tonight, Roman?” Brayden asked. His voice sounded breezy, casual; his posture anything but. He was poised to strike, tightly coiled. Again, Deitra could see the wildness in him, the restrained power.

“Why not?” Vittore flicked the butt of the lit cigarette at Brayden. In the same instant, he lunged forward, bringing a short sword – a gladius – up from where he'd held it along his leg. Vittore darted forward, swung the sword in a tight arch, aiming for Brayden's head. The dark man skipped lightly out of reach.

“Honorable as ever,” Brayden said.

“You're a beast, an animal. You should have died with the rest of your kind,” Vittore hissed.

“You should have left with the rest of yours.”

Another swing. Brayden slid under the blow, but the tip of the sword caught the neck of his sweater. It ripped, leaving one arm bare from shoulder to elbow. A thin stain of blood welled and trickled, marring pale skin.

Deitra searched the cairn for a suitable chunk of slate to throw to distract Vittore. She heaved it at his head. It went wide, crashing into a crumbling headstone, pulverizing it.

Both men froze. Vittore's head whipped towards her. “No!” he shouted, charging her like a maddened bull.

Brayden dashed across the graveyard to her side, enfolding her in his arms. Vittore slammed into them, knocking them to the ground.

“Uff!” Deitra grunted. She landed hard with Brayden on top of her. Groaning, he rolled off. She could see an ugly smear of blood along his naked side, the sweater nearly torn away now.

“What the hell?” she screamed, but Vittore attacked again, the sword whistling through the air toward Brayden's neck. Again, the dark man avoided the blow by fractions of an inch.

Deitra staggered to her feet. Brayden was up too, blood slicking his side from ribs to thigh. He stood between her and Vittore, but the blonde man refocused his attention on Brayden. His eyes flicked to the deep wound in Brayden's side and a cocky smile curved his lips.

“Far too long, Fey,” Vittore growled. He circled Brayden, wolfish, his posture relaxed almost triumphant. “Tonight, your feast night, you join your ancestors.”

“You never even tried to understand us, Romano, didja? You come to me tonight of all nights, with the mists around us. You're a brave fool, I give ya that,” Brayden said. He waved at Deitra, motioning her back up the trail, back toward the distant twinkling lights of the inn. She ran a few steps, looked back.

Brayden stood, bare to the waist, head thrown back as if to embrace the night sky. Around him the mist surged like a living thing, roiling and wrapping him in its white tendrils. With his pale skin, he seemed to melt into it.

Vittore screamed, a wordless sound of rage and frustration. He plunged his sword into Brayden's unprotected chest, driving it in the hilt.

Deitra wanted to scream, to vomit, to faint. Instead, she stood, rooted to the spot, only a few strides away from Brayden. The hot copper tang of blood was thick in the air.

Vittore let out a bark of laughter.

“Roma victor!” he shouted, raising his bloodied sword to the sky.

Deitra found her legs. Trembling she retraced her steps down the hillside.

Brayden was gone. An inky pool of blood marked where he'd stood.

Deitra glared at Vittore. He too stared at the empty spot. For a moment the world held its breath. The wind died down, the mist settled. Frost tipped the lichen and moss, the curling ivy and thistles twinning around the grave markers. Westward, down the steep hill, the surf rolled. Above the stars shone on, indifferent.

“How could you?” Deitra's voice was harsh. She looked around, wishing for a sword of her own.

“It was an abomination. A blight. It's their fault...” Vittore began.

“Our fault what?”

Brayden stood in the archway, grinning playfully. He held a long, thin sword. It curved up slightly at the tip. Even in the faint moonlight, Deitra could see it was a beautiful piece, silvery and inscribed. It looked like something Jerrold might have displayed in his study.

Both men sprang forward. Deitra skipped back as their swords met, slid along, blades caressing like old lovers, parted, met again. Most of Deitra's knowledge of swordplay had been gleaned from Robin Hood movies. She understood little of the finer detail. Vittore attacked in short, powerful bursts. He advanced, turned, advanced again. Brayden gave ground before him, circled, danced, spun, his sword a blur. He seemed to rely on his agility to outmaneuver the Roman.

Brayden darted forward, twisted his blade past Vittore's guard. Vittore uttered a cry, his sword spinning away, clattering against the headstones. Brayden touched his sword to the other man's throat. The blade must have been fantastically sharp, as a line a blood welled instantly, falling to stain Vittore's jacket.

“Enough shite,” Brayden said. “Yield. Leave our lands once and for all, Romano.”

Vittore's face contorted in a snarl of rage and defeat. He sagged, his upraised hands falling to his lap. “I never thought it would come to this,” he said.

“Off wicha,” Brayden said. “We don't want your gods, your roads or your-”

His words were cut off as Vittore surged up, a small knife in his hand. He aimed for Brayden's neck, but the dark man dodged away, and the knife sunk into his shoulder, buried to the hilt.

Brayden swung his sword, so swift and sharp it barely paused as it sliced through Vittore's neck, severing his head from his body.

Deitra gasped and covered her mouth, watching as Vittore's body crumpled into a pile of dust and old bones.

Brayden held out a hand to her, but it wavered. His brow knit in a puzzled frown. He glanced at the wound in his chest. Dark veins spidered out from it, spreading across Brayden's pale chest.

“Iron,” he said.

Brayden reached out to steady himself, missed the wall, and sat down hard. His sword clattered away. She could hear his breathing, quick and shallow.

“No!” cried Deitra. It wasn't fair. “But you won,” she said as if she could argue with the corruption spreading from the wound. “What can I do? How can I help you?”

“Easy now, a stòr. Help is on the way,” Brayden muttered, his voice low, strained. “We travel in packs.”

Out of the mist strode Fáthach and Salix. Fáthach seemed to have grown about a foot or so, his skin a dark greyish color. It blended into the rain washed hills. Salix's hair blew around her as if caught by a wind no one else could feel. It had a strange, leafy quality and looked more deep forest green than dark brown. Her skin was a soft, nut brown.

Deitra rose, unsure what to do. Around her, the mist seemed to boil. She could see dark shapes moving through it, just beyond the graveyard.

“The Roman is gone?” Salix asked. Deitra nodded.

“The curse is broken, Prince.” Fáthach's voice was a deep rumble, mingling with the crash of the surf below. There was another sound growing, far off, drawing closer through the mist. Pounding hoofs and beating wings.

Salix knelt at Brayden's side. Deitra did the same. The knife's corruption had spread to his jaw, black tendrils crawling up his cheeks.

Salix reached for the knife hilt but drew her hand back, hissing in pain. The hilt smoked and Brayden groaned, biting his lip.

“Iron,” Salix said, her voice the soft moan of wind through willow branches.

“Cursed Roman!” the giant growled. Great chalky tears rolled down his face. He lifted Brayden's silver sword, set the tip over Brayden's heart. “I'm so sorry, my lord.”

“Wait.” Deitra grabbed the giant's wrist. It felt like the rocks of the cairn. “Before, he healed. I can take the knife out. Would he be able to heal again?”

“We can only hope,” Salix said. “Hurry, human. Don't make him suffer.”

It was hard to get a good grip on the knife. It was deeply embedded and the hilt slick with Brayden's blood. Every time she fumbled, Brayden jerked in pain. The giant held him down. Finally, Dietra managed to yank the knife free. She threw it as far as she could. Brayden sighed, his eyes fluttering closed.

“Brayden?” Deitra shook him. “Brayden. Brayden, wake up!”

“Peace,” the willowy woman murmured, stroking Deitra's cheek. “He needs a moment only, to draw strength from the mist.”

Deitra wiped tears from her eyes and looked around. The graveyard was surrounded by ghostly figures, some man-like, others animalistic or strange combinations of both. All waited silently.

The gold eyes were still closed, but the barest hint of a grin tugged at the corner of Brayden's mouth. “He's awake!” Deitra cried.

“Shh,” he whispered. He reached up and pulled her head down, brushed her lips with his. “Thank you.” She kissed him fiercely. He tasted of spice and sunlight, wind and rain and life.

“My Prince,” Salix said. “It is time to go home.”

“A moment,” Brayden said.

“It is nearly dawn,” Fáthach said, a distant avalanche of sound. The eastern rim of the sky blushed a faint blue. The stars faded. Far, far away a bell tolled, calling the faithful to All Soul's mass.

“Please,” Salix said. Around them the mist thinned, the shapes of ancient warriors and wild hunters vanishing with it. “Hurry.”

Brayden searched Deitra's face, his gold eyes seeming to touch her very core. “I have reason to stay,” he said.

“Your mother sorrows at your absence. Your promise is kept. The land is free of the Roman. You must return home.” Salix took a few steps and stopped, her whole body straining towards the waiting mist.

Brayden tore his eyes away from Deitra to glare at the woman. “Ever the dutiful one, Salix.” He stood easily, no hint of injury. The black veins had vanished, leaving his skin smooth and perfect.

“We owe you our lord's life. If you ever need true aid, call for Fáthach,” the giant said. He patted Deitra shoulder hard enough to nearly knock her over. She clutched Brayden.

“I will come back, if I can,” Brayden took her hand and pulled her close, touched his forehead to hers.

“That's not good enough,” Deitra said. “I can't just go back now. I can't...” Live without you. It sounded so desperate. She wouldn't say it. What if he didn't feel the same?

“And I can't live without you. I knew the moment I saw you. There was something between us. Twin souls long separated.” Brayden glanced around at the lightening sky, the evaporating mist. “I can't stay. I wish I could. I'll find you, a stòr.”

He stepped away, following Fáthach and Salix into the mist. Her heart went with him. She drew a ragged breath.

“Wait!” She sprinted down the hill, into the mist. “I'm going with you.”

Brayden turned. “And give up your mortal life?” He was starting to fade with the mist, only his dark hair, gold eyes and impish smile stood out plainly.

“And gain you,” Deitra said.

Brayden held out a hand and she took it. As he drew her into the shinning mist, she looked back. They rose through the air, leaving behind the cool, windswept hills, the ancient stone walls, the warm hearths, and human world.

“It's funny,” Deitra said, nestling her head against Brayden's shoulder as he spread his great dark wings. “I think I may just miss England after all.”

THE END


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M. K. Martin is a motorcycle-riding, linguistics nerd. A former Army interrogator with a degree in psychology, she uses her unique knowledge and skill set to create smart, gritty stories that give readers a glimpse into the darker corners of the human mind. Her debut novel Survivors' Club will be out April 17th, 2018 from Not a Pipe Publishing, but you can pre-order it now! She writes primarily speculative fiction.

It's here! The Cover Reveal and Pre-order Announcement for Survivors' Club by M. K. Martin

You can pre-order M. K. Martin's Survivors' Club now! The novel will be available on April 17th, but you can reserve your copy in hardcover, trade paperback, or Kindle, and get it right away when it's available! Just click one of the links below.

Here's the amazing cover by Aaron Smith:

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And check out how cool the whole hardcover dust jacket is!

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Geneticist Marius Tenartier wants to cure humanity’s worst diseases, but Chrysalis Biopharmaceuticals uses his work to mutate people into terrifying abominations. An outbreak threatens the survival of the human race. With the help of the head of security and the CEO’s fearless daughter, Marius races to stop the spreading infection before it becomes a global pandemic.

The world is on the line, and the clock is ticking.

 

“A fun, fast read. ...thriller, horror, conspiracy and more all rolled into one.”
-Kurt Clopton
author of SuperGuy
 
"A taut bio-thriller with an ensemble of protagonists so lovable you'll want to take them home … and a threat so dire you'll have nightmares."
-Karen Eisenbrey
author of The Gospel According to St. Rage and the forthcoming Daughter of Magic
 
“…too plausible for comfort, the monsters much too close to home, and the knowledge that we have the technology to unleash such destruction is enough to leave the reader gasping right up to the very end!”
-Mikko Azul
author of The Staff of Fire and Bone
 
“Filled with the shrieks, howls, moans, and wordless mumbles of the Infected, Survivors’ Club uncovers malevolent plans and subversive twists that lead us down a path littered with corpses, staggering toward an approaching doom. Get ready, because once you pick this novel up, you won’t be able to put it down!”
-Heather S. Ransom
author of Going Green and the forthcoming Greener
 
"I loved the intelligent science fiction virology throughout Survivors' Club. It adds a realistic and believable flare to this compelling narrative."
-author Andrew Thomson
 
"After reading The Survivor's Club, I felt as if I'd barely survived, myself. Creatures, espionage and enough science to have me checking the closets before bed. M.K.Martin's thrilling novel stands up beside Jurassic Park, and Dr. Marius Tenartier may be the next iconic Dr. Ian Malcolm."
-Micayla Lally,
author of A Work Of Art

Pre-order your copy from your favorite independent bookstore by asking for it at the front counter, or order it from one of these fine online booksellers:

Powell's: HERE

Barnes & Noble: HERE

Amazon: HERE

Kindle: HERE

Want to meet Ms. Martin? Pre-order your copy and bring it to be signed at the launch party on Saturday, April 21 at 6 PM at Steelhead Brewery Eugene. RSVP for the event on Facebook HERE.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Faces of Change" by Jean Harkin

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.


Faces of Change*

by Jean Harkin

This is a short but fascinating tale that addresses much in its brevity: how to find the strength within, the joy in solitude, and the connection between humans and animals. I particularly enjoy the parallel between poachers and attackers, and the joint lack of respect for life that's represented there. Harkin has written a truly beautiful little story here. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor
 

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A girl at a Midwest university and a lion on the grasslands of Africa changed places. No one knows how this happened—or why. After the switch, the red-haired girl looked as she always had, but her empowered soul was the lion’s. She kept to herself, rarely speaking to people on campus; when she did, they found her difficult to understand. She often wandered to the prairie south of campus to walk barefoot, breathe the perfume of the prairie flowers, listen to whispers of the tall grass as the wind gushed through, and hear the calls of red-winged blackbirds.

The lion, with his kingly mane, appeared as usual but behaved oddly, according to the occasional lion who encountered him. With the soul of a girl, he had no wish to engage in battle with other lions. And he sought after his own prey, not wanting to depend on females of a pride to bring him food. The lion loved rolling in the tall grasses of the African savanna and gazing up at the deepest blue sky on the planet.

One hot day during the dry season, the lion lay down on a mattress of grass like fresh straw—still soft but firm. Eyes closed, the lion dreamed of playing on the veldt, chasing antelopes, and sniffing breezes to catch stories of fellow creatures.

Abruptly, he was kicked on his rump and awakened. Ready to fight on his feet, the instinct faded quickly when he saw the trouble surrounding him. A ring of men armed with guns targeted him. The tender soul within the lion looked up at the poachers. Why must you hurt me? Do you not realize the great beauty of creation that I am? Please spare me. As the men tightened their circle, the lion closed his eyes and mourned others of his tribe, fellow creatures suffering the misdeeds of heartless thugs, and wildlife in great numbers disappearing. The lion, realizing his hopeless position against a squadron of guns, aimed one more pleading look at the men and hoped for mercy.

The earth began to shake and vibrate. Blaring, trumpeting noises blasted the silent air of the savanna. The poachers turned their attention away from the lion and began hollering, tumbling over each other to escape the tumult of stampeding elephants rushing toward them. The poachers sprinted off in four directions.

With the danger suddenly past, the lion inhaled delicious earth scents once again. I’m alive! He stood up to welcome and thank the elephants for saving him. At the same time, he regretted his vulnerability and helplessness to save himself.

That same day, the red-haired girl named Savanna walked away from the stately trees and college buildings at Iowa State and continued past campus town. Although it was February, with darkness falling fast on the afternoon, a deep urge to visit the prairie possessed her. As she left the campus farther and farther behind, and clouds accelerated the arrival of nighttime, a chill formed around her shoulders. She shrugged it off and began to run, knowing her beloved prairie was near.

A mottled gray car spewing exhaust fumes pulled up alongside the roadway, blocking Savanna’s path. The windows rolled down and out came hoots and whistles. “Hey girlie!”

Savanna loped around the car, slowed to a majestic walk, and kept her nose pointed straight ahead, down the country road toward her destination. No other cars or people were in sight. Her neck bristled and her senses sharpened, alert for trouble.

Car doors opened and slammed shut. Four young men in dark jackets—two tall, two shorter and heftier—exited the car, rushed toward the lone girl, and surrounded her. This group was not from campus. Danger! One of the men grabbed her arm and began pulling her toward the ground.

Uh oh. They don’t know who they’ve caught! Savanna called up the powers of her body, the strength of her lungs, and let go a tremendous roar, intense enough to frighten a herd of elephants. She flung off the weak arm that held hers, tossing the man into a ditch.

“My arm—it’s broken!” he screamed. The others fell back in alarm as Savanna bared her pointy teeth and charged at them, her red hair like a fiery war bonnet, and yellow eyes aflame. Her tour de force scattered the men and sent them scrambling back to the car, one of them still bellowing in pain. Savanna kept roaring to ensure their departure. The car’s motor roared in return as it sped away.

Now for some peace and quiet. She watched the car’s tail lights grow faint in the distance and then continued toward her rendezvous with the prairie.


* (An earlier version of this story was published in "The Writers Mill Journal", vol. 5, 2016.)

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Jean Harkin, of Washington County, Oregon, is the author of "Night in Alcatraz: And Other Uncanny Tales," an anthology of short stories honed by magic realism and humor, published in 2016.

Jean belongs to two writers' groups: Writers' Mill in Portland and Northwest Independent Writers Association. She is revising her novel, "Promise Full of Thorns" that was selected as a finalist in Maple Lane Books publishing contest, 2016.