#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

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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:

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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!”

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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.

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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.

Djinn Playlist

Sang Kromah, author of  Djinn

Sang Kromah, author of Djinn

I have never been capable of writing in complete silence. Occasionally, Buffy the Vampire Slayer serves as the score as it plays on a loop in a shrunken tab, but music is a constant.

After creating an outline, I normally create a playlist, because, at that point, I know where my story is going. The playlist for Djinn is primal, angsty, intense, and fun, which sums up the protagonist Bijou. I decided to begin with Salif Keita’s “Nou Pas Bouger,” because it’s Mandingo and French, which is Bijou, whether she knows it or not. “Nou Bas Bouger” is a song sang in French and Bambara, one of the Mandingo dialects. The song is basically saying, "Give me back what is rightfully mine…what you took from me before my 'independence.'" I felt like this was the perfect way to kick off the playlist, because this is the entire struggle of the book. I can’t explain much more without including any spoilers.

“All Ur Love” is a love song by Liberian R&B singer, FA. It’s self-explanatory, but whenever I write about Bijou daydreaming about her feelings for Sebastian being reciprocated, this song comes to mind.

(I’m only going to go over the songs that aren’t in English. Otherwise, I will end up giving too many spoilers.)

The song “Kuma” basically means, no matter how ugly the truth may be, it must be said. I always imagine this song during Bijou’s story about Femeni and her father, Chief Musa. As a child, I would listen to this song and tell my dad, "This song encompasses the beauty of Africa for me." It’s in the Mandingo language as well.

The song “Mandela” lists leaders from history. You can actually hear Salif Keita counting in English from one to twenty-seven for the years Nelson Mandela was imprisoned. As he counts, the female singers add other leaders, who had many enemies, which ultimately led to their demise. The song’s chorus is in English, “You shed tears for others.” I wrote to this song furiously during the part when Femeni is fighting the mami wata in the lagoon and they take her baby.

“Khona” is a fun song sung in the Zulu language. All I know is that khona means “there” in Zulu. I couldn’t imagine a better song for Bijou and Amina to enter Bijou’s masquerade party to. It’s classic African party music, and I love the picture it paints. It’s a reminder to the reader that Bijou has strong African roots.

“Folon” had to be the last song on the list because it means “the past” in Mandingo, and above all else, Bijou has to embrace the past to understand today and survive for the future. It also had to end with “Folon” because that is the title of the next book in the series.

Download the playlist on Spotify HERE.

1.      “Nou Pas Bouger”- Salif Keita, Paul “Groucho” Smylke

2.      “No Roots”- Alice Merton

3.      “Paranoid Android”- Radiohead

4.      “Every Now and Then”- The Noisettes

5.      “Dumb Things”- Paul Kelly and the Coloured Girls

6.      “All Ur Love”- FA

7.      “Destiny”- Zero 7 feat. Sia

8.      “See You Again”- Tyler, the Creator

9.      “Same Drugs”- Chance the Rapper

10.  “Johnny”- Yemi Alade

11.  “Killing Me Softly”- The Fugees

12.  Kuma- Salif Keita

13.  “Mandela”- Salif Keita

14.  “The Man Who Sold the World”- David Bowie

15.  “Black Hole Sun”- Soundgarden

16.  “Retrograde”- James Blake

17.  “Don’t Give Up”- Noisettes

18.  “6 Underground”- Sneaker Pimps

19.  “Somersault”- Zero 7 feat. Sia

20.  “Leave Me as You Find Me”- Josh Powell, Fraser Smith

21.  “The Pageant of the Bizarre”- Zero 7 feat. Sia

22.  “Aerials”- System of a Down

23.  “To Build a Home”- The Cinematic Orchestra

24.  “Khona”- Mafikizolo feat. Uhuru

25.  “Mr. McGee”- Zero 7

26.  “Folon”- Salif Keita


Find Djinn at your local independent bookstore via IndieBound

in hardcover HERE

or in paperback HERE

or on B&N.com HERE

or get it on Amazon HERE

or on Kindle HERE

 

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Threads in a Web" by Judy Hurd

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.


Threads in a Web

by Judy Hurd

A mystical fantasy that feels a little bit like a dream, a little bit like a memory, and a little bit like something entirely new. "Threads in a Web" is an interesting glimpse of a mythical Scotland with kings and meddlers, lairds and lovers, all woven together in the tapestry of life. Hurd remarked that this is one of her favorite short stories, and I can see why. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

 

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Best to show only craven humility, Ryel thought, so he kept his head humbly down, ignoring legs gone numb under him and shoulders aching with a pulling that ran down his spine. "Fool," he told himself, "to hope." But it was there all the same, a heavy knot in his breast, while they argued his fate.

      One of the new king's lairdlings said in a voice gravely after the long battle, "It has always been our custom to acquit the proletariats."

      “No common man, this,” the new king snorted, pacing away and back again, finally stopping before him.

Ryel knew what the king looked on, a clansman who had served his lineage laird with zeal and honor, a soldier stripped of all soldiery garb, bound and kneeling on the trampled grass. An evening breeze ruffled the new shorn hair at the nape of his neck, his clansman's braid decorating some victor's belt—a reminder, that, of the bitter day.

      He retained one satisfaction in his soul beside the bitterness in his heart of earth turned red with clansmen's blood in a battle gone all wrong. His dead laird's sire, mortally bleeding, had hugged his hand and kissed it. "I am spared the traitor's cursed blade," the old king had said weakly but with a smile.

      The traitor, this new king, remained a while longer, hands on hips, scowling over him. This king, new crowned on the battlefield, said bitterly to his co-conspirators, "This man nearly stole our victory. Surely, he cheated us of its trophy. Yet, you are arguing exoneration."

      "But they are witches, sire," the lairdling protested.

      Exasperation heavy in his posture, the new king rounded on his officers. “You are feeling, my fellow conspirators, extravagant and honorable toward an enemy we killed so easily in daylight when the moon is rising. Victory is a lofty plateau,” he heatedly reminded them, “the precipice of failure a long way behind. When we bargained with those same said witches it seemed a trivial occupation, sacrificing a human to the un-human.”

      The king glared at the man they had thrown on the grass before him. "The witches’ claim may be in question in our minds,” he said dispassionately, “but I dare not willfully defy them in the realm of their power. One brave man for a kingdom, as the contract was struck."

      "The one bravest man," the witch reminded them, striding in among them from the gathering darkness, leading behind her a black horse. She threw back the black hood of her cloak. The firelight ran copper over her hair. She was tall as a man. Her eyes were yellow and her face beautiful and prideful. She approached the captive where he knelt and raised his face upon her hand to see him better.

       Looking into her eyes, Ryel felt he should know her but could not quite remember, puzzlement shadowing his face.

      "You think you know me?" she questioned softly. "I tell you this, human, I know you. Wrap yourself in your bravery. It is that attribute that will sustain you through to the morrow. Before this night is finished you will not forget me."

      The witch turned to the king. "Your debt is paid," she announced plainly. "You have three days to bury your dead, collect your scattered men and be gone from this land to your own."

      With haughty arrogance, she turned her back on the new king and his chiefs, pulled Ryel to his feet, and pushed him into the saddle. Only the fire protested, spitting angry sparks at the sky as the witch led the black horse into the deepening dusk. Ryel did not look back. He would not have them know he was afraid.

     

At a casual pace, the witch led the horse up and down the hills. But the easy gait of the saddle seemed a fallacy when the witch's copper hair flowed in streamers behind her on an unfelt wind and the wild landscape galloped by the trailside. Reality and time lost their continuity. The land faded to dark but never gave up its color, and the sky went from dusky evening to a sapphire night. The evening star chased a moon that never climbed from the horizon. Together they sailed, instead, around the land's edge, east to west in an endless circle, each trailing watery light as if comets.

      Fatigued and rocked by the rhythm of the black horse, Ryel fell to dreaming dreams in which battle cries and the wailing of death haunted him. His forfeited mail weighted his sore shoulders and his lost helmet rested heavy over his brow. “Fate has turned against us,” Laird Bryant rasped angrily and choked up blood. “The battle has gone amiss, lad. Save the king, if you can,” he enjoined passionately, “but after this terrible day I think there will be a new king.” Then Laird Bryant died, breathing his last in Ryel’s arms.

In his dream, Ryel laid his laird on the bloody earth for a second time and took up his laird’s shield and his own sword that was slippery with blood in his fist. He swung onto the back of his clan chief’s war-horse. It was fractious under his unaccustomed hand, snapping at passing horses and men alike, but turned eagerly onto the fighting field. A flash of sunlight on the royal standard drew Ryel to the heart of the fighting. He called his clansmen to follow. Parrying and thrusting the while, he led them into the hell of battle.

They cut a swath toward the central banner. The clamor of arms and shrieking of steel along steel was deafening. Screams of death and terror were all around them. The enemy’s banners fell before them, only to be taken up again in desperation and driven forward. Ryel turned his laird’s stallion with his heels. He raised his sword, parried, turned his blade to take a killing swath. Suddenly, the horse skidded onto its hunches, waking him. He jerked up his head. A gasp of surprise that faded to a sigh of exhaustion escaped his lungs.

      They had at last stopped in a meadow surrounded by huge conifers more ancient than any in his own land. The moon bathed the meadow in a milky light from its station on the horizon. "This is my home," the witch told him and helped him from the saddle. While the witch pulled the saddle from the black horse, he looked around for a house, but there was none.

      Ryel rolled his shoulders to relieve the aches and strain. His hands had become numb from the bindings. The witch touched the cords that bound him, and they fell away. "Come," she said, and led him into the meadow, where she took off her cloak and put it round his shoulders. It was thick yet without weight and soft as down. "It will keep you warm," she said, "while you sleep."

      "Here?" he asked.

      "Yes," she smiled and with a touch light as moth wings she put her fingertips against his forehead. The aching and pain flowed from him, and he sank down asleep.

      When he woke, the moon had at last set. Overhead, the constellations had come out brighter and more abundant than he had ever seen them. The stars themselves reflected over and over in the dewdrops on a spider’s web that stretched from treetop to treetop, their sparkle running brilliant along the threads. Ryel struggled out of the warm cloak, blinking to clear away sleep, but his eyes had not deceived him. The whole of the meadow was canopied in a huge web, glistening with the starlight. At its very center was a large, black orb.

      The orb moved, unfurling legs to stretch on the web, shivering it, celestial light bouncing along the strands, dewdrops falling to earth like rain. Then the orb let loose and fell to earth at the end of a silk line, landing delicately on the grass beside him.

      He scrambled to his feet, the witch’s cloak tangling under him, bringing him down. The creature reached out and gathered him in, tucking him into a grating of its foremost legs. It was long as a man was tall, black of body and fangs. Its many eyes were yellow. Stiff copper colored hairs covered its legs and face and pedipalps, a frightening creature for all its fragile parts.

      With gentle strokes of sensitive palps, it caressed his face, tucking back the fiercesome fangs. Breathless and terrified, Ryel pinched shut his eyes. Its touch continued, light, shy, exploring, as if, despite its many eyes, the great creature was blind. Ryel dared not object. It explored further, moving down his body, a touching feminine and all too sensual.

      Suddenly it began to hum. A sound not unpleasant, like cords of harp strings. A ghost image formed on the retina of his eyes, the witch's face, arrogant and beautiful. He was so startled Ryel opened his eyes. "You," he gasped, not meaning to say it aloud.

      She hovered over him, black and copper, quivering with anticipation, threatening in her demeanor and character. "What do you want?" he demanded, his voice shaky and high even to his own ears. In answer the creature stroked him, and he understood all too well.

      Revulsion rocked his soul. Bile came thick in his mouth. In a rush of panic, he pulled himself from under her touch. Her fangs snapped down, their venomous points close and threatening. The coppery hairs on her palps and round her jowls bristled and quivered. He pressed himself to the earth, dared not move, barely dared breathe.

      A stretch of eternity he sweated in cold panic. The quivering hairs of her palps brush ever so lightly over his skin. He shivered at their touch but dared not protest or take his eyes from her. Gradually the creature relaxed, fangs drawing back carefully and palps touching him tentatively, and again the humming, very, very softly.

      Ryel lay still, learning to breathe again. Anger slowly replaced fear, anger growing unbidden, yet strong, anger that he survived a bloody day to come to this, anger for bargains not of his own making. A free man, responsible only to the pledges made his clan laird, had been sold for a throne.

      Against all good sense, he struggled to sit up, and the creature moved away and let him. He wrapped the witch's cloak about himself and demanded to know the whole of the bargain that had been struck.

      A shimmering filled with fey lights stirred the atmosphere around the creature then the witch sat upon the grass beside him. "A king was made today," she replied simply. "The bravest man was the price demanded.”

      "You meddled in human affairs," he accused more heatedly than he intended. "You sold a thief a throne and for why?"

      "Our numbers have grown too few to save the weavings," she answered, as if that were all the explaining necessary.

      A long moment the witch studied him with her head to one side. "Despite what you think," she said solemnly, "it was a painful thing we did, to twist and misshape fate. Yet, by your own hand, your own turn of mind, did you come to be here.

      "It is true we manipulated the weavings in the fabric of humanity," she admitted, "so you could not escape those threads interwoven with your own. The pattern was designed to trap the strongest thread, but the choices that singled you out were of your own making, by your own devices did you resist our meddling and survive this bloody day when those around you did not."

      "Who are you?" Ryel demanded.

      "Humans call us Fate.”

      "If there is more than one of you, do you not have your own name?" he asked.

      "Maephila. I am named Maephila," she replied, startled.

      "You are surprised I ask? It seemed only fair I know your name when you surely know mine."

      "Ryel," Maephila told him, a mocking smile in her eyes and on her lips, "you are named Ryel mac Blair of Clan Bryant. I know you well.” She pointed to the web over head. "Your thread runs through my weaving, and always you have chosen your own design, and the pattern you force into my weaving has not always been beautiful."

      "Tell me why I should do this act of insemination."

      She drew herself up straight, her mocking smile fading, arrogance stiffening the way she held herself. He smiled his own mocking smile and told her, "A certain amount of disdain comes with bravery."

      Some of the stiffness went out of her. "Always your own pattern...always.” Maephila waved her hand to include all the giants surrounding them. "These trees were planted the day I was born. I am the youngest. Only the true ancients remember when humanity came to be. Did you know," she asked, "that humanity was created out of Fate's ennui? Before humanity our weavings were without pattern or design, crude and ugly. Without the threads to the fabric, humanity is without principal or moral, narcissistic and iniquitous. By the threads we are bound together, interdependent.

"Though our lives are long, many of us have grown old. A few have died. As our numbers diminish, humans in greater score wander with no hope, no thread to the fabric. Without care the weavings fray, the threads break and fly away on the winds. When your armies passed through into Oblivion, we saw a final solution."

      "You are telling me there are no males to proliferate your kind?"

      "My father was not a weaver," she told him curtly, "but he was the last of his kind. He went away after planting my trees. I do not know why he went away, perhaps to die. He was old beyond time when I was born. Men called him a god. We called him father, brother, uncle. I have never known his true name."

      "Hearing this, what am I to say?" Ryel asked. "That I acknowledge this bargain you made with enemies of my laird, who alone commanded my allegiance, when his blood and the blood of my clansmen were forfeit in the doing of the bargain?"

      "Whether you acknowledge the bargain or not, Ryel mac Blair, you are here that I might bear your child. You thought you knew me when first we set eyes on one another. We are tangled together in that," she acknowledged, pointing above at the shimmering web. “That you create design you and I are bound because I weave your pattern. By your thread, I was chosen.”

      He filled and emptied his lungs very slowly, warm inside her cloak and still he shivered. "Are you cold?" she asked in earnest concern and laid her hand on his shoulder. He shrugged off her touch. She frowned. "You think I will make so poor a lover?"

      "You are a spider," he accused shakily.

      Maephila laughed. "You compare me to that little impostor?” She frowned in sudden understanding. "You are afraid of spiders. I thought I knew you well, but I had not known that."

      "Yes, afraid," he declared, "knowing my doom, seeing the creature of my death."

      Genuinely surprised, she asked, "Is that what you believe? Foolish man, there is no comparing. It has always amazed us you humans know so little about your own world and nothing of ours. Certainly, you do not know much about that impostor that inhabits both. Few spiders cannibalize," she said then stopped. She tilted her head in a contemplative way and suddenly smiled, not pleasantly but mockingly. "Of course, there are those few that do consume their proliferators," she taunted. "Where did they get such habits? After all, they are pretenders, much as you humans are pretenders to the gods."

      Affronted, Ryel frowned darkly, pride stung, and caution vanquished. "It is you who pretends," he declared angrily, "that I might equate a god's act. Tell me, Maephila, behind a witch's shimmering, which do Fates aspire, passive chroniclers or impassioned meddlers?"

      She sat very still, glaring at him. Her eyes changed in hue from yellow to golden umber to orcherous, and he knew he teetered on the edge of her tolerance. Bravery was one thing, bravado another. He had said too much, still, he refused to cower. He watched the witch's expressions through anger and haughty arrogance, until cold disdain crossed her beautiful face.

      She raised up her hands and snapped her fingers, and the spider crouched over him. Not wanting to see the creature she had become, Ryel crossed his arms onto his knees and put his head against them. The spider stroked his hair to mock him, and though he wished it not, he trembled. She hummed to him her deep reverberations till they vibrated in his marrow and his soul, and he became lost.       

     

The sun woke him. It had risen over his toes and the treetops round him. He was alive still to know the breeze ruffled his hair and to feel stiff and bruised from battle and other acts he refused to think on, so he let the sun's warmth seep into his sore body and let his mind run in circles.

      "Fate has turned against us," Lord Bryant had told him with his dying breath. Fate, what had he ever considered of fate, that one made his own fate? Meddlers, Maephila and her sisters, but he had made the choices, determining his own fate to be betrayed by humanity to be, in turn, its savior. Maephila, Maephila, tormentor and lover, the terror of her and the passion, both could devour him. Sanity was in another world, but that world was different today than it had been yesterday. Fated, bartered and witch-tainted, could he ever return to the world that birthed him?       

      He sat up abruptly and the bed swayed violently, like a boat caught crossways in waves. He clutched the hammock's sides and gasped at the sight far below.

      He could see the whole of the meadow as if a quilt. Shadows cast by the great trees stretched across its flora-patched lawn. The ribbon of a stream laced one side. The black horse kicked up his heels in the open field as if a colt.

      Quickly the violent swaying of his bed abated. Still, it rocked lightly in the wind, and he dared not let go the side. The web of threads thick as ropes stretched out around him with the hammock strung to its warp lines. Under and over and on all sides the lacy patterns gleamed in the sunlight. He reached a hand out with care and ran fingers over the intricate weavings of the threads.

      "You slept well?" the witch called from a nearby tree where she sat at leisure on a branch as thick as his thigh. She leaned forward and looked down at the meadow. "I could lower you on a thread, if you wish," she said. "Or you can come to the tree by way of the warp lines and climb down."

      Her help or his courage, he shuddered at the thought of facing the creature in full light. "I will climb down," he told her and tucked up his legs to crawl out of the hammock. It swung and swayed with his shifting weight, and Ryel clung tight to the silken lines. Maephila stood, stepping from branch to warp line, she would come to his aid, but he took a breath to steady himself and stayed her help with an emphatic “no,” perhaps more emphatically than he intended, for she left him entirely to his own devices.

      Like a ladder, he descended tree branches to the ground where he found a fire burning in a hearth ring, hot water boiling in a pot. A mug of tea set out with bread and honey. He hadn't eaten since before dawn the day of the battle. Was it only yesterday he wondered when so many fell around him? Only yesterday Lord Bryant died in his arms? "Save the king, if you can," his laird had commanded. He had tried—in vain. The king, too, had died in his arms.

      He sat close to the fire ring, eating and sipping from the mug. His tongue did not taste the rich bread, or the sweet honey, or the robust tea. He ate because his body needed the nourishment, creeping across the web—even the climb from the tree had left him shaking with weakness.        

His attention instead was for the black horse darting in and out of dappled shade, playfully tossing mane and swishing tail on the wind. With a soldier's eye, he watched the animal, assessing its staying power, its speed and its willingness to be approached.

      "He will not allow you near him unless I approve," the witch said. He looked up at her with the half-forgotten mug in his hand, half a loaf of bread neglected by the fire. Her yellow eyes were more golden in morning light, and summer's copper was darkened to fall's amber within the plait of her hair hanging over one shoulder. She was strong and graceful, and to his chagrin, exceedingly desirable. She laid neatly folded clothes and a kit on the grass beside him and began steeping herself a mug of tea. He watched her at so homey a task in brooding silence, wanting to escape her and aching for her, and loathing himself for that desire.

      He looked away at the horse. "Will you allow it?" he asked, sounding desperate.

      "If you wish," she agreed gently and greatly surprised him. "Come and go where and when as you desire.” She tilted her head in that way of hers, sipped her tea and studied him. "Guilt is a powerful emotion among humans," she said at last. "Have you considered that you might not again be accepted among your own?"

      He shook his head. Not that he hadn’t considered the idea but that he was unwilling to acknowledge it. Maephila laid her hand on his shoulder. Unlike the night before, he did not shrug her off though he was aware she felt the tension in him.

      "What was done was done for the most good and cannot be undone," she said not unkindly.

      "Meddler, do you really know what you have done?" he asked.

      "Do I know, or do I understand?" she queried. "I do know, but as for understanding in the context of a human, no, I do not. I feel your human emotions, they are the patterns of the design, but I cannot understand them, much as I try. What I feel now is your sadness for what is lost."

      "But not lost to be found again," he said bitterly, keeping his temper in tight check. "You have no remorse, Maephila, you and your sisters. After all, what is remorse but a human emotion, just another pretty pattern among so many pretty patterns in a Fate's weaving?"

      She frowned at him, but he could not stop himself, he went on accusingly. "Emotions are not just pretty interwoven designs in a tapestry," he told her, "they are the very fibers that make the fabric."

      "You are insightful, Ryel mac Blair. That we appear insensitive is not that we are uncaring, rather our protection against being rendered incapacitated by a sea of human emotions.       

      "You, man of Clan Bryant, despite your powerful emotions, have the strongest sense of self of any human in my keeping. When you are gone from the weaving, I will miss the twists and turns of your thread. Before that day, I hold to the hope that you will forgive us. Frightened by the deaths of our sisters, we may have done a selfish act. I would like to think not."

      She laid her hand over the gifts on the grass. "Clean clothes," she said, "and a kit to replace your lost one. Bathe in the stream, dry in the sun."

      "Meddling again," he said, smiling to please her. "You cannot resist.” He climbed to his feet. And she, too, stood up, picking up her offerings, things far finer than any he had ever possessed. He reached for her gifts and her fingers caught his and held them.

      "Maephila, what have we?" he asked, knowing that she knew.

      "We have made a son," she said proudly, "the final solution, who will, like his father, walk in two worlds."

      He looked into her eyes, knowing he thought her beautiful and hideous by turns, dreading her and yearning for her, and that she knew all this. Fate, he thought, that I love her who cannot love. She'd witched him, surely, to make him her willing lover, but...

      "What becomes of us, Maephila?"

      "I am your Fate," she answered, "your manipulator. Your lover, Ryel mac Blair, connected ever after by more than threads in a web."


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Judy Hurd is a writer from southern Oregon and a member of Willamette Writers. This story was published in an anthology of competition participants hosted by Gom Press, The Best New Sci-Fi and Fantasy for 2004. Lately. Ms. Hurd has turned to longer fiction; she just finished a novella and is working on a novel length Sci-Fi written from the alien's point of view. 

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Blaise" by Lori Ubell

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.


Blaise

by Lori Ubell

(Trigger Warning: Mentions of rape, abuse.) A writing professor in college told my short story class that flash fictions and short stories need to be an inch long and a mile deep. Blaise may be only a thousand words, but those thousand words do a lot of work to paint a very vivid picture of a very troubled person in a horribly realistic situation. 40% of all homeless youth are LGBTQ, and they face greater risks of mental health issues, unsafe sexual practices, and victimization [True Colors Fund]. Ubell's writing is gritty and unflinching in its telling of Blaise's life experiences. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

 

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She looked like a stone butch, but it wasn’t that simple. She was a twisted girl who could only come with her clients, none of whom were female.

Not that her lovers minded. She could certainly make them come. And she was so handsome, with eyes the color of a ripe bruise, and a smile that made you hot from your neck down to the tips of your toes.

And strong. So strong she could split a log with one blow. So strong that if she held you down, you couldn’t get up, no matter how fit you thought you were.

She preferred girls from the upper middle class, and she never let them whore.

“You couldn’t stand it, not for one day,” she’d say, as she packed that little bag with the red silk underwear she never wore at home. Then she’d be gone, for a night or a week, coming back exhausted and more silent than usual.

After a long bath, she’d emerge and dig a wad of cash out of the bag.

“Here, darlin’,” she’d say, tossing it on the bed, “for you.” She wouldn’t talk about what she’d done for it, but the girl always knew.

And sometimes, in bed, she’d imitate the men, and they’d both laugh so hard that life seemed good, at least in that moment.

But the rages came without warning, and they were terrifying.

At first, you’d just hear about them.

Late one night, she threw her bicycle through a plate glass window downtown. No one saw, but it made the 11 o’clock news. It was in the days of the Weather Underground and Baader-Meinhof, and the newscaster speculated about what it could mean.

What it meant was that Blaise’s bike had a flat, and she was walking it home when a guy started hassling her.

“Hey, what are you, a boy or a girl? Hey, bull dyke, wanna fight? Hey, chickie, wanna play?”

He was young and not especially big. Blaise knew she could take him, but she didn’t want to fight, not downtown at 2 am, so she kept walking.

When he said, “Just give me the bike, and I’ll leave you alone,” she turned around and spat in his face.

“You bitch!” he screamed, and grabbed the back wheel. Blaise was quick in those days, and she yanked it away, heaving it through the window of a men’s haberdashery.

Alarms went off, and she and the guy ran in opposite directions.

“But now you have no bike,” said the girlfriend, looking up at her with big brown eyes. “How will you get around?”

Blaise shrugged.

“You can buy me one, can’t you?”

The girl could, and did. Not with Blaise’s money, because that money always disappeared, spent on dinners out, and pounds of pot, and the occasional rock concert. But the girl, a student, had a large allowance from parents far away. So Blaise got a new bike, and no one ever knew what happened to the window downtown.

That girl didn’t last, and neither did the next. It got colder, and Blaise got more desperate. By the time I met her, her smile almost never showed.

I was in a reckless mood, wearing dress and heels to the bar in a time when the normal garb, both butch and femme, was jeans and a flannel shirt. I was tired of that, and tired of going home alone.

“I’ve heard about you,” I whispered in her ear as I linked my arm through hers.

She looked down at me, eyes glittering with lust and narcotics.

“What have you heard?”

“That you’re the best fuck in town.”

And plenty more, but it seemed irrelevant.

“What do you want to do about it?”

I dragged her home and she stayed.

For weeks all we did was laugh and fuck, eating Popeye’s chicken when we got hungry. I didn’t answer the phone, and the only mail I opened was the unemployment check.

One day she said, “I have to work tonight.”

I knew what she meant, but I made her tell me. I could always get her to tell me things.

So she went to work, coming home the next day at noon, with swollen lips and a dark scowl.

When she’d cleaned herself, she said,

“Let’s go out to eat.”

And over dinner, she told me the story of her life. How her step-father had raped her, and her mother had thrown her out, saying, “Why don’t you tie a bed to your back?”

It sounded grim, but it was the sixties, and Venice Beach was filled with runaways and throwaways. She learned to steal. She learned to whore. She bought herself some roller-skates, and skated up and down the boardwalk, plying her trade. Some bad things happened, but she shrugged them off and went on. What else could she do?

“Why didn’t you stay down there?” I asked.

“My mom’s up here,” she said. I blinked. I couldn’t believe she wanted to be anywhere near that woman.

None of her friends knew her real name, or that she had a mother who lived on skid row in an SRO, or a sister in foster care somewhere in California, but I did. I even met the mother, who said to me, “Better keep Sherine around at least 'til spring, so she can keep chopping your wood.”

When the bill for this knowledge came due, I nearly couldn’t pay it.

It was 3 am, and Blaise had been gone two days. I woke up to a knife at my throat. She wore a stocking over her face, and I didn’t know it was her until after she’d bound me and made me cry out against my will.

I forgave her, but for her it was over, and she moved on. The next girl got beaten so badly she ended up in the hospital. I lost track of her after that.

Years later, when that Dire Straits song came out, you could almost believe it was about her. The only movie she ever made, though, wasn’t on location, but in a crappy motel at the edge of town. If that 8mm still exists, it shows, in grainy black and white, a girl being gang-raped. And if the cameraman happened to zoom in on her face, he captured the last time tears ever fell from those long dead eyes.


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An out lesbian since adolescence, Lori Ubell's own experiences inform this story. She studied writing with James Frey (How to Write a Damn Good Novel), Dorothy Allison and Emily Whitman. She belongs to a critique group which meets twice a month and has been on-going for about two years. She's am an active member of SCBWI, Willamette Writers, and the Historical Novel Society. She's published poetry, short stories and non-fiction in both regional and national publications, including Parade, Hadassah, Lilith, The Oregonian and Calyx.

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "What Remains" by KJ Rovka

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.


What Remains

 by KJ Rovka

A soft-spoken, tragic story focusing on two children and a grave mistake. This story made me think of the moments when children are forced to grow up too soon, no matter how much we try to protect them. Yet, as Rovka and this saddening yet gentle story remind us, there is always hope. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor

 

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When I think back to then, the first thing I remember is the rock. Its pitted surface was now glazed with congealing blood, filling its mini craters with ponds of crimson. I look at the figure to my side. Poor little Rebs. To her credit, she said not a word. At any other time, this would have been unusual. She was always quick to run home, telling Grandma Evelyn what a bad boy Owen was being. Now though, she had hidden away her 7-year-old smile by pursing her lips firmly shut.

"I need to go away," I said, and she murmured an unintelligible sound as a response. “Now.” I knew she understood. She had to. I had to run, to take myself as far away from that place as swiftly as possible. Maybe I could outrun my guilt, my fears and the thoughts that turned poisonous on me. I couldn't bring myself to look at the body, crumpled in the distance between the patches of sweet smelling sage. I didn't want to believe what I did. If I didn't look at it, I wouldn't have to face the hopes and dreams I ended with one blow. I didn't want to contemplate the thousands of happy futures I ruined in my one act of selfish thoughtlessness.

"You run home now," I commanded in the most adult voice I could muster, but she must have only heard the words of a scared boy. She shook her head ferociously, clinging to her tattered skirts with white knuckles.

"You can't come with me," I pleaded with her, begging that she’d leave and forget about me. "Don’t worry about me. I’ll become a wild man like old Uncle Eddie did." That’s what they told me and Rebs what happened when my father’s eldest brother stopped coming by the house. I knew they were lying then. Uncle Eddie died after the mine collapsed. But it sounded better than the truth, and I think Rebs believed it. I hoped she still believed it. She needed to believe it for me.

"I'm leaving, and there’s nothing you can say about it. So just go home!" I screamed at her, in her face. She brought her little cherubic face down and pulled her skirts even tighter, as if she was turning herself into a ball of iron; immune to my anger. I put my back to her, put my back to the sun, and sprinted. Dead twigs of buckbrush and artemisia crunched beneath my feet as I tried to outrun everything. Outrun the accusations and guilt of the dead body as much as the unquestioning loyalty and unconditional love from little Rebs. Both were equally painful.

I already knew what I was capable of. Murderer at age 12. What other horrors would await my cousin if she stayed by my side?

I stopped and turned around, hoping to see that she had decided I was never coming back for her. I pleaded with God that now she had the sun in her face, and the bright future she always deserved on her path. Of course, she hadn't made a move. I knew she wouldn't, and she knew I wouldn’t leave her out there all alone. She had probably called my bluff before I took my first step into the darkening east.

"Fine," I yelled to her. "You can come. But don’t slow me down." I tried to be mean in one last attempt to get her to leave me. This time we weren’t hiking the hills for fun. We weren’t going to catch lizards or find bits of old Indian obsidian. But not even my coldness would deter her. I waited for what seemed a lifetime as she slowly paced through the desert following the dusty steps I had run in haste. Her hands still stayed by her side, not moving at all while she gripped those dirty skirts.

Hours ago, she was skipping around patches of dead, yellowed grass, landing on bare soils so dry that every step produced a tan cloud at her feet as we played tag and chased each other. I took that away from her when I threw that rock. I stole the spring in her gait.

Bu the time she rejoined my side, the sun had already engulfed the top of the mountain with an orangey halo.

Her left hand released her tattered skirt, and caked with sweat and grime, the skirt kept its crumpled form. Forcefully, she grabbed my arm with her free hand.

"I did it," she whispered.

"Don't be stupid," I rebuked her, more forcefully than I intended.

"Owen, I did it. I killed that little boy." I winced. Rebs stabbed me with the description of my victim. I hadn’t known he was a boy; I didn’t see. I didn't want to know. Dead bodies weren't human; they weren't little boys and girls. They were bloated, rotting flesh, nothing more. Dead bodies won't run and play in the sun, they won't tease their sisters, they won't climb trees and get read bedtime stories at night. Little boys will.

"Rebecca, listen to me." I turned to her, knelt down and looked her straight in the eye. "You didn't do anything wrong. I threw the rock where I wasn’t looking. The rock that hit his head was mine. Not yours. None of this is your fault. You never touched it. You didn't do anything."

"It’s my fault. I laughed.” Tears were streaming down her face but she held back sobs. “I told you to throw the rock as far as you could. I bet you that Lily's brother could throw it further."

I pulled her into my scrawny arms and hugged her tightly. She didn't resist, but she didn't melt into my embrace either. Everything in her little frame told me she needed love and support, but she was too deep in guilt to think she deserved any of it. I didn't care.

I let her go and looked into her eyes again. "I love you Rebs." I wiped the tears from her eyes with my dirty fingers, but I knew she wouldn't mind. "Cousins take care of each other and I am going to take care of you. I'm never going to let anything happen to you." Rebs' eyes looked unfocused, as if she were dwelling in another, distant world comprised of her own imagination. I knew she was getting scared by the quiver of her fingers so I squeezed her hand gently, just to remind her that I was there.

She sniffed. "We are in this together, right?" she asked, but really it was more a statement than a question.

"Yeah." I sighed as I placed her tiny right hand into my left, "I guess we are."

The second thing remember, when my mind floats back to this time, is the campfire ablaze against the blackened sky. The sparks flying off the brittle desert sage branches joined their sparkling cousins, the stars in the sky for brief moments of orange brilliance.

This was when I could no longer run away from my thoughts - when the clarity of the cloudless sky couldn't obfuscate my sin to God, to myself. And I found myself staring deeply into the glowing coals of the fire, hoping for some kind of purifying burn to cleanse my heart of my deed. I hoped in vain.

Murderer. It was a cloak I now donned. It was a word that yesterday could not be used to describe me, but today the word was written in blood, next to my name in St. Peter’s book in heaven.

I was so many things before today. I was the second baseman last week, the catcher on Saturday. I was a student, I was cowboy in training. But now I would be nothing but murderer. Even if I could return, even if nobody knew of the crime, the God and the angels would judge me. I'd never just be a student again. I'd be a murdering student, a murdering cowboy. It was inescapable.

Perhaps this was simply somebody else's story I was living. I began to ponder such questions when hunger and fatigue addled my mind that night. I could believe that, so long as I didn't have to look at the face of that boy’s murderer. What questions would that mirror reflection have to answer?

"Owen?" my own cousin whispered quietly, shaking me out of my reverie.

"Yeah Rebs?"

"I'm hungry." Yet even then my thoughts returned to that boy who would never be hungry again. A boy who would never get to satiate that hunger with a savory bite of chicken leg, or grilled rainbow trout.

"I know," I admitted to her eventually. My own stomach growled at me angrily, though I was too consumed in guilt to care for it. "We'll find something tomorrow. I swear it."

Surely, I knew my promise was a hollow one, but I had to make it. I had to convince myself more than I had to convince Rebs, or I'd not be able to lie to her so easily. But reality wasn’t so kind and neither the next day nor the following did we find so much as one morsel to share in the empty desert. It was mere luck that we found the snow melt stream or we would have died. Though at the time, I thought, perhaps, the greater luck would have been to die quickly and die together.

"I think," Rebs muttered to me in a fugue state after we had laid down for the night, "I think we would have been friends with him."

"Go back to sleep, " I shushed her, re-positioning her small body along the rocks of the cave we had started to call home for the past couple of days. She looked so uncomfortable, but she wouldn't move a muscle on her own. She couldn't anymore.

"A friend in exchange for a rock. We exchanged a friend for a rock," she continued, delirious. I don't know if it was her stomach, or her heart that was talking. "I think I would rather have the friend. I think I'd rather have the friend, than the rock. It would have been better that way."

I wish I could have answered her, but I was never strong enough to speak plainly to her. I couldn't comfort her, so I said nothing. I couldn't be her armor, so I didn't want to risk hurting her. I was too afraid to see her cry.

But mentally I screamed. There are no take-backs. There is nothing we can do now to bring that boy back! But there were so many points, so many junctures that day where a different choice could have meant life instead of death. All I had to do was say I wanted to eat lunch on the porch instead of suggesting we play by the boulders that afternoon. I could have offered to play cops and robbers, one of Reb’s favorite games, instead of showing off my throwing arm. If I hadn't thrown that ball to third base, if Robbie hadn't been able to tag Jeff out, if we hadn't won that game Saturday, I wouldn't have been so full of bravado. I wouldn't have shown off to Rebs. We'd be begging Grandma for a bedtime story right now instead. That little boy would be tucked in bed, sleeping soundly as his mother looked on.

My mind reeled back to the minutes and hours before I threw that rock. We were laughing. How is that even possible? We were running and playing, smiling only moments before it left my hands. What gave us the right to smile? Ten minutes before I killed, I was no better a person than ten minutes after I killed. Ten minutes before, a little boy played in the desert, living the very last moments he ever would live. Blissfully unaware that his existence was about to come to a violent end. How could I have been so callous? How could I have let my selfishness roam so unchecked?

The third thing I remember are words I never thought I'd hear escape her lips. The creaked out of parched lips and blew through emaciated cheeks.

"Do you want to die?"

I panicked. "Don't give up on me Rebs. I know you are hungry. I'll find you some food. I'll go back to town tomorrow and get help. I promise."

Her little head shakily turned to me. "Not me Owen. You. Did you want me to go home so you could die?"

What was a 7-year old speaking of life and death like this for? Was she yet another victim of mine? To murder a little boy's body and a little girl's spirit!

"I never intended to die," I told her, and it was the truth. I never wanted to kill myself. I never wanted to again take a life, any life, and I certainly never wanted to face my own mortality.

But I did want to stop living. I wanted to quietly quit life. It was the only way I could stop being a murderer. I wanted to stop thinking of that boy, but as long as I was living, I didn't deserve to bury my guilt in forced amnesia.

"Ok. Don't die then. I would rather be friends." As if she were reading my very thoughts she added, "You can't change your mind if you die."

Those were her last words to me. When I woke up the next day, she didn't respond. I shook her gently, but her eyes remained shut. I whispered in her ear to get up, but she didn't stir.

The last thing I remember was laying naked in the snow. The high-altitude sun was shining on this late spring day, so my body couldn't have been that cold, but I wouldn't have felt it anyway. I didn't remember climbing that high. I don't know how I did it, got up so high, being so hungry and tired and worn. But I remember the perfect indent my body made upon the old snow. On occasion, I gently tested the confines of my iced mold to see how much effort I'd need to make to break this outline of my body.

I was exposed, ready to let the sun purify my soul and bleach my bones. Let the crows take bites of me and fly to away spread this murderer to parts around the world, I thought. I destroyed a human being and all the promise he offered the world. I took away the future husband of the mother of his future children. I robbed his parents of his love and affection as they grew to old age. Let me offer myself in sacrifice, to honor his loss, I thought.

I thought to close my eyes one last time, to let the sun’s rays blanket my body while I left it quietly. I thought to let the cold wet moisture of the melting snow creep through my skin and slow my blood to a standstill. I thought of the world beyond to shut down my ears, my fingertips, eyes nose and heart.

That is probably why I didn't hear the grunts she made. It is probably why I didn't hear her boots hit the rock fall, even though she did so with little grace.

First the woman’s head went to my heart. I am sure she heard something; a slow, faint beat, growing weaker by the second.

Next her fingers went to my head, examining for injury and blood, but settling on my eyelids, which she pulled open to examine my dilated eyes.

"Wake up," she commanded and slapped me in the face, hard, but I didn't respond.

She pulled a thick woolen blanket out from her pack, and began to wrap it around me. She produced a water skin and brought it to my parched lips, and finally, I felt her presence. The cool water flowed down my warm, dry throat, pumping new life where hope had all but been abandoned. I coughed, and opened my eyelids as far as I could.

I saw my rescuer. She had dark, taut olivine skin etched with faint creases and raven black hair which she bound in a simple braid. And her black eyes bore through my delusion and my mental fog, but offered no judgment.

"Don't bother," I croaked, "Don't waste your time with me."

She shushed me, harshly. "Your daddy thought you'd been murdered, boy. Don't make me make it so."

She picked me up. I must had lost a lot of weight because she bore me with little trouble.

It was nightfall by the time we made it down. A lone horse served as my welcoming committee, upon which she unceremoniously foisted my weak body.

"Don't make me go home. I killed them. I killed them both. One with my hands, Rebs with my words. I don't deserve to live. Rebs. I can't take you back," I started mumbling before I finally, mercifully, lost consciousness.

-----------

The first thing I remember was the eyes of Rebs' uncle on me, scanning my body in the hospital bed with concern. He grabbed my limp hand and held it tightly. The warmth of his palm spread through my fingers and shot up my arm.

Father, I wanted to say, I'll never be the man you wanted me to be. I am a murderer. But I couldn't. Every time I tried to get the words up, my body failed me. Every time I felt my lips move, I lost the words.

The second thing I remember was turning my head away from my father, in shame. Instead, my gaze was forced to fall on the twin bed at my side, and the tiny body with blonde hair that occupied it. The white sheet rose and fell slowly, but rhythmically. Her eyes were still closed, but I could see the color in her cheeks.

That little boy was never coming back. His family would have to mourn him, and I would have to spend the rest of my life honoring his memory. Nothing was going to change that. But across from me, lying peacefully on that bed, I realized finally, that hope still lived.

 


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KJ Rovka has been writing for over 12 years, but newly seeking publication. She writes fantasy and science fiction novels that are usually exciting and literary short stories that are usually depressing. When she's not writing or at her day job, she's usually learning a new language, hiking a new trail or playing a new video game. KJ graduated with a BA in International Relations in 2006 and an MA in Environmental Science and Policy in 2010, so you might call her a jack of all trades and master of absolutely none. You can peruse her scribbles, short stories, and musings on her blog at http://strawbeaner.blogspot.com/

#TheYearOfPublishingWomen's Short Stories Series: "Skin-Deep" by Julia Figliotti

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.


Skin-Deep

by Julia Figliotti

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED BY GARGOYLE MAGAZINE #62

TRIGGER WARNING: implied human trafficking, enslavement, abuse, mention of rape, and suicide.

"Skin-Deep" is incredibly gripping and deeply mesmerizing from start to finish. Shelly's somber narrative voice leads the reader through the unfolding of her tragic life, sucking the reader deep into the unimaginable. This dark tale engrossed me completely, showing the truly spellbinding power of Figliotti's writing. -Sydney Culpepper, Assistant Submissions Editor


 

Her name had been Shelly for as long as she could remember. But then again, she had been his for as long as she could remember. Her previous life was not important, nor was the name she used to go by.

She was Shelly, and she was his. That was all she needed to know. That was all she had ever known.

When he first came to own her, he took her to a tattoo parlor and told her to agree to whatever it was that he said. She only nodded; following orders was not new to her. Pain was not new to her. He spoke with the tattoo artist—a friend of his, she guessed, judging by the lack of questions that the man seemed to have concerning the art and its canvas—and beckoned her over. The man asked her if she knew what the tattoo process was and if she was ready to begin. Again, Shelly only nodded. Pain was not new to her.

The man who owned her watched as she calmly removed her shirt and bra and laid herself face down on the artist’s table. Her russet hair swirled around her face, resting on the pillow that her head now claimed. The whir of the needle started, loud and low and constant, and she took a deep breath and closed her mind to it. But for the first time, she was brought sharply back to reality by a piercing, dragging pain, so acute yet so overwhelming, on the right side of her lower spine. She was shocked at the pain she felt. This pain was new to her.

For the next few hours—or was it only minutes? or was it days?—Shelly gritted her teeth against the ache that traveled slowly, methodically, up her back with the artist’s needle. Long, straight lines were being etched into the skin that covered her spine, making her want to cry out in pain, though she knew that would not end well for her. She did not yet know the man who owned her, but from what she had seen of him so far, she knew that he was not a man to cross, and he was not a man to forgive.

When the needle reached the back of her neck, Shelly had to bite her tongue to keep herself quiet. She tasted the preface to blood in her mouth and her saliva turned hot and sour. Pain blossomed from the trails that the artist’s tool left in her skin and she took the time to wonder how long it would take for her back to heal. She didn’t even want to know what it looked like, and as long as she never turned her back to a mirror, she wouldn’t have to. She tried not to concentrate on the curves and lines being torn into her unblemished skin. Instead, she concentrated on her new name. Shelly.

It appeared in writing in her mind, and she hated it. It looked stupid to her, and sounded childish. What kind of man was this, anyway, to own her and mark her and call her by a name that belongs to a young girl? Shelly. Her mind was brought sharply back to the pain in her body, the whir in her ear, the taste in her mouth. Shelly.

Finally, blessedly, the whirring stopped. The artist put down his tools and rubbed a joltingly cold gel on the newly stained skin of her back. She winced with a passionate mix of joy and pain—joy from the reprieve of the artist’s needle, which had dug so mercilessly into her skin, and from the healing qualities that she could feel as the aloe seeped into her pores; pain from the harsh mixture of her open wounds and shock of the cold ointment against her feverish skin.

Gently, the artist asked her to stand up slowly, telling her that he would show her to the mirror so she could admire the work of art that her blank canvas had become. She barely heard the pride in his voice that came from creating a masterpiece. With pleading eyes, she looked at the man who had brought her here. He stared blankly back at her, and she truly saw him for the first time.

He was tall, taller than her own five-foot-ten by at least four inches. His dark moustache was trimmed hastily around the top of his small mouth and down the sides, meeting up in a goatee with a strip of facial hair that began below the center of his lower lip and connected in a beard at the chin. His hair was raven black and down to his chest, thin but beautiful, with a streak of blonde that highlighted either side of his pale face. His eyes were a deep brown, chilling and exciting all at once, lower lids lined with a dark smudge. His nose was straight, a complement to his pronounced cheekbones and thick eyebrows.

He wore a fitted black suit jacket that covered a tight black shirt. A thick silver chain graced his collarbone and the base of his neck, shown off by a slight dip in his shirt. His leather fingerless gloves were worn with use, the fingers protruding from them long and clean. The man’s long legs were clad in tight leather pants which boasted silver chains from pocket to pocket. His boots were as black as the rest of him, military style and untied. Shelly swallowed hard as he blinked once, seeming to come out of whatever trance he had been in.

“Get dressed,” he told her, his low voice reeking of an unfamiliar accent that sent chills down her newly inked spine. “We don’t have time for this.” He turned to the artist, handed him some money—quite a lot of it, from what she could see—and turned back to Shelly, who had forsaken her bra and tight blouse in favor of a loose T-shirt the artist had given her. “We’re leaving.”

She followed him out of the small tattoo parlor, reading the instructions the artist had handed her on her way out. Do not pick at the tattoo. Do not scratch or rub the tattoo. Pat the tattoo dry after bathing. Apply ointment daily for seven days. Her bewildered mind struggled to process all of this while simultaneously wondering how on earth she would be able to reach the middle of her back in order to apply the ointment. This was all so new to her.

For the next week, he hardly spoke to her. She had assumed that he would use her in ways that she had been used before: cleaning, cooking, grooming, a quick fuck every now and then. But he asked nothing of her, except to come to his bedroom every morning when she woke so he could apply the ointment to her back. He did it with care, his long fingers sweeping wetly up and down her spine, caressing the raised, blackened skin that scarred her back. She got chills every time he touched her, but she knew she could not show it. A man was a dangerous thing, especially when she didn’t know what it was that he wanted from her. When she left him every morning, his eyes were alive, shining with a hidden pleasure. When she saw him under any other circumstances, they were far off and empty. She got chills then, too.

For those first seven days, it took all of her willpower not to drag her nails across whatever skin on her back her long arms would let her reach, not to slam her back against the nearest wall corner and drag her body back and forth. But she had been warned about what could happen to her new art if she did that, and she didn’t know what kind of reaction that would elicit from the man. And that was something she didn’t want to find out.

The man had given her a room of her own in his house. It was not a dingy chamber in any way, but an actual bedroom. She had a spacious four-poster bed with canopy drapes and a firm mattress, a closet for her few clothes and belongings, an armchair and a loveseat, and a picture window that framed a beautiful little lake and a weeping willow tree. Across from the window was a floor-length mirror that beckoned to her daily, calling at her, begging her to see how the man had marked her as his own. Instead, she would look at her face, her hair, her body, noting that her brunette hair was still full of color, her hazel eyes were still bright with life, her cheeks were still pink, her lips full, her figure a small hourglass. These were the things that kept her sane. These were the things that kept her alive.

She went to him on the eighth morning, expecting to feel the chill of the ointment and the burning of his eyes on her back. But when she walked into the room, he didn’t motion for her to turn around. He didn’t tell her to remove her shirt. He only stared at her with his dull brown eyes, almost unseeingly. Shelly looked back at him, growing increasingly nervous at his lack of participation, debating whether or not to retreat from his darkened bedroom. She had just decided that her presence was not welcome when he spoke to her.

“Does it still itch at all?” He hadn’t spoken so many words in her presence since the tattoo parlor. Shelly shook her head. “Does it hurt?” She shook her head again. “Good.” His eyes began to heat up, though her tattoo was shrouded entirely. She never thought she would see that fire begin to kindle; she had only ever seen it at full strength. His dull, dead look turned slowly into a tight interest, though his facial expression remained the same. Shelly had a moment to marvel at the power that the man’s eyes held before he stood up abruptly, almost tricking her into a startled jump backwards. He began to walk towards her, slowly, staring at every part of her that he could see.

“Do you know why I chose you?” Shelly’s eyes widened; no one had ever asked her that question before. No one had ever spoken to her so softly, yet so dangerously. But then, she reminded herself, she had never belonged to anyone else. She stood rooted to the ground in dumb silence. “Do you know why I had to have you?” She blinked and shook her head. She didn’t trust herself to speak at a time like this. Even the air around them seemed fragile, as though one wrong word would shatter it and send shards of ambiance into their skulls.

“It’s your shape,” the man said, taking another fluid step in Shelly’s confused direction. “Your shape…and your hair. Your hair is like mahogany.” His voice was shaking slightly with anticipation, making his thick accent almost unreadable. He held out a quivering hand towards her as he came within reach of her body. She had prepared for this. Pain was not new to her.

But he did not hurt her. He seemed afraid to even touch her. When he finally closed the distance between them, he lowered his hand to his front pocket and extracted a thin brown ribbon that reminded Shelly of her own hair color. His eyes were on hers now, and she did not look away.

“Turn around, please,” the man said, his now-even voice carefully controlled. She did as she was told, her instincts screaming at her not to turn her back on a man like this, her practiced mind ignoring the warning. She felt expert hands run through her hair, twisting it into a low bun and securing it with the ribbon. The man turned her around so she was facing him and began to remove her shirt. She did nothing to dissuade him, nor did she assist him; this was the kind of man who did things his own way, the kind of man who would tell her when he wanted her to act. Deft fingers blindly unclasped her bra, the leather of his gloves scratching against her scarred back as her mind wandered just far enough that she could still hear his orders and read his eyes.

As Shelly was being undressed, her wandering mind focused on a tall wooden chair in the center of the man’s bedroom. It was ancient and scuffed, a deep oaken color, carved with precision and care. The chair had no arms, no comfortable qualities that the eye could see. Its back was tall and straight and menacing. He led her to it slowly, his eyes still glowing with their secret flame. Along the way he removed his own shirt, revealing tattoos that covered his arms and shoulders and much of his slim chest. His fingerless gloves remained on his hands. He sat in the chair with his back rigid, his right arm worming behind the seat as though it were searching for something. When he brought it back to the front of his body, the man’s hand grasped a long, thin strip of wood that boasted what seemed to be taut, fine white fibers. Horse hair, Shelly realized. She pushed the thought easily away. The man’s legs were spread now and he stared at her intensely, the fire in his eyes hotter now than she’d ever seen it.

“Kneel.”

She slid easily onto practiced knees, the transition natural, the position comfortable. She knew what would come next—what else could it be? This man had just taken a little bit longer to get there than the others.

The man extracted another long, mahogany ribbon from his pocket and took both of her wrists gently in his left hand. With his right, he wove the ribbon around her slim wrists, tight enough that she couldn’t free herself, not so tight that it cut into her skin. He tied the ends of the ribbon in a careful knot that hung gracefully from her bound wrists. When he looked at her again, she saw raw passion in his wide eyes. The liner that smudged his lower lids seemed to sweat and glow as he slowly raised her arms above her head with his left hand and picked up the strip of wood with his right. And when the music started, a lone sweet string melody, Shelly knew what it was that she had become.

The man drew his bow across her back, sliding perfect symphonies against the silent strings tattooed into her skin. His eyes were closed and his head was tilted back, and she could feel the power that lived inside of him. She could feel it in the grip of his left hand on her wrists and forearms, his swift fingers moving across her skin, pressing down on imaginary strings, moving in perfect time with the music that came from outside of them. She could feel it in the movement of his body as he swayed with the music, swayed with his music, around her body. She could feel it in his legs, firm with years of practice and performance, cradling her curved figure the way a musician held his favorite instrument. For the second time in her life, Shelly was unable to remove herself from her situation. His bow whipped back and forth, frenzied across the instrument that her body had become. She was enthralled by him, enraptured by his fervor, intoxicated by his music. Their music.
 

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She didn’t know how long she knelt there, a tool of passion between his knees. But when the music finally came to an end, the man simultaneously dropped his bow and her wrists and his head sagged onto his chest, his breathing heavy and harsh. For several minutes, Shelly couldn’t even move. She had never been used like this before, never felt so objectified in her entire life. But then again, wasn’t her life with this man all she had ever known?

When he raised his head from his chest, the man’s eyes were dull and empty once more. Drying streaks of wetness traced the skin from his eyes to his chin and he stared at her blankly, registering her presence with a blink. “Please go now.” His voice had lost its tremor and its obvious restraint; he once again spoke softly through his heavy accent. “You will come to me again tomorrow.”

Shelly stood up in one fluid motion, rocking back onto her toes and taking the weight off of her numb, forgiving knees. Head bowed with vulnerability and submission, she grabbed her pile of clothes from the floor and backed slowly out of the room, arms still tied at the wrists with the long brown ribbon. As soon as she heard his door click shut behind her, Shelly let the suppressed tears come forward. She was afraid of this man, a man who could lose himself so entirely to passion, a man who would use her in such an objectifying, terrifying, erotic way, a man who would vandalize her body for his own disturbing obsession.

She walked as quickly as she could without breaking into a run. She didn’t know how good the man’s hearing was, and she didn’t want him to know how panicked she was. He seemed like the kind of man who played with power, and she didn’t want to give him any more than he already had.

When she reached her room, which suddenly seemed suffocatingly large, she threw her clothes onto the loveseat and walked methodically towards her mirror. The mirror that he had planted in her room to taunt her, to tempt her, to distract her from her strong will. Unable to resist the compulsion any longer, Shelly turned her back to the mirror and stared at the terrible beauty that her spine had become.

What was once smooth skin had been transformed into a canvas for an artist’s musical masterpiece. On the left side of her lower back, an S-shaped ribbon had been etched darkly into her skin. It was mirrored perfectly across the spine, creating a symmetrical design that she was sure represented artistic holes in the wooden instrument. From the base of her spine all the way up to her neck were four thin, parallel lines: C, G, D, and A, according to memories of music classes from a previous life. The skin of her back was raw from being scraped with the man’s bow, his musical symphony etched out repulsively in jagged swipes across the new strings that she boasted. A sudden wave of revulsion leapt up the back of her throat, overwhelming her fortitude, her numbness. She barely made it to the small garbage can beside her bed before her stomach evicted everything that it had been holding. After only a few seconds of vomiting food and bile, Shelly could only hold herself over the wastebasket and dry heave violently. She was vaguely aware of a gratitude for the ribbon that held her hair back in a tight bun.

Unable to breathe in the rancid odor of her own vomit any longer, Shelly made her shaky way over to her bed. When she fell onto the comforter it seemed to consume her, too soft and too spongy to support her weight. She sank into the mattress, dreading the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that. This was her existence now. She belonged to the man for the rest of this life. And all of it—the skin-deep pain, the overwhelming bitterness, the obsessive symphony—all of it was so new to her.

The following days with the man were much like the first of his physical musical infatuation. Little by little, from the few words that he spoke, she learned pieces of the man’s life. He had been a musician once, a famous cellist. Through him, she learned the specifics and technicalities of bowing a cello. It was rosin, he said, that actually made the sound when the bow scraped the strings. Without rosin on the bow, the strings would be unresponsive to its light touch. It was the rosin that really gripped, the rosin that created that friction, that sound. Not to worry, though. He wouldn’t use rosin when he played her. Not unless she made him.

Though he was becoming more and more talkative as days passed, he became a single-minded machine as soon as the music began. Shelly was transformed into a mere instrument as soon as the first chord was strung. For hours he would scrape his bow across her strings, his fingers finding their places in perfect time with the melody. Her back began to show lasting evidence of his musical escapades across her skin. Raised ridges crisscrossed the back of her rib cage, welting in a way that would take weeks of rest to heal. But he would never rest. He would never stop. For as long as he owned her, he would play her like the beautiful instrument that she was. “It’s your shape…and your hair.” She was his tool, his instrument, his cello. She belonged to him.

Shelly had always been good at numbing the pain. She had always been able to block out her surroundings, her situations, and the men who owned her. She had stayed disconnected from her world for so long that she had forgotten what it was like to be a part of it. But with this man, she found that she couldn’t shut herself off from what he did to her. She was present at every moment of every symphony, every drag of the inked needle, every swipe of the unrosined bow. She had never been so present in her own body, in her own trauma. She had never been so unable to deal with her life. She had never been so desperate to escape.

Finally, when over a month had passed after her first interaction with the man and the artist and the whirring tattoo needle, Shelly knew she’d had enough. She needed to get out of this prison. She needed to escape from the man’s insane obsession with her shape and her hair, his infatuation with the instrument into which she had been transformed. She waited until he was out—where, she didn’t know, nor did she care—and slipped into his dark bedroom. The chill that always accompanied her entrance into his domain slipped in a familiar minor scale down her marked spine. Without wasting any time, she reached behind his straight-backed chair, his cellist’s chair, and grabbed hold of the bow that had played her so fiercely. A token, she thought grimly, and focused her search onto that which she had never seen, but which had been described to her in such meticulous detail that she would recognize it as soon as it came before her eyes. And after only a few minutes of frantic rummaging, she found it: an amber bar, dusty from years of disuse. The rosin. The rosin that really gripped, the rosin that created that friction. The rosin that would save her from this orchestral hell that she had been living.

Carefully, meticulously, Shelly rosined the bow from tip to tip, scraping the brittle cake against the fine horsehairs that had so often caressed and abused her stained back. After thirty swipes with the bow—she had to be sure that the bow would really grip —she put the rosin back where she had found it and looked around the room with dull eyes, eyes that felt like the man’s. She sat in his chair and immediately felt power wash through her. This was where the magic happened. This was where he tore down the strongest defenses any woman could ever have. This is where he made her feel pain and intoxication, all at once, in one destructive symphony. And this was where it would end.

Shelly positioned herself on the edge of the seat, legs spread to accommodate the imaginary cello that she intended to play. With a poise that she had seen in the man countless times, she lifted her left hand to grip the neck of her instrument and positioned her bow hand at the bridge. Her foot tapped the floor remote that controlled the stereo system, and a beautiful, sad symphony began.

It was slow and deep in the cello’s heart, bringing tears to her eyes as she wove the bow back and forth over strings that she could not see and had never played. As her hands moved with the melody, she felt the ghost of the bow weeping across her back, engaging her entire body in this orchestral dance. The music built in intensity and fell, the tone ever deepening, the volume rising and falling with perfected crescendos and decrescendos. As the piece neared its climax, Shelly lost herself to the music. The rosined bow flew higher and higher up the neck of the imaginary cello, the chords becoming more forceful as her hands worked faster and faster. Finally, with a resonating crest of sound, the bow whipped across her neck in its final draw. The man had been right about the rosin—it really did grip.

In her final moments, as her breath came to her in ragged, bubbling gasps, she felt for the first time in all of her lives a moment of peace. It was finally over. This numbness was a gift, something that she couldn’t control and didn’t want to. She would never belong to anyone again. She would never be beaten, she would never be raped, she would never be tattooed and vandalized and used. She was no longer owned. She was no longer an object. She was no longer an instrument. All she would be from now on, Shelly thought, as she sat dying in his favorite chair, was a symbol.


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Julia Figliotti is a published writer with a wide range of publications. She has authored several books and articles on creativity, as well as fictional short stories and poetry. She is the co-creator of the Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) Ignite Your Everyday Creativity.

Julia has a Bachelors degree in Writing from SUNY Buffalo State and a Masters degree in Creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity. She spent several years working with facilitators of scientific workshops to encourage creative approaches and output. Now a full-time writer, Julia works to bring visions to life on paper. She is currently working on publishing her first children's story (which is absolutely nothing like this one).

Pre-Order Announcement for Sang Kromah's Djinn

You can pre-order Sang Kromah's Djinn now! The novel will be available on March 20th, but you can reserve your copy now in hardcover, trade paperback, or Kindle, and get it right away when it's available! Just click one of the links below.

Cover art by Mariah Bazan

Cover art by Mariah Bazan

Bijou Fitzroy is strange.


As an empath, she has spent her entire life as a recluse, homeschooled by her secretive and overprotective grandmother, never allowed to stay in one place long enough to settle down and make friends. When Bijou and her grandmother move to Sykesville and she starts to attend the local high school, Bijou's world begins to crumble...


town locals begin to disappear


creatures from her nightmares come to life


and she finds herself at the center of a secret war fought all around her.

 

"A twisty page-turner rooted in folklore with a 21st century spin. The unfolding tale keeps the reader guessing right to the end."
- Karen Eisenbrey, author of The Gospel According to St. Rage and the forthcoming Daughter of Magic

"Hauntingly captivating. Perfect for fans of The Unbecoming of Mara Dyer and all things myth and fantasy. I can't wait to read the next one!"
- YA Literature, Media, and Culture Research Network

"Sang Kromah weaves a tale rich in drama and TV melodrama! This is Buffy on acid, with all the colorful characters one would expect and more. Twists and turns - and twin heartthrobs - had me hooked from the start. A saga for the ages, and the teenagers."
- 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 (more links will be added as the pre-order appears on more sites):

Amazon: HERE

Kindle: HERE