Bits of poetry made with music themed refrigerator magnets
Originally Published: February 2, 2020
Updated: November 20, 2020
Bits of poetry made with music themed refrigerator magnets
Originally Published: February 2, 2020
Updated: November 20, 2020
“Just press play.”
“I don’t want to,” the man snapped and crossed his arms.
Meliphi sighed. Humans were always infuriating, but somehow, dead ones were even worse. It was like they realized they had nothing left to lose and took it out on the poor incorporeal beings just trying to do their jobs.
“I don’t like it any more than you do,” Meliphi said, nudging the replay device toward the man whose name the being could no longer remember. “But I’d like to get home sometime before the next millennium.”
The man’s lips pursed, and he hunched down in his chair. Meliphi was tempted to tell him he could die there if he was going to be this stubborn, but unfortunately…
“It won’t be so bad,” Meliphi coaxed. “And then you can get out of this waiting room, this…” The being waved a hand at the blank whiteness. “Nothingness and on to” — The man’s eyes flickered to Meliphi. Curiosity. It always worked on humans. — “something else.”
The man humphed.
“Please?” Meliphi was desperate.
The man sighed, and his arms dropped to his sides. “Why do I have to do this? Is this hell?”
Meliphi burst out laughing, quickly stifling it behind a shimmering wing. “Sorry,” the being mumbled. “That heaven hell thing was all you guys. As if the entire divine doesn’t have better things to do than devote itself to your reward or punishment. No, this is purely for cataloguing purposes.”
Meliphi nudged the replay device forward with another wing, offering what the being hoped was a friendly smile. The man sighed. “It’s just… a lot of it sucked. I don’t want to see it again, alright? Can’t you let me be dead in peace?”
“Unfortunately, no. Look, I’d really love to do this with you all millennia, but I have other appointments, other people dying to see me.”
“Hilarious,” the man muttered to Meliphi’s confusion. It was simply a fact. “Will you stay and watch with me at least?” he asked.
Companionship, that strange human desire. It wasn’t standard, but why not if it got this over with sooner?
Meliphi arranged next to the man, tucking wings and various other appendages into a semi-human sitting posture. “Let’s do this,” the being said with a grin.
The man rolled his eyes before jamming the play button.
The screen flickered and went black. Meliphi’s seven eyes stared unblinkingly at it. The being had been ready to bail after year thirteen. Seventy-two more had followed. The man sighed.
“I… I’m sorry,” Meliphi said. “I know you said it sucked, but I… I had no idea.”
“Eh, it wasn’t so bad. Seeing it all together like that… Damn, I did a lot.”
Meliphi glanced over with three eyes to see him smiling. The being couldn’t even begin to understand this.
“Would you do it again?” Meliphi asked quietly. “If you could.”
The being always asked this question, but that was after the dead needing to be cataloged watched their lives replay while Meliphi’s seven eyes closed and the being’s consciousness popped over to the sixteenth dimension for some fresh air. Meliphi had never fully realized what the question meant.
“I think I would,” the man said thoughtfully. “Except, maybe not that one day at the hardware store.”
Meliphi grimaced. That was understandable.
“Thank you,” the man said with a smile. “I think I’m ready to go now.”
Meliphi nodded as the man next to him faded away into the something else. The being had always considered the Valori people of the Felta Galaxy, with their precognition and prehensile eye-stalks, to be as close to divinity as the universe came, but humans? Humans were the cockroaches of the universe, digging themselves in with remarkable stubbornness and continuing to exist even when all odds were against them. The being had never taken the time to consider what this meant, what such a life must be like. Earth was Time’s domain after all, and she was a merciful goddess of remarkable cruelty. Or a cruel goddess of incredible mercy. Meliphi was never sure which.
The replay device pinged with a new arrival. Human. A young woman was sitting on the chair, wiping tears off her cheeks. Meliphi arranged into a sitting position next to her and held out one of many hands. “I’ll be right here,” the being said. “And when you’re ready, we’ll watch together.”
“Not Enough Words” was the second story I posted when I started blogging back in January 2020 and tells the tale of the politest kidnappers you could ever hope to meet.
It’s also become one of our favorite podcast episodes.
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The door was set into the smoke-stained stone wall and locked with a heavy black padlock. When she had been brought to the kitchens, as payment for her father’s debt to the crown, she had been told the door was to stay locked at all times. When she’d been caught with an ear pressed against the rough wood, she had been told it wasn’t to be touched, and when she’d stared at it too long, brow furrowed thoughtfully, she had been told it wasn’t even to be looked at. This was punctuated with a hand across her jaw, but it only fueled her curiosity.
All she’d heard through the wood was a faint drip, like water. And sometimes, when she was sweeping the floors, she saw what looked like scuff marks, like something heavy had been dragged, trailing across the floor and disappearing beneath the sealed door. And as the stiff straw bristles slowly erased them, she would try to puzzle out what could be behind it.
“Vari!” The cook’s snarl yanked her from her thoughts.
She set the broom back in the corner and picked up the tray of food from the table. If she pretended to forget, to be busy doing other things, she hoped the cook would let her be and take the tray himself, but he never did.
When she entered the great hall, the prince stared at her, one arm thrown over the back of his chair. “You’re late,” he said, as she set the tray on the table.
It was a lie. Vari said nothing, serving the king first, who ignored her, then the bejeweled queen, and finally, the sneering prince. He grabbed her wrist and yanked her closer. “I said, you’re late,” he snarled.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty. It won’t happen again,” she said, her eyes fixed on the poached egg sitting on his plate.
His other hand grabbed her jaw, his fingers digging into her already bruised cheek as he forced her to look at him. Dishes clinked behind her. “Pass the butter, would you?” said the queen to the king, and the king did.
“See that it doesn’t,” the prince hissed before shoving her.
Vari tumbled to the floor. A half-eaten crust landed next to her. She snatched it and fled, wishing her hunger wasn’t greater than her pride.
The cook was snoring in the kitchen, his feet thrown up on the hearth, the chair sagging under his enormous, greasy weight. A key ring hung from his straining belt. Almost before she knew what she was doing, Vari was sliding it free, taking the heavy black key and putting it in her pocket. She looked defiantly at the door.
It stood still and silent, as it continued to stand later that night when she returned to the empty kitchen, barefoot, a candle in her hand.
The padlock opened with a click, and a rush of dank air fluttered her skirts as the door creaked open. Behind it, stairs spiraled into darkness. Holding her flickering candle aloft, she descended. The drip of water, far below, grew louder, and the air became stifling, as she spun downward.
She was dizzy when she reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled through a black doorway. Putrid water coated the floor. She held up the candle and snorted. The light flickered off bare stone walls. The room was empty.
“So, this is what all the fuss is about,” she said, glancing around the small chamber.
“Depressing, isn’t it?” said a voice behind her.
She whirled. A familiar figure stood before the stairs. With a gasp, Vari fell to her knees, hitting her forehead on the stones. The candle skittered across the water, sputtered, and went out.
There had been no mistaking him, even wreathed in shadow. The prince.
“Forgive me, Your Majesty,” she said. “I know I’m not supposed to be here. Please…”
She would be lucky to get away with only a lashing. Men were killed for less.
“Why are you here?” he asked after a moment. “You’re not the usual fare.”
“I was curious, Your Majesty.”
“Curious?” He laughed softly, then sniffed. “Is that… fresh air? Did you unlock the door?”
She took the key from her pocket and extended it into the darkness. A cold hand took it. Water dripped steadily behind her.
“You can get up,” he said.
She pulled herself to her feet and wiped her dirty, trembling hands on soiled skirts. Something shifted in the darkness, and the candle flared to life in front of her, illuminating the prince’s grotesquely pale face inches from her own. But… he wasn’t quite the prince. Shaggy hair hung over sunken cheekbones, cheeks that just that morning had been full.
“You’re frightened,” he said, looking down at her shaking hands. “Why? Afraid I’ll eat you?”
He grinned with a mouth full of pointed, white teeth. She scrambled back, slipping on the wet stones, and he laughed.
“What are you?” she gasped.
“The prince,” he said. “Or the honest half of him, at least.”
She backed against the far wall, pressing herself against the damp stone. “Honest half? What does that mean?”
He sighed. “I suppose we have time for a story, but just one.” He lounged against the wall, absently running one sharp nail over the stone. “When the prince was born, the entire kingdom rejoiced. And why wouldn’t they? Another century of subjugation assured. The king and queen on the other hand were dismayed to find that another babe had appeared in the cradle beside their precious son. An exact copy. Well… almost.” His pointed grin glimmered in the candlelight. “There were certain differences. The affinity for human flesh, for one, but whenever they tried to kill the child, this abomination as they called it, the same torments were inflicted on their little prince. So, they locked me up. Fed me on beggars and desperate thieves.” He spat disgustedly. “Enough to keep me alive, to keep him alive, to keep him hungry.”
“You… you eat people?” she stammered.
The insolent grin returned. “We’re royalty. It’s what we do. But now…” He tossed the key into the air, snatched it, and shoved it into a tattered pocket. “He’s lived off of me long enough. It’s time to return the favor, don’t you think?”
“Return it? What does that mean?”
The prince but not quite the prince cocked his head. “I’m going to eat him.”
“Won’t that kill you?” she whispered, frozen in fear.
“Oh, I imagine it’ll hurt,” he said. “But then I’ll be free. Two made one again, and the likeness is startling, as you’ve proven. No one will know a thing has happened.”
With a burst of courage that could only come from looking day after day into the face she feared most, Vari stepped forward. “I won’t let you,” she said, her voice shaking, her fists clenched. “I won’t let you hurt anyone.”
The man who looked like the prince, but most certainly was not, raised an eyebrow before he sighed. “Fine.” The key clattered at her feet. “I’ll let you lock me up again, if you really want to, but I don’t think you will.”
She fumbled with the key, her gaze fixed on the man in his circle of candlelight. “Why?”
“You groveled like a frightened animal when you saw me, scared for your life.” He drew closer and tilted her chin up with a pointed nail. “Believe me, I know the look. You thought there was a monster in the darkness with you, but it wasn’t me you were afraid of. They locked me up, took my life to serve them, and left me so starved, I’d eat whatever scraps they gave me. Sound familiar?”
She lifted a hand to her bruised cheek. “But you’re a monster.”
“Am I?” he asked with a frown. “I devour to survive. What’s his excuse?”
His face was so like the prince’s, except for the pointed teeth in his slightly open mouth. And his eyes. They looked more… human, less hungry. “If I let you out,” she said finally, quietly. “Promise me you won’t eat anyone else. Only him.”
“I won’t make a promise I can’t keep, but I will tell you this.” He bent closer, his breath cold on her ear. “I won’t eat you. Besides,” he added when he’d straightened up. “I’m in the mood for something more”—he licked his lips—”royal.”
His footsteps were almost silent as he followed her up the stairs, and she shivered, imagining she could feel his icy breath on her neck. When they reached the kitchen and stepped out of the dark doorway, he inhaled deeply and sighed before turning to her. “Stay here,” he said and disappeared into the hallway.
He returned a few moments later with a thrashing bundle over his shoulder. It was mumbling frantically. The man who looked like the prince tossed it into the darkness. “Shut the door behind me,” he said and padded down the stairs.
She shoved the heavy door closed. She could lock it, turn the key in the padlock, and they’d both be trapped forever, but eventually, someone would notice the prince was missing. Questions would be asked. Answers would be taken, willingly or not. She stood, indecisive, twisting the key in her hands until there was a soft knock on the door. She pulled it open a crack.
The prince, or maybe not the prince, stood at the top of the stairs.
“Smile,” she said warily.
His teeth glistened, all pointed and white. “Worried about me?”
She yanked the door open then slammed it behind him, locking it tight.
“He isn’t going anywhere,” the not quite prince said, picking at his teeth with a sharp nail.
“What happens now?” she asked.
He took a deep breath. “I think I’ll take a bath.” And he padded out of the kitchen.
The door in the kitchen, set into the smoke-stained stone walls, was locked with a heavy black padlock. It was not to be opened, not to be touched, not even to be looked at. The heavy black key hung on a cord around Vari’s neck. Each morning she carried a tray of food to the great hall. She served the prince first, who thanked her graciously, then the pale queen, and finally, the nervous king. The prince never smiled, but when she left the hall, looking back over her shoulder at him, the corner of his mouth would twitch up, just for a moment.
Picture Credit: Joseph Mallord William Turner
Tiny Tales is a weekly podcast of short stories spanning horror, fantasy, comedy, and everything in between. Writing and narration by R. E. Rule. Music and production by Frank Nawrot (www.franknawrot.com).
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~ R. E. Rule
I was greeted at breakfast by a shriek. My mom’s coffee mug shattered on the kitchen tile.
“Who are you?” she screamed, brandishing a cream-cheese covered butter knife.
“Your son?” I was still half-asleep, trying to rub the drowsiness out of my head.
“Get out of my house, you lunatic! Get out!”
A bagel bounced off my forehead, and I made a hasty retreat as she rushed me, wildly waving the knife.
I was chased out of the house, pelted with bagels and threats of the police hauling me away if I came within ten feet of her again. The front door slammed behind me. I stood on the sidewalk in my plaid flannel pajamas, rubbing my cold bare feet against my ankles. My mom was peering out of the blinds.
They say you can never go home again, but this was ridiculous. If she was trying to make a point that I didn’t visit enough, she could at least have let me get a coat first.
“Hello, Mrs. Jones,” I said, waving halfheartedly at the elderly woman walking by with her Pomeranian.
She put her head down and sped past me, glancing anxiously back as she reached her front porch and fumbled with her keys. The door slammed behind her.
She’d known me my whole life. Either she was in on this too or something odd was going on. I walked gingerly down the street, wincing at the icy pavement beneath my feet. Four blocks down, the small street met a larger road, and a dingy diner huddled on the corner. I stopped in front of it, rubbing one foot over the other to wipe off the pebbles that had stuck to me. At least it would be warm inside.
As I appeared in the doorway, the waitress behind the counter loudly cleared her throat. She was looking pointedly downward, and I followed her gaze to my bare feet. With a sigh, I trudged back outside. I had no keys, no wallet, no shoes, and no idea what was going on. I only knew it was cold.
A stack of typo-ridden local newspapers sat in a sad damp heap in the metal rack outside the door. I folded two of them around my feet, scrunching the paper together to make paper slippers.
When I walked back through the door, I was given a disapproving look but was allowed to enter.
The scuffed metal tables were mostly empty, but a young woman sat near the window, gazing forlornly out. She was wearing fuchsia pajama pants and paper bags on her feet. She straightened up when she noticed me.
“No shoes, no service,” she said sadly when I sat down across from her.
“Where’d you get the bags?” I asked.
I flagged down the waitress and watched eagerly as she filled a slightly dirty mug with steaming coffee. She looked at our thin pajamas and paper-wrapped feet, clucked sympathetically, and brought us six packs of crumbling crackers.
“What are you doing?” the woman across from me asked as I peered at myself in the metal napkin dispenser.
“Making sure I’m still me,” I said.
“Did everybody forget you too?”
I took a sip of the scalding coffee-flavored water and grimaced. “I think so. My mom tried to kill me with a bagel.”
“I came downstairs for pancakes and nearly got arrested.” She sighed. “It’s been a weird morning.”
We sat in silence as I sipped my coffee and she stared out the window, a blank expression on her face.
“What’s your name?” I asked.
She considered a moment. “Better not take the chance. If we don’t know each other, we can’t forget each other.”
“There’s got to be a reason this is happening. Something we did,” I said, cupping my mug to catch the last hints of warmth. “That or our families… and my neighbor… all went crazy at the same time.”
“Seems unlikely.” She absently tapped her spoon against the handle of her mug. “But why us? I don’t know you. At least, I don’t think I do.”
I drank three more cups of the vile coffee as we tried to figure why. She was in town to visit her parents. I was in town to visit my mom, but she had arrived three days ago, and I arrived yesterday. Her birthday was in the spring, mine in the fall. Nothing added up.
“Maybe it’s something that happened yesterday,” I said, brushing cracker crumbs off my lap.
“I haven’t gone anywhere or done anything!” she said. “And now I’m going to spend the rest of my life in a cardboard box wearing Barbie pajamas. I forgot to bring pajamas. These were all I could find, and they don’t fit anymore.” Her face crumpled, and she let out a hiccuping sob.
I grabbed her hand. “At least we have each other.”
“Yeah, great,” she mumbled, wiping her nose on a paper napkin. “We can die cold and miserable, together.”
“Just try to remember. Yesterday. Walk me through it.”
She sighed and buried her fingers in her tangled hair, leaning her elbows on the table. “I got up… watched a documentary with my dad and fell asleep on the couch… played Scrabble with my mom. Oh, I ran to the store for milk, and on the way home, I bought some flowers.”
I leaned forward. “Flowers? Where?”
“Some man on the corner over there.” She pointed out the window.
I was bouncing in my seat. “What kind of flowers? Purple roses?”
Her eyes widened. “How did you know?”
I jumped to my feet, instinctively grabbing for my wallet that wasn’t there. “I bought the same ones for my mom. Let’s go.”
My left shoe blew away and her bags rustled as she waddled like a snowshoer toward the flower stand.
The flower vendor, a big man with a thick mustache, stood next to the stand laden with brightly colored bouquets, all cheerfully blossoming despite the frigid weather. He examined us curiously as we shuffled up. A woman picking through bunches of daisies looked up, started, took her child’s hand, and walked around to the other side of the stand away from us.
“We both bought your purple roses yesterday,” I said to the vendor. “And now nobody knows who we are.”
“Ah, yes.” He nodded knowingly. “I did notice two bunches were missing this morning.” He was watching us keenly now, tugging at the end of his mustache. “I didn’t think they’d work so quickly, but they are special flowers.”
The woman in pink pajamas glared at him. “How’d you like some special flowers up your—”
“Special how?” I cut in.
A customer asked for carnations, and the vendor turned to dig around through the bunches. “I’ve never sold two bunches in one day. It’s, uh, what’s the word?” He waved his hand like he could snatch the elusive word out of thin air. “Kismet.”
“It’s our fate to die alone in our pajamas?” the woman in pink snarled.
“No, no, no. You misunderstand.” He handed off the carnations and shoved the cash in his pocket. “These flowers brought you together, changed the rules of the universe to help you find each other, to help you find your true love.”
The woman in pink pajamas and I exchanged a wide-eyed glance before edging away from each other.
“Him?” she asked, eyebrows raised higher than I felt was necessary.
“You don’t have to look so disgusted,” I grumbled.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” she snapped. “I didn’t realize this was a serious conversation. Next time a crazy flower vendor erases me from existence and tells me my true love is a man with newspapers on his feet, I’ll try to be more cheerful about it.”
“They blew away, so there!” I said, turning on her. “You’re not the picture of hygiene either.”
She threw her hands up. “How is this what you’re worried about?”
“Shut up!” the vendor yelled, and we turned to stare at him, mouths still open. “You’re scaring my customers. Don’t you realize how lucky you are? Some people spend their whole lives looking.”
“I want to go home!” she yelled.
“Clearly, we’re miserable,” I said. “Whatever the flowers intended, it didn’t work. So, fix it.”
He shrugged, leaning back against the stand. “I can’t. The spell stays until the blossoms fade.”
“And how long does that take?”
“Eh, five or six days, give or take. But look on the bright side, now you’ve got almost a week together. There’s nobody else in the world for you but your true love.”
“You’re crazy, man,” I said and turned to the woman in pink pajamas beside me. “Let’s go.”
“Don’t buy the flowers!” she shrieked at the gawking customers as I pulled her away from the stand. “The flowers are a lie!”
She yanked her arm away and stomped down the street. Her jaw stuck out and her eyes blazed.
“Where are we going?” I asked, hurrying after her.
“To send those flowers to an early grave,” she growled, nearly falling as she tripped over the bags on her feet.
“But how are we going to get inside? My mom is going to stab me if I come anywhere near her.”
She slowed, her forehead wrinkling in thought. “There’s two of us, and she doesn’t know who I am. I can lure her outside while you destroy the flowers.”
It was better than my plan to huddle up in the diner, living off weak coffee and cracker crumbs until they dragged me away. A bitter wind whistled down the street.
“I’m so cold,” she groaned, hugging herself.
I held out an arm to her, and she huddled against me, clutching my shirt with icy fingers, as we shuffled down the street toward my house.
“I’m holding you purely for survival purposes,” she said through chattering teeth.
My mom’s house was quiet. No accusing eyes glared out of the blinds. I hid behind a tall shrub, out of view but ready to dart through the door.
The woman in pink pajamas tossed the damp paper bags aside and rang the doorbell, gasping as the door opened. “Oh, thank god! I can’t find Frito. I’ve been out here for hours.” Her face morphed into the picture of wide-eyed innocence, and her lip trembled a little. “Please. He’s just a little dog.”
Her performance was impressive; I’d have believed it myself if I hadn’t known better.
“Oh, you poor thing,” my mom said. “Let me get my coat.”
They were halfway down the walk when I ran inside and slammed the door behind me, bolting it. My mom beat on it, screaming and cursing with a fervor I had no idea she had.
The roses were sitting passively in a glass vase on the table. I grabbed them and frantically looked around the kitchen before throwing them in the microwave and setting it on high.
“Come on, come on, come on,” I muttered as the petals slowly wilted, shriveling, folding in on themselves until they were dark purple clumps.
The banging had stopped. I threw the front door open.
“Evan.” My mom stood on the porch, surprise on her face. “I didn’t think you were ever going to get out of bed.”
“Oh, uh,”—I pulled on my winter boots and a coat—“man, I was just really exhausted.”
I handed the woman in the pink pajamas my slippers and a sweater.
“Who’s your friend?” my mom asked.
She didn’t seem to remember anything. We exchanged a glance, and the woman in pink pajamas sighed resignedly. “Elle.”
My mom eyed Elle’s pajamas before looking between us with an increasingly suspicious look on her face.
“So, we’re going to go,” I said unnecessarily loudly. “I’ll be back in a bit.”
“Alright,” my mom said, absently, looking down at her coat then back at the door. “I forgot why I came out here.”
“Don’t use the microwave,” I called as she disappeared inside.
Elle snorted out a laugh. “She thinks we were—”
“Yeah, I know.”
She had my sweater pulled up over her nose like a little turtle in its shell. “You could’ve put some clothes on.”
“Nah. Let’s get you home.”
Her eyes crinkled, her smile hidden behind my sweater.
“What’s the plan?” I asked as we trudged down the street toward her parent’s house.
“There’s a window in the back that doesn’t lock, but I need a boost to reach it. Then you distract them.”
We sneaked along the side of the house, keeping out of view of the curtained windows, and through the back gate. She put her slippered foot in my hands, and I hoisted her up to the narrow window, struggling not to drop her as she yanked at it.
“A little further,” she grunted, and I shoved her upward.
“Oh sh—” She vanished through the window.
There was a loud thud.
“Are you okay?” I called anxiously, trying to pull myself up to see inside.
“They moved the couch,” she moaned, then a moment later, “ow.”
“They might have heard that. I’m going around front.”
I sprinted to the front and mashed the doorbell.
“Hello!” I extended my hand to the woman who opened the door. “I’m Evan. I woke up this morning and decided to introduce myself to the entire neighborhood. It’s the neighborly thing to do, and after twenty-six years of living here, it’s about darn time, don’t you think? You sir!” I waved over the man walking down the stairs. “Hi! Hello! I live a few houses down, on the corner, next to the old lady that talks to her plants.”
I proceeded to ramble through my life story. It didn’t matter what I said as long as I kept them occupied.
“I’m still terrified of zoos. Then in the sixth grade, I sat on my friend’s hamster, accidentally of course. He still thinks it was the cat, but—“
“Evan,” a soft voice interrupted me.
Elle was standing behind them. Her parents shook the glazed expressions off their faces.
“There she is!” Her dad mussed her hair. “Sleeping ‘til noon, like usual. Your pancakes are regular pans by now.”
He wandered off, chuckling at his awful joke.
“You two know each other?” her mom asked. “Evan was just telling us that he, uh…” She blinked several times “Oh, is that a new sweater, honey?”
Her mom bustled off to the kitchen to reheat the pancakes, and Elle joined me on the porch, pulling the door shut behind her.
“All fixed then?” I asked.
“Seems to be,” she said. “Come on. I’ll walk you home.”
We stood on the curb and waited for a van to lumber by, leaving clouds of exhaust in the wintry air.
“How much of that did you hear?” I asked, trying to sound indifferent.
“I didn’t hear anything,” she said, unsuccessfully hiding her smile.
Five houses. That was all that stood between her house and mine. I counted them as we walked past.
“Kismet,” I snorted, kicking a pebble.
“True love.” She rolled her eyes. “I’d be happy if I never saw you again.”
“The feeling’s mutual.”
But when we reached my mom’s front porch, we stood and looked out at the bare trees and quiet houses. I shoved my hands in my coat pockets, rocking on the balls of my feet. “You, uh, always live down the street?”
“Only since high school. Still, it’s kind of crazy we’ve never met.”
She shifted her weight, rubbing her arms against the cruel wind. She had to be freezing.
“So…” I loudly cleared my throat. “How about dinner?”
She tugged my sweater up to hide her smile. “Ya, sure. Might as well since the universe went to all this trouble. And I have to give your slippers back anyway.”
She shuffled off down the street, tugging at her too-tight Barbie pajamas.
“I’ll bring you flowers,” I yelled.
She flipped me off. I grinned after her. True love flowers, what a joke.
Now I just needed to figure out how to explain a microwave full of wilted roses.
Photo Credit: ladyloneranger / Marcia Thompson, from Colorado Springs, USA
This story was shortlisted in the Reedsy Prompt Contest (#64): https://blog.reedsy.com/creative-writing-prompts/contests/64/submissions/39402/
It was a dark night, and I was motoring home, rumbling along the twin ruts that led past Greymouth Manor. Masses of inky cloud had banished the moon from the sky. My headlamps dimly lit the trees lining the thin lane, casting a thicket of shadows across the road. I watched eagerly for the golden glow from the rows of stately windows, a beacon of prosperity and tradition in an ever-uncertain world, but through the gap in the hedges guarding the main entrance, I saw only a black shape against a black night. The windows were dark, and the manor stood brooding.
A ghostly figure darted in front of me, and I slammed on the brakes. My motorcar shuddered to a stop. A face, deathly white and set with wild eyes, glowed in the light of the headlamps. The young woman stumbled to my door.
“Please,” she said, lips trembling. “Help me.”
The breath that had lodged in my throat from the fright of her appearance rushed out. “Are you hurt?”
“Please!” She was clinging to the motor car to stay on her feet. “There’s no time. They’ll kill me!”
When I opened the door, intending to get out, she scrambled over me into the empty seat. “Go!” she said, shoving my hands toward the wheel. “Go, now!”
Her voice was urgent, frantic, her eyes panicked. I hurriedly obeyed, and the motor car jerked forward. Through the last gap in the hedge before the trees swallowed the manor, I caught a glimpse of dark figures, framed against the light of an open doorway, watching us.
We sat silent as the motor muttered and the road rumbled past. I didn’t know what to do with the white-lipped woman next to me. She sat frozen, hands clutched in her lap, staring ahead unblinkingly. No respectable young woman would get into a strange car with a strange man unless some worse fate awaited her, and from her dress, I knew her to be respectable.
“What’s your name?” I finally asked.
The trees marched steadily by, and a sliver of moon managed to escape the oppressive clouds before she answered. “Elaine.”
She nodded. I’d heard of her but only as a footnote to her father, the Lord Greymouth. What she was doing running into the road after dark, I couldn’t fathom.
“Does your family know where you are?”
She buried her face in her hands and wouldn’t say another word.
My landlady was visiting family, so the narrow house where I lived, wedged into the tight row lining the street, stood dark and silent when we arrived. Elaine sat mutely. Not knowing where else to take her, I helped her inside, half-carrying her as she stumbled along, clinging to my arm. I set her on a chair in the kitchen, tucked a heavy blanket around her shoulders, and pressed a steaming cup of tea into her hands.
“Now, tell me,” I said, sitting across from her. “Who’s going to kill you?”
She tentatively sipped the tea, smoothing back her disheveled hair with a fluttering hand. “We recently discovered we had several distant cousins. My father wasn’t clear on the details, or perhaps he simply wasn’t forthcoming with me, but”—she took a shuddering breath—“they had a line of inheritance.”
The tea in her cup wavered in her shaking hands, nearly spilling.
“They came to visit,” she continued, the composure she’d mustered slipping away. “Mother was in bed, Father in his study.” Her teeth chattered. “Only, Mother was cold as ice, staring. The study… Empty. Auntie was gone. I tried! I looked.”
I leaned closer. “Where were they?”
“They killed them, don’t you see?” she cried, eyes wide. “They wanted the manor! Uncle was last. I begged him, said it was just a house, but he wouldn’t go. There was so much blood, pouring out of his mouth, then it was just me and—“
The teacup slipped from her fingers, shattering on the table. She gasped in horror, but I caught her trembling hands. “It’s only china. I’ll clean it up, but first, I’m calling the police.”
When I came back, she was trying to mop up the mess with a linen napkin. She cut herself on the shards and stood there, uselessly, blood pooling in her palm. I quickly wrapped her hand up and set her back in her chair, grateful my landlady wasn’t here to see the state of her linens. “The police are on their way.”
She nodded quickly. “Who are you?”
“My name is Clarence,” I said, squeezing her fingers to stop the bleeding. “But you can call me Clancy. All my friends do.”
I offered a small smile. She didn’t return it, but she leaned her forehead on my hands, still clutched in hers.
A weary-looking and skeptical sergeant soon appeared at the door to hear her tale. His demeanor changed when I presented “the Honorable Elaine Greymouth,” and we were rushed back to the manor, the police car droning and clanging in the still night.
The manor was a massive affair of brick and twisted metal. The dark windows soon flared with light. Electric torches flickered and bobbed on the grounds, and voices shuddered off the brick as they searched. Elaine and I waited outside: she refused to get any closer. A peevish Inspector, his tie half-tied, arrived, gnashing an unlit cigar and barking orders at the uniforms.
“We found blood!” came a call from the doorway, and he stalked inside, shoving his cigar back in his pocket.
Elaine buried her face in my lapel. “You’re safe now,” I murmured, stroking her hair, but she shook her head.
It was nearly dawn before we were taken back to the narrow house on the crowded street. They had found blood but no bodies and no killers. Uniforms came and went all day, and Elaine told and retold her story until I thought she might go mad. She answered each question calmly, with composure, but when they finally left that evening, she looked transparent, like she might fade away.
Besides my landlady’s rooms, which were strictly off-limits, there was only my rickety bed, but I could make do with the parlor. Elaine sat gingerly on the edge of the bed, vacantly apologizing for the imposition. I gathered up spare blankets and a change of clothes before bidding her goodnight.
“Clarence!” she called anxiously as I pulled the door shut behind me. She was watching me, eyes wide and fearful.
“I’ll be downstairs.”
After a moment, she seemed to accept this, and I left her tugging at the buttons on her dress.
I tossed aside my jacket and collapsed in a high-backed chair, not bothering to turn on the lights as the sky darkened, and tried to make sense of the past day. One moment I was driving home, the next, the potentially last member of the Greymouth family was asleep in my bed. My home was humble compared to her standard of living, but she’d made no complaint and shown no desire to leave. The police seemed to think we were already acquainted and didn’t question it when she clung to my hand, knuckles whitening, while they questioned her.
I was nodding off when the floor in the hall creaked. Night had settled over the house, clumping in the corners. A dark figure appeared in the doorway. I started to call for Elaine but hesitated. Elaine would glow a soft white in the darkness, like a pale moonbeam, like she had when she appeared in front of my car. Whoever this was, was a shadow against the night, standing silent.
Men who tend to motor after dark also tend to carry revolvers. I slid the small weapon out of my vest pocket. The figure didn’t seem to notice me and turned to leave. I stood up, and the blankets piled in my lap slid to the floor. The figure whirled, and I fired. The room blazed bright as daylight, leaving me blind, ears ringing. I crept forward, feeling around on the floor until my fingers found warm wetness. Blood.
There was no time for relief. The floor above me moaned. I sprinted for the stairs, taking them two at a time, and crashed through her door. Another dark figure stood over Elaine’s bed, framed against the moonlit window. My gun flashed and crashed, and they crumpled to the floor. When I turned on the lights, Elaine was sitting up, white and stiff as a gravestone, coated in a red mist of blood.
Her wide eyes stayed fixed on the figure in the spreading red stain until I pulled her chin to face me, relieved to see the blood she wore wasn’t hers. Her dress had been laid over a chair, and she had on only a thin lace chemise. I wrapped a blanket around her, ushering her downstairs. She froze at the bottom of the steps where the other figure lay, sprawled halfway inside the parlor.
“He’s dead,” I said, guiding her into the kitchen.
The police were again called, and the house swarmed with uniforms. Elaine stared down at the bodies as they were carried out, the black masks they wore peeled back.
“The sons,” she murmured before she went back into the kitchen and sat, staring ahead, the blanket sliding forgotten from one delicate shoulder.
The Inspector, his cigar dangling from one corner of his mouth, hesitated by the door, glancing into the kitchen before he pulled me aside and dug a photograph out of his pocket. “Thought it best you see this.”
I stared down at the grainy image of brick walls lined with shelves, a low ceiling, and a dirt floor. Four figures wrapped in gaudy drapes lay in a neat row at the bottom of a dirt hole, bound up by tasseled cords. “No survivors?”
“Only the girl.”
“What is it?” a thin voice asked behind me.
Elaine stood in the doorway, her face pale.
“They found your family,” I said, handing the photograph back to spare her the horror.
She nodded. “And the killers? There were two more, the mother and the brother.”
“Not a sign of them, ma’am,” the Inspector said, fiddling with his cigar. “I imagine they’re long gone by now.”
I tugged the blanket back over her bare shoulders. “It’s over. You can go home.”
“No,” she said flatly, her face expressionless. “They won’t rest until I’m dead.”
She went back into the kitchen, her gaze turned to the ceiling to avoid seeing the blood on the floor. I shrugged helplessly, and the inspector laid a sympathetic hand on my shoulder before he strode out the door.
I made the best bed I could for her on the chaise in the parlor and covered the bloodstains with sheets, but she wouldn’t sleep or eat. I couldn’t blame her for that. I tried my best, but I was no cook.
“Please try,” I said softly, kneeling at her feet where she sat on the makeshift bed and setting a tray of food, long since cold, on her lap.
She nudged the fork despondently, but we were interrupted by a loud gasp from the hallway that could only be Mrs. M. returning home to find one of her finest sheets laid over an enormous bloodstain on the meticulously cleaned carpets. If she was horrified by the state of the floors, I trembled to think what she would do to me when she discovered the kitchen.
“What did you do?” she shrieked at me when I appeared in the doorway, shaking the bloody linens in my face. “Three days! I left for three—”
She stopped, mouth open, staring past me. Elaine hovered in the doorway, her eyes seeming two sizes too large in her drawn face.
When Mrs. M. heard the whole sordid tale, she insisted Elaine stay with us and would hear no argument. The only protests Elaine made before she agreed were halfhearted and I think more for propriety’s sake than anything else. The days fell into a bizarre rhythm. The search for the remaining killers swept the city, and soon there wasn’t an ear that hadn’t heard what happened that night at Greymouth Manor. Curious visitors, well-wishers, and gawkers tried to call when they learned where Elaine had disappeared to, but I sent them away, saving her from their prying and shallow sympathies.
Mrs. M. fussed over her like an anxious mother. Elaine herself kept a brave face. Through all the horrors and fear she’d endured, she never shed a tear, but I heard the floor creaking as she paced at night. It was only at my coaxing that she picked at her meals and on my arm that she would venture from the house to stroll down the uneven street.
“Poor dear,” Mrs. M. sighed as we stood in the parlor doorway, watching her halfheartedly play the out-of-tune piano in the corner. “One can’t fathom what kind of monster would do such a thing and to such a sweet girl.”
“One never knows, Mrs. M.”
“And heaven only knows what would have happened to her if you hadn’t been there!” She wrung a dishtowel in her hands as if she might strangle the killers herself.
“A coincidence to be sure, Mrs. M.”
“Don’t pretend you aren’t pleased,” she said, eyeing me. “I see the way you look at her when she takes your arm, like a man who’s found lost treasure.”
“Mrs. M!” I said indignantly.
My protest only seemed to confirm her suspicions, and she raised an eyebrow before bustling back into the kitchen.
Elaine was sitting silently now, gazing at her hands in her lap. Her fair hair hung over her shoulders: she hadn’t bothered to pin it up. She turned to me, her eyes forlorn, before the golden locks again hid her thin face, and with a sigh, she began to play, picking out a mournful and naked melody.
Three weeks after a crazed woman darted into the road ahead of my motor car, the last two killers were found on a steamer bound for America. The trial that followed, while a necessary course of law, seemed superfluous. No one doubted their guilt or the word of the thin, pale woman who accused them. One only had to look in her face to see the horrors they’d brought upon her. It was no surprise then when they were sentenced to hang. Elaine insisted on attending, dressed in stark black, and refused to leave until the hoods were removed and she could see the bloated faces of her family’s killers. She sobbed against my chest, though whether from horror or relief, I couldn’t say.
When we stepped out of the courthouse, a pudgy man with a briefcase in one hand and a damp kerchief in the other that he kept wiping across his brow was waiting for us.
“Lady Greymouth?” he asked.
Elaine’s body jerked at the address, but she politely greeted him in response.
“I oversaw your father’s matters. Now that this… beastly affair is dealt with…” He dug around in his stuffed briefcase.
“Now really is not a good time,” she said.
“I’m sure it will only take a moment,” I said, squeezing her hand. “Let’s hear the man out.”
He presented her with a large envelope. “As the last surviving member of the Greymouth family, the whole of your father’s estate passes to you, including Greymouth Manor.”
Her face contorted. “Board it up. I never want to see that horrid place again. I can’t… I can’t go back. I want none of it!”
She dropped the envelope like a snake and rushed past him.
“Sorry,” I snatched it up and shoved it under my arm, hurrying after her. “It’s been a long… month, really,” I called over my shoulder.
I found her standing on the street corner, distractedly twisting her handkerchief, and took her dear little face in my hands. “You’re safe now, darling.”
It was improper, and I knew it, but she smiled up at me, laying her hands over mine. “I don’t know what would have become of me if you hadn’t found me.”
“Don’t you think about that. Not for a moment.”
The horror of that night finally seemed to lay behind us, and there was a future to be looked to, one I had an increasing interest in. When she left the narrow house for furnishings more suitable for her station, I was a frequent visitor, feeling very out of place, but I needn’t have worried. Her solemn face lit up and she rushed to greet me whenever “young Mister Clarence” was announced at the door.
Three months later, we were married and settled into the stately but modest Greymouth townhouse. It was a quiet life. As I told the few visitors we had before asking them to call again another day, the darkness still lingered. While a tragedy, it was less a surprise when six months later, my dear little wife, driven mad by what she’d endured, killed herself. She was too young and innocent to survive the horrors brought upon her.
She was buried on the estate beside her family in a small fenced garden at the edge of the trees, and to stay close to her, I took possession of the manor, pulling the boards from the doors and letting light into the windows once more.
But the truth of it is, when she came down the stairs that last night and I kissed her hand as I always did, she smiled happily up at me, never for a moment suspecting there was strychnine in her tea.
Photo Credit: The Building News, 16 July 1875
I recently passed 100 posts on the Tiny Tales blog, 61 of which were original short stories (find them here). What a journey from when I started sharing my work almost ten months ago! I knew then that I needed to write and did so with wild abandon. Not everything that came out was, to put it bluntly, good, but it was finished. Each story taught me something new about writing, about myself, about what I wanted, taking me a little further down a path I’m discovering as I walk it.
If you’re wondering where that path is headed, I don’t know. I can tell you that I have a list of story ideas about a mile long that I am slowly carving my way through. Will you see them all here? No, probably not. I hope to have some of my work, the best of my ideas polished to the best of my ability, published. But there will still be stories here for you every week.
I can’t wait to see where the next ten months take me. But in the meantime, to celebrate this milestone, let’s revisit the very first story I posted, inspired by the writing prompt “bread.”
She tipped the bowl, and the mass of dough landed with a puff of white on the floured counter. Some clung to the inside, and she picked at it, wishing the sticky mixture would stick to itself and not her fingers.
“It’s healthier than store-bought bread,” she said to her husband, who was bent over staring into the refrigerator, and lifted herself on her toes to press the heel of her hand into the soft dough. This recipe was one she had seen on TV and decided to try on a whim, carefully measuring out the ingredients into a shiny stainless steel bowl.
“The Perfect Bread Recipe,” the show’s host had claimed, taking all the credit for the tens of thousands of years of experimentation with the ratios of ground grass, moisture, and time.
She shook her wrist, sending a flurry of white over the soft lump and continued kneading, oblivious to the countless women toiling over grinding mills contained in her innocent white bag of flour, shadowed by the inevitable escape of its contents.
“I hope the yeast rises,” she mused to herself, considering the silver bag in the freezer she had bought on sale six months ago. “How long does yeast last anyway?”
The store hadn’t had any messy starters in jars passed down from generation to generation, stuffed in the back of dark pantries or cool cellars, only bags and packets with big chunky letters on them. Instant, active dry, rapid rise. A thousand years of slow growth crammed into an innocuous silver packet.
“Should have done this in the mixer,” she sighed, picking at the stubborn dough clinging to her fingers. She lightly clapped her hands over the dough to free them of their floury coating and gingerly moved it into a bowl, topping it was a light pat and a cloth.
“Leave in a warm area until doubled in size,” she recited to herself, flipping on the light above the stove with a beep and placing the dough-filled bowl beneath it. Now she only had to wait. There were no villagers to feed, no chores for impatient lords or masters, no hungry customers, just time as the tiny organisms, finally reawakened, began their work. She peeked under the cloth once, happy to see the dough climbing its way to the edge of the bowl. The little fungi gorged themselves until she moved the dough into the waiting loaf pan, and then they gorged themselves again.
She slid the pan into the oven and curled up with a book and a glass of wine. No fires, no fuel, no smoke or charred loaves, only a soft whoosh and a click as the oven toiled away. Soon she was greeted with the unmistakable aroma of freshly baked bread, no longer a necessity of survival but an act of pure decadence. Carefully retrieving her browned loaf, she pensively knocked on its crusty exterior, listening for the hollow echo, oblivious to the thousand years of human existence contained within.
Next week’s story is called “What Happened That Night at Greymouth Manor.” If you enjoy murder mysteries, make sure to check back in next Wednesday, and as always, you can subscribe here.
~R. E. Rule
Content Warning: Mild Profanity
I’m sure you’ve heard tales of the strange folk said to dwell in the forests, folk not human. Go ahead. Laugh. Call ‘em nothing but fairy tales, stories to scare defiant children. There was a time I’d have joined you, but I’m here to say that whatever you’ve been told is probably true. Listen to your mother. Don’t follow the lights. And for the love of whatever god you pray to, do not piss off the folk of the forest.
I was warned to stay on the path and avoid the dark parts of the forest, but no true wanderer can resist the call of untouched lands. I left the road behind and found where gray branches grow gnarled and brittle, the ground is soft with moss, and light hangs dim and shadowed beneath the trees.
I made camp there as night fell. A fire crackled at my feet. The smell of my foraged dinner mingled with the wet sweetness of a forest after dark in the spring. A log collapsed in the fire. Behind the rising sparks, a pale face glowed out of the shadows.
I jerked upright, blinking. An impossibly thin woman was perched on a fallen log, arms crossed, glaring at me.
“Where the hell—?” Dazed, I looked around for where she could have come from. Cascading hair wrapped around her wiry body, but she didn’t have a thread of clothing underneath. “Are you lost?”
She pursed her lips, angular face contorting. I blinked and we were nose to nose.
“You’re the one who’s lost,” she hissed, bright eyes changing color with every blink of her translucent lids. “Didn’t your mother ever tell you it isn’t wise to interfere with the faerie folk?”
She hurled a handful of mushrooms at my chest. I’d noticed they were growing in a circle, but that had seemed like good luck at the time. Half had been cooked for dinner, the other half, now scattered, set aside for my breakfast. She leered in my face, fingers digging into my chest.
“You’ve wedged yourself in where you’re not wanted!” Her voice swelled from a growl to a shriek. I clamped my hands over my ears, but the noise reverberated in my skull. The forest erupted in waves of color, shifting, shuddering. The trees swayed. Lights flickered beneath their branches, and her scream rushed back through the dark trunks as soft laughter.
“I—I’m sorry!” I gasped. “I’ll put them back.”
Her twisted smile pinned me. The fire flared, crimson and emerald. Grotesque shadows danced across the trees. Other figures, faces pointed and bright, ivory and mahogany and ebony, whirled in the firelight. They tried to drag me into their wild dance, but I lay like a stone. So they flailed me with sticks and rocks and clods of dirt, dancing over me with sharp heels.
The world pitched, and the ground surged up, threatening to throw me into the fire. I clawed at the dirt as the flames roared, climbing, licking at my heels. The monstrous shadows laughed. I was falling, tumbling, and the world went black.
I woke in the pale light of dawn, face down next to the dead fire. The skin beneath my shredded shirt was covered in welts and bruises, and my mouth full of dirt. As soon as I could stand, by god, I put those mushrooms back where I found them.
I was bored with the writing prompts I’ve been getting, so I picked one for myself: a 500-word story about mushrooms. I know what happens when you step into a fairy circle, but what happens if you EAT a fairy circle? Inquiring minds want to know.
~ R. E. Rule
Photo Credit: Painting by August Malmstrom
Today is September 22, the birthday of both Frodo and Bilbo Baggins. These stout little hobbits appeared in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien and were pivotal players in the War of the Ring. Today might be a good day to enjoy some tasty food and drink in true Hobbit fashion and chase down an ill-advised adventure or two (though be cautious of any magical artifacts you come across).
In honor of the day, below is a poem I wrote several years ago for a Fantasy/Science Fiction class. It was part of a project I completed on The Hobbit.
Colored cloaks, like misty ghosts,
Through silver shadows pass.
Thirteen of steely foot and eye,
A borrowed thief,
The tallest shuffles last.
Through hands that squash,
And fangs that bite,
Through shrieks and riddles in the night,
Through enchantment’s snare,
And Goblin lair,
To reach that mountain cold.
There awaits a mighty foe,
Guardian of his golden hoard.
Emerging to rain despair,
With thunderous wing and roar.
But to a brave man’s arrow,
The FireFiend will fall.
To the mountain, a battleground,
Fortress for a fevered king.
March the armies of desire,
Joined by tide’s darkening.
A noble tomb for son’s of earth.
As always, thanks for reading and Happy Hobbit Day!
~ R. E. Rule
Originally posted January 30, 2020. Republished with updates September 22, 2020.
Photo Credit: T-Jacques (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dragon-hobbit-couleurs.JPG)