At a Local Inn

Coals whizzed out of the fireplace in orange arcs, pattering with sharp hisses around the room.

                “That’s cheating!” Vanka wailed and dove behind an overturned table.

                “That’s magic, my dear.” I fell back against the wall for a breath. “What would you do with thirty golden varnums anyway? Gamble it away?”

                Vanka let out a guttural shriek. A dagger buried itself in the wooden beam inches from my head. It was my turn to dive for cover.

                The golem was crouched at the edge of the room, draped in chains, watching us with baleful eyes.

                The inn had been a lively, cheerful place when we’d arrive as the sun set, first Vanka and the prisoner, me close behind. When she’d seen me, cursing turned to threats and threats to shoving, mostly on Vanka’s part. That was when the general populace decided to clear out. Now it seemed the bar was partially in flames, though I didn’t take time to look.

                A bit of Vanka’s cloak stuck out from behind the overturned table. The coals flared under my command, igniting the fabric. I grinned as she leapt around the room, cursing and batting at herself.

                “You dance beautifully,” I called.

                She snatched a chair and sent it arcing toward me. I ducked, and it splintered against the wall. The room suddenly went quiet.

                “Rolf,” Vanka said.

                “Yeeeees?” I stayed huddled on the floor. I wasn’t about to fall for that.

                “Where is he?”

                “Where is who?”

                “You know who,” she snarled.

                “Ooh, this is a fun game. Do you mean the King of Avary? I believe he’s in his castle.”

                “He’s gone, Rolf.”

                I popped my head over the pile of crates I’d been hiding behind. The golem had vanished. A few drops of molten metal were cooling on the floor, and a black hole had burned into the wooden planks from a red-hot lump of coal.

                “Rather clever for a golem, isn’t he?” I remarked and jumped as Vanka let out a deafening shriek.

                “You mud-humping, slug slime!” She charged at me, but I cowered, holding up my hand placatingly.

                “Now, hold on, Vanka, my dear. Staying here and beating each other into a bloody pulp isn’t going to do either of us any good.”

                Her nostrils flared, eyes blazing like an angry bull.

                “We could work together,” I coaxed. “Split the reward.”

                “Split it?” She spat on the floor. “After I caught him and you let him escape? You’re lucky I don’t skin you alive and wear you for boots!”

                “Fair. I’ll admit you’ve earned perhaps a bit more for getting us this far. How about, and it hurts me to say this, I take a mere a third of the reward, plus”—I rubbed my chin thoughtfully—“a pittance, only half of another third? All the rest will belong to you.”

                Vanka frowned, considering this, before she snorted. “As it should be.”

                I grinned like a cat. “Shall we be off then?”

                “Fine.” She yanked her dagger from the wall and shoved it into her belt. “But stay where I can see you.”

                “I wouldn’t have it any other way.”

                The inn collapsed in a shower of red sparks, but we sped on, following the trail of molten metal and heavy stone tracks, into the night, after our prey.

Waiting

It was dark in the shadow of the attic. Rain pelted the window. I swung my legs, idly drumming my heels against the side of my trunk, waiting.

                Grandfather had told me to wait here. To wait until he came back and then he would take me to where I belonged. The rusty key ground in the lock, and his heavy steps lumbered down the stairs.

                Then yelling had come, muffled, from outside. I stood on the trunk to peer out the dusty round window, squinting against the glare of the sun. Father was there, with his faded Oldsmobile and faded suit and faded fedora. Yelling always came with him. Yelling and being told to listen to him, not to Grandfather, and Grandfather telling me the same. Grandfather pointed down the road, but Father pushed past him, rushing into the house. When Father came back out, he yelled some more, grabbing Grandfather by the shirt and shaking him, before he ran to his car, and the Oldsmobile roared away, kicking up dust and stones. Grandfather lumbered down the driveway, through the gate, and out of sight.

                Now I stood on the trunk again and looked out, wiping at the fog on the glass with my palm. Rain poured down, buffeted by the wind. All I could see was the porch light flickering dimly through the blowing branches of the tree covering the window.

                Grandfather was back and digging by the porch, the back of his shirt dark with sweat from the sun. The yelling stopped when it was just Grandfather. All noise stopped. His dear sweet Emma was gone, and there was only silence and the ticking of the clock on the mantel. I had heard her name peeking around corners at strangers coming and going, from men with mustaches and handbags handing over bottles and pills, when Grandfather mumbled it through the scotch on his breath. Father had tried to take me away from the silence, but he only had a faded Oldsmobile and a faded suit and a faded fedora.

                Grandfather stabbed his shovel into the dirt next to the hole he’d dug. He’d brought back a little tree, and it sat next to the shovel and the hole. He lumbered to the porch, through the door, and the walls of the house trembled when it shut.

                I jumped off the trunk and walked across the attic, the floor creaking under my feet. The lock on the door was heavy, dark metal, the frame solid wood. There were steps on the stairs. Quick steps. They stopped outside the door.

                “Must be rats again,” said a voice on the other side.

                “But the exterminator said there was nothing up there,” another voice answered, worried, more distant. “Just some moth-eaten old trunk.”

                The floor groaned, footsteps and voices retreating. Music switched on somewhere below with a strange snap, not the scratch of a phonograph needle.

                I went back to the trunk, to drumming my heels. In the dim light of the rain-flecked window, I waited.

Eternity

The cave glittered like a starry night. A web of paths, jagged with stalagmites, stretched across a black sea, and the lights above shimmered on its ebony surface.

Blackness muffled the crunch of pebbles beneath my feet. Branching, weaving, splitting and re-joining, it led ever onward, and I had no choice but to follow.

Across the sea of blackness, the paths become one again before a black gate, and beside it, stood a figure. Her face held the mysteries of infinity, and she glowed like a waning moon.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“Eternity,” she replied.

“Then what’s beyond the gate?”

A smile twinkled across her face. “Wonders beyond comprehension.”

I raised a hand to the stone, trying to push it open, but it was cold and solid beneath my touch. “How do I get through?”

When I turned back to her, her face was sorrowful. “I’m sorry,” she said. “But you can go no further.” She held out her translucent hands and gazed sadly down at the shards that lay within them. “This crystal was set aside for you since before time began, but it’s been broken and none can pass empty-handed.”

“What happened to it?”

“None can pass empty-handed,” she repeated, and the shards fell from her hands, raining musically over the stones.

The ground before the gate was strewn with broken crystals, their edges broken and cruel.

“Someone took mine? They used it?” My voice shuddered off the black walls. “What will happen to me?”

“You will stay in the blackness of eternity until you fade to nothing. Unless…” Her face became pensive. “If you could find another, the way would be open to you. But you must hurry.”

Already the stars were winking out, and the darkness closing in on us.

I followed the shore where the black waves lapped. What I thought were stars were crystals, innumerable, set into the walls, but they glittered high above me. The stone beneath my hands was dark, pocked and scarred, empty. The darkness drew nearer, gathering itself around me.

At last, at the base of a stalagmite, I found one last crystal, pulsing a dim blue. The black rock crumbled away at my touch, and the stone thrummed in my hand.

“It was the last,” I said when I rejoined her. “Whose is it?”

But she merely stepped aside. “The way is open.”

I laid a hand on the gate. The stone was warm now, and the crystal vibrated, humming in the blackness. She stood at the edge of the sea, watching me, her light glimmering on the waves.

My hand fell to my side, and I gave her the crystal.

“Will you stay with me?” I asked. “Until the end? I’m afraid.”

We sat together until the last star winked out and only the crystal in her hand remained. I waited, but the darkness halted at the edge of the blue light. We sat on an island of light, adrift on a sea of darkness.

“When will the end come?” I asked.

Her face glowed with a soft smile, and she pressed the crystal into my hands. “It was always yours. If you had tried to pass beyond the bounds of eternity, it would have shattered and the darkness taken you, but you chose destruction and in so doing, lived.”

“Then what will become of me?” I asked.

A smile twinkled across her face. “Wonders beyond comprehension.”

The cave glittered like a starry night, empty and silent, and at the base of a lone stalagmite nestled a single blue crystal, faintly pulsing in the darkness.


Photo Credit: Hermala
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Light_Blue_of_Indonesian_Gem.jpg

Kismet

                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.

                “Recycle bin.”

                “Good thinking.”

                “Coffee’s free.”

                “Thank god.”

                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.

                “Her?”

                “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.

               “Understood.”

               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
https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lavender_rose.jpg#mw-jump-to-license

The Folk of the Forest

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
(https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dancing_Fairies_(August_Malmstr%C3%B6m)-_Nationalmuseum-_18226.tif)

Little Red – Part 2

If you missed Part 1, find it here.


               Only the brightest, most fragrant, most perfect blossoms would do, and the sun had passed its peak in the sky by the time Little Red continued down the path, downy stems clutched in her hands and the basket on her arm. Her stomach was beginning to grumble, and she hurried now, eager for the biscuits and jam carefully wrapped up in their basket. Around the last curve, the cottage came into view, and Little Red stopped and stared.

               The trees grew tall and close, lacing their green hands together over what looked more like a worn barn than a cottage. Rotting leaves blanketed the uneven roof, and furry, green moss crept up the water-stained wood. Little Red struggled through tacky mud, past a dilapidated well, to the door, stopping for a moment to examine the tracks next to her muddy shoes. A line of shallow paw prints ran from the door into the trees. Wondering if her grandmother had seen the wolf too, she hurried inside.

               Quilts hung over the windows, and the hearth was cold. Little Red stood a moment in the dark doorway before she noticed a figure in the cot against the wall. “Grandmother?” she whispered, timidly drawing closer.

               The figure stirred, turning, and the drawn face of her grandmother gazed up at her. “Red?” she murmured hoarsely. “You… you shouldn’t be—” A ragged cough shook her body.

               Little Red anxiously smoothed back the tangled hair streaked with gray. “I brought flowers,” she said, laying her small hand on the flushed cheek.

               Her grandmother clutched it, pulling it to her lips. “So… hungry…” she moaned, drawing a rasping breath.

               Little Red yanked away from the tightening grip, horrified to find both her and her grandmother’s hand coated in drying mud. “You need to wash up,” she said, pursing her lips. “Then we can eat. I’ve brought biscuits and jam.”

               Leaving the basket and the flowers heaped on the table, she hurried to the well, the empty water pitcher in her hands. The rope was rotting, blackened and stiff, and it bit into her hands, but she held on tight, her feet sliding in the mud as she struggled to heave the water up from the blackness. She had watched her father pull water from the well in the village. He had crouched down to look her in the eye, telling her never to use a well alone or to lean over the edge to look down, and she had solemnly promised she wouldn’t. But now there was no one to help her, and her grandmother was very sick. As carefully as she could, she leaned over the crumbling wall to dip the pitcher into the bucket before jumping back as the rope buzzed against the stones and the bucket landed with a splash.

               Water in hand, she turned back to the cottage, but she stopped in the doorway. The figure in bed was moving. The blankets shifted against the darkness, writhing, thrashing, contorting, growing larger and bulkier until the cot buckled beneath it.

                Little Red’s voice shook. “Grandmother?”

               Two glowing eyes blinked back at her. White teeth glistened through the shadows, and the wolf, the same wolf that had followed her on the path only seeming much larger now in the small room, leapt from the bed. A white nightgown tangled around its legs, and it crashed to the floor. Thrashing and snarling, it clawed at the fabric, sending the table flying and scattering the flowers, then it was back on its feet, advancing on Little Red, bared teeth dripping. The pitcher of water crashed to the floor.

               With a shriek, she ran, slipping and stumbling in the mud, and the wolf bounded after her. With a snap, its jaws closed on her cloak. She tried to scream, but the world pitched, the air driven from her lungs, as the wolf shook her. The fabric in its jaws gave way, and she tumbled into the leaves. Her head slammed into rough bark. The wolf advanced, claws raking furrows in the dirt, fur bristling, fangs dripping. With a snarl, it leapt.

               Little Red clenched her eyes shut, clamping her muddy hands over her eyes, but the bite never came. There was a dull thud and a sharp yelp, and when she looked up, a familiar figure stood over her, axe in hand.

               “Father!”

               He dropped to one knee, pulling her into his arms. The wolf struggled to its feet, but its legs shook and it crumpled back into the leaves with a shallow whine. Little Red’s father carried her into the cottage, setting her on the bed and anxiously checking her over, folding his handkerchief to press against the gash on the back of her head.

               “Stay here,” he told her, moving her hand to hold the handkerchief.

               He strode out the door, a quilt in one hand and an axe in the other. When he came back, her grandmother was beside him, huddled under the quilt, her face pale and bloodied. Little Red ran to her with a sob of relief, but her father snatched her up.

               “It’s gone,” her grandmother said, her voice thin.

               “For now!” He gripped the axe tightly, backing toward the door. “How long until it comes back? Until it’s brave enough to leave the forest?”

               She sagged onto the edge of the bed. “It’s… so hungry. I’ll leave. I’ll go further away.”

               “What good will that do?” he yelled. “This has to stop.” He pulled Little Red closer, leaning his forehead on her hair. “I can’t let this continue.”

               Her grandmother stared at him, eyes wide, before she sighed, shoulders sagging. “I know. But please…” She held out her arms. “Let me see her.”

               “No.”

               Her father left the cottage, striding down the path, Little Red still clutched in his arms. Behind them, her grandmother stood in the doorway, the quilt around her shoulders, hand over her mouth, watching, until the forest swallowed her up. Down the winding path and back through the dark mouth, they went, to where Little Red’s mother stood waiting, baby in her arms. Her face paled when she saw the tattered and muddy cloak.

               “What happened?” she cried, stroking Little Red’s bloody hair.

               “A wolf ate grandmother,” Little Red sobbed. “Father had to cut her out.”

               Her mother turned to him with questioning eyes, but he said nothing, guiding them away from the forest.

               The next day the meadow stood empty and the stream that ran along the dark wall of trees murmured to itself. Little Red sat next to her father on the bench outside their tiny house as he sharpened his axe, the whetstone grinding against the blade. Leaving a kiss on her head, he set the axe on his shoulder and strode down the road toward the forest.

               “Where is your father going?” her mother asked, stroking Little Red’s hair as she sat on the bench next to her.

               Red gazed out at the dark wall of trees, to the darker mouth and the path that wound through it. “To kill the wolf.”


Photo Credit: Painting by Fleury François Richard (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Little_Red_Riding_Hood.jpg)

Little Red – Part 1

I didn’t intend to make this a two-part post, but life happens. This is the portion I was able to edit in time for today’s post. The conclusion will be posted soon.

This story is an altered re-telling of the classic fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” In his MasterClass, Neil Gaiman encouraged writers to take a fairy tale, dissect it, ask what parts didn’t make sense, and write a version with those questions answered.


                On the edge of a brooding forest, there stood a little village, and in the village, there lived a little girl. She spent her days running through the flowery meadows that skirted the village and skipping from stone to stone in the stream that trickled along the dark wall of trees. In that dark wall was a darker mouth where the meadows ended and a dirt path fringed with ferns snaked beneath the towering trees. The little girl often peered down that path, wondering what lay around the curve where the mossy trunks swallowed it, but she had been told never to wander the forest alone. So she sat and watched and wondered, and when the sun began to set, she ran home to the village, to the small house where she lived with her family.

                On a day near the end of summer, when reds and yellows were just beginning to stain the leaves, she met her father as he strode along the road toward home, and he swept her up onto his hip. “Hallo, Little Red,” he said, tugging the scarlet cloak she always wore down over her eyes. “Have you been good today?”

                “I caught a frog!” she exclaimed and pulled the wriggling thing out of her pocket to hold up to his face.

                With a chuckle and a kiss on the head, he set her down by the gate outside their little house. “For your mother’s sake, let’s leave the frog outside, eh? Or there’ll be no dinner for either of us.”

                Little Red hurried along the fence to where the grass grew thick and green and the frog would be safe from trampling feet. She left it there with a kiss on its lumpy head. “Be good. Don’t wander off or there’ll be no dinner.”

                Inside the little house, her mother flitted between the fussing baby and the pots steaming on the hearth. She shooed Little Red to the washbasin and shook the little scarlet cloak free of dirt and grass with quick hands. They ate together as the sun sank below the horizon. Only the fire lit the room now, and the village outside was dark. Little Red filled her pocket with crumbs and scraps for the frog, but when she tried to go back out, her father shut the door and locked it tight.

               “The door stays shut after dark,” he said, bending down to look intently at Little Red.

               She knew there would be no arguing, and so she was left to wrestle stubborn peas from their pods by firelight as her mother cleared the table and her father paced the room, a crying baby on his shoulder.

               “The village blacksmith was by today,” her mother said to him, stacking up the dirty dishes. “Asking after your mother’s house. His son found a wife, and they need a place to live. I told them they’d just have to keep looking, that she would need it when she came back.”

               “She won’t be back,” her father said quietly.

               The dishes clattered back onto the table. “She can’t intend to stay in the forest forever! What—”

               “She’s taken ill. She won’t be back,” her father said with the same stern tone he used when he told Little Red to stop knocking her feet against the legs of her chair.

               Little Red, who had been listening intently, accepted this answer, but her mother stood still, dismayed, wiping her forehead with a thin wrist. “But the harvest, and winter, and then third one on the way.”

               Her father took her hand in his. “We’ll make do.”

               Little Red had never questioned why her grandmother lived in the forest instead of in the clattering village. She often thought that she would like to live at the end of a winding path herself someday, so it all seemed perfectly logical. But she was concerned to hear her grandmother had taken ill. The next day, she begged her mother to let her go visit. Her mother, who had been all morning trying to spin a basket full of wool into yarn and weed the neat garden rows while shooing the chickens out, all with a fussing baby on her hip, finally, tiredly, agreed.

               “Stay on the path,” her mother said, her hand tightening on Little Red’s as they walked together to the edge of the meadow. “Go straight to your grandmother’s and straight home. And don’t speak to any strangers.”

               Little Red bounced excitedly, swinging the basket of biscuits and jam her mother had packed. She stopped once inside the dark mouth of trees to wave before skipping down the path. The clatter of the village faded. The leaves whispered above her, the trees creaked around her, and everywhere birds chattered.

               At first, she rounded each curve in the path eagerly, but finding only more trees, she started paying less attention to the world around her and much more attention to the one in her head. She was so engrossed that when she saw a wolf loping along the path behind her, she didn’t pause to consider whether it was a real wolf or an imaginary one but instead greeted it cheerfully.

               “Hallo!” Fancying the wolf asked where she was going, as she guessed all polite travelers did, she said, “I’m going to visit my grandmother. She lives in a cottage right down this path. Perhaps you’ve seen it. Why, I bet you have, and—oh!”

               Little Red drew up short. Through the trees, she had caught a glimpse of sunshine on golden flowers and butterflies flitting from blossom to blossom. Her mother had told her not to leave the path, but only a few trunks stood between her and the clearing. Certain that a bunch of fresh flowers would cure whatever ailed her grandmother, she waited only a moment before darting into the sunshine and gathering up as many blossoms as she could hold. Once, she looked up to see the wolf sitting at the edge of the clearing, just beyond the circle of sunlight, but when she looked again, it was gone and was soon forgotten.

(Part 2)


Photo Credit: Painting by Carl Olof Larsson (https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carl_Larsson_-_Little_Red_Riding_Hood_1881.jpg)

The Fall

               The mountain rose out of the clouds, a silent island adrift on white sea-billows stained crimson and violet by the setting sun. Limbs shaking, weak from exertion, he dragged himself onto the rocky ledge. Jagged black walls surged up to the rugged peak, looming over him. For three days he had climbed, driven by desperation, clinging to the bare rockface as desperately as he clung to his last shreds of hope. Now, without wings, he could go no higher.

                “Is anyone here?” His voice shuddered against the rock, lost in the whining wind. The mountain stood silent. “Please!”

                A flurry of wings beat against the wind, and he turned to see a great bird, cloaked in scarlet feathers, alight on a boulder at the edge of the shelf. Golden talons gripped the rock, and golden eyes peered out over a golden beak. He knelt in the creature’s shadow cast by the setting sun.

                “I come to make my plea to you, wings of the mountain.” He fought to keep his shaking voice steady. “I have heard that a request may be granted to those with the strength to climb and the courage to ask.”

                He awaited the bird’s response, but it only turned its head to fix its golden gaze upon him, and around them, the wind wept against the stones.

                “Please!” he cried, beating his fist against the passive mountain.

                The bird clicked its beak, and he fell silent. “Many come,” it rasped. “Seeking power. Seeking riches. Peasants, beggars, kings, and lords of men come to make their pleas. Which are you?”

                “I have little gold and less power. But tell me your price, and whatever I have, I will give.”

                The bird shook its crimson feathers, beating its wings and throwing its head to the sky. Its harsh, barking cry reverberated off the mountainside. “What use is gold to a mountain? or the word of men, fleeting as the clouds?”

                “Then tell me the cost. There is nothing I would not do!”

                The bird examined him before turning to gaze out over the darkening clouds.

                “Jump.”

                “I’ll die,” he protested, but the bird gave no response. He stood, walking to the edge and gazing down to where the wind stirred the clouds over the rocks. Frustration overwhelmed him. Three days he had climbed, three days wasted. “I have scaled the mountain!” he yelled over the wailing wind. “I do not have time for riddles or tests! Tell me your price!” The bird only stared to the horizon, its feathers ruffling beneath the fingers of the wind, and his shoulders sagged in resignation. “If I do this, will I be granted my wish?”

                The golden gaze turned upon him again. “There is no courage in the asking, only in the taking.”

                Staring into the gathering darkness, he willed himself to leap. It was that he feared, not the fall. He had only to jump, to force his feet from the rock, then there would be no turning back, only the inevitable embrace of the earth. And even if this was the price, he couldn’t turn back now. Closing his eyes, clenching his fists, he jumped.

                Nothingness surrounded him, the wind whistling in his ears. He waited for the jarring end, but when it didn’t come, he opened his eyes. He stood in the meadow at the foot of the mountain, the peak lost in the blanket of clouds. The breeze that stirred his hair was only the wind that rushed through the valley and past the tossing trees. His legs gave out, and he fell to his knees, all strength leaving him in his despair. He had failed. The mountain had refused his offering. He pressed his forehead to the earth, ripping at the grass, his wail of anger lost in the wind. The sun disappeared behind the trees and the shadows lengthened as he lay in the grass, hollow with grief.

                Pulling himself up, he turned his feet toward the small house at the edge of the meadow. The last light of day faded as he passed through the low door. Inside, his wife sat in the shadow of the dying fire, her head bent, weeping, the cascade of her hair hiding the small bundle in her arms, and his heart crumbled within him. He knelt next to her.

                “I’m sorry,” he choked, his hands shaking. “I tried.”

                When she lifted her face, he saw that she wept not from grief but with joy, with relief after long suffering and the passing of a shadow after lingering in darkness. In her arms, the tiny face once flushed and mottled was clear, and the dulled eyes were bright. Her sob choked with laughter as a tiny hand reached up to her chin.

                He sagged to the floor. The mountain had heard his plea. He tried to wipe the tears from her cheeks, but his hand passed through her as through a fog, and when he called her name, she paid no more attention to him than the rustling of the trees. At the flutter of wings, he turned to see the bird perched on the foot of the bed, its crimson form immense in the tiny house.

                “Is this death then?”

                The bird cocked its head, the pupil black in its unblinking golden eye. “Does it feel like death?”

                He remembered the darkness that had come over him at the foot of the mountain, when all hope had vanished and he had tumbled into the blackness of despair.

                “No,” he said, his cheeks wet with tears.

                He kissed their foreheads as best he could before passing back into the shadows of night. As he walked to the mountain, the great bird wheeled far above him, glinting crimson in the moonlight, and behind him, upon the windowsill, lay a single crimson feather.


Whatever I’m reading tends to seep into my writing, and this week is certainly no exception. I’m halfway through Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. The writing adventures continue…

~ R. E. Rule

Photo: https://commons.m.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charity_red_feather_(29251735662).jpg

The Cat’s Eyes

I slid through the open window, dropping to a crouch in the darkness. A dying fire hissed on the hearth and the wind whispered against the stone walls of the tower, but the room lay still. I pulled myself to my feet, pushing back my dark hood as my eyes adjusted from the bright moonlight outside.  

                The room was half-circular, the straight wall dividing the tower in half. Bunches of drying herbs and roots hung from the heavy beams running across the ceiling. Rough wooden chairs sat before the fire, draped with woven blankets, and shelves lined the walls, piled with books and plants and other objects I couldn’t even begin to identify. Among them, a deep blue sphere on a metal stand was glowing softly. I examined it curiously, rubbing my rough jaw. When I poked it, the light shuddered to green, and I yanked my hand back. I quickly poked it again, sighing in relief when it returned to glowing blue. A skull with enormous fangs sat next to it, but I dragged my attention away. I was getting distracted.

                Across the room, something stirred, thumping to the floor, and I whirled, yanking my dagger from my belt. I fumbled behind me for the sphere, holding it up to flood the room in faint light. Pulsating blue and green shimmered between the shadow of my fingers.

                I crept to the far wall where a heavy curtain obscured half of the thin bed and yanked it back. Nothing. But the blankets felt warm under my hand, and I hadn’t imagined the sounds. I wasn’t alone.

                “Show yourself,” I hissed.

               There was a solid thump on the table behind me, and I whirled to see two luminous green eyes and a pink nose set in a fluffy face. With a sigh, I shoved my dagger back into my belt.

                “Hi, kitty.” I scratched behind the ginger ears with my forefinger. It stared at me, unblinking.  

                I put the sphere on the table, turning my attention to the door set into the straight stone wall. There was no mechanism, just a latch and a keyhole, and the resident hadn’t left a key. I dropped to one knee, fiddling at the lock with the picks I’d slipped out of my boot.

                “I’ll only be a minute,” I said to the cat, who was still watching me from its perch.

                With a soft click, the lock released and the door creaked open into a thin hall falling away at one end to the stairwell that wound down through the tower. Across the hall, another door led to a smaller room, but it was just as locked. Balancing the sphere on my knees, I set to work again. A single emerald eye was peering around the doorjamb at me.

                “I thought witches had black cats.”

                I closed my eyes, letting my fingers do the work, one hand on the latch, the other working the mechanism. “It’s very hard to concentrate with you staring like that,” I mumbled through the pick in my teeth.

                The latch shifted, and the door opened into a black maw. For a moment, I thought the floor had given way and a bottomless pit swallowed me whole, but as I lost my balance, the sphere shifted on my lap and blue light shimmered across a stone floor and windowless walls. Inside stood more shelves piled with sacks and crates and chests. I fumbled in my pocket for my instructions, smoothing the wrinkled note against my chest before squinting at my client’s neat hand.

                “Storage room. Black chest.” I glanced around at the indistinguishable containers. “Any ideas?” I asked the cat.

               It was sitting in the doorway, tail curled around its feet, the tip idly twitching. It had no answer, and I began perusing the shelves, making my way from one end of the room to the other.

                “Your mistress is a clever one, isn’t she? No doors, no windows except for the one I came through. So tell me, is the door hidden or can she walk through solid walls? Gods, I hope not.” I glanced nervously over my shoulder, half expecting to see an angry, wrinkled face sneering at me, but there was only the cat. I nudged a sack aside with the tip of my dagger. “Do I want to know what’s in these? Probably not. I’ve seen worse, sadly. I was hired to steal someone’s brother back from a body snatcher. The stench, puss! You wouldn’t believe it. This is a vast improvement.” I sniffed the air. “Lavender? Your mistress has good taste for a vile, insidious— Ah! Here it is.”

                A solid, black chest was tucked away in the furthest corner of the farthest shelf. I carefully lifted it down to the floor with my cloak, settling cross-legged in front of it. Further inspection with the dim light revealed no lock, no hinges, no marks of any kind, not even a line where the cover should lift away.

                “This is a puzzle,” I sighed. “You wouldn’t happen to know the trick would you.”

                The cat had joined me, sitting by my knee, its green eyes fixed on the box. I tapped the blank surface with my dagger but was rewarded with only a dull clink. A tentative paw reached forward to bat at it, but I snatched the cat up.

                “Careful, puss,” I whispered, kissing its soft head before setting it in my lap and absently scratching its ears. “No telling what your mistress has up her sleeve. I suppose I could toss it out the window and pick up the pieces at the bott— Ow!”

                I winced as the cat dug its claws through my breeches into my leg.

                “No? Fine. No guarantee that would work anyway.”

                I cautiously laid my hand on the surface, hoping the leather of my gloves would protect me from any curses. The fingertips had been cut away for climbing and lockpicking, and the cool metal pulsed under my skin. I tugged off my glove with a sigh.

                “Here goes nothing.”

                The cat meowed softly in response. To my amazement, my hand sank through the black surface. When I pulled it back, my fingers had closed around the thin chain of an amulet. I held it up in front of my grinning face, the wrinkled black stone glinting in the green light.

                “Found you. Who’s the clever one now?”

                I tucked it into my pocket and shoved the chest back where I’d found it.

                “I’m tempted to take you with me, kit,” I said when both doors were locked, the sphere had been returned to its proper place, and all that was left was to scale back down the slick walls.

                With a soft chirp, the cat trotted to the hearth and leapt into a chair, wrapping its ginger tail around its feet. My foot was halfway to the sill when a soft voice spoke behind me.

                “Stay for a cup of tea?”

                I froze, my fingers gripping the edge of the window until my knuckles whitened. When I turned, the cat was gone. In its place sat a woman, watching me with the same green eyes, a ginger braid wrapped around her waist. She lifted a kettle from the hearth, kept warm by the dying coals, and the heavy smell of hydrating leaves filled the room.

                I looked longingly over my shoulder to the open window, the cool air seeping through taunting me. I could throw myself into the night and undoubtedly break my neck. If I took the time to climb down properly, there was no telling what she would do to me before I reached the ground.

                “Tea?” she asked again, holding out a chipped cup to me.

                “Is it poisoned?”

                She laughed but gave no answer, and the cup stayed stubbornly extended. I cautiously took it, lowering myself into the chair across from her, my eyes locked on her. She had a sharply pointed chin, high cheekbones, and soft freckles that had taken the place of whiskers. The cat seemed to still hover there, just below the skin. She didn’t look how I expected a witch to look, but this could be a trick too, putting on the façade of a pretty face to make men who had weaknesses for such things let their guard down. I had no intention of being one of those men. Her gaze flickered down to where my hand was nervously playing with the hilt of my dagger.

                “I frighten you.”

                “You’re a witch.”

                “You’re a thief,” she retorted.

               “You turned into a cat,” I said darkly, leaning forward, and she mirrored my movement.

                “You climbed a tower with sheer walls.”

                I had done that, but no matter how proud I was of that fact, I wasn’t going to let her distract me.

                “You live in a tower with sheer walls.”

                “I like the view,” she said with a dismissive shrug.

                “If you’re so harmless, why did my client send me to steal your amulet? An amulet he said he needed to protect himself from you.”

                “Do you know what that amulet does?” She sat back, taking a sip of tea. “It wards off warts.”

                There was no hint of a lie in her green eyes, and I yanked it out of my pocket, staring at it. “Warts?! I risked my life for this thing! Why by all the Gods would he need that?”

                “Because I gave them to him,” she said, laughing into her cup.

                That was hardly reassuring, and she sighed as I narrowed my eyes at her.

               “He said he was tired of looking at his wife, she was getting old and could I please do something about it. So I did. I made it so he couldn’t see her. The poor dear, I think she actually enjoyed it. As long as she didn’t make a sound, she could creep out of the house while he rambled on thinking she was there all the while. I expect she was just as tired of listening to him as he was of looking at her. Well, he was rather peeved and told me he wouldn’t pay until I fixed it, and I said I had done exactly as he asked. He called me a hag, and I may have been rather petty.” She twitched the end of her braid between her fingers. “I covered his feet in warts, the insufferable old pig. Told him I’d give him the cure when he paid. But I suppose he decided it was easier to hire you.”

               “Then why turn into a cat?” I demanded.

               “I was scared! It’s rather alarming to wake to a strange man crawling through your window!”

               All in a moment, I realized her feet were bare, she wore only a nightdress, and that I was not the victim in this situation but rather an armed man creeping through darkened windows.

               “I… I’m sorry I frightened you,” I muttered, rubbing the back of my neck.

               “No harm done. I realized you weren’t here for me. And I suppose I like being called clever, even if it is a thief doing the calling.”

               Everything I’d done with the cat beside me came flooding back, and I stared wide-eyed into the fire, excruciatingly aware she’d heard everything and there was no way to hide the kiss I’d placed on her ginger head. Her smirk told me she had guessed my thoughts, and I quickly cleared my throat.

               “That’s quite a trick. Think you could teach me?”

               She narrowed her eyes. “You’re already much too adept at getting into places you shouldn’t. I’m not helping you along.”

               She took another sip of her tea, her nose twitching slightly as she stared into the fire. I set my own untouched cup aside, pulling myself to my feet.

               “Well, I suppose I should be off then before the sun rises.”

               I still wasn’t sure she was going to let me leave, and my heart sank as she jumped to her feet and yanked a key from her pocket.

               “Wait,” she told me before vanishing through the door into the dark hallway.

               I could hear her rummaging around and was contemplating making a break for it when she reappeared with a vial in her hand. “Give this to the wife and tell her she can drink it whenever she wants him to see her again, though I wouldn’t blame her if she never did.”

               I tucked it into my belt, breathing a sigh of relief as I finally made it back to the window and the night air seeping in.

               “How did you get up here?” she asked, leaning over the windowsill to stare down at the sheer walls.

               “Maybe I have a little magic of my own.” I grinned, winking at her.

               Wise or not, my fear had vanished, or maybe whatever charms her thin face held were working on me. I had always had an unhealthy penchant for danger. She pursed her lips at me, but the corner of her mouth twisted into a rueful smile. “I don’t get many visitors. Witch and all that.”

               I gazed out the window, looping my thumb through my belt. “I suppose I could stop by again, if I’m in the area. Just to make sure you haven’t fallen down the stairs and broken your neck.”

               Her laugh followed me as I climbed into the darkness, feeling for holds on the slick surface as I slowly descended.

               “You could use the door next time,” she called, leaning out the window.

               I grinned up at her. “Where’s the fun in that?”

               When I looked again, a ginger cat sat on the sill, watching me, idly flicking its tail, its green eyes glowing in the moonlight.

The Monkey

                Oranges were the only thing that damn monkey would eat. The lettuce and apples were flung away, but the orange he’d take in his wrinkled feet, retreating to the highest perch he could find. There he’d sit, ripping off hunks of the rind with his fangs and spitting them onto the floor, his piercing gaze fixed on me.

                The dealer had parked in the dusty parking lot of an abandoned building and was lounging against the side of his unmarked van when I pulled in. It was the kind of van you thought twice about parking next to, with dark curtains pulled over its barred windows, but a friend of a friend told me he could get you any pet you wanted, no questions asked. Calm and low maintenance, the dealer assured me, pulling a cat carrier out of the back of the van. Through the mesh door, I could see a small mass of brown fur curled up in the corner, the thin ribs etched into its fur heaving. He looked so fragile, so frightened, so vulnerable. I handed over my envelope of cash without another thought.

                I set my TV to play jungle sounds and talked to him whenever I was home, acclimating him to the sound of my voice, but I was given little reward. He refused to play or groom. His fur grew matted and frayed. He only sat and stared at me, lurking in the highest corners he could find, and as the weeks went on, it began to drive me crazy. Everywhere I went, he eventually appeared: on top of bookshelves, huddled under furniture, always staring, until I felt like I was being hunted in my own home. If I tried to get near him, I was greeted with glistening fangs, and bristling fur, and that black gaze prickling up the back of my neck.

                I tried taking the oranges away, to force it to eat something else or better yet to take its precious oranges from my hand, but it would only angrily fling away the undesirable food before retreating to its perch. It would rather starve to death than come near me. I shut the oranges away in the refrigerator with a slam. I had given it food, water, toys, ropes to climb, and a place in my home, but the ungrateful thing wanted nothing to do with me. It left claw marks in the refrigerator while I slept.

                The dealer said it needed time to adjust, like all animals put into a new environment. He laughed when I said it was staring at me, whispering into the phone as I met the black gaze. He wouldn’t take it back. He even had the gall to suggest I get another one of the vile creatures. ‘Company,’ he called it.

                The thing moved closer now. I hurled slices of apple at it, screaming at it to stop staring, jumping, thrashing my arms, trying to chase it away. But it never flinched. It gazed blackly, unwavering, its tiny fists clenching.

                Tomorrow. Tomorrow it would stop staring. A black trash bag would see to that. And I shut my bedroom door to keep the creature out.

                I woke to the light from the hallway spilling through the open door, illuminating the face of the monkey perched on my chest. Black lips curled back to reveal glistening fangs. It peeled my neck like an orange.