Flash Fiction #7: The Book of Crows and Fire

the book of crows and fire

So these post get passed around Tumblr all the time, taking a light-hearted poke at the trend of fantasy YA book titles that’s been going strong for the last several years.

I usually play along by reblogging with the title it gives me, and they’re usually not that great, because that’s the joke.

This particular one, however, generated The Book of Crows and Fire for me, and I immediately got an idea. So I spent an hour typing furiously into the Tumblr post editor and ended up with a 1700-word origin myth, which is also a bad wordplay joke, which is also wildly inaccurate. But it was fun to write, and sometimes that matters more.

Piqued your curiosity? I haven’t posted a flash fiction piece in three full years, so I might be rusty, but here goes:

In the beginning, the day was hot and bright, but the nights were bitterly cold. All the creatures of the earth whimpered in their burrows and dens, huddled together for the meager warmth they could provide each other. The wolf pups shivered, the squirrels fluffed their tails as large as they could to hide beneath, the muskrats coiled themselves around each other and waited for morning to bring back light and warmth to the world.

But the crows sat together high in the branches of the trees, and they did not shiver or whimper or wait. They plotted.

It took time to observe, and time to plan. The crows risked nothing for many days, watching the sun move across the sky. When the first crow tried to catch it, she returned limp and exhausted in the deepest part of the night. “It is too fast,” she said. “I could not keep pace with it.”

Her murder gathered around her to listen to her tale, to the distant lands she had seen in her pursuit of the sun, the territory they had never before encountered. A few days passed while they sent scouts to investigate; perhaps those lands, closer to the sun, would be a more hospitable place to live. If they could not catch it, at least they could settle where it shone more strongly.

In this new place they thrived, and a new generation hatched, and the chicks tested their wings in flight. One young crow looked up at the sun, after hearing the stories his elders had told of how they had chased it, and how it had brought them to their new home, and wondered. Most of the others had given up on the dream of having the sun for themselves, but he saw something they had overlooked. As soon as he had grown into his adult size and strength, he left the murder asleep in their trees and flew swift through the night.

It wasn’t that the sun was too fast, he deduced on his own, but that it was too far. He had to leave much earlier to meet it in the sky when it rose.

He was a strong bird, and a smart one, and as fast as he flew, the night still seemed very long and exceptionally dark. He, too, like his mother before him, saw many strange things beneath him on the earth, creatures that did not live where he lived, trees that did not look like his trees, and even vast expanses where there were no trees, only grasses. That emptiness unnerved him, so he fixed his gaze on the horizon, where he knew the sun would come up.

When it did, he landed, weary and disappointed. He was still too far away, and he knew from his mother’s stories that he could not catch up to it. He might be stronger and faster than her, but he did not think he was strong or fast enough.

He drank from a stream that cut through the grass and feasted on a small rodent he found nearby. It was strange to him, but tasty still, and he had not gone so far from the edge of the forest that he could not fly back to it for a safe place to roost while he slept. The next night, he returned to his murder and told them of his journey. Many of the elders were too old and tired to make the migration, but most of his brothers and sisters and cousins decided to go with him when he returned to the grasslands. His mother did as well, and declared herself pleased to see the new hunting grounds her brave son had discovered. They lived many turnings of the moon in peace and safety, growing bigger on the rich feeding they found, and the next generation of chicks broke free of their eggs sooner and more vigorously than any hatching before them.

The twin daughters of this new crow hero were proud of their heritage, whenever the elders told the stories of his journey, or their grandmother’s. They had never known the deepest coldness of the night as the rest of their family had, but they saw no reason not to devote themselves to improving the lives of their murder once again. They took turns scouting the lands around them as soon as they fledged, bringing back so many tales of strange places that some of the murder suspected of making them up. Surely there were not places so hot and dry that not even trees could grow, that the ground was covered in sand, like the banks of streams, but everywhere? Surely there were not places where stone thrust up from the earth in piles so huge they seemed to touch the sky itself?

But their father believed, for hadn’t he been the one to see strange new lands himself? He encouraged his daughters to fly together to the tallest peak in the sky, and from there, after a good rest, perhaps they could finally catch the sun.

When the twins searched for shelter on that mountain, they met a bone-breaking cold and a biting wind like they had never known before, and wondered if this was the death that their ancestors fled from. They squeezed themselves into a tiny niche in the rock and held tight to each other, sleeping as best they could in that terrible place. In the morning, when the sun rose, they winged into the sky to meet it. They were young and small, but swifter on the wing than any crow that had come before them, even their heroic father. They followed the sun across the sky, and soon enough, the air grew warmer around them, even though they continued to ascend.

The sun’s path led them to a strange peak, even stranger than the one they had sheltered on. The top of the mountain was a great lake of fire, bright and burning, and it overflowed so that liquid fire trailed down its sides in great rivers. There was smoke in the air that made the twins cough, but soon enough they found the clear space where the air currents carried the smoke away, and it was safe to fly. When they first landed, the stone burned their feet and they had to jump away, back into the air. But they tried again, farther from the lake, and found a place cool enough to land but warm enough to make their feathers fluff in happiness. They had flown so far that they immediately slept again, lulled by that heat and their exhaustion. When they woke, deep in the night, the light of the burning lake brightened the darkness around them, and they thought there was surely no better place to live than this. They had not caught the sun, but they had found a place where the sun lived on earth, and that was better even that the warm grasslands of their childhood.

This migration was harder on the murder, though, and when those who had chosen to go with them reached the volcano, they cried in dismay. “But nothing lives here! Yes, we are warm, but what will we eat?”

The twins looked to their father for advice, but he only shrugged. This was their idea, so it was their problem to solve. Until they did, the others would either wear themselves out in flight searching for food, or go hungry. Intense investigation turned up some very small creatures did live on the slopes of the volcano, but there were not enough to feed everyone, and their meat was tough and meager. Some of the elders died, and the twins began to fear they had led their murder to ruin.

But one of their cousins seemed to be growing healthier every day, while the others all wasted away. His eyes were bright and his feathers were glossy. They begged him to share his secret.

He looked away from them in a gesture of embarrassment. “I didn’t say anything, because I thought it was stupid. But I was so hungry one day, so desperate to feel something in my belly, that I started eating pebbles. And then I wasn’t hungry anymore, and I didn’t die, so I did it again the next day.”

This wonderful news came too late to save some of the weakest of them, and the ones who did not believe that eating stones would work and refused to try. But as soon as they told him, their father leapt down from his perch to scrounge for small stones and scooped them up in his beak. “Not much different from eating large seeds,” he said. “And I do feel better.”

They waited until the next day, to see if their father died, but he looked much improved. Then they ate some pebbles themselves, and felt better. They had enough energy to fly about again and explore, and when they tried to land close to the lake of fire again, they found their feet didn’t hurt so much on the hot ground.

They grew into adults there, and laid their eggs, and raised their chicks, all on a diet of those small black stones, some gritty like dirt and others as smooth as glass. With each generation their beaks grew larger and harder, the better for chipping stone off the cliffs. Their wingspans broadened for catching the warm updrafts that rose from the lake. Their feathers, already that beautiful glossy black, darkened further with the blackness of their food, and gained a subtle sparkle from the rich minerals. They were the proudest and biggest and most beautiful crows the world had ever seen.

It was only many years later that humans found them and did not recognize them for what they had been. Foolish humans who could not fly to chase the sun, who had to walk, creeping slowly across the landscape trying to find the best place to live, where the crows had been able to fly and find it first. They could not live here, those humans. The crows would not let them in. The humans were too stupid, even, to know them by their right name, for when the curses flew at them alongside the puny arrows they did not fear, the humans called them rocs, not crows.

Fictober18: I’m Actually Writing Again!

cathedral

My next novel (or at least, novel draft) is taking shape thanks to #fictober18 over on Tumblr. The event is a dialogue prompt every day, which we incorporate into a fic. (Aimed at fanfic writers, but there are plenty of people doing original fiction too.)

I’ve been using each prompt in a scene for my new project, currently going by #spookyromancenovel. It’s paranormal romance; I’ve got a rough idea of how it’s going to progress and eventually end; I’m aiming for 100K for the first draft, and whatever I don’t have done through Fictober will become my NaNoWriMo goal next month.

I haven’t decided yet if I’ll seek out an alternate source of prompts for November; but I may still be working on the ones I have, since (as of writing this post) I’m behind. There have been a few days where I simply couldn’t find time to write, which is a shame–but at least I’m motivated to write again, after months of waffling about which project to work on and feeling like I wasn’t getting anywhere.

In order to wrangle thirty days’ worth of prompt responses, I made a WIP page for the project, which I want to stress is not complete (no worldbuilding or FAQ sections yet) but has all the scenes I’ve done as well as a blurb and some short character bios.

Below is the first scene, based on the prompt: “Can you feel this?” If you enjoy it, please visit the WIP page for links to the rest!


A ghoul was listlessly banging on the door to the shop. I’d lost track of time doing inventory, and darkness had fallen early because of the storm. I turned the lights out in front. If the thing lost interest and wandered away, I could still make it home tonight. If I was careful.

But if I were stuck in the shop overnight, I could finish the inventory and get a head start on next week’s orders. Ghouls and ghosts and other foul beasties weren’t the only reason I kept a cot, some canned food, and a clean set of clothing in my office.

An hour later, the darkness outside was near total, but the random door rattling was gone. I peered through the blinds, trying to check the street by the blinding brilliance of lightning flashes. Every inch of my shop was so intricately warded that it was a magical Switzerland, so staying put was by far the safest option. But I was craving the leftover Chinese in my fridge at home, and I was only halfway through binging the latest season of Real Housewitches of Miami. I’d never been to Florida, so I was watching as much for the beaches and bikinis as I was the catfights and petty hexes.

Something darker than shadow broke free from the brick wall of the bank across the street. I backed away from the window. Chinese food and reality TV were bad reasons to risk getting killed, no matter how much I longed for the comfort of my own bed.

I was halfway to my office when the door shook in its frame under a much heavier, more deliberate pounding. Definitely not a ghoul.

I turned back, like I could see through the door and make out who, or what, it was. I waited for a lightning flash, but all that got me was the vague outline of something tall and humanoid.

Nothing evil could walk into my shop unless I let it in. Sure, some of my customers probably used the components they bought here for less-than-trustworthy purposes, but they came by daylight, and they paid cash.

At night, the only way something could get in was if I opened that door.

Behind me, my phone rang. I’d left it on my desk, and I had to hurry to get to it before it went to voicemail. Noah Hargrove calling, the screen declared.

Noah. I hadn’t seen him for six months? Seven? As I answered, my eyes went straight to the shelf of random jars on the back wall, all different materials and sizes, some with metal lids and others with cork stoppers.

Hey.” Usually I sounded more cheerful when I spoke to old friends, but usually there wasn’t something unidentified standing outside my door.”

Can I come in?”

He asked with no lead-in and no hesitation. “You know the rules. Prove it’s you.”

Shannon…” His exasperation was obvious, but he was the one who’d helped me develop my system of safeguards, when I’d opened the shop.

I’m not budging.” I didn’t really think he’d been body-snatched by some unnameable power, or even by a garden-variety vampire. But with Noah, more than the others, I had to be careful.

It’s October, so that’s, what, biggest regrets?”

You know I can’t tell you that.” But he was right. Time to cough something up, something I could read.

Letting Larry Wilkinson take you to senior prom. He totally ruined the night for everyone.”

His choice surprised me, but I sensed the truth in his voice. The emotion didn’t have to be deep or secret, but it did have to be real. “Can’t get puke stains out of satin.” I stalked back to the door and starting the complicated process of undoing the night locks, both physical and magical. “This will just take a minute.”

What would you do if something were after me? Or whoever?”

He didn’t know who else I helped out, after-hours, but he knew he wasn’t the only one. I could never tell if there was jealousy there, either personal or professional. Noah was always the hardest to read.

I’d stand here working on the locks while you got shredded like overcooked chicken. Or whoever. This can’t be rushed, not if I don’t want the wards to snap.”

That’s harsh, Shannon.”

Hearing his voice through the phone and not through the door, even though only a few inches separated us, was odd. It shouldn’t have been, not with how heavily protected I was, but it made him feel unreal, or at least farther away. “Your fault for being tailed, if that ever happens.”

When the final lock released, a flare of blue sizzled across the door frame. I turned the knob and stepped back.

Noah came in, hanging up our call and pocketing his phone. “Thanks.”

I always forgot how big he was, when I hadn’t seen him. I backed up a step. “Thanks for taking me home early so I didn’t have to spend the rest of prom smelling like rum and stomach acid.”

He shook his head. “That kid was such a jerk. What did you see in him, anyway?”

Honestly, I don’t even remember. Maybe his smile. He had the best smile.” I started toward the back. “But you’re not here to catch up. What do you need?”

A flash from the window showed his shadow towering over me, and I hoped he couldn’t see me shudder. But his night vision was better than mine, so probably he did. I tried so hard not to let him know how much he frightened me. I never wanted him to feel unwelcome here.

More blackwort and bonemeal.” That was standard, they helped with his cravings, though seeing him casually nibbling on mushrooms poisonous enough to kill me five times over never got easy. What he said next, though, wasn’t. “And a place to hole up for a few days, if you know of one. My last hideout here gotten taken over by wolves.”

I sighed. “That turf war between the clans got messy before it was over.” And I’d spent half a night digging silver-laced shrapnel out of Sophia Summers, my old piano teacher from long-ago lessons in elementary school. Her husband had gotten turned in an attack, and she’d petitioned Clan Northriver for voluntary infection for her, and entrance for them both. She’d survived the war, but her clan had lost a third of their territory.

I can find something new over the next few nights, I have some ideas. But that storm has got the ghouls riled up something fierce, and I can take a few, but I don’t want to spend all night killing instead of apartment hunting.”

He followed me to my office, his large frame filling the doorway. The lights were on here, but I tried not to look at him too closely. I pointed at the cot. “Sit.”

Shannon…”

You’re such a baby about this.”

I hate needles, you know that.”

Because that was what I’d drawn from a kit I kept in my desk drawer. Made from gold, which soaked up enchantments like a sponge, and blessed in turn by every priest, witch, and healer I knew. “Give me your arm.”

He shrugged off his leather jacket, the same battered thing he’d had since high school, and rolled up the sleeve of his sweater. The veins stood out on his muscled forearm as I checked his pulse—strong, healthy, if you could ignore the fact it was a single beat when it should have been doubled. And the gray undertones of his skin, which was definitely more mottled than the last time he’d been to see me.

I dragged the point of the needle from the inside of his elbow to his wrist. He flinched, but I still asked, “Can you feel this?”

Yes,” he hissed. “Goddamn it, Shannon. You can’t know how much that hurts.”

No, I couldn’t, because I was still human. The needle didn’t do a thing to me. The first time I’d poked him with it, pricked the tip of one finger, he’d passed out the instant it touched his blood and didn’t wake up for five hours.

More or less than last time?”

He didn’t answer for a moment, trying to remember, maybe. “More,” he finally whispered. “A little more.”

Okay.” That wasn’t good, but it had been six months. Or seven. I should expect his condition to have progressed. “You’re not hungry, are you?”

No, I…I ate on the way. Why?” He looked up at me, and I couldn’t ignore the fear in his eyes, or the pleading.

Or the way his brown irises were speckled with black. Eventually there would be no color left. No humanity.

Because you’re staying with me for now. I wasn’t going to try to make it home tonight, but saddle up, because now you’ve got to get me there safely.”

He smiled, and I hated myself for the nervousness that shivered through my body and made my hands tingle with numbness. I had lied about Larry, of course. Noah had always had the best smile.

Flash Fiction #6: The Worst Love Potion

“Love potions have no effect on people who are already in love.  When your friend hexes you with an everybody-loves-me potion, you brace yourself for an irritating day.  But one person doesn’t act any differently, and it’s not who you’d expect.” – the prompt from tumblr’s new #spontaneouswriteblr tag

(Of course I hopped right on that. Here goes.)

I should have realized that going home for the night wouldn’t actually give me any peace.

Sure, Tammy loved me, we’d been friends and roommates for half of forever, but she didn’t love me love me, so of course, the stupid hex on me snared her, too. As soon as I walked through the door and dropped my keys on the side table, she rushed out of the kitchen with a cupcake in her hands, holding it out to me. She must have started baking as soon as she’d gotten home from her morning shift at the diner, to have made something so beautifully fancy. Thick swirls of pale buttercream, candied violets on top and everything.

She still had a smudge of flour beside her nose besides the handprints of it on her apron. All day my coworkers had been stealing away to the bathroom to touch up their makeup or straighten their hair and their ties before wandering over to “chat” with me about one upcoming project or another. All day, virtual strangers had been doing their best to impress me with their looks or their signs of wealth or their flirting skills. That’s all they had, because they barely knew me. They could only “love” me in the most superficial ways.

Tammy wasn’t wearing a single speck of makeup under the dusting of flour. She was in her cutest heart-print pajamas under the apron, I’d give her that, but she was banking on my sweet tooth to win my affection. Because she did know me.

I took the cupcake and hugged her, hoping that would be enough to keep her from trying to kiss me. Satisfaction of the smaller urge. Tomorrow, this would be over–tomorrow, I’d head downtown first thing and bang on Saul’s door until he woke up and let me in. Saul had fixed Kaitlyn’s hexed car and Cameron’s cursed umbrella. He’d even found Oliver’s ring after that pompous, insufferable warlock had thrown it into the river after Oliver dumped him. If something was broken, off, temperamental, Saul could fix it.

Saul had to be able to fix me, too, and soon. Five marriage proposals in one day were easily four too many.

I suffered Tammy’s enthusiasm well enough to follow her into the kitchen as she raved about this movie she wanted to see that she thought I’d like too. The chatter didn’t quite drown out the sound of the faucet running.

Mike was standing at the sink, washing dishes. Oh, this was the worst. I’d been hoping I wouldn’t run into anyone else tonight, and Tammy’s younger brother? The last thing I needed was him getting caught up in this hex, too. I suppose the best I could hope was that when I got the hex broken, no one would remember anything they’d done or said to me. Magic worked that way, sometimes, when a spell made people act out of character. Their brains couldn’t cope with whatever they’d done that didn’t fit with how they thought of themselves.

“Here’s the rest of the cupcakes!” Tammy declared with a sweeping gesture at the loaded cooling racks lined up next to the stove. Two dozen. There went my New Year’s resolution to snack less.

“Thanks, Tammy.” I swallowed the protest that came to my lips, oh, no, you shouldn’t have. I’d tried that tactic already today and it hadn’t worked. If I just floated along with whatever behavior didn’t cross any lines, I’d make it until tomorrow in one piece.

Apparently satisfied, Tammy flounced out of the room, hopefully to clean herself up. If I could get myself some dinner from the fridge and extricate myself from the kitchen without any disaster with Mike occurring, I could hole up in my bedroom and lock Tammy out, if necessary.

“Hey, Nora,” Mike greeted me without looking up from the sink.

Okay, good start. Maybe he’d be one of the guys who just asked me for a date instead of proposing. I could handle that, even from him.

“Hey, Mike. Tammy roped you into baking with her again?” I took a bite of the cupcake in my hand, which, of course, was fantastic. Even if made under the influence of a mind-warping hex. Nothing could stop Tammy from being a wizard in the kitchen.

Now, that was a thought…had she been blessed as a kid with a spell for phenomenal food-preparation skills? That, I’d believe in a heartbeat.

While I leaned against the counter and savored my first bite of the cupcake, Mike set a dish on the rack and snorted. “We were supposed to go down to Reilly’s for quiz night, but she wouldn’t abandon the cupcakes until you got here. I suggested leaving a note with one on the table and she nearly took my head off.” He paused, staring at a plate crusted with spaghetti sauce, my dinner from the night before. “I didn’t forget your birthday, did I? I would swear it’s not until next month, but if I did–”

“No, you’re right,” I cut him off. “You didn’t miss it.”

He grinned and started washing the next plate. “Good. Are you celebrating something else, then? A promotion or something? Tammy didn’t say why you suddenly needed baked goods.”

No, of course she wouldn’t. The only person I know who kept their deep feelings better guarded than Tammy was Mike himself. On the surface, Tam was always sweetness and light and giving, but it had taken years for her to admit to me the reasons she didn’t get along with her mother or that she had always been frightened of any water deeper than her head.

I got along with Mike just fine when he hung around–he and Tammy had always been close, only being a year apart–but I didn’t know a single one of his secrets. Maybe he didn’t have any to know.

“No promotion,” I answered. “She gets it in her head sometimes that I need cheering up, so she bakes me things or takes me out for a girls’ night or something. I’m not sure what I do to bring it on, but maybe that’s it.” It was the truth, as far as I could tell it, because Tammy really did do that sort of thing. It was just this time, I knew why. The damned hex.

But Mike glanced over at me, his eyes narrowed in an expression that I’m sure he meant to look serious, but came off looking more suspicious. “And you don’t need cheering up? It looks like my plans with Tammy went out the window, which means I haven’t had dinner yet. We’re too late to make it to the quiz night, it started half an hour ago, but we could head somewhere else. That Thai place over on Brassard, maybe, I haven’t been for a while and they make the best panang.”

If that was the date he was asking me on, man, did I suddenly understand why Mike seemed perpetually single. He needed to up his game, no wonder he ended up with women for a date or two before moving on, he couldn’t land anyone with an invitation so casual it wasn’t even a date at all–

I blinked, breaking the staring contest I was having with the side of Mike’s head. He wasn’t asking me on a date. He wasn’t declaring undying love for me, or proposing marriage, or even baking me cupcakes.

He was washing my dirty dishes and making sure he hadn’t forgotten my birthday.

How long had he been in love with me and never said? I wanted to cry, because I shouldn’t have found out this way. I shouldn’t know, when he clearly didn’t mean to tell me. This damned hex!

“Can I take a rain check?” I asked him, my voice weak. “Work was hell today, I just want to stay in. Maybe start a new book and then fall asleep with my lamp still on. You know, stereotypical bookworm stuff.”

“Ah, should have offered to take you to the library instead, I see. You let me know when you’re up for spicy food, then, instead of spicy romance novels. No expiration date.”

I nodded, abandoning my plan to have a healthy dinner in favor of swiping a second cupcake, because that would let me leave the kitchen faster. I could hear Tammy running the shower, so if I hid in my room before she was out, maybe she wouldn’t bother me again. Out of sight, out of mind.

“Good night, Nora,” Mike said as I was leaving.

“Good night.” I couldn’t say his name or I might choke on it. I had to get this hex broken. I had to. How could I ever try dating Mike if everyone else who loved me would always be getting in the way?

Flash Fiction #4: A Question of Kissing

Once again, I participated in the Sunday prompt game that Tina of All These Prompts plays on her Tumblr.  This week, the prompt was “Would you have kissed me?” A wonderful choice for Valentine’s Day.

(If you want to see my entry from the first time, it’s here.)


“Would you have kissed me?”

Marissa was always joking around, but for once, she sounded serious. I shrugged. “It didn’t go that far.”

The cold breeze stirred the ends of my scarf as I turned and strode down the sidewalk. Marissa, with her shorter legs, hurried to keep up.

“But would you have? If he’d been more aggressive?”

It wouldn’t have been the first time I’d kissed a friend as a shield against unwanted attention. Alan had pretended to be my boyfriend for an entire movie when he’d come back from the bathroom to see the guy in the row behind us flirting with me during the previews. He’d hooked an arm over my shoulders, told the guy to fuck off, and shared my popcorn like it was a real date instead of two single geeks out to see the latest superhero flick together. The kiss he’d given me as we filed out, when the guy was still trying to get my attention, had been short, believeable, and utterly boring.

I hadn’t minded. Alan had never once hit on me in the whole time we’d been friends, so it was easy to trust him, and pretend back.

But that was another event in the long chain that made me wish I weren’t so pretty. I couldn’t tell anyone that. I couldn’t imagine trying to explain, because it sounded whiny and fake. Instead, I did everything I could to minimize it–no makeup, unflattering glasses instead of contacts, clothes that weren’t quite my colors or were just a little too big. But a certain type of guy only saw the long legs and high cheekbones. And the rest were waiting for me to whip my glasses off, take down my hair, and transform into a sexy butterfly, like in a teenage party movie.

“I don’t know,” I finally said. “You’re my best friend, and I can’t decide if that makes it weird, or makes it so it shouldn’t be. But thank you.” I slowed down so she wouldn’t have to jog to keep up with me. I wondered if I should give her a hug.  I sort of wanted to, but I couldn’t tell if it was because I was grateful, or because my body was shaking, vibrating like a plucked guitar string.

Maybe I needed something to hold on to.

“For bouncing a guy who can’t take no for an answer? Always, you don’t even have to ask.” Marissa tugged her pompom hat lower over her ears, then slipped her arm through mine. “I hope you’ve got my back on that, too. Not that anybody ever hits on me when you’re here.”

That was exactly the sort of shit I hated most. Not that she said it, because I knew she didn’t mean it to be hurtful. Marissa was so self-deprecating that sometimes I wanted to smack her and tell her how gorgeous and smart and hilarious she was. But she wouldn’t believe it, because the guys only saw me.

I hated it because it was true, and she deserved better.

I looked down at her as we walked. Her cheeks were rosy with the cold, and her wild blonde curls refused to be completely tamed by the hat. When a car passed by, the headlights gave her a glow that traced every wayward spiral.

“You know I would.”

“Even if you had to kiss me?”

Her playful tone was back, and when I didn’t answer right away, she pouted. She had the cutest little bow of a mouth, and even where we stood halfway in between streetlights, I could see her lips were shiny with gloss.

“Yeah, Mare.  Even if I had to kiss you.”

She squeezed my arm and trotted down the sidewalk, dragging me with her as my numb feet disobeyed my brain. Or maybe it was my brain that was disobedient, swirling with leftover fury at the guy who’d started all of this, and a strange wistfulness that I hadn’t had to kiss Marissa, because now, that was all I wanted to do.

Flash Fiction #3: Artistic Expression

Tina of All These Prompts plays a game on her Tumblr every Sunday, and I finally had time to participate.  (I’ve been meaning to, Tina, but somehow it never worked out until now!)

She picks a prompt from her massive collection (seriously, she should be crowned the Writing Prompt Queen) and challenges her readers to tell her what’s going on, then reblogs what she gets sent so everyone can have fun reading the (widely varied)(sometimes bizarre) stories that result.

So here’s my contribution for the prompt, What did you say about eyes?


Lisa always tried to be early for figure drawing so she could get her favorite easel, the one halfway back from the model’s stage and a little to the right, where the lighting always seemed perfect, and the models themselves never seemed to look at her.

Staring at someone naked was bad enough without knowing they were staring back at you.

But the art building was diametrically opposite her dorm, all the way across campus, and her rice-burner of a car didn’t handle snowy roads with any amount of grace.  She left early, but apparently not early enough, so she wasn’t the first one to the studio, as she usually was.

She also didn’t usually walk into the middle of an argument.  She’d heard Matt and Isaac chat sometimes while they were setting up, but when she walked in, they were almost shouting.

“Wait, what did you say about eyes?” she asked, interrupting.  Her inner introvert was screaming to not get involved, but being alone in the room with them while they fought was hardly less awkward.  And maybe, just maybe, the distraction would deescalate the situation.  Because she knew Matt’s temper was volatile from the months he’d been dating her friend Eric, and though they’d broken up ages ago, somehow, she and Matt were still sort of friends.

Isaac, on the other hand, she only knew in passing.  For art majors who both spent tons of time in the same building, somehow the only class they’d ever had together was this one, and she hadn’t spoken to him often.  She knew his work better than she knew him, from student exhibitions around campus.

“I said the whole ‘eyes are windows to the soul’ thing is bullshit,” Isaac answered.  “Matt disagrees.”

Lisa turned wordlessly to Matt.  She’d seen some of his portraits in the past, and he always showed the subjects’ eyes staring straight out of the work, in that way that they always seemed to follow the viewer.

“Eyes are the most important thing about anyone’s appearance,” Matt shot back. “Why do you think girls spend so much money on makeup to get you to notice their eyes?”

Lisa nearly choked on a giggle at Matt’s slightly bewildered tone.  As if girls did anything for him, which she already knew they didn’t, so he classed their behavior as strange and mysterious, immune as he was to their wiles.

“It’s not the eyes that are important,” Isaac went on heatedly.  “It’s the skin around the eyes.  Eyeballs are just orbs with a black spot and a little color, expression is about the whole face.”

Lisa felt inclined to agree, but Matt was steaming, and while he could tolerate critique from the professors, he had a long way to go in being gracious with his peers.

Which was undoubtedly how this argument had started.

As if sensing Lisa was on his side and needed a little push to say so, Isaac pulled a small sketchbook from his bag and flipped through until he found the page he wanted.  With a step toward Lisa, he pressed it into her hands.  “Look.”

The two page spread was filled with facial studies, miniature sketches of every expression imaginable: the wide smile of childish glee, the furrowed brows of disapproval, the slack jaw of surprise.

Isaac leaned over her shoulder to tap one sketch in the lower corner of the page.  “You can’t even see this one’s eyes, because they’re closed, but you can still tell he’s relaxed.”

Lisa nodded.  She heard Matt stomp away to set up at an easel on the far side of the room, but she kept her eyes on the sketchbook.  So much emotion with so few lines, she though.  Isaac drew clean sketches, much cleaner than hers, which were always littered with extraneous scribbling from her attempts to get the image to match what she saw.

“May I?” she asked, lifting the edge of the page to turn it.  She didn’t get to see others’ sketchbooks often, but she always enjoyed it, like getting a peek into their brain.

“Yeah,” Isaac answered, still hovering over her shoulder.  “Sure.”

After a few pages, it became clear to Lisa this was a doodle journal, not a formal book for one of his classes.  The facial studies gave way to grids of one-inch boxes filled with repetitive patterns in blue ink, then to pencil sketches of wildflowers, then to five pages of drawings of the same hand in different positions.  A right hand.  Is Isaac left-handed? I never noticed.

She turned the next page just as Isaac suddenly said, “No,” and reached to pull the book from her hands.

“Wow,” Lisa breathed.  She was looking down at herself rendered in black ink.  The portrait was face-and-shoulders, filling the page.  Paper Lisa looked to the left and wore a dreamy expression, like she was staring out a window.  The only splashes of color were her irises, filled in with a stormy gray-blue, and the stripe of purple in her hair that ran from crown to tip, where the ends brushed her shoulder.

But that was how she’d worn her hair last year.  She was sporting a pixie cut now, and the streak was gone, replaced with her natural dark brown.

“You did this from memory?” Lisa couldn’t keep the hint of wonder out of her voice.  She’d sat for fellow students before, but never for Isaac.  He’d never asked.

Isaac reached for the book again, and she let him have it.  He didn’t answer until he closed it and returned it to his bag.  “Some.  I did most if it that first week of spring when the weather got nice all at once, and you’d eat your lunch on the quad.  I could see you from my window, I was on the first floor of Bexley.”

“Oh. That makes sense.”  She hadn’t known where he’d lived, but the quad was an open stretch of grass dotted with benches and walled in on three sides by dorms.  She had spent a lot of time there in the warm weather, and she would have been easily visible to anyone in rooms that looked out onto the space.

Her matter-of-fact tone startled him into a smile.  “I was expecting you to be…I don’t know, mad? Embarrassed?”

“Isaac, I draw people I see sitting outside all the time, that’s half the reason I was spending so much time there!  This doesn’t creep me out.  But why didn’t you want me to see it?”

He bit his lip and looked away.  “Because it doesn’t look enough like you.  I didn’t want you to think you looked bad…”

“It’s gorgeous.”  Lisa paused and laughed.  “Can I say that about a piece of art where I’m the subject? Does that make me vain?”

Isaac sat down hard on his stool, laughing.  “No, it doesn’t.  At least, not to me.”

The sound of voices came from the studio door.  Two minutes to class, so in came the flood of students who weren’t early and were never early.

Lisa watched Isaac pull himself together, though a twinkle of humor still showed in the crinkling of the skin at the corner of his eyes.  “Will you sit for me, sometime?” she asked abruptly.

Isaac seemed to stare at her for a long time before he answered, while the chaos of class getting started whirled around them.  “Yeah.  I’d like that.”

After class, with her headphones on blasting K-pop as she lay on her stomach in bed, she tried to draw Isaac from memory, capturing that look that wasn’t quite surprise, or happiness, or anything else Lisa could put a name to.  But she wouldn’t forget it, even if it didn’t come out right on the page.

It’d be easier when she had him in front of her again.  And even if it wasn’t, she’d keep trying.

The Twelve Days of Christmas Blogging, Day 4

christmas4

Flash fiction time!

Alex refilled my glass for the toast and shushed his mother when she raised an eyebrow at it only being half-full.  “She doesn’t have tomorrow off work like the rest of us, so we’re not sending her home drunk, okay, Mama?”

I tried not to blush when Mrs. Kadnikova–Irina, she told me call her Irina–gave me a piercing look.  I was also fighting a blush already just from the inflection Alex gave mama.

After years of listening to him slip into Russian while on the phone with his family, it shouldn’t still hit me like that, right?  It just sounded so . . . affectionate.  His older brothers lived all over the world and never seemed to remember the time differences when they called to pester him about one thing or another.  Pavel in particular always managed to call during game nights, so our D&D games took unplanned breaks while Alex put out some kind of family fire, or whatever it was his oldest brother needed.  I’d never met him–he wasn’t at the family gathering tonight, too far away, though Alex had gone to see him a few weeks ago–but I’d gotten the impression that he was high-strung.

Carrie and Bill and Wes always used those interruptions as time to get more snacks or use the bathroom, but I buried my nose in a rule book and pretended to look something up while listening to Alex.  It’s not eavesdropping if he doesn’t bother to leave the room, and I can’t understand what he’s saying anyway, right?

Alex’s father Mikhail raised his glass to me.  He also insisted I use his given name, but there was no way I would ever do that because he’s six-five and built like he wrestles polar bears for fun. So far, I’d managed to avoid any conversational pitfall where I had to address him directly.  “We’re so pleased you could come, Madeline.”  His accent was faint, after so long living in the States, but it still drew me in like a verbal hug, and I liked the way my full name sounded colored by it.  “When Sashka said he had a friend who was alone on Christmas, we couldn’t let that happen.”

“Thank you for inviting me, I’m honored to join you.”  Alex had given me the run-down on the etiquette, so I knew what to say.  Though he’d insisted they wouldn’t be offended if I didn’t know, I wanted to get it right, because it really was an honor to be invited to a family Christmas like this.

Especially for a meal as extravagant as this one.  If the table wasn’t groaning under the weight of the food, it was certainly straining.  There wasn’t a square inch of free space anywhere on the table, and in some places serving dishes were getting stacked atop each other, one balanced on the edges of two below it, so more courses could be laid out.  I knew the names of some of the dishes, but not even close to all of them. After I mangled the pronunciation of the first few, leading to gentle laughter around the table, Alex took over the care and feeding of my plate.  I’d whisper to him a description of what it was I wanted from another part of the table, and he’d get it for me, or ask someone to pass it without the same embarrassment I was suffering.

We all drank the toast, though Alex got another look from his mother at the water in his glass.  They’d already tussled once over him not partaking, but he’d driven me here, and he was taking me home, too, so I appreciated his restraint.  He’d capitulated to her demand of a single shot of vodka with everyone else at the beginning of the meal, though he’d skipped all the ones since, in between courses.

His brothers hadn’t, though, and it was starting to show.  Ilya and Dmitri were practically giggling over something Ilya’s wife had said–I know I’d been introduced to her when I got here but keeping everyone’s names straight when they all called each other diminutives wasn’t easy.  I only knew Alex was Sashka because he’d warned me ahead of time.

Whatever her name was, what she’d said made them laugh, but Alex tensed.  I suspected he, baby of the family as he was, was getting teased.  I had the irrational urge to leap to his defense, but I couldn’t, because of the language barrier.  The feelings I’d had of inclusiveness, kindness, and family began to evaporate as their laughter went on.

Then Ilya said something that set off fresh fits of giggles.  Alex slammed his hand down on the table, rattling the dishes, and Irina snapped out something sharp.  The tone of a mother scolding came through, even if I couldn’t understand the words.

Silence fell over the table.  Whatever had happened, it must have been bad, but I was completely adrift.

Dmitri muttered something that might have been an apology.

“Not good enough,” Alex said, low and menacing.  I’d never heard him sound like that before.  He stood up suddenly, and I turned to look at him.  Fury was written all over his face.  “I can’t believe someone from my family, someone I love, could be so rude.  Maddie, I’m sorry, but we have to go.  I can’t sit at this table anymore.”

He offered his hand, and I took it in a daze and let him help me up.  He strode toward the door, and I followed, ending up in the narrow entryway with him as he yanked our coats out of the closet.  After he shrugged his on, he held mine up for me, and I wondered at his almost thoughtless politeness, that he could be so angry and still a gentleman.

Or maybe it wasn’t thoughtless.  When I turned, Mikhail was standing in the doorway, looking at the two of us with an expression of regret.  When he saw he had my attention, he spoke.  “On behalf of my sons, I must apologize, Madeline.  I did not raise them to treat a guest so.”

My knees went weak, but before I could do more than sway in place, Alex’s hands gripped my shoulders, keeping me upright.

They weren’t teasing him, they were insulting me.  Alex is walking away from his family on Christmas Eve for me.

“Thank you for your hospitality, Mr. Kadnikov,” I managed.  Alex’s fingers tightened, like he didn’t even want me to be that gracious, but whatever had been said, it wasn’t his father’s fault.  “Merry Christmas.”

Before I could say anything else, Alex whisked me out the front door and down the walk.  The pavement was icy, and I almost slipped, but Alex took my arm and steadied me, slowing down from his rage-fueled rush.

Once we were in the car, I took a deep breath.  “What just happened?”  Alex didn’t answer, and I watched his hands clench on the steering wheel.  “What did they say?”

“I’m not telling you, Maddie.  I’m sorry, but it’s bad enough I heard it.  I know my brothers can be assholes when they’ve had too much to drink, but this…”  He turned to me, and I thought he might be about to cry.  “Don’t make me repeat it, please.”

“Okay, okay,” I assured him.  I still wanted to know what on earth could be so bad Alex would rather leave the celebration than accept an apology for it.  But the pained look on his face told me not to press him.

The forty-five minute drive back to town passed in silence.  I still felt adrift, like I should be angry but I couldn’t be, because Alex was hoarding all that to himself.

When he pulled up in front of my building, I made no move to get out.  I didn’t want to go home yet, to a set of empty rooms and confusion.  I wanted Alex to say something, to explain, or even just to laugh it off.  I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep like this, wound up without knowing why.

“I’m sorry, Maddie,” he said again, differently this time, quieter.  “If I’d’ve known I’d spoil Christmas for you again–I know you hated not being able to go see your sister this year and meet your new niece.  Once you told me you were going to be alone, I should’ve canceled my plans with Pavel, he would’ve understood.  So I thought–I thought bringing you to our Christmas might make up for it.  Since the Orthodox holiday is later, you could have another chance.”

“Why?” I asked, reaching for the root of the problem.  It was kind, well-meaning, of him to invite me, but I’d thought that was all it was.  Now, it seemed like more.  “Why does it bother you so much that I was alone on Christmas?”

He answered me by leaning over the gearshift and kissing me.

It was short, close-lipped and practically chaste, but it was definitely a kiss.

“That’s why,” he whispered when he broke away.

Once was not enough.  I grabbed the collar of his coat and pulled him back to me. He fumbled at the release on his seat belt until it clicked, leaving him free to climb halfway onto my side of the car.  I probed at his mouth with my tongue until he let me inside, and he wound his fingers in my hair, making me glad I’d left it down.

All these years I’d known him, and it took a disastrous dinner party to push him over the edge.  I giggled at the thought as he slid his lips back to my ear, down my neck.

But he pulled away.  “Did that tickle?” he breathed.

“No, no, it’s not that.”  He took my face in his hands and smiled, but I slapped at his chest.  “Don’t stop.”

The smile faded.  “I should stop.  I didn’t mean to tell you this way, and you’ve been drinking–”

“Stop,” I said, covering his mouth with one hand.  “First of all, you were pouring me half-glasses of wine, and I quit doing shots with your family after the second one.  I. Am. Not. Drunk.”  I said each word slowly, clearly.  “Tipsy, okay, maybe a little, but not drunk.  Second, how were you planning on telling me?”

He laughed behind my fingers, and I pulled my hand back so he could answer.  “Hadn’t quite figured that part out yet.  Mistletoe would have been a good excuse, but there wasn’t any handy.”

I was so happy to hear him laugh, to see all that fury gone, that it made me momentarily brave.  “Would you like to come in?”

Shock washed over his strong features.  “Maddie–”  He stopped and swallowed hard, but I didn’t soften the invitation or hedge around it by explaining.  I knew what I was offering, and I hoped he could see that I meant it.

“You have to work tomorrow,” he said.

“If that’s your best objection…”

He tilted his head and looked helpless to say anything else.

“You did say you should have spent Christmas with me,” I whispered.  “You still have another chance.”

He reached for me, but I opened the door and got out of the car.  If he wanted to touch me again, he’d have to follow.

I was halfway up the first flight of stairs when I heard the building door open behind me.  I didn’t turn, I didn’t wait.  But when I stood in front of my apartment on the third floor, my hands were shaking as I flipped through my keys to find the right one.

Alex’s shadow fell over me, and I felt his solid presence at my back.  “Maddie…” he whispered.

I turned to him, letting him press me against the door with another kiss.

“Are you sure?” he asked, raising his head.

“Would it help if I told you whenever you’re on the phone with one of your brothers speaking Russian, I’m imagining you’re murmuring it in my ear instead?  You could be talking about car parts or cookie recipes or aliens, but it all sounds incredibly sexy to me.”  I ran my fingertips along his cheekbone, across his lips.  “We’ve been friends forever, Alex, but if I’d had any idea you wanted more, I’d have been yours a long time ago.  It’s just so hard to reach across that last little distance when you’re not sure what will happen.”

“I know,” he breathed.  “Believe me, I know.”  Then he leaned in and whispered something in my ear.  I had no idea what it was, but the tone, soft and deep, made my knees tremble again.  I was glad the door was holding me up.

“What did you say?”

He nipped my earlobe.  “Oh, no, I’m not telling you yet.  Where’s the fun in that?”

I shivered.  “Only say sweet things.”

He nodded, his cheek ruffling my hair.  “No teasing, no insults, no lies.  Your education in the Russian language is only going to be good for one thing, Maddie, and that’s whispering in the dark.”  Then he snorted.  “So don’t try to say any of it to my parents, okay?”

I laughed, and finally unlocked the door.

Flash Fiction #2: The Soulmate Countdown

So, yeah, after taking soulmate AUs to task a while back, turns out, sometimes, they’re strangely compelling and I want to write one.  Inspired by this Tumblr post, to which I added this story:

Tuesday

I knew something was up when Joan winked at me as I handed over my rent check.

My day at work had been long and stressful and I was just not in a mood to deal with her trying to set me up again.  She was anti-soulmate, as evidenced the three-plus years left on her counter despite her so-called “blissful” marriage to a man who I wouldn’t give the time of day to.

I only had a few days left on mine, and I was getting antsy about it, but damn if I admitted that to her.

“You’ve got a new neighbor,” she announced.  Well, that wasn’t as bad as turning down another blind date offer.  “And he’s cuuuuuute.”

Seriously, my landlady had to be twelve years old on the inside.

Wednesday

I woke up to the sound of a deep male voice singing over the patter of the shower next door.  Even though the next apartment had only been empty for two weeks–the Sanford brothers decided to move back home to help with their ailing mother–I’d gotten used to silence on that side.

My clock showed 6:58 am–two minutes before my alarm was set to go off anyway.  There were worse ways to wake up.  I wouldn’t need to go over there and pound on the door to get him to be quiet.

Not in the morning, anyway.  I hoped he wasn’t a night owl, because I need my sleep.

Thursday

The hall smelled strongly of beef and garlic as I passed New Neighbor’s.  So he cooks, or knows a better place to get takeout than I do, because that aroma was making my mouth water.  When I got inside, the smell was nearly as strong, so I opened the window in my bedroom to let in some fresh air.

After I wolfed down some reheated chicken chili–which was good, but not beef-and-garlic good–I curled up in bed to read for a while before tackling the dishes.

Two chapters in, I heard music.  Not loud enough to disturb me, not really, but I found myself setting my book down and listening to the steady strum of the guitar.

Halfway through the song, a phone rang, and the song stopped abruptly on a fumbled chord.  Neighbor wasn’t listening to music, he was playing it.

I shut the window quickly, before I could overhear his conversation.  I picked up my book again, but found myself staring at the counter on my wrist.  Tomorrow morning, around ten.  I’d be at work.  My soulmate could be anybody, a new coworker, a client, a tourist who will blunder into the lobby looking for some landmark and asking for directions.  Receptionists can see hundreds of people a day.  It could be anyone.

It was silly to think he was living next door, right now, and I could go over there and meet him.  I couldn’t, if it was.  My feet wouldn’t let me, because it wasn’t time yet.  But tomorrow morning, on my way out, I’d bump into him, finally get his name and find out what he looked like.  I always left at 7:45–I’d still have over two hours before I’d finally meet my soulmate.

Friday

I hate being sick over the weekend.  Calling in on a Friday is only fun if you’re ditching, not if you’re actually ill.

After failing to keep my breakfast down, I made myself a huge mug of peppermint tea, swaddled my feverish bones in my fluffiest bathrobe, and sprawled on the couch for a morning of Netflix and self-pity.

I hadn’t realized I’d fallen asleep until I heard a knock on the door.  I didn’t want to answer it, I didn’t care who it was, but when I shifted on the cushions, hunting for the remote I’d dropped, I saw the counter on my wrist.

Thirty seconds left.

I didn’t have time to change or comb my hair or do anything at all to make myself look presentable.  I shuffled to the door, took a deep breath, and opened it.

“Hi,” he said, holding out a package.  “Delivery guy left this at my door instead of yours.”

Joan was right, and wrong, at the same time.  New Neighbor was cute, but he was also hot.

The last thing I remember before the floor rushed up to meet me was trying to take the box from him, and failing spectacularly.

Then I was on the couch again, my head propped up on pillows and a glass of water being pressed into my hands.

“Not the reaction I was hoping for.”  He’d pulled my desk chair over from my computer to sit beside me.

“Sorry,” I mumbled.  “I didn’t plan on having a hundred-and-two fever today.”

The concern on his face was tempered with a small smile.  “I was just teasing,” he said as he leaned over to touch his fingers to my forehead.  “You really are burning up, aren’t you too warm in that robe?”

“If I take it off, I’m too cold.”

“Right.”

He stared at me for a long moment, and I could only stare back.  I had no idea what to say.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay,” he went on, his voice soft.  “My brother’s helping me move in the rest of my stuff today, and I kind of need to be there for that.”  Then he winced.  “And it’s mostly furniture too, so it might get a bit loud.  Sorry.”

“It’s okay.  We were just supposed to meet today, right?” I asked, flashing my wrist at him.  “Nothing in the rules about having to be glued to my side forever.”

Maybe it was early to be testing out my snark on him, but he laughed, and I loved the sound of it.  “No, but you need looking after right now, and clearly, I’m the one who’s supposed to be doing that.  I’ll come by when we’re finished and make you some soup.”  The smile left over from his laughter faded.  “If…if that’s okay with you.”

I nodded.  Meeting him, finally, was so strange, and I felt weak and dizzy and I’m sure it wasn’t all from the fever.  “But…what’s your name?  I’ve just been thinking of you as New Neighbor, since I hadn’t met you yet.”

“Josh.  Joshua Kagan.”  He stuck out his hand, like he wanted me to shake it, but I shook my head instead.

“Don’t want to get you sick, too.”

“I don’t get sick easy,” he said, standing up, “which is good because if I did, you’ll have to take care of me, and you don’t seem up for that just now…”  He trailed off, and I realized what he was waiting for.

“Becca,” I said with as much of a smile as I could manage.  “Rebecca Meadows.”

“Very nice to meet you, Rebecca Meadows,” he said, turning for the door.  “Try to get some sleep, and I’ll try to keep my brother from shouting at me all afternoon so that you can.”  He paused just before he stepped out.  “I’ll be back later.”

“Bye, Josh,” I answered simply, and he smiled at me again as he shut the door behind him.

He was sweet and he cooked and played guitar and I didn’t care anymore that I felt like my bones were trying to melt their way out of my body.  This was the best fever I’d ever had in my life.