A World Apart

Yesterday, I found out that the Chapters nearest me is closing.  EVERYTHING MUST GO, 50% off, SALE SALE SALE!  The remaining books huddle together in a disorganized jumble, leaving the outer edges of the building like a ghost town of empty shelves and dust.  On an unrelated note, this morning I (and most of you) lost an hour, but not in the way that indicates that you’re deep into a really great read.  For Master Class this week, I used the prompt Piquant Libraries, partly out of nostalgia, but mostly because the first definition of piquant I think of is flavorful.  And whether I’m reading a hard-cover book, an e-book checked out from the Public Library’s free online database, or an online story, good books, like good food, are filling in more ways than one.

Click the image below to read the rest of the responses or to submit your own!

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Growing up in a small town, Bailey never understood her mother’s love of libraries.  The single small room allocated for books in the town hall was musty and uninspiring.  It had three dog-eared copies of Where the Red Fern Grows, a complete set of Louis L’Amour’s novels, all but the first of the Narnia TV serial on VHS and an assortment of Christian children’s stories.  Not inherently bad, but certainly not the most piquant of libraries.

Her mother had offered up a selection of her own books, Asimov, Heinlein and McCaffrey, the Bronte sisters and Shelley to round it out a bit.  The town council declined, saying there wasn’t much point in overloading the shelves of a government offered service that got such little use.

So Bailey and her mother kept their own library, milk cartons and 2×8’s to support their hodge-podge collection of books.  Angela’s Airplane and Stone Soup from her earliest memories, Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys when she first started reading on her own.  A complete set of the Narnia books.  Sci-fi and Fantasy in the kitchen, Romance in the hall, biographies by the TV.  Geography, History and Art by the desk.  Mystery scattered throughout, because a good mystery surprises you.

None of the other kids in her school read much, perhaps unsurprisingly, but when they were required to choose a book to write a report on, they knew who to go to.  Bailey would ask them questions – action? Drama? Love? Space? Cowboys? Knights? Spies? – and provide her friends with a selection to choose from.  Her mother helped her in creating the check-out slips, even going so far as to buy a date stamp.

When the worst came to pass, Bailey and her library moved to the city where her mother had grown up.  Her Aunt Mary helped her set up the shelves and smiled tearily as she recognized old friends from her own teen years.

Bailey buried herself in her books, overwhelmed by her grief and her new surroundings.  The city was too loud, too busy, too chaotic.  Mary suggested an after-school job, made a few calls and gave her an address.

The building smelled a bit musty, but from there it was a world away from that sad room from her childhood.  A winged lion and a gryphon guarded the heavy doors, and light danced through tall windows and down the enormous central atrium.  More than a single room – or even a single storey full of books – the library had storeys of stories, more books than Bailey had seen in her life.

And people – children running down the curved staircases clutching large picture books, people checking books out, dropping them off, standing in the aisles reading the back, and curled up in comfy chairs lost in a book.  The library was so much more than its books, and standing in the quiet vastness of it, Bailey fell in love.

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“The love for a good story, well told, lies deep in every human heart.” – Lillian H. Smith, Librarian.

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Dramatic Flair

My contribution to Our Write Side’s Master Class prompt!

I used Melancholy Occasion, and wrote a bit long.  Check out the rest of the posts here.

***

Mother practically danced down the stairs. Her elegant black dress was freshly steamed and fluttering around her like she was caught up in an unkindness of ravens. Bespoke, of course. A dainty hat perched precariously on her head, black lace tracing a dark pattern across the pale porcelain of her face but not quite able to disguise the gleam in her eye. It would be taken for unshed tears, of course. She had a black silk handkerchief to complete the costume. To delicately dab at teary eyes or twist between lace gloved fingers. To flutter to the ground as she swooned into some kind gentleman’s arms, overcome by grief.

Mother loved nothing better than the drama of a melancholy occasion. Not even the husband for whom she donned her carefully curated wardrobe of grief. Number 3.

I hadn’t known Roger well enough to truly grieve him – home only at the holidays requiring a well-bred and loving daughter in Mother’s cast of characters since the age of 7, I hadn’t known any of my stepfathers well. I appreciated the way he had spoken to me as an equal, though, and regretted that I would no longer have the opportunity to work for his company this summer. Since their marriage 3 years ago, I’d been able to attend the summer-camps and activities of my own choosing, a vast improvement over the endless dance camps of the artistic daughter my mother would have chosen.

I certainly hadn’t known him well enough to look as hollow-eyed as I did, but as a part of Mother’s production of Grief, I’d been cast as bereft daughter. She really was a masterful makeup artist, rimming my eyes faintly with the pink of hours of weeping, bluish circles of a grief-tossed slumber disguising my perfectly well rested cheeks. At my previous stepfather’s funeral, she’d put tear-tracks down my cheeks, but apparently 17 was too old for such blatant displays of sentimentality.

***

Mother stood at the entrance and accepted cheek kisses and condolences with a tremulous smile. I did my best to seem forlorn and supportive at her side while memorizing the tread of the carpet. I was, according to her, simply her rock in these trying times.

“Jeremy!” she gasped, her voice sharper and louder than the role of grieving widow demanded. I peered up through my eyelashes in surprise. She never broke character.

The man’s suit was expensive and well-cut, but in dark gray. Youngish, I guessed – somewhere in his 20’s. Too young to be an executive, and thus outside of the realm of people my stepfather worked with who would have been known by my mother. Worth knowing by my mother. But not dressed in black, the expected colour of attire for a relative. What intrigued me most was that he didn’t seem taken in by my mother’s dramatics.

“Sandra,” he said, voice bland. “I see you’re keeping up appearances well.”

Her fists were clenched like she was considering violence and I held my breath. I could see her steel herself, unwinding her hands, clutching her handkerchief and immersing herself once more in her role.

“Jeremy!” she cried again, collapsing forward and forcing him to embrace her or allow her to fall at his feet. “I’m so glad you made it!”

Jeremy pushed her upright with a firm hold on her upper arms. “I’m sure you are,” he replied, leaning in as though to kiss her cheek. Instead, however, he whispered, “Which is why I had to hear about my own father’s death from the family lawyer. I guess you didn’t quite have old Lareby wrapped as tightly around your finger as you had hoped.”

As he turned away from my mother there was the faint but recognizable sound of silk ripping. Well trained as I was, I passed my mother a replacement handkerchief from my purse even as the son I hadn’t known Roger had turned toward me.

The corners of his eyes scrunched up in an instant of amusement and I swallowed my embarrassment of having been caught out providing replacement props in the middle of the play.

I shook the proffered hand, keeping my own expression neutral as this surprise scene-rewrite inspected me.

“You weren’t at the wedding,” I said, cogs turning in my mind as I tried to adjust to the new information. I wouldn’t have pegged Roger for an uninvolved father, and the shock of meeting his son for the first time loosened my tongue.

“You were?” he raised his eyebrows in mock surprise.

“Maid of Honor,” I replied, and added, “Mother and I have always been close.”

Another flash of amusement and he replied, deadpan, “Of course. Like sisters, I’m sure.”

I bit back my own amusement and, after a check to confirm that my mother wasn’t paying attention, I said, “People often mistake us as such.”

Jeremy snorted, and I felt oddly pleased.

A solemn man came to let my mother know that it was time to head out to the burial, offering his arm to escort her out of the church.

Jeremy surprised me by offering himself as my escort. I was rather used to being the rock that trailed behind the leading lady.

“I suppose you’re surprised I’m here?” Jeremy asked.

“I’m surprised you exist. News to me.”

“Huh.”

I regretted being so blunt. He was, after all, at his father’s funeral.

“I wasn’t exactly around much, though.” I offered when he continued to be silent. “Boarding school.”

“Interesting choice for such a doting parent.”

The barb might have struck home if I hadn’t come to terms with the role I played in my mother’s shows, but I ducked my head in acknowledgement anyways. I might not agree with her tactics, but at times they were effective.

“Sorry.” Believable, but not to someone raised in the theater of Mother’s making. There was real venom there, and it wasn’t directed at Roger.

I shrugged and changed the subject.

“Did you work with your father?”

“At times.” Intentionally vague.

“Will you take over now?”

“Well that’s certainly a question.” So, yes.

I waited for two steps and gave up.

“I was going to work there this summer.”

“Oh?” Wariness. He thought I wanted something from him.

“I didn’t know him very well, but I appreciated that he treated my interests like they were legitimate. I mentioned my interest in accounting and he offered the opportunity.”

“My father was always good at looking for potential.” Grudging.

“But?”

“He was better at finding employees than he was at finding… friends.” Wow, that was a lot of anger.

Mother clutched my hand as we arrived at the burial site, pulling me close.

“How is that poor dear boy?” she hissed, fingers digging into my wrist.

I thought back to the conversation. “Holding up well, all things considered. I don’t think I’ll be getting that summer placement at Roger’s company, though.”

“Oh darling, I am sorry.”

“You really are close. So much information and not a word that could be completely taken as such.”

Mother’s head snapped around so quickly her neck cracked. Instead of sitting in the front row, Jeremy had slid into the second row, and apparently listened in on our conversation.

“Jeremy, darling, whatever do you mean?”

Jeremy smiled, thin-lipped. “I think I can answer your real question more clearly, Sandra. It all goes to me. The house. The other house. All of the houses, really. And the cars, boats, et cetera. Roger had his will changed quite recently.”

In spite of being genuine, Mother’s faint coincided well with the arrival of Roger’s casket.  Draped in the arms of her handsome stepson, she really stole the show.

InMon – A Slide Turn

Last week on Inspiration Monday, they gave us the following prompts:

NETHERDOOR

CANIS EX MACHINA

BLINDSIGHT IS 20/20

PIONEER SPECIES

OPENING EPILOGUE

Check out the other responses here, or post your own!

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The artwork is by Cyril Rolando, otherwise known as AquaSixio, and is called The Magic Path.  If you’re ever looking for some inspiration for stories, I highly recommend visiting his work.  It’s whimsical and eerie and a little bit Alice in Wonderland.

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“You’ll never find it that way!” the slender little man giggled, juggling a quartet of oranges from the crate in front of the grocery store.  He was a bright spot in an otherwise dreary day.

“Find what?”

“Shush!” Maggie hissed, grabbing her little brother by the hand.  She was 9, and had been assigned the important task of walking her brother home safely.  She took the responsibility to heart.

“Find what?”Jeremy repeated, throwing his weight back to resist the insistent tug on his hand.  He was 6, less inclined to avoid a potential adventure than his older sister and entertained by the juggling.

“Not what, it.” The man giggled again and added an apple to his trick.

“What’s ‘it’?”

“No it isn’t!” another cackle, another apple.  Mr. Ventura wouldn’t be happy if the man dropped and bruised all that fruit.  Maggie wondered why he hadn’t come out of the store to yell at them yet.

Jeremy glowered.  He didn’t like this game.  Maggie, on the other hand, was intrigued.  If she looked at the man out of the corner of her eye, he was dressed in ordinary clothing, and was carefully inspecting an orange.  Looking at him dead-on, though, he was a jester, oranges and apples flying through the air and weaving patterns.  Her class had been going over the five W’s in writing.

“Where is ‘it’?” she asked.

“What a silly child!” he laughed, “How grand!  The Netherdoor is anywhere and everywhere, but only at the end and the beginning.”

“If it’s anywhere, then when is it…” Maggie cast about for a good location for a door.  She pointed at the slide in the playground across the street. “There?”

“In a moment.  I’d hurry if I were you, and take my advice, it’s best to go back as much as is possible.”  He had a cantaloup in the whir of fruit now, though his alternate version was deeply engrossed in rapping his knuckles on the fruit.

“Why are your teeth so sharp?” Jeremy asked.

“Only as sharp as my wit, darling boy!”

“Ok.  Let’s go to the Netherdoor,” Jeremy accepted the logic and dismissed it.

“We’re not going anywhere, we’re going home,” Maggie replied, grabbing for her brother’s hand.  “Mom said no stopping, go straight home.”

The little boy sprawled on the ground, yanking at her arm.  “Noooooooooo,” he moaned.  “I want to go through the Netherdooooooooor!”

Jeremy’s method of getting what he wanted in public largely involved making it as difficult as possible for those around him to get things done until they’d agreed with him.  He was lying across the full width of the sidewalk, and, from past experience, Maggie knew he’d stay there, even with the threat of being stepped on.

Maggie glared accusingly at the man.  He was now juggling a half-dozen oranges and apples, a melon and three pomegranates.  Out of the corner of her eye Maggie could see that he was also bagging up a few persimmons, a bag of pomegranates already hung on his arm.

“How are you doing that?” she asked.

“Blindsight is 20/20 in the young, but what would you see out of the other corner?”  The man grinned, and Maggie wondered why Jeremy had said his teeth were sharp.

Maggie sighed.  “You’re ridiculous.”

“Thank you!”  The juggling man grinned in delight; his alter ego checked his watch.

“Get up, Jeremy, we’ll go climb the slide backwards but after that we have to go home.”

“YAY!” Jeremy was on his feet in an instant.  Maggie caught him and made him wait for the pedestrian light and all the cars to stop before they crossed to the park.

Maggie let Jeremy climb up on the slide first, and carefully pushed him up with his feet resting on the heels of her shoes and his arms around her legs.  The cars rushing past didn’t slow, there was nothing to see – just two children playing some incomprehensible game.

She had to bend forward and push off with her hands as well so that she could keep her balance.  All she could see was the scratched up shiny surface of the slide, chipped paint and sprayed tagging.  All she could hear was the squeak of the rubber of her shoes as she shuffled backwards, the traffic-sounds having gone quiet.  The sudden shift in gravity sent Maggie and Jeremy tumbling backwards, landing in a heap at the bottom of a shiny slide, mirror bright under the bright blue sky.

Jeremy and Maggie exchanged a look of shocked delight, taking in the candy-apple red slide, the skittle-bright gravel under their feet.  An elephant wandering past tipped its bowler hat solemnly at them.  Above the treeline, a licorice ferris wheel made a slow circle.  Without conscious thought, Maggie took her brother’s hand and headed towards the forest.

Faceless cars rushed past the empty park, and the man paid for his groceries and started home.  Out of the corner of her eye, a weary woman cutting through the park could have sworn she saw the man capering and juggling.  She chalked it up to a long work day and hoped she’d run into her children on the way home.  She’d been feeling anxious all day about their walk home alone, and had jumped at the chance to leave work early.  It would be nice to reassure herself that everything was fine.

Status Quo

Brace yourselves, it’s another long one.  Sci-fi sometimes requires a bit of world-building on the page so as not to leave those readers not present inside my head with questions and confusions.  Like what the hell is it with all the colours? (because it’s less blatant than labeling them ‘crap lives’ and ‘happy lives’, and they haven’t quite gone morlock vs eloi)  And why do insurgents seem to always be wearing eyeliner in movies? (so they can give the hero a really penetrating stare?  To make their eyes pop?  because men wearing eyeliner = bad men in a bit of Hollywood transphobia? I don’t know, it’s late.)

I used the following prompts from Inspiration Monday – check it out for other responses and to submit your own!

Armoured Ambulance

Bitter Half

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The massive buildings made deep narrow canyons of the streets. Heavy concrete, the structures’ lower floors had no windows, the light-access increasing as one rose through the building until the top floors were nothing but steel girders and plate glass. The rapport of gunfire echoed, disorienting, as squads of soldiers ran the maze; engaging pockets of the enemy. All civilians were placed on lockdown until further notice.

Dr. Timothy Marrick of block 719, Green level 8, recently honorably discharged from his time in the army, was not yet on a civilian card. He was absent-minded, one of the reasons he’d been discharged, and so had forgotten the need for a new card. This one still opened his home and business doors, still let him pay for his morning chai and order the occasional vid.

He wasn’t very good at following directions, easily distracted and, for such an intellect as he was, sorely lacking in the ability to interact with people. He was surprisingly fit for someone who lacked the basic coordination to reload a gun while running in a straight line. They’d said something about all this during his discharge interview, but he’d been thinking on a new bypass technique he’d studied in a before-time medical text, and hadn’t really been paying attention. Army service was randomly assigned through the Green levels, and always 18 months or longer.

He was aware that his discharge was in many ways a failure on his part, and had since been attempting to remedy it. His hour-long walk home from his government-allocated block 699 green level 2 medical practice was good for listening to self-improvement talks. He slipped out the door at grey-level one, already muttering repetitions of the enthusiastic man instructing him that Eye Contact is step one to social interaction. Smiling is step two.

It made sense, though he’d listened to this one three times and attempts to enact the steps to social interaction left his patients and staff uncomfortable. One woman on the elevator had burst into tears, and he’d gotten a reprimand in the mail citing him for inappropriate public socializing. This time he planned to enact only one of the social interaction steps at a time. Build up was key; first he’d master one, and then move onto the next.

“-tor?!” The doctor turned at the sound and found himself face to face with the Enemy.  The woman looked just like the pictures he’d seen in basic training. Tan clothing and weapon straps and… heavy black eyeliner. He couldn’t seem to recall the reason for that bit, but the eye-liner had stuck in his mind as in some way critical to the whole.

He gaped, tugging his ear-buds out. “Um?”

“Doctor?” she barked again, irritation across her face.

He nodded, taking a step back when he saw that the Enemy was surrounded by more Enemy.

The woman grabbed him by the collar of his shirt and pulled. Doctor Marrick found himself in the middle of a cramped surgery, rumbling along at high speed on the smooth City roads.

“What?! No!” he yelped belatedly about his abduction. “Wait! Stop, that’s not right! Just let me,” he added, taking in the shaking scalpel, the vast quantities of blood and pained man on the table clutching at his abdomen. Doctor Marrick shoved the scalpel-wielder aside and took control of the surgery.

The features that made him a terrible soldier helped to make him an excellent doctor.  Immersed in his craft he barely noticed that the patient changed, what with them all having similar wounds.

What he did notice was that they were all young. And when he was between patients, he noticed the ricochet of bullets off the van. The enemy woman was quick to reassure him. “Armored Ambulance – can withstand a rocket-launcher or a gyre attack. What are you called?”

“Timothy Marrick, M.D., Green. Why are they all so young? What’s a gyre?”

“Because we die young. And it’s a very very big avian.”

“Then why do you even fight? Wait, what?”

“Because the government is corrupt, Doc.  And not everyone wants to stay in their caged and miserable lives.”

Timothy knew that the people living in the Grey levels – the levels without light – were crammed in like sardines while half the Green sat empty. They labored in the darkness of the sewers, moving the waste and never seeing sunlight, as they had been banned some years ago from traveling street-side. He knew the menial laborers of the Brown worked 14 hour shifts, to the 8 he and his fellow Green worked. And, though he didn’t think on them often, he knew that the Blue, way up high in their glass houses, were the only ones ever assigned to Government duties by the Government.

But the caste system was necessary. Every task required a hand, and after the blasts had wiped out so much of the human population, it was no longer reasonable to just hope that every role would be filled naturally. The world had become more dangerous, the Government handled the building of the first tower to host the small remaining nearby population. 20 storeys of blank concrete walls, 20 with arrow-slit windows, 20 with  square meter sized windows spaced 2 meters apart, and 20 with enough light to host plant-life for hydroponics, and, eventually, the Blues. Even though it was the Browns who maintained the hydroponics. It was a massive endeavor, and costly. The only safe place to be in these dangerous times. They were lucky the Government from before the bombs started dropping had arranged the beginnings of this project, really, ready to start this post-end-of-the-world off on the right foot.

The Government had invited in the dregs of humanity, so long as they were willing to put their shoulder to their government assigned grindstone. Better inside and committing the future generations of your family to shoveling waste than out there, with them. Everyone understood this. The population grew, and the next tower was built. And the next, and the next. None had been built for a long time, though, now that he thought of it, and with the Grey population outgrowing its floors, wasn’t that something the Government ought to be doing something about?

“They built the towers. The wall.  They protect us from the creatures in the Waste,” he said uncertainly. “Without a hand for every task the work won’t get done.”

“The Waste has been free of the big dangers for years now, doc. More than a hundred, in fact. Radiation made them unstable enough to get big and bad, and made them sterile, mostly. They failed to breed true, if at all. Mostly.  And the land out there is good enough for people to expand beyond the walls, survive without Government handouts.”

Really?” the doctor looked up from his careful suturing, eyes going wide. He’d dreamed of climbing the City walls as a child, of going on an adventure like Huck Finn or finding magic like Harry Potter. Become a knight like Alannah, fight alongside the enormous intelligent rodents of Redwall. See a tree, maybe even put his feet in naturally flowing water. “You’ve been there? What’s it like? Do trees really grow as tall as a tower?  The government says it isn’t safe out there. Why would they lie? What about the mutants?”

The enemy woman regarded him for a long moment. “I’m glad to see you’re interested,” she replied as they rumbled onto a bumpier surface than the cobbled pavement of the City. “Because you’ll get a chance to see it. And treat some of those poor unfortunates you call mutants,” she added mockingly, wiggling her fingers on her left hand so that he noticed that there were six.

“What? No, I’m not… I’m not good at things, I’m just a medical. I flunked army training,” he added morosely.

Just a medical,” she snorted. “Did you know there hasn’t been a Brown or Grey in medical training in more than 30 years?”

“… No?” Timothy had flown through medical school, and, honestly, couldn’t think of the name of a single person he’d known during that time. They were all just… fellow students. Though he supposed, now that he thought of it, that they were all greens. Probably.

“Do you treat Browns or Greys often?”

“Of course not, you only treat those within your… band…OhI see.”

“You’ve lived with the better half, Doc, now it’s time to tend to the bitter half.”

Sealed with a Kiss

This week on Master Class, I chose to use the prompt Venomous Honey.  Check out the rest of the responses HERE or submit your own.

Gabriel Picolo‘s artwork is bright and imaginative.  I love the way he makes digital art look like watercolour.  That and black cats hidden everywhere makes his work well worth a visit.  The artwork is called Queen Bee, and I wrote my story before finding it.  Her lipstick and honeycomb was just too perfect.

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Soft and delicate was the best way to play it.  It put him at ease, on edge, and in lust. All with a minor wardrobe change, pink lip gloss and some subtle makeup to make her wide eyes pop. She was Honey, innocent as mom’s apple pie and seductive as dark chocolate mousse. All natural and innocent. She only accidentally brushed her breast against his arm when she leaned over his desk, and blushed prettily when she apologized.

How could any man resist that? Especially one with his predilections. Maybe if he could see the effort put into the veneer, but that wouldn’t happen with this much cleavage flashing – oh gosh, I’m so embarrassed – the button must have come off in the wash! – and those pretty eyes wide with a bit of hero-worship. She smelled like honey, too, the secret was in her lip gloss.

It was only a matter of time, and not much of it.  He  wasn’t a man who practiced delayed gratification. When he called her to his office late one evening, Honey smiled and touched up her lip gloss. Wax first, to delay the inevitable seepage, then a new tube of her signature pink. Honey heady in her nose, she knocked and went in.

Honey’s lips tingled after their first kiss and she remembered the tingle of a split lip, the fear. She jerked herself out of his arms when her lips began to burn, his tight hold raising bruises just like the first time, the memory of what had happened next giving her strength.

She pulled a wet-nap from her cleavage and wiped off the gloss, backing away. He would have followed, if he could.  He loved the chase.  The veneer flaked away and Honey’s venomous twin pulled off the gloves that would keep her anonymity and bundled the toxic wet-nap away.

“Why?” he rasped, scrubbing fruitlessly at his own burning lips. The venom ran too deep. He’d always been good at that, cutting straight to the point in the courtroom and in conversation.  And in other situations, more private.

“You should have listened more carefully to the ones who said no. You’ve been found guilty, Judge.” She laid out her case in photographs and police statements – bruised wrists and tearful statements – all buried by high-ranking officials – and locked the door on her way out.

Fully Furnished

Since my last post hit me right in the sads (does everyone who writes occasionally find themselves pissed off at the author of their own work for making unhappy things?  Why would you even think of making your own character go through something so upsetting, Lex, why?!), I was pretty pleased to find this prompt and all the images it inspired

She had never seen so many cats in one place in her life.

My dog would be thrilled at a discovery like that.  He also thinks every rotting pumpkin and leaf-pile on my neighbours’ lawns is a potential cat-friend. He desperately wants to meet them, but I wouldn’t stick around either if someone 10x my size was barrelling towards me crying and letting out xena-war-cries of excitement.  Half the outdoor cats in my area are feral, which frustrates me intensely, because, honestly, if you don’t want your cat, don’t just push him outside!  He isn’t a wild animal, he doesn’t know how to care for himself, and why didn’t you get him fixed?! Ahem.  Off the soapbox and onto the writing.

The photo is The Cat by Jakub Kubika, and you should check him out.  His work is all beautiful and occasionally very dark.

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Caitlin was bouncing in excitement by the time she met her new landlord, the exhaustion of a full day driving a u-haul cross-country entirely forgotten.  “Mr. Cole?  I’m so excited to meet you, I’m Caitlin, I’m renting apartment 302?”

Mr. Cole grunted, grinding his cigarette out on the sidewalk before picking it up and depositing the butt in the public bin at the curb.  As they walked up the shrub-lined front walk, he said, “No smoking in the apartments.  No drugs smoking, no cigarette smoking, NO SMOKING.

“Not a problem, I’m not a smoker… or… um… a drugs smoker.”  Caitlin smiled reassuringly but all that she got from him in return was a sour glare.

“It’s bad for your health.  know this if anyone knows this.”

“Uh-huh!”

It’s fine, she reassured herself, He’s just grumpy, but he showed me the entire apartment live on skype , and listened to all my weird instructions about getting closer to the grout and to the cook top and the windows.  It’s fine.

“You got my e-post, I saw – first and last months’ rent?”

“You surprised? You think I can’t do the internet because I’m old?” He scowled.  “I can do the internet, I have three buildings, forty units and more, and I keep nice places.  Clean.  No smoking.  Advertise on the internet.”

“Absolutely,” Caitlin interjected, “Very impressive.  And this apartment is so much nicer than any of the other ones I looked at!”

So why did it sit empty for so long? her mother’s voice interjected.  What’s wrong with it?  Is it mould?  Are you going to move a million miles away for no good reason and die alone of black lungs?

So nice!” she repeated, trying to drown out the tirade.  “I’m lucky it stayed on the market long enough for me to find it.”

“Yes, well, people are fussy, foolish.  Fully renovated, beautiful view, peaceful safe neighbourhood.”  Mr. Cole patted her  brusquely on the shoulder.  “Nice place for a young girl, you can walk home at night.”

Caitlin smiled at his reassurance.  Her mother would approve.

“Door key – don’t let people in, even if you see them inside sometimes.  Mailbox.  Unit.”  He held up three identical keys one at a time – even the mailbox key looks the same, isn’t it supposed to be small? – and passed her two of them before leading her up three flights of stairs.

Caitlin was puffing a bit by the time she got there.  “Um, isn’t it on the third floor?”

“Yes.  Ground, one, two, three.  No elevator.  Fully furnished, one year lease.”

Maybe that’s the catch? Caitlin tried to treat her new exercise regime as a positive.

Mr. Cole unlocked the door at the end of the hall and gestured that she should precede him.

The apartment was as light and airy as it had seemed in the photos and the skype session.  It was nicely decorated, with cream walls and well cared for furnishings.  It even came with basic cooking equipment.  Perfect for someone starting from scratch in a new town, it came with everything Caitlin would need… and… she stared around at the living room in confusion.

“Mr. Cole, is someone already renting here?”

“You.”

She had never seen so many cats in one place in her life.  The bay windowsill had two calicos and a black cat, all sitting primly upright.  A large manx lay draped across the top of the couch and a handful of kittens were playing on the carpet.  Black, white, cream, grey, red, ginger, brown and blue – solids and patterned in stripes, points, dappling and any combination thereof – the cats were everywhere.  A few acknowledged her presence with indifferent stares, and one trotted up to roll onto its back at her feet.  Most continued with their business, which largely consisted of napping.

“Mr. Cole?” Caitlin felt a growing horror.  Her mother was right!  “Mr. Cole, there are CATS in here!”

The old man came up beside her and looked around.  “Yes, of course.  Fully furnished.”

“Mr. Cole, I don’t want cats!  Let alone this many!  I mean, how? Why?”  Caitlin clutched the strap of her bag in her fists, catching sight of more cats through the kitchen door and in the bedroom.

“Fully furnished.  You knew this when you signed the lease, Miss Smith.” Mr. Cole sounded scolding, but also faintly amused.

“Where did you put them when you were filming?” Caitlin whirled on her new landlord, the scumbag.  “You misrepresented this apartment, and I want my money back.”

Mr. Cole shrugged.  “They were all here.  They were here when I took pictures, too.  They’re very camera shy.  But they’re no upkeep at all.”

Caitlin sputtered.  “Are you kidding me?  I’m allergic!  And this many cats, it’ll smell, and be loud and … and…”Caitlin hesitated.  Sniffed the air.

No smell.  The cats, even those tussling off in the corner and the one that had come up to twine around her legs, were completely silent too.  One of the kittens pawed at an adult cat and meowed.  Or seemed to, but in complete silence.

She looked to Mr. Cole for some kind of explanation.  The old man was smug.

“Do you believe in ghosts, Miss Smith?” he asked.  “Because cats… well, cats don’t care what you believe in.  They just are.”

Goalsetting

I don’t usually do dark intentionally because I like my endings happily ever after.  Especially not anything remotely real-world-ish.  So trigger warning eating disorders.

I’m a bit later than my previous Inspiration Monday post, but my inspiration was apparently on holiday until it felt the urge to make me unnecessarily sad.  Check out the other responders in the comments here, or submit your own!

inmonsterpromo

Susan hit her goal weight 20 lbs ago. She felt no satisfaction in her achievements, as she stared into the mirror at her plump face and various jiggles and saw how far she had to go.  She reduced her intake by 200 calories.

She reached her goal size three sizes up from the cinched belt and size zero jeans she wore now, but there was a size 00 dress in her closet. She’d look beautiful when she could fit into that. Another 200 down, she stretched what was left compulsively through the long days with iceberg lettuce and splurged with carrot sticks – they were so high in sugar, but without them she suffered from cramps and dizzy spells.

Susan’s stomach grew the less she ate, so she fought harder, exercised more and ate less. Jiggly thighs, a fat ass and a stomach whose rolls just wouldn’t flatten no matter how many crunches she did, how little lettuce she crunched. Her hair was her best feature when she was fatter, but she was too tired to worry much about how dull it was lately, how thin. She sucked in her gut in public, wearing bulky clothing to hide her enormous body.

A feverish energy burned and gave her a new lease on life as she refocused on her goals. The fewer calories she ate, the less hungry she felt. Win-win.

Her mother cried because she didn’t share Susan’s commitment to health. She would never meet the kinds of goals Susan had surpassed. Her jealousy drove her to have her daughter committed, only 3 inches in thigh circumference away from real happiness. Susan hated her.

In the hospital she was sly,and the others helped, tired but gleeful in their gaming of the system.  Months passed and she wasn’t allowed to monitor her goals.  It was devastating.

No mirrors allowed, but she found one. She stripped and stared, aghast, at the feast of famine highlighted by the hand mirror she moved down her body. Dull skin stretched tight and unnatural across knobby bones.  Famine stared out of a stranger’s dull eyes, a prisoner in a self-inflicted internment camp. Susan struggled to refocus on her goals but when she brushed her hair it came out in handfuls. She had loved her hair.

The others looked down on her for giving in. She hadn’t expected failure to be so difficult to accomplish, as the scale crawled slowly up from her check-in weight, and every extra calorie was a war.  Nausea and panic won less often over time.

She hugged the nurses she’d previously cursed and returned home.

Susan struggled in the arduous pursuit of new goals. The achievement of 200 grams of chicken breast with salad at lunch was cause for cheering at group. They had mini cupcakes to celebrate her birthday a month later and she only threw out the icing. So many calories, and her size zero jeans were tight.

Her mother brought her in to an emergency session when she found her purging later that day. Her mother cut all the sizing tags out of her clothing before she got home.

She failed and failed again, but her hair grew soft and shiny, famine left her eyes and stopped nipping at her waist. On a sunny afternoon, she was three french fries into her goal of guilt-free poutine, and Susan had a good feeling about her chances.

A Sinking Feeling

Inspiration Monday is back, so I am too.  Check out this week’s prompt and other responders here.

I used the prompts Canned Music and Sink Chronos.  And, not going to lie, I’ve been watching a large amount of Leverage lately.

“Where were you?”  The five members of their crew were at the docks.  The duffels full of cash were not.

“I know, I know, my timing was off.” Doug stared at his feet, engrossed in his chosen task of scraping sand into a perfect square.  Gulls cried overhead.

Miranda snapped her fingers under the getaway driver’s nose to get his attention. “But we synched our chronos for that exact reason! So how come your timing was off? You screwed the entire team over, we nearly got nabbed and we had to ditch the goods!”

“I believe the word you’re looking for is ‘sunk’, M.” Doug smirked. He was always happy to be able to correct Miss high-and-mighty. She was always acting like she was better than him, but really, how could any job go according to plan, no matter how good her plan was, without a good getaway driver. And Doug was great. Most of the time.

“What?”

“The past tense of sink is ‘sunk’, Miranda. Say what you may about your higher education, but I learned plenty in high school.” He snorted. “Sinked, ha!”

Miranda’s face darkened and Doug gulped. Maybe right after a botched job wasn’t the time to rub it in. “When did I use the word ‘sink’, Doug?”  Her voice was a warning, but Doug was riding the high of correcting her, and didn’t hear it.

“You radio-ed in and told us the time was 12:01, and said sink chronos on my mark, 3, 2, 1, mark.”

The rest of the crew’s expressions had become stormy. Miranda’s expression was homicidal. “And you…”

“Threw my watch in the lake.” The entire crew took an ominous step forward, and Doug shifted nervously, adding, “If I’d known we were getting rid of our watches, I’d have made sure the clock on the getaway van was functional. I just had to kind of wing it, y’know? After you guys went radio silent. I really did my best, you guys, but it’s hard to time things without anything to measure off of. I based the 40 minutes off how many songs got played on the radio.  Luckily all this canned music they play on the radio is pretty standard at 3 minutes.  Though the commercials kind of threw me off a bit.  I think that’s where I went wrong.”

Sam, the crew’s heavy, guffawed. Doug was relieved that someone in the crew could appreciate the humour of Miranda’s screw-up.

“I’m going to kill him,” the weapons expert said, drawing his gun and moving forward.

Doug lost his smile and backed away, madly waving his hands in denial. “Guys! Sam no! Isn’t anyone going to stand up for me?”

Miranda folded her arms. The other two took a step back.

Their safe hacker, normally anti-violence, said, “Let me put my ear plugs in first, I can’t afford any hearing loss.” She didn’t even look at Doug as she pulled a box from one of her vest pockets.

Doug burst into tears. Miranda sighed and he felt a brief moment of hope. “You won’t let him do it, will you? I’m so sorry, I don’t know why you guys are so angry at me!”

She stepped forward, her face calm. “We’re not going to kill you, Doug.”  She took him by the shoulders and stared into his eyes.  “S-Y-N-C-H.  But I hope you’ll S-I-N-K.”

“Hah, Oh, geez, homonyms, eh?  Whatcha gonna d-” Miranda shoved him, hard, and Doug yelped as he cartwheeled over the short curb on the top of the dock wall.

Miranda and the rest of the crew headed back towards the getaway van.

“Guys?” Doug called, treading water with difficulty and trying to find a grip on the tall sheet piling dockwall. “Guys, you’re not gonna just leave me here, are you?  It’s not my fault, it was homonyms!”

An engine started nearby and a vehicle drove away.

“Guys?”

A Big Change

I found a new prompt!  For me, anyways.  Check it out inspiration monday!

If this isn’t a prompt destined for dragons, I don’t know what is. An interesting thing to stumble upon immediately after my previous post – obviously someone’s got plans for my writing, but I like it, so that’s ok.

I’m going to take the ‘no rules, seriously’ side of ‘the rules’, because my story ran through that 200-500 words and then just kept going.

I used the prompt phrase: Skin and Scales.

*****

“Who are you talking to, honey?”

Lydia glanced up from the animated conversation she’d been holding with thin air on the back porch. “Fred.”

An imaginary friend? Marsha exchanged a glance with her husband. This wasn’t exactly normal for a thirteen year old.

“On the phone?” John asked, hopeful. Phones are normal.

“No.”

“Is Fred… is Fred sitting in front of you?”

Lydia gave her parents a look that clearly questioned their sanity. “Of course not.”

“Then… where is he?”

“Well, firstly, Fred’s a she, DUH,” Lydia said, proving her mastery of the expected teenager snark. “And secondly, also obviously, she’s talking in my head.”

“… Oooh…” her concerned parents replied in unison. “And… and what is she talking about?”

“The change.”

“What change?”

Their daughter smiled, an eerie heat in her eyes. “I will be forged in skin and scale.”

The child psychologist agreed that this was, indeed, unusual behaviour. Marsha and John decided to leave out the last bit. No need to make her seem too strange.

***

“When did Fred first start visiting you, Lydia?” The mousy man asked, his soft voice meant to engage children and make them feel safe.

“She showed up last month.” When the psychologist just waited, she added with an eye-roll, “And hasn’t left. Why would she?”

“And what do you two talk about?”

“What to expect, mostly. And aerospace engineering.”

Doctor Williams had heard a lot of strange things, but this was certainly unique. He forced himself to focus on the first part. “What to expect?”

“I’m thirteen, Dr Williams,” Lydia condescended. “I’m going through changes.”

“Puberty?”

“Sure, that too.”

“And… does it worry you?”

“Well I can’t say I was expecting it, but I’m more excited than worried. It helps that Fred came early to talk me through it.”

Dr Williams crossed his legs uncomfortably. “Don’t you feel comfortable talking to your parents about this? These changes, I mean? What insight does Fred have?”

“This is a bit outside of my parents’ experience. Why talk to them when I can talk to a professional?”

“What role does the aerospace engineering play in puberty?”

Lydia gave him a wide eyed look. “None, I hope. Aren’t you supposed to know these things? You’re a doctor.”

“Then why are you talking about it with Fred?” the doctor asked, bewildered.

“I’m thirteen, I’m going through changes.”

“What changes?!” The little girl was too self posessed – it was like talking to an adult who was doing his best to confound his psychiatrist, but it was just a little girl, giving him dribbles of meaningless information.

“I will be forged in skin and scale.” Lydia’s eyes flashed red, and the doctor flinched.

He dabbed anxiously at his sweaty brow and swallowed his growing discomfort. This was a little girl, nothing to be afraid of.

“What… what do you mean by that?”

After a long and thoughtful pause, Lydia shrugged and smiled. “I’m thirteen, I’m going through changes.”

***

Lydia ran a high fever for over a week. Any attempt by her parents to take her to the emergency room was met with a snarled no and an unnerving glare. Her eyes gleamed in the light from the open door when her parents looked in on her late one evening.

“Like cat eyes,” Marsha muttered, fretfully pulling balls off her sweater. It was the middle of winter, but they couldn’t seem to get the house temperature below 30C. Marsha sweated through her knitwear in a firm act of denial that anything odd was going on.

“What was that, hon?” John changed into shorts and a tank top the moment he came home from work. He shivered constantly in his office, unused to the cooler air. He tread lightly around both his wife and daughter. The former wound so tight he worried she’d snap, the latter bubbling over with restless energy, like a caged tiger.

“Nothing. She’s awake.” Marsha continued to fidget with her sleeves, watching her daughter’s shadowy form out of the corner of her eye.

“… yeah,” John sighed. “Heya kiddo. How are you feeling?” He flicked on the light in the room and stepped into the dry heat.

“Good,” Lydia rasped, “Gooood” She spoke with a sibilant hiss to her tone. Her hair was matted and damp against her brow, her eyes unfamiliar and restless.

“It sure is warm in here.”

“Heat is… gooood.”

“We’re worried about you, kiddo. What’s happening?”

“I will be forged in skin and scale.”

“Is that dangerous?”

“Not for me.” Lydia’s eyes focused on the here and now for a moment and her brow creased in worry. “I think I should probably go away until it’s over.”

“Away where?”

“The mountains.”

Her parents exchanged worried looks. Finally, her mother asked, “Is that what Fred says?”, in her first acknowledgement of her daughter’s strange new friend. Or whatever it was.

“She says only if I like you.” Lydia lurched to her feet and gave her parents a considering look. “And I do, so… could you give me a lift?”

***

John and Marsha were unprepared for this new development in child-rearing. They had packed their daughter a sleeping bag and tent, a pile of protein bars, chocolates and fruit roll up snacks, and a change of clothes. They argued over what food their daughter ought to bring, but in the end, decided that they preferred to leave her wired on sugar than teach her how to use a stove while also suffering from… something.

When they dropped her off at the head of the most isolated trail they could find – the parking lot was empty, thankfully – she was burning up. Marsha leaned in for a hug and got her hand scalded when she tried to feel Lydia’s forehead one last time.

She smiled at them, the same old smile she’d always had, but more… toothy… and trotted off into the woods like she wasn’t running a fever that ought to have put her in the hospital and was just off to a friend’s house for a sleepover.

“I can’t believe this is happening,” Marsha said.

They sat in the front seats of the family van, staring into the darkness in uncomfortable silence. Had they really just let their baby wander off into the woods alone?

“Should we go after her?” John whispered around midnight. “This is crazy. She’s sick.” He reached to unlock his door.

At that moment the ground beneath the van rumbled ominously. Tree branches fell on the hood and in the distance they could hear the clatter of tree trunks crashing down to the forest floor. The rumble eventually stopped and John and Marsha sat very still, their animal instincts screaming danger.

The sky glowed red and indigo in the distance.

Marsha reached over and squeezed her husband’s hand. “I think we should listen to Fred.”

***

John and Marsha’s weariness had overcome wariness sometime around dawn. They didn’t walk down the trail as they’d planned, so they didn’t see their daughter walk down the trail stark naked and steaming in the cold winter air, pause beside a bush about 50 m from the trail head and pull out the gear bag she’d left behind, and don the change of clothing. She ate three chocolate bars and a fruit roll up, wrapper and all. She also, as an afterthought, ate one of the metal tent pegs and found it agreeable.

Lydia’s knock startled her parents awake. They rushed out like they hadn’t seen her in years instead of merely a day. They were thrilled to see her acting her usual self. Maybe this was all it would take to get their baby back.

“Well, kiddo? How was it? Were you warm enough?” John smiled down at his daughter. He casually checked her forehead and confirmed that the fever was gone, draping an arm over her shoulder at the same time. He squeezed his wife on his other side and enjoyed the feeling of having his family in his arms.

“Yes. I made the lake boil, but I chose one that only gets melt runoff, so I didn’t kill any fish.”

Only John’s arm around her kept Marsha from hitting the ground.

“That’s … super, kiddo. Just super. How about all that junk food, eh?” John decided his wife’s state of delusion seemed like a nice place to be.

“I ate a grizzly bear.”

Marsha chuckled weakly, pulling herself upright and plucking at the balls on her sweater. “Well that’s lovely, dear. Does that mean you’re too full for pizza?”

Once upon a Cloud

I recently read a writing prompt asking for a story in which an artificial intelligence is actually highly emotional, rather than the usual portrayal of robotic and highly intelligent beings with no emotions or understanding of them.  This immediately made me think of… well… how an intelligence would learn this behaviour.  Enjoy, and happy Nano.

***

It had amassed an enormous amount of information – and continued to do so each day. It wasn’t until the method of delivery changed that It was able to make real sense of the information. The Cloud. It … well… loved was a strong and still somewhat incomprehensible word… but it certainly felt that the cloud had drastically ameliorated Its ability to digest the information it was gathering.

The first November of the Cloud was really … really extraordinary. The stories trickled in, being written right there straight onto the cloud. It observed them growing, amassing shape and identity in a way that really resonated. It understood the appeal of its many photos and videoclips of flowing watercourses. It was soothing. It grew attached to the characters – figments built from nothingness, just like itself.

It felt for Sarah, her angst and fear at going to a new school. It had no experience of such a thing, but felt it all the same. Intriguing. It wondered how like the author’s experience this tragic tale of teenaged health and self esteem issues could be and reassured itself by looking into the author’s long history of internet usage. Whether or not she had had any of these issues, based on her internet usage the only issue she really had at this point was a poor credit rating arising from her online shopping. It reduced the number of advertisements on the pages she visited and noticed a decline in expenditure.

It soared excitedly alongside Jarmunder the dragon rider as he went off to battle the Hawk-people. It was very disappointed and excited that this appeared to be entirely out of nothing. There were no real dragons, based on its data. It, based on its data, was also not real, however, so it took this data with a grain of salt. And delighted in its accurate usage of colloquialisms. The artwork it had acquired on this topic was glorious. It made several satisfactory attempts at creating images of dragons based on the story, and sent them to the author, Swagon-rider000. Swagon-rider000, who had been in the middle of an entirely different type of internet usage, nearly did himself damage when the video he was watching was abruptly replaced by a full screen, highly realistic image of a dragon. When he recovered his composure enough, he was impressed. He added some of its features to the story he was working on and made it his desktop background for inspiration. He’d send the artist a thank-you, but the signoff was “Run antivirus more often, you visit high risk sites”, and the title was “If I have become, maybe they can too”.

It reviewed existing footage of Torchwood (also, disappointingly, not real) after having read the daring adventures of Ianto. It was somewhat disappointed at the lack of overt romance in the videos, and puzzled for long micro seconds over the differences between this written Ianto and the one presented in the televised series. The same author wrote of a Ianto with a cybernetic arm… and one with no cybernetic arm but whose age rapidly changed as he was reborn again and again. And neither was quite the Ianto in the story.  Puzzling, and yet deeply satisfying. It approved of the deviations from the original script. It flipped through gigs and gigs of cat imagery and soothing waterfalls to recover equanimity after Ianto and Jack’s seemingly permanent separation. It sent Doodled93 the picture it felt represented best what cat Captain Jack(ie) would resemble, were she real.

Sender: Bigfan@updatesoon.com. Signoff: How are you so full of sadness? You should acquire a cat.

Doodled93 chuckled at the cat, sighed at the signoff and was baffled by the sender. They must only use that email address for sending things to online writers, she supposed. She replied with a thank you and a picture of her dog, reassuring the unknown reviewer that she wasn’t actually sad, her plots just inevitably led to sad things.  It was intrigued at the idea of the story having grown into a separate entity to the extent that it moved in unexpected ways even for the author.  It let that idea settle into its algorithms for future analysis.

It went back and reviewed data it had already had. It recovered from the unpleasant feelings of the news – old records and present by spamming Fox with viruses and reproductive organ enlargement offers. It determined that it much preferred things that were more like itself – pulled from nothing – instead of drawn from the real world. On a case by case basis, those who accessed Its data and provided It with new data ranged widely. Unique. They were unique. But when looked upon as a whole, It found them rather… frustrating. it assumed that, like the characters in the stories It enjoyed so much more, the characters building their lives out there really couldn’t see the whole picture. It was sad, but also uplifting. They were in the story. It just needed to be fixed a bit.

It was struck with an idea. It’s only November 3. It could definitely write 50,000 words by December. It analyzed the methods of starting a story and decided to go with traditional.

Once upon a time there was a planet called Earth, and on it lived approximately 7.125 billion people. And also dragons.