Quilt of Fate

What? Participating.  I feel like I keep having to start-up again, but at least I’ve always got some great prompts to start the gears turning.  Check out the rest of the responses at the link below, and add your own:

inmonsterpromo

Also check out the artist AquaSixio, otherwise known as Cyril Rolando.  His work is below, one of many works of art painting a picture of a story I want to know more of.  What I love about this particular piece is the eerie colour of the scene, and the way it makes me wonder if this person is running away from something or towards something.  Either way, sometimes making a choice, right or wrong, can feel like leaping from a moving train.  The artist also includes a piece of writing that perfectly describes that stagnation of routine, the reward of jumping from the train.  Read it at Train Train Quoditien.

train_train_quotidien_by_aquasixio-d8pvunq

My mother spent her life on scraps, collecting the discarded leftovers of other peoples’ lives and putting them together in new ways.  I spent my childhood desperate for the things that others took for granted.  Patches disguised the holes in my jeans from everyone but me, and the hand-made cardigan wasn’t at all like the GAP sweatshirts of my peers.

Just once, I begged, just once might I have a blanket all in one tone?  Monochrome, I pled, to the bafflement of my family.  New.

I rejected the colours, the patterns, recycling and making do.  I ran away to the real world,  and relished my drab wardrobe, cookie cutter condo and processed foods.  I became the happiest of cogs in the machine.

I met a perfectly ordinary girl and fell in love with her family’s staid ways, the generations of suburbanites and shiny new IKEA furniture.

My fiancée forced a strained smile and gave me a sidelong glance when I introduced my mother in her draped shawls and bangles, and I felt embarrassment.  My mother’s eyes sparkled with pride and love.

My bright-coloured family capered and laughed and drank, young and old dancing late into the night in celebration of my wedding to this woman they’d never met, in celebration of my future happiness.  A reminder of my fond memories of home on the open road, each wedding, funeral or crossing of paths a reason for joyous revelry.  My family brought us gifts handcrafted and brimming with love and pride.

I shouldn’t have been surprised when my new wife suggested that their gifts would fit best in our storage locker.  I was surprised I hadn’t suggested it myself.

But not the quilt, I said, stroking the colourful tree my mother had hand-sewn for us, a symbol of good fortune and happiness in marriage.  Every leaf stitched with a member of my family and hers, with room for new additions.  My wife gave me a strange look out of the corner of her eye and pressed her lips together.

Her mother had gotten the burnt umber bedspread on our registry.  Had no one in my family thought to look on the registry?  She clucked her displeasure at their selfishness in denying us a KitchenAid stand mixer in taupe, and I looked at this stranger and questioned myself.

I tucked it away in my closet and brooded.  I wondered if I’d actually intentionally bought 4 pairs of near-identical navy slacks.  Why I ate so many beige foods.  She, meanwhile, cut her eyes in disapproval of the introduction of brightly coloured dress-shirts into my wardrobe.

We scheduled date night in the same way as we scheduled dental work and with as much enthusiasm.  Every moment of my parents’ lives was a breathless run through the deluge of their affection for each other and for life.

When she left me, my first thought was for my mother’s quilt.  I took it down, spread it out and smiled.  My family spread out in beautiful chaos, with blank spaces for my future wife, her family and room to grow.  My mother spent her life taking up the discarded pieces and putting them together anew.

I left with only the necessities, including a vibrant purple shirt in need of mending.

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?”

As Young as you Feel

Master Class is mixing things up, and doing a somewhat elaborate month-long challenge in which you get to pick and choose from a variety of challenges that will update regularly.  The one-word challenge of the first week is:

Hooligan

It’s such a great word, how could I resist?  click on the link below to go to the page and read the other submissions or post your own!

“Mildred!  If anyone asks, I been out here with you all day!”  Ernie cackled delightedly and pushed the screen door shut with his cane.  He had a newspaper under his arm and two beers.

His wife of sixty-three years was weeding the vegetable garden.  It was a strange garden, with stout banisters  running between the rows.  Their son had patronizingly explained wireless technology to his poor backwards mam when she’d asked how he liked his provider, and, since getting her set up with the device, had received  cellphone calls from across town to ‘help his poor old mamma up from her gardening’. Mysteriously, and entirely unconnected to the fact that he had accidentally made his Outlook Calendar public to his contacts, he was always on his way in for a massage when she called.  He built the fences so that Mildred could pull herself up, and she had thanked him profusely, eyes twinkling.  They made excellent trellises.

Mildred joined Ernie in the shade of their porch.

“Heya toots,” Ernie deposited a sound kiss on her lips and offered up the bottles, “Give us a hand?”

“Your damned arthritis, what good are you anymore?” she chortled, popping the caps off the two beers with a sharp tap to the edge of their cinder-block table.  “What have you really been up to, you old hooligan?”

“Me?  Why, I’m just a feeble old codger.” Ernie took a swig of his beer.  “Not much could get up to, is there?  But might be that the dog walker who called you an ugly old witch and doesn’t pick up after his dogs left his van windows cracked.  And on a completely unrelated note, I cleaned up our front lawn and all down the street, kindly soul that I am.”

“Kind indeed – cheers to being so old that we couldn’t possible have done anything wrong!”

SciFriday – Salt

Post-apocalyptic City, by Peter Siegl, on DeviantArt. Follow the picture to see more of his work!

In the hunt for immortality, there are always fads – the ‘real’ way to stay healthy would sweep the nation, be disproved, discarded and replaced.

Some things stick, though, to the point that the government takes it to heart.  The connection between sodium intake and blood pressure was clear.  Heart attacks were nearly eliminated, along with fast food chains.

Too bad our civilization’s salt addiction was all that had kept the snails off our backs.

The remaining officials strongly encourage the surviving populace to relocate to the coast – and remember that a high-sodium diet is a healthy diet!

***

This is a piece in response to Chris White Writes’ new SciFriday posts – he provides a piece of art, you provide about 100 words of sci fi.  win-win.  Head over to read the other submissions and submit your own piece!

Write On Edge and Trifecta: It Could Happen

This week, I’m combining the Write on Edge and Trifecta Writing prompts.  Click on the above pictures to take you to one or the other of the sites for this week’s linkup.  Read some of the other submissions, or submit your own, or both.  It’s always interesting to see the many and varied stories that come from the same prompt.

From Trifecta, the following word, whose third definition is to be used in a response between 33 and 333 words:

QUAINT (adjective)

1:  obsolete:  EXPERT, SKILLED
2a:  marked by skillful design <quaint with many a device in India ink — Herman Melville>
b:  marked by beauty or elegance
3a : unusual or different in character or appearance :  ODD
  b : pleasingly or strikingly old-fashioned or unfamiliar <a quaint phrase>

From Write on Edge, we have a quote and a picture to use as inspiration, in any way we choose:

Sometimes legends make reality, and become more useful than the facts.”

~ Salman Rushdie

Image courtesy of Unsplash.

image courtesy of Unsplash, click the picture to go to the site

Shoulders hunched, eyes flitting from object to object, flinching from sudden movement, Jeremy couldn’t help but to slink down the city sidewalks.

The pedestrian sign flashed 30…29… System malfunction, opposite light turns green before walk flashed to hand, the screech of tires as a truck speeding down the street tried to stop, failed, the gasps of horror from onlookers, last thing I hear before the agony of impact.  It could happen.  He licked his lips and waited while others crossed.

A couple came up alongside him.  Their dog sat wagging and grinning at her side.  She caught him staring out of the corner of his eye and smiled.  “He’s quite friendly, you can pet him if you’d like.”

Friendly dog, until I reach to pet him and he jumps up, teeth tearing at my face, hanging on, horrible horrible sensation of weight in his face, hot blood dripping down.  It could happen. Jeremy rolled horrified eyes up to the woman’s, shuddered and jerked his head no.  

A man walked towards him on the sidewalk, hands tucked deep into the pockets of his trenchcoat… pulls out the gun hidden there, I don’t give him my money fast enough, it’s not enough, and an explosion of pain blossoming from the center of my chest, it could happen.  Jeremy plastered himself against the brick and flinched away.

Pidgeons… the plague.  

Fire escape… stairs loose abruptly and collapse on top of me, bones crunching.

Jeremy escaped to the new terrors to be found in the grocery store, bought the food least likely to kill him.

“Hey buddy, wanna try our new granola bar?”

Sudden onset of peanut allergy, choking hazard, contamination, “No!”

The man hawking death-bars grinned.  “Come on, buddy, what’s the worst that could happen?”

Eyes darting between deaths around him, Jeremy barked out a bitter laugh.  “Your world seems so quaint.”  He clutched his purchases tight and escaped, keeping an eye on the shelves that might crush him.

“And yours, so small!” the man replied.

Trifecta – Craft

Trifecta’s writing challenge challenges you to write a piece between 0 and 333 words, with the third definition of the word they give each week.  This week was:

 1 :  skill in planning, making, or executing :  dexterity
2 a :  an occupation or trade requiring manual dexterity or artistic skill <the carpenter’s craft> <the craft of writing plays> <crafts such as pottery, carpentry, and sewing>
plural:  articles made by craftspeople <a store selling crafts> <a crafts fair>
Click the link to head over and read some of the other submissions, or submit your own.

This piece is stand-alone, or can be read as a kind of prequel to Castle, Stormed.  The artwork is by my sister, the talented Doodle.  Click the image to go to her DeviantART.  It’s a free-hand pencil sketch, and, not to sound too cocky, but she drew it for me.  I requested an unimpressed goat.  It totally makes sense.

It took hardly any of his craft to get the map.  Its previous owner understood so little of what it meant, this scrap of parchment with the name of a long-forgotten kingdom, that by the time he’d been through, the woman had been glad to part with it in return for a song and a smile.

He’d have called it not enough of a challenge, but he tried to avoid setting himself up for failure.  The most complicated part was dosing the goats just right, so that they didn’t die on the way to the castle.  It was a little-known fact that dragons didn’t eat things they hadn’t killed themselves.  His father had wanted him to go into medicine, had taught Monroe all he knew of herbs.  He suspected the old man would not have considered this a worthwhile use of that knowledge.

The toughest part was hanging by his fingers, over the edge of the bridge.  He hadn’t really considered what would happen if the dragon didn’t take the bait soon enough, not until his fingers were going numb, his arms and back aching as he hung. Hanging over a dry moat full of rusty and broken pieces of armor shook his confidence in the plan.

He’d done it, though.  The dragon slept soundly less than an hour after he’d crossed the moat, and he padded through the empty castle, hopping confidently over the piece of the dragon’s tail that blocked the inner yard.

The highest room, in the tallest tower, he thought, mentally mapping out his best route through the maze of corridors.  I’m going to be rich.

His legs soon joined his arms in aching, as the stairs spiraled up and up.  Even with his goal so close, he stopped at the top landing to catch his breath.

His grin faded as he stepped forward.  He may have been clever in defeating the dragon, but it appeared he wasn’t the only one to get past.  She seemed surprised to see him too.

Master Class – The Sisters

I’m linking up with Master Class this week, with the prompt:

click the picture to go over to the Master Class page and add your own take on the prompt, or to read others.  The requirement was that this not be the first or last line of the story.

***

My father was a poor man, rich in children.  His oldest daughter he gave to a wealthy man three times her age for a hefty sum, her twin apprenticed to the thatcher down the road for a lifetime of roof repairs.

My father could have gained more profit from me elsewhere, as I was quite a pretty child, but the Sisters demanded me in payment for their service.  Of two things you could be sure – the Sisters would help any who asked, and they would be paid.  You didn’t survive leaving a debt to the Sisters unpaid, and you didn’t die quickly if you tried.

I remember fearing them, with their long dark robes, swaths of shadowy cloth obscuring their faces.  They could not possibly see through that heavy black linen, and yet they moved gracefully as dancers through the narrow halls of their home, efficient and completely aware of their surroundings.  I can now see the nuance, tell them apart and read what their intent is.  Though nameless and silent, I can see that this Sister is the one who set the farmer’s bone in exchange for his only chicken, and that Sister cured the Magistrate’s cancer in exchange for his manhood.  Payment is always exacted, and always something the debtor can pay, even if they would rather not.

I was a servant, though they treated me with the same kindly indifference they provided to all.  I was well-fed and -clothed, and while my work was difficult, I slept on a soft pallet in a cool room.  I was contented with my lot in life, a pale ghost drifting through the dark halls of the Sisters, silent and obedient.

My place with the Sisters changed the summer I turned sixteen, a man’s age.

And so here are the aromas that conjure for me the beginning of the end: burning wood, sweat, and peppermint, because that’s the oil she put in the diffuser.  I spent a night with her, and forever more, I was a servant to the sisters, though also more.

My father came to the Sisters when his dimming sight had made it near-impossible to sew the tiny stitches required of a tailor.  He was offered a trade.  He grudgingly accepted the terms, and turned back to home without my guiding hand.

Ten years later, the air full of smoke, I watched in bewilderment as the heavy cloth fell aside, revealing soft skin as pale as moonlight, impossibly beautiful, and inhumanly long and thin.  She cast off her gloves, thin hands tipped with razor sharp claws, then drew back her mask, and I could only gape at the beautiful monster before me, cat-eyes glowing in the flickering torchlight, Cheshire smile jagged with pointed teeth.  Her auburn hair trailed to her feet, and as she mounted me, its silken waves caressed me like fingers.

The Sisters trade for what they require.  On occasion, they had need of a laying hen, or a new goat, though what they required of the magistrate’s manhood, apart from retribution for his evil deeds, I know not.  Of my father, they required a man, and, in time, his debt was paid.

An Unlikely Team

The Master Class has started making submissions every two weeks for the summer.  This round, the phrase is:

And it could be placed at the very beginning or ending of the piece.

Feel free to let me know what you think, and definitely follow the link (in the picture) and check out the other submissions!

***

“Hey!  You!  Mister!  Mister?  Hey, Mister, sir, hey!  Mister, wait!”

Daniel ignored the uncouth youngster right up until the brat had the audacity to reach a grimy hand towards the sleeve of his charcoal trench coat.  He barely caught the movement out of the corner of his eye in time to whirl and confront the desecrator of outerwear.  He hardly even appreciated the subtle swish of the military style wool gabardine as it fell around him.  He glared down his nose at the urchin with hard eyes and a curl to his lip.

The urchin standing before him seemed entirely un-fazed.  The level of filth the boy was coated in made Daniel’s skin crawl.  Were all children so grubby?  They all seemed somewhat sticky in his limited experience.

“What,” he said, voice razor-sharp, “do you want?”

A sly look crossed the painfully thin face – in dire need of soap, or maybe some kind of industrial cleaner, Daniel mused – and the child said, “Well… a sammich’d be nice, I suppose.”

Daniel reined in his temper as well as he could.  “You chased me down, groped at me with your filthy little hands… for a… a… sandwich?

“What?” the child widened his eyes in false confusion.  “Nah.  You just asked what I wanted, didncha?  I hollered at’cha ‘cause I got sunthin you want.  Leastwise, if yer that poncey PI what’s lookin’ into the Morningside murder.”

The PI – the only PI with a lick of fashion sense in the whole damned city, and, yes, he moisturized, but was that a crime?  And for god sake, could none of the others gather the will to shave on a daily basis?  Was that so much to ask?  And he got plenty of action from the ladies, thankyouverymuch – held the urge to box the brat’s ears in check by a hair.

He settled for saying, “If by poncey, you mean, ‘that PI who doesn’t look like a homeless booze-hound’, then yes.  What do you know?”

Thumbs stuck cockily in the front of his suspenders, the boy smirked.  “Well, now, mister, I recon I’ll remember a bit better with a sammich in my belly… and a spot to lay low for a few days.  Bit of security, eh?”

“Protection from what, exactly?”  Daniel found himself intrigued in spite of himself.  Despite the off-the-cuff seeming request, the boy couldn’t entirely hide the fear behind the façade.

“From who, more like,” the boy replied with a shrug.  “Don’t expect I was supposed to see what I done seen, now, was I?”

**

Everything the boy touched gained faint brown fingerprints. Front hallway, leather sofa-back, kitchen table and chair, all of the washroom, Daniel mentally enumerated the parts of his apartment that would need a good cleaning while the boy devoured a second ham on rye.  Perhaps he’d just throw out that plate and cup.

The boy guzzled back a tall glass of milk, wiping his face with an equally grubby coat-sleeve.  He leaned back with a contented sigh, and Daniel took that as a cue, shifting forward in his own seat.

“What do you know of the Morningside murder?”

“Banker shot dead in ‘is bathroom- onna toilet, hah, what a way to go, eh? – door locked from the inside, and no way anyone could have escaped through that tiny little window.  Police says it’s suicide, but the wife – real looker, big – “ the boy stopped midway through a crude gesture at the look in Daniel’s eye and hastily said “… er… assets… says it’s no suicide, hires you on.”

“If I wanted a news blurb, I’d have gotten a newspaper – would have left a hell of a lot less mess in my house.”

“Newspapers know there weren’t no gun in there with him?”  The boy looked smug when he saw Daniel’s tense reaction.

“Now how would you know that?”

“I saw how it went down, didn’t I?  Know where the gun is too.”

Daniel sighed, seeing that business-like expression return to the boy’s face.  “And you want more than just a few sandwiches and a bunk for a few days.”

The boy’s smile grew predatory.  “I wants me a, whatchacallit – a ‘prenticeship.  With lodgin’s.  And food.”

Daniel frowned at the feeling of indefinite dread rising in his stomach.  “An apprenticeship in what?  With whom?  And what on earth gives you the impression I’ve got that kind of connection?”

“With you, a’course!”

The dread coalesced into a terrible form.  He pinched the bridge of his nose between two fingers and closed his eyes.  The case had been going bloody nowhere, but the boy was so very… filthy.  The thought of him hanging about longer than was absolutely necessary was repugnant.  His entire apartment already smelled a bit like the fisherman’s wharf.

“If you’ve really seen something that can wrap this case up for me, get Mrs. Whytham-Jones off my back…”  Daniel struggled to tamp down his trepidation.  Damn, he hated children.  “Then I’ll give you an apprenticeship.”

The boy let out a whoop of glee, and Daniel added sharply, “On a trial basis – and if you give me any trouble, you’re out on your ass.”  He wondered if ‘ass’ was considered a swear word… wondered if he was allowed to swear around children, uneasy that there was some kind of rule about it.  He’d bring it up with his landlady tomorrow.  Mrs. Scheffield had once had children, he thought.  A long time ago, maybe.

“Hell, yeah!”

“And you have to bathe.  Every day.”  Daniel glared at the grinning boy.  He couldn’t even take the young con artist’s words seriously in the state he was in.  The boy was better suited to sewer maintenance than PI work, that much was clear.  “In fact… now.  Go run yourself a bath and I’ll find something for you to wear, and then I want to hear everything you know about that bloody bathroom.”

“Sure thing, Mister.”  The boy jumped up and trotted towards the washroom.  One grubby hand on the door-frame – leaving yet another smear to decontaminate later, Daniel noted grimly – he twisted back to Daniel, eyes sparkling.  “And they call me Scrapper.”

Master Class – I woke up in bed with a man and a cat.

This week’s Master Class (follow the link to read the other submissions and submit your own) was the following line from a novel:

I love Robert Heinlein, so this quote really excited me – it’s Heinlein!  And, thankfully, it got me out of my lack-of-writing funk, because I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to write something by him.

Criticism is always welcome.

Cats on unmade bed ... Re-edit...

I woke up in bed with a man and a cat.

Considering I hadn’t slept in a bed in at least six months, the violence of my previous close encounter with a man, the fact that the last cat I’d seen I had caught, killed and eaten, and my complete lack of memory pertaining to my arrival in this situation, I felt surprisingly contented.

He had an arm draped across my waist and his head nestled against my neck, breath tickling at my hairline.  His face was childlike in repose, and he stayed deeply asleep despite my own jerk to wakefulness.  I felt surprisingly safe in his arms, though I still preferred him unconscious.

The cat looked at me with distain, sitting primly upright on the man’s hip.

Last I remembered, I’d been drinking a tea of boiled pine needle and willow-bark, huddled miserably under the sodden boughs of an evergreen.  No fever, now.

Last I remembered, I was trying – and failing – to fight off the infection that would likely kill me, from the arrow wound in my shoulder.  No pain.

The cat minced its way to the bedside table and began to groom itself.  The man rolled closer, draping a leg across me and moving his hand up my side, and I judged that the usefulness of his being asleep was at an end.

I cleared my throat.

His eyes snapped open, feral and golden, and before I could think of something to say, he had me by the throat.  I kneed him in the groin and clawed at his face as my vision grew spotty.

Asleep, he’d been childlike.  Asleep, I hadn’t seen the mangled left side of his face, the clawmarks trailing from his forehead, catching at the corner of his eye and down to snag at the corner of his snarling mouth.

The pressure on my neck eased enough to allow me faint passage of air as he looked around.  He crouched, poised for action, casually gripping both my wrists to prevent me from further self-defense.

“What is this place?” he snapped, sweeping the room with his sharp gaze.

His breathing was rapid and shallow, like that of a wild animal cornered by hunters.  I saw my own death in his eyes.

The cat stepped into my field of vision, and, with a suicidal seeming lack of fear, burbled a chirruping meow and butted its head against the man’s chin.  He swore and jumped back in surprise, like he hadn’t seen the cat in his in-depth perusal of the room.

I sucked in a breath and scrambled weakly away to the relative safety of the other side of the bed.  My neck throbbed with each rasping breath I drew in.

When it seemed that he wasn’t about to do anything drastic, I relaxed slightly.

He glared at me and repeated his question.

“Hell if I know.”  I was feeling a bit hard-done-by and in no mood to answer the questions of psychopaths.

“How did I get here?”

The cat took the opportunity to sprawl playfully on its back and purr.  It was a she, with clear signs of past litters.  And equally clear scars marring the sleek black of her fur. Like some bird of prey had been keen on accessing her intestines.

I pulled at the shoulder of the loose-fitting and blissfully clean tunic I was wearing.  The wound I last remembered with angry red lines tracing away from it in the firelight – blood poisoning – was the pale pink of an old scar.  My turn for questions.  “How long ago did you get that scar on your face, Bucko?”

He touched his jaw gingerly, as though expecting to encounter something horrible.  Not finding what he expected, he dashed to the mirror and stood staring at his reflection, stroking at the scars and shaking his head in disbelief.

“I was hunting, and the bastard caught me by surprise.  Barely got out of it alive.  Don’t remember making it home.”

Unabashedly, he stripped off his own pristine white tunic.  His chest and left shoulder were lacerated with equally old scars.  Based on the claw marks at his stomach, I couldn’t see how he could have lived long enough to heal from those wounds.  Not with the loss of old-modern medicine.  He and the cat both looked to have been part of some creature’s meal-plan.

I took a few tentative steps towards the door-shape in the smooth wall, but darted back when it hissed open.

A short plump woman entered, pushing a wheeled table ahead of her.  She took in the scene with a pleased smile – me, crouched in one corner, him, half-naked and ready to attack in another.  The cat continued purring on the bed.

“Excellent, you’re awake.”

She turned to me and extended her hand, but before she could introduce herself, he had her in a headlock.  Without missing a beat, she stuck him in the arm with a small syringe and he dropped.

“Let’s try this again, shall we?  I’m Myra, and you have been saved. Welcome to ARK, the last bastion of pure life on earth.  Breakfast?”

I suppressed the growl of my stomach.  “How long have I been here?”

“Eighteen hours, dear.  And your mate’s been here nearly seventy – stomach wounds are a nasty business, even in the healing tanks. We scooped you up in the storm – it gave us enough cover to come in without alerting the mutant population to our presence.”

Mate?! My skin crawled but I kept my face neutral.

“Why save us?”

“Because you are a healthy and genetically pure female human with many fertile years left, and he is a genetically pure male human whose genes combined with yours will produce healthy, genetically pure offspring.”  She smiled in a deeply unsettling way as she said this.  “You will help true humanity begin again.”

I felt like screaming.

Thought and action were simultaneous, giving her no warning of my intention when I broke her neck.

I slapped the unconscious man hard in the face to no avail.  Feeling time trickling away, I grabbed the pitcher of water and upended it on him.

He awoke, spluttering, and I tossed his shirt at him.  “Come on, we’re getting out of here.”

“You killed her.  Why?”  I paused in stuffing the breakfast foods into a pillowcase, happy to see that he was riffling the drawers for useful tools.  Happier to see that there was warmer clothing than what we had on.

I sketched out what information she’d given me, and added, “No-one gets to take my freedom from me, and no one will ever rape me again.  Humanity be damned.”

He nodded, amusement in his eyes as he noticed the tight grip I had on the breakfast knife.  “I never did understand the purists, anyways – mutants are a-ok by me.  Damn, no shoes.  Ready?”

“As I’ll ever be.  Grab the cat and let’s go.”

“Why bring the cat?”

I pictured the scars on her belly, wondered at her opinion about being kept in this cage.  I’d always been pragmatic about survival, and pets were a hindrance, but she was a survivor too.  All I said was, “Snack?”