A @YouAreCarrying Flash Fiction Challenge

This week’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenge is to retrieve an inventory from the @YouAreCarrying twitterbot, and use those items in a ~2000 word story. Here’s mine, a sub-2000 words spin on a pumpkin-themed fairy tale classic. I cheated slightly, turning the business card into a visiting card, but otherwise fit the remaining items in nicely.

***

How The Determined Earn Their Admittance

Ella lies nestled in the soft fur of a bearskin rug set before the fireplace, and waits. She has been left here, shoeless, ragged. The hem of her once-vibrant gown is frayed from how they abused her into this room. The door behind her is locked, and will remain so until her captors request her. Her crime? She dared to dance with a prince, but was not royalty herself. That is not permitted here.

She is still, as unthreatening in appearance as she can manage, in case pity lives in any of her jailer’s hearts. Time creeps, and she remains, listening for the occasional click! of the peephole in the door, noting each time how the space between clicks grows wider.

If her guards haven’t pity, perhaps she’ll find solace in their neglect? Her hope is stoked by their dimming vigilance; they assume she merely sleeps in their makeshift prison. It soon becomes apparent they do not fear any girl brought so low.

Hours seem to pass before the interval between patrols widens enough, and she dares to move. The merest tilt of her head, enough to see the doorway, confirms the peephole is shut. Only then does Ella push up and take in her surroundings. Aside from the fireplace and rug there is a small table, with a pitcher and bowl upon it. The room is otherwise bare.

Ella checks the handle of the door and confirms it is locked. She still has the key given to her earlier, but the door it opens is at least two floors above. For now she is trapped, until others are ready to settle her fate. Ella moves to the bowl and pitcher, but the water in each looks as if it’s been standing since well before this evening. There’s a film on the surface of each, they are too dirty for washing or drinking. In frustration she snatches up the porcelain bowl and throws it into the fireplace. The water it held kills some of the fire. Her fists are balled, pressed hard against her mouth, holding back a scream. She implores herself to control her temper. Rage or despair would be indulgences now, with no discernible gain.

When the bowl exploding brings no attention she sits, and considers the weakening fire. She’s curious about the only unguarded exit to this room. Moving closer, she leans under the mantle to examine the damper guarding the flue, hoping the caretakers are as negligent in their maintenance as they are in their housekeeping.

Where the plate covers the throat of the firebox there is a gap; a flaw Ella has seen before in older, equally poorly maintained fireplaces. This small discovery, informed by a childhood spent tending hearths, offers a shard of hope. She prays the peephole remains shut.

Ella douses the rest of the fire with the stagnant water from the pitcher, and clears the spent logs aside. She stifles another cry – this one triumphant – upon finding the thin iron plate that covers the ashbox. She lifts the still-warm plate free, and tips it against the edge of the hearth to cool further.

She tears strips of cloth from her ruined gown to wrap over her hands and feet, for some meager degree of protection from whatever residual heat the chimney bricks hold. She drags the rug into the hearth. Then, using the iron lid as a wedge, Ella levers the gap between the stone and the flue guard wider until it comes free and drops, its fall muted by the plush bearskin. What little sound there is brings no investigation, so Ella proceeds. She ties a strip of cloth over her face, before ducking beneath the lintel, to shimmy into the now exposed flue.

Bracing against the chimney walls, Ella begins her slow ascent. Her gaze focused downward to prevent ash and creosote from blinding her, she claws and shoves her lithe frame further up into the narrow crevice. The climb is agonizing. Her hands and feet are barely insulated from the still hot bricks. The air is sharp with carbon, and the cloth over her face is a poor filter against the acrid stench. With steady, hard fought progress, she makes her way upwards through the pitch black shaft. Tar cakes the chimney, sometimes sticking her in place, other times slick, as she struggles for purchase.

The castle is unknown to her; even more so here, literally within its walls. But the lack of any stiff breeze tells her the shaft she’s in will bend eventually; there she can take a moment to rest. Hoping to find it soon, she continues to crawl upwards slowly, guarding against the shock of bumping too hard into the ceiling of the joint. That jarring blow might send her crashing back down the shaft. The bearskin still down there is soft, but it hardly offers enough padding to protect her if she stumbles now.

When her head gently presses against brick, she stops. Her legs and back brace hard against the chimney walls, though her muscles burn from the exertion. Tentatively, she feels for the angle of the bend, and shifts with great care, until she can wedge herself into it. Here she can savor the smaller effort needed to remain in place, partly reclining within the angle of the vent.

It’s a short climb from here to the peak, where this flue joins another, before the shaft continues up to the rooftop high above. But exhaustion consumes her, and there’s good reason to doubt she has the strength to make it the full distance. As she lies there, catching her breath a moment, Ella feels a tickling on her bare shoulder. An earthworm has crawled onto her. It no more belongs here than she does, and that strange kinship inspires her to spare it. If you hold on, little friend, she thinks, I’ll free you…once I’ve freed myself, of course.

Reaching down into the shaft at the other side of the junction, Ella doesn’t detect any heat. Probing the contours of the adjoining flue, it seems wider than the one she just climbed. It’s very reasonable for her to hope this one leads down to the kitchen, or at least an unoccupied room – ideally with no locked door to imprison her again. Taking great care, she climbs over the peak, swinging her legs into the other vent, and begins her slide down.

The journey down this side is faster, and slightly less painful. She can let gravity assist; using her battered hands, feet and back only as much as is required to slow her descent. The shaft opens into an enormous hearth, with fresh wood visible beneath an iron grating in the fireplace floor. The kitchen, mercifully empty. Ella drops down, then slides out, coming to rest on the stone floor.

She tears the cloth from her face, breathes deeply, and slowly removes the wrappings from her hands. With the cleanest strip of cloth she can find, she smudges some of the chimney’s filth from her eyes, nose and mouth. She’ll need proper dunking to come truly clean. For now she can see, but still cannot smell or taste more than black soot and ash. As she’s catching her breath a wiry man comes in from the yard, carrying a basket. They form a ridiculous tableau; the slight, tired girl, pitch-black and ragged, and the shocked, wiry cook, egg-laden. Neither is certain what to do.

The cook moves first, dropping the basket, racing for the door out of the kitchen, slipping on broken eggs as he runs. He tries to shout, a prelude to the alarm he’ll raise once the kitchen door is opened. Ella springs to her feet, grabbing the nearest weapons she can find – a pair of thick stirring sticks close by the hearth – and intercepts him, just as he reaches his mark. With the first stick, she collapses his knee. The blow brings him crashing against the door. He bounces off, stunned with pain.

Without pause, Ella brings the second stick down on his neck, and hears the meat give way beneath his skin. His eyes burst wide, but he can no longer shout. She stands over him as he gasps. After another moment, When she’s certain their scuffle hasn’t summoned the curious, Ella rolls him into the buttery and conceals him. No one will come for wine for hours. His body will remain there, undisturbed, for most of the day.

Cloaked in black soot and predawn shadow, Ella picks her way through the castle halls, avoiding guards who, by this time, must surely notice she’s gone. She is searching for the chamber unlocked by the key she was given. Taking utmost care, she finds the proper room, unlocks it, and slips inside.

“My God, it’s you! What’s happened to you?” The prince had been pacing, not sleeping in bed as she expected. His face brightens at the sight of her, regardless of the filth coating her. To him, she is no more than the girl he danced with for most of the night, and desperately wanted to bring to his chambers. Ella touches a blackened finger to her lips, and he quiets, abashed.

“It’s no matter now,” he whispers, “I thought I’d never see you again my dear.” he rushes to her, arms open, paying no attention to the boning knife she took from the kitchen until the blade slides between his ribs. She sets her mouth on his to muffle any cry, before leaving him, bleeding, on the chamber floor.

Ella wipes the blade clean. She secrets the knife against the small of her back in case it is required again. The dead prince’s visiting cards are stacked neatly on his writing desk. She takes one, and dips a corner in his blood. Her proof collected, she slips out, pausing to lock the room behind her as she leaves.

Ella heads back through the kitchen, the simplest route to the yard. It takes no more than a moment to find the mews. The shed doors are locked for the evening, their handles are bound fast by a massive chain. The surge of energy she felt during her escape and the prince’s assassination has long since deserted her, and the weight of all her exertions pervades her. No! And so close to safety! She picks her way around the mews, clinging to hopes she’ll a way inside. An unlatched window in the back of the structure is her salvation. Ella hoists herself awkwardly through, crashing into a pile of hay beneath. Inside there is no carriage awaiting her, as promised. In its place sits what looks like a cruel joke – a large, ripe pumpkin.

A gentle tickle at the nape of her neck reminds Ella of her own promise. She carefully removes her companion, and sets it on the ground. There you go, she thinks, even though I’m not yet free myself. Drawing out the knife, she looks for a means to escape this new prison.

No way out presents itself. Ella cries out, despairing, and stabs the blade into the gourd, bringing forth a gentle, crystalline sound. Curious and hopeful, she cuts, and discovers the impossible; a small brass bell, secreted inside. She rings the bell, and hopes.

Ella hears a voice behind her, as improbable and clear as the tiny bell. “Well?”

“It’s done, milady, just as you asked. Here is my proof.” Ella turns, and the woman now standing there takes the bloodstained card she offers. The card flares, instantly reduced to ash in her hand. She smiles warmly at Ella, who returns the matronly smile with a teary-eyed one of her own.

“Well done my child! I congratulate you, and welcome you to the ranks of my Godchildren.” The woman reaches out a hand, which Ella takes without hesitation. “Now, let’s get you home to clean up and rest. We’ll discuss later what the future holds for you, dear.”

Flash Fiction Challenge: Killing Dan Malmon

So Dan O’Shea wants Dan Malmon dead. I don’t know Dan (either one) beyond following both on Twitter and having Dan O’Shea’s books on my TBR list, but this seemed like a cool challenge, so I took a swing. I probably had more fun killing him than is appropriate, but I really enjoyed writing this, and I hope you and Mr. Malmon, good sport that he is, gets a kick out of reading it.

***

Ever gotten a song stuck in your head? I mean really deep in there, where you’ve gotta hum the whole thing to get rid of it? That’s what I was dealing with on this job. Looking back, I wouldn’t’ve had this problem if I hadn’t taken the phone, but the client insisted. Long as I was getting paid, I did whatever he’d asked.

I might have been a little starstruck too. I mean, it’s not every day you get hired by a multiple Grammy winner. At first I thought the meeting request was a joke, but there he was, sitting across from me, offering to pay triple my normal rate. I took the job, even though it meant carrying a burner to confirm when it was over. “If I’d picked a more notable target, I wouldn’t worry. Him? I’d be surprised if the news went beyond local.”

Curious, I asked, “why this guy, anyway? I mean, people hiring me usually have a score to settle. What’s yours, if you don’t mind me asking?”

“Dan Malmon isn’t remotely connected to me, which makes him perfect. I’ve been recording for longer than you’ve been alive – making millions, winning awards – yet I still get slagged on. Eventually, that mocking gets to you. One day, I’m looking over what I’ve accomplished and earned, and realize I’ve got the means to get myself some payback. Not in a big way, but I could find your average blogger, someone who won’t be traced back to me at all, and…” He snapped his fingers on beat, with a true percussionist’s sense of timing. “It’s a good feeling having the cash to know you can arrange it so one less guy’s out there, taking pot-shots at you online.” I just nodded. It was ’round-the-bend looney, but still not the craziest reason I’d ever been given, if you can believe it. We shook, and I walked out with a couple thousand dollars and the phone.

***

Dan parked in a garage up near Mass Ave. I’d tailed him easily, but didn’t park quickly enough to catch him before he was out on Newbury. I considered sitting there until he came back, but it was a nice day, and I hate waiting. I slipped a length of piano wire into my pocket and followed him. I knew I couldn’t do anything until we were back in the garage, but the idea of hanging there indefinitely made me antsy. I strolled a short ways behind him, enough to keep track without being obvious.

I didn’t realize the ringer was on until I heard an insistent rhythm, like a heartbeat. It took me a second to realize where the sound as coming from – Phil, that impatient fucker, was checking on me. As I pulled it out to silence it I heard “Come stop your crying, It’ll be alright….” I looked sheepishly about, as one does when their phone goes off in public, and hoped Malmon hadn’t noticed. I saw him step into O’Shea’s without so much as a glance my way, by some miracle. I hadn’t gone into any of the stores he’d visited before this one, figuring he’d be more likely to notice me indoors than outside. But O’Shea’s is this great upscale kitchen store, and I needed gloves.

I’d actually brought a pair of old driving gloves, but had forgotten them in the car. I wouldn’t have time to retrieve them when we got back. If O’Shea’s stocked them, the gloves you use to shuck oysters are reinforced, and would keep the piano wire from digging hard into my fingers. I didn’t bother searching, just grabbed the nearest clerk and asked if they carried them. I waited by the register as he checked, hoping Dan wouldn’t leave first.

As I stood there, I caught myself tapping out that heartbeat rhythm on the counter, murmuring “Come stop your crying, It’ll be alright….” Dammit. I mean, it’s an OK song, but I was surprised it’d stuck like that. I think the last time I’d listened to it was forever ago, when people listened to radio, and stations played tunes like that.

The clerk came back successful and I paid in cash, stuffing the change and the gloves in my pocket. I left and crossed the street to wait for Dan to come back out. He reappeared, heading back towards where he’d parked.

As we walked I couldn’t get that fucking song out of my head. I cursed the phone, and the asshole who’d given it to me. I made the best of it by trying to remember how the rest went. “You’ll be in my heart, yeah you’ll be in my heart….” I was shocked at how much of it I could recall. I’d never really been a fan of that song back when it won him an Oscar, but I could see why it’d won. In fact, I kind of understood then why Phil hired me. I mean, objectively, someone pours their heart into something – which is obvious, if you listen to him sing – it’s got to be galling to know people like Dan sneer at it, at you. Sure, making it the ringtone was obnoxious, but really, why shouldn’t he be proud of his work? I took pride in mine, after all.

By the time we reached his car I was up to the “Just look over your shoulder” bit, which was ironic; that’s the last thing I wanted him to do. I slipped on the oyster gloves, and wound the wire around my hands. As he went between his car and the one beside it, I slipped it over his head, shoving him off balance so he’d fall forward. As he fell, I pulled back against the momentum. It was over by the time I finished humming the song. Once he was still, and I could find no pulse, I headed to my car. I took out the phone and dialed before driving off. “Mr. Collins? It’s done.”

Fairy Tale, Remixed: Drawn Out of Need

Since the last time out was such fun, I’ve decided to keep trying flash fiction. Luckily, Chuck Wendig’s Terribleminds flash fiction challenges offer fantastic prompts, with the kind of insidious complications thrown in to make me take chances I might not normally consider.

Take this most recent one: the challenge is to rewrite a fairy tale, no more than 1,000 words. Piece of cake for a parent; bedtime often means practicing script-free re-tellings of classic tales. I had a couple I used to tell my son; surely one could be adapted to fit. I began thinking about one in particular, a Japanese tale about a boy who conquers demons with the help of his drawings of cats.

The twist in the challenge was to roll (or use a random number generator) to pick a number between 1 and 20, and write the story in the corresponding genre. I rolled three – erotica. Well fuck.

Still, the purpose of a challenge is to get out of one’s comfort zone, right? So I (sort of) kept the tale, flipping the hero’s gender, and making it a story about a woman drawing a different sort of cat to help her conquer a more personal demon.

***

As the night wore on, more and more couples drifted upstairs; Kira accepted she was the “extra” guest at the party, and resigned herself to a night in her room, alone.

Lying in bed, she wondered why she bothered to go in the first place. Her friend Cathy had said there’d be lots of guys, and even offered to introduce her to her fiancé’s roommate, Curtis.

“He’s right up your alley. You know, quiet. Like you are.”

Kira smiled. “Sure, like Sam was.”

“Sam was an asshole,” replied Cathy. “You were right to leave him.”

“He left me, remember?”

“The one time he did something good for you! Kira, he was a lousy boyfriend and-your words-‘a terrible fuck.’ Forget him. Move on.”

She hadn’t really been out with friends since the split, and as introverted as Kira sometimes felt, isolation was worse. “Fine, but please don’t push me on Curtis. I don’t like being rushed.”

“OK, move at your own pace. I’m warning you, though; I’m getting married next year, and no one under 15 is invited without a date-especially my oldest friend.”

“Whatever. Just help me find an outfit.”

She settled on a t-shirt with a barely too-low neck and form-fitting jeans. She wore her straight black hair pulled back and was more careful than usual to get her makeup just right. Kira went downstairs feeling every bit as attractive as she looked.

She might look pretty, but no-one approached her. None of the guys, and not even her friends. They had already paired off, aware enough of her presence to shift forward or back to avoid bumping her, but not enough to converse.

Eventually she stopped even trying to mingle. Kira found a seat, a pencil, and a napkin. Knowing no one would notice, she began to sketch a face using her favorite features from the men present. Warm brown eyes behind wire-framed glasses from one, soft lips and an easy smile from another. Tousled hair, strong chin; eventually she stopped glancing up for reference. When she realized the party was winding down she headed to bed, her sketch in her pocket.

Lying there, she wished things had gone better with Sam. Their one time together-her first time-had been terrible; she hadn’t known what to expect, and he hadn’t cared. Sam dumping her was inevitable, and her only regret was that she was left knowing what she didn’t like, but clueless as to what she did.

Cathy was right about Curtis; he was someone she could see being with.  But he deserved better than someone looking for “Not Sam.” If she were going to be with him, she wanted it to be for a while.

Unable to sleep, she pulled the sketch from her pocket and imagined the man who could get her past Sam. She unfolded the napkin; smoothed it out on the bed next to her. She found another pencil and, eyes closed, sketched other parts of the man she’d started assembling in her mind. She drew broad, strong shoulders above a toned chest and powerful, athletic legs. Feeling warmer in her cheeks, she continued, adding defined arms and the hint of a cute, firm butt. With a lazy smile, she set the pencil down and rolled over, asleep almost immediately.

Later, under warm blankets, she felt a new weight on the mattress behind her, a welcome firmness against her back. A soft breath crossed her ear, whispered “Kira.” A strong hand rested on her bare belly. She didn’t tense; Kira somehow knew this was the man she’d envisioned, this was how she’d move on. She lifted her head and lowered it onto his bent arm, and allowed his other hand to pull her flush. She arched back to press against his hard, eager flesh.

His hand stirred from her belly and skilled fingers feathered over her breast, teased the nipple hard. She rocked her hips, her butt pressed against him, moaning as his tongue brought the lobe of her ear between his lips. Kira rolled over and pressed herself into his chest. His hands found her ass and drew her still closer. Their lips met, parted, then pressed harder together.

She didn’t need to look at him; she knew each contour of his body. He eased her to her back and moved his mouth from her lips, to her breast, to her belly. She opened her legs wider to allow him space between them, to let him continue down her body. His fingers, then his skilled tongue, found her center. She ran her hands through his hair as he tasted her, before flinging her arms wide as heat coursed throughout her body. He rose and, lithe and intent, entered her.

Kira wrapped arms and legs around him as he pulsed in tandem with her, whispering her name a breath above her lips. She kissed him, and wished she’d written a name beside her sketch that she could scream out, just before they both stiffened and she lost all knowledge of speech.

She slept soundly the rest of the night, first with her arm draped over his shoulder, then with a hand resting on her sketch. In the morning she dressed, made the bed, and set the napkin on her desk.

Cathy was downstairs, laughing at something her fiancé had said. Kira saw that her friend had made coffee before they tackled the party’s aftermath, and she helped herself to a cup.

“I was wondering if Curtis met anyone last night?”

David smiled. “He helped Jenna find a cab, then went home alone.  Why?”

Kira pretended to ignore the knowing tone on that ‘why.’ “I was just thinking about Cathy’s suggestion…”

“Really? You’d let me set you up with him? That’s great, I really think you’d be good together!”

Now Kira let slip her own knowing smile. “Well, I certainly have some ideas…”

***