Flake

This house has always echoed. The walls are almost completely bare. We never invested in carpet.

Don’t ask me why my very minimalist and utilitarian father moved us into a Victorian manor. I’ve been trying to answer that question to myself for years.

When there’s nothing to suck up the sound, you hear everything. Every little footstep. Every chuckle, every sob, every heartbeat.

Eventually we all moved out, except for Mom and Dad. Then Mom died from her skin cancer a year ago and Dad refused to leave, even if the house was too big for him.

More chilling that the house reflecting the echoes of all those years, potentially, is how mom’s skin has never really left the house. She was always trying to keep it on, but it flaked off everywhere. Every time I’ve been to visit Dad, I’ve walked out with pieces of my mom caught in the fabric of my clothes, the strands of my hair.

We keep trying to get him to add to the house – pictures of our family, some small decorations. But he wants none of it.

He seems content to surround himself in the echoes of the house, the past, and the floating remains of mom’s dead skin.

Heat

Earlan looked on in horror as the sun spat out its tendrilous rays, thrashing the Alsviðr. It bent, parts of it expanding, parts turning to blackness, parts of it dripping into the liquidy globules they’d remembered seeing gallium make in water back on Earth.

Their number two put a hand on Earlan’s shoulder, trying to pull them away.

“Captain, it’s been hours since it happened. There’s nothing we can do,” Kamya nudged, her dark lips attempting something like sympathy.

“You ever see anything like it?” Earlan managed after a few minutes pause.

“No, and I don’t want to ever again,” their number two shivered.

There was a knot in Earlan’s throat, the culmination of the twisting insides that defied all the laws of physics. They’d never see Pocovus again. The two of them had spent years baiting eachother and joking via communicators. He was Earlan’s closest friend – always separated by too much dark matter. When was the last time they’d even seen each other in person?

Earlan tried to push the thoughts aside. They closed their eyes and immediately regretted it. Forever imprinted, literally burned, into their vision was that sight of the Alsviðr: metal twisting and screaming and dripping and expanding.

Loops

I hate it: the screaming, the wind scraping at your face, the way your insides twist about. How do people ride roller-coasters for fun? I felt sick. Anna laughs like a lunatic at my side, gleefully taking in the sharp twists and turns. There’s some preteens in the seats in front of us, and a kid which I’m sure didn’t actually meet the height requirements behind us with their punk-ass looking dad.

It’s nighttime, and I’m confident this whole experience would be hell regardless of the hour. Maybe when I wasn’t on the Thrasher it looked almost pretty, with the green and blue and white lights glittering enticingly. Maybe when I wasn’t on this hell-beast, I thought the night added a sweet sort of ambience to it.

I’d never ridden a roller-coaster in my life before tonight. My father hated them and my mother didn’t want to go without him. Our family was too small and we didn’t make friends easy growing up, so there was no one else to take me.

Anna loves roller coasters. She loves theme parks – the thrill and the adventure. Don’t get me wrong, I love adventure, too, but if I wasn’t madly in love with the woman, I would never have gotten on this death trap.

“Natalie,” she laughs, pulling on my arm, “the ride’s over. You have to get off.”

I look to my right and see the impatient park patrons glaring at me right along with the harangued ride operators. Slowly, my limbs regain life and I lift myself out.

“Wow, you look like death,” she laughs as she drags me out the exit and towards the next instrument of my death: the 3-loop coaster that faces at the ground.

I’m going to die. Is love even worth this?

Breathe

I felt my muscles tense up as soon as the instructor guided us into downward dog. Child’s pose was child’s play.

Obviously.

“And breathe…” the instructor sighed.

When I’d walked into the class, my makeup was melting off even before I stepped into the insanely hot room. I had just finished chasing down a mark. He got away, and I climbed through a couple of dumpsters just to be sure I wasn’t missing anything.

“And breathe…”

The room was thick with the scent of essentail oils, which thankfully masked the pungent smell I’d walked in with. Made sense – they needed to mask the grotesque smell of sweat from the classes. It was so humid I felt like choking.

As we moved into cobra, I looked myself in the mirror and deeply regretted my decision to wear makeup today. It was a new thing, or maybe I’d have had something waterproof. I didn’t think about that.

I don’t think the exercise is completely what wiped it out. I had more than once wiped my eyes or scratched at my face and it had messed up the whole arrangement. I’d been wearing more feminine clothes when I found my mark, and I think that’s why I lost him too.

I’d have to try this whole feminine experiment another day. Hopefully on a less exciting one. And definitely not tomorrow.

Tomorrow would be the day I hit my mark.

Bones

It was a clear, dark night and nobody walked the streets. The usual quiet hum of traffic was absent tonight. Every window was covered, every light was off. Doors were not only locked and bolted, but reinforced with chairs and couches and bookshelves.

If one listened well enough, you could hear the quiet breathing of an entire city: shaky, expectant.

Children stifled their whimpers as the clattering began – the deliberate clicking of bone on cobblestone as ancient skeletons began to wander the streets. Mothers hugged their children close, buried beneath coats and shoes in their innermost closets. Fathers relinquished their hard-held concepts of masculinity as they clung to their children’s teddy bears.

Deep in the heart of the city, a single tavern bustled with energy. The lights weren’t on, and the doors were locked like everywhere else, but in its basement sat its usual constituents. The bartender poured frothy beers quietly, but his patrons, red-faced and jolly, couldn’t help but giggle and joke in the face of absolute terror.

The celebratory aura of impending doom radiated from the basement to the buildings all around. It made those who wished for quiet uneasy. They so wished the night would pass and the morning would come and they would be safe. But with such noise, the skeletons would soon come.

The bar flies were afraid of this too, but they long ago learned to quell fear with the courage of liquor.

Home

The stars were covered. Penelope had finally emerged from the forest, ready to find her way home… But the stars were clouded over with ominously grey clouds that sucked the light out of an already dark sky. She fell to the ground, her knees sinking into the soft dirt. She was ready to give up. She may as well accept it – she was never getting home. Angry with herself, with the world, with the strange green bird she had followed earlier into the forest, she beat the ground.

Through her sobs she did not see the glow, did not hear the beat, beat, beating of a drum – no, a heartbeat.

Penelope heard a throat being cleared and knew it was not her own. She wipes away her tears, leaving behind a trail of moist, rich earth.

“If you wouldn’t mind,” spoke an earthy, feminine figure, “I was trying to sleep.”

Penelope’s eyes grew wide as she took in the full form of the being: forged of the same rich dirt that she had fallen into; a leafy cascade of amber, red, and green was her hair; lips of dew-dropped earth; and a tunic of moss.

“I’m sorry,” the words fell from her lips before she knew what she had said.

Demon

It had been 2000 years since Dendrick had first taken the form of a gargoyle. It wasn’t his choice. He used to be a bard. He used to be the greatest bard that had ever lived. That was probably still true, if his fate hadn’t literally been set in stone.

He spent most of those 2000 years trying to figure out the best insults he could throw at the nymph that cursed him. So what if he shared the tale of their union in every pub? He always got a free drink from that story, it was a good story. And she was beautiful. Or at least she used to be until vengeance overtook her and she cursed him to an eternity in stone. Pretty hard to think someone is beautiful after they ruin your life.

Watching the world around him change was so boring. And so disappointing. He had seen such great wonders when he could travel the world, but now he was stuck mounted to a… Well, people always came in and out with lots of money. One time there was a lot of people with weapons that camped outside pointing inwards and he almost thought he was going to finally be free of this entrapment.

But no. Some guy in a mask came out and found a cage of his own. He felt for the guy. But not really. 2000 years stuck inside a gargoyle doesn’t leave much room for empathy.

Homestead

Pru crunched a vinegaroon under her boot as she watched it try to skitter away. They were fast, but not fast enough. The California sun beat down hard on the flat desert expanse. Pru wiped her forehead, flicking away a bead of salty sweat. She crushed another vinegaroon as she rethought her decision to abandon civilization to build her own private homestead in the middle of nowhere. Her neighbors were nice enough, though they were miles away. She insisted on building her house by herself, which meant staying in a trailer until she’d completed her task. And it was slow work, very slow work. She’d just finished the foundation and was taking a break to hydrate herself. 

She pinched the skin on the back of her hand – she heard once if you were dehydrated your skin would lose elasticity. Still elastic. Also, ow. She sighed and took a big old swig of water, making a face as the taste of hot plastic hit her tongue. The amount of water she had to drink was definitely the biggest downside to moving to the desert.

The upside was the amount of pride she felt for controlling her destiny. For literally building her own home. She learned and set her own limits.

And that was worth all the plastic-tasting water and vinegaroons in the world.

High Score

Thee’s eyes were red and focused. Her face was illuminated by the eery glow of the screen, blinding her to the crowd that had formed around her. Her hands moved quickly and efficiently over the buttons, moved so fast it might have been mistaken as button-mashing if they hadn’t been watching the impressive combos on screen.

No one had ever beaten this level. It had to be unlocked after playing every single level on every single difficulty and obtaining every single hidden item, and then playing the entire game in reverse on extreme. Thee had been at the arcade non-stop for 3 days – from open to close. She had to make sure she was the last one there, and the first one there, or her progress would be lost. 

But she had finally unlocked the secret level. And she was certain this was going to be the day. All the kids behind her had been tracking her progress. Word was going around town and kids who had never stepped foot in an arcade before were showing up. 

None of them mattered to Thee. What mattered was the victory, the strain of the fight, the sweat clamming up her hands as the heat in the arcade rose and how that affected her gameplay. She felt her glasses slipping off her nose and she was calculating at what point she could sacrifice her hand on the joystick to adjust.

“Hey!” Came a voice in the crowd “hey! Kids! It’s closing time, pack up shop!”

Thee swung herself out of danger and hit start. The game paused. She released a heavy breath, echoed by the groans and sighs of her audience. She took the moment to push up the red rim of her lenses, and then turned around and waited for everyone else to leave. Some of them stayed behind to congratulate her, but until the rest of the crowd had completed their exodus, she refused to abandon her post.

She was so close. By noon tomorrow, victory would be hers. Finally, as the last shoe kicked out of the arcade, Thee exited, with a slight nod to the arcade owner.

The next day, Thee almost skipped to the arcade. Today was the day. She swung the door open and there was her game.

But it wasn’t. It was the loading screen.

“What happened?” She could barely let out the words.

“Hey sorry kid, there was a blackout last night… restarted all the games.”

“Oh,” Thee trembled, angry that victory had been ripped from her. She walked outside and took a deep, deep breath.

And then, after a moment to rejuvenate, she returned to the game, to begin the fight anew. Nothing would stop her. Nothing.

Forest

Augustine and Abigail often went into the forest together. Side by side, they foraged for herbs as she taught him her craft. For a long time, she expected her knowledge to go unlearned and to end with her, until the boy stumbled into her garden. He was a strange creature, mute and bedraggled. At first, she meant only to take him in for a few days, but the boy stayed with her even after she nursed him back to health.

He would not speak, though. She was used to a life of solitude, except for the few customers who would come by for her salves. Each one, she would ask, “where did this boy come from?” And each time they did not know. 

She would tell him every day that she was going to take him to the village and find a home for him, but every day he pulled at the hem of her dress and looked at her with big, brown eyes, and she felt, perhaps maybe, she just didn’t have the energy to take him to the village.

And so they continued in this pattern for five years. One day, Abigail had grown so used to Augustine’s company that she brought him with her on a trek to the village. When Augustine realized where they were, he shouted “no” and his silence was finally broken. Abigail had not realized the boy thought she was finally giving him away – the thought was only a little game they played to her at this point.

“Oh little darling!” She cried in response, and took him in her arms. After that day, she was able to ask all the questions that had gone unanswered for five years, but didn’t. Abigail never made him answer, only asked for his name so that she knew what to call him, and continued as they had, walking with each other into the forest as she taught him the magic of plants.