horiverwrites

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Sometimes You Have To Kill Your Darlings

You’ll find Ramona first. A porcelain doll holding a maple ukulele alone in the first subway car. Skin painted and cold, the paleness will contrast the dark color of her stained red lips. The chiffon prom dress straight from the fifties will be as white as her now lifeless skin. Bloodied lips, a large belted sash, and her shoes will scream a red so fierce your ears will ring. The ringing will almost keep you from noticing the little cuts, the hundreds of little pale cuts, no longer bleeding, that made her scream for so long. I digress. This story starts earlier than what remains of Ramona’s lifeless body.

I put the dead body in the first paragraph. I was told to do it. There are rules that must be followed after all. Introductions must be made. Attention must be grabbed. Beginnings are more important than most people realize.

The urge will come upon me slowly. The desire will be masked at first. I won’t notice the little things. I’ll be easily irritated, overly emotional. New hobbies or crafts will start to appear shiny. Food, exercise, and sex won’t satisfy. The longing, a craving, I won’t be able to satisfy it without creating. And suddenly I’ll know that it is time to kill again.

Once I know it is time to to create I will start looking for ideas. I might flip through old notebooks to review past ideas or look for new ones elsewhere. I’ll hang out in interesting places and watch engaging people. I’ll read some new books or maybe see a movie. The key at this stage is keeping my mind open to any ideas that might be worth pursuing. Eventually though, an idea will grow. It will stick.

I don’t like to think of myself as having a type, but I must have one. I can’t even say that I understand what it is I’m looking for. It might be the way she smiles, a look, or maybe a particular turn of phrase that finally catches my attention. I do know that when I find her she’ll have a sparkle, an energy. She’ll be ripe with potential to change the world.

I’ll want to know all I can about the particular idea I have chosen. I’ll learn all the general and topological information. Then I’ll learn the history and patterns that led up to it, but that won’t be enough. I’ll dig deeper. I’ll want to know intimate information, sensory details that will bring the story to life when it is read.

Ramona Darling busked the dirty sidewalk of 39th and Pine just outside the entrance to the subway. She plucked and strummed that maple 6 string ukulele and sang with all she was. Lullabies, chanteys, pop songs and 80’s ballads fought the cacophony of that intersection struggling to live for just moments in the air above the noise. Dirty dollars and loose change would find their way into her case as the people walked by. They heard the music but they didn’t see her. They didn’t see the story that I saw.

Once I am satisfied with my research I start playing with the structure. I try to figure out what message I am trying to get out of my mind with this particular work. I discover the parts of the plot, the theme, and the characters and work to put them in an order that makes sense, that tell the story I can see and feel in my head.

Getting started can be tricky, but getting all the way to the end and finishing I believe is the hardest part. It wasn’t hard to get Ramona alone. When she woke in the room of the abandoned subway she was already bound and helpless. It took me days to carve the words into her flesh.  Just keeping her alive long enough to get all the words carved into her skin was a challenge, but then arranging her in the subway car without anyone seeing the show too early was also trick. I worked to get everything set up exactly as I had envisioned.

You don’t have to get it exactly right the first time. This is very important to remember, especially if you are new to this. I remind myself of this often. Don’t cripple yourself with self-doubt and fear. You can tweak the process as you learn more and gain experience. You can start fresh and rework this story as often as you like. Revise and edit it until you are satisfied.

I really just wasn’t satisfied with the way Ramona’s story turned out. Something was just not right. I feel like maybe there was more to her story than her skin allowed, more than I managed to tell. Maybe it was her eyes. I think they should have been blue. I am just not sure.

Be confident in yourself. I have a long way to go in my craft before all the parts come together. I’ll find the right story and the approach that works for me someday. I’ll just keep at it until I do.

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State of Gray

I froze on the sidewalk while Tyler kept his eyes glued to his phone, halfheartedly pulling me along. Out of a mixture of stubborn defiance and fear, I refused to move. I raised my arm and pointed but Tyler wouldn’t look up to see what I was pointing to. “There…Th” I pushed through my chattering teeth and shaking lips. A dark skinned man, puffy locks of hair covering his face, lay on the ground motionless. The air around him was cold. “Come on, it’s probably some passed out drunk” Tyler says in an annoyed tone and yanks me harder to make me follow him. Did Tyler really not think he was dead? Or did he not care?

Tyler was the type of man that didn’t like to be inconvenienced, so after working a 12 hour day, he wasn’t about to let some “passed out drunk” stop him from going home sooner. I knew this about him, hell, I even enabled this behavior, but something about it today disturbed me to my core.

I decided I wouldn’t say anything though, I never did. I knew how to behave, how to walk on eggshells, not to ask too many questions, not to express my feelings, not to ever cry out loud. I knew how to do all of this long before Tyler.

There was a night I will never be able to piece together because I was so young when it happened. Maybe 4 or 5? Screaming, yelling, broken glass, my sister and I being drug into our bedroom, door slamming shut.  I remember crawling into bed, arm screaming with pain, knowing I needed to cry but had to cry silently. I remember just wanting the darkness to swallow me whole so I didn’t have to feel this pain but instead I shook violently as I choked on sobs. “Shut up!” my older sister said in a harsh whisper. She was eight and already learned how to shut her emotions down. I let out another shake and felt a foot kick me hard in the back

“Owwww” I wailed, pain and sadness spilling over. Another hard kick “SHUT. UP!” and with that, I choked back everything.

Maybe that was the first time, I don’t know. But I do know that over the years I perfected the art of crying silently, just laying on my back, letting the tears fall into my ears, without even so much of a sniffle. So by the time I started dating Tyler, it was nothing new.

Except that night when I went to sleep, there was a new feeling in me. I tried to shake it off by numbly going through the motions once we got home. He took off his jacket, I followed him in the bedroom. He motioned for me to give him head, I obeyed. It was never anything I liked to do. But I could zone out a lot easier giving head than I could with sex. So I got on my knees, and entered that state of gray, a place with no emotions, a place of minimal existence. Suddenly, he aggressively pulls my head away from him. I look up and I can tell that he’s frustrated.

“Fuck it, I’ll do it myself. God, I could have gotten better head from that dead guy” He stomps off, pushing me aside, and I hear his laptop snap open.

He knew??? He knew that guy was dead? And he didn’t care?? Swirls of emotions I had constantly been pushing down came rushing back nearly knocking me back. Though I suspected this all along, this moment brought me crashing back to reality. This man was nothing more than a fucking jerk.

That night hit me hard as I went through the motion of a silent cry that was all too familiar. As soon as the tears hit my ears, I was done. As if a string was hastily pulling me upwards, I sprung up, threw off the covers and began to grab a suitcase and stuff my clothes in it

“What the fuck? What time is it?” Tyler said in a groggy, sleepy tone but I didn’t answer. I could only concentrate on what I needed. I didn’t give a shit about leaving some clothes behind. I could buy more clothes later. Cell phone, charger, pants, shoes, all sloppily thrown in the suitcase. I wrapped my laptop in a shirt and was off.

“Wait…what…Where Are?” He said, now springing out of bed. I was almost at the door when I felt a pull at my arm.

“Hey, hey, you gonna leave me?” He gave me this enraged look that normally I’d cower in fear of, but I’ve seen it so much that in this moment it didn’t phase me.

“Well fine, fuck you, go!”

I was used to this tactic as well.

There was something about knowing, about being able to predict his moves that helped me find solid ground. With one hand clutching my suitcase, I looked deep into his eyes, wishing I could burn these words into his skin.

“Tyler, you will never find anyone to treat you as well as I did.”

And as if sealing his fate, I spun around on my heels and slammed the door behind me.

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Storms over the Wildlands

Storms from the Magic Wastes were common, Mags and Edwin didn’t pay them any mind. Storms that dropped bodies at the house, that was different. Especially when the bodies were familiar. They were dead, of course, but not as dead as they should be. Edwin’s wife Anna had been nearing eighty when she died and had been buried five years ago. The body on the ground was young. The other was Edwin’s former employer, Lord of the Hills. He and his wife were interred decades ago, and yet here he was, fully intact.

“Well,” Edwin said, “this is strange.”

After the incident last year with a Mage summoning and capturing a god, the Magic Wastes had been much more active.

“Should we send for the Kings men?”

Mags shook her head. “Can you confirm they are who they appear to be?”

He pulled the man’s shirt up. There were several scars across his torso. “This is what killed him,” he said. “It appears to have healed quite well.”

Despite her advanced age, Mags made it down to Leah’s house in record time. “We need the god,” she said as she approached.

“He lives with Bruce, further south. What happened?”

“Bodies in the storm. Fresh ones. But we buried them years ago.”

Leah scribbled a note for her apprentice. “Can you keep going? Only another half hour.”

Mags nodded and they headed out again.

“These bodies, they were friends of yours?” the god asked.

“Of Edwin’s yes. His former master and his wife. Both dead for several years. The injuries that killed his Lord seemed to have scarred and healed, yet he doesn’t look a day older. Anna is decades younger than when she died.”

He sat in quiet thought. “Were they talented in the magical arts?”

Leah answered. “Anna was one of the strongest witches around. I don’t know about Howe. It was his son who trapped you here.”

Sev shuddered at the memory. He was exiled from his home and trapped in a body that ill suited him. “Let me try to speak to my father. If it is what I fear, this may be just the beginning.”

The heavens had opened and deposited another body outside Bruce’s home while Sev meditated. He came back from his hut pale. “It is as I feared,” he said, examining the body. “My home is falling apart.” He had lived in what these people called the Magic Wastes, the source of magic. His family had ruled there for eons. Many had died or disappeared, becoming enamored of this mortal world. By the time he had been trapped here, unable to return home, the realm was unstable. “Those with a strong connection to magic, when they die, come to my realm. They are given form according to their wishes. Many of them keep the forms they had in life, though often at their prime rather than with the infirmity of age.”

“Anna,” Mags said. Sev nodded. “So it truly was her?”

“Yes. But since I was trapped here and my brother exiled for his retribution the family cannot sustain it. Some of the dead from this realm feel they can return. Their bodies survive the journey but their souls are trapped. My family is trying to rein in the free souls and keep the magic under control. That takes more who are supposed to rule over the dead. More escape which destabilizes the system further.”

“Is there nothing we can do?” Mags asked.

“Unless you can find a way to relesase me from this form, no. I must return home to do any good.”

There was a squawk outside the door. Mags stepped outside. Her familiar was there, a raven. “What is it, Daniel?” He hopped around and croaked a few more times. “Alright. Did you hear our conversation?” The bird nodded. “Good. Go tell Edwin.” Daniel flew away and she went back inside. “Bodies are piling up. It’s all the birds are discussing.”

“You speak to birds?” Sev asked.

“I speak to Daniel. He speaks to the birds.”

Bruce invited them all to stay over for the night. It was too late to return to Leah’s safely.

There was an obvious solution to the problem, Leah could see it. She understood Daniel well enough to know that he had told Mags the same thing. It seemed heartless, but Sev was easily the strongest magic user in the entire world. If he were to die it would free him from this body and send him back to his family where he could help stabilize the realm.

Mags caught her eye and shook her head. Sev was here. He was doing well here. There was no call to murder him on a possibility.

The problem hung in the air. Sev could see the silent conversation between the women. He had come to the same conclusion they had. This body must die soon. He couldn’t arrange his death, those who did so weren’t allowed into the realm. “It is as you suspect,” he said to them. “I will take a potion and sleep well tonight. I trust you to do what must be done.” He headed to his own hut.

“What’s he talking about?” Bruce asked.

“He has to die,” Leah said. “Free him from this body, send him back to his home.”

“Not in my home.”

“He has his own hut,” Mags pointed out.

It was done quickly as Sev slept. A quick slit to the throat by Mags. Before dawn she slipped away for the long walk home.

Late that afternoon she saw a golden stag following her. She stopped. “Sev?”

It approached her, bowing its head and nuzzling her neck.

“You’re welcome,” she said. “Be well, Sev.”

The stag faded from existence as she continued along the path. There would be plenty to explain to Edwin when she got home.

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The Death of Harry “the Biter”

Jane trudged into her apartment with sore feet from a day of waitressing and headed straight for the bathroom. She wanted nothing more than a shower to rid her of the grease coating and to take her hair down. The dead gerbil lay in place of the soap, and its blood dried in the crease along the edge of the sink. Her scream filled the room and echoed off the shower tiles and rang in her head until it deafened her. She stopped because it hurt her ears and wouldn’t change poor dead Harry “the Biter” from being dead.

Three breaths later and a room away, her brain started to work. Someone killed her pet. Someone was in the apartment to kill Harry. She checked every window. All closed. She checked the front door. No damage. Someone with a key was in the apartment and killed Harry. It must have been her roommate.

Jane marched down the hallway and knocked on Chandra’s door. No one answered. She got out her cell phone and called her. No one picked up. She texted Chandra and watched the little bubble to see when the text was read, but even though she waited ten minutes, Chandra didn’t read the text or respond.

This was the last straw. Jane no longer cared that her and Chandra had been friends since elementary school. So Chandra stopped the school bullies from picking on her, that didn’t give Chandra the right to push her around. Who cared if Chandra got Jane her first job. She could have gotten the stupid dish washing job all on her own. And what had Chandra done for Jane lately. Nothing.

The free-loader roommate had to go. Chandra started it by killing Harry. Now Jane had to return the favor. Jane stomped down the hallway and slammed Chandra’s bedroom door open. She turned on the light and saw the collage wall of all their friends.

Their friends, right? Well, Jane never had a crush on Chris Hemsworth. She ripped the magazine page of actor off the wall. Katie hated her. The only things they had ever done together was hangout in the same room when Chandra was there. She stabbed Katie’s picture in the eye with a push pin. Grabbing a marker from the desk, Jane drew blobs over the faces of their best friends: Meg who stole the boy Jane crushed on, Christy who blamed Jane when their high school security found marijuana in her locker, Chrissy who only talked to Chandra, and Jessica who told Jane she was stupid and ugly any time Chandra wasn’t around.

Jane kept the picture of Tonito. Chandra was the one who stopped Tonito from hanging out with her, Tonito never did anything to hurt her. Even if Chandra bragged that Tonito and her had sex, that was Chandra’s fault. Tonito was hers. Chandra was the whore.

Jane ran back to the bedroom and grabbed the gerbil and dragged his body across the comforter tracking blood.

“Take that you stupid bitch. Whore.” Jane cleared off a big piece of wall directly across from the door and wrote “whore” in big bubble letters. She chopped up the pictures of their friends and glued them inside the letters. Using Chandra’s precious cheerleading poster supplies, she added glitter to the letters. It wasn’t enough, so she opened all Chandra’s drawers and pulled all her clothes out until she found a sparkly thong with a ribbon on front. With the push pin she stuck the underwear on the wall and then tied the gerbil up with the bow.

From the closet, Jane yanked out Chandra’s stash of weed and sprinkled it all over the floor. It still wasn’t enough. Jane stormed out of the apartment. She knew where Chandra worked. She’d find her and cut her open like a gerbil.

Chandra stopped outside her apartment. The door was open and she remembered closing it when she left. She’d checked twice. She always checked. It was part of her therapy. Mary Beth told her to make all her actions deliberate. So she checked the door twice before she left.

“Green County Sheriff’s, how may I help you?”

“Someone broke into my apartment,” she told the operator.

“Are they still there?”

“I don’t know. The door is open, so I haven’t gone in.”

“Can you see any damage or anything stolen from where you are at?”

Chandra peered around the door. “No.”

“What about the door? Is it broken? Does it look forced?”

Chandra stared at the normal door frame. “No.”

“Do you live with anyone?”

“No. I live alone.”

“Is there somewhere safe you can wait?”

Chandra glanced around. She could stay with the superintendent probably or in the complex office. “Yes.”

“We’ll send a car around.”

“Thank you.” Chandra ended the call and stepped into the apartment. Nothing looked out of place. She moved from the living room to the kitchen to her bedroom. From the hallway, she saw her room and sank down the wall. Her hand shook and her stomach heaved. Dialing the next number took more concentration and will than lifting a semi.

“Green County Mental Health. This is Angie.”

“Hi, Angie. This is Chandra Willman. Can I talk to Mary Beth?”

“Hi, Chandra. No she’s in with a patient. Can I take a message?”

“Tell her, Jane’s back, and she’s not happy.”

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Captain America and the American Way

The air was thick with smoke from a building burning off in the distance. Steve followed several feet behind the fleet of policeman as they marched to- well, he didn’t know what exactly. With each step he took, his feet became heavy. An itch in the back of his mind told him to turn around. He couldn’t shake that there was a missing piece of information about this mission but seeing the city in distress made him carry his heavy feet on. These people needed him and he would not turn away.

Steve hears dialogue from the police CB radios but it’s just white noise in the background to him. Suddenly, the inaudible voice speaks in a rushed, forceful tone and panic floods into Steve’s body. The fleet of officers who were moving so smoothly and in unison before begin to rush forward around the corner. Steve braces himself for the unseen threat lurking around the corner while his feet betray his ready stance, feeling like they want to melt into the ground.

As the officers disappear around the corner, he can hear increasing screams and chants in unison, though he can’t make out the exact words. The thought of staying where he is burns a hole in his mind.

A woman’s scream breaks Steve out of his stance and his protective instincts kick in. He rushes around the corner only to come to an immediate halt, shocked at the scene before him. A large man gets kicked in the gut by an officer, while another officer grabs the same man and sends him flying to the floor. Another man keeps his hands raised in surrender while an officer chokes him from behind with his baton. Another man starts screaming profanities at a group of officers. Without a hint of remorse or pleasure, the stone faced officer extends his arm to the man’s face, spraying pepper spray. The man is brought to his knees, crying out. He tries to keep his hands up, but his arms are shaking as he is weakened by the pepper spray.

The attacks seem to continue for miles as Steve watches, feeling betrayed. But nothing makes his heart drop more than seeing, out of the corner of his eye, a Captain America poster that has clearly been spray painted with huge letters “Black Lives Matter”

He knew in that moment he had been lied to and used. He was told they needed Captain America to save the Country from “terrorist action”. He knew now he was just a ploy in the media’s plan. He was the poster boy for keeping the protestors’ quiet. Steve felt guilty that his eagerness to help had lead him to agree to do something so horrible.

A woman’s scream takes him out of his trance and he watches as she gets knocked to the ground. The officer grins and raises his baton high as the woman curls up to protect herself. Steve throws his shield knocking the officer out with a quick clunk. He rushes over to the woman and extends his hand down to her. She is still shaking, big black frizzy hair mixed with blood. She looks at his hand and looks at Steve and he nods. Steve could see the fear in her eyes as if she were asking him “aren’t you with them?” As he helps the woman to her feet, she has no words but in her eyes he can see the gratitude. She begins to open her mouth to say something, but then suddenly her pupils shrink and she points over his shoulder. Steve turns.

A young boy, possibly no older than 10 stands alone as a group of policeman circle him, guns drawn. The young boys’ eyes are puffy and red from crying and he is drawing in sharp breaths in between sobs. His face is wet with tears. To Steve, the young boy looks like somebody’s son, innocent and free. But Steve can tell that the police aren’t taking into account this boys’ age. To them, all protesters here tonight are a threat. The young boy is trying so hard to stand still and keep his arms raised, but his sobs betray him and he jerks back a bit, almost like he is being punched in the stomach. That’s all it takes for the police to make that split second decision.

But before the gun can go off, Steve leaps into action, throwing his shield near the arms of the trigger happy officer forcing him to drop his firearm to the ground. Almost instantly Steve is face to face with the officer, knocking him unconscious with one fatal blow. The officers direct their attention to Steve and aim to shoot him, but it only takes a few effortless kicks and punches before the entire squad is unconscious lying in the street.

There are hundreds of people staring but there is a dead silence. Steve looks out at the crowd of people stretching out for miles. Faces that look back at him with a mixture of confusion and amazement. It’s possible they assumed Captain America was on the side of those working to silence the protesters

A blinking red light catches the corner of Steve’s eye and he notices a news camera, possibly broadcasting live. He imagines the nation, comfortable and safe on their couches, watching, mouths dropped to the floor. Steve imagined the chief of police, tearing his hair out, his plans now blown to bits. But then Steve pictured in his mind, the mother of the slain boy behind the protests, eyes glued to the screen, teary eyed, feeling relieved for the first time since her son had been murdered. Thanking him, in her mind, for making the world see that her sons’ life, and the lives of all black people, matter.

Steve smiled and with a flick of his hand sent his shield to smash the camera and interrupt the feed to all.

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Fording the River

Ted slid his water bottle into his cruiser’s cup holder and checked his mirrors. He grinned as a Ford zoomed up behind him.

As soon as the Ford saw the silver POLICE scrawled across the side of Ted’s black cruiser, they slowed from ten miles over the speed limit to five.

Ted considered flipping on his lights, but it was midafternoon, just after the lunch rush and right before school let out. The streets were slick from the melting snow, but they were in good condition.

Ted sped up, fifty-two in a forty-five zone. He was the only cop in this area, so why not?

Ford followed suit, trailing a few feet behind Ted in the right lane.

The light turned red, and they both came to a gradual stop. Ted looked at Ford.

He was a middle-aged man, clean shaven with buzzed salt and pepper hair, but his jaw was square and strong and his brow was free from excessive wrinkles. Ford glanced at Ted and apologized with a half wave and a dip of his chin.

Ted smiled and waved back, then jerked his head at the light and revved his cruiser’s engine. It purred like a panther.

Ford frowned then revved his truck. It roared like a black bear.

Ted chuckled nervously. If anyone found out he dared a citizen to a street race, he would be fired. He’d been on the force for two years, and only within the last few months did they allow him his own cruiser and patrols.

He read Ford’s lips ask, “You sure?”

The look in Ford’s eyes reminded Ted of his father the day he graduated high school and applied to the force. “You sure you can handle it?” His father had asked.

Ted’s resolve hardened like it had back then. He’d show Ford like he’d shown his father. He was up to any challenge.

He smirked and revved his engine louder. “Bring it on, old man.”

He wasn’t sure whether Ford understood, but the frown disappeared and Ford mouthed, “You’re on.” Then he gunned it.

Ted had missed the light turning, and his distraction cost him. His tires squealed as he floored it, the engine protesting against such rough handling. Adrenaline coursed through his veins as the odometer climbed rapidly. Ford had a good head start, but the cruiser was built for high speed chases. Ted caught up quickly, and in no time he was ahead.

Fifty-five. Sixty. Sixty-five. Seventy.

The next light was just beyond the curvy strip next to the flight school. Ted slowed out of habit and Ford took advantage of Ted’s instinct to speed past him. Ted laughed but it morphed into a gasp as the sheen of unmelted ice blinded him. He slammed on the brakes. The cruiser fishtailed, but he regained control.

His sigh of relief never made it past his lips as a cacophony of metal grating across metal rang through his skull. He slowed to a stop as his mouth fell open.

Ford had hit the ice going seventy, swerved completely around, then slammed into the curb. The truck flipped as it struck the fence to the air field, and now lay upside down, a smoldering husk of twisted metal in the snow.

Ted jumped the curb and parked next to the fence. As he got out, he radioed for an ambulance.

He jogged to the overturned cab, the hood belching out thick, black smoke. Ted knelt carefully on the glass strewn ground. “Sir? Can you hear me?”

Ford’s head was turned at an awkward angle, blood coursing up his forehead and into his hair, but at Ted’s question, his eyes flickered open. “Loud and-” Ford coughed. “Clear.”

“Alright, I’m going to pull you out of there. It’s gonna hurt.”

“Ready when you are.”

Ted sliced the seat belt, and Ford slipped into Ted’s arms. He dragged him a safe distance from the smoking truck then checked for injuries.

Broken ribs, concussion with laceration, definitely internal bruising and bleeding. Yet Ford hadn’t screamed once. Ted chalked it up to shock.

“You radioed in?” Ford asked.

Ted blinked in surprise. “Yes. An ambulance will be here soon.” But as Ford’s eyes glazed over, Ted realized that soon might not be soon enough and remorse surged up from his chest. “I’m sorry.” This wouldn’t have happened if he’d just been a good cop!

“No, it… Was my fault, too. You’re a good cop, son. Protecting the people. But not uptight like some I’ve known.”

Ted tried to get a handle on the sobs strangling themselves in his throat. He’d seen plenty of crime scenes. Why now? But Ted already knew why. Ford’s grizzled face looked like his father’s as he lay dying of cancer, smiling, telling him it’d be okay even though nothing would ever be the same again.

“The truth will get you fired, won’t it?” Ford’s breathing rattled in his chest.

Ted made to shake his head, but all he managed was a tight grimace.

“Thought so,” Ford rasped. “Let’s say I was speeding, hit the ice wrong. We’ll blame it on the three cups of coffee I had before driving. Sound good?”

Ted nodded mechanically, helpless.

“Got any water?” Ford croaked.

“In my car.”

“Mind getting it?” Ford wheezed. Ted didn’t want to leave, but Ford’s, “Please,” drove him to run for the water bottle. When he returned, Ford no longer needed the water.

Ted clicked on his radio. “Time of death… 1:47 pm…”

***
The following day, Ted’s boss called him into his office.

“I want you to know that you did the right thing, Officer Hurling.”

“What do you mean, sir?” Ted asked dully.

“That man who died in the car accident you were on scene for? Government assassin just released from prison.”

Shock coursed down Ted’s spine.

“Good riddance,” his boss snorted. “That’s one less criminal in the world.”

“Yes, sir.” Ted nodded then slipped out of the office so his boss didn’t see his tears.

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Dusk Falls

It should have been easy. Kill the man, plant the evidence, wait for the Coppers to find her. They’d take her to gaol, right where she wanted to be. She didn’t count on the glaring incompetence of the Copper force. They had a monogrammed silk handkerchief that clearly did not belong to the victim right there on top of his face. Surely in any other city that would have been evidence enough for at least a talk.

She had come to the city as a woman looking for work, kicked out of the family home with the purse strings pulled tight. It was an industrial city, the working poor crowded in trying to find work. Filthy children played in filthy streets and the dull roar of the coal-fired factories pervaded everything. There was no doubt among anyone that she had come from money, her expensive corsets and cloaks made her stand out among the drab rags. All the better for her, she wanted the attention. Better that everyone recognize her as an outsider, someone who didn’t belong. But after a week nobody had come to her about the body yet.

The next body she left behind had even more clues for the Coppers. Two room keys from the Sky Hotel. It’s not like many people in this hellhole of a city had the funds to even hire a dirigible, let alone stay at the Sky Hotel. And the keys were different, it had to come from two separate stays. She wouldn’t have been able to go there had it not been for certain skills that were in high demand by a certain type of clientele. Even her father couldn’t afford the Sky Hotel. She got paid well for what she did, and that usually included leaving no trail. It galled her to have this traced back to her. Except the Coppers still couldn’t put the pieces together.

For her third trick she considered leaving a signed letter. Possibly a confession. But that would be over the top, really. So she used an automaton instead. One that her father’s company had made. One that had been stolen from the company. And really, that should have brought them right to her doorstep, there was nobody else in this city who would have had any sort of access to the Olsen Automaton and Robotics Company factory.

Were these Coppers simply idiots? Were they on the payroll of someone else who wanted them kept away from the truth? Dirty Coppers wasn’t outside the realm of possibility, after all. But really, all she needed to do was get caught. Her real target was waiting there in gaol. Once he was dead and blame laid elsewhere, her employers would make sure she was free to go again. The plan was simple. It was supposed to be a simple kill. Of course she’d get paid for two bodies, the first to get her into gaol and the second that was waiting for her there. All this improvising, all these extra bodies…well, her expenses were mounting. At this point she’d have to go back and renegotiate the contract.

Perhaps the next one she could simply shoot. She had a registered gun, it had been inspected by the Coppers when she arrived. The commented on how rare it was for someone to have such a nice pistol. If she shot someone would that gain enough attention to get her arrested and sent to the gaol? She hated this backwater town and wanted nothing more than to finish her job and go back to her regular life. Upper London had been her home for nearly a year and she had grown accustomed to the opulence there. Homes fully equiped with gaslights and running water, gowns for every occasion and a woman to help her tight lace her corset. Oh, yes, and Coppers that seemed to give a damn about their wards and have the brains to do their jobs.

The fourth body she decided not to use her gun. It wasn’t worth losing it over a job like this. She trusted that when she was taken in, her employers would send someone to clean her flat out and her things would be waiting for her at home. It was how things were done. It was a shame, ruining her clothes like that, but something had to be done. Wandering around in bloodstained clothing was at this point a small price to pay.

She hadn’t known, though. How could she have known? He was a Copper. He had just come down from Upper London to help investigate these murders. And for as blind as they had been for the murder of the poor they would not let the murder of one of their own go unpunished.

The trial was quick, and for that she was grateful. Perhaps she would be in and out of gaol just as quickly. The man she had been hired to kill was old and weak. His only danger was in what he knew, not what he could do. She could kill him easily and be home in time to see the new opera premiere. Perhaps she’d even decide which gentleman would have the pleasure of escorting her.

The Magistrate’s decree came as a surprise. They had finally pinned all four murders on her and in his opinion she should segregated from the rest of the prisoners. She was clearly deranged, he contended, and was a danger to herself and others. A woman would not be put to death herself no matter how heinous her crimes, but would instead be left to rot, forgotten by society.

It should have been easy. Wrap the sheet, kick the stool, over instantly. But she didn’t count on her own incompetence as she swayed back and forth, her body struggling against the inevitable.

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The master of death and destruction

I am a master of death and destruction. A hired contractor. No matter how big the job. And I always deliver on time. So I press myself into the perimeter and examine.

The concrete wall creeps out and up. A field of dying grass and bunk houses crams into it’s cold gray arms, and it strangles the buildings.

Inside the housing, small cages stare out. The lights in each window die, sentenced to death with no chance of parole. The door slams shut, locked by key no electronic override.

In the grave silence, I search for weaknesses. I am the hunter, the planner, the architect of death. My kill count is unknown, untracked, accepted by those who hire me, and ignored by those who don’t.

I do not kill in hate or in shadows like my prey. No half eaten bodies or floors swab in blood remain when I’m through. A clean kill, no remains, that how I work, but not my prey.

No, a trail of newspaper clippings, photos and headlines flash corpses and sensationalism. Bodies burned and graves uncovered dangle through time like charms on the reaper’s sickle. For the final slash of this murderer’s throat, no price is to steep, no casualty too much.

My bag weighs heavy, and the moon slips high into the sky. I sway closer to the bunk house and search its base. A crack in the wall splinters up two stories. Its primed, a start. From the bag, I pull a metal tube as long as my finger. Its tip wedges into the building. All along the crack, the metal spikes stud and accent the weakness. I move on.

The bag lightens as the moon finishes its arch, but my shoulders stay just as heavy. No one finds me as I set the field. Yet all around me specks of sliver glint and catch my eye. They will be seen. They will attract attention. Time is running short. The deadline approaches, and the job must be complete.

I place the last spike and retreat to the wall. It stretches up and forever out in a horizon of strength. It stands at my back, and I press hard against it. Shakes start in my thighs and my breathing flutters. It’s time. It must be done.

I close my eyes, breath in the moonlight, and remember my purpose. I am the assassin, the cleaner, the last man standing, the expert. It will go as planned. In this moment, I give up my doubt and fear. I set my plan into motion.

The night pops in a series so fast it sounds like one hit of a drum, one drop of the gallows, one strike of electricity. Dust slams into me and tries to choke. Still my eyes stay shut. My ears are deaf, my lungs starved, my eyes burning, and my heart racing. Still I wait.

The night returns. Stone dropping on stone clunks louder as the water drains from my ears. I listen as the sounds of continuing destruction settles. When I can breath, I open my eyes.

The buildings lay dead, crumpled on top of themselves. The giant wall is clear in all directions. There is nothing left. These walls that have sheltered the worst of society and let them feed upon themselves, these walls that could not hide the weekly deaths, these walls that whispered of suicide and murder to all they trapped, these walls stood for nothing now.

For I am the master of death and destruction. The architect of death. The cleaner. And I have ripped the heart from the rib cage of these walls and crushed it. Never again would it steal, rape, and kill. No longer would this be the red forty-seven acres. For I, I am the demolition man.

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A Dance with a Prince

A kind woman fell sick. Neighbors came from across the town to thank her before she passed. As the last well wishers left her home, the woman called her daughter to her side and gave the only gift she had, a pearl hair comb. The mother died, and her daughter grew into a beautiful young dancer.

The dancer wanted to attend the palace ball and catch the prince’s favor. Being too young and without a mother, she did not know how to prepare. She told her neighbor of her plans. Her neighbor laughed that she could never have hair as gold as the queen. So she danced her way into town with her pocket full of coins. The town painter took her coin and colored her dark hair as gold as the best chalice.

As he colored her hair, she told him of her plans. He nodded but remarked that her faded linen dress would never fit among the well dressed women. So she skipped to the tailors. She told him where she would go and paid him for a new dress. He clothed her in royal purple silk with gold accents to match her hair. He told her to get dancing slippers to dance all night.

She waltzed to the shoe maker and showed him her dress. He crafted for her a pair of slippers as royal as her dress with gold bows and gold toes. She gave him the end of her coins, telling him she was ready to dance with the prince. He shook his head in despair for her jewelry would never be as nice as the other dancers’.

Having no more money, she went to the jewelers and asked what she must do to get the jewels for her dress. The jeweler pointed to her pearl hair comb. For the comb and dance at the ball, he would trade a gold tiara. She showed him the hair pin with its bright white pearl so unlike the purple dress and her gold hair. The jeweler assured her the comb was old fashioned and would not outshine the pieces the other girls wore. With one last kiss to the comb, she traded it for the tiara.

Dressed and bejeweled, she floated into the palace. Her hair shone more gold than the queens, her dress was more royal than the other girls, her shoes let her dance all night, and her tiara sparkled more than the jewels of all the other girls.

She bowed before her prince. He bowed and moved to the next girl. She turned to stand against the wall with the other girls in their bright new clothes and adorned in gold. The prince chose a girl from the line and twirled onto the dance floor with a brown-haired girl in a dull linen dress with a silver necklace.

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Dinner Party

Issac zoned out on the couch while Hannah bustled around in the kitchen. The apartment was boring. The white walls and white ceiling and white blinds blended together in an empty canvas devoid of life. No dust shaded the window sill, the knickknacks shined in the same places they had been since Hannah moved in. Vacuum left perfect spiked lines around the edge of the room where she cleaned earlier. He would turn on the radio to fill the space with something, but Hannah didn’t like loud music or rock music or the sound of his video games.

Turning he saw into the kitchen. She had two pans on the stove, a sink full of water so she could wash dishes as soon as she used them, and a stack of dinner plates and silverware. His heart skipped a beat. Three dishes waited next to the sink.

She expected company. The excited nerves built in his throat. He loved when they had company. Hannah refused to admit it to him, but she loved it too. Tom came over three times this week.

His foot vibrated with excess energy. His thigh already tingled with warmth. At the first dinner they hosted at their apartment, her hand rubbed along his thigh and made him jump. Afterward, when the guests left and they made love, he felt so energized he wanted to start the evening all over again.

He stared at the curve of her hip where the starched and pressed white button down lay perfectly over the top of her jeans. She hated anything out of place or unclean, most of the time.

Then guests came over.

With nothing but a table and cloth between them, she unzipped his pants while she chatted with her best friend about supermarket prices. When he blushed, she’d smile at him, but if he squirmed, she would stop. It was her game, and he liked it. It thrilled him more than any roller coaster or any drunk stunt he’d pulled with his friends. The passion after their guests left him waiting for the next dinner party.

He stood up and paced the empty floor of the apartment. His heart pounded against his chest. He’d fought back the day her parents joined them. She had worn a summer dress with yellow eyelets and a bow just under her breasts. When she’d flipped open the button on his jeans, he’d laid his hand on her leg, letting the warmth seep into her skin. When she did the same to him, the heat pulsed up his thigh into his groin, and he hoped it did the same to her. As the meal progressed, he slid his hand up her thigh. Her legs resisted so he had to wedge his hand higher. When he touched the soft cotton of her underwear, she shifted welcoming his hand.

When her parents left, she had let him lay her out on the couch, and she screamed for him for the first time. Her body tightened around his, and he resolved to make her do it again after the next dinner.

He paced into the kitchen and grabbed a chair back. His fingers whitened as he used his energy to grip himself in place. He suspected Hannah loved the threat of being caught in the act. He hadn’t told her that Tom knew exactly what they were doing. He hadn’t even blushed when Tom gave him a pat on the back. “Shit, dude! You are the man.”

Then there were two games. Tom goading him to do more and judging the reaction, and Hannah getting more bold with his body. Tom scored the reactions, one point to Hannah when he blushed, a point to him when she reacted. Tom and he argued about it when her score outpaced him by fifty. That was when Tom suggested he could pretend to be watching ESPN at the table and record the meal.

He cleared his throat. “Hannah?”

She turned to look at him. Her cheeks were red from the stove heat. “Yes?”

The pinkness in her cheeks made him grin. He wanted to keep her cheeks pink but with passion and embarrassment. Before he could tell her anything, she turned back to the stove. That was his Hannah. It wasn’t his turn yet, but he’d have her attention later. When it was the right time. When they were at the table.

“Never mind.” This dinner would be different.

He left the kitchen and pulled his box of toys from under the bed. They’d started dating his last year of college. She’d been so innocent that he’d hid his box. When they were alone together, she laid on her back and forced him to be on top, boring old missionary. If he suggested a new position or a toy, she would shake her head or tell him no. But when company came over, new rules applied.

If he was her toy, left on the couch when she didn’t need him, then she could be his toy and do what he wanted. He pocketed a small bullet shaped object and the remote for it. It flipped on with the button and vibrated in his hand, still strong after a year of neglect.

Did Hannah invite you to dinner? He texted Tom.

Yeah 😉

I got a surprise for her tonight. Be ready to record. I’m earning my points back.

Finally. Be there in 15.

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