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Word of Mouth


When’s the last time I tried a flash fiction? It’s been a while. This one’s apropos of nothing; just a little seedling that took root while I was falling asleep a few nights ago.

***********

The man behind the counter is exactly as promised. His face, grizzled and careworn. His beard, long with a braid that dangles just above his belt. His arms, corded steel sleeved in jagged patterns of ink.

This is the forgemaster, all right.

Jad flicks his cigarette into the gutter and swaggers into the shop. A quaint tinkling bell announces him.

“Evening,” Thierry mutters without looking up. His knotty fingers work delicately away on a blade and stone in his hands, putting Jad in mind of a patient spider.

Jad strides right up to the counter. Lays his hands on the glass. Looks hard at the older man, willing him to look back. Thierry lets the moment linger, then lays down his tools. “Help you?”

“You’re the forgemaster.”

At that, the old man folds his arms and leans way back. He arches an eyebrow as he takes Jad in from head to toe. The ragged hair, gaunt face, sinewy body. All the leather. “Are you asking, or telling?”

Jad’s gaze flicks down to the glass case full of knives set between them. Each one beautiful and terrible, like the teeth of ancient megafauna honed to an evil point. Blades of bone, steel, and materials Jad can’t identify. The master’s work. “It’s you. You made these. You’re him.”

“Sure, kid. You got me. But … ugh. Forgemaster. Just call me Thierry. What do you want?” He asks as if he already knows, and, way Jad figures, probably he does.

“I’m a hunter.”

“Uh-huh.”

Jad flinches. Usually the title carries a bit more gravity. But he presses on. “A damned good hunter. I’ve had the visions. I’ve slain nightwalkers in droves. I am chosen.”

Thierry gives an approving frown. “I’m sure you’re doing just fine for yourself. What do you want with me?”

Jad grins, opens his palms and shrugs. “I need a weapon.”

“Got some fine ones here,” Thierry says. “What’s your fancy?”

“No,” Jad says. “I need a real weapon.”

Thierry’s eyes roll skyward, and he pinches the bridge of his nose. “You’ve done your homework.”

“Yes.”

“You learned I was still alive. Tracked me down. Sought me out. No small feat. I don’t see many hunters these days.”

Jad can’t help himself. His smirk widens. “Wasn’t easy.”

“You must also know I’m retired.”

Jad gestures around the shop. “Don’t look so retired to me.”

“I sell these. I don’t forge anymore. But you know that, too.”

“I know that you gave it up because the hunters let you down.” Thierry’s gaze has drifted off across Jad’s shoulder. Jad shifts himself into the older man’s line of sight. “But I won’t let you down.”

It’s Thierry’s turn to smirk at the kid. “What’s your name, then?”

“Jad.”

“Jad. I like you. You’ve got spirit. But I’m retired. No offense. I don’t work for the hunters anymore.” And Thierry picks up his knife and stone and goes back to sharpening.

Jad blinks in disbelief. “For decades, you’ve made the weapons that keep the shadow at bay.” He starts, then stops, then starts again. “You can’t just quit!”

“I can,” Thierry says, “and I have. You want to fight the nightwalkers? You’re welcome to any weapon you see here. Free of charge, even. Because I like you. But I’m nobody’s slave anymore.”

Jad recoils like he’s been slapped. “Slave? The hunters never –”

“Don’t.” Thierry’s eyes are as sharp as any blade in the store.

“I’ll pay you, of course.”

“No.”

Jad is flabbergasted. “I’m the most talented hunter in an age. The elders have said so. I’ve got a chance to destroy the nightwalkers for good. I need a proper weapon to do it. Not one of these … kitchen knives.”

Thierry looks almost bored, scraping away at the blade in his hand. Shiiiiink. Shiiiiiiink. “If you’re such a great hunter, surely you already know: the greatest weapon is the one in your head, not the one in your hand.” He meets Jad’s gaze one last time. “The answer is no.”

The kid moves like lightning. In a flash, Thierry’s blade is in Jad’s hand, the point of it thrust behind Thierry’s bushy beard, its point drawing a bead of blood at his neck.

Thierry actually chuckles. “You’re fast, I’ll give you that.”

Jad’s eyes bulge a bit crazily as he bares his teeth. “You will make me a weapon.”

The air goes out of Thierry, and Jad can tell he’s won. “Come back in three days.”

#

Three days later, true to his word, Thierry presents the young hunter with his masterwork. The blade, a demon’s flame cast in hexsteel, icy to the touch. Devilishly sharp. A breathtaking weapon. “You won’t regret this,” Jad says. He drops a ridiculous amount of money on the countertop.

“Just remember what I said about the weapon in your hand,” Thierry says. “And try not to get yourself killed.”

“Don’t worry your little heart about me, old man,” Jad says.

That very night, Jad carves his way through a nest. One nightwalker after the next falls before the master’s blade. All the way to the broodmother. Jad sinks his blade hilt-deep in the nightwalker’s chest. She laughs, then tears Jad’s throat out.

Jad expires in a mist of blood and fear, unseeing eyes blinking wildly in the night. His fingers grasp at the blade that won’t help him; a forgery, a fraud.

#

Ellaree, the broodmother, tosses the blade unceremoniously on Thierry’s counter, along with a ridiculous amount of money.

“You’re getting lazy,” she hisses. “I’ve seen this weapon before.”

Thierry shrugs. “The kid hadn’t. Did he die well?”

“Does it matter?” Thierry curls up like a beetle, at that. “Nobody will know otherwise. You can even sell that weapon again, if you want.” She smirks. “Again, again.”

Thierry hefts the dagger, thinks about plunging it right into her heart. It’d be useless, of course, but it might feel good. Might be worth the death it’d earn him. Instead, he tucks it into the back of his belt, safely out of sight. Just in case another upstart hunter shows his face this night.

Wouldn’t want to miss another sale.

**********

 

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Rock Salt


This is a story about rocks.

Quinn loved rocks.

It wasn’t such an unusual thing for a young boy to love rocks, although maybe it was unusual for a young boy to love rocks as much as Quinn did. Every day, after school, Quinn would go into the woods behind his house, follow the leaf-strewn path down to MacIntyre Lake, and play with rocks for hours.

He’d seek out thin, palm-sized rocks smoothed by centuries of flowing water to skip on the lake. Largish rocks with flattened edges cracked by time to stack into teetering towers. Tiny, dense pebbles to wing at the occasional squirrel (he hit one, once, and watched it twitching on a bed of pinestraw for almost thirty minutes before it got up and stumble-ran off into the woods again). He even had a special collection of rocks that he just liked to look at.

Quinn’s mom thought his geological fixation was a bit much. But she also knew that her friend, Cheryl, had a husband who kept a collection of rocks in a cabinet in his basement. He was known to take them out and polish them and write the odd column about responsible rock ownership in the slower midweek editions of the town paper. “Quaint, but harmless,” was the thing most often said about him, and she could deal with her son being quaint, but harmless.

That all changed when Quinn took his rocks to school.

The first time, he didn’t do anything with them — just stowed them away in his backpack to prove to himself that he could do it.

The second time, he showed them to a few of his friends. They didn’t really understand why he wanted to bring rocks to school — school was school, after all, rocks didn’t really have much to do with it.

The day before the third time, Will Barrett tripped Quinn in the lunch line (his buddies dared him to trip the weirdo kid bringing his rocks to school). For the rest of the day, everybody called Quinn “Potato Face” (you couldn’t say a lot for the creativity of your average school kid, but what they lacked there they made up in tenacity).

Quinn showed up the third time with a bag brimming with good throwing rocks, waited til Will and his buddies were face-deep in cafeteria Sloppy Joes, and let fly. Will lost a tooth. Terry caught a sharp one in the eye and had to wear an eyepatch for a month. Finn took one in the head and thought he was fine, but later in the day they had to call an ambulance for him when he kept falling over. A little girl sitting at the next table — a third grader Quinn didn’t even know — got her forehead gashed open.

Of course, Quinn was suspended, but more surprising, the school board immediately moved to ban rocks in all schools. “Rocks have no place in the classroom,” the press release read, “and their presence can only serve at best to distract from the learning environment, and at worst to pose a threat of tangible physical harm to our students.” But the very next day, Cheryl’s husband (the rock collector) penned his midweek column and argued that rocks did have a safe place in schools under proper conditions, and even made the (admittedly in poor taste) joke that if some teachers had been carrying some good throwing rocks of their own, they might have taken Quinn down before he could do more substantial harm to his classmates.

A heated debate bubbled up in the community. The school board’s office became a regular site for heated arguments between previously civil members of the community. Some were angry that their kids, suddenly enamored with the idea of bringing rocks with them at all times, should be punished for doing so. Others were incensed at the possibility that their child might be in the same room with a rock without their knowledge. Still others argued that access to rocks was a fundamental right not to be impinged regardless of how anybody else felt about it. The ban was lifted, then reinstated, then lifted with restrictions, and there were regulations proposed about how many rocks a student could bring to school, or how long a student had to wait between applying for a rock permit and actually receiving his rock, until very few people actually knew what the specific rules were on rocks in the first place.

While that was going on, a strange thing happened. Kids at the school began bringing rocks to school anyway. Rocks could be found everywhere, after all, and were easy to conceal. And you didn’t have to be a rock enthusiast to recognize the advantage a rock in your backpack could provide in a schoolyard scuffle. Before the month was out, rock-related incidents between students had skyrocketed.

Even worse, the kids were innovating. One student proudly kept a thirty-pound rock, practically a boulder, in his backyard, just for the purpose of dropping it off the roof onto tin cans. Another devised a contraption — basically a forked stick with a bit of rubber tubing strung between its extremities — with which he could fling stones much faster, much farther, and much more accurately than anybody could throw them before. “Why would you ever need such things?” People asked them. They could have talked about the primal urge to domination, the hard-coded mine-is-bigger-than-yours urge, even the simple fact that having such things meant that you could seriously hurt somebody who messed with you, even if you didn’t want to. But all that tended to be ungainly and hard to explain to those asking the questions, so they answered “for sport” instead.

Worse still, an economy had sprung up around the enterprise. Some individuals found it worth their time to go out in search of the biggest rocks, or the most streamlined, or “rocks you wouldn’t want to be on the wrong end of,” and sell them for a profit. There was no shortage of demand, after all — since everybody, especially bad guys, had access to rocks, it only made sense to consider having some rocks yourself, just in case.

And kids continued to bring rocks to school, not always because they really liked rocks, but because rocks, being well-and-truly everywhere and the focus of so much discussion by now, seemed like the answer to all problems.

But little by little, kids — strangely, it was the kids and not the adults — decided they’d had enough of living with the fear that somebody could just walk into their school and start throwing rocks. It wasn’t fair to them that their education, to say nothing of their health and well-being, was suddenly viewed as secondary to the rights of a handful of students to tote rocks all over the place.

“But it’s for sport,” came the arguments.

“We have rights,” they continued.

“You can’t just –” they protested.

“Bullshit,” responded the students, and they went and laid down in the lawns of very powerful people, hoping somebody would notice them there.

They are laying there still.

But they are not entirely unnoticed.

It’s entirely about rocks, and not about something else. If you think it’s about something else, that’s your problem, not mine.

This story was born from a prompt by my writing spirit animal, Chuck Wendig: “a world without guns.” Even though this story is obviously about rocks, it was inspired by recent events surrounding things which are not rocks. Probably it doesn’t end quite as cleverly as I would have liked, but it’s hard to write endings for things which seem to have no end in sight.

Still, maybe there’s something different this time.


A Laughing Matter


Scowling through the mirror at Earl is a face as twisted as the ones in his nightmares.

One hand tightens on the brown bottle, the other on the glass. The cubes swirl and clink as he pours a drink too many and tosses it back.

“You’re just not making them laugh like you used to, big guy.” Max had given him a sorry grin, like a dog who’s eaten your dinner but who knows you’re not going to do a damned thing about it. “Nothing personal.”

And just like that, here he is, cleaning his crap out of the dressing room for the last time. Over the monitor, Earl can hear the trite jokes from some new kid on the circuit — name of Zamir, of all things, riffing on his foreign parents — to what sounds like an ocean of raucous laughter.

A sound Earl’s only ever from backstage; never in person.

The glass flies from his hand and shatters the mirror, and now it’s not a single scowling mask that looks back at him, but a dozen. Earl stares himself down for a good, hard minute, then grabs his jacket, frayed elbows and all, and beats it.

There’s a storm rolling in. The first fat drops are just starting to fall, but the real action’s a long way off, yet. A couple of drunks are hanging out, grinning at each other in that half-lidded, glassy-eyed way that you only see at one in the morning outside a comedy club. One of them recognizes Earl, and it begins.

“Hey, it’s the comedian.”

Earl knows what’s coming. He pulls up his collar and tries to walk by, but the guy’s in front of him, a hand on his chest, fruity, watered-down vodka on his breath. “You weren’t funny.”

“Sorry you didn’t like it.” Earl sighs. Tries to be contrite. “Look, talk to Max. Tell him Earl said to give you a few free passes for next week.” Max will never give this guy anything, but vodka breath doesn’t know that.

“What, so we can hear more lame jokes about your mother-in-law?”

Vodka-breath’s buddy thinks this is really funny. He bursts out in a laugh that sounds like a choking horse. Again, the sound of laughter that isn’t for him burns away at Earl worse than the bourbon burning through his guts.

Everybody thinks they know what funny is, but they don’t, not really. They don’t laugh at Earl’s jokes. But they’ll laugh at their idiot friends making fun of Earl’s jokes, sure, no problem.

Earl stares at horse-laugh long enough for it to get real uncomfortable. “You think that’s funny? How about a knife in your spleen, think that’d be funny?”

A low rumble of thunder punctuates this, and the drunks back away real slow, watching Earl like he’s rabid.

“Thought not,” Earl mutters, and shoves his way past, making sure to give vodka-breath an elbow to the gut as he goes.

“Asshole.”

Then a bottle hits him in the back of the head, and everything goes dark to the sound of shattering glass.

#

Earl comes to — he’s not sure how much later — choking on the rainwater that’s puddling around him. His head hurts like hell; he rubs at it and his hand comes away hot and bloody. Lightning lights up the deluge that’s falling now, and the thunder rattles his skull.

The club is dark. Max. Probably saw Earl lying there when he left and didn’t do a damned thing to help him.

It’s the last straw.

#

Blue-lipped and shivering, Earl almost knocks the door to his cramped, moldy apartment off its hinges. He brushes past a sink full of dishes and a table covered with slowly decomposing takeout Chinese and makes for the bathroom.

It’s no mistake that his bathroom is set up like a green room; the apartment may be a shithole, but this is a shrine. His shaving kit, immaculately laid out by the sink. A couple of freshly-pressed towels hung on the rack. The bright lights overhead make him blink when he turns them on. Worn, curling pictures and newspaper clippings — over a dozen of each — are sandwiched between the frame and the mirror. Earl catches glimpses of himself in between as he looks back and forth. His father, his uncles, grandfathers and greats.

Down one side, he sees Samuel, the foppish Auguste in a frilled collar and big red nose. Randolph, a simple Whiteface in an oversized suit with white gloves. Freddy, the bumbling Tramp with a chewed-up derby and stippled-on stubble. All grinning in that carefree, gleeful way that clowns have, like even behind all the paint and the makeup and the oversized shoes, they find the whole world funny.

You could say it’s a family business. One that Earl’s tried to avoid. “Cheap laughs,” he always called it. But clowning is in his blood, he knows that, now, as he sees his eyes reflected in the pale masks.

But the other side of the mirror is in his blood, too. Tri-Cities Terror. Seaside Strangler. The Knife in the Night. They’re Earl’s family, too, and their mugshots stare back at him with the same clownish grin as the others, minus the makeup.

If psychology were a thing Earl’s family ever bothered with, they might have made something of the checkered legacy he has inherited. All Earl knows as the storm pounds on the windows is that he tried, he really did. He only wanted to kill them with laughter.

Now, he thinks as he reaches for the greasepaint, he’s just going to kill them.

clown-1537543_960_720

***************************

Holy carp, how long has it been since I turned in a flash fiction?

Well, this one’s not complete, but that’s by design: Chuck’s challenge this week is to start off a horror story that somebody else will (hopefully) pick up and run with. I figured, hey, clowns are topical right now, right?

Anyway. Sorry to the clown-phobes in attendance. Guess I shoulda put a trigger warning up top, huh?


Touch Will Come Second


Door, Entry, Hospital, Passage, Red, HandleAlistair Van der Berg opens what he thinks are his eyes and looks up into blinding white lights. Into his field of vision swim three dark blurs in silhouette that resolve, like hardening acrylic, into androgynous shapes.

“Mr. Van der Berg?” says one of the shapes.

“Yes?” Alistair’s voice comes out stronger than he expects.

“Please hold still. We have to check a few things.”

Alistair turns his head and glances down toward his body, concealed under a grey sheet. Lumps and points in all the right places, but he can’t feel any of it. The sheet shifts and moves like a sackful of kittens, but his arms and legs are restrained. “What’s happening?”

“Alistair,” says another of the shapes. “Calm down.”

Alistair looks around the room in a panic. By the door, a sign. Synthetics testing.

It’s happened, he realizes. I died. I’m back. I’m alive again. My brain in a plastic body. “What year is it?”

The shapes have resolved into murky faces that exchange glances with one another. “What year do you think it is?”

“How did I die?”

“One thing at a time, Mr. Van der Berg.”

“Don’t give me that. I’m back from the dead, and I want to know what’s –” He stops as his eyes drift sideways and catch the mirror against the far wall. Not a mirror. One-way glass. Instinctively he points toward it, but his arm only rattles in a restraint he can’t see or feel. “Who’s in there? Is it my children? My grandchildren?”

“Easy, Mr. V –”

“NO!” He reaches out for the voice, and this time, there’s a squealing, shearing sound as the restraint gives way and he swats the androgynous figure aside with a fleshy thwack. He stares at his hand; pale and perfectly manicured, manacled at the wrist. A torn hinge dangles lamely down his arm. He jerks his other arm free of its restraint, then yanks his legs toward him with an awful tearing noise, and he’s free.

There are sounds of squabbling behind him as the other attendants rush to the one he’s injured. Alistair ignores them and goes to the mirror — or tries to. As he swings his legs out of the bed, they tangle in the hospital gown he can’t feel, scrabble for purchase on the cold tile floor, buckle, bend and collapse. He goes down in a heap of pain and confusion.

A voice crackles from above. “What’s wrong with it?The voice is familiar, but he can’t say why.

An androgynous one replies: “Touch receptors aren’t working. He won’t be able to walk or move effectively yet. Photo and audio receptors are online for this primary test, along with speech protocols. Touch will come second.”

The lights go on behind the mirror, and suddenly Alistair is looking past the crumpled wreck of his body at himself standing behind the glass. An older version of himself. Stern. Thoughtful. But alive. And unpitying.

The voice he now recognizes as his own crackles through the speaker again. “Shut it down.”

A tiny electro-dart buries itself in Alistair’s neck, but he doesn’t feel it. His processors drone off into silence and his servos go limp.

**********************

Chuck’s challenge this week was a random title. Mine? The Touch Will Come Second. For artistic reasons I dropped the “the,” and not only because I wanted a reason to say “the the” in my explanation.

 

 


Pegasus Intelligence


Beer, Beer Garden, Thirst, Glass Mug, Drink, Beer Glass“Ernie Collins.”

“The name doesn’t ring a bell. Then again, I’ve only been working here for six months or so.”

“Oh. Well. He’d have been here back in ’07.”

“I see.” Lana, feeling that the conversation had reached that inevitable point where things peter out and the bartender and patron go on with their individual existences, began polishing glassware, and only when she noticed Eddie gesturing at her did she realize that he had continued speaking.

“And from there, it’s on to Melbourne, to a little hole-in-the-wall joint called Dingo Lingo.”

She angled back into the conversation as best she could. “I’ve never heard of it.”

“Of course not. Very few people who haven’t cracked the top-10 bestseller list have.”

Lana squinted at him, still turning a glass in her hand. It was impossible to tell if he was putting her on. The crazy ones never seem crazy. “And you’re going there to …?”

“To drink it all in, man.”

“What, Dingo Lingo serves some proprietary drink?”

“No. What? No. Look.” Eddie pulled out his phone and opened his notes app. He tapped on a file, zoomed in on a maniacal-looking spider web diagram dotted with pictures of towns and bars and faces she didn’t recognize, clicked and zoomed and scrolled a few more times, and finally stopped and shoved the phone toward her. On the screen was a picture of an absolutely normal-looking guy. Slightly unshaven, slightly frumpy, a below-average intelligence gasping for help in his faraway stare as he sat at a Starbucks street table. “Because of him. Haven’t you been paying attention?”

“I fear I may have lost the thread.”

Eddie sighed. “He’s a Pegasus.”

“A what, now?”

Eddie sighed again, harder this time, to make clear that he was explaining something he shouldn’t have to explain. “In Greek myth, Pegasus was said to strike springs from the very ground where his hooves touched.” He smiled at Lana as if this should have meant something to her, but it obviously didn’t. “Pegasus was the personal transport for the muses. Like Uber, but, you know, a horse.”

Lana gave an ever-so-slight shake of her head. “Muses?”

“The Greek goddesses of inspiration.”

“Okay, and you want a drink from the bar because –”

“It’s a metaphor, man! It’s not a literal spring. Ernie Collins is not a goddamned winged horse. But he’s a Pegasus in spirit. He travels the world on his parents’ retirement fund, and every so often:” here Eddie rapped his fingers on the tabletop and made a clop-clop noise with his tongue. “Inspiration springs forth.”

“So you think,” Lana said, studying the freshly polished bar as if it might offer some insight on how to deal with a clearly deranged individual, which it did not, “that just by being in these places, you’ll … what, soak up some inspiration?”

“Exactly.” Eddie folded his arms and leaned back from the table as if he’d just solved a two-hundred item crossword puzzle. He raised his eyebrows at her, again, as if he expected her to be impressed.

“And that’s why you haven’t ordered anything but that one beer, then?” She tried to keep the edge out of her voice, but he’d been nursing the one drink for three hours. It wasn’t like she needed him to vacate the stool — it was a Tuesday night, after all — but principle dictated that a bar tab should at least exceed in dollars its length in hours.

“Nothing personal, you understand.” He picked nervously at the label which had already been thoroughly picked at. He came away with bits of glue under his fingernails. “But I’ve got quite the itinerary ahead. Atlanta. Seattle. Toronto. Melbourne. Tokyo. Gotta make every dollar count.”

“You can afford travel to all these places, but you can’t afford another drink?”

“I’ve got a GoFundMe page set up. I’ll move on when I can afford airfare.”

Won’t hold my breath for a decent tip, Lana thought. “You’re a writer, then?”

“Trying to be,” Eddie replied, a sort of self-satisfied smirk tugging at the corners of his mouth.

“What have you written?”

“Well.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Nothing yet.”

“Oh, a work in progress?” Lana returned to wiping glasses. “I had a roommate in college who always had about a dozen works in progress. Never did get published. Wrote like a demon, though.” She glanced sideways at Eddie. “Ordered more than one drink at happy hour, too.”

“Thing is, I don’t want to just write anything. When I actually sit down to write, I want it to be the best. Hence: following in the footsteps of Pegasus.”

Lana frowned thoughtfully. “I suppose there’s intelligence of a sort in that.” Then her thought caught up to her frown. “Wait. You mean to tell me you haven’t actually written anything yet?”

“Er.” More glue, more fingernails. “Not as such, no.”

“Not a draft, not an outline, nothing?”

Eddie shook his head.

“I mean, you at least know what you’re going to write about, though?”

“Well, kind of. I mean, I have some ideas.” He jabbed at his phone again, and showed her the picture of Ernie Collins. “Truth be told, that’s kind of what I was hoping this whole Pegasus thing would help me out with.”

“Let me make sure I understand clearly,” Lana said. She set her glass and rag down and leaned in close. “You want to be a writer, but you haven’t written anything. Instead, you’re going on a trip around the world, on the dime of internet strangers, hoping to sponge up some inspiration … from a man you feel is the embodiment of a winged horse?”

“To be honest, the GoFundMe only has fifteen dollars in it so far.” He eyed the last swig in the bottom of his bottle, felt the moment was right, and swallowed it. “From my mom. Actually –” he waggled the empty bottle — “how much did you say this was, again?”

######

Chuck’s challenge this week: The random title challenge. My title for the week was “Pegasus Intelligence,” which was the fanciest bit of nonsense I’d heard in a while. A little bit of research, though, led me to a place I didn’t entirely hate. It’s more of a vignette than a story, but, well, that’s life, innit?

Also, about halfway into the writing, I realized that I have here the seedling for a … not exactly a sequel to my first novel, but for another story in the same universe as that one. Dammit, Chuck. These short stories are supposed to let me vent pent-up creative energy, not spawn entire novels to go clanging around in my skull.

 


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