A Faerie Good Night
Rain hammered the windows like the percussive beat of a million minute drums. Two pairs of wooden blades, green and black, blurred above. Their discordant colors were drowned out by the yellow tinge from the ceiling-fan light.
Tofflepotts found a small measure of relief in the brightness. It made it easier to spot monsters and, slay them. He craned his neck, straining his muscles as he looked up at the edge of the bed.
A child lay curled at the lip of the bed. He was bent into a shape only possible by humans of his young age. One leg close to dangling off of the end, another folded back—heel pressed to his bottom. A pudgy hand was held against his mouth, brushing his lips up like he’d pressed them to a window. His black hair was a static-charged frenzy. Parts of it splayed out against the pillow as more rogue strands tried to reach into the air and fail, creating mini arcs.
The young boy, Samuel, was a mess. But, he was Tofflepotts’ mess. His charge. To be protected from nightmares, things that nibbled on feet in the night and, of course, the irritating mass of fur the family had been duped into caring for.
Samuel pawed at the black satin mask covering his eyes.
Tofflepotts sucked in a breath, hoping the child did not remove the obscuring piece of fabric. Guardian faeries were to operate unseen. His fingers trembled as he ran a calming hand through his shock of electric-aquamarine hair. Strands as fine as cotton fluff broke apart in his grip, taking to the air.
He didn’t mind. They’d grow back to full length by the next morning.
Samuel burbled. A pool of saliva frothed at one corner of his mouth before inflating with air. The bubble hung in place, refusing to burst.
Tofflepotts fought the smile inching across his mouth. The toothpick-sized faerie found delight in the tiny human oddities.
Another bubble formed on the child’s face. It emanated from his right nostril.
Tofflepotts found his delight tempered a bit.
Something scuttled along the ceiling. The coin-sized mass of inky-black raced across the walls.
Tofflepotts tracked its movements as his jaw hardened. He brought two fingers to his lips and released a piercing whistle.
Samuel squirmed in his bed, causing the tiny faerie to hold his breath once more.
Mortals were not supposed to be able to hear the tiny folk’s voices.
Perhaps he had whistled wrong?
His lips pressed together as his mouth pulled downward. Tofflepotts didn’t have the time to linger on the question. Rows of vibrant colors crept out from the dark places in the room. The scene emerging from under the bed reminded Tofflepotts of the brightly colored sticks of wax young Samuel colored with.
Countless faeries scrambled out of the dark. Each faerie’s hair was unlike any other’s within eyeshot. The closest, a bronzed male, waved at Tofflepotts.
Tofflepotts did not return the wave.
The approaching faerie wore a tattered collection of taupe rags.
Tofflepotts shut his eyes, recalling where he’d seen that color and material before. The family curtains in the living room. His frown deepened.
The drapery-wearing faerie stopped inches from Tofflepotts, snapping to a salute that shook his mess of fine, burgundy hair.
Tofflepotts returned the salute, eyeing the faerie’s shaggy haircut that fell to his eyes. It most certainly did not fit regulation. His own hair was exempt from the rules by the nature of his rank of course.
“General Tofflepotts!” The faerie quivered in place as his arms fell to his sides and his posture straightened.
More faeries pooled from behind the monstrous bookshelf, which towered to the same height as the child’s bed. It was like watching a neon washed rainbow flood the room. They ran towards him, a faerie carousel of color.
Each dressed in odd bits and bobs plucked from the house they guarded. One wore thin sheets of paper adorned in flowery print and held together by clear tape. Another was wrapped tight in a clear plastic with bulbous protrusions containing air, that if subjected to pressure, would pop to many faerie’s shock and delight.
Tofflepotts counted four dozen faeries. It was quick and easy math. All one had to do was total up the number of differently colored heads of hair. It was made easier by the fact Tofflepotts couldn’t in fact count. But four dozen seemed right to him.
And I’m always right, even when wrong, most especially right then. A short-lived smile broke over his face before it hardened again. He pointed to the ceiling.
All eyes honed in on his finger.
He stamped a foot, grinding it against the smooth polished wooden floor. “Not at my finger fluffle brains. Look!” He pointed again to the ceiling. “At that—that black ominous bulb of vileness!”
The faeries fixed their eyes to the darting arachnid. They gasped in unison, some raising a hand to cover their mouths. Seconds later, their faces mirrored Tofflepotts’. Each set their jaw and glared at the intruder.
General Tofflepotts snapped his fingers. “Formations!”
Four dozen or so—possibly less—faeries formed a sharp line.
“We all know how young Master Samuel feels about the icky bugs that nibble and feast on fingers and toes in the night, do we not?”
Faeries bobbed their heads in agreement. The bronzed, burgundy-haired one raised a hand.
“Arachnids,” said Puffle.
Tofflepotts blinked. “What?”
“Spiders are arachnids, not bugs.”
Tofflepotts took two steps forwards and jabbed a finger at Puffle’s chest. “Spiders are spiders, don’t you know? And, they bug Samuel. And bugs are bugs, isn’t obvious? It is so!”
The line of faeries nodded once again.
Puffle pursed his lips, titling his head. A second later he smacked the base of his fist into the open palm of his other hand. “Of course, it makes complete sense. This is why you’re in charge.”
Tofflepotts puffed his chest and harrumphed. He fixed his glare on the spider, which had stopped above Samuel’s head. The faerie general sucked in another breath. “It goes for his face! His face, his face!”
A chorus of angry faerie cries filled the air. They rushed to assemble.
“Quick-quick-quick, to the bed, to the bed!” Tofflepotts jabbed a finger several times in the direction of where young Samuel slept.
Faeries followed the order, sprinting towards it. They huddled together, locking hands and arms, forming a tight ring. Several faeries clambered atop them, adding to the formation. The process continued until a small, wobbly tower of little folk reached the lip of the bed.
Tofflepotts covered the distance to the tower of faeries as fast as he could. He came to a stop, his chest heaving as he looked for an old friend. “Where’s Savore?”
The teetering tower of faeries shook harder as countless little folk chittered an incoherent response.
“Here!” piped a voice.
Savore stood at attention, posture rigid, hands to her side. The faerie wore a short dress made from royal blue fabric, clearly pilfered from the dining room tablecloth.
The family would hardly notice the missing section.
Savore had pressed gold sequins to the dress, giving it a shimmering flair as well as much needed armament.
Always practical. Tofflepotts grinned at his lieutenant.
She tilted her head, eyeing him quizzically. “You called?”
He shook his head and sputtered nonsensically for a moment. “Urhm, yes! I did that.” Tofflepotts lost his train of thought as he stared at the object on her head. “What is that?”
She blinked several times. “What is what?”
The faerie general pointed to his head. “This, that!”
She squinted, leaning towards Tofflepotts. “That’s your head…”
“Not mine, yours!” Tofflepotts pointed towards her.
“That is my head, general.”
He sighed. Working with faeries was difficult. Most were not well equipped to handle the level of intelligence he possessed. He pointed again. “Not your head, on your head.”
“Why didn’t you say so?” She shifted her posture, balling her hands and placing them on her hips.
“I did, I did in fact, just now!”
She rolled her eyes. “That, this, is my hat.”
Tofflepotts’ eyes widened. “What’s a hat?”
“This.” She pointed with both index fingers to the object sitting atop her head.
He squinted at it. “It’s a thimble…”
Savore puffed up as if she’d been greatly offended. “It’s a hat for battle.” She gestured at it once again.
Tofflepotts stared harder at the object. It had been painted a soft, dark purple like eggplant dusted with sparkling diamond dust. A small ribbon of iridescent sapphire sequins wrapped around its base. They reminded him of dragon’s scales. A lone, bent brass pin protruded from one side. It clung to her head by way of a thin rubber band that went under her pointed chin.
The general found himself perplexed by the oddity. “What does it do?”
“It protects my head.” She wrapped her knuckles against the object.
His eyes swelled further. “Really?”
“I require one of these.”
Savore eyed him askance. “I don’t think the great general needs to protect what’s in his head.”
He pursed his lips and thought on that for a moment, coming to the same conclusion. Tofflepotts nodded. “Of course. My head is most safe as is what’s inside it.” He paused, licking his lips. “What’s inside my head?”
Savore folded her lips and looked away before turning back. “I think we’re forgetting something.”
The faerie general stared blankly. “Are we?”
She pointed up.
He fixed his eyes to her finger.
Savore stomped a foot. “Not my finger, what I’m pointing at!”
“Of course, I knew that. How any faerie could make that mistake is beyond me!”
Several faeries in the towered murmured in agreement.
Tofflepotts followed the finger and screamed before composing himself.
Savore gawked at him. “Did you just scream?”
He puffed his chest once again. “Of course not. You heard it didn’t you? It was a battle cry. War on the spider! Bring death!”
“Bring death!” shrilled the small army of faeries.
“Come-come!” Tofflepotts beckoned with a hand as he scrambled atop the first tier of tightly bundled faeries. He clawed his way higher, his heart leaping in his chest as nearly missed a step. He struggled for balance as his foot plunked down on a most strange surface.
“Oi, watch it, bumble brains—eeek—sorry, General Tofflepotts.” The mustard-yellow-haired faerie had the grace to look apologetic as Tofflepotts’ foot sat planted over most of his face.
“Kee, why is your face in the way of my foot?”
Kee had no answer for that.
“Ai!” Tofflepotts shook as a fist-sized area of his bottom blossomed in dull pain. He looked down.
Savore hung just below him, staring at him with her eyes narrowed. “Move!”
“Did you just punch me, your commanding officer?”
She shook her head. “Of course not. I would never strike such an important, clever and inspiration faerie leader.”
Of course not. No one would strike me! The logic held as far as General Tofflepotts was concerned. Hitting him was ludicrous.
“You must have imagined it, sir. The spider is real, however.”
“Right, right. Haste-post!” He scrambled faster and higher.
Savore sighed. “Post-haste, sir.”
“That too!” he called as he climbed closer to the top of the tower. Tofflepotts unceremoniously planted his feet atop the faces of a few more fae. The faerie general drowned out their disgruntled sounds as he dug his fingers into the fabric of the bed. His feet beat against the cushiony material as he struggled for better purchase.
Savore scrambled behind him.
Tofflepotts paused his ascent to glance at the spider.
The spindly-legged monstrosity hung from the ceiling, suspended by a silver, almost translucent line protruding from its rear. Its body sank almost the full length of a faerie. The creature juddered as it descended once more.
Tofflepotts’ jaw hardened and his hands shook.
“We’ll stop it, sir.” Savore followed his gaze, staring hard at the spider.
“Yes. We will.” Tofflepotts put two fingers to his lips and released a piercing whistle. Faerie bustled below to make their way to the bed’s surface.
A sound like hail striking a window rang clear over the pouring rain.
Tofflepotts and Savore turned towards the source.
It came from above the white shelf beside Samuel’s bed. Sitting atop it, legs dangling off the edge, was another faerie. His heels drummed against the faux wood with almost woodpecker-like speed. He waved a hand fast enough to cause Tofflepotts worry. Any faster and the limb would surely come off.
The general saluted the newcomer. “Ho, Gama!”
Gama, brushed his hands against the closefitting, rubber-like material clinging to his skin. The drumming ceased and he planted his heels against the shelf before pushing off.
Gama tucked his knees to his chest, tumbling through the air before straightening. He bent his knees and hunched, crashing into the soft base of the mattress. The faerie used his momentum to carry himself forward in a roll to absorb the impact. He sprung to his feet, turning around and bowing at the waist with a flourish.
“Show off,” Tofflepotts and Savore muttered in unison.
Gama dismissed the gripe, cricking his neck to the side and appraising the situation. He brushed a finger against his thick, dark mustache as he gazed at the spider. “Plan?”
Tofflepotts’ mouth twitched and he held his stare on Gama’s odd clothing. “Yes, we have one. What are you wearing? Why is it lavender?”
Gama’s eyes remained fixed on the descending spider. “Made it from a glove—rubber glove—very tight, comfy, and waterproof!”
Savore and Tofflepotts exchanged glances.
“Good for diving.” Gama made it sound as if it were obvious.
Tofflepotts didn’t think so. “Diving? Where, why?”
“Bathtub. Dangerous thing. No stopper, big trouble.” Gama twisted his torso like he was loosening his body. He bent at the waist, reaching for a sliver of metal pinned to his calf with a tiny zip tie. The latex-clad faerie plucked the sharpened piece of metal free and thrust it into the air in a gesture of challenge.
“Oh no. Gama, what do you think you are doing?” Tofflepotts raised his hands in a gesture of calm. “Think carefully, soldier.”
Gama ignored him and turned to face the bedroom wall closest to the descending spider. “Yip-yip!” He threw back his head and shrilled incoherently and charged the wall. “Yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip!”
Tofflepotts turned to Savore, wide-eyed and quivering. “Do something!”
Savore blinked, looking from the charging Gama to the spider. She yawned, particularly disinterested. “Oh no. Gama, don’t. Come back…” Her hands went to the brim of her hat, adjusting it.
Gama closed in on the wall at a ballistic speed, threatening to break through it. He released a final, “Yip,” and leapt. His legs kicked as he hit the wall and raced up it.
Tofflepotts’ jaw hung open.
Savore fiddled with her hat, unconcerned with Gama’s hasty, and reckless ascent.
“Yp-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip-yip!” The faerie yipped with each step he took and narrowed the distance between himself and the spider.
Tofflepotts sputtered a series of indiscernible words and jabbed an angry finger towards Gama. “Savore, what’s he doing? What are we going to do? I had a plan. He’s going to steal my, my…something!”
“Glory?” Savore wriggled her nose as she weighed the situation.
“Yes, that. Faeries, go, do the thing!” Tofflepotts pointed to the sleeping boy’s face.
The rest of the faerie warriors traded quizzical glances, unsure of what their orders were.
“Make sure the spider doesn’t land on his face and bite him, or worse!”
The faeries nodded, racing towards the boy’s feet. Several of them surrounded one of the child’s feet, protruding from his blanket. One fae clambered atop another, using her newfound height to reach for the tip of the boy’s loose, blue sock. She grabbed hold of the fuzzy piece of clothing and tugged hard. The sock inched its way up. A final tug cleared the sock from the child’s foot, the momentum sending the faerie tumbled back and off of her partner’s shoulders. She crashed to the bed with an oomph, buried under the garment.
The faerie scrambled free, taking hold of one end of the sock as other little folk grabbed additional bits of it. They raced with it atop the blanket, stepping as lightly as they could.
Tofflepotts directed them in with hand gestures in silence.
Gama pushed off of the wall, releasing a shrill war cry as he pirouetted through the air. The spinning faerie cast the metal sliver into a wide arc towards the silken thread suspending the spider. Gama’s scream reached its height and the blade severed the strand of webbing, sending the spider tumbling down and away from Samuel’s face.
The arachnid’s legs thrashed in the throes of spasmodic terror.
Tofflepotts threw his hands to his mouth, hooting several times. He raised a hand, extending his thumb before turning it upside down, hoping Gama caught the gesture.
The airborne faerie noticed the command and inverted his body, following the spider as it fell. He thrust his tiny blade out, angling his body to better follow the spider’s fall.
“Time it right.” Savore pointed at the spider, tracing its descent with her index finger. “Get ready…”
The spider closed on the bed.
The faeries stretched the sock out, shuffling in place in the hopes they had gotten it right.
“Death to the spider!” Tofflepotts drew his thumb across his throat.
“Death to the spider,” echoed the faeries.
The arachnid impacted the sock, bouncing once and writing.
Gama readjusted his body, leaning back and bringing himself to an upright position. He reversed the blade in his grip and cried out. “Ay-yi-yi-yi-yi!” His sword turned away most of the weak bedroom lighting, but managed to catch a glint before it plunged into the back of the spider. Gama’s feet struck the sock, sending him back into the air. He clawed at the fiend, fighting to grab hold of its legs.
“Mount rescue!” Tofflepotts jabbed a finger at the spider.
The faeries abandoned the task of holding the sock, sending Gama and the spider falling the last inch. They rushed to Gama’s aid and surrounded the thrashing arachnid. The faeries pummeled the spider without mercy. They bludgeoned it until its frenzied movement ceased.
Gama sprung to his feet, pulling his sword free. Viscous and gelatinous fluid clung to the weapon’s edge. His face pressed tight in disgust as he shook the ichor free of his sword. Gama tilted his head, eyeing the spider. With a flick of his wrist, he cast the sword into a tumble that cut clean the creature’s mandibles.
Tofflepotts and Savore exchanged a quick glance. “What was that for?” they said in unison.
Gama bent at the waist, snatching one of the fangs. He gave it a waggle. “Trophy, spoil of war, souvenir.
Tofflepotts eyed Gama askance. “Urhm, well, yes. Excellent. You…keep that why don’t you. Highly unsanitary, but, well earned.”
Gama snapped to attention, bringing the mandible to his forehead in an awkward salute.
Tofflepotts blinked before turning to address the rest of the crowd. “Well done, soldiers. Today, you have not only shown brave bravery, you have shown tremendous courage!”
Savore nudged Tofflepotts with an elbow and leaned in close. “Sir, brave bravery is redundant. Courage is the same thing.”
Tofflepotts’ mouth twitched. “Yes, well, they don’t know that do they?” He pointed a finger to the smiling faeries. “Let them enjoy their victory.”
Savore pursed her lips, but said nothing. Her gaze drifted to the far wall near the door into the room. “Victory is often short-lived.” She reached over and prodded General Tofflepotts, gesturing to the wall.
He turned, eyes ballooning at the sight.
A flat, black mass formed on the wall. It spread like a nebulous cloud of darkness. The blackness morphed across the wall like it aimed to cover every inch of it. After expanding without stop, it contracted, pulling into itself and taking shape.
Tofflepotts stammered incoherently, taking a step back while ushering Savore forward with a shove of his hand.
She stumbled a step in front of him, casting a glare of her shoulder. “That was most uncalled for!”
Tofflepotts pointed a quivering finger at the shadow. “Assess the situation, faerie!”
Savore tilted her head, eyeing the mass and taking a cautious step back. “It looks like trouble.”
Tofflepotts squinted. “Well, you’re not wrong. It is most troublesome looking.” Something black flashed by the edges of his vision.
Gama stepped to his side, waving the recovered spider mandible. He thrust it towards the shadow. “Yup, trouble.” He blinked as if considering something, then turned to the general. “We should stab it.” He gripped the mandible tight like it were a dagger.
Tofflepotts placed a hand on the excitable faerie’s shoulder. “Gama, I don’t think you can fight a shadow with a piece of a spider and your sword.”
Gama tilted his head, staring at the general as if he were speaking another language. “Why not?”
Tofflepotts blinked, taken aback by the question. He turned to Savore, giving her a look that asked for help. “Yes, why not?”
Savore rolled her eyes and turned her attention back to the shadow.
It’d taken a form much like that of a young boy. Most boys however did not sport a pair of horns sprouting from their forehead. Nor did a ridgeline of spikes race down their backs like minute, jagged mountains. The shadowy creature hunched over like it couldn’t hold itself upright. Its arms lengthened as did its fingers, becoming like the ends of a rake.
Savore swallowed audibly. “I think, sir, it’s a Nightmare.”
Little Samuel shivered once in bed as if the word alone had disturbed his sleep.
The Nightmare managed to turn its flat head and give the faeries a look like it could see them.
Tofflepotts found that an interesting feat for a creature with no eyes to pull off. “I don’t like this.” He recoiled another step, his attention turning to young Samuel. The faerie general realized he had no choice.
Duty trumped personal desires. It was a call to something greater—higher than oneself. He wasn’t in charge for the sake of being in charge. He had his position because he was trusted to do what was best for the young boy under his care. The same went for the faeries he led.
He inhaled deeply and puffed up his chest. “Aaatenn…shun!”
None of the faeries moved to obey, still reveling in their victory and unaware of the growing threat.
Tofflepotts quivered, letting his fury flow into his extremities. The tiny faerie vibrated in place and worked not to lose his head. “Attention, fuzzlebrains!”
Every faerie turned and raced to form a line. They snapped to a salute in robotic unison.
Tofflepotts clicked his heels together before spinning towards the wall. He thrust a finger at the shadowy monstrosity. “Faeries, the enemy comes to us in the form of a Nightmare.”
The faerie army gasped, some going as far as to lifting hands to their mouths. They stared wide-eyed at the wall.
Tofflepotts watched them quiver in place. He shifted his gaze to the wall without turning.
The shadow crept along, moving at a pace reserved for a worm. Every move came in a disjointed, spastic fashion like the creature couldn’t control its body properly. Bits of its mass trailed behind before snapping to follow the rest like it was made from stretched rubber.
The faerie general fought his body’s desire to shake. He had to set an example. Tofflepotts imagined an iron rod going along his spine. He snapped straight and pulled his shoulders back. “Do not fear, faeries.” He jabbed a finger at the shadow. “The enemy wants you to fear. That is what a Nightmare feeds on. It takes and twists the things you do not understand. It shapes the little doubts and fears you carry into larger ones. Do not let it. That is why they come in the night, why they lurk in the dark.” Tofflepotts put his hands to his mouth. “Coward!”
Savore and Gama exchanged a quick glance, catching onto what Tofflepotts was doing. They followed his lead, shouting out after him. “Coward!” Their cries echoed along with the general’s, showering the monsters in taunts.
An uproar reverberated in the spaces around the trio. The rest of the faeries joined suit, screaming at the monster in defiance. Their shouts washed over one another and prompted their skin to tingle.
The faerie general’s mouth split into a wide and feral grin. “Fear has no real power of us. It is a dirty trick. Something meant to shake us of our duty, our resolve. We will not have it!” He stomped a foot.
A thunderous stomp echoed back as the entire army mimicked his gesture.
“Fear is like a weed. It takes root and spreads. Once it does, it’s hard to beat back. So we pull it out. We tear it free. We tear free our fear. We conquer it, and the monster!” Tofflepotts threw his head back and let loose a roar of defiance.
Every faerie shrieked in unison.
A mass of white fur darted by the bottom of the bedroom door, slipping in as if in reaction to the faerie war cry.
The white, cotton ball-like feline bounded into the room and stopped halfway to the bed. Its hackles rose. The cat turned and glared at the shadow, letting out a spiteful hiss that managed to go unheard by the sleeping Samuel.
Tofflepotts breathed a sigh of relief. Faerie voices were magically obscured from the little ears of children, cats were not.
And they could be rather loud and raucous creatures.
“Hsst!” Tofflepotts beckoned to the creature with a hand wave.
The cat turned, its large chatoyant eyes gleaming. It stared at Tofflepotts and its pudgy mouth looked sunken as it tilted its head.
“Hsst. Yes, yes. You.” Tofflepotts waved. “Come here, beast.”
The cat snuffled and shook its head.
“Oh, don’t you play daft with me, you bloated uppity fluff brain.”
The cat’s eyes narrowed and it bared its teeth.
“Don’t you dare you fuzzle-faced-snortle-puff!” He pointed to the shadow, which had neared the edge of the first wall. “That is the enemy, not me.”
The feline seemed nonplussed.
Savore leaned in, putting a hand to the side of her face to muffle her speech from the cat’s keen ears. “Try being nice to it. They’re fickle things. Use its name.”
Tofflepotts blinked and looked for help. “Does anyone know what the human family calls that razor-clawed cotton puff with a stubby tail?”
The faeries murmured, but no one answered.
“Very well, then I shall name it.” Tofflepotts hollered at the creature, calling it close.
The cat approached gingerly, eyeing him as it drew near.
“Oh move on already. Hurry.” Tofflepotts moved to the edge of the bed, flashing Gama a wink. “I think it is time to take a page from your book.”
Gama’s lips pursed and he gave Savore a questioning look. “I don’t—we don’t—that is to say, sir, it’s dangerous.”
“I laugh in the face of danger!” The general threw his head back and cackled like a madman.
Gama and Savore’s faces went flat. They eyed Tofflepotts as if he’d lost his mind.
The cat sat at the foot of the bed.
Tofflepotts leapt. “Huzzah!”
Savore and Gama gasped and raced to the end of the bed.
The cat released a pained mrowl before settling itself.
Tofflepotts clung to the fur of the back of its neck. “There, there, calm. We are friends now, and for that, I shall name.” He pursed his lips, running his tongue around the inside of his mouth as if trying to identify a new taste that had graced it. “I shall call you, Emila Fuffletuff Von Snarklepuss de Pawsington.”
The cat shivered and bucked as if the sheer mention of the name caused it discomfort.
“Erhm, Emily for short?” Tofflepotts gave the feline a gentle and reassuring pat.
The cat agreed, settling and releasing a soft rumble.
Tofflepotts held tight and booted the sides of the animal’s head. “Very good then, Emily.” He raised a hand, chopping vertically through the air in the direction of the shadow. “Charge!”
The cat scrabbled against the floor, fighting for purchase before it made its way to the wall.
Tofflepotts held tight as they approached. He watched the shadow turn its attention to the oncoming pair.
It ceased moving towards young Samuel, instead jerking in place like it was being pulled apart by a million unseen hooks. Black particulates pulled into every direction before snapping back into the main mass. The creature seemed to be at odds with itself, fighting its own being.
The cat paused, rearing up and hissing in defense as one of the creature’s hands peeled away from the wall.
Tofflepotts stared in horror. The monster had pulled itself free from its two-dimensional confinement. He swallowed. “Well, that is rather unfortunate.” He gave Emily a gentle prod with his heels. “Come on now, no need to be a scaredy-cat.”
The cat bristled at the comment.
“Well, you are in fact being one. Charge the fiendish fiend, or stay put. The decision rests with you.”
A low burble formed in the cat’s throat.
The shadow shuddered, peeling its other arm free.
“Decide faster, please, little furry one.” Tofflepott’s eyes went wide until a chorus of angry cries filled his ears. He looked over his shoulder.
His faerie army had climbed down the bed, charging towards him.
He smiled, digging his heels into the cat. “Onwards you fuffle puff!”
The cat mrowled in a grumble of agreement and leapt towards the shadow.
Ink-like black unstuck itself from the wall, taking physical shape. It towered over the feline-riding faerie pair. The creature stood close to the height of the child, Samuel. It may as well have been a dark reflection of a human child. The Nightmare carried none of the light nor happiness that surrounded mortal children. Devoid of any facial features save a sinuous mouth that parted to reveal rows of needle-like barbs.
Emily hissed and lowered herself in challenge.
“Yes, yes, scare the scary thing back!” Tofflepotts leaned back as if shying away from the monster.
The Nightmare spread its hands wide and lunged, threatening to grab hold of the cat and faerie general.
Emily pounced to the right of the creature and deftly avoided its raking hands. The cat lost no momentum, coiling as it hit the ground and bouncing off again. She landed behind the shadow and jumped at the back of its leg.
“Yes, attack! Exactly as I planned, feline.” Tofflepotts pumped his fist, cheering the cat on.
Emily grabbed hold of the Nightmare’s leg, burrowing her claws into the dark mass.
The creature opened its mouth, a dry and hollow rasp left its lips. It shook and stumbled.
A faerie war cry rolled over him. The hairs on the back of Tofflepotts’ head stood on end. The subarctic chill went under his skin and prompted him to push the cat further. “Bite it. Bite the Nightmare!”
Emily obeyed, opening her jaws and sinking them into the back of the Nightmare’s knee. She wriggled her head and tore at the shadow.
The creature shuddered and released another hollow-sounding cry that echoed through the room.
Young Samuel jerked once in reaction to the noise. He settled a moment later.
Tofflepotts pressed his lips together and mused. The longer the battle went on, the more chances for the Nightmare to stir Samuel up and ruin his sleep. Worst, should they fail, the Nightmare would plague him all night.
Nightmares had a nasty habit of lingering with a child long after a night had ended. Gone unchecked for too long, they’d never let go of a young human’s mind. They’d cling, fester and grow over the years until profoundly changing a person.
Tofflepotts ground his teeth against one another. His fingers dug into the cat’s hair until his hands balled tight. He refused to allow that to happen to little Samuel. “Tear it apart, little foofle beast!”
Emily was of the same mind. The cat climbed up the shadow’s body, raking its mass in a frenzy.
The shadow thrashed and stumbled forward. Its hands went wild, swiping at and over its body in a failed attempt to bat the cat.
And then the faerie army descended on it.
They hollered and swarmed the creature’s legs.
Tofflepotts shook and fought to hold on as the cat clung to the Nightmare. He watched his faeries pull, claw, and tear at the shadow-monster’s feet.
The creature released a low drone before falling to a knee.
Seeing the dark monster fall invigorated the faeries. They shrilled and plucked at it like they were possessed.
“Tear it apart, housecat!” Tofflepotts jabbed a finger at the creature’s back.
The cat obliged and shredded its claws against the broad of the shadow’s backside. It tore lengthy furrows along the Nightmare’s body, digging through the black mass. Emily refused to relent, running her paws along the creature like a dog upheaving the earth.
Strands of former shadow fell to the floor like bits of black hair. Only, they riled and undulated like living worms. They flailed on the ground without stop as the faeries and cat continued to shred the Nightmare.
Tofflepotts eyed the stringy masses warily. Something felt odd about the Nightmare’s remains. He watched as a faerie broke off from the main body of the attack to address a thrashing strand of shadow.
It was Gama.
The overzealous faerie raced over to the piece of Nightmare and raised a leg.
“No, watch out!” Tofflepotts reached out with a hand as if almost desiring to pluck Gama away from his position.
Gama stomped on the on strand of shadow without pause. “You uppity, murfle, mumble, grumble, piece of—ayii-yooo!” Gama flailed in panic as the shadow took umbrage at his assault and fought back.
Dark matter flattened under the faeries foot before snaking out and coiling around his leg.
Gama shook his limb furiously in the hopes of freeing it from the shadow’s grip. “Get off me.” He dug his fingers into it and pulled.
The creature would not be deterred.
“Get off, this is my leg. You go find another.” Gama fumbled for his blade, snapping it out in a short slash that cut through the strand.
It parted into two slivers, thrashing before lashing out again.
“Oh no.” Gama leapt back.
“Emily, to his rescue.” Tofflepotts hooted and pointed to Gama.
The cat released its hold on the deteriorating Nightmare and landed on all fours. She scurried the short distance to Gama and raised its forepaws. Emily fell on the wriggling strands, flattening them to keep Gama safe.
The little faerie breathed a sigh of relief before looking up at the large beast. “Um, General Tofflepotts?”
“Yes,” said Tofflepotts.
Gama wriggled his mouth as if thinking before pointing to the cat. “I want one.”
Tofflepotts blinked. “Maybe after the battle.”
Gama saluted, bringing his blade a hair’s breadth from his forehead. He completed the gesture and leapt back into the fray.
It didn’t last long. The Nightmare fell in on itself, unable to hold together from the damage. Countless ribbons of black shadows rained to the floor. They wriggled and lashed out, reaching for the nearest faerie.
Every faerie scrambled away from the grasp of the living shadows.
The dark tendrils pulsated like liquid sloshed through them before contorting. They contracted into black balls that shook violently.
The faeries stood in silence, watching and on guard.
Spindly legs sprouted from each of the black balls. A set of eight ink-black eyes followed as did mandibles.
Spiders made from the remains of a Nightmare.
A cold chill went through the faerie general’s spine. “On guard! On guard! They might be like the Nightmare itself. Keep your distance!” He rubbed Emily’s head and leaned close so only she could hear him. “Stomp them all. Every last one of those foulsome things!”
Emily purred in delight and leapt towards the closest spider, flattening it. The cat went on a rampage, beside herself in pleasure at chasing down the scuttling arachnids. She batted one into the dresser before squishing it into a splotch of black.
The spiders ceased chasing the fleeing faeries and turned on the cat.
Tofflepotts wondered if they’d realized their mistake.
Emily pounced onto each and every one of them, occasionally flailing wildly with her front paws and squishing countless spiders. It wasn’t long before every bit of the former Nightmare had been pressed flat.
The puddles pulsed once like a last act of defiance before going still. Seconds later, the faded from sight.
Every faerie stood panting. Gama looked at his leg like he still harbored concern as to whether it was fine.
Tofflepotts exhaled and composed himself. The threat was over…for tonight. “Well done, faeries. That is one night concluded. But tomorrow is another morning to rest and recover, for tomorrow night brings new dangers. The night is scary and monsters will lurk in it. They will attempt to harm our charge. But will we let them?”
“No!” the faeries cried.
“No we will not. We will fight tomorrow night, and every night till the day Samuel no longer needs us. That is how you conquer fear. That is how you beat back the terrors. You fight every day and night until you no longer have to.” He pumped a fist into the air and the faeries mimicked him, echoing his cry as well.
One night complete.
Countless more to go.
And they would fight each and every one of them to keep Samuel, and children across the world safe and tight in bed.
I hope you enjoyed it.
Ninety-nine dollars isn’t enough to a save a life. It is however enough to piss off the wrong people.
Great start to my evening.
The halogen bright LED screen flashed blue as the pinhole-sized camera above registered my approach. White script scrolled horizontally across the ATM.
I ignored it and disregarded the bass solo in my chest. My breathing slowed and my heart rate followed. I pulled a sliver of metal out of the breast pocket of my shirt. The dull aluminum turned away most of the glaring screen’s light.
I pressed my thumb to the end of the blade and tapped the frame of my oversized glasses.
“Pairing.” The device vibrated between my hands.
A sharp hiss escaped my lips as I winced from the sudden flare of twin windows coming to life within the lenses.
“This isn’t fishy at all,” came a voice a few feet to my side.
Hooking a finger against the frame of my glasses, I tugged them down to eye my friend askance.
She arched a dark brow and ran a hand through her pixie-like black hair. “What?” Her fingers went to the stiff looking collar of her police uniform. She ran her hands against it and her face furrowed like she imagined the collar would choke her any moment. “This is uncomfortable, not to mention, nine kinds of illegal.”
I snorted, giving a gentle shake of my head. My glasses shimmied back into place. “Impersonating an officer is a single offense. I think.” I shrugged and extended a hand. “Key-sim.”
My friend scoffed. “You think. And robbing an ATM makes two.” She handed me the flat-tipped stick of the tool.
I flipped it in my grip and cast a wary look over my shoulder.
The Chicago skyline was a row of concrete monoliths washed in neon lights fighting a one sided battle against the darkening night.
If I didn’t hurry, it’d be the last skyline view, and not just for me.
I scanned a small panel of the ATM and found the button-sized hole I needed. It had a slender indent for a key, or my tool. I inserted the fibrous end of Key-sim in. Squeezing it until it went to work, taking the right shape inside. The panel popped open in seconds.
“Dammit, Lilah, you’re going to get us arrested.”
I worked without pause, fishing through a bundle of wires. A bead-sized light of iridescent green pulsed from behind the cables. “You’re supposed to keep us from getting arrested. Act normal, like there’s a stick up your ass and like you didn’t get paid today.”
“I didn’t get paid…” Her voice could have peeled the paint from the surrounding plastic paneling. “What do I do if someone comes to use the ATM?”
“Tell ‘em it’s in service and to give you their cash. Write them a deposit slip.” I grumbled to myself as I sent my hand into my pocket. My fingers closed around a thin tie and I pulled it free. With one hand I grabbed the bundle of wires tight, compressing them as much as I could. I looped the zip-tie around them and pulled tight. With the cluster of wires handled, I pulled on the end of my blade.
There was a moment of resistance before an aluminum endcap popped off. I pinched my fingers against the now protruding rectangular piece and pulled. It came free, trailing a silver braided cord as I tugged it along. I dragged it through the exposed panel, over the wiring and towards the blinking light. There was a moment of fumbling as I struggled to align the cable’s male end with the port within the ATM.
I sighed in relief.
The blue screens within my blade lens interface flashed to black. A white bar cursor blinked at the far edge—waiting.
My thumb brushed against a band of cool metal against my right index finger. The first of four metal rings on that hand. I hoped they were worth the price.
I pressed my thumb to the first ring while bumping the opposite end of my blade. The handheld computer shivered once in silence. A blue light pulsed at the end of the blade.
“Pairing. Paired.” The device shuddered again.
My fingers danced through the air, every intangible keystroke recorded by the NFC rings. They relayed messages to both the blade and my glasses.
I hammered out the code I’d committed to memory. “Here goes nothing.”
“Here we go to jail.”
“Try being an optimist, Kaycee.” I shook my head and poked the space in front of my index finger. The command went through. Any camera footage our presence would be erased. The built-in recording device would loop on older, clean footage.
“Fine, I’m certain our rather perky—well mine not yours—butts are going to jail. Happy?”
I exhaled a sharp puff of air through my nostrils. “Ye of little—”
Black turned to an onslaught of white as the screen strobed like a dying light.
I winced, shutting my eyes as I reeled. “Crap, I think we’re in trouble.” I could almost hear Kaycee swallow.
I opened my eyes and found the screen had settled. A single line of code at the top left caused cement to churn in my stomach. “Uh, how good do you think you’d look in orange?”
“I can make anything work, girl. Uh, I told you so. Oh, and did I mention, I hate you, and your brother.”
I flashed her a weak smile. “Sorry?”
“He’d better be worshipping at your feet after this.” She shook her head but didn’t turn to run.
Ninety-nine dollars can buy you a decent portable computer, but it can’t buy you good friends.
“Right, start the timer.”
Kaycee blew out a breath. “What’s the average response time for the PD?”
“Average here is six minutes and three seconds.”
I bobbed my head in silent thanks and returned to work. My fingers moved through the air like a master marionette puppeteer. Code raced across the screen and the cement in my gut hardened as another surprise ebbed into life on the screen.
A single watermark in faded white appeared in the top right.
I blew out a curse. “Make that three minutes and forty-three seconds.”
Kaycee spat out a string of profanity that could’ve embarrassed a drill sergeant. “Why’s that? No, go on, tell me. Better be damn good, because if the cops don’t shoot you, I sure as hell will.”
“The bank this ATM belongs too…it’s mob owned.”
“We knew that. I’m not seeing an issue.”
“Dirty cops on the take. Who do you think they’re working for? This is the same family giving them their cut.”
“Priority call. They’re going to hustle to protect their side income.”
Kaycee made a sound you’d use to urge a horse to move faster. “Hurry the hell up then.”
My face twisted into a scowl and I typed on.
The hardening concrete in my stomach chilled like winter ice had formed over it. I turned to the source of the voice.
The man was a living caricature of a Fat Cat. His generous stomach strained the buttons of his two-piece designer suit. Black may have been slimming, but the color couldn’t work miracles. His face creased as he pursed his lips and stared from the ATM to me.
We stared back.
A silent countdown went off in my head as I tried to keep pace with the all too real one the police were operating by.
One of the man’s hands went to his pocket, coming out a second later with a tawny envelope. The paper slip was stuffed thicker than a deck of playing cards and shook in his grip.
“Is the machine broken? I’m here to make a deposit?” He eyed me, then Kaycee.
To her credit, my friend didn’t miss a beat.
“Maintenance. Machine’s been having some issues with deposits. People have reported incorrect balance statements.” She held out her hand. “I’ll write you a receipt of deposit, that way there’s no mistakes.”
A silence fell between us. Quiet can speak all sorts of volumes however.
Ninety-nine bucks can buy you some things. For the rest, cheap online uniform suppliers work wonders. I hoped nothing was off about our attire.
Any unassuming—and in this case, unflattering—gray uniform can be passed off as something for janitorial or repair work.
Kaycee’s local police outfit required a bit more detail.
The devil’s in those, and the man eyed her like one.
I swallowed a golf ball-sized lump in my throat.
The envelope shook harder and the man looked down to it. His porcine-like nose twitched as he weighed the options. He nodded. “It’s four thousand in a mix of twenties and hundreds.”
Kaycee sucked a breath through her teeth. I could see the muscles around her neck tighten for a moment. She exhaled and took the envelope from the man. “I’ll have to count it, you understand.”
I caught her not-so-subtle cue and returned to work.
Two mins, twenty-five seconds before we’re in real trouble. No pressure. You got this. You got this.
I tuned out the conversation between Kaycee and the man. Another line of code went accepted by the operating system.
A series of X’s appeared and the denotation for a dollar sign.
I smiled. It was premature.
Three digits flashed into life in the top left of the screen followed by another triplicate. A series of four tagged along.
A phone number. And it didn’t belong to the police department. It was private.
The earlier dial out wasn’t to the cops then.
My heart pumped Freon through my bloodstream.
The bank’s owners were on their way.
I entered the sum of one hundred thousand US dollars. My pulse calmed a bit when the number was accepted. The screen informed me that it’d have to be closed out until the next business day for sufficient lack of currency to tender.
I pulled away from the machine as it shuddered, seeming more in protest of my actions than what was about to come.
A sound like rain on a tin porch emanated from the ATM and a torrent of pale green smacked into the pan below the blue screen.
Kaycee was by my side in a second, kneeling and plunking a silver briefcase to the ground. She snapped aside the security clips and opened the armored clamshell.
“How much longer?”
I hissed and scooped the first load of cash, heaping it unceremoniously into the case. “Not long enough. Besides, our company isn’t going to be of the officious nature, you know?”
Kaycee managed to fix me with a heated glare without even staring at me. “So the ‘Shoot first, shoot again,’ kind of people?”
I tilted my head to the side as confirmation.
She huffed out a breath and grabbed another bundle of cash.
I noticed a certain chunk of money had vanished. I arched a brow, giving her a sideways look. “What happened to that guy’s deposit?”
Kaycee gave me a smile that belonged in commercials. “Uh, I’m keeping that. Call it a bestie fee for helping you with this nonsense. I’m going to buy concert tickets, down payment on a car—textbooks.” She heaped another pile of money into the case as fast as the machine trundled it out.
I helped her while holding my gaze.
She caught my stare and her lips went tight. “Think I should I get the textbooks first?”
“College is a bitch.”
She snorted and shoved the last bit of cash into the case, flipping it shut. “Ain’t it? Right, let’s get out of here. I really hope your brother learns his lesson this time.”
I shrugged. “It’s possible, but, no matter what, he’s family.”
Kaycee sprinted to a black-and-white SUV parked at the curb. “You ever consider putting him up for adoption?”
You can’t always choose the people you call family. But, no matter their faults, some of them want to be good. You can either leave them on the ground when their down and need help, or, you can offer them a hand to pick them up. Some people would call that enabling.
I wasn’t one of them.
Sometimes if you help someone enough, they’ll straighten out. That’s a chance that needs to be taken, and the reward’s worth it.
If it meant meaning saving my little brother and getting his ass in line, I was willing to risk it.
Kaycee skirted around the front of the vehicle, toting the briefcase in a loose grip. The armored shell thunked once against the front grill of the SUV as she passed. My friend swung open the door, lobbing the case onto the back seats before she clambered in.
I raced to the passenger door and slid into place. My blade rested on my lap as I swiped through the air. Both displays pulled to the side as if they were snatched by an invisible hand. Jarring white filled the lenses. I shut my eyes for a second and listened.
Kaycee turned the key and the SUV shuddered to life with a series of burbles. “I still can’t believe you stole this.”
The corners of my mouth twitched, begging to spread wide. “I didn’t steal it. We bought.”
“Pfft, yo-kay, sure. How’d that happen again?” Kaycee let out a little laugh as she pulled the vehicle away from the curb.
“Police vehicles go up for government auction all the time. It’s usually after they’ve hit a certain mileage or have been battered up enough. It took me a solid day to get into their system. After that”—I leaned forward and banged a hand on the dash—“I convinced it that this SUV had already been up and sold at auction. Legally speaking, it’s ours.”
I could feel Kaycee’s stare.
“Okay, it’s less a matter of being ours and more of it’s not theirs anymore. Better?”
“Tch, not really. So where next?”
“Find the other ATM in Streeterville. The one we looked up.” I typed a quick query into the blank search engine. Jarring white melted into a backdrop of mottled slate with a black overlay.
The site was horribly dark and a pain to look at.
“Uh, Lilah?” Kaycee’s voice sounded like she’s gargled with sand and glass.
“Remember that call that went out?”
I nodded and tried to swallow the miniature, beating heart lodged in my throat.
“I think they got there just as we pulled out.”
I waited for the news to get worse.
“And I think that’s them following us in the rearview. Late 2030’s Cadillac SUV. That, or we’re being trailed by pimps.”
My lips pressed tight and I tugged the glasses down just enough to look at her. “I’m hoping its pimps.”
Kaycee blinked and cast a quick look over her shoulder. “Words I never thought I’d hear. Mom was right, I shouldn’t have hung out with you so much. Bad influence.” She shook her head and depressed the accelerator.
The vehicle lurched forward with renewed vigor as Kaycee turned the corner of the block.
I leaned to the side, eyeing the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of the vehicle tailing us. My stomach felt choked by barbwire. “They’re not running plates.” I jammed two fingers against the lenses, driving them back into place around my eyes.
With a quick succession of hand gestures, the screen shifted into a black command prompt. I returned to work.
“What are you doing?”
“Trying to talk to the brain on that thing. See if I can pull up the car’s VIN and find out who owns it. Meantime, hit the lights.”
“You want us to get arrested?”
“Who’s going to pull over a police car?”
Kaycee mumbled something under breath. I managed to catch the end of it, “—face.”
“You’re lucky, you’re driving. Talk about my face again and I’ll kick your ass.”
She snickered. “You need to kick the junk food before you think about kicking anything else.”
I inhaled a sharp breath and shifted in my seat. “I’m going to stab you—”
The deafening sound of a police siren erupted from the vehicle.
A spinning cascade of red and blue lights washed over my glasses. The colors and brightness refused to be dimmed by the dark lenses. My head struck the back of the rest as the vehicle picked up speed.
“Can’t hear you, Lilah. Sirens. Loud. Shit!”
My world snapped to the right and I had to brace a forearm against the door to keep from smashing my head against the window. “Damn. Drive straight.”
“I am. Screw you, road humper.”
I blinked. “What?”
“Asshole was straddling the end of his lane, coming into ours and then drifted into another before coming back—oh my god—don’t drive and send dick picks—dick!”
My throat seized in a battle between breathing and sputtering laughter. A few breaths later and I’d steadied myself. I returned to the command prompt.
“Crap, they’re still following us, and they’re getting closer.”
“How? Isn’t everyone moving out of our way?”
“Yeah, that’s the problem. Everyone’s out of their way too! And it’s not exactly I can pick this thing up and call for help.” She yanked the mic for the dash radio, shaking it before letting it fall.
“What?” She snarled and the world jerked to the left.
“Slam the brakes. If they’re hounding our ass, they’ll either stop or—”
“Be wedged up our butts. Can’t lie, I’ll try anything once, but, not a fan of that.”
“We’re not exactly going to lose them in this thing. It’s kind of ostentatious.”
“Whose plan was that? You couldn’t have stolen a KIA?” Kaycee didn’t argue the point further however.
The world ground to halt as I snapped forward. The belt went tight around my torso like I was being hugged by a python.
Metal and polyurethane crunched. The world shook harder and my brain felt like it was doing jumping jacks inside my skull. Brakes and rubber squealed in protest of the opposing force. The SUV rolled forward despite Kaycee leaning hard on the pedal to stop.
My glasses barely hung on my face, sitting at the end of my nose and the sides nearly off of my ears. “That was unpleasant.”
Kaycee coughed. “Why didn’t the air bags go off?”
“Rear end. We slowed down and the car’s armored enough.”
“Yeah, they didn’t slow down—shit.” She unbuckled her belt and flailed, looking to the mirror. “Dudes in suits, and I’m not talking the cheap government kind.”
She was right. Two men approached, dressed in the kind of clothes and with the looks that belonged in a crime noir thriller. They weren’t subtle about their motives. The sleek, burnished silver handguns that each held onto made it obvious.
“Hookay, they’re actually carrying.” Kaycee’s chest heaved and quickened with every passing second. She slammed the shifter into park. “What do we do?”
I slipped out of my buckle, fighting to stop the sudden increase in noticeable pulsing over my body. The arteries in my neck and wrist throbbed in unison. I stole a quick breath and grounded myself. “You still have the baton and spray?”
Kaycee glanced at me but nodded.
“Good. We’ve got one shot at doing this right.”
“And what exactly are we doing?” Kaycee shivered for a second before getting it under control.
“Go limp. Follow my lead.”
She acknowledged in silence. Her body went slack against the seat and her eyes half closed.
I follow suit and slumped. My brain tingled as numbers counted down. Each breath seemed heavier and louder than the last.
A garbled voice came from outside the window.
The door latch clicked.
“Now!” I spun on the seat, kicking out like my legs were pistons. My heels crashed into door, flinging it open.
A pained groan came from outside.
My fingers clawed into the seat as I hauled myself forward. I launched out of the car, reaching into my pocket. Cool metal filled my palm. I squeezed hard and wrenched the cylinder free. With a snap of my wrist, a narrow pole extended from the object.
The criminal righted himself and aimed the gun at me.
A cold chemical cocktail rushed through me in. It felt like my veins were snap-freezing from the inside out.
The notion of failing galvanized me more than the threat of being shot. I sank to a knee, casting the baton in a wide arc. Hardened composite material struck the gunmen in the soft tissue on the side of his knee.
He screamed and buckled.
My thumb pressed against a pea-sized bump on the baton handle.
Violent streaks of electricity crackled from the weapon’s tip. I twisted, sending it plunging towards his crotch.
His face tightened in something beyond pain and his body contorted in silent agony.
A scream from the other side of the vehicle tore my attention away from the gunmen.
I cast a look over my shoulder and through the open doors to see Kaycee standing above the other assailant.
She bore down on him with a small canister spewing a concentrated cone of pepper spray. Kaycee’s foot lashed out, kicking the gun from his grip. In a fit a poorly thought outrage, she flung the can at him full force.
He recoiled, pawing with renewed intensity.
Kaycee followed up with a series of kicks to his legs with one in between them for good measure. She raced back into the car, chest heaving. Her eyes carried a wild light in them.
I raised my knee to my chest and stomped.
There was a crack like dry twigs breaking. A shrill scream followed.
I dove into the SUV, fumbling for my belt. My fingers fumbled over the metal clip in an adrenaline fueled craze. A snap-tug of my hand sent the belt across my waist and clipping into place. I exhaled what felt like all of the air in my lungs. The hyperawareness left with it.
Kaycee placed the vehicle back in drive while I cast a wary look over my shoulder.
“Shit. Just shit.” Kaycee shook in her seat, her hands coming to the side of her head as if to hold it steady. “We just… Those were… Shit.” Her breathing quickened despite being visibly taxed from the short fight.
“I know. Hey, yeah, that was…” I touched two fingers to my throat, feeling for my pulse. My hand shook as I held it there. “I feel you.”
“No. No, you don’t.”
“Fair enough, K.”
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry.”
“Is sorry worth a new sense of calm for me?”
I pressed my lips tight to keep from laughing. “Not really, no.”
She waved me off with a hand. “Then I’m collecting from your delinquent brother. Make me get almost whacked by the mob. Make me rob an ATM. Make me steal a police vehicle. My ass.”
I held up a finger as a silent gesture of correction. “You can take the mob.”
She eyes me askance, quirking a single brow.
“You didn’t rob the ATM. I did. And you didn’t steal the car.” I flashed her a grin.
She didn’t return it. “Girl, if my ever-so-fine butt is occupying the driver’s seat—and it is—then I’m saying I stole it. Give me my dues.”
I relented and bowed my head in acquiescence. “Fine. Fine. Just get us to the other ATM we talked about. We’ll do this one faster.”
Kaycee mumbled something under breath.
I couldn’t make it out but the general tone and context had something to do about an electronic device, my genitals, and a bunch of ice.
Kaycee was a poet at heart.
The discontent grumbling kept up as she brought the damaged SUV into a shopping center. A carousel of fluorescent colors illuminated the square, emanating from each of the many stores.
“There.” I pointed to a small run-of-the-mill hardware store sitting recessed in a wall of gray stone.
Kaycee’s fingers drummed against the steering wheel. It wasn’t a fun, rhythmic beat.
She flashed me a look that told me she wasn’t.
I reached out and put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. “Hey, thank you.”
Her drumming stopped and she looked at me.
I gave her the most sincere smile I could. “Couldn’t have asked for a better friend. Thanks, K.”
There’s something about the simple words, the honest ones. Words like, thank you. Telling someone that they genuinely mean something to you. That you give a damn that they give one back. It can help settle the most frazzled nerves and renew someone’s spirit.
She nodded more to herself than me. “I got you. And after this, you’re getting me drinks until I forget everything.”
I snorted and agreed.
Kaycee pulled the police vehicle into a spot and parked. She exited the vehicle in silence, steeling herself for a repeat performance.
I gave her all the space and quiet she needed.
We moved towards the machine with the sort of weary resignation that comes with working a full day.
I repeated the earlier process, occasionally shooting looks to my sides to ensure no one found our activity suspicious. I made every effort to ensure my glances looked like nothing than a reprieve from staring at the insides of the machine.
Do anything with enough confidence and an air of boredom, and people will think it’s natural.
“How long we got with this one?”
My mouth twitched. “That’s weird. No timer. No silent call went out…to anyone.”
“Don’t we need these guys following us for your plan to work out?”
“Ideally, yeah. Get the case.” My attention remained fixed on finishing the last bit of code.
Something heavy plunked down by my side. A black, nondescript briefcase that could’ve belonged to any banker.
“Way ahead of you on that one.” Kaycee booted it over with the tip of her foot before falling to a knee. She thumbed the clasps open and spun the case to face me.
My fingers finished typing through the air.
The ATM remained disconcertingly silent. A sound like flipping through a deck of cards emanated from its center before the dispensary slot opened. Cash slid out as fast as we could rake it into the case.
I yanked the link to the internals of the machine and replaced the paneling. “Dump the case in the back seat with the other one.”
Kaycee grunted as she moved off. “You still haven’t told me how to plan to get them to follow us. You know the first family hasn’t forgotten. They’ll be tailing us too.”
“I’m going to call them.”
Kaycee sputtered as she reached the rear passenger doors. She pulled the door open, tossing the case unceremoniously into the car. “You’re going to call them?”
“Yup.” I headed to my seat, opened the door and buckled in. “Start the car and take us back on the road. I’ve got two calls to make.”
Kaycee pressed her lips tight and gave me a sideways glance. She said nothing, turning her gaze ahead.
I held my blade in my left hand, sliding my thumb against the length of it. The end flashed once as a beep emanated from my lenses. One lens morphed into a background of black with an array of white numbers. I moved a finger through the air, keying in the first number I had committed to memory.
The temple tips of my glasses thrummed behind my ears. A line trilled.
Someone answered. “You’re calling from a blocked number. Who is this?”
“The girl with the fifty grand you asked for.”
Silence, but the line was live.
“There’s a warehouse in the Fulton River District. Unmarked, old brick place.” His lips smacked audibly together. He gave me an address that I seared into memory.
“How’s my brother? I want to hear him. Put him on.”
My heart somersaulted into my throat just below my jaw. It felt like I’d swallowed a pulsating balloon, inflating without stop until it threatened to suffocate me.
Someone coughed. It was a dry thing like they’d gargled with a mix of sawdust and broken glass.
“Lye, that you?”
My throat tightened in response. It wasn’t an act. Nobody but that little mischievous shit would have known to call me by my nickname. “Yeah, Tycho, it’s me.”
He sniffled and racked his throat hard. “I’m sorry. I totally fah—”
“You heard ‘em, he’s fine. Bring the money he owes and his debts are squared. After that I recommend you get him out of town…permanently. Your brother’s got a nasty habit.”
My teeth gritted against his each to the point I was worried about cracking them. “Sure thing.” I didn’t give him the pleasure hanging up on me. I slid my thumb against the blade, terminating the connection.
Kaycee let out a low whistle. “Well, that was tense. What now?”
“I make the call that’s going to screw them every-which-way to Sunday, and K, it’s only Tuesday.”
Her mouth moved in a series of micro-twitches like a rabbit’s. “Uh, I don’t even know what that means, but props, you made it sound scary.”
Kaycee raised a hand. “Chill. How ‘bout giving me some directions?”
She had a point. I exhaled and flipped into a navigational menu on my lenses. “Out Streeterville. River North, Fulton River District is where he said. There’s a storage facility there.” I gave her the exact building address.
“You think it’s one they own? We all know some cops on the force are taking cuts and not logging electronics they pick back up off the streets. They’re keeping ‘em and reselling ‘em.”
“I don’t doubt it.” I took a breath to steel myself before dialing another number. The line rang as I pulled my glasses from my face. I yanked the connection cable from my blade and plugged the micro-sized tip into the small port in the lenses. A silent prayer went through my mind hoping that the voice distortion would work.
I placed them back on just as they answered.
“Whoever this is, you’ve better have one helluva damn good reason to be calling right now.” A chorus of angry yelling tinged with more profanity came from the background.
“I know who robbed you. That’s why you and your boys are throwing hissy fits right now, yeah?”
Another bout of silence.
I guess the mob and police force took drama classes together.
“Be real careful what words come outta your mouth next.”
My jaw tightened for a second. “You want your money, get your boys looking for this plate.” I gave them the vehicles license plate number. “Black SUV, it’ll be in the Fulton River district in a bit. Your money will be on the rear passenger seats of the car. You can take up the theft with the owners. Better hurry. Or, you’ll never see your hundred grand again.” I followed up by listing the same address the crooked cops had given us.
“You think you can—”
I ended the call. Yes, I can. And I did.
I’m not a vindictive person, but it felt good being able to stick it to three collective groups of scumbags in an evening.
“So, you gave them the deets on the car we’re driving. That’s cool. Cooool.” Her fingers beat against the wheel without pause. “Cool.”
“Say ‘Cool’ one more time.”
Kaycee huffed out a breath. “I don’t know if you see the flaw in your plan, but let me highlight you on it. We’re in the freaking car right now! The car you told them how to find? I mean come on, how long before those goons are on the road—by the way, there’s not a zillion roads to where we’re going—and come looking for us?”
“K, breathe. Attitude, not helping. We want them to find the car. Not us. So, step on it and get us there fast.”
Kaycee’s chest heaved several times before she relaxed. “They need invent a Zen shot. I swear, you’re bad for my blood pressure.”
I didn’t respond. I couldn’t argue her point, and I hated losing arguments.
We arrived in the district without another accident, which was a small relief. Minutes passed before Kaycee found our way to the address we were given.
The officer’s description was close enough. The building was aged brick that was losing the test against time. Pitted mortar with some holes that had clearly had a more ballistic origin. The building was the color of a washed out macaroon, a sickly pale yellow.
Kaycee pulled the vehicle into a spot near a burgundy industrial steel door.
Cheap metal garage doors blocked any passage inside.
“We get out and finish this thing. Where’s the third case?”
Kaycee gestured over her shoulder with her thumb.
I leaned back, snatching the battered cheap case.
It had belonged to a travelling artist, used to store his small prints as he travelled to conventions across the country. The cheap black and brown vinyl covering peeled and sported holes from years of bumping into things. Our father had left it to Tycho, filled with my brother’s own scribbles from his youth.
My hands shook as I opened. Kaycee’s hand fell on mine, giving it a gentle squeeze.
“I got you, girl.”
“Thanks.” My voice came out harsher than expected.
She fetched the other two cases and popped them open.
We shoveled fifty grand from each of the other cases into my father’s.
“That should do it. Here.” I rolled my wrist and flourished with my hand, producing an antiquated looking key.
Kaycee plucked it from my grip, looking it at like it was a foreign object. “Uh, you shouldn’t have?”
“It’s a car key.” I flashed her a smile. “This isn’t our only ride.” I patted the dash.
Her eyes widened. “You jacked another car?”
I shook my head. “I convinced the same auction that another vehicle sold—legally—to us. Was a bit of a pain to do. Police impound lots of cars. Some end up selling after long enough. This is ours now.” I gestured to the back end of the lot where a random series of cars sat parked.
Kaycee turned the key over, sputtering at the emblem. “You stole one of these?”
I nodded. “Dump this in the trunk and wait inside. Lay low, be ready to start and get it going.”
She nodded, exiting the SUV with the briefcase in hand. Kaycee sprinted over to the far side of the lot.
As soon as she vanished from sight, I shut the silver briefcase from the first bank heist. A few breaths helped settle the electric convulsions in my stomach. I leaned into the door and shoved it open with more force than necessary. My thumb moved to lock the doors on instinct, but I restrained. Instead, I flicked unlock switch.
I took one last look at the vehicle, and the remaining the briefcase on the back seat. Shaking my head for clarity, I sucked in another breath and headed towards the burgundy door. The base of my fist bounced off of it several times.
Something heavy clicked on the other end.
An officer in his mid-forties with a sharp, military cut, opened the door. He was built like someone whose diet consisted of protein shakes and anabolic steroids. His dark eyes fell to the case in my grip. He moved out of the way in silence.
I stepped inside, casting a wary look around the place.
The warehouse was dimly lit by a series of weak yellow bulbs that flashed intermittently. Rusted steel racks lined the walls and much of the interior space. Colorful cardboard boxes and bare electronics filled each shelf.
I bet that none of those items had been paid for. But they were damn sure going to be sold for a buck.
I fell in step behind the walking supplement advertisement while brushing my free hand against a pocket. My baton was still there, just in case I needed it. I hoped I wouldn’t.
The silent mountain of muscle led me to the center of the warehouse.
A trio of officers stood around a chair.
My brother sat unrestrained in it.
One of the officers had a gun leveled at him. The man was something pulled out of the eighties, from his long, mustache, to the sunglasses indoors. He had the same haircut at the musclebound freak.
They all did.
Nice to know they got a group rate at their local barbershop.
I threw the case at their feet. “It’s there. All fifty g’s.”
The rake of a man with the gun nodded a fellow cop on his right. “Check it.” He looked back to me. “See? He’s fine.” The officer took a step forward, whipping out his hand. The barrel clipped my brother across the temple, sending him out of the seat to the ground.
He coughed on the ground. Scrabbling to his feet. Tycho brushed hands across his stained white shirt and his faded jeans.
The cop waved the gun in admonishment. “Ah, hold up, kid. Not so much moving until my buddy’s done counting.”
Tycho’s mouth opened but he shut it. Instead rubbing a hand through his dark, ear length hair. “Sorry.” He didn’t look at anyone, but I could tell the comment was directed at me.
The kneeling officer grunted for the attention of the gun toting ass. “It’s all here. Fifty whole and large like she said.”
A feral smile spread over the man in charge’s mouth. “Who says crime doesn’t pay?” He looked around to his crew who burst into a fit of laughter almost on cue. “Take your brother. Free advice, don’t let him gamble in this town again. And, quit cheating, or, don’t get caught.” Another chorus of laughter filled the room.
Tycho raced over and wrapped his arms around me.
I placed a hand on the back of his head. “I got you. You’re good. Let’s get out of here.” I led the way until the unmistakable sound of gunfire thundered from the entrance. My fingers closed tight around my brother’s wrist as I led him down a hall comprised of towering metal racks. “Stay low and keep moving.”
He nodded in silence.
The officers had drawn their guns, waiting rooted in place.
Seven men, all dressed like the ones who’d rear-ended us, sprinted through the way the officer had led me down. The fanned out in a semi-circle facing the officers.
I tugged on Tycho’s wrist to remind him to keep moving.
“The fuck’s this?” One of the mobsters jabbed his compact machine gun at the case.
The officer frowned. “It’s one of my deals, why? Got shit to do with you.”
“Yeah? Funny, cause sitting out there is one of your cars. Same car some of my boys hit earlier for jacking us. Take the case.”
Three of his men moved to take the case.
The officers trained their guns on the mobsters. “Like hell.”
I jerked Tycho harder. “Move.”
We kept low, doubled over as we navigated through the aisles. Both of us made it to the door, stopping as we noticed the series of dents and holes concentrated around the lock.
I shut my eyes and pulled it, hoping it wouldn’t make too much noise.
It groaned in protest, but nothing loud enough to draw attention.
We slipped through it.
I jabbed a finger to the far end of the lot. “Silver car, see it? Run.”
He nodded and broke into a sprint that I matched.
“Shut up. Don’t mention it. Never do it again, or, next time, I’ll kill you.” My lungs strained from the effort of talking and running.
A staccato of thunder cracked out from inside the building.
It was nice to know that some people never learned how to use their words to solve problems.
We stopped when we neared a silver, black-topped coupe.
“Where did you get this?”
“Shut up, Tycho.” I rapped my knuckles on the rear bumper of the mid-2000’s Porsche 911. “Kaycee, drop the top. Open up.”
The vehicle flashed as the doors unlocked. A second later, an irritated burble emanated from the rear of the car as it shook into life. The top folded back.
I hopped the door, landing into the passenger seat. “Shotgun.”
Tycho grumbled something and tumbled over into the vehicles half-bucket sized rear seats. “Dad’s briefcase?”
“Got a going away present for you. Booked you on a train, thought you should take that. Get out of town. Call when you’re safe, ‘kay?”
He nodded without a word.
Kaycee hissed and grabbed my shoulder. “Duck!”
We did in unison.
“What’s up, K?”
“Another SUV. Another group of not-so-friendly looking dudes.”
I smiled. “The other family I called. They’re about to find their stolen money in the back of a police cruiser, and those officers inside…with another family.”
Kaycee eyed me. “Girl, you scary.”
I gave her wolfish smile. “When it comes to family, damn right.” I took a peek and noticed the men had entered the warehouse. “Safe. Back up out of here and let’s go.”
Kaycee matched my feral grin. “Don’t have to tell me twice. We’re keeping the car, right?”
We tore off down the road, enjoying a rip-roaring soundtrack only six figures of car can deliver.
Sometimes crime does pay.
I looked over the seat at my younger brother.
And sometimes it saves.
Thank you for taking the time to read this short story. I hope you enjoyed it and leave a comment below!
A new free short story from yours truly. An old piece I wrote in my Literature of Science Fiction class. I hope you lot like it. 🙂 Enjoy and leave comments folks. Share it!
Copyright and Published 2016
The Drift, imagine the first leaves of autumn, tumbling through the air—without direction—flowing—freely. That’s your mind in the Drift, freefalling through someone else’s subconscious—consciously.
It’s as hard as it sounds.
Tresses of spun gold filled my sight, she was cream completed with a smile made for toothpaste commercials. Denim blue eyes greeted me, and her smile widened. Her face blurred, pulled from view like smoke in the wind.
A small dog yapped at my leg, stubby tail twitching in excitement. The corgi pawed at my shin, making every effort to climb up me. It too—faded.
Voices rang around me, they were a distant echo, unclear but loud enough to be distracting. The Drift slipped, and I was aware of the briny solution supporting my body, its coolness on my skin. The sensory deprivation was overwhelming. The utter lack of all sensation threatened to tug me from my meditative state.
I stilled my breathing for a ten-count, my heart quickening as I did. The Drift and its depth returned. I continued to dream.
A small house, the side boarding was the sort of color used to define lush forests. An address, 2101, in chunky metal lettering, ran vertically next to the door. The mailbox was stuffed with letters of a depressing nature, but it didn’t matter. A beautiful girl sat in my lap, her head against my shoulders as we sat on the couch. My fingers idly trailed over the short fur of the dog, dozing contently on the floor.
And it was—all-of-it—taken from me.
My throat was raw, spittle left my mouth as I continued shouting. The well-dressed man with the crooked smile, remained calm as he explained things. My fingers tightened and my fists balled. There was a sharp crack like bone meeting flesh, my knuckles left quite the imprint. It didn’t help my cause.
First the house, lost to paperwork, bureaucracy, and the indecent—predatory nature of corporate man. Then the girl, she buried herself in a bottle to cope. At first it was manageable, soon, like the house, she was gone. Hardest was the ever cheerful corgi, who, through poverty, remained happy and loyal. He didn’t leave through choice, but necessity, a decision that didn’t make the action easier to live with.
Moisture obscured my vision, trailing its way down my cheeks. There was a squirming bundle of fur in my arms, yapping. I refused to walk inside, instead handing him off to the couple, listening to their promises of caring for him. Pride made me turn down the small offering of cash. I didn’t give him away for money. I did it so he could eat.
A rush of air flowed around me, pulling me from the visions. I heard voices again, sounding like they were coming from underwater. The reds of my lids were all I could see. Light peppered me, causing me to squeeze my eyes tighter.
“Get him out,” someone barked.
Hands wrapped around my arms, lifting me out of the liquid. I inhaled like a drowning man as my face broke through the surface of suspension fluid. I squinted in the face of the jarring overhead industrial lights.
“Put me back in,” my chest heaved as I breathed in ragged gasps.
“You’ve been under for three minutes man.”
He was dressed like the others, uniformed in black tactical gear, beige skinned, a few days of hair growth on his face. His amber eyes regarded me with caution, a glint drew my gaze to his chest. A small metallic shield was pinned to it, the gold reflecting bits of light.
“Put me back in, Abe.” I repeated.
He ran a hand through his disheveled dark hair, “You’re pushing it, you wanna go in so deep that you end up in a coma?”
I tried to speak, “Abe—”
With a dismissive hand, he cut me off. “Worse, you wanna end up thinking like that guy? You know the risks, don’t be stupid. Too much time in his head and you’ve got a shot at ending up a criminal yourself.”
“What’d you get?”
“Nothing we didn’t know already,” I said through gritted teeth. “Put me back under.”
He shook his head, but waved to nearby men, motioning for them to help. “One minute, that’s it. Got it?”
“Make it count, or guess which two guys are getting the shaft from the Captain?”
Ignoring the warning, I slid back into the egg-shaped chamber, slipping under the liquid. My fingers trailed over the electrodes on my temples, they still had a firm grip on my skin. Three slow breaths and I was falling under again. The lid closed shut with a hiss.
One word: Dickerson, ran through my mind.
Cold metal sat beneath my fingertips. I brushed over it with precision and care. Dim lighting showed the various parts of the rifle laying disassembled around me. Other men sat at identical tables, laboring to take apart and clean similar weapons. A flat paneled screen flared to life on the wall, there was no image, just a voice. A prerecorded message droned about the failings of the government, of political ineptitude, of corporate greed. It served its purpose, spurring the men to redouble their efforts and attention to the tasks at hand. The image washed away.
Dickerson echoed in my thoughts again.
A recruitment poster sat on my lap, an old picture of Uncle Sam. The face was replaced with a Jack from a set of standard playing cards. In chaotic bold letters, it read: Jack Mayhem wants you. Make a difference. I folded it back up, tucking into my back pocket. Blackness ensued; another memory took its place.
I looked down at the floor by floor layout of a skyscraper. A blueprint lay beside it.
I lost sight of it all.
Various drawings hung on the wall, a neat row of materials were arranged on the table before me. Moldable plastique, metal tubing, stripped wiring and an array of chemicals.
Noise, it was like a freezer door opening. There was no ceremony this time, lights shone down, hands gripped me, pulling me out. I was pulled from the Drift.
“Hey, what’d you see?” asked Abe, punctuating each word with a slap to my cheeks.
The world was set to the tumble dry setting, spots of light danced before my eyes and everything continued to seesaw. Abe’s fingers pressed tight around my skull, cradling it as he shook me gently.
“Nick, I warned you man, come on!” My cheeks stung, there was definitely going to be a welt after that one. “Burke!” he snapped.
I blinked several times, clearing my head and vision.
A row of officers stood behind Abe—waiting.
“Bomb.” I said, my voice stone. “He’s built a bomb.” The words hung in silence after I said them.
Abe was first to speak. “That means move, guys!” Officers shot into action behind him, scattering around the warehouse. “Here,” he pressed a clean terrycloth into my hands.
I looked at him, arching an eyebrow. Abe ran a finger beneath his nose, rubbing it back and forth. Salt and iron rolled over my upper lip, I pressed the cloth to the spot Abe pointed out. When I pulled it away, the pristine white of the cloth was marred by a crimson splotch.
Abe gave me a knowing look, “I told you not go back under.” He waved an admonishing finger.
I shook my head, placing my hands on the edges of the pod, lifting myself out of it. “Get me a bigger towel than this man, I’m soaked.”
“Diva,” he muttered as he went to a nearby table, snatching a length of plush cloth from it. “Catch,” he tossed it towards me.
Drying myself, I wrapped the towel around my waist and headed to a makeshift changing area. Abe called to me from the other side. “Find out anything else?”
“Yeah,” I replied. “It’s a conversation best had when I’ve got my pants on.”
I stepped out fully dressed in uniform. Abe handed me a paper cup filled with black gold. “Please tell me this ain’t from our machine?”
Abe rolled his eyes. “Santos made a coffee run.”
I nodded, taking a sip, praying the caffeine would hit me fast. Grogginess and lethargy weighed me down, another side effect of the Drift.
“I saw a lot, man. But I’ve got the feeling it might not be enough. He lost his home, his girl, his dog.”
“Rough,” Abe commented.
“Yeah,” I agreed over another sip.
“So… a bomb?”
“From what I could make out, looks like he’s part of that anti-big government—corporate extremist group. The one with that stupid Jack playing card figure head.” I said.
“What? That Jack of Mayhem guy? Pops up on random screens with a mask, lecturing in fake British accent about corruption and stick-it-to-the-man crap?”
Abe shook his head, “Bunch of jackasses following an even bigger one. Stupid name too.”
I grunted in agreement.
“What now?” he asked. “We’ve got a bomb threat, and one of the guys behind it in a Drift Pod. I mean it’s not like we can ask him? He ain’t gonna cooperate.”
“Still wish we could’ve done this at the precinct—”
“And what?” Abe interjected. “Use Drift tech there? You know how much those civil rights groups are riding up on us. It’s unethical, it’s not right, inhumane,” he mimicked in a nasally tone. “Yeah,” he spat, “unethical until there’s a bomb threat. Captain told ’em we don’t even use it anymore,” he finished, giving me a sidelong glance.
“Burke—Patel,” chimed a voice.
We turned to face the source of the voice. He stood a couple inches over six foot, dark skinned and solid built. Lines ran under his brown eyes, a weariness hung in them. His hair was steely gray from age and the stress of the job.
“Captain,” we replied in unison.
“What’d you get?”
I told him.
He squeezed his eyes shut, exhaling, “I don’t need this right now.” Seconds later he opened his eyes, glaring hard. “Find it, I don’t care how, find it. I don’t want tomorrow’s paper headlining an explosion. Got it?” His tone made concrete seem soft.
Abe and I nodded. Captain Braugher spun on his heel and marched off.
“Better find something out Nick, else you’re in trouble.”
“We’re in trouble,” I corrected. “Partners, right?”
“Yay,” he droned. “Sinking together, huh?”
“Patel, got something!” hollered a voice. Abe faced the slender man running towards us. Short hair, tanned skin, on the lanky side. He stood out among the rest of us, the only one wearing slacks and a shirt reading: People don’t kill. Robots do!
“What’s up Santos?”
Santos doubled over, resting his hands on his knees, “Aside from my heart rate?”
“Do more cardio kid, take a break from the computers.”
“Shut it Patel,” he said, laboring to breathe. A minute later, Santos righted himself and held up several print outs. “Alright, Curtis Palowski, thirty-one—”
“Skip the AA introduction,” I said.
Santos huffed a breath, flipping through some of the papers. “Fine, guy lost his home recently to a financial scam—”
“It happens,” chimed Abe.
Santos glared at him in cold fury. “Interrupt me again Patel, and I’m going to take your coffee and give you an enema with it.”
I barked out a laugh, Abe stood there, blinking.
“Like I was saying,” he said, eyeing Abe as he continued. “Guy lost every financial asset to that scam by Trott and Dickerson—”
“Dickerson?” I blurted.
“Give me your coffee, Nick!” Santos growled. “I’m going to shove it so far up your ass, you’re going to taste it!”
I raised my free hand in a gesture of placation. “Whoa, calm down, it’s something I picked up in the Drift.”
He seemed mollified. “Yeah?”
“Yeah,” I nodded. “It kept going through my head, it was like a whisper.”
Santos waved a hand, motioning for us to follow as he walked towards a desk lined with monitors.
Abe and I fell into step behind him as he led us to his nearby workstation.
He fell into his seat unceremoniously, the chair spinning a bit before he stopped it. Santos’ fingers blurred over the keyboard, screens flashed and seconds later we were looking at a singular image stretched over the monitors. Making a flourish with his hands, he gestured to the picture, “Meet Richard Dickerson.”
I had to fight not to laugh. Someone’s parents must not have loved them.
The man on the screen had a weathered face that screamed “Greed.” If any person could’ve been a physical embodiment of corruption, aging badly, and the stereotypical “Fat Cat,” it was him. He had eyes of faded china blue. One of them was obscured by a lock of shoulder length gray hair. The guy wore a suit that looked like it’d cost more than my second hand card. His crooked smile made me reach back to make sure my wallet was still there.
“This is the man behind the investment banking scandal of 2039. He got tons of people to buy into worthless stock, inflating it, and then dumped it. His company raked in billions, with a capital B. Left a lot of people with nothing, some less than nothing. Lot of innocent folks ended up owing tens of thousands upwards, after having all their assets taken and liquidating what they could.”
Abe let out a low whistle.
“Quick, find out if he’s got a residence here, or an office, something!” I turned to Abe, “Get the guys ready,” he nodded and ran off.
Santos snapped his fingers in rapid succession, “His firms on Wall Street, why?”
“Check to see if they’ve tripped an alarm, anything, call the office, something!”
Santos eyed me, but didn’t question my order. He did his computer thing, muttering to himself all the while. “No alarms tripped,” he commented as he reached for his phone. He dialed the firm, lips pursed as he waited.
He didn’t answer, instead placing the phone down and sending his fingers dancing across the keyboard. “Line’s cut.” he told me. Santos spun in the chair to face me, “What’s going on Nick?”
I hooked a thumb to the sealed tank behind me. “Curtis over there has built a bomb.”
Santos’ eyes widened.
“He’s in league with that extremist group—”
“Don’t say the name Santos, but yeah. Who else would make a better target for the group? This guy stole the life’s earnings from so many people, he’s the poster boy for corporate greed. It’s not just a statement, it’s personal.”
“Nick!” shouted Abe. “Come on!”
I spun, taking several quick steps before my shirt constricted against my chest, stopping my momentum. “Let go of my shirt, Santos. I just put it on, and if you wrinkle it, so help me God—”
“Nick,” he said, voice raw. “It’s the middle of the day—”
“On a weekday, in the middle of the workweek..?”
Bile worked its way up the back of my throat. “Hostages.” The word left a sour taste in my mouth.
Too many thoughts bounced through my skull for me to make sense of them. “But we can’t be sure though, right? No announcement made, no demands, nothing.”
Santos arched an eyebrow, giving me an oblique look.
The pit of my stomach fell as I realized what he was implying. “They’re not using the hostages as leverage or an escape plan. They’re leaving them in the building for when it…” I trailed off.
“Like you said, Nick, it’s personal.”
I rubbed my face, a negotiator wasn’t going to help, but there was someone who could. Providing he was in a helping mood.
I doubted it.
“Okay, get bomb squad, make sure they meet us at the site.”
Santos arched an eyebrow, “What are you going to do?”
“Get help.” I spun and made my way over to the Drift pods, letting out a sharp whistle, I motioned for the guys to help. We gathered around the still occupied egg-like chamber, several men had their rifles trained on it. “Pop it,” I said.
The glossy shell cracked open. Curtis Palowski lay suspended within, skin flushed pink from the cold solution. His hair was buzzed short, blonde fuzz. He was the unassuming, average every-man in appearance. Average build and height. His eyes fluttered, revealing eyes of steel wool. Shaking his head, he screamed, lunging out of the pod.
It always disconcerting when a naked man jumps out of a pod towards you. It’s like a bad science fiction movie scene.
There was a sharp crack followed by the wet sound of cartilage breaking. One of the officers tucked his rifle back into a shooter’s position. Curtis was back in the water, blinking through the tears as blood seeped from his nose, spreading through the solution like red ink.
“Get up,” I said, my voice coming out like granite.
His face twisted into a scowl and he spat. “Fuck off, tool.”
“Gotta love a guy with manners,” chimed Abe.
“Get him up,” I ordered to the surrounding men. Two officers reached in, grabbing him around the arms and hauled the naked criminal to his feet. “Get him dressed and cuffed. I want him with us on this one.”
Abe shot me a questioning look. “You sure? I mean, he’s the reason we’ve got a bomb threat.”
“And the best one to stop it, just in case the bomb squad can’t.”
Abe pursed his lips, nodding. “I mean hey, if you’re wrong it’s not like there’s a lot at risk right? We’ll all just blow up. No biggie.”
I exhaled through my nose. “I’m gonna gear up and meet you at the car in a min.”
Abe said nothing, instead helping the other officers handle the uncooperative Curtis.
Terrorists never play nice.
I walked over to a table decked out in Kevlar, rifles, ammunition and more. Within a minute, I was geared up and heading towards the cruiser. I opened the door to the vehicle and clambered in. A disgruntled series of noises emanated from the back seat. I turned to find Curtis sitting in the back row, cuffed to a metal bar running along the roof, an officer sat next to him. “You had to put him in the back of our car?”
“Hey, you wanted to bring the criminal along, you know that means they ride wit us.” commented Abe.
“I’m not too thrilled about it either,” called a voice from the backseat. He was dressed in full tactical gear, heavy ballistic plating, Kevlar and black clothing.
“Quit bitchin’ McKenzie.” I turned over my shoulder to flash him a smile that was all teeth. He grumbled something incoherent and went back to training his shotgun on our would be bomber.
An ear jarring screech filled the air as rubber burned. The cruiser lurched forwards as we sped down the street. Sirens blared above and around us, lights cascading off the glass of nearby buildings. Abe said something as he drove, but it came over muffled. The sirens quieted and an electric jolt shot between my temples.
She had an easy smile, perfect white teeth, and hair you wanted to run your fingers through.
“Nick?” said Abe.
I blinked, shaking my head clear of the vision.
“Yeah,” I groaned. “What?”
“You alright? You blanked out.”
“Yeah,” I repeated, “just saw more visions, well the same ones.”
“Still?” Abe said as he wrestled with the steering, leading us around a tight corner. “That’s not good man. Anything else, or just more memories?”
“Just a flash of one, not even complete.”
Abe nodded as we rocketed down another street.
“Serves you right!” shouted Curtis. “You got no business running around in people’s heads. No business!”
The next sound was of McKenzie jabbing Curtis in the ribs with the butt of his weapon. Curtis grunted and let out a stream of creative obscenities. Some of them should’ve won awards.
I shifted in my seat as the car swerved a bit, Abe fought to keep in control. Brakes squealed in protest from the hard and sudden deceleration.
“Cap’s on scene coordinating, let’s go.” Abe waved a hand to follow.
I nodded, stepping out of the cruiser and moving towards the rear passenger side. I reached out, opening the door, leveling my handgun on Curtis. McKenzie undid the locks holding his cuffs to a rail running across the cars interior roof.
“Get out,” he ordered.
Curtis slid towards me, inching his way out of the car. Right when he was at the edge of the seat, I reached in, grabbing him by the collar. With a sharp tug, I pulled him to his feet and out of the cruiser.
“Move,” I snarled, shoving him towards the mass of officers and tactical response units gathered outside. McKenzie and Abe fell into step behind me as I led Curtis further towards the group.
Captain Braugher was on the scene, barking orders. When he saw me, or rather, who was with me, his face twisted into a scowl.
“Burke! Please tell me you didn’t bring a terrorist to the building his buddies are occupying with the very bomb he built?”
“I thought he could help.”
“You..? Christ, I don’t need this. Sure, whatever. Look, we’ve reasoned his pals have gathered every employee and have them somewhere on the first floor. Somewhere near the back end of the building,” he said, pointing to the skyscraper in question.
It was a monolith of concrete, steel and glass, fashioned like every other modern art deco nightmare.
“How do you figure the first floor?” I asked.
“Where else would you put a bomb if you wanted to take out a building?”
The Captain had a point.
“What’s to stop them from blowing it up as soon as we enter?” I argued.
All eyes turned to me.
“Burke!” snapped the Captain. “Refrain from giving the terrorists ideas that’ll turn my finely shaped ass into briquette.”
As we went over how we’d breach, I pulled Curtis aside. “Look man, last chance. This is bad, anything you give me that can help, will help you out as well.” His lips peeled away from his teeth and his eyebrows knitted together.
“Like hell,” he spat.
“People could die!” Spittle left my mouth as my fists balled around his collar.
“They deserve it,” he said, venom dripping out of each syllable.
“Deserve?” My grip loosened at the conviction of his statement.
“People like that, they took everything from people like me! My home, my life. It’s personal,” he growled.
A series of minute pops rang out as my knuckles ground in anticipation. Punching him wouldn’t get me anything, except intense satisfaction. My palms impacted his chest as I pushed him away from me.
I flinched as a hand fell on my shoulder, giving it a squeeze.
“Come on Nick, we’re ‘bout to breach.” said Abe.
“Yeah, one sec.” I glared at the criminal, still lying on the ground. A few quick steps and I was standing over him. I kneeled, grabbing his clothes and hauled him to his feet. I tilted my head, leaning close to his ear. “If we burn in hell, you burn with us.”
Abe led a handful of officers to the south side of the building, I followed with Curtis in tow. Lined up against the opaque glass, we waited.
The comms buzzed.
An officer at the front of the line pressed a button on a large contraption. It had a steel pyramid base, at the top of it was an industrial grade ram. The metal cylinder rocketed forward with hydraulic speed and pressure. The area where the door met the building, crumbled, and the door flew into the building.
We moved in unison, stepping through the deteriorating door frame, and spread out.
It was the typical office space, an indefinable dark colored office carpet. Cubicles consisting of corkboard walls and the cloth lining them.
All of them were empty.
“Clear!” Shouted several voices in stereo.
“This is oddly unsettling,” murmured Abe.
“Moving to conference room,” blared our talkies.
“Move,” I growled to Curtis, as I continued forcing the cuffed terrorist to follow.
We made it outside the conference room with only a minutes walk. Two doors, six teams. I looked to Abe, he nodded and tapped the speak button on his talkie twice.
Two clicks answered.
We burst through the doors and froze.
It was as wide around as the wheels of a big rig. The pylon ran from the office floor to the ceiling. Finger thin lines spider-webbed out from its core across the roof, windows, and to random points on the walls. They were translucent tubes, a staccato of red light flared within them. At the core of the construct were a series of Post It note sized squares, comprised entirely of light. They whirred about the machine like a scrolling marquee of pale blue light.
The bomb. A really big fucking bomb.
Lining the walls were men and women, dressed in a monochromatic swatch of the colors you’d expect in an high tier office environment. They were bound and gagged, some were passed out, others awake, covered in a sheen of sweat.
“So, we’ve got the hostages—” said Abe.
“—But where are the hostage takers,” I finished.
I turned to Curtis, he doubled over, laughing harder. His skin flushed, tears welled in the corners of his eyes.
“Aw holy Admiral Ackbar,” muttered Abe.
“Yeah, it’s a trap.”
“You didn’t think we were going to go out in this, did you?” said Curtis. “What, die with them?” He waved a hand to the employees. His laughter died out, replaced with iron tones of rage. “After what they did to people like me? They ain’t worth dying over. But you,” he pointed a finger at me. “Cops, we figured something like this would happen. Didn’t count on me having to be here but you know, small prices to pay.” The laughter resumed, and I felt the overwhelming urge to throttle the man.
“Clear the hostages out!” I ordered. Officers rushed to cut their bindings and lead the hostages out. “Bomb squad, move it!”
The world slipped and dull throbs rolled through my skull.
“No!” snarled a voice.
I struggled as Curtis’ hands slipped over my throat. He was using his weight to his advantage as he kept me pressed to the floor. My gun was pulled from my holster and pressed against my forehead.
A thunderous report echoed throughout the room.
Curtis fell from atop me, a neat hole where his nose used to be. Several more shots followed.
“Damn sloppy Nick, letting him get the jump on you.”
“Shut up Abe.” I took his hand and pulled as he helped bring me to my feet. I looked over to the bomb, which was being combed over by four officers in gear situated for handling explosives…and their detonation.
One of the men sucked in a breath through his teeth. “Shit, thirty seconds, you and detective Patel should leave. Now.”
A small dog yapped at my leg.
It was pulled from view.
I remember leaning against the wall from support, something warm trickled down my nose.
“Nick,” shouted Abe, it sounded far off. “We have to go!”
Tresses of spun gold filled my sight, she was cream completed with a smile made for toothpaste commercials.
A taser went off inside the base of my skull as the flashes continued to appear, and be torn from sight.
Cold metal sat beneath my fingertips, I brushed over it with precision and care.
I shut my eyes, squeezing tight, trying to stop nails being driven into my brain.
“Fifteen seconds, guys, leave!” rang a voice.
The Drift clung to me, even still. So I did the only thing that made sense.
I gave in.
A small house, the side boarding was the sort of color used to define lush forests.
“2101!” I screamed.
“2101!” I roared, the lining of my throat going raw.
One of the bomb techs entered the numbers into a keypad.
I watched the detonator screen flash.
“Three!” called the tech.
And he didn’t stop.
I shut my eyes. There was no flash. If there was, I didn’t see it. All I saw was the Drift.
Tresses of spun gold filled my sight, she was cream completed with a smile made for toothpaste commercials. Denim blue eyes greeted me, and her smile widened.
So once again I’m back with a free short story. If you like it, love it, and more…comment. This is something I resurrected and dedicated to a very important person in my life. I hope you love the free read. And if you’re a nano (you know who you are, thank you!)
A Night Among The Graves
Dedicated to Cheyenne Alicia Thommarson
Chips of ice slid beneath his skin as a hollow gust of wind worked its way through the multiple layers of his clothing. It wormed through the canvas of his jacket, and slipped through the netted sweaters like cold grease. His muscles contracted from the chill. The bits of fingers not covered in the thin woolen gloves ached from the toothless gnawing of December wind. He peered down at his fingers and grimaced. Ashen webbing and cracks ran atop them. The cold made its way to his legs and knees forcing him to shamble forward. He brought his hands to his mouth and exhaled a warm breath of it. His fingers found no respite from the cold.
“’Scuse you,” he grumbled as a passerby brushed past, nearly jostling him.
The pedestrian didn’t acknowledge him. They moved down the sidewalk at a brisk pace.
Banishing the late night walker from his mind, he pulled his coat tight around him. He noticed a bench ahead and moved towards it, giving his regards to the stone wall on his left. It was a mosaic of gray and brown rock running around the block. It stood several feet higher than his head. He was thankful for that. Most people saw a wall. He saw a bulwark from the wind for when it came time to sleep.
The nearby bench brought back old memories of a shopping cart filled with clothes and supplies. A time when he had a cup of loose change. The days always ended with a meager collection of coins, but they always managed to fill his belly, if only for the night.
He debated if he should spend the night on the bench. Sandpaper like ridges brushed against his fingers as he rubbed the coarse hairs over his face. The bench was simple in construction. It wasn’t inviting. It was an ugly thing of metal varnished more by age and grime than paint. Slender bars ran between the bench. Bad to sit on, worse to sleep atop. Steel was hard, cold and unforgiving. No amount of rolling or contorting could bring you comfort.
But comfort was a luxury, sleep was a necessity. He couldn’t remember the last time he slept.
He eyed the bars again. They emanated a cold that would find its way past one’s clothing, straight to your bones and chill the marrow. A man would wake brittle and broken. You would be a frozen sculpture of glass waiting to shatter on the first touch.
Beggars can’t be choosers. There was no ceremony in preparing his bed. He didn’t bother to swipe his coat over the surface of the bench to clean it. Removing the weighty garment he laid it over the metal rails, keeping the side with the lining face up. He eased himself onto the bench and rolled to his side. His fingers creaked in protest as he pulled the jacket over him.
He sighed. Poor man’s blanket.
His fingers fumbled to find the lip of the thick woolen mess over his head. He pulled down. The hat slid over his eyes and nose, becoming a barrier to the warm what air passed through. A string of groans left his lungs as he squirmed to settle himself.
A sound echoed through the air, tugging him from his weariness. Soft and faint like the strumming of a guitar some distance away. It pulled at him, ears, heart and mind. He rose from the bench and snatched his coat to go search for the source.
His ears did the guiding as he cocked his head like a dog hearing a new and unfamiliar sound. He made it to the end of the block and turned the corner. The wall was his guide as he pursued the gentle echoes.
Not strings, he realized as the sound grew louder.
Stone ended and the wall transitioned into a row of vertical bars. It was like a jail cell, only they ended in an arc of elegant design. The gate resembled something that would have been fashionable in the Gothic Revival. He gazed through the bars and took note of the cresting. The humming came from it.
A tree dominated the view. It had paid winter’s price, stripped bare of leaves, and towered over the hill. Gnarled and twisted branches spread out like emaciated limbs belonging to creatures out of horror stories. Stone markers dotted the land like minute monoliths.
The wind changed direction, buffeting his back and grasping the exposed section of his neck like fingers of ice. Ahead, the wind stirred the slender finger-like branches of the tree.
His shiver had nothing to do with the cold.
The humming intensified. All the more he found himself being pulled forwards. An invisible hand tugged at the lobe of his right ear. The was large enough to serve as a better reprieve from the wind than anything else for the night. Besides, he always found wood more inviting than steel. He would be able to rest against the trunk. His coat would become a blanket to warm him and the humming—a soothing lullaby.
That settled the matter.
He ran his hands over his wrists and wrung them as he approached the gate. No signs barred entry. They didn’t need to. The taboo of entering a graveyard at night rang through his mind. His body tingled like a flurry of insects scuttling across his skin. He reached out to the gate. There were no chains, no lock to prevent him from slipping in. Comforting warmth filled his fingers as he pressed against the bar. The feeling of sleeping outdoors on a summer day rushed through his body. He didn’t question the sudden source of heat. He took at it as sign to enter. The gate opened with a weary metal sigh. A single shriek cried out from the hinges.
He made no effort to close up behind. Aches filled his body as he strained it to traverse the grounds. The tree was his marker, and he was resolved to reach it. The humming grew, growing clearer, washing away the fatigue and chills. Navigating past the headstones with equal parts caution and reservation, he made his way up the hill. Upon reaching it, the tree morphed from monumental, to terrifying.
It loomed over him as if the branches would contort themselves and reach for him at any moment. The arms of a gargantuan scarecrow ready to do their duty and ward off the unwelcome. The branches twitched in the night air and he mirrored the gesture.
The humming stopped.
Frowning, he placed a hand on the tree as he paced around it. He made it to the other side when his body seized like being dumped in a pool of ice water.
She sat atop a gravestone, watching him intently. The edge of her mouth quirked in a small smile. She was beautiful, hauntingly so. There was something about her that reminded him of a bird. Her features were pointed and hawkish with the body of a ballerina. He could see the slender grace her body held. The dress was a relic from a time long since past. A thing of countless frills, rumpled with its hem frayed. What stole his attention was her midsection. A fistful was missing. It was like it had been savagely torn away. The area was matted with a discolored fluid.
The sole though preoccupying his mind was the color of her appearance. He couldn’t tell what she was, only that she wasn’t wholly there. She couldn’t have been. The wind stirred the edges of her figure, deforming them like smoke under a breath of air. She was the white of a winter morning’s chilled breath. Her skin and clothing did not seem intent to remain that color. They shifted through countless hues of pale greens and whites.
She watched his reaction and smiled when he came to the obvious realization. Arching an eyebrow, she tilted her head to regard him.
He blinked, understanding why she had stopped humming—why the silence. She was waiting for him to speak. He swallowed again and steeled himself as best he could. “You’re…” he trailed off, fumbling for words.
She leaned forward on the stone, propping her chin atop her hands. Her smile grew.
Licking his lips, he tried again. “You’re a ghost.” He didn’t know what shook more, voice or body.
She threw her head back and let out a delightful peal of laughter. It was musical, making the December cold grow a littler further from his body. His rigid joints easer and his body loosened as the tension fled. The laughter ended as abruptly as the humming had.
“Yes. Yes, I am.” She thrust her chin up, beaming.
His mouth worked in silence as he searched for the proper response. “You hum…nicely.” He managed to match her smile.
Her eyes widened and she hopped from the stone. She landed straight. “Thank you.” She gave him an elaborate stage bow. “I am a singer you know? And you?” Enthusiasm colored her voice. “What are you, who are you?”
“Tired,” he said. “Cold. Sleepy. Hungry.”
“Then rest,” she urged. “Let me sing you a song.” And she did.
He let his back fall against the tree, sliding down until he was slumped against it. Placing the song was more than difficult. It was like being blindfolded and mired in fog trying to find your way out. He felt reminded of old nursery rhymes his mother san. He heard unnamed songs from past decades. In between it all, he heard the humming that had brought him here.
He felt renewed. Thirty years younger. He blinked. “How’d you do that?”
Her smile grew. “I am a singer.” Her tone implied it was answer enough.
“My name is Miriam, and you are?”
He frowned. It had been years since he had heard his own name aloud. It was like fishing for something that had fallen into murky water. “Harris.” It felt odd recalling his name and hearing it aloud. “Harris.” Saying it the second time felt good.
“Nice to meet you, Harris.” She curtsied.
“You too.” His gaze dropped to the gash in her dress. Harris recognized the stains. She caught his look.
Miriam picked at the damaged material surrounding the wound. She ran it through her hands. “Oh this?” Her smiled became something bitter. “Jealousy is an awful thing.”
Harris nodded as if it made sense.
“It’s hard being a performer, you know?” She gave him a look as if he was expected to understand.
He nodded in silence.
“People get jealous of your success, when you have what they want. Some well…” she shrugged. “They find that if they can’t take it, they will make sure you can’t have it either.” Her eyes fell to the gash. She shook her head as she looked at it.
“You were…” Harris found it hard to finish the question.
“Sorry.” His voice could have scoured stone.
She waved him off. “Oh, no matter. It has been long since. Much time, much singing to let it all go.” She threw her head back and laughed.
He looked away, wishing that she would leave now that the singing was over. It was clear she was a tad unstable.
“Oh don’t look at me like that,” she chided. “We all are a bit touched here.”
Harris eyed her askance. “We?”
She rolled her eyes and gesture to her side.
He stole a quick breath that dried what little moisture was left in his throat. The winter air turned his esophagus raw.
The newcomer was six foot and dressed in overalls speckled with dirt. He stood there, staring at Harris, haggard from what looked like years of hard work. The man ran a hand through his pronounced widows peak. He was just as translucent as the singing Miriam.
Harris folded his lips and chewed on them. He was sick. His insides knotted, going tight. He couldn’t tell if he had eaten too much, or not enough. That was it. Hunger, nausea, the cold, any one of those could cause the mind to see things.
“You tell him yet?” barked the ghost in overalls.
“No.” She turned and scowled at him. “I was being gentle. You can’t knock someone over the head with this sort of thing, you lout!”
“Women,” he grumbled below his voice. It wasn’t as quiet as he had thought.
Miriam rounded on him, her fists balled and on her hips. “What?”
Her male friend appeared to shrink. His posture loosened and he mumbled something under his that sounded like an apology. He gave Harris a hapless look.
Harris debated the safety of intervening.
The two ghosts bickered for a handful of minutes before Harris had had enough. He cleared his throat, drawing their attention.
Miriam flushed. Harris found it quite the feat to watch a ghost manage that. Bowing, she apologized for their heated display. “My husband,” she said, drawing out the word with dangerous undertones, “is uncouth. Cotton-headed—”
“Hardworking,” her husband interjected.
She shot him a withering glare causing him to recoil.
Harris laughed. It was weighty and full thing. The sort that shook his ribcage and took the air from his lungs. It felt good. The pair of ghosts noticed his laugh. Their smiles didn’t quite make it up to their eyes. They remained hollow—pained.
Before he could ask what the matter was, the ghostly man stepped forward. “Oliver.” He extended a hand.
Harris glanced at the hand quizzically, then Oliver.
“Go on.” Oliver inched his hand forward. “It’s only polite. You’re not going to catch anything from this old ghost.”
Harris suppressed a cringe and reached out to meet Oliver’s hand. An electric jolt, one more imagined than actual, rushed up his arm as he shook hands.
Oliver grinned. “See.”
Harris fought hard to catch his breath. “How?”
Oliver’s grin faded. His wife stepped beside him, thumping him across the back of his head. “Oi!” He rubbed the area.
“Cotton-headed,” she said under her breath.
“Why could I feel hi hand? You’re both ghosts.” Harris gave them an owlish stare.
Miriam and Oliver frowned in unison.
“What is it?” Harris took a step forward, pressing them. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Instead of answering, Oliver turned around and revealed the back of his skull.
Harris leapt back. His skull was deformed. It looked like someone had scooped a portion of it out. Harris was thankful for not having been able to eat.
Oliver pointed to Miriam’s injury. “My wife was stabbed. I was shot. An unlucky pair of circumstances if I ever saw them. Too bad I didn’t see the bullet, or the sunuva-gun who pulled the trigger.”
Harris folded his lips, unsure of what to say.
“Do you know how ghosts are made?” Miriam gave him a weak smile.
Harris shook his head to the side.
Oliver inhaled like a man about to give a lengthy speech. “Right then, short of it. Ghost’s are born when someone dies in a terrible manner without closure. They can’t let go, so something has to cling on, doesn’t it?”
“The body, well that’s not sticking around. Not well at any rate. Bodies don’t hold up once they’re dead. Go figure, hmm? That us then,” he pointed between his wife and himself. “We can’t let go. Trust me, we’ve tried. Easier said than done, yeah?”
Miriam placed a hand on Oliver’s shoulder and took over. “Ghosts are stuck, not just here, Harris, but reliving things. There are times where I am replaying the moment I have been stabbed. Oliver remembers and has to go through being shot on occasion. Mostly though, we’ve been around long enough that we can roam freely here.” She waved at their surroundings. “Where we are buried.”
Harris licked his lips but said nothing.
Miriam beckoned him. She left Oliver behind and walked towards another row of gravestone. She came to rest against a solitary grave, dozen yards or more away from the nearest one. Miriam rapped her knuckles on it.
Harris leaned to look past the grave. The source of the noise came from behind.
A man came into clarity from nothing. He was well bronzed and looked like he should have been attending college. Dark featured with quick eyes. He tugged at a thin checkered shirt.
Miriam waved to get his attention. “How are Marco?”
He stretched and yawn. “S’okay.” With a balled fist he rubbed his eye. He nodded to Harris, then turned eye Miriam askance.
Miriam shook her head as an answer.
“Oh, this again. Sorry, Harris. You’ll get used to this.” Marco titled his head, revealing a horribly bruised neck. “If you could see my head, you’d see the bruise there too. You know those commercials have it right, don’t drink and drive, huh.”
“I’m sorry.” It seemed the appropriate thing for Harris to say.
Marco waved him off. “Don’t. I wasn’t driving drunk. Idiōtās coming down the other way. Necks are soft, yeah? Mine didn’t take the accident well. My head was smacked around. I died in the ambulance.” He exhaled, giving Harris a weary look. “Go on, see the rest. You need to stop doing this to us. I’m tired.”
Harris blinked and apologized. He didn’t know what Marco meant, but it seemed smart to play along.
Miriam led him toward another grave, set near the middle of a row of twelve.
Harris’ heart fell into his stomach. A child sat atop the grave, kicking their legs at the edge. They couldn’t have been taller than his own knees. She had the bearings of someone from the east, and a country Harris couldn’t finger. A bright yellow book grabbed his attention. The child flipped through it with speed and intensity enough to nearly damage the pages.
Miriam leaned forward. “Sweet-pea.”
The child stopped and turned. “Oh, hi.” She beamed, waving a pudgy hand at Harris.
He returned the gesture before turning to Miriam. “I don’t want to know. Please, don’t tell me.”
Miriam didn’t abide by his request. “Poor thing got Pneumonia. It can be lethal at her age, did you know that?”
He didn’t. He didn’t want to hear it either.
“Come on.” Miriam gestured for him to follow. She led him along another path markers until she settled in front of another stone.
Harris froze when he saw it. Something about the name clawed at his stomach, making it feel like his insides were removed. The hollowness made its way to his heart. “I know that name.”
Miriam said nothing.
A young man appeared. He looked much like Harris would have thirty years ago. Dark skinned and clean shaven. The man’s hair was cropped short. He could have modeled if he had chosen to. Harris knew that instead the boy had decided to attend an ivy league college on scholarship. He remembered when he received the acceptance letter. Harris was filled with pride, a far cry from the emptiness wracking his heart now.
He was dressed as he was then. Simple jeans, and a fresh ironed shirt. Harris always thought the boy handsome.
Harris broke. The air left him as did the words. He fumbled for a moment, looking away to the ground, then his ashen fingers. “Curtis…”
“I remember.” Harris blinked away the moisture.
“I’m sorry dad. I screwed up.” Curtis looked away like Harris had. First to the ground, then the back of his fingers.
“It’s okay. We both did. I should’ve… I don’t know what I should’ve, but I should have done something.”
“It’s okay pops. Been waiting for you.”
Harris blinked and rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “I couldn’t come here. I was scared. Not since the funeral.” His son had passed away listening to the wrong people. People who abused his trust and beat him until they couldn’t beat him any further.
“I’m glad you came back again, dad.”
“I don’t understand, Curtis, again?”
Curtis’ expression sank. “Dad…you don’t remember after my funeral?”
Harris shook his head. “I don’t remember much of anything these days. It feels like I’m a VHS stuck on loop.”
His son cracked a smile. “No one uses those things anymore dad. You always were a bit behind the times.”
“Dad…after I died you…quit work.”
“You just left everything. Went through the money. You started drinking. You wound up on the streets. Then one night you went to bed on a street bench on a night you should’ve found a shelter. It was cold, dad, really cold. You shouldn’t have been out there.”
Oliver came by Curtis’ side. “Do you know why you came here today, Harris?” He asked.
“I was cold, tired, and I heard humming.”
“No.” Oliver shook his head. “That’s not it at all. Not most of it anyways. Not the right of it. You used to sleep around these parts for many years—a long time in fact.”
“I still do,” Harris chimed. He looked to Miriam whose gaze was fixated on the distant sky.
“The humming’s part of it. You like music, always have.” Oliver gave him a weak smile. “You told us the first time?”
Harris blinked. “The first time?” Then it came crashing back. The cold bench. The passerby ignoring him. Miriam’s singing.
“The first time you came here dad. We’ve been trying to bring you back.” Curtis waved to a grave beside his. Harris recognized his name. How nice to always be so close to his son. “We’ve been going through this for a while now. You haven’t adjusted well. New ghosts normally don’t, dad.”
A lead balloon formed in Harris’ stomach.
Oliver took over. “See, someone like you, doesn’t have anywhere to go. You don’t have a place to call home. As far are you’re concerned, the graveyard’s the closest thing you have to one. So, where do you cling to? What can’t you let go of? What are you repeating?”
The lead balloon rose to the base of his throat.
Miriam and Curtis reached out, placing a hand on each of his shoulders.
“You’re stuck in a loop Harris, we’ve tried to help. This isn’t the first night you’ve come wandering to us and it probably won’t be the last. It’s how Miriam here knew what to sing to you. Trial and error. She’s just trying to soothe you, put you at ease. Maybe give you a bit of what we can’t have.” Oliver said.
Harris’ throat constricted as the balloon wedged itself higher up in his throat. No amount of swallowing would put the balloon back down into his gut.
Curtis stepped up and wrapped his arms around Harris. “Welcome back dad. You’re one of us, you’re a ghost.”
Hey you! Yes you! You reading this right now! Do you like free stuffs? You do? Of course you do! Who doesn’t? Well here is a free short story of something I penned a while back in 2014 creative writing class. It’s not my usual fair of fantastic fiction in the sciences, urban fantasy, or fantasy…but as was mandated by the teacher, I wrote lit fic. Sort of…I’m a rebel and snuck in some fantastical elements a la Coelho!
This is my free short story Red Sands. Like it, share it, love it. Comment folks. This one is for you wonderful peeps following me here at the beginnings of my literary journey.