The Freedom Kitchen

I’m not exactly sure why I participate contest writing, but I often feel compelled to do so. Perhaps I am addicted to feeling stressed, feeling restricted, or both simultaneously. Either way, pushing myself to work within the parakeets of a competition is always exciting. Back during the September-November months, I worked on this piece for a Baltimore Review contest in which the theme was food.

Though this story did not take placement or receive awards, it is close to my heart. I enjoyed writing it. Food is an important aspect of our lives and we are often defined by it. Please, should you choose to continue reading, enjoy the journey that Katie takes through the morning on her mission to share food with those who need it most.


 

The instant her hands stop twirling her hair into a messy bun atop her head, Katie yanks her left hand down and checks the time on her watch.

                  5:15 A.M.

She needs to open the doors in precisely fifteen minutes, and this act is what separates her from being on time and being late. Katie has never been late to open The Freedom Kitchen, and she isn’t planning to make this a ‘first time for everything’ sort of day. An anxious huff parts her lips, and her eyes drift down check the radio clock. Without even realizing it, she adjusts her seatbelt.

                  5:16 A.M.

Eyes glistening in the lowlights of street lamps dampened by the tinted windows, Katie estimates this ride will take another six minutes if there are absolutely no delays. In all honesty, she recognizes that if she hadn’t tried begging her volunteers not to cancel their shifts, she might’ve been able to get her usual driver. Doubt over her priorities this morning creep into the edges of her mind with tendrils of cold worse than the winter laying claim to the city around her.

Guilt drives Katie to check her watch again.

                  5:18 A.M.

Simultaneously too slow and fast, the next four minutes tick by without her permission. Katie needs more time but she cannot afford to waste the time she has either. When the cab veers into the alleyway where the back entrance is located, Katie is practically shaking the entire car to gain momentum. She’ll need every bit of manufactured speed she can manage to get to that front door at five-thirty sharp.

Absently, she grabs a fistful of cash from her pocket that should be sufficient to cover fare and tip. Katie tosses it onto the passenger seat up front as she leaps free of the vehicle. She might’ve muttered something to show her gratitude but, honestly, she probably just spat out a few unintelligible words. Winter can be felt and seen in every direction. Katie hears it in the roaring winds, feels in the nipping frost, and smells it in the slush puddles of mud and newspaper along the steps she climbs.

Just as she enters the dilapidated building with red bricks weathered brown, Katie checks her watch.

                  5:24 A.M.

Wafting scents of boiling tomatoes, simmering cocoa, and freshly baked bread weave into the fabric of her clothes. Katie makes her first stop in the break room where she hangs her coat and kicks off her snow boots in favor of a pair of simple black sneakers she kept in a corner. Without pausing for a breath, she jogs back into the hallway and lunges all the way to her right.

Despite her awareness, the heat of the kitchen envelops her body unexpectedly. After volunteering here for years, Katie writes this sensation off as silly. She knows how important warmth is for their guests when they are visiting and does little to rid this section of the building of it. Once she slows down and refocuses on her surroundings, she pinpoints the dry erase board. Somehow her shortage of staff hasn’t stopped the number of servings the soup kitchen can hand out from doubling from the week prior. There must have been more donations or better time management, if not both. Katie crosses her fingers, hoping that it was a combination of both.

Several people approach her grumbling and groaning, asking a ton of questions all at the same time. She desperately wants to answer them all but she knows that these minutes are just too precious. Unless there’s a reason that she shouldn’t open the doors on time, then she figures it can wait until they shut everything down and start cleaning. She shakes her head, turns on her foot, and begins racing into the dining room. If they have enough food to serve two hundred people, then she needs to make sure both dining rooms enough seats.

As she slides into the west hall, Katie practically slams her watch against her face.

                  5:26 A.M.

She always sets a three-minute timer for the kitchen staff when she’s walking to open the doors. Time is flying at the speed of light. Katie forces her gears to shift rapidly, twisting and turning every which way to pull out the timer and avoid other volunteers as she returns to the kitchen. The magnets on the back of the timer make a clang when she drops it on the counter before turning away.

                  5:27 A.M.

It takes precisely one minute to get back to the front of the building. Lying on a bench is the plastic poncho she wears when she invites the homeless inside for their place in the soup kitchen. Katie feels herself tearing up for a split second, understanding anew just how genuinely impactful the meals can be for these individuals. When folks share food, they are sharing more than just a meal. Bonds are formed over a plate filled with food and glasses sloshing with preferred drinks. Lifelong relationships almost always begin with a drink and a dinner.

Being able to give food to someone who is suffering and struggling to survive is not unlike sharing a home with that person. They may have to sleep under brides and alleyways, or squat in an abandoned building with no heat, but their primary security comes from being able to eat. Sharing these Sundays with hundreds of individuals fighting to get back on their feet is the single most important thing she’s ever done. Katie lets a breath out, deflating and letting go of all of the stress that built up from her running around all morning. Habitually, she takes another peak at her watch…

                  5:29 A.M.

…And then she opens the doors to a line of grimy, smiling faces that are just as excited to see her, as she is to see them.

“Morning!” Katie says, the chill of the wind ripping through the thin plastic of her poncho. An elderly man gets to his feet after having been napping against the wall. He dusts himself off before offering his hand. She helps him up the last step and pulls a chunk of frozen mud from his beard.

Katie squeezes his hand, “You can’t been sleeping here at night, Charlie. You know that.”

“And miss your lovely face?” he inquires. “I wouldn’t lose my seat at The Freedom Kitchen for anything, Miss Katie.”

He looks worse for wear, and Katie wonders how many more weeks of this Charlie can handle. He’d been very sick just a few weeks ago and she tricked him into seeing a doctor for some medication. She scoured the city to find a shelter that had an extra bed, but he lost it only two days later because he wanted to be first in line at the kitchen for his Sunday meal. To hide her worry, Katie steals a glance at her watch precisely as the numbers switch over.

5:30 A.M.

“It’s time to eat, Charlie, why don’t you get our line moving, okay?” says Katie, a boisterous and confident tone passing through her grinding teeth. The icy weather is cutting straight through to her bones but she knows that it is nothing compared to what the line of people beside her must experience every single day. Charlie nods at her remark and starts making his way into the kitchen for his soup, bread, and hot chocolate.

People begin passing by in slow chunks but she stays to greet each of them before their meal. The small talk makes the winter weather more tolerable for everyone. It helps that there are quite a few familiar faces. In fact, Charlie ends up only being the first of many who came back to see Miss Katie, the nice lady who is always checking her watch to make sure everyone gets taken care of on time at The Freedom Kitchen.

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We Need To Be Nice

            “Who gave you these, sweetheart?” her voice quivers at the sight of a hemp doll lying stiffly on the table. The children lower their gazes and do not reply. Fear tickles her throat, but she tries a more stern tone, “Sweetie, what house are these from?”

            Neither child even so much as blinks. Hesitantly, she lifts the doll to her face to analyze the blue dress. It is strangely familiar in a way she cannot explain. There’s also a small envelope, about four inches wide, pinned to the back of the brown doll. Locking eyes on her daughter briefly and taking a deep breath, goose bumps cover her entire body. She reads the name on the envelope aloud.

            “Denise…” she watches her daughter closely. There’s no response. She repeats herself, making it clear that she’s asking a question now, “Denise?”

            Her shaking fingers make a jagged tear in the thick paper, exposing a blood red piece of cardstock. A rotten odor erupts when she parts the envelope to remove the note. She also gags when touching the somewhat damp paper, feeling that it might’ve been wet earlier that day.

            “We were caught being naughty, Charlotte,” her daughter remarks, keeping her hands folded in her lap. Hearing this is shocking because Denise is one of the most obedient little girls at school, and she almost always wins the monthly citizenship award in her class.

            Then her son abruptly stands up and dumps his trick-or-treat bag, revealing a similar doll with a matching card. Even if she doesn’t feel the sting of tears forming, they are undoubtedly streaming from her eyes. With wet cheeks, she manipulates the angle of the card so that she can read it while still watching both children.

            As she’s starting to scan the paper, though, she scolds her daughter for not calling her by the right name. “Don’t call me by my first name unless there’s an emergency.” She waits for her daughter to apologize but Denise doesn’t make a peep.

                       This little girl was caught being naughty,

                       So here’s your chance to make her be nice.

            “Denise, you need to tell me what is happening right now,” she demands, flashing the card for both children to see the message. “I’m not asking anymore. Tell me where you got these dolls!” She glowers at her son too, hoping he might respond after being acknowledged. But he just remains standing with his trick-or-treat bag turned upside down.

This scene is frightening. What could they have possibly done naughty? Her youngest is never disobedient. Her oldest is never defiant. Something is very wrong and it worries her deeply.

            “Somebody needs to tell me what this nonsense is about now, or you’ll both be grounded for a month!” she shouts, although it probably sounds more like a shrill scream. Panic begins settling into her bones, making her tremble. Rigidly, she straightens herself back to her full height.

            “I was naughty, Charlotte,” Denise declares in an empty voice. The sound of it carves a pit in her chest. Towering above them, hands on her hips, she stares her son down instead.

            “Travis Mitchell Bowers, you better start talking. Is this a prank? If this is a prank and you tell me right now, I’ll forgive you for taking it this far, but if you keep playing around like this,” her voice cracks, “then you’ll be grounded until Christmas.”

            They both gawk at her helplessly. Tears form in their eyes but they are not clear. Blood is dripping down their faces and she nearly faints at the sight of it. As the teardrops fall, she notices the card on the table melting, spreading, and dripping on the floor in unison as they cry. A coppery flavor fills hers mouth at the sight.

            “They’re voodoo dolls,” Travis says coldly, “and you’re supposed to make us be nice, Charlotte. We were naughty.”

            Denise chimes in, her childish voice bubbling up and over her lips in an unfamiliar squeal, “We need to be nice.” Her statement quickly evolves into a chant, which Travis joins immediately.

            “We need to be nice.”

            “We need to be nice.”

            “We need to be nice.”

            Dolls and letters in hand, she races away from her children to the sink, their voices growing louder with each repetition.

            “We need to be nice.”

            Fumbling through the junk drawer just to the right of the sink, her vision begins to blur while searching for a lighter. A massive gasp of relief flies from her lungs when she finds one stuck beneath some neglected mailers. One hand traps the dolls in the sink while using the other to get a flame from the lighter.

            Once she sees a spot of fire, she pushes it against hemp dolls from her children’s bags. Unfortunately, before she turns back to talk to her kids, the same scent from the envelope returns, only it is much stronger now. Horror washes over her as she sinks to the floor, hearing their voices over the crackling of their bodies.

            “It hurts to be naughty!”

            “We need to be nice!”

A Place for Me

I wrote this story for a short story contest hosted by On The Premises recently. The theme for the entries was “community” and writing for this had been difficult for me. There ended up being 202 entries for the first round of judging. The top 10% of stories were chosen to be reviewed for the final judging round – which would have been 21 entries. The story below the line – “A Place for Me” – was one of the top 21 entries reviewed for the Top 10 submissions. Unfortunately, I just barely made the cut. That being said, I still wanted to share with you what I wrote and prove that I’m not missing just because I’ve lost my way. I’m working on original pieces. Without further adieu –


 

“A Place for Me”

Read & Enjoy

 


 

I know that I am breathing simply because I am not actually suffocating, even if my brain is convinced that I am doing precisely that. Each time I make another four inch drop and sink nearer to the ground floor, I feel my hear rate double. The pounding is so loud that is the only thing I can hear besides the actual slamming of it against my chest is the rushing of blood in my head. My vision blurs about halfway through my descent and I practically fall the rest of the way down.

Per the usual, my father has his arms crossed and is clicking his tongue at me. “You’re running late. The dance starts in thirty minutes,” I forgot, but only because I’ve been trying desperately to pretend that I didn’t properly make plans to go. My parents have been begging me to watch after my sister, counting on me to see if she’s up to no good, but I simply cannot. Being around people makes me uncomfortable. The way they smell, the way they talk, and the way they contort their face; it makes me physically nauseous. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Other people might as well be foreign beasts or aliens with the way that they frighten me.

“S-sorry…” I stutter what could have been the beginning of a considerate apology, or another one of my pathetic excuses. Fortunately, my mother comes strolling around the corner with my sister, whom is dressed beautifully in her short black dress and white leather jacket. My sad attempt to show regret for not wanting to go is diminished by the gasp of concern that escapes my mother’s mouth. I hear him start scolding her but I can’t ignore my sister enough to really hear them. She grounds me.

Analise is the opposite of me in nearly every way imaginable. Where I am flat and average, she is curvy and developed. She has my father’s height and my mother’s naturally springy, curly hair. I am short, more like my grandparents, and have my dad’s stick straight brown hair, which I wear short so I don’t have to brush it often. Most days, Analise is the innocent girl next door that has good intentions and a heart big enough to share, much like a hero in any video game. In comparison, I’m just the boring non-playable character that probably has an item for a side quest that has a lame reward for accomplishing it.

I reckon that she’ll be fine at the dance by herself, and I think that’s what scares my parents most. Analise is gorgeous to boot, and not everyone around her means well. If she were my daughter I’d be worried too. My mind gets goes to static as I begin tuning back into the conversation between my parents. I am grateful to hear my mother defending me.

Shaking her head, “Gerald, I don’t think she can do it. We’re asking too much of her.” She’s always been more reasonable about how debilitating social activity can be for me. Appreciation for her fills every empty crevice inside of my chest but the only response I can manage is to cry. That’s how my brain reacts to any sort of input overload, such as an argument about my status as a recluse. Even though my mother is supporting me, my father still denounces the possibility that she’s right. He always does. It makes my crying even worse, my body trembling at the very sound of his breath.

“Mathilda!” He shouts way too sharply. My mother wrinkles her nose in the way that assures him there’ll be consequences if he doesn’t change his tone. Analise and I learned where our limits were when we were in pre-school, and it’s horrifying that he still dares to push her to that point as an adult. “She can’t keep living like this!”

My sister approaches me and then pulls me to the side, placing a hand on my shoulder as she redirects me. In a soothing tone, she coaches me the way she does every day for school. Before we get on the bus she has to hush me into silence, and once more when we get to school because I’ve begun to panic again. Analise doesn’t realize how important she is to my being able to get through school every single day. Without her comforting, I couldn’t make it. I would have quit years ago.

“Ciara is just different, Gerald, and we can’t push her into a social situation. We have to ease her into these things,” she remarks defiantly. She used to struggle with social anxiety too, so she understands why I’m having trouble. My issues are worse than hers ever were when she was my age, I guess, which has my father convinced that I’ll just get over it by the time I graduate high school in the spring. His frustration grows the closer we get to our ceremony in June.

“I don’t care if she’s different! She’ll never survive on her own if she doesn’t get involved with the community! Ciara belongs with her peers – not behind some computer monitor!” he shouts at the tops of his lungs. Rather than anger prickling the edges of his words, it is pure frustration. Though his continual complaining about my social anxiety is grating, I try to remember that he just wants me to be normal.

And he has no idea how badly I wish to be exactly that: normal.

There’s this community, this society, this whole world, full of normal people.

Then there’s me – unambiguously abnormal – and I just don’t belong.

“Dad,” my sister begins. There’s probably more that she says, but her voice becomes distant and my vision darkens. All around me the heavy world melts and solidifies in my gut. The air tastes cold; the earth feels shaky; and my brain evaporates inside of my skull. As I feel the world disintegrating around me, I hear Analise repeat herself more sternly, “Dad!”

Blacking out isn’t unusual for me, especially when I’m being forced out of the house. Any sort of gathering that would provide literally anyone else with ‘a sense of community’ and ‘a sense of togetherness’ just ends up leaving me empty. My father has criticized me constantly for years now, as if I have some control over it, but he never used to say anything in front of me. I wish he still had that discretion, honestly. I’m glad that when I come back to it is to the solitude of bedroom. My eyes adjust to the darkness effortlessly.

In the far left corner, I can see the soft glow of my computer screen, where I spend almost all of my time when I’m home. Sometimes I have nightmares about blacking out and waking to my father unplugging everything. Forget failing, dying, or being cheated on by some short-term boyfriend – being without my games is my greatest fear. I need these black curtains, dual monitors, and consoles. These things give me the motivation I need to continue living.

Logging in is second nature. I type my password and click the icon I want without even glancing at the screen. My left hand reaches out to open a shallow drawer. I keep my headphones there so I never accidentally knock them to the floor. They’re an instrumental part of my gaming experience and I would go crazy without them. The loading screen fades away when I look up to plug my chord into the appropriate port. Just as I do this, a ping erupts in the headset from the messenger program I use with my guild group. This particular tone is unique, assigned to one specific contact, and I know my best friend is online immediately. Instead of tapping a reply on the keyboard, I hit the hotkey to dial out to her automatically. When she speaks, her voice is so rich that I feel the thickness of it wash over my body, “I thought you had to go be a part of the real world tonight. What happened?”

Explaining my worries to her is not necessary. She already knows. All it requires is three simple words, “I blacked out,” and we move on from the topic. An notification message materializes over my inventory menu, a probationary invite to a campaign mission: The Mayflower Maybe. The creator, my best friend, goes by the gamer tag MaybeMay, which is a pun for her real name. I accept the request immediately, but not without harassing her, “Your best mate has to undergo the probationary period?” She laughs at me as I spawn inside of the lobby of her personal server.

Giving life to the joy that erupts from May when she laughs is impossible to accomplish with just words. Hearing her happiness through my headphones is one of the best parts of my day, every single day. I often question why anyone would ever want to be a part of the outside world. There could be someone online living on the other side of the world who could be the most perfect part of their lives.

“As a leader of the people, you must impress my people if you wish to stay,” she details in a voice that reminds me that she’s as much a leader as she is player. I do run my own campaigns, and I have plans to also get a server running so that I can host multiple guilds for my growing players’ circles. I do well in the background, generally, but she’s the ‘front-and-center’ type. MaybeMay just happens to be a more natural leader all around.

Even though I’m new to this particular campaign, many of these players recognize my handle, and they fire off their warm welcomes in the public chat. Seconds barely tick by before the private messages begin filtering to my inbox. Compliments, excitement, compliments, resources for expected behavior, upcoming events, more compliments; and I love knowing that this is my safe place. No matter that I can’t physically see them, they’re as familiar to me as my own family.

Unexpectedly, I hear a knocking at my door and I lurch forward with determination to be quiet. My fingers hurriedly shut off my monitor and hold my breath. My mother is wanting to check on me, I’m sure, and if she knows I’m on the computer she’ll end up telling my dad. If he knows I’m playing my game already, so soon after I’ve passed out, he’ll keep blaming the games for my anxiety. I know that this not true. I really am just that dysfunctional.

MaybeMay’s voice asks me if I’m okay, since I’m just running in circles, and I manage a strangled shush into the microphone. A few more knocks imprison me in this frozen pose, concealing myself from the harsh judgment. How can my father want me to go join the world and be an active member of society with my peers when I can’t even escape his disparagements for having a personal preference?

Once I know I’m in the clear, I apologize solemnly.

“Someone knocked at my door,” I huff, “and I couldn’t tell if it was Dad.”

MaybeMay is protecting my avatar when I turn my screen back on, and there are concerns in the chat that I’ve lost connection. The general tone doesn’t bother me nor does it come off as rude. She assures everyone that there was a personal matter that arose but that I’m confirmed as being back online. To verify, I teleport myself to another player whose just had a low health warning come across the team notifications banner. Usually I’m the healer when I’m not playing as the guild master, and I fall into the routine very easily.

Our campaign mission takes the team four attempts totaling nearly six hours. Weariness settled into my eyes quite a while ago but I don’t know when for sure. Once we’re all done trading our wares and treasures with the merchants, I exit the software and rummage through my emails. MaybeMay lingers online to talk me, despite the reality that it’s even later into the night for her.

Initially, she goes on about some of the small tasks that littered her day, until she hopped on to do her usual work on the server and website. She works from home for some graphic arts company, and only leaves the house a few times a week to do mandatory errands. Her idea of socializing is a LAN party, or some other mass gaming event. I admire that lifestyle and usually remind her at every opportunity that I am jealous. Today, though, I deviate from that pattern.

“Do you think I’m broken?” I shudder at acknowledging my difficulties assimilating to the normal world. More often than not, this reality gets swept beneath some metaphorical rug. Outside of the house, we spread this lie that I’m just extremely shy. Sometimes people try to give me advice – imagine everyone in their underwear, a universal nugget of wisdom, it seems – and other times they just tut their tongue at me. Every so often someone might become bold enough to blame video games or technology. Of course, my father agrees, and his face sinks in confirmation of their theories.

MaybeMay doesn’t reply at first. This startles me because she’s normally doesn’t have to pause to fully consider anything, not even a loaded question such as this one. She attributes her ability to rapidly resolve questions or issues to her gaming, and then she cracks a joke about the people who blame games for a ‘lazier’ generation. I suck in as much air as my lungs can hold just as she replies.

“Yes…” I wasn’t expecting to hear her say that and I’m dazed. I am sure this moment between heartbeats will kill me.

“…but I think we all are broken in our own unique ways. You and I, we’re the same sort of person. Your dad, well, he’s just a different type. His idea of being involved and having a sense of community is really different from yours. Maybe it’s our brains, maybe it’s not, but whatever it is – nobody can say the gaming community is fake any more than they can say that kids at a stupid school dance are fake.” I didn’t think I could ever feel so strongly about a monologue, but this one has me shedding tears of joy. Clarity settles into my mind’s eye. Being different isn’t as bad as my dad makes it seem. MaybeMay gives me the ability to see myself as complete and strong, accepted and appreciated, respected and valid. Everyone should have a friend as loving and as honest as she, but that’s what scares me about the real world beyond my door.

Not everyone is so loving.

Not everyone is so honest.

And not everyone is broken like me.

“I needed that,” my thought escapes effortlessly through my lips. My features relax, and so does my body, as I begin closing all of the windows on my screen. Remaining maximized is my messenger program, silence hanging loosely between MaybeMay and I. Discomfort dares to creep into my thoughts but more than anything I’m just happy to share this sort of moment with her. MaybeMay reminds me a lot of Analise; a sister when my sister is away.

A digital clock next to me shifts into the next hour. Without a doubt it is time for me to go to bed, and so I begin the process of saying good-bye. Once I’m whispering my departure plans, MaybeMay reveals she’s logging off too.

Yet she stops me from ending our call. She insists that there is one last thing to be said before we disconnect and carry on with our lives outside of the game. I hold my breath so that I may drink in every drip of confidence I may derive from it. “A real community is just a group of people that care about the same things together. Tell me that our virtual family isn’t real – I dare you.”

A smile spreads across my face just as the signature sound of a user switching offline dings in my headphones, ears, and body. What I did to deserve her, I may never know, but I won’t question it either. I crawl into my bed knowing that no matter what my dad thinks – what I feel is real, and he can never make it go away.

Excalibur Returns (An Original Short)

Contest Host: WOW! Women on Writing

Contest Title: 2016 Flash Fiction Contest (With Critique)

Placement: None


 

The ethereal world around me shames even my most whimsical dreams. I feel perfectly at home here even if I have no idea how it is I’ve even arrived. This place is so hauntingly beautiful that I can only presume that it is luck that I’ve stumbled upon this paradise.

 

“But why is it that I feel so lucky?” Not even the tiniest piece of me felt afraid to be somewhere with which I was unfamiliar. There were no questions as to whether I was in danger. My admiration for the scenery left me dumbfounded but put my simultaneously at ease. Why is it I would consider myself lucky instead of concerned?

 

“Because you are,” A divine harmony echoes throughout my mind. Surely it was the single most brilliant voice in all of time and space. Hearing it speak is distracting in the moment that I hear it but also in the seconds that tick by with slow deliberation afterwards. I nearly forget to look around for a person to whom the voice belongs but in my heart I know will not find one. Regardless, I twirl halfheartedly knowing in advance that no human could so sound divine.

 

When I stop my eye catches the slightest glimmer of sunshine bouncing off of a dewy patch of moss. Clouds pass overhead breaking what little light shone through the vast canopy. The moss that was just radiant green is now as dark as night, barely recognizable as any form of plant life. Something in my heart propels me forward to explore this patch of moss very specifically. The closer I get to it the harder my heart pounds behind my sternum.

 

Once I am hovering directly above the chameleon moss I notice that there’s a strange sort of light around it. The way it moves reminds me of a small stress on the countryside. Alas, it is not actually bright light, like what you would see from the sun, but rather palpable nothingness that casts a demanding aura. I cannot resist the urge to stare into the abyss.

 

Unsure what it is I am experiencing makes me curious rather than frightened. I slowly poke each hand into the void in hopes of discovering something with which I can make a deduction about this strange patch of plant life in this oasis. Why does is radiate power in such a way that is distinctly different from the rest of the forest?

 

At first I feel nothing more than a soft breeze. For a second I shiver due to a chill that is best described as a wind tiptoeing up my spine. Since I have no reason to believe that there is any danger I lean in further to take a deep breath. Does it smell as harmless as it looks?

 

“On the ground,” the voice returns only to alert me to the mistake that I’ve made. Agony washes over me as violently as the Thames. The pain is tangiblly audible to the point that I cannot even tell if I am screaming. My eyes remain clamped shut as I suffer through whatever has overcome me.

 

Time seems to stop so that my punishment may hold the attention of the entire universe. My palms are hitting the ground with flagrant protest. I found this paradise to be alluring and perfect but now I damn it for what it has done to me. Through the aching I force my fingers to inspect each frill, blade, and bulge in hopes of identifying an escape. The only thing that exists in me is the will to survive. It is only several cuts, bruises, and rashes later that I finally identify something that is foreign…

 

Something that does not belong…

 

And it is so very, very cold.

 

It is lean.

It is sleek.

And it is cold.

 

Without justification I bring the item to my chest, eyes still closed as the pain continues resonate through my bones. In a way, the echoes of suffering are worse than the initial inflictions. In my heart I know that this punishment is somehow instrumental to my escape. Perfect as it seems, I have no desire to continue my adventure here.

 

Silence begins to fall around me. Clamped eyes begin cracking open so that I can examine the trinket that I have discovered. The cool temperature that had stood out in contrast to my hot pain is wholly refreshing. I find myself absently attached to this object in a way that I find myself describing as ‘victorious.’

 

It is almost as though I had achieved the task for which I was brought to this place. As I suspect this presently, it is also confirmed; “What you hold now is a necklace fashioned from the shattered remains of a scabbard once known as Excalibur. For far too long I have waited for another to carry its burden once more.”

 

Enthralling as the voice is, as the setting is too, I cannot resist laughing at this premise. Tendrils tug in the back of my mind insisting that this is reality but in the forefront of my mind I have the slightest suspicions this is little more than a dream. The feelings, sensations, and pains that I experienced are remnants of regret and accomplishment that I feel in a real world somewhere beyond this place. I would be mad to believe that this luxurious getaway is real.

 

When my laughter fades, though, I find that there is a soft denial. The rhythm in my heart changes and my lungs breathe air differently. I am not independent. The voice seems to instruct me how to feel and what to think. Within seconds my mockery of the possibility twists away from that rooted doubt. As it lifts it is quickly replaced with acceptance; “And yet as much as you lack belief you are equally as easily swayed. Does your necklace not feel as icy as a winter’s night? Those are Excalibur’s remains in your very hands. Your presence in Avalon is not some innocuous hallucination. Of this I can promise you.”

 

I command myself to wake, or so I believe that I have done as much. The brilliant world around me is replaced with dull gray walls. Stained cream curtains billowing in the polluted wind cover a cracked window. I am instantly reminded that I live in a city plagued by crime and anarchy. Displeasure flows steadily in my veins. The largest part of me regrets leaving Avalon. Real or not, I already prefer to be there in spite of the dangers it may contain.

 

“You are meant for great things,” The voice asserts finally as my gaze settles on the blankets that cover me. A heavy object seems to be weighing them down. My fingers feel a breeze rolling off of a necklace that is immediately familiar to me. Excalibur is real and it is here in my lap. The peace that I felt in Avalon returns and I find myself trusting in the words of my invisible guardian.

 

I easily clasp Excalibur around my neck. It was much heavier in my hands. A second passes in which I consider removing the jewelry but the thought feels insidious. A soft whispering in the deepest crevices of my mind is insisting that I was meant to carry this burden. To exist without Excalibur would defy the universe.

 

A gunshot yanks me back into the world beneath my window. I rip the curtains back with assurance. This world must change. I must change this world.

The Girl In My Reflection

Contest Host:     Writers Weekly

Contest Title:     24-Hour Story – Fall Segment

Theme:     940 Maximum Word Count; Following this exact scheme “The barren, tan corn stalks behind her snapped in the cold
evening breeze, the only sound louder than the dry, fiery red leaves swirling around her tiny, shivering bare feet. She’d lost her bearings again and she hoped the dinner bell would ring soon. A gray tree with endless arms and fingers, devoid of any remaining foliage, loomed before her. She gazed at the odd markings on the trunk, which appeared to
outline a hand-cut door of sorts. And, as she stared, it opened…”

Placement:     Grab Bag Door Prize (85 Prizes are awarded in each contest, I was listed as 1/35 Grab Bag winners).


Today was another long day at work. Everyday is a long day at work, though. Especially Fridays because it’s almost time for two days off and everyone wants to get to quitting time and crawl into bed. Okay, so only I want to crawl into bed, but I worked two twelve-hour shifts this week. This body has been running on fumes since Tuesday.

Before I can do any sleeping I am going to have to shower. I didn’t this morning, so there are all kinds of product in my hair and on my face. The apartment is small and sort of triangular in the layout. My roommate loves it, unfortunately, so I put up with it for cheap rent. But it never takes long to get from the front door to the bathroom, which is quite nice after work.

Immediately, I turn on the water for some noise while I get everything I need: pajamas, towels, washcloth, and so on. Moving through the motions is incredibly easy in spite of the fact that I can’t feel my face and I can’t think straight because I keep fantasizing about my pillows. To distract myself, I flick on the television sitting atop my dresser for another layer of noise to help me stay awake.

“Help me.”

The words don’t register at first but they are repeated, “Help me,”­ and I turn around to see what is on the television. As it turns out, it’s one of my favorite sci-fi shows. I love this episode because the wife has to save the husband for a change. Laughing under my breath, I return to the bathroom. Mindlessly I push my hands out to check the shower temperature. It’s warmer than I prefer but I won’t mind. I will be able to stand in it.

Quickly I peel away my button up, slacks, socks, and hair tie. As my hair cascades and I shake it out, I swear I see something moving behind me. Hesitantly I turn myself to check Nadia’s door. It’s shut. I then peer through to my room. It’s empty.

“Help me! I am lost.”

That isn’t a line from this episode. I must be getting really tired if I’m hearing things. Distracted, I wipe off steam build up on the mirror. I wasn’t exactly paying attention, so when I see an image instead of my reflection I don’t react. It takes several seconds before I decide that I’m not hallucinating.

A small, frail girl with blonde greasy hair sticking to the tatters of her clothes stands there expressionless. Her eyes are dark and her skin looks to have been stretched over her bones. I know it’s insane to believe this little girl is standing in the middle of a dark, barren field is actually inside of my mirror, but I do. The maternal side of me emerges and takes over. I need to do something; “What happened to you? Are you hurt?”

I drag the towel more harshly down the mirror, hoping for a drier surface to see the child more clearly. As I pull the cloth away, this thick black ooze replaces the water residue. Without hesitation, I begin using my hands to clean the mirror. When the substance covers my arms entirely, I realize it is blood. I wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t stopped to climb onto the counter.

“They want to kill me. Will you help me?” Soft tendrils of her voice reach beyond the glass barrier between us, and it just consumes me. I hear nothing but her pleas for help. I know I have to save her. I push myself hard against the mirror. At first it doesn’t budge…

…But then it does. My entire right side slides through the glass no differently than reaching down into a pool. I can see the girl, the dead world behind her, and I can see it every bit as plainly as I did before breaking the barrier.

“Take my hand, sweetheart. I can pull you through.” I say to her, using the voice I use to tell my nieces when it’s bedtime. My sister says it is serene and comforting. I wish to be so welcoming now, “Come on, and just take my hand. I will help you.”

She seems uneasy at first, but her frown starts to melt away as she glances cautiously over her shoulder. Naked feet carry her fragile body nearer to me. Feeling as though there is not a single moment to spare I push myself harder again into the mirror, slipping more and more into some other world that has trapped this innocent child.

She is walking but she seems no closer than she was minutes ago, and so I lean out more and more and more until only my feet are left on the other side of the mirror. Once my head is on the other side of the mirror completely, I realize that I’m covered in the tarry blood. Since I’m balancing with one hand I have to use the other that I’ve extended to the girl to clear my face off. In one swift motion I smear away just enough to regain unobstructed sight.

What I see startles me. The girl is not a girl at all but rather a slender black mass. It’s eyes match the child but there is no other resemblance. A scream rises in my throat but I have no opportunity to let it out. Tree roots sprout from the ground and wrap around my neck. My fear is smothered as I just barely hear, “There’s the dinner bell. I’ll be glad to have you.”

The Winners Are In!!

Well, look at that! It would seem I got first place! I’m super excited about this and have been spamming the news on every social media platform I’m on today! I should probably slow down so I don’t get a big head 😉

Truth be told, I work hard at writing every single day. I am glad to see my work paying off and can’t wait to challenge myself to something new! Today it is victory, but tomorrow it is back to work. There’s always something that needs tackling and I live for those tasks.

A Love Vigilante

Contest Host:  Screamin’ Mamas

Contest Title:  Screamin’ Mamas Magical Fiction Contest

Theme:  A day in the life of a fictional character, exploring what that character would be doing with his or her time during a normal day.

Placement:  Honorable Mention


Every day is a surprise for me. Men and women alike confronting me, insulting me, attacking me; this is the life of someone in my line of work. They think I’m being a home wrecker. People call me every name in the book: slut, whore, skank, trash, and so much more.

But nobody bothers to call me what I am: a succubus.

It is only six months into a new year but I have saved nine women and four men from terrible relationships and marriages. Namely, one such person was Cindy. She had glistening blonde with a button nose. The woman cooked, she cleaned, and she was a star patron of her church; if she could fit something into her schedule then she did it. Honestly, she was the best wife a man could ask for in his wildest dreams. Too bad her husband was sleeping with her sister, her mother, her cousin, and her best friend. I watched and waited for only a few days before making my move.

In today’s day and age, a pair of short shorts and a low cut sequined shirt goes a long way for grabbing a man’s attention. Sickeningly, I didn’t even have to try. He followed me into an alley not too far from his home. All I had to do to encourage his advances on me was wink. The schedule in the neighborhood was set so I knew Cindy would drive by just as his pants settled around his ankles.

Within days, I was working my magic on Cindy’s best friend’s relationship. Boyfriend, Dean, had plans to propose to her based on the rumors I’d been hearing from the couple’s social circle. Cindy’s husband stopped knocking on her door but there was always another man she would string along. The monstrous woman had men queued up. Just shy of prostitution, the only thing that would make the entire gig more businesslike would be if she took payment in the form of cash – you know – instead of peppermint lattes from her favorite coffee shops. I could see that Dean worked too hard at his factory job to waste his time and money on a woman who did not have the same desires as him. Dean needed someone willing to settle down with instead.

The approach for his situation was much different, something a little more traditional. I appeared in his dreams whispering doubt into his subconscious. It took nearly two weeks before he was suspicious enough to expression concern. Glorious was the day when he finally confronted her about the myriad of unidentified numbers in her phone. Upon further digging he unveiled dating apps and photo-sharing programs, each littered with scandalous pictures of her inviting men to have a good time. Never in a million years would she have been able to effectively explain away those secrets. Thankfully, he moved out that same night and hasn’t looked back. Being the occasionally benevolent creature that I am, my connections to other charity cases allowed Dean to stumble upon – entirely by accident – a young lady named Lenora. It is history from there, of course. Both of them freshly out of scandalous relationships. Both of them idolizing futures with families and security in their frayed hearts…

As for today, well, I’m not doing anything in particular. Mostly I’m just watching for anyone dressing in deceit. People today see each other as pawns. Everything is a means to an end. Most days I am convinced they are all animals. Succubus or not, I understand the error in thinking in such a foul manner. My goals have not always been sincere, true enough, but by neither have I been heroic for the entirety of my existence. Once upon a time I was the evil force ruining relationships rather than reconfiguring them. Lately females are realizing the power that they have and the worth they contain beyond nurtured inferior compliance. The gaining popularity of the though sparked enthusiasm within me; I had the ability to use what is truly a curse and turn it into a gift. I could turn it into a sort of unofficial business. Since then it has become my way of life.

“You are lookin’ dressed up tonight but I see no date?” A lovely woman behind the bar with a silky voice grabs my attention, forcing my body to turn from the crowd of people dancing under black lights. Immediately I notice her shining bronze skin, as flawless as well crafted jewelry. My lips curl in a wicked grin. I can practically smell the conflict emanating from this bartender.

Now I know the mantra, all servers are looking to give good service for good tips. She is being nice and thoughtful because that is her job. I have no intention of overstepping my bounds. That being said, it doesn’t mean that I won’t attempt to pick her brain just a tiny bit. As soon as I suck in the air from her direction I am positive that I taste distrust. Something plagues her mind.

“No more dressed up than any other woman in the building tonight. Very sweet of you to say something, though.” I bat my eyes sensually, reaching for a shot glass that she offers with a lackluster slide. Pouting for only a moment, making it appear as though I don’t want to work for my drink, it seems to be an all too familiar gimmick for her. The pretentious expression on my face softens at the sight of her gearing to shoot me down. Enthralled by her easy strength I know that hers will be a name I want to know precisely so that I shall never forget. If only I could manage a peek at her nametag.

“Thanks, but no thanks. Taken.” She replies. The tone is bored. How many times must she have said some variation of this concept tonight? Furthermore, I want to know what was the rate of depreciation in confidence as she caught glimpses of her partner enjoying the company of others. Her hand nervously reaches up to the tight bun atop her head. I catch her staring down the counter to a man laughing with a crowd of scantily clad barely-legals. I can see it a mile away. That is her boyfriend – but he tells her to keep it casual.

How do I know? How could anyone know just by looking at two people without any context? The answer is simpler than you might believe. It is because bodies are my what I live for; they are my passion. When she looks at him she sports a relaxed brow but tense shoulders. This indicates that she respects his desires but harbors an internalized hesitation towards them. Obviously there is more to it than that because body language is the only language that cannot form lies.

The server’s grin toward the patrons is sincere but any mention of love or hooking up and her jaw tightens. It isn’t just a reflex, though, not an absent-minded reaction. When she clenches her jaw her smirk is unmoving making the act intentional. This is conducive of a person consciously “keeping face” to do her job. Plus there’s him to consider as well. Moments come when he glances at her during conversation. Clearly working her in as a topic of discussion. I can see the way everyone giggles at the mention. It assures me that he is making it clear that his relationship sounds more friendly than intimate. None of his customers are in awe of my bartender. Their eyes do not twinkle at her bur rather at him. Sloppy and selfish, he accomplishes exactly what he hopes: he is desirable to these girls hanging around him.

“I’m not the customer you need to worry about…” I venture to share in such a velvety tone that forces her to frown. Her shoulders lower and her arms drop finally exposing her nametag. Until now her movements have been preventing me from seeing it. It was impossible between all the poured drinks and crowd checks around her boyfriend for any faces that may bring her concern.

Memorizing everything I can about Chantel allows me to further confirm my desire to keep this one locked away in my mind. There is something hopeful about the way she sighs in acceptance of my comment. Fear is something that I combat in men and women too weak to see the worth in themselves. Her thick black hair, her short unpainted nails, a pudgy stomach that she hides with spandex undershirts and too big uniform shirts; this is an average woman and yet she has potential to be so much more than that with me.

Chantel wanders away for quite some time. I don’t bother to keep an eye on her since I know that the foundation has been laid out. Chantel will approach her boyfriend with refreshed mascara and a brilliant grin. He will kiss her cheek but proceed to kiss all of his co-workers in the exact same fashion. Meanwhile a redheaded bombshell will keep making her way back to her boyfriend’s section drunkenly, sputtering about how handsome his crew cut makes his chin stubble look so dreamy.

“Little Miss Scotland giving you a run for your money, isn’t she?” I ask loudly when I sense Chantel behind me. When I spin back to her I am met with angry eyes. If I offer sympathy she will most likely open up to me. Or, I can offer her something else; “Tell you what – I’ll go over and see if I can get him to bite. If he does, then you dump him and leave here with me tonight. If not, then you’ll know he’s a good man with a faithful heart.”

Carefully leaning over the counter as she contemplates is one of the more subtle moves in my repertoire. My leather dress pulls tighter against my chest and my wavy brunette locks frame what prove to be an alluring amount of cleavage, even for a straight female. After she glances down she trails back up just as slowly. Chantel does not seem very impressed.

“Is this what you do? Use your good looks to avenge women who feel cheated?” Of course she doesn’t trust me but she certainly doesn’t trust him at this point. Aside from her teetering allegiance, she is somewhat fixated on my offer, if not on me entirely. Even though she is the tiniest bit offended by what I’ve suggested she is considering the value of what I can prove to her. The doubt that she reeks of will burn deep inside of her and make her vulnerable.

Telling her that she is wrong – even if only on a technicality – is a choice that I have to make even thought it isn’t a particularly difficult task. There are people every so often whom almost see what I am trying to accomplish. They ask if I’m working for a private investigation service, or if maybe I’m filming a show about cheating lovers. Admittedly, nobody has ever been as close as Chantel is now. It strengthens my belief that she is special.

Conclusively, I choose to be upfront with her, “I protect men and women from being treated like meat. Nobody deserves to be played as the fool. If he isn’t open enough to tell you he wants an open relationship then he can’t be trusted at all. I can step in and make sure you don’t waste any more of your time on a liar. My interest is in you and making sure that you find what you deserve.” Chantel stalks away once I finish explaining my motives but it is hardly surprising. Articulate conversations with patrons and staff alike support my theory that her focus isn’t on doing her job. Mulling over the opportunity in front of her takes absolute precedence. I need no more proof that I have weaseled into her heart exactly in the fashion I’d planned.

As soon as she returns laden with irritation – Chantel rejects the offer. With this announcement she affirms that it is not a question that he wants something else. Initially I inquire at what point I misread the signs. Did I not look at her jawline closely enough? Maybe I should have analyzed the way she walked with more precision. Hesitation prevents me from apologizing. The delay stems from dismay. How could I have gotten this so wrong? I feel humility after a few moments and push myself away from the counter feeling absent.

My interference was not needed, apparently. Even more so, this time it was unwanted as well. Discouragement befalls my mind and it is frustratingly foreign. I cannot remember the last time I set out to do something and failed.

Chantel is everything and nothing I penned her down to be – and just this once unpredictability is welcomed, “I will still leave with you. Truth be told, I am dying to hear more about what you do as a love vigilante.” And so, shame on me for not waiting to pass my internalized judgment. If there is any luck to be had – Chantel will prove to be the perfect apprentice.