Flash Fiction Challenge: Continuing Someone Else’s Story, Part 4

Hile, inklings! Today I bring you my latest entry for author Chuck Wendig’s December Flash Fiction Challenge.

My entry for Part 1 is here. Genre: fantasy, coming-of-age.

My entry for Part 2 is here. Genre: horror? There’s a vampire, anyway.

My entry for Part 3 is here. Genre: paranormal. Witches, a priest, and mutant skeletons.

What follows is my latest entry!
Rebecca Douglass started it with Part 1.
Connie Cockrell picked it up for Part 2.
Andy Decker continued with Part 3.
My addition follows Andy’s.

UPDATE: Jeremiah Boydstun picked this up for Part 5! His conclusion to the story follows my part.

Millions of Cats

by Rebecca Douglass, Connie Cockrell, Andy Decker, Courtney Cantrell, and Jeremiah Boydstun

Rebecca wrote:

Things never worked out according to plan when there were cats involved. I knew that, and I should have known better than to take the job. Either don’t try to plan or stay far from cats, and I knew which would have been better for me. But Keelan made it all sound so easy: we just had to pick up the consignment from Alpha-Centauri 4 and take them to Exilion 17. Four days, max, and two of them in hyperspace.

“What could go wrong?” I should really have run when Keelan said that, because you know as well as I do that anytime those words are uttered you should run, very fast, in the opposite direction.

Unfortunately, we needed cash, and the cat people had it. So we went and picked up the load of cats.

That was where the trouble first began. They were supposed to be crated, sedated, and ready to be picked up by fork lift and stowed in the cargo hold. But when we arrived, a team of cat-wranglers was still chasing them around a pen. We had to wait an extra three days for all of them to be properly prepared for flight.

Connie wrote:

Now we were late. We hadn’t started and penalties were being assessed. “Don’t worry,” Keelan said. “There’ll still be plenty of credits. We’ll be able to pay off the bank as soon as we get to Exilion 17.”

I knew better, Murphy’s Law was in full effect. We loaded the crated cats and took off. The first day we built up to hyperspace speed and cleared the solar system. I hit the button. Nothing happened. I stared at Keelan. “I’ll fix it.” He unstrapped. I grunted in reply. He pulled the cover off of the panel after I got up to get some tea. He was tracing the wiring when I came back, cup steaming.

“Got it.” He held up a burnt wire. “I’ll just reconnect the two ends and we’ll be on our way.”

I knew what he meant. He was going to twist the ends together and tape it. I’m supposed to trust my life to that? “What if it fries again? We’ll never get out of hyperspace.”

“No, no,” he mumbled as he twisted the wires. “This will be fine. We’ll get it fixed the right way when we get to Exilion 17.”

Andy wrote:

Six types of burned tape later, and Keelan not remembering those doomed for not remembering history, I unstrap myself and handhold to the tool closet, next to the cargo’s vapor-lock. That’s where the real nightmare began. There’s a certain fragrance wafting past the three layers of polymer-aluminum seals. Plastic baggie of red electrical twist-caps in hand, I make it back to the cockpit.

Keelan looks up, preparing yet another type of tape for the splicing. I hand him the caps and ask, “Smell anything?”

He smiles. “Just burnt tape. What’s up?”

The question lingers as I buckle in and run a quick ambient contaminant scan. Sure enough, we’ve got an increasing level of uric acid, sodium chloride, male cat steroids, and several unidentified detoxified substances. I point to the screen.

“What’s FUS?” he wants to know. Keelan never reads the fine print; always quick to say he’s the idea man. Sometimes I want to strangle him.

“Feline Urinary Scent.” I leave it at that. The projection trend shows we’ll need air-masks by the time we arrive at Exillion, assuming drive fires in the next several minutes. We’ll need new air filters and a fumigation of the entire ship. Credits, schmedits!

Courtney wrote (202 words):

I’m itemizing the penalties of slaughtering my co-pilot when Keelan tugs on my sleeve and asks, “What’s that noise?”

I pinch the bridge of my nose. “Catcalls.”

He frowns. “Meaning?”

The wailing from inside the crates gets louder.

“They’re out of their cradles.” I sigh.

“Out of their cradles?!”

“Yes.”

“What do we do?”

I close my eyes. “Keep no more cats than will catch mice.”

“What?”

“Nothing.” I grab the stun gun taped to the underside of my console. “C’mon.”

He follows me to the first crate. I peer into the monitor, gaining a bird’s-eye view of the interior. Sure enough, the whole clowder is up and at ’em. One of them is standing on its hyperspace cradle, tinkering with the inside of the crate’s first seal.

“Great,” I mutter. “A cat burglar.”

Keelan snorts. “You kidding?”

I’d like to see him dance on a hot tin roof.

“Look,” I say. “We’re gonna have to open this sucker up. And when we do, we’ll have a fight on our hands. But we have to herd them. Or they’ll take control of the ship.”

Keelan swallows. “Do we have a chance?”

“As much chance as a wax cat in hell.”

Jeremiah wrote:

“Man, listen to ‘em. They sound really pissed.”

I glance at Keelan, who is unaware of his own bad joke. Actually, he looks like he’s going to toss his cookies. I’m sure that would go great with the FUS. Whatever. I am not about to lose a paycheck to a bunch of oversized rats.

I swipe my freight card and begin punching in my access code when Keelan grabs my arm. “Wha—?” He taps his lips with an upraised index finger. Keelan is looking at the crate like it’s an algebra problem he can’t figure out. It’s only after I stare at the crate in a similar fashion for a few moments that I realize the caterwauling has ceased.

Oh man . . . what if the hypersleep settings were off? What if the cats were given the wrong dose of sedatives? Keelan reads my eyes like a news ticker and knows what I’m about to do, but before he can stop me I’ve swiped my card again and entered my code.

The outer shell of the crate bifurcates with a hiss of argon, momentarily obscuring the containment unit. I’m expecting the worst. Shrunken pelts. Lumps of viscera. No. What we get is way worse.

“Howdy boys!” A hundred pairs of furry bipedal legs, a hundred tiny pulse rifles. A large tabby with an eye-patch steps forward and snaps back the operating bolt on his rifle. “I believe we’ll take it from here.”

THE END

Flash Fiction Challenge: Continuing Someone Else’s Story, Part 3

This post continues my entries for author Chuck Wendig’s December Flash Fiction Challenge.

My entry for Part 1 is here.

My entry for Part 2 is here.

What follows is my entry for Part 3. Josh Loomis wrote the first part, and Jon Jefferson wrote the second part.

UPDATE: Josée De Angelis picked this one up for Part 4, and Mozette finished it with Part 5! I’ve pasted their continuations of the story below mine.

Within the Church

by Josh Loomis, Jon Jefferson, Courtney Cantrell, Josée De Angelis, and Mozette

Josh wrote (201 words):

“This is never going to work.”

The witch looked over her shoulder as she drew the pentagram on the wall with red chalk. “If you have a better idea, Father, I’m all ears.”

“Believe me, I wish I had a better idea than drawing these things on the walls of my church.”

“Do I need to remind you that you’re the one that called me?”

“And if my Bishop knew, he’d probably excommunicate me faster than you can say ‘Martin Luther.’”

“He might react that way if he knew about all of the guns on the premises, too.”

Father Benjamin looked up from the shotgun he was loading. “This is America, Miss Crenshaw. Everybody has guns. Even the clergy.”

“Those are the shells we discussed?”

“Silver buckshot soaked in holy water? Yes.”

“Good.”

Crenshaw looked up as the pounding began on the doors. “I knew I should have started there…”

“At least they’re only coming from one direction.” Benjamin worked the shotgun’s pump action as he moved towards the door. “Finish what you’ve started. I’ll hold them off.”

“What, and let you fight it alone?” Abigail Crenshaw dropped the chalk, drawing the silver sword from her dark scabbard. “Not a chance.”

Jon wrote (198 words):

“This is as good a time as any,” Father Benjamin said. He grabbed the handle of the door and gave it a turn. He rammed his shoulder into it and slammed the door into the hall against the creatures in the hall.

They shambled as their bones clacked together. Skeletons, creatures of dark magic mobbed the hall. They weren’t just science experiments gone wrong. The bones assembled at the point of convenience.

Some had three and four arms, others had leg bones growing out of their skulls. A hodge podge of dark evil waited for Father Benjamin and Abigail to join them in the hall.

He burst into the hall blasting rounds from the shotgun into several of the skeletons near the doorway. Their bones exploded in a spray of powdery bone shards. Abigail followed his lead. Her silver sword swung in a wide arc severing bones as it swept through the group.

“Back to back,” Benjamin yelled. “Don’t let them through.” Another blast of the shotgun brought them closer to clearing out his side of the hall.

“Having fun yet deary?” she asked. The silver of her sword flashed through the skeletons that charged her en masse.

Courtney wrote (204 words):

Father Benjamin grinned. “Just like my seminary days.”

Two skeletons darted beneath sword and shotgun, circling to attack from the sanctuary end of the hallway. Abigail lunged at them.

“Crenshaw! Wait!” yelled Benjamin.

Too late. A third skeleton slid between the witch and the priest. Then a fourth. Abigail shrieked as the first two surrounded her. Benjamin took aim, but his gun gave no more than a click. Empty.

With a roar, he reversed the gun and slammed the stock into one skeleton’s head. The skull shattered, but the bones dragged at him as he thrust the barrel against the still-standing skeleton. Abigail took the head of one hellspawn pinning her to the wall. But the last one kept coming, and more poured into the hall behind Benjamin.

“I warned you not to get in my way,” said a voice.

All around them, the skeletons froze. Abigail’s cry echoed in the sudden quiet as she thrust her swordpoint through her final attacker’s skull. Together, she and Benjamin turned toward the end of the hall.

Beyond the motionless horde stood a figure in purple robes. A hood hid the face, but the skeletons’ puppetmaster was unmistakable.

“Hello, Gillian,” said Abigail.

“Hey, Abby,” came the answer.

Josée wrote:

“Long time no see” Abigail said, still holding her sword ready for attack.

“Yeah, sorry about that. You know, I’ve been busy, or I would’ve called… How’s Mom?”

“Mom?!” This from Father Benjamin. He turned sharply to Crenshaw, his prayers forgotten, his fingers loose around his cross.

“You didn’t know this, Father? Abby and I go way back. To the womb, actually.”

Gillian took a step forward. “But don’t worry. Just move away, let me get the stone and I’ll go on my merry way.”

“You were never a good loser, Gill. My spells are stronger now.” Abigail advanced, her sword held high, her other arm at her back for balance.

“This changes everything!” Benjamin cried out.

Abigail, not changing her stance, directed her words to Father Benjamin behind her but kept her eyes on Gillian: “What do you mean? Why?” Gillian chuckled. Yes, she chuckled, a frosty, chilling chuckle. Her skeletons waited for her orders.

“There’s a reason why I asked you here, Ms. Crenshaw. It had to be a Crenshaw witch for this to work. Now I know why.” Gillian’s cold, loud laugh shook the hall and the skeleton bones rattled.

Mozette wrote:

Benjamin glanced at the remaining skeletons. They waited for their next command from Gillian, but he wondered if Abigail could also command them.

“Oh put down that piece of metal, sister. We can work this together.” Gillian’s eyes sparkled, “After all we are twins.”

“Yeah…you’re right.”

Did he hear Abigail correctly? She lowered her weapon to her side slowly, placed it into its scabbard, smiled at the priest and muttered an incantation under her breath. A moment later, all the skeletons exploded into dust as though he had shot them all.

Gillian’s eyes widened, “No!”

“Like I said, my spells are a lot stronger than they used to be.” She smiled, “And, unlike you, I can walk either path of wicca – dark or light – so if you want to play…let’s play. But you leave the stone here.”

Fear skittered across her sister’s face, “And if I want it?”

Father Benjamin and Abigail exchanged a knowing look as she spoke, “Well, you’ll have to kill me. And you know what will happen if you do…”

Her sister’s face paled, “Oh, shit, the stone isn’t a thing, it’s a person.”

“Not exactly.” Father Benjamin shook his head, “It’s twins…sisters of opposing powers.”

“So, do you really want to collect the stone, when, by supernatural laws, we’re not even supposed to be breathing the same air unless we’re in a church?” Abigail challenged.

Gillian groaned, “Fine…I’ll leave.” She raised the hood of her cloak again and faded from sight.

Benjamin turned to Abigail, whispering, “Did we lie to her?”

“No.”

THE END

Or not! Here’s Josh Loomis with an alternate ending (to follow Josée’s part):

“Chalk.”

Abigail blinked, sword still at the ready, processing what she’d heard. “What?”

“Chalk!” Benjamin repeated. “Toss it back to me.”

Abigail’s free hand fished around to find it. Skeletons shambled towards the pair as she threw the chalk back towards the priest, without looking. Benjamin had to step towards it to catch it. The skeletons reached out, and Abigail’s sword flashed. Gillian laughed as her sister moved to defend the priest.

“This would be a great deal easier if you just gave me the stone, sister. Are you really going to defend this… this man?”

Abigail shook her head. “And you gave me shit for staying in school.”

“Abby!”

It was the first time he had used her given name. She turned, and saw him holding up a black slate. On it in chalk was a complex circle, ringed in runes, that Abby recognized instantly. Without hesitation, she sliced the palm of her left hand on her blade, and slapped the slate Benjamin held. Instantly, there was a loud pop, and the skeletons collapsed.

Abigail turned, and Gillian was gone.

“Here.” He began wrapping a cloth around her hand.

“How…?”

“Later. Right now, we have a church to clean up.”

THE END

Flash Fiction Challenge: Continuing Someone Else’s Story, Part 2

This is for Part 2 of Chuck Wendig’s December flash fiction challenge. (My entry for Part 1 is here.)

I’m late posting this, but hopefully it will still count.

COLD

by Shane Vaughan, Courtney Cantrell, Adrienne, Wanderer, and Jonathan Bray

Shane wrote:

He is cold. It’s always cold around this time of year. The sun decides it’s had enough and pops off for a quick solstice nap. Not that he minds. He’s used to the cold by now.

He props his collar up, puffs his scarf to cover all exposed skin; all that dead, gray skin. He tucks his gloves down over the wrists and sucks on the butt of his last cigarette. Damn things never last. His wife used to say it’d give him cancer, not that it matters now. He lowers his woolen packer hat over his brow and stares at his reflection in a shopfront window. He used to recognize himself, now what is he?

It had all happened so fast; the heart attack; cracking his head on the tile floor; the ethereal sensation that he was losing life, as though it were seeping out of a hole somewhere. And then the doctors. The nurses. The scalpel. He saw it all, from outside his body. He watched as they operated, trying so heroically to save his life, but in the end the line went dead.

So what the hell is he doing back on Winthrop street in high Winter, and how did he return?

Courtney wrote (206 words):

He shuffles down the sidewalk, leaves skittering at his feet. They’re as dead as he, but at least their hop-skipping gives a pretense of life. The cold slows him, as though he’s walking through vats of the red gelatin his daughter snacks on. Childish giggles echo in his memory.

He wonders what his funeral was like. What they wore. How they sat. If her tears were as loud as her laughter.

Did his grave the next morning warrant an investigation?

His sluggish foot kicks a loose rock at a passerby. The woman glances at him, frowning. But then her eyes widen. He already knows her thoughts. Too many other well-meaning lips have spoken them. Sir? You look ill. Can we help?

And in undertones: Is he contagious?

That question always makes them back away. Even now, the woman veers aside, covering her mouth and nose with her hand. Just in case. Can’t be too careful.

If only he could tell them this is no illness they can catch by breathing his air. He shies away from them, too. Even in the cold, they smell too good. He places his hand over the scarf covering his own mouth. Even through the wool, he can feel the fangs.

Adrienne picked up my thread and continued:

He had forgotten how hungry he is as he studied his reflection in the shop window. Now, as he turns and watches the woman scurrying away, he wonders if anyone would notice her absence. A sharp pain brings him back to reality. He was clenching his jaw tightly, piercing his lower lip with his fangs. It wasn’t the first time he’s done this. Luckily he heals quickly. Shaking his head, he turns away from the woman, now a small dot a few blocks away. Now is not the time to slip up.

He keeps moving, fighting the cold breeze as it assaults his legs and threatens his pace even more. Behind him, a shadow flits under the yellow street lamps, quickly concealing itself in the shadows once more. He smiles. His lengthy pause in front of the shop window had done the trick. His plan is working beautifully.

Every move he had made since he dug himself out his own grave had been witnessed by that shadow, and it was now time to find out who, or what, it was. He turns the corner and immediately enters through the first door he comes to. The house has been vacant for years, and it is the perfect place for a predator to trap his prey.

Wanderer continued with:

The house smells slightly damp and musty. Strangely comforting, he thinks. It reminds him of the cool dark earth and the way it clung to him as he clawed his way out of the ground. A cracked mirror hangs crookedly on the wall and he unwraps his scarf, looking at his face in the spider-webbed surface. His skin looks like the cracking dried mud of a riverbed. He turns away, sliding into an alcove in the entryway. It wouldn’t do to have his pursuer spring the trap too soon.

He swallows against the wave of hunger that comes over him. No. He only wants answers. Why should a thirty five year old man with no history of heart disease drop dead of a heart attack? And why should that same man refuse to stay dead? There was a slight tickle in his gums and he consciously breathes through his nose until the fangs retract. He has a good idea why he isn’t dead or, more accurately, why he is undead, so the question is how?

He hears the front door creak and lowers into a crouch, reminding himself he only wants answers. The aroma of warm blood fills the foyer.

Jonathan Bray concludes with:

The shadow moves forward into the dim light, revealing a woman. Her face known, but not placed. He grabs her and shoves her against the wall.

“Why have you been following me?”

She screams. “Please, take what you want. Just don’t hurt us.”

“Us?” He looks around, photos of of his daughter appear and fade like dying ghosts. This was their house. What happened here? How long has he been like this?

“Where is she?”

A memory half recalled. His wife, a drink, then pain. He reaches for her she laughs. Darkness. His daughters voice in the darkness, a melodic grapnel for his soul.

“I’m sorry.” She whimpers.

Fangs sink into her before he can think to stop. She withers to a corpse in his arms, the blood runs to rot. He chokes, spits the dry gore from his mouth. The corpse is familiar. The ruined dress and wispy hair. He called her wife.

Footsteps run, he follows. She’s older now, but it’s his daughter. He smiles with bloody horrific teeth.

“This isn’t what I wanted.” She stabs the knife into her heart.

“No!”

The house is empty, numb. Now he waits for the cold. He’s used to the cold.

THE END

New Flash Fiction Challenge: 200 Words! Part 1

Below, please find my entry in Chuck Wendig’s latest flash fiction challenge: writing the first 200 words of a story which other writers will finish.

House of Memory

by Courtney Cantrell, Renee Elizabeths, Simon B., and ?

“I was cleaning bean sprouts when I heard the news.”

As Feral’s voice wavered out into the silence of the crowd, Berien Ghantek squirmed in his seat. The new boots pinched, and the formal shirt’s stiff collar made his neck itch. He tightened his grip on the banner pole. Above his head, the bright red flag twitched. If he kept his hands on the pole and his mind on his duty, he wouldn’t give in to the urge to scratch.

“One remembers every detail of that moment.” Feral cleared her throat, but her ancient voice remained raspy. “The earthy scent of the sprouts. The tiny snapping sounds as they broke beneath my clumsy fingers. The cold splash of water at the pump. I was but a young girl then, but we Ghanteki have not forgotten. As every year, today we remember and raise our house standard to our queen, Alarena Bright-Eye. May her rest be peaceful, her rising soon, and her vengeance entire.”

“SHE SHALL RISE,” replied all of House Ghantek.

Trembling, Berien got to his feet. Although he forced his gaze to stay on Feral, he could feel the more than five hundred Ghanteki eyes shift to his face.

Story continued by Renee Elizabeths:

“H-house Ghantek remembers the F-f-fallen Queen!” he stammered.

Annoyance flashed in Feral’s eyes, but the crowd shouted their response anyway. As she’d said herself, they’d been doing this for decades now, and they only had the one line to remember anyway.

His throat got tight and Berien swallowed a cough as she began her second reading. Feral would have him scrubbed raw and purified every day for a month if she decided he hadn’t taken this seriously.

It was just too hot. Couldn’t Queen Alarena have waited a few weeks until autumn to die?

Of course, then it would probably be raining.

The crowd shouted again and Feral began her third reading, this one about the battle to come. Her words washed over him, filling Berien’s ears without bothering to catch his attention. It was almost over now.

“House Ghantek defen–” The third standard-bearer cut off with a squeak.

Berien followed his gaze to the prayer tower at the back of the crowd. The priest there, a new man fresh from the monastery, stood and threw off his ceremonial robes.

“SHE SHALL RISE!” shrieked his withered corpse.

Thunder boomed, shaking the world, and the altar burst into white-hot flame.

Simon B. continued with:

The crowd gasped and turned as one. Berien watched with them in disbelief as a dozen robed acolytes tore themselves away from the throng and joined the skeletal figure upon the tower. The bearer who’d been interrupted – a blade-sworn whose name he couldn’t remember – had fallen to his knees, repeating his pledge over and over.

Feral was going to go absolutely pastoral. Berien looked over his shoulder to her for guidance, grimacing at the collar digging harshly into his neck.

The old matriarch stared dumbly past him. Her usually stern expression was gone; she stood, transfixed by the flames, as horror and confusion fought for purchase on her face.

A scream snapped Berien’s attention back to the prayer tower. The group of priests were pushing back into the crowd. A flash of steel, another shriek – more urgent, this time.

They’d armed themselves.

Berien laid down the Ghanteki standard as respectfully as he could and felt an illicit flush of relief as he realised he wouldn’t be leading the parade later on. He pulled open his shirt, unfastened his rapier and stepped down from the stage, making his way deftly through the surging, pressing bodies of the crowd.

Decorum be damned.

__________

Who’s next? : )

At the Funeral of a Marriage

Hile, beloved inklings!

I come to you today with entertainment. Skip the next four paragraphs if you want to bypass the preamble and just get straight to the opium.

Over at writer Chuck Wendig’s blog, you’ll find a flash fiction challenge containing ten random words as prompts. Mr. Wendig issues such challenges on a regular basis, and this is my first time to answer one.

My story is a bit longer than Chuck’s suggested wordcount (1700 vs. ~1000), but that’s just what the story wanted to do. If you follow my blog and/or my writings, you might remember my talking about “Grace and Jack stories,” my incomplete series of short stories about insanity, love, choice, and cross-dimensional time-travel. (Check here for more info.) Today’s story is one of those.

You might also remember that I’m writing a story for Tony Healey’s charity specfic anthology. That story is also a “Grace and Jack,” but that story is not this story. This story is a good way for me to get into the characters’ heads, and it fits in great with the “Grace & Jack” timeline. So, without further ado or adon’t, here’s the story:

Random words provided by Chuck Wendig:

Funeral, Captivate, Deceit, Brimstone, Canyon, Balloon, Clay, Disfigured, Willow, Atomic.

“At the Funeral of a Marriage”

a Grace and Jack story

by Courtney Cantrell

August 10, 2014

A month after the ballgame, I remember my sister’s words and consider divorcing my wife.

Beneath me, the bike’s engine roars its defiance and its despair as I race the setting sun to the horizon. It’s summer, late evening. Everybody’s either tucking their kids in or at the bar. The highway is mine. Out in the arroyos, the coyotes are my only witnesses, and they don’t give a damn about any challenge my bike and I might issue.

It would be like a funeral, our divorce. A solid, traditional funeral with lace veils and stopped clocks and mourners in black. I should list the clocks first, because they’re the most important. I would want to stop the clocks because right now, I don’t know when our marriage died, and I would want to know.

The bike and I approach a sharp curve and I lean into it, feeling my momentum in every atomic particle of my body and wishing I could just surrender to it. A different kind of funeral, then. But I don’t want to go there–that’s too much Grace.

In my mind, Grace and I stand at the open grave of our marriage and look down into it. The corpse doesn’t get a casket; it just lies there desiccated on the cold ground at the bottom of a hole. Grace and I excavated that hole together: she with her insanity and her refusal to accept my love for her, and I with my weariness. Exhaustion isn’t dull or blunt the way people think. Exhaustion is a sharp tool that digs hard and fast, more effective than madness ever could be. My wife and I might have conspired to murder our marriage, but it was my weariness that delivered the killing blow.

So Grace and I stand at the gaping hole, looking down at the shrunken corpse of our marriage, and I say to her, “You still captivate me,” because it’s the truth.

Grace turns her face toward me, but I can’t see beneath her veil of black lace. Her eyes might still be assessing our dead marriage. “You’re not usually into that kind of deceit, Jack.”

My bike takes me across a bridge spanning a deep canyon, and I wonder what lies at the bottom and if it’s cold. The conversation in my head is different from what I expected. Maybe the disinterest of the coyotes isn’t the only thing that can dry my tears.

“I’m not lying,” I tell the Grace in my mind. “You do still captivate me, and I am still deeply in love with you.” Since this is the Grace in my mind and not the real Grace back at our small house, I can be brutally honest. “I don’t care if you’re crazy. I love you. I don’t care if you do believe you’re responsible for someone’s death. I love you.”

My foot gets heavier and heavier on the accelerator.

“I don’t care if you do imagine you can hop dimensions and time-travel to try to fix that mistake. I love you.”

The wind makes me squint, and I find that the coyotes were not successful.

“I don’t care if you do drink yourself into oblivion so you can stop thinking. I love you.”

Maybe the high speed will tear the pain out of my chest and I can leave it behind on the pavement of the highway like roadkill.

“I don’t care if my sister is right and staying with you is stupid of me. I love you.”

The wind and the bike are a universal roar in my ears. But at the graveside of my marriage, all is silent. The stillness spreads, embiggens, balloons out into my hearing until even the sound of my own rushing blood disappears.

The first mourner steps up beside me. It’s Frannie, Grace’s medieval-fair-ing mother who has always liked me but has trouble loving anyone in jeans and a T-shirt. Frannie tosses a long-stemmed flower into the open grave. The purple petals smell like brimstone. Do bad marriages go to hell when they die?

“But this wasn’t a bad marriage,” Frannie says. In my mind, she turns and looks at me. “It wasn’t bad. It was just fragile.”

Grace lifts her face to the sky. “Fragile does not mean good.”

Frannie goes away, and my sister takes her place. In a black silk blouse, black skirt, and black cowboy boots, Reese looks like the country-Goth version of the Grim Reaper. Even her blond hair hides underneath a black bonnet with feathers. Reese drops a clod of dirt into the open grave and addresses Grace.

“Lunatic,” says my baby sister. “You should have died before you ever married him. At least then he could get on with his life.”

Grace lays a gentle hand on Reese’s arm. “Sometimes, death isn’t the end. Sometimes, death is just the clay and we use it to mold something worse.”

Reese goes away, and a man with hazel eyes takes her place. At first, I think a shadow lies over his face, although I can’t tell what might cast it. Then he reaches up to brush a strand of long, brown hair out of his eyes, and I realize it’s not a shadow. The right side of his face is disfigured with burn scars that turn his skin purple. None of this is real, it’s all in my mind, but my bike swerves out of control for a moment anyway. The scarred man is only in my head, but I know I should speak to him before he speaks to me. It’s the only sign of respect I can give him.

But as I fight to force the bike back into the right lane, he beats me to the punch. “Where is your honor?” he asks.

For once, Grace is silent.

My arms are trembling. I should pull over, let the adrenaline rush away to wherever adrenaline rushes go after they hit and pass. I should sit at the side of the road in adrenaline’s wake and then maybe push the bike the 40 or 50 miles back home instead of turning the engine back on.

Instead, I press the accelerator a little harder and face the scarred man at the graveside of my marriage. “I don’t know where my honor is,” I say.

He smiles a little, and the scars pull one side of his mouth into a grimace. It hurts my heart. If I were an asshole, I’d think the effect of the scars comic. Then again, I did marry this man’s wife, so I guess I’m an asshole anyway.

“She wasn’t my wife when you married her,” he says.

“I wanted her when she was still your wife.” I already know I can counter his every argument. “I loved her when she was still your wife.”

“But you did nothing until she wasn’t my wife anymore.”

I make a bitter noise that even I don’t recognize. “Only because you died first.”

“She wasn’t responsible for my death.”

“Tell her that.”

“You tell her enough for us both, Jack.”

“Why are you here?” I ask.

Finally, the scarred man looks down into the open grave. Before I can stop him, he leaps into the pit, right beside my dead marriage. “You pay homage to the dead,” he says. “Especially when the dead is someone you respected in life.”

I realize that he holds a shroud in his hands. He unfolds the shroud and drapes it over the dried-out husk. A knot forms in the pit of my stomach as the scarred man leans forward to pull the shroud over the sightless face.

“Don’t,” I whisper.

The scarred man stops mid-motion and stays that way, leaning over my dead marriage, prepared to lay it to its final rest. “Are you sure I shouldn’t?”

“I don’t know,” I whisper to the wind.

“Or would you rather I applied this?” He reaches into his pocket and pulls something out. It’s two wide twigs bound with a third thinner twig into the shape of a cross. He grips it in his right hand.

“Every grave must have its marker,” he says. “But this is a marker of resurrection. The wood of the willow infuses the essence of love. So what shall it be, Jack? The comforting death shroud, or the cross of love and life?”

My gaze drifts from the grave up to my wife’s face behind her veil. “Tell me what to do, Grace. Tell me if it’s worth it. What do you want?”

For a moment during which my entire universe trembles on the brink of oblivion, Grace remains silent and still. My lungs shudder and my heart skitters. But then Grace lifts the veil from her face and her eyes to my gaze. Her eyes are so dark, they infuse me with light. Her smile makes me want to touch her, but there’s a canyon between us and I fear that something worse than coyotes inhabits it.

But Grace smiles.

Grace smiles at me.

“I want the truth, Jack. The truth is all I’ve ever wanted. I know there’s nothing in you that would deny me the truth.”

Though I don’t want to, I look away from her and down into the grave where the specter of her first husband awaits my answer. The scarred man raises his eyebrows–again, a caricature of deformity, but I do not want to laugh. My mouth won’t work, but apparently my glance at his right hand is enough. He nods, then turns to lay the willow-twig cross upon the forehead of the dry corpse.

In that moment, the scarred man disappears. At the bottom of the cold grave, my dead marriage open its eyes and stares into my soul and says, “Remember me.”

I slam on the brakes so hard, I think I might go over the handlebars and catalyze a funeral after all. The screech of my tires is loud enough to trigger an answering, indignant chorus of coyote wails. But the beasts no longer matter. I slide to a stop, almost laying the bike down. But even if I broke an ankle or road-rashed my leg, that wouldn’t matter either.

Grinning like a loon, I turn the bike around and ride home to Grace.

Free Sci-Fi Romance Short Story Excerpt!

Hile, inklings! Today I’m providing you with what I hope will be a treat. As you might recall, I recently had a short story published in the latest installment of the e-mag A Consortium of Worlds, #3.

“The One Where Jack Loses” is not-so-happy romantic sci-fi with themes like the nature of Reality, the nature of Time, and the nature of Individual Choice.

The treat is that I’m publishing an excerpt from said story below, just for your reading pleasure. I hope you enjoy. : )

“The One Where Jack Loses”

A Grace and Jack Story

by Courtney Cantrell

Untitled

The woman I love is eating herself into nothingness from the inside out, and there’s nothing I can do.

How do I love her? Like one whose fingernails are ripped to shreds as he claws at the unforgiving cliff, trying to hold onto life over the maw of a gaping abyss.

I love this woman so much that the atoms of my teeth are fused together. Speech just isn’t going to happen at this point.

~

Déjà Vu

When I open the door, the first thing is the smell of her. Jasmine that blooms at night. The overwhelmation of Bulgari Blue. I think she’s overdosed on it.

“No matter what I do,” she says, “he still stays dead.”

The second thing is the half-empty bottle of Captain Morgan on the wooden trunk before her. The third is the woman herself, who contains the Captain’s other half. She toasts me with the tears pouring down her face.

“Jack, I can imagine a thousand scenarios,” says the woman draped in Bulgari Blue. “Did you see that movie, the really bad remake of The Time Machine? They changed the story so much, Wells himself wouldn’t recognize it. They have the guy be engaged. Can you believe that? Engaged, like his kind of scientist is ever gonna find time for a girl, even a neglected one. They have her die, and they have him go back again and again to try to save her. Back in time in his time machine. And he says that no matter how many times he goes back, he can’t save her. No matter what he does, she still dies every single time.”

I can’t get any closer to her than the arm of the couch. The force of this sorrow won’t let me. I can’t tell her I want to hold her hand. I can’t tell her I want to hold her body in my arms and let her sobs wring me limp. If I could finger one strand of her hair, that would be enough.

She tells me she doesn’t need a time machine. How could a machine ever take you back? The machine is physical, and time is everything but. Time is God, and how can a physical machine take you into God?

“I can imagine a thousand scenarios. I do something different every time. In some of them, I’m not even born. That’s how vast my imagination is. I’ve thought of a hundred thousand million different ways our lives could have played out, intertwined like snakes having sex, in some places they touch and in some they don’t. Even when they don’t and I’m not even born, he still dies. No machine could do what I’ve done to the inside of my heart, Jack. Every time I couldn’t save him, that’s a scar. For every life possibility, that’s a scar. Forget about some kind of metaphysical tree with pretty branches. That’s not how it works. Every life path is a scar, and I’ve got a hundred thousand million of them to prove it.”

I let myself rest my fingers on top of hers, as though they belong there. I wonder if atoms of our skin could ever fuse together like my teeth. I can’t tell her how badly I want to know what the inside of her mouth tastes like.

Grace says, “Bulgari Blue was his favorite.”

~

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways…

My eyes are tracing the sensual curves of her elegant profile. Her lower lip trembles, but she doesn’t even turn toward me. How can I but admire her courage?

“What if there’s more than one of me?” she whispers.

______

Click here to get the rest of the story. Happy reading!

An Extremely Brief History of How I Got Gotten

Once upon a time, busyness and pregnancy exhaustion got me today.

Therefore, what you see here is the entirety of today’s blogpost.

Please to be forgiving the brevity thereof.

And they lived happily ever after.

Which, in German fairytales, reads: “And if they haven’t died, then they’re still alive today.”

The End

Growing Up in Bowel Town: Marauders

From Ghosts of Bloggings Past:

I grew up in the German city of Darmstadt, which literally translates to “Bowel City,” which I choose to render as “Bowel Town” because it sounds funnier. My first home in Darmstadt was an apartment building at Roßdörferstraße 55 (which loosely translates to “Horse-Village Street” — I swear I am not making this up). We lived for eight years in a two-bedroom apartment on what Americans would call the third floor but Germans call the second.

The building’s first floor housed a “Konditorei,” which I guess would be a pastry shop or confectioner’s shop to those of the English-speaking persuasion. The presence of said pastry shop resulted in the most amazing scents that drifted daily up the stairwell and into all the apartments, making everyone in the building crave Butterhörnchen a whole lot more often than fortnightly, lemme tell ya.

The baker’s names was Herr Gibis, and before I started 1st grade, he took to wife a younger woman with two children. Their names were Marcus and Sylvie. Marcus was my age, and Sylvie was a year younger, and they lived with Herr and Frau Gibis in the only apartment on the first floor, behind the pastry shop.

Marcus and Sylvie and I became fast and great friends. I could tell oodles of stories of our many outside adventures, including the ones about how Marcus chased me and his sister with daddy longlegs. But that is another story and shall be told another time.

The story on my mind right now is The One Where We Got Into The Bug Spray. You see, adjacent to the back of our apartment complex and beyond a low chainlink fence brooded this squat, square, white building with a fire escape. (The fire escape figures into yet another tale, as does the chainlink fence, but again, that is neither here nor there right now.)

In this squat, square, white building lived an old woman. I suppose now that she must not have been very old at all — probably between 40 and 50 years of age — but to us children (we were now 10, 10, and 9, respectively), she seemed ancient. I only ever caught a couple of glimpses of her, and my only memory of her is long, dark hair in a bun, and shoulders wrapped in a fringed shawl. But Marcus and Sylvie must have seen her more often than I did, because they said her name was Maria and she didn’t like children.

It quite possible that Marcus and Sylvie were making this up.

Anyway, we were fascinated and terrified. Maria didn’t like children; ergo, we qualified as unlikeable. There was a chainlink fence — obviously, a barrier we were not meant to cross. Mystery, darkness, and danger lurked at this far end of the apartment complex. The lure of the squat, square, white building was irresistible.

I don’t know where Sylvie was on that fateful day, but she wasn’t with us when Marcus and I climbed over the chainlink fence, our hearts thudding wildly in our small chests, our eyes darting over our shoulders again and again in case A Parent should suddenly appear. But, undaunted by fear or threat of parental disapproval, Marcus and I scaled the fence (it was all of four feet high) and found ourselves on terra incognita: Maria’s backyard.

Eerie light filtered down through leaves overhead. An unnatural hush descended, as though even the birds were shocked into silence by our audacity. We were shocked into silence by our audacity. The air felt heavy.

The shed beckoned.

It was squat, square, and wooden, with a tin roof and all sorts of gardening implements leaning against its rickety frame. My memories progress as though I’m flipping through photographs, and the next picture shows Marcus and me, not entering the shed, but inside the shed, and Marcus is holding a sort of pressurized pump can, and we’re deep in the fantasy of marauders surrounding us, barring our escape, shouting for us to give up and come out, there’s nowhere left to run, and Marcus and I are looking at each other with huge, excited eyes, and we know that this moment is The Grandest Adventure EVER.

Meanwhile, the marauders were advancing. They were at the door. They were breaking in. We defended ourselves with the only weapons available: magic sleep-dust spray guns — what else?

Of course, when we got back to our side of the backyard universe (not having had the guts to approach the squat, square, white building proper, defeated marauders notwithstanding), the fantasy quickly broke into smithereens when The Parents smelled not magic sleep-dust on our clothes but insecticide, with which we had sprayed not only the imaginary marauders, but also each other, and generously. Because, as anyone with half a brain can tell you, magic sleep-dust magically turns into a restorative and palliative powder when used on a friend instead of against a slavering, primitive marauder.

I don’t remember what happened to Marcus, but I got a spanking and an afternoon in the bathtub, being scrubbed down with great vigor by my mother, who was not impressed.

That was our first adventure centered around Maria’s squat, square, white house…but it was not to be our last.