The Thirsty Blade: Flash Fiction Dark Fantasy

Henry paused the metal detector where the beeping was steady, just like he’d seen on the telly, and dropped a button on the ground to mark the spot. 

Then, he carefully set the apparatus down, removed his coat, and set about digging. 

His son had called him a fool for taking from his pension to buy the thing, but Henry had a feeling in his gut that he’d find results. If not a buried Roman hoard, perhaps relics from a more recent century that could be worth a few more pounds than the machine had cost. And what else was there to do upon retiring from forty years of keeping a pub?

The spot he’d chosen, just far enough into the woods from the motorway that the sound of engines were a gentle growl, was mossy and overgrown. It reminded him of a fairy tale. The great twisted tree roots and a nearby babbling brook spoke to him of ancient mages and whispering Druids, although whether they’d been prone to whispers or taken vows of silence like monks, he couldn’t recall. Still, it had seemed the best place to start his hunting. 

When his spare hit something hard, he knew that he had been right to follow his instinct. Bugger his son for refusing to take chances and get the most out of life!

“Well, once you’ve stood behind that counter for another twenty-five or thirty years, perhaps you’ll be looking for adventure, yourself,” he muttered, sinking creakily to his knees. 

Dampness seeped into the cloth on his knees, and he knew the dirt and moss were likely to leave stains on his slacks, but the faint glint of metal in the clods of earth took away that care, too.

Henry reached into the hole to brush the metal clean. To his astonishment, it wasn’t a box or a decorative rod. It was a sword. 

“I’ve found bloody Excalibur!” He laughed aloud. 

Even though the little dell was shaded from the summer sun, Henry was sweating and his chest heaving with effort by the time he’d uncovered the rest of the thing. Whether it could be properly termed a broadsword or a longsword, he couldn’t be certain, but it was — or had been — a beauty. The hilt was intricately designed with inlays and carvings peeking out from under centuries of dirt and tarnish, and the blade was whole, though edged with notches and blackened by time.

“Poor old thing,” he told it, shaking a hanky open to wipe it down. “Not even broken. Put out to pasture and forgotten before your time, eh? Buried away from slaying dragons and rescuing maidens just when life was getting good? Well, I know how that feels. Indeed I do.”

The hilt felt friendly in his hand. Manly. Henry stood up with it and automatically straightened his shoulders, running the fingers of his open hand along its tarnished edge. One callused finger caught on a crack. He started at the little burst of hurt, nearly dropping the sword in shock. 

“Blast, wasn’t expecting that.” 

He leaned the sword on a tree trunk to fetch a thermos of clean water from his pack. It was short work to rinse his cut. Even shorter to realize that the place on the sword where it had cut him was . . . Clean.

Henry stared. “Blimey.”

He moved closer and adjusted his spectacles. Wiped them on the least bit of dirty shirttail, just in case. There was no mistaking, though — that small spot on the blade’s edge where he’d cut himself, a section no bigger than his thumbnail, gleamed as brightly as a polished mirror. 

“How could that be?” Henry wondered aloud. 

A wind rattled the leaves of the tree, and the summer sun seemed to disappear, leaving a dark chill behind it. Time to leave. Henry shivered, putting his coat back on for a moment before taking it off again. He laid it flat and wrapped the sword in it for the walk back to the car park. No need for anyone else to see his finding, after all. There would be too many unnecessary questions, if someone noticed him tucking a great dirty sword in the dented boot of his car.

When he got it home, Henry locked the sword in his old kit from the war, washed up, and had his tea. He knew he ought to go to bed, but his thoughts were still filled with knights and castles, so he sat at the old computer that his son called a relic and logged onto the World Wide Web to see if he could find some answers. 

How did one clean an old sword, anyhow?

He supposed he could call the curator of a museum, or an antiques specialist, but it was in the back of his mind that they might try to take the sword from him. And he simply could not let that happen. It belonged to him, now.

Henry hadn’t felt this good in years. So energized and full of purpose. He barely noticed the passage of the afternoon into evening, or evening into night. When his son phoned in the morning, as usual, he was still at his computer, and he didn’t take the call. 

Which was why Peter came round at 10.

“Dad! Have you been sitting there all night?”

Henry turned in his chair to gaze blearily at his grown-up child. “Oh. Peter. Hallo. I didn’t hear you come in.”

“You didn’t answer your phone. Had me a bit worried, you know.” Peter tsked, looking over Henry’s shoulder at the computer screen. “What’s this nonsense you’re looking at now? Swords?”

“Yes, yes! You’ll never believe what I found!” Henry pushed away from the table and rose with little of his usual difficulty, in spite of the hours he’d sat in the chair, and went to his kit. Peter was close behind, demanding answers in a steady stream of belligerent remarks, mainly the usual claptrap about wasting money and remembering to keep putting extra by, for the sake of the future.

“Well, if it is worth something, ithe sword will be your inheritance instead of bits of my pension!” Henry snapped. He pulled the sword out, his hand comfortably gripping the hilt as though it had always done so, and turned on one bended knee to show his tarnushed treasure to his son.

He underestimated how quickly he could turn. Was used to his bones creaking and his joints aching. Peter was standing too closely, as he’d been wont to do for years, invading Henry’s space in an effort to be helpful. 

The blackened and uneven blade sliced cleanly through Peter’s side, cutting kidney and intestine right up to the ribcage, where it caught. Henry and Peter stared at each other. Then, following his instinct, Henry put his weight behind the hilt, changed his grip, and thrust the blade upward, cleaving his son’s  chest in two. 

Peter’s mouth fell open and then his head dropped down as though he wanted to watch the sword’s gleaming metal sliding free of the sheath of his body. Henry couldn’t take his own eyes off it, barely glancing as his son’s corpse hit the floor. Under the layer of swiftly clotting blood and matter, threads of fabric and bits of skin, the blade shone almost like new. And then, before his astonished gaze, the blood disappeared. He blew the dried bits of material off the sword, marveling at its craftsmanship and beauty.

“Now that’s a way to clean you up, isn’t it?” Henry whistled, long and low. He turned the blade this way and that, noting how the shine ended where the blood had stopped. He rose to his feet, his back straighter than it had been in years. Henry felt like a new man.

But when he experimentally dipped the last of the tarnished bits in his son’s open wound, there was no noticeable effect.

“Ah, I think I understand, my sir,” Henry told the blade. “I worked in a pub for forty years. I know a thirsty customer when I see one. And only a fresh pint’ll do, won’t it?”

He stepped over Peter and headed for the door. The young fellow who lived next door, who’d kicked his car and dented it — Henry could often hear him outside, strutting about with his mates. He couldn’t wait to see what the bastard lay-about thought of his new sword.

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A little horror flash fiction to sink into your skin

On Deacon Street, two or three of the older buildings had been knocked down and vacant lots with tufts of weeds sat between the struggling dollar store and Bill’s Tattoos and Piercings. The tattoo place had been there for years, even before the structures demolished last spring were built, and it looked it: pits and peeling wood showed in the sign, despite the layer of fresh paint applied to it every year, and the stonework on the corners of the walls had been smoothed by generations of tough guys and sassy girls leaning against them. The sidewalk in front of the parlour was permanently stained by countless cigarette butts, the ends of cigars, and spatterings of chewing tobacco, dropped or mashed or spit in displays of careless nonchalance, studied flirting, or seconds of fury. The original owner of the building had installed a fancy stained glass window over the picture glass, and to the business and patrons’ credit, no-one had ever destroyed it. Bill’s Tattoos and Piercings might have been exposed to all kinds of other abuse when drunks fought or breakups happened, but the window stayed. And so did the business.

They’d taken in a new artist in the past week, Tanya knew — the advertising was all over social media. A specialist in portraitures and three-dimensional skin art. His name was Brown Chimes (she still shook her head at the thought of parents who’d curse their child like that), and he wasn’t from the area. But for what she had in mind, he was perfect, even if the price was a little high. 

Memorialize your loved ones or pets with Brown Chimes’ expertise in lifelike portraits, in colour, sepia, or black and white! Sessions by appointment only — $500 minimum.

Tanya cracked her knuckles as she passed the vacant lots, checking her phone again for the time. It wasn’t the pain of the tattoo that she was worried about, or being late; for once in her life, she was actually early, and this was far from her first visit to Bill’s. It was the risk she was taking, having seen other people’s work. A portrait had to be done with care or else it would look as awful as that time someone had tried to fix Jesus’s picture in that church overseas. If she ended up with something ugly and exaggerated inked into her skin . . . Well, the worst that could happen would be a cover-up, but that would have to wait until the first one healed, and the new one would depend on the size and details of the old. It was all very risky. 

But she had a mission. It had been on her mind ever since Eddie’s funeral. She had her boyfriend’s pictures still, lots of selfies they’d taken together and a nice formal shot from prom. He had been the love of her life, Tanya just knew it. She’d thought about following him into the dark after he’d been killed in his car, hit by a drunk driver, but she’d also known how he would have felt about that. He’d want her to move on. Eventually, she knew she would; she’d date again, maybe even get married, although it still hurt her deeply that it wouldn’t be to him. One day the photos might fade, or be lost in a fire, or deleted if she forgot her Facebook password and couldn’t get to her account, but a tattoo — that was forever. Just like their love would have been. And if she did fall for someone else and get married, he would still be with her. 

The tarnished old bell jingled as she opened the door and stepped inside. Classic rock was playing at a reasonable volume on Bill’s stereo, and one or two young people were lounging on the black leather couch in the centre of the room, mocking their friend as he was getting inked on his back. Tanya approached the counter where a red-haired woman in her twenties was focused on finishing a design by hand.

“Hi! I’m here for–”

“You’re Tanya,” a quiet voice said. She jumped, startled, and turned to her left. 

A tall, gangly man with startlingly pale skin and a brown beanie was smiling at her. He had exotic tattoos covering every inch of the right side of his body, neatly dividing his face down the centre of his slightly crooked nose, over the centre of his Adam’s apple, and descending through his collarbone into the neckline of his tank top. Tanya didn’t usually stare at people with body art, knowing it was rude, but this — she’d never seen anything quite like it. It was as though someone had started in a colouring book and folded the page over to keep half of the picture untouched. 

“I know, it’s shocking, isn’t it?” He beckoned to her, turning as he walked away. He kept talking, despite not looking back to see if she was following him. She liked his faint British accent. “It’s a work in progress. I’m always adding small things as I go. I move around a lot, so I get a fresh tattoo to remind me of every place I’ve visited and everyone I’ve met.”

It was on the tip of her tongue to ask why he’d chosen to keep the one side of his body pure, but it wasn’t her business. Tattoos were personal choices. 

He led her into one of the back rooms, but left the door open. “Bad Moon Rising” drifted in on their wake. 

“Did you bring the picture that you wanted to use?” 

Suddenly, Tanya’s mouth was dry. She nodded, fishing around in her purse for the snapshot of Eddie half-turned away, his lips partly open at the start of a laugh. She held the photo tightly, tears gathering in her eyes and blurring her vision. 

“It’s so hard to let them go, isn’t it?” Brown said. He sat on a padded stool and scooted it close to her to see. He patted her hand kindly. “Don’t worry. I’ll give you what you want. It’s my personal guarantee.”

The first session would be the sketching, he told her, and that would take about two hours. She’d let that heal for a week or two, then return for the shading (if she wanted it). Tanya considered again where she wanted the tattoo: it had to be a place where she could see it, but not too visible all the time. Private. Personal. 

“Let’s do it on my upper thigh,” she decided. “If my future husband doesn’t like it, screw him. Eddie was my soul mate.”

Brown nodded. “I’ll give you a cloth to cover your lower half, then, and we will begin.”

He gave her a few moments of privacy to remove her jeans and arrange herself on the table, and then cleaned his hands and put on black protective gloves. She watched as he picked up the needle, and sat up, alarmed. “Aren’t you going to make a stencil first?”

“I always go freehand, love,” he told her. “I’ve never had a dissatisfied customer. And if you don’t get what you want, I’ll do a cover-up for free. Oh, and do you mind if I sing while I work? It helps me to concentrate. And I’ve been told I have a pleasant voice.”

Mollified, she relaxed and nodded, and let him begin.

* * *

“Look, Eddie,” she whispered to the stone. “Isn’t it great? I’m going back on the 17th to have it coloured in.” 

As soon as Brown had finished up and put the bandages in place, Tanya had paid him in cash and headed straight for the graveyard. Peeling back the surgical tape was about as annoying as the needle had been, and she knew she was risking infection by exposing it to the air so soon, but she had to show him. Plus, she was glad to see that the forget-me-nots she’d planted a few days earlier were still alive on his plot, and thriving. 

“Baby, I miss you so much it hurts,” she told Eddie’s stone. “But this is helping. It’s helping a lot.” 

She replaced the bandages, patting them carefully into place, and leaned over to kiss the top of his grave marker. The tattoo twinged as she moved, and for a second it felt as though her skin was crawling where the fresh ink was settling in. Tanya slapped her leg with the flat of her hand to kill the itch. 

* * *

“The skin tones and highlights are almost done,” Brown told her at the end of her second session. “But I’m afraid you’re going to have to come back one more time for the final details.”

“How much more is that going to cost me?” Tanya asked. She tried to hide her dismay, mentally calculating what she had left in her bank account.

“Don’t worry, sweetheart. It’s included.” He soothed her, smearing a layer of clear jelly over the portrait. “Two more weeks, and you’ll have your Eddie forever.”

Tanya smiled, though she didn’t feel very assured — it was hard to see the face on her thigh without a mirror, and he was working so fast to cover it with a fresh bandage that she hadn’t gotten a good look. She paid the second half of the deposit, her mind already steps ahead and in the graveyard. 

As she approached Eddie’s grave, she sighed with annoyance. The forget-me-nots were rampant, no longer a pretty sprinkling over the grass: they threatened to overgrow the stone and spread to the neighbouring plots. Would that bother the mourners who came to the other graves? Tanya hated to do it, but she spent the time on her knees pulling and trimming the flowers back. Kneeling pulled uncomfortably on the skin of her thigh, but she’d left her hand sanitizer at home. No showing Eddie his portrait tattoo today. “I love you,” she whispered, kissing her grass- and dirt-stained fingers to his stone. 

The tattoo itched and crawled, burning under the bandage. 

It bothered her so much, she barely slept that night. After-care rules were generally to keep the tattoo covered up and dry for twenty-four hours, but after tossing and turning until three am, she had to see what was going on. 

“Please, don’t be infected,” she begged, standing in the bathroom with her leg propped up on the toilet. 

To her relieved surprise, when she peeled back the tape and lifted the gauze, everything looked normal. Perhaps a bit more swollen than she was used to — Eddie’s face appeared to have contours and hollows, but she reflected that Brown Chimes did have talent in depicting the third dimension in art. She picked up a hand mirror to look at it from another angle, and dropped it promptly when the eyes in the tattoo flicked and looked back at her. 

“Shit!” she cried. “Seven year’s bad luck!” 

Tanya’s hands were shaking. She told herself it was because of the noise of the shattering glass. She knew she should tiptoe over and around the shards to get the broom and dustpan, but she didn’t dare take her eyes off her thigh. 

On the counter, in her makeup case, was a small travel-size compact. She rummaged for it until she found it, and then, not breathing, held it over the portrait.

It was fine. Nothing moved. Just her imagination, then. A trick of her eyes. 

Tanya laughed to her herself. The air felt good on it, so she ripped the rest of the tape off to let the tattoo breathe, and went to get the broom.

* * *

“Listen to me! There’s something wrong with my boyfriend’s grave!” Tanya pounded on the door to the groundskeeper’s office. “Maybe there’s a broken pipe or something, making a sinkhole. It’s disrespectful! If you don’t fix it, I’m going to report you! Are you even in there?”

Furious, she turned on one foot and stalked away, back toward Eddie’s plot. The forget-me-nots were as wild as ever, but they looked as though they were crawling up out of a ditch: for some reason, every time she’d come to visit over the last weeks, his grave looked for all the world like it was sinking. If the flowers hadn’t been there, she’d have sworn that someone was stealing dirt by lifting the sod and putting it back, but the plants were undisturbed. 

“Don’t worry, Eddie,” Tanya promised. “I’ll look after it.”

And now she was late for her last appointment at Bill’s. Tanya ran the last few blocks, pissed off with herself for wasting time at the graveyard again, and arrived just as the red-haired clerk was fitting her key into the lock of the front door. 

“Wait! I’ve got an appointment with Brown!” 

“We’re closing early today,” the woman said, looking her up and down. “It’s a holiday weekend. You should have been on time.”

A hand appeared in the glass door front. Brown knocked on the window, smiling down at them, and he pushed the door open. “It’s all right,” he said. “I was just cleaning up, and I was waiting for you, Tanya. I knew you’d be here.”

Gratefully, Tanya slipped through the small opening he offered. She didn’t bother to look as he shut the door tightly, heading straight for his back room. The little jingle and the slide of the lock into place echoed through the empty ground floor. 

“So, how does your tattoo feel? Healing well?” He entered the room noiselessly, making Tanya jump. “This last session will be painful, but it will be worth it. It will truly bring your portrait to life.” He gestured widely, grinning.

Tanya’s heart beat faster. Her skin felt cold and sweat broke out on her forehead. “How much more needs to be done?” she stammered. “I mean, it looks pretty good to me.”

“Small details, sweetheart,” he reassured her. “Just get comfortable.”

“Are you going to sing again?” 

“Of course!” He showed her all his teeth. “It’s what I do!”

He was right about it hurting more. Over and over, Tanya gritted her teeth and gripped the vinyl mattress on the table. Her sweaty palms wore away the thin paper covering that was meant for sanitation. Brown worked steadily without a break, grinding lines into her skin with a needle that felt like a razor blade, singing all the while. 

And then came a sharp clap of pain she hadn’t expected at all, a streak of lightning in her skin that seared to the bone. She flinched, crying out, and the next thing she knew, he was dabbing her face with a cool, wet cloth. 

“Is it over?” she asked. Her throat was dry. “Are we done?”

“Yes, my dear, you have what you wanted. Eddie is with you forever, in portrait as well as in spirit.” He helped her to sit up, handing her a plastic cup of water. “Would you like to see before I wrap it up?”

Tanya actually wanted to be sick. “No, it’s okay. I believe you. I just want to go home.”

He shook his head, understanding. 

At the door, she paused, and then took his hand. “Thank you for this. I’m sorry I was such a whiner. I really do appreciate your time and your talent.”

“It is my pleasure.” Brown said, covering her hand with his own. “I’m honoured to be able to do this for you. Find me if you are at all dissatisfied, and the cover-up is free.”

Uncomfortable, Tanya ducked her head, and clumsily opened the lock to let herself out. 

Her thigh burned and leapt under the bandage as much as it had after her second session. More, even, by the time she had reached the graveyard. Limping, she made her way over to Eddie’s stone, where the depression in the earth had gotten so deep, she couldn’t see the forget-me-nots anymore. Moaning, she stumbled over to the plot and looked down to the bottom. 

Dead and withered flowers and their stalks lay twisted over a layer of brown grass. The brass fittings of Eddie’s coffin were visible around the edges of the pit, glinting in the late afternoon sunlight filtering into the shadow of the grave. 

Weeping, Tanya fell to her knees, and once more, the skin on her thigh pulled. It throbbed, actually. She laid a hand over the bandage, feeling the muscle of her leg twitching and jumping. It was turning her stomach. Nails scratching her own flesh, she tore away the tape and gauze, and then she shrieked as the portrait’s nose flared in the fresh air. She crawled back, trying to get away from her own leg, while Eddie’s tattooed eyes blinked and strained to look up at her. His upside-down grin looked like a monster’s grimace. She hit another gravestone and was trapped.

“Hey, babe,” said Eddie’s tattoo. “What’s shaking?”

Let’s do a little Rated R, Adults Only horror flash fiction, shall we?

Seriously — adults only! Feeling like having a little naughty fun with horror . . .

Red roses and white wine. Dark chocolates and strawberries with whipped cream. Alex had brought her out on their anniversary for a picnic in the park under the stars. Denver had been a little leery about the idea at first, but he was so hot, so tasty and fun . . . She would have gone with him to a carnival, if he’d wanted her to, or a flea market. He was exactly the man she’d been looking for.

And once she got past the creepiness of the empty benches and soughing trees, and the play of the shadows from the flames of the candles he’d brought, it really was romantic. Romantic, and naughty.

Denver had worried a little about nighttime strollers walking by, and mosquitoes, but by the time Alex was stripping her shirt away, she no longer cared. The balmy night air kissed her naked shoulders with as much intimacy as her lover’s lips, and when the breeze ruffled her hair, it fanned the heat between her legs into a brushfire.

Something felt off, though, in spite of the glorious things he was doing to her. “I’m so hungry for your body,” she whimpered.

“I am too, baby,” he said, grinning at her with a flash of white teeth.

She stretched her arms out, her fingers clutching at the grass on either side of the blanket he’d thrown down behind the cedar hedge. The ground was hard underneath, but not unpleasant. But between the bushes and the trees and his body, she felt strangely confined.

So she drew his head to hers and whispered her need into his ear.

“Okay.” His voice betrayed his reluctance, but he dipped his head to kiss the crevice between her breasts, and helped her to her feet. “Where do you want to go?”

“Follow me, just over the hill. We can be there in two minutes. You’ll have to help me hop the fence.”

Giggling, she grabbed up the blanket around her chest as he picked up the wine and their shoes. There was no one around at this hour of the night to see their playful chase to the edge of the park, but she felt deliciously naughty with the dazzling stars and the full moon watching overhead.

The wrought-iron fence separating the park from the graveyard was six feet high, but Alex was taller, and it was easy for him to throw the blanket over the top of the spade-shaped spines. She laughed as he pulled it off her, spinning away, the movement of her breasts slowed by her bra. With clumsy fingers, Denver unfastened the clasp at the back and let the straps fall down over her arms, waiting for him to turn back to her.

She saw his eyes widen as she spread her hands over the cups and then eased the lingerie down, coyly turning away so he just missed seeing her nipples. Denver laughed over her shoulder, rubbing her thighs together as his hands curved around her waist, relishing the heat of his body behind hers. And then she stepped forward and threw her bra over the fence.

“Now we’re committed,” she told him, dimpling. “That was my roommate’s. She’s expecting it back.”

In answer, he pulled her close and lifted her bodily against the iron bars so he could nestle against her thighs and nuzzle her neck. She wrapped her legs around his, groaning as he pressed his need to hers, the rhythm of his thrusts coaxing the fire in her back to life.

“Not yet,” she gasped. “Over the fence!”

He sighed, letting her down so he could hoist her up and over. Denver watched the play of his muscles in the moonlight as he deftly climbed up and over. Before he could grab her again, she took off among the tombstones, unzipping her pants as she moved.

The place she had in mind lay behind a stand of triple oak trees: a great, oblong granite tomb, flat on top and worked all around with stone cherubs and wreaths. She nearly lost her balance when she got to it, struggling with her jeans around her knees, but then Alex was there again, his swollen manhood pressing against her rear. She let him take her just like that, the cold tomb supporting her weight as he made her senses sing with the motion of his body within hers.

Denver felt him harden, the pulse between them quickening. Eager to match his pace, she thrust him back and turned around so she could face him, perched saucily on the edge of the tomb. She reached for him, and Alex plunged back into her like a force of nature. She clung to him, her cries rising unbidden, her nails digging into his back and his waist as the world spun around her, a hurricane of sensation erasing the boundaries between her skin and his so there were only stars blazing in the darkness, a thousand suns heating her bones and comets streaking the heavens within her loins. Her back arched and her shoulders touched the cold stone; he was leaning over her now, working with her jointly in their climb. The build was so exquisite, she had a flash of disappointment when her muscles sent her over the edge, but the long shuddering climax was worth it. When he stiffened in her arms, gasping his own release, she quivered joyfully again, holding him closely.

“Definitely glad nobody was around to hear that,” she murmured.

“Well, you never know what’s out there in the night,” he told her. “Werewolves and vampires and mummies.”

“You don’t really believe in monsters, do you?” Denver pushed him off of her, laughing. “Come on, we need to get back before those candles start a fire. And I’m hungry.”

“Maybe you need more satisfaction right here,” he leered, pulling her close once more.”

“No, I’m seriously ravenous,” she whispered, raking her nails down his chest. “Come on.”

The other need within her was fully awake, gnawing at her ribs. She led him back the way they’d come, tracing a zigzag among the tombstones, and picked up her bra from where it had fallen. Feeling energized from the sex, she no longer needed his help to mount the fence, but she let him boost her anyway.

On the other side, after his feet were back on unconsecrated soil, she turned to him with a wide smile. “Stop, for a minute. I’m getting an itch. I need you to scratch it.” Denver pushed him to the ground and wrapped her brassiere around his eyes.

“Whoa — you’re stronger than you look!” Alex chuckled and moaned as she straddled him to lick his neck, testing the resiliency of his flesh with her teeth. “Ow! Should I use the safe word?”

“I think it’s too late for that,” she growled. Denver held up one hand to the moon, revelling in the elongation of her nails into talons, wiggling with the tingling sensation of the silky fur sprouting along her spine.

Alex pulled the bra away from his face at the sound of her howl. His shout turned into a guttural rasp with her hand around his throat. She caressed the six-pack he was showing in his struggles, scraping from navel to pubis, and below.

“Hot, tasty man,” she praised him. “I told you I was hungry for your body.”

Horror flash fiction: Phoebe’s Game

Phoebe looked at the knock-off Operation Game. She had to lift a couple of worn stuffed animals off of the box to see the whole thing, but she was careful to avoid putting the stuffies on the ground. No sense in making the people running the yard sale angry! 

Yup, it looked almost exactly like the real thing, except that it wasn’t called “Operation” and it didn’t look like it had been store-bought. The cardboard looked like it belonged to a boot box, and when she rubbed her fingers on the lid, it felt like something laminated. She took the lid off all the way and her mouth dropped at the detailed mannequin inside. 

“Wow,” she said. 

The game board resembled the copyrighted one that she couldn’t afford unless she did a ton of chores, but it wasn’t made of plastic. It looked like it was made out of carved wood. And where the fun little pieces should be — the water bucket for the knee, the broken heart, all those things — there were miniature, realistic organs. She put out a finger to poke the worm-like intestines. They were so shiny, she almost expected them to feel squishy, like gummy candies, but piece was hard. So were the stomach, the lungs, and the brains. 

“It’s all hand-made,” the kindly old lady told her over her shoulder. Phoebe jumped, nearly dropping the box. “Oh, be careful there, dear. That’s a one-of-a-kind, that is.” 

“It’s really cool. Way better than the one in the toy department.” Phoebe reluctantly put the lid back on and set the box on the table. “Probably really expensive, too.”

“That depends. Why do you want it?” The old lady paused to accept a handful of change from another visitor to the yard sale, tucking it into her apron pocket. “I know the one you’re talking about, it’s very popular, and really not that much money.”

“My Uncle Joe has one of those, and he’s really good at it,” Phoebe said. “Like, an expert. I thought maybe if I got my own, I could get really good at it, too. Then he wouldn’t beat me all the time, and call me a bad loser afterward. Even though I’m not one.”

“Ah, I see.” The old woman smiled. “How much do you have on you?”

Phoebe took out her change purse and carefully counted the coins inside. “Four dollars and fifteen cents.”

“Oh, dear, I really couldn’t let it go for so little.” The old lady crossed her hands in front of her, shaking her head. “It was a gift from my late husband. He knew how much I liked games, but rest his soul, I can’t bear to play them without him.”

Just then, Phoebe was hit with a sudden inspiration. “Maybe, if you keep it, I could come to your house and play with it!”

“No, I’m trying to declutter so I can move into a smaller place, sweetie.” The old woman paused, biting her lip. “But I could use some help with the packing. I’ll tell you what: If you can come and help me with boxing up some of my things, after school this week, you can earn the game for yourself. Sound good?”

“Yes please!” Phoebe was practically jumping up and down with excitement. 

“You go on and ask your mother. I’ll hold the game for you until you have an answer.”

* * *

The old lady, whose name turned out to be Mrs. Rekcstir (which Phoebe found hard to pronounce, so she just called her Mrs. R.), welcomed Phoebe every day after school with a glass of milk and a plate of cookies, to “fuel her up,” she said. It was almost fun to help her pack up her figurines and books. The old lady — Mrs. R. — would tell her little stories about them as they wrapped each piece in bubble paper and tucked it safely into a box. And after a while, Phoebe would tell her stories, too, about that rotten Uncle Joe who never let her borrow his game, but who always made her mother let him take her to her swim lessons that fall. She didn’t like that he wouldn’t let her change out of her bathing suit. Every time, she had to sit in his crummy old car all cold and wet until they got back to his place, because he said he had to be quick to let his dog out, but then he’d make up for it by playing the game. Except he never let her win. Mrs. R. was very understanding, and said she wished she could take Phoebe to swimming instead. 

But the best moment came at the end of the week, when Phoebe was ceremoniously handed her game. 

“You’ve definitely earned this, dear,” Mrs. R. smiled at her. “Just be careful when you play with it. Some of the bits and pieces tend to fall off, but you can glue them back on again if you have to.”

Phoebe wanted to race home, but it was hard to run with the large game box in her arms, so she settled for an awkward fast-walk instead. And it was working, until she got to the curb. She didn’t see the step-down and tumbled forward, dropping everything onto the pavement and scattered dead leaves. 

“Oh, no!” she cried out. “No, I haven’t even gotten to play with you yet!”

“What’s that you’ve got there, Phoebe?” 

She froze at the sound of her Uncle Joe’s voice, calling to her down the sidewalk. 

“Do you need a hand?”

“No, I’m okay,” she told him. She quickly grabbed up whatever she could see, not caring if gravel and twigs ended up in the box with the game pieces. “I’m late for supper, I have to go.” 

“I’ll come along with you,” he said, jogging a little to catch up. “Your mom’s doing me a favour tonight and giving me a trim.”

Phoebe looked sideways at his jiggling belly, heaving after his little run, and the drops of sweat on his thick forehead. “Can’t you go to a barber?”

“Oh, now, don’t be rude.” He wagged a finger at her, keeping pace with her now. “I’m trying to be frugal. Do you know what that means?” 

Phoebe knew, but she didn’t want to say anything else to him. So she let him give her a lecture about what being frugal meant, all the way home. 

* * *

Because Phoebe had been late, her mother had held dinner, so Uncle Joe sat with them and had supper, too. It was a long time to sit, and Phoebe didn’t feel very hungry with her fat uncle sitting across from her, watching her play with her food. Finally, though, everyone was done, and she was able to run up to her room away from him.

“Hey! You still have to help me with the dishes,” her mother called up the stairs to her. 

“Oh, let her have some time to herself,” she heard her uncle say. “I’m tired of my hair on my neck. Ready to practice your barber skills?”

Phoebe closed the door so she wouldn’t have to listen to boring grown-up talk and stupid grown-up jokes, and settled herself on her bed to take a good long look at her new game. 

It was a mess. She almost cried when she saw that some of the the polished flat fingernails were missing, and when it had fallen, some of the doll’s hair had sheared off on the ground. It wasn’t perfect anymore. Still, after she wiped the pieces with a bit of tissue , it looked nearly as good as the first day she had seen it. So life-like. The last piece of the game, the heart, even fit into a tiny indentation behind the lungs. Phoebe had never seen anything so . . . perfect.

Knock-knock-knock.

“Phoebe, your uncle is leaving now,” Her mother said through the closed door. “I want you to come down and say good-bye.” 

“I don’t want to,” Phoebe told her loudly. “He’s sweaty and he always hugs for too long.”

“That’s just because he’s out of shape, and he hugs you for a long time because he loves you,” her mother said. “Come down right now. You’re lucky to have such a good uncle, you know.”

Phoebe sighed and got off her bed. 

When she went down the stairs, she noticed that her mother had swept the cut hair into a pile, but it hadn’t been picked up yet. There were big gross nail shavings in there, too. She made a face at them. 

“Your mom and I were playing hair salon,” Uncle Joe laughed. He swatted her mother on the rear, and she jumped, giggling. “She gives a pretty fancy pedicure, but I didn’t let her use any of your nail polish, don’t you worry.” 

“I wasn’t.” Phoebe said, sullenly. She put her face up for a sweaty kiss and let him pick her up and swing her around, his fat belly and boobs squashed against her chest and belly. “‘Bye, Uncle Joe.” 

“Don’t forget, I’m picking you up for swimming tomorrow,” he rumbled. “I hear you’ve got a brand new two-piece swimsuit, too! I can’t wait to see it!”

He put her back down, and Phoebe moved away, around the other side of the table, careful to avoid stepping in the pile of hair and toenails. 

And then she got an idea. 

She could use Uncle Joe’s gross hair and toenail clippings for her game! That way, she reasoned, she wouldn’t have to cut any of her doll’s hair, or use yarn, which would just look stupid. So when her mother’s back was turned, she quickly grabbed up a handful of the stuff and raced back up to her room, taking the stairs two steps at a time. 

She wasn’t sure if the craft glue on her little desk would stick on the carved wood, but it did. She worried at first that the clumps and pieces of hair would look silly, but after she was done, the figure almost looked like a miniature copy of Uncle Joe. Well, a copy if you could see inside his body . .  but it was funny, even the outline of the game board looked chubbier. It might have been a trick of the light after she’d cut some of his nail shavings to fit the little hands of the board; the real nails looked fresh and white, almost like they’d been painted. 

She washed her hands while she waited for the glue to dry, and then picked up the tweezers that had come with the game. This was the part she had most looked forward to trying, because instead of there being a buzzer if the tweezers touched the sides, fishing line had been threaded throughout the game board and attached to a bell on the side. So it wouldn’t be scary if she missed. 

It was getting close to bedtime, so Phoebe knew she wouldn’t have long before her mother would make her have a bath and brush her teeth. She might be able to pull one organ out, maybe, just for practice. 

Phoebe decided to try the heart. The lungs were in place, but she could see how the heart was mainly underneath the left one, so if she plucked the other one away, it would be almost like picking a berry off a bush.

Carefully, slowly, she slid the tweezers in between the lungs, lifting the right one slowly and gradually until she could put the points around the valves of the little wooden heart.  It was so funny how it didn’t even look like the proper shape, all round and lumpy and veiny, but Phoebe knew this was good training for the other game. The little white plastic heart would be easy-peasy if she could master this . . . 

The bell rang. Phoebe sighed in giddy frustration; under the rules of the game, she had to try again. 

And again.

And again.

Downstairs, the telephone rang. There was a flurry of footsteps, and the door banging open and shut a few times. But nobody came to bother Phoebe, so she paid it no mind.

The sun slowly went down outside her window as she patiently poked and prodded around the silly lungs, trying to get the best hold on the heart she could. Finally, just as the streetlights were coming on, she felt the end of the tweezer hook itself into one of the holes on the side of the heart. 

“Yes!” she whispered to herself, triumphantly — and slowly — pulling the heart free. She did it so neatly, the lungs opened like a door and fell smoothly back into place. 

She held it up to the light, marveling at its perfection. The phone rang again, and this time,, a set of soft footsteps came up the stairs. 

“Phoebe? It’s Mrs. R., dear,” came a familiar voice. “Your mother had to rush out earlier, but she asked me to look after you until she could come home. She’s on the phone for youynow.”

Phoebe got off the bed at once, the tiny heart clutched in her hand. She opened the door wide. “What’s the matter? What happened?”

Mrs. R. handed her the phone. “Talk to your mother.”

Phoebe listened to her mother tell her through sniffles and sobs that her Uncle Joe had felt sick when he was on his way home. He’d fallen down on the sidewalk and someone passing by had had to call an ambulance.  “He had a heart attack, sweetheart,” her mother cried. “Your Uncle Joe is . . . gone.”

Phoebe knew she should feel sad, but she couldn’t help smiling. When she pressed “end” on the phone, she saw that Mrs. R. had settled herself onto the bed next to her game. 

“Oh, my,” Mrs. R. said, clucking. “The hair is coming off again. This won’t do at all.”

“That’s okay,” Phoebe told her. “I heard Mr. Wilson is shaving his head in front of the whole school next week ’cause he lost a bet. He’s a real meanie, too.”

“Tell me all about him, dear.” 


Story Time! I’m calling this one (temporarily) Pamela’s Spring Fever

Pamela had about an hour before she needed to be on the road. Even with the howling winter storm outside, she’d left herself a nice pocket of time before she’d have to be at the Timmins airport to catch her 9 pm flight to Toronto. Then it was a quick run down the airport to board the passenger jet, and she’d be on her way to palm trees and warm salt water. After the long, freezing winter, wallowing in extra time before she found herself sunning on the beach in Acapulco was actually quite the luxury. She tossed the last few necessities from her medicine cabinet into her makeup bag, watching lipstick, mascara, and foundation tubes arc freely through the air and land on target.

Her kit ready, she tucked it securely into the top of her suitcase. The packing list next to it on the bed had nearly every item crossed off: sandals, heels, one-piece for whenever and bikini in case she met anyone promising . . .

Pamela frowned. “Where’s my cellphone?” she muttered to herself.

Caught up in the excitement of preparing for her vacation, she hadn’t even bothered to take it out of her purse that morning. Pamela wasn’t a believer in staying connected every moment of every day: unlike some people she knew, she didn’t sleep with the thing next to her bed and she wasn’t on Facebook sharing her every meal or her daily dramas. She hadn’t even posted that she was going away for a week’s break. Who knew what immoral bastards lurked online, watching for opportunities like apartments left empty for days? Plus, she was looking forward to posting her photos online and surprising her friends and coworkers. Imagine the looks on their faces!

She wondered if she’d left the thing on her desk at school in all of the hubbub of the last day before Spring Break. It wouldn’t be the first time, but even with — she checked the clock on the stove — forty-five minutes to go, a run up to her workplace was a) a downer, and b) an irritating waste of time. Thankfully she was organized enough that the detour wouldn’t cause much of a logistics problem, but she’d have to forgo touching up her manicure.

Outside, the late winter storm drove tiny particles of snow down her collar and up her sleeves. She cursed as she hauled and wrestled her suitcase down the treacherous steps of her building. Fresh nail polish probably wouldn’t have withstood this kind of torture, anyway, even protected by leather gloves. It was so cold that the metal of her vehicle groaned piteously as she popped the trunk to load her things. Fortunately, the snow wasn’t sticking to the windshield, its layers brushing easily away, but when she finally sat in the driver’s seat, the warm air of the previous day’s driving had created a layer of frost and ice over the interior glass. She wasted another five minutes while the car warmed up, scraping a patch so she could see.

The forecast was calling for a metre of snow, at least, in what they were calling winter’s last gasp. For the first time, seeing the storm for herself, she wondered whether her flight might get cancelled. Few other vehicles were ploughing their way through the streets, and after she fishtailed around the corner, she understood why. She’d drawn the curtains as soon as she’d gotten home and into her packing, so she hadn’t really noticed the accumulation of snow or the early dusk from the thick clouds, or how rapidly the temperature had fallen. It was still going down, too — it was already unusually frigid for March, and the thermometre clicked from -27 to -28 C while she watched.

Acapulco couldn’t happen too quickly.

The school was mostly dark as she pulled up. She left the car running to keep it warm while she plodded through the drifts toward the main door. Inside the glass vestibule, the blasting heat was delightful; less so was the rapid melting of the snow in her collar into cold trickles on her skin. She tromped up the stairs to her classroom and fumbled with her keys in the dimly-lit hallway. It was a newer school, only eight years old, so it wasn’t as creepy as other buildings in which she’d worked, but the blue glow of the security lighting was a bit eerie.

But her phone was on the desk in her classroom, exactly where she’d left it. Unfortunately, it was also out of power, but she had a charger in her car. No problem.

The wind outside shifted, blowing snow against the glass. The sound was startlingly loud. Pamela dropped the phone and winced at the crack it made on the floor. Snatching it up, she rushed from the room and headed back down the corridor, willing her heart rate to slow itself down. No reason to be edgy; it’s just a storm, she told herself. She sighed in relief as she came into the bright florescent lights of the main foyer, laughing at herself for acting like a ninny. I’ve got the jitters from too much coffee and pre-vacation nerves.

It took her a moment to realize what had happened when she stepped into the vestibule again, and the lights went out.

Her reflection showed Pamela the widening of her eyes right before the streetlamp outside also failed. Her heart pounded heavily in her chest. She pressed against the exterior door, but the security locks were dependent on electricity running. Panicking, she pushed again, and again, thumping her shoulder against the latching bar. The headlights of her car turned the swirling snowflakes into frightening shadows. Pamela turned around and tried going back into the school to call for help.

The interior doors were locked, too.

Desperate, now, she looked for a fire alarm to pull, but to her dismay, she saw it inside the foyer on the other side of the glass.

Pamela turned again, leaning her back against the smooth surface of the door. Her phone was dead, possibly broken now, too. Nobody knew she was going away for a week, or that she’d come up to the school after hours during a severe winter storm, when no-one else was around. Could she break the glass with her boots, maybe? What would be the penalty for that? Was her situation really that desperate? After all, she was only going to miss her flight.

She exhaled, concentrating on calming down. Her breath appeared in a white cloud. There was no relaxing now. Ripping off a glove, Pamela held her bare hand up to the heating vent, feeling sick to her stomach.

No heat.

The wind lashed at the row of glass doors before her, rattling the panes in their frames. She walked the few steps forward toward her car and pressed her hands against the glass, ignoring the biting cold on her bare skin. In the driveway, the snow had drifted up over the fenders and was obscuring the windshield. The heaters were working — she could see that in the bare patches of the windshield — but that didn’t do her any good.

If she broke the glass, she could just lie and say that it hadn’t been her. After all, without power, there wouldn’t be any proof that she was in the building . . .

Whether it was from nerves or the rapidly cooling temperature in her little glass box, Pamela was shivering. Her decision made, she sat by the wall and considered the best point at which to kick the door or window. She thought she recalled someone saying that it was best to attack the middle, or just to the side, where the tension was most compromised. With the wall at her back for some support, she could just get at the side window.

The first kick jarred her leg all the way from ankle to hipbone. It also made zero impression on the glass.

Pamela kicked again.

She pounded the safety glass until sweat beaded on her forehead and she was sobbing for breath. But either her frame was too slight, or her boots weren’t tough enough, or she lacked whatever reserves of crazy strength she’d seen in the few students who had actually managed to break windows in the school.

Then again, she’d never actually seen a student break a window, only heard about it from other people. Sometimes it had been with fists, and sometimes with objects.

Pamela took out her cellphone and hefted it. If it was the 1980s and it resembled a brick, maybe that would work. Still, it would add to the solidness of her boots. She stuck it down into the sole under her heel, and did the same with her wallet in the left boot. The bulk was uncomfortable, but she felt renewed. Lying on her back, she wiggled until her legs were bent against the glass, and then kicked them both out together. Was that a crack, or had she imagined it? Shaking, she did it again.

But the glass held firm. She let her legs fall to the side, sobbing like a child.

Outside, the blowing and drifting snow obscured her headlights and covered the tailpipe of her idling vehicle. The engine choked out. Raising her head, Pamela registered the change in the silence. Without the grumbling background noise of her car, it was just her and the storm against her little glass cage.

Someone would have to come along, she knew. There would be custodial staff, or another teacher who needed to retrieve something from a desk. In the meantime, she had to keep warm. Sitting up and wiping the tears and snot from her face, Pamela crossed her legs, took her wallet and phone out of her boots — pausing to rub her sore feet — and dumped out her purse.

She had her plane tickets, a wad of cash money and traveller’s cheques, a package of Kleenexes, and some tampons. Pamela didn’t smoke, so no matches or lighter. She had a pack of foil-wrapped gum and some batteries that she had intended to drop in the recycling box but forgotten about. Maybe if there was some charge left in them, she could try that trick she’d seen on Orange is the New Black, and light the foil on fire.

She could MacGyver a little fire or something, right by the glass. Maybe the rapid change in temperature would be enough to make it crack?

Pamela tucked her cash and plane tickets back into her wallet and rolled the kleenex and traveller’s cheques into a little stack of paper logs. Then, holding her breath, she folded the foil with shaking fingers and pressed the ends to one of the batteries. The first didn’t work, but the second did. The foil reddened and smoked. She held it carefully to the edge of a ball of Kleenex, praying for the tissue to catch. It was smoky and the stench made her eyes water. Coughing, Pamela waved away the curls of smoke, trying to add oxygen to the smouldering paper. A few tentative flames licked the underside of her stack of pathetic kindling. She thought it was shrinking, so she leaned forward and tried blowing at it.

The strength of her breath scattered the embers and unburned bits of paper and tissue. Crying out, she grabbed at the wisps, thrusting them back toward the window, but it was too late. Whatever fire she might have had was gone. Smacking her head against the glass in her frustration, Pamela finally heard the crack she’d been waiting for. She drew back, ignoring pain in her forehead, and scrambled at the base of the window, brushing away her erstwhile fuel.

At the very bottom of the glass was a small crack, the size of a chip on a windshield.

Moving onto her side, Pamela whipped it with her right heel. She attacked it with renewed vigour, her breath hitching between every kick.

Story Time! Beware the crocuses of spring . . .

Everyone knew to stay away from the alley that ran down past Widow Greenbow’s big old house. Although two wheel ruts clearly marked the path cutting through the middle of the block, it seldom saw vehicle traffic of any kind. Foot traffic was rarer still — neighbourhood kids followed tradition and avoided the trail even though it might shave five or even ten minutes off a walk home from school.

So throughout the winter, the wheel ruts became smooth, elongated dents in clean snow. Not even animal tracks marred the perfect slopes of white that had drifted and piled over the shed leaves from the double-row of overhanging poplars and pine trees. In the summer it looked like a hollow from a storybook, all shady and green and leafy, soft grass lining the floor from street to street, beckoning curious passersby to enjoy its peace in spite of their hesitations. Even now, as the season finished turning and the slushy snow churned up muddy on the sides of the roads, the alley path looked clean and relatively dry. Patches of green grass showed themselves between tree roots and down the centre of the wheel ruts. It was what an older person might call “picturesque”, idyllic and serene. Inviting and untouchable. There was just a feeling about that part of the block, a quiet that didn’t want to be disturbed. Or shouldn’t be.

Lester had to pee, though. He desperately needed to go, had had to pee since second recess, but the supply teacher hadn’t let him leave the class for some stupid reason and then after school, the toilets in the boys’ washroom had overflowed because some nimrod had decided to try flushing a dirty magazine page. There was no way that Lester was going to dash into the girls’, and he didn’t dare to ask a teacher. None of his friends lived near the school. There was nothing for it but to run home as fast as he could.

The trouble was that he could barely walk anymore.

The pain in his groin was making his eyes water, and he had to hold himself as he stumbled forward through the melting slush. He wasn’t going to make it without wetting himself like some kindergartener, and if he did, what if someone saw the proof on his jeans? Which humiliation would be worse — getting spotted taking a piss in a back alley, or walking the rest of the way home with a big wet streak down the leg of his pants?

The alley was right there. And there was a stand of poplar trees about halfway down, sheltering a patch of freshly turned earth. He could see some little green points sticking up there, like the ones in his mom’s garden. He vaguely recalled that she’d said something about buying fertilizer. In school, they’d learned where fertilizer came from. Lester hopped from one foot to the other, pressing his knees together. Would it really be so bad? He wasn’t going to do number two, just . . . water them, a bit. He usually had good aim, too. As long as nobody saw . . .

Lester shuffled forward without another thought. His urge to pee was so great, he let the strap of his backpack slip down off his arm to the wrist, and when it banged against his thighs, he released his crotch long enough to let it fall so he wouldn’t end up accidentally peeing on it. Then he was at the tree, standing in the fresh earth, fumbling with his fly. The air was cold and fresh on his skin, helping what came naturally to come along.

“Aaaahhh,” he sighed, leaning against one of the slim tree trunks. “Oh, yeah . . .”

Finishing up with a quick shake, he tucked himself back in and looked around for a clean bit of snow to wipe his hands. There were a few piles outside of the circle around the tree. He’d taken care to avoid peeing on the little green shoots, but he felt badly just the same that he’d nearly trampled them in his haste. He squatted to peer at them in an apologetic sort of way. What had his mother called these early spring flowers? They weren’t cactuses; those grew in the desert. These ones had colourful tips, white and purple and pink, almost like when his sister had painted her nails that time. They poked up sharply, not soft like he thought flowers should be. The thought made him uncomfortable. Lester suddenly felt stupid about his urge to say sorry to some dumb plants, and put his hand on the ground to push himself up.

The green shoots thrust themselves at his arm and pierced his skin like thick green fish hooks.

Lester yelled, pulling back. Something green shot out of the ground and into his mouth, choking him. The soil stirred and churned, falling away as a hulking green limb the same colour as the flower stems emerged from beneath the dirt. He scrambled back, kicking and struggling, until his back hit the tree trunk and he could go no further.

Crocuses. The thought popped randomly into his panicked mind. They’re just crocuses.

Something round bulged up in the soil, barely higher than the level of the ground. A ridge moved and opened to a smooth white orb, a pulsing marble lined with black veins and green ooze. Lester tried to scream again. Below the white thing, a cavity yawned, black and deep. He gagged on the stench of rot and dog dirt that suddenly rose around him.

The green shoots in his wrist and elbow dug in and dragged him forward.

The thing was strong, stronger than Lester anyway, and he couldn’t find anything to grip to stop it. Desperately, he flailed for a stick, or a rock, or even a snowball, but there was nothing but dirt. With his free arm, he bashed the monster about its gaping jaw, weeping. The monster changed its pull on him, flinging him from side to side to make Lester stop struggling.

In the middle of his panic and fear, Lester heard the jingle of his house keys falling from his jacket pocket. Slamming his palm in the direction of the sound, he found them on the third or fourth try, just his fingertips catching the point of the backdoor key. He strained against the thing, his groans muffled by the vine in his mouth, vision blurring with tears from the effort to stretch himself far enough to grab his pitiful weapon.

Then he raised the key in his fist and stabbed it downward onto the thing’s bulbous white eye.

It rumbled horribly, gurgling in pain. The green shoots withdrew as quickly as they’d attacked, and suddenly his mouth was free of the choking vine. Lester lost his balance and fell forward toward the gaping maw, screaming hoarsely, but after a moment, he realized that his arms were pinwheeling against nothing but earth.

The creature had gone, if it had ever been there. Lester scrambled back, staring at his bleeding arm and the place where the green shoots had been. His pants were covered in wet mud, stained down to the knees. He crawled away, into the slush, snatched up his backpack, and dashed back the way he’d come. He didn’t stop running until he’d made it home, safely slamming the door behind him.

In the kitchen, his sister looked up from her nail polishing.

“Hey, loser, did you piss yourself on the way home from school?”

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Photo credit: My aunty Deb in BC

Story Time! In which I have some science-fictiony fun with microbiology and Mennonites

A few months ago, in the course of a class discussion, I had a hard time saying “nanobots”. Eventually for some reason, I ended up blurting out something so ridiculous that it just had to be written down. I promised them a story. I shall now attempt to produce a piece of flash fiction worthy of sharing with my grade 11 College English kids.

“Killer Mennonobots”

The microscopic ‘bots worked exactly as Greg had expected them, and why not? He’d engineered them, after all. He was no under-appreciated genius — the rows of awards and framed certificates were proof that plenty of his peers recognized his achievements in the field — but this, his most personal challenge and longest project, this was satisfaction made tangible.

He bent to the microscope and gazed again at his creation, Debussy playing softly on the battered old CD player in the background.

To the naked eye, the small glass dish appeared to hold only a smear of viscous green fluid. But through the refracted light and lenses, Greg was able to admire the perfection of his tiny world.

They might have been as small as Who’s, and certainly, they were as industrious. Bipedal, four-limbed, straight spines, their inner workings covered with flexible dark membranes microns thin. He’d laboured for over a decade to get the forms right, staying late hours in the laboratory after his normal work day had been finished. The programming had been relatively simple, once the working parts had been finessed. They were self-replicating, but only after achieving what he amusedly called “experience points”, limiting their numbers exponentially: as each generation produced their clones, the algorithm dictated a corresponding change in the program requiring an increase in “experience” before the next replication could begin.

Greg had even managed to build in a randomization plot: each replication had a 50-50 chance of appearing male or female. The males’ limbs were individually coated, resembling trousers, and the females’ membranes flowed in a spreading mesh like a long dress.

His nanos weren’t scuttling insects or bulbous jellyfish. They marched stolidly and gracefully through their environment, as direct and unassuming as Mennonite farmers in the field.

Itty-bitty, smaller-than-a-blood-cell Mennonites.

Mennonobots.

And as quickly as their human counterparts could raise a barn or piece a quilt, his microscopic dolls could construct anything he ordered, the required codes typed with precision into the computer. For this test, in the sample of grass fibre he’d provided, they’d already maneuvered slender fragments into a square frame. He smiled, humming softly while a hundred or so Mennonobots arranged themselves into straight lines, moving in tandem to select the next length of Golgi apparatus appropriate for their needs.

The microwave in the far corner of the lab beeped impatiently. Greg’s neck was sore, needing the hot grain bag inside, but he couldn’t bear to look away. It was simply too fascinating.

While Generation 9.9 completed erection of a shelter, Generation 9.10 was herding floating mitochondrion together like so many cattle. Gens 1.1 through 9.7 had been disappointing failures, the last several operational but only capable of meandering hopelessly through leaking cytoplasm and saline. In Gen 9.8, though, he’d had his breakthrough. The latter group was isolated now, cooling their itsy-bitsy heels in the refrigeration unit to prevent another replication until he’d completed his tests.

“How would you fare against your children and grand-children?” he murmured, stepping back from the eyepiece. “Gen Eight moved in formation, but I didn’t have them try what you’re doing.”

Greg straightened with a groan, and on the way to the fridge, nabbed his heat pack from the microwave. He slapped it on the back of his neck, exhaling in relief as the heat penetrated his stiff muscles. The fridge door squeaked slightly when he pulled it open. He stepped into the impersonal white light of the interior, ignoring the slightly stale odour until it occurred to him that the equipment was missing its usual antiseptic scent.

And cold.

The fridge was warm.

His heart raced in panic. If Gen 9.8 had been damaged or left to replicate unmonitored, he would have to contain his current experiment rapidly or risk disaster.

Coughing on a catch in his throat, Greg wavered between dashing back to the sample and checking what remained of his precious work on the sterile metal shelving. Visually, the seals were intact, but if they’d been exposed to air, or an abrasive chemical . . .

He leaned closer. The seal wasn’t intact. A series of almost imperceptible holes — invisible to anyone not familiar to the lab’s procedure, or Greg’s own practice — cut through the plastic film where it met the solid wall of the container. It almost looked as though a fine needle had been slipped through the material, but when Greg held the box closer to his eyes, the tiny ragged edges jutted outward, not inward.

His eyes watered from the strain of peering at the damage. He pivoted and carried the box over to his work station. Sweat beaded his forehead. He peeled back the top of the container, prepared a sample, and then set his eyes to the microscope to first check on the progress Gen 9.9 and 9.10 had made.

Greg’s heart faltered, beating unsteadily in his chest. He gaped impotently, unable to breathe for a moment.

Where one simple building had been under construction, two more were now being framed. Tracts of material were furrowed and squared, tended by rows of tiny Mennonobot women behind strange mobile blobs.

In another heartbeat, he’d identified the blobs by their waving flagella.

They’d harnessed bacteria.

And — oh God — if they could do that, then could his babies control viruses, too?

His hands trembling, Greg fumbled the Gen 8 sample into place. He contemplated not looking. After all, no-one knew what he’d been doing after he’d clocked out. This was his life’s true work, but hadn’t God also destroyed His creation when it had corrupted itself? Did he even dare to see what had happened in his own invisible world?

The scientist in him needed to know. The engineer that he was needed to see what had happened. The human wanted to burn it all and forget that he’d ever attempted Frankenstein’s feat of mastering life.

Greg was already burning. He ripped away his lab coat and loosened his tie, aware that sweat was soaking through the fabric of his shirt. Then he put his eye to the microscope, gripping the table while his head swam.

Within the solution, a community of humanoid beings scrambled around toppled structures. They reminded him of ants when their glass farm had been shaken and their tunnels had collapsed. He increased the magnification, his pounding head intrigued by a minor change in the males’ physical appearance. And magnified it more.

“My God,” he said aloud. “They’ve built — but how? With what material could they make tools?”

His fevered brain threw him images of sugar crystals, salt, a variety of minerals and fibres, but the wave of dizziness that blurred his vision wouldn’t allow him to focus.

The last thing he saw before his legs crumpled beneath him was a cluster of elongated, spider-like shapes. Bulbous heads connected to legs made of rods, the figures of the Mennonobots astride the slender, spring-like bodies. Riding them. Directing them.

He tried to recall specifically which viruses they’d kept in that refrigerator. The question circled in his brain, a needle on a broken record. A cluster of soggy alphabet cereal pieces caught in sink water, going round and round the drain. No, that was the ceiling whirling above him. The little perforations seemed to grow bigger, morphing into cloned Mennonite farmers and their mutated livestock, the stuff of imagination. Unbelievable that they could ever exist. Inconceivable that something too small to be seen could be . . . could do . . .