Category Archives: Flash Fiction

Flash Fiction Friday

Nevermore, angelarizza  DeviantART

Nevermore, angelarizza DeviantART

 

 

Battle of Names

by Paige Duke

“You live up to your name, Dage,” Amarjaa shouted toward the fallen warrior, “you stood firm. Admirable. But even your might cannot alter the Vision. I have foreseen the end. If it’s to be a battle of names, yours is no match for mine.”

The priestess was closing in on the piled bodies, her armor scraping, catching on the refuse of battle. Her sword hung sheathed by her side, its case still wet with blood. In the predawn light, she saw Dage smirking at her with what little strength he had left to hold up his head. The insolent fool! “You wear the grimace of death, old man, can you not feel it?”

“Death, aye. He draws near. I smile not at death, but at your fate.”

Amarjaa’s laughter rang over the smoking ruins, rebounding off the cliffs that had trapped her enemies through the night, and rolled back to her in a wave of clanging mirth. “What do you know of my fate, Dage? Let me tell you what I have seen, lend me your dying ear. Let me tell of you how from your birth you were meant to die at my hand. Let me show you the futility of your life.”

“The Vision shows my frame rising gloriously forever, the victor over my enemies, drenched in their blood, the smoke of their defeat rising to greet the day. The world is mine. Who remains to parry my blow?”

She smiled her cruelty down upon Dage, the last and greatest of her foes. “Look about you, if you have sight left in those eyes. Is it not as I have foreseen? When you pass into death, it will come to be. Amarjaa, Forever.”

Now it was Dage who laughed. Long and ragged. The sound chilled Amarjaa and she resolved to hasten his end. But his words halted her,

“Pity you know not my true name. Then you would not have misread what you saw.”

“Fool. I know you. I have known you for all these ages past.” Her voice was unyielding as iron.

“Nay, you are the fool, Eternal One, you shall live forever, indeed, but mine is the name that triumphs. Turn your eyes upon me, gaze the rest of your days upon the Stone who has conquered you in his final hour—for it is I, Chimwala Dage!”

With the swift uncurling of his clenched fingers, Dage revealed a stone. It was smooth and white as milk, pulsing at the sound of its namesake. The laugh that was perched on Amarjaa’s tongue turned to a scream and she tried to flee, but her feet were already turning to rock, her knees were stiff and gray, the shining breastplate hardened, and her lips trembled as they whispered “the Stone.”

Then they too were cold stone and spake no more. Dage indeed wore the smile of death now, as he looked upon his final conquest for one glorious moment. His head dropped and the stone fell from his lifeless grasp. The sun peaked over the horizon, gilding the battlefield. A fearsome figure stood gazing out over the carnage. The statue of Amarjaa, the Eternal One.

And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon’s that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o’er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
– Edgar Allen Poe, The Raven

Prowl

by Dani Nicole

She perches on a branch, just below the moonlight, scanning passers by. Some midnight visitors are drunk with moonshine, others drunk with sorrow. They rest flowers on tombstones and take away memories in the form of tears.

Her helm is heavy on her head; her neck tires of the burden. But still she perches, waiting for the one to end the curse.

“Is he coming tonight?” she asks No One.

“Indeed, he shall,” No One answers.

“And the curse will be forgotten?”

Nothing.

She can only wait. For people to pass by. For leaves to fall. For the sun to rise and end her reign.

Banished to the night,
delight in collected souls,
until you find the thread that binds,
to free you from your plight.

“Is it you?” She whispers in the direction of a man with stained pants and a ripped shirt. He sways when he walks and belches loudly. “I’ll take that as a no.” She scratches behind her ears as the raven rests upon her shoulder.

“I wish you would just tell me,” she says to No One.

“Better for you to see.”

She waits for hours as the dawn threatens to break. The graveyard is still and empty until, faintly, she hears the sound of gravel beneath shoes. She stands alert, leaning as far over the branch as possible without losing her balance.

A man stops at a marble stone, falls to the ground, and weeps.

She lands softly on the ground beside him, as gracefully as if she had wings. He doesn’t hear her approach.

“Tears do not resurrect the fallen,” she says.

The man jumps up and withdraws a knife from his pocket, wiping his tears with the back of his other hand.

“Who are you?” he asks.

She can hear panic in his voice. “They call me Raven Girl.”

His eyes widen. “That’s impossible.”

She twirls her blonde hair around her finger. “Not a fan of stories?”

“Those are fairy tales. The soul collector. The girl with a raven upon her shoulder that searches through souls.”

“And yet here I am, a girl, with a raven upon my shoulder,” she says.

“A cruel joke to a grieving man.”

She takes a step toward him and reaches for his hand. “On the contrary, I am here to comfort you. I watch many pass through these stones, and I have never seen a man weep as you. Tell me, who is the one you’ve lost?”

He retracts his hand so she cannot touch it. “My daughter, Avalyn.”

“Would you like to see her again?”

This does not seem to be the answer he expects. “Excuse me?”

“I can bring you back to her.”

“You’re insane.”

“Perhaps. Or perhaps I am telling the truth.”

He looks into her eyes, searching for sincerity. She can tell he does not trust her, but may be miserable enough to try anything.

“How can you do that?” he asks.

“Give me a drop of your blood. And I will carry your soul to the next world.”

“Next world?”

“The beyond… where Avalyn rests. I am the only hope you have to find your daughter again.”

“And you know this will work?” he asks.

She hates that question. “I was supposed to meet the one who breaks my curse tonight. If the raven scans your soul and finds that you complete the thread of the curse, your soul will pass on to the next world.”

“And if I’m not?” he asks.

“Your soul will rest with the others until it is released.”

He stares, waits, thinks. She is patient. He is skeptical, but desperate. He will come to her in time.

“For your Avalyn, do this,” she says.

At last he takes his knife and opens a cut on his forearm. The raven on her shoulder begins to squawk.

“Never mind him, he doesn’t like the smell of blood. Come press your wound to my marking,” she says. She extends her arm tattooed by the dark silhouette of a raven.

He presses it against the ink, and is bound to her. He is immobile. As is she.

The world spins around them. A thin, golden thread appears before them, knotting itself into a braid. The raven on her shoulder begins to speak.

“The bond created never severed, for all the pain you both have weathered, a gift of the world beyond is given, for your soul the curse has striven,” says No One.

The man disappears, as does the raven tattoo.

“Where is he?” she asks No One.

“The world beyond,” he says. He flies from her shoulder for the first time in twenty years.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Flash Fiction Friday

Lost and Found

by Paige Duke

“Pass through town and keep walking ‘til you feel you’ve gone too far; there you’ll find Harrow House,” I repeated the old hag’s words to comfort myself. I had already felt, more than once, that I’d gone too far, but the house was nowhere in sight. Only endless, empty fields. Now I just felt foolish. For believing some hogwash about a destiny. For chancing the precious few coins I had left to a gypsy’s word. For running from the sorrow that will forever cling to me. As my doubts swelled, the daylight disappeared, all too quickly.

Hopeless, I thought.

Hannah, I heard in the next heartbeat. My name coming to me across the long grasses, spoken by no human tongue. I shivered and could make my feet move no further.

Winking at me out of the dusk was a ramshackle house, where before there was nothing. What sort of trick was this? I spun around but found no one to answer me. No sound but the breeze and the whisper of my name again, no soul in sight but the Man in the Moon.

Hannah.

I felt a sharp prick against my wrist, an insect’s sting. But I looked down to see only the old trinket the gypsy had pressed into my hand at her glassy-eyed divination. A charm she’d hung on a chain, but the thing was too small to fasten round my neck, so I wore it as a double-wrapped bracelet. It didn’t look like much, little more than a chipped or halved coin. But from the moment I wore it, the thing seemed to hum there against my skin. Its strange energy coursed through me, pulsing at the emptiness, the raw ache at the center of me, that place where the child had left me but its soul still lived.

I looked between the charm and the house—its siding grayed with dirt, the roof as threadbare as an old dishrag, the doors hanging from their hinges.

Where else could I go? Even if the old woman had cheated me with her talk of fate, it was shelter for one night.

Hannah.

Suddenly weary, I surrendered. My tired feet slogged through the tall grass as if it were mud, but the gypsy’s trinket thrummed louder with every step. I felt the burst of new life, fresh purpose, though all around me was the stench of mold and decay. The porch creaked, and I tried not to imagine what creatures might be lurking in the darkness of that house.

As I passed through the door, a ray of moonlight sneaking through a patch in the roof illumined the house. All around me was dust and ash glittering in the silvery light, a curious sort of beauty. My hollow womb grieved at the sight, another emptied and abandoned room, and still the charm’s magic pulled me forward.

A weak cry startled me. Now it was my heart thrumming in my ears as I turned to find the source. Just beyond the moon’s spotlight I saw a wriggling mass of blankets I’d mistaken for a trash heap. I approached, my limbs alive with fear. Before me lay a tiny babe, tucked inside a blanket. It couldn’t have been there long, so healthy and perfect it looked. The poor thing was hungry, though, it suckled its fist and squirmed.

I called out, I searched the whole place, but of course the thing’s mother was nowhere to be found. I came back to the wailing child and longed to take it in my arms. As I lifted the tiny thing, the blankets fell back and around its neck hung the thinnest chain of gold with half a coin, whose mate still pulsed at my wrist.

The Case of Beatrice Burns

by Dani Nicole

Beatrice Burns disappeared near Wicker Place at dusk. She was victim twenty-six.

The old house got its name because of its burn marks. One match, and the whole place would ignite like wicker.

No one remembers how the house got its burns. There are no news stories covering an accident. No wildfires. No discarded cigarette butts.

Most people of Blanket, Texas choose to forget, but I’ve made it my focus in life to not ignore the abnormal, for it will always catch up with you.

I set my newspaper on the table and grab my banana, peeling it slowly as I read the bolded headline.

NEW REPORTED DISAPPEARANCE NEAR WICKER PLACE

The victim was only twelve, and new to town. She was walking her dog Toto near the perimeter of 766 Destiny Lane and never came back. You’re not in Kansas anymore.

“Another depressing headline?” Jennie says. My wife comes into the kitchen, her hair a bird’s nest on top of her head. The camisole she wears is thin enough to see through.

“You know, just another victim to the house.”

“You’re not still on that are you?” She yawns, stretching her arms above her head. I pull her close to me.

“It’s the only answer. Every time someone disappears in this town they are last seen near the perimeter.”

“It’s a house, Ray. It doesn’t just eat people.” She laughs, but it’s never funny to me. “Are you going to have a real breakfast, or just a banana?”

I kiss her on the cheek. “Have to run. Be home at 6.”

She smiles and smacks my butt on the way out of the house, but all I can think of is victim twenty-six.

#

“Victim, Beatrice, female, twelve, last seen near Wicker Place,” Sergeant Waters says. He slaps a folder onto his desk. “This is the twenty-sixth disappearance in five years.”

Since the burn marks appeared on Wicker Place.

“I want to put an end to this. We need to find the common thread.” His eyes hesitate on mine. “And something I can use in court, not a superstition.”

He moves to a chalkboard and starts writing details. We hypothesize about the connection, but my mind travels to past cases. It took three for me to put it together, to start associating the house with the disappearances. Once I did, I visited the house after each victim. But I never found anything.

“… Dakota? Are you listening?” Sergeant Waters says, staring at me.

“Yes.”

“Good.” He tosses me the folder. “I’m putting you on this one. You can start by interviewing her family.”

The others exit the room as I weigh the folder in my hands.

The afternoon consists of a visit to the Beatrice’s house, where her mother is hysterical and difficult to talk to. Her father is calmer, and is able to verify that his daughter was out walking Toto and never came back.

“Someone took our sweet girl,” said Beatrice’s mother. “Who would do that?”

“We don’t know that yet,” I say, scribbling notes in the folder. “Let’s just start with what we know.”

Beatrice’s father assures me that she had no enemies, no suicidal thoughts, and had never talked about being bullied or followed.

“It was completely unexpected,” he said.

That’s what they always say.

I pack my briefcase and drive to Destiny Lane. I step out of the car and walk in the street, only able to glance at the house from afar. Its white walls are splattered with ash. Its roof caves in. Weeds poke up all over the dead yard.

This place is a gravesite.

The metal door is hanging off the mailbox, secured by only one screw. It looks as though it hasn’t been filled with mail in a long time – perhaps five years. I scan the rest of the scene, not finding anything that grabs my attention.

I turn to walk back to my car, and stop.

“Hello,” says a little boy with blond hair, standing near my door.

“Are you lost? Where are your parents? It’s not safe out here.” I squat down so that I am at his eye level.

“My camera is broken,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes.

“Maybe I can fix it. Where is it?”

He walks through the weeded grass to a small camera resting on a child’s sized tripod. “It’s right here. It won’t take pictures.

I push a few buttons. It doesn’t even turn on. “I don’t know if I can fix this.”

He starts to cry, but the camera flickers on. “Yay! Yay! Now I have to take a picture. You stand over there.” He points at a space in the grass.

I take a few steps back and smile.

“One, two, three–”

He clicks the button, there’s a flash, and I am moving.

I land on hardwood, the smell of ash filling my nostrils. There are walls on every side of me, burn marks splattered across them.

On the wall there are twenty-seven pictures.

Mine is the last.

 

 

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday

Prompt: “Be careful with that one,” she said, “it’s got blood on it.”

In Hiding

By Paige Duke

“Be careful with that one,” the nurse barked, “it’s got blood on it.”

Far from the horror Gen was intended to feel, a little thrill snaked up her arm as she took the crumpled sheet.

She kept her face impassive when she looked down at the bright stains, blooming in one place, splattered in others. “Blood? That’s impossible. Hasn’t everyone gone Anti by now?” She looked pointedly at the faded poster dominating the room’s one blank wall:

No blood. No beast.
Do your part and go Anti-Vamp today!

Her eyes were back on the nurse’s face, but her mind recalled those garish stains, her fingers itching to trace them. A fact that both astonished and terrified her. Going Ex meant giving up the hunt forever, didn’t it? “No going back,” the others had told her, even if they could find blood again. It was the only way to survive in a world of Anti-Vamps. The cowards were so enthralled with their discovery they never considered it might help the beasts they so desperately wanted to eradicate. And they had almost managed it. Almost. But the Ex revolution had come just in time to save a lucky few.

The nurse’s voice tugged her back from her bloodthirst. “You’ll be seeing a lot of impossible things around here. If you want to stick around, you’ll learn not to ask.” She paused and looked hard at Gen, “Double wash after you dump that thing. Can’t be too careful.” Then she was gone, on to the next patient.

Gen sealed the door and set to work. Unfolding the sheet as if it were priceless silk, she let her fingers hover over the blossoms, as fragrant as if freshly spilled. She touched them. And she trembled, the frenzied thirst so long denied racing through her, a pulse of another kind. So alive in a way she thought she could never be again. The nurse was right, she should be careful. She would lose control if she weren’t careful.

Though it pained her, Gen peeled her fingers away. Reason immediately returned, and she took a minute to think. This was crazy. She was risking everything. We can still make a life, but this is the only way, they’d told her. But what if? What if they were wrong and there was blood . . . ? The patient would still be in the building somewhere, whether dead or alive. It would be risky . . . but it would be worth it.

She’d turned a corner in her mind, made her decision.

Gen went to the console on the far wall that housed the instruments. Swiping her badge beside the largest one, the clouded glass yielded to her. In another moment she was standing over the sheet again.
The laser made quick work of the largest spot, cutting a clean line around the blood. Gen held the oval in her hand, light as a feather, red as a garnet. She didn’t dare press it to her face as she wished to do. Not here, not now. She would lose her shit for sure.

Instead, she tucked it into the pocket of her uniform. Instantly she could feel the thing beating there, against her hip, as if it still pumped through a heart, a navel, a neck. She had to get out of here. She was going to get herself into trouble.

Gen forced her legs to move, forced her hands to do what they must. She found the room’s single biohazard bag, blood red, and folded the ruined sheet into it. Then she was out the door, blending into the business-as-usual of the hospital hallway. She slipped unseen to the incinerator shoot and dropped the bag in unnoticed. She smiled at all the busy little Anti-Vamps bustling around her, unaware an Ex-Vamp still lived and breathed among them. Satisfied, she turned to go.

She had prey to hunt.

The Blood Tally

By Dani Nicole

A thin line trickles down, into the pit.

A single drop.

Ripples, ridging towards the edge of the pool.

The Watcher does not flinch. She only tallies the drop on the cave wall. Seventy-four thousand, three hundred and five.

#

Evra has never died before.

All of her friends have. And of course they woke up the next day, with hangovers and migraines. Xen told her it feels like you come back with less of yourself.

But Evra has never truly considered her own death until now, as she stands in the woods hunting on her own for the first time. Not that she has to worry; everyone who dies wakes up the next day.

Except… well there are legends of the Vanished.

But Evra doesn’t believe in fairy tales.

#

The toll drips by the hour now, coming faster than ever before.

The search continues.

With each drop, the Watcher tallies.

#

The bear comes closer, landing on damp earth in front of Evra. He sits on his hind legs and roars into the midnight sky, the whole world shaking in response.

Evra steps backwards, moving slowly and keeping eye contact, the way her father always told her. Hunting the Great Bears is dangerous, but Bearflesh can feed her family for weeks.

Evra’s skin prickles as she reaches for her spear. She grips it in her slick palm and readies her body to throw it. She’ll only get one chance to land it in the bear’s heart, else the bear will land his teeth into Evra’s.

She inhales and starts to launch the spear, just as the bear shows his teeth. Evra freezes.

There between his sharp incisors, is a single speck of blood.

#

The names are whispered.

They are sung.

The Watcher waits for the one she wants.

#

Evra has never seen blood. She has only heard of it in the stories of the Vanished—the fairy tales about people who die and are never reborn.

They are said to bleed before they disappear, just a single drop.

Evra is backed against a wall, and the bear stares at her with ravenous eyes. It will protect its cubs as Evra would protect her family. Her hunt is the bear’s hunt, and the bear’s is hers.

They are still for a moment; then they are moving.

Evra drives the spear into the bear’s heart, but the bear clamps his teeth on her arm.

The single drop of blood travels from the bear’s tooth to her skin, and trickles to the ground.

#

The Watcher counts the next drop —  a large glob of shimmering burgundy. It thuds into the pool and the surface shivers.

The name carries across the Vanished.

And the Watcher stops the tally; for it was the name she’d been wanting.

 

Flash Fiction Friday

Touching Space, coolwallpapers.me

Touching Space, coolwallpapers.me

Ideal Destinations

by Paige Duke

“One last thing, Mr. Fanning . . . can you confirm you’ve opted for cremation?” Al nodded at the woman across the desk, not trusting his voice.

She swiped through the on-screen documentation with a manicured finger before folding her hands primly and announcing, “Very nice. Mr. Fanning, everything is in order. Thanks again for choosing Ideal Destinations, and we sincerely wish you a happy and peaceful departure,” she chimed, her blonde hair swinging with the tilt of her head. He studied her sickly sweet smile, practiced a thousand times over, with unabashed intensity. It was a thing he’d found himself doing ever since the diagnosis, as if being terminally ill meant he didn’t have to go on being polite. He wanted to kiss her perfectly lipsticked mouth, take a woman in his arms one last time. The thought made him sharply self-aware of his balding shiny forehead and the paunch that wouldn’t budge no matter how many beers he gave up. At least that part he could blame on the tumor. How many others had sat in this chair and thought these same thoughts?

The woman cleared her throat with a professional little cough, “Are you ready, then, Mr. Fanning? It’s all up to you now, unless you wanted the default option. Some clients prefer to have their destination chosen for them. But I was under the impression you did have a preference . . .”

Al recovered from his wandering thoughts, “No, you’re right. I’m ready—if you could just walk me through it, you know . . .”

She flashed that smile again, faintly patronizing, “Of course. If you’ll follow me.”

Al walked behind her down a narrow hallway, its walls lined with photos of clients smiling or waving, one man giving a hearty thumbs up. Each stood in front of a white door, their hand poised enthusiastically on the knob. He felt a pull of cynicism and let his eyes wander back to the woman in front of him. What a view; at least she gave him that much.

All too quickly, she was ushering him into a small room with only a wall screen, a chair, and another door; the white door. Al swallowed hard, a sour taste on his tongue.

The blonde turned to him with a smile, those red lips, “It’s simple from here, Mr. Fanning, just review your approved options, make your selection, and then walk through to your destination.” She pointed almost languidly at the white door, as if it were all so routine. And, of course, for her it was.

Al nodded and stuck out his hand, which to his horror trembled visibly, “Thanks so much, you’ve made this process—smooth. I, uh, appreciate it.”

She accepted the handshake, her fingers warm and silky. For the last time, thought Al, stinging and breathless. And then his hand was empty again. She stepped back from him and said, “Take all the time you need, and have a pleasant journey, Mr. Fanning . . . I promise you won’t feel a thing.”

Al was alone then. Strange, how much he hated being alone at this moment; it had never much bothered him before. He took a deep breath, squeezed his eyes and his fists shut once, quickly, to steady himself. Then he took his place before the screen, illuminated instantly by his presence.

“Welcome to Ideal Destinations, Mr. Fanning, I’ll assist you with your selection,” said a soothing voice, not unlike the blonde woman’s. The screen displayed a virtual stack of papers, each with a photo and a short list of bullet points. “Here are your approved destinations, Mr. Fanning. Take your time reviewing each option and let me know if you have any questions. To make your selection, press the green button on your destination page, step through the door to your right, and you’ll be on your way!”

Easy for you to say, he thought bitterly. Al was pleased to see, though, that the small fortune he’d paid had earned him quite a lot of options. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all. But as he swiped through page after page of stunning mountain views and pristine beaches promising rarified air or unpolluted waters, the little flicker of hope was extinguished. He’d seen it all before. The one perk of the job that had left him so unattached was that he’d seen nearly every exotic corner of this wide world. Well, what did you expect, asshole? Mars? Heaven? He barked a stupid little laugh.

Escape, that’s what he’d been hoping for. To escape the inevitable oblivion. But of course, there was no amount of money that could buy him that sort of destination.

Al’s finger went on swiping lazily, through one page after another, and he soon grew bored with the seductive brightness. But then he stopped suddenly, his finger hovering above the pane, eyes transfixed. Here it was, a place he hadn’t been before, could not possibly have visited. Across the screen yawned a black expanse sprinkled with stars, with a swirling nebula blossoming in the center. Planets were lined up like billiard balls and a bright star pulsed beneath his fingertip. Al didn’t bother reading the description. It was the one new thing that beckoned him; he didn’t even need to see the other destinations. His finger traced the glowing orb reverently and then he pushed the green button. The screen asked him to verify his selection, which he did without hesitating. The lights dimmed. The white door was shining, drawing him forward; and as he stood before it and grasped the handle, his fear was only a blip. Al opened the door and stepped calmly through into the unknown.

 

The Infinite Pool

by Dani Nicole

I’m not crazy.

I’m just afraid my memory is telling the truth.

Everyone tells me to paint, to keep painting because it’s what I’m good at and they’re tired of me not being good at anything.

“You’re a waste of space,” they say.

“Is that a pun?”

They don’t get me. That’s okay. I don’t really get me either, or this super-freaky ability to create life through paintings. Most people leave paint on canvas, but my paint seeps until it morphs and I can touch the universe with my hands.

Or at least, I did once.

#

I was seven when I got my first set of paints. That was in my planets-are-cool stage where I was obsessed with Mars and aliens and anything in between. I ripped the plastic off the paints, still wearing my paper party hat and ran to my little easel near the window. I dipped the brush, picking up a thick glob of black, and began to draw the vast and infinite space that had kept me so captivated.

I dotted space with white stars, purple planet formations, orange and yellow streaks. It was like a sunset in the night sky. When I looked at my painting I knew I wanted to touch space. I wanted to hold it in my hands like I was God. I wanted to run my fingers on the surface of Neptune and hold the entire Milky Way in my hands. I wanted to feel bigger than space.

My fingers stuck to the wet paint, then sank into the page, past the surface. The world beyond the canvas felt like a pool of water. I pulled back quickly and looked around for my parents. 

But they hadn’t seen. I touched it again, this time putting my whole hand through. I looked around, but I was still alone.

This was my secret.

I was bigger than space.

#                                                                       

I didn’t paint in public anymore, which was problematic for my art teacher. I’d do anything but paint. Her eyes
lit up when I worked with clay or paper mache. But painting? I wouldn’t budge. I couldn’t risk anyone discovering my secret.

Mrs. Applegate put a disapproving hand on her hip. “If you’re not going to paint then clean up the art room.”

I waited until the bell rang and everyone had left to go home. I was about to pick up the paintbrushes and wash them in the sink, but instead I made sure the door was shut and walked over to my canvas.

I painted the stars.

I painted nebula.

I painted the dark sky.

I let it dry and focused my attention on the canvas. I had tried to put my hand in the painting so many times since I turned seven, but it never happened again. I started to question my own sanity. Was I making it up? Did I just like the attention? God, did I
have a God complex?

I exhaled and placed my fingertips against the purple surface. All I felt was hard canvas, and nothing more. No matter how hard I pushed, my fingers never went through.

In science class we’d learned about how a solid cannot take up the space of another solid. My hand was solid and so was my universe.

I washed the paintbrushes and left.

#

I didn’t try again until I was seventeen. I held a form in my right hand to sign up for the military, and my paint set in my left. If I was going to be a man, I needed to put my ridiculous imagination behind me. I needed to stop convincing myself of what I saw that day and accept reality.

War is real.

Playing God is not.

I set the form down on the table and opened my paints. Once again I streaked the canvas with black, white, purple, orange, blue. This painting was my best yet, shaped by years of practice and honing my craft. I might have even been called an artist then.

I breathed in, then out. I prepared my mind to feel the back of the canvas, to accept its solidity this time. My hand would not go through. I would move on with my life.

Before I touched the paint, I added one more thing. I used peach to color her pale skin, red for her lips, and green for her eyes. The woman I painted was floating through space, her brown hair spread out wildly in the anti-gravity vortex. When she was finished, I knew what I had to do.

I touched the paint and it stuck to my fingers. It was wet and cool and familiar. My fingers seeped into it as if it was thirsty for my touch. And then, my fingers went past the canvas, into the infinite pool that laid beyond.

My hand was inside the painting.

Something inside of me rejoiced. The seven-year-old inside of me was redeemed. I put my hand through as far as I could reach, and then a little further.

I strained as my face pressed against the part of the painting I could not pass through – the unpainted part. I stretched and  stretched, longing for my fingers to reach a little further.

And then I felt it. Five long, thin and dainty fingers reaching back toward me.

Flash Fiction Friday

Springtime is in our Hands, AquaSixio, deviantART.

Springtime is in our Hands, AquaSixio, deviantART.

The Witching Tree

By Paige Duke

Nowhere to run, children
Too late to flee
Youth is the thirst of the Witching Tree

Dylan smirked as Willa recited the words in an exaggerated, spooky voice, feeling them skip across his mind like mere pebbles across a pond. “That might be scarier if I couldn’t outrun every kid at school . . . I think I can hold my own against an old hag,” he said, not bothering to hide his contempt.

“An old hag who’s desperate for your youth. Don’t underestimate her,” said Willa, with that maddening superiority. This was what it always came down to with his cousin—he just had to prove her wrong.

“Ladies first,” he said with a little bow, gesturing up the hill to the old tree. Streamers of every color, garishly bright, were wrapped haphazardly around the trunk, strung from branch to branch, where baubles dangled like Christmas ornaments. “She’s even decorated the place for you, Wills.”

Willa forced a laugh, her breath blooming to steam in the cold air. She shrugged and took the first step up the hill, her thin braid trailing a line against her cherry red coat.

“Saw you comin’.” Dylan kept up his needling, “She knew not to waste her time on me, could tell which one of us was worth luring.”

Willa looked back over her shoulder, suddenly serious, “That’s not funny,” she chided. “God, can you imagine, being witch-food?” she shuddered.

“What? Come on. You don’t really believe that part?” said Dylan, scornfully.

She swatted him away, “It won’t be so funny when she pulls you into her lair and feasts on you to turn herself young again. Your precious little baseball cap will be her newest trophy!” she sneered. The names of missing classmates rang unbidden through Dylan’s mind, but he shook them off. He knew the witch was real, alright everyone knew that, but made young by the blood of wayward kids? No way.

The squelching of their boots was the only sound once they stopped their bickering. The calm of these woods was uncanny. Dylan looked at the tree looming ahead of him out of the gauzy mist, an enormous squat trunk charred black. Gnarled limbs spiraled outward in every direction like clawed hands and on their branches stood a murder of crows, alert as sentinels.

Willa came to a sudden stop, a motionless flare of red against the gray world. Dylan prodded her, “Chickening out already, Willa?”

“You wish,” she said. But her voice held a tremor and Dylan saw why as he came to stand beside her. Dwarfed by the tree’s huge arachnoid roots, the two cousins stared up to find that the streamers weren’t made of paper as they’d thought; the baubles were no mere trinkets. The tree was strung with children’s things: merry scarves and jolly hats, furry earmuffs and patterned tiny tees. Some enchantment protected them from wind and rain; they were unstained and vivid.

Dylan felt a twinge of fear, and Willa’s words replayed ominously in his head, your precious little baseball cap will be her newest trophy. With feigned bravery, he jumped onto a nearby root. “Beat ya,” he said to his grim-faced cousin.

“Dylan!” she shrieked. She pointed a trembling finger to his right, “I just saw a black cat—it disappeared under there.”

His bravado was back now and he doubled over, laughing, “A black cat, Wills, really? Come on.”

But Willa wouldn’t budge. Dylan shook his head, “You’re making this too easy, I won’t even have to race to the top now. I’ll just take my sweet time then.”

He turned to look for a first foothold in the tree. He was two limbs up when he heard Willa’s scream, a bone-chilling wail that brought real fear banging into his chest. When he turned, his cousin was nowhere in sight. There was only her coat, pooled in a red crescent.

“Willa.” He called, searching frantically for any sign of her. Clever, thought Dylan, praying this was just a trick. But all was still and deathly quiet. He saw only the black beady eyes of the crows and the tassels of a scarf blowing in the breeze, heard only the faint rattle of branches.

“Willa! Come on, don’t be stupid . . . fine, I’m not even going to the top, I’m just gonna pick one of these scarves. They’ll all believe me anyway—” he’d been descending while he talked, starting to unwind an acid green scarf. But it wouldn’t come loose. Must be stuck, he thought, tugging harder. But then the thing tugged back. So gently at first, he was sure he’d imagined it. But the next time was a violent pull that thrashed him against the trunk, and now he was stuck, his foot caught in a knobby root.

Annoyed, Dylan shifted his weight and tried pulling his foot free, but it wouldn’t budge. He was unlacing his shoe, so that he didn’t notice the acid scarf winding its way around his wrist. Only when a lemon yellow one grabbed his other hand and yanked it upward did he realize what was happening. His arms were being stretched wide, the bright things had become absurdly alive, pinning him to the trunk. His mind was spinning, his thoughts clouded; there was only the mad need to get free and run far away.

Out of his peripheral vision, Dylan saw movement against the dark ground. A hand emerged from beneath the tree, but it was not an old witch’s withered claw. It was a thing of terrible and timeless beauty: flawless and milk white, adorned with the braided bangles and flowered rings of a child.

Flight of the Wharlbat

by Dani Nicole

There was little oxygen in the cloud-town of Nym, but thankfully the people there did not require much. It was young Piper and Nate who were near the barren tree at dusk, winding ribbons round and round, singing songs of the Wharlbat.

The Wharlbat would come, at least they hoped, flying in at dawn. He’d sit atop the tallest branch, and take perch on his throne. Only then would Nym be what is was, before the Wharlbat fled and left the cloud-town gray, confining all color to dreams.

“I want to see yellow again,” said Nate.

“And orange for me.” Piper tossed a long ribbon over a very tall branch. It tangled and hung, pulling the ribbon taught. “Do you think we could swing from these?”

“The Wharlbat wouldn’t like that, you know.”

Piper couldn’t help but agree. “What if he doesn’t notice the ribbons?”

“The Wharlbat does not forget easily. Remember what Modge told us, there’s a song he sings. ‘This Earth, this Earth is mine you see; Everything can be conquered from the tallest tree; And my feathers brush the highest clouds–; The Wharlbat’s reign has come around.’

“How does he rule all of Nym from a tree?” Piper asked.

Nate shrugged and threw a pink ribbon over a low branch.

Piper was about to chuck another ribbon, but paused and looked at her hands most solemnly. “What if the Wharlbat doesn’t like his tree?”

Nate came to Piper’s side and rested a hand on her shoulder. “Surely he will.”

“He left the world colorless. What if he doesn’t like the colors?”

Nate shook his head. “The Wharlbat has never known color like this. When he sees his tree he will change the world back. The sky will be blue again, the sun will be yellow.”

Piper seemed only slightly convinced, though Piper was always worried about breaking the rules.

“These are not just any ribbons, Piper. Modge said there’s power in them.”

“What kind of power?”

Nate smiled. “You’ll just have to see.”

They fell asleep on the cloud near the barren tree, decorated in colors the city of Nym hadn’t seen in three years. The children slept with their heads upright against a bridge, so that their ears would be open to hear the Wharlbat.

But the Wharlbat had learned to move silently. It was near dawn when he found his barren tree, no longer black and white like he’d left it. Rather, this was dazzling– red, pink, orange, yellow, more colors than the Wharlbat remembered taking from the world. He perched among the tallest branch, his talons brushing against the ribbons.

That’s when the Wharlbat smelled her scent.

He could not contain the tears that welled up in his beady eyes. He let out a screech of agony that jolted the children awake.

“Did you hear that, Piper?”

“It’s the Wharlbat!”

They ran to the tree and stood at its base, looking up into the gray sky.

“Excuse me, Mr. Wharlbat,” Piper called up, “but I do hope you like your tree.”

“Why, child, why have you done this to me?” The Wharlbat’s voice was piercing, and Piper very much wanted to cover her ears.

“We only hoped you would like the colors,” Nate said, taking Piper in his arm who was beginning to cry.

“It is not the colors, child. It is the smell. Where did you get these ribbons?”

Nate looked at Piper, who only nodded at him, for it was all she could do to keep from sobbing.

“We purchased them from a woman named Modge.”

“Did she tell you, child, the power they held?”

“Well. No.”

“And do you think it polite to decorate someone’s throne with ribbons of unknown power?”

“Well. No.”

“And do you think a Wharlbat such as I would let an ignorant child get away with something so foul?”

Nate was taking a few steps back now, with Piper under his arm. He didn’t like the way the Wharlbat looked at him, as if he might swoop down and pick them up in his talons.

But the Wharlbat jumped from the tree as Nate took his next step, picking Piper up by the arm. Nate held onto her feet and pulled against the weight of the Wharlbat. He struggled until he could not pull anymore, and the nasty Wharlbat picked them both up and flew them through the cloud town of Nym.

It was Piper’s cry that awoke Modge in her cloud cottage. She slipped on her slippers and opened her door to see the Wharlbat carrying two orphans through the gray sky.

She smiled to herself, then grabbed a single ribbon hidden in her sock. She pulled on the material until at last the whole length of the ribbon was free.

She walked the ribbon to the barren tree, and wrapped it round and round the base. She stepped back and admired her work.

The ribbon she’d wound was a shimmering midnight black.

She waited.

The ribbons shivered on the tree as the tree began to turn. It spun round and round until at last all of the ribbons flew off into the sky, chasing after the Wharlbat.

She heard the Wharlbat’s cry and the black beady body came into sight, twisted in a rainbow of color.

He dropped the orphans and Modge caught them and set them on their feet. Piper was crying and Nate was holding her, and all three looked up at the tangled Wharlbat.

The ribbons wound around him and his whole body shook.

“The ribbons will release their power any minute,” Modge said.

“But what will happen to the Wharlbat?” Piper asked, because Piper was always asking questions.

Modge only pointed to the sky, where the ribbons tightened until there was a popping sound, and colored dust fell to the clouds.

The Wharlbat stood atop the tallest branch of the barren tree, his feathers multicolored and magnificent. He was orange, yellow, red, pink. He was more colors than he took from the world.

“Now,” said Modge. “You will bring color everywhere you go.”

“No more black and white?” Piper asked.

“That’s right.”

As Modge spoke the sky turned a brilliant blue, the sun sparkled yellow, and the barren tree bark turned a rich brown. Leaves sprung up on the branches, a brilliant green, and some yellows.

It was the most color the children had ever seen. More color than before the Wharlbat fled and left the cloud-town gray, confining all color to dreams.

Flash Fiction Friday

Night Butterfly by AlexandraVBach, deviantART

Night Butterfly by AlexandraVBach, deviantART

The Enchantress’s Gift

By Paige Duke

I was a child when my mother first took me to the Midnight Masquerade. So enthralled was I with the women’s finery and the men’s charms, that I sensed nothing morbid in their masks. Innocence blinded me, for I didn’t yet know that my people bought the Master’s favor with their silence. No, I trembled with delight when my mother put my own mask in place, “The Master has found a bride,” she said, with something strange upon her face. I know now it was a smile tinged with regret.

The Master’s ballroom was a whirlwind of color and light. Feathers and lace, bangles and ribbon, whiskers and claws and fangs bobbed and jostled to the music. In my delight and terror, I lost my mother and sought a safe place to hide.

I crawled into a corner occupied by only one other soul, an old woman. I could see she was shrunken and shrewd, for she wore no costume or mask. She smiled and bid me sit beside her, studying me. “We two are alike, I think. Only here for the Master’s bride?” she guessed.

I nodded, too shy yet to speak. So we sat for a time until my curiosity won out. “Why don’t you wear the mask?”

She patted my hand, “I have no one to charm and nothing to hide,” she said gently.

I pondered her words and looked out across the frolicking crowd. Charm abounded, that was plain to me, but my eyes knew not how to see hidden things. “What do my kinsmen hide behind their masks?” I ventured.

The woman’s eyes grew round and steely, “The guilt of the terrible price they pay for their luxury.”

All around me was merriment and revelry, nothing that spoke to me of dishonor. Perhaps this old woman was mad. She must have seen my doubt, for she sneered, “What has your mother told you of the Master’s bride?”

“Only that she is beautiful and fortunate to have caught the Master’s attention.”

“Fortunate,” she spat. “If only you knew, as do your kin. They all conspire to deny the truth. Judge for yourself this day, dear child, before they draw you into their deception. Do you know the tale of the lovers of the forest?”

I laughed, “Of course! Every child knows the story.” I stood tall and cleared my throat. “There were two lovers who sought out an enchantress. They paid her all their gold to gain everlasting life. ‘No man may be immortal,’ she told the young lovers, but gave them instead a second life upon their deaths. The man grew ill in time and died, only to transform into the most regal of birds, the mighty peacock. And thus, the woman and beast lived in loyal love.”

The old woman’s eyes burned me, “They’ve taught you well, my pet. But they shroud the truth in children’s tales. I tell you, your Master slew the mighty peacock and made a bride of his poor lover.”

Now I knew she must be mad, I tried to laugh, “But it’s only a fairy tale. There are no ill-fated lovers. There is no old enchantress, no second life beyond first death.”

Suddenly the sound of a bell, clear and deafening, rang above the raucous crowd. The band halted their merry tune, the dancers froze in their turns, and every eye looked to the front of the room as the Master stepped into view. The old woman whispered fiercely in my ear, “See for yourself then, dear one.”

A gasp rose from the assembly and from my own lips. The Master’s form was regal and commanding, and he wore his mask with pride. His face was hidden behind the bluest peacock’s crown and his words rumbled from beneath the bird’s beak. “Behold, the bride I have won.” My faith wavered and I felt a stirring of fear at the sight, could the old crone’s words be true?

I stood on tiptoe to see the woman emerging from a darkened hallway. Her steps were slow and deliberate as they bore her through the sea of guests. She was pale as moonlight with obsidian eyes and cornflower hair. She wore not the color of a bride but the deepest shade of mourning. From her collar rose the jet-black feathers of a peacock’s pelt and she carried no flowers, but a fan with the sign of a mighty peacock in flight. Were these a token of her loyal lover? On her face, the bride wore a delicate mask, the lustrous wings of a dark butterfly.

What if the old woman’s claim was true? I half hoped a brave soul would come forward to oppose the Master, but not a man or woman stirred. They were all a sea of veiled faces, obediently still before their lord.

The bride strode stoically up the aisle to face her groom. As she gazed into the vacant eyes of the glorious bird, a single tear slid down her cheek. The Master started forward to claim her. But far too quickly, there was a swish of lace and a flash of silver as a thin blade sliced the air.

The Master froze. Cries rent the silence. For the woman had pierced her own pale breast.

As a plume of bright blood welled from the wound, the Master recovered and reached for his bride. But she slipped through his grasp in the flurry of a butterfly’s wings.

The crowd erupted at once into chaos. The feathered and bejeweled guests wailed and staggered, every soul trying at once to flee. In my panic, I turned to my companion. But I was alone. The old woman had gone.

The Gate of Second Chances

by Dani Nicole

He counted the minutes in butterflies, and she had sixty-one.

The Butterfly Collector turned these fluttered things into fleeting moments–moments that Agatha purchased for a second chance.

She caught each one with the Jar of New Hope. And he bowed when she presented them, one at a time, until at last he gave her the key.

She hesitated for a moment, then took it, feeling the pain of old age in her joints. Soon she would be young again.

“Sixty-one minutes are yours, my sweet,” said the Butterfly Collector.

Agatha bowed back and turned toward the iron gate barricading the garden she had never entered.

“Your time will end at exactly sixty-one,” the Butterfly Collector called after her.

She nodded and twisted the key in the Gate of Second Chances. Agatha stepped through the shimmering translucent veil that linked the present and past.

She was young again. She felt it in her hips. In the way her spine stood tall as her black evening gown spiraled up her neck. The paint on her face was sticking, the corset over her ribs, stifling. But Agatha had only felt so alive once before, on this very night sixty-one years ago. And this time she had a secret.

She heard a flapping near her ear–a butterfly, blue as the afternoon sky. And another. And more. There were sixty-one. A minute later, there was a pop and a butterfly disappeared.

The Butterfly Collector does not lose track of time.

“You wear his mark,” said a man’s voice behind her–the voice which she had come for.

“Then you should know my intentions,” she said, turning toward him.

“He always costumes his collection in his finest dresses, his finest masks,” the man glanced up, “and of course accompanied by his precious butterflies.”

As the man spoke another butterfly disappeared.

“I am not something to be collected,” Agatha replied, feeling the fire of youth in her voice.

“Are you not? Tell me, what did he take from you in return for your second chance?”

Agatha did not answer.

The man pulled a gun from his belt and pointed it at Agatha. “Should we start where we left off, then?”

Agatha smiled at him, her butterfly mask shimmering under the moonlight. “I hoped we could.”

Agatha moved quicker than she thought she could, quicker than she remembered. She swerved as the first bullet fired and ran behind the man who held the gun. She escaped down an alleyway and took a sharp left, then right, praying she could remember the way.

And after several turns, and several dodged gunshots, Agatha saw the house at the end of the cobblestone street.

She knew she was not allowed to be seen.

The Butterfly Collector does not forget the rules.

Agatha stopped on the doorstep of the cottage and looked behind her for the man with the gun, the one who had prevented her from opening this door sixty-one years ago. He was farther behind, so she had just enough time to twist the doorknob.

Another butterfly disappeared.

Agatha heard her high-pitched cry coming from upstairs. She took the stairs two at a time to the room at the end of the hall with the door slightly ajar.

Another butterfly disappeared.

Her minutes were fading and the baby’s cries swelled within the house, grating at Agatha’s heart. She thrust open the door and saw the baby’s father standing over the crib with a malicious smile on his face.

“Leave her alone,” Agatha said, reaching for the fan clipped onto her dress, the one she had hidden from the Butterfly Collector.

The man was surprised to see Agatha, and his surprise was matched with Agatha’s when several butterflies popped at once.

“Agatha? What… how…?”

Several more.

She did not let him speak.

The butterflies were fading faster than minutes.

She spread the fan and wafted the air with it, which began to emit a purple mist. The mist filled the room as the butterfly popping crescendoed. She did not have much time left, and she had to kill the man who had killed her daughter sixty-one years ago, while his friend held her hostage in the alleyway.

The mist coiled across the room and circled the father’s neck. He began to suffocate as the purple mist grew hands and began to strangle him. Agatha did not want to watch. She had once loved that man who traded his family for crime, who traded his own daughter for a significant sum of money. But she could not love him anymore.

The father fell to the floor and stopped breathing.

Three butterflies popped, then five more.

Agatha braced herself for the unknown. She had broken the rules.

The Butterfly Collector does not forget the rules.

As the last butterfly popped, Agatha’s daughter cried, “mommy,” and Agatha faded towards that blissful strip of oblivion she had avoided all these sixty-one years, carried in a flurry of butterflies.

Flash Fiction Friday

Prompt: Bones in the Badlands

Remnants

By Paige Duke

Talitha walked among rows of bones, sorted and tagged by the students, until she came to what must have been the skulls. She bent and gently picked one up with her gloved hand. She turned it, examining the dingy surface with barely disguised fascination. Who were you? she wondered. What sort of life did you have in this place? She looked out across the unfamiliar terrain, the cracked clay that stretched for miles until it rippled into brown and orange striated foothills. What sort of people could flourish in so unforgiving a place?

“This is such a waste of time,” Ronell whined from behind her. Talitha turned to find the other woman looking bored; it was clear she hadn’t even started recording any of the remains. Under different circumstances—back home, steeped in the comforts of their modern lives—she liked Ronell, but the woman did not share her appreciation for the lost histories. Few did.

“Oh?” Talitha asked innocently.

“They’ll never see the outside of a lab,” she said, motioning to the minefield of bones the kids had dug up. “And how much can they really tell without a proper record anyway?”

Talitha shrugged, trying to mirror Ronell’s disinterest.

The other woman fanned herself with the webbing of her open palm, “Ugh. How many more of these godforsaken planets do we have left?”

Talitha gently replaced the skull in its row and opened the flap of her biopouch, careful not to let her treasures jingle against one another, and pulled out a thin spindle. With a swipe of her fingerpad, she pulled up the B Class Archeological Survey itinerary. “Only two more after this one.”

“That’s two too many, I say. This is the last time I chaperone,” Ronell said, shaking her head. Sweat glistening on her flawless blue skin in the glare of the planet’s single sun. “You know, the only reason I agreed in the first place was I thought we’d hear more about the Terraforming. I think it’s just amazing! The way they can take these useless old planets and repurpose them.”

Looking down to hide her dismay, Talitha nodded. She couldn’t very well argue for historical preservation when technology promised the end of their desperate troubles.

“Oh thank Oleith, I think they’ve finished.”

Talitha followed Ronell’s gaze to see the class packing up their gear and Caelith skipping excitedly toward them.

“Your boy seems like he’s really into this,” said Ronell. “All the others were bored by the third planet. Can’t say I blame them. Bones all start to look the same after a while, no matter how ingeniously they’re arranged.”

Caelith slowed, breathing hard and nodded to Ronell, “Hello, Mistress.” In one hand, he carried his overloaded toolkit and the other—Talitha saw, with a little thrill—was tucked firmly into the pocket of his robe. She reached out to smooth his feathery hair.

“Nice work today, young sir,” said Ronell with feigned enthusiasm and a stiff pat on his arm. “Well, I’m going to get out of this heat. I’ll see you two back on board,” she said, leaving mother and son alone.

Talitha waited a moment before whispering, “What have brought me this time, boy?”

Caelith smiled and pulled his hand from his pocket, looking around to be sure no one was watching, and placed a small, perfectly round disc into her palm. “Found a pile of these in a pouch. Used to be some sort of picture on it that’s worn away now, but I thought you’d like the runes.”

They exchanged a look of wonder and Talitha smiled, her heart squeezing with affection for this child who could share and keep her secret.

Caelith reached out to squeeze her fist, “I’m going to clean up. Meet you back in our quarters.”

Waiting until he was behind her and the sound of the class’s banter began to fade, she looked down at the trinket her son had salvaged for her. The disc was made of thin metal and its face was smeared with dirt where he had smudged the dust. She wiped it clean the best she could to reveal the outline of an image worn away by time and the elements. She found the runes Caelith mentioned and turned the disc until her retinal translator could make sense of them: IN GOD WE TRUST. What did it mean?

Talitha closed her fingers around her newest treasure, still warm from its earthen grave. She took one last look across the alien terrain, a piece of living history soon to be remade. She turned then to make her way back to the ship, dropping the disc into her biopouch among the other detritus of lost worlds.

The Bone Locket

By Dani Nicole

They called her Bag of Bones. A less than civil name for the witch who came to town, carrying a velvet purse that rattled when she walked.

“A dime for a femur, a nickel for a knee,” she’d sing in a voice that sounded like a hawk’s screech. She never talked of anything but bones. She never asked for anything but coins.

“Why does she want coins for bones?” a little boy asked.

His mother shushed him as if she could erase his curiosity with her firmly placed index finger. “We will not talk about the witches.”

“I want to be a witch, mommy,” said the curious boy’s sister. “I want to buy a bone.”

“You will do none of those things.”

The little girl was not satiated. “But no one ever buys her bones mother. How shall we know what they do?”

“They are bones. They are meant to be in the ground.”

The woman hurried her children along but the witch continued singing, “A dime for a femur, a nickel for a knee,” because though the curiosity of the children had stirred curiosity in the witch, she still had a job to do.

***

I met the witch when I was hungry, standing outside the bakery. The smell of freshly baked bread perfumed the air, and she came sing-songing down the street. “Two dimes for a femur, two nickels for a knee.”

“Excuse me, miss, but I must ask,” she stopped walking at the sound of my voice, “But why are the bones twice as much today?”

She smiled revealing black and gray teeth, she smiled revealing her soul. “Because you need them twice as much, of course, than you did any other day.”

She walked away from the freshly baked bread, down the street into an alleyway. My mind followed her, but my stomach protested, sounding off for a pastry.

I purchased my delicacy, but I was distracted and kept searching for the witch who’d disappeared. What kind of witch sells bones, I wondered. What kind of witch needs coins?

I walked to where her robes disappeared, into an alleyway– a narrow sliver, almost too small for one man. I stopped for a moment, then turned sideways, shoving myself towards the Badlands. There were overcast skies and naked trees, and cracked earth prickled by plants.

“There are bones in the Badlands,” said a creaky voice. I turned to see Bag of Bones on my right.

“Why do I need the bones?”  I asked.

“We all need the bones, or rather, what’s inside.”

“Marrow?”

She shook her head. “I know what you lost, someone you loved. I know many things.”

“I thought you were a witch.”

“Of sorts,” she said, reaching into her bag.

“No, I don’t want to—“

“If you see, you’ll understand.” She removed a flat, round locket and handed it to me. I touched the milky-white surface.

“Is this made of—“

“Bone,” she said, as if that were a normal thing.

“What is it?”

“It is a way to release what the world needs from bones.”

I opened the locket which revealed two words. On the left it said life; on the right it said death.

“What do these words mean?”

She took the locket and looked toward the Badlands. “There are bones in my purse. There are bones in the Badlands. There are bones in our bodies. But what do these bones mean? They do not mean we are alive, because our bones are here when we die. They do not mean we are dead, because we are born with bones.”

“Perhaps they mean that we existed.”

“Precisely.” She paused. “Bones are given to us when we are born and we give them back when we die. The one you lost is gone, but not her bones.” She opened her bag and peeked in. “These bones belonged to mothers, fathers, daughters and sons. These people were loved and now they are missed. When you love someone, that love does not leave. It stays buried in their bones.”

I stare at her. “Can the bones bring back the lost?”

“What has perished has perished, but the love remains. With my locket you can release that love. It will continue into the world, a new baby receives, and perhaps she will grow to love. Perhaps she will lose, the way we all do, and release more love from more bones.”

“Your locket, it seems, can recycle love.”

“Precisely.”

I closed my eyes and remembered her, swirled in beauty and grace.  I pulled the coins in my pocket and said, “Tell me what I must do.”

“Purchase the bones, bury them near the lake. When you are done you are free.” She took a step forward, put her face near my ear. “But if perhaps, you want to help, you can bring me more bones from the Badlands.”

“And what do you do with the coins?” I asked.

She smiled, secretly, and I knew she would not say. “I buy more velvet bags.”

I gave her my coins; she gave me three bones. She smiled and turned on her feet. Her velvet bag rattled, the bone locket clanked, and Bag of Bones walked away.