Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Remarkable Insight of Jellybeans

They sit on the lounge they bought together, curled up in opposite ends while the TV blares. He sounds like the TV, droning on, talking with monotonous fervour about his job, his friends, his bike—and she can’t make herself care. It’s like ads, like prime time, like seeing the same reruns month after month after month, and what was clever and funny once is now mundane. It makes her think of canned laughter and dishes, taking out the garbage and catching buses. Forever, it’s been like this; he talks, she listens, never interrupting, never interjecting, the perfect girlfriend, the perfect listener, perfectly selfless, an empty vessel just waiting to be filled—and he’s never asked about her day, not once.

He pauses for a breath and, carefully, she lifts the jellybean jar from where it has been resting against her tucked-up ankles, out of sight but not out of mind, cool glass pressing against bare skin, ice in a desert storm. She unscrews it with perfect, measured movements, not too quick, not too loud, not wanting to interrupt his train of thought.

He glances over. “Can I have some?”

He hadn’t wanted her to buy them, called them a frivolous waste of money, and as soon as she got them home she felt like he was right; jellybeans had no   place in their pantry, nowhere to sit that didn’t highlight their out-of-placeness, garish in the cool dim company of potatoes and garlic, practical tinned tomatoes and stockpiles of penne pasta. He hadn’t wanted her to buy them, but she’d known all along he’d finish most of them, because that’s just how it was, and she’d never interrupted.

“Sure.” She peers down at a jar full of sugar, bright colour and empty calories, flavour that kisses the tongue then vanishes, leaving the mouth cloyed with generic sweetness. Bright colours, like fruit, or hummingbirds, or hope. She chooses a dark brown one speckled with white and twists around, arm extended so she can pop it into his mouth, a sugar pill, a placebo. His tongue brushes her fingertips, bird-like, here-and-then-gone, and she returns her fingers to her lap and rubs them on her skirt.

“Yuck,” he says, screwing up his nose, eyes never leaving the TV. “I hate the coffee ones.”

“Sorry,” she says, and fishes a second bean from the jar, brown, with white speckles. “Another?”

He nods, and stares glazedly at the telly; he has exhausted his supply of conversation topics, and she is unsurprised, because every night they are the same, and they are limited, and they are never hers, like the books kept on display to impress the neighbours or the ornaments that line the hallway. She presses the jellybean against his lips, a tiny act of rebellion, and he takes it without looking, and again she scrubs her fingers on her skirt.

He makes a face and spits out something that was perfect once, but is now half-chewed and mangled, its clear, worthless centre exposed: a shot of glucose, an empty hope, a painted, hollow corpse. “I just said I don’t like the coffee ones,” he snaps, shooting a sideways glare into her temple where it pierces, lodges, and she can almost feel the blood trickling down.

“Sorry!” she says defensively, resisting the need to rub her temple. “I didn’t mean it.” But a thrill stirs inside her stomach. He’ll believe her, of course he will, because she never interrupts—but this time, she meant it, and she hears alarums sound and horses neigh, and the clash of sword on shield.

“Hmph.” He reaches into the jar and scoops out his own handful, multi-coloured like the eggs of a rainbow, then scoffs them down all at once, chewing indiscriminately.

What’s the point? she wonders. Why have different flavours in the first place, if you won’t stop to savour them? She closes her eyes and selects one bean,        just one, its sugary surface smooth and slightly sticky. Without opening her eyes, she places it delicately on her tongue, closes her mouth around it like a secret, sucks it close and concentrates. Sharp, sweet but acid, tart—not lemon, but something close. Grapefruit, she decides, and rolls it between her teeth, trying to make the flavour last—but of course, the flavour’s gone and she’s left with that same inevitable, generic sweetness.

She feels the same; just a generic sort of sweet, a hollow-caloried person-shaped lump, valueless, worthless but for fleeting gratification that weighs heavy afterwards on the tongue. Does he feel that way about her? Although she listens, does it satisfy him? After the first flavour of their relationship is gone, is she still enough? She watches as he grabs another handful of jellybeans and sucks them down, swa-llowing them like liquid, concentration on the sitcom never faltering. Yes. He is satisfied with bright colours that smack of hope. Empty nutrients comfort him.

She remembers the man she saw earlier this evening, dark and tall, striding between the rows of the fruit market with confidence like a million-dollar cruiser amidst dinghies. He’d confronted a seller over her bruised nectarines, their blushing skins marred by brown stains of abuse. He’d caressed ripe lady fingers, inhaled sour green mangoes, savoured a dark burgundy grape. Not everyone is satisfied with hollowness, she realises. She is not satisfied.

He shifts beside her, mindless, and she knows that any moment now he will ask for his nightly cup of coffee—supermarket coffee, over-roasted coffee, old and dull and cheap coffee. But she is sick of crappy coffee; it reminds her of days spent under the flickering eye of fluorescent light bulbs, walled in by partitions covered with geometric patterns in sensible colours meant to detract from the fact that really, they are padded. A shiver touches her spine and she stares at the jellybeans, wondering.

And of course, “Coffee?” he says, and she wraps her fingers around the neck of the jar and decides. Generic sweetness is not inevitable. “No,” she says as her heart tries to break open her rib cage, or burst her veins with blood flow. She touches her fingertips to her temple.

He tears himself away from cued laughter and crude humour to give her an incredulous stare. “What do you mean?”

She shakes her head, lips sealed against the weight of what she has said. She can’t repeat it, it’s too heavy, it will break her jaw with its passing—but she has said it once, and maybe once will be enough.

He raises an eyebrow. “Bad day at work?”

And there it is, the very thing she’s been waiting for all these months, the thing she thought she needed to hear—only now, she realises it’s not enough. It’s jellybeans, with the gloss of hope on top hiding emptiness inside, and he, who is satisfied with handfuls of sugar and cheap, dirty coffee, will never be enough. She thinks again of the man in the markets, of sun-ripened strawberries made sweet with heat, of apples crisp and fresh so the juice runs down her chin when she bites into them, and she turns to him with eyes full of tears, with hands full of jellybeans, and a heart full of fruit. “I’m sorry,” she says, and catches his arm before he can turn away, before  he can dismiss her words as platitudes. “I can’t stay here,” she whispers, begging him to understand and knowing perfectly well that candy and cost-saving never can. “I’m leaving. I’m sorry,” and she’s not.

While he sits there in stunned silence, she passes him the jellybean jar and stands. “You’ll be fine,” she says, and smiles. “What we have is replaceable.” Gaping, he watches as she walks to the bedroom, where she picks up her blackwood jewellery box that holds the antique necklace she asked her grandma for when she was twelve, empties the single drawer in the dresser that holds all the clothes she’s ever chosen for herself, slips on her favourite shoes and rummages in the depths of the wardrobe for the pale blue fake-crocodile handbag she’d fallen in love with at the county show, the one he hated so much she’d never dared use. It smells of feet and old carpet, pencils and overripe bananas. A smile spreads across her face as she gathers up all the decisions she’s ever made, and carries them to her car. “I’m sorry,” she says as he stands on the porch, still speechless.


But she’s not, and she drives away with the satisfying sweetness of mangoes on her tongue.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

From Two Comes All

There was a goddess who pulled two points together
Unconnected
Unrelated
They were nothing
They were something
She held one in each hand
Lifted above each shoulder, as if in blessing
Brought her palms together
Not enough to touch
She didn't need to
She knew
The points only needed proximity
A moment
Before pulling her hands away
And an entire web expanded between them
A world, created on two poles
A world, created
By two points
Two hands
And the possibilities have never stopped growing

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The L.A.O.S. Part 7


 Catch up on Part 1!
(Or maybe Part 2?) 
(How's about Part 3?) 
(Part 4!)
(Ooo, Part 5...)
(6! It's Part 6!)


I was still fuming when I got back (having successfully devoured a Mc-Bigger-Than-My-Head Burger and two large fries), so much so that I rounded a corner and ran smack into someone’s back. Said someone swore and rounded on me.

“Watch where you’re going, Private Boy,” he said, looking me up and down. “Private Parts.”

I flushed, hands fisting at my sides. “Piss off,” I snarled, with what was fast becoming my usual astounding genius. Master of Wit, that’s me.

“Piss off yourself,” Public Boy – Pubic Boy? That seemed fair – replied, vicious grin lighting up his face. “Especially since you’re, oh, I don’t know,” he looked at his watch, “five minutes late. That little pocket rocket you have on your team, she won’t be too impressed about that now, will she. Been giving you the cold shoulder all morning. Think what she’ll do now.” He tsked and shook his head.

My cheeks felt hot and my jaw and fists hurt from clenching. How dare… I mean, it’s not like… And seriously! But most of all: what the hell? I inhaled, long and slow, and forced the tension away. “You know what?” I said, wrestling my voice towards normal. “You’re right. I am late. I should go.” I turned and walked away. Megan should be proud.

Pubic Boy snickered. “Oh yes,” he said. “Don’t let me faze you. I’m only a public student. My words should just… pass right through.”

I froze, heart jolted. He knew. He’d seen me phase through the door earlier and he knew. What else could that mean?

He snickered again. “Don’t let me detain you, though. I’m sure you’re just dying to straight-line back to your little friends. After all, they clearly need you.”

I flexed my fingers and worked my mouth, trying to make my dried-out tongue function. “What do you want?” I said slowly, wondering if I could just walk away from this. A chill ran over my shoulder, skin contracting and shivering as something fluttered over it.

“That depends,” Pubic Boy breathed against my neck. “What’ve you got to give?”

Abruptly I realised what the strange feeling in my shoulder was: his hand. The feeling wasn’t on my shoulder, it was in it – which meant that his hand… I gagged, and the motion jerked on his arm, which sent panic spinning through me. I gasped for air and forced down the chants of ‘Chris-fit, Chris-fit.’

“Easy now,” Pubic Boy said, steadying me with his free hand. “Stand still!”

I tried, fighting to stay upright against the whirling in my stomach. The world blurred and I tasted bile, panting, gasping. Breathe, breathe, breathe! I shouted at myself, covering my mouth and nose with my hand. I sucked at it, slurping in the air, but it forced me to slow down and I gulped, swaying.

“Dude.” Pubic Boy sounded concerned. How touching. He shook his hand free with barely a second of effort and grabbed my shoulders, spinning me to face him. “Seriously?” He wrinkled his brow at me. “Just chill, okay?”

I nodded, releasing my mouth and inhaling myself fully upright. I squeezed my eyes closed. I’m fine. I’m fine. “How did you do that?” I said with my eyes still closed.

I felt him shrug. “Same way you walked through that door.”

Guilt surged in the pit of my stomach. Megan would be livid. Crap. I was late. She was probably already livid. I exhaled shudderingly and opened my eyes. Questions. I’d been about to ask him something. I stared at his arms, still propping me upright. Oh yeah.

I dragged my gaze upwards to his face, just registering the concern in his frown before it vanished and he was sneering. “But,” I forced out. “Can’t you only do that with inanimate objects?”

“Inanimate?” His sneer deepened back to a frown.

It was my turn to sneer. I shook him off and straightened my tie. “Inanimate, doofus. Not alive.”

Anger flashed through his eyes. “I know what it means, Private Parts. But why should that matter?”

I rolled my eyes. “Oh, I don’t know: maybe because living things are complicated. Their molecular structure is irregular. Doesn’t that make it harder to phase through?” I bounced a little on my toes. In spite of myself, I was intrigued.

Pubic Boy shrugged again. “Glass is irregular. Wood is irregular. Didn’t seem to stop you with the door.”

I opened my mouth to retort – and stopped. Damn it. He was right. I blinked and close my mouth.

He snickered at that. “So, going to break that one to your dear little friends? They are your friends, aren’t they? You all looked like you were having such a good time.”

I narrowed my eyes at him. “Funny. No. I know them, that’s all.” Which was true: they weren’t my friends. They were the League of Extraordinary Losers, and sure, they’d invited me in when the rest of the world had shut me out but that didn’t mean I liked them – except maybe Megan, because hello, hot and intelligent.

So why was my heart pounding like I was trying to convince Dad that it had been Mitch that had wrecked the car that time, and not me?

Pubic Boy raised an eyebrow. “That so.” He paused, then continued in a rush. “And do they… you know.” He flapped his hand ineffectually. “Phase.”

I shrugged, trying to ignore my still-pounding pulse and the tiny voice that was whispering that this was a guy who’d pretty much attacked me just a few moments ago. “Maybe.”

“Of course they do,” Pubic Boy murmured to himself. “That’s why you’re with them.” He hesitated again, twisting up his mouth, then stuck out his hand. “Evan,” he said. “Evan Frampton.”

“Chris,” I returned, shaking his hand after only a fraction of an instant. So he’d tried to muscle me; the rivalry between public and private schools was as old as their existence, and he’d let up pretty quickly. “Chris Webb.”

He nodded. “Well, Chris Webb. We’d better get back inside, or your Pocket Rocket might just murder us both with her eyes.” His tone suggested that he wouldn’t be surprised if that turned out to be a real possibility, and I chuckled. Well, why not? We were a bunch of people who could walk through walls, after all.

[Continued next month...]

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Alone

He lingers over his approach to the front door, breathing deeply, filling his dry, creaky lungs with the scent of home. Stone and damp, old tomatoes and dust. His life encapsulated by a perfect smell.
And he’ll never smell it again. The soulbond is drawing to an end, he can feel it, feel the weight lifting. Two days, he estimates. Two days and the bond will be gone. He’ll be alone for the first time in years.

He casts his gaze over the two storeys of the little house, crammed in at the end of a high-walled alleyway—and yet the only place he’s ever been able to breathe. The gang—his family, the ones he chose and raised—are like that. They kept him going when there was nothing else to live for.

He winces. What is he thinking? They need him, his protection—and he needs them. He pauses stiffly on the front step, rubbing the age from his knuckles and the pain from his face.

He opens the door and Tara storms out into the hall. She attacks the stairs without even a glance in his direction. His mouth bunches tightly as he suppresses a laugh. Oh, yes. This is home.

He steps inside and closes the door behind him, smoothing a hand over wood more worn than he is. He takes another deep breath, basking in the warm smells of oak and brass polish.

A sigh, from the living room. Is that her? Fortuitous, if so. The more of them he can avoid today the better. Dying is hard enough without having to say goodbye. Especially when one must die alone.

He creeps across the hallway, floorboards gently protesting, and pauses for a moment in the doorway to drink in the scene. The bay window to his left lets in the little light available in this bottom storey of a back alley, softly illuminating the furniture older than he is—and probably in better condition. His lips twitch in a half smile.

And there, curled in the single armchair by the fireplace, bathed in flickering firelight, sits Jessana. He smiles at the contradiction of the literary novel in her hand and the assassin’s knife lying on the table next to her, loving it even as he hates himself for nurturing the killer in her. But it had been necessary, a choice of her life, the life of his almost-daughter, against the lives of faceless, impersonal others. He’d kept her alive by teaching her his skills.

He tenses, thinking of what he is about to do; it feels precariously like abandoning her. Pain stabs at his ribcage. He sucks in air that tastes like age and smooths the mask over his face. They will never know about the pain—but the goodbye he can’t delay much longer. So he straightens from the wall, squares his shoulders, and enters the room.

Jess glances up and smiles. “Hello!” She unfurls her legs to get to her feet, but he waves her back down.

“No need for that.” He lowers himself into a nearby chair and nods at her clenched fist. “What have you got there?”

Jess sighs and rolls her eyes, putting down her book and offering her other hand. “Tara found it.”

“Unusual.” The glossy black ring seems the antithesis of Jess, shrouded in darkness as she is haloed in light. For a moment he feels as though it tugs at his soulbond; but the moment passes, and it is just a ring, if an unusually deep black one.

“Very,” Jess responds. “And I don’t even want to know where she got it from, especially if it’s where I think she did.”

“And where might that be?”

“A dead body.”

“Oh, Jess,” he says, laughing. “You’ve got your hands full with that one.” He grins; Jess grins back.

“Is there any hope?” she asks in mock despair.

He sobers. “Funny you should say that,” he murmurs. “I was just thinking the other day that she reminded me of someone.” He shoots Jess a significant look.

She responds with a wry smile. “Okay,” she says. “I give in. I’ll persevere with the little monster.”

He chuckles. “Good girl.”

The silence stretches. Jess glances at her novel, then back at him. “Did you want something?”

It’s time. It has to be done. His mind races for things to say, anything other than what needs to be said. Nothing comes, so he inhales and begins. “Yes, Jessana, I do want something.”

Her body language changes, becoming more alert. “Is everything all right?”

He smiles. “Everything is fine. In... in a manner of speaking. You see, it appears that I have...” He swallows, almost choking on the lie. “I have a son.”

Jess jerks in surprise.

“Yes,” he continues, finding his rhythm. “I was somewhat shocked myself to discover it. But the main point is, he is quite unwell, and his mother is unable to support them with all his medical expenses.” A slight pause before the climax of the lie. “I loved his mother very much. I... I have found a job.” He stares at the floor, sick to the stomach. “I'm going to live with them, and support them.”

He risks a glance at Jess, whose shock is written on her face. Shock, but not disbelief. That’s a good sign. He presses on, the hardest part behind him. “The house will need a new leader, Jessana. I want that leader to be you.”

“Me?” she says, incredulous. “Why me? There are others much better qualified. River is the eldest, choose him! Or Patty, she knows how to get everyone moving. Or Alek, or...” She flounders. “Why me?”

He smiles gently. “It has always been you, Jessana. From the moment you arrived. Don’t you notice how they follow you?” The whole world worships the ground you walk on, he doesn’t add.

Jess squirms. “I suppose so...”

He takes her hand. “They will support you. Never alone, remember? Do it for me?” He blinks back the tears that threaten to clog his eyes. Their motto, everything they live by—but he has to throw it away. He can’t cling to false hope, can’t risk having the bond transfer to someone he loves when he passes on.

Jess nods, exhaling. “Okay,” she says. “For you.”

“Then good.” He claps his hands once together and smiles. “That’s settled.” He makes to rise.

“When do you leave?” Jess says softly, and he feels her eyes probing his facade for the truth, pinning him back in his chair.

He shakes off her gaze, stands and closes his eyes; turns away from love and comfort and joy.

“It’s today, isn’t it?” she says.

He nods.

“Oh.” And she is there, beside him, wrapping her arms around him, and the tears that he’d promised he wouldn’t shed are coursing down his cheeks, making rivulets to rival his wrinkles.

Slowly, her soothing works its way into the crevices of his soul and the tears subside like dust settling to the ground. Jess pats him on the shoulder. “You should go, then,” she says. “Wouldn’t want to be late, now, would we?”

He smiles, a false, brittle thing that he erases before it cracks his fragile exterior. He flees to the front door and jerks it open, determined not to look back. He steps out, pulls the door—but Jess catches it and props it open, standing to watch him leave.

He walks away down the alley. Midway, Jess calls. “Wait!”

He steels himself, knowing he can’t deny her the chance for goodbye. He tenses as he meets her gaze, so piercing he thinks it might kill him there and then.

“Wait,” she says again.

“Yes, Jessana?”

“How much longer do you have to live?”

And there it is, the very thing he’s been trying to avoid, the reason he’d concocted the story of the job and the family in the first place. And despite it all, in spite of all his acting and plotting and planning—she knows. She still knows.

He works his tongue to moisten his suddenly dry mouth. “Not... Not much longer,” he says in a voice that rasps like dead leaves.

“How long?”

Those eyes. Stars of Fate, those eyes... He presses his own closed and forces the words out. “Two days.”

The silence and curiosity opens his eyes. Their gazes lock, and she nods. “Two days. Stay nearby. I’ll find you.”

“You can't!” he says, hands clenching. “I won't have the bond jump to you!”

Jess smiles sadly. “It can't. I'm already bound.”

He reels like she's slammed the door in his face. Jess, his precious, perfect Jess, is soul-bound too. No wonder she'd seen through his lies.

He nods. “Nearby.” She deserves that much. He turns to leave.

“Wait.”

Something thuds into the ground behind his feet, and he glances down. Her knife. His gaze flicks to Jess.

“For the pain,” she says.

He nods and picks up the knife. “For the pain.” Tucking it into his belt, he walks out of the alleyway for the last time.


Behind him, words echo down the street that smells like home. “Never alone, Guiro. Never alone.”

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Opening to "Star and Ice" (actual title TBD)

Sema didn’t sleep as well as she used to. Her back ached, the house creaked, and her mind would rise full of thoughts and memories when the stars shone on the ice, which was every night. So, this night, when the crash against the door that made the house shake intruded around the edges of her sleep-muzzed consciousness, she only wrapped the blankets around tighter and curled up on the bed. There was a voice in the wind, she thought dreamily, almost a wail. But such thoughts came from her grandmother’s generation. The immortal world needed no help from mortal beings, was not even immortal. Nothing left but the too-tired mind playing tricks on a lonely old woman.

Pink pearled the horizon after a night of swaying from asleep to not-quite-asleep, wanting to fall, but never quite managing to. Overcast again. For a brief moment, the sun stared dully down at the glacier, but it must not have liked what it saw. Sema brewed a pot of tea from the supply her son had left before his voyage across the sea. Almost gone now, it was, but with only one person drinking it, it would last a while yet.

Rain had come down last night, rain mixed with snow, and it occurred to Sema that she ought to see if the mat had frozen to the front step. Odd weather, that, it now seemed to her in the daylight hours. Too warm for the season. Too wet. She built the fire back up to a cheerful blaze and laid the horsehair blanket on the rocking chair, that it might be ready for her after her morning exertion. Tea ready, she covered the pot and set her cup by the chair that it might cool. Then, finally, she took the worn wooden box with a broken lock from its place under the window and placed it next to the chair, in front of the funny table with three legs — built that way — upon which sat her tea. The window had streaks on it, which she frowned at and tried to rub away with a corner of her sleeve, but they were on the outside, and would not leave.

Then, to the door. Snow fell in small, dry flakes on the other side of the window, so she wrapped herself in several layers — shawl, coat, parka — before touching the handle. It was warm, warmer even than the inside of the house. A trick of the senses only, reminding her to put on her fur-lined mittens, which she did. Prepared in all ways, she opened the door.

The air should have nipped at her nose and cheeks. White flakes should have swirled, sticking to her face and clothing. She should be regretting that first breath after the door is wide open and the worst is over, so you stop holding your breath and let the cold drill down into the lungs. But the air was mild as mid spring, the snow turned to water the moment it came within four feet of the door. That first breath went down easy, if a bit dry and, before the front step, lay a young woman naked as the day she was born, surrounded by a puddle of water mixed with blood.

Note: I'm not sure when/if I'm going to finish this story. I rather like Sema, and I find the mystery surrounding the young woman she stumbles upon fascinating, but I'm thinking that I'll need to change a LOT before I hit on the right form this story needs to take for me to be able to finish it. Maybe Sema and the young woman need to be in two different stories?

Hm. I'll ponder that.

In the mean time, I'll leave this unsolved mystery to rattle around in your brain a while. :D

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

The L.A.O.S. Part 6


 Catch up on Part 1!
(Or maybe Part 2?) 
(How's about Part 3?) 
(Part 4!)
(Ooo, Part 5...)

I mooched into the room five minutes late with my school blazer itching unbearably at my neck. I ran a finger around my collar, feeling like I was going to choke at any second, and scanned the room for Megan. She was the only thing that would make this stupid day bearable. She was nearly the only thing that made joining the League of Extraordinary Losers worthwhile, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t fracking cool to be able to walk through a door without opening it or, you know, rummage in someone’s schoolbag without unzipping it.

Not that, you know, I could do that around anyone but the Losers, because if anyone else saw me do it I’d a) land a detention (big woop) and b) probably be examined to within an inch of my life. Such was the joy of being a teenager with superpowers, even if they were ‘absolutely ordinary’ ones. I sniffed. Ordinary my arse. The other misfits could try to pretend they were ordinary if they liked, but I for one wasn’t the least bit afraid of being an individual.

A group of kids sans uniforms and ergo from one of the public schools crowded past me, sniggering as they went. I shrugged self-consciously inside my blazer. Stupid uniform. Stupid public school kids. Stupid Maths competition.

There you are.” Megan grabbed me by the elbow before I even realised she’d appeared and dragged me forward through the crowd. “Greg thought you’d chickened out.”

“Of the E. James Downward Mathematics competition? Now why would I do a thing like that,” I said, grinding my teeth as Megan towed me past the public school contingent who’d sniggered at me before.

“Oh, I don’t know,” Megan said with the air of explaining something simple to a very stupid person. “Maybe because you’ve missed every practice we’ve had this week?”

I pulled my arm away and shook my sleeve back in place. “Yeah? And?” It was Maths, for crying out loud. I could do this crap with my arms tied behind my back, and wasting every lunchtime with the Dorkazoids in some musty classroom had lost its gloss once they became more concerned with practice Maths questions than the freaky cool things you could do with some basic scientific knowledge. Create wind currents, for example. School uniform skirts looked heavy, sure, but a well-placed draft could lift them like a tissue.

Not that I would do that. And definitely not to Megan. That one time, it was the draft from the window, I swear it. Because, like, I’d tell her if I discovered something else awesome that we could do. Truly.

But anyway, she dragged me over and plonked me down at our table up the front right as the presiding teacher tapped his microphone and launched into a long-winded and unnecessary explanation of what today was about, why we were competing, and who gave a fig in the first place. Which clearly wasn’t me. Greg muttered something under his breath at me, no doubt his usual charming hello, and I settled down to the serious business of ignoring him.

After far too long, just as I was about to die of boredom, Head Teacher who fancied himself Great Orator finally shut up, and the first round of questions was handed out. I let the League of Losers stress over it for a while – though Matt wasn’t doing a half bad job – before I snatched the question sheet out from under Greg’s elbow and began dictating.

Greg tried to protest, Megan launched into a tirade against both of us, Pip put her head down on the desk, and Matt, the only sensible person at the table other than myself, wrote down what I was saying.

“…and then it all equals seven,” I finished, putting the page back down on the table and nodding at Matt. “Right?”

He nodded back, capped his pen, and placed it on the finished answer sheet. “Right.”

“See?” I said, leaning back in my chair and folding my arms. “You lot just need to learn to chill.”

Megan angled her chair away from me and pointedly struck up a conversation with Pip. What was that all about? I’d done what she wanted, hadn’t I? Here I was, stuck at this stupid Maths day when I’d rather be doing just about anything else, and I’d given them all the right answers and everything, and now she was mad at me?

I shook my head. “Women,” I muttered under my breath.

Greg, sadly, heard me. “You’re a moron, Chris,” he said as he shoved his chair back. He grabbed the answer sheet and stalked to the judges’ table.

I rolled my eyes.

Three rounds later and I was just about comatose from the sheer excitement of it all. Problem after problem after problem, and they weren’t even that challenging. I mean, sure, a couple of times one or two of the others got the answer before I did, but I was distracted. It’s not like I was trying.

At long last we broke for lunch, and I hurried out of the room as fast as I could. Megan had barely looked at me all morning, and there was no way I was going to sit around with the Losers for forty-five minutes while everyone looked on and sniggered.

I was nearly to the exit when someone grabbed my arm, spinning me around.

“Where are you going?” Megan demanded.

“Out,” I said.

“You know we’re not supposed to leave the premises.” She put her hands on her hips and raised an eyebrow. Good thing she wasn’t a real superhero; a laser stare on her would be dangerous.

“I’m not,” I said, smoothing down my blazer and heading back towards the exit. “I’m getting lunch.”

“There’s lunch at the canteen,” Megan said, not following.

“I want real food.” I reached the door. Stupid Megan and her stupid morals. Stupid Maths day. Stupid lunch. If I wanted to go eat some real food, why should anyone care? It’s not like I was nipping out for a spot of vandalism before returning to win the Maths trophy, was it now? I set my jaw and phased through the door, knowing it would make Megan furious – maybe furious enough to come after me.

But I strode away from the building, shrugging out of my blazer and stuffing my tie into my pocket, and no one followed.

[Continued next month!]

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Aish of a Grey Lion: A Storm-Dance Short Story (part 2 of 2)


Read part one here.

Aish of a grey lion,” he said. “Where are your claws?”

They stared at each other, Niobe sick to her stomach. He had done it. He had gone out into the eseteij and cried out for change. Why now?

No, she knew why. Either the Teeshlawat Fyareng had survived or one of his followers continued in his name. Which didn’t matter. They were recruiting again, both children and from the old ranks of child-soldiers. Even if she rescued the child, she couldn’t let this soticheij live or else he would tell the others about her. It didn’t matter how they would use that information; they would destroy everything she cared about, everything she’d built since her escape.

Except, without the other knights, her and her sword would not be enough to fell the beast. Wound it, yes. Scare it off, yes. But, to kill it…

“A samyot for the child,” she said. In a secret pocket, she still carried the one possession that remained from that part of her life.

He sneered. “We’re not children anymore.”

“A samyot.”

The soticheij sighed, but nodded assent and stepped back. Niobe sheathed her sword and retreated behind the dogwood. Off came her coat. Then the leather armour. Inside the coat was her identification as a knight of the Royal Militia, at the back of which was a pocket. With a nudge at the pocket’s spell, an oval of red jasper wrapped in a criss-cross of pale leather emerged. Her talisman. This Niobe held in one hand as she removed and put all her clothes but the coat into the pocket, the enchantment shrinking each to fit.

Beneath the surface of the talisman was the silken feel of common magic, of an incomplete spell. Niobe returned her identification to her coat and clutched the leather-crossed stone tight. She manoeuvered a key of magic into the spell’s lock and turned.

The talisman’s intricate power flowed over and through her body in waves. Fur sprouted, her back lengthened. Claws extended from hands and feet that morphed into paws. Her mouth filled with the teeth of a predator, her pupils became black slits in a field of yellow. The magic contorted her limbs, reshaped her muscles until, only heartbeats after the spell had begun its work, she stood on all fours. With her nose, Niobe nudged the talisman under her coat.

From behind the dogwood, a grey lion leapt at the soticheij.

He lowered his antlers.

When Niobe landed on them, he brought his head up to throw her to the side. She twisted to land on her feet and swiped at his forelegs. They weren’t her target – her aim was to get at his neck – but he didn’t move them. Instead, he brought his antlers down.

So, he still over-relied on his headgear.

Niobe leapt into the cedar behind the soticheij. As he turned to face her, she dropped and slammed into his side, enough to make him stagger. His antlers swung to the side and, while moose are agile, he wasn’t a moose. Not in the way she was a grey lion. She could see his very human Adam’s apple under that thick neck.

Darting under his belly, Niobe escaped the antlers to his other side. With a snarl, she clamped her jaws on the underside of his neck.

Now he remembered his limbs. As she tried to crush his windpipe, he grabbed her with thick fingers to wrench her off. This only served to cause her teeth to tear his skin. He squeezed her ribcage – that was how he’d broken bones and almost killed that knight before she and the others had intervened.

When she felt the crunch of his larynx, Niobe let go. She twisted in his grasp, clawing at his face. The soticheij threw her. From the wounds on his cheeks, she could tell she had almost gouged his eyes.

He put a hand to his throat and tried to speak, but his voice was so hoarse as to be nearly unintelligible. With each laboured breath came the harsh vibration of broken cartilage.

“Take-” he said. “Take the child.”

Left in this condition, he would seek out another eseteij and let the icewater hold of storm magic return to him his strength. The samyot may be over, but Niobe’s work was not. She sprang at him, the top of his neck now between her teeth. Using her claws to keep hold of him as he struggled, she repositioned her grip to just under the base of his skull and bit into his spine.

The soticheij screamed; the sound was stomach-churning with his maimed throat. As it faded, a chipmunk chattered. No, not a chipmunk.

Niobe let go and retreated from the soticheij. Though she hadn’t managed to break his spine completely, his movements had become clumsy.

With a dash behind the dogwood, Niobe signalled the knights with the jays again. Come, be ready to fight. She fitted key to lock and the talisman returned her body to its natural form. Hands shaking, she dressed herself and hid the talisman in its pocket.

The other knights arrived as she stood over the soticheij, sword drawn. He had fallen, succumbing to the injuries of his spine and larynx. Niobe directed two of them to attend to the child, who still lay huddled in the cedar.

“She was in – the cult!” said the soticheij to the knights. “She fought for – for…” he coughed blood. “The Teeshlawat Fyareng.”

But the knights didn’t speak his language. Niobe, Champion of the Royal Militia that had defeated the cult of the Teeshlawat Fyareng eleven years ago with ease, didn’t translate.

She decapitated him instead.

The Storm-Dance is a planned four-book series in which the people of the country Asebei uncover, over the course of their history, the secrets of the eseteijo, the magic storms that plague their continent. The first book will be about Niobe. The second will be about Vjaited.