The King’s Messenger

Writing Exercise

Goose fat slid down the king’s chin. He took another bite from the meaty shank clutched tight in his clubbed fist and chewed, openmouthed, as he watched the lowly peasant that bowed before him in his chambers.

“You have news, then?” the king asked.

“I do, sire. I’ve come from the front lines to deliver an urgent message.”

The king chortled. “Good news, I expect. We’ve had the savages against the wall for months, now. Has their king finally come to see reason?”

“He has. It took all this time to convince him of what was right, but he finally agreed that this is the only path.” The peasant bowed more deeply, practically prostrating himself.

The king clapped his heavy fists together gleefully. “Then it is over, at last.”

“It is.”

The peasant stood. In his hand was a short sword the length of a man’s thigh. Without a sound, he leaped forward and plunged the sword deep into the king’s enormous gut. He pressed in until his arm sank into the fat of the king’s stomach. The king gasped, scrabbling weakly at the arms and neck of his assassin.

“This is the message, oh great king,” the assassin whispered. “You have been vanquished by the savages you so despise.”

“You…w…will die…here,” the king sputtered.

The assassin wrenched the sword from the king’s belly. “You first.” He reeled back and slashed the sword one final time.

Dystopian Story Concept

Unfinished

The garden smelled sweet. The fragrance of flowers mingled with the musk of earth and fresh mulch. Translucent windows at the outer edges of the garden dripped with moisture from the humid air. Evvie ran a finger across one glass panel and watched as water droplets rained down, clearing away most of the gathered condensation. The air here tasted better than it did anywhere else in the city; it probably even tasted better than the air in the penthouse of the Ivory Towers, far above the acid clouds and the wretched stink of the lower city.

“I’m getting too old to keep the glass clean,” Mama Mae said. She crossed her arms and scowled at the finger smudge Evvie left on the glass. “Keeping the soot off the outside is hard enough. I don’t need you adding to my workload, missy.”

“Sorry. I’ll clean it myself. I promise.” Evvie sat up and smiled warmly at her grandmother. At first glance, the two of them looked nothing alike. Mamma Mae’s dark hair was streaked with gray. Her face was leathery and dark, with high cheekbones and russet-colored eyes. In contrast, Evvie looked like the ghost that haunted the garden. Though she’d inherited some of her grandmother’s handsome facial features, her skin and hair were white like porcelain and her clear eyes were the palest of blue. She was the spitting image of her grandmother if the woman had been completely drained of color.

She was an albino, people often whispered. Like them. Evvie scrunched her nose in distaste at the comparison to the Nobility that people often made when they saw her. The Nobility were old money aristocrats who lived in penthouses that capped the Ivory Towers. They could afford to live above the stench of pollution, far beyond the filth of the lower city. Most of the Nobility were albinos, like her. But looks weren’t everything. Evvie belonged to Mama Mae.

“I heard there’s going to be a fair at the town square on Saturday,” Evvie said. “We could go.”

Mama Mae pulled up an old wicker chair and sat heavily. She drew her knitting into her lap but didn’t respond. All the same, Evvie knew what that meant.

“I could wear a wig. Everyone in the lower city is pale, anyway. I’d hardly stand out.”

Mama Mae sighed. Her needles clicked against each other rhythmically, counting time by the number of stitches the old woman formed into a line.

“Please?”

Evvie hated to beg, but it was a special occasion, and Mama Mae always said it was okay to be selfish every once in a while.

The clicking halted. Mama Mae looked Evvie in the eyes and held her gaze for a long while. Evvie held her breath, forever hopeful. At last, the older woman relented. Her knitting needles picked up their rhythm once more.

“I suppose we could pick out your birthday present while we’re there. It isn’t every day my baby girl turns thirteen.”

Evvie squealed in delight and bounced up from her spot on the floor to give her grandmother a hug.

“Careful! These needles are sharp!” Mama Mae chastised. “And don’t forget to clean those windows. My poor garden hardly gets enough sunlight as it is.”

“I’ll clean them inside and out,” Evvie promised. “For the next week.” She rushed to the supply cabinet to get the window spray and rag.

“Make sure you have your respirator when you go outside,” Mama Mae warned. “And don’t forget your sunscreen. My friend Gina said the radiation is getting harsher with the recent solar flares. Her son, Tom, got a nasty burn across his bald patch last week. Lord knows your poor skin is sensitive enough without adding radiation burns to the mix.”

“I’ll be careful,” Evvie said. She’d already pulled out the tub of high-strength sunscreen she used whenever she went outside.

“That’s my girl,” Mama Mae said.

Evvie grinned. She loved making her grandmother proud. Carefully and thoroughly, Evvie covered every square inch of her body in sunscreen–even the bits that wouldn’t come in direct contact with the light. She layered up her clothes, even though the summer heat made the outside feel like a boiling wasteland, and put on a thin medical-grade mask before covering it with her respirator. Next came the sunglasses to protect her sensitive eyes, and then a rain jacket with a hood, just in case she got trapped outside during an acid rain. She fished out some ice packs from the cooler to tuck into the inner pockets of her clothes and hurried outside.

Even with a mask, filter, and respirator on, that first breath of air pollution nearly made Evvie gag. She practiced her cyclical breathing for a moment until she got used to it, then hurried to clean the windows. Black soot and ugly green streaks that stuck like grease covered the windows despite the fact that they’d been cleaned just a day before. The same slime and muck covered the streets and all the houses nearby, giving the neighborhood a grayish-green tinge that always felt dirty.

None of the neighbors were as careful to keep the outside of their homes clean as Mama Mae, but then most people in the neighborhood could afford clean air filters. Mama Mae’s garden was the only source of fresh air that she and Evvie could afford, so it was important for them to keep the house–especially the greenhouse–free of grime. Papa Emmett’s life insurance money, left to them after he passed away, kept Evvie and Mama Mae housed and fed, but it didn’t afford them any luxuries.

Evvie dutifully scrubbed the windows and cleared the window panes. She soaked the house siding in solvent and power-washed the muck away. She rinsed out the outside air filters, watching the black waste water drain down the driveway and into the gutter. Then she power washed the driveway to get rid of the black streaks left from cleaning the air filters. By the time she finished, the ice packs had long since melted away and sweat made the inner layers of her clothes cling uncomfortably to her body. She trudged inside to the mudroom and stripped out of her clothes, placing them into the decontamination bucket before she slid into the entryway shower.

There were still the inside windows to clean, but Evvie’s stomach growled insistently after all the work she’d already done. Promising herself she’d only take a short break, Evvie made a detour into the kitchen.

Mama Mae stood by the counter, cutting up carrots she’d pulled from the garden.

“I thought you’d be hungry, by now.” Evvie’s grandmother pushed a plate across the counter and piled some fresh carrots onto it. “Eat up, baby girl. You’ve earned it.”

Evvie danced with delight as she ate her food. Fresh vegetables were a rare treat. Since farms had to be grown indoors and transported long distances, most people could only afford prepackaged produce. Mama Mae typically grew vegetables to sell at the Flea Market to make extra money when they needed it, so even with a home garden Evvie didn’t often get to have fresh carrots.

“They’re delicious,” the girl sighed around her mouthful. “So sweet.”

Mama Mae kissed the top of Evvie’s head. “Then you have something in common.”

Evvie wrinkled her nose. “I’m not sweet,” she said. Raising one skinny arm up, she flexed her bicep. “I’m a warrior.”

Mama Mae cackled as Evvie grinned impishly up at her. “My little warrior,” the older woman cooed happily, wrapping both arms around Evvie’s head as the younger girl munched cheerily on her carrot sticks. “You make my life, baby girl.”

“You make mine,” Evvie agreed.

The Pain of Glory

Western

A brown feather fell from Luke’s cheek. Not that he couldn’t spare the one. His entire body was covered in a mismatch of gray, white, brown, and striped chicken feathers that were plastered to his skin with hot tar.

He shook as he lifted one blistered hand to sip from the stout mug the bartender had generously placed before him. Luke’s body protested the pain. Protested movement. Protested living in this God-forsaken town of bigots and busybodies.

“What’d you do, this time?” the bartender asked, wiping up the few small feathers that detached themselves from Luke’s aching body to litter the bar.

“Nothing, as far as I can tell,” Luke said. He sipped from his mug again. “Except maybe live.”

The bartender snorted. “And exactly how were you livin’ so as to end up in such a state, Mr. Lucas-the-Snark.”

Luke shrugged, and immediately regretted the movement. “I may have fallen in love.”

“Love, is it?” the bartender asked. “I don’t know many loves that would leave a man in such a state.”

“Well, then you haven’t lived,” Luke said. He tried on a smile. It hurt just as much as anything else.

“Far be it from me to live so gloriously.” The bartender refilled Luke’s drink, for which he was immensely grateful.

Luke sipped slowly and sighed as the alcohol numbed some of the searing, burning pain in his body. “Some people are worth the pain of glory. Edgar Graves is doubly so.” He smiled into the mug at the memory of Edgar’s body pressed against his. The fingers gripping his hair. The sweet smell of tobacco and lemon candies, which were Edgar’s favorite indulgences.

Then there was the sound of Mrs. Grave’s high-pitched wail. The crash of glass against his back as she broke her precious antique vase against him. She’d wailed so loud that the whole town emerged from their late-night domiciles to witness Luke, half-dressed and bleeding from scratches down his back–some of which were from the vase and some of which were most definitely not–struggling to pull up his britches as he ran.

Bigots and busybodies don’t much appreciate a man who appreciates a man.

The bartender snatched the mug away from Luke with a deep scowl. “I think you’d best git,” the man growled.

Luke chuckled. “Yeah. You might be right.” He stood stiffly, picked up his leather stetson to place it on his head just so, and walked out of the saloon with not much of his dignity intact.

Still. It was a glorious night.

The Dreamer

Writing Exercise

Mary once dreamed of becoming an interior designer. She dreamed of marrying her first love, who had also become her first heartache. She dreamed of raising children in the home she grew up in. Instead, Mary sat by her bed with an open suitcase in front of her. It was empty. She shifted, looking around the room with an appraising eye, but not seeing much of anything at all.

She only had fifteen more minutes to pack her things, but she was at a loss as to what she should bring. Clothes, probably. Maybe the stuffed toy her best friend gave her in the second grade. The letters from her ex-boyfriend that she kept in the drawer of her nightstand.

She couldn’t take the doorframe with all the notches cut out, showing how much she’d grown since her family moved to the house. A few of the precious trinkets scattered around the room could go with her, but not many. Mary would never be able to fit the octopus bookends that one of her teachers gave her for her birthday. Nor could she take the three shelves of books that she’d collected over a lifetime.

What would happen to them, when she was gone?

Five minutes left. The suitcase was still empty. She wrung her hands.

Mary couldn’t pack her entire life into one small suitcase, no matter how much she wanted to take everything with her. There were so many things she had to leave behind. So many memories she’d made. So many dreams that would come to nothing.

The immigration agent poked his head in through the door. “Mary? We have to get going soon. Are you ready?”

He was a nice enough man. She didn’t hate him for doing this. Even though it hurt.

Mary stood and went to her dresser. She pulled out wads of clothes and shoved them unceremoniously into her suitcase. Everything else would have to be left behind. It was too difficult to look at them and remember the life that she was losing.

The agent sighed and walked into the room. He helped her fold the clothes, working silently at her side without complaint.

“Everything’s going to be fine. Think of it like you’re going home.”

An errant tear heedlessly slipped down her cheek and she wiped it away roughly. “This is the only home I’ve ever known. I don’t even speak Spanish.” She wiped at another rogue tear. “I don’t know anything about Honduras. How am I supposed to survive?” A chill of fear ran down her spine.

The agent looked down at his own hands. They were shaking. “A place will be found for you, once you get there,” he said. “You won’t be left on your own.”

“But I am on my own.” She shut the suitcase and rubbed harshly at her face. Her eyes were puffy; her nose and cheeks were bright red.

“I’m just doing my job.”

Mary picked up her suitcase. “When you decide to follow evil laws, it doesn’t free you of guilt just because you weren’t the one who came up with the law in the first place. May God judge between you and me.” She walked out of the room without looking back.

The agent clenched his shaking fist, steeling himself against her accusations. “It’s just my job,” he said again to the empty room. He’d once dreamed of joining the CIA. Traveling the world. Going anywhere and doing anything he wanted. Anything but this.

New Horizons

New Year’s Special

Jim clung to the side of the mountain. The next handhold was too high to reach comfortably. Sweat poured down his face.

He threw himself forward with all of his strength. Gravity caught up just as the tips of his fingers hooked over the ledge. Grunting with effort, Jim secured his feet against the rocky cliff face and leveraged himself over the edge.

It wasn’t the highest mountain or even the most difficult to climb. But it was a sacred place. At least, for Jim it was sacred.

He pulled two camping mugs from his knapsack and filled them from a stout thermos. Next to one mug, he set a framed photo of Hector, his best friend. Jim lightly tapped one mug against the other.

He sipped bitter coffee as he watched the horizon change colors before his eyes. “I’m just in time,” he commented.

For ten years, Jim and Hector climbed this mountain to watch the sunset on Hector’s birthday. This was the last year Jim would ever make the trip.

“It’s as beautiful as it always was,” Jim said. He rubbed his eyes roughly. “Good luck searching out those new horizons, man. I’m going to miss you.”

Imogene’s Expedition

Christmas Special

Funding for the expedition ran out weeks ago. Imogene lay in the bitter snow. Her team was gone. The food was gone. She was too weak to move.

But she’d been so close!

She curled into a ball, hot tears fogging her goggles. It was over.

The cold crept into her snowsuit. It bit her fingers. Imogene would let it take her. Better to die a victim of a mystery she could never solve than to live as a failure.

She closed her eyes and waited.

Warmth like nothing she’d felt in months spread over Imogene’s body. That happened with hypothermia. Or perhaps she was already dead.

She opened her eyes and gasped. The room was well-lit. The air smelled of cinnamon and clove. Piles of fur blankets weighed Imogene down. She shoved them off and sat up quickly.

“Careful, dear,” an old man said from the corner. “My wife found you in the snow. Not a safe place to nap, I have to say.”

“Where am I?” Imogene demanded.

He smiled. “My home. My name is Nicholas. I believe, in your own way, you’ve been looking for me.”

Tears sprang to Imogene’s eyes. Her lip trembled. “I have.”

Maggots in the Meat

Writing Exercise

There were maggots in the meat. Professor Helena Slogar was no imbecile. She recognized a nefarious plot when she saw one. She’d been a participant in more than a few of her own.

Of course, from the outset, Helena didn’t trust the invitation from the Duchess of Swayzee. Not only was the woman a foul harpy, but she was also the ex-lover of the Prince of Boone. The same Prince of Boone whom Helena had married not three months past.

The prince loved Helena, and Helena adored…well. She adored his money. His glorious money, which provided all the funding she needed to continue her experiments. How could she possibly refuse him, knowing that all of her financial woes would become a thing of the past?

Duchess Swayzee was not as practical as Professor Helena Slogar. Swayzee cried. She begged. She threatened. But in the end, the Prince of Boone made his choice. A fine choice, indeed, as far as Helena was concerned.

But now, this. Maggots in the meat at the outdoor tea party the Duchess insisted Helena attend. Helena hiked all the way up the cursed mountain trail, only to find a fancy table with no other person in sight and platters brimming with maggot-infested meat. A fine joke, indeed.

To make matters worse, it started raining the moment Helena arrived. Hilarity upon hilarity. Her stomach rumbled. Long hikes always made her hungry, and now she wouldn’t get a single bite of food until she made her way all the way back down the treacherous trail and back into the safety of her home.

The sky thundered and rain poured down harder. With long suffering, Helena raced to the cover of trees nearby. She would catch her death of cold, at this rate.

Huddled, shivering under the tree, Helena did not see the dark figure that slunk through the shadows behind her. She did, however, hear the rustle of cloth as he prepared to strike. She turned just in time to see the man’s grizzled face and the sharp, poison-laced porcupine quill in his fist.

The man struck, bearing his weight down on Helena as she screamed. He stabbed her with the quill over and over until her screams became shallow gasps for breath. His task complete, the man dragged her to the sloped edge of the hiking trail and shoved her off.

Helena rolled down the side of the mountain, striking trees and rocks, scraping her exposed arms and legs as she went. After what felt like ages she splashed into the river below, and there she floated, perfectly still and barely alive.

Barely alive was all Helena required. She was a woman of science, not to be underestimated or trifled with. Poison? Ha! The moss of the snakeberry tree would draw out any poison from her blood. She clawed her way up the bank of the river and to the first such tree she found. Applying moss to her wounds, she hunted for local herbs to create tinctures that would keep her alive long enough to get home. Once the prince heard of the Duchess of Swayzee’s actions, he would be furious.

That thought alone set a grin on her lips and kept her moving, mile after mile, toward the Prince’s palisade. She limped, battered beyond recognition, through the city gates and onto the grounds of her husband’s home. Her heart leaped for joy. She was nearly there!

A solid hell planted itself firmly on her shoulder.

“I’ve been looking for you.” Her assassin guffawed heartily. “Can’t have you showing up back here. Not now that the mistress is consoling your hubby over the death of his love.”

“I’m not dead,” Helena said stubbornly.

“Trust me, love. You are.” The man took out his knife with a wide grin. A cold chill streaked down Helena’s spine. She tried to scream, but the sound never managed to escape her mouth. The assassin scooped Helena into his arms, covered her face with his cloak, and carried her off of the Prince’s property. It was straight to the butcher, for this one. His mistress had plans for the remains of Professor Helena Slogar and the bastard Prince who broke her heart.

One week later, the Duchess of Swayzee stopped by for dinner. The Prince, who’d been little more than a walking corpse since the disappearance of his beloved Helena, thanked her yet again for her support of him.

“Oh, dearest,” Swayzee said. “Of course. I would do anything for you.”

The head maid set up a seat at the Prince’s right hand. “You should be thankful, your highness. Her ladyship brought more of her delicious meat pies to sustain you.” She smiled graciously at the Duchess. “It’s the only thing he’ll eat, of late. Were not for you, I’m certain he’d have starved by now.”

“It’s the least I could do,” Swayzee informed the maid, trying to suppress her malicious grin. “After all the Prince has done, he deserves nothing less.”

The Last Fare

Writing Exercise

“Why am I here?”

The woman wore pajamas, her feet adorned with unicorn slippers. A taxi rumbled quietly in front of her. The window rolled down and the driver tipped his hat. “Ma’am? I can take you where you need to go.”

She pressed her lips together and nodded at the man’s kindness. “I want to go home.”

The taxi doors opened and warmth poured out. She hadn’t realized how cold she was. With a relieved sigh, she settled into the back seat.

“It’s been a difficult night,” the driver commented. “But you’re safe, now.”

“I must have been sleepwalking,” the woman whispered. She sat up straight, suddenly worried. “My wallet! It’s not with me. I can’t pay you for the ride!”

The driver laughed, a comforting sound that cut through her panic. “It’s fine, my dear. If you dig around in the seat, I’m sure you’ll find something to give me.”

She ran her fingers along the seams of the seats. The two copper pennies jammed in the cushions were shiny and new.

“It’s not much,” the woman admitted. She handed the pennies to the driver, who examined them with a sad smile.

“Don’t worry, dear. It’s enough.”

Awkward

Writing Exercise

Genoveve was pretty sure the situation was awkward. This is what awkward felt like, for sure.

Will sat across from her. Will’s girlfriend, Ellie, irritably tapped her fingers against the break room table.

“Well?” Ellie asked again.

Genoveve shifted. “If it’s a problem, I can leave.”

“No, you don’t have to leave. It’s fine,” Will said. He looked at Ellie and lifted an eyebrow. “It’s fine. She’s cool.”

“It was just a simple question,” Ellie said. She looked at Genoveve with narrowed eyes. “Who even are you?”

Genoveve stood up. “I’ll just go.” She didn’t feel like explaining the fact that they’d worked together for a year. Of course Ellie didn’t remember who she was.

Will jumped out of his seat, trailing along behind Genoveve with a sour expression. Ellie watched him go, fingers tapping faster on the table.

“Why didn’t you stand up to her? You have every right to sit there.”

Genoveve slowed to a stop. After a moment, she shrugged. “I’m too lazy to argue with people who aren’t worth my time.”

Will went quiet. He glanced back at his girlfriend, brow knotted. At last, he nodded slowly. “Yeah. I think I know what you mean.”

Averting Crisis Ch. 2

Couldn’t get any worse

Tabitha barely had enough money left for food; she certainly couldn’t afford another place to stay for the night.

“You can do this.” Her stomach grumbled. She grimaced. “You can do this after you get some breakfast.”

She dug through her pockets and came up with just enough to pay for a muffin. The street vendor glanced at the pajamas she still wore and took pity on her in the form of a small black coffee.

Juggling her belongings, she made her way to the park. Tabitha wrangled the box onto a park bench and set her muffin and coffee next to it. Immediately, a feral cat flew through the slats of the bench, knocking hot coffee down Tabitha’s leg. The cat snatched the muffin and took off while Tabitha screeched.

She ran after the cat, limping against the coffee burn on her leg. The animal was too swift to catch. It disappeared into some bushes.

She sighed and walked back along the trail, all dreams of breakfast fully evaporated. Back at the bench, another unpleasant surprise waited: her box of belongings was gone.

“Figures,” she growled. “Today couldn’t possibly get any worse.”

It started to rain.

“I stand corrected.”