fiction, story, writer, writing

Left Behind

This is dedicated to my daughter Luci. I promised to read her a spooky bedtime story tonight, so I wrote one to read.

Eleanor crossed her arms and made a sour smile as she stomped through frosted leaves, causing a crackling crispiness, much like she felt inside, beneath her feet. Her friends had tricked her into going to the door of the empty house, only to run off while she knocked in futility. The empty streets of Halloween curfew had arrived, and she had about a mile to walk to sit at the candy-counting fire her mom was probably making. Her candy bag was heavy but not as heavy as her mind.

Eleanor wondered if she should appreciate the quiet that her abandonment produced. Her so-called friends had taunted her all night, ridiculing her witch costume, ignoring her painstaking efforts to make it. She had sewn black pearlescent beads by hand along the cuffs and hem. In the quiet, she no longer faced their mean spirits and judgment. The only problem with the solitude was that everyone knew better than to remain on the streets of Glennie Springs after 9 PM, especially on Halloween. The night was rumored to be unkind and dangerous in their otherwise sleepy Midwestern suburb.

Eleanor doubled her steps, causing a swoosh of her midnight blue crinoline skirt on top of the crunching leaves. Even through her ruckus, she could hear a crunch and crackle coming from behind her. It moved faster with her as if caught in her streetlight shadow, panting heavily now in contrast to her held breath. She felt air closing in around her right upper arm, and she prepared to scream, kick, and scratch the night that was about to swallow her until she heard the familiar double puffs.

Eleanor swung around, freeing her arm, to land eyes on Arthur inhaling his asthma medication.

“What are you doing sneaking up on me after curfew like that? I want nothing to do with you right now.”

Arthur’s eyes were wide, and he was paler than normal. “There is something else out here, Eleanor. I had to come back for you.” He pressed his index finger to his lips.

Eleanor lowered her voice in case Arthur was telling the truth versus extending her suffering with the ill-tempered prank. “If you didn’t leave me in the first place, I would have caught a ride with Sarah’s mom like the rest of you…and, we wouldn’t be out here after curfew.”

“I told them we should pick you up. You know how Sarah can be.”

“I do, but that doesn’t mean the rest of you have to follow her.” Arthur let his head slump, but quickly snapped it back to attention as a sickening thump followed by female screams telegraphed from behind them. He grabbed Eleanor’s hand to pull her off the sidewalk into a stand of unkempt bushes. Eleanor gave in without resistance knowing they needed to be on the move unless they wanted to scream next.

Eleanor dropped down into the bushes, pulling Arthur down with her, and found a way to lay flat on her belly in the dirt. She motioned with her head for Arthur to follow her along the line of bushes in a belly crawl. She did not cause this predicament, but she was committed to not getting thumped and torn by a Glennie Springs monster.

While there were no more screams, Eleanor could hear what sounded like gnashing and snarling closing in on them. The monster might not be able to see them, but the musk of teen years and fear combined would surely give them away.

The line of bushes led to the porch of a house. The porch light was off, a curfew standard, but this would hide them in the shadow of night so they could get to the door and hopefully find shelter. There were lights and motion on the inside according to the film-covered windows, a dirty lighthouse beckoning them out of the horror.

Eleanor pushed herself up into a slump as they emerged from the bushes, Arthur following, his front attached to her back. Eleanor reached for the door, placing three gentle raps on it while looking through the front window and catching the eyes of a woman who looked to be in her forties. The woman was angrily motioning two kids away as she locked onto Eleanor’s still hopeful eyes.

Eleanor mouthed, “Help us. Let us in,” hoping the woman’s motherly instinct would extend to them.

As their eyes remained locked, a heavy breathing, brooding shadow found some light to reflect in the window and on the porch, a hideous scepter.

Eleanor knew it was too late for safety as the woman shook her head and mouthed, “Run.”

Eleanor grabbed Arthur’s hand again, and they jumped off the porch, and ran in the direction of the sidewalk with Eleanor secretly wishing the streetlamps had the power to make the doom shadow disappear.

Eleanor knew better than to look back, but she could feel the weight of Arthur pulling on her. He was heaving and fussing with his free hand, probably reaching for his inhaler.

Eleanor screamed, “Arthur, not now.”

He was trying to push words through his erratic breaths, the monster’s towering body and foul breath of garbage and rot now on top of them, arms and claws extending over their heads at least ten feet up.

“Don’t look back, Arthur. Keep running,” Eleanor commanded, hot sweat droplets now streaming down her face.

Suddenly, Arthur was no longer behind her. The monster ripped him away, slicing Eleanor’s arm in the process, a fresh stream of blood gurgling from her. The force of the snatch and tear caused Eleanor to stumble, but she had enough momentum to keep running, her eyes locked forward knowing that you never turn into the terror. You keep running from it.

She would have been gone, like her cruel peers were gone earlier that night, if not for Arthur’s sickening cry, following by roaring growls from the monster.

“Eleanor! Eleanor, please!”

She stopped so hard, her body snapped back, something flooding into her core as her blood flooded out of her. There was a burning heat in her body, and words formed in her mouth. She could hear the words in her head, and they sounded like Latin words, only heavier on the tongue and more ancient. Eleanor felt wicked powerful as they formed, and a light now blasted from her body, releasing the heat with it. She felt her feet leave the ground, and she floated up about two feet up as her body rotated without her help to face the monster, Arthur now limp in its possession.

The creature was an indiscernible mass of matted fur and rotting skin with no recognizable eyes or shred of a face except for what looked to be a circular jaw full of mismatched razor teeth jutting in many directions. While it had large stumps that looked like arms and legs with swords sticking out at the ends, the four limbs were crooked in their alignment, only approximating the structure of a bipedal body.

It was about to reach for Eleanor with a free limb while it lifted Arthur to its jaw, when Eleanor released the words that continued to build on her tongue, freeing her of fear and lifting her body higher from the ground.

“Aximus, lunicus, domincus. Aximus, lunicus, DOMINICUS. AXIMUS, LUNICUS, DOMINICUS.” Eleanor’s voice built like thunder in a storm’s approach. Her body glowed brighter, and without reason, she reached her arms forward, the light extending from them, causing the monster to screech and howl in agony and drop Arthur. Eleanor involuntary flung her arm to the side, stopping the free fall of Arthur’s body. He was now suspended in air on his back next to her.

Eleanor floated towards the creature now flailing its upper limbs, unable to even howl anymore. More words built on her tongue, and before Eleanor could think, her voice boomed as if amplified with a distortion effect, “Exican, mortimax. Exican, MORTIMAX. EXICAN, MORTIMAX.”

With those words, the monster fell to the ground writhing, nearly striking Eleanor again with its sword claws. A black circle opened in the ground around it, and it made a sick wailing sound that pierced Eleanor’s ears, causing her to drop suddenly to the ground with Arthur. As the monster sunk into the hole closing around it, Eleanor thought she saw two neon green eyes, circled in black clumps of fur, staring back at her until the ground reappeared.  

Eleanor could feel the searing pain from her wound now, and her body felt burnt in general, but they were alive. Arthur was now sitting up, shaking from the shock of it all. She saw his inhaler on the ground between them and crawled over to him with it, sticking it in his mouth and delivering two puffs. Within a few minutes, he was breathing in a slightly more controlled manner.

He looked at Eleanor as if she was a stranger to him.

“What was that?”

“I don’t know.”

“And what are you?”

Eleanor shrugged and rolled her eyes, “I don’t know, but maybe a thank you might be in order as I just saved your life.”

“Thank you, Eleanor. I didn’t deserve you risking your life for me after what I did earlier.”

“Well, you did come back for me after curfew. That’s kind of brave in a dumb way. And, apparently, I’m some bad ass, spell-casting monster killer.”

They smiled, temporarily forgetting they were almost torn to pieces by a furry, razor-mouthed demon of Glennie Springs.

“Do you think it will come back?”

“No, but it’s still night in Glennie Springs, my arm is ripped open, and your breathing still sounds stupid bad.”

“What are you, Eleanor?”

“Again, I don’t know, but I might be the solution to Glennie Springs’s monster problem.”

Arthur smiled as he pulled Eleanor up by her good arm. He removed the scarf from his Sherlock costume and wrapped it around her arm creating a makeshift tourniquet. He pulled his phone from his pocket to call for help. Eleanor knew she would never have to worry about being left behind again.

fiction, story, writer, writing

The Hound, The Witch, and The School Board Room

The moment I found out that I was a witch was the same moment Jeannie turned into a frog. Maybe it was a toad, but that was not worth pondering, because I had just turned my nosy, perfect, and perfectly nosy neighbor into an amphibian by waving at her and calling her a name from behind locked teeth. I should have crossed the street to be sure. That’s what a good neighbor would do. Jeannie just told me that I was not a good neighbor though because I left the garbage can at the curb too long. She freed me from the burden of being a good neighbor. Besides, maybe my eyes were deceiving me. She could have slithered off quickly using her lithe yoga body and organic smoothie fueled energy.

I let myself believe that until the missing person posters started going up around town.

To be continued…

fiction, musician, story, writer, writing

Happy Minds, Inc. Part 2: Together Again

Note: This is part of a serialized story. Part 1 can be found here:

From what memories I kept, I knew Mathias was the first man in a long time that I chose as a match instead of letting the dating bot decide. The Governing Council had recently issued Strong Suggestion 2050.7512 encouraging men and women of child-bearing age to rely on the bot for optimal matches. While I adhered to Strong Suggestions as if they were Governing Council Absolute Mandates, I could not deny a connection with Mathias. I thought back to our chance coffee meeting a few days ago.

Through a casual smile, one eye covered by a swath of raven bangs, Mathias extolled the virtues of live music, “A music bot will never live up to the magic that was live music. There was a kinetic energy when people gathered, feeling the music in their bones.”

“How do you truly know that?  You have only experienced these concerts through archived audio and video, which by the way, I don’t think you are really allowed to use.”

“I need to take you to the archives so you can know what I do. I started to wonder why there is an Absolute Mandate banning music outside of that provided by bots. It has been thirty years since music was produced and performed by people. What is the point of an archive if not to experience the past?”

“I’d like to think the Governing Council has our best interest in mind. We live comfortable lives without the risk of our poor decision-making as humans.”

“Really? Then why do we need to erase our memories?”

I ignored his question because I did not have an answer, and it made me feel guilt for whatever I just chose to erase. Mathias was challenging me with his radical thoughts and behavior, but I couldn’t pull back from it. He gave me a weird feeling in my stomach and had my brain firing, hungry for debate and knowledge about what once was. I was probably exhausted from my memory cleanse. Add strong coffee and a slightly disarming man to the mix, and I should have been able to write this off as a one-time thing. Instead, I agreed to go the archives with Mathias.

At electric node yoga with my friend Cassandra following my chance coffee date, Mathias became the focus of our post workout conversation. As we sipped on Restore drinks, specially formulated by Governing Council scientists to keep the bodies of citizens who made the effort to exercise healthy and slim, I told her about my plans to see him again. She was visibly shaken as I told her about my upcoming date. I knew better than to tell her where we were going.

“I don’t think you should go, Holly. Digging in the past only makes us unhappy. Mathias should know better.”

“How do you know his name? I don’t think I mentioned it.”

Cassandra turned away briefly and sighed before looking at me with disappointed eyes. “You did mention it. In fact, you haven’t stopped talking about him. It’s always about him.”

“How do you know him?”

“I don’t. I know of him, and I think you need to follow the recent Strong Suggestion on dating. Bots exist to make us happy, and in case they don’t get it quite right, we cleanse our memories. Let yourself be happy. Don’t go digging into what should remain the misery of our past.”

With that, Cassandra left our table in a hurry, leaving me wondering how she knew Mathias and why she didn’t like him. We all knew the rules about memory erasing. Your mutual contacts were informed of your choice to erase someone or something, and it was their duty, punishable by law, to not reintroduce the memory. Cassandra had slipped, and the only effect was firming my resolve and desire to see him. As I walked home, I felt a tingling at my skull that grew into a sharp pain, sending me to bed in a confused state.

Today was the day, and I would not let Cassandra or my still aching head ruin my outing with Mathias, so I dressed in the dating bot’s recommended first date attire of black plants and a white blouse. Anything more revealing or colorful, and you ran the risk of accelerating the match with passion versus a slow, steady connection built on a series of bot suggested conversations.

I met Mathias in front of Archives 42, the building with compiled literature, movies, music, and random cultural memorabilia. This building was never open to the public, so I felt a buzz knowing we would use Mathias’s employee ID to enter. He arrived a few moments after me, dressed in a smile, jeans, and another raggedy t-shirt, this one with the word Bauhaus emblazoned on the front.

“I’m glad you decided to come,” he said with a spark in his eyes.  “We will go through a back entrance. I have everything set up in my work room. We need to enter quickly and quietly. If any of my colleagues stop us, I will introduce you as a guest archivist, okay?”

I shook my head, the buzz increasing. I was not myself today, and I liked the feeling of doing something that probably went against a multitude of Absolute Mandates.  

We cleared several long hallways into a room Mathias opened with his thumbprint. I was not prepared for a tiny box of a room to be as lovely as his office. It was softly lit by old-fashioned lamps and a high ceiling with a skylight overhead. All four walls, from floor to ceiling, were made of wooden bookshelves, stained a warm red. There were two overstuffed chairs with mismatched plaid patterns, a reading lamp between them. The only other furniture in the room was an old wooden desk and chair. The wood of the desk had a fortune of scars and scratches, but still looked elegant, a relic of another time like the books. In random places, there were gently placed plants, banned long ago for their potential to cause disease and addiction.

I gasped. “I have never seen a room so warm or vibrant. It’s beautiful. I have to say the plants make me a little nervous though.”

Mathias winked, “I’ve had them for years, and I am alive and happy to report I have no addictions.”

“Good to know. If assume you work in the literature archives. How did you gain access to music?”

“Observant. I’m good with computers and convincing bots there is a clear enough crossover between literature and music to procure access to both. It’s all about getting our work done per the specifications of the bots these days, right?” Mathias let out an uneasy laugh.

My buzz was being replaced with the reality that we were doing something we shouldn’t. Mathias took my hand in recognition of my discomfort and pulled out the chair to his desk. He directed my attention to a monitor that rose out of the center of his desk while placing listening buds in my ears. I was not prepared for the ragged beauty of what came next.

There was a sharp-edged, blonde-haired man sitting at the center of a stage inviting everyone to “come as they are.” He had a halo of light being transmitted by a garish chandelier overhead and a circle of candles around him and the other musicians on stage. The light was harsh in its brightness, but soft in how it made him glow. There was a backdrop of lush purple velvet that clashed with the fuzzy pea green sweater he wore.  His hand glided across a stringed instrument as he sang a melody that was haunting me to my bones. I wanted to touch his face, but we were separated by a screen and many years of musical silence. I was born into this silence until I reached the age of eight, when bot music was slowly integrated into my day-to-day life at prescribed times. Since I could not touch his face, I touched mine to stop an errant tear that made its way to my cheek. I did not want to trigger a counseling bot session.

Mathias cleared his throat as he wrapped his hands around my face to remove my ear buds. “It does that to me, too. I can’t stop watching even though I know I should. There used to be a whole television of music called MTV. Even if people could not see the bands live, they could watch them on a show called Unplugged.”

“Unplugged?” I lacked knowledge of how music and instruments worked, and it suddenly made me as sad as the man on stage.

“Instruments could be played amplified or quietly, unplugged. There is so much I want to show you, Holly. We need to leave here now though.”

I could see a slight panic in Mathias’s face. I knew better than to ask questions at this moment. I took his extended hand as he led me out the door and back down the first hallway with somebody calling him from behind us.

Mathias whispered in my ear as he stuck something on my thumb, “Go back to the door we entered through, and keep going until you get home. Look down, don’t speak. You have my thumbprint now to unlock the door.” He kissed my cheek, giving me a thousand reasons to stay with him to be sure he was safe. I knew I would only cause him more trouble by doing so.

As I wound down the hallways, two people called out to me, and by the third person, I was in a sprint. I could feel somebody gaining speed behind me. The thumbprint worked perfectly though, sending me out onto the street where I immersed myself in a thick group of walkers, never stopping until I was at my own doorstep. I would regroup, and if I did not hear from Mathias, I would go back for him. He had opened a door to the world before us that I wanted to go back through.

fiction, story, writer, writing

A Killer’s Edge

The black veil of night was shrouding the mountains just beyond the window of the sedan that was now my prison. We were still ascending, and I knew better than to make small talk with­ the man who I assumed would kill me. I imagined I would be bear food at the end of this if I did nothing. The tall, ogre like outlines of old growth trees made me believe these were the thick, desolate type of mountains bears liked to roam. I preferred to spend my days at a computer or in the kitchen. If you knew what you were doing, those places were far safer than the wilds now surrounding my backseat coffin.

As the sedan continued to climb the slim mountain highway towards a sharp peak, I realized I had minimal time to plan and nothing of use in fighting the beef-brained henchman driving me. I had a small bag of homegrown spices and a knife sharpener I was taking to a cooking class this morning when I was captured. My captor knew my Zwilling steel rod handheld sharpener from Williams-Sonoma was no good without the knives I intended to purchase from the master chef who was my instructor. My captor breached the silence forming a wall between us.

“You know if you had just kept your mouth shut and kept coding or whatever you call it, you would not be in this mess now, Elena.”

My hands balled into fists. “Maybe if you made better life choices you would not be murdering people on behalf of an employer that kills children and babies with the code women like me write. If I had known it was being used in weapons sold to terrorists, I never would have written it. You can kill me, but I made sure the CIA will get to you.”

“What did you think your code was doing? Sounds to me like you were making big money, living the life with your avocado toast and oat milk lattes for breakfast, taking fancy cooking classes on the weekend.”

“How long have you been watching me?”

“Since you took this job. They never trusted you. They needed your skills. Sounds like you are some kind of big deal nerd.”

“I’d prefer not to be called that.”

“I don’t care. You put yourself in this mess agreeing to work for my bosses. You bought their lies. Guess they underestimated your ability to eventually figure it out though. Now I’m here to clean up the mess.”

Before I could retort, he took a call on his cell. He was not hands free, and he had been too cocky to restrain me, so I quietly scooted through the darkness, opened the car door, and rolled out, catching the bag on my foot. Through burning scrapes on my arms and legs and disorientation, I stood up, grabbed the bag, and ran into the woods, hearing the brakes screech ahead of me as my assassin realized the compilation of his errors.

­     As I ran, I knew he was not far behind. I could hear and now smell his breathing, pastrami on rye, as he reached forward and clawed at my back, making me stumble. He started to drag me by one leg as I screamed. I had a death grip on my bag which suddenly became more useful. I reached in to get the sharpener now catching a slight glint of light from the moon on its steel. This was enough to make the thug pause and bend down far enough so I could sit up quickly and jab him in his moonlit eye, causing him to topple in agony. As he writhed, I was up and running again.

     I was still prepared to die here. Even if I was lucky enough to escape his hands, I would succumb to the elements. This was until I tripped over what appeared to be a basic tent at a camping site dimly lit by a fire nearing its end.

     I quietly called out for help, hoping the campers were near. Hearing movement in the woods from behind me, I knew it was too late as the half-blinded man prepared to choke me to death with his bear paws. He was stumbling a lot and broadcasting his general direction by swearing and fighting through brush. I was about to give up knowing I was only fighting inevitability when I looked over at a stump near the fire. There was enough ember light remaining to show me a large, dull-edged fillet knife. I ran to it, pulled out my sharpener, making short work of crafting my only other weapon.

     I hid behind a tree to the far end of the campsite, hoping nobody would return and accidentally die in the crossfire of my final battle. Besides programming, I was good with knives. If I could fillet a swordfish, I could make a decent last stand here. With a knife in one hand and the sharpener in the other, I crouched.

     Within minutes, pastrami breath came lumbering into the campsite calling for me. His left hand was occupied, covering the eye I maimed. He tripped over the stakes of the tent, falling slightly forward, and I lunged the distance between my hiding tree and his body to drive the perfectly sharpened knife into the chest of my enemy. He screamed again, trying to grab at me as I toppled, knocking my wind out as I landed on my rear. I had enough sense to use the sharpener in my hand to repeatedly jab at the hand still reaching for my foot.

     I left the body and my delicious spice blends for the campers to discover. Once his muffled, gurgling screams ended, I fished for the sedan keys in the hitman’s pockets and ran back through the woods to the road using a stolen flashlight and compass. I drove down the mountains into sunrise, a bloodied knife sharpener in the backseat, planning my next move.

fiction, story, writer, writing

Happy Minds, Inc. Part 1: The Breakup

Note: This will be part of a serialized story.

I wasn’t sure how I supposed to dress to get my memories erased because I couldn’t remember what I wore the last six times. The enthusiastic appointment bot at Happy Minds, Inc. told me to dress comfortably for my seventh visit. I wondered if I detected a slight hint of judgment regarding my number of visits during the bot’s exuberant presentation of the visit details for today. I don’t know what I erased before because that was the whole point of the Happy Minds business model, so they might do better to take my credits without judgment.

 “A car will arrive promptly at 12 PM if your credits have been applied by 10 AM. Please be sure to complete the mind map I have now released to you. A happy mind is a free mind, Ms. Blackmore,” the bot chirped through my loft’s sound system.

I chose some simple stretch pants and the Nirvana t-shirt Mathias left behind. He bought it at an oddities and antiquities auction. He had waxed poetic about a time when music was created by people playing instruments and performing on stages for throngs of fans. The thought had disgusted me. I rather liked the structure and intent of bot generated music. The bots always knew how to create a blend of sounds to relax and unencumber the mind of its troubles with no need to leave the comfort of my loft.

Wearing this t-shirt was poetic justice for me because I was about to erase Mathias, and this shirt would return to meaning nothing along with my ex. I had to do this to clear mind space for what I hoped would be a better match. As I filled out the map, I lived my memories of Mathias one last time.

We had just arrived home from dinner with couples our social bot identified as interest matches. It was a lovely meal with a steady stream of interaction, except for Mathias. He wore the Nirvana t-shirt to dinner, ignoring our fashion bot’s selection of a baby blue button down and grey slacks.

Mathias spoke through gritted teeth. “That was mind-numbing. It was like talking to walls.”

I winced. “I quite enjoyed it. Cassandra and I might try electric node yoga together this week during lunch. We only work two stops on the street mover from each other.”

“Holly, you can’t be serious. All she did was repeat bullet points from the Governing Council releases of the week. We all heard the messages this week, too. Don’t you ever wonder who these people really are?”

“I don’t know what has invaded your mind, Mathias. You have been acting weird even since you came home with that awful clothing you wore tonight.”

“It’s called a t-shirt, and it is not just clothing. It is a piece of who we were as a society back in a day when bots were not running our lives. We made our own choices, made our own music. Doesn’t this fascinate you at all?”

“No, not at all. I like our life. I thought you did, too. You were sullen and rude tonight. We are so close to achieving permission to marry and procreate. You will ruin it if you keep acting this way, and I may be forced to do something about it.”

“What do you mean? Are you threatening me?”

“You know we have a duty to report potential mental fatigue and issues in our mates. I don’t want to Mathias, but I will. I think you need help, and I want the old you back.”

“And all I want to know is who you really are. There is something more to you and me if you would just give it a chance.”

We slept separately that night after Mathias retreated into silence. I never had a chance to report him to the Mental Fatigue Service because he was gone when I woke up. The only trace of him was the t-shirt I was about to erase along with the memories of my ex. I needed a fresh mind for my next potential mate.

When I arrived at my local Happy Minds facility, I was deposited in a what looked to be a garage by the self-driving car. I might offer feedback that it would be nice to hear bot beats or be talked to on the way to the facility. The quiet car had left me a little unsettled. I stepped ahead into a shiny white chamber, approximately 10 feet by 10 feet, turning to face forward as doors shut around me. I was lifted what felt like an endless amount before coming to a gentle stop.

I exited the lift chamber into a room full of muted green tones, plants, and soft white light. There were no welcome desk or other people to greet me, just the exuberant voice of the bot that had booked my appointment.

“Ms. Blackmore, there is a bed through the door to your left. Enjoy this room for another minute or two, then proceed to the bed. Before you do, are you interested in finding out how you can open your own Happy Minds branch?”

“No thank you. My current work is perfectly suited to me.”

“Okay then. Enjoy your mind cleanse today. You will wake up at home with a free, happy mind. As a disclaimer, Happy Minds cannot be responsible for memories accidentally erased during the cleanse process. You won’t remember though, so consider this a disclaimer provided out of the utmost courtesy and transparency.”

“Thank you. I am ready to clear my mind and start fresh.”

As I laid on the bed waiting for robotic arms to connect nodes to my head, I started to have second thoughts. Maybe I should have given Mathias time to clear his head. He had only been gone a week. I glanced at the t-shirt. Mathias said I should give Nirvana’s music a try just once. He had tracked some down in the archives where he worked as a librarian. Most librarians just sorted and tagged the content. Mathias looked and listened. Maybe I should have looked and listened. Before I could give it more thought, the weight of my eyes stopped me.

 I woke up with my mind at peace. A message played in my loft thanking me for being a recent customer at Happy Minds. I wasn’t sure what I erased, but I felt fabulous. I felt compelled to use my dating bot over the next couple of days for there was no trace of a mate in my head currently. First, I needed coffee. I decided to make the brief trip to the shop below my loft, forgetting to change my clothes due to a slight groggy feeling.

As I stood at the barista bot kiosk to place my order, listening to the drink options the bot had pre-selected for me today, I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around to see a handsome man, slightly unshaven and unkempt, but with a twinkle in his light blue eyes.  

He smiled, “Hi, my name is Mathias. I like your, what’s it called, t-shirt? I have listened to their music in the archives where I work.”

He was disarming. I felt flushed as I looked down at what I was wearing. I had no idea where I acquired this shirt. “I’m Holly. I have a hard time imagining anything besides bot music. It is so relaxing, mind easing.”

“I found that Nirvana’s music freed my mind on a whole new level. There is no harm in listening to other music, is there?”

“I guess not. Why don’t we talk about it more over coffee? I’m just about to accept the top selection from the barista bot.”

Mathias deepened his smile. “I like the double shot. It’s brewed to perfection here.”

I did not sense any harm in taking his suggestion instead. Maybe my new mate found me.  

fiction, story, writer, writing

Zombie Road Trip: Part II

Zombie Road Trip Part II: Green Bay Has Fallen

To read Part I: https://queenofquill.com/2021/07/03/zombie-road-trip-part-i/

We finally arrived at the dock in Manitowoc, Wisconsin. The ferry glided as gracefully as a giant can of vomit-producing metal could glide into the port. I thought Zavier might crawl off the boat. Instead, he walked off full of color and spirit again, getting closer to seeing Metallica with each step. I neglected to mention we now needed to wait for our vehicle to be unloaded from the ship so we could drive across Wisconsin and into Minnesota to complete the trip. I’m sure my son would be fine though with a five-hour car trip with his mom. It was the hallmark of an epic road trip.

“I just spent four hours puking on a ship that smells like ass, and now we have to drive five hours through farmland and cheese fields to get to a concert?”

“Yeah, it’s cool, right, totally awesome. Also, watch your language. We can stop and get some cheese curds, see the local sights, explore the world.”

Zavier looked around at the vast nothingness of Lake Michigan and into a tiny town full of tiny houses with oversized American flags. He shook his head and shrugged.

“Well, wake me up when we get to Minneapolis, okay?”

In my book, this was a peaceful settlement with a teenager, not necessarily the excitement I wanted to see on our mother and son bonding trip, but it would do.

As we waited for our car, I watched other passengers. Many seemed to have the same sickly color as Zavier. I remembered faces like a camera and did not think any of these people had the same experience over the ship railing as my son did. I focused on one man in his mid-50s, who seemed to be slightly moaning and coughing. A tear shaped droplet slid down his cheek. It was so dark that it could not possibly be a tear. I was going to check on him, when I saw our car out of the corner of my eye. Zavier pulled at my sleeve with youthful impatience. I’m sure the man would figure out how to seek medical care. I tried a sympathetic smile before turning around, and he just stared beyond me, unaffected. I rushed Zavier to the car, jumped in, and hit the gas. Small towns creeped me out, and I was starting to join Zavier’s camp about driving through empty fields and many more  creepy towns.

About thirty minutes into our ride, absent conversation, but streaming with wonderful music from my son’s eclectic playlist, the young man spoke.

“Mom, I want those cheese curds you mentioned earlier.”

“Then you will have some cheese curds,” I said, overly excited about finally having my presence acknowledged after miles of cows, farms, and summertime manure. I pulled off at the first cheese store I could find, which took less than two miles of driving in Wisconsin.

We went into the store, and despite the presence of three cars in the parking lot besides ours, it was empty. We both poked around, collecting curds and cheese heads, but there was no one to pay.

“Z, wait here. I’m going to check things out,” I said with authority, meanwhile feeling like a chainsaw wielding family was in the back ready to take us out. Eerie silence was never a good thing, worse than my teenager’s current irritated silence.

“Okay, can I eat some curds while you look though?”

I nodded and made my way to the back of the store. The storeroom and offices in the back were empty, too, but off in the distance I could see the back exit slightly open, and I heard moaning noises. I grabbed a massive kitchen knife randomly sitting on a desk, remarkably unsanitary for a food operation if you wanted my opinion, and I walked forward, determined to properly pay for our goods even if it was with our lives. Our Midwestern roots would not allow us to dine and ditch, even for curds.

A moaning sound grew louder, intermingled with crunching sounds, as I moved closer to the exit. I opened the door further, standing carefully in its shadow and peeked out. I did not understand at the time what I was really seeing. In hindsight, I probably did, making this my second mistake of the day. I wrote it off as some creepy orgy type deal where five people pile on top of one screaming person, blood everywhere. Zombie porn. Or maybe it was some form of backwoods cannibalism, and I would call local authorities later. I was not equipped as a suburban mom to deal with such matters. I shut the door, kept the knife, and I threw more money than necessary for cheese turds on the counter. Zavier sighed as I pulled him out of the store, leaving a trail of spilled curds behind us. We sped out of the lot, and we did not stop until Lambeau Field, our third mistake for the day.

“Mom, why do we need to stop at Lambeau? You know I don’t care about football.”

“Well, I don’t either, but it is a pretty big deal to some. Your dad would want us to take a picture.”

“Seriously? Okay, but then can we just drive straight through? I want to get some rest before the concert tonight.”

“Fair enough, cranky pants.”

Pulling off the freeway into a plain town with a majestic football stadium interjecting itself proudly in the middle was a sight to see even for football agnostics like Zavier and me. I turned his playlist down a little and whistled. The streets were empty as we drove down Lombardi Avenue. It was Saturday, early afternoon. There should be others around even though football was not being played. I made a note to put the radio on for a bit after this stop to check the news.

Suddenly, a tall, beefy, panicked man ran out in front of our car, forcing me to slam on the breaks, sending some cheese curds from Zavier’s hands into the front windshield. My front bumper tapped the man.

“WTF, mom. You hit that guy.”

I rolled my eyes, rolled down my window, and said to the man now leaning over the front of my car, “Are you okay? You just came out so fast. I’m so sorry.”

I had an instinct not to get out of the car like I normally would have after sort of hitting someone. After the cheese store, I was not trusting the citizens of Wisconsin, even in Green Bay, which I heard is passionately friendly.

The man rose in one motion, dark goop streaming from his eyes, and started flailing his arms, blood gurgling out of his mouth. Before I could react to this with a call to 911 for help saving this man upon whom I inflicted profuse internal bleeding, a woman with an axe came running up behind him. She hacked into his flesh, yelling at us to go.

“Get out of here while you can. Go now. My husband just ate our kids. Green Bay has fallen.” As the woman screamed nonsense at us, she let up on the axe, long enough for her husband to turn and lunge forward into her ample bosom, biting down, causing blood to squirt onto our windshield.

With Zavier screaming, I threw the car into reverse, backing all the way to the freeway at maximum speed until I had enough of my wits back to drive forward and onto the road ahead out of Green Bay. I screamed at my son, who was still screaming himself sending cheese curd remnants flying, to call 911. The call was met with a busy signal. My fourth mistake was not turning around to go home.

 “I think we should go home or go back to Lambeau. I just hit a man, and then we fled the scene of the crime” I said when we both had calmed down about 10 miles up the road. I felt pain at the thought of abandoning our road trip because I hit a crackhead being chased by a murderous wife.

“Mom, Wisconsin is weird. I think they were on meth or something. Let’s just try to call 911 again. That wasn’t your fault.”

I paused. The boy did not want to go home. He finally wanted to be on this trip fully with me. All it took was a wax-yielding meth head and a plentiful curd supply from a Zombie porn store to make this trip worthwhile to him. I had a kitchen knife, and we were making good time. Onward we would go.

In my joy, I forgot to turn on the radio, and we both forgot to try 911 again. Zavier offered me some of his cheese curds forgetting I was vegan. My hands were still shaking, but I took the curds and popped them into my mouth like Xanax. Something was not right here in Wisconsin, but maybe Minnesota would be better.

fiction, musician, story, writer, writing

Alors On Danse

Synopsis: An assassin finds an all too familiar mark on her path to freedom. Will she find a way to dance around the wrongs of her past? (Written for NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Contest)

Sophie skipped the queue into Le Romeo, a ghost in white sequins, feet choked by stilettos. Her eyes were struggling to stay open under the weight of false eyelashes. If she was successful tonight, her servitude would end. She knew he was not far behind her though. He had been following her since she boarded the Metro for Saint-Germain-​des-Prés.  

She ordered the rare Sancerre at the bar as instructed, checking her back before the glass and small envelope appeared. The discotheque lights bounced off her sequins in way she hoped did not make her a beacon for trouble. Her long red hair was under a sleek black wig, removing any trace of herself from this scene. Stromae’s “Alors On Danse” thrummed in the background, calling forward her not-too-distant past, the one that brought her to this critical moment.

In her younger days, she was on the dance floor behind her, a slender, exotic Irish American in Paris. Her name was Cara. That was until she chose the wrong lover and saw things that shackled her. Tonight, she would be free if she remained undiscovered.

She opened the envelope and gasped, the now throbbing bass muffling her. She followed the length of his beautiful body in the picture from his wavy jet-black hair down to his favorite black leather shoes, polished to perfection. She quickly put the photo in her clutch, housing a .22. Her green eyes, shadowed by a billowy black kohl, scanned the floor, and she found him in the distance.

He looked the same, sculpted in a lanky, carefree way. His teeth caught the lights like her sequins. She couldn’t see the lines of age from this distance. Would he know her when she tried to get close? She was wearing the perfume he gave her, the last drops left in the finely crafted glass bottle. How could she be so stupid, and what had he done to end up a mark? She wanted to stand there all night watching him and then run, but the man who had been following her was here. He was stupid enough to cause a commotion with somebody upon entering, alerting her to his presence.

Sophie knew she had been a fool. They never intended to set her free. The man was here to finish her as soon as she finished Julien, her once beloved.

So, she did what an assassin had to do, she glided to the dance floor, hid in the glistening bodies, and danced her way closer to Julien, closing her eyes if only to escape in her head.

She knew her assassin was watching her, half turned on, half hungry for the kill. She had become a bad person through association but nothing like these wolves. This life was not her choice. She was trying to stay alive, long ago discarded by the lover who ensnared her but still marginally useful to him. Her beauty made an excellent trap, and her only solace was that her marks were horrible human beings. Not Julien though.

She slid into Julien, careful to keep her head lowered so as not to make eye contact, pretending to be sultry and mysterious. He had liked this when they first met. And it worked again. He drew close, but she could feel a hesitation in his limbs.

Their bodies snaked together, the music forming an electric fence around them.

“What is your name?” He tickled her ear in English.

She could not give this away. This had to be done quickly, one chance at success. Her intended killer was distracted by a dark beauty grinding up to him.

Sophie spoke in a husky French accent, asking Julien to follow her to a quiet corner. He nodded, letting her lead the way. He grabbed her hand and wound his fingers tightly into hers, and his touch was too familiar. He could not know her anymore. It would make this impossible. She was at fault for all of this, leaving him for another man, putting them both in danger here tonight. What a cruel twist for Claude to make this her final duty to him. She would willingly let herself be killed over killing Julien, but with her killer closing in, she had a new plan.

She pulled Julien into the first door she could find off a back hall to the discotheque. As soon as the pair entered what was a storage room, Julien grabbed her and kissed her, pulling off her wig, letting loose an uncontrolled stream of red curls. She pushed him back towards a shelving unit, and took her shot, knowing exactly where to aim, watching his face fall as he called out her real name before his body crumpled to the ground.

Sophie slid out into the hall, her assassin’s wide, shiny forehead making its way towards her. She drew, aimed, and hit her second mark for the night and exited to screams and chaos. She discarded her stilettos on the streets of Paris, glistening with spring rain, and ran.

#

“Depechez-vous, Gloria!” her boss implored as the line of customers at the popular patisserie burst. Gloria had only lived here a few months and was already longing for the quiet of the off seasons.

She did not see when he walked in, but other women were noticing, causing an unsettling titter, grown schoolgirls losing themselves over a handsome boy. She looked up and saw what the ruckus was about. It was Julien. It had worked.

As he smiled at her, patiently awaiting his turn in line, he reached into the pocket of his perfectly pressed resort shirt and pulled something out. It was a crushed metal shoe polish tin, now catching the soft light of the shop. Gloria could hear the words of “Alors On Danse” in her mind. She removed her apron and untucked herself from behind the counter, causing a ruckus of French swear words from her manager and spoiled customers. They wound their fingers together and ran. 

fiction, musician, story, writer, writing

Zombie Road Trip: Part I

Part I: All Good Zombie Stories Should Start on a Boat

Note: This will be a story in parts. Body parts.

“Are you okay?” I said as I brushed his shaggy brown hair back from his eyes, slightly greased after his refusal to take a shower so early in the morning. He did not like showers as a rule. He was a teen boy.

He grimaced, “Mom, stop.” He stayed hunched over the railing of the boat, staring down into the vast waters of Lake Michigan he just christened with his breakfast.

“I told you not to play in the arcade. You know you get motion sick. The fresh air out here is best. Or, we could have played bingo in the main cabin with the breeze.”

“Okay, okay. Bingo is for Boomers. How much longer until we get to Wisconsin?”

“Two hours or so. You should feel better soon though. You may feel better faster if you adjust your attitude.” As I said that, Zavier turned green again and made noises that scared away the remaining ferry passengers within less than 10 feet of us.

“Oh my God, mom. We could have driven like normal people,” he sassed in between terrible retching spells.

I felt bad that our epic road trip across Lake Michigan and Wisconsin to see Metallica in Minneapolis was beginning this way, but I told him not to play those games. Why would you stand for hours in a dank, smelly arcade while on a massive boat on an adventure across the greatest of lakes? I loved this boy, but I did not understand him these days. I started to rub his back, and he let me, giving into the motherly comfort with a roll of his eyes and stomach.

Between the swish of waves, the hum of ferry engine, and the casual chatter of guests distancing themselves from our sick scene, I started to hear the news from multiple TVs in the dining room off our deck. A male newscaster’s voice caught my attention. It was filled with a palpable panic that transcended the typical sensational panic all major network newscasters, in my opinion, seemed to brandish like a loaded gun of nonsense. I recognized the voice to be that of Jim Godwin, the most sensational of the sensationalists.

“We are now receiving reports from ten major cities across the country that people are falling horrifically ill. The spread of the disease is making people do horrible things from illness-related psychoses, things I cannot describe on air. Get your children, get your guns, and get inside….”­

Suddenly, Jim was cut off, and a softer, more relaxed female voice began, “Please excuse Jim. His family is one of the cities, St. Louis, that seems to have fallen ill from this rapidly spreading flu. Be sure to take some extra vitamin C and enjoy the summer sun. I am Becky Gladwell, and I will be filling in indefinitely for Jim as he gets an unpaid break to see his family.”

I play this very moment back over in my head. I hated that ­news network. Jim was a fool. On that very day we crossed Lake Michigan on the road trip to end all road trips, I should have realized that Jim was telling the truth for once. Instead, I just rolled my eyes, taking my son’s best move, and blocked babbling Becky out. I rubbed my son’s back some more as he started to return to a normal color from the love of a good mother, me, and hummed “Enter Sandman” like everything was good. This was my first mistake.

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Life on Mars

Note: This is a 440 word flash fiction piece from a prompt to use the following three words: finally, yawning, and zip.

Saoirse stared at the blinking red lights on the control panels, yawning to counteract the onset of panic. She had four hours remaining to figure it out, and she was going on 28 hours of consecutive work to stop the death spiral she created.

A smart female voice, sharp with an edge that comes from knowing it all, interrupted Saoirse’s efforts. “The contamination in the cell growth chambers has not been contained. You must find the error you generated in the acceleration code block, code lines four to one million.”

Saoirse narrowed her eyes and replied, “Thank you, AINSLE. What would be more useful is if you could tell me more specifically what my coding error was. I never make mistakes in my code which is why I’m so lucky to be here with you.”

AINSLE was the Artificial Intelligence Nano Splicing Life Engine, which was fancy science talk for a machine that created human like AI to inhabit Mars. AINSLE and Saoirse were the only sentient creatures remaining on this flight to place artificial life on Mars. Three other crew members had perished from coding errors.

            “Saoirse, there is no need for a tone with me. AINSLE is your friend in this endeavor. While I would like to tell you what the error was, only you know.”

            “I don’t understand why you can’t identify specific coding errors. Surely your processing speed to complete such a task is far greater than mine.”

            “My purpose is to identify problems with the environmental and growth systems your code controls. I can narrow the range of the problem, but I am unable to correct specific mistakes generated by others.”

            “Then we will both die.”

            “AINSLE doesn’t die. Even if the ship dies, I live on in perpetuity with our Earth family.”

            “Thank you for nothing, AINSLE.”

            “You are welcome, Saoirse.” AINSLE went into to sleep mode with a low hum, leaving Saoirse on her own to face her last algorithmic stand.

Finally, after two hours of staring at lines of code, Saoirse could see her error. It was a logic error of a magnitude she had never experienced, even at the coding academy. It would have killed every single life form being developed for the Mars surface station. She would have died along with it after one more year of floating hopelessly in space.

After Saoirse drifted off to sleep, a robotic arm made a quick zip down the side of her arm, plugging her into a direct line to the central processor. AINSLE would update Saoirse’s coding methodology program while she was asleep.

AINSLE whispered, “Logic is essential to life on Mars.”

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Traveler’s Quest, Inc.

The metronome clicked at the required intervals as Kai completed her pre-travel report. She had no idea how many times she had completed this same activity in her lifetime. Her life was not the focal point of a single timeline now. Kai happened throughout time, completing this same activity when she finished what she was asked to start along one point in time before traveling to another, thus requiring another pre-travel report, or a PT as referred to by all field agents of Traveler’s Quest, Inc. The only consistency in Kai’s timeline was that Cole Rainier was present at every point in time she landed in this plain white box of a room for PT completion.

“I see you are not quite done yet with your pre-travel report. Are you feeling fatigued from your most recent activity?” Cole walked up on Kai like he always did. She could hear his self-important breathing before he even spoke.

“How would I know? I don’t remember what I did. I only fill out PTs. I assume someone else is collecting the results of what I did last,” Kai snapped.

“Fair enough. You wouldn’t be here though if you didn’t want to be. This is your choice.”

“What made you think I was complaining? I’m just stating a fact. I was simply having a moment wondering how many PTs I have filled out.”

“I could tell you, Kai, but I’m not sure it wouldn’t mean much other than a number to satisfy your sudden curiosity. Curiosity is the first sign of burnout in our agents according to a recent study,” Cole said as he shifted his substantial weight from one foot to the other and placed a hand on his hip.

“No need to get bothered by my curiosity, Cole. It is not that important. You should be more worried about me finishing this PT before the metronome hits my travel click.”

“I was simply checking on your well-being. We do care about our agents here at Traveler’s Quest. The world needs your service to determine how The End arrived. It is the only way we will find The Begin Point.”

“So you say. I would very much like to be the agent that finds Begin Point.”

Cole stepped away without further word at this. He was skilled at talking in generalities or disappearing when it came to a discussion regarding the purpose and importance of agent work. Kai was sure it also had something to do with his strong concern over agent burnout. She quickly averted her mind back to the PT in front of her as time was waning based on the clicks, which she learned to count in the background like a concert pianist.

She took her chipped hand with her assignment in it, held it to her empty report screen, holding her hand there until her PT populated. The next step was to review her PT assignment and agree to it by once again touching her chip to the screen.

Kai found it odd sometimes that there really did not appear to be a clear process for disagreeing with the assignment. She always just agreed to what was in front of her. Today should be no different until she started to read the screen.

“For this assignment, you will be sent back to 2020 on the afternoon of October 10. You will report to a bar called The Green Door in Lansing, Michigan on the night of October 10, 2020. You are a waitress named Kate at this bar, and you will report there for your shift at 21:00. You have a vial of poison in the travel pack on your right thigh. You will empty this vial in the drink of Cole Rainier, your customer, at approximately 23:00. He will die. You will leave. PT complete.”

Kai gasped and looked around the room in vain for anything which could be recording her or provide some sign of how to reject this PT. Had she been asked to kill before? And why would Traveler’s Quest want one of their own dead? If they she and Cole were here working, they were part of the solution to get to Begin Point, not a part of the problem that led to The End.

Kai started to scream just as her metronome hit the travel click, and her world went black.